Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Day 2 Coverage: Industry vs. Academia, Measures Against Piracy, Sega, and 2010 Legal Round-Up
Featuring Alpha Protocol
Industry and Academia: In Search of the Love
Speakers: Colleen Macklin (Parsons the New School for Design), Drew Davidson (Carnegie Mellon University), Greg Foertsch (Firaxis Games), Tracy Fullerton (USC Interactive Media), Walter Rotenberry (Wake Tech Community College)
For video games to be accepted as a medium, the academic side needs to be cultivated, but it was only about 3 years ago that the industry was questioning the presence of professors at the Games Developers Conference. They would ask, "What can those academics possibly teach us that we already don't know? Shouldn't it really be the other way around? And doesn't the game industry have more of an apprenticeship model of learning than traditional schooling? " But even multibillion-dollar developers understand that game students are the future of the industry, and the primary source for employees. So then where is the love?
Over the last half of the decade, video game courses have been popping up in college curricula just about every two minutes. Gaming is one of the hottest topics that attract potential students, from the literal gamut of gamers out there who have had that fantastic idea for a game since they were a kid, and universities want to capitalize on that. They constantly search for industry professionals who willing to teach, either full-time or as an adjunct professor, and for ways to collaborate with the industry to develop a gaming track in the technical arts. (As a computer science student at Columbia University's engineering school, I was only able to take one gaming course, because there only offered one.)
Some current curricula enforce cross-cultural studies that have programmers study art and artists study programming, which can deter and intimidate some students, though the benefit is obvious. Other challenges academic game departments face is the tough economy, with budget cuts and game students not finding work after they graduate, and just convincing industry professionals to take two days off from normal work hours - or move to what is otherwise the middle of nowhere - to teach. Greg from Firaxis is lucky because his company allows for flexible hours, but he's the exception.
The best compromise seems to be occasional industry speakers and collaborative student projects - for instance, Activision helping students create a game that teachers American history. Of course, some issues arise when dealing with intellectual property as well as what business model to take if the game is meant to reach the market. Extending that problem is the notion of loving the industry too much, having a publisher/developer sponsor a program with the clear purpose of hiring graduates from that program. One alternative is to invite an industry figure to critique the work of students on an individual basis on their individual projects. In any case, it's time that the gaming industry begins to invest in its own future, just like the film industry, with academia perhaps opening the door for industry professionals to retire comfortably while giving back to their community.
The Bitter End - Strategies to Sink Piracy
Speakers: Andrew McLennan (Metaforic)
Or as I would to call "A Useless War of Attrition". Every form of copy protection or DRM can be and is eventually cracked, so having protection might sound like the equivalent of putting on a suit of armor just for the enemy to bash through it enough times to clunk you in the head. The DS has been hacked through the R4 cartridges, the PSP through the Pandora battery, the iPod Touch and iPhone through patches or already "jailbroken" phones, and don't even talk about the Xbox 360 and PS3. Even Metaforic admits that with all their various types of protection, it only prevents hackers only by as much as 90 days.
Now, publishers and developers certainly have the right to protect their work and intellectual properties. And Metaforic argues that the point of protection is not to prevent hacking, but to "slow down" hacking. I can see how stealing games through hacking is theft, though I believe the criminality of hacking/modding is subject to debate. The first takes money away from the developers and publishers that put their hard work into creating the game, whereas the second only steals money if there is theft (probably a violation of the hardware's Terms of Service, but even that can be debated). The question is really whether you believe you have the right to physically change any device you've purchased.
Still, it's up to the each developer to decide whether to have copy protection or not, especially since it's eventually hacked. Time, money , and effort put into creating copy protection might not be the best solution for independent studios, especially for the downloadable market and the iPhone, though it must said that the estimated losses for iPod Touch/iPhone market due to piracy is $450 million. That money isn't going to the people who make those games and that inevitably destroys the market. On principle, the consumer should honor those companies by purchasing the game legally. (Of course, this site also loves pirates, so arrrrr!!!!)
Sega: Alpha Protocol
If you listen regularly to our podcast, you already know that my colleagues aren't as optimistic about Alpha Protocol as I am. And the notorious delay, which Sega calls a "business decision", of the game from the 2009 holiday season to the summer of 2010 hasn't exactly won any points by its potential consumers, especially for those who pre-ordered the game at GameStop earlier and for those employees who couldn't give a reason to them as to why they haven't received any copies. But that aside, Alpha Protocol has already reached its final build and from last I saw it at E3 2009, the improvement is substantial.
First, I must say that the graphics, at first glance, are not spectacular. Nor is the voice-acting. But in terms of design - which is what matters most - Alpha Protocol stands up to the best RPGs on the market. Normally, when a game touts branching storylines, it means cut-scenes that have some dialogue interactions which impact the scene minimally: being aggressive or nice still leads to pretty much the same linear conclusion. Here, not only can you choose aggressive or nice options, which are effectively timed to keep the tension high, but the mere existence of the cut-scenes depends on your prior decisions. Loads of cut-scenes can be devoted to a certain character, but if you choose to kill that character early on, none of those cut-scenes will play. And this type of all-or-nothing situations don't just happen once to one character, but with nearly every important NPC in the game. That's just how conceptually huge this game is.
As such, the story - and the ending - is personally catered to your decisions. As an agent of Alpha Protocol, a secret branch of the CIA, it's your mission to investigate a terrorist missile strike on an airplane, but of course, there may be a conspiracy working behind the scenes. Morality exists in shades of gray; like Dragon Age: Origins, there is no real good or evil choices, only whether you trust certain characters and build your relationship with them. Taking a mission for one party will have you lose with favor with another.
The game will also personally cater to your play style. If you are aggressive and go into fights with guns blazing, your will earn perks, on top of the skills you choose to level up as you gain experience, and weapons that suit run-and-gun maneuvers. Same goes for being stealthy, non-lethal (tranqs and martial arts), or computer-savvy - the game will give you abilities that best support your method of attack. Alpha Protocol arrives June 1st in the US on Xbox 360 and PS3. Check back for Chris Hudak's full preview of the title... if he doesn't do it, I will eliminate him guess I will be doing it.
They showed us a new game. We can't talk about it yet. Let's just say it looks like "Spears of War".
Social and Online Games Legal Round-Up
Speakers: Mark Methenitis (The Vernon Law Group)
Mark Methenitis, who occasionally writes legal commentary on Joystiq, always has one of the more useful lectures at GDC by providing a run-down of all the year's more significant and interesting court cases involving social and online games. (Before that, some info: His gamertag is dark54555 and he has 20,000+ gamerscore.)
1) Update on Glider - Blizzard has won in the battle against MDY Industries who makes Glider, an auto-run hack in World of Warcraft. This means that the EULA / Terms of Service agreements are standing up in court, setting a precedent for future cases where a company's Terms of Service is broken by others.
2) All EULA contracts signed by kids are voidable. A kid's user created content (which best means "copyrightable" content), however, is a valid copyright and must be licensed to the distributor. Also, a kid's use of a parent's credit card can be considered consent... but this hasn't been tested in the courts much (what happens if a kid uses a credit card on Xbox Live, say?)
3) COPPA 2.0 - Essentially, some states (like New Jersey and Maine) have made privacy policies for children, which used to be those under 13, extended to all minors (under 18). One specific change is that parental consent is needed to keep a child's e-mail on file - there must also be an opt-out option for newsletter and the like.
4) There is a discussion going now about DRM, like Ubisoft's more recent DRM, that how they might be too intrusive to the end user, breaking consumer protection.
5) Once quotes as being "breathtakingly stupid", users in Europe by 2011 must now get comprehensive information about any cookies that they might receive. No one knows what this means. Are browser settings where you accept cookies consent? Should there be tick box for a pop-up?
6) Online gambling - Investigations into Zynga Poker, an online poker site, are revealing what constitutes as online gambling and what does not. Gambling, in broad legal terms, must meet three conditions: Consideration (payment to participate), Chance (random element), and Prize (reward to be won). Some interpretations of chance, however, can be loose, including pure-skill games like chess in their definition of gambling.
Also, the argument that chips have no value does not hold up because chips can be purchased on the black market and chips are bought with real-world currency; that is, chips "could have value" so it is subject to gambling regulations. Sweepstakes (and tournaments) where "no purchase is necessary" (no consideration) can still be subject to gambling regulations, particularly the rule where a deposit needs to be made as insurance for the end user, even if the mention of the deposit is not in the rules. What is defined as a "virtual good" vs. "real-world item" depends a lot on whether the item is refundable. If an item can be purchased with money and refunded as money, then it is treated more as a "real-world item".
But the main trouble with what is and is not online gambling is that every state has different laws on it and internationally, it's even worse. So for now, online gambling sites need to navigate through the nebulous laws without sticking their neck out too much... unless they want to be that "first" case to test the waters.