Well, I Been Workin’ In The Pixel Mine, Goin’ Down Down, Workin’ In The Pixel Mine, Whew! About To Slip Down!

Apparently GDC was the spot for all sorts of well-mannered discourse – as seen on Greg Costikyan’s blog (via Zen of Design), a studio head at Epic Games declared that there were no EA spouses there!

Mike Capps, head of Epic, and a former member of the board of directors of the International Game Developers Association, during the IGDA Leadership Forum in late 08, spoke at a panel entitled Studio Heads on the Hot Seat, in which, among other things, he claimed that working 60+ hours was expected at Epic, that they purposefully hired people they anticipated would work those kinds of hours, that this had nothing to do with exploitation of talent by management but was instead a part of “corporate culture,” and implied that the idea that people would work a mere 40 hours was kind of absurd.

 

Now, of course, the idea that a studio head, which Capps is, would have such notions is highly plausible; but he was, at the time, a board member of the IGDA, an organization the ostensible purpose of which is to support game developers. Not, you know, to support management dickheads.

To be fair, some game developers are also management dickheads! That being said, this taps into quite a bit of pre-existing discussion, both about the IGDA and whether or not it’s actually of any relevancy at all (Adam Martin and Darius Kazemi both have had a few things to say about that) and the long-running discussion over whether long overtime (“crunch”) is a workable model for game development.

 

My views on the former are simple: meh. My views on the latter are also pretty simple.

Crunch doesn’t work. You simply don’t gain more productivity by applying a 1.5 multiplier to everyone’s work hours. More likely, you start to introduce failure into the system as people get sloppy and careless as a best case scenario, and as a worst case scenario people start to flip you the virtual finger and spend their hours at their cubicle playing World of Warcraft instead. (I’ve seen both.)  This is not a problem unique to game development, and there have been literally hundreds of studies that show that the productivity gained from crunching is minimal at best. It should be noted that the management consultant who originally came up with the 40 hour work week was Henry Ford, who was anything but a soft humanist.

Quality of Life is a choice. I’ve been lucky in my game development career to work on teams (Mythic, our team at NCsoft, Webwars, and my current Player To Be Named Later) which agree that part of keeping the best team members is in offering a work environment conducive to, well, being a well-rounded human being. I, and my peers, are older now. We have families, friends, and lives outside of work, and that helps shape who we are. Effective managers understand this. Ineffective managers don’t ship good games.

60 hour work weeks usually aren’t. Although there are exceptions (such as the weeks before a milestone or a big demo or if your entire production timeline has fallen apart) generally keeping people in the office for their waking hours does not mean they are actually working. What you are doing is instead creating a very efficient subculture of slacking. People will watch online videos, post to their blogs about how abused they are for never leaving the office, killing each other in this week’s shooter of choice, and have a Naxx raid going on the other monitor. Some companies fight back by aggressive firewalling and system monitoring. Those companies find out how easy it is to bypass those systems. If you treat your employees like enemy children, you’ll find that they can throw a lot of stones at you.

Note to the game industry: the economy collapsed. Maybe I’m pointing out the extreme obvious here, but this is not a good time to go on a tear about working conditions given that there are quite a few of out-of-work people quite willing to put up with whatever horrible pixel mine conditions exist, over and above the usual “holy-crap-I-can-work-on-games-and-come-to-work-at-10” college kid talent intake, thank you very much. Of course from an ethical standpoint, that shouldn’t matter. Yes. And from an ethical standpoint unicorns have pretty flowers in their manes, and that’s about as relevant and realistic. You pick your battlegrounds, and this isn’t a terribly good one.

Internet Griefing

Sadly, the biggest story to hit Austin yesterday wasn’t an April Fool’s joke – Time Warner, the local cable provider, announced that tiered pricing and bandwidth caps would be coming into effect virtually immediately, for Austin/San Antonio TX, Rochester NY, and Greensboro NC. It’s no coincidence whatsoever that all of these markets are effectively Time Warner monopolies (AT&T just ran U-Verse, which is essentially DSL that can run at cablemodem-equivalent speeds, to our neighborhood last month, in what now seems spectacularly good timing). That sound you hear is everyone dumping Time Warner in Austin for anything remotely approaching internet service… U-Verse, Grande, DSL, carrier pigeon, whatever. Interestingly, J. talked to someone at Time Warner who insisted that Business Week was liars liars pants on fire. Guess they didn’t get the memo from their CEO.

By charging a premium to the heaviest broadband users, much the same way cell-phone providers collect fees from subscribers who exceed their allotted minutes, Time Warner would upend a longstanding pricing strategy among Internet service providers. Typically, phone and cable companies charge flat fees for unlimited access to the Web. “We need a viable model to be able to support the infrastructure of the broadband business,” Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt says in an interview. “We made a mistake early on by not defining our business based on the consumption dimension.”

Which is more than a little ironic, given that the now parent company of Time Warner gave up “defining their business based on the consumption dimension” in 1996. Clearly, a lot changed in 13 years! What could it be?

Well, the announced bandwidth surcharges ($1 per gig over the limit) hold a clue to that. They are ridiculously punitive – the hosting company that I use for this blog charges me less than 10% of that. I guess those bits cost a lot more when you use them at home. Or, more to the point, if you use more than Time Warner’s top-end cap of 40GB a month, or the probably  ridiculously priced supersize option of 100GB a month, or the literally ridiculous budget cap of 5GB a month – Time Warner (and other ISPs) literally do not want you as a customer. You cost them money, because you actually use what you buy. One of the longest running dark jokes among MMO live teams is that MMO publishers would make money by simply banning everyone who logged in. Once you filtered out the customers that actually *played*, your support costs of the remaining people who rarely check credit card statements would drop dramatically! Except with ISPs, it’s not dark comedy – it’s a business model.

So let’s look at typical use cases.

The MMO Player – you don’t watch much online video (unless it’s raiding strategies), you don’t download games or video, you simply play – oh, just to pick a random example, World of Warcraft AND NOTHING ELSE. The good news is that most of the proposed bandwidth caps won’t affect you, because MMO networking is written in such a way that the game is theoretically playable over a dialup modem (though this becomes more and more theoretical a proposition as time passes). So, a good reasonable estimate is that, playing WoW (or Call of Duty 4, or any other online game) 20 hours a week, you’d use about 700 MB in bandwidth. Add in Ventrilo (which is also optimized for bandwidth usage) and the occasional Youtube rickroll and you’re probably at around 2 GB a month of bandwidth usage. Congratulations! Time Warner likes you. You’re well behaved. You’re also an outlier, because outside of online gaming, almost no one uses that little bandwidth any more. And truth be told, how many MMO players do YOU know that JUST play MMOs? Be honest, you have those Naruto torrents running, don’t you.

The Entertained – you play the occasional online game, but mainly your time online is spent watching yesterday’s Daily Show snippets and the occasional program on Hulu. Well, you’re in trouble, because that whole reason you got a cablemodem to begin with – the ability to watch streaming video in something approaching high definition – will break your bandwidth bank. About 7 hours a week of online video will break the 40GB limit.

The Steam Customer – oh, you’re so, so screwed. The last game I bought from Steam – Empire: Total War – weighs in at 14.8 GB. Most AAA games today are of a similar download size. Gamestop is dancing in their used tennis shoes, because online game purchases just quit being cost-effective.

Bill Harris has a piece on his blog on what this is really all about. Money. And not even yours, really.

When in doubt, look for the deep pockets, and in this case, those pockets belong to the content providers. Video-on-demand has absolutely EXPLODED in the last two years, and new services seem to get added daily. Content providers are stampeding to get all of their content online and watchable on demand.

Particularly interesting is ESPN360, which offers an incredible amount of content, both live and via replay. Well, maybe:
ESPN360.com is available at no charge to fans who receive their high-speed internet connection from an ESPN360.com affiliated internet service provider. ESPN360.com is also available to fans that access the internet from U.S. college campuses and U.S. military bases.

Hmm. So if my ISP isn’t an “affiliate,” how do I get access?
Switch to an ESPN360.com affiliated internet service provider or to contact your internet service provider and request ESPN360.com.

Oh, and guess what–Time Warner, among others, isn’t an affiliate.

Oh, yes–it’s war.

I think Time Warner has very little interest in us. What they’re interested in is getting money from content providers who are now finding that on-demand video can be very profitable.

This is, of couse, similar to Time Warner (and every other cable company) charging its broadcasters as a business model. Why should the Internet be different? Why indeed. Like Bill Harris, I look forward to the blowback as Time Warner discovers exactly how many ways Austin is a connected town (hint: it’s not just Internet cabling). Because the alternative is fairly grim: the end of the Internet as a content delivery system.

April Fool’s Damage

Funniest: City of Heroes wins, hands down, but I’m old-school and biased.

Almost Most Disturbing: World of Warcraft forums translates each and every post into Blizzard’s vision of roleplaying.

Not A Joke But Should Be: If you live in Austin, hope you switched off of Time Warner! (UVerse worked well for us after the first few days’ jitters.)

Most Disturbing: after a hailstorm damaged my front windshield, someone thought it’d be funny to knock out an entirely unrelated window of my car three days later. Thanks, humanity.

Darkfall Relentlessly Moving Through Ultima Online’s History – This Week, GM Scandals!

Keen has the write-up of GMs supposedly being selective with service based on who’s city you’re pwning. Fact? Rumor? YOU MAKE THE CALL (because I’m a horrible carebear who doesn’t own the game and should pray for death, so I can’t).

Aventurine continues to open its online shop at brief random intervals so that you (yes, YOU) may be allowed to buy Darkfall soon. Which is good, because some have already bought it twice.

Jeff Kaplan Does GDC, Explains How Not To Write Quests

Well, if you’re going to clone World of Warcraft, you could do worse than listen to the guys who cloned Everquest. Jeff Kaplan gave an opinionated talk that will probably have WoW players posting furiously for weeks.

“This is the worst quest in World of Warcraft,” he said. “I made it. It’s the Green Hills of Stranglethorn. Yeah, it teaches you to use the auction house. Or the cancellation page.”

“So I’m the asshole that wrote this quest. My philosophy was, I’m going to drop all these things around Stranglethorn, and it’s going to be a whole economy unto itself… It was horrible.”

“It was utterly stupid of me. The worst part… one of the things that taxes a player in a game like WOW is inventory management. Your base backpack that the game shipped with only has 16 slots in it. But basically at all times, players are making decisions. For a single quest to consume 19 spaces in your bags is just ridiculous.”

“So it’s a horrible quest, and I’m the only who made it, and somehow I am talking to you guys today.”

Most of Kaplan’s points boil down into the following:

  • People don’t like Lake Wintergrasp

You’ve played that shooter, that shooter that is fucking awesome… and then it’s got the one gimmick vehicle level, which you can tell they didn’t know what they were doing with vehicles, and it felt all floaty and things didn’t shoot right. The same mistake happened in World of Warcraft.

Lots of these vehicle quests, they’re more fun for the designer than they are for the player.

  • People don’t like delayed gratification

It’s a quest that starts at level 30, it spans 14 levels. And it ends with you having to kill Myzrael there, who’s a level 40 elite mob. So it’s basically like putting a brick wall in front of a player. Here you go, just bang your head against the wall for a while…

The reason that this is bad — it’s cool to have quest chains that span a lot of content, and feel kind of expansive and far-reaching. But the reason that this particular case is bad is because the player [loses trust] in the game.

  • People don’t like solving mysteries

We can unveil a mystery story, but at the end of the day, in the quest log it needs to say, ‘Go kill this dude, go get me this item.’ The mystery can’t be what to do [on the quest]. We wanted the action in WoW quests to be in the gameplay, not in figuring out what am I supposed to do.

  • People like choices. But they’re wrong.

…You show up to a quest hub, and your minimap is lit up like a Christmas tree with quest exclamation marks.

The weird thing is, if you ask our fans, they love this. This is to them a good quest hub… They go in and vacuum up the quests. But we’ve lost all control to guide them to a really fun experience.

  • People don’t like to read

I think it’s great to limit people in how much pure text they can force on the player. Because honestly… if you ever want a case study, just watch kids play it, and they’re just mashing the button. They don’t want to read anything.

Basically, and I’m speaking to the Blizzard guys in the back: we need to stop writing a fucking book in our game, because nobody wants to read it.

World of Warcraft has 12 million more subscribers than you do.

Barnett Does GDC, GDC Survives The Experience

Apparently, being a DIY punk involves giving a talk that has nothing to do with what you promised you’d talk about.

Game design theory is very complicated, he said, because people are overthinking the problem. “Theories in design are as timeless as the fashion of hats,” he said. The theories, he continued, are a means to sell a product and are nothing more than a series of catchphrases that get traction and are then sold to people. “This is because we don’t like chaos, we don’t like uncertainty,” he said. “So we look for earnest people with intelligent systems to sell. Prophets that can fortify our faith. It’s caustic, and it’s dangerous.”

Clearly, we need someone to struggle against the status quo of publishers who squelch innovation. Designers who aren’t afraid to advocate new ideas in the face of the conservative mainstream.

You know. Heretics!

Yes, But Do Panzer Elite Fallschirmjagers Enjoy Pina Coladas?

From the upcoming Company of Heroes megapatch:

– Timer tuned on Overwatch Cancel.
– Lieutenants area of effect bonuses had an unintended side effect of slaughtering retreating infantry. These values have been modified so that this does not happen anymore, but still maintaining the efficacy of the Lieutenant’s leadership bonuses.
– Lieutenants now enjoy long walks on the beach.
– British Churchill Tank Shock recharge timer increased from 60 to 75 seconds.

Kotaku Is Awesome

Apple, if this rumor is accurate, blazes new trails in screwing over developers.

(edit:

  • According to comments here and on the Kotaku story, the agreement in question hasn’t changed.
  • The default EULA Apple supplies to its app vendors (which can be replaced) specifically denies refunds.
  • Also, iPhone developers who have processed refunds haven’t been levied a 100% chargeback, just the expected 70% chargeback.
  • More details here.
  • So, uh, yeah, Kotaku.)

Rights, Profit, Drama

The recent Blizzard add-on mess has brought up – in my mind anyway, as well as some others – some age-old questions about player rights in games through exposing a pretty core dichotomy in how people look at online games.

On the one side, you have the people who take Blizzard’s side, and if anything, think they don’t go far enough. World of Warcraft is Blizzard’s game, they added the ability to script the client, they can just easily take it away, and you people whine so much about it now they probably should. On the other side, you have people who see this as a software rights issue – the addons I write for World of Warcraft are mine, Blizzard has no right to tell me what I can and can’t write, and if I make some cash from my work it’s none of their business. Which, not surprisingly, segues into the rights of players versus the responsibilities of game developers – not exactly a new discussion.

My views on the subject, also unsurprisingly, have been shaded by almost a decade on the other side of the development fence, and a few decades of cynicism about basic human nature before that. Succinctly put, the governance of online games and worlds exist in a triangle of rights, profit, and drama.

Here, I can illustrate this triangle quite easily by using a snippet from this recent article.

Virtual world technology is intentionally designed to make humans act as though the virtual world is, at least in some respects, real. Thus, as a normative matter, when corporations choose to use technology intended to entice humans into acting as though they were safe in their own homes, or privately communicating with friends, the law ought to respect those expectations as it does in real life. I therefore argue that U.S. persons in virtual worlds possess a reasonable expectation of privacy, such that a search of their virtual homes and property should be subject to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment.

Your reaction to that paragraph depends on how you feel about rights vs. profit vs. drama.

 

Rights: Well, of course. He’s stating the obvious. Does your landlord in the real world, even though he owns your house and the land it’s on, have any right whatsoever to read your mail and pop in unexpectedly when you have a date? Why should virtual landlords have more rights than realspace landlords?

Profit: I can’t believe we’re even having this discussion. If I’m going to be threatened with lawsuits because of constitutional rights you have to my server, I’d have to be retarded to ever open my company up to such liability by making a server.  These are entertainment products, and we are being paid to create a safe and enjoyable environment for everyone. There is no such thing as virtual civil rights, only EULAs. And if you somehow get the courts to disagree, we’ll take our balls and go make console games.

Drama: I KNEW IT I KNEW IT I WAS RIGHT I KNEW IT the company needs to give me my account back now.

When it comes to MMOs, a dark and bitter part of me doesn’t believe any of you should have any rights, because, well, drama. The people who complain about “rights” almost always, without fail, do so because drama happened. They did something to run afoul of the game administrators – usually, 0ne of the many thousands of ways people have crafted to be a raging dickhead to one another online – and then they turn into cyber civil libertarians, decrying the omnipotence of the “game gods” (note: any time you use the phrase “game gods” without irony, I’m going to assume you’re Prokofy Neva) and demanding their fundamental civil right to be online in your game where they can continue to be a raging dickhead.

The best example of civil libertarianism trumping customer service is the case of Peter Ludlow, who when banned from the Sims Online, supposedly for advertising his website ingame, promptly used his status as a member in good standing of academia to appeal his banning to the New York Times. (He then moved on to writing a Second Life tabloid. I’m not kidding.) You’ll note that EA, who ran Sims Online at the time, didn’t have a lot to say in response. This may be because they felt embarassed over banning someone for maintaining a website that made them look bad (not that I’d know anything about that). Or it may be because there was an actual reason to ban him and they were constrained due to privacy issues from actually saying anything about it, even when it made the New Frickin York Times, thus having Ludlow’s account of his banning being the only one on the record.

That’s not to say that online gaming companies are immune from banning people for squirrelly reasons (and even for supposedly open-and-shut cases of administrative abuse, there’s usually another side of the story). But gaming companies in general are in business to make a profit. This drives an obvious factor and one that isn’t as obvious at first glance to outside observers. The obvious factor is that banning players hurts a company’s profits because, well, one less customer. However, the collorary, which is somewhat unique to online games, is that there are players who by their presence drive off more income than they themselves bring in. Thus, the Profit motive trumps Rights and Drama – ban early and often, the “oderint dum metuant” school of customer service.

It’s not all a dystopic wasteland of corporate oppression, though. Game developers have been discussing the ethical implications of what rights players should have for quite a while now. Raph Koster’s “Declaration of the Rights of the Avatar” makes a pretty clear and reasoned argument for enabling as many rights for players as possible while still allowing developers to maintain their own games. And since most developers are also MMO users themselves, they’ve had enough encounters with the ‘oderint dum metuant’ game mastering school to know that it can be toxic to the long term health of the game by itself.

Which is good, because there’s not a lot of willingness to compromise between the proponents of Rights, Profit and Drama. The Rights advocates are usually dismissive of the fears Profit has, while being sniggeringly dismissive or blithly unaware (depending on their actual experience with virtual worlds) of the corrosive effects of Drama. Profit fears Rights – and more importantly, the possible governmental/legal intervention based on it – while its day to day frontline struggle with Drama fills its veterans with a distaste for the everyman veterans of police departments would envy. And Drama? Drama only cares about Drama, girlfriend.

Yet all three of these need to be balanced – and in fact, I’d even argue that without Drama you don’t have the community development necessary for an MMO to grow. And if nothing else, it might be an interesting thought experiment to look at contentious issues (such as the Blizzard addon foo-frah) through prisms of the triangle other than ones you might be used to.