As the new heralds the old let us take a moment to ponder online video game interfaces

Twitter is great!  I was laying in bed this morning thinking about why 3D MMO video games including the best selling World of Warcraft have limited mass market appeal because of bad user interfaces.   Then “beedeep”, my iPhone notifies me that Twitter user venturebeat has posted a link to a story on the 40th birthday of the Mouse and its introduction to the world by visionary Doug Englebart.

User interfaces are the root problem that holds back 3D MMOs from mass appeal – as in 300 million people playing them.  Today’s interfaces were designed by 1st generation gamers who had limited research to support their designs and that have since been incrementally improved and expanded.   After 30 plus years of graphics and input device innovation in video games we still have a user interface for 3D video games that, when placed in front of someone who has never played an online game more complex than Solitaire, Bejeweled, or Diner Dash, is quickly overwhelmed with a non-intuitive and overwhelming mash-up of military tech wish list hand me downs and sci-fi movie memes.

Now maybe there is a case to be made for military derived interfaces in a game with Warcraft in its title, but sci-fi in a Tolkien inspired fantasy world where the most advance technology is spring loaded?

We have to get out of the box and do something bold to take 3D game interfaces in a new direction.   A developer should start by putting themselves in the shoes of a 3D novice and start by matching expectations of user with the actual content of the game – then start work on the interface.

For example, lets wind the clock back to the early concept days of Tabula Rasa the much hyped Sci-Fi MMO by famous game creator Richard Garriott.   We have a Sci-Fi theme, traveling around different planets, fighting military actions and other standards of the 3D MMO playbook.   Ideal it would seem for our favorite military/sci-fi mash-up user interface.

Now leave what we know about 3D game interfaces behind and step into the shoes of our 3D game novice who hears about a sci-fi adventure that includes interplanetary travel, combat, and hundreds of hours of entertainment.   What would such a novice really expect to see when they are transported to our world?

Here are a few of many things I think that our novice would not expect to see:

  • Any point of view outside of first person.
  • Peripheral vision that is less than the 120 degrees that a normal human experiences unless the character happens to be wearing something that would alter their view like a mask or goggles or if the character is not human and would be expected by the average non-fan of the genre to have different capability than a human.
  • Heads up displays (HUDs) that would not normally be integrated into whatever the character would be wearing.  Considering that the average computer screen is a rectangle and humans see in a half sphere viewpoint, HUDs and other information displays off in the corners of the screen are not realistic in most cases so their presence along with the information overload they present is a great way to get off the wrong foot with a new 3D gamer.
  • Any reason to touch the keyboard or the mouse or game pad, unless my character is actually using a computer or Xbox in the game.   Now this one may make a few heads hurt, and there is the rub.  If we want to reach the mass market, we have to meet their expectations.   So WASD or arrow key movement is out the window, and mouse point and click are too.  Lacking some new physical input devices – like one of those cool brain wave readers, maybe we need to leave the whole concept of player controlled character movement off the table and focus on other more realistic input controls like voice interaction and game play that supports them.   There is no reason a first person shooter can not have a light gun or a more advanced motion sensing version – Rock Band has proved that a costly add-on or two is not a deterrent to selling a great game.
  • Inventory management screens are out.  Things the character owns need to have their proper place, and a natural way of managing them.  If I want to change my boots, I expect to reach down and change my boots. If you think this will add a tedious element to game play – then ditch management of boots.

We can go on.  But hopefully the point is made.  Out of the box means out of the box.  We have been resting on the mouse and keyboard for 40 years, last time I looked in the toy box I saw a lot more interfaces to fun, it is time to move on.

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As Microsoft browser share falls below 70% video games need to adjust

TG Daily reports that Microsoft’s share of the Internet browser market has fallen below 70% after peaking at almost 97% share in 2003.  This massive shift in browser share over just that last 4 years has huge implications for video game companies that have any kind of web presence, in particular those that launched games in 2008 that were built on 2004 assumptions when development started. Even new web portals coming online now seem to have been designed with the thought that Internet Explorer is the only browser they needed to code and QA for (which practically every Asian video game operator has done and most of the big publishers like EA).

The article has additional insight into Microsoft’s declining market share including the fact that all of those IE 6 users showing up on your Google Analytics reports are likely corporate users and that the ability of Microsoft to stem the tide of loss is not certain.   Microsoft could be heading quickly to less than 50% share as corporations eye the safer and faster open source Firefox browser (not to forget that Google recently announced Chrome their own entry in the browser war arena).

Microsoft losing ground in the browser wars also has significant implications for the future of their cloud-based businesses.  Most cloud offerings are going to be sensitive to browser capabilities including JavaScript execution speed and security.   Microsoft will undoubtedly continue their practice of offering non-IE users reduced functionality when they try to access cloud services built or operated with Microsoft technologies, which means that as of today, 30% of Internet users are going to have a less than ideal experience with more pain to come.

The article also points out that Microsoft’s operating system share has fallen below 90% for the first time since 1994 – when Windows 3.1.1 hit the streets.   Now 90% sounds like a big number but it means that in 2009, just in the U.S., well over 6 million new PCs (desktops and laptops) will ship with something other than Windows installed.  That is 6 million new low hanging fruit customers dying for a great video game experience online and off (half of them Apple users with great video cards).  The slide for Microsoft’s OS does not appear to be slowing down either, which means that by the end of 2012 Microsoft’s OS market share could fall to 80%.

Considering it takes 3 years to bring a AAA title to market, anyone kicking off a new project should be thinking about the 20 to 25 million PCs that will not be running Windows in 2012, all less than 4 years old (again that is just in the U.S., international online video game publishers could be facing 150 million non-Windows PCs less than 4 years old in 2012 – and that is assuming piracy keeps Windows free in a large portion of the World).   Plus, you need to be thinking of a way to get a AAA title to market in less than 3 years.

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James Wallis at Playful 08 in London talks about innovation in video games

In a great presentation on the state of innovation in video games, veteran game designer and consultant James Wallis walks us through a brief history of modern interactive narrative and how it has influenced today’s books like the “Create your own adventure” series and pretty much all video games including the MMO World of Warcraft and the recent FPS hit Portal.

Titled “A Thing of Beauty Is A Stout Green Toy” the presentation is funny, insightful, and I found myself thinking about it for days (in particular how to mount a one man crusade to save Dungeons and Dragons).

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Why cloud computing is the future of online video games and sooner than you may think.

The New York Times ran a nice graphic on growth of Super Computers a couple of days ago.  It has 2 tabs the first showing the relative size of of super computers based on geographic location.

The second tab titled Historical Computing Speeds is more interesting to me.   It graphs a more than 10 thousand times improvement in top Super Computer compute speed from 1993 to 2008.  It also shows more than 10 times improvement of compute speed in just the last 4 years.

If this trend continues, and there is no reason to believe it will not, we can expect a 10 petaflop (10,000 teraflops or ten billion billion operations per second) to rear its head sometime around the Fall of 2012.

It may be hard to get your head around how big of jump in compute power we have witnessed in the last 10 years.  Today just 3 of the more than 3,456 server blades from today’s fastest super computer, IBM’s Roadrunner, has more compute speed than the fastest Super Computer in 1998.  A physics problem that takes Roadrunner one week to do, would take the 1998 top Super Computer more than 20 years.

It is going to be very hard to compete running your own video game server infrastructure when 1 petaflop clouds are common place.  There will likely be more than 30 different petaflop or faster clouds coming online in the next 4 years and well over 100 different petaflop clouds in the next 7 years (now take a look at the Top 100 Super Computers tab, all of these Super Computers have been built in the last 7 years – all are faster than 10 teraflops and the 10 teraflop record was not broken until 2001).

Keep in mind that most of these clouds are probably going to be running Linux (who wants to buy 3,500 copies of Windows Server 2008?).

You may be thinking – what do Super Computers have to do with game servers?  Already more than a few of the world’s fastest Super Computers are owned by online video game companies (China’s game company The9’s World of Warcraft clusters make the list several times).  As the major video game publishers work their way into the MMO video game space we can expect to see several more game companies make the top Super Computer list.  Additionally, the expanding size of virtual worlds and online game worlds means that massive amounts of on the fly procedurally generated graphics are going to be required, something that can be very compute intensive when you need to do it for 500,000 gamers at the same time.

A one petaflop cloud might be able to host over 200 of today’s World of Warcraft server farms as big as The9 runs.  It has been reported that The9 can support over 1 million concurrent online gamers playing World of Warcraft.   This translates to the simple idea that, assuming you get enough network bandwidth connected, a single petaflop cloud will likely host today’s entire population of the World’s online gamers – concurrently !

Now we can go back and forth on my rough math and rougher assumptions in the paragraph above, however I believe it is quite reasonable to assume that there will be plenty of super cheap computing power hanging in clouds over the next few years.  The question is: When will online video game companies adjust and capitalize on the new business model?  And will China and India video game companies beat everyone else to the punch?

If you have not started playing with one already, it may be a good idea to start figuring out this cloud thing.

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Balsamiq offers cheap, quick, and easy user interface mock-ups from Adobe alumnus.

The Micro-ISV Balsamiq owned by former Adobe design lead Giacomo ‘Peldi’ Guilizzoni has built a powerful set of user interface (UI) mock-up tools that can shorten the development life cycle of browser and desktop client applications.  This tool is real innovation at work, perfect for online game development shops to iterate UI designs.  Built with state of the art thin client techniques Balsamiq brings powerful WYSIWYG design to browser based development collaboration tools including JIRA, Confluence, or XWiki or straight to your desktop via their Adobe Air powered desktop client.

With a free trial and follow-on free key offered to bloggers I took Balsamiq for a spin, using it to build a mock-up of a next generation game company portal (posting soon).  This is a simple to use yet fairly complete set of mock-up tools.  The drag and drop work flow makes quick work of full web pages, desktop apps, and dialog boxes.

Check out this quick demo from YouTube below:

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10 ways to bring your video game into the Web 2.0 world.

1.  Real time updates – the game and web pages like the web based user forum should use RSS and services like Twitter to feed updates to fan sites, the press, and gamers.  When I completed Mass Effect on the Insane difficultly setting it would have been cool if all my friends got a text message on their cell phones telling them how I just wasted 20 hours of my life and it would be handy if I could grab an RSS feed off my favorite games to keep my Blog up to date.  This is also an excellent way to share leader boards with the gaming community and press (first guy to score perfect on expert with Guitar Hero 3’s Through the Fire and Flames is news worthy enough to make the New York Times).

2.  Permalinks – forum posts, game master site updates, news items, event information, press releases, etc. should all be enabled with Permalinks.  Permalinks allow easy sharing of a specific part of a website or more importantly a web page or specific forum post.  Game developers can extend this concept further by adding an option that allows a gamer to share a specific point or location in the game with another player (I like to call them “permapoints”).

3.  The Wisdom of Crowds – make it easy for gamers, fans, and the press to build buzz for your game.   Take advantage of services like ShareThis which allow one click buzz generation across many social networks and Web 2.0 sites like Digg, StumbleUpon, Facebook, etc..  This feature should be handy wherever you have offered a Permalink or Permapoint.

4.  Add default user participation in growing the game.  The game should automatically get better the more gamers play it.  Guild behavior was an early form of this point.  Today user generated content (UGC) is the low hanging fruit and several games are riding this train (like Little Big Planet).  Gamers should comment on game weapons and quests as they engage with them making each item richer as they go.   Give gamers the ability to tweak game content as they work through the game, if I kill an orc offer me the chance to modify one thing about it that is randomly inserted into the next orc someone runs into.   Let me name a creature or my horse then let someone else find it.  Don’t overlook the chance to let player characters take over traditional non-player character roles – who wants to hear the same dialog every time you visit the shopkeeper.   As a side dish to this strategy think about building game features that adjust game play as users work their way through the content – don’t let the early players have all the fun and then post all the spoilers online, change the story and outcomes on the fly.

5.  Leverage tags in game and at community websites to create a folksonomy specific to your game.  Everything a user creates or interacts with should be taggable by the user – forum posts, inventory items, monsters, map locations, etc..   This database of tags should be accessible by all gamers and fan sites.  Tags make it easy for gamers to find things the way gamers think about things which is not always the way game developers think about things.   Tags also self prioritize allowing gamers and game staff to find important items quickly (plus marketing and community management can see what gamers are thinking about most).  Tags should be sortable by time stamp, popularity, and alphabetically at a minimum.

6.  Open Source – there is a reason that the biggest Web 2.0 sites embrace Open Source software.  Massive scale, particularly when the core service is free to use, requires very low capital and operations cost.   Try to keep your operating system, database, and programming tools free.   Popular web languages like Perl, PHP, and Ruby on Rails lend themselves to dynamic nature of Web 2.0 sites – when you need to update daily or even every hour scripting languages start to show their strength in spades.

7.  End the software release cycle – operations must become a core competency.  In 3 years, daily release of content will be the basic hurdle every MMO video game company will have to deal with if they want to stay competitive.  Now is the time to learn how to do it.  As the free to play business model takes over it will be important to leverage the concept of keeping the game service in Beta on a permanent basis.  Changes will have to be made so quickly that QA departments will need to be expanded to include the game users.  Game updates should be easy to make and roll back with minimum disruption to game play, ideally none.

8.  Design for hackability and remixing so that fan sites and hard core players can leverage meta data and game data to build add-ons, mods, and cool widgets for fan sites and smart phones like the iPhone.   Simple things like server status, number of players currently playing, inventory counts, player achievements, chat feeds and the like should be available to the community as APIs or web services or ideally simple RSS feeds.  Let gamers embed your game world into theirs.

9.  Software above the level of a single device is a core Web 2.0 concept.  Do not just think about the PC or the console.  Think about letting players engage the game no matter where they are or how they are connected or even if they are connected.   Let a gamer play on his iPhone with players who are playing through a web browser with players who are playing a client version of the game, even if this means that the iPhone player can only chat with the other players or sell items out of their inventory.

10.  Design your game so that it ends up creating a huge set of hard to recreate data.  Facebook is valuable because it contains the activities of over 120 million members.   Bejeweled could have a database of over 300 million gamers if a simple data collection system was built in.   It would be awesome if I could go to Bioware’s website and pull my complete gaming history like what missions I accomplished, which enemies I defeated and how, and my inventory collections.   Comparing myself to other gamers would be great too.

I can wax on, but 10 items should be enough to get things moving down the right path for most games, any one of which would be a huge improvement on current fare.

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Video game developers need to wake up – Microsoft is ahead of you with Web 2.0!

Microsoft has announced they are embracing Web 2.0 for their new Microsoft Live portal.  While not surprising, the move does shine a spotlight on web properties and video games that are not Web 2.0 enabled today.   I can not think of many video games that even hint they are Web 2.0 aware beyond the simple flash and Java games that are embedded in Facebook and the like.  None of the major game publishers like Activision, Electronic Arts, Midway, and Nexon have made any progress down the Web 2.0 path even as the concept of Web 2.0 is getting long in the tooth (thus we see Microsoft and Yahoo are finally starting to make significant moves – Yahoo did buy Flickr so they get a few achievement points).

Last month the CEO of Turbine announced their intentions to tackle the Web 2.0 meme for all of their MMO video games which should get a few other CEO’s wondering what he is talking about.  He also pointed out that integrating a Web 2.0 style portal into a game like Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) can help publishers monetize games with advertisements.

For video game developers and company management who may have been heads down working on their next title during the last 4 years or just need a refresher in all things Web 2.0 here is a great introduction to Web 2.0 by Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Books fame (and for those of you who have been raised in Windows only farms books published by O’Reilly are must haves in the Unix/Linux powered backbone of all things Internet so when Tim speaks the Internet tends to listen).

If you are thinking that you still had time to embrace Web 2.0 or to reach out to social network users, this move by Microsoft should start one thinking about how far behind your products and the video game industry as a whole has fallen.

It should also clearly mark the line between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0.

My next post will highlight a few ideas on how video games should take advantage of Web 2.0 to improve customer experience and customer acquisition.

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IBM patents instant messaging avatar creation gender selection based on names.

Slashdot notes that IBM was just issued patent #7,447,996 on creating an instant messaging avatar with a gender set by the analyzing the name the user provides.  At first glance this is a simple thing but a read of the patent points to a fairly sophisticated system that supports multiple user cultures and languages including Hindu and Chinese.  However IBM may have some difficultly defending the core part of this patent as there is prior art in some video games and online sites already albeit with limited name recognition databases.

This patent, on a central part of online services account creation, does raise the point that there are a lot of little things that game developers should be patenting that are neglected because developers do not think it is significant enough to patent or more likely they lack the resources in time and legal work to get patents put together and shepherd through the process.

The ubiquitous radar that shows the location of friends and foes in first person shooter (FPS) and massive multiplayer online (MMO) games, is easily patentable by today’s patent standards (except that it is now ubiquitous).  There are several patents related to FPS and other MMO video game radar displays that add additional functions to the basic game radar system. It would not hurt to do some occasional patent searches on a few keywords related to the type of video game or feature you are working on.

At a bare minimum, it is imperative that developers document and date their designs from a very early stage to provide some relief from patent infringement claims from the big guys like IBM who have resources to out patent every company on Earth – and keep you old source code around, it can take ten or more years for a patent troll to rear their ugly head and ding you for cut of the proceeds of your hit game.    Timely publishing your ideas via Blogs and industry journals can also help if the time comes to defend your work from a patent claim – in particular if you are never going to go through the patent process or protect your idea with a solid trade secret process.

Get credit for your work and help others at the same time or someone else will.

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What Barack Obama can teach us about community management.

The New York Times just published an overview of how the 2008 election has changed the way future campaigns will be run.

The last year has also been an rare opportunity for any online game operator and the GOP to learn better community management. Due to the nature of a political campaign, there are no business method patents or trade secrets hidden away on how to win voters.

Barack Obama’s presidential campaign has been a case study in growing a user base leveraging the standard Web 2.0 template and tying it tightly with cell phones. I encouraged some of my friends who were not Obama supporters to get engaged with his campaign through the Barack Obama website, not to change their vote, but to ensure they had a chance to learn how this historic White House run was changing the game.

As a volunteer of both and Barack Obama’s campaign I witnessed masterful Web 2.0 driven customer relationship management with carefully targeted emails based on my donation level, my geographic location (at the State, county, and city level), my income level, and on a the issues that were important to me as a voter. My wife was additionally segmented into the Women for Barack group.

I participated in national conference calls that leveraged low cost VOIP services and webcasts to ensure volunteer leaders had the information we needed to support small groups of other volunteers.

The Obama ‘08 iPhone App is a ground breaking tool that offered a Call Friends tool that geosegmented my Contacts into each battleground State, a Get Involved section that offered the address of the nearest campaign headquarters along with directions via the iPhone map tool, a Receive Updates screen to sign-up for campaign emails and SMS, a News section with National, State, and Local breaking campaign news, a Local Events section, a Media list with a collection of YouTube videos that including an email this video option (Jay Z was great), and an Issues section with each major campaign issue explained in detail.

However the personal website at steals the show. This state of the art portal offered:

An excellent collection of side bar widgets and adverts on almost every page that offered access to the Make Calls for Barack tool, invitations to join groups, key endorsements from various individuals and groups, Local Events, Store items, Mobile sign-up, Fight the Smears info, and the impressive in scope Obama Everywhere panel of “sharing widgets” for quick posting to LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, Digg, YouTube, FaithBase, BlackPlanet, MyBatanga, Twitter, Eventful, Eons, Glee, MiGente, Asian Avenue, and DNC PartyBuilder.

The personalized home page called My Dashboard has a Web 2.0 collection of sophisticated AJAX, Javascript, and PHP widgets that reported in real time my impact on the campaign including: how much money I had raised for the campaign through the various tools on the website, how many calls I had made, how many events I hosted, how many doors I knocked on, how many blog posts I created, and the various groups I had participated in. Widgets for Facebook posting, a tool to write letters to newspaper editors, and a widget for campaign event management (both creating events that I could host and RSVP to geotargeted events that I was invited to).

A personal Blog page with a simple to use yet fairly advanced Blog posting tool including the ability to post directly to the various group Blogs that I belonged too.

A Learn tab with everything I need to know about Barack Obama, his running mate, their wives, their personal stories, their stance on the issues, and a Facts section to help the campaign fight off all the attacks that floated around email in-boxes.

An Issues tab with a deep dive into the platform Barack was running on.

A Media tab with a rich collection of embedded flash videos, music, podcasts, slide shows, photos, and desktop wallpaper – far more than I have ever seen on an online game page. Closed caption and Spanish options were available for most items.

An Action tab with information on how to get out the vote for Barack including tools that gave me direct access to a list of voters to call and sign-up links to directly help the campaign including a calendar of pending local events.

A People tab with close to 30 links offering tailored information to specific demographic groups including Kids, Grandparents, Veterans, Hispanics, Asians, and even Republicans.

A States tab with a link to a Blog for every State and U.S. territory including additional tools for each State’s campaign staff and volunteers to ensure the get out the vote process ran smoothly.

The Official Obama Blog tab with multiple times a day posts updating volunteers and voters on all the current campaign issues and news. Including a rich ecosystem of guest bloggers and comments from all comers.

A Store tab that offered all things Obama/Biden including small personal items, stickers, car magnets (thoughtful – who wants to have a fading sticker on their BMW?), and various sizes of prepackaged Get out the Vote deals (like 5 yard signs, 3 magnets, and 200 door hangers for $20) all of these options for the most part offered in several styles, multiple languages and designed to appeal to a lot of the demographics from the People tab – I wonder how many “Republicans for Barack” yard signs were sold?

The only missing piece of technology was a Web 2.0 feedback mechanism like MY Starbucks Idea or PleaseFixTheiPhone which every online game should implement today. Apparently relying on the campaign offices to send notes from the field up the chain of the command, the website offered only very limited Contact Us options including a 1-800 number and general email address.

All in all, this historic election offers a lot of great lessons to be learned and applied to every online game marketing and community management strategy.

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YouTube gets a great upgrade for targeted marketing.

A few days ago, YouTube added the ability to create a link to a video that specifies exactly where to start the video.   Called Deep Linking this handy feature allows one to add a simple Time tag at the end of the link that notes the minute and second where the video should start playing.

So just append #t=XmXs to the end of the video’s link -- like at the end of this video link for Free to Play MMO video game Lunia :

This link when clicked will start the video at 4 minutes 8 seconds into the movie (Deep Linking works in YouTube video comments too, you just add the time in your comment and YouTube creates a link in the comment for you like “you gotta see the part at 4:08″).

This really makes it much easier to share great parts of videos and minimize time wasting for the viewer.   I suspect Google is hoping this will shave their bandwidth bill by a good fraction too.   More importantly I believe we will see some new video ad placement capabilities offered by Google.

Video game marketing departments should take note -- you can now make an online video much longer than the rules of good marketing would normally allow and then put your segmentation hat on to direct viewers to the part of the video that is most relevant to them, yet keeping the option open for the viewer to engage further and see the rest of the video.

This is an online marketing engagement game changer from the brain trust at Google.

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