Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Blast From the Past: Don't Blame the Games It's Not Their Fault Edition

With so many buggy and unfinished games are falling down on us like pretty snow flakes during the holiday season, only to be shunned by their publishers when the game's only fault is fulfillment of the prophecy established long before their production, I felt it is worthwhile to repost this golden oldie from two and a half years ago. Some things just don't change. . . . . .

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, November 15, 2010

The Media is Reporting the Game Industry is Over: Why are They Such Babies Edition

My posting continues to move at a glacial pace. For a while, there was nothing new to say. Then, all of sudden, the world exploded with new ideas and I had no time to write. I attribute the plethora of new ideas - things other than marketing gaffes, publishers' hosing of developers, the need for independent finance and the folks who are saying they have it or xBox becoming cable - as a reflection of increased sensitivity attributable to too much travel and too little sleep. But bubbles are growing, companies are reacting, and CEOs seem to be turning into either Chicken Little or ostriches with heads in the sand.

Some of the new stuff floating around in my head is:

- The abandonment of seasoned game designers in favor of metric driven design - catering to metrics let you keep more players, but are those players worth keeping?

- The complete lack of game sales data for XBL and PSN - Do the platforms really think they are helping us by cloaking sales in a shroud of mystery?

- The matriculation of Japanese developers to the west and Japanese publishers to western developers - Does this mean we figured it out?

Before I get to those truly useful topics, I am going to display a gross lack of maturity and focus instead on something that pisses me off. I talked about issues with the gaming press in the past, and I am not the only one. But what happens when unwarranted attacks on the industry come from financial analysts and mainstream press? We are enjoying great success as an industry. Call of Duty showed year to year growth, Rockstar launched a new franchise, Bethesda proved successful with an externally developed game, two hardware companies successfully launched peripherals and Nintendo showed a resurgence in sales without a new introduction or material change to the Wii. Additionally, Kinect took the "fastest selling electronic device" title away from the iPad. With all this going on, I am amazed by the number of people covering the industry who covet and highlight failure - even when they have to build their own gray cloud around a silver lining. After questioning the success of Kinect Michael Pachter announced the PSP2 will be dead on arrival? While we can take solace in the fact he is wrong more often than he is right, how can you announce the death of a platform yet to even be announced? He cites market saturation. On this logic, we should stop making new mobile devices. There are almost as many cell phones in the world as there are people so there cannot be a market for new ones. No room for that facebook thing either with Myspace having tens of millions of users. No need for itunes either because all the world's music exists in digital form on disks. He also points to iOS's pricing model as an advantage. Did someone tell him the unannounced pricing strategy for games on the unannounced platform? Are they necessarily going to be the same price as they are now? Sony is sitting on years of games developed for four different platforms. I watched my kid and four of his friends put down Call of Duty and every other recent game to spend an afternoon playing Parapa and loving it. Would Pachter be right if Sony unlocks the vaults and makes those games available at iTunes prices? Isn't he also assuming no freemiums, micro-transactions, Zynga bucks or other models? But no one asks these questions. The media eats this up like a baby in front of a birthday cake and spreads it all around the web only to be re reported to by even lazier web site managers. Looking at the re links of the Pachter story, you will see a modern day game of telephone with each new link losing a bit of the context and pointing only to the subsequent link and not the originating post.

It may be fun to pick on Pachter -some may even call it sport - but it is not so fun when someone who is held up by his employers as an accurate view into the industry, like Ben Fritz, puts out this kind of story. It showed up on the front page of the Business section of the Los Angeles Times, and was linked all over the web and distributed through outlets Industry Gamers and even mainstream business sites related to financial results. In an "if it bleeds it leads" kind of way, the headline, " Once-Hot Nintendo Wii Now Struggling for Sales" makes us think Nintendo, and perhaps the game market, is down. The day it came out I got a bunch of calls and emails from people outside the game business questioning whether they should buy Wii for their kids. They were afraid to invest in a dying platform. While this is an interesting headline it belies any research for the article beyond the anecdotal support afforded by a visit to his local independent video game retailer. Is it really a surprise to see the retailer who caters to core gamers not selling the platform targeted at the mainstream? If the writer performed any research, the headline might have read "In Critical First Week of Holiday Shopping Season Nintendo Defies Logic by Moving Back to the Number One Home Console Position by Making the Console Red." Wii sales are in fact down from last year, but only because the last few years Nintendo beat Microsoft and Sony by light years. This holiday season, Nintendo slowed down to beating units sales only by miles. The week of the article, as well as the week before, Nintendo was ahead of both Microsoft and Sony in sales. Nintendo actually sold over 30% more units than either of the others and is growing to a pace of one million units a week in world wide sales. Sony and Microsoft spent billions of dollars to develop and release new hardware and Nintendo's only new innovation was Red. No price reduction, no hardware, just color and when the family shoppers went back to the stores for holiday shopping, they outsold the other two consoles. Even if Sony and Microsoft move back into the sales lead, it will be years before they erase Nintendo's thirty million unit lead. A bit more research would have shown five of the top ten titles for home consoles in America were for the Wii - more than both Sony and Microsoft.

Had our writer chosen to acknowledge any of this data, or asked for a copy of the deck Reggie Fils Amie presented at the BMO Conference the writer references but substantively ignores (Fils Amie pointed out the Wii's trajectory, even with the slow down outpaces the PlayStation 2 which remains the best selling console in history), he would have used the telegraphed quote from the game industry NPC who identified the Wii as a fad as dissent rather than support for the article. I may be way off base here, but to me, the Pet Rock is a fad. A 77 million unit installed base and growing, with five titles in the top ten is a business - granted they are all from Nintendo, but we will talk about that later. A fad descriptor is an easy justification by reporters who are too lazy research and game executives who are too complacent to innovate. Brian Farrell, CEO of THQ, knows this. While the other publishers were reducing Wii exposure, THQ invested in, and innovated with the Udraw tablet. Some business books call this leveraging a blue water opportunity. THQ simply calls it the thing that drove the stock price up over 25% in less than a month. Farrell said it in the article, but it was buried. "If you make unique and innovative games that speak directly to the Wii audience, you succeed." Amen to that.

I would not be so concerned if this article existed in a vacuum and evaporated into the dank, dark oblivion in which it belongs. But this type of lazy reporting comes from blind faith reprints of executive comments with little or no research. The writer does not have be our answer to Mike Wallace, but come on. Use more than a single source within walking distance. He lends support for people like the CEO of Disney to announce the market conditions, not product choices, are driving them from the console business. He blamed the shortcomings on the console on the console business itself, as one "that's obviously facing challenges." I guess this is true, if you read the LA Times, but the announcement came the same day Activision Blizzard announced the largest one day sales event in the history of entertainment - and went on to generate USD 650 million in five days. An amount great enough not only to wipe out all of Disney's USD 234 million in losses on the year - with a profit - but to prove Iger's assessment of the market completely wrong. Activision Blizzard out Disneyed Disney. Activision started treating games like movies while Disney continued to treat them like lunch boxes. Disney could dominate the market if they could figure out how to deliver a high quality branded experience into an existing fan base - like very other aspect of their business. Not to mention the rising significance of the brand extensions Disney created and mastered in every other form of media. We have not even begun to scratch the surface of the USD 29 direct download game and publishers already created downstream revenue windows by converting games like GTA 4, Red Dead Redemption, Call of Duty and others into platforms for follow on sales. Like film, block buster games are turning into the gift that keeps giving. Disney is in a position to eat our lunch and instead they are leaving the meal on the table.

The truth is Disney wanted out after years of losses. Nothing wrong there, just don't blame the market. Acknowledging a robust market would have forced Iger to admit the losses were caused by disastrous product choices, lack of brand leverage and poor marketing support. Instead reports by folks like our pal at the LA Times allow Disney's CEO to ignore the decision to put the best known character in the world in the company's most ambitious game on the single platform dominated by first party - remember those five top ten Wii titles I mentioned, they are all from Nintendo. Every other publisher hedges a bet like this by releasing on every platform available. They also made big budget investments in original IP when the company's very DNA is leveraging its beloved, engrained, content library. Hindsight may be 20/20, but looking at this year's lineup, foresight would prove equally clear. The major titles were the Wii exclusive Epic Mickey, Split Second and Toy Story 3. Split Second was a solid title, but how many consumers look to the Disney brand for quality racing? In a world of Gran Turismo, Forza, Midnight Club and Need for Speed, a racing game is enough of a stretch. But a racing game without licensed vehicles? Disney chose to not even extend the warmly received "Pure" brand from the year before. When the company did come up with a strong game and released Toy Story 3 on all platforms, they chose not to tell anyone. Relying on the film promotion to sell the game, the game's campaign was the antithesis of Disney's normal promotion.

Disney executives are not alone, in response to abysmal Harry Potter sales, a senior EA executive is quoted all over the place for positing the movie license business is falling apart. Not a single outlet reprinting the story or accompanying post pointed to the game's 37 on Metacritic - clicking on "metacritic" in the tag cloud to your left will show you how little regard I have for Metacritic, but EA still believes in it. His statement also ignores multiple millions of units sold of Lord of the Rings games from EA with Metacritic scores in the mid eighties as well as the dramatic decline in perceived quality of the Harry Potter franchise itself since EA's mid 70's sold over 10 million. It also ignores the more recent success of the Scott Pilgrim game which actually did better than the film, and even closer to home, the strong selling, high 70's Lego Harry Potter game released by Warner Brothers. Of course he acknowledges the need for quality and polish when addressing Mirror's Edge and Dead Space "if you’re going to be bold with that kind of concept, you need to take it as far as it can go in development." If this is a way of saying the movie games they released - and Activision's recent Bond title for that matter - are crap, I must agree. But why are polish and a movie game mutually exclusive? He starts to accept responsibility but immediately makes a u turn and blames the market “there were issues with the learning curve, the difficulty, the narrative, and then there was no multiplayer either." Learning curve, difficulty and narrative, absolutely right. EA blew it. But using Mass Effect and Dragon Age as a control group of games with smooth learning curves, balanced difficulty and strong narrative, he would quickly see multiplayer is not as significant as he may believe. Then again, this is the guy who last May said:

"I think any franchise that's been around for a long time, they get in a rut, they become over-annualized. They run out of innovation. The team pounds on a game every year, and they get tired, they run out of time and effort to be innovative and try and take some new risks. That was my view on how the franchise has fallen."

Tell that to the folks up at Ubi whose third Assassin's game in three years is selling better than the first two. Perhaps this is because they have smooth learning curves, balanced difficulty and strong narratives. The only thing for this guy to do is take a quick read through this and write:

"Mr. Consumer of EA Games, we are sorry we let you down. We apologize for Mercenaries 2, Medal of Honor: Airborne, for getting your hopes up about Medal of Honor again this year, and for expecting you to buy a Harry Potter game we believe is best used as a pooper scooper. As you can see from this year's Need For Speed and anything with the Bioware name on it, we can deliver quality every once in a while. However, somewhere along the way, we forgot how to do it on a regular and predictable basis. We are now going to buckle down, make great games and re earn your trust. Thank you for your patience, we will tell you when it is time to buy."

While there are some bright spots in the executive ranks, the fail to receive anywhere near the coverage. If the reporters choose to blindly reprint something and place their by line on it, how about following this guy? Just about the same time Disney came out and blamed the industry, Viacom announced it was putting Harmonix on the block, or in business parlance, "reclassifying it as a discontinued business unit." CEO, Philippe Dauman, said the sale was because "the console game business requires an expertise and scale that we don't have." There is no question where the buck stops and where responsibility is allocated. Having conquered every form of other media, Viacom does have the expertise and perhaps misapplied it, or chose not to use it, but that is another story. Instead, of delving into why games continue to elude a bunch of really smart people at one of the world's largest media companies, the very same writer chose to speculate and write a "story" that may or may not even exist.

I am certainly not a reporter, just some guy who decided to start posting on blogger. But I can not be the only who is frustrated by the continuous attacks on our industry. "Viral" as a description of these stories has never been more apropos. They are infecting our business and creating the conception in the finance and media world that entering the game business is slightly more costly and slightly stickier than declaring ware on the ground in Afghanistan. A presumption of loss must be faced by every game proposition seeking support. If you are frustrated by these reports, write about it. Post in the comments, write to the reporter, start your own blog. Do anything, just let people know we are not dead yet.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Preparing for the Supremes: Raise the Ramparts Edition

Having written about all this stuff already, as we close in on the United States Supreme Court's hearing of arguments in a history making case which will define the future of the game business.

The Supreme Court will determine whether the legislation described in this post is Constitutional. While other US Circuits determined games to be Constitutionally protected free speech, the 9th Circuit never has and the Supreme Court will likely determine once and for all whether our work product is protected by the First Amendment. If you read the post, you will see State Senator Yee, who introduced the legislation, unbound by the strictures of reality or truth, was able to create quite a compelling argument in favor of regulation of games sales. Unfortunately, as explained here, the same tactics were used at the Federal level when two congressman misrepresented data relating to sales of games to minors. They used a three year old FTC secret shopper report to show a failure to monitor sales to minors when the more recent report showed the game industry had a better monitoring rate than any other media.

Attacks on the game industry are not uncommon. The arguments are always supported by the threat of danger to our children. The exposure to violence will corrupt the innocent, so they say. A noble purpose and surely one to provoke strong sentiment and support from the ignorant. Who is really going to stand up and say "let's harm the children." But as you can see in this post about how this argument killed the comic book industry and threatens ours, the potential chilling effect is far greater than the potential benefit - which as you can see in this post, is questionable.

Hopefully the Supreme Court agrees games are protected speech and parenting is best left to the parents.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Metacritic's Fallout: Calling Metarcritic on its Bullshit Edition

This blog was originally a place for me to vent. After about a year, I found the same things making me angry, but I already wrote about them. I don't know whether that means I did not have many things to be angry about because all my buttons have been hit, or I am a very angry person and it took me a whole year to get it out. I certainly did not expect to change things - the blog is cathartic, so once it's out I have no compelling need to wright about publishers' mistreatment of developers, bad marketing, myopic product releases, used games, ratings, or parental responsibility - again. But every once in a while something so egregious comes along and, I just can't help being redundant. One of these things Metacritic's continued feigning of objectivity in the face of blatant bias. I wish I could say this particular rant is unique, but it's not. It is just something that set me off before and set me off again.

I have written in detail about why Metacritic's methods are flawed, as well as Metacritics statement of non affiliation with any studios, when it is actually owned by Viacom sister company, CBS. But the most relevant post was the one about skewing the data on Wet, a game released by an affiliated company.

For a while the Metacritic score on Wet was riding around 80, it is now a 64. Part of the boost was attributable to Armchair Empire's 88, which you can see here. But if you click through to the actual review you would see a score of 75. This has never been corrected. Now at the time I was not saying this error had anything to do with Les Monves position as CEO of CBS and position on the board of Bethesda parent Zenimax, but I thought it was interesting.

Today I started to read about Fallout:New Vegas and saw a lot of griping about bugs in the game. With all the heat around the game and development time, this was surprising. More significantly, Bethesda's business development guy told me Metacritic scores are very important. So important he will not even talk to a studio without an 80 plus game. Admittedly, curiosity got the better of me, and probably a bit of gloating, so I went to Metacritic to see the scores for the game with the crash bugs. Surprisingly, it stands at 84 and with mostly positive reviews. A cynic could say the positive reviews were made by large outlets which enjoyed Bethesda's marketing largesse. But in reality, the game is strong and very ambitious and the adherence to the brand and scope while it is running seem to outweigh the bugs. I guess it is kind of like ignoring the continuity errors in Star Wars.

I could go along with the 84 and most of the reviews support the score, but the same giant, glaring, festering boil of impropriety marring the WET score makes an appearance here. The highest score on the list never really happened. Sure a bit of finesse was used this time, but the result is the same. Fallout: New Vegas' highest score is a 100. Notable, because not many game receive a 100 from any outlet and if a game does achieve a 100 it is worth a look. After all, someone thought it is a perfect game. In this case, The Guardian, it is not a game site, but it is a significant mainstream presence with a history of solid game reviews. I clicked through to the review and noticed it had no score. This is not unusual. Metacritic has a policy to address this situation:

Many critics include some sort of grade for the movie, album, TV show, or game they are reviewing, whether it is on a 5-star scale, a 100-point scale, a letter grade, or other mark. However, plenty of other reviewers choose not to do this. Hey, that's great... they want you to actually read their review rather than just glance at a number. (Personally, we at Metacritic like to read reviews, which is one of the reasons we include a link to every full review on our site....we want you to read them too!)

However, this does pose a problem for our METASCORE computations, which are based on numbers, not qualitative concepts like art and emotions. (If only all of life were like that!) Thus, our staff must assign a numeric score, from 0-100, to each review that is not already scored by the critic. Naturally, there is some discretion involved here, and there will be times when you disagree with the score we assigned. However, our staffers have read a lot of reviews--and we mean a lot--and thus through experience are able to maintain consistency both from film to film and from reviewer to reviewer. When you read over 200 reviews from Manohla Dargis, you begin to develop a decent idea about when she's indicating a 90 and when she's indicating an 80.

Note, however, that our staff will not attempt to assign super-exact scores like 87 or 43, as doing so would be impossible. Typically, we will work in increments of 10 (so a good review will get a 60, 70, 80, 90, or 100), although in some instances we may also fall halfway in-between (such as a 75).

This is a long way of saying they make up a score if the reviewer does not provide one. No big deal - unless the core happens to be an outlier, it happens to be objectively inappropriate, and it favors an affiliated company. While the review is generally favorable, it had a few negative statements, like:

Familiar problems, such as regular crashes – I've had to switch my Xbox off using the power button roughly once every two hours so far – and a lack of signposting for irrevocably game-altering decisions can be frustrating, though perhaps understandable given the huge scope of the game. Getting into the habit of regular saving is more important than ever.

If Metacritic had not allowed this statement to stand in the way of a 90, I would not be saying anything. However, in spite of this line Metacritic interpreted the Guardian's review as saying the game is perfect. I am sure perfection was the front of mind for the reviewer each time he had to stand up to reboot his Xbox. This may be a big deal, or it may not. There is no way of knowing how much impact the 100 had because all scores are not treated equally. Different reviews are given different weight based on Metacritic's perception of the review and publication. We can see the PlayStation 3 version which did not include the Guardian's 100 - or about 18 other reviews - and it is a full 3 points lower.

I am not saying Metacritic was swayed by their parent to place an artificially high highest score on two Bethesda games, and I didn't say it last time. However, the first time seems like a simply - uncorrected - error. The same poetic license applied to a high score a second time may merit a head scratch. Will there be a three peat?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Why Does NPD Hate The Game Business: Calling Them on Their Bullshit Edition

NPD has a problem. Their value is based on accessing and protecting a data set while their access continues to shrink and the data points continue to grow. They like to tell us they are able to track physical game sales, but they do not have access to sales data from our biggest retailers. Until recently they never covered on line and when they did they found their previous reports were wrong. Now they chose to issue a report relating to the console DLC market when they have no access to sales data. I, along with any one who sat in a room with a publisher in the last year, have better information on the DLC market than they printed. Just in case their assessment of only 6% of the market actively downloading did not ring hollow to the publishers currently showing a solid return on DLC, they highlight:
"Internet connectivity is an important feature across multiple devices:
60% of e-reader owners cite it as their favorite feature"

Excuse me while I call them by their first name, boneheads, 100% of e-reader owners are buying 100% of their books via download and Amazon alone reported selling almost 50% more e books than hardcover.

Based on the report's citing of only 6% of consumers downloading content, the headline grabbed across the web is screaming "DLC is not working." An innocent reader may assume the number is the result of tracking - probably because NPD built its brand on accessing sales point data and tracking real sales - but it is really the result of a survey. Of whom? The consumer population. Does the overall percentage of the public matter, if our industry, and others, are profiting? The report indicates 75% of U.S. consumers aged 13 and older did not connect or download content in the previous three months. Who cares? 61% of Netflix subscribers download content, Apple distributed billions of apps, Kindle and Nook owners download millions of books - surpassing hardcover sales and in our little old corner of the world, consumers download millions of demos, millions of additional levels and millions of XBL/PSN only games. But they should not listen to me. Look at their own report indicating 50% of PC sales are DOWNLOADS. Enough sales are occurring in all of these areas to make each sector profitable. Measuring and reporting on the downloads as a function of population is akin to saying 100% of Chinese residents did not purchase an Xbox 360 game last year. They would be right, but we still have multi billion dollar console industry.

NPD's is acting like the bully in the school yard. They want the consoles to open up the stores to them. Nothing wrong with that. We want the same thing. If Microsoft and Sony released sales data publishers and financiers would be able to forecast sales and make commitment to build and expand the market. I can not tell you how many publisher meetings are dominated by anecdotal data and a bunch of fingers sticking up into the air trying to divine the winds of the download market. But I do not see publishers forcing the console companies' hand by publishing negative performance reports. Just like NPD's flawed report last spring, this report is read and misunderstood by financial analysts who value our companies based on future performance. If they read only 6% of consumers download, rather than the real percentage of console owners who are downloading and the number of dollars spent by those console owners, they could dramatically understate the value of our companies and our future. Thereby hindering access to capital and interest in the industry. If they do not believe me I am happy to allow them to sit in on any one of my meetings.

If you are not NPD, please click through to another page and your regular blogging will continue after this private note to NPD.

Fellas, wake up. You got our attention, but there is a difference between good attention and bad attention. Telling the word our market sucks is not a good way to encourage Microsoft and Sony to let you into their tents. Grow up, think, cooperate. We in the game industry are the hand that feeds you and you should not bite it. I paid thousands of dollars for your report. Not anymore, I am done and I am not alone.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Appeals Court Holds Used Game Sales Are Illegal?: Light At The End of the Tunnel Edition

I am not going to go into again, I already did here, here and here, so take my word for it. Selling used games is harmful to game innovation. While publishers are engaged in a arms race against the ever growing number of used game sellers, the industry may be saved by the courts. In Vernor v. Autodesk The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled a properly worded EULA will preclude resale of software.

In the Vernor case, Vernor purchased copies of Autodesk software, did not open it, and resold it on ebay. Vernor contended he was protected by the first sale doctrine because he did not make copies, and did not open the box and become bound by the EULA. The court held otherwise and found Vernor a licensee of the software and therefore bound by the agreement which forbade resale.

Games and other software are legally resold under the first sale doctrine. In 1908, when contemplating the resale of printed, coyprighted works like books or music, the U.S. Supreme Court determined the rights of the copyright owner were exhausted after the first sale. The material's purchaser was allowed to resell the work, so long as they did not make or retain copies. The court did restrict the ruling to works which were sold, not licensed, hence the new ruling. Put simply, if a person is an owner, first sale applies. If they are a licensee, it does not. Without the protection of first sale, software cannot be resold.

The determination of ownership or license is made by the written agreement provided with the software. Specifically the Vernor court described the test as

where a transferee receives a particular copy of a copyrighted work pursuant to a written agreement, we consider all of the provisions of the agreement to determine whether the transferee became an owner of the copy or received a license. We may consider (1) whether the agreement was labeled a license and (2) whether the copyright owner retained title to the copy, required its return or destruction, forbade its duplication, or required the transferee to maintain possession of the copy for the agreement's duration.

The court tells us, if the right words are contained in the big mess we button through at the beginning of a game or other software installed on our computer, Gamestop cannot resell it. The binding part of the decision, the holding provides:

We hold today that a software user is a licensee rather than an owner of a copy where the copyright owner (1) specifies that the user is granted a license; (2) significantly restricts the user's ability to transfer the software; and (3) imposes notable use restrictions.

The best way to ensure a place behind this shield is to exactly what the court said. The court ruled in Autodesk's favor because it's EULA reads:

Autodesk retained title to the software and imposed significant transfer restrictions: it stated that the license is nontransferable, the software could not be transferred or leased without Autodesk's written consent, and the software could not be transferred outside the Western Hemisphere. The SLA also imposed use restrictions against the use of the software outside the Western Hemisphere and against modifying, translating, or reverse-engineering the software, removing any proprietary marks from the software or documentation, or defeating any copy protection device. Furthermore, the SLA provided for termination of the license upon the licensee's unauthorized copying or failure to comply with other license restrictions.

This all seems so clear. We are saved, right? Not really. This decision was made by the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. While this Circuit hears many technology cases and the judge has a history of decisions not being overturned, the court is only one of 13 Circuits in the United States. Unless this case is raised to the Supreme Court for Appeal, it will be binding only on cases brought within the Circuit. It is only persuasive in other Circuits. If another Circuit rules the other way, it would be up to the Supreme Court to determine who prevails - if they are willing to do so. This may take a very long time. The actions giving rise to this case occurred in May of 2005. The first court ruling on the case found first sale applied and Vernor could resell. It was only after the appeal, five and a half years from the action, we know the outcome - unless there is another appeal. However, it gives us hope and as an industry we should embrace the decision and establish a standard license for out software.

If the EULA's do not include the Vernor court's magic language, change it. This will pave the way for The ESA, or individual publishers to bring an action against used game retailers to stop the practice once and for all.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Games Sales Down?: The Glass is Half Full Edition

For the fourth straight month mainstream media is reporting declining sales and the demise of our business. I am amazed when I read an article about rumors of seconds old Playdom in discussions with Disney for an acquisition at a valuation of USD 600 million or Zynga securing financing at purported USD 2 billion valuation while analysts and commentators say the game business is dying. Are they making games, or just money? We are not in the midst of a declining market, we are suffering from a lack of measurement. Genius analysts are out there with quotes like,
For the month of June, Pachter predicts game software sales measured by NPD will decline by 8% from the same month last year. Doug Creutz of Cowen & Co. predicts a 17% decline for June, and said he expects the slowness to continue through the summer.

and they treat it like it is relevant to anything at all. It is kind of like saying "buggy whip sales" are falling through the floor so consumers obviously do not want to travel around in vehicles with wheels. Please stop confusing demand fora distribution channel with demand for content.

NPD is a bad resource and it is becoming less and less accurate as a measure of sales. They never tracked Wal-Mart which ranges from 30% to 90% of the sales on certain titles. They also omit Sam's Club and Toys R Us. Sure there is a multiplier, but who knows whether it is accurate on a title by title basis. Kind of like the television business knowing Nielson was not accurate, but living with it, we lived with NPD. If I sell a game in a box at Gamestop, I am measured. If I gain a subscriber to Farmville, sell a game through xBox Live, PSN, Wii or DS, sell a USD 40 virtual good in a freemium game or log my 10 millionth hour in a browser based game, I am not. Strangely, social game subscriptions, console downloads, freemiums and browser based are the fastest growing segments of our market. Consumers are choosing to spend their time differently, but they are still spending their dollars with us.

I am not just making this up. This week, NPD started tracking PC download sales and found they are equal to boxed sales. Or in the eyes of an analyst, PC sales doubled this month.

This should not be a great surprise. Apple passed Wal-Mart as the number one music retailer in 2008. 61% of Netflix subscribers download movies and tv shows and Amazon announced it is selling 143 digital books for every 100 hardcover books sold. If consumers of every form of media are saying they do not want to leave their homes to buy a shiny disk or pile of paper or store the thing when they get home, why would we think bits that compile into games would be any different? Immediate gratification and freedom from having to stand up to get something off the shelf are very compelling arguments.

Adding up the connected Wii's, DS's, 360's and PS3's, there are well over one hundred million connected devices in the field. Consider iPad,iPhone and other platforms we are still getting up to speed on, and there are a lot more. Consumers are buying games for these devices through digital channels. Publishers generally do not release their numbers but several dlc only games reported sales in the millions. Anecdotally, conversations with the publishers of recent dlc only games tell me sales either meet or exceed expectations in every case. Consumers are buying these games, giving publishers enough confidence to invest in increased quality. Today's dlc is better than last year and it is only getting better. It is easy to ignore the release of a USD 60 game when it is sitting on a shelf in a store. It is just as easy to push the button on some Microsoft point to buy the immediate gratification of the shiny object flashing before your eyes.

If I manufactured the resin used for shiny disks, I'd be concerned, fortunately, I am in the business that puts the stuff on the disks.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Workshop's Sorcery: Sony's Best Move Game Edition

Congratulations to The Workshop on finally getting to announce their first project as a company. They have been working very hard and deserve every kind word. I could write a bunch more, but instead I just wholesale stole this post from Kotaku:

Shown exclusively during the Sony E3 2010 press conference, SCEA's Sorcery made enough of an impression on us to score a Best of E3 nomination for Best New Game. How'd that happen?

Your PlayStation Move controller is a magic wand.

Okay, you might need a more in-depth explanation.

Your PlayStation Move is a freaking sweet magic wand.

Sorcery, developed by The Workshop, places you in the shoes of a young sorcerer's apprentice. The Nightmare Queen has broken her pact with the humans and threatens to plunge the land into eternal darkness, which the humans really should have seen coming. Forging a pact with someone called the Nightmare Queen always ends in tears.

Anyway, your young apprentice takes up a magic wand and sets off into the Faerie Kingdoms to set things right.

The story is pretty generic, but the action isn't.

With so many Move titles seeming like prettier copies of Wii games, Sorcery is our first look at something fun and innovative that takes full advantage of the PlayStation Move's capabilities. The Move acts as your wand, the characters arm movements following yours precisely.

You've got an arsenal of twelve upgradeable spells at your disposal, but the real fun comes when you start mixing them together. During the press conference demonstration, the producer for the game drew a line to cast a Wall of Fire spell. Then a spiral motion brought forth a whirlwind. Sending the whirlwind through the fire resulted in a spinning firestorm that completely decimated the poor, innocent goblins advancing on the main character, doubtlessly looking for hugs.

The game also contains alchemy, with the Move globe changing color to indicate potions are ready to drink.

It seems like the sort of simple little game that should have been produced on the Wii years ago, but hasn't been. It's the kind of game that proves that while the Move technology is somewhat similar to the Wii remote, there is still plenty of ground that Wii developers have yet to cover.

Plus, your PlayStation Move is a totally kick-ass wand.

Monday, June 14, 2010

What Happened to Privacy: Naked to the World Edition

Sure E3 is going on and you might click through to this post to read something I had to say about it. Do you really think there is anything left to say? It is back and the whole LA Convention center is full of unicorns shitting rainbows while puppies dance on their backs. If you cannot make it down there, you may be better off. You do not want to step in a rainbow pile. There is so much E3 news I went ahead and wrote about something that is bugging me. But if you would rather see E3 stuff, here to go ahead.

I purchase a bunch of random things through itunes and because there is no real correlation between the timing of the purchase and the timing of the confirmation receipt, I often do not even open the purchase confirmation emails. But last week I got a few emails in a row and opened them to find out I purchased:

ViKey - Bộ gõ tiếng Việt - TELEX, VNI, VIQR, v2.0, Seller: Dinh Ba Thanh,

MyFlickr, v1.0, Seller: Do Tuan Anh ,

VnExpress 2010, v3.1, Seller: Do Viet Tuy,

VietnamCar 2010, v1.0, Seller: Do Viet Tuy,

DTCK 2010, v1.0, Seller: Do Viet Tuy, and

CafeF (Special Edition), v1.0, Seller: Pham Cao Phuc.

Another email told me I purchased VietStock 2010, v1.0, Seller: Do Viet Tuy. Curiously, I did not remember buying any of these things. I went to call the iTunes store, but I could not, there is no number. I looked on line and I noticed hundreds of posts on the official Apple discussion boards and across the web about people who had their accounts hacked and found no assistance from Apple. They all said the only recourse was through the credit card company, so I called my credit card company and they without any questions, they voided out the charges. They said it happens all the time.

After hanging up I realized I could not upgrade my iPad apps. iPad apps and related upgrades are tied to the user account at the time of purchase. My cunning grasp of the obvious connected the two issues. I called iPad support and devoted the next hour of my life speaking with a series of very helpful and happy Apple cult members who were very sorry I was having issues. Apparently they can call iTunes help, but consumers may only reach it by email. While they were genuinely kind and helpful, was somewhat disheartened by their responses. Apple gathers a bunch of data and asks for permission to use it. They tell me their genius will suggests interesting songs and movies if I let it track what I buy. Apps will be better if they can track location and if I lose my device, they can even tell me where my iPhone or iPad is if I just give them permission. When my credit card numbers were stolen Amex was able to identify aberrant usage within one charge. I’ve used the card all over the world with multiple purchases in multiple cities in a week and they never asked a question, but one charge in one grocery store in Los Angeles, and they nailed it. They called and asked if I made the charge, I told them I did not, and I had a new card in my hands within twenty four hours. So again, applying my highly regarded grasp of the obvious right around minute 46 of our getting to know you call I asked the very kind Apple person

I’ve had the account for about four years. Wouldn’t the store identify a sudden burst of purchases in Vietnamese and at least ask if it was me?”

“Oh no Keith” we are on a first name basis now, they are nice, they are Apple and they care about me ”that would be an invasion of your privacy and we would not do that. We would never look at what you buy.”

“BULLSHIT” I wanted to yell, but I didn’t. This NPC is too far gone. Far be it for me to embark on the deprogramming.

Contrary to what my Applebot told me Apple does take our data. Even though we don’t read the scrolling EULA, which was handed down through generations of very clever, albeit wordy, legal monks in the purest pursuit of full disclosure, we see their recommendations. Unless we believe in the recommendation fairy, the continued improvements points to their watching us. They tell us so. They promise provision of better service by parsing, analyzing and searching for correlations. What we may not know - because no one really reads the EULA - is Apple’s interaction with you does not end with the purchase. The company better serves you by tracking what you are playing in your library, how often it is played and when you last played it. We would be pissed if a little sister did this to you, even worse if it was a parent, but we let Apple do this and use it. I am not coming down on Apple here, Amazon has been doing this for years, as has TiVo, your credit company and Google. When it comes to our privacy, this is just one of the many aspects we give up without thought. Probably because it is too hard to wrap our heads around the value and amount of meta data flowing from the real data we provide and we really do not think any will do anything with it. We could not be any more wrong.

In the old days if you told someone you bought an album or a book it did not mean anything. But our data no longer exists in a vacuum. Now, the cloud around that data seamlessly blends with other clouds of data, exponentially growing with each merger. The cloud grows as the amount of data grows. We only see the data pile, whole new branches of science are looking at the invisible cloud and this stuff, is being used against us.

The press is going nuts over Facebook privacy policies, but the discussion of access to, and spread of, data we never intended to share is much quieter - bordering on nonexistent. In addition to what we disseminate by putting something up on Facebook or purchasing through iTunes or Amazon, we build vast silos of data just by using a browser. We have a personal silo on Facebook full of pictures, thoughts and connections,
a web activity silo stored on our ISP, a financial silo held in credit reporting agencies and banks built through our purchases and credit requests, a personal interest silo when we click on an ad, and more we can not even conceive. It is hard enough to imagine what companies are doing with the data we provide – Facebook can predict future hookups between members with 33% accuracy – we cannot even begin to wrap our heads around what will happen once the silos connect and network effect kicks in.

The Financial Silo.

Almost all of us are comfortable using credit cards. Aside from the risk of the waiter or store clerk stealing your number, we really don’t think about the individual purchase. Some people even feel comfortable enough to register with Blippy.com, making a game of broadcasting everything they buy. Why should we be concerned about individual purchases? Who could possibly care about your buying a 12 pack of Diet Coke and a game at Wal Mart? No one ever thinks these purchases speak to who we are, but credit card companies and banks build psychological profiles based on what we purchase and where we buy it.

The exploration into cardholders’ minds hit a breakthrough in 2002, when J. P. Martin, a math-loving executive at Canadian Tire, decided to analyze almost every piece of information his company had collected from credit-card transactions the previous year. Canadian Tire’s stores sold electronics, sporting equipment, kitchen supplies and automotive goods and issued a credit card that could be used almost anywhere. Martin could often see precisely what cardholders were purchasing, and he discovered that the brands we buy are the windows into our souls — or at least into our willingness to make good on our debts. His data indicated, for instance, that people who bought cheap, generic automotive oil were much more likely to miss a credit-card payment than someone who got the expensive, name-brand stuff. People who bought carbon-monoxide monitors for their homes or those little felt pads that stop chair legs from scratching the floor almost never missed payments. Anyone who purchased a chrome-skull car accessory or a “Mega Thruster Exhaust System” was pretty likely to miss paying his bill eventually.
Martin’s measurements were so precise that he could tell you the “riskiest” drinking establishment in Canada — Sharx Pool Bar in Montreal, where 47 percent of the patrons who used their Canadian Tire card missed four payments over 12 months. He could also tell you the “safest” products — premium birdseed and a device called a “snow roof rake” that homeowners use to remove high-up snowdrifts so they don’t fall on pedestrians.

These profiles are then used by credit card companies and banks to determine when to offer home loans, lower existing credit lines, or deny new credit, Without even thinking about it, we are building a profile of ourselves which is available to all who review our credit. With the passage of the new federal banking bill, the US Government will also have access to these records.

Web Surfing Silo

While credit card companies, and the US Government are building profiles of us, we are building profiles of ourselves. Our surfing habits create a unique “Clickprint” that can empower those reviewing the data to anticipate our behavior. Reams and reams of data are gathered and despite the statements contained in privacy policies, distributed. In 2006, AOL fired its CTO over the releases of stored and anonymized search data. AOL found the supposed anonymous data could be used to identify individuals making the searches. Balaji Pdmanabhan and Catherine Yang of Wharton and UC Davis, respectively, identified the reason for the concern in their paper “Clickprints on the Web: Are There Signatures in Web Browsing Data?” They found retailers can distinguish between different users in as little as three sessions and behavior can be identified in anywhere from 3 to 16 sessions. Imagine the profile we build when all of our surfing habits are taken into account. Four years later the situation is even worse.

In a more recent paper, Balachander Krishnamurthy and Craig Wills of AT&T Labs and Worcester Polytechnic Institute showed how advertisers can identify users by simply looking to the referral page for the click through.

A key question that has not been examined to our knowledge is whether Personally Identifiable Information (“PII”) belonging to any user is being leaked to third party servers via Online Social Networks (“OSN”). Such leakage would imply that third parties would not just know the viewing habits of some user but would be able to associate these viewing habits with a specific person.

In this work we have found such leakage to occur and show how it happens via a combination of HTTP header information and cookies being sent to third-party aggregators. We show that most users on OSNs are vulnerable to having their OSN identify information linked with tracking cookies. Unless an OSN user I aware of this leakage and has taken preventive measures, it is currently trivial to access the OSN page using the ID information. The two immediate consequences of such leakage: First, since tracking cookies have been gathered for several years from non-OSN sites as well, it is not possible for third party aggregators to associate identify with those past accesses. Second, since users on OSNs will continue to visit OSN and non-OSN sites, such actions in the future are also liable to be linked with their OSN identify.

Tracking cookies are often opaque strings with hidden semantics known only to the party setting the cookie. As we also discovered, they may include visible identity information and if the same cookie is sent to aggregator, it would constitute another vector of leakage. Due to the longer life-time tracking of cookies, if the identity of the person is established even once, then aggregators could internally associate the cookie with the identity. As the same tracking cookie is sent form different Websites to the aggregator, the user’s movements around the Internet can now be tracked not just as an IP address, but as associated with the unique identifier used to store information about users on an OSN. This OSN identifier is a pointer to PII about the user.

The leakage through sale of data was not only found on Facebook, but Myspace, LiveJournal, Hi5, Xanga and Digg as well as Google through DoubleClick and Yahoo through Right Media. While this may cause us to shake, there is more to be concerned with than teh leaks we can identify and stop. Facebook and Linkedin have actually created data science teams to analyze data and look for behavioral correlations to clickprints. According to a book critical of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg used to play with the data to entertain himself.

As the service's engineers built more and more tools that could uncover such insights, Zuckerberg sometimes amused himself by conducting experiments. For instance, he concluded that by examining friend relationships and communications patterns he could determine with about 33 percent accuracy who a user was going to be in a relationship with a week from now. To deduce this he studied who was looking which profiles, who your friends were friends with, and who was newly single, among other indicators.

The threat is not ephemeral. Just to make sure, the FBI wants your ISP to keep all of your data for two years

Merging The Data

Ok, so the banking and credit side of the world knows about financial situation and the retail side of the world may know about our interests and peccadillos, but I am just being overly sensitive. Relative Loss of privacy is simply a cost of living in a faster, more fluid world. Right? Not really. What happens when the silos merge? Banks, credit card companies retailers and others can all merge the silos. Each has access to both silos by virtue of advertising programs and voluntarily provided data. We opt into the financial solo, but no one realizes a click through
on a credit card or refinance offer potentially merges silos. But if I am not doing anything wrong, there is nothing to worry about. Sure, you are not doing anything wrong in the present, but how does it look through behavioral prediction – a science, by the practitioners own admission is inaccurate at best. In a Minority Report kind of way and erring on the side of caution, companies wanting to protect investment will reduce your credit , and the TSA may put you on the no fly list on the basis of information taken completely out of context. Analysis of these vast data and metadata libraries is done by computers, not humans. Computers, sifting through reams and reams of data, spitting out tinier but still vast reams of data for application of algorithms for conversion into measures within a “acceptable” margin of error. Anyone whose credit rating has been dinged by a mistaken attribution knows the hell of being caught in a “guilty until proven innocent” cycle after falling within the margin of error. Imagine what happens when it gets into the hands of the government.

It gets even scarier when we consider Google not only has the search data, but Google desktop, creates metatags for every file on a computer, gmail indexes every email and its content, the proposed Google health service will provide access to medical data, and android phone provide communication and location data, google voice transcribes and indexes all voice mails and frequently called numbers, and the facial recognition could give access to comings and goings in public places. Google, and many others, will know everything about us, because we told them.

In the old days, when they were not being investigated, these companies would stand up for us. Google actually stood up to the US government and refused to offer certain services in China to avoid the risk of having to disclose data. Pre 9/11 the US Government did not have access to the data, post 9/11 through the Patriot Act and the new rules contained in the recently passed Federal Banking Bill, they get access to both silos. Even Google is not protecting data. The data accidentally gathered while mapping streets in Europe was recently handed over to authorities in Germany, France and Spain. Google admitted the collected data was in error, but they are handing over data which the governments may or may be actually be entitled to collect. The data ties IP addresses to the sites accessed.

In the even older days, we could live without footprints. When you wanted to see someone you would send a calling card. You could not get into someone’s house unless you were invited. No one knew where you went unless you told them. If a company wanted information about you, it asked for it. If the government was interested
in what you were doing, they investigated through formal requests to the courts and subpoenas were issued after a showing of cause. Today, in the interest of “helping companies to help us Each one of us has a Great Pacific Garbage Patch of data we never knew we built. It is time to clean up our garbage patches. Each data set we provide, wittingly and unwittingly, is part of a network, each connections grows the network, and therefore computing power, exponentially, until something much more powerful than us, is mixing, matching, dissecting, connecting, analyzing and organizing every piece of data about us. And the thing doing it, really doesn't care. The danger lies in what we do not know. The loss of privacy is increasing on an exponential rather than a linear course and when the last glimmer is extinguished, it will leave with a whimper, not with a shout.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Did Steve Jobs Call Microsoft "The Smarter People": Who Owns the Living Room Edition

Someone asked Steve Jobs about television at the all things D Conference and he explained why Apple TV remains a hobby. In the clip above he explains the existing market market is heavily subsidized by cable operators who "give everybody a set top box for free, or for $10 a per month. That pretty much squashes out the opportunity for innovation because nobody's willing to buy a set top box." Everything makes so much sense when he says it. . . but Microsoft got consumers to purchase their set top box and through the sale of content they are able to turn the sale of the box and operation into a profit center.

He then says the problem with adding a box to the user's experience is they end up with a variety of different boxes each with its own remote and user interface. "The only way that's ever going to change is if you can really go back to square, tear up the set top box, redesign it from scratch with a consistent UI across all these different functions, and get consumers it to consumers in a way they're willing to pay for it. And right now there is no way to do that." Well again, isn't this exactly what Microsoft is doing. I play games, watch the same films in the Zune store that are available in iTunes, access Facebook, watch netflix movies and communicate with friends all through a single interface and remote. Once Natal is launched - the success of which is admittedly subject to debate - I will not even need the remote. The same number of people pay for these services as subscribers to the largest cable company in US.

He says the TV is going to lose until there's a better -- until there's a viable -- go to market strategy. Otherwise you're just making another Tivo. It's not a problem with technology, not a problem with vision it's a fundamental go to market problem. " He said he could not partner with a cable company because there is not a national operator and all the countries have different standards and government approvals. Microsoft encountered the same issues, so they made their own cable network. They anticipated fatter pipes into peoples' homes and built a system around it. They built an international cable network that is not a retread of television, but better than television - and this is important.

It is important because the fight is not about television. It is about a shared experience. We come together around a television. The 20th century saw the television become the hearth of the home. t was a gathering place for the family to consume information and entertainment. Apple products all bring information to individuals. We find something we like while we are alone, download on to an iPhone or iPad and maybe hand it to a friend so they can watch it by themselves while they are sitting next to us. Apple products connect us from a distance, but no Apple product provides a shared experience to a group of people in a room. Not games like Scrabble on an iPad, but collaborative games, movies, news of the day. I While Apple is blowing it up and moving consumption into individualized experiences, Microsoft is trying to transform the hearth into an on demand, bi directional, more useful experience.

Finally, he said "smarter people than us will figure this out." Earlier in the discussion Jobs said Apple lost the platform war to Microsoft because Apple did not know it was fighting one. I hope this is not another war.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Raising the Bar: Death of Mediocrity Edition

I went to see Eric Lewis, aka ELEW, a couple nights ago and just like the clip above, he gave it everything he had. He beat the shit out of the piano and by the time he was done, I could not imagine there was anything left in the guy. Eric's career is blowing up right now - search him and you will see - and he deserves it. Quality rises to the top, even if it takes a while. He and I joked about his years of work leading to his "overnight success."

That day I read more about the death the media. Newspapers and magazines are failing, network television is down, film attendance down, all the rest and I could not help but think about the parallels to game sales. These media are not failing, the bar is being raised. With all the choices consumers will not accept mediocrity. Consumers who are assaulted by media from computers, televisions and phones do not want more of the same. So much is free that we must provide value to get their time or dollars. Newspapers that work hard and offer value are thriving. Cable channels like FX and AMC are seeing increased viewership through quality programming that did not exist years ago and as I said before, every high quality game released since September 2009 has done great numbers. I don't have to say anything about Avatar. The common through line is quality. The people behind the success gave them "ELEW efforts".

Moving forward, rather than pointing to dying media or apathetic consumers, let's first ask whether we are providing more of the same or if we made an ELEW effort.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

J Allard: Class Act Edition

There are far to many "role models" in the world and too few people to really admire. Every sports figure or actor is inevitably held up as a role model and they never fail to disappoint. While their effort to get to their position is admirable, the likelihood of emulating their role is slightly smaller than winning the supper lotto - twice. In the bright glow of these superstars we miss the ordinary guy who makes an ordinary gesture extraordinary. The guy you can really be if you just try hard enough. You have to be born Superman, but anyone can be Batman.

Anyone who has spent time with J Allard knows he is not an ordinary guy, but the act of leaving employment is pretty ordinary these days and exit emails are not often inspiring love letters worthy of publication next to Steve Jobs' famous commencement speech. Actually, I've never seen one. Many compare J to Jobs and in an alternate world where he sat a couple seats high in the organization he may have been him. J is the guy who fought to move the borg onto the internet and envisioned Xbox as the connected box long before anyone thought of game consoles as connected. The connection is what drove Microsoft to the front of this console generation.

With everyone from ZDNET to the Wall Street Journal speculating on his departure, J knew he had access to the world press and he did what so few people do. He used it well. Here is the entire email as stolen from Gizmodo:

Congratulations J. Thank you for your time and I wish you the best in your future endeavors.

From: J Allard
Date: May 25, 2010 8:56:08 AM PDT
To: "Robert (Robbie) Bach", Entertainment & Devices Division FTE
Cc: Senior Leadership Team
Subject: Decide. Change. Reinvent.
My first job out of college 19 years ago was really something.
The receptionist typed out my visitor badge on an IBM Selectric typewriter at my interview – a reassuringly "high-tech" welcome in 1991. On my first day, I was ushered to an office that I would share with a co-worker and a spare-no-expense, beige Compaq 386sx computer. I fired it up, and my first dialog with this quasi-32-bit powerhouse went something like this:
c:\> ls
Bad command or filename
c:\> ps
Bad command or filename
c:\> man
Bad command or filename
c:\> whoami
Bad command or filename
I was obviously flustered; my new officemate taught me the magical incantation – "wzmail" – which launched an amazing program. Some would describe it as an email client with text editing disabled, but it was actually a time machine that was hardwired to "1982 BBS messaging systems." It connected me via the tangle of wires at my feet to the rest of our world via a protocol called "XNS." XNS, like Latin, I had learned a little about in college but hadn't ever actually experienced it in the real world.
In my first week, I would be asked to do a presentation covering the architecture, milestones and to state my "confidence interval" of the first commercial software project that I would oversee. My command performance was powered by a 3M overhead projector and transparencies I had prepared on the Xerox copier. I was subjected to intense "technical" questioning from the head of my division (a former marketing chief from 80's Apple) in a room filled with dormitory-grade oak furnishings. After surviving this rite of passage, I stopped by my I/O mailbox and was thrilled to receive 200 black and white business cards, which included our corporate Telex number and my very own Compuserve e-mail address. It was apparent after my first week that I was well equipped to set the world on fire.
My first post-college employer? Microsoft.
It was a complete fluke that I even interviewed. The idea of joining a company with more than 100 people seemed terrifyingly stifling to me. My networking, graphics, Unix and Internet passions and background suggested we didn't have a lot in common. The mission of "A computer on every desk and in every home" was ambitious, but ambitious circa 1985. By 1991, it was an assumed inevitability for those versed in technology and its adoption rate.
The ~30 million PCs in the world were dominantly powered by DOS, Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect and applications compiled by Borland tools. If you were on a network at the office, it was Novell Netware; if you were connected to the "net," your choice would have been Compuserve over your roaring 1200-baud modem. You'd buy your floppy discs and printer ribbons at a store called Egghead, and a program called TurboTax would have consumers lined up every April. MS-DOS 5.0 had just launched and we were deep in collaboration with the #1 PC maker – IBM - on a powerful new operating system called OS/2 intended to succeed it. I had joined a small team building a Netware alternative on DOS and OS/2 called "LAN Manager."
In spite of all of these warning signs and patterns, I still took the interview. At minimum the experience would serve as good practice for future interviews by more compatible employers. However, my interview experience turned all of my assumptions upside-down and drew me toward this place I've called home ever since.
During every interview, I'd challenge, "‘A computer on every desk and in every home' is quaint, but why stop there?" and the typical response would be along the lines of, "That's just our ante." I liked that... +1 Microsoft.
I'd push a little further and say something like "Don't you see the force multiplier in connecting all of those desks and homes and people together across the Internet?" and they'd say something like "Internet? Is that like Compuserve?" However it was said, these responses activated my flight instinct.
My speedball would be, "Well, why in the hell should I join this company that doesn't have a clue about the Internet when that's the next big thing? It's going to completely change the world! It's what I was put on earth to do! You guys don't get it!" and the calm response would be, "You're right. We don't get it, but it seems that maybe you do. That's exactly why you should come here. Come here and make it happen. Write the job description!"
I couldn't believe it, but it was impossible to dismiss the similarity and authenticity I felt in every conversation. On the flight home, I contemplated these discussions, the passion and IQ of the people I had encountered and their invitation to create my own space to drive a bigger agenda alongside them. It clicked. The "computer on every desk..." rhetoric was a ruse, the real purpose and ambition of these people was much, much broader: "Make the world a better place through technology."
Like every idealistic college hire, this was the unicorn I was looking for. I wanted to do something bigger than me – "change the world!" – with a bunch of people who respected and could augment my superpowers. I had visited the Justice League of Geeks and they had invited me in and had shown me the secret handshake.
The next day, I joined "The Tribe" – a group diverse in perspective, similar in skills and completely, totally galvanized around one central purpose.
It felt uncomfortably perfect (apart from the awful office décor), so I protected my youthful optimism by mentally deciding I would give it two years and revisit everything then. The almanac reassured me of the NW's snow quality, the traffic was nothing compared to Boston or New York and the promise of free soda, lame-but-subsidized cafeteria pizza, $32k/year and an MS-DOS t-shirt were hard to beat.
At my two year checkpoint, things were going along "better than expected." It was simple to extend my commitment - I was charged up by the progress we were making, the friends I had made, the plans we had made together and the culture and purpose that bound us. I even was allowed to expense copies of Snow Crash as a pre-read for team offsites… The unicorn was real!
Then one day it happened.
Someone ruined it all and shattered the fantasy. When no one was looking, some clown had somehow slipped into The Tribe and brought all of the walls crashing down. They shredded our slice of the vision, they scoffed at my offer to collaborate, they committed to a lifetime of obstructionist behavior and to do everything in their power to stop everything our team had worked so hard to do. The gauntlet was laid, "Read my lips, we will never ship TCP/IP in Windows 95." I was shocked. I was shattered.
I stormed out.
I walked out the front door in disgust and went to an 11am movie at Crossroads (the aptly titled, Point of No Return). About 30 minutes in I realized what a whiner and victim I was being and that in a company of 8,000 there were bound to be some misses.
I thought about how I stormed out the front door to my car and how the thought of leaving my cardkey at reception had actually crossed my mind. I walked out of the movie and I sat in my car. I took my cardkey out of my wallet and after concluding that I should lose the ponytail, I told myself, "You idiot. This is your invitation to change the world." I went back to the office and got right back to it.
[In truth, I cranked the Descendents really loud ("You can only be a victim if you… admit defeat") and flamed Herr Clownshoes to a crisp in wzmail, and then I promptly got back to it.]
Since that crappy day 17 years ago, every.single.time I've swiped that damned cardkey I've reminded myself of that invitation from The Tribe and our shared purpose.
I repeat the phrase silently in my head and I take it seriously. It's not about me, it's not about my career, it's not about the project or the product or the profit – it's about the central purpose and obligation we share to change the world and to build stuff that allows our customers and partners to do the same.
With that initial 2 year landscape it would have been very hard to predict what we would accomplish and how we would evolve over the next 2 decades. The 2nd place productivity and DOS company talking about "GUI" I had joined became the unquestioned driver of the PC industry, a networking company, an enterprise company, a communications company, an Internet company, a hardware company, a server company, an entertainment company and true to its heritage, it fuels each of these businesses with amazing software tools.
More important than any of the products, businesses, scale or profit that we've built together, we've helped redefine how people work, how they communicate, how they manage their lives and how they play. That's why I joined The Tribe.
Nineteen years later some things remain the same - the pizza still sucks, the wayfinding/signage in the buildings is hopeless and our business cards continue to lack any sense of expression. But most importantly, that common purpose to use technology to make the world better is still alive and well. That simple little "beep" we experience every day when we swipe our cards remains a reminder for all of us.
If you've been following along, you probably understand just how difficult it was for me to decide to leave the tribe and explore new territory, but the time has come.
My passion for our cause combined with my obsessive nature has put many of my other interests on hold for a long time. I don't know exactly what tomorrow looks like – but if my focus has been 95% MSFT, 5% life until now, I know that the first step is to flip that ratio around. After wrapping some projects up, I will shift to 95% life and 5% MSFT. With that 5% I'll be working for SteveB on a couple of projects beginning this fall.
In response to the curiosity, no chairs were thrown, no ultimatums served, I am not moving to Cupertino or Mountain View, I did not take a courier job and I require no assistance finding the door. I do know that I'm going to help a couple of friends get their startups going (e.g. The Clymb), I'm planning some races (by foot, bike and off-road trucks), and I'm going to put some energy into my passion for design, the arts and philanthropy. For those of you reporting into one of my organizations, I am committed to working through all of the transition issues and assure you that The Tribe remains committed to the work you are doing and our purpose going forward.
If, at the next juncture, I decide to join a corporate tribe again, this place will definitely top my list. There are a lot of great companies out there doing terrific and meaningful work with better pizza, nicer décor and great implementations of "ls" on the desktops, but The Tribe? No one can touch our talent, our impact or our ambition. We're the only high-tech company with the track record and self-confidence to reinvent ourselves as we have. If you want to change the world with technology, this is still the best tribe out there.
Please, put my headcount and that cardkey "invitation" to good use. Find a college student that claims we don't get it and blogs tirelessly about our lack of agility. Track down an EE that has been focusing on fuel cells and has radical thoughts about power management. Or a social networking whiz who is tired of building little islands that go hot and cold and can't break the mainstream. Hire a designer who's given shape to 2 decades of beautiful automobiles and thinks we can sculpt technology to better connect to users. Infuse them with our purpose. Give them the tools. Give them lots of rope. Learn from them. Support where they take you. Invite them to redefine The Tribe.
Decide. Change. Reinvent.