Dennis, You’re Awesome

It’s just a Best Buy commercial, but it’s so cool to see Dennis Crowley for three full minutes talking about Foursquare, particularly the bit, around two and a half minutes in, about avoiding the haters. Respect, Dennis.

Racing to the Bottom in Flatland

Racing to the Bottom in Flatland

Like a lot of Americans, my wife and I love movies. I’d say we’re above average film consumers, due in no small part to my love of theatre and film from an early age, as well as her years as a performance artist documenting much of her work on video and/or film.

So a few years ago when we first signed up for streaming movies via NetFlix, we were excited. At the time we were renting a house with a Blockbuster less than a mile away and had plenty of DVD options for re-viewing, but the idea of thousands upon thousands of movies at our fingertips every month, for less than the price of a single DVD or a couple of movie tickets, had us salivating.

We wound up streaming fewer movies than we anticipated, and it was a reminder of the power of perceived value as well as a lesson on the deceptive nature of choice. After the first couple of months the routine degenerated into:

Wife, in the kitchen, working on some incredible dish for dinner (she’s a serious gourmet cook): “Honey, what do you want to watch?”
Me, on the sofa already, flipping through all the crap on cable: “Oh, I dunno. What are you in the mood for?”
Her: “How about something on Netflix?”
Me: “I’ll check.”
Her, five minutes later: “How’s it going?”
Me: “Well, say, are you in he mood for something in particular?”
Her: “Oh not really, whatever you’d like.”
Me: “Maybe a campy 80’s flick.”
Her: “Sure!”
Her, ten minutes later: “So, are you finding anything?”
Me: “Hmmm, well, there’s a bad Tom Cruise movie, nah, I’m not in the mood. How about Willow? Oh, wait we have that on DVD, right?”
Her: “I believe so, but anything’s fine for me. I could maybe go for a disaster movie.”
Me: “Ok, that’ll work.”
Her, 10 minutes later, dinner’s almost ready: “So are you finding something?”
Me: “Well I don’t know, not really. There are plenty of action and disaster flicks. What do you think about Woody Allen?”
Her: “That’s not exactly an action movie. But sure, ok. Anything’s fine at this point.”
Me: “Alrighty, let me just look a little more.”
Her: 15 minutes later, after one or two more rounds of Q&A: “Dinner’s ready. What are we watching?”
Me: “Yeah, hmmm. Nothing’s really jumping out at me. Why don’t we catch up on Stewart and Colbert instead?”

This was the script for many an evening until it dawned on me that I was horrible, like most people, at choosing from too many options. The movies were all right there. There was an image of a movie poster, a star rating, a description, more info on the film if I wanted to view it. It wasn’t difficult to decide but the number of choices, low cost and easy access made it impossibly difficult. And it was Flatland (double entendre intended) — the structure of the presentation was not designed to lead me to a decision, it was all there in a single dimension of indistinguishable value.

My realization was not novel — there are a ton of complex psychological, sociological and cultural fractures in the bedrock of choice, some of which are discussed in books like The Paradox of Choice, The Tipping Point and more recently, The Myth of Choice (which was, by the way, written by Kent Greenfield, who hails from my hometown in Kentucky and was a couple of years ahead of me in school. Kent is a brilliant thinker and the real deal).

Choice, and in particular the relationship between choice and value, can be so tricky. For example, I know that if have to get up off my arse, get in the car, drive to Blockbuster, browse physical shelves, pay several bucks for a movie, then bring it home with the understanding that I’d better return it tomorrow or be penalized, I’m going to damn well watch the movie, and probably enjoy (or hate) it more. I will value the movie more (even if I don’t like it), because I had to give more to get it.

Perhaps the most important thing about the physical store is that it’s not Flatland. There are plenty of cues in an intuitive 3D world guiding my decision. As I walk the aisles, glance at posters, watch previews on LCD screens, browse end-caps, consider specials, drill-down by category and alphabetical then read the backs of boxes, I am continually operating in a sort of risk/reward environment at a granular, unconscious level. I have to put physical and mental effort into finding a movie, but it (usually) doesn’t feel like work. There is a natural discovery mechanism in play.

In the digital/virtual world of Netflix, discovery is more complicated and less intuitive. My instincts are muddied by a 2D world of flat images in a layout that poorly mimics the real world. The trade-offs between effort, choice and value are less clear. In terms of risk/reward, I start out risking little as I navigate a Flatland of seemingly endless choices. As time goes on, I realize that time is what is at risk. Choices have less value to me. Quality (the reward) becomes more and more important in order to mitigate risk. But my choice, or expected choice, has less and less value the more I risk because the choices are all flatly presented without curation or authority. It’s almost recursive, and instead of a race to a top choice, it’s a race to the bottom. If I pick something, it’s because my need to see any movie now outweighs my desire to be delighted by a particular movie.

The same is true for non-traditional games — games that are delivered digitally and have no real world discovery process (aside from word-of-mouth). This is just about everything in gaming right now except for the big-budget, massive IP-holding holdouts, on consoles and some PC games, in the traditional retail space. Discovery is truly a Flatland, for all the same reasons as streaming videos. It’s a race to bottom in terms of choice, but perhaps even more interesting, content — the games themselves — have also been racing to the bottom.

Discovery is a huge problem in the industry right now. Because mobile devices and digital distribution have eclipsed the traditional retail game business, we’re struggling to understand it all – fundamentally because our game-playing customers have too many choices and, for all the reasons above, this causes the perceived value of the content to do down. But the kicker is this: lower perceived value results in lower profits, which in turn results in lower-quality content. It’s a race to the bottom.

Discovery has become the domain of companies with enough money to sell content in Flatland. Since there is little hierarchy or thoughtful segmentation at point of purchase (not said lightly, by the way, because this is a huge problem to overcome), it’s like going into the physical store with a row of titles a mile long, one end-cap and the “best-sellers” shelved within the first 20 feet. Few customers will walk a mile to discover something new; more important, the sheer size and number of titles devalues the entire shelf.

As noted in Jeremy Liew’s recent post, Discovery is the problem in gaming, game design is incrementally improving and we are starting to see bigger budgets and somewhat higher quality, while distribution continues to be easy (the rote barrier-to-entry is still low, and the industry is not competing on distribution). But as Jeremy indisputably states, the outcome of easy development and distribution has been a massive explosion in the number of games.

Can quality keep up with quantity? The industry competes on discovery, but it does so in Flatland. So its methods have inevitably involved larger and larger marketing and PR spends, bigger brand spending, internal and external cross-promotion, [over] extending IP and game re-skinning, and certainly paid acquisition. Since every one of these things require deeper pockets than most developers have, not surprisingly the industry has begun to consolidate into a network of discovery-focused “publishers”. This is not too different from the traditional industry except the emphasis is on the publishers’ ability to segment and cross-promote by increasing the size of their catalogs very, very quickly. This makes sense, since discovery at the platform distribution level is so ineffective (unlike a traditional retail store). Therefore a big catalog is critical to overcoming the inherent obstacles in Flatland.

For developers, this has resulted in an unprecedented lack of funds from a growing number of non-traditional publishers who simply don’t have the business model to finance development. This new breed of publisher is looking to plug content into their pipeline without the more traditional dose of production help,  putting most of the risk into the hands of the developers, who must figure out how to fund from other sources. In Flatland, they’re a better choice than being buried on the shelf a half-mile down the aisle, but the extra risk leads to cutting corners on quality. In the short-term at least, this means the quality curve will continue to look more like the rolling hills of Tuscany than a profile of Half Dome.

While the problem of discovery is thorny and there are no easy answers, at Kineplay we’re continuing to research the viability of location, specifically location-based and map-based discovery mechanisms for games, and we believe location (ironically, as a better, non-Flat virtual substitute for the real world) is a promising solution. Location also has the built-in benefit of enabling content to be re-skinned or re-themed based on physical coordinates, which is a way to differentiate extended content and might help bridge the gap between where we are now and high-quality gaming.

Whatever the solutions that present themselves over the next several years, the industry (and its customers) can’t keep racing to the bottom in a Flatland which, ironically, has no real bottom.

Google Quest for NES!

In what will surely be one of the most awesomest April Fools entries this year, let’s hear it for Google’s Google Maps 8-Bit for NES (mobile version available on Game Boy!). Make sure you check these out:

Statue of Liberty
Parthenon
Eiffel Tower
Buckingham Palace
Taj Mahal
The Pyramids at Giza
Colosseum
Area 51
Google HQ

Google if you’re listening — and I know you are because so many of you “read” this blog — leave Quest mode IN! Seriously, dudes — make this a better, sillier world. You have the power.

Satisfy Your Inner Warlord

We had a nice recent little writeup called “Satisfy Your Inner Warlord” on World Siege: Orc Defender in Connected World magazine. Orc Defender has been doing well and is currently free-to-play on iPhone (also available in HD form on iPad). Players who love the game really love it, and the number of keeps on the map are increasing at a nice clip every day. Thanks to everyone who has played and supported the game so far — we’ve got some fun new features planned.

Spending Privacy

Cool post from Scott Adams, very thoughtful and thought-ivates me. Scott paints a rosy picture of how much more efficient and fun an evening out might be if you could broadcast your location in a world with lots of receptive products and services. Near the end of the post he says:

The keys to this imaginary future are twofold: First, the world needs universal technology standards for smartphones to negotiate with their immediate surroundings.

We have a pretty good foundation right now with GPS on mobile phones and WiFi/3g. With new discoveries like Steve Perlman’s incredible-sounding wireless tech and innovative businesses like SimpleGeo, we will eventually see the kind of low-latency negotiation between person and service that makes location high-performance. I don’t think we’ll see a “universal standard” per say, but enough consolidation that device manufacturers and service providers will breathe profitably and continue to invest and create.

But here’s the rest of Scott’s wrap-up:

Secondly, people would have to get comfortable with a world in which systems that are connected to the Internet are aware of their locations. According to everything I read, that’s the sort of privacy violation that older people would resist and younger people consider no big deal. Personally, I would trade my location and identity privacy to get the benefits I described, as long as I could turn off my identity broadcasting feature whenever I wanted.

This (and the whole post) makes think about location in a more granular (and vertical) way. Privacy in this context becomes something that you “spend” or exchange for other value/benefits. It’s a transaction. The metaphor is not new but I like it. If I think of location sharing as a micro-transaction and if the service using my location has sufficient resolution (or if it’s bucketed in a specific category of services — video games, for example), then I have control — or at least a pretty solid perception of control — over how my location-infused information is used.

This is different from the Minority Report intrusive-advertising thing because the Place of Interest (POI) is controlled by me, not the other way around — it’s pull  (me pulling what I want) instead of push (services pushing content to me). As Scott says above, I want to be able to stop broadcasting whenever I want, but that’s an oversimplification. There are two pieces to it: where I share what and what I share where. Both will affect how much value I get for the privacy I’m willing to spend.

In my view, our rote location and basic identities are one of our least expensive privacy purchases. The high-dollar items are the data that’s being gathered about what we do (and can be used like a dossier to generalize “who we are”). While it’s obvious that sophisticated Web services (Google, Facebook — especially Timeline — for example) are scraping our histories and habits in order to create higher click-through rates (and charge more for those clicks), I think location has the potential to create services that are much more than user-generated content with an ad revenue model.

The pull model encourages competition for customer action, which will probably require a content investment by the service — entertainment or otherwise — to compete. If I subscribed to a location-based gaming network, for example, the games I play, how well I play and where I play might enable the network to accurately suggest other games for me — differently at different locations. This kind of real value loves a subscription model, too. Location-based services of the future (really all services, because the day is coming when all services are location-based) will compete on how well you know them and how well they know you.

Right now, it’s mostly the “layer” metaphor — turn different layers off and on based on simple preferences for any location. No granularity, no logic behind the scenes helping make my life easier. It’s a dead-simple user-controlled filter. As more algorithmic and logical control of sophisticated filters are deployed, we’ll see better ways to interact with and manage our location-based privacy spending.

Visual.ly is Awesome

Visual.ly launched publicly just a few days ago, and it’s completely awesome. Rob Young over at Search Engine Watch has a nice writeup. There are a few infographics on location, including the one below from Mashable (perhaps a year old? I don’t remember seeing it before). The summary at the end is amusing (spelling corrected): “Everyone and their mom is building one. With the tech already in the hands of millions of consumers, the cost to build a location-based application that pinpoints the user’s precise location on Planet Earth is… well, $0, if you have the patience to take a few programming tutorials. Come to think of it, the math required is probably pretty similar to that the early sailors used. Only you have a calculator…”

Chalk it up to hyperbole, but I wonder if the author may actually believe that building an LBS is easy. While it’s trivial to setup an iOS app, for example, that grabs the latitude and longitude from a CLLocationManager or  MKMapView instance, doing anything with that information of any interest to anyone requires a ton of skill. A few programming tutorials would help you implement a cool LBS like reading a few pamphlets in the doctor’s office would help you perform surgery. And the cost to build — well, surgery’s a lot cheaper.

The History of Location Technology

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