27 July 2010

VAC a palarva!

So, there was this whole malarky with Valve and mass bannings via VAC, the automated cheat detection software, of supposed Modern Warfare 2 cheaters. They all complained and they got beat on by the community because 'Valve is never wrong'..... then today, Valve admitted that the bans had been handed out in error, apologised, restored the banned accounts, gifted away a free game and it seems everyone has moved on. All hail our Valve overlords, those gracious, beneficent godsons!

Or not quite... at least for me. I've been long-term unhappy with the way that Valve's support system works. They appear to be understaffed, resulting in long wait times for simple queries or issues which are also often written in the form of copy/pasted FAQ standardised responses.... Hey, Valve, if the answer was in the FAQ then don't you think i would have looked there first as when you go to submit a ticket it tells you about 10 times about the FAQ...?

Then there's the whole golden egg in which VAC bans are definitive, 100% correct and are unable to be queried, petitioned or appealed. The logic behind this is that VAC is never wrong. Only that, as seen this week (and in previous instances), it can be.... Since right-minded people know that software is never 100% all the time and that humans themselves can also make mistakes and you end up with a system which is almost, in effect, the gaming death penalty for your Steam account.

I say almost because VAC bans result in the loss of the online portion of your game and all other games utilising the same engine under your account for VAC-enabled servers.... What you will also find is that the account itself it labelled as being VAC banned which can and will result in third parties banning you from their servers if they look at your profile. It's also the case that the ban is permanent. I feel that, for such an infraction (and while i never cheat myself and hate cheaters with a passion) banning more than just the game that you were caught banning on is wildly unfair though many with a scorched-earth, shoot now, ask questions later mentality see these issues as collateral damage in a war in which it is acceptable to have that collateral damage. (These are words from discussions i've had with people in various places like RockPapgerShotgun!)


What gets me the most riled up about this instance is that before, the unquestioning Valve-lovers stated emphatically that VAC was never wrong and if you complained in the forums for being banned these people demonised you, basically spitting on your virtual body with Valve's moderators (and at other places too) doing nothing to stop this.... there's no question of innocence because VAC and Valve are never wrong.

So now we have an instance where Valve has widely and publically stated that the system had picked up a false positive due to "a combination of conditions" (though there have been other times in the past whereby innocent use of mods has resulted in a ban). What this results in is not questioning of the system as it stands but instead people who rally to Valve's banner will now confidently state that if you're banned you're either a cheat OR Valve will rescind the ban and apologise for it. There's no admission that Valve simply will not catch all times that their software and their personnel fail (which will happen) and it means that they can just continue steamrolling away without any real thought towards the consequences to any innocent person crushed by a ban - both through financial/game and also social means.


The support/deterrent sytem needs improving and there are several things i'd have in mind to improve it:

1. Make bans an escalation offense. There's a reason why the death penalty (or any other piece of legislation that effectively destroys that aspect of a person's life) is not approved by the majority of people. Most systems have a graduated response.... after all, you don't lose your car and your driving licence because you went 2MPH over the speed limit once.
  1. First instance of cheating - warn the user that they have been caught cheating via a PM or email and then ban them from online activities across the whole of steam for a week or two. - This gives them time to appeal and also sort out any problems with their account. i.e. if they've been hacked or whatever (imagine if Blizzard or your Bank closed your account every time there was suspicious activity going on in it with no way to appeal or try and sort it out!)
  2. You then get a probationary period after this of, say, 8 weeks in which time, if you are caught cheating again you go straight to number 5 on this list.
  3. Second instance of cheating you get a 6-12 month online ban in the game you cheated in and get a temporary label on your account detailing which game you cheated in.
  4. Once they have served this sentence they get the label removed and are on probation for 6 months. If they break their probation they go onto numer 7.
  5. Third instance of cheating you get a 12-24 month ban in both the singleplayer and online portion of that game and the label is again added to the account.
  6. Probationary period after this is again 6 months.
  7. Fourth instance, you get a permanent ban in the game you were cheating in - both online and offline and people will be able to see that you are banned from the game in your steam account - though there won't be a label on the account next to the name.

So, say, if you are banned initially you would get a ban of two weeks. If your appeal fails you will be playing with extra scrutiny on you in the eight weeks following that. If you don't cheat in that period then you go back to being 'threat level 1' though if you are banned a second time you will be banned for 6-12 months. If you are caught within that first probationary period then you could be banned for 12-24 months. etc. etc.

The bans would also not be stacked across different games. So if you were banned in Half Life 2 then your copy of TF2 or L4D would not be affected. Plus, there would be a time-out clause in the system as well whereby, if you were banned once... if you weren't caught at all again on any game within another 12 months then you would only receive a two week ban if you were banned a second time after that 12 month period.

It's not perfect but it stops people from being unduly punished in the case they are innocent... It also helps people who were tempted to cheat to mend their ways. You could even cut out the appeals process and i'd be happy with this system... but having no appeals and no graduated response is just a double whammy that is bound to impact many legitimate players.

23 July 2010

A new idea for Quick Time Events...

After reading one more time about how people hate quick time events I had an idea of how to remove one of the obstacles whilst still keeping them (since developers seem keen to tie them to cutscenes wrapped around gameplay).

Essentially, one of the complaints levelled at QTEs in Shamus' article/comic is that your attention is diverted away from the action. This is an entirely fair critique and is one of the reasons why i do not like QTEs. The idea i had was to separate QTEs from the cutscene. i.e. The gameplay would pause as if you were queuing up actions (which i seem to remember from a game i once played a long time ago - though which one it was escapes me at this moment) and the prompts would come up.

There's two ways you can do this and one is already sort of implemented in some games where they slow down the gameplay and blur the screen while you try and hit the button. The downside with this mechanism is that the player might have to go through the component parts of the cutscene and then fail again.

The second way, and the one i would prefer, is to have all the prompts come up on the screen before the action starts. Then if you pass or fail you get to see the whole sequence in one go - allowing the player to enjoy the action as if it were just a cutscene.

Of course, all of this is just an end-run around the problem: I'd prefer to just have a cutscene or actual controllable gameplay. Also remember, developers, don't put things in the cutscenes that you cannot do in the game!!

15 July 2010

Podcast! The Easy Button Episode 9

We're live(ish) again and forging ahead with the podcast-making. It's sort of like baby-making... but with less thrusting and more feinting. This week we talk about the games we've been playing... possible futures for the Team Fortress franchise along with a unintended divergence into privacy and other such things!

The Easy Button Episode 9

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If you want to contact us please feel free to email us with comments, shout-outs, suggestions or questions at: the.easiestbutton AT gmail.com

13 July 2010


Just a quick note/thought here.... We talked a little about privacy on our upcoming podcast but i thought that this article on Ars Technica was interesting since it highlighted one aspect of industry-led governance that i find troubling.

The ESRB has a "Privacy Certified" badge (which i had no idea existed) but what this badge is and what it represents is a little more nebulous than it sounds:

"The role of the ESRB Privacy Online program is to make sure that member websites—those that display our seal on their pages—are compliant with an increasingly complex series of privacy protection laws and are offering a secure space for users to interact and do business online"
"This includes addressing issues like what types of personal information can be collected, how companies must handle that information with respect to individuals' right to privacy, and ensuring that people are informed of exactly where and how their information will be used."

This is all good... though i'm not always satisfied that this complex information is easily and clearly provided to users. Those massive T&C for websites are usually no better than the EULAs of games.... lots of legal talk that makes little real-world sense.

"But online privacy protection doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as anonymity. It's about making sure that websites collecting personal information from users are doing so not only in accordance with federal regulations but also with best practices for protecting individuals' personal information online"

This is where i have a problem. "Best practices" is essentially a cop-out phrase that means "there's no industry standard, we just took an average of what everone's doing and then said that was okay". If no company is performing well then the standard they are held to is lower... if one or two companies are holding themselves to a higher standard it does not affect the average overall if the larger percentage of companies are more lax. The ESRB, PEGI and other industry bodies need to sort out a base-standard of privacy along with an easily understandable bit of text that explicitly outlines what is collected and what is done with that information. It also needs to be higher than legal requirements as they are often the very lowest rung of responsibility.

My problem with the whole Blizzard forum thing is that it is the primary means for tech support since, from what i've heard, the phone support is completely overwhelmed by demand. The article says that the ESRB worked with Blizzard to make the whole thing opt-in and 18+ only.... however, that doesn't seem to be the case since you could not opt to use the forums without using your/a real name.


And this is why we need higher standards. The ESRB, in a response to the privacy complaints from all the people who wrote to them about the debacle over at Blizzard's forums, sent out an email containing each and every person's email address. Granted, it's probably minimised a little through the fact that these people were all concerned about privacy and are so unlikely to take advantage of other people's disadvantage.... but it's certainly a bloody nose considering all the talk of privacy within the email itself!

"ESRB, through its Privacy Online program, helps companies develop practices to safeguard users' personal information online while still providing a safe and enjoyable video game experience for all."


7 July 2010

Why Videogames Are Not Art

or, How Mass Effect 2 Ruined the Mood

I was finally finishing Mass Effect 2 (caution, thar be slight spoilers here!). I'd done all the loyalty missions. I'd upgraded my ship, flew through the relay thingy, fought a bunch of weird bio-mechanical dudes. I killed the last big baddie. I'd saved my crew. Hell, I'd saved the entire damn galaxy - humans, Turians, Solarians, Quarians, Geth, Asari, even those funny little guys with the breathing problem that kept calling me "Earth-clan". It was all very dramatic - intense, and fulfilling, and (more to the point of this post) cinematic.
As the last big foozle explodes, stuff starts falling all around. Again, a very tense, tightly directed sequence that is the payoff for thirty-ish hours I invested in the game. As my party and I are running for our ship, a slab of something from the baddie's ship falls on Shepard and knocks him down. Shepard gets up....

...and his backpack clips right through the huge slab of alien masonry.

Oh, videogames! How much money was spent on that final sequence? How many man-hours and blood and sweat and tears by extremely talented people? How much of myself was invested in that final scene? (Too damn much, for this to make me react the way that I am) And, sure enough, videogames show that, once again, they are videogames.

Provocative title aside, what is my point? My point is really that video games have a long long long way to go before they can be considered as being able to deliver complete emotional experiences. Videogames as a medium are at the point where, for a small sliver of time, they can be provocative, terror-inducing, funny, tender, capable of inducing a panoply of emotions. The problem is that this is only for a tiny sliver of time; then, it's back to the grindy, videogamey foundation. It's not that videogames are not capable of creating an emotional response, it is that they cannot sustain it for any length of time.

Think of a game, any game, where you've had an emotional response. Think about how long you were actually responding. Then think about something that happened shortly thereafter that "took you out of the moment". I could have been a technical glitch or an achievement pop-up (dammit, don't show those when they would be off-putting in the game to show!). It could have been some ham-fisted story-telling, incongruous dialog or action by an NPC. It could have been something else. But I am pretty certain that something happened that killed the emotion you were feeling. You may have gone on and had fun with the rest of the game, but something important died then. Something important about our shared hobby and us as people.

"It's just a game!" I hear you saying, oh hypothetical reader. "Who cares?" And you have a valid point. It is just a game, something we do for fun and entertainment. But we also watch film and read books and listen to music for the same purpose. We would not tolerate something like this in those media; it would be decried as being "bad". Poor dialog, for instance, in a book or film makes for a bad book or film, not a great one.

Why should we give videogames a free pass on this? Mass effect 2 was a really well written, well directed game; I don't think anyone would hold it up as being "bad". On the contrary, one could successfully argue that Mass Effect 2 much much closer to the pinnacle of videogames story-telling and "cinematic" experiences than the nadir. So we are not talking about a "bad" game here by any means. Which I think proves the point about why videogames are so far from being able to carry an emotional response for any length of time - if a really good game works less well in this regard than a poor piece of music or a novel, that's a problem with videogames as a medium. The fact that it works well sometimes, for small instances of time, just makes the "videogaminess" of it all stand out in contrast that much more.

What gamers accept as being "just a game" would not be tolerated in the worst Uwe Boll claptrap. Games have the ability and the promise to be so much more than they are, but we settle for so much less. And that's sad.

5 July 2010

NGJ: Wishing for the moon but finding that you've already been there...

NGJ (Or New Games' Journalism as it is sometimes known) has been doing the rounds for a number of years now. Popularised by some minor British journalist*, and taken up by a number of outlets and other 'journos' (as we in the industry call them*), it received and receives a fair amount of coverage. Honestly, i'm not sure i get what all the fuss is about.

Reading through the examples given i'm struck with an overwhelming sense of dej√° vu. What is probably rightfully described as a new wave of gaming journalism (because, lets face it, what we had before was primarily a review-based format) this is not new in the wider scheme of things.

We're talking about an article - plain and simple.

Yes i know the term 'article' in common usage covers every type of written piece in a publication but when i think of article i think of what NGJ is.... and it's been around for quite a while; from travel writing and cookery books to men's and music magazines, alternative styles of writing - somewhere in between an opinion piece and a history lesson - has enjoyed a long history of minor success and while it's important that the gaming industry also has this aspect to its journalism the type of pompous self-importance that names an existing style of writing needs to be carefully managed.

Of course, perhaps i'm purposely misinterpreting the reason that this whole thing was started - as a means of trying to instigate change in a stagnant industry. In that respect, perhaps it's succeeded or perhaps it's just the inevitable creep of this style from other areas of publication.... the question is: How would we ever know?

It's unfortunate that New Games' Journalism isn't new at all, it's just that gaming is still catching up....

* This is completely tongue in cheek