Once Upon a Time, I Tried To Make a Horror Game

I've written on this blog before on my tendency, in my younger years, to generate videogame hoaxes. Famously, I got Kotaku to post about something I'd made, and spent the better part of 8 years banned from their commenting system, possibly as a result. I've struggled over the years to figure out what inside of me liked making things with the explicit intent of fooling people, and why I've presumably grown out of it. With hoaxes, I rationalized it out to watching rats solve a maze - that it was almost like designing game, with most of the fun watching how the players solved my "puzzle".

But adjacent to that is my interest in scaring people. At a young age - and I mean very young, like 12 years old - me and my cousins staged a "haunted house" for Halloween. It was strictly for our parents and was mostly just toys arranged in ways we thought were spooky, but when one of them said something we did actually scared them, it gave me a weird sense of satisfaction that I guess stuck with me somehow.

Fast forward five years to high school. You do all sorts of things in high school that you later become pretty embarrassed by, and for me, I had created my own Sonic the Hedgehog fan-character by the name of Blaze the Hedgehog. When you were 15, 16, 17 years old, that kind of thing is considered "normal". All my friends had similar things. They wrote stories about their characters, drew pictures, and did role-playing on AOL chat rooms. Not even necessarily Sonic fan-characters, but just characters, period. Things meant to represent them. Screen names.

I probably drew this around 1998 or 1999. I was maybe 15. We were all 15 once.

I could pretend this part of my life never existed. I could pick a new internet handle. It was early enough in internet culture that if I wanted to, I could erase this part of my life and almost nobody would know. But where's the fun in that? Everybody does embarrassing things when they're a teenager. If you just sweep it under the rug, you'll find it again on down the line and feel even worse about it. It might be cringe-worthy, but it's better to meet it head-on and conquer it.

It was around this time that I had a friend (known then as RedXVI, later known as DragonXVI, Trace Kyshad, and eventually his real name, Malcolm Brown) who was making a fangame called Sonic MADventure. Part adventure game and part RPG, MADventure was a send-up of both the community we all posted in (SFGHQ) and the Sonic franchise at large. And as such, community members needed sprites of their characters to appear in the game. And so, using the template Sonic sprite, I edited it to look like Blaze and imported it in to a Click & Create game project file. But there was one problem: Red wasn't online.

So I made a small area in this project file to run around in. Since I had them lying around, I added zombie sprites from Diablo 2, and a way to shoot at them. And slowly, that area grew, and grew and grew... in to a game I eventually called "The Darkness". In the above video, I spend a little over 15 minutes exploring The Darkness.

But something happened. When I showed my friends the game, one of them told me something unexpected: it scared him.

It scared him? I wasn't really trying to make something scary. I was just working with what I had, really. What gives? He didn't really have any answers for me, he just thought it was creepy. Something about the atmosphere, the sound effects of events happening off screen, and the subject matter came together and spooked him. And for me, the thought that I somehow accidentally frightened a person ignited the long-dormant passion in me. If I did it on accident, could I do it on purpose? What even is a scary game, anyway? I was now on a mission to find out.

My first attempt to make a game that was legitimately scary was "The Darkness 2", as seen in the video above. It sort of became a test bed for a variety of different concepts, but in reality just amounts to more zombies in a maze, but now a spooky sounds CD plays in the background. I did toy with other ideas not really shown in the video; there are segments where you hear things happen off screen (a particularly long dead end triggers the distant sound of glass breaking back the way you came, and upon doubling back you find more monsters waiting for you) and scenes designed to make you curious about something like blood dripping from the ceiling only to discover it was something horrible. In context, though, they were like a child's crayon drawings.

I worked on The Darkness 2 on and off for over a year. Adding features, adding secret modes, adding new functionality. By the end of it I had... well, something, I guess. Scary? No, not really. When data corruption forced me to start over, it gave me an opportunity to step back and rethink a lot of things. No, seriously, what exactly makes horror movies scary? When you break down a game like Silent Hill, what's scary about it mechanically?

"The House" was my final, great effort. The culmination of everything I'd learned. What makes a movie like Nightmare on Elm Street scary? A connection to the viewer. Just as the characters in the movie had their dreams invaded by Freddy Kruger, so too could he invade yours, and there wasn't anything you could do to stop it. Why was Freddy scary? He was scary looking. Threatening. Otherworldly. Literally the boogie man; something to be chased by, something to run from. Constantly one step behind you.

And at its core, what is the most basic fear? Fear of the unknown. That you don't know what's going on. You can't predict what's going to happen. You aren't safe. Nobody is afraid of the dark itself; they're afraid of what they can't see in the dark.

Using these concepts, I tried to build a game to the best of my ability. Of course, as I go on to mention in the video, the isometric perspective, full of sprites ripped from Zombies Ate My Neighbors and Ghoul Patrol, was not the ideal way I'd envisioned this game. In my mind, I saw it as something more tangible. For as much as I tried to make an immersive connection to the player, you're still watching somebody else walk through the environment; instead I'd wanted something first person. Unfortunately, having no idea how 3D modeling works has held me back considerably.

A mock-up I made in Garry's Mod, years ago.

Especially given that I seemed to be on a similar track that lead other developers to create games like Amnesia, Slender, and Outlast. I guess when you sit on good ideas for 9 years, it's inevitable that somebody will get to them before you do. But if nothing else, it at least proved that I was on to something, and given this originated as a quest to figure out what makes a game scary at all, maybe that's good enough.

If you're crazy enough and want to play any of the crummy games featured in this blog, there are download links for them in the video descriptions of each of the videos (except for The House, for reasons that will be obvious if you've watched its accompanying video). I've also created a playlist for these "Let's Narcissism" videos, and there's a fourth and final semi-unrelated video coming out in just a couple days, so stay tuned for that.

Happy Halloween!

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I've Launched My Own Website: www.bltn.net

So, I dunno! I bought a domain and figured I need to throw something up on there. It used to just point to my Youtube channel, but instead I just used tumblr because it's easy to do stuff with and I don't have to pay for it. It has an archive of all my video reviews and I'll be posting other junk there too (blogs about games, etc.) Might do a backlog feature or something. Also has outtakes from my videos, if you're interested in hearing me embarrass myself.

Just hit up

www.bltn.net

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My 10th Video Review: Mario Kart 8

Since video embeds still aren't in user reviews, here's my Mario Kart 8 review in blog form! In my completely objective, unbiased opinion, it is the best Mario Kart 8 video review you'll find on the internet!

As always, it's surprising how long these take me I ran a poll on Twitter and Tumblr under the guise this would only take me a week to put together, and it ended up taking over a month! And I kind of can't figure out why!

I mean, with the DKC video, it made sense. I was having trouble editing the footage and that took me weeks to figure out. This, though, this went about as smoothly as you could hope for. I had to draw fewer art assets, I got a bunch of new music, editing went painlessly, and yet…

The only way it makes sense is to walk through the process step by step:

  • It took around three days to record all the footage I needed. This could be bumped up to four, because I had to go back and record more stuff (you always do).
  • It took six (almost seven!) days to convert the busted-ass Roxio M2TS files in to something Sony Vegas could actually read.
  • It took two days to record all of my narration. I always do two takes, but I wasn’t happy, so a few days after assembling my first attempt, I went back and re-recorded the whole thing again and nailed it perfectly on basically my first try.
  • It took another 2 days to go back over the audio: I use Goldwave to manually cut out all the breaths and edit out all the mistakes, cut it all up by segment and run it through Levelator, then run that through Izotope Ozone to clean it up and make it sound nice.
  • I spent three days going through the Free Music Archive looking for new, royalty-free music to supplement my library of Kevin MacLeod stuff.
  • Two days for pencil sketches on the art pieces, another four days to ink and color them.
  • Another day to make the bar graph animation; instead of figure out how to do it in Sony Vegas, I just created a Multimedia Fusion application and exported that to an AVI file (treating it basically like Flash).
  • And then we’ll say another week just in Sony Vegas, sifting through everything and putting it together in to what you see above.

GRAND TOTAL WORK: 30 days (give or take)

ACTUAL LENGTH OF TIME BETWEEN STARTING AND ENDING THE PROJECT: 45 days

Hm. I feel like I could’ve worked harder, though at the same time, I feel like I ran myself absolutely ragged on this one. By about week three a sort of desperation sets in where you’re like “AUGH THIS HAS TO GET DONE” but you’re in danger of burning out.

Still, though, that’s probably acceptable, right? I mean, I don’t actually know; I think professionals like GiantBomb could turn a video review around in about a week, and there was a time when I first started doing these that it feels like I could churn one out in about 48 hours (that’s how long it took me to do the first one, for Sonic Unleashed).

But they’re also getting longer, and getting more complex. That Sonic Unleashed video was 6 minutes long. This is double that, with unique art assets, custom animations, etc.

Man, I dunno. I feel like somebody’s gonna tell me it’s fine but it’s seriously hanging over my head that I could’ve worked harder (or at least faster).

Whatever!

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Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze - The Video Review

There was a time where GiantBomb let you embed Youtube videos in to user reviews, but that time has seemingly passed. Despite responses from both Jeff and Rorie implying that removing video embeds from reviews was not intended, it would appear things are officially falling on deaf ears now. Or everybody's just too busy. Whatever! Either way, here's this.

For those of you following my (much more frequently updated) Tumblr know, I've been fighting to get this video done for like two months now. I bought some new video capture hardware (a Roxio Gamecap HD Pro) and it has been nothing but one big endless headache. It's a miracle this video even got released at all, but it means that the final video quality is less than desirable:

Yes, this is from the "high quality" archival version.

Not much can be done about that outside of literally rebuilding my entire PC from the ground up, and I don't exactly have $500-$800 lying around to make that happen. So, I don't know.

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My Game of the "Year" 2013 (?) - NOW WITH A RIDICULOUS VIDEO

Whoa-ho nelly, here's a big one. Normally these are blogs, but this year I decided to go the extra mile and make a video. That video turned out to be 23 minutes long, and took me close to a month to put together. I would definitely say it is worth watching, if only for the sake of my own sanity. PLEASE WATCH IT OR I WILL CRY AND NOBODY WANTS THAT

I've lamented the loss of the days when GiantBomb used to do "shows" with actual "production", but how much time and how much effort I had to put in to this video made it a pretty stark reminder that yo, that stuff is really hard work and takes days, weeks, or months to put together.

Was it worth it? Kinda, yeah. I'm trying to push myself to be more entertaining when I go through the effort to "produce" a video, so this was an opportunity to dip my toes in to that pool and see what happens. Hopefully it came out alright. Speaking of: If you have feedback on the video, I’d be greatly interested. Do I sound okay? Did my jokes land? Did I fall flat on my face? How can I improve? I want to make videos you want to watch, and I can’t do that unless you tell me what I’m doing wrong.

I mention "show notes" in the video, but if you want to see those, you're going to have to go over to the video page on Youtube. I've also compiled some "stat porn" for this, if you're curious about the whozit and whatsit that went in to this monster:

Script

  • 3680 words
  • 21047 letters
  • 185 sentences
  • 44 paragraphs
  • 7 pages long (single space, 12pt font)

Data

  • 262 video files (119gb, XVID compressed)
  • 394 image files (190mb)
  • 373 audio files (1.4gb)

Media

  • Dialog: 57 minutes recorded (20 minutes used)
  • Video: 4 hours, 53 minutes recorded
  • Music: 104 songs totaling 4 hours and 25 minutes (14 songs used, 44 minutes total)
  • Art: 15 hand-drawn pictures, scanned and digitally colored

Project

  • "GOTY2013" folder created December 26th, 2013 at 6:13pm
  • 149 audio/video layers
  • 720 pieces of project media
  • Size of “goty2013-jan2014-8-HD.veg”: 1.11mb
  • Total Video Runtime: 23 minutes, 26 seconds
  • Resolution: 1280x720
  • Framerate: 30fps
  • Video Codec: X264 @ 5530kbps
  • Audio Codec: Uncompressed ADPCM WAV @ 44.1khz
  • Time to render in 720p: 2 hours, 24 minutes (estimated: 4 hours, 15min)
  • Final File Size: 927mb
  • Finished January 24th, 2014 at 6:54pm
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S-Ranks Unleashed

You may remember some months ago I highlighted the release of The Unleashed Project. If you've forgotten, The Unleashed Project is a mod that ports all of Sonic Unleashed's daytime levels (aka: part of the game that's worth playing) to the PC version of Sonic Generations. If you don't already have it, you can get it from here.

There was one glaring problem with the mod, though: as somebody who put hours and hours and hours in to Sonic Unleashed, it was extremely difficult to get good scores in the Sonic Generations port. The developers of the mod had seemingly skewed the difficulty in favor of expert-level speed runners.

When I brought it up with them, I was basically told to shut up. So I took matters in to my own hands and modded their mod, creating S-Ranks Unleashed. The mod tries to re-balance the scoring system back to something similar to the original Sonic Unleashed.

I figured that if it was too difficult for me, somebody who played a metric boatload of Sonic Unleashed, it would probably be basically impossible for anyone just coming to this game for the first time. More information about the mod, including installation information and download links, can be found at its Moddb page.

I make it no secret that I love Sonic Unleashed. I didn't think I would, but something about it's insane high speed antics really captivated the closet adrenaline junkie inside of me, and neither Sonic Colors nor Sonic Generations ever really managed to recapture the thrill of these levels. I think it's something Patrick Klepek mentioned once or twice (in relation to Mirror's Edge), about the good feeling you get for overcoming something that seems to be heavily based on practicing memorization and timing (another good example I like to point out is this guy relating getting S-Ranks in Sonic Unleashed to getting 5 stars in Rock Band).

I was hoping that The Unleashed Project would've been a way for me to show the rest of the world why I loved Sonic Unleashed without anyone having to slog through the boring parts, but the S-Rank stuff was bad enough that I never felt comfortable recommending it to anyone.

Hence, why I decided to fix it for myself. Because of the differences in scoring systems, there's no direct way to port ranks from one game to another, but I did my best to feel out what the correct level of difficulty is. Just keep in mind: You still have to try. S-Ranks are not supposed to be easy, they're just easier now than they used to be.

If you need a reminder as to why I think Sonic Unleashed is so cool, allow me to provide these two examples:

And if you want something newer, here's a video I recorded of The Unleashed Project before I developed my mod (so I get an A-Rank instead of an S):

Play this game, you guys. It's one of the reasons people are starting to say Sonic might be cool again.

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A Rebuttal to Ben Kuchera, Re: Xbox One, Used Games, and More

If you’re deep enough in to video games to read NeoGAF even passively, you know that there has been beef brewing between Video game Press and the consumer. The reasons for this reach far and wide, but the general consensus from my perspective seems to be that a lot of people in the videogame press have been doing it for so long they’ve sort of forgotten what it’s like to be a consumer, especially a consumer on a budget. As such, certain members in the videogame press are more forgiving of pricing woes that have typically plagued this last generation of gaming hardware, and when the subject of absurd pricing is rallied against, the response from the press has generally been to label these people as spoiled children that need to just “stop whining”. A few like to hide behind the excuse of “vote with your dollars”, which has not particularly worked well when you consider the state of Season Pass DLC and the attempted vilification of the Used Games market. There’s a line in the perennial classic Tommy Boy that I feel is a pretty good counterpoint to the notion of voting with your dollars:

Tommy: I’m sorry about your car, but don’t call me worthless. I’m trying my best. I’m not my dad!

Richard Hayden: You’re right! You’re not your dad! He could sell a ketchup Popsicle to a woman in white gloves!

The line pertains to people that can sell anyone anything even if it’s irresponsible for them to buy it. And you better believe that all of the big corporations try to employ marketers like that, making the idea of “voting with your dollars” fruitless. Because even if you’re smart enough to avoid buying so-called “coin doublers” for today’s games, there is a dedicated campaign to convince others that it is a necessary purchase. So in the end you have a bunch of people who are slowly falling out of touch on why everybody is so angry about the state of gaming because for the last 5 or 10 or even 20 years every videogame they’ve ever had was either provided to them gratis or considered a business expense. “It’s okay if I go out and on a whim spend $400 on Skylanders toys because that’s what my job is.” And on some level I don’t blame them - I’m sure they’re not consciously letting it happen, and some actively try and fight back against it. But it’s still a growing problem.

The latest and greatest example is the reveal of the XBOX ONE, which was at best met with indifference and at worst, total revulsion. Here is a videogame console trying to fix a problem that to most consumers doesn’t actually exist - we want to pay less for today’s games, not more (re: “voting with your dollars”), and so used video games have kind of risen up and given birth to a thriving second-hand market. The Xbox One wants to put an end to that, more than likely demanding that we spend full retail on everything - even games we borrow from friends. It is a plainly anti-consumer practice hiding behind notions that internet connectivity is “the future”. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. And you have people in the games press trying to spin this as a positive thing, with such lovely headlines like “You Don’t Hate the Xbox One, You’re Just Jealous”. But the one I want to touch on today is one by Ben Kuchera of the Penny-Arcade Report titled “The Xbox One will kill used games and control second-hand sales, and that’s great news (Really!)

As if you couldn’t tell from the title, the article assumes that the used games industry is the cause of the problem and not a response to a greater issue at hand, and I really don’t think that’s the case at all.

[Xbox One’s internet licensing system] is good news for a few reasons. The first is that piracy will likely be reduced. If the system phones home every so often to check on your licenses, and there is no way to play a game without that title being authenticated and a license being active, piracy becomes harder. You’ll never be able to stop pirates, not entirely, but if you can make the act of pirating games non-trivial the incidence of piracy will drop. This is a good thing for everyone except those who want to play games for free.

This is the first thing I have to take issue with. Maybe I’m just blind to it, but piracy on the Xbox 360 never seemed like a significant problem to me. That’s not to say it does not happen, of course, but getting an Xbox 360 that can play pirated games involves a process more complex than most people want to deal with. I would assume that 15% or less of all Xbox 360 owners have the means to play pirated material. While I’m sure nobody would argue that less piracy is a bad thing, this was not a rampant epidemic that needs drastic measures in order to be stopped. Compared to other hardware manufacturers, Microsoft already had piracy under control better than the competition did. Beefing up security is a little unnecessary.

The next thing is that the used-game market all but disappears. GameStop may not be able to aggressively hawk used games for $5 less than the new price to customers under these new controls, which is great if you’re a developer or publisher. Once that secondary market is removed you can suddenly profit from every copy of your game sold, and as profit margins rise it’s possible we’ll see prices drop. Some stodgy publishers will likely stay with the $60 model, but they’re dead companies walking already. The smart companies will see this opportunity to play with pricing and see what works and what doesn’t.

This is putting a lot of faith in to companies that probably don’t deserve it. I can find no better example than to chart the course of Epic Games this generation: they set the stage with the original Gears of War, railing against Microsoft’s policies regarding free DLC. Epic had, in the past, been known for providing huge content packs for Unreal Tournament completely for free, and suddenly Microsoft was demanding that they charge money for them. They met in the middle, and the first Gears of War DLC pack went the Halo 2 route: pay for early access, or wait until it becomes free months later. By Gears of War 2, the “pay for early access” concept fell by the wayside, as the game received an additional 19 new multiplayer maps, all of which were only available to those who purchased them. When it came time for Gears of War 3, the generous Epic Games from 2007 had been completely extinguished - hundreds of dollars in worthless skins were up for purchase, with a whole special marketplace built exclusively for it. Gears of War Judgement took it a step further, with an option on the main menu constantly reminding you that for a few extra bucks, you could accelerate their awful EXP treadmill and unlock items in the game faster. This is to say nothing of Microsoft themselves, which up until two months ago dared to ask $30 for the “Games On Demand” version of Halo 3, a seven year old game. That $30 purchase did not include DLC, which drove the price of the game up past $45 - only $15 shy of what it cost when it was brand new. Finally, as of around March, the game has been reduced to $20.

While you could say that these are responses to the Used Game market, I on the other hand see it a different way: Microsoft has dipped their toe in to Steam’s pool, with a crazy christmas sale that let me buy the Games For Windows version of Age of Empires 3 for the low low price of only $0.10. I also picked up Viva Pinata for a dollar (see: this blog). Since then, further sales on Xbox Live and Games For Windows have been decidedly mediocre, and Microsoft in general seems to have learned one very important, key lesson: in a store like Wal-mart, discounts are often necessary in order to get rid of worthless, old products so that newer, better ones can occupy that limited shelf space. In a digital marketplace, there is no such thing as “limited shelf space”. Content lists on the Xbox Marketplace can go on for hundreds, if not thousands of entries. And it makes sense, too, when you consider just how bad Microsoft has been at making it easier to find content - they’re perfectly fine showing you a “shelf” that may as well stretch in to infinity. In a way, though, that’s what shopping online is becoming - Steam, which may have single-handedly saved the PC as a platform, is almost as difficult to browse as the Xbox Marketplace once you get past the featured content on the front page, and there probably isn’t going to be a good way to solve that problem without straight-up removing games from the service. After all, it’s not Steam’s fault there’s 232 games listed under the “Action” genre, and adding finer detail sub-genres isn’t going to make things any easier to the untrained eye.

It’s a nice wish to think that game prices would come down with the elimination of the Used Games market, but this is also coming from a company that wanted you to pay $2 for a pack of JPEG thumbnails they tried to call “Gamerpics”.

These aren’t crazy ideas. You can’t sell your games on Steam, nor can you buy “used” Steam games. The same with iTunes. And e-books, with some exceptions. So selling content that can’t be resold or purchased used isn’t weird, it’s becoming the norm. What’s innovative is that Microsoft may offer a way for you to get credit back for licenses you no longer use.

Now, this is important, because on some level, he’s correct: Once you redeem a game on Steam and add it to your account, you can’t sell it. Nor can you sell iTunes music, or stuff on Kindle. But on some level that doesn’t matter, because Steam, iTunes, and Kindle all deal with things that are inexpensive. The vast majority of the 280 games I own on Steam were either purchased for under $20, or were gifted to me by others (more than likely because they were also under $20). Individual songs on iTunes retail for a dollar or less, and eBooks are similarly cheap - a Barnes & Noble eBook reader I was given just a few months ago came pre-installed with more than 200 literary classics. An Xbox 360 game, on the other hand, starts at $60 for the basic version, up to $100-$150+ for so-called the “collectors edition”, and until the birth of the Season Pass, that $150 CE could possibly involve another $20-$50 in future downloadable content. This didn’t start out as a response to the burgeoning Used Game market, it was the cause.

Right from the word “Go” on this generation, you were hearing developers talk about increased production costs and how they could recoup their unsustainable business model. The “$60 and up” price tag was their solution. In response to this, and in response to the state of the economy, many consumers began to look for cheaper means of entertainment. Gamestop was more than happy to pick up the slack. With their plans foiled, game publishers have attempted to vilify these kinds of actions instead of identifying the real problem from within themselves.

The Xbox One isn’t an exciting prospect for the future, it’s Microsoft elevating the war on used games to the next level of DEFCON - a war that isn’t being fought for the consumers, it’s being fought for gluttonous developers who want to glue motion capture dots to a dog or hire the London Symphony Orchestra to perform for their game or spend a hundred million dollars on a World of Warcraft Clone that is only notable for having a lot of voice acting attached to it. As smaller, independent games are proving, that kind of stuff doesn’t actually matter as much as you would like to think it does, just so long as the game is fun and engaging. Did Mojang spend a hundred million dollars just so Kiefer Sutherland could lend his voice to Minecraft? No, but they certainly could spend that much on their next product, given how much they’ve sold.

Chances are, they won’t.

The existence of the Used Games market isn’t my problem, it’s my solution. If the game industry wants to stop the Used Game market from existing, twisting a consumer’s arm isn’t the way to go about doing it. Publishers could be fighting the Used Game market RIGHT NOW, by lowering prices on games. They aren’t doing that, and clearly have no intention to start. Steam and iTunes thwarted piracy by making the act of buying their content as cheap and as painless as possible. Microsoft is just putting up more walls.

I can only hope that the Xbox One won’t kill used games, and it won’t control second-hand sales, because if it did, that certainly wouldn’t be great news (Really.)

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"Nintendo's killing Let's Play!" isn't entirely true.

To catch you up: Nintendo is now sending out copyright claimant forms for anybody posting footage of their games on Youtube. This does not mean Nintendo is issuing takedown notices, Nintendo is just acknowledging that they, in fact, own the game footage that people are uploading to the site. What this means to you is that you’ll get a notice under your copyright section where Youtube will tell you that you have “matched third party content” and ask you to acknowledge this fact. If you are making money from that video via advertising, that money will no longer go to you and will instead go to Nintendo.

A lot of people are flipping out that this is WRONG, and that Nintendo is STEALING from a lot of Youtubers who are making money from Let’s Play videos. I co-run an infrequently updated Let’s Play channel, and we had hoped to one day make enough money from it to… I dunno, have around for a rainy day or whatever. So this effects me. But here’s the thing nobody wants to hear:

Nintendo should be doing this.

If something seems like it is too good to be true, it probably is. And you know what is really, absolutely, completely too good to be true? Making money just for recording yourself playing a videogame. Let’s Play has exploded in the last three years thanks to people putting ads over their videos and making a living off of it, to the point where its reaching over-saturation. Everybody, even me, has a Let’s Play channel. Well, guess what, kids? That gravy train’s over. The bubble is bursting.

This image shows a Google Trends report for Game Grumps (borrowed from here). Grumps popularity peaked in December 2012 and has been in a downward slump in the nearly six months following. Game Grumps has been what I consider the poster child for “Monetized Let’s Play on Youtube”. They update frequently and consistently, and are generally speaking pretty entertaining… in a sense (how I feel about Game Grumps’ humor is for another post). Point is, by my estimates, at the peak of their popularity, Egoraptor and Jontron were probably pulling in thousands of not tens of thousands of dollars a month. If you figure Grumps made a penny on every view to their channel, that’s $1,783,791. That’s not realistic, of course, because you have to consider adblocking software and so on. But even if you cut that estimate by a fifth, they still made nearly $30,000 a month. So, Game Grumps is a pretty big deal in the “talking over video games” market, and all signs point to the fact that Game Grumps is on its way out. Enjoy that F-Zero AX Cabinet while it lasts, I guess.

Okay, yes: Game Grumps is a single point of data. Doing a Google Trends search for “Two Best Friends Play” suggests those guys are having one of their best months on record. The notorious Pewdiepie is also having his best month on record.

But none of this changes the fact that Nintendo’s getting in while the gettin’ is good, and they have every legal right to be taking this money. These are THEIR games. Think of Rifftrax - Rifftrax sells funny commentary tracks for movies, but they do it entirely separate of the movies themselves. That’s because the Rifftrax guys do not have the rights to the movies they commentate over, and they probably never will, either. It’s the same here: If you talk over video of you playing Super Mario 64, you do not own that footage. You own your commentary, sure, but that’s an entirely separate thing. And guess what? You can’t sell no pre-recorded Rifftrax for something that requires variable user interaction. Get used to this, because this is the future of Let’s Play - Sega, Capcom, Konami, and Bandai have already started putting out similar claims to soundtracks used in videos. Playing Sonic Generations? You get flagged for having the Sonic Generations soundtrack in your video, thereby forwarding any advertising revenue to Sega. Castlevania games contain Castlevania music, which forwards advertising revenue to Konami. So on and so forth.

It’s important to note that these are not traditional copyright claims. No negative strikes are placed upon your channel, no videos get removed, you just simply cannot make money from these videos anymore. Which brings it down to one single question:

Are you doing Let’s Play because you enjoy it, or are you doing Let’s Play because you think it’s an income source?

There were people producing Let’s Play videos before Youtube let you make money off of it, and after this change, those same people will probably still be producing Let’s Play videos. Nothing will change except for the fact that “Let’s Play is my job” guys like Pewdiepie might go away.

And you know what? Maybe that’s okay.

Do it for the love of the game, not the love of the money.

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Twitch.tv for the Xbox 360 is functional... but not great.

What this basically means is that there’s no way to chat (even though you can have a USB keyboard hooked up to your Xbox, which I do), and not even any way to see chat - in particular, watching PJ practice for the Super GnG World Record was sort of weird because he answers questions from the chat while he plays so you’re kind of missing half the conversation in that regard.

There’s absolutely no way to access a channel page. It’s live feeds or nothin’, so don’t expect to go in to this to browse and watch stream archives - which is actually pretty annoying, because I personally was kind of hoping for that feature. I have this weird setup where I download Youtube videos and throw them up on my media server, where I access them via the Xbox and watch them there (in part because the Youtube Xbox 360 app is a crash-prone, laggy piece of garbage). There used to be a way to download Twitch archives for me to also put them on my media server, but due to “piracy issues” that’s no longer available, and this app does nothing to help alleviate the issue.

Video quality could be better. Presumably the reason they only surface featured and popular content is because of the quality selector - Twitch only provides stream quality selectors to channels that they deem worthy enough to need one. While the quality selector on the PC generally lets you pick from 4 or 5 different options, here you’re only provided with “High” (720p) and “Low” (240p), and as you can tell in my screenshots, even in Standard Definition, “Low” is pretty blurry. Having a middle quality (480p) would be nice.

No censorship on platform or franchise, which is nice.

The app also does the same thing all Xbox video apps do where on my display the text looks super aliased and gross. It doesn’t show up on the above images because those are S-video screencaps from my capture card, but when viewing it through my other monitor in HD it looks like garbage. Here’s an example image I put together when the Youtube app came out last year. I don’t know if it’s a scaling issue or what, but it doesn’t happen on the Xbox dashboard, and it doesn’t happen in any games. It’s just these video apps. And it’s worse than ever in the Twitch app.

But yeah… it’s… alright, I guess. I dunno. I’ve never been one for EVO or anything because I don’t like having to constantly pay attention to a specific web browser tab, so maybe this’ll make me watch more of that kind of stuff? We’ll see. Depends on how blurry things look at “Low” quality, because I certainly don’t have the bandwidth to stream 720p.

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Connected against your will

Above is a conversation between Adam Orth, a "creative director" at Microsoft, and Manveer Heir, one of Bioware's Senior Game Designers. Today, Kotaku reported that two sources in the game industry reaffirmed that yes, Microsoft's next console will require an always-on internet connection. If more than a few minutes pass without a connection, it will immediately block the user from doing anything else on the console except run network diagnostics. This lines up with a previous rumor that the next Xbox will also block used games - from the sounds of it, each game purchased will be dumped to a HDD and registered exclusively to that system over the internet, preventing resale without a costly/time-consuming re-licensing process (sort of like what Xbox Live Arcade games do now).

This, obviously, sucks. Not just for what happened to games like Sim City and Diablo III - singleplayer-focused games that could not be played at each of their respected launches because of connectivity issues - but just because internet connectivity still is not at a point where this makes sense.

Adam Orth took the defensive, using the excuse that "Sometimes, the electricity goes out, so I guess I won't buy this vacuum." I don't know about you, but my internet goes out a hell of a lot more than my electricity does. For a period of more than a year around 2008, my connection slowly worsened until the internet was literally unusable - and my ISP's solution was mainly to shrug their shoulders at me during most of the process. Switching me off of traditional wires and on to fiber optic helped the issue, but the stability of that connection has also been gradually deteriorating as well - just this morning the internet was down for nearly half an hour. And that doesn't even begin to hold a candle to the two-week period I was without internet access in 2011 because my ISP had a database glitch that found us getting our account with them unexpectedly terminated. I can only imagine what it must be like to live somewhere my connection won't suddenly be dropped in the middle of the night for no reason.

Thankfully, with some rare exceptions, when I don't have internet access, I still have entertainment. I still had electricity, I still had Direct TV service, hell, even my phone still worked, even if a sub-service of that did not. But most importantly, 75% of the games I currently own are completely functional without an internet connection.

Don't get me wrong, it makes sense that internet features would not work if there wasn't an internet. When I did not have internet access, it was perfectly understandable that I would not be able to play Counter-Strike or Halo Multiplayer. What didn't make sense is when I tried booting up Serious Sam: The First Encounter HD, a game that can be played offline in singleplayer. With no internet to connect to, Serious Sam would simply crash to the desktop. No error message about connectivity problems, it would simply crash like any other piece of Windows software crashes. I was mystified; I thought something was wrong with the game itself. Surprise: Once the internet came back, the game went back to working as if there was nothing wrong.

I don't want to live in a world where even when I'm playing by myself, I'm always connected to everybody else. A feature like Autolog in Need for Speed is a great idea, but just because it can't update a leaderboard is not an excuse to block me from playing the game at all. Contrary to popular belief, I can actually have fun with a game even when I'm not being constantly reminded that I'm +0:02 seconds behind my friends.

But then again, it was never about me having fun, now was it? This is the internet, where you're guilty until proven innocent. The internet, where you don't own anything, you simply "license" it (and even have to pay again just to renew your "license"). The internet, where "connectivity is the future" is a convenient place to stash your bad ideas.

For the two weeks my internet was down, a large portion of my gaming time was spent in, oddly enough, Unreal Tournament 2004. Despite being a game focused on online-multiplayer, the game really doesn't care whether or not you have an internet connection - if you feel like playing by yourself, there's a robust list of modes populated by some of the most intelligent deathmatch bots in any game. One of the reasons Epic poured so much effort in to giving 2007's Unreal Tournament 3 a robust singleplayer component was because they discovered that more than half of their customers have never connected to an internet game. Even though by all accounts, Unreal Tournament is a franchise built almost exclusively to be played online, there is a significant group of people who do not.

"Everything's always connected" is a poor excuse for not planning around what happens when there is no connection. I've played Diablo II without an online auction house. I've played Sim City 2000 without trading with internet-neighbors. I can, and have, lived without those features. Nowhere has anybody said "requiring a constant internet connection is a selling point to me." At that point, the intent of a constantly-connected network becomes crystal clear: Game developers think I am not to be trusted, because, even though I've done nothing wrong, I am probably a criminal, and therefore must be under constant supervision for criminal activity. For all of the hand-waving and reassuring, this is at the heart of all "always connected" schemes: controlling and monitoring the user in increasingly heavy-handed ways. If you aren't connected to the network, then you can't be monitored or advertised to or whatever - so they force a connection, even when it's not completely necessary.

It will be very interesting to see how this all ends up shaking out in the end. I would be lying if I did not say I want Microsoft to fall flat on their face over this - but everybody assumed the exact same thing when they announced they would be charging for Xbox Live Gold subscriptions, too. Microsoft has a lot of very experienced people who are great at making things that are just under the threshold of being too annoying to use - just annoying enough to complain about.

Let's hope that's not the case this time.

32 Comments