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GDC Roundup

Arrrgh! I feel like I’ve sailed around the whirled, through stormy seas and cliffs of liquored doom, and returned. This year’s GDC was a busy old time. Everything went much according to plan, here are some random thoughts and memories;

Indie Games Summit: I was deeply negative, I think. Too negative. I rained on publishers which frankly for many indies contemplating an MMO is not helpful — you need some backing. It’s not like we’ve done that spectacularly without publishing muscle for marketing and distribution, either. A few people praised my talk later, saying that I was ‘realistic’ but I think I could have been more up-beat.

Casual Games Summit: The casual games business is still screwed. I tried to get Charles Merrin (Real) to do a deal with me before the session, but he wanted ‘everything for $50, and your hat’. The hat was of course a deal-breaker. So I had to put the ole hammer down on the difficulties of doing anything innovative, or indeed multiplayer at all, in the casual ‘ecosystem’ (more like a monosystem). These two sessions were actually a lot of fun with some good banter, but I remain down on downloadables. That said, I think if I were a hard-up indie with the chops, I would engage one of the casual portals (or rather, attempt to be engaged by them, ‘cos they’d have to pay) making bespoke ad-heavy multi-player games, hopefully with some back-end. There’s definitely the demand on the portal side, they are just slovenly with the execution on enabling technologies like user and billing APIs. Apparently ‘good stuff’ is coming soon. I am already blue in the face from waiting.

Future, past and present of MMOs: This session was good fun. The panelists were generally in agreement. Talk of big media getting involved, along with predictably predictions of people losing their shirts in droves. I was last up for future predictions and pulled out old chestnuts of ‘Eating television alive’ (second time quote for A.C. Clarke at GDC), web-based casual networks and the bank problem — will MMO operators end up becoming defacto banks? Should we look at off-shoring now? Will we get screwed by legislation? Watch this space.

Burning Man: We had a very strong panel, better than the last one at Austin, I felt. We each gave position statements on our thoughts about the event. Lorne Lanning gave an excellent talk about the importance of psychedelics in forming culture. I repeated my ‘War for the Future’ waffle (but made sure that nobody apart from a poor couple of folks had heard it before). Some of us got quite emotional. The crowd was smallish but seemed to really appreciate the session and had interesting questions.

Virtual Currency roundtables: These went very well indeed. We had big rooms full of people, but everyone behaved well and took turns talking. Some of the big players in this space (I will refrain from mentioning names incase they get into trouble) were very forthcoming with numbers and thoughts. Most people listened attentively. There’s certainly a lot going to be happening in virtual currency in the next few years. My biggest takeaway was the value in enabling speculation and a secondary market for digital goods.

MetaSoy: We started with some general corporate data, then Michael took us on a tour of a plethora of data on Bang! Howdy’s initial roll-out. Graph-arama, as is the usual style. Then we did a little talk about the background for Whirled — the new name for MetaSoy — and a quick demo. The demo went surprisingly well, although the engineers broke the Popular Places key navigation shortly beforehand… heh, something has to break! There were a few good questions and it was done.

Alice did a much better write-up of the Whirled part than I could have done.

Thursday night we had our big MetaScience party to celebrate. It was awesome. We invited too many people — or more likely, the folks we invited invited too many people, and had to stop letting people in for a while with a big line. The place was super-packed with the bartenders working like crazy to fulfill the elixir requirements of a multitude of thirsty scientists. Check out the Photoboof Pictures. Party Ben and The Evolution Control Committee played awesome sets and people rocked out on the dancefloor. We may not be able to have such a crazy party at the office again, but I’m glad we did. The place looked incredible thanks to tonnes of frantic work from Jillian and Toast. All-in-all, a great night.

Congratulations to the Bang! Howdy team on the IGF Technical Excellence award. Another for Michael’s desk! Congratulations to Aquaria; I loved their acceptance speeches. Without wishing to be a grouch, though, I would like to make a case for IGF entrants being released in playable form by the time of the awards. It’s frustrating to me that we lost the Grand Prize to a game that I can’t check out.

That’s about it, apart from various other parties, many of them fun (thanks Bessemer, Linden, IGDA Online SIG, etc.) and bunches of meetings. I wish I had had time to go to more sessions. Next year! Yep, next year.

p.s. Check out Nabeel’s summary and not just because of my goofy quotes.

The Capn’s Fearsome GDC Schedule o’ Doom

I wrote this up at the request of Jonric of the Vault Network so I thought I’d post it here, too.

This year it looks like I am the most prolific speaker at the Game Developers’ Conference, or GDC. I don’t think I get a prize — perhaps buying drinks for Meggan and the other poor GDC folks who had to schedule the event.

Monday and Tuesday I’ll be haunting the Independent Game Developers summit and the Casual Games summit. I’m speaking at both, a mini-lecture at 2pm for the Indies (probably a summary of Three Rings’ approach to development and our tawdry corporate history) and a couple of panels on business stuff (3pm Mon, 2pm Tues) for the casual summit. Tuesday night the parties start in earnest — I think I have five to go to, that night! Capn better put on his carousing boots!

Wednesday the ‘classic’ conference starts. Matt Mihaly of Iron Realms and I are moderating a roundtable on Free to Play, Pay for Stuff’ or microcurrency-based games. We did this last year and it was a lot of fun; I love roundtables because lots of people talk and you get a real exchange of ideas. We had folks from Habbo Hotel, Wizards of the Coast and Korean developers, people with real, concrete experience of the wacky world of virtual currency. Unfortunately nobody from IGE turned up, but their ears must have been burning! The roundtable is at 2.30pm Weds, then repeats at 4pm Thurs and 10am (ugh! Thanks Meggan!) Friday morning. Weds afternoon I am also on a panel with Gordon Walton, Raph Koster, Rob Pardo, Marc Kern and Mark Jacobs about the MMOs Past, Present and Future. I like controversial panels, and we have a mandate from Gordon to get into a fist fight, so we’ll see what trouble we can rustle up. Wednesday night is less terrifying on the party front, but there is the Minna Mingle which is a big woo-hah for the casual games space at the ‘upscale’ venue, Ruby Skye. I will be sure to wear a nice stripey shirt. Fortunately we hope to be high rollin’ with a few extra dollars in our pockets, having swept the board with Bang! Howdy at the Independent Games Festival earlier in the evening. Wish us luck!

Thursday is the big one. At 2.30pm I throw myself into the fray with a panel on Burning Man and its relevance for game developers. We did a similar session at the Austin Game Conference last September, fresh out of Burning Man, and I believe it’s an interesting topic, especially for player-created and community-oriented worlds. It doesn’t stop; after the roundtable it’s the main event at 5.30pm; Michael Bayne, Three Rings’ co-founder and CTO, and I will be making our annual presentation on Three Rings’ progress and unveiling our new project. The talk is called Pirates vs. Cowboys vs… Ninjas? MetaSoy and Player-created Content. Last year we showed off an early version of Bang! Howdy, this year we’ll be talking about how that’s doing, how Puzzle Pirates is getting on, and giving the public debut of the new new thing. This may all sound like a big ole product pitch for Three Rings, but in addition to demos we’re all about giving out real data (like revenues and player numbers), useful information on our development process, indie business tips and hard liquor. I leave it to the audience to decide which is most important, but they’ve enjoyed themselves the last couple of years.

I should be exhausted after this, but the day is just a warm-up for Three Rings’ infamous late-night, hard-drinking GDC party at a top secret location. The theme this year is Meta Science, so bring a labcoat and ping me or find me at the show if you want an invite.

My brains (mmm, brains!) will doubtless be hurtin’ when I finish up the conference on Friday with the roundtable and most likely the first opportunity I have to really dig into some other sessions. This is my twelfth GDC and it is always an exhausting whirlwind, but it’s also some of the best fun I have in the industry and always makes me happy that I make games. It’s a rare joy to work in a business where you actually *like* your colleagues in the industry. My father worked in films and believe me, it wasn’t like that for him. So I count my blessings and collapse for the weekend a happy Capn.

Second Life, Trion, and the ‘War’

Capn needs to watch his mouth when he is around journalists. This is something of a public apology to the Lindens for the quote from me in this Red Herring article on ‘The War to Build the Next Warcraft’; ‘Using Second Life is like having teeth pulled’ is not entirely fair. It’s a lot more fun than that (unless they give you the really good drugs at the dentist).

Linden continues to do really cool things. They open-sourced the client (Susan’s take) and just released some really great, detailed numbers (Raph’s analysis is useful). On the latter, my estimates of their revenue were higher than Raph (I probably booched the math) but given our relative concurrency user numbers (impressively they are up to ~4-5x us, vs ~2x in the summer), Puzzle Pirates and Second Life seem to have similar ballpark average revenue per user. The recent growth is fantastic; go Linden!

Back to the Red Herring arrrticle, I am also bemused by the authors implication that we have had ‘much more luck’ than Runescape. Our 30,000 paying customers (it’s actually a fair bit more than that, but it depends on how you slice it up over time; PP has had over 80,000 paying customers over its lifetime) by no means indicate more ‘luck’ than Runescape’s 900,000. I’d like a slice of their ‘luck’, myself.

I find myself a little baffled by the business plan of ‘Trion World Network’. It’s still in stealth, but what they do say is something like ‘top quality online games for broadband’. I am of course very much on-board with there being a big distinction between an online service oriented company and a packaged goods publisher, and I can forsee that Electronic Arts (the CEO’s former employer) may continue to acquire companies that succeed in this paradigm. However, EA aren’t all that bad at online stuff; after the EA.com debacle passed they’ve done a good job managing Pogo, and now they now have Mythic. They just bought SingShot, too; Sims Karaoke, anyone? I’m not sure what the big difference in experience (not distribution, which is important certainly) for a player is between a pure download game and the box-purchase with regular patches. I’m very skeptical of streaming solutions, as they mostly seem to produce a patchy (ha ha) experience that gamers won’t stand for. It’ll be interesting to see how Trion and competitors Multiverse, shape up in the field of battle.

Naturally the Capn remains aghast at the budget requirements of (presumably) Trion and Red5. Excuse the play on the name, but to an investor, to me it looks like this; if you’re okay with putting down $10M (out of, say, $40M) on red 5 then waiting four years or so to see if the roulette wheel comes up, great! You might win big (especially if you can do that scream thing like in Run Lola Run, ~6.40 mins in)… but this seems like a odd kind of bet for a venture investor to make. As Gus Tai says in the article, VCs have historically shied away from such content bets because they realise that they are not publishers and do not have the skillset to make judgements about what might succeed in the marketplace — let alone the marketplace four years away. Anyway, I’ve blogged about the insane competition in the MMORPG market before. We’ll see who is left on the battlefield… in a few years.

Finally, they end the article with a quote from me about a ‘ten year battle’. I believe that in this case I was referring to specifically the player-created content ‘virtual world’ space, not entertainment. I hope that entertainment worlds are not a winner-takes-all business. I think that would be a shame, although it certainly looks a bit like that right now with WoW. However, open-platform virtual worlds are likely to have some kind of network effect properties that lead one to dominate the landscape. I think that it will be a long and bloody conflict before a world emerges the winner, and I strongly believe that it will only a deeply open platform that succeeds. I think Linden agrees with me, which gives them a whole lot of legs in the struggle.

One of my favourite meetings ever was in Silicon Valley with a very famous and successful entrepreneur who was interested in buying Three Rings. He quoted Sun Tzu to me, something about taking the high ground and forcing your enemy into the swampy lowlands. I hope Three Rings can keep to the higher ground, if I can keep my feet out of my mouth we might just make it up the hill.

Quality of Life, or the Captain Confesses to Not Flogging the Crew (much)

There appear to be similar sets of expectations surrounding startup companies and game developers; both relentlessly drive employees to tremendous hours and efforts, working them late nights and weekends. ‘Crunch mode’ is a common spectre for developers as they grind into the early hours in the hope of making a milestone. This excellent IGDA article on Crunch Mode by Evan Robinson makes very clear what a terrible idea this is, illustrated by decades of studies. Even that good old fascist Henry Ford believed in a forty-hour week! I’m with Henry on this one.

Electronic Arts’ regular practice of over-working its employees seems to have toned down since the EA Spouse debacle, but the practice remains commonplace. Indeed, I suspect it’s probably more common with smaller developers and startups, because they are often reliant on the income from the next milestone payment or funding event. Crunch time is also a kind of perverse ‘fun’, fueled by a machismo camaraderie. In many cultures it is inappropriate for an aspiring worker to go home before the boss. The late nights and weekends demonstrate commitment to the project and the team. The delirium of sleeplessness is akin to psychoactive drugs or the euphoria of sports.

I would rather get my euphoria and late nights outside of the office. Perhaps, as Nabeel’s fine post on startups as a lifestyle choice indicates, this just means I am ‘slowing down in old age’. I don’t think it’s that, at least in my case; most of my colleagues are younger than me, and most of them have significant others to go home to (which is in itself interesting to me; we have a lot of ‘settled 20somethings’, many of whom have moved from smaller towns to be somewhat anomalous here in the gamophobic Bay Area). Only one or two of the crew can begin to give the Capn a run for his money at carousing, not that I’m necessarily proud of my achievements on the tiles. Oh no.

Rather, having started a few companies and done the through-the-night thing plenty, I am convinced that people simply do better work when they are happy, relaxed, and have a life outside work. Three Rings has never mandated working weekends, or late nights. Sure, mates sometimes work from home, and sometimes I leave the office at 8pm telling one of the usual suspects to ‘go home’, but this is not something we encourage. This apparent luxury has a lot to do with our scrupulous avoidance of a deadline-driven project schedule, along with a fortunate lack of external partners who can enforce such deadlines. Our only experience with this was back when we shipped the Ubisoft Puzzle Pirates box gold master. It was rather surreal.

Strangely, as we grow we’ve found that a lot of our folks find our ‘when it’s ready’ culture baffling, and want a bit more goal-driven structure. We’re experimenting with ways to provide targets to work towards, but we’re adamant not to introduce arbitrary, immovable deadlines. Sometimes, however, they creep up on us. Right now we’re trying to get MetaSoy to alpha before the Game Developers Conference so that we have something to talk about.

So, mandatory 16 hour days and six-day weeks all round! Swab those decks, you dogs!

Merry New Happy

A little 2007 update; I took some time off over the holidays, like any civilised organisation Three Rings shuts from Christmas eve through to Jan 2nd. Mostly I loafed around at home, though I took a trip to Orr Hot Springs with friends for a pleasing couple of days soaking in sulphurous tubs and marveling at incredibly tall trees.

New Year’s eve was (of course) a bit of a fiasco. I had four friends staying with me (from LA and NYC). We spent Midnight at Tom’ and Margaret’s house, up on the roof surrounded by downtown for the fireworks and so forth. It was a lot of fun, not least thanks to the French guys’ party in the loft next door. Foolishly we decided to set forth on foot at a late hour for a Spank Rock party — five big and very drunken SOMA blocks later we arrived as the party was shutting down. Chalk that one up to bad party planning. Here is a great Spank Rock video as consolation prize: Rick Rubin.

A few more linking nuggets for you; my friends know that I have an obsession with Giant Giant Phones (via Boing Boing).

I found myself agreeing a lot with the views of Justin Kitch, the CEO of Homestead. As players of Puzzle Pirates know, we fire (ban) undesirable customers all the time.

I was surprised to discover this hilarious Ali Love ‘K Hole’ song via Fred Wilson, a notable blogging VC.

I thought that this was strangely great; photographs of Little People in scenes around London.

This weekend I saw Children of Men. I enjoyed it, but found myself shellshocked for a couple of days afterwards, perhaps in part because I was in the third row back from the giant giant screen. I also went to Kontrol, a techno night. I’m not usually a fan of music that goes ‘duf-duf-duf-duf’ (house, trance, techno, etc.), as opposed to the ‘boom boom cack’ (breaks, hiphop, funk, etc.) but I really enjoyed myself.

More in my usual line, I got a txt on my way out of work and went to see Lady Sovereign who I’d heard but not heard of, if you see what I mean. She was alright, but she had an altercation with an MC dressed as a Jellied Donut (class line ‘You got beat by a dessert.’). Apparently something to do with this guy who raised $10k to take Lady Sov on a date. Go San Francisco (or ‘San Fran’ as she kept shouting… I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone but visiting Brits say that…)

I have become a fan of Violent Acres. I thought this post about speaking your mind was good.

I will endeavour to work up some controversial topic forthwith. In the mean time, peas.

Solstice Greetings — Returning Like the Sun

Merry Solstice!

It seems appropriate that I restart my flogging at the turning of the year, with a summary of my whereabouts over the last six months. Many a moment I have sat down to break radio silence, and for this that or the other reason I failed. Struggle I will no more! You will endure more regular postings from me… until morale improves, that is.

This post talks mostly about what I’ve been doing personally and a lot about Burning Man (blah blah blah). If you’d like the business update from Three Rings, read the latest Letter from the Captain. You can expect more posts from me ranting about various MMO and business issues that have been bothering me, or are noteworthy, in due course. Along with what I had for lunch and how the weather is, of course.
Since we last spoke;

July and August 2006: Mostly, I stayed in San Francisco

Having done a lot of travelling earlier in the year, including my period of exile in the Orient, I resolved that I would not even look at an aeroplane at close quarters for July and August. I really don’t like flying very much — being stuck in a tin can with a lot of other people that is then accelerated to high speed in order to optimistically fling itself from the earth and hurtle around the globe at precipitous speed and height, then to fall to earth again… it just sounds like a bad idea. That said, it doesn’t *bother* me — I usually fall asleep before the plane takes off and, on a short flight, don’t wake up until it bounces back down to earth. It’s more the air conditioning and ‘flight poisoning’ that peturbs me.

Anyway, I accomplished my objective, staying in San Francisco with some roadtrip detours to the mountains and to Tom’s bachelor party in Flagstaff, Arizona, where I got waylaid by car trouble and spent a few days sampling the high desert. Sedona’s pretty, and the drive to and from, through Yosemite, Death Valley and the Mojave, is spectacular and highly recommended. I’ve done it before going to Vegas, but avoided that particular MMofflineG this time. Instead I went to my usual favourite;

Burning Man and Dora’s Boxen

At the end of August I went on ye olde annual pilgrimage to the Black Rock desert for the Burning Man. This was an interesting year for me, my ninth.
My camp for the last four years, the illustrious Red Jade, took a hiatus this year. We’d had a pretty stable group of approximately 40 folks for the last four years, which makes for a good deal of communal infrastructure — shade structures, water, bikes, food, a lot of rubbish to take home, and a truck to put it all in. This year less of us were going, and those who were did not fancy truck duty. So some folks camped with another camp, and Michael (Three Rings’ co-founder and CTO) and I went our own ways to each have ‘Camp Me’ out in walk-in camping (the little known secret rustic hinterlands of Burning Man, whence one has to carry ones stuff ‘in’ from the roadside, making it much more spread out and like actually camping in the desert, rather than a big city). Michael and I saw each other only three times the whole week, and although I had lots of fun moments with friends, I was mostly left to my own devices, which made for a very different experience.

I rented a van and brought with me this year’s arrrt project, Dora’s Boxen. This was my mostly solo follow-up to Michael and I’s Subconscious collaboration in 2005. The Subconscious was a hard one to beat — I bumped into a couple of people who said (unprompted) that it was their favourite piece that year. Dora’s Boxen went pretty well, but of course left to mostly my own devices I was hopelessly underprepared by the time I rolled out to the desert on Sunday afternoon. Jon had drawn the artwork which Jillian and Toast of Because We Can very kindly cut out of plywood with Frank, their CNC Router Shopbot (BWC are building the Nautilus in the back room of our offices). All I had to do in the desert was paint the exterior, line the interior, and put it all together on top of the trolley base. This took most of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on the playa; she finally shipped out on Thursday afternoon, where she was to wander (I moved her, by pushing her, about twice each day) across the outer playa until Sunday night, when I brought her home.

Inside Dora’s Box there were various smaller boxes containing things like chiyogami paper, brocade fabric, pens, glue, books, etc. Treasure chests within treasure chests within treasure chests. The walls, roof and floor were lined with gold brocade. It was comfy and out of the wind. I tried not to spend too much time in the box, but like an anxious parent would check up on her periodically and met some nice people who were having fun within.

The net upshot of all this box-work was that I fell into an unusual ‘peasant’ sleep cycle, which started on Monday when I rose at dawn, worked all day, ate dinner, and promptly fell asleep. I woke just before dawn, went out for a while, then worked all day, ate dinner… I did not make it out in the peak Burning Man partying hours of between 10pm and 3am until Sunday night, when I saw the temple burn. I had to have a nap on top of the box. I saw every sunrise aside from the Monday of departure (I was asleep inside the box), and had a few very fun mornings out and about with the people who’d been up all night, but I missed the anxious run-about-get-dressed-and-get-ready of a camp full of people going out for the night. I was tucked up in bed. It was fantastic.

Other favourite pieces at Burning Man this year; a bathtub filled with balls of yarn, the bamboo Mandala, the temple. I did not think much of the ‘Waffle’, it was too big. Favourite musical moments; Lorin, Glitch Mob, Hamsa Lila (all at sunrise, unsurprisingly).

Next up: Austin Game Conference

Back from Burning Man and I was immediately into a relentless schedule of conferences and other travel. First up was the Austin Game Conference, where I spoke on virtual microcurrencies twice and Burning Man itself once. For the Burning Man panel we had a surreal planning meeting int he desert — one of the most extraordinary intrusions of ‘real life’ into Burning Man I’ve had outside of trying to read email on a dusty laptop (I’ve not even tried this the last couple of years). It was a lot of fun being in Austin, but I was definitely delirious at times.

Other September and October Events of Note

My good friend and colleague Tom Schofield was married to Margaret Lee in mid-September in Mendocino, which was lovely. I went to a couple of outdoor campout partes (‘crusty raves’ as we might have called them in England) which were fun. In mid-October I went to Seattle to hang out at the new Dojo and harrass business partners, then LA, then London shortly afterwards to be the surprise for my mother’s 70th birthday party. It was a breakneck visit, less than a week, and I was back in time for Halloween — that great San Francisco costume tradition. This year I was Wendy to my friend Ema’s Peter, which was fun (no, you can’t see the photos), then some sort of Edwardian vampiric mess for the Extra Action gig on Halloween proper.

November: Project Horseshoe and Back to Korea for G-Star

I barely had a moment to throw off the Halloween costume before heading to Austin again for Project Horseshoe, a game development think-tank put on by George ‘Fatman’ and Linda Sanger. It was jolly good fun trying to break down some of the boundaries around games with a group of marvellously smart folks (I will refrain from name-dropping). Our group was called ‘PlayBack to the Future’ and our presentation had me as Doctor Who (Tom Baker, naturally, I have the scarf) introducing a group of white-tablecloth-clad game designers from the future, who each espoused their own ‘school’ of thought. Good stuff.

No rest for the Doctor, however. No sooner had I returned to San Francisco then it was off again. I was honored to be invited this year to speak at the Korean Developers Conference at G-Star. My topic was ‘Bringing Item-Based Games to the Western Market’ (see the PPT and it was my first time being translated. I think it went well — I managed to get a couple of 30-second delayed laughs out of the audience. Of course Nexon delivered their big MTV announcement right in the middle of my presentation, which I suppose means that my talk was ‘timely’ but ‘ill-timed’.

Upon my return we had a pre-Thanksgiving conference for our remote employees, most of them Oceanmasters on Puzzle Pirates, and a rib-tickling launch party for Bang! Howdy, Three Rings’ second game.

December to the present:

By Thanksgiving I was completely spent and enjoyed a few days doing absolutely nothing with my mother visiting. November had really worn me out, but I emerged into December with a new optimism and excitement about the future… and also a little bit of a phobia of aeroplanes again.

More soon, and a merry season to you and yours — light a candle tonight and tempt the sun to return!

– Daniel

Solstice Salutations and Ruminations

Firstly, Merry Summer Solstice! I am not much of one for organised religion (there’s another rant, along with spectactor sport) but I do have plenty of time for honouring and celebrating the turning of the world. I hope you took a moment outside today to mark Midsummers Eve. If not, there’s always tomorrow.

It was a beautiful day today in San Francisco, bright as usual, and unusually warm. I feared that when I started blogging I would end up writing about what I had for lunch today, trivial humdrum workaday details, and so forth. Perhaps I should just jump that shark now. Today I walked up New Montgomery from our Howard St. offices to Kearny and Bush, where I purchased a sandwich from the Boxed Lunch Company. I ate half on the steps above Montgomery Bart on the junction with Market and watched the world go by. After a day packed with meetings and reviews (’tis that season at Three Rings) I had a tremendously sweaty ‘welcome back’ Martial Arrrts class and then ate a fine sushi dinner with Landon (our infrastructuremeister). Today I wore a new green plaid 1960’s three-piece wool suit that I picked up from Portobello market, which was thoroughly unseasonal. This week I have mostly been eating yoghurt for breakfast.

Ahh, that’s better. I can relax now, having gotten that out of the way.

I have been away on something of combo vacation and business trip to New York and London. New York is an exciting town; I think it’s a lot like London, but vertically stretched. It’s exciting to be there, and the girls dress really well — I am a big fan of the sneakers (I would call them trainers) and business suit look. I caught up with some friends, one of whom is working at the warehouse of a major arrrt museum literally shuffling about and packing up incredibly valuable masterpieces. Sort of ‘Would you grab the Van Gough over there, next to the C├ęzanne, and take it over to the packing table?’ The way she described the place it sounded like an art gallery version of the warehouse scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark — infinite treasures of ancient civilisations locked away. The paintings in this case are, however, not generally sealed up… which makes me happier, even if only a few warehousarati are looking at them. This was only the ‘A’ list warehouse — they apparently have another one out of town. I also saw my pal Jennifer Behr who is doing really well with her new business. She’s been making hair accessories for ages for a bigshot ‘designer’ label, and just struck out on her own. This is the future, kids.

I was born and raised in London, and I have a lot of ambivalence towards it that most folks who visit (especially Americans, it seems) do not share. I often think of cities (along with countries and organisations) as animals. London is an ugly monster. Growing up under its belly you see the warts and mottled hue of its carriage. It is a tremendously old beast, glorious in its vast size, tremendous appetites, vices and manifold treasures. Part of this is scale; I find such ~15M+ great cities unwieldy and scary, whereas San Francisco with ~1M immediate population and ~4M in the greater metropolita seems like a very excellent size. Georgaphy and climate plays a part; the weather is of course often crap. National culture contributes; just as America is a young, big, adaptive and predatory animal that has come to dominate the global savannah, Britain is a small, crowded, narrow-minded country of bitter, angry disposition.

Despite this aversion, I had a very lovely time. I was nigh upon bombarded with babies on this trip, inspiring an apoplexy of procreative urges. I spent time with Persephone and the future lady-killer, Felix. My cousin Elizabeth has produced with her fella Rob the beautiful Irene, and my other cousins’ offsprings have propsered in their various shapes and sizes. This is one of the things I miss most about not living near my family and old friends.

While I was in England we won some football game or other, and I visited Brighton and Leeds, where we had a board meeting for Sense Internet, a company I co-founded in Leeds in 1995 with three friends from Unversity.

Rob Overseer is one of the co-founders. We were in the same flat in the first year of University. I hereby claim at least partial responsibility for introducing indie-youth Rob to the realm of ‘breaks’ (hip-hop, funk, breakbeat, hardcore, jungle, etc.) Trivia fact is that I used to play this kind of music, including a stint on Pirate Radio and lots of dodgy student parties in dusty basements with smoke machines and strobes. I was never a particularly good DJ (I mashed it up too much), but I had the ‘wicked tunes’. Anyway, these days Rob is a successful musician, with major-label publishing and recording contracts. His success seems to be based on the webternet, radio and lucrative video-game, film and advertising licensing. His CDs have yet to be widely distributed.

Sense is doing great, on a very similar scale to Three Rings with ~30 employees and similar revenues, but in the very different business of serving corporate clients. I’m much happier in a ‘consumer-facing’ business. Note: I rather dislike the word ‘consumer’, along with ‘user’. I try to use ‘player’.

Talking of players, we’re in the process of moving our servers to a new co-location facility in San Francisco. This is causing problems as we bridge our database between the two, which has led to some Puzzle Pirates downtime. Downtime gives me twitchy anxiety; it summons me back to 1990, in the back room of my mum’s house in West London fretting over losing the precious few customers of our commercial 2,400 baud dial-up MUD Avalon. My business partner would slap up a new release (hacked live on the production server during a ~12 Sunday downtime) and then skip out on the train, unavailable for a a few hours whilst the server merrily crashed and burned. Today we were down for ~30 minutes, but I find it hard to shake off the ants.

Thus, The thought of mates being unable to Pirate of a Midsummers Eve fills me with dread. My apologies to those affected, we are busting our booty to get everything shipshape.

It’s a warm night. We discovered today that the colocation facility we are moving *into* here in SF is selling out of space. This is a sure sign that things are warming up and getting very ‘web 2.0’ around here.

Merry Solstice, Mates! May the Sun and Moon smile upon us.

The Capn Lubs Second Life, in all its absurdity

A CNET article was published today written by my pal and fellow ‘Burning Man’ participant Daniel Terdiman;‘Second Life’: Don’t worry, we can scale. I am quoted as follows; “My understanding of (Linden Lab’s) back-end requirements are that they’re absurd and unsustainable,” said Daniel James, CEO of Three Rings, publisher of the online game Puzzle Pirates.” “They have (about) as many peak simultaneous players as we do, and we’re doing it on four CPUs.”

This is mostly accurate, but of course out of context. This is an excellent opportunity for me to blog about what I think about Second Life.

First I should correct the above; each Puzzle Pirates Ocean runs on one dual-xeon class server. We have five Oceans. So we have a total of 10 CPUs supporting peak simultaneous users of around 7,000 (which I believe is about what Second Life has). Currently the database for each Ocean runs on the game server hardware, but we are migrating to shared database clusters. We’re not sure how many oceans we’ll be able to support on one database machine. So, let’s say we support our 7k pcu on 18 CPUs or 8 physical servers. Please note that Puzzle Pirates is of course a much, much simpler service than Second Life. The EQ2 example given in the article is a much better comparison, as 3D requires a lot more server-side work, and even EQ2 is not doing many of the clever things Second Life has to do.

Secondly, I wish to preface this rant by saying, as I did to Daniel, that I love Second Life. It is teh awesome. I enjoy talking to Philip and Cory a lot, they are terribly smart chaps, and I think that what their team has made is incredible. They are easily the market leaders in the most exciting part of the MMO space. Indeed, they are the only practical deployed people in the most exciting part of the MMO space, if you discount early and niche folks like Alphaworld and Furcadia.

As I’ve blogged about before, I think that Second Life is the flag-bearer for the Burning Man side of the war for the future between manufactured entertainment and player-created worlds. I’m very much in favour of enabling player creativity. People have done extraordinary things in Second Life and continue to do so.

That said (you were waiting for it, right?) I naturally have issues. Most of these stem from one of the strengths of Linden Lab’s culture; Second Life has been built and operated more like a religion than a consumer-oriented business. I like to joke that Philip went up the mountain and came down with stone tablets describing how to build ‘The Metaverse’. Indeed, when I’ve seen him speak, he likes to refer to these immutable laws.

I’m reluctant to flippantly recite the sacred scriptures, but grossly paraphrasing some of them might yield; ‘It must be 3D’, ‘There must be contiguous landscape’, ‘Thou shalt not Teleport, thou must walk to where thoust would go’ (this one just got scrubbed, which is an encouraging sign!), ‘There must be arbitary code runneth over on the server’, ‘There must be physics runneth over on the server’, ‘ ‘Thy business model must be based on real-estate as a limited resource’ and so forth.

My problem is that I think that most of these beliefs are basically wrong, or at least, not necessarily the case for a successful player-created world. Moreover, I think that they have absolutely nothing to do with what the player wants to experience in what is most definitely an entertainment product (even though the religion forbids calling Second Life a game, it occupies that entertainment time the same way that games do, to the exclusion of things like TV). Often, as with teleportation, they are fundamentally and directly in conflict with what the player wants to do (go where they want to go, right away).

It’s my belief that to succeed in building an entertainment service, the player’s experience must be front-and-center the most important thing you consider. As a game developer, I’m all about creating fun for the player. That’s the main thing.

One of the next most important things for us at Three Rings (note: this entire blog does not reflect the opinion of the company etc. blah blah blah) is that we build such player experiences in a manner which is practical, both in terms of the time and efforts it takes us to make, and in terms of the practicality of delivering the service to what we hope will be a large population of players. Again, it’s my opinion that some of Linden’s ‘commandments’ are in direct conflict with this; it would be my suspicion that it’s not practical to do physics and arbitrary scripting on the server in the form they’re offering, as their back-end requirements indicate. Naturally they could (and hopefully will, for the sake of the A/C at the colocation facility we share with them and many another San Francisco startup!) optimise this stuff and make it much less onerous on the back-end. And, of course, I don’t have any particular insights into where the cycles are going — it may be a user-facing task (like culling the player’s view, or somehow handling their interactions) that put the real strain on the servers. All of this could be optimised into reasonableness. I will go on the record that 3-20 concurrent users per CPU is not reasonable for a service that hopes to scale to become the defacto Metaverse. To run with 500k concurrent users in China, like Audition, you’ll need all the servers in Shanghai, and more.

Another aspect of their business I find puzzling is the real-estate side of things. I understand that physical space is the point of greatest cost of goods for Second Life, so it makes sense to charge a lot of money for it. But as a long-term business model it sounds pretty… well, crap. That’s renting servers, otherwise known as a more complicated kind of web-hosting with fancier proprietary code. Perhaps the exclusive supplier aspect means that the margins are sufficiently great, but I still can’t get comfortable with the idea that Land Barons are going to be pivotal to the future virtual utopia. Instead, I’m going to call bullsh*t on the belief that ‘physical’ virtual space should be in any substantive way a restricted commodity. Sure, it’s another way to make money — on Habbo Hotel or Puzzle Pirates you can buy a bigger hotel room or palatial estate — but it’s a minor part of the overall item-based business model.

I can’t get my head around why Linden would not operate with the same model that we, Sulake, and every Captain Insano Korean game uses; mint currency and sell it to folks, have them buy virtual goods from us (for example land) and, in some cases, other players. When I asked Philip this a while ago he said something about treating Second Life as a ‘country’ and managing its money supply responsibly, as governments don’t just print money willy-nilly. I don’t know enough about economics to really say whether this is sensible or not; I know that a simple faucet (time/money) -> drain (taxes/’state-sold’ goods/item decay) economy works out well enough in Puzzle Pirates and we don’t carry an problematic float of either pieces of eight (time-based currency) or doubloons (cash-based currency)… but we also don’t support cashing out of Doubloons and there is no secondary player market for them, as yet. Perhaps if we were trying to manage a dynamic currency market between the ‘loon and the dollar, we might think about things differently. Or, if we were smarter. My suspicion is, though, that Linden has evolved to their currently business model via subscription and found it to be lucrative, so they’re sticking with it. I believe, however, that it will hamper significant adoption in the long-haul as it puts the emphasis on the wrong aspect of things. Of course my opinion here is influenced by my belief that the physical, landscape-based metaphor has absolutely nothing to do with how people will want to interact with ‘the metaverse’, and that 3D is an attribute, like the colour blue, not a requirement for satisfying player experience.

So, having said all of this, I will repeat; I lubs Second Life. I lubs the Lindens. I don’t particularly want to rain on their parade (and oh my! What a parade! Being in the Economist the same week as a cover in Business Week gets them a huge prize… the Economist is the only print media I read these days.) What they’ve done is awesome and they are in an incredibly strong position to continue to execute, with lots of money, a great team, and some traction with a tremendous community of players^H^H^H^H^H^Hresidents. I love what they’re doing to web-ify Second Life, it’s very smart. If they keep moving in this direction, sort out the back-end, and keep scrubbing those commandments off, they have a reasonable crack at being the metaverse.

However (you didn’t think the Capn was going to end on that kind of up-note, did you?), I believe that the metaverse, should a ubitquitous platform for online entertainment ever emerge on top of the the web (which I would argue already *is* the metaverse) will have lots of properties that we cannot begin to foresee, right now. It’s only through tremendous iteration that we’re going to get to the point where something metaversal emerges. To think that we really have any definite ‘rules’ yet is frankly absurd (I do like that word).

I also believe that such a successful platform will have to be open-source in a pretty deep way (which conflicts, it seems to me, with the land-rental model, though not necessarily with the ‘not-a-b@nk-but-a-bit-like-one’ model).

And, in closing, I am going to put my money where my mouth is (instead of just my foot, as usual), as Three Rings will develop something oriented towards player-created content. Ya’ll will have to wait and see that, but hereby I grant open season to ridicule me appropriately when I come down from the mountain with my tablets… I think those hooded robes would look pretty good on me.

Burning Flipside, and the relevance of Burning Man to MMOs

I am taking off tomorrow morning to Austin, TX for my first trip to Burning Flipside, one of the larger ‘regional events’ associated with Burning Man. I’ve been to BM eight times now, every year since I moved to the US. Obviously I think it’s worthwhile, and not just because it’s a big silly vacation in the desert with my pals from all over the world and 40,000 other crazy dorks.

I think Burning Man is very interesting from an MMO perspective. At the excellent Austin Games Conference last year I moderated a panel on ‘User Created Content’, and set out an opening position as follows; I believe that MMOs (or Virtual Worlds, or whatnot) are tremendously important as the dominant media of ‘The Future’. In this context, there is a War for the Future. I likened this to a Tale of Two Cities.

Both are cities in Nevada that are primarily recreational in purpose.

One is a temporary autonomous zone created and dismantled over a week, built almost entirely by its residents, who bring nearly all the entertainment and consumables they require. No money changes hands. Incredible feats of creation and destruction occur. People party hard, fall in love, enjoy epiphanies and sometimes hard falls. It’s physically and mentally gruelling. ‘Participants’ spend months preparing and then weeks or months winding back down. What happens at Burning Man people carry away with them, changing them.

The other is a cynical corporate machine designed astutely to extract money from visitors whilst giving them the apparent sensations of fun. Everything is for sale. The buildings and scenes are extravagent and beautiful, mirroring the wonders of the world. The shows are astounding and intricately produced. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Give or take a good number of marriages, some broken banks and some terrible hangovers, most of experiences are ephemeral.

The analogical contrast between Second Life and expensive content-driven theme-park MMOs like World of Warcraft is obvious.

If humanity has a future (i.e. if we don’t blow ourselves up, or devour ourselves in green or grey goo), then I believe we’ll largely live lives of leisure. How will fill that leisure time will be profoundly important. As a creator of leisure, a builder of (virtual) leisure cities, I would much rather people spent most of their time at a virtual Burning Man than Vegas. That said, Puzzle Pirates is more Vegas than Burning Man. Heck, we’ve even got Poker. Clearly I have some work to do!

At the end of the Austin panel, after a great debate from the chaps there (Jim Purbrick from Second Life, Walter Yarborough from Dark Age of Camelot, Dr Cat from Furcadia, and Andy Tepper from A Tale in the Desert), I asked the audience to vote; Vegas or Burning Man? It was about 50/50. Here is the powerpoint from the panel, mostly images of Second Life and Vegas/Burning Man images I snagged from Google image search in the 30 minutes beforehand.

This year at the Austin Game Conference there’s going to be a whole panel about the connections between Burning Man and Vegas, with a bunch of fresh newbies who’ll still be dusty from their first trip. Should be fun!

Bang! Howdy Goes Beta

Yeehaw! Our second ‘lil ole game done gone public Beta;

http://banghowdy.com/

Get yer dogies over! Thar be gold in them thar hills.

(Yep, I need to work on the Cowboy thing)