How Blizzard Transforms Its Fans Into Employees

“My interview was right after the first Blizzcon,” he said. “I really felt like Blizzard was, and is, a haven for how games should be made. A lot of the leaders in the company are video game creators. We kinda understand the player ethos.”

Brack touches on a refrain you hear constantly the longer you spend around the games industry. Blizzard is not the largest or most profitable publisher in the business. (In fact, it’s not even in the top five.) But traditionally, it has carried a bespoke milk-and-honey aura that none of the other major players—not EA nor Ubisoft nor Microsoft—can muster. It’s hard to say why that is. Obviously, Blizzard possesses some remarkable gameplay bona fides; the company’s multiverse is beloved and untouchable, and it often seems like everyone who identifies as a gamer has at least one Blizzard franchise that they obsess over. But there’s also this strange, ethereal quality to its mystique—as if the studio represents the game-dev equivalent of Shangri-La. You feel it from the moment you step onto the Irvine, California, campus and stand under the bronzed Orc warrior who guards the circumference of gray, sunbathed office buildings. Even if you have no vested curiosity about 3D modeling or AI or any of the other grimy challenges that come with building a video game, you’ll still feel like joining the cult.

Cora Georgiou would know. She tells me she majored in communication in college, and never expected to work in a gaming studio. After graduation, she got involved in the Hearthstone esports scene where she commentated on tense playoff matches between wordless grandmasters, but had grown fatigued of the inconsistency in contract work. That’s when she saw a posting for a Hearthstone design job. Georgiou suspected that she’d be out of her depth, but resolved to shoot her shot anyway.

“I was used to being the expert in the room, and now I was the small fish in a big pond. I went into every stage of the process not expecting to get further, and then I was offered a job and it was very, very real,” she said. “I was moving across the country to do something that I didn’t let myself really think I would be able to do.”

Georgiou believes that her passion for Hearthstone—hewn through five years of travel, tournaments, and interminable shifts in the broadcast booth—has helped her handicap for the elements of game design that she’s learning on the job. She may not be a balance maestro or a C# wunderkind, but she does know how much the community hated the Patches meta. Sometimes, that’s more than enough, and certainly enough for Blizzard who saw her as essential to their staff.

“You know how design philosophy has changed over time. You know which mechanics worked and which didn’t. You know what separates a good theme from a great one. You know exactly which designs we’ve already done,” said Georgiou. “This is just knowledge that we pick up over

time because we love playing so much. We know what we love most about playing Hearthstone, and what we don’t.”

Alec Dawson, another Hearthstone developer who previously broadcasted tournaments for the game, mentions that in total, there are five former competitive players on his team. Sometimes, thanks to their sixth sense for hidden synergies in the cards, they can flag an overpowered combo long before the other developers catch on.

“[They can] tell you what’s going to be broken when the next set comes out. They’ll use their competitive side to break whatever you throw at them,” said Dawson. “We actually had a recent hire come into our team-wide playtest and decide that he wanted to build his own decks instead. I only remember this because in our QA report it was pointed out that one player used an unassigned Mage deck and then went 13-1.”

Allen Adham, one of Blizzard’s co-founders, says it’s crucial to keep new blood like Georgiou and Dawson rotating into the company’s brigades. A superfan’s instincts can challenge the orthodoxy established by those who’ve been around a project since pre-Alpha. As Adham puts it, game development is a bit like cocooned in a spaceship. You’re bouncing ideas off the same handful of people everyday, and sometimes an injection of fresh blood may be in order to break up the echo chamber. However, Brack also mentions that sometimes, a grognard’s perspective on what a game needs can be equally skewed. A hire that has 300 days played in World of Warcraft doesn’t necessarily ensure that they’ll be a great developer. “Someone who is really hardcore is not going to understand the first-time user experience, or someone who’s a 35-year-old dad coming into the game,” he said. “You need to screen for that.”

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Billie Eilish and the Future of the Pop Star Documentary

Here’s the thing about pop stardom: The world is unable to divert its stare. Like a vortex, it sucks in eyes. It’s a disco ball, reflecting humanity onto itself. For women especially, it’s a minefield. When you’re famous, people feel entitled to look at you, then critique what they see. Artists in revealing outfits are slut-shamed, and others are greeted with headlines like “Every Time Billie Eilish Ditched her Baggy Outfits for Tight Clothes.” (I will not be linking to that piece.) It is so prevalent that Eilish herself once made a short film to address it. “Some people hate what I wear; some people praise it,” she says in the voice-over. “Some people use it to shame others; some people use it to shame me. But I feel you watching—always—and nothing I do goes unseen.”

It’s a reprieve, then, that Eilish’s new Apple TV+ documentary, The World’s a Little Blurry, devotes almost none of its 2-hour, 20-minute run time to talk of Eilish’s body or the people who want to comment on it. Instead, RJ Cutler’s doc limits discussion of her corporeal form to talk of shin splints, sprained ankles, and other ailments brought on by her extremely committed live performances. Instead, the film takes an open, and almost radically vulnerable, look at the future of being famous, a hereafter Eilish is crafting before our very eyes.

Eilish speaks, as most stars do, about how much she appreciates her devotees, whom she says aren’t fans, but rather “part of me.” But she also talks frankly about depression, standing up for herself in relationships, and her history with self-harm, which came from a belief in her early teens that she “deserved it.” She shares the anxiety associated with wondering if the internet will dislike her work, something that her brother and producer Finneas says makes her terrified of writing catchy songs, because “her equation is, the more popular something is, the more hate it’s going to get.”

When, in the documentary, she experiences a series of Tourette’s syndrome tics while reviewing marketing materials for her Grammy-winning album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, her mom notes they could be the result of additional tiredness and stress. “I’ve done some crazy shit because of my Tourette’s,” Eilish adds. “I fucking broke a glass once—in my mouth—because I have this one [tic] where I’ll bite down on something. If I have something I’ll just go [chomps down], because my brain is like [snaps fingers] ‘Do it!’” For a condition so often misunderstood, and misrepresented, in popular media, it feels like a gift to witness someone talk about it so frankly.

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It’s hard not to see how much Eilish’s life, and what she’s willing to share of it, is being informed by what stardom has done to so many before her. In one telling scene, someone on her team asks whether Eilish is comfortable sharing a video in which she says “drugs and cigarettes are you killing yourself.” The potential PR nightmare, presumably, is that she may one day consume a substance and be labeled a hypocrite. Her mom protests that there’s no reason she shouldn’t be authentic, and that Eilish could remain a lifelong teetotaler. Eilish agrees that the woman “has a point.” But, Mom counters, “you’ve got a whole army of people trying to help you not decide to destroy your life like people in your shoes have done before.” Eilish, out of Mom’s eye line, reacts with an Office-worthy, straight-to-camera “Welp!” grin-frown. Shortly thereafter, at Coachella, both Katy Perry and Justin Bieber show up to tell Eilish the next decade of her life is going to be incomprehensible, “wild.” When Bieber says it, it sounds like encouragement. When Perry does, it feels like a warning.

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Jim Ryan: There Will Be ‘a Completely New VR Format for PS5’

So, just to be clear, there’s no date on it? You’re doing your best and it will happen when it happens?

We’re doing our best. I was just looking at the supply figures for the UK–we put a considerable amount of product into the UK market last week. And that will continue over weeks and months to come.

Fair enough. We imagine you’ve got a roadmap for 2021 in terms of the games that you want to release. How fixed is that given the disruptions Covid-19 has caused to development? Returnal recently got pushed back a month.

Yeah, we’re feeling pretty good about Returnal, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, and Horizon Forbidden West. And, you know, there are two approaches to this: You can either hold the date and put out the game irrespective of quality or you can ship it when it’s right. We have always taken the latter approach. There have been some fairly high-profile instances of publishers trying the former approach.

That’s one way of putting it…

It never works at the best of times. But I think in this world, where creative people are working remotely, you’ve just got to respect the fact that that development needs to take what it needs to take and to get the games right.

So one game you didn’t mention there that had been dated for 2021 is Gran Turismo 7. What’s going on with that one?

At this point a PR representative for Sony jumped into the call promising a statement on GT7— probably in the hope that we’d actually ask about some of the many new announcements. You can read that statement below…

“GT7 has been impacted by Covid-related production challenges and therefore will shift from 2021 to 2022. With the ongoing pandemic, it’s a dynamic and changing situation and some critical aspects of game production have been slowed over the past several months. We’ll share more specifics on GT7’s release date when available.”

All right, PlayStation VR 2. The second PlayStation VR. What are we calling it at the moment?

We’re not calling it anything at the moment.

So the obvious question is what’s changed from the first headset?

So this will be a completely new VR format for PS5. PlayStation has considered VR as a strategic opportunity and a big innovation story. We think there are two themes that you’re going to see: us capturing the technological progress that has taken place since the present VR system came to market and a considerable amount of lessons learned. Because the present system was our first one. [Changes will be] things like moving to a very easy single-cord setup with this one and many other similar learnings. Dev kits are about to go out. 

VR is getting a lot more traction now, but it’s still a nascent market. Why make a follow-up to the first headset? 

We believe in VR and have been extremely happy with the results with the present PlayStation VR and think that we will do good business with our new VR system for PlayStation 5. More importantly, we see it as something beyond this coming iteration that really could be really big and really important. We like to innovate; we think our community likes us to innovate. I’d turn around the question and say, “Why not?” For us, it’s a very logical step to take. We’re very excited by it and we think that people who are going to make VR games for our new VR system are going to be very excited too.

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The Most Romantic Date Spots in Super Mario 3D World

What’s the most romantic date you can think of? Strolling hand in hand through a park in Paris, a candlelit dinner on a New York rooftop … or tag-teaming Para-Biddybuds with Princess Peach? This year the stars aligned and I was finally free to spend Valentine’s Day exactly the way I’ve always wanted: playing Super Mario 3D World for 12 hours straight through online co-op.

In what I’m sure is a familiar situation for many, my partner and I weren’t able to see each other in person this Valentine’s Day. The UK lockdown is still in full effect, and besides, we live a few hundred miles apart. Thankfully, Nintendo stepped in to save the day. The “new and improved” release of Super Mario 3D World supports local as well as online co-op with up to four players, a major bonus for those of us struggling to spend time with that special someone (or someones, I’m not judging). It seemed like a pretty good way to spend some time together. But this year I wanted to up the ante a little: We were apart for Christmas, New Year’s, even my birthday. “What’s more romantic than playing video games?” I hear you ask. Well, I’ll tell you: playing a video game for 12 hours straight.

In an ideal world, I would never be awake at sunrise on a Sunday morning. In the countryside on the outskirts of Cambridge, I woke to find a thin mist hanging over the lawn outside my window. When I logged onto Discord to start the call with my partner, I was transported, my ears filled with the squawking of the seagulls on the southern coast. Despite having owned a Wii U, I never actually played the original Super Mario 3D World; in fact, I don’t think I was even aware it existed, so I have no idea what I’m getting into. My partner, on the other hand, is a Super Mario connoisseur, and assures me we’re in for a great experience.

Thankfully, he’s right. The first few hours glide by unnoticed, punctuated by 5-minute tea breaks and occasional internet drops. As the difficulty ramps up, the mood changes: We’re chatting less, more and more in sync with one another. One minute we’re cats stalking rabbits across the grassy plains, the next, we’re running rings around Goombas on giant ice skates. We move in perfect harmony. After we pass the halfway mark, my fatigue begins to show. I can’t ground pound like I used to: My back aches, and my thumbs are stiff. There are times when I feel like quitting, but we soldier on in the name of love.

Before I know it, the sun is setting and the day is done. We poured our heart and soul into Super Mario 3D World, and it, in return, gave us a fun and relaxing Valentine’s Day that far exceeded our expectations. Something we both agreed on was that there are certain stages that are much more conducive to romance than others, so I’ve taken the liberty of compiling those here. Without further ado, here are the most romantic date spots in Super Mario 3D World (in no particular order).

Super Bell Hill

As the opening stage, Super Bell Hill is a simple and fuss-free date spot. Stroll up and down the grassy slopes, or take in the sea view in your matching cat suits.

super bell hill
Courtesy of Nintendo

Plessie’s Plunging Falls

Jump aboard this enormous aquatic creature for an experience akin to traversing the canals of Venice.

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What Would It Take to Actually Settle an Alien World?

David Gerrold is the author of dozens of science fiction books, including The Martian Child and The Man Who Folded Himself. His new novel Hella, about a low-gravity planet inhabited by dinosaur-like aliens, was inspired by the 2011 TV series Terra Nova.

“The worldbuilding that they did was very interesting, very exciting, but because I was frustrated that they didn’t go in the direction I wanted to go, I was thinking, ‘Let me do a story where I can actually tackle the worldbuilding problems,’” Gerrold says in Episode 454 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

Hella goes into enormous detail about the logistics of settling an alien world, and grapples with questions like: Would it be safe for us to eat alien proteins? Would it be safe for us to breathe alien germs? What effect would plants and animals from Earth have on an alien ecology? It’s a far cry from many science fiction stories which assume that alien planets would be pretty much like Earth. “My theory is that there are no Earthlike planets, there’s just lazy writers,” Gerrold says.

Hella is told from the point of view of Kyle Martin, a neurodivergent young man who struggles with social niceties but possesses a wide-ranging curiosity for technical details. Gerrold says that telling the story from Kyle’s point of view meant making the worldbuilding in Hella especially rich.

“I think it’s a synergistic phenomenon,” Gerrold says. “I wanted to explore the world, Kyle was the right character to explore it, and the more I got into Kyle’s head, the more I wanted to explore the world from his point of view. There are whole chapters about how the predators stalk the herds of megafauna simply because Kyle was interested in that.”

Gerrold hopes that Hella will make readers think more carefully about the effect that our actions can have on ecosystems here on Earth. “I’ve seen articles that suggest that faster-than-light travel and colonizing planets around other stars is simply beyond our technical abilities,” he says. “I hope they’re wrong. But as a thought experiment, going to another world and discovering what’s different, it’s a chance to consider how things are on this planet too.”

Listen to the complete interview with David Gerrold in Episode 454 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

David Gerrold on Tunnel in the Sky:

“I think that what [Heinlein] realized at some point is what you actually need to survive is partnership with other human beings, that individualism is an illusion. Because Tunnel in the Sky, all the human beings on the planet, all the kids there, have to get together and protect each other and work together to survive. And I think that’s a very important point that a lot of fiction misses. A lot of fiction is about, ‘The hero goes in and solves the problem by himself. He’s the big mighty warrior.’ And while that’s very exciting, what we see in real life is that a lot of problems really get solved by teamwork and partnership.”

David Gerrold on ecology:

“When you go and colonize a planet, you don’t arrive with Martian war machines and burn down the cities. You arrive with your entire ecology, because if you intend to live on a planet, you need your entire ecology. You need your microbes, at the bottom level, because the microbes handle what goes on in the soil so that the plants that you’re going to bring — your corn and your beets and your turnips and everything else — their roots feed on what the microbes do in the soil. And then you need all the insects that pollinate your plants, and then you need the things that keep your insects in check. If you’re going to bring chickens, you need things for the chickens to eat. So you bring your entire ecology.”

David Gerrold on sex:

John Varley actually made [characters changing sex] work better than anybody in his Eight Worlds series—most of his books take place in that environment. He would have characters change sex, and be genderfluid, and bisexual, and he did it casually—he didn’t explain how it was done. Nobody called any attention to it, it was just part of the story. And I thought, ‘Oh, I could do that. Let me try that.’ So I didn’t explain how characters change sex on Hella. I had an idea in my head, but I didn’t bother to lay it out, because I didn’t want to get into the biology of it. But I figured it would just be like John Varley’s world—once you have the technology, people are going to use it.”

David Gerrold on Harlan Ellison:

“I think at the time I was having a little fun by creating a character who was a little bit like Harlan—because Harlan could be an agent of chaos too—but as I developed the character of HARLIE, he is nothing like Harlan. Bob Bloch was toastmaster at one of the Nebula banquets, and he was making a lot of jokes, and I was so pleased to actually be one of his jokes. He said, ‘There’s this new book called When HARLIE Was One. Harlie, of course, claims he isn’t one.’ We got a good laugh out of that, and I thought, ‘Wow. Bob Bloch noticed me. He noticed my book. How cool.’ So there was a certain small amount of reference to Harlan, but nothing serious.”

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The Mars Landing Was the Best Thing on TV This Week

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

Look, it’s been a god-awful week. Winter storms have caused power outages and chaos from Oregon to Texas. Reply All cohost PJ Vogt and others stepped down following accusations of a toxic culture at Gimlet Media. Unemployment is still on the rise. And that’s just skimming off the top of the crap heap. Meanwhile, there wasn’t a ton of pop culture to offer distraction beyond new trailers for Mortal Kombat and Cruella. TV also looked sparse, except for one thing: the Mars rover landing.

It’s possible that the idea of traveling to outer space is even more fantastical when, these days, so few of us leave our neighborhoods, but truly watching the zenith of the Perseverance mission had all the ingredients of must-see TV. For one, there was a lot of anticipation. The Atlas V rocket transporting NASA’s latest Mars rover launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in July and has spent the past six months en route to the Red Planet. It also had cool gadgets: Perseverance is a nuclear-powered 2,300-pound rover tasked with searching the martian landscape for signs of ancient microbial life. Put another way, it’s an “alien-hunting self-driving car,” and for the hour-plus that NASA teased its descent on its livestream, it did so using interviews with super-enthusiastic (read: delightfully nerdy) scientists and animations that looked like something out of The Expanse. So sci-fi!

A Covid-19 angle? The Perseverance live show had that, too. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had to start teleworking back on March 12 of last year and has been doing its work under Covid safety protocols ever since. (Rocket scientists—they’re just like us!) It also had a special cameo: a microphone designed to capture the sounds of life on Mars, something no previous probe has done.

But the real thing that made the landing super suspenseful is that it literally promised “seven minutes of terror.” As the rover approached Mars yesterday, its supersonic parachute slowed its descent, and its “sky crane” dropped it into place. Watching it happen was incredibly nail-biting. Literally. I lost two nails. It was a lot of watching scientists watch screens, but seeing their enthusiasm and nervousness as years of their work flung itself through space was about as gripping as it gets. Ron Howard could never.

Perhaps the excitement is just a byproduct of the fact that, for me at least, the kind of human joy on display at JPL after the rover touched down is something that, frankly, hasn’t been seen in a long time. Or perhaps it’s getting a glimpse of a room full of government employees, all wearing masks—most of them even double-masked—working together to solve a problem. Either way, something about watching it happen live just clicked. For months now, fiction—whether in the form of movies, books, or TV—has been an escape when watching the news got to be too much. For six minutes on Thursday, existence on Earth got a little more wondrous, by offering a glimpse into life somewhere else.

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TV Characters Don’t Have Text History. This Is Not OK

The immediate question that arises any time this problem appears is, how could the writers be so lazy? They sweat so hard creating a richly imagined world, only to rip us out of it by botching a simple element of the everyday one. We don’t need a character to scroll through days of texts to establish verisimilitude. Even hinting at a couple lines of past exchanges, out of focus or beyond the frame, to fill out the text box would do more than enough to make us believe these are texts between two sentient humans.

Shows and movies would often be better served by keeping those extra texts in focus, and seizing the opportunity to add Easter eggs and deeper characterization. Why not show an earlier photo Doug sent Emily of his slurped-dry T-bone at Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse and the caption “booyah”? Why not show Hugh Grant and his son backchanneling over text for weeks without Nicole Kidman’s knowledge? If you’re going to include a shot of a texting app, that app becomes the stage, and its mise-en-scène should be treated with as much care for realism as any set, or you lose the audience. That white space is ghostly.

Image may contain: Furniture, and Table

The WIRED Guide to Emoji

More than just cute pictures, these digital icons are a lingua franca for the digital age.

There’s also a more elegant and cheaper option. Rather than cut to the phone itself, have the texts appear on their own, as a character receives them, over the screen’s main action. Some shows are savvier at this technique than others, but even the clunkiest versions are less disturbing than the blank slate route. What makes the Emily in Paris example so abominable is the show soon switches to the better approach. After that establishing shot of Emily’s iPhone, every text she receives for the rest of the season pops up beside her. (Her Instagram posts appear the same way; how she surges from 48 to 25,000 followers with photos of roses and captions #EverythingsComingUpRoses is a separate credibility issue.) It’s as if the creators assumed viewers were both unfamiliar with text threads and also completely unaware of smartphones. (Netflix did not respond to emails seeking comment.)

The only charitable explanation is that these are not oversights but deliberate depictions of vigilant text deleters. If that’s the case, then rather than looking like someone who’s never received a text, they just look like someone conscious of their data usage, or a digital neat freak. Or perhaps they just look like someone trying to scrub an unbearable past. If you erase everything and realize there is only now, you too can wipe away the Doug in your life and thrive in France without learning French.

There is, however, little data supporting this theory, or suggesting that text expungers abound in reality. Neither Apple nor Google would share with WIRED information on deleted text rates among iPhone or Android users. A crude poll of the WIRED staff found 61 percent “never” deleted their texts, and 39 percent did so “selectively.” No one said “often or always.” Chances are, most of us are as lazy about deleting texts as shows are about including them.

Though inadvertent, is there a message to be gleaned here? Would we be better off if we were like these characters—free of data, free of history, free of what we sent at 3 am? There is a certain Buddhist appeal to the cleanliness of their text threads. Nothing you’ve said before matters. You’re only as good as your next emoji, your next reminder to someone that you care.

Still, I reject this. For all we can debate about what smartphones have wrought, having an immense, immediately accessible library of our interpersonal relationships is among the net goods. While every tech platform nudges us toward the ephemeral—disappearing stories from Snapchat, Skype, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, et al.—our text histories offer an increasingly rare, comforting permanence. Threads are our staccato pen palships, testaments to our growth and regression, our inanity and suffering. Today you open the group chat to let your friends know you were laid off, and you are greeted by yesterday’s 78 texts dunking on Brendan’s new haircut. Rarely do I scroll back far, though sometimes my friend and I will use the search feature to resend a single text the other sent four years ago, completely out of context: This was you, then.

Texting presents challenges for any show or movie set in the 2000s. It’s most often implausible for characters to not text, and yet making texting look sexy is hard. But avoiding blank slate messaging isn’t complicated, and there are rich aspects of texting’s impact on us still unexplored onscreen. Until then, maybe just show a new text coming in on the phone’s home screen, and don’t have characters swipe open to the horrifying emptiness.

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Billionaires See VR as a Way to Avoid Radical Social Change

The future of virtual reality is far more than just video games. Silicon Valley sees the creation of virtual worlds as the ultimate free-market solution to a political problem. In a world of increasing wealth inequality, environmental disaster, and political instability, why not sell everyone a device that whisks them away to a virtual world free of pain and suffering?

Tech billionaires aren’t shy about sharing this. “Some people read this the wrong way and react incorrectly to it. The promise of VR is to make the world you wanted. It is not possible, on Earth, to give everyone all that they would want. Not everyone can have Richard Branson’s private island,” Doom co-creator and former CTO of Oculus John Carmack told Joe Rogan during a 2020 interview. “People react negatively to any talk of economics, but it is resource allocation. You have to make decisions about where things go. Economically, you can deliver a lot more value to a lot of people in the virtual sense.”

Virtual reality is an attractive escape, but it’s not a solution to the world’s ills. The problems of the real world will persist beyond the borders of the metaverse created by companies such as Epic, Valve, and Facebook. Without decisive and radical action, our planet will continue to burn, the gap between the rich and poor will grow, and totalitarian political movements will flourish. All while some of us are plugged into a virtual world.

Worse, the virtual world will be one owned and controlled by the companies that create them. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a Facebook-branded set of VR goggles strapped to an emaciated human face—forever.

By the principle of the free market Silicon Valley lives and dies by, virtual reality is a loser. Only 1.7 percent of Steam users have a VR headset, according to a December 2020 hardware survey. And while it’s true that sales of headsets are up during the pandemic, roughly 30 percent in 2020 over 2019, video game sales in general are up overall.

Valve released Half-Life: Alyx in March 2020, just as the lockdowns were beginning. This was the first new Half-Life game in 13 years, the continuation of a franchise fans had been desperate to play for more than a decade. It sold well for a VR title, somewhere north of 2 million copies, but didn’t match the incredible numbers of 2020’s top-selling titles and was quickly forgotten by the mainstream press. Unless you’re really into VR, you probably weren’t talking about Half-Life in 2020.

The reasons why are obvious. First, virtual reality is expensive. At the high end, Valve’s premiere headset—the Valve Index—costs $1,000. On the cheaper end, Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2 is $299. To play Alyx, those headsets need to be wired to a high-end gaming PC. The price of these machines vary, but something that can handle VR will cost around $1,000. Once the machine is built and the headset hooked up, the player will need to carve out a dedicated physical space to play the game. Most games require a minimum of about 6.5 feet by 5 feet, but the more space you have the better.

VR requires an incredible amount of cash and free space to set up properly, and the headaches don’t stop there. Right now, it reminds me of the early days of computer gaming. It works most of the time, but I’ve spent hours tweaking settings, adjusting controls, and reconfiguring hardware in a desperate bid to achieve the optimal experience.

Cash, space, and time is no guarantee that you’ll enjoy VR games. Some people experience nausea and vertigo in virtual reality. Sometimes, you can overcome this by properly adjusting the hardware or slowly exposing yourself to the technology. Some people get their “VR legs” and adjust. Others never do. Setting aside VR sickness, the technology is incredibly inaccessible for differently-abled people. The industry made huge strides toward making video games accessible to a wide range of people in 2020, but virtual reality—with its bulky headsets and strange controllers—is simply impossible for some people to use.

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The Rot of Riot Games Culture Starts at the Top

In 2014, Riot Games’ then-executive assistant Melanie McCracken began to notice that her supervisor, Jin Oh, didn’t seem to hire women into senior leadership vacancies. Women were generally brought on as assistants, she said in a 2018 civil complaint alleging widespread gender discrimination at the League of Legends publisher. Oh, an executive at the company, “claimed that he would ‘feel weird having a male’ in such a role,” according to the complaint. It was part of a pattern, she alleges, of Oh disadvantaging women based on their sex or gender.

McCracken began looking for a new job at Riot in September 2014—ideally one with more upward mobility. As she tried to escape, McCracken began to feel that Oh was creating a hostile work environment. According to the complaint, she went to human resources to report the alleged retaliation and discrimination. Shortly after, McCracken found herself in a meeting with Oh to discuss the HR discussion, which she had believed was confidential.

McCracken transitioned from Riot’s international region to the North America region in March 2015. Oh eventually landed there as well, as the new temporary head. After his arrival, McCracken in 2016 was “given a five-month countdown to find a new position or ‘be fired,’” reads the complaint. She found one, in the Internal Communications division, and Oh left Riot later that year. (The HR rep McCracken spoke with left the company in 2019.)

But in 2018, Riot chief executive officer Nicolo Laurent rehired Oh. The HR rep rejoined the company, too, and now directs human resources for Oh’s department. Oh now has a very long title: Riot’s president of esports, marketing, publishing operations, and international offices. None of his direct reports, except his executive assistant, are women. A Riot Games spokesperson said in a statement that “many senior-level women” work in the publishing organization that Oh leads.

Over the past two years, several women, most recently Riot CEO Nicolo Laurent’s former executive assistant Sharon O’Donnell, have stepped forward with allegations of gender-based discrimination and harassment at the company. Many of those court filings—including one previously unreported complaint by a former Riot employee from December—underscore that under Laurent’s watch, several executives remain employed at Riot despite multiple repeated allegations of impropriety.

McCracken is one of eight women named in a potential class action suit brought against Riot Games alleging widespread gender discrimination. (McCracken took a settlement and is no longer part of that suit. Others, except one, have been moved to arbitration because of clauses signed upon employment.) The suit follows a 2018 Kotaku report in which dozens of current and former employees described a work environment where women faced added scrutiny in the hiring process, received fewer advancement opportunities than men, were routinely talked over at meetings, and were under-compensated compared to men in similar positions with similar qualifications.

The “boys’ club” ethos at Riot extended beyond employment practices. Sources interviewed by Kotaku said they received unsolicited pictures of male genitalia or were on emails or lists describing colleagues’ sexual interest in them. Scott Gelb, chief operating officer of Riot Games—who remains at the company after a brief suspension and sensitivity training—would grab male employees’ genitals, apparently as a joke, and fart in people’s faces, sources said. California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing and the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement are also investigating alleged widespread gender discrimination at Riot Games.

Riot has made an effort to cleanse its ranks of problem employees, offer sensitivity training, and institute more structured hiring practices. Riot contracted Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei, whom Uber brought on to fix its allegedly sexist culture, and created a chief diversity officer position within the company. While bottom- and mid-level employees are feeling the effects of cultural change, two sources tell WIRED that Riot’s top leadership has closed ranks around some of the company’s most problematic employees, who remain at the helm of the 2,500-person game company. Laurent, they say, has endeavored to retain and protect these employees.

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Mrs. Coulter Is One of the Best Villains on TV

The HBO series His Dark Materials, based on the novels by Philip Pullman, recently concluded a strong second season. Fantasy author Erin Lindsey was particulary impressed with the show’s lead villain, Mrs. Coulter, played by Ruth Wilson.

“The performance of Mrs. Coulter and the way that she’s written are just so brilliant in this series, I can’t get enough of it,” Lindsey says in Episode 453 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley agrees that Mrs. Coulter is a highlight of the show. “She’s such an interesting character because she’s very icy, she’s very evil, but she loves her daughter at some level,” he says. “She’s in incredible control of her emotions, but obviously has a lot of very strong emotions, and she has these flashes of humanity, but then is also very ruthless.”

Like many characters in His Dark Materials, Mrs. Coulter has an animal companion—a “daemon”—who represents her soul. Science fiction author Sam J. Miller found Mrs. Coulter’s relationship with her daemon—a sinister golden monkey who never speaks—to be particularly memorable.

“There were scenes that I found super hard to watch, the way they are communicating her self-harm and her relationship with her daemon, which is so horrific and disturbing,” he says. “That was probably the most emotionally engaged I felt the whole season.”

Writer Sara Lynn Michener says that Mrs. Coulter recalls many complicated women who have risen to power within patriarchal institutions. “She has decided that she is going to play this game better than everybody else in order to beat it, and because of that, there are things that she has decided to kill within herself that she shouldn’t have, and there are things that she has sacrificed in order to have strength,” Michener says. “It’s deeply tragic. There’s so much to say about and think about with this character.”

Listen to the complete interview with Erin Lindsey, Sam J. Miller, and Sara Lynn Michener in Episode 453 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Erin Lindsey on controversy:

“I suspect that this [Catholic] church would be positioned differently than its predecessor in terms of how it would see [shows] like this. It’s speculation, but Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are famously rather different in their approaches to almost everything. … Another piece of the puzzle too, frankly, is that when you’re talking about controversy and culture wars, what registers on the radar is orders of magnitude more dramatic than something like this. I think we’ve been so whipped up in culture war conversations that are just so much bigger and more important than this one—however institutions or individuals feel notwithstanding—that this probably felt like such a minnow, when we have bigger fish to fry.”

Sam J. Miller on visual effects:

“With a lot of the visuals in the first season, I could tell they were CGI, and in some cases the CGI was not as good as it could be, or disappointing, or I could tell when corners were being cut—especially the polar bear fight. But it never bothered me in Season 2. I thought that they had really upped their game. … The sets of Cittàgazze were so gorgeous, and so much of that was real stuff. Although I will say that I had a moment of rage in one of the behind-the-scenes things. The guy who designed [Cittàgazze] talked about how, ‘I went to 140 locations, and I couldn’t find one that was right, so we decided to make our own.’ And I’m like, I want the job where I go to 140 —140!—awesome old cities, and then say, ‘Nah, I’m going to make my own.’”

Sara Lynn Michener on Mary Malone:

“It was absolutely how I had pictured her from the books, because she’s this wonderfully motherly scientist, and that’s the sense that I got from the character in the book, and so to see that come to life was really extraordinary. This whole series is wonderfully cast. Her character is fascinating, and I love that there’s that connection to the tenuous relationship with people who are curious about religion and curious about big questions, and the natural fit of somebody starting off as a nun and becoming a physicist, which makes perfect sense to me, having been raised religious and departing from that when I was a teenager. So yeah, I loved the character.”

David Barr Kirtley on character deaths:

“I remember watching the Lord of the Rings special features, and Peter Jackson talking about this issue where the story is that Boromir is going to get killed in this battle with a bunch of random Uruk-hai, and Peter Jackson is like, ‘I felt like we needed to have one particular Uruk-hai who’s a character.’ And so they built up this Uruk-hai with the white hand on his face to be this character that you recognize, so that when Boromir is killed and Aragorn fights this orc, it’s not just some random orc that you’ve never seen before. And I wonder if we needed something like that here, where one of the Magisterium soldiers has been built up—and it wouldn’t have to be huge—so that it’s not just some faceless stormtrooper, it’s somebody that we’ve seen in a couple of scenes before.”

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