You Do What the Mouse Says

This is crazy, but I suppose I should not be surprised.

Joe Mullin for Ars:

The Walt Disney Company has a reputation for lobbying hard on copyright issues. 

[…]

This year, the company is turning to its employees to fund some of that battle. Disney CEO Bob Iger has sent a letter to the company’s employees, asking for them to open their hearts—and their wallets—to the company’s political action committee, DisneyPAC.

In the letter, which was provided to Ars by a Disney employee, Iger tells workers about his company’s recent intellectual property victories, including stronger IP protections in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Supreme Court victory that destroyed Aereo, and continued vigilance about the “state of copyright law in the digital environment.” It also mentions that Disney is seeking an opening to lower the corporate tax rate.

Yup. “Please give to our political lobbying machine, so we can take that money and use it to influence politicians so they weaken your freedoms.” At least no one falls for this one, right?

According to a MapLight analysis of the data, Disney employees contributed a total of $4.03 million in all election cycles since 2002.

Oh.

About [40002]

Dear Capcom,

When I am playing Street Fighter V and I am trying to get placed into a ranked match, and while trying to sync up with my matchmade opponent I get this:

12716281_10154159230724384_5562893748186238334_o.jpg

Do not take me here:

12768408_10154159230719384_9021864172842546029_o.jpg

I NEVER WANT TO GO THERE.

Just take me here instead:

12719340_10154159230654384_2784261058652081788_o.jpg

And put me in the hopper for another match.

 

Sincerely,

Someone who is kind of tired of suffering through bizarre UI decisions

Let’s Talk About Street Fighter V’s Survival Mode

In Street Fighter IV, you earned costume colors for each character on the roster simply by playing matches. Once you played a certain number of matches, you would unlock a new color and then you could select that color at any time. It was easy, it was unobtrusive (other than the notices that you had unlocked stuff), and it was quick. You got all of the colors for your main character almost immediately.

Street Fighter V doesn’t work that way. I doubt you have missed out on this, but:

  • Colors 1 and 2 are unlocked from the start for every character and costume you have.
  • Color 3 is unlocked by beating Survival mode on Easy (10 opponents, maybe 10 minutes).
  • Colors 4, 5, and 6 are unlocked by beating Survival mode on Normal (30 opponents, about 20 minutes or so).
  • Colors 7, 8, 9, and 10 are unlocked by beating Survival mode on Hard (50 opponents, about 30 to 40 minutes).

There is a higher level of difficulty, but it doesn’t grant a color; it gives you some XP, some Fight Money, and a title that AFAIK is universal (not per-character).

STREET FIGHTER V_20160217231941

Here are the surface annoyances with this method (I’m going to talk about the horrid design of this mode and unlock method in a bit):

  • Unlocks are per-character. If you want to unlock all the colors, you’d better plan on spending at least 20 hours in this mode.
  • Unlocks are also per-costume. If you have one of the pre-order costumes, you don’t get the colors for it unless you go through the mode again with the same character.
  • If you get all the way to fight 30 in Normal and lose, you get nothing for your time. No Fight Money, no EXP, nothing.
  • If you are disconnected from the (fairly erratic) online servers at any time during the Survival mode run, you can no longer unlock the costume in that run and you have to start over.
  • If you complete Hard, you don’t unlock the colors from Easy and Normal. You have to play through the mode three times with each character/costume combination.
  • The difficulty spikes heavily towards the end of the mode. You spend the majority of the time fighting brain-dead AI and then the last few fights going up against what can be a sometimes godlike and prescient AI that will murder you with no warning.
  • There is currently no existing or announced way to unlock the colors other than going through Survival. You can’t even (sigh) pay to unlock them.

That seems like a pretty good list of stupid, right?

We are just getting started.

It’s annoying enough already, because this is a mode that most people probably wouldn’t have touched at all if the colors weren’t gated behind it. Survival mode (with the exception of gimmick modes like Tekken Force) is always the most garbage single-player mode in every fighting game in existence. And it’s a tragedy of design that this mode is what holds people back from costume customization in the latest Street Fighter installment.

LET’S TALK ABOUT WHY, SHALL WE?

STREET FIGHTER V_20160217212625

(Whatever, that’s not from Survival, but it is from the match where I broke into Bronze tier this afternoon, so roll with it. I’m a Ken player now, apparently.)

(Also we will chat about the stupid “favorite character” and Ranked play thing later.)

Anayway, back to Survival mode and why it’s bad design.

Survival Mode Teaches Bad Technique

After three tries, I cleared Normal with Ken tonight and unlocked three more colors. The first two runs I did, I would do pretty well all the way up to about fight 26, when the CPU decides it’s going to do things like string more than one hit together and actually use EX moves (or any special, for that matter).

29 is against Necalli and can be pretty brutal, because that’s the fight where the CPU decides it will start trying to counter things sometimes.

30 is Bison and he will try to rip off some pretty brutal 30-40% combos when given the chance. Every time I would try to play against him straight, nothing would work. Every throw I would attempt would be teched. Every good strike I thought I could get in—and previously worked against other opponents—would get countered or even crush countered.

So how did I finally win the mode?

I spammed medium Shoryuken.

Over and over and over and over and over again. I played Flowchart Ken, but DUMBER.

I would spam SRK until it hit, then forward dash to push the CPU as far as possible, then spam SRK on wakeup, then dash the CPU into the corner, then just spam SRK forever until dizzy, combo, KO.

Survival mode doesn’t teach anyone one of the most important aspects of any fighting game: adaptation. Because the AI largely doesn’t put up a fight and even then can often get crushed with special move spam, players who go through the gauntlet are not learning anything.

They are just grinding.

It’s not effective, and it’s not fun. At least in SFIV, when you were trying to earn costumes, if you chose to grind it out with dummy opponents in Versus mode, that was your choice. But you could also grind it out by playing against other humans, which would teach you infinitely better than survival mode.

Survival Mode Teaches Bad Tactical Decisions

At the end of each (one round, mind you) fight in Survival mode, you get a results screen that shows you the time it took for you to win the round as well as the number of points you have earned:

STREET FIGHTER V_20160217232059

The number of points is determined by your character’s remaining vitality at the end of the round. A perfect round scores 15,000 points and the scale appears to be linear.

The points are used to purchase “Battle Supplements,” for the next match, which are like upgrades for your character that change the following match. You can choose either none of them or one of them. They expire at the end of the next stage, and you cannot stack them in any way.

In addition, your health and critical gauges persist from one stage to another. (V-gauge does not.) You can “bank” meter for the next stage if you want, and any damage you take during a stage carries over to the next. Because of this, you are incentivized to spend your score on refilling your health meter to try and make it through the next stage (if you need it).

Problems abound here. Check it:

  • Managing critical meter becomes significantly different because you are essentially storing it from one-round match to one-round match, which is fundamentally different from conserving or spending it between rounds in a standard match, which is important to learn.
  • The only way you can fill the one resource that directly controls your chances of making it to the next round is by not losing any of it. This generally leads to whipping through the early stages as cheesily as possible (see previous section) and banking your score so you have it to spend later in the progression.
  • When you play this way, you hardly ever build V-gauge and thus don’t learn properly how to manage it because you are spending all your time avoiding damage, which is bad because…

Vitality is a resource in fighting games. It is designed to be “spent” during a match to gain advantage in some cases.

Because your health carries over from stage to stage, you are actively discouraged from thinking of it as a resource during any given round. This is counter-productive to teaching players how they should be approaching Street Fighter and fighting games in general and when they decide to attend a tournament or hop into ranked matches it is just going to discourage them.

Instead, as I mentioned, you are rewarded for staying as close to a perfect victory as possible, so you will have enough points to spend on refilling your vitality between stages towards the end of the progression—and those spends can get expensive. Which leads us to the last big problem here…

Survival Mode Introduces RNG to a Game That Shouldn’t Have Any

Let’s take a look at that screenshot from the last section again, shall we?

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Nice store, there. Too bad that if I had taken a lot of damage, I would not have been able to refill it because I can’t afford the health recovery upgrade. But let’s take a look at the same post-stage screen from later in the progression:

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Notice anything?

The available upgrades are different. They change from stage to stage, and the change appears to be completely random. You might get a 6,000 point tiny health bonus, or the monster 25,000 point full bonus, which is not really much more health recovery than the 15,000 point one.

This means that you can’t reliably budget from round to round, because you don’t ever know how many points you will need to get the boost you want. On top of this, it leads to some pretty tragic moments. How many people have run into this going into the final rounds of a Survival run?

STREET FIGHTER V_20160217234353

For the one round where I probably really need it, the only available health upgrade is the smallest one available. I had a run yesterday where only the Low health refill came up three stages in a row.

This kind of design is nothing more than annoying and frustrating for someone who just wants their character to have a signature color. It’s forcing people to play a mode that purposefully ignores several key principles of playing fighting games instead of organically putting those unlocks behind play time or any one of a number of ways you could release them over time to reward people for playing the game.

Because the Story mode that shipped with Street Fighter V only takes maybe an hour or two to clear for all 16 characters, this moving color unlocks—and especially the fact that they are per-costume and time-consuming—smells of padding the single-player content available at launch, but in all the wrong ways.

Casual players are not going to grind out a mode where if they fail at the very end after 15 to 30 minutes of investment, they get nothing.

More dedicated players are going to grind out the colors they want only grudgingly and hate the designers for the privilege.

Both groups are probably much more likely to end up paying real money for the unlocks—which might just be the intention behind this in the first place. (And would be shameful if so.)

So What Would Have Been Better?

Find ways to get people to play, but play the way they want. Put it behind matches played, like Street Fighter IV did. Put it behind the apparently meaningless character or player levels that Street Fighter V already has, but do it in a more intelligent way like Killer Instinct has, where you get new colors, titles, and icons just by using characters and playing well, earning XP.

(Not the first thing KI has done really, really well. Should talk about that more later.)

From a design standpoint, I understand that you want people to play your game often and for a long time. If you want to gate content behind play, that’s fine. Just do it in a way that rewards players for playing the way they want to play, not hoops they need to jump through because you say so—and especially not in a mode that actively teaches bad tendencies for the real way your game is meant to be played.

STREET FIGHTER V_20160216161710

See you online.

Guess I’d Better Make Sure I Pay My Student Loans?

Trace William Cowen for Complex:

When Houston resident Paul Aker answered the door to find seven armed U.S. marshals waiting to arrest him earlier this month, he was understandably shocked. “I was wondering, why are you here?” Aker told FOX 26 on Tuesday. “I am home, I haven’t done anything. Why are the marshals knocking on my door?” Aker, who was arrested and presented before a federal court, had been targeted by the U.S. Marshals over a (gather yourself before reading this) 29-year-old student loan in the amount of (gather yourself again before reading this next part) $1,500.

Whaaaaattttttt?

Student loan debt continues to be a huge problem, at least in the U.S. I’m still many thousands of dollars out on my (and my wife’s) education, and there’s no near-term end in sight.

And you can’t declare bankruptcy to get out from underneath them, because of course you can’t.

There has to be a better way. My own student loan debt means that I’m never going to be able to afford for paying even part of my kids’ tuition, which means they will be in debt, which means…

According to Green, private debt collection agencies are getting judgments against the owners of these debts (even, apparently, 29-year-old debts) secured in federal court with ease. After a judgment is secured, the agencies are apparently asking for (and being granted preposterous access to) the usage of armed U.S. marshals.

Your police state tax dollars at work.

And he wasn’t notified that this was going to court at all?

Matthew Green Explains the Juniper Backdoor

I hadn’t heard of the ScreenOS backdoor vulnerabilites, which are CVE-2015-7755 and CVE-2015-7756, until last night when I ran into some tweets about Matthew Green’s exposition on what they are and why they are so crazy:

To sum up, some hacker or group of hackers noticed an existing backdoor in the Juniper software, which may have been intentional or unintentional — you be the judge! They then piggybacked on top of it to build a backdoor of their own, something they were able to do because all of the hard work had already been done for them. The end result was a period in which someone — maybe a foreign government — was able to decrypt Juniper traffic in the U.S. and around the world.

And all because Juniper had already paved the road.

Some of his tweets on the situation explain it in even better terms IMO:

And—back to the article—on why this is important to talk about:

For the past several months I’ve been running around with various groups of technologists, doing everything I can to convince important people that the sky is falling. Or rather, that the sky will fall if they act on some of the very bad, terrible ideas that are currently bouncing around Washington — namely, that our encryption systems should come equipped with “backdoors” intended to allow law enforcement and national security agencies to access our communications.

One of the most serious concerns we raise during these meetings is the possibility that encryption backdoors could be subverted. Specifically, that a backdoor intended for law enforcement could somehow become a backdoor for people who we don’t trust to read our messages. Normally when we talk about this, we’re concerned about failures in storage of things like escrow keys. What this Juniper vulnerability illustrates is that the danger is much broader and more serious than that.

At this point, there’s no two bones about it. We need to be using encryption everywhere. And the encryption we use needs to be open source.

Sword-Chucks, Yo!

Well, I guess if I’m looking to fire the blog back up post-sabbatical, this is as good a place to start as any:

A woman who was previously convicted of attacking people with a home-crafted nunchuck was arrested again this month for allegedly chasing a fellow Metro passenger around with a sheathed sword.

Believe it or not, this did not happen in Florida, but in Seattle.

There can be only one.

Family-Friendly Twitch

I’ve been watching events and streams on Twitch for some time now, but it’s been during my sabbatical break from work that I’ve spent a decent bit more time paying attention to what’s out there and what people are streaming.

Because it’s my children’s summer vacation, they have often been sitting and watching with me, learning about games (especially the classics!) and just spending time with their dad while he has time away from work. And partially because of that, I’ve noticed something:

Twitch has a massive outbreak of foul language on an awful lot of streams. And it makes the service and consequently the watching of games as a leisure activity for kids something difficult to recommend as a result.

When I stream, I do what I can to make sure my part of the stream is family-friendly. No swearing, no inappropriate references, nothing that would make me embarrassed to have my own kids watching the stream.

I decided to do this not only because of my own family, but also because of BigJon, who is currently my only Twitch subscription because his content is always family-friendly and his speed runs are a huge hit with my kids. His dedication to being family-friendly and keeping drama out of chat is a big inspiration to how I approach streaming.

GameJ06, aka BigJon, probably the most notable specifically family-friendly streamer on Twitch.

GameJ06, aka BigJon, probably the most notable specifically family-friendly streamer on Twitch.

A Hard Call?

I know it’s hard to find what that line is when trying to determine “family-friendly.” (For instance, what to do when I’m playing a game that has non-ff content in it, even though my own language and conduct would be family-friendly?)

But I’d love to see Twitch streamers change it up a bit and realize that we aren’t going to be able to inspire the next generation of speed runners, fighting game aficionados, or modders without providing them with streams they can watch with their parents and siblings.

My kids are heavily-influenced by the streams I watch. Because of BigJon, my autistic son is now super-into The Lost Levels. Because of things like Games Done Quick and Evo, which keep their commentary family-friendly (I think) on purpose, my oldest son has purchased Virtual Console copies of Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man. My daughter picks up the arcade stick once in a while and tries to learn Ultra Street Fighter IV and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

(Specific props to FGC commentators like James Chen, David Graham, Seth Killian, and skisonic, about whom I’ve noticed a tendency to keep the language clean even when crazy things are going down.)

There are lots of things I just won’t watch with my kids because the language is just too over-the-top–and I suspect it’s likely it limits the potential audience for lots of content. Several Mega Man X runners I respect otherwise are fountains of cursing. A runner I was going to watch who is playing through the entire NES catalog had to be turned off because the first sentence after I loaded the stream had two f-bombs in it.

I’m not anti-swearing. I think there’s a time and a place for it. But it doesn’t need to be in streams, and I want to think we can carve out a safe space for kids and families to be watching this content to engage and interest new generations in the games we love. (Not to mention the fact that it could have a significant halo effect in making the communities around these things friendlier to more people in-person.)

Teaming Up

I’d love to create a Twitch team that embraces the concept of family-friendly streaming. To find like-minded people and give them a place where families who want to watch together can find streams that would be language-free, non-discriminatory, non-sexual, etc.

Of course, there are problems with this, not the least of which reason is that I can’t create a team because I’m not streaming enough to build the audience one needs to be partnered (though time, we have time). :)

But there are other things to consider. What if I want to stream a Saints Row game (which is decidedly not kid-friendly) late at night my time, but I’m on the list and there are people either with kids up late or in a different time zone? How would you handle that? Splitting a stream into two streams isn’t always the solution to the problem because then partners wouldn’t get the full attention necessary.

And there’s the added problem that the non-web apps don’t support the team structure or (I believe) the mature flag on streams. (Thinking that members of the team could set the flag if they are streaming something not-appropriate.)

This is mostly thinking out loud, but it’s an interesting problem to consider.

So What Then?

In the meantime, I think the best thing I (and you, if you are interested) as a streamer can do is just make sure that I do what I can to keep my conduct family-friendly. If I’m playing a game that’s not, I can either turn on the mature flag or depend on viewers to know that what I’m playing doesn’t lie in that spectrum (and play later at night, of course).

I’m interested in your thoughts. What do you think about how family-friendly (or not) video game streaming is? Do you keep your stream that way on purpose? Do you think streamers shouldn’t care? Do you know of streams that are friendly that you’d like others to know about? Do you think this is important to growing the audience for this type of content?

Leave a comment on the post (all comments are moderated) with your musings.

Accessibility Microtransactions?

Mortal Kombat X came out late last night, and I took some time to mess with it. I was having a good time, minding my own business with the story mode and enjoying myself. You know what? This is a pretty good-looking game, I must say:

It looks great, plays well, and has a fairly interesting character selection.

During a match, I paused the game to get a look at the movelist for my character, and I saw this:

I like a lot about this. I like the quick reference to the special moves. My eye moves down, sees “Easy Fatalities.” I remember hearing them talk about this on one of their pre-release streams – simplified button inputs for the series’ trademark ultra-violent finishing moves.

You know what? That sounds pretty cool. Not everyone has the ability to put in those commands within the timing window available. I think to myself, “That’s a pretty cool feature.”

There’s a red skull icon next to the commands; I think nothing of this as there’s also an icon that’s to the left of some of the special moves because they are limited to a specific character variation. No biggie. Later in the night, I’m wrapping up and I’m sitting at the main menu.

I figure I’ll take a look at the Store and see what’s in there; I already have the DLC pass as I bought the special edition at discount. Wonder what else is in there?

Oh, OK. So they are going to take lazy people’s money. That’s fine; I’m not lazy so I won’t bite, but sure – go ahead and take what you can. I’m sure some people will throw down an additional $20. (BTW, this would make the game cost $110 at this point if you also bought the season pass.)

Next page:

whhhhhaaaaaaaaatttttttt

This causes me to double-take. And I look at the pause screen yet again:

It’s not just an icon. It’s a consumable. OK, I guess, sure, I’m not going to use this, but that’s a bit dodgy that you put the command inputs that make people spend bits of money on the pause screen and hide the real deal behind another button press, but sure, whatever—I’m starting to expect this out of AAA games.

This morning it hits me—they are putting a microtransaction price on accessibility. The simplified button inputs, combined with other system and button-level changes on the PS4, would definitely help people who need accessibility options play this game, but this is a pay-to-play lock on content for people who might need the command assistance.

You (and everyone else) should be angry about this. Games already have enough of a problem with being accessible to everyone. Now we need to put something that would be honestly helpful behind a paywall?

WB Games/NetherRealm Studios, I urge you to do the right thing and make Easy Fatalities a non-consumable feature. Charge for other things. I know I and probably a lot of other people would buy some skins for the fighters that have some nostalgia or other hook to them. I’m willing to bet there will be purchasable characters beyond the season pass, just like you did with Injustice. And I’m perfectly OK with that; it’s part of the business now.

Accessibility shouldn’t be something that goes behind a microtransaction paywall.