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March 31, 2006

Burgers and Donuts, Sittin' in a Tree

I promise this isn't becoming the Weird Food Blog, though now that I think about it, that is a cool idea for a blog! Anyway, I was at the gym this evening, and telling my trainer about NASCAR meats, when he told me about seeing a newspaper story on "Baseball's Best Burger":

The [Gateway] Grizzlies [a minor league baseball team in southern Illinois] and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts have teamed up to create “Baseball’s Best Burger.” The burger, which was debuted at the Grizzlies' December 10th sale, consists of a thick and juicy burger topped with sharp cheddar cheese and two slices of bacon. The burger is then placed in between each side of a Krispy Kreme Original Glazed doughnut.
The release goes on to note that the idea came from the "Luther Burger", found in this Snopes entry:
Mulligan's, a suburban bar in Decatur, Georgia, serves a dish they call the "Hamdog": a hot dog wrapped in a beef patty that's deep fried, covered with chili, cheese and onions, and served on a hoagie bun topped with a fried egg and two fistfuls of fries.. It's one of Mulligan's other repasts, however, that may represent the ultimate in nutritive decadence through its combining greasy, cholesterol-stuffed meats with a sweet, fatty, deep-fried treat: the "Luther Burger," a bacon cheeseburger served on a Krispy Kreme doughnut bun.

Why the "Luther Burger"? It's named after R&B singer Luther Vandross, that much we know, but whether there's any real connection between the singer and the burger is less definite. Rumor has it that the donut-cheeseburger concoction is one of Vandross' favorite comestibles, and some versions of the rumor even go so far as to suggest that the singer actually invented the dish (on a day when he ran out of hamburger buns).

Is it me, or would even Elvis say, "no thank you very much" to a Luther Burger?

March 30, 2006

NASCAR Meats for NASCAR Dads

Via Autoblog comes word of the latest consumer food product to momentarily ease the crushing pain of our profoundly soulless existences, NASCAR Officially Licensed meat products.

NASCAR Meats

Racing fans, rev up your tastebuds for the exciting taste of NASCAR Officially Licensed meat products. Whether you're grilling at home or in the infield, you'll cheer the premium flavor of NASCAR Officially Licensed hot dogs. Not to mention our wide selection of delicious bacon, deli-thin sandwich meat, and smoked sausages. All made with premium ingredients of the highest quality. So they're sure to go fast. Really fast.
A couple of thoughts:
  • It's hard to tell from the image, but it looks like the product to the far right is labeled "NASCAR Lunch Meat". "Lunch meat"? Do people really buy "lunch meat"?
  • Is it just me, or is it wrong to say that a food item goes "really fast"? Goes where, exactly? I mean, I know what thought comes to mind, and it's not a good one, unless NASCAR fans love porta potties. Could be -- I've never been to a NASCAR race.

"Bill Gates'... Head Explodes"

The Economist has an article in this week's issue on Microsoft's ability (or lack thereof) to adapt, "Spot the dinosaur":

Microsoft earns more than half its $40 billion or so of annual revenue -- and the vast majority of its profits -- on just two products: the Windows operating-system and Office, a collection of personal-computer (PC) applications including word-processing and spreadsheet programs. Both, however, are coming under threat from new technologies...

The threat to Microsoft comes from online applications, which are changing how people use computers. Rather than relying on an operating system and its associated application software... computer users are increasingly able to call up the software they need over the internet. Just as Amazon, Google, eBay and other firms provide services via the web, software companies are now selling software as a subscription service that can be accessed via a web-browser...

[O]nline applications clearly threaten the way Microsoft makes its money. Its licensing agreements are geared for a world where software is a physical product, purchased on discs, and paid for at once or in regular instalments. But its online competitors charge each user a subscription: some like Google are even supplying software as a free online service, financed by advertisements. Last month Google acquired the firm that created Writely, a popular online word-processing program that is an obvious potential competitor to Microsoft Word.

Online competitors have also mastered quick development and deployment times that Microsoft cannot match. Meanwhile open-source software... is also gaining ground. George Colony, the boss of Forrester, a technology-research firm, believes Microsoft faces the biggest challenge in the firm's history: "Bill Gates knows how to compete with anyone who charges money for products," he says, "but his head explodes whenever he has to go up against anyone who gives away products for free."

How profoundly ironic. Over the years, Microsoft has made mincemeat of one software firm after another simply by developing comparable technology and bundling it with its operating system -- in effect, giving it away. Now Microsoft is under threat from firms who are doing the same thing to it, using the Internet as their distribution medium.

March 29, 2006

Bowling with Bumpers

Talking with my daughter Kelsey about her recent bowling excursions:

Me: So what's your high score?

Kelsey: I scored a 138 the other night.

Me: 138? That's not too bad. Good for you!

Kelsey: Well, that's with bumpers.

Me: You scored a 138 with bumpers? Isn't that like saying you managed not to run off the road on Autopia?

March 28, 2006

"Satisfaction"

The fourth book of the year for me was Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment.

Buddhism says that we seek permanence, stability, and predictability. So does Gregory Berns, the author of Satisfaction. Buddhism says that, viewed from a spiritual standpoint, we achieve satisfaction by letting go of these desires. Berns says that, viewed from a neurological standpoint, we achieve satisfaction by finding novelty.

Predictability is, I think, what every animal wants; by this I mean predictability in the sense of the skill of being able to foresee, and not in the sense of a quality or description of one's environment. If you can predict what will happen in the future, even if it is just a few seconds away, then you have a substantial advantage over someone who can't make such a prediction. Prediction equals survival...

Although we would like to predict events in the world, our ambitions are more or less thwarted by the fact that we must share the world with other people... No matter how well you know another person, you can never be sure of what he or she is going to do. Of course, this makes for an unpredictable, if exciting, existence, for no other animal has a social structure as complex as humans...

If you believe that the world is unpredictable because we live in it with other people, then a straightforward way to counteract such unpredictability is to motivate humans to better their predictions. You see immediately how such a drive could lead to an evolutionary advantage, and, in the social realm, how learning to predict one another's behavior patterns, imperfect as these forecasts might be, could lead to mating with the most fit members of the opposite sex. The stronger the drive to predict, the more an individual will learn about how the world and its inhabitants operate, resulting in reproductive success and the transmission of such a drive to one's offspring.

The drive to predict leads to a single outcome in a fundamentally unpredictable world -- the need for novelty. I have come to understand novelty as the one thing that we all want.

Satisfaction helped me understand the drive for new experiences, and provided an interesting contrast to Buddhist teaching: yes, the world is unpredictable, but instead of focusing on letting go of our desire for predictability, we can recognize that evolution has wired us to derive satisfaction from activities (novel experiences and challenging achievements) that ultimately lead to better predictions on our part. I don't see the two philosophies as necessarily incompatible, but rather as different and potentially complementary strategies for dealing with the same problem.

Put another way, it turns out that my reduced desire for collecting things and my increased desire for achieving things are linked in a way I couldn't have imagined.

March 27, 2006

Build It, Steve, and We Will Come

Via Mac Rumors, Smarthouse claims that Apple will launch a phone in the next few months:

Insiders at Taiwanese phone maker BenQ say that Apple procurement executives have been talking to various Taiwanese phone makers during the past few months in an effort to cut a manufacturing deal on an iPod Phone.

They say that Apple will launch an iPod with phone functions within the next few months. "An iPod phone is definitely coming. BenQ will not be making it as we are in competition with Apple however several of our suppliers have been approached to manufacture parts. Among manufacturers in Taiwan it is common knowledge. The issue for many is the availabilty of parts if the phone takes off" said the BenQ executive.

I pass this along because I heard the same rumor from a reliable source while I was in the Bay Area -- that Apple is working on a phone, that it will launch fairly soon, and most interestingly, that Apple will become its own MVNO (mobile virtual network operator), using Cingular's network.

This rumor makes sense to me. Apple wants -- no, needs, to stay competitive -- an iTunes-on-a-phone solution, and a real one, not the ROKR, crippled by an intersection of corporate concerns. (Cingular didn't want to undermine its $3-per-ringtone business; Apple didn't want to let users store unlimited songs on a device for which it received just a few dollars.) By becoming a manufacturer, Apple can build a phone with a hip design, just like an iPod, and sell it directly, keeping hundreds of dollars for itself, just like an iPod. By becoming an MVNO, Apple can allow users to download songs wirelessly -- unlike an iPod, which requires a Mac or PC to buy songs. As for using Cingular's network for its MVNO operations, this makes sense, too. Apple would want a global device, which would imply GSM. This rules out Verizon or Sprint.

The person from whom I heard this rumor and I talked about it, thought through the implications, and then both decided that yes, we could easily imagine ourselves switching to Apple for our cell phone service. I wouldn't care about the songs-on-the-phone bit; I already have multiple iPods. I'm assuming that Apple would create the hippest phone on the plane, the iPod nano of phones. Build it, Steve, and we will come.

March 26, 2006

GDC 2006: "The Game Studies Download: Top 10 Research Findings"

The Game Studies Download: Top 10 Research Findings
Ian Bogost, Georgia Tech
Mia Consalvo, Ohio University
Jane McGonigal, UC Berkeley

This presentation consisted of short summaries of 10 research studies (plus a bonus study) relevant to game design.

10. "How does game music impact a player's effectiveness?" Used Project Gotham Racing 2 for the study.

  • Research findings: High emotional impact of music did not equate to high player effectiveness. However, control of and preference for music did equate to the best overall player experience. This was true independent of music genre -- when players picked their own music, their scores went up dramatically.
  • Take-way: Game music is not just about emotional impact or world building. Success hangs on it. How and when are you using game music to support or to challenge your players?
9. "What do players really think about voice chat and its usefulness in gameplay?" Used Moto GP and Unreal Championship for the study.
  • Research findings: Poor usability (interference from background music, other players making noises, trash talk, etc.) hindered players' attempts to be social. Players disliked the lack of control over what was sent over the channel -- players wanted to be able to send specific messages to specific players. Voice isn't always an advance.
  • Take-away: Voice communication needs to be designed with a particular purpose in mind within your game. What specific elements of your gameplay does voice chat enable or enhance?
8. "Gestural and embodied controllers are fun. But are they good for gameplay?"
  • Research findings: Trend toward transparent interfaces in human-computer interaction. Weird controllers create interaction that accounts for the body. But buttons abstract complex action well.
  • Take-away: Buttons are best for complex, symbolic action. Designs for new gestural systems should take this balance into account. Are you choosing the right gestural versus symbolic control system?
7. "Does the presence of other players make an online game more or less immersive?" Used Halo 2 and other games for the study. Used very intensive ethnographic research -- interviews, game journals, live gameplay sessions.
  • Research findings: Three kinds of "strong presence" identified that are pleasurable for gamers: spatial-physical (you project yourself in the space), social (you feel the other people playing present with you), and co-presence (the first two kinds of presence combined). Adversaries were depersonalized -- "the same as bots". All three forms of presence experienced mostly strongly in "collaborative online environment" games.
  • Take-away: Collaboration is an extremely powerful driver of immersion and stickiness. Where could you add moments of multiplayer collaboration in your game?
6. "Are players cheating as much as we (and other gamers) think they are?" People watched a 10-year-old boy take a test and were told that it was a high-stakes test, and that the boy had a history of cheating. The boy was briefed on the study and instructed not to do anything that would look like cheating. Despite this, observers believed they saw him cheating.
  • Research findings: If someone is supervised, we believe he would act dishonestly without the supervision. People attribute dishonesty and cheating to those they think might commit such acts.
  • Take-away: Perceptions are often more important than reality for fairness in multiplayer games. What concrete steps can you take to assure players that a competition is fair?
5. "What innovative game design uses are there for player-controlled cameras?"
  • Research findings: Interactive equivalent of cinematic montage is rare.
  • Take-away: Player-controlled camera movement can be thought of as an adaptation of cinematic montage. How can your game make more creative use of player-controlled camera cuts?
4. "What strategies do players invent to communicate to other players in online games... and can games be designed to better support these strategies?" Used Battlefield 1942 for the study. Highly recommended this paper to attendees for further reading.
  • Research findings: Players want to communicate three things: intentions, actions, and effects. A design-oriented taxonomy of 10 kinds of communication strategies. Least-supported strategies currently: gesture, non-verbal audio, and non-violent physical contact (like a high-five).
  • Take-away: Players are trying to invent new ways to communicate in your games. Have you explored non-standard possibilities for interaction forms?
3. "Can alternative controllers like eye tracking devices offer a PC gaming experience that is more fun and involving than mouse control?" Used Sacrifice and Half-Life for the study. Modified Sacrifice (a 2D game) to use an eye tracking device to aim. Modified Half-Life in various ways to use the device.
  • Research findings: With a 2D shooter, everyone rated the game as more fun when played with the eyes. Players' scored doubled from standard play to eye tracker play. In Half-Life, combining eye and mouse functions led to more players responding positively.
  • Take-away: Use of eye tracking could be a successful addition to your game, provided it has a useful function and is properly playtested. What novel input devices are you considering for your PC game?
2. "How can we generate facial animation that combines speech and variable emotion?" Used Half-Life 2 for the study.
  • Research findings: Speech-driven faces are common. But people look and speak differently under different emotional states. An original method for generating facial animation with lip syncing and emotional blending.
  • Take-away: Manually specify emtional content, or use a Support Vector Machine to identify emtional content from a script. Could your characters' facial expressions be more emotionally specific during speech?
1. "How do game events marking success versus failure affect a player's level of engagement?" Used Super Monkey Ball 2 for the study. Used a variety of techniques to measure player engagement: skin conductance, facial EMG activity, and others.
  • Research findings: More pleasure and excitement in active failure than in success. However, passive experience of failure (replaying their failure to them) makes players disengage. (In other words, failing is good, but watching yourself fail is bad.) Attaining a goal decreases player arousal and interest.
  • Take-away: Failure is an unexpected hot spot for excitement and pleasure. How much fun is failure in your game?
0. "How do we design for spectator as well as player experiences?"
  • Research findings: Specator experiences equate to manipulations and effects. Visible gestures that the system doesn't respond to still matter. Design principles: secretive, expressive, magical, suspenseful.
  • Take-away: Secretive and suspenseful spectator experiences are uncommon in spectator games. Have you considered the spectator experience in your game?

The presentation can be downloaded here. A handout with references to all the studies can be downloaded here.

This was the final session I attended at GDC, and so closes out my coverage, at least in terms of session descriptions. However, I'm planning on writing more about things that stood out for me, including study number 1 (on pleasure from active failure) above. It's a fundamental insight, I think.

March 25, 2006

Guy Kawasaki on "Sucking Down"

A nice piece by Guy Kawasaki on "the art of sucking down" -- what he calls "the ability to suck up to the folks who don't have big titles but make the world run", like ticket agents, receptionists, administrative assistants, and the like. His nine points are:

  1. Understand the dynamic
  2. Understand their needs
  3. Be important
  4. Make them smile
  5. Don't try to buy your way in
  6. But do express your gratitude on the way out
  7. Never complain
  8. Rack up the karmic points
  9. Accept what cannot be changed
Basically, it all reduces down to practicing the golden rule, no matter how right, angry, harried, or powerful you are. I've never thought about this with Guy's level of detail, but I have always found that being nice to customer service people is much more likely to get results than being angry with them. And if things really go south -- the airline loses my luggage, the restaurant loses my reservation -- they're much more likely to help me if they're feeling sympathy for me, and they're much more likely to feel sympathy for me if I'm being gracious instead of angry.

March 24, 2006

GDC 2006: My Take

I have one more session to blog, but it will take a while, so I'm going to jump up a level and look back at three days of the Game Developers Conference and try to make sense of it all.

Viewed from the outside, it would be easy to think that the biggest story in games right now is the advent of the next-generation consoles -- the Xbox 360, out now, and the Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Revolution, due out in a few months' time. There's some truth to this idea. A few major game developers have shipped their first wave of Xbox 360 titles (and so are onto their second wave), while other developers are working on their first wave of titles for one or more of the consoles. Costs are up dramatically -- one estimate is that art for next-generation consoles costs four times as much as for last-generation consoles, with title development costs in the $15-25 million range. This makes the risk extremely high, and so developers are understandably extremely concerned with the transition.

That said, I would argue that viewed from the inside, the next-generation consoles aren't the biggest story. The major stories, as I see them, are:

Massively multiplayer online games. World of Warcraft is now a half-a-billion-dollar-a-year business. I didn''t hear it said at GDC, but I'm willing to bet this makes it the most popular game franchise on the planet, by a wide margin. A variety of vendors -- Simutronics, Big World, Multiverse, and Emergent -- are shipping (or developing) middleware that, in theory, will reduce risk and time to market for MMO titles. Innovative economic models have been not only tried but proven effective. And venture funding is available to build MMOs (even, surprisingly, uninnovative ones).

Casual games. Casual games are here and in a big way. Why? Because the economics are so much more compelling. Typical budgets run from $100,000-250,000 -- that's from 1.67 percent down to as little as 0.4 percent of the cost of developing a next-generation console title. The market is vastly larger, both demographically (there are far more soccer moms and office park dads than there are hardcore gamers) and technologically (there are far more people with PCs and Internet connections than there are with Xbox 360s -- or any other console, for that matter).

Mobile games. Though we must contend with the walled garden approach of US cellular service providers -- who as a group seem incapable of learning from the open, transparent software model that has helped make NTT DoCoMo so successful -- still, the mobile phone market is undeniably huge. Two billion mobile phones, 800 million new handsets per year, 250 million smart phones this year, more than 1 miliion new subscribers every day. The mobile phone gaming market is maturing and highly competitive, but that's because it's so valuable.

Alternative distribution. A sub-text of this year's GDC was how it seems so clear to so many people that we are at the early stage of the waning of packaged retail software as the industry's primary distribution mechanism. While a few MMOs have retail starter kits, most bypass retail entirely. Mobile games are downloaded directly to phones and so by definition bypass retail. The vast majority of casual games are distributed via the Web -- it's the very rare mega-hit casual game that is later made into a retail title. The console vendors are falling over themselves to explain their electronic distribution strategies: Microsoft with Xbox Live Arcade, Sony with its network service for the PSP and the PlayStation 3, and Nintendo with its service for the Revolution. Even one of the most successful retail PC game vendors, Valve, has developed its own direct content downloading system, Steam.

Taken together, these trends point to a near future that looks very different from the recent past. A typical game might be massively multiplayer and casual (the two aren't incompatible -- see Puzzle Pirates), with a mobile component that connects to a PC-based component, and all of it delivered electronically.

This was my first GDC in five or six years, but I got the distinct impression that the level of enthusiasm was up substantially compared to the last few years. There was a palpable sense of excitement. Just a few years ago, it seemed like the industry was on an inexorable path towards astronomical budgets for state-of-the-art, multiplatform, PC/console titles -- often with licensed content to "reduce risk" -- as the dominant development paradigm. Now developers realize that there are more options. We may not be back to the "lone programmer at the kitchen table" model (though I saw one nice mobile game that was developed by a single person), but we're closer than we have been in a long time. It's a good time to be making games.

GDC 2006: "Free to Play! Pay for Stuff: The Digital Content Sales Frontier"

Free to Play! Pay for Stuff: The Digital Content Sales Frontier
Matt Mihaly, Iron Realms Entertainment
Daniel James, Three Rings

This was a roundtable on economic models for games where the primary (or sole) source of revenue is paying for objects, as opposed to purchasing the game or paying subscription fees.

Most of the session was concerned with liability. What liabilites do game companies incur when they issue virtual currencies, or when they sell digital objects?

I asked the question whether anyone at previous sessions of the roundtable had brought up frequent flier miles as a model, and it turned out they had not. My hunch is that when users start suing game companies over issues related to virtual currencies, the judges involved will first look to see if there's any existing case law -- and when they do, frequent flier miles will be the closest parallel they can find. This brought up the question of what the case law is when it comes to frequent flier miles. I'm not an expert, but as far as I know, courts have ruled, generally, that airlines have tremendous latitude in terms of setting and then changing the terms of their frequent flier programs, especially when their terms of service clearly state that they can change the terms at will.

It was asked whether anyone thought that allowing users to convert virtual currencies back out to real-world currencies was a good idea. I said that I thought it was a tremendously bad idea, because looking at PayPal as an example, state and national regulators took the position that PayPal was a bank and should be regulated as such -- and the last thing any entrepreneur should want would be to suffer bank-like regulation. PayPal had to devote a substantial amount of effort to avoid bank-style regulation. I suspect that at least some regulators and politicians would look at any MMOs offering fully exchangable virtual currencies as being banks, and would attempt to regulate them as such, whether out of legitimate concern or in an attempt to score political points.

Some dramatic statistics were discussed. ARPUs (Average Revenue Per User, typically per month) across 'free to play, pay for stuff' games in Korea are approximately $25. The moderators reported that ARPUs across their various games are $20. This includes not only the users who pay for items, but the 'freeloaders' who don't buy anything. That's substantially more than most subscription-based MMOs of which I'm aware.

The moderators' MMOs suffer about 3 percent in bad transactions (any transaction where they end up not getting paid or having to refund the user's money). My impression is that this is fairly low, and is a good sign. Fraud within games is a problem -- a participant stated that 40 percent of all customer service calls to Ultima Online are due to player-to-player fraud caused by a secondary market in items.

GDC 2006: "Ten Strategies to Reduce Costs on Large Scale MMP Development"

Ten Strategies to Reduce Costs on Large Scale MMP Development
Rich Vogel, bioware.com

I'm now working on my fourth MMP. I always say each one is going to be my last.

What is this lecture about? I'm talking about large-scale MMPs. Yes, you can develop an MMP for less than $6 million -- even less than $1 million if you're very creative.

What do they typically cost to build? $18-40 million. World of Warcraft cost over $40 million to produce -- not to deploy, just to produce. Deployment is probably another $15-20 million.

What costs the most? Content. Average 3,000 quests, over two million words of dialogue, 32 km by 32 km world filled with cities, villages, points of interest, roads. This takes 40+ artists, 50+ level designers and builders. Well over 10,000 items (weapons, food, clothing, armor, accessories, etc.). Hundreds of unique creatures (we had over 160 unique creatures in Star Wars Galaxies). Several races. Thousands of UI pieces. Five times the special effects of a single player game.

The "project fulcrum" is quality and scope versus resources and time. Quality is the most important thing.

How can we be more efficient in what we're doing? How can we develop content faster? That's where our costs are.

Strategy #1: Get top talent for your core team. It's critical that you have good people in your lead positions. Take your time to find them, and don't rush. Clearly define their roles. Every person on the team has to be passionate about what they're building. Have a deep bench -- these projects take up to four years, and you're going to lose key people along the way.

What type of people are needed?

  • Director of technology
  • Art director
  • Creative director
  • Executive producer
  • Senior producer
  • Project manager
  • QA manager
  • Community manager
Strategy #2: Don't build everything from scratch. Look for off-the-shelf solutions. This constrasts with what Richard Garriott said this morning -- but in 2006, we have good middleware. Does it save time? Does it scale? Is it modular? Does it prototype the game faster? Does it reduce risk?

What's out there in terms of middleware?

  • Simutronics
  • Emergent
  • Big World
  • Lots of database solutions
  • Lots of billing solutions
Strategy #3: Scoping the design early and often. Define the core gameplay and goals of the game at the start. Set a minimum feature set to deliver. Prioritize features. Don't innovate everything. Review any new features against the goal of the game.

Strategy #4: Data driven systems are it. Nothing should be entered in terms of data that can't be put in a spreadsheet or a database. Programmers should worry about logic and not entering data. Overall savings in terms of iteration time as well as time for polish. Designers should not program.

Strategy #5: Communications. Make sure everyone on the team understands what they are building. Create a high-level mission statement. Use filtered e-mail groups (be careful of internal spam). The team must play the game. Everyone contributes to feedback. Have a meeting at the beginning of each day.

Strategy #6: Iterative development. Take time to prototype core gameplay. Take risky concepts and prototype them early -- this provides time for course correction. Work towards small concepts and build on them.

Strategy #7: Agile development. A large team requires different approaches. SCRUM is an agile development process using strike teams -- learn about it if you haven't already. Don't be fooled by quick progress of agile development -- you still need overall project management. Pacing is critical in order to reduce burnout and improve performance. Keep the team small until pipelines are finished. I use a wiki containing my tasks for the week displayed continuously on a second monitor.

Strategy #8: Tool development. Don't go into full production until tools and pipelines are fully functional. Tools need to be easy to use, scalable, adaptable.

Types of tools that are required:

  • Asset generation and tracking
  • Scripting language
  • System generation
  • UI generation
  • World generation
  • Dialogue
  • Special effects
  • Monitoring

Strategy #9: Outsourcing. In my opinion, this is where you really save your butt. Outsourcing helps reduce your internal team size. Review your art, software, design, QA, and audio needs, then determine what can be done out of house. It's not easy, and it's a big commitment. You have to treat your outsourced resources like a remote internal team. Face-to-face time is critical.

Strategy #10: Always consider how software and game design affect back-end costs. Think about number of servers, database load, customer service support, expense of hardware to support game design. In Ultima Online, we wanted to add a thief character, but if we had realized the effect this would have on customer support costs, we never would have considered it.

GDC 2006: "What's Next in Game Design"

What's Next in Game Design
Will Wright, Maxis

Before I start with my summary of his talk, I want to go out of my way to say how much I like Will Wright -- not just as a game designer, but as a person. In the mid-1990s, the firm he co-founded, Maxis, was considering buying the firm I worked at then, Virtus. The idea was to add Virtus' expertise and technology in 3D software architectures to Maxis' expertise and technology in building software toys. Will's co-founder, Jeff Braun, was the person behind the idea, and Will was all for it. It didn't happen, because a third executive there didn't understand the rationale for the deal and so shot it down. It's too bad -- it would have been tremendous fun to work with Will. But the nice thing was that I had the privilege of some wonderful face-to-face time with him, and I can attest that Will is every bit as intelligent, inquisitive, creative, and self-effacing as he is said to be.

Now, onto the talk. For me, this was the talk to which I was looking forward to the most at GDC 2006. Having seen Will's Spore demo from last year, I was eagerly looking forward to seeing how much progress he and his team had made since then. Unfortunately, Will didn't show anything from Spore. I presume this is because it's late enough in the development cycle that EA's marketing folks want to tightly control when and where it's shown. That was a disappointment.

At the beginning of the talk, Will crossed out the title and said that the real title was, "Why I Get Too Obsessed with My Game Research". He then launched into a talk that wove together astrobiology and game design, moving back and forth between the two subjects -- to "maximize confusion", as he put it. The talk was interesting, to be sure. I didn't take live notes, and given Will's rapid-fire delivery, I'm glad I didn't try. Better bloggers than me have covered the talk here, here, here, here, and here.

Having said that, it was at some level a frustrating keynote. If I were to summarize Will's game design process precepts, they would read something like this:

  • Take as much time as you need to thoroughly research your subject
  • Hire the best specialists in any given field to help you with your design
  • Go to the best universities and have their leading professors pick out their very best students for your team
  • Take as much time building as many prototypes as you need to test and refine your design
The problem is that I can count on one hand the number of designers who have the access to resources and the complete creative freedom to be able to do development like this. Shigeru Miyamoto. Peter Molyneux. Will Wright. Who else is there?

A game designer friend who was with me at this keynote put it well. "It's like seeing a candy store through the window," he said. "It looks delicious, but you can't have any."

GDC 2006: "Disrupting Development"

Disrupting Development
Satoru Iwata, President, Nintendo

Okay, if I was mean to Sony, it wouldn't be fair of me to go any easier on Nintendo.

If Sony's three messages were...

  1. We sure have sold a lot of units of the PlayStation 1 and 2!
  2. Look at our shiny new hardware. Look at it!
  3. We're thinking about network services. No, really!
...then Nintendo's ostensible messages were...
  1. Look at our new game, Brain Age!
  2. Look at our new game, Metroid DS!
  3. Look at our new controller for the Revolution!
Even less content than the Sony presentation, right? Except it was much better received by the crowd -- the applause was much longer and warmer. Why? Because the ostensible messages weren't the real messages. The real messages were...
  1. Game programmers are geeks. We like geeks!
  2. Have a free copy of Brain Age as you walk out the door!
  3. Look quickly! It's Zelda for the DS. It's shiny!
Future GDC keynote presenters, there's a lesson here for you. Make some jokes about programmer food groups, give away free software, show 30 seconds of a new version of a beloved game, and you're in like Flynn. Even if you barely say anything about your new console shipping soon.

March 23, 2006

GDC 2006: "Designing Tabula Rasa"

Designing Tabula Rasa
Richard Garriott, NCsoft

Trials and tribulations of creating a "next generation" MMPORG

The Tabula Rasa project began slowly. We immediately had some substantial difficulties. In 2004, we made a major turn in the project -- personnel, design, and strategic changes. Since then, the project has been proceeding well. I'm going to focus on the first phase and what went wrong.

Solo versus MMP:

  • Solo player games: you are special, you are alone
  • MMPs: you are not alone, you are not special
  • MMP flaws to date: repetitive level grinding is life, farming static environment for XP and $, no real purpose, no real success, no sense of urgency or world impact
The great promise of MMP games was that you could meet people and go on missions together, so that you could have a shared experience -- we don't even like to go to the movies alone. But this comes at a big cost: in MMPs to date, your life is no longer as special as it was in a single-player game. On average, statistically, half the people you meet are going to be higher-level than you -- and that's only if you put in the time to become a high-level player.

I think that current MMP games have done a good job of refining some bad features. For example, repetitive level grinding becomes your life. That's not fun. Mindlessly farming an environment for, say, creatures -- "the Level 2 creatures always appear to the north of the town" -- isn't fun. And you no longer have the dramatic effect on the world that you did in single-player games.

DG meets NC:

  • Destination Games began hiring April 2001
  • Met NCsoft (Lineage franchise #1 world-leading MMO, merged DG and NC May 2001)
  • Goal to make worldwide bestseller
  • Forged international MMO "dream team"
  • We tried to innovate on every front (except 3D tools and technologies, which was a mistake)

Our entire team was overqualified. Even our junior designers had been lead designers on previously successful projects. This turned out to be a mistake.

The one place we didn't try to push the threshold was in tools and technologies. We felt (wrongly at the time) that we could get away with one more generation of focusing on time to market as opposed to the quality of the visuals.

Immediate trouble:

  • Too many cooks at many levels on one team (language barriers, hard to communicate design subtleties)
  • US-Asian blend (Asian art never right for Asia, Asian/US mixture compelled neither)
  • Tabula Rasa refocused as a US game first (Americans should not set out to sell Asia)
When we first merged with NCsoft, I went to a meeting in Korea where the senior staff reviewed new ideas. I listened to the ideas for Lineage 2 and offered my feedback -- what I thought was positive and well-meant. Culturally, that was a no-no. In Korean culture, that was the time to offer support, and later offer comments in private. As a result, I didn't have a great initial relationship with that development team.

Another issue was with art differences. In the US, heroic characters are often powerful and large. In Asia, though, it's common to think of big, strong guys as dumb brutes, whereas the heroes are often skinny, geeky types who succeed because of their inner spirit.

We immediately began beating our head against the wall of trying to create a unified worldwide product. We decided to refocus on one market first: the US market.

Additional errors:

  • Focus on off-the-shelf tools (theory: cut time to market; result: sub-standard capabilities and long rewrites)
  • Focus on sci-fi martial arts (plan: Warriors of Zu, Chinese Ghost Story; result: too strange for US players)
  • Focus on instances exclusively (original structure: Disneyland metaphor; result: world lacked core MMP feel)
As a result of focusing on instances, our game became almost desolate -- you never felt like you were part of a larger space.

I personally take responsibility for issuing a directive into our art department for a style that became unachievable. I wanted a futuristic version of the Art Nouveau period. We tried three or four times to generate art that manifested what I felt I could describe, and it never achieved what I wanted. Meanwhile, even our executive team was saying, "hey, your game doesn't look very good yet," and I was saying, "don't worry, it will look better when we're done." This went on way too long.

Our human clothing and architecture was uninspired. Our male clothing was so bad that everyone wanted to play as a female. Guys looked silly pretty quickly. Even our weaponry in the game was quite exotic -- we started with musical instruments that could become weapons and the like. I still have a great rationalization for why all this would be cool, but in the game, it just didn't look good.

In the fall of 2004, we rebooted the project. We all wanted to believe, and we could tell a great story. But it was clear we were failing to make our vision.

Tabula Rasa reboot:

  • Highest level of internal technology
  • Modern human foundation (architecture, clothing)
  • Focus on war elements (battlefields, shared spaces)
  • Only primary alien culture kept the Art Nouveau feel
  • Let go lots of entrenched staff
  • Hired only top artists
  • Focused on TV moments (what are the moments where people will look at this and be awe-inspired?)
  • Get it right versus time to market
  • Listen to feedback
Things that survived:
  • Intellectual property backdrop (main story, symbolic language)
  • Goals of feel of play (30-minute play cycles, story driven, no farming, no treadmill, players are pivotal to war effort)
  • Combat structure (shooter look and feel, RPG mathematics)
Challenges remain:
  • Tabula Rasa now large and moving fast (50+ in Austin, 10+ in Los Angeles, 30+ in China, 5+ in Seoul, plus outsourcing)
  • Management layers (internal and outsource)
  • Holding quality bar
  • MMP quantity (time to build, scale means no one person knows it all)
We're not outsourcing for cost savings -- we're just doing it to get the quantity of work done that we need at the right level of quality.

The big problem that all MMPs have is scale -- they're just so large to build. And the scariest thing to me is that the world is so large that no one person knows it all. How to create that volume and keep the quality consistent is a challenge.

Tabula Rasa takes place on a series of worlds, each one with its own ethical parable. We started out with an Earth-like world and then progressed to creating more alien worlds. We've finished the first world and are now working on the the second world, which is our first alien world. When we've finished the third world, Tabula Rasa will go live.

Lesson summary:

  • Too many cooks
  • High-end tools essential
  • Manage amount of innovation

March 22, 2006

GDC 2006: More Sony Keynote Coverage

As I predicted, far more people are blogging the Game Developers Conference than were the Serious Games Summit -- it's just a much larger event. Coverage of Phil Harrison's keynote on the PlayStation 3 can be found on game girl advance, AlterSlash, FiringSquad, Wonderland, and Joystiq (the coverage from Wonderland and Joystiq is detailed and especially recommended). Choice quotes:

game girl advance:

It was the usual Sony affair, with charts of how much hardware and software they've sold interspersed with pretty excellent technical demos. But it left me wondering, all this technology, and we're still only interested in how well we can blow things up?

Really, aside from Ted Price's new Ratchet and Clank demo and a new "lots of ducks" demo which was transformed, this time, into a "lots of fish swimming" demo, the other exhibitions were all about massive destruction: of cars, of environments, of people. The only suggestion that something like behavioral simulations could also be enhanced was in a Warhawk demo, where the way the enemy shot at you was called "Ambient Warfare."

Wonderland:

Here's what you need to know: it was long (an hour), and quite full of guest speakers and demos. The demos were good, but sort of like watching bad films: perfectly rendered and realistic, but the content wasn't there. Another FPS. Another racing game. Another motorcross game.

GDC 2006: "GDC Mobile Highlights"

GDC Mobile Highlights
Robert Tercek, Chairman, GDC Mobile
David DC Collier, Pikkle KK

World's biggest new media opportunity:

  • Two billion people have mobile phones (by 2009, one half of humanity will have a mobile phone)
  • More than 800 million handsets sold each year (Nokia makes six phones every second)
  • More than one million new connections (new mobile customers) every day
Truly global market:
  • Japan: 95 million (50% 3G)
  • Korea: 40 million
  • US: 200 million
  • Germany: 75 million
  • Italy: 68 million
  • UK: 58 million
  • Brazil: 86 million
  • India: 73 million
  • Russia: 130 million
  • China: 400 million
Market drivers: why is this happening now?
  1. Low cost and speed of network rollout
  2. Handset subsidy puts mobile phones in hands of millions
  3. Moore's Law: silicon price/power curve (today's mobile phone has graphics rendering power equivalent to PlayStation 1) (250 million smart phones this year)
  4. Networking built in
  5. Micro-transaction and subscription billing built in
  6. Network effect (fax effect)
Intense competition is both good and bad:
  • Collapses the cycle of innovation
  • But...
  • Fragmentation of platform (over 700 builds for mass market release)
  • Urge for differentiation leads to inconsistent user experience
Who publishes mobile games?
  • Mobile pureplays
  • Giant media companies
  • Traditional game publishers
Mobile game categories:
  • Arcade classics
  • Puzzle games
  • Console ports
  • Mobile originals

GDC 2006: "Platform Keynote: PlayStation 3: Beyond the Box"

Platform Keynote: PlayStation 3: Beyond the Box
Phil Harrison, President, Worldwide Studios, Sony Computer Entertainment

I didn't take notes during this session, so this entry is an opinion piece and not a transcription.

Of course, we know that audiences never remember more than three points in any given presentation. Sony kept this in mind and so they had three points they wanted to make. As far as I could tell, they were:

  1. We sure have sold a lot of units of the PlayStation 1 and 2!
  2. Look at our shiny new hardware. Look at it!
  3. We're thinking about network services. No, really!
Yes, the PlayStation 1 and 2 have been phenomenal successes. I'd be touting them were I in Sony's shoes. But we all know that. So that leaves the hardware and the network.

I must be jaded, because the PlayStation 3 demonstrations didn't do all that much for me. But then I feel the same way about the Xbox 360. It's not that they're unimpressive platforms -- it's just that we as consumers, and even we as sometime-game designers -- have become jaded by seeing platform transitions that were phenomenal, like from the Super Nintendo to the PlayStation 1. The leap from Xbox to Xbox 360, or from PlayStation 2 to 3, simply can't be as impressive as past leaps forward -- it's impossible.

As to Sony's network strategy, it reminded me of when the government wants to announce that they're concerned about something, but they're not ready to actually do anything about it as yet. So what do they do? Announce that they're studying the problem. Try as I might, I couldn't actually discern anything new in Sony's talk on their network strategy. They're going to have one. It's really important to them. They're thinking about it a lot. They'll tell us more later this year. It will all be ready when PlayStation 3 ships.

Coverage of this keynote can be found on Gamasutra and GameSpot.

GDC 2006: "What's Next Panel"

What's Next Panel
Jamil Moledina, Director, GDC, CMP Game Group
David Perry, Founder Shiny Entertainment
Cyrus Lum, Midway Games
Mark Cerny, Cerny Games
Masaya Matsuura, NanaOn-sha
Louis Castle, Electronic Arts

From the guide: "This panel of industry experts engage in a detailed discussion on the key issues affecting the industry, including: the technical and artistic hurdles of next-generation game creation, the convergence of film and game, the system-wide changes in the efficient production of bigger games, the broadening of the game-playing market, and more."

Jamil Moledina

The push towards next-gen is first and foremost on everyone's mind. What are the key opportunities for developers?

David Perry

I want to take a look at the Korean market. We need to look hard at how to reduce the price of our games. $3-5/hour of playtime for PC and console games versus much less for MMORPGs.

Cyrus Lum

For next-generation systems, we're designing for the niche market, for the hardcore market, not for the mass market. We need to look at how to reach the mass market.

Louis Castle

It becomes more and more important to be efficient, and efficiencies come from specialization. We have far more specialists and far fewer generalists than we had in the past. You'll see groups specializing not just by platform, or by product type, but by a specific type of component.

David Perry

I salute Nintendo for thinking about how to make the controller easier to use. The controller is where we get killed when we're trying to go mass-market. In the old days of arcade games, there was a new style of control layout for every new game. This was great. Then we standardized on control layouts and innovation stopped.

Jamil Moledina

What do you see as the downsides of moving to next-generation consoles?

Mark Cerny

It's fantastically complex to create these next-generation products. We're headed into the era of middleware, but we haven't defined what it is. We need to resolve this to get games out to market.

Louis Castle

The big epic types of games that I like to make are orders of magnitude more difficult and expensive to make. There are a lot of different solutions, middleware included. I believe in the less is more solution, using what you already have. We have this expectation that every product has to have everything, but games like Guitar Hero that do one thing extremely well, can be very successful. Let's focus in on those things that are going to pay off. The next time I see a proposal that says, "This is going to be Grand Theft Auto with airplanes, and we're going to throw in everything..."

Cyrus Lum

You can't just grab various gameplay mechanics and throw them together. You have to think about the experience you want your players to have. Do you want your players to feel excited? proud? Then work back from there to the gameplay mechanics you need to support that experience.

David Perry

There's a big difference between what the hardware manufacturers want us to make and what the publishers are willing to fund. The hardware makers want originality. The publishers want sequels that reduce their risk. With that said, the beginning of the hardware cycle is when you have a chance -- if you're launching into a mature platform, it's all about sequels and franchises, and new IP has no chance.

Cyrus Lum

You can't make your money back on a $15-25 million dollar product. You have to think about building a franchise and making your money back over two or three titles. We need to look at more creative ways of financing titles. We also need to look at more efficient production methods. Art for next-generation titles is four times as expensive as for last-generation titles. We need to plan better so that we have fewer re-dos in the art process. You can still change your mind, but it costs you $2 million every time. It used to cost $500,000.

Louis Castle

I'd be fired if I proposed losing money on a title and making it back over one or two sequels. We have to make money as we go. We can't build products that are over-scoped.

Mark Cerny

The recoup for a $20 million product is 1.2 million units for an international product. 1.2 million units doesn't sound that high.

Louis Castle

But we're talking about next-generation consoles with limited markets at the moment.

Jamil Moledina

Publishers are experimenting with digital distribution. Xbox Live Arcade and Steam are successful examples of this. Where is digital distribution headed?

David Perry

I see digital distribution as a frontier that could lead to disruptive innovation. I live in a world of paranoia about what's going to happen to us. Will Apple create some clever distribution system? What if MySpace starts giving full games to people? Or Google? What might happen five or ten years from now? What if we're competing against full-quality, $20 million games?

Cyrus Lum

If I were to do a startup, I'd want to look at opportunities with telecom companies -- people with big, fat pipes. Let's do a five-project deal to get people to sign up with you for services. Cut out the middleman.

Jamil Moledina

How can developers create titles moving forward? What options do they have?

David Perry

As I said, I'm looking at the Korean market, where people create niche titles for small audiences and give them away for free, then grab revenue via special enhancements and similar mechanisms. Imagine that PC Gamer arrives on your door tomorrow and it has a full, free copy of a massive multiplayer version of FIFA Soccer. You'd start playing, and lots of other people would, and then the publisher could make money by selling add-ons into the user base.

Louis Castle

That sounds frighteningly similar to the dot-com era. I would caution anyone against saying, "let's go get eyeballs and figure out how to monetize them later on."

If you look at how many recently successful games had some sort of beta or demo, the ratio isn't quite 1:1, but it's close. Consumers have been burned, and they're savvy. At the end of the day, your product has to be of high quality. Consumers will buy titles if they're good, but they need to know that it's good, either because they've played it or because someone they trust has told them that it's good. But the media is less trustworthy than it was.

I think you're going to see the average gamer's library shrink and the rental business continue to grow. Rental is going to impact our business, and it's going to force us to deliver high-quality product.

Jamil Moledina

People are talking about outsourcing. How should developers approach it?

Cyrus Lum

So far, we're concentrating on art, because outsourced art is fairly well-proven. Developers who outsource will fail if it's not incorporated in the production process and planned for carefully.

Mark Cerny

It isn't what you spend, it's what you sell. What matters is what you create, and whether it will sell five million units. An amazing amount of game development (and film production) happens in California, which is one of the most expensive places in the world. I think it's silly to focus too much on reducing costs instead of focusing on building the right products.

Louis Castle

Outsourcing won't solve your problems. If you want the best looking x, go out and find the best person to create x, and be prepared to pay the price. You're not going to mitigate risk by reducing your costs through outsourcing -- you need to be focused on getting the right product at the end.

Jamil Moledina

What games are you playing now?

David Perry

SWAT 4, Guitar Hero, lots of international games, the WildTangent stuff, Black, Ghost Recon on the Xbox 360.

Cyrus Lum

Guitar Hero, the Maze Game.

Mark Cerny

Final Fantasy 12.

Masaya Matsuura

I'm playing what I'm developing now.

Louis Castle

Everything that comes out on the Xbox 360, Ghost Recon on the Xbox 360, Black, Guitar Hero.

SGS 2006: More SGS Coverage

Here and here.

March 21, 2006

SGS 2006: "Serious Games Case Study Blasts"

Serious Games Case Study Blasts

Michael Hillinger, Norwich University
Chuck Kinzer, Columbia University

CO2FX is a global warming simulation for students. The underlying model -- which is preexisting and was built using Stella, a systems simulation tool -- includes not only the carbon cycle but also political, social, and other factors. The front end was built using Flash in less than six months for less than $100,000. It can be played here.

The game is multi-user. Three students sit at one computer, and they represent one country. Other countries are represented and tie into the model. Students play policy, economic, or science advisors. The game is set up to encourage students to take into account the same factors as would the real-world counterparts for their positions -- in other words, to fight for and against the things they'd be likely to care about, and therefore to work with and against each other.

Filip Fastenaekels, VRT
Swen Vincke, Larian Studios

Kids Interactive Community (KIC) is a Belgian service where kids create content (drawings, animations, content, and more). It's linked to a companion TV show. Each day, editors at the service select the "best" content and it's shown on TV, with a VJ-like host providing commentary.

Kevin Harvey, University of Illinois at Chicago
Freddy Guime, University of Illinois at Chicago

Our mission is to train public health workers for the city of Chicago. We've created a massive multiplayer online simulation of vaccine and medicine distribution.

The dangers:

  • Bioterrorism attack (smallpox, anthrax)
  • Outbreaks (pan-flu, the Plague)
Our challenge:
  • Develop an online simulation of a mass medication dispensing and vaccination center (DVC) and record worker performance
  • The game must play on department computers (not gaming computers)
  • 20,000-50,000 need training in a DVC to be able to distribute medication and/or vaccinations to all 2.9 million Chicago residents within 48 hours
Previous solutions:
  • Classroom instruction (limited in size, difficult to get workers away from their desks)
  • Live exercises and drills (hard to get workers to attend, hard to assess performance, shuts down other services)
  • Paper drills
  • Online courses (takes care of theoretical / didactical portion)
Create a computer simulation:
  • Simulate DVC operations
  • Present challenges to individuals and groups
  • Test critical thinking and problem solving
  • Allow for multiplayer communication and collaboration to solve challenges
We decided that what was important was not modeling the physical space (e.g., the layout of the DVC space), but the "thinking space". We use videos of actors for face-to-face interaction scenarios and an overhead view for resource management.

Our first effort was based on the Torque 2D engine, but we ran into technical difficulties -- hardware requirements, IT conflicts, and the like. We decided that we couldn't use a game engine for our project, so we reimplemented using a Web-based solution, specifically, AJAX.

SGS 2006: Who Else Is Blogging SGS?

I'm curious about who else is blogging the Serious Games Summit. I've found four blogs: Jerry Paffendorf, Mark Oehlert, Brent Schlenker, and a blog called in the guise of... by someone with the first name of Brook.

I suspect there will be far more bloggers at the Game Developers Conference, which gets underway tomorrow.

SGS 2006: "What's Wrong With Serious Games?"

What's Wrong With Serious Games?
James Paul Gee, University of Wisconsin
Ben Sawyer, DigitalMill
Henry Kelly, Federation of American Scientists

Ben Sawyer

Self examination matters. It's important to keep ourselves honest by anticipating criticisms.

Let's face facts. Many people outside this room think that serious games are a joke. A lot of companies who think they can create serious games, can't. There's too much unfinished work -- we've been holding these conferences for five years and we're still seeing lots of prototypes.

Gizmondo lost $250 million last year -- that's more revenue than the entire serious games space has taken in in the last four years, if not more. We're a rounding error.

Henry Kelly

Challenges:

  • Skepticism about the possibility for real improvements
  • Incomplete evidence, demand for large scale statistical proof (OMB, ED reviews) (if you haven't invented something, how do you generate large scale statistical proof for its effectiveness?)
  • Weak support from traditional education lobbyists -- fifth on everyone's list
  • Culture wars over education and a chronic budget crisis
  • Real and perceived weakness of the education research infrastructure
Self-inflicted wounds:
  • Over-promising (the edutainment fiasco, dot-bombs)
  • Get rich quick investments produced some poor material
  • No tradtion of systematic development (everything is a cottage industry -- you give someone a small pot of money and they go try and invent everything)
  • Huge latitude in what is called a game (buzzword de jour) (there are lots of things that are called games that aren't really games)
  • Don't really know where game techniques work (who, what, when)
  • Hot and cold media
A path forward:
  • Develop agreed metrics of success
  • Recognize that developing successful games for learning must be a part of a systematic program to design and test innovations in learning
  • Create an exciting, clearly articulated research program combining gaming expertise, learning science, computational science
  • Spiral development: build it, try it, try again (prepare for the long haul)
  • Build on proposals in play because of innovation initiatives (PACE, DO IT -- legislation currently being discussed that would focus on improving education in science and math)
James Paul Gee

I don't view the problem so much as defining what's wrong with the field as much as how important it is to get to the next stage before the enterprise collapses.

Cognitive science is a good example of a new field that started up with many of the same problems that serious games faces.

We need to discuss shared paradigms, things that we in our community can point to as examples of what is good -- the emerging common values of our field.

We need to confront central questions, disagree over them, fight over them. For example, what is the power of a game? We don't all agree on that. The power of games is that they put you inside a world, and you see the world from that perspective and have to solve problems from that perspective.

Games are a medium and like all media, they have a big emotional impact. But their pleasure is cognitive, in problem solving.

People say the problem with this space is that it costs so much to create serious games to current game standards. I don't agree with that. You don't need great graphics to have a great game. The problem isn't competing with Halo 2 -- competing with Final Fantasy IV would be just fine.

Game designers have to work together with learning designers, and they have to eventually come to speak a common language.

We can't go on much longer without killer apps. The commercial games field has killer apps, but we don't, not yet. When it comes to leading serious games, we're still too focused on violence and killing. We have Full Spectrum Warrior, but we need Full Spectrum Virus.

What will energize this space is that we're going to have a crisis over innovation. Our schools aren't producing people who can innovate. This means that all the jobs -- not just the low-end jobs -- will go to China and India. This will be our ticket past the current politics.

Q&A

Q: Is some of our problem basically semantics? Do we need to defeat expansionist views of what serious games will be? And can we stop saying that serious games are all about learning? There are plenty of examples of serious games that have nothing to do with learning. [Ben Sawyer]
A: In any good game, learning is the drug. It's a deep pleasure to people when it's done in the right way. [James Paul Gee]
A: The Department of Defense is doing the best job at this sort of thing, with lots of studies and proof as to the effectiveness of all of this. [Henry Kelly]

Q: Where have we set expectations as of today? We've said things like, "serious games are going to be learning crack". Yet most commercial games aren't reviewed all that well. [Ben Sawyer]
A: I think our batting average could end up being better than in the commercial realm. There, there's competition for the same things -- for example, everyone wants to make, say, a first-person shooter that takes all the money. But we're going to build products for niches, more like independent films. [James Paul Gee]
A: We need permission to fail. We need to experiment and have some interesting failures. This implies some level of public funding. [Henry Kelly]

Q: Are we apologists for Grand Theft Auto? Do we exist as a counterbalance to things people don't like about some commercial games?

Q: How much of the assessment issue is on the wrong path? There are a lot of people looking for silver bullets, one-size-fits-all solutions. It seems like we spend a lot of time assessing the game instead of the overall learning solution in which it exists. [Ben Sawyer]
A: The assessment model we have for things that aren't games (like schools) is broken. This is something we have to offer. Games like Rise of Nations provide players with huge amounts of performance data. As a paradigm for assessment, that's more sophisticated than a lot of what we do in schools and workplaces. This is a real contribution we can make. [James Paul Gee]
A: Many benefits of games don't show up on standardized testing models. [Henry Kelly]

My Conference Blogging Style

At the end of the presentation "Putting Games to Work" yesterday, my co-worker Christophe looked at my laptop screen, saw me posting to my blog, and said, "It's already up? How can you do that? Oh, you're not adding any commentary -- you're just transcribing."

When I'm in a conference session and taking notes for a blog entry (or for a private description of the session), I'm neither smart enough nor a fast enough typist to be able to a) listen to and assimilate what the speaker is saying, b) take detailed notes of the talk, and c) provide real-time analysis of what's being said. So my style is to listen, understand, and transcribe, but leave the written analysis for later.

As the week progresses, I'll look back over the sessions, try to find the themes, and if I come up with anything interesting to say by way of commentary, I'll post it here.

March 20, 2006

SGS 2006: "Putting Games to Work"

Putting Games to Work
Byron Reeves, Stanford University
Rob Martyn, game producer
Seriosity, Inc.

Key concepts:

  • Radical breadth
  • Enterprise / games / science
  • Establish a common "vocabulary"
  • Merging cultural diversity
We're going to be talking about games at work -- not training for work, but as part of work.

We're bringing together game experts, Stanford professors, and McKinsey consultants to work on this -- a broad range of expertise.

We're trying to create a taxonomy of work done in the enterprise and see how it's done in games like World of Warcraft. What are the implications of an interface like this for something that's boring, like databases?

Games and work -- the hypothesis:

  • Use the power of games to transform information work mediated by computers
  • Work too easy or too hard isn't fun
  • Games can align objectives of individuals and organizations
  • Beyond copying game features
  • Beyond learning and training

Why this might work #1 -- the game market:

  • Huge revenue
  • Broad penetration (100 million Americans played a video or computer game last week)
  • Changing demographics (mean age 26-29 in MMO; increasingly gender-balanced)
  • Time (mean play time = 22 hours/week)
  • Economics
  • 3G UI and the metaverse
Why this might work #2 -- the future of work:
  • Declining cost of communication (media rich interactions cheaper and face-to-face costlier)
  • Decentralization (power resides at lower levels in organization)
  • Democratization of work (greater participation in decisions that matter)
  • Coordinate and cooperate replaces command and control
The gamer generation:
  • Competition is fun and familiar
  • Failure doesn't hurt
  • Risk is part of the game
  • Feedback needs to be immediate
  • Trial and error the best plan
  • There's always an answer
  • Bonds beyond cultural background
  • Bosses and rules are less important
The first question is, what's success, anyway? This is the early learning market all over again. We want to think big, with multiple objectives, multiple consumers, and measurable results. Production versus design is a big issue -- in games, production has to adjudicate between engineers and artists; in our market, there are many more competing drivers.

Key gaming concepts:

  • Old school versus new school
  • Consistent levels of abstraction
  • Self representation and reputation
  • Multiple levels of engagement
  • Tangible versus virtual rewards (virtual rewards tend to be perceived as much more valuable)
  • The ether is coming... (wireless anywhere will change the dynamics)
  • ...but variety never goes away
Avatars versus agents -- does it matter if the other character is controlled by a real person?
  • Games are combination of reality and fantasy
  • Empathy for other players despite fantasy context
  • Activation in right inferior parietal region with real players
  • Brain region involved in self-other connectedness
We set up an experiment with people playing a simple game within an fMRI scanner. We told people they were playing with / against a) a human player and b) a computer player. In both cases, the other player was actually a computer. When you think that the other element is controlled by another person, your brain lights up completely different. You believe what's happening, you're excited, you're sweating. If you're playing with / against a player you believe to be a computer, it's a simple visual stimulus.

Showed an example of using Star Wars Galaxies. They've inserted video feeds of real cancer samples (as opposed to images of Star Wars characters) into gameplay that is already related to medical training. With 35 players and 20 hours of practice, the crowd of 35 players is more accurate at diagnosing samples (as a whole, not individually) than a trained pathologist.

Showed an example of using Puzzle Pirates, a 25,000-player MMO. Players advance their reputation by playing mini-puzzle games. They want to insert different games into the same overall context, so instead of puzzling, for example, a worker might be resolving customer service calls. They would use objective metrics of a call to judge how well the worker did, and give her all the same rewards for doing well that would be available to a normal puzzle player.

Possible pitfalls:

  • Who's in charge? (the game guy? the IT guy?)
  • The @##@($&#^%$ IT guy (is it true that you're screwed if you have to deal with IT? make it a big idea so that they'll break their rules)
  • Compelling gestalt for multiple buyers
  • Research? What research? (game makers don't care about research)
  • "Can't you just..."(different expecations between game makers and academics / consultants)
Summary:
  • Beware the "they don't get it" environment
  • Cracking corporate usage (metrics for the enterprise, radical breadth (know about games and work), buyers aren't 20 year old gamers)
  • Opportunity (revolutionize the nature of work)
Q&A

Q: In the fMRI simulation, how much is the player involvement related to the fidelity of the simulation?
A: We've seen the same results in both an extremely simplistic environment (two dots on a screen) and a complex environment, World of Warcraft.

Q: How much is fun related to the fact that I can quit a game at home, but if I'm at work, I can't end it when I want to end it?
A: We're not talking about casual games here. They need to be as engaging as an MMORPG. It may also be that you don't stick the design of the game into the design of work, but rather vice-versa.

Q: This is to me a pretty frightening future. You're mixing entertainment with reality, so I'm a pawn in someone else's game.
A: This is kind of dangerous, and powerful, like new drugs that are being developed. But as a customer, do you care why the call center wants to make you happy, as long as they want to make you happy? We want to line up corporate objectives with individual objectives.

SGS 2006: "New Ways to Assess in Game Actions..."

New Ways to Assess in Game Actions and Guide in Game Communication
Elaine Raybourn, Sandia National Laboratories
Randy Brown, Virtual Heroes

In an open-ended environment, how can we (serious games designers) guide player interactions and foster free play which focuses on strategic communication and emergent outcomes aligned with intended learning principles?

Why simulation experience design? Experience design solutions require that designers understand what makes a good experience first, and then translate these principles, as well as possible, into the desired medium without the technology dictating the form of the experience.

Personas are hypothetical archetypes often used to identify the needs of a single user in a scenario , and therefore focus one's design goals (Cooper, 1999).

Designing from the "interaction out model":

  • Interaction (dynamic content, personas, roles: players) ->
  • Narrative (scenarios) ->
  • Place (game level) ->
  • Emergent culture (assessment, feedback, and AAR)
All of this is centered on an intercultural communication framework.

Demonstrated the Adaptive Thinking and Leadership (ATL) tool built for the JFKSWCS at Fort Bragg.

[T]his application is being used by Special Forces Soldiers at Fort Bragg for training which encompasses role-playing negotiation (soft skills training). In the application soldiers take part in online virtual events which include cross cultural communications scenarios with indigenous people.
Based on America's Army, up to 10 players (students), plus others who are evaluators. No NPCs -- all roles played by humans. Voice masking is used.

We think that this approach can be used for all sorts of soft skill training: corporate training and education, patient/doctor communication, intercultural for K-12, social change, diplomacy, crisis resource management, pharmaceutical sales training, chaplain and religious services.

What's next from in-game assessment?

  • Physiology
  • Cognition
  • Communication in context (communication apprehension, emotions, non-verbal expressiveness)
  • Serious games design feedback
  • Training
Demonstrated a wireless headset that (EmSense) that has the ability to measure mental and physical activity / stress (using GSR, heart rate, eye blinks, etc.) and then feed this information into the simulation for display during AAR.

Conclusions:

  • Adopt a "parenting approach" to design: enable others to own and modify the environment
  • Integrate game design, writing, player interactions, narratives, actions, intended goals, new in-game assessmeent and feedback, and dynamic visual and auditory content in a training game system to create a shared place and foster emergent third culture through community ownership
Q&A

Q: Have you thought of feeding the physiological information back into the simulation in real time?
A: Yes, we have. The Army is interested in automatic escalation of events, i.e., applying more and more pressure as the system starts to fall apart. Do this automatically so that the system isn't so dependent on how good the instructor is that particular day.

Q: How did you account for differences in resolution between computer displays and the human eye?
A: We don't right now. We can't account for everything.

Q: How can your simulation be authentic if you have soldiers playing the roles of host nationals (i.e., indigenous people)?
A: Many of the instructors in role-playing positions have returned from the field and have experience with host nation cultures and practices. Also, when available, we have host nationals play these roles, but this isn't typical.

SGS 2006: "You Can (Not) Be Serious!"

[As noted, I'll be blogging as many of the sessions as I can at the Serious Games Summit and the Game Developers Conference this week. This is the first.]

You Can (Not) Be Serious!
Philip Rosedale, CEO, Linden Lab (makers of Second Life)

"Life is a game. Money is how we keep score." -- Ted Turner

Games are constrained situations with goals that happen within worlds. We don't create games; we create the world in which games can exist.

As people, we can imagine the world to be much better than it is. This is what inspires Second Life: the idea that we as people can imagine things and want to do and play with things that we in our waking lives can't achieve, or can only achieve with enormous risk or labor or effort.

Objects in Second Life are small Constructive Solid Geometry (CSG) objects that can be glued together and given behaviors, We've created a scripting language that lets users create behaviors and assign them to objects. Second Life is 100 percent user-created.

For the last 18 months, we've had the core technology available to build a working kite (particle system-based string, blows in the wind), but we didn't think of doing it. A couple of weeks ago, we saw the first kite appear.

Some Second Life statistics:

  • 32,000 acres, which is larger than Boston
  • $5 million per month in goods and services transactions
  • 10 million objects. 15 terabytes of user-created data
  • 2 teraflops CPU simulation
  • More than 500 events per day
  • 230,000 different things sold or traded monthly
Scene from Second Life: A little girl holding a sign saying, "Family Killed By Ninjas. Need $$ For Kung Fu Lessons".

Users are making cars, jewelry, guns, services, anything you can think of. There are people working full-time and making a living at it in Second Life. One woman designs and makes clothing. Another is a real estate developer.

The Second Life user base is (based on self-identification) 43 percent female, but women tend to stay on Second Life longer than men: the percentage of new sign-ups is less than 43 percent female. The median age is 32. 25 percent are international. The age curve looks a lot like the US population as a whole.

New media are always used for entertainment first. One of things I think we'll be remembered for is this intuition, to make Second Life look more like a game at first, because that's how new media start.

Can you tell me about the files in your directories? Can you tell me about the last few Websites you've visited, in order? Probably not. Can you tell me about the stuff in your kitchen? Yes, in great detail. Second Life is a "memory palace", providing unique contexts that make it easier to remember things.

It has been said that virtual worlds make it possible for people to run away from their identities. That's not true. It makes it easier for people to truly express themselves. You can more easily make choices about what you wear, where you live, whom you associate with, that say profound things about you, than you can in the real world.

Some examples of what people do with the system:

  • Logistics simulations
  • Live performances (sometimes fusing real world and Second Life)
  • Movie making (obviously much cheaper than in the real world)
  • Education (17 classes this semester)
  • Therapeutic use
  • Charity and giving (extremely successful on a per-capita basis)

March 19, 2006

The Outer Bay

I spent this morning at my favorite aquarium in the world, the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It was my first time there in years, and once inside, I went straight for my favorite spot, the Outer Bay exhibit -- home to an acrylic window that's 54 feet wide by 15 feet tall, 13 inches thick, weighing 78,000 pounds, holding back 1.2 million gallons of seawater.

The Outer Bay

The Outer Bay exhibit.

Standing directly in front of the window, it encompasses one's entire field of vision, which makes the experience incredibly immersive. I plan on learning to scuba dive, but this is as close as I imagine I'll ever get to being in the open ocean, watching schools of yellowfin and bluefin tuna swim by.

March 17, 2006

Off to California Tomorrow

Tomorrow morning, I'm off to California for a week at the Serious Games Summit and the Game Developers Conference. I'll be blogging both as much as I can, so if you're interested, stay tuned here.

It's going to be a busy week -- between the two conferences during the day and catching up with friends over breakfasts and dinners, nearly all my time is spoken for while I'm there. I know I'll come home tired and needing some down time, but happy and enlightened.

Speaking at Apply Serious Games 2006

I'll be speaking at the Apply Serious Games 2006 conference in London this May. The conference runs 25-26 May; my talk will be on the first day:

Abstract Title: Game Engine-Based Instruction: A Nuclear Submarine Security Case Study

This presentation is an in-depth look at a serious game project from conception to shipment, a force protection and anti-terrorism training tool developed for the Submarine On-Board Training (SOBT) group within the US Naval Submarine School (NAVSUBSCOL).

SOBT had previously developed a video-based trainer consisting of a series of simple branching scenarios. As is typical of video-based trainers, modifications after the fact to reflect changing conditions (e.g., changing doctrine) were difficult. The solution was a simulation-based engine using a role playing game (RPG)-style user interface, with editable XML-based scenario definition files. In the first phase of the project, the project team replicated the 17 scenarios of the original video-based product; in the second phase, the team extended these scenarios from the exterior of the submarine to include 5 new scenarios taking place within a detailed model of the submarine interior.

This presentation will include experiences and lessons learned, both business and development, and from the perspectives of both the developer and the customer.

It should be a fun conference, and it has been far too long since I've been in London. Actually, I just went to look it up and I haven't stayed in London (I'm not counting connecting through Heathrow) since May 1998 -- that will be eight years by the time of my trip. It's funny -- I've been to Paris many times since then, and to Tokyo too many times to count (it's over 10), but somehow London fell off the radar. It will be good to get back.

March 16, 2006

"Maybe Tomorrow"

First heard during the end credits of Crash last night, from Stereophonic's You Gotta Go There to Come Back, "Maybe Tomorrow" is the only song I've ever added to my all-time top 40 playlist after listening to it just once.

Every so often there's a razor's edge between yesterday's despair and tomorrow's hope, between the sadness of the past and the joy of the future, and "Maybe Tomorrow" dances along that blade better than any song I've ever heard.

March 15, 2006

Annie Proulx and Sour Grapes

Via Andrew Sullivan, Annie Proulx's commentary on the Academy Awards for The Guardian:

The people connected with Brokeback Mountain, including me, hoped that, having been nominated for eight Academy awards, it would get Best Picture as it had at the funny, lively Independent Spirit awards the day before... We should have known conservative heffalump academy voters would have rather different ideas of what was stirring contemporary culture. Roughly 6,000 film industry voters, most in the Los Angeles area, many living cloistered lives behind wrought-iron gates or in deluxe rest-homes, out of touch not only with the shifting larger culture and the yeasty ferment that is America these days, but also out of touch with their own segregated city, decide which films are good. And rumour has it that Lions Gate inundated the academy voters with DVD copies of Trash -- excuse me -- Crash a few weeks before the ballot deadline. Next year we can look to the awards for controversial themes on the punishment of adulterers with a branding iron in the shape of the letter A, runaway slaves, and the debate over free silver...

The hours sped by on wings of boiler plate. Brokeback's first award was to Argentinean Gustavo Santaolalla for the film's plangent and evocative score. Later came the expected award for screenplay adaptation to Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, and only a short time later the director's award to Ang Lee. And that was it, three awards, putting it on equal footing with King Kong. When Jack Nicholson said best picture went to Crash, there was a gasp of shock, and then applause from many -- the choice was a hit with the home team since the film is set in Los Angeles. It was a safe pick of "controversial film" for the heffalumps...

For those who call this little piece a Sour Grapes Rant, play it as it lays.

A quick refresher on foxes and grapes:

One hot summer's day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. "Just the things to quench my thirst," quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: "I am sure they are sour."
Annie, for your piece to be a sour grapes rant, you'd have to claim you didn't want the award after all -- which you didn't. "The people connected with Brokeback Mountain, including me, hoped that... it would get Best Picture" disqualifies your column as a sour grapes rant. It's just a rant.

March 14, 2006

Unabridged "Spore" Video

Via Boing Boing, an unabridged video of Will Wright's talk on Spore can be found here.

How to Get Exit Row Seating

Via InFlightHQ, a column on Microsoft's Small Business Center on getting the best seat on a plane:

The best seats on the plane are sometimes not in first class. Talk to the most frequent business travelers, and they'll probably agree. The ideal seat is usually in the exit row of economy class. Frequent business travelers dream of having that row, which often boasts more legroom than a first-class or business-class seat, all to themselves. It's also child-free, so they can get their work done in peace and quiet. And what if they don't get it? The bulkhead seat in economy class (that's the one just before the line separating economy from first) is a choice assignment. Beyond that, experienced air travelers normally opt for the front section of economy class (there's less engine noise) or they use their frequent flier miles to score an upgrade into the next class of service.

Tip: As you can imagine, these coveted seats go quickly. They are blocked off for frequent fliers and often, they aren't released until a few hours before the flight is scheduled to depart. It's best to reserve a seat in economy class, arrive at the airport early, and then ask a ticket agent if there's any availability in an exit row.

The author is right; exit row seats are often (though not always) the best seats on the aircraft. But his tips for grabbing those seats are incomplete at best. On most US airlines, you'll have to be lucky to get exit row seating at the airport these days, no matter how early you get there. So how to get it?

If you have elite status with an airline, it's easy. Most (if not all) US airlines allow their elite travelers to reserve exit row seating at any time prior to 24 hours before departure. You don't need super-elite status; any will do. So focus enough of your flying to get at least the lowest level of elite status with one airline -- preferably the airline most convenient to your travel needs.

If you can't do that, or if you have to fly on another airline, here's the secret: most (if not all) US airlines allow Web check-in, and treat it just as if you were checking in at the airport -- in other words, those exit row seats that were formerly unavailable except to elite travelers become available to anyone who meets the safety criteria. And most US airlines allow Web check-in beginning 24 hours prior to departure of the first flight of your trip. So set a reminder for yourself 24 hours prior to departure. When that reminder sounds, go to the airline's Website and check in. You should be able to grab an exit row seat then -- it's your best shot.

Note that these rules change for some non-US airlines. As of this writing, Air Canada, for example, works exactly as described above, while Air France only allows exit row seat assignment at the airport, so it's a matter of getting there as early as you can tolerate to have the best chance at a good seat. Check with your airline well before traveling to determine the rules.

March 13, 2006

"Monkeys with Guns"

A quote from Will Wright, heard during the video referenced in my last entry:

I talked about landmarks last time in my talk last year, and I'm going to show you just a few of the landmarks for me in the design. One of my landmarks is I've always been fascinated with the idea of monkeys with guns. [Laughter.] And I don't know why, you know. It's just what happens when you give monkeys guns. It's just, there's something cool about that.
I had never thought about it, but there is something cool about the idea of monkeys with guns. And Spore will let us all experience that. Okay, with monkey-like creatures, anyway.

March 12, 2006

"Yours Is a Literalism of Convenience"

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. writes an open letter to a Miami-area high school teacher, Donna Reddick, who participated in a student-produced television segment broadcast within the school. The segment was part of a series featuring pro- and anti-gay opinions. In Reddick's segment, after anti-gay students had made their comments, she made hers:

The coup de grace... was you, invoking Sodom and Gomorrah and telling students homosexuality was "wrong according to the Bible" because God ordered humanity to multiply, which gay couples cannot do...

Put simply, I've had it up to here with the moral hypocrisy and intellectual constipation of Bible literalists.

By which I mean people like you, who dress their homophobia up in Scripture, insisting with sanctimonious sincerity that it's not homophobia at all, but just a pious determination to live according to what the Bible says. And never mind that the Bible also says it is "disgraceful" for a woman to speak out in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-36) and that if she has any questions, she should wait till she gets home and ask her husband. Never mind that the Bible says the penalty for going to work on Sunday (Exodus 35:1-3) is death. Never mind that the Bible says the man who rapes a virgin should buy her from her father (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) and marry her.

I'm going to speculate that you don't observe or support those commands. Which says to me that yours is a literalism of convenience, a literalism that is literal only so long as it allows you to condemn what you'd be condemning anyway and takes no skin off your personal backside. As such, your claim that God sanctions your homophobia is the moral equivalent of Flip Wilson's old claim that the devil made him do it.

You resemble many of your and my co-religionists, whose faith so often expresses itself in an obsessive focus on one or two hot-button issues -- and seemingly nowhere else. They're so panicked at the thought that somebody might accidentally treat gay people like people. They run around Chicken Little-like, screaming, "Th' homosex'shals is comin'! Th' homosex'shals is comin'!" Meantime, people are ignorant in Appalachia, strung out in Miami, starving in Niger, sex slaves in India, mass murdered in Darfur. Where is the Christian outrage about that?

"[Y]ours is a literalism of convenience, a literalism that is literal only so long as it allows you to condemn what you'd be condemning anyway and takes no skin off your personal backside." Brilliant.

Pitts could have added the following instructions from the Bible:

  • Women must not wear gold or pearls (1 Timothy 2:9).
  • A woman must not "teach or... have authority over a man" (1 Timothy 2:12).
  • People must not "not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material" (Leviticus 19:19).
  • Men must not shave (Leviticus 19:27).
  • People must not eat rabbit (Leviticus 11:6), pork (Leviticus 11:7), or shellfish (Leviticus 11:9-12).
(A tip of the hat to this page for source material.)

I suppose I'll take more seriously someone protesting homosexuality on Biblical grounds when they can show me they never work on Sunday; don't eat rabbit, pork, or shellfish; don't shave; don't wear knit fabric; and don't allow their wives to speak out in church, teach men, or wear gold or pearls. I'll think they're incredibly silly, but at least I won't think they're quite as hypocritical as most of their anti-gay brethren.

"Spore"

At last year's Game Developers Conference, Will Wright presented Spore, his latest creation. I finally got around to watching the video a few days ago, and it's simply amazing.

I've done a few stints as a game designer during my career, and for the most part, I'm proud to say that the designs I worked on broke new ground in some way. Tom Clancy SSN (I was the original designer) was a straightforward submarine combat title, but the innovation was in using visualization to give the player a view of the world around him -- a view specifically derived from the sensor and chart data he would have available to him as captain. Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six (I was one of the original co-designers) was a straightforward first-person shooter title, but the innovation was in using realistic tactics and effects -- "one shot kills" was a mantra of ours. But Spore is at least an order of magnitude more innovative than anything I've worked on -- it defies existing categories and creates an entirely new game genre.

Spore Screenshot 1

In Spore, the player progresses from guiding cellular evolution...

Spore Screenshot 2

...to working with creatures...

Spore Screenshot 3

...then tribes...

Spore Screenshot 4

...then cities...

Spore Screenshot 5

...and finally civilizations.

What might not be obvious from the screenshots, but is the focus of the video, is that Spore is astonishingly flexible and open-ended. No two players' creatures or civilizations need look alike -- in fact, I would guess that no two will ever look alike. I imagine that Will and his team are incredibly anxious to release their game into the world and see what people create. My hunch is that he wants to create a massively multiplayer world where players can go exploring to look at and interact with each others' creations.

As it turns out, Will is giving another keynote -- undoubtedly a Spore update -- at this year's Game Developers Conference, which I'll be attending in a week's time. I can't wait to see what he has to show... and hopefully we'll all be playing Spore this year.

(Spore coverage from Wired, GameSpot, and GameSpy.)

March 11, 2006

Sugared Soda = Type 2 Diabetes

I've been meaning to blog about this for over a year now, but it's no less interesting now than it was in 2004, and most people with whom I've talked about it haven't heard ot it, so here goes.

According to a long-term study of 91,000 women (story here, study press release here, drinking even one sugared soda per day dramatically increases one's chances of developing adult-onset diabetes. From the story:

The doctors behind one of the nation's most comprehensive public health studies have concluded what most dieters already know: Chugging down sodas packs on the pounds.

The study of more than 90,000 women also suggests that increased consumption of sodas and other sugary drinks may significantly increase the chance of getting adult-onset diabetes, according to the study published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association...

The study shows that women who drank one or more sugary drinks a day had an 83 percent greater chance of developing type 2 diabetes than women who drank less than one a month...

Even though researchers adjusted their findings to account for increases in other kinds of foods and snacks, including red meat, french fries, sweets and fruit, and for levels of exercise, smoking rates and other lifestyle issues, the study's authors said it comes down to drinking sodas.

The press release provides more specific information on the link:

More than 91,000 participants who had filled out biennial food frequency questionnaires between 1991 and 1999 were chosen for the study from the Brigham and Women's Hospital-based Nurses' Health Study II. During the eight-year span of the study, 741 new cases of type 2 diabetes were diagnosed. Those who reported drinking sugar-sweetened sodas more than once per day showed an increased risk for type 2 diabetes of more than 80 percent compared to women in the study who drank less than one per month, independent of lifestyle factors such as smoking, alcohol, physical activity, and dietary habits. Those who drank more than one fruit punch per day showed a nearly doubled risk for type 2 diabetes compared to those in the study who reported drinking less than one per month. The researchers also assessed intake of fruit juice (orange, pineapple or apple juice) and found no increased risk for type 2 diabetes.
In a story on the soft drink industry's response (hint: they didn't like the study), a theory is proposed for what's happening:
[I]n addition to extra calories, the beverages might also increase diabetes risk because their high amount of rapidly absorbed sugars causes a dramatic rise in glucose and insulin concentrations in the body, said Dr. Walter Willett, one of the study's co-authors.

"I think there is a very practical implication of this study, both for weight control and for type 2 diabetes -- keep soda consumption low," said Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Fruit juice consumption was not associated with diabetes risk, and diet soft drinks were not statistically significant, but sugared fruit punch showed similar results to sugared soda.

So:

  • Bad: Coke, Pepsi, Snapple
  • Good: Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, Diet Snapple, pure fruit juice

March 10, 2006

BoingBoing's Greatest Moment

It's true, I'm biased: I think BoingBoing is the best blog going. But they surpassed themselves today.

There's a story that involves Secure Computing and its SmartFilter censorware, BoingBoing, and a Secure Computing employee who has been apparently outed as having a fairly interesting fetish. I don't need to repeat it here -- the blogosphere is covering the issue quite extensively. What I'm concerned with here is BoingBoing's response to this alleged outing:

We believe there's nothing wrong with consenting adults doing what they enjoy with other consenting adults, and writing about it on USENET if they want. If there's any black pot to Foote-Lennox's [Tomo Foote-Lennox, director of filtering data at Secure Computing, makers of SmartFilter] alleged charcoal grey kettle, it's us. We're all about celebrating the weird, about wooing the muse of the odd. About being in touch with your inner outsider.

What is relevant about the alt.sex.diapers and alt.sex.bondage posts attributed to Foote-Lennox is this: If one of us went to observe one of these parties and blogged about the fact that this subculture exists, Smartfilter would block it. No big deal if you're inside a corporate cubicle in the USA, because you can always access blocked sites from home or elsewhere. But netizens in countries that use Secure Computing's censorware to filter traffic nationwide effectively lose their right to access this information, and anything else Secure Computing deems naughty...

To sum up: It's wonderful to live in a country where you have the freedom to do your own freaky thing. It's terrible to live in a country that limits your freedom to be freaky. And it's hypocritical to celebrate your own freakiness to the fullest while helping oppressive governments restrict others from celebrating their own freakiness.

If the USENET archive posts attributed to Foote-Lennox are legit (they could be an elaborate hoax, but so far, no denial has been issued), it would appear that like all of us at BoingBoing, he uses the Internet to connect with and enjoy the odd things in the world that interest him -- but works tirelessly to stop the rest of us from doing the same.

We support the right of consenting adults around the world to enjoy diverse lifestyles, and read all about them on the internet.

Foote-Lennox speaks for a company that makes censorware. When questioned about his company's censorship of BoingBoing, he was dismissive of their complaints. It was then alleged (not by BoingBoing) that he had, in the past, posted information to the Internet that his company's own product would prevent users in many foreign countries from seeing -- not at work, not at home, not anywhere. In this light, the editors of BoingBoing would have been justified in going on the attack. Instead, they chose to point out the hypocrisy of his position without criticizing his alleged behavior. In fact, Xeni, Cory, and their co-editors went out of their way to point out their support for people to pursue their personal interests on the Internet -- not just themselves and their readers, but Foote-Lennox and anyone anywhere in the world who might want to read his alleged posts.

I told Xeni in a message that I thought this was one of BoingBoing's greatest moments. I was wrong. It's BoingBoing's greatest moment, period.

Solving the Audio Re-Encoding Problem

John Ludwig has an entry on re-encoding his entire CD collection in lossless format. As I wrote in a comment:

I've put an immense amount of effort into my iTunes-based, AAC-encoded music collection. Part of this was reripping when I had gotten about halfway through my CDs and decided the evidence was good for switching from 160 kbit/s to 192 kbit/s. Another part of the effort has been in simply getting all the album and song titles right -- inconsistent capitalization and poor spelling on CDDB drive me crazy.

Given all that effort, I worry about the longevity of my library. Is 192 kbit/s AAC-encoded material going to seem reasonable to me in five years' time? Am I going to have to re-encode everything... and then re-reencode it?

After some thought, here's a specific feature request for Apple that I believe would solve this problem once and for all: provide the option for multiple representations of a given audio or video file. For example, I might like to store three different versions of a given song: one encoded using Apple Lossless for archiving purposes, one encoded as a 192 kbit/s AAC file for my iPod video, and one encoded as a 128 kbit/s (or even 96 kbit/s) AAC file for my iPod shuffle. Allow me to do this without having the song show up three times in my library. For +10 points extra credit, provide me with a simple method of specifying rules about what version to download to what device. For +25 points, enable me to rip CDs to Apple Lossless and then automatically generate alternate compressed versions. For +50 points, enable me to mass-delete and then re-generate alternate compressed versions from my entire library at once. For +100 points and a triple word score, hook this up to the iTunes Music Store so that I can optionally download lower- and/or higher-bitrate alternate compressed versions for purchased audio.

March 09, 2006

Cancel that Call to Jodie Foster...

...no Contact moment today. But it's interesting nonetheless. From Drudge, via Fark:

NASA's Cassini spacecraft may have found evidence of liquid water reservoirs that erupt in Yellowstone-like geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus. The rare occurrence of liquid water so near the surface raises many new questions about the mysterious moon.

"We realize that this is a radical conclusion -- that we may have evidence for liquid water within a body so small and so cold," said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo. "However, if we are right, we have significantly broadened the diversity of solar system environments where we might possibly have conditions suitable for living organisms."

High-resolution Cassini images show icy jets and towering plumes ejecting huge quantities of particles at high speed. Scientists examined several models to explain the process. They ruled out the idea the particles are produced or blown off the moon's surface by vapor created when warm water ice converts to a gas. Instead, scientists have found evidence for a much more exciting possibility. The jets might be erupting from near-surface pockets of liquid water above 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit), like cold versions of the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone...

"Other moons in the solar system have liquid-water oceans covered by kilometers of icy crust," said Andrew Ingersoll, imaging team member and atmospheric scientist at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. "What's different here is that pockets of liquid water may be no more than tens of meters below the surface."

So, obviously, no evidence of life beyond Earth, but still fascinating, and worth investigation.

Has Anyone Heard About a NASA Announcement?

I hesitate to post this, because I don't have access to the source, but via EmBlog comes some interesting news:

NASA is planning to make a huge announcement today, about possible life in our own solar system.

Exact details of what we can expect to hear have not been released. We do know that evidence has been found that could point to life relatively close to the earth.

Official word is expected this afternoon at 2 p.m. We’ll have complete coverage of today’s big news when it is released. Tune to News 13 for the complete story.

Unfortunately, the source of the story is down, possibly under server load. A whois search is inconclusive, pointing to an ISP in Florida. Google has a cached version of the site that appears reasonably non-fake.

"Freakonomics"

This was the third book I read this year (I'm still catching up with blogging my January and February reading).

More than one friend had recommended Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything to me as a "must-read". It didn't disappoint.

Co-author Steven Levitt is known as a kind of maverick economist, studying the economics of crack dealing rather than, say, fluctuations in the money supply. He's best known for his hypothesized connection between Roe v. Wade and the drop in the crime rate in the 1990s:

In 1995, the criminologist James Alan Fox wrote a report for the U.S. attorney general that grimly detailed the coming spike in murders by teenagers...

And then, instead of going up and up and up, crime began to fall. And fall and fall and fall some more. The crime drop was startling in several respects. It was ubiquitous... It was persistent... And it was entirely unanticipated...

The magnitude of the reversal was astounding. The teenage murder rate... fell more than 50 percent within five years. By 2000 the overall murder rate in the United States had dropped to its lowest level in 35 years....

Even though the experts had failed to anticipate the crime drop -- which was in fact well under way even as they made their horrifying predictions -- they now hurried to explain it... It was the roaring 1990s economy, they said... It was the proliferation of gun control laws... It was the sort of innovative policing strategies put into place in New York City...

There was only one problem [with these theories]: they weren't true.

There was another factor, meanwhile, that had greatly contributed to the massive crime drop of the 1990s...

As far as crime is concerned, it turns out that not all children are born equal. Not even close. Decades of studies have shown that a child born into an adverse family environment is far more likely than other children to become a criminal. And the millions of women most likely to have an abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade -- poor, unmarried, and teenage mothers for whom illegal abortions had been too expensive or too hard to get -- were often models of adversity. They were the very women whose children, if born, would have been much more likely than average to become criminals. But because of Roe v. Wade, these children weren't being born. This powerful cause would have a drastic, distant effect: years later, just as these unborn children would have entered their criminal primes, the rate of crime began to plummet.

Fundamentally, Freakonomics is about using economics as a tool to understand why and how people behave the way they do: why sumo wrestlers rig certain matches... how some teachers help their students cheat on tests, and how to detect them... why African-American mothers often give their babies unique names... or how a crack dealing gang is like a fast-food company:

So how did the gang work? An awful lot like most American businesses, actually, though perhaps none more so than McDonald's. In fact, if you were to hold a McDonald's organizational chart and a Black Disciples org chart side by side, you could hardly tell the difference.
Reading Freakonomics changed, at least for a while, how I looked at interactions with people. I'd ask myself, "what is their economic motivation for behaving the way they do?" And it turns out to be a useful exercise to run. A few weeks after finishing it, I no longer think this way all the time, but I believe that viewing people and their behaviors from an economic motivation sense is now a tool that I'll always have around to use.

One of the things I liked best about the book was how unconcerned Levitt is with whom he offends. His Roe v. Wade hypothesis upset people from both ends of the political spectrum, but especially (and quite predictably) anti-abortion advocates on the right. But he surely didn't make any friends on the left with this analysis:

In a given year, there is one drowning of a child for every 11,000 residential pools in the United States. (In a country with 6 million pools, this means that roughly 550 children under the age of ten drown each year.) Meanwhile, there is 1 one child killed by a gun for every 1 million-plus guns. (In a country with an estimate 200 million guns, this means that roughly 175 children under ten die each year from guns.) The likelihood of death by pool (1 in 11,000) versus death by gun (1 in 1 million-plus) isn't even close. [A child] is roughly 100 times more likely to die in a swimming accident... than in gunplay.
I would have liked more detail throughout the book. Freakonomics breezily takes us through many years of Levitt's research, with footnotes to a multitude of articles in mostly-inaccessible economics journals our only method of learning more. A follow-on book, much longer and with much more detail, would be welcome. But this is a minor complaint about a wonderful book that opens up new ways of seeing everyday life.

March 08, 2006

First Game with My New Team

As noted earlier, I'm no longer blogging my soccer games by default... but I thought I'd mention that I had the first game with my new team Monday night. There weren't any free slots on defense, which left me to play as a midfielder, a new experience for me. (If you're not a soccer geek, midfield and defense have significantly different strategies, and midfielders run about twice as much as the defenders, because they have to cover so much more of the field.) After a full season away from soccer, and no experience at my position, I felt like a fish out of water at first... but gradually discovered that I actually like playing midfield, so I think I'll stick with it. And not that I had much to do with it, but our team won 6-0, which was nice.

Is it ever too late to try something new? I suppose that depends on what it is. I took up soccer at 41 and have been having a blast ever since. I ran my first half-marathon at 43 and now want to go for a full marathon as soon as I'm ready. No matter what age you are, if there's something you've been wanting to do, if it's even vaguely within reason, then get out there and do it. Will you encounter difficulties? become discouraged? injure yourself? Possibly. But I'm coming to understand more and more how essential it is that we challenge ourselves throughout our lives. More on that soon.

March 07, 2006

If It Sounds Like a Hoax...

...it's not necessarily a hoax? From a BBC story:

Web giant Google is planning a massive online storage facility to encompass all users' files, it is reported.

The plans were allegedly revealed accidentally after a blogger spotted notes in a slideshow presentation wrongly published on Google's site.

The GDrive, previously the subject of chatroom rumour, would offer a mirror of users' hard drives, Reuters said.

Google declined to comment on the reports but said the slide notes had now been deleted.

In the notes, chief executive Eric Schmidt reportedly said Google's aim was to "store 100%" of users' information.

The notes said: "With infinite storage, we can house all user files, including e-mails, web history, pictures, bookmarks, etc; and make it accessible from anywhere (any device, any platform, etc)."

This sounds for all the world like an April Fool's joke... especially the "store 100%" and "infinite storage" bits. If it were any other company, my hoax probability estimate would be well above 50 percent. But given that it's Google... what can't they do, given $8.3 billion in the bank and a demonstrated willingness to push the envelope?

"Every Second Counts"

This is the second book I read in 2006 -- I was in the middle of two other books, but it was a quick read.

I was a little late to the Lance Armstrong autobiography party, and started with the second book instead of the first, but enjoyed Every Second Counts nonetheless.

From Armstrong's description of the unforgettable day on the 2003 Tour:

A flash of yellow caught my eye. A small kid was holding a yellow Tour souvenir bag, whipping it back and forth.

Uh-oh, I'm going to catch that thing, I thought.

Suddenly, the bag was tangled on the handle of my brake. I felt the bike jerk violently beneath me --

It flipped over sideways.

It was as though I had been garroted. I went straight down, and landed on my right hip, hard. I've crashed? Now? I thought, incredulously. How could I have crashed?

My next thought was, Well, the Tour's over. It's too much, too many things gone wrong.

But another thought intruded.

Get up.

It was the same thought that had prodded me during all those long months I'd spent in a hospital bed. After surgery. Get up. After chemo. Get up. It had whispered to me, and nudged me, and poked me, and now here it was again. Get... up.

Armstrong gets up, threads the chain back onto his bike, makes a "furious effort", and rejoins the lead group. Then...

No sooner had I gotten there than [Spanish racer Iban] Mayo glanced back at me -- and attacked again. I immediately jumped out of the saddle, charged up to his wheel, and slingshotted past him.

I was livid. I drove my legs into the pedals, adrenaline and fear and frustration in every stroke.

In a matter of moments, I was alone. I had bolted away from the group so suddenly that nobody could follow.

Armstrong continues to accelerate away from the field until he approaches the finish line...

I had given everything, and now I was wasted. The last few kilometers were one long grimace of pain. But finally the finish line was approaching, and adrenaline and anger carried me. I thought about the doubts in the peloton, all the whispers that I was too old, or too rich, or too distracted, or too American to win the Tour de France a fifth time. I thought, This is my neighborhood, and nobody else is winning this race.
Every Second Counts isn't a great book, but it's a serviceable book by someone who has done great things.

March 06, 2006

"Brokeback Mountain"

Andrew Sullivan and his readers wonder why Brokeback Mountain lost the Best Picture Oscar to Crash while winning the Best Director award.

I haven't seen Crash, but I did take my teenage daughter to see Brokeback Mountain yesterday afternoon. I should take this opportunity to point out that, though straight, she's a leader in her school's Gay Straight Alliance chapter... and as for me, though straight, I've argued strongly in favor of gay rights numerous times on my blog (here, here, here, here, here, and here, among others).

That said, as the credits rolled, we looked at one another and asked, "What was all the fuss about?" Neither of us felt any kind of emotional connection to the protagonists. I never cared about what happened to them, or to their relationship. But I don't think this reaction had anything to do with their sexuality -- rather, it had everything to do with how they were written, which was to say sparsely at best. What did they stand for? What did they believe in? What did they want from life? Most of all, why did they love one another?

I would turn Andrew's question on its head and ask not why Brokeback Mountain didn't win Best Picture, but instead why it did win Best Director. Could it have been a political award -- Hollywood's longstanding method of rewarding a film's makers for their perceived daringness as opposed to the likability of their picture?

In any case, I was disappointed that Walk the Line wasn't even nominated for Best Picture, because I thought it deserved not only the nomination but the award itself -- and I'm not a fan of country music. At least Reese Witherspoon won for her incredible performance as June Carter -- a richly deserved honor.

Cosmic Rays and Space Travel

I don't know if I was misinformed, or misinterpreted something, or whether it was nothing more than watching unscientific science fiction, but I've thought for some time now that we had solved the cosmic ray problem -- extended exposure to dangerous radiation faced by astronauts who venture outside the protection of Earth's atmosphere. As it turns out, I was wrong. From "Shielding Space Travelers" (fee required) in this month's issue of Scientific American:

Outside the atmosphere, the cosmic-ray bombardment is intense... A week or a month of this radiation should not have serious consequences, but a couple of years on a jaunt to Mars is a different story. One estimate from NASA is that about one third of the DNA is an astronaut's body would be cut by cosmic rays every year...

In a report published last August, [Wallace Friedberg of the Federal Aviation Administration's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute in Oklahoma City and his colleagues] estimated that Mars astronauts would receive a dose of more than 80 rems a year. By comparison, the legal dose limit for nuclear power plant workers in the U.S. is five rems a year. One in 10 male astronauts would eventually die from cancer, and one in six women (because of their greater vulnerability to breast cancer). What is more, the heavy nuclei could cause cataracts and brain damage.

The author describes three options for protecting against cosmic rays: material shields, magnetic shields, and electrostatic shields. Problems with the latter two would seem to make them impractical, leaving material shielding. A water shield would have to be five meters deep, meaning that a spherical water tank encasing a small capsule would weigh 500 tons -- in comparison to the space shuttle's lift capacity of 30 tons.

March 05, 2006

More on Longevity Research

The cover story of this month's issue of Scientific American, "Unlocking the Secrets of Longevity Genes", is co-authored by David Sinclair and Lenny Guarente. Both have started pharmaceuticals (Sirtis and Elixir, respectively) and both are professors, Sinclair at Harvard and Guarente at MIT. I mentioned Sinclair in an earlier blog entry.

If there's one thing that's clear from the recent news in longevity research, it's that it has gone mainstream. Researchers are making breakthroughs, founding firms, attracting capital, and writing for major magazines.

Sinclair and Guarente seem optimistic but not wild-eyed:

Both our labs are running carefully controlled mouse experiments that should soon tell us whether the SIRT1 gene controls health and life span in a mammal. We will not know definitively how Sirtuin genes affect human longevity for decades. Those who are hoping to pop a pill and live to 130 may have therefore been born a bit too early. Nevertheless, those of us already alive could live to see medications that modulate the activity of Sirtuin enzymes employed to treat specific conditions such as Alzheimer's, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. In fact, several such drugs have begun clinical trials for treatment of diabetes, herpes and neurodegenerative diseases.

And in the longer term, we expect that unlocking the secrets of longevity genes will allow society to go beyond treating illnesses associated with aging and prevent them from arising in the first place. It may seem hard to imagine what life will be like when people are able to feel youthful and live relatively free of today's diseases well into their 90s. Some may wonder whether tinkering with human life span is even a good idea. But at the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy at birth was around 45 years. It has risen to about 75 thanks to the advent of antibiotics and public health measures that allow people to survive or avoid infectious diseases. Society adapted to that dramatic change in average longevity, and few people would want to return to life without those advances. No doubt, future generations accustomed to living past 100 will also look back at our current approaches to improving health as primitive relics of a bygone era.

There's a less technical, broader round-up of longevity research, "The Aging Enigma", in a recent issue of Harvard magazine, in which Sinclair has a slightly differently-nuanced view:

David Sinclair... does not rule out changes to the human maximum, although he believes that “We are not going to see any super-long-lived people in our lifetimes.” Progress against age-related disease could add five to 10 years on average to human life span. “Who wouldn’t be happy,” he asks, “with an extra five years?”

March 04, 2006

"The Everything Zen Book"

I've decided to keep a log here of the books I read in 2006. In most cases, I won't review the books, but I'll at least include an excerpt from each, and in some cases a bit of commentary.

The first book I read this year was The Everything Zen Book: Achieve Inner Calm and Peace of Mind Through Meditation, Simple Living, and Harmony.

From the book:

Many of the great religions and spiritual practices tell us the same thing: True happiness lies in getting outside of ourselves and helping others. To be locked inside oneself, obsessed with one's own thoughts and needs, is to truly suffer. It is to suffer the bondage of self. Real freedom exists when you cease thinking of yourself all day long...

We live in a time in which we are often coddled and told, "Take care of yourself." We are admonished to take time for ourselves and pamper ourselves. We deserve time off, long baths, new clothes, and a dinner out. We overindulge, overspend, and overeat. And we are not happy! Clearly, the way to a peaceful life is not through spending more money, eating more food, and paying more attention to your own needs.

To be honest, I bought this book because I was looking for a basic introductory book on Zen, but I didn't want something with "...for Dummies" or "The Idiot's Guide to..." in the title. It was pretty much what I expected it to be: straightforward, easy to read, and written for absolute beginners. Reading it convinced me to give Zen a try -- there's a beginner's session at my local zendo tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes.

March 03, 2006

What's Wrong with Apple?

I'm not an Apple fanatic, but do qualify as a fan. My first Mac was the original 128K, bought in 1984. During Apple's long downward slide in the 1990s, I switched to Windows, both personally and professionally, but was never truly happy about it. I still have to use Windows at work, but I'm typing this entry on my iMac G5 at home. I have two iPods and are quite happy with them. I've admired how Steve Jobs and his team have turned around Apple since taking over, and I'm delighted that the industry once again has real competition, and that Microsoft doesn't rule every segment it enters.

All that said, I can't figure out what's going on with Apple the last couple of months. In January, they made their always-anticipated announcements at Macworld Expo. What did they show? A radio tuner for the iPod. Web-based photo publishing. iMacs with Intel processors. Renamed PowerBooks with Intel processors. Now, this month, they make another set of announcements, and what are they? A Mac mini with an Intel processor. An iPod speaker.

Moving the iMac and Mac mini over to Intel is all well and good, but in shipping them, Apple is simply doing what they said they would do when they announced their transition to Intel. The only "wow" factor is the schedule, but I think nearly everyone anticipated that Jobs was sandbagging when he first described the transition timeline. The radio tuner and speaker are simply Apple trying to grab more of the iPod accessories market, and while the tuner seems nice, the speaker is ugly enough that I never would have guessed it was from Apple. That leaves the MacBook Pro, which I blogged about earlier and found to be a disappointment: unknown Windows dual-boot capability, no two-button mouse for Windows, no breakthrough design feature, and an awful new name.

So what's wrong with Apple? After a series of hits, they're in some sort of product slump right now.

On the Mac side, it seems like the transition to Intel is sapping their ability to innovate -- as if moving to Intel is all they can manage, and so product innovation will have to wait until the transition is complete.

On the iPod side, it seems like they have hit the wall of what they can achieve without a dramatic shift in their model. Could Apple miniaturize beyond what they've done? No. The iPod nano is as small as it can be without becoming unusable. The iPod can't get any thinner without a battery breakthrough, and it can't get any shorter or narrower without making the screen too small. Could Apple offer a new model for paying for music? The only one that comes to mind is subscriptions, which they could offer, but it would be rightly perceived as a me-too move. No, where Apple has room to innovate with the iPod is in video. When they added video to the existing iPod, it was an evolutionary move -- same form factor, slightly larger screen, and adding music videos and television shows to the iTunes Music Store. The world is waiting for something dramatic and Apple has yet to deliver. Can they not make up their minds about a strategy? Can they not get the necessary partners to cooperate?

Whatever is happening, it needs to be fixed. Apple needs to resume innovating both the Mac and the iPod, and soon. Reading about their announcements earlier this week, some of the correspondents covering the event actually seemed disappointed to have made the trek to Cupertino for it. In the modern Steve Jobs era, until a couple of months ago, that would have been nearly unimaginable.

March 02, 2006

It's a Simpsons-First Amendment Smackdown...

...and The Simpsons have won. From a study (press release here, details here) by Chicago's McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum:

A new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum survey finds that only about one in four Americans (28 percent) are able to name more than one of the five fundamental freedoms granted to them by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Yet when it comes to knowledge of popular culture, Americans are considerably more tuned in. For example, almost twice as many Americans (52 percent) can name at least two members of "The Simpsons" cartoon family.

And while more than one in five (22 percent) Americans can name all five of the fictional Simpsons family members... just one in 1,000 people surveyed (.1 percent) were able to name all five freedoms granted under the First Amendment.

As for me, I named all five Simpsons, which 22 percent of Americans were able to do, but only four of the five First Amendment freedoms, which is embarrassing. Still, only 2 percent of Americans could name four freedoms.

If you'd like to test yourself, go ahead, then select the rest of this paragraph to see the answers. The five Simpsons are Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. The five freedoms of the First Amendment are speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition for redress of grievances.

I missed that last freedom. D'oh!