The Secret Reason Your Favourite Streamer Hates You: Backseating

Introduction

This article is the first in an intended series on ‘viewers behaving badly.’ I say intended because I am familiar with the frustration that comes from an author proposing a series only to leave it unfinished and so take David Kreps’ approach in his Microeconomics Foundations I: Choice and Competitive Markets: advertise the proposed series (a trilogy), fail to produce another (so far), but leave an escape route disclaimer of saying the series may never be finished (it’s also a very good and inexpensive micro textbook, though the math would probably turn off most readers here. Perhaps try a campus library if you live near a university). The reason I propose it as a series is because I would prefer these posts to aspire to more than simply ranting about behaviours I specifically get annoyed by, and instead address common threads that can be found among streams and address the reasons why certain rules exist. My ambitions for the series aside, any claims to objectivity will be undermined by the ability of long time viewers will no doubt be able to identify the catalyst for a particular article. In short: I hope to do more than just complain about my audience, but I don’t think it’s at all useful to detach myself from things I personally find irritating on stream.

Origins of the Term

While I’m not familiar with any history of the term, backseating seems to have its origins in the phrase backseat driver, a pejorative for unsolicited advice while driving. Unsolicited advice seems like the most basic foundation for the phrase as one needs no more than an understanding of the words, while the phrase backseat driving seems to create a little narrative to be filled in by the audience. Imagine teaching english to someone and having to define backseat driving, let alone backseating. The negative connotation is directly present in the term unsolicited advice, but potentially is amplified through the drama of the phrase backseat driving. Both cases are annoying, but backseat driving adds to it the active contribution of a distraction from an activity that should command the recipient’s (i.e. the driver’s) full attention.

Taken literally the term backseating makes no sense. There are few, if any, back seats to a stream and while one may rely on prior experience when explaining backseat driving, the term backseating requires familiarity with the term backseat driving to make any sense. I also think this term has grown to encompass more than its origins, and so I would like to mention some sister concepts that I think have been rolled into what we refer to in backseating. The term armchair quarterback is probably the most familiar, referring to a football spectator who mistakes their fandom for expertise and pontificates on what teams ‘should’ have done. A related term, armchair general, I thought had emerged from wargaming, but apparently goes back further (and at least according to Wikipedia goes back to Clausewitz, though doesn’t have a citation). Armchair revolutionary (indeed the whole set of ‘armchair ‘) and keyboard warrior express similar sentiments for amateurs who are fast to criticize without any skin in the game, though personally I hope that we might reinvigorate the granddaddy of all of these phrases and go back to calling them dilettantes.

Despite its older origins, I see backseating as a new coinage with its own specific meaning for what is a decidedly modern phenomena. It combines the unsolicited advice and distraction of backseat driving, the presentation of knowledge without substance of a dilettante, and the criticism divorced from the context of actual involvement present in armchair general.

Backseating on Streams

Each streamer will have their own policies for dealing with backseating, though a casual glance at a random draw of streams is likely to show that the activity is pervasive enough to be mentioned in the rules and that it is viewed as negative enough to be forbidden. I know of one streamer who has gone from a strict no backseating policy to being a little more open ended, a handful who have gone from being somewhat placid about backseating to being annoyed to outright banning it, and the majority I know forbid it outright. I do not have an explicit set of rules for the stream, though, for my part, consider backseating to be self-evidently unwelcome, the same way I would consider racism or harassment of other chatters to not require explicit rules (in my experience both as a mod and a streamer, a list of rules only invites attempts to litigate everything down to the simplest purge).

Despite my exceptional distaste for backseating, I don’t actually consider its motivation to be entirely negative in all cases. Furthermore, there is something interesting in the fact that backseating requires special mention in a list of rules, rather than having its own unspoken but self-evident social penalties like public flatulence. In the next few sections we’ll consider not just the positive and negative motivations for backseating and their effects on a stream, but also why this kind of activity has become pervasive enough to require special rules to be set up in streams.

Negative Motives for Backseating

We will begin with the obvious motives stemming from the original phrase backseat driver. The backseater wishes to assert control over the stream due to their discomfort with what is presently being done on the cast, their lack of faith in the caster, or their wish to be in control. There is little mystery as to why backseating is largely perceived as a negative in these cases because they involve taking control from a streamer, and an unfavourable assessment of the streamer’s ability to conduct their cast. While likely not a conscious motive, the backseater wants the attention of the audience and creative control over the stream without actually taking the effort to build it themselves. This attention seeking behaviour might also be motivated by the impression that they have a secret that nobody else knows (since the rest of the chat is presumably not backseating), and an overwhelming desire to prove that they know what these ignoramuses can’t seem to fathom.

What makes this particularly frustrating is that while driving can at least be justified through a fear of safety when the driver behaves contrary to the backseater’s wishes, no such fear of safety exists in the context of a stream. Furthermore, streaming almost always takes place on a service with a plethora of options, and so not only has the backseater opted into the particular stream they are interrupting, but they have any number of options available if they are dissatisfied with the stream they are viewing. Here, not only is backseating not just disrespectful to the streamer, but disrespectful to the audience through insisting that the content they are enjoying should conform to the backseater’s wishes, rather than the backseater seeking out entertainment more in line with their expectations.

The primary (or at least the apparent) motives for backseating then appear to be the negative ones: A desire to be in control or the centre of attention, a disrespect for others’ abilities or priorities, and a sense of entitlement that demands their whims be catered to.

Positive Motives for Backseating

Backseating does not always come with a nagging whine from the back of the chat to “play better.” It may also come in the form of seemingly helpful advice. Streamers are more or less expected to communicate throughout the cast and so  will likely discuss their frustrations or confusion at certain parts. This can be misconstrued as a request for help, much the same way that a greeting of “How ya doin’?” can be taken as a request for information. Even if a streamer does not verbalize their thought process, the mere fact that the game is not in a state of constant progress (or the player is on a losing streak or what have you) may be perceived as an invitation for ‘advice’.

My own feelings on backseating are manifestly apparent by now, and so it will not come as a surprise to know that I doubt the sincerity of most of these cases, though even I cannot deny that there are some legitimate misunderstandings. However, I have also been present for casts where a viewer claiming to have never have played a given game was displaying a tremendous insight into many solutions to puzzles they ‘just noticed’ after a few minutes of the streamer going through the level. Even in the case of a genuine effort to advance the game, I can’t help but think that the dominant driver in these cases is to display knowledge about the game, rather than a benevolent wish that streamers get through their content as efficiently as possible.

Another potential positive motive for backseating is an viewer’s desire to participate in the stream. Streaming is an interactive medium, and a large part of its strength stems from its interactivity. That said, these are the very kind of good intentions a famous road is paved with, and the destination is the same. Rather than sharing in the stream, backseating wrestles control away from the broadcaster. Interactivity is a desirable feature because it is a shared experience, and backseating violates this principle through attempting to take control.

The Impact of Backseating on a Stream

Having considered some of the motives behind backseating, we will turn our attention to the much more important matter of how it affects the streamer and the stream. The first and main consequence of backseating is distraction. The streamer is no longer focused on the game or the entertainment but instead must now deal with this interruption to the natural flow of thought. While it probably does not require elaboration, an analogy may be in order. Everyone has a way of getting ‘in the zone’ whether it’s absorbing oneself into a good book, delivering a speech, getting absorbed in music, trying to solve a tough problem, or getting into an exercise routine. It’s a unique feeling, not really appreciated in the moment (the lack of distraction or absence of self-awareness is key to me), but certainly recognized after its passed. Backseating is an imposition of the outside world on a blissful mental state that is difficult to achieve. The streamer’s mind is no longer juggling the game, the channel, and their presentation in harmony, but has had one of these elements disrupted, breaking the focus. More experienced streamers may find it easier to regain this state, or find it more difficult to be shaken by outside disruptions, but it remains an unwelcome intervention from the outside world into a state I feel is conducive to the best and most enjoyable casting.

In a related way backseating is disruptive because of its disrespect. There is likely to be a degree of variance between streamers’ egos, and so the disruption is likely to be negatively correlated with the streamer’s sense of self. Again, personal experience is likely useful here. I’m those who have had the misfortune of meeting me in person will say I have no shortage of ego, though I am secure enough in this fact so as not to be too bent out of shape if a stranger on the internet doesn’t think I’m good at a video game (notice, after all, they’re watching me, while they have only succeeded in distinguishing themselves through disrupting my content). That said, it is hard to shake a twinge of annoyance at the assumption you not only did not know the solution, but were so hopeless you required intervention. This feeling of disrespect is amplified through the fact no consideration is made to the fact that the streamer’s concentration is divided between the chat and the game itself, as well as the fact that the most skilled choices are not the most entertaining. My Crusader Kings II casts are a good example of this: I have hundreds of hours in the game (a majority of it, in fact, on cast), and while I think there’s always something new to learn, I feel quite confident in my command of the game’s mechanics. This is also a game that derives a lot of its magic from the emergent stories, and so my understanding of the game’s mechanics is coupled with a willingness to make sub-optimal but dramatically appropriate decisions (legitimizing a bastard when you have an heir is only asking for trouble. However, the resulting story of how you sired a bastard son through your son’s wife, legitimized the bastard, only to have him grow up and assassinate the legitimate heir to inherit the kingdom is worth the potential fallout). Ultimately, the best casts are where the streamer is sharing something of themselves with the audience, and so any backseating, whether its instruction in the game, or demands for a certain style of casting, digs at this personal aspect and attempts to hijack the effort. A viewer can take or leave the content, but should not try to subvert it for their own ends. Nobody has the magic formula for streaming success, and not every stream needs to be the same. Sometimes casters need to find their voice, and they are not going to be assisted through malcontents spoiling the fun for everyone.

Fundamentally backseating also strikes at the heart of what makes gaming enjoyable. While this is something of an old example, consider the controversy surrounding the estimated playtime of The Order: 1886. While there was some dispute as to the duration of a representative playthrough of the campaign, a consensus seemed to form that the game was short in duration, and that this was a bad thing. Concerns about quality adjusted playtime notwithstanding, there is a fairly simple observation to make here: people seem to prefer more of a game than less of a game. Obviously this is with everything else being equal, and there is certainly a point where a game can be too long, but it’s a lot easier to feel cheated with too little of a game, than disappointed with too much of it. Part of the length of the game is a function of how difficult it is. Most classic adventure games are quite short (I’ve run through Day of the Tentacle twice and did not need to split it over casts), but don’t feel short because of the process of figuring out the puzzles. NES games are another great example of this as the limited space on the cartridge means that the duration of the game had to come from something other than increasing the number of levels (which is why some of these games seem arbitrarily difficult). With very few exceptions there are supposed to be points in games that present a challenge and require some thought to get through. Denying the streamer the opportunity to solve the puzzle means the experience on display is not what the developer intended, it diminishes the streamer’s enjoyment of the game, and it also diminishes the stream’s enjoyment of the game twice over given that there is less content to experience, and the stream is no longer able to experience the streamer’s thought process through a difficult part of the game.

This is possibly the most important and damaging consequence of backseating. Streamers have access to the exact same information as anyone else and if they wanted to be told how to advance in the game they would either consult a guide or directly ask chat. A viewer that attempts to backseat not only diminishes the caster’s enjoyment of the game, but ruins the fun for everyone else who is watching. Given that some population of a cast will have arrived because they are interested in the game, it is safe to assume there are multiple people in a given stream who will know the information being communicated by the backseater. The backseater’s solipsism is not an excuse for ruining everyone else’s fun.

The Spread of Backseating

Why is backseating a problem now? Or, if it’s always been a problem, why does it seem so much more prevalent? First, both the appearance and the fact of increase backseating can be attributed to technological progress: Where we originally had to be physically present to backseat drive, communications technology have expanded our capabilities to be irritating to virtually anywhere. Likewise, because streaming can be so personal (the audience is invisible, and the streamer appears to be speaking directly to you), the backseater’s disregard for others is reinforced by the environment. Finally, through various fan wikis and forums, it is possible to gain any information about a given game at a moment’s notice. While the fact that someone can do this is unremarkable, the illusion of possessing knowledge seems to be preserved through the fact that nobody can see how someone got this information.

Beyond these surface explanations, I think there’s something a bit deeper behind backseating. Overall there seems to be a diminished opinion of experts across more or less any discipline. If you don’t like the results from your doctor you can go to another one, or even consult a website to self-diagnose. Don’t know an answer to a problem? StackExchange has got you covered. Need some trivia on history? Just go to Wikipedia. None of these options are inherently bad and, in fact, are likely edited or curated by experts. What the accessibility of these sites has done though is allowed people to replace the knowledge of how to solve a problem with how to look for someone else’s solution. In many cases this is replacing actual knowledge with the mere appearance of it. An analogy may be fame. Before photography, you had to be someone very important for others to know what you looked like (your face was on a coin, or images of you were widely distributed in various buildings like churches). Now photography is cheap, and easy, and it is enough to simply be famous for being famous. Given the seemingly limitless capacity for celebrities to offer opinions on matters of importance, we don’t seem to have lost this deference we give to the people whose images we see all over the place, but the barriers for entry seem to have been significantly diminished. Likewise, it is not especially difficult to express an opinion online, and the fact that one can do so seems to have created the illusion that one voice on the internet is as good as any other’s. In addressing the phenomena of fake news Obama offered that “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll.”

We implicitly acknowledge the value of experts through our consumption of the information they provide, but we want to receive the credit for disseminating the information. Just like it’s simple to download seemingly anything: a song, a game, a book, a movie, we are able to take just about any information and pass it off as our own discoveries. If I read a walkthrough for a game start to finish and play the game, I am going to feel like I am the one who beat the game, but I was simply the instrument through which the walkthrough operated. It is not the same accomplishment as playing from start to finish without assistance. Finally,  while good streamers make it look easy, streaming is actually fairly difficult to do (at least well). Of course, one needn’t go through the trouble of finding an audience and building a community, when any given streamer has already done this work for you. All you need to do now is demonstrate how much more you know about the game than the streamer through backseating and you can show how much better you’d be at the exercise if only you had enough time off from kicking ass at video games.

Of course, this type of expertise is an illusion, but it’s a powerful one. I can recall coworkers who genuinely felt that knowing they could find a solution to a problem was equivalent to solving a problem, and I think plenty of people online expect that their opinion should receive the same weight as a well reasoned argument simply because both parties are speaking the same language and are on the same forum. Our reward mechanisms are roughly consistent with these views: homework and reports are often graded on outcomes, not thought processes. Most online discourse is graded on how well an opinion aligns with the audience’s prior (sort Undertale’s negative reviews by most helpful for an example). The appearance of expertise is much simpler than obtaining that knowledge for oneself, and so much more effort is now expended in finding the biggest platform to display this false knowledge than obtaining the genuine article.

This problem is as old as Plato’s Ion (the bard who claims expertise on generalship due to his understanding of Homer), and yet now we seem to be taking Ion seriously. It’s never fun to admit we don’t know something, and yet it’s an important ability to have. It’s impossible to talk about this and not acknowledge the fact that not only is it possible to be elected President on the basis of being able to play a successful businessman on television, but the appeal towards a lack of experience is actually considered a positive feature to campaign for any number of populist candidates following in the wake of this outcome. Where politicians aren’t directly articulating policy that is ‘just like the average joe’s’ they are directly turning it over to the public in the form of referenda. These are representatives who, if they don’t possess expertise themselves, should at least be consulting with experts to make decisions turning that responsibility over to people who do not have access to this expertise. Even the news is reporting an opinion poll on everything, as if their job wasn’t to inform people about the facts.

In an environment where so many important issues have now been surrendered to seemingly anyone, is it any surprise that seemingly anyone feels entitled to instruct something as trivial as a stream as to how to do things ‘properly’? Backseating a stream allows the quick rush of displaying the possession of ‘secret knowledge’ in front of an audience who is clearly invested in the game you are talking about. But the ‘fame’ is as illusory as the knowledge. Nobody really thinks it’s impressive that someone in chat knew what everyone else knows is public knowledge. In truth, chat should, and likely does resent the backseater for taking away from their experience. The streamer resents the attempt to wrest control of something they’ve put considerable effort into.

Games aren’t fun as play by chat, streamers aren’t fleshy controllers to implement your instructions, and if the audience were interested in your gameplay, they’d be in your stream. This is why I feel the net result of backseating is so negative as to not even require articulation in the rules. But if I must articulate a position I’ve already primed my bot: “Support the devs, buy the game for yourself, and LEAVE THE STREAMER ALONE!”

Streaming Other People’s IP: Are Streamers Any Good at Selling Games?

Twitch broadcasting lives in a bit of a weird space so far as intellectual property (IP) is concerned. While obviously I do not have any legal credentials to back this up, I think it’s safe to say that most gaming content that is broadcast is infringing. While this is open to debate, mostly centring around what constitutes fair use, I think we can find some common ground to say that we can establish a spectrum of gaming content from criticism (not infringing) to a standard Twitch broadcast (infringing). This is only to say that we operate at the pleasure of the owners of the IP we are working with. Fortunately, a lot of developers are reasonable about this and publicly state that they are okay with releasing content using their games, even if it is monetized, and enforcement of these IP rights is so lax that most streamers don’t even look for these disclaimers but merely assume that streaming the game is okay.

Suppose this were to change. What if one day IP notices were not sent out just from firms that were angry about a negative review, but major developers who decided they would no longer accept strangers profiting from their IP without asking permission and sharing revenues. One thought you’d be certain to hear constantly is “this is a stupid move on the part of developers. They’re getting free publicity for their game. They should be paying the streamers, not the other way around!” (Ignoring that some streamers are, in fact, paid to play certain games). This is a fictional scenario, but this sentiment has already been expressed whenever the topic of IP comes up in the context of a stream. I’m mostly interested in examining whether or not we are justified in making this claim. I can’t really make much headway arguing for a particular position (clearly I benefit from IP regimes that maximize my ability to protect my content while eliminating barriers to use others’), but I’m interested in seeing if our actions match our rhetoric, and if there are some lessons we can learn to provide better content to people.

Why IP?

IP is generally unpopular among right thinking modern digital travellers. Video game piracy may not be such a big deal as it used to be, but I’d hazard a guess that most of the people I know who are watching TV shows and listening to music are not paying for that content (in fact, even among the free content, measures are taken to even block advertising, though this is different from piracy). Most of the examples people will think of in terms of IP will be takedown notices, demands for compensation and just generally stories of the ‘big corporate interests pushing down the little man variety.’ Even the imaginary scenario above fits this to an extent because it involves a request for revenue sharing. However, it’s worth mentioning that there are many other reasons why someone might seek to obtain protection for their work and why they would enforce it.

I had the benefit of listening to a doctor who owns several patents who explained that their importance was not through preserving the profits motive to ensure innovation (a common argument you’ll hear in an economic discussion about intellectual property), but that its as the only means through which he could ensure that others would not attempt to manufacture the drug at a lower quality. While competition is desirable to bring down the costs of medication, in this case we are talking about a lower quality that potentially carries side effects that are harmful to people and would effectively kill the ‘real’ medicine if it was still going through certification and trials (consider the trouble a report that is known to be fabricated has created through its claim that there is a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism). Here the enforcement of IP prevents a drug from being unjustly condemned for the unscrupulous practices of others.

A patent case may not seem very relevant to the discussion of gaming, which would fall under copyright, but this at least puts us on the path to establishing that not all IP claims are driven for purely mercenary reasons (I am, of course, making something of a concession that mercenary reasons are inherently bad in the first place. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?). Let’s see if we can find something a little closer to home. Consider that (despite the present evidence to the contrary) I have some capacity to write, but no real artistic skills to speak of. Suppose I decide to seek out some exiting art to attach my words an ideas to. For the sake of illustration, I take a Penny Arcade strip because I’m a big fan, and erase out the speech bubbles and add my own script. Now here’s the trouble: let’s say I decide to write misogynistic, racist or just generally unsavoury ideas and put them in the mouth of Tycho, the ‘smarter’ of the two, then unleashing the creation on the world. I don’t know how the Penny Arcade guys manage IP issues, but I have every reason to believe that they would not be comfortable with the position I expressed using their content. Should they be able to request the ‘remix’ being taken down? If this seems far fetched, consider that until recently, it is the IP rights held by the government of Germany that prevented unauthorized editions of Mein Kampf from being published.

Here is an example where the ‘free publicity’ (let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that my imaginary Penny Arcade remix properly credits the authors for the original strip) the comic would be getting is entirely the kind they don’t want. Furthermore, it takes advantage of the recognition of their art style and the characteristics they have established over the years that the comic has been printed, namely putting the ‘smart’ idea in the mouth of the ‘smart’ character. By the construction of the example, this work is one that brings no benefit to the original creators and likely brings some harm through the association of their work with ideas with ideas they very likely do not want to be associated with. Here we seem to be able to draw an analogy to the patent case: The authors, presumably, do not like their ideas being expressed and do not want to have their work, or brand, associated with it. Here we can see a very sensible use of IP rights to take down the work and send a strong signal that they do not want to be associated with such ideas.

While it’s hard to argue that the status quo is ideal, it at least provides us some understandable motives through which someone might want to enforce IP rights, even if we may not personally agree with them (for instance, the same laws that prevented Mein Kampf from being published by seemingly anybody are also ones that are being used to say the Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank is not in the public domain) their use also isn’t completely inconceivable. We’ll now turn to see some cases where this may apply to streaming.

Streaming Someone Else’s Game

First, I should admit that many of the most concerning problems in the previous passages might be dealt with in something like the Twitch Terms of Service. For example, if I play Hearts of Iron as Germany, spouting neo-Nazi propaganda without irony, this will be banned. But this is not a particularly desirable solution either because the Terms of Service are selectively enforced, and does not place any power in the hands of the rights holder but rather the site on which the infringement is taking place. For example you’d likely think it a very strange conversation if you heard “My music is being played without permission and without compensation on your site.” “Oh, don’t worry about the infringement. We don’t like foul language so we were going to ban them for playing music with swearing in it.” Some (I’d argue most) rights holders are happy to support small projects by giving them permission to use their work, but I think all of them would prefer to have the option. Furthermore, this coverage is incomplete. There are different rules for different platforms, and it’s perfectly feasible for anyone to simply open up a stream on their own. The idea here is that even if we even address the worst of the ‘added-value’ streamers might bring to a game, relying on ToS alone does not really give creators a voice as to what happens with their creation after it’s released to the world.

But up to this point I’ve been dealing with broader principles and hypothetical (cartoonishly evil) streamers. Is there an example that I would have a reasonable chance of finding on a streaming site if pressed? There is one that is unfortunately common instance where a developer should be worried about the perception of the game: the stream is boring. Obviously you’re not boring, it must be the other guy, but the fact that there are so many unfollowed and unwatched streams on these platforms communicates that there are a large number of streams that are utterly failing to connect. Yes, some of these are simply trying to find their stride, and yes, there can be other factors affecting the viewership of a stream (likewise, being popular does not mean you aren’t boring. There are also well established casts that are cashing in on past glory), but there are low barriers to entry for streaming, and a lot of people who think there’s a fast dollar to be made playing video games in from too people. This is not a recipe for high standards in the average stream.

Before I go further, I’ll just clarify that I don’t think these streamers should stop, or that they shouldn’t make an effort (in fact, the majority would be improved if they started making an effort), and I am certainly not free from the accusation of being boring (“Play the game. What is this a talk show?” is not an unfamiliar phrase in my chat). But if we are going to make a general statement as to what a good deal it is for developers to allow streamers to use their games without their permission, then we should confront the fact that the quality of stream we’re thinking about is not representative of the majority of streams that will actually be using this access. If the claim is that unfettered access to a company’s IP is in their interest because of free publicity, then we should be sure that this is the kind of publicity that a developer wants.

This has a nice side effect of constraining the discussion to streams that are not specifically geared towards criticism or otherwise fall under unambiguous instances of fair use. It is not the developer’s right to silence critical views of their product. On the other hand, turning on a game and perpetually complaining about it does not constitute a critique (I have a particular big streamer in mind on a AAA title, but it serves as a general principle). More importantly, I think it is important that the product not be misrepresented either through overstating its benefits (shill reviews. My perpetual fear whenever I receive promo keys, because I am actually quite easily satisfied), or through underselling its strengths (ie. the ‘boring stream’). The former certainly is not short on attention, but the latter is equally concerning and receives less attention because it tends not to fall under our direct experience (companies aren’t going to pay unknowns for a shill review). And this is not a hypothetical, but rather a genuine problem I encountered when looking into a game I was interested in.

Buying Games Off Twitch

In a previous article I comment on how interesting I thought Satellite Reign looked but that I had reservations given that the reviews implied that a lot of attention had been given into creating an attractive product, but the gameplay left much to be desired. Now, having had the benefit of a full release, you can actually go into the Steam reviews and see a shift in public opinion (likely coinciding with a patch) where it ceased to be an ‘interactive trailer’ and held its own as a game. Having been disappointed with early access games in the past, however, I decided not to take the Steam reviewers’ word for it and instead decided to see what the game played like by going to Twitch.

There were not too many streams broadcasting it (which is probably a side effect of early access. The impulse to stream a new game isn’t exactly the same for a game you’ve already owned and played for months) and so I went down the list ordered in the same way Twitch orders them: by viewership. Lamentably, all of the English speaking streams I watched didn’t offer anything in the form of commentary. When they did interact with the channel/game it was practically monosyllabic. The challenge here is that while Satellite Reign is actually quite an exciting game, and has some tense moments while sneaking through compounds, it is not immediately apparent when you drop into the game without context. In fact you could be forgiven for thinking the game is quite slow at times given that missions tend to go best when you’re not detected, which means there is an incentive for planning and thought (none of which is communicated unless the streamer is actively participating in the broadcast instead of just passively playing a game while recording). I think this is a largely under appreciated element of strategy streams in that people familiar with the game may be able to appreciate strategic decisions made in and of themselves, but that to the average viewer, these streams are incomprehensible without context and explanation.

Now let’s consider this from the developer’s point of view. Here I am, a customer deciding whether or not this game is worth a purchase at near-full price (10% discount for launch week) and my purchasing decision now hinges on whether or not the game is appealing based on what I see from the streams I’m looking at. This may not be fair to the developer, as the appearance of someone else playing the game may not be representative of the experience of playing, but it’s all I have to go on. In the absence of another indicator, a stream is a nice way to get additional information and separate an overly positive view (marketing material), and the experience I’m paying for (unaltered footage of the game being played live). In this case we’re replacing an overly positive bias for the game with an overly negative bias for the game in the case of bad streams that are playing the game. It’s in my interest to be as objective as possible about these things (being overly critical denies me the ability to enjoy a game. Being overly understanding wastes money that could have been spent on something more fun), but the truth of the matter is that the experience of a stream is inevitably going to colour your opinion of the game, no matter how careful you are trying to disentangle the streamer from it. If the characters are just standing around, or meandering with seemingly no purpose, and there is no context for this behaviour, then they only reasonable conclusion I can draw is that this is a game with a lot of wandering around where nothing much happens.

This is likely most acutely felt in the case of independent games. If a new Battlefield game is released, or a WoW expansion, there is a substantial marketing effort behind it, and people feel compelled to have some kind of opinion on it (even if it’s “I don’t play WoW anymore, it was better in [insert expansion when person started playing]”). Trying it ‘to see what it’s like’ can very much be a reason for a purchase, and there is also a minimum quality threshold that these kind of blockbusters tend to hit (with notable exceptions). Like, I don’t know anybody who has played single player Battlefield 3, but for my money it was a pretty fun ride. Sort of like a summer action movie that you might have seen Harrison Ford star in. I’m sure a steady diet of this stuff might get dull, but I feel like I will receive some positive value from playing a big release, while there is literally no boundary as to  how bad an independent can be. AAA seem to compete more on “How much is this experience worth to you?” while indies have to compete on “Is this thing worth anything to you at all?”

It turns out that while independents certainly are the ones most in need for attention, but as a result, they are also highly susceptible to poor quality streams. If I had to make an estimation as to whether or not I would have enjoyed Satellite Reign based on what I saw on the 4 streams available at that time, I would have said it looked boring and that it probably was designed to rake in Early Access money with some fancy art and the wish for a good modern Syndicate style game. Here the ‘free publicity’ it received was decidedly negative and completely contrary to the actual experience of the game which his actually quite exciting and interesting. Fortunately, this wasn’t the end of the story.

Making a Decision on Satellite Reign

After exhausting my options with English streams, I noticed there was a streamer who tagged their Satellite Reign playthrough with [FR]. I had to take French in school and it is a requirement for a lot of government jobs in Canada (I also have some friends in Paris), so I try to get a little practice in by watching the French version of things. I thought Twitch might be a good opportunity for this as well, though my command of the language is very poor. The streamer was Elkinoo and his stream was an absolute delight to watch.

There’s a big lesson to be taken from here. I can’t claim to really know what’s being said on the stream a lot of the time, and can’t/don’t interact in chat a lot (although Elkinoo and his community are extremely friendly and accommodating, so I feel like I could participate a lot more), and yet none of these were impediments to enjoying the stream. Elkinoo is a remarkably friendly streamer, and has a degree of charisma that translates through things like tone and body language. What’s also noteworthy is that so far as establishing context for the actions (which I identified as a failing in the English streams), a French stream does not have the benefit of establishing this verbally given my weak comprehension. In addition to being a lot of fun to watch in its own right, it’s actually a good case study for English speakers simply because you get to see how other factors other than the direct words you say affect the entertainment value of the stream. For instance, I think Elkinoo possesses a delightful sense of humour and a wicked sense of comic timing, even though I wouldn’t classify it as a ‘comedy stream.’

Even despite my handicap of not being able to follow the full dialogue, I got a much better idea of what the game was about. It’s sort of funny how you can tell when a streamer is on a ‘okay I’m between objectives and let’s fill in the time’ part or in ‘alright, we’re about to take an objective’ part by their tone. He was playing the same game that the other streamers were, but I was able to see that any slowness I perceived in the game was more about the individual streams, and not a feature of the game itself. As you might expect, I wound up buying the game (and following Elkinoo. You should too!).

Streaming with IP in Mind

We live in a weird space so far as IP goes. I think that the failure of industries to adapt to digital distribution led to people adopting the piracy channels (Napster, Piratebay etc.) which has created something of a norm for piracy. The pendulum has somewhat swung back now that iTunes and Netflix provide digital alternatives for music and movies, but I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that there is a meaningful segment of the population that does not believe in paying for content still (of course, the availability of free content such as Twitch and YouTube also contributes to this, but I’m not entirely sure we have a truly free equivalent to Game of Thrones or House of Cards yet). While I may be misdiagnosing the origins, I think it’s safe to say that we do not put a lot of thought into IP considerations when we are producing or consuming entertainment.

In one sense I’m happy about this, because I think it’s better that we have innovative ideas and be able to implement them, but it’s not without its problems. If you left it to streamers, they’d obviously want to keep everything open because they live and die by their ability to work with other people’s IP. Twitch largely abdicates its responsibility concerning IP issues by adding a condition that streamers are responsible for obtaining the rights to the content they create (they are, of course, still happy to receive payment for advertising over infringing content, and would be shocked, shocked to find out if there was any infringement going on at their establishment). Twitch actually has a benefit from specialization regarding business matters and should probably be more active in asserting and establishing the rights of streamers (Twitch can hire better Lawyers to establish some general rule, rather than individual streamers working on their own account), but in the current state they really have no reason to do this. As a result, we’ll mute our VODs if we have to, not really care about whether or not we have the rights to the music on a live stream, and continue streaming a given game until we’re told not to.

Even though this is likely to be the status quo for the foreseeable future, I do think there’s one area in which an individual streamer can improve the way they handle other people’s IP. Ultimately it’s just simply to recognize that they are working with someone else’s work, one that almost certainly took considerable effort to bring to the market. In this sense it puts an obligation on us to show the game in the best light that we can. This is not to say we can’t criticize a game, or that we should misrepresent the quality of the product. Showing it the best light does not mean ‘skipping over’ weak spots in the game if I’d have played them normally, but rather we should do our best to be as entertaining as possible and show the game as it is. The game isn’t just a prop to be the butt of a cheap joke or a rant. If we put on a bad show, the consequence is not just felt in whatever hit to viewer/donation numbers we feel, but is also felt in the lost sales for the developer whose game was poorly presented, as was almost the case for Satellite Reign for me. As we saw above, larger games are less likely to suffer this as there are alternative streamers, but indies may never get another opportunity to show what they’re made of.

In the end, it’s a matter of recognizing the fact that we are profiting (even if only in a small way) from other people’s IP, and respecting the work by ensuring that we are providing some kind of added value in the form of commentary, skill, or viewer interaction.

What’s in a Name: The Case of ‘Metrics

While it is hard to think of an econometrics book being popular in any traditional sense of the term, the best candidate for a popular econometrics textbook is Josh Angrist and Jörn-Steffen Pischke’s Mostly Harmless Econometrics (MHE). The title is a deliberate reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and communicates the irreverent tone taken in the handbook. While it came out a bit before I was aware of such discussions, it seems like the Spring 2010 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives (free to read online) seems to be dedicated at least in part to the approach the book takes (though almost certainly these were in practice before the book) and responses to it. While MHE does not concern itself too much with theory, it is a good companion to an existing textbook, or may be of interest to someone who is interested in applied work, though it demands a certain level of sophistication from the readers (I’d say it’s probably targeted to an advanced undergraduate or introductory graduate level).

This year saw the release of the pair’s second book called Mastering ‘Metrics (MM) which is geared more towards an undergraduate level. On the first page of the introduction they say “Economists’ use of data to answer cause-and-effect questions constitutes the field of applied econometrics, known to students and masters alike as ‘metrics.” When the book was released I was taking my 3rd course in econometrics and found that it was the first I had ever heard of the abbreviation. Now in the graduate program and taking my 4th course in econometrics I find my classmates referring to it as ‘metrics, though, curiously, those who use the term most readily (and originally from my understanding) were my classmates at UBC who received the same econometrics education that I did and had not used the term before. Reading MHE or MM will tell you how I could design a project to test whether or not the release of the book led to the adoption by my classmates, but I will state without evidence that I believe the release of MM marks the coinage and widespread adoption of the term ‘metrics. (Edit: not entirely accurate. See below)

Is there anything we can make out of this? As always, I’m interested in reading too far into things, but I think the title of the book indicates positive things for the social sciences and Angrist and Pischke’s audience, though does not communicate anything favourable about my peers. MHE contains an endorsement from James Robinson (probably best known for his collaboration with Daron Acemoglu on Why Nations Fail) declaring it a “must-read… [for] political scientists, sociologists, historians, geographers, and anthropologists.” He himself seems to stand astride economics and political science, though his collaborations with Acemoglu unquestionably fall under economics. My interest in the abbreviation to ‘metrics in the undergraduate level text (MM) is that I think it communicates to open up these extremely helpful tools for causal inference to a wider range of disciplines. I am too early in my academic journey to be able to speak with much authority on this, but econometrics appears to offer one of the best sets of tools to answer these kinds of questions, and they may find ready applications outside of economics itself. For instance, my undergraduate thesis involved taking a data set from a political science paper and in a first pass I simply replicated the results then went in and adjusted where I felt the methods were inconsistent with my understanding of how to work with such data, which immediately resulted in stronger results (later, it also identified some areas in which the other paper was weak and possibly the results were heavily worked to promote a particular conclusion). My own result wasn’t necessarily impressive in any respect (for instance, there are likely endogeneity problems and, well, I really don’t know what the hell I’m talking about), but I think it at least some evidence that good questions can find good answers if researchers are willing to look at the economist’s toolbox which seems to hold some of the most advanced techniques.

The idea here is that the abbreviation is a good one because it removes the ‘econo’ element and communicates that the techniques (the ‘Furious Five’ as Angrist and Pischke call them) are not limited to questions in economics, but have more general applications in conducting any kind of causal inference. This isn’t to limit economic inquiry (the great appeal to me at least is the great flexibility economic analysis affords me), but rather to be more inclusive in the terminology. It doesn’t really change anything, but it does avoid the hang up of, say, a sociologist taking advantage of something like quantile regression, explaining it’s a helpful econometric technique and then having to answer “what does economics have to do with any of this?” (or worse, dealing with the assumption that economics is somehow tainted by unreasonable assumptions and thus the technique is invalid). Basically, if we have social scientists using the best tools available (at least so far as I’m aware), then we, as a whole, benefit. A common language between disciplines will allow for easier collaboration, and, rather than hoping that economists have all the good ideas, disciplines with other interests can take advantage of these tools to improve their research (this, of course, makes it more difficult for researchers if the overall quality of work improves, but this is a nice problem to have. I won’t cry if there are fewer papers with results that collapse with a minor change in assumptions). Of course, to gain the full benefit of the tools available, researchers should take up MHE, and maybe move on to something like the Handbook of Econometrics (behind a paywall but possibly available to you if you went to a university that gives alumni access to academic journals) which requires getting over the red herring of what we call things, but I don’t mind dropping ‘econo’ in the introductory material if it means we’ll benefit from better research.

My enthusiasm for the rechristening to the term ‘metrics is somewhat diminished when I hear my peers use it. There are a couple of PhD students who use this term, but I notice a fairly high rate of adoption amongst the MA students. I can get the impulse, the hope to communicate that one is hip to the latest trends in the profession. It’s a bit problematic when you consider that the term seems to have gained currency when an undergraduate level book has been released, but never mind that, only squares who use words like ‘hip’ (and square) call it econometrics, all the cool kids call it ‘metrics. My problem is that I actually think taking the econ out of the MA economics cohort is actually a fairly accurate assessment of the situation. Here’s an example: I spent a few minutes this afternoon writing in the discussion for wiki entry on the protestant work ethic because I noticed a claim made about Schumpeter’s account of the origins of capitalism that I’d not read before. Following the reference did not present any support for the claim in the entry, and so it raised a few interesting questions for me: Did Schumpeter ever write on the origins of capitalism? If so, where? If not, where might this impression have come from (it seems similar to Marx’s account, but not enough for me to want to make an edit)? What I would like to be able to do is to raise any one of these topics with a classmate and investigate it (it might be a short conversation because I’ve only read a little of Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy but I’d find it preferable to find myself understudied for conversations with my peers). The most common conversation will be either how to find problem set solutions or how to land a good job after grad school. In fact today a student more or less said they haven’t really understood what’s been said in the last two econometrics courses (not classes) and have just focused on how to solve the problems. It’s hard to see the class as particularly interested in economics so much as building the appropriate ‘signal’ to employers that they’re worthy of a high paying job.

Again, I sort of understand the impulse. Everyone has to make a living, and we prefer a high paying job to a low paying one. Likewise, econ is a decidedly employable degree, and a BA has been reduced to the point that it has become a requirement to rent cars to people at Budget. But that’s not the reason why I’m in the program, and in the end, I think advanced study in any subject should be more than just finding a good job. To me it’s a problem that I cannot have a conversation with an MA student about a topic in economics if it is not directly related to the grade they will be getting in the end. It gotten to a point that I argued with a classmate who was complaining that we weren’t permitted a formula sheet for the mathematics final as being ‘unfair’ because they were planning on writing the solutions to past finals. In addition to pointing out the dubious application of the term ‘unfair’ my position was that the purpose of the course is to teach us not just mathematical techniques, but reasoning (ie. how to do proofs), and that rewriting a past answer (which is actually more successful than you’d think) is simply imitation, not understanding. For this I was perceived as being the unreasonable one because the material was ‘hard.’ The problem is that I know it’s hard, because I struggled with it and had to write the same exam. Topology defines open and closed sets in a way that allows sets to be both open and closed at the same time, confirming my suspicion that they are deliberately trying to make the subject even more difficult than it already is. But it’s economics, and mathematics is the tool and language we use to bring clarity to the problems we work on. We don’t study topology to impress the ladies (though, ladies, you know where to find me), we study this because that branch of mathematics allows us to prove certain propositions fundamental to our analysis. A working understanding of mathematics not only allows us to understand the fundamentals of our discipline, but equips us to handle our ultimate goal: answering questions that nobody has gotten the answer to yet (or, ideally, haven’t even asked yet!). You can’t imitate your way to that, and it requires a lot of hard thinking both mathematically and creatively. A technically perfect solution to an uninteresting question is at least useless as a poorly formed but interesting question (although, in theory, the latter can be picked up by someone with the capacity to do the heavy lifting). Economics problems are worth taking the time to do right, and nobody ‘owes’ us our degrees. Either we have the tools or we don’t. It sucks for me, because I know I’d love to have free time to stream, and read for pleasure, but I also want to be able to formulate and answer these questions head on without hiding behind “well I haven’t learned <topic> yet…”

In the end, while I think the general abbreviation to ‘metrics is inclusive and encouraging, its specific application is a tragically accurate representation of the priorities of my peers (at least most. Obviously there are exceptions in any case): concerned with appearances, and not too interested in economics.

Edit: It dawned on me I could actually find out of Mastering ‘Metrics was the origin of the term by checking out economics resources. I’ve never really seen it used in any blogs, but I noticed that on EJMR there are references to ‘metrics going back 4 years (possibly more). While I still think its application in my cohort comes from the use in the book (I have the advantage of seeing them before and after), it’s definitely not Angrist and Pischke’s coinage.

Talking on Stream

Whatever failings I may have as a streamer, one fairly consistent (positive) comment I’ve gotten has been my ability to keep talking. It’s easy for someone of my temperament to fall into a reflective ‘chicken or egg’ cycle regarding my format and my ability to talk, but if I’m honest with myself I can say that this is a quality I had going in, and just needed a mentor (in this case two, SeriouslyClara and JessyQuil) to bring it out. Earlier in my life I was very shy, and along the way set out to try and be a bit more outgoing. I think shyness is still a trait I have (I’m not crazy about taking photos, I don’t always go out of the way to introduce myself to new people. Limit it to the opposite sex and I half think I’m no better than I was in my early-teens), but I’ve managed enough to be able to do public speaking, and I can feel a degree of comfort speaking with people to a the point that I talk too much and now need to reign it in. That said, there are also a few imperatives created by my particular format that make a lot of commentary important. You can take a positive view of it and say that strategy oriented games with opportunities for pauses invite a more dialogue heavy style of cast, or a negative view and say that without a cam every minute without dialogue is an absence of any personality (easily the most important factor in any cast in my opinion). Given that other casters (Brotatoe’s guides come to mind, though personally I’ve not read them) have written their views on casting, I thought I’d weigh in on the one thing I have some credibility for. My verbose style probably limits the utility of this post as an actual guide, especially as I can’t resist the opportunity to editorialize, but I’ll do my best to section it off in meaningful ways.

Why Talk?

In some ways this seems apparent. Other casters talk, and I think it’s safe to say that most people begin broadcasting because they saw a channel that inspired them (even if it’s “Well I can certainly do much better than that systemchalk guy”), but presumably we can come up with a better motivation than “monkey see, monkey do.” Why would I want to be a second rate Arumba when I can be a first rate systemchalk? (For those seeking the origins of my streaming interests, look elsewhere. You good people let me know about Arumba after I was well into my broadcasting hobby.) We are on firmer ground when we consider that live streaming is probably the best interactive broadcasting platform (though by no means exclusively. TV has attempted far more innovation along these lines than people give it credit for) available to us, and we are social animals. Since the greatest strength of the platform is its interactivity, it is only natural that we would want to leverage the strengths of the personalities bringing us this content, and ultimately speech is the most effective way to accomplish this. People are communicating with you in typed words, you speak words back.

Interacting with a personality is not itself a major revelation, but what we should do is unpack exactly what that means so that we can put it under the microscope and find out why we are compelled by some broadcasters but not others. It also puts some boundaries on the discussion. For instance, this has little to offer an aspiring eSports professional who is likely going to attract an audience based on their performance on broadcast games (either in tournaments or on stream, though preferably both). Assuming there is no preliminary work that has already been done through success on another platform, what people know about you is due entirely to what you have spoken after hitting the ‘start streaming’ button.

Of course, there’s an even more fundamental reason to talk and display your personality: it’s entertaining. There is, of course, no obligation to be entertaining, but I am assuming that there are far less costly and technologically intensive forms of masturbation available. And if you’re not having fun, surely there are easier ways to make a living. I’m always looking for new ways to be entertained, and so I have to hope that the broadcasters I visit are as invested in my entertainment as I am. Having identified a motive for dialogue on stream, let’s think about the substance of what is said.

What do I Talk About?

The importance of founding the ‘what’ question on the personality of the broadcaster (again, interactivity being the comparative advantage of live streaming and so personality being the factor that best leverages this advantage) lies in its versatility. Our potential audience is anyone with a reliable internet connection, which means it is global and growing. It’s hard not to believe that there is an audience out there for more or less anything, though clearly some formats will be more popular than others. I don’t really think anyone can teach someone how to become famous. There’s an old quote that is at least attributed to Henry Ford saying “If I asked the customer what they wanted they’d have told me a faster horse that ate less.” This suggests that even if you were to simply poll the Twitch user base, the supposed insights of “Call of Duty is in this year” or “People really want tutorial style MMO PvP streams” are simply identifying past successes and so are basically like driving using only the rear view mirror.

Focusing on personality also forces you to answer the question: why are you doing this? The best way for me to approach this question is to answer it for myself. I can clearly remember from the start what my intentions were in streaming. Gaming has always been a social experience for me, and I tremendously enjoy sharing games with people, even if they’re not gamers themselves. Furthermore, I really like games that make me learn things. When I was little I loved Civilization and can remember being fascinated by all the reading I was doing in the Civilopedia. It’s no coincidence that Kerbal Space Program was one of the first games I streamed because it was a game that I not only enjoyed sharing the experience of learning the game, but was also one that was very subtly teaching me more about orbital mechanics than I would have thought. The learning dimension somewhat expanded because I also talk about my academic interests. People who know me in person know that this is not limited to my stream. These discussions come from a genuine love of these subjects and the enjoyment I get out of sharing them with people. As it happens, games provide a wonderful framework to take people from “God I hated X in high school/college” to “Oh wow, I never thought about it that way.” Clearly the success of this is not for me to determine, but these are the reasons I stream and they are broadly unchanged from the first broadcast, though I hope I’ve become more effective at delivering them.

What I hope this biography conveys is that, while I do behave quite differently when doing a guest appearance on another stream, the content that you see (or more appropriately, hear) on Mondays and Fridays is inextricably linked to me on a personal level. Ultimately, I feel the best commentary comes from this place, which is why I don’t believe in a success formula. People will always remain the core of this broadcast medium, and your dialogue is one of the best ways to interact with them.

Sometimes answering this question is hard. Because it is part of yourself that you will be putting into each broadcast, answering “Why are you streaming?” bears some similarity to the dreaded question “What do you want to do with your life?” It’s a very personal question that you’re dealing with, and it is one that deals with your aspirations and ambitions, which will then be exposed to the world which makes no promises to cherish them as much as you do. But failing to answer this question means that we, the audience, are simply interacting with some cartoon, or worse, nothing at all. Here we do well to remember Polonius’ final piece of advice son Laertes in the first act of Hamlet, “To thine own self be true…”

While this section could be condensed simply to ‘be genuine’ the commandment version does not offer much about the insecurities associated with such an action, and leave the reasons for its importance up to conjecture. But while shrieking at a jump scare is, pretty much by definition, genuine, reaction alone is not enough to properly convey personality through the stream. This brings us to our final topic.

How do I Talk on Stream?

I have to guess every streamer at some point has had to deal with the problem of an empty chat room. Another reason for centring this discussion around a personality is because it should make this problem irrelevant. I knew playing Kerbal Space Program I’d talk about my experience learning the game if nobody showed up or 100 people showed up. This is the active creation of content where the streamer is bringing something more to the table than their access to a gaming computer and broadband internet. This is my Kerbal Space Program, there are many like it but this one is mine…

It is a lot easier to cast to an active chat than it is to an empty chat. Partly it’s because of the support, and partly it’s because I enjoy the interactivity of the medium both as a broadcaster and an audience member. But with this in mind, I still try to be active in how I interact with chat. I’ll illustrate this difference between active interaction vs. passive interaction with an example:

Suppose I’m playing The Talos Principle. I wander around a level, unable to solve a puzzle. “Man, I’m stuck on this one…” Go around in circle again “This game is really hard sometimes…” Notice something different “Oh I think I’ve got the answer.” Flip the switch, move to another section, wind up where I started. “Nope that’s not the answer.” “Oh hey yoloswag420360noscopeblazeit, how are you today?” … “I’m good, just playing some Talos. This puzzle is really hard.” Continue through level. “Yeah, it is a lot like Portal. The puzzles seem a lot harder though.” Have a breakthrough, solve the puzzle. “Oh I get it now. That makes sense, I can’t believe I didn’t get it before.”

There’s a trick to analyzing this hypothetical streamer. First imagine a checkbox of all the traits you’d want in a good stream. Are they talking? Yes, sounds are being produced. Are they responding to chat? Yes, and mentioned someone by name. But can we really call any of this interactive, or really even content? Let’s consider an alternative.

Back in The Talos Principle at the same puzzle. “Alright strap in boys and girls, I’ve completely lost my mind here…” While going through the level “I tried moving the box here, doesn’t seem to be any better place for that. There’s a fan part over there, but it doesn’t seem to be good for anything at the moment… I feel like I’m missing something but we’ve been through this level twice… Hey yolo, how’s it going? Were the other 420359 noscopeblazeits taken?” … “Glad to hear it. This is The Talos Principle. I’m loving it so far, but this puzzle is about to make me self harm.” … “Yes, it’s a lot like Portal. You know how in Portal 2 you get bits of the history of Aperture Laboratories through audio as you go through the level? This tells the story in a similar way, though it seems very philosophical.” Same breakthrough solve the puzzle “Are you kidding me? I’m an idiot. Have you ever noticed that you almost never think to look up in games? I wonder why that is. Maybe it’s because the original first person games only made us look forward? Or the levels are designed with most things at eye level (maybe because the designers played first person games where you only look forward)? I don’t know, what do you guys think?”

Very similar situation. A lot of the dialogue is geared towards the game, and this is a scenario that pretty much any steamer is going to find themselves in at some point: a difficult point in a game where they can’t make progress. However there are a couple of important differences in the scenario above that makes it better ‘stream talk’ in my view. First, personality is conveyed through phrases like ‘Okay strap in…’, the corny joke about the 420360 in the name, or ‘I’m going to self harm because of this puzzle’ (obviously context matters in this case!). There’s no way to fake this, but I feel the more genuine a streamer is with an audience, the more these turns of phrase will come out naturally. In addition, the ‘filler’ while going through the level has the benefit of a systematic approach of conveying a thought process through a game. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish between just plain noise. “I am going through a door” is information we can see visually, while “Okay, let me double check what I have to work with…” is something that communicates why you are retracing your steps (and motivates why you’re going through a door).

But the chief difference I wanted to take out of these examples was the difference between a reactive caster and a proactive caster. The first example seems to have an absence of content. The comments on the game are largely already restating the obvious or what is present in the game. Interaction with the chat is reduced to waiting for them to give material to respond to. In the second example, the streamer is always bringing something extra. They don’t rest at simply saying they’re playing The Talos Principle or responding to the similarities with Portal, but instead talk about specifics. They don’t just make sounds in response to things that happen in the game, but they become opportunities to talk about things and possibly bring chat into the discussion. Every stream will have its own spin and so the discussion may not be about the game itself, but what’s important here is that there is something from the caster that is being added more than just noise.

In a reactive stream, chat needs to put the ‘token’ of a comment into the machine before they get something from the streamer (or sometimes the game will pay the token and the streamer will respond). The active stream doesn’t expect anything from the audience, and so is less costly for people to watch. The reactive stream really doesn’t rise above watching someone play a video game with occasional interruptions of noise. The person streaming is more interesting than that, and the people watching the stream are more interesting than that.

Conclusion

Talking on stream is by no means an easy task, but it’s one of the best things you can do to leverage the unique advantages of live streaming as a broadcast medium. Because of its interactivity, we need to focus on people: the person doing the broadcasting, and the people the broadcast is going out to. Because of the size of the potential audience there are nearly limitless options of things to talk about, but we may miss the opportunity to present them simply because we’re either unpracticed or nervous about people’s responses.

In the end, this can only get better with practice. Talk with friends, or at parties, or try to do some public speaking. Think about what you have to say, and your unique take on things. In the end, as a broadcaster, you are far more interesting to me than the game you are playing (which to me is just sort of furniture to a stream). Your commentary is one of the best ways to convey your personality and stand out, even in a crowded space.

I Will Now Opine About Mad Max: Fury Road and Movies in General

I saw Mad Max: Fury Road tonight (edit: well, when I started writing this… Been a couple days since). I had some Scene points (loyalty program) that were expiring, and out of everything available I’d heard the most positive reviews about it. I’d not quite intended to write a second post in a row on something creative, but this is how the day turned out. The main reason for avoiding this kind of topic is because I find it’s very easy to voice opinions on entertainment products, but there isn’t really lot of value in merely stating an opinion. This is probably why I generally have avoided reading reviews of things because they generally fail at establishing context (credentials or really any indicator that this is an opinion worth hearing), and I’m usually left without an answer to the all important question: “who cares?” There is nothing particularly bad about the expression of an opinion per se (though I’d hope we’d expect more from the institution of the review), but generally when they are negative they are also matched with an unhealthy dose of scorn for the team behind it. It’s understandable because usually it’s really fun to write in high dudgeon, and as long as everyone’s on the same page, everyone has some good laughs about what morons the people who shot that movie/wrote that book/made that game were.

I think most people are generally on board with the ‘don’t be mean’ sentiment. Generally I think this kind of behaviour is limited to talking about unknown individuals, so something like a development team, and on the occasions that it does take a specific name (ie. Michael Bay), people are attacking the concept rather than pursuing an individual vendetta against the man. That said, the sentiments expressed to these people are no less hurtful to them because they certainly are known individuals from their point of view. Now, this does not make anyone free from criticism (even poorly expressed or ignorant criticism), but it seems to me much more productive to engage these people seriously and do what we can to nurture this talent so that in future we can at least hope for more and better entertainment options. This is partly the motivation for why I wanted to elaborate on the Caves of Qud comments on Twitter (even if, as is likely the case, these views will never inform an actual decision). I also prefer criticism that rises beyond snark because it simply makes for better reading. Compare The Resistible Rise of Vladimir Putin from Foreign Affairs (which, it is worth reiterating, is a book review. Also likely behind a paywall but I believe there are two free articles a month) to any of the other reviews you’ve read recently. I clearly can’t expect to accomplish what the book review does, but in the spirit of producing commentary that attempts to at least engage with the material, I thought I would talk about what worked for me and what didn’t in Mad Max: Fury Road.

It’s worth mentioning that I believe I’ve seen the original Mad Max, but I don’t recall any details about it, and so some of my comments on character are likely to be informed by this gap. That said, the last Mad Max movie was released 30 years ago, and so I do not think it is unfair to expect that most viewers are not going to be familiar with anything that occurred in the original three films.  I also can’t expect this to be too much of an impediment because absolutely nothing about the promotion or discussion of the film has indicated it is anything but a pure action movie. And in this regard it is absolutely fantastic. It starts off strong and fast and maintains that pace for more or less the entire first half. It may not be for everyone, but I think it’s a ton of fun to watch, and I really can’t think of a movie that’s done it quite this well.

In many ways, I have to suspect that this is what movies on the big screen are about today. From a business perspective, consider the following: almost all of the information is conveyed visually, and the majority of sounds essential to the experience are not spoken words, meaning that it will likely translate better into other languages than, say, a comedy that relies on wordplay. Big sound and big visuals are also still best conveyed in a movie theatre. I have to assume the experience will be somewhat diminished on Netflix. This doesn’t mean there isn’t value in seeing a drama on the big screen, or that there is necessarily a tradeoff between the two (just think of Lawrence of Arabia), but it is much easier to make the case that action is a reason to actually go out to the movies. It’s also easier to see a transition to more action oriented fare in response to the fact that drama can develop greater character arcs over the course of a season of a television show (to say nothing of several seasons) than in the confines of even a three hour movie. It’s hard to imagine seeing Breaking Bad having the same impact restyled as a feature length movie, and it’s even more difficult to imagine The Terminator sustaining a long standing TV series (yes, I know there was the Sarah Connor Chronicles. I never saw it and it appears to have only run for 2 seasons, earning Emmy nominations for technical work only). This is why it may be easy to joke about Michael Bay movies, but there is a certain gift in being able to identify this shift in audience sentiments, if this is actually what’s occurred.

But in reality, if I’m only going to talk about the action, I have nothing new to say here. If you don’t know that Fury Road has a lot of really good action in it, there’s plenty of other people who can communicate that better than me. What else is there to keep you entertained for two hours? Here is where someone might go for the old saw that it’s ‘good for action but not much going on for the story.’ Again, there’s more going on here than that cliche can permit. There’s actually some interesting ideas going on in this movie, both in terms of setting, but also those weird image systems english majors like to keep talking about. Different fluids keep coming up: Max as a ‘bloodbag’, the rationing of water to keep the population under control, the farm of wet nurses, and the theft of gasoline all keep coming up again and again in the first half. It’s apparent enough that the people are living under an oppressive, extractive system, but the return to this theft of fluids (my Strangelovian phrasing aside), provides a nice coherence to the setting that suggests that this is more than just a string of cool stunt performances with dialogue to keep it respectable.

On this note, we can make a contrast between the two types of review. Someone wanting to regale us with the time they slummed it with the plebes and enjoyed a brainless bit of dumb fun would point out something like ‘why would they use so many flamethrowers and chainsaws if fuel is so precious?’ But, with maybe some reservations, I like this touch and see it as another indicator that a lot of thought and care was put into creating this world. Such extravagance is ultimately a display of such supreme confidence, and I can think of more than a few historical precedents (imagine the complaint “If money is so precious, why do these Romans keep wasting them on spectacle?”). ‘Wasting’ fuel on a flame throwing guitar (or the entire rig with drums and speakers) just as easily is a display of strength and the assuredness that further conquest will bring in more fuel. I’m maybe less sold on the utility of the combat oriented uses (the chainsaws, the flamethrowers) given the presence of more primitive (and reliable) weapons in the film, but this maybe accounted for a fraction of a second’s thought in the overall film. I also thought the design of the different weapons and tactics on display were quite ingenious, and tremendously enhanced by different styles for different factions, and I really like the touch of a post-apocalyptic world where humans can be reduced to tools (Max as a blood bag, the blind guitarist, etc.). It’s certainly possible to create a sequence of high-octane vignettes without putting any thought into the setting, but I think the fact that Fury Road bothered to take the time to fully realize its setting is something that sets it apart and makes it a really good time at the movies.

Unfortunately, I also think there are limitations on this front. I should first note that apparently Eve Ensler (author of The Vagina Monologues) was a consultant on this film, and so I may simply be missing the mark when it comes to characterization. This caveat aside, I really don’t know what to make of the characters in Fury Road. Max seems to go from a crazy person with a beard who eats lizards to, well, a crazy person without a beard (who may or may not still eat lizards). Furiosa is a bit more interesting with a lot more implied story, but the dialogue is pretty sparse, and generally reduced to orders or directions, so there really isn’t much room for development. This leads me to probably my only real complaint with the movie. I’d say the first half (I didn’t exactly time it) is loud, exiting, and just a grand old time. Once they’ve escaped the army and begin looking for ‘the green place’ things begin to drag a bit, and I kind of feel like I could have gone out, gone to the bathroom, and maybe have gotten a coffee without missing too much. The aforementioned material on fluids is more or less gone at this point (rather than being present throughout the film as is the case with other movies that use these techniques effectively) with possibly the exception of the poisoned water of what turns out to be the remains of the green place. If ‘the big no’ moment (or is it a skyward scream? Comment below) is any indication this is the big emotional lynchpin, but I was sort of indifferent at this point. This is the point without action, but unfortunately it feels a bit aimless which, while perhaps appropriate to the circumstances the characters find themselves in, doesn’t do a lot for me as a viewer. For contrast, the film sets up some really great moments of conflict (admittedly in action scenes) where there are three characters all after the same goal, each completely at odds with one another, so the drag is really noticeable. In face of the fact that the conclusion is much like the opening in terms of thrills and engagement, I do quite literally mean this is my only complaint. The ending may be a bit simple (Furiosa is embraced as a new ruler without question and Max walks off as the lone wanderer he was at the start, possibly in search of a lizard), but it ties everything together, and I suppose gives Furiosia the redemption she’s stated as seeking.

So what might we do with the sagging middle? Fury Road doesn’t fall into the sin of most movies today which is to be too long. It clocks in at an even 120 minutes which is a perfectly reasonable time for a movie. That said, I wouldn’t be too disappointed if it were cut down. But as I said, maybe there’s a bit more going on here which I simply didn’t realize, and maybe I’m going a little too far in saying that it’s perfectly acceptable to have a pure action film. How might we change things if forced to keep the present runtime? The following answer almost certainly reflects my present interests, but I hope to argue that this alternative direction is at least consistent with things I think are already strengths of the film, and possibly strengthen points where I feel the film is weaker.

In the present ending, Immortal Joe is killed, and Furiosa’s revelation of this is sufficient to establish herself as his replacement. This may work in the world of the film but is an opportunity for conflict that isn’t explored. Immortal Joe has set up a system through which his access to and limited distribution of precious resources secure his control. Joe was the present warlord, but this system is very much intact after his death and Furiosa needs access to it to accomplish her goals (even if she ultimately seeks an equitable distribution of these resources). In the current version of the film, Furiosa’s successful combat against Joe is all that is required for her to seize power, and it can be possibly justified if we assume the existing administrators feel the need for a display of strength in order to keep the current system in place. But let’s take a step back and contrast Furiosa with a character like Maximus in Gladiator. Maximus initially refuses Marcus Aurelius’ call to lead Rome back to a republic, explaining he is not a politician and cannot handle institutions such as the senate. His soldierly instincts permit him to survive in the gladiatorial arena, but not to achieve success (“Are you not entertained!?”). His journey in some senses is a political one in which he must learn to win the crowd in addition to being an effective combatant. When he  finally defeats Commodus, he delivers his final speech to the crowd, his mastery of both spheres complete. I think Gladiator’s a great movie, and certainly is not short on excitement, so is there anything we can take from Maximus’ journey that we can apply to Furiosa’s?

Let me motivate this further by asking you a question: Suppose overnight Kim Jong-Un was successfully overthrown by US and South Korean forces, who now inherit all the systems of control of his repressive government along with it’s starving, uneducated, desperate population. What would happen? Fury Road’s answer is that they would realize the better way and embrace the new government from the coalition without a second’s thought. This, to my view, is a tremendous missed opportunity. If we shorten down the ‘wandering’ moments to communicate the essential information (Furiosa’s past, meeting the Vuvalini, the poisoning of the green place) and instead make the final confrontation not just a trial by combat, which Furiosa has already displayed considerable skill in from the outset, but instead make the seizing of the citadel the final challenge the characters need to overcome. I think this conflict still allows the film’s themes to come through, and strengthen’s Furiosa’s quest for redemption. The current redemption is effectively granted to her by the whims of whoever holds the levers to bring the party up to the valves that hold the water. While she may go from simply saving herself and the five wives to saving the citadel, it’s a side effect of her fight against Immortal Joe. In contrast, a fight to bring the citadel under her control (ideally one that is at least partly, if not fully political in nature, again, Gladiator demonstrating that these need not be mutually exclusive), makes the achievement that much more meaningful. It presents an opportunity to show more of her character, in addition to providing a better role for Max who is a former cop (and so has a past that involves public service and the enforcing order).

In so far as this is a review I suppose I should finish by saying whether or not I think it’s worth going out and seeing. As always, I need to hedge my bets and say it depends on what kind of a movie you want to see. If you don’t like loud movies with violence, then this is not going to be the movie for you. If you go to movies looking for ‘holes’ to poke in, you’ll probably be able to project them (though as outlined above, I don’t think can be sustained) and so presumably will not enjoy yourself. Likewise, while I think there’s more to the story than what I hear others give it credit for, if you want a bit more dramatic meat in your films, you’ll probably be a bit disappointed. But honestly, those individual cases aside, this movie is a fantastic reason to go go out to the theatre and watch a movie. It’s big, the sound design is great, the stunts are great, the soundtrack is a perfect match, and the action has fantastic pacing and tension throughout. And if, like me, you’re worried it’s dying out halfway through, take heart, it’s just as exciting in the climax. I’m happy to have spent the time and money.

The preceding contains what some might consider spoilers and probably shouldn’t be read if you don’t want to know any details about the plot before seeing the movie.

Early Access: The Case of Caves of Qud

As you might have seen, @esprite_bay asked me to compare two games — Caves of Qud, and Halfway — and suggest which one I thought was better for streaming. This was the first I had heard of either title. I offered a response but, as is the risk of opinions on Twitter, the review was brief to the point of being dismissive. In particular, I contrasted Caves of Qud, an Early Access roguelike, to the fully released turn based strategy Halfway by pointing out Qud that Qud’s main selling points seemed to be on its potential. To my (pleasant!) surprise, Brian Bucklew (aka. @unormal), programmer at Freehold Games, respectfully weighed in by pointing out that Qud had been in development for 11 years. Any team that takes the time to engage an online presence as minor as mine is worth more than a single tweet, and so I committed to providing more thoughtful feedback. Given that Early Access, and game development in general, are topics that we’ve discussed on the stream more than occasionally, I thought it might be instructive to post an elaboration on that decision making processes.

What’s Good About Qud?

I’d like to begin in a slightly unexpected fashion and talk about the things I found interesting about Caves of Qud. This is partly to address an imbalance that is created by comparing two games where there has to be a winner and a loser (or a non-committal ‘I like, or hate, both’). While online discussion of games can seem predicated on the assumption that a preference of one title precludes the enjoyment of another (see: Dota 2 vs. League of Legends), this certainly does not align with my experience of gaming, and I’d hazard a guess that this assumption does not hold for the majority of gamers in general. In addition, by first articulating the value of the title, we’ll be in a better position to see the ‘tax’ that Early Access places on otherwise worthwhile games.

By its published description, Caves of Qud is an RPG, Adventure, Strategy game. Genres are much more fluid than they seem to have been in the past, and so such a description may not give you a very clear idea of what the game is like (while I have not played it myself, I don’t think I’m being unfair in saying that the adventure in Caves of Qud has very little in common with the adventure in Grim Fandango or Full Throttle). Roguelike certainly does a lot to combine and clarify these genres, and it’s worth noting that the game really seems to wear this origin on its sleeve. With the revelation that the game has been in development for 11 years, it’s hard to talk about inspiration (even on a shorter timeline, anything I have to say on the inspiration of a game I have not had a hand in the creation of is simply a matter of conjecture), but it seems that Dwarf Fortress either has had some influence on the title through its ‘deep simulation’ (not that Dwarf Fortress has a monopoly on complexity. How many titles have we connected with Dwarf Fortress that may, in fact, have their origins in a game like Starflight?), or at least provides a point of comparison. The ASCII art, pages of text, emphasis on scope and complexity, and enumeration of cultures, mutations, casts, and kits all invite this comparison as well.

On this front alone, Caves of Qud is worthy of attention. Certainly people who like digging into lore and unwrapping rich, complex worlds are well represented among lovers of fantasy/sci-fi settings, and the game certainly promises to deliver on this front. In fact, it seems that this story is uncovered through interaction with the environment so, if you’re like me and thought the way the story of Dark Souls was slowly pieced out through interactions and reading descriptions was a positive feature, extended time in the game’s world appears to be rewarded. The emergent gameplay features heavily in the trailer’s narration as well as the Steam descriptions.

Emergent gameplay is a feature that interests me specifically. Those who have enjoyed the Crusader Kings II playthroughs, and specifically the House of Rose session which has no historical precedent (other than a lot of religious war), will know that I tremendously enjoy ‘filling in the blanks’ during streams of games like this. I’m also delighted when games hand me unexpected, but dramatically satisfying chance events, such as encountering a relative who surrendered his birthright in order to join a military order on the road to Jerusalem. I can’t imagine these kinds of games are easy to do, and yet Caves of Qud seems to offer this (perhaps a bit over enthusiastically on occasion if the bug reports are to be believed).

All in all, Caves of Qud seems to appeal to anyone who is interested in complex games with a large scope. In many ways, this is the bread and butter of my stream because, at the risk of being immodest, a common compliment I receive is that I have some ability to make more complex (to the point of being unplayed) games enjoyable to watch. As such, it’s not just worthy of my consideration, but also of anyone who happens to have similar interests to mine.

On Recommending Games

At this point it’s worth commenting that I generally don’t follow gaming news. I usually follow streamers, developers, and fellow gamers, then learn of things that might interest me that way. For instance, I did not know about Bloodborne until people started actually streaming it. As such, I’m not sure if I’m supposed to have heard of Halfway or Caves of Qud before, but the fact I find both interesting is something of a testament to the effectiveness of being able to rely on the advice of friends and other like-minded individuals.

Now, the context for my comments on Caves of Qud were, as identified above, in response to a recommendation as to which I thought would stream better. I took this to imply that the person asking was considering something that they would want to stream for themselves. When dealing with other people’s money it can sometimes translate into just being less careful overall (esprite gets and plays Qud so I can see if it’s something I’m interested in myself), but there is something of a reputational factor to consider (my opinions don’t count for much if I make too many chancy recommendations), in addition to the fact that I want to be as honest as I can in my estimations of people’s enjoyment of games. This means game recommendations are closely aligned to how I choose my own games. It’s hard to cry poverty when I have a machine capable of streaming, and can attend school, but the fact I’m embarking on the master’s means I’m adding another year of no employment while seeing the time I can spend on gaming shrink appreciably as the course material becomes more advanced. As such, while my tastes are already sensitive to maximizing the enjoyment I get out of the scare resources of time and money, this effect is amplified by my strong aversion to the possibility that I am causing someone to spend money on something they won’t enjoy, meaning I am going to be fairly conservative in my recommendations. To put it another way, if I were giving a gift, I’d feel safe going for an ‘out there’ pick, because at worst I give a gift that won’t be used, and at best I give someone a game they may not have otherwise picked up. If, on the other hand, someone gave me some money with which to buy them a game, I’d become a little more cautious because all of a sudden a ‘0 return game’ has a negative value given that some worldly resources were given up in obtaining it.

With this in mind, let’s consider some of the reasons why my personal interest in this game did not translate into a recommendation.

Selling Qud

Given that it spawned the exchange that inspired this article, let’s deal with the elephant in the room: Early Access. Caves of Qud is presently in Early Access, which is a state that has earned a certain degree of infamy in the gaming community. While I think this reputation is largely deserved, it’s important not to be too dogmatic about these things. I have been severely burned in Early Access with games like Starbound (which I actually purchased before a playable version was available based on my enjoyment of Terraria), and found myself a little burned out on Don’t Starve by playing it before it was done. I’ve also enjoyed Dungeon of the Endless through Early Access, and am presently enjoying The Darkest Dungeon. Whether we think it’s right or wrong, and whether or not the model could use improvement (personally, I’m inclined to seeing early access funds held in escrow until the exit from EA, allowing developers to borrow against them, but providing an incentive to deliver a finished product in a timely fashion. But elaborating on this is probably best left for another time), Early Access is part of the landscape and now factors into our decisions to purchase.

I think it’s fair to say that there is a ‘tax’ on Early Access at this point. That is, seeing a game in this state is going to have a negative impact on the game’s perceived value. I think in many ways this is appropriate because the proposition is that the game is being purchased in an unfinished state. Certainly Valve states “This is the way games should be made” in terms of the idea of involving customers, which implies that Early Access is adding value, but it’s also worth noting that none of their own titles are in Early Access. The additional value through community input is also something of a public good, given that everyone benefits from the feedback, but only those who purchase in Early Access are in a position to give it (which, suggests that we will see a less than optimal production of feedback). Whatever promise the original conception of the system had has long since been overshadowed by its present form which seems effective at generating fairly lucrative vapourware. This is the environment in which Caves of Qud is currently operating.

There are some admirable ways in which Qud has decided to go about Early Access. You may notice that a lot of EA games appear to have put the art assets front and centre in order to make a particularly enticing product. For instance, I’m interested in Satellite Reign, but a casual review of the feedback over the course of the game’s development reveals a very good looking, and decidedly unplayable game for a fairly significant period of time (this is certainly a title I’m waiting for a full release on). All of Qud’s promotional material (on Steam, the only source I based my decision on) displays the game in its ASCII form (I take the commitment to ‘tile art’ to mean that there will be a visual overhaul of the game at some point, though I’m not sufficiently versed in developer lingo to know if this is the case). Unfortunately, proverbs about books and covers notwithstanding, it makes the valuation of the game quite difficult as there’s no indication if this is a fly-by-night cash grab with ambitions that will only be fulfilled with a sufficient number of sales, or if the game will be seen through to completion. Even with the (not unwarranted, given Freehold’s past success in shipping quality games) assumption that the developer will see the project though to a timely completion, there’s no indication as to what the final style will look like.

This dilemma is extended through the game’s trailer, even though I actually really like its style. For someone who enjoys emergent gameplay, and thinks that Caves of Qud has a chance of being something very interesting, it’s neat to see a promotional video that focuses entirely on the experiences that happen, rendered in an attractive voiceover over gameplay (and, as someone who hopes to maybe one day lend their voice to some kind of game, special commendation for providing a link to the actress who provided such a memorable voiceover). The challenge is that there is still quite a bit of good faith that I as a consumer need to place on this game so far as entertainment is concerned. This is to say that while it may be true the game contains a staredown with a mother bear, whether this experience is enjoyable or dramatically satisfying in the current or future versions of the game is highly speculative in nature. Even knowing that the game has been 11 years in development (something unknown at the time of the recommendation) does not necessarily mean that all of this hard work will be actually felt in the experience of the game. That is, it’s possible that all of these encounters may simply feel like random draws from a fairly extensive library of prepared scenarios, and so miss out on component that creates the appeal emergent gameplay. Here it may be worth mentioning that the new Steam returns policy creates the possibility to return games that fail in this regard, though for the purposes of the reputational risk of recommending a bad game, a returned game is still a costly game.

These are primarily what I mean through the game being sold on ‘potential’. Clearly there is something of a leap of faith that must be taken on any game (Darkest Dungeon has some cool voice overs, but ‘does the world need another dungeon crawler?’), but based on the available information it’s very hard to discern whether I would be experiencing a personal narrative emerging out of this massive world, or just pushing around an ASCII character and reading flavour text with varying degrees of unenthusiastic detachment. The intention here is not to be overly pessimistic, but rather to counterbalance the ‘ideal version’ of the game (the version that gets sold to us and we usually never see) with the ‘disappointment version’ (the one that at best is what we encounter in EA and gets fixed, or at worst is released as a full product after which everyone talks about what a scam EA is).

The real kiss of death for a recommendation of Caves of Qud came in the ad copy though, which is one area in which I think there can be some improvement. I think it’s safe to say two things about the game:

  • The developers face an uphill battle regarding early access (evidenced by the need to differentiate it from “EA hot air”)
  • The people who are on board are really invested in the world (as evidenced by particularly strong reviews)

Here are the first words I read about Caves of Qud: “Caves of Qud is a science fantasy roguelike epic steeped in retrofuturism, deep simulation, and swathes of sentient plants. Come inhabit an exotic world and chisel through layers of thousand-year-old civilizations” (with tags Early Access, Rogue-like, RPG, Indie, Strategy). Given the ‘tax’ of Early Access, it’s really hard to read the blend of two genres (science fantasy), and the terms: roguelike, epic, retrofuturism, and deep simulation as anything but buzzwords. Obviously my opinions are my own, but I remember thinking “Well gee, why don’t you throw zombies, open world, and crafting in there too?” Under ‘About the Game’ there’s a lot that is written about the setting, then finally a list of features in the game (which sort of gets covered in the preceding paragraphs: the fact that there is a system that allows me to get my limbs hacked off may simply mean there’s a very complex system inside an otherwise uninteresting game). In my own case (arguably the worst case), the suspicions aroused by the short writeup coloured a lot of the features as further evidence there was no real substance to the game (for example, procedurally generated is a commonly advertised feature that no longer holds a promise as to the quality of a given title).

So far as I can tell, anyone who is invested in Caves of Qud will like the description for the game, because of the focus on the environment and its lore. In this sense it’s quite effective, and so if the average member of the game’s potential audience is already invested in the world of Caves of Qud, then my under-enthusiastic response is simply a reflection of my individual preferences and, so it’s just a matter of a mismatch between the game I was recommended and my responses to its ad copy. If, however, the aim of the ‘about the game’ sections are intended to convert neutral readers to sales, I feel like more work needs to be done in communicating how these interesting mechanics translate into rewarding gameplay.

In one sense, I feel the exit from Early Access will already be a strong shift towards making the existing writeups more effective. Where Early Access immediately creates suspicion for some of the terms used, the absence of this label allows a potential consumer to view the game with less jaded eyes. It’s almost a weird Orwellian world we live in now with Early Access where legitimate descriptions of the game in question arouse suspicion simply because the abuse of those same terms through lesser titles (that is, I think Caves of Qud is giving an accurate description of itself, but one that carries unintended meaning through previous misuse of these words). Whether developers should adapt to the potential that others have abused these terms, or attempt to let their games stand on their own is clearly a matter for them to resolve. It’s worth remembering that my thoughts in this regard are only going to be informed by my individual experience of buying and recommending games, while a developer’s living is inextricably tied into navigating these kinds of decisions. However, I felt the fact that the team was invested enough to correct a misunderstanding on my part merited the best attempt to give as honest of an accounting as I could of the reasons why I rated the games the way I did.

In the end fact that the alternative (Halfway) had a smaller price tag meant that even posted concerns about past bugs (which were also noted as being fixed), and a more straightforward, comprehensible presentation meant that Halfway was ultimately a safer choice, though the better choice could only ever be determined by playing both. In addition, given that I was recommending the game to another streamer who may not derive the same pleasure from ‘filling in the blanks’ on stream, Halfway seemed to be a bit more appropriate in terms of a more general ‘game to stream’ criteria.

Conclusion

Having put down the specific decision process of making a recommendation (or lack of one in this case) for a game like Caves of Qud has strengthened my opinion that the current practice of Early Access has largely hurt the games that it should have been built to support. Caves of Qud seems to come about the enterprise honestly: it has reserved any visual polish for the end, opting instead on to build (what appears to be) a sprawling world of experiences that now require actual players to iterate through the encounters to uncover any problems. In an ideal world the question is if a player is invested enough in the potential of the game that they will play an incomplete version without a discount, but this has long since been replaced by the question as to whether or not the game being sold bears any relation to what the finished product will actually look like.

So divorced from the context of recommending a title to anyone else, what do I think of Caves of Qud? I’m interested, but not enough to take the plunge yet. In the end, I really only can gain from waiting to see how the game turns out. Waiting increases the likelihood of tutorials being written, bugs being ironed out, and feedback from people not so invested in the game already being presented (that is, both positive and negative reviews. Though in general, I heavily discount Steam reviews simply I have no frame of reference for the individual’s comments). Do I think this should be a universal response? Hardly. My benefit from waiting derives entirely from people willing to take the plunge. While I may not have made the decision to purchase the game for myself, I can say that  any development team that shows the kind of dedication to their product that Freehold has stands out. Hopefully anyone who’s been good enough to read through to the end will be able to take this elaboration and give this worthy title its due.