Skip to main content

Ubisoft buys Sunflowers: Commentary

As reported earlier, Ubisoft has bought Sunflowers, who own the rights to Anno, probably the most successful game franchise to come out of Germany ever. They also bought a 30% stake in Related Designs, the developers of the most recent game in the Anno series.

Some years back, Ubisoft bought Blue Byte (where I worked from 1994 to 1997) and that made them the owners of the Settlers franchise, perhaps the second most successful game franchise to come out of Germany ever.

Both Anno and Settlers are what are called Aufbaustrategiespiele, a genre that works very well in Germany and not always so well in other countries. Basically, it's like a real-time strategy game, except the focus is much more on the creation of a functioning economy, rather than on warfare. This is part of the reason why these games never worked as well in the US: I remember that both for the Settlers and for the Nations, a Settlers clone done by Austrian game publisher JoWooD that I worked on once, box art had to be changed away from friendly workers to fierce warriors for the US market.

These games, or at least the successful ones, are typically set in historical times or the fantasy equivalent. One of the key factors setting this genre apart from American games such as Civilization or Caesar is the Wuselfaktor, the feeling of seeing a lot of tiny people walking around being busy. Add singing birds and wind blowing through the trees and you get a very relaxing experience that appeals to a surprisingly wide audience. At least, in the German-speaking market.

So now Ubisoft owns the two top franchises for this particular kind of game, plus the development studios with the proven capacity to make them (even if they don't own Related Designs outright, the minority stake should be enough to fend off competitors). It's a weird situation - kinda like Microsoft buying Valve, or Valve buying id Software. Blue Byte is looking for people, so I assume both studios will be kept. It took Ubisoft a while to 'get' the Aufbaustrategie genre (it's not their core competency), but by now they've invested a lot of time and effort into the Settlers, so it's likely they will keep both franchises too. I know that there are differences between Anno and Settlers that are obvious to the developers working on these games, but that seem subtle to someone like me who doesn't play PC games (although I did play, and enjoy, Anno 1701 a few months ago), so perhaps it makes total sense to have both. With some decent timing one should be able to squeeze an immense amount of money out of German consumers.

The founders of Sunflowers have quit (news item in German), which makes sense. Although I am sure there are people at Sunflowers who helped turn Anno into a great game, Sunflowers' main value must have been the Anno IP, and most of the people working there in marketing etc., are obsolete since Ubisoft has their own staff to take care of that. Meanwhile, the founders are walking away with a lot of money. Owning IP is the best way to get rich in games.

Update: So, I asked around a bit. (It's weird, I can't think of a games industry story where I would know more people involved.) Looks like Ubi decided to dominate this genre. Now let's see if they can increase its appeal internationally. These are good games.

Another anecdote about people offering things on the street

(There will be posts that are actually about interactive entertainment soon, I promise!)

This is somewhat related to that Joshua Bell story I linked to a few days ago.

Just now I was walking along the Mariahilfer Strasse, Vienna's busiest shopping street. It's 24 degrees Celsius today and, as my friend Mike pointed out, when the sun's out, Vienna's population doubles. There were a lot of people walking around.

In front of the Gerngross there were two young women walking around holding up hand-written signs saying 'FREE HUG' in German and Italian. And of course, this being a civilized country, everyone ignored them. Except me. I took one of them up on her offer, and got a free hug, which was very nice.

I wonder what that was all about.

An anecdote about making music on the street

On my way back from the supermarket around the corner just now, I saw a girl on the sidewalk of about 7 years old, who was standing there with a brightly-colored toy keyboard around her neck and what was probably her brother next to her.

As I passed them, the girl politely asked me if I was interested in making a deal with her. She would play a song on her keyboard for me: If I liked it, I could make a contribution of 50 cents towards piano lessons for her. If I didn't like it, I didn't need to give anything. (In case I didn't understand her, or forgot what I was doing or why I was there later, the whole deal was summarized on a piece of paper held up by her brother.)

I accepted her offer. She then explained that she was playing everything herself except for the drum track. Then she played her song, holding the keyboard upside down. I kinda liked it, but then I listen to some weird music. I don't want to denigrate the musical skills of a 7 year old, but I could tell why she wanted lessons. Still, it could have been a lot worse - she could have been playing a violin, for instance.

When I said I liked it and gave her a Euro (a whole Euro), she shyly pointed out that I only needed to give 50 cents.

All together now: awwwwwwww.

In related news: the Washington Post asked one of the top violinists in the world to play his Stradivarius in a metro station in Washington DC during rush hour, to see if people would react. You can read about it here (article via Kottke).

Complete, produced game design documents

A friend of mine just asked me if I had any complete game design documents of released games lying around. Since I happened to know of a few, and this is not the first time I get asked this question, I figured I might as well turn the answer into a blog post.

David Jaffe recently posted the game design document of the game he is currently working on, Calling All Cars on his new blog. Thanks to Tobi for pointing this out to me.

And Al Lowe, creator of Leisure Suit Larry, has posted the game design documents for six of his games on his website. Thanks to Vlummi for sending me this.

I could've sworn there was a game design document for a Bubsy game flying around somewhere on the Internet, but I can't find it.

Know of more 'real' game design documents? Please post a comment or send me an email, and I will update this post. Thanks!

Update: Tobi just sent me a few more links - thanks!

The original Doom bible from 1992 is online.

There is a ton of old Atari coin-op documents on Andys Arcade Web Site. These obviously refer to very old games, but it is still very interesting, especially if you are really into Pole Position and Crystal Castles.

Update: I just got some more links from Tobi (thanks again). Radical Entertainment, a very well-organized developer in Canada, is cooperated with the Computer Science department of the University of Calgary for a computer game programming course. As part of the course, they provided various game documents from their titles: game designs, high concept documents and technical game designs for titles such as Dark Angel, The Hulk, etc. They can be found here and here.

My review of Yojimbo

You can read a follow-up to this review here.

Well, here is something I never expected to write. I am going to review Yojimbo - not the movie by Kurosawa or the comic by Stan Sakai, but the Mac OS X information organizer from Bare Bones Software, makers of BBEdit.

Why? Because I can. And because I have something to say about it.

Here is what Bare Bones say about Yojimbo on their website:

Yojimbo makes keeping all the small (or even large) bits of information that pour in every day organized and accessible. It’s so simple, there is no learning curve. Yojimbo’s mechanism for collecting, storing and finding information is so natural and effortless, it will change your life—without changing the way you work.

I am interested in personal productivity, so I decided to try the demo. I used it for a while to handle the things I come across that I want to read, blog about or cook (in the case of recipes). This blog post is about the things that started to annoy me quite rapidly. Now, if the following list sounds unreasonable, don't blame me. Blame The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. Reading it was an immensely liberating experience for me. Now, whenever I have trouble using something, I don't feel like an idiot, I just blame the designer. Sounds stupid? I am quite serious.

Here is my litany of complaints about Yojimbo in no particular order:

Apple + I does not open the inspector. I can inspect items in Yojimbo. In other words, I can look at the fields and edit them. I am used to doing this using the Apple + I shortcut from other programs (Finder, iTunes). This doesn't work in Yojimbo. I don't know what Apple's Human Interface Guidelines have to say about this, but I missed it.

Am I Moving to Trash or Deleting? The icon says one thing, the drop down menu says the other. Is there a difference? I am confused.

Tag Collections only use 'and' relationships between tags. You can make tag collections in Yojimbo, kind of like smart playlists in iTunes, only dumber. You can enter a number of tags, but the collection only selects items that have all of these tags (an 'and' relationship). You can't have collections that select items that have any of the tags (an 'or' relationship).

Tag entry shortcuts suck. I can't think of a better way to put it. I had the following tags: 'to_blog' and 'to_read'. When I am tagging an item, I start typing 'to_'. As soon as I hit the underscore, Yojimbo selects the first tag that start with 'to_' even though I had several other tags that start with 'to_'. This is about as annoying as it gets. I renamed all my tags to (the inferior) 'blog_it', 'read_it', etc. Or, rather, I wanted to rename my tags, except:

Renaming tags is impossible. You just can't do it in Yojimbo. Or at least I couldn't find out how to do it in less than 30 seconds, which is the same thing. (Remember: I am not arrogant, I read Donald Norman's book.)

Entering tags is counterintuitive. To me at least. Type 'atag anothertag' and you get ONE tag called 'atag anothertag', instead of two tags. You have to type 'atag, anothertag'. To add insult to injury:

Tags that are not used keep hanging around. There is no purge, you need to delete unusued tags by hand, and you cannot easily see if a tag is in use or not.

Adding items is inconsistent. In Yojimbo, you can add items using several different methods. Sadly, each method works slightly differently:

  • When you drop a link (a URL) on the drop dock, there is no feedback whatsoever, but the software creates a new item with the correct title and URL. You just have to go in later, find the item, and tag it, which is a) hard (see below) and b) bad workflow.
  • When you press F8 with a URL in the clipboard, Yojimbo creates an item with the correct title and URL, but you can't enter tags (even though a dialog box pops up).
  • When you drag a link on to the dock icon, Yojimbo creates a new item that does not have the correct title (it uses the URL instead), but you can enter tags.
Each method does something different. You have to choose the lesser evil (the drop dock in my case).

I can't make an 'Untagged' tag collection. This personally drives me nuts in a lot of tag- or collection-based software - the worst offender is OS X's Address Book. If I want to do a GTD-like 'throw into inbox, process later' process, I need to be able to see what I haven't processed yet. Only I can't, because I can't make a smart collection that checks for the absence of a tag, or the absence of all tags. Note that I don't really want to process later, but I am forced to because I can't easily enter tags for a new item (see above). I can't implement the workflow I want using Yojimbo.

So there it is. I didn't do full-fledged hyper-analytical testing, but I did try each thing a couple of times to make sure I wasn't mistaken. As far as I can tell the natural thing I expected to happen, didn't, every time.

I am still slightly puzzled about why I wrote all this. I think if over 75% of the items on this list hadn't occurred to me in about 15 minutes, I never would have written it down.

Although I can get pretty passionate about software usability, I intend no disrespect towards the developers of Yojimbo or their ancestors. In fact, I am going to try and send them this in the hope that it is of some help (that is, if I can find some way of doing so short of signing up for their mailing list). Good feedback can be hard to get, and this post at least beats saying 'Yojimbo sucks' or just quietly looking for another piece of software.

Having said that, I am going to look for another information organizer.

Updated: Melodie Neal wrote a 6-part series of blog posts about her quest for a better information management tool. You can read it here. Her needs are slightly different from mine, but it was still a very good read.