Games * Design * Art * Culture


Wednesday, March 31, 2004
Upcoming Speaking Engagements
I'll be speaking at:

The Games and Mobile Forum on April 15th at 3:15. It's being held at the Alliance Francaise, 55 East 59th St, in New York. The topic is "the Downloadable and Mobile Game Business from a Developers' Perspective."

And at E3 on May 13th at 11:30, room 408B in the LA convention center. The topic is "Four Massively Multiplayer Online Game Markets, Four Opportunities: North America, Korea, China, Europe."

Which reminds me, I need to make reservations in LA.


Monday, March 29, 2004
GDC 04
Back from GDC.

I didn't get the same vibe of angst and despair I got at the conference last year, although I'm not sure I can say why; perhaps employment is up (probably in massive teams), perhaps people have become resigned, perhaps downloadable and mobile games are taking up some of the slack.

On Tuesday, I helped Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen teach a workshop on social design for multiplayer games. At one point, they had the audience divide into teams and design "offline massively multiplayer games" using materials they supplied--the idea being that you needed to produce a game all the attendees of the workshop could play simultaneously. One group came up with a game that involved spilling a bunch of marbles on the floor, with five teams each scrambling to collect a certain type of marble against a time-limit. Since it seemed unwise to play this in the conference room--to easy for people to get hurt hurtling into tables and chairs--Eric and Katie took everyone out into the conference center. There, security descended, and told us we couldn't play the game. Outside, the same thing happened; clearly, one of the first things you need to think about designing this kind of game is "Consider the liability issues." Eric brought everyone back in and said, "Well, you have to think about the social context in which games are played, and how can we revise this game to deal with that?", which I thought a clever way of recovering, and also getting security off our back. I suggested adding a few new roles to each team--people to block security--as well as a lawyer, and possibly requiring the players to put up some money, which could be used for bail, with any funds left over going to the winning team.

Microsoft had a 'keynote,' scheduled with nothing against it--most of the audience seemed to expect an XBox 2 announcement (which Microsoft had previously said would not be made until E3). Actually, they announced an initiative called XNA, which essentially involves pulling some of the development tools available for XBox, and some available under DirectX, and making both available on both platforms. In essence, it's an attempt to reduce the time and difficulty of the development pipeline (primarily on the code side, but potentially on the art side as well), and therefore a Good Thing. However, they also showed a slide that purported to claim that XNA would reduce the development cycle from 80% content development and 20% polishing to 20% development and 80% polishing--which is, of course, bullshit.

I generally avoid the show floor at GDC--the focus of the conference is the sessions, not the booths--but I did spend a little time hanging out with the Themis guys at the Saga of Ryzom booth--it's a French-developed MMG that Themis is assisting with marketing efforts, now in beta. Looks pretty good.

The awards ceremony was fairly dull and predictable, but I was pleased that Masaya Matsuura, developer of Parappa and Mojibribbon, among others, was awarded. Mahk LeBlanc and Andrew Leker's Oasis, which I've mentioned before, won the IGF award. Later, I was in the green room, while Marc and Andrew were putting together the press release, which also announces that Pop Cap, the largest publisher of downloadable games, will be releasing the commercial edition. And good for them; Oasis has very different gameplay from the puzzle games that typically work in this market, but is quite accessible and a lot of fun; it will be interesting to see how well it does. Dr. Blob's Organism, from Digital Eel, also won two IGF award in lesser categories--Innovation in Audio and Innovation in Visual Arts. I ran into Rich Carlson, Ilka Keranen, and "Phosphorous" outside the ceremony, and they were inordinately pleased. (Rich is a frequent commenter on this blog, btw.)

Raph Koster, Warren Spector, and Will Wright spoke at a session moderated by Eric Z. on designing a love game; Warren took the topic most seriously, but as a result did not come up with a game--more a discussion of why current technology makes a love game difficult or impossible. Raph's game was, in essence, a constrained-narrative romance-story title, and struck me as amusing but probably not all that much fun to play. Will's idea was a WWII romance played out (literally) in Battlefield 1942, with the 'love story' players wandering around while the military gamers fight a battle--essentially, two orthogonal games in the same setting. The idea needs elaboration (e.g., some 'civilian' players might be partisans, and legal targets for the wargamers if unmasked), but actually, it strikes me as very doable--someone should do the mod.

The Experimental Games Workshop was, as always, something of a highlight. The Indie Games Jam, always featured as part of the EGW, this year started with a codebase supporting 2D physics. Essentially, they get a bunch of developers together, start with some codebase, and give them four days to produce something, generating a dozen or more "games" in the process. They generally aren't polished, but are always interesting. Binaries and source are posted to the site (but the ones for this year aren't up yet).

The EGW this year was 3 hours long, which I think is a mistake; yes, it's been rushed in past years, but it became somewhat tedious over time. Among other things, two academics presented papers without demoing original games--both speeches were interesting, but I don't think they really belong in this venue. I'd suggest axing that in future years.

On Friday, I spoke at a panel on mobile game technologies along with Adrian Sack of Ideaworks3d (note to Adrian: your pop-up doesn't work in Mozilla), Seamus MacAteer of Zelos Consulting, and Misha Lyalin of Reaxion. We were fairly dull, I thought, which is too bad, since both Adrian and I (at least) are capable of being pretty funny. (Last year, I interviewed Adrian for a video to appear on the Forum Nokia site; while preparing, he said "So--what's my motivation? Oh that's right--I'm trying to get rich.")

GDC is not where you go to see game demos (E3 is better for that), but I was taken with a game under development at Harmonix, the developers of Amplitude and Frequency. The title is Antigrav, and it's a skateboarding game--but requires ownership of the EyeToy. You control the character physically--leaning to turn, jumping (literally) to jump, and so on. An attempt to turn the EyeToy into something more than a toy, in other words.

A tad tired at present, but hey.



Sunday, March 21, 2004
Elfy-Welfies, War Bores, Decadent Vamps and Licensed Crap
(Today's post is on science fiction, rather than games--I beg your indulgence.)

When I was a young science fiction fan, lo these many years ago, I was of the opinion that calling science fiction a "genre" was something of a misnomer. Other genres tend to have shared tropes, predictable story arcs, and common themes. While SF has some shared tropes, it was so diverse that it was at least as variable as, say, literary fiction. It was hard to call a category that included both Arthur C. Clarke and Jack Vance, both Michael Moorcock and Isaac Asimov, both Cordwainer Smith and Roger Zelazny, a "genre" in the same sense as the Romance or the Western.

This is no longer the case. Entering a bookstore and examining the science fiction shelves, you can instantly categorize most of what is on the shelves into one of several subgenres of science fiction. That's true of other genres, as well; in mystery, you have cosies and hard-boiled. In romance, you have Regencies and fab dads and god knows what all--there seem to be dozens of well-known subgenres (that, not being a romance fan, I can't all name).

It's time we established names for the obvious sub-categories of the field. I'm going to propose four--all I've heard on other lips, but none has become widely known in the field. I think its time they did.

First of all, we have the elfy-welfies (a term I first heard from Darrell Schweitzer). These are multi-volume heroic quest fantasies, whether or not they contain literal elves. They constitute perhaps a quarter of what's on the shelves. The Lord of the Rings is, of course, the ur-elfy-welfy, the original quill from which all this crap derives. Which does, of course, point up the fact that not all of it is crap; it's perfectly possible to write well within a sub-genre such as the elfy-welfy as, for example, George R.R. Martin is doing today. But the simple fact is that we don't need more elfy-welfies. I've read enough of them. They are jejune. I have no desire to read more.

Second, we have the war bores, a term I heard from John Boardman. A more polite term is military science fiction. These are stories that feature lots of combat, generally of the land rather than space variety, generally (but not invariably) with a right-wing viewpoint, and generally (but not invariably) somewhat hard-boiled in tone. I can't point to any single ur-war bore, but Jerry Pournelle and H. Beam Piper are certainly the originals in the field. War bores seem to constitute about a quarter of what's on the shelves. Mind you, when I was a young science fiction reader, I quite liked work of this kind; I was, after all, a wargamer. But by now, I've read enough of them. They are jejune. We don't need any more of these.

Then, we have the Decadent Vamps. These generally, but not invariably, involve vampires, but always involve darkness, angst-filled people, and a high degree of eroticism, whether implicit or explicit. Anne Rice is the maven here, of course, but she has many imitators, some of them best-selling writers in their own right. You can't even call this "horror," any more, as there is scant effort in this subcategory to scare or horrify the reader; rather, the intent is more to tittilate and imply that a really cool life is possible for you, too, if you wear a lot of black and makeup and fuck around a great deal. This stuff also takes up perhaps a quarter of the shelves. Mind you, I loved Interview with the Vampire, back when, but I've read enough of this stuff. It is dull. I do not need to read any more.

And finally, of course, we have the category that is best named "licensed crap." This stuff is, thankfully, shelved seperately from everything else, so you can easily skip over it. It's stuff like D&D novels, Trek novels, World of Darkness novels, and so on. There's probably some good writing buried in there, but really, who can be bothered? It constitutes the rest of the science fiction section.

Categories such as the cosy, the Regency, the elfy-welfy, the war bore, and the licensed crap exist for readers who do not want to be challenged. They like sinking into the warm familiarity of something they know they like. Even though no elfy-welfy says "A new elfy-welfy!" on the cover, the signifiers of its packaging clearly indicate to readers what the volume is. There's a lush illustration of heroic people in pseudo-medeival garb striking vaguely heroic poses, and there are quotes from other writers of elfy-welfies saying how great this one is. Readers of the category can readily distinguish them from, say, war bores, and the readerships of the two subcategories overlap very little.

The problem is, of course, that I do want to be challenged. I want to be challenged with interesting ideas, distinctive writing styles, unconventional ways of looking at things, and transportation to a world very different from our own. I don't want to sink into the familiar, I want to be surprised and shaken up.

As a young science fiction reader, I would typically walk away from the science fiction section with a half dozen books to read. Today, I find it hard to find one, and often buy more straight fiction than SF. Part of that may be that I'm simply more discriminating; I have less time to waste, these days, and less inclined to take a flyer on something that might possibly be interesting. But I think the main reason is the evolving sub-genrefication of the field.

There's not much that can be done about this, of course; so long as people want to read elfy-welfies, they will be published, and will constitute a large sub-category of the field. But perhaps it can't hurt to start applying gently degrading terms to these subcategories, to draw attention to the fact that they are not entirely part of what used to be termed "the literature of ideas," and thereby suggest to their readers that it might not hurt to experiment with something else.


Thursday, March 18, 2004
AT&T and N-Gage
So I got an N-Gage a while ago, partly because I'm interested in the technology and partly because it's politically expedient for me to have one. I was able to get the games running out of the box, but each time I turned it on, it told me "SIM card not registered," and I could not, as a result, make calls or a data connection.

I bought it at a local Game Stop, and didn't specify a carrier, but the box they gave me included an AT&T Wireless SIM card. I suspect if I'd indicated a preference, I could have gotten a Cingular or T-Mobile one (those are the three national US GSM carriers), but I would have chosen AT&T Wireless in any event, as T-Mobile's reputation for service sucks, and Cingular shares T-Mobile's spectrum in New York.

When you buy a new phone at a wireless store, they fill out the paperwork (or enter in data on a terminal) and set up service for you there. If its a third party store, they typically fax the data back to the carrier, and getting the phone working typically takes a little longer, but in either case, it shouldn't be more than 15-20 minutes out of your day to give them the information they want, and service should be activated within a few hours (at a carrier's store), or 24 hours (at a third-party vendor).

Game Spot did nothing for me. First lesson: If buying an N-Gage, try to get it at a wireless store rather than a game vendor.

Today, I decided to activate phone service. My first recourse was the AT&T pamphlet that came with the phone. Getting customer service with your AT&T Wireless phone is easy! Just dial 611!

This, of course, is not helpful, since my AT&T Wireless phone was not activated, and somehow I think dialing 611 from my regular Sprint mobile phone, or from the landline, is not going to connect me to AT&T Wireless customer service. But there was another number listed, so I tried that.

What I got was voice jail. That is, I found myself pressing 1 and 6 and god knows what, and finding no way to connect to someone real. Like this: "Please enter your 10 digit phone number, beginning with the area code." Silence. I don't have a fucking phone number yet. That's what I'm trying to get. "If you bought your phone at attwireless.com, please press 1. If you wish to add services to your new AT&T Wireless phone, please press 2. For billing inquiries please press 3. To change your service, please press 4. (Wait.) I'm sorry, we did not understand your reponse. If you bought your phone at attwireless.com...."

After about 10 minutes of this, I gave up, and went to attwireless.com. Looking at their customer support options, I see that they have online chat with customer service representatives. Coolness, that will do. I go to their registration page, fill out the information--but there's no Submit button at the bottom of the page. Or at the top of the page. I'm supposed to register here, but how the fuck do you register?

Oh. There's a little bit of blue text, not a button, in the =middle= of the page where you'll never see it, that says "Register."

Okay. Great. They autogenerate email to me, I have to click on a link there to confirm registration. Okay, that's done. But wait! If I want to access their online chat help, I need to enter my ten digit phone number, beginning with area code.

Aha. Ahahah. Okay, I enter 999 999 9999. It seems to think this is okay, and I'm into the chat.

I submit my query. I'm third in queue. Finally, my request appears.

We're sorry. This chat system is for inquiries about GoPhone data services only. Please call our customer support line at....

I'm beginning to gibber, and consider reaming the poor bitch out, but I notice that this is a different phone number. All right, I'll try that, maybe I can get an actual person now.

I'm calling on my Sprint phone, by the way, because Karen's landline is screwed up--it's a cordless, and the handset doesn't hold a charge any more. So I'm paying Sprint airtime minutes in order to activate my AT&T Wireless phone.

Three menus in, I finally get an option that allows me to speak with a live representative. Okay. Unfortunately, all our representatives are busy, and the wait will be at least ten minutes. My call is important to them, and will be answered in the order received. I put the Sprint phone on speaker, so at least I can answer email while waiting.

Twelve minutes later, I'm talking with Karen. She needs the IMEI number. It's either on the box, or on the label under the battery. No, it's not on the label under the battery. Luckily, I still have the box... Somewhere. I eventually find it, and read her the number. She puts me on hold.

A few minutes later, she has "more information," and tells me she needs to switch me to another department to activate my phone. She thanks me for my patience. I -am- being patient, because I'm simply bemused know, and figure I want to know how long it's going to take to activate my fucking N-Gage for voice. She's putting me back on hold, but will check back... It shouldn't take more than a couple of minutes for new accounts to pick up.

She checks back with me three or four times, and it's about seven minutes before Linda picks up. Linda appreciates my patience, too, something she restates several times over the next forty-five minutes.

She needs my area code to verify that service is available in my area. I forbear from pointing out that I know damned well AT&T Wireless service is available in my area, and that I very much doubt the local GameSpot would be selling an N-Gage boxed with an AT&T SIM card if it weren't. She needs my name, my address, and my home phone number. The home phone number needs to be verified, won't take but a few minutes. In fact, my home phone number can't be verified... Because, in their records, its not in my name. Until last November, service was in Ellie's name (with me as an additional listing), and it's only been transferred to my name recently--and apparently Verizon's record change has not percolated into whatever automated system AT&T Wireless is accessing. However, when she tries under Ellie's name, I pop up as attached to it, which I guess gives AT&T Wireless more confidence that I'm not a deadbeat working for Al Qaeda or something.

Then we need my address, my social security number, my credit card number, my sock size, and the number of M&Ms you can fit in a quart container. I consider arguing about my social security number, because they're not my employer and it's none of their fucking business, but restrain myself. Then we need to go over service plans.

About now, I get an incoming phone call from someone I'm actually pretty eager to talk to, but I am =not= going to run the risk of having to do this all over again, and send it to voicemail.

Only two service plans are currently available for N-Gage. They're both twenty-something dollars, but one is a monthly subscription, and the other is a "rolling plan." Under the rolling plan, your account is charged whenever the balance drops below $5. That sounds cool to me, I don't expect to use the N-Gage as a phone much, sure, just charge me when the account balance drops below $5. Both plans offer 80 free monthly anytime minutes.

This seems pretty damn low--but more about that later. But I don't care, just activate the thing, please.

Some final legal bumf; if I don't pay the bills, they'll turn the phone off, and I'll have to go to an AT&T Wireless store to have it reactivated. (Really? Don't you at least send me a warning email or something?) There will be no paper bills, but I can view my bill online. And so on.

And now, Linda is going to pass me to an automated voice system. I must listen to more legal bullshit carefully and press buttons at the appropriate moments. The phone should be active within an hour.

I complete the process, and check my watch: Elapsed time, from the moment I started to do this until now, is one hour and forty-seven minutes.

Lesson two: Maybe you're better off with a Cingular or T-Mobile SIM card. God knows if their customer service is any better, but it's hard to figure how it could be worse.

Please note, by the way, that everyone I spoke with (except perhaps the wench on text chat--"we don't support that" being among the most obnoxious responses of suport personnel) was pleasant and helpful--they were just faced with extremely time-consuming and onerous procedures, which could surely be vastly simplified and speeded up.

Lesson three: Nokia has no control over operators' procedures--but there has to be a way they can work to make N-Gage activation easier. I don't even know why any of this crap is necessary; why can't the phone detect that it's an AT&T SIM card, the account isn't activated, and give me the option of making a simple call to activate it? This is nuts.

I go pull out the AT&T pamphlet, since the pricing plan didn't make a lot of sense to me. First, I realize that the plan I chose had not been coherently explained to me: On the rolling plan, I get billed every month, or when my account balance drops to $5, whichever happens sooner. In other words, I'm going to be paying twenty-something a month, plus taxes and shit, every month, for a device I don't often expect to place voice calls from, but might occasionally want to download a J2ME game to. No prepaid plan is available to GoPhone customers. Have a nice day.

And what about that 80 minutes, anyway? Sprint PCS Vision doesn't even offer a plan with less than 300 minutes. And I'm on a plan that provides 1100 minutes, because my mobile is my main business phone, and I not infrequently go over that allotment. Eighty minutes is fuckall.

Why is the AT&T plan so expensive? Because it's a GoPhone plan, or to put it in something other than marketing bullshit, my N-Gage is a GPRS device, not a plain-old-GSM (or TDMA) device. That's great, I like that, bandwidth over GPRS is a lot higher, and there probably aren't as many customers in New York on the network, so service will probably be better (AT&T's TDMA service in NYC is often overloaded, and loses calls pretty frequently). But--from a voice customer's perspective, greater bandwidth makes no difference. A voice call is a voice call, who cares what carrying technology is, charge me the minimum, please. Bandwidth only matters from a customer perspective when you're using data services--and sure, I might use some of these, if only to download some J2ME games. And I understand that it took AT&T a fair bit of capital to build out their GPRS network, and they want to recoup the cost--but it makes no sense to offer 80 minutes when rivals are offering 300 minutes at essentially the same price. If you want to shift people to GPRS, you have to make it attractive to them to do so. The higher bandwidth is good for AT&T Wireless, because they can cram more voice calls into the same bit of spectrum--this is, when you come down to it, stupid gouging.

I can download J2ME games to my Sprint phone, too, by the way. Dumb pricing.

Well, I get a free month's service before this kicks in... I suppose I'll have to cancel service after playing around with it a little to see how it works.

Lesson four: When pricing a service, your first thought should be "how do we create a compelling proposition for the consumer," not "charge the max we can."


Wednesday, March 17, 2004
Mark Barrett on Chess and Emotion in Games
Mark Barrett, in a longish post, takes off on my discussion of Chess, a few months back, and produces an interesting meditation on the nature of emotional engagement in games and how to foster it. Mark is an interesting fellow, in that he's on the "narratologist" side of the debate, while I'm a "ludologist"--a debate developers have been having since long before the game academics assigned these labels to the sides--and yet I find myself agreeing with him more often than not. It's worth a read, particularly if you're Jesper Juul.


Sunday, March 14, 2004
Articles Restored
Thanks to the Wayback Machine, I recovered several articles of mine that were originally run by Happy Puppy, back when they were one of the top three sites devoted to games. (Happy Puppy has been sold a number of times since then, and all the old links are broken.)

The articles are:

  • Hit Hunter, a humorous piece looking at possible ways to replicate the success of Deer Hunter...

  • A Requiem for the Hill, or, I Dreamed I Saw Charles Roberts Last Night--written when Avalon Hill was taken over by Hasbro.

  • Tilting at Windmills, a proposal to do a version of Nethack with Diablo-style graphics.

  • King of Dragon Pass, a review of the game, which was an IGF finalist some years back.


Still two pieces I can't find--"You Can Smell the Desperation," an article about an announced takeover of three hobby game distributors by iEntertainment (that never came to pass), and a report on the first (and only) IGDN conference.


Saturday, March 13, 2004
Drugs, Man
Wow.... if this is true, it strikes me as a reeely bad idea.


Monday, March 08, 2004
N-Gage
Scott Miller has been talking about the problems with N-Gage, mostly from a brand marketing point of view. I think he's right on some things, and a bit off-base on some others... But before I talk about it, I need to say: I am not an Nokia employee. I do not speak for Nokia corporately, in any fashion whatsoever. Everything I say here is in my role as an independent observer of the games industry, and as someone pretty knowledgeable about the wireless industry as well. And indeed, by the time I post this, I will have read it over three or four times to ensure that there are no disclosures of any information unreported by other media--except for the bits that must be taken as purely personal opinion.

First, lets talk about the hardware issues, which have been extensively dissected elsewhere. The N-Gage is essentially a reskinned Nokia 3650, minus the camera and plus an FM radio, with a different set of controls. Virtually all of the hardware flaws result from this legacy. In the 3650, you need to remove the battery pack to replace the memory card; this is not a problem, because you basically only replace the memory card if you decide to upgrade to one with more memory. You take photos, send them via MMS or sync them to your PC, then you delete them. The card can stay in place basically forever.

With the N-Gage, it 's a problem, because you have to replace the memory card every time you want to play a different game. Doing so is awkward; you turn off the device, you open the back, you take out the battery pack, you take out the MMC, you slide in a new MMC, you replace the battery pack, you close the back, you turn the device on, and you wait for it to reboot... For anyone used to yanking the cart out of a GBA, sticking a new one in, and starting to play, this is intolerable.

The N-Gage screen is portrait format (that is, taller than it is wide). In fact, it's the same screen used in the 3650 (and, I believe, all other Nokia Series 60 devices so far). Most games are played on screens (monitors, TVs, or GBA screens) that are landmark format--wider than tall. Most games are designed with this in mind, and it causes some problems when porting to N-Gage, because in a game that moves side-to-side, you have less time to react to something appearing at a screen edge, since the screen edge is closer. Obviously, it's not a problem for displaying photos, or SMS messages, or other phone features. In other words: Works fine for the 3650, a problem for N-Gage.

One of the reasons for Nokia's phenomenal success in the mobile phone market is that it is among the most efficient manufacturers of phones. One of the ways they keep their manufacturing costs down is by sharing parts among different models. As a result, some of these decisions are understandable.

From my perspective, once the press started pointing out the problems with the device--in particular, the memory card placement issue--Nokia should have pulled back, said, hmm, if we want a strong launch, we'd better do something about this. They should have delayed the launch of N-Gage by six months or a year, if necessary, to correct the issues. You only get one chance to launch a new console system--and never, in the history of the field, has anyone recovered from a weak launch.

The mobile phone market does not work in the same way. Nokia has over 60 devices on the market at the moment. They launch a dozen or more new phones every year. Speed to market is considered more important than getting every little aspect right the first time around; there's always room for a new, improved version in six months or a year. Typically, console manufacturers announce a new machine years before product launch; Nokia announced N-Gage in December 2003 and launched in Fall 2004. I'm not sure it ever occurred to them to delay the launch; in the mobile phone market, you can fix flaws later.

I'm going to tell a story now. This story is not based on any kind of inside information. It's a guess as to what was going through the N-Gage engineers' (and marketers') heads. I have not personally talked with anyone on the engineering side, and my acquaintance with people on the marketing side is glancing, and any discussions I may or may not have had with them have not centered on these issues.

When Nokia launched the 3650 (the second Series 60 device), they looked at it and said, hmm, this is a nifty little game machine. 104Mhz ARM chip, hugely faster than GBA; nice full color screen; decent battery life; multiple megabytes of storage on the MMC; Bluetooth and air network connectivity. You could do some cool games for this thing. But it doesn't look like a game machine.

Nokia is lauching a whole slew of special-purpose phones: camera phones, PDA/phone hybrids (both pen-based and keyboard-based varieties), phone/MP3 player hybrids, devices that play video. Why not do a sort of game-phone, with controls optimized for gameplay, based on our dear old Series 60 platform?

Thus N-Gage. But when it was announced--what was, I think, from Nokia's original perspective, just another new device combining phone functionality with functionality for another purpose--the games industry went nuts. The game industry said: Nokia is going toe-to-toe with Nintendo!!!!

To which, I suspect, Nokia execs said: Holy fuck. We are? Well... Okay then. Hey, there's a lot of money in them thar games. Let's see what happens if we do go toe-to-toe with Nintendo.

One of the points on which Miller is right is that Nokia execs didn't know much about the game industry going in. At the press conference at the London Eye at which N-Gage was announced, the presenting executives didn't seem to know what the device's processor speed was. This is not normally a concern for mobile phone buyers--but it's virtually the first question a game journalist will ask at a new console unveiling. And there were few people in Finland with game industry experience. (Nokia hired a publishing team, operating out of Vancouver, who do have substantial experience with the industry.)

Nokia is, however, a company that is light on its feet, learns quickly, and does not allow its success to become arrogance--virtually a Finnish national trait, by the way. I don't think I've ever met an arrogant Finn. The problem, I think, is that Nokia didn't learn fast enough--but if it tries something like N-Gage again, it will have learned a lot from the N-Gage experience.

I also think Scott is subtly wrong that Nokia was guilty of bad branding by making it the "Nokia N-Gage" rather than setting up a subsidiary to be "the N-Gage company". It is, after all, the Sony Playstation 2 and the Microsoft XBox. Scott maintains that Nokia was diluting the value of the Nokia brand by associating it with something other than a phone, and sabotaging the potential success of N-Gage by associating it with a company not known for games. In reality, the mobile phone market is moving away from pure voice telephony devices to multipurpose devices. High-end phones today run an operating system, and provide PDA like functionality--datebook, address book, and so on. Even mid-range phones can run games (and other J2ME/BREW apps). If you walk into a wireless store today and ask for a bare-bones phone, one that can't run J2ME and/or BREW, you're going to have a problem finding one. And three years from now, if you walk into a store and ask for a phone that doesn't run Symbian, Microsoft Smartphone, Palm OS, or Linux for small devices, you're probably going to be shit out of luck.

My guess is that Nokia has lost a chunk of change on N-Gage, so far--but that's a drop in the bucket from a larger corporate perspective. At the same time that N-Gage was acheiving, to be generous, limited success, Nokia became the largest camera manufacturer in the world. That may sound odd to you, but Nokia ships and sells more photo-taking devices than Kodak, Nikon, Canon, or Olympus. No shit.

Scott views Nokia as "diluting its brand by moving away from phones," but in fact, phones are moving away from phones. Nokia bills itself as a manufacturer of mobile devices, not of phones alone--although every device they manufacture has wireless voice telephony capabilities. Where the market is growing is not, however, in barebones talking sticks, but in multipurpose mobile "phones" that also do a lot of other things.

Scott also deprecates the games on other Nokia phones as not fundamentally important to Nokia; actually, that's not true. Mobile operators are faced with rapid declines in revenues from voice telephony (in industry argot, ARPU--average revenues per user--is in swift decline). This is driven party by competition, and partly by Moore's Law; the switches and routers on which operators depend on the backend are cheaper and cheaper, so providing voice telephony is becoming cheaper. To sustain ARPU, operators desperately need users to adopt wireless data services other than voice--and they've succeeded in doing so (more so in Europe and Asia than here). Today, the largest revenue generators for operators on the data side are, in order: text messaging; screenery and ring tones; and... games.

In other words, even if N-Gage had never happened, games are central to Nokia's strategy moving forward. They're among the few mobile data services for which users have proven their willingness to pay. The game industry has fixed on N-Gage as the most interesting piece of the story--but in terms of gross revenues (pan-industry, not for Nokia per se), downloadable J2ME/BREW games generate a lot more traffic, and a lot more dollars, than retail sales of N-Gage titles. And as smartphones (I'm using the term generically--a lot more Symbian phones out there than Microsoft ones) become more widespread, games compiled to native machine code are going to become increasingly important, too. In other words: N-Gage die or soar, Nokia needs to have an interest in games, and a strategy for them.

Launching N-Gage as a Nokia device wasn't a bad idea; the flaws of the device were, however.

Nokia made another mistake, which Scott does pick up on. In the games industry, hardware doesn't sell itself; nobody but a few hardware nuts buys a console because it's a cool machine. People buy hardware to play games they want to play. Every console manufacturer tries to ensure that in its slate of launch titles, there's at least one must-have game--Halo for XBox, for example.

Ideally, you have a title that says: This is so cool a machine, it can play games that could never be played on any previous platform. And here is that game.

With N-Gage, the potential was -absolutely- there. N-Gage is the first connected hand-held console. (Pace those who cable-connect GBAs for multiplayer play.) With both Bluetooth and air network connectivity, it held open the possibility of cool multiplayer, even massively multiplayer, gameplay on a mobile device. When N-Gage was announced, I talked about it with my kids, suggesting that they could play with their friends even while tooling around in their mom's car. (I'm a NYer... I don't have a car. In fact, I bike almost everywhere.)

"Cool!" was their response.

When N-Gage launched, it had (I might be wrong on this) precisely one title that allowed multiplayer gameplay; the N-Gage version of Red Faction (developed by ideaworks3D). Bluetooth fast-action gameplay, no use of the air network.

What Nokia =should= have launched with was a slate of multiplayer games--some Bluetooth, some hitting the air network--that were NOT ports from other platforms, but really showed off why a multiplayer, mobile, wide-area device could create really cool games. They should have had TibiaME for N-Gage. Hell, they should have had EverQuest for N-Gage. They should have had Laser Squad Nemesis for N-Gage. They should have had PoppaZoppa for N-Gage. And they should have had N-Gage-only titles that were equally compelling--multiplayer, mobile, networked games.

What Nokia had, instead, was essentially tired, repurposed IP. Sonic N. Red Faction. Tony Hawk. Yadayada. I'm not going to lay out $300 to play these games; I can play them on other platforms.

Nokia went out to ensure that other major publishers supported N-Gage. They enlisted Sega, THQ, and (later) EA among others. That was a smart move; it allowed Nokia to say "It's not just us, look, other major game companies are supporting N-Gage." But it wasn't enough. Nokia should also have gone after the innovators in multiplayer, online gameplay, because they were the ones likeliest to product games that really showed off the N-Gage's capabilities. In addition to the Segas and THQs of the world, they should have been talking to the ids, the Turbines, and the Blizzards.

Nokia also botched the message on pricing. When I can get a version of GBA for $70, you have to persuade me that an alternative device is extremely cool, if you want me to lay out $299--the announced price point. When Nokia announced that price point, they failed to get across a highly important secondary message: operators often subsidize the price of phones, if you'll sign a year (or two year) contract. The game press reported: price is $300, gosh that's high. This was not a good message for consumers to hear.

The fact is that, in the UK, you can get an N-Gage for one pound (and a year's contract). And even in the US, you can now pick up an N-Gage for $199--with a game kicked in for free. Just by stating the message a little differently, Nokia could have gotten a very different reaction from the industry press.

People (including commenters on Scott's blog) have speculated that Nokia may release a new version of N-Gage that fixes some of the hardware flaws. I have absolutely no inside knowledge on this subject (and if I did, probably wouldn't even be talking about it), but I wouldn't be surprised. That would be in keeping with Nokia's past history of fixing the problems with one device in a new one.

But.... In the games industry, you only get one chance to launch a console system... And no system has ever recovered from a bad launch.

Not, incidentally, that this is necessarily a "bad launch." The game industry has concluded so--but then, the game industry considers XBox's sales a "disappointment." As reported elsewhere, Nokia has shipped 600,000 N-Gages. Nokia considers a single phone model that sells multiple millions of units a major hit; N-Gage probably hasn't done as well as Nokia hoped, but it isn't necessarily a huge disappointment, by their standards (though Jorma Olilla, Nokia's CEO, has said that sales weren't up to expectations). I would fully expect Nokia, in a year or so, to say that N-Gage has done reasonably well by their standards. Their standards are not the game industry's standards.

And--it's interesting that new games are being announced virtually every month, by major game publishers, for N-Gage. By game industry standards, not a lot of SKUs are being shipped for N-Gage--and it may be that, on a per-title basis, the publishers are doing rather well. A relatively small installed base can still be profitable, if the competition is slim. This is, after all, why there's still a Mac games industry.

It's true, though, that N-Gage hasn't become what I'd hoped it would: A real, and dynamic, challenge to Nintendo's dominance of handheld games. Not that I bear Nintendo any ill... Quite the contrary, really; however annoying some of their business practices, they produce some pretty keen games. But the GBA is, when you come down to it, a surprisingly underpowered device, and we -need- good mobile multiplayer games, which GBA can't supply, and it's amazing that Nintendo's dominance of handheld games has gone unchallenged so long.

I personally would not be surprised if, two or three years from now, Nokia decides to give it another go, with a new device.... And given Nokia's ability to learn, I suspect that the next time round, they'll do rather better.



Saturday, March 06, 2004
Did Monty Play -Afrika Korps-?
Tim Tow writes:

    Tom Shaw suggested that you may be able to help me find out about a game of Avalon Hill's Afrika Korps between British General Bernard Montgomery and a German General that was played for a British television program in the 1970's.

    The Avalon Hill catalog I read the reference to this had a price insert dated Summer-Winter 1976 and it was on
    page 3 of the glossy catalog itself under a section titled: "What They're All About..." which stated:

    "We are proud of the national and international recogntion we have received. The British Broadcasting
    System once used our Afrika Korps game in a TV series pitting Field Marshall Montgomery against a German
    General."

    Would you be able to shed more light on this question as to who the German general was and who won the Afrika Korps game?



Haven't a clue... Anyone out there know, or have an idea how to find out?



Thursday, March 04, 2004
Understanding Games as Narrative Spaces
On his blog, Peter Berger has posted recently on -- his words -- "what makes games fun." Actually, he's wrong about that; what he's really talking about, and very cogently, is games as narrative spaces. He does indeed offer some concrete suggestions for why particular architectures or theme choices may make for more fun games than others--but, of course, the "narrative space" lens is only one way of looking at games, and, as Mahk LeBlanc says, there are many types of pleasure that people draw from games.

In other words, the question of "what makes games fun" is a larger one--but Berger has some interesting things to say on this more narrow topic.


Wednesday, March 03, 2004
The Purpose of a Business
This is largely a response to JP's comment on my last post...

As a libertarian, I can hardly object to making money... Indeed, I think making money is something very much worth striving for.

However, any business that is -just- about making money is unlikely to spur sufficient passion in its employees to succeed over the long term. This is, I think, one of the big problems with Disney animation; if you read what animators have to say about what it's like to work for Disney, it's pretty horrifying. What was (for an animator) once one of the coolest jobs in the universe is now rote work on formula plots. There's a reason Pixar triumps and Disney fails, and it's not technology--although Disney has, naturally, come to the incorrect conclusion that drawn animation is dead, and 3D is the future.

A business is an organization. Organizations--businesses, non-profits, social clubs, government institutions, organizations of all kinds--are founded by people who have -something they want to do.- A business is a good type of organization for many of the things that people want to do--not feeding the hungry, but making microchips--precisely because it -does- allow its owners to profit from its success.

But profit is not the =purpose= of a business; profit is the condition of survival (to borrow Tom Peters' phrase). A business that does not profit--indeed, more than that, a business that does not provide a rate of return at least comparable to that available from other investments--will not survive long.

The purpose of a well run business is not profit in and of itself; a well run business always seeks profit, but if a book publisher, say, could make more money investing in junk bonds (a very likely scenario, by the way), well, it probably won't do that, because its management and employees don't want to invest in junk bonds. They want to publish books.

The purpose of a game company is to produce games. The way to motivate the employees of a game company to do their best work is to allow them to work on games they think are really cool.

By and large, most people are in the game industry not because they want to make big bux, but because they love games. There are exceptions--there seem to be a lot of marketing and management folk who are in the game industry because they can't get the job they really want in Hollywood (and some developers who qualify here too), but almost everyone could make more money doing something else. Programmers could make more money working on financial transaction systems for investment banks. Artists could make more money doing animation for TV. Marketers could make more money working for packaged goods firms. Game designers... Well, okay, maybe they're stuck, but they surely didn't become game designers as a second choice after they couldn't get hired as technical writers.

JP is right that part of the game industry's problem is a somewhat cynical concentration on the bottom line at the expense of other considerations--considerations that, as I've argued, are actually equally important to ultimate success. But part of it is also a failure of taste, I think; I suspect a lot of people pushing the new racing title, the new football game, the new RTS just like the last one actually do think it's pretty darn cool. Or have swallowed Warren Spector's Kool-Aid, and have convinced themselves that if they have to do a Scooby Doo game, by golly, they'll make the best darn Scooby Doo game they can.

But a lot has to do with the cover-your-ass syndrome. It's easy to greenlight the tried-and-true. Greenlighting novelty puts your ass on the line.

I'm not sure how to get out of this fix. I've argued previously that we need an independent games industry, with a parallel but separate distribution channel from conventional games; that would be nice, but it hasn't happened yet.

I remember Warren telling me, years ago, about a conversation he had with an executive at his then firm. Warren pointed out that all the titles he had worked on up until then had been profitable, even though none had sold in excess of 300,000 units. The executive told him, yes, but if he funded the next Wing Commander game, it would sell a lot more than that, and be a lot more profitable. And thus he was cancelling Warren's title. Warren felt he couldn't really argue.

But he should have. The next Wing Commander might sell a lot more than the next Ultima Underground, but they'd both make money, in a field in which most games lose money. The right thing for the executive to do was fund the Wing Commander game--then go raise capital, however possible, to fund Warren's game, too. It really wasn't all that risky a proposition.

I'm not in favor of big financial risks on novel like, say, Majestic. (An idea, incidentally, that anyone with a history in multiplayer online games could see was badly flawed--not that EA listened to anyone in its studios with experience in multiplayer online games, since they weren't at Redwood Shores.) I am in favor of placing a lot of smaller risks.

What the industry learned from Deer Hunter was "jeez, Wal-Mart can move a lot of product." What it should have learned was "hey, find a new market niche and you can make big bux." The original Deer Hunter cost low six figures to make.

I'm not holding it out as a beautiful examplar of jewel-like innovative perfection. It sucked, when you come down to it. But it was a big innovative leap, in its own strange way. We need a lot more of them.


Monday, March 01, 2004
Origin RIP
Curiously, last week I spoke on a panel at which one of my co-panelists was from EA, and spoke pretty passionately about the need for innovation in game design.

But EA is about the last place I'd look for it. EA is widely regarded as among the best managed companies in the industry--and by and large it is, despite such idiocies as blowing $150m+ on EA.com. They have a strategy that works, and they stick to it; the develop or acquire IP that has a strong following, and they develop it incrementally, releasing new versions and line extensions over time. They develop largely in-house, at enormous studios in Redwood City, LA, and Vancouver, throwing large amounts of money at each title to ensure that they look at least as good, and preferably better than, competing titles aimed at the same well-understood game genres.

What EA has never learned to do--and doesn't have to, I guess--is to foster innovation and success among the smaller, semi-independent studios they've acquired over the years: Kesmai, Maxis, Origin. The Sims was almost killed several times before Wright got it through the system; Garriott was forced out after one rocky product launch; Kesmai was killed as a scapegoat for EA.com's sins.

EA recently announced that it was moving most of Maxis's staff to the Redwood City facility; Wright and a skeleton crew will apparently stay where they are, which I suspect is a bad move on Wright's part. Essentially, other people are going to have more direct, day-to-day control of his team, and he's not going to be at the Mother Ship to wrestle up political support.

And, of course, Origin will be closed. Supposedly, the staff is being offered positions in California... But the institution will just become another part of the EA machine. The last vestiges of Garriott's legacy are being erased. I think that's a loss.

I have around here somewhere a press release from the Austin Game Initiative, saying that many local firms were created by people leaving Origin in the past, and that the Austin game community is strong, and these people are likely to be able to find jobs locally. All true... It makes for pretty depressing reading, for me at least, since the New York game community goes from weakness to weakness. There are actually quite a few developers locally, or people who have experience but can't find work in games at present--the legacy, largely, of past ventures like GT Interactive and Sony Online, and Acclaim... But it does seem that each time the New York game community starts to get some traction, the rug gets yanked from underneath it. GT moved to LA, then was taken over; Sony Online coalesced in San Diego and shut down the New York office; Acclaim, once nearly as large as EA, has screwed up for years.

Ah, well.... Enough whining for one day.





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