Sunday, February 22, 2009

What I'm Playing: Persona 4

Persona 4 Box art
It seems unlikely, but I am playing Atlus's Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. Why so improbable? Because, as I've mentioned before:

  • I don't like RPGs,
  • I don't have time to play long games or games that need extended play between saves,
  • And I mostly play portable, not console games

Well, Persona 4 is a straight up RPG on the Playstation 2, complete with points system, level ups, turn-based attacks, etc. Game play consists of long story episodes with few saves spots and intermittent battles. Not exactly my usual type of game.

But I am addicted.

It is not the game play; I have hardly got far enough to have even the barest minimum control of the game. Mostly it is an extended animation interspersed with my pressing X to move mechanically forward in the story. Oh, and every once in a while I get to choose my response in discussions with other characters in the story. Only every once in a while.

And there are battles. But what has me itching to keep playing is the story, the environment, and the presentation.

  • Story-wise, playing Persona 4 is like reliving high school, complete with the plodding pace, the often inane conversations, and seemingly menial activities. The game captures this perfectly -- including the verbal banter that often masks an intricate social dance of half truths, dares, flaunts, and feints. I don't need to relive high school (I am way past that) and there are many movies and TV shows that, sadly, pretend to. But few actually capture the meaningless intrusion of random external events quite like Persona 4.

  • This is made all the more interesting because the story is acted out in modern Japan. This is not a ploy to create a feeling of alienation. It is an artifact of the game's origin; it was developed in Japan and Atlus unapologetically makes no attempt to Westernize it. The result is a fascinating immersion in the smallest details of Japanese culture: the houses, the streets, the furniture and clothing, even the advertising in the trains, all share a distinctly non-western look.

  • Finally, the game is presented in a curious mix of 2D animation, 3D animated game sequences, audio, and printed text overlaid on top of two colored text boxes set at different angles on the bottom of the screen. The text, besides giving an edge to the presentation, also gives a "staged" appearance to the 3D segments (staged as in presented on a proscenium stage, as opposed to contrived) that helps to fit with the distinctly 2D animation. It is not a big deal, but just enough of a quirky -- partially formal, partially "hip" -- presentation to keep the player going through the story segments leading up to game play.

I know what is coming: a whole lot more fighting, dying and restarting, trial and error as I try to find the right combination of attacks and special powers, etc. Will the story be able to retain its interest through this?

Can't tell yet. But for the time being, I'm thoroughly enjoying the change of pace.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Small Piece of Gaming History: Welcome to Gameland

Welcome to Gameland

I was digging through some old board games we have stored in the attic last weekend. In one box I came across an advertising flier that was a common insert in games during the sixties.

What caught my eye (besides the astonishing fact that whoever originally owned the game had not discarded it and that we had not discarded it either) was the image on the cover. The stereotypical 1950's family -- Mom, Dad, and three smartly dressed children (is the son wearing a bow tie?!) -- walking through gates made from giant board game boxes. The image itself is surreal enough. But when you consider that this was not some post-war hallucinogenic vision but a 1960's retro marketing view of what American families wanted to believe they looked like, it is also weirdly delusional.

Did we really think we looked (and acted) like that? Based on my childhood in Ohio, I would say no. But I think many parents wished their families looked like that and I can only assume the flier was intended for those parents not their children.

And today? I haven't looked inside any modern major board games recently. (I mostly play old ones, several that are listed in the flier pictured above!) But based on advertising fliers in the paper, most games are being sold to be played by children either alone or with their friends, not their parents. I don't remember seeing a lot of adults in the advertising for games and toys recently. (With one exception. More on that later.)

The advertising in the Sunday papers tend to contain product images, not entire scenes, so they are not totally representative. But over the holidays we received a special toy catalog from Target. Of the 57 pictures showing people with the products, 50 depicted children alone, 7 depicted two children playing together, and none contained any adults. Stranger still, the one picture of a child playing a board game (what one might imagine most requires multiple players) she is playing alone!

So have we reached a point where society no longer expects parents to participate in their children's play and games? The predominance of video games (which are often single-player or only multiplayer online) and "licensed" toys and games makes families playing together difficult. It can be hard for an adult to acclimatize themselves to game characters based on pre-teen TV shows such as Hannah Montana or Bakugon. (Although the game play itself is usually very traditional or simplistic.)

I mentioned before that there is an exception. If it wasn't obvious, the exception is Nintendo. The entire design and marketing campaign of the Wii video game console is that games are to be played together, often as a family. The 2008 holiday catalog for Nintendo has 17 pictures of people playing, 8 are pictures of groups playing, and half of those are multi-generational groups.

Nintendo not only defied the accepted wisdom of video game marketing (16-24 year old males playing by themselves), they defied the accepted wisdom of the game and toy industry as a whole. Neither segment has completely recovered from the result, nor learned to accept that they may have been wrong.

We are beginning to see signs that Sony and Microsoft acknowledge this previously "silent majority" market -- the new Xbox 360 avatars are an example. But the toy and game industry still does not seem ready to believe their audience contains anyone over the age of, say, 14...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Downside of Twitter

I've written about my experiences with Twitter before. But I am considering whether I need to stop using it. The problem is too much Twitter -- I'm becoming depressed.

I only follow a small number of people (17 at this point) and most of them are interested in knowledge management. So there is a high signal-to-noise ratio -- most of the tweets are interesting and/or intriguing. But I am finding my mind is turning off. There are so many opinions about communities of practice, so many top ten lists, articles about what you need to know, etc. Either all the world's knowledge problems have been solved and I just need to read about it (if I had the time) or there are so many "answers" I am loathe to add to the pile.

I hate to say this because most of the people I follow (and those they retweet) are friends of mine -- or where I don't know them personally, they are people I like to think of as friends. They aren't pretentious know-it-all types. And individually their tweets don't give that impression either. But taken together, they are simply overwhelming.

Now, it seems I have three options:

  1. I can stop using Twitter. I would feel no guilt about this and it would stop the influx, but it would also negate all the benefits of the service as well.
  2. I can rethink my choice of who to follow. Perhaps I shouldn't be following knowledge management devotees. Perhaps, rather than feeding (and overloading) my primary interests, I should follow alternate topics where I would be less concerned about missing things and happy to learn whatever comes my way.
  3. I could follow more people. Although this sounds illogical, it is possible I am following too few people too closely. If I increase the volume (and the variety) my Twitter stream would become more of a river that I occasionally step into, rather than a stream I attempt to follow diligently.

However, the real problem may be that I have nothing to say right now. This is not uncommon. I go through spurts of writing emails, blog entries, phone calls when I get excited about things. But then will often fall silent for weeks at a time as I get down to the hard work of getting things done. The problem is that the Twitter stream doesn't stop when I shift modality to get-things-done mode, at which point the stream -- no matter how interesting -- becomes an annoyance.

To test this theory (and as part of my ongoing education in what makes Twitter users tick) I did some analysis of the tweets of those I follow. My feeling was that I was receiving an unduly large number of references to outside content -- links to blogs, websites etc -- that significantly increased the "weight" of the stream because many of the 140 character messages actually pointed to 2-3 pages of serious content. Far more than I could possibly keep track of.

And sure enough, there were a significant number of outbound links (43%). However, not as many as I suspected. 55% of the tweets were still what could be called "new content" in the stream (no linking or retweeting). However, when compared to the stream of another user who uses Twitter primarily for personal exchanges, the difference is visible.

So, what to do? For now I think I have to accept that I am a "binge" user of Twitter. This may not be a terribly good social behavior for a system that is "always on" (unlike other technologies that are "as needed" point-to-point, such as email or traditional collaboration tools like bulletin boards). But I may not be so unique among the many different usage patterns that is developing around Twitter.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Is SharePoint the Lotus Notes of the 21st Century?

Or at least of the first decade of the 21st?

Lotus Notes was a revolutionary entrant into the computing landscape and dominated the software market segment it created. What made Notes so unique and powerful was the combination of three things:

  • A complete set of business-focused capabilities
  • Integrated into a secure, distributed, extensible framework
  • The ability to customize or extend the system through programming

The first two made the system attractive to enterprises, because it had the necessary security, manageability, and scalability to meet corporate needs; the third made it attractive to the users and created an entire market for third-party add-ons to address specific industry-focused needs once the platform was in place. Notes was poised to take over the world.

So, what happened? Well, I'm sure everyone has their own answer to that question: competition (especially in the email market from Exchange), too many 3rd party extensions, upgrade issues, etc. My personal belief is that they suffered from feature creep -- where each version of the product became more and more convoluted, threatening the basic premise of a simple framework -- to the point where companies are known to have backed off major new versions there were so many problems.

That is not to say Notes has disappeared. It is still a very strong competitor in the enterprise unified communication market. But now they have the additional issues of trying to keep up with technological advances (primarily internet-related) that further cut into their market share.

So why compare SharePoint to Notes?

There have been document management systems before (e.g. Documentum). There have been team collaboration tools before (e.g. eRoom). There have been customizable portals before (e.g. Plumtree and Vignette). The unique thing Microsoft did was put all three components into a single package integrated around Microsoft authentication (NTLM) and Microsoft Office.

The result is a very powerful collaboration, simple document management, and web space management system. It didn't hurt that V2 of the team collaboration portion of the product (known at the time as Windows SharePoint Services) was "free" for most enterprise Office customers. SharePoint essentially invented a market segment which until that point had been occupied by "integrated" combinations of large and/or complex product sets. Just as Lotus Notes did 20 years ago.

Another similarity is the limitations of the basic architectural design of the product. All products have what could be called a "design center" -- a focal point -- an ideal business problem that the product tries to solve. The design center defines the core architectural goals of the product. SharePoint's design center is flexible collaborative functionality centered around light-weight document management and customizable portals.

And the fact is SharePoint's design center hit a bull's eye. The need for easy-to-use collaboration spaces and web sites that don't require web programming -- that work well with Microsoft Office and the Microsoft security model -- has been a big hit inside corporations. As a salesman for a competing product once told me, his job is not so much selling their own product, but explaining why customers shouldn't use SharePoint.

Saying easy-to-use collaboration and web sites is SharePoint's design center is not to say the product cannot do other things. Part of the architectural model includes flexible lists and libraries so the data can be structured by normal human beings (not just data architects or librarians). Programmable web parts go the next step, allowing additional functionality beyond just search, sort, and display. Web parts also provide a business opportunity for 3rd parties to build on SharePoint, much as Lotus Notes' programmability created a new market before.

So SharePoint has flexibility built in. However, beyond certain boundaries -- the extent to which Microsoft expected or designed customization into the product -- using SharePoint becomes much, much harder than any user expects or can imagine.

As SharePoint's market domination increases, customers think of more and more ways to use SharePoint. In many cases, these are not uses for which SharePoint is really suited. This problem is amplified by Microsoft's marketing SharePoint as a one-size-fits-all enterprise solution.

SharePoint is designed with flexibility at the space or site level. It allows individuals to take responsibility for managing their own sites and collections of sites. But if -- from a corporate or even a divisional level -- you want to manage the larger collection, SharePoint becomes resistant -- almost belligerent -- to control.

The inability to create even simple relationships between lists in different spaces (beyond simple filtered aggregation) without programming is the first sign of strain in SharePoint's design. Then there are site columns. Site columns let you -- ostensibly -- define common metadata for multiple lists or libraries. However, you cannot enforce the use of site columns and site columns only work within a single site collection. There is no metadata control across multiple site collections. In other words, simplified control within the sites leads to lack of control at the macro level.

These are all just symptoms of a larger systemic issue: SharePoint is designed around the site. In Version 3 (also know as MOSS 2007) site collections have been introduced to provide some limited amount of cross-site control. But the underlying design principles of SharePoint (ie. user control and customization) work against control at the higher level.

Another Achilles's heel for SharePoint is search. I have yet to find anyone who is happy with SharePoint search. Oversimplified syntax, bad default search behavior, too many results, bad relevance, poor presentation... The list of problems goes on. Again, search is customizable -- if you have the programming expertise and access to build your own search interface. But few if any users do. Besides, why shouldn't search work out of the box?

There are other issues with SharePoint: large files (multimedia), support for browsers other than IE, and reporting, among others.

But the real issue is SharePoint's success. SharePoint has been so successful (and Microsoft has been so successful at selling SharePoint as a global solution for any corporate information problem), its use has far outstripped its design constraints and no one has told the customer yet.

There is likely to be a backlash against SharePoint as more and more customers unwittingly bump up against the boundaries of its intended use. And Microsoft will continue to extend the product with each new version -- further blurring the boundaries. Which is a shame. As I said, SharePoint is an excellent solution for what it was designed for. As Microsoft tries to stretch those boundaries -- just as Lotus and IBM did with Notes -- it is possible that the original design center of easy-to-use collaboration spaces may get lost, while never fully satisfying customers who are pushing at the edges, It is a dilemma that has no easy answer -- for Microsoft as a vendor or its customers.