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.