Tuesday, December 25, 2012

I am learning to hate holidays

Alright, I'm going to violate the second biggest taboo in America.  And I am going to be direct and up front about it.

Holidays suck.  Royally and completely.

Supposedly, Holidays are supposed to be fun and relaxing.  A time to recharge from the pressures of day to day survival.  The reality though is that in middle class america, they are nothing of the kind.

Instead, Holidays are a mess of additional expectations, all of which are more stress, not less.

Relatives expect you to make a pointless phone call and/or send a meaningless Hallmark card.  (Good marketing on Hallmark's part, I'll grant them that), just to prove you care about them.  And heaven help you if you don't.  Its like somehow every other day of the year, they can accept on faith you love them but on a Holiday,all of a sudden you need to prove it.  Over and over again.  Are we all really that insecure in our relationships?  If so, there are deeper problems then missing a holiday call.

Then there's the "holiday guest".  Well, that should be fun right? Except that it comes will all these expectations that somehow, the way you live is unfit for your guests to see and you have to turn your home into a hotel and/or banquet hall.  More work, more expectations, more stress.

Like so many of us right now, I am working on a contract.  That means a holiday doesn't even mean time off.  Either I work when everyone around me isn't, or I suffer a big hit in my budget.  Tell me THAT doesn't add stress.

I know I am not alone in this situation.  Any psychologist will tell you that stress-induced symptomology peaks during holidays.  This has been known for a long time.

If you want to truly give me or someone else a holiday gift this year, then just send a note that says, "Its okay.  I know you love me and you don't need to prove it with calls and cards.  I know you are a busy person and its okay, you don't have to spend days rearranging your lifestyle if I come for a visit. I want to see YOU, not your house."

We work too hard during the rest of the year in this country to turn Holidays into a sleeves rolled up race to impress each other.

What I really want a holiday from, is stress.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Look over there!

The NRA is playing the right's favorite game right now, trying to blame the Newton shooting on video games.  Ed Asner summed up this debate by scape-goat approach nicely as "Look Over There!" in the video Tax the rich

The thing is, even if you buy this ludicrous argument, it makes no internal sense.
30% of America plays video games.  Therefor, by their own logic, 30% of america cannot be trusted with a firearm.

How do they propose to deal with this?  (Do the words "Gun Control" perhaps spring to mind?)

I smell a whiff of desperation in all of this.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What your grandparents knew about job hunting

This article is for all the kids struggling to find their first career jobs right now.

Its hard, I know that.  I don't envy you this economy.  Those of use with more then 10 years of experience are having to settle for longer hunt periods and fall-backs in our careers.  And all that puts a certain degree of pressure on your end, the entry level.  When fewer people are moving up, or even moving backwards, fewer entry positions are available.

The good news at least is that you are post baby boomers, which means you actually have less competition from your own generation then we did. But its IS still a competition.  As boomers, we knew that. We knew that there were going to be many more applicants then positions and we fought for those positions.  Here are some things we knew that you should, if you don't...

(1) Most jobs go unadvertised.
I can't stress how important this first one is.  If all you are doing is sending in resumes in response to job advertisements you are missing most of the  opportunities.

Here's the reality as it always has been:  I graduated in the 80s, a supposed "boom" time, with a degree in computer graphics.  On my graduation, my father handed me a copy of   S Klien directory of Computer Graphics companies.  This was a book that listed every company doing work related to computer graphics in the world at the time.  I went through the entire book and compiled a mailing list of 60 companies that were doing what I wanted to do and sent them cover letters and resumes.  From that, I got 4 contacts, 3 interviews and eventually 2 job offers.

Similar books are available for every industry.  The reference librarian at your local library can help you  find the right one or ones for you.

(2) You need to go where the job is
As a young person this is your most important asset.  You do not yet have deep ties to any community. (You might think you do but trust me, those aren't ties.  Those are just fears of change.  Ties come later when you start having responsibilities to children to keep them in good schools, and such.)

Of the two offers I got right out of college, the one I took was in Milano, Italy and I've never been sorry I had that experience.  During the first decade of my career my wife and I packed up and moved no less then 5 times.  And all but one of those moves we moved ourselves.

Don't just look at the want ads where you live.  Figure out what other communities are centers for your profession and read the Sunday paper for those communities every Sunday at the library.  (Again the librarians can help you find the right ones.  You will find that is a recurring theme in this article.)

(3) The most important document to you is the job advert and your most important document to provide is your cover letter
Lets face it, your resume straight out of school is going to impress no one.  You haven't had enough time to develop a unique career that tells a story so you must tell the story to the person reading it.  Thats what your cover is for.

You should tear apart the advertisement for every ounce you can get from of it as to what they are  looking for.  Your cover letter should then sell you as what they are  looking for by drawing every connection you can between what you have done and are  interested in and what they want to find.

(4) Job hunting is sales
The product you are selling is you.  Your goal in your interview is to get them excited about you as a potential employee.  A good way to do that is to show excitement about what THEY are doing.  I will always chose someone who I believe has a genuine interest in what we are doing over someone who may have more technical skills but seems bored or uninterested in our goals.

A good way to show that interest is to do research before the face to face interview.  The good news is that this has never been easier.  Go on  the web and spend an afternoon googling the company and what has been written by us or about us.  If you don't have internet access... again the library does.

When you do the phone screen, always close by asking the interviewer at least one well thought out question about the company and what you can read between that and your face to face interview to better prepare.  Then follow through and do it.  (For my third job, the only document available was a $100 operating system manual set.  I bought a copy and had them read cover to cover by the time I did my face to face.)

You need to want the job AND you need to have a reason to want it other then the pay-check that you can communicate to me.  We all know you need the pay-check, but that won't distinguish you from anyone else.

(5) Create unique value
What do you do on your free time and how does it add to your employability?

I have always had my own programming projects that I pursue on my own time to add to my skill set and give me things to show and talk about above and beyond my primary work.  In the beginning, this augmented my resume and experience beyond others who just had coursework.  Later in my career, this made me an early expert in all sorts of technologies that became important.

Computer games are great fun, but about the only thing playing them will qualify you for is maybe a game tester position.  And there isn't much difference in someone who plays them 5 hours a week and someone who plays them 50 as far as tester qualifications go.  (Frankly, analysis and communication skills are  more important for a tester so if you really want to be a game tester, don't spend your time playing games.  Play them enough to analyze them then spend your time blogging about them.)

If you can't find a job for pay in your field, can you do something professional for anyone who has a company in return for a good reference?  When I was in college I did some side programing projects for my parents' writing company.  As it happens, my step-dad has a different last name then i do.

Guess who my first professional reference was?  I was guaranteed it would be a good one, and it was perfectly legitimate as I had in fact done the work.

(6) Small companies are easier to get into then big ones
If you have your heart set on Google or Facebook right out of college, reset your expectations.  Most new jobs are created in startups and other small companies.  You also will have a chance to learn more and shine out more as an individual in a small company which will help you build your career.  Yes, you will probably work harder, but it will pay off later.

(7) Big company HR departments are the enemy
The HR people may be very nice.  And when they come to your college you should definitely talk to them.  And send them your stuff.

BUT you need to understand that HR never hired anyone (other then HR people). Hiring decisions are made by hiring managers.  HR exists to take the flood of resumes in the door and throw out as many as possible to create a manageable number for the manager to look at.  The thing is HR generally doesn't actually know very much about what the job really entails so they end up using set formulas and checklists and throw away many viable candidates.

Salesmen know that you need to reach the decision maker to make a sale. Do you want to be thrown out before you ever reach him or her? If not, do everything you can to find out who the hiring managers are and how to contact them and send your stuff BOTh to HR and directly to them.  (Again, the internet can be a big help here.  All you need is a name, title and email and you are golden.)

My older brother has worked for IBM for 35 years.   He still has, framed on his wall, the rejection letter IBM HR sent him two weeks AFTER he had already been hired by his first IBM boss.

(8) Job hunting has always been hard
Your degree is your qualification to enter the race, not a ticket to winning it.   Be smart and work hard and it will pay off.  But don't think its over with your first job.  A career is built out of blood, sweat and tears.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

More evidence of weakness in the F2P space

As the numbers dribble out, we are seeing what a few of us already understood in our gut-- that squeezing blood from a stone is a lousy way to try to make money.

"Of the $50 billion that was spent worldwide last year on games, less than 10 percent was spent on casual content. "

Only 10% of the industry's $50 billion comes from casuals

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Myth of the Generous Rich

The latest myth the right wing is trying to spread is the justification that, far from being selfish-bastards, the rich are wonderful benefactors of humanity.  Their favorite statistic they like to pull out is this one:


See, they say?  We give a higher percentage of our GDP in charity then anyone else.  We're generous!
Furthermore,  those countries with higher taxes give less, therefor we'd be less generous if we had higher taxes!

Mark Twain said that there are three kinds of lies, "Lies, damn lies and statistics" and this argument certainly qualifies as a statistical lie.

Imagine for a moment, that there are two people in the economy.  Joe Richer and Jay Poorer.  It takes 30% of the total pie for Joe Richer or Jay Poorer to have everything they need or want.  How much is available to give away without feeling the effects if they each have 50%.  The answer is 40%, right? each has 20% surplus.

Now, lets suppose Joe has 90% and Jay has 10%?  How much can Jay give away? Obviously nothing, he's below the poverty line.  But Joe can give away 60% without feeling it.  Thats more then the 40% above. A lot more.

The fact of the matter is, the more uneven the distribution of wealth, the more surplus the rich have to give away.  But they get that surplus at the expense of the poor.  If this analysis is correct, you would expect the US to also have a very high poverty rate to go along with that charitable giving number above, and we do.  The worst in the developed world.

The Poor in Developed Countries - The United States(libraryindex.com)

If the rich were really generous, they would do something about this. Instead, they and their representatives fight for an ever increasing part of the pie in terms of lower taxes.  A few do fight that trend,  the true patriots who want to help their fellow Americans in a meaningful way.  But alas the Bill Gates' and Warren Buffet's of the world are few and far between.

The final part of this lie of course is the statistic that those developed countries with higher taxes have lower charitable giving.  What it does not do is correlate that to the actual *need* in those countries.  They all have far lower poverty levels and far lower need for charity.

When we were kids, if we bought a candy bar with a friend, and he said "give me the whole bar so I can be generous and give you back what I don't want" we wouldn't take that deal.  Its amazing how easy it is to confuse many people into exactly that deal once they have grown up.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Queue the theme from Exodus

Hidden in an article about Ubisoft possibly buying THQ and their Wii U play, I found this nugget from the head of Ubi...

"We've had more difficulty with Facebook in the past couple of years," he says. "It was a good business, but it has shrunk a bit. And it became a more complex and expensive business to run. We had opportunities with other areas, so we said we should concentrate on those that are growing faster."


Mark Ubisoft as the first major publisher to formally announce a retreat from the Facebook/F2P model now that the true revenues are becoming apparent.  I am sure they won't be the last.

Monday, November 5, 2012

What's wrong with Bush/Romney economics

Less then  hours before the polls open, I want to take a moment to address the most prevalent myth in American  politics today:  that cutting government deficit spending is somehow good for job creation and the average American's wallet.

The fallacy generally employed in this argument is the seeming common sense rule,"we as a society are hurting so we as a society must tighten our belts."  If there is one thing I have seen in life it is that common sense, while often common, is seldom actually sensical.  This is no exception.

The problem with this logic is that it confuses two totally opposite sides of the economic system; the private sector and the public sector.  The private sector includes all the money you and I spend.  The public sector is government spending.  And they aren't the same, not unless you force a balanced governmental budget, which is precisely the wrong thing to do because it eliminates all the power of the public sector to help the private sector.

The clearest explanation I have seen is this:

Imagine for a moment an economy of just two people-- Joe Public and Jane Private.  Joe Public takes money from Jane Private and spends money on Jane Private.

What happens, then, if Joe Public takes more money from Jane Private then he spends  on her?  Jane has less money to spend on herself.  Thats pretty obvious right?  Thats what our government does to us when it taxes more then it spends, it takes money out of our pockets.

What about the reverse?  What happens when Joe Public takes less money from Jane Private then he spends on her?  The answer should also be plain and obvious, Jane has more money to spend then before.  Thats what our government does when it deficit spends, it puts money into our pockets.  Its effectively a large interest-free loan from the government directly to the private sector in the form of government jobs and purchased goods and services.

Now, the government cannot deficit spend forever.  It must make that money up eventually, but the time to do that is when the people can afford to have some extra money come out of their pockets-- not when they can't.

Deficit spending does have one other effect-- it stimulates inflation.  Inflation however, is not necessarily a bad thing for the American people.  Inflation is only bad for the working class when it rises faster then income, and the whole point of this exercise is that it will create job growth and raise income.

Inflation IS bad for people who are sitting on piles of cash doing nothing-- which currently describes major corporations and the so called 1%.   This is one of the big reasons they are against anything that might be inflationary.  But, again, that inflation is actually good for the working and middle class because it forces those large money reserve holders to put their reserves back to work into the general money supply creating jobs and again raising salaries.

So, when you go to the polls, ask yourself how more massive cutting of government spending will really help any of us?  Its not like there isn't already a practical example.  We've seen how much it has "helped" Greece...

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

GW2 Update

Well, I hit level 70 last night.  It was my goal to hit before hurricane Sandy cut power on us (which ended up happening only for about a minute.)

Within 10 levels of end-game, I have to say, I'm enjoying GW2 a lot.  It has broken a few of my prejudices/experiences of the past.

Whereas most pay-to-play MMORPGs have really had a sudden drop in average user base maturity and intelligence when they go F2P I am actually finding a stronger game community in general and Roleplay community in specific in GW2.  GW2 is not without its bozos, but as in any other MMROPG liberal use of /ignore pretty much fixes that issue.  (They really Do need to add an option to have /ignore also block emotes and emote animations however as I've already seen examples of emote greifing. )

The game is interesting in that it has both casual and hardcore elements.  Many (though not all) of the story encounters are almost effortlessly beatable, particularly at the later levels.  The dungeon crawls however are all very tough and require teamwork and persistence.  The "world quests" are really well thought through and developed and may be some of the most fun parts of the game.

The barbieing support is probably the most limited part of the game right now, but maybe that will be filled out in the later expansions.

All in all, im having as much fun as I have in any pay-to-play MMORPG.  That may or may not be a good thing, but I already covered that concern  in my last blog.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A current fear...

or "where has all the money gone."

I just did a very interesting and enjoyable phone interview with ArenaNet, the makers of Guild Wars.  I can't talk about the details because they are confidential.  I do think they are both very smart and very capable game developers and they really want whats best for the consumer.

They have convinced me that their "no monthly fee" model for GW2 can work.
My ongoing concern however is "how well"?  ArenaNet themselves admit it isn't the cash cow that a monthly fee is.  Now your first reaction might be "Good, if they can operate with less of my money then its good I don't have to pay them more."  Thats a natural consumer reaction.  We bristle at the idea that others are making a lot more money from us then it costs for them to do what they do.

However, my concern is this.  Games are not utility monopolies like the power company.  The power company can run a thin margin because they know, with absolute certainty, that in a given area X number of people will be their customers.  There is low risk and thus they can survive  on a thin margin stream because they know they will always be getting it.

When it comes to games however, the reverse is true.  The risk is very high.  They cost a lot to make and the return is not in any way shape or form guaranteed. A lot of games *lose* money.  To have a healthy industry the ones that make money must make enough to cover the losses.  Ina  sense, when you pay $15.00 a month for WOW you are also paying for all the MMORPGs that failed.  Without that high profit margin, the first failure kills the game company.  Without the potential for a high return, no one sane would take the risks of failure that exist.

ArenaNet is in a blessed position right now. As the only serious hardcore MMORPg with no monthly fee they are dominating the field and making a lot of money still off their lower margin.  In the process though they are teaching the audience to expect lower margins, which lowers the total amount of money available for new games in the industry.

When ArenaNet is no longer a monopoly in the "no-fee hardcore MMORPG" space, will they still be able to survive on those margins?  And how much room is there really for other players given the reduced total income of the industry under this model?

Only time will tell, but as someone with a love of the industry who wants to see more risks taken, not fewer, it does scare me a bit.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Even Zynga isn't the next Zynga

The inherent weakness of Zynga's micro-transaction based revenue model, that I reported on when they went public, is showing its ugly head in ways even the blindest MT advocates can't ignore:


As a recap, I explained the inherent fallacy in Zynga's "squeeze blood from a  stone" model here:


And noted their inherent financial weakness way back when they released pre-IPO numbers here and here:


You can expect to hear a lot of sudden back-peddling among the MT faithful who, for a long time, held Zynga up as the shining example of how the model could be successful.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

GuildWars2 .. at least 2 good games

I've been playing GuildWars2 for a few days now and my impression is that its a good game.  In fact. its at least two good games.  And this could be an issue....

What I mean by that is that I've started two characters.  One is a Human guardian and the other is an Asura engineer, and the experiences seem totally different.  The first big difference  is art style.  My human is done in a fairly realistic if idealized art style.  Its not Age of Conan realistic, but its not that far off.  She moves like I expect a human to move and her environment while again a bit idealized is fairly realistic.  The challenges she faces are the typical fantasy bandits and monsters and evil plotting politicians.

On the other hand my Asura is in that cartoony style WoW made popular.  He moves with floppy exaggerated cartoon motions and gestures and his environment looks and feels like a 3D version of your typical platform game.  The challenges he's faced so far also more over the top and feel much more like a cartoon or plat former.  A simon-ish puzzle.  An experimental golem gone berserk, and so on,.

Now, both of these are reasonable artistic choices, what I am not sure about is the decision to put both in the same game.  Im dubious these two styles really mix in an immersive, roleplayed way.  Time will tell if I'm right or not.

Other then that, GW2 really is a tour de force of non-subscription game making.  If you had any inkling of the technology at play, The primarily P2P internals of the original GW really showed in its structures and limits.  It was pretty clearly chat room arenas connected by small group quests.  It was also hacked to hell, because thats the inherent weakness of a P2P game.  Any game play controlled by the client can be hacked by the user.

On the other hand GW2 does a good job of feeling like an open world game.  Even when you are forced into over-flow instances, that's only obvious because it tells you so.  Whether or not its more secure, again time will tell.

This is not to say the game is not having its teething issues.  They reserved social clothes to the cash store.  An annoying roleplayer tax but one that can be lived with if you aren't otherwise paying monthly fees.  However, right now that store contains a few silly costumes and thats it.  if they want that to drive sales they are going to need to provide much wider selections.  Secret World right now has a much greater selection then that, and it still feels quite limited.

Its also unclear right now if there are adequate mechanisms for encouraging group play and, quite frankly, Ive soloed so far.  My only group play being world-events where other happen to be joining in. And that sort of grouping is of minimal interest to a roleplay oriented player.

So, my ballot is still open on GW2.  Its engaging me reasonably in early play while I am figuring the mechanics out. We will see if it lasts after that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Why microtransactions aren't razorblades

When you give something away so you can sell the customer something else, that give-away is called a "loss-leader."  When  discussing loss-leaders what is mentioned most often is razors and razor blades.  Razors are effectively given away so the razor blade company can sell you the blades.  More recently, we've seen the same model in ink-jet printers where the printer is sold near cost or even potentially at a loss to lock you into buying the same company's ink cartridges.

This has been so successful in razor blades and ink cartridges, you might think its an argument for the micro-transaction model in games.  But its not.

The thing about a razor is that it is worthless unless you keep buying razor blades at regular intervals.  Furthermore, those blades are quite expensive compared to their manufacturing costs.  There is a lot of pure profit in the razor blade price and you pay it because, basically, you have to.

The same thing is true of that printer.  Anyone who has gone out to buy new ink for one knows that it isn't cheap.  And the printer company tries its best to force you to buy new cartridges, these days a significant part of the technology of such a printer is dedicated to making cartridges "burn out" when they are empty so you can't refill them.  Refills hurt the sales of expensive new cartridges and would drive the price down if it was a common occurrence.

Another example of a loss-leader today is the cell-phone.  It is sold to you at a loss to drive subscription to high profit margin phone services.  Thats why they lock you in for two years of service-- that ensures their profit.  If you try to cancel early, you have to pay back the part of the phone cost that was subsidized.  if you want another phone, you have to wait til the expected profit was made on this one.

The big thing to notice in all of these is that they all are lock-ins.  If you don't spend the money on the renewables, you lose the value of the freebie.  They are also all regular periodic sales.  In effect, they are disguised service subscriptions.  You pay for your shaving service by buying new blades.  You pay for your printer service by buying new cartridges.  (The phone deal is actually not disguised, but you get the idea.)  And that service is not cheap.

The inventors of the Microtransaction model missed this very important point.  The micro-transaction model for games gives away value in the hopes that people will want to buy "accessories" but it does not lock them into buying those accessories.  Furthermore, those accessories, since they arent necessary for the core experience, actually have to be priced very low in order to sell any at all.

And this is why Zynga is tanking and Schick has been in business for almost 100 years.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Stop the Madness

This is an appeal to an industry. An industry I love.  And an industry that I think is marching itself to destruction.

I am going to make a statement and then explain why I believe it is true:

"Free to play" is the worst thing that has happened to online games in its short history.

Why is this true?  It is true because there is a well known psychological factor in sales.  No one really knows what anything should cost.  Therefor their perception of value is built by outside factors.

 Every direct sales pitch you have probably ever seen somewhere has the line similar to this: "You would pay xxx if you payed full price..."  In sales this is called "anchoring."   Its establishing the value in the mind of the customer.

When we take a project that cost tens of millions of dollars to create and say, "its FREE!" we are doing the same thing, but in the wrong direction. We are establishing that the value is zero.  And spending tens of millions of dollars developing an artifact with a street value of zero is not very good business.

Once you have established that the value of something is zero in the minds of your customers, you can never go back. People will accept reduced prices easily, but increases create great customer dissatisfaction.  Microsoft fell prey to this mistake.  You might not be old enough to remember this, but there was a time when we paid for internet play.  In fact, there was a time when we payed by the hour  and it wasn't cheap.  Microsoft invented the idea of "free online play" a decade ago when they introduced Direct Play and encouraged game developers to give away internet play for free.   But it wasn't until Blizzard shipped Diablo with free internet play that it became a reality.

Microsoft and Blizzard made it impossible to charge for internet play of traditional packaged games because they had taught PC players it was worth nothing.  Ironically, Microsoft themselves were hoist by their own petard a decade later when they tried to get people to pay $50.00 a year for PC Live.  It was the same service as XBox Live, which people gladly pay for. The difference is that no one had set the expectation on game consoles that internet play was free.  Same service, different history, different valuation by the customer.

The flood of "f2p" conversions of high development cost MMORPGs right now is doing the same thing. It is teaching customers that the only thing that has value is being an early adopter, and many of them don't see enough value in that alone to do it.  On the release of a new MMORPG now, the most commonly heard meme is "I'll wait til it goes f2p."

And this is robbing the industry of the income necessary to create such games.  If it doesn't change, the entire segment is likely to go the way of the dodo, replaced with content made so cheaply that they can actually make a profit of some kind this way. (* cough cough zynga games cough cough*).  To understand why the economics don't work its necessary to go deeper into what f2p is and isn't.

"f2p" is actually an empty market buzzword, so I would like to take a moment to draw a distinction.  There are free trials ("freemium") and there are micro-transaction based income models. Free trials have always been a part of the industry.   It goes back to the shareware days.   You got a limited sample of your content distributed to lost of people in the hope that some of them would buy the full package.  This act of becoming a paying customer  is called "conversion" in the industry.

In order for this to pay however, you need to keep what the non-converted cost to you low.  The cheaper your distribution costs, the more this made sense,   Shareware counted on our users and bulletin boards to distribute the free trial for us.  In this day of rampant broadband, we can do the same thing direct to our user.  But, again, I stress, the key is to keep what the unbuying users cost you near zero, because thats a loss on your balance sheet.

If a user is going to hang around burning systems resources forever then they become a significant loss over time  And if you need to keep a team of developers feeding them content in the hopes that they might convert that ups the loss.  This is the inherent fallacy in any "f2p" model on a  game with a  significant server back-end.  Its not like shareware because non-paying customers aren't free to the game developer.  The only way to make freemium really work in a connected model is to drive away those customers that aren't going to convert so they don't cost you ongoing resources.

Microtransactions are based  on the idea that, rather then getting all the money upfront, you bring the customer in and extract in drips and drabs.  The problem with this is really pretty simple, it doesn't work. Not at the same level.  Again going back to sales psychology, salesmen know that the hardest part of any sale is getting the customer past the buying decision.  We instinctively shy away from it.  Its the only irrevocable decision in the transaction and, as long as we haven't made it yet, we sill have options.

The theory behind microtransactions is that you eliminate the buying decision getting the customer in the door.  And indeed not charging a fee to get in does that.  The problem is that it replace that one big buying decision with many many small ones, and each one brings back the psychological barriers.  The result is that, to reach Zynga's level of success, requires a constant re-sellign to the customer.  This puts the focus of game development on selling, not entertainment and creates what I call "gamevertisements", not games.  (Even at that level Zynga has only managed to squeeze out a gross income of about $3.00 a year per person, net of $1.00.)  And remember, these users are still costing you resources whether they buy or not.

If we don't want this to be the only online industry we have, our only other option is to push back now, hopefully before its too late.  Resist the temptation to jump to f2p when a game doesn't hit huge right off the bat.  F2P may have a place, but only on the waning tail of the typical bell curve an online game goes through.  Cut-outs should be routinely discounted.  But if virtually new product is routinely discounted, that just becomes the new price.

I love the online space. I love multi=player games.  To me they have a lot more value then single player games.  Certainly they cost more to produce.  And a world where we still charge a reasonable amount for single player games, but people expect online multiplayer to be free, is a world that soon will not have  any online multiplayer.  The economics dictate that.

WoW spoiled us, and damaged us, by making us think that to be "successful" you need a ton of players.  In a bottom-line industry, Zynga/Facebook hype distracted us by focusing our attention on huge crowds of players, not the bottom line.  (As prooved by the revelation that Zynga grossed about $3.00 a year per person at its height, and the tumble both Zynga and Facebook took once they went public and had to actually reveal their bottom lines.)

If MMORPGs are going to continue to develop and deepen, rather then regressing to the cheapest possible content to produce conversions, we need to get away from that thinking.  We need to accept that a mature market splits into segments.  The good news is that tighter, more specialized segments are more willing to pay for content that addresses them specifically.  We can build Yugos, or we can build Volvos. But, if we continue to tell the market that Volvos are only worth  a Yugo price, our ability to sell Volvos will go away and all that will be left for anybody are the Yugos.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Hail mary full of... whoops

In football a "hail mary play" is an act of desperation.  With no other options available, the carrier throws the ball as far as he can up into the air and down the field in the hopes and prayers that another team-mate will get underneath and catch it.  Its called a "hail mary" play because completing it is more or less an act of god.

I've said for a long time that "going f2p" on a game that was designed and executed based on a subscription model is the "hail mary" play of the MMORPG industry.  It is good to generate some momentary noise and excitement, but ultimately its a shot in the dark with a slim chance of being a game changer.  Its throwing away the ball you have in your hand because you know it wont save you in the hopes and prayers that someone down field will catch it and save the day.

A hail mary play on rare occasion saves the game, but usually its just a more spectacular way of losing. And this is just as true in the field of F2P conversions as it is in the field of football.

In particular, NCSoft totally failed to get a receiver under the ball for their game City of Heroes.

And now the game is over.


City of Children

So, NCSoft announced that they are shutting down City of Heroes at the end of the year, and the users are holding a mass tantrum right now in the Atlas Park zone.


I always knew that MMORPG players as a group reflected the bell curve, but i never quite realized how low on the emotional and intellectual development curve the hump really is.

NCSoft is a business, they are shutting down CoH for a very simple reason-- it costs more for them to run then it brings in in revenue.  This is not a hard concept. In business: profit good, loss bad.

Clearly the existing CoH community was not spending enough money to allow for a profit. If they want to spend their last time in game listening to each other whine, I'm sure NCsoft is happy to let them do it.  But nothing that doesn't drastically change the finances is going to change the outcome.

Here are a few ideas that COULD actually change things:

(1) Get all these "protestors" to commit to and live up to a dollar figure purchase every month between now and the end of the year  If the game starts making money again, NCSoft will at least think about it more before shutting it down.

(2) En masse petition NCSoft to put BACK a monthly subscription fee, and all sign up for at least 3 months service.  Again, this would change the economics for NCsoft.

(3) Form a non-profit, raise a significant chunk of cash, and offer to buy the rights to run the servers from NCSoft.  You will then need to get them running on a cloud hoster, get volunteer manpower to administrate them, and collect  enough from your community to keep the servers running. (Hint: Charge them a monthly club-dues.  Sound familiar?)

You see the theme here.  All of these solutions cost money. Which is why they could work and why they wont happen. Whining however, costs nothing.  It also does nothing.

Edit A number of commentors have rather colorfully asked how I conclude that there was no profit in the game.  Besides the basic dictates of logic, no game company shuts down a profitable game, here is a cite for how badly it has performed this year:

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The best MMORPG you might not try...

I have been playing Secret World now since launch and I am afraid that, in the rush to compare numbers and the misinformation about them being propagated out there, you might not look at this game so I want to call out some reasons you should.

(1) The classless/level-less system actually works.
While it takes some practice or analytic skills to do good builds, it rewards that work with greater flexibility and depth of play.  Perhaps even more importantly, you don't have to go back to "first level" to create a second or third build.  You can use your existing build to quickly gather the points for that alternate build.

This does raise the question of "what good are alts"?  Frankly, the only reasons for alts I can see at this point are role-play reasons.  for that reason, Funcom might want to consider letting you "clone" your alts rather then starting from scratch again, but thats a small com,plaint over-all.

(2) The setting is really different and interesting.  If you are as tired as I am of men-in-tights games and teen-power-fantasy games, you might enjoy this too.  The real world setting brings a subtle level of connectedness that I think adds to the immersive feel of the game.  It is a dark and foreboding world where every time you turn around, there is some new horror awaiting.  It is a world that makes me feel small, which is a much more interesting feeling and lends a much greater feeling of accomplishment when I win out anyway.

(3) Raiding is integrated into the story flow
In a lot of recent MMORPGs, there have basically been two games.  The leveling game and then, when you are done with that, the raiding game.  This creates a number of subtle problems but the biggest one to me is that it takes what is often to me the most interesting part, the story driven leveling, and encourages people to rush through it to get to what, to me, is the least interesting part-- the repetitive raids.

TSW integrates the raid mechanic into your character progression.   There are "dungeons" in each major area of the game and spending some time in them equips you best for the are you are going to next.  This integrated "mini-raiding' mechanic I think works better then the aging "end-game raid" mechanic and keeps your focus centralized on the deep leveling content.

(4) The depth and breadth of play is phenomenal
This is the biggest thing for me.  The grind just doesn't feel like a  grind to me and this is because you are constantly being presented with new challenges that take new strategies to solve.  Although there are "kill X foozles" quests, the foozles look, feel and most importantly play differently from each other. I never get the feeling that a quest is there just to mechanically slow me down in progression, and thats what every other MMORPG I have played has felt like.

The story lines are deep, intertwined, and most importantly integrated with the play.  If you don't listen and think about the stories, you will find it very hard to play the game as the mechanics necessary are constantly shifting and the clues as to what you need to do are in the dialogues and descriptions.  TSW does the best job I have seen to date of being an action adventure game as opposed to a CRPG.  Although there are mechanics to optimize in terms of builds, and the requisite crafting and loot collecting, your most important attribute is the brain of the player.  I find this refreshing, exciting and incredibly immersive.

The number of story layers is also very impressive.  Every time I go back to an area I thought I was done with, I find plot threads I didn't pick up first time through to explore.  More then just "side quests" these deepen the world and my understanding of it.

To this, TSW adds multiple mission styles.  No longer is every mission a hack-a-thon.  Some missions are designed and flagged as "sneaky" missions.  Other missions are flagged as majoratively puzzle solving.  This labeling is more important then I would have initially thought.  i am not always in the same mood when I play and making it clear what kind of mission is what allows me to tailor my experience to where I am at the moment.

To sum it up, this is the first MMORPG I've played where play didn't end up feeling like boring, repetitive work.  Is it perfect?   Ofcourse not.  The "solo quests"have an annoying way of breaking up groups and in general, this game still suffers from the "how do I meet people" MMORPG problem.  Its still alot more a single player game then I would ultimately like my online worlds to be.  But its a major step fowards in  a lot of important ways.

Will this be "the next WoW"?  Its doubtful.  Even WoW isn't "the next WoW" anymore.  What I think we are seeing is an industry that is bifurcating. On one side are the cheaply produced/run mass market crud that can really be profitably off of the drips and drabs they can skim off the users.  On the other side we are seeing more niche products that give a smaller market a much deeper and richer experience-- one they can charge real money for.

For many reasons TSW is a niche product.  It requires too much thought and effort to play for the masses.  It doesn't serve the teen-age wish fulfillment market.  And it was a comparatively expensive game to produce and operate.  But it serves a niche well, and I think therefor long term is going to see greater retention of its paying user base.

And if this is a game space that interests you a all, you should at least give it a try.  (Funcom is currently running 3-day free trials.)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Congratulations to Funcom

The Secret World seems to have stabilized at a subscription population of 200,000 users.  There has been a lot of chatter in the press about this being "disappointing".  I couldn't disagree more.

What people seem to be totally forgetting is that, by the numbers at their height, a Zynga made a profit about $1/user/year on a gross of about $3.00/user/year. (As per their IPO documentation.) Secret World brings in a gross of $180/user/year just in subscriptions. So 200,000 subscription users is equivalent to 12,000,000 f2p users-- 3 million dollars a month of gross revenue. 

Thats quite a financial success, actually.

Editor Note: it has been correctly pointed out that this is a sold-through number, not a conversion number.  However its still impressive when you look at the fact that WoW only shipped 240,000 units when  it launched and a shipped number includes the units to fill the retail chain whereas a sold through number does not.  Conversion rate is not clear yet but based on user meta-critic scores Funcom is predicting a high conversion and retention rate.  http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2012-08-13-funcom-poor-metacritc-damaged-secret-world-performance

The market has clearly bifurcated.  The days of mass market product being able to charge a premium price are over.   As is *always* the case in the US market, the mass audience is happy to sacrifice quality for cost.  This is the "lowest common denominator" micro-transaction market where you have to keep cost per user very low in order to see any profit.

However, as usual, there are still premium niche markets in the US that are willing to pay a reasonable fee for content that is deeper, not annoying, and more tailored to their specific wants and desires.  Funcom has demonstrated that you can make a lot of money by successfully addressing one of these niches.

So congratulations to Funcom and thank you for not giving up on the quality market. I am sure they chuckling all the way to the bank at their nay-sayers.  If they don't say so publicly, do you blame them? the longer the industry keeps its jaundiced micro-transaction centric view, the longer they have these markets to themselves.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Why Romney's agenda will train wreck an already ailing economy

I'm not going to say anything, for a change. I'm going to let the experts speak for themselves.  I think Forbes magazine and Bloomberg News can hardly be dismissed as "liberal fanatics"...



Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Chick-fil-a Cow comes out

In a surprise announcement today, Morris, the Chick-fil-a spokescow came out.   "As part of the LGBT community, I felt I could no longer keep silent."  Says Morris, who is a pre-operative transexual and prefers to be called Molly.

"I still consider myself a good christian," says Molly, "who god just made a bit differently.  I still love Chick-fil-a and my employers unconditionally as a good christian should and it is my hope that will continue, but I could no longer live a lie."

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bust of the Kickstarter bubble and a better way to publish

I've been expecting an article like this for awhile. I am willing to lay money its only the first of many as people dig into the actual rate of return on Kickstarter projects...


The sad thing is, Kickstarter *does* point the way to a new and better way to do business in the entertainment industry in general, and video-games in particular.  Its just that Kickstarter isn't the right formula.

One of the big reasons videogames have gotten so expensive is that its a hits driven business.  Games that succeed do so handsomely, but many more fail swallowing up tens of millions of dollars in lost investment.  That money has to be made up somehow and you, the consumer,  pay for those losers every time you buy a game.  If we could lower risk, we could also lower price.

Now, game development is inherently a risky proposition in  of itself, but most game failures don't fail to ship, they just fail to be big enough hits to cover their expenses.  If the market could be pre-established, the game development could be tailored to fit the known return and risk could be drastically reduced.

Kickstarter is interesting because it shows that people are willing to commit upfront for a product they want.  Kickstarter's problem, as the link above discusses,  is that there is no guarantee in their model product pre-paid for is eventually delivered.  This is the achilles heal that is going to kill Kickstarter, or at least burst the momentary bubble its had.

i have worked for game  publishers and seen how the real game industry works from the inside,  So, here is my idea for a new publishing model that incorporates the best of what Kickstarter and traditional game publishing do.  Call it Electronic Arts II, but EA as it was intended to be-- a games version of United Artists, not the monolithic monster of traditional publishing the business-people turned it into.

(1) Publisher takes in proposals like any game publisher.  The publisher vettes them as they do today, looking with a well educated eye at the project's features, scope and the proposing team's track record.  Based on this the publisher assigns a risk %.  This percentage will be used further in the process.

(2) Assuming the proposal seems feasible, the publishers does not commit  millions as they do today.  Rather, then invest between $5,000 and $10,000 on a marketing campaign selling to pre-purchasers.  The money brought in this way is not spent, but placed in an escrow account as guaranteed sales when the project completes. If the project fails to complete, the pre-buyers all get their money back.  (This is the key difference from Kickstarter who washes their hands of the whole process as soon as the money comes in.)

(3) The publisher lends the developer a % of the money that has come in to develop with, based on the risk profile ascertained  in step 1.  The rest as held back as a form of self-insurance completion bond.  Should the developer fail to complete, the publisher has that money to complete the project on.  (This might be as much as 50% with a new unproven developer.) If the developer ships on budget, they get half the held back portion as a completion bonus.

(4) Publisher releases the game through electronic distribution and splits any further sales with the developer  at 50% of net.

I'd call this publisher "Player Made Games" and stress that part of the deal is that the developer involves the pre-buyers  in the development process with updates, feedback requests, and so forth.  All we would need to start this is some initial seed funding. If any Angels are our there who might want to try this, contact me as  I'd love to make it real.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

In a world without workers.... of what value is work?

A friend of a friend recently posted this discussion of what Google's experimental driverless car could mean to the future of the United States.  In general its a very rosy picture of the future, but the implications of one line jumped out at me...

Taxi services will rapidly adopt these cars as they can slash their labor costs.

Add taxi drivers as one more out of-work population in the US that will be displaced by automation.

We are fast approaching a society where work as we knew it will be gone.   Everyone (even conservatives) agree that our entire system is predicated on "a days wage for a day's work."
Remove that and our entire system collapses like a line of dominos.

Without work, there cannot be wages.  Without wages there cannot be consumers.  Without consuerms, there is no demand.  Without demand there is no business.  Without business there is no GNP. Without a GNP, we all have nothing.

Karl Marx's revenge has come full circle.  As an economist his vision was unparalleled and he saw this day coming a long time ago, though not exactly in this form.  The only way out of our inevitable economic demise is to come up with a new way to apportion society's products.  A way that ensures that everyone is consuming enough to keep the whole system in motion.

The worker's paradise may, ironically,  be our only answer to a robust society in a world without workers.  It could be a golden age, where each man and woman is freed to pursue that which they wont to do rather then that which they have to.  But only if we have the political will to grab it.  The line between that and a totally bankrupted economy is very scary and thin.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The only market for cloud gaming

In my previous blog i gave a short but I think solid analysis of why  so called "cloud gamin' cannot succeed in the markets  OnLive has been pursuing.  Interestingly enough, there is one market that OnLive's solution *might* just fit.  I blogged on this quite a long time ago, but I think it deserves some new attention.

The issues with OnLive is that, fundamentally, its a  more expensive way to get games to customers then digital download and produces inferior quality gameplay.  The expense is because it requires as much hardware at the data-center end to run a game as it would if it was local to the player PLUS it also requires the player's receiver hardware and the bandwidth charges for game data.  The impact on gameplay quality is due to the compression they must use to both control bandwidth costs and cross the last mile to the user's home, as well as the inherent latencies of internet communication.

There is one, and only one, market I know of where these negatives can be mitigated and where OnLive might offer a compelling offset to all these negatives.  That is over cable TV service,

There are a prefect-storm of reasons why this market makes sense.  The cable operators own the connection from their data center to their customers.  That means they can allocate as much bandwidth as they feel they can afford to give to this service. They can also prioritize the packet communication and give preference to the game packets thereby minimizing latencies.

The customers for this service are not those users that have a game PC at home.  It will always be better for them to play locally.  But it is a service they could offer through the cable box to those without such a computer.  Cable boxes are built to "throw away" and be as cheap as possible.  The cable companies assumption has to be that they wont get many of them back and so their cost has to be amortized rapidly in the service cost.  A more expensive box means more expensive service which is bad for business.  For this reason the cable companies attempt to hold as  much of the smarts as they can of the system back at the data center.  Data center equipment can be used and reused until it is obsolete.

In this environment it COULD make sense to operate an Onlive back-end in their local data center (what they tellingly call the "head-end").  It still means a much faster obsolescence curve then the cable TV companies like for head-end equipment, but if they could get enough monthly for the game service it just might pay off.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why everyone is wrong about Sony and GaiKai

There has been much trumpeting of the Sony purchase of GaiKai as the great coming of remote game playing (called "cloud gaming" among the over-hyped press.)

The thing is,  GaiKai isn't a "cloud gaming service."  Why did Sony buy GaiKai and not OnLive?  I want to suggest to you that it is because they don't want a could gaming service.  They want something else, something GaiKai very cleverly foresaw.

Onlive is a cloud gaming service.  Their value proposition is to compete head on with local gameplay.

The problem is, they really cant.  All the economics are against it.  You still need the computer that used to be on the player's desk, they just moved it to the machine room.  No expense saved there.  Add to that you still need a thin client at the user's end and you have additional hardware expense plus the cost of the bandwidth to transmit the data.

So, OnLive is inherently a more expensive way to play a game. Is it at least a better experience.  The answer is no.  Serious lag is a reality of any remote play over the internet.  MMORPGs and other games designed for that environment use a variety of techniques to hide most of the lag, but these techniques have to be built into the game.  This is why MMORPGs are played differently then local twitch games.  Onlive is trying to run vanilla games designed for local play remotely and thus can do none of this.  Because of bandwidth costs and constraints, the visual quality of an onlive game is also seriously impacted.

(For some good real world measurements, take a look at this article.  Keep in mind though that latency is very dependent on your location on the net relative to the host computer.

So, in the end, the value proposition for this "cloud gaming" is more expensive gameplay in inferior quality.  It is no wonder it has failed to take off.

But, I started this article by saying GaiKai is not a cloud gaming play, and its not.  From the beginning GaiKai positioned themselves not as a replacement for local gaming, but as a way to do live game demos over the internet.  The use case of GaiKai is for digital publishers to drive digital sales by solving the one problem with the digital download store-- that you can't touch the product before you buy it.

Microsoft, with XboxLive, and Valve, with Steam, have shown that there is big money in digital distribution.  So much so that the biggest traditional publisher  in the industry, EA, has launched their own online store and has stated publicly that they expect the business to go all digital eventually.

Sony's entries in this space have been lack-luster.  But GaiKai gives them a key differentiator for their next run at it, likely with the PS4.

And this is most likely why Sony bought GaiKai.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Lies my politicians tell me...

Myths are an interesting thing.  They play off the "familiarity bias" in psychology.  Hear something repeated often enough and you tend to accept it without thinking very critically about it.  Some myths occur deliberately through advertising and other directed media.  Some occur spontaneously through "meemes".

Modern politicians and lobbyists have tuned this to a fine art and do their best to exploit all of the myth-makign opportunities at their disposal.  The thing is, myths are most often false or incomplete.  They survive because people hear them and repeat them without ever really questioning them.

Even the most skeptical of us can fall prey to the power of the myth.  All it takes is a moment's sloppiness in thinking and it is through our barriers and into our mental body of 'facts'.

I'd like to take a moment in this campaign season to stop and explore two prevalent myths today.  I ask you to consider them under the light of real critical reasoning.

Myth 1: Insurance companies exist to pay your medical bills

This is total nonsense.  Insurance companies are companies.  The exist to make profits for their owners.  The greater the profits, the better the business.  Paying your bills reduces those profits.  

The fact of the matter is that the entire system of medical reimbursement exists to give the insurance companies as many reasons as possible to not pay your bills and still remain in business.

This is a myth that i have been aware is false for some time.  When we met,  wife worked in the insurance industry and I have had a direct exposure to what it does and why.

Myth 2: Business create jobs

This is one honestly caught me off guard.  It seems reasonable, right?  Business employee people, so they must create jobs.  So give them more money and they will hire more people.

But its also nonsense, or at least incomplete.  Business, as we said above, are in business to make money.  Hiring someone costs money.  The only time  business hires anyone is when they can make more money from that person's work then they cost to hire.  So when is that true?

It is true when there is more demand for a product then they can satisfy with their current work-force.  It is demand that creates the job, and demand is created not by concentrating money in the hands of business but by getting it into the hands of consumers.

Furthermore, a business will not hire more people just because they make more money on each employee (ie through paying less taxes or other incentives.)  It doesn't matter if they make 20% profit on that person or 40% profit on that person. If they can make ANY profit on that person they will hire them.  if not, they won't.

A good rule of thumb is that any time you hear two people say the same thing with the same language, it probably means they are just repeating the words, not thinking deeply about their truth.

Which is to say, they are repeating a myth.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Levels, Story and multi-player roleplay

I'm a believer that common wisdom is generally the most suspect as it gets analyzed the least.   Two design main-stays that have gotten cemented into stone in the MMORPG world are leveling and linear questing.  I'd like to take some time to unpack and examine these as, while both serve important game-play functions, they also both serve as social play barriers.

This is a big topic and can be viewed from many angles.  I'm going to start with my off the cuff take that may be incorrect or incomplete.  (Likely incomplete.)

Leveling was  inherited from the pen and paper RPG space, most notably D&D where it served to shape the character's story into a traditional farm-boy becomes hero arc.  Online it provides goals and a feeling of accomplishment and 'direction' to one's play.  It also 'hooks' the player a tangible recognition and reminder of the time they have a;ready invested in the game and that they would lose if they walked away.  Finally, it gates access to what is generally limited content and doles it out over-time, prolonging the game experience.

Story gives context and meaning to the actions in game, this helps immersion-- particularly with the maybe less imaginative mass market.  It also helps limited and repetitive gameplay to feel more differentiated.  Lastly, it again provides a feeling of motion and progress through the game.  It is linear because, frankly, no human being has really figured out how to tell a non-linear story.  Given that our first instincts as a child telling a story is to begin every sentence with "and then..."  this may be built into us as animals.

All that said, there are real issues and bad second order effects of both of these.  The biggest issues that interest me are how they get in the way of players role-playing together, and what cna be done about that.

Levels, by their gating nature, serve to exclude players from playing with others who do not have characters of similar level.

In our pen and paper games, we could get around this with "tag-along" characters who would level up to the party level pretty fast due to the exponential nature of the experience and reward system.  Some MMORPGs have tried similar things, most notably "City of Heroes" with the Sidekick system.   The problem with that is that, in an MMORPG, this defeats the gating purpose of levels by accelerating the leveling speed of such sidekicks.

Another approach is to "gimp" the higher level character down to the sidekick's level of ability (what players called the "reverse sidekick" in CoH). This is harder to get right.  Go too far and the player feels cheated out of their accomplishments and wont want to do it. Don't go far enough and again they over-balance the content and unreasonably accelerate the advancement of the lower-level character.  It is also difficult to justify from a story/roleplay perspective in two ways; first, why is the higher level character suddenly weaker?  Secondly, it generally means repeating linear content which removes an surprise and breaks the linear flow of the story.

Moving on to linear story, its purpose in part is to help immerse the player.  But it can often end up doing the opposite.  If you allow players to play the same stories over again, then the illusion of linearity totally breaks down.  if you don't, however, then only those characters at the exact same story points can play together.

A second problem with linear story telling is that it doesn't really scale.  Having just defeated Foozle the mighty wizard is a lot less interesting when half the people you run into already defeated him and the other half will be defeating him sometime in the near future.  This effect cheapens the feeling of success, and fights immersion by exposing its artificial nature and the "man behind the curtain."  Ultimately this fights with one of the reasons for having story to begin with.

The most extreme example of this is probably Star Wars:The Old Republic.  This game only makes logical story sense if played with a mixed class set of characters at the exact same place in their stories.  There is a limit  of four players total in such a group because thats the total number of available classes and "your" story is fixed to your class.

That these mechanisms are deep in the core of MMORPG design today is pretty much unarguable.  Funcom's new MMORPG The Secret World claims to be "level-less" on the surface, but if you look a bit deeper its still there.  Its just takes the form of  skill trees and gear acquisition.  The effect is the same however, to gate what content you can or cannot handle.

I would argue that, as barriers to multi-player roleplay, these two assumed game structures have kept us back.  I'd even go farther and say they have made all MMORPGs today to a large degree design failures as Roleplay Games.  The result is that asynchronous play, often called "alone together" play has become the norm.  Doing anything multi-player takes a huge effort on the part of the player so many if not most, don't go to that level but just solo quest and chat with their friends while they do so.  The tactical players will form large teams, but they have no interest in story or roleplay.

If our games are really just tactical games, then we are wasting a lot of effort and resources on roleplay-like features.  If our games are really asynchronous roleplay games then again, we are wasting a huge amount of resources on enabling multi-player gameplay when really all that is needed on the backend is a chat server,  If they  are really supposed to be true multi-player immersive experiences, I'd argue that we are defeating ourselves in relying on these game mechanisms that fight that purpose.

Do you agree?  And if so, what might we do better/instead?  if not, why not?

Sunday, May 27, 2012

There is nothing lean about entertainment

Much of the talk as of late in development circles has been about so called "lean-development." The fundamental idea being that you get something out there with the most minimal effort, and if ti flops you drop it and look for something else to do.

This has been fueled by two other marked changes in the game development landscape.  The first was the birth of a new segment, so called "casual" or "social" gaming, with Facebook as its primary platform of delivery. The second has been the related phenomenon of the constantly-connected player and the statistical analysis of player behavior that enables.  These two phenomenon created a "sweet" spot for a lean approach to games.

Any really new platform starts out with very low consumer expectations.  If you haven't looked at an Atari2660 game in years, find an emulator and play one.  Then remember that this was where game consoles began.  Low expectations means you can get away with shipping a minimal product.  Statistical tracking of user behavior is the perfect way to objectively measure the results and find your success or failure.  Together, they were a fertile field for so called lean development.

The problem, however, is game markets grow up.  With each generation of product the users expect more.  The acceptance of lean casual products was mostly a fluke of timing, as opposed to a model that we can follow into the future.  

How well would the movie "inception" tested, I wonder, if it was first presented to viewers as an animatic?  Entertainment is about experience, and you need the whole experience to truly judge any part of it.

As a final example, I'd like to remind the reader of something.  One of the most anticipated movies due for release this summer is "Prometheus", a pre-quel to the movie Alien.  Another hotly talked about movie in pre-production right now is a Blade Runner sequel.

Alien was a flop on initial release.  So was Blade Runner.  They both took time and word of mouth to find their audience.  If the lean model had been followed, these are two movies we probably would never have even seen completed.

With its focus on ship early/cancel early the lean model fits a mature market poorly and can result in our missing very important products and trends.  It is not a brave model, and creating truly new entertainment is a field that rewards bravery.  It can be brave to try something new, but it is more brave to stick to it even when there are doubts as to its eventual success.  I heard a fellow from Rock Star games speak not long ago.  He said that a secret to their success is that they do no focus tests, no marketing surveys, no user play-testing.  Instead, they commit to a vision and work until they see that vision realized.

They have made great and very successful games... and they do it as un-lean as it gets.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Why OO programmers need to understand structured code

Its a natural tendency of people to want to imagine that what they do is somehow revolutionary and breaks with all that came before.  It makes them feel important and justifies laziness in learning history.  But nothing occurs in a vacuum and those who do not study history DO repeat it.

There are many places I take people to task for this today, but the focus of this blog is on object oriented coding and how, far from being revolutionary, it descends in a direct evolutionary path from structured code.  (Note that i am talking about code design and architecture, not so called "Object Oriented Design' which is actually a fad development methodology.  I'll leave that for another rant.)

There are two fundamentals of structured coding that define it. The first is the data structure. A data structure is defined as an organization of data in memory and a set of procedures to act upon it.

The second tenant is top-down design/bottom-up implementation. You start with what your code needs to accomplish and design the data-structure for it. This data structure will then require further data structures beneath it to implement so you design those, and so forth til you get to the bottom most level. The creates a clean multi-layered encapsulated design. You then "bottom up implement", starting with the most primitive data structures in your design and work your way up, testing each structure as it is built.

The first "high level" languages had no direct support for the concept of data structures, so we built them ourselves. In C code this generally meant a .h file to define the public interface and then one or more structs and procedures in a matching .c file. (We did similar things in Pascal.) The limit to only using a data structure's intended public API was a convention that good coder knew to follow but was not enforced by the language.

In response to this came the modular languages-- most notably Modula2. Modula2 added two very important ideas. The first was that it added import/export control. The .h file was replaced by the interface file. The interface file defined the publicly visible API to a code "module", which was just a data structure with some syntactic sugar. Other modules could only see what was published through that interface file. In addition, a module could control what other modules it saw with an import command. (In C and Pascal, all code was globally linked and saw all other global symbols in other files.)

The other important thing Modula2 brought was the concept of an opaque type. This was a publicly usable struct but its definition was hidden inside a module. To the rest of the code it was simply a reference to an instance of a data structure. As you can see, Modual2 was really the half-step between the procedural languages and OOP languages.

OOP languages came next and, just as Modula2 built on simple structured languages, OOP built on the modular languages. Modules became "classes" and the opaque type was formalized into the idea of class instances. More syntactic sugar was added to make such classes easier to define and use, and the level of control of imports was increased.

Fundamentally, however, all an object is is a formalization of a data structure. And good OOP code still has to follow the rules of good data structure design and use. Which, unfortunately, are not getting taught as much as they used to.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Welcome to the Casino

Its time for another rant... and this time it is on the shambles of our national economy.

The legalization of Casinos all over america is an apt metaphor for what our entire economy has become. Investment has grown passé, replaced by speculation. Which is to say, hard work and dedication to a goal are no longer fashionable, instead gambles and throws of the dice to "hit it big" are all the rage.

This has been true of our national investment structure the stock market, for quite awhile. When it was originally constructed, the idea was to let the common people own a piece of a business and share in the profits of that business. Today, a company that generates steady profits is a public failure, growth is all important because the goal of the investor is for their shares to be worth more then when they bought them so they can re-sell them.

This is speculation, which is another word for gambling. Its is also what creates economic bubbles as everyone tries to buy and resell higher, and the last suckers holding the goods take a huge loss to pay for everyone else's profits.

Its not just the market though, we can see this kind of bubble/gambling mentality infecting every part of our economy. When I started in high-tech start-ups 20 years ago, it was about building exciting new products and creating new opportunities. We were creating the world we wanted to live in. We poured our heats and souls into those companies and their products. We *invested* ourselves.

With the $1B buy out of a 24 month old company with one, nascent product by Facebook, that world is totally and thoroughly over. The buzz on the street is all about "quick hits", jump in, release a half-assed product as fast as you can and, if it doesn't hit it huge, dump it and try again.
This is rolling the dice, gambling rather then investing.

Even the business models are slanted towards this, now. The "Free to Play' market is all about a few huge winners and lots of losers. Nowhere in the space is there room for a lovingly crafted niche product. It used to be, a game that sold 5,000 copies could be considered a moderate success. An F2P game with 5,000 users is a dismal failure.

Gambling moves money between pockets, but creates no new lasting value. Its a false value based on others' losses either now or in the future. Thats why bubbles burst. Investing on the other hand builds value, which is why Warren Buffet's shares have never 'burst'.

Investing takes time, and commitment. Where is investment happening today? In the "emerging economies". China, as an example, has been doing a remarkable job of investing in their economic future.

Firefly was probably right. The future language of trade, is probably Chinese.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Unity, AssetBundles, C# and Co-routines

I spent a day figuring out how to do the asynchronous load of an asset bundle in C#. Below is a minimal workign example along with some explanation:

using UnityEngine;

using System.Collections;

public class AssetLoader : MonoBehaviour {

string assetURL="http://localhost/UnityAssets/WorldWizards/TileSets/Tileset_tin01.unity3d";

// Use this for initialization

void Start () {


// This is a Unity method that hijaks the .NET co-iterator functionality and

// uses it to create a psuedo co-routine



//This is a co-routine method. Co-routines must return the IEnumerator interface

//This is because .NET doesnt really have co-routines, it has a co-iterator. Unity

//cleverly hijacks that to create a co-routine. If you need more information, you

//can try reading the micrsoft docs on yield return, but they are hairy

IEnumerator LoadAsset(string url){

// This call utilizes unity's asset cache to avoid reloading the same assets over again

// If you dont want asset cahchign replace it with:

//WWW www = new WWW(url);

WWW www = WWW.LoadFromCacheOrDownload(url,1);

// This is how you return from the co-routine. The www needs to be passed

// back as a parameter. The .NET mechanism hides this within a synthetically produced

// IEnumerator as its first entry in the enumeration but thats hidden inside of

// StartCoroutine and you'll never see it.

// Whatever is returned must inherit from the base class YieldInstruction

yield return www;

//THis code is run after the www has fetched its data or errorored out

if (www.error!=null){


Debug.Log (url);

} else {

Debug.Log ("Done");

AssetBundle ab = www.assetBundle;

Object[] tilePrefabs = ab.LoadAll(typeof(GameObject));

foreach(Object obj in tilePrefabs){

Debug.Log (obj.name);





Unity's co-routine mechanism is interesting. theoretically you should be able to use it to do just about any kind of co-routine coding. The hitch is that they have hidden the details of YieldInstruction. This goes along with a general semi-crippling philosophy in Unity that they only want you to use the tools they give you the way they already thought they would be used.

Its too bad, because there is a lot of power in the Unity codebase that is completely blocked off from use by the developer.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Top Down Design/Bottom up implementation

In my previous blog i made a case for management as a service profession. And that is something I really believe.

Like any good idea, however, it can be taken to bad extremes. In this post I thought I'd address that.

In traditional procedural programming, we have a concept of "top down design/bottom up implementation." What this means is that you start at the general goal and break it done into sub-tasks. You then break each of those sub-tasks up, and keep going until you hit a level that "feels right" for implementation. (There really is no hard and fast rule for what this is, knowing it when you hit it is more art then science.) Then we start building the software starting at that bottom level and working our way back up to the goal.

This results in a software design that is well focused on the goal, but also is built in clear and separable layers. Top down design is a matter of designing software functionality and interfaces to that functionality. In today's object oriented world it can be seen as a form of "encapsulation' but it is a very specific form that leads to software with some very good properties. Should any individual layer prove to have an issue it can be fixed or replaced with no impact on the layers above it and below it. Higher layers can be stripped away without sacrificing lower level functionality. Finally, each layer can be created by people with the best understanding of that layers' functionality.

An engineering project can be, and I will argue, should be designed in the same way. At the top are those defining the business goals. Beneath them on the tree are one or more layers of architect who take the output of the management layer above them and decompose it into goals for the layer below them until the decomposed parts of the design finally arrive at the implementing teams.

Such layered project design has all the advantages of layered software design. Failures on part of the process do not directly impact other parts of the process below them and impact above them only so far as the architected interfaces need to change. It also focuses each participant's efforts on the area where they add the most value to the project.

In my previous blog I talked about the management side of an engineering manager's job, but many people managing engineers are also engineers or architects themselves. And this calls for a different set of skills and approaches then the management side.

Non-engineering management can often get confused and think that "empowering the workers" means asking every engineer's opinion on everything. Or worse, asking everyone's opinion on every functional part of the process from engineering to art to game design.

This devalues the very expertise you probably hired these people for to begin with and creates a whole lot of confusing noise for upper management. In such an environment, decisions become highly politicized and those who can "sell"(1) what they want in terms that make the most sense to those who often know the least-- upper management-- prevail in defining the entire project.

Part of empowerment is authority. And if you give everyone equal authority over everything, then noone has authority over anything. A football team where everyone is trying to play quarterback doesn't get very far down the field.

So, empower your people... but empower them to do *their* jobs, not everyone else's. Trust that you have hired the right people for the right positions and let them play them without undo interference from others with other functions. That is true empowerment.

(1) Engineers have a technical term for the act of sales. We call it lying. I have *no* tolerance for engineers who deliberately color the information they are passing up in order to get a desired reaction and, if i am allowed to, will fire anyone I catch doing it. That is the flip side of giving some one authority and your trust. If they violate it, they are gone. The kind of management i do calls for honest and open communication, not political positioning.