It’s not my fault your code is wrong

Northern Ireland is currently suffering a massive skills gap. Every major IT employer in Northern Ireland is crying out for more skilled personnel. Some of them are wanting graduates, others are just wanting programmers who know what they are doing.

That’s not to say we don’t have a lot of programmers, but we have very few great programmers. And we spend far too much time putting students through degrees where they can have their enthusiasm for life removed, module by module. Our programmers lack important skills – social skills, management skills and business skills. More importantly, for a global economy, customer skills.

Earlier this month, when questioning why an error occurred in some software, the developer first accused me of doing something stupid and when I replied this was not the case, a co-developer suggested another stupid thing. There seemed to be some sort of arrogant assumption that I, having been on the Internet for 20 years, would have clicked buttons randomly while trying to submit a form. I resented the implication because the problem was undoubtedly their code. But a blind-spot in their ability to deal with a customer left me feeling annoyed, under-serviced and resentful of the entire exchange. Add to that my general lack of satisfaction with customer-unfriendly solutions.

So, for the benefit of customers everywhere, keep in mind that the customer might be right, that they might not be idiots and that, just maybe, your code is wrong.

An end to provincial thinking

Simple Question: Where did HBO shoot A Game of Thrones?

The simplest answer is “Belfast”, but that’s not entirely accurate. Only a percentage of the shots were taken in Belfast and the rest were shot in Saintfield, Audley’s Castle, Banbridge, Parkgate, Downhill Beach, Magarahorn Quarry and the list continues.

I’m asking that we end the tendency for provincial thinking in Northern Ireland. I’ve seen this most recently with the number of regions (meaning: towns, counties) proposing their new strategies for the incumbent digital knowledge economy and with precious little thought about the bigger picture.

I have always championed the whole of Northern Ireland. I’ve been to every corner of the province and spoken to anyone who had a notion about the future economy and what I’m asking is an end to individual notions of regional advantage. This isn’t about Belfast any more than it is about Derry or Newry or Strabane. This is all about Northern Ireland.

We should be inclusive rather than exclusive. There is no part of Northern Ireland that is not a commuter region for any other part of Northern Ireland. You can get almost anywhere in the province within 90 minutes and you’re seldom more than 50 miles from the coast. We’re such a small region that it doesn’t make sense to promote our differences and borders.

So I’m asking of you, and more importantly the public sector and ALBs/NGOs:

  • When talking about the new and shiny, refer to Northern Ireland rather than individual towns unless there is a very specific reason to be exclusive.
  • Standardise the programmes and developments across the region. If something is happening in Derry, then it should be happening in Newry and Strabane (and Enniskillen and Dungiven).
  • For equality of opportunity, centralise activities in central urban areas. This reduces the chance that any development is going to be on the “wrong side” of the city for a specific community.

And my justification for the above?

Have a look at the geographical distribution of digital businesses in Northern Ireland. There’s a big number beside Belfast but the much more interesting statistic is the number of areas which only have 1-2 businesses resident. They’re spread all over Northern Ireland.

Putting some meat on the bones

A bit more detail on each of the game ideas listed in A Brief Intro to Sonappa.

Alien Salvage

The first game, codenamed Alien Salvage, is a real-time-tactics 3d isometric third-person shooter with a investigative storyline involving a special tactics unit employed to defend against a hostile alien incursion. Multiplayer aspects will be developed for later updates and will include squad-level skirmish between human and aliens.

The player will control a small squad of special operatives whose role is to seek out and destroy a series of alien infestations. The controls will involve the movement, grouping and fire control of the squad as a whole as well as individual units. Managing the squad is handled through a small HUD which will also provide information on the health and capabilities of each unit. The player will work through a series of environments in the single-player story and encounter a variety of alien forces.

The aliens are part of a massive invasion force and the player is one of many human squads dedicated to tracking them down and removing them. The aliens vary in size and shape because they are part of a vast galaxy-spanning empire. Their technology is advanced and by capturing items of technology, the player is able to add to the human technology pool, unlocking new weapons, defences and transport. Some of these items may also be used to communicate with the alien forces, which can change expected outcomes.

In multiplayer, the conflict can be between human vs human, human vs alien or alien vs alien. All of the forces are given scores and can be compared and contrasted depending on capability. There will be multiple modes of games – deathmatch, scavenge, king of the hill for starters. The multiplayer environments will be based on the single-player maps.

Furukontakuto

The second game, codenamed Furukontakuto (j: full contact), is a 3d third-person platformer borrowing elements from fighting and shooter games and blending parkour action and a gripping results-based storyline. Multiplayer will involve speed-and attrition-based levels to provide an active combat arena.

Inspired by action movies like District 13, the idea is to blend hand-to-hand fighting and gun-play seamlessly with the speed and acrobatics of parkour (free-running), base-jumping (short parachute drops, wingsuits) and Buildering (unassisted climbing). Each character will, like Mortal Kombat or Streetfighter, have their own specialities. From a traceuse Francaise to a seasoned Qinggong master.

Unlike fighting games, this isn’t just about winning fights, it’s about moving a sequence of messages across the City. In the single-player game, the player will have the opportunity to play multiple roles as they hand the message between dead drops and traverse the whole of the city.

In multiplayer, the main goal will be to move a message from one side of a sector of the City to another while being intercepted and assisted by others. The opposing side must intercept and hinder other players from receiving the message.

Zombi

The third game, Zombi, is a real-time-tactics 3d isometric third person squad-level shooter with goal-based development and a survivalist single player plotline. Based on the RPG, Zombi, the player will have to progress through a zombi-infested post-apocalyptic city. In multi-player, players will act in concert or in competition for resources in a semi-persistent universe.

In the single-player game, this involves travelling between locations, picking up resources and staying away from the hordes of undead and, more importantly, other survivors. There is a decision tree to follow as the player tries to track down his/her missing family. With limited resources, the player must make decisions wisely.

In multiplayer, the player joins a semi-persistent world where resources are being constantly depleted by other players in the game. The player may be allied with others or alone, depending on the game mode, but will have tasks to perform, goals to achieve and limited time and resources to achieve them with. The world has reset-intervals where resources are replaced, depending on the progress within the game.

The next posting on the subject will deal with the monetization strategy. There’s also some information to be posted on the technical side – more on that when I investigate feasibility.

Show me the MMOney

Making money in when making games used to be a simple equation. Make the game and then sell the game. You allow for money for people to do the mechanics, the art and the publishing and distribution but the remainder is yours. And so the world continued in peace for millennia.

Then the world changed. It didn’t start there but the largest and most noteworthy of the change was World of Warcraft from gaming stalwarts Blizzard. World of Warcraft quickly dwarfed the other Massively Multiplayer Online games in terms of scope and sheer weight of numbers, building on an audience who had succumbed to Warcraft I, Warcraft II and Starcraft. World of Warcraft adopted elements from their other successful IP, Diablo and mixed it all up into one tasty morsel which soon developed a population dwarfing several real world nations.

The players didn’t pay up front for this game, the MMO, they paid for it and the online services associated with it with a monthly subscription. Every month, small amounts of money, which amounted over the months to many magnitudes higher than they could have sold the game for, would be processed into Blizzards bank accounts.

In response to this, other MMOs would begin to compete on several levels. They would reduce prices, adopt (expensive) third party licenses to attract users and attempt other ways to differentiate themselves from the Blizzard juggernaut.

The problem was not that people would not buy games, the problem was that there’s a finite number of hours in a day and humans have a finite amount of time free from family, sleep and career with which to play the game. Getting someone to part with a small monthly subscription is just one part of the the puzzle. There’s also getting them to spend more. Blizzard also manages this with premium items (such as their sparkly rainbow pony).

So, when making a game and planning to be around long enough to make a second game, you have to think carefully about the sources of revenue you have available. Zynga has shown that it is possible to offer a game free of charge, while nickel-and-diming customers with pre-pay options and affiliate deals and make a heap of money (while at the same time screwing over early risk-taking employees).

In order to attract people to your game, especially if you’re aiming for a longer term revenue model (because, you’re not EA or Activision and can’t make $775M within a week of release), you’re going to adopt a Free 2 Play model. But if it is free to play the game, then how do you make enough money to keep your servers running never mind making enough to afford all of the sex workers and illicit drugs that your game designers are accustomed to.

Do you lock out features such as chat? Or upgrades such as the BFG? Or maybe lock out normal features like the ability to heal? Is it better to allow people with money the ability to progress quicker? Gain more experience? Heal quicker? Do they get better rewards or easier quests? Is your game a sunken investment trap (like Magic: The Gathering, or World of Warcraft)? Do you have an active secondary market for your premium items? Do you even want one?

People who don’t pay something are not just a drain on resources. You have to consider whether their presence in the game is enough to attract more people to play the game and whether paying something offers enough of a competitive advantage for players to consider it. This can be an edge against AI elements in the game or against other players in a competitive game.

Do you offer features to the player or the character? Each has a separate set of needs and wants, even though they are the same person. Selling experience points to make the character better has a different game effect to selling energy points to allow the player to pay more often.

In conclusion: when creating a game, there is a careful balance in implementing not only purchase price, in-app purchase and advertising models. And there are a dozen other ways to monetize a game. Make sure you’ve considered all of them.

Special thanks to @bkgStatus for his wisdom when compiling this blog post and to Gamasutra for their recent article on payment models.

Doctor, Doctor, my WiFi is Playing Up

Sadly, I don’t have a catchy punchline.

According to the Telegraph:

Offering patients free wi-fi in accident and emergency waiting rooms would cut the number of aggressive and violent incidents, say designers.

Other ideas from PearsonLloyd, the London design studio that led the winning pitch, include avoiding placing seats facing each other, “to prevent confrontational situations that could lead to violence or aggression”; and installing digital screens advising patients how busy the department is.

The screens and seats facing eat other is obvious. It’s the provision of information, reducing the frustration in individuals who are probably injured, worried and wanting to be anywhere but there.

The WiFi is a curious one. Are we talking about hospitals here? Where the slightest electromagnetic signal from a patient mobile phone is forbidden?

I’m usually one for “unwiring” and getting wireless data in everywhere. But seriously, the costs of this will be low but do we think the neanderthals who cause trouble in A&E will be more concerned about WiFi than causing trouble?

Natural (Language) Interfaces

This blog post is not about Siri, sorry.

I remember when the best way to control a games console was like this:

But over the years, controllers started to look like this:

From a single red button to a plethora of buttons, triggers, D-pads, joysticks, joysticks which act as buttons and switches, it’s no wonder that there was a bit of a “revolution” when this hit the market:

But everyone has been a little fascinated with this for the last couple of years. And not surprisingly – this is one of the interfaces that we use to control the world. It seems natural to use it for direct manipulation.

And despite the fact that the hardware is obviously capable of it, games designers haven’t been making use of one of the other obvious interfaces. One that we humans excel at.

This isn’t the same as using a headset to bark commands at team-members, but using defined commands to instruct a game element. Yes, these games exist (Shouter being one of the most well-known) but the sophistication is low.

What I’m looking for is the difference between Newton and Palm, but in terms of voice. Newton tried to recognise your handwriting while Palm made you learn a certain alphabet. For games, at this stage, we need to create a basic control set that can be easily recognised by a language processor. Whether that is in understanding actual words or whether it is mapping wave patterns – it doesn’t matter. The point is to use our voice to control games.

The instructions can be short, they can be words, they can be screams and cries. When I call “Retreat”, my units should start to retreat back to base, making a tactical withdrawal. When I order “Advance”, they should use cover and opportunity to advance upon the enemy position. And when I shout “Charge”, you get the idea.

(images not used with permission)

Remember

I’m brought back to these videos again and again.

This first one is the unreleased Oni multiplayer version. Oni was a third-person fighter/shooter which was released for Mac/PC and Playstation 2. It was unfortunately the victim of the Myth II HD bug and ended up with Myth itself mortgaged to Take 2 Interactive. If there’s anyone reading this who knows anyone in Take 2 Interactive, I’d love to speak to them.

The second video here is the original Halo trailer. Halo seemed to be more of a squad level human vs alien 3rd person shooter. There was talk of a persistent world, of career specialisms. That was all dumbed down, which isn’t to say that Halo itself wasn’t awesome. It was.

Are we serious about STEM?

I’ve been privileged enough to be attending some of the local Young Enterprise events and during a break today the topic of STEM came up. I’m keen on pushing STEM in YE, and I’ve also signed up with Bring IT On (by default due to my employer) and StemNET (which is hosted by W5 at the Odyssey) in order to try and promote STEM subjects in local education.

We know that software and media is going to be a growth area. There are strategies being published daily by countries all around the globe (though why Northern Ireland needs its own special strategy is frankly beyond me) which explain why and how “digital” is the future growth area for our western economies. The UK has a whole rat of strategy documents written by StartupBritain, NESTA, DEMOS, TSB, BIS and others. The ROI recently published a report by Forfas on the games industry.

But I don’t think we’re serious about STEM.

My grammar school too STEM quite seriously. The compulsory subjects for GCSE were English Language, English Literature, Mathematics, Religious Education and French. (We campaigned during my Fourth year to have the option to switch a language – not abandon a second language – but to choose a different one. We were denied. ) As my elective subjects I took Biology, Chemistry, German and Home Economics*. I later added Physics and Additional Mathematics during my Lower VI year. So while my school may not have taken STEM too seriously, I certainly did.

But I don’t think that the Department of Education has ever taken it seriously. They have the ability to dictate that Science and Computer Science (as opposed to ICT) become compulsory subjects to GCSE level. And if they’re not doing that then it represents a serious disconnect from where we want our economy to go and where we make policy in order to get it there. The Northern Ireland Science Park published a report earlier this month highlighting the opportunity if we seize the knowledge economy at all levels. The headline is “50,000 extra jobs“.

We are inundated with workshops, inputs, seminars, plans, policies, frameworks and strategies on the why and where. What we really need is a bit more focus on the how and the now.

The bottom line is that the results we achieve will be the results we aim for. We can talk about policy all day but if there isn’t a concrete implementation embedding STEM into the curriculum then the policy is wasted. You want to make Northern Ireland a knowledge economy? Start now by incentivising STEM in post-primary. And make computer science one of those subjects which can be taught.

We’ve got serious problems, and we need serious people.

*Home Economics was also called Domestic Science. Which was a bit of a lame duck as it consisted really of cooking and sewing. But it also had a female:male ratio of 15:1.

Technical Co-Founders

From JeffreyTalajic.com

One of the chief problems with being non-technical and starting a technical startup is that you can’t evaluate talent or evaluate the work that’s been done. A technical co-founder can do that for you, but recruiting one is more than just finding a tech guy with legit chops. He needs to share your passion and vision and be a true co-founder, not just a hired CTO.

Technical co-founders are not there really to write code. They’re present to help put together the proposal and costings. They’re important when doing the first technical hires as they can spot bluffers and talk to the talented.

In Crucible Design, I was the “technical co-founder”. In Mac-Sys, it was the same. I was the guy who knew the bits and bobs about the product or service even if I didn’t know everything about the business. And in both cases it stood us well because I’m pretty competitively curious when it comes to things I’m interested in. For Infurious, I was no longer the technical guy and I think I felt redundant because of that.

But for the next venture (whether that is Alien Salvage, Furukontakuto or whatever), I’m likely to be the product guy and only partly the business guy. But I will need some sort of co-founder and I’m thinking they need to be more into design than code. I’m still looking.