Monday, March 31, 2008

Is PC Gaming Dead? +

According to the NPD Group, North American retail sales of PC games came to nearly a billion dollars -- $910.7B -- in 2007. And that's not including sales through digital distribution.

A billion dollars in the N.A. retail market alone suggests that there's additional revenue to be found in other regions whose use of general-purpose computers is still growing.

And there is no sign that the market for general-purpose computers is drying up worldwide. As long as there are general-purpose computers, there will be good business to be done in making and selling games for those computers.

Even so, it's clearly not wise to assume that the mere existence of PCs is enough to guarantee the continued sales of PC games... not when console manufacturers are doing everything they can to make consumers (and retailers) believe that all the cool kids play their games on consoles (and handhelds), not PCs.

People have accepted the self-serving "the PC is dead!" comments by game console manufacturers as truth because no major PC hardware manufacturer has been equally vigorous in promoting the PC as a game platform. Perhaps the formation of the PC Gaming Alliance, along with Intel's purchase of Havok and game developer Offset Software, are early signals that those with a stake in PC gaming are finally ready to defend the value of the PC as a worthwhile platform for gaming.

That's not a crazy idea at all.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Criticism vs. Attacks

So it seems Prokofy Neva, tireless promoter of Second Life, has decided to criticize virtual world luminary Richard Bartle for some of his ideas about how virtual worlds should work. (See follow-up commentary at Broken Toys and Psychochild's Blog.)

I debated quite a while before jumping in on this. But I don't like the way that people are put off from joining in the friendly exchange of ideas when someone ridicules the speaker of those ideas instead of addressing the ideas themselves.

So to add to Brian "Psychochild" Green's comments, I met Richard a few years ago in Copenhagen, and I found him to be engaging, funny, sharp where sharpness is called for, and remarkably tolerant of ideas pitched intensely to him by a complete stranger while climbing up a stairwell. In short, yes, he's human, and one who doesn't deserve the description Prok gave of him.

That doesn't mean disagreeing with him on ideas is off-limits. I disagree with him on some things. But it's important to note a couple of things:

1. Hyperbole and name-calling destroy any chance to have productive discussions about those disagreements. Those who engage in such hand-waving distractions don't deserve direct attention/trackbacks/slashdots/etc. Good conversationalists should be promoted; bad conversationalists should be bypassed.

2. There's a difference between "is" and "ought." And one key aspect of that difference between description and prescription is that those who express an "ought" have to earn the privilege of having that assertion taken seriously by demonstrating that they understand "is." Conversely, those who fail to demonstrate that their perception of reality is accurate shouldn't expect to have their statements of right and wrong given much weight. (And yes, that applies to me, too.)

Which brings me to this Prok vs. Richard thing. It's clear -- and this is borne out by Designing Virtual Worlds -- that Richard has been there, done that, and knows what he's talking about. His descriptions of what "is" in virtual worlds are informed by broad experience and thoughtful understanding, both of which are documented in his various public comments about virtual worlds and game design. This means that when Richard expresses an "ought" statement, it's worth taking seriously instead of being dismissed, especially by pouring derision on Richard himself. It might still be wrong, but an "ought" from someone who knows his "is" merits more consideration than Prok showed in the post that started all this.

Meanwhile, we should suspect any "shoulds" proposed (or criticized) by someone whose view of "is" is so inaccurate as to think (for example) that gameworlds are socialistic when in fact they're hyper-capitalistic. (Raph has more than once commented on the extreme levels in gameworlds of the Pareto effect, which is a typical condition of unregulated capitalism.) The designers of gameworlds may intend for the economic activity in them to be regulated according to their various conceptions of fairness (some of which may be socialistic -- I wouldn't know or presume to guess), but the reality once people begin acting in those worlds in mass numbers -- as Richard has accurately noted -- is that the gamers who put in the most effort in these gameworlds accumulate the most stuff in them. And that's pretty much the opposite of a socialistic economy, regardless of what any "game gods" may intend.

So if someone doesn't correctly perceive even this fundamental observation about game-based virtual worlds, where does that leave their criticisms of statements from better-informed observers about how such worlds "ought" to be?

There's a good discussion to be had on how the property rights of the creator of a (virtual) world may be in conflict with the restrictions on the rights of the state in our real world. If I build my own universe, under what conditions may I not enjoy full powers to control everything that happens inside that world? At what point of realism should my sovereign powers be taken from me within that world -- by force, if necessary -- in favor of the people who, to some degree, inhabit that world I created? Does it matter if the world in question is intended to be a rule-based game, or is meant to be a literary experience?

That would be a fun discussion to have about virtual worlds, and perhaps even an enlightening one about how best to live in our own real world. But we'll never get there when "oughts" on that subject from someone who knows what he's talking about are dismissed in favor of mocking the speaker of those thoughts.

Richard deserves better, if for no other reason than that he's earned the privilege of being taken seriously.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Online Game Forums +

Following the example of Sigil's Vanguard, Mark Jacobs of EA-Mythic confirmed again recently that Warhammer Online from EA-Mythic will not provide an official discussion forum.

Jacobs, producer of Warhammer Online, went to the WarhammerAlliance fan forum to defend the no-official-forum decision with a great parody of the way gamers talk about a game (and its developers) on official forums. Earlier (in 2006), he had posted on that same forum a more substantive explanation of the no-official-forum decision, but it came to the same thing -- some gamers can be flaming rectal orifices.

He's right; it's often like that. Giving gamers an official place to talk about a particular game seems to embolden some of them to act in bizarre ways.

But you know what? As bad as it can get, having an official forum is one of the prices of doing business in the online game marketplace. An online game is, in part, a service, and providing an official mechanism by which the service provider and its saner customers can communicate is reasonably considered a part of providing good service.

Of course that's not a justification for allowing abuse by some customers who think that relative anonymity is a license to be a jerk. The contract goes both ways -- developers provide the forum for communication (and use it), and customers communicate like civilized adults instead of over-caffeinated savages. That is not an unreasonable expectation on either side.

Yes, the spewage from some gamers is sick, and (as Mark notes) can even get scary. But eliminating official forums completely is not a solution; it is surrender. It's letting the bad guys win in a fight that's worth having, because having an official communication pipeline is a valuable marketing tool.

There's no question that creating and maintaining such a tool imposes several costs on the developer, such as server hosting fees, technical support, and web development. It also requires finding people to be moderators who combine a low tolerance for abusive behavior with emotional maturity, good judgment, diplomacy, reasonably sound grammatical skills and a sense of humor. Having an official forum won't do you much good if the kind of person you choose as your face for communicating with the public is unfriendly, easily provoked, arbitrary, or unskilled in the effective use of language to communicate (all of which I have seen in moderators on official forums).

Finding people with good moderating skills isn't easy. But they do exist; their rarity is no excuse for turning someone (like a techie) into a mod because they happen to be convenient. That's just being penny-wise and pound-foolish -- who ever said that doing things right would be cheap? Again: this is a cost of doing effective business in the increasingly-crowded marketplace of online game services.

Choosing to do without an official forum was certainly not Vanguard's only problem, but IMO it was another in the series of decisions by Sigil that made the game appear to be less than a professional-grade product. The deliberate decision to provide official communications only on certain "selected" fan sites created an appearance of favoritism that did nothing whatsoever to help Sigil sell Vanguard as a high-quality online entertainment service.

I see no reason to think it's the right move for EA-Mythic and Warhammer Online, either, or indeed for any major online game.

I do acknowledge, however, that I'm speaking here as a wannabe developer, and not as someone who -- like Mark Jacobs -- has actually run his own online game service and has had direct experience with the bad kind of gamer. If I had his experiences, my opinion might be different; as it is, I stand by it: the advantages of providing an official discussion forum for a major online game outweigh the disadvantages.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What Defines a Cyborg?

Most of us understand the basic definition of "cyborg" as a portmanteau word formed from the words "cybernetic" and "organism." But what does that mean in terms of behavior? For example, is Chell, the player character in Valve's wonderful Portal who has springs attached to her legs, a cyborg or not?

I suspect we all share a pretty similar understanding of the word "organism." So the disconnect must be in the word "cybernetic" and its association with organisms.

Folks can look up definitions of Norbert Wiener's coinage of the word "cybernetic" for themselves, but here's a quick take on it. The way we think of the word today is something like "computerized mechanism." The word "electromechanical" is close to this, but doesn't quite capture the notion of adaptive electronics governing the mechanical bits. A cybernetic device uses computer processing to receive I/O from the mechanical part, does some planning and decision-making based on that data, then responds with some appropriate control signals which tell the mechanism how to behave. So a cybernetic device isn't just a mechanical device; it's a mechanical device with some intelligence that conditions its operation, resulting in adaptive behavior in a real-world environment.

The point of this -- and what Wiener was interested in -- was the creation of feedback loops. The actions of the system produce effects on the environment, information about which is then looped back into the system to generate the next set of actions. Depending on how you program the control elements of the system (the bits that determine whether the system uses negative feedback, positive feedback, or some combination of both), you can get some really interesting behaviors out of a system.

So that's "cybernetic." But the association of the word with "organism" matters, too. To say that something is a "cybernetic organism" is to observe that the organism is made distinct from other similar organisms by the installation of a cybernetic element or elements. A "cybernetic organism" is an organism that is distinctive because of its cybernetic elements.

What this suggests is that to qualify as a cybernetic organism, the cybernetic part should be something that's not merely strapped on but is so deeply integrated into the organism that the combination is a new kind of thing. It's not just a cybernetic device, nor is it just an organism; it is a new kind of thing we can call a cybernetic organism, or cyborg for short.

By these definitions, then, we can start to see something like a spectrum with the purely biological at one end, the purely electromechanical at the other end, and the cyborg somewhere in the middle. Let's consider just human organisms:

  • Someone who wears glasses or contact lenses is not a cyborg -- those aren't cybernetic devices, and they're not integrated into the organism.
  • Someone who wears a simple prosthetic (like a wooden leg) is not a cyborg -- those aren't cybernetic devices, and they're not integrated into the organism.
  • Someone who's had corneal replacement or who's had a lens inserted into their eye is not really a cyborg -- although those devices are integrated into the system, they're not cybernetic.
  • Someone who wears a relatively advanced prosthetic like a Boston arm is not quite a cyborg -- these prosthetics are worn (electrode are attached to the skin) and can be removed, so they're not fully integrated with the person.
  • Someone with a device that is permanently attached through surgery and whose inputs come directly from nerve endings, such as a pacemaker, a cochlear implant, or an advanced prosthetic limb, would be a primitive form of cyborg, since the device operates through feedback and, although it could theoretically be removed, it is normally deeply integrated with the person.
  • Someone with multiple deeply and permanently integrated cybernetic devices that replace or extend lost functions or add new functions is definitely a cyborg.
So what about Chell, then? From all the foregoing, I'd say it depends on the nature of the springs and how they're attached to Chell's legs.

If they're just mechanical springs, or if they're just clamped on externally, then she's not a cyborg.

If however they're more than just mechanical springs -- that is, if they've got some built-in computer-based sensing/processing capability -- and if they're pretty much permanently integrated into Chell's legs, then yes -- she's a cyborg.

If Valve disagrees, it might be worthwhile to hear their definition of "cyborg."

So how's that for analytical overkill? :)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Portal Haiku

Carried by spring rain
Flung between glowing portals
Plum blossom travels far

GLaDOS torments Chell
Companion Cube is murdered
Electra complex

Speedy thing goes in
Momentum must be conserved
Speedy thing comes out

Trapped in northern ice
Lost by Aperture Science
Borealis waits