Saturday, November 17, 2012

Fix my car!

Late Friday afternoon stretched slowly towards the evening. The A/C inside Mike’s auto repair workshop had been fighting a losing battle with the midsummer sun all day. To anyone coming in, the noise and the bustle were disorienting, and the smell of grease, oil and exhaust fumes was nearly overpowering. To Mike himself, it sounded like a hum of a busy day and smelled like the challenge of honest work.

Elbow deep into the hood of a ‘99 Jetta, whistling absentmindedly (and off key), Mike was concentrating on a tricky bit of engine repair, when a tap on his shoulder startled him.

“Excuse me,” came a tentative, almost plaintive voice from behind.

“Be with you in a jiffy,” said Mike, as he began to extricate himself. In just a few seconds, he was free and wiping his hands and arms on a rag as he studied the neatly dressed, bespectacled young man in front of him. “Hi, I’m Mike. How can I help you?”

“Yeah, hi. My girlfriend’s car is broken and I need someone to fix it.”

“Well, then you’ve certainly come to the right place! Bring it in and let’s have a look at it.”

“Uhm, I can’t. It’s not here. It’s parked in my driveway.”

“Ohh-kay.” It took Mike all the self-control he learned in more than a decade of running his shop to keep his face politely impassive. ”What make and model is it?”

“It’s... um, I’m not sure. It’s green.”

“Green. Right.” Silently counting to ten in the back of his mind, Mike tried a different tack. “Right. And what’s wrong with it?”

“I don’t know,” the young man in front of him huffed exasperatedly, “I was hoping you could tell me.”

“What I’m asking,” said Mike, surprised to find he’s not gritting his teeth, “is why you say the car is broken? What happened?”

“Oh. That. Sorry. It doesn’t move.”

“Uh huh... Anything, um, more specific?”

“Nope. Don’t know the details.”

“Well then,” shrugged Mike apologetically. “I’m afraid there’s not much I can do to help.”

“Okay, fine. Hang on a second.” With that, the young man whipped out a cell phone and punched a number into it. “Hi, honey. Yeah, I’m at the auto repair shop. Look, I need to know what’s wrong with the car... Yeah, I know, that’s what I said too, but they need more details to do their job... I know, right? … Uh huh. Uh huh... Okay, great. Love you. Buh-bye!”

“Right, so, the problem is that it doesn’t move when she puts it in the gear. She steps on the pedal and the car just sits there and roars. The wheels won’t move.”

“Okay,” said Mike, “now we’re getting somewhere. It sounds like a transmission problem.”

“Transmission? What do you mean? What’s it transmitting and to whom?”

“No, no, it’s the mechanism in your car that allows the wheels to move when you put it into gear. That mechanism seems to be the problem.”

“Right, that’s what I just told you. Now, when will you fix it and how much will it cost?”

“Well, when you bring it in, I can look into it and diagnose the exact problem.”

“Didn’t you just say that this transmission thingamajig is the problem?”

“Yes, but the transmission mechanism is a complex system with lots of components. I need to look at it to find out exactly what is broken and how to fix it.”

A suspicious look settled on the young man’s face. “I don’t know,” he said, arms crossed, “It seems to me like you should be able to tell me how to replace this transmission system.”

Mike tried to find something to reply to that and failed. He opened his mouth a few times, but before he could come up with a way to deal with this Kafkaesque situation, the young man threw his hands up in the air and said, “Fine! Alright. I’ll bring it in tomorrow. Anything else?”

“Not that I can think of,” said Mike cautiously.

“Good. See you tomorrow, then.”

“Unless I’m having a nightmare,” murmured Mike into his beard, as he watched the young man walk out in a huff. Slowly shaking his head, not sure whether what just happened had been real, Mike turned back to the Jetta. “Thank heavens my customers usually aren’t like that...”

So what do you think of Mike’s story? Did it sound absurd, almost surreal? Granted, there are all kinds of people out there, so it’s not impossible to stumble into someone like Mike’s strange client, but it sure is uncommon.

What if I told you the young man in the story worked in a car factory? Wouldn’t that make the story outlandish?

And yet that’s precisely what happens quite often in software development. Many smart people have already spent lots and lots of words on how to report bugs, how to ask for help, how to follow up and how to ask questions in general. I don’t have much to add to all that, but the next time you complain that some piece of software isn’t working without giving any relevant details, remember this story. Doubly so if you actually work in something related to software development.

Friday, March 23, 2012

My Playthrough On Your Fridge Door

Two days ago, I decided to take a brief break at work. Since I was still gloomy from having finished Mass Effect 3 that weekend, I went surfing the Web to see what's new on that front and stumbled upon a couple of articles that inspired me to write a new post on my blog. Only two days have passed since, but it seems much longer.

To be honest, I didn't expect to succeed at generating any kind of discussion about this. Most people, perhaps predictably, responded with a knee-jerk reaction along the lines of "Yes, you're just audience, so shut up!" Finding that there were people who agreed with me was quite gratifying. Finding that there were people who disagreed and wanted to discuss it, however, took me completely -- and pleasantly -- by surprise.

I don't blog much. To quote Snoopy, "there's no sense in doing a lot of barking if you don't really have anything to say" and I usually don't have much to say that other people haven't already said more eloquently or elegantly. To find myself blogging for the second time in one week is a new experience. I'd like to thank all the people who took their time to comment and to converse with me in various forums: thanks for inspiring me to write more.

Enough of meta-blogging. Let's get to the meat of the discussion: over the past two days, I've seen a few valid and interesting counter-arguments to my claim that players aren't merely an audience any more. I'd like to address those arguments here. (By the way, if you haven't finished Mass Effect 3 and don't want spoilers, be careful when following links from here.)

Let's start with the one that's easiest to refute and take it from there.

Playing Games is Not Art 

No, it's not. I agree completely. Maybe some day, playing certain kinds of games will become an art form, but right now, playing games is definitely not art.

Thing is, I never claimed it was. Don't get me wrong, I would love to see the day when there are games that allow players to use them as a medium for their artistic expression. But for now, what I claim is that playing games -- at least some games -- is an act of creativity. I also claim that players, by playing the game, complete the creative process the game developers initiated.

Although not as strong as "playing games is art", this claim still sounds weird. The reasoning that rejects this claim tends to fall into two categories. The first centers on:

Finite, Limited Universe of Expression

Arguments in this category reject players' participation in the creative process because said players are restricted to a finite and rather limited set of options, rigidly established in computer code by game developers. As Michael Rohde neatly put it:
[...] you are playing code, you are not helping write the story line, you do not have the ability to write unique aspects of the game. You are navigating a trail with finite endings.
The problem with this argument is that it's ultimately quantitative in nature. Just because English language has a finite number of ways of putting its words together in non-gibberish ways, doesn't meant that writing a sonnet -- a rigidly defined and limited form in itself -- is not a creative act. We have Shakespeare to back that one up.

To put it differently, if you're given a small set of Lego pieces, you can still put them together in a unique, creative way. In case of Mass Effect games, the sheer combinatory explosion of possible choices to take in the game is at least comparable to a box of Legos. Even though those choices converge on an extremely small set of final outcomes, the act of making those choices deliberately is no less creative.

That's the second problem with this argument: by focusing only on the creative aspect of the game's fixed assets, such as the story or the cinematics, it misses the fact that these assets themselves serve as a vehicle for players' creative expression. What each player in Mass Effect 3 creates is the character of Shepard and his or her arc. Aleksander Adamkiewicz expressed this nicely in his comment on a related Gamasutra article:
[...] I always thought Shepard was an empty vessel for the player to fill with their interpretation. [...] I never found that Shep undergoes any character development in the narrative of the game, yes he underwent a development -in my head- but not in the game itself.
That is precisely the allure of Mass Effect series, the characteristic that sets it apart from so many other adventures and RPGs. I posit that almost all players go through this "Shepard-development in their heads". Some do it more consciously, more deliberately than others, but everyone who's playing the game for more than "shooting stuff" does it.

Still, even this might not be enough to accept the players as creative agents. There's still one more category of counter-arguments to tackle:

The Question of Intent

My son's fifth birthday was in February, when most of his friends are out of town on vacation, so we threw a party for them last Saturday. This year, the main attraction was a magician. At one point, he invited my son on stage to "grant him magical powers", so he can "assist" the magician.

Asking for a volunteer in the audience and inviting him or her to participate is a standard part of a good magician's repertoire. However, this act of participation does not turn the audience member into anything more than audience. Their participation does not promote them to the status of the magician.

Why, then, do I argue that the act of playing a videogame can promote a player into a creator?

The crucial difference is in the intent. The magician doesn't intend to truly empower you, while a good game designer strives to do precisely that. Game developers have been acknowledging the players' desire for creative expression for years. One small example is Burnout Revenge, a game whose Xbox 360 version turned six years this month. A notable addition in the Xbox 360 edition of Burnout Revenge is the Burnout Clips feature, which allows you to create video clips of your offline races and share them with other players.

A much more important example is Little Big Planet, along with its sequel. The sequel, in particular, is the best example of a game whose sole reason for existence is to allow players to create their own content. Its single player campaign, unlike the one from the first game, is primarily a showcase for the new game mechanics you can use in your own levels.

And let's not forget other, much older "build your own stuff" games, such as Sim City. Sid Meier took this idea and turned it into an art form, if you'll pardon my choice of words, with his Civilization games.

Okay, I'm digressing and I'm sure you get the point. Let's get back to the game that sparked this whole discussion.

Was there intent to empower in Mass Effect? I would say that if there wasn't, BioWare is the luckiest company on the Earth. That kind of repeated serendipity is difficult to believe in.

Yes, I dare say that Mass Effect was deliberately designed to empower the players to build their own Shepard character in their heads.

Is this an act of creativity? I believe it is. If you see a reason why it shouldn't be considered as such, feel free to drop me a comment.

More importantly, has this creativity been deliberately encouraged by BioWare? I don't see any room for doubt here.

Incidentally, this is precisely why so many players are so upset about the ending. Like I already said in my previous post, the ending completely invalidates the players' choices. Yes, we're all used to our choices finally converging on a small set of endings, as in the previous two installments. However, for various reasons (which I won't reveal in order to avoid spoilers) the ending(s) in Mass Effect 3 are different: players' choices, instead of converging, are simply discarded and ignored.

Does Any of This Matter At All?

People who have children are very well acquainted with one amusing fact about creativity: the vast majority of little kids completely suck at drawing. That's perfectly normal for their age, though, so we ignore that fact and we praise them for their creativity and stick their doodles on the fridge door or on our cubicle wall. It's not because they're great works of art. It's because they matter to us, because our own children drew them.

Similarly, most of players' creations in games that encourage creativity are, well, the digital equivalent of a five-year-old's "crayon art". It's up to game developers to define their stance towards our creations.

Am I wrong to believe that they should try to be like proud parents, indulgent and encouraging? Only time will tell. In the mean time, let me know what you think.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Are Players Just Audience?

Part 1: Sisyphus

Over the last weekend, I finished my first playthrough of Mass Effect 3. For the moment, it looks like it will be the only one. My immediate reaction was that of vague disappointment. I felt dissatisfied, but I couldn't put my finger on why. It took me a bit of introspection to come to the same conclusion I later saw in countless blog posts, tweets and articles: the ending completely invalidated all the effort I had put into the game.

All those hours of chosing my answers carefully, pondering what I would do if I had to face a situation like the one Shepard was facing, wondering whether I was being consistent and, in general, carefully crafting a character and learning more about myself in the process -- all that effort was for nothing. The game gave me three options, all of them cataclysmic and none of them even remotely satisfying. Under my guidance, Shepard had achieved what no sentient life form had ever achieved before, but it didn't matter, the choices were still the same. One of those choices went completely against every major decision I have ever made, since Mass Effect 1, but that didn't matter, the choices were still the same. And after I took one that looked the least unpleasant, I was treated to a cinematic that opened new questions while providing no answers whatsoever and left with no closure and a bad taste in my mouth.

Later, I sat down to read about other people's reactions. A small part of me still wishes I hadn't done that. Up until then, my misery was based only on my own experience. And then I read about other endings. Nominally, there are sixteen of them. In reality, it's 90% the same ending, with variations in small details. In other words, it wasn't merely something I had done in this playthrough. No matter what I did, no matter how many times I played the game again and again, I would never get a significantly different ending.

They say that misery loves company and it turned out to be true in the end. While finding out about other endings made things worse, I was strangely comforted by the fact that I wasn't alone and that other fans were speaking up about this and voicing their -- or rather, our -- outrage. Further reading brought small glimmers of hope: official Bioware responses could be interpreted in a way that left open the possibility of changing the ending.

I wasn't going to write about any of this. Others have done that more eloquently and I've never acquired the taste for shouting "me too" in the crowd. What changed my mind was Ken Levine's reaction. And then Ben Dutka over at PSX Extreme took it to another level. And suddenly I couldn't stay silent anymore.

This argument wasn't unexpected. On the contrary, it's a fairly standard line of defense and usually it's completely valid in certain aspects. Usually, but not anymore. Videogames have changed that and people like Ken Levine and Ben Dutka are either not aware of it or don't want to accept it.

Before I get to what has changed, however, I'd like to go over the things that haven't. It's not just my flair for dramatic. I want to clear the air first. As a geek, I have a natural distaste for bullshit in all its forms and I want to make certain things clear to both my readers and the people out there who are making their righteous statements about artistic integrity.

Ben Dutka is right, up to a point: we don't have the right to walk up to an artist and demand from them to change their work. Or rather, we don't have the right to have that work changed just because we demanded it; whether we demand it or not is merely a question of etiquette, not of rights. We have not been granted any intellectual ownership rights by purchasing the work of art or anything of the kind. We've been granted the right to experience that work of art. Whether we enjoy it or not is immaterial.

The problem with that attitude is that people use it to hide from the rest of the ugly truth: art has never been able to stand completely on its own. It's not just an independent fact, an axiom. It's the product of a process in which there are several crucial roles. If we don't acknowledge this, we're simply not being honest.

Part 2: Apollo

A work of art needs an Artist to make it and an Audience to appreciate it. Otherwise, it's simply a tree that fell in the forest with nobody to see or hear its fall. The cold, hard, ugly truth is that the Artist needs a Patron. Either that or a Day Job, but we'll get to that in a moment. The point is that the Artist, like any other human being, needs to earn a living.

Patrons used to be reasonably wealthy people who would commission Artists for specific projects, e.g. "Paint my wife, dude, I need something to hang in my new home!" Over the time, the business model shifted. The patronage became crowdsourced and the Middlemen stepped on the stage. Nowadays, the Artist will typically go to a bunch of Middlemen for help with any and all of the following: getting the means to create a work of art, gathering an Audience for a work of art, putting the Artist together with other Artists to collaborate on a work of art and, ultimately, getting paid for a work of art.

The rise of Middlemen wasn't the only consequence of patronage being crowdsourced. Art and entertainment started overlapping a lot more than before. The Audience demands what Kurt Cobain sang: "Here we are now, entertain us!" You want the patronage? Deliver!

Like it or not, but the fact remains that the most famous modern Art is inextricably entangled with Entertainment and Business. Sure, you can still adamantly refuse to compromise your artistic integrity. If you're very, very good, you might be able to get away with it. If not, you still have a perfectly valid option of practicing your art as a hobby. The stereotypical image of "Starving Artist" comes from people who refuse to accept this reality and try to be professional artists without an impressive track record and with rigid artistic integrity.

Ben Dutka can lament this reality as much as he wants. He can warn us that it leads to Art degenerating into "some hideous, mutated, mass-generated assembly of likely sophomoric compromises". Guess what? We've already arrived there. That place is called Hollywood. The last Hollywood movie I myself have seen that stuck out as memorable work of art was "Inception" and even that was watered-down art.

Do I want videogames to degenerate into Hollywood-like decadence? Hell, no! Things are bad as they are: just look at Assassin's Creed and how it's getting stretched beyond recognition, worse than the "Wheel of Time" used to be before Brandon Sanderson took over. No, thanks. I'm all for artistic integrity. But let's not pretend that things are not the way they are.

And, by all means, let's not allow the defense of artistic integrity to become the reason for the Middlemen to further crush it and suppress it. Get it in your heads, Artists, those Middlemen have the power to crush your integrity and they will not hesitate to use it, because that's how they make their living.

Mass Effect 3 has the potential to become the textbook argument for publishers to impose their will on artists: "Yeah, we let you guys do your artsy-fartsy stuff in Mass Effect 3 and look how that turned out. Look at this sales chart. Look at it, damn you!"

I'm sorry you're sad, Ken Levine, but you're also wrong. Leonardo da Vinci was told to paint the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. He could have decided to paint the lake behind her, instead, but he didn't. He did the work he was hired to do. Was he "disappointed in the emotional feeling" he got because he "didn't really create it"? I guess we can't find out because he's not around to give us an interview, but I look at La Gioconda's smile and I doubt it.

Part 3: Orpheus

None of that, however, was my main point. All of the preceding discussion applies to the traditional artistic media. The videogames have changed the equation and that's really the bone I want to pick with Ben Dutka.
I think the fact that video games are interactive, and the fact that gamers have more control than ever (customization, user-creativity, etc.) has confused things but the fact remains, a story is a story. It's art, regardless of the medium.
I take issue with that claim. It's the same logic that RIAA and MPAA use in their claims and in their fight for SOPA and PIPA: "Nothing has changed." Everything has changed, Ben, and it's time to face it.

You cannot be a game designer without learning one important lesson: you are not telling a story, you are helping your players create their own stories. One of my most favorite books on my non-fiction bookshelf is "Game Architecture and Design", by Andrew Rollings and David Morris. I still remember the sense of wonder and realization when I read the following words:
Even puzzle games like Tetris in one sense tell a story and are thus "dramatic" to an extent.
Reading those words, I flashed back on all the times my buddy and I would get together and excitedly discuss the game of Descent II we just played over the modem; I remembered the Elven Runes website where people would post their logs after an exciting session of MUME. The image these words painted in my mind was surprisingly vivid: a bunch of people gathered around a fire at night, swapping stories. For a guy who has never had an actual campfire experience, that image was most alluring and the realization that this experience is, in a sense, what videogames bring to countless players around the world was... mindblowing, to put it mildly.

Just what role does your story play in the game you create? That's not a new debate. Just ask Ernest Adams what he thinks about it. Still not convinced? Digital Worlds has a post about the whole debate.

Here's the bottom line: we, the players, participate in the creative process and our participation is crucial because it's the final step. The players complete the creative process.

And that, Ben, is what gives us the right that no other audience had before: the right to demand that our role in the storytelling and creative process be honored and respected.

Do I have a legal right to demand a satisfying ending for Mass Effect 3? I don't think so, although at least one person disagrees with me.

Do I have a moral right? I believe I do. I paid BioWare and EA what I owed them. But whether they like it or not, they owe me, too.

Yes, Ben, I want to set a precedent, no matter how dangerous you think it is. I want BioWare to recognize the fact that their audience is not just an audience anymore: we're minor artists ourselves. We're storytellers. We watch the tree fall in the forest and then we go and build our houses from it.

To people like Casey Hudson and Paul Barnett, these creations might not be as important as their own artistic integrity. But the least they and the rest of BioWare could do is not tear them down.

So what'll it be, guys? What kind of designers are you?

If you liked this, check out the follow-up: My Playthrough on Your Fridge Door.