Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Concessions for the limitations of VR

Farpoint is one of the first video games for the PSVR that's more than just a technology demo (not the very first one, but arguably among the first three or four at most). This paragraph in the IGN review of the game grabbed my attention:
Like any good VR game, Farpoint makes concessions for the limitations of virtual reality. For example, in story missions enemies only ever come at you from the front, which lets you play the whole game without having to turn around much. By traditional shooter standards it’s boring design, but in Farpoint it helps stave off the motion sickness some people experience in VR and avoids issues with moving outside the bounds of where the PlayStation Camera can detect you or your controller.
Yeah... concessions for the limitations of virtual reality. By traditional shooter standards it's boring design.

You know, like any "good" VR game. Because that's considered good, apparently.

I'm not saying it's a bad game (I haven't played it), or that the solution isn't reasonable. Or that this is a complete show-stopper. Probably a more minor issue. I'm just putting it out there for the people who still claim that VR will revolutionize the gaming industry, expand what's possible in video games, and that traditional games will become obsolete. Yeah, right.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Misconceptions about trademarks

The company CD Projekt RED, which is developing the upcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077, caused a bit of a mini-controversy when it was announced that they were seeking to trademark the word "cyberpunk".

People freaked out, mostly because they don't understand how trademarks work.

Sure, even within the context and scope of trademarks it would indeed be questionable to grant a trademark to that particular word because it could ostensibly lead to abuse, given that it's such a generic name of a science fiction genre that's popular in video games.

However, that's not the reason why most people freaked out. Most people did so because they have the misconception that if somebody trademarks eg. a word, that means that nobody can use that word anywhere, in any context, without paying royalties. Essentially, the word becomes banned in all contexts.

But that's not how trademarks work!

Trademarks are always tied to a very specific context. It protects the trademarked name, word, or other such concept, when used in a very specific situation, not in all possible situations.

For example, Microsoft owns a trademark on the word "Windows". However, it pertains only to that word being used in the name of a computer operating system. It does not pertain to any other use of the word in any other context. For example, a manufacturer of physical house windows can perfectly well have that word in their name, or in some product of theirs, without infringing Microsoft's trademark. Or a window cleaning product could have that word in its name without problems. That's because the context is entirely different, and trademarks protect the use of words only in particular contexts.

(The basic idea is, of course, that nobody would get confused by a manufacturer company selling house windows, with the word "Windows" somewhere in their name, for Microsoft's operating system. The contexts are completely different, and thus there can be no confusion.)

It is, in fact, perfectly possible for two companies to trademark the exact same word, name or sentence, as long as they pertain to completely different contexts.

Thus, if CD Projekt RED had trademarked the word "cyberpunk", it would have only protected the use of that word in the names of video games. The use of the word would have been completely ok in any other context.

(But, to be fair, and as already said, even in this particular context that trademark is arguably way too broad, given that it's the name of an entire genre of fiction, and thus it's probably better that they didn't trademark it, assuming they would have even gotten the trademark.)

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

What happened to Mass Effect Andromeda?

One of the most controversial and infamous game releases in recent months has been Mass Effect Andromeda, the fourth part in the popular Mass Effect series. Much hype surrounded the game, yet the end result was incredibly horrendous, and very much unlike Bioware's previous games (both in the Mass Effect series as well as their other games, such as the Dragon Age series.)

The game was plagued with completely horrendous body animations, and especially facial animations, that were completely uncharacteristic of Bioware's previous games, as well as games of this caliber in general (or even games made for much cheaper, for that matter.) In addition, facial animations also seldom matched the tone of the situation, or what was being said (such as the main protagonist sporting a permanent grin completely regardless of the situation, even in situations that would clearly have required a serious expression; but this was not the only such example.)

Another prominent thing with the game that people immediately noticed was that the majority of the female characters (and only the female characters) had been hit by the "ugly stick", as the expression was coined. All these female characters looked much homelier than the real-life people they were modeled after. A famous picture comparing the (selectable) male main protagonist, and its real-life model, and the female main protagonist, and its real-life model, is quite telling. The male protagonist looks almost identical, while the female protagonist has been clearly been "uglified" compared to the gorgeous model.

Also, rather incredibly a year or two ago somebody leaked some cutscenes from an alpha build of the game. The same cutscene is in the final release, but looks quite different in quality (both graphical quality and animation).

One would be easily forgiven for mistaking the pictures on the left hand side as the ones from the alpha build, and the ones on the right hand side as from the final game. But no. As incredible as it might sound, the pictures on the right are from the alpha build from a year or two ago, while the images on the left are from the final version of the game. The difference is even more drastic in the actual video footage (because also the facial animations are much worse in the final version.) Both the graphical quality as well as the animation (especially facial animations and expressions) are much, much worse in the published game. (And no, for example that second picture on the left hand side is not taken from a moment where the character has that particular expression. He really has that almost expressionless face during the entire clip.)

So what happened? Bioware has released multiple games in the recent past with completely fine high-quality animations and graphics. What happened here? Here is a hypothesis. Note that his is only guessing, but I'm not the only one who believes this.

Bioware, as a company, has made it amply clear over the past years that they have fully embraced the modern social justice ideology. Key members of their staff have, for example, engaged in public debates and discussions on social justice, and how to change games to conform to that ideology. The "male gaze" subject has been particularly discussed by them (with direct references to Anita Sarkeesian's videos on that subject). Also key members of the development team of ME Andromeda in particular are infamously bigoted social justice warriors (such as the lead game designer, who is notorious for posting obnoxiously racist comments against white people, without any consequences from any higher-up at Bioware.) They have also inserted subtle social justice ideology in some of their more recent past games (such as Dragon Age Inquisition).

I think that it's not in any way far-fetched to guess that the "ugly stick treatment" of female characters in ME Andromeda is a direct consequence of this. They already did something like this with their previous game (ie. Dragon Age Inquisition), and it seems that they have gone full-on "anti-male-gaze" here, by deliberately making all female characters much uglier than the real-life models that they were modeled after. (One has to marvel at the hypocrisy of keeping the male character models close to their real-life counterparts, while very drastically changing the female characters to be significantly uglier.)

But what happened to those facial animations, and other animations? Why are they suddenly so much worse in this game than in their previous games, or even past alpha builds of this game? Why were the facial animations ok in early versions, but then they changed them to much worse ones?

This is a complete guess from my part, with no evidence to back it up, but this is my hypothesis: This is a result of diversity hires, ie. self-imposed hiring quotas.

Bioware has amply demonstrated how deeply they have embraced the social justice ideology. I don't think it would surprise anybody if they internally engaged in self-imposed hiring quotas of women and "minorities", where they hire employees based primarily on those characteristics, and only secondarily based on qualifications and expertise.

So what I think happened is that Bioware hired people for important key roles in the project, such as animation development, with very little regard to whether they were actually qualified for that job, caring primarily about whether they were "minorities". The old animations (that already existed in the earlier alpha builds of the game) were replaced by the new ones created by these people. Then, because of their ideology, the higher-ups at Bioware just didn't dare to criticize their work and throw it away, and decided to publish the game with those animations, no matter how horrible, because otherwise it would have been "discrimination" in their minds.

If this is indeed the case (and, once again, I don't know if it is, but it's my hypothesis), I'm certain that the people at Bioware would never, ever admit it, and will take this secret to their graves. They could not possibly admit to it, because it would put hiring quotas in a negative light, and that would be unbearable.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Why I can't side with American conservatism

Especially now it's really easy to agree with the vast majority of things that American conservatives (ie. the "political right" in the American sense, not the European one) is saying. After all, they are (perhaps ironically) defending very liberal values in the current political climate, such as freedom of speech, as well as all other kinds of basic freedoms, basic human rights of the individual, democracy and the democratic process, constitutional rights, treating people equally, and so on. They are also highly critical of unrestricted immigration from cultures that are fundamentally incompatible with our western constitutional democratic system. And they are, of course, deeply against the current regressive leftist racist and sexist ideology.

When you eg. watch videos from a conservative source, such as The Rebel Media (which is a Canadian conservative online political commentary organization), or Milo Yiannopoulos, it's very easy to agree with at least 95% of what they are saying.

When commenting on these videos, sometimes some American conservatives will try to convince liberals to switch sides. Why continue being a left-leaning liberal? The whole political movement has been hijacked by authoritarian supremacist collectivist bigoted ideologues bent on destroying the western culture and society. Authoritarianism has taken over the entire left of the political spectrum. There's very little classical liberal ideals left anymore.

But then, when you keep watching these videos for long enough, invariably there will come topics that are the major reasons why I cannot support the American conservatives, and would never consider myself on the right of the political spectrum.

One of the major ones, which seems to always eventually pop up, is corporatism, which is something I heavily, heavily oppose.

To clarify, I support capitalism. That seems to be a dirty word in today's world, but it simply is the form of economy that seems to work best, and has produced the highest amount of technological progress and societal welfare. It's the reason why during the last 50 years we have progressed technologically, and as a society, more than in the previous 500 years. It's the reason we have welfare societies where people don't need to be homeless, and everybody gets the help (eg. medical help) they need, even the poorest of people. The amount of technological progress is just incredible, and it's mainly driven by capitalism. To me capitalism is not a dirty word. People who hate and abhor capitalism are simply deluded. (Many countries are so ashamed to run a capitalist form of economy that they even deny being a capitalist country, because that word has so much stigma attached to it. Which is just idiotic.)

However, I heavily oppose corporatism, which is a different thing. Corporatism is an extreme form of capitalism where private corporations are too unrestricted and have way too much power over the government (rather than the other way around). Capitalism can only work properly when there is a strong government watching over corporations and stopping them from abusing citizens (and other corporations). Corporations should be allowed to fully engage in capitalist economy and commerce, but they must be kept in a very tight leash when it comes to the rights of the individual people, and the inter-corporation relationships that may become abusive (eg. one corporation using underhanded tactics to destroy another). And, very especially, corporations must never have too much power to influence the government and what kind of laws the government passes, especially if these laws would be too unilaterally beneficial to corporations at the expense of the citizens. Or the environment (which, ultimately, would happen at the expense of the citizens.)

Thus corporatism is the reason why I cannot side with these right-wing movements. It's often not direct support of corporatism per se, but it's often topics that are caused by corporatism. One of the major such topics is science denialism, especially when it comes to climate change and environmentalism.

When you watch these conservative channels, it's pretty much guaranteed that eventually they will make videos denying climate change, for instance.

I really can't understand why American conservatism and climate change denialism go so tightly hand-in-hand. Take any major American conservative organization, and they will be climate change denialists, with almost no exceptions.

I believe that climate change denialism is ultimately corporatism in action. American conservatism is very corporatist, and will always defend the "rights" of corporations over the rights of people, and especially over environmentalism. It's against the interest of big corporations if the government started limiting their pollution, and thus they naturally oppose any such laws, by any means possible. And of course climate change denialism is perfect for this. And the vast majority of conservatives have been successfully brainwashed into it.

And, of course, another topic that always eventually pops up, is public healthcare (although more with organizations based in the United States than ones in Canada, for rather obvious reasons.) In the United States healthcare is a big industry and is run primarily by corporations. Which, of course, means that conservatives will automatically defend the "rights" of these corporations, even if it happens at the expense of the citizens. Thus they will always oppose European-style universal tax-paid healthcare, no matter what. On principle. They will not budge.

Gun control is a more complex topic, but once again the American conservatives go way too far with it, and not only consider their 2nd amendment the Holy Gospel, but are also quite liberal (hah!) in interpreting it, and will defend to their deaths the amendment and their interpretation of it. They will happily ignore how eg. the introduction of strict gun control in Australia reduced significantly the amount of gun-related crimes and mass-shootings, and other such examples. They will never, ever be convinced.

Because of these, and a few more minor topics, which always eventually pop up in American conservative rhetoric, I just can't side myself with them. Even if I agree with 95% of what they are saying, that 5% I disagree with is such an important 5% that it's a real deal-breaker.

Which, curiously, leaves me in a rather interesting position politically speaking. I can't side with the American right, but due to current events I can't side with the American left either (because it has indeed been taken over by authoriarian ideologues.) I cannot side with the European extreme right either (ultra-nationalist fascism) nor the European extreme left either (authoritarian neo-liberal multicultural communism). So who is left to side with? There are ideologues everywhere.

Friday, May 5, 2017

VR feels like a strange religion

I wrote in a recent post how people keep telling me that VR is the future, and will revolutionize the gaming industry, even though sales figures and the VR triple-A game library don't back up that claim.

Just as an example of that, I just had an online conversation with someone, about this exact subject. He mentioned exactly that, ie. that VR is the future, and blaa blaa.

I presented my doubts, giving my counter-arguments, related to the sales figures (both PC VR headsets combined have sold in one year less than a popular game console typically sells in its first week, and only a small fraction of what it sells in a year), how the adoption rate is abysmal (less than 0.2% of Steam users have a VR headset), which makes creating triple-A games for it really unprofitable, and I made a comparison with the two other quintessential examples of recent commercial failures, ie. the PS Vita and the Kinect, and the reasons why they failed (eg. one factor for the latter is the almost complete separation of Kinect games and normal games, with extremely little overlap, the lack of triple-A games, and so on.)

His response to all that was one that I have heard a million times already, and which is just... naive. It was the typical "everybody who has tried VR loves it" argument. As if that countered everything I said about sales figures etc. He was saying it in complete seriousness.

There seems to exist a strange psychological phenomenon that presenting arguments about why VR might not become highly successful after all, is somehow equated with making the claim that VR sucks. These conversations quickly become very heated, no matter how calmly I try to present the hard cold facts. It seems like these... "converts", for the lack of a better word, feel attacked if somebody doubts the future success of VR. They seem to think that doubting that is the same as saying that VR is not an awesome experience.

There's also this very common notion that "you have to try it to "get" it". Again, this is just such a non-sequitur. It almost feels like the argument is that if I try VR, all those arguments, the sales figures, the lack of triple-A titles and so on, will just vanish, and I will see the error of my ways and be "converted" to VR. It almost feels like a religious person, like a Scientologist or something, trying to convince somebody to "just try it", which will somehow magically make all the doubts disappear. Or like a drug addict.

But of course none of that matters. No matter how "awesome" the experience may be, no matter how much of a religious rush it may cause, that's not going to somehow magically pump those sales figures up, or magically conjure a boatload of triple-A games for it, or bring the price of headsets down.

Again, I'm not saying it won't happen. It may well happen. Perhaps a couple of years from now they will release v. 2.0 of their headsets at a quarter of their current price, and they will sell tens of millions of units, and tons of triple-A titles will start flooding the market, and it will be a success of such magnitude that has never been seen before.

Or maybe not. I'm just not seeing the signs.

A year has passed, yet I have not even heard of either HTC or Oculus planning a new improved and cheaper version of their headsets. The price of their current headsets hasn't come down a bit. They are still as expensive as they were a year ago. That's not exactly helping those sales figures.

I would claim that it's just a fact that as long as they don't drop the prices of the headsets to at least half of what they are now (and preferably to one third or even one quarter), they aren't going to sell. That's just how it is. They should have at least cheaper versions of the headsets if they hope to have any success at all. Else they are going to kill the platform.

They also need triple-A games. As long as they maintain the strict separation between regular games and VR games, with very little to no overlap, that's going to hurt the popularity of VR. (And adding VR to "normal" games does not mean that they should do what Bethesda is trying to do with Fallout4, or id Software is trying to do with Doom, ie. create a complete separate game mode within the game for VR. Which they seem to have been doing for like a year now, with little to show for it. Again, this is just a wall of complete separation. It's creating an entirely new game, just reusing the engine and assets.)

Monday, May 1, 2017

The mystery that is Rocky IV

If you were to poll people who grew up in the 80's (and perhaps even a bit later) which one of the Rocky movies is the best, at least 90% of them will say without hesitation the fourth one. In other words, the one with the big Russian bad guy named Ivan Drago.

It is, however, completely mysterious to me why, given that Rocky IV is by far the worst movie in the entire series (including all current six movies). I'm being completely serious. Please hear me out.

Movie "connoisseurs" will invariably choose the first Rocky movie as the best. In a sense, it arguably is. However, I would also argue that the first movie is of a different genre altogether. It's not really a boxing movie, nor a sports movie. It's a drama. The boxing is just incidental; a framework for the drama. It's about a poor Italian nobody living in an American ghetto who through determination and hard work raises to the top and get to challenge the world champion in a sport (boxing in this case, although, as said, that's not really the core essence of the movie.) What hammers in the fact that the boxing itself is not the point, and that this is a drama, not a sports movie, is that Rocky loses the match. The match wasn't the point. The point was the journey to get there.

The second movie, while not bad, seems superfluous. It feels like it was made because the first movie got very popular, but it was a bummer that Rocky lost, and thus they had to make a sequel where he actually wins. Which kind of misses the point of the first movie entirely. It wasn't about winning or losing, it was about the journey. It was about the story of a nobody who got to challenge the world champion through determination and hard work. Yes, there is of course still something of that in this sequel as well, but it just feels like a rehash of the same idea, and it feels superfluous. But, as said, it's not a bad movie per se.

Now, the third movie changes gears, and arguably genre, quite radically. This is an actual sports movie, an actual boxing movie, and it's one of the archetypal sports movies of the 80's. It's, possibly, the movie that cemented the archetypal "80's training montage". It has its share of campiness, but not too much. It has a good story, it has good pacing, and overall it's an excellent boxing movie. In my opinion it's the best movie of the series.

But then we have Rocky IV. The favorite of most people who grew up in the 80's. But why?

Most of these people don't even remember but a small fraction of what happens in the movie. They remember the "Russian" bad guy (actually a Swedish actor), they remember that he beats Apollo Creed to death in the ring, and they remember the famous "I must break you" line. And Rocky beats him somehow. But that's about it.

How many of them remember the silly robot? Yes, there is a silly robot. One of those absolutely ridiculous human-sized robots of 70's sitcoms, who apparently has a better AI than computers even today. I'm not making that up. A completely unrealistic, completely out-of-place 70's sitcom "robot", in a boxing movie.

How many of them remember that James Brown is in the movie? Yes, singing an over-the-top Broadway musical in the boxing arena. (Yes, I understand what they were trying to do here, ie. show how showy and cocky Americans are, but it still just doesn't fit in this kind of movie. It feels so out of place.)

How many of them remember the sappy inspirational speech at the end about world peace?

Another problem I have with the movie is that in all three previous movies the main antagonist (if you can even call Apollo Creed that) were good clean strong boxers, who got there honestly, fair and square. Ivan Drago, however, is depicted as a boxer on steroids, literally. It becomes less Rocky vs. another very strong boxer, and more Rocky beats a monster. I suppose that what I'm trying to say is that the spirit of boxing isn't there. Rocky is fighting against a cheater, not just a strong opponent.

This movie lacks the same kind of down-the-earth drama that the first, and even the third movie had. And even the final fight is mostly a montage. Yeah, the pinnacle of the entire movie is mostly a fighting montage.

Some might argue it's "so bad it's good". It's so silly and over-the-top, that that is what makes it so enjoyable. However, I think that most people did not enjoy it as a child because of that, nor answer such poll questions because of that. It's only after you refresh their memory about what actually is in the movie, and if they accept it, that they resort to this argument.

I don't really understand why Rocky IV is so universally considered the best of the series, especially buy people who grew up in the 80's. Perhaps it had all the right stuff that appealed to kids in that decade. Perhaps, in a way, it was actually genius, maybe serendipitously. It appealed to the right demographic at the right time, even though in retrospect it's a really silly and, let's be frank, bad movie.