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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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

Where Online Social Liberalism Lost The Script

Parallax Abstraction:

I don’t normally believe in reblogging and this is the first time I’ve ever done such a thing on Geek Bravado. However, this post resonated with my thoughts on the issue of the continuing decline of online discourse so much, I couldn’t help but promote it here as well. What this writer says is exactly why I have to largely (and cowardly) stay out of so many discussions on these issues now and why my one attempt at jumping into it (my previous blog post) was so weak sauce and toothless, I’m almost ashamed of it. Regardless of what side of any issue you fall on, this should be read by everyone because this is the primary reason we can’t have proper discussions about these things any more.

Originally posted on The Dish:

by Freddie deBoer

I’ve developed something of a reputation as a socially liberal critic of today’s social liberalism. I got an email from a Dish reader who asked me to flesh out where I’m coming from.

I guess what it all comes down to, for me, is that social liberalism was once an alternative that enabled people to pursue whatever types of consensual personal behavior they wanted, and thus was a movement that increased individual freedom and happiness. It was the antidote to Jerry Fallwell telling you that you were going to hell, to Nancy Reagan saying “just say no,” to your conservative parents telling you not to be gay, to Pat Robertson saying don’t have sex, to Tipper Gore telling you that you couldn’t listen to the music you like, to don’t have sex, don’t do drugs, don’t wear those clothes, don’t walk that way, don’t have fun, don’t be…

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Posted in Humanity, Internet, Personal, Politics, Video Games | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Being A Gaming Professional and A Person (with Video)

I’ve already recorded the extra rambly video to go along with this post and even as I type, I still don’t know if I’m going to publish it. I was both exhausted and in a pretty major funk when I made the video and I largely still am so forgive me if this isn’t my best written post, even by my standards. I don’t even like the title of it but it’s the best I could come up with. Putting this out there is without a doubt painting a target on my back for one or more groups of angry people and with all the shit that’s been going down in the world lately, my brain hasn’t been doing so hot. However, one of the reasons Geek Bravado exists is so that I can voice opinions I have that don’t solely follow one group think or another and as with most things, that’s also the case here. So buckle up dear reader, it’s time to ride the Controversy Coaster.

I had been planning a post in my head for approaching two months on the subject of when an employee of an organisation should be held accountable in their job for something they say on their own time. It started with a Community Manager from Turtle Rock Studios (developers of the upcoming Evolve) getting fired because of some tweets he posted from his personal account in defence of racist scumbag and former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling. There have been a couple of other examples of this issue that have surfaced as well. The short of my opinion on that is that I think these examples represent a terrifying chilling effect. When you work for a company, what you say when not speaking on behalf of that company is your own damn business. People should be allowed to think controversial opinions and as long as what they’re stating doesn’t impact their job, isn’t being said about their employer or their customers and isn’t illegal, that’s where it should end. That you have to be careful where you exercise your free speech online when working for certain organisations is something that should scare everyone. The guy from Turtle Rock is a twit speaking a rubbish opinion but that’s an opinion he’s allowed to have and if he said it on his own time, Turtle Rock should have butted out.

Given the events of the last week, this topic has now morphed into something else entirely. If you’re reading this, you’re very likely aware of what I’m talking about. If you’re somehow not, go look it up, it ain’t hard to find.

Since this whole Quinnspiracy situation was such a heated subject for a variety of reasons, I decided to actually read and watch a bunch of stuff representing both sides of the issue. That wasn’t an easy thing to do as there’s a lot of nasty mud being slung around from both camps but since it involves the press which is largely only speaking on this with one voice, I wanted to see the complaints that they were facing. Unfortunately, learning the crux of the other side involved reading a lot of poorly written articles and watching a lot of YouTube videos of people ranting, many of them on one hand saying they don’t care about the details of someone’s personal life, only to then spend minutes throwing insults around regarding people’s personal lives. This is made all the more ironic by the fact that many (though not all) of these people didn’t even have the guts to show their faces on camera. When I looked past that though, I saw what were kernels of legitimate concerns and complaints, which have largely been responded to not with reassurance or serious answers but by the press deriding and slamming the audience they are tasked with serving, tarring everyone who even has a question with the same horrible brush.

This insane saga involves a number of serious issues but it unfortunately started in a really gross way; with an ex-boyfriend who decided the best way to handle being hurt in a relationship was to lash out against a very public figure in a very public way. The way he did so is too detailed to simply be petty revenge but it’s nonetheless gross and disgusting and he should be ashamed of himself. As someone who once aired my own relationship laundry in a public forum (albeit on a much smaller scale, without any preparation and without naming names), I can attest to that being a fucking stupid thing to do and the stupidity was amplified many times here.

What this issue has done is bring the conversation about games press objectivity, ethics and trustworthiness to the forefront. The problem is that this has become wrapped in the cloak of someone’s personal life and the important issues that need to be discussed are getting lost in that massive, homogenised mess. When you coat that in the icing of morons from various well known places trolling, hacking people, doxxing people and taking down major web sites, it gets even harder to have any semblance of a real discussion.

Let me be clear here: I don’t support the hacking of anyone or revealing anyone’s personal information to the public. There’s trolling and slander which is disgusting enough on its own and then there’s that. People who do that kind of thing are not only evil scumbags who should be in prison, they’re also doing orders of magnitude more harm to any cause they espouse to be supporting. Really though, they’re not in it for any cause. They’re the people who show up at a peaceful protest and start throwing molotovs. They’re not fighting for anything, they’re just evil people who want to start shit. A certain segment of those people are also to be expected but that’s a previous discussion.

When you take that element out though, here’s the thing: There are problems in segments of the games press with regards to lacking professional standards and potential conflicts of interest. It’s not everywhere but it is there and it can be found in some frankly astonishingly prominent places.

When sifting through the sludge of opposition content I did, there were a number of irrefutable facts demonstrated that show people in this industry who frankly should know better, have clear conflicts of interest that would not be considered acceptable in other forms of media. I’m not naming them (sorry, big enough target on me already, you can look them up) but it has been shown that prominent journalists have not only written about products made by people they have friendships or other relationships with, many have been discovered to be directly financially contributing to some game creators they are supposed to cover. These people are vehemently defending that as well, saying that there’s no conflict of interest there and it doesn’t impact their objectivity. I simply can’t believe they can say that with a straight face. I’m sorry but there is no reasonable ethical test that can be passed by lending financial support to someone you are supposed to write about in a critical fashion. You can certainly recuse yourself from covering that person to avoid the conflict but that’s been proven to not be happening in a lot of cases and from publications that not only should know better but in some cases, have publicly posted ethics policies.

There are game journalists I follow who won’t even back gaming Kickstarter campaigns by people they’ve never met, simply on the basis that they might have to cover that product some day and lending early financial support could taint their viewpoint. That’s the way it should be and really, that the opposite happens at all is shocking to me. Yet, this is not being discussed at all in light of what this issue is being wrapped in.

Furthermore, we have some of these supposed professionals treating anyone who even so much as asks questions as just being as bad as the trolls who throw around death threats and insults. Walls of snark, derision and hostility have gone up across the industry and to look at Twitter the last week, you would think the games press was essentially at war with its audience. The trolls are evil but they will always be there and if you’ve worked in the games press for any amount of time, you already know that. But all it would take is for a few places to come out and respond to this. State your official position on it, state what your ethics policy is (or perhaps create one if you don’t have one), state where potential conflicts are and what if anything you intend to do about them. If you truly believe that funding game creators you write about isn’t a conflict, say so. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to your guns but say what those are and let your audience decide if they still trust you after that. We’re not seeing that though and with a lot of what I’ve read, a lot of this goes beyond just not wanting to feed the trolls and starts to look more like some of these people have been caught red-handed and just don’t want to answer the tough questions. Some of these sites had no problems writing tabloid-esque stories about a prominent industry figure getting accused (not convicted, not even charged, accused) of a crime, yet they are trying to sweep this under the rug and hope it goes away. Do I feel sorry for that people are questioning the integrity of some who have potentially shown a lack of it? No, I don’t.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of really dumb people on the opposing side of this saying a lot of really dumb shit. They should be ignored and aren’t but that’s another story. However, any dissenting opinion is not automatically trolling and people wanting answers isn’t a betrayal. The gaming press works for the audience, not the other way around. They are not owed anything beyond our eyeballs on their content. If they truly believe they are in the right, all they’re really required to do is say so, why they think so and leave it at that for the audience to decide.

Instead, we are seeing an incredible amount of arrogance and entitlement being shown towards a group who are simply asking questions, the same group the press will call entitled when they get upset about things like exploitative industry practices. When you not only throw up walls but start throwing your own mud back, you start to look just as bad as those you deride. In the last few days, I’ve seen supposed professional journalists (some of whom are actual trained journalists) with large audiences making snarky comments and vitriolic insults, not just in response to individuals but to their audiences in general and doing things like calling angry gamers worse than ISIS (yes, that happened.)

What the Hell is wrong with you to even consider saying something that crass and insensitive?! You’re supposed to be better than the trolls, not one of them! It really shocks me because this is not something you would see done in any other form of journalism. You would never see reporters from the CBC, NPR, BBC or likely even cable news, calling their audience worse than a terrorist organisation who posts videos of beheadings, even if they were being trolled, let alone those who just want to know who they can trust. If that’s the first thing that comes to mind when you see what’s happening, then step back from the damn keyboard and think about what you’re saying to your customers and what that implies you think of them. There’s nothing wrong with being angry and getting trolled is awful but at the same time as I’ve said before, you don’t get to cannonball into the sewers and then complains it stinks. Having a large number of Twitter followers and a byline on a web site doesn’t mean you’re automatically not a troll yourself. If you’re that angry, step back until you aren’t. If you think yourself better than the trolls, then you need to be better than the trolls. To return to my point from before, we saw the guy from Turtle Rock Studios lose his job because he supported Donald Sterling on his personal Twitter feed, off Turtle Rock’s clock. Yet we see supposed professionals equating their audience with a terrorist organisation in the same fashion and not a thing has happened to them. Does that make any kind of sense?

The growing problem right now is that the gaming press in many places, has become so polarised and arrogant with different subjects, be they review scores and critique, social issues, anti-consumer practices, blurring the lines between analysis and marketing, discussion and debate is no longer welcome. These writers don’t want discussion, they don’t want debate, they want compliance. Opinion and ego has become a greater part of the coverage (which is different than simply personality-based coverage) and increasingly, you either agree with them in full or you’re treated as the enemy. Middle opinions are not welcome. What we’ve seen in the last week is that mentality coming to a boil. This is a system that’s broken at its most core level. When you’re at war with your audience, everybody loses. This is a war that doesn’t need to happen. A discussion between the rational elements of this can and should be happening, while the trolls should be shut out. Instead, we just have a bunch of people yelling, everyone getting treated the same and the issue just getting worse with nothing being accomplished.

The events of the last week have been incredibly depressing for me. I’m seeing a medium I love and the people who write and talk about it at each others throats instead of working together. A lot of what I saw from the opposing camp disgusted me and though I took some useful information from it, I’ve also seen just how mean spirited some of these gamers can be and seeing how many subscribers some of them had makes me weep for the future of this species. At the same time, it’s also been a valuable learning experience because it’s shown me who in the press are the true professionals that are deserving of my clicks and praise and who are the ones that have just put themselves on a pedestal and consider themselves better than their audience. It makes me really sad to see how many have fallen into the latter camp because right now, there’s a lot of people I used to trust and respect that I don’t any more.

By all accounts, the gaming press as we’ve come to know it for the last many years is dying a pretty quick death. Like in the magazine industry that preceded it, web sites are closing down or scaling back, a lot of people are losing their jobs and many sites are having to resort to things like clickbaiting to pay the bills. As someone who ran a failed business, I know what it feels like, especially when there’s no viable alternative to your business model. This isn’t a good thing because unlike when web sites took over magazines, what’s rising up to replace the games press is largely YouTube. YouTube gaming channels are a great thing and I follow several of them in addition to doing my own thing but look at what’s popular in there. I don’t want PewDiePie, The Game Grumps, Game Theorists, Yogscast or even TotalBiscuit to be the new face of games journalism. None of these people are journalists and most of them wouldn’t call themselves that and don’t aspire to be. What they do is a fantastic complement to traditional games coverage but it’s by no means a replacement.

A good, strong, independent media covering video games is incredibly valuable and important and it needs to exist and be sustainable while being able to do proper reporting and service its audience. Instead, what we have now are web sites that thrive of clickbait, controversy, sometimes mixing too closely with the subjects of their coverage and now it seems, being in conflict with their audience and denying there’s a problem while they get eaten alive by often inferior alternatives. This isn’t the way it should be. The press can do better, the audience can do better and the industry can do better. We all want great games and want to talk about them. Is that really so hard? It shouldn’t be.

Patrick Klepek has said that the best thing you can do in times like this is thank the people you do trust for doing what they do and let them know they have support. I’m going to do that and if you’ve got to the end of this post, I highly encourage you to do the same.

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