Almost a year later, where does Kickstarter’s blockchain initiative stand?

About a year ago, give or take two months, Kickstarter announced that they would be engaging in some sort of blockchain-based initiative. Reaction was varied, and by varied, I mean people who liked distributed excel sheet blockchain technology saw this as further proof of the the future ascension of that tech.

If you were someone who actually ran Kickstarter campaigns, you may have seen it as a sign that you should look into BackerKit or Gamefound.

When this whole thing was announced, Bitcoin was around $50,000, and Ethereum was about $4300. Anyway, it’s been a little bit. Some things have happened. Bitcoin is now around $19,500,and Ethereum sits at $1300 and it seems like as good a time as any to check in on that whole Kickstarter Blockchain thing.

Before we get any further into this though, there’s one large thing I want to address. In a massive amount of the coverage, there’s an announcement that Kickstarter would be moving onto some form of blockchain technology within the year.

This claim was actually going to be the base of this rant. I’d poke fun at blockchain, and then mock companies who think they can perform a full technical transformation on a project that hasn’t entered the planning phase with a “new” technology in less then a year, and just generally act all smug. Y’know, given that they’d have just under 3 months from today to meet their own deadline.

Unfortunately, I cannot find evidence that Kickstarter ever actually made this claim. The primary source of their 1-year timeline is this Bloomberg article. To make matters more annoying, I can’t find evidence that they didn’t make this claim. The Bloomberg article in question has a published time of 1:45 EST, the Kickstarter article doesn’t have a published timeframe, and the first Wayback Machine capture in the Archives is from 4:41 PM EST.

I’d personally say, “Kickstarter appears to have never said this.” There is a period of time between 9:00 AM EST and that first Wayback Machine capture where Kickstarter could have updated the article. That said, they eventually edited out one sentence about publishing a white paper, and that took them a long time to change. I think it’s unlikely that they published a timeline, and then edited it out within hours.

One brief addendum before I drop this track entirely. I reached out to both the author of the Bloomberg article, and Kickstarter directly to ask for clarity on this point. The Bloomberg writer didn’t respond, and Kickstarter stated the end of 2022 date was referencing a timeline for setting up a organization to investigate the solution.

Regardless, it’s hard to see this whole blockchain thing as a win of any sort for Kickstarter. At the time of the announcement, it drew a fair amount of criticism and scorn from many users of the their platform. Both creators and backers criticized the direction, and many users considered moving to Kickstarers’ competitors. As of right now, crypto has lost a massive amount of value, and continues to be a solution in search of a problem, unless the problem is “How do you make make money off ransomware?”

Kickstarter itself has also been fairly quiet about all of this. There was a recent interview on Dicebreaker with the new Kickstarter CEO.

I’m gonna be honest. I read the interview. I appreciate Chase Carter’s (the interviewer’s) directness with some of the questions. But that doesn’t help the answers.

Everette Taylor doesn’t really take a stand for or against Kickstarter’s blockchain initiative. Instead, he repeatedly states that Kickstarter won’t become a Web3 company. He says that Kickstarter is still focused on their core value add, but also doesn’t say they won’t continue investigating. He frankly doesn’t say much of anything.

Ed Note: This isn’t intended as an insult. If anything it’s a compliment. I understand why he’s not going to say anything, and I admire that he’s able to to do it so effectively. Publicly giving your honest opinion on all the bad decisions of the company that just hired you probably is not a great strategy for long term employment. All that said, I’m enthusiast media. I can both admire the skill and call it somewhat BS that he’s not committing to any actual policy.

The spiciest statement Taylor makes is this: “I believe that a lot of people’s issues with Kickstarter’s exploration of the blockchain are doing so with misinformation.”

It’s a great statement because it looks like it says a lot, but promises and says nothing. Are you pro-blockchain? “Our customers only dislike blockchain because they’re misinformed.” Are you anti-blockchain? “People only dislike it because they don’t understand that we’re just exploring the space, not committing to it.”

You can choose to read it however you want, and even if you take a neutral stance, it’s still hollow. Is the misinformation about blockchain ,or Kickstarter’s exploration of the process, or something else entirely? Who knows!

Regardless, here’s the state of Kickstarter nine months later: There’s been no active forward progress that’s been publicly reported. In both interviews, and requests for comment, Kickstarter hasn’t disavowed itself of involvement with blockchain technology, but they also haven’t committed to any outwardly visible extent. If the whole thing was an attempt to drum up interest and attention, I’d say it pretty visibly backfired. If it was an expression of legitimate interest in the crypto/blockchain sphere, any fruits are extremely slow growing.

What does Stadia’s shutdown say about the future of Alphabet in gaming?

Stadia’s death might be the most exciting thing about the platform, honestly.

Much like Bruno, we don’t talk about Stadia. Unlike Bruno, Stadia has at no point been secretly living in my house. And with its shutdown, it’s unlikely it ever will be.

MAXIMUM GRAPHIC DESIGN EFFORT.

I know a fair number of folks with gaming PC’s. I know folks with both brands of mainstream VR headsets. I know people who make board games, video games, write for games, do art for games.

I don’t know a single person in real life who actually used or tried Stadia. Not one. So let’s start with a recap of what Stadia was.

The Life and Death of Stadia

Stadia was Google’s attempt at a game streaming platform. It released in 2019 with little fanfare, and as of today, it’s officially dead. It had a fairly decent number of games, including things like Destiny 2, Assassins’ Creed, and Far Cry. It also had quite a few smaller games like Celeste, Enter the Gungeon, Killer Queen Black, and Golf with your Friends.

The statement about Stadia’s shutdown is brief, and you can read it here. I’ll also summarize it it quickly.

Paragraph 1 & 2 – Our technology worked, but we didn’t build a userbase that met our expectations.

Paragraph 3 – We’ll be refunding hardware and games purchased through us. (But notably, not subscription fees).

Paragraph 4 – Our technology was so great, and we can totally use it in other parts of our business. We absolutely did not just burn several hundred million dollars for nothing on this project, and we’ll totally still be invested in gaming. Trust us guys.

Paragraph 5 – We’re not going to fire everyone on the Stadia team. But y’know. We are shutting down Stadia, so uh… we’re not not firing people.

Okay, so I may have taken some artistic license onparagraphs 4 and 5. But in my mind, the most important and interesting paragraph here is number 3.

The Opposite of Graceful Product Failure

Alphabet/Google does not have a good track record of maintaining services or devices that don’t make them money. The biggest example I can think of is Google Glass, a product you had to beg to get, pay $1400 or something for, and that was then shutdown. But the same is true of smaller things, like Hangouts. I would also note that they have “bad” customer service, except even that is giving them too much credit.

“Bad” customer service is 3 hours on hold to try to get something resolved. Google doesn’t have any customer service. If something goes wrong on one of their platforms, and you’re a general consumer, you are hosed. Game over. There is no human, there is no phone number.

And I think that these two things may have come back to bite them with Stadia. Nobody loves Google or Alphabet. They’re just another Microsoft. Folks like me and you use their products because they’re the market leader, but not because we love them, or trust them. So when they launched Stadia, the general opinion of “Why would I ever touch a service run by a company that shuts down projects out of the blue, has no customer service, and isn’t actually a gaming company?” was a pretty common sentiment.

There’s zero reason to be an early adopter of Google projects at the moment as a consumer. And paragraph 3 feels like someone realized that, and went “Hold up.”

So why refund consumers?

I can personally think of at least two reasons for them choosing to refund hardware and game costs. The first is simple. Google’s reputation is actively harming them at this point when it comes to hardware launches, and is a cause for concern when it comes software. They’ve already burnt millions on Stadia, choosing to burn a few million more to try to wind the program down without alienating the few fucking idiots who are early adopters for Google hardware individuals who are willing to engage with their products at early stages is probably worth it.

The other possibility is that their whole spiel about planning to remain in the video game space isn’t complete bullshit, and they actually do intend to try to make a future play on this industry.

Regardless of whether it’s an optics move, or a legitimate business choice, I think it’s probably the right one. Stadia may have failed, but giving consumers the impression that they can safely buy into Google/Alphabet projects without fear of getting the rug pulled and losing everything is a smart idea (but remember, they didn’t refund subscription fees).

Even if it’s the only one that came out of Stadia.

PS. I mean, c’mon. As one of my friends pointed out, they launched this product at a time of forced isolation, graphic cards shortage, and supply chain issues (PS5 where?). Conditions couldn’t have possibly been better for success. It still flopped.

A Rant About Winning

One of the stupidest things I’ve ever read about games was written by David Sirlin, a very smart game designer. He wrote it in a book that I picked up out of curiosity, and early on I encountered this quote.

I believe there is a great deal more of this “fun” to be had while playing to win than while only playing casually, but there is no use in entering that debate now.

David Sirlin

This was the quote where I put his book down, because it speaks to me of a fundamental misunderstanding about human beings. I’m going go through a fair number of anecdotes here, but I think every single one of them demonstrates that his point is wrong. They illustrate a variety of examples where Sirlin has completely ignored human behavior.

If you had board games or video games as a child, and had younger siblings, you likely had to play games with them. And if you did, you likely chose to throw games to keep them happy. Perhaps David Sirlin likes making his siblings cry. I didn’t. There’s no fun in crushing, or being crushed. This brings me to my second example.

In college, the dorm I lived in had Wii-U in the communal space, and it was used primarily for two things: Smash Bros and Just Dance. There was a set of two players who were simply much, much better at the game then everyone else present, and would often play against each other. At one point, one of them moved out, after which a funny thing happened: virtually no one wanted to play against that second player. The gap was simply too wide.

We often played Magic, AKA M:TG, in the dorm. Quite a few people played, and many had a variety of decks. One of the more popular formats was commander. I remember one particular game with 8 players, in which I got the following combo out.

For anyone keeping score at home: this combo destroys every single other card each player had in play, and would continue doing it every turn until someone stopped it.

Unsurprisingly, everyone scooped, and started a new game. I would not describe it as very “Fun”.

A few more quick ones: games like Diablo Immortal, where “Winning” is temporary, and based on spending cash. Playing games against newer players who you’re trying to introduce to the game.

There’s a reason that the Magic: The Gathering personas are Timmy, Jimmy, and Spike. Not every player is going to derive satisfaction from winning all the time. Sirlin’s thesis seems to be that “Every player should strive to be a Spike” which is one of the stupidest fucking things I’ve ever heard.

So why am ranting about this now? Sirlin’s book is 20 years old, there’s a zero percent chance anyone ever reads this post, and it’s not like any of this is relevant.

Well, I’m mostly ranting about this because of something someone said to me recently. I’ve been making Historic Brawl decks while trying to use every possible legal commander as a commander, and I got some feedback that I should make fewer decks, and more “good” decks. To this I have two responses.

First off, yes. Part of the reason I’m doing this is that it makes “easy” content. It’s much less effort to sit down, build a deck over a day or two, and then live stream myself playing it to YouTube 5 times a week than it is to spend a month tweaking and tuning a single good deck. Because guess what? I’ve spent two years writing things for this blog, doing interesting interviews, and here’s the sad truth: no one reads it.

I can play an entire fascinating indie game, spend a week doing a writeup, post it, tweet it, and it makes not GOD DAMN iota of difference. Nobody fucking wants good content. Everyone wants easy consistent content. We’d all rather have grey sludge every day than chocolate chip cookies once a week.

So yeah, if making shitty Magic decks every day and posting about them is what it takes to get an audience, I’ll do it. I started this blog so that I could avoid being shafted at conventions because I’m not an “influencer.” Don’t think for a second I’m not super passionate about games. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t still be writing this.

My grey slurry is making historic brawl decks with cards that aren’t good historic brawl commanders.

And secondly, some cards are just BAD. I ranted about how much I hate Jaxis as a commander recently. I’m currently trying to make a deck with Korlessa, Scale Singer. Not counting Korlessa, there are 26 TOTAL dragon cards in green/blue/colorless. Of those 26, maybe 6 are actually worth playing as bombs in Historic Brawl. So congrats, you go make a “good” deck based around a commander that offers absolutely nothing except the ability to see the top card of your deck, and do nothing with it.

I’d be in favor of arguing that Korlessa is just a worst version of Falco Spara, in both colors, statline, and abilities. There’s not even any REAL reason outside of flavor for Korelssa to be legendary. What are two copies gonna give you, two 1/4’s?

So when I encounter Korlessa, I have two choices. I can build a deck with those 26 dragons, and Maskwood Nexus/Whir of Invention, and I can try to do something interesting to show people.

Or I can build slurry. I can stuff the deck so full land ramp, return to hand, and counterspells that you could swap out commander to be Gretchen Titchwillow, and there would be literally no difference in playing the deck, except it would be better, because guess what, Gretchen Titchwillow is a better commander!

At which point, why bother? It’s not a Korlessa deck. It’s blue/green good stuff.

In conclusion: Winning is not always fun. Winning is not necessarily good content. David Sirlin is much smarter then me, a very good game designer, and his book reads like the 80 page manifesto at the end of Atlas Shrugged in terms of its relationship to a majority of the population.

Game genre names, or why I like ‘Auto-Chess’ more than ‘Auto-Battler’

Sometimes new game genres come up with names perfectly encapsulate the primary ideas and mechanics in a simple understandable way. When that happens, we get names like Battle Royale. Sometimes they don’t, and we get the holy war between the Roguelite and Roguelike people. And sometimes an entire genre gets invented more or less by accident and we end up with things like Soulslike or Auto-Chess.

This last category is annoying, because if you know the core elements that constitute the genre, the description is useful, and if you don’t, it’s absolutely worthless. But the reason defining genre is important to me is that I actively avoided a game called Super Auto Pets for a while, because its genre was miscommunicated.

When I first heard about Super Auto Pets, I was told it was an auto-battler. Having no context for this, and learning the game was available on mobile devices, I assumed it was some form of idle game, filled with the sort of traps most mobile trash is. It wasn’t until another friend downloaded it, played it, and described the mechanics that I went “Hold up, that’s an Auto-Chess game, a genre that I actually like”.

So, let’s talk about the concept of Auto-Chess as a genre real quick. As far as I’m aware, the first Auto-Chess game was a mod for Dota 2, called… Auto-Chess. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with Chess. Instead, each round you’re given gold to spend on buying units from a pool, or rerolling the pool. Buying three copies of the same units upgrades that unit into a single stronger copy. Get three upgraded units, and they combine into an even stronger unit.

There’s a board that you can place and move units on, with a cap of units that you can have on the board, and a bench of units you might have purchased, but don’t currently want to use. A timer ticks down, and when it hits zero, your board of units fight another player’s board of units. Whoever has units standing last wins, and gets gold, and the loser loses lives based on how many units were still alive at the end of the round.

The core gameplay, then, is mostly about spending your resources to make the most efficient board state possible. Since this was Dota 2, and the units you purchased were Dota 2 heroes, there was the small knowledge requirement of having to know how Dota 2 works.

Which is a monumental task. For example, how Dota 2 towers choose their target is a simple 6 step process. That guide might be out of date, it’s 8 years old.

Despite this, the mod became exceedingly popular, and quite a few things happened. Valve tried to make their own version of the game called Dota: Underlords, which kind of just died. The modders went and made their own full version of the game just called Auto-Chess that you can get on Epic. Riot pulled a Riot with their classic “Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V” of something popular that someone else made, and created Teamfight Tactics. Ed Note: I promise to stop making fun of Riot for doing things like this when they make their own game for once.

The big thing about all of these Auto-Chess games, though, is that they’re all still pretty obtuse, and require you to understand how MOBAs or RTS style games work in terms of damage types, abilities, aggro, armor, etc.

As a result, the interesting mechanical decisions end up hidden behind these other bizarre systems. Which is something Super Auto Pets arguably fixes, but more on that in a future writeup.

Looking back on it now, this actually seems to be how we got the modern roguelite. The core structure of “Try, fail, learn, try again, get a bit farther” was initially locked into dungeon crawlers. Then someone finally went “Wait, what if we took this formula and applied it to something that comes with less baggage and is less brain melting?” and now every other indie game has roguelite elements.

I don’t have too much else to say on this. Most of the writing in this post comes from an article about Super Auto Pets that I started, and then wrote a nine-paragraph tangent. Good writers kill their darlings, but I’m not a good writer. I’m more of a gardener of words. So I tended the ramblings and then moved them somewhere else to grow.

I guess really what I want to say is that defining genres is important. Not because it’s critical for us to box games into specific categories like we’re pinning butterflies, but because they let us quickly communicate to other people what a game is like, and give an idea of whether they’ll like it.

Elden Ring Pre-Review Views Review

A rant about Elden Ring, and the bits I don’t like very much.

I haven’t actually finished Elden Ring yet. When I do, I’ll probably do another writeup on the game. Right now, I’ve played about 70~ hours across various characters, and also a bit of the Seemless Co-Op Mod. My furthest character has about 44 hours on them, just around level 80.

I’m mentioning all of this to give a bit of context. Usually I don’t do writeups until one of three things happens:
1. I finish the game.
2. I quit the game with no intention to return.
3. The game doesn’t have an end/win condition, and is multiplayer, and I feel like I’ve played enough to give an opinion.

None of these situations are true for Elden Ring. I fully intend to complete the game, and despite bits feeling like bullshit, I haven’t quit. In addition, as the game is a single player RPG, it has an end. So why am I writing about it now?

Well, it’s mostly to get my thoughts into writing, and also provide a different opinion on the game than I see most places. The usual take seems to be that Elden Ring is a perfect masterpiece. I don’t think Elden Ring is bad, but I do think that the game feels uneven in tone, and while some parts of it are incredible, others… simply are not.

Bugs, frame drops, and crashes, oh my!

Let’s start with the easiest one to quantify. Performance, bugs, and crashes. On release, Elden Ring was plagued with a massive number of issues. After several performance patches, it is now only plagued with a large number of problems. Playing offline, the game still crashes a ridiculous amount. I was streaming my playthrough for a while. Quite a few of those streams ended when the game crashed, and I couldn’t be bothered to restart it.

If you’re wondering “How bad can it be?” here’s a horror story from a friend. He had beaten most of the game, and gotten to the gate instead of the final boss. He also recently had a kid, and decided to be a responsible parent, and do the last fight later. He went to bed, woke up the next, and found that whenever he tried to load his 60 hour save file, the game would instantly crash.

A patch did eventually fix this, but still.

Content Re-Use

When From Software makes games, they re-use assets from their previous games. This can include enemies, weapons, textures, what have you. And it’s fine, and not what I’m about to complain about here.

What I’m complaining about here is specifically the parts of the game that re-use the EXACT same boss fights. While I’ve generally tried to avoid spoilers, a large portion of the game focuses around reaching and taking down 5 larger enemies. Of these 5, four are incredible experiences, with incredible design and weight to them.

The 5th is a reskin/remix of an earlier boss in the game. It’s an incredible build-up for a massive let down.

And it’s not the only area guilty of this. There’s one mini-boss I’ve seen 3 times so far, and while the area you fight it in changes, it still feels fairly dull to reach the pinnacle of a brand new area, and see something you’ve found before. In general, I’d say the mid game area feels much weaker in this respect.

A Winding Circular Pattern

The last thing I want to quickly cover, because I’m not sure I’ll get to it in my actual Elden Ring writeup, is the general flow of the game. Having Elden Ring be open world is an interesting choice. On the one hand, it means that if you find yourself smashing your head into a wall, it’s possible to explore and find other objectives, or do something else.

On the other hand, it makes it much easier to get lost, or fail to find a particular location. The in-game map is beautiful and clever, but also not always the easiest to read. And when you do get stuck, it’s hard to tell if you need to Git Gud, or Git Going somewhere else.

The end result that my Elden Ring playthrough has a pattern to it:

  1. Get to a new area.
  2. Run into a hard boss, or be unclear on how to progress.
  3. Explore more, trying to find a way to go forward.
  4. Find more roadblocks.
  5. Thrash around with multiple deaths to either hard boss, or roadblocks.
  6. Get frustrated, and stop having fun.
  7. Start trying random garbage, or run to random places.
  8. Finally figure out a way forward, or a way to beat a boss.
  9. Go back and clear areas/places from step 4.
  10. Get to a new area.

    This has happened to me about 4 times so far. But perhaps more importantly, Step 6 in this process can be a few hours long, and it’s incredibly non-enjoyable.

In Conclusion

Elden Ring is good. But I don’t like how the game seems to get near universal acclaim when there a quite a few spots that could be heavily improved. I’m willing to cut From Software some slack on things like their open world design, as it is their first open world game. But the incredibly poor technical performance, and boss-reuse? Not so much. This isn’t an inexperienced indie studio. Elden Ring is a synthesis of years of design and planning, and a literal synthesis in some cases of old ideas, and cut content from their previous games. It’s good, it’s worth playing, but it could be better.