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.