To dick or not to dick ?

Apple has never been known to be a nice company to be around, and is very much alike its iconic co-founder in this regard : fanatically vision driven, frequently bright, proven right against the common wisdom of its detractors (and supporters) more often than its turn, but also certifiably  sociopathic …and it's alright to be all those things, really — as long as it serves a greater purpose, and works. 

In Apple's case, this manic drive has been a key factor not just in the company's survival (if barely, at times) but also in its changing and shaping the landscape of personal computing, and how we live with our gadgets on a day-to-day basis, whether you use Apple products or not.

When Jeebus was still a mere serial-baby-seal-clubber.

I believe it is no longer the case, and that Apple has jumped the shark from cruel to be kind to drunk on its own kool-aid
To wit, pretty much everything newsworthy on the Apple front over the past two years has been about it displaying the stupendous amounts of incompetence and dickishness we're more accustomed to expect from the likes of SONY or Microsoft, without much in the way of redeeming flashes in innovative marketing brilliance that are supposed to distract us from the Cult of Steve's abusive relationship with its followers.

[Full disclosure : I've been using, fixing, hacking and doing mundane and weird stuff with Macs for over 20 years, professionally at times. I'm also familiar with Microsoft platforms since the DOS era, and have ran a few other OSes as daily workhorses, including BSD variants and BeOS. I'm currently sharing my computing time between MacOSX 10.6 (~65%), Android ICS/JB (~20%), WinXP (~5%) and Win7 (~10%). My browsers of choice are Chrome and Firefox (desktop), Opera Mobile and Dolphin (mobile). I don't really fancy long walks on the beach, but I'll happily meet you at the bar afterwards. Market shares % and other figures in this article, unless explictely linked, result from the conflation of various sources, smoothed with my thumb.]

His Jobiness, speaking the truth to his followers.

Of course, much of what can be held against Apple isn't exactly new : the Cupertino firm has always treated its devoted flock like crap, failing to acknowledge the debt it owns to its peculiar ecosystem of loyal customers, employees and third party developers. Only now, it starts to look like the harem of battered wives it has built for itself may think about seeing other people.

For all the self-entitled abuse it imposes upon its users and partners, Apple used to offer a few things no other company did : a comparatively reliable, trustworthy hardware and software environments, access to high-value niche products/customers, plus a strong, if screwed-up brand culture, and enough gems of genuine vision to infuse the whole thing with its unique love-it-or-hate-it flavor. Oh, and also the Mac's cool GUI and (relatively) painless learning curve.
In short, embracing the Apple platform meant paying a steeper price upfront, compensated in uniqueness and consistency (and arguably lower CoO in the mid-term).

It doesn't hurt that Microsoft used to do such a good job of RP'ing the ebil empire, either : going the Mac way was sexy and edgy on a cultural/political level, back when it meant doing the chic rebellious thing (as opposed to the then-loony rebellious thing of running a ghetto OS like Amiga or Linux).
Things have changed quite a bit since, however, and Apple making a killing both in the desktop and mobile markets means it no longer gets to play the underdog card. APPL isn't just valued sky-high, it's also the largest, most profitable single vendor of tablets, smartphones, multimedia handhelds and laptop computers today, which is hardly grounds for anyone to cry over MacOS X still-marginal share of the PC market.

But that's not how Apple sees it, apparently : the with us or against us mentality is still in full force at Cupertino, and it is examplified by the campaign of bullyish lawsuits they've been waging lately, and their generally anti-competitive, gun-crazy stance, all of which have not proven successful enough to vindicate their views in  the public eye. Add to that the Foxconn mess, and the down in perceived value of the Apple platform, thanks to SONY-grade horror stories about Apple's declining Quality Insurance and customer service & support practices, and it's no mystery why aftermarket logo-covering shells for MacBooks are selling so well.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has been regaining some ground in public perception, with Windows 7 proving a usable product, and now Windows 8, for the first time ever, possibly putting MS ahead of the Apple curve in GUI evolution... just when Apple is having its own Vista moment. Thanks to many users stubbornly sticking to MacOS 10.6, because the 10.7-10.8 iOS-inspired releases do nothing for them, the supposedly obsolete OS earned a reprieve.

Apple employees, hard at work to improve the customer experience.

The most glaring example of Apple's worldview drifting towards the pointlessly dickish is probably the 2012 launch of the Lightning power/bus connector : not only does it not add any significative value in terms of features and functionalities over the preceding 30-pin connectors, but it introduces an incompatibility with existing peripherals and accessories (both Apple's and third-party's) that can only be (somewhat) solved by buying overpriced adapters from Apple*.

Much like the Lions-class OSes, Lightning fails to justify its existence to anyone but Apple itself, as it doesn't bring enough extra value relative to the restrictions it imposes to many users and developers to warrant the upgrade, and instead hinges on the certainty that people simply won't have a choice but to go the Apple way. The company is not half-assing it, either, going out of its way to try and stop users and third-party vendors from bridging the compatibility gaps and jump over the garden walls inasmuch as it can.

This walled garden mentality, seemingly vindicated by the success of the iPod/Phone/Pad lines and the iOS Appstore, may turn out to be problematic however, if Apple finds itself facing serious competition on the fronts where it traditionally dominates : ease of use, reliability, and brand prestige.
It's not so much that Apple has been losing its marketing edge, although the overhyped Cult of Steve thingie may be backfiring since the demise of Jobs**, and more about the likes of Google, Samsung or ASUS relentless efforts to best Apple at its own game. Android smartphones and tablets offerings cover a much wider range than Apple's, and no longer fall short in the high-end tier, often matching or exceeding Apple's products in features, looks, polish and ease of use, usually for cheaper.
Meanwhile, the prevalent attitude among Android vendors towards open standards, multiple appstores and interoperability with foreign environments is one of comparative openness : many Android-based hardware makers have opted to no longer interfere with rooting / jailbreaking, and some even go so far as releasing source and documentation to facilitate better support of their devices by third-party devs and the hacker community.

At this writing, Apple keeps the upper hand both on the mobile hardware and OS fronts, and still leads in prestige and brand popularity. Largely because of the plethoric hardware offer on the Android side of things, hardware vendors are reluctant to coordinate and invest in cultivating the Android  brand and customer loyalty, which are likely to benefit their competitors just as much as their own product line.
On the other hand, Google — as the standard-bearer of the Android forces — is doing a fairly good job of addressing the brand dilution issue by presenting a simple, easily grasped hardware lineup in its NEXUS series (lately of LG, Samsung and ASUS making) and is having a field day making Apple look like a sourpuss has-been, despite Apple commanding over half of the entire tablet and smartphone market all by itself.

On the desktop/laptop front, Apple success is relative to where it's coming back from : at roughly 12% of the total PC OS market, vs about 85% for all Windows variants, it's not exactly in a dominant position, even though it's certainly one of the most profitable hardware vendors, thanks to the top-tier position and higher than average margins of its products line (prices range from $1,000 to $4,000). That leaves Apple way behind the HP-Dell duo in market shares (each controls about 22% of the market), but still growing while the others decline, thanks to a much more loyal customer base and to the gateway drug effect of its tablets, smartphones and handhelds, to end up  just as profitable as the leaders — if not more.

Apple products are for thinkers, of thoughts.

Apple's core edge lies in the branding and functional synergy between its PC, OS and mobile offers, which currently can't be matched by Android or Windows competitors. 
Microsoft efforts in the mobile OS market are doomed to fail, as MS simply lacks the chops to compete with an established leader (MS expertise and culture is all about destroying and co-opting smaller competitors, not besting heavyweights in fighting shape at their own game), and conversely, Android lacks a desktop OS counterpart for seamless integration, something neither Apple nor MS is eager to facilitate on their respective OSes.
That's something Apple is banking on, too, and the convergence between recent Mac OSX iterations and iOS, interface-wise, owes nothing to chance or lazyness, and everything to Apple's dedication to persuade customers they should forever remain inside Apple's controlled ecosystem.

This could turn out to be a limiting factor, however, as the distinction between mobile platforms and serious hardware gets blurrier : the tablet market, which Apple singlehandedly brought to what it is today, is well on its way to eat the subnotebook, then laptop, lunches. 
With the desktop (as a consumer product) limping towards extinction, and mobile gizmos crossing some significant thresholds in performance (3D capability, full HD display, HDD-sized storage capacity), the platform war for the mobile-friendliest desktop OS may be over before it really begins, as the very notion of host OS may soon become obsolete, and the next generations of formerly mobile OSes become able to do everything we expect from a desktop computer, by hooking up to compatible peripherals.

And this is where the Apple model may hit a pothole, and its hostility to third party vendors and developers could backfire, from the first moment its marketshare in the mobile market significantly falls below the 50% mark — and it will, inevitably. 
Developers and hardware makers, if faced with the choice of supporting iOSX vs Android, with Apple at equal or lesser potential marketspace, may decide to focus on the platform that's less likely to leave their products dead in the water overnight, be it by revoking their access to the Appstore or changing the standard of a critical physical interface.


I'm certainly not predicting Apple's demise here, but a cascade failure of spectacular proportions may lie just around the corner for Cupertino if it doesn't wake up soon to the reality we're no longer in the age of Bondi vs Beige, or iPod vs Zune : Apple can no longer count on the competition's terrible suckiness to make its products shine and look cool in comparison. From anecdotal evidence, I hear from more and more people switching between iOS and Android in the wrong direction (for Apple), and not many the other way around. 

Apple is reaping considerable profits from its mobile/handheld platforms, and the PC business isn't bad, either, especially considering Apple premium-priced, integrated model ensures a comparatively high profit per customer/sale. iOS customers are also spending more on average than their Android counterparts, both in the company Appstore and on Apple and third party accessories. Indeed, Android has a lot of ground to cover before it threatens Apple's lead in revenue, and no individual mobile device vendor can dream of touching Apple as of yet.
Thus, the future looks good for Apple — just not as good as it was before serious competition. Apple still owns the iOS market, but it's simply no longer all the market, and as the iOS expansion slows, it may get closer to saturation, especially if customer loyalty can't be taken for granted anymore.

As Apple has proven numerous times before, it can build great hardware, and software worth paying a premium to run. Now would be the time to get back to that approach, because there's no room left for an iPad Nano to follow the disappointing iPad Mini …it's called an iPhone and everybody who wanted one got one, already.


For largely different takes on the issue, I suggest this and this.


*[That is, until it got worked around by enterprising aftermarketers, about 5' after release.]
**[If everything good about Apple was of Steve's doing, how good is an Apple without Steve ?]


Agree to disagree ?

In democracy, politics is the art of misdirection.

Whether you believe in democracy as a virtuous and working system depends strictly upon where you fall, between your urge to be heard, and your distrust of your fellow citizens' ability to make competent political choices.

If getting your voice heard is important enough to overshadow the risk of idiots contributing the majority of the vote, congratulations : you do believe in democracy.

If deep down you're terrified by the idiots having any sort of say in public matters, and realize your own opinions may not be that interesting, congratulations : you don't believe in democracy.
…yet you likely are even more afraid of something else, like communism or dictatorship, and democracy sounds like the lesser of many evils.

Here's a series of well-know facts about us all — they're truisms, but they'll come handy in a minute: 
  • Most people are idiots. 
  • Most people believe most people are idiots. 
  • Most idiots don't know they are. 
  • Most people don't believe they are idiots.

It follows that idiots (who think they aren't) distrust the mental and political competency of most other people (who they believe to be idiots), and yet feel of critical import that their personal opinions are heard and accounted for.

C'mon… you know you want to click on me.

The above may seem like an issue unfairly framed, and in some ways it is.
That's meant as an object lesson : because of the underlying assumption (shared by most) that a significant portion of the citizenry is in fact politically inept (by virtue of diverging from one's own views or interests), any debate in the context of a democracy tends to be framed in such a way as to either exclude, void or redirect the contributions of the people the speaker disagrees with, and favor those views she subscribes to.

I could write a book about the inherent self-contradictions of democracy as a mode of government (don't taunt me), but right now, here's a simple question for the presumed idiots out there, and also for you, my dear reader :

Can you imagine a working democratic government system that wouldn't hinge on misdirection ?



The Bourne Legacy - A Vicarious Postmortem

The other day I almost-reviewed — mostly spoiled and snarked at — the fourth movie in the "Bourne Whatever" franchise, and hinted there was more to come…
Well, here it is.

Today's post is about learning lessons from that wreck, and about the abilities and constraints applicable to spinoffs and expansions in a series.

Also it's a pic-less wall'o'text, because looking for iconography is too much of a timesink, and I'd rather get back to the next episode of The Fair Game series. Deal with it.


To start off the right foot, let me state for the record, The Bourne Legacy, as it is, is not a bad movie entirely, and falls from only as high, to fail only as hard as it set itself in the first place. What goes wrong mainly happens on the expectations management and internal consistency fronts, two topics dear to my heart.

As may not be obvious from my previous spoilerific review, the first 90-or-so minutes of the movie stand on a firm leg, and really do a quite honorable job of upholding the franchise style and character, that is until the flick suddenly takes the kind of unexpected turn in both style and substance that manages to ruin both everything that has come before and make the — otherwise pretty good — pulp-action in the last  half-hour fall on the painful side of campy.

That sort of slip-up is especially inexcusable and damaging when applied to a franchise that's entirely about taking a fresh and clever view on otherwise tired genre clichés, and we'll get back to the question of why and how, but for now let's just say the end of the end of the movie was just about as welcome as a strawberry icecream floater lobbed into a garlic clam chowder bowl.

Let's have at it, in from-the-hip postmortem style.

What went right: 

In the absence of the titular character, the writers made the right choice by setting up The Bourne Legacy as a side-story rather than a sequel : this allows for tighter integration of the new story into the mainline storyline and instantly establishes the legitimacy of the expansion as part of the larger verse.
Similarly, most of the defining elements and themes of the early Jason Bourne movies are reused, but not so hamfistedly that it looks like a reboot by any other name. 

A particularly nice (if under-exploited) touch comes with the theme of the anti-captain america supersoldier, who owes not so much his physical abilities but his intellectual competency to being a military guinea pig, and fears a demotion to his previous state or metal retardation. It's a rather clever play on the classic allow me to show you my true worth by granting me superpowers, because the protagonist himself believes he isn't worth crap without his spook-special makeover.

Aaron Cross is slightly less of a wandering hero than Jason Bourne, but even though most of the plot is resolved over only three locales, mostly urban, we still get some sense of moving around quite a bit and all the right checkboxes get crossed in terms of scenes that should be in a Jason Bourne movie : the roof chase, the weird/tense meet with a peer agent that ends up in dead peer, the house assault, the epic car chase in economy-class cars/bikes, a bit of improvised weaponry… the works. 

The main cast is generally a success : Jeremy Renner works as a footsoldier upgraded way above his comfort zone, in a bit of clever metaplay on the actor's public perception as a second-tier star, and (nearly) gets a chance to grow up throughout the movie into a lead in his own right. Edward Norton is also a nice pick for the half burned out post-facto rationalizing baddie, and Rachel Weisz sells a surprisingly well-written fish-out-of-fishbowl scientist girl. 
In the extras/red-shirt department, there are a couple nice touches too, with Zeljko Ivanek and Elizabeth Marvel, both of TV fame as morally ambiguous typecasts, who make the best from the small parts they're given. Some of the cast from previous installments reprise their roles without fault, which helps bring the whole thing together with the main universe and storyline.

The principal photography is not bad either, and generally fits alright with the atmosphere and codes established in the previous movies, if a bit different, but that's not a bad thing in itself.

What went wrong:

As subtly hinted in my previous review-cum-spoiler, the entire last quarter of the movie goes horribly wrong, not because it's poorly done (although at times it is), but because it runs off the rails from the entire franchise by moving into over-the-top pulp bombasticness for no apparent reason but lazyness. 
I have other gripes with the movie, but they also boil down to lazyness : Stacy Keach is appropriately hamming it as a generic cynical military-turned-conspiracy underboss — but sadly, it's entirely out of place in this specific setting. That kind of characterization is just phoning it in, writing wise, and so are most of the other minor blunders in the movie, so let's focus on the core issues of lack of direction, consistency and proper storytelling.

Where the entire Bourne franchise hinges on stretching believability while keeping it hollywood-gritty and reasonably verisimilar, the Bourne Legacy drifts into a pure pulp from the moment the main arc for the hero is resolved with a fetch quest of a magic cure for his illness/Achilles' heel. At this point, there is no story left in this beast, and the whole thing is runing on fumes, so we're treated to a very intense and spectacular chase against a terminator-like baddie that goes on for the last 20 minutes of action in the movie, yet fails miserably because a) it lacks purpose, and b) it's stylistically off.

The point is… ?

From a simple storytelling perspective, the lack of purpose is obviously at odds with the supposedly climactic nature of the big finale chase and confrontation with the baddie, but let's see exactly how and why, because that's a common issue with some action flicks that endeavour to carry more of a story than a dungeon crawler.

The Bourne series is not about a protagonist kicking the arse of incrementally tougher henchmen until he gets to kill the bigbad. It's about a guy travelling around a world of trouble, in a quest for answers, and hopefully peace of mind — and breaking a few skulls if and when it's the most convenient solution to get baddies out of his way. The face-off with the dragon happens because the dragon is sent after him, not because the protagonist works his way up to to the confrontation as a milestone.

Arguably that's the case in Legacy, too, as the determinator sent after Bourne Cross is not somebody Cross looks forward to meet and fight. The problem here is there's nothing at stake : the dragon is an obvious case of last-minute release monster X and his obstruction accomplishes nothing but to slow down the hero's eventual escape from his pursuers, which we know must by law of the genre succeed - the only question here would be whether the girl is to get killed en route, but by that point we already trust she won't, for she's been sticking with him past the point of usefulness, and she's pretty much all he has to show in the way of spoils of war.

The big car chase is supposed to be a serious mountain to climb during the journey, ideally culminating in some flag capture or equivalent milestone in the storyline : in the original movie, it's the clincher to bond Jason and Marie into a team, in the second, it's the pilgrimage en route to Bourne's confession and contrition to the daughter of one of his victims, in the third, it's the opportunity for Bourne to spare the life of a fellow operative at the end of a serious confrontation, who will repay him later by not shooting him when he could. In any case, there is more to come, and the chase happens as Bourne is intent on getting somewhere, not merely escaping, the latter we know he could manage at any time, because duh, he's Jason Bourne.

Yes, this make your ass look huge.

That's not even the worst part about the final chase : style is the main offender here. Simply put, it doesn't even try to be believable and it's a mess to boot.

When your car/bike chase is so much of a collage of nonsensical show-off tricks that it would be hard to turn into a playable mission in GTA, that should be a solid hint something is wrong with it. Much worse is the fact it just doesn't fit the overall style of the series and manages to make a mockery of everything that came before (and wasn't an embarrassment) by throwing away the Bourne franchise earnest efforts of keeping things mostly realistic (for a blockbuster value thereof) and switching to an action-comedy gear we didn't know was supposed to be there.

There's nothing wrong with action comedy, or Hollwood-amped pulp/B-movie action : I've enjoyed some of Jason Statham and Vin Diesel action flicks without remorse or shame, and I can even go through any of Tom Cruise's ridiculous MI without gouging my eyes out with a spoon. but the moment you throw a trenchcoat on a ninja-zombie and pretend it fits into a John LeCarré spy novel, you'll see me cringe.

But let's backtrack to the true moment of derailment, and what it indicates about the true wtf is it you think you're doing ? aspects of The Bourne Legacy.

The Bourne series is a fairly classic lone-spy setting, and revolves around a guy using his talents against his masters to both survive and unveil conspiracies after his being marked for termination. Without going into the minutiae of the franchise, that's the bare essentials.
Where it differs from a pure action flick is in the rather involved story, with multiple reveals, twists and concurrent interests of major players/groups, and a protagonist that is expected to outsmart them all as he's peeling the onion of lies and coverups, all the while struggling with his not-entirely reliable mind. No such thing here, even though everything was properly set from the beginning.

There is only one conspiracy at play in Legacy, as you can safely ignore most of the mainline Bourne stuff happening in the background : bad guys are worried about being exposed and initiate a wholesale cleanup of all the people involved in the project the hero is a part of, flagging him and scientist girl for termination. The mission therefore, is to go in hiding forever after grabbing a MacGuffin to take care of the hero's addiction to pills.
Thus we're looking at a fairly straight line, with a single waypoint enroute, laid on a flat surface, as opposed to the aforementioned conspirationist onion of the previous Bourne movies. The endgoal is equal to the initial starting condition, with a slight detour. That may be OK for a straight-up action movie, but a Bourne it does not make, legacy or otherwise.

What could have been done differently ?

We start with an interesting protagonist, who's more the grunt-next-door and less the elite-spook type than Jason Bourne, and who comes with a strong personal motivation : more than his life, which his type is expected to be prepared to risk at every turn, he's running against the clock to save his mind, which he knows only exists thanks to the chemical enhancements provided by his former masters turned enemies. Much like the original Bourne was driven by his compulsion to learn about himself, Cross is forced to get in the thick of things in order to not lose himself, and everything is primed for us to get a taste for the looming curse that's chasing him forward… except it will never happen.
We get a glimpse of what could possibly be Cross blanking as the meds start running out, shortly before he reaches the MacGuffin in Manila, but he gets injected with the magic cure for stupidness momentarily, and we never see him in his diminished state (he shakes a cold-like fever overnight, during which he has bad dreams, wow).

That's too bad, considering we also have Dr Marta Shearing on call, who it is established is very competent in her field, and has proven to be quite smart and resilient generally. 
We'd have ample room here to work in a couple scenes right around or after grabbing the virus sample, where she'd get to carry the ball (and our hero) forward, while his abilities diminish to a rather terrifying point. We know of his potential value to her in his fully-able state, and that would be reason enough for her to put in the effort and risk to try and restore him, while it would go a long way toward explaining why he doesn't dump her the moment he is permanently fixed and she becomes dead weight (OK, we got hints of his good heart and possible crush on her earlier, but still). 

All of that could have been sorted just fine by the magic cure not being such a turnkey solution, and requiring a bit of time, work and tools.
That would have entailed a bit of respite for our heroes, which could have been brought about by their fortuitous "death" occuring after…  a car chase ! 
There are ten different ways to make this work, thanks to the semi-random nature of the chase context : slow down or minimize the chasing party at will, for a minute or more, get the girl behind the wheel because the hero ate a bit of a scenery or just went retrograde, etc.
This also would have given meaning and purpose to the mandatory car chase, and who nows, offered a bit of an opportunity to actually care about the determinator, too, provided he did not die right away — maybe he can't believe they're dead because of his built-in "amped mission fidelity", and thus keeps looking for them after they're declared dead, who knows…


This pace change alone would have solved two out of three problems, provided the chase was not so ludicrously designed (but that's a self-contained issue), and would have added a bit of depth to the whole thing, leaving only the conspiracy side of things a bit light for the price.
…which is convenient, because we might want something to wrap things up, even though reaching the point where the hero recovers his full cognitive abilities could be enough to provide a satisfying conclusion. Of course, that would leave the girl in charge of all the meaningful parts until the titles roll, which in itself could seriously screw with the alpha-male mythos here (although I personally would deem it a nice twist, and argue her doing the dragon in at the end of the bike chase was indeed a step in that direction).

Being an expansion and side-story to the Bourne mainline, there are limitations to what can be allowed, conspiracy-wise : Legacy couldn't afford to break the canonical storyline, nor kill any of the recurring bigbads, and generally had to avoid affecting or triggering verse-shattering events, for fear of closing plot branches and making things harder for the future of the franchise. Still, I'm confident Ed Norton's character is not above using child soldiers in african wars as a test group for new supersoldier juice or something equally disturbing, now that the whole Bournery thing is canonically commoditized in pill form.
How you get Aaron Cross in the loop, or to care about it, is another question, and one that would have been fitting of another installment in the Legacy subseries.




The Bourne Legacy - as if…

Between sourcing my research by tripping on peyote while playtesting games old enough to get their own passport, then editing my ramblings before poasting*, not to mention all the stuff that happens off-stage, this editor sometimes needs a break, and last night I watched a movie…

(IMDB 6.8, RT 56% , MC 61%)

Fair warning — for reasons that will soon become apparent, I'm going to spoil the socks off this mother, so if you plan on watching this flick and are keen to preserve your sense of wonder, here's all you need to know — it will be good, while it lasts.


If you somehow managed to never see a Jason Bourne movie, here's what you need to know in addition: Jason Bourne is a super-spy, and a wanted man.

Previously on…

The Bourne Identity (Matt Damon is Jason Bourne)
In episode one, he starts as a bullethole ridden amnesiac who soon discovers he has superhuman skills and more passports than fingers (counting the toes). He subsequently goes on a journey of self-discovery across europe, taking along a cute bohemian hipsterette and riding in her mini, all the while chased by people who don't want him to remember. It sounds like it would suck in all the usual boombastic ways, yet really is both good fun and surprisingly verisimilar and low-key (for Hollywood values thereof).

The Bourne Supremacy (They should have left him alone) 
In the second installment, our now-retired protagonist is framed by the baddies for the death of several CIA agents, sending the CIA after him. Just to cover every base, the baddies still send an assassing after him (as if) with the net result that the girl eats a bullet, thus sending the hero into a revenge frenzy. If it starts to sound like a Liam Neeson movie, it's because it kinda drifts towards that precipice, but manages to avoid the cliff jump by hanging on a solid thread of _noir_ spy intrigue and deviousness (some cool baddies, too).

The Bourne Ultimatum (This summer Jason Bourne comes home)
Part three is arguably where the series comes into its own, our by now soulcrushed hero is dead set on a course of revenge and redemption, with a side of death wish that gives some consistency to his going against all odds, _fear the one who has nothing to lose_-style. It pulls itself above the tarpit of tired cliché'dness through a fairly clever and earnest treatment and some good acting and direction.

…which brings us to The Bourne Legacy (There was never just one).
A hell of a misnomer of a title to boot, as it takes place concurrently, and not after the run of the original trilogy as you'd expect.** 
The legacy part appears to be a case of nobody remembering to change the working title in time and getting stuck with it, or they just didn't care, who knows. What it really tells you is how the production approached the problem when confronted with the absence of both the titular character/actor and the director who fleshed him out.

Back to basics.

The Bourne legacy is a Jason Bourne movie without Jason Bourne, and Tony Gilroy seemingly decided to go back to the original recipe, and do it all over again, with a slight change in flavoring oil, and while keeping the option open to carry on with the original product line in the future.

What it came down to is this : refresh a tired trope with clever treatment.
In this case the tired trope-a-looza is made of : 
  • plentypotent field agent is chased by baddies from a government spook program gone feral, 
  • is not too sure he can trust his own mind, 
  • and takes a cute but-not-Disney-cute brunette along for the ride, 
  • because she's a witness and the baddies want her dead too, now. 
Also part of the deal, srs bzns car chases using economy-class vehicles, some parkour-ish rooftop acrobatics, improvised weapons, travel to exotic-yet-gritty locales, and a face-off with a dragon of similar background and skills to the hero's.

As pointed above, pulling off the Bourne-sans-Bourne trick is all about tweaking the flavour and treatment, and the extra ingredients here are one dash of supersoldier sauce, a pinch of extra trope-metagaming with a lancer-to-hero tour de main, and one part moar peppa ! in the shape of extra-crippling mental condition.

So, does it work ?
Yes but — quite literally — only up to a point.
See why after the jump.


The Fair Game, Part 4 - Mores, morals and morale.

When talking videogames, and upon approaching anything remotely related to morality, one must tread carefully — there be landmines everywhere, but in the quicksands.

I order to to keep the odds of making it through in one piece ever so slightly in the positive range, here's a short list of what I will emphatically not discuss today :
Morality within videogames : or how morality issues are portrayed and tackled in videogames. 
Moral teachings of videogames : what are the implicit or explicit moral teachings (if any) that can be channeled through design and gameplay, and what should we make of that. 
Morality of videogames : somewhat connected to the two questions above is the (less interesting) one of whether videogames should(n't) touch on some topics/settings that may be morally objectionable to some, and why.*
Sticking to the Fair Game angle, my primary focus will be instead on current gamebiz mores, on the morality issues at hand in gamemaking as a trade and craft, how it relates to the morale and morals of gamedevs and players alike, and why it should be a defining aspect of a Fair Game studio's corporate policies, practice and culture.

There's no business like show business…

Few industries are fluffy bunny happy places, certainly ; in most people's mind suckiness is even sort of a defining element of what makes a job — or you wouldn't get paid for it. 

There are exceptions of course : some people land jobs they'd be willing to do regardless of compensation as long as they can manage, because that's the very thing they love to do (think artists, athletes, many other trades that result from a hobby or spawn one), and sometimes, simply landing the job is its own reward and the chance to achieve otherwise unrealistic ambitions (think astronauts, Formula 1 pilots, key players in large goal-oriented teams).

Although these may be the exception rather than the norm (why it is so reaches beyond the scope of this article), the outlier cases of the jobs (some) people really want regardless of pay help us outline what makes a job worth doing, and why it even exists in the first place : desirability.
The odds of a job's existence are proportional to how badly everybody or somebody want it to happen, relative to its resources requirements. Whatever else comes attached to a job, be it profitability and monetary rewards, or prestige and reputation, or power — all are simply mitigating or accelerating factors in balancing that equation.
In the beginning, it all starts with somebody who badly wants to do something, or somebody who badly wants it done — and sometimes both. 

Like most commercial arts, videogames are built on a foundation of people with a strong desire to do something, namely play and also make games, to a point where it's often impossible to disentangle both motivations at the individual level. Most composers and songwriters start as musicians, and eventually come around to write the music and lyrics they crave to play, much like most writers begin as avid readers, and moviemakers are movie buffs themselves more often than not.
Past the first generation in their art, creators typically grow up as fans (which can be a mixed blessing, artistically speaking, but that's another issue), and those who decide to make a career and a living from it do so out of love for the medium, and — especially in hybrid arts — count themselves lucky just to get there and be a part of it

Were the entire game industry populated with avid gamers who make the kind of games they love for kin-spirited players, all would arguably be for the best… in fantasyland. 
Despite the bad rap I've given until now to publishers in this series (and I'm not quite through yet), the fact we have an industry at all should largely go to the credit of early publishers who sometimes acted as enlightened patrons of the arts, true believers and enthusiasts, yet with enough of an eye on the bottom line to keep things rolling and snowballing. It's they who enabled gamemaking to graduate from garage industry to heavy iron, to take on projects that would have remained out of reach without the resources and scope enabled by a broader market reach, and who led to an economy where videogames and electronic entertainment are now the largest driving force for innovation and development both of hardware and software at large.

Granted, most among those key early publishers were often gamers themselves, and cared just as much about making great games for their own sake than about balancing the books, which isn't necessarily true anymore. Still, what they did back then is exactly what a Fair Game self-publishing studio should be about, accounting for two significant changes : games are now a trillion dollar, no-longer-cottage, industry, and studios are no longer first-gen'ers on uncharted waters — as such, they should heed the lessons of history so as to prevent it from stammering too badly.

Breeding love slaves.

The past twenty years have been about games getting bigger, more expensive, and on the whole more profitable for all but gamedevs themselves. Although a handful of studio-founders gamedevs got seriously rich, the average salaries and benefits for skilled labor and talent have notoriously failed to get on par with other media and mass entertainment industries, while people in marketing, business and legal positions have reaped the largest monetary rewards.
Although things seem to slightly improve lately with people in development and production across the board seeing raises, and some rebalancing of salaries in favor of new recruits, the publisher-driven part of the industry (which is still the largest employment pool) remains primarily focused on making shareholders and executives rich, and regards concessions made to rewarding work, skill and talent in development and production as the regrettably inevitable costs of doing bussiness.

Comparisons abound in the commercial arts and hobby industries to show how consumer markets built on activities people are willing to undertake out of passion rather than strict utility, profitability or convenience make for great exploitative opportunities for the less morally constrained entrepreneurs : workers practically beg to get shafted. 
There are more people with an actual paying job in the business of catering to the needs of aspiring professional musicians or actors (agents, publicists, coaches, publishers and music/AV prosumer gear) than people who make a living from acting or playing music alone.  And that's not factoring the larger entertainment industries' free or underpaid workforce of volunteers, interns, assistants or on-trial "juniors", who essentially pay for the privilege of doing the most crappy jobs less motivated temps wouldn't accept (for the price).

In effect, mass-market hobby industries have enabled the democratization of old practices previously only known to businesses that catered exclusively to the rich and bored, like sailing for fun or breeding race horses : a rich man's hobby, and a poor man's job.

While the games business never quite got there in terms of abusing aspiring gamemakers by selling them coaching and middlemen services**, it's proven quick on the uptake when it comes to making the most of its workforce eagerness to join the party. Un-or-barely-paid internships abound, as do volunteer programms, and while lack of job security is accepted as par for the course in a boom'n'bust project-centric business model (which is that of most studios), less-than-stellar workplace environment and sometimes downright abusive labor conditions are also frequently tolerated by employees who see it as the normal of the industry, perpetuated by many veterans who "got through it, too" and see it as paying one's dues.

Do unto others…

Behind the conservative business common sense argument that working your employees to death for shit pay may not be the smartest course of action in an increasingly competitive environment where loyalty of both customers and employees rises in value, and slow and steady may prove to be the best policy for indie studios, there is an obvious moral one. 

Fortunately, and for once, morals aren't necessarily at odds with business interests : not only is treating employees poorly morally dubious, it creates a vicious feedback loop where people who don't feel valued are less likely to value their own work, the product, the company, and ultimately the customer, which — thanks to some cognitive bias I don't know the name for — they come to regard as both a sucker (for eating up the crap shoveled their way) and the enemy (because customers are indicted as the ultimate cause of gamedevs' predicament).
Obviously, bitter devs could just as easily hate on the suits instead, and they do, yet one can only focus on that for so long before figuring gamedevs are the sheeple being sheared, while blaming the customer here is enough of a non sequitur that it's less likely to be questioned : you can't argue with crazy. 

So here we are, with an industry that is as good at chewing the naive and spitting bitter, broken shells of burned out talent as if it had been designed to do just that, from middle to top and bottom. Executives are comforted in their certainty that suckers are meant to be shafted by their ever-increasing salaries and bonuses, while gamedevs have long learned the lesson that loud beats imaginative every time and is easier to replicate. As for gamers, they're trained from infancy to love quantity (in explosions, polycount, play length, content and players) rather than quality (of challenge, gameplay, mechanics, story, people), with the result of their ever more fleeting commitment to a given title or brand, never sated hunger for something more (which they can't even see really means something better), and ever growing frustration and impatience with the HFCS-infused gruel they can't stop themselves from gulping, even though it stopped being pleasurable sometimes around last century.
That's how we got from thinking good games were a good enough reason to do it, to making bad games for no good reason, and how we segue from the issue of morals to that of morale.

Mutant Force assemble !

As hinted above, harnessing enthusiasm into churning doo-doo by the truckload under slave labor conditions works only until depletion of the existing reserves of enthusiasm, since there is little to feed back positively towards the slaves and resplenish their giddy glands. So far, the industry has managed to make do and thrive nonetheless, terminating in droves those that start to shoot mostly bile and replacing them with freshly hatched noobs. 
Nowhere is it more true than in the MMO side of the industry, where it applies equally well to players and gamedevs, and is also where we can observe the comparatively long term impact of this way of running business.

[For the next few paragraphs, I'll speak with MMO gamedevs and players in mind, because of the remarkable similarity of their conditions and experiences with the business  of making or playing games, both in terms of initial enthusiasm and commitment, disenfranchisement and disenchantment, burn out and eventual recovery or termination as gamers and gamemakers.]

As more and more people people — players and gamedev alike — individually go through a transformation from bright-eyed n00b to jaded bittervet at increasingly fast rates, they also develop immunities to entire genres and companies, looking for the traps before drooling for the bacon, and as they pass that sad wisdom on to their younger peers, and help each other getting out***, they slowly inoculate a growing portion of the herd against the attraction of exploitative gaming practices.

What becomes of these gamers and gamedevs, seemingly lost to the industry ? 
Some certainly are burned out beyond return, and the mere idea of sitting in front of a computer game triggers PTSD-like flashes of angst and codependant stress in their crippled minds, ensuring they'll never go near anything remotely social in gaming (if not at large) again, and they'll keep their gaming to pointedly casual genres, if any.
Some, probably most, eventually come to the point they make peace with the "not worth it" aspect of the whole thing, and while they keep a vested interest in the medium, they know full well why they don't want to return for seconds, at least until something changes radically to bring the offer closer to what they could deem tolerable.

Finally, a fraction of players and gamedev have simply learned a different lesson, which is that the stuff they so badly want simply isn't to be found on the shelves of big boxes retailers, brick'n'mortar or online, and that it's up to them to go out and either find it, or make it happen.
Because these people, as a group, are self-selecting to be both experienced and discerning gamers and gamedevs, they're in a better position than most to recognize and value all the same qualities big name publishing is lacking, and when they find each other, to realize there's enough of them around to make it worth building games that cater to that otherwise forgone playerbase.

If anyone asks, that's where the "indie" craze comes from : the higher morale that comes from having morals.

As the industry matures, and the public for videogames has long reached beyond the proverbial teenage pimpled male to go after the juicy targets of… well pretty much everyone, the question of moral obligation, or at least accountability becomes harder and harder to dodge. People grow up with videogames like they grew up with TV a generation ago, and likewise are expected to keep playing through their adult life, while they raise their kids to be the third generation of videogamers. 

As gamers and gamedevs both are increasingly aware, gaming has become a major part of our global culture, and the games we pick and play not only tell something about us, but contribute to inform our thoughts, sensibilities and outlooks, just like books, movies and TV do, only more efficiently, as they engage directly, and more and more frequently ask us to physically commit to the experience (think new game peripherals and ARG just for the most obvious), thus helping the messages they convey to sink faster and deeper into our minds.

It is only right that we've come to question the morality of the amoralist stance which used to be the party line among gamedevs on the grounds that it's only games, and don't leave that question to the bigots, Luddites and opportunists anymore. Gamers don't turn into reactionary idiots just because they have kids, they simply lose the privilege to evade serious questions the industry has for too long feared to confront, and which we should, gamers and gamedevs alike be eager to explore, as it leads to a better understanding of our medium of choice.

Opening this post, I promised I wouldn't go near morality in games, and I'm steering dangerously close now, by touching on the moral responsibility that comes with handling powerful machinery around trusting people… That's as far as I go today, and only to mention how, as a group, the gamedevs and gamers that are going out of their way to find and make different games are increasingly self-aware and thoughtful in their practices.

Anyone who's being a cynic when going after that market better be as smart as they think they are, or they're in for a surprise : unless they target objectivist useful idiots, they may be oustmarted by their marks before getting around to scam a penny in funding from that crowd.

…which reminds me : next installment will focus on Fair Game monies, where to find them, how to use then, and why you don't want to waste precious doubloons on booth babes, these days. 



* [Quick answer to that one, because it's easy : I believe everything is fair game, in principle. What is OK or not in practical terms is a matter of good or poor taste and falls under artistic discretion, to be weighed against how it can affect the business end of things — for better or worse.]

**[Although gamebiz-oriented schools and classes are sprouting left and right, many of those are actually teaching no-less valuable skills than what you'd learn by mastering in fine arts to the end of becoming a game artist, so why not.]

***[Informal therapy groups of in-game/work friends who collectively help each other to move out and on from their shared grounds of sorrow are both heartwarming and rather depressing things to witness]


The Fair Game - Part 3 : who ?

In parts 1 and 2 of this series, I poked my way around the notion that times are a-changing for game development and especially "indie" studios, as self-funding/publishing is likely to become the norm rather than the exception for mid-to-biggish budget titles. I've rather haphazardly covered what is happening, and going to happen in the business (imnsho), why it is so, and what kind of gamedevs and studios will be able to make the best of these new circumstances.

I'd like to spend a bit more time on the matter of who, now, because that's where the real meat is : games really are made for people by people, and games are generally better when (some version) of the humanity involved gets to shine through.

First, and it's as long overdue as my poasting, let's put a few stakes in the ground and white line the field to bring things in sharper focus, as we enter the always fuzzy and blurry space of human affairs.

Working assumptions : 
[If you strongly disagree with any of the bulleted points below, please head to the comments section of part one or two and show me where I took a wrong turn back then, this chapter is for me to get it wrong in all new and different ways. Thanks.]

• Thanks to crowdfunding, early fans/consumers involvement, committed investors et al, it is now realistic for "indie" studios to develop and produce high production value games — which used to be the exclusive province of big publishers. Distribution and retail are already cheaper and more accessible than they've ever been, and no longer a hindrance to self-publishing of any kind. 

• No matter the odds of success at first, studios have little to lose by taking their chances as self-publishers, and it will become the new normal of the industry. Since few among the current crop of studios that would like to get out from under the heel of publishers to build AAA titles are prepared to deal with the extra workload and demands of being their own publishers, most will fail in horrific, predictable, yet hilarious ways. Others will take advantage of the availability of publishing consulting services and for-hire talent that are bound to appear in response.  It will not be pretty, for a while at least.

• The traditional publisher-centric business model hinges on the cost of failure being unbearable for client studios unless they get publisher backing, and on studios not turning enough profit to buy their ticket out of indentured servitude. Lowering the barrier to entry in funding, distribution and retail is not enough for indie studios to reliably take on heavy duty projects, they also need business models that don't make undertaking primetime projects sound like playing russian roulette with a minigun (hint: it's not easy, and it ends in tears).

• The first step towards turning a profit from making (good) games is to not saddle the business with the dead weight of PR and ad costs that are only really needed if products and company are an embarrassment : don't suck, and you've cut your incompressible overhead by more than half, which brings you that much closer to breaking even without depending so much on chance.

• Traditional marketing and promotion are made largely irrelevant by the global village grapevine, and the bang / buck return one can hope to get from  big advertising campaigns now requires hearing aids to be detected. Because of the new funding models and the predicted explosion in the number of contenders for players' monies and attention, the first order of business for a self-publishing studio is to build and cultivate its very own loyal community of fans, which are expected to provide relatively reliable sources of funding and/or revenue, and to evangelise for 'free'  — in exchange for shweet shweet lub from the devs and for the opportunity to buy games that don't suck.

…and we're back on track.

Factoring all of the above, it becomes patently obvious that in order to survive, endure and thrive as a self-publishing studio (SPS), what used to just be clever PR is to become the cornerstone of any successful venture : a studio's first, core, and locomotive product is the studio itself, and the primary mesure of equity is to be customer goodwill and brand loyalty.

Because the cheapest way to earn and grow customer goodwill is to do right by them and make sure they realize it (without pissing them off, that is), and since small SPS can't afford to buy their way into customer love or out of public humiliation with expensive PR campaigns (bound to backfire sooner than later), the smart thing to do is to go by the Fair Game model and be the good guys (or RP the part, if you're a pragmatic sociopath who needs a change from Zynga).

Let's get meta, girlfriend !

Regardless of what you're building, a social game or a solo CRPG, your studio's online presence will have to rally fans and manage the slow burn of building interest and goodwill around your products and brand for the long haul, which is a game in itself.
Accurately, it's a coop tactical FPS set in a MMORPG, with few saves, no replay, and precious little chance of respawn… on the plus side, you can get reinforcments (if you're good) and more importantly you get to study the map at length before you join the game.

Some gamedevs may cringe at the notion of having to hug and press the unwashed masses' (even virtual) flesh, and though the attitude is not helping, it's worth acknowledging : community relations aren't for everyone, and require both a taste for it, plus a spoon of skill and talent.
To sum up: if community relations should be deemed important in any consumer business, they are the life or death of a Fair Game studio, and it's something you should take seriously enough to be proactive about, and factor in your every move.

As a small company — it bears repeating — it's much easier to get it right and take advantage of many small opportunities to build goodwill at little extra cost, and to avoid the ruin of your reputation over silly or misguided moves. Conversely, it's much harder to cover up or fix a damaged image because you'll lack the marketing firepower and clout to silence critics or efficiently redirect attention.

Let's break down the let's make a name ! game to its core elements, and that which it really boils down to  : peeplz.

Hardcore fans : 
They're your first line of PR, CS and advertising outside of your official website/pages/boards …whether you like it or not ! They will take upon themselves to spread their interpretation of the gospel on your behalf, so you better make sure they don't misconstrue your plans, because people won't sourcecheck where the buzz is coming from when they start building entirely unrealistic expectations about your products or company.

Silent majority : 
Those are only a few lurkers at first, who subscribe to the newsletter and FB/g+/Twitter streams, and maybe come to check the website and devblogs once in a while, if you're proactive about teasing them the right way. They will/should steadily grow in numbers during open beta and after release, provided your evangelists do their job properly. 
You'll have a hard time telling if or when they break up with you in droves over some stunt you pulled off, unless you manage a paid-for subscription game, because they won't bother with the usual "You shits broke my heart, I quit forever, I hope you die of aids in a fire, bitches !". 
They're less obviously committed, but for most games they'll make a good chunk — at least a third — of your paying customer base. Those you want to monitor carefully, and survey whenever possible (again, without being obnoxious) to get a clue about what they think.

Pundits : 
Self-appointed leaders of opinion, they like to think they are influential enough to make or break you, and sometimes are right about that. 
Some may focus exclusively (or primarily) on your game/brand, and more likely than not have risen from the ranks of your hardcore fans, while some will be genre enthusiasts with an interest in your products directly related to how closely (or how far) they think you fall relative to their ideal for the genre. 
Tame those you can, ignore and casually dismiss the rest as haters, you can't win them all over. Since they typically live outside of your company's controlled ecosystem, on blogs, fansites and e-zines, they may have more bearing on prospective users than on your established userbase, unless they embraced punditry as a way to gain status inside the community and are soapboaxing inwards.

Caravans : 
They come to your game as a community, if there's anything to support their collective identity in or around your game and brand ID. 
You may or may not want them around, and you may, or (more likely) may not have a say in the matter. In any case, make up your mind about how you want to handle them. Properly charmed, they're a pre-heated PR machine working on your behalf that brings in an already cohesive sub-community to your userbase, and in turn can be a good recruitment tool and anchor for extra subgroups. If they turn on you, however, they will put the same amount of energy and coordination to hit you back with a vengeance, with a disruptive potential that shouldn't be overlooked.

The haters : 
Hardcore fans, pundits or caravans, turned sour, they are a lot of work to contain or flip over. The best way to handle them is to identify the leaders and coopt (or undo) them in some way while being politely neutral with the rest to avoid making things worse. If you manage to convert or mollify opinion leaders in your favor, you're halfway there. Even if they fail in turn to steer their infuriated sheeple herds back on the path of truth and justice, at least you'll have seeded the roots of discord among them, and the ensuing infighting is that much distracting them from messing with your stuff.

Community manager(s) : 
Start with one, and make sure it's a good one. It's better if your CM is closely related to CS, but if at all possible, try to avoid saddling the same poor soul with more than one lead role. CS is a great place to look for potential CM reps and even lead if you don't have one for your next project, but you should have someone in charge of community relations before even you need CS (pre-beta).

Mods : 
Your (hopefully) affable, tireless, incorruptible and thick-skinned bobbies, and your first "official" line of CS and damage control. They work under the supervision of the CM and they can either be CM staffers or (more likely) volunteers pulled form the hardcore fanbase pool.
Beyond keeping the tone of discussion reasonably civil on your public pages, they also should act as GMs of sorts in the community building game, and help people find their way around and get busy. Keep in mind if you decide to keep volunteers around during the commercial phase of a game, you may soon need to hire a dedicated lead mod to handle HR and operations, because your CM may not be able to do both. It may sometimes be at once cheaper and more advisable to promote two interns from CS to paid mod positions than pay an extra manager to herd a dozen volunteers.  

Project Face : 
In the case of the studio, it's likely to befall your CEO, while for any given game it may be the lead designer or producer, usually whoever is first to accidentally step in the limelight, or is the most outspoken. If your 'natural' candidate sucks at PR, have the CM vet everything they say before they open their trap, or find someone else with better dispositions, which you can curse with an Executive Producer title and send to the frontlines instead.

The team : 
Keep in mind whenever a team member speaks, it will be heard as the voice of god and contractually binding, even if said speech is clearly presented as personal opinion, or in jest. Whether you decide to allow anyone or no one to speak their mind (or stick to a script) is your call, but not having a clear policy on the matter is ruinous and will drive your CM that much closer to her already looming meltdown.

Griefers & Trolls : 
No listing of key players in the community game would be complete without a nod to the antisocial club, and as a small-ish company presumably catering to a niche market you're in a better position than most to mitigate the noxiousness of bullies and pissants to your users and community, for reasonable costs. This is a standard CM matter however, and going by the Fair Game party line doesn't significantly alter the in and outs of tackling this issue.

As should be obvious, your hardcore fans are to be your main marketing and customer acquisition force. Your official and concerted outreach and ad efforts may yield some results in awareness raising, yet fans can and should do more to drive interest and conversion rates up than anything else you do. 
What is up to you is how smart you are about attracting those few early apostles of your new cult, because they will contribute to set the tone of your player community and self-select kindred spirits, which will inform both the flavor and size of your potential customer base. Later on, hardcore fans management is mostly a matter of providing them with the right PR ammo to subtly train them towards the right targets, and let them loose, locusts upon the world …because you can't stop them, short of turning them into Haters.

You only get one chance…

Assuming you start without baggage as a debuting studio, the timeline of your coming out and starting to build your image and community relations is entirely in your hands. Obviously there are reasons to make noise early, because you need to raise funds, recruit talent, negotiate deals, all the exact things some brand recognition and a community network are supposed to help with, but… 
as previously hinted, once you get the ball rolling, you can't afford to stop. 

Slowing the pace of community outreach and communication will shortly curse you with the stink of death, something that's really tricky to recover from, and which is incredibly damaging to your staff morale, too. Gaming and gamemaking alike are fueled as much by enthusiasm as they are by money, and here, like in many places, riches beget riches.
Motivated staff and fans will feed on each other's enthusiasm, which can drive productivity, creativity and hopefully sales up, but this sort of euphoria is as close as it gets to collective hallucination, and can be dispelled by the slightest whiff of a faith crisis.

…All of which is not to say you should fake it, and behave like ever-smiling corporate drones living in plastic-y bliss, because a) it's creepy, b) nobody buys it for long, and c) you'll have to deal with some bad shit eventually. 
Rather I advocate the opposite : be open from the get go about the hurdles and the difficulty of the task ahead, and always show how you're going about solving problems. 
Never whine or complain, as it won't get you any sympathy ; don't brag, as it'll make you look like pricks, and come to bite you back eventually ; be upbeat and resolute, or be a prophet, whichever you reckon you can pull off for the duration and matches more closely your identity, that of your project, and the expectations of your fans. 

In any case, you need to be lucid and practical about how you want to present your company, team and project to the world, and who should be on the frontlines : don't try to pretend you're something you're not as individuals or as a team, and instead strive to behave like the best version of yourself you can muster — it may even rub off on you in a good way, over time.

Defining, projecting and maintaining a public image is like UI design and Quality Insurance : get it right and most people won't even realize that's why the product feels right. Screw up, and everything else you do is for naught. 
One person (at least) should be in charge of PR and CM (which are essentially the same in a Fair Game studio) from day 0, and be recognized as part of the core team, on par with your money guy, lawguy, lead producer, codewiz, designers and artists — and I mention those in pointed order because the last ones are those you weren't going to forget and credit as your core team. 

In essence, you want to go about your studio and project coming out into public view as you go about producing a game : see what assets you can realistically mobilize (your people, mainly), consider your acceptable timeframe, and within those constraints, put together a design document or a bible about your brand, community relations and PR, then implement it — amending as you go because plan, enemy, etc.
Think about launching your first website as public beta time, be mindful of how much or how little noise you want to make initially, and where you want to go from there.

The limits of virtue…

One massively cool thing about the Fair Game model is how, for once, it may genuinely pay off to do the obvious right thing, which in business matters has frequently proven to be a sucker's game. It's probably why the bittervet in me has a hard time believing myself, because it's just too good to be true.

The luxury of being a budding indie studio is it's entirely within your purview to not need any coverup of your abject business practices : you haven't screwed the pooch yet, and you just have to  keep it that way. 
Gamers are, as a rule, passionate people who're just looking for stuff to get excited about, and if you can earn their love and respect, work hard and smart and don't betray their loyalty in ways they can't forgive, they can in return grant you the opportunity to do the exact stuff you dreamed of when you signed up for this career : make games you really care about, for people who will appreciate your work, in good company, with decent-to-good pay and labor conditions. Getting rich and/or laid are also distant possibilities, but let's not get crazy, here…

As ridiculous as it may sound amidst the bright-eyed optimism of my previous arguments, it's important not to be naive about this game, however : you will not win by virtue alone, and your heroic stance in the face of greedy exploitationism is only worth anything to your audience insofar as they hear about it. 
While it may simply feel right to you individually to be the good guy and to play fair at all times (which I personally applaud), and while it's generally good policy under the Fair Game doctrine (because it's the intarwebs and you must assume everything worth mocking will find its way to youtube, eventually), the fact remains you will have to whore your goodness at least a little to make sure it registers. The best self-promoters have mastered the art of making sure everybody knows when they modestly refuse to take credit or brag, because nobody ever heard of the truly unsung heroes.


In next episode we'll talk some more about morale, and — shockingly — morals.


The Fair Game - Part 2 : what ?

In part 1, and all through this series, my working hypothesis is that mid-to-biggish budget videogames will increasingly be funded, marketed, distributed and retailed without the involvement of classic publishers, and mostly through channels that exist already, only a bit more refined and mature than they are now. 

The distribution and sales end of the circuit is pretty much sorted out by now : indie studios can already release and retail their titles through established online app stores or run their own webstore for little to no upfront costs, and get to bite a significantly larger share of the moneypie from gross sales (currently averaging at 70% of gross in appstores, roughly the reverse of the best case scenario 30% a studio can hope from a big name publisher if they don't get screwed out over 'hidden costs').

On the funding side of things, I'm reasonably confident crowdfunding (or something very much alike) and committed investment will become the dominant channels to secure development and production funds over the next five to ten years, as traditional publishing loses relevance in all but mega-budget projects, leading to a very fertile ecosystem of specialist fundraising and financing platforms, and spawning a middlemen industry of fundraising campaign managers, transparency certificators and patrons of the arts agents.

In this section I try to outline what species of gaming studio are most likely to thrive in this new environment, and it comes as no small surprise to me (spoiler alert) that it's mostly good news for gamers and gamedevs alike.
Whether I banged my head and am hallucinating is for you to tell, because obviously, I can't. So let me paint you a picture.

No, I can't draw…

The first good news, although we'll see it's a mixed blessing, is more games will be produced.
Well, maybe just as many as today, for the recent explosion of the browser and mobile games platforms has more than compensated for the draught of offer during the mid-naughties, but the cornucopia theme is here to stay, as more studios and gamedevs try their luck, thanks to a generally dev-friendly context.

It may not all be good or interesting games necessarily, and I expect Sturgeon's Law to hit in full force, possibly cubed, during the early euphoria. Much like youtube, blogs and podcasts reduced the barrier to entry to publishing in other media, and cheap prosumer electronics have enabled anyone to start filming, recording and editing on a budget, I expect to see prosumer-grade middleware and game-building toolboxes to flourish and lead to a mudslide of terribad fan-made games to flood the various app stores in the next couple years.
The positive aspect being, from this smelly soup shall emerge actual talent, who may end up creating great games, at some point. But it will be a storm of (e)sc(h)atologic proportions in the meantime.

During that feisty period and beyond, the gamedevs and studios that are most likely to thrive will be those that properly account for three critical notions: 

  • The newly opened gates of publisherless funding, promotion, distribution and retail means indies can now compete with big name companies on fairly even footing, and should go for it without fear, provided they pick their battles.
  • Riding on the coattails of big hits is no longer a valid survival strategy : it's all about differentiating oneself and growing a loyal community of fans, customers and employees.
  • The endgame for an indie studio should not be about hitting the jackpot, so much as to endure and keep going, slow and steady, long after competitors crash'n'burn.
Because the main challenge for indie studios in this world of plenty will be to rise above the noise in order to find and secure founding, talent and customers, that aspect of the business will become an integral, and quite large, part of a studio's operations.
That last bit was true already under the previous publisher-centric model, but once publishers are largely removed from the picture, it behooves the customer/players/fans themselves to decide the fate of games and studios from a much earlier stage than used to be customary.

Such a shift in the balance of power may very well be the best thing ever to happen to commercial videogames, because it holds the potential to benefit equally well players and gamedevs, which is only (if belatedly) fair.

Friends, seen here groped by the invisible hand of the market.

The Fair Game doctrine can be summed thusly : do right by your players and your crew, and they'll do right by you. It takes more skill and committment, and is trickier at first than the old rape and pillage trick, but it's better business in the long run, because golden goose.

Most if not all gamedevs are passionate gamers themselves, and the way they prefer to go about their business is not dissimilar to the way avid gamers go about their patronage : they're both willing to put all the time and resources they can afford to satisfy their desire for good game(s), and share the belief games ought to be judged (and succeed or fail) on their own merits.

Conversely, publishers have little incentive to care for good games, as they're not in the business of making games and keeping studios going, but in that of selling game boxes. It's common wisdom for publishing execs that there is no more proportionality between development/production costs and quality of the product than there is correlation between gameplay value and revenue generated : once bare minimal requirements are met to avoid scaring away customers, the theory goes it's all up to marketing and good luck.


In a context of instant global grapevinery, of plethoric quantity and variety in offerings, advertising dollars will only get you so far : beyond raising awareness about the existence of your product, promotion firepower no longer has the juice to make things happen and close sales but with the least discriminative of buyers.
As the market segments into well-catered to niches, and the old blob that happily swallows anything coated in enough eyecandy shrinks accordingly, it may become increasingly difficult to justify ad-spending, except in those market segments where competition remains constrained to a few players and the Matthew effect works well enough that an initial overwhelming show of marketing force might still pay off.

My hypothesis then, is the key to financial health for self-publisher studios in the near future will be frugality in all expenses that aren't directly contributing to increased product value or to stronger customer and employee loyalty.
Profit shall no longer be expected to come from artificially pumping volume up, but from reducing overhead and the cost of closing sales, leveraging customer loyalty and word-of-mouth to supersede advertising dollars, and from cutting on the hidden costs of high turnover and burnout rates, to instead capitalize and cultivate in-house talent and assets.


All of the above may seem self-evident, as it's nothing but conservative, common sense practical advice for small businesses, and yet, that's not the way most studios have operated to date, which is why it's worth pointing out they now can, and should, adjust their SOP to their changing circumstances.

What's happening to alter the deal so fundamentally is, once again, the end of the publishers' hegemony on mid-to-biggish budget productions. 
Unless they were lucky enough to be sitting on a fairly fat war chest, or to be savvy enough to secure funding from committed investors, studios who wanted to venture into productions that cost more than a decent car had to submit to the conditions of a publisher. This meant pretty much losing control over both treasury and calendar (and often original IP, too) to an entity whose primary goal is to ship fast'n'cheap, take the money and run, as it itself must answer to shareholders concerned only with the bottom line and quarterly profits — possibly brand and reputation of the publisher's, yet only insofar as it could impact stock value.

In any case, what publishers cared little about, and arguably couldn't much afford to, was the health and growth of the individual studios providing their wares, unless they incorporated them, and then had a vested interest in their not tanking days after release, and keep on churnin' titles out.
With their priorities at odds, publishers see studios as disposable resources, while the studios more often than not don't plan to disband the day after the wrap party, and instead hope to push onwards to the next game or ten, which in truth is not for them to decide, as they're unlikely to make enough royalties to ever fund a title on their own, or afford to concern themselves with the career development of their staff with what crumbs the publishers toss their way.

Thus studios tend to operate with the overhead and immobilization of small factories, yet the bubble'n'burst economics of movie production gigs, which goes a long way towards explaining why this industry has got into the bad habits of eating its young and burning through talent like it's crack cocaine.


In part 3 of this series, we'll look further at talent and players as assets and partners, and how to make the most of them to run a successful silent killer of a Fair Game shop.