Online Hiatus

Other responsibilities force me to go offline for a while.

It is a long story that I do not have time to write, so here is the brief version. My primary operations and logistical support person for our company, Digital Gamecraftâ„¢ (SophSoft, Incorporated), had to take an indefinite leave of absence to deal with a second family crisis within a month. Many of the daily tasks that she normally handles to allow me to concentrate on development are suddenly my duties again.

Since 2006 was already off to a slow start, albeit with many projects in the pipeline, I have to reclaim some extra time somewhere to allow for my highest business priority, product development, without cutting into my personal priorities. As a group, online activities account for a significant portion of my time, and for the most part, our company will not suffer for my lack of participation for a while.

So, as of February 1, 2006, this blog will “go dark” for a month or until the other situation resolves itself, whichever comes first, to allow for more game development. I will also be taking a hiatus from public and private newsgroups and most other online fora during this time. It will still be possible to reach me via email (seelhoff@sophsoft.com) or telephone, and except for the reduced communications, we will still continue to conduct business, perhaps more efficiently, in the meantime.

Be sure to check back in here on March 1st, when I will begin a series on quality game development. Until then, we will be working on two major (unannounced) products for Goodsol Development, as well as updates to the Pretty Good MahJongg (plus an interesting new edition), Action Solitaire, and Most Popular Solitaire titles. We also have an upcoming entertainment title, a productivity application, and a traditional board game product in the queue, not to mention the final build of a Japanese localization project. Busy.

“That’s my story, and it’s sticking to me.”

Science Lesson

The title of some questionable spam reminded me of this true story.

Of course, as a second-hand story, this may well sound like an urban legend to readers of this blog. Nevertheless, I am confident that it is true, as I heard the same story related by two people I knew well, both of whom were there, but who have never met. A housemate at the time told me the story the day it happened, and a girlfriend verified it a little while later. As that girlfriend is now my wife, I must believe her.

It was in 1985, during an undergraduate biochemistry class at Michigan State University. The class was held in one of those large lecture halls which can accommodate a hundred or more students.

On this particular day, the professor was explaining that human semen was comprised of mostly sugar. At that point, a young lady toward the front of the class raised her hand.

“Then why does it taste so salty?”

She quickly realized how revealing that question had been, prompted by loud laughter from the rest of the class. Turning bright red, she grabbed her books and walked rapidly out of the lecture hall.

After a few attempts in vain to get back to education, the class could not stop laughing, so the professor ended up dismissing the class early, apparently without answering the question.

Hey, do not blame me; I only reported it.

A Long Time Coming

I have just had a reminder of another well-named project.

A Usenet post indicates that today is the 10th anniversary of the original release of Duke Nukem 3D. Frankly, whether or not the exact date is correct is not important enough for me to research it, but it is fact that the title has been around for about 10 years now.

Of course, one cannot mention Duke Nukem 3D without also talking about its long awaited sequel, Duke Nukem Forever. The developer, 3D Realms (formerly Apogee) lists the official release date as “When it’s done” and, apparently, it is not done yet. This project was in development more than nine years ago, which makes it, to the best of my knowledge, the longest running retail game development project in history. The longest project I knew prior to this was Falcon 4.0, which took more than six years to ship. (Of course, the game needs to actually ship to secure that record.)

As with the subject of my post from yesterday, Duke Nukem Forever is appropriately named, as “forever” is the approximate length of time it will take to get it completed. The difference, of course, is that 3D Realms has actually produced quality products (as opposed to no products). Still, I cannot help thinking that this is more of a running joke at this point; otherwise, it is proof positive that one really cannot keep up with technology.

This project has gone well beyond “feature creep” at this point, and I doubt that any game could live up to the expectations built over the course of a decade.

Fools and their Money

News comes of one seriously unwise investment.

Today, it was announced that Golden Gate Investors committed to funding Infinium Labs to the tune of $5 Million, according to this story on Gamasutra. For those who are unaware of Infinium, it is the company that is theoretically planning the, aptly named, Phantom Game Service.

I will be the first to admit my ignorance about investing, but if I had that kind of money, I would do some basic due diligence before giving it to somebody else. The first thing to look at is the history of the company, so let us start there.

Infinium Labs was founded in 2002 by Timothy Roberts, and about three years ago, the press was publishing hype articles about the Phantom Game Console as a supposed rival to the Xbox. Within six months or so, the game industry was awash with rumors about this being nothing but vaporware. A few independent exposes were published, including one on [H]ardOCP, Behind the Infinium Phantom Console [September 17, 2003]. Among other things, it revealed Mr. Roberts as having a penchant for stretching the truth (to put it charitably) and that the company address was nothing more than a mail drop in Florida.

Since the publication of that article, Infinium has (inexplicably) made the game news somewhat regularly with different pieces of “news” but never any actual product. Last February, Roberts estimated that the console would ship before the end of 2005. Then it was announced that, rather than a game console, they were going to create a game service instead. Roberts stepped down or was forced out of at least some of his positions and replaced (even more inexplicably) by people with actual industry credibility, including Kevin Bachus, formerly of Microsoft [Xbox], who resigned after only 3 months at the helm.

This brings us to the recent past, when last month, Infinium announced that before launching any game service, they would be producing a wireless game peripheral, the Phantom Lapboard, but only if they managed to get another $2 million investment. In three years, they have gone from competing with the Xbox console, to a gaming service, to a wireless keyboard/mouse combination, if the company (or any of us) survives that long.

The next thing that I would look at is the financial position of the company, both the current situation and the future potential (and liabilities). I cannot interpret financial statements well, but it is clear that Infinium Labs has lost at least $57.5 million since inception, with no sales at all. Additionally, they are the defendant in investor lawsuits, are the subject of an SEC investigation, and owe the IRS $2.35 million in payroll taxes and penalties, as of half a year ago. This is not a promising picture.

In my opinion, naming the products “Phantom” was the most honest thing Infinium has done, as it is highly unlikely that the public will ever see one of these products. Clearly, somebody has been making money off of the investors, and I am curious to know where all of the cash has actually gone.

The big question in my mind is: How is Infinium Labs still able to get people to invest in this scheme? Perhaps more to the point: How did these investors end up with this kind of money if they use it so foolishly?

Just in case there are any big investors reading this, I have lots of game designs and prototypes that would be very successful if I could just find the time and/or help to complete them. If you want to fund a my new company for a while, we would actually deliver a real product, and at a fraction of Infinium’s debt. Think about it.

Lousy Research

A recent study is so flawed that I just had to comment.

Catching up on my backlog, I read a BBC news report on a study published in the journal Behavior and Information Technology about the speed at which web users determine the quality of a particular site. The article, First impressions count for web [sic], draws the erroneous conclusion that visitors to a web site make up their minds about it within 50 milliseconds. If you think that this is completely false and misleading, believe me, it is.

I will not pretend that I have read the full study, as I am certainly not going to waste money on the publication just for this purpose, but according to the facts in the short BBC writeup, the researchers made at least five critical errors that invalidate any results:

1. An image shown for 50 milliseconds is seen for a longer time.

It is physiologically understood that the retina retains an image for a certain amount of time after that image is viewed. This is the characteristic of our eyes that allows us to watch movies without the perception of flicker. In order for the researchers to get feedback on a site image, the participants had to be aware that an image was about to be shown. When viewed, this image would definitely stand out against the static view before and after. The cones (color receptors) in our retinas hold the image longer than indicated.

Additionally, the amount of time that the image was shown, one twentieth of a second, is actually fairly long in the whole scheme of vision. This is 20% longer than a frame in a (modern) motion picture, and 50% longer than a full NTSC television frame (consisting of two interlaced fields). Perhaps more to the point, it is at least twice as long as an interlaced CRT frame and a minimum of three times as long as a non-interlaced frame on a CRT. In other words, it is clearly viewable, especially in contrast to solid black or white.

2. Web pages do not just emerge and appear fully formed.

When a user is loading a web page, it takes longer than 50 milliseconds to be fully displayed and, in most cases, the page arrives in pieces, not as one complete image. As each element arrives on screen, the brain has more data to process to supplement or dispel any preconceived ideas (including those determined a split second earlier). The study eschews this entire internal mental process.

3. An actual web user has expectations based on an action.

In the real world outside the laboratory, web pages arrive as a result of a user action, usually clicking on a link or entering an URL. Based on the action, and the motives behind it, the user has certain expectations of what he or she will see on the page. Additionally, every individual has a “frame” (per Marvin Minsky) for what a web page (or specific type of site) looks like, which forms the foundation of such expectations. Only the latter, in a very general sense, applies for a clinical study.

4. The study assumes that aesthetics is the only measure of quality.

This one seems pretty self-evident to me (pun intended). When going to a web site in a natural setting, I am looking for something, whether that be information, entertainment, stimulation, or some other desire. While I may be less inclined to pursue my goal on an ugly page, the quality of the site is determined by other factors as well. In a sterile environment with no motivation, the only measure is aesthetics.

5. Nothing indicates that a determination is made that quickly.

Even if one determines that the other errors are somehow irrelevant, the fact remains that there is nothing at all to prove that, as the story states, “Internet users make up their minds” as quickly as advertised. In fact, it is a much more logical conclusion that the viewed image is retained briefly on the retina, certain key elements are committed to short-term memory, and the actual determination is made, relatively speaking, much later, perhaps only when the research question needs to actually be answered.

To be clear, I have no doubt that most web surfers do not spend much time looking at a web page, so it is important to make a good impression, and all other things being equal, one should opt for aesthetics and simple layouts. However, this study does nothing whatsoever to prove that, and the conclusions, whether from the researchers or the story authors, are simply incorrect.

What this study does prove is that the human brain is able to formulate an emotional response to a visual image rather quickly. A interesting bit of research at this point would be to determine whether the concept of aesthetics as interpreted here is innate or learned. Of course, I doubt that we will be able to resolve the nature versus nurture debate over this issue.

I wonder aloud who funded this research and how much money it cost to do the study…