Monday, November 30, 2009

Book Review: Good Video Games + Good Learning

I have mixed feelings about James Paul Gee's Good Video Games and Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning and Literacy.

On the pro side, I definitely agree with a lot of his pro-games-as-learning-tool view, and with some of the analysis he's done of the individual titles, and with the parallels to approaches used in education today.

On the other hand, there were a couple bits that irked me a little. First, early in the book he coins the term "good video games" but then doesn't really define it, instead giving a sort of 'you know it when you see it' definition. Secondly, he then goes on to site almost exclusively examples that are big-budget games.

It's in this last part that I feel he does a bit of a disservice to himself and to the reader. Surely some of his theories would be better tested on small Flash games. They'd both serve as cleaner 'petri dish' in which to test theories, and also serve as more accessible fodder to the reader. Can't Tower Defense or Lemonade Stand or Flight Control teach us as much as Rise of Nations?

These complaints aside, it's still interesting if you thirst for analysis of gaming's value for learning and for education of all kinds.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Developer's Duty

I attended both the IGDA Leadership Summit and the Montreal International Game Summit recently, and both conferences were punctuated by keynotes given by Chris Hecker. The keynotes were different, but related. Summaries are covered here and here.

One of the main points of both keynotes was that games are at a crossroads, and that whether they end up as a respected medium of entertainment and artistic expression, or get relegated to a 'cultural ghetto', or worse, get regarded as 'just toys'. Jason captured this slide on that point:

Chris also made the point that the industry was moving from questions of HOW (e.g. "How do I put 100 characters in a scene?") to questions of WHY ("Why do I want to put 100 characters in my scene? What am I trying to say by doing so?" etc)

His call to action was that developers should all ask themselves, during the course of their development, two questions:
- "What am I trying to say, and why?"
- "Am I saying it with interactivity?"

It/they were brilliant and provocative keynotes. Chris' big picture thinking always impresses me.

Yesterday, I watched Good Night and Good Luck, the story of Edward R Murrow's attempt to take a stand against Senator Joe McCarthy's communist witchhunt and circumventing of due process, etc.

The film begin and ends with Murrow's speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association convention in 1958. The transcript of the speech is well worth reading (the film only provides the beginning and ending).

There's a passage toward the end that Murrow directed toward television, but I think applies equally to games and is in keeping with the ideas conveyed in Chris' speech. Given the sentiment of Murrow's speech, that the medium has a responsibility to *try* to do more - that those that develop and fund content have a duty to do so - I have to think he'd be OK with our applying his words to games in the same way:

We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.[1]

I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of our culture and our defense. But I would just like to see it reflect occasionally the hard, unyielding realities of the world in which we live. I would like to see it done inside the existing framework, and I would like to see the doing of it redound to the credit of those who finance and program it. Measure the results by Nielsen, Trendex or Silex-it doesn't matter. The main thing is to try[2]. The responsibility can be easily placed, in spite of all the mouthings about giving the public what it wants. It rests on big business, and on big television, and it rests at the top. Responsibility is not something that can be assigned or delegated. And it promises its own reward: good business and good television.[3]

Perhaps no one will do anything about it. I have ventured to outline it against a background of criticism that may have been too harsh only because I could think of nothing better. Someone once said--I think it was Max Eastman--that "that publisher serves his advertiser best who best serves his readers." I cannot believe that radio and television, or the corporation that finance the programs, are serving well or truly their viewers or listeners, or themselves.[4]

I began by saying that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us.[1]

We are to a large extent an imitative society. If one or two or three corporations would undertake to devote just a small traction of their advertising appropriation along the lines that I have suggested, the procedure would grow by contagion; the economic burden would be bearable, and there might ensue a most exciting adventure--exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation.

To those who say people wouldn't look; they wouldn't be interested; they're too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter's opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.[5]

Parallel's with Chris' talk:
  1. Art vs Pop-culture ghetto
  2. The important thing is that we all try
  3. Indies can't do all the heavy lifting. Big Games needs to pitch in too.
  4. "Cotton Candy for Dinner"
  5. It's ours to fuck up, and we CAN fuck it up.
I thought the parallels quite electrifying. I don't know whether to find encouragement in it though. The struggle Murrow spoke of 50 years ago continues today, and a few minutes watching Fox news makes a case that we are losing ground if anything.

That a struggle does continue though, is good. Hopefully games can fare as well, or better. So long as developers (and publishers, and the rest of us on the periphery) consider it their duty to try, then maybe we will do better.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Correlation vs Causation, and the MetaCritic MetaQuestion

This piece on Gamasutra offers an interesting take on the metacritic issue, concluding that review scores are among the least important of the factors affecting game sales.

The same subject came up at a round-table discussion at MIGS that was lead by EEDAR's Jesse Divnich.

An interesting snippet from the Gamasutra piece that is worth chewing on a little:

Analyst Doug Creutz says "We believe that while Metacritic scores may be correlated to game quality and word of mouth, and thus somewhat predictive of title performance, they are unlikely in and of themselves to drive or undermine the success of a game"

This highlights a point I brought up at the MIGS round table: That there's a difference between correlation and causation. Scores can be correlated to sales, but not necesarily affect them.

The correlation is fairly straight forward. Most game reviews are written by reviewers who fit the mold of the "typical gamer" if there is such a thing. A high meta-critic score is a small sampling of people who fit the demographic of the customer. "9 out of 10 people gave this game a thumbs up". These reviews serve as this indicator *even if not a single consumer ever reads them*.

Now, whether the average consumer consults these reviews and uses them to decide on a purchase of one game over another, and how that factors in versus everything else vieing for their attention is another matter. I have no idea whether there is any causation here, but it is certainly a more tenuous assertion than the correlation above.

Does it matter though? Of course, and here's why.

If you beleive in the correlation, then you can use meta-critic as an indicator of sorts. The publishers seem to be doing this, and there has been plenty of talk about developers having bonuses tied to MC scores and the like.

Now, using carrots'n'sticks motivators for developers, and tying those to MC scores is being done to drive behavior, I assume. It is essentially the publisher telling the team "Please go do what it takes to acheive 90% or better".

If you beleive only in the correlation, that the reviewers are essentially a sample group of gamers, then you focus on building a great game that they and everyone else will find enjoyable. [A cynic like me would say you also focus on building a marketing frenzy that will have everyone salivating for the title, so that reviewers are ready to write their 98% review before they've laid hands on the game - but again, you are doing nothing for the reviewers that you wouldn't do for the consumer as well]

But if you beleive in causation, then you focus part of that effort in gaming Meta-Critic itself. You go out and try to influence reviewers, beleiving that gaming a high score out of the system will result in high sales.

So the meta-level question about metacritic is whether you beleive it serves as a focus group, or as a marketing tool. I beleive its the former, but choose your own opinion and proceed accordingly.

Addendum: As I was writing this I had an interesting epiphany: If viewing MC as a 'focus group' of sorts, then it would be interesting to treat as such. Do games score extremely high with a subset of the focus group and low with another? And if so, how do those fair vs those with a more homogenous set of scores. Does an 80 MC title with scores ranging from 60-100 fair better or worse vs one with scores ranging from 75-85. In short, does MC standard deviation indicate something? Hmmm.... time to curl up with Excel and a glass of wine...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Book Review: How The Mighty Fall

Finished How The Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In in two short plane rides. It is certainly a short business book, but also good. Oh, and terrifying.

From Jim Collins, the same guy that authored Good to Great, this looks at the other side of the coin: what factors make companies fall from greatness. He comes to the conclusion that there are many different ways to fail (vs fewer to succeed) but that there are some common traits to the examples they looked at.

Like many business books, the key point can be gleaned in just a few pages. In fact, this picture says much of it in a nutshell:

However, recognizing if your company is in one of these phases (as all companies suffer from at least SOME of the symptoms) makes the book worth reading, to compared to the numerous case examples throughout the book.

The terrifying part is how often great companies are unable to see the cliff, even as they are going over it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

EA Buys Playfish

From Techcrunch today:

Electronic Arts closed it’s anticipated acquisition of social gaming startup Playfish for $275 million in cash. An additional $25 million in stock will be set aside for retaining the top talent at the startup, and another $100 million in earnouts are part of the deal as well if the business hits certain milestones. So the total value of the deal could amount to as much as $400 million when all is said and done.

Wow. $400M is a lot of money. Social games are clearly the hot ticket right now, so it makes sense for EA to jump in, but one has to wonder if that's money well spent.

The stock & earnout will retain the people for some time, which is I'm sure a big part of why they acquired the company.

Still, the titles are cheaper to develop, and there doesn't (as of yet) seem to be the same IP loyalty that there is in hardcore games (are there Farmville fanboys out there dissing Mafia Wars?).

Time will tell if it was a good call, but it certain does seem rash, especially with all of the kerfuffle around questionable sources of social game revenues. (Interesting meta-level piece on the same issue here)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Book Review: Seize the Daylight

Seize the Daylight is a history of daylight saving time.

I'm sure most don't at first think that sounds like a particularly entertaining story, it's actually quite interesting. At one level, it's a story about an idea that one guy spent his whole life evangelizing a simple but crazy idea, at first to ridicule, then to mixed reception, and then, after his death, to acceptance.

While others, including Ben Franklin, had the idea and proposed it in various forums, it was one man, William Willett, who spent the better part of his life trying to convince society we could be more productive and efficient by getting our collective ass in gear by sunrise.

Roughly a hundred years later, a billion people follow his guidance. Along the way though, curious things happened over the course of a couple world wars, an energy crisis, and a modernization of global commerce that necesitated everyone getting in sync.

David Prerau takes what otherwise would be a boring subject about legislation and debate between competing interests, and colors it with a ton of colorful bits of history about poorly timed train crashes, terrorist bomb plots gone awry (you know those clocks you see in the movies ticking to a certain detonation time - may want to note whose clock those were set to!), etc. Hard to imagine that only a generation or two ago there was a time where different states, cities and suburbs each observed different DST policies and dates, resulting in chaos.

Anyhow, if you enjoy the history of systems, technology, and of putting big ideas into practice, you may enjoy Seize the Daylight.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Indie Pop

I've often found that some of the best lessons in marketing are those involving commodity products. No difference between Coke and Pepsi, so the marketing better get creative, right?

Well here's a great video about the Soda Pop Stop, an indie grocer that has carved out a niche for himself by combing the world for quality product, catering to only those customers that care for such, and telling Pepsi to pound sand. I love how passionate he is about his customers and his products. Awesome.

I really hope this guy has kids and/or nephews. What a great role model he'd be while sating a kid's sweet tooth.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Playstructure project

Well, it's November, and I've almost wrapped up the 'summer project' play structure. It was a sunny day yesterday so I snapped a couple pics.

An off-the-shelf structure wouldn't work because we were building on an incline and over a retaining wall, so we decided to do something custom. As usual, this led to my getting a bit carried away.

Original rough concept in Sketchup:

Same, with rough orientation in situ:

Final product (still need a few pieces of trim, a pirate flag for the mast, etc):

From the downhill side (still needs a few pieces of 'hull' planking), showing slide and climbing wall:

I'll post some more pics after getting the last bits of trim done (hopefully this year!!)