Photo Phrase LIVES

I am ecstatic, excited, and exuberant to announce the launch of Double Coconut‘s first game: Photo Phrase. The idea is Pictionary meets Charades meets Hangman. No… it’s Draw Something meets Instagram. No, wait… it’s…

Well, what it really is, or at least intends to be, is a way to get people out of their shells and getting creative within the shared hallucination of sacred silliness.

We give you a witty caption. You then get to use a set of easy tools to craft an instant masterpiece to fit that word or phrase, using either your camera, digital fingerpaint, or a collection of stickers. Friends can then get your picture and guess the answer via a simple but slick game of Scramble or Hangman.

You can also just flick through the gallery of other people’s images, seeing how people of all stripes from around the world, for instance, interpret the phrase “pole dance.”

Photo Phrase is definitely inspired by all of the excellent games and apps mentioned above… but I hope you agree the experience is something fresh. We’re all very proud of the outcome. Our hope is that the game becomes a meaningful new way for you to crack a smile each day with the people you like, love, and/or barely tolerate.

It’s currently available for iPhone, iPad, and iTouch. Android coming soon!

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!

Shady Nate

And now for something refreshingly not about games…

Esquire’s fiction contest this year challenged time-challenged writers to pack a story into 78 words. No, I didn’t win that trip to Aspen with Oprah… But I actually liked the timbre of what I finally came up with. Alas, this intro is longer than the story. And so:

Shady Nate, VP of Business That Runs Itself, has a desk photo: Sweet but sassy wife, plump uncrying infant. Finally joining the tyranny of the clueless happy.

Then: A diagnosis.

Meadows become minefields. Every word a restrained scream. Director of Performance Improvement. Bourbon postpones the Bang.

Misrouted email: Niral, in Finance, in thong, smartphone aimed at her hotel mirror. Meant for a luckier Nathaniel, in Sales.

The artifact lets Nate let go. A balloon drifts over the cemetery.

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!

MelVille

I am one of those pathetic souls guilty of agonizing over the issue of whether computer games can ever become real art. Yes, I dared give voice and ask questions like:

>> Can Mafia Wars ever come close to leveling up to the emotional tension and soul of the Godfather Trilogy (well, okay, let’s limit it to I and II)?

or

>> Will the Grapes of Wrath ever be harvested on Farmville?

And so, rather than lock myself in my basement with a flask of cheap bourbon and write yet another one of those why can’t games be more art-like whines,  I sneaked away from the kids for a few weekends and made an actual game — something that says something about something.

Behold: MelVille.

I won’t ruin it all by making a “statement of artistic intent” or somesuch. I won’t cow-tow about the meta-meaningfulness of satire. But let’s just say that games mean a whole lot to me… and that I’m less than thrilled with the direction the medium is taking  since the undeniable triumph of social network games. Also, Moby Dick means a lot to me. As a literary agent I once conned into a meeting once scolded, “You think your novel is experimental? All experimental fiction written since 1850 is just Moby Dick in drag.” That comment got me to carefully re-read the boring brick I had been assigned in High School… and I realized he was right.

If this game exposes a glimmer of what a Great Book can Do to even one person, I will be Happy.

If it hits an ARPU of $0.10 I’ll be even happier.

Pop Goes the Game Industry

A better phrase for “social games” might just be “popfast games”.

Start by thinking about pop music. Is the music that sells the most widely the “best” music? The most “inventive” or “innovative”? The melodic phrasings that took serious artistic risks or lyrics that tried to actually say something? Or is pop music, more than anything, the music that you happen to listen to? The music that plays in the background while you and your buds hang out, battling against crushing boredom?

Pop is everywhere, always, at once. On the radio/Pandora, on TV/YouTube, topping the Billboard/iTunes charts. Pop gets inside you, forcing your foot to tap before it remembers to be cynical, forcing the teenage-fangirl inside us all to shriek, “Gawd I luv this band!”

Sure, every once in a while an obscure, innovative song miraculously rises to the top of the charts and becomes naturally, organically pop. But more often pop is painstakingly manufactured by a very big industry. Few record companies understand the current gestalt well enough to produce a tune and develop a pop star both new-feeling and familiar-feeling enough to work across the broadest of audiences. But even fewer companies can take a nascent sensation and understand and manipulate the media machine and marketing ecosystem well enough to engineer the fact that everyone is listening to the same song at the same time.

Pop is also unique to the medium of music. Modern music is purely portable, able to be layered onto the rest of life – at work or study, driving or dining. There have been “pop art” and “pop film” and “pop fashion” and “pop fiction” movements, and other media certainly succeeds in manufacturing hits and using expensive marketing to make products feel ubiquitous. But only music can truly be pervasively pop.

Until now. With the mass adoption of the Web and smartphones, games too have become purely portable and able to be layered onto life. And with the dominance of Facebook games now have a context to live in involving chums and colleagues whose consumption habits you can continually follow like a wave carrying the same piece of flotsam in to shore, back out, and sometimes in again where it will, for a time, litter the beach of your consciousness.

With apologies to Wikipedia, check out this chart that clinically lists the characteristics of pop music versus those of social games:

Pop Music (via Wikipedia)
Social Games
An aim of appealing to a general audience, rather than to a particular sub-culture or ideology Ditto
An emphasis on craftsmanship rather than formal “artistic” qualities Yup
An emphasis on recording, production, and technology, over live performance The equivalent here would be an emphasis on well-measured systems vs. a consumable piece of creative expression
A tendency to reflect existing trends rather than progressive developments Fo’ sho
Intended to encourage dancing, or it uses dance-oriented beats or rhythms Substitute “clicking” for “dancing”

Of course the even greater potential and power of social games is that they are not media like a canned pop song – they are an ongoing service. So really the pop music metaphor breaks down once the player actually arrives at the game. A better metaphor at that point becomes a convenient place that people drop into out of habit, a place that nearly everyone passes by during their daily journey, a place with cheap, quick, addictive treats.

We’re talking ‘bout fast food.

So let’s review. For a company to succeed consistently at social games it needs to be masterful at:

  • The market research or raw skill capable of capturing or cloning a gestalt.
  • The technical and artistic prowess to achieve scalable, fast-loading productions.
  • Engineering the social network to make it seem like everyone is grooving to the same frequency.
  • Merchandising, branding, and the systematic measurement and control mechanisms involved with running and scaling a successful franchise.

Social game companies (and wannabes) are just now grappling with the magnitude of capital and breadth of expertise required to release and run a continual flow of hits. They are painfully realizing the need to weave discrete disciplines together and get it all running in lockstep.

We all – as human beings or companies – have things in our repertoire we truly know because of sheer experience; the knowledge is inherent and core to our way of thinking. And we all also have things we copy baldly from leaders and fake our way through. Most social game companies are deeply in the latter category – either stuck in boxed-game mentality or so focused on metrics and feedback loops that they are unable to branch out and experiment with even the simplest of innovations.

Few companies will make the leap to popfast.

And even fewer will really harness the full potential of popfast anytime soon. After all, pop music brings people together because it truly heightens emotion and becomes the soundtrack of precious memories. Fast food restaurants, meanwhile, feed a very essential human hunger (arguably unhealthily, but certainly cost-effectively). Popfast games have the ability to achieve true togetherness and give humans a platform through which to express and understand themselves in entirely new ways. The company that figures that out will dominate this new art form.