Level Up

Good programmers continously learn. The defining characteristic about the top coders I’ve met is their complete and never-ending thirst for knowledge of almost any kind. The best way I can think of to describe them would be to say that they’re “interested“.

In the games industry especially, multi-talented people tend to be the ones that rise to the top. The people who essentially pulled Battlefield: Bad Company together during its darkest moments in production were the coder with an eye for game design, the ex-programmer designer, the artist with a feel for level design… and so on.

Looking at the famous people in the industry they tend to have been brilliant hackers that coded a game for the early PCs or Amigas in a basement somewhere, only to go on to become a lead designer for a massive latest-generation console game, not even touching the code. I firmly believe this is because of a never-ending desire to expand their skill set, explore new things, and as such not only aquire a view on how lots of things work, but also on how lots of people think.

Becoming a better programmer has a lot to do with a deep desire to learn, a thirst for knowledge. People often find me curious when I get stuck to a documentary about some esoteric subject like a World of Goo gooball to a cliff… but it’s yet another manifestation of this desire. It doesn’t have to even come remotely close to a subject about code or computers. So in a way, it’s no surprise that the best coders I know tend to also be musicians, artists or have other creative hobbies. World of Goo was made by just a few multi-talented people.

But a good programmer doesn’t stop at learning about things by passive reading or watching… they’ll inevitably have a deep desire to do stuff, and to keep exploring possibilities. And they won’t stop at doing stuff either, they’ll strive to perfect the art of whatever they’re doing.

At the same time, one of the first things one needs to learn is that perfection is ultimately unattainable. It’s this inherent conflict between “refactor” and “hack” that leads to systems improving in iterations, and each step towards perfection is a manifestation of the sum of the learning that’s happened this far.

On the flip side, one of the worst programmers I’ve ever worked with was a guy who (openly) refused to learn, and had lost all interest in learning. He said he just wanted to make cool games, and wasn’t interested in education. The result was that when the rest of the coding team would learn something about the system and advance a small bit, he’d remain behind.

The problem with programmer skill is that it’s incredibly hard to judge without at least peripherally working with the person in question and reading their code. The result of this was that this guy would be given a task, implement it quickly with no regard to all the rules and guidelines everyone else had learned to apply to prevent bugs — in essense he’d do what the rest of us would always consider as hacks. He was well regarded among designers and producers — almost seen as a miracle worker, because he was so quick at getting things done.

Then he left at 5 pm and the rest of us spent late evenings fixing his bugs by essentially removing what he’d done (which was always causing bugs that were hard to track down and pinpoint) and re-implementing the features.

What’s the lesson to take away from this story then? Well, first of all, keep learning! Don’t let yourself fall into a trap of thinking you’re pretty good at what you do, thinking that there’s no reason to learn C#, to look at functional programming or to learn to build levels or even that there’s nothing interesting about Penguins.

And, second, most of the people you work with have no idea whether the coders on your team are all excellent coders or if some are really bad. Shocking as it may sound, it’s up to you to tell them, because in the end you’ll inevitably be the one fixing the bugs at 11 pm as your ship date approaches.

Illegal Opinions

In some interesting comments to my last post, a commenter named HomerJ makes some claims about the state of the music industry, about surveys done and about downloading content.

The “radiohead experiment” was a failure. Read this article: http://www.comscore.com/press/release.asp?press=1883 Basically most people freeloaded and paid either nothing or next to nothing for the music. Radiohead still made some money out of it, but way less than they could have via normal commercial channels.

This is a very interesting point, and the article is a good read, yet there are a few things to note here if you want to interprete it as a “failure”…

What we know from their data is that about 2 out of 5 people who downloaded the album paid for it. In the model they tried, people were invited to determine what price they thought was reasonable, so different prices were paid by different people. So the assertion that HomerJ makes is that they made less money from this than they would have from normal sales.

Before drawing any conclusions from this, let’s do the math: With an average of 40% of everyone paying $6, the number needed who would actually buy the album at normal download cost ($8) is 30% for a break even. Now there was a whole lot of attention in the media about this, so it’s pretty certain that a fair few people downloaded it just out of curiosity… that’s the whole point, isn’t it? And if a few of these people liked it, and paid for it, that would otherwise not have bought the album. Also, some of the people who paid less for the album may not have bought it at all, while the people who paid more would of course only have paid $8 for it.

So in order to declare this experiment a success or failure, you have to take into account all the above factors in order to determine whether the amount of people who would also have bought the album for $8 if it had not been available for free download is more than 30% of those that downloaded it. The answer is in no way obvious, so I’m not going to claim to know it… but claiming it as a failure only on the basis of that study is a leap of faith, rather than a logical deduction.

Essentially, this comes down to something I’ve written about before as well: it’s time to overcome the primal reaction of feeling let down by someone “taking my stuff” — what matters is not how many percent of all people freeload, but how much income there was as an end result.

HomerJ also commented:

I can ignore a study when it says that it is based on surveys. I don’t need to disprove it because the underlying methodology is known to be too faulty and biased for usage. Of course pirates don’t particularly care, they’re happy to use anything to support their freeloading.

Ah, of course… anyone who thinks this way only does so to support their freeloading, to justify their piracy. It may suffocate the discussion, but really does it ever win anyone over, or convince anyone? Intimidation is unlikely to get you customers.

It’s a discussion where one side inevitably calls the other side names — which really is quite a curious fenomenon. I’m happy to discuss the facts, research, ideas and to hear arguments… but I’m not happy to be called a criminal whos only motivation is to justify my own criminal behaviour (which it’s taken for granted that I have), when talking about broader ideological issues. I may not agree with someone, but calling them a thief or criminal because of their opinion isn’t likely to help either of us.

It’s a somewhat slippery slope of debating that shows in all parts of copyright and piracy debates… some opinions are simply considered illegal even to express, or at the very least the only reason to have said opinions is that you’re a criminal. I find that highly dangerous even in the broader sense that it threatens the very democratic foundations we build our nations on… In the words of Voltaire, “I do not agree with your opinion, but I would fight to the death for your right to express it“.

And as noted, I already make my living from copyrighted works, in a business hit extremely hard by piracy.

New Entertaining Times

I’m sorry there’s been a bit of a pause in the posting here. We’ve successfully gone through the process of finishing up our first internal demo of my  new project (nope, not telling you what it is… yet), and I’ve been introducing a new AI coder to the Frostbite codebase. It’s kept me more than busy… but now I’m back in business with a few days off, and I figured it’s time to reflect on some of the news of the last few weeks.

So, earlier this week the news hit of a dutch study performed by the researchers at TNO on behalf of the Dutch government, showing among other things that people that do illegal file sharing in general buy more entertainment media than those who don’t. A good summary of it is available over at MarketingVOX. A similar study was been done before by the Canadian government and concluded that there was a positive effect from the illegal downloading of music.

Looking at sales, the album that sold the most on downloads last year was Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts, even though it was given away for free. And recently, Monthy Python sales on Amazon spiked by 23,000% as all of their material became available for free on youtube.

So there are two interesting questions that come out of this research… first of all, the big music businesses aren’t stupid when it comes to making money, usually, so how come they’re ignoring this research? And second, why is the PC games sector being killed by piracy if this is true — shouldn’t it apply to games as well? Or was all of that just a big lie?

The answer to the first question is rather obvious: The big music companies aren’t the ones making money. Their business model is based off a tightly controlled music sector where big hits like Britney Spears are produced over and over by a very small set of producers. They’ve been able to select who gets to release an album for a long time now, and they’ve taken most of the profits from the sales themselves.

Now, in contrast, smaller bands and artists are profiting. The money from Ghosts took a much more direct route from consumers to Trent Reznor, and none of it ever landed in the pockets of EMI or Sony. New talents are emerging through other routes than the record labels. Not strange these companies are trying to stop the flood, but rest asured that the result will only be drenched music industry lawyers. Musicians are freeing themselves from the clutches of big business, and profiting from it.

The second question is more tricky. Are we wrong? Do the people who pirate actually buy more games? No, obviously not as a general case, because we’re losing money on selling PC games, and the industry as a whole is moving away from it. So what’s the difference?

I think one key thing to consider here is the cost of games. The currently high cost of games is a large enough barrier that I’ll think twice about buying something. If I hear a song and fall in love with it, the cost of a download or a CD is low enough that I might buy it impulsively just from that entertainment value. In contrast, I’ve looked at buying Call of Duty this month, thought about it and decided not to on the basis of cost — and yet most of the people we expect to buy our games probably have less money to spend.

Why do games cost so much? With Steam and other digital distribution channels there’s no need to make a DVD, print a manual, make a box and ship it across the world… so the download should be cheaper, right? Of course it should, but enough people still buy games at retailers like GameStop and Game to let them bully the industry. Whenever a company wants to sell a game’s download version cheaper, the retailers step in and say “No, if you do that we wont sell your game” (“so people have a choice” — wait, what?). The sooner you stop buying games at retailers, the sooner we can break this evil lock-in and lower the price of games.

But I don’t think that’s all to it. I think at least part of the issue has to do with replay value. If I download an album from a torrent site, I’ll listen to it for a while, start loving it, and buy it because I’ll still play the album hundreds of times after I bought it. With some games, there’s next to no replay value. The point of “love for game starts” is very close to the point of “game ends”, and thus there’s a very short period in which there’s a high incentive for the player to go and buy the game.

The online portion of games counter this. Comparing the play time of a singleplayer game to a combined SP/MP or a pure multiplayer game, there’s a huge increase in replay value. Sadly, that does nothing to save the singleplayer experience, so the only reasonable way forward is to bring down the cost of games.

Especially as downloads fix another major problem in the process: that games aren’t available to some people at release.

So what’s the conclusion to all of this? Simple: buy your games online, help break the retailers’ stranglehold on the games industry.

The Future of PC Gaming

I just finished reading a long article on piracy by Koroush Ghazi from tweakguides.com. It’s an interesting article, and certainly one of the best researched articles out there on the subject, so I do recommend that you read it if you’ve got the time… but, I do also need to address some fundamental problems with it. If you’re sort of short on time, I advice you read the first half of it.

There are a few problems with the article, and while it’s quite possibly the best research done by anyone, it’s certainly not the best written article or best analysis. I’d love to have read the same article written with a fair bit of scientific method. I have the benefit of a background in Computer Science, and while I do understand that without it you’re likely to make that mistake, it still saddens me to see all that research presented in such a way.

Some background may be in order. In scientific papers, there’s a strict separation of source material and the authors’ own progressive works. Everything which is claimed is backed up either by a reference to source material or as conclusions of the authors’ own research. Generally, the papers themselves are split into sections where some are clearly dedicated to going through source material and others are entirely dedicated to the conclusions drawn from the research.

Ghazi makes no such distinction, but rather mixes and matches as he sees fit. This is an approach that is more similar to a short article you’d find in a newspaper than to a scientific paper or even, to grab a subject closer to the tweakguides home, to a hardware test on one of the hardware guide sites out there.

Added to that is the problem that he mixes logical conclusions to different levels in a way that shows a somewhat clear bias in the message he’s trying to tell. All honor to that message (hey, I make my living relying on these things too you know) of how destructive piracy is, but such information tends to have a better punch if it’s actually founded on the correct conclusions. In fact, any article that spends so much time telling you how objective and unbiased it is should probably flag a warning somewhere in the reader’s mind.

Let me take an example. In the section on The Economics of Piracy, Ghazi extrapolates the source information “there is a chance someone who pirated a game would buy it if piracy was unavailable” into the conclusion “there is some potential loss of income to the producer”. Fair enough, that’s a reasonable conclusion to make (the assumption that the chance being larger than zero implied).

However, he then goes on to present the source information “there’s some chance a person who pirated the game may cause a sell of the game by word of mouth”, only to argue that the chance is in fact near-zero through a complicated series of arguments without any actual proof. This is not only a flawed argument, it’s also inconsistent. The logical conclusion is that “there is some potential gain of income to the producer”. It can be argued that this potential gain of income is smaller than the previously mentioned potential loss of income, and in fact I’m fairly convinced it is. However, to make such a claim in an unbiased and well-founded way you really do need to back it up with some data, which simply put, the article doesn’t even attempt.

As the article gets closer to its conclusion, it also seems to lose more of its brilliance and good foundations. Ghazi spends two long pages examining not DRM techniques but DRM products, and then draws conclusions about the techniques based on the observations about the products. This bares some resemblance to looking at Super Mario Bros, Doom and Command & Conquer, and then drawing far-reaching conclusions about the merits of platform games vs shooters vs strategy games from it. He also falls into the logical trap of not understanding the single tier of effort of today’s networks.

About DRM techniques, the article fails to separate the concerns of small scale and large scale, and comparing the invasiveness of the techniques. For instance, the lock-down to only allow 3 installs of a product (small scale) is motivated by the fact that a restriction on number of installs is needed (large scale). This misses the very obvious point that any number would harm large-scale piracy as much. Allowing 5, 7 or 15 installs would likely have unmeasurable impact on piracy levels or sales, but would likely have caused much less of a PR disaster for a game like Spore. At the very least, with no conclusive evidence either way you can’t make a claim of 3 being a necessary number.

Ghazi then goes on to make some very perplexing claims about Steam. Let’s examine things: Steam was released and forced down the throats of very unhappy gamers, and was near-universally hated. That far, he has his facts straight. He then goes on to try to explain how Steam became accepted, without acknowledging the fact that Steam has changed. The reason people hated Steam was because Steam sucked. For the machines and bandwidth of the time, Steam was a horrible bloat.

Then he fails to grasp the core points of what makes Steam popular: It gives something back to the customer. It’s that simple — the other DRM schemes are all for the benefit of the producer, while Steam has loads of nifty features for me as a consumer that have “Future” stamped all over them.

His recommendation that Steam may be a danger because it may turn into a monopoly is also somewhat strange. Several games companies including EA and Ubisoft have already started moving towards Steam, not because they like the product but because they like the technique… but Valve is several years in the lead. Even if I’m sure Ubisoft would rather use their own Steam-like tech, they’re stuck with Steam for the time being. The royalties they inevitably end up paying Valve should be more than sufficient a reason to fuel the development of their own tech.

Finally, the article turns into something more suited as a flame war forum post on some fanboy forum. Ghazi claims that various groups of people do various things intentionally with absolutely nothing to back such a claim up, and the tone turns rather ugly. The illusions of grandeur on display also somewhat leave a sour taste, when he claims to have made Microsoft take action on a previous issue. Anyway, consider the following from the beginning of the article:

Other articles take the easy path by slapping together some unsubstantiated opinions and dubious arguments which merely follow whatever the popular sentiment is on this topic, and come to the usual conclusions. Let me be clear: I won’t be doing that here. I’ve invested a great deal of time into actually delving into all the various aspects of this issue, thinking through all the issues and getting a good handle on the situation based on a large amount of publicly available data. Consequently throughout the article you will find numerous references to reputable data sources and first-hand information rather than just hearsay and conjecture.

Now compare that to the following, found on the last page:

Fast forward to the 21st century, and piracy has apparently somehow become a political struggle, a fight against greedy corporations and evil copy protection, and in some cases, I’ve even seen some people refer to the rise of piracy as a “revolution”. What an absolute farce. Truth be told I have the greatest respect for the people who simply come out and just say that they pirate because they can, no more, no less. At least then I know I’m dealing with someone who’s being honest and has got their head screwed on straight.

Balanced and unbiased articles do not call people of different opinions dishonest or say they don’t have their head screwed on straight. This is the same kind of name-throwing that continually hinders the piracy debate with anyone trying to argue logically about DRM gets called a thief. It’s counter-productive. Don’t do it.

So what do I really think about the future of PC gaming? I think that two things will happen — There will be a clear shift towards online-only titles or titles heavily focused on multiplayer… adding to this, you’re unlikely to see titles ship with the option of running private servers. The cost of maintaining servers is so much lower than the cost of having your game pirated that the solution is obvious. I also think that Steam or Steam-like networks will become the dominant distribution channel, and with this software around it’s likely that pirate software will be detected more often.

The development may go two ways from there… one way would enforce a shareware-style culture where pirated titles would cause an annoying reminder to please buy the game. The other would actually hinder the user in some way, like closing off access to other games or areas of the network. And reasonably, the games industry never learnt from these things before, so the second approach is likely to be tried first, have a huge backlash followed by more debates before we finally arrive at the first approach. But I’ll be happily surprised if we can be smarter than that.

In the mean time, singleplayer games are likely to become near-extinct on the PC market.

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I just started getting a complete flood of spam trackbacks on the blog. I’ve installed a spam filter now which seems to be blocking them… Please let me know if you have any problems with it when trying to post a comment.

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