Irrational Thoughts

I love games, and I’m happy and proud to be a part of the industry that makes them. Except when it really pisses me off, like it did this week.

The big hitter was, no surprise, the announcement from Irrational Games founder Ken Levine that he would be “winding down” the studio after 17 years. To clarify: “winding down” is a brand new euphemism for “shitcanning all but 15 of the 150+ people who work there.” I’ve been “consolidated” before, even “right-sized,” but never “wound down.” I can’t help but picture an office of mechanical wind-up game developers slowly coming to a stop, then falling halfway over in cliché unwound robot fashion.

And you know what I hear in my head?

(In related news, if anyone wants to find me an awesome Bill Bixby Incredible Hulk walking away animated .gif, I’ll bet I could get a lot of use out of it.)

Now, I want to make something clear: I’ve got no problem with Ken Levine wanting to go do something different. Like he said in the open letter announcing the layoffs, “seventeen years is a long time to do any job.” It’s true. (Of course, the people who just got laid off are gonna find seventeen days/weeks/months is a fuck-ton longer to NOT do any job.)

I’ve seen Ken portrayed as the megalomaniacal villain in this tragedy, but I’ve seen nothing convincing me that’s the real story. Seems just as likely that this is Take Two cost-cutting like we’ve seen 100 times (that’s just last year). Irrational is a studio with a great track record for quality games, but with a history of taking a long time to make them and with a leader ready to move on. For a publisher, that’s easy pickins.

Ken will only keep as many employees as can fit on this couch.

Ken is sad, as he can only keep as many employees as will fit on this couch.

Here’s what’s killing me. We are inching ever closer to proving that the best practice for protecting the life of your studio is to NEVER SHIP A GAME. See, if you’re almost ready to ship a game, there’s money just around the corner. It’s like a poker player who figures that he’s already put half his money in the pot…he’d be stupid not to put the rest in, even if he knows he’s beaten.

On the other hand, if  you actually ship a game—even if it sells 4 million copies and has a 94 Metacritic—the next time you’ll make money for your publisher is a long way off. It doesn’t matter how much talent you’ve got, what kind of pedigree you have, or how cohesive the team is—it all pales in comparison to the burn numbers calculated out to the length of your next project. Remember: if you’re not generating a revenue stream, you’ve got a day-glo target painted on your collective backs.

At the end of the day, another studio making quality games just got flushed away. It’s been happening too much recently, and there’s no sign of it stopping soon.

And Another Thing…

It’s possible I’m crazy here, but in the last year did the entire world decide they would only back into parking spaces? Even if there’s no reason to? Even if they’re the only car in the entire parking lot???

I’m serious. Watch the next few times you’re parking—everyone has Backing In Fever. Of course, if you’re one of the afflicted, you won’t be watching. You’ll be looking over your shoulder, failing to park three or four times before finally bringing your Volvo SUV to rest, your passenger side scant millimeters from the driver’s side of the car next to you. No worries—you can still get out.

Slightly above average job of backing into a space.

Please only back into spaces if you are madly rushing to get to an incredibly important appointment…to go fuck yourself.

The reason for this madness? Back-up sensors and cameras. Look, I get that they’re useful—in fact, Congress mandated that all cars have them by 2011. (Shockingly, that didn’t happen.) Now, they’re on almost every new car that comes out, and people are really loving them.

Here’s the thing: just because you have a back-up sensor, or even a back-up camera, it doesn’t mean you suddenly know how to drive your 2014 Expedition any fucking better than you could drive your 2012 Expedition. I promise. Look—if you installed a periscope on it, you couldn’t suddenly sink a U-Boat. Get me?

So, to those of you gleefully taking three times as long to park twice as badly—let’s make a deal. If you stop parking like an idiot, I’ll stop accidentally putting those “I ♥ DONKEY PORN” bumper stickers on your car.

The guy across the street from my parents' house had this on his truck. It reminds me that it's the simple things in life that truly make us happy. Also, that my neighbor liked both truckin' and fuckin'.

The guy across the street from my parents’ house had this on his truck. It reminds me that it’s the simple things in life that truly make us happy. Also, that my neighbor really liked both truckin’ and fuckin’.

Mini Game Review

Bug Heroes 2, Foursaken Media

Bug Heroes 2, by Four

Bug Heroes 2, by Foursaken Media

Bug Heroes 2 is a action/strategy tower defense game where you control a team of two bug heroes as they protect their bug base, crush their bug enemies, and hear the lamentation of their bug women. Overall, it’s a well-crafted game. The environments are charming, and gameplay felt good after a bit of getting used to. The sound in particular had a whimsical, Worms-like feel. Missions are numerous and mostly fun, though the difficulty quickly ramps. Tons of upgrades and 25 available heroes allow for a variety of playstyles, and the ability to respec for free is a welcome feature.

It’s a mixed bag, though. I mentioned that there are “25 available heroes” to play, but only in the same way there are “25 available cars” for me to drive today. I really only have two to choose from, but I’d need to spend real money to drive any of the other 23.

Bug Heroes 2 telegraphs the oncoming paywall early on. You begin with two heroes, earn another after gaining 5 stars (from mission completion), then earn the next after…25 stars. That’s a bunch, considering you’re rewarded one for most missions. Based on every other game ever made, it’ll only get worse from there, and it pretty much signaled the end of the game for me.

Here’s the thing: if all I see in front of me is a long grind followed by an inevitable paywall, I’m out. It’s annoying in a free game, but it’s infuriating in a paid game like this one. Doesn’t matter how good the game is; going down that road only leads to frustration. How can I know this? Another Universal Truth of Game DesignThe only thing always found behind a paywall is a slightly larger paywall.

Random Observation Unrelated to Anything Else

I was checking out the Tonight Show and caught U2 performing on a rooftop just like they did back in the video for “Where the Streets Have No Name” (and The Beatles did in 1969… ). Watching it really made me think: the more things change, the more they START TO LOOK JUST LIKE ROBIN WILLIAMS.

Shazbat! I’m sure I’m not the first to observe the Na-Nu/Bono Effect, but it’s freaking me the hell out.

Shazbat! I’m sure I’m not the first to observe the Na-Nu/Bono Effect, but it’s freaking me the hell out.

So…there’s that. Thanks, everyone, for reading, commenting, reblogging, retweeting, and not sending me hate mail. As a special reward, I offer you levitating Mork and skateboarding Mindy. Don’t say I never gave you anything.

Not Pictured: The mogul-sized pile of cocaine necessary to achieve this photo.

Not Pictured: The mogul-sized pile of cocaine necessary to capture this photo.

Don’t Hate the Payer, Hate the Game

So…Freemium games. Or Free-To-Play. Or F2P. Or “the wildly successful business model every drug dealer’s been using since the dawn of sub-legal narcotics distribution.” Everyone hates them, yet my unscientific data based on a cursory glance proves incontrovertibly that they work. Something like 90% of the Top Grossing games in the App store are free. The others are Minecraft.

Here’s the thing: you don’t hate free-to-play games. At least, not for the reasons you think. See, I’m not here to tell you to stop hating the games—there’s plenty of room for everyone—I just want you to be less stupid when you spout off about it. To that end, let’s examine a couple of the biggest complaints, and what’s really behind them.

Why You Think You Hate: Freemium Games Make You Pay to Progress

You can only play the first 10 levels for free, but it costs money to unlock all the others? Unleash Righteous Anger! How about this: Did you know that in Skyrim you have to pay to get from level 1 to level 2? Fuckers. And, it doesn’t stop! You’ll throw away upwards of $60.00 to unlock all the content in the game, and that’s before paying even more for the extra DLC they’re practically forcing you to download! Someone start an online petition, stat!

Why You Actually Hate: Freemium Games Are That Woman You Dated Senior Year

Yeah, you remember her—she was awesome, totally laid back, loved to play games, have a beer, hang out with your friends.

Then you graduated.

Suddenly, there’s talk about where things are going! About where you see yourself in 5 years! About commitment! Did she become a different person? Were you so wrong about her all along?

No. Your freemium period just ended. You were being asked to pay to continue playing, and that burned. She was smarter than you, more in touch with reality, and she knew that anything worthwhile has a cost. Sometimes, that cost is having to mature a bit. Sometimes, it’s $1.99 on Candy Crush. Everyone’s gotta pay.


Otherwise…Game Over

Why You Think You Hate: Freemium Exists Because Publishers are Evil, Ravenous Shitbeasts Who Slake Their Endless Thirst on Infants’ Tears…and Micropayments.

Okay, this is partially true. But the undeniable nature of publishers isn’t why you hate freemium games. Publishers want to make money, and their shareholders want them to make lots of money. And, if they don’t make money, there’s less to spread around to the development teams. Whom You Love. Making games is a passion for most everyone I’ve met in the industry, but it’s also a business. People paying for games, even a little bit at a time, puts food on our tables and keeps us doing the thing we love.


Actual shitbeast. Any assertions that it works for a major publisher are completely almost unfounded.

Why You Actually Hate: Freemium Games Are Also That Woman You Met In Vegas That One Time You’d Rather Not Talk About

C’mon…you know who I mean. Remember when you and your buddies went to Vegas after that amazing woman dumped you for being a ridiculously immature man-child? Yeah, that trip. Remember how you had a bunch of drinks and met this incredible woman at the bar, and things went better than you could have hoped, right up until the next morning when you realize she stole your wallet? And that she may have been a dude? Yeah, that woman. Freemium’s like her.

Too often, freemium games have been deceptive, and it’s only after the money’s gone do you realize you’ve been duped. Ever seen the “BUY” button that has magically appeared where the “NEXT” button was a moment ago? Ever clicked “OKAY” and then noticed the prepopulated checkbox in which you signed over naming rights to your next child?

We’ve been taught to fend off these gross attempts to dip into our wallet so frequently, it’s difficult to believe there are games that don’t do it. Even though the games have gotten better about it, the damage has been done. When players actually do want to spend money, they feel dirty doing it. They’re now self-loathing “Payers,” and they’ll hide the behavior from their friends as they descend deeper and deeper into a microtransactional shame spiral of doom.

orko was a payer

Orko is a Payer. Orko feels shame.

Anyway, those are just a couple of the most popular rant vectors—there are plenty of others. Got a favorite? Leave a comment so together we might hone your hatred to a razor’s edge.

Note: Thanks to Scott Taylor, who took the crap-ass name tag graphic I used last week and transformed it into a distinctly non-crap-ass graphic. Much appreciated!