Thursday, July 31, 2008

Casual Games: On the Road Edition

I am sitting in the airport on my way from from the Casual Connect conference in Seattle. The conference was great, and I learned an awful lot. The first thing is these things they call casual games are the same things we called console when I got into the business. The second happened when I was on my way to dinner. I was walking and a woman yelled from behind and started pointing frantically at my heel.

"SIR, SIR, SIR" I slowed down and looked at my heel. This gave her enough time to catch up."Give me 5 dollars. I am homeless and live in a garage and its hard and I want to buy a number 4 value meal at Jack in the Box. Do you know how hard it is to be homeless?"
"I don't."
"It is really hard. I have 10 blankets and sleep in a garage and its cold." We kept walking and she was speaking very clearly and very loud. "Now, give me five dollars because I am going to buy a number 4 value meal at Jack in the Box and I will use the money for that. "I reached into my wallet and gave her 10.

I can't even imagine how much it sucks to be homeless and the city of Seattle seems to have a lot systems in place to make sure they don't sleep in benches or pester people. This woman circumvented the system and devised a pitch. There may be more work involved for the person who plays music with the open guitar case, and we are now blind to the person with the cardboard sign at the intersection. This was a unique, directed pitch. The same type of pitch which leads to a successful game in a casual game distribution channel.

Nolan Bushnell knew this when he devised the home screen for Pong. We take these things for granted, but at the time, there was no arcade machine dial tone. He set up a series of screens emulating his experience as a carnival barker on the midway. The first screen gives you the instructions for the game, the second a sample of the game, the third asks for the quarter. If you think about it, it is no different than the guy offering you 3 balls for a quarter. The woman on the street did the same thing.

On a crowded street and with many other people asking for money she had to get my attention. Her position is no different than a new game in a portal. By pointing to my shoe it was familiar but unexpected. Did I drop something? Did I walk through dog shit? - the art, the name the license. She seized the opportunity created by my looking at her and break in walking pace to engage me - the trial period. She told me she wanted 5 dollars - the ask, too few people in any line of business know to be specific with the ask. Then she told me what I was going to get for the money. Sure she was getting the meal, but she was selling me the satisfaction of providing the meal, and receiving an assurance the money was not going to drugs or alcohol. Finally, the close. She asked the question she knew the answer to. Of course I don't know how hard it is to live on the street, but once the concept is suggested, how can I walk away.

Sitting on a panel with John Welch of Gamefirst I heard him say there are a huge pile of semi discernible games being released into the casual market. I know this from personal experience because when I look at I feel like my head will explode. I like to say games into the casual market instead of casual games, because the games they are making are actually the same thing many of us did but we called them console games. The lady on the street could teach them a lot about marketing. I wish there was a way to get royalties to her.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bourne is Back: Treadstone Edition

Ludlum Entertainment Reacquires Rights to Develop, Publish and Distribute Multi-Platform Games Based on Robert Ludlum Novels
07.30.08, 9:30 AM ET

NEW YORK, July 30 /PRNewswire/ -- Ludlum Entertainment today announced that it has reacquired exclusive rights to develop, publish and distribute multi-platform games based on the literary works of late-author Robert Ludlum, the world-renown novelist whose works including the Bourne and Covert One series have sold more than 290 million copies worldwide and spawned the theatrical box office hits The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy.

The rights to develop, publish and distribute games based on Ludlum's works were previously held by Vivendi Games, now Activision Blizzard following the December 2007 combination of Vivendi Games, Vivendi's Blizzard Entertainment and Activision. In June 2008, Sierra Entertainment, a division of Vivendi Games, launched the critically-acclaimed Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Conspiracy for the Playstation 3 computer entertainment system and Microsoft's Xbox360 videogame and entertainment system.

Ludlum Entertainment's reacquisition of the rights to develop games based on Ludlum's literary works comes at an ideal time for the company -- the international success of Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Conspiracy coupled with continued, dramatic changes in the gaming industry enable Ludlum Entertainment to develop new partnerships capable of fully exploiting the multi-platform potential of the Ludlum content and storylines.

"Robert Ludlum's thrilling stories hold vast international appeal and with their successful translation to both the big screen and the game console, they represent the backbone of one of the leading multi-media entertainment franchises in existence today," said Jeffrey Weiner, Chairman & CEO of Ludlum Entertainment and Executor of the late-author's estate. "Our colleagues at Vivendi Games did a tremendous job of capturing the spirit and allure of Robert Ludlum's writing with The Bourne Conspiracy and the gaming community's strong response is clear indication that future Ludlum games will deliver both popularity and profitability for years to come.

"Robert Ludlum's works are an ideal vehicle for realizing the promise of multi-platform gaming and capitalizing on the accelerated migration from personal computers and game consoles to a wide variety of mobile devices, online multiplayer games and social media applications," continued Weiner. "We look forward to working with innovative partners in the gaming community and new investors to further extend the reach and appeal of Robert Ludlum's stories and to help write the next chapter for this powerful and timeless entertainment franchise."

SOURCE Ludlum Entertainment

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Raising Games: Charles Dickens Edition

Games are like children. If you nurture their growth and support them once they leave the nest, they will be happy and support you and bring you joy the rest of your life. If you treat them poorly and stunt their growth, they will enter the world angry, not contribute to society, and like the Menendez boys, quite possibly kill you. In a Dickensian way, Fagin - like publishers are sending games out into the world deformed, immature, socially retarded, and ill equipped to face a cruel world. These emotionally undeveloped game are expected to perform in the real world and send money back to Fagin. When the handicapped games displease the publishers with a "please sir, may have some more," because the subsistence level support did not allow them to grow, publishers withhold support and expect them to fend for themselves. No marketing for you. Fend for yourself, or die. These publishers don't realize, a piece of them dies with each wasting and withering game. It seems kind of silly, especially in a world where we see the fruits of early intervention, and holding our games back for extra nourishment and support in Bioshock, Halo and years of Mario.

Publishers seem to take an adverse stance relative to developers, both internal and external. In most cases, it is much easier for them to see the expense than the upside of the investment. They threaten to withhold money if the title is not complete, or refusing to extend release dates for polish. This leads to an interesting discussion.

"I know I added some features, but you agreed, why can't you finish the title?"
"We don't have any money."
"You'll be in breach."
"We don't have any money."
"You are contractually obliged to deliver on time."
"We don't have any money."
"If you don't deliver, we will sue you."
"We don't have any money."
"Ok, wrap it up and give us a gold master candidate?"
"We don't have any money."

And then the publisher walks away. Of course developers have a responsibility to deliver a title, but even Riccitiello acknowledged, quality and dates fixed 2 or three years ahead of time are not always the best bed fellows. It is very hard, if not impossible to know exactly what is going to show up on screen two to three years from the day you start. The things you thought would be fun turn out not to be. The stuff you thought you could do, you could not. Stuff you couldn't imagine, turns out to be possible, the publisher makes unilateral changes, the publisher's producer makes changes without telling the
publisher, and the publisher and developer mutually agree on changes. Unfortunately, too often, the revised game does not fit into the aggregated marketing, Q/A, localization, music, voice and production costs into a single "not to exceed number." So when these changes occur, money is drawn from another area, reducing the likelihood of success. Remember the campaign for Psychonauts? Neither does anyone else. Or, one of my favorite conversations:

"We started testing multiplayer today. We've assigned a team of 6 men."
"But we have eight player multiplayer."
"I know, but we spent extra money on the game."
"You extended the schedule by a quarter, and added a new city."
"I know, but it cost money."
"But multiplayer won't work."
"They are very good."

I cannot conceive of why it makes sense to spend millions of dollars getting a title to the goal line, and then stopping. Regardless of quarterly why would a publisher invest so much money in a game, and then hold back on Q/A, leading to ship of a buggy game? If you ship a quarter late, you have a bad quarter. If you ship a quarter early, you lose a franchise, and all of your investment.

It is time the publishers stop looking at these titles as "handicapped" and start looking at them as "handicapable." If you feel the game is too deformed to ever be accepted by the cruel world, please put it out of its misery, your misery, our misery. No matter how much you cut back, the costs only just begin at release. Once a publisher releases the game it incurs not only the visible costs of marketing, manufacture, shipping, etc., but the possibly more expensive unseen costs of damage to reputation incurred in the critical and consumer communities. Each bad game is a shovel full of dirt drawn from a new hole. If you feel the game can be mainstreamed with some support and therapy, support it. There is no in between.

The publishers should be reviewing games on a regular basis and making hard decisions. The decisions should be based on a clean slate review. The amount of money into a title should not be a factor in determining whether to proceed. It is either good enough to wash its own face after release, or it should be killed. Think like a Japanese publisher. Do you think Nintendo was looking at the budget on Mario Galaxy? Publishers should know when a game goes bad. It is their job. They should see when a developer is not going to make it or the title just won't come around. A bad game, is a bad game and it is obvious in development. At most, provide input and give it another quarter, see if turns around. If not, kill it. They must be honest with themselves, and kill it. Remember Daikatana? I wish I didn't.

The converse is also true. If a game is on the verge of greatness, but the budget and timing will not allow it to get there, double down. Publishers are in the business of making games. They should know when there is magic on screen. If they see it, support it. Sure, there is plenty to "save for the sequel," but get the good stuff out and make it great. The list of games hit games with schedule extensions is much longer than the list of hits from games rushed to make a date. If the publisher kills the bad ones, there is money left over to build the good ones. This is not to say developers should be relieved of their responsibility to deliver. But the check on poor performance is termination, not cut backs. This is still a business. The publisher's responsibility is to see and nurture greatness. The developer's responsibility is to create greatness.

Ok, so the game is supported, and nurtured, and given the support it needs. It is ready to leave the nest. Fagin looks angrily at the game, screaming,

"You cost too much. I've given you every penny I am going to give you."
"But, sir, no one will know I exist."
"It's not my problem. I gave you everything you asked for. If you are truly great, people will find you."
"But they just walk over me in the street. I can't get to the front of the store unless you pay them. They won't even mention me to customers."
"You should have thought about that before you asked for more money."

If a publisher decides a game is good enough to complete, it is good enough to support. Even notorious spendthrift, Activision, knows great titles are not enough. They must be supported with marketing. And not the usual 8% of projected sales marketing. Real marketing.

In most cases, video game publishers market only set aside enough budget to market to the video game community. The sales guys go into Wal-Mart, and the buyer says "What's your MTV buy? What's your ESPN buy?" Sales then reports back to marketing, and media is directed to those channels. PR and marketing focus on gaming publications. The result, everyone who knows the game is coming out, gets to know the game is coming out. If you walk into magazine stand with 100 magazines, you will see a dozen gaming pubs with the latest sequels on all the covers. Turn around, and you will not see a game on any other covers. This is curious, as every publisher who branched out into the mainstream, found great success. Guitar Hero advertised on American Idol, Call of Duty, Halo and GTA IV on network, and they sold - a lot. It is imperative to market to the core audience, but core is only the beginning. With the budgets we are dealing with, we publishers must reach the main stream to survive. The most common publisher responses, are "if the game sells well, we will invest in more marketing" or, "those games are fanchises." Yes, those games sell well and are franchises because they were supported. They did not sell well and were not franchises before the marketing money is invested. Do I have to write any more about that thought process? Maybe just this conversation,

"We gave you the biggest action film franchise in the world, what are you doing the mainstream."
"Core is very important, our marketing and PR focus is there."
"Those plans are great, but you can get the cover of Time Magazine and People with this."
"You don't understand, they don't care about games."
"They care about this franchise. I got Lara Croft on the cover of Time and Entertainment Weekly two years before the movie."
"Yeah, but she's an Icon" said the PR guy who is not old enough to have ever lived in a world without Lara Croft, and not quite as old as many of the socks in my sock drawer.
"Not when I started."

Tomb Raider was launched in a different world, the game was held back 6 months for polish. Larry Sparks' marketing program in the UK included bus stops, movie theater advertisements, mainstream magazines, Pepsi co-marketing and the video wall on U2's Zoo TV tour. It was ground breaking at the time, and it led to a world wide, company carrying, franchise property. While the plan is not so ground breaking today, we have seen with Call of Duty 4, Guitar Hero, GTA IV and Halo, it still works. If you think the game deserves to live, hold on to your balls and run full steam ahead. Invest what you need to invest to make a great game. Tell the world it is there, and then tell them again. If you don't believe in the game enough to fully support it, kill it right now, you will never get your money back. Anything in between, and you are pissing money down a rat hole.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Where is my Batman Game?: Huh? Edition

I, like the rest of the world, went and saw the new Batman movie last weekend. I really liked it, but I am not much of a gauge. I liked all of them. Even Batman and Robin (Akiva Goldsman explained it was not his fault, the director butchered his great script). Batman is my favorite super hero, because he is just a guy. Anyone can be Batman. All you have to do is work at it . . . . and be psychotic.

I started with the Neal Adams/ Dennis O'Neil comics when I was a kid, survived through the early 80's malaise to see Alan Moore's The Killing Joke and Frank Miller's Dark Knight breathe life into the character once again. I made it through the Knighfall period and even forgave the Azrael continuity interruption and break in film making until Jim Lee and Christopher Nolan reintroduced him in comics and film. My only reward on the gaming side is pain. Bad game, after bad game, after bad game. Some, thank you very much Acclaim 1.0, were not even finished when they shipped. Why can't I have a good Batman game?

We all know the issues surrounding licenses and games. There is not enough time to make between greenlight and release. There is no certainty of sequels, so there is a great risk the investment will have to be supported by a single game. License fees eat up the production budget. Blah, blah, blah. All of these are real concerns, but not here. Warner had three years from the last Batman movie to figure out what they were going to do in games, and the best they could do is Lego Batman. As a fan, I am kind of bummed out. If I were Warner and thinking about the money I left on the table, I would be more than that. They could have paid for the film with the game. Activision made one good Spiderman game and then sold millions with a marginal game based on the film Spiderman 3. Iron Man, not a darling of the critics, but great selling game. Here is a radical thought, how about a great Batman game for release against the next Batman film.

I am no expert, but I would be willing to bet even money there will be another Batman film. Warner is now in the business of making games, they could build it. The character is worth a significant investment. If they get started now, they will likely make the next film. If they don't make the next film, who really cares. It is still one of the best franchises in the world. Either way . . . can I please have my game?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Check it Out: Cool Animations Edition

This animations has been floating around the web for a while, but it really blew me away.

This one was kind of neat too.

The innovations reminded me of The Neverhood, the first property acquired by DreamWorks. Doug Tennapel pitched the idea in Steven Spielberg's home before the studio was even announced, and it was supposed to be DreamWorks first transmedia property. They were going to do toys, films and lots of stuff, until someone thought "Prince of Egypt" was a better idea.

The game was created with over 3 tons of clay, a lot of wood, and a digital still camera, one frame at a time. I feel pretty comfortable saying no game will ever use this much clay again. Not many people got to see the game. Let's just say Mr. Katzenberg had an interesting marketing approach. Here are some scenes:

Here is some making of:

Friday, July 18, 2008

What's the Point: E3 Wrap Up Edition

I just got back from the hollow shell of what used to be E3. On the one hand I think it is wonderful to see the day Into the Pixel's display of amazing concept art has grown larger than the E3 show floor. On the other hand, I think it kind of sucks that E3's show floor is actually smaller than the Into the Pixel concept art display. A number of people described the show as “post appocolyptic.” I like to think of it as a rendering of how the old E3 would look if it was staged by the propaganda department of smaller cold war era eastern block country.

I knew this show was different the moment I exited the freeway. I didn't have to see the convention center standing naked without the perennial Atari sign on the South Hall. I could tell by the traffic, rather, the lack of traffic. The traffic jam was replaced by tumbleweed blowing through the barren streets with the whisper of an Ennio Morricone score in the background. In the past, the on site parking lots were full hours before the show doors opened, today, I drove right in about 11 and there were enough empty spaces for me to practice tailspins and burn outs in the empty parking lot. I guess it's nicer. I was also able to stand all alone in front of the urinal trough, rather than the shoulder to shoulder group pees of earlier years. So I guess, if you are looking for a place with convenient parking and plenty of room to pee, E3 is it. If you are looking for the hub of the most vibrant sector of the entertainment business, you may want to look elsewhere. In typical video game industry fashion, the newly formed E3 actually amplifies the issues leading to the events' demise, rather than relieving them.

E3 used to be the biggest, baddest, loudest, flashiest trade show in the world. Ostensibly you had to be a game industry professional to get in, but if you ever stood within spitting distance of someone whose nephew once touched a game console, you were able to get a pass. The arms race which led to full skate ramps, nearly naked women and musical performances on the floor caused the publishers' show cost to increase annually until it got the breaking point. The publishers thought they were not getting the financial return they needed. So ESA reduced the size of the show from 80,000 attendees to 4,000. In the words of Mike Gallagher, 76,000 passionately interested people were told they could not attend. I am just a simple guy, but I still don't understand why we would turn those people away. Especially when they are willing to pay and others would pay to get in front of them. Sponsorship, public days like Tokyo Game Show and Leipzig both seem like viable options to support the old style show, but let's save the discussion for another day.

I walked in to get my badge and again, unlike the old days in the convention center, there was no line. I gave my name, showed my ID and then,
“Are you a journalist, analyst or retailer?”
“I am not any of those.”
“No, you have to be one of those. Are you a journalist, analyst or retailer?”
“I am really not any of those. Is there an ‘other’?”
“No, just pick one and tell me which one you are. If you don’t I will pick one.”
In reality, if I was one of those things, I would not have to make my way all the way to downtown LA to talk to publishers. They come to me, or I speak with them on the phone - quarterly. I turned my head to say hi to a friend walking in the door, and then the woman handed me my badge. I don’t know what I am, and apparently, neither does E3.

Badge in hand, I looked for the show floor, but I couldn’t find it. The West Hall, former home of Sony, Sega and others had a big Microsoft ad on it, but nothing in side. The South Hall was also empty but without a banner covering the windows, it looked like the last tenant left quickly, in the middle of the night. The entire show flow was confined to the Concourse. A foreboding sign, considering the last time I entered this hall at E3 was for the premier of Bandai’s Pippin. (For those of you in the back row, Pippin was the bastard child of a partnership among Apple and Bandai. You can still find them on ebay.) Fortunately, the show floor was one of only three venues.

While three is a vast improvement over last year's 47 or so venues connected by shuttle buses, it still makes little sense. Each major publisher, had a meeting room, an exhibit on the floor and a press conference. The show floor presence was small and balanced. Each publisher had basically the same amount of space. Only G4 had more. The publishers still had to disrupt production with the extra E3 build, no savings there, but the quieter venue enabled them to actually talk about their games and staff the booth with people who actually knew about games, rather than women hired for other attributes. You decide which is better. Actual attendance was so sparse, publishers were able to take plenty of time to exhaustively highlight each and every feature of the E3 build to each and every member of the press.

Since the show floor was open to just anyone – anyone who was specifically invited by the ESA membership – the special games were saved for the second floor conference rooms. In other words, there was very little to see on the show floor. Even though it was sort of VIP’s only for the event, sometimes referred to as Star bellied Sneech event, it was VVIP’s, or double star bellied Sneeches only, for the real stuff in the conference rooms. Of course there were parties, but those were reserved for quaduple stars and beyond.

Barren conference rooms were provided to publishers the same way I imagine rooms are booked at the Islamabad Hilton. I happened to be meeting with a friend for his first meeting at the show. The room was locked.
“Can we open the door.”
“Did you buy a key?” The security guard asked.
“Well, no, we rented the room.”
“You have to buy a key, it’s $500.”
“But I paid $20,000 for the room.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t include a key. I can call someone to unlock it, but then you won’t be able to get back in after you leave.” 
Twenty minutes later someone opened the door. With the exception of a half full outdoor garbage can, the room was completely empty.

“There’s no furniture.”
“Did you pay for furniture?”
“Actually we did.”
“Let me check” garbled voice into walkie talkie “a woman rejected your furniture yesterday.”
“But the only people from the company are me and my brother, and we just arrived.”
“Well you should talk to the woman who rejected the furniture.”
“We don’t know who. . . . “ he gave up and sat in his empty room, on the chair we borrowed from the hallway
The other publishers were able to set up their materials in the austere, veal fattening pens which replaced the grand booths of yesteryear. Inside these invite/appointment only walls, publishers were able to show the hidden gems of the show. Tomb Raider Underworld and other “world premiers” happened here, safely tucked away from the glare of the otherwise empty show floor. A number of people commented on how quickly the meetings went and how little they actually had to do. Not a surprise since all of the business has been done elsewhere and a lot of people sat this show out. The lack of people made getting in between meetings very easy. In the old days, every meeting ran late because we ran into people in the hall and had impromptu meetings or reacquainted with people in between meetings. Now, there was no one in the halls and we were able to move with the efficiency of the German railway.

The third venue, the press conference, was the time and money sucker. These were reserved for the triple star bellied Sneeches. These were not just regular press conferences, but great big, choreographed multi screened, do your best Steve Jobs impression, massively expensive press conferences. But despite these very large events - Nintendo's performance live from the home of the Oscars, EA live from the historic Orpheum Theater, Sony from the Shrine Auditorium - they really didn't get much coverage. In the old days, just setting up a booth on the show floor put you on the E channel, CNN, MTV and even the network morning shows. These sideshow events only harnessed a portion of the already reduced attendance of E3 itself. These events moved the arms race of booth size to an arms race of press conferences, and got the same coverage they would have received if they held a press day of their own, on their own time.

E3’s story mirrors Harry Nilsson’s story of Oblio, from The Point, and the genesis is probably about the same.
"I was on acid and I looked at the trees and I realized that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to point. I thought, 'Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn't, then there's a point to it.'" Harry Nilsson
Oblio was a boy with no point on his head in a land where everyone had a point on their head. He, like E3 went on a journey to find his point. Mid way through his journey, he found the Rock Man.

Like the Rock Man says, “it aint necessary to have a point, to possess a point.” As I have said before, the original E3, had no point. But by not having a point, it gained a point. Hundreds of thousands of people came together to celebrate an industry tagged as reserved for geeks. The world press shined its light on the best and brightest we had to show, and for three days the rest of the world thought the industry was as cool as we do.

I like to think E3, like Oblio's meeting with the Rock Man, is only mid way through its journey. One of the ESA guys said “nothing is set in stone” about the show’s format and they will be taking input to determine what changes can be made to make sure the show best served the community. I’d like to think, we can all come up with something better. Something where the organizing entity does not turn away 20 interested people for every one they let in.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Check It Out, Too Much Time on Their Hands: Anti Gravity Edition

This is what happens when you play with non-newtonian liquids. In this case, corn starch and water. I didn't know what they were either, Wikipedia has this to say:
A non-Newtonian fluid is a fluid which cannot be described by a single constant viscosity. Most commonly, the viscosity changes with the applied shear stress. Many polymer solutions and molten polymers are non-Newtonian fluids.

I just thought the video is cool.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

I Told You So: Activision's ESA Withdrawal Edition

Today Ben Fritz ran a "revealing" interview about why Activision withdrew from The ESA. In his post, he quotes Bobby Kotick as saying:
I said don't view [pulling out of ESA] as anything but time off... With the combined companies [from the merger with Vivendi], the [ESA membership] dues went up enough that I said for it to make sense [to spend that money], we have to make a strategic plan. We don't have that because nobody owns it for us right now.
We have our own issues that are not the industry's issues. Our challenges are sufficiently different from other publishers' issues that we need our own point person. We'll have someone soon.

I appreciate Ben's efforts, but isn't this exactly everything I wrote on May 6 in my earlier post on the subject (bad grammar and all - I really have to proof read better)
If you think about the company as an organization, the answer is more than clear. Activision is one of the most bottom line oriented companies in the business. They do not spend money which does not have to be spent. Activision’s official statement was:
“After careful consideration, Activision has decided not to renew its ESA membership for business reasons and will not be participating in any official E3 activities. We appreciate the work that the ESA has done over the years in promoting the interactive entertainment industry with state and federal governments and wish the ESA best of luck with the show.”

This cigar is just a cigar. They simply did not want to pay the fee. ESA membership fees are based on revenue. The soon to be largest publisher in the world will be paying more than anyone else, and it did not sound like fun. As far as the impact on lobbying,. . . not so much. Activision, which historically has not lobbied directly, can pay a portion of the money they would otherwise pay in membership fees and target their own issues. Litigation? Their withdrawal will not stop ESA’s efforts. Moreover, we have yet to see whether this action is truly a withdrawal, and not a negotiating posture to revise the fee structure has yet to be seen. If it is a withdrawal, it could signal the end of The ESA as we know it.

Thanks for the confirmation Ben.

Check it Out: Otoy Edition

Jules Urbach is one of the nicest guys you would ever want to meet. He is also a genius and a champion snow skier. When he was 18, he deferred an acceptance into Harvard's Computer Science program to write the code for Hell Cab. He was not properly compensated. After Hell Cab, he thought about a better way to render 3d and created 3D Groove, and the Groove Alliance. The browser based system was not only utilized by developers all around the world, but it resulted in the first 3d game on Shockwave, Real Pool, which was also one of the most successful. Again, he was kind of screwed by some nefarious folks involved in the company. After a number of years, Jules single handled created create a new way to render 3d in real time and present it through anything from an IM Client to a browser. He started the company because he wanted to play in a world where Star Trek assets interacted with Battleship Yamato assets in scale and real time. Now he can do that and more. The results are mind boggling.

Here are a couple of videos showing real time rendering for commercial purposes, but also rendering on the cloud, for those of us who do not have a render farm in our closet. Now we all know about Jules, let's all make sure he gets what he deserves.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Ken Levine Needs a Plumber: Information Leaks Edition

Ken Levine is a talented guy. He is a key visionary behind Bioshock, one of the recent games to rock the industry. For some untold reason, I like to think he is not behind it, news keeps leaking about his contract negotiations. Negotiations, which are taking place months after the production of Bioshock 2 was moved several thousand miles away from him. These leaks are beyond rare in the game business and I don't entirely understand who benefits from the leaks. I never hear about Miyamoto renegotiating. Jason Rubin just went on with his business and addressed it by successfully selling Flektor. Mark Cerny, well, you never hear anything about him, other than a name in the credits of most games I like to play. Will Wright, nah, Neil Young, announcement after the fact. Okomoto, announced the new venture after it happened. Terry Donovan, co-founder of Rockstar, just announced his departure after the fact. Yu Suzuki, never heard a thing. Sam Houser, Dan Houser, Leslie Benzies, nothing. I don't think these guys are operating under the contracts they started with. I also think they, and their representatives chose to act as gentlemen and negotiate in good faith directly with each other, rather than the press. They understand their relationship with their employer is not an adversarial one and a great product is the result of the joint effort of the developer and the publisher. Or, perhaps Mr. Levine's representatives are forgetting the extra money and schedule indulgence Take Two afforded to ensure Bioshock would be great.

The story of Mr. Levine's negotiations first broke in Variety, yesterday afternoon, it came out, in the New York Post. At first blush this may seem like an odd place for a game story to break, but after a bit of thought. . . not really. The other major point disclosed in the "leaked" story was CAA's role as Levine's representative. CAA’s involvement may explain why the stories leaked onto the clothes lines which bear much of Hollywood’s dirty laundry. Variety does have a game reporter, but he is hardly called “Scoop” by his peers in game journalism. Variety is the place stories like this are printed on a regular basis. When Toby Maguire was having "back problems" which may have precluded him from appearing in Spiderman 2, it "leaked" to Variety. When The Simpsons voice actors held out for more money, it leaked to Variety. James Gandolfini wanted more money to return to The Sopranos, it "leaked" to Variety. Press leaks regarding negotiations are part of the Hollywood culture. It is part of how the game is played. Other parts of how the game is played include the purchase of congratulatory ads in the trade paper, contracts with unions, and revenue defined in such a convoluted way, participants never seem to earn out. Fortunately, most of these things have not made their way to the game business. It would be nice to keep them out.

The poorly reported New York Post article about Mr. Levine's contract made me feel sorry for him. I can't imagine what he thinks he has to gain from this publicity and I can't imagine who in the world would guide him to these types of disclosures. It is also more than a bit annoying to see a complete lack of research undertaken by the reporter in drafting the story. We have so little ink as an industry, it kind of sucks to have misinformation be the stuff people see.

Peter Lauria starts the article by saying Mr. Levine's signing is important for Take Two to help it prove it is worth more than the USD 25.74 tender offer by EA. I may be naive, but I think the US 500 million in GTA sales may help out with the argument. The value may also be helped when the company points out Bioshock is owned by Take Two and the development is proceeding with or without Mr. Levine. Mr. Lauria, and Evan Wilson of Pacific Crest Securities, may also have looked at the BBC interview with John Riccitiello in which John explains, individual talent is nice, but the developer is more important than the individual. Mr. Riccitiello will see much more value in the Bioshock 2 production in Marin, California than what he would characterize as a high priced employee in Boston. Mr. Wilson should also see how silly it is to be quoted as saying Take Two is trying to extract a higher price. The company simply does not want to sell.

He goes on to point out Mr. Levine will be receiving creative control and points on his games. If I were the reporter, I would replace this line with, "Mr. Levine will receive the deal enjoyed by every other producer/creator in the business who has made a hit game." Mr. Levine’s deal would be unique, only if he chooses to keep all of the money. Individuals are not always recognized as the recipients of these bonuses, because they are generally distributed to the members of the entire team responsible for the game. This practice goes back years and years. Royalties for Tomb Raider were paid to wholly owned Core Design, and distributed by Jeremy Heath-Smith. Jeremy built Core with his brother Adrian, and Lara Croft was designed by Toby Gard. Toby received royalties until the day he was no longer an employee of Core.

The concept of team effort seems to elude either Mr. Lauria, Mr. Levine, or Mr. Levine's representatives when they say his compensation won't rise to the level of the Grand Theft Auto creators. Forget the leap of logic so large Evel Knievel would not attempt a jump in a rocket car to say Mr. Levine's performance puts him in a class with Rockstar management. Comparing Mr. Levine's track record of critically acclaimed, average selling games and one breakout hit on a single platform to Rockstar's track record of multi-million unit sellers and six installments in the Grand Theft Auto series, across all platforms, arguably the most valuable franchise in all of entertainment, is kind of like comparing M. Night Shyamalan to Steven Spielberg after the Sixth Sense. I say forget the leap because the single sentence is so riddled with misstatement, it is a wonder it does not fall off the page, and land in heap of ink at the bottom.

Those concessions are meant to atone for the fact that Levine's salary and bonus won't rise to the level of the two creators of "Grand Theft Auto" at Rockstar Games.

The sentence refers to the "two creators" of Grand Theft Auto. Sam Houser is credited, along with his brother Dan and Leslie Benzies with the creative vision for the title - that is three right there - but none of them have ever spoken of the titles production without placing credit with the entire team. If you ask them, as many reporters have, there is no sole or duo of creators of the title. You cannot find an interview in which they take credit for the game. In the case of the last installment, credit goes to a team of somewhere between 800 and 1000 people. Which brings us to the next point.

To say he is not getting the game compensation as the Rockstar guys is an unsupportable statement. Other than the Rockstar guys, no one knows what they take home, and I would venture to guess, the information was not shared with Mr. Levine or his representatives. While a lot of analysts like to play the guess Sam and Dan's take home pay parlor game, their annual compensation and/or bonuses have never been publicly disclosed. Public reports do disclose the inter-company royalty payments made to Rockstar, and some analysts and weak minded, lazy reporters assign these numbers to one or more individuals, but these payments are allocated across the entire team responsible for the game. In the case of GTA IV, 800 to 1000 people. Aside from the opportunity to work on one of the most exciting franchises in entertainment, this is why the team stays in place form installment to installment. Their value is recognized. This compensation model is exactly the same one employed by every publisher in the business. Of course, in my opinion, whatever they are paying the key members of the Rockstar team, it is not enough, but no one asked me. Have you seen the performance of 2k sports relative to Rockstar's games? Did anyone complain when Spielberg was given a piece of the gate at Universal theme parks? Does anyone think M. Night Shyamalan should get the same?

I don't think Mr. Levine really went in and demanded the same terms as Rockstar management, it sounds too much like a Hollywood move. It would also not be a wise one after he lost the leverage associated with defacto control of Bioshock 2. Based on the performance of his title, Mr. Levine does deserve to participate in the success of his next title, and Take Two, as all publishers, record labels, movies studios and television networks do, will cover the downside risk of the title and undertake marketing. Unlike these other businesses, and as evidenced by public filings, Take Two will make the payments owing when due. If Mr. Levine and crew's new titles sells on a par with any installment of GTA since the third, I am confident, he will be richly rewarded, and quite possibly, on a par with the members of the team responsible for GTA. But if he really wants to be treated like them, he should take a lesson from them, and instruct his representatives to just keep it to themselves.

Monday, July 7, 2008

EA Gets It: It's About the Customer Edition

While most publishers' direct customer knowledge is limited to the names of the few customers who register the games on line, or log into a website for previews, EA is truly getting to know their customer – and everyone else’s. They have been tracking on-line play of their own games better than any other publisher for a while. Now with the acquisition of Rupture, they are on course to capture, understand and exploit the game habits of other publishers' consumers. EA's history points to how nicely Rupture fits into the strategy.

The company was the last hold out from Xbox Live. While the other publishers were jumping on, EA was objecting to Mirosoft's central control business model. Then CFO, Warren Jenson, went on record saying it just didn't make sense. Sony had the opportunity to leverage the discord into a relationship which would define the on line nature of the next gen platforms, but held true to its laisse a faire position. Eighteen months after the launch of Live, EA came on board. Rumors attributed the move to everything from lowered path charges, to EA subservers within Live, to cancellation of Microsoft sports titles. It turns out, EA didn't need any of these - well, lowered path charges on Live enabled titles wouldn't hurt - if it is true. Well into the life of Live, the started leveraging data which is available to everyone.

About a year ago I put Medal of Honor Airborne into my 360 and almost instantaneously received this email:

Hi chauncygardner!

Thank you for registering Medal of Honor Airborne(TM).
Here’s your gameplay tip:
Wait until you're low on ammunition before using the supply drop crates. It is a one-time fill-up.
Remember, your EA Member Account automatically stores your information, making the game registration process quick and easy. Even better, you could receive a free cheat code or game hint, or an opportunity to receive special offers on EA games with each game you register.
Have you taken our survey? Take a minute to help us improve your EA gaming experience.
Have Fun!
Your friends at Electronic Arts

PRIVACY POLICY: Our ESRB Privacy Online Certified Policy gives you confidence whenever you play EA games. To view our complete Privacy Policy, go to

I didn't even know I had friends at EA. It was right after Peter Moore joined from Microsoft and I figured it was his idea, but they were probably doing it well before his arrival. More recently, one of my buddies told me about the email he got after he played the Bad Company demo. It thanked him, and told him about the object he would get if he purchased the full version of the game. The information comes from the data stream spit out of Live. Every 360 sends a stream of data about its user's activity to, where it is converted into XML data. EA was using to send emails to live players, and now they are poised to step up the usage.
EA's recent acquisition, Rupture, uses these streams, as well as streams from World of Warcraft and, potentially, other MMOGs to provide added value to players of the games. As we learned with 360voice - now owned by Rupture competitor Gamerdna - it flows from every game, providing real-time player activity data. The scope of Rupture’s capabilities is not really clear, it didn’t get out of beta prior to the acquisition. The one real story about Ruptures described the service as:
Rupture taps into the game to automatically pull together character names, profiles, and resources, and publish them on a personalized site. Rupture will also pull together stats to create individual and guild rankings and provide a place for guilds to organize their playing. As Rupture tracks each member’s playing over time, these personalized profiles evolve. And players will be able to chat in groups or with other individuals and download other addons and game demos.

It sounds like a social network for asocial people. Your games, not only send tweets, they actually blog on your behalf, not only do they blog, they find other people who do what you do, and can provide you with demos and add-ons. The interesting thing about this company which was snapped off the market by EA for USD 30 million is they are providing this service not only for Madden, but for WOW, Halo 3 and perhaps most significantly, Guitar Hero III. By creating these leaderboards and services, they are in a position not only to capture their own consumers, but consumers from the number one and two games belonging to newly crowned, number 1 publisher, Activision.

The value of social networks like Linked-in, Facebook, MySpace and ebay is in the community, not the technology. Games are moving in this direction as well. All things being equal, or even almost as good, gamers will gravitate to the game with the best community and best customer service. The threshold for these games is other players. Many games never take off on line because the community is not large enough for people to find players to play against. Others lose players because the competition is weak or unsportsmanlike. The highest status, and most trusted members of a games community are very valuable to a publisher. If I leave a game, no one really cares. If the person with the highest achievement level leaves, people talk. If a guild leaves, many follow. We have already seen this in the MMORPOG world through guild recruitment. High status guilds are recruited and given bounties for migrating to new games. Rupture will not only bring the practice to the console, but automate it.

Rock Band and Guitar Hero compete head to head. EA, through Rupture, is tracking the game play behaviors of Guitar Hero gamers. Sure, it is not all of them, but it is the hardest of the hardcore, or in marketing terms, a representative sample. It is also a showcase of the best players. The consumer who signs up is given a place to show off and access to potential stardom. EA gets performance data of the songs offered by Activision a well as play patterns for consumers of the game. The obvious opportunity is player poaching. Take the community leaders off the top by offering free Rock Band kits and music. The not so obvious is the opportunity to aggregate purchase and play data with EA's music library to determine value of music on a going forward basis. Activision went out and bought Aerosmith, but is it really performing well enough to justify the price? EA can just take a look at what would normally be Activision’s proprietary data. When it comes time for EA to launch an MMOG, it’s nice to be able to reach all those WOW players. Since all the data is freely available, EA is doing nothing wrong and probably not violating the current terms of service.

The company will also gain a great advantage without predatory behavior. The data will give EA a leg up in the advertising world. The CPM of NOS, remnant or run of site placement is very low, even negligible. The value rises with knowledge of the consumer. Other publishers can sell ads based on players’ participation in their own games, if that. EA will be able to sell players based on the EA games the player is playing, as well as all of the other games. Not to mention, the player’s status in all of the games, and even the opportunity to sponsor the best.

Of course this is a bunch of supposition, we just have to wait to see what the roll out looks like, but it sure sounds like EA is working on being the Nordstrom of games.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Check it Out: Commentator Edition

I may be late to the party, but I thought this is funny and the kid makes sense.

More here:

Independence Day: America Edition

A few weeks ago I found myself standing in front of the White House with a couple of friends. It was closing in on midnight, and other than the uniformed, heavily armed secret service agents on Pennsylvania Avenue, the streets appeared quiet. Looking through the iron bars, I saw nothing but empty darkness on the front lawn of Mr. Bush's home. About 50 yards from the fence I could see a large fountain.
"I bet you can't make it to the fountain." I said to my friend. The fence was about 8 feet high, it would be easy enough to vault, and it looked empty on the lawn.
"I bet you can't make it to the fountain."
"You've got to be kidding."
"I'll give you 20 bucks if you make it."
Now I have to admit, I was a bit "meat" drunk at the time. We just finished dinner at a Brazilian steak house where "meatadors" walk through the restaurant with sizzling slabs of meet on sword like skewers and carve it at the table. The restaurant has a strong game component and I made a number of rookie mistakes over the course the meal. To start, they give you a basket of "can't eat just one" hot popovers and send you to a salad bar full of a Willy Wanka version of an antipasto spread and vegetables harvested from a Flintstone farm. I tasted, the stuff, a couple of peppers, some buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes, but even as a rookie I knew they were trying to fill me up before I moved on to the meat.

They tell you to enjoy the salad bar and when you are ready, turn the coaster size disk next to you plate to the green side, and the meat course will commence. As soon as I took the last pepper from my plate, a guy on my left took the old plate away as a guy on my right replaced with a fresh new plate. I innocently turned my disk to green and signaled my readiness. In an instant a small silver drip pan was placed on the table and a 3 foot skewer of meat was standing up next to me.
"Would you like some bviwlwiehdosa?" He didn't really say the last word, but I don't know what kind of meat it was.
"Sure" He started to carve a hunk and instructed me to grab the loose side with my tongs. I did as instructed and put it on my plate. I cut into the meat, tasted, and it was good. My green was still up, so another guy popped up. I accepted more meat. Then another. I took more. Quickly I had a lot of meat on my plate. I went red for a while.
After I worked through my first plate, I turned green and the first guy who walked up had chicken legs and sausages. Now they were tipping their hand. This was clearly filler. All of a sudden, I was catching on, they walked by with gas inducing garlic covered meat, and the rare sightings of "house special" meat involved the carving a translucent paper thin slice of meat carved by an expert whose carving skills belie the fact he probably moonlights as a brain surgeon. They were gaming us. The varying grades of meat and frequency hinted at optimization for the fixed price, but they didn’t tip their hand until the sausage. By putting sausage, the Russian Roulette of meat, in front of us, they telegraphed their tell. Even as a rookie, I knew to pass, but it was too late. I already accepted of the garlic rubbed whatever and bacon wrapped thing. These are time-released fillers. They go down easily, but expand beyond their original size. I ate these, and prior to expansion, continued with the house special and the filet mignon. It all felt good in the restaurant, but as I stood up, I found myself to be overstuffed, and "meat" drunk. It was in this condition, I stood in front of the White House.

"C'mon, I know you can make it and there are clearly no guards." One of my friends was there and the other guy was keeping his distance, pretending he didn't know us.
"What can be so bad."

Drawing upon the meat courage, I walked over to the Secret Service officers and did some research.
"Uhhhh" They were not talkative fellows.
"My friend and I were just wondering what happens if someone jumps over the fence." My friend was walking away quickly as I started the conversation.
"You wouldn't get very far." The gentlemen did not have much of a sense of humor.
"What happens?"
"Do you really think I would tell you?" Since he was still not seeing the humor, I thought I would explain our perspective.
"We make games, My friend just made a game where the White House was invaded by an occupying force, and Washingon was blown up." One of the men unsnapped the holster of his gun. "Do you play games?"
"I like war games." His partner said.
"great, like what?"
"I don't remember the name."
"So if my friend jumped over the fence and ran to the fountain you would shoot him wouldn't you? Well, not you, but a sniper on the roof of the White House."
"Don't you think you would hear about it if we shot people running across the lawn?"
"No." I really didn't. I imagined the trespasser would be shot by a sniper and immediately trap doors would open on lawn, releasing a team of men in black mumenschantz costumes who would instantaneously whisk the body away, never to be seen again. Then a Wall-e sweeper bot would drive across the lawn, removing all evidence. "Has anyone jumped over?"
"Yes, but not on our watch. If you really want to know, talk to that guy." He pointed over his shoulder to a guy sitting on the curb across the street. “He's been sitting there since 1981 and knows a lot more than we do.”

I walked across the street, my friends were now keeping a safe distance and clearly acting as if they didn't know me, and met William Thomas. He goes by Thomas and was sitting in front of a tent, with some signs and his dog. He was clean, and well spoken. The Secret Service guys were right. Thomas knew what happens when you jump the fence. He'd seen a few times. The most entertaining were the folks who put the red dye in the fountain. He pointed out the sensors and showed where guards emerge prior to tackling the interloper. But over the course of the next half hour of conversation I learned much more important lessons about my country.

As you can see from his website, Thomas's vigil addresses a lot of issues, but while his expression has been consistent since 1981, the changes in the world around him altered the meaning of his message. Thomas first sat on the curb when Reagan was in office. He was a jeweler, a merchant marine, and afforded a bunch of other opportunities by the freedoms created by our founding fathers. When he felt the country was changing for the worse, he decided to do something about it, he sat in front of the White House. Pennsylvania Avenue was still open to traffic and Lafayette Park across the street was still a vibrant protest area. Thomas was arrested some fifty times between 1981 and 1989. I can't say I blame President Reagan, if some guy was camping on my front lawn I would call the police too. Then, the arrests stopped, and so did the protests.

Protest permit grants for Lafayette Park started to be granted less frequently. Protesters with signs were no longer allowed to move as freely in front of the White House, the street in front of the White House was closed to traffic, and no one bothered Thomas anymore. Without the protestors marching on the White House, without the crowd in Lafayette Park, Thomas remains the sole symbol of the foundation of this Nation founded on protest.

Americans learn about protest early on. In elementary school we learn our nation was founded by a group of people who decided to protest. We celebrate defiant, anti government acts of the Boston Tea Party, the Declaration of Independence as well as exercise of free speech by people like Martin Luther King, which were less than popular at the time. When the country stood independent, the founding fathers injected protest into our national DNA. They drafted a Constitution with an intentionally weak government, and powerful rights of the individual. They even felt it was the individual's responsibility to speak out against the government, and even overthrow the government if it no longer reflects the will of the people. They gave me the right to write this blog without fear of arrest for expressing my thoughts. For 200 some years, the basic structure - or as older countries like to say, the experiment - continues. But along the way, the freedoms were restricted in the name of the common good. Security concerns after 9 11 required closing of streets, relaxation of personal privacy protections and limitations on gatherings.

As the D.C. authorities cleaned up the area around the White House, they left Thomas. After the others left the area, what started as an expression of what was wrong in America turned into a benign symbol of what made America great. Tour buses drive by and show "the Constitutionally protected protester" to millions of tourists from all around the world annually. If you stand stand on Pennsylvania Avenue, you can look to you left and see The White House, the symbol of power in the United States and to the right, and see the protestor. Thomas' position had been transformed from active protester, to a monument, no different than any of the other edifices sprinkled around Washington to commemorate the building blocks of this Nation. Thomas is serving the government as a symbol of freedom, and he serves us, like every other Congressionally ordained monument on the Mall as a reminder of the sacrifices made by others so we can sit and fill ourselves full of Brazilian steak house meat and write about it on blogs. Thomas understands the transformation.
"They use me now."
"How's that."
"If I wasn't here, they wouldn't have anything to show the world. I am the last symbol of the First Amendment within driving distance of the White House."
"Maybe you should leave"
"Maybe your ultimate protest is the decision not to protest."
"I have to think about that. . . . "