Pirates and Hippies

About a year ago, I think offended a few businessmen for saying something to the effect of, “Profits are like oxygen – you need them to stay alive, but they’re not why you exist.”

Now, if you heard this statement in isolation, I guess you’d think I was some kind of tree-hugging socialist. And, of course, I am. But I didn’t say profits weren’t important. I said they weren’t why you existed.

If your absolute and stated goal as a business is to make as much money as possible, you’re basically a pirate (the bad kind). To a pirate, the world is simply a space with money in it. The problem is that there’s more money outside of your ship than inside. The pirate doesn’t have to think about things like creating brand appeal, satisfying customers, or creating unique and interesting products because, to the pirate, other people are simply places containing things that you would like to have.

The non-piratical way of making money is to

  1. Figure out what people want, need, or could want,
  2. Figure out what you’re good at doing,
  3. Do things that satisfy the above conditions, and
  4. Accept money in return.

If you keep focusing on new and interesting ways to help people, then customers will follow you. If you simply focus on getting their money, you will inevitably chase the customers – with a cannon.

Now, pirates don’t stop being pirates just because they recognize that it is (for the time being) more profitable to obey the law than not. These businessmen were perhaps a touch piratical. I don’t think their company is doing very well, and I’m not surprised. Rather than trying to make people (employees included) happy, they’re trying to extract money from them.

There’s definitely a place at every company for people who have this utilitarian worldview. They are vital, in fact, because they ask the hard questions other people aren’t willing to. But if the company forgets, along the way, that their goal is to provide useful goods and services (and accept money in return), then they’re going to gradually mutate into, say, Apple in the 1990′s.

Now, that brings me to another anecdote, which is particularly funny in this context. I think I was rejected from a job for asking how they intended to make money. That doesn’t make me a pirate any more than the above makes me a hippie. It just makes me a guy who would like to continue to have a roof over his head.

Thief, Ninja Gaiden, Assassin’s Creed, and teleology

I recently finished Ninja Gaiden Sigma for the first time. Overall, I found it to be a great game that was really well-tuned in terms of difficulty (after Demon’s Souls and Dwarf Fortress, my perception of difficulty levels has… changed). I did finally drop down to Ninja Dog mode for the final boss, but only because I had blown all my consumables and didn’t want to go back to farm.

However, I thought the game’s jumping puzzles and some boss levels were rather teleological. This term basically means that stuff in the world exists for a specific, ultimate purpose. A good example of this is when this nutjob talks about bananas, asserting that God created the modern banana specifically for our enjoyment, blithely ignoring the hundreds or thousands of years of careful breeding that went into turning the seedy, astringent wild banana into the fleshy, sweet banana we know today.

Game worlds, unlike bananas, are made specifically by designers for our enjoyment. We know this. Usually it isn’t a problem. However, it becomes a problem when it looks like something should be possible, but it isn’t. Then, the game becomes absurd. The difference between these two calls attention to the game’s artifice.

Ninja Gaiden’s boss encounters often featured invisible walls that roped off geometry that a player could hide behind, thus making boss encounters trivial. My problem with these walls wasn’t the walls per se: It’s that they were invisible. It’s like they held up a big sign that said, “In the last month of playtesting we found that the boss could get hung up on this rock over here, and we couldn’t even ask the artists to build us a shimmering forcefield.” A shimmering forcefield is at least consistent with a world that has demons and lasers. An invisible wall isn’t.

The jumping puzzles also had some offenders in this regard. There was one time where I had to look up a solution to a puzzle that involved swinging off of a tree branch. Now, I could have just been a bit thick-skulled, but I felt the game hadn’t trained me sufficiently to regard all branches as swingable. If this were the case, everything that it looked like you could swing on would have been swingable, even if it was pointless. This makes me really appreciate Thief and Assassin’s Creed. In Assassin’s creed, the levels were meticulously designed so that anything it looked like you could do was possible. In Thief, they simply built fewer artificial restrictions into the game, which enabled you to solve puzzles in ways that even the game’s designers didn’t foresee.

This is something that games which involve any level of stealth need to get right. I think a lot of game designers are lawful-oriented people who are uncomfortable with dishonorable tactics, and it’s hard to tune a game’s difficult both for proud warrior race guys and sneaky sniper-assassins. People who like to be sneaky (like me) are also inclined to exploit game mechanics, which many people consider to be cheating. I don’t think it’s an accident that I also like to automate and optimize things. I want to play sneaky because sneaky is smart. It screws with my suspension of disbelief more to see a guy could run into a room and shoot everyone than to see him pick off a dozen guards from across the building. Even in Demon’s Souls, bastardly hard that it is, there is nothing that stops you from arrowing most monsters to death from a comfortable distance. And nobody who plays Dwarf Fortress would call you a cheater for lining the entrance to your fort with dozens of merciless traps, siege weapons, fortifications and magma cannons – they’d call you dwarfy. These are the people who look at immortal, bloodsucking vampire dwarves as a convenient opportunity to create a workforce that can survive without food provided they are kept separate from their fellows, and you know what? They are smarter than people who play Call of Duty.

Nixon 2012

I made Nixon2012.com just after I was laid off in order to keep my skills sharp and, frankly, to do something that felt useful. It is a satire website, but it is not satirizing Richard Nixon. It is satirizing America in general, and the modern conservative movement in particular.

Political affiliation is about disgust, and it is about metaphor, but it is also about stories (not to say that Lakoff and Haidt don’t talk about stories, but it’s not their main focus). These stories help us make sense of the world by providing answers for broad questions such as:

  1. What got us here?
  2. Where are we going?

Most liberal voters old enough to be political conscious at the time of Clinton seem to hold the belief that everything was awesome under Clinton and then everything went bad under Bush. They are probably moderately disappointed in Obama but optimistic for his second term. Still, they probably point towards victories in LGBT rights and the increased representation of women and non-whites in high levels of business as signs that our nation has been arcing towards justice, and think that if we repeal the Bush tax cuts we’ll be on the road to fiscal stability.

Conversely, most conservatives seem to believe in the same set of “facts,” but interpret them differently. They view LGBT rights as a sign of the end-times and think both Obama and Clinton’s policies are collectivist enough to make Leon Trotsky blush.

But the point that most political pundits – with the exception of Chris Hedges – miss entirely is that both of these stories are completely false. Richard Nixon was our last liberal president, and he was a Republican. Regardless of what you may believe about Nixon, the reality is that he created the EPA, withdrew from a major overseas war (we’ve got 2 right now), integrated schools, instituted affirmative action, and had serious plans at the time of his resignation to institute both guaranteed minimum income and universal healthcare. The top tax rates for personal income and capital gains were 77% and 36.5% respectively, versus 35% and 15% now. Nixon would currently be considered unelectable in either party, and Reagan would be a strong contender for the Democratic nomination.

I’m not really interested in spewing a partisan rant here. I’m just trying to get liberals to realize that they’re losing, and to get conservatives to realize that the nation has been heading demonstrably to the right. The golden era liberals are trying to reclaim was under Richard Nixon, not Clinton, and for conservatives it was under Herbert Hoover, not Reagan.

Game Jam at the MADE: 05May2012

Edit: Heavy Metal Princesses is online!

So, we’ve wrapped up the second total and first MONTHLY game jam at The MADE. The winning game of our “The Princess Saves the Day” theme was a co-op shoot-em-up by Jim, Lee, Louis, and Luther, the link to which I assume is forthcoming as soon as Jim gets around to writing a loader for it. They won a fabulous, signed-and-numbered Legend of Zelda print. I wasn’t going to give them anything, but then Brandon showed up and brought the awesome.

The turnout was impressive. Frankly, I expected about five people to show up in total – Dawn and her team, Brandon, and Jim – the set of people who RSVP’d as of about Monday, before I buried my head into serialization and lost track of the outside world. But we ended up with a total of about 20 people at various times – developers, artists, aspiring developers and enthusiasts alike. Most of the folks ended up working on their personal projects and networking, but then Luther started acting like a producer and people started treating him like one, and a game was born.

We’re going to try and make this a monthly event: the second Saturday of every month at the MADE. We will probably start a bit earlier and end a bit earlier so people have an opportunity to do other fun things on Saturday nights. Check back here or at the Bay Area Game Jammers group for more details. People seemed to like the prizes, so if you’d like to donate a prize, please drop me a line, otherwise people are just going to get watercolors goth girls and cosplayers, which is pretty much all I’m good for in terms of collectables.

Special thanks to the folks at the MADE for giving us space, internets and publicity, Mechamagizmo for the drinks and snacks, and Alex for the encouragement.