Category Archives: Comment

Gender in Videogames – A Historical View

Over the last few weeks I’ve been looking at the gender split of playable characters in video games. The overall result isn’t exactly surprising, but the detail within the data does offer a few new perspectives on the issue.

Continue reading Gender in Videogames – A Historical View

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Before Watchmen

I’ve been fascinated by the debate surrounding the new Watchmen series of comic books that DC are publishing at the moment.  There are two camps, broadly speaking, and each have arguments for and against publishing the series, but these arguments tend to get smudged together in a homogenous whole, meaning that it is difficult to determine who or what is right.  The Pro-DC argument is that DC has a legal right to publish any Watchmen related material they like, the Watchmen contract was explicit at the time of signing, Moore could have been reasonably expected to understand the ramifications of the contract and any moral claims to ownership by Moore are invalid because he has used characters that he didn’t create in his own work, most famously in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls. The Pro-Moore argument is that the legal justification for publishing Watchmen related material is against the spirit of the contract signed by Moore, who had a reasonable expectation for Watchmen to go out of print within 12 months, and it doesn’t matter that Alan Moore uses characters from other works because they are in the public domain, the creators are dead and his works are transformative anyway.

For me, this boils down to two issues – the legal right to publish and the moral choice to publish.

Unequivocally, DC owns the rights to Watchmen and can publish whatever they like without so much as a phone call to Moore or Gibbons.  They have to pay royalties, which is what they’ve been doing for Watchmen ever since its publication.  They have been fair with film royalties, with money going to Gibbons as Moore refused to take it, but unfair with merchandising royalties: the toys and other spinoff goods sold by DC were labelled as promotional items, and thus not royalty payable.  The rights to Watchmen have been offered to Moore and Gibbons on a number of occasions, usually as part of a deal to produce a prequel or sequel, but Moore has refused to accept the accompanying terms and the rights have remained with DC.

Unequivocally, Alan Moore has the right to publish stories using characters in the public domain, which is, broadly speaking, any character created by an author who died more than 70 years ago.  Lost Girls is an interesting exception because the stage play Peter Pan, and the character of Wendy and all derivative works, remains in perpetual copyright in the UK because of a special provision in the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988.  The provision doesn’t give the copyright holder the right to refuse any adaptation, however, it just means that Great Ormond Street Hospital is entitled to royalty payments for derivative works.

As J. Michael Straczynski has been a vocal defender of Before Watchmen, it is interesting to note that the reason he enjoys much of his control over Babylon 5 is because of the separated rights agreement that was negotiated by the Writer’s Guild of America.  While Warner Bros has televisual rights to the series, JMS has reserved rights on pretty much everything else, including novelizations, dramatic stage rights, film rights and merchandising.  JMS has not had to rely on a moral argument against profiting from his work as there is already an effective legal argument to protect him.

So, is it morally right to use characters or stories not created by yourself and derive a new work?  It is difficult to talk about this without personalities getting in the way.  Clearly Alan Moore has taken characters and situations from a variety of sources without permission and created new derivative works with them.  If Alan Moore can do it, why should those wanting to take his work and derive something from it feel restricted in doing so, especially as they have the explicit legal right to do so?  Pro-Moore arguments hinge upon the intention of the creator, as Moore has been vocal in his opposition to the prequels.  But, Moore has taken characters, however obliquely, and done things that their creators may not agree with.

Looking at Hyde, the complaint is that Stephenson wouldn’t like his character to be a murderous homosexual rapist.  Anyone who’s read Stephenson’s original would know that Hyde is already explicitly responsible for murder and it is heavily implied that he is involved in the worst sort of deviant excesses during his evening sojourns.  Is this markedly different from Moore’s Hyde?  If anything, Moore’s Hyde is more humane than Stephenson’s so any complaint should perhaps be that the character is not evil or animalistic enough.

What about other things that the original author might object to?  No stage plays?  No novels?  This would lead to some nonsensical situations, as no-one can give permission for every possible likely derivation. 

Does it make a difference that all of the characters Moore used in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls are by authors that are long dead?  If it’s morally wrong to modify, update or transform works by dead authors, then is there a time limit where it becomes okay?  If you’re arguing that it is wrong to modify anyone’s work after death, then you’re arguing that no derivative works of any kind, ever, of anything can be produced; no film adaptations of Shakespeare plays or radio performances of Beethoven symphonies.

The middle ground, that a work remains in copyright until a period of time has passed after the author’s death seems fair.  The thing to argue about is how long before works enter the public domain.

So, if DC has the legal authority and it isn’t inherently immoral to make derivative works, what’s the problem with Before Watchmen?  The issue at the heart of this is the contract between DC and Moore and Gibbons.  Is it fundamentally a bad contract for creators?  The discussion revolves around the reversion of rights if the product goes out of print.  Whether or not this was likely to happen, this is still a pretty terrible contract for someone who wants to own their work as there is an obvious way for rights to be withheld in perpetuity.  Moore and Gibbons, if they were serious about owning Watchmen, shouldn’t have agreed to the contract in the first place.  If DC was serious about setting up a fair and equitable creator-owned contract, then they shouldn’t have put the reversion clause into the contract in the form it currently takes and made assurances to Moore and Gibbons that they would own their creations, as it’s pretty obvious they were only ever going to let them do so if Watchmen wasn’t a success.

Before Watchmen hasn’t really changed the DC/Moore situation, but it has dragged it into the open, kicking and screaming.  If you are a creator of any sort, it is a stark warning not to trust in promises of good faith or flattery, especially in the comic business

And a reminder to get a good lawyer…

Ninten-woes

I bet you think Nintendo made a ton of money from the Wii and DS?  Their turnover since 2006 has been exceptional, but you’d be surprised at the relatively small amount of profit they made, considering the boatloads of cash spent by folk on the little black and white boxes of motion controlled joy.  In fact, based on last years performance, and this years interim results, Nintendo could be in for a rocky few years ahead.  So why are they in trouble now?

Back in 2003/4*, Nintendo wasn’t looking great.  Their flagship products were either stillborn, the Gamecube, or were on their last legs, the Gameboy.  In a prescient opening to the 2004 Nintendo financial report, Saturo Iwata said the following:

‘Unfortunately, in the current market, increasing numbers of casual gamers are not picking up controllers because games created using the old formula for success are no longer as appealing as they once were. Increasingly complex games with intricate game controls, while popular with avid game enthusiasts, are not what the majority of the game playing public is seeking. Most players are not looking for games that require them to invest large amounts of time and energy, instead most want games they can enjoy periodically, when there’s a free moment in their day.

In Japan, the software market has been shrinking for the past few years and the North American market, which used to experience significant growth year after year, is seeing a slowing of that trend. Under such circumstances, a revolutionary approach to video game creation is required more than ever.

Currently, the game play skills of avid gamers far surpass those of novice players. Led by Nintendo, the industry needs to present a style of play that levels the playing field, so players of all skill levels can enjoy video games. In order to expand the market, we need to place everybody back at the same starting point.’

It was easy to dispute this viewpoint at the time, Nintendo were flagging behind Sony and Microsoft in the sixth console generation, and hadn’t grown as a company for about six years.

A product called the Nintendo DS was released in November ’04 in the US, and it wasn’t clear that it was going to be the monster smash it became, largely because it looked like it had been designed in the soviet bloc.  The DS only sold 5 million units in 2004/5, the Gameboy Advance sold 15 million in the same year, and the Gamecube sold less than the DS.  Sales were flat and profits were falling.  Dire predictions about the future of Nintendo, comparing them to Sega and suggesting they’d be better off as a software only publishing house, were abound.  2005/6 was little better, while DS sales picked up slightly, GBA sales halved, it was as if there was a limit to the number of handheld sales of around 20 million a year.

It was then that Nintendo revealed the Wii.  It was largely rejected by the mainstream gaming press as a pile of old rubbish (much grist was generated by looking at its internal hardware and comparing it to the much more powerful Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 consoles which it was supposed to be competing against).  But, if the gaming press had been paying attention, Nintendo were trying to do something else, they were trying to halt the stagnation of the gaming market.  The Wii had two significant advantages over its main rivals, it was cheap, as it used relatively inexpensive hardware and eschewed HD fidelity, and it was great for playing in groups.  Its no surprise that the Wii sells out at Christmas, what other system was so heavily geared towards party and family games?

To say that the Wii was a success is an understatement.  It is now one of the most successful consoles of all time, selling over 85 million units since launch.  After a redesign, the Nintendo DS has sold nearly 150 million units which makes it the most successful handheld console ever.  So why do I think that Nintendo are in trouble?

While Nintendo have sold a lot of consoles, they have also had to spend a tremendous amount of money designing and buying hardware, building or renting facilities to manufacture and assemble units, on warehousing, distribution and marketing and on the salaries of all the new staff they’ve had to employ to keep up with demand.  The success of Nintendo at this time is unprecedented in their history, and they’ve gone from manufacturing around 20 million handheld and home consoles a year to nearly 60 million in 2008/9.  The tales of shortages at Christmas might be exaggerated, but I wouldn’t say they are entirely unjustifiable.

So revenue is up, but costs are also up.  Take a look at the following graph and you’ll see what I mean:

The spike in revenue is striking, but the bottom line, the net profit, the profit after the cost of all of Nintendo operations is deducted, doesn’t have quite the same dramatic shape.  In 2008/9 Nintendo’s revenue was up 260% but it’s profits were only up by 180%.  In an ideal world you’d want those figures to be pretty much the same, but because of the reasons above, they’re never going to be.  It’s not even a major problem, until the sales start dropping off.

Ah.  Now we’ve got a problem.  Nintendo’s revenue has been dropping off a cliff for the past few years and net income is back to pre-Wii and DS levels.  So even though Nintendo are turning over more than twice as much money as they were in 2004/5 (1,014 Billion JPY vs 508 Billion JPY), their profit levels are actually worse than 2004/5 (77.6 Billion JPY vs 98.4 Billion JPY).  You would normally expect to see profit increase relative to revenue, all other things being equal, as products are made more cheaply or more effectively and companies engineer out expense by replacing expensive hardware with less costly alternatives, but because the Wii was already a streamlined product at launch, it must have proved difficult to take out more cost.  It could be that it is actually becoming more expensive to make the Wii, as older chips are no longer mass-produced for other non-Nintendo products, reducing the significant economies of scale in chip production.

The other explanation for the reduced profits is the increased budget required to launch a new console.  We can see in 2003/4 Nintendo’s net profit takes a nose dive, before the release of the DS, so perhaps the costs of the Wii U and 3DS are having a significant impact.  What if this is just a blip and Nintendo are going to bounce back to their Wii/DS revenue of 2008/9 in the next few years?

The stars aligned when the DS and Wii both turned out to be massively successful.  There hasn’t been a better time to be at Nintendo than the past few years, as the cycles of their handheld and home console popularity converged like a perfect storm.  But, while this amounted to a massive boom, the waning popularity of both products at the same time means that both of their next projects had better be at least successful on their own terms. 

Looking at the 3DS, its not had the greatest of starts.  It sold 3.6 million units in its first six months, which is below the 4 million Nintendo forecast, but still higher than the DS sold in its first six months.  The problem is that Nintendo sold 7 million less hand held consoles than they did the year before.  The issues the 3DS has with player nausea, the difficulty of advertising a 3D product in 2D media, and lack of killer titles, mean that it isn’t assured of the same level of success as the DS.  That’s not a problem as long as the Wii U works out.  But I don’t think the Wii U is going to be a success, and it goes back to Saturo Iwata and the 2003/4 financial report. 

For all of the fuss about hardcore and casual gamers, there is one thing that is undeniable, Nintendo did grow the market for video games, for everyone.  That’s the reason for Sony’s Playstation Move and Microsoft’s Kinect, they saw massive amounts of cash to be had and ‘innovated’ in that direction.  Nintendo have effectively levelled the market, but Sony and Microsoft have now joined them in the casual market.  It may be cheaper to buy a Wii U than an XBox360 + Kinetic or a Playstation 3 + Move, but the essential Wii U package isn’t different enough to make people want to buy an additional console or upgrade from the Wii.

This is because the Wii U will not expand the market the way the Wii did, and its the same reason the 3DS won’t expand the market like the DS did.  The Wii U is not innovating in the right direction.  The unique selling point of the Wii was that you could play the Wii with your family on a standard definition telly.  The unique selling point of the Wii U, compared to everything else available, is that you can play on the controller when the telly is being used by someone else.  It is essentially changing the experience from a group activity to a single player activity.  It is a regressive move, not innovative.

I would love to be surprised by the success of the 3DS and the Wii U, as Nintendo is an innovative company, but I remain pessimistic.

* Dates are all based on Nintendo’s Financial year which run April to March.

World of Warcraft Anxiety

I think I should get this off my chest. I am a casual player of World of Warcraft. I have a full-time job, a fiancee, I roleplay with my friends and I sing a bit too. I love videogaming, but it is only one part of my life, so I try to moderate my time spent sat in front of a monitor. I’m not sure whether or not I’ve had a typical World of Warcraft experience, but I do think I fit the typical casual mmo-gamer niche that everyone is talking about. A little history might help here.

I started playing World of Warcraft in November 2006. I spent years levelling my first characters and I had an absolute blast without stepping foot in a dungeon, raid or battleground. I didn’t hit a level cap until Wrath of the Lich King, December 2009 in fact. This is primarily because I didn’t know what I was doing. Because I rarely interacted with other players, as everyone else seemed intent on hitting the level cap as soon as possible, I had time to explore every area and fight every monster. I think one reason I fell in love with Warcraft was the size of the place. I once tried swimming around Kalimdor with a level 25 character. I managed to swim from Darkshore to Azshara before a passing lobster cut me to ribbons, but I didn’t care, it felt awesome to be somewhere new, exciting and off-limits.

While I was a little anxious, the excitement of the new and the relatively small penalty for failure meant that I spent a very long time levelling and exploring and never really got bored. Sadly, even with the new continent, I will never feel that rush of excitement as I come to a new area, even with Cataclysm, as I know too much now for levelling to be truly challenging. It can still be fun, but I’m not excited by it any more.

When I finally hit the level cap in Wrath, I jumped into dungeons, heroics and all that with gusto. I quickly learnt the ropes and became competent enough to stay out of the fire and hit the buttons in the order required to produce adequate damage. I figured out how to gem and enchant gear to maximise my numbers, got into a small guild and started running raid content. While we never troubled with heroics modes, we had a great time hammering our heads against the wall because we did advance, no matter how slowly. I dabbled with healing and tanking, the former more successfully than the latter, and enjoyed myself all the same. I started to read Warcraft sites and forums to make sure I wasn’t doing it all wrong.

I don’t think that in my four years of playing WoW up to the release of Cataclysm I’d experienced true anxiety or boredom. I’d played WoW the way I wanted to play it, had fun and all the time I was trying new and interesting content, I was feeling Flow. Flow is an interesting concept that I think is really important in videogames. It’s the feeling you get when you are neither anxious nor bored but feel challenged and in control of your situation. You might get it when you’re on a perfect-win streak in Tekken or if you’re in the middle of a speed run in Mirror’s Edge; you’re doing something difficult, not impossible, and you’re nailing it. Obviously, Flow is based on your own perception of difficulty and ability, so I wouldn’t claim that any of the content I was doing was difficult at all to the average player.

An interesting side-effect of my research is my increasing awareness of the WoW meta-game – optimisation of gear done via spreadsheet or website, strategy guides and theorycrafting. It was intruding slightly, but because I wasn’t a guild or raid leader and strategies would be talked through during the raid, I never really paid that much mind to it. I could read up on strategies, and frequently did, but it wasn’t strictly speaking necessary for day to day play. You could easily take part in heroic dungeons and battlegrounds without checking Wowhead for example.

The release of Cataclysm changed all that. What makes Cataclysm interesting is the schizophrenic way it caters to casual players in one way, by introducing time saving devices in-game (LFD, Heirlooms, ‘Welfare’ Epics) while upping the meta-game requirements and the amount of time required to complete group content.

The WoW meta-game has become intrusive. Evidence that it is impossible to play the game without strategy guides is the inclusion of them as standard in the form of the dungeon journal. I might agree that heroics and raids should be difficult if it weren’t for the fact that since the release of Cataclysm there is very little content that isn’t heroic dungeon or raid related. In fact if you take away the heroic only dungeons casual level 85’s have a handful of Tol Barad and Firelands daily quests, four non-heroic dungeons and a few non-repeatable questlines to play through.

You might be asking yourself, if you’re so interested in heroic content, why don’t you read up on the tactics and get stuck in? If only it were that simple. There are two points here, firstly, the finding, reading and understanding of the tactics for the heroic bosses in Cataclysm is not trivial. There were 42 bosses at launch with unique tactics for each. As the LFD is random, you had to know all the tactics before queuing or risk not knowing the one you finally end up in. Secondly, the number of bosses in each dungeon on average increased. This with the increased difficulty means that the potential amount of time spent in dungeons also increased significantly. Even if you have read up on the tactics and prepared yourself for a long run, you could find yourself in a group with people who haven’t, increasing the chances that you’ll be in one dungeon all night.

Well, I did read all the guides, made a few notes of my own and spent a good few weeks battering my head against the wall of heroic dungeons. I battled through the gear barrier just in time for 4.2 and the introduction of Zul’Aman and Zul’Gurub, and I don’t think I’ve been quite so disheartened. While the potential number of bosses has decreased, as you can queue for only ZA and ZG, the time requirement in the dungeon is much higher because of the increased difficulty, the lack of preparation by players and the number of bosses. I’ve lost count of the number of times the group has been disbanded because of wipes and the lack of friendliness is really appalling. The first time I stepped into Zul’Aman I didn’t meet the DPS requirements the tank felt necessary to continue ON THE FIRST TRASH PACK! Never mind my gear or experience, I wasn’t good enough. Sheepishly, I left the group…

Now whenever I go into a heroic dungeon I have this gnawing anxiety eating away at me. Even when I’m doing well I have this fear that we won’t finish the run or it will take another hour to clear because someone will die once and they’ll be kicked. People don’t even have to wipe the group to be labelled idiots they just have to screw up a little. Surely it’s quicker to explain a strategy to someone who doesn’t know than to kick and re-queue?

Where once you might pick yourself up and try again, now you’ll be verbally abused and vote-kicked out. When you complete a heroic dungeon now it’s not the positive feeling of flow you’re getting, it’s a feeling of relief.

You’re probably thinking again ‘if you don’t like it, don’t play it, it’s your choice.’ You’re right, of course, I don’t have to get involved with WoW. At the very least I don’t have to take part in any of the heroic content. But I do wonder if the reason WoW subscriber numbers are declining is a combination of the increased difficulty, rise of the meta-game and the negative atmosphere present in dungeons, raids and battlegrounds. There’s a whole lot of negative reinforcement going on at each of these points, forums and blogs are full of trash-talk, braggadocio and flaming, so you can’t help but bump into reasons not to even attempt more challenging content.

Game Changers

GTA 3 Coming to iPhone/Android

This might be the first toe-in-the-water experiment by 2K/Rockstar, but if it sells like you would expect, which it probably will, then you can bet your bottom dollar that it won’t be the last.  Expect further publishers to follow suit with portable versions of classic games.
High-end smartphones are more powerful and have more capable graphics processors than the Wii and what with the rapid turnover of hardware in the phone/tablet markets, how soon before they are genuine rivals to the PS3 and XBox360?  If these mobile devices are DLNA compliant, they could easily replace consoles as the premier gaming platform.  Who needs a console gathering dust under your telly if you can whip out your phone and play Angry Birds on the big screen one minute and GTA 3 the next?

What this portends is that iOS and Android are very real threats to not only the hand held market share of Nintendo but also the console market share of Sony and Microsoft.  The big two companies are trying to carve out a space for themselves in the front room, to be the centre of the multimedia experience.  You can see this in the deals that they’ve done with media streaming companies such as Netflix, Sky and the BBC, to shore up their position.  But what if you already have a device that can stream this stuff in hi-definition in your pocket? 
The future of content delivery is purely digital, for the simple reason that it can be controlled more effectively than physical media.  Unless you want to jailbreak your phone, running the risk of being cut off from all of your paid for services, it would be impossible to install software that could crack a video stream from Netflix, for example, as it would be instantly rejected by the closed system of Apple and quickly removed by Google on the Android Marketplace.  Also consider that very minor changes can be made to digital delivery systems to thwart hackers, whereas Blu-Ray is a standard that is likely to be very difficult to change.  Media machines based on physical media are increasingly archaic, which leaves the XBox360 and PS3 as pure gaming machines with a few tacked on bells and whistles that are nearing obsolescence.
So is there anything that is stopping mobile phones being used for big triple-A titles like Call of Duty?  There are technical limitations in the current graphical and processing hardware, but these will certainly be overcome in the next few years.  Some might argue that it is difficult to control an FPS with a phone or a tablet device, but with good developers this is not something insurmountable.  Even if it was a major problem, you could have a bluetooth controller linked to the phone/tablet for use at home.
Even if you can’t play Call of Duty on your mobile, who cares?  The most played games at the moment are those on the Wii, mobile phones and Facebook.  Popular games on the Wii with motion control, like Wii Fit and Wii Sports, could be easily replicated on phones with internal motion sensors.  You can already play Facebook games on your iPads and tablets.  The smartphone, in essence is already better than the Wii at playing games, and it’s already sold more units (the iPhone alone has sold 130,000,000 units compared to the Wii’s 89,000,000).

What’s missing is the belief that iOS and Android are also mainstream gaming platforms.  With the release of GTA 3, that could change dramatically.