Two Bit Circus and the Challenges of Next Generation Arcades

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Early concept art for Two Bit Circus

Since the introduction of consumer VR systems like Oculus and Vive, hundreds of VR-centric arcades have opened, hoping to attract punters by offering experiences that they can’t get at home because they can’t afford $1500+ VR setups and don’t have the space or custom equipment (e.g. force-feedback driving seats).

Some of these next-generation arcades are more than a few Vive headsets in a shop; they might have lots of expensive custom equipment, or even custom-made VR games that you can’t buy as a consumer. Two Bit Circus, a “micro-amusement park” opening in LA next month, combines VR with escape rooms with carnival games to reach the very highest-end of this trend. Supposedly, the entire experience will be united by a meta-game, discoverable with rabbit-holes like a secret payphone in the arcade, that has an overarching narrative. Yes, I remember when these were called ARGs myself.

The scope – and expense – of Two Bit Circus is extraordinary. It’s hard enough to make a single VR game, let alone several. And to link them with an ARG? It hasn’t been done before. That’s not to say it can’t be done, it just costs far more money than anyone is usually willing to spend.

When I tweeted out news about this, Chris Dickson (an expert in escape room games)  emailed me about Entros, a restaurant-arcade in Seattle and San Francisco from the 90s with ARGish elements. Entros folded after a few years due to inadequate sales and rising rents, and to my mind, it sadly typifies a long line of entertainment-bar-restaurant-VR-carnival hybrids that end up failing like late lamented DisneyQuest.

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DisneyQuest

Why do these ventures fail?

  • High capital costs: Cutting-edge hardware isn’t cheap
  • High maintenance costs because people keep breaking things and they don’t know how to put on VR headsets
  • High R&D and design costs that can’t be amortised amongst large numbers of venues (e.g. traditional arcade games, although even these are dying out), customers (e.g. videogames), or devices (e.g. game consoles and phones)
  • Inability to charge appropriate (i.e. massive) prices or motivate people to stay in expensive hotels (i.e. Disney theme parks)
  • Technology ages quickly and becomes uncompetitive with consumer offerings, meaning either more capital spending, or your arcade getting out of date quickly. This is a reason why traditional arcades have largely vanished.
  • Hard to attract repeat visitors without acquiring or developing a lot of fresh and affordable content (in contrast to, say, cinemas). If you can’t get repeat visitors, you need a constant flow of new visitors, which is doable although usually requires a healthy marketplaces and ideally, geographic hubs (e.g. Broadway, West End). If you make something extraordinarily good, people will travel just for your venue, like people who go on pilgrimages to Michelin-starred restaurants.
  • Difficult to scale a single location, so even if you’re super popular, you will cap out.

Other new kinds of site-specific experiences like escape rooms and immersive theatre face similar challenges: escape rooms may have lower capital and R&D costs since they usually don’t feature as much technology, but staffing costs are often can be higher and of course, return visits are even lower.

Disney’s theme parks (and associated hotels, malls, etc.) are the obvious exception here in so many ways – size, visitor numbers, profitability, and so on. Disney’s parks do a lot of clever things, like: exploiting existing popular IP (e.g. Toy Story) not all of which they originally developed or owned (e.g. Star Wars, Avatar); incubating new IP (Pirates of the Caribbean, the forthcoming Jungle Cruise movie); and generally keeping visitors excited about Disney and thus continuing to buy mountains of merchandise. It’s hard to see how you equal this without really high-quality and popular IP, not to mention skilled designers and engineers (“Imagineers”).

Big isn’t always better. Not every restauranteur should aspire to become McDonalds. But a healthy ecosystem should support everything from big chains to cheap and cheerful cafes and eye-wateringly expensive Michelin starred restaurants. What’s important is that there is room for everything, and that enterprises of all sizes can theoretically be sustainable – even if most restaurants do, in fact, go bust.

Possible Solutions

Use withered technology to reduce capital costs. Maybe VR isn’t the answer to these kinds of arcades and immersive experiences! Nintendo is great teacher in this regard, as is the old-school Exploratorium.

Similarly, use the real world as your venue. The Headlands Gamble uses the North Bay in California as its backdrop; Fire Hazard uses London. However, the lack of control and ownership over the venue results in higher risk and introduces logistical challenges (e.g. accessibility, bad weather, more time required to get around) and can impose a cap on visitor numbers.

Increase prices. Punchdrunk, Disney, and The Headlands Gamble ($600-$1800 for two days!) show how high you can go, providing you can prove value. I personally have an instinctive aversion to very high prices as I want the things I make to have a wide audience, but it’s a perfectly legitimate route, especially if you’re still developing the core technology and proving your concept. However, rich people’s taste for human interaction can mean that you never end up automating anything.

Use established IP to reduce marketing costs, and potentially content development costs. Secret Cinema and The Crystal Maze have done this to apparent success. However: you lose creative control, it cuts into your margin (it’s entirely possible you have no margin left, if you have no leverage), and the demands of the IP can compromise the overall experience (I’ve heard that strict adherence to Harry Potter canon has hurt more than one HP videogame; then there’s “we need you to tie this game to the upcoming movie, but we can’t get you the script until too late, and you can’t talk about the events of the movie”.) If you’re unlucky, you’ll end up making free marketing experiences and “brand activations” for shows like Westworld. It makes for good headlines but are the entirely wrong way to make a self-sustaining business with a product that people will pay for. Believe me: I’ve lived it.

Be a non-profit so you can win grant money and donations, and justify paying your staff less money – or none at all, since you can get volunteers. Yes, I’m talking about Meow Wolf. Non-profits typically suffer from lack of access to capital, though, slowing growth.

Sell extra stuff like merchandise, hotel rooms, books, etc.

Get repeat visitors. Everyone claims they’re trying to do this and I have seen little evidence of success. It may be that it’s completely incompatible with the current design of escape rooms and immersive theatre. Learning from videogames is essential.

Reduce tech and capital costs by using off-the-shelf hardware and, importantly, software. Various companies are trying to build VR or real-world experiential platforms to make it easier to  this kind of market, but most of them don’t have much money and seem singularly unwilling to share a reasonable (i.e. very high) amount of revenue with the creatives who, after all, are taking the vast majority of risk in setting up these venues and making new experiences. Platforms work best when cost of development is low compared to potential income. Witness Unity/Unreal or YouTube and Twitch. But potential income for location-specific entertainment is far lower than that of purely digital content that can be global; and that has lower capital costs.


Evidently, I don’t have very detailed solutions to these challenges yet, although I remain very interested and I have a few brewing in the back of my mind. I’ll finish by saying that the rumoured popularity of puzzle box subscriptions like Hunt A Killer (the name is both awful and yet brilliant) is telling. They have repeat customers, low capital costs, and it’s all done with ‘withered technology’.

Having tried a few out, I am not impressed by overall quality and not convinced of their longevity or broad popularity, but they hold a lot of promise.

Gamescom 2018 thoughts: Spider-Man, Starlink, Forza Horizon, Oculus, and more

A child was flooring the gas on a tractor simulator here, with full HOTAS-style controller setup. “I live my life a quarter acre at a time.”

I managed to play a fair few games here at Gamescom in Cologne in between business meetings. The first day – Tuesday – is solely for “trade visitors” rather than the general public, so the crowds weren’t too bad. That said, people in the games industry tend to like playing games, which meant highly-anticipated titles like Spider-Man and Smash Bros. still had 1+ hour long queues most of day.

In order of when I played them:

Space Junkies (Ubisoft) is a space-based multiplayer VR FPS with jetpacks. It’s about as fun as any other FPS, except it’s in VR, which makes aiming easier. It also had imaginative guns requiring two hands to operate that were fun if distractingly janky.

Due to space restrictions, we had to sit down in front of a PC, which meant you couldn’t look behind you – instead, you use the right thumbstick to rotate in 45 degree turns. While this may be the least-worst way of doing VR motion thus far, it’s still not great and it doesn’t help elevate an otherwise unremarkable game.

Next door was Transference (Ubisoft), a horror-themed walking simulator set largely in the real world. The art and graphics were impressive, and I enjoyed picking up stuff in the environment (postcards, letters, toothpaste, radios, etc.) and inspecting them, although this is an area where increased headset resolution will be massively helpful.

I wasn’t sold on the heavy use of full-motion video (FMV) to set up the story. There’s something vaguely B-movie about all game FMV, which is often delivered straight to camera, and while this wasn’t awful, it just dragged on.

Surprisingly, I found Transference even more nausea-inducing compared to the highly vertical environment of Space Junkies. There’s something about using a controller stick to walk around (rather than using your legs to walk) that puts me off, even with the 45 degree snap-turns. The fact that  you had to walk around a lot to pick up stuff and carry it between rooms really didn’t help matters, and while the Ubisoft attendant helpfully whispered hints in my ear, it really just highlighted the poor level/puzzle design.

So, I remain unconvinced that using a controller to navigating in an open world VR space will ever be entirely free of nausea for me, and after 15 minutes of play of both games, but particularly Transference, I was glad to take the (very comfortable) headset off. Perhaps a wider field of view (FOV) would help, and I wonder if you eventually get used to VR, especially if you’re a kid who’s grown up on it.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (Ubisoft) is like AC: Origins, but it looks marginally nicer and it’s in Greece. What else is there to say? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I managed to catch this game while the queue was short. Even better, when the attendants spotted my “Exhibitor” badge, they ushered me right in, perhaps assuming I was far more important than I really am. But karma came around when the console crashed just ten minutes after I started playing.

Starlink (Ubisoft) is the latest implementation of “Toys to Life”, most famously and profitably demonstrated by Skylanders. I was impressed by how versatile the toys were, and how well the fit together – you can choose between pilots and then slot a spaceship over them. The spaceships themselves are modular, allowing you to mix and match components between ships, and even turn wings and weapons backwards (not convinced this will have useful gameplay effects, however). The gameplay was basically Starfox… and the graphics were really quite rough compared to the ultra-HD gorgeousness exhibited by the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X.

Sadly, I didn’t get to drive in Scotland or Edinburgh on the Forza Horizon 4 (Microsoft) demo on Xbox One X. I really enjoyed the original Forza on the Xbox 360 and it’s nice to see it continuing to walk the line between realism and arcade gameplay, especially with the helpful rewind feature. But it’s not enough to make me buy another console.

Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum Session! (Bandai Namco) reminded me of my enduring love of  rhythm games. There’s not a lot to this one – you can hit the single drum in the centre or the rim, and besides things like drum rolls, that’s more or less it. There was a good selection of songs – I played Let it Go, the Totoro End Theme, Carmen, and some other classical song. It was the only game I played on two separate days, although that’s partly down to the total absence of queues.

The response on the drums felt a bit soft, and I thought the notation of hits against the drum rim vs centre didn’t really correspond with melody or, well, anything else. But hey, it’s a rhythm game by Namco, you know what you’re getting.

The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan (Bandai Namco/Supermassive) was available for demo on the same day of its announcement, which explains why there were no queues. Like Until Dawn, also by Supermassive, it has highly atmospheric and realistic graphics, with no free look, and consequently, very cinematic (and manipulative) perspectives.

I found the demo quite boring and lacking in context. The cheesy, stilted dialogue and the exceptionally slow walking pace didn’t balance out its use of the LA Noire mechanic of “inspecting objects” which I always love.

Ride3 (Milestone) had no tutorial and was impossible for me to play. I couldn’t figure out whether I should be tilting around corners or how much I should be breaking – and yes, I have played driving games before. This was the only game I had to abandon before the end of the demo.

Amazon Prime Video had an immersive “brand activation” experience promoting their Jack Ryan TV show, freshly imported and translated from New York Comic Con. It was not good. We had to a wait a long time for them to reboot the first task, a mediocre shooting gallery game. The second task involved us watching the Jack Ryan extended trailer (pretty transparent, I know) and answering questions about it. Unfortunately, all the questions were in German, despite the fact that we’d registered as English-speakers.

I guessed all the answers randomly out of four choices, and scored 48%. “How?” demanded one of the attendants as I walked out. “Guess that’s on a need to know basis,” I said, with a twinkle in my eye.

The popularity of this poor experience just shows how much people value live action ‘immersive’ entertainment…

Since I have an Exhibitor badge, I was able to queue up early to play Spider-Man (Sony/Insomniac) on Wednesday. The web slinging and general feeling of motion is excellent, and you really can zip around the entire open world with zero loading times or pop-in.

I didn’t quite figure out whether I should be holding down sprint/web button all the time, and my usual tactic of spamming attacks didn’t work on some enemies (probably a good thing). Good dialogue, good transition into QTE-powered cutscenes. Very much looking forward to this game in November.

What began as a fun force-feedback drive on F1 2018 (Codemasters) gradually turned into an unrelenting nightmare of spins and crashes. I can’t explain what happened: on the first two laps, I was literally outracing Lewis Hamilton, and then somehow I just couldn’t stay on the track. Maybe the game was was simulating tire wear or somehow I pressed the wrong buttons that changed traction control (everything was in German) but it was all I could do to reach the finish line with a shred of dignity intact.

Miscellaneous thoughts

  • Let’s face it, industry-led videogame conventions are weird. Most of the games are going to be out soon, there are plenty of gameplay videos online, so why wait in a queue to play for hours? The answer, of course, is that some young people love these games with the passion of a thousand stars and are willing to wait any amount of time to play them even for just 15 minutes.
  • Because I am a terrible person, there is no sweeter sensation than arriving at the convention hall at 8:45am and not only walking past thousands of the general public (10am admission) but also hundreds of trade visitors (9am admission) all desperate to get in. I used my extra time to visit the toilets while they were clean, and then to play Spider-Man.
  • The queuing process for all the games was well-organised with clear wait times.
  • The 10-20 food trucks served the trade visitors perfectly well on Tuesday, but were laughably inadequate when tens of thousands of the general public arrived on Wednesday. It is baffling how the organisers refuse to improve this. Do they not like money? Do all the visitors just go hungry all day? I’m not sure if you’re meant to pack a lunch…

  • I say this in all seriousness: the videogames industry has a drinking problem. Every event seems to involve vast quantities of free or cheap alcohol, and you can easily bounce between events from 5pm until the early hours. It’s not healthy in any measure, and we shouldn’t feel like the only way we can socialise is by getting hammered.

Bonus photos

Not sure what was inside here. Videos and concept art?
Mobile escape room!

Injured Sovereigns, Foucault, and Jessica Price

Why does Jessica Price’s firing continue to attract so much attention? There’s plenty of other subjects I want to write about, but there is something about the story that draws me to it, just as it’s drawn literally thousands of people to my Twitter this blog, some of whom have called me “subhuman scum” and so on. It’s safe to say that nothing I’ve written in over two decades has attracted this kind of active fury. 

There are two curiosities here, the first being the minute nature of Price’s supposed offence. Even if you consider her comments to be exceptionally rude, why should rude comments cause such an uproar? We are not short of famous individuals who are far ruder, far more frequently. For those who are fond of throwing around accusations of overreaction amongst ‘snowflakes’, a few sharp tweets seem exceptionally small beer. Even the subject of her comments, Deroir, did not seem especially hurt at the time, and did not seek any redress – instead, it was others who came to defend his honour.

The second curiosity has been the active pursuit of any journalist or, indeed, individual who would dare to defend Price. But Price has been fired! Surely ‘justice’ has been done and the matter is over. Yet clearly there is something so dangerous about Price’s actions that they require an overwhelming repudiation, such that even her sympathisers must be challenged and punished.

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I’ve been reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison recently, by way of Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues (my review). The book attempts to understand how and why the treatment of criminals changed in the past 400 years, from torture to prison. Unexpectedly for me, Foucault’s analysis of why torture and public execution were thought to be necessary has provided an unusually intriguing new lens to decipher those two curiosities about Price’s story.

Why did western societies use such torture and execution – practices that even at the time were considered extreme – to punish criminals, instead of prison? Why kill someone for crimes as minor as larceny? Because:

Besides its immediate victim, the crime attacks the sovereign: it attacks him personally, since the law represents the will of the sovereign; it attacks him physically, since the force of the law is the force of the prince.

… Punishment, therefore, cannot be identified with or even measured by the redress of the injury; in punishment, there must always be a portion that belongs to the prince, and, even when it is combined with the redress laid down, it constitutes the most important element in the penal liquidation of the crime. Now, this portion belonging to the prince is not in itself simple: on the one hand, it requires redress for the injury that has been done to his kingdom (as an element of disorder and as an example given to others, this con­siderable injury is out of all proportion to that which has been committed upon a private individual); but it also requires that the king take revenge for an affront to his very person.

In a time of monarchy, where all laws are determined by a sovereign (here termed the prince or the king), any crime cannot merely be considered as an attack on the immediate victim; not merely an attack on the order and control of the sovereign; but in fact an attack on the sovereign himself. Such an attack demands redress and punishment.

In our case, who is the sovereign? The most obvious answer is ArenaNet, Price’s employer, which alone sets the conditions of her employment, and has the unique power to terminate her employment at will. Yes, one may argue that some harm has been done to the honour of Deroir, and one may even argue (although I would not agree) that some modicum of harm has been done to the sovereign – but not that much. We are talking about a few supposedly rude tweets.

So why the termination? Disorder has been introduced to the land. That is the true crime, the considerable injury that eclipses the mild sting of the tweets themselves, and so it requires immense revenge for the contempt it shows to the sovereign, ArenaNet. Contempt may easily turn into insurrection – unionisation – turmoil – bankruptcy:

In every offence there was a crimen majestatis and in the least criminal a potential regicide. And the regicide, in turn, was neither more nor less, than the total, absolute criminal since, instead of attacking, like any offender, a particular decision or wish of the sovereign power, he attacked the very principle and physical person of the prince.

It may only seem like a few rude tweets, but it could end in bankruptcy, a fate to be avoided at all costs. In that light, termination can be the only appropriate response.

Why must the termination be public? Even in the US, disciplinary procedures typically take days, if not weeks or months, and do not result in the kind of lengthy explanations and justifications that ArenaNet provided. Again, sovereignty is core:

The public execution … is a ceremonial by which a momentarily injured sovereignty is recon­stituted. It restores that sovereignty by manifesting it at its most spectacular.

… Its aim is not so much to re-establish a balance as to bring into play, as its extreme point, the dissymmetry between the subject who has dared to violate the law and the all-powerful sovereign who displays his strength.

Price’s termination must be seen by all employees, and must demonstrate the power and determination of ArenaNet towards anyone else who might challenge its authority; hence the immediate firing of, Peter Fries, who did not tweet at any customers, but who, by supporting Price, lent support to her implicit challenge of authority.

The speed of the termination also demonstrates ArenaNet’s ceaseless presence in its employee’s lives:

…What had hitherto maintained this practice of torture was not an economy of example, in the sense in which it was to be understood at the time of the ideologues (that the representation of the penalty should be greater than the interest of the crime), but a policy of terror: to make everyone aware, through the body of the criminal, of the unrestrained presence of the sover­eign.

If you make any mistake, ArenaNet will terminate your employment immediately. They have unrestrained presence. And while some claim that the problem is because she used her ‘public’ Twitter (more on that later) and she mentioned her employer in her profile: do we really believe this would altered the outcome? Jessica Price is not famous, but she’s not unknown. It’s certain that fans would have found her profile and asked her questions.

This can’t be the whole story. True, only ArenaNet has the power to terminate Price – but are we to believe that the company wasn’t pressured into this action by part of its customers? What role do these ‘Customers’ (the vocal portion which I should stress is only a tiny minority of the total) play in proceedings?

An offence, according to the law of the classical age, quite apart from the damage it may produce, apart even from the rule that it breaks, offends the rectitude of those who abide by the law: ‘If one commits something that the law forbids, even if there is neither harm nor injury to the individual, it is an offence that demands reparation, because the right of the superior man is violated and because it offends the dignity of his character’ (Risi, 9).

Many of the complaints about Price – her rudeness towards Customers – remind me of the rectitude of those who abide by the law. The law, after all, is what matters. I have lost count of those who’ve told me that they would expect to be terminated immediately if they were rude to a customer. There is no question as to whether this would be fair or no, and no mitigating circumstances will be considered. “Perhaps termination was excessive, but we cannot dispute the ultimate right of power of the corporation.”

The Customers have been harmed. They require redress. They require recognition. In fact, like corporations, they also see themselves as sovereign. It is totally unacceptable that a mere employee, their servant, should be disrespectful towards them. They demand punishment out of proportion to the harm done to Deroir, because their person had been affronted. Price’s disrespect may seem minor but it could end in disregard – disdain – banishment.

Many Customers have dredged through Price’s social media, include comments about deceased YouTubers. These direct and indirect offences have been tallied and presented point by point, as if enough points might lead to a conviction in the minds of the public. Thus an “asshat” is worth one point, “stop fucking tagging me” two points, etc. It is obviously the performance of a judicial process: the gathering of evidence, the testimonies from would-be-YouTube-magistrates, not unlike how justice was performed a few centuries ago in France:

We have, then, a penal arithmetic that is meticulous on many points, but which still leaves a margin for a good deal of argument: in order for a capital sentence to be passed, is a single full proof enough or must it be accompanied by other slighter clues? Are two approxi­ mate proofs always equivalent to a full proof? Should not three be required or two plus distant clues? Are there elements that may be regarded as clues only for certain crimes, in certain circumstances and in relation to certain persons (thus evidence is disregarded if it comes from a vagabond; it is reinforced, on the contrary, if it is provided by ‘a considerable person’ or by a master in the case of a domestic offence).

Each piece of evidence, each point contributes to Price’s guilt:

The different pieces of evidence did not constitute so many neutral elements, until such time as they could be gathered together into a single body of evidence that would bring the final certainty of guilt. Each piece of evidence aroused a particular degree of abomination. Guilt did not begin when all the evidence was gathered together; piece by piece, it was constituted by each of the elements that made it possible to recognize a guilty person. Thus a semi­-proof did not leave the suspect innocent until such time as it was completed; it made him semi-guilty; slight evidence of a serious crime marked someone as slightly criminal. In short, penal demonstration did not obey a dualistic system: true or false; but a principle of continuous gradation; a degree reached in the demon­stration already formed a degree of guilt and consequently involved a degree of punishment. The suspect, as such, always deserved a certain punishment; one could not be the object of suspicion and be completely innocent.

Finally, why are the Customers so fervent in the pursuit of Price’s supporters? My article was barely published before I started receiving replies from strangers who had evidently been searching for “jessica price” on Twitter. I asked one person why they’d been searching, and they said they were bored. OK: but if you’re bored, why not watch Netflix or play a game? It’s because the Customers, as sovereign, must demonstrate their unrestrained presence.

…What had hitherto maintained this practice of torture was not an economy of example, in the sense in which it was to be understood at the time of the ideologues (that the representation of the penalty should be greater than the interest of the crime), but a policy of terror: to make everyone aware, through the body of the criminal, of the unrestrained presence of the sover­eign.

If you agree with Price, we will find you, wherever you are.

It is the combination of these two sovereigns – Corporate and Customer –  that is new and unusual. Both reinforcing each other, in their demand for respect, for a public execution in response to attack on their persons. The precise wording used by ArenaNet, “attacks on the community”, was not lost on Price:

Neither was the very public nature of proceedings:

Have I stretched the analogy too far? Am I blowing things out of proportion?

We’re already past that. Price has been fired and she is likely to be hounded on social media, and very likely in person, for many years. And for what? A few tweets. But these are tweets are so dangerous, so threatening to the natural order, that nothing short of termination will satisfy.

(Once, there was a third sovereign – the employee. Or the union. Or, yes, the guild.)

Where is it that humans can get respect, today? The option of last resort is as a customer. The customer is always right. “My money will force your respect.” And because many workers are now on social media for the very simple purposes and pleasures of talking with their friends and colleagues about their life, and yes, their work – the thing they spend eight hours a day on, the thing that keeps them clothed and fed – and because they do not want to make an artificial distinction between their personal and work lives (as if that would stop harassment, really!) – well, you as a Customer can demand their attention and their respect whenever they’re on social media. Which means their whole lives.

But what happens when your money no longer forces their respect?

It is disturbing to some Customers that some companies – not including Arenanet – will now overlook or even tolerate perceived rudeness. Whether this ‘lenience’ comes from a simple consideration of their staff as humans worthy of care and respect, or from a cold-hearted calculation that the loss of your few dollars, and your community’s few dollars, do not outweigh the financial benefit to the corporation of the occasional “rude” tweet made by the employees (aka humans) necessary to actually make products and services. Indeed, some rudeness may even be encouraged, in so far as it helps to retain and attract employees who can make profitable games.

(The expectation of total servility from those interact with Customers exists regardless of the sex of the employee. However, sexism is relevant to the extent that politeness is expected more from women than men, and rudeness is tolerated and in some cases celebrated more from men than women.)

All of this leaves the obvious question: what happens when two sovereigns go to war – when the Customers (again, I’m talking about the vocal minority) fight the Corporations?

As it turns out… usually very little. Which highlights the absurdity of these Customers taking the Corporation’s side over that of the employees who actually make the entertainment they value. But perhaps it is not so absurd when you consider that these customers value certain things over even their most beloved hobby, like the desire to see employees abasing themselves.

Now that’s entertainment.

 

Jessica Price Shouldn’t Have Been Fired

That’s the single, blindingly obvious conclusion I came to after reading the way in which Price, a game producer and writer for Guild Wars 2, was fired by her employer ArenaNet for some tweets in which they claimed she “attacked the community”. Peter Fries, a fellow writer, was also fired for defending her. Price had been at the company for around a year, Fries for more than twelve years.

Rather than recapitulating the whole story, I’d suggest reading the short but comprehensive Rock Paper Shotgun piece. If you’re curious, you can find more from The Verge and Eurogamer.

When I first read the articles, I was baffled. The two tweets they all cited were:

I kept looking for the other tweets that included these supposed “attacks” on the community. Surely there had to be something worse than “asshat”? Surely Price must have said something really bad, like “I hate every single one of our shithead players and I hope they never play our game again”?

But no, apparently “asshat” was outrageous enough to give the vapours to parts of the gaming community, whom we all know abhor all use of curse words.

She shouldn’t have been fired.

It Began in Madness, Just as It Ended

Price had written a long series of tweets going into some detail about the difficulties of getting players to identify with their characters in Guild Wars 2’s story. Deroir, a player and YouTuber, replied with a suggestion akin to telling a Formula One mechanic to maybe try putting better gas in the tank. She said “thanks for trying to tell me what we do internally, my dude,” which Deroir interpreted as her “getting mad”.

This is not Price getting mad. It’s a brusque brushoff, but not one that’s unwarranted.

Several years ago, I was at a conference party hoping to speak with a senior exec at Pixar. There was already a group of people talking to him, and at one point in the conversation, I jumped in by questioning something he’d said, about the relative release dates of their early movies. Not only was it an inappropriate interjection, but I was wrong (forgive me, I was only 20).

The exec paused. Turned to me. Rolled his eyes. “Excuse me, I think I know when our own films were released, thank you,” he said, and then turned away. He was not mad at me. It was a brushoff, just like the one Price delivered. It wasn’t even rude.

Deroir thinks Price is getting mad at her. Nothing could be further from the truth. Price didn’t give Deroir the attention he felt he deserved, and so he got mad.

As for me, I was stung and my pride was hurt – but not so much that I wanted him to be fired, not even if, hypothetically, he’d later said, “I’m tired of rando asshats trying to tell me when our films were released, as if I hadn’t been working in Pixar for a decade. I’m just not going to talk to them any more”. In fact, a few years later I caught up with him and got a tour of their offices.

A Selection of Ignorant and Bad Faith Questions from the “Gaming Community”

Q: Isn’t this like firing a waitress for being rude towards customers?

No, because:

  • Price’s job isn’t serving the public, and it’s not what she should be judged on primarily.
  • Price wasn’t even on the job when tweeting.
    • “But she has her company name in her Twitter profile!” Oh my god, that changes everything, doesn’t it? Because if she didn’t have her company name in her profile, she shouldn’t be fired?
  • Only in the US do waitresses get instantly fired for being rude to customers. The notion this should be copied by the international gaming industry highlights the disturbingly authoritarian and servile nature of parts of the gaming community.

Q: Price is the one being sexist!

It is admittedly impossible to know whether any single instance of mansplaining is down to sexism or just because someone is naturally a bore, any more than you can really ‘know’ that Sony hates the idea of cross-platform gaming or maybe it’s just somehow mysteriously really difficult to make Fortnite work between PS4s and Nintendo Switches.

But in both cases, we’re observing a pattern of behaviour as a woman, or as a PS4 gamer. After we’ve heard Sony tell us a dozen times why it’s impossible for PS4 owners of game to play with others on the Xbox or PC – even as the rest of the games industry has accomplished this with ease – one can reasonably conclude Sony’s overall corporate strategy is to prevent cross-platform play.

Likewise, even as an individual woman, after you have encountered mansplaining for hundredth or thousandth time – after you have seen your male colleagues not being afflicted to the same degree – you can reasonably conclude: no, it’s not just you, it’s not that you’re unlucky, it’s that the world in general is sexist, just as Price does in this case.

I suppose I have a tiny smidgeon of sympathy for Deroir being the straw that broke Price’s back. Maybe there are others who deserved it more. But hey, we’ll all forget about this in a few week’s time and Deroir will move on to other things, while Price was fired and no doubt lost thousands of dollars.

It’s a very, very tiny smidgeon.

Q: Deroir is an important Arenanet Partner, Price is damaging Arenanet’s business with her tweet!

OK, so it’s as if some artist at Marvel Studios snapped at Robert Downey Jr., a person arguably critical to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, right? Because we’re acting as if an “Arenanet Partner” is an especially unique and prestigious position to attain, rather than being one of more than a hundred bloggers and streamers that anyone can apply to join.

Deroir has around 2000 Twitter followers and 8000 YouTube subscribers – and this is after all of the fuss, which has no doubt inflated his follower count. This puts him solidly in the middle of the Arenanet Partner pack, which I don’t think any employee at the company, other than those in social media, could possibly be expected to memorise. This is not to belittle his importance, it’s to put things into perspective.

Q: Price doesn’t need to be on Twitter – if she can’t take the heat, she should stay out of the kitchen!

Some people online expect game designers, writers, politicians – basically, anyone with more than a modest following – to be unfailingly polite in their interactions with the community, while having zero expectations of reciprocity from community members. In other words, ‘public figures’ are meant to soak up unbelievable amounts of abuse with total grace.

This is wrong. Conferences, conventions, and forums all have codes of conduct. Large public organisations like the NHS and Transport for London make it very clear that while they expect their staff to be polite, they will not tolerate the abuse of their staff. This is in stark contrast to many games companies, who tacitly encourage this abuse by tolerating it and in this case, firing two employees.

If Arenanet are unhappy with how Price spoke on Twitter, they should also be concerned about their employees’ welfare on Twitter – and they obviously aren’t.

Separately, it’s very useful for people in the game industry to be on Twitter. It helps you find new jobs, get invited to conferences, and learn from colleagues. Not everyone has to do it, but you can also achieve positive things, like give advice to people new in the industry. Price’s now-forgotten Twitter thread that kicked all of this off demonstrates her genuine thoughtfulness towards her job, the Guild Wars 2 community, and to the whole industry. It’s clearer and better written than what most game designers can accomplish.

It’s not an attack on the community. It shows her love for the community.

Q: What about Free Speech? People should be able to say what they like and not get fired!

lol jk, literally no-one said this.

Who We’re Responsible To, as People Who Run Games Companies 

I run a games company. It’s much smaller than Arenanet but we still have hundreds of thousands of active players. It’s not an easy job because you have a lot of different people to answer to.

There are the shareholders and owners of the company. You have to make sure their interests are represented and that you don’t flush all their money down the toilet. Then there’s your customers. You have to take care of them, otherwise they might turn to your competition.

And there’s your employees, the people who do the work that makes you money and produces your games. It is a sad reality of late-stage capitalism that many company owners treat employees as interchangeable, because from the perspective of a spreadsheet, they essentially are. But from a human perspective, they most certainly are not.

I would never fire an employee if they had done what Jessica Price did. I might have a word with them, especially if it kept happening. But I’d also make sure they weren’t being constantly attacked on Twitter. I hope that most CEOs would do the same.

The thing is, you shouldn’t have to hope. My employees don’t have to worry about this because they live in the UK. Arenanet is based in Washington, an “at will” employment state where employers can terminate employment without providing a reason, at any time. In the UK, employees have much stronger rights, whether or not they’re in a union.

I support my friends and colleagues in the US who are fighting for better employment law and unions.

I encourage other owners of games companies to remember who they’re responsible for – not just shareholders, not just customers, but their employees.

And once more: Jessica Price shouldn’t have been fired.

Reassessing Persuasive Games

 

Sadly, I’ve always thought persuasive/serious games were more about generating good PR than actually persuading anyone – at least from the funders’ perspective, who were usually charities and non-profits. I say that as someone who (IMO) made some pretty good “serious games”. The wildly overblown claims from certain corners that “games will save the world” and inflated engagement statistics also didn’t help in the long term.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot for a potential book, and part of the problem is tied up into something I call the “mapping problem”, in which it’s very challenging to design a game to ‘solve’ specific kinds of problems – especially ones that we don’t fully understand – whereas gamification proponents have always claimed a one-size-fits-all solution.

(And for the millionth time, I dearly wish we could go back to blogging. Trying to read longform text via Twitter screenshots is just awful)

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery forces you to pay – or wait – to save a kid from being strangled by Tom Phillips:

You have a finite bar of energy you can hold at one time, and when this is depleted you’ll need to pay up or just wait it out and keep checking back before time runs out. You regain one energy point every four minutes, and there’s no way to regain energy for free doing another activity. The only challenge involved is remembering the game’s clock is still ticking away while you’re doing other things, so you can then return in half an hour to finish what should have been a two minute experience.

The first time the game engineers you will run out of energy is in its first action scene, where – creepily – your character is left in a life or death scenario while you wait half an hour to continue. Charitably you could say this energy system adds a certain cliffhanger-esque nature to Hogwarts Mystery – but the amount of energy needed is a completely arbitrary number, and one deliberately designed to fully deplete your energy bar. The game encourages you to make a purchase and continue immediately rather than wait and leave your avatar suffering. It is especially troubling when you consider the game’s audience.

Too Far From Noise

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As a ‘story game’ aficionado, I was hoping to like the well-reviewed and App Store-featured Far From Noise. It is very pretty and it touches on themes like depression and anxiety and despair that are not typically covered in pretty games.

Sadly, I found the game overlong and repetitive. Believe me, it’s not that I don’t understand magic realism or that I need constant action and input, but rather that it is superficial, poorly written, and mistakes childhood anecdotes with character development. It isn’t Philosophy 101 – it’s Philosophy 001.

I don’t find it especially interesting or satisfying to dunk on Far From Noise, given the evident heart poured into the game by its creator. I’m more interested in exploring why it was so well-received by the games press, but I’m also wondering how I can do that without coming across as an enormous asshole who thinks he understands philosophy and games more than anyone else – and believe me, I don’t.

So I’ll try it this way: if you want to read or watch a tale about depression and despair, there are plenty out there for every kind of taste. But if you want an interactive experience that isn’t a text adventure, there are slim pickings indeed, so when a pretty game comes along that references Thoreau and Emerson, it’s praised despite its considerable shortcomings, so as not to discourage others. And given that the games industry exists in a continual state of half-imagined, half-imposed inferiority to ‘higher’ art forms, it’s not surprising that people celebrate the few games that tackle more serious subjects, especially if those games have nice graphics and are bug-free.

The generosity of games reviewers towards Far From Noise doesn’t necessarily stem from ignorance or naivety or insincerety, but rather from their desire to grade on a curve – to judge it solely against other games instead of other media. Perhaps you think that’s appropriate, but I think it holds games back. It makes it difficult to distinguish truly great and beautiful games like Kentucky Route Zero from mediocre games like this one.

We should not be ashamed of expecting better.

Ninja’s Fortnite tournament, a fascinating mix of streaming, participation, $75 paid entry, and prizes ($2500 if you kill him, $2500 if you win a game), reminds me of what broadcasters like the BBC were trying to do in the 2000s. Back then, the tech and logistics for ‘massive’ games was too expensive, but it’s finally here now.

Brutal: CCP pulled out of VR game development because the reception was “even below our lowest expectations.”

I’m still long-term bullish on VR, but it seems like there are several big problems to solve, one of them being the friction of just starting a game, something echoed in the interview: “The ceremony of putting on a VR headset; I often liken it to putting on scuba gear to go diving. Scuba diving is an amazing experience, but it’s a lot of gear to put on, and when you have it on it’s isolating, disorienting.”