Diversity for the Amoral

The new year started off with a fresh set of outrages to scourge Real Gamers™: Kick McKeand wrote a good article about diversity in games, Emily Grace Buck (who’s started a new program for story games) reminded us that old gaming quip about story and pornos isn’t all that clever, and it turns out Soldier 76 has a boyfriend. To this last bombshell, the people who complain about games more than play them offered the penetrating insight of “dying game makes character gay for attention” which put me into a personal crisis since I was really coming around after seeing “Getteth woketh, goeth broketh” (as it originally appeared in the King James Version) for the thousandth time and now I see that the causal chain is completely backwards.

There’s no point in worrying about people who are wrong on the internet, and there isn’t a shortage of coverage on diversity in gaming. I am sympathetic to articles and personal anecdotes about characters from underrepresented groups, because I assign some value to the wellbeing of others. It also means I believe people when they say they’re indifferent to the happiness that the presence of more diverse characters might bring others. The existing discussion around diversity does not offer anything to these people, even though inclusion does not need to rest on a moral imperative. This article is intended to present the amoral/apolitical reason why diversity is good for gaming, and why this should be unsurprising in a business context.

More gamers help keep prices down

Everything in gaming is growing except the prices. There are different ways companies have been able to maintain and increase their profits with varying degrees of acceptability among gamers. The most notorious of these methods are loot boxes (and other microtransactions), but DLC and subscription plans are included with varying degrees of acceptance or consternation. There is no consensus as to the acceptability of these practices, as EA faced pure mockery for appealing to a player’s sense of accomplishment, while CD Project Red’s same appeal with regards to the recent changes in Gwent’s economy went without remark. Judging by these reactions, diversity is already here and addressing it has consequences for the bottom line.

A developer has lots of options available to respond to the increasing costs of development, but many of these options will be constrained by the intended audience. If a developer can’t raise prices, it can attempt to reduce costs. This means cutting back from the game and most buyers will want more game, not less. A developer might seek some kind of guarantee or favourable financing terms in the form of a platform exclusive. This choice reduces the workload and removes some of the risk of development, but necessarily limits the audience for the product. If these options, along with loot boxes, subscriptions, DLC, and price increases are untenable, then the only other option is to get more people to buy the game at a price that is less than the cost of acquiring them.

A game producer does not need to push any agenda other than making enough money to keep the lights on in order to see that there are audiences beyond the a stereotypical gamer and that it is less costly to reach out to this market. Outreach can mean a direct marketing appeal to this broader audience, but the underlying product needs to be something they want to play in the first place. Games wanting to appeal to a broader audience will reflect the interests of that audience, and that can mean stories and characters that are unfamiliar. Some gamers will like this, some gamers will be indifferent, and clearly some gamers will dislike it. For gamers who dislike more inclusive elements, the decision can be expressed as a tradeoff: Is the removal of inclusive elements worth a price increase? Loot boxes? In blunter terms it could be expressed as “Pay up or get out of the way, there’s gaming to be done!”

This is less about a Social Justice Stazi threatening to take developers’ thumbs if they don’t meet a representation quota and more about gaming becoming more accepted and businesses responding to increased demand. It’s much harder to feel like you’re caught in the crossfire of a culture war when you imagine some politically incorrect Mafioso voice saying “Itsa just buisanees!” But this issue really seems to matter to some people. This review for Battletech appeared after about 3 hours of playtime in my Steam friends (anonymized to protect the guilty):

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The majority of this negative review deals with elements of the actual gameplay, but it is worth noting that the inclusion of a third pronoun in character creation (essentially a drop down menu) gets top billing as “the most obvious fault…” Since that review was written the game has delivered 73.1 hours of additional gameplay. It’s easy to ridicule reviews like this, and I think it’s entirely possible for someone to put lots of time into a game and still not recommend it. All I want to point out is that the pronouns for the game haven’t changed, and they have not prevented this reviewer from opening the game up with some regularity. Based on this information, I don’t think this player would undo their Kickstarter pledge (if they had one) if they had the option, let alone pay extra to remove gender options. Essentially, this is a matter of annoyance, rather than something material.

There are lots of things in games that annoy us individually that do not prevent us from getting some overall enjoyment of the game. I get kind of annoyed when games make me push a button to do something horrible and then say “DON’T YOU FEEL HORRIBLE YOU DID THIS!?” No! I have never felt bad at one of those moments and I wish these games would stop hovering over my shoulder like some ethical sommelier describing the subtle notes of pathos I should be recognizing. But I get that people like these bits, and I’m perfectly content to let the specialists who make games decide what they want to include in a game.

Not all the choices of game developers are going to appeal to everyone. It’s not news that some people prefer the way games used to be rather than the way they are now. Indie games especially have been relying on this market to stay in business. But in order to push the envelope big games will continue to need to be a big tent that appeals to a large enough group of players to justify their budgets. Narrower games with a tighter scope don’t have the same commercial pressure. Games becoming more inclusive is just another step evolution of the industry, and people who would prefer things to stay the way that they are aren’t so much being squeezed out so much as their preferences are becoming increasingly niche. I don’t really choose my games based on politics, but if Real Gamers™ are abandoning mainstream gaming due to their politics on diversity, then I expect the exact same market forces to produce something that appeals to them. In fact, I bet they have lots of suggestions about what would make games great (again).

Mobile gamers advanced gaming

Another form of diversity that YouTube shouting heads have had a really tough time with lately has been the diversity of platforms, specifically the release of high profile mobile titles such as Diablo: Immortal and Alien: Blackout. Mobile gaming has periodic waves of contempt from Real Gamers™ that tend to hit their peak when monetization strategies from this format make their way to larger PC and Console titles. The latest outrage stems more from the perception that some game that would have otherwise been made is now not being made in favour of a mobile title. Opportunity costs are a real thing, and no studio can ever hope to do all the possible projects available to them, but it does not follow that mobile is displacing PC and console gaming. To the contrary, mobile has been and continues to be a net benefit for all of gaming, including players who don’t play mobile titles.

Objections on the basis of opportunity cost can apply to just about every decision a developer makes, including activities outside of game development. Plenty of popular franchises now sell merchandise and this is rightly perceived as a very smart business decision instead of an inexpiable waste of time and resources that should be going into a new game. We are apparently willing to endorse the formation and exploitation of new and beloved IPs but draw the line at the release of a large and revenue generating marketing campaign that mobile users install on their devices (colloquially known as ‘a game’).

Some of the biggest stories in gaming right now are a result of mobile gaming. Chair Entertainment Group began by developing games for the Xbox live arcade and was acquired by Epic in 2008. Its first two titles were successful, but the studio gained notoriety for its mobile series Infinity Blade, originally released on iOS in 2010, and all subsequent releases from that studio have been mobile games. In acquiring Chair, Epic acquired its creative director, Don Mustard, who is a lead on Fortnite.

Fortnite did not just beat its competitors to mobile, it utilized a free-to-play model which has its origins in mobile. It’s a lot easier to have broad appeal if you put the game on systems people want to play it on and, as the largest growing segment of gaming, it’s pretty clear that people want to play on mobile devices. The title’s success does not rest on the efforts of one person or one factor, but both the revenues and the player base are what people are talking about and both of these have a direct connection to best practices in mobile gaming.

I played a little bit of Fortnite in Alpha before there was Battle Royale, and have played exactly one round of Battle Royale. I do not consider the game Fortnite to be a personal benefit. However, the windfall from producing a cultural phenomena has now translated into Epic offering more favourable terms to asset creators for their engine, and the launch of their own storefront with a revenue split that cuts the store’s take by more than half. While it’s too early to say if the Epic store will be the Steam killer some predict, it’s been a major PC gaming news story and likely marks a major shift in digital distribution. Even if I never play another Unreal Engine game and delete my Epic Store account, the competition brought into distribution results in developers investing more in their games as platform fees go down.

The biggest stories in gaming from last year come from a team that spent a lot of time on mobile, brought the lessons back to the PC platform and are now reshaping the broader landscape. Gamers who don’t like mobile games do not need to play them to receive the benefits. As with most variety, the worst that can happen is an additional option I can safely ignore. Of course, looking at Steam’s best sellers, it’s clear that gamers aren’t ignoring titles that have inherited from mobile games.

Business cases

There is absolutely nothing new in this amoral case for diversity, as firms outside of gaming have realized and capitalized on it for decades. IBM’s hiring policies tend to pre-date US civil rights legislation and can trace its progressive hiring practices back to 1914. Ruth Leach Amonette, IBM’s first female VP, summarized the logic by asking “Doesn’t it make sense to employ people who are similar to your customers?” The CBC’s podcast on marketing Under the Influence had a rather good episode on LGBT advertising and how marketers attempted to appeal to this demographic before it was more broadly acceptance and how overt appeals marked a shift in acceptance. I think these two stories can tell us why gaming looks the way it does today.

No one group is ever going to have all the good ideas. As an industry that sits at the intersection of technology and creativity, gaming has to maximize the number of ideas it generates, which means not cutting itself off from ideas for superficial reasons. This is the IBM story. There is also a commercial incentive to seek out underserved markets since it costs less to bring in customers and there is goodwill towards genuine efforts at inclusion. Diversity pays.

You could say that’s also the Under the Influence story, but the program is not definitive on this point. The program allows for the possibility that the coded messages to LGBT buyers may not have come from the marketing departments, but were rather snuck in by the artists working on those ads. Even if gaming is not actively courting a more diverse audience, it makes sense that its output will reflect its increasingly diverse workforce. Whether greater diversity in character and story reflects a response to commercial incentives or a diverse workforce, the consequences are available for everyone to see: more of us are playing games, and newer platforms such as mobile are the fastest growing.

Personally, I prefer a more ethically founded justification for diversity in games. I trust developers to make decisions about every other aspect of a game, and I think they should be able to make the games they want. I think people live a happier and more fulfilling life if they do assign some value to the happiness of others, and you can justify it through a macho band-of-brothers-we’re-all-in-this-together attitude or the most humanitarian bleeding heart appeal to our better nature. Despite this preference, I don’t think this attitude is a necessary condition to benefitting from more diversity in games. We all realize a massive benefit from the fact that games remain profitable without price increases and that there are lots of new titles experimenting with new ideas which we then get to choose after someone else has paid the bill. It is just simply unaffordable to be insular at this point.

Studio Closure

News of Telltale Games’ closure highlighted the fact that quite a few game studios have closed this year. There has been a lot of reflection on everything from the precarious nature of work in games, to the viability of certain types of games, as well as an outpouring of support for at least some of the developers affected. I count at least two personal acquaintances among people affected by studio closure this year, and so have wavered in even approaching this topic. The closing of a business is unremarkable, but the disruption it creates to owners and workers can be life changing. My problem is that I am only equipped to talk about the closing of a business, and so can only offer an impersonal take on a personal issue. My hope is that despite this limitation, I can offer a possible explanation for what is going on, what it means, and how we might respond to it.

Why do studios close?

A studio closes because it has more money going out the door than coming in and it is unable to bridge the gap. This is a boring reason which accounts for the majority of closures of any business, not just game studios. It has nothing to do with hot takes on there being ‘no audience for that kind of game’, the developers being bad at their job, or an asserted (and counterfactual) correlation between wokeness and brokeness. These explanations are great examples of reasons that seem obvious until you think about them and then they make absolutely no sense. So we’re going to think about them.

A studio’s revenues are going to be tied to their ability to sell games, and so surely if there is no audience for its games it won’t be able to stay open. This is certainly possible, but it ignores the fact that the studios that have closed have fairly established track records and it assumes that a studio’s costs are fixed, which they are not. I had never heard of a game called ANATOMY until just now, but it’s the top selling game on itch.io. There’s an audience for that. Tastes change, and audiences can grow and shrink, but if there’s an audience for a $3 indie I’ve never heard of, there’s an audience for an established developer and their back catalogue. Now, reaching that audience, setting an appropriate price, making sure the lights stay on before the games are released, and scaling operations to match circumstances are all factors that will affect a studio’s ability to stay open, but this is a much narrower scope than what is implied by pontificating on ‘the state of the market.’ Business management often isn’t sexy, but it’s what’s at play here. Spiderweb Software and Grey Alien Games have been around a long time, despite armchair market analysts declaring there being no market for those types of games.

For the same reason, the skill of the developers has very little explanatory power. The majority of studios being discussed had established track records, and only two of the 10 major closures had an average metascore of less than 70 (and most were in ‘green’ territory). Anyone who has worked in a poorly run office knows that the first people to detect problems are the rank and file staff, and they are often able to do a good job despite the situation they find themselves in. The number of people who directly control the kinds of decisions that ultimately determine if the studio has enough cash to keep going is very small and management quality is not a characteristic you can directly observe in a game. You cannot point to games you don’t like and say which one was the product of poor management without some external source of information.

There is, however, a perfectly plausible and boring reason for a profitable development studio to be shuttered. We’ll start by considering a subsidiary of a larger company. If the parent company sees opportunities to earn a greater return than what it can earn from continuing operations at a given studio then, from a purely economic standpoint, it makes sense to allocate those resources towards their most effective use. This is the same logic that applies when someone decides to take an office or teaching job instead of being a cashier at McDonald’s. This is not intended to be a normative claim (at least without a number of qualifiers and clarifications) so much as it is an intuitive illustration of how a studio that is successful by one criteria (profitability) may be untenable to another criteria that may be more relevant to the final decision maker.

Companies that are not subsidiaries face a similar risk. Telltale’s closure was surprising because it had seemed to be successfully turning around from its earlier troubles, with critical success for the latest Batman game and sequels to its most noteworthy releases (The Walking Dead, and The Wolf Among Us) in development. The culprit seems to have been withdrawal from financers, Lionsgate, AMC, Smilegate, or all three. As with a parent company, the inability to find financing is as much a product of the opportunities available to the financiers as it is their assessment of the studio’s future prospects (it is also worth noting that gaming is outside the core business of Lionsgate and AMC). Anecdotally, it also seems that Telltale was attempting to reduce the cost of producing its games and so it makes the failure of the financing round all the more frustrating, since it seems to reinforce the idea that Telltale could very well have successfully continued save for the fact they could not be financed long enough for the turnaround to finish.

None of this is to say that no game studio has failed because the underlying product was bad, or that they released an overpriced game into a crowded market. Gamasutra is filled with those kinds of post-mortems. But these kinds of explanations don’t credibly explain why 10 studios with experienced teams have closed, while the boring accounting explanation lines up with the known facts. The question is, what do we do with this information?

Human resources

It’s upsetting that something so boring from a business standpoint creates so much turmoil for individuals. Nobody who has lost their job as a result of the processes above is likely to take much comfort in knowing that the parent company perceived them as a lesser opportunity, or that the bosses failed a funding around, nor should they. But is there anything more I can say beyond pointing out that it’s foolish to blame the people who are now looking for a new job for their circumstances?

The closures have added a sense of urgency to a broader conversation about working conditions and the possibility of unionizing. There isn’t a lot to add to that discussion when focusing on closures. It would be better if large numbers of workers did not need to lose their job without severance after working countless hours of unpaid overtime for this conversation to resonate, but we play the hand we’re dealt. Beyond the possibility of it being a catalyst for change, I do have a slight sense of optimism that stems from a longer term view and a particular perspective of what a game studio is.

In simplest terms I think a company that makes video games is a machine that turns person hours, computers, and software into games. If that machine can produce the same game with fewer hours, computers, or software then it has become better at making games (this is equvalient to saying they make a better game with the same resources as well). Computers and software are not able to organize all of these factors in more effective ways, but people are. The real thing that differentiates one video game making machine from another are the processes it has in place to make sure it makes video games better than all the other game making machines. People learn over time and also compete which means that we are getting better games at lower prices than ever before. To put this in perspective, you can buy the full game Deus Ex today for the inflation adjusted price of the Doom shareware demo in 1994.

We are left with two facts: a company/video game machine failed for one reason or another, and that the people, the most important part if you want to build a company of your own, are now available to be put to better use. This is where my optimism comes from.

The closing of a studio means the destruction of that process that organized the factors that make a game unless someone steps in to preserve it. Most of the time it’s not worth saving since it was one that resulted in a closure, but since the closing of the previous company had little to do with the people who are now unemployed, there is a wealth of experience and talent just waiting to be put to good use and comes with the added bonus of being able to tell you “Don’t do that, that’s a really dumb idea” if you repeat the same mistakes. My personal hope is that some of the developers who are affected by the layoffs don’t wait to be picked up for a new venture, but are the ones who develop the better way of doing things. If this happens, then we can continue to expect more, better, and less expensive games in the future.

This optimism is not simply a product of wishful thinking. Poor treatment of the talent, and so poor management, certainly was a factor in the closing of some of these studios. You simply cannot expect talent to flourish in an environment where it is overworked and viewed as expendable without severance. Talent may persevere in such an environment, but how much productivity was lost through the failure to attract/retain talent and the inefficiencies created through overwork? A future Telltale should retain the features that allowed it to be a unique voice in gaming, while making sure those working there are taken care of and that management has their interests in mind when times get tough. This does not even need to be altruistically motivated (though it would be nice), since an experienced worker familiar with the process will simply do more and better work than an equally talented but unfamiliar worker.

Some of these dynamics in terms of unrealized value being unlocked with the closing of studios are on display through the willingness of other studios to hire some of the people affected by the layoffs. Better run studios don’t just gain the value the former employee was bringing to the studio that was closed, but the value that wasn’t being realized by an inferior process.

In the short run the layoffs are tragic and I wish people didn’t have to go through this sort of thing. In the longer term, this can be a more positive thing. Because life is short, and while it may be comfortable in the short term to remain in the status quo, I am not convinced that anyone is well served by staying in a position that is not using their talent to the fullest. Is it really better to carry on through a succession of mediocre years at a firm that values you less? Or is the short term shock in employment worth moving to something that better uses your talent? I suppose to some extent this is a matter of preference or risk tolerance, but this is how we seem to sort out the best allocation of our time and resources as a society.

Of course, different countries handle this allocation better than others. Canada may enable the creation of some of these new studios through government funding. Some forms of social assistance can help ease the transition. Unions and employers can help in this regard too, as industries with substantial booms and busts often do need to encourage the workforce to save for low points in the cycle. With all this in mind, I do believe it is better that unproductive uses of people’s time go away and that they be freed to do something they are better at, and this is partly due to my own experience.

Dismal science fiction

After high school I worked in the film industry. Specifically I worked in the camera department and worked on quite a few science fiction shows that are a bit old now but are still the sort of thing I’ll hear “I loved that!” about. This is the kind of job I know lots of people are desperate to get into, and I made decent money doing it. I never took a holiday or a break until a strike came and there simply was no option to work. After a few weeks I realized how much I had come to define myself through this work and how unhappy I was without being occupied with the 12-16 hour days of setting up or rolling.

I had a few false starts but I ultimately went to a college, originally with the intention of studying philosophy. When I took an economics class I was fascinated by ideas like comparative advantage and wanted to learn as much as I could. I needed to overcome some truly atrocious math grades from high school and a lack of sophistication with that subject, but the interest in econ got me through it. College turned into university, which turned into admission to the honours economics program, which turned into graduate studies.

That’s at least one way of looking at it. The truth is, my friends who knew me during the film years and after (before I enrolled) said I would be very well suited for university and that I would love it. I’ve always loved reading, and what time wasn’t spent on set was spent at the library. I was focused on the short term certainty of a profession that I was competent at, but, on reflection, did not truly align with my deeper passions.

Would it have been better if I didn’t do film? Probably not. I did get a better work ethic when working in it, and I was an undisciplined student as soon as I knew I was going into film. Would I want to repeat the transition period? I would probably want to hit the person writing this post if I read it during that time, because things got very dark indeed. But with the benefit of hindsight I can say that whatever my limitations as an economist (and there are many), I am better suited to it than moving camera stuff for the rest of my life.

I  also recognize that my optimism is also a reflection of the fact I was fortunate enough to land on my feet. This is why I do not take it for granted that existing social programs are sufficient, or that nothing should be done to make these transitions easier. The fact is we all do better if people have the least friction possible in being able to find that better use of their talent. I am no longer taking up the job for someone who was born to lug camera gear and movies got a little bit better than they otherwise would have, while I’m now at one of the few places that uses a fairly arcane subject I studied at university.

Even if I didn’t count friends among people affected by this year’s layoffs, I’ve read enough about the difficulty of working in games that the closures sound like insult to injury. But I’ve also gotten a peek at how the story ends. These workers are smart people with a unique set of skills. Some may find they’re happier or better suited to another line of work, while others will find themselves at studios that better appreciate their contribution. Some may finally have had enough and found their own studio and realize the projects that went ignored. And so my disappointment at hearing the misfortune of others must always be mixed with a hint of excitement at the possibilities of what they may now accomplish.


Note on affiliate links: I have an affiliate status with GOG.com for which I am given a portion of sales for traffic I drive to the site. The inclusion of a given title is for illustrative purposes first, but when it is available on GOG I will provide such a link. As always, I encourage you to do your own price comparison or buy on your preferred platform.

Your EA Takes Suck

EA is an awesome company that makes good games and you sound like a moron when you bash it. EA bashing is the gaming version of clapter. If you’ve ever watched Real Time With Bill Maher, you’ll immediately know what I’m talking about. Clapter sounds a little something like this: “Hey, how about [politician] right? What a moron!” waits for applause. There’s no real joke there, but that doesn’t stop people from clapping. Here’s some EA clapter:

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There’s no point. It’s just taken for granted that EA is so terrible and out of touch that a premium subscription service that costs less than Netflix or a WoW subscription is beneath comment. My new favourite hobby when I’m in a gamer bar is to mention EA and watch total strangers come up and unload on the company. And this is the mild stuff. YouTube is full of shouty men whose only purpose in life is to heap scorn on the publisher. This week we hit a new low in blaming EA for the recent shooting in Jacksonville.

None of this makes any sense. You may not blame EA for the shooting, but there are still way too many people using that company as a shorthand for the worst in gaming. If I play the odds, most readers will have liked some EA clapter in their social media feeds, or have issued one of their own. I am here to tell you your takes on EA suck. I will bring evidence for this fact. I’ve brought enough evidence to deal with as many goalpost shifts as I can stand and I still know the response is going to be “Yeah but…” So let’s get this over with.

If you hate EA so much, why do you keep buying their games?

We can now add the response to Cowen’s report on Battlefield V’s pre-sales to the long list of times idiots have crowed about EA’s imminent demise. This genre is pretty old now and has its origins in finding out that watching YouTube and dumping on the hobby is easier than having an original thought. But you want finances? I’ve got finances.

There are five game publishers traded on US markets: Activision Blizzard (ATVI), Electronic Arts (EA), Microsoft (MSFT), Take Two Interactive (TTWO), and Zynga (ZGNA). I’ve removed Zynga since it’s a mobile focused publisher, and had to do the same with Microsoft since the information will be tangled up with a majority of non-gaming activity. Since these companies trade on US markets, they must file with the SEC and these filings are available in the EDGAR database. If you would like to follow along while finding out why your EA takes suck, I will be using form 10-K, the annual report.

This is also the point where I expect a bunch of whining “Biased analysis” objections since publishers like Ubisoft, Paradox, Capcom, or SquareEnix aren’t included. These companies don’t file with the SEC since they are not on US exchanges. If you think an analysis of the publishers of Battlefield, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Civilization, XCOM, Need For Speed, Diablo, Bioshock, World of Warcraft, and Dragon Age is not representative, give me a good explanation why and then I’ll consider addressing the inevitable objections based on obscure European accounting differences that will follow when I add the other publishers.

Since everybody’s talking about how EA’s going to fail because of their business decisions, let’s talk about profitability. Here are five years of financial returns (note: the year is the period ending, so 2018 = 2017’s games etc.).

profits

EA wins three out of five years, usually with a healthy margin. Overall EA brought in $191 million more than its closest competitor, Activision Blizzard. Case closed.

But this isn’t convincing and it’s not because EA won. When EA stumbles there will be no shortage of commentary about why financial success is the only true measure, but since I am not a half-wit I must hold myself to a higher standard. If EA spent $1 trillion to achieve the results in that chart, while Activision Blizzard only spent $20 (coffee and muffins for the design team), then Activision Blizzard would be the better publisher. To normalize these results let’s see how many dollars in revenue (not profit, but total goods and services sold) each dollar spent generates:

efficiency

Here EA beats the competition in all years but 2014 and is the only publisher with a clear upward trend. For every $1 EA spent last year, it generated $4.03, while Activision Blizzard generated $2.76. Why do gamers care about this number? Unless EA is robbing banks or putting a gun to your head, it makes its money like its competitors: making and selling games. This measure says EA has a really good idea of where to spend its money, because when they spend a $1 making a game, the result is something we are willing to spend $4 to play.

“Aha! This proves that EA is screwing us!” I hear you, a moron, say. For this to be true it would have to mean that despite a ‘guaranteed fun’ refund policy, streaming, and Metacritic, EA (and EA only) has been fooling gamers for five years and not only has nobody caught on, but they have only become more credulous. Or we can say that EA’s pretty good at finding out what the value of their games is and making you pay up for it. But let’s leave aside your obvious appetite for EA games and look at what goes into the costs we are talking about.

Everyone knows that EA is a greedy corporation that doesn’t care about games and is only concerned about making fat, cigar chomping businessmen money. Hell, we just need to look at Kotaku’s piece on Mass Effect: Andromeda to see this inefficient bureaucracy in action. I bet they only sell so much because they spend so much money marketing their games. For our next chart, we will assume that all administrative and marketing costs are the same as putting the money in a big pile on the floor and setting it on fire. This chart shows how much of each dollar has been burnt upon the alter as an offering made by fire for a sweet savour (lower is better):

markAdmin

While not the lowest, EA consistently spends less on marketing and administration for each dollar of expenses than Activision Blizzard, and by a wider margin than the difference between itself and Take Two. The worst you can say about EA is that it does no worse than its peers in this regard, which is a quite the concession given how pathological the hatred of the company is.

(As an aside, I would like to take a minute and say how unfair and totally detached from reality this measure is. To see why the premise of “Marketing and admin doesn’t count as gaming” is nonsense, you only need to spend 10 seconds reading marketers like Haley Uryus of Failbetter. Watching a trailer for a game like Stellaris will also help you appreciate how marketing can play a role in helping to create the fantasy that is played out in the finished product. Anyway, back to your terrible EA takes.)

If you invert this measure and ask what proportion of expenses go towards the elements of the game you see on screen (higher is better), EA is at the top in all periods but 2014.

inverted

This is because the assumption that all expenses other than marketing and administration go into the games is not a good one for Take Two Interactive. That’s right, EA isn’t even the worst company when I bias the measures against them. The SEC filings show us that EA is a company that makes a product people want to buy, and puts more of its costs directly into that product than its peers. People buy EA games because they’re great games made by talented people.

But what about the quality!?

Let me guess, now financial reports don’t capture the true essence of gaming. How do I know that talented people are making games there? This is EA we’re talking about, the publisher that kills anticipated games and eviscerates beloved studios. I know because the people who work at these companies told me. Here are the Glassdoor rankings for the three publishers:

  Rating # Reviews Recommend to a Friend Recommend CEO
ATVI 3.8 130 82% 87%
EA 3.8 1900 79% 89%
TTWO 4 56 84% 98%

Identical between EA and Activision Blizzard, with Take Two pulling ahead by 0.2. EA’s finding comes from 1900 results, over 10 times more than the other two publishers. EA only lags in recommendations for a friend to work there. But this is just the corporate side of these companies right? I’m sure if we started looking at ‘real game development’ we’d see how bad EA is. Once again I’m sandbagging EA on this one, because if I drilled down to individual divisions I would be presenting EA Montreal’s 4.8 to Blizzard’s 4.5 and you’d accuse me of biased measures.

What about the games themselves? Everyone knows EA makes terrible games that everyone hates! Here’s Metacritic:

2018 2017 2016 2015 2014
ATVI 75.7 71.0 72.0 67.1 62.5
EA 73.2 79.7 71.9 74.5 74.7
TTWO 72.8 77.2 77.7 75.7 78.0

EA achieved the highest score over the five year period and is in the middle of the pack for the five year average (74.8). EA is last in only one period by 0.1 point. Activision Blizzard’s five year average doesn’t even break 70. Which of these publishers has the most franchises that have sold at least 100 million copies? EA. Too high of a bar? What would you prefer? 50 million copies? 20 million? 10 million? 5 million? EA, EA, EA, EA. And that’s after I included Barbie for Activision Blizzard.

Your complaints are stale

Hate loot boxes? What publisher removed lootboxes due to player complaints rather than regulatory change? EA. What company completely removed them and expansion DLC from the latest iteration of a major franchise? EA. And then you complained about women being on the cover. Because it’s never really been about the games has it?

The only reason you hate EA is because some guy on YouTube said EA was bad and he was angry enough, or British enough, or maybe angry and British enough. Either way, you were definitely stupid enough to believe him. The funny thing is, there was even a time you could rightly criticize the direction that EA was going, and it changed right around the time people developed these unshakeable priors that the company could do nothing right. Commentators who had no idea what they were talking about unloaded on EA for every last perceived slight in gaming as a whole. Remember when day one DLC was beyond the pale? How dedicated servers were non-negotiable? Commentators changed their minds on the individual business practices, but EA retained its Goldstein status. Influencers’ private gripes with a publisher were uploaded into an internet hive mind that will believe anything it is told. There will be people who die hating EA who have never once experienced any of the things the internet complains about.

This is why your EA takes suck. The EA you’re attacking doesn’t exist and never did. All that this baying signals is that you’re someone who believes any nonsense they hear on the internet and will repeat it ad nauseam. Think $100 a year is too much to pay to access EA’s premium titles? Don’t buy it. I only got the Basic level myself because I’m scared if I go for Access Premier I’ll never stream anything else. But reducing it to a response of “HAHAHAHA” only tells me you’re going to pay that much to play one game instead of an entire library of them, and that you don’t really know that much about gaming other than what people on the internet tell you. This is true of all EA clapter. It’s unfair, it’s old, and it makes all of us dumber.

Fortunately, it’s never been cheaper to tune you out. For $5 a month, I can try out some EA financed indies like Unravel or Fe and not think about people being angry on the internet. You know, like a real gamer does.

L’Affaire le Laissez-Faire

A little over a month ago Valve issued warnings to the makers of adult visual novels and others which became publicized resulting in controversy and uncertainty regarding the status of games with sexual content on Steam. A few weeks later Valve reversed this implied decision and announced that they would open the store to anything that they “…decide [is] illegal, or straight up trolling.” A lot of commentary seemed to react to, or at least occupy the same space as, Leaf Corcoran’s (of Itch.io) response that the new hands off approach was “ridiculous” and to keep “malicious, derogatory, discriminatory, bullying, harassing, demeaning content” off of Itch. Gamasutra summarized a number of reasonably high profile comments here.

Given that this news is already a month old, the best I can offer here is a room temperature take, but I’m struck by how the focus has been on free expression when I don’t think this is really what is at stake here. For all the effort to form two poles between the Itch and Steam approaches, the main differences are technological. Before weighing in on any of the commentary, I’d like to begin by examining possible reasons for Valve’s actions.

The economics of keeping games on Steam

Valve’s announced laissez-faire approach to Steam should be viewed in light of the original news that there was a coming crackdown on sexual content in games, which invites us to ask why Valve might want to take a game off of its platform. Valve has a pretty good deal going with the Steam where games pay $100 to be listed (recoupable after $1,000 in revenues), and they take 30% of revenues, meaning their variable costs are matched by increases in revenues and their slotting fee ensures the developer is on the hook for at least some of the on boarding/vetting costs of a game that does not sell.

Since the on boarding costs are sunk, why would Valve ever want to stop selling a game? There are likely two sets of explanations: Costs directly relating to the title itself, and knock on effects from a certain class of product. Direct costs are fairly intuitive to understand. For instance, Grand Theft Auto (GTA) seems to be a perennial favourite when it comes to identifying entertainment products bringing about the decline of civilization and so carrying that title also means assuming the liability of angry people complaining that you are carrying a product that brings about the decline of civilization. In physical stores these encounters are diffused among different locations and staff. For a digital storefront they are taking on the sum of complaints which will be directed to their staff who could be tending to other requests from other games, and are doing so on the internet which tends to alter the character of the interaction. Nobody would seriously consider removing GTA from Steam, but dealing with the associated complaints do represent a real cost for carrying that particular game over a less controversial title.

Indirect costs are a bit easier to understand when considering a class of games. A common complaint about Steam now is the discoverability problem: Getting a game in front of its audience when more and more titles are being released. Some genres take less time to create games for and so it is to be expected that there will be a proliferation of low-cost titles entering the market on a daily basis. The indirect costs can be summarized as follows: Valve may take 30% of sales, but if the problem is severe enough that customers are shown games that do not result in sales over games that would have, everyone loses. These costs can be compounded by discouraging developers to release on steam or even create the game in the first place, though it’s doubtful we’ve reached this point (this will be covered later). Forgone sales are one of the more quantifiable indirect costs, but the main point in considering both costs is to show that some titles will be more costly for Valve to carry than others and that it is likely there is a class of product that can be identified as such.

In light of these added costs we can now consider Visual Novels. Visual Novels are relatively low-cost products with a straightforward production model. So long as the game can sell more than the costs of obtaining art, words, and someone to glue it altogether, it makes lots of sense to put it on Steam, and the tools built to create the first game (say a script that links certain phrases with displayed character emotions or a set of templates to produce characters faster) can be reused, lowering the costs of future games. None of this is to make a quality judgement, as there are clearly people who  enjoy these games, and some of them (Dream Daddy, Hatoful Boyfriend, Doki Doki Literature Club) seem to have appealed to players who do not normally engage with this genre, but this is a recipe for overproduction and the potential crowding out of other titles.

A noticeable number of Visual Novels also follow in the fine tradition of independent and European films trying to sell into the US market. Hollywood has an edge on production value and spectacle, and so rival offerings need to offer something to entice audiences away. While I’m sure there are defensible aesthetic reasons for doing so, it is not a coincidence that these films have a fairly high incidence of the leading lady, sometimes the leading man, and sometimes everyone else taking their clothes off. Sex doesn’t just sell, it’s high margin. As with film there are plenty of Visual Novels that do not fit this description, but there are many that do and by their very nature are the most attention getting. Whether this is because the Visual Novel field is crowded or it is just one of the conventions of the genre, a product in this space is more likely to contain sexual content than a product in another genre.

Returning to our evaluation of costs, it’s pretty clear to see how both the direct and indirect costs can be higher in the case of Visual Novels, specifically adult ones. If discoverability is a problem, the economics of Visual Novels are such that we’d expect them to be a larger contributor. More importantly, the higher incidence of sexual content means that Valve will need to spend more time vetting entries to ensure compliance, and likely committing to additional costs as patches will likely command greater scrutiny than a game like Opus Magnum. Finally, it is likely there will be a higher incidence of reporting/complaints with this kind of game, either due to hostility at the lack of quality or with regards to content. Whether any of this seems fair or not, it is understandable for a company like Valve to turn around and say that these games are more trouble than they are worth and to reevaluate their place on Steam. The focus on games with sexual content suggests that Valve was aiming to curtail simple games whose primary draw was titillation, regardless of their profitability. The subsequent focus on the content of these games (as opposed to their volume) is unavoidable, as it seems to have been the only condition for reevaluation, but the motivation here is not personal dislike on the part of decision makers at Valve but the fact that this content was associated with other costs that Valve no longer wanted to bear. This distinction is important as it explains why The Witcher 3 or GTA V did not face the same scrutiny.

The economics of opening up Steam

Just as games have indirect costs, so do policy decisions. A vocal subset of gamers were upset, but this doesn’t carry very much information nowadays. Likely more concerning to Valve were the expressions of uncertainty on the part of game developers. As Amazon, Netflix, and Google will tell you, content is king, and so Valve has a vested interest in being the first place developers think of when it comes to distributing their game. There are strong network effects at play with Steam, and while they can be difficult to unravel, they can do so swiftly. If the speculation in the preceding section was at least somewhat correct, then the uncertainty of the developers who have already been chosen for removal is no big loss, and it’s debatable if this can be read as “First they came for the adult Visual Novels and I said nothing…”, but the publicity resulting from the reevaluations serve as a reminder for something that has always been true: A ban (de facto or de jure) from Valve can destroy your company. A large number of developers are not just big unhedged bets on the PC gaming market, they are bets on Steam itself. If your business model is built around releasing lots of small, low-cost DLC, Valve is one submission pricing decision away from making it unaffordable, and the announcement can come right in the middle of production. If you made small games that can be completed in under two hours, guess what the refund policy did to your revenues. I’m not sure if Valve has ever done anything quite so heavy handed as what was implied by the reevaluations for sexual content, but introducing this level of uncertainty will leave firms wondering if their next title should maybe be a mobile game instead.

The uncertainty created by Valve’s decisions is something of their own making given that they are so tight lipped, but it also made the announcement of the new plans all the more noteworthy. A statement from Valve is also a useful point for a summary since everything above has only been speculation on news about Valve. We know firms were contacted regarding the reevaluation of their games for content and that this became a fairly prominent news story. From Valve we know they were responding to that public discussion, that they are changing course, they now prefer the laissez-faire approach and will collect their 30% while only intervening in the case of illegality and trolling. We’re left asking if this is a good decision and what the consequences will be. Following our reasoning above, this essentially means that the uncertainty felt by developers after the news about reevaluation was more costly than the decision to leave things on the platform. This seems plausible seeing as developer uncertainty can be an existential threat to Steam in a way discoverability is not, as well as the fact that Valve privately contacted the developers for reevaluation but publically posted when responding to the media coverage of that decision. Valve’s post does also spend a lot of time talking about discoverability which inclines me to think that this has always been the focus.

Had the story not been public then eliminating the biggest problem spots (cheap titillating content) was seemingly the lowest cost way of clearing the channels and helping discoverability. The uncertainty created through the subsequent publicity was more costly than the gains from improved discoverability and so the decision was reversed. However, reversing the decision doesn’t solve the original problem and so the second best option is to invest in technology to help mitigate the discoverability problem. The opening of the platform adds another dimension to the problem, but I suspect in part it lessens the burden on the people handing reports and curation as the only real decision rule will be the Valve defined category of “Trolling” which may not reduce the volume of content complaints but can reduce responses to boilerplate “Valve does not curate…” messages.  The case for Valve’s reversal being caused by developer uncertainty is also strengthened by the fact that Valve merely announced the new policy with later implementation, while their usual pattern has been to implement then announce (even if it’s meant letting a negative story fester for longer than we’re accustomed to from other companies).

What does it mean to have an open Steam? The economist Joel Waldfogel has a good and readable summary on the effects of digitization on music, movies, books and television. At the risk of oversimplifying, Waldfogel’s conclusion is that digitization has created a golden age for these media and this is due to projects that otherwise would not have been realized but for the fact that digitization has lowered costs. Conclusions like this normally inspire a dismissive “Well that’s obvious” (if it helps, you’re very smart and I’ll be sure to ask you next time), but analysis like this is valuable because it helps us understand the mechanisms that brought about the outcome. I’ll take a point from Waldfogel and present it as a puzzle: Should the effect of lowered costs of production translate into marginal gains in niche areas, or will it produce unexpected hits that produce substantial gains? Most readers are likely going to know of some indie successes and so say that it will produce hits, but this does not harmonize with the ‘obvious’ conclusion that digitization produces a golden age. To see why consider that under the old model there would be gatekeepers who evaluate a given project and if the returns exceed the cost of production then they would approve it. Lowering costs allows more projects to get made, but these are projects with returns lower than the previous threshold, meaning we should see a proliferation of niche projects, not hits (which would have been produced under the old system). Where do the hits come from? The hits come from the fact that gatekeepers aren’t that good at predicting future outcomes for present day production and so lowered costs are allowing more hits to be realized outside of traditional channels. This is observed in the data through the growing share of self-published/independent/non-traditional projects in revenues or best seller lists. Since the quality or success of a given product is something of a random draw, the gains from allowing more products on Steam have an outsized return even when some of the ex-ante losers turn out to be ex-post losers.

If we think Waldfogel’s analysis has applications to gaming as well, then distribution platforms need to be better at predicting final quality, or the platform should be open as possible to projects that previously would not have passed gatekeepers such as Greenlight or a large publisher. But Steam already seems to have achieved this through the Steam Direct program. Morgan Jaffit’s (Defiant Studios head, makers of Hand of Fate 2) analysis indicating more winners and more losers seems to be exactly in line with the experience of other creative industries as reported in the Waldfogel article (though the an increased share of ex-ante losers in revenues is something of a matter of speculation given the notorious difficulty of estimating sales on Steam). This is why it is important to recognize the mechanisms through which the gains in other media were made, since these gains rest on the unpredictability of outcomes and the failure of traditional gatekeepers to manage it. The most relevant question stemming from the new lassiez-faire approach is whether or not quality guidelines are analogous to gatekeepers in terms of evaluating the value of products. If you feel that they are an impediment to high value products being realized, then Valve’s decision is a good one, will likely be profitable, and we’ll all benefit. If you feel they are largely irrelevant (possibly even orthogonal) to a project’s value, then the best case scenario from this decision would only be the incremental gains that will come from incorporating niche products.

Another way of examining this question is whether or not there is such a thing as a pornographic masterpiece. That is, is there a work of pornography (realized or unrealized) of genuine artistic merit that we have suppressed through these guidelines that would achieve a level of appeal beyond its traditional audience? Most definitions of pornography deny any aesthetic value, but if this is the only argument then we are simply begging the question. The same might be asked of hate speech (is there a work of bigotry of such sublime beauty that failing to publish it would impoverish our culture?), though this would certainly be illegal in some jurisdictions and so still banned. While there have been independent successes outside of Steam (Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress for instance), none of them seem to be products that would have failed to pass the Steam Direct system. These exceptional cases are always dangerous ground to tread on, and so it is possible that the unavailability of traditional commercial channels really has prevented a pornographic masterpiece from being realized in gaming, but it doesn’t seem like a product has emerged that has achieved universal acclaim within its own niche, let alone as a contender for mainstream success.

The reason we care about whether or not the gains from removing content barriers are incremental (i.e. niches) or the realization of mainstream hits is that it is what we should measure against the cost of lowering these barriers. For this we return to the discoverability problem and see just how far apart Itch and Steam really are.

The costs of discoverability problem

If we believe Waldfogel’s analysis applies to Steam then Steam Direct has produced gains above and beyond the incremental benefits stemming from lower costs for games. However, we started with the speculating that the impetus for reevaluating adult visual novels and similar games was the discoverability problem brought about by implementing the more open system. Waldfogel briefly addresses this in the “more research is needed” section at the end, though the idea of information cascades (the Bikhchandani, Hirshleifer, and Welch 1998 reference) does seem to be in line with the “big open” strategy employed by recent successful releases. Waldfogel’s summary does suggest that the cost of search (which we’ve termed the discoverability problem) may not increase, but I am operating on the assumption that this is not the case for games given that developers (who are better informed than I am) describe it and Valve has dedicated resources into mitigating it (and they see almost the entire market).

All of this may seem a bit abstract, so here’s an illustration of what this means. Suppose everyone had an app like Tinder which contained true information about potential romantic matches, but was optional to use and had some search preferences. Let’s say the search preferences start with the default setting of people who are very similar demographically to you and if the love of your life is present in this group, you will find them within two or three swipes. The next setting will put you in a pool of likely matches which, if it contains the love of your life, will find them in 7 to 12 swipes. Finally you can include literally everyone but you will not find the love of your life until 400 to 328,922 swipes. The growing number of swipes represents the increasing search cost as we grow the pool in search of that special m’lady or m’sir. Our choice of search setting is going to depend a lot on our expectations of how likely it is we’ll find our match in each of the groups. The cost difference between the default and second option is more than double, but is broad enough to be pretty appealing to risk averse people who want to maximize their chances. The literally everyone option is so costly that even if we turn the chance into a certainty, we may prefer to reserve it as a last ditch option (or abandon the app entirely).

Switching to Steam Direct seems a bit like switching to the second option in the example above. It does increase the cost of search, but the reward is worth it, especially if we’re looking to expand beyond what’s familiar. But we are unlikely to want the pool to increase indefinitely since the search costs don’t merit the increased chances of finding the love of our lives (game or person). If the benefits of removing content restrictions are analogous to the ones obtained through the reduced costs of games, then we should be willing to entertain higher search costs, but if the benefits are limited to the incremental gains of niche products then we may not willing to accept any additional inconvenience.

A key difference for Steam is that at the moment we are collectively setting one search preference for everyone, and so we’re deciding if we want to go from the expanded category to the literally everything one. It’s true that some people are not able to find the love of their life from the current choice (maybe this explains the desire for pornography), but the inconvenience to this group is considered the lesser evil compared to the universal inconvenience faced by the entire platform and its attendant frustration and likely abandonment by some users. To return to games specifically we can characterize search costs on Steam as the time it takes a customer to find a game they like, the forgone opportunity of Steam to make a sale by serving up the wrong recommendation, and the equivalent lost sale to the developer.

Valve’s new approach involves investing in technology to help lower search costs, including allowing them to restrict the pool of potential games they are exposed to. I don’t think anyone really knows how successful they will be at it. If Valve succeeds, then we will all benefit through faster matches to games we enjoy the most. If the system doesn’t work as well as they plan, then I suspect we’ll see a few more applications of the “trolling” criterion to keep users from encountering offensive content they wouldn’t buy in the first place. When looking at the Steam Direct guidelines, it becomes apparent that Valve hasn’t really given up a lot since half of the rules are already legal matters, and the remaining can credibly fall under a the trolling criterion. In fact, Valve offered some clarity on the condition and used a banned school shooting game as an example of what would not be permitted.

This brings us to Itch. Itch’s submission guidelines are extremely permissive, a fact that tends to be lost when you see people who have never used the site complaining about censorship in response to its founder’s Tweet. Itch also does not have the resources that Valve does in terms of being able to automate the curation of a given user’s pages and so they are less likely to propose a technological solution to the problem. Itch faces the same issues of discoverability and desire to maximize revenues as Valve but needs to employ solutions that reflect its capabilities. It is difficult to find a more direct solution than saying ‘don’t put this kind of stuff on our site and if you do we’ll ban you.’ If anything this is likely more a timely reminder of Itch’s existing policy rather than any kind of policy shift (so far as I can tell, the rules have not changed substantially since Corcoran issued his tweet or, indeed, years before he did). In fact, based on the clarification Valve offered to the definition of trolling, there seems to be very little difference between Itch and Valve in terms of what they consider (or will consider) unacceptable on their platform.

If it turns out there are substantive differences between Itch and the future Steam, it will be an interesting experiment in terms of whether or not these content guidelines actually do prevent the realization of good games. At the moment Steam is not my go-to source for interesting and unknown games but Itch is. The free speech warriors reacting to Corcoran’s tweet seem not to have been interested in the relative freedom of Itch’s platform to Steam Direct and Greenlight, and Itch has done fine without them. Gaming as we know it has also not collapsed under Valve’s relatively more restrictive policies, and Itch’s ban buttons are not likely to steer the industry into some kind of Hays Code. In truth, most if not all of the percieved difference is likely explained by Corcoran’s directness and Valve’s vagueness.

It’s fun to wrap oneself up in the illusion of a principled stand on free speech or against intolerance, but there really isn’t a lot for either side beyond rhetorical posturing. People who want to see the Valve decision an unmitigated win for free speech need to reconcile that with Valve’s follow up comments which seem to be banning exactly the kind of titles we’d expect a reasonable set of content guidelines to ban. Likewise, Itch’s permissive submission policies do not seem to have reduced the storefront into the dumpster fire predicted for Steam, nor has it seemed to produce the controversial hit that has demonstrated the outsized welfare gains from removing content restrictions. This is why I think the difference is merely technological and if anything Steam is shifting closer to Itch. The small scale experiment of Itch also suggests that the gains from loosening content guidelines are incremental for their respective niches rather than an opportunity for previously censored hits to finally be realized.

Seeing the realization of Valve’s promises will make all the difference, but my own expectation is that this decision will result in much needed curation tools being made available to users and developers, pornographic content will be made available (though the most egregious examples will likely still be banned) but will need to be opted in, and there may be some improvements made to the recommendation engine. Because the new policy will likely mean the entry of niche products, a ‘first do no harm’ approach would mean that most of the changes should be imperceptible to users, since these are products they have no interest in buying in the first place. So long as Valve is able to ensure these niche entries aren’t a nuisance to the rest of us, it’s hard to see this move as a bad one, but it hinges on both the new entries not being as bad as the worst that people assume (the hate speech case) and Valve being able to segment the user base in a way that doesn’t cause games we would have otherwise enjoyed becoming invisible to us. Of course, if Valve finds this problem is much more difficult than they anticipated, they have left the details open enough to make the changes modest and we may find the store isn’t all that different from the way it is now.


Note on affiliate links: I have an affiliate status with GOG.com for which I am given a portion of sales for traffic I drive to the site. The inclusion of a given title is for illustrative purposes first, but when it is available on GOG I will provide such a link. Naturally I encourage you to do your own price comparison or buy on your preferred platform. I include, on occasion, affiliate links from other broadcasters to support people who helped me in a given post or the cast in general. For this article, Humble Links support the streamer JessyQuil.

Hot Sex Robot Takes

Ten people in Toronto lost their lives when a man drove a rental truck down a street with the intent of hitting as many people as he could. A screenshot of his Facebook post identifying himself as an incel was verified, Redditors cringed at the quality of mainstream coverage of that community, and commentators took to their keyboards for a fresh set of hot takes.

The takes are a particularly depressing reminder that being dumb and outrageous will generate more attention than a thoughtful and honest effort to engage with any given topic. I will credit one column with bringing my attention to Amia Srinivasan’s article Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?, even if I suspect the author did not read it all the way through, but have no intention of rewarding sloppy thinking with the traffic it so obviously craves. It is sufficient to say are a lot of op-eds talking about sex robots and incels right now, and not one of them has acknowledged that this is a solution that community actually wishes for.

If we are looking for some kind of ur-take, the most likely candidate is Robin Hanson’s Overcoming Bias : Two Types of Envy. Why include a link just after claiming I don’t want to reward a certain type of article? Mostly because I think Hanson is actually trying to make a point about our attitudes towards income redistribution. Leveraging the Toronto tragedy is tacky, and the analogy between sex and income is unconvincing, but it seems reasonably clear it is intended to provoke deeper consideration of a fairly major policy that most of us take for granted as being good. I am warmer to Srinivasan’s article than Hanson’s since the former taught me things I didn’t know, but I recognize the latter as an effort to make its readers be reflective. Furthermore, it is one of the few articles that directly acknowledges the threat of violence that comes with the incels’ self-pity.

This omission of the violence underpinning everything written in that community is combined with the curious implication that somehow multiple commentators just happened to independently arrive at sex robots as a solution in time to discuss its relative merits. There is no way to know if any of these writers did bother to read about the community, but it difficult to tell which admission is more damning: That they have carefully sanitized the group’s conclusions for their take, or that they are covering a group responsible for multiple acts of violence without bothering to do any research. One can argue the merits of the equivalence Hanson draws between income and sex (for instance, calls for income redistribution being underpinned by threats of violence seems almost axiomatic to someone with a libertarian worldview, but this is not the only motivation for this policy), but he starts with the violence in Toronto and he specifically says the threat of such acts is the tool incels think will achieve their goals.

It is appropriate to describe what is happening in the incel community as young men being radicalized by an online extremist group and carrying out acts of violence. As such it is useful to take them at their word as to their motivations. The Oklahoma City bombing did not seem to inspire think pieces about what McVeigh got right about US foreign policy, and nobody seems to be rushing to ask if IS has any good points to make about slavery, but apparently we can’t just reduce a violent subset of the sexual have-nots to its most toxic form and instead should consider what the Toronto attack means vis-à-vis getting some. In contrast, Srinivasan identifies ways in which our sexual preferences and norms lead to unequal outcomes and the loneliness that entails, all without having to ask whether or not we’re doing enough to keep misogynists happy.

Reducing the conversation to sex robots and the need for incels to have their desires satiated presents a violent group as far more reasonable than it actually is and essentially grants all their premises all in the name of another column and some retweets. Who can seriously look at those posts and say the obvious problem is the quality and availability of masturbatory aids? As it happens, columnists only needed to read the full argument with regards to the sex bots to find a mapping from an average readership to incels. Incels hope for a future with sex bots so “a woman’s only value” falls to near zero due to the availability of alternatives. It’s repellant, it’s obviously wrong, and yet the lived experience of What It’s Like to Be a Really Beautiful Woman reveals this is apparently how beautiful women are actually treated by ‘normies’. Not only does this allow for some soul-searching on the part of men, but creates a stronger link to an incel’s beliefs on which an effort to de-extremize them can be built.

Columnists looking for a particularly sharp edge need not limit their economics study to Hanson, but could instead consider a paper by Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah which found a decrease in sexual violence that coincided with the decriminalization of prostitution. Such a column would not need to resort to science fiction to consider the consequences of the introduction of alternatives for people unable or unwilling to find a traditional partner. This concreteness is exactly why such a column is unlikely to appear in the op-ed pages as it would require the columnist to be accountable for getting things wrong in a way that science fiction does not.

Among the details that have been glossed over in the attack, the reaction of the police officer on the scene is the most interesting. Despite the attacker’s efforts to provoke him to open fire, even asking him to “Kill me”, the officer did not fire his weapon and instead apprehended the suspect. There will be no martyrdom for the Toronto attacker and he will be confronted with the humanity of his victims and the consequences of what he has done. It’s easy to imagine writing that the attacker got what he deserved if the encounter with the officer had gone differently, and yet now I will have to confront his own humanity. This exceptional bit of police work now means that we have a better chance at gaining an insight into why and how these men are being radicalized, and replaces the nascent incel legend with court appearances and consequences.

This is what we are losing in the op-eds about sex robots: The humanity of the victims, the loneliness of the incels, and the uncomfortable similarity between some of our daily conduct and their ideology. The angry response on social media is not a demand that these columnists suspend their right to speech, but that they exercise their right to thought.

On “Where do you get your ideas from?”

If you would ever like to divest yourself of hero worship for creative types, look at their responses to the question “Where do you get your ideas from?” This cure is a little stale now as somewhere along the way somebody must have realized how insufferable they sounded and there are now thoughtful answers to this question, but I’m sure you can still find some sneering ones without too much trouble. The problem is that this question seems to sit at the intersection of a few forces that steer otherwise well-meaning people away from honest or helpful answers. First, the question implies that you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ and that your opinion is sought after, so there’s a bit of ego at play. Second, if you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ whose opinion is sought after, you likely hear this question a lot, so exasperation is likely to set in even for the most stoic or well-meaning of talents. Finally, as someone who is, in fact, A Creative Person™ whose opinion is currently being sought after, the expectation is that you would at least have the basics of your craft in hand, and what could be more fundamental than ideas, and what do you mean you don’t know where the ideas come from I hate you and hope you die! That is, the person being asked may not know, or may have an answer so idiosyncratic as to be less helpful than “I don’t know.” Even before we acknowledge that this isn’t an especially well formed question, all the incentives are aligned against an honest, straightforward answer. I’d like to share some thoughts on the question, its answer, and how people generally think about creativity.

What are you talking about?

What do we mean when we ask the question “Where do you get your ideas from?” Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? We’re looking for the prime mover, the answer to a bank page, a pitch that will seduce a publisher/distributor/producer, a hook that a listener can’t get out of their heads, the inspiration that gives you all the right words and reduces the job to putting them down one after the other, you know, ideas. The problem is that these are very different things. The ability to confront a blank page is as much a matter of work ethic and an understanding of grammar or the ability to draw fundamental shapes as it is creativity. A pitch is a marketing device if anything and implies some underlying object (even if you haven’t figured that part out yet) of which just an enticing glance is given. The hook, like the amorphous inspiration, assumes that there is no creativity beyond the high concept and that you basically slap a drum track or some prepositions on and get ready for release. These are all different problems at different stages, and doesn’t even cover the people who just want to see the making of documentary.

There’s no ironclad rule that says there are general elegant solutions that encompass all variations of this question. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that someone who is, in fact, A Creative Person™ is equipped or inclined to generalize their instances of creative thought into principles that encapsulate the other cases. At its core, the question deals with a problem at some point in a creative endeavor and has created two categories ‘not creative’ (things I have done) and ‘creative’ (things I haven’t done/feel I can’t do). The creative category becomes overvalued because of its scarcity and the not creative category is undervalued because of its abundance. Anyone who has been consulted as a subject matter expert (even if it’s just making a cup of tea), presented the most trivial of solutions, and then been heralded as a saviour will have encountered this. As outside observers we know that what this aspiring creator is really looking for is something they already have inside themselves, but we lose this perspective when it applies to our own case.

Who are you to say all this?

I am not, in fact,  A Creative Person™. I know this because I found it out in a bar during a conversation with a stranger. She was an artist (primarily sketches), and her process involved something like banging two live chickens together to the rhythm of Slavic folk tunes played by a mad piper while dressed in yeti hair followed by an invocation to the muses in a tongue that only they can understand. I offered that I find the ability to draw very admirable since I used to do it quite a bit when I was in school but I have always been frustrated by the fact I could never make the shapes and forms I wanted to. I added that it was this frustration that tended to drive me to my own creative outlets such as photography since I felt that I had to take the world as given and found satisfaction in using the technology to shape it the way I saw it. “Well that’s not real creativity!” And so the matter was settled. Now it is likely that someone who knows a little of my biography might protest and say “For heaven’s sake you worked in film! On stuff that was actually popular and lots of people have seen!” Yes that, and any other number of examples, but I happen to think all of them boil down to a similar problem solving process to the photography example, and we already know that’s simply not real creativity.

The silliness of the conversation aside, there seems to be a certain presumptuousness in writing an article like this. I have been asked where I get my ideas from, but generally the assumption is that some kind of essay on the topic should only come from someone with some credentials. I have none, but then, I was under the impression the question was about ideas instead of fame. One advantage to being nobody of consequence is that there is the least possible risk of having superhuman abilities attributed to me. Despite myself, I think some talents just have the magical ability to make work easy, or have internalized enough of their process to make it automatic, or otherwise have some black box that produces stupendous results. This thinking brings us back into territory better suited to the ritual with the chickens above. More importantly, if we’re concerned about becoming famous the advice is totally different than if we’re concerned about achieving particular creative outcomes. Some mute inglorious Milton has less to offer us on the subject now than he might have, so now seems as good of time as any to tackle the subject and I can do so without any fear of notoriety getting in the way. And what if my ideas suck? Then you’re even further behind than you thought and should attend to the next passages closely.

Initial ideas and settings

Is there an idea from which all other inspiration can flow? If the creative challenge is getting started, then yes, an exciting idea can have value over and above its merits as a starting point. In my own case, this is because it creates boundaries and restrictions I can kick against to get some momentum (again, creativity as problem solving), but for others it may simply be the catalyst that gets them into a state of playfulness where their imagination can take them where they go. Of course, for this subset of people we have an answer to the question “I get my ideas from the setting.” Unless you happen to fall into the subset of people for whom the only block is an initial idea, it is fairly easy to establish how an initial idea or high concept won’t get you very far. Here is an  initial idea that is behind some of the most well known and best selling stories you can think of: The dead come back. Return when you have your blockbuster and feel free to cut me in on a percentage.

Chances are this idea offered relatively little inspiration, and what inspiration it did provide was probably cliché. And yet this idea has animated everything from Dawn of the Dead, Frankenstein, Osiris, Dracula, the gospels, The Crow, The Walking Dead, A Christmas Carol, Orpheus, Poltergeist, Ghostbusters, and thousands more. It is impossible to say that this idea hasn’t resulted in good creative works (and I’ve limited myself to stories), but this is hardly the breakthrough anyone is looking for. One might object “But these stories aren’t just about the dead coming back” and I would agree, but I don’t think adjusting the example is going to yield some fountain of inspiration. Embedded in the objection is thought that there is another idea that makes these stories ‘work.’ This is likely true and should reinforce how unimportant ‘one perfect idea’ really is. Let’s say we want to steer our story towards a genre, what can we add to our initial idea of the dead coming back (you might want to try some of your own):

  • Family is mourning their recently departed grandfather, unaware of the medical staff running to an emergency elsewhere in the hospital. Young child, coming back from getting a candy bar down the hall passes by the room with the death bed, looks overjoyed at something off camera, offering it his candy and says “Grandpa! Would you like a piece?” (Domestic drama. Apparently this is very similar to something that happens in The Walking Dead: The New Frontier so… take 2)
    • Child on a farm has lost his beloved pet dog and is in the process of tearfully burying it. The child takes a moment for one last look at the dog in the grave before continuing, but his expression turns to surprise when he sees the dog’s tail start wagging, and then joy to see his dog is alive and barking, and jumping up to see him. He reaches down and then… (Domestic drama.)
  • The President/Prime Minister is visiting wounded soldiers in a remote location. A dead soldier comes bursting in from the other room lunging after the leader, impervious to the efforts of the guards. (Action)
  • The reanimated body of a woman hires a detective to investigate her own murder. (Detective. If she lights up the room, Noire)
  • A man is using a public restroom during (unknown to him) the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse. He feels a shudder from the next stall then suddenly moaning, groaning and erratic movement. It seems to pass until his neighbour’s disruptions come back with even more violence. (Comedy)

These don’t just limit themselves to the dead coming back but are variations specifically on zombies (except, perhaps, the detective story depending on whether or not you think zombies should be mindless). I’m not especially attached to any of these ideas except maybe the last one, and it is a little uncomfortable to share raw material like this in a public post, but since I am not, in fact, A Creative Person™, I don’t have the luxury of chopping the heads off ideas that displease me at first sight. Reservations aside, even the worst of these is more exciting to me than the generic ‘the dead come back to life.’ What this should illustrate is that we at least need idea plus another idea, and in all likelihood it’s a big series of ideas that we need, none of which have any special significance.

A stream of ideas

It is not reassuring to go searching for one idea to solve a creative block and find out you actually need a series, but this should be a liberating realization. Any single idea is no longer burdened with the success of the entire work and so the stakes are much lower. If the entire project hinges on the idea ‘the dead come back’ then the overall enthusiasm for the project is going to be low. This may be where the disconnect between authors’ answers of “ideas are everywhere” and the audience’s perception that they’re hard to come by occurs. If you are accustomed to culling ideas that don’t immediately implement themselves, then the daily censorship of ideas is likely going to pass by unnoticed. If we don’t internalize the suppression of ideas against an impossible standard, we will be more likely to notice them when they come.

The problem with the examples above is that while they may tickle a certain interest, they mostly are scenes rather than full works. Simply generating a lot of scenes in hopes that some subset can be strung together is inefficient and is going to be suited only to ‘one scene after another’ stories. While it’s probably not advisable that someone starting from “Where do you get your ideas from?” to tackle something like their own Finnegan’s Wake, it’s not especially helpful to work on things that don’t interest you either. What these are best seen as are exercises to get us out of the habit of dismissing things out of hand and more into a state of playfulness where making things up is an end in itself. Even then, we still need to contend with the fact that little vignettes into these imaginary worlds do not resemble the kind of finished product we were hoping for from the initial question, and so we might want to learn how to manipulate or structure our nascent stream of ideas.

I suspect the idea of ‘not real creativity’ probably starts at the idea of putting structure around ideas, so if you are doubtful about this step, it might be a good idea to look at some after action reports (AAR) on strategy wargame forums, or RP content for certain RPGs. Games are structured, and wargames especially so, but this has not stopped people from writing stories of Douglas McArthur, the American Caesar, or the licentious, violent, Machiavellian saga of the House of Rose. The aim here is to direct your energies towards a particular train of thought rather than just collect random pieces. Again, I view a lot of these things as problem solving, so I already have a very structured way of thinking about it, but we’ll see how this can be adapted to other ways of thinking. Usually I like to ask questions like “Why?” “Then what?” “Who?” or if I’m in a rather nasty mood “So what?” “Who is this jerk?” “Why should I care?” Let’s go back to ‘the dead come back.’

  • Why are the dead coming back?
    • They like it here more than the afterlife
    • Angels and demons went on strike
    • They feel the mortal world needs their help

These invite their own questions. How are the dead coming back to life? Zombies, ghosts, vampires, skeletons, plain old ordinary people? Were the angels and demons always uinionized? Why hasn’t this happened before? Maybe it did and all those stories of resurrection we’ve heard were cases where that happened and it has caused so much trouble on Earth with new religions being formed that they do everything they can to avoid it. I personally am partial to the idea of using ghosts for the 3rd idea because it inverts the old trope of ghosts having ‘unfinished business’ and instead are so dismayed by what they’ve heard going on here they need to sort things out. You may notice some themes coming up or ‘real world things the story might be about’ hiding underneath. These aren’t deliberate, but it’s hard to deny they’re there once you see them. Hang on to those, they’ll come up later.

It’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t an exercise in worldbuilding. Personally, I only think you should come up with enough background or motivation for what you are portraying in so far as you find it useful. You may want to have a bit of a story for that person in the painting, and maybe it’s useful for you to know that your main character is a single mom even if it never comes up in the short story. But as in life character is demonstrated in unusual and unexpected ways. I have a very senior coworker who is genuinely feared by people outside my department and who is a beloved mentor to three other people I know and has been very congenial and invested in my development. At another job there was a gentle, positive, vegan, sweetheart who had been working there for a while but became violently angry when she saw a knife had been put away in such a way someone could get hurt. You may never have to portray how a character behaves when their order gets messed up at a coffee shop, but it will likely get you thinking about how they behave in other situations.

Since I have a more systematic way of approaching these kinds of questions, it makes sense that the examples above tend to follow a thread one after the other. If you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ this may not be the way your mind works. Let’s go back to the scenes above and see how the approach can work in a slightly less linear approach. For the boy and his dog, why are domesticated animals coming back from the dead? Because it is frightening to have loved ones turn on you. If the source of the zombie outbreak isn’t explained, you don’t really need to concoct some reason yourself, but the idea that ‘things that were once friendly to us are now hostile’ can inform quite a bit of the story. Wild animals don’t come back because we’re already afraid of wild animals and they can already cause us harm. Friends, relatives and pets do come back. Living friends and relatives may also turn on us only through the pressure of the situation. All more or less standard tropes of the genre, but a pretty clear decision rule that results in consistency (pets do not rise from the dead at only dramatically appropriate moments for example). The detective doesn’t have a sex listed. Are they a man or a woman? Does the society even conceive of categories beyond the two? Is the detective less respected because she’s a woman? Is this why client chose her? Do the dead normally ask for independent investigation into their own murders or is this a special case? There are obvious questions for a more linear approach like “What happens next?”, “Whodunit?” or what have you, but there really isn’t that much to this story yet beyond a high concept and so you can pull them from anywhere (are necromancers mob bosses? Seems an obvious choice, but if you were dead wouldn’t you like to come back? What if necromancers are doing works of charity?). However you choose to work, a lot of this simply boils down to saying to yourself “tell me more…”

Choosing the right ideas

We might have taken some of the pressure off for individual ideas, and we may have a few different prompts to direct the flow of ideas, but there is no assurance that any of this is easy to do. Like anything, practice will make it easier to get into a playful state that lets you start to roll off ideas one after another. Sometimes it’s also just an acceptance that some of it is going to be bad, getting it out and moving on. Even asking why something is a bad idea might invite an answer that is itself a good idea (“And then the main character wakes up and it was all a dream.” Lame. “And he’s arrested because of the contents of the dream.” Maybe there’s something we can work with there). A collection of ideas is not the finished work that is implied in the correct answer to “Where do you get your ideas from?” and at some point we need to decide what ideas are worth following and fit in.

Creative works are about something. It may not be consciously felt, or it may be a remarkably trivial subject, but there is something that motivated that particular work. I tend to find that the ideas that excite me or interest me can ultimately be traced back to some kind of subject or concern that have caught my attention, even if I discover it long after the fact. For example, I rather like the idea that the dead are coming back because they prefer existence on Earth to whatever lies beyond. Why does this interest me? I suppose because it seems the most extreme possible extension of the concern that the previous generation is continuing to burden the next one through deficits, Brexit, underinvesting in education and infrastructure, etc. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse *bam* “Nah, we prefer it here. Think we’ll stay. Forever.” I’m also attracted to this idea because I love the idea that all previous generations had a choice and for some reason this is the one that decided to go back because of boredom. It taps into another  concern that we’re amusing ourselves to death and are losing the ability and inclination to engage with long term projects that are to our benefit. Plus, there’s something great about seeing someone arrive at heaven, see that there’s only 2 bars of mobile reception and peace out.

The important thing here is that the ‘what is this about’ element should never appear as a sledgehammer to beat you over the head with. If you absolutely must get it out of your system, give a character a monologue about everything that is wrong in society, then cut it out and put it a blog. This isn’t limited to narrative either. I’m sure you can imagine a modern reimagining of Sisyphus for amusement with two further prompts ‘first year art project’ and ‘sly ribbing of guilty pleasures’ to get the idea. This is a two way street. Once I started thinking about why the idea attracted me my mind wandered to the thickening of borders (I told you, I am not, in fact, A Creative Person™). What if the afterlife was no longer taking immigrants because we’re not sending them our best? The dilemma I face with this one is that now that I know it’s about immigration I need to work at throwing away the cheap ‘messages’ and instead focus on interesting implications (Bad: “God is just like Trump. I don’t think anyone was expecting that.” Cute, will get an applause from people who want to focus on the Old Testament, clever in a way but feels like pandering. Better: “There has been a slow and steady thickening of the border between the mundane and the supernatural which is why we don’t have miracles any more.” I like this because it makes things more complicated and there are more things to explore and do in this setting, while making the God emperor the, well, God Emperor doesn’t get me as much).

This is ultimately what people are talking about when they say that ideas are everywhere. They come from you and your interests. You simply have to take an interest in the world around you. This means reading, looking at art, looking at comics, watching movies, playing games, and actively doing it. Grand Theft Auto V has a lot of fun bits. Why did I find them fun? Why do I find them fun in a way I don’t find Grand Theft Auto III as fun? When people say they’ve become more politically active, does this mean they just talk about the federal level more often or do they know who the mayor is and the composition of the city council? To be perfectly honest, a lot of the time when I write something I am just trying to figure it out. I may never post it or even look at it again, but there was something bugging me, I got it out of my system, and I could move on to something else that I found interesting.

One last thing that drives me, and I think this is a useful guide in general, is that I do genuinely enjoy entertaining people. If I can spin a good yarn, tell a good joke, or otherwise delight someone I get tremendous pleasure from that. As a result whenever I have a game idea I tend to go out and ‘pitch’ it to some strangers. I know I’ve done well if the person I am talking to has a smile on their face that they can’t help and I live to see that reaction. This is almost a non-starter for some people because social interaction isn’t high on the list of skills or priorities, but presumably you’re writing for someone and it’s helpful to have friends along the way for mutual support. Since you’re already taking an interest in things, why not take an interest in the most interesting thing: people. It’s not like you’re trying to sell them something, you are trying to amuse them.

“But what if they steal my ideas?” This is the kind of thinking that has hopefully left us since we realize that an individual idea doesn’t matter very much. Furthermore, what matters to you won’t matter in the same way to the audience. The same way that your own work won’t be a copy of all the material you read before, anyone who hears your pitch and is inspired by it is going to bring their own experience and talent to bear. Maybe it will be better than yours (assuming against the far more likely case that they are working on their own ideas), but then, you would never have made what they did anyway.

If it helps to imagine idea generation as a process think of it this way: We have a series of interests and concerns that are usually the raw material for our creative work. These can be grand themes like concerns about spiritual fulfillment, or immediate needs like needing a glass of water. Usually these concerns show up in disguise as “What if X happened?” or “Wouldn’t it be interesting if X?” The first step is to learn to recognize them and get in the habit of acknowledging that we are throwing away potentially useful material every time we dismiss them as distraction or ‘not good enough.’ Having recognized our ability to generate ideas, we can direct our imagining by probing areas we find most promising. Maybe none of the background noise in your head was that interesting. What’s your favourite genre? What haven’t you seen in it yet? What’s your least favourite genre? How would you improve it? The aim here is to focus our attention to turn it into a creative work. We may not need to formally select ideas that we’re most happy with, but recognizing what’s behind them will allow us to shape the finished product around them, and let the most interesting parts of what we’re doing shine.

It’d be nice if this was all constant and automatic, but it usually isn’t. Sitting down and doing the work (again, acknowledging that when we aren’t feeling in the mood we’ll probably need to go through some bad ideas) is a hard but important way to start things off. Sometimes when the work has already been underway, an interruption in routine is needed. This is where going for a walk or taking a bath or any of the other ‘side projects’ come in. It’s really important to be clear what is being done here (you are not slacking off, and be honest with yourself when doing this), but sometimes if you have committed yourself to an unproductive train of thought, you need to disrupt the routine and let your mind wander. Your concerns will come back to you and you will return to that more playful state as you do something else until a new path presents itself. It may not even be the magic solution you were looking for, just another perspective that leads you down a path that leads you down another path that brushes alongside something that might be a solution. It’d be great if ideas came when we needed them, but often we need to clarify things for ourselves, and the false positives are just chances for us to work things out. This is a way of working that allows us to make the most of what we have at a given time, rather than just for a miracle to occur.

Building the work

The business of making a work out of the raw material of ideas is much more than idea generation itself. If it’s a written work then you need to understand grammar, pacing, characterization, and all the other elements that go into a good novel or a short story. Visual works will need to work with form, colour, composition, and the like to convey the idea. A game needs systems built and ways to convey an idea without reducing the player to a passive observer. Mastery of your craft will allow you to present your idea in the best possible way and create something special.

That’s the big mistake behind “Where do your ideas come from?” Getting a good idea does not bring you any closer to the implementation of an idea, and people only ever get to see the implementation. But style and even the basics are only ever going to be internalized through practice, and you need something to practice on. If you want to see style without a worthwhile idea behind it, feel free to watch as many commercials as you’d like. Excellent craftsmanship, but commercials that attempt to present any serious message tend to be the rightful objects of derision (Pepsi is not the official pop of #TheResistance). We really are hungry for good ideas and worthwhile topics, and so we’re willing to put up with imperfect presentation. Shakespeare at high school is still pretty good theatre.

Getting ideas may not be the hard part, but they do hopefully make the hard part easier to work with. I am always delighted to see something with interesting ideas behind it, as much as I am interested in exploring those ideas myself. The best ones seem to demand expression and provide enough motivation to keep going through. I can’t offer anything on the particulars on implementation, but if you ever happen to find me in a bar and you’ve got a good idea, I’d really love to hear it. I like smiling despite myself.

Copyright Revisited

I wrote a blog about copyright. I am happy with its content (perhaps not the style) but given the latest streaming controversy I thought it would be good to revisit the topic and make some ideas more explicit. Because so much of this topic deals with the recognition of an author’s work, I would like to acknowledge the work of Suzanne Scotchmer and her book Innovation and Incentives, which contains a useful primer on intellectual property law for non-specialists. It is a good economics text on intellectual property, and is available here (which is attached to an affiliate link for a good friend of my cast JessyQuil).

The essence of the case is this: A very popular streamer uttered a racial slur in anger towards a player while playing PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. In response, Sean Vanaman of Campo Santo (developers of Firewatch) announced he would be using the DMCA to take down the streamer’s Firewatch playthrough and bar him from streaming any future Campo Santo games. The issue of the slur seems clear cut to me, but the copyright issue seems to be far less clear and of more interest to streamers and the public alike. The problem is further complicated due to the fact that Campo Santo appears to have a very permissive streaming policy on their website.

As is common in most copyright disputes, the doctrine of fair use is invoked with regards to streamed content. Furthermore, we are interested in whether or not the broad statement on Campo Santo’s website can be ignored or retroactively revoked due to behaviour in the present. The previous article talked about copyright as a means for authors to protect their work from infringement, as well as abuse through associations they do not want to have made. Here I would like to discuss the issue from the perspective of fair use and see if the consequences of Vanaman’s actions align with our intuitions when we first hear the story.

What is fair use?

Fair use has been in US law since 1976, but has been recognized as far back as the 1840s. It is intended to retain some public benefit from copyright which is by definition a restriction on the public’s access to a creative work. The Stanford page dedicated to fair use offers two broad categories: Commentary and criticism, and parody. More granular examples would include news reporting, scholarship, search engines, library photocopying, as well as parody, commentary, and criticism. Essentially there are some exceptional cases where copyright should not apply because they are in the public interest.

Congress has not told judges the objective of fair use, only four factors to consider in deciding whether or not a work is infringing:

  • The purpose and character of the use
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount and substantiality of the materials copied
  • The effect of copying on the plaintiff’s potential market

To my knowledge, there has not been a court case to decide if streaming falls under fair use or not. While this individual case is unlikely to go before a judge and ultimately establish a precedent, we can examine for ourselves how closely our streams fall under these categories.

How does fair use apply to streaming?

I would like to reorder the list of criteria into what I think is the least complicated to the most complicated.

  • Amount and substantiality

While they are limited to a subset of all possible choices, let’s plays are as close as we can get to the entirety of a game being distributed online in a non-interactive form. This particular factor seems to be the most clear cut in the fact that ‘less is more.’ The less of the work you use, the more likely it is that you fall under fair use. The nature of streaming is that most, if not all, of a game is used in the creation of the content, and so I think that all of our work is ahead of us if we are attempting to base our fair use claim on this criteria.

  • The effect of copying on the plaintiff’s potential market

From the previous blog, we’ve talked about how not all coverage is good coverage. I am not a suitable candidate for an authority on this topic, but I can leave this magnificent twitter thread by @twittysuch as an example of what marketers think about streaming and its effects on the market. Her rather prescient thread anticipated the exact case that was the catalyst for this article. However, Vanaman did allow that the 5.7 million views potentially helped the game. It is possible that the specific video Vanaman issues the strike against may not run afoul of this criteria due to Campo Santo’s stance on streaming and his allowance that the video may have helped. Generally, streamers cannot rely on this being the case in their own circumstances.

The Stanford page cites Rogers v. Koons (960 F.2d 301 (2d Circ. 1992)) as an example of how works that are not directly in competition can still deprive a copyright owner of income. This case involved wood sculptures carved using a photograph as a basis without asking the photographer’s permission. The sculptures, which earned the artist several hundred thousand dollars, were claimed to be fair use due to the photographer not being a sculptor. The sculptures were found to be infringing as what mattered was the potential market for the sculptures regardless of whether or not the photographer had considered making them himself. This is an instructive case because so much energy is spent on talking about whether or not the experience of watching a streamed game is a substitute for the game itself or a complement. We often make distinctions between games like Firewatch (which tend to be very story driven and ‘movielike’ and so more prone to competing with the game itself) and something competitive like Counter-Strike (where the eSport component is a complement to the experience of playing the game itself and is usually enabled in client). It seems that we are having the wrong argument as this argument has failed to address the potential market that the law cares about. Developers seem well within their rights to claim that even though they develop and distribute games, streaming represents a potential market and so the work is infringing.

  • The nature of the copyrighted work

This is one of the most difficult to apply to streaming since the nature of the work refers to features such as whether or not the original work was fictional or non-fictional. Clearly video games that can be streamed are products that have been published (and ones that have not been released are not disputed when efforts are taken to remove the offending video). Fictional work is generally more difficult to copy from than non-fictional (from a fair use standpoint), but this seems to be a meaningless distinction in the case of games. What about a transfer between media: video game to live video? This is partially covered by our discussion of Rogers v. Koons above, but let’s consider another case that comes from Scotchmer.

During the run of Seinfeld the Carol Publishing Group published a trivia book called the Seinfeld Aptitude Test (SAT). The book contained references to the characters and quotes from the show without obtaining a license from the rights holders and the Carol Publishing Group was sued. Carol Publishing’s argument was that only minimal parts of the episodes were used and that more substantial use would be covered by fair use anyway. The court rejected both arguments, finding the trivia book to be substantially similar to the original work (the TV show). The fair use argument was rejected on the ground that it was not “transformative” which is the final category we will consider.

  • The purpose and character of the use

This criteria seems to lie at the heart and soul of most fair use cases and certainly is the most discussed when it comes to streaming. Does streaming have the tranformative aspect that we look for in the obvious cases of fair use? To demonstrate what I mean, consider the case of parody. Nobody can seriously claim that Spaceballs is infringing on Star Wars, or that Galaxy Quest is infringing on Star Trek. In fact, particularly good satire may go so far as to destroy the original work that it was based off of. This is a proud institution with a clear public benefit, and so I personally consider satire to be my favourite example (maybe even the gold standard) of fair use. It annoys the hell out of people and makes them want to stomp it out, and it’s very important that we not allow that to happen. Academic work is also a good example of a transformation, though for many of us it is a transformation from an entertaining product to a soulless, dry, scholarly artifact.

Our usual attempts to map these clear cut cases on to streaming is to point out the commentary of the streamer as enhancing or transforming the work. To use the phrasing from the Stanford page, a streamer’s commentary may provide “… new information, new aesthetics, new insights, [or] understandings.” As a streamer it is flattering to think so, and I do my absolute best to provide added value in my casts, both to differentiate my own stream but also to respect the game that I am streaming. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that commentary is simply enough.

There was a TV series that ran from the late 80s to the late 90s called Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K for short). The series consisted of hilarious commentary running over old B movies of highly dubious quality. While some accounts I have read attest to the films used being in the public domain, I recall some episodes were difficult — if not impossible — to get a hold of due to rights issues. Even though seemingly nobody would watch these films on their own merits, and the value of the work seemed to derive entirely from the cast’s commentary, a reasonable case was made that the rights holders of the original works should be paid. I find it hard to disagree with this line of reasoning, simply because I do not believe perceived quality should be a determining factor in the application of intellectual property law. Either I have produced a creative work and am entitled to its protection or not. I can entertain the possibility that the cast of MST3K was so hilarious as to transform these works to a point that would dictate fair use (as I think anyone who has seen the series would be inclined to believe), but it is also hard to argue that I am not letting my appreciation for the show affect my thoughts regarding its interaction with intellectual property law. I think it is commendable that MST3K sought the rights where it needed them, and by and large the format seemed to work. I am also encouraged by the fact that this kind of comedic alchemy was able to create value for otherwise worthless films simply because it creates an environment in which film financiers are more willing to take a risk on projects due to the ability to generate revenues from them (though there may be a perverse incentive to make especially bad ones that get showcased on commentary shows).

I give this example  mainly because few, if any, casters can ever aspire to the quality of MST3K, and so if they can’t claim fair use, I’m not entirely sure our commentary has any more hope. I can’t think of a single caster who can claim their commentary reaches the level of scholarship that applies for the academic transformation, and it would be absurd to argue that streaming provides a new aesthetic to a point that our work is described as transformative. Simply put, we’re not Joel and the bots, and we really aren’t adding that much to the game. We try our best, and we add value. In fact, a lot of developers seem to appreciate the work that we do. But even when I reflect on the best streamers I’ve watched, I really can’t say that they have transformed the game to a level where the streamer can claim to have created an original work that stands out as fair use. And more importantly, as the controversy shows, any claims that what we do is for the public good are highly suspect.

Should Campo Santo use the DMCA strike?

While my analysis above may be overly pessimistic for streamers, it is clear that there is a very difficult case to be made if streamers want to claim fair use. As such, we may want to move beyond whether or not Campo Santo can use a DMCA claim against the Firewatch video to whether or not they should.

I am genuinely torn by this. I think any developer should have the option to sever ties from public figures who can associate their work with views they find intolerable. Again, this is their property and they have every right to defend it. Of course, we are also worried that this can be used to silence criticism of a game. It seems to me that criticism is clearly covered under fair use, and that we have had means of informing consumers as to the quality of the game before streaming became a factor in purchasing decisions anyway. In truth, I’m doubtful that it would ever come to this, but even if it were, criticism is a place I’d be willing to plant my flag and say there is a strong case for fair use, which is why I have avoided discussing it here.

Despite how repulsed I am by the streamer who is at the center of the controversy (both past and present actions), I do find it hard to justify Campo Santo’s position here. In one sense, I find fault with their overly broad invitation for streaming. Compare the policy linked above, to Amplitude’s streaming policy. Amplitude’s policy goes down to the expected ESRB rating of the content on the stream. In this sense, it is hard to be especially sympathetic to Campo Santo’s displeasure at people’s streamed use of their product simply because this is a studio of veteran developers and it is not uncommon for studios to put restrictions or guidelines as to the conduct of the caster when streaming their games.

The biggest problem I personally have, and I suspect causes the most unease regarding this decision is the retroactive nature of the copyright action. The streamer’s content with regards to Firewatch was fine, and it was their behaviour a year later when streaming a different game that caused the problem. Again, the association is what’s important here, so even then it’s a grey area, and I suspect the battle lines are likely to be drawn largely around how much people like Campo Santo or the streamer. One might argue the onus is on Campo Santo to have done a better job of vetting who they gave their keys to, since this streamer’s current behaviour is not entirely out of character. Of course, a mistake in the past does not prevent its correction in the future, though if we want to hear their actual reasoning we need only look to Vanaman’s tweets.

Assuming we want to place some blame on lax vetting policies at Campo Santo’s feet, either in the form of the overly broad permission on their website or the willingness to ‘look the other way’ with regards to this particular streamer’s conduct, it’s important to remember this is a two way street. This streamer is a millionare from what they do. We have gone well beyond the realm of being a hobbyist, and with professionalism (even if only in name) comes paperwork. Their failure to get the proper permissions in writing is their own problem. Every other industry that relies on intellectual property has managed this, and virtually every public resource on this topic recommends that you get your permission simply and in writing.

The paperwork is what gives me hope. At the moment we exist in a wild west for intellectual property and most of our discussions have much more to do with our feelings and hopes rather than any sober evaluation of the facts. I am partially sympathetic to this simply because for most of us it’s a hobby and this is all it will ever be. But if we want to start taking this role seriously, and be taken seriously, then we need to start acting like it. This means checking for permissions before streaming things rather than relying on convention and goodwill. This means having to hear “no” when a developer does not agree with your vision for their project, or does not see the value in what you do. One day the free ride is going to end, and some will be better positioned than others to work in the new environment. There are certainly some content creators who are doing very well for themselves with some very liberal use of other people’s IP simply because the owners of that IP have not deigned to enforce their rights. So long as streamers continue to operate this way they will always do so at the pleasure of the developers.

Taking content seriously

Ultimately, while I can’t feel comfortable with Campo Santo’s position, this largely reflects how poorly streamers have positioned themselves. If your entire business model rests on one group not enforcing their intellectual property rights, then you are opening yourself up for a major risk that could come at any time. The next claim of this nature can come from anywhere. Consider that there was a fracas over a very popular trailer for The Last Night when one of the developers was revealed to have been involved (or at least supportive of) the gamergate movement. Suppose this developer, upon releasing their game, decided that any streamers perceived as ‘Social Justice Warriors’ would be subject to a DMCA strike due to disagreement with their views. The principles that enable us to approve or condemn Campo Santo should equally apply here, though I suspect there would be more (justifiable in my view) outrage in this imagined case.

So long as we continue to have these debates along ideological lines (that is “The streamer is right” vs. “Vanaman is right” based on our priors) I don’t see a resolution. As indicated in the previous blog that talked about this, I also don’t see Twitch using its resources to protect streamers’ interests when it comes to intellectual property either (their Terms of Service leave it entirely in the streamers hands to mange these permissions). If you are fine streaming at the pleasure of the developer, then you can simply continue as before and hope that they are not particularly ideological or, at least, are on your side. But for those who seriously want to consider making a living from streaming, we are long past the point where people can afford to ignore asking for permissions. Developers have put years and often substantial amounts of their own money to realize these projects. It is not just respectful of their efforts to seek out their formal permission to create content based off of their work, it is respectful of your own status as a professional content creator.