Monday, November 26, 2012

Consumers Are Getting Smarter?

I've heard it said a lot that consumers are getting smarter and that traditional advertising doesn't work any more. It needs to be more sophisticated to match its audience. I call bullshit on this. In some ways advertising absolutely has gotten more sophisticated, but only in the ways it manipulates consumers, not in any real way that respects their intelligence.

A lot of research has been done over the last 50 years or so on human psychology in general, and advertising in particular. A lot more is known today about how our brains work, and what their shortcomings and blindspots are. Advertisers have learned how to tap into this to some degree, and use our weaknesses against us.

Since this same information is available to us, the consumers (books like Buying In and the book/TV show The Gruen Transfer are a good place to start), the logic is that there is some kind of Red Queen Effect occurring that makes advertisers have to keep one step ahead of the consumers so that their tricks will keep working.

The problem with this, though, is that it assumes that if consumers are aware of a psychological trick, they will be immune to it. Unfortunately, this is not at all true. Sometimes it works, but quite often we are fooled by a trick even when we're aware of it because it works on a subconscious level in our brains, so unless we engage our conscious brain to recognize the trick, it will slip past our defenses.

Daniel Kahneman talks about this in his excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, where he separates thinking into two levels, which he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is a fast, pattern recognizing, snap judgement level of thinking, and is generally in control when we're not paying conscious attention to things, or when we're getting an initial impression of something. System 2 is deeper, conscious thought, which takes time and effort, and so we tend to only engage it if we think we need to (and often not even then!).

Just because you know an optical illusion is an illusion, it does not mean you can see through it, and just because you know that a picture of a juicy hamburger on a billboard is trying to manipulate your base urges, it does not mean that it won't make you hungry.

I look at the television ad for the iPad Mini. What does this ad actually show us? Someone playing a tune on a virtual piano on a regular iPad, and then switching to an iPad Mini. That's it. The information content of the ad is basically, "you can now play a virtual piano in a slightly smaller format!". It's really just showing a cool gadget and suggesting, "Hey! Isn't this gadget AWESOME?!", and linking that to a familiar tune. That's the information content of this ad. Does that really seem like an ad that is responding to consumers getting smarter?

Or take the latest iPod ads (yes, I know I'm picking on Apple here, but it's a brand where the people who buy it tend to think they're smarter and more sophisticated than 'the masses', so I think it's the perfect brand to examine). Once again, a catchy tune, and this time just iPod Shuffles and Nanos bouncing around on the screen (it's slightly more complex than that, but that's the essence of it). No information content other than, "Hey, don't these gadgets look cool?".

Yet these ads work. Damn, do they work. Apple's sales of iPads and iPods are testimony to that. But this isn't a response to consumers getting smarter. This isn't in any way respecting the intelligence of the people buying the products. If anything it's downright condescending, the advertising equivalent of dangling car keys in front of a baby and cooing, "Oooh! Look at the shiny!"

So why do we keep hearing that consumers are getting smarter? I think that there are two main reasons for this, and they're both due to the fact that the advertising space is getting more crowded, and advertising has to work harder to be effective as people are bombarded with more ads and they have less impact as a result:
  1. Some companies/advertising firms have decided to make a niche in the space where they treat their customers as smart and savvy, and market to that. Whether they actually treat their customers that way or just say they do to manipulate those customers is a separate matter, and I'd say that both occur in practice, depending on the case in question.
  2. Advertising companies promote the idea of the smart consumer to their customers, the companies that buy their services, as a way to justify their costs. If a company thinks that the consumer is getting smarter, then they're going to feel more justified in spending large amounts commissioning advertising and marketing companies to create sophisticated ads for them. It's hard to justify massive consulting fees to create an advertising campaign if you think the target audience is dumb!
So there you have it. I could be totally wrong about all of this, of course. But next time you see an ad that appears to be treating you as a sophisticated, discerning consumer, try to remember to stop and ask yourself, "Do they really think I'm a smart consumer, or do they just think that I see myself that way, and so they're trying to tap into that conceit to lower my defenses?"

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Assassin's Creed III

Assassin's Creed III is a great game that expands on the series in new and fresh ways while keeping enough of the trademark gameplay to make the game still feel familiar. However, it could have been an excellent game if a few aspects of the gameplay were improved, and more importantly, if various bugs had been fixed. It feels to me as though they needed about 3 more months of bug fixing before shipping. This is a real shame, since these issues are not showstoppers, but some are definitely frustrating and make you want to punch your character through the screen!


After three games in the old setting (renaissance  Italy), it was time for something new. At first I didn't think the American Revolutionary War would work, but I was quite pleasantly surprised. They found a good origin story for your character, Connor, and having him with both an assassin background and a Native American background gave some depth to the character, while also helping to explain some of the additional skills in this game, such as hunting and tree parkour.

Connor's background is tied in to the larger events happening during the period, although it does sometimes feel like he is shoehorned into certain events for no good reason except to be able to tie that event in to the game. We do get to see the conflict of the time between the British, Americans, and Native Americans done fairly tastefully, though the British tended to be a bit more faceless and generically evil to suit the plot's purposes.


Overall I wasn't a huge fan of Connor. After having the older, wiser Ezio of Revelations, it felt like a step back to play another young, impatient character who makes poor decisions. I did like playing Connor at several different ages, and the fact that it takes quite a bit of game time before you finally get to adult aged Connor didn't bother me, and was actually a nice change.

You start off the game playing as Connor's father, Haytham, and I quite enjoyed this character. Although his skills were more limited, you get to play through an interesting arc with him, probably made more interesting by not knowing where it was leading (at least for me, since I didn't know the connection between him and Connor when I first played).

The rest of the characters are servicable enough, with some needlessly over the top bad guys who never seem to shy away from reminding you of how evil they are. The inclusion again of famous historical characters is fun, but I suppose as a non-American it didn't really do anything for me.

World Navigation

These games are all about navigating the world in a cool way, and in this aspect, I felt that navigation regressed compared to previous titles. I found myself doing the wrong thing more often than I remember in past games, and getting frustrated by it. The fact that running and freerunning are done by the same button seemed to catch me out a lot when I would be trying to run from place to place and end up running up a doorway at my destination or jumping onto something that I ran too close to on my way past. Maybe this was more noticeable because fast travel points were very scarce in some maps and tedious to unlock in others, so I ended up having to travel on foot a lot more.

I found navigating on the Frontier map particularly annoying due to the ridiculously small number of fast travel points, combined with the fact that it's not obvious where they are unless you find them by luck or using an online reference. There were also bugs which meant that you would have to run around the two general stores that two of the points were located at, trying to make them unlock. And in one case, I unlocked one, only to travel away and find that it had disappeared again! I had to travel back manually, unlock it again, and have it disappear again!

The horse also seemed fairly useless unless you travelled on paths. Going overland, it would keep slowing down at obstacles, and the irregular nature of the terrain meant you would frequently find a cliff or river where you'd have to ditch the horse and go on foot anyway.

Tree navigation worked fairly well, but I found that I rarely used it to get from place to place since it was usually hard to tell where a particular tree path would get you. Unlike rooftop navigation where you can usually head in any desired direction, the trees would tend to have a more or less single path to follow, and it usually ended up being quicker and less frustrating to just run. And sometimes, you will go ahead and jump off a tree into empty space and kill yourself. Good times.


Melee combat was definitely improved in this game, with timing reactions to enemy attacks and doing counters being much more important. It frustrated me a bit at first until I got to understand it and gave up my preconceptions from the previous games, but eventually I got into it.

Other weapons were much less useful, specifically bow and arrow, and guns. There are a lot of glitches related to guns which make them next to useless, such as the reload button frequently not working, and the second gun (once you go through all the effort to get a second holster) seems to be ignored. But the biggest problem with the ranged weapons is that you can only aim and fire them when an enemy is close enough, and due to the slow charge up time before you can fire, I found them rarely useful in any open combat. Same was true when trying to fight animals such as wolves. You would see them coming, but by the time the game would allow you to start aiming, you would end up getting into the close range quick time events that typically happen with wild animals, making the ranged weapon useless. Oh, and in one mission with some scripted wolf attacks, the quick time events wouldn't work for some reason, so I was left having to run up a tree and try to pick them off from up there.

I also found it very hard to pick up weapons on the ground in combat if I had enemies close by. I could never get the 'pick up weapon' option to appear for long enough before getting struck. And since there was another bug that seemed to make my sword sometimes vanish when I travelled, this left me falling back to the tomahawk to deal with a mob of enemies far too often.

Side Missions

There are a whole set of naval side missions that were all very fun. The handling of the ship was easy and intuitive, and naval battles were exciting and the right level of challenge. You can upgrade your ship, but this tends to be very expensive, and since money can generally only be gained by doing other side quests, is not really worth doing unless you've got plenty of time to kill.

The assassin recruit feature is back, though you're limited to a maximum of 6, and the whole minigame of sending them off on quests is not as much fun as before. It used to be a fun strategy of picking missions with different levels of risk and reward, but there is very little difference between mission rewards this time, and the trick of sending a rookie with a veteran on a mission to level up faster no longer works. This means that levelling up your assassins is much more of a grind, and I found I rarely had them available to help me in my missions because I always had them sent off on their own ones.

All the minigames were fun, being recreations of real world games. Diana and I both found ourselves playing checkers or nine man morris, something we would probably never bother to do normally, so it felt good to actually practice a real world game.

The whole crafting and trading system was interesting but felt a bit pointless. You go to a lot of effort to unlock different craftsmen, which lets you use new recipes for items, but other than crafting specific items for your own character like bigger ammo pouches, I couldn't see much value in it. I still found myself generally just purchasing animal skins and selling those. Maybe more valuable items can be crafted later on? Also, trading tended to just be tedious, where you would just repeat the same action numerous times to fill a caravan to send off to trade. You can easily make a lot of money if you invest the time in this, but it feels like such a pointless grind.


Like all Assassin's Creed games, this one is very pretty. The amount of detail in the world is great, with your view always feeling full of lots of objects. City streets are appropriately cluttered, while the countryside is full of vegetation, tree stumps and so on. I never noticed any repeating textures on terrain, which is typical in open world games.

Water is gorgeous, and the naval missions really allow you to appreciate it. One mission in particular has you navigating giant rogue waves which were excellently implemented. Other effects like rain and snow are well done, and the fact that you get to visit each location in both summer and winter (as well as with a dynamic day/night cycle) is very cool.

Final Thoughts

I would definitely recommend Assassin's Creed III despite the bugs, though I would suggest waiting until a major bugfix patch gets released. This will definitely happen since many of the bugs are quite irritating but look like they will not be major issues to fix.

If this were the first or second game in a series you would cut them a lot more slack with these bugs, but as the fifth game in the series there is simply no excuse for it. It's good that they tried to innovate with this game, but that's not a good enough excuse for the quality level to regress. If we're going to be forced to have so many sequels these days rather than original content, we should at least demand that quality improves each time.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Reality Check

Many atheists say that religion is harmful, dangerous, and the cause of a lot of suffering in the world. Religious people tend to reject this classification, pointing out all of the other things that cause problems in the world, and will often claim that if religion didn't exist we would still find plenty of ways to make our fellow man suffer. While I absolutely agree with religious people on this point, I want to discuss in this post a particular missing attribute of religious belief that makes it uniquely dangerous and deserving of being singled out: the reality check.


We all have countless beliefs in things. It's a necessary part of making sense of the world. Whether it's the belief in gravity, in the equality of men and women, or that unicorns exist. Beliefs can be founded on two things: evidence or faith. In practice, since no belief can be 100% proven based on evidence, we tailor the strength of different beliefs based on the strength of evidence. There are many things we may believe that we haven't explicitly gone out and searched for evidence for, and it might be tempting to call this faith, but it really isn't, and always has a basis in facts and evidence.

For example, you might say that I have faith that Italy exists, since I have never been there and I'm trusting the word of others who say it exists. Is this faith? Not at all. There is a wealth of different types of data, such as books, movies, documentaries, conversations with people, that are on the whole consistent in their claims to Italy's existence. But what is more important, there are plenty of ways I could go out and gather further evidence on whether Italy exists or not if I so choose. No one is forcing me to just take their word on the issue.


The key factor that makes religion dangerous is faith. Faith, far from being a virtue, is what makes people cling to bad ideas despite lack of evidence, or even worse, despite direct evidence that the belief is false. You can't reason with faith. You can't present evidence to shake it. People with strong beliefs based on faith are often proud of the fact that they do not require evidence for their belief, and religions sometimes even tap into this and promote it as virtuous.

Faith isn't unique to religions, though. It is a typical part of many types of ideology. When you get a set of beliefs that must be accepted without proof, you start getting into dangerous territory. And when you suppress debate, discussion and contrary viewpoints to that ideology, that's when evil things tend to happen. This is the cause of a lot of the large scale suffering that does not stem from religion, e.g. Soviet Communism, pure unregulated capitalism.

The Reality Check

Evidence-based beliefs naturally are subjected to reality checks on a regular basis. Every piece of evidence is a test of whether a belief is consistent with reality. It can sometimes take a long time for the truth to be determined, but at least a mechanism exists for this to happen, and so we can be confident that bad beliefs will eventually be revealed as more evidence is gathered. (Note that this confidence is not faith, since it is based on a strong provable history of this mechanism working, and without a solid reason to expect this to change, the most defensible position is to expect the future to follow the same pattern as the past).

Faith-based beliefs don't typically rely on evidence and so don't have reality checks built in, but as long as a belief makes claims about the real world, evidence can be used to strengthen or weaken it. So, for example, if a person believes on faith that the world is 6000 years old, there is plenty of evidence that can be raised against this belief. The believer may choose to ignore the evidence and keep believing anyway, but the burden of cognitive dissonance will grow stronger as the evidence piles up, and there is at least a chance that eventually the believer will be forced to deal with it.

But what about beliefs that don't make claims about the real world? What if you believe that your suffering in this world will be rewarded after you die? What if you believe that killing a bunch of innocent people is what God wants you to do, and he will give you virgins in the afterlife if you do it? What if you believe that a person must not end their suffering from a horrible terminal illness by taking their own life, or having another person assist with this, because there will be worse punishment after death for it? What if you believe that people reincarnate and disabled/deformed people did something wrong in their previous life, and so deserve their suffering in this life rather than our support and kindness?

The danger with these sorts of beliefs is that they can never be disproved. There is no possible evidence, even in theory, that can prove the beliefs to be false. There can never be a reality check. When religions make claims about the physical world, such as the age of the universe, or that a piece of wafer gets converted into the flesh of a dead man, these claims can be made to smash hard against the rocky shore of reality. But when claims are made that fall beyond the realms of the physical universe, such as the nature of god and his decree of what is right and wrong, these beliefs float, untouchable, above the messy battlefields of reality where beliefs survive or die based on evidence.

Final Thoughts

Religion deserves to be singled out as a uniquely dangerous faith-based belief system, unlike other faith-based ideologies such as political, social, and economic systems, or straight ignorant beliefs that simply ignore evidence, such as sexism and racism, because it makes claims that can never be checked against reality, not even in principle. When these claims are used by believers to justify behaviours in the real world that negatively affect other living beings, it is very hard to bring about voluntary change from believers, because there is no way to prove to them that their core beliefs are wrong. Only by demanding intellectual honesty and getting believers to admit that their beliefs have no proof, and that believing something simply because you want it to be true is not good enough, can you bring about change, and this is far from a trivial task.

Acknowledgements: This post was inspired by chapter 3 of the book Why Are You Atheists So Angry? by Greta Christina, a very good book based on the atheist writings in her blog. I highly recommend the audio version of the book, enthusiastically read by the author herself.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Linearity, Freedom, and Dishonored

I'm a big fan of games that provide freedom, or at least certain types of freedom. My favourite type are open world games that allow you to explore and discover cool and interesting things. Games like Fallout 3, Skyrim, Assassin's Creed.

The next best type are games that have a linear level progression, but allow a lot of freedom in how you approach each level, and support different gameplay styles. This would be games like Deus Ex, Crysis, and the newly released Dishonored.

Dishonored is quite a good game, a brand new IP having appeared largely out of nowhere for most people, full of fun gameplay set in a beautifully realized world with an interesting story to pull you through. The gameplay options are genuinely interesting and encouraging of replay, while the game itself is of modest enough length that multiple playthroughs can reasonably be done by people that have jobs and shit to do.

Diana and I are halfway through our third playthrough at the moment, and we're still discovering new and cool things. The game has swordplay, gunplay, an assortment of different supernatural skills to unlock, and also supports the option to not kill a single person, which is quite interesting for a game based on assassinating people!

We did our first playthrough doing a blend of all of the gameplay options, sometimes stealthing, sometimes running around killing everything that moves, and generally getting a good sample of everything the game has to offer. Second time through was full stealth without killing anyone. And now we're playing it full action without using supernatural abilities.


The game is set across 9 missions, each with primary and optional objectives, often with objectives being changed or added during each mission. This is particularly true when going for the non-lethal approach, since you often have to discover the way to achieve the non-lethal outcome by talking to NPCs or overhearing guards' conversations. I really liked this approach, since it helped make exploration feel like a core part of the game, and not just something to do to find collectibles.

There is no game map, which helps encourage exploration and also makes the game feel more immersive. So that you don't feel too confused, some missions start with a boat ride that lets you get a big picture view of the level, and some sections actually have a simple map on a wall that can help you get your bearings. Generally you don't need this to figure a level out, though I sometimes found myself frustrated when trying to reach an objective marker but finding that the door to get there is quite distant, and that I've just carefully stealthed to a location for nothing.

Missions are of variable length, which is a nice touch, since it feels as though the designers have gone ahead and made each level contain just what they wanted it to have, without an obvious 'x minutes of gameplay' target in mind.


Magic abilities can be unlocked by finding runes in the world, and the skills you choose to unlock can have a very big impact on how you play. You are started with the Blink ability, which allows teleporting over short distances, and is surprisingly useful. You can move from cover to cover without being spotted, you can navigate the world, you can cover the distance to an enemy to make a surprise attack.

Possessing things is another very useful ability. When you possess something, your body disappears, and then reappears when the possession wears out. This allows you to use possession as a way to get from one place to another undetected. You can possess rats and fish to get through otherwise inaccessible tunnels, or possess a guard to get through a security point.

Other abilities are slowing down or freezing time, enhanced vision to see enemies or useful items through walls, creating a swarm of rats, and more run of the mill ones like increased health or movement ability.


The city of Dunwall has a Bioshock / Half Life 2 feel to it, with some 19th century British Empire thrown in. I really liked the combination, feeling both familiar yet clearly not part of our own timeline. The use of whale oil as the core energy commodity was different and interesting.

There is a richly realized world here that can be learned about via books that can be found throughout the game, kind of like the Elder Scrolls games. I admit that I didn't read many of these, but it was good to see the effort put in to making an immersive world.

The world changes based on the way you play it, with it becoming darker and more hostile the more people you kill. Through most of the game this just means more rats and weepers (infected zombie-like people), but the last couple of levels have more significant changes. The overall storyline remains the same, but the differences are noticeable and welcome.


The enemies are mostly human, with a nice variety of weaponry and skill levels. Some guards just have swords, while others have pistols and are often also more skilled with swords, dodging your own strikes and kicking you backwards. There are assassins with some of the same supernatural abilities that you have, and even a type of guard who can suppress all magic use in the area until you kill him.

There are good, simple readabilities to tell you of an enemy's alert state: a sound stinger plays when an enemy gets alerted, and icons above the head show the alert level. Guards will do basic patrol and search behaviours, but there are no real group behaviours. A guard can raise an alarm to bring in reinforcements, but they all tend to act independently.

One nice touch I noticed is that when you hack an electrified sentry and one guard sees another guard get killed by it, he will keep his distance and throw stuff at you instead.

Bad Things

There aren't that many things that bothered me with Dishonored, and they are mostly minor. You can buy stuff but you can't sell, which is a shame when you're playing in one gameplay style so you may have a full load of sleeping darts or crossbow bolts that you'd love to switch for something else, but are forced to just uselessly carry the whole game.

There are a small number of save slots, and once full, the game will always default to the most recent slot, rather than the oldest, which to me seems much more useful, rather than having to scroll to the bottom of the list every time I save.

They use some levels more than once, though with large changes to them. This isn't such a bad thing, since the familiarity can be useful, but with such a pretty and interesting world, I wanted to see more of it, not the same places!

Final Thoughts

I would definitely recommend Dishonored. It reminds me of so many other games in different aspects, which gives it a certain familiarity while also being new and unique at the same time. Lots of good ideas have been put together into a pretty, fun, and well polished package.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Video Game Demographics 2012

The ESA (Entertainment Software Association) has released its report on sales and demographic data for games for 2012:

There were various statistics in the document that I found particularly interesting:

Women account for 47% of gamers.

We can basically say at this point that women play games as much as men do, given the roughly 1:1 ratio of men to women in the general population. This statistic doesn't take into account the amount of gaming done by each gender though, and personally I'd be surprised if women have the same average playing time per week as men, though I'd expect the gap to be closing.

There are more women gamers aged 18 and over than there are male gamers under 18.

It's well known that the games industry is heavily skewed towards making and marketing games for under 18 males. I think gamers in all other demographics generally lament this fact, and it's definitely shifting as more games are made for mature, adult gamers and also for younger female gamers. However, the fact that there are over 50% more female adult gamers than males gamers under 18 shows just how much the games industry may be missing out on marketing opportunities, and the chance to have a real audience for games that don't revolve around excessive violence and scantily clad women (the industry still can't quite handle the concept of nudity very well, for better or worse).

Puzzle and trivia type games account for over 40% of online and mobile games.

This probably isn't too surprising in the mobile space, since other genres like action/shooter games don't really translate as well to the mobile format, and also to the types of situations where mobiles games are played, which will favour short games or games that can be stopped and started frequently. Online and mobile games are an increasing category, so we can probably expect to continue seeing these kinds of games crowd out other game types.

Sports games account for nearly 15% of console games, but only 0.6% of computer games, while strategy games account for 27.6% of computer games, but only 2.8% of video games.

Now, to be fair, a large part of this is probably due to the fact that strategy games are generally best controlled with keyboard/mouse, while sports games work best with a gamepad. It still tends to confirm the stereotype that consoles are for jocks while PCs are for nerds!

The Sims titles account for 7 of the top 20 computer games sold in 2011.

This just strikes me as rather sad for the PC market, but also rather amazing. I've never actually met a person who plays The Sims, or at least admits to doing so, let alone buying 6 expansions packs! Who are all these people? Is this where the female gamers are spending their time, rather than playing the latest FPS? It seems quite odd to me that this game and its expansions seems to sit there racking up serious revenue without there ever being that much noise made about it. Or, more cynically given the current state of PC gaming, maybe there isn't much overlap between people who play The Sims and people who know how to pirate games!

Stats I'd like to see

I was a bit disappointed that there wasn't more breakdown of female vs male gaming habits, simply because I think females are still definitely treated as 'lesser' gamers by the industry. Though, admittedly, seeing what games females buy won't necessarily tell us what games they'd actually like to play, since they can only buy what someone has bothered to make.

I'd also like to see a breakdown of game types and gamer ages against the purchase price of games. These days we have a very broad spectrum of payment models for games: free, 'freemium' (free to play, but you have to pay to unlock certain features or make progression faster), low price 99c App Store type titles, then all the way up to full price AAA titles. You need a lot of people playing a 99c game to have the same financial impact as one person buying a premium title, and this could make an important difference to how we interpret the results. Puzzle and trivia games will generally be cheaper than action/shooter games, which means that they could represent a larger proportion of the games being played while still accounting for a smaller proportion of overall revenue.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Why Arkham City Left Us Underwhelmed

Note: This post contains plenty of spoilers for the game Batman Arkham City, so if you don't want it spoiled, it's really not safe to ready any of it!

Diana and I played Arkham City over the weekend, and while we thought it was a good game, we didn't think it was a great game. I know that this is contrary to the opinion of most of the gaming world, and I don't think it's a case of "We're right, everyone else is wrong", so I thought it would be worth gathering my thoughts on why we were left a bit disappointed. I'd love to hear insights from others to explain things we might have misunderstood or that might help us look at it differently.

First let me be clear that we are not comic book or superhero fans. Most people probably approach a game like Arkham City, or a movie like The Avengers, with the thought, "I hope they finally do justice to my beloved characters/story/etc". However, for us we tend to approach from the opposite side of things: "I hope they've made a movie/game that appeals to a person who is not already a fan of this character."

I think Arkham City is probably a pretty good game if you're a Batman fan, but if your not, I don't think it's going to make you one. It certainly didn't for us. Keep in mind that we played Arkham Asylum previously, and again we thought it was good but not great. Overall I think I liked that game more that Arkham City, but I was concerned that the various things that bothered me with it would exist in Arkham City too, and that's why we haven't played the game until now.

The superhero genre

One major issue is about the very nature of the superhero genre. We're not at all fans of it! Some superhero stories work better than others, but on the whole, it always tends to feel a bit silly and juvenile to me. When I say juvenile, I don't mean that only a child should enjoy it, but rather that it tends to have an outlook on the world and the nature of good and evil that is closer to how a child views the world than a mature adult.

Vigilantism in itself isn't a problem. Going out and dealing with petty criminals because law enforcement isn't doing it can be a reasonable concept to work with. But no one wants to watch Batman or Superman or Spiderman just beat up purse snatchers constantly. So instead comics need to invent supervillians and criminal masterminds that are challenge for them, and more entertaining for the reader. Superheroes only work in a world where the biggest problem is supervillians.

But this is far removed from the real world. Major problems can rarely be boiled down to a single evil figure. They're usually much more complicated than that. But even when you can identify individuals who can pull a lot of strings on their own, they tend to be boring people in business suits that occupy a lot of legal grey area, rather than someone like, say, Hitler. Having Batman walk into a Goldman Sachs boardroom and punch Lloyd Blankfein in the face isn't going to be a very satisfying story, and it doesn't restore the pension funds that his company helped to wipe out in the global financial crisis, so there's no real sense of justice. Beating up the heads of Union Carbide over the Bhopal gas leak disaster doesn't really feel like it actually achieves justice.

Being nonlethal

I get particularly bothered by Batman not using guns or other highly effective weapons to take down criminals. In the context of a game like Arkham City where he is frequently having to deal with multiple enemies who all have guns and are actively trying to kill him, it just feels silly to have him try to take them out one by one with his fists and other nonlethal means. Action bubbles in the game need to be set up carefully to allow this to be a viable tactic, and this becomes obvious and as a result it bothers me and pulls me out of the game. I end up thinking, "Wow, lucky this room has all of these convenient high perches for Batman to sit on, otherwise he'd be screwed."

It also doesn't make much sense from a legal point of view. In reality, if Bruce Wayne were ever caught and exposed, he would be going to jail for the rest of his life for the thousands of assaults he's committed and various other laws he's broken. The fact that he doesn't kill people isn't going to help much. And when he constantly leaves supervillains alive knowing that they're going to become free again, and that they will then go and kill others shows a reckless disregard for those inevitable victims that makes him almost culpable for their deaths. In a world where violent insane people cannot be successfully imprisoned, letting them live is reckless and irresponsible.

General issues with the game world

Back to the game itself. We were excited by the concept of having an open world to explore, since we both tend to be big fans of open world games. However, in the case of Arkham City, the world was very samey and uninteresting, and exploration didn't seem to be much of a reward for its own sake. Everything was just dark and run down, and there's nothing really interesting to find, or at least if there is, we didn't come across it. Sure, there's Riddler puzzles, but a really good open world will be a joy to travel around just to see the sights. And excellent ones, like Fallout 3 and Skyrim reward exploration by having all sorts of interesting quests to come across, people to meet, and locations with enough detail that you can piece together a story of what happened there in the past. I didn't get any of this from Arkham City.

I also found navigation to often be tedious, particularly on timed challenges. When gliding around and using the grapple to propel Batman I would sometimes end up heading in the wrong direction and having to try and correct it before slamming into something. It reminded me of the original Assassin's Creed, where you felt like you were fighting the controls too much.


The puzzles in the game were generally quite good and I enjoyed that element of the gameplay. However, they did a bad job of introducing all of the different gadgets. Unless you played linearly through the first few story missions without exploring you weren't introduced to each gadget, and without playing the previous game you would not easily know it was there. I got caught early on in a Riddler puzzle that had me stuck in a closed room, until I realized that I had explosive gel already and could use it to blow open the floor.

The other problem is that you start with a bunch of gadgets, but you then also get other ones during the game. This means, though, that when you encounter something like a Riddler puzzle, you can waste a lot of time trying to figure out if you just can't work the puzzle out, or if you don't yet have the magic gadget required to solve it. It's bad design for a game with puzzles to not make it clear if you're in a position to solve that puzzle or not.

General Gameplay

 The gameplay is mostly good and I understand why people enjoy it. There is good use of gadgets and detective mode is very cool. The melee system is good, but I found fighting got dull and repetitive after a while. They introduced some new weapons and enemy behaviours as the game progressed, but it just wasn't enough to keep me interested. Having recently played Sleeping Dogs, I think we were spoiled by what is probably a similar but better melee system. But Sleeping Dogs also had the advantage of both melee and gun based combat, with the game very nicely transitioning from mostly melee in the first half to mostly guns towards the end, which kept the fighting interesting.

The checkpoint system tended to bug me a bit, particularly when you'd traverse a large part of the open world to reach a location for the next objective, but then get killed fighting enemies before you can get into the objective. This would then require you to re-traverse the world all over again. It was particularly annoying as Catwoman, who generally took longer to travel large distances.

I also found it annoying when you finished at a location (usually with a boss fight of some sort), and then it wasn't clear where you had to go next to get out. Had a new exit opened up nearby, or did you have to do a whole lot of backtracking? Both of those cases happened at various times, and in general I found myself consulting the internet more often than I would have liked to figure out where to go next without wasting a bunch of time because I didn't stumble across the one linear option the game had decided on.


Overall I found the AI to be good but unremarkable. Since I play a lot of AAA titles I tend to have a pretty high bar for a game to do something with the AI to impress me, and I can't think of anything that really stood out in this game. All the enemy readabilities were fairly nicely done and you could get a good sense of what they were thinking, but again this should be considered standard for a AAA title.

I was disappointed by the lack of group behaviour. Enemies would communicate with each other, but their behaviours were all pretty independent, other than spacing out nicely around you during melee combat. I blame this mainly on the gameplay constraints imposed by Batman's limited combat abilities (in the gunplay sections). Batman can generally only take on armed opponents by singling them out one at a time, so in these action bubbles, while it would make a lot more sense for them to stick together and cover each other, they tend to just go patrolling on their own even when they know Batman is there, like teenagers in a bad horror movie.


In the end, I think it was various aspects of the story that disengaged me from the game the most. Batman seemed to make bafflingly stupid decisions that just made me stop caring about the story at all. It sometimes felt like he was the main character from Memento, not remembering what had just happened 2 minutes before hand. I'll briefly list the ones that bugged me the most:
  • He leaves Harvey Dent hanging in the courthouse in the beginning to get rescued by his buddies, so Catwoman ends up having to deal with him again later on. Why not at least lock him in the empty cell in the very basement of that building? (of course he should just kill him, but we've been over that already)
  • Repeatedly helping and sparing the life of the Joker despite the constant threat he presents.
  • Hearing a big sob story from Mr Freeze and agreeing to go and rescue his wife literally seconds after having Freeze turn on him and try his hardest to kill him. Batman appears to have bipolar disorder the way he switches between being friends and enemies with some of these characters.
  • Not becoming the head of the League of Shadows, which could have let him discover earlier that they were behind everything, and would also allow him, as head of the organization, to stop them and thus remove them as a threat. Other than wiping them all out (which he won't do because he doesn't kill), what better way to remove their threat than by becoming their leader? Not to mention having the added possibility of near immortality, something that might be just slightly handy in Batman's line of work!

Final Thoughts

This review is far more negative sounding than I would have liked, since for the most part I enjoyed the game. I guess I wanted to point out all of these issues because there is such high praise for this game everywhere else and so I didn't really need to go over the positive points so much. In the end I mainly want to explain why I think that Arkham City is still just a game for fans, and I don't believe it's the transcendent gaming experience that will please everyone, which is what many people have tried to claim. Hopefully I've made a reasonable case for that, and not just come across as a hater!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Lance Armstrong, Doping, and the Rules of Sport

I'm not a person who follows any sports as a fan, so I tend to come at issues like drug use in professional sports as a bit of an outsider. The recent controversy with Lance Armstrong being stripped of his Tour De France titles got me thinking about several aspects of professional sport that bother me.

Let me say up front that I think Armstrong probably is guilty of doping, and that I don't think he should have his titles taken from him. Contradictory? Read on!

The Joy of Pissing Into a Container

The first point of concern here is the rampant use of, not drugs, but drug testing in sports. It's just accepted as a standard thing these days, but taking frequent drugs tests is kind of demeaning and humiliating. Whether it's urine samples or blood tests, it's still a violation of your person and it has the implication that you are being treated as guilty until proven innocent, both things that shouldn't be taken lightly.

I'm not necessarily saying that drug testing shouldn't be done at all in sports (though I probably am saying that), but I do think that when you subject athletes to hundreds of drug tests, as Armstrong has been, then at the very least you should be willing to stand behind those tests and accept them as valid. If Armstrong can pass hundreds of drug tests over his career with flying colours and then still have things like this doping issue come up years later, then we're basically saying that not only are athletes being demeaned regularly at the time they compete, but on top of that they will still be accused of cheating afterwards anyway, basically giving them the worst of both worlds.

Who Won the Tour De France Then?

Various top cyclists have claimed that 'everyone' at the highest levels of professional competitive cycling dopes or uses drugs of some sort. This is in fact part of the argument against Armstrong; that he can't possibly have been beating all of these other cyclists who were doping unless he was too.

If this level of cheating is really happening, then who do you even call the winner in the Tours De France that Armstrong won? Everyone passed their drug tests, so who was the best performer in each event that you can confidently say didn't cheat?

Who Sets the Rules?

When 'everyone' at the highest levels of a sport is cheating, is it really cheating? Various organizations make the rules for each sport, and decide which substances are allowed and which are banned. But who really is in the best position to decide what is okay? If most of the top athletes in any sport are doing something, then I think that's a very strong argument that what they are doing is not wrong, and that the rules are out of date. These are the actual people dedicating their lives to the pursuit of some pointless, arbitrary activity, and if they don't feel that taking some particular substance diminishes the 'purity' of that activity, then shouldn't this more or less be the definition of what that sport is? I would apply the same reasoning to changing rules in a sport too.

Which Enhancements are Okay?

Over time we continue to make advances in nutrition and technology, and these things impact on sports. Better cycles, aerodynamic helmets and clothing, all of these things can improve a person's performance. A better diet, supplementation with protein, vitamins, all sorts of substances can also improve a person's performance. It's a very grey and muddy area deciding which things should be acceptable and which shouldn't. Do you care if your favourite athlete is taking steroids? EPO? Creatine? Cold and flu tablets? Pain killers? Caffeine? Multivitamins? Protein shakes?

If a competing athlete has, say, a naturally high testosterone level, would you have a problem with other athletes taking supplements that boosted their testosterone to the exact same level? In the not too distant future gene therapy will make it possible to enhance our bodies at the genetic level, giving us all sorts of performance enhancement possibilities that will be totally undetectable. At that point, people will either need to figure out what the purpose of competitive sports actually is, or pine for the good old days when people just did blood doping and steroids!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

God the Game Developer

Countless volumes have been written contemplating the nature of God. People much smarter than me have invented all kinds of intricate logical reasoning to explain why he does what he does, and doesn't do what he doesn't do.

The problem, of course, is that if you start with faulty premises, no matter how clever your reasoning is from that point, it's all basically wasted effort. The most obvious faulty premise here is that a god must exist. Sure, it's possible that some supernatural being exists and is the direct cause of our universe, but without evidence it is pure speculation. It certainly shouldn't be treated as an axiom!

What I find more interesting, though, is the persistence of attributes that are frequently assigned to god, and then used as further premises on which to base even more pointless philosophical speculation. Coming up with explanations for questions such as, "If God is good, why does he let bad things happen to good people", is a complete waste of time if the premise "God is good" is wrong, yet very smart people persist in doing exactly this.

The most common attributes people like to gift God with are:
  • Omniscience (all knowing)
  • Omnipotence (all powerful)
  • Omnipresence (is everywhere)
  • Omnibenevolence (all good)
I'll ignore the philosophical debates about precisely how you define each of these terms, and just go with what should be reasonable, intuitive definitions. What I'm curious about is why people have always assigned these attributes to God.

My best guess is that people tend to assume that any being capable of bringing an entire universe into existence must be extremely powerful, and these attributes seem reasonable ones to expect that being to have. Omnibenevolence is a bit of an exception though, since I think it's probably easier to argue that the universe was created by a malevolent being, given the overall amount of suffering experienced by so many living things on Earth.

However, now that we have the ability to create worlds of our own, via computer simulation, I think we can look at the nature of God a little differently. Games developers are well aware of our own limitations when it comes to interacting with the worlds we create, and so in what follows I will look at each of the traits mentioned above from the point of view of the game developer and his creation.


In theory, we can gather any information we want from a game world. We control all of the data. We can pause the simulation at will and collect whatever we want, giving us the seeming ability to know everything. The problem is that it's not always a straightforward thing to do to gather all the relevant pieces of information, analyze them, and then output them in a way that is useful and intuitive.

The other problem is that each act of data gathering and interpretation needs to be an active choice. We can only know the things that we've thought to look for. If there's something really interesting happening somewhere in the game world but we didn't know to look for it, we will miss it.


It seems fairly obvious that we can manipulate the worlds that we create. We usually give ourselves the ability to do things like spawn objects into the world, move things around, maybe even change the state of a creatures 'brain' to make it behave differently. If we want to do something novel that we didn't give ourselves the ability to do already, we can usually add these abilities in as needed (Especially if we're using Runtime Compiled C++!)

What we can't do is things that we don't have the skill/knowledge/ability to figure out how to do. For example, if your AI uses neural networks to store its knowledge and representation of the world, where facts are not stored as discrete pieces of information, but rather distributed across multiple link and node weights, good luck figuring out how to manipulate that in a deliberate way to achieve a specific result, without getting a whole heap of unintended side effects.

So power is limited by the intelligence and skill of the person, and this then limits exactly what powers we can wield in a simulation.


We can pause a simulation and look anywhere at anything, but to actually look everywhere at everything? That takes a lot of effort, which is a big deal, even if time were not a factor, because just as most people can't memorize the entire contents of a book, being able to look at everything in a game world and remember what you've seen in any useful way is not a given thing.

Also, when looking at things, we run into the problem of scale. If you look at, say, a forest in the real world, whether you're looking at the scale of the trees, the insects, the microbes, or the atoms, there are very different things to observe. Being able to be everywhere and see everything on every scale is a pretty tall order, and in the end, like omniscience, it comes down to looking for specific things, and writing the tools to see those things. But if we don't think to look for something, we're going to miss it.


It would certainly be possible to be kind and caring towards the creatures in your simulated world. If your world involves some creatures killing other creatures you've got a tougher problem of explaining the way you set up your world as 'kind' or 'good' or 'just', but this is hardly a problem unique to simulated worlds.

What is interesting, though, is that in so many of the game worlds that we create, if there is a way to be an asshole, some people will try it. There is a reason that so many games have morality systems and allow good and evil choices. This is true whether you're playing a character in the world or take on the role of master controller in a god simulation game.

The point is that, even if you can formulate a consistent definition of goodness and the world you've created allows for this, there is no reason to see this as any kind of requirement. It's simply just one possible way you could control the world, but it doesn't seem any more likely than being an evil god, or an indifferent one, or a mischievous one.

Final Thoughts

I don't know if other people find discussions like this interesting, but hopefully I've inspired some other games developers to think a bit about our relationship with the worlds that we create. If the creatures in those worlds could ponder the nature of their creator, what would they think of us, based on the things we do and the way we treat them? Right now we don't have any real ethical issues to worry about because our created worlds are not that sophisticated, but if we one day reach the point that the creatures in these worlds start appearing to exhibit something like self awareness, we will have to take these issues seriously, and it will be a very interesting time.