Friday, June 13, 2014

E3: So Long, We Hardly New You Edition

When asked, I told people I started this blog as a cathartic outlet.  I didn't really care if any one read it, and I wrote when I had something to say.  People started to read.  I mean, who doesn't like to watch a good train wreck. There was a period of time I had a lot to say, and after a while the compulsion was gone.  I guess it worked.  I catharted.   Or so I thought. This morning I saw this quote from Mike - boy do I miss Doug Lowenstien - Gallagher: 
"The video game industry's explosive growth and technological innovation were front and centre at E3 2014," said owner and manager of E3 Michael D. Gallagher.
"Video games are the most innovative and engaging force driving our culture and entertainment experiences the world over. Congratulations to our incredibly creative members, partners, exhibitors, and the hundreds of millions of gamers who engaged with the show online and through social media."
He was trying to say this E3 - the one where I could talk on my phone from the show floor and haul a double wide trailer through the generous aisles - was growing and more successful than E3's of the past and that it somehow represented the game industry.   I would try to characterize the statement but I am not familiar with the word to use when "delusional" fails to describe the gap between one's perception and the reality raining down around them and drenching them in its cold wetness until the moisture renders their fingers and toes are indistinguishable from raisins and the cold would place their nipples above diamonds on Mohs scale of hardness.  Not a single publisher with a game in Apple's top 10 grossing was represented on the show floor, and if you take out EA and Disney, there is nothing in the top 50.   While Wargaming was there, as they are moving to console, no Riot, no Valve or any other significant PC publisher.  We were left with console, which is a fantastic market, but one that could not be characterized as explosively growing since shortly after my son was born - he is on his way to college now. E3 remains the useless dick waving display it always, but sadly, the dicks have gotten much shorter.   All the big ones were too busy making money and people happy to attend.  While I do not know exactly who the 40 plus thousand people were in attendance, I am comfortable positing a majority were there only out of momentum or the need to find a place to kill time around Michael Pachter's party.  It does not have to be this way. 

The road map to success is clear.  I wrote about it six years ago because I saw Comic Con doing it right. It was not really tough, they started with a goal "have a reason for being." 

The Con organizers realized they had a rabid fan base, and with the advent of the Internet, and more specifically, blogs, the fans had a voice. Over the course of the next ten years, they transformed the event from the place to see the new comics, to the most significant pop culture event in the world. From a comic lover's point of view, the Con lost an awful lot. Some may even say it lost its soul. From an economic perspective it moved from the realm of curious oddity to can't be missed launch event. Seeing as E3 never had a soul, there is nothing to lose. The biggest reason for the disparate treatment of the same issue - the Con actually likes its consumers and decided to cater to them. Even if the exhibitors feel the need to main line Purell after a day of hand shaking and autographs, they still know where their bread is buttered. 
In 2009, probably not inspired by my post, Gamescom started up and had a radical idea.  Let the people who love games come in and see the games.  They, like the Tokyo Game Show, have a public day.  As a result, the conference is exploding.  Publishers show up to let the public see the games and promote them to the media.  Just like E3 . . . . oh yeah, that's right, only members of the game industry who already know about every game on the floor are allowed in to E3.   Gamescom also welcomes the media on site to broadcast live.  Just like E3 with MTV and Spike . . . oh yeah, that's right, we threw them out.   You can watch the E3 stuff on Twitch, the web based channel dominated by games like League of Legends and DOTA2, which were not represented at E3.  It seems not all circles are virtuous.  

PAX takes it one step further actually embraces the culture surrounding games with the public.  As a result,  games are launched there, investment is made and business gets done because everyone is there.  Contrast this with E3 who alienates the public and increased friction by requiring ID to be shown along with my FREE ticket.   Day one, no ID.  Day Two, "just show me a business card," Day 3,  "You need a photo ID."   Admittedly, I have authority issues, but being late for a meeting in the back of the hall I flashed the guy a stack of my business cards and when he asked for photo ID, I had to ask if he really thought I would be walking with a badge and a stack of matching business cards for a guy who was not me.   The guy blue screened for long enough for me to just walk in.   I realize video games are just one of the myriad of reasons the terrorists hate us, but does anyone think they wanted to blow up the Activision booth?  What other reason could there be to stop a person with a verifiably authentic badge from walking in to see game the publishers brought to the show to share with as many people as possible?

It is nice to see friends from out of town, but I do that at GDC, DICE and Nite to Unite.  The parties are a lot of fun and often impressive, but by the third day the same people in a different venue becomes stale.  The show floor is a great place to see upcoming games, the 40k + people who marveled at the Dead Island 2 trailer are much more valuable than the 2 million who watched the same thing on line in the first day.  Oh yeah, they are not.    Maybe this is why so many publishers decided not to show up, and those who did left most of the staff at home.

I am afraid E3 had a great life and it is time to let it die and rest in peace.   Like an ailing grandparent,  It is increasingly costly to maintain, requiring an ever increasing amount of time and attention and suffering a declining quality of life.  Our continued life support is driven by our own selfish need to maintain the familiar world we know and keep happy memories alive, but the patient is suffering.   It is time we either invest in the transplant the patient needs to enjoy a high quality of life, or pull the plug and let it die.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Telescreens In The Home - Kinect: I Am Not Paranoid, Someone is Watching Me Edition

Maybe cliche' by now, but still creepy . . .  

Quote from 1984 About Telescreens

"The telescreen recieved and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever the wanted to. You had to live- did live, from habit that became instinct- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.
-1984, Book 1, Chapter One, George Orwell

Quote from Katherine Boehret Allthingsd review about Xbox One with Kinect:

A Skype video call to my mom prompted a “Wow!” from her as she admired the quality of the picture, which she described as amazing. As for audio, she said she could hear me just as clearly when the loud, humming central heat clicked on in my house. As I moved around the living room and talked to my mom from six different places, the Kinect camera panned to follow me, and even zoomed in on my face for the best possible picture. I had a similarly good experience during a call to someone else who was using the Xbox One’s new Kinect.

Friday, August 23, 2013

GameStop Hosed Me Today: How To Fix GameStop in 6 Easy Steps Edition

Both of my regular blog readers keep asking why I do not write more.  It is easy enough to tell my mom to stop nagging, but I still answer to the other one - even though his English is not so good.  That dear reader, is customer service - something GameStop sadly lacks.   I realize the global nature of the statement and should explain it is not entirely true.  I never met anyone at the top of the company who is not gracious, a pleasure to deal with and painfully conscious of the customer relationship.
 Unfortunately, those are not the people we deal with when we buy a game.  The stores are run by managers drawn from the mold of The Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons and choose to operate on an entirely different level.  Sure, they serve a customer, just not  the ones who want to buy a game.

It is very hard to find stores carrying a wide selection of games any more.  This creates a wonderful opportunity for a store brand itself as a game focused operation and encourage people who want games to come in and buy them. As a simple guy I still believe GameStop is such a place.  Unfortunately, every time I test the hypothesis it is proven false.  

I first encountered the problem when I tried to purchase The Beatles Rock Band.   The title was one of the most heavily promoted in the history of games.  There was even a New York Times Sunday Magazine feature about the release.   Having never run a great big retail chain selling games, my simple mind thinks this is a great opportunity to take advantage of the public coming into the store for the first time to buy a game.  The mainstream press is featuring a known brand and for the first time, we will have it.  Once these customers who are otherwise very expensive to reach are in the store, we can get them into powerup, upsell and otherwise connect in ways we never connected before.  Instead, the Comic Book Guy who was standing in front of a pile of the fresh and sparkly new copies of the game told me they were sold out.   They were only fulfilling pre orders.  

I sometimes still stop at GameStop because it is on the way to Best Buy and I have about a 50/50 chance of being able to pick up a game within the first week of release - I never have a problem at Best Buy.  You may ask why I continue to go to GameStop.  I promise you it is not for the aggravation, I genuinely want to support the store.  What is good for GameStop is good for the industry.  I know I rant about used games to anyone who will listen and most people who would rather not, but the company is not only a bell weather, but a critical pipeline for retail sales.   Please GameStop, help me to help you. 

Today I went into buy Splinter Cell.   Standing in front of a dozen copies of the game, the junior Comic Book Guy told me it was sold out.   

"But there are a dozen copies right there on the shelf." I said naively. 
"Those are all reserved for pre orders." he replied not looking up from the important thing he was doing on the store computer. 
"But they are all right there on display and have not been picked up."Comic Book Gal, Lanara the store manager stepped in to explain "We called all of the customers and they told us they are going to pick them up." 
"But we are outside the 48 hour window and the policy is to release the pre orders after that time."  
"Not mine. As a service to my customer I hold the game for them if they say they will pick it up."  
"But if you sell the game to me, you will do two turns from the same facing.  I will buy the game and they will buy it when it comes in.  You say customer service, but you are providing an accommodation to someone who chose not to comply with their end of the pre order commitment, over a new customer who will otherwise be turned away."  Yes this is way to much time spent in the store.  I need a hobby. 
"I choose customer service over revenue and I am sure everyone in corporate would agree."

Somehow I do not think so.  If I pre ordered a game, did not pick it up, and was pointed to this policy: 
Product Pickup
As release dates change frequently, we cannot guarantee arrival dates. You will be contacted by the store, at the phone number you provide, when the product arrives and is available for pickup. Items not picked up within 48 hours may not be available due to the high demand for new releases. Your name will be placed on a waiting list at your request, and we will contact you when we receive more. If the product is not picked up within 48 hours, you authorize us to charge you a $5.00 fee to cover the cost of shipping and handling to the store.
I would probably rethink my behavior and I chose to pre order again, I would pick it up on time.  As a new customer if I walk in and I am treated like someone who is not a member of the club just because I went in to purchase a very heavily promoted game, I would take my business to Best Buy.

Lanara's behavior hurts the store on a number of levels. It may sound obvious, but GameStop is in the business of moving units.   I would completely agree with her Nordstrom's like level of customer service - if there was no stated pre order pick up policy.   The policy is in place because GameStop is in the business of moving units.  They must move units to generate revenue and cover the outlay for the initial shipment of the product, but equally important, the sooner the unit leaves the shelf the sooner it comes back to be resold as used.   We are not talking about single unit because someone ran into car trouble or could not make it over.  It is over a dozen.  This indicates a pattern of behavior on both sides of the table which must be larger than a single game.  Her "customer service" led to a malaise about the pick up window, leading at least a dozen customers to feel they can come in whenever they want.  If we look at the aggregate number of games moving through the store and add up the aggregate number of days they remain on the shelf despite willing purchasers and knowing the pre order customer would likely buy another copy from the next order, we are talking about a substantial revenue hit and carrying cost of the games before high margin resale.  Worst of all, it is simply not customer service.

When she called it "her" store and told me she could operate it as she pleased and chose customer service over revenue, I had to wonder where the customer service was happening.  I am not talking about her not playing "the customer is always right" - although I was - it is the state of the store.   Call me old fashioned, but customer service would
dictate a store should not look like a 12 year old boy's bedroom and smell like my grandmother's basement.  I should not see empty shelf facing, broken faded standees, a bargain bin full of plain white packaged used games with handwritten names and a countertop you would not touch with Lysol mittens.   I have not even gotten to how they treat the customer.

I am not talking about what they said, or even they way they said it.  It was they did not say.  Instead of "the game is sold out" and ending the conversation to return to the urgent computer matter in the store which was devoid of all other customers, how about "the game is sold out but we will have more in stock next Tuesday. I would be happy to take your pre order and hold one for you to make sure you get it."  Or, "the game is sold out but I can see on line that it is available at this other location 2 miles away."  This is neither the first time this happened, or the execution of cold fusion.  This is a situation they encountered before and can be pretty confident they will encounter again.  Does the guy not know when he will get a new shipment?  You may ask why I do not just pre order.  It is probably a character flaw or premature toilet training, but I just cannot make the commitment.   Not commitments in general, I have been married 23 years, just that one.

GameStop grew, thrived and now survives on the core gamer.  This is no longer enough.  The people who work in the store are cultivated and allowed to act, talk and maintain the store reflective of that customer base.  Unfortunately doing so alienates the other 80 percent of the public who would like to purchase a game.  Catering to the core gamer who chooses to pre order is an increasingly dangerous business at a time when game purchasers migrate to digital download.  The focus has to be on the broad audience of walk ins who did not anticipate the release 3 months ago.

In his 1996 book, Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte wrote that everything happening over wires would move to the air and everything in the air would move to wires.  He was talking about satellites and cable lines, but change "cloud" for "air" and "store" for "wire" and the thought is painfully applicable to the game business and GameStop's opportunity.  GameStop's core consumer, the one who pre orders and turns in and buys used games, will shortly be moving to the cloud.   The company believes this console launch will be the biggest in history, yet it is still catering to those customers through physical disks.  GameStop will have a great quarter, but it is like gas stations selling Teslas.   Every purchaser of a next generation console is getting a free ticket out of GameStop.  If they care enough to buy a new console at launch, they are savvy enough to download their games in the future.   The core consumer is moving to the cloud, but this is not the end of GameStop.  There is still a role for the company with a mailing list of 18 million and 80% of the purchasers of games walking through their store every month.  But they have to grab the opportunity before the second number goes away.

Customer acquisition is the lifeblood of the game business and the cost is increasing exponentially with the growth of competition and the silence of digital distribution to the physical world.   GameStop is sitting on a tank full of whales in a world while everyone else trying to harpoon them in the open ocean.   Every person on the mailing list paid to purchase a game.  Every person opted in to receive game information.  They just do not get it.   If GameStop can unify the on line distribution systems as did for video and create the horizontal connections within their community to allow for recommendations and trusted referrals, it can be the one site to rule them all.   They will still be in the business of selling games, but they get rid of that pesky inventory thing and collect only high margin affiliate fees.  If they want to see how this works, take a look at, it is a startup that is eating GameStop's lunch.

You may think this is all very nice, but what about the stores.  Well, that is the other half of the Negroponte parallel.   Right now hardcore goes to the store and the mainstream orders through iTunes. in the very near future, the casual and midcore will still be using 360s and PS3s and will still be buying disks.   They will also be more likely to walk into a mall based game store to understand what this game thing is all about. Lanara was right.  Customer service is key, they just do not have any.   Just as Apple used impeccable customer service to bring technology to the mainstream and rise like a phoenix from the ashes of brick and mortar, GameStop can lead the market for games.   More people are playing games than ever before and none of them know which game to buy next.  GameStop should be there to provide the best, curated experience.   There is no good reason for customers to go to an Apple Store over than purchasing on line or at Best Buy, but they do because they are made to feel welcome and knowledgeable people talk with them.  If people feel welcome to walk into the store, they will and they will be on ramped into the GameStop community.

People seem to like lists, so here are some suggestions in list form:

1) Clean the stores.

 It will be expensive, but you cannot afford to not do it.

2) Curate the experience.

First there has to be an experience to curate.  Richard Branson revolutionized record retail by making customers feel welcome to stay.  He put sofas in his stores and encouraged them to listen to music.  People who listened purchase more.   A game in a box is no fun.  A game running in the store is fun.  That is what games do.   Encourage the consumers to stay and hand mom and iPad - they type you are selling now - to show she can have fun playing games too.

3) Welcome new customers.

Train employees to engage customers to determine tastes and goals.   One major retailer operates an internal competition based on employee's product knowledge gained before work, relevant questions asked of customers and follow up.   The store can engender loyalty by educating the customer about hardware and software purchases.  The staff can become the game geniuses.

4) Connect the community to each other.

While the world is going digital, GameStop is not.  Many sales functions moved on line, but there is no community support.  The company continues to broadcasting radio show performances over television.   Digital does not mean catalogue, it is bidirectional and horizontal.  Let the consumer communicate with the store and each other.  Not just forums, but value.   Why is separate from and why do the forums look and sound like they are stuck in 1999?  How did happen without them looking?   Tens of emails go out every week to loyal customers why don't you introduce them to each other.  Facebook, Google, Amazon and every other modern company is valued on access to a customer base, why do you let them walk out the door and not talk with them?

5) Start a continuity program.

In the old days we had Columbia House who sold us 12 records for a penny so long as we promised to purchase an equal number at full price over the course of the next two years.  Guthy Renker and Beachbody Fitness make hundreds of millions by getting customers to make long term commitments to content they do not even use.  The closest thing GameStop gets to this kind of program is a used game bundling program  but this targets the wrong audience and does not create recurring revenue.  This holiday season every mom should see an opportunity to buy a dozen games for USD 10 and make a commitment to buy four full priced games next year.  Instant liquidation of back catalogue used games and creation of predictable revenue.  Isn't this better than trying to move used games to people who are interested but cannot find the game in the limited stock of back catalogue spread amongst all of the stores and get commitments for multiple titles rather than a one offs.  

6) Stock games.

We understand your the sale of new games is merely a financing tool for building a stock of high margin used games, but right now you are playing it just a bit too cute.   According to Lanara the manager, pre orders are used to determine the number of games to stock.   She said the company stocks to pre order.  This is perfect for a distribution warehouse, but kind of silly for a public facing retail operation.  Please go back to the old days.  Extrapolate the size of the inventory from the pre orders.  You know very well how many units will sell beyond the pre orders, so just stock a few more.

This is the part where I am supposed to tie it all together with a pithy comment and thoughtful outro.  Sorry, I got nothing.  

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Gamification and Beyond: Posting of a My Talk in a Post Edition

I saw a good friend of mine who is very smart and I respect very much - he still finds the time to talk with me though.   He told me he likes my blog, but asked a question he said he hoped would not offend me. "Do you write your blog for yourself on in the hopes of gaining an audience?  Because if you write them for an audience, you really should have a point."   I may be paraphrasing a bit, but it came out like that in my mind.  It was kind of a funny question because I never really thought about writing for anyone else.  My blog is completely self indulgent and admittedly, often only finds entertainment or genius at the point of creation.   The blog is actually a permanent record of the thoughts I find fascinating, and often the expression is only intelligible to me.

Along the same lines, when Ken Rutkowski asked me to speak to his METal International group, I was honored, and excited by the opportunity to entertain - myself.   Because the only thing I like more than reading what I write, is listening to myself talk.  He asked me to talk about the game business.  I spoke about history, evolution, transmedia, gamification, sponsorship, cable, set top boxes, meeting Steve Jobs and a bunch more.  This talk is nothing like a TED talk in that it is 3 times longer, and 100 times less change the worldy.   But it is entertaining to me. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

On Ownership: Game Objects Are Like Poison Mice Edition

Last week I read an article about the US Department of Agriculture's decision to parachute poison mice into treetops to kill tree snakes in Guam.  The tree snakes killed all of the birds on the island and the USDA is concerned the snakes may be able to migrate to Hawaii.   This reminiscent of all of the times a species was introduced to wipe out another, and it went terribly wrong.  The article moved through a series of curiously inappropriate connections in my mind and got me thinking about digital object sales. I cannot tell you why, but I a promise you it is much more of a curse than a blessing.   Our perception of digital objects and willingness to pay for them is evolving much more quickly than our understanding of the impact of the market and I am afraid they will get a foothold in our world before we know how to control them.   Oh yeah, don't worry about the poison, it is Tylenol which is just as useful for killing black tree snakes as it is for killing a headache.

Remember when it was really nutty to think someone would pay money to buy an game object?  If you don't have to remember and still think buying a digital t shirt to put on your avatar is kind of lame, keep reading, you are proving my point.   We are evolving, and it is a good thing.  DVD racks are ugly and building book shelves is surprisingly expensive.

In law school they taught me ownership is not a single right.  It is more like a bundle of sticks.  One stick represents possession, another the right to modify, another the right to collect revenue, and so on.   The aggregate is infinitely divisible and definable by contract.  We used to think the possession of a physical object was the paramount attribute of ownership.  No, even you don't think that way anymore. The digital era changed us.

If you think back in the dark recesses of your minds to the pre-kindle and pre-iPod days we devoted space in our house to collections of analog bits.   Records, CDs, DVDs and books were all displayed in the common areas.   We were buying the ability to access the content whenever we pleased, but also created and satisfied and secondary, and often primary need to display.  Your collection became an indicia of taste.   You may have even been driven to put books or DVDs out you never read or watched and hidden others to avoid the notion your taste may be odd or worse yet, mainstream.   You may think I am talking about porn, but I was thinking Grease - record and DVD, Bee Gees and Abba.  Digital access changed all that and is in the process of changing it more.

Devices like the iPod and the Kindle provided us with the access to the content we wanted and sharable playlists and friend notifications from applications like Spotify and Pandora allow us to display our good taste to people who would have had to come to our home or read our t shirts in the past.   Now we know the only sticks we really need from the bundle are access and display, not physical possession - and this is changing everything.  The evolution of a mindset based on holding physical embodiments of our media (or as George Carlin called it "stuff") to one of access to utility is driving growth of the digital object market at exponential rates.

The concept of physical possession separated from ownership is not new.   We applied it for years to the two most expensive purchases most people ever make in their lives, our homes and our cars.   I have possession of my home.  I can do whatever I want with it and invite whomever I please to access it.  I can also block anyone I please from access.  Feels a lot like ownership.  But my ownership is represented and dependent upon some analog bits in a file cabinet in a city called Norwalk, California.  I have never been to Norwalk, California.   But if anyone questions my ownership, or I want to sell my home, I need to put a new piece of paper, with my signature verified by an independent third party, in a different file in Norwalk, California.  I have possession and apparent ownership, but I do not have possession of the indicia of ownership.  The same can be said of my car.  I have the right to use and possess, but the actual indicia of ownership is on some analog bits somewhere in Sacramento, California.    Since the dawn of property ownership, we accepted possession as something separate from indicia of ownership.  The digital model is simply a reversal of the model.

If I am playing League of Legends, I am able to buy skins, champions and other objects that will appear to other players in the game.  The objects I buy have no impact on my power or abilities in the game.   In the early days this sounded strange to non players - ok maybe it still sounds strange today - but the migration to accept a digital champion in place of an action figure is no different than having music on an iPod instead of on my shelf.   Like my music collection, I have utility of my objects in the game, so I get to enjoy looking at objects that please me.  Also like my music collection, I receive a social benefit by the display of status associated with the object ownership.   Like a house or a car - in reverse - the object exists on a far away server, probably not in Norwalk or Sacramento, but indicia of ownership resides with me.  It actually makes more sense.

This evolution which started with music and is spreading like wildfire through the universe of games.  In 2002 The New York Times saw the ability tell digital objects as newsworthy.  Those wacky gamers were willing to pay money for a collection of words in a game called Gemstone.  But the practice was not limited to Gemstone and what started as an underground market quickly grew into an accepted practice and then even started to be woven into the fabric of certain games.   It is not stopping there.  Zynga took the people who unknowingly accepted the music "purchased" from the iTunes store as fungible with CDs and got to pay for digital objects in their games, thereby paving the way for broad acceptance of microtransactions.  So broad, the purchase of game objects, many persistent, is the not only acceptable, but the leading method for profiting from mobile and on line games.  This leads to a concern I raised in a post five years ago which remains unanswered.

On the one hand we want the consumer to accept the purchase of the game object, as they do the purchase of a song from the iTunes store, or a coffee cup in the real world.  On the other, we are not ready to give them enough of the stick.  They are missing the access to relevant information pertaining to value stick.  The rights and remedies side of digital object ownership is lagging distantly behind the willingness to exchange value to own them.  In the original post I wrote:
My corporations professor, Hugh Friedman, taught us how difficult it is to actually spot a security, but he gave us the definition contained in the United States Code. "SECURITIES - An investment in an enterprise with the expectation of profit from the efforts of other people." Here is another definition I found on line: "Securities are documents that merely represent an interest or a right in something else; they are not consumed or used in the same way as traditional consumer goods. Government regulation of consumer goods attempts to protect consumers from dangerous articles, misleading advertising, or illegal pricing practices. Securities laws, on the other hand, attempt to ensure that investors have an informed, accurate idea of the type of interest they are purchasing and its value." The definition is intentionally broad and is meant to apply to a lot of things, to protect a lot of people. Interests in condominiums, farm animals, land and oil rights, have all been determined to be securities. The definition is the foundation of the Securities Act of 1933, sometimes called the "truth in securities law" and the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934, which established the Securities and Exchange Commission and sets out filing requirements and trading regulation. Both were established in response to the events leading to the stock market collapse of 1929. Prior to these acts, anyone could sell stock to anyone and there were no reporting obligations or restrictions on insider trading or proxy solicitations. In other words, it was a lot like buying and selling game objects today.
We know a share of General Motors is a security.  General Motors must comply with certain reporting requirements to maintain its right to allow ownership interests to be exchanged in the public market.  While I may not be buying my game object with the expectation of profit - although many do - the price I am willing to pay is based on the information available to me at the time of payment.  Factors like scarcity, utility, restrictions and duration of use are all material in my decision and willingness to pay.  Most significantly, whether the game be in existence tomorrow.

Last month Zynga shut down 12 apps.   One of them Petville, still had one million monthly active users, and before at one point had 43 million.  The value of every object purchased evaporated, without warning, overnight.  How many people were still purchasing digital objects after Zynga knew the game was going to be shut down?   I am not pointing my finger only at Zynga, Star Wars Galaxies sold objects right up until the game was shut down.  Shutting down a game is simply a fact of life.  Not letting consumers know it will happen is not.

These issues are very exciting . . . .  for lawyers.  It is kind of like a full employment act because very hard issues mean a lot of work to resolve which means funding for childrens' college educations.  This is the second post in a row that I leave without an answer.  I throw it out there because I want to raise the issue and let people know we may be getting ahead of ourselves - again.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Sponsor Supported Online Content: Let's Stop Throwing Hundred Dollar Bills in the Bonfire Edition (Update)

SSH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . h ! ! ! "All ye, The People of the United States: his Excellency, the PRESIDENT!" This greeting may be heard all over the country, in the not-far-distant future, and not on a phonograph either, if Mr. Paul Calhoun's dream comes true. His idea is to link up all the larger cities and towns by radio with the powerful transcontinental government wireless station at Arlington, near Washington, so that when the President makes a speech before Congress or even his inaugural address, all the people can hear it, instead of a select few gathered within ordinary hearing distance of the speaker as has been the case in the past.

UPDATE 03/01/13

Two very important updates this week and I am too lazy to integrate them and rewrite.  I don't think anyone wants to see a redline version of my blog either.

First, it appears Google may be thinking the same way as I am.   Some coders found what looks some code to be used for a youtube pay service.   Even though some people from Google's domain hit my blog, I don't think I gave them the idea.  I hear there are some smart people over there.

The second one is this new TED video from Amanda Palmer.  It is hugely relevant, not just because she is good, but she talking about the consumers' willingness to pay for content when asked.


As I lie (lay?) here in my sick bed, mainlining Dayquil and trying to prevent the coughing from sharing a lung with the computer in my lap, I started to think about monetization of  on line video.    While I know this sounds cliché.  After all phenylephrine always causes the mind to wander into online business models, but just in case the sirens of genius are influencing the fingers dancing on the keys more than the cough medicine, I am writing it down.    If this is coherent to you, I am not speaking in tongues, and you may find something of interest below.

Online video is creating a larger audience than any other form of media or communication in the history of the world.  However, the leading lights of this industry are shoe horning the television sponsorship model into the business and does not seem to work. Despite the audience’s scale, revenue generated from sponsorship is not even high enough be considered a rounding error on a margin of error for a basic cable network.

In this video from DLD, Maker Studio’s chairman Ynon Kreiz pointed out that the,185 hours of London Olympic broadcast  on television US in primetime generated 67% of NBC’s total revenue and the 5300 hours via digital platform that generated only 7%  of the revenue (If you skip to the marker you can see the part I am talking about, but the whole thing is worthwhile)

These companies can argue the inequities of sponsors paying more the people “maybe” watching something like The Daily Show on television than the same broadcast on line where we know who and how many are watching, or the empty inventory in the on line Lance Armstrong interview relative to record ad rates on OWN, but while they do this – and logically and in a vacuum they may be right – they are merely singing in a Greek Chorus to shield themselves from reality.   Even though the television audience is shrinking, sponsors see it as growing in value. Morgan Stanley, as reported by Busines Insider noted as television viewership goes down, CPMs go up.   A 50% decline in viewership since 2002 led to only a 6 to 7% decline in revenue.  At the same time, Comscore indicated that despite the ability to target, on line suffered from perhaps a higher percentage of wasted ads.  In the “U.S. Digital Future in Focus report 2013”  Comscore pointed out that even though 6 trillion ads were served last year “research showed that an average of 3 in 10 ads are never rendered in-vie, leading to significant waste, weaker campaign performance and a glut of poor-performing inventory that imbalances the supply-and-demand equation and depresses CPMs. This should not be a surprise when you consider the very existence of sponsor supported television relies on the existence of friction and online video success only succeeds without it.  Rather than continuing to fight this uphill battle, on line should stop ignoring the unique attributes of the web, and look how it enables distributors and content creators to finally charge the right side of the equation – the viewers.

A little under five years ago I wrote why I thought on line video was going down the wrong road.  While I may have overdone it a bit on the ARG stuff Nikki Finke made me look smarter in hindsight because she cut it out when she ran it on Deadline. The point is made here:
Our agency friends further exacerbate their problems with a continued reliance on a dying model, ad supported television. The sites are sponsor supported. If cable fragmentation hurt network sales and cable is not worthwhile from a revenue standpoint, what do you think web fragmentation will do? Yet, even though none of these applications have shown a significant return, they still rely on sponsors. The widget guys show a myriad of additional revenue streams. They are able to sell digital objects, upgrades, added utility and a ton more things of value to the community. Oh yeah, and eventually, access to their channels to the Hollywood guys. 

If the agencies want to profit from the new opportunities, they have to stop thinking evolution and more revolution. Television is a solo experience. A show can build an audience, but it does not build a connected community, and with very few exceptions, the community has no impact on the show. The audience watches, and then shares around the water cooler the next day. The web is about community. Real time community. I can feel impotent in real life, I don't need my computer tell me I have to sit and listen to what someone else has to say. My computer empowers me and let's me join in, my entertainment should as well.
My post focused on the content, not the business structure.  Admittedly, I did not even think to write it at the time.  I just thought charging the customer followed logically.  I wish I could say I am the first person to disclose this concept to you, but sadly, I am not.  I am merely cribbing from other businesses that work.  Many executed before me – not the first time I talked about something while others actually did it – and I do not understand why more of it is not happening on the web.   Netflix, HBO and Sirius radio prove the model, but are not the only places consumers are showing a willingness to pay directly for content.   FreddieW  generated 800 million views on his youtube channel.  If his revenue looks anything like Psy’s from Gangham Style, this massive audience may have put him well into the “thousandaire” status.   But when he asked his viewers to pay for content directly, they gave him over $800,000 on kickstarter.  In ad sales terms, he got an $80 CPM for something that does not exist.  The HBO audience made it even more clear last year when a fan took it upon himself to create   Within 48 hours 163,673 people voiced their willingness to pay for a streaming service.  HBO did point out that Techcrunch’s assessement of why HBO should not do it makes sense,   but the evidence of consumer willingness shows it is not wrong for a non legacy content library to pursue the model – hello Netflix.  It’s time to remove the middleman and go direct to the audience who will pay more and drive better content.

My cursory research revealed the range for the highest CPM content on line is video at $11 to $25 (I know incentive video can be much higher, but it is also very limited). Just for the fun of it, let’s look at revenue from Netflix on the basis of their revenue generated per thousand.   Measured in clumps, they have a CPM of $8,000.  This means a Google channel must serve 2,650,000 video ads in a month to equal the revenue generated by 1 thousand Netflix viewers.  This may not sound soooo bad until you realize this means over 10,000,000 videos when you factor in Comscore’s recent data indicating only 23% of on line videos carried video ads.  That’s not all.  Again, looking to the most favorable data, the highest percentage of audience indicating they watch video ads often or all the time, at 47%, is on youtube.  Factor this in and 20,000,000 videos must be served in a month to equal the revenue prepaid each month by each thousand Netflix customers. Even as the market grows, the scale needed requires content to be diluted to the lowest common denominator, the antithesis of the web’s promise.   I chose Netflix because it is easy, but we can look at any number of pure subscription, or pay as you go – iTunes- content companies on and off line as examples of consumers’ willingness to pay for content.   
Instead of accepting these facts, both content and the medium are bending to the force of over USD188.5 billion spent annually on video broadcast on television.  The mistake is made in the assumption the dollars are being spent on content, they are not, they spent on viewers.

Let’s walk through this logically.   Television networks love friction.   The industry’s midwive was the need to stand up to change the channel.   Ad agencies thought their business was over when the remote control came into play.   And time shifting with VCR’s, forget about it.  Friction serves the business model.  This because NBC, CBS and ABC’s  “product” is viewer and the customer is the sponsor.  The content is the capital expenditure used to build the product.   Friction helps to build the product and create inventory for the customer. The web is about a lack of friction.  The friction equivalent of an eyelash on an asphalt road can be the difference between success and failure.  The web carries no need to set a recording, start an appointed time, or change a channel.  The content is always there.   Advertising pre roll, registration, pay walls are all friction that drive traffic lower.   The consumer is no longer captive.   The new reduced friction empowers the consumers and allows us to shift from being a product into being the purchasers of a product.   Content and curation are the product and the customer is the viewer- ust like Netflix, HBO and Showtime.  So why are continuing to treat the audience as the product rather than the customer?

When we look at the value chain for content on television, it is kind of a wonder it lasts.   The sponsors are funding, and thereby selecting the content.  Networks act as arbiters between consumer taste and sponsor willingness to pay.  Networks commission the most audience appealing, least offensive to a sponsor content and sell the audience to sponsors.   Consumers choose what they like, but they select from the lowest common denominator pabulum supported by sponsors (DIGRESSION ALERT: For something really interesting, take a look at episode 1 of Black Mirror to see a dramatization of a television news service which was not able to broadcast a newsworthy video readily available on the web).   We see no better evidence of the disconnect than the quality shift when content itself is the product.   On networks like HBO, or cable channels covering deficits on foreign sales, we see shows capturing the country’s attention in meaningful ways.  Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men and Downton Abbey all came from a model where the show is the product.  The show has to be good enough to appeal to foreign markets, rather than good enough to appeal to sponsors at an up front and a large audience each week.

The current model did not “evolve” to the web, it was bolted on without significant change from television.   This is more than strange when we consider the web is a model of efficiency because it removed friction from both sides of the equation, and the television model gained its power from inefficiency and friction. The advertising unit model grew from radio in the 1920’s, into television in the 1950’s – with government help – and was twisted and crammed on to the web.   In reality, if just a few attributes of the web were around in the 1920’s, we would never be here.   Ad units exist because radio’s pioneers could not figure out how to charge the customer directly.  By the time television arrived and was able to do it, the horse was out of the barn. In the early ‘20s the user base was growing like a weed and no one knew how to pay for content. The first sponsored show happened years earlier in 1916, when a Westinghouse assistant chief engineer started playing phonograph records over the radio.   He ran out of records and called Hamilton Music Store to get more.  They agreed to supply him with records if he would tell the audience where he got the records.  Despite a willingness of advertisers to buy the audience most of the content was funded by hardware manufacturers.  They knew people buy the hardware for what it does, not what it is.  Steve Jobs did knew this when he commoditized content to sell enough hardware to build the most valuable company in the history of the world.  Then Commerce Secretary, Herbert Hoover said “It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service to be drowned in advertising chatter" The problem was troubling enough for Radio Broadcast, the most prominent trade magazine of the day, ran a contest to figure out who would pay for radio.  The winner was to be selected by a prestigious panel of industry luminaries.  The request rings strikingly relevant t some 90 years later:
WHO  IS  TO  PAY  FORBROADCASTING  AND  HOW?A Contest Opened by RADIO  BROADCASTin which a prize of $500 is offered 
What We Want 
    A workable plan which shall take into account the problems in present radio broadcasting and propose a practical solution. How, for example, are the restrictions now imposed by the music copyright law to be adjusted to the peculiar conditions of broadcasting? How is the complex radio patent situation to be unsnarled so that broadcasting may develop? Should broadcasting stations be allowed to advertise? 
 These are some of the questions involved and subjects which must receive careful attention in an intelligent answer to the problem which is the title of this contest.

The winner, H.D. Kellogg, Jr. of Haverford Pennsylvania received $500 for his suggestion that consumers should pay a tax based on the power of the hardware purchased and a newly formed arm of the government would administer the fund.  Even though this remains the model for the BBC, this is America and we did not want the government involved.  Instead, for lack of a better idea the ad unit took over.  

By the 1950’s when television started to take off, the ad sales market was accepted by the public, and more importantly, very large.   Zenith found out the hard way in 1951.   The company started tests of its “Phonevision” subscription based television service.  Sure it was cumbersome, but the system failed under government lobbying from movie theater owners and advertising interests, not the friction in the system.   If the model was viable, it would not have needed government intervention to survive.

Maybe I am completely wrong.  It would not be the first time,  I did tell Steve Jobs the iMac would not work.  But even assuming I am wrong, The Makers, Machinimas and Google channels of the world are still bringing knives to the gun fight.   Jeff Bewkes made the point painfullyobvious at last year’s ignition conference. He said the investments from the new companies are cute and welcomed them to the kiddie table.   Google is doubling down this year and will spend USD 200 million on content this year.   A huge amount of capital to spend in a non-leveragable high-risk business, but it gains perspective only when we consider Time Warner spent USD 5 billion on content last year.   They had to because content creation is expensive.  The money goes not only into the content you see, but content you do not see.  Development is more expensive than production and it takes a lot of it to deliver the cream to the audience.   

The online club may not be scared by the size of the investment, but they should realize that Time Warner’s investment is not only justified by the other release channels, but comprises the lion’s share of content sponsors and consumers are willing to pay for on line. When we consider the ownership of Hulu, Cinemanow, HBO and even the 60 Minutes mobile app, when they want to distribute their content, they go direct.  Even giving the new guys the benefit of the doubt, the old guard wins.   They speak with the hubris of a disruptive actor, but the model is not disruptive, it simply a new distribution channel.  

People seem to love lists, so I am going to put in a list of a handful of truisms we should all accept. Since they do not change, let’s call them immutable rules.
1)            Television is one direction (passive)
2)            Online is bi directional  (interactive)
3)            Sponsors pay distribution channels for large collections of captive demographics who will watch an ad
4)            Online thrives on specialized content to small sociographics of viewers who hate ads and will do anything, including spending money, to skip them when possible
5)            Every successful online venture is based on adapting quickly to audience analytics
6)            Linear content is not tunable.
For those of you wondering when I am going to get to games, or as some would say, the only thing I know anything about, let me do it now.   For those of you not interested in games, let me just take a moment to blow your mind.  This year Telltale Games created a game with appeal to a television audience.  The Walking Dead game is somewhat limited when it comes to interactivity, but there is a strong story line and its accessibility does not dissuade traditional game players from getting involved or from validating it with more than its fair share of awards.   More importantly, by leveraging the unique attributes of the web with high quality content, consumers paid to play the game.  According to Forbes 8.5 million of them paid an aggregate of USD 40 million or in ad talk, a USD 4,705 CPM.   This is even more stunning when we consider 11 million people watch the show in US when it runs on television.  That is a higher tie ratio than NASCAR.

I wish I could conclude this piece with a disclosure of the perfect on line business model.  I can’t. If I could I would do it and not spend all this time writing.  However, I hope I can get smarter people than me to start exploring proven alternative business models away from traditional ad unit sales.  The game industry uses events, subscription, velvet rope, previews, in app purchasing and freemium models, among others to generate scalable businesses from content in an interactive environment.   Deep down in my heart I know one or more of these is the answer.  We just have to focus on the medium. 

In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium- that is, of any extensions of ourselves - result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by a new technology. . .  The electric light escapes attention as a communication medium just because it has no “content.” And this makes it an invaluable instance of how people fail to study media at all.  For it is not till the electric light is used to spell out some brand name that it is I noticed as a medium.  Than it is not the light, but the “content” . . . that is noticed.
 Marshall McLuhan

Monday, December 3, 2012

Someone Gamed Apple's App Store:Revenge of the Dentists Edition

It is encouraging to know the likelihood of breakout success in the app store is over 100 times better than the likelihood of winning the Powerball lottery. Unfortunately based on the sheer volume of apps in the store, it is still in the million to one range. Fortunately, unlike Powerball, we can increase the likelihood of success by charting. The top ten apps are easy to find and can build enough momentum to get millions of downloads. In this freemium world of ours, millions of free downloads means tens, maybe hundreds of thousand paying players. Most developers cross promote to their base, or use services like Appoday or Freeappaday to achieve the necessary velocity to crack the charts. But apparently, it is not the only path to success. Maura Thompson used a different method. She targeted a market with a large pent up demand and built an app for them - wanna be dentists.
You want to be a dentist? Ok, here is your chance! Dozens of Dental Surgery are waiting for you!

In this COOL Virtual Dental Surgery game you will have lots of fun drilling teeth, filling cavities, and using your dental skills to solve lots of dental dilemmas. hit the road and travel cross-country to lots of destinations, meeting new people and their mouths . . .
Yes, that really is the game's description. Now don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against dentists. My grandfather was a dentist and so is one my favorite uncles. But this is the first time I ever saw the words COOL, dental surgery and game all collected into a single sentence. This could come off as sour grapes. The good Maura Thompson found success where so many others did not, but I like to think this rant was ignited by bigger issues in the app store. Success is determined by discoverability and Discoverability is broken. Developers are playing playing a game with unknown rules and outcomes doled out from a slot at the bottom of a very, very black box.

Dental Surgery was released on November 20 of this year and ascended to the number 1 position in the app store shortly thereafter. I first noticed it on the 30th. It was kind of funny at the time and I thought someone at Apple was awake enough to see the game's position and do something about it. While I could be completely mistaken, the 3960 1 star reviews relative to 898 1 stars could indicate something is amiss. If Maura Thompson figured out how to game the app store, moved the app to number 1 for days and no one at Apple cared, there is a problem - and I want to meet her. If Maura Thompson legitimately built an app thousands felt compelled to download, but a vast majority found it to be . . . in the words of Tiger75 "is a piece of crap!" there is a problem.  Either way [I am waiting in silence as I hold my microphone out over the audience]

Let's first take a look at gaming the system. Everyone respects the rogue who takes it to the man. The person who provides solace to everyone who is not Supercell and Rovio by climbing to the top of App Mountain and planting a flag for the independents. We rally around him - or in this case her - and celebrate the victory while defending her from Apple's attack for the game played on the system.
Then the attack is followed by what should by now be called a "Mitnick," the offer to join the company. "How about you trade in that thar black hat for a white one?" But if this is not happening.  Where is the Posse?  If the number one position is the result of impropriety and Apple fails to react, the chart may soon become as useful as results 3 through 42,000,000 on a google search. Arguably they are useful if you are interested in finding out how a "hot nude lesbians waiting to meet you" corresponds to the search you did for an LED light bulb, but they are hardly going to help you find the the light bulb. Just as Google continues a glacial paced shift from useful to useless, Apple's only source of discovery may be commencing a migration.

But let's redirect and give Apple the benefit of the doubt. This post was typed on a Macbook Air and there are three iPhones, four iPads and countless Macs and iPods in my home. I bought all this equipment because I trust Apple. I continue to buy because I like the ecosystem. It works, and it is quality. This post was inspired three years ago by the attacks on Apple's walled garden approach.
Contrary to [Jason] Calacanis’ opinion, Jobs is not a dictator. We elected him with our dollars and put him up for confidence votes regularly. If he doesn’t listen, we can vote him out. We’ve done it before. Throughout the nineties, with no Uncle Steve and no network of developers, Apple suffered. And even though Uncle Steve is not always right – the Cube launch – at least Uncle Steve 2.0 reacts quickly – the Cube death. He reacts to the market. When it comes to the iTunes and the app store, Uncle Steve is more Frederick Law Olmstead to New York’s Central Park, than Michelangelo to the Sistine Chapel. He built a garden and invited the world to plant seeds. Like Central Park the form is established but the content will change. Also like Central Park, some content just doesn’t fit and has to be rejected or pruned. So far, it seems Jobs is the guy to do it. Jobs 2.0’s decisions are driven by long-term concerns over viability and stability of the platform. Do you think it was easy for him to allow an investment from Microsoft when he got back to the company It was an important decision that supported the continued relevance of the platform. Do you really need more proof?
So, here is the dirty little secret. It’s not [Douglas] Rushkoff’s disclosure that Apple is really evil, it is Apple is out to make a profit. At the present time, a walled garden is the best thing for the company. It will continue to operate in the best interest of its consumers, and its long-term viability. If there is conflict between the two, it will favor the company. Some of these decisions may include keeping competitive products off the platform for purely competitive or strategic reasons, but right now and fortunately, consumers have alternatives. If Apple goes too far, it could be 1992 all over again. I won't wait for the thank you card to the game industry for telling them what to do.
I supported Apple's approach because those of us old enough to remember the first run of "Mork and Mindy" remember Atari's crash. The game industry exists today because platform owners, starting with Nintendo, make sure content released on the platform is good. Atari users had so many bad purchase experiences when choosing from a very crowded market, they simply stopped buying. We see a flavor of this in the Android market today which is only a fraction of iOS sales.   Before the stories of his ouster from Apple, the press covered Scott Forstall as the guy who told Steve Jobs the app store should be open.   Jobs originally wanted it closed because he knew he had to give all consumers an Apple experience on their Apple product.   It is not really clear which side originated the walled garden, but it worked. As Ronald Reagan said before me "trust, but verify."  

We see in cases like the recent maps issue where Apple decided their own maps were not ready for prime time and highlighted other map applications in the store.   Apple will intervene and provide guidance if an app is not up to snuff.  Apple's decision to select and monitor content suggests the consumer can be comfortable enough to download, but Dental Surgery indicates otherwise.

Wait dear reader, before you jump down my throat and tell me Apple should not make decisions based on content. First they ban the dentists, then it is morticians and taxidermists and where does the madness end? No one will be safe. Don't worry, I am on board with you.  If the App is just not my taste or subjectively weak in the game play department but the market likes it - let it live.  I can't figure out what is going on in Rage of Bahamut, but you will never see me call for it to be yanked from the store. Is anyone going to support the original Madden Football beating Deer Hunter as a paragon of quality game play? But Dental Surgery is not just subjectively bad. According to the one stars, it is riddled with freeze bugs and lacking instructions. So the consumers who download this game can't play because it doesn't work and even if it did work, they would not know how.  How does this stay on top?

Apple's undertaking is monstrously large. While Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo deal with hundreds of games a year, Apple must deal with hundreds of thousands. Too much diligence creates anger in developers and hunger in consumers. Not enough means bad apps fall in the hands of consumers. There is a happy medium. Apple responded immediately to complaints generated by Capcom's Smurf Village and called for revisions in the game and revisions in the app store to prevent abuse of unwary consumers. Just like Kotaku's description of Google's shoot first, ask questions later treatment of financial anomalies, If Apple hopes to maintain consumer trust, it must respond anomalies in the charts. Unlike initial review, it would not a herculean task to assign a single person the responsibility of downloading and using the top ten free apps - especially the ones remaining in the charts for a week.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Recapping: Recognition of Genius

Sometimes I even amaze myself. I was looking back at an old post - less narcissistic than googling myself but more than tweeting and thinking someone cares - and found this genius vision of the future. If I did this a few hundred years ago I would have been revered for magical powers - or killed as a witch.
This post was written about three and a half years ago but shows an uncanny, crystal clear vision of the digital and mobile game world - or another statement of the obvious. You be the judge.
Once we get to the other side, we will realize the USD 59.95 price point, and even the USD 49.95 were not carved in stone by the finger of the almighty. They are an industry created construct, which continues to drive us to make USD 20 million “Fields of Dreams.” In this insidious cycle, the consumer demands a certain amount of gameplay for their dollar and we supply it. Perhaps in this new world we will be able to build games of all sizes at various price points. Without inventory we can shift prices up and down and all around until we determine the proper price for each type of game. Really, Gabe Newell says its ok. We can take risks again. New mechanics and gameplay can be released in smaller versions or even to limited large scale beta groups to see if we are on the right track before putting in the second USD 15 to 17 million. We can even capture the long tail currently exploited by Gamestop in their bargain bin. I don’t know if I’ve seen the future or if the revolution will even happen in time to rescue the industry as we know it. I do know we can’t be so ignorant as to believe we are immune to the reconfiguration of the markets for every other form of media. If we don’t choose to be proactive in the change, it will be done for us and we won’t be happy.