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Innovation

The EA Pride and Accomplishment Incident

Elizabeth Uncategorized November 26, 2021

EA – You can’t just do that.

I’ve talked about the incident before in my article on loot boxes, but the event was historic.

Star Wars Fans – Some Background

Star Wars fans are some of the most intense fans out there. People form units of stormtroopers IRL and march in parades for fun. Replica blasters, replica lightsabers, and good replica costumes cost upwards of hundreds of dollars. Disney has (or had, at least) an entire section of their park dedicated to it. There’s no question: the original trilogy is near – universally loved, and many people adopted it as a cornerstone of their childhoods, an aspect of their personality, or a way of understanding the world. It brings people together, for better or worse.

 Make a good series or game based off of this universe, and rake in money – The Mandalorian, for example, is quickly becoming what the prequels could not. Make a bad series or game, and your name goes down in infamy. Even though they’ve said several times that their hands were tied when it came to the script, Kellie Marie Tran and John Boyega got nonstop harassment until they either left Twitter or responded forcefully enough to stop the constant complaints after The Last Jedi.

Anyway, what I’m saying here is that the Star Wars fan base is not the kind of fan base you can just toss IP at and hope they take it. It takes capturing the right ‘vibe’ of Star Wars, and even if you get the color palette, the story, and the general setting right, you can still produce something they don’t like if the concept itself is off.

EA – Star Wars Battlefront and Battlefront II

As a result, when a company stumbles upon something the fans really like, they’ll ride that horse as long as they can! Enter Star Wars Battlefront in 2004, one of the most loved action-based Star Wars games out there. I remember playing it myself! It really is a good game, even if you don’t like Star Wars. Very enjoyable. It came before a lot of other ‘contested’ or ‘non-canon’ content entered the universe, so fans were willing to trust and enjoy it from the get-go.

Star Wars is nothing if not sequels, though, so now we get to the point of this article (skipping over some other well-liked sequels and reboots to get there) Star Wars Battlefront… II.

The world has changed since the first entries into the series. Fans are more polarized than ever – the critics saying The Last Jedi was merely okay were said to have been paid off, because the idea that anybody even slightly liked the film was unbelievable in some corners of the web. This produces a lot of pressure for game studios. Their old work is put on a pedestal, and their new work has to live up to it. If it does live up to it, the game’s as good as gold. If it doesn’t, fans may remove themselves from the game network. Not everyone playing the game has to be a Star Wars fan, and not every Star Wars fan has to leave, but annoying too many fans of any franchise is a good way to throw away the money you spent on licensing. As such, it’s critical to maintain good relationships with the community.

 Anyway, Battlefront II released in 2017, and fans were pretty happy with it, at first. It’s online multiplayer was decent, it’s arenas were diverse and exciting, and the gameplay was really good, except for one factor. Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker took 40 hours to unlock. Each.

Pride And Accomplishment

That’s an enormous amount of time. An entire workweek. You could play nearly the entire main line of Halo games in 40 hours. EA did not have the kind of record that would allow fans to overlook this.

EA has made mistakes that got it bad press before: it used to regularly acquire smaller studios, and then eat the content they had lined up before discarding said studios; it used to force developers into perma-crunchtime, so every week was release week; and it got into some nasty licensing issues when it owned exclusive rights to make NFL games with NFL logos and players. That’s barely even gameplay related! It got awarded Worst Company of the Year from Consumerist just months after BP spilled millions of gallons of oil into the coast with a burst pipeline. Why? The endings to Mass Effect 3 were all the same.

So it’s not unfair to say EA’s gotten into trouble with their public perception before. The issue this time is that they tried to explain themselves on Reddit, a public forum where anyone with an account is able to comment. Earlier, players had discovered that it was nearly impossible to earn the character Darth Vader in the game with in-game points. That’s frustrating – Darth Vader is a really good character. But whatever, right? Everyone’s on the same footing, so people with Darth Vader just worked really hard to get him, and spent like 40 hours getting credits to unlock him, and then 300 hours grinding for the top level, right?

Right?

You wouldn’t allow some players to bypass this system with real money, right??

Turns out, that’s exactly what they did! Players could purchase Darth Vader and gain an undue advantage over other players with plain ol’ cash. May I remind you, this game isn’t free-to-play. It cost 60$ just to play the game! Tacking on in-game purchases is already iffy on cheaper games, but a Triple A title? Obviously people were upset, and EA decided to comment where they saw negativity on the Battlefront subreddit. When asked how they could justify the double-charging for what was essentially the game’s easy-mode, they responded with this:

Screenshot directly from the original Reddit Thread

Note the number of downvotes. This is the single-most downvoted comment in Reddit history. There are roughly six times as many downvotes on this post as there were total members of the subreddit at the time. People point out how ridiculous it is to expect players to stay on their game for an entire work week’s worth of time. Others speculate that Darth Vader takes so many credits because they want users to spend all their in game credits on Vader, thus forcing them to buy the lootboxes in-game for upgraded gear. No matter how EA tried to spin it, the ‘sense of pride and accomplishment’ came down to spending money. The people running the Reddit account had no idea what they actually looked like in the customer’s eyes. Star Wars fans turned on EA – highly polarized audiences will meme on anything, and EA’s poor response splattered the front page of other subreddits.

How could they have possibly salvaged it, though? The gameplay plan was already implemented. They either didn’t listen to Beta testers or didn’t test for this specific issue – getting Vader was hard. Obnoxiously hard. The thought of the potential profits likely blinded them to the possibility of Star Wars fans not simply accepting new IP and being happy. After all, the series was good, right? Star Wars fans will shell out a lot of money for good content, right? Some did – many more were upset, though.

 Fixing it once the cat was out of the bag would mean shortening the length of time it took to get Vader and Luke, which would irritate the people who already bought him. They painted themselves into a corner, and their only option was to walk on the wet paint, one way or another.

Sources:

https://fortune.com/2017/11/29/ea-star-wars-battlefront-2-controversy-stock/

https://www.reddit.com/r/StarWarsBattlefront/comments/7cff0b/seriously_i_paid_80_to_have_vader_locked/dppum98/?st=JH2MUORV&sh=5997c5a5 (the original thread)

Folding Phones, and the Road to Get There

Elizabeth Uncategorized November 24, 2021

Brick Phones

The first portable phones were barely portable at all. A suitcase with a battery combined with an obnoxiously heavy phone apparatus made the first portable phones more of a novelty than an everyday item, useful only for the uber-important. The next step came with a battery packed right into the part you talked at and listened from, which could get exhausting to hold up if the call was especially long. Most phone manufacturers have some version of the infamous brick, and Samsung’s was both slightly later to the market and slightly smaller than many of them, a handheld phone released in 1988 called the SH-100. It’s the first mobile phone to be both designed and manufactured in Korea, but mobile devices weren’t particularly popular at the time. The perception was sort of like the Segway; why buy an entire mobile phone for X$ when you could simply use street- and building- phones? And who’s calling you, anyway? Obviously, this changed, but the initial launch was slow, each upgrade only adding tiny slivers of market share to Samsung’s slice up until they were able to compensate for Korea’s uniquely signal-blocking topography. They began to dominate other competitors (namely Motorola), and became a serious competitor in the emerging mobile phone market!

Folding Mobile Phones

Phone manufacturers knew that phones should reach both the ear and the mouth of the user at the same time. If it didn’t, the early microphones would make their voice indistinguishably staticky, or they’d have to shout. Phones had to have a minimum length to be comfortable to use, and they had to have a minimum size and thickness for the battery. Over time, batteries became flatter and smaller – Motorola releases the first folding phone in 1996, and the rest is history.

Manufacturers and designers soon realize that this is an excellent opportunity for customers to showcase their tastes and individuality, and so optimal design took many forms: phones could rotate. They could slide. They could simply flip open, or they could pivot. The world was an oyster, and the possibilities were unlimited.

Samsung had a number of worthy entries; some were classical flip phones with num-pads, some had tiny folding joints for an especially sleek profile when closed, some slid up to reveal tiny keyboards beneath large screens, one was a slide-up with both a 9-Key and a qwerty keyboard, nothing especially special in a world dominated by physical buttons. One phone managed to mix all of the actions, and featured both physical buttons and a tilt-a-whirl screen that could make watching videos easier. Phone manufacturers were all over the place trying to make the optimal shape… and all of that changed in 2006.

The First Smartphones – A Cultural Shift

Smartphones were revolutionary. Apple was the first to make one with the touchscreen as we know it today (previous models were too big for mobile devices or not sensitive enough to work under a light touch). But as their popularity grew, so did complaints about the system. Scratches, freezing, getting hacked, having so much info in one spot, breaking easily, expense – and yet, none of the foretellings of Apple’s doom came true. The product became a must-have. Competitors now knew the tech was possible and began pouring funds into R&D.

Samsung soon released their own smartphone (unfortunately timed right around the 2008 financial collapse) called the Behold, and took off in the arms race against Apple with different touchscreen technology – a resistive screen that could be used with styluses instead of Apple’s capacitive screen.

Gradually, smartphones become the default instead of an expensive VIP gadget. As such, features were constantly improving in a never-ending arms race among competitors. The easiest to measure and the easiest to achieve was screen size, and Samsung was a determined competitor. Screen size got bigger, and bigger.

Skinny Jeans – And A Desire for Smaller Phones

There’s a reason they stopped! There was a period of time where skinny jeans and ultra-giant screens from Samsung intersected. This may not seem it, but it turned into a huge problem: the pockets were physically too small to actually hold the phone. People with backpacks and purses were fine – most everyone else was not. They’d end up holding the phone in their hand or losing it out of their back pocket when they sat, across brands. (Apple’s iPhone 6 bent under the pressure of back pockets around this same time period, although part of that was a switch to an aluminum case, not just the device’s size.) Samsung, while not famous for bending, became famous for being too large to use effectively.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 in 2014 featured a screen that was 5.7 inches tall. Women’s pockets are often smaller than men’s – it’s a legitimate phenomenon, and skinny jeans only amplified the trend. In 2019, Aberdeen research discovered that only 40% of women could fit an iPhone X in their pocket, a phone with a screen size of 5.65 inches, barely smaller than the Note 4.

 The size also made using the phone with one hand difficult, even if you did have pockets. Many people hold their phone either with their pinky beneath the bottom of the device, or with it held tight against the heel of their palm. The size of the phone meant that many people could barely navigate half of the screen with their thumb if they only had one hand available.

Between skinny jeans for everyone and an oversized phone that was difficult to use and retrieve, marketers were beginning to realize that sometimes users wanted functionality over a device that could serve as a TV. Phone size stopped increasing, and things like cameras and wrap-around screens started appearing on top of the better hardware inside Samsung’s devices. Phones also continued to ratchet up in price.

Apple – And the Death of Steve Jobs

Samsung had a battery quality control issue first identified in 2016. Many people, some experts, some not, claim that this is all that kept Apple from becoming the minority in the market during the awkward transitional period of Apple’s new leadership. Jobs’s legendary ability to see beyond what was possible and market it made him the soul of the company; without him, Apple entered a long downwards trend of hiking costs on mundane items and selling it as a lifestyle instead of an innovation. Customers noticed, many promised to switch. Surely, Samsung could now take over?

The only issue was that Apple had just stumbled, not fallen – their marketing was the issue, not the products, and re-aligning their marketing to their products (which were now more about comfort and ‘luxury’ than innovation) kept them relevant while they sorted their organizational issues out. Apple and Samsung are arguably the two most recognizable smartphone brands out there – Motorolas have more of a reputation for ‘sturdy and cheap’, and Microsoft’s smartphone failed to launch.

Still, there was desire for innovation beyond better cameras and bigger screens.

Full Circle

Samsung made a folding phone. But wait – it made a touchscreen folding phone, something previously thought infeasible! Now that customers had warmed up to incredibly expensive new phones, the price needed to make that tech possible to sell was no longer such a deterrent. You can fold your phone again, and it only costs nearly a thousand dollars to do so. You can’t protect the screen as effectively while it’s open (the fold prevents most kinds of screen protectors from being useful), and it’s still honkin’ huge, but you can fold it and keep the screen away from your keys or rocks on the ground while it’s closed.

The only thing that prevented it happening earlier is a lack of flexible material that also behaved itself right as a resistive screen, the kind of touchscreen Samsung uses. Resistive screens work by including layers of material under the glass that, when pushed together by your finger, communicate the touch to the phone. Capacitives, on the other hand, work by your hand’s interference with the screen’s capacitance field, detecting the touch that way. Resistive screens will work when you’re wearing gloves, but capacitive ones won’t. Resistive screens also work with styluses – capacitive ones need their own special kind. Whether or not Apple, who uses capacitive screens, will be able to follow along, remains to be seen.

How Did They Do It?

Firstly, all of the mechanisms that other smartphones use have to be modified – that doesn’t matter so much for the CPU, but it matters tremendously for the battery, which is now below-par for other smartphones in the same price range.

Secondly, the phone is thicker – and now it has a joint in the middle. Earlier versions of the concept didn’t want to go back to the folding joint seen in flip phones, but they also didn’t want to compromise on size. The result was usually something too thin to drop or squeeze – remember, most phones are made out of aluminum or some kind of alloy, and the average person can already bend a smartphone with their bare hands. Samsung’s leaning towards ‘rectangular prism’ instead of ‘sheet of paper’ makes the device sturdy enough to withstand opening and closing over and over, even though the screen is soft.

Thirdly, the screen is soft! And still capable of operating as a resistive screen. This is possibly the biggest issue facing the screens themselves, and earlier versions of Samsung’s folding phones faced frequent complaints of scratches and dust ‘leaks’ inside the device, both of which were only made worse due to the lack of screen protectors available for their devices. Finding something tolerably soft and yet tolerably resistant to scratches required quite a bit of legwork by Samsung. Only now is the special polymer both cost-effective (as much as it can be for a thousand-dollar phone) and functional.

Sources:

https://www.pcmag.com/news/samsungs-smartphone-history-from-zero-to-galaxy-s4

https://www.theverge.com/2021/1/14/22231954/samsung-to-gradually-remove-chargers-earbuds-from-future-phones

https://www.cnet.com/tech/mobile/samsung-galaxy-z-flip-3-review-the-first-foldable-you-may-actually-want-to-buy/

https://georgiasouthern.libguides.com/c.php?g=612229&p=4545365

What’s a Wizard?

Elizabeth Uncategorized November 15, 2021

You’ve seen it before. Sometimes it’s during updates, sometimes one comes with a game, but it’s always needed for complex downloads: A “Wizard”. Install Wizard. Design Wizard. But what is a wizard?

Why is it called a “Wizard?”

The actual wizards that the programs are named after were the first generation of computer experts in the field.

Upon first release, many computers were still treated like simple calculators. Even with their limited memory, they could do more than that, it was just a matter of telling the computer how. As computers advanced, and computer manufacturers made their products more accessible and more usable, programs like Lotus spread far and wide, creating demand for expertise. The people who fiddled with the code inside these new programs seemed to make shells and displays appear out of thin air, writing in some arcane language only they and the computer shared. Hence, wizard!

Eventually, computer programs took over the role of wizard from the experts after computer manufacturers realized users needed a more consistent, reliable source of information. While people-wizards were cool, not every company had someone who could just ‘make it work’, and even when they did, sometimes their knowledge was limited. Wizards, as computers got better, started coming with the programming, albeit in a much simpler form than the wizards we have today.

What Does A Wizard Do?

Wizards come from an era where it was very, very possible to brick up a machine by clicking one too many times in certain menus. Menus the user would only be in if they had to follow instructions to, say, link up a printer or fax machine to their computer.

But a wizard can be a lot of things, not just the little popup box that makes installing things easy. In the late 90s, Microsoft wanted their users to be able to make their own pretty pages and nice-looking documents, but they were well aware that the layman – who they were marketing to – would have a hard time really fully utilizing what they were looking at (computers were still new!)

Imagine looking at the top of the Microsoft Word formatting bar again for the first time! And, to be even more accurate, imagine that everybody in your office has the same amount of experience on it, and none of you really want to touch it because Bill in accounting said that something in the Start Menu would make it shut down.

If you were like a lot of people in that era, and had some experience with typing on non-Word software (or hardware, typewriters were still in use) you know what a font is, you know what the size should be, and you understand the basic formatting of the page. But Microsoft wanted to take things a step further, and make it possible for even the newest office go-fer to make a beautifully color-blocked report. The Page Wizard was born.

What Kind of Wizard Are You?

The Page wizard is the first iteration of the wizard we know today. Page wizards were little more than instructions on making a nice-looking page, that broke down the structure of the page into easy to digest chunks of information.

From there, it only got more complex, and an easy way to keep users up to date is to simply keep making wizards, which were especially useful for preventing that “bricking” thing mentioned earlier when it got to settings more complex than the ones found in the start-up manual (which is also kind of a wizard, just on paper, by these standards!) However, eventually they ran into a wall. People are able to follow instructions for tables and spreadsheets, and they’ll still understand what they’re doing – but get into computer language, or trying to configure their local network connection to also hook up to the fax machine, and suddenly the instructions pages are a little too sparse to be understood easily. No problem for Microsoft!

The next iteration of the wizard is more familiar to users today and features the ability to narrow down a user’s potential choices into a clickable menu, maybe two or three for big items. Printers and internet configuration are a breeze when the Wizard simplifies your choices, right at startup. Would you like devices to be able to connect to your computer over the network? That’s three pages deep in settings, but the Wizard’s trawled it up from the menus, just for you.

The Downside to Wizarding

There had to be a downside somewhere. Computer menus get more and more complicated every update, even during the updates that are supposed to make things easier on the user. The path to get to the settings menu is now basically wizard-only, which takes some of the user’s ability to fix issues out of their hands. The wizard just makes things so easy for everyone involved that it’s easier when only the wizard can find files. Fixing issues is now a support issue, not a technical skill.

Sources

https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/65728/origin-of-the-term-wizard-in-computing

https://news.microsoft.com/2001/10/15/for-10-years-microsoft-publisher-helps-small-business-users-do-more-than-they-thought-they-could/