Why Does South Park Get Away With It? (With Video)

Sorry for the delay between the video and the blog. Life’s a little crazy right now. I kind of talk about why in the video.

Before I get too far in, I should point out that I write this post knowing that I have a particular (i.e. picky) taste in comedy that has only gotten more refined (i.e. pickier) as I’ve gotten older. A lot of things many people find funny I generally don’t get or in some cases, actively dislike. I say this as it might add context to the points I intend to make.

Another day, another video game controversy. It seems a title can’t come out these days without offending someone and the press jumping on the simple narratives that come along with that like hungry sharks after chum. The latest involves Vlambeer’s excellent Luftrausers. Two people on Twitter who I have never heard of but who supposedly are notable in some way voiced very level-headed concerns that some of the character models and uniforms appeared to be loosely modeled after historical Nazi imagery and this made them uncomfortable. This was something that wasn’t mentioned, talked about or written about anywhere before this, despite the game being out for several weeks prior. As soon as this complaint was made, the gaming press did what they do and started blowing its scale out of proportion, suddenly making everyone (including myself) who otherwise never noticed this at best tenuous visual relation start talking about it. It’s funny how so many people acted like it was always there, yet no one mentioned it before these two people brought it up. To Vlambeer’s credit, they actually drafted a lengthy response to this criticism, essentially saying that they’re sorry people were offended, it wasn’t their intention to do so but that being the case, they had no plans to change the game. The two original complainants actually appreciated the response, thanked them for it and both parties happily went about their lives. That’s where the discussion should have ended but of course, the press wouldn’t shut up about it and continued to poke at controversy, then using the hornet’s nest they stirred up as yet another example of how gamers can’t have reasonable discourse. The press did what the press does.

I will never say that no one can be offended about anything. Everyone’s perceptions and feelings are different and obviously, some things will bother certain people and not others. I frequently disagree with what some people take offense to but it’s not for me to say they can’t be offended. That’s the way society works and we should be cognizant of that. I do believe both the press and indie developers have become a little oversensitive to this and I think the need to respond to every offended individual is silly and ultimately will stifle creativity. Art is not about pleasing everyone and trying to do so will only make your art bland and boring.

This post isn’t ultimately about Luftrausers though. In reading about this supposed controversy, the one thing I kept thinking of was how South Park: The Stick of Truth came out not long before and has been celebrated and certainly not been pointed at for the offense it causes.

I am aware of South Park but haven’t actively followed it in a number of years. I’ve seen several early versions of the snow, I saw the movie in the theater on opening night (the best theater experience of my life) and I’ve seen a few recent episodes and tons of clips. I am fully aware of how they don’t push the envelope so much as shoot it out of a cannon that’s also on fire. Personally, I’ve laughed plenty at it and I’m a firm believer than when it comes to comedy, nothing is sacred. A world in which anything is not allowed to be made fun of is a bad world indeed. However, I also think pushing the envelope simply for the sake of doing it is comedic laziness and I find that’s a lot of what South Park has been about the last several years. For as much fun as they make of Seth MacFarlane for just pointing at references (and they’re right, I used to like Family Guy but stopped caring about it when I realised how lazy the writing is), I haven’t seen much different from them recently.

The entire idea of South Park is constantly testing the limits of what is in good taste and while I haven’t played the game yet, I’ve been told it goes several steps further than even the show does which given what I’ve seen on the show, I have a hard time even conceiving. That being the case I think is great and I think it shows how our industry has grown to better recognise that some games are strictly for adults and that’s OK. I have no doubt that South Park would have received an Adults Only rating from the ESRB (essentially banning it from sale) not that many years ago. Games like it should be allowed to be made and sold.

The thing that I don’t get though is that people are upset at Luftrausers for having supposed Nazi imagery that could remind people of a troubling period in history and perhaps, even their own life. Fair enough, even though the game has no swastikas, no dialogue and the pixel art soldiers in the game don’t even use Nazi salutes. And that’s just the latest gaming offense controversy, a few quick Google searches will show a litany of others from the past year alone. Yet South Park: The Stick of Truth has an entire character class called Jew and Cartman, one of the game and the show’s principal characters is a horrible, disgusting, racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, fucking scumbag of a human being. His entire character is purposefully designed around being the worst kind of ignorant bigot.

Yet, not only was no one expressing mass offense at this game existing but most reviews and articles I read about it celebrated how offensive it was, saying this was the perfect kind of South Park game that fans always wanted and that if you have even a passing interest in the show, you will absolutely love it. Indeed, I think this game would have been panned in reviews as being unfaithful to the show if it didn’t go so out of its way to be so crass and offensive. Again, I don’t care that people love this game. Despite my being kind of ambivalent on South Park and its style, I think it’s great that something this edgy can succeed on a wide scale. Hell, I’m going to play it some day and I bet I’ll enjoy it too. But to see the press and gamers celebrate this title which goes out of its way to shock and offend while coming down on Luftrausers for having non-existent 8-bit Nazis on it I can’t see a better term to define with than double standard.

Like I said before, people can be offended about whatever they want and to the credit of a great many who speak out loudly during these many controversies, few have ever said that certain games don’t deserve to exist or be released because they were offended by them. When someone starts to call for censorship, then we have a whole other problem. Nonetheless, I find something troubling about how certain elements of our culture are essentially exempt from criticism that other projects get lambasted for, rightly or wrongly. South Park versus Luftrauses is a prime example of this.

It’s really an open question which is why I titled this post as a question rather than a statement because I don’t know. What is it about South Park that makes them exempt from protest over how offensive they are and indeed gets them praise for it? It’s not like they’ve always been free of the critical firing line. I remember reading articles about people writing letters to the FCC demanding the show’s removal after it started. Is it just that it’s been around so long that despite still being popular, it’s fallen off the critical radar and those people just don’t care any more, kind of like violent video games? Do people just expect this so routinely from Trey Parker and Matt Stone that they just go “Oh you guys!” and move on because what they do is no longer fresh?

Is South Park: The Stick of Truth sliding by because people expect offensive content from AAA games now but indies fall under a more artful, critical eye? Personally, I saw what I would call seriously more disturbing stuff in The Last of Us or The Walking Dead, or even the No Russian scene from Modern Warfare 2 than I bet I’ll ever see in South Park or just about any indie game. AAA games definitely get more eyeballs on them but are the audiences who consume indie games not only smaller but on the whole, more critical of individual elements and more into the nuances of the art form than mainstream consumers? Will anyone care that the upcoming Wolfenstein: The New Order is likely going to be jammed full of real Nazi imagery or will it get a pass because you’re going to be the one shooting them? If they tried to inject comedy into that game, would it get dogged as making light of a terrible period in history?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions and I wonder if anyone out there does. Perhaps it’s the weird personal standards I have when it comes to comedy. Perhaps I’m missing something obvious. Perhaps this really isn’t that big an issue and it’s just a result of the “enthusiast” press who loves the easy clicks that come from poking the same sleeping Internet bear with one hand that they always decry with the other. I actually commend Trey Parker and Matt Stone for what they’ve done because while I don’t always jive with South Park, I think anyone who manages to push the boundaries of humour and get away with it ultimately benefits us all. People who get offended by content ultimately should only have one choice, that being to state their displeasure if they wish but ultimately, to just stop consuming the content they don’t like and move on. Like most art, humour is a subjective thing and should never be distilled down to a soulless, one size fits all ideal. Nonetheless, I still think that at least in gaming, there’s a double standard where hay can be made about what is essentially a non-issue but something that goes out of its way to make an issue of itself can be held up and celebrated for it. Something’s off there.

So why do you think South Park gets away with it? What am I missing here? I’d love to hear what people think.

Posted in Coverage, Culture, Culture, Internet, Television, Video Games | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Facebook Buying Oculus Could Be Cause for Worry

So I finally bought myself a PS4 tonight and shut Twitter off for like 2 hours while I played with it. I come back and surprise, Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion! I gotta’ say, I didn’t see that coming, not by a long shot. Given the tsunami of vitriol that’s followed, neither did pretty much anyone else.

Of course, The Internet will be The Internet and everyone involved knew there would be a mass outrage over this. A lot of it will die down and a lot of people will wake up in a few days, be excited about VR once again and just hope no one notices that they were calling for Palmer Luckey’s head not long prior. Many are upset that Oculus sold at all but the most vocal are upset that they sold to Facebook specifically. I haven’t had a chance to try a Rift yet, didn’t back their Kickstarter and am on record as a doubter of its mainstream potential. Still, the technology seems really cool and I had every intention to buy one if it was as good as the hype. The chances of that have taken a nosedive now and yes, it’s because of Facebook’s involvement. While I do think we need to take a wait-and-see approach with this deal (like we have any other choice), yes there are a lot of reasons to be apprehensive and upset about how Palmer Luckey decided to marry his company to.

He went on Reddit with a PR language laden post tonight defending the sale and talking about how this only means good and virtuous things for Oculus. Of course, he treads around that being given autonomy within Facebook does still come with the caveat that they’re now wholly owned by Facebook and the terms of that autonomy can change at any time. He trumps up Facebook’s apparent openness with regards to technology but avoids directly answering any questions on their dismal privacy and security track records and what concerns we should have with those in regards to the Oculus Rift when it ships. He uses language like “Facebook hasn’t asked us to do anything like that” which is not the same as saying “They will never ask us to do anything like that” or “The deal specifically forbids them from asking us to do anything like that.”

The reality here is simple: Facebook is a publicly traded company and profit is their motivating factor. This isn’t something they’re doing out of charity or because they see potential in a cool technology they want to make a reality. They’re doing it because they see it will make them money. They didn’t buy Instagram or WhatsApp because they liked the product, they bought them for the user bases and social graphs that came with them. Now, would profit be any less a motivating factor if someone else bought Oculus? Certainly not. But any other number of companies out there don’t have a history of being frankly pretty fucking evil and having no respect for their users.

People can (rightfully) rant on all they want about Google and privacy but Google has not been breached multiple times or regularly exposed user data by altering privacy settings without consent or even notification. Facebook’s business is advertising and data mining and I find it very hard to believe they just suddenly decided to get into a completely unrelated hardware business without seeing potential for those sectors within it. Do I know what they see in Oculus for data mining? Nope, I’m not that smart, otherwise I’d be a lot richer. But they see something in it and for those of us who don’t approve of how they do business, it’s a serious concern. Data mining in and of itself isn’t a bad thing if the company is providing a valuable, useful and secure service in exchange for it. People can argue if Facebook really provides any of those things but on the third one, I think there is more agreement that they’re pretty lousy at it.

There have already been statements made from Oculus that the Facebook deal allows them to do things like sell the retail hardware at cost, making it much easier to get it to mainstream consumers. Already, unpaid cheerleader “journalists” like Ben Kuchera have come out screaming about how great this is. Yet no one stops to think about what the price of that might be. Facebook isn’t a charity and their shareholders won’t stand for them giving something away that can be a profit center. Selling the Rift at cost is being made up for elsewhere and you’re unbelievably naive if you think it isn’t. Not knowing what that is should raise red flags. Obviously, this deal is so new that we don’t know what the long-term plans are but there are few companies I would trust less than Facebook to be doing this in an honest an open way.

I haven’t had a Facebook account for years and have no plans to go back to it because I don’t trust them. I also refuse to involve myself with the companies they acquire, hence why I don’t use Instagram or WhatsApp. I also won’t go near an Oculus Rift unless I see a privacy policy that makes it clear it won’t be used for data mining and that I will never have to tie into Facebook services to get full function out of it. Facebook certainly isn’t the only evil company in the world but I can’t think of many more I trust less to do right by Oculus than them. Make no mistake, in this world of greedy, short-sighted venture capitalists, the company being sold was an inevitability. Even so, it really surprises me that Oculus couldn’t either start a bidding war or attract a better suitor to make a similar offer for them.

Rumour is that people are abandoning Facebook in droves so perhaps this is just an honest attempt by them to diversify and if so, that’s great. Nothing would make me happier than to find out they truly just want to help VR become the next big thing and “change the world” the way so many claim it will. But they also now own a company with the means to capture and monetise unprecedented amounts of unique data about us, not to mention a lot of the key patents that go along with that. If you’re someone who knows anything about Facebook or how they view their users and their privacy, that should concern you. All we can do is see where it leads and that’s what I intend to do. I haven’t written off Oculus or the Rift at all, it’s just going to take a lot more than just a cool idea to get me on board now. Facebook is not a virtuous company and VR needs virtuous people behind it to see its full potential.

I tell you what though, if Sony are smart at all, they’ll announce tomorrow that Project Morpheus is going to be an open platform that will support anything, not just the PS4. They would have a massive new audience in the blink of an eye.

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Dealing with the Internet Reality (With Video)

When I wrote about the Flappy bird thing recently, I touched on the subject of what I termed the “Internet Reality.” There’s been a lot of discussion on hatred and vitriol on the Internet in the last year but particularly in the last couple of weeks because of Flappy Bird. That fiasco has not only ramped up the discussion again but it’s caused forks of it, including several statements by prominent YouTubers on what it’s like for them having to deal with constant negative feedback and the personal toll it takes on them. The games press has also weighed in as they are wont to do, with one of the most popular articles being an editorial by Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek, someone I often disagree with but who is one of the few in games media to have earned the title of Journalist in my opinion.

The article is well intentioned and as one would expect, Patrick received a fair amount of vehement disagreement to it, including a vile and disgusting voice mail that I’m not going to link to for reasons I’ll get to later. I’m sure he expected that which is a sad thing to say but the Giant Bomb moderators managed to silence a lot of it and some good debate rose to the top, though it was still quite polarised.

I have two principal problems with the article, as I do with many that touch on this subject. The first is that it offered no real solutions, it just stated for the fifteen-billionth time that this is a problem that has to stop…somehow. Patrick has since admitted that failing and that some of what people have proposed in the ensuing debate has given him a lot to think about. Good on him for that, it’s more than a lot of other opinion writers would have done (take note Ben Kuchera.) My second and bigger problem is that Patrick’s stance on this issue seems to be the opposite of how most people say you are supposed to deal with trolls and bullies. He says that just ignoring these people isn’t working, that they should be publicly called out and shamed for their behaviour and surprisingly to me, he strongly insinuates that those who choose not to engage with this kind of scum are as big a part of the problem.

I take real offense and exception to both of these points of view. Trolls are simple to understand. they want attention. They want to know they’ve gotten to you. This knowledge is as old as the Internet itself. They aren’t the same as a real-life bully who often can be shut down with one good punch because they aren’t in front of you. By calling them out, you’re not shaming them, you’re enabling them. Some people will point to examples of trolls who backed down when they realised they were speaking to another real human being but for every one of those, there’s a hundred that don’t give a shit. Ignoring them isn’t a bulletproof solution either of course and there will always be a certain amount of vitriol that you will get regardless but I think it can be definitively said that trying to shame trolls only exacerbates the problem.

This sucks. The Internet’s a place where getting even slightly famous paints a massive target on your back for cowards and the mentally troubled to attack you sometimes for your point of view but often, simply because you’re there. If you want examples, see the YouTuber comments in the first paragraph. When you spend every day being attacked from all sides simply for existing, it wears down on your psyche. It’s worse when you’re the guy who made Flappy Bird, who went from having no Twitter followers to tens of thousands in the span of a few hours. Regardless of how honestly Flappy Bird attained its success, I can’t imaging the emotional broadside he must have endured. Some people do this out of a mental cry for help, others are just sick people who do it for laughs.

I’m no stranger to this either. Back in the mid 90s, when the Internet was still a niche thing for nerds, I was involved in a really dumb bit of drama in what was known as the “demo scene.” If you’re an old enough nerd, you’ll know what that is. I go into greater detail about the story in the video but basically, I pissed off some Internet people with questionable morals and it resulted in not only a torrent of e-mail hate but a very legitimate sounding death threat being left on my personal voice mail. I didn’t sleep right for days, I feared for my life and worst of all, I couldn’t do anything about it. The local police didn’t understand “cyberspace” and when I told them I was threatened by people on the Internet, they just shrugged and went “What do you want us to do about it?” This was before most people knew what the Internet was capable of and it took over a week for my terror to subside when I realised it was all just a really sick joke. That was a sobering wake up call and the sad reality is it hasn’t changed and it’s never going to change.

This is the Internet Reality.

Some claim that toxicity is worse in society now and that the Internet has made people more hateful. I think that’s nonsense. The Internet has provided an easy and anonymous means for people to say what they all think without a need to pause and consider it first but it’s stuff people have always thought. Everyone has horrible thoughts about others that pass through their heads every day. I have, you have, we all have. It’s a natural part of how our brains work and in many cases, it’s a coping mechanism. The good and considerate people know to let those thoughts be fleeting as they should be and don’t act on them. The scummier people turn those thoughts into expression, something that social media has made incredibly easy and fast to do. In my New Year’s resolution post, I committed to reduce my own contributions to that.

Stuff like what we see on the Internet now used to be sent as Letters to the Editor at newspapers all the time. Most of it got filtered out by humans but there’s no such filter online. There was also less of it because if you wanted to spew your bile, you had to sit down, write and mail a letter which was enough effort that a lot of people had time to consider and calm down. When you can post a tweet in seconds from a device in your pocket, you don’t have to take any time to ponder if you don’t care to. We’ve all had lapses. I’ve said tons of stupid, spur of the moment crap on the Internet I shouldn’t have. You likely have to. Patrick Klepek did a whole TEDx talk on this subject, in which he admitted he told a Giant Bomb fan to die in a fire for using an ad blocker. We all do it sometimes but again, the good people own it and either retract or apologise.

The problem of people taking it to extremes is never going to go away. It sucks to say but it simply isn’t. To turn the Internet into a place where you couldn’t spew anonymous hatred would not only require stripping away one of the core tenants of what makes it a free platform–something I would take up arms to defend, I firmly believe the safety of online anonymity has done far more good for the world than harm–but it would be nearly impossible on a purely technical level. You would essentially have to recreate the entire Internet from the ground up and that’s simply impossible.

It sounds reductionist to say that “people need to grow a thicker skin” and that “this is the price of Internet fame” but well, both are true. If you’re not someone who can emotionally handle Internet vitriol and who can’t stomach what Internet fame brings, then you need to either step away from it or stop engaging with the people who bring it. It sucks but this is the Internet Reality. If you want to be big on YouTube or a prominent online celebrity, then this is what’s going to happen and you cannot stop it. You can choose to not participate in social media (which despite what some say, is not nearly as required for success, whether you’re a YouTuber or selling a product) and that will certainly help but getting crap from idiots is part of the package. You can either find a way to manage or if you can’t, then you should probably pursue something else. This is something that terrifies me about my YouTube efforts. I want my channel to get popular and get a large and loyal audience but I’ve seen what popularity on YouTube leads to and as a sufferer of depression and anxiety, I really don’t know if I want to expose myself to that. Should it actually get really big some day, I’m going to have to seriously consider how much social media I want to participate in.

So I’ve spent a lot of words talking about how the core problem can’t be solved, are there ways to reduce or combat it so we at least don’t have to deal with as much of it? I do believe there are ways, two of which I think can have the most impact but who needs to step up may surprise you.

The first part of the stopgap is that those who bemoan the death of civility and the level of hate they have to parse need to lead by example. I have an immense of amount of respect for TotalBiscuit. It’s no exaggeration to say that he’s the main inspiration for why I wanted to get into YouTube stuff. You can see a lot of his ideas and methods in my videos. That said, for years, he was a colossal asshole on social media. This is something he himself has admitted many times. He engaged his trolls constantly and he frequently blurred the line between what was trolling and what was legitimate criticism, often painting both with the same brush. He was often snarky and dismissive and seemed to go out of his way to egg on the worst elements of his community. He once said in a VLOG that “I like to fight with people.” Similarly, Phil Fish loved to play the victim (and had the press playing right along with him) but he’s famous for acting as bad as any troll. In Indie Game: The Movie, which was generally fairly sympathetic to him, they even showed some of his antics on Twitter, where he frequently told people to choke on his dick and commit suicide, among many other things. He’s a genius who made a great game but his reputation as a diva and a primadonna is well earned.

People who do this kind of thing are indeed part of the problem. Sure, they would have received a lot of hate just for being them but it’s undeniable to claim that they didn’t get a larger proportion of it because it was well known that their buttons could be easily pushed. Rather than just ignore the trolls, many of whom would then move on, they sent a clear signal that the trolling was working and thus, welcome. You can’t be a bully, then claim you’re being bullied. It’s textbook hypocrisy and it only serves to make the problem worse for everyone. On the plus side, TotalBiscuit recently renounced himself from most social media, as did Phil Fish when he “left the industry.” But they are only two examples. Those in prominent positions of influence on the Internet need to lead the charge to make things better and the first way you do that isn’t by encouraging the worst of it.

The second part of this stopgap is far more critical in my opinion and gets right to the heart of the matter: The social networks themselves need to take their large share of responsibility, write strong, concrete rules forbidding abusive practices on their services and implementing policies and procedures to deal with offenders. The entire business model of these companies is to profit off of the content generated by their users and they make billions upon billions from it (well, not Twitter but they hope to.) The problem is that more volume equals more content to mine so they aren’t particularly interested in doing anything that curtails said volume. Simply put: I don’t give a shit. “Corporations exist to make money” and “It’s just business” aren’t valid excuses here and honestly, they never are. These networks are providing the vector by which vile abuse and threats on people lives occur in number ever day, they don’t get to just throw up their hands and say “We can’t do anything about it!” Contrary to what many ignorant people believe, you have no constitutional right to free speech on social media. That right only extends to government, a social network run by a private company can restrict whatever the Hell they want. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit et al. can be a part of this, they just choose not to be.

Twitter recently banned a Rob Ford parody account (though it’s since been reinstated) but told Anita Sarkeesian multiple times that direct threats on her life didn’t violate their terms of service. Facebook protects groups and fan pages for the hate organisations but banned photos of breastfeeding mothers. YouTube only allowed you to mark abusive comments as spam and with their most recent update, has made comments easier to abuse than ever. Reddit shadowbanned me for posting links to my own YouTube content because no one else would, in subreddits that didn’t forbid such a thing but protects other subreddits devoted to creepshots and moronic Internet detectives who incorrectly fingered and harassed an an innocent man for the Boston bombings, who later took his own life. And let’s not forget about all the comments sections and forums out there, most of which ignore any semblance of moderation. None of this needs to happen and none of this should happen.

A while back, there was an incident involving someone in the UK and Twitter that prompted the company to say they were going to implement a Report Abuse function. This would be different from the automated spam function in that reports would be viewed by real people and if deemed inappropriate, action would be taken, up to and including the involvement of law enforcement if the threats were real enough. As far as I know, that has never happened and there hasn’t been a whiff of it from any other social network. These companies are all massive and can easily afford the expense of setting up functions such as these and I believe they have a moral obligation to do so. Rumour is that people are leaving Facebook and Twitter in large numbers and surely a decent percentage of those just want to get away from the toxic atmosphere. Ultimately, I think one could argue there’s a good business case for implementing these measures too.

I think both of these measures implemented in tandem have the biggest potential to disrupt and reduce the Internet Reality. This isn’t a chicken and egg problem, the social networks are what came first and you don’t get to profit off all user content without being responsible for the inappropriate stuff too. If you can stop something that contributes nothing of value while also elevating that which has value, why wouldn’t you? Similarly, it’s the height of hubris to participate in the vitriol and then claim to be a victim of it. You don’t get to cannonball into the sewers with the rats and then whine that it stinks down there. If you’re popular, you have the greatest means to lead by example. Not everyone will follow it but some will and that has a far greater impact than egging people on.

That said, this is the Internet Reality and my two proposed stopgaps are just that. This is a problem that can be reduced in theory but it can never be fully solved and the sooner people start learning to work within that unfortunate constraint, the better off everyone will be. This may mean that some people with great potential will choose to avoid the spotlight and while that’s a shame, it’s the way things go sometimes. I can’t blame anyone who doesn’t have the time or emotional fortitude to deal with this and would rather just let the online idiots be what they are while they focus on their own lives. Aside from times like this, that’s how I am too. We can’t take up arms for every cause, especially those which instantly make us a target in an ultimately unwinnable war. Calling those people part of the problem however only leads to defensiveness and retribution from them and solves nothing. You don’t win allies with a “you’re with us or against us” approach, at least not permanent ones.

I empathise with anyone who has been a victim of this. I’ve been there and no one deserves it, even those who sometimes encourage it. But those who write about this stuff need to learn that it’s OK to accept certain realities for what they are.

The Internet Reality is a shitty thing that shouldn’t exist. But it can be reduced so rather than just complaining, why don’t we see how big a difference we can make, with only a few small changes?

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Windows Phone 8: Fundamentals & Feuds

Last year, myself and the other members of our IT team at work had a choice to make. We provide smartphones for most of our staff and do not have a Bring Your Own Device policy (though not for lack of trying on our team’s part.) We had been a loyal BlackBerry shop for quite a while but the Bold 9900 has been a massive disappointment with poor support and a failure rate approaching 50%. Yes, fifty percent. Our contract with Bell Canada (not my choice but let’s face it, all three big players in Canada are evil) was approaching the upgrade period where we could change phones in exchange for a re-up so I was tasked with finding us an option.

Our company had been having a rough year so that limited our choices. It had to be something that was considered reliable, not super low-end (after all, it’s another two years before we can upgrade again) and most importantly, it had to be free with contract. iPhone was out because they were too expensive and too fragile for our field scientists who often work in rough conditions to use (also, we’ll have Apple’s overpriced fashion accessories in this company over my dead body.) Higher end Android phones like the Galaxy S4 were out because again, they were too expensive and certain people in the company once used old 2.x phones and had old prejudices about Android from that. That left us with lower-end Android (which I looked at but had concerns about its ability to hold out two years of heavy use, plus see above), BlackBerry 10 and the Samsung ATIV S which is the only Windows Phone 8 device Bell Canada offers as they are deep in bed with Samsung.

There was a lot of internal debate between those last two choices. BlackBerry 10 is actually a joy to use and their phones are solidly made but we didn’t want to have to buy BlackBerry Enterprise Server over again (which you have to with 10) and let’s face it, BlackBerry is circling the drain, at least as a phone platform. I didn’t want to hitch our wagon to something that could be dead within two years, forcing us to make an emergency on-the-fly switch to something else so I recommended Windows Phone 8. After way too many months of internal debate, we finally settled on the Samsung ATIV S. Since then, Windows Phone 8 has experienced a pretty big surge in worldwide adoption (largely at the expense of the iPhone) so I felt good in my recommendation.

I’ve had my unit of the ATIV S for about two weeks now. We will start rolling them out to the company soon but IT got ours early to familiarise ourselves more with them, to find a good case (which I have, on eBay no less) and to prep introductory and training materials. I had a demo unit last Summer as well but had to pass it around to a few people so I didn’t get much time with it. I’ve already dealt with plenty of jokes and snide remarks from (mostly) Apple cultists about my being stuck in the “phone ghetto” because I dare to use the thing that’s not fashionable right now. I expected that and it just cements why I don’t want anything to do with Apple’s “community.” That said, Windows Phone 8 (referred to from now on as WP8) wouldn’t have been my first choice if I had by druthers, that would have been Android hands down because I don’t like walled gardens which both iOS and WP8 are. But work pays for my phone and try as I might, I can’t justify taking over an almost $100 per month rate plan to myself, just to have my device of choice. My girlfriend has a WP8 phone (a Nokia Lumia 920) and I always found it pretty slick so I thought this would still suit me quite well. Plus let’s be honest, even the lowest end Android phone is better than BlackBerry 7.

My experience with WP8 so far has largely been positive but there’s some boneheaded fundamentals that are missing and some other things that have been gimped because of dumb feuds. The good part is all of them can be fixed.

From a usability standpoint, I actually love WP8. Despite loathing the Metro environment on the desktop, the tile environment is a joy on a touch screen. The interface is intuitive, responsive, doesn’t waste a lot of space (which iOS in particular does in spades) and is very customisable while also being simple. It’s frankly a master stroke of UI design and I think it will be easier to teach this phone to non-techie users at work than BlackBerry ever was. I’ve also used nothing but BlackBerry since 2005 and was not pleased about having to give up my physical keyboard. After using WP8′s touch keyboard for a couple of weeks, I can now bang out e-mails almost as fast as I did on my BlackBerry. I do make far more typos because of my fat hands and that the space bar is too small but the self-learning autocorrect is amazingly good and nails the right word well over 85% of the time now. iOS’ autocorrect is embarrassing by comparison. I’m now completely used to it and am not longing for a real keyboard any more.

WP8 has always been at best, an experiment for Samsung, likely done in the interests of keeping a healthy relationship with Microsoft for their PC business. They are the world’s biggest Android manufacturer by not just a country mile but several hundred light years and the ATIV S shows WP8 is clearly not where they’re putting their A-team efforts. It’s basically the guts of a Galaxy S3 with the buttons moved around and a different OS on it. Thing is, the Galaxy S3 is actually a great phone so this isn’t a bad thing. The screen is nice, it’s light yet solid and though the camera can’t hold a candle to any even mid-tier Nokia, it still does the job nicely. It’s not the most powerful WP8 device and lacks some really nice functions like the FM Radio that’s built into the Lumia (which I’ve been told is only disabled in software for no good reason) and some of Nokia’s value-added OS enhancements but it’s a solid contender.

The OS’ core features are also pretty solid all around. The internal mail client hooks into Exchange easily (I should hope so) and works well and Internet Explorer’s mobile edition is fast and smooth, though I do wish alternative browsers were available like there are on iOS and Android. It can also hook into multiple calendars and contact lists and aggregate them all in one place which is fantastic as I have both work contacts and ones from my side business I need to frequently access. I really like how well it hooks into SkyDrive (soon to be OneDrive, Microsoft’s far better alternative to Dropbox) and especially how it can automatically back up photos and videos you’ve taken whenever you’re in wi-fi range. The internal music player works nicely, though I feel there could be more efficient ways to navigate your music collection. A big draw for my employer was the fact that every WP8 device has a miniaturised version of Microsoft Office on it, allowing you to not only view but also edit Office documents you get as attachments. Yeah, nobody’s going to want to edit a big spreadsheet on their phone but when you’re in a pinch, having that ability is a life saver. Also, it’s a small thing but the daily Bing photo on the home screen is awesome.

From an app perspective, the WP8 store has the same problems with discoverability and being filled with garbage apps like both iOS and Android and BlackBerry too for that matter. This is a problem Microsoft has not solved as the number of apps in your marketplace is a key marketing bullet point and they want everything they can get. Honestly though, as someone who wants good apps that do what I want reliably rather than whatever the fad of the day is, I’ve got everything I need here. HERE Drive is a top shelf turn-by-turn GPS app (and free if you don’t need international maps) and I’ve found good stuff for MyFitnessPal, Evernote, Rdio, Songza, podcasts (I use Podcatcher), Twitter (I use glƏƏk), my bank, weather, Urbanspoon and WordPress, all of which work well and take full advantage of the Metro UI. There’s also solid Facebook integration according to my girlfriend but I don’t use Facebook so I wouldn’t know. Gaming’s a bit more of a wasteland. There’s plenty of good games on WP8 to be sure but more of them are older ones and little of worth is coming out for it right now. As someone who thinks most mobile games are crap and keeps a 3DS and Vita in my bag, the meager selection on WP8 is enough for me but if you’re a big mobile gamer, that may be a problem for you. In the end, most of the people being given these phones at my work won’t use anything that isn’t built into the OS anyway.

So far, so good right? Well, this is where things start to fall apart a bit.

The biggest problems I have with WP8 are dead simple fundamentals that Microsoft seems to have missed, despite this OS having been on the market for some time now and being in it’s second major iteration. I have three separate e-mail accounts on my phone, work, personal and my side business. When I found out that WP8 wouldn’t let me set different notification types for each one (I had the first two do nothing on my BlackBerry while my side business made a tone), I was sure I was just missing something. I spent hours digging around the Internet, sure that there was a way to set different notifications for different accounts. I mean, I was doing that on my BlackBerry back on OS 4.3 in 2008. Nope, can’t do it. You have to have the same notification type (both vibration and tone) for every single e-mail account or none at all. Worse still, you can’t have separate notification types for different apps either. So if you have multiple social networks you want to receive notifications for, they all have to notify you the same way. Even worse than that, there’s no quick way to just silence the phone, either at bed time or at a place like a theater. If you have either the ringer or vibration turned on, all you can do is switch between vibration or vibration and ring. To silence the phone, you have to go multiple screens deep into the settings menu and turn both options off manually. There’s no shortcut to these settings and due to restrictions at the OS level, there are no third party apps that can handle these problems for you. This is a maddeningly stupid omission. I know that most people don’t have to manage multiple e-mail accounts on the same phone but many business people do and phones from a decade ago were doing this easily. Why has this been left out of the second major iteration of Windows Phone?! At least you can pick your own tones for the options that are available.

Notifications themselves are a mess too. On iOS, Android and even my old BlackBerry, notifications were instant. If I got a mention on Twitter, the phone let me know often even before my desktop client did. On WP8, notifications can take up to 15 minutes to reach the device, apparently due to the way Microsoft handles the infrastructure behind them. There is no way around this and no way to speed it up. glƏƏk just recently added the capability for real-time notifications, something that required them to build their own infrastructure using Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform and which you have to pay extra for. You read right, you have to pay extra in order to get a feature that’s a top line expectation on any other mobile platform. This is inexcusable. This is 2014 and once again, this is something BlackBerry had solved a decade ago.

It’s these little annoyances and more that can add up to a really frustrating experience. Why do I have to continually mash the back button to make sure all my apps are closed? Yes, an upcoming update has added a quick close option but why was this not always there? Why do Live Tiles (one of the greatest UI features of WP8 where tiles on your home screen can update with relevant data from the apps themselves) sometimes not update or only update at random times? Why do you have to go deep into the settings menu to toggle rotation lock (which also was only just added in the latest update?) For that matter, why can only certain parts of the settings menu get shortcuts made to them? Why is Windows Phone the only platform with no Collection menu for Xbox Music (which renders the Xbox Music Pass almost unusable on Microsoft’s own mobile platform?) These are all things that are inconsequential on their own but in concert, can drive you mad, especially when there’s no way to work around them (well, except for the music problem but that involves using Rdio which has its own issues.)

Without a doubt however, the biggest disappointment of WP8 is the result of a stupid feud. In the last several years, Microsoft and Google have been butting heads, principally over patents related to Android which Microsoft claims they own and extracts a lot of revenue from. A number of large tech companies abuse the broken patent system to this end but as a result of this “Android tax”, Google doesn’t particularly care for Microsoft or their users. As a result, they’ve systematically both refused to support WP8 and have gone out of their way to make the experience with the platform as miserable as possible for users of Google services. Late last year, Google disabled ActiveSync capability for Gmail and non-paying Google Apps users, meaning that if you have accounts through these (both of my non-work e-mail accounts as through free Google Apps), you can’t get real-time syncing of e-mail and are restricted to a minimum of a 15 minute delay. Google has also thrown up arbitrary roadblocks to Microsoft’s attempts to make Metro apps that plug-in to Google’s services (including a frankly kick-ass YouTube app), basically waiting until the apps are done, then coming up with a bullshit reason for yanking their authorisation, then endlessly stonewalling re-approval so it basically never happens. This despite Microsoft having developed their own, fully-functional Android apps with no help from Google whatsoever.

It’s childish, it’s anti-competitive and it punishes users who otherwise give Google money through ad revenue but happen to use a phone platform Google doesn’t like. This is a tricky problem because Gmail and other Google services are immensely popular, yet you’re locked into a frankly gimped experience on WP8. I frankly couldn’t give a shit about the stupid feud between these companies. Your squabbling over patents (most of which neither of you should have gotten in the first place) is your dumb business problem, not your users’ problem. Stop acting like billionaire babies and sort your shit out.

Sadly, the Gmail problem is one I’m still trying to figure out a solution to. Switching to another e-mail provider is a huge headache and Microsoft’s Outlook.com has come a long way but has some fundamental frustrations with it I can’t accept (for example, only being able to login to one account at a time on a PC.) Truthfully, little personal e-mail is so urgent that I can’t wait 15 minutes to find out about it. I’m a person who will go to great lengths to make a principle fight though and this has shown me that Google can’t be trusted to provide trustworthy services for free (and hey, they’re free so I’m in no place to make demands) so I may still move off it anyway. As for the lack of Metro apps, I’ve found some third party solutions (like MetroTube for YouTube, though it seems to have largely broken recently) and since WP8′s popularity is growing rapidly, hopefully the install base will eventually get big enough that Google can’t treat it like a red-headed stepchild any longer.

So I’ve now complained a lot but what’s the upside? All of this can be fixed with software. Windows Phone 8.1 is coming this year and will be a free upgrade to every current WP8 user which is fantastic. Unfortunately, Microsoft is pulling their usual boneheaded move of being tight-lipped about the update, talking about nothing that’s coming in it and we probably won’t know the extent of its improvements until much closer to launch. They have vaguely promised complete overhauls of several OS components (notifications among them) so I hope to see all or most of my issues addressed. Looking at some WP8 forums, I’m clearly not the only one with these problems and if anything is going to bring this platform from a distant (i.e. sub 5% of the market) third place into some resembling a serious competitor for Android and iOS, it’s going to be responding to user feedback. I also think this 18 month update cycle Microsoft is on is way too slow, especially with iOS doing full revisions on a yearly basis now and Android seemingly doing massive improvements in simple point releases. Rapid iteration is key, as is forcing carriers to not hold updates back for months on end. If Apple can get this figured out, so can Microsoft.

I’ve railed on WP8 quite a bit in this post but there’s two important things to note. Firstly, all the problems I’ve mentioned add up to a lot of frustration but they’re all minor in and of themselves. If even half of them get addresses in Windows Phone 8.1, it will still be a huge step forward. Secondly, most of these are what I call “me problems.” I’m a power user, an enthusiast, hence why Android was my first choice for a mobile platform. The thing is, 95% of the other people at my company who will get these phones are not power users. They have basic needs and require a device that can meet those while being easy to use and reliable. WP8 has those particular fundamentals down pat. The platform is fantastic for those who just want core stuff done really well while having some flexibility added through apps. It’s not built for power users and while I still think some of the current omissions are inexcusable, they nonetheless don’t affect a lot of people and I have no doubt Microsoft knew that. I would argue that Microsoft should have designed WP8 first and foremost for power users because when you’ve playing catch-up, those are the people who will be your biggest evangelists. The people who walk into a store knowing nothing about smartphones but who only have basic needs will probably walk out with an iPhone or a low-end Android device. They’re only going to consider WP8 if someone in the know recommends it.

As it stands right now, I think WP8 is a great platform with a lot of potential but which needs to fix some core deficiencies to be truly able to compete with the big boys. These fixes are all possible too, they just need to make them happen fast. And for goodness sake guys, both you and Google need to get your heads out of your asses and start thinking of your users instead of your ill-gotten patent portfolios. Nonetheless, I still feel confident in my decision to recommend it to my employer for our new fleet and I think it’s going to work out great, assuming Samsung’s hardware doesn’t let us down. As we all know, Microsoft does nothing for the short term and less than 5% market share isn’t going to stop them from spending WP8 to success. Unlike BlackBerry, this platform’s going nowhere any time soon, despite its stumbles. They just have to work harder than they are to catch up.

You’ve got a good thing going here Microsoft, now make it great so more people get interested.

Posted in Mobile Phones, Predictions, Technology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s dangerous to view my old theme, take this!

Oh come on, that was at least a little funny, wasn’t it?

After way too long of using one of the most basic WordPress themes available, I finally got the site updated to something better. I had intended to use the previous theme only on a temporary basis and then that became a couple of years. I don’t prioritise well it seems. The hilarious part is, doing the whole update only took me about an hour and a half (though I also had to spend another $30 to unlock theme customisation but oh well.) The header image is basic because well, this is basically me trying to use Photoshop:

PXA Trying to Use Photoshop

I think it turned out OK though and at least Geek Bravado now shares some of the same branding traits as my YouTube channel. As with all my online projects, this is an evolving thing so I’ll probably iterate and improve on it over time but I think this is a pretty good step forward. Let me know what you think, all feedback is valuable!

There’s a big post coming this afternoon on Windows Phone 8 and a bunch more videos coming to the YouTube channel soon. I feel like I’ve gotten back in a content creation groove so hopefully there will be a bunch more stuff coming at a steady pace now. Thanks for reading/watching!

Posted in Personal | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Fishy Bird

This Flappy Bird thing amirite?

So yeah, I tried out Flappy Bird. I downloaded it to our iPad 2, played it for about 10 minutes and uninstalled it. It’s a bad game with blatantly ripped off ideas, the same kind of dreck that clogs up app stores everywhere and which I can find many examples of within seconds on my Windows Phone. But hey, it was free so I lost exactly nothing except 10 minutes of my time which I waste more of on dumber things every day. It’s roaring and sudden popularity was simply confounding but the drama around that rise and its subsequent removal by its creator has been something else entirely. As is common on the Internet, lines are being drawn, trenches are being dug and social media is once again showing how it’s largely just a cesspool for assholes to sound off in. As is also common, I’m taking a somewhat skeptical, middle of the road viewpoint on this because what was just a curiosity has now become a full blown confusing phenomena and I think there’s potentially a lot more to this than anyone is discussing in their snide tweets on the matter. It also shows just how much those who cover this stuff have to grow.

First off, let’s discuss what concerns me about the game’s popularity. The instant response you’ll get from many people when you bring up how seeing a bad game like this succeed could be a negative thing is “Don’t play Flappy Bird if you don’t like it! It’s not stopping games you like from succeeding!” That’s crap. There’s only so many gamers in the world, only so much play time and only so much money to go around. A bad game being popular absolutely does come at the expense of other, potentially better titles that are getting ignored as a result. Can you quantify this exactly? No, but look at how many games on all platforms fail to recoup their investments now while stuff that’s widely regarded to be creatively bankrupt continues to rake it in. Don’t believe me? Then look at television, Hollywood and music instead. People who want to make games for a living (which let’s be honest, is most of them) go where the money is and seeing something that took a few days for one person to make taking in a reported $50,000 a day (a figure which I’ve yet to see confirmed, yet taken as universal fact) absolutely will influence the thinking of those people going forward.

Most mobile gamers just buy what’s in the top charts on their app store of choice because they’re too lazy to search out quality stuff. Is that more of the fault of the general public not caring about what’s good, so long as they don’t have to search for it? Given the success of reality television and Michael Bay movies, yes I’d say that’s true but it doesn’t change the fact that a bad product reaching incredible success does indeed draw a greater share of the pool away from potentially better things. I will lay hard currency on the table that in this past weekend, numerous games that are far better quality than Flappy Bird came out on iTunes and Google Play, got overshadowed by it and have now flopped because of it. That sucks. Regardless of where the blame for that ultimately lies, it’s naive to suggest that one thing doesn’t succeed at the expense of many others.

What concerns me more is the fact that the creator may have used bots to juice his numbers, thus getting himself artificially catapulted to a place of increased visibility he otherwise wouldn’t have. If you read the analysis in that article (which is also only theory, unconfirmed and probably never will be), it makes a compelling case for that. Crazy viral sensations are becoming more common and it’s entirely possible that’s what happened here too (the article even says so) and if that’s the case, sure. However, if this guy did in fact use illegitimate means to push up his game, then that’s a scam and all of his gains are ill gotten. There’s no virtuous intent in such actions. I’ve seen it claimed that the creator wasn’t proud of Flappy Bird and it was actually just a practice project but I don’t buy that. You don’t monetise a practice project and yes, putting ads on it is a source of monetisation, obviously since that’s what this story is all about.

Since then, an entire maelstrom has erupted. We’ve had supposed game “journalists” like Jason Schreier screaming from the rooftops that this game stole assets from Nintendo (it didn’t) and that it’s a scam and anyone who plays it is supporting a thief. I have no idea why he’s so vehement in that opinion but he should know better than that. Frankly, if this were not coming from him but instead just some random guy on the Internet, it would be considered a troll and instantly dismissed. Once again, we have a field that’s desperate to be recognised as a journalistic one, having key respected members of it dropping down to the level of cable news commentators and no one calling them out on it because I guess no one wants to ruffle feathers? Way to stand up for principals guys.

The bigger issue is the games press once again using vague, unconfirmed bits of information (largely from tweets) as ammunition to attack their audience as driving away creativity. As one would expect, the incredible popularity of this game and it’s creator has resulted in him instantly gaining a massive social media following and the buckets of despicable, vile hatred that’s without a doubt been flowing at him, probably more than others because his game is not good. People hate the game and need to tell him in the least tactful ways possible that they do and what a bad person he is as a result. Later in the weekend, he said he was taking the game down because “he can’t take it anymore.” He provided no details or context for that statement but got even more vitriol for it, as idiots who think a game being taken down means it gets deleted from their phone (it doesn’t and by the way, you didn’t pay for it anyway) decided to send him more hatred and a bunch of death threats thrown in as well.

It’s horrendous but as I’ve said before, it’s the Internet reality. I admit that this guy went from having no popularity to all of it literally overnight and got not just thrown into the deep end of the pool but thrown in with cinder blocks tied to his ankles. He isn’t Phil Fish who to a certain degree, reaped what he sowed, this was one seemingly humble guy from Vietnam whose thing went viral, maybe. That’s unfortunate but it’s also the Internet reality. The press has used this as part of their continuing moral guilt trip to go “Look how evil you people are! This guy got driven away because you let this happen and don’t call these people out!” as if it hasn’t been proven a billion times already that calling out trolls is exactly what they want and just encourages them. I’ve been on the end of Internet hate and death threats before (and I’m talking phone calls here, not tweets), I know better than most people what it’s like. It’s also never going to change and when you call out your audience for doing it while just going “Oh you!” to the people in your own circles that fan the flames, well that’s just plain hypocrisy and a lack of universal standards isn’t it?

Let’s be very clear here: We don’t know why Flappy Bird’s author took it down and just like his potential bot juicing, this is also incredibly fishy. Why did he wait 24 hours before taking it down and make a point of publicly announcing that? Why did he not give any reason beyond a vague statement on how it was impacting his life? Why did he specifically say he’d continue to make games and leave all his other ones up? Why didn’t he just lock his Twitter account and let the money keep rolling in, allowing him the financial freedom to make the game he’s always wanted? If he in fact hates what this game has done to his life, why is he still monetising it with ads on the millions of copies that are already out there? What is the source of the rumoured $50,000 a day the game was making and has anyone actually verified that to be true? There may be perfectly valid answers to those questions but he hasn’t provided them and no one in the press knows any more than that.

So where do the press get off climbing on a high horse and assuming that this is yet another guy we’ve driven away from the medium? Based on his vague statements which are all we have to go on, we have in fact not done that. The games press likes simple, controversial narratives and this one has been a boon. Game writers and creators receive a lot of unwarranted hate online and I imagine more so than those from other media. But once again, this is the Internet reality and has been for a long time. Chastising your audience for what a bunch of anonymous dicks do and which cannot be stopped accomplishes nothing, especially when it’s done in aid of someone who has largely kept themselves shrouded in mystery.

Flappy Bird’s creator may very well be a legit guy who got a viral hit and has had to deal with the fallout from that and if so, I really feel for him. The Internet reality may be just that but it’s also horrible. Don’t get me wrong, though I don’t think it’s something that will ever change, it’s wrong in every way that it exists and says some pretty terrible things about humanity. If he’s legit, I hope he’s able to take his earnings from the game and do something amazing with them. The dreamer in me hopes that he’ll maybe even be able to start a mini surge of indie game development in Vietnam.

However, so much of this is clouded by mystery and press-fueled theories that I can’t help but be skeptical, as much as everyone involved would prefer we all just pick a side. I’m reminded of the fiasco of Bob’s Game, where a guy who may or may not actually be making a game played the headline hungry press like a fiddle to get a bunch of free attention and succeeded, before fading into obscurity after continually failing to produce anything tangible. Mystery leads to speculation and that’s all we have right now, whether the creator intended it to be this way or not. I don’t think this is some sick PR campaign by a large publisher like some do but I also don’t think this is simply a case of one poor guy whose otherwise lame product ran away with itself. The realities of this whole mess may never become clear but until they do, there are no finite conclusions to be drawn.

Make no mistake about it, a lot of better games didn’t get the attention they deserved this weekend because of Flappy Bird. That’s another reality that is all too common and probably won’t change and I’m cool with that. However, those who are supposed to evangalise the good games were willing participants in that and are a big reason the whole thing got as out of control as it did. Report on the Flappy Bird phenomena sure but maybe pointing out the suspicious facts (or lack thereof) of the affair and pointing out the better games rather than once again selectively preaching to people would have been a better use of their time and the audience’s time. Just a thought.

In any event, I hope the creator of Flappy Bird is able to do something good with his new found wealth, whatever means he was able to obtain it with. I really hope more hard data comes out about this soon because for as many faults in as many people as this shows, it’s also fascinating to watch. Not having another one of these massive dramas for a while would also be great.

Posted in Coverage, Culture, Predictions, Video Games | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Game Retailers Need Quality Service, Not Quality Control

One of my favourite weekly video series is Jim Sterling’s Jimquisition, where he dives into game industry and culture topics in the kind of straight-up, no nonsense way I try to practice here. He’s a lot more profane but I dig that too. I like and respect Jim Sterling a lot and I think the industry of games coverage needs more people that take the style he does. I find myself almost universally agreeing with him too, probably because he actually provides a fair amount of researched arguments to back up his claims, rather than the common press thinking of “This is what I think and if you don’t agree with me, you’re obviously just too dumb to understand.” When I do disagree with him however, it’s usually quite strongly and this week’s latest episode entitled Steam Needs Quality Control is most certainly one of those times.

You should watch the video for yourselves before continuing as it’s worth hearing everything Jim has to say and I’d rather not recap it.

The core problem I have with Jim’s argument is that game retailers (and that’s really what he means as pretty much everyone sells the same stuff Steam does) need to implement some hard line rules on quality control and flat out refuse to sell products to the public that don’t meet those standards. He cites a number of titles as examples, some that are broken messes like the Kevin Dent-backed Rekoil, Takedown: Red Sabre and others that are simply terrible like Revelations 2012 and Guise of the Wolf. He says that the retailers have a duty to their customers to ensure quality and that what they’re doing now is getting over saturated with content just for the sake of it, something he believes will lead to another industry crash. Disregarding the fact that the 1980s console crash (it was not an industry crash) was a result of far more factors than just market saturation, I think he’s right in that the retailers do have a duty but it’s not to provide quality control, it’s to provide quality service.

In this era of dedicated games press, message boards, YouTubers and social media, it has never been easier to find more perspectives on any game than you could ever possibly consume. From formal reviews to let’s plays, it’s all out there and 99% of it is free. Most online retailers even have their own user review systems. There’s simply no excuse for buying a terrible game any more unless you did so purely on impulse and if that’s the case, it’s your own dumb fault.

Determining what is a quality game from a design and enjoyment perspective is completely subjective. I thought Gone Home was a pretentious, dressed up teenage soap opera episode but most people didn’t. I have a ton of games in my collection I think are great that have MetaCritic scores in the 50s. Jim Sterling is no stranger to thinking outside the collective opinion himself. He gave Deadly Premonition a 10 out of 10 and loves the Dynasty Warriors series, games that are frequently dumped on by other critics.

Even in a strictly technical sense, games that are broken for some aren’t broken for everyone, especially on PC. Nearly every Battlefield game from 1942 on has been a broken, largely unplayable mess at launch for me. For my friend Dan, they’ve all been nearly flawless. You know how everyone complains what a pile of headaches Games for Windows Live is? I’ve never had a problem with it. When gamers and reviews alike were ripping apart Fallout: New Vegas, a game that was as broken on consoles where it has to pass manufacturer certification (i.e. quality control) as it was on PC, I knew people who finished the shipping version without serious issues.

Let’s make an analogy to another industry because why not. I think Acer computers are cheap garbage. They’ve been garbage since the 90s, always have been since and probably always will be. Acer is a junk peddler and I have tons of anecdotal experience to back up this claim. However, never once has it crossed my mind to hold Best Buy and Wal-Mart responsible as part of the problem because they dare to stock Acer products. They’re not the ones who make the computers and limiting selection is not a path to better quality, it’s how monopolies are created. If someone goes and buys an Acer because it’s the cheapest thing on the shelf and doesn’t do research before hand, they’re an idiot who deserves what they get.

However, if someone makes the choice to buy an Acer and it breaks within the warranty period, they return it and either get it repaired or get a refund, things that cost the retailer money. The retailer is ultimately paying the price for selling a shoddy product and if they have to do that too often, they’ll tell Acer to sort themselves out or they’ll cut ties.

That last paragraph illustrates the one massive difference between the games industry and almost any other: Customer service and customer empowerment. When you buy a computer, a TV, a piece of furniture, a hair care product, a grocery item or just about any other kind of product and it’s not fit for purpose, you can return it. The burden then becomes the retailer’s and most likely is passed back to the manufacturer who made the shoddy product. I bought a car late last year that had a bum transmission but was still under warranty. I didn’t go to Hyundai to fix it, I went back to the dealer, who ultimately replaced the transmission and passed the labour costs back to Hyundai for their screw up. There are some other small things I don’t like about the way the car’s designed but if any of those were bad enough to make me want to stop driving it, it’s not the dealer’s responsibility to give me a refund because I don’t like it, I should have researched those problems first to make sure they weren’t deal breakers.

This is not how it works in video games. In this industry, you buy a product and whether you simply don’t like it or it’s unplayably broken, you’re stuck with it. Steam is no exception. For all the good elements of that service, their return policies are a joke and their customer service is abhorrent. If you’re lucky, they’ll offer you a refund once, assuming they respond to your support ticket at all.

This is what needs to change. Clear and easy refund policies need to be created and made the standard in the industry. This isn’t the early age of PC gaming where people used to buy games in a box, copy them and return them. If you want to steal games, you haven’t needed to go to a store to do it for over a decade and piracy can no longer be used as a crutch to keep consumer unfriendly practices in place. This is a multi-billion dollar industry, they can hire enough lawyers to draft a return policy that allows customers to return broken products with limitations in place to ensure the policy isn’t abused. If you end up buying a Rekoil or a Takedown: Red Sabre or even something like a launch-era SimCity (which I might add, got great pre-launch reviews despite its broken DRM), then you have an easy recourse to get your money back and the retailer has the means to charge that back to the publisher.

In the digital space, the big retailers have a lot of power and make no mistake, they could do this if they banded together. Hell, Steam could probably just do it unilaterally and everyone else would fall in line. When big publishers start being held financially responsible for releasing games that don’t work, watch how quickly they start to take quality assurance seriously. Once this starts to happen in the PC space, watch how quickly the console makers who are desperately trying to remain relevant do the same. The same thing can be done in the mobile space too.

When it comes to subjective metrics of quality (outside of basic functionality), the retailers are the last people who should have that power of determination. I don’t want some unaccountable panel of judges at Valve or anywhere else determining what is or is not a “good game” for me. I’m capable of doing that myself and since my tastes often vary from common group think, I insist on having that freedom, thank you. Shortly after posting that Jimquisition, Jim said on Twitter that mobile app stores are an example of a “user curated market” and as a result, they’re crammed with stuff like the disgusting Dungeon Keeper Mobile. The thing is, that’s the kind of game the majority of mobile gamers like right now. That the majority of the general public are idiots who like garbage (remember, Duck Dynasty and Transformers movies are super popular too) doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be allowed to exist and that some self-appointed gatekeepers should be locking it away.

It’s not retail’s job to determine quality for us. Consumers are half of the equation and they have a responsibility to know what they’re buying. However, if you are taking my money, you also have a responsibility to provide a product that works and if it doesn’t (whether because of game breaking bugs or even hardware incompatibility that wasn’t listed in the requirements), you should be obligated to return my money and ultimately, pass that back to the game’s developer if it was their fault. I don’t care if you’re the biggest AAA publisher or the tiniest indie, if you want to sell games in the big boy stores, this is what you take on.

The methodology that Sterling proposed in his video came across to me as Steam and other retailers having a responsibility to ensure that games not only function but are of good overall quality and I don’t think we can trust corporations (who in the case of Valve, also make games of their own) to judge what is good and what isn’t. It’s unrealistic for these companies to be doing the job of quality assurance for developers. The console manufacturers are already supposed to do that and as we know, fail miserably. However, the point of sale is ultimately where the buck starts and it should be where it also should stop. If you’re the one taking my money, you have a responsibility to ensure you’re providing something fit for purpose and if it isn’t, it should be your burden to refund my money and take it up with whoever made the faulty product. That’s how it is in virtually every other consumer category, games shouldn’t be any different just because “copying that floppy” was once the common way scumbags stole games.

Look, I get what it’s like to get burned by shoddy products and scummy developers. I backed the Takedown: Red Sabre Kickstarter. I’ve bought most of the Battlefield games at launch as well as most recent Bethesda RPGs. I’ve been as angry as anyone that those products were either broken or in Takedown’s case, fraudulent and it’s wrong I had to stick with them in the hope they’d one day be made decent. I think Steam Greenlight is a broken debacle that should have been shut down long ago. That said, I’ve also played a lot of games I loved that people largely thought were crap and the idea that I never would have had the chance had some committee been in charge of determining how good they were chills me to my core. GOG and oddly enough, Origin are making some major strides to provide the kind of service gamers deserve and which should be the standard practice in this industry and if we scream loud enough, others will too.

I get Jim Sterling’s point and I agree with the spirit of it but ultimately, quality service and not quality control is what’s needed in video games right now. Either way, this is ultimately a service issue at its core. If you give burned consumers a means of recourse, a lot of the problem will sort itself out. But putting more control in the hands of big companies is never the answer. Your heart’s in the right place Jim, I think the solution just need to be a bit different.

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