Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Wiishy washy

[Note that the Wii will go down as history's most pun-friendly console. Anyhow.]

I noticed that Gamastra has a piece up asking some analysts about whether the mediocre quality of titles on the Wii is an indicator that Nintendo should enforce a higher level of quality.

The analysts seem to all miss the point of the question, or at least interpret it as "what does nintendo have to do to sell more titles", which is not the same thing.

Anyhow, I think it important that someone (even little-read moi) note that this is the other side of the coin to the opinions a while back about Microsoft's process being too rigorous, too difficult, slightly too soul-crushing, etc.

You can't have it both ways folks. Quality takes work and time.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Indie Game Worth Checking Out

The Wonderful End of the World is an indie game that is very, well, Katamari-esque is how it's best put.

However, it's worth downloading and checking out if for no other reason than the brilliant 'Arcadia' level (level 2) included in the demo. Fantastic.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Hey Hollywood, what's that behind you?

It's amateur content... and it's coming on fast!

Simply awesome!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The New Gig

It's been a little while since I left Microsoft and I've yet to post something about the new gig. I actually started a while back, but wanted to wait until I got a good handle on what I can and can't say before doing the post. Now that I have a better idea in that department, I can say what's up.

The new gig is...

...the old gig!

Sort of, anyway.

I am once again employed by Intel. I am Director of Content Strategy for something called the Visual Computing Group. I can't specifically say what it is that we are building, other than to say that it goes by the codename of 'Larrabee', has to do with graphics and a lot more, and is very very cool. The Internets are tracking it a little bit, and you can get some vague details on Wikipedia.

A couple things I wanted to make sure I was specific about:

(1) My leaving Microsoft was in no way a result of any kind of fall-out with them. Some have hinted at such due to the tone of some of my posts, in which intonated some disagreement with some of the directions they are taking. That was true while I worked there as well. I also disagree with some of the things that Intel is doing. Doesn't mean you up and quit. Overall though, I think they are doing great things. I continue to be an enthusiastic Xbox360 customer. I cannot wait to play Braid, Poker Smash and N+, to name a couple upcoming highlights.

I was actually quite happy at MS, but got the idea of leaving when I started having conversations with a friend at a small startup company, who's product I was floored by. Around the same time, a bunch of people that I really trust and respect at Intel started having conversations with me, one thing led to another, and this turned out to be the best decision for me at this time.

(2) I intend to keep blogging, but expect the mix of topics to shift off of casual a little and onto big-budget titles, and more technology focused stuff to drift back in as I exercise my atrophied tech muscles (which were never hulkish to begin with).

That's all for now folks. We now return you to regularly scheduled programming.

The Scrabulous Solution: An Open Letter to Mark Zuckerberg

The Scrabulous Solution: An Open Letter to Mark Zuckerberg

Dear Mark,

Following last week’s announcement by Hasbro (and later Mattel, who have the Euro rights) that they were pursuing legal action against two developers in India that made Scrabulous, the Internet has been abuzz with the collective worry that 600k people may lose their beloved Facebook pastime.

It would be a shame for all those involved if Scrabulous were to go away. With over six hundred thousand people registered, Scrabulous is one of Facebook’s most popular applications. The outcome of the situation will affect the satisfaction of Facebook’s customers. It will have impact on perception of Facebook as a viable development platform, and on Facebook’s relationship with its developers (indifferent beneficiary, or protective and nurturing parent?). Facebook’s actions here will also send a message to owners of consumer brands and IP owners about Facebook’s respect for their concerns, and many of these companies could well be future advertisers or partners.

Facebook’s actions here will also be highly visible. The Hasbro threat to the makers of scrabulous was widely written about and even covered on national television.

In my eyes there seem to be three courses of action for Facebook, only two of which are viable, and only one of which is a good idea.

The possible courses of actions are as follows:

1. Step in and help the developers in their legal fight against Hasbro. I believe this to be the non-viable path, or at best sub-optimal. They are quite clearly violating Hasbro’s IP at multiple levels, from look and feel to game rule set, to even the questionable porte-manteau naming. Even if you helped Scrabulous win, this course of action would be bad publicity and costly.

2. Do Nothing. This is a perfectly viable course of action. After all, Hasbro’s not suing Facebook, but rather the devs. However, what’s at stake is bad publicity, the possible loss of one of your most popular third party applications, and with it, the loss of a significant amount of customer engagement.

3. Broker a winning solution for all parties. I believe this is feasible, and is the best course of action. Everyone wins, it’s not significantly expensive, and the possible upside is significant.

So what does this winning solution look like? I’ll first lay out the steps involved, and then the benefits for each party.

First, Facebook acquires Scrabulous. That could mean acquiring the developers in which case you get a couple smart engineers to help implement the steps below, but at minimum, you buy the Scrabulous codebase, the servers running the service today, and the player database.
Secondly, broker a deal with Hasbro (& Mattel) where:

  • Scrabulous will be updated in two phases: (1) rebranding it as “Scrabble” or “Scrabble For Facebook” immediately, and (2) at a later date a “Scrabble Pro” will be added as a premium subscription service (more on this later in this post).
  • Hasbro, with Facebook’s help, develops “Scrabble Pro” as part of the exercise of getting familiar with the Scrabulous codebase, server administration, etc.
  • Hasbro takes possession of the codebase and manages the servers, following the launch of the Pro version of the game. At this point, Facebook is hands-off.
  • The subscription business (say a 5% uptake out of what by then may be a 1M userbase, at say $25/yr, would make this a $1.25M/yr business at minimum) goes to Hasbro. Optionally, Facebook could have some recoupable amount out of this to recoup engineering costs in helping with the transfer of code and the interim running of the service, but this seems like a nit.

What is the ‘pro’ version of Scrabble and why would users choose to pay the subscription fee? Hasbro would have a better idea what would resonate with their players, but here are some ideas:

  • Richer stats tracking (how many bingos and with whom? Pie charts of wins/losses. Avg score per game, etc.
  • Scrabble variants (alternative dictionaries, Clabbers, speed-scrabble, etc)
  • Better chat functionality
  • Tournament private tables/lobbies
  • Leaderboards
  • Etc

OK, so why is this final scenario on which I’ve elaborated the “win-win-win-win” solution? Let’s recap:

  • The developers of Scrabulous get to cash out and/or get employed by Facebook, and are no longer threatened with Hasbro legal action.
  • Hasbro acquires one of Facebook’s most successful apps, has a head start on creating a successful subscription games service within Facebook, and acquires a community of 600,000 users.
  • Facebook gets Hasbro as a partner, keeps its customers happy, doesn’t lose one of its top apps, and gets a proof point for a business model that other developers and IP holders may choose to follow. The corporate image avoids egg on the face and is seen as helping out the little guy.
  • Scrabulous players don’t lose their beloved game, and have a chance to add new features and variants by upgrading.

What’s to lose?


Kim “Scrabulous Fan” Pallister

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I'll play "litigation" for a bingo!

As Raph points out, Hasbro has finally threatened the creators of the immensely popular Scrabble knock off for Facebook, Scrabulous, with legal action.

Hasbro is generally pretty protective of the Scrabble IP, so I'm surprised this took so long.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Books for Presenters

As I've been linking to a number of good presentations lately, it's only fitting that I post some reviews on a few books I've recently covered on the subject.

I ordered two of these on recommendations from friends. The third (the first review below, was based on Amazon's recommendations, and was a very poor impulse buy. Anyhow here they are.

Ugh. A horrible book.

It should have been called 'the complete idiot's guide to mediocre powerpoint presentations'. Author Stephen Kosslyn's main differentiator from other PPT books is that he's an expert in cognitive psychology, and the book attempts to explain some of the science behind why we understand things the way we do, and what works or what doesn't....

...and then applies that to run-of-the-mill '4 points per slide, max 4 sub-bullets per point' powerpoint pablum! Yuck!

Worse yet, short of a few points about looking your audience in the eye in between bullet-reading segments, there's very little on story-telling, story building, etc.

I would only recommend this book for the worst '8-point bullet eye-chart' type of powerpoint offenders. Otherwise, skip it.

Presentation Zen

This book is much better.

The book's author, Garr Reynolds, is former Apple employee and currently resides and teaches in Japan. Both influences show, as he is of the 'minimal text, maximum imagery' school of presenting that you see in Steve Jobs keynotes and elsewhere. I've blogged about this in the past (here, and here), and am definitely a fan of this school of presentation style.

More importantly, Reynolds is adamant about properly preparing your ideas first, knowing what you are trying to say, to whom, and how, before ever touching the PC. I also agree with this whole-heartedly, and often find myself telling coworkers to do the same (when they are neck deep in borrowed slides from other people and unsure what it is they are trying to say).

If there's one downside to the book, its that so much of it is borrowed and/or reprinted from elsewhere, much of it online, that I felt like I'd already been through half of it before ever picking it up. Much of it was deja-vu. Still, I recommend it.

Magic and Showmanship

This was something a friend pointed me to, and I have to say I'm glad he did.

This is a book for professional or aspiring magicians/illusionists. What does that have to do with presenting? A lot!

The book spents some time talking about the mechanics of magic tricks, but far more on the theatre of magic. The story arc in a trick, the careful direction of audience attention to something while the orator prepares to surprise them from another direction. I found it to be both enlightening and useful. Recommended.

Plus you might learn an easy trick or two that will fool the five-and-under folks in your life :-)

Friday, January 11, 2008

Passionate storytelling

Another Must-watch ted talk. This one from author Isabelle Allende.

The content of her talk, about the oppression of women and the need for change around the world is compelling. I can't add anything else to the topic other than to urge you to watch it.

I do think that there are also lessons here for presenters to take away.

(1) Passion. She discusses it in her talk, and she clearly has it. This is a great example of how someone that has passion for their topic can engage an audience and infect them with kind of passion.

(2) Story-telling. She effectively uses story-telling to not just make a point, but to make it come up and hit you like a hammer.

(3) Use of humor. Wow. She can go from making the audience laugh, to making them gasp at stories of child rape, to making them laugh again, in the space of a few moments. She weilds humor like a katana. In less skilled hands, someone could kill themselves trying to do this, but in her skilled hands, it make the dreadfull 'lows' in her stories that much deeper. Like a roller coaster's high peaks making the deep valleys that much more terrifying.

(4) No slides. Just goes to show you; Imagery can help, but it is almost entirely about the speaker.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Letting Toddlers Play With Knives

This great talk from Gever Tulley, founder of the Tinkering School, is a good watch for anyone raising kids in today's overprotective society.

It really resonated with me. (Spoiler warning: Watch the video before reading the rest of this post. If the link below is broken, watch here)

Of the 6 things he encourages us to let our kids do, my parents -my father in particular - encouraged *all* of them.

  1. Play with Fire: I was allowed and even encouraged to do so, including building my own rockets. He didn't even intervene in my making my own gunpowder until one of my rockets actually worked and almost knocked my neighbor off his roof when an ill-timed flight coincided with his choice of days to re-shingle.
  2. Own a pocket knife: My dad gave me both a folding pocket knife as well as a sheathed deer-bone handle boyscout knife that had been his when he was a kid. As Gever says, it was a universal tool. We whittled, carved, disected bugs, skinned squirrels (sorry peta people), peeled bark, made conkers, and a thousand other things with them.
  3. Throw a spear: I did. When we lived in South Africa i got one. Dad also bought me a bow (not a little plastic one - a fiberglass one that could put an arrow a good inch into a maple), a slingshot, and a pellet gun.
  4. Deconstruct appliances: I was always allowed to take apart any device that was going in the trash or was otherwise non-functional. I was given full access to dad's shop including all power tools from as early as I can remember. I beleive at around 9 or 10 I recall being told to "be extra careful" with the electric jigsaw.
  5. Break the DMCA: We didn't have it. But dad DID encourage questioning authority and WHY systems were structured the way they were (including the law).
  6. Drive a car: I got to sit on dad's lap and drive the car. I also was allowed to build or acquire a fair number of two or four-wheeled contraptions that had internal combustion engines, even though I was too young to legally drive them.

Anyhow. My wife and I have had numerous conversations about 'risky' activities, that usually go along the lines of "what age is it ok for him/her to be doing this/that?", and I often feel that we as a society are far too protective of our kids, and that this may be doing it's own kind of harm. This talk really helped crystalize that sentiment for me.

(Update: Fixed link in post)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Holy Hockey Sticks!

Casey just pointed me at this:

Holy balls.

For all the poo-poo'ing of the PS3 (I'm as guilty as anyone), you have to give them credit for chugging along and selling units as well as 360 did through launch, despite being last 'next gen' console to the party.

Nintendo's graph is, well, phenomenal. For them anyway. Whether it's good for *games* in general is debatable. They get credit for tapping the untapped segments of the market, but I still agree with Chris' rant on the console's shortcomings.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Unintended Effects

Like many, I've been using the holidays to catch up on a backlog of games. This being such a killer year for content, this is a problem, and I haven't even touched a bunch of the "must plays" of the season (CoD4, Assassins Creed, and *bowing head in shame* I haven't picked up Portal yet). Still, I have a year's worth of games with the shrink wrap on them, so I figured I'd get through them before buying more.

One of them is Blue Dragon. I'm not a fan of Japanese turn-based RPG's in general, but I'd heard it was good and I got a free copy, so figured I'd give it a go.

I'm still not a fan of turn based combat in these games, and I have no patience for the character power/attack customization pedantry that Blue Dragon presents me with. Nothing wrong with it, just not my thing.

One thing I did note, though was excessive use of depth-of-field shader effects in both the cutscenes and realtime animation. I think it's a good study in excessive use of a visual effect that is detrimental to the end result.

Depth of field effects can be used for a couple things. It can be used to draw attention to a particular element of a scene (in particular when dynamically drawing the focal point from one distance to another, for example). It can also be used to suggest scale such as in macro photography.

In Blue Dragon, there's a lot of grandiose scenery and scenes in which they are trying to suggest an immense scale. However, in overdoing the depth of field effects, I found it reminisent of tilt-shift miniature faking photos like this:

(from flickr tilt-shift miniature fake pool)

Some examples from Blue Dragon:

I find the bottom shot in particular has a look like an animated scene of plastic toys, not a vast, grandiose world. Perhaps that was the look they were going for, but I don't think so. I think it was just a case of the team getting carried away with the latest shader effects.

There's a lot to be said for using such effects with nuance, but it's difficult to do in an interactive medium where you aren't sure how much it's going to affect the player - esp since some will be playing on different screen sizes/resolutions, etc, and where you are trying to compete for screenshot/trailer drama with a bunch of other titles.

Could an end to game piracy reside in a stuffed bear's heart?

When travelling with the family recently, my wife took the kids to the "Build A Bear Workshop"For those unfamiliar with this great little enterprise, here's how it works: You bring the kids in, they pick a type of bear, various accoutrements, and go through a ritual where the bear is 'brought to life' by filling him with stuffing and inserting a heart. Before inserting the heart, your kids rub it on their head to make it smart, on their muscles to make it strong, etc.

Kind of a sugar-coated version of Frankenstein. :-)

Anyhow, the result is that they get a bear that is 'unique', and are given a birth certificate for the bear with the name they give him.

It occurred to me that this kind of visceral experience - which develops quite an bond between child and bear - would be ideal to partner with a kids virtual-world company to go compete with Webkinz and other kids VWs, which I blogged about a while back.

Of course the thing with good ideas is that other people have the same ones, and they've already beaten me to the punch, with BuildABearVille.

Now the key point is this: With Webkinz, you enter your product code, and the online animal matches the physical product you bought at the store - which for kids, is COOL. With BuildABear, you enter a unique ID number off the birth certificate, and you get an online version that is identical to your one-of-a-kind, custom bear that you built. Of course the "one of a kind" bear is only one of given number of permutations of options, but still, to a kid, this is MAGIC!

So anyhow, it's cool, and I suggest you check it out. Take your kid, or a friends kid, or a kid-at-heart, to your local BuildaBear Workshop and give it a whirl.

So what does this have to do with software piracy? Bear with me (and my puns)...

This month's Wired has a great piece in which David Byrne interviews Radiohead's Thom Yorke and the two of them discuss the shift in the music business of recent times, where music went from being about performance and artist relationship to being about manufactured product and now it's being shifted back the other way, where the manufactured product is no longer monetizable as it once was, and so the value will come from performance and from the relationship that artists can have with fans.

Others have been talking about this too, how the value is in the artist/fan relationship, not in the product per se; and how if the relationship is there, people will gladly pay for it (and the product in turn).

Traditionally in games, the discussion around 'relationship' has been around that of service provision. e.g. You provide a service and the pays for that service on an ongoing basis, whether it's on a per-month basis, per-game basis, per-item basis or whatever. MMO's, Xbox Live, Kart Rider, Gametap, are all examples of this.

But perhaps another path exists, other than "service provision as proof of relationship". What if we think about "Personalized product as expression of relationship"?

So what do I mean by this? Consider things like architecture plans. These are copyrighted, architects that do plans for 'cookie cutter' houses and the like have to worry about their designs being used without their permission. However, an architect hired to do a custom design for a client very likely has to worry less. Why? Because the plans were done for THAT client, and that client very likely doesn't want his design copied and takes pride in it's uniqueness and that it was done for him. "Look at my kitchen. Personally designed for me by Hans Arkitekt."

To take this to games, if we could find a way to build a game for a specific customer, tailored to them, then this should mean that they could share it with someone else, but that person wouldn't want it, they'd want their own. In the same way that I may covet my friend's tailored suit, but that doesn't mean I want his suit, but rather that I want one of my own.

So what would it mean to build a game *for a specific customer*? I'm not sure. But I'm not talking about nonsense like binding it to the user's machine with DRM and the like. No, that's silly and people will find a way to strip it out anyway. No, the personalization has to add value in some way.

It could be an object of social status ("Look, Cliffy B personally autographed my copy of Gears and thanked me for my business"), an element of personal integration ("It came pre-built with my character stats already set up!"), or custom fitting ("all the graphics assets and settings came perfectly tuned for set up for my personal machine").... who knows.

Actually, it's very likely none of the above. Minds more creative than mine will come up with far better ideas. The best example I can think of is that of The Behemoth and the custom trophies they built for leaderboard winners. Still, I do think there's something to this, and the first requirement would be a change in mindset. To change from viewing the game as mass-produced product to viewing the finished game as an asset; 95% completed, and now ready for customization and personal delivery to each and every one of your fans. The extent you *value* each one of those relationships, is the extent to which they'll provide value in return.

I guess like any relationship, you have to decide if you are ready to put some work into it and hold up your end of the bargain...