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This Is How It Feels to Build a Video Game and Watch It Die

This Is How It Feels to Build a Video Game and Watch It Die

Rautalahti stressed the value of digital preservation, although he sees fans and institutions like the Internet Archive as being more probable saviors than developers. “It really would be worthwhile to have some kind of effort to preserve these things. It might not seem that valuable right now, but as someone who works on this, it would be nice to know that games aren’t just lost in the ether. I’d like to think they’re also culturally significant, not an individual game necessarily, but as part of a whole. In 50 years I’m sure you could see a lot about how online culture has progressed.”

Avoiding the Grind

Archival options are a good long-term goal, but what can help keep more live games online today? Morris points to the increasing ease of cross-platform multiplayer as a way to shore up player numbers, while Rautalahti highlights the need for good onboarding.

“One problem with live games is that they’re really hard to approach as a player. There have been any number of events you missed, so you’re completely lost. Are there good onramps for the narrative? Can you even experience the narrative, or is someone just going to be shooting you in the face the whole time?”

A good story wouldn’t have saved Hyper Scape, but Rautalahti points out that Destiny 2, League of Legends, and Warframe, all of which started with thin and obscure stories, now have reams of lore and dedicated fans who create or consume Wikis and YouTube videos about them.

“When Warframe came out, it was pretty much weird space ninjas going around and killing each other. But over the years they’ve completely revamped their story and made a big effort to bring it to a higher level. I think that’s made a huge difference in how people view their game.”

There’s also the fact that live service games can become second jobs, demanding much of your free time if you want to keep up. If hardcore players don’t get a constant stream of content, then they’ll leave for another game, forcing developers to produce endless updates, which makes it intimidating for new players to get into a sprawling game with esoteric mechanics and lore videos longer than most movies.

That constant need for content can turn live service development into a pressure cooker. Taylor loves the genre but questions how these games are made.

“The model can be extremely lucrative. The problem is that many companies are getting into the market with such a poor understanding of what makes live games work. Planning and scope is extremely important for live games because they need updates. Players expect a constant stream of new content. Live games can be improved over time, but if you launch with the expectation that you can just ‘fix it later,’ then a lot of players are just going to drop it.”

While all AAA game development is challenging, the strict schedule of live service games is especially demanding. Delay an update, and you could lose players to another title. Rautalahti notes, “You get no slack. You have to keep putting stuff out. In order to make any piece of content you need a programmer, scripter, artist, animator, level designer, writer, a producer to coordinate, maybe a voice actor … and if anything in that chain gets delayed for whatever reason, that immediately leads to crunch. And you can’t disappoint investors by [putting] the health and safety of your crew first.”

Historical Novelists and Fantasy Writers Should Be Friends

Historical Novelists and Fantasy Writers Should Be Friends

Christopher M. Cevasco is an author of both fantasy fiction and historical fiction. As someone with a foot in both worlds, he’s constantly surprised by the lack of crossover.

“I don’t see the same faces when I go to the Historical Novel Society Conference that I do when I go to the World Fantasy Convention,” Cevasco says in Episode 511 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Most people have either been to one or the other. I guess I’m the odd bird who goes to both of them.”

Many fantasy writers have read George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, based heavily on the War of the Roses, but would never think to sample the work of historical novelist Bernard Cornwell, which offers many of the same pleasures. Cevasco loves them both. “I know that George R.R. Martin is a huge fan of Bernard Cornwell, and vice versa,” he says. “It makes perfect sense to me that they like to read each other’s work.”

Cevasco’s biggest attempt to bring together the two communities was Paradox, a magazine that he published for six years, beginning in 2003. “That was part of my impetus for starting Paradox magazine back in the day,” he says. “I was trying to highlight that overlap and bring the two together under the umbrella of a magazine that at the time was publishing short fiction that was either historical, or fantasy, or a mix of both historical and fantasy.”

Historical fiction and fantasy both allow readers to step outside their everyday reality and view it from a new angle. Cevasco hopes more authors will come to appreciate how much common ground the genres share. “I think the best science fiction and fantasy and the best historical fiction, it’s not just a period costume drama, it’s also something that resonates with the modern world—with our world—and comments on it somehow,” he says. “I think it’s an interesting way to explore those sorts of issues in an unconventional setting.”

Listen to the complete interview with Christopher M. Cevasco in Episode 511 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Christopher M. Cevasco on his novel Beheld: Godiva’s Story:

When [Lady Godiva] rides through town, in the legend, most of the townsfolk go into their homes and avert their eyes so as not to shame their beloved noblewoman. But one man, named Thomas, peeks at her and is immediately struck blind—or in some versions he’s struck dead—by God for his voyeurism. And this is of course where we get the concept of a “Peeping Tom” … If you look at it page by page, only a small percentage of my book has this voyeuristic, erotic content, but it is definitely a prominent theme throughout my book, and it is far more risqué than anything else I’ve ever written, short or long. So I was in this awkward position of having to write outside of my comfort zone, but I just felt like it was something the legend compelled me to do. I had to confront that head-on, and make it front and center in this book.

Christopher M. Cevasco on the Norman Conquest:

Everyone tends to think of the Norman Conquest as an event—that in 1066 the Battle of Hastings happened and the Normans conquered England. But I think it’s fair to say that that battle was just the start of their process of conquest, and really for about five to seven years after that battle there was an active resistance movement among the English that in many ways paralleled the Maquis in France during World War II. They were doing covert operations, there were all these colorful figures like Hereward the Wake that were living in the woods and sabotaging the Normans—and in some places fighting and winning pitched battles against William’s armies. It’s a really amazing period of history, that period right after the Conquest, and that’s the other big book that I’m shopping around right now, is one that’s sort of a wartime resistance thriller set among those resistance fighters.

Christopher M. Cevasco on Heorot: Beowulf’s Domain of Dread:

If you play Dungeons & Dragons, you know that there’s a setting called Ravenloft, which is basically all these different horror pocket dimensions—everything under the sun could be in this milieu. So I was like, “What if there were a setting based on Beowulf where the people in that setting are trapped in a never-ending cycle of violence and revenge? And this whole cycle resets every time Grendel comes in and slaughters everyone, and the mom comes in and gets revenge for Grendel being killed, and then it all resets, and these people are trapped in this never-ending cycle?” So I had a lot of fun putting this together. I thought it was going to be a little 10-page supplement, and it ended up being a 125-page gazetteer of Ravenloft and Beowulf lore that pulls in Norse mythology and Anglo-Saxon history and all sorts of fun stuff.

Christopher M. Cevasco on religion:

What’s cool to me when you’re writing about people and how they interact with their faith—you know, it’s one thing when you have a scene between two or three characters. They’re always going to be portraying themselves as “characters”—as they want to be perceived. But when you have a character who is interacting with their god, or some spiritual force, the power of their faith means that they are sort of stripped naked, and you are seeing the truest version of that character that you can possibly see because they know that they, in their minds, have nowhere to hide. So it’s really interesting to me when you have a character, in any book, that is dealing with the spiritual or the divine, because it’s very revealing about their inner thoughts.

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Netflix Struggles to Hold Its Place in the Streaming Wars

Netflix Struggles to Hold Its Place in the Streaming Wars

Yet, instead of filling out its catalog, Netflix is trying to diversify beyond video. Like, for example, beefing up the staff of the gaming service it launched in November 2021. “They’re going to pour money into branching out into different types of content to be as much of a four quadrant service as they can,” says Alexander, meaning they’re targeting not just men but women, and not just those under 25 but those over 25 too. “But at the same time, they’re aware the competition at this moment is stronger than it has ever been. They need to find a way to be Netflix again, and figure out how to revolutionize parts of this industry.”

But that costs money—which is why price hikes have been levied across large parts of the world. “From an analysts’ point of view, SVODs are still value for money, even with an increase in price,” says Gunnarsson. “You can watch as much content as you want for two pints in a pub, and have unlimited access to all that content.” According to Omdia, UK households subscribe to two services on average—half the amount in the United States. For now, Netflix, like Amazon, is seen as an anchoring service—one that users constantly have, switching out other, smaller competing services when they can afford to do so. “Netflix is the default streaming service,” says Andrew A. Rosen, founder of streaming insights consultancy Parqor. But that can always change.

With 75 million households subscribed to Netflix in the United States, Alexander believes that the service is close to its peak in the country when it comes to adoption. “What you’re really trying to do at that point is to reengage customers who may have left to subscribe to Paramount+ for a month or whatever it might be,” she says. Original content on Netflix, while some may find it underwhelming, falls broadly into two buckets: the reality TV and children’s entertainment that keeps existing subscribers happy, and the big action, drama, and sci-fi shows that reengage subscribers who have taken their business elsewhere. But lapsed subscribers are relatively rare for Netflix, says Rosen: “Their market churn in the US is like, 2.2 percent,” he says. “Their churn is low.”

And while there’s still plenty of room to grow in other markets, those users tend to bring Netflix and other streaming services less money per customer than in the United States, UK, or elsewhere. Average revenue per customer for Disney+ Hotstar in India, Brazil, or Mexico is around $1.06, says Alexander, compared to $6.13 in the United States. “It’s a huge difference when you look at tens of millions of subscribers,” she says. And to eke out the extra money from a market when subscriber growth slows to a trickle, as it has in the US and UK, you have to start raising prices.

Yet the challenge still remains that raising prices at a time of macroeconomic uncertainty is risky business. Rising gas prices, increased costs to heat homes, and squeezes on living standards driven by runaway inflation all have an impact on discretionary spending—which definitely includes streaming video providers. But there is another way to make money while maintaining and building customer numbers: tiered, ad-supported services. In June 2021, HBO Max launched an ad-supported, stripped-down version of its streaming service at a $5 discount to its full $14.99-per-month product. Disney+ is launching an ad-supported tier later this year, joining Peacock, Paramount+, and Discovery+. “Logically, common sense dictates that competition will necessitate more streaming services moving toward a hybrid AVOD [advertising-based video on demand]/SVOD model,” says Gunnarsson.

Severance Is a Nightmare Vision of Office Life

Severance Is a Nightmare Vision of Office Life

The Apple TV+ series Severance presents a world in which office workers have their minds split into two personalities—one who only remembers what happens at work and one who only remembers what happens outside of it. Science fiction author John Kessel loves the show’s inventive premise.

“After we watched the first episode, I said to my wife, ‘This is one of the smartest shows I’ve seen in a long time,’” Kessel says in Episode 509 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I rank it—at least through this first season—as highly as I do things like Breaking Bad. I really think it’s classic.”

Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley agrees that Severance is a standout series. “This is my favorite show of the last year or two,” he says. “I think you would have to go back to something like Devs or Dark for something I liked as much as this.”

Writer Sara Lynn Michener enjoys how Severance puts a unique spin on the idea of using robots or clones for unpleasant tasks. “This is obviously something that we’ve seen repeated in science fiction over and over again,” she says. “Who are the slaves? Who are the group of disposable people? And so what this show is doing is creating that concept out of splitting yourself literally in two, and having that side of yourself be something that you sort of kick aside. It’s really effectively unsettling.”

Science fiction author Anthony Ha is looking forward to Season 2 of Severance but worries that the show might be stretching its story out over too many episodes. “I did feel like the pacing slowed down a bit in the middle of the season, and I do wonder if there is an even better version of this that is the ‘one season and done’ narrative,” he says.

Listen to the complete interview with John Kessel, Sara Lynn Michener, and Anthony Ha in Episode 509 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

John Kessel on Franz Kafka:

We watched a whole season and we still don’t know what they do at this corporation. They’re sort of rounding up “bad” numbers and removing them. I keep thinking: Is this a metaphor? Is this connected to some other thing? The whole idea of the cult and the great founder, all that stuff is really intriguing to me. It reminds me of Kafka, with The Trial or The Castle. In The Castle, there are these people in the castle who are running things, and you never get into the castle—you don’t know who they are or what they’re doing up there. I don’t know if Dan Erickson had any of that specifically in mind, but there’s a lot of metaphorical stuff going on here that is very interesting to me.

Sara Lynn Michener on Patricia Arquette:

Patricia Arquette does a fantastic job in this show. She plays basically two different characters, but she isn’t severed. She intentionally has two different characters, and two different names, because she’s high enough up at the company that she can do that. Her work persona is this very creepy, rigid, obsessive person, and then in her “neighbor” persona she comes across as a crazy cat lady—she dresses completely differently than her other character. So it’s a really wonderful performance by Patricia Arquette because she captures both sides of this very unsettling, unnerving, crazy person.

Anthony Ha on set design:

The visual style is not about the kind of “Googleplex, brightly colored, all-glass, open floor plan” Silicon Valley ethos, but it is much more about this older style of work. It’s how I imagine the offices that my parents went to looked. Just the fact that it is a cubicle farm as opposed to a bunch of desks. I mean, I think there is in-world logic for that, because if they all had laptops and sat down and could immediately get on the internet that would kind of defeat the whole purpose of severance, but I think there’s also an emotional logic to it. It’s supposed to feel like this nightmare of what office life is, as opposed to a realistic representation of what it’s like now.

David Barr Kirtley on characterization:

There’s this constant idea that the [characters] are going to escape somehow, and I don’t see any way that really works. Even if they get the word out that this is this exploitative process, it seems like if the severance program were shut down and the chips were turned off, they would just all die, in effect. If their agenda is basically “we would rather all be dead than at work for the rest of our lives,” that makes sense, but I feel like that idea sort of gets pushed to the background in the show. It seems like they don’t just all want to die. It seems like they have some hope of escape, and I’m not sure what it is that they’re imagining is going to happen.

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Apple TV+ Just Won Best Picture. Everything Is Different Now

Apple TV+ Just Won Best Picture. Everything Is Different Now

Toward the end of 2021, the buzz was palpable. The Power of the Dog, director Jane Champion’s Western allegory about toxic masculinity, was on track to be the first Best Picture Oscar winner for Netflix. With a whopping 12 nominations total, it was riding high. By March, though, things had changed. Suddenly CODA, a plucky coming-of-age drama Apple TV+ nabbed at Sundance last year, was gaining traction. It won top honors at both the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Producers Guild of America Awards while Dog seemed to chase its tail. On Sunday, it was decided: CODA won top honors, marking the first time a streaming service had done so.

This has been a long time coming, and that time has been fraught. Ever since Netflix and Amazon started shelling out for prestige content in the hopes of winning trophies (and respect), Hollywood has been waiting, curiously, to see if it’s possible for a streaming service to win the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ biggest trophy. Not everyone in the industry was keen on players like Netflix bagging big wins, predominantly because the company was instrumental in moving films out of theaters and into living rooms. When Netflix’s Roma was making a play for the top prize in 2019, an Oscars campaign advisor told Vulture that voting for Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white family drama was “a vote for the death of cinema by TV.” Steven Spielberg, whose West Side Story was nominated for seven awards this year and won one, flat-out said Netflix films shouldn’t be eligible for Oscars, claiming they were more akin to TV movies. Now, it seems big wins for streamers are here to stay.

Although it seems impossible to think a streaming service would never win Best Picture, exactly how it would happen, or should happen, was another point of contention. Amazon had luck early on, acquiring Manchester By the Sea at Sundance and then riding it to many Oscar nominations in 2017. Netflix, although it definitely shells out for films at festivals, has had better luck with its homegrown efforts like The Irishman and Roma. But that doesn’t mean both haven’t faltered. Netflix got 35 nods and Amazon got 12 last year, but the latter only got one nod—for The Big Sick—the year after its Manchester triumph. Neither had been able to secure the top prize, despite constantly circling it.

All of which makes Apple’s win so shocking. After years of Netflix and Amazon trying to produce and acquire their way to the top—despite the Hollywood old-schoolers who looked down their noses at it—Apple swooped in thanks to a movie it just picked up at Sundance. Granted, it paid a pretty penny for *CODA—*reportedly around $25 million—but it still beat Power and a slew of other juggernauts, like Warner Bros.’s Dune and films from previous Oscar winners like Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro (Nightmare Alley). For a streaming service that, although backed by Apple’s troves of cash, only launched in November 2019, that’s huge. One could also argue that the production and release delays caused by Covid-19 made room for smaller movies to make a bigger noise than they could have in years’ past, but even so that smaller film could’ve been from an indie studio like A24 rather than Apple.

But the Oscars are just one night. The impacts of this win will be felt for a while, both in Hollywood and within the offices of streamers. Over the last few years, Netflix has run itself ragged chasing Oscar gold—and perhaps lost some of its verve in the process—so what happens now that Apple has beat them to the big award? Undoubtedly it’ll make more plays, but now that CODA has demonstrated what a successful run looks like, will Netflix just mimic that success? Will Amazon? Will studios? Apple TV+’s win proves that the old grudges against streamers are gone (or at least waning) and that it’s possible one of them can win. Audiences now know that the best films in the world are a click away. Traditional studios understand that their distribution models can, and maybe should, change without impacting how their movies are received.

For a long time, the disruption of Hollywood by streamers has felt like a battle for the soul of Tinsel Town—how it’s run, who gets to participate in it, what the definition of a “film” even is. Truthfully, there might be something to that. Moviemaking, and filmgoing, has thrived for years because movies are a huge piece of cultural currency. They’re also an artform that’s gotten overtaken by massive corporations looking to make movies that are all but guaranteed to sell tickets and pack theaters. For years, particularly in the 1990s when Oscars viewership was much higher than it is today, Best Picture winners were artistically-driven crowd-pleasers like Titanic and Forrest Gump, that won over critics and killed at the box office. The pool of films, and filmmakers, that even got a shot at a little gold man was small.