When you’ve got a discography like Todd Howard’s, full of critically acclaimed games in the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series, it must be hard to pick a favourite. But there is one game he remembers more fondly than anyone else does: the first he ever worked on.
“Terminator: Future Shock,” he says. “When [Bethesda] came to Fallout, people were saying, oh, you’re doing a post-apocalyptic open world! In 3D! But we already did that in Terminator. It’s an underrated game that not a lot of people played. I think Quake came out right afterwards, that might have had something to do with it, and understandably so … Future Shock was made with eight or 10 people and it did a lot of things that no game had done. I remember it got critiqued at the time, which annoyed me to be honest. But now the things it did are commonplace.”
Howard is speaking to the Guardian ahead of the Develop:Brighton Digital conference, where he gave a keynote speech and accepted the Develop:Star award. Having spent the 90s and 00s leading the development of genre-defining open-world role-playing games in The Elder Scrolls, he now oversees all of Bethesda Game Studios’ many projects, and has a more hands-on role as director on forthcoming sci-fi epic Starfield. He has a considered, measured way of speaking; he’s never likely to get chatty and let slip any longed-for details about Bethesda’s forthcoming games, but he’s insightful about what makes them tick.
“Over the last generation, open-world games became very popular as [developers] got used to making them, and saw the impact they could have on players,” he says. “I think this is what games do best. They do geography well, they put you in another world. A lot of mediums can tell good stories, and some linear games do fantastic things. But for us, putting you in another world asking, what would you do here? What are the possibilities? That’s really what sets gaming apart from other forms of entertainment.”
Bethesda’s games have always been famous for the possibilities they offer the player. Set out on a quick jaunt to kill some giant spiders in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (2006) and you could end up running away from the vampires who lived at the top of a mountain. Their huge worlds offered 100-plus hours of exploration and bizarre self-directed adventures. Throughout the 00s Bethesda’s games pushed the boundaries of what was possible in video game worlds – but now, if anything, open-world is overdone. It’s now become almost the default for expensive action games and role-playing games alike.
Will the next generation of consoles – the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X – bring anything revolutionary to the genre? For Howard, it’s not about bigger is better; games are big enough already. Graphics will get better, AI will get better, but Todd believes the biggest change that’s coming is accessibility.
“Let’s just cast forward to the next five to 10 years of gaming – for me, it’s more about access than clock cycles,” he says. “Just the time it takes to even turn [a console] on and load up some of these games is a barrier – it’s time that you’re not enjoying being in that world … The kind of games we make are ones that people are going to sit down and play for hours at a time. If you can access a game more easily, and no matter what device you’re on or where you are, that’s what I think the next five to 10 years in gaming is about.
“I’d like to see more reactivity [in game worlds], more systems clashing together that players can express themselves with. I think chasing scale for scale’s sake is not always the best goal.”
If that sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox, has been saying similar things for years. Given that Microsoft has just bought Bethesda’s parent company Zenimax for $7bn, this alignment of vision is to be expected; it’s an acknowledgment that the way people play games has changed dramatically in recent years. When the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were released back in 2013, livestreaming was still in its infancy and Fortnite didn’t exist, but games such as Minecraft and 2011’s Skyrim were pointing the way. “Previously, someone might play a game for a few months, [and] a long-term play would be say six months. Now, they’re playing them for years,” says Howard.
Bethesda’s games have made attempts to lean into this change. The Elder Scrolls Online and Fallout 76 are both massively multiplayer, propped up by a drip-feed of new content from Bethesda’s designers and subscription fees from its players, as opposed to the sprawling single-player games that made the developer famous. Fallout 76 especially launched in a rough state – “We let a lot of people down,” says Howard – but thanks to its evolving nature, has had the opportunity to redeem itself over the years. Does Howard see a future for those single-player games, or should Bethesda games from now on be designed to be live for years, playable with other people?
“Obviously, we’re big fans of single player and we’ve had some success with some multiplayer-focused games,” says Howard. “We have found that even if it’s multiplayer, whether it’s Elder Scrolls Online or Fallout 76, a large number of our players want to play it like a single-player game and not have the other players distract from it. Games handle multiplayer in different ways, and I think it all has merit.”
Todd still plays all sorts of games himself, and watches more on Twitch when he doesn’t have time to play. “There are only a few games that I will deep dive into; I do my best to try as many things as possible. The game I’ve played most lately is Among Us – I looked at it for creative reasons and then for social and personal reasons, I just loved it.” What he looks for in a game, he says, is a world he wants to be in – and opportunities to tell his own story.
“In our games whenever we go really linear, when we say, ‘Here’s the thing you must get, here’s where you must go’, it’s not as successful. When we give the player a short-term, medium- and long-term goal and then make sure they have a lot of options, and make sure that the game is reacting to them, that’s where I think the real magic happens. That’s when the player feels like, ‘Look what I did!’ Rather than a creator giving something to you and you consuming it, you gave something to the game. You come away with a sense of pride. You’ve accomplished something for the week.
“That’s one of the things people who don’t play a lot of games never quite understand. When you play a game and you accomplish something, that’s real. It’s a real accomplishment in your life, or it has been to me, and to other people I meet who love gaming. You can finish the week and say, ‘I saved the world’, and you legit feel that way. That’s the magic.”
Facebook Pauses Ads For Gun Accessories And Military Gear After Complaints From Lawmakers And Employees
Following complaints from Senators and employees, Facebook on Saturday said it was temporarily halting ads for gun accessories and military gear in the US through next week’s inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
The move follows a BuzzFeed News story that revealed the world’s largest social network displayed ads for gun holsters, body armor, and other military-related paraphernalia in the News Feeds of people who had engaged with content about the attempted coup at the US Capitol building earlier this month.
“Out of an abundance of caution, we are temporarily banning ads promoting weapons accessories and protective equipment in the U.S. until at least January 22nd,” Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois. “We appreciate our employees, BuzzFeed’s reporting, and policymakers for raising this concern.”
While Facebook already prohibited advertisements for guns, ammunition and weapon enhancements like silencers, the company has still allowed ads for accessories including holsters and attachable flashlights and laser sights. Facebook users and employees noticed an uptick in ads for these products and military gear, including armored vests, on their newsfeeds in the days following a riot at the Capitol that left five people dead.
Ads for tactical gear were also shown to people who followed right-wing extremist pages or groups on the social network. Research from the Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit industry watchdog group, showed that a Facebook account set up by the organization to follow pages belonging to right-wing extremists and militant organizations was regularly served ads for military gear in between posts casting doubt on the presidential election and praising the assault on the US Capitol.
‘Law unto themselves’: the Australian battle to curb Facebook and Twitter’s power | Australia news
Nationals MP Anne Webster and Labor MP Sharon Claydon are less concerned with why Donald Trump was taken off social media, and more concerned with what platforms such as Facebook are doing to stop online defamation and abuse.
Webster and Claydon are the co-chairs of the Parliamentary Friends of Making Social Media Safe, a group to “highlight the environment of social media and the risks associated” and to make the platforms more accountable. It now boasts more than 50 members thanks partly to Twitter and Facebook’s response to last week’s attack on the US Capitol.
For Webster, it’s personal. After winning a defamation case against a conspiracy theorist who falsely accused her of being “a member of a secretive paedophile network”, she wants Facebook treated as a publisher.
The decision of Twitter and other social media platforms to first remove posts and then suspend Trump’s account prompted outrage among some conservatives, including National MP George Christensen and Liberal MP Craig Kelly.
The outspoken pair both favour changes to stop social media platforms from censoring any lawful content created by their users – a push in the direction of more free speech and less responsibility for content on the part of the platforms.
Webster tells Guardian Australia although she’s glad the Trump controversy and the Chinese foreign ministry tweet accusing Australia of war crimes in Afghanistan had “put fire under the debate” there is now a broader discussion about the regulation of social media to be had.
Webster says social media companies “are a law unto themselves, largely”. Her defamation case “cost me dearly, both financially and emotionally” and Webster said most aggrieved people are not able to afford to fight defamatory posts in court.
The legal position on social media defamation is unclear. University of Sydney professor David Rolph, a defamation law expert, says that “in principle” the social media companies can be liable.
Just as media companies were held liable for comments on their Facebook page in the Dylan Voller case because they were “responsible for everything that flows” from having setting up a public page, “that analysis might extend to the social media platform itself”, Rolph says.
He says there are also “problems of jurisdiction and enforcement” in taking on overseas based companies, so plaintiffs rarely go after the internet giants, and a possible immunity in the Broadcasting Services Act if social media can argue that they are an “internet content host”.
Webster says in her case Facebook’s handling was “appalling – it took months” and was only prompted by her taking legal action.
“Freedom of speech must be valued but it shouldn’t give people the right to incite a riot or lie about people.
“Social media companies have profited from online conversations but there are rights and responsibilities … If they’re not held responsible the number of falsehoods will increase at the rate of knots.”
Mia Garlick, Facebook’s director of policy in Australia and New Zealand, has told a parliamentary committee the company did geo-block some posts from Webster’s accuser and the account was removed after repeated breaches of community standards. She blamed “additional legal complexities in that case” for the delay.
Claydon got involved due to her constituents’ experiences of “online harassment, posting intimate photos, cyber-stalking, and of women who were found by family violence perpetrators through social media platforms”.
“I had a growing interest because there were posts and pages that allowed the abuse of women – and when people complained they fell into a deep dark void somewhere, and the complaints didn’t really go anywhere.”
According to Claydon, users agree not to peddle hate speech, incite violence, or deliberately spread dangerous misinformation – so the platforms are not doing anything wrong by removing users who breach the terms, such as Trump.
For Claydon, the de-platforming of Trump raises the question “why it took four years when he’s clearly in breach of their terms” – and the fact social media platforms have found courage only on the eve of a new presidency shows the limits of self-regulation.
“They regard themselves as big global entities, and are not particularly accountable to anyone,” she says.
According to the e-safety commissioner, 14% of Australians have faced online hate speech. Claydon wants to build cross-party support to prevent social media becoming “a dangerous weapon for half our citizens”, rather than “let those with the biggest mouths rush out and determine the shape” of the reform conversation.
Despite calls from Christensen to swing back in the direction of free speech, creating a safer space is also the direction the government is heading in.
In December, the communications minister, Paul Fletcher, released a draft online safety bill proposing to give the e-safety commissioner powers to order the take-down of harmful content.
The e-safety commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, has said the bill would ensure moderation of social media is applied “fairly and consistently” but does not address concerns from some in the Coalition about de-platforming.
The legislation would be the first of its kind to tackle not just illegal content “but also serious online harms, including image-based abuse, youth cyberbullying and … serious adult cyber-abuse with the intent to harm”.
There is also a voluntary code on disinformation, to be devised by the social media giants and enforced by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, expected to be finalised by mid-year.
While senior Coalition figures including the acting prime minister, Michael McCormack and the deputy Liberal leader, Josh Frydenberg, expressed disquiet at Trump’s removal, there were no suggestions the government would change course to accommodate Christensen’s call to abolish community standards in favour of anything but unlawful speech goes.
Fletcher has signalled he is cold on the idea of going beyond the existing package, arguing that it already creates “a public regulatory framework within which decisions about removing content are made by social media platforms (and, if necessary, can be overridden by decisions of government)”.
One common strand in reform calls is that participants want to see greater transparency around decisions that are made to block posts or remove users.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman, Rod Sims, who led the digital platforms review, has said given the degree of control they exercise on what we see and read “we definitely need the government to get to grips with this; we can’t just leave it with the digital platforms”.
The e-safety commissioner says the platforms “aren’t always transparent in how they enforce and apply these policies and it’s not always clear why they may remove one piece of content and not another”.
Transparency would be improved by the online safety bill’s basic online safety expectations, which would “set out the expectation on platforms to reflect community standards, as well as fairly and consistently implementing appropriate reporting and moderation on their sites”, she tells Guardian Australia.
“This could include, for example, the rules that platforms currently apply to ensuring the safety of their users online, including from threats of violence.”
Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman supported the platforms’ decision to remove Trump, who he accused of “stoking the flames” of a threat to the peaceful transition of power in the US.
Yet the episode demonstrated the “inconsistent standards being applied” as Trump was removed while “many authoritarian leaders remain able to use these platforms for their propaganda”.
“We need clear, transparent rules. And it would be helpful to clarify what avenues there are to seek explanation or appeal those decisions.”
Despite unease at the highest levels of the Australian government about de-platforming, the prevailing mood is still for more – not less – regulation.
For those such as Webster or Claydon’s constituents, basic enforcement of existing standards would be an improvement.
How Parler deplatforming shows power of Amazon, cloud providers
Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services.
Getting kicked off Amazon Web Services is rare, but it has enormous consequences.
It happened this week, when Amazon dropped Parler, a social network that gained traction from conservatives after Twitter banned President Donald Trump and housed content that encouraged violence. Parler filed suit against Amazon in federal district court in an attempt to stop Amazon from suspending Parler’s account, and Amazon pushed back, requesting that the court deny Parler’s motion.
The incident demonstrates a type of power that Amazon wields almost uniquely because so many companies rely on it to deliver computing and data storage. Amazon controlled 45% of the cloud infrastructure in 2019, more than any other company, according to estimates from technology research company Gartner. The app survived without being listed in Apple and Google’s app stores, but getting sent away from Amazon’s cloud has left Parler absent from the internet for days.
Parler’s engineering team had built software that drew on computing resources from Amazon Web Services, and the company had been in talks with Amazon about adopting proprietary AWS database and artificial intelligence services, the company said in a district court filing on Wednesday.
It would take time to figure out how to perform similar functions on Parler’s own servers or a cloud other than AWS. And in the case of Parler, time is critical, because it came as the service was gaining attention and new users following Twitter’s Trump ban.
Parler’s engineers could learn to use other computing infrastructure, or the company could hire developers who already have that knowledge. But because no cloud provider is as popular as Amazon, people skilled in, say, Oracle’s cloud aren’t as as easy to find as those who know how to build on AWS.
The swiftness with which Amazon acted shouldn’t come as a shock. Companies have been disclosing details about their deals with Amazon that warn of these kinds of sudden discontinuations for years.
In 2010, DNA sequencing company Complete Genomics said that “an interruption of services by Amazon Web Services, on whom we rely to deliver finished genomic data to our customers, would result in our customers not receiving their data on time.”
Gaming company Zynga warned about how its AWS foundation could quickly vanish when it filed the prospectus for its initial public offering in 2011. At the time, AWS hosted half of the traffic for Zynga’s games, such as FarmVille and Words with Friends, the company said.
“AWS may terminate the agreement without cause by providing 180 days prior written notice, and may terminate the agreement with 30 days prior written notice for cause, including any material default or breach of the agreement by us that we do not cure within the 30-day period,” Zynga said.
AWS can even terminate or suspend its agreement with a customer immediately under certain circumstances as it did in 2010 with Wikileaks, pointing to violations of AWS’ terms of service.
Parler started using AWS in 2018, long after the Wikileaks incident and the first corporate disclosures about the possibility of cloud interruptions.
When AWS told Parler it planned to suspend Parler’s AWS account, it said Parler had violated the terms repeatedly, including by not owning or controlling the rights to its content.
Over the course of several weeks, AWS alerted Parler to instances of user content that encouraged violence, Amazon said in a court filing. More of that content surfaced after protesters stormed the Capitol building in Washington on Jan. 6, interrupting Congress’ confirmation of the Electoral College results from the 2020 presidential election. AWS conveyed that Parler wasn’t doing enough to speedily remove that sort of information from its social network.
Parler could have protected itself more. Large AWS customers can sign up for more extensive agreements, which allow more customers time to get into compliance if they wind up breaking rules.
Gartner analyst Lydia Leong spelled out this difference in a blog post: “Thirty days is a common timeframe specified as a cure period in contracts (and is the cure period in the AWS standard Enterprise Agreement), but cloud provider click-through agreements (such as the AWS Customer Agreement) do not normally have a cure period, allowing immediate action to be taken at the provider’s discretion,” she wrote.
Other cloud providers have their own terms their customers must follow. AWS now has millions of customers, though, and it holds more of the cloud infrastructure market than any other provider. As a result, many organizations could be exposed to the sort of treatment Parler received, rare as it is, if they don’t behave in accordance with Amazon’s standards.
Parler recognized the drawbacks of being beholden to a cloud provider, but ultimately, the flexibility clouds offer was too appealing to ignore. “I’m personally very anti-cloud and anti-centralization, though AWS has its place for high-burst traffic,” Alexander Blair, Parler’s technology chief, wrote in a post on the service.
Parler and Amazon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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