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. is Awesome 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

Mixing Linear Content with Non-Linear Context

There are at least three fundamental aspects of scientific inquiry — I’ve always liked the way that Ken Wilber refers to them – as three “strands” of valid knowing:

  1. Instrumental Injunction is the foundation of the scientific method, and always of the form, “if you want to know this, you must do this.” If you want to see moon craters you need a telescope. If you want to understand how a quaternion works, study Mathematics. If you want to play a game, you gotta learn the rules.
  1. Intuitive Apprehension is an immediate, direct understanding brought forward by the injunction – the acquisition and grasping of data. You look through a telescope. You study quats (and if you go into the theory of quats, you try to keep from frying your brain). You play by the rules.
  1. Communal Affirmation (or rejection) is a checking of results (apprehension of data) with others who have adequately completed the injunctive and apprehensive strands. You talk to others who have seen the same moon craters you have. You share and validate code (for example, in a video game) that replaces some of your old Euler matrices with quats. You find and play games with other players and share your strategies.

Using these strands, think about a chain of activities in a social game. Call it a quest. How does a quest work, fundamentally? How does it deliver a compelling experience — something of value? Let’s obviousify:

  1. If you want to complete a quest, you need to follow instructions. For example, you’re playing a fantasy game and the town Bard tells you a story about his missing magic lute and how he lost it, then asks you to find and return it for a reward. He infers or tells you directly what to do to get it back.
  1. You start checking off the places you need to visit, people you need to meet, battles you need to win, etc. until you finish the quest. You return to the bard for your reward. At this point you know how the quest works — its risks, its meaning to the game’s fiction, what you learned, how the journey went/felt, your reward and so on.
  1. Other players choose the same quest. Their experiences are similar to yours. If enough players finish and broadcast, the quest becomes popular, affirming or rejecting your own judgement.

A quest should have intrinsic value — (1) and (2). Without at least the appearance of gameplay — something meaningful to do, something learningful and the freedom to do it — few players will take it on and even fewer will finish it.

A quest should also have extrinsic value — (3). In fact, extrinsicly-speaking, the quest exists mostly (perhaps only) because many players have completed it and can verify and validate it. At some point the number of shared experiences will sum such that the quest will become common enough knowledge within the game world, making the prospect of finding and completing the quest far more interesting and challenging than by (1) and (2) alone.

Gamification weights (3) so much that gameplay has little value. The objective of the quest is to “play”, validate, then play again — rinse and repeat, scratch and win. It works to a certain extent, because it has a logical foundation to it. Quest components — where you go, what you do, what you see and understand, knowledge and rewards you get for your effort during the process — have less value. The reward is extrinsic and based on some other context — locations on a map, for example.

Traditional gameplay weights (1) and (2). The gameplay has most of the value — the reward is instrinsic.

How do we combine the intrinsic with the extrinsic in a way that leverages both (ideally with optimal development efficiency)? Or, how do we make the extrinsic a little more intrinsic — and the intrinsic a little more extrinsic? How do mix linear content with non-linear context?

Here’s one example. The quest is our “Quest for the Magic Lute”: Find the Bard’s lute through a manageable but somewhat complex narrative of places, people and battle encounters, then return for a handsome reward. However, upon completion there’s an additional reward — you’re now allowed to pass on the quest to others with some game-generated modifications. You might be allowed to substitute a qualifying item from your inventory for the quest target, and create the “Quest for the Magic Ring.” Or you can change two or three places on the path and the game will re-plot the journey.  Or you can re-write some of the story, within prescribed limitations, keeping the basic integrity of the narrative intact.

Changing a few parameters — intrinsic parametrization, a bit like mashing-up — alters the original logic or quality of the quest, adding more or different value. Taking ownership of the quest — changing the starting gate to the experience and its external identity — adds extrinsic value since you’re motivated to spread the word about “your” quest. If enough players take ownership — sort of like curating their own content — players become motivated to look for “repeatably unique” experiences where something familiar is also something new.

Playifying Work

I finally had time to run through another delightful presentation on gamification by Sebastian Deterding, Don’t Play Games With Me! Promises and Pitfalls of Gameful Design. There’s always more under the hood of Deterding’s presentations, and this one was no exception — great stuff on game design in general, fun theory, designing choice and the impact of more-or-less gamifying life. Some slides are mashed up from his other presentations (all excellent), but this one is longer and more philosophical.

The general grok for me is that modern gamification is often an attempt at simply playifying work — a worthy pursuit but also very often too clever, too much of a trick and fatigue-inducing. Of course that makes me think about workifying play — something a missed game implementation does by over-burdening an otherwise playful game mechanic (easy to do and not uncommon).
Note: At this point I’m now no longer even thinking about the presentation, but other things I can -ify. Like WordPress, which both blogifies websites and webifies blogs. Apple, who has appified smartphones. Google, who has brought searchification to every website. And of course VC’s, who fundify entrepreneurs.