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 ( 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…

No Heroics

A true story makes a decent business analogy.

It it said that one learns something new every day, and by that measure I met my quota early yesterday. To set the stage, I play soccer (football, for non-Americans) with a group of friends and acquaintances. The game is informal and non-aggressive, for fun and exercise, and we except adult players of any level, adjusting our play appropriately depending on the skills of each player. In the Winter, we play soccer indoors (as opposed to indoor soccer) due to the weather, obviously.

The group has found a new venue for playing, the Lansing Indoor Sports Arena, with a full-size pitch (i.e., field) on soft artificial grass known as ProGrass. Since this was just my second week back after a hiatus of more than a year, I had not played there yet. The field was very comfortable and the game was enjoyable. As usual, I played hard in the open field, but always tempered my play when near other players (or backed off entirely for the novices).

With about 3 minutes left in the game, we were attacking and had numbers on the defending team. I was free on the right wing and a teammate passed the ball a little too far ahead of me. Instead of letting the ball pass out of bounds, I tried valiantly to keep the attack alive by centering it. Honestly, I have no idea whether or not it worked, because my momentum carried me out of the end line, where my feet got tangled in the retaining net, causing me to lose my balance and slam into the solid block wall. I bruised and scraped my right elbow (which now rests on extra padding while I type this), along with sustaining other minor bumps.

The lesson: Unnecessary heroics are dangerous, and they are likely to cause one to stumble and fall down. It is better to make reasoned decisions by assessing the entire situation. Of course, it is easy to take a rash action when under pressure. Lesson learned.

Last week, there was a scheduling issue, so we played in a regular gymnasium, which is a completely different experience. Having not played for so long at that point, I let the competition get the best of me. I did too much running early in the game, so I was sucking wind and, therefore, less physically effective during the rest of the game. However, I was able to compensate by working more on my position and less on my speed.

The lessons: A quick and enthusiastic start does not assure success. Slow and steady wins the race. It is important to have a plan of action rather than simply reacting to the situation. Work smarter, not harder.

I do not intend to stretch the soccer metaphor any further at this time. However, if anybody in the mid-Michigan area is interested in playing early on Sunday mornings, you can write me at for details.

Oh, yeah… We do not actually keep score, but I personally scored a hattrick (3 goals) plus 3 more assists in the game, so the day went pretty well for me, bloody elbow notwithstanding.

Casual Games Quarterly

A slight correction to the background for my last post.

Yesterday, I mentioned the Casual Games Quarterly put out by the Casual Games SIG of the IGDA (International Games Developers Association). I incorrectly implied that a second issue had not been published yet when, in fact (and unbeknownst to me), the second issue has been published, it is just not linked from the SIG page, which still (incorrectly) lists the first issue as “New!

Now that I have discovered my error (and theirs), here are the links to both issues of the Casual Games Quarterly:

The Technology Issue – Volume 1, Issue 1 [Summer 2005]
The Business Issue – Volume 1, Issue 2 [Winter 2005]

I extend my apologies to Wade Tinney of Large Animal Games for my oversight.

For more discussion of the primary content of yesterday’s post, see Thomas Warfield‘s comments on A Shareware Life today.

Striving for Fetters

A discussion in the casual game community misses the point somewhat.

Last July, the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) formed a new Special Interest Group, the Casual Games SIG. The group produced a useful 125-page white paper on casual games, as well as a Casual Games Quarterly (though it has missed the window for second issue to actually be a quarterly). Additionally, the SIG started the Casual Games Mailing List, which has proven to be quite active, with “name” players in the space contributing to the discussion.

One recent (ongoing) thread deals with the prospects of an accurate/viable listing of top casual games, based on figures from the major game portals. The discussion started with an interesting listing created by one person compiling “Top 10” ranking information published by the portals. It then veered into the accuracy and bias of this data, into a call for actual sales figures like the movie industry, and then onto the technological and political (for lack of a better word) issues for creating such a list. One can view the January 2006 Archives to read the whole thread, Top Download List.

Numbers and rankings are great, and they are easy to understand, the data equivalent of a sound bite (soundbyte?). I love ranking things based on numbers and quasi-arbitrary formulas; I used to create NFL team rankings by hand back when I was a kid, before people used computers for this (and when the season was only 12 games long). For this reason, I think that the original scored list was wonderful, and I even downloaded Mystery Case Files to check it out based on its top position.

The problem with the ensuing discussion, however, is that everybody is so fascinated with rankings, scores, and numbers that they miss the fundamental question:


There was discussion about the fact that anyone can easily get box office numbers for the movie industry. That is definitely true. The argument was made that the game portals could be convinced to provide confidential numbers for a compiled report because it would ultimately benefit them. It would. Still, pray tell, what would such a listing, especially with sales figures, do for the independent casual game developer?

Box office figures help make the movie industry a hit-driven business, just like retail video games. The reporting generally serves to remind or entice people to go spend money at their local megaplex, likely owned by one of the handful of theatre chains across the country. Do these lists do anything to promote independent films or art house cinemas? (Hint: A movie had to have at least $6.78 Million dollars in box office over last weekend to make the Top 10 in the USA.)

As I see it, a list of top selling casual games is just a bit of mathematical masturbation. It strokes ones ego (and perhaps wallet) to have a game on a hit list, but the overall impact for developers is, at best, nothing. At worst, it will consolidate control of the industry in the hands of the successful portals (even more than now) and genres will become restricted to “what sells”. (Remember, back in 1995-96, the retail industry was abuzz with ‘RPGs are dead.’)

Sales figures complicate the matter more, as the figures would inevitably be compared to retail figures and even movie box office numbers. If the casual numbers are smaller, then the retail game industry will become even more entrenched in the “core gamer” approach. If the numbers are larger, then they only serve to encourage more knockoffs and attract developers of lesser quality, whether by design or lack of talent, and flood the channels with garbage.

I was in the retail game industry in 1993 when a event that I consider a watershed moment occurred. The media reported that the game industry made more money than the movie industry (counting only domestic box office, of course). All of a sudden, basically every movie studio started up game divisions and/or began recklessly throwing money into the industry, and there was a huge influx of self-important wannabes who knew nothing about game design or development. It was a chaotic mess for a while, and a lot of junk was created (or cancelled). LucasArts was, basically, the only one that was already there and the only one that still exists today. To my mind, they were a company that intended to make games, and thereby make money, as opposed to the other studios who were simply out for the money, using games as a seemingly easily conduit.

My point is that I am an independent developer and I make casual games because I like casual games. I relish the freedom that online publishing gives to small game developers. I am concerned that there are efforts to apply some of the restrictive aspects of the retail game industry to our community. There is no reason, in my mind, for developers to assist these efforts, especially when they omit and ignore huge portions of the industry who do not participate in the scheme (i.e., remain independent).

Take an example close to my heart and livelihood. I know no figures to back this up (at least not that I am going to reveal here), but I am willing to bet that Pretty Good Solitaire outsells many of the games on the portal list. However, Pretty Good Solitaire will not make any of these lists because it is not published through portals and sales figures are never revealed. On the other hand, versions of that game have been selling for more than 10 years, and there is no new hit game that tops a list and defined the end of its reign.

Now I know rough sales figures on my own game, Pretty Good MahJongg, and I know that it does not sell as much as its cousin. On the other hand, the income is certainly more than respectable, in my opinion, and I suspect that many developers would be envious of the numbers that it sells each day. More importantly, I enjoy playing the game(s) and know that many other people do as well. Now, if I had a Top 10 List that showed Pretty Good MahJongg at #8, I would… well, I would do nothing different. Knowing that my product outsold all but a few other games on the market would probably give me warm fuzzies, but I certainly would not create a word game just because they filled slots #2-7 that week.

Before people get wrapped up into working out the logistics of doing something like this, I think that it would be a good idea to take a look at the bigger picture. (No, I do not mean motion picture.)

IGF Student Showcase 2006

Ten student games garner special recognition.

Yesterday, the Independent Games Festival announced the winners of the 2006 IGF Student Showcase. Eight student game projects were selected from the 59 entries in the main Student Showcase category, plus an additional two projects from 17 submitted in a ‘middleware’ category.

Among the winners was the game, Ballistic, developed by Brandon Furtwangler, Brian Hasselbeck, and Scott Brodie, students at Michigan State University and members of the Spartasoft game development group at MSU. I had previously mentioned Ballistic back in October (in Game Competition Results) and am pleased to see that the IGF has recognized it this year. Incidentally, Spartasoft had a regularly scheduled meeting yesterday, and I imagine that it was an upbeat affair if they were notified in time.

The full list of winners:

I find it interesting that only two of the winners in the main category were from major universities, while half were from schools dedicated to game and multimedia education (3 from DigiPen Institute of Technology and 1 from Full Sail Real World Education). In any event, I think that this is a wonderful opportunity to showcase the talents of students interested in the game industry.

Congratulations to all of the winners!

Back on Track

It looks like momentum is finally starting to build.

The silver lining to reinstalling a development system from scratch is that one can configure the software and environment exactly as desired, perhaps upgrading a few pieces along the way, while eliminating items that are obsolete and mothballing the relics. This all leads to more efficiency, both functional and mental.

In my case, I replaced two hard drives, giving me more space for programs, data, and code, and I switched my primary development system to Windows XP. The system is still running on the same processors, graphics cards, and memory, but the elimination of considerable “winrot” has increased operational speed noticeably. For those unfamiliar with the term, winrot is the term for the manner in which Windows operating systems gradually slow down through the accumulation of junk (i.e., unnecessary processes and data). I used to reinstall every 3-4 months, but this one took more than a year before being forced upon me.

More importantly, though, since I decided to replace my old 8G source code drive at this juncture (as it had already outlasted two system drives), I had to choose which unfinished projects would be prioritized and which would be relegated to a backup somewhere. All at once, I had to look at the number of playable game prototypes I had not completed while culling the number of active projects down to a handful. I ended up with exactly one internal project for each (current) external project, a manageable number.

Instead of an unruly mass of many interesting projects demanding my time, I now have just a few, complete with a priority order and schedule for each, allowing me to focus better. Additionally, having just spent the better part of a week fighting with hardware and software configuration, I want nothing more than to (continue to) bury myself in programming, and when I polish off the current projects, I just need to choose my favorite working prototype as the next product.

Lest anyone think that everything was smooth sailing after the earlier hardware and driver problems, there was yet another casualty during the week. My CD-ROM drive gave up the ghost, apparently having tired of all the disc changing. Since the development system has another optical drive, a DVD burner, that can function just fine with CDs, I just left the dead hardware in place and continued unabated. When I next get an itch to mess with hardware (maybe in Springtime) I will replace it. Until then, I am just a software guy.