Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

The illusion of “root causes”

June 15, 2020

“Why is this happening?”

A long time ago, I worked at Maxis, then a new addition to Electronic Arts. My focus was The Sims, but we had some conversations about the then-new SimCity 3000, including about things like placement of police stations in player’s cities. One question I asked was, why was there no downside to having too many police stations? This question was met with baffled looks: how could that possibly be a problem? I brought up issues of an overbearing police force leading to a disgruntled populace (and thus more interesting player decisions), but my questions were brushed off — in the interest of maintaining management game development scope.

Today of course this question is a bit more pointed (and might well have been at the time, had the racial and socioeconomic mix at Maxis at the time been a bit different).

Based on the fusillade of recent killings of African-Americans by police, and in light of the statistic that police in the US kill civilians at a far higher rate than in another developed country, the understandable question has been brought up in many contexts, including recently in an online discussion: why is this happening?

Lurking behind this question (not very far behind, for many of us) is the desire for a single root cause. How can we fix it? Where is the switch we can flip, the condition we can change, to make this all go away? Can we throw money at it? Protest? Change a law? There must be something — one easy, simple, bumper-sticker worthy thing we can do to make this all better. This short-term focus is very on-brand for us in modern America.

The necessary but not entirely satisfying answer tot his question is that this is a systemic problem. That means there ISN’T one thing causing this. It also means that people are going to latch on to one particular solution or another, and they will all be wrong. So, a systemic sketch:

It’s poor training: too much reliance on force, not enough emphasis on de-escalation. As shown on video after video, many police now respond to situations assuming deadly violence as the first option, to be met with overwhelming, often deadly force in return.

As an example, the members of the “emergency response team” in Buffalo who aggressively knocked an elderly man to the ground kept marching forward rather than seeing to his welfare because they were trained to do so. Their logic seems to be that they have medics coming up quickly, so those on the front lines (fully armed and armored like modern-day Spartans, by now an old comparison) were to keep pressing forward to overwhelm any resistance. Consider the mindset behind that training. This isn’t a doctrine born of thinking about the community these police serve; it’s a military tactic executed on US citizens as if they were an enemy force.

This has many consequences ranging from law-enforcement officers coming to see those whom they encounter as something other (less) than citizens with rights first and foremost, to low-level, on-going PTSD on the part of the officers — with sad but predictable consequences ranging from domestic abuse to being in constant fight-or-flight mode.

It’s militarization: Many police departments have gotten millions of dollars in free, offensive hardware from the DoD. This helps justify our massive military budget and the amount of jobs we have tied up in producing offensive, not defensive, hardware that’s then given to police. (This program was curtailed by President Obama in 2015, and brought back by President Trump in 2017.)

It’s community alienation: reverberations of enforced segregation remain in cities with food deserts, lack of services, loss of economic participation, and resulting loss of hope. This in turn brings on increases in crimes of hopelessness, especially high-dollar ones centered on drugs, which bring in the threat of violence, and which police (see above) react to with increased force rather than treatment and de-escalation.

The other half of community alienation is that all those participating in the primary economy (pretty much anyone reading this) want to keep those who aren’t doing so as far away as possible, and as controlled as possible. Systemic racism lives here too, even if those benefiting from it don’t realize it and even abhor it: for them (us) it’s not about someone’s skin color, but about their lawlessness and violence, which must be kept as far away as possible — even if that lawlessness and violence itself is reinforced by the background systemic racism that benefits those deploring it!

It’s the prevalence and mobility of guns in America. As just one example, guns are difficult to get legally in Chicago (and Illinois in general), so those more concerned about maintaining their money and power in an economy set up against them (see community alienation above) simply bring them in from Indiana, right next door, where it’s easy to get them. This gives the police all the reason they need to militarize (see above) to meet this perceived threat.

It’s the siege mentality of police, who do a job where every single day they and their loved ones know they may not come home. They have to arrive at every single call assuming the worst, and to make split-second life-altering decisions day after day, as the police have become the dumping ground for dealing with everything from someone having a mental illness crisis to a domestic dispute to a neighborhood argument to a rape or murder.

If they make an error in judgment it means the end of their career (something shared by, say, doctors and airline pilots). In addition however, each officer knows that if someone near them makes an error in real-time judgment, they risk being injured or killed themselves. If they don’t report such an error (small or large), they lose their integrity. But if they do report it, they may be seen as a traitor to those who share their dangerous job, and lose what protection they have from dealing with what often seems to be an angry, violent, armed populace. This mentality relates back to poor training and community alienation (above), and is highlighted in the “blue wall of silence” where police close ranks to protect each other, inevitably separating them from the communities they theoretically serve.

There are certainly other major contributors this quick sketch misses as well.

NONE OF THIS is in any way is meant to justify any of the unconscionable behavior we see over and over again on the part of some — too many — members of law enforcement. It may however be a beginning of understanding and breaking down this system of deeply interconnected phenomena. There is no root cause.

If we look for single root-causes, we’ve lost already. We need instead to look for high-leverage areas for change, and then find ways to build on that, reinforcing the positive effects we begin to see. There are examples of this we can point to already in the actions of cities like Camden NJ, Eugene OR, Richmond CA, and elsewhere: in these cities changes to police culture, training, community involvement, separation of calls (so police aren’t responsible for responding to everything), and other measures — all working together — have made for a great deal of positive change.

I hope that we as a society are able to do this across our nation. The first step however is to stop looking for fast, easy, single root causes. They don’t exist.

“That feeling of permanency”

June 12, 2020

Sometimes I have a movie on while I’m working on a game design, esp. if there’s a common theme with what I’m working on. Yesterday was the WWII movie “The Enemy Below.”

There’s an exchange early in the movie between the US destroyer’s captain (Robert Mitchum) and the ship’s doctor (Russell Collins) that surprised me. It echoed exactly thoughts I’ve had about our time — and the fact that we haven’t seen times like this in the US since the days in that war when no one knew how things were going to turn out. The Allied victory in WWII seems inevitable to us now. But those fighting that war were, like us, dealing with a time of complete uncertainty.

Doc: “Well, in time we’ll all get back to our own stuff again. The war will get swallowed up and seem like it never happened.”

Captain: “Yes, but it won’t be the same as it was. They won’t have that feeling of permanency that we had before. We’ve learned a hard truth.”

Doc: “How do you mean?”

Captain: “That there’s no end to misery and destruction. You cut the head of the snake and it grows another one. You cut that one off and you’ll find another. We can’t kill it because it’s something within ourselves. You can call it ‘the enemy’ if you want to, but it’s part of us, we’re all men.”

Maybe this hard truth is one we need to learn again every couple of generations, when the ones who last learned it are dying off, and we’ve lost the lessons that they and those who came after them worked, bled, and died for.

Many of us seem to have forgotten many of the harsh realities of the world — the lurking reality of plague, economic distress, racial animus, corruption, even war. Many of us, especially economically stable white folks in the US, had for decades settled into a Netflix/Instagram/XBox-fueled complacency, and “that sense of permanency” that comes with it.

We’re being shaken out of that now, re-learning how illusory that permanence is, along with other hard lessons. We’re tasked once again with doing the hard work to help end a pandemic, heal centuries of racial animus, and root out corruption at all levels of our society. This typically requires small selfless acts, often unnoticed, and with seemingly little direct effect: wear a mask; show visible respect to those not like you; call out dishonesty and lack of integrity in government and business. Sometimes it also means peacefully protesting, or supporting those who do; making an extra effort to use your privilege for good (as by helping and encouraging a young person of color); or calling out intolerance or misinformation in our families, social media circles, and workplaces.

We may miss, and even grieve for, that sense of permanency that we had just a few months ago. But we have, I hope, learned the hard truth of how misguided that was. We cannot coast on the work of prior generations; expecting everything to glide along as it seemingly always has. We know that’s not the reality of how the world works, and that we have our own work to do.

The statement that “we live in uncertain times” has become cliché. We all know it far too well, even if we desperately want to avoid dealing with it. I hope that we’re able to face the challenges of our times squarely, and do the work set before us. We must not lose hope, or become fatigued as this all takes time — years, in all probability — to resolve. It’s something future generations will thank us for, and is just the right thing to do.

To quote another author who knew war and uncertainty all-too well:

‘“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”’

“What should game developers learn from Blizzard failing at Titan?”

April 22, 2016

Over on Quora I was asked to answer this question. Here’s what I wrote:

A few clear lessons come to mind:

  1. Most games fail. Having a team that is smart, passionate, talented, deeply experienced, and insanely well-funded doesn’t change the fact that your game is most likely to fail.

    Let that sink in for a moment.

    Not even having had an enormous success one time means you will be successful the next time. Hard as it is to say, if you’re lucky this happens before the game is released (or even announced!). The long droughts between successful games is part of the landscape of the games industry, and something almost everyone has to internalize.

  2. Failure is not permanent. The story of game development and the games industry is nothing if not one of re-invention. Developers, properties, technologies, and companies all re-create themselves every few years. You try something new, you fail, you try again. Just as success is not a given, neither is failure. You fail, you sit, you cry, you mourn, and then you get up and try the next thing. That’s been my experience in more than two decades in the games industry.

  3. Know who you are. While re-invention is pervasive, it’s also true that success breeds inertia: the longer your company is successful at doing what it does, the harder it is to change that course. Is your company about ground-breaking innovation, or about tweaking known formulas? Both can work. But culture is real. Cultural inertia is real.

    Here’s a story I don’t often tell too publicly: in 2002, I interviewed at Blizzard for the lead design position on this new game they had going, World of Warcraft. I had recently been the lead designer on three MMOs (Meridian 59, SimCity Online, and Ultima Online 2 — one out of three of which were released), along with leading the design on The Sims 2. I had a really terrific day talking with the team at Blizzard. But every time I said something like,”oh that’s cool, and you could really take this in a new direction,” the response was along the lines of, “well… we’re really not trying to reach too far with new things on this project.”

    At the end of the day I sat in a conference room while the managers conferred. While I did, it became really clear to me that this was a great team and a great company — and definitely not the job for me. I’ve spent my career trying (and very often failing) to do things that were really new, and that’s not what they were trying to do. So, when they came back in the room (I’m abashed to say I don’t recall now who it was I talking with), they very graciously said, “we like you, the team likes you, you have a great resume… but we just don’t think you’re the guy for the job.”

    I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to interview for that position, and even more fortunate to have been able to respond, in that moment, “You’re right. This is a great project and team, and I’m not the guy to lead it. But I think I know who is.” I recommended Tom Chilton, a terrific designer who was on the team I had just left, and someone who was a classic fantasy MMO designer in his bones. Not too long after that he took the job, and is still at Blizzard doing great work.

    The point of all this is that at that time, Blizzard knew who they were and what they wanted. They had an established culture and they played into their strengths in phenomenal ways.

    But that strength also made it more difficult for them to in fact do something new, to make whatever it was that Titan would have become. I mourn with them a bit for what might have been, but I also celebrate their re-invention via Overwatch.

Chefs, creativity, diversity, and our old friend risk

September 13, 2015

I’m on the outbound leg of a trip from the US to Sweden for the Sweden Game Conference. On the plane from Chicago to Frankfurt I watched the movie “Chef” again. It’s a small but worthwhile movie directed by and starring Jon Favreau. He plays an accomplished chef who is sick and tired of having to cook the same old menu over and over again. He’s lorded over by his money-guy who just wants butts-in-seats and for the chef to give people the mainstream fare they want. This results in a disastrous review, and the chef eventually flips out and leaves. He then goes on a journey of self (and family) discovery, and ends up  opening a small food truck that gathers a big online following.

So you can see, this is really a post-Iron Man/Avengers movie about making movies. It suits the making of games equally well — with the exception of the “all’s well that ends well” ending that most movie and game creators don’t experience.

Which brings me to this article from the Guardian. I fully agree that our range of “acceptable” game genres has narrowed to the point that our diversity issues go far, far beyond “we don’t have enough women represented in games.”  The result of this is that I often don’t find much that’s really interesting to play — and those games that do catch my imagination (and dollars) are often the smaller indie efforts – FTL, Banished, Sunless Sea, Prune, and most recently Kings Quest, which at least feels like an indie effort (which is an accomplishment for the developers in today’s environment).

Like many others, I believe that we are far too insular in many parts of game development, and that increasing our underheard voices (including but not only women) has been a distressing serial failure. As the Guardian article points out though, our lack of diversity extends far beyond how women are represented in games or how many women we have in leadership positions in game development. This narrowing extends well into the kinds of games that get made — and thus the kinds of games that get played. The developers often serve a narrow audience, which further narrows the demographic pool of people who are interested in game development, which sets off a vicious cycle.

In the middle of this though is the problem that game developers, like anyone else, want to be paid for their work. Absent a wealthy and disinterested patron (please let me know if you find one of those), being paid requires running a business — and games are most definitely a business. Businesses are necessarily risk averse; the chances of complete failure are just too high otherwise. Creativity and diversity are inherently risky. Therefore most successful game companies will avoid creativity and diversity as much as possible, and in doing so end up contributing to the (at best) reluctant relationship with diversity, and the narrowing palette of game genres deemed worthy of consideration.

TL;DR: We want to be creative and diverse, but all the necessities of making games professionally are set against this.

What to do about this? I don’t know. I don’t have any answers.

I have a few hopes and hypotheses: for example that as we increase the diversity in the pool of developers, we’ll find new ways to make games without increasing our risk — and that maybe, just maybe, some of the wildly successful game companies we see today will look past their IPO or current stock price (I can dream) and actually invest a certain amount of their healthy profits on on-going,long-term R&D. You know, the kinds of things that fail a lot, but eventually give us iPhones, self-driving cars, or the ability to choose from dozens of movies on a trans-Atlantic flight — the very kinds of investment most game companies have little interest in making.

Dragon Con 2014

August 31, 2014

dragoncon logo

DragonCon ends tomorrow. It’s been terrific and honestly, somewhat eye-opening for me. It’s enormous (60,000+ people), with an unending number of talks and panels on anything connected to games, movies, fiction, and a ton of other topics. I spoke on a panel on Friday on “making awesome video games,” which was fun and easy duty.

It’s also sort of a concentrated geek Mardi Gras that takes over downtown Atlanta (the locals love it too, which is nice — they say it “makes Labor Day into Atlanta’s favorite holiday”). The lobbies of the Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, and other hotels downtown are packed (and I mean packed, several floors deep) with people just about 24 hours a day. I’ve been to big conventions before, but nothing as concentrated as this.

There are people in costumes (“cosplay”), many stunningly elaborate, as far as the eye can see. They’re all made by fans of just about anything you can imagine. Some are sly jokes, but most are just unadulterated and un-self-conscious love for some character — or “property” as those of us on my side of the industry looking-glass tend to say.

On that note I have to say that being here has been a useful re-education for me: It’s helped me regain an understanding of the real joy people derive from fiction, shows, and games (my own little “Sullivan’s Travels” moment). Sure it’s all froth, but everyone knows that and they jump in anyway. People “like liking things,” as one TV character said, and being able to share that with others brings its own form of joy.

For my part, and at the behest of two of my daughters, both veterans of the convention, I put on a tux and a small arc reactor I made over the past few weeks, resulting in an older (but I’m told creditable) Tony Stark — or as one person said, “oh, you’re ‘The Most Interesting (iron)Man in the World!'” There will, I’m sure, be pictures.

And with any luck at all, I’ll be back next year.


November 6, 2013

I realize, for those few who check this blog, that I never mentioned where I am now.

Still in the SF Bay Area, geographically, but I’ve moved to Rumble Entertainment, where I’m now Creative Director. Rumble’s current game is KingsRoad, a very cool free-to-play fantasy RPG with excellent gameplay, graphics, and multiplayer. We’re working hard on expanding the features and world of KingsRoad. Of course, we have some other things in the works as well. Rumble has a terrific team of game veterans who, I’m happy to say, really get game design, supporting strong production values, and the importance of providing increasing depth in their games.

I’m continuing to work on my AI as well, and it looks like may be teaching again this winter. More on that soon.

One other thing: if you happen to see an ad below this post, well, it’s not mine, it’s from WordPress. They make their software freely available, so now and again we get to see ads. It’s the 21st Century.


GDC Trends: Anxiety and the bandwagon. Also, hats.

March 9, 2010

From the first day at GDC – I’m mainly attending the AI Summit and Social Games Summit.    Every year I watch and listen for trends, to get the vibe of where the game industry is and where it’s going.  Thus far, I’ve seen a few things – an unnerving anxiety, a fast-rolling bandwagon.  And hats.