Diablo 3 account hackers and blaming the victim

In college I had a roommate who made poor life decisions as a matter of course. I’ll call him Vandal. A Spaniard by heritage, Vandal paid significantly less tuition than his fellow US-born, Euro-descent compatriots, having gotten away with checking the Hispanic minority box on his entrance application.

Vandal’s personal hygiene recalls that of a chimpanzee held in captive isolation at an Uzbek zoo. Stepping into his room was like stepping into a landfill, and the piles of soiled clothes, reams of paper rubbish, and heaps of empty food cartons would engulf you to the knee. I once found in his room a sock that had been reworn without being washed so many times that when I picked it up with a pair of tweezers, the fabric remained rigid, molded as if with papier-mache to the specifications of his foot.

The landfill analogy works on an olfactory level as well.

Vandal had pet geckos that he fed store-bought maggots. The maggots were supposed to be stored in his personal refrigerator, alongside his soda and Red Bull, but they were routinely left out on his desk, forgotten under mounds of shifting refuse, where they would fester. Vandal once used conditioner for three solid months, all the while thinking it was shampoo.

Personal responsibility and accountability weren’t so much a thing for Vandal, either. In Columbus, we lived at E. 12th and High, better known as the epicenter of Ohio State’s student slum, riot residential, crack-den central, where the city’s inveterate poor abutted campus’ itinerant indigent. I witnessed exactly four vehicular immolations in my time at 12th and High, all the product of drunken revelry following some Ohio State-Michigan game or other. I was once woken by a helicopter spotlight, the beam like balefire vaporizing 2 a.m. as it caught my window en route to a 30-boy melee below.

In this environment, Vandal couldn’t quite grasp the gravity of locking our front door, until, of course, we were robbed. The deed was done overnight, as we slept. I lost an Xbox and PS2, my roommate a TV. Vandal his backpack, sans books, presumably to schlep my consoles. Our fourth thought she was spared until, “Hey, has anyone seen my car keys?” Being broke saved her ass on that one, as the thief made it only 20 miles out of the city before the gas gave out.

I distinctly recall the aftermath of that incident, all of Vandal’s finger-pointing. “You didn’t check the door before going to bed.” “You left everything out in the open.” “You knew the risk of living here.” “You knew I couldn’t be trusted.”

I received a handful of emails from Blizzard Entertainment over the past couple of days. Here they are, reprinted as pertinent in the interest of getting to the point:

from: Blizzard Entertainment noreply@blizzard.com
to: me
date: Sat, Jul 14, 2012 at 6:28 PM
Greetings,
Account Name: XXX@gmail.com
A user of the above account has recently been involved in actions deemed inappropriate for Diablo III.
Account Action: 1 Hour Suspension of Chat Privileges
Offense: Spamming
This category includes:
* Excessively communicating the same phrase, similar phrases, or pure gibberish.
* Saying the same phrase more than once in a period of 30 seconds.
Based on a review of the information presented, this Diablo III account has had its chat privileges suspended. While the account has been placed under review, you will be unable to speak to other players using any chat systems in Diablo III. Should spamming behaviour continue we may proceed to apply further penalties, including extended suspension of chat privileges, account suspension, or account closure. Once an account has been closed, any heroes, items, or auctions will be irretrievable.

from: Blizzard Entertainment noreply@blizzard.com
to: me
Sun, Jul 15, 2012 at 3:44 AM
Greetings,
Account Name: XXX@gmail.com
A user of the above account has recently been involved in actions deemed inappropriate for Diablo III.
Account Action: 1 Hour Suspension of Chat Privileges
Offense: Spamming

from: Blizzard Entertainment noreply@blizzard.com
to: me
Sun, Jul 15, 2012 at 6:59 AM
Greetings,
Account Name: XXX@gmail.com
A user of the above account has recently been involved in actions deemed inappropriate for Diablo III.
Account Action: 6 Hour Suspension of Chat Privileges
Offense: Spamming

from: Blizzard Entertainment noreply@blizzard.com
to: me
Sun, Jul 15, 2012 at 7:55 AM
Due to suspicious activity, the Battle.net account XXX@gmail.com has been locked. To restore access to this account, please follow these steps:
Step 1: Secure Your Computer
In the event that your computer has been infected with malicious software such as a keylogger or trojan, simply changing your password may not deter future attacks without first ensuring that your computer is free from these programs. Please visit our Account Security website to learn how to secure your computer from unauthorized access.
Step 2: Secure Your E-mail Account
After you have secured your computer, please create a new password for your e-mail account since it may also be compromised. Be sure to check your e-mail filters and rules and look for any e-mail forwarding rules that you did not create. For more information on securing your e-mail account, visit this Support page.
Step 3: Choose a New Password
You must change your password in order to resume using this Battle.net account. Please click this link to choose a new password: https://us.battle.net/account/support/password-reset.html
*Note that your former password no longer grants access to Battle.net account management, World of Warcraft, or any other login-protected Battle.net account service.
If you still have questions or concerns after following the steps above, feel free to contact Customer Support at http://us.blizzard.com/support/article.xml?locale=en_US&articleId=20606.
Sincerely,
The Battle.net Account Team
Online Privacy Policy

So, a few things here. I haven’t touched Diablo 3 in over a month. I actually don’t even have it installed on my computer, having never brought it over to my new machine. Also of import: Thanks to a delightful bit of formative psychological damage when it comes to trust, no one save my wife has been made privy to my passwords.

All of this being the case, I’m not entirely sure what to make of this statement, from a Blizzard community manager, made in May:

Despite the claims and theories being made, we have yet to find any situations in which a person’s account was not compromised through traditional means of someone else logging into their account through the use of their password.

Is Blizzard suggesting that, perhaps as a means to supplement our income due to my unemployed state, my wife has taken to unauthorized Diablo III item selling and/or general chat-channel griefing? Or perhaps they are suggesting that, in some hypnotic or somnambulant state, I posted my login details to 4chan? Or perhaps it’s simpler than that. Perhaps Blizzard is suggesting I’m careless and gullible, and have simply been taken by someone claiming to be my buddy. And, by extension, that I just lied to you all about having never given anyone, other than my wife, access to my login information. Is that it, Blizzard? Am I liar?

Judging by the automated emails I’ve received from Blizzard, those emails above, that’s the vibe I’m getting. Thus far, Blizzard has done nothing but mete out punishment to me, first suspending my ability to communicate with others and then revoking my access to Diablo 3, as well as Starcraft 2. Incidentally, I paid well over $100 for those two products.

I’m also curious about what in our extensive history together would lead Blizzard to believe, after “a review of the information presented,” that I had suddenly up and turned into some kind of disruptive spammer. What were the words that came out of my mouth? How much thought went into investigating whether these were indeed my words? If the decision was made after only a cursory glance, why and why present it otherwise? Is this situation too pervasive to thoroughly investigate each case, or should we take this Blizzard community manager at face value when he (or she) says, “The number of Diablo III players who’ve contacted customer service to report a potential compromise of their personal account has been extremely small.” (Emphasis in original.)

And just to be clear here: I didn’t volunteer my login information to Blizzard; Blizzard ransomed it out of me. Blizzard issued me an ultimatum: Give us sensitive information, or else no game for you.

The whole ordeal has me flashing back to Vandal, his irresponsibility, his failure to protect what I had entrusted to him, and his blaming of me when a thief sauntered through our front door and walked off with my stuff.

So I guess, like then, Blizzard’s security breach is my fault. I guess since I didn’t pay $6.50 for the Battle.net Authenticator or download the Mobile Authenticator app, this is my fault. And ultimately, I guess in the future, I should exercise better judgment when it comes to whom I entrust sensitive information to, and do a more thorough analysis of whether what I pay for is worth what it may end up costing me.

Sony meets Gaikai: Has Gaikai inadvertently built the next PlayStation?

Uh oh! Time to dust off my newsman fedora! This morning, Sony announced plans to purchase on-demand game-streaming service Gaikai for about $380 million. That’s a whole lotta chedda’, and the implications for this one are pretty exciting. I mean, has Gaikai been building the backbone of the PlayStation 4 out in the open, underneath all of our noses? In my defense, I have a very large nose, but all you others suckers have no excuse. Allow me to back up a bit.

When the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 launched in the mid-naughts, they represented a striking leap forward for the industry due to the introduction of high-definition graphics. But I’m thinking of that scene in Super Troopers, near the beginning, where the druggies are in the car, screaming that they’d already pulled over; they can’t pull over any farther. HD can only get so high-def. But to really sell the new next generation, platform holders need a hook.

Cloud-based game-streaming is that hook. It will be the defining component of the new next generation, just as high-definition graphics defined the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

And I say that not because it’s a solid technological innovation that developers can use to make their games better, even if that is actually true. And it’s not because it’s, potentially and arguably, consumer-friendly, in that it paves the way for gamers to get as much or as little of a game as they want. Because that is also pretty much true. No, see, it’s all about the Benjamins. Cloud gaming opens myriad new revenue streams for publishers, while also shutting down a number of problematic ones.

What I mean by that is cloud gaming creates a closed garden for publishers, and that means lots o’ control. Game publishers are, in fact, mostly psychotic when it comes to control, and who can blame them considering the price tag on games these days. In particular, this control has the potential to put a band-aid on the weeping scab that is the used-game market and perform an angioplasty for the aortic hemorrhage that is piracy.

And for a change, this digital strategy also just happens to be, potentially and arguably, consumer-friendly, in addition to being good for business. Namely, a pirate’s going to pirate, of course. However, there’s a large chunk of gamers who are simply broke and turn to piracy because it’s a gaming life of crime or no gaming life at all. For those in the broke-ass category, cloud gaming conceivably presents a way to pay less for games closer to their launch. How? Instant access to game rentals and demos for one, multi-game subscriptions for another. Plus, and you see this already with the PSN, deals! deals! deals!

A brief tangent into the used-game market: GameStop ought to be quaking at today’s announcement. Sure, Sony will publicly move to assuage the retailer, calling them an important player in the game-industry ecosystem. And for now, GameStop still is, due to the importance of in-store foot traffic and its effect on hardware sales and game discovery. But whatever. Amazon and online storefronts are ascendent, irreversibly so. It’s just as easy to move someone around a website as it is brick-and-mortar store. The game industry absolutely wants to rid itself of parasitic companies like GameStop, and could gaming coupled with the increasingly pervasive adoption of online storefronts allows it to do so.

(Incidentally, Big Gaming Press should be quaking, too, because who needs purchasing advice when, say, the first 15 minutes of a game can be instantly cued up, for free?)

Of course, cloud gaming’s been around for a couple of years at this point, and largely it’s been met with, at best, apathy, but more generally, pessimistic naysaying. To wager a guess, consumer confidence in companies like Gaikai and OnLive is low, especially as it pertains to the sale of games. For example, if Gaikai were to go bankrupt tomorrow, what assurance do I have that the game I purchased (or even rented) today will still be available? Zippo. The Sony-Gaikai deal resolves this issue, because even if Sony has been having a rough couple of years, the probability of it folding anytime soon is somewhere between Earth successfully fending off an alien invasion sans Will Smith and Michelle Bachmann saying something coherent, rational, and/or sane.

With consumers jumpy about the technology, third-party publishers have approached the services with only token interest. Sony’s presence changes that dynamic, too. OK, yes, Sony’s track record with getting third-parties onboard with yeah-maybe-a-little-gimmicky tech is spotty. Look no further than the PlayStation Move controller and 3D for support on that. But cloud gaming is different.

Mainly, people honest to god like the cloud. Novel, I know! Companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook have proven how useful it is for data to just be out there, in the ether, ready to be plucked, fondled, and replaced at a moment’s notice. On the train, in a bar, on the toilet. It’s right there. People like it! The same, of course, can not be said for motion controls and 3D, which are largely met with a DO NOT WANT reaction.

There are several other points here worth making, but this post’s already reached an unfortunate word count. But I can’t go without pointing out a detail most people won’t think much of: Terms for these types of acquisitions aren’t typically disclosed, so by trumpeting the $380 million price tag, Sony is trying to say something. I don’t care who you are, $380 million is To me, that price tag equates to Sony telegraphing its plans. Cloud gaming will be integral to the PlayStation experience going forward. And come to think of it, given Sony’s emphasis on cross-device, online-enabled functionality at CES this year, this one should have been obvious for a while now. And given that rumors are circulating that the next Xbox will through some means block used games, my money’s on Microsoft making a similar cloud-gaming announcement soon.

(Fun bit of trivia! Gaikai is run by David Perry, who prior to today’s deal is perhaps best known for creating the Earthworm Jim franchise.)

The Secret World is doomed. DOOOOOOMED!

Just to get this out of the way first: Should you find yourself in or about Mendocino—say, with the wife on your birthday—do yourself a favor and take a drive down the Comptche-Ukiah Rd. It’s a not-too-windy 40-mile stretch that takes you past some cranky old towns that by all rights shouldn’t have made it to the 20th century, as well as sweeping vistas of the serene surreal Anderson Valley idyll.

But anyway, video games. On Friday Luke and I attempted an alpha vidcast in which we beta-tested The Secret World. (You all don’t know Luke yet; perhaps he’ll introduce himself at some point.)

One sentence description of The Secret World: From Funcom, the maker of Age of Conan, comes this modern-set MMO that posits a world in which the myths of civilizations both present and past are not only real, but coming to fry your ass unless you take up sledgehammer, automatic rifle, or blood magic to stop it. Having recently spent my fair share of IRL time wielding a sledge, I went with blood magic (and Wolverine claws).

Stress-testing and PVP were the stated goals of the beta (plus publicity, natch), but these two points are fairly moot because The Secret World will very likely fail. Oh, look at me wearing the cynical bastard hat! Well, I’m just going to point out the obvious here.

Luke and I chose to play as Illuminati because, well, sex, drugs, and Rockefeller, and the first thing we killed out in the open world was a zombie. Pretty good start, right? Wrong. The time between creating my character and whacking that first zombie? Sixty goddamn minutes! Look, I don’t care if your game is infinite hours long. I don’t care if the story-telling in those 60 minutes is high quality (which, in this case, it was). What I do care about is first impressions, and The Secret World makes a lousy one.

It’s about managing players’ expectations. People buy a game to play a game, not bear with a developer for an hour while they hem and haw to get the scene set just so. The impression I’m left with after that first hour is that The Secret World has no qualms withholding the goods, and who really wants to be with someone who withholds?

It would have been so easy to start this game off right. Everything’s normal, and then everything goes to crazy ass, right? The tension in that situation, that’s what Funcom needed to keep in mind. From the get-go, put me in a fight for my life against one of those aforementioned zombies. Make it hectic, chaotic, disturbing. Make it so the player survives by the skin of his teeth, using just his bare hands or some random found object. Make it cinematic, a setpiece with faux interactivity. That zombie is after you, and it’s going to claw out your eyeballs unless you bludgeon it to death with a peewee league soccer trophy. And then, zombie thus dispatched, with the player still disoriented, frantic, euphoric, have members of one of the three clans roll up in a sweet minivan—does it really matter which clan? Change it later!—drop a hood over the player’s head, and cart him off for some exposition.

What I’m talking about here is pacing. People like fireworks. Start with the fireworks. Online gamers want the hare, not the tortoise, and they’re not going to play along if developers don’t give them what they want.

Insurmountable reason why The Secret World is doomed to failure, #2: Why oh why do developers insist upon launching MMOs in this day and age with a subscription-based business model? The Secret World’s plan, in particular, is shockingly dim-witted, in that they’re trying to have their cake and eat it too with a subscription model heavily augmented by microtransactions.

Here’s how microtransactions can be successful. Make a fun game and give it away for free. People like free games, so they’ll try it, and because it’s fun, they’ll keep playing. Most of those people are in it for the free ride, and that’s OK, because some of those people will fork over shocking amounts of money for items or perks that they perceive have value.

The proven, market research-supported result? Beaucoup dollars. However, this formula can not work if you charge people for the game because it ignores the mechanism by which this model succeeds. In the above equation, you need that overcharged population to be 10s or 100s of thousands of players. Millions if you can manage it. And you’re not going to get those numbers when you’ve got as massive a barrier to entry as subscriptions and up-front buy-ins.

And perhaps even more to the point of why subscriptions are a failed model, there are too many developers out there making games that are just as enjoyable as The Secret World, but those games are free. EA Partners is publishing this game. How is it possible that they could let this happen, especially given the state of Star Wars: The Old Republic? EA! Electronic “Master of Online Machinations to Bleed Folks’ Wallets” Arts! It’s right there in the middle name!

Do your market research, as this one’s an absolute no-brainer. You. Must. Go. Full. Micro. Transaction. Blizzard and World of Warcraft no longer offer the paradigm by which other developers can duplicate success, and arguably they never did. Instead, Funcom and others need to look to Facebook, Zynga, and the mechanism behind social games to build a sustainable MMO.

Does a website need a website?

Readers, there comes a time when a man is sitting at his Ikea desk and a temporal vortex comes along and… Oh, I’m sorry, what’s that? I already went to the temporal vortex well? Huh. Two weeks ago. I’ll be damned. I’m suddenly flashing to that T.C. Boyle short story “The Lie,” in which a guy claims that his baby has become tremendously sick, and then eventually dies, so that he can continue playing hooky from work.

Dear readers, I regret to inform you, but my baby died.

No, no, that’s not entirely true. Not entirely! The reality of the situation is that I made the mistake of inviting pragmatism over for some wine and lasagna. And, being the real asshole that it is, pragmatism wound up getting trashed and puking all over my walls. So I’ve needed to clean that up. I don’t know why I trend toward the metaphor; it only ends poorly.

A job. I’ve been looking for a job. I needed to face the music that this website, while totally awesome and something that’s absolutely still happening, isn’t actually a valid long-term career path. So in a sense, the image I had of ab-yx—my baby, as it were—died a little bit. See? It all makes sense now. The good news is that I’ve got my job search work flow to a point where it doesn’t require my undivided attention. Happy days.

But you all aren’t here to have me blathering on about my unemployment situation. You’re here to read ridiculous, tangential references. When he wasn’t remorselessly pillorying Bryan Smith for running him over with a minivan, Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing, notes that best practices dictate a writer incubate his or her Shitty First Draft by sticking it in a desk drawer for six months. I don’t have six months, so two weeks will have to do.

Does a website actually need a website? This one’s probably more obvious than it initially sounds. After all, if the majority of my content is going to be video (he says, having made a single video), why not keep things simple by leaving it to the professionals at YouTube to do all of the backend work?

This whole thought process came about as I’ve been wringing my hands over the prospect of building (or rather, having someone build) a custom website and then maintaining (or rather, having someone maintain) said website.

I’m not so much worried about the building, really, as I’ve fairly thoroughly wireframed out the design and intended user flow. As such, taking it to a web developer and saying, “You sir, make with the stuff happen!” would be reasonably cost effective. It’s the maintenance that’s giving me pause. My GameSpot days taught me that websites can and will break, on basically a daily basis, with no regard for human life. Do not want.

A quick conversation with a project manager friend of mine confirmed this fear: Building my own site would be akin to maintaining an opulent villa on a remote island off the coast of Malta. Which is to say, unless I’m willing to take up drug trafficking (which, by the way, I most certainly am not), the economics really aren’t there.

But I still need the freedom and functionality. Don’t I? I’ve got more to say on this point, but I’m trying to keep these posts short, damn it. More soon!

Diablo 3 makes an appearance

I’ll not lie: For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been caught in a temporal vortex. It came on quite suddenly, without the motion blur and solar flare that one might expect from a rift in space-time. I simply sat down at my (ingenious, incidentally) VIKA AMON and then was consumed by a not there-ness. This is to say, I took a vacation in order to look for a real job. Dear reader, my shit? It flipped. Mea culpa.

Let’s continue bouncing around. Pastiche is, like irony, a word I’ve never fully gotten my head around. I first ran across it in some ridiculous literary criticism course I took at Ohio State. Here’s how it was put to me, vis-a-vis some ridiculous something Fredric Jameson wrote:

Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter.

Are we talking about hipsters? No! We’re talking about Diablo 3! It’s not that Diablo 3 is a bad game. It’s actually quite fun in its nihilistic compulsion (see: Internet pornography). What I’m saying is I haven’t found a shred of anything in Diablo 3 that has the potential of conjuring up the same level of fond nostalgia as, say, a cow level, or Wirt’s Leg, or “stay awhile, and listen!” Instead I’m getting stuff like Act I (or is it Act II?) ending with a mediocre boss fight against The Butcher, one that wasn’t nearly as gratifying as its original incarnation.

Oh, oh! There’s a distinction here that I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to draw. Companies like Blizzard (or Activision Blizzard, as it were) don’t owe it to the industry to innovate or push things forward. To me, it seems perfectly reasonable that these companies would follow the film-industry precedent of repurposing and repackaging everything that Shakespeare ever wrote. It’s a business. Make money. Whatever.

The issue I have here is that even when the film industry is cashing in, it still typically does so with verve. And it’s not like this concept is foreign to the game industry. BioWare certainly had it with Mass Effect 3. Hell, even Infinity Ward managed it with Modern Warfare 3. Those games had a cinematic thrill to them; a tinge of the unexpected or outrageous seamlessly integrated into the familiar. They make the player feel something.

Diablo 3, conversely, does nothing other than appropriate the clever touches of its predecessors, without contributing anything of its own. It leaves me feeling nothing, hence all that talk of pastiche.

Why is this the case? How did such a large, well-funded studio produce a game with absolutely no verve? Reflexively, I’d say it has to do with Blizzard’s iterative development style, and its tendency to tweak out anything remotely controversial. And here I’m drawing from Rob Pardo’s GDC 2010 panel on Blizzard’s design philosophy.

Near the end, and I’m paraphrasing myself here, he spoke about the company’s “culture of polish,” and how the teams will refine what they’ve got, as soon as they’ve got it, even if it’s just scribbles on a whiteboard. Creating comes from chaos, and it seems to me like this design method would too rigidly stifle chaos. There’s no room for happy accidents. Plus, it’s hard to go on a tear, to get hot with your ideas, when your head’s swiveled in reverse.

And of course the risk-aversion, shareholder appeasement, profit necessity, blah blah blah. It’s interesting, though. Can you imagine Blizzard making a game that, in an honest way, delves into the nature of morality, immorality, and amorality? That explores the enigmatic dark matter bookending both good and evil? That presents a complex character who willingly consumes an ultimate evil, contains it and confronts it within himself, instead of just hitting it with a sword until it dies? And then ultimately fail?

Yeah, right.

Pardon the break in service

Pardon the break in service. For the past week or so, I’ve been submerged in Avid Media Composer. I want to say its keyframes have laved against my sensibilities with the same cool, calming touch of the Caribbean as it washes up on Cancun following a summer squall. But that would be absurdly overwrought. And untrue besides.

Fact: AVC costs around 75 percent less than, as far as I’m concerned, the industry gold standard, Adobe Premiere Pro. Equally true: AVC is one tiny notch above unusable compared to Premiere. We’re talking notches measured in nanometers here. Aside from it being archaically slow, AVC’s tools make you feel like your index and middle fingers and ring and pinkie fingers, on both hands, are glued together. 

I feel a simile coming on. AVC is to manual push mower as Premiere is to as-yet-uninvented lawn-mowing apparatus that, instead of blades, employs both lasers and nanomachines and can be automated much like a sprinkler system.

A couple of reasons why I even gave it a go: 1) Premiere’s aforementioned exorbitant price tag, and 2) My then-computer (wait for it!) ran 32-bit Windows 7, and Pro CS6 appears to be the only Premiere Adobe’s issuing in trial form, and it itself only has a 64-bit version, unlike Avid, which has a 32-bit scheme. Wow, I’m doing some really filthy, degrading things to commas today.

There’s a third reason that I’ll probably tell you all about next week.

Of course, the above is now moot, for two reasons. 1) New computer! Yay! and, 2) honorary ab-yx associate producer Jayedub is in the process of hooking me up in a very serious way with a beautiful swath of Adobe products. Everyone should shower him, his wife, and his issue with much love and good tidings.

Moving on. Early this week, I finally made it to the back of Mass Effect 3, and I have a few general thoughts. MIND YOURSELF: Spoilers.

Again with the blue runlights...

I may as well start at the end since that’s the only thing anyone seems to really care about. Although, I must say, this editorial I wrote prior to my shit-canning I stand behind entirely and feel it is the far more pertinent point of discussion. But I’ve addressed it already, so moving on.

I found the ending that I chose (synthesis) to be mostly hollow and unsatisfying, for possibly a couple of reasons. The first could be limited to those who, like me, didn’t have Mass Effect 1 or Mass Effect 2 saves. (I changed my XBL gamertag to OfTheSame after having finished those two when they came out.) Basically, my playthrough consisted of about 30 hours of unremitting bleakness. Miranda, Tali, Ashley, and others, all dead; I don’t know if I successfully saved anyone whose life was in my hands.

As a result, I felt genuinely awful about myself after each mission, due to the barrage of Sophie’s choice-style situations. Plus, as I prepared to make my final choice, I was under the impression that I had just led both Garrus and Liara to their “once more unto the breach”-style deaths. My thoughts: “Shep has nothing good left to live for. Let’s just end it.” (I later learned that Liara, for one, survived.)

And that’s interesting, because I’ve frequently been a proponent of games expanding beyond the youthful male power fantasy. Mass Effect 3 certainly accomplished that, but in retrospect, I can’t say I’m entirely glad they did, and I certainly have no desire to revisit the game.

Perhaps the fault lies in quantity. Thirty hours of mournful loss strikes me as a bit excessive. That’s especially true after having seen how a game like Passage can achieve that emotion in, what, five minutes? I’d imagine it’s safe to say there’s an upper threshold on tragedy, and if nothing else, I think BioWare made an excellent stride in establishing where that ceiling is. (Which is to say, somewhere south of 30 hours.) Incidentally, I think this boundary violation is what’s at the heart of all that outpouring of angst over the ending when the game came out.

The other reason Mass Effect 3’s ending fell flat had to do with some hamfisted storytelling there at the end, when Hackett, Shep, Wrex, a British dude, several janitors, a florist from Minnesota, etc. etc. climbed the soapbox to deliver pregame pep talks. Mac Walters ought to have consulted The Bard’s Henry V to get a sense of rousing speeches before writing dialogue that distilled to, “We’ll win because we won’t lose!”

And then one last thought on Mass Effect 3: How is it possible that my reputation did not tick up when I bedded Liara? That’s just fucked up.

The Engine

Little known fact: I crashed my first PC when I was 13 years old, after getting into my head that Windows 95 was evil and needed to be vanquished. The fear, the panic, the dread, all the consternation I felt as a child after having destroying something tremendously expensive, it all comes flooding back to me when I hit any kind of technological road bump.

Today’s pothole: multimedia horsepower. But first, some background.

When I relaunched The HotSpot in a video format last August, some of you may recall that the transition enjoyed about as smooth of a ride as an F6 Hellcat traversing the Bermuda Triangle. Why the turbulence? File sizes.
Do not try to fly an F6 Hellcat through the Bermuda Triangle. It will end poorly...for the Triangle.
HD video recorded with the TriCaster (a device which essentially allowed for multiple video channels to be recorded at once) burnt up gigglebytes at a rate of about 50 per hour. Managing a file that size is no easy feat for most computers, but I was fortunate enough at GameSpot to have access to what I will call The Great Equalizer, a behemoth of a PC on loan from Nvidia whose exact specs defy human comprehension (this human’s, at least).

Sure, its intended purpose was to power games like Modern Warfare 3 or Battlefield 3 at max settings, with 3D, bells, and whistles in full effect—and it did so with aplomb, I might add—but I had video to cut and a deadline to hit, god damn it! So after managing to convince IT to install Adobe Premiere CS5.5 on the gaming rig, I commandeered The Great Equalizer to cut my little video show. Pretty awesome, I must say.

Circumstances have, of course, changed. I’ve been talking about this idea for a developer-centric podcast in which I have someone who makes games come on the show and walk me and a friend through what’s going on in any given game—what he or she sees with his or her expert eye. The idea is to film the show using FRAPS in a single two-hour sitting, where I stop and start the recording halfway through to give me two large-but-workable files.

Being the frugal little bastard I am, my first inclination was to scour Cragislist for a suitable machine. The scouring lasted for about three minutes before I came across a late 2009 2.2GHz Core Duo Macbook for $680. I’d heard that Macs handle multimedia like champs, but it seemed dubious that this machine could really juggle a 50 gig file with any sort of composure, so I settled on no.

I scrolled a bit more, finding nothing of interest under $5,000,000, as Macs go, before returning to the Macbook. I mean, $680 is pretty good for a laptop. I click through. “Comes with: Adobe Master Collection, Final Cut Pro, Microsoft Office.” Sweet mother of license jackpot heaven! I immediately called the guy, scarcely containing my apoplexy from the anxiety that he’d already moved the hardware. He had not.

Two hours later, I’m sitting in a Silicon Valley Starbucks, having your Standard Tech Grunt prove the CS5 edition of the Master Collection could run. Run, yes, but what I failed to ask him was whether the $3,000 or so worth of software on this $680 laptop was legit. When I got the machine back to my house, the answer became fairly obvious. At this point, I’m pretty sure all the software is cracked, and I’m pretty sure this constitutes my first ethical dilemma as a small business owner.
Welcome to the family. My family.
Oh, and to get to the point of this story, not only did the Mac have absolutely no idea what to do with the .mts file my Sony HD cam spit out, but it also devolved into a twitchy mess trying to wrap its head around a 10 minute clip when I, after childhood trauma-conjuring pains, converted the file to an extension it could understand.

Needless to say, Macs are out. Laptops are out. Pirated software is out. This dude is in, as is Adobe’s wholly affordable one-year Premiere CS6 subscription plan.

In which the author course corrects

Irony is a word whose meaning constantly eludes me. Am I using it correctly here? It’s ironic that a post I had intended to title “Stick to the plan! Stick to the plan!” is the post in which I’ll be wildly deviating from the plan. I feel like Alanis Morissette in that one song she has. Is it irony, or is it coincidence? Hard to say.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about documenting one’s travails: It absolutely cripples your forward progress, at least if done in the comprehensive way I’ve been attempting to do it. I mean, 1,800 words on branding? What the hell happened there? How did I ever think that was a good idea? 1,800 words dedicated to branding is about 1,764 words too many.

Here are the 36 words you need: Creating a branding document is incredibly useful for figuring out who you are and what you’re about, but I’d say you can fairly safely toss it out the window when it comes time for execution. Also: meow.

I’d like to point out that I did promise this process would be messy. So, what am I going to do instead? Rather than spending time rehashing what I did a month ago, I’m going to fast forward to the present. Expect more frequent, and far shorter, posts from here on out.

Why is this better for you all? For one, no more dissertations. For two, dilemmas I’m grappling with in the here and now are far more interesting, largely because that’s where the real mad thrashings-about are happening. Where’s the fun in me talking about a problem I’ve already solved? What do I mean by that? Tomorrow!

Gaze into the Brand Eye of Sauron

Think of it, perhaps, this way. You have a mind to swipe a batch of kittens and train them to be apostles for Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment. Now, these kittens are highly skilled at being cute. Indeed, they’ve been being cute for years, and largely that experience is wholly applicable to your transcendental aspirations. However, for these kittens to be truly accomplished apostles, they need to focus that cuteness, in a directed way, with an audience in mind, and a targetable result. If you’re going to do this foul thing to a kitten, you must at least have the decency to give them proper direction.

See, with training kittens, you need to think of their cuteness in terms of maximizing manipulation and mind control, two hallmarks of Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment. You need to think about who’s going to be most—and, importantly, least—susceptible to their cuteness. More, you really need to get a handle on the nature of the cuteness that will be most useful for your quasi-diabolical ends. Is it sassy cute? Playful cute? Lazy cute? Each has its merits, but not all complement the other.

Look, I could probably pursue this kitten analogy for the next 200 years, but I’m going to go ahead and rein it in. The last thing I’ll say about kittens: Without a clear, coherent brand, those kittens would simply, without purpose or direction, be cute, and that would deprive untold individuals the powers of psychokinesis, telepathy, and clairvoyance, among others. The kittens need focus, and the brand is what imparts it to them.

Imagine what this kitten army could accomplish.

Up until recently, my only exposure to branding has been the balls-out idiotic kind. I’ll illustrate my experience with an utterly and entirely invented scenario, where any resemblance to actual people, places, or things is entirely coincidental.

Every nine months or so, Dumb Cump management convenes a quarterly All-Hands meeting, in which about half the available hands file into a conference room. Largely, these meetings take on the aspect of a high school pep rally, where a very small number of individuals enthusiastically pound their chests while the disenfranchised remainder mentally vacate.

The vast majority of the time, these meetings are used to explain why the business isn’t in as bad of shape as direct evidence to the contrary seems to indicate. However, perhaps every other quarterly All-Hands—so, every 18 months or so—those who on a day-to-day basis create content for the business are given a PowerPoint presentation on branding.

(As ab-yx is a gaming website, I’ll orient this wholly fictional situation in the realm of gaming.)

A central component of this presentation is the ceremonial opening of the Brand Eye, a bloodshot ocular that serves as a targeting reticule for all content created at the company. At the center of the Brand Eye is typically a pithy phrase that encapsulates the business, something to the effect of “Jet-fueling up teh games.”

And then in concentric ovals around the Brand Eye, more pithy phrases appear, indicating that the aforementioned content creators should be tailoring their work toward “people who play games.” The eye urges them to be enthusiastic and entertaining. The eye would be grateful if they could be both provocative, but then again respectful. The eye has no opinion on oxford commas, but thinks hardcore, casual, mobile, social, online, offline, PC, console, handheld, free-to-play, enthusiast, consumer, influencer, super influencer, champion, grand marshal, and tween audiences all deserve some attention. The eye sees a future in pro gaming.

The PowerPoint reaches its final slide, which shows a grandmother playing Wii with her sweater vest-wearing son, as well as his mohawk-coiffed daughter. A gorilla queries: “Questions? Questions, anyone?”

“Yeah, so just real quick. What the fuck?”

“I know, pretty awesome, right? Anyone else? No one? Great, we’ll see you in three months.”

Contempt sets in, and the content creators return to their desks to get back to doing what they’ve been doing. Likewise, the gorillas return to their desks, high on the notion that the work they have done has cleared up, in their own minds if nothing else, any and all confusion as to where Dump Cump is headed. The Brand Eye alone stares out from its digital wasteland, blinks once, sheds an inky tear, and then blessedly shuts for good.

I’m here to tell you today that creating a Brand Eye document is wholly recommendable, not because it makes for excellent PowerPoint viewing, but because the thought process will illuminate just how it is you’re going to train kittens to do your bidding. Or something like that.

ab-yx needed focus. I knew that I wanted to play games with developers, make a DIY mod show, and create sophisticated developer profiles, but I realized that launching and then figuring it all out on the fly would lead to a good deal of incoherence and train-wreckedness. And thus, the branding exercise.

The genius of creating a brand is that it helps you figure out exactly who you are, and who you are not; who your audience is, and who your audience is not. It’s about addressing your product’s existential crisis and establishing an ideal. How do people who are supposedly good at this kind of thing do it? No idea. However, as this website is a very personal project, my process drew heavily from my own values. It also involved writing down directional statements—trying out how they felt, as it were—and then either keeping or rejecting them.

We have reached a point in today’s ramblings where a full monty is warranted. Here is the raw thought process, from brain to pen, that led me to creating ab-yx’s mostly final Brand Eye. Bear in mind that what follows is the gooey, unrefined, unedited, unchallenged, inaccurate, self-delusional, stream-of-consciousness bits that served as a first step on the road to somewhere useful. My hope is that seeing my process will help kickstart your own process.

Alright, here we go.

What is it I’m trying to do here? Separate myself from the crowd by not shying away from being intelligent and clever. Constructive is a good word as well. I want to be a thoughtful outsider offering informed feedback on the industry. I want to be read by the development community. Elevate the gaming conversation. Elevate and entertain. I want to break down the wall separating developers from their audiences. I want to serve as a conduit by which creators connect with their audiences.

These guys are creators. They want to revel in their craft. They want to talk about themselves and take pride in their work. All creators are vain in this way. They want to know how well their audiences are getting them. They want to impress people with their work. They want to share their secrets, and they want a safe place to do so. They want to take the credit. They want to be recognized. However, they also want to get better at their jobs. They want to defend their views, and be experts at their craft. Also, they want to sell their games. Recognize gaming greatness.

And for gamers, they want their voices to be heard. They want to work out how they feel about a game. They want to bounce their ideas off of others. I mean, what would I be looking for in a gaming site? Quality writing. Perspective. An accurate portrayal of the conversations developers are having among themselves. I want to know what the issues are that game designers are dealing with everyday. I want to know what’s happening in the trenches. I want people to talk about my work, and weigh the decisions I’m making with me. It’s about being on the cutting edge, and having my voice heard as we shape the future of what this medium becomes. I want to tell the stories behind games. Digging in with developers.

Target Readers: Game developers. I want them reading me to find out what everyone else is doing. Is this core or is this fringe? Somewhere in between? Going indie may limit me on the podcast front, due to the relative dearth of multiplayer. However, it seems like I’d have better access. Mid-size to small studios may offer more access and tend to have more engaged audiences. Is it OK to ignore Call of Duty? It’s leaving a lot of attention on the table. A lot of casual gamers. But really, are these the audiences I want anyway? It seems to me as if these audiences are being overserved.

Brand Personality: constructive, entertaining, insightful, thoughtful, snarky, mature, in touch, intermediary, illuminating, safe, interesting, candid, genuine, analytical, humorous

I want people to come to the site and find out what they should play next. I want them to feel safe geeking out. I want to remove the profit motive so people can speak freely. Make it possible to provide a warts-and-all perspective.

Makes You Feel: Included in something bigger. Illuminated by new perspectives and ideas. In touch with the real situation. Entertained. Safe, supported, and motivated to try it yourself. Challenged to think.

What You Perceive and Benefits To You: Passionate about delivering only the highest quality product. Tenacious pursuit of quality. I’m part of something subversive. I’m getting something deeper and more valuable. I can be playful here. I can share my ideas and I’ll get help making whatever it is I’m working on better. I don’t have to know everything. I feel included. Tom’s kind of a crazy person…but he’s on my side so it’s OK. The people here are like me. This site knows how to put on a good show. My time isn’t being wasted. I’m in good company. The things I learn here are valuable and worthwhile, either because it’s informative or entertaining. I expect ambitious results. I’m inspired. I’m getting the real story. Access is not being squandered. I’m going to have more perspective than I did yesterday. I already know the what; now I want the why.

Says About You: I’m smart. I’m open-minded. I’m intellectually curious. I have more than a passing interest in games. I’m passionate about interesting, innovative, and good games. I want to see how the magician does his tricks. I have something to say that’s worth saying. I want things to be better, and I want to talk about ways to get there. I want to be in the trenches. I want a good-natured, earnest look at the real situation. I have no interest in sensationalism. I don’t like being manipulated, and I don’t want anyone trying. I already know what’s going on, but I want to go deeper. I’m in touch and don’t want to be bothered with the obvious. I can still be suprrised and delighted.

And now, in living color, ab-yx’s Brand Eye, which has undergone additional refinement and clarification.

abyx_brandeye

Up Next: Stick to the plan! Stick to the plan!

Quick, someone find me a For Dummies guide!

3/21, 3:46p
Preliminary plan: You and I playing online game, with podcast style commentary

3/21, 3:47p
All gameplay footage, us voiceover

3/21, 3:48p
Can possibly work contacts to get industry people to join us

3/21, 3:54p
Scratch that, definitely find devs to join us

3/21, 3:55p
Start indie, build from there

3/21, 4:03p
This is happening

3/22, 10:26a
Derp?

The thing about a muse is that they really just do not give a fuck. I’d liken them to a taxi driver with dementia. If you’re outside on the corner, bags packed, ready to go, the muse will give you a lift and get you on the road. But if you’re dallying inside, double checking whether you packed an extra pair of socks, the cab will pull up, the driver will get out, open your door, lean against the car for a minute or two, promptly forget who and where he is and what he’s doing, hop back into the cab, and speed off on his merry way. Or her.

What I’m saying is, always carry a means to record your thoughts, because one day you, like me, may find yourself at the Berkeley downtown Y, working at a Smith press, in a nadir of both squat and spirit, when your addled old muse rolls up and says, “Yo.” Saying “Piss off, I’ve just got two more sets” to your muse is not an option. Saying “Convalescence, you jerk! Convalescence!” to your muse is not an option. Saying anything other than, “Do need pen, holy jesus, must to get out with the thoughts” to your muse is not an option.

Hence, the above text messages, which were sent to an unresponsive friend I’ll call Scooter.

Here’s one problem: As most people are aware, or can at least imagine, getting laid off is pretty much entirely bullshit. D-Day for me hit around 10:15 in the morning on that Monday, and so the wound still felt rather fresh. Truth be told, getting pushed out at GameSpot, I’d liken it to a wild goose winging me in the junk as I strolled down 2nd Street. I was that surprised. Jarring and emotional. Devastating, really, and I’d promised myself and others that it wouldn’t kill me to just hang around my house without pants on for the rest of April.

Also, I went to Mexico. There, I drank a lot, read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, largely without a shirt on, and I drank a lot. My brother-in-law (whom you’ll hear more about in Act II) brought his chess board, and reacquainting myself with that game served as a welcome distraction.

Quick tangent into the realm of chess. To be clear, I’m a terrible chess player, and that’s been the truth ever since I learned the game from my brother when I was 10. Staying out of mate? Easy. Mating an opponent? Not so much. Actually, you know what? Fuck quick tangents, let’s do this. I’m going to talk about chess here for an extended period of time.

I’m sitting on a canvas bed with my brother-in-law on a crowded beach in Mexico, topless, plastic travel chess board dividing us as only a man and another man who’s having regular sex with the first man’s sister can be divided. Which is to say, it’s sitting right there between us, and I’m thinking about how there’s this element of never giving ground in chess. And also of trying to steal the advantage.

Say your rook is threatened. You can flee, or you can trump the threat. You raise the stakes so that it becomes less attractive to attack, ideally forcing the other player to react defensively. And if they, like a blind, blundering fool, order a cavalry charge consequences be damned, you position yourself to gain more than you lose. You fall back on that old journalism maxim: Cover Your Ass. And you CYA by always making sure your frontline pieces are protected, that they have back up. A knight guards a bishop’s ass, a rook stands ready and willing to save the queen. What else? Push forward and establish board dominance by having as many pieces in play as possible. You bring the fight to the opponent, so as to make them accommodate you.

What’s interesting is what you do when you’re down, when you’ve got a queen and a rook all up in your business, preventing you from making an aggressive play on the opponent’s king. Two strategies spring to mind: strategic retreat and what I’ll call dynamic flux.

First, strategic retreat, or the idea of backing off your attack to put out the fires in your own backyard. It’s the idea of ignoring the king to put a hit out on the queen, or neutralizing the threat in advance of launching a counter. It’s a tough strategy that only seems applicable when you’re up against an opponent with measurably finite resources. Or, have a lot to lose.

To dynamic flux. The strategy as I see it is essentially where you shift the playfield to undermine the efforts of your opponent and force a change. (This Malcolm Gladwell article informs this idea.) The action has to be substantive, and you have to commit to it completely. It’s essentially a high-risk desperation move that involves making a sacrifice that your opponent believes you’d be unwilling to make, letting go of something with significant perceived value. What is a sacrifice my opponent believes I’m unwilling to make? Traffic, and by extension money. We quit talking about chess awhile ago, by the way.

A day after I get back from Mexico, I head to the Philz on Shattuck and order a Philtered Soul, fixated on the idea of how David takes out Goliath. There’s a common area above the coffee stations that is at all hours of the day inundated with Mac users, granola-crunching hippies, Cal kids of all genetic makeups, and your occasional unemployed purpose-seeker. One thing I’ll say about Phil: The man’s got a deviant’s fascination with the letter “Z,” but a glorious penchant for puns and brews a mean cup of coffee to boot. Do yourself a favor the next time you’re in the Bay Area and drop $3.50 on a cup of coffee at Philz.

Here’s three hours of navel gazing, sampled liberally from my journal: I want to be working on creating something meaningful and beautiful. I don’t want to be working solely for money. I want to be constructive. I don’t want to chase an audience. I want to entertain others. I want to make others’ lives better. I want to create a safe place where people can share ideas in a constructive, candid, non-judgmental way.

And from here: I want to tell good stories, and I have a number of means available to me. Text, video, games. The interesting thing about games is, conceivably, I could record me playing the game that I’ve created, and then post that video online.

Bring me home, Mr. Frog!: An artistic work is defined by the creator’s circumstances. I want to know these circumstances so that I can more fully understand and enjoy the artistic work. I want to know the people who make the games. And I want to write about them in a way that satisfies the intelligent and the curious.

So what have we got? A developer-centric podcast, a mod show, and comprehensive developer profiles. In the medical field, that’s what they’d call an ossature. Now it’s time to put some meat on those bones.

Up Next: Gaze into the Brand Eye of Sauron.