Rundown (5/14/2023) Transition Speedruns and Slowruns

  • Post category:Rundowns
  • Reading time:28 mins read
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This Week’s Topics:

  • The extremes of transition timelines
  • Keywords’ Continued Expansions
  • Game Freak X Take-Two Interactive
  • Another Stadia ash kicking
  • The two kinds of games streaming
  • Defining difficulty
  • Natalie’s impatience for the impatient

Rundown Preamble Ramble:
Transition Speedruns and Slowruns

This past weekend, I had family come in from out of state and enjoyed my… first ever in-depth in-person discussion with another trans person. It was a lovely little conversation, I hope to talk to them again sometime soon, and seeing as how she knows about Natalie.TF, she may even read this post. (Word up, D-chan!)

However, my biggest takeaway from this conversation was a stark reminder that a lot of people handle their transition in a very different way than I did. I started by transition back in 2016— almost 7 years ago— and while that does not seem like a long time, I feel that the climate around transitioning has changed a lot since then. Back then, I saw under the impression that a transition should be handled stealthily. That one should continue to present as their gender assigned at birth until their body is sufficiently closer to their liking. For me, this came after 1.5 years of HRT, 10 voice therapy sessions, 2 years of speaking in a mangled approximation of a femme voice, and facial surgery. It was the recommended route in the circles I flew with at the time.

This is not a universal path for trans femme folks, and it is also a costly one. It requires hiding away the physical changes to one’s body (namely the boobs), and paying tens of thousands of dollars on facial surgery (for me, it was $30,000 in 2017 money). But it also requires one to ‘put off’ more public aspects of their transition. It means being trans without presenting as your preferred gender, which can mean further dysphoria. 

As such, some people, including my relatives, choose to handle various elements of their transition pretty much all at once. They start HRT, start changing how they dress and present themselves, start hair removal, and start looking into surgery, all while dealing with medical gatekeeping and/or ignorant care providers. Fortunately, this relative has excellent health insurance, which covers her for just about everything. But even with the financial barrier overcome… that’s still a lot

The idea of barrelling through a transition, dealing with the public, private, and medical factors, all at the same time, sounds terrifying. I’ve always known that— it’s why I went down the path that I did— but actually meeting someone who went down this path did feel eye-opening. It helped humanize something that I understood mostly in the abstract. 

And the weirdest thing is that… I think this ‘speedrun approach’ might not actually be a bad strategy considering how politicized the existence of trans people has become. Passing would not help one if the Republicans have their way and grant themselves carte blanche to engage in the mass execution variation of genocide. But it would make certain things easier. Which is why one should vote, protest, and adopt the tactics of the enemy. Because society is a warzone, and there is no high ground in war. There are only winners who write history… and corpses.

The Support Studio Network Grows Even Bigger
(Keywords Studios Acquires Hardsuit Labs)

Keywords Studios has a nasty habit of flying under my radar when discussing acquisitions, but they have been one of the more prolific buyers of studios over the past decade. However, this week I did a ‘keyword search’ and found that Keywords just gobbled up another independent developer in the form of the Seattle-based Hardsuit Labs. A studio founded from the ashes of Zombie Studios, developers of Blacklight: Retribution, in 2015 and has maintained an admirable career of ports and engineering support. 

At least before they were announced as the developer of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2 in March 2019 and subsequently dropped from the project in February 2021. After this, the studio became one of the many smaller studios helping Epic Games maintain the juggernaut that is Fortnite. So, why sell to Keywords? Well, part of that likely has to do with the fact that Paradox Interactive, the publisher of Bloodlines 2, bought 33% of Hardsuit Labs back in 2018

…Meaning that Paradox bought a minority stake in a studio, had them work on a major title for them, and then took them off of the project. It’s hard to read that narrative and not get the impression that there was some bad blood between the publisher and developer, and the publisher was likely looking to sell. However, it is harder to sell off a minority stake in a developer like Hardsuit, so it’s no surprise that Keywords wanted to acquire the entire studio.

With these factors in mind, I cannot really blame the founders for this decision. They have seen an independent studio close down before, so for their sake, and the sake of their employees, they don’t want to repeat history. Now, do I think Keywords is a good home for this studio, or any studio? NOPE! Keywords is one of the largest gaming companies in the world, so seeing them grow, even by another 70 employees, is not a good thing

Still, I find it hard to really get riled up about this, as Keywords is such a white label studio that I doubt even half of all gaming enthusiasts know who they are. They keep things very ‘business-to-business’ and barely have a social media presence. But that doesn’t mean that looking up their name and the word ‘abuse’ doesn’t pull up results about them perpetuating crunch and sexist work culture or being anti-union

Unfortunately, those things are so common it’s pretty much to be expected from any big games company. And with about 10,000 staff, Keywords is just being exactly the kind of company I’d expect them to be. That’s par for the course here in Gamindustri!

Project Gear Attempt #6
(Game Freak and Private Division Announce Publishing Partnership)

…I regularly go on about how, considering their deadlines, what Game Freak accomplishes as a developer is wildly impressive. They have a new Pokémon title, or expansion, ready almost every holiday season, and the project management skills at that studio must be insane. However, I also feel the need to point out that Game Freak actually does a bunch of other stuff besides Pokémon.

The modern incarnation of this was sparked by the Project Gear Initiative that began in the early 2010s. An attempt by the studio to diversify their portfolio, improve the skills of their staff, and create new IPs by making smaller titles that adhered to different design concepts. This led to the creation of HarmoKnight (2012), Pocket Card Jockey (2013), Tembo the Badass Elephant (2015), Giga Wrecker (2017), and Little Town Hero (2019). The first two were received well as fun novelties, while the latter three had a more muted reception.

I got it in my head that this initiative was written off as a failure— and perhaps it was— but either way, Game Freak announced they are working on a new non-Pokémon title. More specifically, they are working on an action adventure title published by Take-Two Interactive’s Private Division label and slated to be released by March 31, 2026. A piece of concept art was provided, depicting someone standing in sun-drenched swampy woods, but that imagery is so vague it could be anything.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm in speculating what this game could be, its mere existence strikes me as… odd. The choice of publisher is odd, the lack of details is odd, and the fact that such a futuristic fiscal year was specified is also odd. Oddness aside, I’m hoping that the title is good, as I think Game Freak has the skill and ability to make something truly excellent if given the time and resources they need. So… here’s hoping that’s what’s happening!  And here’s hoping this doesn’t lead to another game as sloppy and bafflingly designed as Pocket Monsters: Scars of Violation

…Gosh that was such a bitter review, but I don’t regret a word of it.

Salvaged from Stadia & A Discussion on Games Streaming
(Stadia Exclusive Gylt is Coming to Other Platforms)

With the loss of Stadia early this year, there were a handful of games that were left unplayable. Most of these were fairly small multiplayer titles, such as Pac-Man Mega Tunnel Battle, Outcasters, and PixelJunk Raiders. However, one of the debut exclusives for the platform was the single-player horror title Gylt. A title from the Tencent subsidiary Tequila Works, who previously released The Sexy Brutale and Rime. Gylt had a more modest reception, and was seen as nothing all too special, but now it’s coming out for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series, and PC. To me, this is the last note in the epilogue of Google Stadia, with the final piece of value being salvaged from this defunct project. 

I could leave it at that… but in writing this story, I couldn’t help but think about games streaming. So forgive me while I go on a mini ramble about that subject.

Cloud Gaming Vs Remote Play – Battle for Streaming Superiority!
(Natalie Rambles About Games Streaming)

Throughout 2019, the fear of cloud games becoming the future was a huge concern for a lot of people, myself included, but I think that the industry has largely avoided that dark future. Instead, I see the industry heading into a different direction. A direction that lets people stream games… without relying on cloud gaming. While these terms are often synonymous with one another, games streaming actually refers to two distinct things. Cloud gaming and remote play.

Cloud gaming involves streaming from a centralized server that the user has no control over. While remote play involves streaming from a device the user owns, and is often connected to the same network as the receiving device. I could go into details about the pros and cons of both, in regards to costs, performance, and latency, but I’ll just jump to the conclusion. 

Cloud streaming is unreliable, costly, has issues due to the underlying infrastructure of the internet, but is easier to set up, and works better for people without any dedicated hardware. While remote play works pretty well, puts more responsibility and control in the hands of the user, and… I have only heard good things about it over the past decade. Also, Remote Play is just flat out free, while cloud gaming is a subscription.

Now that I’ve explained that distinction, let’s talk about how people use these services. The way I see it, if someone has a decently powerful computer or a modern console, and likes playing games at a desk or on a couch, then there is no good way to sell them on games streaming. Maybe they would use Remote Play to enjoy PC games on their television— which people have been doing for about a decade via the Steam Link peripheral— but that’s about it.

You might think cloud gaming’s promise of higher resolutions and detail could persuade these people. But if people care that much about how a game looks, they almost definitely also care about performance, latency, and the bitrate of video. All of which are areas where cloud streaming falters because of technical reasons. If they care that much about performance, then they are enthusiasts willing to spend half a grand every few years for a performance boost on hardware they could later sell or give away.

Instead, I think games streaming appeals more toward three groups of people, who I’ll call loungers, commuters, and casuals. 

Let’s start with loungers. Ever since the release of the Switch, and especially after the Steam Deck, I have seen oodles of gaming enthusiasts gush about playing games on smaller screens while around the house. On the couch, in bed, or in their yard. These people mostly play games within the comfort of their own home, but do not want to be tied to a large screen all day, and prefer the freedom to play wherever they want.

Initially, these people were pleased with the ability to play ‘console-quality’ games on handhelds. But over time, criticisms accumulated. Criticisms about the performance of games, about the heat of the handheld, about the noise of its fans, or about the low battery life. Remote Play is, strangely, a solution to all of these problems, as it puts the burden of running the game on another piece of hardware that could be in another room. Far away enough to provide freedom, but not significantly impact performance. Well, if they have a good router. Remote Play gives these people access to the ergonomics and freedom of a dedicated handheld, while avoiding pretty much every common problem with handhelds.

Commuters are in a similar camp. They are people who like to play games while commuting on trains or buses. Historically, handhelds were the only option for these people, but with game streaming, that is no longer the case. However, maintaining a consistent internet connection is hard enough when stationary, and pretty much requires cellular technology. …Unless the public transit has Wi-Fi, and if it does, it’s probably not very good or secure. Regardless, one will probably have better results if connecting a shorter distance to one’s home via remote play. 

As for commuters who travel hundreds of kilometers work for… they’re kind of SOL, as it is nearly impossible to control the quality of your connection, even if you have unlimited 5G cellular data. You run into the infrastructure problem that has plagued North America, and a few other places in the world, for decades. 

Next we have the casual game players. People who are not fully invested in the medium or fandoms, might catch a few trailers for games sent to them by friends, but don’t keep up with news or communities. It’s easy to forget about these people when invested in online communities, but they are the actual core market. People who like video games as video games, but don’t really care about the industry. And people who buy or play less than ten— probably closer to five— games a year. Or as I like to call them, sane people.

I consider these people to be the actual audience for cloud gaming, as they probably can’t tell the difference between 30 or 60 fps without it being pointed out to them, and aren’t as sensitive to input latency. For people like these, I think a cloud subscription service can make a lot of sense. It gives them access to a lot of games, a lot of variety, a lot of things to try, for a relatively low cost.

This sounds enticing, and you could probably convince these people to buy an Xbox Game Pass or PlayStation Plus. Hell, they might just be content with their free Amazon Luna subscription via Amazon Prime. …And whatever games they give away for free via Amazon Prime. …I always forget that’s a thing, as I use my sister’s account.

However, these people are also the most receptive to ‘impulse purchases’ or buying hardware just to play a few games. These are the sort of people who bought a Switch for Animal Crossing, Zelda, Mario, Smash, or maybe a Pokémon game, because their friends were talking about them. In a platform agnostic world, if everything were available for cloud streaming via a subscription, they probably wouldn’t have bought these titles. But because the game streaming world is not uniform, they can’t really commit to cloud gaming… which is part of the problem with the whole concept.

If a game you really want to play is only available via cloud streaming, then you can accept the compromises for the sake of playing the game. But if you are primarily invested in cloud gaming, and want to play a game that is not streamable, then tough cookies, chump! Which is the problem that will keep coming up with cloud gaming. Until everything adapts to a standard, until everything is available in the cloud on every device, then buying a device and games is just straight up easier. There was once a time when people thought that was possible with cloud streaming, but now platforms are just removing titles from their services just because they can.

…What was the point of this tangent again? Um… remote play solves most of the problem that cloud gaming supposedly ‘fixes,’ better than cloud gaming does. And the biggest problem with cloud gaming is how it is a closed ecosystem that the user has no control over. It might be cheaper in some instances, appeals to a tiny niche, but unless you treat gaming as a novelty, then I simply do not think it has enough use cases to become ‘revolutionary.’

Mild Musings About Game Difficulty
(The Trinity of Challenge – As Defined By a Bad Player)

This past weekend, I watched a video that discussed the concept of gaming difficulty by splitting it into two categories, but the explanation struck me as… wrong. Or at least, against how I view and perceive difficulty into games. So allow me to go on a mild tangent describing the factors that I consider to make up a game’s difficulty.

To begin, I view difficulty to be driven by three components. Tolerance for error, punishment for error, and precision requirements. 

Tolerance for error is the number of mistakes a player is allowed to make before being greeted by a fail state. This is often represented by health bars, how many hits a player can make, a small regenerative health pool, the player’s access to healing items, and their ability to recover upon making an error. It is how many times the player can make a ‘wrong’ input before being ‘punished.’

Punishment for error is the consequence for reaching a fail state. In most modern games, this is not a big deal, as players are often given the opportunity to reload a save or restart from a checkpoint. In older games, this was represented by limited continues or a game over state upon losing lives. In certain games, this results in the loss of resources, such as in-game currency. And in the popular roguelike genre, it results in the end of a run, sending players back to the start, while giving them some resource for a persistent upgrade system.

Lastly, precision requirements are how precise, controlled, and careful the player needs to be with their inputs. How complicated are the inputs the player needs to perform, how quick do the player’s reflexes and fingers need to be, and how good does the player need to be at the game. To provide some examples, rhythm games require players to precisely time their inputs in response to prompts that fill the screen in accordance to the beat of music. An intense boss battle requires players to make the ideal choices to maximize damage dealt. A fighting game requires players to precisely react to enemy attacks and deploy the correct commands at the correct intervals. While a character action game requires players to deal damage in a sufficiently stylish manner.

It’s not a perfect system, and it takes some perspective shifting to view the difference between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ input. But I think there is something to this perspective. But if not… I just want people to start using ‘tolerance for error’ to describe difficulty. Because it is such a good term for describing so many challenges in games, and I’ve included it in at least a handful of reviews over the years. But strangely not in a Dark Souls review, even though those games are emblematic for their tolerance of error.

However, I’m also sure that some game designer has already devised a similar, and better, system than I could. I just don’t know who they are, where they shared it, or what the system is called.

No Patience For Those Without Patience
(Natalie Rambles About Her Plentiful Paratransit-Powered Patience)

Continuing this trend of game analysis, I was reminded of a semi-common criticism that I hear from a lot of game critics about how titles ‘waste their time.’ This is a sentiment common in two instances. Games that front load their story with longer tutorials and introductions to the world, rather than beginning the game with a vertical slice of gameplay. Which is a very preference driven argument about how games should be designed, and how stories should be told. And games with RPG mechanics, crafting, and resource accumulation that load their campaigns with busywork in order to keep the players engaged and make use of the game’s environments. Also known as the ‘Ubisoft sandbox’ school of game design.

These criticisms are nothing new, and there is indeed something to criticize/debate here about how games should or could be designed. However, I have seen these criticisms mutate from something substantive to… just petty bits of impatience from people. There is a world of difference between a game wholesale recycling an entire dungeon environment in lieu of new content, versus a game whose opening two hours are filled with exposition. But they both get called ‘hours of your life you’ll never get back.’ 

One reason this frustrates me is because I find blanket dismissals like this to be thoughtless, and choosing to uncritically think about the reasons why a game is designed. I know I harp on negatives a lot in my reviews, but that’s because I am fascinated by how brilliant people like most game developers could make ‘mistakes’ and get to the heart of an issue. And, due to this fascination, I strongly dislike more flippant criticisms, or something as intellectually vacant as calling something ‘mid’ as an insult. At the very least you could spell out mediocre…

While the second reason this frustrates me stems from how… I think that a lot of people who voice these criticisms have the patience of a 7-year-old. I don’t really have the ability to express this online, but I am a deeply patient person. I will do something tedious or boring for a long stretch of time so long as it needs to be done, and I am one of the least sensitive people to the idea of ‘time being wasted.’

I think the best example of this stems back to my time at Northeastern Illinois University, where I would take Pace paratransit to and from school every day I had classes. Under this program, a car or bus would pick me up and take me to a predetermined destination. Mostly my home and the college campus 15 minutes away. Once in the vehicle, I would sit there and wait to reach my destination… for upwards of two hours. With nothing to do but look out the window and at the sights of Chicago and its suburbs.

For three years, I spent hundreds of hours commuting like this, and that is in addition to standing around and waiting 30+ minutes for the paratransit bus or car to even arrive. While waiting, I would review my notes and print-outs, but while in the vehicle, I couldn’t do anything. I get motion sickness very easily, and I cannot focus on a book, phone, or anything more than a piece of paper held up at eye level. I also didn’t have access to any music or podcasts, as it would’ve been rude to get in a paratransit vehicle and listen to music. …At least that’s the way I read the social doctrine of being a paratransit passenger. But even if that was, my only MP3 player at that time was a PlayStation Vita.

When combined with the fact that I had to commute an hour to work for two years prior to this, I find anyone complaining about ‘their time being wasted’ to be an impatient asshat. My time was wasted CONSTANTLY for my ENTIRE early twenties, because I needed to work and go to school. So when I hear people talk about being insufficiently stimulated when playing a game, I just want them to shut the hell up and see what it is like to actually have their time wasted. At least you got to read, you little brat.

…And yes, this is me complaining more about a phrase or expression as a means of criticism. I am not saying that length, pacing, and structure cannot be criticized. I do that all the damn time.

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