Defending Bobby Kotick – A Contrarian Take on Modern Warfare 2 and InfinityGate

10 03 2010

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Bobby Kotick is an asshole.

There. I said it and I’ll stipulate to it so you can understand where I’m coming from.

I’ve never met Mr. Kotick personally, and I understand from people who have that he’s actually quite nice and genial when you meet him face-to-face. That being said, Kotick, who’s been the head of the Activision/Blizzard behemoth for many years, certainly doesn’t do much to burnish his public image as being anything other than an asshole. This is, after all, the man who famously wanted to “take all the fun out of making videogames” and create a studio culture based on “skepticism, pessimism and fear.” Kotick by all accounts is a numbers guy who jettisoned the Vivendi portion of Vivendi/Blizzard during Activision’s takeover of the company precisely because he felt that any assets from there weren’t exploitable on year-over-year basis.

The thing is, Bobby Kotick did not kill Infinity Ward, nor did he kill the Call of Duty franchise (and make no mistake, Call of Duty is dead – it’ll just take a few years for the corpse to stop twitching). As events have unfolded in what’s being dubbed “InfinityGate,” it seems to me that Call of Duty was creatively dead the instant that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was released and contrary to popular opinion, it’s Jason West and Vince Zampanella who killed it. Ironically, they did it not out of malice, but out of the same high-minded creative impulses that caused them to create it in the first place. It’s the latest chapter in age-old story of the perpetual friction between the creatives and the suits. At its best, it can create amazing pieces of commercial art that go on to gross billions of dollars for companies and make a lot of people rich. At its worst, it can completely destroy companies and utterly annihilate a successful and enjoyable brand. Often, as in the case of Call of Duty, it does both.

Reading the 16-page lawsuit that was recently filed by Mr. West and Mr. Zampanella reveals some interesting factoids about the root of the issue. Page 7, paragraph 23 of the complaint is the key:

“West and Zampanella were not as eager as Activision to jump into the development of Modern Warfare 2.”

“…Activision forced infinity Ward’s employees to continue producing the games at a break neck pace under aggressive schedules, and West and Zampanella were concerned that Activision was emphasizing quantity over quality. Given Activision’s insistence that Infinity Ward continue to focus on sequels to Call of Duty games instead of new intellectual property, West and Zampanella were also concerned that Activision’s demands risked “burning out” the Infinity Ward employee’s creativity.”

You don’t really need to read between the lines to figure out what’s going on here – West and Zampanella were bored. That’s not really a surprise. West and Zampanella are creative types. What turns them on is the challenge of the new, the untested, the untried. They’re happiest when they’re branching out into areas where they can hit fast and blaze a trail. Bobby Kotick, on the other hand, is a numbers guy. He’s all about market share, ROI and delivering predictable earnings to shareholders in order to get the stock price up. Video games are just a means to that end. People like West and Zampanella start companies to indulge their creative instincts and people like West and Zampanella usually move on when people like Kotick show up. Activision actually had to back up a dump truck full of money and sign a Memorandum of Understanding promising the two complete creative freedom to get them to make Modern Warfare 2.

Was Infinity Ward naïve when they signed on with Activision in the belief that they would be allowed to truly keep their creative autonomy? Perhaps. It’s always possible that they thought they could become the next Blizzard, a developer that has essentially turned the tables on the traditional developer/publisher relationship. The thing is, the existence of Blizzard already makes the development of another developer with that kind of clout extremely unlikely. Publishers hate Blizzard for exactly the same reason that gamers love them – their independence. For somebody like Bobby Kotick, Blizzard is a perpetual nagging headache that he can’t get rid of without cutting off his own head.

A recent SEC filing indicated that 68% of the net 2009 revenue for Activision came from just three titles – Call of Duty, Guitar Hero and World of Warcraft. Looking at total revenue for Blizzard, an astonishing 98% of their revenue comes from WoW. For all the money that Blizzard shovels into Activision’s coffers every year, their prosperity rests on a single title. Should WoW suddenly start shedding players or one of their new games not perform to expectations, it’ll be a disaster not just for Blizzard but for Activision as a whole. Worse from Kotick’s point of view, Blizzard’s position vis a vis Activision means that there’s not a lot of pressure that they can bring to bear on Blizzard as long as WoW continues to be the goose that lays the golden eggs. That means that something that Blizzard by itself could survive, a serious delay in the launch of StarCraft II or Diablo III, for example could spell disaster for a company and an executive cadre that live and die by quarterly earnings reports.

Executives like Kotick hate unpredictability for exactly that reason and Blizzard’s essential autonomy makes them extremely unpredictable. The reason that Treyarch was tapped to bring out an off-year version of Call of Duty was precisely so that the company could shore up its revenue stream if some of its high profile titles slipped with as close to a guaranteed winner as you can get in this industry. Bobby Kotick can say to Treyarch or any of the other studios in his new Call of Duty division something he can never say to Blizzard, “Shave three months off the dev cycle. I need this by September.” Will he dilute the brand? Sure, but that’s a problem for tomorrow. Right now there’s a conference call with some very unhappy Wall Street types and a Board of Directors that he needs to deal with.

The billions of dollars that Modern Warfare 2 brought to Activision was nice, but once the game was out, the question for Kotick becomes “What have you done for me lately?” In Kotick’s world, he cannot and will not allow the health of Activision to be held hostage to the creative whims of West and Zampanella. It’s not about the $36 million dollars he might have to pay the two of them – that’s chump change to Activision. It’s about the Memorandum of Understanding the pair cited in their legal complaint. Assuming their complaint is accurate, the pair have a veto on any Call of Duty or modern Warfare game set in the post-Vietnam era or the near or distant future. Assuming – as is currently speculated – that West and Zampanella were talking to another company about jumping ship, Activision seized its chance to rid itself of two people that were, in fact, threatening to become another Blizzard.

The reason this post is called “Defending Bobby Kotick” isn’t because I think Kotick is a nice guy, but rather that he’s just an ordinary guy acting the way an executive in a public company is expected to act when it comes to defending market share and securing a corporate asset that legally belongs to Activision. Nor are West and Zampanella particularly heroic for fighting for what’s important to them – creative freedom for themselves and their team. In both cases, they’re doing it because they perceive that as a way to secure and enhance their careers and ensure the future prosperity of the business they’re a part of. If there was malfeasance on Kotick or Activision’s part, that’s what the civil legal system is there for and West and Zampanella are perfectly correct to avail themselves of it, but lets not elevate what is essentially a daily struggle between “creatives” and “suits” into a massively overblown David vs. Goliath story merely because it’s happening in public.

Whether Activision’s actions are ultimately good business in the long term is a whole different kettle of fish.

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BioShock 2 — “A Pack, not a Herd”

24 02 2010

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Spoiler Warning: If you have not played BioShock or BioShock 2, this article contains spoilers. Big ones. I’m serious.

BioShock was far more than just a first-person shooter. It was a story told in architecture and voice-overs and character animation. BioShock’s underwater world of Rapture was actually a grand tour through the ruins of one man’s dream. Andrew Ryan was a man who believed — as most Objectivists do — that he had truly understood human nature, and he built a perfect society based on the principles of individualism, capitalism and the ultimate freedom, the ability to carve a life out of the wilderness and rise as far and as fast as your skills and abilities will take you. The tragedy of Rapture was the ultimate flaw in the Objectivist worldview – that human beings are not and can never truly be free because we can never be alone. We are social beings. We are fitted by the millions of years of evolution that shapes our nature to be pack animals, not solitary hunters. We are not cheetahs.

The tragedy of the splicers and Rapture itself is not that ADAM (the gene-modifying substance that gave everyone in Rapture amazing powers) caused the downfall of society, but that it merely accelerated the inevitable destruction of Ryan’s dream. ADAM and the powers it gave were, ironically enough, the ultimate fulfillment of Ryan’s philosophy. It gave everyone the opportunity to evolve in whatever direction they chose and the power to carve out a niche for themselves in the world and defend it against all comers. The end result of the Objectivist dream society resembles the Wild West – an anarchy where those who have the biggest guns rule and those too weak to defend themselves prove their moral unfitness by their failures. In Ryan’s world, there is no greater vice than altruism.

BioShock 2 takes the ultimate story point of BioShock and flips it on its head. It places you in the clunking boots of a Big Daddy and has you hunting through the still crumbling ruins of Rapture some eight years after the events of the first game for your “Little Sister.” Your foe this time around is Doctor Sophia Lamb. Lamb was a clinical psychiatrist brought to Rapture by Andrew Ryan to combat widespread depression and dissatisfaction in Rapture. The problem for Ryan was that Rapture’s philosophy was diametrically opposed to her own. Lamb is a collectivist. More than that, she’s a “communist” in the truest sense of the word. She views humanity not as a series of discrete individuals but as an extended family, a commune of essentially interchangeable parts where individualism is not only frowned upon, it’s a crime against group solidarity. Love is the universal possession of all humanity and to love one more than another is a tear in the fabric of society.

In BioShock 2, the player must battle against the Rapture Family, a collectivist society molded by Lamb to be the very model of a socialist future. Throughout the game, one is exposed through voice diaries to the tenets of Lamb’s philosophy and it’s here that BioShock 2 has its greatest success. I’ve rarely come across a more devastating critique of socialism than Sophia Lamb. This is a woman who understands the inherent contradiction at the heart of the socialist enterprise – that it’s not a society that can ever be realistically created by human beings. The fact is that for a socialist society to work, one must have a race of beings that are utterly selfless. You need people that can work for the good of all without a thought to their own benefit. You need people without individual attachments or families or loyalties to anything beyond the collective body politic. In short, you need a herd. The thing is, just as humans aren’t cheetahs, neither are we cows.

The solution that Lamb comes up with is far more monstrous than anything that Andrew Ryan ever did. Since humanity as it’s presently constituted is incapable of creating a truly socialist paradise, she will create a new breed of humanity that is capable of living there. She will turn her own daughter Eleanor into the mother of a new human race where everyone’s memory lives in everyone, where individualism as we know it has simply been bred out of the breed.

As Lamb herself says “Utopia will arrive when the first Utopians come to claim it.” Anyone familiar with the socialist ideal of the “New Man” knows the kind of horror that leads to – the socialist Utopia can only be built on a foundation mortared with the bones of non-Utopians. The existence of even one ‘counter-revolutionary” puts the entire socialist enterprise at risk. Lamb herself points this out to the player, cursing Subject Delta because his psychic connection to Eleanor Lamb has “infected” her with individualism, causing her to act in defiance of the Family’s wishes – the social imperatives first laid down by Sophia and hardwired into every member of the Family.

Comparing Jack Ryan and Subject Delta, the protagonists of BioShock and BioShock 2 makes for an interest study in contrasts. The first game had the player playing as a man who believes himself to be free only to find his mental conditioning has chained him in the worst sort of slavery imaginable. The second game has the player playing as a Big Daddy, a person so twisted and warped that all semblance of individuality and free will is supposed to have been eliminated. And in fact, it’s pointed out throughout the game that the reason you’re traveling to find Eleanor is that you literally cannot help it. You’ll die without her. Yet within your slavery lie the seeds of freedom.

The choice to kill or save the Little Sisters is the only truly free choice you have – in both games. The ultimate result in both cases is the same – you’ll pretty much be able to “win.” Therefore with no external consequences, only the dictates of your conscience can guide you. As they say, morality is how you behave when you think no one is watching. We may be a slave to circumstances but our reactions to circumstances can set us free, even at the cost of our own lives.

The odysseys of Jack Ryan and Subject Delta are great examples of the contradictions of the human animal. We are not cheetahs. We are not cows. We are wolves. We are pack animals playing a perpetual game of King of the Mountain. Just as a human alone is not a human, neither is a being without self-interest. Our entire history is a constant struggle between the pull of society and the struggle for a freedom we can never truly attain. Our nightmare is that we’re smart enough to understand this yet stupid enough to try and change it.

If there’s one lesson to take away from both BioShock games it’s this: beware Utopians. Lamb herself points out during the game that the word “Utopia” comes from the Greek for “no place.” Our current social turmoil is just a repeat of an age-old struggle between social controllers and the price of freedom – the realization that granting any amount of freedom to a society means that someone’s going to use it in ways we don’t like, often in ways that hurt other people.

I’ve raised my flag with those willing to pay that price often enough, but merely believing in maximizing human freedom as much as possible doesn’t make me an anarchist. I acknowledge that I am a social being. I am a member of the pack and I owe some sort of duty to the social body. The fact that Lamb and socialists like her are subscribers to a monstrous theory doesn’t make Andrew Ryan right. Like most of us, I’m stuck in the middle – far closer to Ryan than Lamb but forever trying to strike a balance between the two that can never be found.

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An Agnostic Jew’s Annual Christmas Miracle

25 12 2009

If there’s one thing I miss since leaving GameSpy, it’s what I referred to as my “Annual Christmas Miracle.” All year long, game journalists are inundated with PR tchtotchkes and free games and I was certainly no exception. That meant by the end of the year I had a desk filled with dozens and dozens of games (mostly PC titles but quite a few console ones as well) along with about a hundred T-shirts, key rings, stuffed animals, tote bags and all the bits of detritus that game companies send out with copies of their games in the hopes of getting some coverage. Throughout the year I would take my own stuff and collect bits of PR junk from other editors and put it all in a pile until the week just before the Christmas break. Then at a specific moment i would send around an e-mail to the entire company welcoming everybody to come down to my desk and just grab whatever they wanted from the enormous pile of stuff I had collected throughout the year.

It was wondrous (and loud given the annual stampede of feet to my desk).

Initially I did it cynically just for myself, I liked seeing everybody rush around and leave with a bunch of ridiculous bits of junk that would end up collecting dust in their cubicles. Then one year I hit on the idea of selling all that junk for a suggested donation of a dollar or more for a charity that really meant something to me and I discovered something more — how good it feels to to do good and how good it feels to watch other people be good. The first year I did it, I found myself stunned not at the dollars that flowed in for useless pieces of plastic but at the fives and tens and twenties for PC games I had given one and two star reviews to. I nearly cried when one person dropped a pair of twenties in my basket for a copy of Shadowrun for the Xbox360. Shadowrun sucked. This person wasn’t buying a video game, they were connecting with me and others in the office. We had found the embers of goodness in our hearts and fanned them — at least briefly — into a flame. it became my annual “Christmas Miracle,” The one time of the year when I’m happy and uncynical for about 24-48 hours.

Considering that I’m an agnostic Jew, I love Christmas more than is probably seemly for someone of my cultural background. Considering that I’m also a cynical angry bear of a person, you’d think I’d recoil at the obvious plastic phony commercialism of the season. Yet I don’t. Cynics don’t become cynics because they don’t care — they become cynics because they’re frustrated idealists and there’s something about Christmas that breaks through the seventy-five layers of calcified rage that’s built up around my heart and makes me happy for at least a 24-hour period. It’s not the faithful aspects of the holiday, either. There’s no danger of my becoming a Christian. It’s the very plasticky cheesiness of it. It’s the tinsel and Rankin-Bass characters and the Charlie Brown Christmas specials themselves that touch me.

They remind me that we’re all ridiculous and lonely and sad and pathetic and ultimately glorious because of, not despite, our inherent silliness and that the only time we’re worth anything at all is when we reach out and touch the heart of another human being. Yet those moments are enough to redeem humanity for all the awfulness we do to each other on a daily basis. Our goodness can dwarf that of the mythical angels and Christmas speaks to that for me. I wish we would do it more often and not just this time of year, but the fact that we do it at all is what keeps me a cynic and not a nihilist. We can be the kind of people we dream of being — sometimes we are, and that’s what keeps hope alive for me.

I’ve said before that my relationship with God got a lot better once I realized He wasn’t real. I’m a writer and a storyteller so I see the inherent power and danger of the calcified mythology that becomes organized religion. Stripped of the mummery and institutional corruption of religion, our figures of worship join characters like Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Spock and Santa Claus and Ebeneezer Scrooge and the Grinch — figures worthy of emulation because of not despite their unreality. They speak to the best aspects of ourselves and tell us we can be this way, even if seems rather unlikely most of the time.

The nihilist will laugh at that the way they laugh at any indication of some kind of order in the universe. They’ll tell us all the things that are precious in the world are just illusions. That love is just our genes pushing us to reproduce, that society is just a shared illusions foisted by the powerful on the powerless, that a nation is just a line on a map, that the truths we hold to be self-evident are merely consensual hallucinations we cling to in order to stay sane in a universe of chaos that’s ultimately indifferent to our fate. My response to that is to quote Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle’s restatement of Pascal’s Wager from C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair:

“‘One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies playing a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”
— (C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair, Harper Collins Publishers, 1953, pp. 181-182.)

The beauty of this is that Puddleglum’s not real either, but he became a hero of mine in that one moment. Lewis, of course, was writing this as a Christian apologist’s response to the idea of atheism, but the context works for almost anything we cling to in order to stay sane. I may love my family because my genes tell me to do so in order to propagate themselves– but I still love my family. I may cling to an American ideal that the real United States often fails to live up to, but I must believe a nation is better for having such ideals than not bothering with them at all. And I may be a fool to believe an over commercialized holiday blown up every year by retailers because the health of our economy depends on it really can speak to the best in ourselves but you know what? I’ll happily accept that moniker. I’ll believe in Christmas and Santa and Rudolph and Coca-Cola and maybe even a little bit about the fictional kid in the barn in Bethlehem because it makes my world better and it inspires me to make others’ lives a little bit better too. Maybe my theology’s a little messed up, but that makes me no different than the six billion other screwed up, persnickety ultimately wondrous souls I share this planet with.

Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Joyous Festivus and greetings for whatever other silly, sappy, Hallmarky traditions you cling to to beat back the dark, cold night. Be happy and help others to be happy too.





SimEarth: Global Warming and the Great East Anglia Geek Betrayal

1 12 2009

So, unless you’re living under a rock or are only getting your news from the mainstream media, you may already be familiar with ClimateGate. If you haven’t, in a nutshell, a bunch of e-mails stolen (or possibly leaked) from the University at East Anglia in the UK reveal a major pattern of lying, obfuscation and data fudging that casts a huge shadow over the entire theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming. This is not a small scandal either. East Anglia casts a disproportionate shadow over climate research and their findings make up a huge chunk of the data on which the work the UN’s IPCC and other climate scientists relied on to come to the conclusion that global warming is a huge threat that needs trillions of dollars and a complete realignment of the world’s economic and political systems to address.

Or maybe not.

Now I’m not a climate scientist or a statistician or even a computer scientist. That will immediately bring out cries from global warming’s true believers that I am therefore not qualified to comment on this issue and should therefore shut up. This completely ignores the fact that most of those doing the yelling are also not scientists and are no more qualified to comment on this than I am. There is however, one area in which I believe I am an expert — in geeks and geek culture and it was my knowledge of geeks that started sending up red flags on this issue a number of years ago.

One of the first red flags came when I first heard the phrase “computer models” offered as proof that AGW was happening. My first thought at the time was that I hoped that the climate model that these scientists were using was better than SimEarth, one of the forgotten “Sim” games created by Will Wright and Maxis back in the ’90s. The game modeled the Earth and the evolution of life based on James Havelock’s “Gaia” theory and allowed the player model various climactic and geological developments to build whatever sort of Earth one wanted.

As it turns out, the leaked emails reveal that the programs these scientists were using may actually have been worse predictors than SimEarth. According to the leaked e-mails — especially the Harry_Readme.txt programmer comments file — the code in these climate models was abominable. It was so bad that these guys were essentially making stuff up as they went along to make the climate models do what they wanted them to do — and sometimes to just make them work at all. They really were playing SimEarth and a lot of grandstanding politicians, glory-seeking scientists and radical environmentalists looking for their “emergency” went along for the ride.

What really set me off on the climate models was everything I read about how getting data sets impossible because the scientists in question did everything they could to hide the raw data and the details of the climate models they were using from skeptics. These were people who did everything they could to subvert the very peer-review process that is supposed to insure that science is reliable. That betrays everything that geeks usually stand for. I know geeks. Geeks welcome skeptical inquiry. Geeks are very into the whole “radical honesty” thing. I know plenty of engineers in the gaming biz and one of the most important lessons any PR person learns is “Don’t let engineers without media training talk to the media.” Otherwise your programmer will tell a journalist just how crappy your latest game is turning out. Scientists, like engineers, are geeks and it’s this welcoming attitude toward skepticism that’s supposed keeps the wheels of scientific research turning.

Global Warming was different. The more this issue dominated the media and government policy, the more red flags started going up. Calling skeptics “denialists” (subliminally bringing up the spectre of of Holocaust deniers). Demonizing those who question conventional wisdom on Global Warming. Burying, ignoring or evading questions that even a lay person could see poke serious holes in the AGW theory. Claiming that the science was “settled” when a growing body of evidence (including the statements of obviously reputable scientists) says it isn’t. Ignoring the work of statisticians (climate science places enormous weight on statistics) who said that the numbers of global warming just didn’t add up. Global Warming started to look more and more like a flame war on a gaming forum. Too many people had too much invested in global warming being real to ever admit that they might be wrong — and billions of dollars and a tremendous amount of political power are much better motivators than being right about which Final Fantasy was the best.

Finally comes this piece of news — much of the raw data that’s supposed to underlie these climate models was destroyed by the scientists involved. To go back to my SimEarth example, this is rather like dumping the source code and expecting everyone to just believe what comes out on the screen. It’s no longer just about the climate science — it’s about what was revealed about the statistical methods and coding methods of the scientists involved. There are a lot more geeks in those disciplines than compromised scientists and as people with expertise really begin to dig into these emails and the trail of tainted data spreads across the work of climate scientists around the world, it may at least bring some sense of balance back into something that was beginning to take on the disturbing overtones of a new secular religion with Al Gore as its high priest.

As for me, I’m still a Global Warming skeptic. I don’t know that it’s happening, I don’t know that it’s not. But I do know a few things. I know that if global warming isn’t real, these guys deserve to be in jail because we may have just avoided a huge waste of time, money aqnd energy into solving the wrong environmental disaster when we really do have environmental issues to deal with. That’s always been my response to people who ask me “How could you be against cleaning up the environment?” I’m not. I consider myself a conservationist in the Teddy Roosevelt mold. If there is no global warming, we were about to destroy our way of life for a lie that might not even help with real environmental problems.

If it is real, these guys deserve to be shot. They’ve given environmentalism and the process of scientific peer review a black eye from which it may take decades to recover all while global warming really does wipe out our world. This is a real issue and our decisions have real consequences and we need better data than can be generated from a 20-year old video game.





Lunacy: The Madness of Twilight — New Moon

24 11 2009

So this weekend, I did something that I thought I would never do. I went over to a friend’s house and watched Twilight, the first movie in what is laughably called “The Twilight Saga.” The reason I did so was because they were “getting ready” to see New Moon, the latest edition of what threatens to be a four movie saga — possibly more given the massive box office numbers of the latest installment. I went because these are my friends and I love them and I love getting together with them. Plus my friend Theresa makes some awesome chips & dip.

Now full disclosure. About a year ago, my wife brought home the first Twilight book on CD. At the time I was working at GameSpy and I had a massive commute every morning so I spent a lot of time listening to books on CD they she would borrow from the library. She knows I like fantasy and SF and according to the book’s description, Twilight was about vampires, so she thought I’d like it. I didn’t know anything about Twilight either, so I listened to it — and I liked it. It wasn’t great literature by any means, it was cute in that “High School Musical” sort of way — it’s a romance aimed at tweeners that just blew up into this massive thing that defies reason.

The benefit of that was that by circumstance I happened to have read Twilight before it blew up into this big pop culture phenomenon and that offers an interesting perspective on it. When my friends and I got together to watch the first movie, about half of us are really into it, while the other half are what you might refer to as “haters.” The thing was that my friend Theresa actually had T-shirts made up that said “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” and she had gotten her husband a T-shirt that said “H.A.T.E. — Husbands Against Team Edward.” It was then that I realized that none of us was actually serious about this.

Here’s the thing, I know that there are people out there that really like Twilight and enjoy getting caught up in the hype of a phenomenon. We’ve all done it with summer blockbusters or best-selling novels or other “madness of crowds” moments. The thing is that the other side of that also enjoys it on a certain level. “Haters” are also caught up in the hype and they’re enjoying provoking the fans. Having listened to Twilight and enjoyed it and now joining the “haters” camp kind of gives one a bit of remove from the whole process. I’m having fun poking at all the Twilight lovers out there but do I truly “hate” the book? Obviously not, I already mentioned that I enjoyed it.

To me, the only real danger of something like Twilight is there are always those who forget that no matter what side of the “debate” you’re on, it’s all ultimately inconsequential. The fact is that young girls need their dreamboats. Team Edward and Team Jacob are just the latest in a long line of bobby-sox idols that stretch back through the New Kids on the Block to David Cassidy to Elvis to Frank Sinatra and Rudy Vallee. Twilight will fade, as all such fads do. If something like Twilight excites your anger to the point where you get really mad about it, may I suggest you take two spoonfuls of perspective and call me in the morning?





What if Videogames Had Died in 1983?

18 11 2009

I really like Kyle Orland. As a games journalist his quiet ambition for pushing games journalism beyond what it is is matched an underappreciated talent. Sometimes though even a good writer can miss the boat. That’s what I think happened in his interesting but underthought series of What if? articles at Crispy Gamer. In the articles, Orland attempts to look at key gaming moments and ask what might have happened had a different course been taken. Some of the questions he asks are interesting ones — What if Magnavox had decided to enforce Ralph Baer’s patent for a “television gaming apparatus” and gone on to become the almost monopolistic holder of the video game industry through its Odyssey 3 system? What if Nintendo had never released the Game Boy? That sort of thing. It’s an interesting concept, but Orland doesn’t really think some of the implications of the questions he’s asking through.

Take for example his segment on what if Atari had avoided the videogame crash in 1983 and gone on to face Nintendo. He posits that a forward thinking Nolan Bushnell pushes the development of the Atari 2700 — a more advanced console replacement for the 2600 that would be backward-compatible with 2600 cartridges. The console takes the market by storm and Atari survives to push upstart newcomer Nintendo into a corner of the market by 1990. What he misses in this posit is that the Atari 2700 actually existed and it was a disaster. It was called the Atari 5200 and while unlike the Orland’s fictional 2700 unit it wasn’t compatible with 2600 cartridges, that wasn’t really the deciding factor in its eventual death. The 5200 had the horsepower to compete against both the Intellivision (which it was designed to destroy) and the Colecovision (which had more graphic power but horrible controllers). Even without the backwards compatibility, the 5200 was certainly no disaster right out of the gate and after the unit was redesigned to accept 2600 cartridges could have been a success under the care of a competently run company.

The issue was really the glut of poor Atari 2600 software, the proximate cause of the great videogame crash of 1983-84 from which the Western industry almost didn’t recover. Orland’s 2700 system — even with backward compatibility — doesn’t address this problem. Indeed, it actually makes it worse because one of the first things a 2700 user would do would be to buy the bargain basement software that was currently flooding store shelves because it would be cheaper than the newer 2700 software. That would have killed the 2700 through word-of-mouth much faster than the 5200 died in the real world thanks to corporate stupidity and neglect. The institutional rot at Atari was already a foregone conclusion by 1983 and the innovation that eventually saved the Western side of the business – the Nintendo Seal of Quality – only came about because the fledgling Nintendo of America had learned the lessons of the crash. Without the crash, it’s extremely doubtful that Atari would have come up with the idea of licensing third-party software developers for the 2700 by virtue of the fact that they never thought of it for the 5200.

More importantly, Orland misses one of the real “what if?” scenarios that jumps out of Atari’s crash and burn – the fact that even if Atari had managed to survive the great crash it would not have gone on to face off against Nintendo – it would have survived by becoming Nintendo! In 1983, Atari under the “leadership” of Ray Kassar was on the verge of inking a deal with Nintendo to distribute Donkey Kong on home computers – a deal that was designed to be the precursor to Atari distributing Nintendo products outside of Japan. Given that Nintendo’s reason for wanting the deal was Atari’s impressive worldwide marketing apparatus, it’s entirely likely that the Famicom (which became the Nintendo Entertaiment System in the West in our world) would have been Atari-branded. That would have been the Atari 2700.

The problem with that scenario would have been – once again – a glut of poor software. Without a Nintendo Seal of Quality and a system of third-party licensing, there’s no doubt that crappy software for the 2700 would have flooded the market soon after the system was released. Regardless of the quality of the games that would be produced by Nintendo itself (we’re assuming that Atari would recognize Miyamoto’s genius and not try to slap a license on Super Mario Bros., by no means a slam-dunk), the 2700 would soon be buried in a bunch of crappy Chase-the-Chuckwagon clones. Atari would still have collapsed – albeit a year or two later and this time it would have taken Nintendo’s hope of Western expansion with it.

The result would have been a videogame drought that makes our crash in 1983-84 look like the glory days of the PS2. Nintendo in our world had a hard enough time getting into retail because of how badly retailers had been burned by the crash – they invented R.O.B. the robot specifically so they could call the system a “toy” rather than a videogame. After the crash of the Atari 2700 there isn’t a retailer in the Western hemisphere that would have touched a videogame with a 10-foot pole. Most Atari 2600 gamers would have either moved on to PC gaming as I did or simply forgotten about gaming altogether – except for dropping some quarters into the occasional old Pac-Man machine at a local 7-11 (the arcades also hit a big slump in this period from which they never really recovered). It wouldn’t have been the “end of videogames” but it’s entirely possible that gaming would never have become the relevant cultural force it eventually became. PC gaming could never have taken the place of console gaming because it wasn’t gaming that drove the adoption of the PC – it was spreadsheets.

In my mind, the true frontier of videogaming in such a world would probably have been the handheld system. In that case Nintendo, burned by the failure of the 2700 would have focused on expanding its Game & Watch line of products, introducing the first GameWatch Boy in 1986 (later the name would be shortened to just GameBoy) packed in with Tetris. About a year later the GameBoy would be rivaled by NEC’s Turbo Express and the two handheld systems would split the market between them, though NEC played second-fiddle to Nintendo until about 1995. Atari’s Game Gear – a joint venture between them and Sega – never managed better than a distant third in the marketplace.

In 1995 however, NEC would expand the capabilities of the TurboExpress by utilizing its heft as a consumer electronics company to link the TurboExpress into the burgeoning “multimedia” revolution by incorporating PCLink capabilities that allow users to download applications – including music and video files – into the newly renamed “TurboPod.” Eventually the TurboPod relegates the Gameboy into a niche as a mere gaming toy while NEC faces off against its real competition – Sony’s new line of Digital Walkmans that perform similar functions utilizing technology developed by Apple.

I think somewhere in that world I’m playing a lot of pinball.





Sanitarium and the ObamaCare Debate

11 11 2009

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OK. That headline is really just Google fodder looking for Obamacare search traffic, although reading the announcement about the release of Sanitarium at GOG.com did make me think about our current health care debate in a weird way. If you’ve never heard of Sanitarium, that’s a damn shame. It’s one of the most underrated and tragically ignored games of the 1990’s. It was put together by the Dreamforge Intertainment and published by ASC Games, the outfit that was working on an action game version of White Wolf’s Werewolf: the Apocalypse that showed a lot of promise and still stands up as one of their finest titles. (Spoiler warnings ahead!)

The basic storyline is as cliched as they come. You’re a man who awakens as a patient in a horrible sanitarium, your face covered by bandages and you have no idea who you are or how you got there. The staff tells you you’ve survived a car crash suffered during an escape attempt and that your memory will return once you recover your sanity. What follows though, is a truly surreal journey into insanity as you as the player keep shifting in and out of bizarre worlds and the very shape of reality changes while you struggle to recover your memory. As you play, you as the player will find yourself in a 1950’s small town being absorbed by an alien invasion, an Aztec village being threatened by a hostile god, a strange house being haunted by ghosts and a hive of intelligent bees on an alien planet. Even your identity keeps shifting as you change at intervals from a scarred man to a ten year-old girl to a four-armed alien warrior to a living statue.

What makes Sanitarium amazing and still timely though is what all of these different worlds have in common. As you play, a thread between these different worlds begins to emerge, all of them relating to your shrouded past and to why you’re in that Sanitarium. There’s also some interesting commentary on the nature of pharmaceutical companies in a for-profit health care system and the realization that the true horror you face isn’t supernatural at all — it’s the very human emotion of greed and what some people will do to protect a profit margin. It posits a drug company that will murder a researcher who develops a cure for a deadly plague because it threatens to cut into the profits generated by the stopgap drug that merely allows you to live with the disease.

sanitarium

Here’s the thing, though, the commentary in Sanitarium misses out on a very important point in the for-profit world of medicine — or the for-profit world of anything. Yes, there are unscrupulous people who will do anything to protect an individual company, but I’ve discussed health care with too many people who seem to believe that it’s the profit motive itself that’s the problem, rather than the illegal or criminal actions of an individual to protect a particular set of profits. Put simply, profits are the engine of progress. Even if we could magically create a socialized medical system that actually worked, it would bring medical research to a grinding halt. When doctors and researchers make the same money as McDonald’s fry cooks, you get the same quality of doctors as McDonald’s gets workers. Remove the chance to profit, remove enlightened self-interest from the equation and you put the kibosh on the chance for cures to AIDS, cancer or anything else that currently plagues us. Ultimately, you get what you pay for.

To be fair, not even Sanitarium makes the argument that Big Pharma and insurance companies are in a giant conspiracy to suppress the cures for diseases in the pursuit of profit. That game is mostly a thriller about an evil pharmaceutical executive — an individual who commits multiple criminal acts. They leave that to big budget Hollywood movies, Michael Moore and a delightful conspiracy theorist of my acquaintance who will wax rhapsodic on how we never landed on the Moon. I leave their arguments in the Sanitarium where they belong. But even making that argument betrays not only a blatant hostility toward capitalism, but a profound misunderstanding of how capitalism works, how research works and eliminates even the possibility of finding common ground in the health care debate.

Even if a company does manage to Silkwood a particular invention, there are too many other companies out there working along the same lines who will eventually make the breakthrough. Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, he merely made the light bulb so good it became commercially practical. If some candle company had had Edison murdered, the light bulb would have been discovered by one of dozens of other researchers working along the same lines.

None of this, by the way, should stop you from checking out Sanitarium if you can. It’s a genius game that never got the credit it was due. At