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?

 

How Steam is Gaming the Players

steamsale

Not a big secret is it? What, you didn’t know?

So the Summer sale on Steam has many of us playing the Summer Card game in which your purchase of games and your votes on packages earn you a chance to win three games from your Wishlist. My wishlist is getting long, so this seems like a pretty good thing for me to participate in. The drivers of my decision:

  1. Irresistable desire to complete checklist (Summer Cards)
  2. Irresistable desire to complete checklist (Wishlist)
  3. Irresistable desire to barter (Trading)

These are games. The sale is a giant game. And the object of the game isn’t for me to win more games. It’s for Valve to shake as many coins out of my pockets as they can. I think the term is “wring” or “swindle”.

Still, I play along because of all of these irresistible desires, and that part of it is on me. Sure, I curb the impulses – I almost never buy anything impulse. The truth is I find it enjoyable to trade those cards and I like the idea of having teams that are competing to win games on our wishlists. It’s very appealing, even though I feel manipulated. Even though I surrender to these manipulations, it doesn’t change Valves responsibility in manipulating me.

While I do love a good sale, some bloggers have mentioned feeling underwhelmed by it this time around. Some don’t know how they will survive 10 more days of sales, having purchased many games since it’s started. I think I’m less excited about these sales as the years go on. Partly it’s because I’m saturated with games. Partly it’s because I’m older and have such a vast collection that its hard to feel like I’m missing out on anything. Part of it is because there really isn’t anything new on sale or anything interesting. As Liore pointed out, the same games are on sale this year that were last year and the year before (Torchlight comes to mind, as well as Terraria and many others).

I look at the new games aren’t on sale, or are barely on sale and I can see the developers behind them loving and loathing Steam sales. They want those easy sales, that send floods of players and profit to them (albeit less profit than if that same volume of players buy at full price). But their game is shiny and new. Don’t they deserve full price? Aren’t they dooming themselves by allowing players to believe that their $60 title will be $5 by Christmas? If you’ve got a library the size of mind, you don’t mind waiting it out because you’ve got tons of cheap games to keep you busy in the meantime. It’s a gilded cage of sorts. Developers are trapping themselves in this model because short term money is as irresistible as those checklists and quests players trap themselves into. They love the gold, but hate the bars of the cage.

Maybe players and devs need marriage counseling. This relationship is getting unhealthy.

Yet I participate. It’s fun in a way. I get to spend money and work hard at trading for three games on my wishlist that cost less than the effort I’m I’m putting into this.

Yeah. We need that counseling.

Oculus Rift: Selling Out and Cashing In

I’ve watched this topic get batted around a few news sites, discussed on a few blogs, debated in dozens of comment sections …and some seem to grasp what’s wrong with the Oculus deal. Will it hurt Oculus in the end? Who knows? I’m not wishing them any ill will. But was there something wrong with striking a deal with Facebook?

Why is anyone even pretending there’s nothing wrong with this? I think it’s obvious this is a betrayal, regardless of whether this turns out good for Oculus. The argument that because this ensures VRs future, it’s not a betrayal is hypocrisy if you believe Facebook isn’t in it for the same reasons as the Rift team. And that’s not even a wild guess — of course they’re in it for consumer information. Facebook is in it for as much personal information as they can wring from users who don the goggles, as much as they can rip out of your virtual body. It’s a deal with the devil.

The Kickstarter Angle

There’s the angle that says Kickstarter is just a place to support projects you believe in. It’s not a purchase. It’s not a pre-order. It’s not a promise of any sort. You throw your money into a hole and feel “warm and fuzzy” for supporting your local designer. If only this even came close to matching the reality of what Kickstarter means to backers.

Kickstarter, for ordinary people, is about good faith. It’s designers coming to an audience and saying “hey, we’re too poor to make our dream come true, but it’s a very worthy dream and all that’s holding us back is money. Can you help?” People who identify with this level of material deprivation go there to show solidarity. They do it because they know what it’s like to not have the capital for your dreams. They know what it’s like to have a great idea and have money be the reason you can’t realize it. These people are here on faith. They want these projects to not only succeed, but to be able to stand next to their designer and say “alone, we couldn’t do this, but together we’re as good as the best of them. Together we don’t’ need corporations.” This is what Kickstarter does for it’s community of backers.

I loathe the whole line of reasoning which ignores this. So many want to pretend this was strictly an economic transaction and I get it. That’s one of the things capitalism does best: alienate us from the things we do. We aren’t people, we’re dollar signs, a line on the balance sheet, on the expense report. You’re not a person, you’re a hammer, you’re a coder, you’re a writer, you’re a bank account; your work and money are divorced from your person. And the market doesn’t care about people; it only cares about the services people provide. This is the lens those who ask us to see this as a simple economic transaction use to frame the discussion. But a backer on Kickstarter is more than his money. A designer is more than his design. This is fundamental to the ethos of Kickstarter: that there are people here and they matter.

Of Faces and Facebook

This beast called Facebook is not your friendly neighborhood Mr. Rogers or Mary Poppins. This is the neighbor peeping through your window with a telescope every night. Facebook is the Dark Lord of Privacy Invasion, Prime Evil worthy of Diablo tales. Their users are little dots on a grand chart, each of whom represents a byte of information. Facebook wants to turn you from a byte to a terabyte. They want to reduce you to pure information for the purposes of selling it. This is what Facebook sees in VR technology, another opportunity to convert your person into pile of lifeless cold cash.

This is whom Oculus sold to. This cannot be overstated because it so defines the anger, disappointment and betrayal felt by supporters of Oculus.

If Oculus had sold to Microsoft or Google or Mozilla, there’d be moaning of a different sort. If it had sold to Blizzard or EA, its possible the dissent would be little more than curious mumbling if any at all. Any company but Facebook was more appropriate even if not totally appropriate. Facebook represents the very opposite of Kickstarter. If Kickstarter is about grassroots people supporting one another, Facebook is about turning people into faceless commodities, packaging them and selling them like they’re nothing.

White Lies and Whole Truths

Oculus Rift is a new virtual reality (VR) headset designed specifically for video games that will change the way you think about gaming forever.

This is one of the opening sentences of the Kickstarter campaign for Oculus Rift. Importantly, note who and what they said this was designed for. This kind of verbage is plastered all over the Kickstarter, updates and various game companies and conferences the developers patronized. Not to mention that some of the developers are industry veterans. No matter what song they sing today, it’s undeniable that they went to the gaming community for support and intended to build hardware for that community. They found millions of dollars and support there.

I agree that VR is bigger than gaming, most reasonable people do. What I disagree with is how once $2 billion was waved in their faces by Facebook, it suddenly became beyond gaming for them. Throughout the whole campaign it’s been all about gaming, but once Facebook waves that cash it’s suddenly FOR THE WORLD.

The dev team sold out. Notch said it perfectly: “I did not chip in ten grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition.” This captures the anger expressed by supporters. Gamers aren’t claiming sole ownership of VR, but it’s been financed by our community by developers who told us that their first design was for us. The OR team got ahead of themselves and slipped into the world of dreams before they even successfully put the first pair of glasses to market. All this talk of the future of VR when they have yet to deliver the present.

Since our Kickstarter is all about developers building great games for the Rift … – Oculus Rift Kickstarter Update #6

Those were the days, eh?

The Done Deal

So now that we have this context, let’s revisit a few questions.

What was wrong with selling Oculus Rift to anyone?

The Oculus team knew going in that they were going to sell to the highest bidder and they abused the faith of Kickstarter backers to do this — without even thinking there’s ANY ethical considerations here. This isn’t what Kickstarter is about for it’s backers. And its exactly this kind of abuse that will make them discontinue supporting the platform, not that it will hurt Kickstarter. It’s increasingly a a scouting grounds for venture capitalists, people very unlike the average Oculus backer. So Oculus and company can do what they did, but it has a different cost that future developers on Kickstarter will pay.

What was wrong with selling Oculus Rift to Facebook? Facebook. That’s what’s wrong.

I’m sure Oculus VR needed those millions to get the thing through development and to market. I have no doubt about the usefulness of such cash. That also doesn’t matter. The sale represents bad faith to supporters who aided their success and who showed a willingness to financially support them into the foreseeable future.

I think the OR team’s days are numbered, not because I want them to fail (I don’t) but because they’re in a deal with Facebook. They can drink their own Kool Aid, but that won’t turn it into truth serum.

And now the Oculus deal is done and it’s OK. We all learned our lesson. Kickstarter backers are now much more wary of backing such projects, knowing that these designers intend to abuse their faith. We can all talk about “the rules” of Kickstarter and “the obligations” of using it until the cows come home and it won’t change the fact that Kickstarter has been a community built on good faith and succeeding without The Man. Kickstarter thus far has been nothing if not commoners helping commoners, sharing the successes of a few geniuses whose ideas we admire and whom remind us of ourselves. Having Facebook emerge the winner of a Kickstarter project of such importance is bad for everyone involved.

Scree Tags: #kickstarter #oculusrift #virtualreality