Archive for November, 2009

Valve Is Not Your Enemy

Valve and Steam seem to be taking fire from a lot of quarters these days.

Last week, Direct2Drive, GamersGate (digital distributors hate using the space bar), and Impulse announced they would not be selling Modern Warfare 2 so long as it included a mandatory Steam installation in order to activate the game. In effect, you could buy the game from any number of sources, but you could only play it through Valve’s online service.

A few weeks earlier, Gearbox’s Randy Pitchford made a mostly incoherent attack on Valve and Steam, saying that while he trusted Valve, he did not trust Valve. You read that right. Apparently Randy Pitchford, regular guy, trusts Valve but Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox Software and “guy in this industry,” sees a dangerous conflict of interest. Valve is a developer in competition with other developers, but it is also a distributor that markets games from those competing developers.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that Pitchford’s stance has more to do with resentment than with actual business conflicts. While Gearbox has enjoyed a lot of success and produced a number of excellent titles (and superb expansions, back when that was their business), it has produced no franchise that is even within shouting distance of the Half-Life series, or the Source-powered juggernauts of Left 4 Dead or Team Fortress 2. More obnoxiously, Valve is sitting on a gold mine with the Steam platform, and its former peers and competitors now rely on Valve to sell their games.

But when Pitchford argues that Valve’s position as a game developer poses a conflict of interest with its role as the owner / operator of Steam, I lose the thread. First, Valve is not in a position where it needs to sweat the competition from other developers. Second, it is still in Valve’s interest to see that other developer’s titles do well on the platform, and to ensure they get a good deal compared to other outlets.

Frankly, as someone who purchased Gearbox’s entire Brothers in Arms series through Steam, I think Pitchford underestimates just how symbiotic his relationship with Valve actually is. When Hell’s Highway stalled at retail amid mediocre reviews and WW2 shooter-fatigue, it was on Steam that the game got a new lease on life through heavy promotion as a featured discount deal. It’s on Steam where a company’s back catalogue stands the best chance of being noticed and purchased by consumers, because Steam is omnipresent on PC gamers’ computers. When you open the program, it notifies you about important deals, some of them on games several years old.

Furthermore, the number of independent developers who have come to Steam’s defense says quite a bit about how Valve treats the people with whom it does business. From generous and straightforward contracts through promotion to prompt payments, Steam offers developers a number of good deals. So what, exactly, is so broken that it needs to be fixed?

I’m similarly confused about what the other digital distributors are up to, because their given reasoning seems a bit disingenuous. My hope is that it’s a publicity move aimed at getting the attention of the PC gamers who have already written off Modern Warfare 2 due to Infinity Ward’s antagonism to the platform where the franchise originated. Even though their objections are completely different, the other services are casting themselves as consumer advocates sticking it to a game that’s already unpopular with many of those consumers. Superficially, it looks like the other distributors are joining PC gamers at the barricades. If those gamers started voting with their dollars and made an effort to support these newfound allies, it would be to the benefit of Direct2Drive, GamersGate, and Impulse.

Still, it’s important to note that these services are boycotting Modern Warfare 2 for one reason only: it forces gamers to use Steam. Infinity Ward and Activision don’t care about this so long as Steam also provides them with good, uncontroversial copy-protection. But the distrbutors resent the hell out of this, because it means that they are being forced to grant Valve access to their own customers. Where you have to actually navigate to and browse around GamersGate’s and D2D’s websites, Steam constantly runs in the background while you are using it, always ready to provide a helpful reminder about a sale. From the other distributors’ point of view, they are being forced to cut their own throats.

From this consumer’s point of view, however, their reasoning is small-minded and not a little hypocritical. For one thing, it was seeing how well Steam worked that I became comfortable enough with digital ownership that I started trying the other services. I heard about Paradox’s anniversary sale on Steam and that led me to the Paradox-owned GamersGate, where there were even more items on sale. I was put off by a lot of negative reports I heard about Direct2Drive back when it launched, but I only recently felt confident enough to buy from them. Prior to Steam, however, I was a die-hard “physical ownership” kind of guy. Steam hasn’t just created Steam customers. It has created digital customers.

More annoying, however, is the self-righteousness of this boycott. From Direct2Drive’s Modern Warfare 2 page:

Thanks for your interest in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 from Direct2Drive.

At Direct2Drive, we believe strongly that when you buy a game from us, you shouldn’t be forced to install and run a 3rd party software client to be able to play the game you purchased. Because COD MW 2 requires you, the consumer, to do that, we aren’t able to offer the game via Direct2Drive at this time.

I strongly believe that as well, Direct2Drive. But I’m not certain you do. Because I find you are still selling Dawn of War II, which requires the odious Games for Windows Live “service” for online play. It will load every time I run the game regardless of whether I’m actually playing online.

I can also buy Grand Theft Auto IV via D2D, despite the fact that that game requires me to install Rockstar Social Club in order to play it. RSC provides, as nearly as I can tell, no real service and is just another way that the developer retains control of its product. I suppose since it is Rockstar it is not really a 3rd-party program, but it is nevertheless astonishingly consumer-unfriendly.

Nor does Impulse seem like it is standing up for the little guy. The problem with Steam, from Impulse’s point of view, is that it got to PC gamers first and is now in the exact position Impulse would like to occupy. The chief difference between Impulse and Steam is that Impulse has never had a product as successful as Half-Life 2 with which to leverage itself. But what is to be expected from a company that routinely brags about its DRM-free approach to publishing while tying its games to an online authentication service / storefront?

As for conflicts of interest, who is kidding who? Impulse is an arm of Stardock, a game developer just like Valve. Direct2Drive is owned by IGN, which is in turn owned by News Corp. You might know IGN as a site that reviews the games that it is also involved in selling. GamersGate was created by Paradox, another developer / publisher.

My worry here is that forces are lining up to try and change the way Valve does business, and I don’t see that consumers stand to gain anything from such changes. Not only are Valve and Steam the devils I know, but I don’t see them as devils of any sort. I have far more reasons to be skeptical when I hear the envious and the ethically compromised taking a stand in the name of integrity and consumer protection.

Ambivalently Ambivalent about Glee

My partner and I were really enjoying Glee until one of us, I don’t remember who, pointed out that it seemed to be a bit misogynist. Now that’s practically all we can see.

We were slow on the uptake because the show seems upbeat. It’s like Star Trek in that major issues are often resolved in the last few minutes of every episode, except that the solution is always, “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” It’s an MGM musical for our times, where every character becomes the best version of him or herself the moment the music begins to play. It might be even more uplifting, because between songs these are not Fred Astaires or Judy Garlands. The teachers and students of Glee are the sad lost souls of the Heartland living out Springsteen lyrics while dancing to Broadway melodies.

I love this premise, but Glee’s handling of sexuality and gender leaves a bitter aftertaste. Underneath the charm lurk a bunch of nasty archetypes I hoped TV had outgrown.

Let’s start with Kurt, the gay high school student, because he is the canary in Glee’s coal mine. In the episode where he comes out to his father, we find him re-enacting the “Single Ladies” music video with two girlfriends in his basement. While I get that the show is always eager to find excuses for its characters to bust a move, must the only openly gay boy in the show spend his leisure hours working on choreography?

At the end of the episode, he comes out to his father, who is totally unfazed. He has always known his son is gay, he explains, because when Kurt was three, the only thing he wanted for his birthday was “a pair of sensible heels.”

In a later episode, when there is a girls vs. boys competition in the Glee Club, Kurt assumes he is on the girls’ team. He is incensed that Mr. Schuester directs him back to the boys’ side of the room, and later betrays them to the girls, explaining that his allegiance is still with them.

An episode or so after that, he ends up with a Slushie all over his face. His response is to turn to his girlfriends and say, “I need a facial, STAT!” They all duck into the ladies’ room together.

In addition to the fact that none of these gags are actually funny, they are also indulging in cheap, inaccurate stereotyping. The gay boy considers himself a girl. He loves cross dressing. He just wants to sing and dance with his only friends, the girls. Caring for his delicate skin is the most important task in his life.

One thing that I have never seen with my gay friends is gender confusion. They don’t think, “I like boys, so I’m a girl.” They are men who are interested in other men. They might make jokes about how they are preternaturally good dressers, but they aren’t actually spending hours trying on women’s shoes or exfoliating.

What really pisses me off here is that Glee is trying to pass itself off as a modern show that embraces the values of tolerance and understanding, but then turns around and others the only gay kid in the show. It’s completely backhanded.

It’s the insidiousness of the female characters, however, that’s most disturbing. The show revolves around two love triangles. The first is that of the teacher, Mr. Schuester, who is in a loveless marriage to Terri, while he and Emily, the school guidance counselor, pine for one another. The second is that of Finn, the quarterback and the lead male singer in the Glee Club, who is dating the head cheerleader, Quinn, while he and the best female singer in Glee Club, Rachel, pine for one another.

To recap:

  • Will and Terri = Married.
  • Will and Emily = In Love
  • Finn and Quinn = Dating, expecting a baby
  • Finn and Rachel = In Love

Will and Finn are the good guys of the series, a pair of kind-hearted Lost Boys who have been ensnared by treacherous women and are being kept from the happiness they deserve with the Good Girls. Will’s psychotic, manipulative wife is faking a pregnancy in order to preserve their marriage. Finn’s girlfriend, Quinn, is pregnant and has decided to keep the baby.

Naturally, Quinn is lying to Finn. She’s telling Finn that it’s his baby when it is not. She cheated on him with his best friend. In fact, she and Finn have not even had sex.  He thinks that because he ejaculated while sitting in a hot tub with her, she somehow got pregnant. Finn is too naive and ignorant to know that’s impossible.

(It’s worth mentioning that the friend is absolved of any real wrongdoing here. He goes on being the lovable reprobate who is guilty about what happened with Quinn, but nothing more. Quinn is the betrayer here. He’s just following his horn-dog instincts. This is almost identical to the way Glee creator Ryan Murphy’s other big hit, Nip/Tuck, handled the relationship between Christian Troy and David MacNamara. Christian and David’s friendship trumped any reprehensible thing Christian might do because, hey, you can’t blame a man for screwing.)

Meanwhile, Will’s wife is claiming to be pregnant and is using a small cushion to fake a bulge. Will does not think it’s odd that he hasn’t seen or touched Terri’s stomach in months, and Terri has cut a deal with Quinn to take her baby when it is born. Quinn will go on with her life, and Terri will produce the baby that will save her marriage.

Terri dodges a bullet by using her stupid, cow-like sister to blackmail the OB/GYN into cooperating. Terri’s sister has been cranking out babies, “each one dumber than the last,” and she threatens to sue the doctor and ruin his reputation. The doctor goes along with Terri’s deception.

Notice a pattern here? We have two good, decent men who have been ensnared by a mysterious reproductive system they do not understand, and women who use their uteruses to trap them and ruin their lives. One of the women is aided by her sister, who speaks with a rural accent and craps out kids.

Ah, but if only Finn could get with Rachel and Will could get with Emily! These are the good women of Glee, who are above all defined by their adoration for the show’s male protagonists. Rachel is a sweet, loyal, generous girl who is unpopular despite talent and beauty (welcome to TV high school). Emily, on the other hand, is an awkward guidance counselor with a phobia of being touched or otherwise experiencing contact with another person. Ball of neuroses that she is, however, she finds a horse-whisperer in Will. She, too, is loyal, selfless, and honest.

To summarize the lesson:

  • Bad Women use sex and childbearing to ruin men’s lives.
  • Good Women are loyal and selflessly supportive.

Which leaves one last character to consider: Will’s nemesis Sue, the cheerleading coach.

Sue is unquestionably the strongest, toughest, and funniest female character in the show. The only thing she values is winning, at everything, and right now she sees the Glee Club and its charismatic coach as a threat to her primacy as the only winner in a high school full of losers. Worse, the Glee Club actually threatens her cheerleading team, as it is pulling cheerleaders into its orbit. Cheerleading is no longer the only thing her her girls’ lives. So Sue must destroy Will and his little club, using ever more nefarious and hilarious means.

Unfortunately, Sue is also not a Real Woman.

We know this because she is always wearing a track suit and has her hair cut very short, giving her an androgynous look. She bites out her words like a Lee Marvin character. There is no one and nothing in her life. In contrast to Quinn, who is always in a cheerleading outfit, and Rachel, who is usually in some variant of the Sexy Schoolgirl outfit, Sue stands out as the one sexless character in the show.

For one episode she mellowed, appearing to be on the cusp of turning into a good person. We saw her dancing and laughing with Will. The reason? She had developed a crush. She was suddenly (and unrealistically) in love, and it changed everything. Naturally, about 3/4 of the way through the episode, the relationship collapsed. She caught him with another woman, and the relationship ended. Prior to this, it’s worth noting that she had mistakenly bought a zoot suit for a dance date, not understanding that the men wore the zoot suits.

Immediately thereafter, Sue went back to being a vindictive bitch. A man briefly feminized her, transforming her into a sympathetic character, but when he spurned her she reverted to being the harsh androygne.

My problem with Glee is that it’s a decent show that uses heteronormative stereotypes for cheap laughs and as plot elements. There is not a single character that really cuts against the grain of gender roles, despite all the “quirky oddballs”  in the cast. It’s a show that is so charming, you may not notice that its sexual politics are disgraceful. But they are, and once you spot them, they color every scene and every line of dialogue. The show is still enjoyable, but there’s something rotten at the heart of it that always leaves me uncomfortable as the credits roll.

Videogames and Defeat

My latest article at The Escapist focuses on how videogames handle defeat, and how they often choose not to. I look at a how a few high-profile games have chosen to tried to make war an unequivocally positive gameplay experience. Then I consider the way wargames and sims, despite a reputation for bloodlessness and abstraction, can end up bringing us much closer to the experience.

Since it’s been on my mind so much lately, I use Silent Hunter III as an example of the way an unaffected, straightforward military sim can elicit a tremendously empathetic reaction. I’ll probably explore this idea a bit further here on the blog.

The article is called “The Agony of Defeat”. You can read it here.

Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare: Play :: Pornography: Sex

One thought keeps recurring when I play Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare: “Why even bother?”

Followed by the corollary: “Is this really what people want?”

I finally finished the single-player campaign for the first time. This was an overdue playthrough, certainly, but I could never quite bring myself to buy the game after I tried the demo. My friend Lange gave it to me when I asked to borrow it, saying that Modern Warfare had left him utterly cold. Now I see why.

Imagine how cool this would be if you were actually playing.

Imagine how cool this would be if you were actually playing.

I started to get a bad feeling during the very first mission, as my team boarded a storm-tossed freighter. The scene was evocative, but as my SAS team swept across the deck, I did not feel like I was in control of my character. It felt like if I took my hands off the keyboard and mouse, “Soap” MacTavish would continue to move toward the hatchway below the bridge. The whole thing reminded me of those times when you’re playing split-screen multiplayer and you are looking at the wrong window, thinking you’re in control while watching someone else play.

I don’t remember previous Call of Duties having such a strong sensation of being on a conveyor belt. They were heavily scripted, yes, but I felt like I had some freedom in the space between the trigger points. Now I constantly feel like I’m tugged along against my will. The effect extends to the way the game looks. I always feel crowded and claustrophobic, because all the characters seem to suffer from tunnel vision. Trees, buildings, and other types of cover cut deeply into the level maps. Whether I’m in the Ukrainian countryside or a subterranean missile bunker, I am always fighting in alleys.

The scripting is likewise more in-your-face than almost any shooter I can remember. The game practically revels in your sheer lack of agency. This is what I noticed in the demo, and why I couldn’t quite bring myself to get excited about the thought of the entire game.

Modern Warfare, making sure you know your place from the start

Modern Warfare, making sure you know your place from the start

In the part of the game excerpted for the demo, you and your Marine squad start taking heavy machine gun fire from a tenement house. I took cover behind a car and heard the Lieutenant start yelling something about how we needed to get around these guys. I took one look at the constellation of muzzle flashes and the deafening roar of heavy weapons and thought, Are you out of your fucking mind?

I kept shooting machine gunners and riflemen from my cover position, trying to suppress them enough so I could move, but within a second or two of clearing a window, a new gunman would take over the position. This went on and on, and I had this vivid flashback of a game I had forgotten: Hogan’s Alley, a lightgun game for the NES. Almost twenty years later, Modern Warfare was feeding me the same game mechanic.

Feel free to keep shooting. Or dont. It doesnt matter.

Feel free to keep shooting. Or don't. It doesn't matter.

This sequence turned me into a lost sale, and it repeats throughout the game. At another point I was tasked with destroying some BMPs while fighting off waves of Russian ultranationalist soldiers. I noticed a few streaming out of a hangar and gunned them down with my SAW. Before I could turn away, however, a few more came out of the same hangar. Then a few more after them. Then more. Every two seconds, someone came out, marched into my crosshairs, and joined the growing pile of corpses outside the building. It was like a cross between a clown car and a batting cage, far more Hot Shots Part Deux than 24.

The nail in the coffin, however, is Modern Warfare’s passive-aggressive level design. Time again, I find my progress blocked because I am not going to the magic spot that Infinity Ward has decided is the correct place to fight, or I haven’t identified the correct route through an encounter. Whenever I am in danger of improvising, I can practically hear the game turning into a Woody Allen character. “Are you sure? You’re positive this is the best way to handle this? Because in my opinion, and I say this with all due respect, your plan may be the worst thing conceivable. I just want the record to show that I was not responsible for what you are about to do.”

But even if you try to be an obedient little drone, Modern Warfare won’t make clear what it actually wants. It will demur. “Oh, I don’t know where you should defend from. Anywhere seems like it could work. I don’t want to ruin anything for you. It’s your game, after all, not mine.”

The game has many sequences that behave this way, but I think the quintessential example has to be the last stand beneath the Pripyat Ferris wheel. You set your wounded comrade, Lt. MacMillan, on a ridge where he can command a wide field of fire. Then you get hit by wave upon wave of Russian troops while waiting for exfiltration.

I tried to defend my spotter / team leader, but kept dying while the rescue chopper was about 4 klicks out. Oh, for awhile it was a heroic gunbattle as I gave ground while leaving piles of Russian dead in my wake. I was furiously setting traps, detonating charges, and switching between my rifle and my shotgun. But nothing I did seemed to make a difference.

On my best run, I spent my last few minutes hiding behind a bumper car in the back corner. The Russians had a hard time getting to me, and had a tendency to run right past me into positions where I could easily gun them down. This made me think, “What if I tried holding out behind the bumper car platform?”

This shouldn’t work. It meant abandoning my teammate, but of course he is invulnerable. One gimpy Irishman with a sniper rifle turns out to be tougher to kill than Roland. When we finally get Call of Duty: Easter Rising, Connolly will probably get out of his chair and simply kick the Tommies’ asses.

The Russians should just be able to pin me down, lob a bunch of grenades at me, and maybe send some guys around the flank to kill me. I’d say they should be able to get me from behind as well, but it just so happens that a field of radiation fences off the space behind the bumper cars.

Bumper Car Masada

Bumper Car Masada

So I hid behind the track, running back and forth while dodging grenades and watching Russian troops charge up the ridge that I wasn’t defending. Sometimes they rushed at me, but were confounded by the railings at the edge of the bumper track.

Eventually, the chopper showed up, and I walked back across the ridge, grabbed my invincible cargo, and boarded.

There was nothing convincing about my response to this sequence. Everything I did was suggested by the exploitable level design and mechanics. My teammate couldn’t be killed, so I could leave him alone. The Russians couldn’t outflank me because the designers left an obvious corner in the gameworld, and they were also scripted to attack along a single axis. By moving to the artificial corner behind the bumper cars, I also placed myself perpendicular to their path of attack. The scripting was too rigid to allow them to face me head on, so I was able to mow them down as they rushed past.

My objection to this structure is that it fundamentally breaks the contract I sign when I load up a Call of Duty game. They are supposed to, and often have, made me feel like I am in an old-fashioned war movie. But with Modern Warfare, I feel more like I’m on the set of a war movie, and Infinity Ward is the director, yelling at me to use the blocking and hit my marks.

This just about sums up the experience

This just about sums up the experience

What I’ve seen in COD 4: Modern Warfare and World at War has made me seriously skeptical for the future of this franchise. Regardless of how these games perform commercially, they are feeling increasingly antique after games like Stalker or Far Cry 2. This isn’t to say that every game needs to be an open-worlder (far from it, as the Half-Life series continues to show), but there are more and more games that dazzle me with freedom and possibility. Modern Warfare tries to dazzle me with spectacle, but I can never quite bring myself to forget its shackles.