Principles? Don’t make me choke to death laughing

Trawling through abandoned drafts of old posts is often much like dredging a canal — a sediment of unidentified rubbish, broken constructions and an overall stench of rotting death. Still, sometimes you turn up something worth looking at, which I hope this short rant may  prove to be.

Reading the thoroughly unsurprising news this morning that developer Glu Mobile has upped the price of the top weapon in their Gun Bros mobile title to the equivalent of $500, I found myself in kind of a reflective mood about the industry. Ste Curran, he of One Life Left, put the current situation extremely well when he claimed (excuse my paraphrasing):

Publishers only care about making money. That’s why they don’t want to take risks, and we don’t see more titles for an adult audience.

And he’s absolutely correct. He should know, after all he has worked in the industry for years, first as a journalist, and then making the unusual jump to working for developer Zoë Mode, acting as creative director for the excellent Chime.

The interesting thing about the Glu Mobile story was not the move in and of itself, but the general lack of outcry about it. Trawling reddit for comments netted me such gems as:

“I really don’t see a problem with this, tbh, if I pay $500 for an ingame item, I would expect it to be good.”

“regardless, isn’t it co-op against AI or something? balance really ain’t an issue”

and

“Stupid, but not that big a deal. You buy it or you don’t. The fact that it exists shouldn’t bother you.”

This points to a rather big problem for me – namely that price gouging and “optional” content has become so commonplace within the gaming industry that it no longer exercises the commentariat to paroxysms of rage and the throwing around of words like ‘boycott’.  However, the impact of the constant stream of disappointments, from exclusive pre-order DLC to micro-payments, has blunted the edge of Internet ire.

And the thing is, the Angry Internet Men were right to be worried.

Let me lay it out for you, nice and simple. The reason games publishers come out with the products that you cherish so dearly is to make money, and for no other reason. This applies just as much to jolly old Gabe Newell and Valve as it does to EA and their putrescent slew of annual sports donkeys.

Note that I am talking here about the publishing companies, not the designers, developers and other people who work extremely hard and very long hours to do something that they love and respect. In an important sense, they are ones who should be considered the true authors of any title. In another important sense, they have fuck all control over what happens with the end product.

It doesn’t take a genius economist to see that publishing companies are responsible in the last instance only for their bottom line, and in the case of publicly held companies, not just to owners but to the law. Companies are forced by their very nature to treat what you love as a product — not a piece of art, or entertainment, or even as a worthwhile distraction from the plodding inevitable onrush of wasted years, but as something to be produced in the most efficient and cheapest manner and sold with the highest margin of profit that the market will bear.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that there cannot be principled individuals within the industry who will refuse the temptation of obvious profit-oriented strategies that damage the development paradigm. What I am saying, however, is that once the box is opened, you cannot simply stuff the monetisation genie back inside. There will come a stage in the process of game-building now, when a marketeer or finance type will tap the design lead on the shoulder, and initiate a conversation about what content can be safely gated away from the rest, available only to those willing to pay-to-play.

While indie developers may find it easier to laugh off the idea, what about devs working for a huge multinational corporation, where most often it is the suits that are in control? It’s no coincidence that the current era of year-on-year game sales inflation, of blockbusting launches and obscene profits is also the era of the Online Pass, the day-one-DLC pack and the always-online DRM.

So if the drive to squeeze every last drop of revenue out of the consumer with no regard for their aesthetic and social needs is what I am against, what am I for? Well, aside from production based on need and not profit, and a society where resources for production and consumption are held in common; failing global revolution, there seems little point in asking the stuffed shirts and accountants who control the industry to change their ways.

Film critic Mark Kermode made similar criticisms of poor quality Hollywood films in his new book The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex. To Kermode, the blockbusters are machines for extracting the money of patrons as efficiently as possible, with very little regard for the magic ingredients that make cinema popular in the first place — a shared participatory activity that blends narrative and genre conventions with visual dynamism in a way that leaves audiences richer in experience than they were when they came in. The sad thing is that there is no reason for film making to have dropped to depths that permit Michael Bay to be a highly bankable figure; profitability is achievable by giving people what they want, the things which they started going to the cinema to see, rather than lazy, empty spectacle that reproduces a series of drab stereotypes.

I share Kermode’s prescription for short-term change within the industry — vote with your wallets. While boycotts are rarely effective in achieving the ends they set out with, they are at least usual propaganda tools. And while diffuse feeling with the market is difficult to translate into action limiting the power of publishers to push their business model, pressure from within the industry can certainly do the job. Our future lies with the next generation of programmers, artists and designers, and what they are willing to do to make a buck.

100 Citizen Game podcasts and counting

A round of applause is in order for the whole Citizen Game team, as we’ve made it to 100 podcasts this week!

Despite only joining the squad relatively recently, I’ve found them to be as personable, passionate and opinionated a bunch of people as you might care to find. With a great editorial team and a real wealth of ideas for the future, the site is sure to continue to go from strength to strength, with my humble additions hopefully making a small contribution to gestalt.

You can grab the celebratory 100th podcast from the Citizen Game site, and this week enjoy a special edition featuring none other than ex-Citizen and current Gamespot legend Danny O’Dwyer!

Racism is not what you think it is

It would have been hard to avoid the furore over the comments made about “white people” by Labour MP Diane Abbott, unless one were to clamp one’s hands alternately over ears and eyes while lustily bellowing all 50 million verses to Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again (a valid and intelligent life choice in this day and age). Still harder though, would be processing the wash of bile from conservative commentators to mine a nugget of truth about the situation, a tasty morsel that may surprise some of you.

It’s worth laying out here the circumstances that led to the public shaming and recantation of one of Britain’s paltry handful of black political representatives. In a conversation with freelance journalist Bim Adewunmi (@bimadew) on Twitter, Abbott (@hackneyabbott) objected to the sentiment that there was in no practical sense a “black community”, at least in the way the mainstream media use the term.

Abbott replied:

“I understand the cultural point you are making. But you are playing into a ‘divide and rule’ agenda.”

Followed by:

“White people love playing ‘divide & rule’. We should not play their game.”

Predictable as ever, the right wing press machine swung into play. Toby Young, the commentator who roused much fury in defending racist historian David Starkey, was pretty representative of the mainstream reaction:

“But in playing the race card, was Diane Abbott herself being racist? According to the OED, racism is defined as “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races”. By that definition, Abbott was being racist. She was attributing a characteristic – loving to play divide and rule – to a race – white people – and it’s plainly an unattractive quality, i.e. intended to distinguish the race in question as morally inferior to the people they’re guilty of oppressing.”

Imagine the outrage if a white person had said similar things about black people, the papers mouthed in shock. It’s a clear case of racial hypocrisy, allowing one group to get away with making sweeping statements that would me (the white journalist) in trouble!

Unfortunately, that’s all bullshit. In fact, Mr. Young, the OED, and most probably you reading this blog right now are using an incorrect definition of racism — a definition that serves to cover up the real structures of power and oppression at work in our society in favour of some kind of verbal contrivance.

Racism is more than just the ascribance of characteristics to a group of people (not least because any group that you could come up with is only an imagined construct of your own). Instead, it is an ideological collaborator that grew up to justify the economic imperative of slavery, to buy off the consent of the majority of the white population who were not benefiting from the barbaric institution. Racism as it exists today is a complex codification of real social relations — in essence, it provides rulers with a way to divide their potential antagonists, and gives a plausible “common sense” explanation of a divided and unfair world to subordinate classes.

Which is why this isn’t simply a language game. Real people, living real lives and generating social relations cannot escape the hollow log of history, the echoes of the past constantly interfere with their attempts to build a coherent system of responses to stimuli. Acting as if the reaction of a black person to a question about black identity doesn’t carry the weight of hundreds of years of history along with it is a patent absurdity, as pointless as berating a wall for the picture you hung on it yesterday.

The fact is that there is no such thing as “anti-white racism”. Without the history of brutal domination and imperialism to generate the ideology, there is simply no social weight behind the ideas. It is possible for a black person to be objectionable or aggressive, just as much as for anyone else, but bleating about a political substance that is quite absent does nothing but betray your own agenda — to, as Richard Seymour put it, “search for a way to restore white victimhood”.

As I final thought, I’d like to challenge you to find something out-and-out factually wrong in Abbott’s assertion. White people have demonstrably privileged members of subordinate racial groupings, such as Tamil civil servants in Sri Lanka or the Indian princes under the Raj, in order to stifle dissent among the victims of imperialism. You could express it better as “white ruling class people”, but does anyone really think the lack of clarification is really why the right wing press is up in arms?

How to remove Punkbuster anti-cheating software

Cheating in competitive online gaming against other humans is a bad thing, I think we can all agree on that. It distorts the gameplay balance, causes strife within the player community and eventually leads to an extremely unfair risk/reward calculation which can put people off playing altogether. So attempting to combat cheating with a technological fix is pretty okay in my book (as long as you don’t attempt to apply it to non-competitive or offline gaming as well).

But you know what else is bad? Nasty little services that take up residence inside your OS, diverting processor and memory resources away from the tasks that you want your computer to be doing, often long after the original software that installed them has been deleted in disgust. Take for instance PunkBuster, or as you may know it from your Task Manager display, PnkBstrA.exe:

PunkBuster process

The villian itself

Getting rid is a pretty easy process, most of the time. Just open your Start menu, and type msconfig into the search box, then hit Enter. A little dialog box called System Configuration will pop up, just select the tab called Services, find PnkBstrA and un-check the box beside it’s name. This will disable the chunk of code on next startup.

If you want to be really sure that sucker won’t get started again, just open Windows Explorer to C:\Windows\System32\ and locate the file PnkBstrA.exe, then delete or rename it.

WARNING

Many online game servers require a functional copy of Punkbuster running on your system, so if you mess with it you may find that your favourite Call of War Manshoot Ops refuses to connect properly. Check your game manual or online documentation for more details.

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