Dan Scherlis

online community … user experience … strategic marketing

My column for DMW: Don’t clone my indie game, bro

Posted by scherlis on May 18, 2012


Soon after arriving at this year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC) I was struck by the complaints — both in conversations and in rant-style conference sessions — about a rampant and increasingly practice of large game companies ripping off the work of smaller, independent developers.

When I spotted a clever little badge ribbon, one that clearly was not authorized by conference management, I wrote this column for Digital Media Wire.

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Panel at Boston Post Mortem: Analytics & Metrics

Posted by scherlis on November 8, 2011

I’ve assembled a panel for tomorrow night’s regular monthly meeting of Boston Post Mortem, aka the Boston Chapter of the IGDA (International Game Developers Association).  I’ve a business trip, so I’ll miss the session.  That’s a shame, because the panelists bring a wide range of perspectives on the use of analytics and metrics for game development:

I do enjoy putting together a panel.  But I also enjoy moderating, as well.  But, aside from my being out of town, Darius is flat-out better-qualified for this one.  Plus, I’ve been working for Sonamine, and thus didn’t really belong up there as his moderator.

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Panel at Harvard: Evolutionary Biology Looks at Videogames (Who Plays Games and Why)

Posted by scherlis on June 1, 2010

[Update: Added more links based on our discussion. More will follow this weekend.]

For a few years now, I’ve wanted to get a game designer (or two) into a serious discussion with an evolutionary behavioral biologist (or two).  Obviously we find games — specifically videogames —  fun,compelling, and sometimes badly addictive. But just what is it about those activities that is so rewarding?

I’ve finally rounded up the venue, the right scientists (Harvard’s Richard Wrangham and his colleague Joyce Benenson of Emmanuel College), and a couple esteemed colleagues (Kent and Noah). We’re on!

The event is Wednesday night.  It’s at Harvard, and walk-ins are welcome.  Below are the details for the event, from the Harvard page, and links to some supplementary materials.  I fully expect to add more links, based on our discussion.

I can’t resist noting: as I type this, there are no google hits for “evolutionary ludology.”  Here’s the vitals for the event:

Who Plays Games and Why: Evolutionary Biology Looks at Videogames

A discussion with Harvard Human Evolutionary Biology Professor Richard Wrangham, Emmanuel College Psychology Professor Joyce Benenson, and game developers Noah Falstein and Kent Quirk.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010.   5:30 -7:30 p.m. (registration begins at 5:00 p.m.)

Location: Harvard Science Center, One Oxford Street, Cambridge

Electronic games are competing with television for that essential resource: consumer attention.  But exactly who is playing these games? And what is their appeal? Indeed, why do people find games “fun” at all, from simple board games to immersive 3D fantasy worlds? Is there a biological reason that males and females play dramatically different kinds of games?

The many genres and formats of games will be surveyed in a brief multimedia overview, with a look at the different populations that play these different games. Then, human-behavioral scientists will collaborate with game-design professionals to explore the biological roots of our attraction to these experiences.

Please join this discussion, with:

Alumni and friends of the Harvard community: $10.    Undergraduate Students: complimentary

Supplementary materials for this session:

Articles and other online resources, general background:

Items mentioned during the discussion: [more to follow]

Books mentioned during the session: [more to follow when I can review the session's recording]

  • Bowling Alone, by Harvard’s Robert Putnam, shows the decline in America’s “Social Capital” — by many measures — over recent decades. (I think this decline motivates our hunger for social engagement via online games, social media, etc.)
  • What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2007) by James Paul Gee.  His short opinion piece in Wired speaks to educators and to game designers.
  • Rainbow’s End, a novel byVernor Vinge. (Recommended by Noah and Kent as a vision of augmented reality.)
  • Snow Crash, a novel by Neil Stephenson. (Mandatory reading for social-media industry participants. An early vision of virtual reality, with insight into our relationships with our avatars.)

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Tomorrow: Speaking at Harvard Business School’s Cyberposium

Posted by scherlis on November 20, 2009

Hey! I have a blog. ( I wonder if this thing still works?)  I’ll (re-)start with a personal note: I’m moderating a panel tomorrow (Saturday) at Harvard Business School’s Cyberposium 15 conference.

I’m delighted with our session’s focus: Where Gaming and Social Identity Collide. We’ll look at social games (and what I still call “community-based games”), how they overlap with other social media, and the implications for other industries. The panelists are a great balance, bringing backgrounds in product-development, academic, marketing, publishing (digital and old-school), and creative.

Cyberposium draws an interesting mix of industry and finance executives, along with the predictable MBA-student crowd. The conference’s annual themes have addressed different aspects of digital (generally Internet) technology.

I’ll use this space to publish some links that we wind up promising the crowd.  That will surely include some industry references and news sources, especially for social games.

Linguistically, I’ll acknowledge that the name does have a distinctly mid-1990′s ring to it. That’s only fair: this is Cyberposium 15, after all; it started in 1995. But “cyber” does seem increasingly marked, if only to judge by the increasingly snarky reactions it seems to draw.  That said, it remains productive. Arnold Zwicky, in a recent roundup of portmanteau words, cited cyberchrondria, and cyberteria. I’ve no idea how he missed cyberposium.

Adding: Of course I was joking.  There’s no reason why any linguist, not to mention a Stanford linguist, would be aware of a small (if excellent) high-tech conference at Harvard’s Business School.

And by the way, anyone curious of language should enjoy this favorite of mine: Prof. Zwicky’s 1980 booklet, Mistakes. Although intended for his linguistics class, the assumptions it makes about your preparation are, as he says, “modest.”  And how many academic notes draw their examples from Grouch, cummings, Perlman, and railway graffiti?  (I’m using note in the HBS sense:  a supplementary teaching document that might run to 40 or 60 pages.)

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Celebrity Calamity: game that actually teaches financial literacy

Posted by scherlis on February 18, 2009

Today sees the release of Celebrity Calamity, a browser-based game that has already been shown to improve financial-literacy skills. The game comes from the Doorways to Dreams Fund (D2D), and is inspired by the research of D2D’s founder, Harvard Business School Professor Peter Tufano. D2D plans other games to target an endemic lack of financial skills and knowledge, particularly among low-income single mothers.

Here’s the best part: it seems to work. Preliminary testing results by D2D show:

  • financial skills & confidence up 15% to 30%
  • financial knowledge up 55% to 70%

I’m pleased to have had a small role in the Celebrity Calamity team. At the request of Prof. Tufano and D2D’s Nick Maynard, I assembled a few local game designers into a small brainstorming group.  Nick and I had hoped to conclude with a few high concepts and general principles, but the team exceeded all our hopes, and quickly converged on a core vision. After a huge amount of work by Nick and his development teams: it’s a game! From that initial brainstorming team, Jason Booth stayed with the project as advisor and designer.

Celebrity Calamity got a write-up by Anya Kamenetz on Fast Company’s blog. You can see the press release, or view the trailer on Youtube, or check out interviews with the test users.

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Nerdly sub-cultures and their humor

Posted by scherlis on February 17, 2009

One joy of the internet is that, no matter how narrow your niche, you can surely find blogs to support it, comics to self-parody it, and communities to squabble about it.  These examples crossed my desk (er, desktop) this morning:

(1)  For philosophy nerds: Advanced Dungeons & Discourse

Bayesian Empirimancy: prior spell-efficacy

The rewarding Mind Hacks blog highlights this philosophy-themed D&D role-playing quest.

And there’s the original Dungeons & Discourse, also by Dresden Codak.  (The 8th-level positivist is immune to metaphysics, but has low charisma.)

(2) For language nerds: worst pun ever, with analysis

My own favorite guilty nerdly pleasure, Language Log, reports this appalling pun (an 18-second video). The pun is ‘good’, but it’s the comments below that got my attention, rife with linguistic-style categorization-squabbles, with duly-offered comparables and counterexamples.  (That said, Karen is right: it’s not a mondegreen; it’s not like “Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames.” And I’m always happy to see a Hendrix reference in any thread.)

Of course, I can’t mention nerdly humor without this modern classic:

(3) For comp-sci/math nerds: XKCD

If you’re this kind of nerd, and you didn’t yet know about XKCD, well, then, you’re welcome. This recent favorite captures the full XKCD mandate of “romance, sarcasm, math, and language.”

The culture of the XKCD forums (excuse me: fora)  are worthy of their own examination.  Later.   The various emergent behaviors include a variety of forum games.

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Metrics: “Online Games is best performing game sector index at -29%”

Posted by scherlis on January 30, 2009

Yes, thirty-percent down is the new up.

I’ll rarely focus on market values, but since I just posted on relative new-media/old-media values I’m quoting (in the title) this month’s Video Game Briefing (PDF) from Paul Heydon at Avista Partners. (You can subscribe.)

Online games (down 29% from Jan 2008 ) narrowly led PC/Console games (-30%) and distributors/accessories (down 34%).  They all outperformed the S&P 500 (-38%), well ahead of retailers and mobile games, (both down about 50%). The low point was Nov 20, ’08, but not by much.

The report also shows regional performance, ranked as you would expect (Asia, S&P, U.S., Europe) but perhaps spread more-broadly than you expect.  And there are many details on M&A and on equity raised. In total:

  • Over $1.8 billion of M&A deals in global sector (LTM)
  • Over $1.6 billion raised in global sector (LTM)>

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Metrics: New media’s mkt value up 102%. Old media lost 32% (’05-’08).

Posted by scherlis on January 30, 2009

The communications, media, and technology (CMT) sector lost 47% of its market value in 2008, worst than most markets overall.  An Oliver Wyman press release, summarizing their 2009 State of the Industry Report (PDF) notes that within that sector, for the the 5-year period:

Traditional media — including media agencies, publishing, and broadcast and entertainment — lost 32% of its market value, or $137 billion, while new media (online content and services) gained 102% or $58 billion.

The top performer in the media segment was China’s Tencent, with a market value of $11.6B.

(The above quote is from the press release.  If you can find that data in the full report — or other analysis of the new-media-subsegment –  then I owe you serious respect.)

The report does discuss sector-specific strategies.  Strategic recommendations include strong focus on emerging markets and on broadening corporate scope, such as broadening from distribution to content. (More on this detail in a later post.)

In support of comScore’s assertion (which I argued against) that free-online game growth comes at the expense of paid content, note that 18% of US consumers “expect to spend significantly less” on “a la carte content purchases (including movie tickets, … downloads, games, etc.)” And 19% expect to spend “a little less.” Only 10% see spending more.  (Oliver Wyman’s November survey: Exh. 8, p. 13, of the full PDF report.)

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Metrics: U.S. online-game growth: visitors up 27%; minutes up 42%.

Posted by scherlis on January 28, 2009

Good news for the online-games biz, specifically the casual (mass-market) online games biz.  Discussion after these highlights from today’s comScore report (Dec. 2008 data):

  • Free online-game-site visitors grew 27% in 2008, to 86m.
  • Aggregate playing time jumped 42%
  • Online games consumed 4.9% of total Internet time (up from 3.7% in Dec. ’07 )
  • Online display-ad views grew 29% to 8.6b (in Nov ’08 )
  • The average player views 127 ads (unchanged year-over-year)
  • Ads per page view (“a measure of ‘ad clutter’“) dropped 17%, to 0.83

The top sites? Make your guess, then check the tables in the press release from comScore, and let me know if you were close. Suffice to say, I’m impressed by WildTangent’s good work. (Regardless of November’s major changes there.)

Why the growth? ComScore says that people have “turned to outlets such as gaming to take their minds off the economy“.  Also, they are “turning to free alternatives.”  A 14% drop in retail sales for PC games is cited as evidence.

I don’t buy it.  As Dean Takahashi notes in VentureBeat, console games grew 19%.  And, even if free-online (casual) and paid-retail games both reach broader demographics than last year, they nonetheless reach different demographics: I don’t see them as clear-cut substitutes.  Maybe this is less a down-turn driven shift in spending habits, than a continuation of casual-game growth, fostered by innovation, and by wider use of social content-sharing. (“I stumbled-upon a great game!”)  By contrasted, we didn’t see an exceptional year for retail-game  innovation.

Footnote for the algebraically obsessive: Yes, 127 avg impressions against 8.6b ad views implies only 68m visitors in Nov ’08. That would be unique visitors to ad-supported sites, versus the 86m online-game-site visitors overall.

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Sociolinguistics and the Botched Oath

Posted by scherlis on January 22, 2009

Far too much has been said of the collaborative botch that President Obama and Chief Justice Roberts made of the Oath of Office.  But I do want to share some linguists’ observations, and note a connection to industry culture.  In this case: the culture of lawyers.

Linguists will happily note that Roberts’ misplacing of “faithfully” might reflect an instinctive grammatical superstition, one particularly favored by lawyers.  Specifically, he over-extended the bogus “avoid split infinitives” rule to blindly cover all “split verbs,” and thus he avoided uttering “will faithfully serve.”

Mark Liberman, co-founder of the excellent Language Log, has cited the highly-influential Texas Law Review Manual of Style as a leading perpetrator of the split-verb superstition, and thus a key player in “Grammatical indoctrination at law reviews“. (He later suggests that split-verb-phobia also infected journalism. As is typical of Language Log, the comments rival the posts: one comment posits the AP Style Guide as the infectious agent.)

And for a different cultural dimension (but, really, just for fun) I give you another commentator’s suggestion that split-verb-phobia is

“evidently a hangup of the heathen English, not of us purer Anglophones from North Britain:
Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led…”

The Texas Manual more recently backed away from its error.  (Yes, “error”!  Even Fowler and Follet encourage placing adverbs within compound verbs. And if Fowler says this is a bogus rule, then even a hard-line prescriptivist should agree it’s bogus.  Right, Mom?) But it has influenced thousands of lawyers, adding to other unique and distinct habits of speech and writing peculiar to lawyers and attorneys, such as those compound and redundant noun phrases. Law Professor Jim Lindgren writes:

This nonsensical rule against split verbs has caused entire volumes of law reviews to be filled with page after page in which adverbs have been squeezed out of their normal place. Most law professors who have dealt with law reviews recently seem either to have had disputes about the placement of adverbs or, worse, to have adopted the Texas approach, the approach of people who write as if English were a second language. It’s frightening to think that the ability of a generation of law professors to recognize their native language has been damaged by one silly book. Before picking up the Texas Manual in 1987, I had noticed that the ability of the law reviews to place adverbs correctly had deteriorated, but I hadn’t known the reason.

The best discussion I’ve found of the inaugural-oath event is in Benjamin Zimmer’s  recent posting in Language Log. Again, the posting is good; it’s the comments that are great. (As Zimmer noted in a follow-on.)

Other, unrelated,  learnings and observations from that thread:

  • Such vows and oaths are “deaconed off” for practical reasons.  (A new word, to me, if an archaic one. It’s apparently a late-19th-century Americanism, OED-cited and variously attested, stemming from the New England Congregational church practice.)
  • The oath is not performative (it doesn’t make-it-so: “I bet a dollar” would be performative), in the sense of causing the man to become President. He already was. But it is as performative  as any other oath or promise.  That is: the Hippocratic oath won’t make you a doctor, but I’m happier if my doc has sworn to it.
  • Weirdly, no generative syntactician or truth-functional semanticist has yet stepped into that discussion to argue that I will faithfully execute X is “the same sentence” as I will execute X faithfully.

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