Anal-ysing the Analysts

So I was just reading this.

http://www.joystiq.com/2012/11/29/analyst-black-ops-2-sales-a-cause-for-concern-downgrades-act/

You should probably go read it too – it won’t take a minute. Go on. I’ll wait.
Done? Good. Ok so the tl;dr version is that Black Ops II is trending to be down 15% on sales from the preceding COD game.

And because of that, this “financial analyst” feels that it is “cause for concern” and that Activision’s buy rating should go from “buy” to “neutral”.

Well, several thoughts occur to me reading that.

The first is this – What a financial analyst actually does is attempt to discern trends based on stock price movements vs discernable strategy from the company under observation. So they look at published sales, look at what the stock price is doing, measure that against both what the company says it’s going to do vs what it’s actually done – because the strategy that a company announces (or doesn’t announce) isn’t always what they really plan on doing, or the market will allow them to do – to discern what predictions you can make about the companies immediate future.

The idea being that these analysts are independent, are not just buying into the press releases from the companies they are looking at, and are providing a service to potential investors, the media, the public etc.

That’s a noble aim, to be sure. However, realistically, these guys have no more idea about the reality of their predictions than you do looking at tea leaves. Firstly, they are operating against the exact same data you are. They don’t get private sales data, they don’t get insider information; they operate off NPD sales data, just like you and I do. They operate off what Yahoo Finance gives them in terms of stock performance, just like you and I do. The only advantage they have is that they are trained to do a statistical analysis of the data in ways you and I aren’t.

But ultimately, so what? Being trained in statistics doesn’t suddenly give you a crystal ball to see the future. Knowing how to calculate the Mean, Mode and Median doesn’t help unless you know where to apply those calculations and what to do with the result.

And as with all things, the statistical results have to be framed with all the environmental factors that matter. For example, when ATVI was at the end of the Guitar Hero era, they were doing great guns selling plastic guitars. From a purely statistical point of view, there was every indication that it would last forever. However if you where out in the world, youknew that pretty much everyone who wanted a plastic guitar already had one, and that the bottom was about to fall out of this market.

The thing is, there are a TON of things that affect when games come out, the quality to which they are made and the public reaction to it, and these “Analysts” have no more idea of what the reality of allĀ  that is than anyone else does. Less than the average game developer, that’s for sure. Hell, anyone with kids has more idea about what’s going on with stuff like Skylanders than a ‘financial analyst’ does.

Michael Pacter of Wedbush Securities is another of these pundits that is more often wrong than right with his speculations (go on, test that out. Go look through a few of his public speakings and predictions and you’ll see that he’s actually rightless than 50% of the time. That takes some doing, that does). However, it doesn’t stop him speculating a LOT and getting reported A LOT.

So why is this? If this lot really have less clue than the average game developer about the true state of what’s coming out and when, why is it that everytime we open an official media report, these gems are being reported to us as though they are important?

Well, basically, because there’s no one else really to ask. Any game developer is already in the game and therefore biased. You can’t just report what the companies want you to say via press release (although a lot of these analysts seem to do exactly that a lot of the time) – these guys have set themselves up as the independent view, so they get asked and they get reported.

They don’t honestly have much more a firm clue about what’s going to happen than you or I do, but they have advanced degrees and do nothing else all day and have great titles, so what the hell, I have to fill column inches – what does Micheal Pacter think today?

The other thing that occurs to me is this: What exactly are they expecting here?

The fact is we are just entering a console transition phase – speculation about the next generation has begun in earnest now, which signals a slow down in games / console hardware sales (I’m surprised it’s gone on as long as it has, to be honest). ATVI doesn’t have many high profile products any more, having successfully pared down it’s offerings to just those it makes a ton of profit on, and we have just about reached market saturation on the COD franchise (something that Jason and Vince were fighting hard to stop, but that’s another discussion).

However, they _still_ made more money on day #1 with COD : Black Ops 2 than any other COD product release todate. I’ll say that again, just to be sure you get that. COD : Black Ops 2 made more on day #1 sales than any other COD product release todate.

So why the hell are they recommending a downgrading of stock purchase? Two reasons. A reported decline in WoW subscribers – this is an ebb and flow thing any way, they go up and down. It’s true that they are less now than last year, but they also haven’t brought out any expansion packs recently, and the numbers are still clear and above the “that’s fantastic and we can all wear money hats” line. And the other thing is this perceived decline. Now that’s primarily driven by NPD reporting – which is shaky and very very approximate at best anyway – and also the fact that Activision has changed their first week sales reporting. Previously they’ve released the first 5 days sales. This time they release day 1 sales. The thinking there is they did that because the 5 day sales ARE down, but Activision doesn’t want anyone to know that.

My point here is that even if that is true – and there is NO verification that it is – Activision isSTILL MAKING OUT LIKE A BANDIT ON THE COD FRANCHISE. It’s not dead. It’s not even wounded. It’sstill making money hand over fist and far and above pretty much every other FPS game out there.

I can’t quite believe I’m going to say this, since most people who know me know I don’t hold that much love for Activision, but in the interests of being fair, I have to say this. Activision is still a very very financially healthy company and they are not in any danger of that changing in the short term, no matter what Arvind Bhatia of Sterne Agee thinks. All he’s doing is panic mongering based purely on stats that are not confirmed anyway, because it gets his name in the media and it sounds good.

The thing to remember is that COD is not going to last forever regardless. At some point it will tail off. However, even if it plateaus, it’s plateauing at such a high altitude that frankly, who cares?

It does make you wonder that “financial Analysts” can only recommend a company when it’s expanding. Well, nothing expands forever. The fact is, you can still be a great buy even when you _aren’t_ expanding, and even better buy if you are retracting and retrenching. I may not always like the way Activision makes money, but I am forced to admit that the current exec branch is bloody good at it, and 5% less sales on COD – given the economy and the fact that we are starting a console transition phase – is NO cause for alarm.

Wow. I can’t believe I am actually supporting ATVI here. I guess I’m trying to be fairer than usual!

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Jakeworld Returns!

I finally got off my well rounded arse and updated Jakeworld. Well, I deleted it all and started again, really. It’s now WordPress powered, instead of the code I wrote myself. It served it’s purpose but had to be retired since comments were being spammed to death and sometimes the XML reader in PHP just vomited.

Anyway, it’s back, and here’s the blog, which I will attempt to update. I have a lot of topics to cover.

Hopefully all of the old blog posts are there, although all the comments will have gone. Just safer that way. Most of the pics should be there, although I know there are a couple of posts where they are still missing – but it’s 1:45am and I’m knackered, so it can wait:).

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll add back in the C Tutorials, the Articles (have a few more now to add to that lot) and the .Plan Files. I already got the Console Collection done, which is nice. I’m not sure if I’ll add the Evils back in or not. We’ll see on that.

Anyway, check back – I’ll be adding a post about these so called ‘financial analysts’ tomorrow. Got some words for them, that’s for sure.

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Infinity Ward, more information!

So more information appears to have been forthcoming/divined on the whole Vince & Jason vs Activision spat.

It would appear that from conversations with people in the know, Jason and Vince were not surprised to be fired from Activision because of their unwillingness to have the MW brand milked to the point of invalidating the IP worth. If reports are correct, they were almost certainly putting in perparations for this eventuality – the lawsuit they handed Activision on being fired appeared suspiciously fast for a straight reaction to being fired. I’m sure that if they statements of being ‘interrogated for 6 hours’ are true, you can draw your own conclusions on what to expect next in that situation.

But what is more interesting is that my own speculation is that this was more about control of the MW brand than anything. It’s been mentioned that in a memorandum of understanding between IW and Activision, that IW has the final approval rights for the MW brand. Meaning Activision cannot just milk the franchise as they would like willy nilly and as they have done with other IP they get their hands on.

Now, given this is modus operandi (ie business as usual) at Activision, I can imagine this must have been a massive sticking point. They’ve milked the living crap out of Guitar Hero, although it has to be said that I personally wouldn’t disapprove of that. Guitar Hero has a limited shelf life anyway – there are only so many people who want to buy a plastic guitar and once you hit that number the market will inevitably contract. Milking it now is robbing the future value of the brand, because it doesn’t have any anyway. Might as well milk it now while it *does* still have value.

In the case the Modern Warfare brand, that is not the case. As I see it, Jason and Vince were probably trying to extend out the life and value of the brand by NOT overselling it and spreading it everywhere. When you do that it’s called Brand Dilution and the more of it there is out there, the less it’s valued individually. This is why Ferrari doesn’t make normal commuter cars and why Honda separates its high end business of Acura with a different brand name – to avoid brand dilution.

So here we have Jason and Vince trying to ‘protect’ their brand they’ve spent time building and we have Activision on the otherside desperate to milk it for all it’s worth. Lets not forget that the Guitar Hero business IS dying off, and they need to keep expanding as a corporate or die. So they need to increase income from something else to cover the potential lack of reveneue from Guitar Hero.

Activision traditionally sucks at creating IP inhouse, prefering to buy it from outside. So they have nothing internally to cover this. So what do they need? They need to exploit something they *already have*. Oh, look, there’s Modern Warfare looking all sexy and chick and popular. Lets exploit that! Oh, we can’t – we have this pesky Memo of Understanding (which, lets be clear, is NOT a contract – it’s an understanding between two people which should lead to contract) and those annoying guys over there at IW refuse to let us exploit it.

Damn.

Oh wait. They’ve been talking to EA? Oh MAN!! This gives us the lever we need!! Quick, call the lawyers!

I mean, it’s all too believable, isn’t it?

This isn’t about the royalties for Modern Warfare 2. This is about control of the brand, and the external-looking-for-a-deal gives Activision the lever it needs.

The biggest problem I have with this is that Activision, almost to the same day, authorised $190 MILLION worth of shares to be distributed to the execs. I mean $190 MILLION worth.

Activision has a problem with creating IP right? Here’s an idea. Keep, oh, $100m of that money and try putting it back into the company in order for it to have a future. How about this? Take that $100m. Split it into $2m parcels, then pay for lots of teams to spend 6 months and that $2m and build a prototype / vertical slice. The top, oh, 8, get full funding. That’s 50 prototypes they get to judge. 50!. And the execs still get $90m to share among them selves.

I mean, that’s doing something to promote the future of the company, but no, instead they’d rather rape the money that’s there now, at the expense of the future.

Honestly, the share holders, if they had any sense, would oust this lot making the decisions at Activision Pronto.
But they won’t. And the cycle will repeat itself down the road again.

It’s just too depressing for words.

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The IW/Activision Spat

Which should be more accurately titled “The Jason West & Vince Zampella / Activision Spat.

For those hiding under a rock, recently Activision fired the CEO and CTO of Infinity Ward, the people responsible for Call of Duty and the Modern Warfare brands of games, certainly the jewel in the crown for Activision internal development. They went to a meeting last Monday and were then escorted from the building. Several ‘heavies’ showed up at the IW offices and made the entire team leave, with no explanation.

This was mentioned in the 10-k filed that day by Activision, so we know the firing itself was premeditated and not a spur of the moment thing.

Jason and Vince have since hit back with a lawsuit to Activision, details various wrong doing and demanding creative control of the Modern Warfare IP, as well as unpaid royalties. Several rather despicable events have been documented in the filed suit, e.g.

Activision conducted the investigation in a manner to maximize the inconvenience and anxiety it would cause West and Zampella. On little notice, Activision insisted on conducting interviews over the President’s Day holiday weekend; West and Zampella were interrogated for over six hours in a windowless conference room; Activision investigators brought other Inifinty Ward employees to tears in their questioning and accusations and threatened West and Zampella with “insubordination” if they attempted to console them; Activision’s outside counsel demanded that West and Zampella surrender their personal computers, phones, and communication devices to Activison for review by Activision’s outside counsel and, when West and Zampella asserted their legally protected privacy rights, Activisions counsel said that doing so constituted further acts of insubordination.

Which, if true (and it probably is, you don’t say these things in a suit if they aren’t) doesn’t look good for Activision.


I think it’s worth pointing out that IW produces the quality of project they did *because* they resisted Activisions intrusive fingers (E.g. the Insubordinate behavior). As Jason has said before “If you aren’t prepared to quit over something, then you don’t really care enough about it”, which paired with “When you have success, everyone wants their finger prints on it” says quite a lot.

Activision though is probably not questioning *why* the heads of their most successful studio felt this was necessary in their relationship with Activision in order for them to feel successful; they are just reacting to the how, not the why. Questioning the Why might reveal truths they’d rather not deal with. I suspect we’ve all done this at times.

The thing is though, Jason and Co report to Activision people, and there is only so long people who are supposed to be giving the commands are going to take direct reports ignoring them. As I heard it (and this is second hand), it’s gotten to the point where IW would only actually talk to a couple of people at Activision. Lets not forget the end of game MW 2 scrolling credits speed thing, which very neatly summarizes how IW feels about most of Activision (note, some Activision people – ie the people who IW actually felt did stuff for them -localization, marketing and so on – were *not* in the fast scrolling group). For those who haven’t seen, the end credits for Modern Warfare 2 scroll at different speeds. First theres the people who actually made the game, then after than come Activision people, which scroll by at quite a speed.

Now is IW an arrogant group? Sure they are. By all reports Jason and Vince aren’t the easiest people to get on with, and tend to cultivate the attitude that if you aren’t doing thing their way, then you are an idiot. I don’t doubt that if that attitude was being presented to people they report to at Activision then there was no love lost between Jason and Vince and the suits at Activision.

But that arrogance *is* bought by accomplishment. They’ve made Activision over $2b dollars, on an original investment of $10m (The first COD had a $5m dev budget and they cost $5m to buy when Activision bought them out). They can afford to be a bit arrogant if you ask me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think Jason and Vince have probably gone a long way to making the bed they are now lying in. If you have a good relationship with your publisher this kind of thing doesn’t happen, and it does take *2* to make a relationship. But from the outside looking in, what is going down appears to be far more lopsided than a reaction to their personal style in communication.

What Activision *doesn’t* realise is that sure, they are responsible for *part* of the machine that brings the games to market but they are way more replaceable in the entire pipe than the dev team at IW is. That’s the lurid truth that doesn’t appear to have penetrated Activision yet.

Sure, they provided the funds to start up. Many other people could have too, it doesn’t require *skill* or *creative juices* to recognise that a team who has already produced one good WW2 can probably do another, and is worth the $5m risk.

Now it terms of support in general, yeah, there is some argument there. The marketing has been good and so on. But it literally is not something that THQ couldn’t have done, had they the money to invest in something like that. The only difference I can see is that THQ didn’t, while Activision did. Now that IS an important fact, but is it worth the support of a company that is prepared to do some of the things I’ll detail later?

In the entire part of the pipeline I can see, the only part of it that is irreplaceable is the team, and that team operates on the mandates put in place from top down (ie Jason and Vince). Remove that and part of the crucial foundation crumbles.

Lets not also forget some of the Activision based events that have occurred to set this up. It’s been reported that Activision requested a 10% head count of IW (and IW is only 75 people – they are a pretty small shop to be producing the quality they are), expecting IW to refuse, which they did. Why would they do this? As I see it, thats to produce a paper trail of ‘insubordination’ so when they do decide to throw out the top people, they can point to it and say “well, there you go then”. That’s entrapment anywhere else, but hey, this is video game publishing! Nothing to see here.

I should point out this hasn’t been confirmed, but I’ve heard it reported by several people with rather more direct knowledge than I have.

My own personal feeling on this is a situation where Jason and Vince wanted to do something else but where told No by The Suits. The Suits got wind of Jason and Co talking to other publishers, trying to put a deal in place so they could pull a Bungie. It’s easier to take your leads with you when taking them to a signed deal than a vaporware “we’ll find something”, especially when you are giving up royalties the likes of which pay off your LA house. At this point, the Suits were not about to let the team go, so they set up a situation where they could fire Jason and Vince, also slap them with a law suit to make them unattractive to other suitors, and forestall a mass exodus of team.

That’s how I see it anyway. I don’t have access to any particular secret info, I’m just going on what is already out there and trying to read between the lines.

But what really blows my mind is how Activision treats the people they expect to stay behind. If what I’ve read online is true, they’ve retroactively changed how the royalty stream works so instead of the stream coming 6 months after the game is out (1 quarter to make profit and 1 quarter to ensure you stick around) so that they pay out the royalty over 2 years. With the bonuses getting incrementally bigger, so the largest are at the end.

This is their idea to get the team to stay. Basically holding the bonuses / royalty payments for ransom.

If this is true (and I’ve not had it confirmed yet, so take it with a pinch of salt) all I can say is WTF.

Instead of coming in and saying to the rank and file (or at least the leads) “Look, this shit is fucked up, we know that. The guys at the top were doing stuff that made us _really_ uncomfortable, where subverting what we need you as a studio to do and as such they had to go. But we want YOU to know that we REALLY value your work and position, so here’s a quick $200k bonus and here’s a contract to sign for the next 3 years, so you can be sure that you’ll get the royalties as they come in over the next year or so”, they basically said “Ok, well, we don’t want you to leave so we are going to hold onto the money you thought you were going to earn by your hard efforts”.

Way to go Activision. Really thought that one through, didn’t you? Money, frankly, talks. The more you try and keep it to yourself the more aggrieved the people you are holding it out from will feel. The more you give it, the more the people you give it to will feel you are being fair and will reward you with loyalty. This is basic 101 management stuff. If this is true, then I think it’s *really* telling of where Activision Execs minds are at in this situation. They recognise that the team is important, but not as much as the money, and that the team is replacable where the money is not.

What this indicates to me is that Activision has finally and truly revealed itself to be more interested in the business of running Activision than they are in the core business they are supposed to be in, which is that of making games. This is the crucial pitfall that EA fell into, where making the actual games – you know, the bit that makes the money? – is second to running the business day to day. This is MASSIVE in terms of focus shift, although it’s not surprising given Activisions focus on IP over implementation. It’s not IP OR implementation you goons. It’s IP AND implementation, and with IW you had both!

Another fact that seems to be missed here is that a teams cohesion and effectiveness comes about to a large degree by company culture. If everyone is expected to bring their A game and B games are not tolerated, people tend to rise to that challenge, through peer pressure, professional pride, desire for recognition etc. Jason and Co appear to have generated that environment for their team and that kind of environment is *always* generated by those at the top. This is why Bioware and Gearbox have had such success – because Greg and Ray (the directors of Bioware) and Randy Pitchford (the CEO of Gearbox) are decent people who have been in the trenches and are plugged into what their people are doing and what motivates them.

This kind of culture requires nuturing, and continual maintenance. You replace the top 2 people and it will start to break down. It’s just inevitable. Personal style of the guys at the top cannot help but influence company culture. Add to that loosing some key people (which they will, without doubt), and you’ve got serious issues for the MW IP 2 years down the line.

Lastly, I truly believe that Activision is underestimating the amount of developer support Jason, Vince and the folks at Infinity Ward would receive over this. From what I’ve seen there’s been near 100% support of the devs of Infinty Ward, and Activision is seen as the Evil here. Quite something for them to supplant Electronic Arts as the Bastion of Evil for publishers.

I would suspect (and hope) that this has serious ramifications for developers considering doing deals with Activision.

Honestly. Words fail me. (well, they don’t, but you get the idea).

Here’s a link to my friend Dave Taylors Blog, who also has thoughts on this.

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Thoughts on the IPad

So I didn’t have the blog working when the IPad was announced.

So here I go catching up.

Wow, but it’s sexy, isn’t it? I’m not entirely sure who it’s aimed at in terms of pre-defined demographic, but one of the things that Apple does so well is create NEW demographic niches, and I’m quite prepared to believe they can do it again here.

I’m a bit astounded that it’s $130 more for a 3G equipped Ipad though – why so expensive? The radio isn’t that expensive, and you are paying $30 a month extra anyway – and thats a kick in the pants to those with iphones – they are *already* paying $20 a month for data, now *another* $30 for the ipad?? Why so much?

Given that this device has bluetooth built in, I suspect that quite a lot of people will simply jailbreak their iphones and use it as a data tether, so the lower cost Ipad can use it as an internet source. Hell, I’d give it a go if I got one of these things.

The lack of flash on the web browsing experience is a bit of a stunner. I mean, I don’t use my iphone for browsing that much any more because of the lack of it – well, that and lack of screen real estate. The idea is that the Ipad will give you a more accurate browsing experience because of its size – well that’s all well and good, but if you aren’t getting flash then it’s significantly NOT the same as browsing on a Mac or Windows machine. There is just Too Much Flash out there right now. Sure, this move might get more people to adopt HTML5 instead, and it is true that lots of flash stuff is badly written and uses too much CPU, but that’t not an excuse to avoid it. What you do is get together with Adobe and WORK on it, not just throw it out of the window.

Those people who stand by apple because of their “We hate flash ads” stance are missing the point. That’s not Flash that’s the problem, that’s the ad market. You think they won’t find ways to put ads all over the place NOT using flash if the Ipad is successful? This is the same dead end argument that “everyone should be using a mac because there are less viruses for it”. Missing the point that the number of viruses is a factor of how successful the platform is. If everyone *did* run to the Mac OS because of this argument then the number of viruses for that platform will increase exponentially.

I suspect this has got more to do with the amount of flash applications that could be provided on the web that apple couldn’t charge for. The whole App Store process is predicated on it being a closed platform that you *have* to go through the app store to get content. There’s the sub argument of the fact that content has been tested and therefore won’t crash your device, which is totally relevant in terms of providing a unified choke point, but that’s really got nothing to do with the implementation of Flash or not.

All the arguments about Flash running like Garbarge have Just Enough Truth in them as to be trotted out regularly, but don’t be fooled; this is a political decision and nothing more.

Now my biggest eyebrow raise is the lack of a front facing camera. I am *most* surprised this device doesn’t have that. This device would be *perfect* to run Skype on, and since it’s mainly a WiFi device, you could get decent video throughput too. I am confused about why this is missing bearing in mind the cost of webcams these days is minimal. I know this would have made this device an instant purchase for me. As it is, I can see me waiting till the second generation when I’m sure this will roll out.

I look at the Ipad and see a device that *could* be awesome. I want to skype with people with this device. I want to be able to get on the web, use Google Apps and I want to be able to watch streamed video from my servers at home (lets face it, 16g is not enough to store lots of music and video). I want to be able to run some apps in the background (Pandora for example, while web surfing) and play some games. That’s pretty much where I see this device aimed.

There’s no technical reason why I can’t do this, only artificial restrictions put in place by Apple to stop me streaming whatever video I want – they want me to ONLY buy it via ITunes. They artificially limit background apps, although it’s there in the OS because the Ipod functionality does it, as does the phone functionality. And they deliberately disable Flash in the browsing experience, and there’s no front facing camera.

And yet, you know it’ll be sexy, the UI will rock and you’ll want one anyway.

Second Generation for me I think.

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More Podcast and other stuff.

So I was talking about other podcasts last post. Now this weekend I listened to some more, including some dev pod casts (well one).

Bungie. I tried. I really really tried. Your blog is full of interesting information. But for pitys sake, please, can you PLEASE STOP TALKING OVER THE TOP OF EACH OTHER. After 20 mins I just gave up because a) everyone constantly talked over each other (note, a pod cast is NOT a casual conversation, and even if it was, most of what people feel the need to share IMMEDIATELY is just Not That Interesting, certainly not worth destroying someone elses train of thought) and b) no one was ever explained who they are. Who is Joe whatever his name is? What does he do? Why is he being interviewed?

In the end I just gave up.

I also listened to Adam Corrolla, because my friend Jace Hall was on it (The Jace Hall Show). Adam Corrolla, I’m sorry dude but the “I’m a Dude and I like Explosions” thing is a bit 1980′s, and to be clinging on to that is a bit sad.
That said, Jace Hall aquitted himself well I thought. There’s a lot more to Jace Hall than his Web show reveals, and I think it would have been nice to hear a lot more of that than Mr. Slow Talk Adam Corrollas thoughts on 1980′s action heroes.

Next, I tried the Freakanomics podcast, which is new, and quite frankly damn entertaining, as is the Death Ray Comedy thing, although that is an aquired taste I think.

Ok, enough on pod casts.

Lets talk about Activision and the Mass Layoffs.

Isn’t this scary? ATVI is making more money than ever before, but cutting people and studios left right and center. Why? Because they’ve taken a good look at where most of the money is being earned, and decided to cut almost everything but that.

Now this is an interesting strategy. On the surface, it makes sense. They inherited quite a lot of less-than-mega stuff with the Vivendi merge, plus, well they are a power house at strip mining IP that they didn’t create.

However, while it looks good on the surface, there is one problem. The mega money – Guitar Hero, COD and the Blizzard stuff, well, it has a shelf life. By cutting back all the potentially and likely not hits, they also loose development of that which is going to replace all this 5 years now from now.

Activision, though, also realises that most new mega IP doesn’t come from corporately mandated development – EA is struggling with this right now with it’s experiements with Dantes Inferno and Dead Space. They are creating what is, frankly, a much better game than I would have thought possible out of Redwood Shores, but still, nothing that is The New Mega Hotness. Mainly I think because the kinds of risks you need to take is inimical to corporate desires about predictions. You *need* to take 20 risks, just so that 2 will pay off. However, ATVI doesn’t play that way, prefering to buy what the new hotness is.

The trouble with this approach is 2 fold – buying the IP once it’s already hot is expensive, and secondly, you’d better hope that someone else doesn’t get there first.

Eventually ATVI will realize, as EA has, that internally generated IP is the desired and most predicatable success methodology. However I do wonder if they’ll have any more success than EA does? Possibly, because ATVI *can* actually be hands off when it is pushed hard enough, wereas this is pathologically impossible for EA.

NOTE – I am not including Blizzard in this, since Blizzard appears to still be a rule unto itself. However, it had better not stumble because if it does, ATVI will be as much of a dick to them as they are to studios like Raven.

It’s going to be an interesting few years.

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Podcasts and Other Misc

OK, so been away a while. Sorry about that.

The blog was also broken and my friend Andy pointed that out. Fixed now. I really need to fix the underlying PHP code to not allow certain characters that tends to break the underlying XML code. It’s all time.

So what have I been doing? I’ve been finishing my book – I’m recording it now as an audio book too. I’ve written a short story using the same characters and started plotting book 2.

I’m workin on an Iphone App a friend designed. It’s been interesting, learning Objective C. I’m about done with all the changes requested, although the next thing is to get DLC working and that’s a couple of weeks work all by itself!

But I’m still in the movie business, working for Gribble on Real Time Stage based applications. I’ve delivered some stuff already that I think will make life easier for the guys here.

This also means I’m still doing the AZ-LA commute most weekends, listening to lots of stuff on my iPhone, which brings me to the subject of this blog post.

Gamer Podcasts. On. My. God. Most of these are just so terrible. I mean just not good.

Generally they are 3 or 4 guys who know each other, have some common ground and who spend most of the 30 minutes to an hour making jokes at each others expense and generally having a riotous time of it, making a few comments about games and such on the way.

It’s just awful. These guys are *constantly* laughing at themselves, because, well, they are hilarious, don’tcahknow?

After trying several podcasts – most of which are the same – I wrote down some rules of shit Not To Do.

1. Stop damn laughing at EVERYTHING. This is not an exercise in how funny you can be to the other troglodytes. YOU may think it’s funny and they might even think it is too. 99% of the people listening won’t though.

2. Stop talking over each other all the time. Have some damn respect for what the other person is saying AND LET THEM FINISH IT. Other wise everyone just talks all over the other people and it’s annoying trying to figure out who is saying what.

3. Stick the point – or even have a point? If you are going to talk about something, have something to talk *about*. Have a point you are making. So much of this stuff is 10 minutes of people introducing each other and having a little laugh at each other and then some incoherent rambling. If you have a guest, then have some damn questions for him (or her)!

4. Make the point something relevant to the reason for the podcast. If you have a podcast about games, then Make The Conversation About Games. Not about some grudge clan match you having going on with another podcast, or about what you were doing over the weekend.

In fact, since we are going there, lets just spell it out. You Are Not A Celebrity. No one cares what you did on the weekend, so stop telling us about it as though we are interested. We are not. You are not that interesting of a person, which is why you are doing a podcast and not being employed to host a TV or Radio show. Doing a podcast doesn’t make you a celebrity and instantly make you interesting. Please understand that.

Now having said that, I still want to hear what you think. Especially as a Dev, I *definitely* want to hear your thoughts on the game, how it felt, what you felt when you played it, the marketing and so on. This is gold. Please talk about that some more. Make your points – people *are* listening to that and are interested. This is not, however, a trial run for standup. If you want to do standup, please go do standup.

5. Edit the damn thing. Seriously, actually LISTEN to this before you dump it up to Itunes.

6. Do not make it more than an hour. To be fair, most don’t. Some even make it 30 minutes. That’s ok. More than an hour of banal masturbatory chat makes baby Jesus cry. Yes it does.

7. Engage your fans. If people leave comments on your facebook page, TALK ABOUT IT. That is one way to actually engage people. One podcast gives shoutouts for those who leave comments on Itunes. This is a good thing (even though the rest of that podcast is god awful).

That’s just off the top of my head. Honestly we can all do better.

I’m gonna try some dev podcasts this weekend on the drive home – watch this space for comments:)

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Small module pipelines

Something I’ve noticed over my years of developing stuff for people is the distinction between those who love small module pipelines and those who prefer monolithic large app pipelines.

An example of small app pipelines is a pipeline made up of lots of little apps – each app modifying data and passing it on to the next app. Usually under control of some master calling process that marshalls the data and ensures that only the data that *needs* to be processed actually gets processed – it handles dependency checking and so on. A good example of a control process might be Scons or KJam – a Python built system.

A more monolithic approach is a large app that basically does all your processing for you – everything that does data transformation is within the app. You just call that one big app and sit back and wait till it’s done.

Now the advantages of the small app is flexibility. Want to change how shaders are generated? Sure, just replace that module with another one. As long as it can handle the file formats as they are forwarded on, you are good to go.
Another good thing about this process is that the data itself is usually held in file format between applications which makes debugging that much easier. If one node in your tree is doing bad things you have the trail of data to look at to work out which node is doing The Bad Stuff(tm).
Another advantage is that the module code tends to be able to be incorporated into other modules relatively easily. Have a materials processing module? Great, you can probably wrap that up into a Maya Plugin relatively easily because the code is designed as standalone code in the first place.

Cons of this approach include speed issues – since each app is an individual app it means that the app needs to start up, data needs to be loaded, processed, saved and then passed onto the next. This is both time and bandwidth consuming with so many loaded and saved temporary files. It’s also loaded with many points of failure – each node could be the wrong version of the application, or someone made a modification of that node and didn’t test the entire pipeline to ensure it plays well with others.
Another issues is lack of consistency. While a well run project has very defined parameters for how modules are built there is often enough vagueness that developers tend to create their own ways of how the module logs errors, or what languages a module uses (“Oh, this bit is Python, but that calls this Perl Module that then accesses this other website”). The lack of overall framework often results in each module having it’s own set of very specific overall dependencies on 3rd party code / feature sets. Sometimes these dependencies can even be at odds with what *other* nodes in the network require.
One last problem that can crop up is an extension of the internal dependencies problem – what works in isolation doesn’t work in combination. For example, a module that’s written to work on it’s own can’t be compiled into another module simply because it uses the same libraries as the larger module but a different version. There’s an external library collision – then what do you do? Because everything is built in isolation there is way less forcing of conformity of library usage. The classic “Well, it works on my machine” problem.

The advantage of the large app is that generally data is passed from one internal process to the next in memory, which makes it a lot faster than the small node pipeline. Also, all the code is in one place which makes the dependencies issues far less – you *have* to load the entire pipeline in order to test new code because, well, it’s all in one place.

The disadvantage of this approach is that code reuse tends to be at a minimum – when the code for a particular operation is inside a larger application it tends to get targeted at that specific application and molded for it – the idea of an independent module with no dependencies tends to get lost. The code itself also tends to be way more mission specific and less flexible than code written for smaller modules, and certainly there is less in the way of error checking internally because you tend to trust the data that is fed in more than you would as an independent module (although that can also have the plus of speeding the code up a bit – lacking all that value range checking it just Is Faster).

It’s also way harder to debug – you get all the logging output from every step rather than just the one you want and generally have to sit through gobs and gobs of other code to get to the part you want.

An observation I’ve noticed is that individual engineers preferences toward one type of pipe against another tends to come from their platform of choice.
Linux is a small app driven environment – lots of small console apps all strung together to make an operating system. If you’ve ever seen linux users string together commands on the command line, piping the data from one into another you are seeing a microcosm example of what the small app pipeline looks like.

Windows users tend to go for more monolithic application approach since that’s what dialogs and so on are built around. Windows does have DLL’s it’s true, so each module could be built as a small app, but anyone who’s done any extensive work in DLL’s can tell you, versioning can get out of hand very very quickly under windows and sometimes diagnosing this can be of great pain.

My personal feeling leans towards the monolithic app, simply because I’m a windows user – the small app pipeline just has too many points of failure and too many smaller internal dependencies that all have to be set perfectly for it to work.

Whatever else you may say about windows, it does at least have far more graceful legacy handling of older formats. Smaller hand built modules tend to be far less fault tolerant, but report less so when they do fail you have no idea why. The small module approach is definitely The Way To Go in certain situations, but too much dependency on it means you end up with large pipelines with god awful sets of dependencies within them. One change tested in isolation and it brings the whole thing down.

Just something to think about when you are designing your next pipeline.

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Goodbye 3D Realms.

Well, this week saw the shuttering of 3D Realms, developers of the Duke Nukem Franchise.

There’s so much to say about these guys – 13 years and no game? 2 Engines, gobs of money and development work and still no game? So many people have had a pop at them over the years and lets face it, it’s pretty easy to do this. Wired has awarded them their yearly vaporware award so many times that it’s silly.

3DRealms have never released a game on a windows platform. The last internal game they released (besides re-releasing Duke Nukem 3D on XBLA) was Duke Nukem 3D. They’ve released other stuff developed by other people – expansion packs, but nothing that was supposed to be their flagship.

But what is less generally known is the work they did with external developers. Max Payne only existed to the degree it did because 3D Realms went in there and helped them out, paying milestones and helping with IP Creation.
Prey was the success it was in part because of the help that 3D Realms gave developer Human Head (and it’s worth mentioning that Human Head are an awesome bunch of guys, but they are as dependent on publisher money as the next developer – having a group like 3DR run interference for them was invaluable). It’s doubtful that game would be quite the quality it was without 3DR’s help.

3DR was more than just “the guys making DNF” – they were a scrappy indie developer who actually walked the walk – they made their own decisions, brooked no interference from publishers and generally were everything an indie was supposed to be.

However I also suspect that was part of their downfall – they weren’t making friends with publishers, and publishers do tend to have long memories about that kind of thing.

I also suspect that when they required money to finish DNF that, given the largely silly amount of time they’ve already had on DNF that it worked against them – from the publisher point of view I can quite see that funding a company who was openly rebellious and that has basically proved they can’t actually get stuff done on time or in budget probably wasn’t a great bet.

Lets be honest here – 3DR probably bears quite a lot of the responsibility for whats occurred here – they made their bed and now they have to lie in it.

I have the feeling that there was some brinkmanship regarding IP rights behind this door closing – it may well that their distribution partner, 2K, wanted those IP rights and 3DR, knowing that a developers only real value is the IP it owns, refused to give them up. 2K, being in the driving seat cos they have the money probably said something like “Well, give us the rights or go out of business” and 3DR, being 3DR, would rather do that than give them up for free.
NOTE – this is personal speculation, not any kind of insider info.

But having said that, could nothing have been worked out so the world got to see what was reportedly one hell of a game? I just feel it’s sad that the world is deprived of a great gaming experience, and from the point of game developers in general, there goes one of the poster boys for indie development.

Possibly as a result of their own hubris and certainly as a result of their inability to actually, you know, get something done and release it. But still, people have lost employment and we’ve all lost a great game and a poster boy for indie development.

This is a sad day.

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A fun exercise.

Here’s a fun little exercise that I call Distillation.

Can you distill the essential wisdom about any given thing / situation / person down into one sentence? Preferably using a common phrase?

For example

Working with other developers – Respect the fact that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

or how about

Dale Carnieges “How to win friends and influence people” – Learn to listen and preemptively find out about that which your intended target is into so you can ask leading questions.

I was playing this with myself last night, just looking for the lowest level of distillation I could get to on this kind of stuff. Some are kinda “Duh” results – yes, obvious, yet how many people ignore the obvious?

Some more examples.

Friends – Treat them as you want to be treated, but understand everyone is also different.

Making Games – Iteration is key and tools that make that go faster are king.

Writing – it’s more important to get words down then revise them than it is to make them perfect first time.

etc.

You get the idea. Can you come up with examples of your own?

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