Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What I'm Playing: Namco Museum DS

This week I am playing Namco Museum for the DS - a thoroughly nondescript title that came out recently and hides a very pleasant surprise.

Namco Museum didn't receive much fanfare on its release. Not surprising. It is yet another in the long list of collections of old 8-bit video games redone and repackaged for more recent systems. There must be hundreds of them out by now. (I have another Namco Museum title for the Gameboy SP.)

This time around, the DS incarnation of Namco Museum is a good title. It avoids the pitfalls of many previous 8-bit rehashes. It has a better-than-average selection of games (not just 15 variations on one famous game) including both famous and cult favorites. And, more importantly, the emulation is excellent. I started with Galaga, an old favorite, and the controls, sound, and graphics are spot on. Ditto the other games I've tried so far. They even include a "Library" so you can listen to the soundtracks without the distraction of space aliens shooting at you.

The only drawback to the Museum is the screen size. Most of these games were originally designed for vertical presentation on arcade machines. On the DS, Namco has chosen not to try using both screens (with the resultant issue of what to do with the gap between them) and show the game on the top screen by default. but the DS screens are oriented horizontally.

So at first, the game is stretched across the screen. This makes it visible, but hard to play since the relationship of horizontal to vertical movement is distorted. To make up for this, the game lets you choose a variety of different screen layouts: bottom screen instead of top screen, unstretched graphics, as well as several rotated versions.

I switched to the original aspect ratio, which eliminates the stretching but uses only about half of the screen. The emulation is perfect. The problem now is... its just way too small! Its like watching a video game played on Mars through a telescope. Next, I tried rotating it so the game is shown with the top of the screen to the left. Now, this is definitely the best video setup! It is glorious 8-bit color graphics at their best! Mind you, I have to hold the DS on its side and play with both hands on the left side of the screen. Not as uncomfortable as it sounds, but it is awkward.

The fact is the DS screen is simply too small and in the wrong orientation to play these old games well. Namco has done an admirable job to make it as playable as possible -- great emulation, flexibility on screen layout, but there just isn't any option that provides a completely satisfactory sensation.

What is interesting is that I ended up using different layouts for different games. For games I was familiar with from my youth (Galaga, Pac-man, Galaxian) I put up with the discomfort of holding the DS sideways so I can play it rotated fullscreen. Dig-Dug II, which has a color background (rather than dots on black) I don't mind playing on the small default layout (although I still switch to the correct aspect ratio). And for Xevious, which I never played before, I actually found that rotating the screen but not rotating the DS resulted in a very entertaining side-scrolling shooter that was easier to control (rather than the bottom-up layout it is supposed to have).

Its still fun, but ultimately even with the best emulation, these games play better on a bigger screen.

But the old games aren't why I bought this title. What I bought it for was Pacman Vs.

If you have never played Pacman Vs, which was originally sold as a bonus disc for Pacman World 2 on the Nintendo Gamecube, you have missed out on some serious fun. Pacman Vs was created as a technology demo by Nintendo to show off the connectivity between Gamecube and the GameBoy Advance. In the game, one player plays the character Pac-Man just like in a regular game of Pac-Man (except in 3D). The trick to the game is that the other players play the ghosts! The "Ghosts" only see a small area of the game board near them while "Pac-man" see the entire board (giving him or her a necessary advantage over the three opponents). Pac-man gains points for eating pellets and ghosts; ghosts gain points for catching Pac-man. Once Pac-man is caught, a different player is picked at random to become Pac-man and the game repeats until someone reaches a predetermined score.

A very simple game mechanic (rumor has it the game was created in two weeks), but the result is fast-paced chaos, with plenty of opportunity for strategizing (quickly) or just crazy running around, with lots of yelling and shouting. For all its simplicity, Pac-man Vs is one of the best multiplayer games around.

The reason it did not get attention originally was because you needed 2-4 people, a Gamecube, a GameBoy Advance, and a GBA link cable to play the game. But now with the Namco Museum, all you need is the game and a few friends with DSes. And, believe me, it is well worth it!

Unlike the 8-bit classics, Pac-man Vs was designed for a TV screen -- horizontal orientation -- so on the DS it can fill the upper screen. And since the game narrows the focus (zooming in on the characters) it still looks fantastic on the smaller device. If anything, this incarnation of Pac-man Vs is better than the original because there are no cables to get mixed up when passing the GameBoy Advance back and forth. It is fun with 2 people; it is outstanding with 3 or 4.

At $20, the Namco Museum for DS is a steal for Pac-Man Vs alone, one of the best portable multiplayer games around. if you have 2 or 3 friends with DSes, consider it a must-have. Oh, and you get some nifty old 8-bit games thrown in as a bonus. Frankly, I don't know why Bandai Namco doesn't advertise it that way...

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

ROI: the Sad Case for KM

More and more frequently I hear calls for proof of the "ROI" (Return on Investment) of knowledge management. I hear it within my own company; I hear it from KM practitioners in other companies; I even hear KM consultants espousing the importance and benefits of calculating ROI to demonstrate knowledge management's contribution to the business bottom line.

This concerns me. Not because I don't believe KM has value -- it obviously does! -- but because ROI is a specific type of business measurement that overemphasizes the direct-to-bottom-line component of KM while completely ignoring (and discrediting) the rest.

KM certainly contributes indirectly to the bottom line, as it contributes to many other aspects of the company's fiscal and intellectual diversity and health. But that is not its primary goal. This call for ROI is part of a larger tendency within corporations today to "align" KM with business operations. By that I mean making KM a tool used by business management to ensure the optimal and efficient exercise of business processes.

Now, I have no objections to KM supporting business processes. Clearly, that is the primary use of knowledge and the company wants to encourage anything that contributes to the bottom line. But that is not all that KM is about. KM also significantly contributes to the breadth of knowledge, experience, and expertise of its employees. It contributes to the resilience and responsiveness of the company to changes in the business environment by strengthening its core intellectual capabilities. It impacts business processes both direct and indirect. And it establishes a culture and channels for distributing business intelligence at lightning speed.

The problem is the measuring. Managers don't measure things for intellectual stimulation. They measure them so they can make changes and confirm the results. Managers also tend to think high-level. If ROI is what you are measuring, then that is the goal (not a goal, the goal). That is not a slam against managers, it is just an attribute of their job: to think clearly and succinctly and not get bogged down in details.

The results, if you are not careful, can be both dramatic and unfortunate. The analogy that comes to mind is college. If you see the goal of college being to get a job (your ROI), then there really is no need for English, history, languages, or even science -- depending upon your target profession. However, if you see the goal of college as expanding your knowledge and broadening your character, not only will it have a strong indirect impact on your employability, but your opportunities will be far more flexible and adaptive to the business environment when you graduate. Business opportunities fluctuate on a cyclic basis. At one point, there was a strong need for engineers. But if you went to school specifically for that career, the market was pretty much saturated 4-5 years later when you graduated. Ditto MBAs and other focused degrees. I pity the poor Cobol programmer trying to break into the web era. Or Algol, PL/1, Pascal...

So just as the goal of college is to teach capabilities, not specific skills; the goal of KM is to facilitate knowledge development and transfer, not solely to apply knowledge to the product pipeline.

Another problem with ROI and similar types of business measurement is that it starts to infiltrate your thinking. In a recent discussion among KM professionals concerning assessing the value and success of communities of practice, several members of the list argued that you had to use the business objectives for the CoP to measure against those goals and calculate success. (In other words, did the company get what it wanted out of the community.) Again, companies don't sponsor Communities for altruistic reasons, but people participate in those communities for personal and professional reasons and it is the participants who ultimately determine whether the community succeeds or fails. I've seen a number of cases where companies tout the success of their CoP programs while at the same time complaining how hard it is to get members involved. Say what!?!

The success or "return" of a KM program is the cumulative benefits -- both short and long-term on the company and its employees. This is a very hard concept for line-of-business managers to grasp. They understand it when they feel its absence -- the recent rebirth of KM within American companies runs a parallel course to the enthusiasm for the business fads of downsizing, rightsizing, and outsourcing in the late 80's and 90's. Many companies followed the trend only to find that the intelligence of the corporation had left with its employees. The need for knowledge management became apparent.

But there hasn't been major corporate gaffe such as downsizing for several years and management tends to have a short-term memory. The current business fad has shifted from business process re-engineering to supply chain optimization and process refinement -- squeezing the last penny out of the business pipeline. And KM is beginning to feel this squeeze. It is hard to tell what the outcome will be.

But for the time being I believe it is the responsibility of KM professionals to avoid the rush to ROI and make sure both the direct and indirect "returns" of KM are recognized and re-established as objectives.

Friday, September 7, 2007

What I'm Playing: Picross

This week I am playing Picross, from Nintendo. Picross is a puzzle game: each puzzle looks like a crossword puzzle, with a square grid you fill in, but instead of words and clues, you fill in the cells based on numeric clues. For each horizontal row and vertical column, they tell you how many consecutive spaces are filled. So "2 5" indicates there will be 2 cells filled in and then 5 cells filled in, with one or more blanks between them. the resulting image, once you fill in the puzzle properly, is a picture that then becomes colorized -- such as a fruit or animal -- and has some cute animation associated with it.

Picross is definitely addictive, and I have been thoroughly enjoying it. I haven't reached hard mode yet, but easy and normal have provided a sufficient and growing challenge enough to keep me hooked. I am not a Soduko fan, but I do enjoy crossword and spatial puzzles (such as tanagrams) and Picross has much the same appeal.

The Picross puzzles are timed and you get a time penalty for marking the wrong cells, so there is the ability to challenge yourself against a deadline. But there is no hard stop; no game-ending timeout as in the more frenetic puzzle games such as Tetris. So the timer is only there as encouragement.

In this respect, Picross should be ideal for me. I do not have lots of time for game playing (I squeeze in what time I can during coffee breaks or lunch) and I am often interrupted. So having a game that I can play for 5-10 minutes or pause without losing "momentum" really matches my current game playing style.

In fact, that is becoming one of the two minor deficits for me when playing Picross. The puzzles are preset, not automatically generated, so there is only so much of the game to go around. You can create your own puzzles or "compete" against others on a time challenge, but quite frankly those modes do not appeal to me much. (I do not have the artistic wizardry to create a puzzle I would find rewarding or an interest in solving a puzzle I know already because I created it. And although I enjoy playing competitive games with my sons, timed puzzles are not as interesting as the many racing, sports, and adventure games we already play.) So I have played through easy mode and most of normal, and have now reached the 15x15 grids, which -- to be honest -- take me more than 10 minutes to solve. The puzzles are beginning to exceed the time available to me for "casual play". So from now on I am either going to have to spend more dedicated time with the game or put up with extended breaks while working on individual puzzles. And I am not sure I have sufficient interest to do that.

The second issue I have with the game is -- as addictive as it is, and it is -- I get the feeling I do when solving crossword puzzles from the same source too often (such as the New Yorker, or NY Times) that a large part of my time is spent filling them out mechanically. With crossword puzzles, you begin to recognize certain clues and answers that are used repetitively. Similarly, in Picross, there are certain opening moves that you start doing by rote. A 15 block row requiring 10 in a row will always occupy the middle 5 blocks, etc. It is still addictive, but the brain isn't working as hard as it did when I started the game. Ultimately, this is why I stopped doing New Yorker crossword puzzles. I figure I will probably finish Picross before it gets that far, but there is a decreasing level of mental challenge vs. puzzle challenge as the game progresses. And ultimately the satisfaction of solving a puzzle has a tinge of guilt that you just wasted your time. Not enough to stop you, but just a tiny twinge.

Despite that (and the shift from brain challenge to learned behavior is a danger in any type of puzzle), Picross is an excellent game and at $20 I would recommend it to anyone who likes puzzles.

P.S. Another puzzle game I would recommend is Honeycomb Beat. I bought this game as an import from Japan last year and thoroughly enjoy it. Like Picross, Honeycomb Beat has a puzzle mode with some 200+ pre-defined puzzles. The basic mechanism is there a field of hexagons (hence the honeycomb), when you click on one hexagon, all of the immediately adjacent hexagons "flip" from light to dark or vice versa. The goal is to turn the entire field one color in a certain number of moves. (There are other complications later in the game, but they all play off this basic "flipping" mechanic.) The pre-defined puzzles start out very simply (too simply?), but somewhere around puzzle 40 or 50 they become wickedly difficult.

The fields are small (generally no more than 15-20 cells) and the number of steps limited (under 10), so if you know what you are doing, any puzzle can be solved in under a minute. The trick is knowing what to do. Unlike Picross, where you slowly work your way through the puzzle to the end, in Honeycomb Beat you try, fail, try again, until you get it.

So far I have not encountered any slackening on the mental challenge. the game also fits very nicely within my limitations. It is very easy to play for 5-10 minutes because you can try a puzzle as many times as you like. Since any one attempt is so short, there is no harm in turning the game off and coming back to it later. If you don't get it in 10 minutes, you can spend the rest of the day thinking out possible alternatives so you are eager to get back to it and try a new angle next time you get a chance to play. (When I say it gets difficult, I encountered one puzzle that took we three days to solve, and I haven't been able to recreate the solution since!)

In addition, the game has a challenge mode which plays much like Tetris, where rows of hexagons come down the screen and you remove them by filling an entire line (or group of lines). If you don't work fast enough, the screen will eventually fill and stop the game. I find challenge mode at least as fun as puzzle mode, but in a completely different way because of the time limit.

It was never advertised much and I am surprised how negative the reviews have been. Consequently, at the moment you can pick up Honeycomb Beat for around $15 new. So I strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys puzzle games. Pick it up when they go to get Picross!