Nothing Either Good Or Bad, But Thinking Makes It So

I had a debate a long time ago.  In general, it was about if something was popular, does that make it good?  Specifically, we were discussing the Backstreet Boys.  The elitist hipsters among us were categorically against this argument, but the more esoteric or abstract thinkers among us, weren’t so sure.  In other words, there’s something to be said for mass appeal and consumability.  For example, I personally don’t like Justin Bieber‘s music, and believe it’s but another example of the atrocities mankind is willing to inflict on one another.  Still, that opinion – from what I understand – puts me in the minority.  So, yes, it’s popular.  Still, is it good?  If we can all agree ‘good’ is subjective, and hundreds of millions of people believe it to be good, then it follows that by virtue of his music’s popularity, it is good music.  Ouch.

And so, to my dilemma.  As a long time gamer, the elitist in me would like to believe that games like Angry Birds and Farmville stink like turds covered in burnt hair.  Then there’s the harsh reality that Rovio (makers of Angry Birds) just turned down Zynga’s $2 Billion buyout offer.  Not much more commentary required the game’s popularity, eh?  The ease of design and play are testament to how an app can have over 600 Million downloads to date, with roughly 4,500 new downloads per minute.  Here I thought the games I played (WoW and Call Of Duty) were popular.

Look, maybe they’re not the games I like to play, but I can’t argue with the fact that my wife, who has never before shown any interest in video games, now spends a good part of her day flinging irate fowl at green pigs.  She’s online with friends (and strangers) playing Scrabble on her iPhone, and I’m loving it, because I know what it’s like to play something you enjoy.  The science is rudimentary and well-founded.  A level gets cleared, you feel you achieved something, endorphins get released in your brain, you want to play more (Rinse repeat).  I’m slowly realizing that graphics, plots, camera angles, sound and lighting may be important for me, but they’re not a universal recipe for success.

I guess I’m just saying that I always thought games on phones, tablets and Facebook were just dumbing us down, and simply were not real games – just giant time wasters.  Back to the argument above though.  It could be that these video games are reaching more people than ever before.  It could be that usability, consumability and portability are new paradigms in game design that must be taken more seriously.  It could just be… they’re really good games.


Let’s Kill All The Lawyers

So California tries to ban the sale of violent video games to minors.  Odd really.  I mean, the gangs plaguing Los Angeles have existed for decades, and many of them probably grew up playing Pac Man and Space Invaders at the local South Central arcade.  Perhaps their state government should worry more about managing the proliferation of physical guns and violence, over their virtual counterparts.  Of course, their argument is that the virtual can lead to the physical, right?  Well, that’s debatable, I think, but for a moment I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

In fact, I’ll say this.  The video games I play tend to be pretty violent.  Actually, the ones I play now are universally over-the-top violent.  They’re games I don’t want my kids to play at their age, and so I don’t let them.  Let’s face it.  Companies are going to produce violent games.  Just like authors scribe violent literature and production companies film violent movies.  You know what?  It’s all okay.  Government need not be involved, and luckily the US Supreme Court showed some common sense, and erred on the side of the First Amendment, overturning the proposed ban.

London Sniper

Here’s the bottom line.  Parents must be involved in their children’s play.  To expect video game developers, retailers, or for Christ’s sake, the Government, to manage this above and beyond the institutionalization of a standard rating system, is not only absurd, it speaks to the ignorance people have of both their children and their pasttimes.  It also speaks to how they may be unwittingly supporting the suppression of speech and free expression in so many other types of media (supposing you agree with California’s overturned ban).  In fact, if you have kids, buy them games.  Buy them games suitable for their age.  Video games are really nothing more than relatively complex problem solving programs, and provided parents expose kids to games that are suitable for their age, they’ll see how quickly truly interactive media can help with a child’s development.  Scientists, not lawyers, have already proven the following:

  • Video games improve strategy and decision-making skills
  • Multi-player games teach team play and hone social skills
  • Video games can teach children about resource management, logistics, multi-tasking and tracking many shifting variables at once.
  • The obvious (and proven many times over) video games improve hand-eye coordination, peripheral sensory acuteness and awareness

There are many other benefits, as well as dangers, parents need to manage.  As a gamer and a parent, I can’t wait to play the games I like to play with my kids.  In the meantime, I’ll play theirs.  I’ll even let them win sometimes.  I’ll just be happy I get to play with them at all.

That Way Madness Lies

March 19, 2009 was a very memorable day.  My wife and I, primarily my wife, had twins.  Like I said, a very memorable day.  Up until a few weeks ago, it was also the last day I logged in to World of Warcraft.  Taking a (very long) break from that game was probably one of the best decisions of my life.  First of all, I didn’t have the time in those first hazy months following their birth to play anything, let alone a highly addicting game.  Secondly, I really didn’t enjoy it anymore.  The no end-game grind was really starting to wear on me, and I didn’t even know it.

Amazingly, one of the best and most successful video games in history, very nearly turned me off gaming all together.

Refocusing on things that truly matter is important.  Things like family and friends, my career, and Modern Warfare 2 really helped me realize that there are more things in life than dailies and farming rep with the Wyrmrest Accord.  I’m glad I stopped playing, and now… I’m glad to tell you I started again.  Seems odd, doesn’t it?

First, the very fact that I’m sitting in front of a PC blogging, and not doing a random dungeon tells me that this time around it’s way more casual.  I don’t login every night.  Not even every other night.  More like a couple of times per week.  Plus, I’m not in it to impress a bunch of people I don’t even know by grinding away for epic end-game heroic gear.  I’m having fun playing a low level Shaman, and taking the time to explore many of the things I missed the first time around in my mad rush to level 80.  My wife and I still watch a few movies over the course of the week, and spending my evenings with her and the kids beats Northrend any day.

Cry “Havoc!” And Let Slip The Dogs Of War

“In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war”… Hopefully, that will be in maybe 2011 or 2012.  Vigil Games has been silent for years after they initially announced they were making a Warhammer 40,000 MMO.  Finally, at this year’s E3 Expo in June, we got a glimpse of an actual gameplay trailer for Dark Millennium Online.  I have to say, this will probably be the one game that will draw me away from my PS3, and back to my long-neglected PC.

DISCLAIMER: I’m not a Warhammer 40,000 table-top gamer.  Love the books, and the setting, but I could never get into all that painting and collecting.  Still, I’ve spent my share of time in MMO’s, and know a thing-or-two about gaming.  Anyhow, I really have no clue about where Vigil actually is insofar as development goes, but if they want me (and others who have been done with WoW for awhile, but are still waiting for the next killer app) to actually buy the game and start paying subs for monthly playtime, I thought I’d give them some ideas.

  • More Grim Please: I know this is a stretch, but I’d love to see a “M” rating from the ESRB for this game.  The reality is that the Warhammer 40,000 universe is mature.  It’s dark, bloody, and horrific.  If the gameplay is cartooned-up like WoW, sorry, I’m not going to buy it.  All the books speak of the brutality of the warriors, and the scale and bedlam of their battles…  The hopelessness of the Imperium and humanity, contrasted against the rising tide of Chaos needs to be felt and experienced.  Anything less, and players will drop like flies.
  • People Want Options: I know this will be a little tough, but if I want to be a Black Templar or a Space Wolf  or an Imperial Fist, then I better damned-well be able to create one.  Same thing on the chaos side as well… The Emperor’s Children, Alpha Legion or World Eater’s should all be options.  The trailer freaked me out a bit here.  I couldn’t tell how many races and legions were actually showcased.  I saw Orks, and a Black Templar, and I believe some chaos marines, but I didn’t see any Eldar, Dark Eldar, Tau, Necrons or Tyranids.  I know making necrons or tyranids playable has some challenges, but don’t be too limiting.
  • Learn From Blizzard: Both the good and the bad.  WoW has it’s problems, but it’s wildly popular for many good reasons.  People like the idea of building a truly unique character, and watching them become more powerful and achieve goals as gameplay progresses.  People like guilds (chapters, maybe, in your case?) and contributing to a greater group.  What don’t people like (and why I plan to never renew my subscription)?  The ‘no end-game’ grind for gear was way too tedious, and the raid system inherently flawed in many ways.  Character development needs to continue beyond the level cap, and that involves more than just new gear with better buffs.
  • It’s All About Content: And not just expansions.  Time-to-market is key, of course, so set a date and stick to it.  Delivery is great for both players and shareholders.  That doesn’t mean things in mid-development go to the wayside.  Keep releasing fresh content in patches and service packs.  I probably don’t need to tell Vigil this, but the most successful software company in the world (Microsoft) never has a finished product.  It’s the perpetual beta, and they are continually updating and refreshing their code.  Get the product to market, and fast, but keep that new material flowing to keep us players engaged

Vigil has got the opportunity from THQ to build a MMO based on an amazing franchise.  This is going to really represent a departure from the swords-and-sorcery settings that most MMO’s really adhere to, and as a result, they should have license to get creative beyond just the setting.  Looking forward to it, guys, and I hope new screenshots and trailers get released soon!

Sweet Are The Uses Of Adversity

Like most, if not all gamers, I’m extremely competitive.  Not necessarily at the expense of others, unless that’s the inherent nature of the competition, but rather focused on achieving a desired goal or objective, and thereby earning the associated reward.  For example, and the proof is proudly on display below, I finished Assassin’s Creed II (AC2) in late April, and actually managed to earn every PS3 Trophy in the game.  I gained the highly coveted platinum trophy and the lofty title of Master Assassin.  Basically, this involved doing a number of things over-and-above what’s required to just get through the storyline.  It meant mastering certain moves; finding hidden artifacts (in AC2, feathers and glyphs); and completing other challenges and goals.  Bottom line, a lot of time and effort went into earning that title.

You’re probably wondering, quite rightly at this point, why the hell you care.  Well, it occurred to me kind of recently that everyone in business, especially leaders, need to care. Ignore it, and you risk a serious problem motivating your teams.  Most graduates now have likely logged thousands of hours gaming, and they do it for the exact reasons, and within the exact same framework, I outlined above.  Work hard, master the skill, complete the challenge and earn the prestigious reward…. rinse, repeat.  The highly complex algorithm is far too often ignored in business and IT.  Even where I work, there’s no significant correlation between high performance and additional rewards.  I say this not to be disparaging of my company, but because I know performance-based compensation or even recognition is a rarity in IT.  Kind of odd given it’s a natural domain for gamers to gravitate towards.

I was talking about this with a couple of gamers / developers on my team the other day. Wouldn’t it be cool if we aggregated all the metrics from all of our different tracking systems and databases, and actually put together a trophy or achievement system of our own?  Sure, it’s a direct clone of the Playstation trophy model or Xbox achievements, but if it can motivate me to spend hours looking for hidden feathers in Renaissance Italy, I’ll bet it could charge up the staff to focus on their objectives, and gain that same sense of recognition. One of the guys replied that successful organizations take the best aspects of frameworks others have developed and leverage them to create efficiencies and improvements of their own.  He added that a trophy recognition system is the sort of project that if it were done properly, would probably wind up in a business or tech journal.

The business of gaming is one where companies compete to create the most immersive and engaging experience for its consumers, and an industry that has typically showcased the finest developments in software first.  Any company undertaking software development should spend time understanding what’s happening in games, and see what it can do to create such an experience for its customers, and even its employees.  Oh yeah, and if you have any questions about AC2, don’t hesitate to ask! – The Men & Women Merely Players

Most tech bloggers have prattled off over the last month or so about the iPad, Google vs. China, Windows Phone 7, SxSW, or some other well-tweeted topic that need not be discussed here.  Let’s get to something really new, and really nerdy.  This is perhaps the most humorous web service I’ve read about in, well, I don’t know.  It could damn-well be the funniest.  Many of you reading this post probably have played an online game at some time or another.  But how many of you have really wanted to play online games with nerdly girls, and pay them in the process?  What’s that?  You have?  Well, let’s chat about Gamecrush then, my friend.

Today marks the launch of a service where XBox Live “Players” can pick out “PlayDates” on Gamecrush, and pay a tidy $8.25 for 10 minutes of one-on-one game time with their date.  The starting games include Modern Warfare 2, Gears Of War 2, Halo 3, and GTA IV.  You can also get video chat for about 6 minutes, and play an online game of checkers or battleship.  Over 1,200 young ladies responded to a Craigslist ad, asking for women interested in playing games and getting paid.  The “PlayDates” keep 60% of the money from the Gamecrush service.  Anyhow, you get the idea.

Gamecrush - Moments After Its Launch

So, I said it was funny, but I didn’t say it’s stupid.  When I first read about the site on Kotaku, I was mildly disturbed, bemused, and thought a little condescendingly about what kind of an idiot would want to use that sort of a service.  I probably play online with all sorts of women all the time and don’t even know it, so why would I need to pay for it?  But then, I think that might only be a pretty narrow view.  Just because I probably won’t use it, especially since it’s not on Playstation yet (PSN and Wii are in the works though), doesn’t mean it won’t be successful.  Let’s face it, eHarmony, Lavalife, and PerfectMatch are all widely used, but one of their main issues is ensuring they match the right people.  At least with Gamecrush, you know you ostensibly have one thing in common, video games.

This may be worth watching…  After all, many of my posts are about social media or gaming.  I wonder if this is simply a manifestation of pent-up demand on both fronts?  Then again, maybe it is the stupidest thing ever.  Regardless, it’s exactly the sort of thing that keeps me blogging.

The ApocalyPS3 – When Good Networks Go Bad

You know, there’s a few lessons to be learned here.  Number one is that I’m writing this post because the Playstation Network is down, and number two is that Sony didn’t really do enough to communicate things effectively.  Let me set the stage.  After Canada’s stunning 3-2 overtime Olympic hockey win over the US, I decided to go online and play some Modern Warfare 2.  No dice.  I received an error message stating I had been logged out of the PSN.  Tried to play the solo campaign, and it still kicked me out of the game stating that my trophy information could not be sync’d.

Enter the internet.  I hopped online to research the error code, and saw on Gamespot Forums that pretty much everyone was getting this error.  No responses from Sony (not surprised, as it was not the official PSN forum).  Checked my e-mail account to see if Sony had sent an update.  None.  I even checked the PSN Blog, but prior to 8:30 PM there was no post.  Last channel, Twitter… Luckily I’m a Playstation follower, and yes, there was a tweet from the goodly folks at Sony. 

Look, I used to manage the network at my company, and yeah, network outages can happen.  The key is how they’re communicated and managed.  Not all PSN users are on Twitter, but we all had to register our e-mail address to join PSN.  Hmmm… If Star Wars Galaxies servers were all up for this period, surely Sony’s e-mail infrastructure would have been okay?  Later that evening, Sony added a Blog post to advise they were aware of the problem, and were working on identifying root cause.  That’s about 4.5 hours after the outage began, and it’s about 4 hours too late for my money.

This story does, however, illustrate a good use of social media to help communicate.  It was really interesting that Sony tweeted before it added a blog post to their own website, and apparently, instead of e-mailing at all.  Sony Playstation does, of course, market its wares on Twitter, and I’m okay with that, because I choose to receive these updates.  Still, this is a great example of where companies goes beyond just hawking how great its products are using 140 characters or less.  It’s about presence, and being online when your community needs you…

So, it’s 9:15 PM EST on March 1, 2010.  As I wrote this post, the ApocalyPS3 came to an end, and service restored.  People tweeted about its restoration now for over an hour.  Sony just posted a blog entry about 1 minute ago…  Not bad, Sony, but there’s room for improvement.