Remembering Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata: A Gamer First

“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.” – Satoru Iwata, 2005

The gaming world was shocked this evening to learn that renowned President & CEO of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata had passed away due to complications from a bile duct tumour. He had missed E3 last year because he was having surgery, presumably for this problem and was not in full attendance this year either but no one was aware of how severe the issue apparently was. Iwata was only 55 years of age, too damn young for anyone to leave this world.

It’s a weird thing to actually feel hurt and to mourn for a corporate executive. I’ve never met Iwata and likely never would have. He was a unique person though, one who stood out not only in the video game industry but in gaming culture itself. He had humble beginnings as a programmer, creating his first game on of all things, the Commodore PET, called Car Race ][. After that, he became a programmer at long standing Japanese developer HAL Laboratory, who despite their independence, has worked almost exclusively with Nintendo since the 1980s. He eventually rose through the ranks to become President of HAL, joining Nintendo in 2000 and becoming its head honcho two years later, succeeding the 53 year reign of Hiroshi Yamauchi, a legend himself who originally turned Nintendo into the household name it is now. Iwata was the first person to lead Nintendo who wasn’t related to the Yamauchi family in some way, one of a great many noteworthy points of his tenure at the company.

Under Iwata’s leadership, Nintendo transitioned from a difficult era to one of the most prosperous in their history. He joined during the era of the GameCube, a competent system that I loved but which was trailing in a distant third place behind the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. He knew that Nintendo couldn’t succeed in the long term just trying to be the third player in the same console race so he decided to be bold. The company took a hard left turn and made the Nintendo DS and the Wii, two systems that radically defined core tenants of how games were interacted with and designed. They would go on to be two of the most successful video game platforms in history, selling 154 million and 101.5 million worldwide respectively and millions upon millions of games to go with them. The Wii in particular, brought video games to an entirely new audience of people that the rest of the industry once thought unreachable. Say what you will about how smartphones have expanded the gaming audience, the Wii did it before they were even a factor.

This catapulted Nintendo into the financial stratosphere, at one point making them the second most valuable Japanese company, only behind Toyota. In recent years, they’ve struggled. The 3DS is successful but not nearly to the degree the original DS was and despite being a great system, the Wii U is all but a complete failure. Nonetheless, Nintendo made so much money under Iwata’s leadership that they could run losses in the many millions until something like 2050 before running out of cash. That’s not even taking into account any credit, that’s just raw money in the bank. There are only a small handful of companies in the world with that kind of liquidity and much of that came under his time.

Nintendo’s always been a weird company that has marched to the beat of their own drum. They are often loved for that and indeed, they have produced some of the most unique and polished gaming experiences anywhere because they are willing to think in ways others can’t or won’t. This unique thinking is not without its drawbacks though. They are only now starting to figure out how to do online connectivity well and are still light years behind the competition. They still see YouTubers and streamers as their enemies, despite embracing both platforms with expert precision for their own purposes. Their support of third-party developers and publishers has always been poor and with the failure of the Wii U, it’s all but non-existent now. They don’t often respond to feedback from either the gaming public, the press or investors and this is often interpreted as arrogance. Indeed, the “enthusiast” press tends to take shots at Nintendo whenever they can, in no small part because they are so hard to work with. These are all things Iwata had the power to change, if not at least influence and he did not seem to do so. One can argue how much this is just rooted in conservative Japanese business culture that often changes at a glacial pace and how much it really hurt Nintendo in the end but they were still concerns.

Despite all this, gamers loved Iwata and with good reason. Most CEOs in the gaming industry are sleazy corporate sales types, the same kind we see and usually dislike everywhere. They’re all about the business and just see games as a means to money and gamers as commodities. Many of them aren’t even gamers themselves and really don’t even understand the audience they serve. One can be forgiven for thinking that many leaders in the games industry see customers as enemies rather than allies. You can look at any number of things various publishers and platform holders have done over the last few years as proof of that.

You couldn’t say that about Iwata though. He spent his entire career making games, playing games and watching the medium evolve from it’s core inception to the monolithic, universally appreciated art form it is today. He understood that the medium needs innovation and that quality takes time. He understood that technological horsepower isn’t always what makes the best experiences and that game play triumphs over all else. He did interview series with his own developers. When Nintendo was losing money, his mea culpa was to cut his salary in half. When investors were demanding he lay people off, he refused, saying that it was only a short-term fix that would ultimately hurt morale and creativity. These things are absolutely unheard of in modern corporate culture, they just don’t happen. They did at Nintendo because of him.

When the company was at its peak during the Wii and DS years, he had every reason to let success go to his head and become arrogant like so many other corporate titans. Instead, he was always meek and humble, politely asking people to “please enjoy” the games he would present at events. At E3 2013, he was in this photo with Shigeru Miyamoto and Reggie Fils-Aime. There was no corporate benefit to three executives being goofy in a photo together, they just did it because it was fun and they work in an industry that’s supposed to be about fun. When do you see that from a big company any more? This was the kind of leader he was. One that knew how to run a multi-billion dollar corporation but who also intimately understood his customers and how to make them happy. He knew because he thought like us–because he was one of us.

Of all the people from the games industry I would have loved to meet and thank for the impact they have had on the gaming hobby that’s such a big part of my life, Iwata and Miyamoto would be near the top. If I could have met him, I would have shaken his hand, thanked him for all the great memories his company and games have provided me, the dark times they’ve helped me through, the great times I’ve shared with friends playing them and that not only the games industry but the business world as a whole need more leaders like him. He was truly one in a million. He was irreplaceable and left gigantic, Donkey Kong sized shoes to fill. I’m sure Nintendo will soldier on and continue to blaze the path others don’t dare to but it is indeed the end of an era. Even if you don’t like Nintendo games, Satoru Iwata has helped shape the games industry in ways you may not see and we all owe him a great debt of gratitude.

Thank you for all you have done for the medium we love Iwata-san. You will be missed.

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So That Was E3 2015 (With Video)

Normally when I do these post-show posts, I talk about not only the show itself but games that interested me. This year’s different because myself along with various friends and members of the RambleCast talked over all of the E3 press conferences this year, Giant Bomb style. It was a ton of work but also a ton of fun and we gave a ton of real-time impressions of everything that was announced. If you’ve got a bunch of time, check those out and if not, we recorded an episode of the podcast itself with impressions of some games too. Seriously, give the RambleCast a listen, it’s a good show and I’m not just saying that cause I’m frequently a guest on it.

Holy Hell, what an E3 this was! I honestly went into it with pretty high hopes (certainly more than some professional cynics did) but those were eclipsed and then some. The general mood around this event has been somewhat down the last couple of years and not without reason. There was a period where AAA games and consoles sales weren’t very good and the buzz was that this kind of gaming was going away and everyone was moving to mobile. I thought that was bullshit then and it seems I was right. A lot of publishers waited to see if the new machines would sell enough to justify big investments in them and lo and behold, both the Xbox One and PS4 are selling better than their previous generation counterparts did at this point. As a result, money is going back into AAA development and while we still saw more sequels than I would of liked, we also saw a ton of new IPs this year, both from first party and third party publishers. It’s a breath of fresh air this industry desperately needed. A bunch of indie games showed off trailers too and many of them look great as well. Some of these shows were controversial, in particular Nintendo’s because they announced a Metroid game but not one people wanted to see. I admit that I would have loved a new Metroid Prime on the Wii U but I don’t know, Federation Force looks alright.

It was also a rare time when basically all of the press conferences were either well done or at least decently done. EA’s was lacking in content again and Square Enix had some format issues but they were all pretty good watches. Sony in particular just kept dropping one huge fan service announcement after another, essentially announcing everything fans said they wanted but thought they’d never get. They pretty much emptied the barrel on that though so they’ve set a potentially impossible bar to eclipse next year. I also am not a fan of certain elements like announcing a Kickstarter for a SEGA IP on the stage of Sony’s E3 press conference. I’m glad Shenmue III is getting made and that fans of the series will get it but it really felt like it went against the spirit of crowdfunding to me. That said, people funded it so hard they crashed Kickstarter so clearly it worked.

It was also nice to see PC gaming get its own dedicated show, though it wasn’t without its first-timer problems. While Day9 was a pretty good host, the show was way longer than it should have been, clocking in around two and a half hours. There was also way too much telling and not enough showing and while I get that the show was sponsored by AMD, there should have only been one segment talking about their new RADEON cards, not two. It should have worked more like the other press conferences where a developer comes out, talks for a bit and shows footage. Instead, most of them talked for minutes and only showed short trailers. The response has been mixed but a lot of people dug it so I hope they get a chance to do it again and I hope they’ve taken lessons from this and that it gets better next year.

The two biggest takeaways I got from this year’s E3 was that while a lot of good stuff was announced, much of it’s not coming to 2016. I’d say that’s a bummer but when I looked at the calendar after the show, I realised that there is still a metric ton coming for the holidays this year, more than enough to make me wonder how I’ll have time to play it all. I hope the industry can keep momentum because if we’re just talking about the same games again at next year’s E3, that might be a problem. If you want exclusives for this year, the Xbox One is definitely the way to go as well. Both they and Sony have first-party stuff coming but most of what you’re going to be playing on the PS4 this Fall are third-party games that you can get on Xbox One or PC as well. Sony’s got a commanding lead in this generation but this could definitely hurt that lead this holiday season.

The other big thing this year was virtual reality and augmented reality. There’s now five players in the VR fight between Oculus, Sony’s Project Morpheus, Valve & HTC’s Vive (which didn’t appear at E3), Microsoft’s HoloLens and now Starbreeze Studios of all people have announced that they’re bringing their own headset to market called StarVR. It’s becoming quite the arms race. Despite following it closely, I’ve never tried a VR headset yet. I really want to and though this is something that’s receiving a ridiculous amount of hype, a lot of it is coming from places and people I trust. I don’t think this is just a bunch of people gushing over “the new hotness”, there’s clearly something to this. The biggest problem VR has and will continue to have is that it’s literally impossible to demonstrate it on a stage or in a video. You have to put one of the things on your head and experience it first-hand to understand it. That’s going to be a goliath of a challenge for this industry to overcome.

VR already has appeal among hardcore gamers and is being touted for its speciality uses like architecture, museums, medicine and even things like PTSD treatment. All of that’s fantastic but to justify the levels of investment many of these companies have received, these things have to go mainstream and that’s incredibly hard to do when you’re selling an expensive product that at time of writing, needs a high-end PC just to use it at all and people can only understand the benefits of it by trying it in person. I’m sure we’ll see lots of kiosks and pop-up stores for these things but will that be enough to get people in, especially as more and more are reducing how much time they spent in physical stores? I really wonder. Regardless, these companies are playing the long game and we aren’t going to see VR suddenly vanish if it’s not an immediate hit. Personally, while I’m still sceptical of its mainstream potential, it sounds like amazing technology and I really want to experience it myself. It clearly drove a lot of the hype that people and even often cynical members of the “enthusiast press” were feeling this year and that’s great.

I was also pleased to see that while those who have been endlessly trying to stoke outrage culture for attention and money in the last year (I’m not naming people or sites but it’s pretty obvious who) were out in full force, they seem to be getting less attention. Last year’s E3 was insufferable because of these characters and it’s clear from watching them this year that while they may believe what they’re saying, it’s clear their primary interest is just finding the most popular games of the moment, injecting themselves into the conversation and using the ignorant lemmings that blindly follow them to try and stay relevant. They did it with Witcher 3 before E3 and they tried to do it with almost every popular game at the show this year. Some of them are now even treading back into Jack Thompson territory, saying that not only do games make people sexist but also banging on the old chestnut that violent games are rationalising violence. Seriously, do these people not remember what happened to Jack Thompson when he kept barking up that tree?

I was starting to get angry about this the other day but when I took a step back and thought about it, I realised that the best thing for these perpetually and professionally outraged people to do is just to keep bitching. From observing the Internet this week, it’s clear that they aren’t being taken as seriously as they used to and people are starting to have outrage fatigue. Many more developers and press are starting to push back against their rhetoric and even some people who normally would side with whatever they say have been saying that they’re maybe going a bit too far. Rather than back off for a while, they’re doubling down on their incessant whining about any little negative bit of a popular game they can use and it’s clear they’re running up against diminishing returns. The more they keep this up, the more those returns will diminish so to those people I say, please, keep going!

As I’ve said many times before, I think there are real issues with representation in video games that need to be addressed. I think the number of female protagonists we saw this year is a sign that the industry realises this too. I think that’s great and I can’t wait to play most of those games. However, it’s also clear that this endless addiction with outrage is not what’s driving that change. The people who have deemed themselves the moral arbiters of video games and the culture surrounding them are not the people who should be leading this change. They aren’t academics, they aren’t theorists, they aren’t scholars, Hell, many of them aren’t even gamers at all. The more they act as they did this week, the quicker they’ll burn out and that’s better for everyone, including the people they claim to be championing for while they get rich off of not delivering what they promised.

Overall though, I think this was a fantastic E3. I think the industry has learned that yes, consumers do want AAA games, they do want stuff that pushes the limits of technology, that there is a place for both big and small games and that console gaming isn’t going anywhere. A lot of people in the press are saying this is the best E3 in years and some are even saying it’s the best one ever. Bold statements indeed but they certainly show that people and the industry are feeling more positive than they have in a long time. I hope this positivity carries forward and I certainly hope that gamers actually step up and support all these new IPs that everyone was excited about. We complain that the industry doesn’t take enough risks and that everything is a sequel but ultimately, it’s on us to make the good new ideas successful so more of them get tried. A celebration of consumerism E3 may be but as a loving consumer of this medium, I saw a ton to be excited about. It doesn’t matter what type of games you like or what platform you play them on, this E3 showed that it’s a fantastic time to be a gamer. Let’s play on!

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The RambleCast & Friends Yak Over the E3 Press Conferences On Twitch

Watch Live On My Twitch Channel

Myself and Chris Cesarano from the RambleCast along with various other friends of ours are going to be live commentating over all of the E3 press conferences! This is something we’ve wanted to try for a while and technology and schedules finally permit it. You’ll be able to watch re-streams of all the shows over on my Twitch channel, where we’ll also be on Skype giving our off the cuff impressions, opinions and probably more than a bit of snark over what’s revealed. There will be various guests on each of the streams but we’ll also be interacting with you guys in the chat. We are super stoked to try this out as E3 is always a special time of year for us and we hope you can come hang out as we all geekgasm over the new game announcements.

We’ll be covering all the shows including Bethesda, Microsoft, EA, Ubisoft, Sony, Square Enix and maybe even the new PC Gaming Show. I’m hoping to also record the streams to be able to put them on my YouTube channel afterward but I’m not 100% sure if that’s logistically possible. It’s definitely best to be there live if you can. Here’s a full list of all the press conferences and when they’re happening:

Sunday, June 14th
Bethesda Softworks – 7pm PDT/10pm EST

Monday, June 15th
Microsoft – 9:30am PDT/12:30pm EST
Electronic Arts – 1:00pm PDT/3:00pm EST
Ubisoft – 2:45pm PDT/5:45pm EST
Sony – 6:00pm PDT/9:00pm EST

Tuesday, June 16th
Nintendo Direct – 9:00am PDT/12pm EST
Square Enix – 10am PDT/1pm EST
PC Gaming Show – 5:00pm PDT/8pm EST

The streams will probably go live a half hour or so before the shows so we can do sound check and also make some predictions so feel free to show up a bit before go time if you want. For up to the minute details and updates including announcements of when we go live, make sure to follow me on Twitter too. I hope you all can join us for our favourite time of the gaming year! See you Sunday night!

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Steam Refunds Are Only A Good Thing (With Video)

So Steam Refunds, who saw that one coming? I sure as Hell didn’t. After many years of providing some of the worst customer service ever and a series of other severe missteps, Valve blew everyone’s mind by announcing that you’ll now be able to get a full refund on any title purchased on Steam for any reason whatsoever within 14 days of purchase or 2 hours of use. Some think this is in response to the reputation damage some of their recent missteps have caused, others think this is to comply with European Union consumer protection laws which they are current in court over. I frankly don’t care what the reason is, this is absolutely incredible! Given Steam’s de facto monopoly position in the digital distribution realm on PC, it’s also a huge precedent. My hope is that we’ll see more PC digital retailers adopting similar policies and in my dream scenario, we’ll start seeing console makers doing the same. Consumer rights in general have taken a beating in recent years and gaming has in many ways, led that charge. This swings the pendulum a full 180 degrees back in our favour. It’s such a rare thing to see and makes me incredibly happy.

But of course, in the ocean of perpetual outrage culture that’s become all too common in the last year, no good deed goes unpunished. Shortly after Valve made this announcement, some indie developers (most of whom are completely unknown to the general gaming public) and their lackeys in the “enthusiast” press spoke out against the program, claiming that it hurts them because some many of their games are under 2 hours long and this just means that people are going to buy them, finish them and get a refund, thus robbing these indies of the right to get paid for their work. Kotaku hack Nathan Grayson was particularly aggressive in his assessment, once again failing to disclose that he was friends with most of the indie developers he used as sources. He never learns does he?

It amazes me that large swaths of the games press–who are supposed to be about serving consumers first–continue to go out of their way to deride things that are pro-consumer, usually in the interest of protecting small cliques of developers few knew or cared about anyway. These people are supposed to serve us but not unlike what we often see from big publishers, don’t see our loyalty as something to be earned and cherished but as something they are entitled to and that anyone who doesn’t provide it is the enemy. I hate to tell you guys but yes, gamers are still your audience and no, gamers are not over. If you’re not advocating for what is in the best interests of consumers, you’re failing consumers.

Aside from the attitude, the arguments being made also rely on flawed logic and fallacies, indeed the same ones many big publishers have made when decrying piracy. They first assume that everyone who buys their game and finishes it within the return window will always do and they also assume that the people who would do such a thing were true customers to begin with.

Disregarding the clear policy Steam has in place to prevent abuse of the refund system, if your game is good and appropriately priced for the value it offers, the vast majority of people will keep it if it’s good, either because they may want to play it again or to support the developer. Gone Home is a perfect example. Though it can stretch beyond 2 hours, it was well under that for many people, myself included. I thought it was a pretentious pile of both narrative and design clichés but a lot of people didn’t and I would wager that even if this refund policy were in place at release, it probably wouldn’t have affected the sales much, certainly not enough to turn it from a success to a failure. Hell, I didn’t really form my full opinion on it until several days after I played it so even though I ended up not liking it, I still would have ended up keeping it.

The other thing is that many of the people who would take advantage of the refund policy in such a way likely either would just skip your game entirely or pirate it if the policy wasn’t there. I would wager that most of them would not have ended up being true customers anyway. So with the refund policy in place, you have at least a potential few additional sales from this group whereas without it, you have more pirates or at least, less sales. When you do the math, it seems like a net positive any way you slice it.

There’s nothing wrong with sub-2 hour games. You can convey a lot in a short, well structured experience and it’s certainly not like it doesn’t take an incredible amount of effort to craft those experiences. Even the smallest games are incredibly difficult to create. However, this is not truly a question of length, it’s a question of value and those aren’t the same thing. If you are selling a sub-2 hour experience for money and you aren’t making that length clear to your customers up front or you’re charging too much for that experience, that’s only on you. It’s not Steam’s or anyone else’s problem that your hyper niche product that doesn’t have mainstream appeal isn’t selling, it’s your problem. Make a game that’s memorable and meaningful to the people you’re trying to sell it to and they will buy it, keep it and probably show up the next time as well. If you make something no one wants for whatever reason, that’s a problem with your creation, not the people you’re selling it to.

For all the shit gamers regularly take about being selfish and entitled, the amount of entitlement we’re seeing from some of these indie developers is amazing to me. It’s never their fault that their games don’t succeed or find as big an audience as they’d like, it’s always someone else’s fault. The supreme level of arrogance and narcissism required to think that an entire digital ecosystem’s most pro-consumer move since its inception is a bad thing because it doesn’t accommodate your hyper-niche type of product boggles my mind. How self-important do you have to be to seriously think such a thing? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised given what we’ve seen certain indie subsets spout in the last year, yet I still am somehow. You have to make stuff people want and price it appropriately, you can’t tell them what they want. You’ve failed at the most fundamental level if you think the latter.

Many of the people decrying this system were the same people who have said for months that Steam needs quality control and curation because they’ve recently opened the floodgates and are allowing a tsunami of shovelware onto the store. I said way back then that retailers didn’t need quality control, they needed quality service because quality service puts the control directly in the hands of consumers and not some nebulous, unaccountable group that decides what we can and cannot buy. I’ve also said that Steam’s laissez faire approach to many things was turning it into a nightmare. This goes completely in the other direction, giving consumers the exact tools they need to exercise their own quality control. One gamer’s garbage is another gamer’s gold and this allows everyone access to everything and decide for themselves what’s worth their time. The good stuff will succeed, the bad stuff will fail. That’s how this is all supposed to work. Demanding that the service tailor a solution designed to fit the majority to instead fit your minority niche of the market is entitlement of a calibre far worse than gamers have ever shown.

I am so incredibly sick of this perpetual outrage culture that can take even the best thing to happen to gaming in years and which provides a direct solution to the epidemic of overpromised or just plain broken games we’ve seen lately and turn it into something bad because it causes a so far unproven inconvenience to a subset of pretentious indie developers. Get over yourselves. This program is only a good thing because it’s pro-consumer and without consumers, there is no games industry. There’s no game creators, no games retailers, no games press, nothing. If you aren’t serving consumers first, you are harming the industry and in the last year in particular, a whole lot of people seem to have forgotten that in their competition to see who can resent their audience more. Make stuff people want and they’ll show up with their wallets open. If they aren’t, that usually says a lot more about what you’re making than about what they’re buying. Maybe some self-reflection is in order cause I can tell you what, if you’re calling Steam and those who would appropriately use this refund policy bad people, yours is a game I certainly won’t be buying regardless.

Thanks for this Valve. While my opinion of Steam has been rocky of late, it took a big spike up with this news. I hope I won’t have to use the refund system much but I’m damn glad it’s there. It’s about damn time.

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Steam’s Libertarian Dystopia (with Video)

Boy, that whole paying for mods thing on Steam was something wasn’t it? You probably know about it but if you don’t or want more detail, I recommend watching this video to learn just how big a cluster it was and if you’ve got more time, this in-depth discussion with people involved in the modding scene gives some great insights from that perspective. It will undoubtedly go down as one of the biggest outrages and quickest backpedals in game industry history and that’s saying something after the last couple of years. It’s also only one in a laundry list of problems Valve’s Steam platform has. Greenlight, the tagging system, Greenlight, letting developers moderate and ban users from paid games for any reason, Greenlight, the nightmare store page, Greenlight, abysmal customer service and oh yeah, fucking Greenlight. All of these are components either launched a hot mess or are still one today (I go into detail about each more in the video so I won’t clog this up with that).

When you think about the number of nightmares Valve has caused themselves and their customers over the years, it’s really quite amazing how often and how badly they’ve managed to screw up and how they still have a legion of fanboys that will go into a frenzy to defend them against any criticism. Though there are alternative digital platforms and stores for PC games out there, it’s not unreasonable to call Steam a de facto monopoly in the space. Many games can only be activated and run through Steam (even if purchased elsewhere) and it is still the default choice for the vast majority of PC gamers. They spent many years building up trust with the gaming community and were considered one of the few big companies that understood what gamers really wanted and always put their interests first. This trust has endured through blunder after blunder but paid mods became such a hot issue that it appears the limits were finally tested. Gabe Newell had most of his posts in a Reddit AMA down voted to oblivion and that never happens.

How does a company so successful, that’s staffed with so many brilliant people and literally pioneered digital distribution of games continue to screw up so badly, so often and seemingly with no self-awareness? I believe a lot of it can be traced back to what many consider to be Valve’s most revolutionary trait as a company and the free market, libertarian ideals at the centre of that philosophy.

Valve operates on what’s called a flat structure. Essentially what that means is that the company has no hierarchy. There are no job titles, no seniority and everyone has the same level of authority. Whether you’re a junior programmer or Gabe Newell himself, everyone’s on the same level. You can literally choose your job when you work there. Everyone’s desk is on wheels. If you have a new idea you want to try, you roll your desk into an empty part of the office, try to recruit some people to work on it with you, develop it and ship it. The idea is to ship new things out quickly, to rapidly iterate and let market forces determine what works. If something doesn’t, it gets changed or even scrapped like paid mods did. The good ideas survive and thrive, the weak ideas get weeded out by the market. For a deeper explanation, go check out their publicly posted employee handbook. It’s a fascinating read and it made me instantly want to work there.

As someone who has worked under shitty managers before, the idea of there being literally none sounds amazing at first. It’s a business doctrine so revolutionary and just plain different, it makes you wonder how it could possibly work. I can see why Gabe Newell wanted to try it too. He’s a former Microsoft executive and that company is known to be structured to a degree that’s suffocating to its employees and creates huge tribalism. Experimenting with the polar opposite idea sounds like a fine thing to try. In reality, a truly complete flat structure is impossible, for legal reasons if nothing else. It’s seemingly served Valve very well but indeed, I think the size of the company and the number of pies they have their hands in are showing how like most pure libertarian philosophies, it can’t really scale up that well.

Boiled down to layman terms, the core belief of pure libertarian economics is that market forces can self-regulate anything. Like most economic or political doctrines in their purest form, it’s also naive nonsense. A completely free market cannot be trusted to regulate itself and inevitably, a few handful of the most ruthless and unethical players will accumulate all the power and wealth at the expense of everyone else. Think Andrew Ryan’s Rapture from BioShock. We don’t live in a purely libertarian society in North America and many would say that’s already happening anyway. The idea sounds good on paper but it’s foolhardy in practice. These recent blunders with Steam are a result of Valve’s adherence to this doctrine. It sounds good to just tell your employees “Work on whatever you think is cool, throw it against the wall and we’ll keep what sticks.” but when you have customers to please, it’s not that simple.

Gabe Newell has said on many occasions that Valve doesn’t think Steam is open enough and that want to leave more and more of its functionality up to the community. Again, they want to let market forces have more control over how the service works. This begins to fall apart on its face though because aside from all the demonstrations to date of how that doesn’t work, Steam is still not entirely controlled by the market. If you’re one of a group of publishers or certain indie developers that Valve deems worthy for undisclosed reasons, you get what it no less than preferential treatment. If you’re an unknown who wants on Steam, you have to jump through the horrible Greenlight system. If you’re a big publisher or one of Valve’s hand-picked indie clique, you get to skip that and go straight onto the service. Never mind that some of these partners have released absolutely broken games on Steam multiple times or consist of companies like Strategy First who constantly flood the new releases section with 15 year old shovelware. So right off the bat, you have a system that’s not being controlled wholly by the market and is indeed being regulated. This isn’t a bad thing either. Can you imagine if the community got to pick every game on Steam and Reddit decided to brigade future Ubisoft releases after Assassin’s Creed: Unity’s horrible launch? That kind of thing is what happens when the market gets to police itself without oversight.

When any system reaches a certain size, history has shown that a certain amount of regulation becomes necessary or it begins to crack. These recent blunders have shown that, as have the number of features of Steam itself like Big Picture Mode and in-home streaming, that still are underdeveloped or buggy in many cases with no new recent updates. Hell, Half-Life 3 anyone? The problem when you have a company that operates the way Valve does is that there’s no managers and people can just up and abandon a project for pretty much any reason they want. As suffocating as a bad manager can be, sometimes they’re necessary. Someone who is there to ensure a plan is made and stuck to is vital. If everyone can work on whatever they want and you’re someone who has recruited a group to your idea, everyone is personally invested in its success but they also can be too close to it and not see faults that someone who is tasked with that can. The rumour is that the paid modding program only has two Valve employees and two Bethesda employees working on it. That’s not nearly enough people to give the project impartial oversight and feedback.

Beyond that, there are always jobs in a company that no one wants to do when given the choice. If you’ve ever had to interact with Steam’s “customer service”, you know why I put that in quotes. I’ve submitted tickets that have automatically closed 3 times because it took 6 weeks for anyone to respond and the response was often a boiler plate copy/paste that had nothing to do with my original question. This is a de facto monopoly in the space that’s making buckets of money and they seem to spend almost nothing on this crucial piece of the experience. The thing is, if you worked at Valve and could choose your own job, would you want to work in customer service? Someone has to but their structure also means no one has to. Thus, this company widely regarded as consumer first has service that makes big telecom companies look like saints. Maybe the solution involves outsourcing the customer service with high standards for that partner, maybe it involves hiring a team specific to that job. Regardless, the way it’s working now is another example of how a pure libertarian flat system falls down on the job.

How do you fix this though? Hiring managers or specific teams of people breaks the whole principal that Valve was founded under. There are apparently other companies in the industry like Naughty Dog that have a largely flat structure but still have a small group of individuals at the top who have final approval on things. Maybe instead of managers, a system of peer review could be put in place where an idea and its implementation must be presented to an outside group of employees who vote it to move forward or go back in the oven with feedback. However, even these introduces regulation to a system that seems built from the group up to be as free from it as possible. They could certainly just leave things the way they are too. They’ve taken many lumps before and though confidence from the user base is shaken, they still came through the paid mods mess. Maybe this will cause the employees to step back and more critically think about their projects before shipping them to avoid more blunders. Maybe not though and if they want to keep the system as-is, they can’t guarantee that or force it.

There’s no doubt that Valve de facto monopoly position and legion of fanboys affords them a lot of leeway with frustrated users. As bad as the paid mods situation was for them, just think about if it was Origin or Uplay that tried it instead. Much like Apple, they simply aren’t held to the standards everyone else is, a bad way to look at any company in my opinion. I do hope they learn some valuable lessons from this latest mess and honestly, there’s way too many brilliant people there to credibly claim otherwise. However, I think the most valuable lesson is that their current way of doing things as a company just doesn’t work in every single situation. I imagine that must be a terrifying thing to consider, especially if you’ve been at the company for a long time. Is there a way to maintain a flat system but have just enough checks and balances to keep it from tripping over itself? I honestly don’t know. If I did, I’d probably be applying for a job there instead of writing this. I hope they can figure it out though because even companies with the most devoted fanbases only get so many screwups before a large enough group of people decide they’ve had enough. Paid mods was one strike. I’m not sure how many more fans will allow them and ultimately, no structure matters if it doesn’t serve their interests first.

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Late Review: The Order: 1886

An interactive movie in 2015.

The Order: 1886 is a weird thing. It’s one of those kinds of games that would normally make me wonder how it ever got green lit in the first place. It seriously feels like one of those largely lousy interactive movies from the dawn of the CD-ROM era. It wasn’t until I got further into it that I realised it was clearly supposed to be much more than it ended up becoming. It comes from Ready At Dawn Studios, a company whose work consisted of God of War PSP games and a Wii port of Okami before this. They went from that to making a showpiece PS4 exclusive using their own engine, quite a step forward. It’s unquestionably one of the best looking video games ever made from a technical standpoint. Had I looked at this not knowing it was a game, I would have thought it was actually a well done CG movie. That sounds like praise but the problem is, it pretty much plays like one as well.

The premise of The Order: 1886 sounds pretty awesome at first. It takes place in a steampunk version of London where you are a member of The Order, a sort of special forces group apparently made up from King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table that is fighting a rebellion against the Queen and also an infestation of werewolves and other supernatural elements that come into play later. If you’re wondering how that group of knights exists and is still doing stuff in 1886 like fighting werewolves, I’d love to tell you. Apparently these knights are several hundred years old and have access to a special vial of something called “dark water” they wear around their necks that when consumed, causes even severe wounds to heal almost instantly. Here’s lies the first major sign that this game had huge sections of it cut out for time, budget or both because I can recall no point when this is explained at all. They seem rather major elements to just expect the player to roll with but that’s what it does.

There are also huge sections of time between missions that just go unexplained. A mission will end after a huge firefight where you are getting chastised for not following orders, then it flows right into the next mission where you’re walking around your headquarters as if it’s all good. The lack of transition between these major events is jarring and at some points, straight up confusing.

Beyond that, the story takes an otherwise really interesting premise and somehow makes it progress almost exactly like your run of the mill modern military shooter. There’s backstabbing from within that’s telegraphed so obviously, you know it well before it happens, your character is framed, gets badly hurt, recovers and in the end, has to team up with who you have been told is the enemy to stop a plot that would end society as we know it, playing by your own rules. Sound familiar?

Your characters all have the equivalent of radios (which boy, do they love to use), different weapons that range from standard pistols, rifles and machine guns to sci-fi electric arc guns and thermite rifles (this one is actually pretty different and fun to use.) You’ll trapse through various locations in London and at one point, invade a snazzy air ship, trying to take out enemies and be the hero. All the mission checkbox types are ticked. Sometimes you just have to shoot everyone in standard cover shooter ways. Sometimes you have to remain stealthy, using the very clunky cover mechanics to avoid or sneak up on guys, with a frustrating lack of checkpoints. There’s even points where you have to use binoculars to locate targets from a distance and call for air support. There’s largely useless collectibles with trophies tied to them too. Everything is hyper linear and there’s no choices or consequences, you just follow things through until you reach your conclusion. It really feels like a Call of Duty campaign in a different setting.

If you’ve read how poorly the developers have responded to some of the criticisms of The Order: 1886, such as its permanent black bars, locked 30 per second frame rate, very short length (it took me maybe 7 hours) and total lack of replayability, it’s pretty clear this is a game created by an auteur designer. When you play it, you not only see these faults but it becomes abundantly clear that huge sections of this game were cut out for one reason or another. As I said above, all the backstory that would help explain the setting is absent. There’s several types of missions present but some of them are barely utilised. Perhaps worst of all, in a game that’s supposed to be about dealing with an infestation of werewolves and other such creatures, you rarely ever fight any. Aside from a handful of horrible dodge and shoot sections and two “boss fights” that are mostly just rhythm mini-games, all you’re fighting is plain old dudes with guns. That is, when you’re even doing that much.

The Order: 1886 loves its cutscenes, some of which are Metal Gear Solid level of wordy. When it isn’t showing you cutscenes, it loves having you walk slowly through an environment while someone else blathers on either in person or on the radio. Nothing can be skipped and many of the cutscenes are full of inconsistently placed quick time events that are just there to give you something to do other than watch. Everything looks incredible, the animation is some of the best I’ve ever seen and the voice acting is top shelf but the story and characters aren’t interesting enough to warrant sitting through it all. There are also audio logs you can pick up throughout the levels that are supposed to better flesh out the world but none of them tell anything interesting. Worst of all, you have to sit in a menu when listening to them and they’re all spoken so slowly, some take minutes to complete. Even Gone Home let you keep doing stuff while the logs played!

These forced passive sections indicate to me both a desperate need to pad out the length and a frankly arrogant attitude on the part of the developers. Aside from the fact that you could probably play it end-to-end in about 3 hours if you could skip all the cutscenes and walking sections, it’s clear they’re insisting that you take the time to see how incredible their art is and that you need to sit in the menu to listen to their pointless flavour audio logs because if they let you play at the same time, you might miss something. It’s disrespectful to the player’s time and frankly, a bit insulting to their intelligence. I have no problems with cutscenes, even super long ones. Hell, I’m a huge fan of Metal Gear Solid. However, the player paid for your game and it should always be up to them how to play it. Forcing them to sit through any of your non-interactive content they don’t want to is frankly just pretentious. If your stuff is good enough, they’ll sit through it voluntarily. If they aren’t, that says more about what you’re making if you ask me.

I blew through The Order: 1886 in two sittings and all I got from it, aside from some impressive nods for the technical achievement, was a clear message that for whatever reason, this game was pushed out when it was at best, two thirds of what it should have been and was probably intended to be. There were really cool ideas here but what we ended up with was a technically gorgeous wasted opportunity. It’s a modern military campaign with a different skin on it and was just as short but somehow, had even less to do in it and even less reason to go back. At least Call of Duty and Battlefield have multiplayer to go along with their campaigns. Once you’re done with The Order: 1886, there’s nothing left. If the setting still interests you, it’s a rental at best but honestly, this is one you’d probably be best off watching a Let’s Play of. Now that the framework is there, hopefully Ready At Dawn can get another crack at this and make a full-fledged game without having to worry about getting the tech done as well. This just isn’t worth it though.

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The Decline of Big Japanese Gaming (with Video)

Konami is getting out of the traditional video game business. Given their output (or lack thereof) the last few years, the comically bad way much of that content has been promoted and recent events in particular, I honestly don’t see how it can be interpreted any other way.

As a huge fan of many of the games bearing their name, going back to the early 1980s, that’s actually something that it pains me to say. Once a juggernaut of video games, the company’s releases have dwindled in recent years, with only two console games coming out in 2015, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and the latest entry in their soccer series. It’s interesting to see because while the amount of titles they’re putting out has shrank, the investment in them certainly hasn’t. Metal Gear Solid has always been among the most expensive game series to produce and judging from what we’re seen so far of MGS V, it looks like at least a few dump trucks full of cash were involved in its creation as well. Therein lies the core of the problem in my opinion.

It’s no secret that AAA console and PC gaming is an industry that’s in some deep trouble right now. The costs and time required to make these games are going up exponentially, far quicker than the audience size needed to make them viable, yet the prices have largely remained the same. The industry is littered with examples of how companies have tried to adapt to this, usually meeting a consumer backlash for it. Big budget gaming seems to be filled with only the safest of bets and sequels. The corpses of many developers and publishers that either couldn’t adapt or didn’t in time also are plenty. Given that many of the big Japanese names are both still around and showing a profit, you may think things are rosier over there but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

While console sales in the west are still doing reasonably well, the Japanese console gaming business is cratering. If you think mobile gaming is exploding over here, it pales in comparison to how it is in Japan. It’s now the dominant way people play games there and many former console players are dumping that past time in favour of just using their phones. As someone who thinks the majority of popular mobile games these days are creatively bankrupt, free-to-play scumware, that’s disheartening but it is what it is. Big budget gaming is very much in decline there but because of the nature of Japanese business culture, it’s not manifesting the same way and unless you follow the business side of the industry like I do, you might not see it.

Many Japanese companies tend to be very diversified and do business in a bunch of often unrelated industries. Not all of them to be sure but it’s not an uncommon practice. Much of these operations either aren’t consumer facing or don’t operate in the west so we don’t hear about them. For example, what do you think of when you hear the name Mitsubishi? Probably cars and maybe home electronics at one time right? Check this out. They’re an extreme example but this is pretty common practice, even among video game companies. Remember Jaleco from back in the day? They now focus on real estate and finance. Seriously. Konami is no different. Many people don’t know that two of their biggest business pillars are slot machines and if you can believe it, health clubs. I’d love to hear the story behind why and how they decided to get into that business.

While many western companies who couldn’t handle the bigger risks of AAA gaming simply imploded, the diversity of many of their Japanese counterparts means that while they appear to be healthy, it’s not a sign that all is rosy in their gaming divisions. Capcom, Sega and many other Japanese names once synonymous with big gaming are either shying away from that field to focus on mobile or other ventures and some like Sega have just straight up said as much. An exception to this is Square Enix but they have also decided to focus heavily on western centric games development through their acquisition of Eidos Interactive and properties like Tomb Raider, Deus Ex, Hitman and others. It hasn’t always worked out for them but they’re still making a go of it nonetheless and they are still profitable as a whole. There’s also been a litany of smaller Japanese game development studios that have either ceased development or been acquired recently, largely by mobile publishers.

The reality is that the Japanese gaming industry is getting hit just as hard or even harder than the western industry, their companies just tend to be more skilled at diversification and being able to pivot from one industry to another. Don’t forget that up until past the PS2 era, Konami was cranking out games left and right and had a number of different studios running. At this point, they have Kojima Productions (a name since disowned in all the drama), their soccer team and the team that works on music games, that’s it. Those game developers aren’t going to suddenly find work making slot machines or working as fitness trainers so while the Konami corporation may be fine, that’s still a lot of game developers who are out of work. Almost anyone you can think of from that company with fame in the industry is gone and by all accounts, Kojima is also out the door after MGS V ships. The Super Bunnyhop video I linked above makes the salient point that while the cost of making Metal Gear Solid games has gone up and up and while the series still makes money, it’s making less each time. In the world of “public company thinking”, that’s not a good thing and it appears that Konami has just decided that this business isn’t worth it any more. Given the current climate, you kind of can’t blame them (even though it also appears the company is run by a brutal dictator who doesn’t care much for his employees) but it’s still sad to see.

While it’s good to see that these companies won’t go away, the sad part of it is that many of them sit on a vast wealth of games and properties that many still remember fondly. However, since they aren’t going under, they aren’t in danger of losing ownership of those and in general, big companies like to sit on every property they can, even if they aren’t using them. When Midway went under, their properties went up for auction. Warner Bros. bought most of them and as a result, we have great games like Mortal Kombat X that we might not have had otherwise. Similarly, a lot of well-liked THQ properties were bought up and some things are happening with those. In the case of Konami, they have no real incentive to either sell their stuff to other companies that will do something with them or even license them out. Most of them will either just be sat on and stagnate or will get used to make slot machines or crappy mobile games that have nothing to do with the games except the name and some characters. If Sega and Capcom choose to get out of big games, the same thing is likely to happen and many would say it already has. That really sucks from the perspective of someone who has a lot of fondness for these games and would love to see someone get a chance to take a modern crack at them.  Sure, these companies could one day decide to return to big budget gaming but that’s a hard business to start from scratch in and unless it suddenly becomes far less risky, why would they?

What this all points to is that the AAA gaming industry in Japan is experiencing the same struggles as the rest of the AAA gaming industry, it’s just manifesting in a different way because Japanese and western businesses operate in very different ways. This is a real bummer for me because while I’ve played a ton of great smaller games, I don’t like where influential elements of the indie game development community are trying to steer that stuff and franchised to Hell and gone or not, AAA games can provide experiences you simply can’t get from smaller games. As a technology enthusiast, I also like to see the envelope pushed and AAA games do that, arguably they have been instrumental in pushing a lot of computing technology forward more than other fields. Retro style, pixel art platformer “exploration games” are not going to be what drives technology and new ideas forward. I think a healthy games industry needs a good mix of big and small stuff and more and more, it seems like the bigger side of the industry just can’t figure out how to make it sustainable. In the west, that means a lot of closed doors, in Japan, it more often means pivoting to another industry. In either case, a lot of talent loses work and that’s not good for anyone.

It’s an interesting time to be a gamer and particularly one who grew up with the game from a lot of these companies that seem to be backing away from them. Not to say that the AAA industry didn’t and doesn’t have a lot of faults but the general rule of thumb is that the void will be filled by something but I don’t think mobile free-to-play crap and indie art pieces that barely even resemble games are the best thing to fill it either. It appears that the gaming business in all places is undergoing not it’s first revolutionary transition but arguably it’s biggest and most impacting. I hope when it all shakes out, there’s still a good place for those of us who like the big stuff as well. We shall see.

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