Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I Am The Most Popular Kid in School

Today I was invited by 5 people to connect on Naymz. . . I was also invited to connect to another dozen on Plaxo . . .10 on Linkedin and a myriad of others on a myriad of other services. I also found out that about 400 people whose card I once touched at a conference or in a meeting have updated their profile, blog or some other aspect of their life. Do I really need to know all this?

There is no established etiquette yet. If there were, people I hardly know would not keep sending invitations. It doesn't upset me, it takes virtually no time to ignore the invitation and sometimes it is even fun to try to figure out who the person is. I just always feel like I am offending someone. On the other hand, by accepting the invitation I am either joining a whole new service or in the case of the one service in which I participate, inviting them to ask for introductions to everyone I selected to connect with.

Many believe that every person on the planet is only six degrees away. If this is true, and I have no reason to doubt it, I am connected to every single person on the planet. I could take some comfort in knowing I can reach out to every citizen of China and be introduced by someone they know, but I just don't.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Deals folding in on themselves?

I am an Apple fan boy. My first computer was an Apple ][, upgraded to a ][ + and ][ e. I did stray for a while when NEC released the first lap tops. But came back to Apple when Mr. Jobs returned. I had the 20th Anniversary Mac, Wallstreet Powerbook, The Cube, the Mine and others. Warts and all. I read the rumor sites too much and on a cold late night in New York found myself wandering into the flagship store. So it is no surprise that this fan boy with the sadly misdirected life purchased the Macbook Air as soon as the store re opened after the Macworld announcement. I excitedly loaded and reloaded the home page until the buy button was available . . . and I got in. It made me happy as a consumer, but as a shareholder?

The computer has yet to arrive, but I am sure it will be everything I hoped for. Part of the reality distortion field is the ability to cause us mortals to ignore the flaws and reconfigure our usage patterns to the dictates of Mr. Jobs. One USB port, no ethernet, who cares. I'll buy hubs and adapters and carry a very heavy bag next to my very light computer. No extra battery? No big deal, a submarket will quickly emerge in companies who have supplemental batteries that are only slightly more expensive than regular batteries. My side bag will have enough room for those. Right next to the adapters. If you think this is a rationalization, you are not a fan. If you are complaining about the shortcomings, you don't deserve one. You just don't get it.

However, looking at the Air from the perspective of a shareholder, I do have a concern. It is not the design, or the potential limitations of what could be a niche market. The mature Mr. Jobs has shown that he can identify a mistake and react quickly. The Cube was "put on ice" when sales were slow and was nothing more than a hiccup. My concern surrounds a throw away statement which went out to reviewers like USA Today and others across the web. When asked why it does not have the 3g option built into competitive sub notebooks Apple explained that it did not want to tie its customers into long term contractors with mobile carriers. Not wanting to lock in with carriers? There was no hesitation to doing this with with the iPhone. Why the hesitation now?

It looks like the full statement should be we did not want to set force customers to tie up with carriers other than AT&T. We did not want to run the service through AT&T as part of an iPhone business option because they are not ready with 3G. They may be close to ready, but the iPhone is not 3G. In any event, that silly little AT&T commitment got in the way. Because we at Apple chose to go exclusive with one product line, and all of our product lines have overlapping functionalities, our options, and your options as a customer, are limited to the services offered by that carrier.

I just have to wonder how big the impact of this and other individual product deals are going to have on the company as the product lines become more integrated.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Fox News Employs Mass Effect Strategy

On my usual morning visit to Gametab the headline "Lukeskywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas caught my eye. I clicked through and saw the very disturbing video I posted up above. It is game journalist and tv host Geoff Keighly being served up on television like a stuffed Christmas goose in mid 18th century England. He was blind sided, set up and denigrated by Fox News over Rock and Roll. Well, not really Rock and Roll. It was over games, they are our generation's Rock and Roll.

In the fifties adults hated Rock and Roll. It was Satan's work. Records were burned in the streets, sponsors pulled ads from radio stations, studies were created and cited to "prove" harmful effects and kids listened even more. Over the years the age of the listeners increased and the listeners moved into the societal roles of the attackers. They stopped attacking because they were listening. All of a sudden the heat died down. Not really, the heat was simply redirected to other things, like rap music, television and games.

The mainstream has a pattern and practice of making up lies about the video game industry. It is fun and easy. We never fight back in a credible way and our images provide a really great target. The segment started with a false premise and simply piled them on. Geoff tried to respond to the arguments, but the issue was incorrectly framed from the outset. Just about every word spoken by the two women, who admittedly had not played the game in question, is false. As if that is not enough, after Cooper Lawrence accused Geoff of supporting games that catered to gender stereotypes and degraded women, she referred to him as "darling" in a very condescending tone. You don't have to watch the whole video, let me paraphrase it for you:

Martha MacCallum: Games are bad.
Cooper Lawrence: Yes, they are really bad. Games killed Jesus
MacCallum: Games are being playing by kids.
Lawrence: Yes, they are being played by babies and no one watches. They are advertised on PBS during Barney.
MacCallum: This game is like a porn film.
Lawrence: Yes, in this game you have sex with a woman and then kill her.
MacCallum: Now let's meet the game expert.
Geoff Keighly: Have either one of you played the game?
MacCallum: No, but I looked at the web page.
Lawrence: I didn't have to.

If you don't believe me, watch the interview. It starts with a chiron statement under the talking heads that says "Se Xbox." MaCallum introduces the piece by saying there is full frontal nudity and sex in Mass Effect. She then throws to Lawrence with the statement that sex and nudity are everywhere and we can't control it, kids have access to on the Internet. Wait a second, the Internet? Kid's do have access to porn on the Internet. This is truly a major issue, but this segment is about Mass Effect, which is not porn and is not on the Internet. It is an M rated game, playable on a machine that has a password protected age gate.

Lawrence picked up the discussion by smugly pointing out that while we say we make these games for adults, statistics show they are being played by adolescent males. Once again, this is simply not true. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average age of a game player is 33 years old, and this has actually been increasing by one year each year . The average age of the buyer is 38 years old and 80 percent of console game buyers are over 18. Anyone under 18 cannot purchase an M rated game without parental consent and any parent can lock the game console to prevent M rated games from being played. Of course they are still being played by some kids, but they are a small minority of players. These are either conscious decisions by the parents, or a failure on the parents part to monitor their kids. It is the parents' responsibility.

Keighly then made the critical, tactical mistake of trying to argue the facts. Anyone who has watched The Colbert Report knows the facts aren't relevant. This debate was about the truthiness of the issue, not the facts. Keighly asked the women whether they played the game. Neither had played. MacCallum said she did not have to because she watched the preview. She pointed out that the age gate was very easy to get through. All she had to do was enter her age. Isn't that the point. So you enter your age, and see a preview that is approved for all audiences. A preview that is not quite as bad as the commercials shown for horror films during prime time television. She doesn't mention there was no nudity, sex or violence in the preview.

Keighly tried to explain the intricacies of RPGs to the panel. He explained you can play through the whole game without having sex. It is the natural evolution of a relationship and the choices you make. Lawrence incorrectly pointed out the misogyny of the game. She explained how you must play as a male and how your male character makes the decision whether or not to have sex. Geoff tries to explain you can play as male or female, but it falls on deaf ears. After all, it is not a part of MacCallum's fiction.

My favorite part is when Lawrence, who just told Keighly that games portray inappropriate gender stereotypes and don't respect women, refers to Keighly as "darling" in a condescending choice. She points to a University of Maryland study indicating that young gamers are not able to distinguish between reality and game content. This is a very disturbing concept. It is also very wrong. Lawrence dangerously inserts this gross mischaracterization of the study, creating the risk of potential spread of this attractive and incorrect meme. The findings of the study are much narrower. The study indicated that kids who play games apply gender stereotypes from games to the real world. Wow, what a surprise. Game content can impact the real world the same way as books, films, television, music, schools, other kids and any other form of media. This means we may actually have to watch our kids and god forbid, talk to them.

Then the fun part happened. The discussion is thrown to a panel of experts who talk about all the porn contained in the game. One woman says she does not understand why the game was rated M instead of AO. She says there must be something wrong with the rating system. If the game actually had the content discussed on the show, it would be AO. It does not. One of the men says the game is Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas and is evidence of the decline of western civilization. Again. If this were true, it would be troubling. Fortunately it is not.

It is hard enough to defend the stuff we actually do. Why are we put in the position of defending the stuff we don't do and why is it acceptable?

Game to film transitions

A little while ago N'Gai Croal was kind enough to publish a rant of mine which compared Halo 3 sales numbers to film. I received a lot of feedback regarding my position that Halo should not be made into a film. Unfortunately, that was not my premise. If anything, I said that Halo should not be made into a shitty movie. My point was simply, games sales alone do not say the film should be made.

A film can be made about anything, look at Pirates of the Caribbean. However, like Pirates, the film will live or die on its story. Unless a great script with a great director and a great producer come together, the film won't be made. Sometimes this happens right away, sometimes it takes years, sometimes it never does. The evolution from game to great script is a harder one than a comic book, a novel or a life story. In the case of Sin City and 300, brilliant directors figured out how to shoot the films directly from the pages. Novels have strong stories and a number of writers are out there who can very effectively adapt films from the books. The same with life stories. Games do not have a linear story. Many, like Halo, have a universe, but the universe has to be populated with a 3 acts comprising a story. There may be a loose arc in some games, but there is rarely a self propelled story which would keep you engaged for two hours without a controller in your hand. This is certainly the case with Halo. Ask any Halo player if they would sit and watch game play for two hours, just for the story. The leap from non linear, interactive world, to great script, is really, really, really, really, really, really hard. Why do you think screenwriters get paid so much?

Once the script comes together, the budget must be in line with the strength of the script, the director, the producer, the cast, the awareness and many other factors. The game sales are only a factor. As an outsider, it would appear, that the package that came together did not support the budget requested. The factors for this decision may be complex, but at the end of the day, if the two studios thought they could make their money back, they would have made the investment. The downside risk was not well enough mitigated to provide sufficient comfort. The easiest change is to lower the budget. The more complex is to monkey with some of the variables in the package. The larger the budget, the broader the required size of the audience perceived by the studio. In other words, the further we must move from the existing audience.

After sounding like a curmudgeon and making it sound like there should not be a movie. A movie would be fine. I just think it should make the existing audience happy. Growing an audience is fine, but the incremental growth for units of Halo is a tough one to swallow. Awareness of Halo is probably higher than any other game the market. Awareness in the demographic that owns a game console and is willing and interested in playing a first person shooter must be closing in on 100%. Even among those without a game console, if you are willing to play an FPS, you know about Halo. If you know what FPS stands for, you know about Halo. A film could introduce a new audience to the game. But we are not talking about Tetris here. Halo is not a "pick of and play" for a newbie. The versions of Halo are probably the top three tie ratios of console to game ownership on the Xbox and Xbox360 platforms. That means most people with consoles own the game. The game itself is a console seller. Gamers see it as a reason to buy a console. The game, the technology and the community are drivers of a purchasing decision. Not the naked property. Are people whose introduction is through a film going to run out and buy a console to play the game? I think not. These are the people who buy 10 million Harry Potter games, or 5 million Matrix games or 7 million Lord of the Rings game. Any of which a Halo player would view as more valuable as a cocktail coaster to protect their milk crate coffee table from getting stained by condensation dripping off their chilled bottle of Halo emblazoned Mountain Dew Gamer Fuel. Halo is a market share grabber. It is not a market expander. Wii Sports is a market expander.

If you make the movie for the community, give them more of what they love. All of these people who are on line saying there should be a film, could write the film. Master Chief lands, there is a big attack by hordes of aliens, jump in a Warthog, explosion . . . All of the elements are there for a great Peter Jackson film. Can you imagine Peter Jackson directing the film, in engine with some post rendering passes to make it pretty? Better yet, give it to Blur and make it look shit hot and still come in under 50 million dollars. If the movie comes in on that budget or less, you don't have to water down the story and risk alienating your core fans. You can make it just for them. What if this movie was done on a budget, hyped up in theaters through a very limited run and released exclusively on Xbox Live along with follow ons available only to owners of 360 and the game. I call that a console mover. I also say it makes the existing fan base happy.

Thank you Arianna

I don’t like to discuss politics with acquaintances. My views result from years of experience and exposure, but most importantly, are very personal. They are not necessarily right they are simply mine. I am not arrogant enough to think anyone else cares. It is not my job to evangelize, and I don’t want anyone to “save” me. The good news is, I don’t have to raise the issues with anyone, living on the Westside of Los Angeles I already know what the neighbors think. In case they think I don’t know their views, they happily share them.

Blue State people love to share. I find this out every time I walk my son to school. They know their view is the only right one. They also know their enlightened view is so obvious, everyone must agree with them. Bush’s most recent deficiency is no less obvious than the color of the sky. No one could possibly disagree. Now that we have people like Arianna Huffington providing talking points, my neighbors can support their arguments with facts. Each morning they can collect their daily talking points.

“Did you know Condoleezza Rice was watching a play during Hurricane Katrina and then went shoe shopping?” It doesn’t matter that she has no role in domestic affairs; she was not in New Orleans.

“Did you know Chief Justice Rehnquist once bought a house that had a restriction against selling to Jews?” It doesn’t matter that he did not put it in the deed and that restriction, which is found in millions of deeds across the country, including mine, was likely not enforceable when he bought the house.

These talking points sound good. They are inflammatory and troubling, and delivered by experts. Trained professionals like Ari Emanuel, founder of Endeavor, one of Hollywood’s leading talent agencies tells us what the federal role is in disaster relief; Sherry Lansing, long time head of Paramount Studios and one of the most successful women in the history of Hollywood explains the fundamentals of Stem Cell research; and Adam McKay, writer of Anchorman and Bewitched, points out the Bush administrations failure to read or adequately respond to memos.

I am not defending the actions or inactions of George Bush or his administration. However, I don’t want to hear theories about his connections to Halliburton any more than I wanted to hear about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s self-dealing. For every fact the Red guys raise, the Blue guys throw one back. It is counterproductive. People must not mindlessly accept the information delivered to them by the person with whom they most agree. The media is biased. As much as we like to get our information from like-minded individuals, if we want to be educated and culturally literate, we have to listen to the other side. Until you Reds, or Blues for that matter, choose to take a truth driven approach, rather than partisan, please keep your views to yourself.

Jack Thompson is right

Jack Thompson built a name for himself attacking video game companies. In his mind, video games cause violent behavior. I was first aware of this mindset when Eidos was sued on behalf of families of Columbine victims. Some attorney brought a class action based on our publishing and distribution of Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy VII PC. I felt the attorneys responsible for bringing in the action were preying on the victims of tragedy to satisfy their own personal agendas. Since then Jack Thompson has created somewhat of a name for himself pursuing these types of actions. However, now, as the victim of a mindless act, replicating the actions taken in the most popular video game in the world, I believe Jack.

My wife’s car was the object of a hit and run accident. The car was parked on the street in front of our house, and a car drove into the door, caused thousands of dollars in damage, and drove away without leaving a note or any other way to find them. This is exactly the type of action, which is not only encouraged, but rewarded, in the most popular game in the world, GT4. Gran Turismo 4 places individuals in cars just like the ones we see on the road and allows them to race around a track, bumping into other cars with complete impunity. The driver can also force a car off the road, again, with no accountability and without even having the option to leave a note or take responsibility for his or her action.

I am glad I made the connection to GT4 and Sony because it lets me blame someone. I have to blame someone. If I just consider it a random act by an amoral individual, I cannot assign blame, displace anger, or recover financial damages. Prior to assigning blame to Sony I had no one. The person who hit the car drove away. I certainly do not want to blame myself for assuming this obvious risk by parking the car on a narrow street; it is my right to do so. It makes me feel good to find Sony.

If my insurance did not cover the damage I would be able to find an attorney like Jack Thompson who would take my case and get me the money I need to repair my car. As a matter of fact, he would tell me how he could get me punitive damages from Sony to punish them for their poor judgment in publishing a game as evil as GT4. Jack would help me by assembling a class of individuals who were also victims of hit and run accidents and we would sue Sony not only for my damage, but also for a whole lot of damages. We would sue, and Jack’s fee would be measured, from the aggregate of everyone’s damages in the entire class. Forget that neither he nor anyone else who ever brought this type of action against a game publisher ever won a penny. Forget also that Jack stands to make more money and garner more publicity than any of the victims of the tragic crime, which placed them in the class. Forget that there is no solid science or research tying video game violence to violence in the real world. We are just lucky to have Jack. Without Jack, we may not only be forced to assume responsibility for our own actions, but the actions of society as a whole.

The Joy of Airport Inspection

I am the first to acknowledge my issues with authority. It started at a very early age when I could not understand why my elementary school teachers did not feel the compelling need to hear my perspective. For the most part, I can identify my urges toward inappropriate behaviors and suppress them before they come out. Most significantly, I listen to and respect the TSA Agents at airport screening sites. Part of the respect is naturally driven by their authority to take me in the back room and inspect places which better remain hidden to even my doctor, but mostly I view their job as important. I make a point of arriving early and the added time for inspection makes me feel a bit safer. This all ended last week.

I checked in and started to go through security. I emptied my pockets, took off my shoes and walked through the metal detector. The detector went off because I walked too quickly. I went back, as instructed, and walked through again. This time the detector did not go off. I was immediately waived to the side by a gentlemen whose parents’ migration to America is much closer in time than my own. He asked me to spread my arms. I did. He ran the wand under my arms, across my body and up and down my torso. There was no reaction from the wand or me. He then physically patted down my upper body and found nothing. He then did the same on my legs. Then, after finding nothing, he asked me to undo my belt and open my pants. As appealing as exhibiting my underwear to the whole of LAX may be, this did not seem like the time or place. As he was talking to me, I was responding and looking him the eye. Looking someone in the eye while you speak is a sign of courtesy and respect. It shows attentiveness. Apparently this is not the case for this particular TSA Agent. In a single beat of my heart I was moved from LAX to a scene from Deliverance.

“Stop staring me in the eye” he said angrily “this entire time you are under investigation and if you continue that behavior, you will not make your plane.”

I was being threatened for “eyeballing” after I was asked to open my pants. I’ve heard this warning before, but never outside the movies. There is a significant difference between exertion of authority and abuse. Unfortunately, this razorsharp distinction may be lost on some individuals.

I once flew from L.A. to Toronto on El Al. With good reason, these guys are serious about their security. When I checked in, someone came up to me in the line ticket line looked into my eyes, and said “I am going to ask you some questions.”

“Did you pack your bags yourself?” It was the same question I answered on every other airline, so I just said “Yes.”

“No, No, No,” he said “this is a serious question. Did you pack your bags yourself, I have to know.”

He then went on to ask me all of the other standard questions. The way he asked them, demanded a response and any uncertainty or inclination to deception would be perceived by this trained interrogator. I, and the rest of the passengers, was then escorted to El Al’s own x ray machine. They x rayed our bags. We then went to El Al’s metal detector. Once through, we were seated in a room where our bags were hand searched. Someone asked if we were going to be late for the plane, and we were told not to worry, the plane would not take off until everyone is confirmed as safe. During the process my name was checked a number of times against the manifest and I was checked in and out of each station. After the whole process, they took us to the TSA inspection where the El Al official smiled at the low level of review. When we got on the plane, we received safety instructions and were served by flight attendants who were better suited to compete in the NFL than fit down the narrow aisles of the plane. Every step of the way, we knew we were safe, and if someone wanted to do something bad, they knew it was not happening here. I never encountered a stronger assertion of authority. Trained professionals understood the levity of their task and the danger they are trying to avoid. I do not mean to overgeneralize and paint the entire staff with the bruch primed by my friend at LAX. While is the most egregious incident, it is certainly not the only one.

The TSA are doing a very important job. Especially during this time of war and the growing instability in our world. There are a lot of crazies out there, and they don’t all look so crazy. Their position on the front line and the responsibility they bear is mind boggling to the point incomprehensibility. All the more reason to screen and train these individuals. There will certainly be kinks in the system, but with all the money we are spending and all the time invested, let’s make the system efficient and effective.