Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Art of the Deal (GUMSHOE all)

I've been playing Batman Arkham Underworld, a fun little clash of clans app that has you, as one of Gotham's would-be villains, storm the city with your thugs and hired supervillain. At first I thought I wouldn't like it, but I'm being sucked in. The Dead Rabbits will crush the Bat! Or words to that effect, anyway.

That's not what I'm going to talk about. There's an in-game mechanic whereby you can speed up the build time of a room or item, or just get more in-game currency, by watching video adverts. I'm interested in advertising in an amateur know-thy-enemy way, and I'm just as fascinated by advertising done poorly as I am by well-crafted attempts.

Make no mistake, this is bad, bad stuff.

It's not that the mechanic doesn't work. It does. I often set up a room to refurb in, say, a couple hours, turn on a few of the ads to get it done in a couple minutes, and then get on with my day. From a game perspective, I get what I want, and the game maker gets the ad revenue. So we both benefit, but as soon as I set up the ad view I walk away. I don't absorb the content, and that's because it's really poorly targeted.

The game must already know my age and gender, from the data already available on the device. I would be amazed if it only knew my age and gender. So why is it trying to sell me a match-three garden building game? Or a dating sim? Why, when it targets me with a spokesperson, does the ad use a girl who looks all of sixteen spouting a load of old wank about dragons?

Why advertise Facebook, at all? Surely everyone with a mobile device knows what Facebook is by now? Doesn't it come pre-loaded on Apple tablets and phones, and probably most if not all the Androids?

It's as if the game either doesn't know my age and gender - which is utter balls - or it doesn't care. I suspect the latter, but it means a lot of people are spending a ton of money to no purpose.

At least trying to sell games is understandable. All the games are either pay up front or freemium, which means they're heavy revenue earners. But even then the ad could do a better job selling me the product.

Take the story sims Episodes and Choices, both of which seem very similar in style and content. In each case the app tries to sell to me using romance ads. Why? Both apps also have mystery stories, danger stories, fantasy plots, and any of those would have been a better ad choice than romance.

Or take the Facebook ad. It makes perfect sense to sell me something that isn't a game. After all, there's a ton of products out there I might be interested in. Yet of all the products in all the world, it has to walk in with Facebook? Sure, Facebook's probably one of the few non-game vendors interested in putting ads on the Apple game store. But if this is how Zuckerberg's spending his ad buy, the guy's much, much stupider than I ever thought.

Somewhere west of Laramie there's a bronco-busting, steer-roping girl ... who knew how to sell cars. Advertising's an art, and I often think there are no artists in advertising any more. God knows what happened to Don Draper's grandkids, but they lost the knack of making sales when they went all-in on the internet. I'm constantly being told that advertisers are collecting everything up to and including shoe size and pet's sexual preference in order to better target me. So why do I feel as though I'm not being effectively targeted?

I first became interested in using adverts in-game when Cyberpunk 2020 was still a thing. Now there's a genre that believes in style over substance. Its Chromebooks were essentially lists of in-game stuff your character could buy, and as with any list of stuff in RPGs the whole point is to get better stats and improve your efficiency at in-game tasks. But the Chromebooks made it interesting by pitching each item with its in-game ad buy.

Want to buy clothes that boost your stats or which provide better armor? Sure, but you're not just buying a leather jacket with better SP. You're buying a Ruf Tread(tm) combo bodysuit and jacket. 'If it can stop a round and won't embarrass you to wear it, it's cool,' says a satisfied customer.

You have a need for speed? Try the Ares Combat Bike. It uses the patented Brennan cycles Gendarme chassis, making it one of the most durable cycles on the road. Maybe it comes with its own steer-roping girl ...

Ultimately it's all about world building. Cyberpunk sold itself that way because it wanted to create the kind of world cyberpunk could flourish in. It wouldn't feel the same if the Chromebooks were just a list of stats, and nothing else. Whereas the old D&D equipment guides were often just a long list of glaives, guisarmes, guisarme-glaives, glaive-guisarme-glaives, guisarme-guisarme-glaive-glaive, old MacDonald bought the farm, ee ai, ee ai, critical hit. It didn't try to sell the gamer on the game world because it assumed it didn't have to, in its first incarnation. Its subsequent iterations have become much more savvy.

I've touched on world-building using background noise before. However it's worth going a little further with the concept, because everything you do here helps your players envision the kind of world they're in, and therefore the kind of environment they can help you create.

Let's take Bookhounds of London as a starter, and add in a bit of Dorothy Sayers.

Sayers once worked in advertising, and used this as the background for her mystery Murder Must Advertise. In that story her detective Lord Peter Wimsey disguises himself as his alter ego Death Bredon and works at ad agency Pyms to uncover a dope ring. While there Bredon becomes fascinated by advertising and invents a campaign for Whifflets, a cigarette brand. The idea is this: each time you buy Whifflets you're given stamps. On their own they're worth little, but if you collect enough of them you can exchange them for free goods or services, anything from a tea set to a trip to Portsmouth. WIFFLE YOUR WAY AROUND BRITAIN screams advert banners on a bus.

'The only thing you cannot get by Whiffling is a coffin,' Sayers remarks. 'It is not admitted that any Whiffler could ever require such an article.'

This happens in 1933, if the novel's publication date can be considered the actual timeline. That means Bookhounds will get the full force of the campaign. So what do they smoke? Do they collect  Whifflet coupons? If so, what are they saving up to get? Can they use a Whifflet obsession to ingratiate themselves with an informant? Can they use Whifflet coupons as a Bargaining chip?

Expand that and see what happens: ask yourself what they drink, wear, drive, where they go on holiday, what's in the cinemas right now. Remember that you can make all this up as you go along, and consider that you're trying to enforce a particular aesthetic, be it Arabesque, Technicolor, or Sordid. So taking Sordid as an example:

A long line of cinemagoers eagerly await their chance to see Hitchcock's latest murder chiller, their blue clouds of Whifflet smoke snaking up into the iron sky. They stand not ten feet from the spot where a flusher was found frozen to death, next to a sewer grate, with a diamond in his hand. Billboards shriek every way you turn: Lovely Day for a Guinness, Are You Whiffling Too?, Nutrax for Nerves. Winter bites through your coat and down to your bones, and you light up in a reflex action to ward off the cold. One of the cinemagoers asks if you're going to save your Whifflet coupon ...

No fellow feeling here, no inquisitive stares at the spot where a man died. The only spark of human interest is in the Whifflet coupon: an extra touch of covetousness in a world drowning in greed.

Of course all that's before we even consider the possibilities of subliminal advertising, which would be perfect for a Night's Black Agents game. Imagine a world in which vampires and their crowd-controlling products and messages could only be detected with special sunglasses, or in which a particular targeted ad could drive your brainwashed black program badass nuts.

Subliminals also work very well in an Esoterror context, for much the same reason. Picture a world in which the videos in your YouTube feed propagate Membrane-shattering messages, or a shadowy media corporation uses hidden messages to influence a crucial presidential election. The newly elected president then goes on to enact policies and force through budgets that completely shatter what little protection the Membrane has, and so on.

But that's enough from me today. See you next week!

Sunday, 12 March 2017

McCybercrime (Mutant City Blues, Night's Black Agents)

According to the latest Europol serious crime threat assessment there are over 5,000 new gangs operating in Europe, most of them human traffickers or cybercriminals indulging in ransomware attacks.

The biggest spike is in polycrime groups, or organized crime operations that are involved in more than one criminal activity. However the Europol assessment warns that the greatest challenge threatening law enforcement is the increasing adaptation and deployment of technology.

Document fraud, money laundering and the online trade in illicit goods and services are the three key issues. Document fraud is linked to human trafficking and the increasing migrant problem, while the other two are more traditional criminal activities. While there's no direct correlation with terrorism, terrorist groups often work hand in hand with criminals, either for services or to fund operations.

What makes it all the more serious, the Europol assessment alleges, is that cybercrime is getting to the point where you don't need to be a sophisticated computer user to take advantage of the technology. This is the age of crime-as-a-service; you can buy everything you need online, without having to write a single line of code.

Tony Thompson in his book Gang Land says much the same:
Internet Relay Chat rooms - an untraceable form of instant messaging - are filled with hackers advertising their wares, from keystroke loggers and password cracking programs to stolen credit card numbers and banking details. The more you get into this world, the more amazing it gets. Back in the day, the only way to acquire this kind of detailed knowledge about how to be a successful criminal was to go to prison. Now, for those who know where to look, it's all available online.
Misha Glenny in his work McMafia says:
The era of the malicious virus that chewed up computer screens, destroyed your hard disk or directed you to vile pornographic websites is fast coming to a close. Those attacks were the work of so-called 'ego-hackers.' They were designed to make the computer users' life a misery, as projects that had taken months or years were destroyed for the sake of an adolescent giggle. Now viruses, Trojan horses, worms and other malware go largely unnoticed. The sun has set on the age of the ego-hacker and the dawn is rising on the age of the criminal hacker, or cracker
So how can this be gamified?

Games set in the modern day like Night's Black Agents, or even BubbleGumshoe, can make use of crackers and their made-to-order crime packages. In fact it may be even better suited to BubbleGumshoe than most Pelgrane titles, since that setting is all about the solving of crimes.

That said, there's one setting that's even more suited to crime-busting than BubbleGumshoe: Mutant City Blues, a game in which super-powered mutant cops chase down their criminal counterparts. 
Ever since the Sudden Mutation Event, people have been able to fly. Phase through walls. Read minds. Shoot bolts of energy from their fingertips. Walk into dreams.
As members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit, you and your fellow detectives solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. When a mutant power is used to kill, you catch the case. When it’s a mutant victim in the chalk outline, you get the call. And when it comes time for a fight, you deploy your own extraordinary abilities to even the odds.
 Mutant City Blues assumes, among other things, that the game takes place ten years from the current date. That allows you, as GM, to take advantage of current day technology and world events without worrying too much about pin-point accuracy.Technology will be recognizably similar to today, but updated, and the same goes for geopolitics, social trends, and other markers.

So if you assume that the inciting event, the Ghost Virus, happens right now, then however Donald Trump leaves office by the time the game starts he will have left office. There will still be a Russia, still be a China, a Europe. Brexit will be well under way, with significant effects for the UK and Europe. There will still be an internet, and probably still be some form of tablet, but perhaps there will be a rival to Apple and Samsung, and so on.

Which means that the age of the cracker will already have passed its zenith by the time the game starts.

What does that suggest? Well, probably that what we now call the darknet, accessed mainly by the techno-literate, is more available to the techno-dim. That setups we consider to be the province of sophisticated criminal networks are now available to those for whom Internet for Dummies is a must-read.

That probably includes a lot of mutants.

So with that in mind:

Cracker Firouz Kamkar, aka Marko in his online persona, has a lucrative sideline. He provides what amounts to the complete e-commerce package for would-be cyber criminals. They sign up, and he gives them a custom site with secure bitcoin or credit card checkout. Many of his clients are drug dealers, but a significant minority are criminally inclined mutants selling their specialized services to the highest bidder.

Except for his mutant clients Marko has a special package: ransomware. At any point Marko can seize control of the user's PC, site, bitcoin accounts, and all electronic communication the user may have made with clients. Marko then makes a very simple request: pay extra. A lot extra. Or I take all this and dump it in the laps of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit.

Marko, being a fourteen-year-old living in his parents' flat, doesn't see a problem with this. Why should he worry about a bunch of mutant losers? They deserve everything they get.

The mutant losers don't see it that way, and now a number of them are on the prowl looking for Marko. When several would-be crackers turn up dead in interesting and inventive ways, the HCIU discover a small crime wave right under their noses. Can they get to Marko before his mutant enemies do?

That's it for this week! Enjoy.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Ripped from the Headlines: Gibraltar Porn (GUMSHOE, Night's Black Agents)

I was going to post something else this week, but reality intervened.

This is a story some of you may not have seen, as it only seems to have popped up in a few minor news outlets. I know about it because my brother has an all encompassing interest in things to do with the British military, and it doesn't get more British military than being arrested on charges connected with child pornography while attempting to flee the country with the evidence.

Briefly: the airport in Gibraltar shut down for several hours on the 8th of February, during a dramatic stand-off between the British army and the Royal Gibraltar Police. Someone described as 'a serving member of the British military' was attempting to leave via transport plane, taking with him computer equipment allegedly containing evidence concerning a child pornography investigation. The RGP wanted to conduct its own investigation, the military said no, and the argument ended with the RGP driving onto the airport runway and blocking the departure of the plane. This shut down the airport for several hours while everything got sorted out.

On the last day of February three senior military officers - described as 'three key decision-makers in the MoD chain of command in Gibraltar' - were arrested in connection with the case and several MoD sites in Gibraltar were searched by the RGP, including the Royal Navy's HQ. The three officers were charged with conspiring to pervert the course of justice.

The case is ongoing.

For those of you scratching your heads and wondering what the nelly:

Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory, part of the Iberian Peninsula, and has been a British possession ever since its capture in 1704 during the War of Spanish Succession. Its relationship with Spain has been fraught, and Madrid has often tried to exert control over this wayward little Rock. However in 1967, and again in 2002, Gibraltar rejected Spanish sovereignty and is in most respects a self-governing entity, though Britain still controls its foreign relations and defense. As has been discussed before, this may change post-Brexit, but for now Gibraltar remains the flag-waving Little Britain it's been for many decades.

Gibraltar hosts the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. It's an important SIGINT base, and monitors North African and Mediterranean traffic. During the War its civilian population was evacuated and Gibraltar became a fortress, facing off against Italy and Germany and cut off from resupply from home. [Hence the tunnels, of which more later.] Only Franco's reluctance to let foreign armies onto Spanish soil prevented a land invasion.

The RGP dates back to the 1830s, and is the oldest police force of the former Empire, outside Britain itself. It was formed by H. Morgan, an officer sent for the task by Sir Robert Peel himself, and until fairly recently it also provided the territory's only emergency ambulance service. Its organization is modelled on British Police standards, and as might be expected given the territory's geography it has a significant Marine section in addition to the usual compliment you'd expect of a modern police force.

The airport is one of the scariest in the world. It earns this title because the runway extends into the sea, which means take-off and landing is within a hair's breadth of a salt water bath. It dates back to the War and its continued existence is a sore spot with Spain, which since 1987 has grudgingly shared it with Gibraltar. Spain claims that when the airport was built it annexed several dozen hectares of land it had no right to, a land jump which has soured relations ever since. Or at least soured them further, given that the relationship was already strained. Only in 2006 did Spain finally allow air traffic between Spain and Gibraltar. Whenever sovereignty becomes an issue the airport is often the first flash point.

The dispute which ended in a dramatic airport arrest is territorial. The RGP claims it has primacy in any investigation into crimes committed in Gibraltar, and asserts this right under the 2006 Constitution. The MoD claims it has primacy in any investigation concerning military personnel, and when it tried to extract the soldier and the computer equipment allegedly containing child porn it ignored the RGP and its warrant, signed by the Chief Justice of Gibraltar.

The MoD says it was about to conduct its own investigation, in the UK. Naturally this would have avoided any unpleasant questions from civilian investigators, and the unspoken but strong suspicion is that the MoD would have covered everything up 'for the good of the Service.'

It's difficult to overstate how extraordinary it is, not simply that the RGP would physically intervene to stop a plane from taking off, but that it would dare to execute search warrants on MoD property. This is Gibraltar; you don't get more Little Britain than the Rock, and its military links with the UK are exceptionally strong. It's as if one of the Queen's Corgis bit Theresa May, but then Gibraltar may be feeling its oats. It voted overwhelmingly Remain in the Brexit referendum, and may not be quite so unthinkingly devoted to the Crown these days.

So to turn to gaming:

Gibraltar turns up in the Dracula Dossier scenario The Harker Intrusion, originally a free .pdf and now part of The Edom Files. In that scenario the alternate scene The Gibraltar Triangulation assumes that the agents follow up on clues which suggest Edom maintains some kind of outpost in the old WWII military tunnels at the Rock.

In their day these tunnels could accommodate a 16,000 strong garrison with enough food to last over a year, complete with a power plant, military hospital, a water distillation plant, and a vehicle maintenance workshop. Operation Tracer, a secret plan to provide a hidden observation post in Stay Behind Cave allowing the British to spy on German operations should Gibraltar every be captured by the Nazis, was also based in those tunnels.

Stay Behind Cave was supposed to be able to support a small team of observers for over seven years, but as Germany didn't invade the plan was never used. Stay Behind Cave was sealed off and forgotten until its rediscovery by cavers in 1997. It was the Gibraltar cave defenses in miniature, complete with a water tank and a bicycle-powered electric plant, and currently it's under the auspices of the Gibraltar Museum.

With some creative fudging there's no reason why Stay Behind Cave couldn't be the Harker Triangulation Edom outpost, either because your game takes place prior to 1997 or because the 1997 rediscovery never happened. Or perhaps the 1997 rediscovery was carefully managed and the Museum's in cahoots with Edom. You're the Director; do as you see fit.

The more interesting sideshow is the airport shutdown, with anxious military officers and angry RGP units on the prowl. Let's say for the sake of discussion that this incident happens on the same day the agents try to extract themselves after investigating the tunnels. This leaves them in the airport but unable to go anywhere, and if that Jack that's been pursuing them all this while is still active then now is the time for him to strike. Except that since this is a daylight raid he hasn't got his usual Seward Serum compliment of abilities, so he has to rely on military contacts. Posing as an MI6 agent, he orders the military to arrest and extract the agents, but the RGP don't go along with this scheme. Perhaps they believe the agents are somehow mixed up in the porn investigation, or perhaps they just don't like high-handed British military types interfering in local affairs.

For an added twist, suppose that this wasn't about child porn at all. Suppose that the whole thing is actually about extracting sensitive Edom data, and that the RGP are either Conspiracy controlled or that some senior RGP officials are trying to curry favor with a Conspiracy asset. Better yet if Edom is tainted by its association with Dracula then the RGP could be covering for an anti-vampire operation, and intervened not just to seize a hard drive or two but also to recover suspicious boxes of soil, or similar.

If, as Director, you're looking for a convenient base of operations for vampire hunters, and not sure where to place it, Gibraltar's not a bad spot. It has excellent links with Europe and the UK, including a strong shipping economy - perfect for Axel Logistics - and its corporate tax regime means it plays host to a number of offshore companies and wealthy banks, any one of which could be a front for one of the major players in the Great Game. Suppose the agents are being bankrolled by the Hildesheim Legacy or the Former Gehlen Org, operating through a convenient shell company. What could be more reasonable than a Gibraltar-based shell, particularly since it would let the vampire hunters spy on Edom's Gibraltar outpost?

Then the February incident takes on a different color. The Gibraltar shell could be taking direct action against a fleeing Edom asset, using its local connections to do so. The child porn allegations would be a convenient excuse, allowing the shell to mobilize Gibraltar assets sympathetic to its cause. And if, during the police sweeps of MoD bases, the shell's assets tag along for the ride extracting Edom data, how lucky for the shell - and unlucky for Edom.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!