Friday, February 29, 2008

Goin' hardcore metrosexual

For the few readers that cared to follow my slow spiral into metrosexual shaving hell (Mark, this means you), you may be interested in knowing that I finally bit the bullet and went straight-razor.

On the positive side, the shave is super fantastico smooth.

On the other hand, getting it just right is a bit of an art, and the first time I did it (while at a hotel while travelling), I left the hotel bathroom looking like a crime scene in a Tarantino flick. Seriously, housekeeping probably considered calling the cops.

I definitely recommend going with the double edge safety razor as a compromise. I'm going to give the straight razor a few more goes (second time not as sanguineous as the first).

Monday, February 25, 2008


My friend Dean forwarded me this:

I was jazzed when I got Lasik, but now I'm itching to upgrade!
Futurebunny! How I envy thee!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Death by GDC

I. Am. Finished.

I love the GDC. This was my 15th. The first I attended was in 94. Ugh. I'm old.

Anyhow, as fun as it is, the show is incredibly draining. I was in meetings until 6:30 Friday, and then my 10pm flight was delayed until 12:30. I landed about 2:30, and finally made it home and to bed about 4:00AM.

Today is Alisa's birthday so I wanted to let her sleep in, which meant getting up at 7. Like I didn't get enough 3-4hr sleep nights this week.

I'll post some more thoughts and take-aways from GDC after I feel a bit more human.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Permission-Based Marketing and The 3 Rules of Facebook Game Design

I had a moderately-cocktail-infused epiphany during a dinner discussion at the game developers conference today that I wanted to jot down before it fades from memory.

The conference has had its share of discussions about Facebook as a game platform, whether the opportunity will crystallize to a business worthy of the hype, and about how design for Facebook as a platform would differ from games on other platforms.

During said dinner discussion, lots of examples - a few good, many bad - were cited and discussed. Out of that discussion, I extracted what I'll claim here to be the Three Rules of Facebook Game Design.

Rule #1: Facebook games must engage the player at two levels: Peripheral Notification and Invitation, and Directly Engaged Gameplay.

Directly Engaged Gameplay is the player playing your game. It might be in a flash window, it might be scattered about the facebook users page, it might be elsewhere. The point is that the player is directly spending time doing the various things you want him/her to do. All your traditional game design rules apply here.

Peripheral Notification and Invitation is all of the various feeds that the game spits into their updates (and that of their friends! More on this in a moment).

The main point here, is that there are TWO distinctly different levels of engagement. In the former, they are spending time playing your game. In the latter, they are spending time "checking Facebook" and may want to know what's going on, but that's it. Which brings me to Rule #2.

Rule #2) Peripheral Notification and Invitation == Permission Based Marketing.

If you don't get this, go read a required amount of Seth Godin and come back when you are done.

When the player is not engaged directly in gameplay, then EVERY interaction your game has with them via feeds and the like, is textbook permission-based marketing. Before they've signed up for the game, you are asking permission to have them engage with your game for the first time. Upon install, you should be asking permission to have them spam their friends (and assume the answer is no), when they are players and you feed them news about goings on in the game, you are asking their permission to have them come play your game.


Consider the two following hypothetical feed snippets:

JoeShmo just assailed your castle. Click here to defend it before all your villagers die.


JoeShmo just assailed your castle. It survived but several villagers did not. Click here to survey the damage, and to stealthily plot your revenge.

The former tells someone who's logged on that they MUST go play now, whether or not they have time. The latter invites them to play, but doesn't insist on it. To someone taking a 10 minute break at work, the latter is far friendlier.

3) The game doesn't need to live on Facebook.

Perhaps the more controversion of the 3 rules during tonights discussion, I postulated that if you observe rules 1 and 2, then there's really nothing necesarily better about the "game" itself being in a window on the Facebook page of that user than in a separate window, a downloadable EXE, etc. there are certainly issues around what kind of data you are trying to export or whether you can export it, what the client tech is and whether it's as ubiquitous as Flash, etc. The point though is that there isn't anything inherently BETTER about it being on the users Facebook page. The value in the facebook element resides in the opportunity to do permission based marketing to engage with the player outside the core game, and in being able to exploit the friend relationships between friends, provided that 'exploit' still respects the permission-asking element. Once you come to that conclusion, then you can have the Facebook-game-design discussion about ANY game title (Assassin's Creed, The Sims, WoW, etc)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

UI: The next frontier in game innovation?

Holy Hell! How did I miss Crayon Physics until now?!

This looks just awesome. As a fan of The Incredible Machine, Bridge Builder, and other physics puzzle type games, I can't wait to play it. Love the aesthetic too.

More importantly though, I wonder whether games like Crayon Physics, Little Big Planet, and applications like SketchUp are pointers to a whole new area of innovation for games: UI.

The challenge with any games aiming to support "user generated content", or for that matter, just letting people manipulate the world in less constrained ways - is that controlling stuff, let alone creating stuff, especially in 3D, is HARD.

So how do you make it easy? These apps are pointing the way. I think a great opportunity and challenge in front of developers today is in letting users accomplish unlimited, complicated, beautiful things, and doing so quickly and easily. Easier said than done!

Should VCs invest in casual game developers?

I wrote a rather lengthy piece on my other blog, melding some thoughts on Casual Connect opinions and some observations at DICE.

Rather than cut and paste, I'll just point you there.

Internet reports shortage of [255,166,166]

Hello Kitty Online, the spectacularly pink virtual world, has opened for business. Millions of girls (and some boys) the world round are as excited as the girl standing next to Hello Kitty herself (himself?) below.

While I'm not an MMO player, I'm willing to give to give it a shot if it will make me feel like that girl does. Who wouldn't? :-)

Thanks to Raph for the link.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Felt tables and MMOs, and Match-3's of a different kind

One of the sessions at DICE that I found particularly interesting, if only because it was from a another 'games industry' all together, was one from Roger Snow, a VP at ShuffleMaster, a company supplying the casino industry with all kinds of game products. Among them, licensed table games, which is what this session was about.

The market for table games is $50M worldwide. Small compared to our industry, but then I'm not sure how it would compare to, say, the licensing of IP in the casual games industry, which is perhaps something it's more comparable to.

Snow explained how the bulk of table games on casino floors are public domain games (Blackjack, Poker, etc). In an effort to make games more interesting, people have come up with variants that are more engaging. Things like side-bets, progressive pots, etc, and cross-cultural game mashups are added to come up with things like Ultimate Draw Poker, Four Card Poker, Pai Gow Poker, Carribean Stud, etc.

These games are then, provided the IP is properly protected, licensed to casinos for a flat fee. They then operate them hoping they'll yield more revenue than the public domain fare they are replacing.

I was surprised a little that the flat-fee licensing model was the only model used (at least that he discussed). Wouldn't a royalty make more sense? Pay for performance and all that. I'm guessing that the casinos aren't enthused about sharing revenue numbers with partners and making themselves auditable, etc, and that's likely the reason.

Anyhow. He went on to speak a little about the games in this business and made the following points:

- The business is relatively young. The first licensed game only emerged in the 80's.

- About 50 new games are introduced every year. Only ONE will be successful, and when it does, it will last a long time.

- Acheiving critical mass is important. People need to recognize the game when going from one casion to the other.

- In the past 15 years or so, there have been 10 hits. That's it.

So the epiphany that I had was that this sounded an awful lot like MMOs. How many successful MMOs has our industry seen in the past decade? Maybe a dozen? The critical mass element applies too.

Contrast that to the points Snow made about the slot machine business:

- There's a glut of content, with hundreds or even thousands of games introduced every year.

- Games are given at best a couple months to succeed, and if they don't perform they are pulled from the floor.

- In cases where they do succeed, imitators soon follow, copying whatever the latest twist is on the match-3 mechanic.

- While there's a little technical innovation (bigger screens, better graphics, etc), a far surer path to money is to license a piece of well known IP and wrap a traditional game mechanic around it. Plenty of Wheel of Fortune, Tabasco, Alien, Adams Family, Price is Right, Beverly Hillbillies are just a few examples.

Sounds just a little like the casual games business doesn't it? Right down to the oft-seen match-3 mechanic.

There are of course many differences. Development budgets between felt table games ("some rules and a piece of felt with some circles on it" was how Snow put it) and MMOs, are just one example.

Still, I feel there must be some lessons to be learned here.

Maybe that's why EA's Louis Castle is on Shufflemaster's board?

Friday, February 15, 2008

The (repeatedly false) reports of the death of PC Games

Over the past five years, I've read what have to amount to hundreds of articles, blog posts, analyst reports, etc, on the future of PC games, declaring them either dead, or alive and well.

The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between, or that they are both true, depending how you look at it.

This article by Rob Fahey on GamesIndustry.Biz, is the best article I've read on the subject in a long time. Rather than go for the sensationalist tactic of taking one side or the other, he paints a more accurate, nuanced view of reality:

For once, this isn't the cyclical question of whether consoles will kill the PC market - a question asked so often, and answered with such an emphatic negative, that it finally seems to have fallen out of the industry's discourse, and good riddance. Rather, it is a genuine desire, both on the creative and financial sides of the business, to understand just what shape PC gaming is going to take in the coming years.

For a long time, it was simple to categorise PC games as "hardcore", with console titles seen as more casual. It wasn't a division that was entirely accurate, but it was close enough to the mark to be useful - for a while, at least.

That's simply no longer the case. While the PC still plays host to some of the most hardcore gaming genres, such as massively multiplayer games, realistic flight simulators and real-time strategy titles, a huge new market of ultra-casual games has also opened up on the platform.

It's a good read, especially for those that aren't close enough to the business to get a sense of both side of the story.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Deal(s) with the Devil

So, long after giving other folks crap about it, I cracked and bought an iPhone this week.

My windows mobile phone had died, I'd gone back to and old phone, and was shopping around for something new. In the meantime, I went to DICE and watched people using theirs and realized that I was willing to trade off my complaint about 'sub-optimal phone' in order to get 'Internet in your Pocket'.

Phone's not as bad as I thought, though still far from perfect. But the device is fantastic. Really fun and useful.

Of course, going with it meant that I had to click through no less than FOUR separate EULA's (thus the title of this post) with Apple and AT&T.

To top it off, when all that was done, I got a message asking (paraphrasing, I forget the exact words): "Would you like to go to iTunes and see what songs the record companies have granted permission for using as ringtones". Excuse me? Ummm, no thanks!

Monday, February 11, 2008

NPD's track game subs: Please don't get it wrong! reports that NPD is going to track subscription data around games.

This addresses a long-unaddressed market demand for data around online games. Many have asked if the PC game business is as unhealthy as retail game sales indicates, or whether the market is in fact just changing. (Whether all of PC gaming's revenues are being sucked into a giant WoW crater and whether that is healthy for the ecosystem or not is another matter entirely).

I applaud NPD's efforts, but I do worry that they are going to mess it up. A couple of things that make this space complicated to cover:

  • Game service subscriptions vs individual game subscriptions. e.g. GameTap vs World of Warcraft.
  • Revenue from non-subscription sources. e.g. Advertising, In-game item sales, etc.
  • Where the consumers are located. e.g. US consumers subscribing to/playing Korean games and vice versa.
  • Hardcore vs Casual. I'm sure they'll cover World of Warcraft. Will they cover Pogo? Likely. Will they cover casual game subscriptions on MSN Messenger? Less likely. Club Penguin?
  • Platforms. Does an Xbox Live subscription count? Is that game revenue or platform revenue?

According to their press release, they are polling "thousands of gamers ages 13 and older who are members of NPD’s online panel of 3 million consumers", which seems like a prescription to messing up a couple of the areas above (e.g. just missed most of Club Penguin's user base, most of the casual audience, etc)

Anyhow. Steps in the right direction, but still I worry.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Back from DICE

Back from DICE and my brain is reeling. Lots to post about, but I have to pack and head back out again to Portland. Will post once I get a chance to get through my notes.

In the meantime, Poker Smash is out, and it rocks, according to critics. Go buy it and give the boys at Voidstar the kudos they've earned.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ignite Portland

I attended the second Ignite Portland tonight. Adam and I went down to the beautiful Bagdad Theatre and just barely made it in to the standing-room only (750+ capacity) venue before the locked it down and turned a ton of people away.

I hadn't been to an Ignite event before but was turned onto it by my friend Rob when he gave a talk at Ignite Seattle. From previous event agendas, I expected more tech & entrepreneurial stuff. There was some of that, but there was a mix of everything from that to explanations of why Germans love David Hasselhoff.

It was very entertaining. I'll definitely try to attend again. I'm also going to try to present there as well. I find the restrictive format (20 slides, 15 seconds each, auto-timed) to be an interesting constraint to work in.

A good thing about the event was that while the presentations varied in quality, none of them was very poor. They ranged from fair to excellent - which is far better than I expected.

The only complaint I have is that the intros and housekeeping - done by those that put the event together - were just crap. (A) They should have been done in the same 15-slide Ignite format, (B) they spent too much time stating the obvious (e.g. the 15-slide/5 minute format was stated multiple times, "They sell beer here" - ya we get it), and (c) most important of all - it should have been HIGH ENERGY!

Anyhow, forgive the venting. I really think they did a good job of pulling the event together, but it was disappointing on the kickoff and quickly recovered.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

DRM-free big-budget PC Game

Stardock Games has shipped Sins of a Solar Empire (developed by IronClad Games). Stardock also published Galactic Civilizations II. Both are big-budget retail titles, and both shipped without DRM, with the publisher refusing to DRM-cripple it.

In my Gamasutra piece (original post) on the subject of curbing piracy through personalized content, I pointed to a commitment to a customer relationship. Stardock's a perfect example. They put it best:

I remember hearing at a conference that when an executive at a big publisher heard that Galactic Civilizations II shipped with no CD copy protection that they quipped “I hope bankruptcy treats them well.” Millions of dollars in sales later as one of the top selling PC strategy games at retail (according to NPD) over the past couple of years let’s me say “Ha!” in response. And this is on a game that made most of its money on digital sales.


The bottom line on copy protection is that if you create a greater incentive for someone to buy your game than to steal it, those who might possibly buy your game will make the choice to buy it.

With Galactic Civilizations II, we put no copy protection on the CD. But to get updates, users had to use their unique serial # in the box. That’s because our system is backed by’s unique SSD service (secure software delivery) which forgoes DRM and copy protection as we know it to take a more common sense (I think so anyway as a gamer) approach of just making sure you are delivering your game to the actual customer.

Any system out there will get cracked and distributed. But if you provide reasonable after-release support in the form of free updates that add new content and features that are painless for customers to get, you create a real incentive to be a customer.

As I mentioned earlier, Galactic Civilizations II was success in terms of actual sales, critical reception, and most importantly, satisfaction by strategy gamers.

Sins of a Solar Empire is taking the same route. In fact, we hope to have a free update available the first week of availability with new maps, new options, and new features. We consider ourselves lucky. We get to make a game and play it and then get to update it based on talking to our customers. It’s a great system.

And I think most gamers will agree that a system that rewards people for buying your product is preferable to one that treats them like potential criminals.


(via BoingBoing)

Pantsless in Seattle

Finished our taxes last night.

Two surprises:

  • A healthy refund. (Between all change of employers, a bunch of financial stuff I did, new baby, etc, I wasn't sure where we'd end up).
  • When itemizing all the charitable donations, specifically all the non-cash ones, it turns out that I donated, among other things, no less than THIRTY SEVEN pairs of men's pants! This from going from 36" waist, to 34", to 32" to today's 30". Had to buy new pants several times only to discard a few months later.

It's nice to lose weight, but it's not necesarily cheap either!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Poker Smash release date set for Feb 6

The release date for Poker Smash on XBLA has been set.

I'm really excited about this game. For one thing, it's one of the first games I had a hand in bringing to XBLA from very early on. Because of the development times for these things, it's only now ready to ship, long after I've moved on.

I'm more excited, however, because it's just a REALLY awesome game. It's a blast to play, multiplayer rocks, and it's a visual effects feast.

At it's heart, it's a match-3 style game with a heavy focus on the head-to-head multiplayer. That description doesn't do it justice though. It's one of the most polished and tuned match-3 games you'll ever lay hands on. It's the hardcore gamer's match-3 game to boot.

Finally, its a testament to what determined indie game developers can accomplish. Void Star is just a team of 3 guys, scratching together funding from relatives and friends. It's also, I beleive, the best looking and most graphically advanced XBLA game to date, and puts many retail titles to shame in that department as well.

Congratulations to Drew, Ryan and David. I can't wait to buy it when I get back from DICE. Who's up for some multiplayer next weekend?