Sunday, August 23, 2015

Why People Pirate Amiibo and What Nintendo Can Do About It

Amiiqo disc

The Amiiqo is a recently announced device that can be used with an Android phone or tablet to back up and restore data from Amiibo figures. This data can easily be shared online, which means that the Amiiqo also effectively enables piracy of Amiibo.

Amiibo have only been around since November 2014. They aren't the first major toys to life franchise - Skylanders came out in October 2011 and Disney Infinity launched in August 2013. (U.B. Funkeys in 2007 was a bit before its time, and I'm not sure when Hero Portal started because it's not even on Wikipedia.) They all use similar technology (Amiibo uses NFC while others use RFID) and can thus all be backed up and pirated in roughly the same way. While the Amiiqo is not the first toys to life backup device to be announced (see, for example, MaxLander) it's the first targeted specifically toward Amiibo and is getting more attention.

Why would Amiibo piracy be so much more interesting than Skylanders or Disney Infinity figure piracy? While Amiibo are in many ways similar to those franchises, there are several key differences that encourage piracy.

  1. Amiibo are not opt-in. The only way that Skylanders or Disney Infinity figures affect your gameplay is if you're playing those specific games. And those games use their figures as their central mechanic – so if you've bought the game, chances are you're interested in collecting the figures. They're also marketed mostly toward kids, for whom the figures double as toys.

    Amiibo, on the other hand, aren't tied to a specific game. Anything published on a Nintendo platform is fair game – including the latest installments in long-running non-kid-targeted franchises like Fire Emblem. Playing these games is by no means signing up for the Amiibo collecting experience, but your gameplay is affected regardless.
  2. Smash Bros and Mario Party 10 versions of Mario Amiibo
    Amiibo can only hold one game's data. Want to use your Mario Amiibo in both Smash Bros and Mario Party 10? Well, too bad – there's only enough storage per Amiibo for a single game's data at a time. If you let Mario Party write to your Mario Amiibo, you'll lose your level 50 Mario from Smash. The only officially sanctioned solution is to buy a second Mario Amiibo.

    This is actually the motivation behind the main semi-legitimate feature of the Amiiqo, as it lets you back up and swap out your Amiibo data. This way the technical limitations of Amiibo aren't punishing you for buying more than one game that uses the same character.

  3. Amiibo are interchangeable keys. This may change as developers get used to the idea of Amiibo and incorporate them into their game designs earlier, but right now most games that use Amiibo only use them to unlock content. The main exception is Smash Bros, which like Disney Infinity and Skylanders has the figure represent a personalized character. It's not just Samus – it's your Samus. You've invested time to level her up and customize her abilities, and you can show her off by playing with your friends, who can show off their own Amiibo characters. By making your figure personal and special, the physical figure becomes infused with personality and value.

    For most other games, the Amiibo simply unlocks content. Nothing gets written to the physical figure, so no value is added to it. There's no difference between using your own Amiibo and using someone else's, and thus no benefit to ownership. And using an Amiiqo device to unlock some missions or costumes isn't that different from doing so with an Amiibo if that's all the Amiibo does.
  4. The three Splatoon Amiibo - Inkling Girl, Squid, and Boy.
    Amiibo block non-cosmetic game content. Buying your favorite character to unlock their outfit in a variety of games is one thing - but we're now seeing games come out that arbitrarily lock real game content behind Amiibo taps.

    Splatoon, a brand-new IP, launched alongside three new Amiibo that can't possibly be anyone's favorite characters yet. So how did Nintendo make these Amiibo relevant? By locking gameplay behind them. Each of the Splatoon Amiibo unlocks a set of challenges that you otherwise don't have access to. This sets a scary precedent – now in order to buy a complete game, you may have to buy several plastic toys as well. Or you could just use an Amiiqo and get the full game at no additional cost.

  5. Amiibo are scarce. It's been famously difficult to keep certain Amiibo stocked in stores. Even if you do want to buy particular Amiibo, you may not be able to do so at a remotely reasonable price. Buying them used or from distributors who've marked the price up doesn't really help Nintendo. Nintendo is also not helping the scarcity problem – they're continuing to release retailer-specific Amiibo despite customer complaints. It's an approach not shared by other toys to life franchises - Disney Infinity Executive Producer John Vignocchi called figure shortages "irresponsible and rude to your hardcore fans." So even for Nintendo fans, the motivation to go to the trouble and expense to buy rare Amiibo rather than simply pirate them may be lacking.

Nintendo's response to the Amiiqo has thus far focused on the legal aspects. Here's their statement to Polygon:

"Nintendo actively monitors threats to its product security and the unauthorized use of its intellectual property. Nintendo will vigorously enforce its intellectual property rights and will work to protect its greatest assets, its beloved characters and products."

As I've touched on before, piracy is symptomatic of market failure rather than legal failure. There's no difference in legal standing between Amiibo and other toys to life figures, but there's a lot more motivation to pirate Amiibo. If Nintendo wants to prevent people from doing that, they'd be better off tackling the above problems rather than leaning on IP law. Here are some ways they might approach each issue:

  1. Amiibo are not opt-in. There isn't any getting around this one. Core to the concept of Amiibo is the fact that they extend across Nintendo, rather than being tied to a specific game. That said - if Amiibo are going to be platform-wide, why not take greater advantage of that fact? Amiibo could, similar to Disney Infinity's web codes, ship with unique one-use codes that register the Amiibo to your Miiverse account. Once there, you could do a lot with them - display them on profiles, unlock character-specific avatars, earn rewards in the upcoming loyalty program, etc.

  2. Amiibo can only hold one game's data. While Nintendo presumably could release Amiibo with greater storage capacity, that would increase their cost and wouldn't solve the problem for the millions of Amiibo already sold. As a workaround, Nintendo could release a free app for Wii U and 3DS that lets users swap out Amiibo data.

  3. Amiibo are interchangeable keys. Not every game can allow Amiibo customization the way Smash Bros does, and that's okay. And even Amiibo that do have such uses in some games are just content-unlockers in others, and that's okay too. But perhaps every Amiibo released should have at least one game that uses it in a deep way that adds value to the figure. After all, if there's an Amiibo that no game could reasonably turn into someone's special character, then why does that Amiibo even need to exist?

  4. Amiibo block non-cosmetic game content. Gating significant game content behind Amiibo reduces the value of that game and creates incentives for piracy. When a game doesn't make personal customized use of an Amiibo but just uses it to unlock content, that content should be cosmetic or trivial. This provides nice bonuses for people who own the Amiibo without making people who don't have the Amiibo feel like they are missing out if they don't buy toys they don't want.

  5. Amiibo are scarce. This one's pretty clear, which is not the same thing as easy. Nintendo needs to improve the manufacturing and supply lines. And they need to stop the retailer exclusives - that part, at least, is easy.

Toys to life figures are a recent phenomenon, and the widespread ability to pirate them is even newer. For all the precedent set by Skylanders and Disney Infinity, Nintendo is still in largely uncharted territory, and the way they react will set the tone for years to come. Wouldn't it be great if that reaction were not a war cry about protecting Nintendo's intellectual property but instead a commitment to create products and experiences that are worth paying for?

amiibo are love.

Here's hoping Nintendo chooses to respond constructively and make this market better for everyone.

Monday, March 9, 2015

"Are Videogames Art?" was Always the Wrong Question

The debate has been over for a while now. Videogames are art.

I knew it was over not when the National Endowment for the Arts added grants for games, or even when the US Supreme Court ruled that videogames are protected speech. I knew it was over because of a newspaper clipping my grandmother sent me.

It was from a column called "The Arty Semite," and it discussed the then-upcoming Biblically-inspired game El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. (Full post here.) It didn't make the argument that talking about heavy stuff like the Bible sure is artistic. It didn't claim that this represented a step forward in the expressive significance of videogames. It just said hey, here's an interesting upcoming game. In a column about the arts.

In other words, my grandmother sent me a newspaper clipping that took it for granted that games are art. That's how I knew.

Why was this debate so long-lived and vitriolic? "Are videogames art?" seems like such a straightforward question. The problem is that it's really two very different questions. The first is, "Is the medium of videogames capable of artistic expression?"

This is the more useful question, and also the simpler one. It's a matter of definition - if your definition of art precludes interaction (as did Roger Ebert's) then videogames can't be art. Period. It's not a judgment on videogames, or an insult, or anything remotely offensive - it's just the logical implication of the terms involved. It's just what the words mean.

My answer to this first question is: "Yes, duh, of course the medium of videogames is capable of artistic expression. Games can be beautiful, they can impart emotion, they can convey messages. What more do you want?"

The second question is, "Have any videogames yet been made that can be considered profound works of great art?"

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Danganronpa and Trustworthy Reviews

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is overrated.

The game is basically fine. It oozes personality with a distinctive aesthetic that's serviceable at worst and compelling at best. It boasts some clever twists and well-done mysteries. It's also a bizarre mishmash of mechanics, some of which work and some of which don't (the "Re: Action" system is flat-out the worst attempt at conversation branching I have ever seen in a game) featuring paper-thin characters and a bevy of plot holes. (There are also a few moments that are shockingly insensitive or offensive, but that's another story.) It borrows heavily from influences including Ace Attorney, Zero Escape, Persona 4, and Battle Royale, but almost always in shallow ways that fail to emulate what made them great. The end result is entertaining, flashy, and kind of dumb.

The game's producer has even said in an interview that the characters are deliberately exaggerated and that the variety of game mechanics were sprinkled in after the story was already written because visual novels are on the decline:

[Gamasutra:] A lot of the characters fit into really strong stereotypes. The concept of being "The Ultimate" whatever means they stand out as stereotypes. Can you talk about why you went in that direction?

[Game Producer Yoshinori Terasawa]: What were we thinking about? It's hard to answer that! [laughs] The scenario writer, Kazutaka Kodaka, he's the one who basically thought of those stereotypes, and he created those characters. He's the one who thought it up. When I spoke to Mr. Kodaka, I requested that he make [the player character] Makoto as non-special as possible, and make the other characters stand out in their own way a lot, and that's why there's this balance. That's how Mr. Kodaka was able to create these characters.

Unlike a lot of other visual novels, there are a lot of other gameplay elements such as free exploration, and the trials having multiple different gameplay elements. Did that grow from the story or did those ideas come first?

YT: It was originally a basic visual novel, but visual novel games are not that popular in Japan anymore, either. So we figured that if Dangan Ronpa were to be just a visual novel, it would not be as popular we wanted it to be, these days. So that's why, in order to show that the game is really interesting, we decided to add a lot of different features -- after the scenario was written.

—Christian Nutt, Dangan Ronpa: Death, stress, and standing out from the crowd

Still, there's a ton of potential here. If they've learned from their missteps, the sequel could be amazing. So we just have to wait for the Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair reviews, right?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Disney Magical World is Full of Surprises

I've been playing Disney Magical World recently. It's well-dressed busywork without a lot of depth but there's a good variety of activities (including some surprisingly nontrivial combat) and plenty of customization options (I want some of those shirts in real life). It's also consistently warm and loaded with treats for the longtime Disney fan - for example, one of the quests is to find a pumpkin so that the Fairy Godmother can make you a coach to ride to Cinderella's ball. If you're nostalgic about Disney, it's a good way to relax after a long day. But there are two particular things about it that have caught my attention.

The first is non-gendered outfits. The game has a ton of clothes you can buy or make, and some of it is traditionally male or female. The game doesn't care, though. It doesn't distinguish at all. Anyone can wear anything, and nobody bats an eye - the only comments that you'll get are compliments on your fashion sense if your outfit is coordinated. My character still runs around in pants rather than a dress, but I appreciate that it's a choice.

It's especially refreshing after the recent controversy over Tomodachi Life omitting gay relationships. It's a silly "life simulator" that encourages you to create characters based on yourself and your real-life friends, who can then fall in love and get married - but only in heterosexual arrangements.

"It's more of an issue for this game because the characters are supposed to be a representation of your real life. You import your personalized characters into the game. You name them. You give them a personality. You give them a voice. They just can't fall in love if they're gay."
—Tye Marini as quoted in Nintendo says no to virtual equality in life game

As noted in that article, Nintendo's initial response to the controversy was to state that Tomodachi Life was intended to be "playful", "whimsical", and "quirky", and that it was "never intended to make any form of social commentary". Which is a weird thing to say about a development decision that must have been deliberate. They had to put in "if" statements and check character genders to prevent homosexual match-ups. I do find it very plausible that they didn't intend to make social commentary, but it's what they ended up doing. (Nintendo later followed up with a much better statement.)

By simply omitting such flags and checks from its clothing options, Disney Magical World is quietly inclusive (of a different group - there are no homosexual relationships in Disney Magical World because there are no relationships at all outside of the canon Disney couples). It was easier to code that way, too.

The second thing that caught my attention is how freemium-like some of the mechanics are - but without the evil. Several of the activities are time-gated - some resources can only be gathered a couple of times per day, it takes a while for your cafe to serve the meals you have prepared, some plants must be watered a few times over the course of an hour or two before they can be harvested. But you never run out of things to do - there are resources and plants that move much faster, and plenty of other activities that are just always available. And just as importantly - you never lose anything. The resources will wait patiently until you show up to gather them. Your cafe won't suddenly become unpopular because it's out of food; it just won't serve any customers until you cook more. The plants won't wither or die if they go unwatered; they just won't grow until you do water them. If the game killed your crops and removed your customer base just because you'd had a busy day in real life, you'd be forced to evaluate whether you wanted to start over or whether you wanted to do something else with your time. But since Disney Magical World never punishes you for having other things to do, it's always pleasant to come back to it.

Friday, August 1, 2014

How I Didn't Learn Guitar by Playing Rocksmith 2014

I was intrigued when the first Rocksmith came out - a guitar tutor disguised as a videogame? Learn guitar by basically playing Guitar Hero with a real guitar? It sounded promising, but I wasn't totally sold on the concept. Mixed reviews prompted me to leave it alone and try Rock Band 3's pro guitar mode instead. I didn't really stick with that long, though, as it had the unfortunate combination of (a) being really hard and (b) not actually teaching me to play guitar.

Some time later, I thought of taking up the axe again, rescuing my dusty guitar from where she was languishing in the corner of my bedroom. I got another nudge in this direction when a musically-inclined woman on OkCupid called me out on my profile photo where I'm holding a guitar. ("Can you actually play, or is that just to impress the ladies?" "It's to impress the ladies. Is it working?") Then Rocksmith 2014 went on sale and I read a glowing review of it, and I took the plunge.

(Incidentally, this is the first game I've ever played where I thought, "Man, I actually wish I were playing this with a Kinect." It's obnoxious to have to take your hands off the guitar and grab a controller to do basically anything. It would be amazing to be able to just say "Riff repeater, 50% speed!" and have it drop into the riff repeater at 50% speed.)

The game advises you to play for an hour every day, which I tried hard to stick to. Daily play was easy enough to achieve, but I didn't always manage to last a full hour. At first, it was because I felt like I was learning a lot very quickly, and needed to take a break to digest. But after a few days, it was because I was getting frustrated.

I hit a bit of a wall, and the wall was called "chords". Chords are hard, and the game didn't seem to acknowledge this, which made me wonder if I was just an idiot who didn't have what it takes to learn the guitar and I should slink off back to the keyboard. (I acknowledge that I may be biased by the fact that I took piano lessons from age five to twelve, but the keyboard is WAY more usable of an instrument. You don't have to memorize weird hand positions in order to play chords. You just put your fingers on the keys. But the guitar is just so much sexier.)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Little Inferno, PISS, and Doing Real Things

In December of 2012, I played a game called Little Inferno. My purchase followed that of my friend Iceman's, and both were due to Chris Franklin's video on the subject (warning, total spoilers):

(By the way, if you aren't familiar with Chris Franklin's work, I highly recommend you rectify this situation.)

The game isn't perfect and one can argue over the price point for a 3-hour experience you'll probably never revisit, but it stuck in my mind and left me thinking. The obvious reading of the game is an attack on freemium games of the time-and-money-sink variety. I think one could make a pretty strong argument that its themes apply to games or trivial entertainments in general. But for me, the game is about growing up.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Parenting Lesson from Athena

One day when my brother was a young boy, he decided to expand his meager collection of Nintendo games. Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda were great fun, but Brother Professor wanted something new.

So he enlisted the aid of Mama Professor, who took him to Toys R Us. With maybe fifty dollars to his name, Brother Professor surveyed the $35 NES games, inspecting the boxes of the games he did not already own. He found the one that looked the coolest, boosted by its ties to Greek mythology, and took it home. Unfortunately, Athena was the game inside.

When he began playing, my brother quickly realized it was an awful, awful game. Graphically ugly with no plot to speak of, featuring poorly designed levels and suffering from major control issues, the game didn't even have any real connection to Greek mythology besides the name.

Brother Professor tried hard to like the game. It had been a major investment, and who knew when he could afford another one? But Athena was just too horrible. He couldn't do it. He gave up. From then on, there was a self-enforced rule in the Professor household: rent before you buy.

Decades later, I was talking to Mama Professor and asked if she remembered when my brother had bought that one awful, awful game. "Athena," she said immediately. I was impressed she remembered the title so easily. It turned out she remembered much more than that.

She'd been watching my brother inspect the game boxes. She knew this couldn't possibly be a good way to pick out a game. She wanted to tell my brother to check reviews or talk to someone who had played the game. She wanted to forbid him from buying the game until he knew it was good. But she didn't.

My mother held her tongue, and let my brother make his own mistake. And thus instead of resenting her treading on his freedoms, he learned a valuable lesson. A lot of parenting, my mother said, is knowing when to keep your mouth shut.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Achievements are Broken; Here's How to Fix Them

Fundamentally, an achievement is just a publicly-viewable checkmark indicating the completion of a particular action. The Xbox 360 added points gained from each achievement that accumulate into a total across all games. The PlayStation 3 followed suit, as did Apple's GameCenter. (Notably, Steam did not. Steam achievements have no point value and do not add to a cumulative total.)

In order for these points to be meaningful, there has to be some kind of equality across games. The 360 mandates that each full retail game must provide exactly 1000 points worth of achievements (it's a bit more complicated than that, but for our purposes let's keep it simple). The PS3 has a similar rule, though its numbers are obfuscated (for convenience here, I shall refer to their point value as also 1000). This prevents oneupmanship between game developers, who might otherwise put out games with ever-increasing amounts of achievement points available, which would quickly render the running total meaningless and destroy much of the marketing value of achievements.

So what happens when a game launches with bad achievements? It's become standard for games to be patched, but it's unusual for achievements to be patched, and even then it's generally just to avert controversy via a cosmetic change. Because of the need to keep a consistent point total, you can't add new achievements without removing old ones - and removing or replacing an achievement is almost certain to upset people. No matter how ludicrous the achievement, somebody out there has it - and they don't want the proof of their hard work stricken from the record. If you leave it up on their profile but make it no longer available for new players to get, then the new players may feel slighted that the opportunity to earn it has been taken away from them.

But the inability to add new achievements is severely limiting. It means you can't fix problem achievements (of which there are plenty). It also leaves out a powerful way to grow a game - just look at how Valve has kept Team Fortress 2 fresh by adding, among other things, batches of new Steam achievements. (Steam achievements don't have points, so they can freely be added without running afoul of point imbalance.)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Amazon Opens 3D Printing Store

So, Amazon has opened a 3D Printing Store. The selection's pretty limited, though, and you can't print arbitrary designs. It's hard to get excited about this in a world that already has shapeways, sculpteo, pinshape, etc.

I've honestly found it difficult to get excited about consumer 3D printing in general, because what I consider to be the obvious use case - printing your game characters - is incredibly underserved. You can print your World of Warcraft characters, you can print your Minecraft worlds, and that's about it. (You used to be able to print your Rock Band 2 characters, but that stopped when Rock Band 3 came out.) I would pay a lot of money for a print of my City of Heroes main, or my character from the Saints Row games. This would be great even for games where you just customize an existing character - I can get a Team Fortress 2 Medic, but I can't get him wearing the right hat.

I hope we get to that world someday. I do enjoy iconic, established characters from beloved games, but I have much more personal attachment to the characters I've actually created - they've been imbued with a piece of myself. Nobody else has one quite like them.

Relatedly, with Nintendo coming out with game-enabled figurines of their cross-game characters called "amiibos", it's a perfect time to ask again - why can't I get a print of my Mii? More than one of the amiibo-using games allows you to play as a Mii, so why not sell amiibos of actual Miis? I know it can't possibly look as nice as the other amiibos, but it would be yours in a way the others can't be. I know I'd get one.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sony to Lure Nintendo Gamers with a Fractured Platform

Wait, Sony's plan to win back Wii gamers is to sell them games they can already buy, but charge more for them?

"...House is keen for Sony to remaster old PlayStation games for this new audience on PS4. We're already seeing the fruits of this with The Last of Us Remastered on PS4, due out soon. Naughty Dog's game launched on PS3 in June 2013, and Sony believes there are a significant number of PS4 owners who never played it."
Wesley Yin-Poole, Sony: PS4 targeting Wii owners who skipped PS3 and Xbox 360

If the greatest hits of the PS3 are a substantial draw for the PS4, then maybe the console should have been - oh, I don't know, backwards compatible? Maybe they shouldn't have fractured the PlayStation platform to begin with, so that they wouldn't need re-releases to try to patch it back up.

I'm sure somebody thought it was a great idea to repackage these games and sell them for launch prices again. But this comes off as an argument that now is a great time to buy a PS3, not a PS4. You can get one and the same games they're using to sell the PS4 for a fraction of the cost, with a much larger library of other games available to try out next. And if you're coming from the Wii, the graphical jump from SD to HD will be plenty impressive - way bigger than the jump from PS3 to PS4.

I don't know who this is really for. If you already have the games, there's no real reason to pick them up on PS4 again. If you don't, it's still better to get them on PS3. A backwards-compatible PS4 would have been more appealing for new and existing customers alike.

"It seems like [a] crazy decision. Consoles gain value as their library grows. They also gain brand loyalty. If I have a bookshelf full of Xbox games at home when my Xbox dies, then it's a safe bet I'll just replace it with a new Xbox even if there are other, cheaper, more popular, more reliable devices out there. I'm tied to the machine by the library, and the longer I'm with the machine the bigger the library gets. It's almost like a cell phone where the penalty for cancelling the service grows over time. A lot of other businesses would LOVE to have this kind of soft, incremental lock-in.

But if the new generation isn't backwards compatible then I'm cut off from that library. The incentives tying players to the platform are gone. When you break compatibility you're setting your customers free to dabble with the competition and begin a process of gradual lock-in with them."
Shamus Young, Experienced Points: Why the PS4 Doesn't Do PS3 Games

For my part, I still have no PS4 and I still have no concrete plans to buy one.