Game Developers are Better Than Everyone Else?

In a post over on gamasutra, Brandon Sheffield argues that the Dead Space campaign “design a kill” is a very regressive thing for our industry:

I don’t believe we should shy away from violence in games – violence is a part of life, and can make for very interesting scenarios in games. And it’s no secret that a large majority of fun video games are based on conflict, much of which is combative. But I also believe that asking fans to think as hard as they can about an innovative way to kill someone is a very regressive thing for our industry.

Just think for a second about what EA is actually asking people to do. Yes, this is what many of us do every day – there are those of us who design combat and combat scenarios for a living. But asking fans to do it is just too much.

I’m not sure what he’s trying to get at here. There is pretty much two options: either game devs are much better than everyone else, or game devs are horrible people. Neither option seems very reasonable to me.

So why can’t our fans do what we do all day? Is it because as game developers, we are much better than everyone else, and can thus stand the moral strain of thinking about how to dismember humanoid monstrosities all day, without being irreparably damaged by the ordeal?

Or is it the opposite? Are we damaged people, horribly affected by the thoughts on monstrosity dismemberment, so bad that we should take care to shield others from the horrible things we go through daily to bring the public these sinful products?

Neither option really makes sense. Sheffield argues out of the old moral high ground that game violence would somehow damage people, and should be censored. We are talking about a rated game, for adults, not a kids game — so this is not about damaging the fragile world view of children.

Honestly, do you really think that asking someone “think of ways a fictional character could attack, dismember and kill a monstrous humanoid” will have any kind of affect of them that playing the game in question wouldn’t? That is somehow an idea that using the human imagination could be bad for you.

To me, nothing could be further from the truth. The human imagination is a beautiful thing — it creates all culture and all our progress.

Get off the “games are bad for you” horse. No one on this side of the 1980s would argue that the violence in a movie causes people to go on murderous rampages. Would asking someone to design a kill for a movie be as bad? I somehow doubt it.

What about an even more imaginative media, like books? Books are highly based in the communication of imagination between author and reader. We are asked “imagine this”, when we read descriptions of events in a book. But somehow I don’t think the “write a gruesome description of a brutal murder” competition would come under any flack.

There are many things that are wrong with our society, which lead people to do nasty things to others. Taking out your aggressions on characters in a computer game instead of reality is not one of them. Imagining new ways to kill computer game monsters is certainly not one either.

I’m not much for dismemberment and blood splatter in games myself — I just don’t think it adds much. But I’ll happily let other grown up individuals make their decisions for themselves on what they’d like to play — or imagine.

And if you’re going to argue that games are bad, please do so outright, don’t try to hide it behind saying that playing games is fine, but thinking about them isn’t.

Selling Copies in a World of Hyperdistribution

Comments to my post recently about Project $10 made something clear to me — a revelation of sorts. I’ve previously commented on the issue of hyperdistribution in connection to DRM, in You cannot take that away from me: from the business side, companies are so used to selling copies of games that they will keep doing that regardless of whether or not it still makes sense. In a world with hyperdistribution, all it takes is one guy or girl who breaks the protection scheme for all the world to benefit.

So while I’ve spent the last few years trying to find a way to get some sense into circles of business leaders and politicians, I’ve never thought much about the consumer side of the same coin. It makes perfect sense in hindsight, but I didn’t see it at the time: many consumers are just as clueless about the changes we are going through. I don’t mean that as a slight to anyone — we’re living in a social and political revolution brought on by a technological leap forwards. It’s hard to understand this new world.

So let’s take a look at that statement from the consumer side then: It no longer makes sense to sell copies of digital culture. The music and movie industry is extremely reluctant to realize this, but pioneers in those segments still have, which is why we see things like streaming music services and donation-funded movie productions, generally from newer artists not already settled in old business models.

It has excited me then to see a some of the big game publishers move towards newer business models. EA is notable with things like Battlefield Heroes and other new models. Others are hellbent on locking in their old “sell-copies” mentality by introducing DRM that requires you to be online all the time, for instance.

I mentioned in the post on Project $10 that game resales are causing much of the same problems as piracy for publishers. This is tightly related to the fact that the industry is used to selling copies of things and that consumers are used to buying copies of things.

Fundamentally, though, a game is not a tool or a utility which you are bound to keep, or a consumable that you use  up — a game is an experience. It makes sense then for the consumer to trade in the disc, since he or she has already “used up” the experience on it, but it still has value for someone else.

When a publisher fights for the right to sell copies or when a consumer is fighting for the right to resell a game, they are both doing the same fundamental mistake: they’re mistaking the game as being a plastic disc rather than as an experience. Back when copying was hard and game resales not much of a deal, the game basically became the disc (or cartridge), just like the music tightly associated with the CD it came on.

As soon as this connection is broken, old business models fail, and people inevitably complain. Publishers complain that people copy or resell their discs, consumers complain that publishers are greedy and think they have some sort of “right” to be paid more than once for each game.

What is happening now is a rough period of trying to invent new ways of making game development business work. It does not involve companies thinking they “have the right” to be paid, but the simple fact that the companies need to be paid or they will go out of business, which would be bad for everyone involved.

The problem now is that we’re in the middle of the transition. We’re in a world where we cannot expect everyone to be able to download a game from the net, which means we need to sell copies. At the same time, hyperdistribution is a fact and game resale is abundant.

From my point of view, seeing EA try to find a way forwards with a middle ground of things like project $10 to earn money off resales and more “free downloadable content” included with the boxed products to start an ever so slight move towards providing services.

To see retailers complain about the move is expected — after all, they must know just like we know that we’re moving fast towards a world where music and games are not distributed on pieces of plastic anymore, which means that there wont be a need for a store to buy the pieces of plastic in.

Still, I said this in one of the posts I started off referring to, The future of PC Gaming:

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.

This also goes back to the other post and human nature. People have come to expect being able to trade games back in for a part of the value towards a new game.

There is a disconnect here really, since the problem for publishers is that the same disc is used twice (which means disc != experience), but the problem for the consumer is that not letting the disc be used twice would stop his or her ability to hand in the game disc, essentially making games more expensive.

I’ve suggested that a solution to this would be to include a game disable function in a Steam-like digital distribution system to fill this need. Once you’re done with a game, you could disable it for a piece virtual currency. You could then use the virtual currency to buy new games if you have enough, or fill in with regular money.

Even more likely though, I think we’ll see more transitions towards games being cheaper content platforms and that part of what you get is tied to an account. Transitioning from a producer of boxed game products to service providers needs to happen for game publishers to survive, but I’m sure we can find ways to do this with both sides benefiting.

Of course the middle men are unhappy, but as soon as they’re out of the way we can live in a happy world where the price of games isn’t so outrageous.

The broken web

So I spent the day looking at web design again. I don’t do much of it anymore, but Lethania does and so I tend to get pulled into it. I later ran into this ad, which I thought was kind of funny:

I would be much happier if everyone could start creating flash-free websites. Anyway, today’s ordeal made me think back to the fine old days when everything was a table. HTML wasn’t made to display layout. The nice things about HTML, hyperlinks, worked just fine in regular text documents with some simple formatting, like bold and italic, its creator figured.

The nice things turned out to be really nice though, sparking an incredible development where pages got increasingly sophisticated layouts. The original HTML text format included tables, a fact which was quickly used to hack together all kinds of pages. A table could be used as a grid to stuff things into certain places, and a table inside a table could be used to create more interesting layouts, not to mention a table inside a table inside a table.

Because tables were meant to be (you know…) tables, different browsers rendered them slightly differently. Fine, if all you want is a table of text. Not so fine, if what you wanted was a pixel-perfect design. The solution to this was to add a whole slew of properties to each table, row and cell.

So after hacking together a sophisticated web site layout using table, the result was predictably a complete mess. The tables holding the text in place was mixed in with the text itself, making sites a nightmare to update or maintain, to not even mention changing the design.

A solution was clearly needed, to separate the design from the contents of web pages. So, why not adopt a language that wasn’t meant as a design language either? Sure thing, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), a language meant for styling rather than layout was adopted during a long and slow process full of bugs, browser incompatibilities and new hacks.

Today’s standard of “good” for the web means using HTML strict (which few do) and control the appearance using CSS. The result is slightly less convoluted than the tables approach, but takes about 20 times as much effort to understand or write correctly, involves just as much hacking and is so fraught with peril that most people simply avoid it, going back to tables or mixing in horribly ugly JavaScript. Or, as seems to be extremely popular with games companies, insist on making the entire website in Flash, even though there’s absolutely no need for it.

So the page we were looking at today needed 3 columns of the same height. Let’s do it the old way with tables, for nostalgia’s sake:

    <td>Column 1</td>
    <td>Column 2</td>
    <td>Column 3</td>

Okay. Not too bad. So how to do this with CSS? Generally, you’ll need 3 DIVs next to each other, all with float: left. This makes them each have an individual length though. There are several ways to get around this, but none of them are good. The first involves stretching images across the DIVs as background images, which means you’re now bound to the color of those images instead of a color value. Also, you can’t have borders.

The second way we tried involved a very complicated set of maneuvers using three extra panes and shuffling content out the left side of the screen and then back in. The description for how to do this was about 10 pages long. And oh, it turned out to not work with borders either. Sigh.

So finally we found one way that seemed to work with borders. Only it didn’t, since you didn’t get any bottom border that way. The good part is that you could hack around that by using an image.

So for the old horrible table version, you substitute a mess of nestled DIVs and several pages of CSS, and it doesn’t even work fully without adding a picture where you essentially paint the entire bottom of the border along the page (yes, you actually paint a snapshot of your entire webpage, 1 pixel high). Way to go.

<style type="text/css">
      #container { float: left; background: url(images/example-6.gif)
          bottom center no-repeat; padding-bottom: 1px; }
      #inner { float: left; overflow: hidden; }
      #inner div { float: left; background: #ccc; border: 1px solid #000;
          width: 200px; margin-right: 5px; margin-bottom: -1000px;
          padding-bottom: 1000px; }
      #inner .col2 { background: #eee; }
      #inner .col3 { margin-right: 0; }
      .clear { clear: both; padding-top: 10px; }
<div id="container">
  <div id="inner">
    <div>Column 1</div>
    <div class="col2">Column 2</div>
    <div class="col3">Column 3</div>
<p class="clear">

That seems like a great way to code! Not to mention that part of your design is now locked up in the image.

The best part about all of this is that it’s presented as “without CSS hacks”. Well, if having to use 6 nestled divs, large-number positive and negative margins and all kinds of bullshit like that isn’t an ugly hack, then I don’t know what is. The fact that the art of web design has advanced to the point where the normal thing you have to do is one big hack isn’t encuraging. And then they add the hacks on top of that…

I never liked tables, but at least they worked. In one of those memorable IRC quotes (in Swedish), someone said:

<sycon> imagine 1000 ants, tables are like the cage that keeps them in place, in the right place
<sycon> css is like a child with spasms trying to poke them all into place with chopsticks.

After spending countless hours trying to do seemingly simple things, I think I agree. Something’s still broken with the web, and no one seems to care to fix it. Well, other than inventing more workarounds.

But hey, at least you can draw Homer Simpson with it. So, ok, let the flak begin. Look, a Parrot.

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