Simulated Gambling?

EA and loot boxes sure opened a whole Pandora’s Box. The video and computer game industry has been dabbling on the edge with parental and gamble-help groups, but it was more or less time for the whole thing  to blow up at someone. While all this has become more or less mainstream in the current market, and people putting most blame to smart phone games’ microtransactions, the whole thing does lead back to EA in the first place.

To make long story short, EA implemented a virtual collectible card system in UEFA Championship League 2007, which replicated a real life CCG. The system was essential, as you got your characters via this system. It was all virtual at this point, as there was no need to exchange real money for these cards. This system was then later implemented into FIFA, when their UEFA license was up. Andrew Wilson implemented the same system into FIFA 2009: Ultimate Team, with the player now able to pay for these cards with real money. This is where it turned into gambling, as now it was necessary for the player to pay money for further progression, but that progression was up to chance. Chance that EA completely controlled in their closed system, where they could rig the game however way they saw fit. Of course, none of these cards had any value outside the game itself. Skill Up has a more complete history on this model he called Wilson lootbox, and it’s a highly recommended watch. Pay-2-Win model is more or less here to stay.

The game industry listens to what sells, just like any other. Numbers and data is what brings in the hard earned cash. On the occasion, a publisher puts outs a prestige game, a trophy piece, something they can call art. The rest, on the other hand, are all about the hard cash. Just like Hollywood in many ways, with the Marvel movies being Call of Duty of cinema. Sure, it’s fun to a lot of people and makes a lot of money, but is creatively bankrupt and doesn’t stand much closer inspection. It’s not hard to see the game industry wanting to grab whatever further profit they could, just like any other entertainment industry.

Hence, the expansion of Pay-2-Win model spreading far and wide. Sure, it’s easier to pay some buck or two for an in-game item, when the game is free. However, predatory tactics and abusing consumer weaknesses is part of the industry here, as these games more or less stifle your progression without additional purchases, sometimes to a point that you simply can’t proceed further due to in-game stats being against you. Few bucks here and there does stack up quickly, and a buck a day is already thirty bucks a month. With the occasional sales, you suddenly find yourself having paid more than fifty, or if you’re one of those whales these systems abuse, hundreds if not thousands.

The industry regulated itself according to the profits gained, and the statistics gained from various games have allowed the companies to find a sweet spot with the freemium, Pay-2-Win model.

This sort of regulation is lacking, as it completely ignores the consumer. Chris Lee, a Hawaii rep. has proposed a legislation to curb down predatory gaming practices. US is not the only one to take notice of the landslide Star Wars Battlefront II (2017)  has caused, as French senator Jérôme Durain has also issued a letter to the French online gambling regulator ARJEL, which addresses some key-note, like the lack of transparency in drop-rates. PEGI itself has already taken stance on virtual gambling, where a game with such elements automatically getting 12 as age rating, and can go easily up two 18. Pokémon games dropped their Game Corner due to change in this stance around 2006, as that would’ve meant the age rating would’ve shot upwards, limiting their main consumer base.

However, PEGI doesn’t regard loot boxes themselves as form of gambling as such, neither does ESBR. This may change in the future, as Belgium has taken a stance already on loot boxes being gambling due to mix of money  and addiction. Geens notes that the change he drives will take some time, as he needs to go through the rest of Europe in order to achieve his goal. If the issue is taken to larger European Union, and is being backed by a number of countries, things may get hot for game developers and publisher who rely on microtransactions and loot boxes.

There has already been some rippling effects. EA’s stock took a dive after the Battlefront II (2017) managed to garner all this negative attention, with the snowballing effect. While this probably won’t effect much, it is still a notable change. PUBG developers also have stated that they would not add anything that would affect the gameplay in terms of microtransactions or loot boxes. Bungie’s Destiny 2  and numerous other games have been under more specific scrutiny about their systems of progression, with Bungie even cancelling a stream to discuss their experience scaling fiasco.

The direction we’re going with video games regarding gambling is a two-bladed sword at best. One one hand, the industry has taken advantage of the weaker section of the their consumer base. Those who can’t handle themselves yet or understand the monetary values they’re putting into microtransactions and loo boxes have had it easy. Perhaps making payments has been streamlined a bit too much, with reports of kids spending thousands of dollars of their parents money being less than uncommon. While it is up to the parents to oversee their children, we should also look into the design of things.

On the flip side, more governmental control over any industry does lead to over-control easier. Furthermore, actual virtual gambling games may suffer from this for being put into a same slot, if legislation is not accurate enough in its description, or includes simulated gambling that does not include real life money. While mahjong simulations have rarely, if ever, managed to reach Western shores, games may seem these simulated gambling elements removed in favour of lower age ratings, or in worst cases, of they somehow become completely unacceptable. It also makes it so much more easier to put further restrictions on other aspects of games even further regarding whatever, be it violence or depictions of humans. German rules are already harsh, and it would be discouraging to see any similar legislation spreading about.

It’s a thin line the game industry is threading on, but as they say, The greedy has a shitty end.


Knives don’t kill people

Edeka, a supermarket chain in Germany, stated that they no longer sell kitchen knives any longer. This decision was made after an attack was carried by an asylum-seeker in Hamburg. This is, by all means, both incredibly stupid and a failure in service design on their part. It is also a failure on the German officials on not keeping proper tabs on the assailant after, especially considering how many attacks there has been in Germany and United Kingdom as of late, especially with crimes by migrant has seen an increase on German soil. The assailant was found psychologically ill, but it seem he was left to his own devices rather than given proper care. Whether or not he was actually psychologically ill is beside the point.

While the only person who is responsible for the attack that cost a life is the assailant, it does raise the question how he was able to just grab a knife and begin attacking people.  I’ve seen no reports of what brand of knife it was. It could’ve given us a chance to see whether or not the knife’s package was properly prepared in order to prevent the incident to some occasion. I’ve criticised many knife manufacturers for not putting enough resources in their knife packaging, often simply opting to cover the edge of the blade in a cardboard sleeve, if even that. Sometimes it’s a plastic container that’s easily slipped away. Rarely there are packaging solutions that would require a heavy effort to forcibly open within the store, e.g. have a plastic screw going through a hard plastic housing that would prevent both damage to the knife during transit as well any sort of opening of the package without an external tool. One of those vacuum styled packages, that are bloody impossible to open without a knife or scissors, can only protect so far.

All this may sound rather extreme for just a kitchen knife, but a safe package does not only protect the product itself, but also the handler, and in Hamburg’s case, could’ve possibly caused more trouble for the assailant to gain access to a naked blade. Edeka probably never gave a second thought about this, and it is a bit too common to see stores of any kind selling knives of any kind on the open. Knives are a tool meant to cut, and even a kitchen knife is able to severely damage and kill. Edeka could’ve begin to demand their knife suppliers to create better casing for their goods.

Another here is one of safety. While hunting knives and such are often sold behind safety glasses, kitchen utensils aren’t despite of their sharp nature. Rather than pulling knives from sale, Edeka could’ve opted to create a supposedly safer environment where access to the more dangerous tools would’ve been restricted with a safety glass case. That, or an increase in security. Security of course is a problem, and not all smaller stores even have a security guard on-site all the time.

Edeka’s failure to foresee the event is understandable. Kitchen utensils have been sold in supermarkets for decades now without many incidents. However, Edeka’s on the issue is completely backwards, blaming the knife rather than the man wielding their knife. Knives really aren’t the problem here. The problem in cases like this are always the people wielding the weapon.

Edeka’s action is highly questionable, as it shows two things. One is that people still don’t get that slashing is more effective than stabbing. Second is that Edeka has not pulled their corrosive acids from sale as well. Considering an attack with a knife requires close physical contact in order to cause damage, an acid attack can be enacted from a distance. Hell, you could put acid into a slightly modified Super Soaker and start shooting people with it. You can find, for example, effective pipe cleaner sold openly in stores. It’s not uncommon to find sulphuric acid cleaning solutions either. An acid attack may not kill the target outright, but it certainly will incapacitate and damage can be severe. Especially if eyes have been targeted. The attacks in UK are on the news every other day, or so it seems. Where is Edeka’s kneejerk reaction to the possibility of their acidic compounds to be used within their store against other customers? They’ve made a solution that can’t fix the problem. If we’re going to be rather crass with the whole deal, there are few items in a supermarket’s utensils and tools section that couldn’t be turned into a damaging weapon of sorts.

Edeka’s solution is a terrible one, and barely a solution at all. It will cost them money to pull all the knives from sale and they will lose all the possible future knife sales. Depending whether or not this is permanent decision on their part is yet unknown, but I hope they will see the light of common sense and put them back on the shelves. As mentioned, if they want to ensure customer safety, they might want to implement better safety solutions rather than just outright remove the knives.

It also does not offer any solution to the core problem that is the people wielding the knives in order to attack. All these could do is to make it harder to gain access to a knife while out in the open.

Similarly to Edeka’s decision, ministers in the UK are considering putting some restrictions on the sales of corrosive liquids. This would not remove the problem either and would only require future assailants to be more creative in their attacks, or gain access to these items some other ways.

All this really reminds me to remind you, dear reader, to take care of your own kitchen knives. A monthly sharpening and using something like mineral oil (or the same oil you use in cooking) keeps them in a good condition and makes cooking much more enjoyable experience. If you’re looking for a sharpener, and would be willing to pay a bit more for a good one, I have a review up for Vulkanus sharpener. Be sure to store them in a proper manner as well, a manner that does not allow children to easily access them. After all, it’s not the tool that causes the damage, it’s the wielder.

Your own brew of mead

The reason I tend to compare developing electronic games to cooking is that even with the right ingredients you may fail miserably for countless of reasons. This could of course be extended to pretty much any field that requires design, but for the sake of this blog we’ll stick with games.

However, the main obstacle with this comparison is that everybody capable has to learn how to cook something in order to produce food for consumption. We’re side-lining all the modern brouhaha of microwave dinners, because even then some preparations is required. In general, very few people are not inept within the kitchen and are able to use the oven and other appliances for some cooking.

This is not exactly comparable with game development, as one can argue that it takes longer to learn a coding language and create assets for a game. This is of course under the assumption that we have single chef compared to a sole developer. While food is a necessity, games are not. They are a common luxury item to many of us to the point that we barely even realise their worth and are willing to push their value down by any means necessary while expecting high enough production values. To be fair, this blog tends to argue that developing and publishing games as become too costly and grandiose, and should be scaled back and return to form. Video game industry does have its own Hollywood, and the same cores have taken effect; the committee.

Hollywood blockbusters tend to be described committee movies to an extent, with loads of people from marketing and higher ranks having a check-list of things that need to be included in a movie due to statistics and research showing that this and this age group and this and this audience likes certain factors in a given movie and genre. They’re not wrong either. The very reason you have dozens of different flavoured products is that people like certain things in a certain way. The movie being here the whole of pasta sauces and each variant an ingredient of a given movie.

I admit that this blog does emphasize the whole statistics perspective quite a lot, perhaps to a degree that it has given a hidden bias. However, trends are made to be broken, and it’s not beneficial to look just what the paper says works. Ultimately, this approach will only yield one design, one style product that will be repeated to ad nauseam. Film trailers tend to be a prime example of this, where they follow what was proven to be popular to the point of each trailer essentially having the exact same blueprint independent of the movie, genre or studio. An example that pissed yours truly off few times around was the BAWWMMM sound effect from Inception. Let’s not forget the distorted booms and stuttered downers either. Guardians of the Galaxy did set up a new trend for comic book movies with its use of music, for better or worse.

Nevertheless, there’s very little reason to fix what’s not broken. That’s not to say we can’t make previous items obsolete. In fact, we can make any design obsolete as there is no one perfect product out there. Well, the only good contender for that title is the Kikkoman soy sauce bottle, but we’ve talked about that already. Here’s where the whole thing about your own brew steps in.

At home you can produce your own mead or vine and have it taste pretty much perfect to your taste. Same with cooking and games. However, once you step into the market place, your tastes apply very little.

That is to say, whatever a designer thinks may be a great product for the user does not tell whether or not the product in reality is a great product for the user.

We can’t completely separate personal preferences from the cold statistics when producing a product, be it a game, book or food. They need to be married together in harmony that will push through the personal investment as well as present it in a fashion that is relatively easy to digest. This is not an argument for dumbing down, this is an argument for creating a product that comes half-way through to the consumer so that the more intricate aspects of it can be absorbed.

To use an example, we had plays before movies. The jump from one to another, while somewhat drastic in technology, ultimately relies in same core elements while having its own identity as a form of media. Further there we have movie genres, techniques and so forth that have taken the field onwards, both in terms of visuals and storytelling. Consumers have easier time adopting new movie formats and ways things are set up due them being accepted by the consumers, and most of the industry people, to contain valid values across the board.

The same goes for video games, albeit due to harsh crevice existing between the Blue and Red Ocean markets it should be noted that the trends valued in one does not necessarily meet with the other. These values are not just technological or design aspects, but also philosophical and political. As video games are escapism (undervaluing escapism as some sort of lesser act or even detrimental is a topic on its own) there are subjects and things that can be handled well, and that can be forced from a certain perspective towards the player.

The problem here is that the biggest sin a game can do is to take control from the player without their own action, e.g. for a cut scene. This lack of control is best shown in RPGs, where some games tend to showcase a topic through one facet only and ignore all others, deciding for the player in black and white terms what should be done and how. This sort of railroading is done for the benefit of the story and detriments the game’s play.

I would argue that in both game industry and in Hollywood the execs and marketing departments should lift some of the pressure off from the developers, but at the same time these creators should not ignore the audience’s wishes and wants (while aiming for needs.)  The mead you brewed might be the best shit you’ve ever tasted, but your neighbour probably thinks it tastes like piss.

Compliance should be resisted

This week we had a Nintendo Direct. I watched it to keep some of my friends company and report whatever interesting stuff came up on the Japanese stream. The Direct was as expected, filled with video footage rather than gameplay, Iwata talking and acting like a stuck-up wind doll and… that’s pretty much it.

I found the Direct bothersome for some reason. Nothing wowed me. All footage shown from Fire Emblem If to the upcoming Rhythm Heaven looked like something we’ve seen many times before. There was the usual Amiibo advertising with new upcoming Super Mario Bros. branded ones with more neutral posing and something about an Amiibo adapter for older 3DS models that lack support for Near Field Communication.

Then there was news about Wii titles coming to Wii U eShop. This is something that we should be vary of, as this leads to a huge possibility of Nintendo dropping backwards compatibility support, substituting it with selling previous console titles on their next iteration of eShop. Whether or not this come to fruition is an open question, one which I hope to see a negative reply. The lack of backwards compatibility for PS3 games on PS4 was met with an outcry, yet for some reason that outcry died out far too fast.

A new console doesn’t automatically make your old one obsolete. The Super Nintendo didn’t make the NES obsolete because the library is ultimately very different, especially if you take into notice the differences between Western and Japanese libraries. When a game makes the previous one obsolete, it has done its deed. Thus, to make the previous console obsolete you either need to give the consumer the option to directly move their older library to that new console, or produce games that would obsolete the older library. Of course, it’s easier to allow the consumer to move over rather than simply make good games.

That sounds pretty bad, actually.

The length a console lives nowadays is regulated by bullshit. The GameBoy lived long damn time because it saw support. The recent consoles, and by recent I mean post-SNES ones, could’ve lived a tad longer if there had been continued support. The Wii saw a dive in quality, and sales, when Nintendo moved their support to then-upcoming 3DS and Wii U. The same happened with GameCube, N64 and to some extent, SNES. The NES saw support from Nintendo even after the SNES was released with titles like Joy Mecha Fight being released in 1993. Granted, Joy Mecha Fight never saw release in the West, but the US saw Wario’s Woods in 1994 and Europe as late as 1995. Similarly, Zoda’s Revenge; Star Tropics II saw a release in 1994, and while opinions are split whether or not it is better than its predecessor, the game itself is guaranteed Nintendo quality and manages to how the NES shouldn’t be underestimated.

The cross-pollination between consoles and PC side has given a risen to a thought that hardware has overt significance over the quality of the games played on consoles. The comparison can be made with cars; the one with the better engine is not always the better ones. With food, the eternal comparison point with everything ever, would have that a dish with higher grade ingredients may be worse than dish with mediocre ingredients. It’s how they’re used in order to deliver the end-product matters more. Making a system like the Sega Saturn or N64 is pretty damn stupid; you always want the people working with the machines to have easy time to make the best use of them. This applies to other fields of design just as well; a service system needs to have easy usage for the service provider in order to guarantee smooth experience for the consumer.

The evolution of technology can’t be ignored. The more complex consoles grow, the more it will require from the developers. Game design becomes highly important at this point and… here’s where the crux is; nothing in the Nintendo Direct was actually interesting. All the footage shown looked much like various other games before that. To say nothing had a proper wow factor seems applicable. Even when games are relatively new medium compared to others, have we already exhausted everything the medium has to offer? During the Atari and NES era we had saw game that made the previous year’s games look like archaic pieces. It wasn’t just the visuals, but the game design and gameplay. The difference between games released in 1985 and 1986 is rather remarkable. The same can be said of movies of that era to some extent with 1983 being a high year in science fiction movies.

I question if game design has improved during the last decade or so. While there has been tweaks to tried and tested formals with every new sequel, there has been no chances made, not boundaries broken or new frontiers found. While some would argue that Oculus Rift is one of the new devices opening new regions, yet thus far we’ve seen the same game design repeated with new interface.

Evolution is regarded as a gradual process, and that it is. However, when it comes to breaking new boundaries there are moments where there is no gradual changes, simply steps. Similarly we should regard the evolution of gameplay, and games in general, taking steps rather than gradual change. It should not be enough to want same game with slightly different package and a new lick of paint, like a new G1 Optimus Prime toy, but something far more greater.

There is no denial that brand loyalty allowed my friends to hype the hell out of the games seen in the Direct. One almost creamed his pants after hearing about the Rhythm Heaven, despite it being a repackage with new minigames. Of course, what sells, sells. I can’t argue against numbers, and whatever my personal view may be are irrelevant. Nevertheless, there is also the point that games could sell more, like during on the NES, DS and Wii.

Are video game consumers far too comfortable with the current situation in their hobby? We should not be too compliant and demand better service.

Idiot proof

I’ve been getting into somewhat serious cycling lately and this has made me to educate myself on bicycle parts, design, tools etc more than what a general mucking with bikes can give you. Naturally, before purchasing any parts I read about what parts are recommended and their reviews. Often Amazon’s reviews are decent, but just as often they’re horrible mess, showcasing the inability of consumers to understand how products are used.

Such was the case of Shimano’s single sided SPD pedals. In this case, the reviewer had a situation where he (or was it a she?) had installed the pedals to his bike, and noticed how the pedals had destroyed the threads on his bicycle. How this is possible has number of possible reasons; the threads on the bike were not as the consumer thought, or perhaps the Left and Rig pedals were installed into wrong ends at the factory’s end.

The most probable cause however is that the consumer just didn’t give shits about the instructions or double checked how things were supposed to go in, thus destroying both the pedals and the threads in his bike.

Another reviewer had a problem where the pedals were always the wrong way and he had to flip the pedal in order to click his shoes in. Now, there are ways to balance a pedal so that it would always turn the other side upwards. However, that would add both price and weight, two things you don’t want to see in your go-fast bike. I don’t see a person who can’t check whether or not his pedal is the right way putting more money into a pedal that would turn itself ‘the right way.’ We can discuss whether or not this is enough merit to give the product a 1 Star review. I’d say it doesn’t, as there is more that goes into a review than One Thing.

What this all constitutes is that the companies don’t want the consumers to use the products any way they want because of things like this.

Repurposing or modding the product you’ve repurchased is all good when you know what you’re doing. When you know what you’re doing, you should also know, or at least be able to find out, what went wrong if the product says kaput.

And when you have no fucking idea what you’re doing or screwing things up because of both lack of experience and attention to detail it’s the product and the makers are in the fault, right?

Companies don’t like this. There’s a reason why some of the instructions and guides are made so through in most cases and have loads and loads of legal jargon. That’s why it is important to make things easy to explain and understand. In all honesty, deducing Left pedal from the Right pedal is not hard; the pedals have a clearly marked L and R on them to which side they belong to. Of course, one can view left and right from front, thus mirroring the intended left and right. Even then I would believe anyone could notice that the screw threads do not go together when they’re tried on, thus allowing for the realization of things going the other way. And of course there are those disregard everything that tells them that this doesn’t work and it needs to go the way they want and that’s final. That’s not up to the manufacturer any more or the seller, that’s in the consumer who decides to go against the manuals, guides and workings of the product and just breaks stuff. This is natural, thou. I have seen this happen many times, and anger has been part of it. Certain anger just clouds the basic reasoning and we push through wit brute force. The result might be fixed afterwards, or even reversed, but there are lot of products and cases where things are just broken for good.

The more expensive the product, the more visually intuitive the design needs to be and support the pre-existing concepts. The Play buttons has been engraved with that same arrow symbol for God knows how long, and the save icon still has that diskette image, even thou it’s an obsolete icon.

Products like washing machines tend to have, generically speaking, similar icons for same functions, but I have seen slight variations or completely changes icons within same brand family. Actually, there’s even changes in the user interface to a large extent that makes the experience with the previous models is moot. I trust that even the most frustrated, the most butt-angered person would take a clue and pick up the manual.

Manuals are awesome things. While it is true that most useful experience comes from practice, without a manual that practice will come the hard way. Manuals can be a lifeline to the function of the product, like the GameGenie cheat device, as the manual listed knows codes for the most popular games. The Internet wasn’t much use at the time, but nowadays you can find all found codes just with a quick Google search, unless you decide to be adventurous and create your own GameGenie codes. Back in the day you wanted to have a manual with you wanted to use a computer, as simply booting things required few lines of code. DOS commands have become more or less obsolete nowadays, but the Command Line still has some practical uses.

There seems to be sort of no-manual culture with some people. They take pride for not reading manuals and going in cold and learning as they go. I used to be like this as well, but the things that separates a manual and a schoolbook is that manual is not about theory; it is about the practice and how things will go when done properly. Experience is the best teacher by far, and theory is just the start, and manuals are the best way to begin with the experience.

Then again, there are times when manuals and theory just don’t work, and all you need to do is go in and get your hands dirty, and hope for the best. Or call an expert and have things done properly.