Activision, Microsoft, and Platforms

This post comes heavily inspired from a recent GamesIndustry.biz Podcast episode, “What now for Activision”:

Whether part of the ten-year agreement between the two firms or due to a change in strategy, there’s no denying that the break-up leaves a Destiny-shaped hole in Activision’s limited portfolio (NB: We mean Activision specifically, which is left with Call of Duty and the Crash/Spyro remakes — the wider company of Activision Blizzard is doing just fine, as is Bungie).

Matt, Chris and James ponder whether Activision will seek its next billion-dollar franchise from another third-party studio like Bungie or perhaps turn to the many developers it already owns (most of which are working on Call of Duty) to come up with fresh ideas.

To get you up to speed, Activision Blizzard recently announced the departure of a partnership with Bungie and Destiny:

Joint Statement from Activision and Bungie:

Today, we’re announcing plans for Bungie to assume full publishing rights and responsibilities for the Destiny franchise. Going forward, Bungie will own and develop the franchise, and Activision will increase its focus on owned IP and other projects. Activision and Bungie are committed to a seamless transition for the Destiny franchise and will continue to work closely together during the transition on behalf of the community of Destiny players around the world.

Additionally, from Bungie:

We have enjoyed a successful eight-year run and would like to thank Activision for their partnership on Destiny. Looking ahead, we’re excited to announce plans for Activision to transfer publishing rights for Destiny to Bungie. With our remarkable Destiny community, we are ready to publish on our own, while Activision will increase their focus on owned IP projects.

Activision Blizzard accounts for the following companies (Q3 MAUs for the games companies provided for context):

  • Activision (46M)
  • Blizzard (37M)
  • King (262M)
  • Major League Gaming (MLG)
  • Activision Blizzard Studios
  • Activision Blizzard Consumer Products

Q1 2016 was the last time Activision Blizzard included their “Portfolio of Compelling Owned Franchises”:

Activision

  • Call of Duty
  • Destiny
  • Skylanders

Blizzard

  • Warcraft
  • Diablo
  • StarCraft
  • Overwatch
  • Hearthstone
  • Heroes of the Storm

King

  • Candy Crush
  • Pet Rescue
  • Bubble Witch 2
  • Farm Heroes

In 2018, that list looks like this:

Activision

  • Call of Duty

Blizzard

  • Warcraft
  • Diablo
  • StarCraft
  • Overwatch
  • Hearthstone
  • Heroes of the Storm

King

  • Candy Crush Saga
  • Pet Rescue Saga
  • Bubble Witch 2 Saga
  • Farm Heroes Saga

There are two notable titles missing from that list, both under the Activision banner.

Now, Activision Blizzard can (and probably should) be looked at as a whole. But as a player of many Activision titles of yore — MechWarrior, Tony Hawk, Guitar Hero (and while not yore, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise, mi amor) to name a few — it’s difficult to separate the name from the reality. It doesn’t help that aside from Nintendo, Blizzard might have been the only recognizable gaming name to me, quality or otherwise, growing up. It’s hard to look past a name.

With only Call of Duty, is Activision still a name? If so, if not, what’s next?

Launcher Wars

Launched in 2003, Steam boasts 150 million active users and 27,000 games. The sheer number of games is in large part thanks to the Steam Greenlight and Direct developer programs. Steam has traditionally been known as a bastion for indie developers. However, the recent drastic increase in velocity of titles launching on Steam is making it harder and harder for indies to break through the noise. But it remains that Steam is the standard for PC/Mac gaming.

In 2013, Activision Blizzard launched the Battle.Net Launcher — a one-stop-shop to launching Blizzard IP Warcraft, Diablo, StarCraft, and now Hearthstone, Overwatch, and Heroes of the Storm. In 2017, this list expanded to Bungie’s Destiny 2 under the Activision banner. In 2018, Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 was added to the launcher. Upon the announcement that Destiny 2 would be arriving on the launcher, Blizzard released a statement that there were no plans to expand to other third-party titles:

Our focus in terms of supporting non-Blizzard games is solely around Destiny 2. Aside from potentially evaluating needs or opportunities for future Activision games, we don’t have any short- or long-term plans to support third-party games with Battle.net. It’s important to us to maintain our quality standards for any experience or service we’re putting in front of our players, which represents a big investment of time and effort on our part, so this is not something we’re jumping into lightly.

With only two launchers to choose from — one with Blizzard exclusives two behemoth franchises Destiny and Call of Duty, one with everything else — it’d make sense to keep the Battle.Net Launcher tightly curated to first-party IP.

2018: Enter the Epic Games Store. Dissatisfied with the 30% cut Steam was taking from sales, Epic decided to compete with Steam by releasing their own store, only taking a 22% cut of DRM-free game sales. While the Epic Games Store is slim pickings now, Epic is home to Fortnite, arguably the biggest video game ever with 200 million accounts. As of this post, Fortnite can still be downloaded independently of the Epic Games Store launcher on Mac/PC, but I imagine in due time the launcher will be required. To add, the Epic Games Store is signing exclusive titles such as Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 and Early Access to Supergiant‘s Hades.

If I’m reading the tealeaves correctly, my hunch is that the Epic Games Store is attempting to marry the two models of Steam and Battle.net — loads of third-party content with an attractive revenue model, plus first- and third-party exclusives.

The Platform

More often than not, it seems like I can play any third-party indie title on the platform of my choosing. Let’s take Celeste as an example. I have the option of playing Celeste on my Mac, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch. I chose the Switch as the benefit of portability outweighs online community or big-screen gaming. The Switch has also become my platform of choice as I’m a big fan of Nintendo’s IP. Having all of the content I care about on a single, portable console is a huge draw. (Cue “put everything on Switch” chant.) The friction of bouncing between consoles or being couch-locked is removed.

But the Switch doesn’t have everything, nor can it. It is underpowered to run a healthy majority of AAA games released on PS4, Xbox One, and — the furthest in the power spectrum — the PC. Where HD Twins PS4 and Xbox One compete on the basis of exclusives and online communities/features, the PC competes on the basis of quantity and power; quantity curated by a slew of game launchers. I’d wager to bet most PC/Mac gamers have installed Steam — the heavyweight PC/Mac games store — Battle.Net Launcher (Blizzard) — the exclusive franchise launcher heavyweight — and, as of December 2018, the Epic Games Store — the home of the heavyweight game Fortnite. Regardless, short of a download and account setup, there is no friction involved open multiple game launchers for different titles on the same hardware platform.

If friction doesn’t exist, what’s the benefit to the user? None. So, what’s the point of a launcher? Other than a marketplace for multiple titles or first-party content, it’s a marketing opportunity. Third-party games have an opportunity to be showcased and sold alongside large exclusives — exclusives which attract a core audience to the launcher — which in turn nets revenue for both the platform and the third-party. Without a subscription service à la Netflix and Hulu, it’s effectively the same à la carte model used by the Nintendo eShop, Playstation Store, and Xbox One Game Store.

However, in the case of Battle.net, the launcher is now being used as a vehicle to attract Blizzard IP players to Activision titles. At the time of this post, the first featured image on Blizzard.com is a trial offer for Call of Duty: Black Ops. This offer is also available through the Battle.net launcher, which on a PC can launch both Call of Duty: Black Ops and Destiny 2.

Does this signaling Activision Blizzard’s next move?

Microsoft

I’m going to recall my previous post “Sometimes Failure Leads to Opportunity” with a little help from Ben Thompson:

On Microsoft’s big acquisitions announcement of studios Ninja Theory (DmC: Devil May Cry, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice), Playground Games (Forza Horizon), Undead Labs (State of Decay), and Compulsion Games (We Happy Few):

The Xbox One originally lagged behind the PS4 this generation due to its misguided focus on the living room (including charging $100 more at launch because of the now-discontinued Kinect that was at the center of that effort), but the bigger problem has been a lack of exclusive titles relative to the PS4. One way to counter that is to simply produce them yourself, and these purchases augment Microsoft’s ability to do just that.

This gets at purchasing many smaller studios to begin bolstering IP.

Meanwhile, Microsoft continues taking strides away from the traditional console wars.

Jason Schreier, Kotaku:

Truth is, as Team Xbox has been signaling for quite some time now, and as we’ve gathered from our own conversations with both people in and outside of the company, Microsoft is no longer interested in competing directly with Sony. That’s a battle it lost as soon as Xbox executives started outlining its original, odd plans for Xbox One in 2013. The PS4 has outperformed the Xbox One so resoundingly, Microsoft stopped providing hardware sales figures.

Instead of licking its wounds and trying to fight Sony yet again next generation, the Xbox division under Phil Spencer has taken a drastically different approach. What Microsoft wants most today is studios that will help boost its impressive Game Pass subscription service, its upcoming streaming platform, and its continued stabs at PC gaming. Developing big Xbox exclusives is no longer a priority for Microsoft, and in fact, the company decided in 2016 that it would release future games on both Xbox and PC. Soon enough, Game Pass will also be available on PC, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Microsoft embrace Steam—or overhaul the Windows store—as it tries to reach the hundreds of millions of people who play video games on computers.

Microsoft embracing Steam would have been interesting as it may open doors to the Mac audience as well, but the latest signal from Microsoft paints a different picture.

Satya Nadella via Stratechery (members only):

We are in, quite frankly, the early days in all of this, but good momentum and we do have ambitions outside of this which I don’t think we covered particularly today with you all. Some things that I’m really invested in is gaming, and the simple idea there is we have as much of a shot to build a subscription business as anybody else. So we describe it as shorthand, “Netflix for games”, we have a structural position in that we have both a console business as well as a PC business which happens to be in fact bigger than the console business when it comes to gaming and the idea is to aggregate those sockets with a subscription service, we won’t be the only ones, there will be competition just like with other content, there may be a few subscriptions that will be successful, so we are going to go after it. The good news is, we have a huge back catalog, which is we have our own games, we bring not only users, we bring already a social network in Xbox Live, we bring content, and we’re going to go after it. We’re going to go after it with current sockets, and of course streaming is another element to it, because then can you plug in an Xbox controller into even an Android phone and play a Triple A game? We know that’s feasible, now the question is when does the cost curve on it going to be viable. So those are at a high level what we are trying to get done.

If we put this together, not only does Microsoft have a wealth of great back-catalog, they are investing heavily in smaller studios to continue the growth of first-party titles. If they do pull off the “Netflix for games” — like the Netflix model — the back-catalog and new first-party titles should come along with a rich collection of third-party games. I’ll be curious to see if Microsoft would/could bring this “Netflix for games” service to the Switch.

To take a step back, here’s the historical and (potentially) future lay of the land; color indicating first-party, gray indicating third-party, solid border indicating some sort of paywall, dotted border indicating free entry:

What should Activision do?

Putting aside if it needs to do anything differently, the question of whether or not Activision should do anything differently is nagging at me. If looked at on the whole, even with the departure of Destiny 2, Activision Blizzard accounts for monster franchises Call of Duty, Candy Crush, and all of Blizzard’s franchises. But I’d wager to bet that’s not enough. To me, that looks like a lot of eggs in only a couple of baskets. If I’m in Activision’s shoes, I‘m beginning to ask myself if I should get the jump on a subscription-based service in the Battle.Net Launcher.

If Activision Blizzard were to open a third-party storefront in the Battle.Net Launcher, indie (and potentially AAA) developers would have an opportunity to see their content alongside Blizzard IP. With an attractive revenue model, as much as I’d hate to see Blizzard’s catalog muddied with third-parties and King, Battle.net becomes an attractive service. To keep the water a little less murky, a tightly curated games store would help. To find the middle-ground between Blizzard IP and random third-parties, the utilization of Activision’s existing nine studios and/or the purchase of several indie studios a la Microsoft would bridge the gap. Battle.net would become a launcher for Blizzard’s first-class titles, Activision owned subsidiary titles, and collection of top-tier indies.

This certainly a “let’s spend Activision Blizzards” money post, but short of spelling doom for Activision Blizzard with the rise of Fortnite, departure of Bungie, and Microsoft’s “Netflix of gaming”, Activision Blizzard needs a model that will continue to drive revenue in a PC world without the friction of a hardware platform. If the battle is lost, Activision Blizzard titles join the ranks of third-party titles vying for the top-spot on other launchers and platforms.

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Jim Guthrie and the Below soundtrack

Polygon and Bandcamp recently profiled and interviewed composer Jim Guthrie (Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, Planet Coaster) on his soundtrack for the years long project Below.

The game has been receiving luke warm reviews, but the aesthetic and score are something else entirely. In fact, the Below announcement trailer that debuted at E3 2013 propelled me to (illogically) purchase an Xbox One. The game wouldn’t actually be released until 2018. I still have yet to purchase it.

In any case, these bits from the aforementioned interviews stuck out to me:

Polygon:

A few years ago, he happened upon a series of YouTube tutorials about a studio technique using a four-track cassette recorder. The idea was to record a single, sustained note — hence the EHX Superego — and stack it on top of several similar, harmonic pitches to form a chord.

“You record that drone for one whole side of the tape,” Guthrie says, “so it’s like a 30-minute drone. Then I did that on the other three tracks, so I had four different chords made up of drones. And you basically run all that through a bunch of delay and reverb. You press play on the tape, and then you can essentially play the faders, and just swell the volume up and down really slowly and cycle through different chords. That’s when we hit a mood that was really dark and pretty, and sort of lonely. I managed to get a lot of mileage out of that.”

Bandcamp:

I noticed that when you’re crafting items in the game, there’s this tonal/harmony thing that happens there. Did you have a hand in that?

Yeah, I don’t know where the idea really came from, but that was super intentional. I made noises that would sort of stack on top of each other and create a chord. I worked with Kris on that. But yeah, we’re always looking for things like that where you’re making music with the game. It wasn’t so subtle. It’s a little happy succession of notes that sort of lead up to a moment when you craft.

This reminded me of a version of Silent Night I’d recorded years ago. I looped single, droning notes performed with an Ebow into a Line 6 DL4 to create chords. These were then recorded into GarageBand and used as samples:

If you’d like to hear more Death Starr, why not check out my cover of The Talk Show with John Gruber’s theme song “Pickin’ Booger’s with John”.

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20 Years of StarCraft

Kosta Andreadis, writing for IGN:

In the mid-to-late 1990s, the real-time strategy (RTS) genre was not only popular but ubiquitous. RTS games of various styles and settings were everywhere, and a company named Blizzard Entertainment was at the forefront. The studio had become a household name with gamers thanks – primarily – to three titles: 1994’s Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, 1995’s Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness and an action role-playing game released on the final day of 1996 (and developed by Blizzard North), Diablo. These games cemented Blizzard as a company that made high quality cinematic story-driven experiences that were fun, accessible, and infinitely repayable.

With StarCraft, its third real-time strategy game, Blizzard would leave behind the fantasy world of the breakout Warcraft franchise and set its sights on the distant future. It would take players to a science-fiction setting where humans and strange alien races engaged in isometric high-tech warfare. And the studio would go on a journey of its own; in the time between Warcraft II and StarCraft’s launch in 1998 the look and feel of the game would change drastically – alongside its story, characters, vehicles and other player-controlled units. This is the story of that evolution… and the success beyond.

I remember seeing the original StarCraft trailer for the first time. If memory serves, the trailer was included in the WarCraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal expansion set CD-ROM. At the time, the trailer felt like something out of a Ridley Scott film, only grander. Comedic space goons alarmed and destroyed by a large, brooding, mysterious craft. I was bewildered.

Andreadis has put together a tight, well-written retrospective of StarCraft. If you enjoyed the original in the late ‘90s, there are lots of great bits of development insight in here.

The following might be my favorite bit:

Compared to the advances made in digital recording technology available today, to create the sounds and music for StarCraft the team made use of a suite of external synthesizers and outboard hardware, utilising more traditional recording techniques. “Early versions of some of the sounds were pretty cringeworthy,” Glenn admits. “Certain units required more experimentation to get something really unique and special. The first version of the Hydralisk was just plain silly until we figured out how to make them ‘talk’ without words.” This experimentation led to some interesting sources for what many consider to be some of the best sound effects for an RTS of any era.

“Lots of units in the game started with voice as the origin; our voices,” Glenn reveals. “Though most are tweaked beyond recognition. We also used voice for sound effects, such as the Marines’ walkie talkie static. Voice and mouth sounds, like whispers, hisses, and breathing were a big contributor to creating source material to be processed into various strange effects, sweeteners, ambiences and even in the music. One of the chittering Zergling sounds is just me grabbing my cheeks and flapping them open and closed quickly. Processed with pitch and other effects afterwards.”

Unfortunately, no details on the Nintendo 64 port.

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UK video games market is now 80% digital

Christopher Dring, reporting for GamesIndustry.biz:

It seems a bit negative for the physical market, but these figures do not include hardware. And actually more consoles were sold in 2018 than in 2017. GamesIndustry.biz can reveal over 2.4 million games machines were sold in the UK last year. PS4 was the biggest selling console, with sales flat year-on-year, but Nintendo Switch was the biggest growth area, with Switch console sales up more than 20 percent.

Indeed, physical remains a strong part of the games retail business. According to ERA, the best-selling game of the year was FIFA 19 with 2.5 million units sold… 1.89 million of those sales came physically. That means when it comes to AAA releases, digital sales only account for around 25 per cent of the games sold. However, that percentage is getting bigger. Last year, 20% of FIFA 18’s sales were digital.

I don’t find it terribly surprising that an annual sports title garners the top spot for physical game sales. I can already see the GameStop shelves littered with used copies of FIFA ‘19 this fall.

The trend of the rise in digital also comes as unsurprising when physical games are all met with a barrage of software updates. Sure, one may be able to save a few bucks on a physical copy — and sell it back — but in the world of instant gratification, digital download — albeit a tens-of-gigabytes download — is quicker than a trip to the store plus a tens-of-gigabytes update.

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The year in gaming controversies

Colin Campbell, Polygon:

These events must lead most observers to the view that game companies have a long way to go before they can truly present themselves as caring about their employees, their customers, or the world that they inhabit. But they are at least now subject to vociferous disapproval when they make their most grotesque mistakes.

Perhaps meetings are taking place right now, in which execs are noting the previous damage of their own actions, and making necessary alterations. More realistically, as we enter the new year, the issue of unions is in the air. If and when employees organize themselves into unions, game companies will have more to worry about than bad publicity. In 2019, maybe we’ll see a change for the better. Maybe.

This article is a great retrospective of an industry on the cusp of being held accountable. I don’t say that lightly. These are incidents on record. There’s bound to be many, many more that have not been to light. It’s wonderful to see focus put on these issues by media outlets.

I’ll admit that I remain glued to the video game industry for the fun and surprise of it all. But to see the harsher reality elevated more than ever is refreshing.

In any case, the comments on this article are something else. No one should ever be harassed. No one should ever be expected to work 100 hours per week. No one should be subjected to cheap gambling tactics or unjustified lockout to earn a company an extra penny or two. In 2019, maybe we’ll see a change for empathy and maturity from companies and audiences alike. Maybe.

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Gruber: ‘There is a thing to being “Mac-like”’

John Gruber, with guest Jason Snell, on his podcast The Talk Show with John Gruber:

There is a thing to being “Mac-like”. And there was, and it was strong. It’s literally what kept Apple alive.

If Mac-likeness hadn’t been an important thing, there’s no reason everybody wouldn’t have switched to Windows at the time — that there was more to it than, ‘OK, you’ve got a rectangular window and the windows all have “close” buttons and “zoom” buttons, and then there’s a menu bar with an agreed upon set of typical things like “file”, “edit”, “font”. You double-click on an app. There’s a mouse that moves around. You can select text. There’s a scroll bar over on the side you can drag up-and-down to move up-and-down on a document. And there you go — there’s a GUI. If you can use one, you can use any one and that’s all there is to it.’

It is true that that is the description of the modern graphical user interface of a windowing system. But there’s so much more to the Mac-way of doing things and of organizing things. And of feeling at home. It’s such an amazing thing when you feel at home in an app you’ve never used before because it uses all these familiar conventions. Those conventions went so much deeper than just draggable windows with a “close” button and a menu bar.

This is a great discussion of the level of detail and consideration for human interface guidelines. I encourage you to give it a list. It struck me as I closely followed Twitter’s branding guidelines for the redesigned footer of Zero Counts.

I became a Mac convert in 2004 with the iBook G4. Before that, I was put off by the consistency of Mac apps, which is a wild thing to consider. I mistook variety in user interfaces for freedom, and thus, the Mac as a restrictive system. This notion was reinforced by the Mac’s minimal amount of hardware customization. Together, the Mac was but a toy for casual users. I had completely missed the point of the Mac, and apparently had no consideration for elegant design.

The level of consistency displayed in a majority of the most popular Mac apps makes it all the more apparent when something doesn’t quite feel right. Not to mention when something is completely disorienting. The app that jumps out to me most is Pixelmator.

Pixelmator includes loads of floating windows and tools. If I’m not mistaken, this was inspired by the original Photoshop GUI. I’ve been a big fan of Pixelmator, but I’ve always felt lost in it’s GUI.

Now, with the single window design of the new Pixelmator Pro, I feel at home. It’s not to say I’m completely familiar with all of the ins and outs, but I was able to immediately jump in and find my way around.

As the successor to a heavily used app, reworking the entire GUI is incredibly risky. But the ease at which a longtime Pixelmator user can dive into Pixelmator Pro with little effort is a testament to the macOS HIG.

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2018 Reads

This year, I did a bit of catching up. No thanks to Nintendo and the Switch, 2017 was largely spent scavenging Hyrule and the Mushroom Kingdom. In 2018, I leapt back into books — many of which I’d been meaning to read for a few years.

Needless to say, I quite possibly read more in 2018 than any other year of my life. Honestly, I can’t say any of these reads were horrible (though I’m one to find good in anything). Some certainly better than others. All a bit scattered amongst genre.

Without further adieu, here are my 2018 reads, ordered from most favorite to least.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood

Horribly chilling in light of the US today. The extreme justifications of Law and Government’s Will as God’s own feel too real and terrible. Published in 1985, no less.

My god, what a read.

Americanah

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Shortly after we moved to San Francisco, I found a copy of Americanah in our building’s shared laundry room — in the communal stack of books and magazines. I had heard great things on The New York Times Book Review Podcast and swooped it up immediately. (Truthfully, nothing stands between me and a beautifully formatted hardcover.)

A gut-wrenching love story, relatable and not. A story of America, relatable and not. A bare truth of race in this country that’s all so evident, yet can never be reinforced enough — now more than ever. A perspective unlike any other.

“Love was a kind of grief. This was what the novelists meant by suffering.”

Less

Andrew Sean Greer

What is seemingly a 2-star novel warps and wraps itself into a top-shelf, lovely comedic, and heartfelt story by a 5-star genius. So many “I’ve been there” moments and callbacks to “insignificant” details that the heartfelt and hilarious pangs resound with gut-wrenching timbre.

The story of Arthur Less is a comedic one, filled with the kind of silly anxieties, ghosts of the past, self-deprecation, self-destruction, and self-loathing we all find familiar. Best of all, a story of itself and meta and multiple levels. A protagonist no one should feel sorry for and that’s just the point.

We are all more or less Less.

Creative Selection

Ken Kocienda

A superb look inside software development at Apple and what it means to create team culture. Hard to put down.

I came to this book by way of John Gruber’s Daring Fireball. As a manager leading a cross-functional publishing and platform development team, this is a critical peek at what makes Apple quality software.

I’m thankful to have a team staffed with creatives, designers, developers, editors, producers, and writers. Truly the intersection of technology and liberal arts. But success goes beyond the right mix of people. It takes direction and focus. I shared the seven elements Kocienda identifies with my team, asking them which element stood out most to them. Unsurprisingly, we had a healthy mix of craft, taste, inspiration, diligence, and empathy. I’ve since gone on to outfit my team with Kocienda’s book as an artifact of what it takes to get to where Apple is today and to never forget what can be accomplished with a small team.

I advise everyone to read this book.

Brave New World

Aldous Huxley

How did I miss this in high school? A chilling premonition of Today from 1932. Truth vs happiness. No sweet without the sour.

God in the safe and Ford on the shelves.

A masterpiece.

Annihilation

Jeff Vandermeer

As dreamlike, entrancing, and lush as Area X. Vibes like Sunshine, LOST, The Abyss, and Dear Esther. Extremely my jam.

The movie is way different, but just as awesome.

The Three-Body Problem

Cixin Liu

How do you even begin to write something this vast, imaginative, complex, and yet entertaining? Such a fun, big read. Awesome first act to a trilogy, but I’m going to need a breather before diving into book two.

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Jesmyn Ward

Imaginative. Mystifying. Infuriating. Poetic. Vivid. Captures an uninhibited train of thought perfectly.

A lonesome and dooming dusk.

The Boys in the Boat

Daniel James Brown

Layers upon layers. Part bio, part sports rivalry, part pre-war omen. Paces like a race: quick off the line, measured through the middle, blasts-off at the end. The descriptions of the competitions had me gripped. Maybe could have been 50-100 pages shorter, but likely meant to portray the weight of perseverance.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

This book came as a recommendation from my wife. She’d become insistent on me finishing so we could watch the Netflix film.

While fluffy, it’s a fascinating look at the German Occupation in the Channel Islands during WWII — a story not often told, and in the format of letters no less. An easy read full of wonderful characters and whimsy. An easy holiday read.

Deep Work

Cal Newport

I came to this book via The Ezra Klein Show podcast. Cal and Ezra discussed some interesting tips about maximizing productivity during large chunks of the workday. I found the idea of leaving my mornings free and scheduling meetings on the back half of my day compelling. It quickly fell apart as a manager, but the idea is beginning to help some of my employees.

For knowledge workers — engineers, academics, etc — large chunks of uninterrupted time can be critical for working deeply and making large strides in productivity, innovation, and creativity. If you can’t always be out of the shallows, find ways to minimize its impact: use a to-do list to track big items/projects; clear your inbox to remove the nagging distraction of something beckoning you; send clear correspondence with precise action items and expectations. If you have a project, find 1–4 hours to focus on it.

The one I’m working on: sign-off by 5:30 and stop thinking about work!

You’ll Grow Out of It

Jessi Klein

I’d heard about this book from (once again) The New York Times Book Review Podcast. They deemed it something like the better Amy Schumer biography.

With only a blip of a mention of Schumer, I get it. An honest, humbling, and humiliatingly hilarious look into the female experience — womanhood, comedy, writing, aging, and sexuality.

Klein shows that it’s truly impossible to empathize with everything everyone goes through. As a male, I’ll never understand the twists and turns of womanhood, no matter how many women I have in my life. On the other hand, there’s a shocking amount of humiliating and shitty situations we all share.

A light, fun, funny read that will shine a light on experiences you have had, may have, and never will have.

S. / Ship of Theseus

J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

If not entirely satisfying, a wholly original work and impressive feat. Glad to have given it a go.

I learned about this book while posting an Event at the Apple Store to the iTunes Store during my time on Apple Podcasts — an interview with J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. I couldn’t resist the complexity and mystery of the book. My inner-LOST nerd needed it. It only took me five years to get to it.

The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini

“It was only a smile, nothing more… but I’ll take it.”

A gauntlet and another solid recommendation from my sister, Megan Starr.

A Wrinkle in Time

Madeleine L’Engle

Alice in Wonderland meets The Little Prince. A wild, snappy adventure filled with witches, aliens, and — of course — space and time travel.

Wonderland

Steven Johnson

I came across this book from its companion (and clever marketing vehicle) podcast Wonderland.

We are all wired with natural instincts: hunger, thirst, sex. (Hypothalamus keeping us right!) Yet, we crave and are fascinated by surprise. “When the world surprises us with something, our brains are wired to pay attention.” Even without any seemingly productive ends, we explore and yearn for new experiences. We play. “The pleasure of play is understandable. The productivity of play is harder to explain.” Play propels our creativity and innovation.

“You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.” Humans are funny space creatures. If only we would all just play a little more.

Underground Airlines

Ben H. Winters

Gripping, thrilling, tight. Cinematic and easy to envision. A take on the reality of fending for oneself in the direst of situations. Sympathy for an antihero. Ego vs Id. Battle of conscience. Complexities unraveling themselves hours after finishing.

Power-Up

Chris Kohler

Great historical reference and a fun look back on video game history. Made even better by reading during a trip to Tokyo! Ended a bit misty-eyed at the Iwata remembrance. Thanks to Pavan Rajam for the recommendation.

Play Anything

Ian Bogost

I picked this up after reading a triple-review of Death by Video Game (ultra fav!), The Tetris Effect (fascinating), and Play Anything. I tweeted a photo of the review — proud I had read two of three books in an NYT Book Review. With permission, Mr. Bogost used the photo for his own tweet. Photo credit would have been cool, but it was still a neat moment.

Play Anything reads like an academic paper on how we define “fun”. There are plenty of choice quotes and great insights. However, they are mired in thick sets of highbrow, like diamonds in tons of rough of proof and reference. As much as Bogost preaches the ability to find fun in challenge, I couldn’t find much fun here. Bogost would call this “hardship”. At the very least, amongst bits of beautiful insight, Bogost’s writing has a musical quality. It’s easy to wade around in it, even if you’re not taking it all in.

Maybe my expectations were initially misaligned by a NYT review of books about games. I’d also argue Bogost’s title doesn’t help. Rather than “Play Anything”, this should have been titled “The Paradox of Fun”, “Fun Theory”, “The Power of Limits”, or simply “Read David Foster Wallace”.

Bogost proves to be an incredibly smart philosopher, but his philosophy of fun may be better as a longform feature rather than an entire book.

Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance

I’m a firm believer of education, but nothing benefits like a happy home. The Rust Belt is under a microscope, but these problems affect California, too.

Into the Water

Paula Hawkins

Fun first 2/3. Tedious final act. Illuminating epilogue. Unlikeable characters. Can’t say I’d recommend it, but suffices as a page-turner.

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Vox Video Lab

Vox.com:

You know that feeling you get when you learn something that blows your mind, something new, something that perhaps you didn’t even think to ask about? That’s our goal with every Vox video: We want to help you understand the world in a visually clear, creative, and hopefully beautiful way.

If that sounds like a mission you support, and you love our videos, then we ask that you consider joining the Vox Video Lab, our brand-new membership program on YouTube that will help us give you even more ambitious explainer videos and series.

Why are we doing this? The core reason is pretty simple: Our videos take a ton of work.

Well, how about that. The day after divulging my affinity for Vox Media’s creators, they establish their first membership program.

Thrilled to be a Video Lab Advisory Board member.

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What’s in a Creator?

I visit Daring Fireball, Stratechery, Chorus.fm, and Polygon religiously. I support MacStories, Washed Up Emo, and Relay FM. Their content doesn’t always land for me and I’ve become increasingly less wild about their design. So why do I keep coming back? In a nutshell, it’s the relationship I have with their creators.

I have a background in the podcast industry. What drew me to it was not the business potential or the medium itself, but the intimacy of the format. I was able to develop a pseudo relationship with the voices at the other end. Only ever consuming podcasts in moments solace while commuting or on a jog, the intimacy intensified. I formed such a bond with the voices on the podcasts I listened to that I wanted to support them. In my mind there was no better way than to join the industry.

The same could be said for my want to join the ranks of the news industry — namely the gaming news industry. In 2013, I’d come across Polygon.com — namely their PS4 and Xbox One reviews. I fell in love with their design and the rich content they were producing. It was a stark contrast from my then favorite gaming site IGN.com. Less clutter. Sharper design. Higher quality writing and videos. I became so engaged with the site that I began deep diving into their creators. Allegra Frank, Ben Kuchera, Tracey Lien, Griffin and Justin McElroy, Ashley Oh, Chris Plante, Dave Tach — the list went on.

I began listening to Polygon’s Besties podcast, hosted by Russ Frushtick, Griffin and Justin McElroy, and Chris Plante. Hearing them speak at length, episode after episode, helped me build an intimate, albeit one-sided, relationship with these folks.

And the cherry on top: their custom “Polygon-ified” avatars used on both Polygon.com and Twitter. This made the staff feel like a unit; a family. Many voices that made up a larger whole. Their credit was not mired or obscured as a monolithic publication — one reason I cancelled my subscription to The Economist. Much of their team — and Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff — still use the avatars today.

Needless to say, I connect to outlets not for the outlet’s sake, but for the creators I enjoy. Mediums such as podcasts and Twitter bring the personality out of the individuals; and on occasion, the latter allows for actual interaction with these them.

Realizing Polygon was (then) one-third of the greater Vox Media, I took to learning about the creators of the other verticals. And as Vox Media grew, so did their rosters.

Dieter Bohn, Lauren Good, Nilay Petal of The Verge. Dan Frommer, Walt Mossberg, and Kara Swisher of Recode. Ezra Klein, Dylan Matthews, Libby Nelson, and Matthew Yglesias of Vox.

Over the weekend, after seeing a tweet and retweet by Vox Media COO Trei Brundrett and CEO Jim Bankoff respectively, I listened to Vox Media publisher Melissa Bell on CNN’s Reliable Sources Podcast with Brian Stelter:

Audiences love our work and they care deeply about our creators. Often times we see them asking our creators, “do have a Pateeon account? Is there a way we can donate money to continue to contribute to your sites? Can we participate in the journalism in some way?”

We want to explore those options for sure. We want to make sure we’re building a business that supports our creators. We’ll be looking at every business model as we grow.

I certainly don’t know how much of this is true while not working within the walls of the company, but it’s certainly something I’ve felt as an audience member and fan.

Since reading Polygon in 2013, I’ve been a fan and critic of Vox Media. They’ve made great technological choices, and some questionable ad and social integrations. But more than anything, they put a focus on their talent. Their creators aren’t just a byline — assuming those stick around. They are featured in their text, audio, and video. Their engaging — and often times incredibly long — features are showcased on other Vox Media verticals. And talent from one outlet will appear on another’s podcast.

I have asked several Vox Media staff if I can somehow, someway contribute — donate through their sites or via Patreon; hell, publish print and take a margin. I want these creators to succeed! And I want the platform that gives them such a voice to be bolstered. I haven’t seen anything concrete yet, but I did buy Polygon’s 500 Years Later: An Oral History of Final Fantasy VII by Matt Leone as soon as it went up for pre-order.

I feel I have a connection and loyalty to Vox Media’s creators first, their sites second; much like I do for independents John Gruber (Daring Fireball), Ben Thompson (Stratechery), Jason Tate (Chorus.fm), Tom Mullen (Washed Up Emo), and others. It’s the talent that always brings me back. And I’ll continue to do everything in my power to support the creators.

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Washed Up Emo: ‘It felt like you were turning a page of a book that you’d never opened before’

Tom Mullen, host of the Washed Up Emo podcast, interviewing Justin Courtney Pierre of Motion City Soundtrack fame:

JCP: Now we’re all on Twitter and Instagram. We can see at least a version of ourselves that we want to put out to the world, which is still more than when you had to find that one article of the band where they had a few paragraphs. You had to read it. You didn’t get to see video of the person that’s speaking.

It’s just so much easier to connect to people now. There less mystery involved. I think back then, everyone just seemed way cooler than they probably were.

TM: This is brought up a bunch because of the time period of some of these bands and their age. You knew it before [the internet/connectivity], and now you have it. You have this context of being able to know when you didn’t have it and that feeling, versus someone today who’s younger doesn’t. They’ve only always had a phone. They’ve always had Wikipedia.

You talked about that feeling, but it’s also that sense of discovery. It felt like you were turning a page of a book that you’d never opened before. That feeling I try and replicate as much as I can today.

More and more I realize how detached I am from new music. As much as I looked forward to the new Cursive, Minus the Bear, Saves the Day, and Thrice records, they are new records from old bands. Plus, there was little for me to chew on aside from the music itself. Little in the way of liner-notes, thank yous, etc. Or maybe it’s just my lack of focus, time, and energy.

Even more is that my pendulum of consumption has swung far in the opposite direction of video games to books this year. I don’t think I’ve finished a single game I’ve purchased in 2018.

Together, I now get the sense of discovery I used to have with music intertwined with the insatiable appetite I had for video games rolled into reading. I’m on pace to read more than I ever have in a single year.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, books are my new albums.

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