Thursday, December 31, 2009

You can re-touch, but you can't hide

BoingBoing linked to an awesome two part article (1 - Body by Victoria, 2 - The Secret Is Out) in which a security expert uses digital forensics techniques to reverse engineer what retouching has been done to a photo of a model in a Victoria's Secret catalog. The photo first showed up on the fabulous Photoshop Disasters.

As with anything showing up on the Disasters site, there are some glaring errors, but what makes the above articles great is how the author uses the errors introduced here, along with a bunch of different filters and analysis techniques, to begin tugging at the threads of what the image has been through. When the unraveling is done, he determines that the model's skin has been lightened, teeth and eyes brightened, breasts enlarged, nipple removed, and that the dress featured isn't even the color of that in the original photograph, just to name a few things.

It's an entertaining read, and one that spurred a few thoughts:

First, what in this case was an expert applying a couple principles and a set of photoshop tools, I could easily see being a single, end-user-ready, image analysis tool. "Upload your image here and we'll highlight everything that we beleive has likely been modded".

Secondly, if people start to tear this stuff apart everywhere it appears (witness the BoingBoing Demi Moore kerfuffle), I can't imagine that the industry is going to be able to stay ahead of people's ability to uncover its secrets. It's one thing to find talented photoshop artists. Its another to say "...and are you skilled at making sure your image has consistent JPEG compression artifacting and no discontinuities in alternative color spaces" during interviews. Maybe this kind of 'out'-ing will lead toward a downfall of the fake model/body image in media?

Finally, for all industries, this is a great example of how in the Internet age, there are no secrets, especially if you are a large and prominent company.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the only way your secret is safe is if no one cares about it.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Crapware Carnival

A while back when we replaced my wife's laptop, and eventually ended up going through a Sony and a Lenovo before finally settling on a Macbook Pro, I'd meant to do a post on the difference between the out-of-box experience of the three.

The 'OOBE' for PC's is *horribly* broken. Both the Lenovo and Sony machines came loaded with so much crap I could hardly believe it. That Best Buy can charge money to "fix" a brand new computer, or that MS views offering PC's free of such junkware as a 'signature' offering are sure signs of how broken the PC platform is. The mac OOBE was, well, all the consumer electronics sensuality you've come to expect from Apple.

Catching up on my holiday feed-reading, another Seth Godin post on the subject caught my eye, as I thought he summed the problem up perfectly:

The digital world, even the high end brands, has become a sleazy carnival, complete with hawkers, barkers and a bearded lady. By the time someone actually gets to your site, they've been conned, popped up, popped under and upsold so many times they really have no choice but to be skeptical.

I'm a big believer in open platforms and open markets. The upside is that it provides more choice, better pricing, and more end-user say. The downside is that at it's worst, an open market devolves to a cross between a wild west town and the above-stated carnival - with no sheriff in town to protect you from the bearded lady.

If the PC vendors can't find a way to compete other than using crapware to subsidize the race for the lowest sticker price, then Apple deserves to win.

The correct way to treat a customer who just forked over $800 of hard-earned money for your product is not to say "how about you hand over another $30 to a "partner site". Instead, PC vendors should be finding out how to say "You just chose us to give your hard earned money to, and because of that, we think you are a fantastic, intelligent, and downright sexy person. We are sending over our VP of marketing to cook you waffles while you relax on the couch!"

The Passion Trough and the Ho-hum hump

Seth Godin has an interesting post up about weak analysis of data - in this case, a poor reading of data by a NYTimes blogger's analysis of Kindle review data on Amazon. I think it holds some lessons for the games industry, if you'll bear with me.

Its worth reading both posts, but here's the synopsis: Analysis of the reviews of all three Kindle products (breaking them down into a pie-chart of 1-5 star ratings) shows an increase in the percentage of one-star ratings over time. Conclusion: Kindle customers growing more dissatisfied over time.

There are a number of reasons this is erroneous. Many 1-star reviews are by non-owners ("I'll never by Kindle because..."), the early adopters more passionate than others, they are different products, etc.

However, the more interesting thing to me were these comments by Seth:

Amazon reviews never reflect the product, they reflect the passion people have for the product. As Jeff Bezos has pointed out again and again, most great products get 5 star and 1 star reviews. That makes sense... why would you be passionate enough about something that's sort of 'meh' to bother writing a three star review?

The Kindle has managed to offend exactly the right people in exactly the right ways. It's not as boring as it could be, it excites passions and it has created a cadre of insanely loyal evangelists who are buying them by the handful to give as gifts.

I think the lessons here are to Ignore graphs intended to deceive, and to understand the value of the negative review.

Point being that the negative reviews have value as well. For one thing "there's no such thing as bad publicity" (not true of course, but there IS a downside to NO publicity at all. The sound of crickets chirping is not accompanied by the sound of cash registers ringing). Another thing is that the negative reviews let you know who *are not* your customers.

So, what's this got to do with games?

Well, the industry puts some stock in review aggregators like Metacritic, and others are claiming this may not be indicative of a game's potential sales.

However, Seth's post made wonder whether we're looking at the right thing. Take the following fictitious graph:

The vertical axis represents number of reviews, and the horizontal axis represents 1 through 5 star ratings. Series A represents what I call the "passion trough" - reviews polarized toward 1 and 5 star ends of the spectrum (Seth's point about passionate reviewers). Series B represents the opposite, what I call the "Ho Hum Hump" - reviews clustered in the 'meh' range. Each of my fictitious products get 150 reviews

So, which is preferable?

Well, for one thing, it depends what you consider a "3" to mean. If that's a passing grade, then series B is preferable - two thirds of people gave you a passing grade. Series A gets only just over half.

Traditional thinking would be aiming to satisfy this. Do the best you can, for everyone - even if it costs you some of the more passionate customers. Better a 3-star with everyone than a 5-star with only a few people. (Some of the tradeoffs we've seen to 'mainstream' titles might lead you to call this the 'compromise chasm' :-)

I think this would be the wrong conclusion though.

For one thing, per Seth's point, I'm guessing the reality would be that Series B would get far fewer reviews, all other things being equal. It inspires little passion in people. Whereas A is more likely to inspire reviews - both good and bad.

Secondly, For Series A, on third of the reviewers are VERY passionate about the product, and therefore perhaps likely to buy it. For Series B, all those people giving it the middle of the road review are also people with a lot of alternative products to choose from.

Someone will need to crunch the numbers to determine if the above is indeed the case. If I'm right though, then we're looking at the wrong thing by looking at average score. We should be looking at standard deviation, total number of reviews, etc - if looking at Metacritic at all. Not to mention looking at user reviews vs press reviews, but that's a whole other topic.

My gut tells me you are way better off with the trough than the hump.

Friday, December 25, 2009

2009 in Books, with reviews

Following up from last year, here are the books I read (or in a few cases, listened to) this year.

First, a few thoughts:

This year I got through 25 books. Up from last year, and I beat my goal of 24 for the year, but it's still lower than I'd like. Next year I'd like to beat that.

There were a few books from last year that I found myself loaning or recommending to others several times over. In particular:
  • Little Brother: Cory Doctorow's distopian sci-fi teen-fic romp that I described last year as 'just close enough to the present and just close enough to reality to scare you like hell'.
  • Halting State: Charles Stross' heist-meets-sleuth-meets-virtual-worlds story was probably my most recommended book of last year, when I called it 'one of my top 5 recommendations for those looking to understand the future of games'.
  • Inventing the Movies: I found this history of film medium and business has a lot to teach us in the games industry.
  • Losing Faith: How the Grove Survivors Led the Decline of Intel's Corporate Culture. I found myself loaning/recommending this to a number of co-workers.
One more thought before the list: I found myself teetering on the edge of buying a Kindle a number of times through the year. I like technology, I beleive it might let me get through more books over the course of a year, and I like the idea of annotating the books in an electronic (and thus integrated with other apps/etc). I haven't bought one yet, for the following reasons:
  • Closed, vertically integrated business model. There's an opportunity for someone to disrupt here by integrating with multiple stores, etc,
  • All features that detract from time spent buying and reading books seem to be secondary concerns, and therefore are poorly implemented (browser, pdf functionality, and where is a decent RSS aggregator?)
  • The biggest reason is that books are social objects for me. I like to loan them to friends, propogate ideas, etc, and this is lost with the existing business model. Longer post on Kindle and Nook coming later...
Anyhow, here's the list of books from this year:

  1. Reality Check: Guy Kawasaki's compilation of loosely related essays on evangelism, venture capital, running a startup, etc. Recommended. My review here.
  2. Outliers: Malcolm Gladwell makes the case for why some people are special :-). My review here.
  3. Arcade Mania: Kotaku's Brian Ashcraft's quirky look at Japanese arcade machines, culture and history. My review here.
  4. Business Stripped Bare: Richard Branson's follow on to Losing My Virginity. Not quite as good, but still useful. My review here.
  5. Ten Foot: R Dale Chandler's teen-fic fantasy novel that I described as 'Lord of the Rings with an American Indian flavor'. Recommended. My review here.
  6. I Will Teach You To Be Rich: Ramit Sethi's practical approach to saving money and building wealth. Pretty straight forward, and aimed at younger folk than I, but I still picked up a thing or two. Recommended for some (if don't have at least a year's salary squirreled away, and/of if you ever carry a monthly balance on your credit card, then this is you.). My review here.
  7. Longitude: An educational and entertaining read about the X-prize-like competitive race to solve the longitudinal navigation problem, and the amateur clockmaker who schooled the scientific establishment. My review here.
  8. Edison: His Life and Inventions: An interesting, if dated and biased, look at Edison's life's work. My review here. Audio version of book available here.
  9. Ignore Everybody: Hugh MacLeod's Gaping Void blog style, in print form. My review here.
  10. Racing the Beam: Ian Bogost's fantastic start to his 'platform studies' series, in which he looks at the history of the Atari VCS, and how the platform's architecture shaped the games built on it. Recommended. My review here.
  11. Meatball Sundae: Seth Godin's take on what happens when marketers of everyday products say "I can haz facebuk?!". My review here.
  12. The 4 hour workweek: Get-rich-quick snakeoil that I'd love to urge you to stay away from, except that there are some useful nuggets in there. More detail in my review here.
  13. Following Through: What it aims to teach is indicated by the title. How much I disliked it is indicated by my review here.
  14. Small is the New Big: A collection of Seth Godin's essays and blog posts. My review here.
  15. Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars: Bill Patry's book on how and why copyright lost its way and has since gotten out of control. My favorite book of the year. Highly Recommended. My review here.
  16. Batman Arkham Asylum: I found this highly-rated graphic novel to be good, but not necessarily deserving of the hype. My review here.
  17. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: Allison Hoover Bartlett's accounting of her investigation into the world of an obsessed thief of rare books and the book dealer turned gumshoe who helped bring him down. My review here.
  18. On Writing: Stephen King's only non-fiction book. One part autobiography, one part practical guide to the art and craft of writing. Recommended. My review here.
  19. Seize the Daylight: David Prerau's surprisingly colorful look at the history of daylight savings time, and the madness that lies in trying to convince the world to get it's collective butt out of bed a little earlier. My review here.
  20. How the Mighty Fall: Jim Collins, author of the popular Good to Great, looks at the other side of the coin: What makes great companies fail. Fascinating and terrifying. Highly Recommended. My review here.
  21. Good Video Games and Good Learning: James Paul Gee's look at video games and their ability to teach. I found myself disagreeing with some of his biases and approaches, but mostly agreeing with the ideas and conclusions. My review here.
  22. What the Dog Saw, and Other Adventures: A collection of Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker pieces. Best taken as provocative ideas and not science. My review here.
  23. The Post-American World: Author. Highly Recommended. My review here.
  24. Circles: James Burke's collection of brief whirlwind tales of invention through history. My review here.
  25. Permanent Death: An e-book chronicling Ben Abraham's efforts to play through Far Cry 2 on a single life. It's free and thought provoking. My review here.
That's it. Currently working my way through both Starbucked and The Whuffie Factor, but they'll likely make next year's list. Reviews up as soon as I'm finished them.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Book Review: Permanent Death

Clint pointed me a while back to Permanent Death, a free e-book/machinima/something from Ben Abraham narrating his experience in trying to play Far Car 2 through on a single life. In the author's words it is:

391 pages long and features hundreds of full colour screenshots from Far Cry 2, one of the most beautiful games of recent times. It chronicles my progress from the beginning of the game all the way to the end of my single in-game life some 20 play hours later. Permanent Death represents a large portion of a year of my life, and an obsession with a game that captured my imagination in a way that I struggle to articulate.

Clint's post on the experiment and book is also worth reading.

I found parts of it to be as monotonous as many games are (I ran into some guys. I hid behind cover and sniped them. then I scavenged their stuff. repeat). However, the parts of the game that were more moving to Ben are interesting, as are his thoughts about the game's rules and mechanics, his attempts to infer the designers intent at times, and his thoughts on things like switching off the background music.

Those and Clint's foreward make it worth reading. It's free, and it won't take you long, so what's keeping you?

Permanent Death

Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Review: Circles by James Burke

I've been a big fan of James Burke since my sister and I used to sit through any of the Connections series reruns that the CBC would pull out of the BBC mothballs whenever they'd run out of Beachcombers episodes to air.

I'm also a big believer in what I'd summarize as the main premise of Burke's work: That many of history's biggest innovations have come from serendipitous cross-pollination between different disciplines of science and industry, and that increasing domain specialization threatens to limit how much of this we may benefit from in the future. Specialization benefits, but also hurts, innovation.

Anyhow, I loved all his mini-series, the Day the Universe Changed, and a number of other works, so I decided to try another of his books.

Circles disappointed a little. It's a series of super-brief, trips through history, connecting inventions and developments from one random connection to the next, before coming full circle. Very much like the Connections series, only with two main limitations: (1) The stories are so brief that we miss the significance of some of the events or technologies mentioned, an (2) some of the connections are so fleeting and random that they don't really feel connected at all.

For example, it's one thing to show that the inventor of technology A was actually an apprentice or brother-in-law to the person who funded the development of technology B. That's a connection, or may be. However, to say that the inventor of technology A lived in the same city as the inventor of technology B, within the same fifty year period, well, that's not necessarily proof they were connected at all, right?

That said, it has his trademark wit, and has enough coverage of broad subject matter that you might find an interesting bit of history to go research further. I recommend it only to the most die-hard Burke fans. Otherwise, start with some of his more famous work.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book Review: The Post-American World

I listened through The Post-American World in audio form during a drive up to Seattle and back, and then finished it off during this week's commute.

The author talks about the rise of, well, everyone, but in particular China and India, and how this results not in America's downfall, but in the inevitable erosion of America's leadership as everyone else catches up. He compares and contrasts this with the fall of the British empire and other periods of history. Plenty of interesting history here, and also large numbers of impressive statistics and anecdotes to drive home the scale of Chinese and Indian growth (in case you don't already get it).

There's a prescriptive close to the book that is a little dated (I think it was written 'pre-Obama', but published post-Obama) but mostly still holds. It should be mandatory reading for everyone in government!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Scooby dooby..... BRAAAAIIIINNNSSS!

I scored this awesome t-shirt:

Umm.... hello? Are you an indie developer looking to get noticed? If ever there was a L4D mod crying out to be made....

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Good Documentary on The Silver Ball

I recently watched TILT: The Battle to Save Pinball [Official site here], a documentary about the decline of pinball, of Williams (the industry's leading manufacturer), and of the effort to save the industry through one last big R&D project.

I really liked it on a number of levels.

First off, it was really fun to see the design process behind the games themselves. Seeing footage of these guys storyboarding out designs, laying out playing fields in cad packages, considering technology tradeoffs, etc. This was all really cool. Very similar to what we see in game design, but with a tangible, physical element that we don't have (except maybe at Harmonix?)

Secondly, it was humbling - and maybe a little frightening - to see how quickly the industry declined. Many assume it was videogaming's introduction that lead to pinball's downfall. That certainly was a factor, but for several years pinball continued to grow even at the height of the arcade boom. So there are other factors we can learn from, and that have some similarity to games - concentration on few genres/themes, viewing big licenses as an excuse for poor gameplay, increasing complexity to win the hardcore consumer may have frightened off newcomers, etc. The footage of pinball trade shows at their high look an awful lot like E3 does today. Most of those attending didn't realize they'd be out of a job in a few short years.

Highly recommended for anyone in the games industry and/or those who grow up pumping quarters into Black Knight, High Speed, and others.

[Update: A friend was in town for a visit so we dropped by Ground Kontrol. Shame on me for having been here over a decade and never set foot in it before! Anyhow, I got to play Revenge from Mars, the first game based on the Pinball 2000 machine/platform. Its pretty rad but definitely not for pinball purists. The reflected video overlay is pretty neat but is distracting from the ball and playfield underneath. It feels like they could have done something like painted the playfield a dark color in order to light up just the ball, so that the ball's location would come through clearly. Anyhow, if you ever see one, give it a go. Piece of history!]

Friday, December 4, 2009

Hey Wait! I've heard that before!

I subscribe to a podcast of famous speeches, and today was listening to General MacArthur's "Duty, Honor, Country" speech given at Westpoint in 1962. Transcript here.

Man, it's awesome. The guy spoke with some serious gravitas. memory's eye I could see those staggering columns of the First World War, bending under soggy packs, on many a weary march from dripping dusk to drizzling dawn, slogging ankle-deep through the mire of shell-shocked roads, to form grimly for the attack, blue-lipped, covered with sludge and mud, chilled by the wind and rain, driving home to their objective, and for many, to the judgment seat of God.
To the judgement seat of God. Wow.

Worth reading AND listening to.

I might be the last person to realize this (I am Canadian after all, and most of my history has to do with the catholic church, maple syrup and trapping beavers) but it was pretty apparent that the speech was the inspiration for the famous Nicholson speech from A Few Good Men courtroom scene. Shortened Hollywood style, of course:

We use words like "honor," "code," "loyalty." We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punch line.

Duty, Honor, Country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.

Unhappily, I possess neither that eloquence of diction, that poetry of imagination, nor that brilliance of metaphor to tell you all that they mean.

The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase. Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character, will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised of the source of inspiration, but I thought it was interesting.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Book Review: What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures

One of the downsides of committing to writing reviews of the books I read is that people then know what you read; and in some circles, admitting you read Gladwell's work is a little like admitting take your relationship advice from Dr Laura or your financial advice from that button-happy dude on Fox.

Gladwell's been criticized for presenting data either selectively or out of context to support very provocative ideas, presenting these ideas in a science-ish fashion, and then responding to critics with 'hey, I'm just a writer' attitude.

However, if you don't take his writing as science, if you take it as only provocative ideas, then I think he makes for good reading.

I'm a contrarian by nature and so I do like the idea of questioning fundamental assumptions, long-held behaviors and beleifs and the like.

His other books use numerous cases to support a single idea (Tipping Point, Outliers...). What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures is a collection of his pieces from The NewYorker, each exploring different ideas.

In these pieces, he takes us for a romp through the history of hair-dye marketing, gourmet ketchup market realities, questions the science behind FBI profiling, and much more.

As promised, many provocative ideas that should stir your mind. Just be sure to question his science as he does that of others.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

iPhone TouchPets post-mortem talk at PAGDIG

Last night's PAGDIG meet-up had Andrew Stern (Catz, Babyz, Facade) of Stumptown Game Machine give a talk about the development of TouchPets Dogs for iPhone. Good talk and I took some notes. Here they are.

TouchPets Dogs is an iphone-based, modernized take on the 'pet simulator' genre that Stern gave birth to with Dogz and Catz back in 1995. Not surprising that when NGMoco wanted to do a game along these lines, they came to find The Man :-). The game uses a business model that is kind of a hybrid of pay-to-play and pay-for-upgrades, and indeed they are evolving the business model on the fly based on performance. It also uses gesture input, accelerometers and all the usual iPhone platform candy.

Ok, so, notes [with added commentary in braces]

  • Probably among the largest and most ambitious iPhone projects done to date. 12 months, 5-6 people full time, 8-10 people part time, plus 4-6 people part time at the publisher [using a rate for a mid-range studio of 8-10k/man month, this ballparks the development budget at somewhere between 850k to 1.3M(!) not counting NGMoco's costs, marketing, etc. That certainly is higher than even the high-end stuff we're seeing on iPhone today, that has a feel of "few hundred k". Even if the studio was cheaper than my estimate, it almost certainly wasn't under, what, 700k?]
  • This was about 2X the scope and time of what was originally proposed, as publisher kept growing scope and ambition of the project. Server complexity, social elements, in-game transactions...
  • Great things to say about NGMoco as a publisher. Supportive of them doing what they wanted in the game, kept them funded as scope grew, great relationship with Apple, etc
  • The game is a pet simulator, but has heavy focus on stats (to involve more 'gamer types'), careers, stories/missions, a social network, facebook connection, inter-pet relationships between players, in-game transactions.
  • 850k people have downloaded and connected. Peak server load has been about 25k people. Game is only periodically connecting, so that means "some number more than 25k" playing simultaneously [100k?]
  • Dogs go to sleep if not fed. Need to buy bowls of food to keep them away. Amounts to pay-to-play. Some user backlash to this, looking at maybe shifting toward free to play (and keep playing) but premium items/missions/etc are for pay.
  • Push notification if your dog gets lonely [does this translate to "come feed me money!" :-)]
  • All attributes to cost, rate of decay, etc, etc are all on server, so they can evolve over time despite clients in the wild.
  • Uses NGMoco's Plus+ network, which was good to get a community aware of the game and quicker to connect.
  • Online infrastructure complicated and tricky. Communications between their server, Apples for appstore/transactions, NGMoco's Plus+network. As scope grew, server grew wicked complicated (e.g. needed to do sharding, manage issues with players with 500 friends inviting them all for playdates, etc)
  • Graphics: All in OGL 1.1, no realtime lighting, 3000-5000 polys/frame max, 2 textures only. "I think iPhone is more powerful than the Wii"
  • Used no engine, but lots of sample code from PowerVR SDK
  • Can't mix all Apple's really good UI with OGL, so if you want UI in your game, have to build it yourelf [seems like a middleware opportunity here. Do a exact copy of all Apple's UI functionality in GL]
  • Did some easy physics (ball collision, etc). Cartoon physics: Throw frisbee off left side of screen, it wraps around and flies in from right. Move viewpoint over to where the wall is though, and THEN it collides with wall rather than wrapping.

What went wrong:

  • Product spec always changing
  • Complexity of system grew beyond means of core team
  • iTunes rules and constraints - moving target plus they were pushing the envelope here*

* [lots of questions and talk about this afterward. One of the challenges being echoed from XBLA, then iphone, and now Facebook. High dependence on single gatekeeper, with no commit from gatekeeper on how policies/APIs will change, whether notice will be given, etc. People are betting their companies on stuff that can be pulled out from under them with hous notice]

What went right:

  • Good team
  • Just enough time, budget, freedom given by NGMOco to actually build a great game
  • iPhone as a platform is wonderful. great simulator, powerful, somewhat challenging to fit everything on a small screen

It was a good talk and we went over to Stumptown's studio afterward for a release party, complete with snack foods served on dogfood bowls. Woof!