Welcome to another Wednesday! For some inexplicable reason, I’ve jumped back into Tropico 4 lately. Why Tropico 4 and not the two other versions that have come out since? Well, because I’m too lazy to buy another one, and I don’t know what I’m missing. I had a hankering to benevolently rule an island and no hankering at all to research which edition is best. I also picked up Vampire Survivors for mobile while traveling, and it turns out it’s the perfect game for whiling away some time on a train. I was feeling pretty good about lasting eight minutes or so until I just looked at how long other people spend on a single playthrough and now I remember why I don’t usually play roguelikes.

Anyway, let’s talk about the news!

Let This Anime Girl Help You Do Your Taxes—or Don’t

The perhaps appropriately named MSCHF Product Studios (also known for creating Lil Nas X’s Satan shoes) planned to release Tax Heaven 3000 this month, but the game has since been delisted from Steam. Why? Well, the game is a visual novel purporting to help players file their 2022 US tax returns, and, while its Steam page was still available, led with an image of a pink-haired anime girl asking for the player’s social security number. Call me overly suspicious, but I’m not sure the game’s website’s character description of Iris—she’s “sincere and earnest”—is enough to get me to hand over my social security number to a video game.

That said, if you’ll allow me to put on my theorizing hat rather than my reporting hat, this all seems like a pretty hilarious method of raising awareness for the effects on corporate lobbying and shady design in the tax business rather than actually a game that will let you file your taxes. For one, the game isn’t even out yet, and was delisted from Steam. For another, the game’s website features a manifesto written from the perspective of Iris explaining how TurboTax’s UX and business practices keep the US tax preparation process opaque and expensive for the average person, whereas in many other countries the process is easy, if it’s handled by the individual rather than the government at all. “Videogames[sic] are, at the end of the day, pieces of software,” it says. “All of TurboTax’s cutesy loading animations are fake graphics; TH3K simply makes the fiction the point.”

Tax Heaven 3000 is out now. While I haven’t played it myself (I have already filed my 2022 taxes), I’m a big fan of the sneaky way a pink-haired anime girl has worked her way into the attention of mainstream games press, bringing awareness of the predatory tax prep system in the United States with her.

Ubisoft Investigating the Potential for AI in Games Writing

At a GDC panel last week, Ubisoft revealed a tool that would aim to help video game writers come up with “barks”—which includes crowd banter and onomatopoeias—through assistive technology akin to systems like ChatGPT. These tools, which are dubious in terms of being actual artificial intelligence, would assist with writing barks that would then be edited and refined by human writers.

Responses to this announcement have varied—some wonder whether this could eventually cut into the job market for games writers, while others see it as a net good that can save those writers from doing some of the most tedious aspects of games writing. I think it raises another question: if writing this dialog is so odious, and it only rarely adds much to the experience for players… why bother including it at all?

While I’m sure we would find it strange if player characters and NPCs no longer spoke anything at all when being hit with swords or finding a cache of treasure, there’s also a certain type of bark that ends up more annoying than immersive (“Dwarven crafts! Fine Dwarven crafts!”). I’m talking hypothetically here because I don’t have two versions of a given scene, one with barks and one without, to compare, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a player who wouldn’t prefer less dialog with more quality versus more dialog with less quality. And maybe that’s the eventual goal with this technology, or at least to make it better, but I have not seen convincing evidence from similar technology that it can turn out anything that would I regard as “quality.”

Popular Novel Under Scrutiny for Lacking Game Design Inspiration Credit

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, a critically acclaimed 2022 novel by Gabrielle Zavin about two game developer friends, is under scrutiny after Brenda Romero, designer of Train, suggested that Zevin used key features of her game as the inspiration for one of the novel’s creations without credit, which the author acknowledged in an interview. The omission of credit is particularly troubling since Zevin credits Romero’s husband, John, with his development work on games like Doom, and the book includes a “Notes and Acknowledgments” section discussing some of the inspiration behind the games that appear in the book, but neither Train nor Brenda Romero are mentioned there. Knopf Doubleday, the book’s publisher, acknowledged the inspiration in a statement and noted that the work is fictional and therefore does not require a “works cited” or other form of acknowledgement for inspiration. Bewilderingly, the statement also said, “the only games listed in the author’s acknowledgments are video games,” which does nothing to explain why Train, a board game, was left out. Does a board game not deserve credit in the way that the video games listed do because it is a board game? Maybe because it’s a board game that very few people have ever played? No further clarification was provided in the statement.

In other news…

John Harper, designer of AGON, a tabletop RPG in which players undergo trials in an ancient, mythic world, has released the Paragon System for public use. This system can be used to create full standalone games under a Creative Commons license.

 

GameStop made $48.2 million in 2022, a huge increase over a loss in 2021. This gain came at the expense of workers, who faced cut hours, layoffs, and store closures.

Everything happening with ZA/UM is so confusing and changes so quickly that I’m not going to bother trying to summarize—read the latest update from GamesIndustry.biz.

Multiple reports of harassment, groping, and other inappropriate behavior, as well as reports of drinks being spiked at offsite events, have come out of this year’s GDC. These reports are not unusual for the conference—according to the Games and Online Harassment hotline, reports like these arise at many industry events.

 

A lawsuit against a police officer who shot and killed a person during a SWAT attack—a false claim of violence to send armed police officers to a person’s home, often used in a gaming context—has been settled. The officer and the city of Wichita will be required to pay $5 million. Three people involved with the swatting claim received federal prison sentences.

Domestic violence charges against former Squanch Games CEO Justin Roiland have been dropped and the case has been dismissed due to “insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.” This court case represents just one of the many claims against Roiland, who has also faced accusations of lewd behavior in the workplace, toxic management, and grooming. Though Roiland issued a statement including that he looks forward to getting back to work, most of the companies he was working with—Hulu, Adult Swim, and Squanch specifically—cut ties with him following reporting on the domestic abuse charges and public accusations of misconduct.

Microsoft has launched a new toolset to help developers gauge their energy use and emissions for the games they develop.

It turns out that MultiVersus, the multi-IP fighting game, has been in open beta this whole time? And now that open beta is over? Apparently the game is due out next year? They are not issuing refunds despite players having spent money they can no longer use in online play? Wild.

Ubisoft will not be attending this year’s E3, joining several other large companies in not having a presence at this year’s event.

And finally, surprising nobody, Elden Ring and God of War Ragnarok led The Game Developers Choice Awards at this year’s GDC, with Elden Ring taking the top prizeGod of War took the best audio award, which is probably because it’s the only game to get Hozier to do a song for the soundtrack, and yes, I am mad that I didn’t find this out until recently!