A Year Into Gaming’s Biggest Nightmare

The Last Year

Last October, I posted an angry and generally not well-written rant on GamerGate and said it would be the last time I talked about it. So much for that. I am honestly astounded that this controversy is still going strong with no end in sight. A year in Internet terms equates to the heat death of the universe several times over. On the more or less anniversary of this sordid mess and as the movement starts to shift from a self-described focus on journalistic ethics and more into some kind of “gamer’s watchdog”, I wanted to comment on what the last year has yielded and where things might go from here.

I’ve been mulling this post for weeks. There’s so much that’s happened in the last year and I’m done caring what extremists I piss off by stating what I think but I needed to make sure I covered all bases. Then I re-read what I wrote last year and realised that by and large, most of what I said there still applies. If you haven’t seen that, you probably should before continuing on. Not that I still don’t have a lot to say here or that it won’t overlap somewhat. People who read this blog should know that brevity is not really among my skills.

Much as I tried to ignore the movement after my last post, its influence continued to shove itself in my face. I saw the press continue to insult their audience day after day, upping their level of arrogance and vitriol to the point of absurdity to get more clicks through controversy. I saw a lot of people I once called friends descending into bitter wars of childishness, ad hominem and shaming. I unfollowed or muted over 50 people on Twitter and to this day, I still ponder whether using that mismanged disaster of a service is worth it at all. I walked away from Gamers With Jobs, a community I practically considered part of my DNA for nearly a decade because a group of zealots were exerting control over every conversation, insulting and dogpiling those who disagreed with their particular world view even a little bit, while those in charge did nothing about it. I eventually realised it wasn’t the place I loved any more and I was being made more sad than happy by being there. I don’t regret leaving but it still pains me to think about. The GamerGate controversy’s role in all of this can’t be understated and that still makes me bitter. This whole situation has become an epic culture war. It seems everyone wants it to end but no one’s willing to do anything or concede a micron to make it happen, especially those who are profiting from it. It’s truly been one of the gaming industry’s biggest nightmares and no one side is free of blame.

The Movement

The one thing from that old post I no longer agree with is the need to abandon the GamerGate moniker. That’s not because I don’t think it’s a stupid name that many associate with the B-grade celebrity and generally despicable person who created it. It’s because changing it won’t matter. Those who oppose the movement would simply wait until the first troll comment appeared under the new name, point at it and go “See, it’s just more GamerGate!” The opposition are determined to paint the whole of it as one specific thing and they’ll do that regardless of what it calls itself.

I don’t and have never identified as part of GamerGate. I do however, share many of their concerns regarding press corruption and many who would call themselves journalists and creative professionals acting like anything but. The difference is that I’ve seen this happening for years now. I’ve been concerned about lack of ethics in the gaming press–indeed, the press at large–for way longer than most in GamerGate have ever thought about it. I’m old school when it comes to distrusting the press and with good reason. It wasn’t hard to see either.

So why don’t I consider myself one of the growing GamerGate legion? Firstly, I think for myself and don’t need to join a group for validation, especially one that proudly proclaims its leaderless status while also encouraging group think. Secondly, the group still holds too many bad people up on pedestals and they largely do so blindly. RogueStar and Internet Aristocrat were considered heroes by the movement at the beginning, despite being obviously scummy people who were running their own agendas. It was plain as day but it took months for most of the movement realise it and shun them, their stain already having soaked in. They rallied behind that moronic The Sarkeesian Effect “documentary”, something anyone with half a brain could have seen as the train wreck it was from minute one. Again, it took them far too long to wake up and stop supporting it. The movement still worships people like Milo Yiannopoulos, an ultra right-wing tabloid personality who is no more a journalist than your average writer from Gawker. He despised video games and gamers right up until it could benefit him and boy, has it. He’s an opportunistic leech, yet GamerGate still clings to him. I don’t want any association with those kinds of people. Lastly, like it or not, there’s a lot of hate and harassment that’s taken place in the movement’s name. It’s infested by chan culture and personally, I think chan culture is a blight. Many from the movement are quick to condemn this but far too many don’t and many more just scream “You can’t prove it was us!” at every accusation, while not applying the same benefit of the doubt to the other side. That’s a problem for me. I don’t care what side you’re on, engaging in harassment makes you an extremist and you should be excised from any civil discourse if you do.

Let me be clear about this however: GamerGate is not a hate group. I’ve been observing all sides of it for a year, I feel I’m more qualified than many to say that. I’ve seen far more organised hate, harassment and disinformation coming from opposition hubs like the GamerGhazi subreddit than I ever have from “official” GamerGate places. I do think the movement keeps too close ties to some whose views that could be considered hateful but hatred is not why the movement began and at its core, is not what it’s about. You’re simply ignoring reality–or more likely trusting untrustworthy sources–if you think otherwise. It was created to fight journalistic corruption–albeit with an unfortunate catalyst–yet everyone writing about it and communicating with the mainstream media are the same people the movement was fighting against. You seriously expect fair and balanced coverage on journalistic ethics from people accused–and often proven–of ethical breaches? Frankly, the response from the gaming press in the last year has all but confirmed what I’d already suspected for a long time. I am much more disappointed in how many people swallowed their cherry-picked bullshit hook, line and sinker without even bothering to verify it first. There are still some that insist the “Gamers Are Dead” articles were actually some kind of celebration of gaming culture. Those people clearly either never read the articles or if they did, they need glasses. I’m glad to see that in the last little while, more and more people from the games industry are actually seeing the truth, not the propaganda being fed to them by much of the press.

Now that I just spent several paragraphs talking about why I don’t consider myself a GamerGater, this will probably shock you: I read the KotakuInAction subreddit, considered by many to be GamerGate’s main staging ground. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say I skim it. Why would I possibly do that you ask? Truth be told, I don’t care for it. However, it’s one of the only places online where open discussions about the elements of the movement I do agree with are allowed to take place. Most other sites have banned and censored discussion of anything that can even be remotely considered relevant to GamerGate (including most of Reddit) and finding some place where multiple viewpoints are permitted is distressingly rare. Like most subreddits, KiA has plenty of problems. Dissenting opinions are often downvoted, group think is rampant and far too much of the top posts these days focus on “Look at what this SJW said on Twitter!” instead of actual important issues. Simply put, it’s just like the rest of Reddit which is why I generally don’t like that site. You have to dig to see all the viewpoints there but I do so because where else am I going to see them? I would happily go somewhere else if I could expect a fair discussion but I haven’t found that place yet. If you know of such a place, please feel free to leave it in the comments but know that I’ve probably already checked it. Say what you will about KiA but if you come in there with a dissenting opinion, you may be called out but you’ll also get discussion. At GamerGhazi, you’ll just get banned and that’s if you’re lucky.

The Media

But one small example of the problem.

Giving undisclosed positive coverage to friends. Elevating and cultivating appeal of specific developers. Financially backing developers whose games they cover. Ignoring more important games to focus on tiny art titles with ultra niche appeal. Reviewing games not on whether or not they’re actually good games but only on whether they send the “right” social message. Questioning the motives of developers because their titles don’t adhere to Americentric, imperialist cultural values. Straight up saying that some games they dislike shouldn’t exist. Censoring comments and discussion when people don’t just smile and nod. Viciously attacking, shaming and bullying anyone who disagrees, whether from the audience or the industry, lumping them in with trolls. Using social media and their followers as weapons, mass blocking dissenters while continuing to attack them when they can’t respond. Creating a culture of fear in the industry, where people who actually make games are scared to talk about them. Seeing themselves as above those they are supposed to work for and acting as agents of those whose work they are supposed to critique. Spreading lies, misinformation and slander about others in the industry who don’t follow their group think.

Crazy list isn’t it? Pretty much everything in it is a violation of the most basic journalistic best practices. The worst part is that all of them were and are continuing to be done on a daily basis by a large group of people who would call themselves professional journalists. Since I first wrote about it last year, the frequency has only intensified. Despite GamerGate pointing it out when it happens, little has changed for the better and the bigger sites and personalities have largely doubled down on collusion, cronyism and clickbait. It is simply undeniable and confirmed with only the most basic of research. With few exceptions, none have taken this as an opportunity for self-reflection on whether this approach is best for the audience or the industry they are supposed to serve, they have just pushed ahead, using the demonstrably false “hate group” excuse as justification for why they couldn’t possibly be wrong. It’s unprofessional and unethical at best, deplorable and shameful at worst.

These people decry GamerGate and how it’s destroying the industry while at the same time, feeding trolls and profiting off it. They turned it into a mainstream media catch-all term that’s frequently shoehorned into otherwise unrelated stories that a writer wants to connect–in even the flimsiest way–to harassment of women or minorities. It’s often referred to as “GameDropping” and I see it everywhere now.

You want to know how GamerGate could have been killed within days? If the press didn’t constantly write about it! Make no mistake, this movement started because of the press, it grew because of them and every time they write about it, they give it a boost. Every time there’s a mass shooting, the media takes stick for glorifying the shooter, something which has been demonstrated to inspire others. GamerGate has never killed anyone but it’s the same principle: You do not kill any movement by feeding it eyeballs. They gave it all the attention it could ever want and then wonder why it’s still going strong a year later. You can’t have it both ways, claiming the movement had no validity while also writing articles on a near daily basis about it, driving ad revenue all the while. If it’s not relevant, then it’s not worth talking about.

This is all symptomatic of the online outrage culture epidemic we are now in, a culture the press fuels. Screaming about how much something offended you–even if it did no actual harm–has become a passion and indeed, a lucrative profession, often among people who don’t even consume the content they complain about. No longer is it the norm that you just stop consuming that which you don’t like. Now your disgust has to be shouted from the rooftops, the creators shamed and the content has to be changed to suit your sensitivities because you are special and your comfort is more important than creative freedom. It’s the entitlement complex that has come as a result of a generation that is not allowed to lose or be told they’re wrong because society forfend them from having their feelings hurt.

I say freedom is more important than feelings, always.

The press should be critical, as should everyone. There’s certainly nothing wrong with pointing out something you dislike for whatever reason that may be. I do it all the time. Where the line is crossed is when creators are attacked for making something someone doesn’t like and demands are made for them to make things differently or censor themselves to avoid offending the perpetually offended. My anxiety is triggered by seeing animals harmed but I’ve never called for movies or games containing that to be altered or removed. I just won’t consume that content again and I use Does the Dog Die to try to avoid it in the future. There is plenty of other content I don’t like, some of which I even find offensive but I defy you to find a single time I’ve said a piece of content shouldn’t exist or should be altered in order to suit me or a group I have appointed myself to represent. It’s a slippery slope because everything offends someone and when you start catering to the unreasonable demands of a few, the rest suddenly realise they wield unearned power as well.

The current crop of “enthusiast” press is perpetuating this culture and it can and will have dire consequences for the future of a medium that’s only scratched the surface of its creative potential. Worse still is that they feel this should only go one way and criticism of their criticism is now often met with some form of “How dare you!”, frequently followed by baseless character attacks, followed by self-pity and crying about how hard everyone makes their jobs. They might even “quit Twitter” to drum up sympathy, before returning shortly thereafter, possibly even with an appended appeal for crowdfunding. This isn’t an isolated thing, I see it all the time and it’s become commonplace. So many in the press don’t seem to understand that if you don’t want feedback of all kinds, don’t put stuff out for public consumption, especially when it’s purposefully antagonising.

All of this shows a group that’s failing its audience. The “Gamers Are Dead” articles are what turned GamerGate from a small campaign into the phenomena it is now and the people who wrote those articles in near unison have no one but themselves to blame. They could have called out the rotten elements without condemning an entire identity, one I proudly share. They didn’t and that’s their fault and their arrogance. Gamers are why the “enthusiast” press exists at all. If they start treating us as the enemy, they are a snake that’s eating its own tail. The niche clique of friends they defend and promote at the expense of everything else isn’t enough to sustain them, yet they are Hell bent on doing it anyway. I am a gamer, I have been for longer than many of you have been alive and fuck you for calling me dead.

Does gaming have problems with inclusivity, representation and equality? It definitely does. I’ve never denied that. I am for equality of all people, always, without exception. Is progress being made on these fronts? Most certainly. Not as fast as some would like but large cultural shifts take time. That’s the way it is and yelling about it impotently only slows it down. The way they’re approaching these problems now is the worst way to handle it. By lumping in everyone who disagrees or even asks questions with the worst elements of the opposition or worse yet, trolls with no loyalty at all, far more harm than good is being done to any otherwise noble cause.

The arrogance of those most prominent in the games press will be their undoing. It already has been for some and make no mistake, it’s coming for the rest of them and they need to be kept honest. Written games coverage is fighting for its life against YouTube and streaming personalities who are eating their lunch. I don’t want to see it go away and I think there needs to be a balance of both. Constantly shitting on what audience you have left is not how you’ll stay relevant. A niche group of developers and friends won’t sustain an industry. The press needs to remember who it is working for.

The Figureheads

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to talk about GamerGate and the lax standards of the games press without talking about those individuals they put on pedestals and use as examples for why gamers are so evil. I wish I could just ignore them but they are too intertwined with this controversy to not talk about. Fair warning, these people may be popular but I don’t care for any of them. This is based largely on the things they’ve said and done directly when representing themselves in the industry. It’s all demonstrably true and digging into rumours and speculation isn’t necessary. This isn’t “victim blaming”, it’s fact and facts are impartial. I think they are awful to put up as examples of people who just want to do good but that the horrible gamers are keeping down. I talked above how GamerGate has hitched its wagon to some pretty awful people and this is the equivalent for the “other side.”

Zoë Quinn is the one many would was the catalyst for this whole thing and despite the movement having long since moved on from her, she and the press continue to ensure she’s in the limelight. I’m not going to talk about “The Zoë Post” as I largely think it doesn’t matter and it was the worst possible way for the discussion of press ethics to have started. I will just say that I’ve seen what happens to people on the end of the kind of things that post documents her doing and it did not endear her to me.

Her claim to fame prior to GamerGate was Depression Quest, a Twine game that I not only thought was of poor quality but as a lifelong sufferer of depression and anxiety, I think did a terrible job of representing the realities of the disorder. I fear for anyone who tries to use it to self-diagnose. After the famous meltdown of the Polaris Game_Jam show, she said she was going to hold her own event called Rebel Jam and started taking donations for it. Game jams are often organised over a weekend but more than 18 months later, not a word has been heard about this. Meanwhile, she started a feud with The Fine Young Capitalists, who despite being vilified in the press based purely on her false accusations, have just released their first game. She is supposedly developing a new game of her own called Camp’s Not Dead which no one has heard about in over a year. She and her boyfriend got tons of press about Crash Override Network, a organisation built to help sufferers of online harassment, though they never actually said how. It was supposed to launch over a week ago at time of writing and even had a countdown timer, which has since looped around. There’s been no news, no updates on their official Twitter and not a single story has been written asking why, though the organisation has been dogged by accusations of ignoring requests from people who don’t have large followings. Quinn claims to be under constant harassment and living in fear, yet she’s frequently seen antagonising GamerGate directly on social media, the last thing anyone with a brain would tell you to do to a movement you are supposedly terrorised by. She is pulling in nearly $4,000 a month through Patreon, all for the promises of things that never come to fruition and no press outlet questions it.

I don’t see how a reasonable person can look at this and not as least be suspicious. The fact that she has been harassed online is deplorable but isn’t a justification to gloss over everything she has received attention for starting and never finishing. Lots of people have been harassed online and still regularly have things to show for themselves.

Brianna Wu falls into a similar camp. Her only major known work is an iOS game that I would charitably describe as awful, full of many of the character tropes she regularly rails against. She ran a Kickstarter to port it to PC and Mac that more than doubled its goal, yet it’s a full year past its delivery date with no word in sight. She was caught trolling her own Steam Greenlight comments, forgetting she was logged in under her main account when she did it. Few knew or cared who she was until GamerGate, when she purposefully inserted herself into the controversy in a very public, incendiary way and then used the obvious response she got as proof of how evil gamers were and how big of a misogyny problem both the games and indeed, tech industries have. Just like Quinn, she has continued to antagonise the movement at every turn, while claiming to be living in fear. This keeps her in the limelight and turned her failed game into a success. She has no relevance or credibility beyond simply existing and using GamerGate as a promotional tool while doing little else. She pulls in hefty Patreon money as well, despite owning a commercial games studio that has a product for sale. As least Quinn has promised her products will be free, if she ever releases another one.

Last but not least, there’s Anita Sarkeesian. If you’re reading this, you don’t need me to tell you about about her and what she espouses. I have questioned her credibility from day one with good reason, something I have taken a lot of heat for but as time has gone on, I’ve only been proven right. She is on record saying that she does not care for video games, though she continues to tell the press she’s loved them her whole life. She is years late on delivering her promised video series to her Kickstarter backers, despite Feminist Frequency being a recognised non-profit and pulling in huge money and while still finding time to do tons of paid speaking gigs. She has used stolen assets in her monetised productions. Her work is full of errors and bad researchwhen she’s just not lying outright. She only goes after popular games that will get her attention and when she can’t find a reason to say they’re making people sexist, she pulls out the long debunked Jack Thompson-esque argument that games cause violence. She has consistently refused to engage any critics in real debate and always relies on scripted talking points. She has no academic credentials, experience or peer reviewed work. Her only qualifications for anything she does is her own say-so. This is a terrible representative for the legitimate cause of furthering representation and equality in the video game industry, yet she is held up as a paragon and never questioned. Indeed, as I have found out, questioning her at all is tantamount to heresy to a great many people.

Like the two people above, she has received plenty of harassment and while that’s never acceptable, she has also used it with precision to generate sympathy for herself, her agenda and plenty of financial support. There’s a good, legitimate fight to be made and I’m not saying it wouldn’t be one, regardless of who took it up. This is however, a person with at best, flawed credibility and she is not just “fighting the good fight.”

These are only the three most prominent examples out of many more that are available. As I said, these are all demonstrable facts that they have shown in their public presences. I don’t judge them on how they think but on what they’ve done. It is not wrong or bigoted to examine the motives of popular people, especially when they’ve shown to have so many suspicious elements. They purposefully put themselves out in the public, make inflammatory statements not backed up by facts, get near constant attention and support from the press and yet they all produce very little of substance. Criticism is not harassment and if the press will continue to tout how important they are, I will continue to point out what I believe are legitimate flaws in their methods and theories. All they have to do is answer people’s questions and perhaps many of these could be put to rest. They keep refusing to do so and that should make people wonder why not.

These are the people “anti-GamerGate” holds up as examples of why “gamers are dead” and why the industry needs to change. Personally, I see no reason why any of them should be taken seriously. That people with more educated viewpoints, actual credentials and who actually produce things are left waving their hands on the sidelines while these people are put on pedestals is as sad and disheartening as it is frustrating.

The Future

Honestly, I don’t know what the future holds for this whole mess. GamerGate is a year old and still trucking along, defying all laws of physics for Internet controversies. Both sides are entrenched deeper than ever and no one is willing to budge an inch. They’re both willing to burn the industry to the ground before admitting the opposition might have so much as a single point worth discussing. Nothing is going to get accomplished this way. As a movement, GamerGate has made it clear that it’s not going away until some change is enacted but what change would truly satisfy them now? The distrust has grown to such a ludicrous size that save firing just about every gaming journalist in the industry, I’m not sure they could ever be satiated. That’s not going to happen and even if it did, that’s not a solution.

I know what would satisfy me. Disclosing friendships, not covering games you have financial interest in, realising that the entire world doesn’t think like the American cultural left (said by someone who is very socially liberal), that disagreement is not harassment and questioning someone’s position is not an act of hate. Most of all, not feeding trolls and not seeing those who simply disagree with you as enemies to be attacked. Ignore the trolls and they will go away, not overnight but it will happen. Embrace criticism and accept negative feedback. No one is entitled to have their work universally praised and if that’s what you want, you shouldn’t be putting it out for public consumption. Remember why you’re writing about games in the first place, because you’re supposed to love them. If you don’t, step aside for someone who does.

None of this is a lot to ask of professionals, yet so many have failed to do this for years now. GamerGate may have had less than ideal beginnings but the distrust and anger towards the press has been brewing for years and it’s largely their own doing. Gamers are your customers and when you declare your customers dead, who is left to provide you a living?

I am so sick of hearing about GamerGate and want it to not exist any more but I want it to be because solutions and peace have been found. If it just blinked out of existence and nothing else changed, we’d be no better off. Both sides have valid points and major flaws and they all need to be acknowledged and there has to be compromise. No one’s wholly right and we need to get over that assumption.

What I do know is that I’m done hiding what I really think because I’m scared of who is going to get angry with me. I’m not wrong for saying there are valid points in the mess of GamerGate. I’m not a misogynist for questioning Quinn, Wu, Sarkeesian and others based on factual information. I’m not a bad person for pointing out clickbait and lies from the press that’s inconvenient to some people’s agenda. I’m not evil for calling out bullshit outrage when I see it. I’m not harming the game industry by saying I enjoy games that some deemed “problematic” or that I disliked games others loved. If that’s a problem for anyone, they can fucking deal with it and those who can’t won’t be missed. I’ve let both sides of GamerGate make me fear speaking my mind and I think people being afraid to do that is the greatest tragedy of this whole nightmare. I refuse to bow to that any more. I’ve already lost some friends because of that and maybe I’ll lose more. Such is the price of having principals and sticking to them around those who demand compliance.

I know this post was huge even by my standards but I needed to say all this. Maybe nothing will come from it, maybe I’ll have to deal with some hate for a few days. Whatever happens will happen and I’ll manage. Video games are not only my main hobby and a huge part of my life, they’re one of the only things that truly quells my depression and anxiety without chemicals. To see the industry and community I love ripping itself apart from the inside has broken my heart many times over in the last year and it’s horrible to know that for all the blog posts I write and videos I make, there’s nothing I can truly do about it. One day, this will end, I just hope we all end up coming out of it for the better.

Go play some games. More of us need to do that these days.

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

The Double Standards of the Windows 10 Privacy Outrage

Have you used a modern smartphone platform like iOS, Android or Windows Phone today? Did you use a free e-mail service like Gmail? Have you checked in and posted your latest life whatevers on Facebook, Twitter or some other social network or liked someone else’s post? Maybe you moved some files around with Dropbox? Did you purchase something from a reasonably sized retail chain of some kind? How about with a loyalty card? A credit card? Congratulations, you’ve given away far more personal information than you will by using Windows 10. You also didn’t have a choice in most of those cases and those companies are likely going to use it to profit off your back.

The latest tech press outrage–because there always has to be one these days–is how the newly released–and rather excellent I might add–Windows 10 is a privacy black hole that’s leaking personal information about you left and right and that Microsoft is spying on you and you shouldn’t upgrade if you care about security and blah blah blah. Much of this is coming from the same sites and authors that waved away any responsibility on Apple’s part for the nude photos leak last year (hint: the hack happened as a direct result of their lacking security). The double standards and hypocrisy at play here is plain as day but of course, it’s Microsoft and the tech press is full of Apple fanboys so that makes it OK I guess. I’m happy to call out Microsoft when they do wrong–believe me, they have many times–but this situation is just another example of clickbait outrage culture run amok.

Does Windows 10 phone home some data? Yes. Should Microsoft have been much clearer about that up front and made it opt-in? Yes. Can you easily opt-out of it if you want to? Yes and it’s even easier now. Is that data personally identifying? One part potentially is but that’s it. Most of the rest of it is designed to see how most people are using Windows to (GASP!), help make it better! Given how much people irrationally hated Windows 8, you’d think that would be welcome.

So let’s break down what information is collected and how it’s used with the help of this ghacks.net article:

  1. Microsoft creates a unique advertising ID for each user on a device running Windows 10. This can be turned off in the Privacy Settings. – This is the part that can be identifying. Essentially, this is a unique ID that is used to track what ads you’re looking at/clicking on and if the setting is enabled, different apps can use the ID so that you get the same ad preferences everywhere. Turning it off doesn’t stop ads from appearing in apps, it just prevents different apps from knowing what ads you’ve seen. It also only applies to Windows Store apps. I turned this off but literally every web site with ads uses the same technology and unless you constantly clear browser cookies, it’s always there and you can’t opt-out of it. You may not like it but as I’ve ranted about before, if you don’t want to pay for stuff and still want it to get made, this is the way it is.
  2. What you say or type may be processed by Microsoft, for instance by the operating system’s Cortana service or by providing spelling correction. – Just like Siri, just like Google Now. When you make a vocal request to these services, the request has to be sent back to a server for processing as your device doesn’t have the terabytes of storage and massive CPU power necessary to process the requests locally. They also maintain a database of common spelling errors and corrections so that people don’t have to constantly manually correct their mistakes. Even if Microsoft is tying this information to you specifically, it’s in the interests of improving your experience. It’s the exact same thing Apple and Google do by default that no one seems to mind.
  3. Windows supports a location service that allows apps and services, such as Find My Device, to request your location in the world. This can be turned off in the Privacy settings. – Again, just like any smartphone platform. When an app requests your location if your device has GPS, it will briefly turn it on, fetch the location and give it to the app. Any app you use that does things like find the location of a place or gives recommendations based on where you are, does this. If you don’t want it, you don’t have to use it but most people do because hey, it’s convenient.
  4. Microsoft syncs some Windows settings automatically when you sign in to a Microsoft account. This is done to provide users with a personalized experience across devices. Data that gets synced includes installed apps and their settings, web browser history and favorites, passwords and wireless network names, and addresses of shared printers. – Another thing every other platform does for convenience and that was also done since Windows 8. What’s got people upset here is Wi-Fi Sense. Essentially, this is a convenience feature that allows you to share your wi-fi network and password information with selected contacts so that for example, when a friend comes over to your place, they don’t have to ask for your password, their device just knows it and connects. You have to explicitly share your wi-fi network to do this and it only goes to contacts that you pick. This has the outrage brigade screaming that Microsoft is storing your wi-fi passwords and this could easily let people steal your wi-fi and oh yeah, they’re probably handing them over to the NSA too! As usual, it’s all BS. The passwords are being stored on their server but like any sane setup of this nature, it’s encrypted and hashed so they can’t be read or redistributed in any usable form, even if the store got hacked. As for the NSA, well, they’re already able to track pretty much whatever you do online, they don’t need your wi-fi password. Also, both Wi-Fi Sense and even having an online Windows account are not required and you can actually easily skip tying into your Microsoft account during the Windows 10 setup process.
  5. Telemetry data is collected by Microsoft. This includes installed software, configuration data and network and connection data. While some of it can be turned off in the Settings, not all can. This data is not personalised and it’s used in aggregate. The vast majority of modern software, operating systems and even video games collect telemetry information. It gives them a broad view of what customers are doing with their product, what features are being used, not used and the paths people are taking to get to them. It also usually tracks crashes and instability. These things are done largely to aid in fixing bugs and improving the user experience. One of the buzz terms used in technology these days is “rapid iteration”, the idea of making quick, small improvements to a product over time rather than huge, often bewildering changes once in a while. How do you think that gets accomplished? It’s not through divine intervention and it’s not because people are e-mailing feedback to the developers. It’s because of metrics and usage data, the exact same kind being collected here and which is done almost universally in the software industry now. I value my privacy but I actually turn these features on when I can because it doesn’t give away anything personal or confidential and it makes the software better for those that user it the most.

As you can see, much of the stuff people are up in arms about has already been widely used elsewhere for years and it’s all pretty harmless. Truth be told, Microsoft’s pretty late to the party with a lot of this stuff compared to companies like Apple and Google.

That said, they were definitely underhanded with how they implemented it and clearly did so hoping no one would notice. Oh Microsoft, how you underestimate people. As harmless and in many cases, helpful as I think this stuff is, it should all have been turned off by default and made opt-in, not opt-out and buried behind multiple screens in the setup process with confusing explanations. If they wanted to present all the options to people with clear explanations and let them choose to turn them on, I don’t think anyone would have cared. Enabling them all by default and forcing you to dig for them is what gave ammo to the outrage. Now, do other companies do any better? Not especially and in many cases, you can’t turn this stuff off at all. However, Microsoft should have known they’d become a target for this move–let’s face it, they’ve had some major issues with client-side security in the past–and should have taken the high ground their competitors often don’t. They didn’t and it’s not unreasonable to call them out for that.

Also, turning every installed Windows 10 device into a peer-to-peer seed for Windows Updates is scumminess of the highest caliber. They have practically unlimited bandwidth and have been serving terabytes of updates a day at least for almost two decades. That feature shouldn’t even be there, let alone enabled by default.

All of the data Windows 10 (optionally) collects is largely harmless and anonymous. Do you know what services like Gmail, Facebook, Wal-Mart or credit card companies do with your data? Whether public or private, that data is collected, stored and often sold or monetised in a very identifying manor without your knowledge and you’re not allowed to say they can’t do it. The entire business model of companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter is taking your personal data, packaging it up and selling it to companies you don’t know for purposes you don’t know and keeping the money for themselves because they’re providing you a “free” service–one that’s still full of ads of course. To see people slamming Windows 10 for “stealing your data” who also narrate their entire lives on social media and do all their private correspondence through free e-mail services is astounding to me, not so much for its hypocrisy as its cluelessness.

Let’s also not forget that for the vast majority of people who will use Windows 10 also won’t have to pay for it. They got an entire operating system upgrade that usually costs $100-$150 for free and can still opt-out of what little data collection is present. Now, we can argue how much Microsoft needed to do that in light of the Windows 8 debacle and continuing erosion of their market share but nonetheless, the benefit to customers is still there. You give them a little bit of anonymous data, you get an entire super polished operating system with nothing else nefarious about it for nada if you basically own a PC that was purchased in the last 6 years. That’s a way better deal than a lot of “free” web services offer.

The fact is that despite what the clickbait iPress is telling you, Windows 10 is not a privacy nightmare. A few minutes of research can figure this out but we all know that’s too much to ask of “journalists” these days. I think Microsoft did themselves no favours by turning all this stuff on by default and hiding it away. Personally, I think they’d be very smart to patch the Windows 10 installation to reverse that, at least for people who actually buy it off the self instead of getting it as a free upgrade. Nonetheless, this is a very tame privacy concern, in a world where collecting and selling your personal information behind your back has become the new normal. Valuing your privacy against large, profit-hungry public companies makes perfect sense. Indeed, more people should be doing that. But if you’re upset about what Windows 10 is doing and then take to Twitter, Facebook or ad-supported comment sections to voice your anger, you’ve already done your privacy greater harm and should probably be examining how you use the Internet in general.

Seriously, if you qualify to upgrade to Windows 10, go get it because it’s awesome. Just be a little bit informed beforehand and you’ll be fine.

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Remembering Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata: A Gamer First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So That Was E3 2015 (With Video)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch Live On My Twitch Channel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Business, Coverage, Culture, Live Stream, Predictions, Video Games | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Steam Refunds Are Only A Good Thing (With Video)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steam’s Libertarian Dystopia (with Video)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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