Friday, November 20, 2009

Citizen Kane of Games: Can't We Stop the Comparison Already?

This morning I saw some traffic on an old post I made about people who talk about "The Citizen Kane of Games." I brought it back up here to the top because the question still burns strong enough for people to talk about it on the evening news., the site that linked to my post, pointed to Michael Thomsen's appearance on ABC News in which he cited the Metroid Prime Trilogy as the Citizen Kane of Video Games. The validity of the comparison is addressed much better by Magical Wasteland, unfortunately the other discussion is the one on the evening news.

Here is the old post:

A couple nights ago I had the good fortune of speaking in front of a class of young designers, engineers and business people in USC's game program. They are full of great ideas and I am confident many of them will create things I can't even imagine today. Their young minds are so gooey and malleable and they bring the unadulterated exuberance, brilliance and naivete of youth which has not been beaten down by years in the system. They still talk about what they can do, rather than the reasons things can't be done. Their faces look up, rather than down with hunched shoulders. All the more reason for me to be so disappointed to hear they are being shackled by the insecurities of our generation when they asked whether we have seen the "Citizen Kane" of games and if not, when it will be made. I guess this is appropriate. I mean after all, everyone considers Citizen Kane to be the Taj Mahal of games. No, they really don't because that would be stupid. I wonder how long a medium can survive if it measures its success primarily against another media.

This meme started when Trip Hawkins first ran EA ads asking whether a computer can make you cry. This morphed into the question of when we would see the "Citizen Kane" of games. It is also a function of the chip resting on many game makers shoulders over the film industry, and the number of designers who really want to be directors. The Citizen Kane reference is interpreted to apply only to emotional aspects, and not the unique attributes of our medium. I submit, while this is an interesting question, but it is a completely invalid measure of the merit of a game. Film is a medium uniquely tailored to draw upon emotion, it is one of the few tools available to create a suspension of disbelief. It is also relatively easy as the viewer, by definition, cedes control of the happenings to the director. While the is not best known for ability to convey emotion, George Lucas said, "Anyone can involve the audience emotionally, Just show them a kitten, then wring its neck."

For years, scores of games designers worship at the false alter of film and emotion as measures for their art. Enough is enough. Let's stop this and protect our next generation of game creators from this pain. Each one of these media views itself as a stand alone media. Film directors, musicians, architects, sculptors, painters all do great things measured only be the greatness of the thing they did. Why can't we? You may lose yourself of ran afternoon in a great film, but what film made you lose a month?

To say games must convey emotion, or we MUST care about the main character, is to ignore the rest of the colors in the palate from which game designers create. It is also doing a tremendous disservice to designers like Miyamoto-san, who inspired us all through game play alone. No one who lost a month or so of their childhood - or adulthood in my case - to Mario on the NES reminisces about their connection to Mario. The only tear I shed was when I kept running out of time at the last level and had to call the help line to make my way through. The core conceit in a game control. The disbelief is based on the player's ability to move through the environment and interact with objects and characters in a fanciful environment. We don't put a game done because we don't care about a character. We put it down because the game mechanic sucks. Players may be drawn to continue by a connection to the character or emotions created by the game, but the driving force to continue is the game mechanic. A good one will keep you regardless of story. A bad one will repel you, even if it sat on top of The Godfather.

This is not to say emotion and story have no place in games. They do, in certain games. Let's call those "story driven games." Oh, yeah, we already do. Ico is the example everyone always uses, and more recently people talk about the emotion achieved by the Braid and the story portrayed by Bioshock. These are wonderful games but represent only one type of game. Best selling and critically praised games like Call of Duty, Halo or Resident Evil purport to have stories, but they are really no deeper than premises draped over a porn film. No coincidence, as they too are only there to set up the action. You may argue the stories are rich in Halo or Call of Duty, but the hours lost to play are not in the single player story driven part, they are in the completely emotion and story free lands of multiplayer.

Citizen Kane is celebrated today for a number of reasons. Aside from being a groundbreaking work on many levels, it stands the test of time, and continues to inspire film makers not only to greatness, but to get into the business. When my son watches the film with me, he enjoys it. Even though it is almost 70 years old and he is 13, it is not something Dad is making him watch. He is comfortable with it because it is good. Sure, a lot of things happened for the first time in the film, but he doesn't know it. The groundbreaking elements influenced so many other films they are now mainstream, but the ability to see the original allows us to see a sense of where it came from. Until recently, this concept was foreign to games.

Prior to this generation games that stood the test of time were relegated to the scrap heap of non-compatibility. Sure we could go back a generation, and with MAME I can show him the games that ate my time and discretionary money quarter by quarter. But he couldn't play the ones locked on the carts. Gamers and students of the medium, were forced to treat these things like the microfiche I used for research in elementary school. They were oddities, playable only through old systems owned by few and traded only on ebay. With the advent of Xbox Live, Wiiware and PSN, my son, and all gamers can play the original Mario, Joust and Twisted Metal as they were meant to be. We are now inviting a new generation of gamers to see everything and help us define the "classics."

So in our search for the medium defining game, let's shed the blinders of Citizen Kane and ask where we have truly seen greatness. Did one game inform every game we see today? Did one game drive the great designers of today to be a part of the business? Does one game make a team to collectively cry because they know they will never make something so great and come together trying to do it anyways?

When we limit ourselves to emotion, everyone answers Ico. Consensus is building around this one game for the single element. Not to detract from Ico, which is truly a great game, if we expand our view to judge only within our medium, considering all the tools and elements we bring to a game the list would change and consensus would build around a game. It could be the first Mario, Pong, Karateka, Prince of Persia, Madden, Doom or something else. These are just the ones off the top of my head. It may be too early to tell, but I don't thinks so.

As the debate continues, let's keep it in our medium. Rather than asking our students whether the Citizen of Kane has been created, let's see the film school ask whether the Mario of film has been achieved.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Kellee Santiago Explains Why Games Are Not Art: Draw Your Own Conclusion Edition

I am a huge fan of Flower and enjoyed Flow, so I was really looking forward to this talk. I was in the audience when it was given and she did not fail in her attempt to be provocative. While she did not give him credit, she drew from Clive Barker's defense of games as art in his on line debate with Roger Ebert to argue game are not yet art. I was not really sure whether she meant to say
there was no art yet, so I asked her, and she confirmed that in her opinion no one has created art. If I agreed with her, I probably would not post it here. It is a bold statement and I invite you to consider it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Call of Duty Terror: Activision's Contribution too Little, Too Late Edition

I am proud to be an American. While it is not the most popular thing to say in some parts of the world and we often joke about being the "ugly American." I am proud and Activision's choice to involve players in a terrorist act is neither who we are or who we want to be. We are a country of ideals. When our government falls short of our ideals, and it does, we can freely challenge their actions and ultimately vote them out of office. At our best, we challenge ourselves to achieve goals which appear insurmountable at the outset.

Challenges like John F. Kennedy's challenge to go to moon:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Ronald Reagan's challenge "Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall."

Al Michael's commentary when the young, inexperienced US Hockey team beat the Russians in a particularly tense time politically:

"Do you believe in Miracles"

These are just a few that came to mind and I can't think of these events without getting emotional. They are American dreams turned to reality. They draw on Thomas Jefferson vision of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," He knew these rights come at great cost "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it's natural manure" and the cost should be respected. Men and women put themselves in harms way and gave their lives for Americans to have these choices. By placing a CIA terrorist mission in Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, Activision is making the choice to dishonor the very people who provided the company with the ability to make the game.

From time to time our resolve and our commitment to our ideals are challenged and we rise the occasion by answering the challenge and leading by example. We, along with that of the rest of the world, faced a challenge during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor our President Roosevelt called upon the nation to support an effort against a very real threat to our liberty as a nation and to free nations around the world. He recognized the challenged and called for a unified response, not terrorism.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.

Two and a half years later when he sent our soldiers onto the shores of Omaha Beach on D Day, he described very real boys in a very horrible situation.

They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest -- until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men's souls will be shaken with the violences of war.

For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.

Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.

The soldiers did not want to be there. They answered the Call of Duty. Hence the name of the game. The first Call of Duty game was created to tell the story of real people stepping into harm's way to answer their nation's call. Young kids were risking their lives to save the world. They were not trained killers with a bloodlust or pretending to be terrorists. They were scared young men who should have been at home playing baseball and drinking too much beer at the fraternity party. Instead they fought for our freedom. The freedom to practice the religion of our choice, the freedom to set and pursue our own goals, and the freedom of speech. Within that freedom of speech is our right to put whatever we want into a video game. Activision chose to include a level where Americans engage in a terrorist exercise in an airport. But just because they can, does not mean they should. There decision dishonors the people who fought for their rights and puts our country in a bad light. Is this really who we want to be?

The latest installment of Call of Duty allows you to play a character who infiltrates a Russian terrorist organization and engages in a mission in which you kill civilians. Activision issued a statement trying to explain their position.

“Yes it is. The scene establishes the depth of evil and the cold bloodedness of a rogue Russian villain and his unit. By establishing that evil, it adds to the urgency of the player’s mission to stop them.

“Players have the option of skipping over the scene. At the beginning of the game, there are two ‘checkpoints’ where the player is advised that some people may find an upcoming segment disturbing. These checkpoints can’t be disabled.

“Modern Warfare 2 is a fantasy action game designed for intense, realistic game play that mirrors real life conflicts, much like epic, action movies. It is appropriately rated 18 for violent scenes, which means it is intended for those who are 18 and older.”

But the explanation falls far short. These types of portrayals do happen in movies and there are scores of the Government is dirty plots in other linear media. But there is an increased level of responsibility when it comes to a game. There is something different when you ask someone to pursue a terrorist mission in a game and give them a reward for completion. It is condoning the behavior and telling the world we do it. The player is driving the action, not observing. The player is being forced to actively participate rather than observe and react. I remember sitting in the audience at the E3 when the 360 was being introduced. The graphics were something we never saw from a console. When Call of Duty was shown, it looked like we were killing people and when a person was shown being hit by a car, the audience gasped. Not the "way cool" gasp associated with video games, but the "ooooh" gasp of watching Faces of Death. This console generation added unprecedented realism and it is being abused.

Activision's responded you did not have to play the mission, but that is not enough. Rather than a reward for avoiding, or a consequence for pursuing, you just skip it. The atrocity is there, but you can choose to ignore it and move on. Isn't this the very thing we are accused of as a nation? If the goal was to show the depth of evil, and the company feels compelled to show it, let it be played out in front of the player so the player can see the evil, rather than forcing the player to participate and try to rationalize his or her behavior after the fact.

It is too easy to look at it and say "it is just a game," but even setting aside the higher goals of the original game, in the world in which we live, we cannot afford the lack of self respect which drives an American company to portray our citizens in this light. Terrorism's presence is a horrible evil in our world. While we do not have to ignore it, our role as purveyors of medias for world wide consumption should be to condemn it. The messages portrayed in our media inform the world of who we are. Messages cross culture through film, television, books, magazines, the web and with the migration into mainstream, games. What we launch on the world stage is interpreted by people who have no other access to our country as a reflection of who we are. When people who do not like our country or want to do harm to our country use this piece of media in support of their argument, they will not say it is a just a game. They will say it is American. I am not talking about a propaganda spin aimed at gaining "hearts and minds." It is not Activision's responsibility to rebuild America's status in the world. But it is a poor decision to proactively decide to include this level in the game. Given the opportunity, should we choose to portray ourselves as terrorists? The choice to portray our soldiers in this type of mission not only dishonors the franchise, but dishonors the soldiers who fought and those who gave their lives for us to have the freedom to make a game like Modern Warfare. It is only worsened by putting the Call of Duty name on the package. Activision tried to address the issue through statements and more recently a contribution to the Call of Duty Endowment, but it is not enough. The level should not ship. In this case, it is not just a "fantasy action game" and it is not social commentary. There is enough fodder out in the world, that we really don't need to provide more? Why do that, when you can do this?

Do not confuse my position with censorship. Censorship is a government action taken to suppress content. Our Constitution protects us against such an action. My position is a reflection of my voice from a country where I am aloud to use it. They are free to do what they want and I am free to express how I feel.

I tried to do it, but I really cannot say it better than Ronald Reagan in his farewell speech to our nation. I hope Activision is listening.

An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. If you didn't get these things from your family, you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed, you could get a sense of patriotism from popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-'60s

But now, we're about to enter the '90s, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren't sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven't reinstitutionalized it. We've got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It's fragile; it needs protection.

So, we've got to teach history based not on what's in fashion but what's important: Why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, four years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, I read a letter from a young woman writing of her late father, who'd fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, "We will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did." Well, let's help her keep her word. If we forget what we did, we won't know who we are. I'm warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let's start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual. And let me offer lesson No. 1 about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven't been teaching you what it means to be an American, let 'em know and nail 'em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Zynga Gets No Respect: Welcome to the Club Edition

The great American hero is the entrepreneur who can grow a big business from nothing. The great American pass time is tearing down the great American heroes. We should all feel sorry for the hero who builds a game company. The most painful truism of being in the game business is how easily and often we are attacked. No one admits to playing games and the mainstream perception is of a bunch of geeks, sitting in our mother's basements, playing with ourselves in front of a bunch of glowing screens. While the growing audience and mainstream migration belies the stereotype, the attacks continue. It is just too easy to look at games as a vice and tar the entire industry, or in this case, a segment, as bad, because no one really cares. But really, "If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"

Most recently, Michael Arrington of Tech Crunch decided to take a very common fraud and frame it as a core component of one of the most successful game companies in recent memory. He cutely referred to the games as "Scamville" and called the category a bubble. It is one thing for him to write this type of thing for his techy audience on Tech Crunch, but it is another thing entirely when it gets picked up in the mainstream on the Washington Post. The Post readers believe him. They think he speaks with authority and knows what he is talking about. I feel for them - and us.

In reality Arrington discovered there are bad people in the world who will take advantage of others for their own benefit. These people will trick people into providing a method of payment and continue to bill the shill until the affirmatively cancelled. The scam is not new, and depending on the size of the fine print, it is not even a scam. It's called a continuity program and it is employed by everyone from Girls Gone Wild to Proactive Skin Care. When the programs take the form of a subscription they range from difficult to terminate - try finding how to end your World of Warcraft account - to nearly impossible - try terminating an AOL account. Mr. Arrington points to some unscrupulous lead gen companies who feed the continuity programs by hiding the continuing commitment. Yes they are unscrupulous and certainly insidious, but they are no more enabled by Zynga than they are by email. Nor does their relationship with Zynga constitute an ecosystem. They are merely parasites.

Arrington's argument is pretty simple. The press is lauding companies like Zynga for building a very profitable company very quickly but Zynga deserves no praise. A portion of Zynga's revenue is generated from abuse of lead gen clients by bad lead gen companies and the money paid by these companies goes into more lead gen opportunities to further defraud consumers. Therefore the social game industry is built on a bubble and should go away. But the argument is flawed on many levels. The first, is the implied significance of lead gen revenue. Zynga has repeatedly broken down their revenue as one third virtual goods, one third traditional advertising, and one third lead gen. With annual revenue estimated between 150 million USD and 250 million USD, complete removal of lead gen revenue would still leave a company with 100 to 170 million USD in revenue - still quite impressive and not really bubbly. He doesn't stop there though. The major flaw is ascribing culpability to Zynga for actions of its sponsors or clients. Granted, the combination of the lead gen and continuity markets is an ugly marriage, but counter to Arrington's argument, Zynga is not the bastard child of the union. It is merely the parasite's host. The logical extension of this argument is magazines should be shut down for running continuity program advertising, network television should be shut down for selling infomercial time, ISP's should be shut down for allowing all those viagra and ringtone emails and of course, don't forget Google who gets paid to entice you to click on sponsored links.

Just look at it in his words:

The reason why I call this an ecosystem is that it's a self-reinforcing downward cycle. Users are tricked into these lead gen scams. The games get paid, and they plow that money back into Facebook and MySpace in advertising, getting more users. Who are then monetized via lead gen scams. That money is then plowed back into Facebook and MySpace in advertising to get more users.

Here's the really insidious part: game developers who monetize the best (and that's Zynga) make the most money and can spend the most on advertising. Those that won't touch this stuff (Slide and others) fall further and further behind. Other game developers have to either get in on the monetization or fall behind as well. Companies like Playdom and Playfish seem to be struggling with their conscience and are constantly shifting their policies on lead gen.

The games that scam the most, win.

He is blending the lead gen revenue with the ability to spend dollars on marketing. This is simply not the case. As I said, lead gen is only a portion of the revenue, but more significantly, the viral nature of the games means the bigger games get bigger more quickly than the smaller games. Like every other industry, the number one player is bigger than the rest of the top 10. Remember Lycos and Excite? Moreover, Mr. Arrington is only describing what we in the real world like to call "marketing" not an "ecosystem." The only ecosystem is the lead gen company and the shill. Nothing about the relationship is unique to Zynga. I challenge Mr. Arrington to spend a day without being approached by a similar lead gen opportunity - even if he turns off the computer. Check your mailbox on the way out the door. There is most likely a credit card offer in the form of a check or balance transfer opportunity. Endorse the check and you now have a credit card. Transfer the balance at 0 interest and you will be looking at increased fees down the pike. Put that one down and the next piece of mail is a refinance offer. Sign this agreement and we will lower your interest rate - the fine print tells you it is only for a few months. Now go to a store to pick up some clothes. At checkout the kind sales person asks "Would you care to sign up for the GAP, Neiman Marcus, J Crew or wherever credit card today and save 10% on your purchase?" Sure. You just signed up for a high interest rate credit card which will at least temporarily impact your credit score and possibly carry an annual fee. My guess is Mr. Arrington doesn't fall for these things because he is not a dipshit - just like the majority of the people playing the Zynga games.

The people playing the games are sophisticated enough to sign up for facebook and have an email account, which pretty much means, they've seen their share of fraudulent viagra offers. Sure some Zynga players may still be trying to collect the money on behalf of the dead African leader, but if those people fall for it, they deserve it. For the most part, these offers burn themselves out. You can't cheat an honest man. Mr. Arrington acknowledges as much:

And some users aren't dumb, either. For every user who gets tricked into some fake mobile subscription, there's another who can beat the system. That's where the legitimate advertisers, like Netflix and Blockbuster, get hit. Users sign up for a free trial with a credit card, get their game currency, then cancel the membership and start over. Netflix has a policy of only paying for a user once. But game developers use a complex set of partner chains to launder these leads and try to get them through for payment. Netflix sees an overall lowering of quality and pays less for leads. Game developers, desperate to monetize, then search for ever more questionable offers to make up the difference. In the end, the decent advertisers are out, and only the worst of the worst remain.

This is exactly the point. The perfect flow of information on line allows the Web 2.0 companies to self right very quickly. If Netflix and Blockbuster find they are getting gamed - pun not entirely unintentional - they will stop paying Zynga bounties. Therefore, being complicit in the alleged scam is against Zynga's interest. If the offers migrate to the less desirable scam type offers he suggests, the consumers will no longer participate. The value of the object gained is less than cost of the commitment to the continuity program. It is just that simple.

Arrington waits until the end of his post to address the real issue. He points to his public attack of a company he characterizes as unscrupulous. Sadly, he did not put their name in the title, he did not write most of the article about them, and he only mentions them as the actors with mal intent in a single paragraph. Why? Probably because Mr. Arrington generates revenue through attention. A headline snappy enough to draw a reader to his page, or the Washington Post to reprint it. I guess that makes it a lead gen device designed to capture folks so he can generate revenue through traffic, which he will invest in more content, advertising and events, which generate more hyperbolic headlines, which generate more readers going to his site. . . . . .