Sunday, December 28, 2014

The terrorists won... or did they?

On July 2001 Comedy Central aired an episode of South Park named "Super Best Friends" that contained a depiction of Muhammad. The depiction was rather benign and not particularly satirical or insulting.

Given that this was the pre-9/11 world, not very surprisingly it went pretty much unnoticed and didn't cause much controversy at all.

On April 2010 Comedy central aired the first part of a two-part episode, named "200", that contained the same Muhammad characterization, except that it was (deliberately) censored so that the actual character isn't seen on screen (only a black censorship box). The double-episode is a social commentary on how the western world has been bullied into censoring all depictions of Muhammad. It makes no fun on Muhammad himself, but on the western fears. (The episode contains a lot of meta jokes about this censorship, as the characters themselves are not aware of the "censored" box, but it's referred to in the story at a meta level.)

After the episode had aired, a rather obscure Islamic organization issued a death threat to the authors, warning that if the second part was aired, there may be serious repercussions (among other things, they referenced directly the murder of Theo van Gogh.)

Comedy Central decided to censor the second part by bleeping out all appearances of the word "Muhammad", as well as the final speech (which was a satirical speech about how threat of violence is an effective tool to stop people from making satire). They expressed the sentiment that they weren't doing that lightly, but that they simply couldn't afford taking the risk of anybody getting killed.

This caused a rather huge controversy and debate over censorship, and how our free western society can be bullied into silence using intimidation and threats of violence (which, quite ironically, was the very point of the episode).

Many commentators wrote that this is exactly what we commonly express as "the terrorists win". This is exactly what terrorism seeks: Bullying people into submission using intimidation and threats. It's an affront to one of the core tenets of our free society: Freedom of expression. This is especially obnoxious because our western society gives Islam a special status over all other religions in this respect. (South Park has plenty of satire of all major religions, and none of it has caused actual credible death threats to the point of the distributors resorting to censorship.)

However, I would posit that what Comedy Central did was a lot better and useful than if they had simply ignored the threats.

If they had simply ignored the threats, the episode would have aired uncensored, and some religious organizations would have expressed their standard complaints, but overall it would have probably been a quite uneventful thing. Just one episode among others. Just typical South Park.

However, the very fact that Comedy Central resorted to censorship spawned the huge controversy in a manner that had actual relevance. It drew attention to the problem in a significantly more efficient way than the episode itself would have. Prominent commentators were actually talking about it, people all over the world were talking about it, it spawned the "Draw Muhammad Day"...

In the end, and somewhat ironically, I would say that Comedy Central's caving in and censoring the episode did significantly more good for our freedom of speech than if they had simply ignored the threats.

In other words, the threats had pretty much the exact opposite effect than the terrorists intended.

Friday, December 26, 2014

What happened to Guitar Hero?

Guitar Hero, and in general rhythm games with instrument-like controllers, were certainly not the first games of this particular genre, as rhythm games have existed for quite some time, but the popularity of such games really exploded with Guitar Hero (with the first game alone selling over 1.5 million copies, not to talk about the various sequels and spinoffs).

This started in about 2006 with the first Guitar Hero game, and it was quite a craze. Then came another game, and then another, and spinoffs, and competing games using similar instrument controllers, and then... *poof*. Nothing.

The market got oversaturated and the craze died out almost as fast as it started, somewhere around 2010 or 2011. It just... disappeared. Almost nobody plays any of the games anymore. What once was a staple of parties is basically nowhere to be seen anymore. (Ok, some people probably still play it, but you don't see much of it anymore. It has pretty much disappeared.)

Talk about a temporary fad. This would be a textbook example.

What makes this quite particular is how short-lived it was. Of course there have always been very short-lived fads, but here we are talking about an entire genre, rather than eg. a single game series. I can't think of any other game genre (or, for that matter, any kind of entertainment genre) that has seen such a rapid raise in popularity and then an almost complete fallout in such a short period of time. And it's not like the genre faded into obscurity slowly over the decades or even years; it fell out of popularity quite rapidly.

I'm left to wonder why this happened. Why did people suddenly get sick of the genre? After all, people enjoyed it quite a lot when it was popular, and it was fun to play. What killed it so completely? One would think that given how fun it is to play, it would still be played, but no. Apart from some small minority, almost nobody is interested anymore.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Casual gamers are idiots

Do you know the old joke that the current "MTV generation" has the attention span of a goldfish?

Well, it's not a joke. It's absolutely and completely true. (Of course there are always exceptions, but we are talking about averages and majorities.)

When talking eg. about mobile phone games, and people browsing them (ie. installing a big bunch of free games and trying them to see if they like them) it has been estimated that a free game has about three seconds to interest the player, or else the player will move to something else and probably never come back.

That's right. Three seconds. That's not a typo. Not three minutes. Not thirty seconds.

Three seconds.

The casual gaming industry, especially on mobile phone platforms, is basically a fast food restaurant of video games. No, even "fast food restaurant" is way too slow. There even isn't any appropriate metaphor for this. People basically "channel-surf" through hundreds of free games, and if you can't get their attention in a few seconds, they will just skip your game.

One consequence of this is a very important and crucial rule of thumb for casual games: People do not read text.

The more textual information you put into your game, the worse. That's because, and if I didn't make myself clear enough, people do not read text. (Perhaps the only exception to this is if actual money is involved, but when we are talking about everything else in your game, it's a fact.)

That's not to say that your game shouldn't have any text at all. "Reading text" means "reading and understanding". In other words, any text that appears in your game must be inconsequential with respect to the gameplay itself. You of course can have inconsequential things like character and place names etc, but important or useful information should never be given to the player as text. Because, and I emphasize once again: People do not read text.

For example, adding a tutorial to your game that's mostly text-based is completely useless work. Even if the tutorial is gameplay-based (rather than just walls of text), if things are explained in text, your users will not read the text. If your tutorial eg. goes through a stage in the game and explains in text what different things do, it will be basically exactly the same as if the text wasn't there at all. If you design your tutorial so that reading the text is required to understand the tutorial, you are doing it wrong.

This can be highly annoying. In a game project I have been working with we have such a tutorial because it's the most fluent (and inexpensive) way of explaining the different actions you can do in the game and the different GUI elements. It would be quite difficult to do it otherwise. I have tried to make it as visual and as clear as possible, with very short messages (two or three short lines at most), bouncing arrows pointing to the GUI elements being explained, and so on.

But it's all in vain, because people don't read text. User testing has shown that the average player does indeed not read any of the text and gets frustrated if they can't quickly skip through the tutorial.

Currently the tutorial has simply been relegated as a button half-hidden in a settings menu, most probably never to be seen but by a very small minority of players (and from those even a lesser amount will actually go through it).

When you are designing a casual game for mobile phones, you have to assume that your average user has the mental capacity of a 3-year-old who can't read and who can't concentrate on anything "boring" for more then three seconds.

That's the mental capacity of the average user.

Sometimes I despair about the future of humanity.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Metacritic, redux

I wrote some criticism about Metacritic scores in a previous blog post. To add a bit to it, I would like to share something I stumbled across:


The "Metascore" (which is the aggregate of scores given by critics) is on a scale from 0 to 100.

The "User Score" (which is the ratings given by users of the website) is on a scale from 0 to 10, which effectively means that the game gets a "Metascore" of 4 from the users, while it got 42 from critics. An order of magnitude of difference.

There is something seriously wrong and flawed in this entire system.

Ok, maybe we could give them the benefit of the doubt? Perhaps the natural scale used by the average critic doesn't conform to the scale used by users? Perhaps critics are on average more lenient, so that eg. an abysmally bad game that gets a user score closer to zero still gets a metascore of something like 40? Perhaps the scores agree more on the higher end of the scales?

With some games they do. For example:


Those are pretty much in agreement. So perhaps there's something to that idea?

Well, let's take a different example:


Yes, there's definitely something wrong with Metacritic. It's useless.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Misconceptions about (video game) framerates

For some time now there has been a kind of "mini-controversy" of sorts in video games related to frame rates.

Most "hard-core" PC gamers (and to an extent some console gamers as well) are not happy with anything less than 60 frames per second. It's kind of the absolute minimum. If the framerate drops below that, it's quite a big deal. Many people immediately notice the framerate drop, especially when using vsync. (Personally I don't notice it that much, nor does it bother me all that much, but I can certainly understand.)

On consoles, especially on the 7th generation (ie. the Xbox 360 and the PS3), 30 frames per second was (well, still is, as of writing this, as the generation has not yet completely died out) pretty much the universal standard, with only few exceptions. The reason for this is that most game developers want to enhance the visual quality of their games, but naturally this will be slower to render, so it's done at the cost of framerate. Thus 30 FPS (which is half of the most common TV/monitor refresh rate) has been seen as a completely acceptable compromise between rendering speed and quality.

Sometimes the 30 FPS limit "leaks" to the PC, in the form of games that have been primarily developed for consoles, with a PC port being just a secondary goal. The thing is that some games have been internally designed (in their implementation) to run on a 30 FPS system, and might not even work properly on a faster system. For example in some games the physics engine goes haywire if the game is run at 60 FPS because it has been designed for 30. In others eg. character animations are designed for (or captured at) 30 FPS and won't work properly at higher framerates. (There are actual examples of both, but I don't remember names right now.)

The easiest way to "fix" the problem when porting a game to the PC is to simply artificially cap the refresh rate to 30 FPS. This annoys many PC gamers, whose computers would be more than powerful enough to run the game at well over 60 FPS, and who can't stand the lower framerate.

The framerate discussion has only heated up with the new generation of consoles. There's great dispute over whether games for them should aim for full 60 frames per second, or whether 30 is still ok. Some game companies have announced that they will aim at the former, while others have maintained the speed/quality tradeoff even on the newer consoles and aim for 30. Basically they want the game to look as good as possible, at the cost of the framerate.

Anyway, after this really long introduction to the subject, I can finally get to the actual point, which is the misconceptions surrounding framerates. People (even some game developers) who defend the 30 FPS limit sometimes have all kinds of misconceptions about it.

There's a widely held misconception that 24 frames per second is the maximum that humans can discern, and anything higher does not add anything. Thus, they say, 30 FPS is more than enough, and anything higher is useless.

This misconception comes from movies using 24 frames per second. The thing is, that number was not chosen because anything higher makes no difference. It was chosen because it's approximately the minimum frame rate possible that gives a convincing-enough illusion of continuous movement, especially when used with motion blur. Originally they had to minimize the frame rate to be as low as possible both because film was very expensive, and also because you could only have so much of it in one single reel. If for example, 10 FPS would have been enough to give the illusion of smooth motion, they would have used that.

However, the human brain is perfectly capable of clearly seeing the difference between 24 FPS and higher framerates. For example, if you watch a video at 30 FPS and then the same video at 60 FPS, there is a very clear difference. (In fact, if you watch the 60 FPS video for a while and then switch back to the 30 FPS video, the latter will actually start looking a bit stuttery in comparison.)

The difference can be accentuated with high-resolution crisp-clear images, which is what computer games are (even if they artificially add motion blur).

Another misconception (or rather, excuse) that some game developers have is that 30 FPS makes a game feel more "cinematic". However, this seems completely spurious. I don't think any gamer would describe a lower-framerate gaming experience as "cinematic". It's just stuttery. And in any case, a video game is not a movie.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

People who disable YouTube comments

I'm not here talking about people who publish videos about things like politics or religion and who disable comments. While that's annoying too, it's a somewhat different issue I won't go into in this post.

I'm talking about popular youtubers who consistently disable comments on all of their videos as some kind of "protest" against the YouTube comment system, or even more egregiously, because they don't like their average viewer (which is quite a douchebag attitude to have, but more on that later.) And as said, this is not about people making videos about controversial subjects like politics, but eg. people who make video game reviews, "unpacking" videos, puzzle solving videos, "let's play" videos, and the like. In other words, not people who don't want to hear what the "enemy" has to say, but have other equally dumb (or even dumber) reasons.

The craze of disabling YouTube comments started most prominently when YouTube radically revamped the commenting system a couple of years ago. Lots of people jumped on that bandwagon when it happened, and while the fad has almost completely died out, a few stubborn individuals keep doing it to this day. (There are also other youtubers who do it for other reasons than exactly that, but they are nevertheless very similar.)

In order to understand why I consider this rather obnoxious, I need to explain how the new system has affected the quality of comments.

There were two major problems with the old comment system that were addressed by the redesign (one of them completely, the other partially): There was a size limit to comments (I think it was 500 characters), and comments were completely unthreaded.

The latter thing made it very difficult to follow any kind of conversation between commenters. Sure, you could "reply" to another comment, and a "in reply to" link would appear on your comment, but these were just links to individual comments, which were all spread among all other unrelated comments. There was no structure to it, and it was basically impossible to read all comments that were related to the same original comment. The new system puts all replies under the original comment, which is significantly better. (It's not perfect because not all replies are for the original comment, but someone else in the same "thread", but at least it's miles better than the old system.)

The character limit was, however, even more annoying. 500 characters are enough for a quick comment without much content, but it was extremely limiting when trying to express your views on something in even slight detail. You run out of your allotted 500 character really quickly. Removing the character limit was one of the best changes ever made to YouTube.

Some could argue something like "if you can't say what you want to say in 500 characters or less, then it's too long", but that's simply not true. Being able to actually say what you want to say increases the average quality of comments significantly. I have clearly noticed this since the new system has been in place.

Sure, there are still dumbasses and trolls (there will always be), but on average I really have noticed the average quality of comments grow significantly. People are now able to have actual intelligent discussions with each other, and to express their views and knowledge in full. Many of the comment threads on some videos I have read and participated in have been of the highest quality in terms of content that you can ever expect on a public forum. The old system hindered this significantly (both by the character limit and the lack of threading.)

Being able to post links has also been a big plus. Of course people immediately protested that comment sections will become full of spam links and links to harmful websites, but Google seems to do an excellent job at filtering those out since, believe it or not, for the entire duration that the new system has been in place, I haven't seen even a single spam or unwanted link.

In fact, the amount of spam in YouTube comments has dropped almost to zero with the new system. With the old system spam was a real problem, especially in very popular videos (those with millions of views.) Often you could browse the comment section of such a video, and each third comment would be the exact same spam message. With the new system I don't remember seeing but perhaps one or two spam messages (and even from those few, none contained any links). That's during the last year or two that the system has been in place. (I have no idea how Google does it, but it seems that they have some pretty good filtering going on.)

The biggest criticism of the new system was, of course, that you are forced to have a Google+ account in order to be able to comment (even if you are commenting on your own video.) The criticism is that all of the above could very well have been implemented without forcing people to make such an account.

There is a good point in that criticism. However, and this is my point, disabling comments as a form of "protest" against this system is idiotic, completely useless, and in the end very disrespectful towards your viewers who have done nothing wrong.

It's not your viewers who put up the system, so why are you punishing them? It makes no sense.

Some popular youtubers who jumped onto the bandwagon made lengthy videos ranting about the new system and arguing why they are disabling comments from now on. Many of them just grew out of it during the years and have re-enabled comments and forgotten about the whole thing. A few stubborn ones, however, are still doing it. Many of them just keep them disabled out of strange principles, not even bothering to say why anymore.

For example, one very popular video game reviewer regularly disabled comments and always posted something like "comments have been disabled due to the new commenting system; see this video for why", and a link to a video where he rants for an hour about why the new system is the end of the world. After some time, however, he hasn't even bothered doing that, and simply keeps comments disabled with no excuse whatsoever. Most obnoxiously, though, recently he started allowing comments, but has them set as moderated (ie. he has to approve each one before they become visible), and just doesn't bother with them at all. In other words, you are free to write comments, but he will never read them and they will never become visible. And I'm not making this up, because he said that himself, quite directly and unambiguously. He also ignores any pleads to just open the comment sections.

He is not the only one who keeps comments disabled out of idiotic reasons, or not even any rational reason at all.

I find this behavior extremely obnoxious and disrespectful towards your viewers, especially when it's done so blatantly.

Sure, as said, there will always be dumb people and trolls, but who cares about them? The average quality of YouTube comments has increased very significantly after the new system has been in place. By disabling comments you are denying your viewers a channel to express themselves about the contents of the video, and to have discussions with other viewers. Openly and blatantly expressing that you are in no way interested in reading viewer comments is one thing in itself and a rather douchey thing to do, but stopping people from even having conversations among themselves is even worse. It shows that you have no respect whatsoever towards them.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Science vs. the media vs. pseudoscience

Assume that you don't feel well and go to a doctor. After much study and experimentation, the doctor presents a diagnosis of cancer. He shows you the scans and the results of the tests, he explains in detail what kind of cancer it is and what stage it is in, and suggest a treatment that has a good prognosis.

You then go to a second doctor who knows nothing of this, and he performs a lot of experimentation and comes up with a very similar, if not identical, diagnosis, and a very similar treatment suggestion.

Then you go to a third doctor, and the same thing. You keep repeating this with 99 doctors in total. Some minor details may have slight differences (such as the estimation of the advancement of the cancer, or minor details in the suggested treatment), but overall they all give pretty much the same diagnosis and the same solution. They all show you the scans and the results of all the other tests for you to see, and you can corroborate that they are all pretty much the same.

Then you find a doctor who gives you a quite different diagnosis. He says that it's probably just a benign tumor, and it might just go away by itself. He suggests that you just wait some months to see what happens. If you ask him for the scans and test results, he is evasive.

Then you go to a holistic new-age spiritualist, and he says that cancer is just a lie invented by greedy medical corporations, and that your problems will just go away if you change your diet. All this, of course, without performing any kind of experimentation or measurements on you.

Who would you trust? The 99 doctors who all agree on the diagnosis and the treatment, and who showed you all the results, the one doctor who gave a differing diagnosis and treatment, or the spiritualist?

The answer to much of the modern media (not all of it, of course, but a way too large portion of it) is to give equal time to all three groups. There's a big controversy over your diagnosis! This is headline news! Besides, all views on the subject deserve equal time, don't they?

The answer of pseudoscientists and conspiracy theorists is to believe the spiritualist. Science is closed-minded, nefarious and greedy, so it's completely untrustworthy. Besides, look at that one doctor who said that you don't have cancer! Clear proof that you don't! It's all a conspiracy and a lie. All those other doctors fabricated all the test results and evidence, and are misinterpreting it. Also, there's this one paper from 1937 that casts a completely different light on the whole cancer thing, and that paper is completely trustworthy because it was written by a PhD! (He was a PhD in English literature, but never mind that.)

Of course I'm not talking just about medical diagnoses here. This was a metaphor for all science that has a fictitious "controversy" surrounding it.

Unfortunately a large part of the general public swallows these things whole, without much criticism or scrutiny.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Metacritic

Metacritic is a website that aggregates scores given by critics of different media, such as movies, TV shows and video games. Its purpose is for people to easily and quickly see what the consensus of critics at large is of a given piece of art. They do this by taking the score given by a critic or publication and scaling it to a 0-100% scale, and then calculating a weighted average of all such scores.

The problem with this is, however, that the numbers are often rather meaningless, and don't necessarily really reflect the actual quality of the work (either in general, or personally for you in particular).

Giving a score to a piece of art is in itself often a rather meaningless thing to do. Not least because the scale itself is highly subjective and dependent on the publication or even individual critic.

For example, in a scale from 0 to 10, some people might consider 5 to be "average" (ie. not excellent, not horrible, but ok; still very watchable/playable), while other people might consider 7.5 to be exactly that.

(This latter concept comes from some school scoring systems in some countries where anything less than 5 means that you failed, 5 being the absolute minimum score required to pass, and about 7.5 being the "average" score. In some countries all failed tests are scored with a 4, while in other countries they use the full 0-4 scale to indicate how far the test was from passing.)

What this means is that, using a scale from 0 to 10, one publication giving a 5 to a game may mean the exact same thing as another publication giving it a 7.5, depending on how they express their scores. However, as far as anybody knows, Metacritic does not take this into account.

Then there's the problem of publications and critics giving different scores to different aspects of eg. a video game. For example they may give a score of 6 to the graphical quality of the game, but a 10 to its gameplay, with an overall score of 8. From a user's perspective, they might value the gameplay a lot more than the graphical quality, so they would be more interested on that aspect. But this isn't reflected very well in the final score of 8, and much less in the final Metacritic score.

Another big problem is the scaling of the original score to the 0-100% scale of Metacritic. Rather infamously, if a publication uses a scoring system like eg. a letter between A and F, Metacritic will take an 'A' as 100%, and an 'F' as 0%. In actuality, an 'A' may well be anything between about 85% and 100%. But Metacritic simply equates 'A' with 100%, thus inflating the score (and deflating it in the other extreme.) (A better mapping would be to assign 'A' with about 92% and 'F' with about 8%, and everything in between linearly. While this is still way too coarse, at least on average it would be more accurate.)

In short, Metacritic scores are almost meaningless. A movie or game with a metacritic score of 80 could well be better than one with a score of 90. It's really random and subjective.

Well, that's just one website's take on the subject. You can interpret it as you want, and ignore it if it bothers you, right? Well, the problem is that Metacritic as a lot more influence in the industry than it really should. Many publishers and investors are looking too tightly at the Metacritic score of works they are considering. In fact, some publishers will demand a higher cut on games with a lower Metacritic score (based on critic previews). In other words, Metacritic is actively hurting content creators.

Metacritic also demonstrably has an influence on sales (there have been studies about this). It's demonstrable that games with a higher Metacritic score will sell better based solely on that fact (in other words, the exact same game will start selling better if its Metacritic score increases).

This is great for games that happen to get a higher score, but not so great for those that don't. Metacritic may have too much influence on this, given how arbitrary and ultimately meaningless the numbers are.

Another criticism of Metacritic is that they do a weighted average of scores, and their weighting factors are kept secret. They give more weight to big, "reliable" critics while giving less weight to others. This kind of secrecy may be cause for concern because it's unknown how much bias there is in the choice of weights.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

My love-hate relationship with the USA

When the United States of America attacked Iraq in 2003, the rest of the world, especially Europe, just loved to hate the USA. There was tons of bad press, protest marches and so on.

I couldn't stand the hypocrisy of those protest marches in particular. For example here where I live there was a (needless to say completely futile) protest march against the invasion of Iraq, which disrupted normal traffic. I found this especially hypocritical because there were no such protest marches eg. during the Rwandan genocide or when Russia attacked Chechnya in 1999. But when it's the USA who's invading a country, then people love to hate it, and organize protest marches because it's trendy and it gives them a feeling of having the moral high ground.

I detested this hypocrisy so much that I actually flung to the other side, ie. I started liking the USA. After all, I knew (and still know) lots of Americans online, and they are on average really smart and good people. The USA has made lots of great achievements in all kinds of fields, such as science, technology, space exploration, medicine, the film industry, the gaming industry, and so on. Sure, there are also lots of stupid people there who do all kinds of stupid things, but honestly, show me a country that does not have its good share of stupid people who do stupid things, and I can call you a liar. I could tell you countless examples of sheer stupidity in my own country, all the way from individual people to the governmental level. It would actually be quite hypocritical to mock another country for stupidity when your own country is no better.

However, over the years I have grown a bad taste for the USA as a country, when I have seen so many things that no other civilized country does (at least not in such a scale). And it's not only one or two things, but so many of them combined...

There's the police brutality thing, which is genuinely something that's significantly worse in the USA than in most other civilized countries. In the USA, the police force often acts like it's a military force in a foreign, hostile country, and they are extremely trigger-happy. When you watch the police in action, it's often like watching a military operation. In fact, one could argue that in many places in the country the police is actually more like a paramilitary organization. Their gear, their armament, vehicles, their training and behavior... they are all like directly lifted from some military training course.

Of course there's nothing inherently wrong with that, if it weren't for the fact that they not only look like military forces, but they also act like it, shooting to kill from the slightest of provocations, resulting in numerous deaths of people who were no threat. In fact, you wouldn't believe how many people the police has shot to death in the back who were unarmed and fleeing, and even people who were in the act of surrendering. The most typical shooting happens when the suspect has a "knife". Often the shooting happens from tens of meters away, and oftentimes the "knife" really wasn't.

And that's of course only a small fraction of all the police brutality and abuse. And the most damning thing is that the police forces always protect their own. Whenever possible they will never even start any investigation, unless there's a public outcry. When there is an investigation, overwhelmingly the officers are found either completely blameless, or slapped in the wrist with a very minor infraction. This even if the officer killed someone by shooting the fleeing person in the back.

And the United States government does nothing to stop this. In fact, the government promotes police brutality. We saw this in how both the police, and the government response to it, behaved during the Occupy Wall Street movement.

This is most certainly not something that just happens in all countries. This is pretty much unique to the United States, among most civilized countries, and thus is one of the reasons why I cannot sympathize.

Another point of contention is the recent NSA mass surveillance leaks. While mass surveillance is not absolutely unique to the United States, it's still rare (at least on that scale), and something that I cannot endorse.

Anti-terrorism laws are a very complex subject, and it's not a black-and-white situation. However, abusing those laws to prosecute or extradite people for completely unrelated crimes is another thing I cannot endorse (and also almost unique to the United States).

Then there's the hints of theocracy of the country, which is also almost unique among most civilized countries. In fact, the theocratic vibes in the United States have only gotten worse during the past decade or two.

It's rather curious that the United States is one of the very few countries in the world where the separation of church and state, the prohibition of a government-promoted religion, is codified in the constitution of the country, yet the United States is one of the most theocratic countries of the western world. For example in many European countries there is no separation of church and state codified in their constitutions, and many of them actually have official state churches... yet they are still enormously more secular than the United States.

The situation has got so bad that a politician will basically commit political suicide if he doesn't show overt religious traits. In fact, an openly atheist politician would never be elected as president, no matter how qualified he would be for the position and how good and effective his plans for the betterment of society would be. In fact, a complete dictator would be elected as president in his stead if he just says some few magical "God bless you" and other such incantations. This is absolutely insane.

The overtly religious tendencies have much dire consequences than simply who gets elected to office. Homophobia and discrimination against atheists and other such people is rampant at many places. They are often treated worse than mass murderers and child rapists. This is simply something that I cannot condone (and also something that's pretty much unique to the United States, when compared to other civilized countries).

Needless to say, my opinion of the United States has deteriorated quite a lot during the past decade.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The bane of first-person shooter players

Since basically the dawn of time there have been two major annoyances I have had with almost every first-person shooter game:

Firstly, reloading. I hate reloading as a game mechanic.

I understand that having to reload adds a certain level of realism and challenge to the game. The problem is that when a game mechanic is more frustrating than challenging, it becomes questionable whether it's a good game mechanic at all.

You wouldn't believe how many times I have died because the playable character runs out of bullets and starts reloading right during a crucial moment. You wouldn't believe how many times this has happened right when just one or two more shots would have killed the enemy. And of course reloading takes forever in the heat of battle.

And yes, I do reload manually whenever I can. In fact, I reload as much as the situation allows me. But that doesn't help in a very difficult fight where there simply aren't any pauses that would allow reloading. Basically if you reload, you die. And of course you run out of bullets at the worst possible moment, and die.

Dying when just one or two shots would have killed the enemy, and you start reloading, is frustrating to no end.

Secondly, you get constantly stuck on the scenery in fights.

The first-person perspective adds tons of immersion to the game, which is why it's such an ubiquitous and popular format. However, it has a huge disadvantage: You can't see what's at your sides or behind you.

Difficult firefights often involve lots of strafing and backing to avoid the enemy. And you need to constantly aim at the enemy if you want to shoot at them. But since you can't see what's at your sides or behind you, you will invariably get stuck in scenery that's out of your field of view, which can be highly annoying, especially in difficult firefights where you need to be constantly mobile and run and parry a lot.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The problem with Steam

Steam is Valve's content distribution system. Or in simpler terms, a centralized way to buy games online. Steam filled an almost empty market niche at the right place at the right time, and it has got immensely popular over the years, and has become almost a monopoly on that front. While competing systems have emerged later, they have hard time reaching even a tiny fraction of the popularity of Steam.

In the very beginning Steam was used by Valve exclusively to distribute their own games. (Steam also worked as an anti-piracy system.) However, after some time they opened it to other vendors as well, although at first they gave high priority to third-party games using Valve's own Source game engine. However, they soon started allowing any games to be distributed through Steam without such biases.

Initially Valve had really high standards of quality for what they would and wouldn't accept to be distributed through Steam. On the plus side this ensured that most if not all games bought from Steam were technically of decent quality. On the minus side many companies and developers, especially indie developers, found it almost impossible to distribute anything through Steam, while well-established big game companies had almost automatic approval. Sometimes this meant that great indie games were rejected.

Valve has since loosened their acceptance policies. The problem with this? Valve has gone to the absolute other extreme: Now they are basically approving anything that either gets enough votes in their greenlight system, or comes from a known game company. There seems to be no quality control at all. In other words, while in the beginning the standards of quality were almost draconian, now there is no quality control whatsoever.

This means that there are tons and tons of garbage on Steam right now. There are indie games of absolutely atrocious quality that cannot even be called games at all. Many people get duped into buying this garbage because they assume that if it's published on Steam, it has to be at least playable at some level.

Another phenomenon that has surfaced in recent years is that many companies are dumping to Steam quite old games they own the intellectual property, for a quick buck. In many cases they may even masquerade the game as being a new game, ie. published recently, and may even make the screenshots deceptive in this sense. In other words, a game you bought that you may think was recently published (because the publication date on Steam was like 2013 or such) may well be a game first published in 2002 or something.

This is not always bad, of course. In some cases this gives a great opportunity to get older games that were extremely good, and which would otherwise be basically impossible to get. The problem is that many of these old games were of atrocious quality (or very mediocre at best). It outright smells of fraud when the publisher does not clearly express that it's a 15 or so years old game, but tries to masquerade it as a new game.

And of course in many cases the publishing company made the minimal possible effort to have the game running on current computers. This often means that the game might not even run properly on some PCs, or have other kinds of problems.

This is becoming more and more common because it seems that Valve has stopped quality control completely. They don't seem to even check if the game even runs at all in modern PCs.

And of course Steam does not offer refunds, period.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Poor Xbox One...

While the PlayStation 3 was in no way a failure, it nevertheless had a rough start. The Xbox 360 had a full year head start and was quite a success, so the PS3 had very tough competition on that field. On top of that, Sony made too fancy of an attempt at making the console efficient by using an exotic and obscure processor design which was not supported by any game engine at the time. It actually took several years for game engines to fully take advantage of the peculiar architecture of the PS3 (and even then many game engines never reached its full potential).

In other words, while the PS3 can, in the end, be considered a successful console, it had a very rough start and it took it several years for it to catch up with its biggest competitor. One could estimate that the console was almost doomed because of this, but in the end everything turned out well.

It seems that now the roles are pretty much reversed with the next-gen consoles, ie. the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. While the former did not have such a big head start as the previous-gen Xbox compared to its competitor, otherwise the Xbox One is really struggling to keep up with the success of the PS4. (As of writing this, Sony has announced that over 13 million units have been sold, while the same number for the Xbox One is about 5 million.)

One can see similarities in the reasons for this. However, in the case of the Xbox One, rather than the reason being exotic hardware, it's more a question of features and marketing.

The Xbox One had a lousy start well before even the first unit was on the market. Microsoft announced all kinds of draconian restrictions on game sales, sharing and reselling, as well as questionable decisions (like the announcement that the console would be unusable without internet, and that the Kinect, with its cameras and microphone, would need to be on all the time) which were very poorly received by the public. These announcements backfired on them even harder when Sony took advantage of the situation and promoted that the PS4 would not have any such draconian limitations, gaining the favor of the public. Microsoft eventually retracted the majority of these limitations due to the backlash, and while this regained them their reputation somewhat, it was arguably too late, as bad publicity is hard to erase.

Another misfire by Microsoft was the idea to develop and promote the Xbox One as a multimedia platform that sits in between your TV/cable input and the TV, enhancing the features of your normal TV, internet, online streaming, etc. In fact, Much of their presentations at conferences were specifically related to TV.

Rather than, you know, games.

This might have sounded like a good direction on paper, but the people at Microsoft really misfired with this one. People do not buy consoles to be multimedia devices. They buy consoles principally to play games. At the very most they buy consoles to watch BluRay discs, but that's the closest you get. Microsoft spent a lot of time and effort to promote the idea of the console being some kind of extension to TV, and this did not cause much excitement nor interest in the public. What's worse, they went so far that they kind of promoted this notion over the actual games and gameplay. People wanted to see what the console could do with games, but all they got was sales speeches about how the console would enhance your TV watching experience...

The Kinect is another failed idea. It was originally an optional add-on for the Xbox 360, developed very late during its lifespan, and there were only very few games that took advantage of it. With the Xbox One Microsoft had this idea that it would be an integral (and mandatory) part of the console. I'm guessing that they wanted more games to support it, and making it an integral part of every single console, it would promote and entice developers to support it. However, not only did it get tons of bad reputation initially (due to the announcement that it would need to be on all the time in order to use the console), but overall people do not see the need for the peripheral. Most games don't use it, and it's a gimmick at best. The vast majority of people don't feel the need for the Kinect at all.

All this added up to the bad rep of the console, and everything was ultimately topped by the fact that in the end the Xbox One was revealed to be slightly less powerful than the PS4, but cost about 100 dollars more. It's no surprise that the PS4 has oversold the Xbox One three to one (and even more during the first months).

Microsoft has since driven their console's price down by offering a version without Kinect (which goes to show how ultimately pointless their attempt was at making it an ubiquitous part of the console). This has brought the price of the console much closer to its competitor, but nevertheless another form of backfiring is happening here. You see, since Microsoft promoted the Kinect so much, selling the console without it makes make people feel that they are buying an incomplete product; that they might be missing something important if they buy it without Kinect. Granted, many people don't care, but it's still a bit messed up.

Of course both consoles have existed only for less than a year (as of writing this), so the situation will probably equalize a lot in years to come (in the same way as happened with the previous-gen consoles). But at this moment it's the Xbox One that's fighting an uphill battle due to poor decisions.

Even with all those past mistakes behind us now, currently the majority consensus seems to be against the Xbox One, the major reason being its slightly less efficient hardware compared to the PS4. Unlike marketing decisions, this is something that's very hard to fix afterwards.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

When new feminism takes over the gaming press

Feminism has been historically an extremely important social movement that has achieved a great deal of social progress in terms of equality and justice. Of course every social movement has its fringe radicals, but those usually get largely ignored.

The internet era, however, gives these fringe sub-movements a loudspeaker to spread their messages, which in some cases may cause what would have been a forgotten ideology to become almost mainstream. A form of feminism I'll call "new feminism" (for the lack of a better term) is a modern variant of feminism that basically borders on conspiracy theories, seeing "sexism" and "patriarchy" everywhere, and making mountains out of molehills, treating minor issues as if they were great injustices that will destroy our society as we know it. (I suppose that since feminism has in large part achieved its goals, ie. equalizing the law to be gender-neutral, the modern feminist is left little of actual importance to complain and feel outraged about.)

The bad thing about new feminism is that it's both toxic and extremely virulent. It poisons the rational mind, and makes otherwise intelligent and rational people behave in all kinds of irrational and nonsensical (and often even surprisingly aggressive) ways. I could write numerous examples of this exact phenomenon that I have personal experience about. However, at this juncture I'll like to comment on what new feminism has done to gaming journalism.

You see, new feminism has succeeded in turning a significant portion of the gaming press against its own target demographic, and sometimes even against its own sponsors and investors.

This is not very smart. When you turn against your own readers, and even your own sponsors, and start insulting them, belittling them and writing derogatory articles full of hatred and vitriol against them, you are digging your own grave, financially speaking.

When there's a controversy going on that easily gets heated and causes people to verbally attack other people, the smart thing to do is to simply stay out of it completely, regardless of what your personal stance on the subject might be. Just let the fanatics fight it out among themselves, and let the controversy die out eventually. As a smart journalist or publication you will have everything to gain by staying out of it, and basically nothing to lose.

However, new feminism poisons the rational mind. It makes people into justice warriors, fighting for a "good cause". Which has caused game journalists to write extremely insulting articles against their own readers, ie. gamers. They are biting the hand that feeds them. And then they act all butthurt when their readers fight back and won't stand for the insults. As a result of this butthurt, they respond by insulting their readers even more. This is completely stupid.

Big sponsors like Intel and IBM, who have sponsored many of these gaming publications, have retracted their sponsorship from many of these gaming journals, seeing that they don't want to get involved in the vitriol. This is the smart thing to do, and a big kudos to them! This is exactly what you need to do in such cases.

So how has the gaming press responded to this? For example the Gawker blog responded to Intel stopping their sponsorship by... you guessed it, writing a vitriolic attack against Intel, insulting them and calling them names.

This is beyond stupid. It's outright suicidal (in financial terms).

But this is exactly what new feminism does. It poisons the rational mind. It makes people turn against their own followers and their own sponsors, just to make themselves feel morally superior, to be moral justice warriors. It makes rational people stupid.

(This is not to say that all gaming press has been such indoctrinated by feminism. For example gameinformer doesn't have any problem in writing articles critical of the new feminism that's trying to take over the gaming industry. For examples this is an exceptionally well-written criticism and analysis of Anita Sarkeesian. This is an article that criticizes Intel and their $300 million initiative to support diversity in the tech industry, with some questionable partnerships.)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Some major problems with the game industry

I have lately noticed, from diverse sources, several things that I consider major problems that are eroding the game industry from the inside. These include:
  • "Early access" and "prepurchase" business model. (Also: Using your customers as your beta-testers.)
  • "Free to play" games with microtransactions. I have ranted about these two things in earlier blog posts, so there's no need to repeat the same points here.
  • Publishing what basically constitutes an incomplete, or severely nerfed game, expecting to publish the rest as DLC's. (Sometimes this is done because of lack of time and resources, but in other cases it's done deliberately, to try to monetize.)
  • Trying to pander to the lowest common denominator. There are two different (and independent) forms of this:
    1. Lower the feature set of the "current-gen" versions of a game to match the "previous-gen" versions. In other words, if for example the Xbox 360 version of a game cannot support a certain set of features (usually because of the limited amount of RAM in the system, sometimes because of the limited graphics hardware or CPU), then remove or nerf those features also in the Xbox One, PS4 and PC versions of the game to match (even though there's no technical reason to do that.) In a few cases this may go so far as to actually lower the graphical quality of one version in order to make it match more closely the version of an inferior platform.
    2. Nerf the game features to pander to the average player, ignoring the more hard-core players. For example, change an open-world multiplayer RPG game to be simpler by removing more advanced RPG features (such as an inter-player trading and economy system) and making the gameplay simpler, with less complex game mechanics. Or in multiplayer "arena"-type shooters make it easier for players to find powerups, and nerf such powerups to give weaker players a better chance.
  • Trying to copy the success of a game franchise by artificially forcing a game to use the same mechanics and tropes, completely ignoring the user segment that would welcome something different. (XCOM is the perfect example of this: XCOM was a very popular turn-based strategy game in the early 90's. Some years ago they tried to bring it back... as a first-person shooter highly reminiscent of Call of Duty, clearly trying to ride on the success of that game franchise. After years of development hell, they instead published an actual turn-based strategy version of the game, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which was a big commercial and critical success. From the players' perspective it was fortunate that they remembered and understood what actually made the original game so well received, instead of going the route they wanted at first, ie. try to copy something completely different that's very popular currently.)

Why are men more aggressive than women?

Serial killers and mass murderers tend to be overwhelmingly male (with existing but very few exceptions). Things like school shootings are almost exclusively done by males. Prison population is overwhelmingly male. Things like gang violence is likewise overwhelmingly male.

But why is this?

Scientific answer: Because men have on average significantly more testosterone production than women. Testosterone is a hormone that affects behavior and causes things like aggression and being more prone to taking risks. (Testosterone also causes men to be on average stronger than women, which only aggravates the imbalance in physical violence in an altercation between a man and a woman.)

Feminist answer: Because our deeply-ingrained sexist patriarcal culture and values. If we just taught our male children to behave better, and got rid of those sexist cultural values, men would stop being so aggressive.

I'm sorry, but you won't change the difference in testosterone production via education and upbringing. That's just a scientific fact.

And no, I'm not trying to excuse of justify male violence with this (as is so typical for feminists to interpret such things). I'm just stating facts. You are ignoring biology and misattributing things.

What feminists are doing is reversing cause and effect. Certain cultural concepts about male behavior does not cause aggression in males. Rather, those cultural concepts exist because of male aggression. The culture is caused by, not the cause of, male aggression. By combating the culture you are not fixing the problem; you are simply hiding the symptoms.

You can somewhat alleviate the side-effects of testosterone via education and upbringing, but that shouldn't be confused for the reason why males tend to be more aggressive than females, nor should one fool oneself to believe that education will be the ultimate solution. There is no ultimate solution unless you want to castrate all males at birth. It's just something that we have to cope with and try to minimize the negative side-effects as best as we can.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Mobile games are going bad, redux

I already wrote a rant related to this in an earlier blog entry, but I have to write more about it.

Here's a fact: There is no such thing as a "free" mobile game. (The same is probably true for most consoles, and to some extent even digital distribution platforms like Steam, but it's most prominently true for mobiles.)

You might think that you are downloading a "free" game, but you are not. Granted, in some cases you might not end up spending actual money, but at the very least you will be spending your privacy (more about this later). In many cases you will actually end up spending money. In fact, a lot more money than with normal, honest "pay upfront, get whole game".

Ask any person which one they would prefer: Pay something like $5 for a full, unrestricted game with all content, playable forever, or use a "free-to-play" game that needs you to spend $50 and even more to be able to play unhindered and without restrictions. Any rational, sane person would of course choose the former. Why would anybody want to spend $50+ on a game instead of $5?

Yet people are insane. Look at the top games of, for example, the Apple App Store. For example last I checked, of the 25 top games, 24 were "free to play", and only one was a paid game.

One very popular iOS game was initially released as a paid game. It was downloaded about 200 thousand times, which is a moderate success. They then made it "free to play", and it was downloaded over 7 million times, making it one of the most popular games of all times in the App Store, and making record profits.

Hey, it's now free to play, so it's better, right? No, wrong. There is no such a thing as a "free" mobile game. Hammer that into your head. See all those top "free to play" games? The vast majority of them, if not even all of them use microtransactions, and the majority of them are almost unplayable without such in-app purchases. And people are spending tens of dollars on such games, sometimes even hundreds of dollars.

Yes, that's right. Some people are spending even hundreds of dollars on these "free" games. Games that would normally cost somewhere between 1 and 5 dollars.

This is madness, yet the numbers don't lie: By far the vast majority of top games are "free", while paid games, which would actually be cheaper in the end, get shunned. This is insane, and it's killing the game industry from the inside.

That's right. If you are a game developer, if you want to succeed, you have to con your users. You have to offer them the game as "free to play", ie. just outright lie to them, and then coax them into paying you money to actually be able to play the game properly. If instead you would want to sell your game honestly, ie. "pay once, you get the full, unlocked game", you won't succeed. People won't buy your game, because people are insane.

And on the subject of conning your users, remember at the beginning when I said that even if you don't end up paying any actual money, you will be compromising your privacy?

Again remember: There is no such a thing as a "free" mobile game. Even if a game is apparently free, it will have ads. "Well, no big deal" you might think. "Some ad banners and splash screens don't bother me."

The thing is, it's more than that. You are not simply shown ads. Your every action is recorded and sent to third-party servers for analysis. Usually several such servers.

You might be thinking that I'm just being paranoid. I'm not. I am actually a mobile game developer, and I have actual experience, and not by my own choice.

"Free games" track user activity, and very often they have several such tracking libraries sending data to several third-party servers. The user never knows any of this, never knows how much their activities are being tracked, and by how many different entities.

But it's really the users that are to be blamed of this. Honest games simply don't sell on mobile platforms. Games that lie to the users do. And who has made this a viable business model? The users themselves, by their buying decisions.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Female characters in video games

Anita Sarkeesian has made a video series where she posits, and comments about, the claim that video games are on average inherently sexist against women, that there basically are no strong female characters, and such characters are often relegated to be essentially "objects" to be saved, used or abused by the player, and how video games pander to and entice male players to engage in such abuse.

I'm not going into the subject of how much she misrepresents, distorts and fabricates evidence of this, as that would be a whole rant on itself. Instead, I'm going to examine that accusation more seriously, from my own experience with video games. Is there any truth to it?

The thing is, I have played hundreds and hundreds of games during the past 30 years, and I am honestly having a very hard time pointing out any game that would support the idea, especially if we are talking about games made in the last 15 years or so.

Let's start by examining some games I have played that have had female playable characters, mostly as the main protagonist.

Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider series is typically thought of, especially by the media and people who are not hard-core gamers (and even some who are), as the archetypal male fantasy protagonist: An improbably busty and sexualized athletic badass, whose only role seems to be to show her posterior to the camera and to shoot bad guys. When most people think of "sexy female game protagonist" chances are that Lara Croft will come up.

However, that depiction is in my opinion too simplistic. If you have actually played all the Tomb Raider games, you would know that she's not just a sexy&dumb badass. She actually has a personality. In fact, the more modern the game, the more three-dimensional she has become in terms of characterization. This has always been true, but the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot upped this to a whole new level. Her characterization in that game is both subtle and very strong at the same time; she's very relatable, and you often feel empathy for her predicaments and feelings. I would say that this is pretty much the polar opposite of what Ms. Sarkeesian claims female video game characters are like.

Deep characterization of relatable and empathetic female protagonists is nothing new. For example Final Fantasy VI, a game released in 1994, has several of them. The game deals with the struggles of Terra Branford, and later of Celes Chere. These are considered some of the best characterizations of the 16-bit era of gaming. (For example, the famous opera scene, where Celes impersonates an opera singer, and later her attempted suicide, are some of the most touching scenes of any game of the era... or even any era for that matter.)

The Final Fantasy series as a whole has never shied away from having female characters with full storyarcs. Most of them have females as side characters and even playable characters. The main playable character of Final Fantasy XIII, Lightning, is a woman. The main playable character of the sequel, XIII-2, is her sister Serah.

Many (if not most) games with female protagonists don't actually make a big deal about it, instead treating it as completely normal. A couple of further examples of this are Faith Connors from the game Mirror's Edge, and Nilin from the game Remember Me. Both are great examples of "here's a game, here is the protagonist, she happens to be a woman, no big deal". The games neither emphasize nor de-emphasize the fact that the protagonists are female, and instead treat them as characters with full in-depth storyarcs.

Even more examples of such characters (all of which I have played) include: Chell from Portal, Ellie from The Last of Us, Amanda Ripley from Alien: Isolation, Kameo from Kameo: Elements of Power, April Ryan from The Longest Journey and Zoƫ Castillo from its sequel, Jade from Beyond Good & Evil, Nina Kalenkov from Secret Files: Tunguska, Polka from Eternal Sonata, Joanna Dark from Perfect Dark Zero, Jeanne from Jeanne D'Arc, Lenneth from Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, Naija from Aquaria, and Kaitlin from Gone Home, to name a few.

And this isn't even going into the myriads of games with selectable or customizable characters (a good portion of role-playing games, for instance). Some of them even have custom storylines depending on the selected character (a couple of examples include the Mass Effect series and the Persona series, especially Persona 3 Portable, which is the game I have.)

Then there are myriads of games with female sidekicks or side (non-playable) characters, which nevertheless give good in-depth characterization to them. A good example of this is Alyx Vance from the Half-Life 2 series (especially the episodes). A couple of other examples include Trip from Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and Princess Farah from the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy. These are not just helpless shallow characters that need to be constantly rescued, but all the contrary.

The concept (promoted by Ms. Sarkeesian) that there aren't strong female characters in video gaming is just a myth. One could argue that there aren't as many as male characters, but that's a rather different proposition. The former claim insinuates that video games are inherently sexist and shun female characters, when that's clearly not true, and has never been.

Of course the fact that there are plenty of games with strong female protagonists doesn't mean that there aren't games that are sexist against women. But are there?

I have hard time remembering of such games that I have played.

Perhaps the closest thing to this are games that depict prostitution or sex workers in a realistic manner ("realistic" in the sense that they don't try to hide or whitewash the fact that there exist prostitutes and a sex industry in modern society.) The Grand Theft Auto series would be an example of this.

Many people are quick to jump to accusations of objectification of women. However, is depicting reality "objectification of women"? Or is it simply a case of depicting reality? If a game wants to represent the gritty, ugly side of our society (if you really want to see prostitution as that), shouldn't a game be allowed to do that? Is it really "objectification of women" to represent the real world? Is it really all that different from representing other aspects of your society generally considered negative, such as drug use, crime or violence?

The game Watch Dogs depicts human trafficking. Is this "objectification of women", or is it simply depicting sad reality? (Note that it's not the player who engages in human trafficking. In fact, it's one of the quests to stop the operation. In other words, the game depicts it as a crime that the player needs to stop. It's not so much different from eg. having to stop a robbery or a murder.)

Some games give the player ample freedom to eg. kill or mistreat non-playable characters in the game. All such games that I can remember do not make any distinction between the gender of those characters (although all of them make it impossible to do it to children, either by not depicting children at all, or by making it impossible to hurt them if they do exist in the game.) Unlike Ms. Sarkeesian claims, none of them somehow entice or promote violence against women specifically; they simply don't make any distinction between the genders.

There most probably are games out there that are extremely and obnoxiously sexist (perhaps for the shock value or as some kind of selling point), but I just can't remember playing any, from the literally hundreds and hundreds of games I have played in my life.

The sad thing is that when someone like Ms. Sarkeesian says "there are no strong female characters in video games" and "many video games objectify women and entice players to abuse them", the media (incredibly even the gaming media) and the wider public believes her without any skepticism. When actual gamers, like me, who have actually played hundreds and hundreds of video games, people who have actual experience, say otherwise, they are dismissed and ignored.

(I am saddened, but I understand, that the non-gaming media and public believes those claims. What perplexes me, however, is that even the gaming media at large believes it too, even though they should know better. I really can't understand how the people who should be experts on the subject have been duped too. It's incomprehensible.)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

"Argument from ignorance" is ill-named

There's a very commonly used argumentative fallacy used by many people, the so-called argument from ignorance (argumentum ad ignorantiam). The name of this argument is a bit unfortunately named because it's really confusing. People very often misunderstand what it actually means, and is misleads people easily.

Many people think that it means something like "making claims about a subject that one understands poorly". In other words, pretty much "you don't know what you are talking about".

For example, many people could call something like this an "argument from ignorance":

"The Occupy Wall Street movement just wants anarchy, thus they shouldn't be taken seriously."

While that's certainly a completely stupid argument, it's not an argument from ignorance, because that's not what the term means.

What it means is to argue for a position using an unknown, something unexplained. In other words, the very fact that something is unexplained is used as an argument pro some claim or position. Perhaps a better, less ambiguous name for the argument would be "argument from an unknown".

For example, a very, very common argument for the existence of a god is: "Science can't explain where the universe came from." In other words, something that is unexplained is taken as evidence for the existence of something else. This, of course, is just fallacious argumentation. You can't just jump from an unknown to some conclusion. That's just faulty logic.

Another common example is using something unexplained, or hard to explain, in photographs and videos to argue for the existence of ghosts, UFOs, the paranormal, or a myriad of other things.

Not being able to explain something is not evidence of something else, nor does it even give it any kind of credibility. That's just not how it works. If it's unexplained, then it's unexplained, period. No conclusions should be drawn from that fact.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Games I own and never finished

Many people will play several video games intermittently, and may well leave some of them unfinished (or in a perpetual state of "I'll finish it some day.") I don't do that. When I start a game, I generally play it through before going to another game (at least on the same system.) I don't like leaving games unfinished. (Also, while I don't outright rush through games, I don't really willingly prolong them for as long as possible either.) Even if a game is bad or boring, I really hate leaving it unfinished, so I generally play it through before uninstalling it and going to the next game.

Thus it's quite rare that I leave a game unfinished. There usually has to be a reason for it. Many times it's simply because the game outright bores me out of my skull, but that's not always the reason. Sometimes it isn't even that the game is bad.

Just for the fun of it, I'll list here games I have left unfinished (and will probably never finish), and ponder a bit about the reason. No particular order. (Also note that this list is incomplete, and I might update it from time to time with new entries at the end.)

Assassin's Creed (PC)

The reason I stopped playing this was not because it was a bad game, but because my PC of the time had hard time rendering it at a decent quality, and at some point it kept constantly crashing. (My Windows XP system of the time was overall so corrupted that about 50% of all games crashed more or less frequently, so it wasn't a surprise. In this particular case, however, there was a point in the game where it was outright impossible to continue because it kept crashing every few minutes.)

I have since bought and played through all the three games of AC2, as well as AC3 and AC4, and somehow I have never got around to finishing AC1. Somehow it just doesn't feel all that interesting anymore.

Naruto Shippuuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations (Xbox 360)

The reason why I bought this game was because I had previously bought and played through Naruto: Rise of a Ninja for the same console. While it wasn't necessarily the best game I have ever played in my life, I enjoyed it. Thus when I looked at what kind of sequels there might be in the same franchise, I found the Ultimate Ninja Storm franchise in Wikipedia.

Since there are many games under that franchise, it wasn't easy to choose, so I picked one that looked interesting from its description, and was relatively cheap, so I bought Generations.

This game probably set a personal record of how little I played it before I stopped.

You see, Rise of a Ninja was an open-sandbox free-roaming game, where the fighting was done in "Tekken-style". This was a marvelous idea, in my opinion, and I really liked that. I have always wondered why they don't incorporate "Tekken-style" fighting as a mechanic in RPG's or other such free-roaming games, and Rise of a Ninja is the closest to that I have encountered so far. (It's not an RPG per se, but pretty close.) Thus I expected Generations to be like that, just upgraded with more mechanics and more quests.

The main menu looked promising because it had a real-time 3D-rendered version of the Leaf Village, exactly like the free-roaming portions in Rise of a Ninja (or at the very least it looks like it's real-time rendered), so it gave the impression that it's exactly like it in terms of game mechanics.

When I started to play the game, there was a cutscene, and then a fight. Then another cutscene, and another fight. At this point I was simply wondering if this is some kind of tutorial to teach you the basics of fighting. Then there was yet another cutscene and another fight... I think that after about the fourth cutscene followed by a fight I got so suspicious that I had to look it up.

It turned out that Generations is not an open-sandbox game at all. It's a pure Tekken-style fighting game, period. No free roaming, just custcenes and fights. It turned out that I had read the description of the game (eg. at Wikipedia) too carelessly, and missed this.

I don't dig that kind of game at all; not as a single-player game. It was also such a huge disappointment that I just stopped playing it. What a waste of money.

Games with checkpoints too far apart

There are some games where there are checkpoints (most of them are automatic, in a few of them you have to save manually), so that if you die, you start from the last checkpoint. In most games this mechanic works well, and has been well designed. In other words, the checkpoints are in convenient and rational locations, and it seldom feels that you have to do too much repetition in difficult parts.

In a few games, however, they screwed up the placement of checkpoints completely. In some of them so badly that I had to simply stop playing the game out of sheer frustration. Examples include:
  • Resident Evil 5 (Xbox 360): This is an ok game, and I could play it almost to the end. However, somewhere by the end parts of the game I stumbled across this very problem: A very long stretch requiring several minutes to play through, after which an extremely difficult enemy appears. This enemy kills you in one shot if it catches you, and is extremely difficult to kill. Ok, so at one point, after like a dozen or so attempts, I manage to kill it and continue. I go to a room with a lever on it, I pull it, and there's no other way than to go back. When I go back, another enemy of the same type appears and kills me. And you guessed it: No checkpoint in between these two enemies. I had to repeat everything all over again. I gave up.
  • Patapon 3 (PSP): There's a level where you have to play (once again) an extremely long and repetitive stretch, until you reach a point with a death trap which is extremely difficult to avoid. If you die there, you go all the way back to the beginning of the level and have to do it all over, again and again and again. There is no checkpoint right before the death trap. You get to try to pass the death trap each 10 minutes or so (after each time repeating the exact same things over and over). This would be bad even if there were some kind of trick you can use to bypass the trap or pass it safely, but no, there isn't one. It really is as difficult as it seems; there's no trick to pass it easily. And it's basically instant-kill. And if you do manage to get past the trap, with half of your team dead and the other half almost-dead, can you guess what comes after it? The end of the level (and thus a savepoint) perhaps? No, more difficult enemies that will wipe your weakened party out with ease. And no checkpoint, so when you die, back to the beginning of the level. Again, I just gave up.
  • Condemned 2 (Xbox 360): The game is significantly more boring (and extremely dark; you can't see anything at times) than its predecessor, but it was barely playable. Up until some time in the earlier parts of the game when I stumbled across this problem: After a checkpoint there was a very long stretch of a level that took several minutes to play through, after which came a very difficult battle where you are very underhanded and with no obvious solution or escape (if there is a way to escape the battle, it's not obvious at all, and it's difficult to find a way out when enemies are constantly attacking you). I played that long stretch about a dozen times before giving up on the game completely. What a waste of money.
  • Aquaria (PC): Same story with the final boss (or I think it's the final boss): Extremely long and repetitive long stretch after the checkpoint, followed by an extremely difficult fight which you will most probably lose, and rinse and repeat. And again this: After about a dozen times trying it to no avail, I gave up.
  • Dead Rising 2 (Xbox 360): This is a bit different because it's more of an open sandbox game, and savepoints are scattered at fixed locations where you can go almost whenever you want. However, they are really far apart from each other, and often very difficult to get to. This can be especially frustrating when you have one life bar left, no food anywhere in sight, and you are surrounded by a horde of zombies right after a long and difficult battle that you just barely survived. No checkpoints, of course. If you don't manage to get to the nearest save point, you'll have to do the long and difficult fight all over again (not to talk about getting to the fight in the first place could take a long time from the nearest save point). I gave up in frustration with this one as well, somewhere by the end parts of the game. It was just too annoying.

Driver 3 (PC)

Long time ago I bought Driver for the PC, and it was really fun (regardless of its limitations due to it being designed for very antiquated PC's and consoles.) Some years later I bought Driver 3, expecting it to be at least as good.

The game (originally developed for the PS2 and the Xbox) is a complete disaster of a port for the PC. It does not support a wheel controller properly (even though the first Driver did), and the gamepad controls are just horrible (eg. turning the camera is extremely slow, and there's no way to set the sensitivity anywhere).

More damningly, though, the car is basically impossible to drive, to the point of the game being unplayable. The car is way too bouncy, flipping even from the slightest of bumps, the drifting is extremely hard to control (you extremely easily over or underdrift, and there's no way to correct it after the drift starts), and colliding with basically anything either makes your car to stop completely, or turn 180 degrees. In both cases you effectively lose because it takes way too much time to resume the chase of the other car. (And if you think "well, drive more slowly", it's not possible. The other car drives so fast that you can barely keep up with it at full speed. Any slower and it escapes.)

Oh, and did I mention that the car to be chased takes a random route through the city each time? And that the other cars are spawned at random? In other words, you can't even memorize the chase with practice because it's different each time.

Oh, and did I mention that this is the very first level? Not a final boss battle or anything. The very first introductory level, where you chase a bad guy for the first time.

To my estimation I tried to pass this first level at the very least 50 times, probably a lot more (and this is not an exaggeration.) 90% of the time I lost on the first couple corners. In no attempt did I get even near the half-way point of the chase. I gave up on the game for the simple reason that I could pass even the first level. (And note that I had eg. played the first Driver game to completion on its hardest difficulty setting, so it's not really a question of skill.)

(Note that this might be a problem with the PC port of the game. I have watched let's play videos of the original PS2 version, and it looks very different. The car is not even nearly as bouncy, does not turn 180 degrees or on its roof even nearly as easily, the drifting looks a lot easier, and there's significantly less traffic.)

Resident Evil 4 (PC)

I recently bought the PC port of Resident Evil 4 because it has extremely good reviews and critical acclaim. This game rivals Naruto Shippuuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations in how long it took for me to stop playing it. (I don't know how much time exactly I played the Naruto game. Steam tells me that I played Resident Evil 4 for 33 minutes. I don't know which game I played the shortest. They are close.)

This is not a porting disaster. The game, including its controls, are exactly like on the PS2. And they are absolutely, totally, unyieldingly horrible.

Rather than use normal controls, which have existed for almost as long as DualShock-style gamepads have existed (in other words, from at least 2001, or even earlier; Resident Evil 4 was published in 2005), they instead decided to use "tank controls". In other words, moving the left thumbstick forward and backward moves the character forward and backward as normal, but moving it left and right does not. Instead they turn the character left and right (something that's usually done with the right thumbstick in the vast majority of other games, even at the time). In other words, you can't move sideways (with respect to the direction you are looking). The right thumbstick looks around... a bit; it doesn't turn the character in any way. There is no way to move sideways at all.

That's not the most damning thing about the controls, however (after all, with a bit of practice you kind of get used to it). Not being able to move sideways is a big hindrance in fights, but you kind of get used to it. The most damning, however, is that the only way you can shoot is to press the aim button (left trigger by default), and while aiming you are locked in place. You can't move. In other words, if you want to shoot, you can't move, and even when you move you can't move sideways. In other words, in combat you have extremely little control over your movement (because moving just forward or backward makes it very difficult to do anything. If your back is towards a wall, good luck. You're screwed. You can't move sideways to avoid the enemies.)

On top of it, even with the left thumbstick the character turns slooooooowly.

All this makes the game artificially difficult to play. The difficulty doesn't come from gameplay, but from an awful limited control scheme. You basically can't move in battles in any normal or rational manner, and if you can't shoot all the enemies dead fast enough, you are dead. This got so frustrating so fast that I just stopped playing.

Another waste of money.

Bastion (PC/Xbox360)

This is a really, really strange case. Bastion has sold tons of copies and has received critical acclaim from both reviewers and gamers alike. Personally I also like smallish indie games that try something different and innovative (such as Limbo, Braid and World of Goo).

A few years ago I tried the demo version of Bastion on the Xbox 360 because it had got such good reviews. It left me ambivalent... so ambivalent that I didn't buy it back then.

Recently it was on sale on Steam, so I bought it. Perhaps I just didn't give it a fair enough chance?

So I played, and advanced several stages... most of the time struggling with motivating myself to continue to play. I really can't explain why, but I just find Bastion boring, and even somewhat frustrating. Keeping playing feels more like a chore than anything else. I fully understand that people like the game, and as said, I don't really understand why I don't. I love games like Limbo and Braid, and this seems somewhat on par with those... yet it's not, somehow.

I have noticed a good rule-of-thumb with both movies and games: If the movie or game doesn't seem very interesting in its first 15 minutes (or maybe 30 minutes in the case of games with long intros), it's highly unlikely that it will become interesting later. There are exceptions, of course, but they are exceedingly rare. And Bastion was not such an exception.

Steam shows me that I struggled with the game for almost exactly 2 hours before stopping. I just couldn't motivate myself to continue, even though I can't really put my finger on the exact reason.

Might & Magic: Heroes VI, King's Bounty: Crossworlds (PC)

I'm putting these two games under the same section because of how similar they are in gameplay. And also because the reason I stopped playing them is very similar.

The main reason why I stopped playing both games was because of how unyieldingly hard they are. I don't oppose hard games per se, but there's a certain type of difficulty that I find boring.

The thing about both games is that they seem at first very casual and fun, but as you advance a bit in the games, you find out that in fact they are really hard, and not for casual gamers at all.

M&M: Heroes VI is, at its core, an optimization game, but this doesn't become apparent until quite late in the first actual mission (after the tutorial mission), which is rather lengthy. In other words, you have a limited amount of resources (mostly soldiers) available to you, and you have to really optimize their usage during the entire campaign (and even from the previous campaign, as the resources carry over) if you want to be able to complete it. The resources are renewable, but they renew very slowly; way too slowly to be of much help. And you can't simply wait out for them to renew, because the enemy will actively attack you when enough time passes.

If you didn't optimize the use of resources during the entire campaign (and why would you; the game gives you no hint that this is a necessity), it will become basically impossible to complete the campaign. Enemies become way too hard by the end because you wasted your limited resources earlier in the campaign.

I understand the core idea of the game: You play the campaign over and over, from the beginning, until you succeed in finding an optimization strategy that works. In other words, you are kind of supposed to play campaigns over and over until you succeed in finishing them (unless you are already so savvy of the game genre that you already know what to do). The reward comes when you finally succeed.

The thing is, I don't find this type of game (ie. one where you have to play the same levels/campaigns over and over until you succeed) very enticing, with very few exceptions (if any).

King's Bounty: Crossworlds, besides being almost identical in its fighting system, is also similar in terms of difficulty and resource management. Curiously, the difference here is that what's limited is not your own resources, but the amount of enemies/opponents.

That might sound a bit strange at first, but the thing is that you gain experience points and other stuff from enemies, and you need to level up in order to be able to defeat more difficult enemies. In the vast majority of RPG games you simply level-grind to achieve this. However, level-grinding is not possible in this game because enemies are "single-use": There's a fixed number of enemies on the map, and once you have defeated an enemy, it never respawns. This means, basically, that you can only get a limited amount of exp and other stuff. Level-grinding is not possible.

This would be completely ok, if it weren't for the unyielding difficulty. The strength of enemies jumps very quickly to almost impossible levels as you advance in the game. The game becomes basically a hunt for weaker enemies that you can defeat to level up, and they become scarcer and scarcer as you defeat them.

I suppose this is also a kind of optimization game, where you have to gain exp and other stuff in the most optimal way if you want to advance beyond a certain point. The problem is that if you didn't find the optimal strategy, you are pretty much stuck behind a wall of enemies that are way too strong, and no way of getting stronger yourself.

Watch Dogs (PC)

Most of the game was ok. Then the final boss (or at least one of the bosses near the end of the game; I don't know because I never finished the game) is amazingly frustratingly difficult. After having replayed that long boss fight something like 50 times, I finally succeed in killing it... only to be killed myself by that other almost invulnerable guy. I quit in frustration.

(Sure, that boss fight might be easier with practice and if you know what you are doing, but I consider it bad design if a game is frustratingly and infuriatingly difficult for no reason, and especially when it feels unfair in the fact that if you succeed in a very difficult sub-task, you are not yet done and could well be immediately killed by something else... and without any kind of checkpoint in between, forcing you to repeat that long fight in its entirety once again.)

Valkyria Chronicles (PC)

This is somewhat similar to Bastion in that this game has very good reviews (both by critics and players), and it's not a bad game in any way... yet I find it a real chore to try to play through, and it's difficult to put my finger on why exactly.

The tactical combat system is quite good... yet somehow I get "fatigued" after one single mission; so much that I get a strong urge to just stop playing. It's strange, really; the combat missions are somewhat fun to play, but somehow I get tired of them quite quickly. It's hard to explain. Playing one mission through does not give the urge to keep playing further missions, but the opposite, even though I didn't actually hate playing it. It's somewhat enjoyable, but not very addictive.

On top of that, it really doesn't help that there's too much non-interactive visual novel stuff in between missions. Some storytelling is always good, of course, but there becomes a point where it's a bit too much.

And it's not like I hate tactical RPG's. I just love games like the Disgaea franchise, Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre and Jeanne D'Arc. (Valkyria Chronicles is not exactly this kind of tactical RPG because it's not grid-based, instead having completely free movement, but the basic idea of the combat system is similar.)

The Witcher and The Witcher 2

I bought The Witcher 2 years ago, and played it for something like 12 hours. The game is technically superbly made, and has clearly a lot of production values. However, I found it slow-paced, tedious and, worst of all, too difficult in the wrong sense. (High difficulty in itself is not a reason to not to play a game, if the difficult gameplay is well designed and engaging. But this just isn't like that. It's frustratingly difficult, which is really a showstopper. Difficulty that's challenging and engaging is good, difficulty that's frustrating is not.)

Somehow the story is vague and advances slowly, it's hard to explain why. It didn't feel very interesting. Combat was not something I looked forward to, but on the contrary dreaded (because it was more frustrating than enjoyable). And it seems to me that this is one of those RPG's that are really, really long, because even after the 12 hours I think I was still quite at the beginning parts of the game. (I don't mind long games at all, when they are well made and interesting. For example Steam tells me that I played Fallout: New Vegas for 60 hours and Skyrim for over 100 hours, which is a lot. I don't know how accurate those numbers are, but they are approximately ok at least.)

I recently tried playing it again, but this time couldn't play for even 2 hours before I became completely unmotivated.

A bit ago, for some reason I don't even understand anymore, I bought the first game of the series. It has excellent user reviews, the critical reception of the game was good, and the screenshots didn't look too bad. Steam tells me I played the game for 2 hours before stopping.

While the second game is technically excellent, this game is technically schizophrenic. It was published in 2007, and some of the graphics look ok for that time (even though there are many games from that year that look significantly better), while other graphics look like they are from 2000; some of it is really ugly to look at. Character animations are just horrible, like they are from some cheap game from 1995. The combat system is hideous (and one of the biggest complaints about the game); it's not unsurpassable, but annoying nevertheless. The story... well, what story? Granted, it's impossible to say anything about the story from playing for 2 hours (which means the tutorial levels and a bit of the beginning of the game proper), but remember what I wrote earlier: If a game doesn't interest me in the first half hour (or even 2 hours in this case, if I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt), it's unlikely to interest me later either.

Bloodborne

If you don't know what kind of game Bloodborne is, you might have heard of Dark Souls, which this is kind of a "spiritual successor". It's one of those really, really hard modern "rogue-like" games. The high difficulty is, in fact, one of the basic ideas of the game, as it's rewarding when you overcome difficult parts. It's the kind of game where the player himself becomes better in addition to (or even moreso than) the playable character, and you learning the gameplay contributes as much or even more to beating difficult enemies as the leveling-up of the character.

Bloodborne and the Dark Souls series succeed in making extremely difficult gameplay interesting. However (and that's quite a big "however"), there's a really fine line between being highly challenging and being tedious to play. If the game becomes too repetitive, when advancing becomes too much of doing the same thing over and over, the game may slip into the tedious side of the spectrum, and become annoying rather than rewarding to play.

And that's exactly the reason why I just stopped playing Bloodborne. I don't mind the high difficult of the "Souls" games; that's just fine. I don't even mind having to level-grind, or to try the same boss dozens of times, if the fighting mechanic is interesting, and winning feels rewarding. However, I do mind if it requires a half hour or more of other gameplay before you can attempt the boss again. That's when the game swings from challenging to tedious really fast.

There's this one boss (by, perhaps, one quarter of the game, or such) that's pretty much hopeless to try unless you have a full stock of health potions ("blood vials") and antidote pills. You can try it, of course, and perhaps a really, really experienced hardcore player could beat it without the need for any, but for anything less than that (like me) it's pretty much hopeless (and a waste of time to even try).

Fine, just restock and try again? Except that it requires a lot of time and gameplay to restock. The only way to buy or get these items is to kill enemies. Lots and lots of them. Sometimes they drop a blood vial, and while restocking that way is possible, it takes a very long time because it happens so relatively rarely. The antidote pills are, however, the bigger problem. Again, enemies sometimes drop them, but significantly more rarely, and it would take an enormous amount of time to restock that way.

Killing enemies, however, gives you "blood echoes", which is kind of currency. You can buy items with them. However, to fully restock this way you have to kill so many enemies that it takes at the very least half an hour of gameplay, possibly more.

This means, in practice, and as I mentioned, that it takes at least a half an hour of gameplay (in the same places as you have already been a myriad times) if you want to try that boss again. And fighting it will require you to consume those vials and pills like mad, so most (if not all) of them will be gone before you die, again.

And the thing is, you won't level-up while doing this. That's because the exact same "blood echoes" currency is used to level up. So it's an either-or situation: Either you restock, or you level up. You can't do both (unless you are willing to spend a long, long time to do so). So if you want to try this boss again and again, you won't be leveling up while restocking, and thus you won't be getting stronger. (At this stage leveling up even by one level requires killing so many enemies that it takes like an hour of gameplay.)

I wouldn't have minded all that much if I had to try this boss a hundred times before beating it. However, having to go through the same repetitive motions for at least a half an hour each time was too much. It's way, way too tedious. I gave up.

Edit: I gave the game a second chance, just to see if I could pass that boss after taking a break. I spent something like 3 hours getting a full stock of blood vials and antidotes, and on top of that I level-grinded one additional level (which at this point takes quite a lot of time), and I got the strongest weapon in the game and took the time to upgrade it. I looked up strategy guides for that boss. I then went to said boss, and tried to beat it as carefully as I possibly could. All 10 antidotes, gone. All 20 blood vials, gone. Boss has still about one third life left. I die. I give up. I'm not going to spend another hour restocking just to try one more time and die again. It's not the difficulty of the boss; it's the insane amount of repetitive and tedious grinding needed each time you want to try it. It's just too much.