Sunday, January 23, 2011

Nintendo 3DS Pricing

OK. So Nintendo has finally announced the release date and pricing for the upcoming Nintendo 3DS handheld (March 27th for $249 US). Let the wailing and lamentation begin.

I shouldn't joke. I have complained about overpriced hardware myself in the past (eg. Dreamcast, PSP, PS3...). But quite frankly, I am over it. There is clearly a price at which electronics overreach their audience. This was true of the 3DO ($699 in 1993), the PS3 (originally priced at $499-$599 in 2006), and certainly true of the PSP Go ($249 in 2009), which is perhaps the poster child of over eager pricing.

So, how can you justify the 3DS at $249 when the PSP Go was "overpriced" at the same price? Because when it comes to price, "too much" is relative.

It is now 2011. The last Nintendo  handheld, DS, started around $149 and rose to $189 for the DSiXL — which is an interesting, but ultimately minor, upgrade on the base unit. So another $60 jump for a major new platform is not unreasonable. Especially when you compare it to the PSP Go which had a new form factor, but no really new functionality.

The real question is what is happening to console prices? All three consoles are now priced starting around $200-$300. So the 3DS will come in pretty much even with a home game console. 3-5 years ago this would have been inconceivable. But the fact is, the age of console gaming is over.

I don't mean consoles are going away; I expect video game consoles and console games to continue. There will always be a place for "serious" gaming. But the era where consoles dominate the industry is over. Smart phones play a part in this. Casual gaming is also involved. But perhaps more importantly, video game consoles have evolved to a point of diminishing returns. The expense of producing the hardware and of developing games to exercise that hardware is barely sustainable.

Nintendo avoided this cycle by moving (no pun intended) in a new direction with the Wii, to great success. But in the five years since Wii debuted, much of the technology involved is now possible in handheld form. Besides its eponymous 3D gaming, the 3DS has cameras, a microphone, accelerometer, wifi, and touch control (as do many smart phones). So as the amount of additional graphic power that can be eked out of consoles shrinks, we get closer to the day where the only thing that separates consoles from handheld gaming is the big screen. (And I expect someone will soon figure out how to link that to a handheld as well...)

But I digress. Is the 3DS worth $249? For a portable "console" that is is backwards compatible (with DS), upgrades the processor significantly, and delivers an entirely new form of play? Sounds like it to me.

Of course, the real question is what will Sony do when it announces its rumored successor to the PSP. They have traditionally been at the high end of both features and pricing. Their new device may make the 3DS look like a toy. But it is unclear (as it was with the original PS3) whether people will be willing to pay the premium for a... toy?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Top Ten Games of 2010

A friend of mine told me that, as a holiday activity, he and his college-age sons were discussing their choices for top music of the year. A sort of top ten for 2010. Knowing that we play a lot, he suggested that I do the same with my sons with regards to video games. It sounded like a good idea, so we tried it.

The first thing we agreed upon was that we didn't have ten top games. In fact, we could only name three. There are several reasons for this:

  • I personally don't get a lot of time to play, so when I do play we tend to play games we can play together. Fewer and fewer modern console games support split-screen multi-player. So we tend to play older games.
  • A lot of the "big" games this year were sequels (Uncharted 2, Assassin's Creed 2, Call of Duty I-lost-count, etc.). As good as these games are, they tend to be more of the same. Not really top ten material.
  • Most of our time is spent playing games that we've been playing for a year or more. When we think of our favorite games, they are often two or more years old. They may be top ten for our year of gaming, but not valid candidates as recent releases.
So we quickly realized we had not one, but three lists: a short list of top games for 2010, our actual favorite games for playing, and those games we are looking forward to for 2011. So let's start with...

Top Games for 2010

  • Red Dead Redemption (PS3/Xbox360)
  • Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (PSP)
  • Monster Hunter Tri (Wii)
Red Dead Redemption is clearly one of the best games of 2010. Massive, graphically beautiful, and engrossing game play/story line. No, it is not "art" or an interactive novel (despite side quests, the missions are relatively linear). If there are any negatives to the game it would be that once you are through the missions, there isn't much else to do.

I didn't play Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. But my sons did. Obsessively. For two weeks straight. It seems to be the best and most complete example of a 3D action/strategy game on a handheld device. Mind you, probably best played co-op with a friend. (Rumor has it some levels are almost too tough in single-playermode.)

Best and most complete example of a 3D action/strategy game on a handheld device except for Monster Hunter Freedom 2 on the PSP, which we have been playing continuously for over a year now. But this is an example of the games we play and the best of the year not being in sync. Monster Hunter came out more than two years ago. It is probably still the best 3D action/strategy on a handheld device. But for 2010, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker outshines anything else.

Finally, Monster Hunter Tri. Perhaps not quite as good as Freedom 2, but that's splitting hairs. Tri is definitely better as a single player experience and no other game even comes close to it in style of play or game experience on the Wii.

So those are the top three. There were two others we considered adding to the list:

  • Little Big Planet (PSP)
  • Picross 3D (DS)
We originally thought we had four top games for 2010, because LittleBigPlanet on the PSP is an amazing game. Sure, it is a "downsizing" of Little Big Planet on the PS3. But LBP on the PS3 is such a good game (close to Super Mario 64 and Shadow of the Colossus in terms of best video game ever and reason enough, by itself, to recommend buying a PS3) that a portable version, even without co-op play,  is an amazing game. Problem is, it actually came out at the end of 2009, not the beginning of 2010 as we thought. Sigh.

I also wanted to add Picross 3D. It doesn't have amazing graphics. It doesn't have terribly innovative game play. And, yes, it too is a sequel. But as puzzle games go, it is about as complete an example as you can find; where the music, the game play, the meaningless-though-entertaining animations add up to an addictive experience. But my sons wouldn't agree to adding it to the list. So let's call it a runner up. (While they're not looking!)

That's it for top games of the year. But what are we actually playing?

Favorite Games (What We Actually Play)

Hands down, the games we play the most are LittleBigPlanet on the PS3 and Monster Hunter Freedom 2 on the PSP. As mentioned before, I believe LBP is a candidate for one of the best video games ever. And Monster Hunter is an enthralling, addictive, immersive experience, once you get into it. Mind you, it takes some doing (several hours) before you get hooked. Which might explain why it hasn't caught on in the US yet.

The fact that both games came out more than two years ago (three for Monster Hunter) and we are still playing them gives you some indication of how good we think they are.

After that, comes a slew of games we played and enjoyed: Scribblenauts, Hammerin' Hero, Assassin's Creed, Uncharted 1 and 2, Super Mario Bros. Wii... The list gets longer every time we think about it. But quite frankly, it tends to be an amorphous bundle of fond memories. Each game with its pros and cons, but few that stand out against the few I've already mentioned -- or other spectacular games from the past we haven't played recently (such as Katamari Damacy).

      Sunday, January 16, 2011


      I was talking to a friend about video games when he said — by way of explaining why he hacked his son's game to add a few more powerful Pokemon — "everyone cheats".

      That could well be true. it certainly seems like there is a lot of cheating going on. But I suspect the world can be divided into two camps: those who believe everyone cheats and those who believe most people cheat.

      What's the point? I am not interested in discussing the repercussions on society (which there are plenty of). I am really only thinking of the narrower scope of games.

      The distinction is that if everyone cheats, the only way to participate is to cheat as well. Or else you are a chump. If most, but not all, people cheat, there is still a moral question to be answered. And a question of purpose.

      What is the purpose of gaming? If it is purely to win, then cheating has no negatives since it more quickly achieves the goal. If, on the other hand, gaming is about playing — about facing a challenge and overcoming it in the safe confines of a virtual world — then cheating defeats the purpose because it eliminates the challenge rather than overcoming it.

      This is easy enough to understand when playing single player games. Take solitaire for example. There is no benefit to peeking at the cards that are face down or rearranging the deck — you are only cheating yourself and will quickly tire of the game. Since if you cheat you can always win and then the game has no point.

      But the question of cheating becomes more complex when you are playing with or against other players. The incentives become more involved. When playing with others, there are additional incentives: wanting to do better than the other players; wanting not to look stupid or ineffectual; wanting to demonstrate mastery over the game... All of these can play a part, but with differing levels of importance for each player.

      Online gaming is replete with its own language of competition and "pwnage", making the challenge of doing well for your own sake a much lesser force than the desire for bragging rights. Even single player games now come with "trophies", "badges", and other awards so you can compare your skills against other players.

      Which brings up a special category of cheating: not losing. A number of games have had to modify their leader boards to account for players who "turn off" before a competition is over because they don't want a loss to negatively impact their total score.

      This whole discussion sounds very self-righteous. I tend not to play many online multiplayer games, so it is easy for me to be holier-than-thou to those who prefer competitive play. But the fact is, I cheat as well.

      Since I don't tend to play multi-player games (except face-to-face with friends) my cheating is of a different nature. That is, I cheat to continue. Or, in other words, the strategy guide cheat.

      Games can be hard — they're meant to be challenging. Sometimes the solutions are just too hard or too obscure to figure out alone. For platformers, which tend to be linear in nature, this can be critical: if you can't solve the puzzle or beat the boss, you can't proceed. So your choice is either solve the problem or give up the game.

      I don't like cheating. (I'm the kind of person who refuses to look at the box lid when doing a jigsaw puzzle because working off the picture would be "cheating".) But I will cheat for a game I am enjoying if I get stuck. It is a tradeoff I am willing to make under two conditions:

      • The game is enjoyable enough that I really want to proceed.
      • I have tried enough times to work it out, without success, that I know (or think I know) that I can't figure it out without assistance.
      There is a third condition, which is that I only need to "cheat" a few times in a game. Once I have to look up the answer two, three, or more times in a row, I start to feel the game is too hard to be fun any more. (E.g. the original Kingdom Hearts on PS2 felt this way.) When this happens, then you are no longer playing, you are simply working your way through the strategy guide.

      No, thank you. I'd rather be playing.

      Sunday, January 9, 2011

      What Knowledge Management Can Learn from Small Groups

      I used to work for a large multinational corporation. I now work for a small startup consisting of 12 people who work in one room together. There is not much "knowledge management" needed with a group that size. That doesn't mean knowledge management doesn't happen, just that it happens more instinctively and with less stress around the edges.

      In fact it would seem reasonable to assume that there is little if any relationship between the two situations. But in fact there are some interesting lessons when observing small groups that can be applied to larger corporations:

      Everyone is different

      Even though my current company consists of only 12 people, there are 12 different personalities and approaches to work, communication, technology, etc. When you work in large organizations, there is a tendency to talk about how people will respond to new programs as if it were a unary decision, where all (or at least most) people respond in one way. We are then surprised by the number of people who fall outside of the defined norm.

      Every project or process has a target behavior — how you want people to use the process. But that behavior is only a target. The overall response, when all individual behaviors are taken as an average — may fall within the target range. But any single person is likely to have their own particular usage model that may well be unexpected.

      Multiple, overlapping technologies are not a problem

      Within my small sampling, we have 12 unique sets of technologies, including different operating systems; different hardware (some laptops, some desktops, often both); different software tools; and countless communication devices. Everyone has email, everyone has an instant messaging client of some kind (or two or three), we also have wikis, blogs, forums, and an IRC channel. Not to mention smart phones, blackberries, iPads, etc.

      We occasionally have a discussion about the appropriate place to post information — especially material under review or in draft form. But I have yet to hear any complaints that there are too many choices.

      In large organizations, one of the basic requirements for any project is keeping the toolset small. If there is to be a knowledge management "system", it has to be a single system accessible by anyone in the target audience. Better yet, a single system covering multiple disciplines (KM, project management, resource management, etc.)

      The rationale for keeping the toolset small sounds good in theory:

      • Universal accessibility
      • Reduced learning curve/training costs
      • Only one place to look for information
      • Reduced IT/support costs & complexity
      But this rationale is based on 1980's computing constraints:

      • Universal accessibility — what technology, especially collaboration technology, isn't available through a web browser or across platforms (e.g. IM clients)? Selecting one tool does not make the information more or less accessible.
      • Reduced learning curve/training costs — at the same time corporations are trying to restrict the number of applications to "reduce the learning curve", their employees are busy trying out Facebook, Twitter, Skype... The main reason learning curve is a problem is because you are trying to teach people something they don't want to learn. Perhaps the issue is with the content, not a limitation of the audience's ability to multi-task.
      • One place to look for information — I have heard this argument for years, but I have yet to see a single instance where a company has successfully integrated all information into a single application. In fact, corporations seem determined to segment their knowledge into individual repositories. The closest they come to "one place for all information" is intranet search. However, they determinedly resist efforts to use generalized search engines (such as Google) and often limit what information is indexed by search under the auspices of "qualifying" content. (What happened to "one place"?)
      • Reduced IT/support costs — I used to believe this argument, because it was true. But over time, just as the locked door computer room has shrunk and more and more technology (and computing power) has migrated from a secure, air-conditioned environment.... onto the desk... out of the office... into the pocket... the role of IT in controlling — or even choosing — technology has changed significantly. But IT as an organization and as a profession seems unwilling to accept or accede to that change.
      However, individual technologies can run foul of individual preferences

      The fact that people have multiple technologies, doesn't mean they use them the same way (cf. everyone is different). Years ago, I was shocked when I answered my office phone to discover that the caller was in an office no more than thirty feet away. But I thought nothing of sending email to the person in the cube next to me.

      More recently, I was bemused the first time I received an instant message from a fellow worker two cubes down. (They didn't want to disturb the others by talking, since we work in such close proximity.)

      How and when individuals use different technologies seems like an almost limitless set of permutations. Of the 11 people I currently work with:

      • At least one answers email before IM
      • One seems to respond to both equally (and instantaneously)
      • Several answer either IMs or email, but with no clear pattern or preference
      • One will respond to IMs more often than email, but will answer the IM via email.
      • One never responds to IMs.
      Is this good or bad use of the technology? It is neither. It is how individuals work. Part of "knowledge management" is managing your sources of knowledge, your technology, and your contacts. It is not enough to know how to use the technology; you must also know how it is used by your community.

      I know this concept — the preeminence of personal choice — is an anathema to many KM practitioners. It is like trying to establish order without disturbing the chaos. How can you promote a company-wide program if each individual gets to choose for themselves?

      Well, it is not quite that bad. It is not that each individual gets to decide for themselves. You can dictate, require, or recommend specific technologies and approaches. But you need to recognize that your audience will perform those actions in the way they think is best.


      Have faith in people

      It is easy to see other people's behavior — when it runs counter to expectations — as stubborn or willful when it is nothing of the sort. People will be altruistic, especially when it involves assisting other individuals. However...

      KM is not their job!

      As well intentioned as they may, people have a job to do, deadlines to meet, and responsibilities to uphold. If they think of it, they are willing to share with others. But more often than not, it does not occur to them that the information they hold is valuable to others — especially if that value will not be realized until some indeterminate time in the future.

      Discussions held in hallways or decisions made over lunch are sometimes the most important events within a project. But no one thinks to capture them in a wiki or email the rest of the team. This is not knowledge hoarding, it is simply an inability to recognize that anyone else cares.

      Ultimately, perhaps the most powerful KM tool any company has is nagging repetition. When someone writes something down, remind them to post it to a forum or wiki. When they say something interesting suggest others they should tell via email. Suggest alternate ways to search for solutions to project problems.

      This sort of gentle persuasion on an individual basis can be tedious, since the scope is limited to specific situations with one or two people at a time. And I am not suggesting it alone is sufficient to make KM work on a large scale. However, it is surprising how soon you see others (who you have prodded) acting without instigation or suggesting it to others. And from such small efforts, large effects can accrue.

      Well, that is OK for a small office, but how does this apply to large corporations? The most successful KM programs I have seen, even in very large corporations,  have always had one or two advocates who were tireless in not only promoting "the program", but jumping in and helping individuals with their specific problems and demonstrating KM-ish techniques along the way. Their influence went far beyond just the person they helped, but to anyone that person then spoke to, their friends, etc... Not only their reputation preceded them, but the behavior they modeled went with it to corners of the company they might never have visited personally.