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🎮 Notes on the VRC Creator Economy

  • Posted in gaming

My friend Floober brought some recent changes VRChat is making in chat, and I thought I’d jot down my thoughts.

The problem with the VRC economy is the same problem as with most “platform economies”: everyone is buying lots in a company town.

The Store🔗

This was the precipitating announcement: VRChat releasing a beta for an in-game real-money store.

Paid Subscriptions: Now in Open Beta! — VRChat Over the last few years, we’ve talked about introducing something we’ve called the “Creator Economy,” and we’re finally ready to reveal what the first step of that effort is going to look like: Paid Subscriptions!

As it stands now, creators within VRChat have to jump through a series of complicated, frustrating hoops if they want to make money from their creations. For creators, this means having to set up a veritable Rube Goldberg machine, often requiring multiple external platforms and a lot of jank. For supporters, it means having to sign up for those same platforms… and then hope that the creator you’re trying to support set everything up correctly.

(The problem, of course, is that “frustrating jank” was designed by VRChat, and their “solution” is rentiering.)

Currently, the only thing to purchase is nebulous “subscriptions” that would map to different world or avatar features depending on the content. But more importantly, this creates a virtual in-game currency, and opens the door to future transaction opportunities. I’m especially thinking of something like an avatar store.

I quit playing VRChat two years ago, when they started to crack down on client-side modifications (which are good) by force-installing malware (which is bad) on players’ computers. Since then I’ve actually had a draft sitting somewhere about software architecture in general, and how you to evaluate whether it’s safe or a trap. And, how just by looking at the way VRChat is designed, you can tell it’s a trap they’re trying to spring on people.

The Store of Tomorrow🔗

Currently, the VRC Creator Economy is just a currency store and a developer api. Prior to this, there was no way for mapmakers to “charge users” for individual features; code is sandboxed, and you only know what VRC tells you, so you can’t just check against Patreon from within the game1.

But the real jackpot for VRC is an avatar store. Currently, the real VRC economy works by creators creating avatars, maps, and other assets in the (mostly-)interchangeable Unity format, and then selling those to people. Most commonly this is seen in selling avatars, avatar templates, or custom commissioned avatars. Users buy these assets peer-to-peer.

This is the crucial point: individuals cannot get any content in the game without going through VRC. When you play VRChat, all content is streamed from VRChat’s servers anonymously by the proprietary client. There are no URLs, no files, no addressable content of any kind. (In fact, in the edge cases where avatars are discretely stored in files, in the cache, users get angry because of theft!) VRChat isn’t a layer over an open protocol, it’s its own closed system. Even with platforms like Twitter, at least there are files somewhere. But VRChat attacks the entire concept of files, structurally. The user knows nothing and trusts the server, end of story.

⚖ How Nintendo Misuses Copyright

When I’m looking for an example of copyright abuse, I find myself returning to Nintendo a lot on this blog. Nintendo is a combination hardware/software/media franchise company, so they fit a lot of niches. They’re a particularly useful when talking about IP because the “big N” is both very familiar to people and also egregiously bad offenders, especially given their “frdiendly” reputation.

Nintendo has constructed a reputation for itself as a “good” games company that still makes genuinely fun games with “heart”. Yet it’s also infamously aggressive in executing “takedowns”: asserting property ownership of creative works other people own and which Nintendo did not make.

You’d think a company like Nintendo — an art creation studio in the business of making and selling creative works — would be proponents of real, strong, immutable creative rights. That, as creators, they’d want the sturdiest copyright system possible, not one compromised (or that could be compromised) to serve the interests of any one particular party. This should be especially true for Nintendo even compared to other studios, given Nintendo’s own fight-for-its-life against Universal, its youth, and its relatively small position1 in the market compared to Disney, Sony, and Microsoft.

But no, Nintendo takes the opposite position. When it comes to copyright, they pretty much exclusively try to compromise it in the hopes that a broken, askew system will end up unfairly favoring them. And so they attack the principles of copyright, viciously, again and again, convinced that the more broken the system is, the more they stand to profit.

Introducing Nintendo🔗

Nintendo, even compared to its corporate contemporaries, has a distinctly hostile philosophy around art: if they can’t control something themselves, they tend to try to eliminate it entirely. What Nintendo uses creative rights to protect is not the copyright of their real creative works, it’s their control over everything they perceive to be their “share” of the gaming industry.

Let me start with a quick history, in case you’re not familiar with the foundation Nintendo is standing on.

Nintendo got its start in Japan making playing cards for the mob to commit crimes with. It only pivoted to “video games” after manufacturing playing cards for the Yakuza to use for illegal gambling dens.

Nintendo got its footing in America by looking to see what video game was making the most money, seeing it was Space Invaders, and copying that verbatim with a clone game they called “Radar Scope”:

Then, when that was a commercial failure, they wrote “conversion kit” code to turn those cabinets into a Popeye game, failed to get the rights they needed, and released it anyway. They kept the gameplay and even the character archetypes the same, they just reskinned it with King Kong. They didn’t even name the protagonist after they swapped out the Popeye idea, so he was just called Jumpman.

Popeye/Donkey Kong comparison

But then Nintendo was almost itself the victim of an abuse of IP law. “Donkey Kong” derived from King Kong, and even though the character was in the public domain, Universal Studios still sued Nintendo over the use. Ultimately the judge agreed with the Nintendo team and threw out the lawsuit, in an example of a giant corporation trying to steamroll a — at the time — small business with over-aggressive and illegitimate IP enforcement.

This was such an impactful moment for Nintendo that they took the name of their lawyer in the Universal Studios case — Kirby — and used it for the mascot of one of their biggest franchises. It was a significant move that demonstrates Nintendo’s extreme gratefulness — or even idolization — of the man who defended them against abuse of IP law.

You would hope the lesson Nintendo learned here would be from the perspective of the underdog, seeing as they were almost the victim of the kinds of tactics they would later become famous for using themselves. But no, it seems they were impressed by the ruthlessness of the abusers instead, and so copied their playbook.

⚖ Apple's Trademark Exploit

Apple puts its logo on the devices it sells: not just the outer casing, but also each internal component. The vast majority of these logos are totally enclosed and invisible to the naked eye. This seems like an incredibly strange practice — especially since Apple doesn’t sell these parts separately — except it turns out to be part of a truly convoluted rules-lawyering exploit only a company like Apple could pull off and get away with.

Remember, trademarks are a consumer protection measure to defend against counterfeits. Apple’s registered logo trademark protects consumers from being tricked into buying fake products, and deputizes Apple to defend its mark against counterfeits.

The Loaded Gun🔗

While some counterfeiting happens domestically the major concern is usually counterfeits imported from foreign trade. This brings us to Customs and Border Patrol, which you might know as the other side of the ICE/CBP border control system. You might be surprised to see them involved with this, since Border Patrol agents are fully-militarized police outfitted to combat armed drug cartels.

But among its other duties, Border Patrol takes a proactive role in enforcing intellectual property protection at ports of trade — backed by the full force of the Department of Homeland Security — by seizing goods it identifies as counterfeit and either destroying them outright or else selling them themselves at auction.1 To get your property back, you have to sue Border Patrol — an infamously untouchable police force — and win.

⚖ You've Never Seen Copyright

Hear me out.

When it comes to copyright, it can be very easy to lose the forest for the trees. That’s why I want to start this series with a bit of a reset, and establish a baseline understanding of copyright doctrine as a whole, and the context in which our modern experience of copyright sits.

The current state of copyright law is a quagmire, due not just to laws but also international treaty agreements and rulings from judges who don’t understand the topic and who even actively disagree with each other. That convolution is exactly why I don’t want to get lost in those twists and turns for this, and instead want to start with the base principles we’ve lost along the way.

You don’t need to understand the layers to see the problem, in fact, intellectual property is a system whose convolutions hide the obviousness of the problem. Complexity is good only when complexity is needed to ensure the correctness of the outcome. But here, far from being necessary to keep things working right, the complexity hides that the outcome is wrong.

But that outcome, our current regime that we know as copyright policy, is so wrong — not only objectively bad, but wrong even according to its own definition — that at this point it takes significant work just to get back to the idea that

This is my controversial stance, and the premise of my series: copyright (as properly defined) is a cohesive system, and, when executed properly, is actually good for everyone. And I’m not “one true Scotsman”ing this either; copyright isn’t an just arbitrary legal concept, it’s a system that arises naturally from a set of solid base principles.

The first step in my “understanding the forest for the trees” project is separating the big, nebulous, polluted idea of “copyright” out into the parts people can mostly agree on and the parts that are just evil and bad. Fortunately, the “good” and “bad” groups line up really well with “original intent” compared to “junk that was added later”. Generally speaking, it’s not useful to just make a distinction and act like doing so is the whole job done, unless you just care about smarmy pedantic internet points. But I’m not doing this to be pedantic, I’m making the distinction between the core idea and the junk that’s corrupted it because it turns out to be really important.

What we’re subjected to today in the name of copyright does not come from the real principles of copyright. Compared to the current state of US intellectual property law, the “real copyright” I’m talking about is like grass so utterly smothered by concrete that not only do no strands poke through, everyone involved has forgotten it was ever there.

The situation is so bad that even though I think copyright should be a good thing, I think our current bastardization of it is worse than nothing at all. We’d be better off with the problems real copyright is meant to solve than with all the new, worse problems it’s inflicted on us.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bp92AGvlWl0/

But because what we’re enduring now is a corruption of another thing and not its own original evil, we’re not limited to measuring it by the harm it inflicts: we can also measure it by its deviation from what we know it should be.

So what’s the good version? This true, unadulterated form of creative rights?

💬 Is homestuck.giovanh.com official?

  • Posted in qa

This question came on Retrospring:

Is your website the official location of the unofficial collection webapp or is it just there now for testing?

I’ve also gotten other variations of it, so I wanted to get some thoughts down.

The UHC is, itself, unofficial, in that it isn’t acting with the authority of the Homestuck brand, and it’s not a What Pumpkin published work.

https://homestuck.giovanh.com is one further layer more unofficial than that: It’s still not endorsed by Homestuck, but it’s also not necessarily “endorsed” by the main UHC project. It’s a separate spin-off for a couple of reasons, including the fact that it uses some non-free code. But ultimately this separation lets me test experimental features and ideas before they’re released as part of the main collection.

At https://homestuck.giovanh.com/gio, I’ve written

This is an online port of The Unofficial Homestuck Collection, a desktop collection of Homestuck and its related works. TUHC is developed by Bambosh and Gio (and some other great folks), while this port in particular is written, maintained, and hosted as an experiment by Gio.

This is meant as a way to use the offline homestuck collection in a browser, for people on mobile or platforms that don’t have a proper version, or as an “on-ramp” if you’re just getting into Homestuck and aren’t sure if you want to commit yet.

Don’t just use this to read Homestuck! Get the collection; it’s faster, it has real flash, and it costs less to host!

I still think this is the right mentality: if you’re reading through Homestuck or doing fan work, you probably still want the main desktop release. It’s also much more moddable; the browser version has some modding functionality, but it’s stripped down and isn’t ever going to be up to the standard of the main collection.

I think what this question might mean to be asking is: “is https://homestuck.giovanh.com temporary?” The answer to that is no: I don’t have any plans to stop hosting it, and if we ever move to a different URL, I’ll set something up to redirect https://homestuck.giovanh.com there, including the page references, so links won’t break. You should be able to safely share links to the web collection, including homestuck pages (https://homestuck.giovanh.com/mspa/001901) and collection metapages (https://homestuck.giovanh.com/search/fiddlesticks) (as possible).

I don’t currently have any plans to move the domain name, though. I can imagine doing that at some point in the future, if governance ever changes (i.e. it’s not strictly personal, and so shouldn’t be on my personal) but I already own giovanh.com, and I think Homestuck fits nicely there.

📣 The Angel is You

  • Posted in fandom

”…okay, fine, you can have one more, but only because of the name”
a Deltarune theory

Answering the questions raised by Ralsei’s prophesy:

  • Who is the Angel?
  • What is the “Angel’s Heaven”?
  • How can it be banished?

Angels and Heavens🔗

First, here’s a list of all the references to “Angels” or “Heaven” in the text of Undertale and Deltarune, which I’ll go through one by one:

  • The human in Undertale is called an “angel” for coming down from the human world (this is a red herring) (this could also refer to Asriel but it doesn’t matter)
  • The Angel’s Heaven from Ralsei’s prophesy
  • The Heaven Spamton is pursuing
  • The Angel worshipped by the Hometown church
    • The Angel doll Noelle and Dess made in church youth group

Undertale🔗

First, the “angel” (lowercase) from Undertale, which I’ll ultimately want to write off as a distraction.

In Waterfall, you can ask Gerson about the Delta “with-a-space” Rune, the royal emblem, and he’ll exposit:

🔨 My Pal Sorter

  • Posted in tech

I’ve decided to do a short write-up on a tool I just call “Sorter”. Sorter is something I built for myself to help me organize my own files, and it looks like this:

animated sort demo

It’s designed to do exactly one thing: move files into subfolders, one file at a time. You look at a file, you decide where it goes, and you move it accordingly. It’s the same behavior you can do with Explorer, but at speed.

You can download it if you want (although it might not be easy to build; check the releases for binaries) but for now I just wanted to talk through some of the features, why I built it the way I did, and the specific features I needed that I couldn’t find in other software.

🖱 Reddit: Your API *IS* Your Product

  • Posted in cyber

Reddit is going the same route as Twitter by making “API access” prohibitively expensive. This is something they very famously, very vocally said they would not do, but they’re doing it anyway. This is very bad for Reddit, but what’s worse is it’s becoming clear that companies think that this is a remotely reasonable thing to do, when it’s very critically not.

It’s the same problem we see with Twitter and other late-capitalist hell websites: Reddit’s product is the service it provides, which is its API. The ability for users to interact with the service isn’t an auxiliary premium extra, it’s the whole caboodle!

I’ll talk about first principles first, and then get into what’s been going on with Reddit and Apollo. The Apollo drama is very useful in that it directly converts the corporate bullshit that sounds technical enough to make sense into something very easy to understand: a corporation hurting them, today, for money.

The API is the product🔗

Reddit and all these other companies who are making user-level API access prohibitively expensive have forgotten that the API is the product. - The API is the interface that lets you perform operations on the site. The operations a user can do are the product, they’re not auxiliary to it!

“Application programming interface” is a very formal, internal-sounding term for a system that is none of those things. The word “programming” in the middle comes from an age where using a personal computer at all was considered “programming” it.

What an API really is a high-level interface to the web application that is Reddit. Every action a user can take — viewing posts, posting, voting, commenting — goes from the app (which interfaces with the user) to the API (which interfaces with the Reddit server), gets processed by the server using whatever-they-use-it-doesn’t-matter, and the response is sent back to the user.

The API isn’t a god mode and it doesn’t provide any super-powers. It doesn’t let you do anything you can’t do as a user, as clearly evidenced by the fact that all the actions you do on the Reddit website go through the API too.

The Reddit website, the official Reddit app, and the Apollo app all interface with the user in different ways and on different platforms, but go through the same API to interact with what we understand as “Reddit”. The fact that the API is the machine interface without the human interface should also concisely explain why “API access” is all Apollo needs to build its own app.

Right now, you can view the announcement thread at https://www.reddit.com/r/apolloapp/comments/144f6xm/apollo_will_close_down_on_june_30th_reddits/, and you can view the “API” data for the same thread at https://www.reddit.com/r/apolloapp/comments/144f6xm/apollo_will_close_down_on_june_30th_reddits.json. It’s not very fun to look at, but it’s easy to tell what you’re looking at: the fundamental representation of the page without all the trappings of the interface.

Public APIs are good for both the user and the company. They’re a vastly more efficient way for people to interact with the service than by automating interaction (or “scraping”). Having an API cuts out an entire layer of expense that, without an API, Reddit would pay for.

The Reddit service is the application, and you interface with it through WHATEVER. Whatever browser you want, whatever browser extensions you want, whatever model phone you want, whatever app you want. This is fundamentally necessary for operability and accessibility.

The API is the service. The mechanical ability to post and view and organize is what makes Reddit valuable, not its frontend. Their app actually takes the core service offering and makes it less attractive to users, which is why they were willing to pay money for an alternative!

⚖ Netflix's Big Double-Dip

Netflix is finally turning the screws on multi-user accounts. That “finally” is exasperation in my voice, not relief. Netflix is demanding you pay them an extra surcharge to share your account with remote people, and even then caps you at paying for a maximum of two. It’s been threatening to do something like this for a long, long time:

Since 2011, when the recording industry started pushing through legal frameworks to criminalize multi-user account use by miscategorizing “entertainment subscription services” as equivalent to public services like mail, water, and electricity for the purposes of criminal prosecution,

Since similar nonsense in 2016 exploiting the monumentally terrible Computer Fraud and Abuse Act,

Since 2019, when Netflix announced (to its shareholders) that it was looking for ways to limit password sharing,

Since 2021, when Netflix started tracking individual users by location and device within a paying account,

Since 2022, when it started banning group use in Portugal, Spain, and New Zealand, to disastrous consequence. Also, Canada, but temporarily. And, of course, then threatened to “crack down” on “password sharing” in “Early 2023”,

Since January, when it threatened to roll out “paid password sharing” in the “coming months”,

Since February, when it released a disastrous policy banning password sharing, then lied about the policy being an error and made a big show of retracting it due to the massive backlash, but then went ahead and did it in Canada anyway,

And finally now since just now, as it’s finally, really, for-realsies banning password sharing this quarter.

Netflix threatening this for so long was a mistake on its part, because that’s given me a long, long time for these thoughts to slowly brew in the back of my head. And there’s a lot wrong here.

the teat one this is a real graphic Netflix made!

Netflix’s pricing model🔗

So, first, what are multi-user accounts in the first place, and how does “password sharing” relate to that?

🎮 The Last Clockwinder Retrospective

  • Posted in gaming

I played The Last Clockwinder last week, and it changed the way I think about production games.

Factory games🔗

The Steam page describes The Last Clockwinder as a “VR puzzle-automation game.” I like production and automation games. But I’m used to FTB and Factorio and Zachtronics and Universal Paperclip. I’m used to the look automation-production games gravitate towards.

Factorio

Factorio’s top-down design invites you to create sprawling factories that completely overtake the landscape. What little detail there is in the landscape is purely mechanical; resources you can extract and process, or enemies you have to either avoid or exploit for more resources.

Positioning the camera to give yourself a comfortable view of the structures you build and the items you’re manipulating leaves the actual character as a tiny focal point; more of a crosshair than a character or even an avatar.

Factorio scales enemy difficulty to “pollution” but this is always designed to be overcome, not be a legitimately limiting factor.

Infinfactory

In Infinifactory, you’re captured by aliens and forced to engineer efficient factories in exchange for food pellets. Each puzzle takes place in a set of stark, desolate environments. It’s first-person, but you never directly interact with another character; the most you get are notes about how much your predecessors hated it.

As soon as you solve a puzzle, you’re presented with a histogram: how could you optimize your solution further? Could you be faster? Use fewer blocks? Are you better than your friends, or falling behind?

Universal Paperclip (gif)

Universal Paperclip’s minimalist HTML interface makes it a graphical outlier, but the bare-metal minimally-styled HTML invokes a sense of brutalism that reenforces the game’s theme of efficiency in the pursuit of a goal to the exclusion of everything else.

And then there’s The Last Clockwinder.

The Last Clockwinder🔗

It’s undeniably hard sci-fi. The first thing you do is arrive in spaceship. Throughout the game you’re on the radio with your friend idling in orbit, and the whole story revolves around interplanetary travel.

But then the first thing you see is a tree-patio with a hammock. It almost feels like a treehouse. The purpose of the tree is archival and preservation of rare and culturally significant plants; it’s a reserve, and that’s what gives it such importance. Inside the tree is the one room you stay inside for the entire game, and it’s a living space.