A Howl and Two Coconuts

The very first Ferris Wheel, built for the World’s Fair in Chicago, 1893.

A lifetime ago (2008) I gave a talk at the GDC titled “Beyond the Box.” The central image was a lonely Ferris wheel standing in the middle of a trash-strewn, dusty field. The point? Even the best digital games at the time lacked context, relevance, and human connectivity.

The talk was tepidly received, and rightly so, because it had a tepid conclusion. I said that the world needed a special place where people and their fellows could seamlessly interact and play… but I couldn’t quite paint a coherent picture of what that place would look like.

Then Facebook  happened. The lone Ferris wheel suddenly became a small feature of a rollicking, Rick-Rolling carnival.

Even a longer lifetime ago (2000), I co-founded a company called iWin with the belief that games were for everyone, not just teenagers who loved head-shots. iWin helped pioneer simple, addictive, all-embracing play via games such as Jewel Quest and Family Feud with philosophies such as making it impossible to really lose. People started calling the types of games we made ‘casual.’ Casual games were more than a market opportunity to me, but a real chance to make the wonder of digital play  relevant and accessible to the mainstream.

Then, from that fertile substrate of Facebook and Casual, the behemoth called Zynga was spawned, mastering the ability to beg, build, or borrow the best mechanics and all but take over the  social channels.

And so it came to be: 88.4 million people playing CityVille.

Everything I’d been preaching about and hoping for and working for had reached fruition…

It should have been a transcendant moment.

But I was disillusioned. I had gone way wrong somewhere, many twisty paths ago… and couldn’t figure out where.

The comparison gives me too much credit, but I suppose I felt a bit like Trotsky watching all he helped painstakingly build with the most humanistic of ideals become bastardized as the power structures grew to take advantage of what was most base and weak about humanity.

It was the unfunniest of Marx Brothers who said, “[History repeats itself,] the first as tragedy, then as farce.”

I didn’t really care, as so many industry vets did, that there’s hardly any true challenge or meaning in mass market games anymore. Experiments were tried. The mainstream has rejected the old paradigms of challenge.

Nor did it bother me that profit came from honing in on the deepest pathology of the most addicted — get bored onlookers to try. Get triers to use. Get users to share. Get sharers to spend. After all, the vast majority enjoyed these games absolutely gratis. And even the most cynical of these bejeweled Skinner Boxes are brightening an otherwise dull day.

My father trying to draw SWIG (when the word was actually SWAG). That’s so him!

No… what really stung was seeing the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical, nakedly a-cloning, fast-following, and pretending to grasp and control the almighty metric. It shamed me to see high-IQ analytical pattern-spotters, max-frame-rate programmers, edgy artists, and seasoned polyglot designers — working in unison with the noble goal of making a “gift wall” more viral….

It made me wonder for a time if the the right answer was to tear myself away from the carnival and retreat with the Hobbits back to the hard-core ghetto, where the Ferris Wheel rides are at least damned fast and fun.
Or get out of the games industry entirely and do something meaningful with life.
And it wasn’t just me having these thoughts. The massive Facebook audience that had, just months ago, so contently click-zen’d through CityVille felt the shallowness, too. Many argue that Facebook gaming’s audience decline was due to tightened newsfeed algorithms, but having lived through many market cycles before, I believe it was more audience saturation and then maturation.

Then the most amazing thing happened: Words with Friends came out. And I started playing it… a lot… with my mom. Who suddenly had an iPad. It was so friggin’ simple.. “just” another Scrabble clone. But the format fit perfectly and made the game into an accessible and ongoing layer of daily life.

Then Draw Something took over. And after a brief lesson, my dad got on board. We speak more genuinely through sketches and the game’s rudimentary chat feature than we do even the few times we get together in person. The game has made us laugh at, appreciate, and even better understand each other.

And so the howl of anguish turned to one of laughter.

Because as awesome as this new crop of truly social games are, they are missing a few important magic ingredients.

That’s why I’m extremely happy to announce the launch of a new mobile game startup called Double Coconut.We’re just a few souls at this point, but with the passion and know-how to make big things happen. I think we’ve finally cracked the code on achieving that perfect nexus of casual and social — and can’t wait to show you.

More to come soon!

Defending (Some of) the Cloners

Danc’s unforgiving essay against plagiarism in game design cuts close, a bit too close to my warm bones. My first instinct is to lash back with arguments such as “The Incremental trumps the Innovative” or “Repurposing lost greatness to reach the masses is saintly in of itself” or to urge him to just, like, lay off since there are Bills to Pay and Mouths to Feed.

My second instinct is to admit that Dan is 100% right. Like the too-rich landlord falling to his knees before a wild-eyed dustbowl preacher, I feel the urge to testify. To rend my suit and wail as I recount the Satanic thought process that has led me, more often than not, to bake my bread with the wheat of other people’s ideas.

But the reality is somewhat more nuanced.

I believe there are three distinct categories of game plagiarism. And since we’re making an ethical judgement here, it’s important to clarify:

  1. Reverse Engineering: If you have an edge on the means of distribution for a new ecosystem but need a “hit product” ASAP to distribute, then looking at another popular Game X and all-out cloning the sensibility, economy, theme, and user interface, has proven to be great business. Often this work can be done by a clever programmer with no background at all in psychology, storytelling, or economics.
  2. Synthesizing: If you understand the brilliantly-wired sources and sinks of Hit Game A, savvy viral design of Hit Game B, and beloved theme of Hit Game C and blend them together, then this is way to create something low-risk but still fresh. The world all-out canonizes people that successfully “steal but not borrow” this way, such as Picasso or Steve Jobs. This type of work takes the most discerning of design minds, a mind of pure and perfect taste that keenly understands exactly how to surgically combine the essential parts of each animal.
  3. Expanding: This happens when you love Game X so much you just want to build it yourself. As you build, you find yourself seeing flaws, prodding, tweaking, adding, excising, retrenching, and eventually stumbling out with something you genuinely like better than Game X. The outcome is familiar but has never quite been played before.

So the purist’s argument — Danc’s argument — is that the intention behind all three of these categories are fully guilty of Plagiarism. Yes, riches may flow to Savvy Reverse Engineers such as the makers of Farmville or Kingdoms of Camelot, epic audiences may flock to Master Synthesizers such as Millionaire City, and lasting cultural relevance may bless Expanders such as Bejewelled… but all of these companies and the people that toil within are Guilty, Guileless, and Unoriginal.

Speaking for myself, my career is actually more a dialectic between innovation and willful borrowing.

  • Feeling boundless and young, I tried to innovate. I found that it was hella difficult to finish something that was any good. So I picked a game and Expanded.
  • Feeling unfulfilled, I tried to innovate. I walked over coals. I fought armies of nay-sayers. Bloodied and weary, I delivered. The market crapped on me. I needed a quick, guaranteed recovery. I Reverse Engineered.
  • Feeling dirty, I tried to innovate. But being responsible for the livelihood of many others beside myself, I playtested and coldly, analytically began to understand what audiences who actually pay actually want. I Synthesized.

I’m hopeful, indeed — I am counting on the fact that some of the very out-there prototypes and half-formed ideas in my skull will one day be both purely innovative and widely enjoyed. But until then, I’m okay with delivering fun experiences based primarily on the hard work of those who have come before me as long as I’m changing things up enough to advance the genre and learn something from the process.

And so: I proudly defend Synthesizers and Expanders. It’s harder to argue for the ethics behind Reverse Engineers… but even there I have faith that, long term, those with a Reverse Engineering culture will find themselves unable to even slightly innovate. Those companies and individuals will stall out once they’ve ripped off all there is to obviously steal.

To flip things a little bit, Danc, I leave you with this challenge:

You have Truly Innovated (I friggin’ love Triple Town). Amazing, wonderful, unique, delicious work.

But is that enough? Whose fault is it if Triple Town doesn’t become a mega-hit and turn Spry Fox into a Billion Dollar company? What will it take for you to not only craft the New, but out-distribute the Reverse Engineers, pre-figure the Synthesizers, and beat the Expanders at their own game?

Go get ’em, Danc!

My Reese’s Moment

Nearly a decade ago, I took a leap to become one of the technical founders of a small company called NextGame — soon to emerge as iWin, Inc. What drove me was building innovative, quick-to-market experiments that:

  • Involved play
  • Told meaningful stories
  • Connected people

I believed that if I could hit on those three key notes in innovative ways then the things I helped build could usher in an entirely new form of mass market entertainment. I honestly believed in the power of play and that iWin’s games could significantly ratchet up people’s overall sense of happiness and fulfillment by stimulating their imaginations while forming real relationships.

Over the years iWin pivoted from skill-based online games to a downloadable games to social games,  from tournament-fee to in-game-ads to subscriptions. From Java to C++ to Flash. Working in conjunction with CJ Wolf, an imaginative, risk-taking, and market-savvy CEO, I spent most of my work days designing out “Version 1.0” products —  coordinating talented teams of  artists and engineers to take crazy ideas and, through a Frankenstein-like process of digital alchemy, make them live.

Some of the products I worked on failed miserably but most were viable little audience-builders and revenue-generators. A rare handful became big enough successes to spawn entirely new lines of business.  But looking back, almost none of the products hit simultaneously on those three idealistic notes of Play, Story, and Connectivity.

When Facebook’s platform opened up and “social games” began to gain momentum two or so years ago I saw a glimmer of hope in bringing those three forces together. I felt excited and charged-up in a way I hadn’t been since those early iWin years. And the eventual revelation that the virtual goods model was actually pumping out some serious cash was icing on the cake.

One of the new social games I helped tickle into existence using duct tape, spit, and static electricity was a little nugget called Family Feud. It combined a fantastic, classic game show format (one that makes unread people feel like champions of trivia), a truly together-with-family-and-friends social brand,  along with an original and meaningful viral hook. Tens of millions of players later, the game has done more than addicted a good chunk of Facebookies — it has become the focal point of iWin’s new strategy and I believe it will transform the company from a shrink-wrapped casual game publisher into a true contender in the social game — indeed, mass media — industry.

But an odd thing happened as a result of this success. My little “I-think-I-can” and “try a bit of this and a bit of that” company now needed discipline, focus… coordination. There was no longer a strong need for the mad scientist. The disruptor in me had to constantly bite his tongue and let the talented game-devs around me dig foundations deep and skyscrapers high.

Now… to digress a bit… an inspirational American businessman I hold in great esteem is George Washington Carver. Before Carver came on the scene, Southern agriculture  was basically monoculture — that is, focusing only on one crop: Cotton. Other crops were considered bad business.

Against all odds for a man of his skin color, this “Black Leonardo” combined his skills in scientific invention, hucksterism, agricultural engineering, and art to develop, teach, and build upon practical uses for peanuts, soybeans, pecans, and sweet potatoes. By understanding every aspect of numerous industrial processes he was able to combine wasteful by-products into hot new commodities. His vision ultimately expanded the overall economy and helped impoverished farmers grow more varieties. This meant families could rotate their fields to keep soil fertile, avoid catastrophe by relying on just one source of income, and overall break the downward cycle of cotton dependency. More to the point, Carver helped jolt the world awake with instant coffee and he spread mainstream the perfect, chunky deliciousness of peanut butter.

I don’t claim to be even a tiny peanut-shell-scrap of the man that George Washington Carver was, but I have had some success at shaking up monocultures and turning crap crop to peanut butter.

Enter into the story another American businessman I have long admired: One Trip Hawkins, the CEO of Digital Chocolate, founder of EA, and about as close as you can get to a real-life Video Game Titan. Trip and I occasionally bumped into each other throughout the years and had brief but deep chats about the directions of our respective companies, where the markets were going, and the pros and cons of various emerging platforms. Talk with him long enough and you’ll see that Trip is indeed an apt nickname. He’s got some Ideas with the capital-I.

The last time Trip and I met we were both in good moods. Much like iWin, Digital Chocolate has had an amazingly successful year due in large part to their own Facebook games such as Millionaire City. But Trip then spun a compelling tale about Digital Chocolate’s direction: A story that involved not just entrenching and building off their social game momentum but pulling back a bit, looking future-ward, and thinking through  bigger, badder, gapless ways that social networks, smartphones, TV, and the wider web itself can work in concert to give the world broader connected gameplay and deeper story.

And so… Peanut Butter… meet Chocolate.

As of November 1st, I will jump aboard as Digital Chocolate’s VP of New Platform Development. I’ll work with Trip and his world-class and world-strewn team, researching, interconnecting, and building upon cutting-edge game mechanics, business models, and technologies.

I’m certain it will be an unrivaled, and utterly delicious, education.

The Social Game A-Bomb

07_Mea-Culpa-Tag-WebOkay, mea culpa.

At some conference-talk I gave two years ago I said social games would never make money. Eh, I was a bit off on that one.

Then I ranted about how the current crop of social games had no staying power. That they sucked. That there was no art-factor, no fulfillment-factor, no learn-something-about-the-world-or-myself factor. That because of this they would fizzle out fast.

A few million Farmvillers later sure taught me.

Truth is, I shouldn’t have been surprised. None of us should have been. The social games that work today play right into the ethos taught by American public schools and mega-corporations: Small rewards for repetitive, mindless effort.

Okay. So my “predictions” weren’t well-thought out visions of the future. They were visceral reactions to the obsolescence of my traditional craft in the industry’s most lucrative field. They were hopeful reactions against the deep cynicism that when given access to a person’s social circle (and after all, what are we other than who we know and how others perceive us?) it’s merely the basest urges that generate the most hype and cash.

I believe the rise of mass-market social games is more than a question of shallow vs. deep or genre vs. literary. I believe there is a true battle over the soul of the game industry going on, with the core difference being the motivation of the creators: Those who are excelling and will excel at making the most money at social games are revenue-minded marketing wizards, not experience-minded interactive artists. As Zhan Ye put it at this year’s Virtual Goods Summit, everything traditional game designers know and value is wrong.

And so here I am, by my own choice, leading up the social games group at my company. I  must struggle with my instinct to make the things I create meaningful and beautiful and joyful and boldly realize that this is antithetical to what I must be focusing on: Urges, compulsions, and funnels to revenue.

Fine, I’m clever enough to adjust, right? As Mad Men‘s Don Draper said, “You’re not an artist. You solve problems.” But is that really what I want to be doing with what little gamecrafting talent I have?

So here’s another prediction (and you already know my prognostication track record):

Very soon there will be an A-bomb of a social game that does something truly crazy – it will make more than money.

And it will usher in an entirely new era of creativity, giving games and their creators an unheard of amount of exposure and power.

Will it be the game that lets people gang up and form an entirely spontaneous but unstoppable cultural movement? The one that highlights how shallow most of your Facebook friendships are and forces you to acknowledge the true timbre of your human connections? The one that overthrows a despotic government? Or the one that gives you a genuine religious experience?

Until then, keep farming.

My Career Path

Every resume tells a story. But that story is usually fiction, making the protagonist seem a directed journeyman willfully forging a path to master a chosen vocation, career, or trade.

The real story can usually be found between the lines.

The text in blue is the stuff you’ll find on my official C.V.:

  • Elementary School in Denver: I copied BASIC from magazines into my Commodore 64 to get free games. I joined BBSes to get free games. I learned some real programming to make some of the games better. I got an allowance sometimes.
  • High School: I worked at a podiatrist’s office linking a database about foot pain to a visual interface. I fixed my friends’ parents’ computers. I worked in an endocrinology lab putting radioactive rats in blenders. I made bad films. I wrote my first novel.
  • College: I got good pay from a wacky psychiatrist typing his scrawl into papers and submitting them to endless journals. I lost my job when AIDS got to him. I wrote my second, third, and fourth novels. I worked on the humor magazine, the horror magazine, and the daily newspaper. I volunteered at NYU’s Media Research Lab on a really cool project that let people walk up to a screen projection of virtual actors and interface with them. Wrote some software for interfacing between the video camera and a Mac and detecting some basic movement, but didn’t really touch any of the cool stuff.
  • Graduation. I almost went to ITP. I almost took a job working at a company that built databases to track TV ads, telling myself it was glamorous because it involved TV. Last minute, I got a gig doing Director coding at one of the original (and final) multimedia CD-ROM companies. I was working on my fifth novel.
  • When a semi-sociopathic game designer working on a sucky game I was coding quit in frustration, I took over. We worked 90-hour weeks. The game shipped, but still sucked.
  • Recruiters were on the hunt. I was offered nearly double pay to switch to an e-commerce company that for some reason was starting a game division. I gave it a whirl. I sat in the back room of a huge bullpen full of programmers hacking together a multiplayer real time strategy game in Java. I jumped in as designer on that one too because everyone else wanted to do “real work” and write code.
  • The game division officially spawned off into a game company called Actionworld. I wrote the engines for backgammon, chess, checkers, and some card games. I went back to my first novel and rewrote it to be more commercial. It still didn’t sell.
  • Actionworld spawned off into an online game store that turned the 11th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper into a retail warehouse and shipping facility. It also purchased a company that conglomerated game sites and sold ads called Unified Gamers Online (UGO).
  • UGO management talked to some investment bankers and knew it could go IPO. It became an affiliate site for all 18-24 web content and a Tier One Internet backbone. I played the role of big-time manager. One week, I hired a six people. I fired two the next week. We still made Java games and game lobbies.
  • UGO spawned off a pure game company called PlayLink. I became a Vice President and had an office. Everyone had an office. We were a handful of people in a 5,000 square foot office. I still made Java games and game lobbies. Every once in a while I’d hire someone or give someone some tasks to do. I learned a bit, but not much, about how to delegate.
  • When the IPO market for dot-coms dried up, UGO needed cash bad and stopped funding PlayLink. The company was sold to a gold mining company. The gold mining company purchased PlayLink with bundled stacks of actual cash money. The gold company had no active mines, but thought that the purchase would diversity their portfolio and draw attention to their stock again. It didn’t. They stopped paying employees.
  • Most people left. A few of us desperately looked for something, anything to do with our semi-cool multiplayer game site. I almost took a job working on web coding for an interactive ad agency, though the people that interviewed me made me nauseated with their hipness. This entrepreneur out of San Francisco just sold his prize site and had some seed cash and had this pretty decent idea of hooking up with PlayLink to make a skill-based game site where people would play games against each other and wager a few bucks, winner take all (minus our tournament fee).
  • And so I became one of the founders of NextGame. I worked for peanuts, but at least I had a (skill-based) job. I contributed to yet another Java game lobby and game server. I remade chess, checkers, and some card games. I wrote a new novel but didn’t know how to end it. I got married.
  • NextGame purchased a flailing company called iWin and changed our company’s name to that nice four-letter domain. We made a download version of one of our most popular Java games called Jewel Quest. I didn’t understand why people would pay $19.95 for a game they could play online for free, but it sold like hotcakes.
  • We abandoned the skill based model and focused on downloadables. I wrote a bunch of game and framework stuff in C++, which I had to dust off again. I co-wrote a screenplay and co-produced a low, low-budget film. I had a kid. I moved out to San Francisco. I bought my first car.
  • I began coding less and managing more. I designed some games and did story writing for other games, did some art direction, conceived of and did basic architecture of a DRM system, hacked up a system for playing ads inside games, envisioned a micro-transaction subscription model.  I had another kid.
  • iWin became one of the top “second-tier” casual game distributors.
  • I stopped coding altogether. I managed game engineers. I acted as producer on a game or two. I chased some albatross. I became a Vice President again and started attending financial review meetings. I began realizing why some of the seemingly stupid decisions I’d seen in the past were made. I vowed to do better.
  • I became the guy writing specs for all web product. I strongly opined about the games we were making and helped green-light some things that became hits (and many which did not).
  • I see a need, make a case, get some cash, and begin work on a highly experimental interactive experience that frames a game store and integrates it into a large multiplayer game itself. Stay tuned!

Summary: 15 years, two jobs, no clear description of my current job, and no clear direction for what’s next. And pretty much lovin’ every minute.