Category Archives: Philosophy

Borrowed Power, Borrowed Time

The Blizzard devs have been on a bit of a interview circuit since the reveal of the next WoW expansion. Some of the tidbits have been interesting, like this particular summary (emphasis mine):

  • Borrowed Power
    • The team reflected on the borrowed power systems of the past few expansions and admit that giving players power and then taking it away at the end didn’t feel good.
    • As they thought of a way to move forward without borrowed power systems, they realized that the only talent system used to fill those gaps by giving you something new every expansion that would not be taken away at the end.
    • The goal of the new talent system is to grow on it in further expansions with more layers and rows.
    • They want the new talent system to be sustainable for at least a few expansions and what to do at that point is an issue to solve then.

In other words, Blizzard recognized the failings of the “borrowed power” system – after three expansions! – and decided to bring back talent trees as a replacement. All while acknowledging the reasons why talent trees failed in the first place… and simply saying the equivalent of “we’ll jump off that bridge when we come to it.”

You know, I’m actually going to transcript that part from Ion Hazzikostas for posterity:

And I think we’ve built this system… you know, I mean, could we sustain that for 20 years? Probably not. But we don’t realistically… we think of, you know, there’s a – there a horizon of sorts where you want to make sure this will work for two or three expansions and then beyond that it’s sort of a future us problem. Where so much will have changed between now and then we can’t… it’s not really responsible for us to like, you know, make plant firm stakes in the ground. And if we’re compromising the excitement of our designs because of we’re not sure how they’re going to scale eight years from now… we’re doing a disservice to players today and eight years from now won’t matter if we’re not making an amazing game for players today.

I don’t technically disagree. When you have a MMORPG with character progression and abilities that accumulate over time… at some point it becomes very unwieldy to maintain every system introduced. Not impossible, just unwieldy. It reminds me of when CCGs like Hearthstone or Magic: the Gathering start segmenting older card sets away from “Standard” and into “Legacy” sets. Want to play with the most broken cards from every set ever released? Sure, go have fun over there in that box. Everyone else can have fun with a smaller set of more (potentially) balanced cards over here.

Having said that… is it really an insurmountable design problem?

My first instinct was to look at Guild Wars 2, which recently released its third expansion. The game is a bit of an outlier from the get-go considering that there is no gear progression at the level cap – if you have Ascended/Legendary Berserker gear from 10+ years ago, it is still Best-in-Slot today (assuming your class/spec wasn’t nerfed). That horizontal progression philosophy bleeds over into character skills and talent-equivalents too: whatever spec you are playing, you are limited to 5 combat skills based on your weapon(s) and 5 utility skills picked from a list. You pick three talent trees, but those trees don’t “expand” or get additional nodes. The only power accumulation in GW2 is in the Mastery system… which is largely borrowed-power-esque, now that I think about it.

So GW2 is doing well in the ability/feature creep department. For now. Because that’s the rub: ArenaNet is on expansion #3. WoW is on expansion #9. Are we prepared for six more Elite Specs per class? Outside of it being a balance nightmare – which is hardly ever ArenaNet’s apparent concern – I could easily see more Elite Specs being slapped onto the UI and nothing else of note changing. So the problem is “solved” by never granting meaningfully new abilities to older specs.

And… that’s basically the extent of my knowledge of non-WoW MMOs. Surely EverQuest 1 & 2 have encountered this same issue, for example. What did they do? I think FF14 is accumulating character abilities but not yet hitting the limit of reasonableness. EVE is EVE. What else is out there that has been around long enough to run into this? Runescape?

Regardless, it’s an interesting conundrum whereby the choices appear to be A) not grant new abilities with each expansion, B) have Borrowed Power systems, or C) periodically “reset” and prune character abilities before reintroducing them.

Play-to-Earn

Amongst the crypto/NFT/metaverse topics cycling around online, there is a quote from Reddit co-founder, Alexis Ohanian, that makes a bold prediction:

“90% of people will not play a game unless they are being properly valued for that time,” Ohanian, who runs venture capital firm Seven Seven Six, said in a recent episode of the “Where It Happens” podcast.

“In five years, you will actually value your time properly,” he said. “And instead of being harvested for advertisements, or being fleeced for dollars to buy stupid hammers you don’t actually own, you will be playing some on-chain equivalent game that will be just as fun, but you’ll actually earn value and you will be the harvester.”

On its face, the prediction is ridiculous. This Forbes article rips it apart. There’s a huge sense of revulsion from many corners of gamedom over this a priori push into NFTs and metaverse to begin with, let alone the notion that “Play-to-Earn” is going to catch on in some kind of major way.

The problem is that we have actually been Playing-to-Earn for years already.

For example, the WoW Token (NFT?!) already exists, and I spent considerable in-game time doing Auction House shenanigans in an attempt to pay for my subscription and purchase expansions. Same with Guild Wars 2, where everyone farms gold that they turn into gems into cash shop purchases, paid for by people spending real dollars to buy gems for said gold. EVE has had similar things in place for years and years. Almost every single mobile game has a way for you to “earn” a cash shop currency that you could otherwise purchase outright. All that is missing is a way to cash out of the ecosystem, which simply means no longer hiding values behind “gems” and “diamonds” and such.

And Diablo 3 did all this in front of the world in 2012.

I’m not saying all of this is a good idea. These companies are throwing around terms when they clearly have no idea what it even means. Game companies spend millions of dollars building custom game engines instead of leveraging existing products all the time, and yet they talk about NFTs and metaverses as if interpolation between games is a solved issue.

But do you know what IS nicely interpolated between radically different games and platforms? Cash. It doesn’t make sense to try and bring a Candy Hammer from Candy Crush into Clash Royale via blockchain or whatever. But if I can sell that same hammer to someone else in Candy Crush, I can bring those dollars over to Clash Royale and purchase something else. METAVERSE!

The elephant in the room, of course, is why any game company would actually want to do this. There is a proven track record that turning cash into funny money (tickets, gems, diamonds, etc) is a technique to obfuscate how much money someone is actually spending. Or playing to earn, for that matter. Earning 30g/hour in GW2? Amazing. Alternate Youtube title: Earn $1.88/hour in GW2. Less impressive. These companies also frequently give out free hits of crack game currency in almost-useful amounts to entice people to purchase more. Can’t quite do that with literal cash equivalents.

On the other hand, Diablo 3 is kind of an example of why companies would want to. Selling a powerful sword in the cash shop for $100 is clearly Pay-to-Win. Letting your customers sell the same sword for $100 to another customer and taking a cut? Totally OK! Nobody blamed Blizzard for introducing a sword worth $100, as that was just the benevolent invisible hand at work, as our lord Adam Smith intended. Nevermind that Blizzard has full control over all the levers that makes a given sword rare and useful enough to be sought-after in the first place. Capitalism, ho!

The Play-to-Earn economy being threatened in the headlines has been a call coming from inside the house this whole time. The “only” difference is that many of the most popular games that have the equivalent mechanisms already in place don’t let you cash out. They could, but they won’t, because why would they? Getting a cut of NFT sales into perpetuity sounds nice and all, but that will only work if your game is popular/successful, in which case you may as well keep all the money in-house. All the other apps will be engaging in a race to the bottom, gumming up the blockchain with NFT trash loot, collapsing whatever ecosystem may exist. Nevermind how all of it perverts the incentive structure for progression-based game mechanics anyway (see: Diablo 3).

Having a terrible idea that won’t work never stopped Blizzard before, so I don’t see why it should stop anyone else. And hey, if I’m wrong, hit me up in the crypto salt mines where we monetize every moment of our free time to afford luxuries like clean air while the planet boils around us.

Inflation

Amidst all the gaming sales this holiday season was a surprise. A most unwelcome one.

First was the surprise that the PC version of the Final Fantasy 7 Remake (FF7R) even came out. I was so giddy when the original news came out in 2015, but that giddiness has been tempered by years of self-restraint from not purchasing a PS4 to play just that game, and the constant endeavor to avoid spoilers. Somehow that avoidance must have led me to disregard news articles that the PC version was coming out. The fact that FF7R is an Epic exclusive also didn’t even register. But that’s because…

Secondly, seventy what-the-fuck dollars?!

I understand that FF7R is by no means the first to try to raise the hitherto $60 price ceiling of games. Many games of this new console generation are trying the same, including major franchises. It does seem a little weird that the PC port of a game that came out 1.5 years ago is trying to sell at a premium price though. Especially since one could purchase the PS5 version of the same PC bundle (main game + DLC) for $39.19 straight from the Playstation Store. That’s the winter sale price, of course, but there are cheaper options at GameStop and presumably other retailers.

I also understand that gaming companies have technically been raising prices this whole time via DLC and microtransactions and battle passes and deluxe editions and so on and so forth. Some have made the argument that it is because of the $60 price ceiling that game companies have employed black hat econ-psychologists to invent ever more pernicious means of eroding consumer surplus. That argument is, of course, ridiculous: they would simply do both, as they do today.

What I do not understand is gaming apologists suggesting inflation is the reason for $70 games.

Sometimes the apologists make the argument that games have not kept pace with inflation for years. One apt example is how Final Fantasy 6 (or 3 at the time) on the SNES retailed for $79.99 back in 1994. That is literally $150 in 2021 money. Thing is… gaming was NOT mainstream back in 1994; the market was tiny, and dominated by Japan. When you are comparable in size to model train enthusiasts, you pay model train enthusiast prices.

Gaming has been mainstream for decades now. Despite ever-increasing budgets and marketing costs, games remain a high-margin product. FF6 may have sold for $150 in today’s dollars, but FF7 sold three times as many copies for the equivalent of $100 by 2003*. So how does an “inflation” argument make sense there?

“The costs for making games have increased!” I mean… yes, but also no? Developers like to pretend that they need bleeding-edge graphics in order to sell games, but that is clearly not the case everywhere. For one thing, indie developers have been killing it with some of the best titles this decade with pixel graphics and small-group passion projects. Stardew Valley sold how many copies? Remember when Minecraft sold for $2 billion? Not everyone is a big winner, but the costs of game making has only increased in specific genres with specific designs. Do we really need individually articulated and dynamically moving ass-hair on our protagonists?

And that’s where the “iT’s iNfLaTiOn” folks really lose me: who gives a shit about these corporations? I wrote about this 8 years ago:

As a consumer, you are not responsible for a company’s business model. It is perfectly fine to want the developers to be paid for their work, or to wish the company continued success. But presuming some sort of moral imperative on the part of the consumer is not only impossible, it’s also intellectually dishonest. You and I have no control over how a game company is run, how much they pay their staff, what business terms they ink, or how they run their company. Nobody asked EA to spend $300+ million on SWTOR. Nobody told Curt Schilling to run 38 Studios into the ground. Literally nobody wanted THQ to make the tablet that bankrupted the studio.

Why should we take it as a given that PlayStation 5 games cost more to develop? A lot of things in the economy actually get cheaper over time, regardless of inflation. Things like… computers and software. Personnel costs may usually only trend upwards, but again, someone else made the decision to assign 300 people to a specific game instead of 250. Or to scrap everything and start over halfway through the project. And somehow these companies continue making money hand over fist without $70 default pricing. So I find it far more likely that the price increase is a literal cash grab in the same way the airline industry added billions in miscellaneous fees after their bailouts and “forgot” to remove them after they recovered. Basically, because they could. Some informal industry collusion helps.

In summation: fuck the move towards legitimizing $70 MSRP. That 14% price hike is not going to result in 14% better games with 14% deeper stories and 14% more fun. In fact, it’s probably the opposite in that you will just afford 14% fewer games. And unless you got a 6% raise in 2021, you are already eating a pay cut on top of that.

Oh well. Waited this long for FF7R, so I may as well wait some more.

Priorities

The hardest thing is starting. The second hardest is continuing.

In the past few weeks, I have formulated zero long-term gaming memories. I have continued to throw myself into Guild Wars 2 and Hearthstone, making quite some “progress” in both. The time passes easily enough. And I am entertained during play. But I couldn’t tell you specifically what I was doing last Tuesday. I cannot present an argument for why you should (or shouldn’t) play GW2 or Hearthstone in a way that did not already exist a month ago.

Things happened, but nothing changed.

It is a tad early for resolutions, but here is mine: commit to distinct experiences. Any given MMO can consume thousands (or more) of hours of your time. It is indeed a great value, in comparison to how much money you would have had to spend on the equivalent games. Journey is what, 2-3 hours? And yet the experience of Journey remains a core memory eight years later. That music, the visuals, that nameless stranger who guided me to the summit. Would I have traded 100 Winterberries for that experience? It’s absurd, and yet I find myself doing that every day.

Prose aside, this desire came from a Reddit post talking about how there would be no Dark Souls without ICO. While I have not played Dark Souls much – despite owning several of them – I understood the sentiment because I played ICO. And yet how many people out there never did, or ever will? That game is a transformative experience. One that predated my first contact with MMOs. What if I… hadn’t? Too busy with WoW or whatever? Could there be an ICO in my unplayed gaming hoard right now?

Now, I’m not actually expecting to find another ICO in my library. And this sentiment is different than the sort of vague, “I should play everything just in case it’s genius.” I’m also still planning on squeezing in some MMO time in there too, assuming I’m not hooked on something else. But! Let’s take some baby steps towards the thing I actually want to do – generate unique experiences worth talking about – and not get sucked into killing time all the, er, time.

It’s silly, but here’s my starting list:

  • Death Stranding
  • Undertale
  • SOMA
  • To the Moon
  • Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
  • Final Fantasy 15

Some are 100s of hours, some are less so, some aren’t going to be worth it. Final Fantasy 15, for example, gets shit on a lot. Let’s see why, eh? I’m getting better at dropping “good” games that have exhausted their novelty, like Dishonored 2 and Subnautica: Below Zero, so that shouldn’t be a factor.

I owe it to myself to give these games (and others) a chance. Especially since, you know, I already own them. I’m not going to find my next Xenogears just doing daily quests all the goddamn time.

Are Gamers the Biggest Karens?

Browsing Reddit when I came across this post:

The comments are full of masturbatory glee and gamer “trolling,” as if none of those posters play games themselves and/or have had complaints about them. Taken on face value though, the comic is probably correct. With an asterisk. Because the thing about the term Karen is one near and dear to my heart: entitlement.

Karen is used as a pejorative because regular people do not ask to speak with a manager over a perceived slight. It’s an over-the-top escalation that presumes the individual is someone whom the manager needs to hear from. But… if you ordered a medium-rare steak and the server brings out one that’s well-done, nobody bats an eye when you have them send it back or ask for a refund. That is a reasonable escalation – if the manager comes out of their own volition to apologize, then that’s fine.

Here’s the thing though with games: anyone you can talk to is basically “the manager.”

And the other thing? The managers, e.g. the developers, want you to talk to them. Developers have fostered this transactional relationship industry-wide and monetized it. “Games as a Service” is the new “RPG-elements”: everybody has it. Which makes sense, as games are uniquely positioned to be interactive and adaptable. Books, music, and movies are created and finished. For all the millions of voices crying out to George R.R. Martin to change something about Game of Thrones – or to just finish his goddamn books for Christ’s sake – no one presumes that it is possible to actually accomplish anything. Meanwhile, an errant forum post can get a developer to shift the entire competitive metagame. Or more likely, a forum post that rouses enough rabble.

Keeping silent and voting with just your wallet is pointless – you need to vote with other peoples’ wallets if you hope to get a word past the whales. And that typically means getting vocal, getting specific, and I guess appearing entitled to have opinions of the transactional relationship taking place. Do the developers have to listen? No. They don’t have to have a forum, do any communication or outreach, and just build games. Presumably they looked at the numbers and (begrudgingly?) realized that the playerbase could be leveraged to push more product. And now they have the tiger by the tail.

Are some gamers over the top? Yes, of course. That went without saying… until I just did. But I am always leery of the predilection in these circlejerks to land on the thought-terminating cliche of entitlement. At its most pernicious root, using entitlement as a pejorative fosters an authoritarian environment in which you are made to feel lucky that you got any service at all, much less the wrong service, even if you paid for it. Meekness is not a virtue.

…okay, maybe it is.

However! Developers are not gods, they are just people building a collaborative, commercial product/service to sell to you. It’s okay to send back tacos when you ordered meatloaf. It’s okay to leave a bad review when your steak is cooked wrong. It’s okay to express passion in a hobby that you spend literal years of your life playing. Maybe don’t send death threats; send cupcakes instead. Advocate for yourself and your desires, especially if no one is making games you like anymore. No one has to listen, of course, or agree that its a good idea or implement what are clearly brilliant changes that will improve the franchise for decades to come. That’s going to be a on the devs and their conscience.

How some of them sleep at night, I’ll never know.

Post-It

I think I figured it out, what I want most in a game. I want this:

That’s a Post-It note I scribbled upgrade materials on and kept near my keyboard. While the Bow portion was for Valheim, the rest of it is for a Survival Management game called Dead in Vinland that I have played pretty heavily lately. Indeed, Steam says 48 hours in the last two weeks.

It’s difficult to discern whether Dead in Vinland is actually that fun. Hell, I don’t even know where or when I got it. After digging into my account history, it looks like it came from a January 2020 Humble Bundle? Anyway, I had been listlessly jumping from game to game because the games I want to play are unfinished Early Access titles. Which may be redundant but nevermind. Titles like the aforementioned Valheim, 7 Days to Die, Grounded. Basically every survival game ever – just got to add “content” to the list of things you have to scavenge for.

Thing is, I’m starting to realize that it may not necessarily be the survival genre per se. What I truly enjoy, what pushes all my buttons, is exactly what is on that Post-It note: Planning. I looked at all the camp upgrades in Dead in Vinland and winnowed them down to the seven that might actually have a meaningful impact. Then I could start making rational decisions on which to build first based on my available resources. It would be suboptimal to complete the two that both take 20 Wood, for example, as that is a resource that would take focused harvesting at the expense of everything else. Plus, Wood has other users whereas with Pelts I only need 30 of them total.

I do find it annoying in how few games allow you to take in-game notes. I have fun with Metroidvanias but dislike how next to none of them let you mark the map so that you know you need to come back to a particular area after getting the double-jump ability, for example. Technically, Hollow Knight let you mark the map, but only with weird icons that you had to purchase with in-game currency. Games like My Time at Portia let you make notes, but not in the way I wanted – if I’ve figured out that so-and-so really likes Apple Pies, let me attach that somewhere on the crafting screen itself. So, again, I can look at my available crafting materials and plan out the optimal route to utilize them.

I bring that up because it is not as though I necessarily enjoy just writing stuff on Post-It notes.

Well, actually, I do.

Names blurred to protect the innocent

And pondering further, it is not even necessarily that I want games where planning is required. Dead in Vinland can certainly punish you for a lack of planning – the antagonist demands a revolving tribute of goods every 7 days – and that’s not necessarily fun. It certainly drives the gameplay and gives you a reason to head certain directions, which is fine. Fun? No.

In any case, when I bust out one of my half-dozen Post-Its and start writing stuff down, I know that something is cooking. The game itself may not always warrant that level of planning – perhaps it will be a shock, but I do have a tendency to over-analyze things – but the act of doing so absolutely increases the net level of fun that is occurring. Or perhaps is just indicative of something occurring deeper beneath the surface and the product is fun.

Now, I just have to find a (finished!) game that is worthy of that attention.

Purposeful Obtuseness

The topic of purposeful obtuseness in game design is tricky. Limitations can actually spark creativity, whereas definitive answers typically cannot. But sometimes I think game designers try to be more “clever” than they should.

The most recent example I have experienced is in playing Factorio. There are Conveyor Belts, which move items along them. Each Conveyor Belt tile actually has two tracks: Left and Right. There are robotic arms which can transfer items from wherever and place them on the Conveyor Belt. These same robotic arms can pull items off the Conveyor Belt from either track. However, the robotic arm will only set items onto the Conveyor Belt on the far side. 

My question: why? No, seriously, why the fuck can’t we choose which side to set things on?

There are convoluted “solutions” out there for methods on how to move all items from, say, the Left track to the Right track. There are also solutions on how to construct paths such that a multi-track line is then later split off. None of these solutions involve, you know, telling robotic arms to place items on specific tracks. Maybe there is some huge programming reason why each robotic arm cannot be told to place on one track versus another. But you could certainly add a “near-side robotic arm” machine to the game and call it a day. 

Or perhaps the devs are being obtuse on purpose.

Oxygen Not Included is not immune to shenanigans. There is a Tepidizer in the game that you can use to heat up water. There is an limit to how hot it can get the water though, presumably because it would be too easy to create Steam systems otherwise. So the solution is to create an Aquatuner – a machine that cools down liquid and heats up itself – and then have the extremely hot Aquatuner boil water into Steam, which then will cool down the Aquatuner in the process. It’s “clever” and involves more steps/physics than simply heating up water via Tepidizer but it’s arbitrary as hell.

Drawing that line would be difficult indeed. But I do think there is a noticeable line somewhere. People have done some ludicrous, literal programming in Minecraft using the Redstone switches and such. That programming would be a lot easier with blocks that automatically did X or whatever. The difference, I think, is that the Redstone system is “simple.” It has the basest of building blocks. In Oxygen Not Included you already have the Tepidizer. In Factorio you already have robotic arms that place items on the far side of Conveyor Belts but are capable of grabbing items from both sides. No one can say Notch or whomever didn’t add something to the Redstone system to limit it on purpose.

Incidentally, other examples of purposeful obtuseness is when a game will feature crosshairs for everything other than weapons in which it would be OP. For example, the bow in Kingdom Come: Deliverance. An arrow to the face pretty much kills anyone but the balancing mechanism is apparently taking away the crosshair so you have to learn the trajectory by muscle memory. Or download a mod. Or dangle a piece of string down your computer monitor. Balanced!

So maybe the line is artificial limitations. I’m willing to accept no bow crosshairs if there were no crosshairs for anything else in the game. Similarly, I’d accept no easy Steam generators if the Tepidizer (or Aquatuner) didn’t exist. And finally, I’d accept lack of granularity with robotic arms and Conveyor Belts in Factorio if robotic arms could only retrieve items from the far side of the belt. 

But they don’t, so I don’t.

Rent to Never Own

It has been a long time coming, but I have fully surrendered into post-ownership mindset.

The transition is largely semantic. Nobody “owns” a Steam game in their library and never have – just a non-transferable, revocable license… unless you lucked out and live in a sane country that allows resellable digital goods. Nevertheless, a game library was a thing that had value and meaning, you know? It was exciting seeing Steam sales and bargain hunting so you could accumulate stuff.

At least that is what it felt like.

The final, frictionless step was seeing Final Fantasy XV appearing on the Xbox Game Pass. I was already a bit crestfallen seeing how Kingdom Come: Deliverance was on the Epic Store free-game docket, but FF15 just flipped the metaphysical lights off. It’s not that I felt like a chump for spending $12 on the Humble Bundle that included Kingdom Come or, well, however the hell I acquired FF15. It just became increasingly obvious that I don’t need to do anything anymore. Games just happen.

I beat The Outer Worlds on the Game Pass, and I will never play that game again. I also beat Children of Morta, and I will never play that game again either. I just started on Metro: Exodus, and it’s possible I don’t even bother getting through the tutorial. Why force myself to? The game cost nothing other than download time. Compare that to Outward, the first game I purchased in the Epic Store, and how getting my $5.99 refund request denied made me very salty (bought during the Winter sale and first played much later than 14 day limit).

It’s rote to say Netflix obliterated any desire of mine to own physical movie DVDs. And not even really all that accurate – it was Netflix and Hulu and HBO Go and Disney+ that obliterated all desire. Your favorite movie might have fallen off one service, but likely landed on another. Or perhaps the sheer number of choices, which would keep you busier than any free time you had available, simply made the concept of “favorite” meaningless. Who is rewatching movies anyway?

I will, of course, still be purchasing games on occasion. Probably. Final Fantasy 7 Remake isn’t going to just show up Day 1 on PS+ or wherever. Probably. But what I’m getting at is that if my Steam library just up and vanished – which is entirely possible, and unable to be appealed – I don’t know if I would be mad. Or even really notice. The last time I played something on Steam was December 8th. And damn near everything I would play is already on the Game Pass.

ApoligiCon

So how ’bout that BlizzCon?

Let me dedicate some space to the The Apology. Or, rather, “apology.” A lot of my fellow bloggers seemed surprised that one was offered right in the opening ceremony, but it seems unthinkable that Blizzard would have tried to not address the one thing that threatened to overshadow their whole trade show. Can you imagine the headlines all weekend if Brack said nothing?

Which is amusing to think about, because he did say nothing:

Before we start the opening ceremony, I want to say a few words. Y’know uh Blizzard had the opportunity to bring the world together in a tough Hearthstone Esports moment about a month ago and we did not. We moved too quickly in our decision making and then to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk with all of you. When I think about what I’m most unhappy about, there’s really two things. The first one is we didn’t live up to the high standards that we really set for ourselves and the second is that we failed at our purpose. And for that I’m sorry and I accept accountability.

I’m going to pause here, as it is a bit of a pet peeve of mine whenever someone says “I accept accountability” when there aren’t any consequences to account for. Imagine a parent saying that to the store manager when their child knocks over a display case, but then just leaving without, you know, paying for the shit that got broke. Brack “accepts accountability” and that means… what? Nothing. Is he going to take a pay cut? Resign? Maybe this will be filed in his Permanent Record?

[…] We will do better going forward. But, our actions are going to matter more than any of these words as we walk around this weekend. I hope it is clear how committed we are to everyone’s right to express themselves in all kinds of ways and all kinds of places. I’ve actually seen and heard many of you expressing yourselves this morning.

This is likely a reference to the protesters outside, the people wearing Hong Kong tshirts, and possibly the person walking around in a Winnie the Pooh costume. Which SynCaine sees as a huge deal, for Blizzard allowing someone to do. Because allowing them through the door is surely more potentially damaging than ejecting someone for an obscure reference to China’s president.

Give me a break.

What this apology did was give enough cover for those that were only reluctantly boycotting Blizzard to go back playing games guilt-free. As Brack clarifies in this PCGamer interview, the 6-month ban on Blitzchung (and the casters!) is staying. Would people have boycotted at all if this was the initial punishment? I don’t know – you tell me. The prize money confiscation was especially egregious in my mind, but the whole thing kind of reeks. At the same time, having no policy at all regarding non-Hearthstone speech during a Hearthstone victory interview seems untenable as well.

But, whatever. If an apology with nothing behind it is good enough to allow you to have fun playing videogames again, then have at it. I never joined the boycott myself, because half the items in my house come from China so it all seemed kind of hypocritical. Yes, Blizzard said the quiet part out loud. But if you think the makers of your George Foreman grill would not have also done the same thing in a hypothetical grilling tournament scenario, you are naive to the extreme. Same with the people flocking to Final Fantasy 14 after the controversy, as if Square Enix made some kind of heroic stand against China. You know, what with their partnership with Tencent and all.

I have nothing against principles. I love’em, in fact. But they only ever mean anything when you actually stick with them. If what Brack said at BlizzCon was enough to move your needle, well… maybe you were better off in the peanut gallery with the rest of us.

Internalization

To recap: Blizzard banned blitzchung on Tuesday for 1 year and took away his prize money.

Late in the day on Friday, Blizzard reverses course… a little bit. Basically, J. Allen Brack releases a non-apology hitting on Core Values and mission statements like it was co-authored by a guy desperately applying to the last open position in Human Resources. The brass tacks are that Blitzchung gets his prize money and he and the shoutcasters are only banned for six months.

Blizzard also very much wants you to know that while “the process wasn’t adequate, and we reacted too quickly,” that this speedy, inadequately processed response was not due to China:

The specific views expressed by blitzchung were NOT a factor in the decision we made. I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision.

We have these rules to keep the focus on the game and on the tournament to the benefit of a global audience, and that was the only consideration in the actions we took.

If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.

That’s certainly in line with the Official Blizzard-China social media account of the incident back on Thursday (translated by IGN):

We express our strong indignation [or resentment] and condemnation of the events that occurred in the Hearthstone Asia Pacific competition last weekend and absolutely oppose the dissemination of personal political ideas during any events [or games]. The players involved will be banned, and the commentators involved will be immediately terminated from any official business. Also, we will protect [or safeguard] our national dignity [or honor].

Oh, wait, no it’s not.

The broader context of the drama is also instructive. Specifically, the General Manager for the Houston Rockets tweeted a pro-Hong Kong message that threatened to upend billions of dollars in NBA deals and merchandise in China. That tweet went out on October 4th, and the Chinese backlash – including banning broadcasts of Rockets’ games – started on October 6th.

The NBA sent out this tweet on October 7th:

“While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them,” NBA said in a statement, adding: “We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”

Then on October 8th, after considerable domestic backlash, the NBA basically said “just kidding, we’re totes in favor of free speech.” To which China responded by immediately halting all NBA preseason broadcasts and issuing this statement:

“We express our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Silver’s stated support of Morey’s right to free speech. We believe any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability do not belong to the category of free speech,” the network said. “We will also immediately examine all other cooperation and exchanges with the NBA.”

Then, October 9th, all official Chinese partners with the NBA suspended ties.

…only to reverse course on October 10th, per the New York Times. The speculation is China started to realize how visible its hand up the asses of these puppets had become, and started to worry maybe things were becoming a bit too counter-productive. Indeed, China’s insane overreaction certainly has brought Hong Kong protests and China’s ethnic cleansing of Muslims into greater awareness, if only for a little while.

So, to summarize:

  • Oct 4th: Pro-Hong Kong tweet by Rockets’ General Manager
  • Oct 6th: Chinese backlash | blitzchung’s pro-Hong Kong interview statement
  • Oct 7th: NBA apologizes to China
  • Oct 8th: NBA takes it back, China angry | Blizzard apologizes to China, bans blitzchung
  • Oct 9th: China suspends relationship with NBA
  • Oct 10th: China unsuspends relationship with NBA
  • Oct 11th: Blizzard lessens ban on blitzchung

Funny how that all works out.

In fairness to Blizzard, it is possible that everything is just a big coincidence. I doubt it was Brack himself who decided on the punishment – whomever made the call did already have a set of rules in black & white to follow, including the bit about zeroing out prize money. Beyond the bullshit, Blizzard also has a vested interest in not having the winner’s interview becoming a political podium. Imagine a parade of “Make America Great Again” and “Black Lives Matter” and “But Her Emails!” After seeing the wide-ranging backlash, it’s also entirely plausible to need a few days to properly vet a review and response.

However.

The deeper concern here is how much American companies and institutions may have internalized Chinese (government) values along the way. It is one thing for China to threaten to shut down access if a punishment is not meted out. It is a far more pernicious thing if the NBA and Blizzard preemptively overreacted on behalf of China, in anticipation of the belt. Their behavior this time has been very visible. What is less visible is when they change rules, company culture, and otherwise align themselves in subtle ways such that it becomes impossible to offend China in the first place.

No amount of free speech will overcome self-censorship, the Great Firewall in your mind.