Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Lulz Security and the pursuit of lulz

So, for those of you that missed it, yesterday was Titanic Takeover Tuesday, brought to you by the hacker group Lulz Security.

Now before I go any further, I’ll go on record to say that I don’t agree with what LulzSec are doing. I prefer to get my lulz via other means. At the same time, I’m not a /b/tard, or anyone with a particular grudge against LulzSec.

At the weekend, the group announced that they had hacked the Bethesda servers, pilfering the user data of some 200,000 Brink players. They also hacked into the US Senate website.

During the course of Titanic Takeover Tuesday, they launched coordinate DDoS attacks on The Escapist website, the Eve Online login servers, the site of IT security company Fin Fisher , and the login servers for both Minecraft and League of Legends.

Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth from irate gamers and, doubtlessly, many lulz for LulzSec.

I should say that I am possibly one of the people whose details were hacked from the Bethesda servers as I regrettably purchased Brink. I have a Minecraft account, have played Eve Online, and regularly read The Escapist.

So I must be pretty pissed off right now, right? Nope, not really.

Don’t get me wrong; at first I was jelly. But when I thought about it, I realised I didn’t really have any business being angry.

For a start, the whole thing reeks of double standards. I was one of the people cheering on AnonOps when they were hacking websites in the wake of the arrest of Julian Assange, and applying pressure to those who would seek to deny Wikileaks funding. I even deleted my PayPal account in protest.

But it’s a bit fucking hypocritical of me to support AnonOps simply because they choose ‘right on’ targets, and then get annoyed when LulzSec do the exact same thing to a target I care about. It’s that classic ‘It’s fine as long as it doesn’t affect me’ attitude, and it’s not right.

This attitude was evident on various gamer web forums where people were one minute gloating at Eve Online being taken offline, then later crying because they couldn’t play League of Legends. I felt like reaching through the interwebs and bashing some heads together.

It’s a tangible atmosphere present even in the professional media, with outlets who were previously silent on the AnonOps hacks being up in arms about LulzSec messing with the PBS site, and I can’t stomach that kind of hypocrisy.

Even then, that’s only when the media chooses to report accurately. Ars Technica had me under the impression that LulzSec were going to release the Brink user info if Bethesda didn’t give out more details on the upcoming Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and also add top hats to the game. When I actually got the chance to read the statement from the group, the tone was light-hearted, and not very threatening. The top hats suggestion was added almost as a funny afterthought. Not quite the blackmail that Ars Technica had implied.

There also appears to be general misunderstanding about what motivation LulzSec have. Reading some forum posts on the topic yesterday, it was clear that the poster were divided between those who thought LulzSec were terrorists (yes, terrorists) and those who thought of them as being some sort of collective freelance security operation.

They are neither, as best I can see.

The posters claiming they were terrorists reasoned that since they had the user database, they could use this info to sow fear and blackmail the individuals contained therein. I would suggest that, given the abundance of free pronography on the internet, it could be considered a bit foolish to wilfully add your details to a huge database of pron users. Especially if one was in a position whereby the revelation of such ‘hobbies’ would be harmful. But then I have a thing for individual responsibility.

Nor are they hugely interested in their target’s security. Sure they may have advised Bethesda to ‘fix their junk’, but, if we use the burglar analogy, that’s like a burglar kicking in your back door, drinking all the lemonade in your fridge, sniffing your dirty laundry, taking a dump on the kitchen table before leaving a note that says ‘Your back door is broken.’.

So why do they do it?

Really: It’s for the lulz.

It’s not that knocking down a particular website is entertaining in itself. But when the myriad users of that site then take to Twitter to castigate LulzSec, lulz are had. When it is revealed that Lulzsec have stolen user details and people take to newsgroups and web forums to register how angry or fearful they are, lulz are had. When the Senate website is hacked and the FBI are called in, lulz are had.

Taking pleasure in the misfortune of others is a timeless concept, and LulzSec represent schadenfreude in the digital age.

Their activities are arguably criminal and I wouldn’t be hugely surprised if some arrests came from it, but I’m also certain that LulzSec are doing their best to avoid this outcome and hide their tracks, with seven proxies and the like.

As for me, you and Joe Average, there’s not a hell of a lot we can do about it. Evidently general web security isn’t as sophisticated as it should be and these attacks will no doubt serve as part of a catalyst of change.

Until the proverbial hatches can be battened down, all we can do is keep an extensive list of alternative passwords. Think of it as background radiation or environmental change, something you just have to put up with.

Oh, and try and have some lulz along the way.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Crunch Time - Do we need ethical game development? I think so.

Last week, an article about 'crunch time' appeared on the Ars Technica website, about the problem of crunch time in game development and it got me thinking.

For the unitiated, crunch time is the period in a games development cycle where the developers have to shift their working patterns into the highest gear in order to ship a game on time. The worst of these are 85-hour working weeks that can last for months, but the practice of operating at a 60-hour working week for periods of up to a year is becoming increasingly common.

There are two reasons for why this happens. Firstly, when a game is set to release on a particular date, delays hurt profits. Well, that's the theory anyway. In this age of pre-orders and easy internet patching, ensuring that the game is released on time is of paramount importance to studios and their bean counters. Secondly, and somewhat more cynically, working studio employees harder and therefore shortening the development cycle means less money spent employing full teams of staff per project and a higher bottom line.

Most gamers will be familiar with the EA_spouse essay from 2004. In this letter, Erin Hoffman, then fiancee of EA developer Leander Hasty, highlighted the horrendous labour practices that developers at EA were subjected to. Read the letter. It's a hugely depressing tale of 12 hour days and 7 day working weeks. There was huge attention drawn to this issue at the time and it led to some law suits and some changes to the industry at large. All good right?

Not really. Following the release of Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar were criticised for using excessive crunch time. Mike Capps, president of Epic Games, made comments suggesting that his studio wouldn't employ anyone who wasn't willing to work 60 hours a week. It would seem little has changed. Indeed, if industry insiders are to be believed, the practice has got worse.

There are obvious drawbacks to crunch time. There is a tangible human cost. Individuals who are working an 85 hour week (12 hours a day, 7 days a week) are paying a toll with their physical, mental and emotional health. Working those kinds of hours leave no time for anything short of eating and sleeping. No kids birthdays, no Sunday lunch with the family, no hungover Saturday mornings in bed with the other half. In short - no opportunity to do anything that makes life worth living.

As well as that, it destroys people creatively. The standard 40-hour working week has been shown to generate more employee productivity over an extended period than an increase in hours. The more hours an employee has to work, the less productive they become. And in an industry that relies heavily on creative people being productive, heck, needs creativity to survive, treating game developers in this way is nonsensical. To paraphrase the Ars Technica article, do you think that Clint Eastwood would be directing movies aged 80 if he was expected to work twelve hours a day?

Erin Hoffman aka EA_Spouse

It is also worth noting I'm not talking about a team of developers throwing their weight behind an unplanned game feature that they have to rush to finish before the game launches because, to quote Tenacious D, that's fucking teamwork. I'm talking about treating people like machines.  

One could point out obvious comparisons between games developers and, say, junior doctors who work a similarly punishing schedule. Why should it be any different for games developers? I'm not saying it should, I'm saying that asking an individual to work 80+ hours a week isn't desirable in any profession, but at least there is a possibility of making changes to how the industry operates.

You see, as consumers, we endorse this system. Every single time a studio employs ridiculous crunch time practices, only to see the game in question make millions, we are sending a message. We are saying "Hey, it's ok! Run these men and women into the ground. Show no regard for their wellbeing or that of their families. Just make sure you get that game out in time so I can claim my pre-order bonus. I don't give a fuck about the people who made this product, and I will prove as much by giving you my money." Don't get me wrong; I'm not claiming the moral high ground here. I have bought crunch time games, and because the practice is becoming more pervasive, I will probably do so in future. It also doesn't help that we often don't find out about these tings until well after the game is released, so it is impossible to make an informed choice on release day.

Either way, it makes me feel fucking shit doing so and I would like it to stop.

Personally, I would like to see studios sign up to a voluntary code that ensures their developers are not subjected to unreasonable and damaging crunch time, and that they are properly remunerated for those periods when overtime is unavoidable. Similar to the Fair Trade mark which idenifies genuine fair trade products, a stamp could be awarded to those studios who can prove that their games are ethically produced. It would not only provide reassurance to the consumer, it would also identify those studios whose labour practices are in tune with what we expect from a decent society.

I was recently interviewed for the Culture NI website on whether games can be considered art. It occurs to me that this issue has relevance here.

How can we ever elevate games into an art form if we allow their creators to be treated with such contempt?

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Friday, 11 February 2011

Goodbye Guitar Hero! And Fuck You Activision!

Yesterday brought the sad news that Activision Blizzard have decided to axe their music-game business areas.

What that means is buh-bye to Guitar Hero, DJ Hero, and True Crime: Hong Kong, as well as around 500 Activision Blizzard employees losing their jobs.

First and foremost, it sucks to see people losing their jobs. Sadly there is no shortage of developers out of work at the minute thanks to the ongoing financial fuckup and a significant number of studios going tits up in the past year.

I never played DJ Hero. I didn't aspire to be a DJ when I was young and I reckon I can get the same effect from listening to a single earphone, while saying 'fikka fikka' in a high-pitched voice and pretending to scratch a record.

Also, the one True Crime game I did play was a mess of a game that tried, and failed, to compete with the Grand Theft Auto series in the glory days of the PS2.
In short: I’m not hugely disappointed that we won’t be seeing any further DJ Hero or True Crime titles, though their cancellation is symptomatic of a sickness that has already infected one major studio, and may begin to pop up in others.

The first time I heard about Guitar Hero, my reaction, I’m sure, was the same as many other people’s: Why the fuck would anyone willingly be seen in public with a small plastic guitar strapped to them? It struck me as the kind of thing Lennie Small might do if left unattended in the Early Learning Centre.

But then, one drunken night, I found myself gazing blearily at a friend’s TV screen, trying to mash buttons in time with Sum 41’s Fat Lip and it occurred to me then that ‘HOLY FUCKING SHIT, THIS IS THE BEST THING THAT HAS EVER BEEN INVENTED EVER!’

The following Friday, I took a trip into town and returned to my house with a plastic guitar and a copy of Guitar Hero. I tried to coax my flatmate Fil into having a go on it. I explained the principle behind it:

‘Look, it’s simple. Just press the coloured buttons as directed on screen, at the same time as hitting the strum bar and that’s basically it.’
‘Errrr…I dunno, seems a bit…stupid’
‘Oh, go on. Look, it’s got ‘Ziggy Stardust’ on it. You like that.’
‘Oh alright, but just a quick go, I have things to do.’

Next thing I know, it’s Monday morning. I’m drunk, probably sacked, I’ve spent all my money on booze, there aren’t any cigarettes left in the world because we’ve smoked them all, Fil and I haven’t left the house in two days and there are people whom I’ve never met before arguing over who gets the next go and whether the song choice should be ‘Symphony of Destruction’ or ‘Bark At The Moon’.

That was the beauty of Guitar Hero. It could bring people together under the mighty banner of rock and get them fucking smashed in the process. In the weeks that followed, our hand eye co-ordination skills improved while our livers took the beating of their lives. People actually started coming into our fusty, damp living room of their own free will! It was a magical time, and the release of Guitar Hero 2 and the purchase of a second guitar gave us the gift of rock competition. In our heads it was like Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen having a shred-off, only WE got to be Eddie Van Halen!

And then what happened? Two things. One, the people behind the development of Guitar Hero, Harmonix, were purchased by MTV Networks to work on a new IP known as Rock Band. The second event was that the manufacturers of the game peripherals, Red Octane, was bought by Activison, who also retained the Guitar Hero brand.

And this is where things went wrong.

                                                           Alternative caption for this pic: 'So be it, Jedi'

Activision Blizzard, under the helm of Bobby Kotick (read: the gamers Antichrist), are a force for pure evil. If there was ever a Galactic Empire of the gaming world, it is Activision Blizzard, and Bobby Kotick is a mixture of Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader and Jar Jar fucking Binks, poured into a lumpen, shareholder-friendly container.

Kotick has talked in his past about the desire to take the fun out of making games, and his aim to exploit Activision franchises for the maximum bottom-line. And from what we’ve seen from Guitar Hero, that second ambition is very true.

Now, as the head of a public company, that Kotick only feels a responsibility to his shareholders is both understandable and nothing new. He only desires to maximize the profit generated by Activision Blizzard’s titles, which keeps the Activision Blizzard stock prices high, and gets him pats on the head from the shareholder. The sad part about this is that, in doing so, he systematically dismantles and destroys his franchises in order to wring as much money out of them as possible before discarding them, and in doing so, devalues the positive memories and experiences that his companies’ games have offered.

Let’s look how this happened with Guitar Hero.

Guitar Hero 3, admittedly, wasn’t bad. It was pretty much complete by the point Red Octane was acquired by Activision. It retained the core gameplay from the previous Guitar Hero games, added online multiplayer, introduced a narrative story mode and had a decent track listing. But even then, it had started to feel stale. Bear in mind that Guitar Hero 3 released in the same year (NA, 2007) as Rock Band, a game which allowed you to play guitar, drums or do the vocals on a range of tracks. In short: Rock Band was Guitar Hero, but more.

It was after this point we began to see the Activision conveyor-belt game development system in action. In case you aren’t aware, this means putting out a game from a particular franchise once a year. The problem with doing this is that a) it provides fuck-all time for a studio to make any major innovation between two titles of the same IP, b) gamers get fatigued, as the lines between one game and another blur, and finally c) it pisses gamers off, as it is generally accepted that such a short turn-around time reflects a shitty, churned-out product.

Therefore, the fourth game, Guitar Hero: World Tour, released in North America almost exactly one year later in 2008. And what was new this time round? They had added support for drums and vocals! And only a year after their main competitor Rock Band had done so. La-dee-fucking-da!

What other ‘innovations’ did World Tour offer? The introduction of a Beginner/Retard difficulty level, where the player simply had chew on the end of the guitar controller and say ‘Duuuuuuur’ and the game would say ‘Good job! You rock!’. It removed the need to actually unlock songs, so there wasn’t really a difficulty curve as such, apart from that imposed by the player. And it also had a loveable feature whereby it would require the player to play notes that didn’t actually exist in the song, and to remain silent for notes that did. Maybe this game should have been called Guitar Idiot?

2008 also saw the first Guitar Hero expansion (read: desperate attempt to squeeze as much money from the fans with as little effort as possible) dedicated to a specific band, namely Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. Not a bad effort, if you’re a fan of Aerosmith, but it highlighted an issue that would blight subsequent band-focused expansions; a large percentage of the songs in the game weren’t actually by Aerosmith. If you look at the track listing, you’ll see The Clash, Blue Oyster Cult and others. You see, due to licensing, many Aerosmith songs weren’t available, so they had to fill out this release with other guff. To be fair, this wasn’t as pressing an issue with subsequent expansions, but it gives an indication of the level of thought going into the Guitar Hero franchise at this point. 2009 saw the release of Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero: Van Halen, and Guitar Hero: Smash Hits (a cynical collection of tracks from earlier GH games, not an expansion based on the now-defunct pop magazine). That’s right. Three separate expansions released in a single year, of which one was decent, one was shite in a jewel case, and one was a rehash. 2009 also saw the release of…

Guitar Hero 5 is memorable mainly for the legal wrangling to get Kurt Cobain as a playable character in the game. To this day, I don’t understand why Activision didn’t just take a shit on his grave? As much as I loved Guitar Hero, I’m fairly certain Cobain wouldn’t have endorsed a game produced by a multinational corporation where the player can rock out to ‘In My Place’ by Coldplay, so defecating on his final resting place would have been a much more effective way of giving his memory the finger. But then again, without regular injections of Botox and engine oil, Courtney Love just grinds to a halt, and that shit is expensive, yo. Guitar Hero 5 also saw the reintroduction of unlocked tracks, but by this stage to difficulty curve was so shallow, you could just put the guitar on the ground and stamp on it to proceed.

Finally, in 2010, came Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock. When Rock Band 3 released in 2010, it added a new instrument in the form of a keyboard as well as a new feature in the shape of a ‘Pro’ mode, which had the potential to actually teach the player how to play guitar. When Warriors of Rock launched, it added Gene Simmons.

Yes, Gene Simmons, a man built from money and self-importance, voiced the game’s antagonist, the Beast. I say ‘voiced’, but it was more like ‘stumbled over the words like a child learning to read’. The game also devoted a significant section of the ‘Quest’ mode to 2112, Rush’s seven-part prog-rock wankfest. Aside from that, there was nothing new. It was the previous year’s game with new songs and venues and some other cosmetic changes, but that was it.

It was at this point it became clear that Activision had given up on trying to do anything even remotely interesting with the Guitar Hero series and this last shot was just a test to see if fans would continue to vomit money on the latest peripherals. The answer to that question was no. Warriors of Rock performed poorly, both amongst critics and players. The critics didn’t like the lack of innovation, felt that many of the songs didn’t fit the feel of the game and that it was, overall, boring. With poor sales, it would seem that gamers concurred.

For most other studios, if one of their major franchise titles performed so poorly, they would hold back, rework the game, try something new with it and if it didn’t float, bin it/put it on hiatus. Not so with Activision and Guitar Hero. The second that the franchise ceases to be profitable, or requires reworking to become profitable again, they ditch it. Fuck the people who spent years making it, fuck the people who spent their money making it successful, just ditch it and move on to the next thing.

In terms of pure numbers, between Activision acquiring the Guitar Hero series and their announcement yesterday, they released eight (EIGHT!!!!) Guitar Hero titles. That is eight titles in the space of just under four years, and I’m not counting special Wii/DS or mobile releases.

And you can see the same thing happening with Activision’s Call of Duty franchise.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was developed by Infinity Ward and published by Activision in 2007 to huge critical acclaim.

Call of Duty: World at War was released in 2008. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 arrived in 2009. Call of Duty: Black Ops was released in 2010, and Modern Warfare 3 is expected to release this year. And yet the best of those games listed is the first, with subsequent releases becoming more derivative, and attracting less favourable criticism, with nothing approaching innovation included.

Such is the level of ‘all eggs in one basket’ currently being employed at Activision, they currently have five separate development teams working on various elements of the Call of Duty franchise. Other than Blizzard’s titles (WoW, Starcraft, Diablo), the only AAA Activision has left is Call of Duty.

And all it will take is for another multi-platform, innovative FPS to take a bite out of CoD’s market share and then maybe we’ll see Activision’s share prices take a nose dive, hopefully with Bobby Kotick removed from the games industry and a message firmly sent that you can’t run a long-term successful videogame company on a minimum investment/maximum profit basis.

Or, more likely, Bobby Kotick will just find another burgeoning franchise to exploit and run into the ground.