Confessions of an Anonymous Free-to-Play Producer

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

We own you, an anonymous free-to-play game producer explains:

One of our engineers came up with a rather simple solution that today would seem like a joke. We could have a JSON file online that contained all the level information. Then we could update the file to make a level easier (or harder). This way we could watch user reactions (mostly app store reviews, Twitter was still pretty basic at this time). This worked great, we were able to balance the game in the wild.

During a meeting about the game, the guy who ran our website brought up some interesting information. He started watching the web logs and seeing all the connections to the JSON file. Unbeknownst to him (or our team) he was getting us a DAU. For the engineering and production teams, this was just a neat thing to know, a feel good “look how many people love our game” statistic. The CEO saw something else. Pretty quickly we started getting more requests for what our users were doing. Upper management was disappointed by our lack of answers. I found a new service online called Pinch Media, they were an analytics tracker. I got the team to integrate Pinch into a few products and finally I had answers. Of course then more answers were asked. Around this time, free to play started happening. Suddenly, Marketing and our bosses demanded to know more than ever. In response to the pressure to explain our user base, I ended up building an event matrix. I had no schooling in this, so I was just making it up as I went along. My first matrix was awesome for a game developer. It was full of all those cool stats like “How far has the player run” or “How many bullets has he shot”. But this did not impress my bosses. They wanted to know how we could get the player to buy more stuff, tell his friends to play the game (and thus I learned about cohorts, all I wanted to do was make games).

Time passed, Free to Play became a thing. I went from company to company. Each time, every new project became less and less about how we can do cool things, and more about how we can track and target users to get the most whales possible, boost chart position and retain users to shove as many ads on them as possible.

All of this already seems bad. But along the way, a major thing happened. Facebook. I forget when I did my first Facebook required app, but it was a game changer. Facebook has changed how it has worked over the years. Today you can’t quite get as much information (easily) as you could with the first API, but you still get a lot. We collect as much information about a player as possible, thanks to Facebook we have a ton. Even users who don’t really use Facebook or fill it with “fake” data actually tell us a lot. You might not use Facebook, but your connections give you away. If you play with friends, or you have a significant other who plays, we can see the same IP address, and learn who you are playing with. When we don’t know information, we try to gather it in a game. Have you played a game with different country flags? We use those to not only appeal to your nationalistic pride, but to figure out where you are (or where you identify). Your IP address says you are in America, but you buy virtual items featuring the flag of another country, we can start to figure out if you are on vacation, or immigrated. Perhaps English is not your first language. We use all of this to send you personalized Push Notifications, and show you store specials and items we think you will want.

And if you are a whale, we take Facebook stalking to a whole new level. You spend enough money, we will friend you. Not officially, but with a fake account. Maybe it’s a hot girl who shows too much cleavage? That’s us. We learned as much before friending you, but once you let us in, we have the keys to the kingdom. We will use everything to figure out how to sell to you. I remember we had a whale in one game that loved American Football despite living in Saudi Arabia. We built several custom virtual items in both his favorite team colors and their opponents, just to sell to this one guy. You better believe he bought them. And these are just vanity items. We will flat out adjust a game to make it behave just like it did last time the person bought IAP. Was a level too hard? Well now they are all that same difficulty.

Where microaggressions really come from

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning took Donald Black’s theory of conflict and applied it to the modern movement to call out microaggressions. Jonathan Haidt summarizes where microaggressions really come from:

We’re beginning a second transition of moral cultures. The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.

Campbell and Manning describe how this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized. It is the very presence of such administrative bodies, within a culture that is highly egalitarian and diverse (i.e., many college campuses) that gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim. This is why we have seen the recent explosion of concerns about microaggressions, combined with demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, that Greg Lukianoff and I wrote about in The Coddling of the American Mind.


The key idea is that the new moral culture of victimhood fosters “moral dependence” and an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one’s own. At the same time that it weakens individuals, it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims.

Gluten-Free Diet Has No Benefit for Children With Autism

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

A gluten-free, casein-free diet had no benefit for children with autism, a small study found:

Fourteen young children between three and five years old with a diagnosis of autism were put on a gluten- and casein-free diet for 30 weeks, working with a registered dietitian to make sure they were getting the necessary nutrition.

After they got used to the diet, children were “challenged” weekly for 12 weeks either with a food that contained gluten, casein, both, or a placebo. None of the researchers, parents or children knew if they were getting a real food challenge or a placebo.


Though the researchers initially wanted more children in the study, ultimately only 14 completed it because of both the difficulty of persuading families to sign up and the number of dropouts, the researchers said. Some families left because their children complained about the diet.

The scientists recorded a range of behaviors in the lab after each food challenge and asked parents to monitor others at home, including a range of autism symptoms, sleep patterns and bowel movements.

The data showed no significant change in any of the outcomes between when they were challenged with gluten or casein and when they were given a placebo.

Kermit and Miss Piggy

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

Jim Henson passed away years ago, and Steve Whitmire took over many of his roles, including Kermit the Frog:

Although The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson was his first on-screen performance as Kermit, he considers The Muppet Christmas Carol to be his first real production as Kermit.

Frank Oz is still with us, but he has largely retired, and Eric Jacobson has taken on Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Animal, and Sam the Eagle:

At 2001′s MuppetFest fan convention Jacobson made his Muppet debut secretly performing Miss Piggy welcoming the fans “live via satellite”. Jacobson made his first major Muppet production debut performing Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and Animal for 2002′s It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. He took over the role of Sam the Eagle starting in 2005 with The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz.

In Their Own Words: Jim Henson

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

With the Muppets returning to prime time, PBS presents the Jim Henson episode of In Their Own Words:

The Trouble With Kids Today

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

Charles Murray reviews Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, which covers the same ground as Murray’s own Coming Apart, but with very different policy prescriptions:

But let’s face it: my strategy does not have more chance of working than Putnam’s does. The parsimonious way to extrapolate the trends that Putnam describes so well is to predict an America permanently segregated into social classes that no longer share the common bonds that once made this country so exceptional, accompanied by the destruction of the national civic culture that Putnam and I both cherish.


Monday, September 21st, 2015

Berkeley Breathed now shares his Bloom County strips on Facebook, not on paper:

Bloom County Funnies

Marines’ Small Arms Modernization Strategy

Monday, September 21st, 2015

The Marine Corps’ Small Arms Modernization Strategy includes some long-overdue elements:

The Corps is considering allowing camouflage painted rifles for every Marine and suppressors for rifle squads, Woodburn said. It’s part of an effort to help Marines blend into their surroundings and communicate better. The moves could also give every Marine an “operator” look, although both initiatives are just now being researched.

Driving the effort is the idea to bring rifles in line with the rest of Marine gear. While millions of dollars have been spent developing and fielding Marine Pattern digital camouflage in desert and woodland color schemes, Marines still carry black rifles with a distinctly mechanical shape.

A near-term fix could give commanders the authority to allow Marines to paint their rifles to match the environment to which they’re deploying, Woodburn said. It is something many civilian hunters and members of elite units like Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command already do. The Army has also authorized the move since 2010, when the service recognized the need for better concealment in Afghanistan.

Some achieve the effect with commercial spray paints, while taking care to properly mask optics and other sensitive parts of a rifle. However, Woodburn said the Marine Corps is working with the Office of Naval Research to develop something that can withstand high temperatures and possibly provide other benefits, like concealment in the non-visible spectrum.

The more photos of American forces I see, the more it bothers me that perfectly camouflaged troops are carrying black rifles, while wearing black sunglasses, with black night-vision goggles mounted on their helmets.

Hume and Buddhism

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

Alison Gopnik tells an oddly personal tale, almost Lovecraftian, about fighting for her sanity while poring over dusty tomes from obscure archives:

In 1734, in scotland, a 23-year-old was falling apart.

As a teenager, he’d thought he had glimpsed a new way of thinking and living, and ever since, he’d been trying to work it out and convey it to others in a great book. The effort was literally driving him mad. His heart raced and his stomach churned. He couldn’t concentrate. Most of all, he just couldn’t get himself to write his book. His doctors diagnosed vapors, weak spirits, and “the Disease of the Learned.” Today, with different terminology but no more insight, we would say he was suffering from anxiety and depression. The doctors told him not to read so much and prescribed antihysteric pills, horseback riding, and claret—the Prozac, yoga, and meditation of their day.

The young man’s name was David Hume. Somehow, during the next three years, he managed not only to recover but also, remarkably, to write his book. Even more remarkably, it turned out to be one of the greatest books in the history of philosophy: A Treatise of Human Nature.

In his Treatise, Hume rejected the traditional religious and philosophical accounts of human nature. Instead, he took Newton as a model and announced a new science of the mind, based on observation and experiment. That new science led him to radical new conclusions. He argued that there was no soul, no coherent self, no “I.” “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself,” he wrote in the Treatise, “I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.”


But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.

In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.

How did Hume come up with these ideas, so profoundly at odds with the Western philosophy and religion of his day? What turned the neurotic Presbyterian teenager into the great founder of the European Enlightenment?

In my shabby room, as I read Buddhist philosophy, I began to notice something that others had noticed before me. Some of the ideas in Buddhist philosophy sounded a lot like what I had read in Hume’s Treatise. But this was crazy. Surely in the 1730s, few people in Europe knew about Buddhist philosophy.

Still, as I read, I kept finding parallels. The Buddha doubted the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God. In his doctrine of “emptiness,” he suggested that we have no real evidence for the existence of the outside world. He said that our sense of self is an illusion, too. The Buddhist sage Nagasena elaborated on this idea. The self, he said, is like a chariot. A chariot has no transcendent essence; it’s just a collection of wheels and frame and handle. Similarly, the self has no transcendent essence; it’s just a collection of perceptions and emotions.

“I never can catch myself at any time without a perception.”

That sure sounded like Buddhist philosophy to me — except, of course, that Hume couldn’t have known anything about Buddhist philosophy.

Or could he have?

Read the whole thing.

Not Post-Industrial

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

Our modern economy is only post-industrial, Henry Dampier argues, because we outlawed and then offshored anything dirty, without actually eliminating it:

In America, the educated classes tended to strip workers of dignity except as victims exploited by cruel capitalists, in need of rescue by the intellectuals. The intellectuals then proceeded to make the means by which those laborers eked out independence and property illegal in the name of ‘rescuing’ them. Dignity came to be conferred by education and having the right intellectual-opinions rather than by acting out the ethic of work, saving, and religious duty.

In the name of equality, actually being a good person according to the past measuring-stick of virtue no longer mattered. You could have dignity and still be worthless or a malefactor by the old rubric, so long as you had the right opinions or were a member of one of the ever-proliferating victim groups.

In this the democratic revolutions just created a new class of ‘enlightened’ masters deigned to continually liberate the ever-propagating new classes of ‘slaves.’ First it was the actual bonded slaves, then it was the laborers, then it was the women, then the blacks, then the colonized, then the homosexuals, and now the bigamists and barnyard-lovers.

The value is not in the actual liberation, but in the sense of meaning and motivation created by each new ‘liberation.’ Since actual equality is impossible, what changes are the stories about equality and the pretensions to it.

Yet despite all the pretensions to historical progress, many things continue as they have before, with perceptions changing much more than the underlying reality. Because it’s not possible for men to be women and women to be men, you can’t actually change one into the other — but you can demand that everyone pretend as if it’s possible. It’s quite the same with the ‘post-industrial economy’ and the ‘information age’ — it hasn’t been possible to abolish factories, but it has been possible to pretend as if it’s been mostly accomplished.

Walt Disney on American Experience

Saturday, September 19th, 2015

Walt Disney is a fascinating character, and the latest episode of PBS’s American Experience takes a long look:

Zoology to the Rescue

Saturday, September 19th, 2015

Zoologist Adin Ross-Gillespie of Zurich University applied some evolutionary thinking to drug resistance:

One of these [cases where the survival of the fittest cannot easily occur] is related to the way many bacteria scavenge a crucial nutrient, iron, from the environment. They do it by releasing molecules called siderophores that pick up iron ions and are then, themselves, picked up by bacterial cells. In a colony of bacteria, siderophore production and use is necessarily communal, since the molecule works outside the boundaries of individual cells. All colony members contribute and all benefit.

In theory, that should encourage free riders — bacteria which use siderophores made by others without contributing their own. In practice, perhaps because the bacteria in a colony are close kin, this does not seem to happen. But inverting free riding’s logic makes the system vulnerable to attack, for a bug that contributes more than its share does not prosper.

Following this line of thought Dr Ross-Gillespie turned to gallium, ions of which behave a lot like those of iron and can substitute for them in a siderophore, making it useless to a bacterium. In fact, siderophores bind more effectively with gallium than with iron, hijacking the whole process. A judicious dose of gallium nitrate can thus take out an entire bacterial colony, by depriving it of the iron it needs to thrive.

The crucial point is that, because siderophores are a resource in common, a mutated siderophore that did not bind preferentially to gallium would be swamped by the others, would fail to benefit the bug that produced it, and therefore would not be selected for and spread.


As they expected, both the antibiotics and the gallium nitrate curtailed the growth of Pseudomonas to start with. As they also expected, resistance to both of the antibiotics built up steadily over the 12-day course of the experiment. But nothing similar happened in the cultures exposed to gallium nitrate. These continued to be suppressed. And when the researchers took a closer look at what was going on, they found that not only were the bacteria in their gallium-laced samples starved of iron, but the bugs were also responding to the crisis by pouring their energy into producing more and more siderophores, thus hastening the colony’s demise.

What makes all this more than just a laboratory curiosity is that gallium nitrate is already an established drug.

Pancor Jackhammer

Friday, September 18th, 2015

I had never heard of the Pancor Jackhammer before, but Ian of Forgotten Weapons got hold of the only existing example, an early prototype, and took it apart to explain its unusual action:

When I first heard of the Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver, I thought, that might be a good action for a combat shotgun. I didn’t realize someone had already done it.

Tin Pacifists Won’t Do

Friday, September 18th, 2015

Not long after Hitler invaded Poland, George Orwell reviewed Mein Kampf — which had been published in English a year earlier, edited from a pro-Hitler angle. This passage stood out:

Also he has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,’’ Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation “Greatest happiness of the greatest number” is a good slogan, but at this moment “Better an end with horror than a horror without end” is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined not to underrate its emotional appeal.

Crime-Misery Index

Thursday, September 17th, 2015

Back in 2005, Steve Sailer worked out a Crime-Misery Index, combining homicide rates and imprisonment rates, with both normalized so that 100 would be equal to the average of the 1950s:

Crime-Misery Index Sailer

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration presents a similar graph, using violent crime rates instead of homicide rates:

Crime-Misery Index Coates

To Coates and his editors, the graph proves that locking violent criminals up doesn’t deter crime, while Sailer suggests it means just the opposite:

Yet, by eliminating the pre-1960s years, their graph does a better job than mine of making the obvious more obvious: liberals wrecked the cities in the 1960s and 1970s by being soft on crime.

In the Sixties, the imprisonment rate went down as the crime rate went up, meaning that, increasingly, crime did pay. According to The Atlantic’s own graph, the imprisonment rate was no higher in 1970 than in 1960 even though close to 3.5 [times as many] violent crimes were being committed. In other words, assuming all else being equal, your chance of doing time for committing a violent crime was only about 2/7ths in 1970 of what it had been back in 1960.


It would be easier to take the fashionable conventional wisdom about how we have to let so many felons out of prison more seriously if it were first offered with an apology for what happened the last time liberals were handed the key to the national criminal justice car: “We’re sorry about what we did to America in the 1960s and 1970s. We really, really messed up. But we’ve learned from our mistakes and we promise not to do it again.”


As you probably have noticed by now, “conversation” is SJW for “I’m going to lecture you some more, and I don’t want any of your impertinent backtalk.”