So That Was Extra Life 2014 (With Video)

NOTE: Fundraising for this year’s campaign is still open and I’m just a little bit short of eclipsing last year’s total and hitting my second stretch goal! If you or someone you know has even $5 to pitch in, please consider doing so. It would mean a lot to me to hit that second goal. My Outlast live stream will be Saturday, November 1st, 2014 starting at noon Eastern Time over on Twitch and I will also be recording it for my YouTube channel. It’s going to be worth it, trust me!

When I first did Extra Life back in 2011, I had no idea what to expect from it. Since then, it’s grown to a worldwide phenomena, experiencing epic levels of growth every year. This year was no different and I’m beaming with pride. The big day was this past Saturday and I already can’t wait to do it again. Every year, I like to do a little post-mortem, talking about the day itself, what went right and some things that can be improved. The news is largely good this year, though something has also left me feeling slightly disillusioned. First, the good stuff!

I wasn’t sure how the fundraising would go this year but it ended up doing very well thanks to some very special people. Donations are open until the end of the year so you can check the current total here. However, at time of writing, the campaign is past $1,300 which soundly trumps my first stretch goal of playing Outlast live in one sitting (gaming gods help me.) I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of the total this year, either for myself or for Extra Life as a whole. It’s been a rough year on Planet Earth as we know and my girlfriend who works for a charity said that there was a chance the fundraising would decline this year because when there’s big pressing events in the world, people tend to donate to charities that will do the most immediate good. You can’t blame anyone for that, I certainly don’t. However, I’m happy to say that both my total and Extra Life’s are very healthy this year. So far, mine’s a little under last year but that could change and Extra Life knocked it out of the park. Following a record year with $4,000,000 raised, they have announced that just so far, over $5,100,000 has been raised for sick kids. That makes me so damn happy and you know what? This thing is mainstream now! It’s only going to get better from here and I can’t wait to do it again.

Before I talk about the day itself, I want to thank a great number of people. If you’re mentioned here but not in the video, I apologise but those are unscripted and I was still tired when I made it. Firstly, my wonderful girlfriend Sarah kept me fed throughout the day and looked after our dog so I could focus 100% on my efforts. You are amazing as always and I love you so much! Secondly, I want to give a huge shout out to my friend Andrew, also known as KeyMastar. I met this guy for the first time when I did 24 hours of Dark Souls back in 2012 and he happened to find my stream. Since then, we’ve become Internet friends and if you follow my YouTube stuff, you’ve heard him in some All Together Now content. He hopped into the stream when I started and just casually told me that he intended to hang out for the entire 24 hours! He wasn’t doing Extra Life, he just offered to hang out for a whole bloody day just to offer moral support. During one of the later periods, we hung out on Skype while I played and he actually nodded off for about 20 minutes. You could hear the snoring through Skype and myself and the Twitch chat had a great laugh. He woke up later and was embarrassed for it but seriously man, you needn’t be. I’m certain watching someone play games for 24 hours is even harder than playing them yourself for that long. That you hung around for so long means a great deal to me. You are an awesome madman and I’ll never forget this.

I’d of course like to thank everyone who donated. You’re the reason we all do this and if you contributed to me, you’re a great person doing good for sick kids. In particular, I’d like to thank my work colleagues who pitched in and especially, I want to thank my clients and retail partners who agreed to help me fundraise this year. Ivan’s European Deli & Carp Road Physiotherapy where I live in Stittsville and The Cake Shop in Westboro all agreed to put out coin jars and we raised a nice chunk of change from those. Ivan’s in particular brought in over $100. In addition, Wiches Cauldron and Big D’s Dog House, also both from Stittsville, agreed to donate their tips from Saturday and a portion of their sales from a big local event respectively. Wiches raised more than $100 as a result of their efforts and Big D’s has committed to donating $300 to the campaign. I was speechless when they told me that and I can’t thank them enough. We love living in Stittsville and the “support local” attitude that people have here and that was shown with this. You are all amazing people and from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for what you’ve done. I appreciate it, CHEO appreciates it and the kids appreciate it.

The day itself went pretty well overall. It’s weird, in past years, the hard hours for me when I start to feel like I’m crashing are usually between 1am and 6am. After that, I usually get a second wind that carries me to the end. This year was basically the opposite. I was fine throughout the night but fell down hard at 6am. I was playing Forza Horizon 2 then and I’m sure I drove like a mad drunk for a while. I endured though and after switching to Resogun for the last half hour, I perked up and had no problem getting to the end.

This year, I said I wasn’t theming the event on anything, I decided to just take it casual and play what I wanted. I purposefully hooked up every previous and current generation console at my desk, plus my PC so I had pick of what I wanted to play. I had intended to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown which I didn’t and sadly, I ended up excluded from the Gamers With Jobs Destiny raid because the past week didn’t leave me with enough time to do the immense grinding needed to prep for it. I am planning to write a review of Destiny in the near future for the blog but yeah, I think I’m done with that game now. I also played some League of Legends with Gamers With Jobs people, a game I’d never touched before. It was only against AI bots and while I don’t see myself starting into that game with humans, it was a lot of fun and I enjoyed learning some about it. I talk in more detail about the other games I played in the video above so check that out if you want to know more. I played a lot of stuff and really enjoyed it. This is absolutely what I plan to do going forward.

Beyond that, the Extra Life event as a whole just felt smoother and more organised this year. It began back in 2008 with just a few people and has experienced more than it’s fair share of growing pains but they’ve really come together and made it a well-oiled machine. Communication was much better, processing of rewards and events was much better and unlike last year when some scumbags DDoS’d their site, it managed to stay up the whole time. As I said, this event is mainstream now and they absolutely appear to be taking the responsibilities that come with that seriously and good on them for it.

Now we get to the problems. Happily, the number of issues were few this year but one in particular was a huge disappointment for me and is causing me to rethink some of the places I spend my time online. To be clear, these problems are mostly roadbumps to what is otherwise an awesome thing and none of these are deterring me in the slightest from doing Extra Life going forward. However, things can always be better and if no one says so, what changes?

The first once again is Twitch. I was kind of hostile towards Twitch last year for how lousy a job they did at promoting Extra Life, especially since they were and still are an “official partner” of the event. Not much changed this year. I use Twitch because it’s where all the people are but I’m on record as saying I think it’s a lousy service for many reasons, something that hasn’t changed yet since Amazon bought them. Combine that with how badly they promoted the event and yeah, I wish they had more serious competition. That said, my stream was largely reliable and never went down in the entire 24 hours. Credit where credit’s due, that’s impressive.

I have a pro-tip if you’re doing Extra Life on Twitch. When you set your channel title and game you’re playing, it’s suggested that you use Extra Life as your game name to make it easy to find people doing event streams. Don’t do that. Put Extra Life in your stream title but keep the game title updated to whatever you’re actually playing. My viewer count is always low but it was substantially better this year by doing that, especially when I started playing newer games like Bayonetta 2 and Forza Horizon 2. I saw spikes in the viewer count almost immediately after changing the title to those newer games. People usually come to Twitch to watch certain games being played and by going with that strategy, I personally think it leads to more viewers. Just make sure you have a text element in your stream that tells them where they can donate.

My biggest issue is more of a disappointment with certain places. Were it not for the awesome retail partners I mentioned above, my fundraising would have come in way under last year’s total. Were it not for those people, I wouldn’t be playing Outlast, not even close. I also said above that a lot of charitable giving is down this year and that I understand. I also had some amazing colleagues who donated but where I work now has a lot less people than where I was before. My old boss kindly sent an e-mail around that office but I don’t work there any more and I get why people might not want to donate to someone they don’t know any more, plus times are tough there.

However, some places like Gamers With Jobs that I have frequented for years and which were often instrumental to my previous efforts really fell short. A few Goodjers stepped up the day of and I thank them all for that. However, the event and the team were mentioned multiple times on the front page of the site leading up to the day and not only did we get basically no donations at all from the community until the end, no one even commented on the first story for over a week and those threads have been very slow. I get that times are hard and maybe even $5 is too much. Far be it for me to tell anyone how to spend their money. However, if you can’t step up financially, signal boosting via social media costs literally nothing. We asked people to do that and few did but a whole pile of people who said nothing about Extra Life still found time to snark and whine on Twitter about bloody GamerGate on Saturday. For that matter, I checked and only a small handful of major gaming news sites even mentioned Extra Life this year, unless they had staff members participating.

I’m not here to comment on GamerGate, I’ve done that in another post. However, Extra Life is a crystal clear example of gamers doing nothing but immense good. We put all the political fights aside and raised millions for sick kids, using the hobby we all love. Yet, many press outlets and individuals who can find plenty of time to complain about how evil gamers are because of the actions of a vast minority within a largely misrepresented movement, couldn’t find time to post a single tweet or story in support of us? That’s beyond disappointing, it makes me bloody angry. If you’re only interested in talking about what your audience and fellow gamers are being evil (even when it’s just because they disagree with you) and ignore when they do good, I think you need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask yourself what good you’re actually doing for this medium and this community. Frankly, a lot of sites and a lot of people’s actions (or lack thereof) spoke volumes to me this weekend and I didn’t at all care for what I heard. I’m largely staying away from Gamers With Jobs this week to think about whether it’s the right place for me and I may not be back there in the same way after this. A bunch of us did good, all we asked for was a little support and a lot of places we counted on for it let us down, nearly completely.

As a whole though, I think this was one of the best years for Extra Life and for me doing it. They hit a new fundraising record and while I didn’t, I’m still very pleased with the result. Even if I only raised $1, that’s $1 more than would have been raised if I did nothing and I take real pride in that. The event’s barely over and I can’t wait to do it again next year! I hope you’ll all be back and that you continue to enjoy it. I’m off work this week and have plans for both blog entries and a lot of video content to get my channel back on track.

Extra Life is important and it’s a big deal that’s only getting bigger. I consider it a great honour to have been part of it and here’s to many years to come!

Posted in Culture, Video Games, YouTube | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

My Final Rant On GamerGate

Alright, it’s time to address GamerGate. After hearing about this issue non-stop for the better part of two months now, I’ve had enough and I need to vent. I wrote about this in a pretty weak sauce way before because I was scared of being targeted but I’m done caring about that. There’s potential for good, meaningful discussion here that’s being completely choked and drowned out by people on both sides who have become little more than squabbling children. Writers and communities that should frankly know better have become little more than snark-ridden echo chambers. I’m now seriously questioning places I used to think of as Internet safe havens and that makes me both sad and angry.

I debated leaving GamerGate out of the title of this post because I didn’t want it to show up in Google searches and make me an easy target. I thought about it a lot and decided that would be a cowardly decision. If I’m going to post this, then I’m going to put it out there properly and take my lumps if they come. I will stand up for what I say. This post also assumes you’re up-to-date on what’s happened with GamerGate to time of writing. If you’re not, look it up elsewhere.

After this, I’m done with this bullshit. It has gone well beyond any realm of reason and it will never be solved until it gets a chance to cool down which has to happen eventually. This is my final peace on the topic as it is now. After today, I’ll be muting the hashtag, for my own sanity. I see valid points buried within the toxicity on both sides of this. If you’re someone who is going to read this and assume me as being with the extreme elements of either camp, you should stop now and unfollow me in whatever places you do. People who would do that are people I’m not interested in engaging any further.

My goal here is to speak to the more rational players on both sides of the debate. By and large, nothing I or anyone else says will sway any extremists. Yet there are still many who are open to alternative ideas, even in spite of being fairly locked in to what they think. My hope is to plant some seeds with those people. I probably won’t but I can at least say I tried.

The kernel of this issue is rooted in what I believe are valid concerns. There are major problems with the enthusiast press being too cozy to those they cover and I believe this is impacting the quality and neutrality of coverage in some places. I believe what games they choose to cover and how much coverage they give them shouldn’t be tied to relationships with and feelings toward their creators. I believe directly funding a creator you are responsible for covering is a patently obvious conflict of interest. I believe it’s actually OK if those conflicts exist and that recusal is not necessary but visible and plainly worded disclosure should be standard practice, as it is elsewhere. I believe that covering things based on personal preferences and desire/business need for controversial clicks instead of the consumer’s need to know isn’t journalism, it’s opinion and should be labelled as such. I believe a journalist’s role is to provide the info for people to think on, not to tell them how to think.

Many people still like to think that Zoe Quinn and her asshole ex’s selfish public outing of dirty laundry is what started GamerGate. They also think that this is still all about her. I don’t believe that, nor do I believe that Adam Baldwin is responsible for the momentum of the movement just because he was the first user of the hashtag. He may have spawned the moniker but if he didn’t, it just would have been called something else. Those events, along with the “Gamers Are Dead” articles were the catalysts that exploded an issue that had been simmering for years. Elements of the gaming press and gamers have had a cold war long brewing, this is simply what turned it into a hot war.

Since then, I have witnessed discourse sink to a level I’ve rarely ever seen, even for online discussions of gaming. The length it has persisted is incredible. I’ve seen otherwise mature people adopt the tactics of trolls and a level of organisation among opposition you don’t see that often over something like an entertainment medium. In Internet attention span time, that we’re two months into this with no end in sight is basically several eternities. In it’s horrible, depressing way, it’s fascinating.

At one time, there was potential to have some real discussions and debate about multiple serious issues in gaming, issues that should be discussed and that I think are important. Journalism, representation, curbing abuse, all these could have been talked about. That time passed a long time ago. The sides with the loudest voices have now dug trenches so deep, they’re halfway to the Earth’s core. No one cares about discussion, no one cares to try and learn more, or to empathise or to find solutions. It’s no longer about solutions, it’s just the need to be angry, outraged and to fight. It’s the personification of the worst elements of outrage culture from everywhere.

Many continue to insist this is a symptom of a larger problem in the gaming community but that’s crap. The gaming press had liked inflammatory narratives of late so perhaps it’s been more visible from that. Perhaps there’s also an argument to be made that since hardcore gamers tend to be more technologically savvy, it’s easier for a large number to get their bile out there. If you think this type of thing is strictly a gaming issue, then you should look at the social media and comment sections related to politics, or the NFL, or religion or whatever other contentious issue you can think of. This isn’t a gaming issue, it’s an Internet issue and to claim otherwise is a lie. It’s being used as one of many cheap ploys to dehumanise the other side to make it easier to hate them.

It’s been impossible to ignore this so instead, I’ve attempted to take in information and arguments from both sides in order to formulate a viewpoint as I almost always tend to end up somewhere in between both extremes. True enough, that happened here too. I’ve read and watched a lot of stuff that I found informative and much more that either made me angry, sad or just caused me to roll my eyes. Both sides feel they’re fighting for a medium and a hobby they love and that they have good and noble intentions. Different methods are being used and some of them are unsavoury but everyone thinks they’re fighting the good fight. I don’t question the belief but I absolutely question how both sides are going about it. They’re insisting on sticking to points and methods that are often intellectually dishonest and are not attacking points but the people making them. Everyone wants change to come from this but no one’s willing to change how they approach it to make things better.

I’ve no doubt many of you who read this will find many things to disagree with. Cool! If so, please let me know what you think and let’s talk about it. Unlike some, I’m fully open to changing my mind. I’m not going to bemoan the lack of discussion and then turn off my comments like others have. Just act like an adult please. Comments are held for moderation but I’ll let anything through that’s intelligently written. I’m not having an argument over Twitter though. That service is a terrible place for real discourse. If you tweet at me looking to start a discussion, I’ll be directing you back here to do it.

Lastly, this should go without saying but harassment of any kind from is fucking wrong, always. Both sides have engaged in this and those people are scum. Period. If you think otherwise, even a little bit, you’re a bad person and you should be fucking ashamed of yourself. I have nothing further to say on that aspect.

I think many of the people involved in GamerGate have valid points regarding recent demonstrations of journalistic integrity, or lack thereof. I also think consumers have every right and even the responsibility to speak out against what they perceive as unjust or unfair. In an era where it’s almost impossible to get consumers to do anything en masse, GamerGate represents one of the largest sustained consumer movements I’ve seen in recent memory and it’s done so devoid of declared leadership which is frankly astounding. That said, the group has a major image problem and a lot of that (though not all of it) is their own fault. This is the flip side of having no leadership. For the rational side of this movement to be heard in the way it should, some hard steps need to be taken. Many would call these admissions of defeat but I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. These are evolutionary steps and ones I think are vital for real change.

Firstly, the GamerGate moniker needs to be dropped. I know I’ve used the term several times already to identify the group but I seriously think this is the most important thing that can be done for the sake of the non-extremist side that’s fighting for real change and discussion. The name has become synonymous with hatred, harassment and bigotry. I can already hear people screaming that extremists don’t represent all of GamerGate but that doesn’t matter. Seriously, it doesn’t. Go look up the hashtag and see how much bile is in there. The movement would say that the press shouldn’t be telling people that’s all it is and to a point, I agree but that’s already happening. Perception is more important than anything right now. That you don’t like that reality doesn’t change anything. You can either try to fix the unfixable or move on and maybe be heard. Let the extremists cling to their old identity while you build a new one that represents the real discussion many of us want. Again, it’s not defeat, it’s evolution and it will ultimately be better for it. GamerGate is just a word and frankly, it’s a dumb one, just like all the other -Gates over the years. Pick something better and build on that.

Secondly, the movement needs to self-police better. Defenders say it is actually inclusive at its core and wants a wide range of voices. In my observation, I can certainly see places where that’s true. However, if you claim the trolls don’t represent you, then you need to work harder to stop them. Call out abuse and harassment publicly and loudly. Don’t downplay it and don’t tolerate it, even a little bit. People say 4chan/8chan/whateverchan aren’t responsible for this and as entities, they aren’t but it can’t be denied that the staging for some fucking nasty stuff takes place there. You can’t stop them from doing it but you can divorce yourselves from it as a group and declare publicly that they don’t represent you. You have to make it as clear as possible that the bad players don’t represent everyone. Be loud, be bold, be ruthless in stamping out abuse. If you believe yourselves to be inclusive, then be the change you want to see and be unrelenting in that goal. When the press says that the movement is just about harassing women, you can’t just say “No it isn’t!”, you have to be able to point to your efforts to curtail those people and show the press how they’re wrong.

Next, the movement needs to stop associating with toxic people. Of all those providing commentary in written and video form, certain ones are being held up as the unofficial spokepeople of the movement, the ones that are speaking from the heart of what gamers supposedly want. Yet some of these people are using the immature, ad hominem methods of argument that get cited again and again as why the movement is intolerant. Internet Aristocrat can’t make an otherwise valid argument without resorting to cheap personal attacks and accusations, often based on incorrect information he never corrects. Thunderf00t can’t just say why he disagrees with someone, he has to paint them as liars and scam artists. Adam Baldwin didn’t care about gaming at all until he started #GamerGate for self-promotion of his frankly hateful views. And come on, fucking Breitbart? An ultra right-wing, often hateful commentary site that makes Fox News look journalistically respectable? This place used to insult the gaming community but is suddenly on our side when it gives them a new conspiracy theory to ride? Give me a break. They’re playing you for traffic. Anyone who knows what that site is and doesn’t already follow it will see anything posted there as devoid of value. These kinds of people don’t know how to make an argument without slander and they’re not who you want representing your side. Putting them on pedestals is only harmful and damaging. You can’t say you want mature discussion while holding up those kinds of people as your representatives. That they’re willing to stand with you in some way doesn’t mean you owe them a voice. You can’t say your movement isn’t about toxicity and then point to people whose work says otherwise.

Lastly, you have to always take the higher ground when addressing the opposition. That means drop the fucking Social Justice Warrior bullshit. I’ve seen a staggering number of otherwise rational and intelligent people discussing this and using that to brand the other side, then wondering why no one listens to them. Nothing immediately turns someone from the other side off talking to you more than hearing that tired old chestnut. It’s a dehumanising move that instantly tells the other person you think they’re lesser than you. That’s not how civil discourse works. It doesn’t matter how much the other side pisses you off. If you truly want a real discussion, you need to be the better people and talk to those you disagree with like it’s a debate, not a fight. The people you call SJWs may infuriate you but they share the same passion for their side of the argument that you do for yours. If you don’t want to be insulted by them, you can’t throw insults yourself and make no mistake, your side did that first.

I don’t think GamerGate needs leadership but I do think it needs a code by which it operates. I think with a new identity centered around rational discussion and a community enforced code that keeps out the toxic elements and demands better from its participants, it could have a much more positive impact. There are real concerns at the heart of the movement that are being overshadowed by all the other bullshit. Cut that out, give it time and I think good can come from it. The problem with a leaderless movement is someone has to lead the charge. I hope one of the influential people in the ranks tries to do that.

The press end of the spectrum is a whole other ball of wax, yet it has more in common with GamerGate than it wants to admit. Frankly, people who consider themselves professional journalists should have standards far above what I’ve seen lately. Some very childish, insulting vitriol has been penned, always directed not at the small subset who may deserve it but indiscriminately broadsided to anyone who disagrees with them. We have a group who insist there is no collusion publish several vitriolic screeds within hours of each other, declaring dead an identity that many have proudly worn for 30+ years because of a minority of bad apples (and yes, it’s a vast minority.) It takes a special kind of arrogance to think people shouldn’t be upset about that. That many writers and game developers don’t dare come out contradicting some of these writers for fear of career damaging reprisal shows just how much undeserved influence some of them have.

I don’t understand how people like Alexander, Kuchera, Chipman, Allen, Faraci, just to name a few, think declaring that your view is the one true view and anyone who disagrees with it should be vilified and treated as an enemy is how you’re going to win both readers and arguments. They don’t want discussion or debate, they want compliance and obedience. You’re with them or you’re with the trolls and abusers. It’s bullying tactics 101. Don’t believe me? Follow them on Twitter for a couple of days, especially their replies to others. I did, I saw it myself. A large segment of an industry that’s already operating on razor thin ice has decided to lump anyone who disagrees with them in with the worst elements of the opposition. They are using an ICBM to take out a tent city and it makes no sense to me. This has gone beyond strong debate and into fear mongering. They claim they GamerGate isn’t policing itself sufficiently, yet they circle the wagons around writers who declare gamers to be worse than a barbaric terrorist group, or use childish terms like misogynerd. Calling someone a Social Justice Warrior is immature and stupid but calling someone worse than ISIS? How do you tolerate that?! It’s disgusting, it’s unprofessional and these people should know better. When you defend this kind of behaviour, be it from another writer or a darling indie developer like Phil Fish, you send a clear signal to people in GamerGate and people just observing that you can’t or won’t hold yourselves to the standards you demand from others. Yet you wonder why a growing number of people are upset? No industry can survive being in active opposition to its customers.

Let’s get a few things straight here. People can be in favour of equality for women without subscribing to your particular subset of feminism. People can criticise a female writer and not be misogynists. People can point out factual distortions in Feminist Frequency videos and not automatically hate Anita Sarkeesian. People can dislike Gone Home (like I did) and not be homophobic dudebros. People liking a game you think poorly represents women doesn’t make them all bad people, nor does it make the people who made it bad. A game that doesn’t represent women the way you want isn’t teaching everyone who plays it to hate women, just like video game violence doesn’t cause real violence. People pointing out blatant conflicts of interest in the press and a lack of willingness to do anything about it doesn’t mean the sentiment is based in hate. That an extremist, hateful, minority sect of a group exists doesn’t mean the whole group agrees with that sect.

Demonising anyone who has a different point of view is the same thing Fox News and Jack Thompson do. Are those the kind of people you want to stand next to when trying to fight for a just cause? Equality on your terms alone is not equality at all and a different opinion is not automatically hateful. To say otherwise is dangerously close to thought policing. I am a gamer and have been for 30 years. I support this industry financially and with passion. I and many others raise thousands of dollars for charity using my gaming hobby. I am not a bigot, I am not a misogynist, I am not hateful of people who are different from me. I welcome everyone who wants to play games and I will play with any of them. I don’t harass anyone ever and call out people I know who do so. Yet, your “Gamers Are Dead” editorials said I am no better than the evil minority for no other reason than I don’t think every person approaches these issues in the way that stands to best further those issues. It’s incredibly arrogant and it’s the same logic you say GamerGate uses, you just happen to have editors and a better grasp of writing than most of them. You speak with one voice and refuse to hear alternative viewpoints while saying GamerGate is wrong for the same reasons.

I’ve said it before of the press, of YouTubers and of gamers, you don’t get to jump into the sewers and then whine that it stinks down there. Insulting a group of people and then crying when you get insulted back is schoolyard bullshit, whatever side you fall on. If you think yourselves better than the opposition, then you need to actually be better. Just as I said of GamerGate, you need to stomp out hate when you see it. When Devin Faraci said gamers were worse than ISIS, you should have been publicly rebuking him for it. Yet you were silent. When supposed professionals called the opposition misogynerds, you should have told them to stop. Yet you were silent. Those of you who didn’t think that “Gamers Are Dead” (and I know there were several of you at least) should have written counterpoints. Yet you were silent. When people were spreading the idiocy that Intel, a massive company with hundreds of PR and marketing staff, pulled advertising from Gamasutra because of a few e-mails from GamerGate supporters, you should have pointed out how ridiculous a notion that was. Yet you were silent. Some of your sites that rightfully refused to cover Zoe Quinn’s sex life had no problem writing about Max Temkin being accused (not charged, merely accused over Facebook) of rape, a disgusting distortion of your mandate. Yet you were silent. But you wonder why people think there’s nepotism in your ranks and that you aren’t serving the consumers you’re supposed to be advocates for? An echo chamber is not going to get you more readers and the ones who are already in the chamber won’t grow your businesses. When you’re gone, what are you leaving for the people who are supposed to take your place?

I really don’t care to figure out which side is worse in this conflict. It’s pointless and aids nothing. There’s plenty of dirt on both and what’s most frustrating to me is that no one seems to care to make things better. No one wants to move on from tainted identities, stop the name calling, accept the Internet Reality and try to have real discussion. Instead we have snark on top of insults on top of hate on top of anger and an addiction to fighting that just makes things perpetually worse. If I could do one thing right now, it would be to press a button that forces everyone involved in GamerGate to not talk about it for several months and just let everything cool off. Maybe then, we could try again and get somewhere. For now, we just have people digging in harder, the smallest, most insignificant things are pointed to as the new thing to war over and nothing changes, there’s just more victims and more people who start to question if gaming is really for them any more. We used to be a community united against those who would try to tear us apart. Now, without a common enemy, we just kill ourselves from within. As someone who lives and breathes video games and has since I was old enough to read, this kills me. The community, the journalists, we can all be better than this. Why can’t we all just fucking grow up and do it?

That’s it, I’m done. I’m going to actually go find something to play now because I still remember when gaming was about fun, not fighting. War never changes.

Posted in Business, Coverage, Culture, Culture, Internet, Video Games | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

CounterSpy Review: Covert Calamity

CounterSpy Logo

I reviewed CounterSpy on the PS4. I got it for the Vita and PS3 as well as it’s cross-buy but haven’t played it on those platforms so I can’t vouch for its technical merits on them. It’s also on Android and iOS, a surprise given that it’s published by Sony.

I wasn’t sure what CounterSpy actually was pretty much until it came out. It’s the first title from developer Dynamighty but Sony was publishing it and they usually make good bets. When I saw that it was a stealth-focused platformer that took place in randomly generated Shadow Complex-esque levels, I was sold as I love all those things and we don’t see as many of them as I’d like these days. Sadly, what started out as a cool and promising idea soon became an aggravating slog that I just wanted to be over with.

There’s very little story in CounterSpy but it’s presented as a daft take on Cold War intrigue. You are an agent of a shadowy and “neutral” spy agency called C.O.U.N.T.E.R. and your goal is to stop goofy analogues of the US and Russia from launching a nuclear strike at the moon. Sure, why not? You accomplish this by sneaking into various complexes on both sides and stealing enough documents to get a complete picture of their plans. As you progress, you can pick up additional plans to unlock new weapons and character abilities. When you complete the plans, a final, challenging level awaits to wrap things up.

Your goal is to get through the levels while being spotted by enemies as little as possible and collecting as much of the available loot as possible. You can avoid some enemies but the game has a scoring system and you’re actually encouraged to take everyone out to maximise your position on the leaderboards. You can be spotted by enemies but things get difficult very quickly in a crowded room as you can’t take much damage while many of the enemies are surprisingly resilient. Each side has a DEFCON rating, which starts at 5 and ends in 1. If you get spotted by a camera or an alert enemy is not dealt with long enough for him to radio in, the rating will start to rise. If you die, the price of continuing is one full level increase. If you max out DEFCON, a timer will start and you will fail if you can’t get to the end of the level before it runs out, throwing stealth to the wind. DEFCON ratings also persist between missions but can be lowered either by purchasing a one level reduction from the character upgrade shop or from Officer enemies, which you get to surrender by pointing your gun at them after clearing the rest of a room. It’s an interesting mechanic but since you’re always free to choose which side to infiltrate for every mission, there’s rarely a reason to not just get one side down to DEFCON 5 and focus on the other. Loot is distributed differently between your two choices but it’s rarely so important that you need to risk having two high DEFCON ratings as you can just keep doing missions over and over until you have all the loot you want, even if you’ve already unlocked the final mission.

At the title screen, CounterSpy claims levels are randomly generated. This is a misstatement at best, a lie at worst. Levels are randomly chosen from a set of pre-configured layouts but they are not randomly generated. I played the same layout multiple times in my playthrough. Power ups and unlocks are peppered around differently which still shakes things up and the levels that are present are neat and often provide multiple path options. Some levels have elevators you can take to a lower level which has challenging but optional scenarios that lead to better loot if you want to risk them. You have to manage ammo as that is also persistent between levels, though you can buy a refill for all your guns (which can get expensive) and ammo cabinets can sometimes be found mid-level which will refill your currently equipped weapon. There are noisy and silenced variants of pistols, shotguns, machine guns that you can unlock, plus some special guns with unique effects thrown in. You can also unlock abilities which do things like reduce damage, make cameras take longer to find you or quiet your footsteps.

The meat of CounterSpy’s sandwich, the stealth, is sadly where it falls apart. Enemies can either by shot (which won’t alert anyone else if done stealthily) or you can melee them if you sneak up on them when their back is to you. What’s frustrating is that it’s very hard to plan your attack and avoiding being seen is almost impossible. When you enter a room, you can only see a few feet in front of you. Off-screen enemies are represented by icons but you’re given no idea where they are, only what direction they’re moving in. Their patrol patterns are often completely random so you usually can’t memorise them to figure out the best approach. Cover is available but it’s frequently hard to reach unseen and you can’t hop between different cover points. Getting out of cover makes your character stand up, often in full view of everyone. If one enemy gets alerted, they will alert everyone nearby which is the entire room about half the time. Later enemies can take multiple shotgun blasts at point blank range before dropping, whereas more than a couple of pistol rounds is the end of your lanky spy. If a far-away enemy starts to raise the DEFCON level, you have to go balls out to get to him, which never works out well. This is a game that’s supposed to be focused on stealth, yet the cumbersome encounter design and random enemy behaviour makes it virtually impossible to fully be stealthy. More often than not, every level just becomes a poorly balanced and poorly controlling shoot out.

At the start of CounterSpy, it felt challenging and a bit frustrating but it also felt like something I could wrap my head around and get good at. As the missions went on, it just kept throwing more and more enemies at me, often stronger ones that I couldn’t take easily out with even the most powerful weapons. More enemies in the same levels made stealth even more difficult and the last third of the game just became about clumsily pushing through as fast as I could after the first stealth failure and quitting and restarting the mission if the DEFCON got too high. The final mission takes place on whichever side has the worst DEFCON rating so I had to spend over an hour trying to get both sides down low enough that it wouldn’t make it extra frustrating.

CounterSpy looks decent enough, though hardly next-gen. It’s a Unity game which means it looks dated right out of the gate but they compensate for this somewhat with a nice cel-shaded art style and popping colours. This is wrecked a bit at times by poorly implemented physics that often causes enemies to freak out and clip through geometry when killed. The soundtrack perfectly nails 60s spy music and complimented things wonderfully. The load times were surprisingly long (only really a problem if you’re quitting out of levels a lot) but once I got into a level, it ran at a solid 60 frames per second. There are leaderboards and your score often gets compared to other random people which always gives that little twinge of satisfaction when you best them.

When CounterSpy inevitably goes on a PSN flash sale, I might recommend it if you’re already into stealth games. At full price, I think it’s too frustrating with too much unfair randomness to recommend. There are great ideas in this game that just weren’t executed well and it’s ruined by a bafflingly unforgiving stealth system that demands too much perfection from a game that’s clearly not designed to be that brutal. There’s a good framework here and hopefully this has done well enough to give Dynamighty another kick at the can. More polish to the base idea could be something pretty cool.

Posted in Reviews, Video Games | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Microjang (or Alternatively, Minesoft)

Sorry, those are the best punny names I could come up with.

Well, another thing that was rumoured came true, Microsoft bought Mojang for 2.5 billion dollars. They have purchased the whole company but as the title of Patrick Klepek’s article rightly implies, they didn’t buy Mojang, they bought Minecraft which is the main thing they care about. None of the founders of the company are sticking around so it will be other people maintaining Minecraft (as it apparently has been for a while) and it will no longer be owned by or have the involvement of its creator, Markus “Notch” Persson. In Notch’s statement, he implies he’s gotten very weary of being in such a public spotlight and being largely the sole face of a product that he created for fun and never expected to see become such a stratospheric success and cultural phenomena. He’s undoubtedly had to deal with a lot of the Internet Reality the last few years and while Minecraft may have made him very wealthy (which this buyout will now turn into obscenely wealthy), wealth can’t save your sanity. It looks like he largely plans to just enjoy life with his money and that he never wants to make anything huge again. In today’s world, that’s a bold stance.

I respect the Hell out of Minecraft but I’ve never gotten into it. I just don’t see the appeal of just building stuff but I’m clearly in the minority and I have no problem with the insane cultural icon it’s become. Any game that can teach you critical thinking and even a little bit of engineering while having fun is a game worthy of praise. It’s also great to see something with this level of success come from a small developer that didn’t have the soulless marketing arm of a AAA publisher to deal with. Notch’s success is well earned.

I’m frankly not surprised he sold Mojang. I’ve followed Notch on Twitter for some time and it’s clear that he didn’t handle the spotlight well. Unlike Phil Fish, he handled it without becoming a colossal asshole and then acting like he was a victim for it but it’s been clear in the last year that the pressure was getting to him, especially since Mojang’s other project, Scrolls, appears to have landed with a big thud and was quickly eclipsed by Hearthstore, despite apparently being a pretty good game in its own right. Minecraft fans are among some of the most vicious out there too and even though Mojang had a number of employees, everyone thought Notch was still the guy who wrote the code and blamed him for everything. That’s got to get to you after a while.

What does surprise me is who he sold it to. He’s undoubtedly had just about every large company banging on his door with offers (including I guarantee you, Apple, Google, Facebook, EA, Ubisoft and Rovio), yet he chose Microsoft. I find this perplexing for several reasons. Firstly, Notch has been very (and in my opinion, ignorantly and hypocritically) critical of Microsoft and some of their recent decisions. As far as I know, his opinion on those things hasn’t changed so I’m surprised he would hand Minecraft to one of his perceived devils.

Secondly, Notch has been famously opinionated on scrappy startups selling out to big companies, famously demonstrated when he petulantly cancelled a deal to bring Minecraft to the Oculus Rift because they were bought by Facebook. Yet somehow, he publicly got over that a mere couple of weeks before selling to Microsoft. Odd that.

Thirdly, Mojang works because it’s a super small team with complete autonomy that reports to no one and is allowed to incubate their own ideas. This is the polar opposite of how Microsoft has traditionally worked. They love their overmanagement and the company is famous for having siloed teams who are known for infighting, even to the detriment of their products. Look at what happened with Rare and Lionhead for prime examples of how Microsoft has messed up many of its gaming acquisitions. Sure, they also had Bungie but what did Bungie do? They bought themselves out of Microsoft and became independent again. Hell, the Xbox One still has a lot of messy elements to them, all of which were the result of Microsoft’s adversarial culture.

A recent leadership change is apparently undoing a lot of this culture but it’s far from done yet and many things could change. They claim that Mojang will be left to do its own thing but lots of companies promise that, until another management shakeup happens and some suit who thinks they know better starts meddling with the magic formula. Microsoft owns them outright, there’s nothing stopping this from happening. Yet again, this is who Notch chose to sell to.

We obviously don’t know all the details and maybe there are checks and balances in place to ensure this doesn’t happen. Or maybe Notch is just so tired and fed up, he really didn’t care and just wanted to get the most money he could and get out. Sure, he already had more money than he could ever spend and holding onto Mojang would keep that coming in but this way, he also gets to greatly enrich his staff (which he’s known to be very generous to), gets the company all the resources it could ever need (even though they represent a drop in the ocean for Microsoft) and I would tend to agree with him that the only way he can eventually sever himself from being the face of Minecraft is to exit the company entirely, which would require him to sell.  He’s not a stupid guy so clearly, a strong case was made for this being the best home for Mojang and he believes it’s the best home for it and for Minecraft.

What the future holds for it is a very interesting question. Microsoft has publicly stated that they have no plans to mess with anything right now. Minecraft will continue to be on all the platforms it’s currently on, including the competing ones (a strategy Microsoft has already embraced in the mobile world) and nothing is changing with regards to what it costs or how open to community development it is. If there is a Minecraft 2, that could change quite a bit but I bet that hasn’t even been discussed yet. Were I to guess, I’d say Microsoft bought them not for what they are now but for the potential of what they could do later, especially with the incredible appeal Minecraft has among kids. This feels like a long play to me, one even Microsoft might not have fully planned out yet. They are a company that does many things with a long-term plan.

As expected, a lot of fans are very upset at Mojang selling to anyone but especially to Microsoft. That name still has a lot of historical baggage attached to it and a lot of people don’t realise that compared to who Mojang could have sold to, Microsoft is probably among its best bets for long-term success. Can you imagine what an EA, a Ubisoft or terrifyingly, an Apple would have done to Minecraft? Yet, Notch is receiving probably boatloads of anger and hate right now. I wondered aloud on Twitter over the weekend if this could be a big enough deal to finally supplant GamerGate as the new Dumb Internet Drama du jour. It certainly has a fighting chance.

The thing is, I don’t blame him for this at all. I’ve only dealt with a tiny amount of the Internet Reality in my life that he probably deals with every day and while Notch is an opinionated guy, he also strikes me as incredibly humble and it must have been a hard few years for him, especially since he seems to have never expected this to happen. Anything he makes in the future would probably be an automatic hit just because his name is on it, yet that’s the opposite of what he wants. I suspect the money isn’t even a big deal to him at this point, he just wanted to make sure his staff got the riches they deserved and that he can get out without sacrificing them. That’s very noble and very not modern business. He should be admired for knowing where his limit was and not trying to push past it to the detriment of himself, his game and his fans. Of course, the people screaming at him don’t have the means to think about it that way so he’ll have to take this last large barrage before hopefully riding into the sunset. Despite my past criticisms of him, I wish him the best and I hope he gets to live happy for the rest of his life. He may not have meant to change the world but he has and he should always receive praise first for that. I really hope he made the best choice of who to hand his legacy off to.

Microsoft, you guys bought yourself something magical. Don’t fuck it up.

Posted in Business, Predictions, Video Games | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Support My Extra Life 2014 Campaign for the Children’s Miracle Network (With Video)

WHEN: Saturday, October 25, 2014 @ 9am EST
WHERE: My Twitch Channel
DONATE RIGHT HERE

It’s that time of year again, it’s Extra Life time! This is rapidly becoming one of my favourite times of year because I get to challenge myself doing what I love and raising money for a fantastic cause. This is my fourth year in a row doing this event and once again raising money for CHEO and the Children’s Miracle Network, along with thousands of other gamers worldwide. Last year was incredible with Extra Life raising over $4,000,000, more than all the other years combined. Thanks to the incredible generosity of a great number of people, I’ve managed to contribute $4,248 to that. I’m hoping this year can be the best yet both for my own total and the event as a whole. If you don’t know what Extra Life is, check out their site and you can learn all you need to know.

The last two years, I’d based my Extra Life day around a theme but I’ve decided to streamline and simplify this year. I did enjoy the themes but last year’s co-op & space theme didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped and I started feeling like I was overthinking and overcomplicating my efforts somewhat. So this year, I’m just going to play whatever I feel like for the 24 hours. With my new capture setup for my YouTube channel, I can switch between stuff on my PC and consoles with ease so I’m just going to play whatever comes to mind. I’m going to have the 360, PS3, PS4 and Wii U all hooked up at my desk so there will be no shortage of options. Newer stuff, stuff from my backlog, retro stuff, it’s all on the table! Maybe I’ll even record a couple of live-to-tape episodes of Retro Flashback or All Together Now if I can find some co-op partners to join me. Of course, this will all be live streamed on my Twitch channel and I encourage people to join the chat or if you know me, hit me up on Skype during the day and we can play some stuff together!

In previous years, I also had stretch goals, additional streams I would commit to do if I hit certain donation targets. The way it used to work is that at the first goal, I’d commit to single session playing a notoriously bad game. Two years ago, that was Duke Nukem Forever and last year it was Daikatana, a game I sadly didn’t finish because I ran into a game-breaking bug that would have required me to undo about three hours of progress to move on. The second stretch goal which we only hit two years ago was that I would play a horror game, which is made all the more hilarious by the fact that I hate horror. Two years ago, I had to play through Amnesia: The Dark Descent which was a living nightmare. We unfortunately (and yet mercifully) didn’t hit the horror goal last year.

I’ve decided to simplify the stretch goals too. I’m eliminating the “play a notoriously bad game” goal because it was never fun for me. The idea behind it was that it would provide a laugh for the viewers as they watched me get angrier at the bad game. There’s a lot of people on YouTube who do this very well but you’ve got to have the personality for it and I just don’t. This year, I’m only having one stretch goal which is the horror game, something people do enjoy watching me suffer through. We also had scheduling problems with my stretch goals in previous years that ended up with me doing the stretch goal shows often many months after Extra Life. That’s no longer the case because of my new setup at home and I’m making a time commitment part of the goal.

This year’s horror game is also going to be the game I would have had to play last year had the goal been hit. So here’s the deal: If we hit $1,000 in money raised, I will live stream a full playthrough of the recent horror game Outlast within 30 days of Extra Life. As an added incentive, if we hit $1,500, I will also play the Whistleblower DLC for Outlast on the same live stream. I’m hoping to be able to take the week following Extra Life off work so if that’s the case, I might even play Outlast the following weekend. If we hit the goal, I’ll announce the show here and on Twitter well in advance. If you want an idea of how messed up Outlast is, watch my video companion at the top which has the trailer in it. Outlast isn’t as long as Amnesia: The Dark Descent but it’s supposed to be more consistently scary and apparently, the Whistleblower DLC is just downright disturbed. This will be must-see TV ladies and gentleman, trust me. If I can pull it off, I’ll also be recording my Outlast playthrough and splitting it up into a series for my YouTube channel for later viewing.

So there you go, my simplified plans for Extra Life 2014. You can donate securely with a credit card or PayPal on my Extra Life portal page and all donations are tax deductible in both Canada and the US. In addition, several local Ottawa businesses are stepping up with their own generous offers of support. The following businesses in Ottawa (mostly in Stittsville but not entirely) are going to have coin jars out on their front counters:

So if you’re giving these guys your business (and you should be, they’re awesome!) and have some spare change, you can drop it in the jars and I’ll add it all to the total during the show.

If you’re able to give some money to this great cause, I would immensely appreciate it, as will CHEO and the many local kids that count on it every year. Extra Life is amazing event I take great pride in and I’m really excited to be doing this again. I hope the awesome audience I’ve built up for both this blog and my YouTube channel over the last year is going to be able to help out a great cause and hey, let’s play some games together while we’re at it! Thank you to everyone for your support! I hope to see you on October 25th, starting at 9am EST!

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

The Smart Watch Distraction

So the latest Fall iGasm happened yesterday. If you could actually watch it through their constantly breaking stream, two new iPhones were unveiled as well as the Apple Watch. If you don’t know about them or the details, I honestly don’t know how you found this blog because you clearly live under a rock with no Internet.

I always tend to take the piss out of these events and the press fanboys that hype them up both because it’s fun and because you can clearly see the Apple bias that still exists in many places. The press who attend these events are hand-picked by Apple and they’re people who tend to play ball and not badmouth the company very often. Those that do get blacklisted. It’s a well known practice and it’s pretty gross but it’s also the norm right now.

We got two new phones that are mostly just spec bumps, including features that Android phones had years ago. The iPhone 6 that is $299 with a two year contract is getting features that my nearly year-old Nexus 5 has and I got it for $300 with no contract. Yeah, I will take pleasure in snickering at that. Oh, they also took away the 32GB model, the one most people wanted. We also got Apple Pay, an NFC-based payment system (which Android has also had for years) and it came right on the heels of the iCloud hack that exposed a bunch of celebrity nudes, something not even acknowledged or apologised for during the show. So basically, a company that can’t even keep people’s photos secure now wants your most sensitive financial information? Sadly, most people will probably sign up for it anyway.

I’ve always said that the important thing about Apple press events isn’t what they say, it’s what they don’t say. Like most companies, they love to publicly gush about their successes but when something doesn’t work out for Apple, they tend to just say nothing and hope the press ignores it (which they usually do.) Last year’s two big revolutions were going to be 64-bit processing capability in the new iPhone and iPad and iTunes Radio. Not a peep was mentioned about either which in Apple’s world, means these were both duds that no one cared about. You don’t need 64-bit processing for the latest free-to-play scum game (which is all that’s succeeding on mobile right now) and no one cared to leave Spotify. Clearly, the failure of these two initiatives didn’t hurt Apple financially this year but it’s quite telling nonetheless.

The real big news though was the Apple Watch, something which met with a surprisingly tepid response, even from people who were going mad for the iPhone 6. Apple’s smart watch watch is certainly not the first one but many said that because it’s Apple, this will be the one that gets it right. However, we got very similar reactions to this that we got to the various Samsung watches they rushed to get out well before: “It’s too expensive. It’s too bulky. Who needs this?” Combine that with it requiring the iPhone 6 (which much like Samsung’s offering, is a complete bullshit move to sell more phones), a $349 price tag when you can buy the high-end iPhone 5 for $299 (admittedly with a contract) and a release date of next Spring (see first reason) and a lot of people were like “That’s it?”

The level of “meh” I saw right away surprised me but this is ultimately what I expected and like the Samsung and other smart watches before this, I expect it to be a dud. Why? Simply put, smart watches are the attempt by an entire industry to distract us from the fact that they’ve run out of ideas and are trying to keep their unsustainable level of profits growing. It’s why Samsung keeps making more smart watch models, even though all their other ones were failures and it’s why Apple wants in on this.

When Apple brought the smartphone revolution to the mainstream with the iPhone 3G, seemingly massive leaps were being made with each new yearly smartphone iteration. Huge improvements in speed, usability, capabilities and feature sets were hitting and every new version of a phone brought with it something you had to have. The problem is the industry burned that bridge too fast. We’ve now reached a point where they’ve run out of stuff to put in new phones. Newer models are a bit faster, maybe have a bit better screens, have some tweaks to the operating system, maybe are a bit thinner (and they’re running that ability out fast) and that’s kind of it. There’s rarely something that is such a revolutionary feature, it demands an upgrade. Much like PCs, smartphones have already become commoditised, where what a lot of people have is good enough and upgrades are just too expensive to do for minor improvements that are unlikely to affect you. People are also realising that smartphones aren’t enough to replace their PCs and when most of what you do is check e-mail, text, use social media and occasionally play the popular free-to-play game, you really don’t need state of the art tech for that.

This problem has already resulted in a severe drop in tablet sales and while smartphones aren’t going to experience as big a drop because they tend to get beat up more easily, a similar thing is coming. Until R&D catches up with some revolutionary new features, people just aren’t going to replace their phones as often. Apple, Samsung et al. know this and their stop gap answer is a new product category: Wearables, which includes things like watches. Their hope is that if they can make a new must-have gadget, they win on both fronts because not only do they convince you to buy another expensive new toy, they can get you to pair it with the expensive smartphone in your pocket, which they also happen to make. If they can make smart watches a hit, they win on two fronts.

Here’s the thing though: Smart watches are solving a problem no one demanded a solution to. With the exception of some people and the fashion conscious, smartphones have largely replaced watches. Why do you need an expensive time piece on your wrist when you can just check your phone? Furthermore, who is going to pay $350 to solve this problem by buying a device which is just an extension of the other $300 device that’s inches away in their pocket?

Of course, the answer is that these companies are trying to build in additional features to make it “more than just a watch.” Things such as fitness tracking and specialised apps which make it do stuff you can’t get anywhere else. The problem is, these are still all things your smartphone can do already and does anyone really want to pay $350 for a fancy pedometer or an inaccurate heart rate monitor? I have a FitBit Force that costs $100, is a perfect pedometer, it syncs its data to my existing smartphone and hey, it even tells the time if I want! People who are really into fitness already have other stuff they’re tied to and almost all of it cost a lot less.

Rather than just admit they moved too fast and that the explosive sales and profits smartphones generated was a bubble market that’s unsustainable at current levels, Apple, Samsung et al. are trying to create a new market to distract people away from that and which will hopefully bring in enough money to offset the decline in phone sales until they can get that next “must have feature.” It’s a distraction, them trying to go to the person going “Why do I need an iPhone 6 or a Galaxy Note 4?” and saying “Hey! HEY! Look over here, it’s a new gadget and it’s awesome and you should buy it because it’s NEW!” I don’t know if people are being sold though.

People only have so much disposable income and that’s being squeezed more and more every day. They already have smartphones and tablets and are realising they can’t afford to pay hundreds each per year just for incremental upgrades. The thing is, they also are realising they can’t afford to spend $350 on a cheaply made smart watch (seriously, $350 can get you a Hell of a nice proper watch) for the same reason and now have a third device that requires upgrades on a regular basis.

Tablets are basically enlarged smartphones but the difference is they’re bigger and last longer, meaning that they allow you to easily do things for long periods that would be impractical on a phone. Smart watches are the exact opposite, they’re expensive devices that have a much smaller screen and so much less processing power that they can only do a handful of tasks, many of which require tethering it to your phone anyway. So really, what’s that making better? What problems are these devices actually solving that the smartphone didn’t already solve? That’s the question I’m asking and based on what I read yesterday, it’s what a lot of others are asking too.

I have zero interest in a smartwatch from Apple or anyone else, as does everyone I’ve talked to. We’ll see how the Apple Watch does next year but everyone else who has tried this has not met with success. Apple’s had numerous small failures peppered among their epic success the last few years but I wonder if this could be the first high-profile failure for a company that’s clearly starting to flail about and lose focus in a post-Steve Jobs world. Rather than trying to invent new product categories no one asked for and that their own devices rendered obsolete years ago, I think these companies should slow down and accept that smartphones will continue to do well but the explosive initial growth was just that. Like all industries, those growth curves ultimately flatten out and while there’s still lots of prosperity to be had, it’s going to be a lot more measured.

Oh who am I kidding? This is the world of publicly traded companies. Reasonable growth and expectations are not what Wall Street demands. If the Apple Watch is a failure, it will still be considered a smarter move than just accepting that the honeymoon is over and it’s time for the smartphone industry to start living in reality again. Investors don’t like reality.

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

iNudes and Why You Shouldn’t Ever Trust the Cloud

Well, it looks like another one of my 2014 Bold Predictions came true over the weekend. If you don’t know, a large number of prominent female celebrities had their Apple iCloud accounts compromised and a bunch of nude photos taken from said accounts have been making their rounds online. I’m not naming names or detailing beyond that, a quick Google search will give you all the info you need. There have been some admitting their legitimacy, legal threats have been made by others who don’t seem to understand that’s also basically admitting their legitimacy and hosting sites are trying to swat down the photos but since this is the Internet, they’ll never be gone. These are out in the public now and so they will stay.

Let me be clear because as with other controversial issues lately, I have to disclaim them lest I be purposefully taken out of context and made an easy target by people who make a hobby out of such things: This should not have happened, these women (and it was only women) did not deserve to have these photos made publicly available and the scumbags responsible should be found and prosecuted fully for their actions. We clear? OK, good.

That said, this is a valuable lesson in something I’ve long been saying, pretty much since the nebulous concept known as “the cloud” came into being: You can’t trust it and you shouldn’t trust it. Ever. That’s not the same as not using it. I use an encrypted cloud service as a secondary backup for my critical data. I also use an automated cloud sync service to easily move files I frequently access between all my machines. My Android phone maintains a cloud backup of its settings and wait for it, backs up any photos I take to the cloud automatically, though those photos are almost entirely of my pets. These services are convenient, cheap (often free) and for the most part, pretty hands off and seamless.

They’re also all completely untrustworthy.

The reason for this is simple: You are never fully in control of your data when it lives on someone else’s service. Another quick Google search will find all sorts of examples of services being compromised, either by hackers or by incompetence or oversight of their employees. Many of these services don’t encrypt your data and even if they do, other oversights can get people the means to access said encrypted data anyway. Some companies have better security track records than others to be sure but no one is immune to slip ups. Size of the company is irrelevant to the size of risk but more on that later.

Now, the first argument a lot of people leap to in these situations is how supposedly stupid these women were for taking illicit photos with their phones and you know what? It’s not considered appropriate to say but there is an argument to be made that you probably shouldn’t do that. Thing is, that’s not the issue here. It wasn’t their phones that were hacked, it was iCloud. It doesn’t matter if they took the photos with their phones, their tablets, their webcams or a fancy SLR camera. If the photos ended up in a folder iCloud syncs, they were in the crosshairs of the hackers. The other half of this though is I’ve already seen a couple of the celebrities quoted as saying they just accepted all the defaults when they set iCloud up and never bothered to check was it was doing because they just trusted it. That right there is their biggest mistake and the one made by most people, especially Apple users.

I think there is some personal responsibility here. If you’re a person of prominent celebrity (or anyone at all really) and you fancy taking nude photos of yourself from time to time, there’s nothing wrong with that at all. However, you should be damn sure of where those photos are potentially ending up. If you aren’t, most celebrities are wealthy enough to hire someone to make sure they have a safe space on their computers that isn’t ending up in the cloud or who can teach them to put stuff they don’t want in the wild onto a flash drive they can lock in a safe. Rule number one, bolded and double-underlined is that you should never ever store anything in the cloud that you don’t want potentially being made available to the public at large. If it’s something you must store in the cloud, you need to make sure it’s encrypted and that you control the means to decrypt it. A password isn’t good enough, you need to control the actual keys to it. I have critical personal data stored on my backup service (no nudes though, sorry) but I control the keys to access that service so even if someone guesses my password (which is also long, complicated and unique so as not to be easily guessed), they’re out of luck.

While this is something that shouldn’t have happened, I hope it teaches people that this is something you need to pay attention to. If you just accept all of the default settings for any service, be it iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive, CrashPlan or whatever and then store illicit material on it, a certain amount of anything bad that happens to it is yes, on you. People with both money and fame have even less of an excuse. Technology is becoming easier to use all the time. This is a good thing but it’s also not an excuse for ignorance of what it’s doing with some of your most important data. If it’s something that absolutely can’t be in the cloud, then you need to make sure it doesn’t end up there and there are plenty of other ways to ensure it’s backed up safely without it.

I think the lesson this also serves is that it doesn’t matter how big the company is that’s hosting your cloud of choice, size does not equal trustworthiness. In this case, a service was hacked that’s run by a company that despite being one of the most valuable in the world, still treats security as a secondary concern. Everyone thinks Apple products are secure. Why? Because Apple says so. That’s pretty much the only reason. They were able to ride this marketing blurb for years successfully because their products only comprised a fraction of the overall market (which is still true when it comes to computers) and few hackers go after small targets. However, especially in phones and tablets, that’s not the case any more. Most celebrities use Apple products because they’re what’s fashionable right now and the hackers know this.

Say what you will about Microsoft both about security and in general and despite being a PC guy, I can say plenty too. But riddle me this: When was the last major virus or hack of a Microsoft product or service that made the news? It was a long time ago and there’s a reason for that. After being lax in security for years and getting beat up for it, Microsoft established a massive, well-funded department of the company who does nothing but find and patch holes in their products, many of which are fixed before hackers even find out about them. When a hack is found, Microsoft usually announces it right away, along with a timeline for getting a fix out and those deadlines are both fast and almost never missed.

How has Apple responded to this iCloud hack? By saying nothing. It’s been a couple of days now and aside from quietly patching the Find My iPhone portion of iOS, they’ve said nothing. No explanation of how the attack happened, no commitment or timeline for a permanent fix, not even an article telling people how to better protect their iCloud accounts. In spite of this massive breach of one of their supposedly bulletproof products, they’ve said nothing. Why? My guess is because they know it’ll blow over. The Apple fashion trend is still kicking (though starting to wane) and their hand-picked fanboys in the tech press are not only failing to hold their feet to the fire, many of them are saying this issue is overblown. I’ve seen more articles today with iPhone 6 rumours than talking about this huge security breach. After all, the tech press doesn’t want to get blackballed for speaking ill of the company, a practice that’s been common at Apple for years. They know that if they just sit on this, eventually it will blow over and even a bunch of their nude photos leaking probably won’t be enough for these celebrities to give up their precious iPhones.

This is a frankly epic failure on the part of both the company and the tech press to inform their readers of a potentially serious problem. Sure, the story is that nude photos got out but who knows what else was compromised, from whom and how it was done? If this happened to Microsoft OneDrive, we’d already know. With Apple, if they don’t want to talk about it, they just zip up and wait for people to go back to gushing. This is one of the biggest companies in the world with enough cash on hand to almost literally buy a solution to any problem. When Microsoft, the company whose products have been at the center of some of the biggest security breaches in history is now beating you on security, that’s pretty shameful. Never have I been in greater confidence of my decision to not have Apple products in my life.

Ultimately though, while Apple’s arrogance is adding an extra layer to this issue, it doesn’t detract from the lesson that the cloud is simply untrustworthy, regardless of who is running it for you. Whether you prefer PC or Mac, Android or iOS, OneDrive or Dropbox, your first instinct should be to only put stuff on those services you could live with the entire Internet seeing. You don’t need to cease using them, just be smart about what you put on there and know how they’re using it. Educate yourself, it’s not hard. It’s maybe not what you’d rather be doing but ignorance through laziness is no excuse and as we’ve seen, it’s a big part of this whole thing.

I also think this is a perfect opportunity for smaller cloud services that want to pick up some customers to lead such education. Tell people exactly how you protect their data, make your tools easy to configure, show people how they can leave out the stuff they don’t want in the cloud. If you show you’re committed to letting people have control of their own stuff, I think they’ll respond positively to that. The cloud is an incredibly useful resource but it comes with a cost and everyone on both sides needs to be aware of it. This scandal is the best lesson of that we’ve had in a long time and I hope people wake up with it.

Posted in Business, Computers, Coverage, Mobile Phones, Tablets, Technology | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment