Category Archives: marketing

How middleware (and open source) downloads ought to work – Unity3D

While upgrading Unity, I noticed the current download page is a great example of how it SHOULD be done:

Unity 4 has some … issues … with backwards compatibility – but at least they made the “need an older version?” link prominent. And how many old versions can you download?

Many!

(it goes on right back to unity 3.0)

Old versions? Who cares!

Well, that backwards compatibility thing is a *****. If you work on a project with other people, and they’re using Unity 3.5 … you SHOULD NOT (must not?) use Unity 4 (there be Dragons).

But it’s fine; Unity makes it trivial for anyone joining such a project to get exactly the version they need.

Some games middleware *cough*Hansoft*cough* companies declare that everyone must use the latest version, even if it is buggy and breaks existing projects. Or if it requires staff retraining. You must retrain EVERYONE! NOW!

(Hansoft has probably changed by now – maybe unfair to single them out. But for a long time they only allowed you to download the “latest” version, and actively deleted everything else. As soon as a new version existed, BOOM! Everything else got wiped. A happy customer I was not)

Recap

So, here we have a piece of middleware, with a download page:

  • Lives at an obvious, permanent URL: http://unity3d.com/unity/download/
  • Makes it very easy to find the download link (many open-source projects: shame on you)
  • Uncluttered webpage, and makes it easy to understand which download you want (Eclipse.org: shame on you)
  • Every version has its release notes right there, for you to click on! (Apple (every product), and Firefox: shame on you)
  • Every version has BOTH the windows AND the mac downloads (computers today are cheaper than they’ve ever been. Many people have a laptop thats Mac, and desktop that’s Windows, or vice versa. You can’t assume that the browser they’re using dictates the desktop they’ll be working from)

Designing a website to look simple is certainly a difficult and non-trivial task.

But in the case of a download page – where almost everyone has the same needs, and there are many examples to copy (plagiarise) from – it doesn’t take much. More projects (and companies) should at least try to do this.

Reaction to CoH (City of Heroes) community, and NCsoft’s response

(background: after 8 years as one of the world’s mid-tier MMO games, City of Heroes (+ City of Villains) is being shut down. The community banded together to ask if they could take over running the world that meant so much to them; NCsoft (the publisher, and a company I used to work for) said: no)

“No means no”

NCsoft is basically saying: “Please. We love you, but … you just *don’t understand*. It’s more complex than you could possibly imagine!”

That’s not a dialogue; it reads like a “this conversation ends when I stop talking” monologue.

“Why on earth wouldn’t you say yes?”

Lots of people wondering that. Obviously, being a public company, no-one’s going to answer that in public. We can only guess. But hear’s a few (over the top) suggestions…

If the community succeeds … then THE FEAR IS: some Executive(s), somewhere, are going to look like bad (I’m not accusing; I’m just saying that in corporates I’ve worked at, this kind of *fear* is common). A lot of the work they do is guess-work. That’s fine, they’re paid to make the best decision they can, while never truly know if they made the right one.

But if a bunch of inexperienced, eager novices come along and offer to do it for free. And – the worst possible outcome – they succeed … that could make someone look really bad.

Another thing I’ve seen in corporate politics at this level is a lot of “horse-trading”. i.e. sacrificing one project (that someone else resents, or has been snubbed by) in return for that person helping out out with a problem on a separate project, that you’re trying to rescue.

Who (individually or collectively) made the decision, and what did they stand to gain or lose? (they are probably worried about / aiming for / trying to win … something bigger than this single game. c.f. my 2009 post on why NCsoft is so huge a company gains nothing from “profitable” games, they need “mega profitable” games)

“Software is software”

Ha!

Has anyone found out yet what format(s) the data is in? Imagine the most insane, unwieldy, incomprehensible, inconsistent, unusable format that bears no relationship *at all* to the game itself … and you’re probably half way there.

This game was written *8 years ago*.

Read the biographies of the people involved. Were they non-game developers … academics with decades of expertise in distributed systems and real-time transaction messaging? … or … were they a bunch of smart guys trying to catch up with the academic research in the space of months, just enough to build and ship a major new computer game? And … most importantly … to make it “fun” before they ran out of budget.

I’ve not yet found an MMO where the people who made it feel – with hindsight – they had any idea what they were doing at the start. When they started, of course, many of them thought they’d covered all the bases, and were “well prepared”. Everyone tries their best up-front (or fails completely); but everyone finds it much harder than expected.

What should we/they do?

Looking at it analytically and logically, I’d give the community a very high chance of failing dismally if they were given the game. But … the eagerness, the excitement, the sheer determination: I’d give them a small chance of succeeding despite everything. Simply because: when you see this much determination, it often wins out and overcomes the obstacles in its way.

So, I say: Go for it.

They know the game they’re trying to (re-)create. The difficulty is simple: whenever you try to re-create a game, the temptation is always there to “improve” it … and 99 times in 100, you find you slightly misunderstood what you were “improving”.

Identity theft, exploitation, and Gravatar

There’s a growing problem right now with Facebook Connect: it can silently log you in to websites that you *don’t want* to share your private data with. I saw a funny example last month where a porn website had integrated Facebook Connect … so when you visit the site, one miss-click and you’ll broadcast to all your work colleagues your embarassing love of HardCoreGrannies.

But there’s another example right now that may be worse, and is definitely food for thought. Facebook doesn’t broadcast your data – not to protect your privacy, but to prevent competitors getting access to data they are currently making money out of themselves. By contrast, there’s Gravatar: these guys take your private data and give it away to everyone – and they refuse to stop doing it (I’ve asked, directly, and they refused. They had no reason to refuse – they knew my identity, they knew my request was valid, and I believe under UK / Europe law it would be *illegal* for them to refuse. But … they’re American, and I guess all they care about is money).

So, for instance, I just had one of my online identities ruined by Gravatar. A website that I rarely use recently “upgraded” and implemented the gravatar system – and immediately took a private account and publically broadcast that I was the owner. They didn’t ask me, they just went ahead and did it. Like many web developers, I’m sure they had no idea what they were doing – few seem to be aware of the scam that underlies Gravatar.

Fortunately, I’m not going to lose something massively important, like my job / marriage / life (c.f. the news stories when Google Wave launched), but the website owners had no way of knowing that. They’ve just unleashed this upon their hundreds of thousands of users; what are the chances that one of them will be affected?

(incidentally, if you’re a website owner, I strongly recommend you think twice before adding Gravatar (or any of the clones) to your own site. I don’t know if anyone’s been sued for it yet, but I’m sure it’ll happen eventually)

There are two halves to the problem. Gravatar is fundamentally a violation of privacy: they take your data and give it to *everyone* without you knowing. So what? That’s the whole point of the service! Yes, the Gravatar author is a little incompetent (c.f. OpenID for how he *should* have implemented it), but otherwise there’s no problem, is there? In theory … if you voluntarily sign-up for it, it’s all OK. Isn’t it?

Well … maybe not. They won’t let you (the user / owner) control that flow of data. What happens if you change your mind – can you delete their data? Nope. Why? I’m not sure, but I would guess: If you did that, you’d undermine their ability to make $$$ out of you. You can (theoretically) set your pictures back to empty. But …

…But there’s a second half to this. I believe most people are on Gravatar because WordPress “gave” the user’s private data to Gravatar. That’s a nasty mess right there; what does WordPress’s privacy policy say? Again, when they acquired Gravatar, they apparently didn’t ask their users what they wanted, they just forced this privacy violation on them. Back then, it didn’t have much effect (Gravatar itself was relatively unknown / little used), but as Gravatar gets used more widely, the problem becomes more acute.

And here’s the rub: Gravatar’s staff refuse to adhere to privacy requests because (precising / summarising): “you have to use your wordpress.com account”. What if you don’t have one? “you must have had one in the past and we won’t help you. Go away, and stop bothering us”.

Meanwhile, WordPress refuses to send password details to anyone, ever. A wise security decision in some ways (e.g. many people use the same password on multiple sites. Doh!). Your only choice is to delete the password and recreate it.

Is that a problem? Sadly, yes. Because (due to some very short-sighted / stupid marketing decisions by the WP folks) there are lots of admin systems – e.g. anti-spam – that are run off people’s WordPress accounts. So far as I can tell, no reason exists for this *except* to harvest email addresses and try and lure people onto paid WordPress.com plans. Further, WordPress uses an archaic password-based system (instead of e.g. Yahoo’s permission-based API – which, again, is how WP should have implemented this) – so if you change your password, all those websites will break.

Summary

These services are a nice idea in theory, but when you get terrible implementations like Gravatar, combined with lazy / stupid staff, the user does pretty badly. They get screwed, they get patronised (just look at the Gravatar.com FAQ; they’ve cleaned it up in the last 12 months, it’s no longer so actively offensive as it used to be, but it’s still pretty bad), and many times they don’t even know about it until the violation is widespread.

And, ultimately, any website that uses this system is in danger of losing badly if it goes to a court-case. I’m not a lawyer, but when there are industry standards for user-controlled privacy (OpenID), and specific laws demanding that Gravatar honour the requests it currently refuses (UK Data Protection Act, for instance), I suspect a court is unlikely to look favourably on a website claiming innocence. Ignorance isn’t generally a valid legal defence.

But how much damage do these systems do to themselves? If Automattic were a little less greedy, or a little less selfish, would a lot more people embrace the idea of sharing their identity openly? Will OpenID provide a gravatar-replacement that doesn’t shaft the user, and will that take off much bigger than the original?

Personally, I look at recent events like Google Wave, and Blizzard’s “forum identity = credit-card name” – and the s***storm of angry users in both cases – and I suspect these privacy issues are much more damaging than corporates expect. Which is good news: the world appears to be slowly waking-up to the abuses inflicted upon them in the digital world, and the importance of keeping certain things (passwords, email addresses – and now, finally: identity) sacrosanct. And that is definitely a good thing…

PR Agency reveals The Truth about Social Media

(…i.e. “many PR agencies know nothing about social media”)

This miserable story of a crappy PR agency working for Nokia just came to light. I’d give it even odds whether the problem was one incompetent employee, or an overall incompetent agency.

Read the blog post (and the comments – after a hundred or so, the agency pops up to respond. Worth reading as an example of how *not* to respond when you screw-up your PR (and pretty funny to see a *PR* agency write something so weak)).

It might be TL;DR, so … here’s my ultra-quick summary, with wild interpretation and guesswork based on my limited insight into the murky world of agencies:

  1. Big client wants to “do” social media; holds pitch meetings with a variety of swanky agencies who present beautiful powerpoint slides claiming how incredibly smart and trendy they all are. No-one asks for proof of ability; the deal is closed on “OOH! SHINY!” or similar. Client selects the one it thinks best quality or best value (probably the latter).
  2. Agency (Mission) persuades blogger to run a half-marathon and promote their client (Nokia)
  3. Agency gets paid a substantial amount of money (much more than the cost of fulfilling promises to the blogger) for supporting Nokia’s aims to use “social media” in their campaigns
  4. Blogger works ass off for 4 months training to run 13 miles
  5. Agency is too lazy to do … any work whatsoever at all
  6. Agency shafts blogger. Reneges on promises of promotion and goods they’d offered as payment (this is probably illegal, apparently they don’t care)
  7. Blogger nearly misses said half-marathon due to agency miserable incompetence / laziness. Despite spending 4 months training for it.
  8. Blogger goes public with the sorry affair, whilst struggling to remain reasonable and forgiving (does pretty good job of it, IMHO)
  9. Agency gets screamed at by client and posts non-apologetic apology; hopes it’ll all blow-over

Make your own mind up…

Startups: measure your attention-marketing (download)

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll have read my thoughts on the Science part of Marketing, and how much money this makes you.

As I explained recently to an Accountant, we don’t have a “business plan” for my current company, we only have a spreadsheet. A spreadsheet – done correctly – *is* a business plan, and a better plan than any you’ll ever see written down.

(NB: I’m not an accountant. I’m not a Finance Director – and never have been. I don’t even like spreadsheets; normally they bore me to death. But this is an exception. It is the only way to effectively plan and run a startup)

So I was delighted to see that Dave Stone has posted a spreadsheet to track and measure the effectiveness of your “attention” campaign – how much exposure did you get from TechCrunch et al? Was it worth it?

One Hundred MEELLEON Dollar! (…wasted, on RTW/APB)

18 months ago, Scott and I described our perspectives on the fall of Tabula Rasa. I said that if you’re going to spend $100m on an MMO, you’d better be aware of MMO history and not repeat those mistakes.

It would seem that Real Time Worlds wasn’t listening – coincidentally, $100m is how much *publically announced* money just went down the pan, now they’ve gone into administration.

No-one in this industry likes to talk openly about their enormous fuck-ups – and the few that do tend to become pariahs, sued by their employers or shunned by future investors. No major company openly documents – or “allows to be documented” – anything of import. It’s a system that punishes progress in the professional field.

There’s a single public analysis on RTW/APB right now. It’s an anonymous source (oh, for god’s sake! When will we stop shooting the messengers?), but some non-anonymous sources have backed it up. So, let’s take a look…

Anonymous: ExRTW on RPS

(source is here)

APB:

“lead you to think it’s going to come right by release … You end up in this situation where you’re heads down working your ass off”

Me, 18 months ago:

“The implication being that they didn’t do anything wrong, perhaps, but that they stood by and watched the train rolling slowly towards the brick wall and didn’t try (hard enough) to stop the collision.”

APB:

“APB … came together… relatively late in its development cycle … leaving too little time for content production and polish … lacking any real quality in some of its core mechanics”

Me, 18 months ago:

It wasn’t ready for beta. I said so. Many others said so.

APB:

“it was pretty clear to me that the game was going to get a kicking at review – the gap between expectation and the reality was huge.”

Me, 18 months ago:

A survey was taken, internally, asking what people thought. The results were never published – so no-one (apart from the survey takers) knows exactly what the results were, but we were told that the *company* knew.

Incidentally … I was afraid to come clean at the time (and upset individuals), but that survey of all staff was EXTREMELY negative about the project, and I have been told (but you’ll have to take this as unsubstantiated rumour) that the reaction of the top-level execs on seeing the results was simple:

“Bury it”

APB:

“I wasn’t on the APB team, so I played it infrequently, during internal test days etc. I was genuinely shocked when I played the release candidate – I couldn’t believe Dave J would be willing to release this.”

Me, 18 months ago:

[I wasn’t on the TR dev team, but] given my position I had the luxury of a lot of insights that other people wouldn’t have had.

I played TR in the alpha, and I actually enjoyed it

it was a good pre-production prototype [but – at best – YEARS away from being a finished project – and they went to beta only 6 months later]

APB:

“The real purpose of beta is publicity, not bug fixing. We never took that lesson on board.”

[I didn’t cover this, but Scott’s post did, IIRC]

And, finally…

“MyWorld is an innocent bystander caught up in the demise of APB. Which is a real shame, because it is genuinely ground breaking, though not aimed at the traditional gamer audience. ”

…which sounds an awful lot like Scott’s team and Steve Nichols team (the former very basic playable but unreleased, the latter Dungeon Runners)

Major differences

EDIT: it’s 100k sales, not 10k.

APB:

“the real killer, IMO, is the business model. This was out of the team’s hands. The game has issues, but I think if you separate the business model from the game itself, it holds up at least a little better.”

I originally (mis-)understood
the figures that Nicholas Lovell has dug out, but apparently sales were over 100k (presumably that means practically zero sales in USA?).

By comparison, the previous big-failure MMO which went down because of the “bad business model” was Hellgate: London.

Hellgate sold 500,000 units, and estimated that even if they’d made their subscription compulsory, they’d still have sold 250,000.

So, not as strongly as I originally put it, but I’m still dubious about the business model being the cause. This stinks to me of a marketing/sales failure (unless those 100k sales are spread equally across territories)

APB:

“we should have kept our powder dry. Our PR felt tired and dragged on and on, rather than building a short, sharp crescendo of excitement pre-release.”

IMHO this is a really bad idea – unless you remove the entire “MMO” part of the game. Big Bang Marketing doesn’t work for MMOs; this is the old-school of game-marketing.

Although, given how ineffective RTW’s marketing seems to have been, I doubt a big-bank-marketing-campaign could have done any worse.

Conclusions … and “moving forwards from here”

Two parts of this industry need to talk, one part doesn’t. As I said in 2009: “We need to talk [about failure]; when will we talk [about failure]?”

The professionals: you’re getting burned out, chewed up, and spat out. Your lives are being wasted.

The investors: you’re getting screwed. You write it off as random failure, and you can afford it, but you’re shying away from “games” as a result, leaving good profits behind on the table.

The inexperienced, the mediocre, and all those people who don’t actually MAKE the game, but do get to ruin the process (rockstar-designers, producers, marketers, directors, managers, etc) : you’re doing great. Your lack of skill hasn’t held you back, and the company will often go bankrupt before anyone gets around to firing you for incompetence.

…Can we actually move forwards, though?

When I left NCsoft, I was cold-contacted with some new job offers.

A typical example: “make a success of” a project that had already spent several years and many millions of dollars and was about to launch. But I wasn’t allowed to move said launch, and they had “infinite” funding (I kid you not).

There was a fat salary for anyone willing to shepherd that disaster (and, I suspect, become the public fall-guy). The game itself launched as they insisted, and was a laughable failure. I doubted it could have been fixed without another 12-18 months of development.

And me, personally? Nowadays, I run a freeform studio developing mobile apps and games for corporate clients. Each employee is responsible for themself and for their own decisions. If you need a project-manager to mollycoddle you every day, you can’t work here.

Personal responsibility, and personal authority; so far, it’s working pretty well…

How not to market an MMO: EA/Mythic Entertainment

Mythic Entertainment – End of Subscription

(subtitle: EA/Mythic forces themselves into commercial failure)

8 months ago, I tried to play Warhammer Online.

Tried, and failed, because EA Mythic told me – in no uncertain terms – that it was completely impossible for me to play.

This was after releasing press announcements and running a big campaign trying to get people like me to play. They’d been too lazy / stupid to remove the “you cannot play this game” message from their own website, even several days after the marketing campaign started.

Net result: I never got around to playing. They made it such a pain in the ass that even when offered this *for free*, I never got that far.

So, I got this message today. And this just double-underlines my previous point. Read this message, and ask yourself: does it entice me into the game?

Throwing away money, one customer at a time

End of Subscription Notification

Your subscription for Mythic Entertainment Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning for Game Account [username] has ended for the following reason:

* Subscription is not set to renew

If you did not authorize this, please contact support at (650) 628-1001. Phone support hours are 10:00 am – 10:00 pm eastern time, Monday through Friday. You can find further information on account security at http://help.warhammeronline.com.

Thank you!

This is an automated email from the Account Management site for Mythic Entertainment.

Games Workshop, Warhammer, Warhammer Online, Age of Reckoning, and all associated marks, names, races, race insignia, characters, vehicles, locations, units, illustrations and images from the Warhammer world are either ®, ™ and/or © Games Workshop Ltd 2000-2009. Used under license by Electronic Arts Inc

Let’s do a quick analysis. Here you have a DIRECT contact with the consumer – moreover a consumer who isn’t yet paying you any money, and who you know has NEVER logged-in to the game.

  1. 36% of the message is an IRRELEVANT copyright notice that shouldn’t be there
  2. 30% of the message is an INCORRECT security advisory
  3. 12% of the message is “this is an automated email”
  4. …leaving a mere 22% of actual content

Let’s look at the content, as any good marketing person would.

  1. What’s the Call To Action? (we’re talking to a customer; what are we asking them to do?)
  2. How easy do we make it to respond to the CTA? (the easier we make it, the more people will do it)
  3. Where’s the Appeal – a.k.a. what do we do to make the CTA attractive? (the more attractive it is, NOT ONLY will more people do it, but a great percentage will follow-through by paying money / engaging after the CTA)

Hmm. Respectively:

  1. None
  2. Make a international phone call – at cost! – to an unrelated department
  3. Technical language with no hint of “game”, or welcome. Wording is both appallingly bad English ( “is not set to renew”), and also fundamentally negative (implies that I *shouldn’t* want to renew, even if I do want to)

As I said 8 months ago, someone ought to deploy the PlayFish folks onto the smoking remains of Mythic. I very much doubt they’d allow such terrible excuse for marketing to go on…

Farewell, Metaplace

I got this in my inbox a few days ago, and it’s been forwarded to me by a few people since:

(NB: the fact that you still have to login MERELY TO READ THE DAMN FAQ linked from the PR statement is IMHO symptomatic of some of MP’s problems :( )

metaplace.com is closing on january 1, 2010

We will be closing down our service on January 1, 2010 at 11:59pm Pacific. The official announcement is here, and you can read a FAQ guide here. We will be having a goodbye celebration party on January 1st at 12:00noon Pacific Time.

Some of the correspondence I’ve seen on this – what went wrong? what should they have done differently? – has been interesting. Personally, I’m in two minds about it. I think there were some great things about and within MP, but from the very start I felt it had no direction and too little real purpose (and if you ask around, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of people who’ll confirm I said that at the time).

I’ll hilight a couple of things that haven’t come up so much in conversations:

Bad

  1. On the face of it, MP was “the bad bits of Second Life…” (poor content tools, poor client, no direction, no purpose)
  2. “… without the good bits of Second Life” (no sex, no mainstream publicity, wrong target audience to charge millions of dollars in land-rental to)
  3. Poor discoverability (how do you find something cool in Metaplace? Go to site, login, download client, wait a lot, browse a weak index, wait for more downloads, wait for content to stream in … etc)

Discoverability was IMHO the killer: this is something that so many “hopeful” social sites and systems get wrong, and only a few get right. The best examples are still simple: browsing your friends’ friends on Facebook by looking at photos of their faces (hmm; who do I fancy?), or using Google to find things you’re looking for (the gold standard in tech, but also the base *expectation* of the modern web surfer).

The history of SLURLs in Second Life should probably be required reading for people interested in this – if you can find ways to experience / re-live life pre-SLURLs, and read through some of the trials and tribulations that Linden went through in getting them to work.

And even then, of course, SL still had no browsability – but it least it had “open” bookmarks and copy/paste references you could share with people, and embed in webpages. That was barely acceptable (and still “awful”) back when SL was in its prime; the equivalent “minimum acceptable” is probably Faceboook Connect with full Facebook integration (i.e. not just FC-login, but having a bona fide FB app too that acts as an alternate access-path for your virtual world).

Good

  1. Well, obviously, there was a lot of great content in there. I only skimmed it, but apart from the problems above, I saw a lot of interesting stuff
  2. The AJAX/CSS/HTML GUI … it was really easy for me to mess about gaining and browsing badges (both mine and other peoples).

Early on, I found the AJAX vs Flash part particularly interesting. The former showed up how weak the latter (the world-client) was: sometimes I went to the site, all happy about the badges, the popovers, etc, and as soon as I got into the Flash client, my mood would drop noticeably. Eventually, I stopped bothering visiting at all; I dreaded the slow, unwieldy, “clicking all over the place to move fractionally”, Flash experience.

One question I had was how much this was to do with the languages / platforms involved: did AJAX/CSS inspire the people working in it to make lighter-weight, faster, more abstracted core experience? Or is this just coincidence? There should be literally no reason why either of those platforms forced the designers to provide the experiences that way (Flash is capable of a much faster, snappier, fluid usability experience – it’s been excelling at this for years).

What’s wrong with EA: EA Mythic, and the FAIL of WAR

I’ll do a follow-up post in a minute with the anecdote that lead me to this. But here’s the general opinion/analysis first.

Project history (skip if you know all about Warhammer Online and Mythic already)

Huge project (cost in excess of $50 million to develop), based on a 20-year-old IP that is known and loved around the world, the game launched last year to a big marketing campaign.

Initial sales figures were excellent.

First-month renewals were dire, the company lost large amounts of money, they laid off large numbers of staff, and the CEO quit/resigned. They are now (late 2009) into the key point in such a product’s lifecycle where it has one last chance to succeed.

The parent company has recently laid off 1500 staff across different countries and products, but also just bought a small studio for $400 million.

The problem with Mythic/WAR today

Here’s what’s going on right now (based on observation, guesswork, and personal experience of similar situations at other companies):

They are spending large amounts of money to acquire new customers, while simultaneously erecting artificial barriers to turn away those new customers.

They are running loud marketing campaigns to attract those who’ve already rejected the product, while simultaneously creating powerful negative publicity for their own product.

In other words, this is a company that has a failing product AND has a non-unified product strategy, and yet is continuing to spend heavily. This strategy is known as “pure, blind, Hope”. It looks extremely similar to what happened with TR towards the end of it’s (brief, painful) lifetime:

“let’s work harder, do more, spend more! Cross your fingers, chant the secret mantra, and hope it all turns out for the best!”

Hope is not a strategy. All that can happen is that they might get lucky despite all the mistakes; there might be enough good left that they can survive this foolishness long enough to ditch the deadweight and pull themeslves out of the mire.

The inevitable PlayFish comment…

Maybe this would be a good project for the new hires from PlayFish to start work on? The essentials are there – and if the product could be made to succeed, it is a huge cash-cow. It could single-handedly pay-off a lot of the debt on that $400 million…

Indie developers and gaming sites: stop breaking the web

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been looking at a lot of independent developers’ websites. It’s quite surprising how many of them go out of their way to make their site unusable – clearly thinking that they’re achieving the opposite. But also, today, Wikipedia started actively doing a very minor (but no less irritating) content-block on mobile users. And last week, I found one of the main games-news sites is also actively *hard*-blocking mobile users.

This was annoying (and stupid!) 5 years ago, when sites added the “smartphones” to their content-blocking, even though smartphones could (and happily would) render full-fat webpages perfectly (tabbed browsing worked fine in Opera on Windows Mobile back in 2005 – I used it a lot).

Now, with the iPhone added to the list of clients that these sites are blocking, it’s a bit worse: Apple won’t allow you to purchase any web browser other than their version of Safari, and Safari won’t allow you to lie to the website and tell it you’re not using a cell phone (this was the standard workaround on windows mobile/opera for stupid web design teams: tell Opera to claim your cell phone was a Windows desktop). The iPhone, with a better quality web-browser than many desktops currently run? That’s just insane…

Wikipedia: mobile users, go away

Until/unless they decide to fix it, it’s now too much hassle to read WP pages unless I do it on my laptop. Since I’ve probably just followed a link from google, that would mean emailing myself the link from my iPhone, and going to WP via my desktop. More wasted time. I’ll just stop using wikipedia, thanks.

So far this morning I haven’t been able to access WP short of manually changing the URL to go to a country-specific Wikipedia mirror, switching to a “slow” (non-broadband) internet connection, reloading the page, and hitting the stop button before they redirect me to a “cut down” version, and no link to escape from it. There’s a link for you to “comment” on the new “feature”; my commentary would have been unprintable, so I declined.

Gamespot: we don’t want money, money is for wimps

The other week I noticed that Gamespot – one of the big ad-driven news + reviews/cheats/etc websites for games – is still locking-out all mobile users. That’s probably a fairly substantial load of ad revenue they are literally throwing away every day.

The web, HTTP, and HTML…

Why do people do this? I don’t know. But here’s a few points you should bear in mind:

  • No website should ever block content based on the user’s device
  • No website should ever have a flash-only front page
  • Since the very first versions of HTTP and HTML in the mid-1990’s, the web has been designed to avoid these problems; this shouldn’t be happening

Content Blocking

Gamespot checks your web browser when you fetch any article, review, etc. If it finds you’re coming from an iPhone, then it refuses to let you view the content. Instead, it serves up a custom “news page” that is identical no matter which link you came in on. There is no way for you to see the actual content you tried to view – literally: they do an auto-redirect that wipes it from the URL.

I can see no reason for this other than the bizarre assumption that an iPhone was launched 10 years ago with a tiny black-and-white screen and an inability to scroll and render web pages. I would love to ask the Gamespot web design team: have you ever seen an iPhone? You do realise it has a better web browser than most desktop PCs, yes? So … why are you manually blocking them from your website?

Amazon has for a long time done a similar thing with any mobile device (again, sadly, the stupid bit is that they apply it to devices where it’s completely unnecessary) – except that Amazon has three essential features which Gamespot lacks.

Firstly, they do actually show you some of the content you were trying to view (not all of it. ARGH!)

Secondly, there’s always a link on the page to view the real version of the page. If you click that, it gives you a warning something like: “YOUR MOBILE PHONE MAY NOT RENDER THIS PAGE … ARE YOU SURE!!!!????!”. Of course, this is somewhat inappropritate when applied to most smartphones, especially iPhones. But hey – at least the option is there.

Finally, they have a link something along the lines of: “Do you want to permanently stop seeing the broken, cut-down version of pages on amazon.com? You can re-enable them whenever you want”.

Irritating, patronising, and foolish (the default should be “view the website normally”, not “don’t view the website”) – but at least you only have to fix it once, and you never again get problems. Gamespot et al offer no such option – they just block you, dead.

Flash-only front pages

About 50% of indie studios have decided to put a massive flash on their front page, most of them with *no* link to “skip intro” or “go to website” or any kind of navbar. About 50% of them (in my sampling over the past few weeks) have made that flash NON clickable: you cannot (you are “not allowed to” ?) view the “real” website until the flash has loaded, you have seen the self-promoting advert for the studio embedded in it, and clicked some internal link at the end. This was foolish, unnecessarily slow, and contrary to the spirit and standards that drive the web even 10 years ago when it first started happening.

Games industry companies please take note:

The 1990’s phoned – they want their web-designers back.

(real web companies don’t do this kind of thing any more)

But now, with the iphone, it’s particularly dumb: it is de-facto content blocking – because the iPhone cannot / will not run Flash. If the Flash is clickable, you can at least (if you know what the studio did – which many people won’t guess) access the site anyway. I’m amazed how many sites don’t even give you that small fillip.

If this post persuades JUST ONE web designer, somewhere, to wake up and smell the roses, and spares us yet another self-blocked website, then I shall be happy.

Of course, maybe I should be grateful that we’re even this far “ahead” … I heard from someone the other day that he still has to explain to web design teams that websites don’t need to be hardcoded for rendering at 800×600 any more (i.e. that – OMGWTFBBQ! – everyone has rather larger desktop screen resolutions than that these days; or else so much smaller that hardcoding to 800×600 isn’t going to help at all).

A better way to review video games

Reviewing video games is hard. In some ways, it’s an impossible mission: a reviewer has too many conflicting interests:

  1. please the publishers or else be denied access to the materials they seek to review
  2. please their editor or else don’t get paid; but the editor’s primary source of capital is often advertising … from the publishers
  3. answer the consumer’s main question in a way that earns their trust: should they purchase this game or not?
  4. stand out from the crowd of a million game players who decide to write about their hobby

Who’s your Daddy?

This has been a problem for as long as I can remember (20+ years of game playing and reading game reviews); the consumer *believes* that the reviewer is answerable to them – but it has been a very long time (10 years now?) since consumers were the paymaster of reviewers; nowadays, it’s advertisers (which usually means: game-publishers).

Of course, consumers still wield huge power. The virtuous value circle – the only circle that matters – is driven by consumers:

  • A reviewer has a “readership” of consumers who are influenced in their purchasing decisions by those reviews
  • Publishers therefore court the reviewer to try and curry favour with the consumers and increase sales of the publishers’ products (to those readers, and anyone they themselves influence – friends, family, colleagues, etc)
  • Reviewers earn more money, and get deeper access to development teams (courtesy of the publishers), so produce more reviews

But that power is – clearly – both indirect and hard to quantify. A consumer – even many of them – threatening to “stop reading a reviewer’s reviews” is not particularly effective.

Publications like Edge helped along the indirection of consumer-power when they decided to go out of their way to obscure the identities of their individual reviewers, turning reviews into as much of a crap-shoot as buying games was in the first place. Since the web rose to prominence, it’s been eroded at the other end – there’s now so many reviewers around that, well … who has the time to remember who any individual reviewer is?

Qui custodet custodes?

But if journalists/reviewers are supposedly there as a watchdog on the publishers’ marketing depts, supposedly helping the consumer determine which are the (non-refundable) purchases they ought to be making, then who’s checking that the journalists themselves are honest?

No-one, really. And that’s where the rot begins. The storms of outraged public opinion are nothing new: examples of journalists writing reviews of games (reviews both scathing and rejoicing) they hadn’t even played go way back into the 1980’s.

A case study in lies, damn lies, and video game journalism

In case you hadn’t heard, this week a “staff writer” from Eurogamer (a games review / news site) ripped to pieces one of the most recently-released MMOs – Darkfall. At which point Aventurine, the developer of Darkfall, responded with increasing anger and dismay.

But the really interesting thing here is that Aventurine didn’t merely rant “you bastards! Our game is Teh Awesum!!!111! STFU, Beotch!” (well, they did that as well) … no, they dropped a little A-bomb in the middle of their reply:

“We checked the logs for the 2 accounts we gave Eurogamer and we found that one of them had around 3 minutes playtime, and the other had less than 2 hours spread out in 13 sessions. Most of these 2 hours were spent in the character creator”

Pwned. MMO developers *actually know whether your journalist played the game before reviewing it*. What’s more … they have proof…

The EG reviewer (whose “references and background are immaculate”, according to the editor – but from reading his only two EG reviews, I’m afraid it does rather sound like he knows little about MMOs), responded (via his editor) with the claim:

“the logs miss out two crucial days and understate others, … and he insists he played the game for at least nine hours”

It would seem that someone is lying (and it could be either party). Worse, someone is being particularly stupid. Because the journalist is claiming “your computers lie”, and the developer is claiming “your journalist is a lier”; either way, it’s not a subtle, small, mistake – whoever is wrong, if they get discovered, they’re going to create themself a good amount of long-term trouble (bad reputation).

Lots of MMO developers write shitty server code, and honestly don’t know what the hell is going-on inside their own game-world (but fondly imagine that they do – and proudly boast to the press (in the vaguest terms) that they do). But the rule of thumb is that devs who don’t know … don’t even know what it is they ought to be claiming that they know. The specificity of Aventurine’s claims suggests that they do have the stats, and those stats are mostly correct.

(I say “mostly” because there is a bit of vagueness about what – precisely – the reviewer was doing in-game. That reeks of holes in their metrics/logging. They clearly know when the player was logged-in, and what they did/said in chat, and how many characters were created – but apparently not what they were doing in the client, e.g. how long did they spend in character creation? Implicitly: unlogged; unknown)

Whereas it’s quite likely that a non-knowledgeable journalist, accustomed to buggy games, would assume that they could safely claim “your server is buggy, those figures are wrong”.

Unfortunately for any such journalist, server logs are generally either correct, or absent entirely – there’s rarely any middle-ground. If he knew a bit more about MMO tech he might know this; very few journos (any of them?) know that much about the games they review, though.

So … based on nothing but casual observation and intimate knowledge of the tech issues (and several decades of reading game reviews…), I’m leaning in favour of Adventurine and against Ed Zelton. My guess (pure *guess*) is that he’s been caught out being either incompetent or perhaps a bit lazy as a reviewer, and he’s thought he could get away with blaming it on buggy code. From reading the review, I get the impression he wishes he were Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw (from Zero Punctuation) – although he clearly isn’t funny enough – but he seems to like saying “it’s shit; you’re shit; you’re all shit; STFU” instead of reviewing the game, and seems to think that’s good enough. As an MMO player, my feeling was that the review was, well … useless – without even playing the game, there is so much more I would want to hear in a review, and so much of his wanky whining that I couldn’t care less about. As an MMO developer, it felt downright insulting, as if he’d made no effort at all to play the game as a game. Actually, it felt like he’d hardly played MMOs in his life, and didn’t really know what they were.

(NB, from the review: his apparent ignorance of some of the most important *and best-selling* RPG + MMORPG games of all time – the Ultima series – suggests that he really isn’t much good as a game reviewer. YMMV.)

Reviewing the reviewers

Up-front I’m going to point out that I don’t believe all MMO developers are currently capable of doing this – many people would be amazed to discover the true state of metrics collection in this industry – although *all* modern MMO developers ought to, and it’s not too hard to add-on later (add it to the list of “things MMO developers ought to do as standard practice, but many of them don’t do”). But it’s a general thing that I think we should move towards.

MMO developers (well, actually, the Operators, but that’s getting pedantic) are in an excellent position to help guard journalistic honesty, in a way that traditional game developers have never been able to. I would like to start seeing the following published by *every* MMO developer each time their game is reviewed:

  1. What level the account(s) started at
  2. What level the account(s) peaked at
  3. How many hours the reviewer spent at the lowest levels, levelling-up manually
  4. How many hours the reviewer spent at the highest levels
  5. What percentage of time was spent on each of the different primary character classes and factions
  6. Which areas of the game / aspects the reviewer actually engaged in (hours of combat, hours of crafting, hours of chat, etc)

…but, honestly, this isn’t so much about “journalistic honesty” (I used that phrase tongue-in-cheek above) as it is about starting a virtuous cycle of developers being more cognizant of what, actually, players “do” in their games – preferably *before* gold launch. In particular, if publishers (developers) started supplementing reviews with this info (as a matter of course), I think we’d see a sea-change in industry staff appreciating three key things about metrics:

  1. How little metrics they’re actually collecting compared to how much they think they’re collecting
  2. What metrics actually matter, and/or are useful?
  3. How players actually play the game; by extension: how fun is the game, really, and which parts suck horribly?

Does this work / matter?

At NCsoft, I got into the habit of asking prospective partners, hires/employees, and external studios which MMO’s they played (fair enough) … and how many characters they’d got to the level-cap with / what level their characters had reached. It started as an innocent question, but I quickly noticed how often it gave early warning of failures of honesty among individuals, and how much it presaged the problems they would have in the future.

The two worst problems were “complete ignorance of the MMO industry (either of pre-existing design practices, or tech practices)” and “personal self-deceit about what the person knows, and what they don’t know”. The latter tended to be a far worse problem: when someone is deceiving *themself*, it’s doubly hard to re-educate them, because first you have to get them to accept their own deception.

Of course, it turned out to lead to a lot of defensive responses and a spew of self-justification, which made us both uncomfortable. In those situations, it can easily lead to making assumptions that certain people’s opinions are “worth less” because, say, you know for a fact they’ve never really played an MMO – at least, not in the way that most of that MMO’s players would/will/do play it. I hate that tendency, since it’s part of a snobbishness that lies at the root of a lot of oyster-like, head-in-sand behaviour in our industry. On the other hand, it’s important and useful to know when someone’s ideas are random conjecture and when they’re based on fact (and very few people in a design meeting or publisher/developer meeting will honestly tell you their ideas are conjecture :)).

On the whole, though, it turned out to be a really useful line of questioning – even bearing in mind the additional (smaller) problems it created. There are obvious problems that come from the statistical supplementing of free-form prose game-reviews – but I’m confident that these will be outweighed by the advantages (and the problems that will be shrunk).

PS:

Despite the TLC of good friends, I’m still weak and sapped of all energy from my month of illness. I’m triaging like mad to deal with urgent issues, but there’s plenty of highly important stuff that’s been pending on me for a while that I still haven’t had the time + energy to deal with. So, if you’re still waiting … I’m sorry.

Web 2.0: Games, Creativity, UGC, and Socialising in Spore

Maxis (part of EA) has a great competition up right now – use the public APIs for the Spore creature / user account databases to make “an interesting widget or app”.

I had a quick look at the API’s – they’ve got the right idea technically (use REST, provide PHP versions, etc), although the set of queryable data is pretty mneh (they could easily have done a *lot* more interesting stuff too). I’m impressed that they’ve got that right, and they appear to have done a great job of presenting it nice and clearly. Most importantly, because the selection of data is lame, the challenge is there – in your face – to be very creative with how you’re going to use it. Go for it.

I had a look at some of the demo apps that had already been done, and they show great variety. If you’re trying to break into the games industry as an online designer, you should try your hand at using their content (and this is *legal*) to design something cool. You (probably; I haven’t checked the legals) won’t own exploitation rights – but it could make a great portfolio piece.

So I was rather saddened that it’s taken until now, and a random glance at a newsfeed item, for me to be aware of this. Which isn’t so bad, except … I was one of the first wave of purchasers of Spore, and I played it heavily, and checked out the Sporepedia for the few months after launch.

But they launched with most of the Sporepedia either “broken completely” or “not implemented yet”. Having paid $50+ for a full price game, to discover that even after several months the Sporepedia was “mostly not implemented yet, watch this space”, my reaction was : “I have better things to do with my life than wait for you to pull your finger out and do your job properly and give me what *I’ve already paid for*”.

And because of the mind-numbingly stupid DRM decisions by EA, I’ve point blank refused to install their viruses – without which, the system isn’t going to let me upload any of my own creatures / UGC. Which takes away a lot of the other cause of interest that would have rapidly lured me in.

Finally if it had been a “real” online game (why wasn’t it? No-one really seems to know. My theory is “fear and shame over The Sims Online catastrophe”) of course … my friends relationships in-game would have meant I’d have been pulled-in to this new cool stuff as soon as it went live.

So … it would seem that when it comes to boundary-pushing game design Maxis is managing to go 2 steps forwards and 3 steps back. That’s a real pity, because I suspect a lot of people who would love what Sporepedia was *described* as being (rather than the massive short-sell it actually was) have already given up, gone home, and don’t care any more. Only the people who don’t know about the good games out there (the non-gamers who happened to pick up a copy – of whic there are many many of course, thanks to the Sims juggernaut) are still around to enjoy it.

Am I being too pessimistic here? Certainly, not a single professional I know has shown any remaining awareness or interest in what Spore’s doing for the last 6 months. That’s pretty damning, in my eyes, for a game with such big sales and the Sims driving marketing and sales for it.

(PS: in case it’s not clear – as far as I’m aware, there’s still literally zero socialising in Spore. That’s the irony of the title here. The only socialising is 1995-era “the players are doing it anyway despite the developer+publisher going out of their way to stop them”)

The power of Free: Free Wifi

I’m sitting in the Departures Lounge at Helsinki airport, which now has end to end free wifi (I can see 3 or 4 different wifi stations here, on two channels). It’s the “open a web browser window first and hit a button to say “yes, I agree to your terms and conditions”” variety – took me a couple of attempts to check email until I woke up (it’s not yet dawn here!) and guessed what I’d need to do.

But the interesting thing is quite how much benefit the airport gets.

Modern airports, as entities, get a huge amount of their revenue from the shops inside them. I’m from the UK, where Heathrow (and to a lesser extent Gatwick) have taken this to extremes for decades, but it’s spread over most of Europe and much of the USA by now too.

Advising passengers that they must arrive 3 hours before a flight leaves is one way to make them spend lots of money. Cancelling their flights is another (the branch of the WHSmith’s newsagent inside Heathrow airport made vastly more profit than any other branch in 2007 thanks to the plane cancellations that year). Making the airport experience a pleasant one, so that people *don’t mind* coming early is yet another. Facilitating people “working” at the airport too.

And free wifi supports not one but two of those. Making it hassle-free and ubiquitous is the difference between me wiliingly turning up more than an hour before my flight, and what I would normally do (aim to arrive 30-45 minutes before an international flight, and waste as little time as possible).

This is a model of “free” that I feel is still under-explored in the game space: Free as driver of larger secondary monetized activity.