The Best Games of All Time (Part 4: Genre Pinnacles)

Based on my initial criteria, there are a LOT of games that make it into consideration. I want some way of organizing them sensibly, so that I can explain not just what games make the list, but why. To that end, I’ve got the following categories, to help me filter games:

  1. Enduring Classics
  2. Medium Changers
  3. Genre Pinnacles
  4. Right Place, Right Time
  5. Honorable Mentions
  6. Why Didn’t I Include…

The first four cover games that I think make the cut for “best games of all time”, the latter two are for things that are close, or aren’t eligible for inclusion for one reason or another. I’ll be doing each one, day by day.

Today, “Genre Pinnacles”. These are games that are, straight up, represent the very best of bygone eras of gaming, that are still relevant and still important even though games like them largely aren’t being made anymore. Most (all) of these are 2D-era games, mainly because I feel like claiming that a game is the pinnacle of a genre that’s still being developed is somewhat premature. They each represent a start of a thread that has moved forward and influenced the games that follow in subtle ways, not the massive shifts of the Medium Changers.

Additionally, this was an interesting list to put together, because the results weren’t what I expected. I expected to see a fairly broad spectrum of games in this category, but as I did research and double-checked my initial criteria, things started gravitating to a particular place. Here we go:

Super Mario World

Like Super Mario 64 after it, Super Mario World launched a console, and left a lasting mark on 2D platformers. It had exploration, it had secrets, it had varied environments and exciting enemies. It had a world map that felt gigantic, and entire hidden worlds to find. It demanded that other platformers keep up with its tight controls and sharp features, and only a small number could. It combined wide open levels and tight, cramped spaces, difficult platforming and fiendish enemies, and through it all still introduced new concepts to Mario games that have endured.

It also introduced Yoshi, a character so beloved he’s gotten his own spinoff series multiple times over, and who also took center stage in the one generalist platformer that managed to dethrone Super Mario World:

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island

Yes, it’s a sequel. No, it’s not even remotely the same game. Five years after the launch of Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island hype started circling, and it was weird. It was a Mario game where you didn’t play as Mario, where Mario was a macguffin for you to keep ahold of. Then we got to play it. The game is brilliant, with delightful music, levels that are more than just “run right until the end”, which described a majority of levels even in Super Mario World, clever bosses, and memorable mechanics. In the same way that Doom became a primer for 3D level design, Yoshi’s Island was a primer for the highest tier of 2D level design ever devised, and it largely hasn’t been topped since.

In addition, Yoshi’s Island introduced the very start of an idea that has continued to develop ever since: the minimalist UI. Yoshi’s Island’s UI appeared contextually, showing you what you had as you needed to see it, rather than all the time. Rather than a counter for ammunition, you could see your actual ammo trailing around behind you in the form of eggs, and you could see how many you had without referring to a text overlay. It proved that in-game messaging could be highly effective, and was a game that wanted you to look at IT, and not the overlay on the screen. The better our technology has gotten, the better we’ve gotten at this, and Yoshi’s Island kicked it all off.

Mega Man X

Mega Man X is a brilliant game. It’s challenging, highly complex, with lots of twitchy mechanics and a selection of usable weapons broader and more varied than even the most insane FPS, and yet it is a game that seamlessly and effectively teaches you how to play it every step of the way. It holds your hand without letting you realize it’s doing so, and as a result you learn to play it without realizing that you’re being taught. It invented the tutorial level, and while it’s been implemented inexpertly ever since, it’s also allowed deeply complex games to arise without forcing players to pore through a manual just to figure out how to play. Mega Man X taught through gameplay, and it’s no coincidence that manuals started getting slimmer and less necessary starting then.

On top of that, the game has excellent visuals, memorable music and sounds (I can still hear the blaster charge-up sound in my sleep, and the sound of getting health back), and extremely clever level design and bosses, breaking free from the boxes of previous Mega Man games and, indeed, most platformer boss battles and showcasing wide open boss stages that were playable while still being more than just a single screen. It also showed off how movement could make a huge difference, and wall-jumping is now standard in platformers, as is the dash.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

While Mario was showcasing the beauty of wide-open generalist platforming, Sonic the Hedgehog was delivering a different thing: intensity. The name of the game for Sonic was speed, and it offered a visceral satisfaction that’s hard to top. Sonic was about speedrunning before speedruns were a thing, and the game leaned heavily on its tight, responsive controls, arguably even tighter and cleaner than Mario. Really pushing the envelope for visuals and effects, Sonic attempted to make the battle about cool graphics and high skill, an angle that Mario couldn’t compete in, and thus Sonic found its niche.

Sonic 2, however, had a little detail that made it different. In the game, you ran around not as just Sonic, but as Sonic and his friend Tails, who by default ran along behind Sonic and kept pace, mimicking his moves but contributing relatively little except for the occasional ring pickup or followup hit on an enemy you missed. That is, until you plugged a second controller in. Do that, and suddenly Sonic 2 wasn’t a game you were playing by yourself, it was a co-op game. Better yet, unlike Mario with its shared lives and “I go you go” co-op, you were both playing at the same time and the second player couldn’t really interfere. You could play with a friend as good as you were and crush levels, or (if you’re me) you could play with your four year old sister. Not only could a (much) younger sibling or other unskilled player join you, it didn’t matter how bad they were at the game. They got to contribute, and you were happy to have them, no matter how awful they were.

It would be almost 20 years before we’d see this implemented so well again.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

The Legend of Zelda is a really important series. It’s a style of gameplay that blends puzzles, exploration, and action-RPG mechanics in an extremely iconic way. In a lot of ways, it has struggled to differentiate itself as it’s moved to 3D, skewing towards new mechanics and more outlandish settings with classic Nintendo polish, rather than simply being an expression of the very best action-RPG out there. A Link to the Past is the last Zelda of that time, when Zelda games were the highest quality action-RPGs available, and everything tried to be like them.

From the moment you step out of your house, unarmed, into the pouring rain to look for your uncle, the entire game feels weighty, and huge. When you’ve gotten your bearings and have mastered the world map, the game shifts, revealing that no, in fact there is an entire other world map hiding in the background, with more than twice as many dungeons, and that you’ve only just started.

A Link to the Past has been the style that Zelda games have continued to return to as well, with many of the most successful releases drawing on its style, particularly for handhelds. It says a lot about the quality of Link to the Past that some of the most glowing praise for a recent entry is that it’s “just like it”. To be so good that players crave the experience more than two decades later says a lot.

Super Metroid / Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

I don’t know a lot of games that people religiously play more than once a year, but Super Metroid is on the list. It combines the open-world exploration of Super Mario World and the exciting, varied combat of Mega Man X into one big package. It advanced on its predecessor with improved graphics, more varied gameplay, more powerups, and more of, well, everything.

Castlevania is a similar design, but a totally different approach. It was one of the few successful platformers of the time where your primary attack was a melee strike, and it paved the way for a variety of similar games. Special weapons were temporary, and cycled through frequently, but the overall experience wound up being varied and almost a precursor to the limited-ammo survival horror games to succeed it.

Together, these two games make up “Metroidvania”, its own subgenre that has seen a huge resurgence recently in a variety of ways, and drove a huge amount of that style of game both while they were new and fresh and since.

The Best Games of All Time (Part 3: Medium-Changers)

Based on my initial criteria, there are a LOT of games that make it into consideration. I want some way of organizing them sensibly, so that I can explain not just what games make the list, but why. To that end, I’ve got the following categories, to help me filter games:

  1. Enduring Classics
  2. Medium Changers
  3. Genre Pinnacles
  4. Right Place, Right Time
  5. Honorable Mentions
  6. Why Didn’t I Include…

The first four cover games that I think make the cut for “best games of all time”, the latter two are for things that are close, or aren’t eligible for inclusion for one reason or another. I’ll be doing each one, day by day.

Next up, the “Medium-Changers”. These games have left a long and lasting impact on video games as a medium, often in surprisingly varied ways, and across genres. Many of them have enabled entirely new genres, or are still the seminal work in their genre. Some proved that innovation is worthwhile, and drove others to follow their lead, broadening and expanding the industry. Many of these games have since been iterated and improved on, but they all have had a lasting impact on the medium.

I’m going to start with the biggest one.


Super Mario 64

If I were to drop the plural entirely from the title of this series, Super Mario 64 would be one of the top contenders for me to write about. It is a game so good, so polished, and so varied and finely crafted that virtually that entire console generation was spent trying to catch up, and largely failing. Super Mario 64 is enormous, inventing a console control scheme that has stood the test of time (at a time when EVERYONE was trying to come up with how to control games in 3D), and was still more varied and more technically innovative than almost anything that’s come since. To surpass Mario 64, an entire genre of third-person action platformers have had to attack it in the two places it’s weakest: its art (amazing for the time) and its narrative (look, it’s a mario game). Games like Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted, The Last of Us, Splinter Cell, Hitman, and even Dark Souls have their roots in Super Mario 64; there are design threads that begin there and stretch on.

Mario 64 taught us to play games in 3D. It wasn’t the first 3D platformer, but it was the first with controls that made intuitive sense, and worked. It introduced the idea of a camera you can control, while still giving you a good look at your surroundings. It taught us to move and look around with both hands, a design that has had a massive, lasting impact on controller design ever since and started to bridge the gap between console and PC, once viewed as an uncrossable chasm. Through all of that, it was also a polished, nonlinear game with tons of replayability, an amount of content considered huge even 20 years later, and a variety of gameplay types that all worked shockingly well without feeling like minigames. I could go on, but the game speaks for itself. Someone, somewhere, sold their soul so that Mario 64 could exist, and it was actually a pretty good deal.


Super Mario Kart

Continuing with the Mario theme. This is the SNES Mariokart, although I looked long and hard at Mariokart 64. Here’s why I picked Super Mario Kart: it’s the game that suggested that racing could be silly, and that it could still be a strong, deep game underneath. It’s the game that taught us to look beyond our initial expectations of a fairly well-understood genre (racing games) to see the potential. It wasn’t the first kart-racer, nor the first car combat game, but it’s the first to combine the two into a game that contained elements of both but was unlike either. It opened the door for a ton of variation and blending of genres, in a way that hadn’t been previously considered outside of the smallest of niches.

Super Mario Kart started the weakening of the boundary between “serious” and “casual” games, a process that continues decades later, but was previously very codified– the game looked simple and cartoony, but could become brutally difficult. It was one of the first home party games, despite only supporting 2 players at a time, and its tracks are still copied nearly perfectly into the latest releases. Super Mario Kart caused a generation of designers to stop and think “hm, what if…” and then go out and make their own insane genre mash-ups. We have long since left the era of codified genres in video games, but one of the first strikes to chip at that barrier was Super Mario Kart.



This is another game that speaks for itself. Largely credited with being the first FPS, Doom is actually second to Wolfenstein 3D, but is in many ways the far more relevant game. Doom is a game about level design, and encounter design, things that had been somewhat haphazard previously. The big thing Doom added was multiplayer, following up Street Fighter II’s foray into simultaneous head-to-head multiplayer with a group of people, all battling it out in an arena. If Wolfenstein 3D was a prototype, Doom is the full release.

Doom is also seeing relevance again for mobile developers, as its “pseudo-3D” nature works surprisingly well with mobile devices. Mobile games are starting to look back at Doom for both input and design concepts, as it’s almost uniquely suited for the platform.

Final Fantasy Tactics [U] [SCUS-94221]-front

Final Fantasy Tactics

This is another game that kicked off a genre. Riding the coattails of Super Mario Kart, Final Fantasy Tactics asks what might happen if two very detailed, very different genres were blended into one. Offering deep, varied gameplay, clever encounter design, and an excellent story and visuals to boot, Final Fantasy Tactics was one of the first major console turn-based strategy games, and the most accessible. It offered a largely nonlinear approach and a wide variety of options, with each mission’s results making often significant differences in the later ones. Strategy games on consoles had struggled prior to Final Fantasy Tactics, which provided a solid footing for that control scheme, while the big RTSes battled it out on the PC.

Furthermore, unlike its predecessors and contemporaries, Final Fantasy Tactics has become the model for narratively-driven strategy games, adding a personal touch to what had previously been dominated by tanks, mecha, and faceless groups of soldiers. Perhaps most telling, it’s one of the games on this list that is still entirely legitimately fun and fresh-feeling even now.


World of Warcraft

Shocker, I know. The MMORPG would not be anything like it is today without World of Warcraft. With an enduring art style, tight gameplay mechanics, cleverly designed and iterated-upon systems, and its influence in the massive shift in how MMOs were viewed before and since, there’s no denying that WoW is one of the best games ever made. Like it or hate it, its influence is undeniable. There are a lot of things that WoW has done, and its current relevance can’t be disputed, but there’s a big thing that puts it on this list: polish.

Prior to WoW, MMORPGs were a hyper-niche market, with 100,000 players being a resounding success and buggy, laggy games often being the norm. Performance and stability was not what you came to the genre for– I remember spending hours trying desperately to get more than a handful of frames per second from any number of early MMOs. WoW changed all that. The game worked. It felt fluid, it felt responsive, it felt good. A lot of this was smoke and mirrors, but it was clever smoke and mirrors, and it raised the bar of quality for MMOs much higher than it had been previously, while increasing the market by orders of magnitude. If it has a fatal flaw, it’s that it’s been too successful, and has so thoroughly drowned out competition in the market that the overall market is starting to shrink. Not many media can claim that level of success.


Grand Theft Auto III

Grand Theft Auto III is a game about wandering around playing it. It took the big, open-world concepts seen mostly in slow-paced RPGs and amped up the action and the pacing, providing a visceral, exciting sandbox to play in. Five years after Super Mario 64, the third-person action genre came up with its first spinoff that matched the scale of its progenitor. The game had a bit of everything: subversive black humor, lots of things to do, multiple interlocking systems, and many, many little personal touches and tiny details that made it a blast to play.



Like Grand Theft Auto III, Morrowind took a look at the expansive, do-anything world concept and took it in a different direction. Rather than making the world bigger and broader, Morrowind crammed it full of detail. The amount of meticulous detail in the game is absurd– individual coins can be picked up from a spilled purse, shopkeepers often have the items they’re selling you hanging on a rack behind them, and you have the freedom to run around doing anything you like. Unlike GTA, however, everything you do in Morrowind is potentially meaningful. Kill a random shopkeeper? They’re dead. Not coming back. No more buying and selling for you in that shop. Steal something? The guards might come and find you.

In addition to all of that, Morrowind took the swords-and-sorcery fantasy world and turned it on its head, providing a delightfully weird, atypical setting to romp around in, far different from the classic fare and all the more refreshing for it.


Goldeneye 007

For years, first-person shooters lived on the PC. They were immensely popular, and by 1996 they were already being modded into fantastic, bizarre playgrounds. The complexity and variety of the 3D shooter on the PC was impressive, and prior to 1997 offerings on home consoles were anemic at best. Enter Goldeneye. Goldeneye offered a shooter on a console that made sense. It provided a model for a console FPS that would be copied for years, and opened the doors of the popular but inaccessible genre to a much wider market.

On top of all of that, it was a movie tie-in game that didn’t suck, and offered quite a lot of replayability and interesting level constraints, pulling from the (at the time) very modern approach of adding additional objectives as the difficulty level rose, which was just starting to show up in mission-based games at that time.


Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (series)

I include the entire series here, because while no single game makes the cut, the series as a whole is worth mentioning. Two things put Tony Hawk on this list: alternative (non-team, non-racing) sports games and spectator gaming. Tony Hawk was a game that sparked a whole lot of interesting, varied sports games beyond the common-at-the-time team ball sports and racing titles. Previously, sports games that didn’t involve balls or cars still involved racing, and the idea of doing “tricks” was a bonus, mostly a way of taunting other players or showing off. THPS took the concept of showing off and turned it all the way up– the game is entirely about showing off as impressively as possible, and it’s fun and addicting as a result.

The other thing that Tony Hawk really pushed was the idea of having other people watch you as you did cool things. While many other games were showing off their head-to-head multiplayer prowess, Tony Hawk returned to the high score method, specifically because it WAS a game about showing off, and having an audience was the entire point. In a lot of ways, Tony Hawk is the nascent, living-room precursor to e-sports, where highly skilled players show off for an audience.



Pure puzzle games were rare by 2007. They were often mixed with other genres, and there wasn’t a lot of innovation. Towers of Hanoi, Lights Out, and block-pushing puzzles were about all you’d see in AAA games, and pure puzzle games were relegated to internet flash games or mobile devices. While many of them were good (Lumines, Meteos, Peggle, Bejeweled), they were light, simple, and disposable. Portal was different. Portal offered a fiendish set of puzzles in a high-fidelity game, and blended that with a brilliant narrative and a compelling cast of characters (all four of them). It’s a puzzle game sold on the quality of its voice acting, which should make for a moment’s pause.

In addition, it sparked the indie development scene in a way very few other things had– small, well-produced games became a lot more viable, and initial criticisms that Portal was “too short” were followed up by “shut up, play it, seriously”. For me, Portal was the first game I bought at release that I felt like I paid too little for, and that’s before considering the two other games I got in the same box.



This game is almost an honorable mention. I’m maybe trading a little bit of my own integrity to put it on the list. However. Thief is a product of the experimental era of late 90’s / early 2000’s FPSes, alongside greats like System Shock, Deus Ex, and Morrowind. It just barely meets my criteria– it’s launched sequels, it was remade once, but it’s (at this point) pretty dated and kind of hard to play. Its legacy makes up for that. Prior to Thief, “stealth” in games was pretty much exclusively “don’t let the bad guys see you”.

Thief took that a step further, providing degrees of shadows for you to hide in, and making your sounds and movements important. It wasn’t just about not being seen, it was the whole package– not being seen, not being heard, and not being caught. Thief rarely ended the game on you if you were seen, but you really didn’t want to be seen. It was perhaps the first FPS that made you weaker than virtually every enemy in the game. While you could fight, you really, REALLY didn’t want to. This changed the dynamic immensely, and Thief is a game about perception and planning, not twitch reflexes. It basically defined the stealth action game, and it’s only relatively recently (with Assassin’s Creed) that the paradigm it developed has branched out in any major sort of way.

It is probably my personal favorite game of all time (and not just because it’s one of the first non-final-fantasy steampunk games), which gives it that last little nudge up onto the list proper rather than as an honorable mention. It’s me pandering to my own tastes a bit (I didn’t love and in some cases didn’t even play some of the other games on this list), but whatever, this is my blog, mleeeh! 😛

The Best Games of All Time (Part 2: The Enduring Classics)

Based on my initial criteria, there are a LOT of games that make it into consideration. I want some way of organizing them sensibly, so that I can explain not just what games make the list, but why. To that end, I’ve got the following categories, to help me filter games:

  1. Enduring Classics
  2. Medium Changers
  3. Genre Pinnacles
  4. Right Place, Right Time
  5. Honorable Mentions
  6. Why Didn’t I Include…

The first four cover games that I think make the cut for “best games of all time”, the latter two are for things that are close, or aren’t eligible for inclusion for one reason or another. I’ll be doing each one, day by day.

First, the “Enduring Classics”. These are games that skew heavily towards “still fun to play today”, and in almost all cases have resulted in later games that are almost wholly unchanged. Even if one of these games gets a sequel, that sequel is going to be marginally different if at all. Most of these games have seen huge numbers of remakes and re-releases, far more than even very commonly remade games, or have spawned immense sets of very-similar sequels. Without further ado:



The grandchild of Pong, and the child of Breakout, Arkanoid took the paddle-and-ball concept and added a simple but significant twist: powerups. Now, instead of just movement, a player can get action as well, and there’s more to think about than simply hitting the ball when it gets close. It added tactical thought and variability to a refined, but static genre. Arkanoid has seen releases on virtually everything under the sun, spanning virtually every single console generation– the most recent release is in 2009 on the iPhone, 23 years after its original release. It has also given rise to a huge number of similar games, most of which focus on thematically adapting the powerups that separated Arkanoid from its predecessors. Arkanoid excels at quick, satisfying gameplay but also provides a stable, clever platform for a lot of modification and variety– despite its apparent simplicity, the breadth of variety in the modified Arkanoid spinoffs is impressive.

It’s next to impossible to find a more enduring game, and certainly not one that has lasted so long with so few changes.



Another game that has been released on virtually everything under the sun, pioneering a unique action-puzzle design and coupling it with simply rendered but extremely memorable music and sound design. Furthermore, the game’s remakes eventually offered head to head multiplayer, adding a spin on its mechanics that changes the dynamic of the game fairly significantly. It’s probably the only game to be released on more different platforms than Arkanoid, an impressive feat on its own. It’s also still played highly competitively to this day.

The platform may change, the times may change, but the basic Tetris game has remained relatively unchanged, and very few iterations of the game have yielded notable improvements.



It’s next to impossible to find a more enduring game than Arkanoid, but Pac-Man is one of them. Another classic arcade game released on basically everything under the sun, and yielding huge numbers of spinoffs, Pac-Man blends simple but effective controls with some of the earliest and most notable complex level design in games. Like Arkanoid, Pac-Man offers quick, satisfying gameplay but also offers a strategic layer virtually unknown in games that came before it. Pac-Man is one of the first games to provide a skill curve that is more than just reflexes– the best Pac-Man players learn each level and how best to tackle them.


Street Fighter II

Moving forward in the arcade classics timeline, Street Fighter II is THE iconic fighting game. Blending excellent gameplay, top-notch art, excellent sound design and music, brilliant UI, and deep but accessible multiplayer, Street Fighter II is incredibly hard to top, and is generally responsible for forging the fighting game genre as a whole. Despite the movement of games into 3D, such is the enduring legacy of Street Fighter II that fighting games have, by and large, stuck to a 2D model with only relatively minor changes in user interface or gameplay. The game also introduced the “combo” mechanic, now a standard in fighting games, and pioneered the concept of head-to-head multiplayer as a competitive measure, rather than the high score measurement that had previously been more common. Finally, it introduced an early form of “patching”, where revisions to the game would make it to the arcade rather than sequels.

Street Fighter II has also seen releases as recently as 2008, a striking amount of longevity for a game that is still also releasing sequels.


Dance Dance Revolution

The youngest of this segment’s arcade classics, DDR is the authoritative rhythm and music game, and arguably the last internationally relevant arcade game. Released on every platform and spawning a huge number of peripherals, as well as paving the way for rhythm games and rhythm puzzles to be introduced in even more mainstream games, DDR’s influence is massive, and with iterations, sequels, and remakes appearing more or less constantly (the most recent release being in 2014), it’s the most modern arcade classic to make this list.

Music and dance games have become a big part of the casual games market, and DDR more or less started it all.


Pokemon Red

I’m going to be a little pedantic here, partly because I picked Red over Blue, and also if we’re being highly technical, Pokemon Blue was never remade, whereas Red was. Either way, the first generation of Pokemon games was a twist on the classic top-down JRPGs that added the concept of collecting. The tagline “gotta catch ’em all” has permeated much more of the medium than just exploration and collection games; it is the mindset behind achievement systems and many, many “find all the hidden objects” game systems. In addition to being highly accessible and offering surprisingly deep, complex gameplay under its veneer of simplicity, Pokemon has also to some extent revitalized the idea of social components in games– something that started to falter with the rise of home consoles.

In addition to being remade, the stunning popularity of Twitch Plays Pokemon and the relative lack of significant changes to the franchise until the most recent game releases suggest that despite its age and relative simplicity, the game is still eminently playable even now.


The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

The first Zelda game to make it onto this list, Ocarina of Time isn’t here because it left huge ripples in the medium, or is the pinnacle of its genre, or was perfectly timed. It doesn’t need to be any of those things. It moved action-RPGs into the 3D world and built on the ground that Super Mario 64 broke, but what it really did was “everything right”. Coming from a time when 3D console graphics were still in their infancy, Ocarina of Time manages to still look iconic and visually distinctive. Its music, a departure from the series, is still a constant source of remixes and nostalgia and has redefined what “Zelda music” is. It presents puzzles, environments, and bosses that are still clever and interesting, and has a breadth of gameplay tools that even modern games of its type struggle to match, much less exceed.

Ocarina of Time raised the bar for 3D action-adventure games, setting a standard that defined the genre from then on, and giving rise to some of the other greats to come on this list.


Super Smash Bros (series)

Very few fighting games that break from the Street Fighter II paradigm manage to stick. Of those, many are beloved but deviate only slightly from the model. Super Smash Bros deviates heavily– becoming a fighting game about movement and positioning more than precision combo execution– a theme that is carried through the game’s entire suite of mechanics. Leaning on Nintendo’s iconic roster of characters and establishing an art and audio style that manages to unify characters from a huge variety of different types and eras of games while still keeping them recognizable, SSB has seen iterations and revisions across multiple platforms, with very minor changes and upgrades other than a continually expanding character roster. Despite its apparent simplicity, SSB has surprisingly deep and very technically precise mechanics, lack of which is an often fatal flaw in other fighting games. Super Smash Bros Melee has appeared in major tournaments from 2007 to 2015. It has also kept the “couch multiplayer” environment alive even through the era of internet play, something very few games have managed.

Super Smash Bros is included as a series because the entries deviate relatively little from one another, and as a whole, it’s a series that is significant enough for inclusion, even if none of the individual entries are. This is an exception I’ll occasionally make, and I’ll call it out when I do.

The Best Games of All Time (Part 1: Criteria)

I’ve been following the internet explosion over at GameFAQs with some amusement. Essentially, Undertale is beating out some highly beloved classics in a “for funsies” series of polls for “best game ever”. I think Undertale is a great game, and does a lot of things that require you to be conversant in some fairly diverse and long-held gaming tropes, but I doubt it’s up there for “best game ever”, for a few reasons. It’s nice to see it get recognition, though.


It’s gotten me thinking about what I would pick for the Best Games Ever, though. I use the plural because picking a single one is a laughably meaningless prospect, but there are some that are absolutely brilliant and deserve continued recognition. I’ve worked on coming up with some criteria to narrow the list down, see what you think:

1.) The game must be at least five years old.

This isn’t a slight on newer games, simply a nod to the fact that a game needs to be able to stand the test of time. I use five years because that’s on the long end of the development cycle for games, so games released more than five years ago aren’t going to be able to get by on the quality of their graphics or technology alone. It also ensures that the game has had time to fade into obscurity; if it hasn’t, that’s a good sign.


2.) The game must contain original concepts for its time.

This is a nod to the need for games to continue to evolve. The very best games aren’t just masterpieces in their own right, they push the medium forward into new spaces. The “for its time” clause is there because some games may use those same concepts later, and may build on them, but aren’t necessarily moving the medium forward.

3.) The game must display a near-perfect refinement of its mechanics.

Some games are brilliant but buggy. Some games are very good at a number of things, but excel at none of them. Something worthy of being called ones of the “best games ever” can’t be either– they need to showcase the best of a given genre, be polished and complete, and would benefit little to not at all from any changes made.


4.) The game must have had at least two of the following: at least one re-release on a new platform, have given rise to a remake, have created its own media web of spinoffs/sequels/etc.

This is a nod to games that are enduring, financially successful, and significant or beloved enough that new development offers enough further sales to justify the cost. Re-releasing on the same platform doesn’t count– no “Greatest Hits” reprint releases here (though many of the games probably would have that, too). Whether there’s a remake, a series of sequels, or other media, this addresses both the enduring appeal of the game as well as its footprint on the medium as a whole.

5.) The game must be good at more than one thing.

Maybe it’s got great combat and platforming. Maybe it’s got great voice acting and multiplayer. Maybe it’s got fantastic art and music. Maybe it’s excellent at teaching you how to play it and endlessly replayable. Maybe it’s a lot of these things. Some games are really, really good at a single one of these; these games don’t make the cut. A game need not be multiple games in one and good at all of them, but it needs to be more than a one-note experience.


6.) The game has to be fun or otherwise significant, even now.

Super hard one, and very difficult to determine. It’s a question of whether or not a game has truly stood the test of time, or if it’s a nostalgic hit but doesn’t *really* stand up. It’s the least objective of the list, but I think it’s important. It’s hard for me to claim a game is one of the best of all time if I couldn’t see myself sitting down and playing it or having a drawn out conversation about it in context of more recent games. I don’t necessarily think every one of the “best games of all time” need be a game I could sit down and play again, but they also shouldn’t be games that I can’t compare favorably with games I’ve played recently.


This is the list I’m going to work with, and mull over a ton of games this week. Let me know if there’s some important criteria I missed; I’ll consider adding it to the list.

What is “Fair”?

I recently had a writing prompt that sparked some thought, as any good writing prompt does. It asked “under what circumstances is it fair for a company to institute layoffs?”

I’ve been hit by layoffs. I’ve had friends hit by layoffs. They’re the relentless specter of the games industry, and everyone has heard innumerable nightmare layoff stories and has probably experienced a few of their own. I know I have some, and I’ve only seen a few. It doesn’t take a lot to make a layoff feel like a nightmare.

The prompt asked about “fairness”. I don’t even know what “fairness” is in that sort of case. What is “fair”, when someone is losing their job? What is “fair” when an executive has to choose between decisions that they know will cause people to hate them? What is “fair” when that selection of poor choices isn’t even the fault of the person making them? What is “fair” for people who suddenly have to worry about their next paycheck?

I don’t think it’s possible to be “fair” to all of those groups of people. I’ve spoken before about the gap I see between workers in a company’s trenches and executive management– as more than one friend of mine calls them: the “suits”. For many people I know, “suits” are heartless, care only about money, don’t care about people, and are only looking so save their own skins or squeeze as much out as possible heedless of the toll it takes. They aren’t people who go home and live with the knowledge that they hold people’s very livelihoods in their hands, that their entire lives are a selection of decisions that they will be hated for, regardless of their reasoning. It’s easy, one imagines, to “live with” all of that when there’s a big paycheck coming.

I talk to a lot of people in executive management lately. They all have nightmare layoff stories too, but they’re different kinds of stories. They aren’t jump-scares, the sudden reveal of a terrible outcome– they’re creeping horrors, the slow realization that something awful is going to happen and there’s no good way to stop it. Every executive manager I speak to wants the same superpower: to see the future.

It makes me think of MMO class balance debates– the raging of players against “uncaring, incompetent” devs who don’t understand how the changes they are or aren’t making are terrible and “unfair”. Devs work crunch hours– should they get rewarded for the toll this takes on them or punished for allowing a situation to arise that necessitates crunch? Whose fault is crunch? Is there fault? Is exacting justice on the person or people at fault “fair”?

This is the kind of thing dominating my thoughts lately. How can I build a bridge between “suits” and the people on the front lines? There are decades of mistrust built up and those walls aren’t easy to break down. More than anything, finding ways to bridge that gap has been my motivation for leaving games to go into management.

As for what is “fair”, after I figure out how to answer the question of what that word even means, I find myself staring at a second question: “fair to whom?”

Short Fiction Friday: A Treatise on Chronomancy

[More short fiction. Dabbling in a bit of worldbuilding here. Enjoy!]


Excerpted from The Four Forbidden Magicks, Vol 2. Restricted to licensed Adept-grade mages of the Third Circle or higher.

The manipulation of anything has rules that need to be followed. What appears to the layperson as magic is simply an application of rules that aren’t universally known and understood. This is true of any form of magic, from the simplest apprentice’s bonfire to the manipulation of the very fabric of reality itself.

One of the earliest tests of an apprentice mage is to have them force their favored element to work in ways counter to its nature. Extinguishing fire without water, causing water to flow uphill, rendering air motionless… all of these force the element to work against what it naturally does, and will cause the apprentice to experience what’s known variously as “feedback”, “mana-burn”, or “metafriction”. The sensation is unpleasant, a mildly painful reminder that elements have rules that need to be respected, if not necessarily followed. Extinguishing a candle by manipulating fire may sting, or cause a young mage to tense in pain. Attempting to extinguish a burning building in the same way may very well leave a mage catatonic from shock, or kill them outright. Scale is important. However, guiding a fire to burn particular things, or ensuring that it stays controlled runs far less counter to the nature of fire, and while it may cost energy or otherwise drain a mage, the amount of feedback is much lower; the fire “resists” this manipulation less.

Chronomancy follows much the same rules, but on a larger scale. Time seeks to flow in a particular direction, at a particular speed, and more importantly it creates a tapestry of chronology that it maintains. To manipulate this natural tendency is the purview of the time mage, but the flow of time is no apprentice’s candle. As one of the Firmament Elements that shapes and defines reality, Time is much more resistant to manipulation, and it can quickly destroy an thoughtless wielder. Manipulations of time need not necessarily be subtle, but they do need to be well-considered and carefully in keeping with the nature of the element.

Those unfamiliar with chronomancy often ask first about “time travel”. The ability to move between the past, present, and future is the beginning and end of what most people consider when they think of a time mage’s inclination. This is further muddied by the occasional knowledge that time travel has, indeed, been attempted with success. The reality is somewhat more complicated. One must consider the natural inclinations of time. Traveling to the future is easy, and is the “successful” time travel often heard about on the lips of laymen and apprentices. Traveling to the future is largely a form of stasis; the traveling mage is merely removed from the flow of time, and assuming they are left unbothered for the duration of the spell (fairly unlikely), will find themselves in the future once the requisite time has passed, the intervening hours or years seemingly instantaneous. While possible and effective, this use of chronomancy has been highly regulated against, partly because of the desire to avoid maintaining a collection of mages in stasis and reintegrating them after their time skip; early experiences with mages traveling to the future via chronomancy have resulted in a high cost incurred with helping them “catch up” to the modern day. As a result, this use of chronomancy is highly restricted, and unapproved uses are subject to counterspelling and other such methods to prematurely cancel the effect.

Once travel to the future is explained, the question of traveling to the past comes up. For as technically easy as it is to travel to the future, travel to the past is starkly different. Time seeks to maintain the integrity of its tapestry, and inserting oneself into the existing weave is a significant disruption. The further back in time one attempts to travel, the larger the disruption is. This form of chronomancy runs perhaps the most counter to the natural behavior of the element as possible. The longest any mage has managed to successfully travel back in time and survive the process has been nine minutes and fifteen seconds, and the price was extremely high. As a pyromancer inexpertly wielding flame may find themselves with burns, the inexpert chronomancer may find themselves aging prematurely. In the case of the nine-minute time traveler, she had apparently aged decades almost instantaneously, and the resulting shock and trauma to her system left her in terminal condition; while she survives the process, it was not for long. Some evidence exists to support the theory that the occasional appearance of dust or ashes in unexpected quantities is the result of attempted chronomancy, and that the dust is the hyper-aged remains of the hapless mage.

With time travel being alternately easy-but-forbidden or functionally impossible, the question remains regarding the usefulness of chronomancy. As far as Forbidden Magic goes, it lacks the raw destructive power of a bolt of Void, or the flexibility of bending the rules of magic itself through Mana, yet it is as difficult and taxing to manipulate as Balance, with as many dangers. Time is a more subtle magic, though no less powerful than its contemporaries. Much of this power relies upon understanding what can and cannot be manipulated, and there are two major approaches to this.

The first approach is to manipulate the flow of time itself. Slowing down the flow of time is nearly impossible, but speeding up one’s perception of it and ability to act within it is much easier. With plenty of opportunity to consider an incoming projectile, or develop a counterspell, or prepare a response of any kind, a chronomancer can react with seemingly impossible speed, with precision and accuracy. While it is illegal to transport oneself into the future, the use of chronomancy in food services has ensured naturally fresh food to anywhere in the world, and valuable documents and artifacts can be protected from decay, while injured or sick people can be transported in near-perfect safety to treatment without deteriorating further.

The second approach is to leverage the inherent uncertainty of the future, explore its possibilities, and choose an optimal outcome. While attempting to do so on a large scale is difficult and potentially dangerous (looking into the future is confusing at best, insanity-causing at worst), it’s much easier to do this on a smaller, more immediate level. If I take a swing with a sword at an enemy, there are myriad ways in which I could strike, and the precise path of the blade is not known until it actually occurs. With chronomancy, I can lean on this uncertainty, swinging in a variety of ways all at once until one swing resolves into a “real” swing. This is often casually referred to as “bending the probability curve”, and while it is a significant use of energy, the results are undeniable. A chronomancer can be an expert swordsman or peerless marksman simply by bending the probability curve to make every swing or shot an ideal hit. It is, of course, limited by one’s own physical ability and knowledge, but the potential is very high.

Of the four Forbidden Magics, chronomancy is the most widely used, and the easiest to be licensed for. The potential of the discipline is much higher than the simple manipulations most commonly used, but very few practitioners explore the element, either through fear instilled by their instructors or a lack of creativity. As a result, it is a largely underrated form of magic, and a savvy time mage can perform feats that can stymie even expert practitioners favoring other elements.

This document is protected by Academic Defenses, LLC. Any attempt to unlawfully copy or record the contents will trigger defensive arcana and this warning serves as a severance of liability under Clause 171.4a of the London Magical Regulation Agreement.

Rant: High-Fidelity Nonsense

Poor communication is not a substitute for depth. If an idea cannot be adequately communicated such that it can be understood without ambiguity, it’s either not a good idea or it’s not being expressed well. In a similar vein, not telling half of a story and implying that there’s ever so much more to be told, but not paying that off is BAD STORYTELLING.


It’s worth noting that there’s a difference between “telling half a story” and “leaving details to the imagination”. Star Wars is an incredible example of the latter– it presents a complete story in a setting, but there are details that hint at a larger universe but aren’t laid out explicitly. These details are entirely unrelated to the story, but they enrich the setting and leave room for the imagination to play, without compromising the storytelling.

A great example of the former is a game I recently finished: Cradle. It presents an incredibly compelling world, and a mystery of identity. What is this world? Who are you? What’s going on here? It’s presented as a compelling mystery, with you collecting scraps in order to put it all together. It builds and builds, answering questions with new questions and hinting at ever larger pieces of an overall story. Then, it ends, paying off none of its questions and only leaving more unanswered ones in its wake. The best you can hope for is to piece together some semblance of a story or an ending from bits and pieces, until you’re satisfied that whatever you came up with is acceptable. Essentially, you can write the rest of the story for yourself, doing the creator’s work, to complete the job left unfinished.


This kind of writing tends to attract a cult following, that will describe it as “genius” because it is incomprehensible, and “intelligent” because it “forces the audience to think”. The hardest part of a story to write, especially one that’s a mystery, is the ending. Skipping that part robs the audience of the payoff the rest of the story is trying to set up. It’s the difference between a sudden plot twist that makes perfect sense in retrospect and a breakout of deus ex machina, where suddenly things change or get resolved out of nowhere. If the culprit in the mystery is some random character that doesn’t appear in the story until the “big reveal”, it’s a pretty lame mystery. If the last part of the mystery is “I know exactly who did it! I’ll tell you when we get there,” and then you roll credits, that’s also a pretty lame mystery.

Hiding something from the reader until the very end is hard to do. It’s not easy to set up all of the little hints and details that don’t quite form a complete picture until the end, but it’s vital to selling any kind of big reveal, and you actually have to let on what the big reveal ACTUALLY IS, or you’re just being a poor storyteller. If you don’t know what the reveal is, and build up to… something… without a clear idea of what you’re building to, you can’t simply never say what the build-up is for and take credit for some kind of hidden depth.


Ambiguity is a powerful tool in storytelling, and leaving certain parts to the imagination is vital, but these things can’t compromise the actual narrative. It should be clear that whatever actually happened, whatever events and decisions led up to the big finish, are actually explainable. Sudden changes or resolutions with no build-up are, frankly, nonsense. If a giant, hollow framework has been built up around a payoff that never comes, that’s just high-fidelity nonsense. Rendering lavish detail on something with no substance doesn’t magically give it substance.

It frustrates me to see this kind of writing, because it’s blatantly disrespectful of both the audience and their time. It often seems to be very good up until the point where it abruptly stops being coherent, at which point it hopes that the audience is invested enough to gin up the rest of the storytelling from whole cloth, or piece together what scraps are available into something resembling a finished product. That isn’t cleverness, or depth, or hidden genius.


One of the best storytelling reveals I’ve seen is in the original Bioshock, where tiny, easily missed details are laced throughout the entire narrative leading up to the big reveal. One of the worst is in There Came an Echo, where suddenly, out of left field, everything you thought you knew turns out to be wrong. The former is good because in a second playthrough, you can catch all of the little things that hinted at the reveal. The latter is bad because the reveal has no buildup, no hints, no suggestion of its existence until suddenly it happens. Similarly, a great mystery that builds and builds until the final narrative closure is Gone Home, which tells a complete story without letting on what actually happened until the very end. A terrible mystery is Cradle, which hints at a complete story and lays a lot of compelling groundwork and then never pays off, providing little more than vague hints of what MIGHT have happened, maybe.

To writers: it’s better to have your audience figure out your ending before it comes than it is to ensure they can’t possibly figure it out, up to and after when it actually comes. Finish your damn stories, don’t make your readers do it.

Opportunity Cost

I’ve had a number of conversations recently about selecting gameplay options in games. Character builds, unit selection, upgrades, anything that provides you tools or options or effectiveness (read: not cosmetic stuff). These things usually have a cost associated with them, and occasionally dependencies, and then an overall effect or suite of options in-game for you to then use.


From chatting with people, I’ve discovered that a lot of people look at the cost to effectiveness comparison alone. Essentially, it’s an “I put points/resources in, get results out” evaluation. If that exchange looks good, then great! We’ll take this option and move forward. What ultimately results from this kind of selection process is a fairly haphazard end result. Most people will take this a step further and ask whether the choice they’re making fits into an overall plan before making the selection. Does this talent mesh with the other talents I’ve taken? Does this unit work well with the other units I’ve chosen, or offer me options I wouldn’t have with my currently-chosen selection? Having an overall strategy is good, and refines the selection process quite a bit. It’s also where most people seem to stop in their evaluation.

There’s a step further that I like to take when making selections. Evaluating options based on the choices you’ve already made is strong, but can be stronger if you take into account the choices you HAVEN’T made. An option might provide you with tools and effectiveness at a fair price, but still not be the best, or even a terribly good choice. It comes down to what you’re giving up by making that choice. To use Fallout 4 as an example, the Ninja and Mister Sandman perks both cost a point and provide similar benefits– raising your sneak attack damage. Assuming you’re good at getting sneak attacks, both appear to be good options. However, it’s notable that Mister Sandman requires that you be using silenced weapons, whereas Ninja does not. Assuming you can’t take both, you’re cutting out the possibility of having your laser weapons benefit (which can’t be silenced) if you choose the Mister Sandman perk. Ninja, however, allows the use of all weapons. Choosing Mister Sandman has the opportunity cost of not benefiting your laser weapons– not necessarily noticable if you opt out of using laser weapons entirely, but it does provide a limitation, or at least makes you less than optimal if you do choose to use a laser weapon.


To use a different example, in Infinity, most factions have a “basic” Heavy Infantry, a sturdy unit in a suit of power armor who can take more damage than a basic unit, has good stats (and usually equipment) and costs in the 40ish point range. At the same time, the game has basic line infantry, who tend to have very basic weapons and low stats and cost in the 10 point range. A question that is generally worth asking when picking one or the other is “what is more valuable to me, a 40-point powerhouse or four 10-point basic units?” This is going to depend on what else is in the force– a strong 40-point unit is good at being a spearhead but only contributes one action to the pool every turn, whereas four basic units can’t fill the spearhead role but provide four actions to the pool every turn. If you need more actions, or if you need a strong spearhead, it can make a big difference. Given the point costs involved, if you’re taking a 40-point basic heavy infantry unit, you’re probably not also taking a 60- or 70-point elite heavy infantry unit, which may be significantly more powerful or flexible. Many Infinity players tend to opt out of taking the “basic” heavy infantry, and instead either make room for the more expensive elites or downgrade to cheaper, more plentiful units. Despite being fairly priced for its benefits, the “basic” heavy infantry unit represents too high of an opportunity cost to make the cut; it’s not better than four basic units, whereas the 70-point elite *is* better than its equivalent value in basic units.


This kind of evaluation often seems to strike a nerve with game communities. As a friend of mine put it, many people seem to view game design as a kind of mysterious black magic, and assume that everything is “meant” to be as it is. Having done it, I don’t view it as any sort of unknown quantity, and have no problem evaluating things at, essentially, a high-tier design level. Factoring opportunity cost into a choice can be, at some level, a design critique– as a player, I’m saying that even though this choice LOOKS reasonable, it actually isn’t due to a flaw or oversight in the game’s high-level design. Something that appears to be a valid choice turns out not to be if you zoom out to a broader view. Sometimes a choice is simply outclassed by a similar choice that offers the same benefits. Sometimes a choice fills a role or solves a problem that didn’t need solving, or is redundant with other options that offer more flexibility.

The critique of this sort of thought process is often an accusation of “gaming the system”, or excessively optimizing, or powergaming. In miniatures games, an epithet thrown around is that a certain kind of play is a “Win At All Costs” (WAAC) sort of player, who is willing to make any sort of sacrifice in order to win the game, whether that means having an interesting force on the table to play, providing their opponent with a fun game, or expressing originality in their gameplay. Often, this kind of optimization is closely linked to “netdecking” or “netlisting”, where a (usually top tier) player has determined the “best” selection of options and the community tends to believe that deviating too much from that established selection is simply a bad choice, and thus many people make those specific selections and no others.


I tend to feel like making these kind of opportunity cost evaluations is not only important to a game, but keeps it healthy. I don’t much care for Warhammer 40k, because it lacks even a remote semblance of balance between choices– some factions are simply better than others, and within factions some unit choices are flatly superior in every way to others. The community (and, indeed, the game’s designers) sharply criticize strategic evaluation as a “WAAC” behavior, which is considered “overly competitive” or “toxic”. As a result, the game balance is very poor. It’s one of the reasons I like Infinity, because there are very, very few units in the game that don’t hold up to a high-level opportunity cost evaluation; nearly every choice in the game can be a valid one in the right circumstances, and while not every list is created equal, almost every unit has a place in a list somewhere. Not only is nothing so bad it can’t be played on the table effectively, very few things are bad enough not to be the *best* choice in a list somewhere.


This kind of evaluation leads to better game design, too. Years of WoW’s talent trees revealed that many talents were simply never the best choice, in any build, and what appeared to be a plethora of options was actually just a series of traps to catch those not optimizing properly, and the gap between an optimized build and a non-optimal one was very wide. While the removal of talent trees from WoW was met with criticism (because it offered “fewer choices”), it improved the overall quality of the game because while there were numerically fewer overall choices, there were a larger number of meaningful choices with multiple valid options.

A lot of the gap between a good player and an excellent player is their willingness to zoom out and take a bigger, more comprehensive look at their options. Despite sounding a lot like a hyper-optimization-focused player in Infinity, I play an extremely wide selection of the units in the game, and by doing that kind of high-level evaluation, I’ve found ways to make unbeloved pieces not simply playable, but shine, often in unexpected ways.

Cultural Divides

Coming off of the high of watching Working!! all the way through, I went looking for other, similar shows and wound up watching the entirety of Servant x Service this weekend with Kodra. I came away from that show feeling pretty weird about it.


On the one hand, Servant x Service is often genuinely funny and has some characters I really like. On the other, it’s very much a product of a much more misogynist culture with very different views on acceptable behavior. It makes me think about cultural imperialism more than a little bit, because it’s easy to sit from my position and decry another society’s culture for things that I find objectionable, but it’s a lot harder to turn that lens inward and consider the things that I do that would be objectionable for other societies. It feels hypocritical for me to sit back and say “this is a problem” and dismiss content as “bad” when not doing the same thing with, say, The Avengers, yet to some extent those feelings are still there. It makes me try to really evaluate how I feel subjectively vs what I believe objectively.

For all that I grit my teeth at some of the things in Servant x Service, it’s easy for me to imagine someone looking at a standard American show that I love (like, say, Firefly) and being bothered that it’s a show essentially about a bunch of criminals with no families, no sense of societal obligation, and a starkly different moral compass. To flatly say that something like Firefly is “better” than something like Servant x Service on some moral ground isn’t something I’m comfortable with, because I’m not speaking from a position where I can say the cultural norms that created one are objectively superior to the other.

It’s a big part of why I’ve tried to experience a really wide variety of content from different places. I’ve railed against the idea of dismissing something (or giving it a pass) simply because of one negative (or one positive) trait it has, and I worry that we dismiss a lot of content just because it’s “weird” or otherwise not congruent with what we consider ‘normal’. There’s a wealth of interesting experiences that are hard to get without leaving the bounds of native English content, and while many of them do some problematic things that unsettle me (like the rampant sexual harassment in Servant x Service), I can’t in good conscience say that there aren’t equally problematic things in even the best of native English content.

I’m kind of going round and round in my head, because half of me is still bothered by the show, and the other half seeks to better understand the show’s context rather than imposing my own on it.

The Burden of Convenience

I had an extended discussion yesterday about data analytics for websites and retailers. The subject was the idea that companies are collecting data about their customers, then selling/trading it and using it for things like targeted advertisements and shopping experiences tailored to a customer’s personal profile.


This is something that’s a hot button for quite a few people. The word “creepy” is thrown around a lot, as is “invasion of privacy”, which I think is understandable but I also feel can be a somewhat hypocritical concern. My immediate thought was that people have restaurants and shops where they’re a regular– where the staff knows them by name, knows their favorite meal/size/tastes, and gives them an extremely personal, tailored experience. This is considered GOOD CUSTOMER SERVICE, and it’s the kind of thing that gets a place repeat business and good reviews. The process by which this happens isn’t far removed from, say, Target collecting user data from customers who use credit cards to pay. Frequently, those establishments have a profile at a terminal in the back that they’re pulling up so they can ask you how you like your new shoes from last time, or if you want “the usual”.

It’s interesting to me, because it begs the question of what’s different about the restaurant where you’re a regular and Target, that you shop at a bunch. Why is it good customer service when your server knows your name but creepy and privacy-invading when it’s Target? When your favorite bartender moves to a new bar and you start frequenting that one, your information is shared with that new bar; how is that different from your profile being shared? There’s no opt-in there, you didn’t choose to have your information shared, but you’d (likely) be happy to get the same kind of personalized treatment at the new bar as you enjoyed at the old one, but many people are much less cheerful about seeing Facebook advertise their recent Amazon browsing.


My take is that the difference is tact. If your favorite restaurant were to loudly announce you as you walked in (“our FAVORED CUSTOMER!”), and make indelicate personal comments like “we see you’ve ordered the double-fried monte cristo with extra bacon and jelly the last nine times you’ve been here, would you like the number of a cardiologist?”, you’d probably stop going. Not because you object to the data being collected necessarily, but because it’s being used ineffectually and unsubtly. It’s too transparent that if you browse something on Amazon and don’t buy it, you see the exact same thing on Facebook later, heedless of whatever reason you may have had for not purchasing it.

I think the real problem is that the use of data analytics isn’t good enough. It’s a blunt instrument, lacking both the finesse and the tact of what we consider the more “personal touch”. It doesn’t help us to see the same Amazon listing that we already browsed, but it might to show us similar, cheaper products, or ones with higher ratings, or ones with more features. It’s not helpful for Target to hit you with advertisements for size XXXXL briefs, but it would be helpful for it to send you ads for laundry detergent or toilet at about the time you usually run out.


Data-driven marketing frustrates us because it doesn’t feel like an effective use of our data– it’s just that this is a few steps removed from an individually bothersome incident. It’s not that data analytics are necessarily creepy, it’s that when they’re used badly creepy situations can occur. Like your favorite diner recommending you a cardiologist, whether or not they’re accurate in their assessment it’s them using the information they have about you poorly.

A comment I’ve heard is about “control” and “opting in”. Putting aside that we already cheerfully hand massive amounts of data to social media platforms, it’s not terribly difficult to keep a big retailer from collecting data on you– simply don’t give out your e-mail address and pay for your purchases in cash. I suspect, however, that the convenience of a card is too overwhelming for a majority of people. Here’s the thing with a card– paying for something with a card is trading on your reputation to make purchases. It’s essentially a voucher that says “such and such financial institution thinks that I am a reliable enough person that I will pay my debt to you for these things I am taking from your store”. You can’t trade on your reputation, though, without some tie to yourself, without giving up some amount of personal data. Companies have used that personal data — data provided through lines of credit — for their own ends for centuries, this is nothing new. There’s a cost to the convenience of using a card to pay for things, and it’s not generally in the price you pay for goods.


A lot of this is also that I feel like Pandora’s Box is already open– even if we overwhelmingly decide that data analytics-driven marketing is creepy and unacceptable, it’s not like corporations worldwide are going to suddenly go “oh, yeah, I guess we shouldn’t do that”; they’ll just get better at being subtle. This is already happening. For one company, analyzing customer clickthrough data revealed that customers were less likely to look at one of a series of advertisements if all of them were accurate to their customer profile than if one or two of them were blatantly miscategorized. Having three or four home decor and sleepwear items and then something wildly incongruous like a motorcycle repair kit got more hits than if the repair kit were absent. It makes the marketing feel less personal, like it just HAPPENED to stumble on some things you liked.

I’d much rather see this sort of advertising become more subtle and tactful rather than simply try to fool people into thinking it’s not as good as it actually is.