Marketing experts

Most marketing “experts” are nothing of the sort.

The problem with self-proclaimed marketing experts is that they primarily market themselves. For the most part, marketers are dealing in something of a psychological art; marketing is not a science. Researchers can conduct experiments to show certain aspects of the process, but they cannot measure everything. However, marketers work in the area of human interaction, outside a controlled environment, so they have little to offer beyond opinions. Results can suggest a correlation between marketing and sales, but there are too many variables to be sure, and most so-called experts do not actually offer real data to support their conclusions.

In my opinion, sales success results from some combination of five ‘good’ factors:

  1. Good product
  2. Good planning
  3. Good marketing
  4. Good timing
  5. Good luck

There is no doubt that marketing can play a role in building a successful product (defined broadly), but as a scientist might say it, good marketing is neither a required nor sufficient condition for success. I am getting tired of reading opinions stated as fact by people who do not (and cannot) fully understand all of the factors involved, instead chalking every success and failure up to marketing.

Worse yet are those who are so shallow as to believe that the only measure of success is money, and that a product which earns more is necessarily more worthy than one that makes less profit. That flawed concept then becomes the product that is marketed and, alas, some people buy in. Sadly, they sometimes do so in a literal sense.

Here is what I have experienced. The most successful business people I know do not proclaim themselves experts; they earn respect without demanding it. The wealthiest people I know are not prone to declaring how much money they make and do not use their balance sheet as a scorecard. Those who crow about their own importance and/or earnings at every opportunity just strike me as pathetic.

Personally, I generally judge my own success by criteria other than money. I certainly want more money, and I am willing to work hard to earn it. However, I have made many decisions in my life and career that are oriented toward other goals. I value my family, my quality of life, and my personal integrity higher than my checkbook balance. It is important to me that I enjoy what I do for a living, and that I do quality work. My wife and I try to raise our children in a loving environment where they can thrive and become productive citizens (without the insecurity that might cause them to always seek validation by demanding public attention and acknowledgement).

Anyway, we were talking about marketing. (Remember marketing? This is a rant about marketing.)

Marketing advice and ideas should be taken as opinions, mixed with ones own values and common sense, and then flavored to suit the product and circumstances. There is no right answer, and there are always factors beyond ones control. However, there are some wrong answers and obvious mistakes to avoid, and these lessons are probably more valuable than any success story.

The five good factors are listed above in order from most to least control, so here is my advice:

  1. product (full control) – create something of quality
  2. planning (much control) – prepare for opportunities and setbacks
  3. marketing (some control) – think about your customers
  4. timing (little control) – either hit the window or fail early
  5. luck (no control) – work to improve your karma

Of course, that is merely my opinion, and comments are certainly welcome.

Microsoft Visual Studio 2005

Here is my quick review of this updated development system.

Over the weekend, I took a break from productivity to finally check out Microsoft Visual Studio 2005. The DVDs had been sitting here quietly staring at me ever since I got them early this month, so I finally made some time to install it and see how it measures up to Microsoft Visual Studio / Visual C++ 6.0, which I currently use (and prefer) for the bulk of my development work.

To set the scene, I already had Microsoft Visual Studio .NET 2003 on my system, though I never bothered to try the 2002 version. The only good thing about this product was that it would peacefully coexist with the earlier (not .NET) version, save a few stolen file associations; otherwise, though, the product was a dog. In preparation for a review, I had started on my second full page of notes about problems before I gave up on VS .NET 2003 entirely. I simply did not uninstall for fear (later proven justified) that it would mess up my productive and usable development system.

I had read a few glowing reviews of Microsoft Visual Studio 2005, so I was hoping that they were accurate and that I could safely upgrade for new projects, since Microsoft seems to be actively campaigning to eliminate my current system. Apparently the phrase “compiler that is seven years old” appears on some list of talking points, as though it were derogatory. Lame.

Well, I uninstalled VS .NET 2003 and began the installation of VS 2005. The first thing to notice is that somebody in marketing figured out that “.NET” does not sell product (but does allow “.NOT” comments), and therefore that portion of the name is gone. The installation was smooth, and faster than for the predecessor, although the stylized graphics overlaid upon the same three people looked like they were either peering through a jungle gym or possibly prison bars. The selection of models was interesting, too.

After installation was complete, I went to create my first simple project. The missing “.NET” was the elephant in the room, as none of the options mention .NET by name, and knowing that it was a large part of this product, I was not sure what to avoid. Absolutely the last thing I want to do is accidentally build a game that requires another 24M download. I believe that “CLR” (for Common Language Runtime) is the first euphemistic acronym I have encountered in my career, though I could be forgetting something. I will also note that there are no project options for creating a static library (.LIB), nor for a standard DLL, unless it uses MFC. (Yuck.)

Anyway, the answer was that “Win32 Project” implies no .NET or CLR dependency. The empty project was created nicely, and I went to type a copyright symbol in my file header. No dice. It seems that the standard [Alt][0][1][6][9] does not work in the editor, a major oversight in my book. Wait a second. It works if I toggle the [NumLock] key to on. It also apparently works in a “text file” but not in a “C++ file”, so it may have something to do with the silly code outlining.

The good news is that Microsoft finally figured out how to make a help window pop up maximized, which is a massive improvement from VS 2003 being challenged to even get the miniscule window onto the correct monitor, nevermind properly sized. Unfortunately, the default for help is to hit the internet first before checking the almost 2G of help that I just put on my hard drive. That is an amazingly stupid default. Worse, I was just checking for WinMain() documentation and it just jumped to the first (wrong) thing it found, and when I got to the correct page, the declaration for the function was simply wrong!

I will also mention that much of the user interface is gratuitous fluff. There is no purpose to the non-standard menus, nor to the altered toolbar. Some standard items from version 6.0 were altered in strange ways that just made them harder to use. Whoever thought that pulldown menus to select an output window was a better idea than the tabs used previously was delusional, and the concept of windows (or options) appearing and disappearing based on context is much more confusing than useful.

When it comes to interface customization, though, the team struck out by removing icons from functions that had them in previous versions, so for my PC-lint toolbar icon, I can have text only, draw my own by hand (no pasting!), or select from a small palette of irrelevant images. (I now click an eight ball to lint a file, or a smiley face to lint the whole project.) The new icons provided look nice, but eliminating icons was a definite, if minor, step backwards.

So here is the heart of the matter for using VS 2005: actual development. I was able to use the editor and it did not seem as sluggish as the 2003 version. I was able to ignore the outlining and annoying highlighting fairly quickly so productivity there was not adversely impacted. I loaded up a version of Most Popular Solitaire and attempted to compile it. There is a new set of warnings about certain “unsafe” library calls, which were easy (albeit unnecessary) to address, and then the project compiled. It is also executed just fine.

This review needs benchmarks, of course. Actually, I only realized it needed benchmarks when I noticed a discernible (read: obvious) difference in compilation speed. One feature that VS 2005 advertises is simultaneous compilation, which seems like it should benefit my multi-processor development system. A complete rebuild of the Most Popular Solitaire project consists of three executables: release, debug, and checked. I timed a complete rebuild of the same project on my system, first with MSVC 6.0 and then with VS 2005 (allowing for the possibility of a speed advantage for the latter due to drive caching).

The difference in compilation speed was dramatic, 67 seconds versus 5 minutes 12 (312 seconds). The only problem is that the “compiler that is seven years old” was the quick one. The old compiler is roughly four and a half times the speed of the “improved” version. When I am programming, I compile quite often, and this difference between the two products could definitely impact my productivity adversely. Making the switch to VS 2005 would cost me an hour for every 15 rebuilds (of a fairly small project). Yikes!

The bottom line is that Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 is only decent when compared to its immediate predecessor, but the .NET line of this development system has still not reached the functional level achieved by the last of the purely native compilers, although it is getting closer. If one needs a feature unique to VS 2005, such as smart device emulation or .NET compilation, then this system is usable. If you are, like most shareware and PC game developers, developing native games or applications for Windows, I recommend sticking with Microsoft Visual Studio 6.0 (with all of the service packs, of course).

Happy Curmudgeon Day

We have another celebration to end a “happy” week.

Today is Curmudgeon Day, one of my favorite holidays. Although it has not, as of yet, been recognized as a state, national, or international holiday, it has been a tradition around here since well into the last millennium. I first wrote publicly about Curmudgeon Day a year ago, and here is the definition from that previous entry:

Curmudgeon Day is to be celebrated by never leaving the house, a practice which I faithfully observe every year. This is a day that many Americans have off from work as part of a four day weekend, and it is hyped by the media as the official start of the Christmas shopping season (despite the encroachment of Christmas promotions into October or September). This results in a shopping frenzy, making this the largest day of the year for retail sales. I am willing to bet it is also ranked high on the list of most dangerous days to be on the road, and simple observation informs my conclusion that it is the day that the most braindead walk (and drive) the Earth.

Online research has shown that retailers are trying to usurp the Curmudgeon Day celebrations by referring to the day as Black Friday, or sometimes Green Friday. In response, another pretender has attempted to make it into a day of protest against consumerism as Buy Nothing Day, which usually, but does not always, coincide with Curmudgeon Day.

The theme for Curmudgeon Day is relaxation. I am officially “Out Of Office” for the complete 24 hours, and I do whatever I want to do. Often, that means working on a pet project for which I could not normally justify the time, or just playing games that I enjoy. So far today, I have actually been working on the same exciting project that I have been developing all week (and before that), by choice.

I do not have to work on that (or any) project today. That is the point.

Enjoy!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today is the fourth Thursday in November.

Here in the United States, Thanksgiving is traditionally a day for gathering with family and enjoying a large meal together. In our household, one tradition is to go around the dinner table and say what makes us thankful on this holiday. Imagine our table filled with a big turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, turkey gravy, and cranberry sauce, as I start…

This year, I am thankful for being able to make a living doing what I enjoy. Professionally, I am thankful for having good clients and interesting projects, and I am thankful that our company has survived in this tough industry longer than any other employer I have ever had. Personally, I am thankful that my family is healthy, that my wife is still supportive of my career despite the hardships and sacrifices, and that my children are both smart, enjoyable, and generally great kids.

While one is being thankful, it is an excellent time to also spare a thought for those less fortunate. As mentioned (and possibly given short shrift) a couple of days ago, the Child’s Play charity is an initiative within our industry to provide toys and games to kids in Children’s Hospitals in the United States and, now, Canada. It is really easy to support: Simply go to the Child’s Play web site, click a controller representing a hospital, and purchase one or more products from the (Amazon) wish list to be shipped directly to the hospital for distribution to the children. As an alternative, simply click on the PayPal link and just donate cash to the effort. It takes less time and thought but will be just as appreciated.

One more big tradition is gathering around the radio to listen to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant, which is playing right now as I finish this message…

“You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant (‘cepting Alice).”

Game Developers Recognized

Awards were announced for some deserving game developers.

The Walk of Game inductees for 2006 have been announced, and the two developers on the list (among games and characters) are Sid Meier and John Carmack. The Walk of Game is located in San Francisco, within Sony’s Metreon, and styled after Hollywood’s walk of fame. Sid and John join the first two (human) inductees, Nolan Bushnell and Shigeru Miyamoto.

It hardly seems necessary to describe the accomplishments of famous developers, nor does it seem fair to reduce their contributions to the game industry to a couple of sentences, but here goes. Sid Meier, now a partner in Firaxis Games, is most famous for his design work on the games Civilization and Pirates, both published by Microprose, of which he was also a founder. John Carmack is most famous for his programming work on the Doom and Quake series, developed by id Software, where he was/is a founding member. (The Walk of Game web site has somewhat longer biographies.)

This seems like a decent time to tell my only Sid Meier story

It was in Las Vegas in January of 1994, during CES (Consumer Electronics Show). This was back when CES was the biggest conference for video games, before its replacement with the launch of E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) in 1995. For context, one needs to know that Spectrum HoloByte, the company for which I worked at the time, had purchased Microprose, Sid Meier’s company (founded with “Wild” Bill Stealey, who had already departed the scene). It is also important to realize that the combined company was still marketed with two separate brands, and we were all anxiously awaiting the overdue announcement of the new name for the combined company.

I was at the conference as the Lead Programmer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, “A Final Unity”, the highest profile game at the booth, or just as a “red shirt” to man the booth; take your pick. Realistically, Sid Meier was at the conference because, well, he’s Sid Meier, though ostensibly he was there to promote his latest title, a non-game program related to music training that is now so obscure, frankly, that I cannot even find a reference. He described it to me at the time and it sounded interesting, though pretty far afield from his successful games. Of course, others confided to me that he was important enough to the new company that he would get to work on the occasional pet project.

Anyway, after our big ST:TNG event at the (then) brand new MGM Grand, all of the combined Spectrum HoloByte/Microprose people at the conference gathered at a local restaurant for a company dinner. I was seated near Sid and several of us were talking. When he found out where I was from, Sid Meier revealed that he was also from Michigan and had attended the University of Michigan. He also mentioned at some point that he was considering what he wanted to do next (a thought process that likely culminated in his co-founding of Firaxis). I suggested that we should get together to form a small division of the company based in Michigan; we could call it MicroSpec. Alas, he chuckled at the joke but missed the serious offer behind it.

I have many other stories about or associated with that trip to Las Vegas, but they will have to wait for a future date. I do not recall ever actually meeting John Carmack (though I may have), but I do have an id Software story for a future entry as well. However, to get back to the theme at hand…

It was also recently announced that Ralph Baer has been honored with the 2004 National Medal of Technology, which is “the highest honor awarded by the President of the United States to America’s leading innovators”, according to the National Medal of Technology web site. Contrary to popular misconception (see first Walk of Game inductees), it was Ralph Baer who invented the first electronic game, the Magnavox Odyssey, which inspired the game Pong (not the other way around).

No, that “2004” above is not a typo. President Bush is clearly a little slow.