Google: Lively

10 07 2008

Google have finally launched a virtual world. People have been talking about this since the first google maps mashups, Sketchup and again with Google Earth.

What’s there so far seems pretty high quality, there must be some fairly powerful content creation tools to allow users to generate many of the rooms on show (there’s already a Linden Lab one).

It works with individual rooms, somewhat like Metaplace, rather than a consistent world ala WoW, which will almost certainly give it a lower bandwidth and processing footprint than a typical MMO. Everyone better watch out… not just Linden Lab, but Sony, with PSHome and Virgin with A World Of My Own. A lot of these offerings seem very similar, but I expect Google’s advertising model could crunch right through the competition.

I’ll be interested to see how consistent worlds stack up against the polyphony that’ll be found in things like Lively and Metaplace. I suspect that consistent worlds that people can become really absorbed into will still be able to command subscription fees, while the more random offerings will lead people to expect them to be free or ad supported.

Everything in Lively seems rather stylised and consistent from room to room at the moment, and I do wonder if that will survive in the torrent of user generated content. Will siloing things in individual rooms lead to consistent styles emerging, or will general taste still make it look like Second Life?

(CC image of Lively by ialja)





Kangaroo

9 07 2008

We’ve been boning up a little on Kangaroo, which is the working title of a video-on-demand player that will incorporate content from BBC Worldwide, Channel 4 and ITV (It’s slated to have the final name of “SeeSaw”).

It’s interesting in itself that three players with different business models and strategies are cooperating on a single VoD service, but the service itself will also allow different business models:

Users will be offered programming for free, rental and buy-to-own, with the intention that Kangaroo provides a “one-stop shop” for all BBC, ITV and Channel 4 content.

The most interesting thing we’ve found though is this blog post by Steve Bowbrick, positing that a referral to the competition commissioner, which has delayed it by six months, may in fact have saved it:

By then the entire market will have shifted again: just remember how different everything looked when Kangaroo was first discussed. Back then (almost exactly a year ago) VoD looked fairly simple: it was going to be a paid-for, walled garden kind of business with TV shows delivered in standalone applications, wrapped in heavy-duty DRM.

Now, led by the BBC’s second-generation streaming iPlayer, VoD looks very different: it’s free, it’s delivered in a browser and DRM is fading fast. The OFT’s decision has handed Kangaroo the opportunity to sit out the next six months of cock-ups and dead ends and time travel to a different context all together. Sure it’s risky (and costly) to sit on your hands for half a year in a fast moving business but the opportunity to watch the other early entrants tripping over their laces and going bust surely can’t be missed.

It’s a scary time for all kinds of media. A quote from the NESTA games industry event on Monday was “Innovation *is* the strategy now”, and this will surely lead to a very high failure rate accompanied by sudden scale changes (in both directions) for businesses. If that seems frightening, doing nothing is the one sure route to total failure.

Steve also points out that the OFT is unlikely to shut the service down, just specify necessary changes. The challenge was initiated by Sky, and its likely that any changes would mandate a degree of openness. So rather than being a standalone player…

It’ll be a platform to begin with. And it’ll probably be a tiered affair, with the investing partners’ shows featured at the top and the stuff from the great unwashed further down or out at the fringes.

There’s a lot more speculation from that point on, but:

a post-OFT Kangaroo looks like a whole different kind of place: Kangaroo 2.0? OpenKangaroo? Sky’s self-interested intervention might have a most unexpected result. It might turn Kangaroo from—let’s face it—a slightly desperate tactical response to the seething grassroots video revolution into a national asset: a focus for the UK’s creative community. The new Kangaroo might be a genuine British hub for the emerging layer of video creators occupying the space below the telly production indies who got their leg up from Channel 4 25 years ago. In fact, it might be ‘a Channel 4 for the rest to us’. I don’t know about you but I’m suddenly finding the prospect of an OFT referral much more interesting than I’d ever expected it could be. Fingers crossed.

Fingers crossed indeed.

(Creative Commons image by Unapower)





Blizzard Are Sly Dogs

4 07 2008

Archangel Tyrael, Diablo II

To promote the newly announced Diablo III, Blizzard have revealed a new pet for people in World of Warcraft. It’s a miniature Archangel Tyrael from Diablo II. Not only will he look cool floating about near players’ avatars, he’s going to be inciting the 11M+ WoW userbase to talk about Diablo III. Very clever bit of marketing there.





Pinnacle Offers Third Way To Market

27 06 2008

http://flickr.com/photos/druclimb/424411496/

Distributor Pinnacle are experimenting with an offer for developers to get games to market without using a publisher. It aimed squarely at people who already have work to put out, rather than the traditional process of pitching, greenlighting, investment, acquisitions, etc.

Gamecock is not dissimilar, but they’ve just done a deal with a publisher. It’s still to be seen what they’ll become. We’re a service provider.

People have traditionally known Pinnacle for pick, pack, ship, sales – they wouldn’t have associated us with marketing, PR or financing products. What we don’t want is a load of people saying, “Give us a load of money and we’ll make you a great game.” We’re not interested in that. We’re interested in people who need assistance to get over the line without conceding control.

The talk all sounds very similar to GameCock, and the distributor taking over some publisher roles without others is just a part of the impending blur around digital media.

We very firmly see ourselves as the missing part of what a developer would need to form a publishing stategy. We have developers who don’t need any contribution to development, but who don’t have a licence to publish. We can offer them that, so long as they can satisfy the requirements. Every single deal is different. Generally, you’ll find the developer name on the front of the box, and on the back you’ll find ‘Distributed worldwide by Pinnacle Software’.

Head over to MCV for the full interview.

(CC image of mountaintop by Dru!)





Brand Assumptions

3 06 2008

Beauty and The Beast

News about UK developer discontent rumbles on, and for now hardly seems worth blogging about, but I did see this intersting piece on Gamesindustry this morning: Disney games are hampered by preconceptions, says Black Rock boss.

Black Rock Studio’s general manager, Tony Beckwith, has said the studio’s greatest challenge will be overcoming stereotypes associated with the Disney brand.

The Brighton-based developer, previously known as Climax Racing, said that it would have to fight preconceptions around the Disney name if it is to make its upcoming arcade racer Pure a success.

An increasing amount of large brand owners are entering games by buying up studios or starting their own, but as the marketplace for games grows and splinters, brand owners may find it difficult to make a convincing offering. This isn’t just Sony trying to shed the “games are for kids” preconception, nor is it Microsoft trying to shed the “Men in suits” image. It’s lots of companies simultaneously trying to either grow their brand in a new direction, or harmonise games with it.





Codemasters Get F1 License

9 05 2008

http://flickr.com/photos/tmwolf/178367619/

Recent happenings at Codemasters get more interesting. First they buy SEGA’s London based Racing Studio, which was originally set up with ex-Codies, now they’ve got the F1 license to go with it.

(via Gamasutra, CC image by TMWolf)





Grand Theft Auto IV

30 04 2008

Grand Theft Auto hit retail on Tuesday, and is expected to eclipse the launch of Halo 3 last year. GamesIndustry.biz reports that play.com was receiving 80 orders per minute on launch day (though it doesn’t specify how long for), and Jason Kingsley of Rebellion has spoken up for Britsoft:

“This is world’s biggest launch in the games market and the intellectual property is actually British made, he explained. “I think that’s fantastic. It should be celebrated.”

Mainstream press coverage has been surprisingly positive, if quite formulaic, with much of it devoting a lot of time to “Other forms of entertainment have sex and violence too”. This is old hat for game developers, but nonetheless a vital part of pushing this conceptual framework out into culture. Plenty of editors and writers, along with their audiences, could still do with having this point hammered home.

NPR have said many of the same things, but it’s by far the most thoughtful piece I’ve seen in this vein.

Edit: Richard Bartle has written a fairly crowing but pragmatically brutal piece for the Guardian:

They’re no more concerned about “moral decay” or “aggressive tendencies” or any of the other euphemisms for “ohmygod I don’t understand this” than you are about soap operas.

We’ve definitely hit a turning point in the cultural dialogue, with so many more things emerging that we can point to as “games”. Fears over videogame violence are soon going to seem as irrelevant and niche as the same fears over comics.





Lost Ring Sponsored by McDonalds

25 04 2008

The Lost Ring

This is quite a surprise: Beijing 2008 ARG The Lost Ring is sponsored by McDonalds. The NYT has a registration wall, so I suggest bugmenot, but here’s a highlight that conveys the gist:

“I think finding out that it was McDonald’s was kind of a big shock for everyone,” said Geoff May, a player in Ontario who founded a Web site (olympics.wikibruce.com) on the game. “Obviously it’s McDonald’s, and not everyone likes them,” he said. “Personally, I don’t mind as long as we don’t get products forced down our throat. If we’re getting McDonald’s meals sold by characters, it’s going to be hard to suspend our disbelief.”

That’s part of the reason McDonald’s has remained behind the curtain thus far. A successful alternate-reality game relies on the players’ continuing interest.

“If an A.R.G. is too clearly corporate or commercial, the gamers will not want to engage,” said Tracy Tuten, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, who studies new-media marketing tools. “It’s very important that the game be written in a way where the branding is not obvious.”

McDonald’s has been careful to reflect that, Ms. Dillon said. “Above all, we want to be credible, authentic and respectful to this new audience,” she said.

As a recent academic report pointed out, marketing is now about relationships rather than transactions. There are still many large brands that don’t understand this, and McDonalds getting it took me unawares. I’ve a feeling that by the time ARGs are established, the reputations of more than a few brands will have been turned on their heads.





WiiiPlayer

9 04 2008

Wiimote slippage

The BBC have inked a deal with Nintendo to make the iPlayer a channel on the Nintendo Wii. It’s a smart move given the number of Wiis around, and the iPlayer as it stands is naturally more at home in the strictly orthodox confines of a console network or the iPhone.

Watchification really hit the difference between the BBC and much of the web home to me recently: typically, all of the iPlayer embeds in the lower half of the page are replaced with “Sorry, this program is no longer available” due to the seven day limit.

(CC wiimote image derived from flickr user Riggzy)





Games and Personal Development

13 03 2008

Runner

Ubisoft are making a weight management game. It sounds like Nike+ Lite (or maybe heavy). It’ll use a pedometer coupled with the DS and game mechanics to help people set goals and manage their weight. I love this kind of interactive work, and the technology to implement it has recently become a lot more basic and thus cheaper. Interactive has an incoming dark side though…

I’ve been using Nike+ since last October, and i love it. It’s a very game-like service. A sensor in your shoe connects to a sensor on an ipod nano, recording data and, as you run, periodically giving you vocal status updates on your pace, total time, distance covered, and distance to your goal.

Once you’re done, iTunes connects to the Nike+ website and uploads your run data, where each run can be graphed, compared to others, and mapped. As well as setting a mileage goal on the iPod each time you go out, the site also allows users to set and track long term goals, which keeps me motivated and thinking about running even when I’m not doing it.

Given that I prefer VLC to iTunes, and feel very queasy about Nike’s labour history, Nike+ has to be quite a compelling service to have snagged me so deeply. Tying things to game mechanics works, and providing access to data also turns people into self-educating geeks: From knowing virtually nothing and being prone to injuries in previous years, I’ve gone to knowing about running gaits, foot types and the right kinds of shoe for them, and as a result, am now able to run much further with far fewer injuries.

What’s really lacking is a social aspect. I know several people who use it, but we have no proper way to search, connect, share or look at each other’s data. There is no real way to communicate through the site or find others. The furthest it goes is to create challenges and either open them to everyone, or invite friends who’s screennames or emails I already know.

There’s a palpable sense of a next step that’s missing: That I’m on my own when I’m using Nike+, or that game mechanics are missing when I’m using Facebook.

It appears that this growing bubble of interactive services is going to turn my life into an MMO, and I largely welcome it. I’d like to shape its future development too, as I’m acutely aware that the technology is ethically inert. Jane McGonigal and Raph Koster talk about using games to save the world and that they’re the best medium to contribute to that, and I think they’re largely correct, but points and data alone are quite compelling when you present them to people in the right way.

Technically, the same kind of system could be devised to work with “sitting on your ass eating junk food and watching TV”. The Obama campaign is using Twitter right now, how long before a campaign actually uses game mechanics for influence? How sugar coated a pill could game mechanics be for drip-feeding people ideology or propaganda?

At first blush it seems like self-interest would limit the power ARGs and MMOs could have over people, but reading something like The System by Cao Yunwu makes it all too apparent that people are not always rational choosers. Of course there are going to be cultish, astroturf ARGs that exploit this one day.

(CC image by portfolium)