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Maturity, Inclusion, and the Game Industry in 2014

Microsoft E3 Presser

So, E3 is happening. Over Monday and Tuesday there were pressers and demos and a Brinks truck loaded with video. There’s always one or two things to stand out to me from these events, but the topic that’ll stay with me for awhile is maturity and the strange dichotomy in which this industry (fans included) needs more of it yet sometimes fails to recognize it when it appears. There are two catalysts for this post. One is the all too predictable trolling of Danielle Riendeau’s 100% on-point and valid piece on the lack of female presenters during the major press conferences. (Hat tip to the excellent work Danielle is doing at Polygon. We miss her a ton!) The other is a post from “Ashelia” on her Hellmode blog, defending the teaser trailer for the next Tomb Raider game against attacks that it’s made a victim of Lara Croft. (Apologies that I don’t have a real name to attribute to Ashelia.)

Originally, this post was mostly about Tomb Raider and a bit about Brothers and not laying charges of sexism where they don’t exist because it does disservice to those examples of brilliant work this industry is capable of producing. I can’t, in good conscience write on this topic without first calling attention to this sort of abhorrent behavior and state outright that when someone like Danielle speaks out on this topic and meets an ill-considered, reactionary response like this that it is all of our responsibility to condemn it in no uncertain terms. I don’t want these troglodytes, these soulless imbeciles, carrying the torch for who we are as gamers. I know we’re better than this. You know we’re better than this. But unless we slam the door on this sub-human behavior we’ll remain defined by it. And in case you think I’m overstating, enjoy this piece of human filth:


You stay classy, asshole.

Now, the flip side of the coin is the Lara Croft: Rise of the Tomb Raider teaser:

YouTube video

Evidently the reveal of Lara Croft sitting in a therapist’s office, clearly dealing with trauma has somehow struck a nerve with some people who think the character is being diminished for the sin of being human. Now, before I go further on this, let’s all agree that we don’t know what kind of game this will be. Sure, Crystal Dynamix isn’t going to leap miles away from a very successful formula they established, but you can’t watch a 2-minute clip that doesn’t show gameplay or story and have any idea what the game’s merits are going to be. The problem is that the ideas expressed in this trailer should be celebrated by those who want to see more maturity in gaming. We need more games in which the protagonist pays a price for enduring trauma, yet carries on. Again, read Ashelia’s piece on this. (Update: Susan Arendt just posted a good one as well.)

This question of how you can or can’t portray women, races, or any other group, minority or otherwise, in games an important one. And nobody, no matter how deep their insight, has all the answers. Just as importantly, no one answer will suit every scenario. It’s in these, often well-intentioned cases, that the mere appearance of anything resembling a stereotype in a game automatically equates to that game embracing misogyny or racism. It’s a red-herring we should avoid embracing at all costs.

A few months ago, I read through an online discussion in which several participants (of both genders) felt Brothers is a horribly sexist game because the primary female characters in the game are victims (the mother and the captured ogre) or, by her nature, a deceitful predator. And, yes, these are very nearly the sum total of female involvement in the game. But does that make it sexist? Is one of its subtle themes that women are weak and duplicitous? I’m sorry, but no sale.

The tricky part regarding accusations of misogyny and racism in games is that they’re serious business. People put their heart and souls into making these products happen. If you don’t like a game, it doesn’t speak to you, or you think the design is bunk, that’s one thing, but to accuse people of engaging in something so ugly is entirely something else. That’s an accusation that sticks fast and is very hard to remove, so if you’re going to do it, you damn well better be certain about it. And the fact that Lara Croft is in a therapist’s office with obvious symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or that a game called Brothers is focused on male relationships doesn’t mean some group of white dudebros in a writer’s room are telling you that women are weak or deceitful.

It’s impossible to avoid all potential stereotypical pitfalls, 100% of the time. What matters is context and the benefit of the doubt in any single case should be the rule rather than the exception. (And, no, Assassin’s Creed: Unity does not get benefit of the doubt for the all-male cast of player characters. Opportunity… blown.) The rebirth of the Tomb Raider franchise does not diminish Lara Croft by giving her depth and perhaps a little human frailty. It’s those very additions to her character that make her so much more amazing than in any previous incarnation. This is a Lara Croft that feels pain, fear, and desperation, and still she pushes forward, beyond the bounds known to the rest of us lesser people. Did anyone think less of the Tony Stark character in Iron Man 3 because he hadn’t gotten over the events of the Avengers? This glimpse into the next Tomb Raider makes Croft ever more the hero, because we know that whatever the adversity, it will be a story about her overcoming it.

There are obviously exceptions to the rule. The Witcher 2, much as I love that game, falls into some uncomfortable areas. It is possible to make a game that takes place in a misogynist world without endorsing misogyny and I think Witcher 2 largely succeeds in that. There are moments in it, however, lingering scenes where what should be clearly repugnant behavior makes you wonder if some in the design department instead found it titillating, which is troubling and awkward and the mere moment’s reflection upon it immediately takes away from the game. I can’t state how how much I want to be wrong about that.

In other games there are elements that are more obviously shameful and the work of minds in desperate need of maturation. Dead or Alive, anyone? I know, I know. Too easy. I also know Bayonetta is largely regarded as a strong female heroine, but I could never get over being told by a male designer that, “her clothes are her magic hair,” and that’s why she seemed to turn nude every so often. Because, magic! And why exactly did Bioware, a pretty progressive developer, feel the need to give Flemeth this particular makeover in Dragon Age 2? Crazy sack-wearing swamp lady to smoky dominatrix because, oh, that’s just the unreliable narrator of DA2… err.. fluffing up his imagination. Riiiight.

But this is where you have to be fair too, because for every bit of cheese DA2 has plenty of moments that deftly and maturely handle a range of human drama. And that’s why this gets so tricky. There’s only so many open and shut cases of actual Hate or bigotry in individual games. It’s the same problem acceptance of global warming has. It’s extraordinarily hard to look at a single weather event and say it’s evidence for or against climate change. It’s only in the aggregate that we know we have a very serious problem. Likewise the role of women and people of color in games. The industry doesn’t have a woman problem because Two Worlds or Heavenly Sword show ill-proportioned women in skimpy outfits completely ill-suited to their surroundings and role in the world. The industry has a problem because you can’t throw a rock without hitting a game that shows ill-proportioned women in skimpy outfits completely ill-suited to their surroundings and role in the world. The comic book industry is even worse in this regard and it makes the whole industry look awful.

That is what makes the piece Danielle wrote important and relevant. There was nothing wrong with any single white male being up on stage to tout game X at E3. But when you look at the whole thing, the balance is unmistakably off. And don’t tell me it’s because dudes play games and chicks don’t or because it was all design leads and CEOs making the presentations. Make that argument in 1992, if you must, but it’s outdated in 2014. Change does take time, but by now we should see more heterogeneous representation, especially at the highest level of game publishing.

Wherein, then, lies the balance? When do wet let the innocent go without comment and when do we speak? Damned if I know, but it’s a line we should all be working together to define because, yes, we need better examples of strong women in games. We need to see better portrayal of people of color in games. We need more authentic depictions of homosexuality in games. But not in every game, all of the time. What we need is balance. And in the mean time we should praise efforts to raise the bar for maturity (real maturity) and inclusiveness in games while still poking the industry with a stick at every corner, because, yes, they absolutely need to know when they feature more decapitations in their press presentations than women speakers on the stage. And when the worst offenders of the worst sorts of stereotyping sludge out from their depressed hovels, we absolutely should call them out. But as progress is made, as it has been, as it will continue to be, let’s not throw under the bus those games and people who’s only crime are telling a story that doesn’t have room to address every cause. If we truly want a big tent, there should be room for a little bit of everything.

E3 and the Longest Game

ps4 announcement

Sony has now shown its hand for the PlayStation 4 at E3, and it looks to be aiming squarely at the hardcore gaming market. In what is certainly not a co-incidence their latest press release was at pains to point out that the PS4 will be doing exactly the opposite of all the things that have so annoyed hobby gamers about the Xbox One so far. It won’t need to connect to the internet once per day. It will run used games. It might not be backwards compatible but you will be able to play PS3 titles streamed online through Gaikai. It’ll be cheaper, and have a bigger library of indie games. The message from Sony couldn’t be clearer: we’re the hardware for serious gamers, and we’re listening to what you want.

Personally I’m pretty much sold. I buy a lot of used games and the fact that one console will allow me to continue doing that and the other won’t is a deal breaker. The chance to play some great PS3 titles that I missed in this generation, like Journey, The Last of Us and Demon’s Souls is a huge attraction, as is the price. Being fairly tech savvy I can surely use my PC to mimic a lot of the added functionality of the Xbone anyway. Upgrading is a long way away for me: my 360 pile of shame is easily big enough to last me into the first year of the next generation. But unless things change drastically over the coming 24 months (and they might yet), it looks like I’m a Sony man.

But that doesn’t mean I think Microsoft have screwed up. As has been repeated tirelessly over the last few weeks, Microsoft wasn’t aiming to launch its new console at us. It’s an attempt to reach out squarely to the casual market, the two or three games a year market, the market that have been relentlessly gobbled up by smartphone gaming over the last few years. Whatever we might think of it, it’s a bold move and puts clear water between Microsoft and its competitors in the console environment.

It seems to me that in going after the hardcore crowd, Sony have chosen to play it safe. It’s a smaller market, but a solid one which will guarantee them sales. They’re effectively admitting that the days of the console as a unified gaming platform are over, and are seeking to corner the people who are sure to continue to support it.

Microsoft on the other hand are taking a massive gamble. The audience they’re going after might not want to come back to console gaming from their mobile devices. They might not want to drop hundreds of dollars on a gaming system that offers some fairly minimal usability advantages for regular media consumption over the disparate use of PVRs, PCs and tablets that we see at the moment.

This doesn’t surprise me. Microsoft have basically done exactly the same thing with Windows 8: abandoned their core market in favour of trying to recapture a segment of the mobile market. It’s clear that the bosses at Microsoft have decided that beyond the obvious conclusion of mobile being a big part of the future, mobile is almost the entirety of the future. And if there’s a company that can not only afford to gamble, but probably needs to gamble on the way the future is going to map out, it’s Microsoft.

The future remains, of course, utterly inscrutable on the matter. It could be that Kinect 2 turns out to be the transformative technology that Kinect 1 promised to be but clearly wasn’t. That would be a game changer. But I’m willing to bet that the next generation belongs to Sony. However, I’m also willing to bet that the next generation will be the last that sticks to the traditional models of production and consumption. And after the world has moved on, it’s possible that Sony will find it has cornered a market that no longer exists, and its Microsoft who’ll reap the rewards for playing the long game.

Tuesday Babbling – Returns on a Wednesday Edition


I’ve had this post, half-finished, in the hopper for about three weeks. I call it being fashionably late to the party. Regardless, there’s been much ballyhoo about the Xbox One in the weeks since Microsoft disappointed gamers everywhere by not making them center stage at The Grand Unwrapping of 2013. Why we seem to care so much about this is rather beyond me.

Folks, this one wasn’t about us and that’s neither a slight, nor a problem…

First, this is not about the presentation’s aftermath, which has been something of a mess of mixed-messaging and rumor-mongering beyond the point of usefulness. This is not about whether or not I think the console will be great when it comes out. This is about the 1-hour event itself and the weeping and gnashing of teeth that followed.

Personally, I saw three things in that presentation:

– Stuff I don’t care about (most of it)
– Stuff I do care about (a little of it)
– Dark Matter (stuff that is out there, somewhere, but we don’t get to see it yet; this is the stuff on which I’ll be basing my own buying decisions)

The people who are upset with the presentation are upset because Evil Microsoft didn’t devote 10 minutes to featuring their pet issue. Indie developers are upset because they didn’t address indie gaming. People who want to buy used games the same as ever are upset. People who want to know just how often the console must be online are upset. And so are the people that want to know how much they’ll have to pay. People who want to know about games that aren’t Call of Duty or EA Sports, us basically, were totally left out in the cold.

To all that I say, remember that Microsoft wasn’t courting you last month. They’ll get around to you eventually, probably beginning with E3 next week, because they know you’ll still be paying attention, both next week, through the summer, and later this year when this giant black box comes out. If you’re sitting at home right now saying, “I’m not buying this,” Microsoft knows they have plenty of time to show you something to change your mind, because you’re a gamer and you’ll be watching. Gamers are always watching for the next cool title that they have to play.

The Grand Unwrapping was Microsoft’s play for the people who don’t care what happens at E3 or in the fall. They were playing for the widest possible audience, an audience they want and probably desperately need to include non-gamers. They wanted their tiny slice of the national new cycle and you don’t get that by talking for fifteen and change about what you’re doing to support indie games. Answering any of the aforementioned questions isn’t on Microsoft’s radar right now because those answers are either A) only important to a vocal niche or B) aren’t going to make you happy (see: games, used).

What Microsoft wanted out of the event was for there to be B-roll on CNN, nightly news, etc., of a few pretty games and a dude controlling his TV with voice and gestures. They wanted to show utility and to that end I thought they actually did a pretty bang up job. I’m not defending Microsoft’s tactic here as a gamer, I’m just saying I know when an event isn’t about me and this? This wasn’t about me, so I took what info they offered and got on with my day. There’s really no point in being outraged about the lack of game focus because we still don’t know anything, even weeks later, about the kinds of games coming to the console. But we will. (I’ll write, maybe next week, why I just don’t give a fig about the timed expiration of the used game market).

Publishers aren’t going to just sit on the sidelines. They’re making games and they’re going to want you to know about them. Wait for E3. Wait for the end of the summer. And most importantly, wait for six months or so after the console’s release. Then you’ll know if Microsoft has offered you enough carrots to justify whatever ungodly price they’re going to extoll (both in treasure and silly little things like privacy). I’m still convinced the slogan on this beast should be Privacy Not Included (I’m undecided how much I care about this), but I suspect I’m the only person who finds that bit of wordplay remotely amusing. But hey, what’s amusing to me has always been my guiding star so I’m cool with that.

In the meantime, if you want some more reasonable takes on what we do know, there have been a handful of articles the past few weeks that are worth a read:

Wired: Xbox One Revealed (This has better technical details than most of the detritus out there.)


PAR: Xbox One Will Kill Used Games and That’s Great


“It needs to be made clear, if all the studio closings and constant lay-offs haven’t made this explicit: The current economics of game development and sales are unsustainable. Games cost more to make, piracy is an issue, used-games are pushed over new, and players say the $60 cost is too high. Microsoft’s initiatives with the Xbox One may solve many of these issues, even if we grumble about it. These changes ultimately make the industry healthier.”


PAR: Why the Xbox One Backlash Doesn’t Matter


“The second thing we have to remember is that a hashtag and a few blog posts isn’t a backlash. No one at Microsoft or Sony cares about what you post on the forums of your favorite gaming website. I hate to be the bearer of bad news in this regard, but right now the reaction to the possible used game restrictions amounts to a fart in the wind.

What matters is consumer behavior, and we don’t have any data points to show us how things have changed.”

Gizmodo: You Don’t Hate the Xbox One, You’re Just Jealous (They’re troll baiting with the premise, but the point is legit.)

“There is absolutely no downside to a gaming console widening its berth and bringing in a larger audience. Creating content for a console, or any platform, is not, despite whatever alarmist fears circulate, a zero sum proposition. A team spending time on the Kinect’s voice commands does not mean the controller gets shortchanged. Adding a whole side of the OS dedicated to apps and non-game content does not necessarily mean your games are being shortchanged—especially with all the lengths Microsoft has gone to ensure performance. (The static RAM on the CPU/CPU SoC is a bigger deal than it’s being given credit for.) Microsoft is a very large company. There are seven thousand people on the Xbox team alone. It can work on more than one thing at once.”

Microsoft Reveals New Remote Control/Cable Box Combo


In case you didn’t get the memo, Microsoft just revealed its new $500 (?) television remote control/cable box called the Xbox 361. It also may play some video games, according to some suit in a blazer and jeans for the special occasion.

The new Call of Duty game was shown and it will be a Durango exclusive for a couple of days. As long as you pretend that games like Thief, Vanquish, and Brink never existed it will provide innovative new gameplay experiences like the ability to lean and slide. Also, for the first time ever in a video game, there is a dog. What is most impressive though, according to the video I watched, is how the Xbox Infinity will simulate Captain Price’s arm hairs better than ever before. There were also some wireframes that show how your dudebro entertainment experience will come alive like never before with the NextBox. I thought it was pretty touching seeing those soldiers cuddling up. I hope my bros will purchase the Xbox instead of the PS4 so that we can share the man-love a couple of days early.

Steven Spielberg came on stage to say that the next Halo will have no gameplay at all, that you will just watch it. Lots of intro screens were shown for lots of sports video games, none of which I care a flipping shit about other than the soccer one, which is pretty popular. I hope that you care a flipping shit about some football, because the Xbox 720 will have lots of it. And you can scratch your groin at the Kinect and it will switch back and forth between Madden 14 and ESPN. Without having to turn one off. That is truly amazing, the next generation has arrived.

Forza 5 showed a bunch of cars that you can’t have. But they didn’t show what it’s like to actually drive the cars in the game. So Turn 10 may have actually reached the peak of motorsports simulation by not allowing you to drive any of them. Just like in real life.

Remedy showed a game based on the popular Quantum Leap TV series with lots of human drama- the kind only a little girl can deliver- and some multimedia CD-ROM game live action content. Stuff blew up. It looked like a summer blockbuster. But it will probably be a third person shooter that will kindly do you the courtesy of doing everything itself other than requiring a press of the X button occasionally so you can sit back and enjoy the show.

Bride of Xbox 360 features a bunch of cloud stuff, so it will always be online. Deal with it. The good news too is that you can throw your old Xbox 360 away, including everything you’ve downloaded on it. Believe me, when you see the ability to watch Netflix on this thing, you’ll never want to play Bastion again anyway. I hate old video games, don’t you?

So the takeaway out of all of this is that Microsoft, even more so than Sony, is doing us all a favor by reminding us that developing new design-level gameplay concepts and leveraging technology to create them aren’t important. We’re dumb to think that anyway, which is why the PC, Wii and iPads suck and have no legitimate game experiences. What matters in the next console generation is the ability to chit chat on the internet, watch TV shows, and marvel at 1080p arm hairs waving in the breeze at 60fps. Get with the program.

Always On, Except for When It Ain’t

always on map

As you all here know, I recently moved. I used to live not very close to Atlanta, now I live even less close. There’s Inside-the-Perimeter, there’s Outside-the-Perimeter and then there’s me. The county I live in isn’t totally rural but at the same time, the guy who trained my dog used to work for the sheriff’s department in this county and the most excitement he ever had while on duty was lassoing a bull with an extension cord. If I want to get to Atlanta, I can be there in about 40 minutes, provided it’s not rush hour or a day with a Brave’s game, a Falcon’s game, a Tech game or a day with any of the various festivals and summer going-ons that happen in the city. I know it sounds like I’m out in the boonies, but trust me, it ain’t all like that. My buddy Hodge lives even further out than I do, like cow-country far out.


When I made the plans to move, the very first thing I did was make an appointment for Comcast to come out and hook up my phone, internet and TV service. I didn’t plan on watching a lot of TV while unpacking, but the kids needed something to do to stay out of my hair and the missus and I needed a way to unwind at night lest we dream of nothing but boxes all night.

On Friday, the day we closed on the house, the day before we moved, the installer showed up, said the main cable to the house was bad and that he wouldn’t be able to install anything. Bummer. He put in a maintenance ticket and went on his way. Maintenance showed up, said he could have installed things, did what they could do and went on their way. On Monday another installer came out and said the same thing that the first installer said. And so it went. I’ll spare you all of the details, but the bottom line is that I now only use Comcast for internet service, having switched to DirecTV for television and I’m rocking the MagicJack thingy for phone service. I finally got internet Sunday night but only after a week of appointments rescheduled without my knowledge, countless phone calls to Comcast and AT&T and many, many curse words.

BioShock Infinite

When I finally got my Xbox hooked up, it was pretty low on the list of priorities, it was great to be able to spend some time exploring Columbia in BioShock: Infinite and unwind after a long day of humping boxes down the basement stairs or organizing the pantry. Yeah, my 360 still isn’t connected to the internet (I have an old school, non-WiFi version and I haven’t been able to run network cable yet), which is strange, not seeing all the usual Live frippery when I turn it on, but at least I can play it.

I mention all of this so that you understand how taken aback I was when I got back online and saw the nonsense about the possibility of an always-on console from Microsoft. I know that I’ve painted a fairly rural picture of where I live, but trust me, it’s not like that. I’m an embellisher. I embellish. The truth is that I live 40 miles from Atlanta. If you were to draw a circle with Atlanta at the center and a radius of 40 miles, you would encompass the third largest metropolitan area in the southeast, right behind Washington DC and Miami, home to over five million people. Five million! We just hosted the Final Four and it took me over a week to get the internet turned on. Yes, some of that was due to technical issues, but not much. Some of it was just time and Comcast’s priorities. Heck, Hodge can’t even get cable where he lives and he’s less than 30 minutes away from me.


Now, let’s say I had one of these awesome, always-on consoles, a console I wouldn’t be able to play while I’m waiting for service, would it be the end of the world? Absolutely not. But what it would do is provide me with plenty of opportunities to learn that I don’t need said console. I’m fairly routine oriented, and I think most people are. If I work something like playing games on a certain console into my routine, it will happen regularly. If something knocks it out of my routine, something else will replace it and it will take significant effort to get it back into the routine, effort that I most likely won’t spend if it has been replaced with something that I enjoy as much.

When Sony announced the price of the PS3, there were many stupid statements over how it didn’t matter how expensive it was because people would have to have it and would pay anything. That didn’t quite happen. There’s a similar amount of hubris here. It doesn’t matter if it the console will be rendered useless in the case of a service outage, you have to have it. Never mind the fact that for many potential consumers, they can’t get the service necessary to hook it up in the first place. Microsoft is about to learn what Sony did, which is ridiculous for a number of reasons, mostly because they should have been paying attention over the past seven years.

I’ve seen the vacuum cleaner and electricity arguments and the cell phone and cell phone service arguments and they’re dumb and I hate them. A vacuum cleaner won’t work without electricity. It can’t. Similarly, a cell phone can’t work without cell phone service. It can be a pretty nice touch-gadget, based on what model phone you have, but as a phone, not so much. A video game console can work just fine without being connected to the internet 24/7. I have three such devices in my home. If Microsoft chooses to make their console not work without a connection, that’s their choice, but don’t make it sound like this shit is required, because it ain’t.


Here’s the thing, Microsoft. If you want to sell your hardware as a means of getting the service in people’s homes, then switch over to a model similar to the cable companies and satellite providers. Don’t charge people for the hardware, or charge a minimal, key word there, leasing charge. Charge people for the service and give them the hardware with which the service comes into the home. Then, you can make whatever service restrictions you want. But you won’t do that because then you’d have to be responsible with swapping out hardware when things didn’t work, or maintaining a system by which consumers can return devices and you don’t want to do that. What you want is to put the entire burden on the consumer. Here, buy my console, make sure it’s connected to the internet and then let me nickel and dime you to death with all this extraneous bullshit.

Let me tell you right now, that ain’t gonna happen. Not in my house. Take a look at my gamertag. See those 100,000 points? You think those points came cheap? I didn’t just roll out of bed one morning and get those points. Those points represent a substantial amount of time and money sunk into your console, your games and your infrastructure, a commitment that I will one hundred percent walk away from if you try to pull some always on bullshit with me. No lie. If you want to shoot yourself in the foot, that’s your business, but you’re not doing it on my dime.

You seem to think that we can’t live without you, but you’re going to find out pretty quickly that it’s the other way around.