Things I Learned in an English Village

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Due to an unforeseen event, I am staying in a village in the heart of England for an extended period of time. For someone who has lived in big cities primarily, the village life is new to me. The buzzing streets and rush hour traffic jams are replaced by endless green fields, horses on the road, and farm/wild animals. A different way of life, and plenty of lessons for the technology-obsessed me: 

  • Location-based social network: everybody knows everybody, and there’s no secret in the village. News of the accident (see first link above) spread from the local pub to everyone in the village. Word-of-mouth in its truest form. The benefit of knowing everyone is that there’s a built-in reputation system as well – you know who to trust to be a genuine news source, and who are the gossipers. The close-knit hyper-personal network is one that’s hard to emulate – the more local it is, the more personal it gets, a challenge all location-based mobile social networks have to overcome.  
  • Farmville in the garden: real-life trees and flowers have a calming effect. I didn’t get to click on icons to pick up rewards or coins, but the benefits are immediate and obvious to my senses – something one day biometric devices will probably be able to measure, and eventually come to the same result that we are better off spending time close to nature (and we all enjoy gardening – a creative activity of putting in efforts, growing a product, and seeing the blossoming results.) The social game aspect is also in place. You invite neighbors to your garden, which gives you a spirit booster. When you leave home for a vacation, the neighbors come around and help you water the flowers – keep ing them from withering. The game session is a lot longer – months/years as opposed to seconds, but you get to play a lot longer without constantly inserting coins. Can social games be designed to strengthen friendship and player loyalty via longer play sessions? 
  • UX at charity shops: used goods are donated to charity shops, where they are cleaned up, categorized, and sold, with proceeds going to charity. The practice exists elsewhere, but the charity shops in the English countryside are nicely decorated and present themselves as boutique stores – which helps with the public’s perception of these shops, and there’s no taboo in buying used clothes and goods. Instead of feeling cheap when shopping at a used good store, you are proud to support local charities and the UX reenforces that with a nice decor and information about the charities you are supporting. A good UX can dramatically change consumer perception and behavior. 
  • To create and to gift: People make chutney, cordial, pies, cakes…etc. (and often give fruit and veg from each other’s gardens), to gift to each other. They don’t do it for money, they do it for fun – the joy is in the making and the learning. Give your users ways to express themselves creatively, to gift their work, and to learn to get better at making things. Additionally, the gifting culture contributes to building a strong local social network (see first point). User-generated-content systems can benefit from focusing on both creative tools and a positive gifting culture to encourage more creative activities.
  • Remember life: A baby pigeon fell out of a tree in the garden last week, and injured its wing. We tried feeding it food and water, but the inevitable still happened. On the day it died, an adult pigeon sat on the lawn near the body for an entire day, as if it were mourning. Seeing the adult pigeon sitting there made my heart sink. No amount of technical advancement should stop you from remembering life – friends, family, love. Treat users as humans and remember at the end of the day what matters most.

And it’s time to water the neighbor’s garden again. I might try picking some tomatoes while I’m there, and learn to make ketchup. 

Three Stages of Playing Zynga’s “Running with Friends”

Running of the bulls
Stage One: No, thank you.

My first thought when learning about the new iOS game “Running with Friends” from Zynga:

“Another endless running game, really?”

Running games on mobile are popular; Canabalt, Temple Run, Mirror’s Edge are great examples of the genre (we even prototyped one ourselves in 2011). The basic premise of an endless running game is simple. You run sideways or forward continuously, and avoid obstacles by tapping and swiping to jump and turn. The game is over when you run into an obstacle, and it gradually gets harder with increasing speed. The goal is to survive as long as possible and collect as many shiny objects as possible.

A lots of games have come out on mobile platforms to capture the value from this popular genre. Most add minor tweaks to the core gameplay with new skins on top. I rarely find them better than the originals.

Stage Two: Why can’t I stop playing?

But Running with Friends had been prominently featured on the App Store and I couldn’t resist giving it a try. (Yes, the marketing power of an App Store feature)

I was hooked. What it does really well is creating a sense of in-the-moment accomplishment. The narrow escapes. You’re still tapping to jump over various things and swiping to turn and move, but the arrangement and placement of obstacles (especially the moving ones) and collectibles allows you to FEEL more skillful at the game. You might think you were simply moving left to collect more stars, but you also just dodged an incoming motorcycle right before it hit you.

Avoiding obstacles is only the start. Once I discovered that destroying obstacles and jumping on bulls gives you more stars, the game got even more interesting. Now I’m no longer avoiding other runners and bulls, I’m looking for them to take them down! A crate is in my way? Now I have to decide if avoiding it and collecting stars in the lane to my left will give me more stars, or if I’d get more stars by sliding into it.

Then there are the combos where the clever arrangement of moving bulls allows me to jump from one to the other and create a combo. Again, a great sense of accomplishment when I pull one off. The items are where you spend your virtual coins (gems). Running with Friends is a Free-2-play game and the coin economy is key to monetization. Monetization discussion aside, the way items work in the game actually provides a huge incentive for players to try different strategies in the game – the items monetizes the game while keeping the game fresh.

Of course being a “with friends” game, there’s the social aspect of competing with others, too. The part I like the most is seeing other players’ “ghost avatars” when you are running – giving the game a real sense of competition in an otherwise pretty solitary experience.

Stage Three: Ok I am done with this.

After two weeks of daily Running with Friends, I lost interest. I opened up the game this morning, finished the remaining rounds that were waiting for me, and decided to uninstall the game, which was surprising to me (and my wife) since I had been playing it quite a bit.

It’s still a fun game to play, but it stopped offering anything new or interesting to me. I felt like I’d seen 90% of the game, and getting a higher score is never motivating enough for me to keep playing a game. Playing it started to feel repetitive, like jogging but without the physical and mental benefits.

Here lies a problem I find in current endless running games – sooner or later they all run out of steam. Could an endless running game, especially one that focuses on playing with others, be more like Chess, with simple rules but expansive moves? I’m sure someone will come up with one that does that. But until then, I am hanging up my sneakers.

Time to Get Rid of “Gamers”

Everyone games. From Wii Sports to Scrabble to Temple Run to Draw Something to Clash of Clans, games are being played by more people than ever.

Yet we are still stuck with the term “gamers”.

We don't call people going to the movies “filmers”, We don't call people listening to music “sounders”, and we don't call people reading books “bookers”. Why do we call people playing games “gamers”?

It might have made sense to use a term to refer to a small group of people that played games 30 years ago. But when's the last time you’ve spoken to someone who's never ever played?

Everyone games. It's time to stop labeling people and start recognizing it as an activity. Stop asking people if they play games, ask them what their favorite games are.

And if they don't have an answer, you've found an underserved audience. Go make games for them and win their hearts.

 

Stop Trying to Make an Angry Birds. Build a Rovio

Jaakko Iisalo, Senior Game Designer at Rovio Mobile

You see Angry Birds generating millions of downloads, becoming an international sensation out of nowhere. You say to yourself, heck, I can make that too. So off you go, building the next physics based puzzle game with cutesy animal characters. Three months after the release, you realize your game is not going to be the next Angry Birds. You run out of steam and capital and close up shop.

“What went wrong?” you ask. “I did everything right, followed exactly how Rovio built Angry Birds.”

Except Rovio didn’t set out to build an Angry Birds. Rovio built out their team and talent in the mobile game space several years before they had Angry Birds.

When you try to build an Angry Birds, you set short term goals, take short-cuts, and dream of a quick payout.

It’s a great plan to make a lot of money quickly when it works. But for the majority of us, it won’t work out that way. You won’t have downloads in the millions, maybe not even thousands. The market will crush you like an angry tide over novice surfers.

Build a Rovio. Have a long term goal. Have a vision. Set a direction and build out a team you can continue working with – internally and externally. Counting on one game to make it big, you’ll only have one shot. Counting on a group of talents, you have a lifetime of opportunities.

 

The Opportunists and the Craftsmen

Graffiti Artists at Work 1

I had an anger inside, much like Nick in the sitcom New Girl with a persistent, almost comical, fire burning internally.

It took me some time to realize what I was angry about – an anger stemmed from the sharp contrast I’ve observed between the Opportunists and the Craftsmen.

I operate in two related yet different worlds – the passionate, enthusiastic intellectual developer community, and the financially motivated fast-talking business world. Each group has its own sub-groups and individualities, and some developers are very business-savvy while some business people are very product focused. But if you pick one person from each group and put them in a room, it wouldn’t take you half a second to know which world they belong. In the developer community, people talk about technology, tools, interaction and experience design. In the business community, people talk about money, markets, and opportunities.

When you get people from both worlds working seamlessly together, it’s a wonderful sight. The craftsman-like developers work their magic in creating the best products the world has yet to see, while the businessmen find the markets and convince the world to get behind the ideas. It’s the pairing of Steve Jobs + Steve Wozniak, Masaru Ibuka + Akio Morita. It has made their companies a fortune, and the consumers satisfied.

The matching of the best craftsmen and the best businessmen doesn’t happen often. The matching of profit-seeking Opportunists and the perception of opportunity however, is plenty. With every new platform and marketplace, a new wave of marketers comes in for the gold rush from eBay, mobile apps, eBooks, Facebook apps …etc., often armed with cheap products and knockoffs flooding the market.

Some of them make a fortune from it by exploiting the inefficiencies in the marketplace and the labor market. There is demand for cheap alternatives to LV handbags, Grand Theft Autos, Angry Birds, and a skilled Opportunist can extract value by hiring the cheapest labor and creating low-quality products to serve the low end of market.

There is value in that. This is why we have dollar stores and fast food chains. Low barriers to entry commoditizes the market. This has been happening in game development, especially on mobile app stores, in the past few years. And just as you wouldn’t hire a Michelin 3-star chief to manage the kitchen at a McDonald’s, to make more of the same games and apps, you create an assembly line for development and hire cheap.

“I see developers as commodities.” said one marketer I met recently. I will be the first to admit I am biased towards the creatives and developers, but the change brought upon us from globalization cannot be ignored. The problem is; it pains me to see clones and copies in the marketplace, most of them much worse than the games and apps they try to clone in the first place. When you see developers and the products you are creating as commodities, you create crap that the world doesn’t need.

And yet, they are making a killing. A marketer showed me his latest game – a terrible clone of a game on the top chart but with added ads and IAP spam. It’s a game that I would be embarrassed to show fellow game developer friends. However, he is making a living creating these games, while many game developers that are creating new and unique games couldn’t even buy coffee with the amount of money they make from their games.

The hollowing out of the middle-class means we are going to see a lot more rich people and a lot more poor people, and not many in-between. This is the force behind Citigroup’s Hourglass theory, where investors focus on serving the super rich and the super poor.

Is The Middle Class Dying

 

Look at the three lines at the bottom – the majority of people (gamers) are poorer than they were a decade ago! Then of course we are going to see the rise of the equivalent of “Dollar Stores” of games. Cheap and uninspiring, games you play once and regret the minutes spent.

So is it time to put away our loved SDKs and Wacom’s?

Quite the opposite I’d say. More than ever, now it’s the time to go all-in. The Opportunists make their fortunes finding the best opportunities. The Craftsmen will then have to make their fortunes perfecting their crafts.

Go back to the chart above and look at the line at the top. Pay attention to these folks – they are hungry for quality content. In fact, they are hungry for the absolute best in the world. When is the last time you saw a millionaire buying paintings at a swap meet? No, they are at Sotheby’s, competing with each other to be the one who pays the most to the craftsmen.

Sotheby's auctioneer Adrian Biddell

“But video games isn’t art” some might say. That’s besides the point. Games HAS to be art so it can be both Takashi Murakami and Toys”R”Us.

This is where I calmed down from my anger. The Opportunists making cheap knockoffs isn’t wrong. They are merely doing their job. What about the struggling developers? Keep your heads down and keep pumping out unique ideas. No one can copy what’s inside your creative mind. And if you are not doing that, you are making commodities that didn’t get made fast enough nor cheap enough.

Games has to be art, and it only becomes art when the Craftsmen perfect the craft.