Desert of My Real Life

{April 25, 2011}   New Tumblr Site

Because I spend my time thinking and writing about today’s online media, I have a fairly significant web presence.  I write this blog.  I have a web site and a PSU web page.  I use Twitter and Flickr.  I’m on Facebook, Linked In, and My Space.  I use a variety of Web 2.0 tools, some of them often, some not so often.  I have been experimenting with a variety of tools, looking for something that will consolidate the content I create in one place.  Ideally, this tool will allow me to easily customize the look of the page that my followers will see.  I’ve tried a number of tools and have not found any that I really like (for reasons that I will explain in a future post) but, based on a tip from Ann, I recently came across Tumblr, which has some of the features that I want but contains some annoyances and is based on a mental model that means it really won’t do exactly what I want it to do.

What is Tumblr?  It is a micro-blogging platform, similar to Twitter, Plurk and so on.  These sites allow users to create short content and share it with their followers.  Since I’m already a Twitter user, the micro-blogging aspect of the platform was not what I was excited about.  Instead, I was excited about the fact that Tumblr makes it really easy to share content of all types, not just text.  In addition, Tumblr has a feature which allows the sharing of RSS feeds, that is, content from other sites.  So I thought that perhaps Tumblr might be the simple solution to the problem that I’ve been trying to solve for a while now–how to aggregate all of the web content that I create into one site.  Here‘s my tumblelog (yes, that’s what Tumblr sites are called and yes, it’s dorky).

There are a couple of annoyances that come with using Tumblr.  It is indeed easy to set your site up so that it reposts feeds from other sites.  So, for starters, I set mine up to automatically repost anything I put on this blog, my Twitter feed or my Flickr photostream.  The first annoyance is that there is no way to force Tumblr to go out to your feeds to determine whether there is anything on them that should be posted to your tumblelog.  The documentation says that when Tumblr searches your feeds, it will automatically repost anything that is less than two days old.  So I have a fair amount of content on these sites that should be showing up already on my tumblelog.  But only the content from this blog is currently showing there (I hope that changes by the time you’re reading this post).  When I first set up the feeds, Tumblr told me they would be updated in an hour.  But that hour counted down on the site and no update occurred.  Further research suggests that perhaps these feeds will be updated soon–one source said it sometimes takes 12 hours–but I’ll just have to wait and see.  That leads me to the second annoyance of using Tumblr: there is no way to test how your feeds will look on your tumblelog.  I can test out how each media type will look but I can’t test an actual feed because there is no way to force an update from that feed.  This seems as though it would be a simple coding change from the folks at Tumblr so I’m putting in my request right now.

Beyond these annoyances, Tumblr still doesn’t solve the problem that I want solved because there is a fundamental mental model behind the way Tumblr works that is an obstacle to solving my problem.  I’ve encountered this mental model and its limitations in the past–actually, I encounter it just about every time I try out a new Web 2.0 tool.  I’ll write more about that in my next post.

In the meantime, enjoy my new tumblelog.

{April 24, 2011}   Games and Lessons for Life

I am a sucker for stories about the relationship between games and life.  When I was a graduate student, a story in the Tallahassee Democrat about the life of Warrick Dunn, a star football player whose police officer mother was killed in the line of duty while he was in high school, brought me to tears.  I love movies like Sea Biscuit and Brian’s Song.  I have myself written blog entries ruminating about what we can learn about life from playing games.

So you would think a story that I heard on NPR this morning would be right up my alley.  Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen interviewed Dan Barry, author of a new book called Bottom of the 33rd about the longest baseball game ever played in the history of US men’s professional baseball.  This particular game was played in 1981, between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings, farm teams of the Boston Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles, respectively.  The teams played 32 innings in 8.5 hours before the owner of the league called the umpires to tell them to halt the game.  That was at 4 in the morning on Easter Sunday and there were 19 people left in the chilly stands in Pawtucket, RI.  When the teams reunited 2 months later to finish the game, nearly 6000 fans showed up and over 140 reporters from all over the world came to cover it.  Pawtucket won the game in the bottom of the 33rd inning, a mere 18 minutes after the game resumed.

The subtitle of Dan Barry’s book is Hope, Redemption and Baseball’s Longest Game.  I expected the interview on NPR to touch on hope and redemption and perhaps something about how this longest game can teach us something about perseverance.  Instead, the interview focused on the facts of the game, including the fact that Cal Ripken, Jr., who went on to set the record for consecutive starts in the Major League, played all 33 innings and that Wade Boggs, future Hall of Famer, tied it up for Pawtucket in the twenty-first inning. Barry also told us that the original 19 fans who stuck it out for those 32 innings in April were annoyed that nearly 6000 people could now say they saw history being made when they really only had seen the last inning of that historic game.

But nothing in the interview touched on hope or redemption.  Or perseverance.  Or anything of importance.  Which annoyed me.  Not every sports story is a story about life, about issues larger than the game itself.  A book about a particular game that is the longest in professional history is probably of interest to baseball fanatics.  The fact that NPR picks the author of that book as someone deserving of an interview implies there is more to the story, something that we can all learn from.  As far as I can tell, that is not the case with this particular game or this particular book, the hyperbole of its subtitle notwithstanding.  Adding the words “hope” and “redemption” to the subtitle of a book will not make that book interesting for a general audience.  I realize I’m judging the book by its interview.  Maybe that’s not fair.  But neither is it fair to promise us a discussion of what a game can tell us about hope and redemption and instead waste our time with the facts and statistics of a particular game.  Come on, NPR.  With all the real, inspiring sports stories out there, we deserve better.  Did you choose to tell us about this book simply because the game went into the wee hours of Easter morning, 1981, which happens to be 30 years ago today?  That coincidence also doesn’t make this story interesting for the general reader.

{April 14, 2011}   Amazon’s Android App Store

I received this open letter from the International Game Developer’s Association. I think it’s a very reasoned, educational letter and points to a dominant theme of our times.  Corporations are demanding more and more “rights” in their strive to make higher and higher profits.  Amazon’s distribution terms take away all control of developers for their own content.  This is just another step in a long trend.  I think the IGDA’s focus on educating its members is right on target.  Game developers may still choose to distribute their products through Amazon but at least they will know some of the implications of what they are agreeing to.

To all members of the game development community:

Two weeks ago, Amazon launched its own Android Appstore. We know that many developers have been eagerly looking forward to that launch in hopes that it would represent a great new revenue opportunity and a fresh take on downloadable game merchandising. The IGDA applauds Amazon’s efforts to build a more dynamic app marketplace. However, the IGDA has significant concerns about Amazon’s current Appstore distribution terms and the negative impact they may have on the game development community, and we urge developers to educate themselves on the pros and cons of submitting content to Amazon.

Many journalists have noted the unusual nature of Amazon’s current store terms, but little has been said about the potential implications of those terms. In brief: Amazon reserves the right to control the price of your games, as well as the right to pay you “the greater of 70% of the purchase price or 20% of the List Price.” While many other retailers, both physical and digital, also exert control over the price of products in their markets, we are not aware of any other retailer having a formal policy of paying a supplier just 20% of the supplier’s minimum list price without the supplier’s permission.

Furthermore, Amazon dictates that developers cannot set their list price above the lowest list price “available or previously available on any Similar Service.” In other words, if you want to sell your content anywhere else, you cannot prevent Amazon from slashing the price of your game by setting a high list price. And if you ever conduct even a temporary price promotion in another market, you must permanently lower your list price in Amazon’s market.

These Amazon policies could have far reaching effects on game developers. The IGDA has identified five potentially problematic scenarios in particular:

1) Amazon steeply discounts a large chunk of its Appstore catalog (imagine: “our top 100-rated games are all 75% off!”). Some developers will probably win in this scenario, but some developers — most likely, those near the bottom of the list — will lose, not gaining enough sales to offset the loss in revenue per sale. Amazon benefits the most, because it captures all the customer goodwill generated by such a promotion.

2) By requiring all developers to guarantee Amazon a minimum list price that matches the lowest price on any other market, Amazon has presented developers with a stark choice: abandon Amazon’s market or agree never to give another distributor an exclusive promotional window.

3) Other digital markets that compete with Amazon (both existing markets and markets yet-to-be-created) may feel compelled to duplicate Amazon’s terms, and perhaps even adopt more severe terms in an effort to compete effectively with Amazon. In essence, we’re looking at a slippery slope in which a developer’s “minimum list price” ceases to be a meaningful thing.

4) Amazon steeply discounts (or makes entirely free) a game that has a well-defined, well-connected niche audience. The members of that niche audience snap up the game during the promotional period, robbing the game’s developer of a significant percentage of its total potential revenue from its core audience.

5) Amazon steeply discounts (or makes entirely free) a hit game at a time when the game is already selling extremely well. This sort of promotional activity may attract consumers away from competing markets and into Amazon’s arms. But it might actually represent a net loss for the developer, which was already doing quite well and didn’t need to firesale its game at that moment in time.

The IGDA’s bottom line is simple: under Amazon’s current terms, Amazon has little incentive not to use a developer’s content as a weapon with which to capture marketshare from competing app stores.

The IGDA does not have the power or inclination to dictate how others conduct their business. However, the IGDA is permitted to express its views on business practices that affect the developer community, and it is the firm opinion of the IGDA that:

1) A developer’s permission should be required by any retailer seeking to pay less than the standard percentage of a developer’s minimum list price. This could be automated and even “opt-out” with a reasonable period of notice, but ultimately, a developer’s permission should still be required.

2) Developers should have the freedom to set a minimum list price of whatever amount they see fit, without regard to pricing in other app stores.

The IGDA has formally communicated its views to Amazon, and while Amazon has been very willing to engage with the IGDA, it has thus far expressed zero willingness to adjust its distribution terms. We believe that the people currently running Amazon’s Appstore may have the best of intentions and a desire to make their development partners successful, in general. The problem, as history has repeatedly demonstrated, is that things tend to change when a marketplace achieves any degree of dominance. The terms of Amazon’s distribution agreement give it significant flexibility to behave in a manner that may harmful to individual developers in the long run. Any goodwill that Amazon shows developers today may evaporate the minute Amazon’s Appstore becomes so big that Android developers have no choice but to distribute their content via the store. It would be foolish to assume that because Amazon’s Appstore is small today, it will not become the Walmart of the Android ecosystem tomorrow.

If Amazon responds to this open letter, it will likely invoke the success of games that have already been promoted in its Appstore; for example, games that have been featured as Amazon’s free app of the day. The company may claim that the success of those games is proof that Amazon’s model works. The IGDA believes that this argument is a red herring. Amazon does not need the terms it has established for itself in order to give away a free app every day. Nor does it need the powers it has granted itself to execute a wide variety of price promotions. Other digital games platforms, such as Xbox LIVE Arcade and Steam, manage to run effective promotions very frequently without employing these terms.

Amazon may further argue that its success depends on the success of its development partners, and therefore, that it would never abuse the terms of its distribution agreement. Given that Amazon can (and currently does) function perfectly well without these terms in other markets, it is unclear why game developers should take a leap of faith on Amazon’s behalf. Such leaps are rarely rewarded once a retailer achieves dominance.

We respect Amazon’s right to stay the course, but as part of our mission to educate developers, we feel that it is imperative to inform the community of the significant potential downside to Amazon’s current Appstore terms. If you feel similarly, we urge you to communicate your feelings on this matter directly with Amazon.


The IGDA Board of Directors

{April 11, 2011}   We Are STILL Playing a Game

I recently wrote a blog entry in response to Caroline Bender‘s question about the Scrabble game we were playing online.  Since we have different motivations for playing Scrabble, Ms. Bender asked whether we were actually playing a “game.”  My short response: yes.  After reading that response, Scott commented about the difference for him between playing Go and Scrabble on FaceBook.  He observed that Go is a more interesting game for him and he tried to explain why.  His reasons were: 1. He plays LOTS of Scrabble and so it has become less exciting for him. 2. Scrabble on FaceBook has a built-in dictionary and doesn’t allow you to play a word that is not in the dictionary so the game is less about vocabulary and more about the strategy of how to place words for maximum score and blocking his opponent’s potential moves. 3. Scrabble has an element of luck while Go is all about skill which means that in Scrabble, luck can sometimes overcome superior strategy and skill. 4. Go allows for deception. 5. Each move in Go is very clearly part of a larger battle so each move has both short-term and long-term consequences which makes it feel like every move has high stakes attached to it. 6. Finally, Go has a long history with significant implications in East Asian philosophy, society and politics so that when he plays Go, he recognizes that it is more than “just” a board game.  He then goes on to ask how these elements fit into Costikyan‘s six elements that every game must have.  In particular, Scott wants to know whether the historical and cultural context of a game important.  He makes some interesting points and asks a very good question.

Before I discuss Go and Scrabble in particular, I need to explain a bit about Costikyan’s article that may not have been clear in my previous blog entries where I’ve used his framework to analyze a game.  Costikyan wrote his article for game designers.  That is, he intended his framework as a tool for game designers to use when they have created a game that is pretty good (or maybe even pretty bad) and they want to figure out how to make the game great.  And so he spends a lot of time in the article discussing the importance of decision-making and how that relates to management of resources and the type of information given to the player.  For example, in Go, the player has perfect information which means that there is no information hidden from the player.  The player doesn’t have to worry about chance or any hidden resources that her opponent might have.  In contrast, a Scrabble player has imperfect information which, in this case, means that some information about the game state is known to the player while other information is hidden from the player.  In particular, the letters that the opponent has is hidden from the player.  In addition, there is the element of chance in Scrabble coming from the random draw of letters.  If a player happens to get all vowels or all consonants, for example, it may be quite difficult for the player to make any word so she may need to trade in her tiles which amounts to skipping an opportunity for scoring points.  The different information structures in the two games significantly affects the kind of decision-making in the game.  In Go, the better player will always win (unless she makes a stupid mistake) because there is no element of chance and no hidden information.  Chance and hidden information gives the inferior Scrabble player more of a chance to win.  I believe this is part of the reason that Scott prefers Go to Scrabble.

There is a large section of Costikyan’s article that I rarely talk about in these blog posts but which we discuss in detail in my classes.  After specifying the six elements that every game MUST have, Costikyan discusses many more elements that a game may or may not have.  In this section of the article, he is writing to the game designer who has created a good game that needs something extra to make it great.  Interestingly, one of the things that Costikyan suggests the game designer consider adding is more chance.  It’s one of the suggestions that is problematic in using this article with beginning game designers–their games often have too much chance so that the decisions the player makes do not feel significant or meaningful to the player.  Adding more chance to such a game makes the game worse, not better.  Another thing that Costikyan suggests the game designer pay attention to in order to make her game great is narrative tension.  I think this is what Scott is talking about when he says that in Go, he feels like there are mini-battles that make a difference in the larger war that is the game.  Every single move matters in this situation.  No single move can work alone to capture the opponent’s stones.  This idea of narrative tension is why Scott and I each sometimes just want to throw in the towel on a game of Go.  We both know who has won the game and so there is no more narrative tension.  We sometimes continue to play, however, because the mini-battles can themselves be interesting and allow for a sense of tension.  When I’m losing a game, I get great satisfaction from playing and winning one of these mini-battles, even when it won’t make a difference in the larger outcome of the game.  Ultimately, I think Scott understands his game-playing preferences pretty well and he’s done a great job analyzing why he prefers Go over Scrabble.

I find his final question really interesting.  He asks about the tradition of Go, wondering what Costikyan would say about this sense that game is more than “just” a game, that it is an expression of a larger, mystical tradition.  I don’t think Costikyan really has much to say about this particular topic.  But I recently took Ann‘s Postcolonial Literature course and I think a lot of what we read in that class relates to Scott’s comments about the mysticism of Go.  Go really is an ancient game–Wikipedia tells us that the game is more than 2000 years old.  But the sense of mysticism that we in the West associate with the East and with artifacts of the East (like Go) stem from Orientalism, a set of assumptions that stereotype the East in way that Edward Said finds damaging because those stereotypes allow us to think of Asians as “other.”  That is, these stereotypes allow us to think of Asians as somehow fundamentally different than us, the white, Western majority.  As a comparison, we can think of Chess, a game that is nearly as old as Go.  We in the West don’t ascribe the same kind of mysticism to Chess as we do to Go.  Both games are ancient games of perfect information that require significant study and play to master.  But Go is viewed with a sense of awe that is rarely present when Chess is discussed.

This discussion of the history and tradition does, however, make me think of something that is important for game designers to understand.  A game designer can never control what a player brings to the game.  In other words, if a particular game taps into some aspect of player psychology that is completely external to the game itself, the game may or may not be successful on that basis alone.  This particular aspect is completely outside of the game designer’s control.  I think remembering this probably will help a game designer not take the reception of her game too personally.  And it helps us understand that, like many things, there is some “je ne sais quoi” in the art of game design, that helps to keep it perpetually interesting.

Media outlets of all types see April 1st of each year as a time to play with their audiences.  These stories rarely “catch” me because they typically have to be so outrageous that it’s clear from the outset that they are April Fool’s Day jokes.  This morning, however, National Public Radio ran a minute and a half long story that totally caught me.  I spent about 60 seconds planning my blog response to it.

The story is about the fact that 3D viewing technology has really exploded in the entertainment market but the technology still requires us to wear cumbersome 3D glasses.  An opthamologist claimed to have pioneered an eye surgery that would allow us to watch 3D entertainment without having to wear those glasses.  They even had one of the first people who had the surgery talk about how great it was to watch Gnomeo and Juliet in 3D without those glasses.  The line of the story that really made me want to respond was about how this surgery would allow us to live in a 3D world.  In my head, I was yelling “We already live in a 3D world!”  And that was the moment that I knew it was an April Fool’s Day joke.  The beauty of this story is that it mimicked real stories of this type, where people do crazy things to further immerse themselves in online entertainment.  I’ve been reading a bunch about how Reality is Broken and what we can do about it so this story didn’t seem particularly far-fetched to me.  Good job, NPR!

et cetera