Monday, October 30, 2006

Ramblings on Next-Gen Game Budgets

I'm going to make some gross generalizations in this post and it may ramble towards the end. Be forewarned.

I think it is pretty safe to say that game publishers prefer to invest in the development of a quality experience when the market allows for it but similarily have to watch costs and hedge bets when it doesn't. I don't have access to the production budgets of games outside my own company but I would guess that last year's top PS2 titles had, on average, the highest development budgets of the console's life cycle. Potential for sales grows with the console install base. When you know you can potentially reach so many it is easier to make the business case to invest the extra million or two for polish and help distinguish your title from the competition. Some might say the business case demands it.

In these transition years to "Next-Gen" the publishers are faced with two unfortunate realities. First, sales of current-gen games dropped off far quicker then many anticipated, and second the widespread adoption of next-gen hardware (for the sake of this post, 360 and ps3) has been delayed by multiple factors. Shipping only on the 360 & PS3 within the next 6-8 months creates a challenging financial reality for publishers. If they aren't particularily careful with development budgets there will simply not be enough consoles on the market to reach the critical mass needed to break even. Three games for the 36o have so far sold more then a million copies. The rest were probably either: (1) cheap to develop (due to existing assets or code from a previous installment in the franchise) (2) waiting for the PS3 to hit the market so a 'cheap' port can help improve the ROI or (3) not profitable.

My guess is it could be a couple of years before there are enough NG consoles on the market that games other then the absolute top sellers (or sequels) are comfortably profitable. In the meantime I think you'll see some publishers being extra careful.

Now, as I said when I started -- there are huge generalizations here. Publishers will create loss leaders to establish brands, they'll recoup the significant R&D costs on the 1st generation of NG titles when the sequels hit, etc. Additionally I'm not implying that the quality of the first-gen-next-gen games is necessarily low -- just that publishers generally have to be even less forgiving of the 'quality at all costs' mentality.

In a conversation with an employee on my team today, this subject came up, and we tried to find a parallel in another entertainment industry but failed. I can't think of any evidence of the movie industry (as an example) going through phases of 'profitability confidence' tied to anything other then, perhaps, the global state of the economy. Even with a component of their revenue tied to hardware sales (VHS, DVD) I would bet that the transition period between the two platforms saw steadily increasing average budgets for hollywood movies, a trend that seems to be continuing.

What other industries have their sales (and therefore the content production budgets) limited by the distribution of a 'player'? I have a hard time imagining a record executive refusing to sign off on an expensive accompanying orchestra because (hypothetically) sales of the iPod are slumping -- music revenue is too spread out to be limited by a single factore like that. ABC may be cutting costs on one of the most expensive shows in its lineup, but even if DVD player sales started slumping in anticipation of HD-DVD and/or Blue-Ray (again, hypothetical) the number of DVD players on the market creates a completely different economy of scale. They can probably "afford" to weather a slumping market for DVD sales for a season.


Saturday, October 28, 2006

I fail at google

So I was poking around on digg and this morning and started following a chain of links that brought me to, a great site that has short writeups of all the newest '2.0' sites that they find.

I haven't searched the list exhaustively but I've already come across a few sites that make me feel foolish for presuming to assume that my 'great ideas' had not already been thought of and developed by others. For example:

Mobsaver has very similar functionality to the cellphone shopping aid that I envisioned in my Long Tail post last month. The use of SMS as the search string rather then a digital picture is perhaps a little more cumbersome (but also much easier to develop). Additionally the database of retailers it searches seems to be limited to 'just' amazon and ebay.

Carbonite is an online backup provider 'for the masses'. Fixed monthly price, unlimited storage spage. Doesn't have the same 'Lead User' draw that I proposed and isn't p2p, but it doesn't have to be in order to work.

Competitous isn't exactly a cross-medium trend watcher, but is a competitive intelligence manager that allows you to keep track of what your competitors are doing online. With some creative definitions of competitor, though, I could see how this tool could be used to track trends as they spread across entertainment mediums.

Finally in this post I learned that dogster (which I mentioned in passing recently) has raised one million in VC and claims one million a year in revenue. anyone? ;)

Friday, October 27, 2006


So apparantly I don't have too much imagination, as it has been days since my last brilliant idea. I must be getting old. :)

While I'm waiting for inspiration to strike, I'll post some _other_ people's million dollar ideas.

Just found this today on YouTube and loved the implications of it. I imagine real-estate agents will jump all over this one, as it could quickly replace the clunky QuicktimeVR system with a similar experience at a fraction of the effort.

Just found out about Vox after discovering and visiting Joi Ito's blog. I expect Vox to do very well for a lot of reasons:
  • They invested a lot of time and energy into the user interface to keep it clean and simple.
  • They are obviosly targetting the mass market by ensuring they have just enough template designs for people to feel they can express their creativity without losing them in the noise. I remember reading the following tagline somewhere on their site: "blogging for the rest of us".
  • They ensured that the service plugs into anything '2.0'.
  • I haven't used all of the options yet, but I am under the impression that they encourage links to 'books I'm reading, music I'm listening to, movies I'm watching and games I'm playing" and probably facilitate the WYSIWYG formatting of one's vox blog with images from amazon etc. Seems like a very smart business model to me. Make it easy for people to make their blog look nicer with the pictures of the content they are consuming and they are more likely to attract the positive attention of visitors to their blog. If the blog provider encourages a specific retail partner then they collect all the referal fees.

Finally, via boingboing, I came across this great post on a reproduction of SnowCrash (one of my favorite novels) in Second Life (more here). There is something very Escher-esque about the book that inspired the game being virtually reproduced in the 'metaverse' that the book first predicted. I would have loved to see Penguin take it one step further and reproduce a meta-game within SecondLife based off of the SnowCrash novel. Using games to create meta-games is something of an obsession of mine, so I'm holding my breath for someone to do this in a big way.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Montreal Game Summit

Another post that isn't about new business ideas. Looking through my meager traffic logs, I don't expect any of my visitors to complain. :)

So the Montreal Game Summit is fast approaching and I'll be attending. I thought there might be 1-2 people out there who had some interest in knowing what presentations I hope to attend (obviously there are likely to be scheduling conflicts) and why, so here we go:

Advanced Prototyping (keynote). Why?: Maxis is the leader (imo) when it comes to user created content in the gaming space (first sims, now spore). Prototyping tools, procedurally generated and user created content are also all areas I am interested in in terms of creating next-gen 'AAA' titles armed with tools that might help reduce costly waste.

Closing keynote Why?: I'm willing to bet this one won't conflict with any other presentations, so I expect most attendees of the conference to be there. I always find it interesting to hear visionaries duke it out in a roundtable, so this one should be interesting.

Game Writing: Best practices Why?: I've met Susan O'Conner before. She seems to know her stuff so I'm expecting an insightful presentation. Additionally, strong story telling has always been important to me in games -- both the ones I play and the ones I create.

VO Panel Why?: Again, for personal and professional reasons, strong VO in games is important (I really liked the voice actors we chose for The Two Thrones). Also one of the panel members is the head of Ubisoft's sound studio -- gotta root for the home team!

Game AI is dead. Long live Game AI Why?: Strong AI is going to matter a lot in the game I'm currently working on. Professional vested interest. Additionally we're not sending any programmers from our team to the conference, so I'll need to attend this talk and take good notes to bring back, even if I don't understand it all.

Controllers and Decontrollers Why?: Anyone who has played a recent Ubisoft game probably recognizes that we put player emotion (impacting it, controlling it, encouraging it, etc) high on our list of priorities. The abstract for this talk sounds a little academic, but I have high hopes.

The 4 most important emotions of game design. Why?: See above re: emotions. Additionally I heard Nicole talk at this year's GDC and really enjoyed it. I tried to find a way to work with her consulting company, XEODesign, but it wasn't to be. This one will be interesting.

Building New IP and Innovation in Games Why?: The subject of the talk speaks of some pretty grand ambitions. Also I know Vanderlei ('Vander') and want to support him.

How To Keep A Team Motivated, Or Why it Doesn't Even Matter Why?: I'm a Producer. Producers try to keep their teams motivated. Additionally, though, I love the frankness of the subject matter -- sometimes there is just nothing you can do to fix a demotivating situation (no matter how hard you spin) so why not build a company around preventing them from occurring? Pipedream? I hope to find out.

Agile Game Development From The Trenches Why?: Ahh...Agile. The production methodology that will save gaming. I've heard about it, read about it, tried implementing it, and obviously have more to learn about it. I expect Noel (the presenter) to be mobbed with questions after the session.

Opportunities and Challenges in the Age of Digital Distribution Why?: Not only is Kim an old friend of my sisters and a reader of this blog, but he is also talking about things I believe firmly will help define the future of the gaming industry as we know it.

Talks I won't likely attend but would recommend

Bare metal: modern graphics hardware architecture Why?: JF St-Amour is one of the best 3D programmers I have worked with so for those interested in the field, I expect this to be an interesting talk.

Mobile Game Deployment - Unlocking the secrets Why?: Alex is one of my best friends, and an incredibly sharp and driven guy. He blew through the ranks at Airborne Entertainment faster then I ever would have, so I respect his insights a great deal.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Innovations in Porn.

First off, some may consider the following post NSFW. I discuss porn, and link to a website that has some mild (and censored) adult imagery.

This morning I came across the following link to a tongue-in-cheek analysis of possible future 'porn-o-vations'. I thought some of the ideas were excellent and applicable outside of the porn industry too (although it is in porn where they could probably make all their money).

The match-game analyzer would be an easy tool to create if someone could automate the process of associating tags with online video using a common and consistent vocabulary of tag words. Google's image labeler but for movies (adult or otherwise). As a side note, now that Google owns YouTube, anyone want to bet on how long it will be before we see just such a service?

The co-worker face recognition engine has many non-porn uses that I can think of. Eg: Narcissits could build up their movie library with films featuring actors that shared a resemblance. A second step would be the ability to take a cue from current EA sports game and upload your own face (or that of a co-worker) and have it superimposed upon that of any of the actors in the movie.

Finally re:whore reminded me of my satisfaction guaranteed idea. How long before online business start standing behind their services with meaningful incentives? :)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Trend or Coincidence

In the last few months there have been two major Hollywood movies about stage magic, The Prestige and The Illusionist .

It could be a coincidence or the sign of a trend. Given that I've noticed a common theme in some other mediums leads me to believe it is the latter, though.

It makes me wonder what tools professional trend watchers have in their arsenal. Within a medium I imagine it is easy -- working in the games industry I have a pretty good idea of where to look to track these trends as they apply to games. For movies, TV, books (etc) I have less of an idea. Harder still is to track trends across multiple mediums.

How nice it would be if all forms of entertainment were tagged so us amateur trend watchers could just refresh the tag-cloud and see what stands out the biggest and boldest. I imagine such a tool (were it publicly available and powered by users) would put some marketing folks out of work.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Long Tail Of Games

This post won't make anyone a million dollars, but it's my blog so I can do what I want. :)

Last night at the Montreal IGDA chapter meeting, we had a roundtable discussion of how the Long Tail can apply to games. I hosted one of the 6 tables and the topic for the night was 'Connecting Supply With Demand'.

Most of the discussion centered on the idea of an 'iTunes' for games -- an aggregation of unique games so large and diverse that Long Tail tools (user recommendations, etc) could apply. I pointed to Manifesto Games as an example of this in action (although granted still in its infancy stages). Someone else mentioned Newgrounds, which I hadn't heard of.

One of the points brought up at most tables is that games are much harder to create then many other forms of Long Tail media (photos, writing, music, etc) and so we might not ever see a database of tens of thousands of games created by the masses. The barrier to entry is just too high. Some countered this point with the 'it's just a matter of time' argument -- that today's children are growing up with interactivity as an integral part of their entertainment experiences, and so will be much more comfortable with creating their own games given the incentive to do so. Others proposed that we have no way of knowing now what sort of tools will eventually be available to the casual game developers of the future. Perhaps one day creating game X will be possible as an extension of playing game Y in a certain way. Spore's polinated content taken a few steps further.

I think, however, newsgrounds (and similar flash game aggregators) is proof positive that the long tail for unique game content is already there, one just has to think beyond the big budget titles. All these great flash games aren't yet aggregated into a single place, though, so for the time being, google and blogs will have to serve.

With that, three flash games that I have been introduced to over the last few days that deserve your time:

Dice Wars -- Like 'Risk', only much easier to grasp. Click your land, click an adjacent land, and if the sum of the dice when rolled in your land is greater then the sum of the dice when rolled in your opponents', you take over. When you control the whole continent, you win.

Jeu Chiant -- The instructions (in French) roughly translate to: "can you control the two separate hemispheres of your brain?. Keep both balls in the air for as long as possible".

Line Rider -- This is ''not a game, its a toy" (according to the developer). No goals, no scores, just hours of fun and creativity...sounds like a game to me.

Update: Clint Hocking linked here, and in the comments section to his post Patrick (who I've never met, but his blog made an immediate impression on me) linked to the 'youtube of games', Pjio.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Okay -- so I just discovered the New York Magazine's approval matrix and was amused to find that cats and dogs now have their own social networking sites ( and respectively).

Someone needs to create But instead of it being a networking site for cuddly furry rodents, it should be a site where all the processed meat from around the world can go to meet.


Update: Thanks to 'anonymous' for the correction re: NYT -> New York Magazine.

Lead Users and Peer-to-Peer backup

My favorite gaming blog just posted an entry on the subject of 'Lead Users' -- the power users of a service who generate above-average content that they then share with the other more casual users (think of the people making a living creating and selling Second Life virtual items).

I commented in response to the post that I think financial incentives for power users are likely to become more and more likely. As long tail businesses become increasingly popular, a lot of these new initiatives will need to attract the Lead Users to help initially seed the system with the quality content that will then in turn help attract the more casual users. Financial incentives aren't the only way to attract such users, certainly, but it is probably the easiest (in that it is the most readily understandable by the masses).

This subject reminds me of an idea I had a while ago for peer-to-peer backup and how Lead Users were at the core of the idea. As an example: a user signing up for the service for free (casual user) would could have access to 1Gb of network storage for their backups in exchange for 100Mb of space on their own hard drive. Lead Users, however, could have multiple tiers of additional advantages for increasing the amount of space that they donate to the network. Increased network storage space, increased redundancy (and therefore less chance that the data won't be available when you need it), etc.

There were a lot of issues with the idea that were difficult to get over (encrypting the data, a system for redundancy to ensure data was accesible when it was needed, stigma and fear over storing private information on unknown peer's computers, etc) but I thought the idea of encouraging Lead Users through incentives was a nice way to ensure there was enough available network storage space for the demands of the casual users.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Meta-Data on MMOGs

meta-data is a concept I think about a lot. I find that I am often as interested in the meta-data about a particular piece of information as the data itself.

A good example is the role wikipedia plays for me after I've watched a movie I found particularity interesting (usually one based on some level of historical fact). My interest peaked by the movie, I can spend hours browsing wikipedia for the 'true' historical basis of the movie and the characters upon which it was based, etc. I usually find my appreciation for the movie increasing as a result of the meta-data I research on my own, even when liberal creative freedoms were taken in the movie (a good example is Cinderella Man, easily my favorite boxing movie).

So last week I was asked to help moderate an informal 'roundtable' meeting of the Montreal IGDA chapter. The subject is "The Future of Games in a Long Tail World". I'm really looking forward to this meeting, because while I've been a vocal proponent of The Long Tail to friends and colleagues in recent months, I hadn't actually put much thought into how it could be applied to games. I'm anxious to see what others in my field have to say on the matter.

I do, however, have one idea I'm going to bring up at the meeting -- Long Tail (user generated) meta-data content superimposed on MMOGs.

Before I go further -- a disclaimer: I have no idea if the EULAs of any of today's leading MMOGs would allow for such an idea. I have a feeling they likely wouldn't, under the argument it would detract from the player's appreciation of the game content. I still think the idea is interesting, though...

Imagine if you will a client that you install on your computer that runs resident in memory whenever you are playing your favorite MMOG (much like Xfire runs in the background allowing for communication with friends outside of the game). This client would hijack (first strike against the idea, I know) your avatar's in-game location and send this to a server that had in its database an aggregate of messages left by other players posted to said virtual location (FloatNotes for MMOGs, if you will). Depending on which filters you had active (or which channels you had subscribed to) a variety of messages would 'pop up' in game, left by players who had passed by the same location you were in recently.

The potential for game enhancing (and detracting, I know, but I'll get to that some other time) meta-data is significant. Quest tips left by other players for those needing a little extra assistance; Messages left by guild mates to their friends informing them of an important in-game raid; auction notices for a particularly valuable item left at the point of the spawn, rather then back in town where the auction spam can make it difficult to find, etc.

My favorite idea for a use, though, would be to open up meta-gaming in a way few MMOGs have supported since Ultima Online (UO).

Back when my MMOG guild (OSC) was playing UO one of our favorite activities was to create our own meta-games taking advantage of the open-ended nature of the game. Dressing in Orc clothing a group of us would role-play an attack on the rest of our guildmates, leading them on a quest that often spanned several days and the entire world of Britannia. Many in OSC still remember these custom created quests as their fondest times in UO.

Recent MMOGs don't support this style of play as readily for a variety of reasons (Mass market appeal?). A pity, as far as I am concerned.

So, back to my meta-data client idea. If the client could allow the superimposition of text, then why not other forms of data? I imagine a world where players could use such a meta-data client to change their appearance (for the sake of roleplaying) only to those friends/guildmates who were subscribed to the appropriate meta-game chanel. All other players would see the affected roleplayer as a regular in-game avatar, taking nothing away from their appreciation or enjoyment. Since you would have to 'opt-in' to the participation in the meta-game by subscribing to a chanel, I also don't see any complaints coming from those playing the meta-game.

A win-win situation, if you ask me. The publishers can prolong interest in their game by opening up meta-game content for players who have otherwise bored of the standard content and players get access to a new layer of game content bounded only by the creativity of other gamers and the capabilities of the meta-game client.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Geotags and heartbreak

Four years ago I came up with a MID (million dollar idea) that really got me excited. I started talking to friends about it, putting together a business plan, and even had a preliminary talk with an angel investor to see about financing a prototype.

At the time I was working for Airborne Entertainment and my life revolved around mobile games and applications. It was all I thought about, and I was constantly dreaming of new ways to use a cell phone for information and entertainment purposes.

The MID was an application we called 'FloatNotes' and the premise was simple. Using a GPS enabled cell phone, users could leave virtual 'notes' tagged to any physical space. Future users walking by could be notified of the previous note's existance and read it (or view it if it were multimedia, etc) on their own mobile device.

We spent months working through the logistics of spam, user profiles, content organization, recomendations, etc. I truly believe we had a comprehensive service growing in our heads.

Unfortunatly we ran up against two huge roadblocks. With the GPS units in standard cell phones, there was no way to 'push' the Notes onto users. They would have to Pull their GPS coordinates each time they were at a location of interest. At (roughly) $.25 per Pull, this could quickly get costly and frustrating if there was no interesting Notes at that location.

The second major hurdle was the fact that most cellular carriers were reluctant to open up the GPS API to developers due to privacy concerns. Location Based Services (LBS) just didn't seem to be high on the list of priorities for Verizon and Sprint, the two major US carriers.

Frustrated with the lack of foresight on the carriers' side (but hopeful they would one day change their mind and open up the API) we shelved the project.

In the four years since, I've seen many reports in Wired (etc) regarding similar services. Each time I read about one of these 'competitors' my heart sank a little more.

Yesterday, though, I came across Navizon and I finally gave up hope, once and for all, of bringing FloatNotes to market. Navizon's 'Geotags' feature does almost everything we had hoped to do with Floatnotes. It doesn't yet seem to have many systems in place to filter through the eventual masses of geotags that will be concentrated around popular locations (Eiffel Tower, for example), but I'm sure thats just a matter of time. Maybe they haven't read The Long Tail yet? :)

It makes me sad to see this amazing idea brought to market without me, but I'm glad that someone took it the extra step I didn't. I know that no one out there reads this blog (yet) but if anyone ever does come across this post and has tried Navizon, I'd really love to hear your feedback on it.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Murder/Suicide Watch

A lot of horrific school shootings in the news lately got me to thinking about an interesting fact I read in the excellent book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini.

In it, he cites some interesting research on the issue of copycat murders/suicides which points out the predictable patterns that emerge when dealing with high profile cases of murder or suicide, particularily when the cases garner national media attention.

His example focuses mostly on the fact that car and airplane crashes increase significantly in the weeks following a high profile murder or suicide. Perhaps it is just a coincidence, but it struck me as telling that within the 'predicted' period after some very high profile murder cases, CNN's front page told of a plane crash in Brazil a few days ago killing all 155 passengers on board.

So, now that I've painted this sufficiently morbid picture for you, my idea:

Simply put -- if at all possible, do not travel in the two weeks following a high profile murder, as the odds are higher that you will be involved in an accident due to factors you have no control over (that is, depressed and deranged people seeking to take their own life after being inspired by some recent news).

But what to do about the fact that you, Mr/Mrs Traveller, might not be totally up to date on the same 'high profile' cases that could potentially be impacting some sick people out there to take drastic measures. The news they read might not be the same you do. They might consider something 'high profile' that you do not (I wonder, for example, if the news about the Dawson College shooting a few weeks ago reached people in Brazil...). My proposed answer: sign up to a (hypothetical) service that aggregates news feeds from around the world looking for the cases that are most likely to have an impact (ie: high profile enough) and sends a 'travel warning' to its members.

Scare mongering, perhaps, but next time I fly, I'll be scanning the headlines for any recent murders or suicides of celebrities and taking out extra life insurance if there is a hit. I'm sure there are others like me, and someone should automate the way this information is collected.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Netflix Contest

So I just read that Netflix is running a contest to try and improve their recommendation system. A prize of $1 million to the person who can improve the accuracy of their existing system by 10%. I'm assuming that by accuracy, they mean successful recommendations (that is, if the system recommends a movie to you, and you rent said movie, the recommendation is successful).

Not really a proposal for this contest, but just a general thought about online recommendation systems in general.

'Satisfaction Garunteed' is a common phrase in today's retail experience. It generally doesn't apply to digital goods, though, for fear that customers will simply copy the data and return the product.

With Netflix's existing system, there must be some recommendations they make, though, for which they have a high level of confidence that the customer will like. Others, certainly, are more 'risky'.

Why not simply broadcast their confidence heuristic with each recommendation and find a 'sweet spot' (say, 65% confidence) where they take a chance. Give these 'sweet spot' recomendations to the customer for free (that is, they don't count against the total number of reservations allowed, or some other incentive system is used to encourage the customer to try).

So what is the sweet spot then? Why bother to give anything away for free (or offer any sort of incentive to renting the title in question)? Well, the title is obviously _sort of_ in the user's interest profile, but not exactly (other wise it would be a higher confidence heuristic). If they rent it and like it, though, the additional information that could be gleamed from the rental to add to the system's understanding of their tastes could be worth the cost of the incentive.

In particular I wonder why Amazon doesn't adopt something like this. 10 day unconditional money back garuntee for non-digital goods based off of recommendation heuristics. "We're so sure in our system's ability to suggest the next book you read, we'll send it to you to try for free for 10 days".

Works for Time Life music. Why not amazon when the 'we're so sure' part actually means something.

Too Much Variety

Just saw this deleted scene from the upcoming Borat movie, and it made me think of the Calvin & Hobbes comic I posted when discussing the UPC scanner idea below.