You may have noticed I've been more anal about linking to Amazon in the last couple of posts. I won't lie to you. It's because I just joined the Amazon Associates program, because, hey, free money.
I've maybe played it a dozen times. I have my own copy, one of the 3M editions, which I never played, until a few nights ago, the night after Thanksgiving, when there were five of us (my parents, brother & sister-in-law, and me) and we were looking for a game to play. Hmm, I thought, too bad I don't have any of those cool German games we play at work like Tigris & Euphrates. You know, those games that are simple to learn but are actually interesting, unlike, say, Monopoly or Pictionary or Trivial Pursuit.
And then I remembered my old copy of Acquire. I pulled it out - the rules fit in the inside cover - it's that simple. So I figured my family would be able to handle it. We started playing. I took a turn, to show them how it's played, and then my brother took a turn, and then my mom said, "You know, I can just tell this isn't my kind of game. I'm going to go read a book."
So. Acquire fails the "mom test." Why do you suppose that is?
It's not (completely) the complexity. My mom is a geneticist; knows several scripting languages on her Mac (has even authored a multimedia wildflowers DVD); and has no problem working her digital cameras. You know, those same cameras that The Inmates Are Running The Asylum lambastes for their poor UI design?
I ask my mom why she refuses to play without even tasting it. "I can just tell that it's not my kind of game. I'm not interested in finance." So - okay, bad color. But my mom has played Monopoly many a time. And she didn't refuse to play the game at first - it wasn't until a couple of us had made our moves that she backed out. So...hmm.
Turn length? Once you're used to Acquire you can play it pretty quick, but there was a fair bit of overhead getting started there.
Presentation? Acquire isn't a pretty game - although apparently it recently has gotten prettier.
I like Acquire. It's one of the best examples of "layers" I can think of. You've got this bone-simple tile-placing game, where you're placing tiles to grow and connect companies. And you've got this bone-simple stock-trading game, where you try to buy low, sell high, and maintain majority ownership. And the magic comes from how the two games, or layers, interact.
I suck at it, by the way. Playing against the three remaining people, all of whom had never played the game before, I came in third. And I usually seem to come in last. I guess there's something counter-intuitive about the strategy. So that appeals to me, as well: there's this space to explore and get better in.
And something that's both a blessing and a curse is you don't really know how well you're doing until you finish the game and you all see how much money you've made. You have a fuzzy idea, but no concrete proof. This is good, in that, you don't end up in that "I'm hopeless" zone where you just want to quit. It's also bad, in that it's a very hard game to learn, because you don't get feedback on your strategy until the game's over. And then, if you've lost or won, you're never that sure why.
So, all these things to like. But boy does it fail the mom test. And that's too bad, because I think if those problems could be fixed mom would enjoy it.
Anybody know if there's a place I can play this online? There was a game called "Star Traders" which was a near-clone of the mechanics on the multiline BBS I used to frequent as a teenager. You'd think there'd be something like it on Yahoo! games or something.
Almost finished reading Influence by Robert Cialdini. Most of it is stuff I learned in my social psych classes back in college, but having a refresher course didn't hurt. Originally, this book sold itself as a prophylactic measure - by reading this book, you'd be able to defend yourself against certain less-than-totally-honest sales tactics. But that's probably not the reason salespeople read it - and probably not the reason it was recommended on the "personal mba" book list - they read it because they want to know what those sales tactics are.
As a prophylactic, I think this material should be taught in elementary school. Suckers keep falling for these same tired old sales devices. Just as an obvious example, the "scarcity" principle - people are automatically suckered into buying things that they think are scarce. Witness the current Xbox 360 craze - where there was one reported fist-fight - this is a ploy by Microsoft, people! They purposely manufacture less than they think they'll sell, to create the same sort of buying hysteria you're being suckered into! And then they make sure to publicize plenty of press releases about their worries that there will be a shortage! So everyone lines up to buy the stupid thing, instead of actually waiting for, say, a good game for it! This has been a console manufacturer trick going back ages! And we keep falling for it!
Magic: The Gathering employs the technique as well, with their "rare" cards.
And then there's "low-balling" - this is making a ridiculous offer first, and then conceding to a more reasonable offer. "You don't want to buy our top of the line, zillion-dollar model? Well, all right, I suppose we could offer you this more modest product at this more reasonable price." This works on a couple of different levels: studies have shown you'll simply be more likely to buy if you're introduced to the offer in this way. And on another level, it's simply good negotiating, making you more likely to squeeze some of that "surplus value" out of your mark. And on another level, the mark is usually not aware it's happening to him, and often feels like he's taking advantage of you! "I talked him down to this!"
It does occasionally backfire - I talked to one guy who turned down a job at Treyarch specifically because our CTO "low-balled" him. "Will you do it for this much money?" the CTO asked. "No," he said. Later, he got a phone call. "How about this much?" And then, even though that amount was in the ballpark he was looking for, he refused to take the job on principle. This is one of the few things Treyarch used to do that I disagreed with on principle - but maybe I'll be singing a different tune when I run my own company - we paid our employees as little as we could get away with. On a spreadsheet it looks great - every dollar you're not paying an employee is a dollar of profit on the contract they're working on. And most of your employees, if they suddenly decide they're making too little money, will give you a chance to give them a raise before they jump ship. But every now and then it'll backfire, like the aforementioned guy. Also, you may end up with the guy who feels entitled to coast because at some level he knows or has heard he's not making what he should. But most importantly, I just don't like the idea of paying someone what they'll take rather than what they're worth.
Getting To Yes has a different take on how to negotiate salary. And, I'd say Getting To Yes and How To Win Friends And Influence People are both more important books because they're not about manipulation: the person you're selling to / negotiating with can have read the same book and it'll still help you close the deal or make the sale.
So, back to "teaching this stuff in elementary school" - imagine if we taught everyone how to recognize and resist these practices. Used car salesmen would no longer be able to high-ball. "I just talked to the boss and he said he won't go for that price." (A friend just got a game development contract renegotiated on him like this.) Microsoft and QVC would stop using their scarcity tactics. Salaries would be negotiated fairly. People wouldn't get conned into certain classes of scams. And so on.
9-5 days, 5 days a week. But no internet. Hit all their milestones with a low defect rate.
Now, as they point out in the article, it's not like they're making Grand Theft Auto or anything. A little like the time I saw one of the "You Don't Know Jack" guys pat himself on the back for shipping in just six months. One could say, "Well, their games are just easier."
On the other hand, that's the most genius stroke, right? They're very Blue Ocean. I haven't actually read Blue Ocean, but as I understand it, the idea is they're competing in uncompeted waters. A company that's smart about that could well be smart about a lot of other things as well.
What started as trying to find a good way to back stuff up has turned into a digital housecleaning extravaganza that I'm now on Day Two of. I'll think to myself, where was that thing I did? Like the all-text fantasy RPG I was working on a year or two ago where I was hoping to create emergent narrative by giving each character their own goals and strategies. I did accidentally create prostitution in the process, which was neat. Last night I realized that I'd lost the source. Turned out it was on a hard-drive in my desktop that wasn't actually plugged in.
Oh yeah, and old e-mail. I've got e-mail dating back to 1995. But I seem to be missing a stretch from 1997 to 2001. Maybe it's on the laptop.
So I have not one, but two, problems:
How to backup more data than will fit on a CD? Hard-drives are happily very reliable, so I was thinking maybe I'll just backup everything from the desktop to the laptop, but if there's a fire then I'll probably lose both machines. So backing up to CD's that I can keep in the fridge (stuff in the fridge tends to survive a fire, I hear) would be my preferred option. Or online backup, if I could find one that was super-cheap, which I haven't.
Organizing all my freaking data so it's convenient to backup.
And everything has to be convenient enough so that I'll actually do it on a regular basis.
Actually, my wife's digital photos are the real problem - spread all over the place and huge.
So - um - what do you guys do? If anything?
A friend asked me the other day what I thought about banning the internet and IM at work. On the one hand, productivity would almost certainly go up. On the other hand, who wants to work at a fascist dictatorship? Apparently they used to do this at Westwood back in the day--they didn't even have e-mail--and Westwood was a focused, productivity powerhouse.
I know that when I see other guys on the team surfing the web during work hours it sometimes makes my blood boil. Of course, I've been known to surf the web and IM myself; of course, whenever *I* do it, it's justified research. Unless I'm catching up with Homestar Runner.
Just came across an article on procrastination via Jurie's blog and gave the issue more thought. http://www.kuro5hin.org/story
I don't think I'd ever ban the internet at work. It seems like it's fighting the symptom rather than the cause. The cause would be people who don't want to be productive. You get rid of the internet, that non-productivity will just channel into e-mail, water cooler conversation, whatever. Generally I find the best people have their web surfing and IMing under control; some even talk about how they "use build times to meditate" or "review code".
My half-baked ideas for fixing out-of-control internet surfing, if I felt like it was a problem:
* Have a meeting where you talk about how you feel like internet surfing has gotten out of control. Say something like, "Now, although I'm tempted to ban the internet, I know I can't force people to be productive. You've got to be responsible for your own productivity." Point them to a bunch of productivity tricks that you use like the ones from the article. For example, back when I coded full-time, I set my screen-saver to say "Focus!"
* Make sure your downtimes are lightning fast - don't give people an excuse. Use perforce instead of sourcesafe, use a good build system, make it somebody's nearly full-time job to optimize workflow.
* Layoffs - you probably know who the real problem web-surfers and IMers are.
* And, the most half-baked idea of them all, which I got reading about Gore Associates: a democratically-determined MVP program. On a regular basis, you could have team members vote on who made the largest contributions to the company. The winners would get recognition, prizes, bonuses, whatever. This would be an easy thing to screw up: the number of ways in which it could go wrong are many and varied. It's a gray area between healthy and unhealthy competition. But, in theory, it could help motivate everyone to do their damnedest to make a difference, above and beyond the standard set of carrots and sticks at a typical company. (When you think about it, your team already has an MVP program - whoever the boss's favorite is is the MVP, and he gets the biggest raises. Wouldn't you rather have some kind of democratic influence over that, to mitigate the problems caused by the boss's blind spots?) And if everyone was competing to be the most productive, the IMing and internet surfing would take care of itself.
But that's the internet. Depending on how my team was laid out--for example, if they were all in one big war-room--I might ban IM, the enemy of flow. On the other hand, in a space with a lot of separate offices, IM becomes a quick way to improve communication.
This book's more like it! Approachable and easy to read without becoming the dumbed-down nonsense that was What the CEO Wants You To Know. In fact, the information in this book is a superset of the info in the other one. Ratios like inventory turnover and P/E are discussed, but without the cultish worship.
So. Accrual accounting. Weird stuff. An elaborate fiction created to give you an idea of how good your business is doing and going to do. So the books can say that your plan is sound and yet you can suddenly find yourself without cash and needing a loan just to get to those profits your business is bound to make. And yet this fiction is apparently what we all go by. Even the IRS. (Or...they go by a different kind of accrual accounting, because you may choose to run certain things different...) Part of me feels like we're purposely making everything more complicated than it needs to be just to make our lives more interesting. A little like heavy polymorphism or template programming. Ouch! Did I just say that?
So, running a development studio. Almost feels like it's not a real business. You know, one where you make products, and sell them, and hope you sell enough to break even on your overhead. Instead, thanks to this publisher - developer model, where actually getting royalties is something of a pipe dream, we've become work for hire, contractors. (Chapter 11 of the book does go briefly on how to do the accounting for a large project that takes years, but most of the book is focused on more product oriented business.) The indy studios that release online are closer to being "real" businesses than console developers.
One interesting thing about games development. You don't need much in the way of assets to start a development studio. The cost of equipment and software is very low compared to the cost of everyone's salaries. Compared to typical businesses. Which can give you a very high return-on-assets ratio. Compared to typical businesses. It feels like we're making something out of nothing. Like writing a novel. Of course, that just means the return-on-assets ratio is irrelevant to us. Our return-on-investment doesn't look so rosy.
Anyhow, great book, learned a lot, and just in time, too. Been doing a lot of budget talk lately and it's nice to actually know what I'm talking about.
Oh, and, full title: "The McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course Finance for Nonfinancial Managers" by Robert A. Cooke. Sorry.
I actually went to the Spike TV Videogame Awards last night, despite the general industry dislike for the thing. I had a free ticket from a friend who got them from a friend who has nothing to do with the videogame industry - in other words, it's not because I'm an industry guy that I went, it's because of reasons that are totally random.
And, you know, as much as I'd like to get a good hate-on for the show, I was actually pleasantly surprised. For the most part, actual designers and producers on the games went up to accept the awards - so David Jaffe was up there, and Michel Ancel (though if there were any justice he'd be getting the award for Beyond Good & Evil) - and they have a "Designer of the Year" category, which is kind of cool, even if (as David Jaffe mentioned - props to him for giving props to his team) no one person makes a videogame. And I got a little misty eyed when Def Leppard came out and played "Rock of Ages" - that's right, going way back to when their drummer still had two arms...that took me back.
So, here's the thing. This show doesn't air until December. They were giving awards to games that aren't even done yet.
So who chooses these things? "Your bullshit academy," as Jack Black put it, accepting an award for a game that isn't done yet in a prerecorded sequence - I wonder if they'll leave that in the final cut?
Guess I'll do my games-of-the-year awards now:
#5: Mercenaries (this might have been ranked higher if I'd been able to make it past the second level...)
#4: God of War
#3: Hulk: Ultimate Destruction
#1: Shadow of the Colossus
Course, I haven't yet played the latest Burnout, Jade Empire, Chaos Theory, FEAR, Call of Duty, The Movies, Darwinia, or even Ultimate Spider-Man (somebody oughtta give me a free copy of that one, yo) so what do I know?
Man, it must have been a bitch getting the motion capture rig on that horse.
Here's a fun way to pass your time: get off the horse and just watch the main character and the horse idle and fidget. It looks more lifelike than just about any other game I can think of; most 3rd person games have the main character run through a single, predictable, robotic loop, maybe with an occasional fidget thrown in as a flourish. Not Shadow.
So, power of focus: boss-killing, and horseback-riding. Both done extremely well. But it does kind of get boring after a while; you kill a few bosses and then you go do something else, and that's where the multi-games like GTA get their power. The horseback riding is enough to give you some variety and vary the intensity, though.
And not to beat a dead horse here, but the most underrated game of 2004, Galleon, did the climb-up-on-the-boss and kill him thing first. Not as well, granted, but that's focus for you.
<em>Shadow</em> must have the worst framerate I've seen in a PS2 game. I'm surprised the reviewers didn't ding it more for that.
Still, all in all, add it to the list of heartbreaking games.
Although there was plenty of response on the Kung Fu Rag Doll survey (if I were to believe this unrepresentative sample, I'd have to conclude that 200,000 people purchased KFRD and that big piles of money were made; I choose not to believe it, though) there wasn't much to the design doc survey.
Here's the thought I keep coming back to. I get the impression from my brief touches with movie people that almost everyone on a movie project reads the screenplay. It's the genetic code for the movie in a way that the design doc never is for a game. Now, maybe this is just one of the many, many ways in which games can not and never will be like movies, but supposing that it is a good thing to have design docs and for everyone to read them, why don't they?
Here are some theories:
A) We don't nicely bind them up and hand them to everybody, saying "Here, read this." Instead we expect people to pick their way through the intricate terrain of the wiki. This is fixable.
B) Design docs frequently suck: they're full of BS; they end up having little or no resemblance to the final game; they're boring. This is fixable. Except for the boring part.
C) Speaking of boring, an interesting movie usually has an interesting screenplay. An interesting game rarely has an interesting design document. This is just the nature of games: it's not the rules of chess that are interesting.
D) Because it's a game, you can't really learn what it is just from reading a document. For example, if this were the design document for chess, would you really learn anything from reading it? It's not until you play it--a lot--that you really know what the hell it is.
E) People are too busy doing their jobs to read the design doc.
F) Screenplays are quick reads. Design docs usually are not.
G) Design docs are constantly evolving - why read them when they're almost instantly out of date? The thing is, to some extent, so are screenplays.
Despite my poorly chosen movie analogy, I do think it's a good idea to have everyone on the team read the design doc: one thing I kept hearing on the last game I was working on was that people "didn't know what the vision for the game was." Even senior guys would say things like, "We really need to figure this system out" - when it had been figured out, and written down, somewhere already.
And I think it's doable: you can address points A, B, E and F. As for D, you still need to do preproduction and prototyping, and have everyone play the prototype. Kleenex testing is a good opportunity for this: has Joe Concept Artist played the game yet? No? Good! We need a kleenex tester.
As for C, part of your design doc usually is a screenplay--assuming you're making an action adventure or role playing game--and there's no reason not to make everybody read that. (Unless it includes *all* the dialog for everything *any* character *ever* says *ever*...) I think we don't do it because we're gamers and we know that the screenplay is really just dressing, but the screenplay usually bears a lot more resemblance to the final product than most of the rest of the design doc does...