That Time When SI Said “Sign-Stealing Is Good For Baseball”

Do you remember 2017?

It wasn’t all that long ago. Back then, if you talked to a knowledgeable baseball fan, they’d tell you that sign-stealing was fairly common, and that most teams probably had some shady scheme involving the video feed.

In fact, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci wrote a whole article about how sign-stealing using technology is good for baseball back when the Apple Watch scandal started to break in 2017. In 2020, it’s kind of hard to believe that SI would put its weight behind such a trivialization, after a number of scandals, primarily the Astros being caught on videotape thumping a trashcan to signal pitches. But here it is.

This infuriates me, because although I feel the Astros deserved to be castigated for their actions, MLB sold the fanbase on the idea that it was an evil Astros thing, not widespread. And it was obviously widespread. Which means it wasn’t an Astros problem. It was an MLB problem that MLB failed to address.

Here are some quotes from Verducci (emphases are mine):

The dark art of stealing signs is a baseball tradition that goes back to when the Phillies’ third base coach stood on an underground box that would buzz depending on what pitch was coming—in 1899! But the craft of sign stealing became widespread—we’re talking every team, every park—when baseball adopted instant replay in 2009.

To speed replay along, MLB allowed live feeds of games in each team’s video replay monitor. Many of those monitors are located directly behind the dugout, which means the catcher’s signs seen in real time can be relayed to the bench and/or the hitter extremely quickly.

“They really should have the monitor on delay,” said one veteran player. “But baseball doesn’t want to do that. Why? Pace of play. They want replay decided as quickly as possible. That means they don’t want even the extra three or four seconds it would take if you had it on delay.”

How common is stealing signs off the live television feed?

“Goes on all the time,” the player said. “Our (monitor) is so close (to the dugout) you could just run up and whistle” to the hitter to communicate what pitch is coming.

“It’s the reason you see all the meetings on the mound—to change signs. You’ve got guys signaling from second base. You see it all the time because everybody is doing it.”

Here’s another good bit:

“It’s kind of like pine tar,” the player said, referring to pitchers using the substance for a better grip, though it technically is against the rules. “Guys use it all the time and it’s understood to be okay, just as long as you don’t go crazy with it, like [Yankees pitcher] Michael Pineda did, with the stuff slathered all over his neck.”

In the short term, this is good for baseball. The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is officially back on. From CC Sabathia moaning about bunting to each team pointing an accusatory finger at the other for dirty pool, we at last have genuine ill will between the rivals. The rivalry was one of the biggest engines that helped drive the greatest economic growth in the game’s history during the last 20 years. Now, with both teams filled with young stars, enabling a steady cast in the next few years, it can become a similar engine.

So that was the attitude. “Boys will be boys” and “everybody’s doing it so it’s a level playing field.” And it doesn’t take much to see a protective baseball royalty attitude here. I don’t want to throw Verducci to the wolves here, but just like many other antiquated attitudes in MLB, this was the prevailing climate in 2017. Cheating is good for the sport when it enhances the draw of the big powerhouses like New York and Boston. In fact, it’s kind of endearing! It’s giving baseball a nice healthy shot of drama!

But Astrogate proved that it wouldn’t take much to bring to the surface all the self-righteous screamers and ill-informed fans in the baseball hoi polloi. People love having a villain, and MLB was happy to hang that tag on the Astros rather than face the problem in a balanced and healthy way.

The Austin Videogame Writer Liked on YouTube: You Think I’m the Beast? – Saturday Night Live

Your Austin game writer thought you might appreciate this video: You Think I’m the Beast? – Saturday Night Live.
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The Beauty and the Beast realize beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Aired 10/17/09

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Civilization VI: Loads of Depth and Bugs

Civ 6 Is Such A Mixed Bag

You know, the concept of casting the videogame player as an entire culture in the Civilization games is just brilliant, pure genius. The Civ VI intro cinematic captures the quest for human progress perfectly: the wide-eyed optimism and ambition that encapsulates all the bold and impossible achievements our species has logged over the aeons. Too bad it’s followed by a somewhat flawed and ponderous game.

I hadn’t played this series since college and it showed. The presentation has come a long way and I commend the designers for jamming a ridiculous amount of depth into a fairly attractive and intuitive package. That depth, though, isn’t all bonus: the load times on this baby are ridiculous (about three minutes to load your first save, but it seems faster for subsequent loads), and the game itself suffers from memory leaks because (at least on my PC) it intermittently stops responding and playing audio after several consecutive hours, each halt lasting a few seconds.

It also has two very different ways of drawing the world: a realtime view, which shows all your units and buildings as tiny fully-animated 3D models on textured terrain; and a strategy view, which skips some of the animations and detail and shows the terrain as hexes with simpler patterns. I found the strategy view attractive, faster, and much easier to play.

Civ VI Gameplay

The gameplay itself is ridiculously addictive. As a game writer, perhaps I should be more disturbed that a completely narrative-free game could be this intoxicating, but as with a good procedural (think “roguelike”) game, I quickly become invested in both the short-term story (I want to assemble a themed art museum to attract lots of tourism) and the long-term one (I want my culture to dominate). I also enjoy seeing the progression of cultures, from ideas to technologies to “Great People,” who are famous and not-so-famous luminaries who appear as I advance to contribute tasty treasures like substantial bonuses or advances in political thought that unlock economic, diplomatic, and military bonus cards. It’s refreshing to be in a game that reflects the world we live in, acknowledging the importance of art and science, and punishing diplomatically players who rely on conquest.

Some things work well. Others are pretty awful. Pathfinding often seems broken, with units choosing to slog through forests rather than taking a nearby seaborne route. The AI suggestions for what to build are often nonsensical. Your cities get crowded fast, and it’s pretty mystifying as to what resources and bonuses you gain or lose when you build things. (Key among these are the all-important production levels, denoted by gears. If you build the wrong things on geared tiles, you can cripple your city.) Districts, which are city enhancements, can simply never be removed once they are placed, which seems ridiculous, even granted the many interdependencies. I was also a little disappointed to see that almost all of the units you can build and manage are military; I’d like to see a more sophisticated tech tree here that reflects the game’s non-violent victory options.

Even seeing your city boundaries is a hassle, because as your cities start to creep close together, the game draws them as one united mass. I’m sure there’s some option somewhere to disable this, but I’m stumped as to why this is the default.

And the Civ VI Bugs… They Are Legion

I could see myself playing this game more but there were a few headscratching bugs that convinced me otherwise. First, my traders started telling me they didn’t have any valid trade routes. There were plenty of routes available, even in the game’s own trade management panel. Reddit said this might be a bug that requires reinstallation; I suspect it might also have been that I lost some bonus that increased my trade routes, leaving my trader crippled. Either way, the game should’ve handled this better.

The real capper was in the endgame stages when most of the Great People had been already awarded, which means that the Wildcard bonus cards for them were being removed from the board. I got to a point where I had more open Wildcard slots than there were cards, and the game insisted I fill those slots before ending the turn. Which meant the game was completely stuck. Reddit provided an answer for this dilemma too: restore a previous save. In the game industry, we call this an “A” bug — a bug that completely prevents a normal player from finishing the game, and one that a completed game should never contain. I ended up reverting my civ from a democracy back to a feudal chieftaincy to reduce the number of Wildcard slots just so I could get my game to a semi-satisfactory ending.

Thanks, Civ VI. It was a good ride, but I expected more polish from a game of your pedigree. Enjoy the uninstalled afterlife.

Battlefield V: Infected by SJW Politics, or by Bad Judgment?

Is Battlefield V Marred by Politics?

Here’s a question about videogames that I answered on Quora and wanted to share with you.

https://www.quora.com/Can-Battlefield-V-be-saved-And-will-it-have-a-long-lasting-player-base-or-just-empty-servers

As a game designer, I think this looks more like a stylistic error than a “SJW” political issue. This world has enough Gamergate bullsh*t so I’m loath to see yet more political griping, especially when it so quickly gets personal and irrelevant to the game.

IMHO it was a stylistic decision. And honestly, it wasn’t necessarily a bad one; I mean, BF has NEVER been a combat simulation. I mean, have you ever blown up a tank with a grenade? Just take a look at BF 1942: Secret Weapons. You didn’t see all the battlefield reality fascists up in arms about Natter rocket planes flying around like pigeons. And amped-up costume choices and style can be fun. But I do think the team went too far with some of these designs. The character classes need to be identifiable, and it’s jarring to see a character with makeup and a prosthetic arm in a WWII game. At a certain point it’s not a WWII game any more.

I see that the devs did say some things about being inclusive and diverse. Sure. But this is a videogame, and devs love to put a hot girl on the box. What I see here is an attempt to evolve the genre in the Quake/Gears of War direction. DICE tried to pivot their franchise, and the fans didn’t like it.

Nobody goes to the drawing board and says, “How can I take our gravy train franchise and use it to advance my personal politics?” That kind of crap just doesn’t happen. Advancing this kind of conspiracy theory is simply naive.

Follow the money. This was DICE’s attempt to spice up the genre and do something fresh. But they should’ve done themselves a favor and simply called it an “alternate reality WWII.”

The Austin Videogame Writer Liked on YouTube: Trump Acceptance Speech REACTION Video

Your Austin game writer thought you might appreciate this video: Trump Acceptance Speech REACTION Video.
One of our contributors sent us this hilarious Trump RNC Speech Reaction video. He says, “This video shows reactions from Trump’s core constituents: blow-up sex dolls.”

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Why I Can’t Enjoy Watch Dogs 2

Watch Dogs 2 is an impressive technological achievement, a smooth, pretty, hack-tastic open world game that’s a great blend of GTA and stealth adventure. And I just uninstalled it because of game writer fails. I just wasn’t enjoying it anymore.

Watch Dogs 2

In some ways, I should be enjoying Watch Dogs 2 even more than in 2016 when it first launched. Ominous authoritarian moves by corporations and government? Yeah, that’s timely now. Social unrest and protests? Yep. Hackers on social media? Uh huh. Racism and inequality? Well, when haven’t we had those friendly companions?

But the fact is that the game writers and designers on Watch Dogs 2 made a few simple mistakes in scenario design that make the game difficult. It’s set in a peaceful San Francisco, and that’s a problem because the game makes it hard to succeed without piling up bodies. Sure, it’s a San Francisco that’s wired by a creepy security infrastructure that we know is corrupt, and there are gangs and militarized rent-a-cops sprinkled around, but I don’t feel justified in slaying these people.

In GTA, we play criminals so roaming around killing cops is par for the course. And I enjoyed GTA. So it’s not really that I object to killing virtual cops. It’s that it doesn’t fit this story, in which the player assumes the role of master hacker and social activist Marcus Holloway. As Polygon‘s Phillip Kollar wrote, the need for so much deadly force in Watch Dogs 2 is “a complete failure of imagination” that doesn’t fit the protagonists, who are generally laid-back nerds, not vicious vigilantes or criminals. It’s unrealistic to think Marcus would kill a dozen innocent policemen because they responded to a burglar alarm that he triggered, even if that alarm was triggered when he was exposing some extensive personal data breach at a sleazy tech giant.

IMHO, Watch Dogs 2 should’ve been modified in a few simple ways to resolve this incongruity:

  • the player should’ve been given a better assortment of non-lethal weapons, including a stungun or taser that knocked NPCs out for longer periods. The game doesn’t even provide a non-lethal sniper rifle. This is a design flaw too; the game wants badly to be a stealth game, so much that Marcus is very fragile in combat and has no options to buy armor or level up health. Why not match Marcus’ strengths with his weapons?
  • the peaceful scenario could’ve been made more dire, which appears to be what Ubisoft is doing with Watch Dogs: Legion. If San Francisco had been occupied by some totalitarian force, then deadly force would seem more justifiable, as well as thematically appropriate to the scenario.
  • the friendly NPCs needed to react to the player’s use (or non-use) of deadly force.

To be honest, I bought this game primarily because I read a review that claimed that the writing was funny. Truly funny games are few and far between. And Watch Dogs 2 is… amusing. They do a good job with the tech speak and the hacker feel, even if a lot of it feels heavily cribbed from Mr. Robot. Sadly, though, it lacks the humor and depth of the aforementioned Mr. Robot. Funny is a tough thing to measure, but Watch Dogs 2 only has a few sprinkled bits that make you momentarily consider smiling. It’s Hallmark Channel funny with Hallmark Channel characters, but it’s no Mr. Robot.

Thanks for a few momentary thrills, Watch Dogs 2. Good luck next time.

The Austin Videogame Writer Liked on YouTube: Game Time with Randy and Greg: Baseball – SNL

Your Austin game writer thought you might appreciate this video: Game Time with Randy and Greg: Baseball – SNL.
TV sports show host Randy Dukes (Kenan Thompson) wants to talk baseball but people just want to talk about Greg (Bill Hader) being an alien. Even the guest, an ex-baseball player (Gerard Butler), is curious about Greg. [Season 35, 2009]

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The Austin Videogame Writer Liked on YouTube: A Spray Bottle that Fires When I Smile

Your Austin game writer thought you might appreciate this video: A Spray Bottle that Fires When I Smile.
A high-powered Spray Bottle That Only Fires When You Smile, pretty simple. I heard this is the kind of stuff that kids are into, like tasers and anime.
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The Austin Videogame Writer Liked on YouTube: Explaining the Pandemic to my Past Self

Your Austin game writer thought you might appreciate this video: Explaining the Pandemic to my Past Self.
What would happen if I tried to explain what’s happening now to the January 2020 version of myself?

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Programmers Writing Games? Is That Possible?

I recently got a request to answer this question on Quora: “Im graduating with a Computer Science bachelor’s degree, and I LOVE games and their stories! Which job would be suitable for me in the Game industry?”

Here’s my full answer (not the abbreviated one I posted on Quora):

It’s interesting that you prominently mention story, which is the one area where programmers generally have little sway. (Designers and producers usually drive story, but there are always exceptions.)

The good thing is that a top-notch programmer can usually cross disciplines with little difficulty because a top programmer is so valuable. The downside: a top programmer usually has too much work to dabble in story, and management will discourage you from working on story if you are needed elsewhere. Story can be extremely time-consuming, esp at the micro level for an MMORPG or RPG with thousands of lines of dialog. The broad strokes of story are drawn during concept and pre-production, when a programmer’s usually fully drained by engine building and laying the technical foundations.

Also, if you’re writing chops aren’t finely honed, or you don’t have a lot of writing credentials, management may be even more unenthusiastic about your writing interests. Another sad fact: often game stories are fairly locked down well before it reaches the game team. The creative director or producers have already chosen the direction, or you’re locked into a sequel, and even the designers are only laying in polish or filling missing chapters in a tale that’s already finalized.

In short, the game industry is always slammed for time and impatient with talent that wants to step outside the usual roles. If you can produce on the fly and not impact schedules, sure. But if you need time or assistance, it’s not always smiled upon. To draw a sports analogy, it’s kind of like baseball players who want to hit and pitch too. It sounds attractive, but in the actual application most teams would rather players picked one and excelled at it rather than risk injury and mediocrity trying for both.

My recommendation: consider working in the indie games space. That’s where small teams can crank out important work and everyone has to cross disciplines. Of course, indie games don’t pay well and the marketplace for indie games is increasingly choked with competition. On the other hand, the mainstream game industry is equally brutal, with frequent mass layoffs, dehumanizing crunches, and a general lack of creative control and ownership/revenue sharing. In my opinion, a talented graduate is better off working a low-demand day job writing accounting software or something prosaic, and working on an independent project when possible. In this era of self-directed remote work, a good programmer can easily spend half her time on her own projects while still enjoying the stability and benefits of a traditional programming career.