Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears

17 09 2009

My first piece for Gamasutra Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears just went up. As tough as it was to write, there’s nothing I like better than delving into the guts of the game industry and figuring out what makes this stuff tick. DDO is a classic example of a game hurt not so much by what was on the screen (I reviewed it over at GameSpy and while it was good then, it’s gotten much better) but by the decision about what business model to put on it. It’s amazing how sometimes the littlest thing can help or hurt a game — being in the right place at the right time, having a celebrity admit that they’re a fan, putting the wrong artwork on the box… The bottom line, as with the movies, is that nobody really knows anything before a title launches. It’s a lot of educated guesses and soothsaying. You can be smart and reduce the risk, but ultimately it’s still a roll of the dice. Are you listening, Mr. Kotick?
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In the mean time, I was once again impressed at the passion that goes into the people who work in the gaming industry. I’m not just talking about designers or producers like Fernando Paiz but also PR people like Adam Mersky and Atlus Online’s Jaime Ortiz (who’s a business operations guy). It struck me while talking to them that these are people who love what they do. It may be because this is still a relatively young and small industry where the first generation of pioneers is still around even as the third generation of money-men and MBA try to corporatize it, so enjoy it while it lasts. It’s not often you get to be present at the settling of a new frontier and this is a time in gaming that will never come again.

Hey! I just got an idea for tomorrow’s Angry Bear column!

Read Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears at Gamasutra.

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The Fallout over Fallout

12 09 2009

And it’s finally happened. Kotaku is reporting that Bethesda is suing Interplay for their failure to develop the Fallout MMO. Is there anybody out there who didn’t see this coming? I’m excepting as always, the troglodytes and mouth-breathers over at No Mutants Allowed and the rest of the so-called “Fallout community” (warning, following that link and reading anything on that site WILL make you stupid). By that, I don’t mean those hundreds of thousands of people who have rightly enjoyed Fallout 3 (many of whom have as it as their sole Fallout experience) or those like me who genuinely love the first two games in the series. I mean those who, their loud protestations to the contrary, have never forgiven the universe for not stopping the clock in 1998 and Interplay for daring to go out of business.

Yes, I said go out of business. I bear no malice at all towared the tiny shell that currently bears the name Interplay and if the seven employees over there manage to magically produce a Fallout MMO, I’ll be thrilled. Good luck, God bless. Let’s be honest, though. It’s not going to happen. Whatever Interplay used to be, it’s been a mere ghost of that for many years — exactly what it was when it sold the rights to Fallout to Bethesda in a wild gamble at creating a Fallout MMO. You don’t need a crystal ball to figure that out, either. The company itself admits as much in their public 10K report. Check out this list of “Risk Factors:”

WE CURRENTLY HAVE SOME OBLIGATIONS THAT WE ARE UNABLE TO MEET WITHOUT GENERATING ADDITIONAL INCOME OR RAISING ADDITIONAL CAPITAL.

As of December 31, 2008, our cash balance was approximately $0 and our working capital deficit totaled approximately $2.4 million.

We are currently operating without a credit agreement or credit facility. There can be no assurance that we will be able to enter into a new credit agreement or that if we do enter into a new credit agreement, it will be on terms favorable to us.

We are presently without a CFO, and Mr. Caen has assumed the position of interim-CFO and continues as CFO to date until a replacement can be found.

These are not the business conditions that make me want to go out and purchase Interplay stock. I’d get a better ROI selling my old comic books on Ebay.

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I’m not entirely certain why Bethesda agreed to this deal in the first place. I can however, envisage a scenario where they get a substantial discount off the price of the original IP purchase in return for essentially waiting for Interplay to fail in which case they would then be able to sweep in and be able to do the Fallout MMO themselves. And if Interplay had succeeded — great! It’s a win/win for Bethesda either way. As for Interplay, well, they were selling the last valuable asset they had in a gamble to keep themselves alive and capitilize on the potential success of a Fallout MMO. If they’ve failed to realize that, well there’s certainly no shame there. Businesses fail all the time. I’m sure the principles and employees currently at Interplay will be fine.

What gets me are the idiot Fallout fanboys and their venom toward Bethesda for doing exactly what anyone in their position would — protecting their intellectual property rights and insisting that Interplay live up to the terms of its agreements. I don’t have any knowledge whether Bethesda is correct in its allegations, of course, but there’s certainly nothing immoral in a perfectly sensible business decision. There’s this perverse romantic streak in the hard-core Fallout community that somehow believes that they not only have a right to “their” Fallout 3 — done of course in a “proper Fallout style” — but that going business concerns should somehow modify intelligent business practices to tailor to them because the original Fallout games were so good and they love them so much.

And please don’t pull out the old “We’re the audience, they should listen to us.” Here’s a news flash — when it comes to Fallout, you are not the audience. The “audience” for Fallout are those millions of people happily shelling out the shekels for Mothership: Zeta and racking up Xbox 360 Acheivements. Full disclosure: I was the product manager for Fallout: Tactics, a decent though not stellar stratgy game based in the Fallout universe. I loved working at Interplay and am proud to have been connected, however tangentially, to the Fallout games and the great people who worked on them. Having said that, the Fallout games as represented by Fallout 1 and 2 are history. Everyone involved with them has moved on — in many cases quite successfully — and the Fallout universe is in the hands of people who obviously love the franchise and are not beholden to you in any way.

Here’s a little secret: The original Fallout games were not terribly successful. Not that they were failures, of course, but even by the standards of the late ’90s they garnered much more in critical acclaim, fan love and industry respect than they ever did in cold, hard cash. While I won’t reveal proprietary numbers, Bethesda does more with the franchise in five minutes than Interplay did with it in its whole history. Knowing that, it makes Bethesda rescuing the franchise from oblivion (no pun intended) even more worthy of respect. They had access to the same numbers when they were considering purchasing the rights to the game. They did it out of love for the universe and the belief that they could bring both the same critical acclaim and the success that had eluded it under Interplay’s care. They were right.

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Steve Jobs Going after the Gaming Market — Seriously

10 09 2009

Dean Takahashi over at VentureBeat is reporting that Steve Jobs has finally set his sights on the gaming market. Apparently Jobs emphasized in a a New York Times Interview that the new iPod Touch is being repositioned as a game machine to compete with the Nintendo DSi and the new PSP. Not a bad pivot for a product that had ceased to have any reason for existing. Based on the report, Jobs seems serious this time — or at least as serious as he can be given that the iPod and the iPhone are rapidly turning into game machines whether he likes it or not.

Steve Jobs fascinates me (as he does many people). I believe he is what Robert X. Cringely referred to as a “positively-oriented sociopath.” That means that everyone in Jobs’ world has really been placed here for him to manipulate, use and discard at his whim — and that includes his customers. His mercurial nature is legendary and the products he produces are equally legendary for being built around Steve’s quirks (think about the original Mac being unable to network). The Mac hasn’t been taken seriously as a gaming machine simply because Jobs isn’t a gamer, doesn’t take gaming seriously and has always thought gaming to be an “impure” use for his machine.

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His influence was so powerful over the character of Apple as a company, that even when he wasn’t around, no gaming initiative Apple ever launched could find any traction. Every few years Apple announces that it’s finally taking gaming seriously and will be providing developers with the support and the APIs they need to turn the Mac into a world-class gaming machine. The result is always the same — the effort fizzles out and PC gamers go back to their beige boxes and the thousand shocks they’re heir to.

This could be different. The Apple iTouch could be the lower-priced entry to the world of the App store and with iPhoen games being cheaper to produce and sell, they’re starting to look really attractive to big game companies who are starting to seriously support the platform. Given that the huge pile of money that Nintendo floats on is produced in large part by their dominance in the handheld space, I’d imagine that there are a lot of sweaty and uncomfortable meetings happening in Japan right now. The irony of all this, of course is that if Apple does become a big player in the gaming market, it’ll happen despite, not because of Jobs’ genius. Of course if it works, he’ll still get the credit and claim this was his plan all along.

Knowing Jobs, he’ll probably believe it.

Update: Just got this Tweet from a friend over at IGN:

Phone just failed the impulse gaming test. Tried to buy 2 games but they were too big to download over the air. Sales lost.

Yeah. That’s a problem and something that if Jobs is really serious about turning the iTouch into a gaming platform. He’s going to have start imposing some uniform standards for apps in addition to actually providing developer support. It should be interesting to see just how serious he is with this.

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Is it Right to Boycott? Peter David Responds to “The Turn of an Unfriendly Card”

9 09 2009

One of the great things about living in the Internet age is sometimes the little bit of attention you garner for your work can draw in the very people you’re discussing to put in their two cents. That’s what happened with my Angry Bear article “Turn of an Unfriendly Card (Read the original article here.) In the comments I came across a response by none other than Peter David himself who has a decidedly different take on the whole issue. Here’s what he wrote:

I think you make a lot of valid points in your very balanced and well-reasoned view of the situation (and thanks for the shout out on my work on X-Factor.)

The one place where we diverge, I suppose, is whether boycotts are a free speech issue. I feel they most definitely are, because the endgame (as you put it) is ultimately to restrict free speech. They are designed to put people who have voiced unpopular ideas out of business, and they are designed to make sure that anyone who possesses unpopular ideas think twice or three times about saying anything for fear of facing economic sanctions and potential loss of livelihood. The underlying strength of a free society is, “I disagree with what you have to say, but will defend to the death your right to say it,” not, “I disagree with what you have to say, and will do everything in my power to punish you for saying it.”

Should free speech mean freedom from consequences? Well, no. But the answer to free speech is always more free speech, and that should be the only consequence of speaking your mind. Boycotts are not free speech, no matter how much the practitioners of them claim that they are. Boycotts–particularly as utilized by those who take issue with opinions that are in opposition to theirs–are attempts to bludgeon someone into submission economically.

It’s not that people are offended because, for instance, the CEO of Whole Foods has opinions they don’t like. They’re offended because they KNOW his opinions, and the reason they know them is because he availed himself of free speech in a free society. So they’ll boycott Whole Foods and shop at Pathmark or Shop & Stop, and for all they know the CEO of the former is opposed to gay marriage and the CEO of the latter thinks that abortion should be criminalized. So unless they’re performing due diligence to check and see the corporate record of every store they’re frequenting, I’m forced to conclude that this is entirely about free speech, because it’s the use of free speech that’s getting people in trouble and it’s the intolerance of free speech that’s causing the boycotts.

I suppose what it comes down to is this: Protecting popular ideas is easy. Unpopular ideas are the ones that need the most protecting, if for no other reason than that many of the ideas we accept today as truth or even simple common sense, began their existence as unpopular ideas. The Church boycotted Galileo because he opined that the Earth moved around the sun; is that really the lead we want to follow?

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As much as I respect Mr. David, I’m afraid this is an issue where he and I are going to have to disagree. I told him so in an e-mailed reply:

“Boycotts aren’t free speech. What they ARE are other elements of freedom that are just as important — freedom of association, freedom of commerce and freedom of conscience. Note that none of those things necessarily make boycotts moral or ethical to use but by your argument I give up some freedoms (association, commerce, conscience) to protect the freedom of speech of a man I disagree with.

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I’d have to reject that. I don’t believe my choice to buy or not buy a game prevents Card from saying what he will. If he chooses to modify his speech in the face of such things, that too is the free market in action and it works for both the right and the left. I have the right to, for example, choose to purchase my groceries only at markets owned by Caucasians or refuse to buy a game created by a designer who has donated to the Republican party (bye bye Sims!) and I should bear the full moral burden of exercising those rights (including the disapproval and possible boycott of those who disapproved of my actions). In doing so though, I don’t believe anyone else’s rights are endangered. These interactions are how societies get ordered in the first place.”

Peter responded again with the following:

I don’t think boycotts are free speech either. We don’t disagree on that point. What I was pointing out was that people who believe in boycotts contend that they ARE a form of free speech, of free expression, equal to and on par with voicing one’s opinion through the media or on line or wherever. And that if someone says something or puts forward an opinion that they find disagreeable, then it is an equal and appropriate response to declare that they are going to cease supporting that individual’s work and, even better, try to get as many people as possible to follow suit.

Except it’s not. Boycotts are not free speech (as you yourself say). They are a punitive measure designed specifically to get someone else to shut up, or to destroy their income in retaliation. Does the act of buying or not buying a game prevent Card from saying what he will? No. But it is an ATTEMPT to STOP him from saying what he will. It is an attempt to punish him for doing so. What else is punishment except trying to ensure that the target of the punishment ceases the behavior that the person inflicting the punishment finds disagreeable?

To say, “I have the right” to shop wherever you wish is utterly beside the point. I’m not contending that you don’t have the right. But just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean that you SHOULD do something. If you truly believe in a free market society, then where you shop should not be determined (to use your example) by the color of the shop owner’s skin. It should be determined by who has the best product for the best price. Everything else is beside the point unless you choose to make it the point.

Boycotts that are started up purely to shut people up have a chilling effect in a society that is supposed to value the free exchange of ideas. There’s a superb book on the subject by Nat Hentoff: “Freedom of Speech for Me, But Not For Thee.” It’s about the lengthy history of the right and the left to shut each other up.

I didn’t want to respond directly to Peter (though he is, of course welcome to elaborate further and I’ll be happy to print it) because I think we’ve each outlined where our disagreements are and while we’re actually not that far apart, they come right to the crux of the morality of using boycotts. Put in simple terms, each of us agrees that boycotts are a private act and as such, shouldn’t be subject to some sort of government interference. Each of us as individuals have the “right” to boycott. The question is — and this is what I was wrestling with in the article — is it “right” to boycott? Is it morally and ethically correct and if so, what are the rules for doing so? These are the questions we as a society are not answering, although Peter’s already given his. He says “no, boycotts aren’t moral.” I envy him that level of clarity because I haven’t found my answer yet.

In a larger sense, we’re throwing economic clubs and brickbats at each other and we don’t seem to be concerned with where they’re landing. It’s really easy to envision a future where every corporation and small business has to have a position paper on every controversial issue in the public domain in order to do business at all. That is after all, what the “Buy Blue” campaign was all about and is what powers sites like Buy Blue USA (no commercial endorsement implied in that link). I don’t think I like that very much and I’m a little frightened about whether we can get off the ugly road we seem to be on.

On a lighter note, if you’re interested in Mr. David’s work, why not check out his blog? I’m also adding it to my blogroll at the right.

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The Most Important Twitter Conversation Ever (for Gamers)

7 09 2009

(Update: Sigh. I should have known that a post with a picture of Catherine Bell would be incredibly highly trafficked. If you’re at all interested in videogames and game design, why not click on the essay HERE and take a look around. There might be some fun stuff!)

I just discovered this July 16th post on the personal blog of Soren Johnson, the designer of Civilization IV and one of my personal gaming gods. I know, shame on me for not checking his blog in a while because what Soren has is always worth reading. Still, if you haven’t seen it, check it out. It’s the transcript of an amazing Twitter conversation had by some of the leading lights in game design about a talk given by Denis Dyack at the Develop 2009 conference.

In the conference, Dyack said the following (Quoting from the Gamasutra story about the conference):

“Gameplay is not everything,” said Silicon Knights (Eternal Darkness) founder and president Denis Dyack. “If you look at the most popular games today, they are far more narrative-focused.”

“If games are to follow the trajectory of films, then the dominance of gameplay will diminish in place of an increased focus and importance on gaming’s stories and the ways in which they are told,” he added.

This apparently triggered a Tweet from Johnson to Dyack in which he asked:

SorenJohnson: Hey Denis, if you put the narrative in front of the gameplay, you are no longer making a game. You’re making a movie. http://bit.ly/193Qdz

This is what led to the conversation about the boundaries and importance of narrative and gameplay (the whole conversation is collected here) It’s a little confusing with a lot of crosstalk (This was a real time Twitter conversation after all) but it’s well worth reading through.

It’s also the subject of this week’s Angry Bear column. I may be a bit late to the conversation, but that doesn’t meant I can’t put my two cents in. This is the Internet after all. I’ll post and update when the new column is done.

(Yeah, I’m late. We spent the day at our friend’s house for a Labor Day BBQ. In penance, may I offer this awesome picture of the lovely Catherine Bell in a bikini.)

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The Turn of an Unfriendly Card

30 08 2009

Should my purchase of Shadow Complex turn on what I think of Orson Scott Card’s politics?

“Just so you know, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” — Natalie Maines, The Dixie Chicks

“While we clearly need health-care reform, the last thing our country needs is a massive new health-care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system.– John Mackey, “The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare”

“However emotionally bonded a pair of homosexual lovers may feel themselves to be, what they are doing is not marriage. Nor does society benefit in any way from treating it as if it were.” — Orson Scott Card, “Homosexual “Marriage” and Civilization”

I never really thought much about Orson Scott Card’s politics. Why should I? Card was the guy who wrote Ender’s Game, a science fiction classic with special relevance to gamers by the nature of its plotline (a genius child is run through a series of games to prepare him to become a military leader fighting off an alien invasion). I mean, I knew he was a devout Mormon — his five book Homecoming Saga was a deliberate sci-fi analogue of the Book of Mormon and it’s not too difficult to discern the Mormon strains in his Tales of Alvin Maker series — but I was OK with that. I loved the Alvin series and never got past the first book in the Homecoming series because I found it boring. In each case I made the decision based on whether Card’s writing entertained me, not on his status as a Mormon. Why should that matter?…

(My first independent Angry Bear column is all about Shadow Complex, Whole Foods and the morality and utility of boycotts. It’s really great to be writing these again — hopefully you agree with that sentiment even if you don’t agree with the point of view.)
 
Check out the rest of the new column here! 

And while you’re here, why not check out the rest of the Angry Bear Columns under the tab at the top of the page?

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‘Up’ is not for children…

21 06 2009

So we took Lily and David to see “Up” today and my first reaction was that this is a beautiful, funny and wonderfully moving film about love, loss, our connections to other human beings and the true definition of “adventure.” My second reaction was that this may be the most “adult” film Pixar has ever made. To judge by the (admittedly small) sample size of my six and four-year old, there’s not really enough slapstick and humor to keep the kiddies entertained. True the bird is a typical wacky cartoon animal and they certainly appreciated the talking dogs, but most of this movie is emotionally centered around retired balloon salesman Carl Fredrickson and the love of his life, Ellie — a spunky would-be adventurer that Carl meets as a kid who eventually becomes his wife.

Carl’s pain at the loss of Ellie (beautifully portrayed in an opening montage of their life togather) is the real driving force behind all the action of the film and Ellie’s larger-than-life presence looms throughout the picture, her memory and their house are the (literal) anchor that’s keeping him from flying off to discover new adventures. The house itself becomes an almost hit-you-on-the-head symbol as Carl spends much of the film lashed to it. It’s a faded memory that he’s unable to let go of and move on. It’s a melancholy theme that hangs over the whole picture and while it’s beautifully handled in the script, it necessarily brings the entire picture down. For all the visual beauty of the house dangling from brightly colored balloons and the South American jungle and Kevin, the wrongly-named bird the main characters meet, the emotional pall that hangs over the picture seems to weigh it down in ways that not even the very funny script and physical comedy can alleviate.

My daughter didn’t like the picture at all. She said it was because of “the pack of evil dogs.” I wonder if in her own way she’s trying to explain the emotional miasma that permeated the movie. It’s the kind of thing that adults will love but I wonder how many kids will react like mine.