Best News Stories of 2013

Well it’s that time of year when a load of Top Ten nonsense hits the internet and I’m not going to make your lives miserable by adding more.  Instead I’m going to look at some of the best, most relevant and entertaining news stories that […]
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Well it’s that time of year when a load of Top Ten nonsense hits the internet and I’m not going to make your lives miserable by adding more.  Instead I’m going to look at some of the best, most relevant and entertaining news stories that have come out of the games industry this year. Why? Because they’re worth keeping in mind when we enter 2014. We’ve had scandalous news stories, laughable behaviour and downright awesome happenings this year.

If there’s one thing that gamers tend to lack its context. Knowing what is going on around the release dates and how developers, journalists and publishers respond to changes is important. So stick around and be enlightened. This is in no particular order, though I do have a favourite picked out and I’m sure you’ll be able to tell which one it is when it crops up.

Let’s begin! We’ll kick off with the most obvious, ground-pounding news story of them all:

 

The YouTube Claims System

The Google-owned giant of online video content, YouTube, put a new third-party claiming system to work on their site in November, where it proceeded to flag users’ content with what seemed like wild abandon.

Gaming channels suffered the most from copyright claiming fever, with Lets Plays and Reviews being flagged for third-party content in droves, which quickly led to complaints and general bleating from the online community. A high number Electronic Theatre Imageof users also reported claims by third parties who had nothing to do with their video content.

Google did write a response to these complaints, eventually, in which they stated that they would not be removing this new system and that a lot of the third-party claims being issued were because of the background music in videos. We all need to be very careful now, it seems, when we upload videos and make sure that any audio we capture from games is strictly on the right side of this claiming system.

The claiming system on YouTube was set up to protect and enshrine the rights of content creators, specifically those in mainstream media such as film and the music industry, and prevent their work from being copied and pasted onto anyone’s YouTube channel. Third parties could not only choose to block a video entirely, but monetise and receive revenue from it while cutting out the user who uploaded the video in the first place. This exists somewhat in opposition to the idea that various networks would police the content creators under their partnership programs.

Games are a tricky prospect as they use music under different licences – depending on how it’s used in-game – and even music composed specifically for a game can be a potential stumbling block. What this essentially means is that YouTubers might have blanket permission from the game publisher to upload and monetise gameplay footage, but this may not extend to the music in the game.

Since YouTube introduced this new screening process numerous game publishers, such as Deep Silver and Capcom, have put out public statements giving YouTubers permission to use their game footage in a monetised video. Others, most notably Nintendo, have stated that making videos of their games is fine as long as they’re not monetised. Lars Doucet, a developer from Level Up Labs, has encouraged the creation of a list of games industry publishers detailing whether they are or are not OK with their content being used.

There was a certain inevitability about this story, given the huge amount of precedent set by copyright rows in the past and the inordinately large Grey Area that video games have been happy to sit in for so long. What’s clear is that everyone on all sides must undergo a process of refinement and I would like to see automated copyright screening included in that process.

What a lot of online users fail to recognise is that mainstream media, particularly the film, television and music industries, are scared of the internet and the potential loss of revenue it represents – and they’re right to be.

People will habitually steal and share copyrighted content online; it would be hard to find someone in the civilised world who has never done it. The only reason the games industry has had its head buried in the sand for so long is because the relationship between video content creators and games publishers and developers is symbiotic. YouTubers get people interested in games, which in turn generates income for developers and publishers. YouTubers make money from their videos, enabling them to grow and produce more content.

YouTube is free marketing and publicity for the games industry; it’s what made Minecraft and Call of Duty such runaway success stories. What the online gaming community has made abundantly clear is that they will continue to watch people playing games. If they can’t have it on YouTube, they will go elsewhere.

The points for and against are extensive and highly debatable – but that’s what makes this such a great story.

We’re finally talking about how gaming copyright actually works and developers and publishers are getting behind content creators, trying to get them recognised for the work they do to make this industry a better place to thrive. The aforementioned Grey Area is very gradually shrinking like the uncomfortable cancerous tumour that it was – this can only be good news.

There is a long way to go, though, and a lot of high profile YouTubers are still suffering from revenue losses of their own thanks to this new claiming system. It will be important for laws surrounding copyright to be amended as a part of this process, otherwise we run the risk of simply jumping from one Grey Area to another without solving anything – which frankly would be a waste of time.

 

Phil Fish Quits, Cancels FEZ II

Prime anger management candidate and independent developer Phil Fish quit the games industry in spectacular fashion in July, cancelling the sequel to his excellent platform title FEZ in the process.

Mr. Fish had been busily fighting all manner of conflicts via Twitter at the time, but it’s believed that games journalist Marcus Beer gleefully slapped down the final straw.  To summarise, Beer described Fish as a “f***ing arsehole” who used theElectronic Theatre Image games press and media when it pleased him to do so and turned a deaf ear to them on a similar basis. These comments were made at the beginning of a Games Trailers video podcast.

It should be noted that Marcus Beer was attacking Braid developer Jonathon Blow simultaneously for much the same reasons.

Phil Fish and Jonathon Blow found themselves at the centre of attention after their appearances in Indie Game: The Movie. Marcus Beer’s comments came after the two independent developers refused to speculate on Microsoft’s policy adjustments to how indie games would be published on the Xbox One. In Blow’s case, he told journalists that he had no idea what the details of Microsoft’s new policies were and so he wasn’t prepared to comment on it.

Anyway, in the wake of Beer’s comments and further Twitter rows Phil Fish decided that he’d had enough. He left a statement on his company Polytron’s website which read: “This isn’t the result of any one thing, but the end of a long, bloody campaign. You win,” and it was later confirmed that he had, in fact, quit the games industry.

This news story was less of a standalone incident and more of a culmination of events.  Phil Fish is as praised by the online community as he is reviled – probably more of the latter, truth be told, and there are reasons why this is so:

Fish is a man who spoke his mind frankly and made controversial statements, not least of which was his assertion that Japanese games sucked and that PCs were for spreadsheets. Even as early as Indie Game: The Movie it was clear this chap was passionate about games and more than willing to fight for his creative visions concerning them.

As far as the subject of Marcus Beer is concerned, the man has set up his journalist’s personality and that personality is geared towards acting like a spoilt brat. This makes for good entertainment and like lots of entertainers he’s probably unsure where to draw the line; not that Fish made it easy for anyone to do that.

What can we learn from this?

Well, the most obvious lesson is that just because someone is good at developing games it doesn’t make them good at public speaking. Phil Fish managed to alienate and offend a lot of people, not because he was trying to but because he was put in the position of having to express his opinions. And the way he expressed his opinions was with a destructive and derisory turn of phrase. This was doubtless a delight for the high population of online trolls, whose existence revolves around the reactionary, and they took a great deal of pleasure in watching Fish shout and scream at people.

The bottom line here is that Phil Fish should never have been allowed to speak in public. The man’s an artist, a game developer who made a very good and successful product, and he would have been much happier if he had let someone else deal with all the PR nonsense. He could have shut himself off from the community and finished his projects the way he wanted to finish them. Like a lot of artists, Fish is a difficult character to like and he refuses to adjust his opinions so that they are fit for public consumption. He expected the public to adapt to him wholesale and was reluctant to meet them halfway – a decision which proved as frustrating to Phil Fish as it did to those who tried to engage with him on passionate topics.

A sad and unfortunate curtailing of what could have been a great independent career, Phil Fish’s entering into and exiting from the games industry provide abject lessons for any would-be developer. It’s always possible he might come back to his work later on, but I think the man’s own stubborn nature might get the better of him.

Still, I hope he does come back. To make games. Not to talk to anyone about making games – or gaming in general for that matter.

 

Total Biscuit’s Total Censorship

PC gaming critic and YouTuber John Bain (better known as Total Biscuit) made a video review on Day One: Garry’s Incident, having approached the developer, Wild Games Studio, for review code.  This was at the beginning of October.

Mr. Biscuit’s critique of Day One: Garry’s Incident was negative, with little to say or show about the game that might make his viewers consider buying it.  Wild Games Studio’s CEO Stephane Woods decided that Mr. Bain’s video review Electronic Theatre Imagewas “in breach of copyright policies” and it was subsequently blocked from YouTube on the 18th of October.

After contacting Wild Games Studio, presumably to ask them what the hell was going on, and getting no response Total Biscuit posted another video on his channel on the 20th of October.  In this video he called Wild Games Studio out on their “censorship” of his critique and demonstrated how YouTube’s copyright screening process was being exploited to silence negative feedback on a gaming product that was of poor quality. There was also talk of the developer’s behaviour on the Steam forums and Metacritic, and how they removed any threads gamers posted on the former that criticised Day One: Garry’s Incident, while adding absurdly positive user reviews on the latter.

Total Biscuit also appealed to Google to take another look at how the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was being implemented across YouTube. He said the system was open to abuse from less scrupulous content creators and that the attack against his channel was far from being the first.

Needless to say, this video spread like wildfire and there was a great deal of mumbling and grumbling on the online forums. Wild Games Studio received an astronomical bollocking from the gaming community and they were pretty much forced to retract their complaint against Total Biscuit’s video. Day One: Garry’s Incident has since received a lot of negative feedback, probably a lot more than it would have had if Wild Games Studio hadn’t reacted in the way that they did to the initial criticisms.

I don’t know about you, but this story was gold dust to me.

I’m not nearly as big or as influential as some other YouTubers, but I like to think that what I have to say about games in a critical sense holds legitimacy.  I don’t say that games are terrible without justifying my opinions.  I don’t say they’re good without justifying my opinions, either. Obviously there are points I make in reviews that are subjective, but what we need to take away from all this is that the right to critique a product should be sacrosanct. It should be, but it isn’t as far as some people are concerned – usually the people who made the product in question or the fanboys who will buy it regardless of what anyone says.

By all accounts Total Biscuit’s critique was justified, as Day One: Garry’s Incident has gaping flaws in its stealth mechanics and presentation, and at the time of reviewing it was infested with minor bugs and glitches. Total Biscuit’s style can be caustic and obnoxious, like any entertaining critic in this industry, and if Stephane Woods had a problem with his presentational style one might question why he gave The Cynical Brit review code in the first place.

If you haven’t yet seen Total Biscuit’s video on the pow-wow between his channel and Wild Games Studio, it’s worth watching.  Not only is it informative, but all revenue generated from views is being donated to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), whose work revolves around promoting free speech across the internet.

This was a highly underreported story, ignored or pushed to one side by many of the larger games news outlets and primarily spread through word-of-mouth and smaller gaming sites. Even so, it’s the most significant story I’ve watched unfold this year and it tried to shine a light into the murky corners of Google’s copyright policies over a month before YouTube started going after channels for questionable third-party content.

That said, anyone who attempts to censor critique in any consumer environment deserves to be publicly humiliated and vilified, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching Wild Games Studio having to endure the backlash from the gaming community.

I hope all the good apples who are part of that organisation find better jobs in the new year, maybe with a more reputable company… like EA, possibly.

 

XBOX 180″

Over six months ago E3 happened and a lot of Xbox One enthusiasts were left feeling alone and confused over what Microsoft’s strategy was all about.

Microsoft’s earlier reveal of the Xbox One was downright embarrassing for a games console, seeing as there were no games being showcased and the audience was told how they could watch Star Trek and use Skype at the same time. This was Electronic Theatre Imagefollowed by infomercials, where Microsoft front man Don Mattrick wrapped his lips around the flaccid manflesh of television networks and film producers and proceeded to suck hard.

You might think that would have been a difficult act to follow with something of equal or greater disaster value – but no, Microsoft outdid themselves at E3 by alienating not just their consumers but the press as well.

They flip-flopped over the Xbox One’s functionality. First it needed to be online ALL the time, then it needed to check in once every 24 hours (oh, but if you played a game for the first time then you’d have to be online in order for the disc to be registered) and the Kinect camera would be watching you all the time (no, wait, it would be MONITORING your living room so it could hear the words, “Xbox On”) and if you wanted to take a game over to a friend’s house then the game might not work properly (though you could share it with them online to some degree or another) and independent developers wouldn’t have their games published on Xbox Live (unless they were backed by one of the big publishers).

Or maybe none of these things! Who knows? We certainly didn’t – and by ‘we’ I mean literally everyone who isn’t Don Mattrick.

I suspect Mr. Mattrick didn’t really know what was going on, either. The poor man was struggling to hold up his umbrella against the storm of questions being thrown at him.

Peter Molyneux said the Xbox One E3 showing “was very unprofessionally done.”  Peter Molyneux said that. Mr. Promises-The-World himself.

You can always argue that Molyneux doesn’t have the right to criticise a presentation after all the times we swallowed his overly ambitious bulls**t, but at least Mr. Molyneux gave us clear messages. He told us what he wanted his games to be like and this gave us an idea of what to expect. How they actually turned out is another matter, of course.

Microsoft were pressing forwards with their always-online idea for the Xbox One, then backtracking, then altering it a little. The Digital Rights Management for games on disc was up in the air and apparently down to publishers – nobody in Microsoft’s PR department or even the higher-up circles of management seemed to know what was going on.

I remember at the time I was talking to one of my editors about this mess and he was even more confused than I was. Probably because he’d been looking at what the games news sites had published in the last 24 to 48 hours and, depending on who they’d interviewed, they were speculating on all kinds of nonsense.

It was one of the biggest PR disasters in the history of the games industry, arguably the worst.

Imagine having a car, a car you’ve owned for a few years. You love this car; it’s functional and it looks good.  Now imagine watching it get crunched into a little cube of twisted metal and broken glass, only you have to watch that happen very slowly over the course of several days. That’s essentially what Microsoft made its fans do during and after E3. Their confused signals over the Xbox One and how its technology improved our gaming experiences left us feeling cold and indifferent.

Still, it made for damned good reading and viewing. I was on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen next, then in the middle of June Microsoft finally held up their hands and said, Right, we’re just going to do things the way we did them with the Xbox 360. You put in the games, you play them. Apparently this was the best decision they made throughout the proceedings, but I’m not so certain that’s true anymore.

I understand what Microsoft was trying to do with games. They basically want the second hand market to be eliminated – and if you ever see how much money is lost to that sector, never reaching the pockets of publishers and developers (the people who actually MAKE GAMES HAPPEN), you’d understand why. PC users are already accustomed to downloading games they can’t physically share with friends, so Microsoft tried, in a very ham-fisted sort of way, to bridge the gap with a shiny disc in a box that users would have to tie down to their specific Xbox One console.

It would have been better to get rid of discs altogether (it’s going to happen eventually) and in so doing make Xbox One games cheaper. Downloads cut a lot of costs out of the equation; you don’t pay for manufacture, packaging, shipping, or the taxes associated with those. The game goes online and people download it, and it’s supported by ongoing patches as and when issues crop up. THAT would have been a good plan. Instead Microsoft tried to please everyone by combining discs with online registering, and it was a colossal failure.

Anyway, a great ongoing news story that had me glued to my computer screen for days on end.

 

Kickstarter Breathes Life into Games Industry

This isn’t really a news story, rather a success story.  Our beloved games industry has been suffering from a distinct lack of passion these past few years, thanks largely to the empty suits who refuse to produce anything they think isn’t going to appeal to the mainstream gaming crowd. Times are tough and it’s all about reducing the risk factor.

But now we have Kickstarter.

Kickstarter has been active since 2009, but throughout 2013 it’s become a fulcrum of success for budding and veteran games developers who want to make stuff happen.  Out of the public wallet we have raised a collective 200,000,000 dollars for various projects. That’s extra money going into the games industry, going towards projects that simply wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Granted, there are some projects that have come out of Kickstarter that we might have been better off without, but the beauty of crowd funding – online crowd funding in particular – is that it has the potential to dispel those silly financial barriers that would put an end to perfectly good ideas.

2013 was a great year for Kickstarter and it looks as though 2014 will be greater still.  People obviously feel passionate enough about their games to support them directly and I hope this trend continues, if only to demonstrate to all the bigger industry players that we want more than guns, zombie survival and white male protagonists.

One of the more uplifting stories for the games industry this year.

Well, ladies and gents, we’ve come to the end of an admittedly very short but hopefully useful group of news stories. The games industry has always been at the very tip of the thermonuclear warhead that we know as Change, and I’m looking forward to seeing what 2014 will bring us.

Happy New Year, chaps!

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