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Flying viscera and the brave new world

Kurzweil's singularity, patents, and the impending terrifying reality of creativity (it's so unknowable--there is literally nothing more terrifying than that).

Sam Kite, Blogger

February 23, 2012

14 Min Read

David Sirlin has a singular focus
Though I doubt he'd consider it in that light. He has a focus on practical reality and incremental adjustments. When he's writing on the subject of the abstruse details of a fighting game, he is compelling. When he plays those games, he is challenging (to his adversaries). 

When he writes about the context in which we all create games, he brings those dimensions of being a game player to the topics he discusses.

I'm going to declare a field of view to clarify why I'm talking so much about Sirlin, and why the subsequent things I'll have to say are going to breeze past his (pointed, well developed) article, and move on to a bunch of starry eyed drivel that may be frustrating in its scope to rational human beings.

This is about how clever people are articulating solutions to the impending challenges of this industry that are mechanical, brilliant, and perceptive, and completely useless, because they embrace paradigms that are going to be obsolete soon; ownership and ingenuity.

Sirlin discusses the patent system. In the time since he wrote that article, things have not improved (and on that last one--holy shit... really? If anyone is going to hold that one, wouldn't it be the Demon's Souls guys?). His proposal at the time was peer review where he believes that a certain sacrifice of secrecy would occur, but the upshot would be filtering. 

Such a shift, or at least comparison between paradigms has analogs we can examine.

If you institute a public peer review for patents, then the best strategy for major stakeholders in any industry will be to dedicate people to helping determine that a patent is not unique and immediately making use of it in other contexts to help demonstrate its obviousness while zeroing in on effective implementations of that patent, creating inventions or products incorporating that technique, and then applying for newer, more specific patents, using their own process as evidence of the non obviousness of their particular example. Some individuals might be able to work in this system for a while, but the practical upshot is that, as now, the system would favor those with finances and not the idealized aspiring inventor as, indeed, it has always done in recent memory

Efforts to pollute public forums has already been undertaken by a number of companies who try to create marketing efforts with the appearance of grassroots origins which are in fact the work of direct employees or other parties with a conflict of interest.  This isn't unique to the entertainment industry, either. The business of nutrition and medicine is completely undermined by the collusion between financial entities and the opinion makers with degrees. Statin drugs are an excellent case of a medical invention which has been pushed financially to the forefront of treatment, its prescription at current levels being a matter of statistical manipulation by a board of interested parties

In science, when the system of peer review works appropriately, and isn't gamesmanship or popularity contests between personalities, ideas have no ownership or cache in virtue of themselves. The system is designed to disseminate any idea as quickly as possible for disapproval or further testing. This represents an ideal of science as a pursuit of intellect. Our industry, meanwhile, seems to wrestle with the notion of demagoguery as it pertains to direct ownership of an idea. 

Sirlin has made the point in other papers (on his site, and others) that the process of creation, by necessity, involves the reuse and recombination of other ideas. Arguably, it is fundamental to the structure of human thought that there must be some preceding ideas on which to build, and if all those ideas are present, then any random sampling of people might generate that idea for themselves. In the world of Thomas Jefferson where there were, perhaps, ten thousand people with the education, wealth, and interest to 'invent', the patent is a tool to promote and reward this effort. In the world as it stands now with a billion or more people with access to all human knowledge via the internet as well as tools for fabrication that are rapidly becoming easier to take advantage of for almost any level of investment, an incentive for invention has introduced complications which outweigh its benefits (whether it's physical fabrication from a Chinese manufacturing plant, or GNU licensed software that accomplishes 90% of the functionality of $5000 3d rendering software).

In many cases (Russia, China), the process of invention simply ignores our patent system. Their incentive to participate has to do with the presence of a market, and the creation and development of those markets is, if you believe 19th century british economists, a consequence of the accumulation of wealth.

Ray Kurzweil wrote a book on this, (semi) recently, and most of us reading this site and participating in this fledling industry are going to live through the period he describes (unlike the great founders of our industry, who are even now passing on (please take care of yourself Jeff Green, I'm not ready to make it without you, yet)). Even in 6 and a half years, what he has to say therein is prescient, inaccurate, and woefully out of date. His prediction of virtual customer service has been eschewed in favor of a strange temporary regression to outsourced call centers, and the only robots talking back to us are phone tree menus (it's pretty novel to be able to yell my social security number into the phone and have a machine inaccurately transcribe it, rather than a human being--it feels like progress). While navigating them is certainly a chilling first step toward the death camps of the Terminator apocalypse, we are not experiencing the virtual world that Second Life continues to try to assert is 'totally a real thing, you guys'.

To summarize a book that contains way too many graphs of the relationship of x to 1/x, there are systems of exponential growth at work right now which may appear to be linear growth, and all the systems of society, biology, and human endeavor are basically computational in some sense, making them information systems, and the exponential growth that applies to those systems is going to blow your damn mind in the next 50 years.

As a point of guidance, that is useless, however there are several issues that will affect all of us trying to create art, and specifically, those of us creating games, which, in some sense, is the only measurable human endeavor of any kind (the industry tends to talk about other artforms as precursors or siloed separate endeavors, but in reality, writing, painting, sculpture, play acting, movies, animation, dancing, as well as all the other more boring cultural schemes are derivative of games; the codified tool user's refinement of play behavior--the basis of all learning).

If you look at Sirlin's comments about the Patent system, you notice an exponential change in patent applications. This is also reflected in Kurzweil's first chapters. In Kurzweil's mind, this is a proliferation of ideas. In Sirlin's description, it is a proliferation of cynical tactics.  In our industry it is really no more significant than a stutter step of recording every idea someone ever had into the transitory 'working RAM' of the marketplace. Whether Nintendo owns massively singleplayer games for the next 20 years or not, their attempt to do so is a recording. A transcription of information into the base pairs of information at large in the system. Regardless of what happens financially, this fundamental idea has been recorded in the broadest possible language. Motivations won't matter in 20 years, when the idea of having a game where people essentially invade each other's privacy through an intermediary or commons, becomes not just a metaphor in games like Demon's Souls or 'Paper Party Mario Kart Stars Offline with Kirby for some reason' (or whatever they're up to), but becomes the unescapable reality of having a device in your pocket that tracks your position with GPS, records all your interactions with others, and broadcasts it onto the internet at all hours of the day and night with your personal impramatur. We're going to be thumbsing down customer service interactions at the bank, and determining our route home based on a combination of traffic, fast food service speeds, and weather conditions rendered into an integer and pushed to a Live Tile in real time. 

As that happens, regional concepts will reassert themselves. They just won't be physical regions.

Right now, in China, there are ludicrously successful MMOs that 90% of Americans and Europeans haven't ever heard of. There is enough data at large in the world, and products being developed such that we are perversely returning to a precolonial era of isolation. I spend most of my day engaging with games and information. A tiny fraction of what's available makes it into my brain. I may become enamored of something like Minecraft, and trace its simalcrums to things like Dwarf Fortress or Terraria.

The concentration of ideas around a single concept are worrisome in their similarity. Cases like Yeti/Triple town aren't just upsetting growing pains. They're the establishment of the impending norm

Since Kurzweil is a frustratingly practical thinker, he hasn't put numbers to some things which I, and I think, we, as an industry, consider core to human development. That exponential growth curve which is rapidly exploding the patent office is going to apply to gaming hours played. It will apply to gaming genres created. It will apply to redundant wholesale recreations of already-existing concepts. This is the progression from radio stations, to television, to cable, to satellite. There is an impending diversity of appetites that are nonetheless all based on a common animal. This animal will want similar experiences, and they will turn to the nearest convenient outlet in their information landscape to discover it. 'Casual' as a term will be meaningless. Hardcore was never a real idea in the first place. You know who the hardcore gamers were? Your grandfather who would clean his shotgun, wander out into the freezing woods at 5am, outwit some ducks, and bring home dinner. Do you have any idea how many lures your great grandmother tried before she found the right trawling spinner to drive the bass wild? Fashion, as a sinkhole for time, money, and tears has been ridden harder than any other pack mule going for time immemorial. The gamer subculture is an illusion. Gaming is human intellectual endeavor. Gaming is processing. It is computation of information, and we are living at the cusp of an era where computation will devour and outrun our entire species. 

The games we make will for the next 10 to 15 years, at least, be very much similar to what has come before. It will be exciting and invigorating to see indie developers come up with the quinessential NES game 30 years after the system that inspired it went off the market. It will be impressive to see EA crank out the next sports title where they achieve a 1.25% narrowing of the uncanny valley--presaging the day when ESPN will transcribe the movements of real players on the field (measured by lasers, lidar, and neutrino radiation) to replay files which they will upload to a server running the latest Madden, and then broadcast to everyone's Xbox 6 or PS720 or Facebook page, where they can observe and start new instances of the game for themselves to see how *their* call would have developed, had the coach listened to the crowdsourcing (now piped directly into his headset).

That's just boring old already-existing sports.  Cultural cache will become precious because every orifice will be filled with rich enthusiasm of fan-generated and demanded material.

How many more iterations of Skyrim and Minecraft will there be before fans join game engines with ludicrously robust editing tools (yes yes, I know you're out there Second Life. You were too early), rip off a product they like, and play your game for free in some other publisher's world? 

8 years ago, I was playing the best Star Wars RTS I'd ever seen. It was a mod for Homeworld that some dude made. That's not going away. We're at the part of the curve that appears flat. In the not too distant future, as we hit the knee of the curve (the point at which growth goes from, 'oh hey, I think I might be getting some plaque' to 'crap I need a mouth full of new teeth'), you'll post a game to the app store, and within a day, there will be 10 free versions with alternate graphics. The gaming space will effectively be 'free to play' and the only way to capitalize will be the continued, harried production of assets and features to peddle. 

Which in a way is just going to remove a bunch of already existing layers from the equation. The game dev's life is often the breakneck, nonstop, long suffering creation of assets and code that gets released only because it's time for someone to get paid. Then there is a 1 week break to recover from toxic blood pizza levels, and everyone comes back to work on completing the expansion. Or the sequel. Or the sequel's expansion. Or the expansion's spinoff. Or the expansion's spinoff in sequel form. SOE and NCsoft aren't looking so crazy anymore with their stables of similar experiences and monthly passes. 

It is going to get harder to be a human being, unfortunately. This industry is at an exciting threshold, but we're a product of the times. The explosion of gaming is the explosion of the human information revolution. Laws will never be written to make a dent in this, because the very idea of law in the face of billions of thinking minds (soon to be joined by billions more computational processes that work over the information we've generated and generate even more) is like trying to exercise oversight of physics. The laws will be what can be done, and what can't be done.

What can be done is put your stuff out there, and hope somebody likes it. Convenience and charity. Game creation will be like twittering, the cache will be in followers and adherents. The best games won't get enough attention. They'll be cultivated and preserved by small strange sects covered in robes wearing dire bunny slippers while they pass down the bits from emulator version to emulator version.

Gaming this system of laws--looking to advocate for a point of view is ludicrous. I'm not saying stop putting in the effort. Go ahead. But the real issue here is that, mechanically, we are part of a change that will not tolerate the concepts of ownership we impose on it. We will have to revert to a cooperative gathering behavior in order to assemble useful experiences. The only way any of the good stakeholders (those other than 'Management'--the parasites who've taxed our capacity to improve the universe since the first cell found itself attached to a central nervous system which would not stop prodding it to sacrifice for the good of the whole) are going to thrive is by jumping ahead.

We've seen some effective strategies. Free to play with a company store is one approach that may survive for a while. Crowdsourced funding has just hit its first interesting case with Double fine. Look, everybody. I'm an interesting, likeable guy who writes well. Pay me to make a game for you. That you will then pay again to own. The last part seems somewhat backwards. 

Not to speak out of turn, but I imagine if all game production became crowdsourced pay-up-front for something freely downloadable after the fact, nobody would care, since half the time the sustenance of companies is investor driven without profit sharing for anybody on the line, anyway.

One things for sure. For the foreseeable future, your ability to thrive is going to be as much social as it is craftsmanship. I don't mean evangelism, either. I mean good old fashioned 'Erik Wolpaw is so awesome, I want him made into a stuffed animal I can hug' social. 'Jerry Holkins is to game writers as Finding Nemo is to clownfish'. There is no substitute for pressing the flesh.

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