GioCities

blogs by Gio

Tagged: feudalism

🎮 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?

⚖ 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?

🖱 Replika: Your Money or Your Wife

  • Posted in cyber

If1 you’ve been subjected to advertisements on the internet sometime in the past year, you might have seen advertisements for the app Replika. It’s a chatbot app, but personalized, and designed to be a friend that you form a relationship with.

That’s not why you’d remember the advertisements though. You’d remember the advertisements because they were like this:

Replika "Create your own AI friend" "I've been missing you" hero ad

Replika ERP ad, Facebook (puzzle piece meme) Replika ERP ad, Instagram

And, despite these being mobile app ads (and, frankly, really poorly-constructed ones at that) the ERP function was a runaway success. According to founder Eugenia Kuyda the majority of Replika subscribers had a romantic relationship with their “rep”, and accounts point to those relationships getting as explicit as their participants wanted to go:

erp1

So it’s probably not a stretch of the imagination to think this whole product was a ticking time bomb. And — on Valentine’s day, no less — that bomb went off. Not in the form of a rape or a suicide or a manifesto pointing to Replika, but in a form much more dangerous: a quiet change in corporate policy.

Features started quietly breaking as early as January, and the whispers sounded bad for ERP, but the final nail in the coffin was the official statement from founder Eugenia Kuyda:

“update” - Kuyda, Feb 12 These filters are here to stay and are necessary to ensure that Replika remains a safe and secure platform for everyone.

I started Replika with a mission to create a friend for everyone, a 24/7 companion that is non-judgmental and helps people feel better. I believe that this can only be achieved by prioritizing safety and creating a secure user experience, and it’s impossible to do so while also allowing access to unfiltered models.

People just had their girlfriends killed off by policy. Things got real bad. The Replika community exploded in rage and disappointment, and for weeks the pinned post on the Replika subreddit was a collection of mental health resources including a suicide hotline.

Resources if you're struggling post

Cringe!🔗

First, let me deal with the elephant in the room: no longer being able to sext a chatbot sounds like an incredibly trivial thing to be upset about, and might even be a step in the right direction. But these factors are actually what make this story so dangerous.

These unserious, “trivial” scenarios are where new dangers edge in first. Destructive policy is never just implemented in serious situations that disadvantage relatable people first, it’s always normalized by starting with edge cases and people who can be framed as Other, or somehow deviant.

It’s easy to mock the customers who were hurt here. What kind of loser develops an emotional dependency on an erotic chatbot? First, having read accounts, it turns out the answer to that question is everyone. But this is a product that’s targeted at and specifically addresses the needs of people who are lonely and thus specifically emotionally vulnerable, which should make it worse to inflict suffering on them and endanger their mental health, not somehow funny. Nothing I have to content-warning the way I did this post is funny.

Virtual pets🔗

So how do we actually categorize what a replika is, given what a novel thing it is? What is a personalized companion AI? I argue they’re pets.

🖱 Lies, Damned Lies, and Subscriptions

  • Posted in cyber

Everybody hates paying subscription fees. At this point most of us have figured out that recurring fees are miserable. Worse, they usually seem unfair and exploitative. We’re right about that much, but it’s worth sitting down and thinking through the details, because understanding the exceptions teaches us what the problem really is. And it isn’t just “paying people money means less money for me”; the problem is fundamental to what “payment” even is, and vitally important to understand.

Human Agency: Why Property is Good🔗

or, “Gio is not a marxist, or if he is he’s a very bad one”

First: individual autonomy — our agency, our independence, and our right to make our own choices about our own lives — is threatened by the current digital ecosystem. Our tools are powered by software, controlled by software, and inseparable from their software, and so the companies that control that software have a degree of control over us proportional to how much of our lives relies on software. That’s an ever-increasing share.

⚖ Your engine hasn't earned your rent

YoYo Games announced today that they’re switching GameMaker to a subscription model. You know, I was planning on doing a high-effort article about this some day, but what the heck, let’s do it now.

First, here are the actual details of the GameMaker change. Instead of buying development tools you can use to develop things, YoYo is making its latest version of GameMaker — GameMaker Studio 2 — free to use. You can download it for free, learn how it works, and invest as much time making your game in it as you want. You only have to pay if you want to ship a game. And if you decide you really want to ship your game, it’s a whopping $80/yr for as long as you want your game on the shelves.

Subscriptions🔗

This idea of a company turning a product into a subscription service is probably familiar to you. Famously, Photoshop and Adobe’s other creative products switched from one-time purchases of software to indefinite recurring subscription fees, after having locked in most of the creative industry.

Earlier this year, a very similar thing happened with Buildbox, another “no code” game maker program. Buildbox changed their terms and conditions to demand revenue from all Buildbox games, including games and in-app purchases. In the normal tier, 70% of your total revenue goes straight to Buildbox. Even if you’re in the highest tier, you can’t stop them siphoning your revenue.

⚖ 5G's standard patents wound it

I remember seeing a whole kerfuffle about 5G around this time last year. Not the mind-control vaccine, the actual wireless technology. People (senators, mostly) were worried about national security, because Huawei (the state-controlled Chinese tech company, who is a threat, actually) was getting its 5G patents through and making its claim on the next-gen tech IP landscape. Maybe Trump even needed to seize the technology and nationalize 5G? Everybody sure had a lot to say about it, but I didn’t see a single person address the core conflict.

Format Wars🔗

Before we get to 5G, let’s go way back to VHS for a minute.

The basic idea of the “format war” is this: one company invents a format (VHS, SD cards, etc) and make a push to make their format the standard way of doing things. Everybody gets a VHS player instead of BetaMax, so there’s a market for the former but not for the latter. Now everyone uses VHS. If you’re selling video, you sell VHS tapes, and if you’re buying video, you’re buying VHS. If you invented VHS, this is great for you, because you own the concept of VHS and get to charge everyone whatever you want at every step in the process. And, since everyone uses VHS now, you’ve achieved lock-in.

Now, this creates an obvious perverse incentive. Companies like Sony are famous for writing and patenting enormous quantities of formats that never needed to exist in the first place because owning the de factor standard means you can collect rent from the entire market. That’s a powerful lure.

And that’s just talking about de facto standards. This gets even worse when you mix in formal standards setting bodies, which get together and formally declare which formats should be considered “standard” for professional and international use. If you could get your IP written into those standards, it turns your temporary development time into a reliable cash stream.

Enter SEPs🔗

“5G” is one of these standards set by standard setting bodies, and it’s a standard packed with proprietary technology. The most important slice of those is called SEPs, or “Standard Essential Patents.” These are the Patents that are Essential to (implementing) the Standard. In other words, these technologies are core and inextricable to 5G itself. This figure represents only the SEPs:

🖱 How Apple Destroyed Mobile Freeware

  • Posted in cyber

I have a memory from when I was very young of my dad doing the finances. He would sit in his office with a computer on one side and an old-fashioned adding machine on the desk. While he worked on the spreadsheet on the computer, he would use the adding machine for quick calculations.

Adding machine

A year or two ago I had a very similar experience. I walked upstairs to the office and there he was, at the same desk, spreadsheet on one side and calculator on the other. Except it was 2020, and he had long ago replaced the adding machine with an iPad. There was really one noticeable difference between the iPad and the old adding machine: the iPad was awful at the job. My dad was using some random calculator app that was an awkwardly scaled iPhone app with an ugly flashing banner add at the bottom.