Monday, December 27, 2004

Christmas in the heartland

I went to Kansas for a week to visit my in-laws. I would like to make a few observations.

I live in a very red state, but Austin is a blue county, so we're a community of those people who don't have, you know, "moral values".

As we drove across Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, I couldn't help noticing some things about the heartland. First, no piddly little run-down town is so small that they don't have a big church as the main attraction, and usually several. If the church isn't easily visible from the road, you can still see a big sign saying "Church of Christ" or some such. In many cases, towns with populations under 2000 have churches that are just as enormous and lavish as those in the big city, even if most of the other buildings in the immediate area are pathetic shells with broken windows that have clearly been abandoned for years. The Baptist churches are always the biggest and gaudiest.

What I'm trying to convey here is that you enter the more "red" areas, the amount of church space per capita increases a lot. And not only that, so do the number of bars and strip clubs per capita. We kept passing areas where there would be two or even three bars in the same shopping center block.

More churches, more bars and strip clubs. Hmmmm, interesting. Kinda gets you thinking about where the values connection to moral values really comes in.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Sports games

EA signs exclusive football license deal - Dec. 13, 2004
"LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Video game publisher Electronic Arts Inc. said Monday it had signed an exclusive agreement with the National Football League and the marketing arm of its players' union, giving EA the sole rights to put NFL players, stadiums and teams in its games.

The exclusive license was a coup for EA in its ongoing battle with the joint venture of Sega Sammy Holdings Inc. and Take-Two Interactive Software Inc."

And all I can say is, I feel fortunate to be someone who hates sports games.

I've never been a pro-sports fan, which makes me not a True Guy(TM) to a lot of people, especially here in the south. I can mostly understand the appeal of it; when I was into Warcraft, I watched a lot of replays from the top players like Tillerman, who played the game exceptionally well. It was fun to watch their techniques.

Many people have reacted to this news by saying that this will most likely hurt the quality of future NFL-based games, and I agree. Other people say that it's hard to fault EA for taking this action, and I agree with them too. They are out to make money, and one way you make money is by killing the competition.

An analogy in nature: If you were to go to an ecosystem and kill off all of a certain kind of predator, in the long run you'll probably have a less robust ecosystem; but it would be hard to convince the prey that they should care about this. You could say: "But look here, Mr. Gazelle, in a few million years you will be less evolved because you won't have any cheetahs to thin the herd." And the gazelle would say, "Yeah, but I probably won't get killed by cheetahs now, will I?"

I also don't think you can really blame the NFL. They got a big bag of money that they wouldn't have had otherwise. In all likelihood, this big bag of money will be worth more than the smaller bags of money from multiple companies over the next five years. If they didn't expect this to be true, they wouldn't have signed the deal.

I think the problem was bound to come up sooner or later, because so many gamers hold the paradigm that they *have to* buy a game that features NFL players. As far as I know, this has no parallel in any other type of game. If I want to play a First Person Shooter right now, I can play Doom, or Half-Life, or Deus Ex, or whatever. If I want a massive online game, I can buy Everquest, WoW, or Camelot. The details of the story and characters will matter to me, but not so much that I will only accept a game that has one specific cast of characters. I mostly care what kind of a game it is and how well it is executed.

It is pretty much conventional wisdom that, with just a few exceptions, most games based on movie or TV licenses are junk. I don't think this is just bad luck. It's because the game is handicapped right from the start. The company is spending a bunch of money up front to acquire the license to the characters instead of spending an equivalent amount of money on development. If you feel that you absolutely HAVE TO play a game based on, say, Daffy Duck, you have a very limited set of choices because few companies would go to the trouble and expense of acquiring a Daffy Duck license. A few people must really need to play a game based on Daffy Duck, or else they wouldn't make any of those games. But for most gamers, while they might regard the presence of Daffy Duck as a slight point in the game's favor, they would almost certainly give a lot more weight to what kind of reviews the game got, or how it stacked up to a similar game with different characters.

This is not how sports games work. If you want to make a really good game that captures the feel of playing football, you could just as easily do it by making a game about college football, or urban neighborhood football. The resulting game could be just as fun. In fact, I would imagine that this is the sort of thing Take-Two will probably do, instead of giving up their football franchise altogether. But that's not really the point. The point is that for whatever reason, the majority of football gaming fans feel like they have to buy games with professional, big-name players. And there's only one game in town: the NFL has a monopoly on big-name players and they're certainly not going to give it up. (Well, not unless the XFL makes a big comeback.)

So I think maybe this situation was bound to come up sooner or later, because some people will only buy a game that features NFL players as characters, and there's only one NFL. Just imagine what it would be like if I declared: "From now on I will only buy Real-Time Strategy games that prominently feature Tillerman. Tillerman must put his stamp of approval on the game, and there must be AI characters in the game who behave in a manner that is similar to Tillerman."

Well, I'll tell you what would happen. There wouldn't be a market for me and I couldn't play any more RTS games, so the analogy to NFL sort of doesn't work anymore. But if there was a big enough market to support this kind of ultimatum, and Tillerman started selling the rights to his likeness in games, and no more games stood a chance without Tillerman's blessing, I bet RTS games would get a lot worse.