wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: February, 2021

We as I were.

Over the last few evenings I reread Tim Powers’s Declare — it’s a great adventure novel! — and was motivated by reread my original review of it, from 2011. (Maybe I’ll post it, and a new take, sometime soon.) While poking the corpse of then-me I was struck by a few of its features bugs:

  • My review — 3,500 words or so, written in a sitting! Jesus! — started stiffly, warmed, boiled over, got nutty, and coughed to a halt. My writing used to go this way all the fucking time. Nowadays I skip everything past the ‘warmed’ part, indeed often skip that one too.
  • I had a way bigger beef with Catholicism a decade ago than I do now. Too big, too personal, too resentful. And not a big enough beef with Communism, I think.
  • I’d forgotten almost everything about the novel’s second half; that’s what happens when you’re reading while your infant child naps. Indeed I’d been wondering, this week, if I had ever actually finished the book a decade ago! Turns out I did, and just retained nothing at all from its second half. Interesting how that works. Did I say ‘interesting’? ‘Sad,’ I mean.
  • I was too confident at 32.

Panoptic fable.

A panoptic fable.

The state builds a prison in the shape of a Coke can with a tower in the middle. The guard sits in the tower and can see everyone. The prisoners are monitored all the time — they can see the guard scanning the crowd with a telescope. They know that they’ll be watched today, individually, but don’t know when. They live, justifiably, in fear.

The prison then puts in a system of mirrors that allows the guard to look at the prisoners (now called ‘guests’) without impolitely staring directly at them. The guests know they’re being looked at, but can’t know the routine, the cadence. They live, justifiably, in anxiety. On the other hand, they don’t have to watch the guard watch them anymore.

The prison then bricks up the tower. The ingenious mirror-device means the guard — a young woman named Anita — can monitor all the prisoners guests unseen, at her leisure. Leisure is important. The guests have no idea, at any given point, whether they’re being watched; they live, justifiably, in a state of paranoia. On the other hand, they don’t have to look at the guard at all.

Honestly, at a certain level it’s kind of a relief.

Anita is let go. Her internship — she’s a sociology student — was over anyway. The prison wants to cut costs, so instead of replacing Anita, it leaves the tower empty. No one is actually watching. The reduction in head count leads to improved profits, a tiny fraction of which are passed along to the guests in the form of less-wormy meals.

The guests, having had time to acclimate to not being able to see Anita, make no change in their behaviour. If anything, prison life grows a little boring.

In its year-end financial statement, the prison reports that instead of the paternalistic/colonial term ‘guests,’ inmates will henceforth be referred to as ‘users,’ emphasizing their agency and humanity. It notes proudly that many of its users are ‘POC.’

One of the users, a young man named Vronsky imprisoned for cybercrime, actually took Literary Theory in college. He points out to the other users at dinner that the prison is what’s known as a ‘panopticon,’ and that — while they can’t be sure, since they haven’t been shown the year-end financial statement — it’s likely that no one’s even in the fucking guard tower. ‘What’s the matter with you sheeple?’ he yells one day while everyone’s working out.

One other user thinks about Vronsky’s claims and actually enjoys his hectoring, but doesn’t want to say anything in support without ‘reading the room’ first. Two more say ‘Hmmm’ but are absorbed in a game of Game of Thrones-branded chess (Danerys and Cersei are the queens; the pawns are little dragons and wights; games cost them $1.99 apiece, charged to the users’ rooms). The rest of the userbase, however, labels Vronsky a conspiracist crank — and they remind each other, in falsely confident voices, to behave so that whoever is in the tower (which, in private, they insist is probably nobody at all!) won’t come down hard on them.

The users who most loudly shame Vronsky are well thought of in the prison population as ‘influencers’ and, indeed, ‘gang leaders.’

At Christmas, Anita is confronted by her cousin Aurelio, whose parents have been in the USA longer and have more money than Anita’s parents. ‘How could you be part of that corrupt system?!’ he yells intemperately.

Cousin,‘ Anita responds, ‘it was the only internship I could get. And I didn’t punish anyone, I didn’t even talk to them. In fact, one time I told my boss not to punish someone — a Latinx user, by the way — for a minor infraction, and they didn’t. I’m actually making a difference.’

Nonetheless guilt ridden, Anita starts watching Youtube videos about something called the ‘carceral state.’

At the prison, Vronsky is knifed in the shower for reasons, it is said, unrelated to his anti-‘panopticon’ agitation. Because a certain rate of user churn is accounted for in the prison’s financial plan, the decision is made not to punish anyone for the stabbing. However, the prison administrators install a complaint box in the lunchroom where users can anonymously Report one another for various infractions.

More than a hundred Reports are generated in the first month, and an unpaid intern (the prison’s first nonbinary employee!) is brought on to dispose of the complaint cards.

Anita becomes a ‘whistleblower,’ i.e. she publishes a Medium post about her experience as an unwitting tool of the prison-industrial complex. This makes her unemployable in that sector. She sets up a Patreon which does moderately well, and always cites her employment at the panopticon in her writing and podcast appearances.

The panopticon, which has recently gone public through a SPAC acquisition (NASDAQ: 0EYE), is listed prominently on Anita’s résumé; her Patreon is not. She eventually gets a job at a nonprofit that connects recently freed users with low-paying green-energy positions, on a temporary basis.

Aurelio works at his local independent coffee shop, and his income is supplemented by occasional checks from his parents.

Prison records reveal that Vronsky was gay, and the prison releases a series of viral videos honouring Vronsky’s independent spirit. It then announces a fellowship — Vronsky’s spot in the prison will be reserved for queer artists working on hot-button political subjects.

The Biden campaign retweets one of the videos.

Cardboard crack.

First of all, a Reddit comment I recently made. The question on the table was: Why wasn’t Android: Netrunner more popular? My answer is mostly about Magic: The Gathering

Please forgive the scattered and testy nature of this long comment. I don’t have time to edit and organize.

There have been many, many, many customized-deck card games, ‘living’ and ‘trading’ and ‘collectible’ and so forth. Only a couple have ever done good business, even in the medium term, after the novelty/craze period. I think u/SyntaxLost is right: however it was designed as a game, ANR wasn’t designed to be the kind of corporate product line that M:TG is.

It’s said that ANR did reasonably well for a card game that isn’t one of the three popular beat-’em-ups (M:TG, Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon), but at day’s end those are the only custom-deck games that’ve made decent money in years and years. Quick: name any of the other top-10 card games, if you can.

Of the big 3 I’ve played Pokemon, an execrable game, and M:TG, a good but hyperbolically overrated one. I believe they’re popular for reasons that have only a little to do with quality or depth or delicacy or nuance; Netrunner’s a better game, deeper, more thematically rich than the popular ones, but it lost the mindshare-game predictably. It’s not a meritocracy and the reasons aren’t really about game design — they’re about social experience.

Random packs appeal to people. Collectible cartoon art appeals to people. Japanese children’s fighting schlock appeals to people. Things already popular appeal to people. A couple years ago I’d be trawling my FLGS on a Friday night and it’d be full of teenagers. M:TG appeals to them because of, not despite, its grotesque (frankly unethical) blind-booster distro model. It’s quick to get into — it gamifies the act of buying a consumer good.

You’re having the ‘M:TG experience’ the instant you buy your first pack.

You can turn up at the FLGS, spend $10, and have an evening of M:TG or Pokemon. There’s value in that.

There was a good, interesting Star Wars LCG years ago — even that didn’t do well post-novelty. Star Wars! Card games come and (fail to constantly regenerate their playerbase and) go. The big 3 are entrenched; they are meaningful revenue streams; stores are committed to them. Target sells their products. And they don’t have hilariously self-limiting business plans.

(Think of the Netrunner sales pitch: ‘To make a real deck, first spend more than $100 to buy our introductory product three fucking times…’)

ANR does have a bunch of nonobvious (but clever and sensible) jargon that you have to learn — i.e. the terms ‘R&D’ and ‘HQ’ actually matter during the game — and offers more complex choices, on average, than the card-army games. ‘Onboarding’ is disastrous. Your first experience with ANR is worse, less satisfying in almost every way, than with the other games.

(Yet I just played my first game with my 10-year-old son, who got it and loved it.)

‘Session Zero’ matters.

Losing your first game of M:TG is fun. Playing MORE mana and BIGGER monsters is fun.

Losing your first game of ANR is not fun. There’s nonobvious stuff to manage. It feels like you have both too much freedom and too many requirements. It’s hard to intuit the nature of the ticking clock.

Well, so ANR is a complex card game and M:TG (+ilk) is a social pastime. No wonder they’ve suffered such different fates.

If the above comment is at all insightful, here’s the insight, conveniently boldfaced in the original:

You’re having the ‘M:TG experience’ the instant you buy your first pack.

People unacquainted with the once-massive, still shockingly big collectible card game (CCG) business may not realize this, so it’s worth elaborating on.

The core insight of the creator of Magic: The Gathering, master game designer Richard Garfield, was that arbitrarily complex custom card decks could compete under a relatively simple rules framework to generate a radically new mode of competitive gameplay. He made ‘deckbuilding’ a core element of card play — one of the two best gaming ideas of the 20th century.

(The other? ‘It’s like a wargame, only each figurine represents one guy, and instead of just fighting they can do anything. We’ll roll the dice to see what happens next in the adventure. And there are dragons.’)

Garfield was naive enough, nearly 30 years ago, to think that selling cards of varying rarity in blind random packs would be a neat distribution model — he famously intended for players to offer cards as ‘ante'(!) before each match, a notion that didn’t survive playtesting.

The core insight of Wizards of the Coast, the (now Hasbro-subsidiary) company that publishes Magic and owns the obscene and cynical patent on Garfield’s custom-deck design language, was this: M:TG is actually three overlapping games in one:

  1. The table game — play of the hand
  2. The home game — deckbuilding
  3. Gambling.

Plenty of Filthy Casuals love the table game, and for a certain sort of person, the home game is one of the most intellectually rewarding activities in all of gaming.

The gambling game is the sole reason Hasbro bothers with M:TG.

M:TG is a license to print money, a primary driver of Hasbro’s table-game revenue, but that moneymaking power depends on a grotesque business model, selling blind booster packs containing cards whose power levels (play value) are tied1 to their rarity (commodity value). Many M:TG players eagerly justify this to themselves — read any Magic forum for a taste of this low-grade Stockholm syndrome, with dull know-alls subjecting naïve n00bs to the ‘Case for Capitalism, Day One’ lecture that is the obvious limit of their own reading — while most wearily accept it as a condition of the Corporate Fun they’ve bought into. But facts remain facts: most M:TG cards are ‘filler’ destined to be sold to children by the case, competitive M:TG decks can run to a thousand bucks (vastly more for vintage formats), and M:TG’s set-rotation system means that playing in two different years means buying lots of Hasbro product.

The hidden structure of the M:TG experience isn’t complicated. WotC sells you the chance to ‘pull’ an exciting collector item from a plastic bag, and as a consolation prize you get to play a fairly casual high-variance card game, almost entirely removed from that played by the small cadre of high-level professional players that you are encouraged to dream of joining.

This structure remains hidden because players prefer it that way.

WotC has ‘gamified’ the act of buying playing cards. That isn’t a new concept (BUY POGS!), but this specific form — ‘deckbuilding’ that starts at the sales counter — was merely ugly when it was baseball cards, and is nauseating when it’s dressed up as a meritocratic-competitive activity. No one harbours illusions (anymore) that collecting baseball cards is a skillful activity. It’s more like subscribing to a cable TV service: you pay your monthly fee, sometimes something unusually good comes on, mostly you get a bite-sized predictable experience, and the money’s not coming back unless you’ve got something going on the side. The supplier is responsible for product, not the experience; play is your problem.

(A vanishing number of M:TG players make some of their money back. The ones who make a big profit are (1) very lucky and/or (2) predators.)

To be clear, Magic: The Gathering is a good card game when you get to the deckbuilding and table stages. At high levels it’s deep and rewarding; for beginners it’s fun and intriguing. But there are much better custom-deck games that don’t involve selling ‘cardboard crack’ — the community’s term, not mine, for the blind-booster gambling model — to kids. Strip away brand loyalty, sunk costs keeping players in, and the gambling (buying) game, and what’s left, really? Another card game? One popular enough to get a Friday night game among strangers at the FLGS. It sells because it sells, and because the selling per se is part of the thrill.

M:TG the game is a wonderful thing. M:TG the business is contemptible. You’d have to be pretty (willfully) stupid to believe that they’re two separate things.

  1. The relationship between rarity and power isn’t as simple in M:TG as it is in, say, the Pokémon game. But the difference is hair-splitting.