A Hung-Over Rant about Verizon

verizon-wireless-share-everything-plans

I was greeted this morning by that familiar throbbing head that always hangs around after a night of being able to drink adult beverages. It over-stayed its welcome…

Then when I opened up my computer, I remembered that I sat down to write last night’s post. It was a fairly unintelligible rant about technology, featuring the classic line “it’s not liek they have to give a shit about their customers. All they have to do is to not throttle so damn muhc.” [copy/pasted from the original, misspelled draft].

The rest was me apparently seeing how much I could drop the F-bomb in the context of a NaBloWriMo post…

I’m not going to talk about that. Instead, I’m going to make fun of Verizon for a second.

So I’m sure that you’ve seen the above image, plastered on the TV at some point. It’s Verizon’s “share everything” plan, and boy do they love that plan. Every time I call Verizon, they tell me how this is a much better plan than the one I have already, which is fine; that’s what they’re supposed to do.

I don’t care that they love it so much. I think it’s a horrible idea, but I hate having to sign a contract for phone service that will last two years, not because I’m morally opposed to contracts, but I hate it because how the shit am I supposed to know what kinds of data usage I’m going to need in two years? Did you know that the Iphone is only 5 years old?

Seriously.

Since it popped up, the cellphone landscape has changed tremendously.

So how do I know what’s going to happen in a year or two?

Anywho, back to that picture… Anything strike you as odd? The first 6,324 times I saw it, I didn’t realize why I hated it so much, but that 6,325th time, I realized something.

They’re all trapped in that plan. Yes, they have a bunch of toys to play around with in there, and they all seem fairly content with tapping away as this huge corporate contract keeps them all controlled and contained. What happens in a year when the new game-changer comes out, threatening the fundamental assumptions and expectations of the mobile landscape? Well, they keep on tapping and swiping on their pooled data plans, waiting until that contract ends and they can go out and do something new.

Well that seems to me like a whole lot of pointless throttling of possibilities. Contracts hurt the agility of people to follow the trends and embrace new applications of technology. They keep us contained, docile, like a legless cow, chewing the cud of corporate greed.

*shakes*

Time for Tylenol and coffee and water and emergen-C. And probably bacon.

 

Concrete and Abstract Ideas

clouds

One of my favorite lessons to teach has to be about concrete and abstract nouns. It’s not that it’s this super-complicated concept or anything; I think it has to do with how fundamental and misunderstood the differences are.

Concrete nouns are the nouns that we are probably most familiar with: the ones that we can see, hear, smell, feel, and taste. Table, water, leaf, chili, and concrete are all concrete nouns.

Abstract nouns are the ones that are a little, well, abstract. They can’t be necessarily experienced sensorily. They are emotions, feelings, and qualities. Hatred, love, anger, inspiration, and religion are all abstract.

What is always fascinating to me is how one would go about describing an abstract noun to someone else. What is hatred? Think about that for a second. If you were to answer it, how could you do it in a way that you would guarantee that I’d understand what you are talking about?

Love might even be the best example of this. When you talk about love, I have no idea what kind you are talking about. Hell, even romantic love is probably different from me to you. Love meant something different to me three years ago (before the birth of my son), which brings me to another quality of abstract nouns: their meanings can change over time.

When having my past students explain to me what a certain abstract noun was, it was always entertaining to see the responses. Of course, there would always be a student or two who tried to define the terms with idioms (“Love is knowing you’ll always be taken care of”), and I would always mark on the paper, telling them to try again, this time using concrete nouns to contextualize the term, making it more definable.

And each quarter, a student or two will stumble upon the real meaning of the assignment, which is probably too philosophical to actually mean anything anyway: abstract nouns gain meaning only when seen through a subjective lens. Concrete nouns? Those are easy. If I point to a table, and we all see the table, we could all write up a descriptive paragraph or two about it. But if I were to ask about love, no two submissions would be the same.

Love—that word, the word that gets thrown around more than many other words, has no objective, concrete meaning. It has relative meaning, and it has subjective meaning, but without more information, I don’t know what it is for you.

Look at the word happiness. What does it mean for you? Think about that for a second, and see how it was co-opted in a couple of ads:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not sure that they know what happiness is for me, and yes, it could be that by using this word, they are letting me interpret its meaning for myself or something. I’d agree on the Coke ad, but not the second one. In it, you have an actual thing being equated with happiness: pearls. The natural conclusion is that money = happiness (and for some people that is totally true). For others, not so much.

Confusing abstract concepts with assumptions can happen with advertisements, true, but it can also creep into your newspapers, blog articles, editorials, and even your daily conversations. The trick is to keep an eye and/or ear out for them, so we can choose whether or not to agree with them.

Oh yeah, and love? Well, now you know that it’s a piece of technology. That’s pink. And Pink.

Cognitive Surplus and Narrative Architecture

This was the view out my back window

How many times have you gone online to look for a bit of info on how to take down that last boss, find all of those steel ingots in Fallout, or god forbid, kill that bastard Ruby Weapon? It’s a different way to experience the world within these games, utilizing the different knowledge of other people’s experiences to augment your own playthrough.

I still have nightmares about this guy

Consumer side to Information Overload

When I was younger, if I didn’t buy the official guidebook for a game I was having trouble with, I’d have to wait until Nintendo Power covered any bits of info that I couldn’t figure out on my own. Most of the time, I’d sit there with a notebook while I played (especially Dragon’s Quest and Final Fantasy), keeping track of the clues that I heard in towns, hoping to make sense of it when I needed to. I remember my notebook for Star Control II was so complicated, that I kept it secret from others because of its horribly nerdy nature (and my pathetic attempts at my own star maps…).

The original Mass Effect

Things are much different these days. The internet keeps us connected, but it also distributes the heavy-lifting of all those notes. Instead of each one of us sitting at home, writing the notes down, we are able to utilize the cognitive surplus of everyone to figure out some of the more complicated aspects of certain games.

Wikis spring up all over the place, and you could find an unofficial one for pretty much any game that you could think of (there’s even one for Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City for crying out loud). The nature of wikis—crowd-sourced data populated by people who contribute because they want to—enable players to be prosumers, simultaneously consuming the entertainment, and producing supplemental content.

Think about all of the different websites out there for the specific tactics and theorycrafting aspects of MMOs. They utilize not only the vast amounts of information available, but also each individual’s time spent on the game, creating a new sort of game guide: one that is created by the players for the players, sometimes filled with so much data that it seems impossible. Here is a bit from a Survival Hunter guide from Elitist Jerks:

With damage over time abilities now refreshing without wasting a dot, “interleaving” a cobra shot between procs is less viable. Instead we can more quickly use our explosive shots without wasting charges. Simply spamming Explosive Shot will result in 8 ticks, with 1 lost. Before 4.2 this would have been 7 ticks. If you wait a small fraction of a second after the 1 second GCD, it should be sufficient to get all 9 ticks quickly. This would be 9 explosive shot ticks in about 3.3 seconds assuming you wait 0.1 between each. This is almost always the best usage on single target, although there may be times when filling in an instant cast ability such as kill shot is worthwhile.

First off, what? Secondly, what? That level of information seems masochistic in nature, but it helps players understand maximum efficiency when playing their chosen class, hopefully preventing them from getting flamed by their guildmates during a particularly difficult raid.

I’m supposed to what exactly?

Here we have networked humans, all contributing and crowd-sourcing the information for each other: what tactics work, which ones don’t, how best to augment playstyles for maximum efficiency, etc. It seems harmless, and it affects games in different ways. For solo RPGs, these player guides help navigate the world, replacing your own brainpower in solving certain puzzles with other, more pressing matters (how to 100% the game, how to best do a speedrun, or how to make that certain alien disrobe for you).

It’s not like this sort of networked content only happens for RPGs, though. Look at Ars Technica’s article on Fez where they talk about how the hardest puzzle was eventually solved. As the players approached the seemingly unbreakable code, forums lit up as gamers argued about the apparent pointlessness of the puzzle, and it took gamers getting together online to finally crack it. Of course, cracking a puzzle is arguably its own reward, so that could explain some of the anti-climactic feelings that some of the gamers are experiencing now.

Now, even the hardest puzzles can be solved, because they’re not played by one person in isolation, they’re in effect being played by millions of gamers who help each other out and stay in contact with each other. The technology to screencap and vidcap some of the hardest parts of a game is cheaper and more accessible than ever. Now we don’t even have to resort to only reading game guides written in courier font, we get to see image-filled wikis filled with hyperlinks and crowd-sourced data.

When I first started playing Fallout 3 (a couple of years after its release), I was able to dive through tons of FAQs, using other people’s trial-and-error tactics to 100% the game. I gave up before I got everything, but I doubt I would have gotten as far as I did without everyone else’s help. Okay, actually, I am absolutely certain that I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I did.

Gamer OCD

It wasn’t that all of this additional, crowd-sourced material ruined the game for me (as it might have for some Fez players). I didn’t have the time to take meticulous notes on everything, nor did I have the time to go through and look for all of those damn bobbleheads. Sometimes, I just wanted to run through a vault and be told where to look. I saw another side of the game, one that I wasn’t going to see without the internet’s help.

The Business Side of the Information

There’s a ton of data out there, people willing to add to it, and lots of aggregators (not to be confused with aggrecrocodiles, native to Australia [and I’d like to personally apologize for that shitty pun]). In the last section, I talked about some of the ways that this data has changed our relationship with contemporary games, pointing to complex playstyle-choices, minutiae of trophy-farming, and story-guides.

If we, as gamers, are able to use all of this data, what about the developers? Don’t they have access to similar data-sets?

For MMOs, this activity takes two main approaches/functions: forums and beta-testing. With the forums, like-minded individuals come together, sharing secrets of success, DPS data, and similar stories, all the while with an open channel of communication with the developers and staff. If information about a patch comes out, they post it to the forums, letting the info be disseminated for them (no email-blasting necessary).

Beta-testing is the company’s harnessing of that excess cognitive capacity in order to smooth out the game and figure out balancing issues. The big beta-weekends, server-stress-tests, and regular, months-long beta-testing allow the developers to use a bunch of unpaid interns (who get no college credit) to go through the games, pointing out bugs, glitches, and balancing issues. Most gamers are more than happy to do it, as they get to play the game for free and before their friends.

Pandas>Chuck Norris>Mr.T

Interestingly, sometimes the beta-testing isn’t enough. After Fez was released, Polytron had to release a statement, saying, “FEZ had more testing done in the past 24 hours by about TWENTY THOUSAND PEOPLE (!!) than it had in five years. So, as it happens, bugs popped up. Some pretty serious.” What’s interesting here is that even though it’s no longer in beta, Polytron was still able to collect the data from willing users on how to fix up the game a bit. Sometimes, though, the information isn’t given as much as it’s taken.

Valve has been doing this sort of thing for a while. Look at these stats and graphs from 2006. They create an overall picture of Half-Life 2 Ep 1, and how the gamers were making their ways through the story, maps, and how they were specifically enjoying the game (captions? HDR-enabled?). This information helps dictate what they are going to do with the next installments, future projects, etc.

Where art Thou, Part III?

When Bioware started mining data for Mass Effect 2, most of what they were doing was in order to, “know what players like and what they don’t like, based on the way that they’re playing it, then you can make more of the good stuff and less of the stuff they weren’t interested in.” (Source: IGN)  The optimist in me really enjoys the potential here. I like to think that a company uses that information to make the best game possible, but while Mass Effect 3’s metacritic scores are off the charts, there was also that business with the ending…

Bioware also used some of the mountains of data to see how SW:ToR players were experiencing their new MMO. This article looks at how they play, giving them the kind of information on how to shape the future quests, promotions, etc. In the data, they found that the average gamer played between four and six hours, and they apparently really loved Sundays (God must be a Star Wars fan). It might help them make decisions on questline-length, catering to the four-hour gamer, or if dealt with subtly, they could slowly ease the player into a five-hour session (the analogy here being how you boil a frog by slowly turning up the water’s temperature instead of dropping one into a pot of boiling water, but I digress).

Excuse me?

I’d love to be the eternal optimist here and suggest that maybe it’s a good thing that these companies have this type of data. If you were a published author, wouldn’t you like to have extensive amounts of research that shows exactly what types of characters people enjoy reading about? What kinds of situations/scenarios made your readers fall into the “just one more page” mentality? Whether or not that would help create literature is another story…

Interestingly, when this data is released publicly, it can sometimes be good for the player in other ways.

Now look at this post, again from Valve. Using data from 65 million bullets fired on De_Train map, Valve has mapped out where the hotspots are for different weapons, the two factions, and general tomfoolery (although there isn’t a teabagging filter on the map; that would be helpful for me). What’s interesting about this info is that the information is coming back to the user. Now I can study this before I jump into the map, and now I know where the craziness is probably going to happen. I mean, I could also just play the map a lot, and I’d figure it out anyway, but still. This seems a bit more painless.

The larger issue at play here isn’t necessarily the Orwellian fear that somehow we are giving away access to our previously-private  experiences (in the sense that they were personal experiences before they could be mined for data). That metaphorical ore is now refined to the point that there can be meaningful information to be used, finding out what it is that the gamers identify with, what they focus on, and then create dlc or sequels that highlight those aspects.

Is that a bad thing? Is it like corporate greed, with its amorphous and symbiotic, but potentially parasitic relationship to consumers? Or is it a transcendent experience? One that enables new forms of narratives to exist and live in the new world that we are simultaneously creating as we buy and sell the other narratives?

When Information goes bad

You make games fun; they make fun games. Cognitive surplus enables new approaches to games, used by both gamers and developers to change our relationship with the games and the intellectual properties around those games.

Interestingly, the ways in which gamers and fans can augment the experience go beyond modding or testing a game; they also can fund games and create experiences that exist beyond the realms of the games themselves (Cosplayers, anyone?).

Best. Cosplay. Ever.

Kickstarter, the crowd-funding site enables people to distribute the funding across millions of people, also gives the funders perks for contributing to the game, incentivizing the process (as if good games weren’t the only needed result). I’ve talked elsewhere about some of the potential problems of Kickstarter, but overall, I find it a very positive thing for the gaming world, as it gives some of the power back to the fans themselves. Now we get to decide where the money goes (and apparently most of it goes to Wasteland 2 and Double Fine Adventure).

What about  the story of the Warballoon team? They wanted $20K, got more than $30K, and then they broke down for the viewing audience where that money actually went. They are still positive that Star Command will be made; it’s just that the actuality doesn’t necessarily match the potential. User expectations can create a sense of undue necessity.

Yes please.

Crowd-sourcing, and the increase in openness between developer and gamer could be increasing a sense of entitlement on the part of gamers (mentioned in a previous post and in passing on the Reverend’s review of Mass Effect 3). As this sense of ownership grows, is it necessarily a bad thing that there are gamers who feel jaded at the decisions made by the different publishers and developers out there? EA/Bioware has buckled/been nice before, and they’ll probably do it again, but where do you draw the line?

In the end, the fans, acting as unpaid interns, work to create a world around the game. The developers need the fans for funding, unpaid reviews, and word-of-mouth convos. Oh yeah, and for buying the games. Sometimes it seems as if there is something missing, though—a disconnect between the creators and the fans, and not the one that has existed in traditional arms of the publishing world.

Where gamers are suckers and pirates are kings.

Sometimes, it’s not an honest mistake of a developer not listening to the fans; it’s a developer/publisher acting as big brother. Erling Løken Andersen decided in December of 2011 to create some Fallout-inspired posters as fan art. Subsequently, he received a letter from a law firm representing Bethesda that he was to cease giving away the posters (he never sold them) and turn over his domain (fallout-posters.com) to Bethesda. (Read all about it here) While I understand the need for copyright owners to protect their property, in this day and age, it’s no longer enough to simply protect the content like it used to be protected prior to the internet age. Anderson’s retort was balanced and reasonable, and it reflects the mentality commonly held by many today that sharing and fan-creations (especially when not in direct conflict with an existing product) are a genuine expression of appreciation for quality IPs. Here you have a devoted fan who is basically advertising for the company for free, and he gets preemptively harassed. It doesn’t seem right.

Likewise, Hasbro went after an Australian blogger for discussing unreleased Nerf Guns (yup, you read that right). They contacted him and said that they needed his address so they could ship him some free stuff in appreciation for all of his blogginess, and then lawyers showed up instead. Here you have a dedicated fan, increasing visibility of a product line for other fans, and they bring in the big guns to take him down (I understand that there is some sort of supply chain screw up here, but still).

Shit just got real

It’s almost as if some of these companies have forgotten that core fans, the ones that will spend their cognitive surplus on talking about and creating fan versions of their products actually increase the worth of said products. And they also forgot how important PR is…

What about Crytek’s position about the next generation of gaming consoles fighting piracy by blocking out used sales? When asked about the possibility that the next generation of consoles would prevent used sales, Rasmus Hojengaard, Crytek’s director of creative development said, “From a business perspective that would be absolutely awesome.” While selling used games may not be the most beneficial thing for the publishers, it is the gamers that this sort of thing ends up punishing. These are efforts directly aimed at destroying the unity and cooperation between gamers and creators. While I understand that the nature of used game sales is problematic to say the least, quality content gets bought on day one. Period.

You want to talk about something that scares developers? What about the networked nature of extremely smart gamers? Gamers know now when games come out with on-disc DLC. They’ll crack a disc, read the contents, and post it. They know when they feel fleeced by companies, and they are able to communicate with each other about it.

And they’re scared. But should they be?

That’s right; I’m talking about you, Capcom.

This back-and-forth between gamers and creators is ultimately a good thing. We’ve never been able to be so open with companies, and they’ve never been as open as they are now. What does this mean for the future? Like Jeffrey “Qualitybeats” Demelo said on Twitter, when referring to The Walking Dead: Episode One: “Walking Dead is how I want to absorb…say…60% of my gaming experiences. Monthly, episodic, quality. Support [that] business model!” I believe that that’s a smart move, and it’s one that coud definitely result in positive gamer-feedback-integration.

Real time communications between fans and creators, updating data quickly and seamlessly, eventually ending in something akin to a broadcast model seems to be the way that we’re heading. Fans’ content will be embraced as an integral part of the process, one that companies see as enhancing their own content.

And then we can keep shooting aliens in the face. And that’s a really good thing.

Originally posted on Wouldyoukindly in three parts.

Thursday? More like Awesome-day. or something clever. er.

Community fans rejoice: it’s Thursday.

I sometimes sit around and think about Community when it’s not on. Whether or not that’s a “good” thing is beyond me. I am the kind of person who walks around confronting his own split personalities—one loves sitcoms and one hates that I love them.

And one laughs at the fact that these other two are bitching at each other, but I digress…

I can’t get enough Community lately, and I feel bad that I only recently “discovered” the three-year-old show. I would have liked to have been on the ride since the beginning, but that’s one of the great things about television these days: syndication isn’t the only way to catch up.

When Hulu and Community teamed up after Community was temporarily benched, people like me were suddenly able to jump into the show from the beginning and catch up lightning-quick, even figuring out things like #coolcoolcool and #sixseasonsandamovie.

One of the interesting things, though, is how this sort of entire-catalog-convenience is necessary for a show like Community. Jason Mittel, in “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” talks about the change toward complex narratives being presented in today’s popular culture (go read the entire article here—fascinating stuff). Shows like Lost are incomprehensible if shown out of sequence. The X-Files, with its interspersed mythology, still had numerous stand alone episodes that were just about the thing-at-that-time.

Community, much like Arrested Development before it, positions episodes upon the assumption that all others before it were watched. A fleeting joke might reference something from six episodes ago, and if you hadn’t watched that episode, the joke becomes a non-joke, falling on the floor like a cold Subway sandwich (#eatfresh).

Gawker even talked at length about how and why Community is so popular on the internet, saying, “Community, which devoted an entire episode to a Dungeons and Dragons session uses geek culture as a means to explore its characters.” (full article here) Community utilizes the geekish and dorky, not as ornamentation, but as a real and integral part of its story-telling. Additionally, I’d argue that it shows, whereas The Big Bang Theory (it’s Thursday night rival) tells.

For me, a novice Twitterer, I’ve found incredible joy with the Community community. Brittabot (@BrittaBot311) and Evil Troy and Abed (@EvilTroyAndAbed) are two of my favorite people (or three… I just don’t know) on Twitter. The fact that their identities are linked to the show, and the fact that they usually make my Thursday Twitter-strolls so entertaining, is a testament to Community’s quality and the reciprocal nature of the show’s fans. If I were to jump on Twitter and shout about how much I love Friends, I doubt that I would consistently have people give a flying shit, which would probably make me give up rather quickly.

That’s the difference maker. Real fans, true fans, will fight tooth and nail for something that they believe in. (Hulu’s best in show, anyone?) It’s what any content creator would want. Fans who geek out on the minutiae of the worlds you create. Fans smart enough to understand how important it is to actually tweet to advertisers who support your content. And while I hate product placement, I understand that having a Subway stand in Greendale is not the worst thing in the world. No fourth season? Yup, that would be the worst.

Additionally, a show as meta as Community really needs a Twitter community around it. It helps to play with the fundamentally flawed nature of reality that we experience on a daily basis. Abed, who at first seems to be the most flawed character of the bunch, has been shown to have qualities that we all probably strive for (dedication, intuition, keen skills of observation), and yet paradoxically, he’s the one that everyone else (except for Troy) considers most out of touch with reality. And that’s what a social network really is: a concocted and artificial reality. Is it more real than television? More real than real-life?

I’m not sure. I think I might have to ask Brittabot and Evil Troy and Abed.

Cool cool cool.

 

Apple and Publishers: What Went Wrong? (a beginner’s theoretical guide)

Let’s pretend for a second that I don’t know everything there is to know about macroeconomics (done).

Let’s also pretend that I don’t care about Apple and the Big Six (done).

Now, what the hell is going on with the DoJ’s investigation? Basically, it boils down to the accusation that Apple and the other publishers (Hachette, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster) got together and tried to set the price of ebooks. (Go read Publisher’s Lunch’s thorough breakdown of the case)

Now the interesting thing is that retailers for the longest time have sold things to stores, setting suggested retail prices (MSRP anyone?). Imagine a bookseller going into a bookstore. He has a stack of books with $20 pricetags on them. He sells them to the bookstore owner for ten bucks a pop, letting the owner make some money off of the book. Now it’s up to the owner on whether or not to actually sell it for the MSRP. Typically it would be put on the shelf for that price, because that’s how the owner survives (profit).

Amazon changed it all up. They took that model (the wholesale model), and utilized it to undercut everyone else out in the world. They could discount the MSRP, hoping to make a cent or two, but they made their money on bringing people there to buy all the other crap that they have, using books as a way to increase visitor traffic. Their PR problems have gone back seemingly forever (open letter to Amazon from 2002, arguing that used book sales have been hurting authors).

But let’s not forget that other publishers in different media have been fighting used sales for a long time, the most obvious example being how game developers and publishers have been going after Gamestop (pretty good article about some of that). Their argument rests on the assumption that used game sales (read: discounted prices and no revenue sharing) destroy the profitability of creating games. Now, it’s my opinion that quality content always brings in the new sales (the early-adopters), and IPs that are consistently good will garner consistent sales.

Also, publishers going after companies that sell discounted goods to readers and gamers? Well, that might not sit well with the average content-consumer. I’m not saying that the average consumer doesn’t understand the nuances of the business and all that (okay, maybe I am), but I am saying that for some people, a twenty-dollar ebook is as much a bunch of bullshit as a sixty-dollar game. 9 times out of 10 I’m that same person. I’ve riffed before about how much enjoyment we expect from som of our content, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to justify those prices except for some of the more cherished IPs (and Italo Calvino isn’t coming out with anything new anytime soon that I know of).

Where does the current DoJ investigation fit in with all of this?

In the old world. It seems to me that everyone wants to have cake and eat it, the publishers wanting to change the rules to make sure that they can remain viable in the shifting consumer world out there. Does the apparent fact that these publishers talked to each other and to Apple about fixing prices necessarily mean that they are evil? Probably not. Does the fact that they don’t like Amazon make them evil? Nope. Does it irritate the shit out of me that they didn’t fight Amazon by creating an online retail space to sell their books cheaper than Amazon? Yes, yes it does. European publishers might unite to fight, and cooperation instead of constant competition seems to be the way to move forward…

The fact is that ebooks don’t necessarily fit well within the wholesale model (Amazon doesn’t have to buy an ebook to sell it. It’s zeros and ones for crying out loud) is something that necessitates at least one change in existing pricing models. Period. Does that mean that publishers should go around, colluding on pricing? No. It means that they should have held a meeting, prefaced by press releases and commentaries by industry professionals, seeking to educate the public on why ebook pricing might be different from their previous expectations, and communicating with all sellers (not just Apple) on how to move forward.

Apple should have come out and explained that they don’t use hardware-sales to drive content-sales, and that they would want something easy to understand (kind of like the whole 99¢ per song thing that Itunes has been known for) for the consumer. If I knew that ebooks were all $10 through the iBookstore, and that I could buy chapters or sections for 99¢ a piece, then I no longer search based on price; I would search based on reviews, name-recognition, design, etc.

Like the good ol’ days…

And maybe that’s what this is all about: a fundamental unwillingness to accept the changing nature of the game of publishing. It has to be scary for the big publishers (I know it’s scary for the small publishers… Amazon seems to be fighting harder against the little guys these days, labeling Create Space as an indie publisher… Ridiculous), especially when people like Clay Shirky come out and say that publishers have been replaced by a button. It’s a fundamentally scary shift from hierarchical power structures to a more democratic and egalitarian model, one that changes the way the business has been done for years.

So as the DoJ investigation moves forward, it’ll be interesting to see how it all shakes out. With all of the various forces waiting to see how it unfolds, many different pockets of people have an extremely vested interest. Publishers would want to control pricing (offsetting print-losses with high-priced ebooks). Apple wants consistent pricing and consistent content. Amazon wants to be the bargain-shopping destination for the web. Authors just want to write for a living (damn hippies). Readers want to enjoy affordable entertainment. And the rest of the people in the business? All those designers, editors, and marketers that actually make a good book a great one? Dear god, please enable them to work. Because as much as publishing has changed, not many people can do all aspects of publishing equally well.

Publishing should remain a collaborative process. Process-collusion if you will.

But I guess pricing isn’t collaborative according to the DoJ…

Who’s to Blame for Used Prices?

things change

According to the rumor mills, the next round of video game systems will prevent the play of used games (go here or here or here for some of those rumors; there are more out there, but those links have good sources, too).

Now I didn’t get a degree in economics. Thank god. But let me tell you, if used games are going to destroy the industry, there is something intrinsically wrong with the product.

Instead of asking questions like, “How do we prevent used games from being played on our systems?”, shouldn’t game developers and publishers be saying, “Why do people keep getting rid of our games for $15 a month after they bought it?”

Money’s tight these days, and book publishers want the Amazon juggernaut castrated because they do some pretty dickish things (go read this Seattle Times article and see if you don’t get pissed), but the argument isn’t about their facilitation of used book sales; it’s about how they’re able to use their corporate power to bully small and mid-level publishers into new deals. Publishers want to fight back, and they want the power to dictate how much the product costs for the consumer, enabling more control over how much of the money gets back to them.

So here you have video games (and I’m speaking of mainstream, mostly console and big budget PC), fighting two wars: one against piracy and one against used games, and I would argue that both of these are essentially the same war. It comes down to access and copyright. Publishers want to control the way that the user is able to access the content and how much they pay for that access.

I get that; I really do.

I was explaining this to my wife last night, telling her that it’ll be a sad day if Gamestop goes out of business (they are essentially the bookstores of the game world), and she finally got it that publishers don’t get any money from a used game sale. When she understood that, she thought for a second, and then said, “Well, why don’t the publishers just sell their games for cheaper a few months after they release them?”

I blinked.

That’s a pretty easy solution, and it’s one that I think is too easy. I’m sure that there are metrics out there, algorithms that could figure out the optimal time to discount games, leading to the publishers’ increase profit potential. They could start to incorporate timed-released DLC that happens only early in the game. They’re probably going to focus on the sustainable narrative aspect, making the game linked somehow to the gamer’s ID (that’s probably the easiest way to combat piracy and used sales).

But beyond and below all of this, it comes down to the fact that sometimes, just sometimes, us readers and gamers don’t want to part with something. Yeah, I could’ve sold my copy of Batman: Arkham City for $25 after I beat it. Did I? Nope. That game is a work of art, and as long as I have a system that’ll run it, I’ll have that game on the shelf. My copy of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics? Yup, that’s not going anywhere. One of my buddies has all of the Halo games (even ODST) stacked neatly next to his 360. Why?

Source: deviantArt

Sometimes we forget about the transcendental nature of stories, of games. We forget that there are some things that we just have. to. have. I parted with my Playstation a long time before I parted with my copy of FFVII who am I kidding? I still have my copy of that game). And I still have my copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, even though it’s wrinkly as hell and basically unreadable at this point.

Here’s hoping that gaming companies and publishers realize that they should be enabling enriching, quality narratives, ones that are worth more than a fifth of their purchase price. Then they won’t need to waste all of this money on copy protection and other proprietary forms of DRM, and we can go back to finding, enjoying, and sharing our favorites with our friends and families.

Fiction as Brain Food

Source: Willamette University

This weekend, the NY Times ran an op/ed piece titled “Your Brain on Fiction” by Annie Murphy Paul (online version here).

It was a fascinating article, and if you haven’t read it, you should definitely do so now. I’ll wait…

It looks at some of the different recent research into fiction and brain activity, suggesting that there are in fact many beneficial reasons to read narrative entertainment. I mean, other than, you know, supporting your local bookstore (which you should do, by the way).

A few points from the article:

1. The brain reacts in surprising ways to metaphor.

This seems a little obvious, but the fact that neuroscience is supporting this is pretty cool. For the longest time, I’ve had my students looking at the ways in which advertisers use concrete things and abstract concepts interchangeably. The argument is that they try to convince the viewer that buying a certain product will equal the abstract feeling associated with it. If I see a Pepsi commercial where everyone is happy and content, the natural association formed in m head is that Pepsi makes me happy and content. This new research suggests that not only is that possible, but the area of the brain that experiences those emotions could fire up, too. It’s still a little hazy on this area, as the research does show that the link between images and television might not be as strong as it is with movies and with books.

Thank god.

2. Is this a case for the resurgence of Cognitive Composition Theory?

Who cares, amiright? When I was in college, learning about all of the different comp theories, the cognitivists were the group of comp theory people that I just did not get. No matter how much I tried to read their garbage, I couldn’t understand why it mattered how long someone shook their foot while writing; it had nothing to do with writing.

This research seems to suggest that in fact, it is very important because your brain does some crazy shit while reading. We often say “show, don’t tell” when teaching people to write creative and evocative prose. I don’t want to hear that the character sang well, I want to hear how his or her voice sounds. It’s almost like the brain craves the real description, making the words do the work, not the brain.

3. Formulaic writing anyone?

This is probably just my paranoia from watching too many robots-kill-the-humans movies in my life, but I do get worried when you start to figure out what words do what things to the brain. It’s not going to be long before an algorithm is created that allows someone to plug in some names and places and voila! A book is created, guaranteed to please because of its ability to engage the brain of the reader.

4. It’s a good time to be a reader.

This has been a contention of mine for a long time, but it seems that we have the science to back it up. Not that we needed it, though.

I’ll try not to go off on too much of a tangent here, but it does seem odd that we as a society are extremely happy when science finally gets around to proving what we’ve thought all along. If you’ve read the book and seen the movie, 9 times out of 10, you prefer the book. Why is that? Because you are in charge of how the characters look, the details are up to you, and books just smell good.

Now that science is saying that books are good for us, we silently nod in reverence to the greatness of science… Maybe I’m a little cynical about it, but there you go…

5. If you have a story in your head, you need to get it out of there and onto paper. Like, need.

The article states that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.” I’ll try not to go off here, but it seems to me that multi-perspectival worldviews are the key to us actually sticking around long enough to start traveling through space and meeting all of those aliens out there, ready to invite us into the Grand Order of the Galaxy.

You want people to understand you? Sympathize with you? Write your story.

Our brains need it.

New Media and Old Thoughts

source: photobucket

A while back, I posted this article about consumerism and its effect on the individual. I got a couple of personal email responses from it, one from a lady who wanted to talk about the link between consumerism and Warcraft.

I nodded my head as I read her email, responded with some thoughts, and that was that.

I’m not sure why I thought about that this morning; I’m sure it had something to do with the fact that my work schedule has been a little wonky lately, and I find myself doing more work in the morning, necessitating a much earlier bed time, which leaves me without my unwind time at night.

We love our entertainment. I’m kind of a nerd/junky when it comes to entertainment. I watch television shows with too much meta-commentary and backstory; I fiddle around on my wife’s Ipad; I record music in my makeshift studio; I play games online.

After all of that, I have about negative 2.3 hours left in the day. And I still need to sleep.

I used to be a Warcraft player, spending too much of my time running around a fake world. I hated myself pretty strongly for it, which wasn’t good, because I’d inevitably fall into a shame spiral, causing me to play more.

Yup, that's a version of me.

But one night, after an extended amount of playing, I went outside to smoke a cigarette (I don’t do that anymore, in case you’re offended by that; I’m just being honest and setting the mood). I was sitting on my deck, which I built the summer before, and I started thinking about how ridiculous playing an online game was.

I spent all of this time building virtual wealth, and all I had to show for it were memories of playing the game. I had nothing that translated over into the “real” world.

back when it meant something...

Nothing like the deck that I was sitting on.

But then I thought about how atoms are made up of so much empty space (forgive my inability to grasp quantum physics; I got a liberal arts education and can barely understand this PBS article on atoms and “empty” space), and realized that the deck that I was sitting on was only as real as I allowed it to be.

Sure, I could sit on it, but what it represented was something greater: backyard aesthetics. It gave our house a more comfortable and comforting presence, and transformed our get-togethers into full-blown social functions. I went from a house-buyer to a homeowner.

Warcraft became something else, too. It was a shared language, a social catalyst (in certain circles to be sure), fuel for creativity, and escape from the day’s monotony. Sure I abused the effects; it’s hard not to when you’re a nerd and feel emasculated by the world around you (I had a collection of huge swords, was muscled, and slayed demons every night for crying out loud).

Damn, it took me a long time to meander closer to something resembling a point…

Today we are inundated with tons of different options regarding how we choose to spend our “leftover” time, after our work and chores are done, before we begrudgingly head off to bed. I am excited about the possibilities that the future holds, as we figure out how best to utilize new technologies to tell stories, communicate with friends, and share our own visions of art, thought, and creativity.

But I am not so naive as to think that the future will be all bright and rosy, filled with digital unicorns, rainbow bridges, and money made of hugs.

source: NBC

I don’t believe that new technology is necessarily the harbinger of doom, nor do I think that it will be our singularity-infused savior. It’ll probably be a mixture of the two, considering that technology itself is merely technology, like smooth rocks and spears. It’s more important what you choose to do with the technology, rather than what the technology makes you do. And I think that the distinction is important to keep in mind.

I can just as easily use my car to drive someone to the hospital as I can use it to run someone over, making them go to the hospital. The car isn’t evil; it’s the driver that chooses to be evil or chooses to be good.

New technology-fueled narratives and journalism can be good, inspiring, and culturally important, or they could be ego-feeding escape pods, recycling old, classically-conditioned biological responses.

Maybe we should be demanding more from the creators in our world. Demanding complex characters, convoluted storylines, and new approaches to real problems (as opposed to the typical codependent problems faced by so many sitcom characters. Seriously, how did the Friends characters spend so much time at the coffee shop bitching about problems instead of working their jobs?).

That’s why I love Community. That’s why I miss Lost (well, the first five seasons of Lost). That’s why I love The Old Republic. That’s why I love The Atavist, O’Reilly Media, Boing Boing, Clay Shirky, Cha Meeno, The Digital Bindery, and so much more.

What do you love and why?

Social Media, Community, and the Inspector Spacetime Narrative Womb

Source: Johnny Eveson Posters

As we move into today’s extremely complicated and nuanced world of entertainment, infotainment, and e-ducation, it’s always fascinating to see how some of the older laws of the land are continually complicated and challenged by the evil legion of fans.

Travis Richey, a self-acknowledged fan of Community, has had his Kickstarter-fueled webseries send-up of Inspector Spacetime complicated by Sony and NBC (read about it here, here, and here).

Basically, he wanted to do it, NBC & Sony said “no,” and so he’s trying to figure out how to do it anyway, sans-as-few-things-as-possible-to-still-make-it-awesome.

One of the arguments that he tried to posit was saying that he wishes that they could look at it as fan fiction, increasing viewer engagement and retention, and let it continue. Some of the comments in the i09 articles talk at length about copyright, trademark, and some of NBC and Sony’s responsibilities in maintaining and protecting their intellectual properties, and I get it.

I understand that the issue could be problematic, but I think it represents a fundamental difference in old and new approaches to media and entertainment.

As a writer, I understand the desire to protect copyrighted works. While Inspector Spacetime may exist in this hazy reality, if someone wanted to write a web series about a sub-story line from a book that I wrote, I would approach it cautiously.

As a publisher, I would also want to protect my rights. Depending on the size of the property, I would want to maintain some semblance of editorial control over the content. What if Inspector Spacetime traveled back through time (and space) and committed some morally ambiguous crime? Does that necessarily reflect on the larger work? Would it be my responsibility to convince the public that there were differences in creative control?

As a fan, I would have to say, “Let it happen.” Readers, watchers, and listeners all want the content coming in a continuous stream. If it’s something good, then we can’t get enough of it. I want webisodes, behind-the-scenes, websites of fictional colleges, you name it.

Therein lies the problem. For some reason, NBC and Sony don’t have any wish to develop the program for themselves (at this time, that I’m aware of), but they are exercising what they see as their right (and never forget that copyright is the ability to restrict who can copy your creative material) to sit on it.

Now personally, I see this as a missed opportunity. Engaging with the audience in every way possible seems to be the right way to go in the hyper-connected, hyper-reality of the internet. Cory Doctorow has been an outspoken proponent of a new way of approaching created content (go read his rant on Craphound), and it has to do more with promotion than protection.

via Craphound

Free content (and by extension, additional content, like the Inspector Spacetime web series) only enhances the potential of fertile groundswell (shit I hate that word), bringing more people into the fold. Perhaps there are some diehard Doctor Who fans out there who haven’t watched Community… Maybe the web series is all. they. needed.

I don’t know how the whole Kickstarter-controversy over Inspector Spacetime will shake out. I like that it’s an [Untitled] program right now, because the only glue that is holding it together is the dedication and support of real fans.

It is the post-industrial cognitive surplus that enables this group of fans to come together to add value to the intellectual property, and it is this same theory that creates the internet-fervor over shows like Community, Arrested Development, and Lost.

The real question is whether or not a fan’s enthusiastic expression of enjoyment is bad for the narrative womb that birthed it.

Branded Amazon stores: future inevitability?

I read an article from Publisher’s Weekly this morning about how DC was going to launch its own branded storefront on Amazon’s site. If you don’t feel like reading the whole article, just know that the storefront will feature digital and print collections, not just the Kindle Fire exclusive content.

One of the things that strikes me about this article is about how obvious this seems to me. Amazon really isn’t necessarily just a storefront themselves, but a lot of times, they act as distributor for publishers, especially when thinking about how they (Amazon) basically distribute such a large percentage of the digital products out there already.

I know that they (Amazon) have the affiliate program, designed to help re-sellers and stores have their own storefronts on Amazon’s storefront, but this is a move that I think should potentially usher in a greater partnership between Amazon and publishers in general.

Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t think Amazon is the answer to all of publishing’s ills, but then again, why not embrace the fact that most of the people go here to buy the damn books instead of bitching about it?

*gets down off soapbox*

Don’t forget that Amazon used to lose a lot of money. They put up the big bucks; they gambled big; they won (as of now). A lot of companies want to keep doing everything precisely in the same way as it’s always been done *cough publishing cough * but maybe that’s part of the reason that things are always so melodramatic and apocalyptic for publishers.

In talking with students yesterday, one of the things that we discussed was the very nature that a publisher’s toolbox is changing. Used to be, we’d have to know a lot about offset printing, what a type foundry was, and possibly manual typecoding. Today, we need to know XML workflow, electronic rights management, and HTML5. We still need to know a lot about a lot of things, but the priority of knowledge is shifting, and with it, much of the business.

Now, I did a good job of not griping about the content within DC’s new relaunch (and go here to read some great stuff about them), or some of the potential problems of an Amazonian Marketplace Monopoly, but let us not forget the size of Ingram. It seems like no one bitches about Ingram these days.

Go on, make that Amazon storefront. Embrace the Dark Side. They’ve got the money, right? And isn’t that why you started publishing in the first place?

* sarc emoticon here *