It hasn’t been the best week at Blizzard, so let’s check in and see how things are going with something other than Overwatch 2 like…ah, the company’s management sending out emails about how AI tools are going to be help design character outfits and “generate concept art”. Lovely.
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Shannon Liao, writing for The New York Times, has published excerpts of an email sent to Blizzard employees last month by the company’s chief design officer Allen Adham. “Prepare to be amazed,” he writes, “We are on the brink of a major evolution in how we build and manage our games.”
He’s talking about ‘Blizzard Diffusion’—a play on Stable Diffusion, one of the more popular AI image generation platforms—and says that presently “it was being used to help generate concept art for game environments as well as characters and their outfits”, though he also adds Blizzard is looking at further AI implementations for everything from “autonomous, intelligent, in-game NPCs” to “procedurally assisted level design” to “voice cloning,” “game coding” and “anti-toxicity.”
Blizzard is one of the most famous and, until very recently, most dependable video game studios in the world. It has survived for decades not just because it creates great games, but because it has filled those games with memorable characters. To hear people at the company enthused about letting robots, trained to serve an algorithmic gruel, take over even some of that work bums me out more than I can put into words.
About the only good news to be found in the whole story—which also includes mentions of similar efforts everywhere from Halo studio 343 to Ubisoft—is the fact that a different AI approach Blizzard had been trying (and had even patented) has already been canned because “the tool was taking up too much artist time to be effective”.
Earlier this week Wingspan designer Elizabeth Hargrave wrote a Twitter thread outlining a glaring issue the board game industry has with representation: namely, that there simply aren’t enough games winning awards and getting published that have been designed by women.
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It’s not a tough argument to make! Board games are a huge and social industry, played by people of all persuasions all over the world, but as Hargrave points out the nominees for the Spiel des Jahres—board gaming’s biggest award, picked from the creators of the biggest games of the year—have overwhelmingly been men:
The sane response to this would be to say, yes, this is a problem! Board game design has traditionally been dominated by white men, but as the market has grown and evolved, the demographics of published and award-winning designers (you need to be the former before you can become the latter) has failed to grow alongside it. More work needs to be done to encourage more women—and more people who aren’t white men—to get into game design and get their games published, because as Hargrave says, we’re “restricting the brainpower and life experience that goes into games”, and “Our gaming choices are poorer for it.”
Ryan Dancey, COO of Alderac, took a different approach. To avoid paraphrasing, I’ll just leave his direct reply to Hargraves here in full:
I have taken more than 1,000 game pitches since 2016. I would say that less than 10% of those were from female designers. Effectively none of them were games AEG would publish. We did a call for submissions from female designers specifically; we got one publishable design –@elizhargrave‘s Mariposas.
There have been a couple of pitches that came close; most commonly where a female pitched with a male designer. There is one team of two female designers that pitch great but their games are too light for us. I know why we didn’t proceed with those pitches but they were at least in the ballpark.
Typically when I am pitched by a female, the game tends to fall into one of several broad categories:
* It’s a game about politics; in general, we don’t publish games about politics
* It’s a party game; in general, we don’t publish party games
* It’s a pitch from a designer very early in their design journey and the game isn’t competitive in the modern market – it usually is either too much like another game, or very generic, or its more of an idea than game design
I’ve never been pitched a wargame by a female. I’ve never been pitched a 2-player fighting game by a female. I’ve never been pitched a giant fighting robots game by a female. I actually don’t think there’s much of a market in those categories because there is so much competition, but I wonder if a game design by a female would be orthogonal to the existing designer patterns and produce something remarkable.
I think there is a significant gap between when someone decides to try and become a game designer and when they produce their first publishable game. Life in that gap consists of a lot of rejection and negative criticism. I wonder if that gap accounts for a good part of the missing female design cohort – females are socialized in the West to avoid situations where they’re subjected to fairly harsh criticism of their abilities and creative ideas. Males are socialized to take the punches and keep moving forward. Getting across the gap is how you turn someone into a “real game designer” who gets paid for their work and who makes designs that are attractive to publishers.
So far, we haven’t seen much award consideration go to games that exist almost entirely as crowdfunding projects. I know there are many more females doing game design & production via crowdfunding who just don’t connect with publishers. The nature of the SdJ is that a crowdfunding game is effectively shut out from consideration.
To Dancey’s credit, he has since apologised and asked people to “hold him accountable”:
Yesterday I engaged in a discussion about the lack of representation of women as designers in the gaming community. It was not my finest moment. I’m embarrassed and mad at myself for the tone and content of my contribution to that discussion. It doesn’t reflect my views and it certainly doesn’t reflect the views of the company I work for.
I’m sorry for any harm I have caused and any offense I have given.
This topic is extremely important to me and I want to be a part of the solution not a part of the problem. I’ve discussed both my poor original message and the aftermath with my leadership team and with the rest of our company and I want to outline some concrete steps that we’ll be taking to do better in this regard.
* We are going to actively connect with designers from under-represented demographic groups, especially women, and offer mentorship and development support of their projects even if AEG is not publishing games of that kind.
* Some people have suggested various organizations that could benefit from our support. We will proactively reach out to the groups that we have been made aware of and aggressively look at pitches from members of these groups.
* Our goal has been to publish the very best games, we are going to expand that goal to help and provide more support to the people who we want to be in business with get to a place where they are being seen and published.
Check back with me in a year and hold me accountable; I’ll provide updates as we make progress.
But the fact he was thinking any of that stuff originally, let alone writing it publicly, let along replying directly to one of the few successful women designers in board games really says a lot about Hargraves’ original points, not just about women but other marginalised designers as well. Something the industry has been struggling mightily with these past few years.
Riot Games’ free-to-play tactical hero shooter Valorant nerfed a bunch of characters in its latest update, and actor Ben Affleck doesn’t sound too happy about the tweaks made to one of the game’s most goated characters.
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On August 29, Riot Games dropped patch 7.04, which makes a good number of additions, changes, and updates to the game. The patch introduces a brand-new map named Sunset—that’s supposedly set in the studio’s hometown of L.A.—while also bringing forth a handful of tweaks to an existing map called Breeze that dramatically alters its sightlines. Tucked in the notes, though, are some—dare I say—detrimental changes to quite a few of Valorant’s Agents. One of them, Jett, has been nerfed so hard that even the former Batman isn’t pleased.
“Yeah, then they nerfed Jett,” Affleck said to the character’s voice actress, Shannon Williams, during an appearance at the Valorant Champions Tour, an esports event that took place from August 6-26 in L.A. “That’s the problem.”
What Bruce Wayne is bummed about here is just how weak the South Korean wind assassin Jett has become now that the game’s patch 7.04 is live. Tailwind, a movement ability that propels Jett forward, has a longer startup window and doesn’t travel as far. The projectile Cloudburst, which essentially functions as a smoke grenade, doesn’t obscure vision for nearly as long. Updraft, a movement skill that sends Jett into the air, can only be used once instead of twice. And finally, her ultimate skill Blade Storm, which summons throwing knives, costs eight points where previously it cost seven. In short, Jett’s entire kit has been changed so that all of her abilities take just a little bit longer to execute now.
In the blog post outlining the patch notes, community manager Jo-ellen “Riot Joellen” Aragon said this is because Jett is “often given more reliable power windows and generous tuning than other Duelists and Agents in general.” The Riot Games team felt it necessary to knock the assassin down a peg or two.
“Our goal with these changes is further sharpening Jett as the aggressive, high precision Duelist by increasing the intentionality of her ability usage and power windows,” Aragon wrote. “We want to maintain her unique ability to break through chokes and dash onto site, while reducing her defensive power-holding angles and her ability to reactively undo tactical mistakes with her array of quickly cast abilities. […] We believe these changes align Jett’s overall power level and place in the Tactical Cycle with our other Agents, while maintaining Jett’s unique role and fantasy on the Valorant roster.”
While Jett is regularly placed in the S-tier category across various ranking lists, the Valorant community is both celebrating and condemning the changes to her kit. Redditors are split. Some have asked why Riot Games nerfed Jett so hard; others are glad the team is nerfing Jett into the ground. X (formerly known as Twitter) users are similarly divided, with posts of “RIP JETT” or complaints that she’s still pretty OP. In the end, Ben Affleck isn’t the only one feeling the effects of the nerfs, though, according to Williams’ August 28 Instagram post, the former Dark Knight is actually a KAY/O main. Who knew? I didn’t.
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