Monthly Archives: May 2013

Don’t listen to “Austrians” about hyperinflation in Diablo 3. Please.

Sooo…looks like the other shoe dropped on Diablo 3’s economy.

I’d written a while back about deflated prices in Diablo 3; about how the auction house reduces everything to money, and about the volume of items meant that there was rampant deflation of the value of goods. Things just weren’t worth much. There was always a flip side to that, though; as the playerbase dropped, as money from play multiplied, and as the players became savvy about which gear was good, there would be bidding wars on said useful gear that devalued gold vs. the cost of goods. Looks like that happened.

But please, PLEASE, Critical Distance readers: before you go running off to read the Mises institute’s analysis of Diablo 3’s economy, keep three things in mind:

1) These guys rant about how hyperinflation is coming thanks to “fiat currency” Real Soon Now all the time. They call Diablo 3 a Virtual Weimar because EVERYTHING is Weimar; either a Weimar that’s happening or a Weimar that’s soon to come. They’ve been predicting post-crisis American hyperinflation for so long now, and been so consistently wrong, that it’s become a bit of a joke. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

2) Austrians really have no place in modern economics. They’re seen as cranks due to their resistance of economic modelling and quantitative analysis, and this is coming from someone who used MARXIAN stuff. Pay absolutely no attention when they start pretending that they’re representative of modern economic thought. Their “laws of economics” are nothing of the sort, which the piece tacitly admits in avoiding discussion of any economic school outside their own.

3) In-game economies tell us almost nothing about real-world economies, because you don’t have “money sinks” and “faucets” and the rules of ownership of goods are completely, completely different. The extent to which the Mises guys try to pretend that “fiat” (read: floating) currencies are akin to an in-game economy just shows how screwy the whole enterprise is.

Sure, it can work the OTHER way, which is why I wrote the Diablonomics piece in the first place. But if you want to do economic analysis based on in-game economies, then you want to look at something like EVE Online, not Diablo 3.

Sure, by all means, check it out as a bit of a fun curiosity. But for heaven’s sake, don’t attach any authority to it.  Anything that includes the line “virtual gold had gone the way of all flesh and fiat currencies” really, really doesn’t warrant it. “Fiat currencies” are doing just fine, thanks.

Edit: Hah. When I wrote that, I hadn’t really plumbed that gabble at the end of the piece about “free markets” and the evils of “central planners” and the like. Folks, these guys have been going on about that sort of nonsense ever since Obama dared to try to rescue the “free market” from itself by doing a bit of stimulus spending back in 2008. Nobody with any sense believes that regulated markets are some sort of Evil Thing. The only smart ones who advocate that these days are the ones who stand to profit from deregulation.

Even if real-world economies behaved that way, games aren’t supposed to be completely free and open in the first place. Games are systems of rules and restrictions. The economies of games are about those rules and restrictions and the enjoyment that the player gets from operating within that space. The whole reason why Diablo 3’s economy was a miserable failure, and why the PS3/PS4 version of the game won’t have an auction house at all, is because Blizzard forgot that. The game’s enjoyment and engagement economy clashed with its gold-denominated faux-economy, and was destroyed in the conflict.

Blizzard’s success with World of Warcraft has everything to do with that game’s careful balance of time and skill vs. reward and chance. And, yes, that’s an economy, since it skillfully and carefully balances scarce resources against each other. It’s just not the sort of economy that these Mises guys understand in the slightest.

If they understood game economies at all, this article wouldn’t have devolved into reciting doctrinaire cant at the end.

Edit: There’s a far better analysis of what the AH did to Diablo 3 here at Joystiq. Yes, it mirrors my own, but it’s still from someone who understands how games work, instead of reciting Austrian Scripture, zombie-like, at the invocation of the word “economy”.

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Microsoft blinks on used games. Good.

So there’s reports floating around that the MS is saying that Xbox One will not charge a fee when you sell a game on.

Instead, what it seems to do is use the physical disc as a bit of a “key”. You pass the physical disc on, and the disc installs the game and then “activates” it on the Xbox One in question, deactivating it on systems elsewhere. I suppose you can “activate” elsewhere using Xbox Live, too; if you have it installed elsewhere and then log into your account, you’ll have the option to activate where you are and then deactivate elsewhere. Hence the “checking in” aspect; it needs to do that in order to make the system work.

Meanwhile, the system will give MS the ability to give publishers (and themselves) a cut of used games sales by big retailers, and (I suppose?) to allow for permanent ownership transfers from one person to another as a part of that. Gamestop et al will be able to get “reset codes”.

Do I like this? Not completely, but it’s sure-as-hell better than how it looked in Wired. This still plays hell with anybody with Internet connection problems, and still means that the console’s useless if the servers go down at some point in the future. If this is how the scheme works, though, then it DOES open up the possibility of digital resale of game licenses. That’s really, really overdue, even if publishers probably hate the idea. I still think it’ll be Steam that opens that door, not Microsoft.

Funny thing is, I still think the Wired article was right. This stinks of damage control. Microsoft knows that they’ve got a PR nightmare on their hands, and that the whole idea of leading off with the TVish stuff and putting the games on display at E3 was a TERRIBLE idea made worse by their decision not to even tease the E3 game roster. The presentation itself should have had lots of fun teasers for games that they’ll be revealing at E3, in order to keep the gamers onside while they rolled out all this set-top box nonsense.

They didn’t, and so gamers’ attention is caught up completely in this half-baked and clearly unfinished DRM scheme. I doubt MS has thought it through enough and I’m SURE that it isn’t finalized yet. The Wired version was probably where they were last week, and now they’re hurriedly revising things to make it less objectionable and even, dare I say it, consumer-friendly.

You know what? That’s a good thing. I like that. It shows that they’re paying attention. It shows that they’re listening. Everybody makes mistakes, especially MS. Where MS excels is in taking a flawed product and iterating on it until it’s good. Windows XP had a lot of problems out of the gate, and it wasn’t until the second or third service pack that it became the OS that people are loathe to give up. Vista was terrible, and it wasn’t until Windows 7 refined Vista that we learned that MS had actually built something really, really great. Iteration, iteration, iteration. It’s why I still think the Surface is going to be a huge deal in a hardware generation or two.

Consoles are no different. The first Xbox was a neat entrant, but it wasn’t until the 360 that they got it right, and the 360 itself had hardware issues until later revisions. Xbox One is an extension of the UI concepts that they’re using on the 360 and in Windows 8, and certainly the Kinect being heavily improved.

It’s when MS thinks that they’ll pull it off all in one go, that they’re an Apple that releases a polished product right out of the gate, that they screw up. They aren’t Apple, or Google, or Samsung. They’re MS. They’ve got inertia. They need to listen, learn, and improve. They do that, and the Xbox One might well become something worth owning.

Edit: Or maybe not? I’m re-reading that Harrison interview and it seems to suggest that you can’t just pass the disc on.

MS, let’s be straight on this. Allowing for store-mediated resale is not enough. If you don’t have a mechanism for users, actual users, to transfer ownership either permanently or temporarily, people are going to be pissed off beyond all reason. It’s perfectly fair to block people from playing games that they’ve lent or given to friends. Each purchase should mean only one user playing at a time. But blocking the ability to lend/sell/borrow/give at ALL is over the line.

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Games are Political. Sorry.

Had a fascinating exchange on Twitter with Dan Amrich, Community Manager for Activision. We were talking about the anti-used game stuff on the XBOX One (or XBone, if you prefer), and after I rebutted his point that people shouldn’t be haters by saying that it’s okay to hate terrible ideas, and gave the admittedly-hyperbolic example of dumping PCBs into public pools as a terrible idea that I feel free to hate,  he busted out the “it’s only games” thing, quickly following it up by an exit featuring the  “you’re mixing up games and politics. Good day sir.”

Mixing up games and politics.

Hah.

Dan, do you even know what politics IS?

Politics, dear Sir, is about the exercise of power. When I studied political science, that was pretty much the entire curriculum. What power is, who has it, how it’s used, where it’s used,  and how it should be used. An entire field based on one concept.

So why is it an entire field of study that goes back thousands of years? Because power is everywhere. It’s all around us. Every day, in every way, in every action we take and every action we don’t take, we are exercising power and being subject to power. It can be as obvious as not taking a candy bar from a store out of the desire not to be punished by the state, or as subtle as the language we use in a casual conversation with friends. Sure, power affects who you vote for, but it also goes into the things you buy and sell and, yes, the enterrtainments you enjoy.

(Hence that whole “the personal is political” line. It’s not that everything reduces to power. It’s that power  suffuses everything.)

Gaming is no exception to that. The entire field is rife with issues of power. The gender issues that everybody’s worrying over right now? Power. The all-consuming discourse over freedom of expression? Power. The concentration of economic power in the hands of a small number of publishing houses? Power. The move of the industry to the locations with the best subsidies for development? Power. The rise of free-to-play on mobile devices? Power.

But the whole resale thing on the XBOX One? The one that we were talking about? It’s more of a power issue than almost ANY of these, barring the gender and identity questions. It pits the power of the publisher and manufacturer against the power of consumers. It pits the publisher’s power of copyright ownership and the manufacturer’s powers of patent ownership against the consumers’ power of media ownership, as embodied in the first sale doctrine. Whoever has the least power may face bankruptcy, fines or even imprisonment.

(Yeah, that’s the thing about power. It’s entirely relative. It’s a zero-sum game.)

Yes, most of these issues are discussed in terms of “rights”. Rights are about POWER. They’re recognized and endorsed entitlements, backed up by the state’s power to punish and the moral power granted to rights-holders in our society. You have rights? You have power. It may not be much, and it may not be enough, but it’s there.

So, no, Dan, there’s no distinction. Everything is political, and this is VERY political, because it’s a move by powerful publishers and distributors to curtail the (very small) amount of power still enjoyed by consumers.

Now, you could theoretically argue that it isn’t important. People do. Dan did, if unwittingly. But I think that you have to be consistent on that. If games don’t matter, if they aren’t important, then, yes, there’s no point granting consumers these powers. But that opens the question of whether and why their creators should enjoy the powers granted by copyright and patent laws, as well as freedom-of-expression laws like the Americans’ First Amendment.

If they DO matter–and this is where I stand–then their creators do deserve the power that come from the recognition of their rights, but consumers deserve the same thing. That includes resale, borrowing, rental, and all the rest.

And, yes, that includes the ones yelling on Twitter.

(Oh, one last thing. Power isn’t always gained or granted at the point of a gun. Moral power matters. Convincing people that you have a just cause in order to convince them to go along with what you want is often far easier and more effective than trying to use the state as a blunt instrument to punish the hell out of them. 

(If you want people to  respect your rights as a copyright holder, the first step is recognizing their rights in turn. That’s why resale isn’t “piracy”. Resale prevents piracy. Something to keep in mind.)

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Xbox One Revealed, Almost Gameless

You’re probably asking yourself “what the hell was THAT?”

I did, for more than a little while. This was a gaming console launch that barely had anything to do with games. “Casual”, “hardcore”, pay-to-play or free-to-play, forget all of it. It was about TELEVISION more than anything else.

What that says to me is that Sony isn’t really the target here. It’s Apple, and maybe Samsung. Microsoft knows that the 360 is their biggest asset right now in the consumer space. Windows is doing well enough,  but nobody’s really inclined towards upgrading their existing PCs. They’re buying tablets and phones to accompany their PCs, and Microsoft isn’t doing that well in those spaces yet.

(Though I do still like the Surface Pro.)

No, if MS wants to be a player in the consumer space, their ace-in-the-hole is the 360 and the XBOX brand. They’ve got a solid lock on people’s televisions, and a burning need to leverage the hell out of it.

That’s exactly what they were doing over the last hour.  It’s a broadside at Apple and Samsung/Google. They focused on TV because their main consumer device attaches to televisions The face that it’s theoretically a gaming console is incidental; games have almost nothing to do with their vision for the XBOX One. Games are an incidental means-to-an-end, and it shows.

They’re probably more interested in free-to-play tablet-style “casual” games than the big ol’ console experiences in the first place, since they’re cheaper to make and are seen as a more profitable and safer investment right now. That may change, as we saw with Facebook gaming, but it’s where things are right now, and this is a console that only looks at gaming right now.

This provides a huge opening for Sony. Almost every time a console is successful, the manufacturer gets arrogant. In the case of Sony with the PS2 and now Microsoft with the XBOX One, they start thinking they can leverage it into control of the living room. Sony backed away from that, which is a large reason why the PS2 was as successful as it was. They made it into a gaming console, and it turned out to be a really good one.

What Sony realized and MS needs to realize is that people neither want nor need a gaming console to be their “All In One Device”, especially when they live their lives surrounded by a multiplicity of screens. They might want those screens to coordinate, but they don’t want some sort of single device dominating and controlling them. There IS no “All In One”, and there probably never will be.  Sony gets that this time. Nintendo’s understood it since the get-go.

Leverage or no, I guess the question is whether MS will figure it out before they get trounced.

(Edit: Oh, and the fact that it’s not backwards compatible is absolutely ridiculous. The 360 is off-the-shelf hardware. This was a cynical business decision that is only going to hurt their brand.)

(Edit 2: And it blocks rental and used games, too! This just keeps getting better. We really are in “everything that’s terrible about PC gaming with none of the good stuff” territory. At least PC games are backwards compatible.)

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Comics vs. Games 2 at the Toronto Comic Art Festival

I’ve been working on a somewhat-lengthy react to Spec Ops (which I’ve finally played), but since I’m waiting on something else I thought I’d give a breakdown of some of the games I got to try out/demonstrate as part of the Hand-Eye Society, Bento Miso, and Attract Mode’s Comics vs. Games 2 and Bit Bazaar presentations during this weekend’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival.

Where is My Heart 

This one did my head in a bit. Like all of the Comics vs. Games exhibits, this was a game that riffed on the comic aesthetic. It seems simple enough at first, with three little 8-bittish monsters running around being controlled one-at-a-time, as a sort of lo-fi Lost Vikings.

Then it changes, and the screen breaks up into comic-style panels that, crucially, are not directly spacially related to each other. You could start up in a panel on the right, move to the left, and end up in a panel above you, and then a panel below you, and then a panel on the other side of the screen, and then two panels above that one at the same time. And that’s just the start; soon you’re rotating the screen underneath one of the characters in order to get them where they need to go. It was around the point when teleporters got involved that I moved on. I want to go back, though.

(by Die Gute Fabrik, published by the Copenhagen Game Collective. Out on PSN, coming to PC.)

Framed

Enjoyable if short iOS demo. This is a murder mystery where you don’t directly control the main character. Instead, you arrange the panels that he travels through, with the story ending differently depending on how the panels are arranged. It’s got a sorta Lemmings-ish feel to it in its own way, mixed with the sort of “Siliwood” look that went away in the 1990s and that I do sorta miss on some odd level. Demo was only about three or four screens, though.

(By Love Shack Entertainment, coming for iOS and other platforms.)

Gorogoa 

This one was almost disturbingly beautiful. It focused on panel manipulation (definitely a theme here), but this time you were arranging panels on a 2 by 2 grid in order to get…fruit? To stop some sort of …monster? I don’t know, it makes sense in the context of the game. You zoom in and out of gorgeous 2D environments, and can shift around the pictures at nearly any time, trying to create serendipitous arrangements that get your character where he needs to be and get him the fruit(?) that he needs to get. The strangest part is when you move a panel and discover a layer coming off, creating an overlay that needs to be used with a completely different zoom level in a different panel. That happens a lot,  it’s not always terribly intuitive, and certain puzzles just felt annoying more than anything else. When it worked, though,  it did a good job of disrupting the sense of space and embodiment.

(By Jason Roberts, coming out later this year on PC and then later on mobile.)

Storyteller

To my intense surprise, this was the breakout hit. It was almost always mobbed with people.  it doesn’t seem like much at first, just a set of panels and some little 8-bit people to place on them to tell little comic stories. But, quickly, the game starts challenging you to create surprisingly difficult and involved scenarios involving those little people, and then continually reveals that you’ve retold classic stories (like Romeo and Juliet, or Waiting for Godot, or even Star Wars) in three panels or less.

People were ENTHRALLED. It wasn’t any longer than Where is My Heart, but while people would just wander away from that one, people would practically camp out at Storyteller. It’s not that there would be any tension or fighting, either; people would be collaborating to try to figure out how to best tell the story, and to pull off the optional “achievements” for telling the stories in non-intuitive ways.  Some of the best players were kids, too; a fact which surprised and delighted me. Daniel Benmergui has a winner on his hands; can’t wait until he releases it.

(By Daniel Benmergui, coming out later this year on PC/Mac/iOS.)

Here’s a few initial impressions of a few of the Bit Bazaar games I played as well:

Beat Patrol

A fascinating and frankly fiendish combination of bullet-hell shooter and rhythm game. The basic conceit is that it’s a one-on-one fight between a little SWAT-alike bounty hunter (that moves like a shooter ship) and a single big alien that shoots out bullet-hell patterns in time with music. His patterns become your patterns; you have to shoot back in time with the rhythm of the music yourself.

The way I described it to people was like a combination of Space Channel 5, The World Ends With You, and a Cave shooter. The game was clearly rough, and there were certain elements (like feedback on missed notes) that needed work. Still, the core is there, and it’s very clever.

(By Daniel Orellana and Patrick Rainville, release date TBD)

Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime

Picture a cross between fl0w and FTL. That’s LiaDS. You and a friend control two little guys that have to manage something like five or six different stations between them in a little asteroid-cum-starship that’s locked in constant battle with an endless tide of killer robots or aliens or whatever. The aesthetic is awesome, like FTL but more so in the cutesy-things-shooting-at-each-other sense, and it’s wildly chaotic fun. Especially when they demonstrated the four-player mode they’d cobbled together.  Picture the shouting.

(By Asteroid Base, release date later this year)

Actual Sunlight

This cross between JRPG and text adventure would perhaps be better called “Trigger Warning”. Anybody who has even a vague knowledge of serious depression will recognize the mental state of the protagonist after bare seconds. After a few minutes of this demo, it starts hitting dangerously close to home. After a few more, it will annihilate you. I hate to even conceive what playing the full game is like.

It’s an important work, but I honestly don’t even know whether to recommend it. Be cautious.

(By Will O’Neil, and you can download the latest build right now.)

They Bleed Pixels

Yes, this one’s been out for a while, but due to my computing situation this was the first chance I’d had to play it. Pity. It’s an instantly engaging cross between Marvel vs. Capcom combat (albeit simplified),  Super Meat Boy’s unforgiving platforming, and Miguel Sternberg’s characteristic (and carefully-thought-out) shareware-era PC aesthetic. I can’t wait until I get to play more.

(by Spooky Squid Studios, out now on Steam.)

So, yeah, there ended up being a darned good crop of indies here in Toronto this weekend. The comics crowd were definitely into the Comics vs. Games exhibit, and Bit Bazaar showed how real-world interaction and engagement can still be important in this era of digitally-distributed-everything. ‘Twas a good time. Even if some jerk did reset one of the demonstration computers that one time.

(Oh, and I finally got to meet Christine Love, who lived up to all my expectations. Even if she is WAY too harsh on Persona 3.)

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