Series Info...Biting The Hand #48:

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

by Jessica Mulligan
April 24, 2003

God, do I need a break. So I'm taking one, at least until Fall rolls around.

This April marks the sixth anniversary of Biting the Hand, six years of continuous publication. In the game industry, that's a long time and, taken alone, would be reason enough for a break. However, there are a number of other reasons for this happening right now:

  1. One of the goals of this column is to have some entertainment value while delivering useful information and insights. When I look back over the BTH columns for the past few months, too many of them just don't have the zing and biting humor they used to have; in fact, I'm really getting stale. That bothers me on a number of levels but, mainly, I just don't want to be stale or uninteresting. There are plenty of writers out there who already fit that bill; I don't need to swell their ranks.

  2. One of the reasons the column is/has become stale is because there is nothing much new to write about. I mean, come one, how often do we need to hear about the same mistakes being made over and over again and what lessons we need to learn, as an industry, from those mistakes? Hell, I could just reprint old columns with new titles and dates and they'd still apply to that subject. Or, who needs to read another rant on the utter stupidity of US politicians such as Joe Lieberman, Joe Baca and Sam Brownback, who use violence in games as nothing more than the old protection game, threatening censorship and Congressional oversight while their hands are out, palm up, to collect campaign contributions from the entertainment industry?

  3. The mission of Biting the Hand is to be a no-holds barred look at the mistakes the industry makes and call them to the general attention of whoever would listen. As most of you know, I've recently begun working directly in the industry again as Executive Producer for the Asheron's Call franchise for Turbine Entertainment. It isn't just that this places time constraints on me, although sleep has become a distant memory; it also limits just what I can write about, and about who, without coming close to a conflict of interest. It also rather prevents me ranting specifically on others' mistakes; I have to keep myself to general issues without specific recent examples.

Now, while a limitation, it can be worked around. For example, I could write in a general way about the past mistakes that are still being made, or rant about American politicians with their hands out...

What it all comes down to, I reckon, is that it is time to step back, recharge the batteries, take a real look at the industry one more time and come back out swinging for Round Seven, even if it means taking on only the broader issues to avoid a conflict of interest.

In the meantime and until we meet again later in the year, let me leave you with some food for thought on some pet peeves:

The 'violence in games' issue isn't going to go away, so we'd better control the debate.

This industry has some of the finest software talent in the world and a public relations machine that couldn't sell immortality if it had an exclusive.

I'm sure the IDSA and IGDA do good work, but challenging politically-motivated drivel effectively isn't on that list. When are we going to learn that to continually react to threats is to let these guys set the time, place and tenor of the debate? Instead of reacting to the 'agendized minority' (yes, I made up that phrase) while they're pounding on us for the occasional game that goes over the line, why aren't we out there with ads asking people the critical question: Do you want any government, be it State, Federal or local, telling you what entertainment or media you or your kids are allowed to access?

Because that, folks, is what this comes down to; letting government agencies call the shots on what eventually hits the shelves. They haven't the courage of their convictions (or too much political savvy) to actually try to ram censorship through Congress or the Supreme Court too often, so they fund 'research' and otherwise try to chill free expression they don't agree with or which makes a nifty campaign issue. That's fine for a private citizen or a group of private citizens; it is not OK for our elected politicians, who are specifically prohibited from legislatively interfering in free speech issues by the US Constitution. If we wanted moral judges telling us how to live, telling us what was acceptable to watch, play or read, we'd elect the Spanish Inquisition to run the country.

I've written about this issue extensively over the past two to three years and it hasn't made a whit of difference; frankly, people are just getting bored hearing about it and the trend rolls on. If companies see a lot of bucks to be made from gratuitous violence, they will buy into it, regardless of the political pressure and campaign contribution cycle and especially if they believe they can make their nut and get out clean when things get too hot. If you think some of these people won't exploit the heck out of this and then leave the rest of us holding the bag, you're just being naïve. And this is perfect fodder for politicians who specialize in appealing to people with warm hearts and soft minds, folks who would rather gradually lose their free speech protection than actually take responsibility for making sure their kids understand the difference between reality and what they experience in games.

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The industry has not been notably out front in attempts to be a moral leader on this issue, unless you count the Academy of Interactive Arts and Science members awarding Grand Theft Auto III two Game of the Year awards. There's moral leadership for you; let's take a game that contains some of the most reprehensible and morally indefensible features ever in a computer or videogame and reward them for it. I really don't care if the game play is outstanding; what the hell were you people thinking? What's next year's crown jewel at DICE, a Lifetime Achievement Award to Mystique for making Custer's Revenge?

I am not advocating self-censorship by individual companies; that is just giving in to politicos who seek to chill expression for their own limited, narrow purposes or use it as bald-faced blackmail for $$$. The only workable solution that I can see is to cut these games off at the pocketbook. Enough of us have to be willing to stand up and say, "I don't care how good the game play is; such 'features' as beating the crap out of hookers for power-ups or shooting strippers to spawn enemies are just plain wrong and I'm not going to contribute to that kind of sleaze by purchasing this game." As private citizens, that is our right and duty; we shouldn't leave it to politicians, because we surely won't like the results if we do.

As jaded as I am, I don't really see that happening; too many gamers are still stuck in a locker room mentality. So what do I think will happen? Well, given the current climate, it wouldn't surprise me to see forceful attempts at enacting censorship laws and a videogame censorship bureau rivaling the Hays Commission of the bad old days. That may seem wildly reactionary and impossible today and I pray I'm wrong about it, but times they are a-changin' and an Empire operates far differently than a Republic. Free speech is under some pressure from our government right now, anyway. When Federal officials can blithely state that anyone dissenting from the war in Iraq is giving aid and comfort to the enemy and pretty much get away with it, what chance do you think content in games will have, if the government needs a softball issue with which to energize soccer moms in time for the elections?

Expect to continue to see the same mistakes made thirty years ago being made by every new entrant into the massive-multiplayer field.

I've come to the conclusion that Nature demands a cruel equalizing exchange; the more money someone spends to enter the MMP niche, the less likely they are to escape the mistakes of the past. Why yes, I am depressing myself; why do you ask?

It is actually more complicated than that, of course, though not easily expressed in a few words. A (barely) less simplistic equation for success might look more like this:

(Development = [Experience in MMPs + Adequate Money + Stable Launch])
(Operations = [Proper Resources + Good Service Mentality + Common Sense]) = Financial Success

Of course, what more often happens is this:

(D = [Rookie + Craploads of M + No SL])
(O = [Punky R + No GSM + Stupidity]) = Dustbin of History

And so it goes. I still believe this is self-correcting over time, assuming the niche survives. I mean, come on; either the lessons will be absorbed and acted upon, or the niche will disappear as a viable opportunity for all but the small number of groups that actually know what they are doing.

Ideas do not a designer make.

Would-be game designers take note: Ideas are a dime a dozen and worth what they cost.

Look, I'm not trying to be mean here, but if you want to break into the industry, you need to understand that concept. Any semi-competent crew can sit down at lunch and toss off twenty ideas before the entrée is delivered. What matters is not the idea, but the follow-through. There's a lot more to this then sketching out a neat idea on a napkin, turning loose programmers to make it a reality and sitting around sipping mint juleps and waiting for the magic to happen.

I mention this because an inordinate number of people trying to break into the biz - especially young people - want to be designers and they seem to have the impression that the 'sit and think' scenario is the norm. I know this because they approach me at conferences and the software stores I patronize regularly and tell me they want to be designers. When I ask them what coding skills they are working on or what mythologies they are studying, they almost always give me a puzzled look, like I just asked them if they'd seen my third arm around anywhere.

This is becoming more of an issue to me. Colleges and art institutes are getting into the act, but they are engaging curriculums in game 'design' that are aimed more at turning out the next FPS or RTS level building monkeys than introducing these hopefuls to the well-rounded education required to be a real designer. That means not just coding skills, but art skills, project management skills and a huge, wide-ranging and mind-bending education in the humanities and soft and hard sciences, such as psychology, advanced mathematics and anthropology.

If you plan to be a designer anytime soon, you'll probably have to pick up those skills on your own, and you need to have them. Well, you need to have them if you want to stand out as a good designer. If that isn't an issue for you, you can always be just another level builder.

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