In the digital distribution world there’s really only one player: Steam. Sure there are alternatives like GoG or Desura but they’re essentially niche branches that cater to a specific audience, ones that favour no DRM and modding respectively. The one notable competitor to Steam is Origin, the platform that was built solely for the purpose of distributing EA’s games. Love it or hate it if you want to play one of their games you’re going to have to download Origin and, for people like me who like to review games, this means a non-zero portion of my game library is on there. The only reason it exists is so EA can capture that part of the market that it was losing to Steam although if the words of EA’s EVP Andrew Wilson are to be believed it’s all about creating a better experience for gamers:
“I think your perception is absolutely correct,” Wilson agreed. “I think when I look at the journey that service has taken, I think the transaction component of that service has taken a disproportionate amount of the communication and mindshare of what we really try and provide, and the barrier that that puts in between you and the game that you want to play.”
“We think of Origin, in this new world, as the gracious host of the party. It’s not the center of attention; it’s not the DJ, it’s not the dance director, it’s just a gracious host. It’s someone who greets you at the door and ushers you in to where you want to go and points you in the direction of your friends so that you can go and party with them together. That’s really how we see it.”
Wilson is trying to change the narrative around Origin, pushing it away from the widely held perception that it’s just a money grab (which it is, there’s no doubt about this) and trying to guide it more towards it being something of a value added service. Indeed this is apparently where the future of Origin lies, in adding more features to it that mimic those that have been a major part of Steam for years. He’d like to think of Origin as the place gamers go to play their games because that’s where all their friends are, they’re just the facilitator that allows them to join up. The rest of the interview reads like the ramblings of someone trapped in a fever dream as the world that Origin exists in is so vastly different from the one Wilson paints for it.
I’ll be frank when I say that any game that’s on Origin puts up an instant barrier for me, both as a player and as a reviewer. As a player I know that a game being on Origin means that the vast majority of my friends won’t be playing it because they just can’t be bothered with Origin as a service. Indeed for many recent games that I played on there like Simcity and Crysis 3 I was either alone or one of 2 people on there at any given time despite the long list of friends I have on there. Worse still trying to simple maintenance tasks on it, like backing up game files so I can move them (and the fact that that link is on the Steam forums should tell you something), is a royal pain in the ass which eats away at the time I could be doing what I wanted to be doing: playing the damn game. This is on top of the lack of screenshot functionality which means I have to run FRAPS in order to get the screenshots for review which doesn’t help to endear Origin to me.
It’s not just the simple fact that Origin is yet another piece of software we have to install and maintain, that’s just the beginning, more it’s because Origin is an inferior service, one that we’re locked into using should we want to play an EA published game. It may make the experience for EA games better due to the common installation and patching platform but that’s all it does and it’s not something that couldn’t be accomplished through other, more established channels. It’s akin to all those social services that every game seems to have these days (and as we’ve seen are massive security risks) which are required to play the game.
Gamers don’t want this; it took us years to warm up to Steam and the idea that we’ll somehow cosy up to yet another service that provides next to no benefit for us is a ludicrous proposition. If EA really did understand gamers like they’re purporting to they wouldn’t have bothered with Origin as a digital distribution service in the first place, they would’ve just made it a back end platform that all their games can use should they not want to use Steam’s. EA might think that it’s just a matter of layering on some more services and features but it’s going to need so much more than that before gamers will consider it on the same level as Steam. With Origin’s primary focus being EA games I don’t believe that will ever be achievable, especially when Valve keep going from strength to strength with Steam.
Imagine a social gathering, you’re familiar with most of the people there but not all of them so you’ve been engaging with some small talk so you don’t spend the next 4 hours being that weird guy in the corner. Amongst the varying commentary about weather, local sports teams and what have you inevitably the conversation turns to what you all do for a living. Now for most people this is usually a one liner followed by a few back and forths over a few minor details and then it’s off to the other topic of conversation. There are some notable exceptions of course usually when your job is in an industry like IT, medical or (one of the more recent additions to this club) app development. If you dare mention you’re in one of these industries it’s highly likely that someone will launch into a description of their problems or start giving you ideas for their great iPhone app.
Being someone who fits into 2 of these categories (IT and a budding app developer) I get this kind of thing all the time, especially when I’m visiting a friend of a friend who I haven’t met before. Mostly it’s pretty harmless and I don’t mind taking some time out to help people as long as it doesn’t become a recurring theme. Of course IT problems don’t usually exist in isolation so more often than not I’ll be called upon again to come back at which point I usually tell people my going rate and watch the problem evaporate rather quickly. What a lot of people fail to realise is that whilst we might do something for a living we don’t necessarily enjoy doing it out of work, especially if we’ve just spent our whole day doing it.
It’s for that reason alone that I don’t bother people with questions about their professions in a social setting, kind of a common courtesy from someone who knows what they’re going through. I’ll admit it’s not easy sometimes, especially if I have an idea for a project that I want someone to work with me on, but there are much better ways to approach someone than accosting them the second you find out that they could be useful to you.
New app ideas are probably the worst out of the lot as many people are convinced their ideas are fantastic and all they need is you for a couple hours to just bang it out for them. Luckily for me I can tell them that the last app I tried to develop took about a year and barely lead anywhere but even that doesn’t deter some of the more enthusiastic punters. It’s even worse that I completely understand their motivations too as I tried hard to get other people excited about the idea but inevitably you can only talk about something for so long before people just don’t want to hear about it anymore.
It’s for that exact reason that I haven’t been talking at all about my most recent project, except in the most general terms. There’s also a multitude of other factors as well (like first mover advantage, which I believe I have in this case) but it also comes down to a the fact that talking about your goals triggers the same neurological response as actually completing them. Thus I feel those who are approaching me to develop an idea for them have already got what they needed (that feeling of completion) and attempting to follow the idea to its conclusion is usually an exercise in futility.
Even though we’re all familiar with the old adage of “Genius is: 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” the opposite seems to hold true for commonly held opinions about ideas. The notion that all it takes is an amazing idea to realize your dreams (made worse by the fact that people think iPhone apps are just so damn easy to make) and so the second they get something they think is novel suddenly the hard part is over. Being someone who’s had 50+ of those “amazing” ideas and only been able to execute a couple of them I can tell you the easy part is getting an idea, the hard part is tuning out everything else and working solidly on that idea for months on end. So you should really ask yourself “Would I be willing to work on this day in day out in order for it to succeed?” and if you’re answer is anything but an unconditional yes then you should wonder why others would bother to work on it with you.
Just over a year ago I wrote a post exploring my own experiences with games of varying length and the gaming community’s views on what constitutes a good game length. At the time I strongly felt that gamers, as a whole, were annoyed with the trend for AAA titles to shoot for shorter lengths, feeling they were being cheated since they were no longer getting the same amount of value as they used to. For me personally the shorter lengths were actually somewhat of a blessing as 20+ hour games, whilst usually quite enjoyable, would take me weeks to finish at my usual rate of play. Thus I tended to favour the slightly shorter games that could be done in a single intense weekend which made titles like Heavy Rain feel far more intense and immersive than they otherwise would have been.
The last year, for me at least, hasn’t seen my view on game length change much. I still balk at games I know that will take a long time to finish but if the hype and recommendations from friends are good enough I’ll make the investment in them anyway. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve become something of a Starcraft 2 fiend of late which soaks up a good portion of my gaming time which tends to push me towards the sub 10 hour bracket length bracket. Unlike me however it seems the gaming community, or at least some game developers, now believe the trend is towards such shorter titles:
The likes of social and casual games, particularly the cheap games available on mobile, have changed the expectations of gamers, the panel concluded. By gamers are paying less money, there’s less need to create 10-hour-plus gaming experiences, because consumers no longer feel shortchanged. This could be particularly beneficial for self-publishing indie developers, they said, who could charge less but gain a larger percentage of sales.
I usually draw a line in the sand between what I call traditional gamers¹ and those who just play games when it comes to points like those stated above. Social and casual games typically don’t attract traditional gamers (and yes I’m talking out my ass on this, if you have figures to the contrary please share) and I believe the opposite is true for traditional console and PC releases. However with the gamer population seeming to age at a rather rapid rate (it felt like only last year that the average age was 30) there may be a tendency for traditional gamers to trend towards more casual-esque games simply because they can’t afford the same time investment they used to.
As I said in last year’s post the length of the game is usually quite irrelevant to the overall experience. My most recently completed title with 10+ hours of game play, L.A. Noire, was extremely enjoyable for the 22 hours I spent with it. Compare that with say Duke Nukem Forever which made 8 hours feel like 40 and it becomes quite clear that game length, whilst definitely an initial factor in my purchasing decisions, ultimately does little to affect my overall perception of the title. This does mean that I agree with one of the panel’s points though, rarely do I feel short changed now when a game only lasts 10 hours, especially if said game was a complete blast to play. If I’m honest I am spending more on games now than I have done previously (because I’m more honest now than I was back then, if you get my drift), but the price per game is usually a lot less than I used to pay thanks to Steam.
All that being said however I can’t deny the impact that social and casual games are having on the market. I might not partake of many of them myself (although Bejewled on my iPhone claimed a good 10 hours of my life) but an overwhelming number of people have and that tidal wide of people is changing the gaming landscape. Many developers are now realising the potential of the free to play, micro-transaction supported platform and independent game developers now have multiple viable avenues in which to push their wares. All this would appear to be pushing towards shorter, more easily consumed titles. However I personally believe that it will be limited to the non-traditional gamer market as they’re the ones driving the changes. Traditional gamers on the other hand seem to have no problem with longer titles, as long it’s appropriate.
¹Traditional gamers in my definition refers to those of us who would identify as a gamer in the demographic sense. For us traditional gamers it’s part of our identity as we’re involved in the gaming community in some way (whether that’s blog posts like these or being part of a gaming group like a forum or clan) and generally we’ve been gaming for a good portion of our lives. Social and casual gamers don’t tend to fit this mould instead seeing games as something of a distraction in the same vein as TV shows or movies.
The perception in the tech community, at least up until recently, was that Google simply didn’t understand social the way Twitter and Facebook does. The figures support this view too, with Facebook fast approaching 1 billion users and Twitter not even blinking an eye when Buzz came on the scene. Still they’ve had some mild success with their other social products so whilst they might not have been the dominant social platform so I believe they get social quite well, they’re just suffering from the superstar effect that makes any place other than first look like a lot like last. Google+ then represents something of reinvention of their previous attempts with a novel approach to modelling social interactions, and it seems to be catching on.
It’s only been 2 weeks since Google+ became available to the wider public and it’s already managed to attract an amazing 10 million users. Those users have also already shared over 1 billion articles in the short time that G+ has been available. For comparison Buzz, which I can’t seem to find accurate user information on, shared an impressive 9 million articles in 2 days a far cry from the success that G+ has been enjoying. What these numbers mean is that Google is definitely doing something right with the new platform and the users are responding in kind. However we’re still deep in the honeymoon period for Google+ and whilst their initial offering is definitely a massive step in the right direction we’ll have to wait and see if this phenomenal growth can continue.
That’s not to say the G+ platform doesn’t have the potential to do so, far from it. Right now the G+ platform stands alone in its own ecosystem with only a tenuous link to the outside world via the +1 button (which ShareThis is still yet to implement and I don’t want to install yet another button to get it). Arguably much of the success of G+’s rival platforms comes from their APIs and with the initial user traction problem out of the way G+ is poised to grab an even larger section of the market once they release their API. I believe the API will be critical to the success of G+ and not just because that’s what their competitors did.
Google+, for me at least, feels like it would be the best front end to all my social activities on the web. Whilst there are many other services out there that have been attempting to be the portal to online social networking none of them have managed to capture my attention in quite the same way as G+ has done. The circles feature of G+ is also very conducive to aggregation as I could easily put all my LinkedIn contacts in Colleagues, Twitter in Following and Facebook friends in well, the obvious place. Then my G+ stream would become the magical single pane of glass I’d go to for all my social shenanigans and those who weren’t on G+ would still be connected to me through their network of choice.
That last point is key as whilst G+’s growth is impressive it’s still really only hitting a very specific niche, mostly tech enthusiasts and early adopters. That’s not a small market by any stretch of the imagination but since less than 20% of my social circle has made their way onto G+ from Facebook the ability to communicate cross platforms will be one of the drivers of growth for this platform. Whilst I’d love G+ to become the dominant platform it’s still 740 million users short of hitting that goal and Facebook has a 7 year lead on them with this. It’s not impossible, especially with the kind of resources and smarts Google has to throw at the problem, but it’s not a problem that can be solved by technology alone.
Google+ is definitely on track to be a serious contender to Facebook but its still very early days for the service. What’s ahead of Google is a long, uphill battle against an incumbent that’s managed to take down several competitors already and has established themselves as the de-facto social network. Unlike like their other social experiments before it Google+ has the most potential to bring about change in the online social networking ecosystem and with a wildly successful 2 weeks under their belt Google is poised to become a serious competitor, if not the one to beat.
I spent a good part of my life being tagged with either one of the terms you see in the title above this post. For a long time I took offence to it as it was a label that put me on the outside of almost any social group. That was until I found my like minded kin who shared the same interests as me and from then on the term took on something completely different. No longer did I feel ashamed to call myself a geek or nerd, especially when I’d explain my hobbies to others. To be truly honest none of my friends really fit the typical definition of geek or nerd as we all have some aspects of ourselves that don’t quite fit the image (for instance most of us are quite physically active, I myself work out 4 times per week) and I had reserved to using the term “modern geek” in my head to describe them. At our hearts we still share the aspirations of the stereotypes but that only makes up a portion of who we are.
You can then imagine my reaction to this piece I saw in the New York Times:
The Times ran an article Monday suggesting that what America will need in the future are more “cool nerds.” A playful tweak of the nerd stereotype, to be sure, in an effort to alter it. The people described in the piece were ones with hybrid careers, combining computing with other fields from medicine to Hollywood.
These are jobs that do not match the classic computer geek or nerd image — a heads-down programmer who is socially isolated. In the new hybrid careers, computing is a crucial ingredient and, economists say, such work will be the source of many new jobs of the future.
But David Anderegg, a professor of psychology at Bennington College, says that merely mentioning terms like nerd or geek serves to perpetuate the stereotype. The words are damaging, much like racial epithets, he says, and should be avoided.
Personally I don’t find the terms damaging at all. I remember when I was working in child care, many years ago now, I had a group of 10 year olds approach me and ask the question “Are you a nerd?” in an attempt to bait a response from me. Casually replying “yes” threw them completely off balance as that obviously wasn’t the answer they were expecting. After that I never heard them use the term in a derogatory sense again. It was a testament to how you can identify with a stereotype but not let the negative connotations that are associated with it affect you. I can only imagine how my life would be if I learnt that life lesson 15 years earlier.
Whilst I hate to admit it there are also people to thank for changing the terms geek and nerd from a stereotype to a label people wear proudly; namely people like Steve Jobs. He has managed to take a niche computing company and turn it into a brand with the power of bringing what was traditionally sacrosanct technology in the halls of geeks and nerds to the wider world and in the process made it cool. From the proliferation of Macbooks in university campuses and Starbucks the world around, to the penetration of the smartphone markets with the iPhone Apple has truly made leaps and bounds for all us geeky and nerdy types as being something to aspire to, not to avoid. I’m not an Apple fanboy by any stretch of the imagination but their affect on culture worldwide is really quite hard to ignore.
With all things nerdy and geeky now becoming a mainstay in almost everyone’s life (how many people do you know who don’t own a computer?) it really was only a matter of time before those who were ostrasized became elevated to the social positions we now place them in today. Being a geek or nerd in this modern world is now just a part of social norms as being an avid sports fan and this shows through with the multi-billion dollar industries that have popped up to cater to us geeks and nerds, just like our sporty counterparts.
I guess the big question is what will be the next ostracized social behaviour that will turn into a norm?
Many of us have something that we started doing when we were younger and will probably refuse to give it up for a very long time. For me, and a I can bet many more people, this was video games. It’s something that pretty much everyone in my generation would have grown up with but many grew out of it, seeing it as something they could do without. For the rest of us we grabbed a hold of our consoles and computers and declared that we would continue on with this tradition of whiling away the hours in front of a glowing screen.
I’ve often thought back to my first experiences with games and wondered why they have become such a big part of my life. I think the first game I can vividly remember playing was Captain Comic, with my father teaching me how to type in the magical commands into a DOS prompt in order for the game to start. For an inquisitive 3 year old the game was quite a challenge and the only way I could ever see it beat was to have one of my father’s friends finish it for me. The next game I can remember was Golden Axe, one that I struggle with yet again but still managed to lose countless hours on.
Moving forward a couple years I can see the games changing rapidly as technology improved and gaming firmly planting its feet in the entertainment industry. What I don’t see changing however, was the reason that I continued to play games.
Even my earliest memories of playing games are bathed in the social experiences that I got from playing. Whilst this may seem counter-intuitive to what the typical geek might be (the anti-social basement dweller) games were and still are a social activity. Back when I first got my hands on the original Nintendo Entertainment System and barely convinced my parents to shell out for 1 game and another controller (so my brother and I could both play) the only way to get other games was to trade with my friends. Often this would end up with them coming over and us all taking turns marvelling at how lucky they were to get that other game.
Fast forward 20 years and really the base reasons as to why I play games remain the same. I still love playing games with my friends, whether it be online or when they come over. I still swap console games with my friends, as we all take a bit of a gamble on unknown games just to see if they turn out ok. At it’s very heart gaming is one of those staple activities for me that if I were to give up, would leave a large gap in my life.
And that my friends is why I will never grow up and out of playing games.