April 18, 2017
Posted by zompist under games
Comments Off on Aftercare in video games
First, check out this article on endings in video games. tl;dr: Dude thinks that open-world games should let you down gently at the end. They should provide some aftercare. He wants to be able to go back and see how you’ve changed the world, see how the quest givers are faring, maybe pick up some grateful plaudits.
But then what happened?
My overall response: no you don’t, dude. You think you want that, but it’d be a shit-ton of work to provide, and you’d be bored of it in ten minutes.
Now, there is something unsatisfying about having to save the world, then never getting to explore what happens afterwards. Fallout 3 and Fallout NV are like this: you do a huge thing and then you’re just told what happened later in a slideshow. And half the time this isn’t even very well thought out. (E.g. in my ending of Fallout NV, I have a frigging army of upgraded robots, but I’m told that the neighboring suburb has become even more lawless.)
But really, to get what this guy wants, you’d have to add multiple hours of content (because who knows what part of the open world the player wants to check up on), and almost by definition, what you’re adding won’t be game-like. The big bad got impaled on something; you killed all his lieutenants earlier; there’s not going to be much to do. NPCs are not actually people; during the main plot they got a little simulacrum of being real because they had problems you could solve. It’s not at all easy to make them seem real when the plot is over. “Thank you, Champion of Cyrodiil, things really are better now!” is not really going to be a compelling interaction for long.
This isn’t to say the game can’t let you down gently. I think the later Arkham games are good at this. You can wander around for many more hours doing all the side quests, and finding Riddler trophies. Or you can spend another hundred hours polishing your skills on the combat maps.
The game I just finished, Bayonetta, has a nice approach, I think. You don’t get a lot of “what happened next”. But you do get an explicit denouement scene that brings back the major characters (and offers an easy fight), then a credits sequence that includes a couple more fights, and then an extended dance scene. So you move from some emotional closure, to some low-key interaction (sprinkling the credits with fights is a brilliant idea), to just sitting back and enjoying the dance. It’s like stretching after strenuous exercise, it calms you down and makes you feel good.
The thing that most bothers me about the article is that it doesn’t seem to recognize that the plot’s ending is not the game’s ending. You may read a novel straight through and then put it back on the shelf, but games don’t generally work that way. If you liked the game, finishing the plot may just be the start of your adventure. You play it again, just for fun or to experience different approaches or to challenge yourself on a higher difficulty setting. The real ending is the point where beating up one more thug, or finding one more space durian for the helpless peasant, suddenly strikes you as boring rather than fun.
Besides, it’s a rare game where the actual plot ending is really the high point of the game. I’ve said several times that the best part of Bethesda games is the first 10 levels– the part where everything is new and scary, you’re half-bewildered by all the quests available, and a single stimpak/health potion is a rewarding find. Most game endings are variants on “fight some dude with a lot of hit points”, and often you only use a small subset of the skills you’ve learned. (E.g. many a stealth game offers no opportunity to use stealth during the last boss fight.) If the game explored some darker or more nuanced ideas, that was probably in earlier sections. So while the last fight should be cathartic, it’s a hard ask.
Of course, there are a few games that completely upend our expectations. My go-to example is Fable 3: you have the final boss fight, murderate your evil brother, and become queen… and then find out that you’re facing an even larger problem, the one your brother failed to solve, plus all the promises you made to secure allies along the way now come due. It’s a ballsy move– far more than (say) Fallout NV.
Finally, though it’s true that the devs could say “what happened” for each of the 153 side quests, I’m not sure the article author realizes that an author can always add More Story; the art is knowing when to stop. As Neil Gaiman remarked, in real life people’s stories don’t end until they’re dead. You can’t really ask of a piece of art to let you keep asking “what happened next” indefinitely. At some point the character dies, or the author dies, or you die. If you want more story, get the season pass. Or just learn to appreciate closure, the artistic technique where author and audience agree to leave things be for a time.
April 17, 2017
Posted by zompist under games
Comments Off on Bayonetta
So, Bayonetta (1) is finally out for the PC. It sounded fun back in 2010 when it was released for consoles, and it’s only $20, so I picked it up. It is fun. Also one of the weirdest games I’ve even played.
Punch punch kick is like a big evil kiss
I can maybe imagine a Western studio basing a game on the traditional Catholic hierarchy of angels. But it would be a little eyebrow-raising that these are the game’s enemies. And that you play a witch allied with Hell, fighting your way up the hierarchy, and the final boss fight is with the Creator.
Well, that’s Bayonetta. Partly mitigating the weirdness of the concept, but also adding to it, you have the fact that the makers know no more or care about Christianity than, say, the makers of Assassin’s Creed know about Islam. It’s just a source of ready-made symbols for them; it has nothing to say about actual religion. It’s not even blasphemous– the ‘Creator’ here certainly isn’t the Christian idea of God. The “angels” are accompanied by heavenly music and have an appropriate white-and-gold color scheme, but they look far more like aliens than angels, especially as they get battered up and their masks literally slip.
Bayonetta starts out almost as unsettled as the player: she knows she’s a witch, but has forgotten her history and doesn’t know why angels keep appearing and fighting her. When she collects their haloes, however, she can turn them in to her demon friend Rodin, who works as a bartender in a rundown US city and makes infernal magic weapons on the side, which he sells for haloes. Oh, and part of the exposition is given by a comic-relief character– a short, cowardly guy named Enzo, with a New York accent. (I’d love to know what he sounded like in the original. I’m guessing he had an Osaka accent, as Japanese comedians tend to come from there.) Soon she’s traveling to Vigrid, an isolated European country which is positively infested with angels to fight.
Combat is a remote relation to the Arkham games, or Remember Me: it’s not based on aiming and shooting, but on building combos while evading attacks (with Shift). The simplest combos are based on mixtures of punch (LMB) and kick (RMB), but there is plenty of complexity, and you pick up new moves and abilities at an alarming pace. There’s a large variety of angel types, each of which has attack moves that you must learn to recognize. If you can evade at the last moment, you get “witch time”– time slows down so you can get in some good combos. Some enemies can only be defeated this way.
Along the way there are several (fairly simple) puzzles and (less forgiving) platforming sequences. There are things to collect along the way, and you can build candies, the game’s equivalent of potions.
The Steam page suggest that you should use a controller, but PCGamer said you didn’t need one, which is good because I don’t have one. It’s certainly possible to play with keyboard and mouse. (The main complaint I have about the UI is that the game doesn’t always orient the camera usefully. You can move the camera yourself, but it moves slowly.)
I found playing it on Normal to be too frustrating, so I switched to Easy. I’m not that good at twitchy timing, and there are some nasty QTE bits (though not as many or as annoying as those in Tomb Raider). It’s not always clear what to do. But then, the game is intended to be replayed multiple times; as you do, you can easily dispatch enemies or find routes that were a complete bear the first time. (I just went back and finished a couple of chapters on Normal that I couldn’t the first time.)
The cosmology isn’t the end of the weirdness. Bayonetta quadruple-wields guns: one in each hand, and one on each heel. How she fires these is not explained, but it seems to work for her.
The game has been updated and perhaps retextured for the PC; it looks great, and often gives you astonishing vistas:
In paradise, gravity is merely local
Bayonetta is a little like Catwoman, and not just because of the black catsuit. She’s sexy and flirty, and yet cocky and superheroic. The player may marvel at the huge and strange boss angels, but she doesn’t– she just makes fun of them and jumps into the attack. Some things puzzle her, but nothing seems to faze her. She has oodles of agency.
The single weirdest thing about the game– well beyond fighting the cherubim– is that Bayonetta’s catsuit is made of her own hair, and for special attacks it unravels and turns into weapons or monsters. That’s… not something I’d expect DC or Marvel to ever come up with. If it helps, it’s not as pervy as it sounds: it occurs in the middle of a furious fight, so what you actually get is a split-second fairly PG-rated view. Then the hair monster eats the defeated angel. It’s just part of the general insanity.
I’m about 3/4 of the way through, so I can’t say much about where the story ends up. Suffice it to say that you learn a lot about where Bayonetta came from and about the line of witches that taught her, and that she’s nowhere near as antiheroic as she seems as first.
The game is from the same studio as Nier: Automata, which I’m eager to try next.
Edit: Finished the game. The whole story is about 14 hours, but (as I said) it’s designed to be replayed till you can combo your way through like a boss. The ending is not as weird as the rest of the game– it makes a valiant effort to make sense of the rest of the game. Nicely, the game lets you down gently at the end: after the final boss fight, there’s a denouement at the cemetery which features a small fight, and then there’s a couple more little easy fights during the credits; then a dance sequence. So you’re eased down from the adrenaline high.
Edit edit: Replayed the first 5 chapters on Normal, and it’s pretty frustrating. Being able to do something I couldn’t do earlier is nice (e.g. defeating a Fearless without Witch Time). But then they throw enemies at you which are basically tests of reaction time, which is not fun for me.
Edit³: Trying some more: if you hate finishing a chapter with a Stone award (generally meaning you died too much), the best thing to do is replay it a few times. Then you remember how to fight its particular bosses and what QTE keys to press.
April 8, 2017
Posted by zompist under Almea
, zompist’s œuvre
Comments Off on Projects: Ticai and Hanying
I have a couple of side projects besides all of the India. One is Ticai, the game I started working on a few years ago. Here’s what it looks like today.
You can compare this to the last look from… gulp… three years ago here. What’s changed? A bunch of things:
- A better skybox, rather than featureless blue. Still needs to be redone, but at least I know how now.
- Even more buildings, including the nice round temple on the left.
- The cobblestones are bump-mapped, so they don’t quite look like a flat texture slapped down on a flat surface.
- Previously the streets were modular; I figured it would be easier for Unity to render them if there was only one copy of each unit. Then I realized that the entire street grid has fewer polygons than a single human model. So now the whole grid is one model. This cleared up a lot of little alignment problems and makes the streets look better. It also allowed me to do things like put the tower on the right on a little hill.
- The camera stays closer to Ticai. This makes it harder (though not impossible) to see through walls and such, which helps out a lot in some of the smaller spaces.
Unity has been upgraded to version 5.4, which broke a few things. Most are fixed, but something has changed about the lighting which I haven’t figured out. Ticai’s clothes don’t look smooth, nor does the round temple. Unity used to correct for that, and I don’t know how to fix it yet.
There were some major bits of the city that weren’t done yet. There is a whole underground that was only mocked up; it’s all finished now. I also added an alchemist’s shop:
I like the various jars and things. There’s even a microscope! Not shown: the alchemist has a rather pretty globe of Almea.
I’m convinced that one reason games are so often late and buggy is that the developers spend half their time redoing things. You make something quickish just to get it working (possibly learning how to do it at the same time). Then you learn how to do things better, get dissatisfied with what you did, rip it out and redo it. For instance, Ticai’s feet:
I half-assed her feet the first time… I figured I could suggest her toes using the texture, and it looks bad. Finally I redid the toes, separating them in the model. Plus I redid the ankles. Also her eyes: she has eyelids now, and blinks. Her face still looks kind of weird, though, so I’ll have to work on that.
(The four toes are not a way of saving work: Ticai is Almean, so she really does have just four toes.)
I put the project aside before mostly because I was hung up on the writing side. The game is supposed to be a set of interlocked mysteries, which Ticai solves by running around and talking to people. I want a really complex conversational engine, where you don’t have four options to choose from, but a hundred or more. But of course that means a lot of writing, and even more testing, and I haven’t found a way to keep the amount of work under control.
The other project is a new conlang, something at least two or three of you have been waiting for patiently for years. It’s Hanying, one of the language of the Incatena— in fact, the language of Areopolis, more or less Morgan’s native language. I said it was “in origin a Chinese-English creole”, and it was… for the first half-century or so of its existence. But it will be much weirder than that. E.g., it suffered a series of phonological adaptations to new speakers twice, and it went through both some relexification and decreolization. By the time it’s done I hope it really looks like something that survived a thousand years of change.
April 5, 2017
Posted by zompist under books
Comments Off on The Laws of Manu
As promised, here’s a review of that hot mess, the Mānava dharmaśāstra, commonly called the Laws of Manu. I don’t have a picture of Manu, who was mythical anyway, so here is a picture of a brahmin teaching.
The tame lion is a nice touch
Two thousand years ago, the Indians wrote manuals (śāstra) for everything: metallurgy, theater, grammar, and so on. Some of the most important were those dedicated to the three drives of human life: dharma (righteousness, merit, law), artha (worldly success, ambition, politics), and kāma (love, desire). Thus the Dharmaśāstra (treatise on virtue), Arthaśāstra (treatise on success / statecraft), and Kāmasūtra (book on love).
There are several Dharmaśāstras, the best known are attributed to the sage Yājñavalkya and to the first man / first king, Manu. For convenience I’ll call the author Manu (especially as we have no other name to give him). The book is also known as the Manusmriti, but that’s a newer term. Manu was one of the first Sanskrit books known in the West— it was translated in 1794 by William Jones (most famous for his Indo-European quote).
The British rather unfortunately took it as an actual law code and attempted to base Hindu law on it. This is a bit like taking Plato’s Republic as your constitution. As Patrick Olivelle (the translator of the modern version I read) points out, Manu (and Kauṭilya) were writing in a time when northern India was frequently ruled by śūdras (the lower class), by Buddhists, or by out and out mlecchas (barbarians). Their description of a dominant brahmin class which even the kṣatriya kings deferred to, and where “heretics” could be forced to live outside the town walls, was an archaizing fantasy.
The book itself
Of the three books— the Dharmaśāstra, Arthaśāstra, and Kāmasūtra— the latter is by far the most appealing to modern tastes. There’s an awful lot of sex in it, of course, but its portrait of the idle rich man-about-town (nagaraka) is something we can recognize today, and it’s surprisingly fair to women.
And Manu is by far the least appealing. The book is not a law code at all; it’s a manual of morality for brahmins. It starts with a hefty cosmological introduction, then proceeds to the meat: six chapters of detailed rules for the life of a brahmin, from birth to death. There’s one chapter on kings (assumed to be kṣatriyas), and two on law proper. Finally there’s a chapter on complications of class, and one on penances.
Oh, by the way, it’s all in verse— which is one of the reasons the book was cited and read for centuries. In Indian culture, poetry was more authoritative and more memorable. I’m happy however that the translation is in prose.
From a distance of thousands of yojanas and two millennia, it’s hard to say how realistic a text is, but just based on the level of detail, it’s evident that Manu knows his brahmin procedures, but little about statecraft. His section on kings is far inferior to Kauṭilya’s; it’s mostly a collection of vague, unworldly encouragements:
When kings fight each other in battle with all their strength, seeking to kill each other and refusing to turn back, they go to heaven. When he is engaged in battle, he must never slay his enemies with weapons that are treacherous, barbed, laced with poison, or whose tips are ablaze with fire.
In contrast Kauṭilya will very frankly tell you when to fight, when to negotiate, when to undermine with spies, and when to surrender; and give you recipes for poisons and how to find spies to apply them.
Strikingly, though there is an awful lot about brahmins and kṣatriyas, but the section addressed to vaiśyas (merchants and farmers) is half a page, and that for śūdras (servants) is one paragraph, and it just tells them to obey happily. (The first three classes are all dvijas or twice-born; the second birth is a ceremony where they receive a sacred thread. Dvija men are entitled to study the Vedas and are generally on top in society.)
In earlier times there was some fluidity in class, but by Manu’s time it was strictly hereditary. You could lose class but never rise.
Now, Kauṭilya accepts the basic system, but never puts great emphasis on it, and almost never gives supernatural sanction to his laws. Manu is a believer and a defender, and everything has a religious reason for it. There is a panicky edge to Manu’s treatment of śūdras; as Olivelle says, for him they’re the Enemy. The Nanda and Maurya dynasties— the first empires in India— were said to be śūdras, which seemed to the Manus of the times as a horrible inversion of how things should be. (It’s not hard to see a parallel in racist horror at having a black president.)
Most societies have class systems, but few have theologized them so completely. All evils can be blamed on past lives. Unattractively, Manu calls the mentally retarded, the blind, the deaf, and the deformed “despised by good people”— they have these handicaps because of their sins in previous lives.
Just as bad is Manu’s horrible misogyny. For him, women have an unquenchable lust: “Whether he is handsome or ugly, they make love to him with the single thought, ‘He is a man!’” Women are never supposed to be independent; even if they are married to a villain they should “worship him as a god”. They are not allowed to hear the Vedas. Their very nature is “lust, hatred, behavior unworthy of an Ārya, malice, and bad conduct.”
On the plus side, Manu is a window into a different worldview. Perhaps the most attractive feature of his ethics is the rejection of power and comfort as the supreme goals. Though in his ideal world the brahmins had special legal protections and should be supported by the state, he does not really give them secular power. They are supposed to study, teach the other twice-born, offer sacrifices, and generally be holy. Ideally they should not even serve in government. They are supposed to be calm and not arrogant, generous, and deferent to their own teachers. When they retire— when their sons have sons— they are supposed to give up all their possessions and live as an ascetic in the forest. (At the same time, the ideal is not entirely ascetic: a man is supposed to be a “householder” for most of his life, happily married and earning a living.)
Every society has a “default class”, whose interests are assumed to be identical to that of the nation. For medieval Europe it’s the aristocrat; for America it’s the businessman; for imperial China it was the scholar-official. And for ancient India it was the brahmin. (Of course, the default class is never actually typical or ideal. But it says something about the society to look at its norms. You can also try to read between the lines and picture the counter-norms: these defaults are always erected in contrast to a less-trusted Other.)
If all you want is a review, you can stop here. I’m going to go through my marginal notes and point out things I found interesting.
If you are interested in ritual and everyday practice, Manu is the book for you. For instance:
The feet of his brother’s wife of the same class, he should clasp every day; but the feet of the wives of his paternal and maternal relatives, only after returning from a journey.
This is in the epics, too: touching the feet as a gesture of respect. In the Rāmāyaṇa, when Sītā is kidnaped, Rāma and his brother Lakṣmaṇa find her shoes. Lakṣmaṇa makes a point of mentioning that he knows what Sītā’s feet (and footwear) look like, but not her face— a nice point of idealized etiquette.
“It is the very nature of women to corrupt men.” Just what a moralist would say; but the context is how to treat the young wife of one’s guru. Seems like an indirect stab at the guru!
Manu is quite finicky about wives for brahmins:
He must not marry a girl who has red hair or an extra limb; who is sickly; who is without or with too much bodily hair; who is a blabbermouth or jaundiced-looking; who is named after a constellation, a tree, a river, a very low caste…
There is a somewhat strange classification (also found in Kauṭilya) of types of marriage:
- Brāhma: a man gives a girl to a “man of learning and virtue”
- Divine: a man gives his daughter to a priest as a reward for officiating a sacrifice
- Seer: a man gives his daughter in return for the gift of a steer and cow
- Prājāpatya: a man gives a girl merely with an exhortation
- Asura (antigod): a man acquires a bride by paying her and her family
- Gāndharva (celestial being): a man and woman have sex and then get married (out of love)
- Rakṣasa (demon): a man abducts a woman
- Paisāca (ghoul): a man rapes a sleeping or drugged woman
Manu rules out 5 and 8. Brahmins are supposed to rely on 1-4; 6 and 7 are lawful for kṣatriyas. For what it’s worth, Kauṭilya describes 7 as more of an abduction which is all right if everything is smoothed out with the woman and her parents; Manu describes it in blood-curdling terms (a man “abducts a girl from her house as she is shrieking and weeping, by causing death, mayhem and destruction”). Kauṭilya also has no problem with bride-price, which Manu finds immoral. (The cattle in 3 are OK.) Manu but not Kauṭilya forbids remarriage, and Manu doesn’t even mention the possibility of a women divorcing her husband.
Manu lists “entering a king’s service” as a source of disrepute and ruin, along with neglecting the Vedas, engaging in trade, and having sons only with śūdra wives. However, when he comes to advising kings on picking counselors, he wants him to choose a “sagacious and distinguished Brahmin”!
After an offering, you signal to your guests that it’s time to leave by saying “Please, stay around.” A nice example of paradoxical politeness!
Many of the rules are hard to fathom. A good brahmin is not supposed to look at your reflection in water, or run in the rain. He should never dance or play an instrument. If he sees a rainbow, he should not point it out to other people. He should not urinate on ashes. He cannot give a śūdra leftovers or teach him the law; more bafflingly, he is not to give him advice. No twice-born should eat onions, leeks, garlic, or mushrooms, or sell meat, lac, or salt, on pain of losing his class.
Brahmins at this time could eat food as part of a sacrifice. If you get the urge to eat meat and no sacrifice is at hand, Manu advises making a fake animal out of butter or flour.
The ideal retirement:
He should roll on the ground or stand on tiptoes all day; spend the day standing and the night seated… surround himself with the five fires int he summer; live in the open air during the rainy season; and wear wet clothes int he sinter— gradually intensifying his ascetic toil.
When you’re done with life, you could walk northeast, subsisting on nothing but water and air, till you dropped dead. To help motivate your detachment, he provides a meditation on the body:
Constructed with beams of bones, fasted with tendons, plastered with flesh and blood, covered with skin, foul-smelling, filled with urine and excrement, infested with old age and sorrow, the abode of sickness, full of pain, covered with dust, and impermanent— he must abandon this dwelling place of ghosts.
A king, however, should “meet his death in battle.”
Where Kauṭilya says that a treasure trove is shared with the king, Manu says this is only true for non-brahmins— because the world belongs to them.
A rare improvement on Kauṭilya: a son is not obliged to pay his father’s debts if they were due to gambling or drinking.
If a śūdra “hurls grossly abusive words” at a dvija, his tongue should be cut off. And if he hears the Vedas being recited, hot metal is to be poured in his ears. It’s permitted to simply “seize property” from a śūdra. Yeesh.
There was a custom of levirate marriage: if a man dies without sons, his wife could sleep with his brother, and any son born would be attributed to her husband. Manu accepts this custom but he doesn’t like it; he says the brother-in-law should have sex with her only once a month, and only till she bears a son. An alternate method for a sonless man was to designate a daughter as a “female-son”, so that her son becomes his heir.
A king should exile all heretics, gamblers, entertainers, and liquor sellers. (The unreality for this rule is shown by the fact that Kauṭilya offers rules for regulating all of these… not to mention employing some of them as spies.)
For some reason, the ancient writers really really dislike goldsmiths. Manu says that a dishonest goldsmith should be cut to pieces with knives. A man who steals precious gems will be reborn as a goldsmith.
Though agriculture was lawful for vaiśyas, and for brahmins if they had no other work, it was ethically dubious: “the plough with an iron tip lacerates the ground as well as creatures living in it.” Of course, you needed these people to have something to eat, but at least you could keep them at arm’s length.
A brahmin or kṣatriya should not lend money at interest. However, it’s permitted to do so if the recipients are “evil men”. Due diligence on this must have been interesting.
At one point Manu describes homosexuality as causing a man to lose class— but at another he prescribes a relatively simple penance for it: subsisting for one day only on cow’s products— ghee, milk, urine, and dung. (It’s not clear if you have to consume them all, or you get a choice, but heck, it’s only one day.)
There is a section which mentions castes per se— jāti. They are described as the result of various inter-class marriages— which is entirely absurd as history, but can be taken as an attempt as classification or hierarchy. Even so, he only describes a handful of castes, not the several thousand that exist today.
The penance section is weird. He often gives excruciating penances— then adds a much easier alternative. E.g. if a twice-born man drinks liquor, he can drink boiling-hot liquor. Or drink boiling cow urine until he dies. Harsh. Or he can simply eat broken grain or oil-cake at night for a year. If he has sex with an elder’s wife, he can kill himself by lying on a hot metal bed or by castrating himself. Or live on gruel and sacrifice-food for three months. In both cases a further alternative is simply to recite certain Vedic hymns. I guess the technique is similar to the Christian doctrine of presenting the wages of sin as death and torment in hell— then remarking that you avoid all that by Christ’s sacrifice. Ritual is there for taming a frightening world.
There’s a rather amusing list of what animals you’ll be reborn as for various thefts. If you steal linen, you will be a frog. If you steal household utensils, you will be a wasp. Stealing salt leads to life as a cricket.
April 2, 2017
Posted by zompist under ask zompist
, the dismal science
Comments Off on Ask Zompist: Replacing CEOs
In your blog you mentioned that “the CEO system for running corporations is a dangerous anachronism.” I was wondering what you would replace it with – in your perfect world, what system would you design for building and running a global business and ensuring its continuity from one generation to the next? What other cultural or economic changes would go along with the new system if it were implemented throughout society? (E.g. would there still be brand-name identification of consumer products?)
Not the ideal
Great question; I’m not sure I have a great answer. But that’s because we need a whole lot more experimentation. Anti-monarchists couldn’t necessarily describe parliamentary democracy in 1700, either.
First, let’s review the problem. In that post, I pointed out Trump as the epitome of the terrible CEO. He’s a lazy, incurious person who’s used to unquestioning obedience for his terrible ideas, and takes every reverse personally. But he’s not much of an outlier. I’ve met plenty of much smaller-level CEOs, who have the same arrogance and inability to understand their own business. The good CEOs I’ve met are generally the ones who know when to get out of the way of their own workers— the people who actually know the work and know what needs to get done.
Many people are in love with the idea of the strong leader of uncompromising vision. We’re not so enamored of the Louis XIV or the Napoléon these days, but Americans, at least, still admire the entrepreneur who builds up a company from nothing: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller.
I don’t necessarily want to touch that. On the whole, society benefits when these people build something new. They should obey labor laws and such, but we don’t need to throw out this part of the system. What we should throw out is the notion that their heirs, or some guy with an MBA, deserve the same deference. If you worship wealth and never address inequality, as Piketty demonstrates, what you get very soon is an aristocracy of rentiers, people who never created anything yet sit on all the accumulated wealth, and whose primary incentive is the maintenance of their own comfort.
So, how do we run a company instead? Two basic approaches:
- Put someone in charge temporarily
- Put a representative committee in charge
For now, this comes down to your view of human nature. If you think there needs to be a strong leader (even if his power is limited or we can get rid of him), then you pick Option A. If you distrust all single sources of power, you pick Option B.
Perhaps ironically, in theory option B is what we have now, once the founder is dead. Public corporations have a board of directors, and even rules that a good number of these must come from outside the company; and they pick the CEO. In the US, the board represents the stockholders (i.e. the owners), and it is very possible for them to throw out the CEO.
There are two problems with this.
- One, boards are in practice not very independent-minded. They’re often friends of the executives and only meet for a brief period every few months. They’re not deeply involved in the business nor inclined to second-guess the CEO.
- And two, what the stockholders want is basically more money right now. This may be completely opposed to the interests of employees, customers, the community, and even investors who are thinking beyond the next 12 months.
A minimal reform is to require that some of these other stakeholders get representation. In Germany, up to half of the board represents labor, though stockholders usually get the determining vote. The idea could be expanded by giving other stakeholders representation.
There are many interesting experiments in corporate governance today, such as:
- Valve, the company behind Half-Life and Portal as well as Steam, is famously run on near-anarchic lines. Employees literally pick which product they want to work on— and if a product doesn’t attract workers it doesn’t get made. (One does wonder if this is why they never seem to get to release 3 with any of their products.)
- The first company I worked for is now employee-owned. It works out well for them, and they were able to weather the 2008 recession in part because they didn’t have the huge expense of a CEO’s salary.
- NFL management is said to be a huge swamp… except for the Green Bay Packers, owned by a huge mass of individual Wisconsinites. They’re competitive with other teams and the team stays in Wisconsin.
- The Mondragon Corporation, of Spain, is a remarkable co-operative firm which employs over 75,000 people.
- We actually have plenty of examples of non-monarchical institutions: churches, universities, co-ops, many arts organizations or activist groups.
We need more experimentation to see what works. The answer to a lot of objections is going to be “Maybe. We don’t know. We need to try things out.”
The obvious worry is that discussion and representation take time, or at worst tie the entity up in knots. Democratic politics is not exactly known for calm, civilized consensus. In response to that—
- Again, monarchs suck. We put up with the inefficiencies of democracy because one-man rule really is worse. But the inefficiencies are definitely there.
- People get better at democracy when cultural norms evolve to support it. I’ve been in endless, unfocused meetings— people flounder if they don’t know what they’re doing. That isn’t a condemnation of the system; it just means that the transition is tricky. People who are not used to power do not automatically know how to use it.
- There are better and worse decision-making techniques. A huge, completely open-ended meeting is one of the worst. People are better at reacting to concrete proposals than they are at coming up with them. If a proposal is rejected, it’s better for a small group to take it offline than for a large meeting to attempt to redesign it. The group needs a way to table arguments, so it is not dominated by a few eristic individuals. And so on. Heuristics will develop to smooth the process considerably.
One big caveat: democracy is not a cure-all. I think we’d be happier if we could vote who runs the company, or at least vote the current bums out. But that’s not the same as saying we’d be happy.
On the other hand, looking at modern representative democracy, we have to remember that it’s optimized for the logistics of 1790. I’m sure we could do better. One big problem, for instance, is the bundling of policies. At the federal level, there’s no way to say that you want (say) more health care and less immigration. You can only pick between the two major bundles that are offered. Maybe we need to vote on policies more than on leaders.
Your question on brands is just part of a much bigger question: the optimum size of corporations. I’m sure a bunch of readers are eager to tell me that the problem is not how to fix corporations, but how to get rid of them. But leftists have, to my knowledge, only come up with a couple alternatives, and they’re contradictory:
- Nationalize them. So the organizations become massive.
- Have workers run enterprises directly. So the organizations must be tiny.
In general, the first approach makes the problem worse. (Some public goods should be nationalized; but I do not want a government commissar, or even a People’s Soviet, deciding what books can be published or what crops can be grown.) And the second approach is largely untested, and of questionable utility for a planet of 7.5 billion people.
It might be nice if every firm was only the size of a village— 150 to 200 people. But there is such a thing as economies of scale. Really big firms can grow corn, build computers or airplanes, and make action movies really efficiently. A world of small firms is also, very likely, a world of high prices for consumers. There’s also the problem of competing standards. These should never be a monopoly, even a government monopoly. And yet it’s kind of a nightmare if you have a hundred competing standards rather than two or three. And if you’re eager to break up Google, do you also want to break up Mondragon? (They’re about the same size.)
Plus, there’s the inconvenient fact that large firms are far easier to regulate, and can be far more progressive. A corporation with 75,000 employees can have a professional HR department, great worker amenities, and a commitment to diversity. They’d also be far easier to democratize. Smaller firms are often run by the most conservative, cranky old despots.
Ideally we should be able to choose both options. Restaurants, for example: it’s nice to have a one-chef gem of a restaurant. It can also be convenient to have a known brand where the type and quality of the food are predictable (and prices are cheaper). In art, it’s great to have quirky one- or two-person projects; also to have behemoths that require hundreds of people working together.
Anyway, the one thing I’m certain about here is that future economics is going to surprise us. The modern corporation emerged only 150 years ago, with the invention of the telegraph. (Adam Smith thought corporations were of limited utility.) As late as the 1960s, the ideal of corporate governance was a class of professional, medium-income managers hired by the owners; the cult of rock-star CEOs paid in the megabillions was a (stupid) innovation of the 1980s. Right now things look kind of dystopian, but that doesn’t mean we’re stuck here.