More Quick Notes

I don’t have enough material for an entire blog post, so I figured I’d hit a few minor points before they are too stale to use as an excuse to blog about.

One Month with the Sony Vita

George Broussard famously stated the Vita seems like the last dinosaur at a mammal convention, and sales figures may be confirming this. Still–as a die-hard gamer from the monochrome era, I got one at launch. I’m the earliest adopter there is.

Regardless of the market reality, there is one game that proves the Vita is a serious piece of gaming hardware–Uncharted: Golden Abyss. This is a PS3-sized game of AAA amazingness that you hold in your hand. It’s doubtful the Vita ecosystem can support many games of Uncharted’s scope, but it really is an incredible experience for a handheld.

Oh, and the Near network is cool. It’s strikingly similar to a location-based mobile games ad network I built in 2010. So, yeah–this kind of tech is dear to my heart. What’s up with only being able to refresh every hour?

Adobe Cries For Help

Is Adobe trying to kill itself, or is hurting Flash just a cry for help? Maybe Adobe is just a cutter. Anyway, adding a 9% tax on all content built using Flash’s new Alchemy opcodes is another desperate attempt to create a Flash ecosystem.

This is obviously a move to make UDK and Unity3D’s Flash exporters prohibitively expensive. If you develop Stage3D apps in ActionScript using Adobe’s own tools (or deploy on AIR or mobile), you apparently can release content royalty-free. Too bad. I was really looking forward to using Flash as a low friction web platform for Unity3D content.

GDC 2012 Impressions

My GDC impressions are over a month old and pretty stale. So I’ll keep it quick. Facebook games = dead. Mobile social games = tail end of cokehead frenzy. Social gambling = the fuse has just been lit. The crab cioppino at Sotto Mare = greatest meal of all time.

Why Cloning Is The New Gaming Business Model

Game cloning controversies seemed to have died down over the past month, but the issue will blow up again once another successful game is inevitably ripped off. It’s not even that new of an issue. Still, it came to a fever pitch when Zynga shamelessly copied NimbleBit’s Tiny Tower, then presented this absurd defense of its actions.

You can’t protect an idea. That’s intellectual property 101. Although, it is true that you can protect the expression of an idea: level layouts, art, perhaps even scoring. I’m not a lawyer, but as far as I can tell Zynga is in the clear here.

You have to know the culture that produced social gaming to understand why cloning is the new business model for games. The social gaming industry was created by MBAs, not game developers. To an MBA, there is no difference between a game and any other web service. Both Orbitz and Travelocity sell plane tickets online–but nobody complains that Orbitz ripped off Travelocity. They are simply two competitors in the web airline reservation space.

To a company like Zynga, Tiny Tower is merely a pioneering entry in the Mobile Virtual Tower Simulation space. Zynga is simply producing another entrant and attempting to carve out their slice of the total addressable market for this type of service. There’s no creative soul to Dream Heights, perhaps, but neither is there one for airline ticketing websites.

This is abhorrent to a lot of developers who have been creating games since before the social gaming revolution. Yet, I meet a lot of young gaming entrepreneurs for whom this is the way of things. They speak in terms of attracting another game’s customers with cloned mechanics and a few changes–perhaps in platform, delivery, or other business model differences. Never in terms of creative twists.

Social gaming giants usually clone games from smaller developers and buy larger companies who produce games they’d like to be cloning. This is probably because well-funded startups often have the same cokeheads backing or advising them, and thus a cloning controversy will ruffle some valuable feathers. Smaller developers should be already well into the development of the next hit-to-be-cloned by the time the VC backed cookie cutters arrive.

Let’s Keep Dying

Remember when Bill Gates was the enemy? Ahhh the 1990s–It’s almost like they never happened. Yet, Microsoft still carries with it the Evil Empire reputation it gained from 20 some odd years of suspect business practices and ultimately being declared a monopoly by the FTC…sort of.

Since software broke free from boxes in the Web 2.0 era, Microsoft’s power has waned and Bill Gates put himself out to pasture as a philanthropist. I suspect Bill Gates discovered what we all do–he’s going to die. Perhaps even more depressing, he’s not going to be able to spend all his money before he kicks the bucket. So, Bill Gates has admirably chosen to spend the rest of his life giving away his vast wealth to charitable causes of personal interest: malaria, polio, that sort of thing.

This is in direct contrast to the new generation of rich tech elite. Recently I read this article about Peter Thiel–billionaire venture capitalist and one of the earliest investors in Facebook. Many of his new investments are in biotech–in particular, investing in companies that are trying to cure death.

Bill Gates’ sense of his own mortality is so old school. The Silicon Valley investor class has also realized they can’t live long enough to enjoy all of their wealth. However, instead of spending their fortune on bed nets they are trying to become immortal. The cokeheads will live forever. Time enough at last.

In the same interview, Peter Thiel criticizes modern investors for building trivial technologies that don’t move humanity forward. He waxes nostalgic about the 1960s Space Program and contrasts it with today’s meaningless web 2.0 developments (many of which he is personally responsible for).

I think Peter Thiel is trying to eliminate one of the greatest innovators of all time: death. Just imagine if you could become immortal, but it was really expensive. We’d still be living under the yoke of 16th century kings who want to burn you at the stake for believing in heliocentric orbits.

Plus, your unpredictable expiration date is great motivation for getting stuff done. Steve Jobs’ premature death was a wake-up call to a lot of people putting off things they want to do until some nebulous future date.

It’s not all bad. I’m sure the advancements biotech companies create while slaving away to discover the fountain of youth for their overlords will trickle down into medicine for the rest of us. After all, we’re just now starting to see the benefits of a few decades of stem cell research.

Still, I can’t help but think the human lifespan is in a sweet spot for innovation. Live too short and you’ll never accomplish enough to evolve (fruit flies)–live too long and you’ll put off accomplishing anything for generations (whales–a bunch of slackers). Let’s keep dying, it’s good for the human race.

2011 Year in Review

Location isn’t dead. It’s just everywhere.

When Facebook announced they were killing Places, it was kind of a shock. Several months later it makes total sense. Location isn’t a feature people use apps for. Location is now part of the social web’s fabric.

Instead of a separate Facebook feature, you can now tag a location on to anything: posts, photos, and (yes!) check-ins. It seems like location apps such as Loopt, Brightkite, and SCVNGR have faded as they all ‘pivot’ to Groupon clones or whatever.

Now location is merely an expected feature. I’m willing to bet most people don’t use Instagram primarily because of location. Still, tagging locations on photos is popular. Instagram is outpacing Foursquare for growth. Probably because it’s actually useful beyond announcing “I’m here!” to complete strangers.

Peak Soccer Mom.

Zynga is a monster of a company and congrats on their IPO. I remember seeing Mark Pincus at Cassie Phillips’ very first social gaming conference 5 or so years ago as a relative nobody. This was back when SGN had more funding.

Today, SGN is nothing but a memory. Zynga managed to upend the entire game industry, plunging the old guard into panic and chaos while blazing a trail to a 7 billion dollar valuation. Bravo!

A lot of analysts are disappointed with the IPO. And yeah, Zynga desperately needs new customers. For this reason the company seems like it’s not a growth stock.

Is it a risky investment? Perhaps not. Zynga is the first public company whose performance you can watch in real-time. Instead of looking at guidance and waiting for quarterly reports, just go to AppData and watch their DAUs. If only there was a way to automatically sell a stock once their user retention dropped across the board…

Unity 3.5

The Unity 3.5 beta is now public. The GUI is nowhere to be found–my #1 problem with Unity. Still, it has file locking for SVN and P4V support, multi-select, and a bunch of other small fixes that I’m happy with. Oh, and the Flash exporter really works. Plus, there are some promising new GUI add-ons in the Asset Store.

Console Disruption

The 3DS has been able to pull itself back from the brink with quality software this holiday season. This effort may prove futile as tablets and mobile devices are still pounding the handheld market into submission.

I’m big on the Sony Vita. I even paid extra to reserve the First Edition bundle early. I am fully aboard this kamikaze mission to stuff every conceivable feature in a massively powerful device directly aimed at a market that wants nothing to do with it. A glorious death on the battlefield! I want to see how this turns out–even though a brutal, bloody loss for the axis is seemingly inevitable. Operation DOWNFALL.

Folks I know that got a Japanese Vita say it’s a glorious piece of gaming hardware. However, the 3DS outsold the Vita during launch week in Japan. Not a good sign.

Action Bronson Has The Best Album of the Year

Action Bronson’s Well Done is the best album of the year. The first rapper to rhyme about how to properly cook and serve puffin. Real talk.

VCs, Welcome to the Game Industry

After my post about how Zynga seemed to have hit peak soccer mom, news broke that their profit took a nosedive by %95 this quarter. Some may say this is the bubble bursting on social, but it’s probably not. It’s just the maturing of the social game industry.

Zynga’s active users are down by about 3 million. Growth is flat, this is true. However, Zynga has attributed their falling revenues to the lack of major releases generating new revenue. I’m likely to believe it.

This is a familiar pattern to anyone who follows the dinopubs–companies such as Take 2 have wildly gyrating stock prices due to the release patterns of tent pole games like Grand Theft Auto. With AAA console titles taking 3-5 years to develop, you can go many costly quarters without any decent revenue coming in. This is especially scary when you are spending $50 million to develop a title and $100 million to market it.

Remember the early days of social games? Think back to 2008 when Jetman was hot. It was a crude Flash action title that was probably whipped together in a weekend. SGN bought it as one of the first acquisitions in the space. Contrast that with Adventure World–a lush, rich adventure in…uh…clicking on lots of stuff to generate spam. Ok, not my cup of tea–but the amount of work put into this generation of social games is deceptively large.

Zynga has been spending a lot of money acquiring companies and massive amounts of staff. I’m sure their 2,000 or so employees aren’t sitting around filling out Netflix trial subscriptions for free FarmVille Bucks. There’s a lot of development going on. Social games are taking longer to make and fickle audiences are saturated with compelling content. Naturally, if you don’t have anything new out there your usage and revenue will drop off.

The thing is, this hit-driven pattern was part of what made games totally off-limits to investors until the social revolution. No longer can you throw a heap of money at a bunch of pizza-eating Stanford CS grads in a SOMA loft to crank out code and buy millions of users until you supernova into an acquisition by the greater fool. VCs wanted to invest in so-called ‘game factories’ but now you actually have to produce quality games and work hard for your users. Scary stuff.

I’m not quite sure the crop of VCs that heavily invested in social gaming are ready for slow growth and a revenue chart that looks more like a string of al dente spaghetti than a hockey stick. Will social gaming become as unattractive to VCs as the traditional dinopub industry is? Zynga better not delay their IPO much longer–or time it to coincide with the release of a major title.

Is Location Dying?

I was blown away by today’s announcement that Facebook is shutting down Places. A year ago, it was announced as Facebook’s Foursquare killer. Perhaps Facebook decided Foursquare wasn’t worth killing?

It’s kind of bewildering. Pundits complain that only %6 of Facebook users used Places. But %6 of 700 million users is roughly 3-4X Foursquare’s entire user base. It’s really not even about active users anyway. It’s about the reach of Places check-ins through the social graph.

Places activity is featured prominently in your newsfeed. Check-ins frequently generate comments and from non Places users. These conversations can be a valuable viral marketing tool for venues and events. Check-ins on Facebook Places are far more valuable than those of Foursquare or any of its lesser competitors due to their reach.

Facebook has stated they are opting for a new geotagging feature on pictures and posts instead of check-ins. I do like geotagging much more than check-ins, actually. I think this is one of the best features pioneered by Instagram. I’ve gone to venues because I saw something really delicious tagged at a local restaurant. I’m also more likely to geotag than check-in. Checking-in is a big statement compared to adding location information to a post. Still, can’t check-ins and geotagging all just get along?

For developers, location just got a bit trickier. Basing a game or app on check-in history has always been a bad idea. You don’t want to require a log-in for a game–a good percentage of your users will drop out upon seeing a log-in screen. However, Facebook Places offered more of an opportunity to use social check-ins in an app since it’s attached to a mass appeal social network instead of a niche app like Foursquare. Who remembers their Foursquare password?

Places was seemingly thrown out there with very few enhancements made to it over time. Maybe Facebook decided the cost to whip it into shape was just not worth the effort. After all, revenue streams from check-ins have always been suspect.

This goes to show you that even if the 800 pound gorilla decides to muscle in on your turf being focused and nimble can pay off. It was looking grim last Fall, but Foursquare vanquished the beast and has emerged unscathed with a new round of funding.

Facebook will probably use that prime area of real-estate the Places button occupied in the mobile app for a more lucrative feature. Yet, I can’t help but think they didn’t give Places a chance. The fact is, location will remain an important feature in mobile due to the very nature of the device. Facebook just can’t figure out how.

The New Era of Virality

A few weeks back I saw this post covering a lecture about the current trends in gaming by Tim Chang during GamesBeat 2011. Now, if you read a lot of VC blogs, please stop. VCs are very good about telling you what the trends are last year. You’re likely to crash your car doing too much rear-view mirror driving. In this case, during a bunch of stating the obvious, he claims we are in the “post-viral era.”

This may not be the case.

In social gaming 1.0, it was all about spam. Social game developers prided themselves on their secret knowledge of the so-called “viral expansion loop.” This black art really was no secret. Just spam Facebook newsfeeds with obnoxious ‘stories’ about lost cows and Mafia Wars riches. Whether you were selling herbal Viagra or virtual crops, the technique was the same–Shoot out millions of messages and hope that a fraction of a fraction of a percent follow through.

In the late 2000s, it seemed like the there was a fine line between social game companies and Nigerian 419 scams. Newsfeed spam from social games got so bad that Facebook shut down all the viral channels by early 2010. Except, of course, for Zynga–with whom they have a sweetheart deal. Anyway, when the spam APIs were squelched, Facebook app virality died. This was the end of Social Gaming 1.0.

In 2011, virality still lives. Turning your players into evangelists that go out and get others to play the game as a core mechanic is a tricky thing to achieve but it can be done. The best example of this is the wildly popular (among hipsters, at least) turntable.fm.

A pivot borne out of the social shopping startup, Stickybits, turntable.fm is a music sharing game where you earn points by performing as a virtual DJ. Create a playlist of tracks from turntable.fm’s immense library, or upload your own. Then, play these songs for head-nodding virtual spectators.

Is this legal? Who cares. They’ve amassed a decent chunk of users in a few short months. turntable.fm will figure that out later when the Cease-and-Desists start showing up.

The only way to earn points as a DJ is to have a lot of virtual club-goers watch your performance. Racking up tons of points requires driving lots of users to join your room and watch you spin. The more spectators you have, the more points you earn. If you read interviews with the game’s most fanatical players, you’ll see that turntable.fm has created a group of hardcore whales who put more effort into bringing in new players than your average user acquisition manager at a social gaming company.

For fanatical DJs that desire fame, glory, and enough credits to buy cool avatar gear, the drive to bring in new turntable.fm players is strong. Compared to many other social games, there is little friction to this process as players don’t have to actually play anything. Once invited, users merely have to log-in and consume free music.

The big mystery is how this game plans on monetizing its audience–but I’ve seen few social games with viral mechanics this persuasive. It’s unclear if a game you actually have to play to participate in can emulate the same model, however turntable.fm is an example all game developers should be looking closely at.