Games Workshop tries to assert ownership of the words "Space Marines"
Some overzealous lawyers from Games Workshop apparently made Amazon block sales of an e-book called "Spots the Space Marine" because, according to them, GW owns the trademark to the words "Space Marine" in all media.
This is patently absurd because "space marines" are a common trope that were used in science fiction novels (Heinlein and Doc Smith among others) as far back as the 1930s.
It's also funny because, if you go through the original Warhammer 40k Rogue Trader rulebook you'll find obvious shout-outs to Star Wars, Alien, Terminator, Lord of the Rings, Dune, Jugdge Dredd, and probably lots of other stuff. It's a kitchen sink setting of derivative sci-fi and fantasy tropes, made by fans for other fans to enjoy acting out whatever media-inspired scenarios they wanted. And that's great! But how hypocritical is it that after building their company on the freedom to remix common genre tropes, they try to deny the same freedom to others?
40k today is barely recognizable as the same game as that first version - the setting became more defined and unique, it stopped using a referee, they retconned out most of the fun silly stuff, and everything got super GRIMDARK. And of course, little plastic men became a hugely profitable business for them, so the lawyers moved in and took everything over.
Anyway, there's a happy ending to this particular story: the EFF joined the fight and helped get Amazon to reinstate the book. Hooray!
This wasn't the first time Games Workshop has acted as a legal bully - they've been known to shut down websites where people posted game stats, even just for discussion purposes.
I'm feeling pretty good about my decision to stop supporting Games Workshop. (Even though my decision was more because the game stopped being fun than because of their corporate policies.) Besides legal bullying tactics, I've also heard GW is quite terrible to their low-level employees. Plus their stores have that weird cult-like atmosphere where everybody's giving you the hard sell.
A couple months ago I boxed up all the Warhammer 40k stuff that was collecting dust in my garage and started selling it on eBay. I've got $900 so far and I've still got the Tyranids to sell. (I love you, eBay!)
Rocket Science Games - a tale of corporate hubris and epic failure
When browsing the web today I found a retrospective by serial entrepreneur Steve Blank about a failed startup company he started 20 years ago, and the lessons he learned from its failure.
The company was called Rocket Science Games.
Wait a minute... I think I've heard of them. Back in 1993-94 I saw some magazine article about how they were going to revolutionize gaming by fusing Hollywood with Silicon Valley and bringing cinematic storytelling to games, or some buzzword-laden hype like that.
What this meant in practice is that they released a few desultory CD-ROM rail-shooters and Myst clones packed with horrible grainy video clips and lousy gameplay, then disappeared without a trace.
Here's a Wired article about them from the time.
It's fascinating to read the inside story directly from the CEO responsible for this fiasco. He admits his hubris led to their destruction. Rocket Science thought they were hot shit because they built cutting-edge video compression tools to stream FMV off of a CD-ROM faster. They spent millions of dollars building a cool office in San Francisco and hiring all these hotshot Hollywood scriptwriters and cinematographers. But nobody was in charge of game design. It's like they didn't even know game design was a thing. The CEO never even asked to see the gameplay of the games they were making!
He obviously didn't know the first thing about video games, and from his retrospective it seems like he still doesn't. He can barely conceal his contempt for gaming and gamers (neither can the author of that Wired article). He talks about gameplay like it's just some button-mashing to be grudgingly included in between their beautiful video clips. Everybody involved had this attitude that gaming was a terrible adolescent boy pastime about mindless violence and they were going to come in and elevate it with their highbrow focus on Story.
It certainly provides some insight into why the CD-ROM game craze of the mid-90s happened, and why most of the games so quickly ended up in the bargain bin; they were funded by people riding a hype bubble who didn't particularly want to be making video games at all and lacked the curiosity to try to understand what they were making.
If your prime directive is "must use all these video clips" and nobody's in charge of game design then you're going to turn out rail shooters and Myst clones by default (two of the shallowest, most boring, most mindless game genres).
A company that's 100% focused on the technology gimmick they're trying to push and 0% focused on what their potential customers actually want from a product will, unsurprisingly, make things that nobody wants.
Why I Hate iPads
In the comments to a previous post, Ben asks:
"What's wrong with iPads?"
iPads crushed my dream of being a software usability guy.
It's hard for me to find the words to express why, so bear with me while I try to explain what iPads meant for my career.
My professional life in the software industry (first at Humanized, then at Mozilla) was all based around one question. It went something like:
"How can we make computers easier to learn without making them less powerful?"
"How can we give users more power without making their software harder to use?"
By "power" I don't mean gigaflops, I mean something more like the "empowerment" sense of the word. Creative power. The potential of computers to help people create things, to be a producer and not just a consumer of culture, to be smarter and more efficient and more connected and maybe even more able to self-organize and demand change from their governments or whatever. All the potentials that people used to mean when they talked about the "computer revolution".
By making computers easier to use without dumbing them down, that power could be democratized, made accessible to more people. That was my theory, anyway. Thinking about it that way made me feel like I was working on something important. The idea of this search was the source of my job satisfaction.
(Naiive techno-utopianism, in retrospect.)
When the iPad came out, at first I ignored it. Why would anybody want an iPhone that was too big to fit in your pocket and doesn't make phone calls? I had zero interest in iPhones and iPads seemed strictly inferior. I figured they'd disappear without a trace within a month.
When they started getting popular -- when every other company in the industry started scrambling to follow Apple's lead -- I slowly realized the horrifying truth:
The computer industry was no longer interested in searching for a balance between power and usability. The new trend was to make a thing super easy to use by taking away all of the power. Instead of making computers easier to use, they'd give people things that are not really computers anymore, but appliances.
Yeah technically they're "computers" in that they have a Turing-complete CPU inside them. But tablets are what you get if you strip away everything that made me interested in computers in the first place -- the ability to hack the thing, to reprogram it, to run whatever software you want, to use it to make creative works and share them.
Instead, with iPads and the "app store", it's Apple, not you, who decides what software you are allowed to run on this machine that you supposedly own. (Which by the way is far more restrictive than anything Microsoft ever did at its most monopolistic -- at least Microsoft would let you distribute whatever software you wanted for Windows. They might clone your product and crush you if you got too successful, but at least you were allowed to try.)
Also, the touchscreen UI and lack of a real filesystem or decent inter-app communication channels make it terrible for trying to create any kind of content. Trying to type words on it sucks. Trying to draw on it sucks. (Yes, I know you can attach an external keyboard. Congratulations, you've created the world's crappiest laptop.) The touchscreen UI is really only good for poking icons and panning/zooming through static content. It's an interface optimized for passive consumption.
Ironically, when I first heard "Apple is making a tablet" I imagined a thing optimized for drawing on. You know, like with a pressure-sensitive stylus and high-quality art software. Silly me; that's what Apple of 1984, the company focused on education and creativity, would have built. The Apple of 2010 is focused on being the middleman for streaming music, games, and TV shows, so that's what they built. An appliance for consuming streams of corporate-approved entertainment product.
iPads and other tablets are more similar to a new kind of television than to the computer revolution I imagined. The industry's recent obsession with them -- the "post-PC era" -- is a direction I have no interest in following. Feel free to laugh at me for being an old fogey who can't adapt with the changing times, but I wanted to make computers easier to use, not replace them with fancy TVs. If the industry doesn't want that anymore, then maybe I had no place in the industry.
Ultimately, the iPad posed a serious philosophical challenge to my whole narrative about democratizing the creative potential of computers. If the iPad got really popular, if most people saw this new appliance class as an acceptable substitute for a computer, that meant that most people are not interested in hacking or creating -- they're content with a locked-down, corporate-controlled internet media consumption device. The computer revolution I had imagined was never going to happen, because the people I thought I was fighting for didn't want it.
April 2010, when the iPad was released, marked the beginning of the end of my software developer career. I spent another year and a half trying to figure out some way to respond to this philosophical challenge, some way to fix my narrative, to get my job satisfaction back, to imagine a future for myself in that industry. (Tablets were not the only trend driving this; equally distressing was the software industry's move to an advertising-centric model that I find ethically dubious. But that's another blog post.)
By fall of 2011 I had given up. I'd accepted that my dream of being a software usability guy was based on phony assumptions, and that the role I had imagined for myself had no place in the post-PC era. I hung around Mozilla long enough to finish up my projects and then I walked away from the industry.
In short, iPads challenged what I thought computers were all about. They made me re-examine why I was ever interested in computers in the first place. And in that re-examination I realized that most of my reasons were no longer valid.
So maybe it's not quite right to say I "hate" iPads. Maybe I should really be thanking Apple for making me realize that software was not the right career for me and giving me the impetus to break away and search for something new.
Apple and Google's income tax evasion strategies
For anybody who still somehow thinks of Apple as some kind of fuzzy, benevolent company:
Apple Avoided Billions in Taxes, Congressional Panel Says - NYTimes.com
In 2011, for example, one subsidiary paid Ireland just one-twentieth of 1 percent in taxes on $22 billion on pretax earnings from various operations; another did not file a corporate tax return anywhere and has paid almost nothing on $30 billion in profits since 2009... Over all, Apple’s tax avoidance efforts shifted at least $74 billion from the reach of the Internal Revenue Service between 2009 and 2012, the investigators said.
Of course, Google does it too:
Google Revenues Sheltered in No-Tax Bermuda Soar to $10 Billion - Bloomberg
In Google’s case, an Irish subsidiary collects revenues from ads sold in countries like the U.K. and France. That Irish unit in turn pays royalties to another Irish subsidiary, whose legal residence for tax purposes is in Bermuda. The pair of Irish units gives rise to the nickname “Double Irish.” To avoid an Irish withholding tax, Google channeled the payments to Bermuda through a subsidiary in the Netherlands -- thus the “Dutch Sandwich” label. The Netherlands subsidiary has no employees... Last year, Google reported a tax rate of just 3.2 percent on the profit it said was earned overseas, even as most of its foreign sales were in European countries with corporate income tax rates ranging from 26 percent to 34 percent.
It's really weird for me to read comment threads where Apple fanboys and Google fanboys cheerlead their chosen team, as if either of them was anything but a typical rapacious multinational corporation.
This is all completely legal, too! They've got teams of lawyers making sure of that. (Teams of accountants to find loopholes, teams of shareholders demanding the exploitation of loopholes, teams of lobbyists pressuring government to create new loopholes...) That's the power of a multinational corporation in the modern age: the ability to pick and choose which sets of laws they want to apply to each subsidiary at any given time. Ala carte, from out of all the nations of the world. Which, of course, causes the race to the bottom in worker and environmental protection laws.
If fiscal conservatives really want to balance the budget and reduce taxes on the middle class, maybe they should take a look at all the behemoths who aren't paying their fair share? Just a thought.
(Extra irony: Google was built on the back of a technology initially developed by taxpayer-funded research initiatives.)