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Game Developers as Chefs

Estebon had an interesting comment on my prior Entitlement Culture post, in defense of the experts:

There is, unfortunately, a general zeitgeist of mistrust toward expertise in the world today, which has bled over to gaming. Gamers, particularly of the self-identified variety, make for an especially fertile ground for that sort of thing, for cultural reasons.

Game devs are supposed to be the experts in their field. They’re the ones who, at least in theory, beat the hiring/funding gauntlet on their merits. That their opinion on how to make a good game ought to carry greater weight than that of the person in the street used to be… more or less self-evident, as with any other profession.

It’s difficult to imagine a set of statements that I disagree with more strongly on a fundamental level.

First, suggesting game developers are “experts in their field” because… they’re game developers… is a tautology. We might assume that these bigger game companies have some kind of hiring standards, but that never really seems to be the case. Instead, it’s often more recursive like “previously sold a popular game” or “already worked for us in QA” or “nobody else applied.”

Remember Greg Street (aka Ghostcrawler) of WoW (in)fame(y)? From his Wikipedia article:

Street graduated from McDaniel College in 1991 with Bachelor of Arts degrees in Biology and Philosophy, later earning a PhD in marine science. Between 1996 and 1998, Street worked as a Research Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina.[8] […]

Game Design career
Ensemble Studios, the team behind the real-time strategy series Age of Empires, employed Street as a designer in 1998.[8] With no education or experience in the game industry, Street suspects he was accepted due to his “writing and teaching experience, historical breadth, personal hygiene, gudd speling [sic], creativity, [and] my talent at capturing live alligators”, as well as the user-created scenario for Age of Empires he submitted with his application, which later appeared in Age of Empires: The Rise of Rome. Street helped develop every Age of Empires game from Rise of Rome on, until his departure from the company. At first he designed in-game scenarios and maps, and later graduated to being the team’s lead designer.[9]

Street was hired by Blizzard Entertainment in February 2008, and was the lead systems designer on the MMORPG World of Warcraft until November 2013.[8]

Now, you can hate Ghostcrawler’s philosophy during his WoW tenure – I personally thought it was fine overall – but the fact remains that this marine biologist worked for like two years, wrote an Age of Empires scenario, and then a decade later became a billion-dollar franchise game developer (or a prominent cog in the machine thereof). Twice! We have to either assume that Ghostcrawler is a hidden genius, or there are no particular standards that apply to game designers generally.

There is a third option too: the M. Night Shyamalan effect. You know, the producer of the 1999 cultural touchstone film, Sixth Sense? He followed-up with Unbreakable and Signs which were whatever. After that, it was solid decade of unremitting garbage films. Shyamalan is a supposed expert in his field, as evidenced by movie companies continuing to hire him, but clearly he lost whatever magic he had. Or perhaps more likely, the seam of magic he just happened to tap into shifted, and he wasn’t able to find another.

I bring a lot of this up because I find the hero worship of brands or developers (or anyone) to be… misguided, at best. For one thing, if these people were “experts in their field,” one would expect less game studios to be closing down or laying off staff. As I pointed out a few years ago, most of the same people have been working on WoW this whole time, so any declines in perceived quality can be attributed to the Shyamalan effect.

The only measure that matters for an expert (game developer) is continued, consistent results. Did they make your favorite game back in the early 2000s? Good for you… but why are you still waiting for them? It boggles my mind whenever someone talks about Bethesda and Morrowind, for example. That game came out in 2002. It can still be great, but you knew after Oblivion that something changed. How many new Shyamalan films are you going to sit through before you give up?

From the player side, Estebon pointed out:

J. Allen Brack got memed for his “you think you do but you don’t” line, and devs and customer relations reps have long been trained to pay lip service to the idea that the untutored mob knows best, but people routinely say and demand things that are not remotely reflected in their behaviour or proclivities as reflected in the internal metrics available to game developers. Elsewhere, insane fortunes have been built by paying attention to what people do, not say, and giving us things we never asked for or imagined we needed.

I actually agree with that. Players are generally bad with coming up with the solutions to their problems, even when the solutions aren’t inherently contradictory. What players are exceptionally good at though, is identifying that a problem exists in the first place. The problem might only be impacting them, specifically, but that’s all that really should matter to them or anyone.

All of this is to set up my title analogy.

Game developers are chefs. You don’t need to go to culinary school to be a good chef, and having a degree doesn’t mean you always cook tasty food. Being the best chef in the world will not stop a dish tasting like shit if there is too much salt/it’s burnt/etc. We might expect a master chef to avoid rookie mistakes, but there is another integral component to the dish: the tastes of the person eating it.

In a restaurant, we can assume the customer is choosing a dish they think they will like. If it comes out too salty to their taste, no one bats an eye at said customer complaining about it. “Entitled diners not wanting their food caked in salt!” The relationship is inherently transactional, and there is an expectation of quality. There are limits, of course; no one should expect Chik-Fil-A or KFC to sell burgers, for example. It is also unreasonable for ten chefs to cater to the individual palettes of ten million individuals.

Is that going to stop you from complaining when you get served a salty steak, or if the French Fries are limp at a chain restaurant? Should that stop you? No. I couldn’t cook a restaurant-quality meal, but I sure as shit can criticize one if it comes out poorly. Gaming today is no different.

Granted, it used to be different. The last bit of Estebon’s comment was:

I struggle to think of any other form of entertainment where the audience claims the right to meddle in the details of the creation process quite to the same extent, as opposed to just letting the product succeed or fail as a whole, in a binary way.

Back in the day, games were done. Cartridges were manufactured, CDs were pressed, and physical media was sent to stores. If there were still game-breaking bugs or exploits that got past QA, well, hopefully they weren’t bad enough to sink an entire $10+ million investment. Games in that era were more akin to traditional entertainment like movies or books in the sense that fans could only possibly influence future decisions. Once it was out, it was out.

As we are abundantly aware today though, games are now a service. Something like a Day 1 patch clocking in at 40 GB is not uncommon. No one expects to unwrap a PS4 on Christmas and immediately start playing anything. Moreover, game developers want us to know that development is an ongoing process. A game in maintenance mode is “dead,” and one which is no longer receiving updates is “abandoned.” We barely even have the language to describe a finished product anymore.

Gamer entitlement didn’t get us here. Game makers leveraging social media for free PR and turning “lip service” into a competitive advantage got us here.

Which is just as well, because I’m not especially convinced anyone knows what they are doing. Did Notch know he created a $2 billion game when he released Minecraft? The original dev team for WoW certainly didn’t know they would have 8 million subscriptions by the end of 2008, nor have they been able to do much to stem the bleeding over the last decade. We can’t attribute all of this to corporate malice, because that doesn’t explain why these rockstar developers can’t recapture lightning in a bottle when they move elsewhere.

If you can’t reproduce results, what does that say about your expert game development science?

I think the important thing is to not put game developers on a pedestal. They aren’t scientists (anymore) doing peer-reviewed studies changing the way we understand the world. They’re just people who have eaten food before and think they could come up with something better. Occasionally they do, and even more occasionally they do it on purpose. But can they do it again?

“Indie Devs are People Too!”

A little more than a month ago, I wrote a largely throwaway Saturday post called “Indie Devs Are Kind of Assholes” in which I criticized Falco Girgis for his response to an internet troll on Kotaku. Specifically, he wrote this (emphasis added):

You know, half of what you said was actually fairly useful, but then the other half went into opinionated, biased, tangential bullshit, and you lost me entirely. Bump mapping? Have you LOOKED at our Kickstarter? Our sprites are CLEARLY bump mapped, and they’re also specularly highlighted. There’s even a section clearly describing that. Our later screenshots are also all billboarded and are entirely aligned to camera-space. Your divine wisdom would have been appreciated considerably more if you had refrained from being a total douche in the end… I was actually going to ask for your email and talk development with you… But instead I think I’ll just head on back to Kickstarter and watch the money roll in for this abomination of an indie RPG coming to a Dreamcast near you! Funny, considering the majority of the backers are coming for the Dreamcast, then OUYA is doubling our funds from $150k to $300k. ;)

My overall point was that the stuff I highlighted in red is him just being an asshole and is otherwise dumb to say in any context.

Well, somehow Falco found the post this past Friday and decided to defend himself in the comments, with Facebook backup. Which was interesting for a whole host of reasons, but I’m not going to encourage you to check his recent (public) timeline or anything.

The Team Falco consensus seems to basically be summed up by this:

We’re just people and will respond as human beings. If indie devs acted like you expect us to act the there would be a whole lot more examples of Phil Fish and to a lesser extent Notch.

In other words, these sort of responses are just people being people.

The problem is that you cease being “just people” the minute you become an entrepreneur publicly selling a product. Or take any job whatsoever. I do have a little sympathy for people like Notch after the fact, but that might simply be because I didn’t follow his public comments too closely; if he was anything like Phil Fish or Falco here, he deserved the shit he got up to and including his meltdown. Not that I think he’s exactly crying into his $1.8 billion right now.

I am not trying to set myself up as some sort of paragon of good behavior. Who knows how I would have reacted in a similar situation? Maybe exactly the same… or worse! But that is all besides the fact that, objectively, those were all monumentally dumb and utterly unnecessary things to say. For anyone, in any scenario. The anonymous hater was put in his/her place with facts within the first five sentences – everything that came after was just him being an asshole. Any sort of “he was under a lot of stress” apologetics not only highlights the underlying lack self-control (or crippling insecurity), it is also a blank check to internet trolls everywhere. “Maybe they were just stressed when they told you to die in a fire.”

No, we can criticize people behaving badly regardless of why they did it.

Walking away from this exchange and having read Notch’s farewell post, it’s pretty clear that one does not simply make videogames; when you pick up the developer mantle, you get all the baggage that comes attached. Is that fair? Maybe, maybe not. I’m certainly willing to admit that gamers seem significantly more likely to publicly air grievances than, say, Walmart shoppers or whatever. At the same time, this is also what you signed up to do, whether you knew it at the time or not. And now that you know, it’s up to you as to whether the literally infinite reservoir of internet malice is worth responding to every single time.

I recommend not doing so. And especially not in a manner indistinguishable from original source.

Crushing Success

The final tally for Microsoft’s purchase of Minecraft is $2.5 billion. Markus Persson’s (aka Notch) personal take is reported to be $1.8 billion.

What is almost more interesting though is his thought process behind selling at all:

[…] I’ve become a symbol. I don’t want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don’t understand, that I don’t want to work on, that keeps coming back to me. I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not a CEO. I’m a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter.

As soon as this deal is finalized, I will leave Mojang and go back to doing Ludum Dares and small web experiments. If I ever accidentally make something that seems to gain traction, I’ll probably abandon it immediately.

It is almost funny, in a way. Can you separate the making of games from the business of making games? One can imagine some hobbyist painter who inadvertently crafts a masterpiece… that simply stays in the attic for decades. Or a writer who simply creates a book for themselves. The process is what they desired, not the outcome.

But games? Like information, games yearn to be free. A game without players is incomplete. So while I can understand the sentiment behind Notch’s desire, it seems somewhat futile. Being a game designer does not make one a good entrepreneur, true, but once released a game takes on a life of its own.

I will admit that my first reaction was to be a little petulant over Notch’s payout, because $1.8 billion. But looking at Minecraft itself and how it got there… who can really complain? This isn’t a game that preys on the weaknesses of the human psyche with microtransactions and cash shops (in the base game). This isn’t a game built around its business model. This is Old School purity in which a game relied on its own merits to sell more units. Sure, there is merch and movie deals these days but the core of the game remains the same.

So… good on you, Notch. This sale puts you around #1013 on Forbes’ billionaire list. Or to put it another way, Minecraft single-handedly made you equivalent to 2-3 JK Rowlings. Or about a Gabe Newell and a half.

Crazy world.

Microsoft Likely Buying Minecraft for $2 Billion

That is $2,000,000,000.00 USD, for the record.

“The two companies quickly agreed on a framework and approximate price and have been working out the details since”, the Bloomberg report states. “Persson will help out with the transition, though he is unlikely to remain beyond that”.

The Kotaku article comments spend a lot of time questioning the wisdom of the move on Microsoft’s behalf, and I am inclined to agree. Hasn’t Minecraft reached the saturation point yet? Well, at $100 million in profit last year, maybe not. Still, it was originally hard for me to see the endgame here for Microsoft. In-game DLC? Pixelated horse armor? Banner ads on the title screen?

It is apparently much simpler than that: Microsoft is buying customers.

But Mr. Nadella has said that Microsoft views videogames as a way to expand the company’s footholds in PCs and mobile phones. In a letter to employees in July, Mr. Nadella called gaming the “single biggest digital life category, measured in both time and money spent, in a mobile-first world.”

[…] “Minecraft” could also help Microsoft appeal to a new generation of customers, especially on smartphones where Microsoft has struggled with both its homegrown Windows Phone devices and with apps on rival phone systems.

While there are other articles out there stating that Notch would never sell, the information we seem to have now is that, despite Notch having turned down similar offers in the past, it appears he is willing to sell this time around. Good for him. If you are wondering at what price point I would sell out to The Man, $2 billion is plenty. Hell, I’d settle for $2 million.

Especially if it meant I could just go do something else immediately. Or stop before I turned into another M. Night Shamamalamalan.

Beta Impressions: Scrolls

I tried out Scrolls the other day, mainly due to this video. My initial impression is… mixed. Which is not good for a game that requires $20 to buy-in into a beta state.

The flesh is willing, but the mind is weak.

The flesh is willing, but the mind is weak.

For those who may have forgotten, Scrolls is the TCG follow-up project to Mojang’s genre-defining Minecraft. It is essentially Magic-lite with a few extra tactical considerations. Each player has five 10-HP totems at the end of five lanes, and take turns placing creatures or structures or casting spells/enchantments in an effort to reduce three of those five totems down to zero health. Creatures will attack down their lanes when their timer reaches zero, damage is persistent, and creatures can also be moved usually one “hex” each turn.

What I enjoy about Scrolls so far is its rather ingenious, nested card mechanics. At the start of the match, you draw five cards and thereafter draw one card per turn. Each turn, you have the opportunity to discard a card to increase your resources by 1 permanently (e.g. turning it into a MtG “land” essentially) or discarding a card to draw two new cards. As you can only have three copies of a given card in your deck, this immediately makes the early game exceedingly complex on a strategic level. Should you turn that high-cost card into resources now, or save it for later? Now that you’re at 5 resources, should you discard in order to draw two new cards or continue pumping up resources to allow you more options each turn? I doubt that Scrolls is the first card game to feature a system like this, but I am finding it extremely… delicious.

Really? That big pile of Minecraft money not good enough for you?

Really? That big pile of Minecraft money not good enough for you?

Now that I think about it, my mixed reaction basically comes down to the Store aspect. After you purchase the game, you unlock one of the three Starter decks to play with. Thereafter, you are stuck purchasing new cards in awkward increments using in-game gold earned from winning matches (either against AI or people). I made the unfortunate mistake of purchasing the Order deck and realizing that I don’t actually like its gameplay – a high emphasis on maneuverability and defense and so on. I am getting around ~300g for winning Trial matches (e.g. scenarios), but the other Starter decks are 6500g total. I started with 2000g, but foolishly purchased the 10-card booster packs at 1000g apiece.

So, essentially, I am stuck with a deck I don’t particularly enjoy playing while having to grind out dozens of games with no hope of actually seeing any new cards for that entire duration. Technically, I can also purchase things in the store for Shards, which is the RMT currency. However, the thought of spending more money on top of the $20 I already paid to play the game in the first place is repulsive. Scrolls is not a F2P game. Finding myself confronted with a payslope after the initial paywall is incredibly frustrating, especially with there being no way to undo the designer trap (having to choose a Starter deck with zero information) I fell into to begin with. This is a TCG, sure, but if your Starter deck isn’t fun to play, most rational people won’t be playing for long.

I am going to continue playing in the hopes that things improve, but at the moment I couldn’t really recommend Scrolls to anyone just yet.