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Fresh Meat (price drop incoming)
by jasonrohrerWednesday, March 4, 2020 [4:18 am]

After six years, it's finally happening.

Price drop goes live on Steam tomorrow morning.


Numbers from Week 1
by jasonrohrerTuesday, February 4, 2014 [7:11 pm]

Today is the last day of the 25% launch-week discount for The Castle Doctrine. As I explained elsewhere, the game will never go on sale again, after today.

This plan (where the price rises slowly over time instead of starting high and getting deeply discounted later) was widely discussed. For people who might want to buy the game, there are no surprises on the horizon. Amazingly, the Steam Store page even has a live counter going. It looks like the launch discount will end at precisely 9:45am PST on Wednesday, February 5.


And thinking about surprises and gotchas, such a counter clearly wouldn't be displayed in the hours before an upcoming sale. "Just 24 hours left until the discount price kicks in!" Can you imagine that? I feel much better about the kind of openness that rising prices allow. And I didn't even have to ask Valve to open up---they put that counter in place automatically.

Speaking of openness, I figured today was a good day to share the full numbers from not just the first week on Steam, but also from the full 11 months of paid alpha sales too. So, first of all, how did the game do outside of Steam, through my own website? First, the big picture. This graph shows all off-Steam sales ever, for a grand total of 8,919 accounts sold, and a gross revenue of $73,077:


Okay, so there are three big spikes in that graph. First, back in March, there was the biggest off-Steam sales day ever. That was the day that I launched my paid alpha. In July, you can see a small spike when I released a trailer for the game. There's also quite a lot of turbulence in the graph around that time, because there was quite a lot of turbulence in the video game world about the game's themes, my personal stances, and so on.

The last two big spikes come right at the end, less than a week before launch. The first one, highlighted above on Thursday, was the day that the STEAL REAL MONEY Contest was announced. The next one, after that, is the day of my launch, as people exercised their last chance to get the game at 50% off. Here's a close look at that end period in the graph. During these three weeks alone, 3,841 accounts were sold for a gross revenue of $32,576:


The first small spike in this graph comes from the announcement of my alternative pricing scheme and all the controversy that swirled around that plan. Then comes the contest spike, which was already labeled in the previous graph. Finally, launch day, which was the third-biggest off-Steam sales day in Castle Doctrine history. Clearly, "the price is going to rise soon" drives sales in the same way that "the price just dropped" can, but with none of the nasty side-effects.

Those pretty graphs are screen grabs directly from FastSpring, which has the best data backend for tracking this kind of stuff that I've ever seen. And, since they let me keep 91.1% of the money, my net through them so far as been $66,573. That's pretty good for an off-Steam game made by one person with a $0 PR budget.

Okay so on to Steam. Of course, only a week has passed, so there's much less data to share. This graph shows a total of 6,546 accounts sold for a gross revenue of $78,562:


The biggest spike occurred on the first hour after launch, with another smaller spike around the same time the following day. This graph shows the daily totals:


After a sharp drop in the first two days, which brought in over $50,000 total, the descent has started to slow. The last available data point came from yesterday, when 342 accounts were sold for $4,107.

And, of course, I get to keep only 70% of this money, so my net so far from Steam is $54,993. Thus, between my own website and Steam, I've sold a total of 15,465 accounts for a net revenue of $121,566.

This might sound like a lot of money, but this is revenue from a project that took two full years to make. While $60K a year is way more than I could make doing a lot of things, it's probably way less than I would make as a programmer in the game industry. On the other hand, I only work half time (except during launch week!), eat three meals a day with my spouse and three children, and answer to no one.

Here, I've made an absolutely crazy, experimental game that is way off the beaten path for almost everyone who plays it---by far the most "out there" game that I've ever worked on---and it's not a commercial failure that will send me scrambling for a real job.

Well, success and failure are relative, of course. If I had a company of five other collaborators to support on this revenue, I'd be in serious trouble.

The full, eternal price of $16 will kick in tomorrow morning. Gasp! What will happen? Will I be crushed under the cruel black boot of the market and fade into obscurity as a result?

Stay tuned for next week's numbers to find out.

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Responding to the Sale Debate
by jasonrohrerFriday, January 17, 2014 [3:48 pm]

Hey folks! As you can imagine, the response to this article, both positive and negative, has been enormous and beyond my wildest expectations. I'm having a bit of trouble keeping up with all of it.

You've all posted some very thoughtful things here and elsewhere, and I'd love to respond to each one of you. But, given that I'm in my last 12 days before launch and that I'm a one-person show, I simply don't have the time to do that right now.

To summarize a bit of a response: what I'm proposing DOES clearly fly in the face of psychology. Marketers have used psychological tricks over the years to convince loads of people to spend money on things that they don't actually want or need. "SALE!" is a big part of that psychological bag of tricks.

If you go to Hollywood, you'll find the "$10 store, where everything is on sale for 50% today for $5." But if you return next week, next month, or next year, you'll find that the same sale is still happening. And you'll notice that the signs they are holding look a bit worn out. Still, some people are tricked by this and go into that store, thinking they are getting a deal.

It WORKS. I get it.

But I want no part of it. I don't want to trick anyone, not a single person, into buying my game when they really don't want it, at any price. I don't want a SINGLE person to pay for my game and not play it.

Yesterday, because of all this buzz, 142 people bought my game. Guess how many new people played the game yesterday? About 140.

These are people who heard about the game, watched the trailer, and said, "Yeah, that looks like a game I really want to play." Those are the people that I want spending money on my game.

I know that my game is not for everyone. It's weird and hard and disturbing. I have absolutely NO disdain for the people who don't like my game or aren't excited about it when they hear about it or watch the trailer. But I really want those people to save their money for other things and NOT waste it on my game, at any price.

All that said, the economic argument against rampant sales is stronger than many people claim for one simple reason: near the bottom, there IS a crossover point where you stop making more money if you keep increasing the discounts. The existence proof of that point is simple: if you put your game on sale for a 100% discount, you will make $0. What about a 99% discount? Or 95%? Where is the crossover point? It lies somewhere between a 0% discount and a 100% discount.

The only way to know for sure is to A/B test prices simultaneously, without your audience being aware that you're doing that. And as far as I'm aware, no one has done that (and I don't want to do it). So, we have no idea where the crossover point is, though we are clearly locked into a race to the bottom, as discounts get bigger and bigger, and sales become more frequent.


We may already be beneath the crossover point without realizing it.

At the end of the day (or year, in this case), I will have my sales data. But sadly, it will tell me nothing. Would I have made more or less money if I had put my game on sale?

Even during the alpha test, I have no idea: did I gain or lose money by giving a 50% discount during that period?

But that's not the point. Giving a discount was the right thing to do, because I'm a one-person team, and it took me 10 months and 30 revisions to work through all of the issues that arose in the community. It was only fair to give people a price break in exchange for them putting up with that process. If I cut my revenue in half by doing the right thing, so be it.

Read the original article

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Why Rampant Sales are Bad for Players
by jasonrohrerWednesday, January 15, 2014 [7:09 pm]

First, a bit of news: the Castle Doctrine has a confirmed Steam release date of January 29, 2014. The alpha will end at that point, along with the 50% discount.

Over the years that I've worked on this game, I've done a lot of thinking about game pricing. I've been inspired by the way Minecraft pricing worked. Essentially, the price just kept rising over time.

Of course, this flies in the face of the modern trends, from the race to the bottom in app stores, to the back-to-back Steam sales, to the super-lucrative bundles. Games generally start out expensive at release time, then get cheaper when they go on sale, and eventually become effectively free when they are put in a name-your-price bundle.

And I totally get it. As a Steam developer, I've made much of my Inside a Star-filled Sky money during Steam sales. Sure, I made 25% of my lifetime Steam revenue during my launch week, but I made an additional 10% during my first sale, which happened only a few weeks after my launch. After that initial taste of extra, no-effort money, I participated in sale after sale. I was hooked. In the long tail, my daily revenue dwindled down to almost nothing, except during the sales, when there would be another big spike. I mean, making $3K over a few days, and a full year after launch? Hard to resist.


(As you can see in this graph, in 2013, I stopped participating in Steam sales. Oops!)

In 2009, Steam had its first big sale. I'm guessing that they were blown away by how much money they made, because they followed that sale with three more sales the next year. These days, they have 5 gigantic sales each year, which means that a sale is pretty much always just around the corner. And even better, in between the sales, there are publisher sales and weekend sales and deals-of-the-day and so on. Something is always on sale.

On its face, this seems like an obvious win for game developers: they get to revive their dwindling long-tail numbers with a big revenue boost, and a sale will bring more latecomer players into their games too. This also seems like a win for players: people who can't afford to buy a game at full price get a chance to play it later, for cheaper. The audience grows, and more people get to experience the game. Good stuff.

But I suspect that something different is happening. Something that is arguably bad for players, and possibly bad for developers as well.

To put it bluntly: sales screw your fans.

Your fans love your games and eagerly await your next release. They want to get your game as soon as it comes out, at full price. But they are foolish to do that, because a sale is right around the corner. Even in economic terms, the extra utility of playing the game early, at release, is not big enough to offset the extra cost for most people . It makes more sense to wait, unless they love you and your work so much that they're willing to throw economic reason out the window. It's nice to have fans that love your work that much. And these are the fans that you kick in the teeth when you put your game on sale.

But forget the fans for a moment. A culture of rampant sales is a culture of waiting. "I'll buy it later, during a sale." Launch weeks become weak, and developers grow to depend on sales for financial survival. Even in my example from above, 25% is a pretty sad launch week. In my case, that represented something like $23K. I made more selling the game through my own website. Pathetic. Of course, sale after sale, later on, pumped my revenue up to way more than what I made on my website.

This waiting game is likely decimating your player base and critical mass at launch by spreading new players out over time. And your fans, who are silly enough to buy the game at launch and waste money, get to participate in a weaker, smaller player community.

Finally, there's the possibility that the culture of sales actually reduces developer revenue over the long term. If just half of the players who buy the game during a 50%-off sale would have bought the game at full price if that was their only option, we'd already have a wash. What fraction of sale-waiting players fall into this category? I suspect way more than half. The picture gets even worse for 75%-off sales.

To balance this out, we would need a whole lot of people who will buy random games just because they are on sale---games that they had no intention of buying otherwise. Maybe there are enough of these people, and I've certainly met some of them: people who have a backlog of 50 unplayed games in their Steam library. Maybe they'll never play them. But even if there are enough people doing this, it's not a good thing. It's just people being tricked into wasting money on stuff they don't want or need. Better that they spent that money on one full-price game that they really want rather than four 75%-off impulse buys to add to their backlog.


All that said, I get why a culture of sales has blossomed, and I also get that it's impossible to escape from it now. To Valve's credit, they never force developers to put their games on sale. Of course, when most developers are putting their games on sale, it becomes harder for the remaining developers to make sufficient revenue without joining the sales, which means even more developers will put their game on sale, which means that players will know that pretty much every game will be available at a deep discount sooner or later, which means that more players avoid buying games at full price, and so on.

And to be fair, selling older games at a deep discount isn't something that modern developers invented. It's in our blood from way back:


But a bargain rack for physical retail makes perfect sense and is actually pretty great for everyone. Shelf space is limited, as are the number of available copies of a given game, and retailers need to eventually liquidate old games to make room for new ones. But the temptation for players to wait until it's on sale is weaker, because there's a good chance that an awesome game will sell out before it ever hits the bin. Just try finding a copy of Rez, Ico, or Rock Band 3 in the bargain bin. Some games even sell used for more than their original retail price. Other old games are almost impossible to find.

When we're talking about digital games, the potential full-price lifetime is pretty much eternal. There is no shelf space. Even the long tail isn't a hard-and-fast rule anymore. As the game's audience grows, revenue can actually climb over time, sometimes even making launch week look like an insignificant blip. Consider Gary's Mod, which has been selling steadily, at an increasing rate, for seven years:


Yes, there are some big, thin spikes there during the sales, but they are insignificant compared to the day-to-day full price volume. And how much thicker would that daily volume be if players weren't waiting for sales?

Okay, but what are the alternatives? More importantly, how am I going to price The Castle Doctrine? If you buy it at launch, are you going to be screwed a few weeks later by a sale? Am I going to make you wish that you waited?

Let's consider the implications of the Minecraft pricing model. What if, instead of inevitable sales as a game ages, the price rises over time instead?

For the fans, this is a great thing, because their die hard fanhood is rewarded with a lower price, almost like a secret deal for those who knew about the game before anyone else. When the price goes up later, they feel smart. Most importantly, they don't feel torn between supporting their favorite developer at launch and saving money. They can do both.

For people who find out about the game later, after the price has gone up a bit, they may regret not buying the game before the increase (a lesson learned for next time), but they can still feel smart buying the game now, before it goes up again.

For the people who buy the game the latest, after the final, permanent price has been reached, they had the chance to wait to hear more about the game before buying. They had less to lose at that point, because the game has been vetted and the community established.

But in general, people who missed lower prices in the past may not even be aware of what they missed. They come to buy the game now, and see the current price now. On the other hand, when your game goes on sale later, everyone who bought it at full price remembers what they paid and feels the sting. Being unaware of what you're missing has a different psychological impact than having what you missed thrown right in your face.

Indeed, people gripe openly when they buy a game only to see it discounted next week. They even email developers and ask for refunds. Who complained when the price of Minecraft went up?

No one, because the Minecraft pricing model also permits total openness about future pricing plans. You can safely announce, "The price will go up next week. This is the last week to get the lower price." This will create a huge revenue spike as people race to get the game---no problem there.

However, if you're planning to put the game on sale next week, you can't announce it, because you will cannibalize this week's full-price revenues. Even worse, people who would decide to wait upon news of a forthcoming sale may forget to come back and buy the game later. They're at your website now, and you can't afford to scare them away now. So, you have to keep the forthcoming sale secret. You have to surprise people. And burn people. The worst case here is pretty awful: the sorry person who buys the game one minute before the surprise sale price kicks in. You're going to get an email from that person.

So, the rising price model is really just an inversion of the sales model. You get revenue spikes later in the life of the game, right before announced price hikes, which are very similar to the spikes induced by putting a game on sale. But there are no surprises, so no one feels screwed by the process.

In the case of The Castle Doctrine, the "ever rising" price model was a perfect fit for other reasons. As a massively-multiplayer server-based game, it required extensive testing before launch. I could reward those early testers with the biggest discount. Also, as a server-based game, each additional "copy" sold is not without cost to me: it's one more player logging into the server, and potentially one more player who will need tech support during an outage. I can't just pepper the ground with cheap or free download codes, because download codes are actually lifetime accounts.

So, here's how it is going to work:

The final price of the game will be $16. During alpha testing, up through launch, the game has a 50% discount for $8. During launch week, the game will have a 25% discount for $12. After launch week, the game will rise to full price.


In other words, this is the last two weeks to get the game at 50% off (ending January 28). If you want to wait until launch on Steam, you can get it for 25% off if you buy it during the first week (ending February 4). Otherwise, the game will be full price at $16 forever after that.

Anyone feel burned by that plan?

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Version 29 Released
by jasonrohrerTuesday, January 14, 2014 [9:23 pm]

This release further improves the visibility shroud. It also contains loads of little fixes that improve honor-system security between the client and the server and also thwart various potentially harmful player behaviors.

The biggest visible change in this release is the addition of a 10-minute maximum timer for each robbery. You can no longer monopolize a house for hours by robbing it slowly.

A full list of changes can be found here:

The Castle Doctrine Change Log

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On Self Defense
by jasonrohrerTuesday, August 6, 2013 [6:31 pm]

Much has been made of my position on self defense, mostly based on bits and pieces of my story taken from spoken interviews. But what actually happened to my family in New Mexico? I've never gotten to lay down all the facts, so I'll do that now.

First of all, why did we ever move there? To summarize, we had to leave our five-year home in Potsdam, NY because our house had an extreme moisture and mold problem that Lauren ended up being severely allergic to. The high property taxes in the village prevented us from buying a better house there (for most of our friends, the property taxes were more than their yearly mortgage payment---like having two mortgages, but one that you will never pay off). Since we had to move away, we might as well try the polar opposite, climate-wise. From damp and freezing to dry and boiling. And also still cheap! New Mexico.


Visiting Las Cruces by plane and driving around in a rental car, it seemed like a pretty nice place. Palm trees, cacti, and stunning views of the mountains from almost everywhere in town. A solid food co-op and a thriving farmers' market. A good library with a huge selection of films. A low crime rate (something like half that of Albuquerque). So, we bought a house with three pecan trees in a nice little neighborhood. We could see the mountains from our front yard.


Shortly after moving there, we had our first dose of culture shock: A guy in the shopping mall just walking along with a semi-auto pistol on his hip.


Next, the owner of the reptile store is nonchalantly wearing a .38 revolver on his hip. I'm standing there talking to him, and this guy's right hand is inches away from potentially blowing a hole in my chest. Weird feeling. I said something like, "Wow, you're, um, carrying a gun." He was friendly about it, explaining that lots of "crackheads" are into snakes, and he's gotta be careful. He also recounted that his store had been robbed in the past for a few $2000 snakes. I'm imagining a burglar running out the door with a pillowcase full of pythons.


Second culture shock: driving around Las Cruces is very different from walking and biking. When you're driving, you don't notice the trash that is blowing around everywhere. You don't notice the crumbling cement blocks or the rotting fences. What looks like a blur of palm trees, pastel houses, and navy-blue skies by car starts to look more like a sun-scorched wasteland when you're on foot. Most importantly, when you're in a car, you don't notice the dogs.

Now, I'm a dog lover. I grew up with dogs, so I generally know how to read them. I have no problem going up to a strange dog and introducing myself, because I can tell when a dog is friendly and open to that kind of interaction. But the dogs in Las Cruces are... different.

First of all, every block has at least one pit bull. When I say pit bull, you're probably thinking that I'm peddling over-hyped, negative stereotypes. This is a breed that has received all sorts of undue, negative attention in the media, right? I mean, we all know cute, gentle, lovable pit bulls:


But it's hard to sufficiently convey how different the dogs in Cruces are from the ones that you know and love. I wish I could show you a picture, but no image search turns up anything close to what I saw there. This is the best picture I could find, but it pales in comparison to what they've managed to breed in Cruces:


The most impressive specimen that I ever saw lived on our street just two blocks away. He had a head the size of a watermelon (the head pictured above is only 23 inches), an enormous jaw, rippling muscles, girthy, uncut testicles, and weighed well over 100 pounds. I'm not sure how they grow dogs to look like this, but I suspect some kind of hormone injections are involved. Still, the dog itself wasn't so much of a problem.

The problem was the manner in which the dog was kept: in the front yard all day behind a three foot high, broken cyclone fence that was right next to the sidewalk. That's the standard protocol for housing an animal that essentially looks as capable as a small lion. In the case of our neighborhood champion, his fence was bulging out, over the sidewalk, from years of him ramming against it.


And what is it like to walk on the sidewalk next to such a fence? Have you ever been actively stalked by a predator from inches away? These dogs are lightning fast, and some of them growl aggressively, but even more unnerving are the ones that silently pursue you. A few are behind higher, more reasonable walls, but that just proves how capable they are as jumpers. I've seen one dog in our neighborhood regularly get all four paws on top of five foot high wall before not quite making it over and falling back down. It would perform this trick repeatedly as you walked by.


Okay, so, obviously you just need to learn which side of the street to walk on. You switch sides a lot, as you start to remember which dog is where. For me, walking on the scary side of the street was always something of a heart-pounding thrill, but keep in mind that I was walking with a 6-year-old and a 1-year-old.

Contained dogs like these might frighten people who aren't used to them, but they generally aren't dangerous. A much bigger problem in Cruces are the dogs that escape.

No bicycle trip in Las Cruces can be completed without encountering a loose dog of some kind. For the most part, though, they come in the form of yapping chihuahuas, often running in a small pack, and comically brave for their size. Cute enough, and harmless.

Occasionally, though, you see a bigger dog on the loose. It turns out that bored dogs in front yards and insufficient fences don't mix well. Dogs squeeze under, push through, or jump over. Occasionally, we'd see a skimpy pit bull out, or maybe a rottweiler. We hadn't seen one of the aforementioned impressive specimens out, though. Still, the presence of these intimidating dogs, plus the frequency of dog escapes, seemed like a problem waiting to happen.

Our neighbors had a scrawny, nervous boxer named Ziggie living in their backyard. She would bark her head off whenever we came home, and she never seemed to get used to us. She also had a habit of jumping the five-foot wall that separated our backyards. She seemed mostly harmless, but when you have a one-year-old toddling around in your backyard, surprise visits from an unfriendly dog are nerve-wracking.

Still, we were navigating this place without serious incident, at least so far. Maybe it wasn't as dangerous as it seemed.

After living there for a while, though, we began hearing of stories from other cyclists. Most people had at least been chased by a pit bull while biking. One of our friends had been bitten on her shoe, and another fellow was tackled completely off his bike.

Our mail carrier, clearly a nervous wreck of a man after years of service in this environment, was armed to the teeth with anti-dog equipment. Sprays of various kinds (including official-issue from the Post Office), clubs, prods, and pipes. And did he have stories to tell? Dogs on top of him, pinning him to the ground, while he emptied entire cans of pepper spray in their faces to no effect.

And you'd rarely see people out for a walk, but occasionally, an older gentleman would stroll by. These guys would invariably be carrying a golf club with them on their walks. After asking around, we learned that this was to fend off dogs. Hmm...

Okay, but these were all just scary stories, right? Just other people's collective fears getting to us. Dog fatalities are exceedingly rare (something like 30 a year in the US), and while the majority of deaths are at the jaws of pit bulls, most of the people killed are the owners of those dogs (a nice parallel with gun fatalities there).

Still, the local wisdom was, if you're going to bike in Cruces, you're an idiot if you don't carry spray. So, we went down to our neighborhood self-defense store (yes, this is New Mexico) and bought ourselves a can of Saber.


Months went by, and we'd see loose dogs, but nothing would happen. So our can of Saber started sliding from our minds. First into a coat pocket, then into a bag, then left at home most days. Of course, only until the day came where we wished we had it out and ready.

We had seen and heard these two dogs before, many times. Every Saturday morning, we'd bike to the Farmers' Market together as a family, with Mez (7) on the back of my tandem and Ayza (2) in the baby seat on Lauren's recumbent trike. This trip would take us up Espina Street, a well-traveled through-street for cars. We'd pass a house with two huge, muscular boxers blocked in on their front porch. They kinda looked like this, but with more ear tissue cut off:


These two dogs would always bark to beat the devil at the sight of us, and they were pretty scary, but they were behind two fences (the porch fence and the yard fence), so they weren't exactly on the verge of escaping. It's funny that, given how they were pretty much always out there, the Google street view car managed to snap a picture of one:


One Saturday in May 2010, when Lauren was four months pregnant with Novy, the morning was unseasonably chilly, so we were slightly bundled up as we made our usual trip. As we biked up Espina, we saw a guy on the sidewalk ahead walking two dogs---guess which two dogs? We had never seen them off that porch before, but here they were. As we got closer, the dogs were jumping around him frantically and barking, trying to get away from him.

(Wow... three years later, my heart is pounding and my hands are shaking as I type this.)

Just as we passed by, one of them slipped off the leash and ran out into the busy street toward Lauren, coming face-to-face with her and tiny Ayza (on her recumbent trike, Lauren's shoulders are only three feet above the ground). After a brief encounter with them, the dog turned and ran at me and Mez. As it came toward me, it's face had a blank expression, and the cut-off ears made it even harder to read. Feeling totally helpless, perched on my bike in my shorts, I stuck a sandaled foot out to deflect its head away as it came near. At that point, it ran back to it's owner on the sidewalk. I just sat there for a moment in shock.

Then Lauren turned toward the owner and screamed, "YOUR DOG JUST BIT ME!" Her voice was strained and panicked.

And then irrational adrenaline kicked in and shook me out of my stupor. Mez was strapped to the back of my bike, and I was keeping him upright from my seat in the front (a rather committed, helpless position for me), but the owner was still struggling with his dogs on the sidewalk. I laid the bike down in the middle of the street with Mez still strapped in place and put myself between the dogs and my family.

The owner was still trying to grab both of them as they leaped around him. As I came closer, I saw that he didn't have leashes at all. Each of these formidable dogs had a thin loop of blue, frayed twine around its neck, and the owner was struggling to put the twine back on the dog that had escaped. Not rope. Not clothesline. Twine. What you might use for lashing a bundle of newspapers together.


I shouted over to Lauren, "Where's your spray? Give it to me!" She didn't have the spray with her. At that point, the owner pleaded, "Oh no, sir, there's no need for that." I'm not sure if he thought I was going to spray the dogs at his feet, or spray him, or what.

A woman was hanging out with her two small children in her driveway nearby, having a yard sale. I shouted over to her, asking her to call the police. "He just lives right over there, we don't need to call the police." I asked a few more times, but she was still trying to talk me out of it. At this point, more people had started to gather at the scene. A young man stopped to direct traffic around Mez, who was still stranded in the street. An old man on a Jazzy Scooter pulled up and offered us his cell phone. I used it to call the police.

We were pretty close to the center of town, so the response was quick and ridiculously overblown. Fire trucks arrived first (yes, the full hook and ladder), then some EMT vehicles, and finally animal control. The owner seemed to have more of a handle on the dogs and was starting to lead them away toward home, so I went over to Lauren with the EMT people. The dog had bitten her on the upper arm, but fortunately, her thick, padded coat had absorbed most of the impact. Her skin was bleeding slightly, and she had a huge red welt, but that was all. The EMTs were trying to take her to the hospital anyway, especially after she told them she was pregnant, but she explained that we were uninsured, and she refused to go. They examined her wound closely, and determined that no dog saliva had contacted her blood. At some point, she looked up at me and asked, "Is Mez still in the middle of the street?" Oh gosh! I ran over, unhooked him, and helped him up.

After that, Lauren and I were interviewed by the animal control officer. It turned out that, because no saliva met blood, the dog wouldn't be taken in (they are quarantined for 7 days of observation only if they could potentially infect someone with rabies). The officer was going to issue the owner a ticket for having the dog off-leash.

What?! Yes, the officer explained, there's no law against dogs biting people. I had a long discussion with him about this point. What if a dog severely mauled someone? Well, only if they mauled people several times would they be labeled by a judge as "vicious," at which point the owner would be required to keep them in an approved fence and walk them with a muzzle.

I could not believe what I was hearing. If the human owner had bitten Lauren, he'd be arrested, tried, and likely put in jail for assault.

After we headed home, we had additional contact with Animal Control by phone. It turns out that the guy walking the dogs was the owner's brother, and he had very little experience with these dogs, because he had never walked them before, so he didn't know how to control them.

Later that day, Lauren was telling our family about what had happened by phone, when I looked out the window and saw Ziggie, the neighbor boxer, in our yard again. Lauren had just been bitten by a boxer, and this was too much. I crept out the side door with the spray and tried to corner Ziggie before she could make it back over the wall. I was way too slow, but tried to spray anyway as I ran after her. Ziggie made it back over the wall unscathed, but running while spraying is a bad idea, and I found myself running right into a huge cloud of brown mist. I had a split second to think, "Oh no!" before my eyes slammed shut in pain.

I crawled my way back into the house, totally blind and whimpering. "Lauren, help me!" She told our family that she'd have to call them back, came out to see what had happened, and found me writhing in a pathetic heap on the kitchen floor.

But this was not the only time the spray backfired. Another time, a particularly aggressive dog was sticking its head over the top of it's wall (which was alarmingly taller than my head, putting the dog's snapping jaws above me). After having this dog scare the crap out of us on multiple occasions, I'd had enough, so I decided to test out the spray a second time. The dog didn't seem to mind, but the slightest breeze blew the stuff right back at us, this time blinding both me and 7-year-old Mez.

These ridiculous anecdotes highlight two important points about self defense weapons. First, there's the strong possibility of blow-back (or, shooting yourself by accident). Second, having the weapon at the ready increases the chances of you using it when you're simply "fed up," even though it's not justified. Neither of these attempted dog sprayings were true, immediate self defense. At best, they were marginally preemptive.

These anecdotes also made us aware of one more, very important point: pepper spray sucks when you're in motion or it's windy. Maybe, as the package shows, it works wonders in nighttime parking garages. But on a bike? Even if it doesn't blind you into crashing, it's likely to be totally off-target. And even if you score a direct hit, the dogs don't seem to mind it. Humans are left sobbing in the fetal position, but dogs just snort a few times before going about their business.

But here we are, biking in a place where dogs are loose all the time, and now the threat is not just hypothetical, because Lauren has just been bitten, and it obviously could have been much worse (why it bit her instead of tiny Ayza, we'll never know). And Lauren was often going out with the kids alone, taking them here and there by bike and on foot. After she was bitten, she was even more afraid of all the dogs she had to pass every day. And now we realized that the weapon she had been carrying was probably not going to help.

Furthermore, the prevalence of pit bulls adds to the concern. You can say that it's just paranoid media hype, but if you crack open any pet-store book about the breed, you'll find a discussion of the necessity of "break sticks" for pit bull owners:


So, what's a break stick? It's a pry bar that the owner must carry at all times to get the dog to let go if it bites another dog or person. A pit bull's jaw can apparently be difficult to open without one. So far, we'd only been attacked by a boxer, thank goodness.

Back to the neighborhood self-defense store, this time for one of those extendable police batons for Lauren. Maybe bonking one of these dogs on the head would dissuade it from attacking. The baton opens via centrifugal force and gravity if you swing it downward with a violent flick of the wrist. Lauren had some trouble getting the baton to extend fully, because it was pretty heavy. We even had a practice set-up, where she'd sit down in her bike, and I'd kick a cardboard box toward her in place of an attacking dog, and she'd whack it. When she was sitting down low, opening the baton was even harder for her, because she didn't have room to swing it downward with the help of gravity.

Regardless, she thought that she might not be able to club a dog in the heat of the moment, and that it might just make the dog mad. Also, the dog had to get uncomfortably close before it was in reach of the baton. Still, it seemed better than nothing, so we built a makeshift holster for the baton on her bike.

But what else could we use to defend ourselves? What about a gun? When in Rome, right? So, I headed over to our local gun shop:


The guys running the store, of course, had huge revolvers strapped to their belts. I asked for their advice about attacking dogs. One of the customers in the store was a retired cop who'd had his share of run-ins with dealers' guard dogs while on duty, and he warned that very few low-caliber handgun bullets would stop a determined pit bull. There was also the concern about being on a bike in a public street and being unable to aim very well. And what about a ricochet off the concrete and into a neighboring house? One guy suggested "rat shot," which is like a mini shotgun shell filled with tiny pellets that fits in a handgun. It's non-lethal to larger animals, it's harmless from more than a few feet away, and it spreads out as it shoots.

I had never spent time in a gun shop before, nor had I checked out prices. Guns are reassuringly expensive, even the used ones. Like, $400 for a tiny one---you don't just buy one of these on a whim. If you're trying to get your hands on a "Make My Day" type gun, you're looking at $1000 or more.

I held a small, .38 Special Ruger revolver in my hand and dry-fired it. This was the first time I had ever touched a handgun. Heavy, with a solid, determined clunk at each pull of the trigger. Alarmingly, 7-year-old Mez grabbed the gun out of my hand and dry fired it too. He argued with me when I tried to get it back from him. Did I mention that I had Ayza asleep on my back in the sling? Yeah, we were probably an unusual sight for this particular gun shop.


When you hold a handgun, there is a frightening feeling of power. Power to end someone's life, with all that entails, in a split second. Power to end your own life in a split second.

I left the gun shop without buying anything, and Lauren ended up talking me out of this idea. Did I really want to live my public life with a gun at my side? How would I keep it away from the kids while I was out? Where would I store it while I was browsing the library----in my bike trailer? What if I tried to shoot an attacking dog, but hit a bystander instead? Thinking back to the time Lauren was bitten, there was a woman with her kids standing right off to the side, right in the potential line of self-defense fire.

So, with just the baton and the spray, we kept on walking and biking, trying to steel our nerves against the various dogs that would stalk us as we passed. Lauren had a painful bruise on her arm that healed with time. The two boxers on Espina Street seemed to go away for a while.

Then one day, again on our way to the Farmers' Market, we were passing that same house on Espina. The boxers were there this time, but they weren't on the porch like they used to be---now they were running freely behind the short fence in the front yard. As we passed, they barked and chased us intently. As Lauren neared the far edge of the yard, one of the dogs started squeezing underneath the edge of the fence, getting to the point where his head, front legs, and front half of his body were fully out, on the sidewalk, just a few feet away from Lauren. I saw Lauren ahead of me frantically try to extend her baton, but she couldn't swing with enough force to open it. I screamed at the dog with my deepest, loudest voice, and at that it squeezed back under the fence into the yard.

At this point, I was determined to have a word with the owner. Lauren pedaled ahead and waited with the kids, while I got off my bike and headed back to the house. The dogs leaped and howled at my presence. Of course, the front door was inside the fence with them, so I pounded on the mailbox and shouted for the owner to come out. I stood there for several minutes before he finally heard me and appeared.

I told him that his dog had almost gotten out, and he seemed unphased by this news. I explained that his dog had bitten my spouse a month ago.

"My dog didn't bite your wife. He just scared her," he said.

"But the EMTs came and everything. She had a big welt on her arm," I insisted.

"Nah, he didn't bite her. If he had bitten her, you'd know it, bud. There'd be nothing left of her."

At that point, he told me to get the fuck off his property, even though I was standing in the public street, and I walked away, telling him that I was calling animal control.

"You do that bud, you do that," he said as he went back inside.

From a pay phone across the street, we called animal control. Then we waited. We called again and waited some more. The owner came out, tucked the bottom of the fence back into the edge of the grass, and then drove away. We called again and waited more. After about 90 minutes, animal control pulled up. The dogs were on the porch this time, and the officer nervously examined the fence as they lunged at him. To his view, the tucked-in fence looked sufficient, and my report of a dog half-way out did not change his opinion. The dog wasn't all the way out, so it wasn't off leash. Later, the officer called us and reported that the dogs are usually kept on the porch, but that the latch was left open this time by accident, which let them get into the yard, and that the owner's friend had recently been mowing and had left the bottom of the fence untucked by accident.

This was the last time Lauren rode a bike in Las Cruces. She reverted to taking the bus everywhere instead. Our family trips to the market came to an end, though I still braved the streets on a bike with the kids whenever I went out with them. This worked out okay for a while. Lots of loose dogs sighted, no dog attacks.

Then, in December of 2010, two months after Novy was born, we had our final encounter. We were at the park watching the sunset, having a lovely time. As dusk stared to settle, we crossed the park to head home. Novy was asleep in the sling, and in the chilly night air, I had him zipped up under my hoodie. Ayza, almost three, was in a stroller, and Mez, now six, was holding my hand.


A guy was playing catch with his dog, one of these aforementioned impressive pit bulls---gigantic head, rippling muscles, the whole package. As we came closer along the footpath, he threw the ball again, and the dog caught it again, but instead of running back to him, it dropped the ball and started running toward us. "Oh.... god," Lauren muttered. I saw this happening and took out the spray. As the dog came closer, the owner started chasing it, and he jumped on its back to stop it when it was less than ten feet away from us.

At that point, I made my big mistake. I said, "Keep that dog on a leash. I've got my spray."

The owner went ballistic. I didn't know his dog, and his dog would never hurt anyone, and how dare I even think about spraying his dog. His spouse, who was pushing their toddler on the swing nearby, got into yelling at me too. At this point, he was so flustered that he let go of the dog, and it ran off. "It's illegal to have dogs off leash in the park," I told him. He's a member of three kennel clubs, don't tell him what the law is, and so on. The whole time, he's screaming. Periodically, he looks like he's about to punch me. Other times, he reaches into the back waistband of his pants, but then calms himself down and reconsiders. (Reaching for what, we wondered afterward. Imagine me being punched in the chest with a sleeping infant under my hoodie, we realized afterward.)

I tried to explain that I carried spray because my spouse had been bitten by a loose dog earlier that year. "I don't care if she was bitten! I don't care if she was raped!"

At that point, Lauren started tugging at me to get out of there, but I was still trying to explain, trying to get the guy to understand our position. She ended up walking away with the other two kids without me, all the way out of the park, before I caught up. As I walked away from the guy, I told him that I was calling animal control. "You go ahead and do that. I'm a member of three kennel clubs," and so on.

But as we stood there at the edge of the park, losing sight of the owner in the twilight, we realized how futile calling animal control would be.

When we got home that night, we reflected over all the close calls from the past year, and we decided to leave Las Cruces. Not prove that we were right. Not stand our ground. Just turn tail and run away. Yeah, you can't run away from an attacking dog, but cities are much slower than dogs.

And dogs are what brought self defense into focus for me. Yes, there was other stuff that happened around us in Cruces, from drive-bys, to burglaries, to police raids, and those things were scary, but the only things that ever happened to us directly involved dogs.

Yes, dogs are living creatures with feelings and rights, quite a bit like humans, but when attacking, they are way faster than humans and much less amenable to discussion and reasoning. They are explicitly after your body, not your stuff, so the strategy of "just give them your stuff and run away" doesn't work. In fact, running away is the worst thing you can do. Furthermore, if a dog has been bred or trained as a weapon by a human, both you and the dog are the victim of this practice. But still, there it is: a living, breathing weapon coming at you.

What is the passive, loving, Gandhi approach here? Maybe curl up in a ball and protect your jugular?

Okay, fine. But having small children with you during a dog attack makes the self defense question uniquely pressing. You are responsible for the safety of these other, small, helpless people. These people who have jugulars right at dog level.

"Self defense" sounds like a selfish justification for hurting someone else to prevent yourself from some perceived, potential hurt. But when you're dealing with small children, there's nothing selfish about it, and it becomes much harder to "wait and see" whether the threat is perceived or real.

What used to be simply a juicy, philosophical discussion for me was now a question in need of an immediate answer. What did I believe about self defense? Was I really a pacifist?

In the end, I decided that, though I believe strongly in non-aggression (as in, I'm never going to attack you, no matter what), I believe that I'm doing no wrong by defending myself. Furthermore, if force is helpful in preventing what seems to be a likely attack (like, your dog is charging at me growling), that force is warranted, and I'm doing no wrong by using it.

In other words, I don't have to wait until your charging dog is tearing up my child's face before I bonk it. The charging and growling part is sufficient.

Even so, I'd rather not have to face this question on a regular basis. I joked before about the Gandhi-esque response to a dog attack, but Gandhi would probably offer far more effective advice: "The world is vast, and surely these dogs are not everywhere upon it. Go to a place where these dogs are not."

Advice taken.

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Tammy's Got a Gun
by jasonrohrerThursday, October 24, 2013 [7:00 pm]

Something has been missing, both mechanically and thematically, from The Castle Doctrine.

First of all, though the castle doctrine (the in the legal sense) is a very old idea, our modern discourse around it generally centers on the right to shoot an intruder with a gun. Of course, so far, there have been no home-defense guns in my game. In fact, home defense has been an entirely indirect, hands-off, automated affair. You set up mechanisms to trick, trap, and kill intruders, but you never shoot them. You come home later and watch security tapes to find out how well your contraptions worked.

The game works this way because you're not home when intruders come in, and you're not home when intruders come in for a variety of good design, technical, and thematic reasons.

But someone else is home when intruders come in: your wife.


So far, the wife has been somewhat unsatisfying both mechanically and thematically. Yeah, she earns money outside the home, making her a valuable mechanical asset. But when a robber comes in, her interaction consists of hiding until she spots the intruder and then running along the shortest empty path to the door.

The empty path requirement is important for technical reasons (otherwise, if she could interact with your traps on her way out, the server would have to verify a viable interactive path for her, which I believe is an NP-hard problem). It also adds a nice texture to each house, because you have to design different sections for the house with different styles---a heavily mechanical part surrounding your vault, and a smoother, more hospitable part surrounding your family.

But the empty path requirement also means that your family protection options are quite limited. You can put dogs in clever places along the family's exit path, but that's it.

And thematically, when a robber comes in, the wife is completely passive. This seems like a commentary about the different roles of men and women when a family is under threat, and it is, to some extent (as a man, I have felt a stronger family protection pressure placed on me when things have gotten dicey). But I think the setup in the game is too stark, and it's missing some important aspects of the truth, as I see it.

Women that I know, when under threat, are willing to arm themselves to overcome inherent physical disparities. My wife is no exception. In fact, she had pepper spray in her backpack twenty years ago, before I met her.

And what about guns? Well, they're by no means an exclusively male concern. I'm not exactly immersed in gun-owning culture, but out of the self-defense gun owners that I have met, quite a few have been women. I'm reminded of my scrappy, ex-nun aunt Ginner, who used to go camping alone in the national parks packing a .38 special revolver.

And my experience matches the data, because nearly one in four U.S. women is a gun owner.

But what kind of gun is appropriate here? I recall talk show radio host Michael Savage saying something zany like, "A shotgun is your best friend in a darkened bedroom." And when I lived in New Mexico, our neighbor across the street had a shotgun as her home defense weapon of choice ("Dude, when it's nighttime, and you can't see nothin', you don't need to aim it---just point and shoot, dude," her husband explained to me).


And a shotgun is mechanically rich, because it's deadly only at close range, so it provides a nice mechanical contrast to the handgun potentially carried by the robber.

I also added a way for the family members to interact with the other mechanical aspects of the house, somewhat indirectly: they now have a panic button that they can press on their way out, and that button can connect into whatever house circuitry the owner devises (opening the trapdoors, releasing the dogs, and so on). My wife actually had panic buttons in her house when she was growing up.

So, a robber who stumbled his way into the family's chambers used to find something like this:


And now, that same robber might find this instead:


Tammy used to be a victimization waiting to happen. Now she's Jodie Foster in Panic Room.


That's more like it.

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Treatment of otherness in The Castle Doctrine
by jasonrohrerFriday, July 26, 2013 [7:56 pm]

There's a very rich vein in the realm of mutiplayer video game design that is not present in tabletop game design: our relationship to "the other."

This is possible because multiple screens can give the different players separate and distinct views of the same information set. The possibility space opened up by distinct views alone is vast, but for now, I'm just going to focus on how this relates to the treatment of the other.

Take my game Diamond Trust of London as an example. Two fly-by-night diamond trading companies compete over the final diamonds being exported from Angola before the advent of new international laws. One company is the titular London-based operation, while the other is the less central Antwerp, Belgium firm. The green London side is an endearing, mixed-ethnicity bunch who wear a variety of different, recognizable outfits and hop the Mediteranean sea in an old prop plane. The red Belgian side is austere by comparison, with their pale white faces, nearly identical tailored suits, and flashy Lear jets.


The obvious Hollywood trope here helps you instantly recognize "the good guys." (Irony noted, given that both sides are war-fueling diamond smugglers). The Belgians are intentionally alienating, and they clearly represent "the other".

But this seems problematic in an exclusively-two-player, symmetric game, because only one of the two players gets to experience this otherness, and it will form a slight discord for the player who is stuck playing as the other directly.

Why can't both sides play London? They're looking at different screens, after all. Both players can see themselves as inhabiting the left side of the map, and controlling the green London agents, and flying the prop planes. Both can likewise be presented with their opponent directing the red guys from the right side of the map. The code can handle the mirroring and the swapping invisibly.

With the way this is handled in Diamond Trust, players don't even realize that it's happening. They both just assume that they are playing green while the other must be playing red. There's a deep "aha" moment waiting for them during post-game discussion, when one says, "I decided to fly my guys back to London at the last minute" and the other player says, "London? No, I was playing London. You were Antwerp." After a bit of arguing, they resort to comparing screens and scratching their heads.

That's a neat trick, but what's the point?

Mutiplayer video games stand in a unique position in the way that they can tackle the issue of otherness. This example from Diamond Trust is a tiny, almost inconsequential demonstration of this, because it's not a game that focuses on otherness. But imagine a game about the distinction between "freedom fighter" and "terrorist", or about the distinction between "perpetrator" and "victim."

The other, as presented on the movie screen or in single player games, can often be held at arms' length as a dehumanized monster (or rather, from the modern shooter, a bandanna-faced thug). But in mutiplayer video games, you can stick the player into the role of the other without the player realizing that they inhabit that role, because other players can see the player differently from the way the player sees themself. This leaves a hard-hitting realization waiting for the player when they wonder who is controlling everyone they perceive as a brutal enemy. They become aware of how they, in turn, must be perceived by other players.


The Castle Doctrine represents a culmination of my design interests in this area. Every other player in the game is just like you, down to the pixel. Yet they inhabit your world only as robotic security tape traces and through the violent damage that they leave in their wake. You never get to interact with them directly. Most importantly, you never get to see them in their non-robber clothes.

In fact, you don't know anything about them, since no identifying information is given beyond a randomly chosen, 1991-government-database name that changes every time a given player dies.

Thus, if you're committing a harmful act against another player in the game (and we're talking measurable, real harm of hard work lost, because of the permanent consequences of your actions), the otherness of your victim is simultaneously amplified and subverted. On one hand, your anonymity grants you real-life impunity for whatever you do, and your victim is part of a faceless mass. On the other hand, your victim might not be as far-removed from you as you think. This is a game where real life best friends can harm each other without realizing it, maybe even while sitting right next to each other.

Similarly, because all players are cast into both roles as victim and perpetrator, there is a certain kind of understanding that is not present in most real world victimizations. You robbed me, and destroyed all my hard work, but then again, I just did the same thing to someone else a few hours ago. We're all in the same sinking boat here, and I can't really blame you for what you're doing. A karmic loop made visible.

Going back to The Castle Doctrine's inception, first and foremost, I wanted to make a game about vulnerability and violation. I was initially inspired by my experience on Minecraft multiplayer survival servers. Much has been said about the primal satisfaction of burrowing a home in a hillside to protect yourself from the monsters of the night, but a persistent multiplayer server adds a new dimension to that psychology. The threat extends to other players, who might violate your home while you are offline. Naturally, you try to hide your home so that other players won't even find it.


Upon logging back in, you venture carefully back to your secret hillside, when you're sure no other player is watching you, and then check to make sure that it has not been discovered and breached while you were away. You even check your storage boxes---Whew! All my stuff is still here. Adding to this psychological tension is the fact that stumbling uninvited into someone else's home in the game feels absolutely creepy.

Again, there's something very primal being tapped here, but it's not so ancient as burrowing or climbing a tree to ward off the monsters of the night. Instead, it reminded me of modern life as a homeowner, coming home after being away for a while. First thought as you come around the corner: "Well, it's still there. I guess it didn't burn down!" No frozen pipes? No broken windows? Computer still here?

When I lived in Potsdam, NY, the town culture was one of unlocked doors. I recall that some people didn't even know where their house keys were. We left our front door unlocked at all times, even when we went out of town for three weeks.

Even in such a safe place, there's still a certain, nagging nervousness when returning home. I don't think I ever felt this until I owned my own home and lived there for a while. When your children have been born there and grown up there, it becomes a special and personal place. You start to care about it and almost worry about it like a beloved pet, even if it's just a fear of frayed wiring, falling tree branches, or frozen pipes.

Living in New Mexico after that, where break-ins were common on our block, and many houses had bars on their windows, we were in a decidedly not-unlocked-door culture. Needless to say, the primal need to check for breaches upon returning home increases in a place like that.

And in the midst of living there, there was Minecraft multiplayer mode. But there was something a bit unsatisfying about this aspect of the game. You could go beyond hiding your house and build fortifications or even traps, but the reality was that almost everything could be cut through and bypassed, given enough grinding, with the weakest wooden shovel. And in a virtually infinite world, everything that cannot be cut through can be dug around.

It seemed like this primal desire for home protection was rich enough that it could make for a whole, concise game on its own.

More so, after seeing my family violated physically and feeling the resulting helplessness, it seemed like violation was a fresh, powerful aesthetic direction for a game (in a world full of games that make you feel powerful, blah blah blah), and that I could combine the aesthetic goal of "being violated" with the primally rich home protection idea.

Coming full circle, back to the issue of the other, if you're going to have a game where you feel violated, someone has to be doing the violating. Having that violation come from other players, who are also striving to protect themselves from similar violation, seemed like the perfect machine to make this happen, with the nice, empathy-generating karmic loop described above.

But what about the role of the violator? That's obviously a necessary ingredient to keep the whole machine running, but it initially seems like a jarring aesthetic side-effect. Like, "Oops, you can feel powerful in this game too." But combined with the treatment of otherness, where you're not just knocking down straw dummies, but actually hurting real people who are just like you, and furthermore violating the carefully-crafted personal space of someone else, that empowerment limps with resignation.

The result is a game about violation, where every victim is also a violator, and every violator a victim. It's a bizarre construction that permits the humanity of a completely anonymous, aggressive other to be brought into sharper focus than it could ever be seen in the real world.

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Addressing some confusion
by jasonrohrerWednesday, July 24, 2013 [5:28 pm]

Spoken interviews are a funny thing, because much of the context is stripped away. What did you and the interviewer discuss between the quotes that were chosen? What tone of voice did you use? And so on. Most of the time, this works out okay, but when dealing with touchy, hot-button issues, the result can be a minefield.

As a result, much confusion has arisen both about my creative goals for The Castle Doctrine and about my personal views that relate to the game. I will now set the record straight.

Of course, since the issues here are complex, I have to summarize. As the saying goes, if I could put it all down succinctly into words, I wouldn't have had to make the damn game.

The Gender Issue

Why can't I play a female character in this MMO?

First, though it is massively-multiplayer, it's not an MMORPG. Yes, a bunch of people play together on the same server, but that is all. There are no role-playing elements of any kind (character building, leveling up, etc.).

Like loads of non-RPG games, you play a specific character in this game. That character is a guy. In fact, he's the guy from this 1991 yellow page ad:


Or, more accurately, he's the guy this yellow page ad might be targeting. This game is a 1991 period piece about the social construction of manhood in that era. This is how I remember my security-obsessed father, and other fathers that I've met from that time share many of his traits. These guys were the burglar alarm generation. I suppose their paranoia wasn't completely unfounded, because the choice of 1991 is a loaded one (it was the peak of violent crime in the US---2012 was twice as safe, by comparison).

A lot has changed concerning gender roles in the past 22 years. But many aspects of the traditional, physical male role still lurk beneath the surface, which is why this topic is still interesting. Is a man still supposed to be a protector for his family? Is he supposed to be able to fight?

Disturbingly, even in a somewhat gender-bent, pacifist family like mine, that undercurrent is still there. As a particularly wimpy man (on the very-skinny end of the skinny bell curve), I'm not at all comfortable with that role. But that doesn't mean the role isn't thrust upon me anyway, especially when things get dicey.

Distilling all of this down, I amped up traditional, period gender roles in this game to the extreme. The girls even wear bows and dresses. The boys even have short hair. This is a cartoon of the iconic, nuclear family.

The Gun Issue

Obviously, no one is troubled by the presence of guns in this game, because then they'd be far more troubled by almost every other mainstream game. So, the concern is more like:

Do you really believe that guns should be legalized? That's crazy, man!

Yes, I do believe guns should be legalized. No, I'm not a gun owner, and have no plans to become one, but I have no desire to stop you from owning a gun. I also don't drink, but I don't want to stop you from drinking.

That's just my philosophical position. If you're not hurting anyone directly with your actions, I believe it should be legal. Thus, I think we should legalize guns, drugs, religion, suicide, fireworks, gambling, prostitution, all books, all movies, all video games, consensual sexual behavior of all kinds, gay marriage, polygamy, incandescent light bulbs, and on and on.

That might sound like a pretty whacky, incoherent list to you, but each of those things is currently illegal somewhere in the world, each involves consenting adults making their own choices, and each has no direct, third-party victim.

While the Germans don't get why Americans have such a problem with prostitution, the Americans can't imagine outlawing something like Wolfenstein, and so on.

But really, that philosophical discussion has very little bearing on The Castle Doctrine, which is not a game about legalizing anything, and barely even has guns in it. Guns are just a hot-button topic right now.

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On the Wife and Kids Mechanic (Dynamical Meaning)
by jasonrohrerThursday, August 29, 2013 [8:03 pm]

In The Castle Doctrine, one set of game elements is more thematically loaded than anything else: the family members.

This is as it should be, because family is a key component of the self-defense issue and the construction of manhood. Nothing brings these issues into sharper focus than when your children are present during an attack. We can argue about whether women inherently need the protection of men (I don't think that they do, even though society is still built this way, and some women still expect men to protect them). But there is no arguing about young children needing protection in dangerous situations---they are smaller and weaker than adults without exception.

The Castle Doctrine originally had no family members. It was a game solely about protecting physical possessions from theft---a bleak, lonely, post-female world of male violence run amok. It felt like something was missing thematically. In response, I added family members.

But, as many critics have observed, I didn't just stick them in there as thematic frosting. I gave them a mechanical function also. Should I have done this? Does this cheapen them through instrumentalization? Are they made less meaningful this way?

No. In fact, the opposite is actually true. Characters that have no mechanical function are less meaningful than characters that do. That is a bold claim about game design, and I'll spend the rest of this article defending that claim.

First of all, how do the family members function mechanically in the game? As you design your house, you can chose where you put the family members, and what you build around them, but other than that, they are out of your immediate control. The wife character has her own salary in the game, which she earns whenever you (and she) are away from home. You earn a salary too, but it is half the amount that she earns (she's a 1990s-era working mother). She holds onto the money that she earns while you are away. When you come home, she shares her money with you for home improvement purposes.

When a robber comes in, the family members each behave individually. They remain in place, hiding, until they see the robber. Then they try to run to the exit. If they make it to the exit, they are safe, and they return to their original positions after the robber leaves. If a child is killed while the wife is still in the house, the wife immediately runs to the child. If the wife is killed, the robber can take the money that she is holding.

An obvious alternative here would have been to keep the family flight mechanics in place, but get rid of the money element. But before considering that alternative, we need to think about what kind of player behavior the mechanics, as described, encourage.

Since the wife is a major source of income, she is a crucial element. If she is killed, that source of income, along with the savings she was holding, are permanently cut off. So, players will tend to protect her. They will also tend to protect the children, because not doing so will indirectly endanger the wife.

How does this prediction match with actual behavior in the game? Perfectly. Nearly all players devote substantial resources toward protecting family members, sometimes even at the cost of weak protection for the physical possessions in their vault. The ultimate expression of this behavior comes in the form of the "vault by the door" strategy, which crops up from time to time:


The family is hiding somewhere off screen, and the robber is tempted to go for the risk-free vault payout.

And what kind of player behavior would be encouraged with the hypothetical value-free family member alternative? Players wouldn't care about their family members, and they wouldn't devote any of their precious resources toward protect them.

Really? Wouldn't some still be motivated to act based on the thematic implications? These are children, after all. Yes, some players would be so motivated, but most would not.

How do I know? Because I've experimented with the relative resource value given to the wife in the game. When she matters less mechanically, players protect her less. When she matters more, they protect her more. There have been times in the history of the game when the wife carried far less resource value than she does now. At those times, the "vault by the door" strategy was replaced by a "family by the door" strategy.

And what would happen to those still-thematically-motivated players in a hypothetical game where the family wasn't "worth" protecting? They would "waste" resources on family protection that other players were not similarly wasting, and thereby put themselves at a disadvantage relative to other players. Such players would learn quickly that they were playing the game wrong. The game would be whispering, "Don't protect the family, they don't matter."

So, players in the current game devote extensive resources and effort toward protecting the family. But is this meaningful? After all, it's mechanically motivated.

On its face, what does the player behavior seem to be saying? What does the "vault by the door" say, for example? It says, "Here, take whatever you want, just leave my family alone." This is a great example of tight thematic coupling. People actually would behave that way in real life. The "meaning of life" in the game, as expressed by the mechanics, is thematically consonant.

What would a "family by the door" player behavior be saying, on the other hand?


Okay, so players end up behaving in a way that is thematically consistent when they are mechanically motivated in this way. But what are they feeling? Because what they're feeling matters when we're talking about what a game actually means.

First of all, we must acknowledge that these are not real family members. Nothing that we can design in the game will turn them into real family members. So, whatever the player feels for them is necessarily some kind of strange shadow version of a real feeling.

But my next claim, and it's a bold one, does not depend on this fact at all.

The claim is this: if you get people to act like they feel a certain way for long enough, through whatever means, they will actually end up feeling that way. Behavior and emotion cannot be held apart forever. They eventually converge. And this link has been observed in research across a wide range of human interactions, from nursing to prisons and from pet ownership to parenting.

It works in real life. It works in games too. And when we're talking about meaning in games, this is the only way to do it.

Why? Because games are about players behaving in certain ways---there's no way around that. We need to face the fact that player behavior matters. If players are behaving in thematically dissonant ways, they will eventually be feeling thematically dissonant feelings. So, our only option, if we want to avoid dissonance, is to build systems that encourage thematically consonant player behavior.

(This, by the way, is by no means a new idea.)

When you come home in The Castle Doctrine and walk around a corner in your house to discover that your family has been killed, how do you feel? Violated. Hopeless. Hurt. Your heart sinks. You contemplate suicide. Is it because of the money and corresponding time and effort lost? Yes, at first. But over time, as you feel this way repeatedly in connection with that sight, the feeling becomes less calculated and more reflexive. It transfers gradually from the head to the gut.

If we're dreaming about a more perfect solution to this problem, and that solution avoids encouraging particular player behaviors through mechanical systems, then player behavior can either be left dangling and thematically dissonant, or it can be minimized to the point of almost being eliminated entirely. Many games have experimented with these two approaches, but neither alternative is satisfying to me.

I want to make games where player behavior is the meaning.

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