Sunday, February 22, 2009

Game Design and the Geneva Convention

Cory's posted this interesting bit about Hugh Spencer, a parent who's agreed to let his 13-year old play Call of Duty, provided he reads up on the Geneva Conventions and abides by them during the course of play.

Awesome. I can't wait to hear the outcome.

I'm curious whether it's POSSIBLE to successfully finish the game when doing so. I wonder whether the designer(s) read the Geneva Convention and incorporated it into the design.

I wonder whether you can successfully finish Amerca's Army when doing the same?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

If game designers built restaurants...

There's a great thread going over on Raph's blog, continuing off something posted by Sheri Graner Ray , describing restaurants designed by different game designers. Raph's added a few, and then the comment thread's gone a little nuts with it:

If John Carmack created this restaurant, it would be just like his other restaurants, except much prettier.
If Will Wright created this restaurant, we’d have to continually monitor what each employee was doing, instructing them when to cook, when to clean and when to go to the bathroom, but eventually, it would burn down anyway.. and if it didn’t a natural disaster would occur to make sure it was destroyed.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Starting a new game business

Good SlideShare Presentation from Jussi Laakkonen on experience setting up his game studio. (originally presented at Casual Connect Europe, as it states on the cover slide)>

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Crisis of Credit

Good info-graphic take on the credit crisis. Along the lines of the Global Pool of Money, but in 'USA Today' form :-)

Braid PC release announced: Mar 15, $15, no DRM

Jon's announced the first release of the PC version of Braid (he's doing several releases with different distributors). This one is with Stardock, whom you may have heard of from their forward-looking anti-DRM stance. Initially it was announced at $20, but Jon dropped the price to $15 following grumblings on the web. Note the DRM stance:

Where possible, the game will be released without DRM. Some online publishers include their own DRM as a matter of policy, and of those guys, I am only signing with the ones that have light and non-intrusive DRM. My goal is to give people a reasonable choice about where to get the game, and if they don’t like someone’s DRM or someone else’s launcher client, they can get it from whoever they like most.

Now everybody be good boys and girls and buy the game! Support indie development and don't provide fodder for pro-DRM folk to say "I told you so".

Oh, and I love this comment from Jon in the discussion thread, where someone criticized his late PC release as indicative of his being 'anti-PC':

I’m not some kind of weird platform loyalist. The PC is not some sports team that is playing the Xbox 360 for the World Cup.

Indeed, it's not, though I think the PC would kick the 360's tail if it did! (Though continuing this analogy, it would be more like a soccer match of 16 pro athletes on one side, against 1600 guys on the other side, most of whom weren't in as quite good shape.... but I digress).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Escape from City 17 - excellent indie-inspired short film series

Wow. This is awesome.

Indie Half-life 2 inspired film series.

From Rock Paper Shotgun: "the Purchase Bros describe the production as “guerilla style with no money, no time, no crew, no script, the first two episodes were made from beginning to end on a budget of $500."

I'm assuming that means they worked without pay and that the $500 was on plastic masks and headcrab props (where does one buy a headcrab anyway?). In any case it's awesome.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Perfect Potion Positioning

A few companies have tried to take the 'energy drink' trend and do versions specifically marketed at the geek and gaming crowd(s). Bawls being the first I remember making a push in this direction, and Mountain Dew tried their hand with Game Fuel.

So why did it take so long to come up with this, which is perfection:

This made me yearn for Ultima Underworld!

Book Review: Outliers

A little while back I mentioned to a friend that I was considering picking up Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success.

"Don't bother. It's one of those books that only covers a single idea that you can get in a single page", he commented.

Having critizeda number of business books for the same reason, I was a little reluctant. However, having watched Gladwell's TED talk a while back, I thought he was a great storyteller and decided to take a chance.

I'm sure glad I did. Outliers is a fantastic book. Yes, its about a single idea: That the 'outlier' successes of the world, the Bill Gates, Olympic Athletes, and rags-to-riches stories that we hear, are often as much products of their environments and cultural legacies as they are 'born different'. 

But backing up that single idea are a number of fascinating, well-researched examples, from areas as wide reaching as cockpit voice recordings of Korean air crashes to the history of New York garment district. Gladwell then brings a talent for colorful storytelling to make it a super entertaining read. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Seth Godin on the Games Business

Seth has a good post up about changes in the Music Business. A little creative replacement makes a good point about Flash games, Flash MMOs, iPhone, Facebook and downloadable consoles titles - and anywhere else indie games are showing up, kicking ass, and taking names.

The music games industry is really focused on the ‘industry’ part and not so much on the ‘music’games’ part. This is the greatest moment in the history of music games if your dream is to distribute as much music many games as possible to as many people as possible, or if your goal is to make it as easy as possible to become heard as a musician game developer. There’s never been a time like this before. So if your focus is on music games, it’s great. If your focus is on the industry part and the limos, the advances, the lawyers, polycarbonate and vinyl cardboard boxes and DVDs, it’s horrible. The shift that is happening right now is that the people who insist on keeping the world as it was are going to get more and more frustrated until they lose their jobs. People who want to invent a whole new set of rules, a new paradigm, can’t believe their good fortune and how lucky they are that the people in the industry aren’t noticing an opportunity...
'nuff said.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Eve and the Sacking of Rome

[update: Really good summary here.]

I've meant for a little while now to blog this really interesting development in Eve Online, in which the 'Band of Brothers' Alliance was destroyed by a rival faction. As always, I hate playing MMOs but love following the stuff that goes on in them.

For those unfamiliar:

Eve Online: (snipped from wikipedia): is a player-driven persistent-world MMO set in a sci fi space setting. Players of Eve Online are able to participate in any number of in-game professions and activities, including mining, manufacturing, trade and combat. The range of activities available to the player is facilitated by a character advancement system based upon training skills in real time, even while not logged in to the game.

The event (as Destructoid put it): In the most balls-out act of deep space espionage in the 21st century, GoonSwarm, EVE Online’s in-game Something Awful forum contingent, has finally defeated their arch enemies, absolute rulers of the game universe, Band of Brothers. Thus ends a years-long David and Goliath dance that has made modern gaming history on multiple occasions. As this is a breaking story as of today’s wee hours, I’ll spare you my verbal flatulence and put my better-informed friend Bjorn Townsend on blast:
Literally, Band of Brothers is no more. They got a spy into the executor corp at director level, kicked out every corp, stole all the assets they could lay their hands on, and altered standings so that everyone will start shooting everyone else. And then they closed the alliance, and created a new corporation called Band of Brothers with the same corp ticker, so they can't even have the old alliance name back.

How awesome is that. Even more awesome when you remember that there are ways of turning in-game currency into real-world currency, and that this cloak-n-dagger takedown netted an amount equal to about $15k USD. This is Halting State turned real, or close to it.

As usual, Raph offers an interesting perspective, which I agree with:

And the game, as a game, does want BoB to fall, because from a purely mechanical point of view, what is fun about EVE is the struggle, not the victory condition. The victory condition is boring. Lots of folks lose their livelihoods when an empire falls, and players invested in BoB are likely upset that years of work were lost. But EVE is not a game about the height of the Roman Empire. It’s a game about the sacking of Rome by barbarians, so that they can become the next short-lived top dog

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Comic Conventions

Raph points us to this very interesting Scott McCloud-esque post over on Blambot, the site run by Nate Piekos who does comic lettering and font creation for hire.

It's an interesting read, but also interesting to think about the conventions discussed here and how second-nature they are to most people. As Raph mentions, when using speech bubbles for in-game chat in SWG, they ended up using many of the same conventions. 

It's probably a good idea in general for any game, or for any product for that matter, to think about assumed conventions relevant to their product's interface. There are times that going against convention may be the right thing to do, but you should be aware you are doing it.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

This one time, at (rock) band camp...

...I shoved a plastic guitar in my....

So I got some spam that the Power Chord Academy, a kind of 'rock n roll summer camp' targeting the venn diagram intersection of 'aspiring rock stars' and 'troubled teens with well-to-do parents', is now adding a summer camp for aspiring fake rock stars. 

I'm actually supportive of a video game summer camp, if it were either spent making them, or thinking about and discussing them. But a Rock Band camp? At a camp where all the other kids are going to be playing real guitars, smoking real weed and one would imagine trashing their cabins/dorms? I dunno... sounds like bloody-nose camp!

I kid, I kid. Seriously, it's... interesting. I can't decide whether I think this is a good or a bad thing. 

Book Review: Reality Check

I just got done reading Guy Kawasaki's latest, Reality Check.

I have some mixed feelings about it, but overall it's got enough value in parts of it that I can recommend it.

The book is a loosely compiled series of essays, top ten lists (a favorite format of his), and interviews. Much of it is repurposed from his blog and he states as much early in the book. This makes it easy to read, as each chapter is small, accessible and quickly digestible. However, it also means the flow is somewhat disjointed, and some parts feel really shoe-horned in there.

A few of the chapters are real gems though, and justify the price of the book on it's own. In particular:
  • The art of intrapreneurship: A chapter on starting revolutions with large established companies. (BTW, it's almost a blueprint of how Larrabee got started within Intel)
  • The chapters on evangelism, pitching and slide decks are must-read for anyone that does any of this.
  • The inside scoop on Venture Capital law, in which he does a Q&A with a VC attorney on 'stuff an entrepreneur should know.
  • A chapter in which Glen Kelman of Redfin does a full disclosure of his estimated and actual costs for the first year they were in business, with notes on why they over or underestimated pieces.
Just a few examples, but that list should be enough to decide if this book is for you. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Amazon launches casual games site

Amazon announced the launch of their casual games download site. They bought Reflexive a while back, and so this wasn't unexpected, but it certainly is going to shake things up a bit in the casual games space, if not in the games digital distribution space in general. Some things to note:

  • The downloads are priced at $9.95 for most downloads and $6.99 for back catalog. This vs the $19.95 that is common in much of the casual games space. (e.g. Jewel Quest III on Amazon, vs MSN). Lots of sites have played with lower pricing but usually as a promotion, on select titles, etc. This is an outright assault on the $19.95 price point that's going to have impact, if not kill it entirely.
  • They are offering downloads, but no free play on the web (ad-supported), no subscription offering, no other business models for monetizing games.
  • There are a couple notable absences from the catalog (perhaps related to the pricing?). No Popcap content. No Playfirst content (Flo is a no-show!). No EA Casual Hasbro licenses. Hold the line guys! (uh, ya, good luck with that)
  •  While these are all casual game downloads, note that it doesn't say "casual" anywhere. Just 'game downloads'. There's no reason they can't get into digital distribution of large download game titles if they feel the money is there.
Ok, so to quote my fave line from Burn After Reading, so what have we learned?

Amazon's entry marks the entry by a very large etailer into the games download market. If you distribute content this way, or plan to, take note. If you are an etailer or distributor (Steam, MSN Games, Oberon, etc) take note if you haven't already.

It's a really good time to think hard about who you are and what your core strengths are. e.g.
  • Amazon is an etailer that offers games for purchase. It's a store. They have great transactional tools, and are great at removing hurdles between the customer and the cash register. However, I'd guess they are weaker on understanding their customer's playing habits, preferences, etc, and don't offer other business models for customers to get games. They've also got things like their associates program for referrals and such.
  • MSN, to contrast, is a destination. Once there, users can choose to access games via a number of different models, and the catalog is curated for them based on the MSN communities tastes, etc.
  • Oberon is a distributor. They have unparalleled reach, and can use that to optimize the suggested merchandising their network uses to maximize revenue, they can also offer distribution to game devs and pubs that other people can't.
  • Steam (just to pick a different example), is a service first. One of the elements of that service is that they offer their customers games for sale, but it's worth noting that this isn't the whole offering, just a piece of it. They've also got great 1st party content that customers WILL come in the door for, regardless of what else Amazon or another competitor offers. So long as Steam is the place to come get Gordan Freeman goodness, that's where his fans will come.
Anyhow, I highlight these examples only to make the point that when there's a shakeup of this nature, it's a good time to think about what your core competencies are, and then focus on making those delight your customers.

Zero Punctuation on User Generated Content

Zero Punctuation gives a very succinct, accurate, and TOTALLY NSFW view of the issues around user generated content in his review of Little Big Planet.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Online business models: Lessons from Comics

Jeph Jacques, author of webcomic Questionable Content (one of fave webcomics) has written an interesting blog post about business models for online comics. You can read it here.

He's written it as a response to a post by another comic artist (of the more traditionally syndicated variety), who was lamenting the death of newspapers, and how this was taking comics down with it.

The original post suggested 3 business models that might work online:
  • Subscription: Jacques points out that the original author's DRM dependance is full of FAIL.
  • "Interactivity": Not what we'd mean by it in the games space, he's talking here about what I'd call customized content. Jacques concedes that this could work, but that there aren't succesful examples in the webcomics space.
  • Donations: Jacques claims this can work, but has a high risk of eroding readership over time. (Mind you, you could make the same argument about PBS, NPR, etc. If you stay relevant, I beleive this could work)
Jacques looks at a one other business model in the space: 
  • Make the Comic free, sell merch: This is Jacques' model, and seems to work well for him.
There are then other flavors of these, or hybrids, mentioned in the comic thread, pointing to the successful examples:
  • Sell advertising on the website: Penny Arcade, others
  • Sell your original inked pages as artwork: Octopus Pie.
  • Limited merch (like signed limited edition prints): XKCD did some of this
  • Sell the 'dead tree' version: MegaTokyo
I think it's a really interesting thought exercise for indie game developers to look at this space and think about which, if any, of these models apply. 

Some examples:
  • Donations: Kingdom of Loathing (they also sell merch)
  • Ad-supported: there's a ton of this in the casual space, though usually with a portal/middleman. Some amount on iPhone, etc.
  • Customized content: That (or the illusion thereof) and merch together are BuildaBearVille's business model, which is what I wrote about in my post that Gamasutra picked up.
  • Subscription: We have the usual subscription-to-a-given-game model; but it's worth thinking about whether the webcomic model would work: If a developer released a game a month, and a subscription offered 1-month-early access to each of these, and made you part of a club of sorts, would this work?
I'll leave the remainder as an exercise for the reader. I think, though, there are some interesting lessons here. Just as casual games with their smaller budgets are able to experiment with different business models and hybrid models more quickly; indie games should be able to do the same to an even higher degree.

If you are reading this and other models or examples of successes or failures come to mind, please point to them in the comments. I'm curious to see what trails are being forged.

Walmart FTW!

OK, I've read as much negative about Walmart as the next guy, and as a result was not a fan and don't shop there.

However, I read an interesting post in their defense (kinda) by Charles Platt, who is guest blogging over at BoingBoing. He recently opted to spend some time working at Walmart to see if his experience echoed that he'd read in Nickel & Dimed or heard elsewhere. It didn't:

The job was as dull as I expected, but I was stunned to discover how benign the workplace turned out to be. My supervisor was friendly, decent, and treated me as an equal. Wal-Mart allowed a liberal dress code. The company explained precisely what it expected from its employees, and adhered to this policy in every detail. I was unfailingly reminded to take paid rest breaks, and was also encouraged to take fully paid time, whenever I felt like it, to study topics such as job safety and customer relations via a series of well-produced interactive courses on computers in a room at the back of the store. Each successfully completed course added an increment to my hourly wage, a policy which Barbara Ehrenreich somehow forgot to mention in her book.

Interesting, but the kicker for me was this snippet (emphasis mine):
My standard equipment included a handheld bar-code scanner which revealed the in-store stock and nearest warehouse stock of every item on the shelves, and its profit margin. At the branch where I worked, all the lowest-level employees were allowed this information and were encouraged to make individual decisions about inventory. One of the secrets to Wal-Mart’s success is that it delegates many judgment calls to the sales-floor level, where employees know first-hand what sells, what doesn’t, and (most important) what customers are asking for.
In how many ways can I count the awesome?

First, educating employees on the margin made on each product is awesome. 

At a higher level though, is this not indicative of how they really treat employees? The trust and empower them. They may underpay, but this is a function of supply and demand. If you get past that, if they were really the abusive people-eating machine that people made them out to be, they wouldn't be someone that trusts and empowers employees to make decisions.

Jason Della Rocca leaves IGDA

Jason Della Rocca announced that he's stepping down as Director of the IGDA.

Whenever high-visibility industry people step down from a long time role, there's a tendency to look at them as irreplaceable, and that the company/organization will suffer for their loss. This is almost always patently false. People get replaced and organizations move on.

This is one of the rare cases where I think it's true. Jason is a force of nature and huge part of what's made the IGDA what it is. He oversaw it's separation from CMP, it's transition to a non-profit organization, and was a big part of it's growth, strong ties to the industry, government and academia, and more. I have no doubt the IGDA will find a way to move on, but man, those are big shoes to fill.

Back at Matrox, Jason was my first employee. He went on to run developer relations there after I left. It was in that role that I think he first got a hint that his strength in connecting and connecting with  people was something that could really take him places. I've often joked that Jason personally knows just about every individual in this industry. That's an exageration but not far from it. Among those many people are many industry recruiters, and I'm sure a few will be reaching out to him soon (though it sounds like he's got some ideas about what he's doing next).

Best of luck Jason. Can't wait to see what's next. I'm sure it will be awesome.