It’s Okay To Not Like Things

(edit: Apologies, this was written yesterday, but I forgot to hit “publish”. Whoops!)

Starting today with a video:

Reading about Destiny, and the (silly named) Gamergate, I notice a lot of people conflating opinion and objective reality. This is probably not a surprise to anyone; the monologues look something like this:

“I don’t like X, therefore it’s stupid.”

I blame our increasingly simplified, increasingly black-and-white outlook on this. We don’t have space in our 140-character tweets for nuance– a statement must be direct, simple, and straightforward. There’s no room to qualify statements, and in an atmosphere of sound bytes and hyperbole, a nuanced discussion is lost.

I feel like Gamergate (man, I dislike that name, I don’t even enjoy typing it) really exacerbates the problem. With so much hyperbole on both sides, it became increasingly difficult to be heard as a moderate, reasonable person participating in the discussion, and the debate is, at that point, very easily hijacked by extremists who argue with one another.

I think it’s really important, especially in light of recent events, to consider perspectives. Someone absolutely loves every game you hate, and hates every game you love. A close friend of mine hates The Fifth Element, and loved Guardians of the Galaxy. To me, those two movies are cut from the same cloth, with relatively minor variances throughout (obviously better FX in the latter), but it’s really important to me to understand that him disliking a movie I love is not some kind of existential crisis for me, nor is my perspective on those two movies the All-Encompassing Truth (and, indeed, it would be insufferably arrogant of me to think so).

Which brings me back to Destiny. It’s a great game, one that I’m having a ton of fun with. It’s not the perfect game, because it has flaws, but these flaws don’t destroy the experience one bit. It is, objectively, a well-made, high quality game, even if you don’t like it.

It’s cool if you don’t like Destiny, or FFXIV, or Gone Home, or Transistor, or whatever other game people are talking about, but it doesn’t do you, anyone else, or the discussion itself any favors to be dismissive about things that are categorically false. Saying “Destiny has bad graphics” as a cover for “I don’t like their art style” or “I’m salty about the game not being released on PC” muddies the water from an actual discussion and sabotages any attempt at discourse into a series of unidirectional one-liners.

Not liking things is important. I’ve played/watched/done a lot of things I didn’t really enjoy, and being able to recognize both that they’re good and that I don’t like them and that that isn’t a paradox is useful. We no longer live in an era where media (especially games) are released so infrequently that you can’t afford not to like a game because that might be the only one you get to play that year. Now we have Steam backlogs that would take years to work through, and massive console libraries that could never be completed. A friend of mine refused to buy a PS3 until he finished his PS2 backlog, and wound up nearly skipping that generation entirely as the PS4 rolled around, and he’s still not done with his PS2 backlog.

There is enough entertainment around that we can all have the things we like, and we don’t have to feel challenged by disliking something that other people enjoy.

It’s okay to not like things. Just… don’t be a dick about it.

Evolution of MMOs

I’m a huge fan of MMOs. There’s no genre that compares to the breadth and depth of experience, and the sheer scale of the game space. Rather than a game that I play, consume, and discard, MMOs can feel like home, a place I return to regularly to hang out, socialize, advance, play, and do all sorts of things. I don’t hold with the critique of the term that “MMO” is inherently nonsense, and the term should be “MMOG” or “MMORPG”; the genre is inherently open-ended, and I think the term MMO is appropriately open-ended to match.

It’s no secret that MMOs have struggled in the last few years. Since the release of WoW, the bar for quality, polish, and scale has been nigh-impossible to meet or exceed, and more importantly the continual additions and advancements in WoW have only raised that bar.

MMOs are a colossal development undertaking, so that continually increasing bar makes it extremely difficult to compete– certainly none of the MMOs released since WoW have enjoyed the same level of success. It’s important to note that “hasn’t reached the same level of success” is not the the same as failure– most of the MMOs that get dubbed “failures” in the comments of gaming sites are in fact chugging along just fine, releasing new content.

In the meantime, it’s becoming clear that chasing the WoW model isn’t a way in which MMOs can possibly hope to dethrone WoW. I largely think this is due to the gaming environment changing. In 2004, when WoW launched, the concept of a game you can easily log in and play online with your friends was a marvel, still shiny, new, and often flawed out the gate (but glorious even through the flaws). Ten years later, easy online play with friends is stock-standard for nearly every game released; the only real difference is the number of players.

I’ve long wondered whether console game development or MMO development would bridge the gap between one another first. I’ve been curious to see if console games would adopt more and more MMO features until they’re indistinguishable from MMOs, or if MMOs would adapt to include more console action features, to address the oft-repeated critique that MMOs are often mechanically and functionally very similar to one another (see: “hotbar combat”, “holy trinity”, and similar complaints).

Today, Destiny launched, the first MMO-styled game to launch simultaneously across multiple major consoles (though, interestingly, not PC) from a major publisher and studio. There have been previous forays into the MMO market on consoles– DC Universe Online and both Final Fantasy MMOs, but Destiny’s launch is on a much larger scale than any of those.

It’s telling, to me, that the console development side has bridged the gap first. I suspect that we won’t be seeing “traditional” MMOs for some time. The lustre of massively multiplayer environments has faded, and the real joy– running around with a small number of friends– has come to the fore, and consoles can provide a higher level of fidelity in that environment than MMOs have managed to accomplish. As technology and players’ expectations have advanced, the “traditional” MMO designs appeal to a smaller and smaller niche.

I think that the age of new “traditional” MMOs is largely over, or close. The market is very fragmented, with a number of quality games filling different niches under the umbrella of World of Warcraft, but a relative dearth of massive, game-changing innovation. With as much fragmentation as the market has, it’s very difficult to find a way to recoup the costs of developing an MMO– the smaller audience issue has previously been offset by recurring payments by the players, but this is becoming less and less popular.

I’m interested in seeing if the “traditional” MMO evolves beyond its current state. I think there are experiences that MMOs can offer that the console side of things has a lot more trouble with– specifically the large number of players in a single world. Unfortunately, traditional MMOs have had more and more trouble making that massive number of players appealing; in general seeing another player while playing represents an obstacle, or competition for resources, rather than a boon.

While traditional MMOs struggle with this, we get to see the advent of the AAA, top-tier console MMO, a trail blazed by previous games and now being used by new games like Destiny, The Division, and so on.

I look forward to seeing what these games bring to the table that will inevitably get mirrored by the other side. The games look fun, and look to have stripped out a lot of the trappings that have held back traditional MMO innovation, offering a fresh look at the genre (and hopefully a jumping-off point for even more interesting games).

Being “Smart”

People accuse me of being “smart”. The word choice there is intentional (although it’s almost always well-meaning):

“You’re too smart for that.”

“You did that? You must be smart.”

“I could never do that. I’m not as smart as you.”

“You’ll be fine, you’re a smart guy.”

Statements like this bother me. Two of them suggest that some action I’ve taken or opinion I’ve espoused is invalid because I’m “smart”. I am perpetually concerned about my continued growth and well-being; I shouldn’t, because I’m “a smart guy”. I have made some choice or failed at some task, and this is unacceptable because I’m “too smart for that”. The other two portray me as “other”, compared to the speaker. The speaker could not perform the task I have because they’re “not that smart”. The speaker doesn’t think a task is possible (or possible in a certain amount of time), therefore accomplishing it means I’m “smart”.

We are very, very bad at this sort of thing, as if being smart were some crucial, inborn trait; you either have it or you don’t. It bleeds into our fiction– how many fantasy worlds have “born mages”, where magic (as an analogue for intelligence) is “in the blood” of some people, but not others; that they’re somehow gifted with supernatural power. At the same time, we vehemently and dispassionately punish error; If you get a question wrong on your homework, or fail at a task, or struggle in any way, you have failed and you are Forever Marked, even making up for the error later merely reduces the damage you’ve already done to yourself.

Someone told me last night that they look up to me because I’m smart, and they want to be smart and successful as well. In a day filled with unfortunate events, this struck me as profoundly sad. I am not a role model. Other than playing the hand I’ve been dealt as competently as I can, I have done little of worth to warrant emulation. I talk a big game, but I don’t have the breadth of experience to truly say I’ve acted upon it. In the meantime, I look at my friends, ones who have actually struggled in their lives and had genuine hardships and still come out on top– they are the role models. I have known people who have kicked drug habits, started careers and families, and know both what failure is and how to overcome it. I have seen people transcend troubled, dangerous upbringings and carve for themselves a place in the world. I have seen people struggle to live a life that isn’t defined by a mental illness, a “normal” life, whatever that means. I have seen people give up everything for a cause or an ideal that they believe in, and make it real not through any gift, but through sheer hard work. These are the laudable people, the role models. They are the ones with something to learn from. I can only aspire to develop something worth teaching.

If you want to be smart, use your brain. This sounds flippant, but it’s true. Work at it constantly, do mental exercises like you might find in something like Lumosity, don’t settle for passive entertainment that doesn’t require thought. It’s like any form of exercise: the more you do it, the easier it gets. Read books, solve puzzles, learn new skills, find patterns in things, figure out how things you use every day work. The Internet is a fantastic resource for this, and the more you learn things, the faster you learn new things. Never settle for telling yourself you’re bad at something, because all that means is that you haven’t practiced at it, and you’ve probably gotten it wrong in the past. Relationship columns will frequently offer the advice “never settle” — this applies to things other than dating.

“Smart” isn’t an identity, don’t let it define you. It’s not an exclusive club you’re not a part of, and it’s not some magic wand that prevents you from failing at things. We’re bad at valuing improvement, but don’t let that stop you from improving. All that means is that there isn’t someone standing over you with a red pen, ready to mark you off for not getting something right on the first try. Failing at something and trying again to get better is a far more laudable thing than simply getting it right on the first try. If you’re getting things right on the first try, you should be doing harder things.


Today, I woke up to this.

The usual caveats about not reading the comments apply. For those unable to follow the link, it’s the press release about layoffs at Zenimax Online Studios, the most recent in the unceasing string of games industry terminations.

I have a lot of feelings about this. It’s where I worked most recently, and I was there for more than five years, which is an eternity in the games industry, and I’ve been there recently enough that a good many of the people hit by the layoffs were my close, personal friends. Most games industry bloggers don’t really talk about the layoffs in specific, because it’s expected– the games industry is “volatile”. It is the biggest, most important thing to internalize for anyone planning on entering the industry– steel yourself for the things you hold dear to get put through the wringer. Whether that’s your own creative output, your sense of your own skills, your hobbies and free time, your family, or your very job itself, be ready, because they will all happen.

To my friends who find themselves without a job, now or whenever, my condolences. It’s never, ever easy, and I hope you land on your feet quickly.

This volatility is hard. It’s the result of highly demanding projects that require large staffs to complete, constantly moving targets and shifting priorities, complex creative tasks, and some amount of guesswork and hope. There are no safe bets in the games industry; even the biggest, most well-beloved franchises can release games that flop, or, more likely, succeed but not enough to continue expansion.

The oft-cited average career length in the games industry is five and a half years, a figure which I see repeated frequently and, anecdotally, seems to hold true, but I can’t find hard statistics to back up. If it is an accurate number, it means that game devs have careers right in the same window as football players in the NFL (NFL Player’s Association says 3.3 years, the NFL proper says 6 years). For a non-physical (read: non-injury-prone), technical, creative industry that a person should be able to retain skills at for an entire career, that number is insane to me.

It’s because we love making video games, and we’re often willing to put up with the associated terribleness that goes with it. I know a lot of people who I’ve worked with who say things like “I don’t know what else I could do”, and indeed, that’s something I’ve struggled with myself. Eventually, though, something wins out. Family, mental health, a more relaxed and better-paying job in a more stable industry. It’s a brutal Catch-22– in order to succeed in the games industry, you have to be smart, adaptable, creative, technically-minded, and possessed of a broad skillset… exactly the combination of things that would make you very attractive outside the industry.

The industry is starting to feel this, I think. Crunch is still omnipresent, but I’ve heard fewer extreme horror stories lately than I had previously. Companies are emphasizing experience more and more, looking for those industry vets (the ones who left the industry for greener pastures after 5 or so years on average). That volatility, though, between the sudden long hours and the unexpected layoffs, burns people out. A big part of the reason I left my last job was because I wanted to take classes, get my Master’s degree, and I couldn’t do so with the volatility of my schedule (much less the possibility of getting laid off and possibly being forced to move across the country again). I’m now in an environment where a majority of the people are taking classes with special dispensation by their employers to work slightly fewer hours to cover class and assignment time, and that’s de rigueur.

Game companies, generally, aren’t interested in assisting their employees’ career growth unless it fills an immediate gap in the company’s needs– this is a result of that volatility, and at the same time is a contributing factor to it. What game devs have instead is the network. You keep in touch with your friends from your various jobs, and everyone understands and tries to help out when one company lays a bunch of people off or goes under. It’s a never-ending cycle of paying it forward, to push against the never-ending tide of volatility.

There has to be a better way, but the people whose interests are immediately served don’t have the stability to work it out, and the companies who would benefit long-term lack the flexibility to experiment. I like to hope that a solution will surface, but I don’t know what that would look like or how long it’ll take.

Being “Tired” of Hearing About Problems

If you’re into video games, the last few weeks have been… tumultuous, to say the least. There’s a lot of vitriol, a lot of hate, and a lot of both things disguised as armchair academics, to say nothing of the overall exhaustion people are expressing with any given issue, or even all of the issues combined.

The exhaustion is, I think, very telling. People are tired of a lot of things, and are more than happy at this point to loudly express it. Otherwise forward-thinking, open minded people sigh and avoid discussion, or attempt to change the subject entirely. There’s very little question that this is harmful for everyone involved, but I don’t think a lot of thought has gone into the reasons why.

Being tired of something, to me, suggests one of three things: change is not occurring, change is occurring but too slowly, or too much change is happening too quickly (assuming we’re talking about being tired of change itself). I don’t think you can make a cogent argument that things aren’t changing, though I think in many ways they’re changing for the better and for the worse in equal measure. The Internet gives a voice to the formerly voiceless, and those voiceless people can be underserved groups or overserved, entitled brats — both have a much louder voice than before.

I think, however, that there’s a break in the discussion, where people shouting at one another precludes communication, to the point where the same arguments are being made over and over and people are getting fatigued. The essential arguments — internet communities are toxic, sexism is real and present, racism is real and present, all have not changed enough for us to even remotely suggest that they’re “solved problems”.

However, what we lack is effective means of communication. Arguments get bogged down in semantics and debates over trivialities, and the discourse doesn’t move forward as a result. Much of this is the result of intentional muddying of the waters, attempting to prevent the discourse from even beginning for any number of reasons.

A lot of this, I think, stems from a cultural issue we have with being wrong. We fight being proven wrong at every turn, and when evidence presented portrays us as wrong unequivocally, we attack the evidence. This is ingrained in us at a young age– a student who is never challenged in grade school is “scored” far better than one who struggles but ultimately learns, and coming from the perspective of the former, I think the latter is by far the more laudable. This constantly continues throughout life, and the Internet only exacerbates the problem. Be wrong once, and any future rightness is called into question.

People are tired of the arguments because they clearly present one side as wrong, and we don’t have a good way of handling that, either from the perspective of the person who is wrong or from the perspective of the person looking at someone else who is wrong. Wrong = bad, and more open-minded sorts will frequently “forgive” someone for being wrong, or thinking the wrong thing, as if that weren’t something we all do constantly.

I’d like to see our discourse move away from attacking whoever is wrong and seeking to find blame, and start looking for solutions. We are far too quick to punish errors rather than laud the discovery of solutions, and it stunts our growth– as people, as a culture, as a nation, and as a species.

30 Posts in 30 Hours: The Manifesto

I haven’t officially participated in Blaugust, but it made for a nice framework for me to launch this site.

In the last 30 or so hours (some of the dates have been altered on my posts so that they’re in the proper order), I’ve put together a list of things that I think about and plan to write about, hopefully if anyone reads them they’ll have a better idea about who I am and how I think.

Putting them here, for an easily-referenced list:

1. Video Games
2. Game Design Theory and Practice
3. Tabletop RPGs
4. Warmachine/Hordes
5. Infinity: the Game
6. Gaming Psychology
7. Relationships
8. The Games Industry
9. Games Academia
10. Linguistics and Definitions
11. Etiquette
12. Technology
13. Food
14. Games I Recommend
15. Stories I Write
16. Books
17. Articles worth reading
18. Miniatures Painting and Modeling
19. Alcohol
20. My Dog
21. Games I’d Like To See
22. The Future of Games
23. Q&A
24. Business and Money
25. Culture
26. Politics
27. Aggrochat
28. Terrible, terrible jokes
29. Cleverness of any kind
30. Things That Are Broken

“Fun”, Defined (Part 1)

What is “fun”?

Fun is an ephemeral thing, hard to pin down and harder to replicate. It differs from person to person, and what is fun for one person is anathema to the next. Fun is also absolutely crucial to the success of a game; a game can be brilliantly produced with the blood, sweat, and tears of hundreds of developers, testers, support staff, executives, and everyone else who is involved in its creation, and all of that is for nothing if the game isn’t fun enough for enough people to buy it.

You might note that I said “fun enough” and didn’t stop that previous sentence at “fun”. The qualifier “enough” in both sentences is really, really important, partly because it hints towards a realistic approach to talking about (and reviewing!) games, but also because it gets us a step closer to my goal, which is defining what “fun” is.

Fun = ?

Here’s where we’re at. This isn’t really enough to build a game (or anything else) on, with a definition like this at best we’re guessing and hoping we get lucky. Certainly some highly successful games have done this, but it’s not a sustainable way to make great games, or for players, to recieve great games to play.

That “fun enough” comes back, here. Our equation needs to reflect the fact that this will be different for different people; no single game, no matter how well-made, will be fun for everyone. To this end, let’s find a variable that appears in lots of games that differs from person to person. Our variable is so prevalent that game developers have classically put a lot of work into allowing players to manipulate the way the entire game works just to accommodate it.

That variable is difficulty. Put another way, challenge: which is so important to a game being successful (read: fun) that devs are willing to put time and money (extremely valuable resources) into supporting it for as many players as is feasible.


Fun = Challenge + ?

It’s important, here, to note that more challenge is not strictly better. Challenge rides a very thin line between being so difficult it’s frustrating and so easy it’s boring. It’s also a sliding scale– as a player plays a game, they get better at it, and if they play it too long, they become bored (though the amount of time this takes is widely variable from person to person). The game also has to allow players breathing room, to appreciate the skills they’ve attained in overcoming challenges. If a game’s challenge continually rises with no variation, the sense of progression, of mastery, is lost. This suggests that there’s another factor here, which I’m going to call “expression of mastery”. Players need to be challenged but they also need the opportunity to appreciate the skills they’ve developed while overcoming challenges.

Fun = Challenge + Expression of Mastery + ?

These two things, while important, aren’t enough to define fun, and they leave out a lot of games in the process. They’re a part of things, but there are some other parts missing. As with challenge, I suggest following the trail of developmental money, time, and effort. This isn’t a perfect metric (something I’ll talk more about later), but looking at what game developers focus on can tell us a lot about games.

More on this tomorrow. I’ll talk about what game devs focus on, try to complete our Fun equation, and talk a little bit about what that equation means and how we can use it, whether we’re making games, playing them, or just observing.

Some additional reading: Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, from which many of the concepts described here are derived.

30 Things This Blog is About (#30: Things That Are Broken)

Reality is broken. So says Jane McGonigal, and I don’t disagree. I think it’s important to pay attention to the things that are broken, but it’s often even harder to realize when things are, in fact, broken. Oftentimes, like an ailing car, we believe that things aren’t broken, because we know that the effort or cost incurred in fixing them will be high.

This is a human tendency that we must fight at every turn.

We cannot allow ourselves to hope that broken things will fix themselves without our efforts. We cannot allow ourselves to turn a blind eye to things that are problems, or need fixing, even (especially!) if they’re within ourselves.

I have had beliefs that I now know are harmful; I have said things and used words that I, in ignorance, thought were acceptable, even poignant. I have had my car break down suddenly at 80 miles per hour on the highway. I’ve been lucky to have had patient and varied friends, who have broadened my perspective and helped me realize that this isn’t about being PC, it isn’t about being right, and it isn’t about doggedly driving the car until it breaks down and threatens your life and the lives of everyone with you.

The faster we admit that something is broken, the faster we can fix it, and the less pain we’ll incur in doing so. Harmful beliefs are a frayed drive belt on the engine– they will appear to be working just fine until they suddenly snap and your world is thrown into disarray, possibly catastrophically. We live in the age of the internet, the Surveillance Age, where careers and lives are ruined because of harmful beliefs that someone has held onto for too long.

If something is broken, it will need to be fixed or it will break down. I’ve decided that if that something is me, I need to fix it, before the breakdown occurs.

30 Things This Blog is About (#29: Clever Things)

A clever person turns great troubles into little ones, and little ones into nothing at all.

–(attrib) Chinese Proverb

I am obsessed with efficiency. I like problems to be solved quickly, effectively, and with a minimum of fuss. Myers-Briggs pegs me solidly as INTJ, and while I don’t necessarily ascribe completely with the evaluation, it’s definitely fitting in a lot of ways. I want things to be done in tidy ways, and I tend to feel like any problem that is solved with brute force is being solved inefficiently.

I’m also fascinated by the solutions to problems. I love to hear about the clever processes people have discovered to solve otherwise unsolvable (or extremely difficult) issues. I equally love little life hacks, ways of creating little efficiencies and helpful tricks in everyday life, particularly if they’re not intuitive but highly effective. Anything that makes me go “wow, that works? I would never have thought of that” catches my attention.

Similarly, my favorite entertainment to watch involves highly skilled people doing the thing they’re highly skilled at. This can be everything from professional League of Legends to Iron Chef to Ocean’s Eleven and other heist movies. I like to see how things are done at a high tier of skill, sometimes to learn, sometimes just to appreciate demonstrations of skill.

30 Things This Blog is About (#28: Terrible, Terrible Jokes)

I love terrible jokes. They’re really the best. Awful dad jokes, excruciating puns, you name it.

Rather than going on a list of truly outrageously awful jokes, I actually want to try to analyze WHY I like them. Kodra or Ash would probably say it’s because I’m a terrible person who feeds on the anguish of others, and while that’s not entirely false, I feel like there’s more to that story.

Cognitive dissonance is the term for the mental friction between two thoughts or concepts that either contradict one another or just don’t fit. It’s a weird form of discomfort, like pulling a muscle, except that the muscle is your brain. It’s also a really potent source of distress– when you pull a muscle, you limp a little bit, because you’re forced to adjust how you move. When your brain undergoes the same effect, it can force you to reevaluate how you think. I’m a big fan of anything that forces thoughts to go sideways, or otherwise flex in unusual ways.

A really excellent awful joke is like a bridge with a gap in the middle. To cross it, you have to jump, and that jump is a brief thrill for your brain as it adjusts. As you “get” the joke, everything snaps into place suddenly and you laugh. Like a puzzle or a math problem or any other sort of challenge, it’s a brief moment where your brain gets to bend in a slightly unusual way, and it keeps your mind sharp.

Also, I do sustain myself on the anguish of others. Hence the puns.