The Replacements

Blaugust 20th

“I’m here to replace you,” says the youth to the elder. This, I think, is how a lot of people view the generations as we grow older. Sometimes this turns into arrogance, but there’s some truth to the statement. The younger generations will eventually be the older ones.

How the statement’s interpreted is really important. In video games we see developers trying very hard to maintain the same thinking that they held as youth. It begins to feel as though they prize their youth more than they prize maturity, and so games have this pretty strong reputation as toys for kids. Some have chalked this up to the “nature” of video games. They’re fun, they’re inspired by childlike awe and curiously, they’re non-serious, non-political, pure. This is as much a failure of our developers to mature their craft, see it as emerging from the culture and as a source of culture in it’s own right, as it is a failure of the industry to allow games to mature. The industry is all about copying models that have already worked in the past, not improve on them. I think this prevents our games from being more versatile and keeps them narrowly focused on entertaining us. That’s why indie development continues to be one of the most important products of the popularity of the internet.

I don’t know when I started to realize this. Probably around 2007, the height of my MMO gaming. I started wanting more from my games, but I didn’t really know why I was becoming so much more demanding. Was I growing up or outgrowing games? Was I playing the wrong games? Was I just so immersed in gaming culture that I became a snob? The answer was probably a combination of all that and then some. I’m still pretty critical of games, but I’m also more accepting because I think somewhere along the line I realized I had matured. Some things would no longer hold my interest by virtue of just getting older. That leads to greater tolerance in all of us as we mature.

I encounter younger people all the time who see their place in the world as the new leaders. Some believe they have a duty to overturn everything the last generation believed in. Worse, some veterans of my generation see their place as squashing the hopes of the younger, to tell them “how it is” and in doing so discourage them from trying to imagine how it can be. To deter innovation because they worked really hard to get what they have and they see change as destroying that work. The relationship doesn’t mature. If you play as many games as I do, you know that it’s obvious in many game communities. Somewhere in there we’re all failing as stewards and students.

I wonder what can happen if we view each generation not as replacements, but as successors. Will games become more than entertainment? More recognizable as an asset to culture instead of a liability? I think we’re already finding out the answers and to me it looks promising. On most days. On some days it’s down right terrifying.

Follow-Up Reading on Outsourcing

Per the last conversation that took place on this blog, here are some further sources of information freely available online. There are some books you can buy, but I’ve tried to provide sources anyone can access.

Some caveats:

  1. Companies do not like to share their information about jobs they outsource. One would think they’d be eager to do so since they claim it’s so awesome. But they don’t. Information that’s available typically comes from government agencies which ask companies to give them this information. This means we can’t have a perfect view of the consequences of outsourcing. We get only what companies tell us. This also doesn’t mean we’re blind, dumb and clueless. There are many other economic indicators that speak to the consequences of outsourcing.

  2. There are reports which have studied known cases of outsourcing and that information is pretty reliable and consistent: unemployment, lower wages and a decrease in economic activity follows outsourced jobs when they go offshore (countries like China, Russia, and India).

The reports will NOT say:

  • Outsourcing is evil.
  • Outsourcing is the end of the world.
  • Outsourcing is flawless and made of rainbows and sunshine.
  • Outsourcing is more beneficial than other options.

Instead, try to just understand that outsourcing has transformed our economies. Outsourcing’s primary objective, as practiced by companies, is lower the cost of labor. This inherently means decreasing wages. So any talk of raising the number of higher paying jobs by outsourcing lower wage jobs is inconsistent at best.

Otherwise, the reports show us one key and very important lesson: outsourcing always has devastating consequences for workers. If all you care about is companies, then you should also know it’s not actually making business better for them either. These are sources I found freely available in my own research. I’m sure you can find even more.

  • Federal and State Reports (U.S.): Several separate reports at this link. Includes some case studies, some reports on new approaches that could be more beneficial, and some general data showing how jobs move through an economy after outsourcing.
  • Outsourcing America: Very candid analysis of currently known statistics about outsourcing which speaks to it’s strengths, weaknesses, and abuses. I’m willing to loan out my digital copy on Amazon, just email me.

Incompatible

How much is too much? Depends on what we’re talking about. Price. Profit. Free. Wage. How much?

Between gamers, developers and publishers, there’s some incompatible ideas that go into creating these little bundles of joy called games. These incompatibilities come from all sides and we hear them all the time: Games should make a profit, but they shouldn’t cost too much; Free games should be free, without item shops and other paid gimmicks; Devs should receive a living wage from their work; Companies should make a profit. Some of these parties involved won’t get what they want and it varies by game, with one exception: publishers. They’re the first ones paid so if shit goes down, the only people out of luck are developers and players. There’s plenty of money in game’s development to go around. Shareholders just aren’t interested in sharing the spoils with workers. They clap at board meetings when layoffs are announced.

All involved chant for great games, cheaper games, better game developers and career opportunities. There are always the diehard defenders of meritocracy, as if that’s actually a reality even as developers lose their jobs everyday. It’s like we’re playing musical chairs while pretending that we’re all dancing, all having a good time. As though all of us have a seat we can safely return to when the music stops. Worse are those who think their strength, their willingness to toss a fellow dancer aside in order to assure their own seat will save them from the silence of the music.

But the truth is that there’s no music playing and those with seats have been sitting down all along while clapping their hands and tapping their feet, telling the rest of us it’s a great song and that we’re having a wonderful dance. Some of us believe it. Some of us realized it was all a game eventually, but found we couldn’t stop dancing because it was still a viable option. We thought we were the players, but we’re the game. Cheap games and cheap labor are compatible with each other, but they can’t bring living wages, career stability and innovation. Those are incompatibilities.

Publishers and AAA Development

A recent article on Gamasutra discussed out sourcing. The point of the article was that this is a good practice with many upsides if only one used it properly. At it’s best, outsourcing is a profitable money-saver. Or so it wants us to believe.

The article didn’t mention that outsourcing is devastating. You can’t have well-paid developers, high quality games, a thriving industry, and profitable projects in the long-term while outsourcing. It’s great for depressing wages, lowering job quality, diminishing job security, and devastating industries which in turn devastate our communities. Those distant communities where the jobs are outsourced may initially see some prosperity, but they’re being exploited as cheap labor and are doomed to the same fate. Cheap labor. This idea is incompatible with living wages. 

This isn’t difficult to understand. Suppose I have a large million dollar company in a neighborhood in Silicon Valley California. Suppose I require a staff of 1000 employees to make games each year. Those 1000 employees live locally, where they buy houses, cars, food, and movie tickets. They raise families that go to the schools that their taxes pay for. They use city services and utilities. The residency of these workers boosts the local economy. With their taxes the community can maintain and improve city services like firehouses, hospitals and police departments. They can host things like science fairs, community centers, and computer training programs. The local community college can keep my company’s workforce well-trained. As long as my company does business in the community, it’s prosperity lifts all boats.

Outsourcing destroys this ecosystem. When those jobs leave, unemployment increases, businesses suffer and the city’s expenses go up exponentially due to the sharp decrease in tax revenues. This happens all the time when a job is outsourced – not some of the time, not rarely. Every. Time. I was disappointed, but not surprised that the Gamasutra article was praising its benefits while mentioning none of the guaranteed downsides which seem particularly relevant in the face of large, on-going industry layoffs and chronic unemployment. Honestly, I can’t imagine what working fool in this climate would speak of outsourcing as a good thing. It’s a case of “layoffs happen to those people, not me” self-deception, a willingness to deny the realities of labor.

An article a few years ago published on Forbes that I love to share gives a good summary of the general consequences of outsourcing. Companies may see some savings or an increase in profits in the short-term, but in the long-term this strategy undermines business by alienating workers, customers and communities. This isn’t an extreme case either. When it comes to outsourcing it’s always carried to extremes because the motivation is toward ever more extreme profits. Industries that use it inevitably destroy their workforce, alienate their customers, and decimate their communities.

Developers

The actual cost to make a game is beyond living wages for the average developer, even as the company that employs them reaps record profits – but that money doesn’t go to developers, who are laid off once the golden egg is hatched. Even if indies make a game on a shoestring budget, one can’t live on a budget like that. Aspiring programmers who pool their resources to rent shared apartments to use as makeshift live-in development studios are described as resourceful, bootstrapping keepers of the American Dream, ambitious entrepreneurs doing it the “right” way …instead of being seen for what they really are: impoverished workers who can’t find a living wage no matter how hard they work or how efficient their approach. Even those who strike out independently wind up becoming the team bought into a studio by outsourcing. Instead of being hired by EA or Sony, they’re contracted in for singular projects, contracts for pieces of their labor, contracts that promise to lay them off once the golden egg is hatched.

Some developers have taken to profiting at all costs. When your livelihood is on the line you can sell your soul in order to eat, or you can starve. Or at least that’s the way some people seem to think about it. Anyway, those pieces of software that are often labeled games but which work more like Skinner boxes are the snake oil of the industry. They mostly deprive the player of their money while harming their well-being by training them into behavior patterns that are difficult for them to break. I’ve seen these developers defend these products, even though they know the criticisms are legitimate. They believe they shouldn’t be held accountable for their creations. It’s the drug dealer claiming the drugs aren’t damaging lives, but the purchase of drugs is …even though they’re the salesman. And sure, drug dealers have dedicated clientele. Addicts have to have it. If this is the kind of relationship you’re cultivating with your players, please reconsider. There are better, more ethical ways to develop games which don’t involve behavior loops that enrich you while impoverishing your players. This isn’t the kind of compatibility you should strive for.

Developers have to make a tough choice: do they join in the musical chairs, hoping to take a seat next to the publishers, telling the players to dance and promising there’s a seat for them too? Or do they reject the industry business model and change the game? Changing the game is no small task for sure, but those are the only options on the table.

So how much is a game worth again?

Players

We demand innovation. We demand something new and affordable. We’ll usually pay whatever is asked though, as long as the game delivers us something excellent and as long as we have the money.

But with outsourcing driving industry developments, mediocre games are a promise, a mainstay. We can’t get great and innovative games from a model focused on reducing costs and focusing on ever narrower products. In other words, innovation and greater games isn’t a driving factor in game’s development at large. Innovation is incompatible mediocrity.

Developers may individually dream of this. They may individually put excellence in their work. But as long as their pay days are granted by stockholders, they have little control over the direction any given game project will take. They’ll make whatever they’re told to make. That’s especially true if those devs might not have a job when the game is done, or if parts of their team are already outsourced, or if their wages and benefits aren’t worth fighting for.

Skill and experience seem less important than the money. The first question an employer wants to know is “how much” and right after that  “how long”. Lay offs are an industry constant, which means this never really improves. Those are the current career prospects for aspiring game developers.

Outsourcing has helped create an unstable, product saturated market and our communities are littered with the fallout. The next time someone tells you that outsourcing “done right” is a net positive, let them know that outsourcing is never done “right”. Right means taking ethical considerations seriously and it means looking at the consequences of jobs being moved outside of the communities they’re built upon. Outsourcing always has devastating consequence, with layoffs being the most common.

Still think outsourcing is a godsend? A positive good? Ultimately beneficial?

Do you hear music?

 

Tech Industry Culture Trends

There’s so many thoughts to blow into the wind. Bloggers do it everyday, even when we’re not writing. Some days I sit on the porch with my wife and dream about what a healthy economy might look like for our kids. We talk about how culture turns into economic opportunities, and how being part of the in-culture feels like being in the land of opportunity. It’s just too bad for the rest. The tech industry is one of the least diverse which, when you think about it, means it’s opportunities aren’t made available to those outside it’s culture. Lack of diversity means lack of opportunity.

WARNING: If you’re a white male, the information below may be upsetting to you. I promise this isn’t an assault on you personally or on white men as a group (which I am part of). It’s a reading of the data and an analysis of how it shapes the current games industry culture.

simcityIt’s really easy to under estimate the impact that simple social standards have on our very lives. That’s especially true when it comes to jobs. I’ve been watching Game Job Watch since last year. The number of losses published each quarter has been crazy. I stumbled upon an article from the Guardian the other day talking about World of Darkness, when it pointed out that the game industry posts twice as many job losses per year than the average. The thing is, this isn’t a new model the industry is operating under.

Unlike other parts of the economy, the games industry looks similar the construction industry for me (as someone who works in construction). Jobs are based on contracts, which expire. When a game is ready to ship, production teams aren’t needed. Stable careers are in services, not production. Unless you’re a well-established studio, your next game could be your last as a developer. As indies shuffle quarter to quarter for capital, usually from venture capitalists or publishing contracts or buyouts, they’re always under pressure to find their next mortgage and grocery income, or else consider leaving the industry for more stable careers.

How is culture shaping this picture?

Bro Camps

bootcampI’m a Californian so I’m used to hearing about Dev Camps, which are everywhere out here. These are usually touted as alternatives to going to school and getting certificates – why spend two or four years accumulating college debt when you can pay a fifth of that for a 12 week program that will gaurantee you a job? These are usually pressure-cooker programs which promise to make a developer out of you, whether for gaming or software. During that time students are expected to put in 60+ hours a week on average. There are some which require 100 hours. When you encounter that kind of detail you can’t help but wonder: who the hell do they expect to attend?

At App Academy, they expect you to put in at least 80-100 hours a week. In turn, they let you into the program for no upfront fee, promise 96% job placement, and will take 18% of your first years salary. In California, it’s easy for entry level developers to start off at $100k a year, especially with these particular programs.

Hack Reactor is similar, requiring at least 70 hours per week for a similar fee.

How these camps are structured is you either pay a fee up front for the course or they let you on board while you pay them when it’s over. Since these are usually sponsored by various companies in Silicon Valley, the job placement for many is really high – you’re probably going to work for whoever the sponsor is when it’s over. For this reason, the camps are super popular.

Still …who the hell do they expect to attend?

qol-children

IGDA 2009 Quality of Life Survey

Young, college-aged white males apparently. These are people without families to care for, have little job experience and aren’t likely to complain about conditions. They can operate on little to no sleep. They don’t mind sleeping on a friends couch while they attend courses. Whoever attends, it’s clearly not set-up for people with children, or families, or whose health can’t sustain 60 hour work weeks – and it’s especially not for people who can’t afford to stop working to attend. If you’ve got kids, a disability, or no coding background, these are not for you. Entry skews towards those with some kind of technical background, though they claim to welcome anyone who can do (only some have entry assignments). From another perspective, white males are also over-represented in computer science enrollment according to a survey conducted last year by Computer Science Education Journal. White dudes are receiving pretty much all of the opportunities to get into tech! Of course, this isn’t bad – at least not for them. But it does beg the question: Why aren’t we seeing more diverse enrollments?

Published by the Computer Science Education journal in 2013, the study revealed a stark lack of diversity among students studying computer science/game development.

Published by the Computer Science Education journal in 2013, the study revealed a stark lack of diversity among students studying computer science/game development.

According to the IGDA 2005 Game Developer Demographics Survey, the industry was over 80% white, male, and heterosexual. The 2009 QOL survey shows that this hasn’t changed. Those facts square neatly with the enrollments in dev camps and colleges. That’s the status quo and it’s being upheld by much smaller, everyday forces in culture and attitudes, such as ridiculous program requirements which exclude all but single, heterosexual, white men. These kinds of things are usually touted as “culture fit”, but it’s consequences are far from harmless.

Our Beloved Devs

Dev Boot Camps are merely a single gateway – most camps get you a start in the software industry, not games in particular. The connection here is in tech industry culture, the demographic it serves, and how that demographic is constructed.

Quality of Life Survey 2009:  See a relationship the dev training camps?

IGDA 2009 Quality of Life Survey: See a relationship with the dev training camps?

Long work days and weeks are very common the games industry and it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that students are being prepped for it with ridiculous, in humane time requirements. This gives us a good idea of why the infamous Crunch is a permanent feature of working in the industry. Game devs talk about it all the time and last year’s IGDA 2012 Quality of Life Survey revealed that not much has improved in this area since at least 2005, with as many as 10% of developers surveyed reporting 80+ hour weeks. The camps are breeding a new generation of developers too young, inexperienced and desperate for their first gig to complain. They’ll be trained to endure it quietly while being told “this is just the way it is/it’s part of the culture”. Those harmless statements do much to maintain the status quo and silencing the next generation by using culture as the justification perpetuates it. Given the long work days, they’ll likely remain single and without children.

qol1

IGDA 2009 Quality of Life Survey

Earlier I talked about the lack of diversity according to a 2005 IGDA Demographics Survey. I also pointed out a study from just last year which showed the same for students who will eventually enter the tech industry. For the 2009 Quality of Life survey, over 80% of respondents were white and 86% were male. Now this is despite there being a relatively strong belief across the industry that diversity is important. Still, most people in the industry fall back on the merit stance, as though the reason the industry is largely white and male is because white dudes are tech masters. There’s a failure to acknowledge that there’s a huge gap between aspirations and education, and an even larger chasm still between merit and opportunity. If dev camps are only a real possibility for white men, then perhaps a portion of the problem is that similar opportunities aren’t being placed in areas with non-white, non-male demographics. In other words, there’s an industry bias towards hiring white men. And it’s not something that can be improved with the apathy of white men – we are part of the solution, but too often we get bitter about this kind of data being pointed out. It’s easy to feel attacked and resign in anger and resentment, but it’s important to understand the data isn’t our enemy. Here’s what a few survey participants had to say on the IGDA 2005 on the question of diversity (see the Comments file on that page).

#7 «The industry is not diverse people the people interested in games an computers in general are not diverse. Most programmers are men – because men tend to like programming more often than women do. Its just the way it is.» – M, 24, White, Uni, Canada

#8 «Aside from ensuring enforcement of applicable equal opportunity employment laws in the industry, why does IGDA think this is worth pursuing? Do we need more games that are gender, age, race or sexual-orientation specific? We have plenty of games that are neutral on these dimensions (abstract strategy is almost tailor made for this) so why does this matter?» – M, 43, Ma, USA

#12 «Games are made by White Males, for White Males. I’m all for a diverse industry, it just isn’t there. Marketing in the entire industry is very poor. Games either make it or don’t, then copy the ones that do.» – M, 28, Uni, USA

#78 «While this is an area where it would be nice to have some statistics, it’s hard to imagine how the IGDA could actually impact this area. Let me think: women don’t play games, so why would they want to work on them? But with respect to racial diversity, I just don’t see how the IGDA could really make a difference. You can tell us that the industry is not very diverse, and we’ll feel bad for a second, but then go on shooting the Haitians in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. *shrug* » – M, 35, White, Uni, USA

There’s a group who do not believe there’s a problem, because it’s not a problem for themselves. If these responses sound familiar to you in 2014, that’s because the arguments against diversity aren’t …diverse. This is what apathy looks like. The apathy of developers towards diversity is the greatest reason the industry struggles with it. Responses also tended to frame the issue as an assault on merit and developer quality — as if the choice were between having diversity or having high quality devs. Can’t have both!

So there’s a direct relationship between developer attitudes and industry culture. There’s a direct relationship between industry culture and job opportunities. Whenever I hear statements like the ones quoted above, I flinch a little. How can we call for change if we’re unwilling to change? Maybe we believe that some of us have to change, but not all of us. But change on this scale requires everyone involved.

To end this on a more positive note, here are some quotes from that same pool of respondents which show compassion, understanding, and even expressions of fear (which allow us to empathize with one another’s situation, which is good).

#19 «Although female novelists are well represented and well regarded within fantasy literature and approximately 30%+ of our writing applicants are female, my company has yet to hire a female writer (we have had approximatelty 20-30 writers on staff over the course of my 8 years with the company). I can’t help but conclude that our complete lack of gender diversity within the design department is a clear and direct product of deliberate misogyny within our hiring process. In spite of this, we continue to be recognized as an industry leader, making various ‘best place to work’ lists, and are consistently lauded as a positive example for other developers. Sad but true.» – M, 29, White, Uni, Canada

#21 «I would like to see the IGDA do more outreach to under-represented communities.» – M, 44, White, disabled, Uni, UK

#23 «I love diversity, but sometimes this push for it can worry me as to my chances of being employed in the future considering my race is usually viewed as a majority.» – M, 21, White, Uni, USA

#35 «To have more diverse staffs in your team means that you have oppinion from broader perspective and that helps your game to reach more audience.» – M, 32, Southeast Asian, Ma, Thailand

Who would think that something as simple and benign as a dev bootcamp could help perpetuate tech industry culture? It all starts with looking for talent in more places outside of the hotspots of the in-culture. Putting opportunities in under-served and impoverished neighborhoods will send the message to those groups that there are great opportunities in IT and they are wanted. We can stop framing the issue as a choice between merit and mediocrity, which sends the message that if you’re a non-white heterosexual male, you’re not good enough. For those currently inside the industry – there’s a lot you can do, like speaking against crunching and teaming up with like-minds to create policy that protects workers, especially the most vulnerable (desperate youngsters). The little things count. The little things are all that count.

Scree Tags: #gamertalk #diversity #gameindustry

Listening to Other Players and Evolving the Chat Box

A new blogger in the community, Simcha, has brought us all a fresh perspective on one aspect of gaming that many of us are able to take for granted: hearing. Reading her articles for the past month has kept this topic on my mind. Until I met her, I didn’t realize how much games are designed for the hearing and how difficult it is for signers.

I try to imagine gaming without sound. No game soundtracks. No sound effects. No ambient clues that I can pick up by just listening. No voices. In my experience – and that’s the key, this is my personal experience – gaming wouldn’t be the same if I lost my hearing tomorrow.

One of the biggest evolutions in how we play games is voice communications. Communication is literally the root word of community and without the former you can’t have the latter. This is especially true for MMOs, but crosses all genres and platforms. Listening to other players has become something that we all count on when we login to a multiplayer game. It’s hard to imagine today’s games without access to voice, even though I don’t personally always prefer it. What were gamers doing before the advent of voice chat?

In MMOs, we used the chat box like communications experts. No raid leader was without a macro manual, a list of commands and information they could bark off with the press of a single button. Remember in World of Warcraft how there was literally a macro interface with little icons that stored large chunks of text for you? I believe this feature still exists, but addons as well as other interface improvements have made this less visible and voice has made it less necessary. My fear is that as voice chat has become more popular, development of non-voice communications tools gets neglected. Instead, they should be getting even more powerful, especially as gamers come in all varieties and abilities.

Chat boxes of old also had other customization options, like changing the colors, fonts, sizes and allowing players to create custom chat rooms. Items in game could be linked in the chat for easily sharing your latest treasure. Then there were addons like CT Raid and Boss Mods that would read data from game encounters and automatically announce text warnings to everyone. Of course these mods still exist, but not because they’re crucial for player communication. These days, players are expected to use voice chat when grouped, no matter how mundane the experience. And generally speaking, if a dungeon doesn’t require voice chat, players also tend to not use the chat box either. So in some ways voice chat has spoiled us and removed the chat box from our list of communications options. Players use it, but only when they really need to, instead of using it to be social.

In fact, in the MMOs I’ve played the past year, chat is fairly empty except for spammers, scammers, and guild recruiting bots. Players don’t use the chat very much to communicate, not even for trading (so long as there’s an auction house). By and large, the people we want to talk to are in our guilds or hanging out on ventrilo even when not in game. For tools like Steam, players are always idling on our friends list but at least in my case, half of them never chat for any reason. It’s as though players are just part of the ambiance of being online, like NPCs or like having a TV running in the background when we’re not watching because it’s comforting. We want to see players there but we don’t care about talking to them so much, especially if it requires us to type.

I never realized how much voice chat had done to enter our non-digital lives and kill some of the magic of being online with strangers who shared your fantasies. If you have a hearing disability, voice chat has significantly changed the kind of content you can enjoy with other players. In some cases, it seems to have ruined the MMO experience entirely.

I can’t remember the last time I was in a guild that didn’t require voice chat. By 2006 Teamspeak was considered mandatory for raiding guilds. What if you couldn’t hear and suddenly people you’ve enjoyed the game with were excluding you because …well, they want to use voice chat because it’s easier for them?

But that brings up another interesting side of the communications issue: Typing. How many friends do you remember from back in the day who were painfully slow in chat? Or who perhaps could not type at all due to a physical disability? We take for granted typing skills, and I look back now and realize not everyone was a good or able typist. The expectation that players can type underlies the entire design of the chat box, and weakens it as a tool for easy communication since it requires efficiency to be useful. Today, you don’t have to be a typist if you can talk and hear. How many gamers are relieved they don’t have to type because they simply don’t have the skill to keep up with a conversation in a text box? I imagine quite a few.

It all seems to boil down to communication skills games assume we have, when they probably shouldn’t. Yet even as a gamer it’s so very easy for me to not realize how lucky I am to be able to communicate in many different ways efficiently. How much more so do developers forget that their players are having real issues communicating with one another? How many times do you imagine they go over their design document solving problems with the chat box? This probably never even comes up. It’s more likely that it’s an assumed feature. There will be a chat box as the default communications method, with no regard for player ability.

Even with the advent of motion sensors like Kinect, developers seem to be looking right past technical solutions which have been with us for decades now. Why don’t our games have voice to text features? Why don’t those which come with voice chat have text to voice?

Why aren’t motion detectors being used for reading sign-language which can then be input to text or voice?

I talked to Simcha about this and asked what were her thoughts on the text to voice features of Mumble, Teamspeak, and Ventrilo. She said one of the worst parts is that the voices all sound like robots. They’re not very human friendly and can be unsettling. Add to that the fact that she has to tab in and out of game to use the tool and we have a recipe for horrible usability. On the one hand, it’s clear some engineers are thinking about the problems, but on the other I wonder how often Mumble has sat in a room with game developers and talked to them about how to better integrate those tools so that their players can communicate. I imagine that’s probably never happened, at least not in regards to solving communications problems. I doubt either party has thought about communications tools for their physically disabled players.

So we have quite a few technical solutions readily available, but which a hearing world doesn’t think to work on because it’s not a problem for us. And it’s all because of people like me, who aren’t concerned about anything that doesn’t directly impact us. I can hear and type just fine. Why would I be thinking about solutions for the deaf or disabled? Well there are a few reasons a game developer would want to. For starters, even if there’s just one deaf gamer in your audience, don’t you want them to enjoy the experience? Do you want them to be isolated from the rest of the players? Then put some tools in your game to assist them.

And how about building a community around your game. Sending the message that your game is interested in being usable by as many kinds of players as possible will go a long way to helping you research solutions. Note the emphasis on many kinds of players. We don’t have to cater to the widest audience possible, just the most diverse audience possible. Engineering solutions to these problems is what makes our work valuable. Doing the same thing the last game did means engineering the same problems it did without solving them.

One could argue that if were an engineer (programmer, game developer, etc) it’s my job to think about these things. It’s clear these technologies have been brought up piecemeal here and there by different studios with different purposes, but it’s not clear there’s been active research on how to make the most of them. There’s old technology that’s been in our games for years which acknowledge that not everyone can hear or type well. Games have closed captions. In some cases, games have settings for the color blind. Many online games offer voice chat and those tools also sometimes have text to voice. Someone has thought about these things, but no one has put them together into a robust suite of communications tools to add to their games. Motion detectors and cameras are a goldmine for the developer who can make it work for signers. There’s just pieces everywhere and no developer interest in revolutionizing the chat box. It’s 2014 and the chat box is the same as it was in 1990.

The next time you’re in a game and someone insists on voice chat, think about how many other gamers can never hear you but who want to play. Then ask your favorite developers to do better so you can have more gamers to play with.

Rating the ESRB

How does the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the ESRB, rate among gamers? We tend to think of this as a matter of how consumers have voted when asked if they are satisfied with it. But rating the ESRB means asking if it gives us clear and accurate expectations of our games. Ostensibly, it’s designed to give consumers information about what they’re buying.

Current ESRB ratings are more an indicator of how well a game can sell even though it’s only moderately informative of the kind of sensitive content in games; it’s pretty non-specific especially when we look at how close each rating is in description. Titles with the most deadly rating (Adult Only) are sold in fewer retail locations, discouraging developers from using it even when appropriate. Consumers might be intimidated by seeing “AO” printed on the box, further shrinking potential market share. Furthermore, in their eagerness to reach the widest market, developers are loathe to give the M (Mature) rating even to games that deserve it. The primary goal of developers seems to be either an E rating or a T rating. The latter opens up to a whole new host of issues and questions surrounding exactly who plays games and why studios should pander to the T crowd.

Last year, most games given a rating by the ESRB were rated E for everyone, but how does that happen when the hottest, best-selling titles of the year feature sustained violence (which is worthy of an AO rating according to them)?

Rating the ESRB

Typical anywhere, entertainment media is usually regulated by the government to ensure producers aren’t airing live executions, raunchy sex scenes, and gratuitous obscenities on the public airwaves. The ESRB was created by the Entertainment Software Association under the threat of a government run rating agency. In the end, we got the ESRB. The goal was to do pretty much what movie ratings do: give consumers warning information about the sensitivity of the content. Lofty ideals and admirable goals don’t always translate into effective standards though. As a consumer, the ESRB has mixed results despite high approval ratings. Part of the problem is that the ratings are ambiguous enough to be worthless or the criteria is generic enough to say nothing and everything. I can’t know the content of a game by reading the label, which makes judging ESRB effectiveness a tough thing to do. Current ratings, at best, recommend appropriate age groups.

Before congress approved the ESRB in 1994, the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC) system was widely used by game companies. This rating system made a lot of sense too. In terms of informing consumers about content, it was superior to ESRB.

 

rsac_chart

rsac_ratingsIt’s goal was to stay away from an age-based recommendations system in favor of rating the actual content of the software. Consumers (especially parents) were much more concerned with three main kinds of content in their entertainment: language, violence, and sex. Each category could be rated independently from 0-4. Any game with a 0 in each category was labeled All Audiences.

So why’d we get rid of this system? RSAC was phased out in 1999 and the ESRB turned to the simplicity of an age-based recommendation system. It’s clear benefits likely won the day:

  • obscure content ratings makes purchase fast and easy.
  • smaller label = more real estate to promote the game
  • public familiarity with age-based rulesets (generally based on legal precedents, such as those under 18 can’t purchase/watch porn; therefore, games with sex are only for those 18 +)

While the ESRB ratings system has all these “features”, it also has drawbacks. The ratings aren’t as informative as the RSAC system. The age restrictions also make the ratings much more ambiguous at setting expectations. I think the most important impact has to be the de facto censorship at work in the ratings. Unlike the RSAC, the ESRB flat out states what is and is not acceptable for children. Parents aren’t making any decisions, but taking their word for it. On the flipside, it dictates to developers what their audiences can and cannot see by using age brackets. If the industry was still using a system such as the RSAC, the only persons deciding what is and is not appropriate would be consumers. The direct ratings on specific aspects of the content means a parent can decide that their 13 year old can play games rated 3 for violence and 0 for sex/nudity, or that the 9 year old can play games rated 2 for language and 1 for violence and nudity. This puts the power directly into the hands of parents and players.

Back in 2005 this very issue came up with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The game received an M rating at first, but once Hot Coffee was discovered, it cost the company millions. They had to pull the games off of shelves after the ESRB changed their rating from M to AO. Companies were paying attenion. Part of the take away was to keep content moderate enough to get ratings that grant access to the widest audience. Since the ESRB doesn’t rate the specific content, part of the consequence is consumers choose games based on the age of the player.

Reasonable Expectations

While only 5% of games rated by the ESRB in 2012 were rated M, nearly half were rated E (everyone). Yet the top grossing games for the past few years have been M rated titles. While violent and/or graphic games are a small portion of the games created, they are the most popular. Their influence in popular culture is so strong that it gives the impression that more games are M rated!

These rankings are for console titles and I've highlighted the M + ratings from the ESRB.

These rankings are for console titles and I’ve highlighted the M + ratings from the ESRB.

Is the ESRB succeeding in its purpose? Part of the mission of the ESRB is to help consumers make informed decisions. How informed does a Mature rating on Gears of War or Call of Duty make me about the sensitive content of the game?

The definitions are so similar that the only clearly defined criteria is the age group.

  • Teen (T): Content is generally suitable for ages 13 and up. May contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and/or infrequent use of strong language.
  • Mature (M): Content is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.
  • Adult Only (AO): Content suitable only for adults ages 18 and up. May include prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content and/or gambling with real currency.

The wording “May contain…” is purposely ambiguous because the only decisive criteria is the age grouping. “The game might have violence, but generally only those 13 and up should play it,” is how this reads. The age restrictions could remain while all other descriptions were dropped and the ESRB ratings would have the exact same net effect on consumer trends. It is the age restrictions which consumers are drawn to, and those restrictions are based on current laws for minors (drink, smoke, buy porn, vote, etc). The inevitable conclusion is that the ratings do less for informing consumers about the content than they do censoring games and pretending the audience is children.

Which brings me to my next point: Adults play these games too. What use is an age recommendation if I want to know how explicit the content is for myself? The ESRB is designed to help parents rate games for their kids – a significant enough oversight – but it ignores the fact that most gamers are not children. The overwhelming majority are working adults. How useful is the rating system for them? The ESA doesn’t even collect data on that question. The mission statement plainly announces that they’re more concerned about helping parents. That’s enough of an indictment on the usefulness of the ESRB alone.

In the latest ESA surveys, parents overwhelmingly agree that the ratings are helpful (88%). However, that’s an easy number to achieve when you’re the only game rating agency around and when your ratings are so broad and non-specific. There’s room and opportunity for a system similar to RSAC, but consumer agencies don’t seem worried about it.

What with determining the quality of the content ratings, the impact on developer choices to use the system slips under the radar. There’s pressure to use the ratings as a marketing tool. It’s a fair question to ask whether the system has too great an impact on the content development of our video games.

Game developers have shown that they will change things about a game in order to achieve the ratings that will net them the maximum audience, just like Rockstar did. Instead of seeing ratings as an aid to consumers, developers also see them as a constraint on sales. Consumers need to be able to trust developers when they place an M on their game. Developers should have to care about the amount and intensity of sensitive content in their games. If we want less gratuitous violence, then that means more rigorous and meaningful content standards. Most importantly, ratings systems need to be consumer and developer neutral such as what the RSAC achieved despite it’s flaws. By directly describing the content without regard for age, the choice was left strictly up to consumers taste while allowing developers to cater directly to a specific audience.

So how would you rate the ESRB? I’d have to give it an L for “Limited Usefulness” and I think I’m being generous. The system has some pretty major shortcomings, but if they can pull the strengths of the RSAC system with the simplicity of the current gamers, developers and parents alike could have a system that serves us equally.

 References

Scree Tags: #esrb #gamertalk

There and Back: Industrialization of MMOs

Not quite as old as the others I’ve re-published, but it’s topic makes it a good time to raise the discussion once again. This is the original version, no edits.


MMOs have a depressingly familiar flavor to them these days no matter which one you play. It’s the kind of impression that leaves some of us feeling like it’s all the same grind, similar to some things in the real world — things we were hoping to escape from. Part of this impression we’re experiencing is the industrialization of MMO content.

Robot Assembly Line Image

This is basically the process for generating content in MMOs. Except it’s still done by people.

The over-production of quests, items, and dungeons are some of the results of this industrialization. The feeling that you’re consuming the same gameplay simply regurgitated by competing companies is ever-present. Their mass production reminds players that there’s nothing special about virtual worlds. The worlds represent a symbol of something and is nothing in and of themselves.

The earliest MMOs relied almost strictly on players as content. Quests were scarce, instances non-existent and resources for game development were usually poured into creating a richer world experience. One day, this model split into two primary models: theme park MMOs and open world MMOs (e.g. sandbox). For example, theme-park MMOs made their debut in 2004, with World of Warcraft. That game was a true cross between old school content delivery and the emerging ideology of theme park design. At the time, it was an amazing improvement on the traditional formula; the game became much more accessible to those who had never played an MMO while veterans got an exceptionally polished, improved game. These days WoW is like the McDonald’s of MMOs …and no one thinks McDonald’s is particularly good, exciting or awesome. It’s just familiar, consistent comfort food that makes us feel safe about eating there (the irony of this shouldn’t be lost on anyone). McDonald’s serves industrialized food.

Theme park MMOs function exactly like theme parks elsewhere, like Disneyland. It’s a vast, mass market, fantasy rendering of an idealized world. Nothing is real, yet it feels exactly how you want it to feel and it idealizes reality in a way that alters our expectations of the real world. Talking mice, fairies, castles, and magic wands …all of these are features in the theme park alongside the side shows and thrill rides. They are there to entertain. As a collection they are designed to allow visitors to wander around all day in any manner they like: in groups, by themselves, and it even invites them to blend in and become invisible (costuming). Most importantly, theme parks aren’t designed for meeting new people or even for enjoying the attractions with them. That is incidental. Friends and family are only welcome insofar as they also pay an entry fee and the park would like their money. Interaction is not encouraged and not discouraged, but is an ever available option since you are constantly surrounded by people. Does this sound like any MMO you have ever played or heard of? It should.

Maps Image

Their similarity is both expected and surprising. It’s one way that we can understand that the design of each place is extremely similar.

A game like Ultima Online can’t really be termed a sandbox as we know them today. It was more like a virtual space, a 3D chat room even, where players could role-play and share in the same fantasy. It acted as an environment for player imagination to thrive. Sandbox in modern terms conjures up images of games like Minecraft or EVE Online, where game developers literally give players the tools to create their own content within the virtual realm. In this way, players themselves are the content and also the content generators. This is a fairly recent development in MMOs though this concept made it’s first appearance in A Tale in the Desert (to be fair, all of these games dropped practically within a year of one another so “first” is a matter of publishing date, not idea conception).

Industrialization

When we industrialize something, we streamline it’s production in order to mass produce a product rapidly and more efficiently for consumption. Quality matters less than quantity and the former usually slides ever closer to mediocrity with every “improvement” of the production line. However, the quality becomes decreasingly important the more people are using the product. It’s ubiquity makes it a natural occurrence in society and it becomes standard fare to the extent that everyone is expected to know about it and have experience with the product. Like McDonald’s.

In MMOs, mass production of quests, dungeons, and gear peaks annually. The ubiquity of these three features within the genre speaks to this. Their use has less to do with gameplay enhancement than with manufacturing them pack the game with “features” and boast about them in the hopes that it’s “enough” content to keep players constantly paying. The consequence is that these features lose all of their initial meaning and sink into near irrelevance; the features don’t represent anything; gameplay achievements signify nothing but themselves.

World of Warcraft is a game which suffers irreparably from over-industrialization, but it’s hardly alone. Guild Wars, Star Wars, The Secret World all suffer the same. Development is clearly dictated by how many more people the company can get into the game. This is seen by players in efforts to “dumb down” or otherwise remove any uniqueness among players. Probably what’s more important is that game development technology, the best available, is almost tailored to crafting the games that are already successful, thus it’s not hard for new games to look and play exactly like their predecessors.

From a development philosophy standpoint, it’s the corruption of the meaning of equality: developers believe that time-spent is the single most important variable when determining what’s fair gameplay. To that end, removing gameplay elements which allow players to accrue power or achievement over time is mandatory to keep the game “fair.” They even the playing field by making all feats attainable no matter how little effort is put into it.  They patronize the player-base, appealing to their vanity instead of their ambition. The game becomes mediocre in the same way that McDonald’s is.

Unfortunately, we still live in an industrialized world and the governing values are those of industrialization. Games aren’t so unique of an industry that they would remain untouched by it. Yet the shifts in technology are changing the way we think about games everyday …hopefully these shifts will occur soon in the MMO genre. It desperately needs to arrive into the 21st century.