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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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.





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.





Dragon Age and Tolkien’s Orc Problem

4 11 2009

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So now that it’s up, I can tell you that one of the reasons blogging has been so light for the last week is that I have been hip deep in reviewing Dragon Age for G4. It’s brilliant and amazing and I spent close to 50 hours over the course of five days playing through it and I’ll probably do it again with a different character. If you’d like to read the rest of my take, check out the full article on the G4 Web site. This particular post isn’t about the quality of the game, which is beyond question for me. It’s about the problem that I had with the Darkspawn, the main threat to the world the player faces.

Here’s the problem. Like the Orcs or goblins in Tolkien’s world, the Darkspawn are an embodiment of absolute evil. They are like locusts, driven to destroy, unable to be negotiated with and seemingly incapable of any higher desire than to burn, crush and destroy and make more of their kind. In short, they’re a typical rampaging fantasy horde that exists merely to provide sword fodder for the player to hack through millions of them without the annoyance of feeling guilty. That bothers me. I don’t like unredeemable fantasy monsters. It was one of the awful influences of Tolkien that turned me off of fantasy for many years.

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Now, I’m not a pacifist. I’ve supported wars in the real world knowing that real people on both sides would suffer horrible deaths and injuries because of it. Even as I did it though, I never bought into the simplistic propaganda that those on the other side were irredeemably evil or anything less than human. War is a serious matter, requiring serious deliberation with full appreciation of the consequences of legally sanctioning the killing of other sentient beings. Even when the cause is just, the process is tragic. Like my recent bout of guilt fighting the Morroval in Moria, I’m wondering how to feel about the Darkspawn I’ve killed. (Yes, I know they’re not real and that “it’s just a game.” That’s hardly the point, is it Captain Metaphor?)

What makes the moral simplicity of the Darkspawn especially glaring in Dragon Age is the incredible level of characterization the other races and societies are given. Every character and race in the game has realistic, multi-layered set of motivations. They’re not purely good, nor are they purely evil. Even the “villain” the player faces throughout much of the game is given a believable, though twisted, sense of moral purpose for the actions he takes in defense of his homeland. In fact, at one point one of the character’s henchmen, when asked about the actions she takes, scoffs at the player. “It’s really easy to be an adventurer,” she says. “No one weeps for the death of an ogre. It’s much harder when you’re facing enemies who look just like you.”

She’s right and it’s to the game’s credit that despite the threat they pose, the Darkspawn are actually in the minority of the foes you’ll face. One of the toughest choices you’ll face in the game is deciding which side of a Dwarven royal succession struggle you’ll support — knowing that whichever way you choose, you’re going to have to kill a lot of dwarves whose only real crime is choosing to support the side the player didn’t pick.

No such grace is granted to the Darkspawn, though. They are sword fodder, there to be killed in order to rack up the experience points. Yet the darkspawn wear armor. They carry swords and medical supplies. Clearly they have a culture — someone must be forging this stuff — and value life, their own if no one else’s. Who are they? Are they sentient at all? If they’re nothing but locusts, then they’re not truly evil, are they? This was the reason why in Sufficiently Advanced Magic I chose to avoid having an “evil race” and made sure to explain the motivations for why two nations are at war. I have my sympathies and they come out in the book, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m ready to retire Tolkien’s orcs once and for all.





GoG Thursday: The Red Baron Pack

8 10 2009

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Once upon a time, back when we still thought the ’90s were going to be awesome (which they really are only in comparison to the ’00s) there was a company called Dynamix which was the best there was at what they did. Unfortunately what they did was create computer simulations, a genre that has the distinction of making the adventure game genre looking healthy and robust which is why they’re no longer around. There was a time though, when simulation, especially flight sims, were a commercially viable genre and flight sim fans eagerly looked forward to a wealth of product on store shelves that simulated everything from helicopter flight to battles between nuclear submarines. It was into this genre that Dynamix launched Red Baron, the subject of today’s GoG Thursday (which is actually a bit late due to circumstances beyond my control.)

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Here’s the thing about Red Baron — unlike most flight simulators before or since, it would successfully straddle the line between a scarily realistic flight sim with all the physics and turn ratios and airspeed drag and the sheer white-knuckle excitement of an arcade shooter. The game had excellent simulation characteristics for the era and faithfully modeled over 20 different planes of the era. If you weren’t a flight-sim junkie though, you could turn on and off different characteristics that were giving you trouble, making the planes as easy to fly as you needed.

The real joy of the game was in the campaign mode. Playing the Red Baron campaign mode it becomes obvious that it had a significant influence on LucasArts’ X-wing and Tie Fighter games. The game’s campaign would allow you to fly on either side of the Great War and would track your performance, giving you promotions and allowing you greater latitude in selecting where you wished to be posted and what planes you would fly. When you consider that most of the campaign and “the world” you fought in was presented mostly through static text screens, the game did a remarkably good job of immersing you into the rarified and psychotically dangerous world of the World War I flying ace.

The down side of the game was that the enemy AI wasn’t particularly good, even for the standards of the time. The team made up for that by making each mission in the campaign a sort of puzzle to solve. It wasbn;t enough to just fly around shooting down planes at random. You had to develop spatial awareness and understand what was going all around you. Certain enemies had to be destroyed first, you as a pilot had to be at certain places at certain times and certain objectives had to be protected or destroyed (shooting down observation balloons was as harrowing as the Death Star run). It made the game frustrating sometimes because it could be tough to figure out exactly why you’d failed a mission. Since much of the enemy actions in missions was hardwired, it also made replayability a bit of an issue but oh those tense moments when you’re pulling just enough Gs to avoid a blackout and a German fighter is getting a bead on you… It was exhilarating.





Stardock Takes a Stand for Fox News

28 09 2009

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I found this interesting, especially given the recent hullabaloo over the Shadow Complex boycott. Brad Wardell, the CEO of Stardock Software and an outspoken conservative, has decided to take a stand against UPS. UPS, the package delivery service, recently decided to drop all of its advertising with Fox News. Stardock, according to Wardell’s comments on his Facebook page, does a “non-trivial amount of shipping with UPS.” Upset by the company’s decision to pull its advertising from the network, Stardock Software will now be doing all of its physical game fulfillment through FedEx.

So now we face yet another aspect of the Shadow Complex boycott issue. What’s good for the goose and so on… If liberals can boycott things that offend them, then so can conservatives. While I doubt losing Stardock’s business will result in a significant hit to UPS’ bottom line, this doesn’t strike me as a terribly healthy phenomenon. There are lots of CEOs out there, and lots of companies much bigger than Stardock and what happens when everyone needs to start signing an ideological bill of particulars before someone else will do business with you? If I have to have my voting record perused every time I go for a job, I might as well move out of California now. As lovely as I’m sure Texas is, I have no desire to live there.

To everyone’s credit, the discussion that came about as a result of Brad’s post was pretty civilized as such things go, but the gaming industry is a pretty small neighborhood. That tends to encourage civility. The rest of Red and Blue America? Not so much.

And on a completely unrelated note, if you’re at all interested in strategy games and have never played Galactic Civilizations 2, drop what you’re doing and play it now! You’ll thank me later.

UPDATE: This story got picked up by GamePolitics which prompted Brad Wardell to e-mail with the following:

My Facebook comment was taken considerably out of context. I could care less about Glenn Beck or whether someone advertises on their show or not. But UPS is boycotting the entire channel which annoyed me enough to ask my publishing director to look into whether it was true (it was) and have them look into Fed Ex which provided competitive pricing and make use of them for our uses.

This is completely and 100% true and was true when I first put up the story. This is why this story was labeled “Stardock Takes a Stand for Fox News,” NOT “Stardock Takes a Stand for Glenn Beck.” However you feel about Fox News, I wanted to make sure that Brad’s stance was clear.

Update 2: Brad Wardell comments on his personal blog

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