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games, prices, value, and uncertainty

September 1st, 2015

Earlier this summer, I talked about the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter; I wanted to expand on my approach to questions like that.

In general, the price of a game (or of any product!) will be somewhere between how much it costs to develop, produce, and sell the product, and how much value people get from the product. This isn’t an immutable rule, especially the lower bound: there are plenty of companies that try to sell something and then discover that people aren’t willing to pay what that product costs; but if a company makes a habit of that, they’ll go out of business. And there are certainly situations where people buy a game and then decide that, in retrospect, that wasn’t a good use of their money. Still, that range is a good place to start.

Diving down: one big determinant of which end of that range a product (not necessarily a game, any sort of product) sells for is how many other options buyers have to satisfy the relevant desire. If a product is a commodity, something with lots of options that are essentially identical (a gallon of milk, a box of nails), then different producers can’t compete on value: they’ll compete on price, so the price will go down. And, in fact the natural floor isn’t the overall cost to develop and produce the product: it’s just the cost to produce a copy of the product (the marginal cost of the product), ignoring the development cost. Once a company has figured out how to produce a given commodity, the development cost is a sunk cost: at that point, if competitor A is selling for their marginal cost plus $5, competitor B can steal sales by selling for their marginal cost plus $4, and doing so will be more profitable than stopping production of the product. (That example assumes that both companies have the same marginal cost, so if you can produce at a lower marginal cost than your competitors, then you can steal sales by undercutting your competitors without hurting your relative profitability: this drive towards marginal cost reduction makes commodity businesses brutal.) In contrast, if a product can’t be substituted easily, then people will be willing to pay as much for the product as the value they get out of it.

Returning to games: one of the huge changes in the game industry over the last 5–10 years has been the rise of digital distribution. And, with modern networks, the marginal cost of producing another copy of a game that will be distributed digitally is effectively zero. This means that, to the extent that games are commodities, their natural price is $0; this is potentially devastating for game companies, but that hasn’t stopped it from happening.

Games, however, aren’t always commodities: some are a lot more popular than others. The problem there is that it’s hard to tell in advance which games will be popular enough to be able to command enough of a price premium to be able to recoup their development cost. This is why large studios have an advantage (because they can take a portfolio approach to average out the risk), and why those studios prefer sequels to popular games (to reduce the expected variance); I suspect it’s also why, if we go back a decade, new games all cost about $60 even though they weren’t commodities, because that was one way that stores could amortize the risk of pricing games of unknown value. (And then, as the value of those games become known, games that are less valued by buyers have their sales price correspondingly reduced; the used game market isn’t hampered by this uncertainty, so prices float earlier there.)

At any rate, there’s nothing predetermined about the price of a product, at least in the non-commodity case. Sellers can find buyers for a product at a range of prices, but the higher the price, the fewer the buyers. Sellers generally want to maximize their profits: so they try to pick a price at which the number of buyers times the per-unit profit is highest.

 

To recap:

  1. Prices for products tend to fall in a range between its cost and value.
  2. In a commodity market, prices are at the bottom end of the range, approaching the marginal cost of production.
  3. While making a game, there’s quite a bit of uncertainty as to how much potential buyers will value that game.
  4. Different potential buyers will value the same game differently.

And that second point plays out very differently now than a decade ago. Digital distribution means that the marginal cost of production is $0 in most cases; and the explosion of cheap computing devices mean that the potential target audience has increased by a billion people or more, which in turn increases the number of companies competing for the space, increasing the commoditization of the market. This is a recipe for companies being unable to recoup their production costs, unless they can do something to address these factors; as a result, we’ve seen huge changes on the business side of game production (and of many other markets). So I want to talk about those new models through the lenses of the four points above.

 

Free to play games are a reflection of the zero marginal cost of production: so, unsurprisingly, free-to-play games are everywhere. (I’m fairly sure that a majority of game titles are free to play these days.) “Free to play” isn’t a business model, though, since it doesn’t explain how companies will survive in the face of that pricing choice.

Ad-supported games are one way to make money: in a commodity market, players may not pay for the value of games, but advertisers see game-players as (just barely) valuable enough to pay for. (As the saying goes: if you’re not paying for a product, then you are the product.) This is embracing games as a commodity; in particular, you’ll see flash portals and ad networks promoting this, sites for whom games really are a commodity.

Microtransactions start to segment the market: separate the players see the game as a commodity from the players who value this specific game over other games competing for their time. For example, we have energy mechanics: people who are grazing the game will play until their meters run out and then move on to another game, whereas players who value their time with this specific game are willing to pay more. (I see this as bringing in dynamics from real-world activities in physical spaces into virtual games: movie theaters charge you money for using their space to watch a movie, video games charge you money for spending time in their virtual space.) But there are other common forms of microtransactions: e.g. paying to unlock different characters or skins for characters.

Downloadable Content segments the market in a similar way to microtransactions: people who care about this game in particular will buy DLC, whereas people who see the game as a commodity don’t. There are a couple of differences that make me break the two apart: for one thing, DLC doesn’t generally have a recurring cost in the same way that (many) microtransactions do, so the analogy to renting a physical space doesn’t hold. And, for another thing, DLC starts to address the uncertainty question as well: if a game gets no interest on launch, then the publisher won’t spend money developing DLC, whereas if it does get money on launch, then that’s a sign that the game will reward an investment of further development dollars, at which point we have DLC. This is, of course, not a new idea: it’s the same reasoning that led to sequels.

Social Games are has some similarities to an ad-based approach, but with a couple of differences. One is that it sets up mechanisms where your friends are playing the same game as you, which (if successful) gets the game out of the commodity space. And the second is the how the costs of the ads play out: if people aren’t willing to pay money for a product, maybe they’re willing to pay not only in their attention (the ad model) but also in their friends’ attention. One analogue for the former is online games, or indeed multiplayer games in general; one analogue for the latter is multi-level marketing.

Minimal Viable Products are a way to address the uncertainty question: start by releasing a version of the game that is playable and that people can conceivably enjoy, and then, if the game gets popular, devote more resources to it. A lot of Facebook games took this approach, but it hasn’t been particularly common in general; given the phenomenal success that Minecraft has had with this approach, however, I don’t know why it’s not more common.

Patreon puts the value question front and center. While Patreons typically have tiers with some limited rewards, in the ones that I’ve seen, the rewards are more along the lines of thank-you acknowledgements than a serious sales attempt. (The Critical Distance Patreon is a good example: while Jason is, of course, a very photogenic cat, and while I do genuinely enjoy the cat picture e-mail every month, the cat pictures aren’t really the reason why I’m giving Critical Distance $10 a month.) So it’s approaching the question of value and market segmentation in a way that actually ends up setting the market to the side: Patreons generally explicitly ask you to give based on the value you see in the works under consideration, ignoring market considerations.

Kickstarter, however, addresses all four points that I listed above. It asks you to pay for a game that isn’t going to be released for months or years: that alone takes the game out of the commodity space, because if all you needed was a game to fill your time, you’d pick a game that actually existed! The different reward tiers further segment the market: people pay more money depending on how much they value the game. And it addresses the uncertainty question on multiple levels: if people don’t show enough interest in the game to make it worth developing at all, then you learn that upfront without you or potential buyers having to put in too many resources, while stretch goals are a way for companies to decide whether to put out a minimal version of the game or to bulk up the staff to develop something larger.

So, to my mind, Kickstarter is the most promising of all of the above business models, because it has an answer to all of these questions: the ideas there give hope at helping games avoid commodity hell.

 

Business models, of course, have consequences. Which is fine: constraints can be valuable in an artistic process, and that applies for business model constraints just like any other constraints. And business model constraints aren’t anything new: the business model of selling $60 disks in stores led to a focus on previews (with effects on both game development and game criticism), it led to measurements of games’ values in terms of length, and most companies found it difficult to create evergreen games in that model, turning instead to annual or biannual sequels. But with new business models come new constraints which will play out in different ways.

To take one example, I don’t think game designers, in general, yet have a good answer for how to best meld game design concerns with microtransactions. (Though there are some successes: I’m not a League of Legends player, but it looks to me from the outside like Riot is doing a very good job.) Energy mechanics in particular are frequently cited as something that hurt game design; in general, I think that’s probably true, but I also think that a lot of game developers get their pacing wrong even in the absence of energy mechanics, and part of the reason why I loved Social City so much was related to the pacing suggested by those energy mechanics, so I’m not sure that example is clear cut. Still, microtransactions definitely impose constraints on game design, and there’s no a priori reason to believe that all choices of constraints lead to equally good game design outcomes.

And I’ve seen complaints about (many of) these new business models on ethical grounds. I don’t agree with most of those complaints, but as with game design outcomes, there’s also no reason to believe that all constraints will tend equally towards good ethical outcomes. Looking at the list above, I compared the “advertise to your friends” aspect of social games to multi-level marketing, and part of that analogy is that neither side is a good way to treat your friends. Also, with microtransactions it’s easier to present cost in a misleading way than it is with macrotransactions: I’m a lot less ethically comfortable with asking people to pay $1 for a random choice of one in five items than I am at asking people to pay $5 for five fixed items. (People’s brain wiring generally treats those as similar choices, but the math is in fact very different.) I don’t think this is a tragic ethical choice, any more than crane games or random capsule toy vending machines or collectible trading cards are horrible, but it’s not a great one, either. Hopefully players will continue to get more informed about this; also, compare Android: Netrunner to Magic for a good example of game design alternatives in this space.

 

With the above as (lengthy!) prologue, I want to return to the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter, explaining my response to the articles by Houghton, Poprocki, and Horvath. (Though, before I go into details, I’ll repeat: I basically agree with Houghton’s claims that the Kickstarter should have been more upfront about funding sources from the start; the Kickstarter fixed that two or three days later, so yay Houghton for helping make that happen.)

Both Houghton and Poprocki were vocal against corporations using Kickstarter as risk management: for example, Houghton said “In a way, yes, Shenmue 3 did need that Kickstarter to succeed, but only because Sony made that the case. It made that the case by making the public pass a test before it offered its own support, a test that it knew would cost the public hundreds and thousands.” In other words, they argued that it is wrong for corporations to use Kickstarter as a tool to tackle the uncertainty that I listed in my third point above, and Houghton at least seemed to believe that Sony had no need to do so, that it was a charade.

I have no idea to what extent Sony was committed to Shenmue 3 even without the Kickstarter. But I am very certain that the uncertainty question in general is a real one: in all the companies that I’ve worked at (in my game company time, in my times in other industries), the question of how to spend resources is huge and always present. Lots of projects are proposed for consideration, fewer of those projects get studied seriously (with prototypes, with focused market research), still fewer of those prototypes make it into serious production, not everything that makes it into production actually gets published, and, of those products that do get published, some get large development and marketing budgets and some get small ones.

Kickstarter can help decide whether to commit to a project; and, once you’ve committed to it, it can help you decide how much money to spend on it. The fact that Sony has a thirty-three billion dollar market cap in no way lowers the importance of this sort of decision to them: yes, nothing horrible will happen to them if they make the wrong choice with Shenmue 3, but if they don’t take a disciplined approach towards evaluating projects in general, then they absolutely can go out of business. In fact, Shenmue itself provides an excellent example of how this can happen: Sega was once one of two dominant console manufacturers, then they made some choices in the Dreamcast era that led to them not recouping their costs on multiple projects (including Shenmue). The result was that the Dreamcast was their last console and their game development business is a shadow of its former self.

This isn’t to say that the articles were completely against Kickstarter as risk management: all three articles were fine with Kickstarter being used to manage uncertainty, as long as it’s the right people using it that way, where “the right people” means individuals and small businesses. And maybe I’ve spent too much time employed by large businesses and by businesses that want to become large, but this isn’t an area where I have particular populist sympathies. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great to see Kickstarters cropping up to fund weird projects; but when I went through my list of business model innovations above, Kickstarter was the one that seemed to me to be the most complete answer to forces that companies of all size are facing. So I don’t see why the world would be better to say that corporations shouldn’t have access to that answer: all things being equal, I like the little guy, but restricting Kickstarter just sounds to me like it takes a way a tool that would help corporations experiment with producing a wider range of goods. If corporations can’t manage uncertainty with something like Kickstarter, then they’ll manage uncertainty by making cookie-cutter games, and how is that better?

 

That’s the uncertainty side of the business model question, but there’s also the value side of the business model question. And all three articles were extremely uncomfortable with how the Kickstarter led to Shenmue fans showing with their wallets that they value the series. Houghton characterized the Kickstarter backings as “donations”; Poprocki took that train of thought still further and said that Sony should actually return the money to backers now that the game has been funded; and Horvath said that Sony is “strip mining” fans.

Recapping my analysis above: corporations prefer for their products not to be commodities; if a product isn’t a commodity, then its price will be in part be determined by its value; and different people will value the same product differently, which raises the possibility of corporations increasing profits via market segmentation. So: which part of this did the authors find so distasteful? Both Poprocki and Horvath focused on $60 as an expected price for games, so at the very least they seemed to not like market segmentation, though they were more silent on the commodity question. (To be sure, given that he runs Unwinnable, I can’t imagine that Horvath wants games to be commodities.)

A fondness for commodities is a reasonable enough stance: I’ve talked about why commoditization is bad for companies, but it’s great for people trying to buy stuff from companies without spending much money! Or at least it’s good in general: where it starts to go bad is where you care for value beyond what the commodity good provides, and where the non-commodity market doesn’t exist. And games feel to me like a market where that problem has the potential of happening: it is very much the case that not all games are created equal, and it’s also the case that there are lots of games that I care about that aren’t necessarily going to win overall market popularity contests. I’d like the market to provide those latter sorts of games to me, but the question is how.

So if market segmentation is the way that that the market figures out that I like specific games, and if that means that games I like turn out to be more expensive, then that could still be a good outcome for me. Also, going in a slightly different direction, some of my favorite games are evergreen; I’d like companies to have more incentive to develop more games like that, and if that means business models other than a one-time $60 purchase, then that could be a good tradeoff for me.

To sum: I don’t see anything particularly optimal about $60 for a game. Please, companies, segment me in the market! Make stuff I really like and charge me more for it! I like that more than a mass of undifferentiated games. I can think of three games that I’ve spent more than $1000 on, and a fourth where I’m pretty confident that I’ll reach that spending level. I’ve had (and continue to have!) wonderful experiences with all of those games, I have zero regrets about spending that money, I only wish there were more games that had given me as much.

 

I should be upfront, though: I have my own preconceptions when it comes to discussions around value in games supported by new business models. I’ve read too many articles written by people who not only dislike Farmville or Kim Kardashian: Hollywood but who treat people who value those games as either idiots or victims of a scam; I really dislike that sort of attitude, the idea that people who value a game that you personally don’t value are wrong. That attitude is harmful when talking about those games now, it was harmful in the console wars, and I’m sure anybody reading this article can think of other examples where that has hurt our culture. So I’m hypersensitive to that articles that talk about companies abusing fans of a specific game: how much are such articles criticizing the companies, and how much are they instead criticizing the fans?

When I read the three articles in question, I saw a lot of complaints about people pledging more than $60: Houghton wants to make that impossible by eliminating tiers over $50, Poprocki wants the money given back entirely. I’m more sympathetic to Horvath’s complaints about the externally-directed approach that Violet took—that feels off in the same way that the social game “spam your friends” mechanic feels off—but he also says that Violet was wrong to be happy about the Kickstarter. So the implication that I get from all three articles is: you’re wrong to value Shenmue enough to buy more than the game. You’re wrong to want Shenmue figures, you’re wrong to want a soundtrack, you’re wrong to want an art book, you’re wrong to want to play an early version of the game.

And I just don’t get it. How would our world be better if people didn’t have that sort of enthusiasm about their favorite works of art? And how is the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter bad for supporting that enthusiasm?

dragon age inquisition: the descent

August 31st, 2015

(I don’t normally worry about spoiler warnings, but, given how recently this DLC came out, I’ll give one here.)

I thought that the first piece of DLC for Dragon Age: Inquisition, Jaws of Hakkon, was meh; but still, not every piece of DLC is going to advance the series. And, going through the first half of the next DLC, The Descent, I was enjoying the experience more: I’m not a big dungeon crawler fan, but it connected to themes we’d seen before with a promise of some interesting lore.

And then I hit the second half. You go beneath the Deep Roads, with the promise of a Titan below, but you’re not sure exactly where you are, how it will work out, or even what a Titan is. And what happens is: you get attacked by a group of people that you’ve never seen before.

This could have been a moment of reflection: we’re some place strange, we’re the invaders, let’s think about what we’re doing. Instead, it just turns into (or rather continues to be) a bloodbath: we’re constantly attacked by people trying to drive us out, we slaughter them, and move on.

What made me really angry about this was the vocalizations: over and over again, when meeting a new group of enemies in this section, your character would say something like “we don’t want to hurt you!”. This is manifestly not true: if we didn’t want to hurt the people who were there, then we would retreat, we’d find some way to defend, we’d find some way to talk to people, and if that didn’t work, we’d go back up to the Deep Roads. If I wanted to be generous, this is the game making a commentary about game violence, but I don’t believe that: that may have been something that the developers would have liked to do, but, if so, they absolutely didn’t carry that sort of commentary through with conviction.

 

Then we get to the bottom level, entering into a world of wonder, into a city that’s the body of the Titan. It’s glorious, and it raises so many really interesting questions: what is a Titan, how does the city work? But it doesn’t answer those questions: you hack your way through the level, you don’t talk to the Titan, you can’t even go into the buildings.

Which brings us to the final battle: after killing everybody who stands in your way, enemies who are presented as trying to defend the Titan from outsiders, you get to what seems to be the Titan’s heart. And then the game tells you to kill that heart.

I almost turned off the game right then; honestly, the only reason why I didn’t was that the DLC had been so lacking in moral thoughtfulness that I was fairly sure that the game would somehow turn the fight into a good thing. And, of course, I was correct in that: it turns out that destroying the Titan’s heart is the correct moral choice, because it wasn’t really the Titan’s heart, and it had gotten corrupted somehow, and it’s your White Man’s Burden (or, in this case, a dwarf NPC’s burden) to set things right by destroying the corruption and becoming an avatar of the Titan.

 

Fuck this DLC; and, in retrospect, fuck this game. There’s way too much playing things by the numbers: huge amounts of slashing your way through enemies (whom I can’t even characterize as enemies any more!), huge amounts of item gathering, a completely stereotypical “savior of the world” plot, a lack of editing and thoughtfulness in the experience that it’s trying to present. Yes, there’s more to the series than that, and even to this game; but, after this DLC, I can’t pretend that the parts of the series that I like are the core to the series and the rest is some sort of necessary reflex.

one more rocksmith 2017 request

August 30th, 2015

One item that I forgot to add to my earlier list of requests for the next version of Rocksmith: help us get low-latency audio.

The game strongly encourages you to use optical audio; and, when I switched over to that, it made a big difference. But there’s a reason why I didn’t switch to optical audio earlier: I want the audio for games I play other than Rocksmith to go through HDMI, not Toslink. And, even when I followed the developers’ suggestion for an alternate adapter, I had to add an amp to get it work right.

Given that, my first reaction was: they should sell a peripheral that’s a Toslink -> headphone adapter, with a built-in amplifier. If they’d sold something like that, then I would have bought it months earlier, and that would have been great. But, thinking about it more, I think they can do something better. Because the game already comes with a peripheral, namely the USB guitar adapter; I’m certainly not an expert in the details of USB, but given the existence of USB headsets, presumably they can send the audio out over USB as well as sending the guitar input in? And presumably USB can draw enough power to add amplification to that audio jack?

So: I would like the next edition of the Rocksmith adapter cable to come with a microphone jack for audio out, with a volume control in it. It could be a little ungainly, which is too bad; but people who don’t want to use the microphone jack can ignore it. And it feels to me like it would significantly improve the out-of-the-box experience for the game.

office chairs and grounding

August 23rd, 2015

One thing writing about Pamplemousse made me wonder about: I feel better sitting there than at work, but the chair isn’t the sort of chair that I would normally actively think of as a comfortable chair. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly nice chair, it’s just nice in a quiet, unassuming, and not super-padded way.)

Maybe it’s just that I’m only sitting in it for 15 minutes: you won’t notice a chair in that context the same way that you would notice a chair that you’re sitting in for hours. But I don’t think that’s all of it: I think I feel more grounded in a chair at Pamplemousse than I do in the chair at my desk.

Here’s a basic question: is it good to have a desk chair that swivels and has wheels, or is it better to have a desk chair with four fixed legs? If I had the sort of job that had me pulling files from various places, then mobility would be useful; but I spend my day typing at a computer. And, given that, it’s not at all clear that I benefit from being able to turn or roll my chair.

So I’m wondering: would I feel better working in a chair with four fixed legs? Almost all the other chairs that I sit on are fixed; why are desk chairs different? If fixed legs made me feel restricted, that would be one thing; but my guess is that they would let me feel more grounded, more supported, with the ground sending its strength up through the legs and seat of the chair to me. And sending a message that I belong there, too.

I could be wrong, though. And it’s quite possible that no chair works well if you’re sitting at it for too many hours in a day…

tengami

August 19th, 2015

My basic takeaway from Tengami is that it seems that Monument Valley is part of a genre, that that’s a good thing, but also that Monument Valley is quite impressive.

Tengami really is a pretty game, the puzzles are fine, and the atmosphere is relaxing. But it just didn’t come together quite as well for me as Monument Valley. I like the backgrounds a lot, but I don’t like your character’s movements as much. And you spend a lot of time moving: while Monument Valley loves single-screen puzzles, Tengami has you moving from place to place. Which fits in with the more contemplative feel of the game: Monument Valley puts experimentation with Escherian geometry right in your face, whereas Tengami is more of a feel of traveling through a storybook.

Actually, as I write this up, I’m not entirely sure what the role of the game’s puzzles is. They’re fine, but not great; I never found them nourishing, and I found the final puzzle actively annoying. And, for that matter, while I called it a storybook above, there’s no real story there, either: no Totem, and not the same feeling of discovering history as in Monument Valley.

But still: I do think there’s something there with the backgrounds, with the the atmosphere. Maybe I’m getting distracted by the puzzles, and Proteus could be another comparison?

layton vs wright

August 15th, 2015

I’d gone through the Phoenix Wright games recently, but it had been a while since I’d played a Professor Layton game. (I didn’t play through the second Layton trilogy at all.) The Phoenix Wright games stood up quite well to replay, and I’d heard good things about Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, so I figured I should give it a try.

And I’m glad enough I did; I enjoy solving puzzles, the art is charming, the courtroom gameplay still holds up, and this game’s change to the courtroom gameplay (cross-examing multiple witnesses at once) is a fine addition.

But still: story-wise and world-construction-wise, it turns out that I far prefer Phoenix Wright to Professor Layton. I don’t like Luke’s obsession with being a gentleman, and I don’t think either the emotional heart or the outlandish characters of the Layton games compare at all well to their Phoenix Wright counterparts. And (at least in this game, but I think it was the case in the other games in the series that I played), I don’t like the way the Layton series finds it necessary to explain the fantastic events that happen over the course of each game: that’s necessary for the logic of the game, but fantasy isn’t improved by the addition of pseudoscientific explanation.

how to develop software

August 10th, 2015

All quotes are from The Process of Creating Life, by Christopher Alexander. Emphasis and ellipses as in the original.

 

The further I went to understand the actual process which had been used to make the tile, the more I realized that it was this process, more than anything, which governs the beauty of the design. Perhaps nine-tenths of its character, its beauty, comes simply from the process that the maker followed. The design, what we nowadays think of as the design, followed. It was almost a residue from the all-important process. The design is indeed beautiful, yes. But it can only be made as beautiful as it is within the technique, or process, used to make it. And once one uses this technique, the design—what appears as the sophisticated beauty of the design—follows almost without thinking, just as a result of following the process.

If you do not use this technique—you cannot create a tile of this design. An attempt to follow the same drawing, but with different techniques, will fall flat on its face. And if I change the technique (process), then the design must change, too. This design follows almost without effort from this technique. It is the process, not the design, that is doing all the hard work, and which is even paving the way for the design.

(pp. 7–8)

 

In what follows, I shall argue that the emergence of new structure in nature, is brought about, always, by a sequence of transformations which act on the whole, and in which each step emerges as a discernible and continuous result from the immediately preceding whole.

(p. 19)

 

Of course, there is some relationship between the images of the professional architect, and the greed of the capitalist developer. Indeed, one might say that the very idea of city images, or plans, and the very idea of city planning as an activity, is itself inherently at odds with the idea of unfolding, and at odds with the idea of the land giving rise gradually, and of its own accord, to natural extended city form. The modern developments we know too well, associated with huge sums of money, and with vast profits in the hands of developers, necessarily depend on images—because it is the images which first draw investors, and then potential beuyers, to the land. Thus, the very core of the financial process that fuels urban development is consistent with the ideology of 20th-century developers, and at odds with the organic harmony of towns and land.

(p. 135)

 

In a living system what is to be always grows out of what is, supports it, extends its structure smoothly and continuously, elaborates new form—sometimes startling new form—but without ever violating the structure which exists.

When this rule is violated, as it was, far too often, in 20th-century development, chaos emerges. A kind of cancer occurs. Harm is done. All in all modern society succeeded, in the last century, in creating an ethos where buildings, plans, objects, … are judged only by themselves, and not by the extend to which they enhance and support the world. This means that nature has been damaged, because it is ignored and trampled upon. It means that ancient parts of towns and cities have been trampled, because the modernist view saw no need to respect them, to protect them.

But even more fundamental, it came about because the idea of creativity which became the norm assumed that it is creative to make things that are unrelated (sometimes disoriented and disconnected just in order to be new), and that this is valuable—when in fact it is merely stupid, and represents a misunderstanding, a deep misapprehension of how things are. Creativity comes about when we discover the new within a structure already latent in the present. It is our respect for what is that leads us to the most beautiful discoveries. In art as in architecture, our most intelligent and most wonderful creations come about, when we draw them out as extensions and enhancements of what exists already.

The denial of this point of view, is the chief way in which 20th-century development destroyed the surface of the earth.

(p. 136)

 

The significance of generated structure lies in the concept of mistakes. Fabricated plans always have many mistakes—not just a few mistakes but tens of thousands, even millions of mistakes. It is the mistake-ridden character of the plans which marks them as fabricated—and that comes from the way they are actually generated, or made, in time. Generated plans have few mistakes.

(p. 186)

 

In general, we may say that a complex object will only be successful if it is generated. This is obvious in the case of organisms (animals and plants), which are always generated. But it is less obvious, and so far hardly recognized at all for the complex objects we create such as houses, buildings, rooms, cities, and neighborhoods.

Let us consider the case of software. A typical computer program contains tens of thousands of lines of code; others in daily use contain a million lines, even as many as ten million lines of code.

In recent years some attention has been given to their theory of design, and some improvements have been made in contemporary ways of thinking about their design. Computer scientists have told me proudly that they consider computer programs the most complex objects designed by human beings.

Yet, to date, there is little recognition of the following commonsense point: If indeed the programs are so complex, then it is likely that they, too, will be potentially subject to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of egregious mistakes of adaptation. Here I am not only talking about “bugs”—failures which stop a program from running altogether. I am talking about mistakes of adaptation, ways in which the program fails to do what it is supposed to do, fails to meet the needs of the people who use it, or is more awkward, more annoying, less useful, than it is supposed to be. If the analysis given in this chapter is correct, then it is fair to say that truly successful programs can only be generated; and that the way forward in the next decades, towards programs with highly adapted human performance, will be through programs which are generated through unfolding, in some fashion comparable to what I have described for buildings.

This chapter was first composed as a lecture to the computer science department at Stanford University. After the lecture, I had a chance to hear comments from many of the computer scientists in the audience. Much of the commentary I heard went something along these lines: “This is really interesting… perhaps you should call it ‘evolutionary adaptation’ instead of ‘generated structures'” and “We computer scientists ourselves often practice various forms of evolutionary adaptation in software design. Good software grows, by steps with feedback and evolution, to something better…” And so on.

The essence of all these comments was what I call gradualism. It says “Yes of course, in the case of a complex structure, we cannot hope to get it right first time around, so we build it, run it, test it, fix it, change it… and keep on doing this so it gets better.” What has become known as Extreme programming is a way of doing this for software development, with a very short cycle of evolution and adaptation, repeated many times.

Of course I am in favor of small steps, of adaptation through trial and error, and of what we may call evolutionary adaptation (see chapter 8). But this is not the central point at all. After listening to all these computer scientists’ comments, and taking them to heart, I realized that I had failed, in my lecture, to emphasize the real essence of all generated structures. The real essence lies in the structure-preserving transformations which move the structure forward through time, and which are primarily responsible for the success of the generating process. The needed transformations are not merely trial-and-error steps, or some neat way of continually checking and making things better. In chapter 2, I have referred to the fifteen transformations which act, in all structure-preserving transformations, to move a whole structure forward in a deliberate and explainable way. It is because of these fifteen transformations and their effect, that a whole may be said to “unfold.” It is because of these transformations that a whole becomes coherent, and beautiful. And it is because of this unfolding, and the way the unfolding processes work, that the structure is able to become “mistake-free.”

(pp. 197–198)

 

I emphasize that a living process, as I have described it, is an idealized scheme. In the real world of architecture, processes which are living ones do not necessarily resemble the scheme I have described. They are often more informal, and more ordinary.

A couple of examples will make the point. Suppose I am telling someone how to improve a corner of their garden. My advice would be something modest and practical: Do one small good thing; then do another small good thing; then do another good thing. Simple as this is, focusing on creation of one good thing at a time, is already likely to work; it will make the garden better. After a person has grasped that idea, I may then point out that sometimes, the good things that we do work even better if each small good thing also helps to achieve some slightly larger good thing. You not only plant a small lilac bush, but you plant it next to a sunny spot where you might like to sit on the grass, and in a way that contributes to this larger spot. Then a particularly lovely spot may be created in the garden. If we do this kind of thing every time we improve the garden, the process will make the garden better in a bigger sense, and in leaps and bounds. This point is, implicitly, a reference to the creation of larger centers—necessarily part of every living process. But I do not need to mention creation of centers explicitly to have a living process. The idea of creating centers is crucial. The language of centers does not have to be used to make it work.

The same point holds for larger and more public problems. We might formulate a public policy which gives advice about the location of freeways in the landscape. For example: The position of a new freeway should be chosen to leave beautiful and harmonious land untouched. It must therefore thread its way through a landscape, using as far as possible only the most damaged available bits of land, both for the roadway itself and for the landscape on either side of it. The effect of this policy on our Earth, if it were widely applied, would be extremely positive. But once again, though it is implicitly a living process, since it preserves and extends living centers where they exist, it does not explicitly use the language of centers to achieve it. And it does not need to. It encourages construction of new centers (in the surrounding land and in the freeway) in such a fashion as to increase, not reduce, the harmony of the larger structure of the land. That is what matters.

(p. 218)

 

The effect of understanding this point can be dramatic. I remember a student, I will call him X. For months I tried to teach him. He was an outstanding student, but he was—at that moment in his life—still weak in design. He just did not seem to have the knack of putting things together to make something beautiful.

He struggled and struggled. And for months I tried to teach him. Then we came to a design class in which he had to design a house. He worked and worked at the design. Couldn’t get it right. Never knew what to pay attention to. The mess on his drawing board was pretty bad.

Of course, when someone can’t design, it is usually because they confuse themselves by taking things in the wrong order. The continuous back and forth between all possible issues causes confusion instead of clarity.

Finally, one day I sat with him, and I said “Look, I am going to talk you through your design project today. Forget what you have. Erase the whole design. Start with nothing.”

Next I asked him, “Now, tell me, what is the most important thing about the site and the most important thing your design must do in relation to the site. Don’t worry about anything else. Just tell me the answer to that one question. Tell me.” He told me.

“All right, so make a mark. Put in just that one thing. Forget everything else.” He did it.

“All right. Now tell me the next most important thing.” He thought about it. I questioned him. Finally he told me what it was.

“All right, now put that in. Just that second thing. Nothing else.”

He put it in.

We went on like that for an hour or so. If he told me something was important, when I doubted that he really felt that, I just looked at him, and said, no, tell me really what is the next, truly the most important thing? Then he told me that. I kept on like that, forcing him to say, genuinely, what was the next most important thing. And each time, when he had told me what it was, defined it, and I believed it, then I told him, “Do it. Now put it in.” Then after he had done that I asked him to choose the next most important thing he knew about the (not-yet-existing) building. Then I asked him to put that in. And so on.

At the end of an hour he had a beautiful building. It was straightforward, simple, fundamental. Above all it was beautiful. The thing he had never been able to do—to make a beautiful design—he had suddenly done. The was able to do it. At the end he came and said to me, “I had no idea it was so simple. I never understood it before,” and, as if amazed by his own insight, “Finally I understand it, I understand what you have been saying. You just take one thing at a time, and do it in the right order. That’s all there is to it. Just do the most important thing. Finish it. Then do the most important thing. Finish it. And so on.”

He was astonished. It seemed like the most important lesson of his life in architecture school. In this exercise I taught him that it was just the sequence that underlies our ability. By doing things in the right order, he was able to make a beautiful thing.

(pp. 317–318)

 

But there is a further complication. At each stage in a living process, the needed sequence for the steps that are to follow comes from the wholeness which has unfolded up until that time. It is the wholeness itself, coupled with the fundamental differentiating process, coupled with the use of structure-preserving transformations, which tells us exactly what the proper sequence is for the next steps. This is the crucial point of contact between the idea of the wholeness, and the idea of the sequence. The single most important thing that happens during the process of making anything, is the ever watchful task of getting the next bit of sequence right and modifying it as we go along. Paying attention to what has to be done next, and getting this right, is as important as what one actually does. The more one understands the idea of unfolding, and the more one understands the key role which sequence plays in the unfolding process, the more it becomes clear that the process of design and the process of construction are inseparable.

Compare an old-style cabinetmaker with a new-style woodworker. The old timer always knows how to make things in just the right order. He can set up a vertical in a cabinet without worrying about the next step. Then he sets the rail. Then he trims the rail. Then sets his drawer. Each element follows from the previous element. Because the sequence is right, the thing unfolds without complications. The sequence gives the thing its perfect ease and simplicity.

By comparison the modern, arty woodworker tries to be much more clever. He gets his “conception” … it may be complex. Then he figures out how to put it together. Each part is fabricated so that it all goes together perfectly. The end result is not relaxed but contrived, highly precise according to some previously created image. This thing does not unfold. It is made to conform to a rigid conception.

In this comparison, we see the essential fact: The power and relaxedness that come from a proper sequence are immense.

(pp. 321–322)

 

There is something in the uniqueness-filled geometry of the living structure which is precious, subtle, goes to the core of things. The living structure is based on the fact that every part is unique: Not merely that the cells inside the flowers are unique, but that the atoms in the cells are also unique, al according to their orientation and location.

So, in a living structure, we have a configuration which is unique and highly defined in its details, in this all-encompassing utterly beautiful way. From the electrons to the atoms to the branch itself—it and all its elements are unique and precious. Yet it is all repeating.

This repetition is important, vital. It is very important to observe that repetition in the world is inevitable, since indeed similar conditions do keep recurring, and since similar conditions will keep spawning similar configurations. One must not interpret uniqueness in a naive hippielike way, to imply that each building (or wall, or window, or street) would be better off if it were utterly different and without relation to others. Calm repetition, the calm beauty of the rows of vines in a vineyard, is of the essence of living structure. But the operative word is similar, not same. For the vineyard to be living, the rows must be very similar. But for it to be living, they must not be the same.

(pp. 329–330)

 

I want to explain exactly why the appearance of distinct levels of mass and scale must happen inevitably in a living process as one develops the building structure, and explain at the same time why the appearance of the geometry as it ensues in the building, may be described as almost brutal.

In many respects when we try to make structure-preserving buildings through living process, we are at first likely to find an order which is “informal,” not too rigid, rather soft and harmonious as its fits itself to a landscape, or to a valley, or to a street, or to the seeming disarray of neighboring buildings. This softness is what characterizes the “old” way, and is what generates the beautifully harmonious order of Marakesh, or Rothenburg, or the back streets of old Kyoto and Nara, or the sweet subtle order of Jaisalmir in Rajasthan, or the subtle site-placing of a farm in the mountains of Wales. But even so, as we try to create this kind of soft order, there comes a time, inevitably, when we (as architects or builders) have to impose. We have to create a geometry that comes almost from the space itself, from the discipline of rectangles (because spaces are mainly rectangular), and from the discipline of equal or nearly equal structural bays (because structural bays are, by and large, roughly equal and regular). So we need to introduce this almost alien, slightly rigid, formal order of the built nature of a building, into the soft landscape of surrounding forms. And no matter how subtle we may try to be, this “something” which needs to be introduced is something inevitably alien. It has its own laws, it is deeply regular or massively crystalline, and its regularity may seem—and sometimes must actually be—brutal in a certain sense, because it comes from itself.

By that I mean that it comes from the need for the internal geometrical coherence of the building, not from the surroundings. Of course, as we introduce this formal geometry, work it, care for it, we do our best to make it harmonious, we tame it, we introduce necessary irregularities to make it fit the surroundings as well as possible. We fit it to the terrain, the idiosyncracies of street and site and neighboring volume.

This makes it more harmonious, not purely rigid or crystalline. The regularities flow with the land, the structure adjusts to subtleties of interior plan, and all thereby becomes softer. And, of course, we have made the decision about the geometric form—which rectangles, how big, just how brutal?—on the basis of a volumetric conception and a conception of positive space which all have their origin in the land. So it is reasonable to hope that from that origin, too, the geometry will not be brutal; will, if we are successful, have a balance of geometrical hardness and terrain-induced or interior-induced softness.

But in spite of these reasons for hoping that what we do may after all end up soft, well-adapted, comfortably fitted to the harmony of what exists, and thus be structure-preserving to the world, there is at the kernel of the whole process, an inevitable moment of truth which really is rather brutal, the moment when geometry, coming about for its own sake, imposes a discipline of its own that must be introduced. No matter how hard we work to make the building in harmony as far as possible with what exists around it and with the subtleties of its interior plan, still, taking this step is undeniably a brutal act, frightening for an artist who has sensibility for the beauty and softness of the land and of what others have built before him. Yet it is from this moment of brutality, that real order must come. The moment cannot be avoided. The nature of artistic creation—even, we may say, the biological character of order itself—demands it.

It is this injection of definite, strong, geometrical order that allows the profound depth of the made thing—the building in the land—and it is from this that the order must and will arise.

(p. 407)

 

If we seek to improve the living structure of our world, we must increase the presence of living process all over the world. This in turn requires (or at least common sense strongly suggests that our effort must start from these everyday processes as they actually are, and modify them. It would be far too hard to replace all the everyday processes with new ones. That could only be done in a utopia, in some kind of science-fiction.

We must therefore find a way—a practical way—of slowly, gently, transforming today’s processes from what they actually are today, to making them better, making them more workable, without creating too much disturbance, without upsetting society too drastically, as the changes occur.

(p. 501)

 

Let us apply the insight of the Grameen Bank process to the evolution of social processes. Suppose, for instance, that a new contractual process is invented for construction.

Let us assume that the sequence is long and complex with many interlocking features. A move to adopt this new construction system will put stress on the human beings, the skills, the economics of the process, the city building department, the architects involved, the available contractors, the licensing laws, the insurance policies, and so forth—all this making it less likely that the innovative process will take and enter the system at large.

It is difficult to find social conditions in which all the features of the construction process can change at the same time, hence extremely difficult to introduce such a new process as a whole.

But suppose that the same improved process of contracting is broken up into, say, twenty separable sequences. Together the twenty smaller processes define the new system in its entirety. But let us also assume that these twenty sequences (or genes) are carefully defined, and chosen, so that each one, individually—any one of them by itself—is separable from the nineteen others, and can therefore be successfully injected by itself into an otherwise normal or mainstream system of construction. If the snippet works well, it may be adopted, and may spread to new construction methods, even in the context of different attitudes. (Of course, this is the way technological evolution takes place, anyway. But we are talking, now, about the possibility of injecting morphogenetic sequences into the mainstream).

Now expand to a situation where each of the twenty snippets is in circulation. We then have available a mixed system of approaches to construction: But the essential, new, morphogenetic ingredients can flourish one at a time. They can be tested, improved—and can spread deep into society and existing social processes—simply by virtue of the improved performance they create “without rocking the boat too much.”

What was difficult or impossible as a larger act of social transformation, becomes possible when one uses a genetic approach to achieve the same aims. What is needed is simply a way of “cutting up” the original innovative process, into a small set of process genes or small sequences that work individually, and that are robust enough to work in a wide variety of contexts, even when not supported by other parts of the new system.

(p. 535)

 

This process is very different from the normally accepted process of architectural design and construction as it was in the 1990s. To make the unfolding process possible, I was both architect and contractor for the house. The bank accepted the process, in spite of its innovative character. The submission of plans to the Berkeley building department was normal (however, see discussion on pages 604–605). The role of drawings was also very different from that in the normal professional process of today. Since the construction was indeed an unfolding process, we could not know how the house would turn out in detail, until it was finished. Although some drawings were made during the process—for permits, structural checking, and so on—all the participants knew that the drawings were merely a rough approximation of what was to become the finished building.

The house was carefully built to a fixed budget—according to contract—and came in on budget. The money was administered under a new kind of construction contract which I have developed with my colleagues over many years. This contract allows construction price to be guaranteed while unfolding is taking place, even though the design is not rigidly fixed ahead of time. Thus the client does not have the financial uncertainty that such an open-ended project would create in a typical late 20th-century construction contract where many steps of the unfolding would be viewed as changes. Rather, in our contract the unfolding was a feasible process within a fixed budget, backed by the careful cost control necessary to make this possible. This was part of the agreement from the beginning.

(p. 572)

returning to shadow of the colossus

July 29th, 2015

After returning to Ico, I returned to Shadow of the Colossus. And, of course, they’re both phenomenal games; I appreciate Ico more after replaying it than I did the first time through, I think, while Shadow of the Colossus is less of a surprise this time.

In particular, playing Shadow of the Colossus right after Ico gave me a different context for the game than I had the first time I played it. It turns out that there’s more gaminess in Shadow of the Colossus than I remembered, and more than in Ico: more chrome in the UI, more goodies to find, and those goodies are actually useful in terms of letting you beat the bosses (by increased grip strength). Which is frustrating: partly because it dilutes the focus of the game, and partly because the sword combat works really badly against lizards.

But still: like Ico, Shadow does a remarkable job of being focused, and a remarkable job of being a living structure. I’ve talked about the living structure aspects before; and, as for focus, this is a game that only has 16 pieces of combat in it. Which, in turn, makes you confront your motivation and your decisions: what is the impact of killing these glorious creatures, what is your your motivation in doing so, and does the latter justify the former? It’s not like you actually have a choice, other than not to play, but it’s still a completely different mindset than most games put you in: far more typical would be to have you constantly killing in the service of saving your people against an existential threat, while both your actions and your motivation are much more personal in this game.

I wish more games had followed Ico‘s and Shadow of the Colossus‘s lead in the decade since they were published.

wholeness

July 5th, 2015

breakfast

About once a week, on my way into work, I stop at Pamplemousse to have their “French Breakfast”. That’s a picture of it above: it’s just a sliced, warmed-up baguette, with butter and jam. And it’s my favorite part of my weekly commute routine.

There are lots of little things I like about it. The food is simple and good. The cafe is a lovely space where I always feel welcome. The table is just the right size for me to sit at alone with my food and my book. (Even if I’m reading a large book, as in the picture above!) The table is attractive, the chair is comfortable. The window looks out onto a commercial street that’s surprisingly quiet despite being right next to the train station. And it gives me a few extra minutes of quiet time on mornings when I feel like I need it, or when I just don’t want to put down my book after I get off the train.

 

Stepping back, though: being there makes me feel whole. It feels like the right thing to be doing, it feels like the right place to read and eat. The book pictured above is The Phenomenon of Life; quoting from p. 355 of that book:

In all these tests, the observers use observations of their own inner state, when comparing two systems A and B, to decide which of A or B is the more alive.

Some of the possible questions are:

  • Which of the two seems to generate a greater feeling of life in me?
  • Which of the two makes me more aware of my own life?
  • Which of the two induces (as asked in Aikido) a greater harmony in me, in my body and in my mind?
  • Which of the two makes me feel a greater wholesomeness in myself?
  • Considering my self as a whole that embraces all my dimensions and many internal opposites, I then ask which of the two is more like my best self, or which of the two seems more like a picture of my eternal self?
  • Which of the two makes me feel devotion, or inspires devotion in me?
  • Which of the two makes me more aware of God, or makes me feel closer to God?
  • When I try to observe the expanding and contracting of my humanity, which of the two causes a greater expansion of my humanity?
  • Which of the two has more feeling in it or, more accurately, which of the two makes me experience a deeper feeling of unity in myself?

And, indeed: those breakfasts do generate a feeling of life, they feel harmonious in body and mind, they expand my humanity.

 

Actually, I feel good about my whole morning routine. In general, I’m not a big fan of alarms, but with Widget, having the alarm go off at the same time every morning (including weekends) works well. So the alarm goes off at 6:45, I get greeted by Widget and take him out briefly, then I shower with Liesl, then I walk to the train station (listening to podcasts), then I take the train (reading a book), then I walk from the train station to work (generally stopping of at Pamplemousse to pick up something to eat along the way, even if I’m not sitting down).

I like the contact at the start of the day, I like walking, I like trains, I like reading, I like the food. I’m not thrilled with the route from my house to the train station, and there are a couple of streets that I walk along on the other end of the route that don’t exactly expand my humanity, but those are minor issues. And I actually feel slightly conflicted about my podcast listening these days; mostly, I’m glad I do it, but sometimes I think I should fill those walks with thinking, observing, or just being. At any rate: it’s a good morning routine.

Traveling home is pretty similar; though because I don’t have to meet a train, I can take a slightly nicer route home from the train station. (And no stop for food along the way, for better or for worse.) About half the time, I walk Widget when I get home, and about half the time, Liesl has beaten me to that and I just have a bit of quiet time. Either way, Liesl and I cook dinner together and then we all three eat together, which makes me feel whole from both a family and a food perspective.

 

Evenings after dinner can be a bit off, though. When I’m sitting down and writing, that’s great. Or if there’s a game or a movie that I want to take in in a focused way, then that feels right as well. Too often over the last year or so, though, that hasn’t been the case: I’ve spent too much time in a combination of watching something random on TV with one eye and reading through random stuff on the internet with another eye, and that generally leaves me feeling not quite right at the end of the evening.

Sometimes I’ve been doing that because I’ve been tired: allergies have occasionally been problematic this year. Sometimes it’s because I’ve had other, less rewarding tasks filling up enough of the evening that I’m not left with a large enough block of time to feel like I can focus: for example, I volunteered to be on the board of my HOA this year, and while I won’t say that I regret that decision, I don’t like how frequently it eats into my evenings. And, too often, I’ve been annoyed or even angry at something: when that happens, I absolutely don’t feel whole.

 

Weekends are a little more similar to evenings than I would like. There are definitely parts of the weekend routine that are great: Friday evenings, when we generally order a pizza and watch a movie together; Saturday evenings, when we sometimes sit and home and watch a movie and sometimes go out to eat at a good local restaurant (of which there are many!); Saturday mornings, when I take Widget for an hour-and-a-half long ramble around the neighborhood; Sunday mornings, when I get to sleep in while Liesl takes Widget for an hour-and-a-half long ramble around the neighborhood; grocery shopping on Sunday afternoons; cooking a dinner on Sundays that we might not quite have time for on a workday; practicing guitar for a couple hours on the late mornings both days. And then there are times when those routines don’t work out quite as well as I’d like: when grocery shopping (and paying bills) leaves me feeling like I don’t want to cook something on Sunday that’s not pretty basic, or when I only feel like practicing guitar for an hour and when that practice is rote.

But the main issue on weekends is Saturday afternoons and the parts of Sunday afternoon before I go grocery shopping. Those are my biggest chunks of free time all week: I should either use them to relax or to focus on something that needs more time. But instead, all too often, I spend them partly chipping away at a few small things in a not-very-rewarding fashion, and partly doing things that are just using up time without letting me either feel relaxed or focused. And that’s not nourishing.

One basic issue there is that I’m being a little bit too todo-list driven without really asking myself whether those items are items that I’ll feel more whole by doing them. So the upshot is that little tasks accumulate; sometimes I take care of them, but don’t feel nourished by them, while sometimes I don’t take care of them, and then I feel bad about that as well. I think I would do better if I had fewer, more rewarding items; then I’d feel happy about doing them, but I’d also have more space to just do whatever crossed my mind. Better GTD, in other words; and I should probably consider ignoring or seriously curtailing my use of the Today list that Things provides.

 

That leaves work. Which raises the question: what would work look like if it were to make me feel more whole? I think I like programming the most when I’m figuring out something about the structure of software that I hadn’t seen before, while making the software better in some externally-visible way.

And, honestly, my current job is pretty good at that. The software is a large-scale distributed system with a variety of different components; it’s been around long enough to give me material to understand how the structure wants to be; and it’s been around long enough for even the initial guesses at that structure to be hidden in many places, giving me some digging to do, without having it be completely ossified. And I generally am working on projects that let me move the software forward in externally-visible ways, too. So when that all comes together, it can be pretty neat.

Of course, producing software is a social affair. And, while there are many social aspects of work that I like quite a bit, they’re not generally the ones most closely tied to the actual production of software. I would prefer to be part of a smooth (or productively differing!) cross-functional team; it’s not something I have at my current job, though. Which isn’t to say that teamwork is absent—actually, there are some informal teams that I’m part of at work that are pretty important to me—just that there’s room for improvement.

But my commute has also taught me that the physical aspects of my day are important, as are the rhythms. And work is not great on either of those fronts: I spend too much time sitting at my desk, and I also haven’t done a great job of differentiating my day in ways that make me feel better. And, from a physical space perspective: it’s fine, but nothing special. (This is maybe something that the open office versus individual office argument misses: my individual office at Stanford made me feel better, my individual office at Sun made me feel worse, the details of the space matter.) The physical aspects have been worse than normal over the last couple of months: we’re growing, so right now we’re crammed into a single floor while we build out the other floor. So there are lots of people, fewer random quiet spaces, no free standing desks; the buildout is almost complete, so that will get better soon. But still, I’m going to be spending most of my time at my desk, and my desk is not an environment that makes me feel more whole.

 

Room for improvement. But there’s a lot in my life that’s going well, and if I can improve my sensitivity as to why they’re going well, then I can try to spread that to parts of my life that are a bit off.

the shenmue 3 kickstarter

June 19th, 2015

I’ve been surprised at how much negative reaction to the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter has appeared in my twitter feed. Maybe not so much in the quantity of the reaction as the tone: it seems like the Kickstarter is a flashpoint in a culture war, while I don’t really understand why there has to be a war at all, or why this Kickstarter specifically has become a flashpoint.

 

The first article I saw referenced on the subject was David Houghton on Games Radar. And the first half or so of the article actually seems pretty good to me: I didn’t watch the E3 press conferences, so while I’m completely unsurprised to learn that the game is getting major Sony funding and that the Kickstarter is there to gauge interest and/or to be an ad for the game, it sounds like the initial announcement wasn’t up-front about those aspects of the Kickstarter. So yay, by all means get that out into the open.

But then we have this part of the article:

Here’s where I start having a real problem with the way this has been run. Because however I spin it (and believe me, I’ve spun it like a tumble drier), I keep coming back to the same bottom line. Individual members of the public have paid up to ten thousand dollars of their own money for a game they were led to believe had no other funding options. A game they were led to believe needed that money in order to happen. And that’s not okay.

In a way, yes, Shenmue 3 did need that Kickstarter to succeed, but only because Sony made that the case. It made that the case by making the public pass a test before it offered its own support, a test that it knew would cost the public hundreds and thousands.

(Emphasis in the original.) And I just don’t get it. In particular, I don’t understand the sentence “In a way, yes, Shenmue 3 did need that Kickstarter to succeed, but only because Sony made that the case.” Of course it’s true that there are other funding models possible for the game: doubtless, in a many-worlds version of the universe, there are universes where Sony decides to pay for it out of pocket, universes where a collection of fans somehow scrape together money to buy the IP, universes where Warren Buffett is a huge Shenmue fan and decides to pay for it himself! But paying for the game without external commitment isn’t the decision Sony made, it’s not the decision Sega made, it’s not the decision any company has decided to make in the 16 years since Shenmue came out and cost Sega a lot of money, it’s not the decision any company has decided to make in the 14 years since Shenmue 2 came out and failed to revitalize the series’s finances.

Game companies have dozens, hundreds, thousands of options for games they might make. They can’t make them all, so they need a way to choose. And I just don’t see how it’s helpful to the analysis to paint Shenmue 3 of all games as a game that Sony was right to consider making but wrong to not leap into with both feet. A world where Sony makes every game that they imagine is a world where Sony goes out of business; a world where Sony only makes games that they’re convinced will be big hits is a world where games from large publishers are even blander than they are now! I don’t think that Houghton is telling us that any world other than one of those two worlds is an immoral one, but I also am having a hard time teasing anything other possibility out of those paragraphs.

 

Later on, he says:

More infuriating is the fact that there was an obvious, easy, inoffensive way to handle all of this. By limiting donation tiers to a single, flat, $50 rate, Shenmue 3’s Kickstarter could have been turned into an elaborate pre-order system, the same level of player commitment shown without anyone being extravagantly out of pocket, and the backer rewards becoming an extra special pre-order bonus, with added goodwill.

“Infuriating” is an interesting word: like I said, this seems to be a culture war, and I’m not sure why. Setting that aside, though, I don’t see why Houghton’s proposal is an improvement over the actual Kickstarter. Assuming the game actually does getting published, then I’m getting a copy for $29; I like spending $29 more than spending the $50 Houghton wants me to spend! But some people like physical copies of games; if they want to spend $60, then great. And, honestly, the toy capsules, the soundtrack, the art book all sound cool to me; I’m not choosing to spend my money on them in this instance, but I’ve bought art books and soundtracks and figurines for games or movies in the past, I’m sure I will in the future, and I don’t see what’s wrong with those as options for people who want them. And then there are the $10,000 rewards, I’ll talk about those further down.

The concluding paragraph lays out his position most clearly:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Kickstarter is for developers with no other funding options. Shenmue 3 has had other options ever since Sony first started to think about it (as it transpires, in 2013), and whatever the platform-holder is now going to pay into the project, it can probably afford it somewhat more comfortably than some of the rest of us can our donations.

That first sentence makes it clear where he’s coming from: Kickstarter is supposed to fit a specific place in a culture war, and people who think otherwise are wrong. Then he conflates having options with Sony deciding to commit to paying for those options. (So I guess the world he wants is a world where big publishers fund every game they seriously evaluate funding? Good luck with that one) And then the weasel words: “probably”, “some of the rest of us”. That’s so vague as to be impossible to falsify; I’ll just say that it’s also the case that some of the rest of us can afford to take a $29 flyer on a Kickstarter more easily than Sony can take a fifty-million dollar (or whatever your favorite estimate is) flyer on funding a game, and that, having seen what happened to Sega in the aftermath of the Dreamcast, it strikes me as ahistorical to present this game of all games as risk free.

 

The next article that I saw making the rounds was Matt Poprocki in Playboy. It started from where Houghton’s article left off, and then continued:

The barrier between consumer and corporations is dwindling. Maybe there isn’t one at all anymore. This is not capitalism—it’s a twisted and disfigured form of commerce, and it worked, and it will work again, when the next company tries it.

Of course it’s capitalism, and this shows the barrier between consumer and corporation as clearly as any example I can point to! I’m backing the Kickstarter; my risk is limited to getting nothing from spending $29, my upside is limited to getting an actual game. (Or maybe my risk is getting a game that I spend hours on and that turns out to be awful, and my upside is getting a game that I spend hours on and turns out to be wonderful.) Whereas Sony’s upside is potentially in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and their potential downside is at the very least in the tens of millions of dollars and possibly in the hundreds as well. Sony and I play completely different roles in this scenario, and theirs is the capitalist side of it.

Now that the goal has been surpassed and Sony can rest assured that its investment in Shenmue 3 is justified, shouldn’t they stop asking for money? Shouldn’t they give that money back?

First: no, they can’t rest assured of that at all. The risk profile for the game is different now than it was before the Kickstarter, but there is absolutely still significant risk, there is still a potential downside of tens of millions of dollars. And, second: no, of course they shouldn’t give that money back! They have no reason to; and if I wanted Sony to give me my $29 back once the Kickstarter made its goal, then I wouldn’t have pledged the $29 in the first place! Poprocki apparently believes that I’m wrong to feel that way; I think Poprocki is being paternalistic.

They can just throw out classic game names to see what sticks. Actraiser, Battletoads, Streets of Rage; they would all be funded and set individual records, probably. If they fail, there’s no harm—the money stays in would-be backers’ bank accounts if the goal isn’t reached. Meanwhile, the truly independent developer whose Kickstarter isn’t backed by Sony or Microsoft or whatever huge marketing machine gets no attention, and innovation dies in the wood chipper of the triple-A blockbuster sequel machine.

And here’s where the culture war comes out. Like Houghton, Poprocki has firm opinions about the proper uses of Kickstarter; the rest of us are wrong.

 

I also saw retweets of a bunch of tweets from Stu Horvath on the topic; he then put his thoughts together in an article in issue 49 of Unwinnable Weekly. I said above that I thought that Poprocki was being paternalistic, but Poprocki had nothing on Horvath: Horvath says, “Think of me as the person trying to shake you awake”, to which my first reaction is that the word “sheeple” must have been deleted from an earlier draft of his article.

And boy howdy is this a culture war for Horvath. Later, he lays that out even more explicitly:

It is a kind of religiosity. Talking to Violet, I felt like we were living in a time of prophecy, that any deviation from orthodoxy might derail the Third Coming of Shenmue. It didn’t matter that maybe people were getting conned into paying upwards of $10,000 to pre-order a game that would eventually cost, at most, $60 retail.

He accuses other people of treating this as a matter of religion: but he’s the prophet who is trying to shake us awake. And that last sentence is, to my mind, a glorious combination of paternalism and factual incorrectness. He says “upwards of $10,000”, but in fact $10,000 is the highest tier, so I have no idea who is supposed to be paying more than that; and there is a cap of 23 people who have access to tiers more than $500. Right now, the game has 42,402 backers; of those backers, 24,895 are paying at the $29 tier.

So yeah, let’s assume that game will cost $60 at retail; that means that approximately 60% of the backers are choosing to get the game at half-price, and while about 30% of the backers are paying more than $60, those backers are getting stuff beyond just the game. Maybe I’m a bad person because I bought an Okami art book or a Katamari Damacy soundtrack, maybe the people I see on twitter who buy figurines for their favorite anime are horribly misguided, but I don’t see why; and I don’t see why I should treat people making similar choices about Shenmue as victims of a con that need to be shaken awake.

All three articles seem particularly disturbed by the $10,000 reward tier. (Though at least the other two articles don’t hallucinate higher tiers!) And of course there’s no way in hell that I’m going to spend $10,000 for the rewards at that level. But, seriously: there are 42,204 people who have signed up for that Kickstarter. Four of those people have decided that spending $10,000 was a reasonable choice for them. We’re not talking the 1% here: we’re talking the .01%, one out of every 10,000 people who backed the Kickstarter. I doubt that the income distribution of Shenmue Kickstarter backers mirrors the income distribution of the US as a whole, but if you’re in the top .01% of US income, then you’re making 27 million dollars a year; and if I were making that kind of money, then, honestly, maybe I would be totally happy to spend one-two-thousandth of my annual income on Ryo’s jacket! Really, the percentage of people affected is so small that we’re talking about lala land.

And I’d also like to know where the financial dividing line is beyond which Horvath will decree that people are getting conned. Was I getting conned by spending money to go to GDC? Was my family getting conned by the money we spent on our last family vacation? Are we getting conned by the tuition prices that we’ll spend to send Miranda to college? (Actually, I can answer that third one myself: yes.) Please, tell me the appropriate level, so I can make sure not to slide into religious orthodoxy!

 

In a less hyperbolic portion of the article, Horvath says what he wants Kickstarter to be, and it’s similar to what the other two authors want:

It is a free market, of course, and Kickstarter has a vested interest in lucrative, headline-generating campaigns. The Kickstarter I prefer, though, is the one before the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter, a place for creators to fund projects that would otherwise be impossible in conventional markets. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with the Double Fine campaign, but it started us down a long road that inevitably leads to campaigns like Zach Braff’s movie (which later got Hollywood financing) and Shenmue III.

He could just as easily have said: the Kickstarter he prefers is the Kickstarter that got Unwinnable Weekly funded. And I like that Kickstarter too – all eye-rolling at this article aside, I’m really glad that I backed Unwinnable Weekly! But small-project Kickstarter is still around: just to make sure, I looked again at my list of backed projects, and there’s a whole mixture of stuff there, with weird one-off stuff next to established small publishers next to, well, Shenmue. Maybe there’s some sort of apocalypse coming where all the small and medium stuff will disappear, but I don’t see evidence for that. And as to “religiosity”, “prophecy”, and warnings about “deviation from orthodoxy”: yes, I do see that, but where I see that is in an article that talks about “something terrible happening”, “getting exponentially worse”, that “will destroy the industry”.

tweaks i’d like in rocksmith 2017

May 27th, 2015

I’ve been playing Rocksmith 2014 ever since it came out a year and a half ago, and I was playing its predecessor for a year before that; so obviously I like the game and the series a lot, and I imagine that I’ll still be playing it two and a half years from now. Or rather, I imagine that I’ll be playing some Rocksmith game a two and a half years from now; but, upgrading cycles being what they are, quite possibly it’ll be a new version of the game.

So here’s what I’d like in a hypothetical new version. I’m staying away from big ideas: Session Mode is great, but it’s far outside of the scope of what I would have been able to think about based on what I saw in the original Rocksmith, and I’m sure a hypothetical Rocksmith 2017 will have similar advances I can’t begin to dream of. Also, just to be clear: my baseline is that I think Rocksmith 2014 is extremely well done. So, for every aspect of the game I complain about, assume there are nine other aspects that I like just as much.

Some context on where I’m coming from: I like having the game throw random songs at me, and I like having a few songs that I’m actively working on; I’m happy to have the game give guidance in both of those areas. (I probably spend about 2/3 of my time in the former mode, and 1/3 of my time in the latter.) I have no interest in games as an attempt to make learning fun, though I’m willing to consider the virtues of games as teaching tools for other reasons. And my background is in classical music; so I’m most comfortable (and I most enjoy) playing songs as originally written, though I do appreciate support in improvisation, and I’m also more interested in the sound of the instrument and of my playing than in pedals.

 

With that in mind, my requests:

  • Let me give more granular ratings to songs, including a “never randomly show me this song” rating

Rock Band 3 got this right: you could rate a song with 1-5 stars, unrated songs showed up randomly with the same frequency as 3-star songs, and 1-star songs never show up randomly. It’s just as easy to use as Rocksmith‘s favorites mechanic, but it gives you a lot better random setlists. And, seriously: there are songs I never want to see in either Nonstop Mode or in at the top of Recommended sorting in Learn a Song.

  • Let me favorite/rate a song on the launch screen for the song

I’m much more likely to want to rate a song right after I’ve played it: but, in the modes that throw songs at me unpredictably (Nonstop Mode, Learn a Song Recommended), that’s the one place where I can’t rate a song. They’re not even doing anything with the Y button on the “done with a song” screen, so just let me use the Y button there! (Hmm, it’s been long enough that I’ve played Nonstop Mode, mostly because of tuning issues, that I can’t remember if you actually see that “done with a song” screen; but, if not I’m sure they can find a place to let me rate a song after finishing it.)

  • Don’t make me change tunings so frequently

I’m not arguing against alternate tunings: in fact, there’s tons of E flat DLC that I really like, to the point that I almost actively seek out E flat DLC. What I don’t like is changing tuning all the time: two songs in E, one in drop D, one more in E, two in E flat, three in E, etc. So once Nonstop Mode puts me in a tuning, I’d like to be able to stay in that tuning for a while; and I’d be totally happy with that meaning that two-thirds of my Nonstop Mode sessions were in E, a quarter were in E flat, a twelfth were in drop D, and that tuning was in place for all the songs in that session. (Or maybe ask me to change tunings every five songs, or something.) But, in practice, I’ve almost completely stopped playing Nonstop Mode, even though it’s the mode in the game that I’m arguably most temperamentally suited for, because I end up skipping songs that aren’t in E, and skipping all those songs makes the mode feel a lot less random.

This suggestion would, of course, make less sense in a context of on-disc content, because there aren’t enough songs in alternate tunings (except probably drop D) to fill up a Nonstop Mode session. But I’m not the only person out there with two discs of songs plus triple digits of DLC; and I imagine that there are people who feel the same way about drop D DLC that I do about E flat.

  • Non-440 tunings are super annoying

Like I said: I don’t like changing tunings between songs; but if a song isn’t tuned to a 440 A, then I’ll always have to change tunings every time I play it, because there won’t be two songs that both have that tuning. (Well, maybe not once I have thousands of songs, but we’re not there yet!) So those non-440 A songs are super annoying. Also, because of issues I have with the in-game tuner (see below), I have a hard time getting these songs in tune even when I am playing them: I prefer to use an external tuner to get my tuning right, and I can’t tell my tuner to set A to 447. (Or can I? Actually, looking at the back of the tuner I have, there are buttons to allow that! I should start using them…)

My understanding is that the developers realize this and have technology for bringing those songs into tune; some artists are willing to let them do that, and some art. And I’ll reluctantly agree that it’s better not to refuse to include those songs. But if there were something the developers could do to nudge artists to include their songs in normalized tunings, I’d really appreciate it.

I don’t have any great ideas for how to accomplish that goal, but here are a few.

  1. Give an option to include the same song in both normalized and non-normalized tunings: purists can play the latter, lazy people can play the former. Maybe there would be some artists who would be willing to include a normalized version as an option as long as the non-normalized version was available?
  2. Come up with metrics to give an idea of how much less songs in non-440 tunings are bought, and are played once they’ve been bought, to make clear what the artists would be giving up in terms of making their songs accessible by insisting on the original tuning. Hard to do, of course, because every song is unique, but maybe give stats by comparing stats for songs by the same artist: I’m sure I’m not the only person who plays the Jimi Hendrix pack songs in weird tunings a lot less than the songs in standard tunings. (Maybe break it down into E with 440 A / other tuning with 440 A / non-440 A, to isolate the effect of “non-E tuning”, which the game really can’t/shouldn’t do anything about, from the effect of “non-440 A tuning”.)
  3. Don’t include non-normalized songs that have a non-440 A on disc. (Or, if they adopt my first suggestion: don’t include the non-normalized version unless they can also include a normalized version.) There are only so many songs they can include on disc; they’ve made the right decision in not including songs that require a capo, and this feels like a similar decision to me.

 

  • The tuner doesn’t work as well as I’d like

I’m really not sure what’s going on here, and it’s possible that I’ve got bad hardware, but here’s my experience: the tuning for the bottom three strings is dependable, though sometimes I want D to be a bit sharper than the game wants. The tuning that the game gives me for G is super flat, though: I probably want it to be ten cents higher than the game wants. (Which is particularly problematic because the fine tuning mode for the game will tell me I’m out of tune if I’m more than ten cents off, and because the displayed tuning fluctuates; though once I’ve made it past the fine tuning stage, though, the game is fine with me tuning the string the way I want.) I want B to be a little sharper than the game tells me, but not as much as the G. And for the high E, I think the game’s tuning is basically fine; the issue there is that if I strum, the displayed tuning will jump up and down by about ten cents, and it barely displays a tuning for long enough on that string for fine tuning mode to give me a thumbs-up. (I realize that the high E string just doesn’t sustain as long, but I can hear it for a lot longer than fine tuning mode can.)

Note that this isn’t my ear preferring non-equal temperaments: the G string sounds out of tune if I use the game’s tuner and then play a practice track, and an external tuner that I have agrees with me that the game tunes G (and, to a lesser extent, B) too low. My current hypothesis is that the cable is slightly off (though the same cable worked fine with the original Rocksmith); I’m used to its quirks enough now (and can use the external tuner as a backup) that I haven’t spent the money to experiment with that.

  • I would happily pay money for a new model of the cable that let the game work better

I don’t have any specific complaints here about the cable, other than potentially the tuning issue above; but given the progress of technology, I imagine that the developers could make pitch / technique detection even better with an improved cable. Not that I actually want the game to count it as a note failure if I, say, don’t palm mute a string or don’t use enough vibrato! So maybe just improved pitch detection, including faster detection / feedback about whether I’m hitting bends and slides. At any rate, I would be totally happy to spend another $30 on a better cable, I’m not at all wedded to using the same cable I’ve been using since 2012.

  • Better handling of song arrangements

On the whole, I think that it’s good that Rocksmith 2014 lets you decide whether you prefer to play rhythm or lead; but, as somebody who generally follows the lead guitar track, on those few songs where Rocksmith chose a different arrangement than the primary lead guitar arrangement than Rocksmith 2014 has for a song, I always prefer Rocksmith‘s choice. Which is fine, that doesn’t mean the arrangement shouldn’t default to the arrangement that the lead guitarist is playing on the actual track, but if there’s another arrangement that I personally prefer, let me flag it that way! (And also don’t insist that I play a more boring arrangement so I can get past the song in the Recommended list.)

Just as importantly: make it easy for me to switch between different arrangements for a song. When I find a song that I’m interested in, I often want to dive into it: so let me explore all the different lead / rhythm (and even bass) arrangements for that song from the same screen, instead of having to switch modes and then find the song again.

And, finally: if a song only has a rhythm part or only has a lead part, then let me play it even if I’m in the wrong mode. It turns out that there are a few songs I bought for the original game that don’t have lead parts: now they’re just mocking me at the end of my Learn a Song list, and if I want to play them, I’ll have to note down the names of the songs and then switch modes.

All complaints aside, I do appreciate having distinct lead / rhythm paths: I spent a couple of months recently exploring the rhythm side, and I’m glad I did. I just wish the boundary were more porous.

  • Pick goals that fit my play/learning style better

The game really thinks I should spend a lot of time on basic lessons and on the guitar games; maybe I would benefit more from that, but I’m generally not at all interested. So what that means in practice is that, the first time I play a song, I’ll clear all three “Rocksmith recommends” items; then I’ll get three new ones, and I’ll clear one that’s about improving my numbers (longer streak / higher mastery), one that’s about doing a section in riff repeater, and I’ll just let the third one sit there indefinitely.

Basically: I don’t want to be told to do a 101-level lesson that I’ve already gotten 100% on: I assure you, I’m not going to get much out of going over the Sustains 101 lesson again. I don’t want to be told do do a random guitarcade game. And I definitely do not want to be told to do score attack at any difficulty less than Hard: if there’s a section or two of the song that I haven’t gotten to purple (the solo, say), then that requires me to play stripped down versions of sections that I’m very solid on, and that’s just boring.

I like the top-level goals more: I particularly appreciated the encouragement to go through Session Mode and to play around with tones. But mostly I focus on the goal that asks me to play one specific songs: and, most of the time, it’ll quickly get to where it requests a song that I don’t want to play (usually because of tuning reasons), and then it will stay stuck on that request. (On the Xbox One version, it even stays stuck when I press the console off button: the game just treats that as a pause.)

Honestly, this one really isn’t that big a deal: I can just ignore the recommendations. The main issue there is that, if you don’t do recommended items, then it takes a lot longer to unlock stuff: in fact, there are still songs on disc that I haven’t unlocked.

  • Master Mode tweaks

The way Master Mode works in Rocksmith 2014 is clearly better than Master Mode in its predecessor: before, I felt like I was being dropped into the deep end. Having said that, there’s one aspect of its predecessor that I do miss in the 2014 version: after playing through a song in Master Mode, you got to watch a replay of yourself but with the notes visible, so you could see what you missed. That was a great learning tool, and I’d like a way to get it back in Rocksmith 2014 for songs that I am working on mastering as a whole.

I’m not 100% sure how that would work in practice, admittedly. I think the only way you can actually force the game into Master Mode for an entire song is in Score Attack; I don’t like Score Attack, but I can deal with the distraction level as long as I turn down the sound effects, and maybe being able to review the song after a playthrough would fit okay thematically in that mode?

The other way in which Master Mode is a bit off is how it handles similar but not identical sections: being in Master Mode (at least once the notes have disappeared completely) makes it harder to learn the differences between those sections, which can be frustrating. I went through a phase in More Than a Feeling where I didn’t know the notes for one variant of the harmonics but did for the others, so I’d completely mess up in that section, then the game would realize that I’d need to see more notes, then it would show me notes for sections I already knew, and then the notes would disappear again right when I got to the section in which I didn’t know the notes to play!

  • Notation tweaks

The notation is quite good in general, but there are two changes I would make. The first is pitch bends: I would have a consistent story on whether the high part of the bent track means the string should be bent or unbent, whereas its actual meaning shifts depending on which string you’re playing. (Which, in practice, means that my expectations are trained by the top three strings, because that’s a significant majority of the bends, and I have to remind myself to behave differently on the bottom three strings.) Maybe the game’s notation makes sense on the notation on the fretboard on the bottom of the strings, but that’s rarely where my eyes are.

The other is palm mutes versus frethand mutes: despite the similar names, those seem to me quite different techniques both physically and aurally, but the game’s notation is almost identical. I wish the game used, say, an o instead of an x to notate one of them, instead of making me remember which width of x is which.

Also, sometimes the orange string looks pretty red to me, especially when it’s asking me to play an open string. (And no, I’m not color-blind.) Maybe this is just a gold dress / blue dress thing, though.

  • Riff Repeater tweaks

Riff Repeater mode is very good, but it’s still not quite in-depth enough for me. If I’m playing a tricky passage on the piano, I’ll stare at a single measure, try out a few different fingerings, and then play them over and over again until I get something that works. But Riff Repeater doesn’t let me do that: it doesn’t let me freeze a section of notes to just look at it, and it doesn’t let me go down to a single-measure granularity.

In fact, sometimes the granularity goes way too far in the other direction: I don’t understand why the game doesn’t let you select each phrase in a song independently, why it sometimes (not often, and admittedly less often in newer songs than older ones) forces you to group phrases for review. E.g. in Anna Molly, there’s one section of the song that’s far harder than any other part of the song, and Riff Repeater forces me to play four phrases in a row, when each of those phrases is more than hard enough to deserve individual study.

Also, I prefer to put Riff Repeater in “no errors” mode, but I generally find phrases difficult to pass if they involve lots of bends. Some of that’s on me, surely, but some of that is, I think, on the cable not quickly picking up on pitch changes, so it takes a while to decide that a bent note (or a slide) is accurate. Maybe they’ll need a new cable to fix that, but it seems like making the mode be more forgiving would help?

  • Remember my skill level across iterations of the game

I expected it to be annoying to have to start all over again when I switched from the 360 version to the Xbox One version of Rocksmith 2014, but actually it wasn’t so bad, and I even kind of appreciated having my play counts reset. But having the game dumb down the difficulty level for the first couple dozen songs was pretty annoying, so please at least remember my basic skill level. (And probably remember my level on individual phrases of songs, if that’s not too hard to accomplish.)

  • Less lag in the UI

The Xbox One version spends a pretty long time going through downloaded content every time you launch it, and during that process it mostly refuses to let you play songs even if the songs are ones that are on disc or otherwise validated. So please speed up the validation and make it non-blocking.

Also, even when I’ve made it past that initial validation, if I jump between songs (e.g. from the start to the end of a list in Learn a Song), it takes the game a while to load something, and it won’t let me start playing a song while waiting. From a user perspective, it looks like the game is loading the album art for the songs on the part of the list that’s on screen (and, in particular, the album art all shows up right when it lets me go into the song); if that’s where the delay is coming from, then that’s a very bad reason to delay loading the song. (I’m not actually convinced that that’s where the delay is coming from, though, it’s conceivable that it’s waiting on something more important.)

 

Seriously, though, all whining aside: it’s a great game: I’m only complaining because I spent so much time with the game: if I hadn’t spent as many hundreds of hours with the series, I wouldn’t have these little issues to talk about.

patronage

May 10th, 2015

In Episode 34 of the Exponent podcast, Ben Thompson talked about the process of starting his blog and turning it into a substantial business. (The discussion starts around 18 minutes in.) It’s an interesting counterpoint to all of the recent discussions of how to turn video game criticism blogging into a business: so many people have started patreons, and there are a fair number of magazines trying to make a go at games criticism.

Ben’s major point is: it’s great to do what you love and are good at, but if you want to make a business, it’s extremely important to check your hypothesis that there’s a market out there willing to pay money for what you’re selling, and to modify your plan accordingly. This is not a model that most game criticism patreons seem to be following (though there are exceptions); in fact, the word “selling” doesn’t even apply to any of the game criticism website patreons that I’m aware of (though it does apply to several of the magazines), because the works produced under the patreon are available for free! (Thompson, in contrast, writes one freely available post and four paywalled posts a week; he also has a members-only discussion forums.) Instead, it’s people who want to write about games, who are generally quite good at writing about games, and who seem to be setting up the patreon as a tip jar in hopes that a bit of windfall profits will come out of that.

 

Nothing wrong with tip jars, of course; I would be interested in seeing somebody really make a go at making a business out of games criticism, but I certainly don’t have any great ideas for how a business would come out of a games criticism website. And my understanding is that, when placed next to freelance income, the amounts involved can make a difference. A patronage model has interesting overtones, of course, but so does a capitalist model.

What this actually reminds me of as much as anything is academia. Colleges are a sort of patronage model writ large: find people who are good about thinking about some subject, let them spend time thinking about it, and hope that something good will come to society as a whole. It’s not as simple as that, of course: professors teach, which puts some sort of floor on the value that society will receive from professors; peer review and tenure give some measure of quality check; and grants can either give more texture to the patronage or introduce more capitalism into the model, for better or for worse. But still, ultimately: at its best, academia finds people who have an interesting way of thinking about a subject, and hopes something good will come out of them following their interests beyond what the marketplace would be willing to pay for.

 

So: games criticism patreons are a broadening of academia? In part, maybe. But I do wish we could broaden this further: I don’t believe that academia does a great job of picking winners, and I also don’t believe that patreon does. Really, I just wish that we had a guaranteed minimum income: aside from the other problems that that would help with, it would give a little more space for situations like this. There are lots of people out there good at lots of different things, and who could get even better with more breathing room to try out ideas; capitalism is one way to help figure out where value will come from, but I’d like to see a wider range of experiments out there.

shoes

April 26th, 2015

About six years ago, my feet started hurting, enough that I went to see a doctor. He didn’t find anything particularly wrong with me, so he suggested some inserts for me to use; my memory is that that generally fixed things, but it also got me a little more actively curious about shoes and walking. Barefoot running was starting to show up in the news (e.g. Daniel Lieberman’s lab; also, I read Born to Run in 2010, here’s a position paper by that book’s author); that’s the sort of thing that appeals to me temperamentally from a conceptual point of view, so I figured I’d give minimal shoes a try.

I first started off with Invisible Shoes; they’re now called Xero Shoes, and they seem more usable now, but at the time they were super fiddly, making you tie string in strange loops around your feet every time you put them on. So, while I basically liked the sole, I didn’t like actually dealing with the shoes. Nike had introduced their Nike Free lines; I tried one of those and the sole was significantly thicker than what I was looking for and the shoes themselves were narrow, so I gave up on those pretty quickly.

But then I ran across Soft Star’s RunAmoc shoes, and those looked much more promising. Unlike the Invisible Shoes, they’re structured like normal shoes, just in a loose way that gives your toes room to wiggle around; and the soles were just as thin as the Invisible Shoes’s soles. So I tried them out, and they worked great! (At least once I switched to the 5mm soles: I liked the feel of the 2mm soles, but they wore out within a month.)

I’ve been using RunAmocs for about four years now; unfortunately, from my point of view they’ve gotten worse. For whatever reason, the company changed their sizing chart on two separate occasions; and the second time they changed their sizing chart, none of the new sizes really fit. Basically, even when I went large enough that my toes were kind of swimming in the front half of the shoe, the shoes still pressed down enough from above on my right foot that my toes felt like they wanted to start curling under; after maybe three weeks, the leather stretched enough that I had enough room, which could be okay, except for the other problem with those shoes: they start wearing noticeably thin (even with the 5mm soles) after 3-4 months, and have holes appear in them soon after that. So that meant that I was replacing them three times a year, and each pair didn’t feel right for about a quarter of that time. (Also, they cost $115 each; paying $350/year for shoes is more than I’d normally like to spend.)

 

Still, I really did like those shoes most of the time. But then something else happened: I’d had a couple of brief back pain flareups, but last summer back pain showed up and, instead of going away, got a lot worse. I really wasn’t sure what had caused the pain: the shoes were one possibility, but actually I generally felt better when I was walking, sitting down was more of an issue. (When the pain was at its worst, I was unable to drive for several weeks, and in fact there were some days when just being a passenger in a car was excruciating.) I went to doctors and physical therapists; after a few months, it got better. (Yay steriods.)

This winter, I felt fine: but then, a month and a half ago, my back started hurting again. It wasn’t bad yet, but I really really didn’t want a repeat of the summer. And my current pair of RunAmocs was starting to wear thin: normally I wouldn’t replace them when they’re at that stage, but it seemed possible that my back was reacting to that. I switched to some old running shoes that I had lying around, and my back got better; maybe it was just a coincidence, but I didn’t want to take that chance. (And I also didn’t want to buy new RunAmocs every three months instead of every four months: that’s expensive, and it would mean that they didn’t fit a full third of the time!)

So I went shoe shopping again, this time to regular stores; I ended up with a “Nike FS Lite Run 2”, and my back hasn’t been giving me any problems. I’m not in love with the shoes, but they’re okay (in particular, they’re not as crazy thin as the Nikes I’d tried in the previous iteration); and they’re also noticeably cheaper than the RunAmocs, so I can experiment quite a bit and still come out ahead financially.

 

I’m still not sure what to make of all of this. The basic reasoning behind the barefoot running folks still seems plausible enough to me; and I haven’t had foot or leg problems, just back problems, and for all I know those might have as much to do with the amount and way that I sit as with walking. (For what it’s worth, by the way, I generally walk 5-6 miles a day.) Also, I go barefoot (well, sock foot) all the time at home and much of the time at work; I don’t see any signs that that’s causing problems.

If I had to guess, what may be going on is that I spend most of my time walking on sidewalks, and concrete is a lot harder than most things people walk on in nature; given that, needing a bit of padding isn’t unreasonable? Or maybe the differential wear pattern on the RunAmocs when they’re wearing thin is encouraging my foot to do something unnatural, and that I’d actually do better if I really were walking barefoot? Or maybe this barefoot stuff is overblown: super padded running shoes are a late twentieth-century invention, but shoes themselves go back millennia.

I don’t know; I’m just happy that my back doesn’t hurt now. Maybe I’ll experiment with Xero Shoes this summer: the Z-Trek sandals don’t have the fiddly lacing (and they also seem to have introduced models with cords that don’t constantly need to be retried); and if their longevity claims are at all, the soles won’t wear out nearly as quickly as the RunAmocs have.

blogging about my netrunner decks

April 21st, 2015

I’ve been enjoying one of my Netrunner decks recently, and I figured it would help me take notes about what’s working in my decks and what isn’t. So I’m reviving my gaming scenes blog for something other than Minecraft pictures: I’ll add decks there as they change or evolve, and I’ll also backfill a couple of recent decks.

Here’s the first post, about my Valencia deck.

apple os software quality

April 20th, 2015

At the beginning of the year, there was a spate of posts about Apple’s OS software quality not being as good as people would like. I didn’t chime in at the time, but: this has been annoying me for the last couple of years. And what adds to the weirdness is that the list of bugs I encounter is pretty different from the list of bugs I’ve seen in other people’s posts; this makes me suspect that the reason why there were so many complaints wasn’t that there were a few big bugs, it’s that bugs were all over the place. (Of course, I’m avoiding upgrading my work laptop to Yosemite exactly to avoid one of the bugs other people have reported in Yosemite, though this post about an intentional Apple backdoor that’s not getting fixed in Mavericks makes me think that I probably should upgrade anyways.)

 

My list of bugs:

  • Mavericks made two of my computers unusable

I understand that newer operating systems will sometimes use more resources, and that that can be a reasonable tradeoff. Given that Apple controls both the hardware and software, though, I assume they can give good guidance on whether a new OS will work with an older computer; their guidance was that Mavericks would improve performance on old hardware, because they started automatically compressing data stored memory.

This was dramatically not the case for me: my home laptop and my work desktop machine both because essentially unusable after Mavericks. Yes, they were old (the home laptop was a plastic Macbook that I’d been thinking I would replace soon anyways), but still: if I’d been in a situation where I depended on those computers and couldn’t afford to upgrade, I would have been screwed. Judging from the sounds of the machine, disk usage skyrocketed as the machine ground to a halt; I’m not sure if it was swapping or what, but the outcome was not good. We replaced the hard drive on my work machine with an SSD, and it became a quite usable machine after that; the home laptop was old enough that replacing it was the right choice, but that event has made me extremely leery about updating the OS on old machines no matter what Apple says.

  • Clocks don’t reliably stay in sync

On some machines, ntp works great. On other machines, though, the time is several seconds off. I have those machines synced to multiple time servers, so it’s not one weird time server (though that was an issue in the past: it had been the case that Apple’s time server couldn’t keep up with demand!): the time servers all agree, but my machine ignores them. This is software that has worked reliably for me for a quarter decade now, but Apple has managed to break it.

  • Launchd StartCalendarInterval

OSX still supports cron, but they tell you to use launchd instead, with its StartCalendarInterval functionality. And, actually, it works better for me than cron: I have my work desktop machine set up to build the current state of our code base at 7:30am every morning for me so I have a fresh build when I get into work, which depends on having access to my ssh key in memory. If I invoke it using cron then the permissions, don’t work properly, but launchd works great.

Or at least it worked great in Mavericks: in Yosemite, it’s completely broken. Many days, the job doesn’t launch at all, and if it does launch, it doesn’t launch at the specified time: this makes it worse than useless, because it means that it might decide to launch when I’m touching the code! I googled, and unlike other issues I’m talking about here, this one isn’t sporadic: it apparently works for nobody.

Fortunately, I came up with a workaround: I removed StartCalendarInterval from the config file, and then I created a cron job that does launchd start at the time I want. But still: there’s a real test problem here.

  • Bluetooth in Mavericks

In Mavericks, my bluetooth keyboard and trackpad would periodically stop connecting to the computer: I’d have to turn them off and on again to get them to work. And these are Apple products, it’s not some third party difference of opinion on how to interpret a spec somewhere: the keyboards and trackpads that shipped with two different iMacs stopped working reliably.

Fortunately, they fixed that one in Yosemite, so I only had to deal with it for a year.

  • Asking for my password

My work iMac has started at times (I think mostly after a reboot) asking me for my iCloud password, with zero context. The fact that it’s lost authentication is bad enough, but what makes this a lot worse is that I’m being asked to just type a very important password into a popup that magically appears, with absolutely no reason given to believe that I’m not being phished. (Hell, for all I know I am: I don’t think that’s the case, but I don’t have a good reason to believe it’s not the case.) So setting aside the bug that leads to the password being forgotten: the existence of this dialog at all is a horrible security practice.

  • That install notification

This one isn’t a bug, it’s just a bizarre UX decision: the notification that pops up when the computer would like to inform you that there’s an update available to a piece of software. The options are to go ahead with the install or to prompt you later, but what is missing is the actual option that I want every single time: SHOW ME WHAT THE FUCK YOU’RE PROMPTING ME TO UPDATE. If I wanted my software magically updated without me being given an opportunity to look at the release notes first to decide, then there’s a perfectly good system preference for that (or at least I assume it’s perfectly good, but who knows); the fact that I haven’t enabled that preference should strongly suggest to the computer that I don’t want any of the options that it’s prompting me with.

  • Buttons stopping working on my new phone

When I got my iPhone 6, sometimes buttons would just stop working. (And I think this is an iOS 8 thing rather than an iPhone 6 thing, because Miranda ran into some similar issues on her 5C.) The most common one was that the pause/volume controls on the earbuds would stop working, but sometimes there were more serious issues: the screen would stop registering entirely on some situations, and at least onceeven the power button stopped working normally.

In all situations, rebooting the phone fixed it. Which, fortunately, was always possible: even when the power button or screen wasn’t behaving normally, if I held down the power button long enough, the phone would do a hard shutdown. So the very lowest emergency layer was working, but something a layer or two up for that wasn’t.

Fortunately, I haven’t seen this for a while, so I think it’s been fixed in a point release.

  • Safari hanging on iOS

But point release give as well as take away: ever since upgrading to iOS 8.2 (and remaining in iOS 8.3), Safari on my phone has occasionally decided to take minutes to load. This one’s a weird one: it kind of seems like what triggers it is the first POST after starting Safari since it’s been evicted from memory, but I’m really not sure. At any rate, the symptoms are: Safari doesn’t just stop loading the current page, it becomes unresponsive more generally, with not only internal controls (e.g. switching tabs) not working but with the home button even taking several seconds to respond. (I didn’t know apps could cause that!) If I exit the app (but don’t force quit it) and then re-enter the app, it will stay hung and then be evicted again by the OS after a bit. (And then if I launch it another time, that tab will be empty, showing my bookmarks.)

If I’m patient enough, the page in question will load; it just takes multiple minutes. And once I’ve waited it out once, it’ll be fine for a while.

  • DNS not working

Frequently, after waking up my home iMac, network connections won’t work; poking around, DNS is broken. Except that it’s not completely broken, because if you use traditional Unix commands to do DNS resolution (e.g. host), they’ll work fine. It’s apparently caused by something called discoveryd, and seems to be related to a recent spate of phantom machine name collisions; in a pinch, stopping/starting the service using launchctl fixes it, if I don’t feel like waiting a couple of minutes for it to fix itself.

 

Frustrating; and, like I said, if I hadn’t been in a position to replace one of those computers, then the first of these would have been a good deal more than frustrating. I gather that Apple is replacing a fair amount of core functionality in order to improve power management, which is presumably why decades-old functionality has stopped working reliably; that’s a great goal, but their testing seems to me like it’s not keeping up with the rate of change.

Some of the Apple tech commentary has said: OSX release were better when they weren’t so frequent, they should slow down. My take, predictably, is the opposite: the way to improve quality isn’t to have an even longer time period between when a bug is written and when it’s released, it’s to firm up your testing so you can reliably release even more frequently, shrinking scope if necessary. (Ubuntu releases every 6 months, with constant updates of individual components, on a much wider range of hardware than Apple has to deal with, and I’ve never seen problems like this there.) Having said that, I’m not confident that my standard testing approach would have caught most of these problems: aside from the StartCalendarInterval problem, the others feel plausibly like Heisenbugs. Then again, they’ve got enough people using pre-release versions of their software that they should be pretty well equipped to detect Heisenbugs.

amazon and pull systems

April 9th, 2015

Nine years ago, I was thinking about how Amazon Prime enables a more lean approach towards purchasing: if you that you can get whatever you want in two days, then you don’t have to buy things until you need them. For example, I can take a kanban approach towards book buying: if I don’t read more than one book a day, then I can order my next book whenever I’m down to two unread books. It certainly made a big difference in my book purchasing habits: the stacks on top of my bookshelf are a lot shorter than they used to be. (And are mostly made up of gifts…)

So it’s interesting to see Amazon taking a slightly different approach to pull systems with Amazon Dash. They’ve been pushing subscriptions for regular purchases (toilet paper, detergent, etc.) for a while, but I have no idea how frequently we need to buy detergent, and I’m not particularly confident that that interval is fixed. Basically, all the standard arguments against push systems apply: it makes a lot more sense to treat buying detergent as a pull system, to stick it on the grocery list when we’re running low.

But, I’ll have to say: pushing a button and having it show up magically is even easier than picking it up at the grocery store. Only marginally so, of course, so I’m not about to get an Amazon Dash button: I don’t want a single-purpose device lying around, and I don’t want to have brand advertising lying around my house. But still, it feels like there’s something there, and with the right context (RFID + Apple Watch, or something), this could turn into something.

rocksmith audio

April 6th, 2015

One of the problems people have with Rocksmith is the audio delay, but it hadn’t been too bad for me in the past: I’m not sure if I’m less sensitive to audio delay than other people, or if my receiver has a little less audio latency than some people’s AV setup? When I switched over to the Xbox One version of the game, though, the delay did start to bother me: I’m not sure if that console has higher latency than the 360 or if I was getting more sensitive, but at any rate: time to do something about that.

Which I was a little reluctant to do: the game recommends using an optical audio cable to plug into your receiver, but I wasn’t convinced that that wouldn’t worsen the experience for other games on the system. (My understanding is that HDMI supports higher quality audio than optical audio, and lowering the audio latency without lowering the video latency could make other games fall out of sync.) But then I noticed that the game’s Xbox One FAQ links to an affordable Toslink converter from Monoprice, which nicely sidesteps that issue.

So I got that converter, along with appropriate cables to let me plug in some earphones, and wow: it really was time for me to improve my Rocksmith audio setup. The latency has either completely or almost completely disappeared, which significantly reduces my annoyance: but what turns out to make as much of a difference is the position of the audio. Before, the audio was coming out of speakers on the wall, which meant that the closest sound to me was my guitar acting as an acoustic instrument. Whereas once I started listening through earphones, the closest sound to me became my guitar acting as an electronic guitar, with the unprocessed sound fading into the background, frequently inaudible.

And that gave me a more realistic idea of how I sound as an electric guitar player in ways that directly affect how I play. Most concretely, I’d been using too much force when plucking strings: now that I’m no longer listening to the sound coming directly from the string, I realize that I can get better results by barely touching the string. (I knew that intellectually before, but I feel it a lot more viscerally now.)

Having said that, there have been problems with the new setup. For one thing, the Toslink converter I’m using doesn’t have a volume control, so I have zero control as to whether I like how loud the music is. When I originally tried it, I used some iPhone earbuds I had lying around, and actually the volume level was pretty much just right for me (maybe a touch loud, but only a touch). Once I’d decided this was the way I wanted to go, I upgraded to better headphones (Sennheiser HD 558’s, for you headphone buffs), and while the sound quality and comfort are much better than with the earbuds, the sound is a tiny bit quieter than I would like, so I might end up getting a separate amp.

And the other is the cables I’m using to string all of this together. When I was experimenting to make sure I liked using the optical audio at all, sometimes the audio cut out; I’m not sure if it was the coax cable or the coax to 3.5mm cable or the female/female 3.5mm converter, but at any rate, when I upgraded the headphones, I replaced those parts with a single cable that could do all three roles. Which seemed fine, but a week later, something started going wrong again; I don’t know if it’s the new cable or if it’s in the cable for the new headphones (which is replaceable, fortunately) or in the 1/4 inch to 3.5mm converter (and there’s even one audio artifact that makes me worried that it’s the headphones themselves), but whatever it is, I’m not impressed, and I’m not looking forward to the tedium of troubleshooting to figure out what I need to replace.

But I’ll get past both of those issues; and it’s already making a real difference in the quality of my learning.

returning to ico

April 4th, 2015

I really enjoyed Dragon Age: Inquisition, but it was a bit of a mess. That mess was, however, not specific to that game: it’s entirely typical for a AAA game to throw in a kitchen sink of gameplay mechanisms.

Some AAA games manage to escape that pitfall: Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are particularly good examples. Or at least the versions of those games in my memories are; but I hadn’t played them in close to a decade! So: time to go through them again. And, having gone through the first one: Ico is very far indeed from a kitchen sink.

 

On an emotional level, I see Ico having two basic Strong Centers that permeate the game. I’ll label one as “separation”, with connection, loneliness, and fear as Echoes. And I’ll label the other as “mystery”, with exploration, wonder, understanding, and, again, fear as Echoes. And on a mechanical level, I see three basic types of actions: traversing the castle, solving puzzles in a specific portion of the castle, and combat with the monsters that appear.

Three basic types of mechanics sounds pretty small, but actually, that size isn’t unusual. Comparing this to the last two AAA games I played: you could say that Tomb Raider has the exact same basic triad of mechanics as Ico does, and you could say that Dragon Age: Inquisition has traversal, combat, and conversation as its three core mechanics. I’m not sure that’s entirely right: those two games both have collections of actions around capability increases (leveling up, inventory) that might be strong enough to call out as a fourth mechanic; in the Dragon Age case, you could even say that leveling up and crafting/inventory are two different top-level mechanical concepts. Still, at a top-level classification of mechanics, Ico‘s conceptual space seems pretty normal.

What is much less normal, however, is how little the tree expands when you drill down into these mechanics, both in terms of breadth and depth. If we consider terrain traversal in Dragon Age: there’s traversing the abstract map, there’s wandering around a region, there are distinct physical areas (towns, distinct chunks of terrain) within those regions, there are smaller portions of those areas (individual buildings within towns, hills within outdoor sections, etc.), there are dungeons to explore, there are landmarks, ocularia, etc. to discover and check off your list, there are herbs and ores to gather every few steps; in Ico, however, you’re moving from room to room and you’re moving around within rooms. (And I suppose the rooms themselves are grouped into sections, so let’s say that there are there levels of traversal.) For combat, the difference is even more stark: the list of layers of combat choices in Dragon Age would be even longer than the layers of terrain traversal, whereas it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that combat in Ico consists of repeatedly whacking your enemies with a stick.

Some of this is a difference in Levels of Scale that is proportional to the difference in length and scope of the different games. Dragon Age takes ten times as long to finish as Ico, and that difference of magnitude in duration is justified by a similar difference of magnitude in the scope of the plot; given that, for the games to feel balanced, Dragon Age needs to have more levels of a given mechanic than Ico does. But some of that difference in magnitude is because Dragon Age tries to appeal to a wide range of tastes: if you want to focus on the broad plot, you’ll traverse the game (including its physical spaces) in one way, if you want to focus on people and relationships, you’ll traverse the game in a different way, and similarly if your focus is on combat or on collecting. Or, for that matter, if your focus is on checking off boxes that the game sticks in your face, or if your focus is on the experiencing the terrain on its own terms instead of in instrumental terms. These aren’t different levels of scale, these are mechanics on the same level of scale that I read as an active choice to appeal weakly to a wide range of possible players instead of appealing strongly to a narrower range.

 

So: we have a vertical difference explained by having Layers of Scale appropriately applied in games of different scope. And we have a horizontal difference explained by Ico being more prescriptive in how it expects you to enjoy the game than Dragon Age. But that’s not all that’s going on here: the scale of combat is a vertical difference that is not explained by the difference in scope, combat in Ico is remarkably undeveloped even given the short length of the game.

Unlike so many other games, Ico isn’t treating combat as an unquestioned inclusion, as a means to its own end. If we analyze Ico as a game about separation and about mystery, then yes, combat does fit into the game: both of those centers link to fear, and enemies reify that fear. But Ico makes the decision to link the enemies most strongly with separation: the danger that the enemies bring (excluding the very end of the game) isn’t that they’ll kill you, it’s that they’ll separate you from Yorda. A hypothetical rich combat system that the player could learn to master would work at narrative cross-purposes to that reification of fear of separation: it would turn the focus onto the player and mastery and away from the focus on fear of separation. Contrast this with combat in Tomb Raider and in Dragon Age: Inquisition: the former game is a game about Lara coming into her own, and the latter game is about your inquisitor turning from a nobody into the leader of an army that can defeat demons and a world-threatening enemy; while I think combat in both games was a little bit overemphasized, it’s absolutely the case that development of the player’s combat skills fits into those games’ narrative themes in a way that it doesn’t in Ico.

I am on an anti-combat kick these days, however, and for the first part of this playthrough, I thought that the combat was a little long and tedious, that the game would have worked as well with much less of it. Now, though, I’m not nearly as sure of that: I acquired the mace in this playthrough, and once I had the mace, the battles were so fast that they had very little impact. So, based on that, I underestimated the power that was contained in the length of the initial battles: I’m not sure that the length of the battles was judged quite right, but maybe it was, and at the very least the length was a lot closer to being right than my original hypothesis was.

 

The other two mechanics, terrain traversal and puzzle solving, are much more developed than combat. Terrain traversal serves as a means to display the mystery of the castle: mystery turns to exploration turns to wonder. (And yes, turns to fear as enemies appear.) You and Yorda have to traverse the castle together, lest separation becomes a danger; and part of the mystery of the castle is its age, its beginning to fall to ruin: that highlights another form of separation, between yourself and the unknown people who built the castle. Returning to you and Yorda traversing the castle together: that connection is reified by your holding hands; but that in turn is animated in an asymmetric way, leading me to read the player at times as an excited child wanting to drag somebody older around, somebody who would be just as happy to take things a little bit more slowly. And that shows yet another, subtler, form of separation, namely one of age and knowledge: Yorda is older than you, knows more about the context of the castle than you do, knows more about the context of the struggles than you do, and will be affected differently by failure than you will.

The terrain traversal has Layers of Scale: the castle is divided into large sections, those sections are divided into rooms, and within each room, there’s a fair bit to traverse and examine. That examination turns into puzzles, which gives the game a form of Alternating Repetition (move, puzzle, move, puzzle); the puzzles reify one aspect of the mystery of the castle, and are designed with separation/reconnection as a key mechanic.

Those puzzles, from a traversal point of view, do provide a hint of The Void: they jerk you out of motion and force you to stop, look, and think. (Though puzzles frequently do fit into traversal: Non-Separateness, you could say, or Deep Interlock and Ambiguity.) But the puzzles are really more of a change in focus than they are a manifestation of The Void: your mind is active while grappling with them, your fingers are frequently active, and at times you’ll be frustrated, none of which I associate with The Void.

A better example of The Void, and an example which is one of my favorite mechanics in any game, are the couches. On a mechanical level, the couches are simply save spots, but they’re so much more. They divide sections of the games from each other, with each section being named in the save file. They highlight the importance of connection, because you can’t even use them unless Yorda is right there with you. They give down time and a space for contemplation for you as the character: you can sit there with Yorda, maybe just relaxing, maybe looking around at the castle, maybe thinking, maybe enjoying sitting there with somebody next to you. And they give down time and a space for contemplation for you as the player: as a boundary between sections, you’re told that you’ve accomplished something and should get ready to gather up your strength for what comes next, and as a save spot, you’re given explicit permission to take all the rest you need before continuing. I can’t think of another piece of furniture in any game that manages to accomplish quite so much.

 

Which makes it all the more powerful when the couches go away. For the last quarter of the game, you’re alone: and the game has reinforced the importance of connection between you and Yorda enough that her absence alone has a real impact, on the narrative of the game, the emotions of the game, and the mechanics of the game. (No more puzzles about helping her traverse a large gap, for example.) That would have been enough on its own, but the linkage of “no Yorda means no couches means no save spots” is what gave that part of the game such a visceral impact for me: I kept on wondering how much longer I’d be groping through the environments alone, how much I’d have to bear up, whether I’d have to stop and replay whole sections because I would have to do something outside of game that would prevent me from finishing that part of the game.

Normally, when games don’t let you save, I get quite annoyed at them: I see that as an active lack of respect for my time by the game. But I don’t feel that way about Ico at all: the game only does that once, it does a good job of signaling that something unusual has happened and places a save spot right before that, it does that for a clear narrative goal, there aren’t long-term failure states within that section, that narrative goal has a real emotional impact, and, ultimately, it only takes an hour and a half, maybe two hours to make it through that section of the game. (So it doesn’t require you to devote more unbroken time to the game than a movie would, it fits within the context of normal human lives.) Symmetry within games, in the form of Alternating Repetition, is all well and good, but you need to break that symmetry occasionally, to throw in a bit of Roughness: that’s what we have here.

 

Quite a game: I had a lot of respect for Ico going into this playthrough, and I have significantly more respect for it at the end.

ascension: realms unraveled

March 25th, 2015

Ascension: Realms Unraveled showed up hot on the heels of the previous expansion, and, like its predecessor, it turned out to be surprisingly fun to play. I actually was not sure about it at the start: for one thing, the art style changed dramatically, to the extent that it wasn’t even immediately obvious what class of card something was. And, for another thing, they basically took every mechanic they’d previously had except for the energy/shard mechanic and applied them all everywhere. In particular, the prior mechanic of certain lifebound heroes having special effects if you played multiple lifebound heroes in the same turn got generalized: now all classes had cards that behaved like that, which meant that focusing on classes (with all the randomness that comes from combining classes with the small number of cards available for purchase) became super important.

And, honestly, I’m really not sure that was a great idea: I think I preferred having that as a special lifebound mechanic over having it show up everywhere. So I’m hoping they step back from that in their next expansion; but trying it out once wasn’t a bad idea. It meant that some decks would cascade into overwhelming victories (which was helped by the fact that a few individual cards were overpowered); but I ended up generally basically enjoying games even when I was on the losing side of those situations, and I played a surprising number of games where both sides seemed to be building up very powerful decks.

the rock band 4 announcement

March 15th, 2015

So: Harmonix announced Rock Band 4. I had mixed feelings when I filled out the survey: on the one hand, I claimed that pro instruments were most important to me, because that is after all how I spent most of my time in Rock Band 3, but, on the other hand: “pro instruments” probably really means “pro guitar”, and Rocksmith has done a much better job teaching you how to play guitar than Rock Band 3 did. And that’s not a coincidence, not just a consequence of the initial bet that each game made on whether or not playing on a real guitar would work: the choices that Rock Band 3 made in that area fit into the game’s design heritage, which could be hard to break away from.

That mean that, when Harmonix announced that Rock Band 4 wouldn’t support pro guitar, I was actually relieved: I can’t imagine them doing that well without effectively making two different games in one, without spending as much time on pro guitar as on the rest of the game; and, well, I’m not sure what benefit that would bring me given that I have Rocksmith. I am a little sad that they decided to drop keys, because pro keys was my favorite instrument in Rock Band 3, and it didn’t have the same mismatch as pro guitar; but I accept that I’m in a pretty small minority in preferring pro keys over other instruments, and with keys there was always the issue that lots of songs in the library didn’t have a keyboard part at all.

And, when it comes down to it: these days the part of Rock Band that I like the most these days is singing. I wasn’t seriously worried that they would drop harmonies, and, indeed, they won’t be. I really like singing with Liesl, or with Liesl and Miranda, or even by myself; so yay, I’ll be able to continue doing that.

I’m not sure what I’ll be doing about the instruments: will I bring over my instruments from the 360 (assuming they get that to work), or buy new ones? Given licensing problems and the existence of The Beatles: Rock Band, part of me wants to keep an escape hatch to make it easy to switch back to Rock Band 3; but the truth is that I don’t play that game very often at all these days, and so in practice it’s probably not worth worrying about? Though the flip side is that one of our fake guitars is a little dodgy; maybe I’ll end up buying another fake guitar and another mic, which would leave it easy enough to play on either system if necessary? Heck, I could even get a new drum kit: my current set of fake drums is a Rock Band 1 era Ion model, and while it’s clearly better than the original Rock Band drum kit, the Rock Band 2 model was a big improvement, and it could be fun having cymbals to play around with.

Who knows; I’m looking forward to playing the new game, and to seeing what the team thinks is important to focus on with this iteration.