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John Scalzi on how not to increase traffic to your blog

John Scalzi has an amusing (and profanity-laced) post about how not to increase traffic to your blog. It is a response to some blog post with '5 Ways To Get More Traffic To Your Blog' or some ridiculous title like that.

I find this interesting for two reasons. One has to do with this quote:

I go to conventions and writers' events, as most of you know. And invariably the most annoying person there is the aspiring writer or neo-pro who is simply there to network, and does so in a graspingly obvious fashion: the guy who goes from group to group, looking for the right people who will eventually let him trade up to standing in a conversational circle with, oh, let's say, Neil Gaiman, so he can ever-so-casually drop the name of his latest book/story/whatever into Gaiman's ear.

I know people like this, and although they are annoying, I do find it fascinating that there is such a strong disconnect between how these people perceive themselves, and how others perceive them. Because as Scalzi says:

There's nothing wrong with networking; there's nothing wrong with talking about your book with Neil Gaiman (or whomever) either, should you get a chance. But it's all in how it's done. To repeat: People aren't stupid. They know the difference between someone who is engaged in a conversation for the pleasure of the conversation itself, and someone who is marking time in the conversation until they can once again open their mouths and talk about them.

(Boy, he has it easy if he only meets people that wait for others to stop talking.)

I can't think of anything that demonstrates as clearly and quickly that civilized society is based on unspoken rules than someone completely and blithely ignoring those rules. You end up in this confusing situation where your strategies for dealing with life stop working. Having to explain that one cannot do X or Y (obviously) is simply too embarassing, and might offend. What do you do? (When you figure it out, go hang out with Borat and spoil his jokes.)

The other reason I find Mr. Scalzi's post interesting is because I have been focusing on this blog and what it means to me lately, and I have thought about the morality of various techniques for increasing traffic to my blog. I've done some hidden things to increase traffic - in particular, I have repaired a ton of old posts and slugs and redirects, plus I've done some basic SEO things that just make sense and most readers won't notice.

Then there are severals things I could do to increase traffic, but don't want to do because they make me feel dirty. This includes the techniques Scalzi rails at, as well as trying to write posts that are too obviously link-bait. It is not that hard to write posts that scream "click me!" - you know, "20 Ways To Become More Productive", followed by super shallow content. Evil.

Similarly, I will comment somewhere and add a link to this site, but I haven't quite found a context yet where I don't feel a bit silly putting this in an email or forum signature:

(Small logo for this website hosted on a now defunct service)

... feels pushy, no?

I am more or less writing what I want to write (I'd like to write more in-depth stuff once in a while, but that's my problem). Occasionally a post takes off, sometimes this is nice, at other times it is surprising and amusing.

I came to the conclusion that this site will never become hugely popular. It is not very focused. The ostensible subject, interactive entertainment, is fairly esoteric - many of my 'normal' friends, intelligent people all, don't get half of what I am writing here. Not every one of my posts is a well-thought out essay, and most of my real readers (i.e. not the WoW nude patch people) are people who know me. But you know what? I like it that way.

(Via Scalzi's feed no, he sneakily started publishing to a different feed than the one I've been subscribed to for ages shakes fist - I got it via Making Light, bless them.)

Regarding Dumbledore and the boundaries of Harry Potter

I'm sure you've heard that J.K. Rowling has outed Dumbledore as gay.

I find it amusing, but beyond that I have no strong opinion on the subject. However, there are people over at Making Light who do. The comments there are a good read (to read the ROT13-encrypted comments, try this bookmarklet) and highly informative, as always. I now know more about slash fiction that I knew before.

The question of the relevance of an author's statements outside of the text is not an easy one to answer, but I tend towards considering it relevant. I am not saying I find it completely uninteresting to think about what one can or cannot read out of a text, but it typically has little to do with the story. The things people tend to want to find or not find in the subtext inevitably are political, and to me that quickly gets, well, boring. But then I would say that as a straight white male, wouldn't I.

And perhaps I am slightly contradicting myself but adding that I am much less amused by Rowling allegedly saying Harry Potter is a Christian allegory. I am glad I finished the Potter books before hearing about that. I've never read the Narnia books, but the movie was pretty much spoiled for me because all the hullabaloo over the Christian allegoricness. Part of my brain kept trying to decode what was going on as potential Christian propaganda.

Anyway. At the time I write this, none of the commenters in the Making Light thread seem to have considered this possibility: What if the work of Harry Potter is more than just the text of the 7 Harry Potter novels? What it if it is not just expressed in the medium of the novel? Wouldn't Rowling's remark then become canon? What if the ambiguity is part of the work? Where does the work end? I admit that this doesn't sound like something J.K. Rowling would do, but still, I find it an interesting set of questions to ponder.

ADHD patients play video games as part of treatment

A reader asked me if I knew of any games that can be used to treat ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder - it is called TDA/H in some other countries).

A quick Google turned up this USA Today article that discusses the issue (and amusingly mentions players 'slaying Spyro the Dragon').

It seems far from clear that this is a proven, effective technique to treat ADHD. But then, the impression I get is that ADHD in general is a very thorny issue.

What to do if you don't have a game designer on your team

A while ago I explained why game design is important. A reader asked in the comments: What do you do if you don't have a game designer on your team?

There are a number of reasons why you might be in this situation:

  1. You don't have the budget for another person on your team.
  2. The people making recruitment decisions are not convinced you need a game designer (that's why I wrote that essay).
  3. You were not capable of finding the right person, but you have to keep developing your game. (Bonus points if you had a game designer but he or she left.)
  4. You have a game designer, but he or she is not senior enough to really be effective. Kind of a special case, but keep reading anyway.

If you can't have a full-time game designer on your team, you can still make sure game design happens. What counts is that the job gets done. Having a full-time game designer is typically the best solution for this, but producing a game is all about knowing what your risks are, where to allocate resources (whether that be the team's, or your own) and how to make the best of situations that are not ideal, because situations are never ideal, and the best is the enemy of the good.

Here's a very simple breakdown of what a game designer does on a typical game development project:

  • Generate the game's design.
  • Maintain the game's design.
  • Implement the game's design
Let's look at each in turn:
Generating the game's design

This usually begins in the concept phase and continues in the preproduction phase. Typically, you start with an initial brief (which rarely comes from the game designer). This might be something like 'Make a game based on this license' or 'Make a casual game that is finished in 4 months or less' or 'Make an exciting action game using this setting'. From there, an initial set of features, mechanisms, level concepts, etc. is developed. Hopefully, this initial design will lead to a game that fulfills the brief, is implementable, and is entertaining.

This can be almost completely outsourced, but you should take the following into account:

  1. The buy-in from your team can be lower than when you generate the game design in-house. If your team is not too immature, this typically can be dealt with by managing expectations and involving them in the reviews of the game design as it is being produced (this should happen anyway).
  2. A game design document is not a perfect blueprint for a game. If you don't have the author of the game design around during production, there is a risk you're not building the game that was envisioned, because the design document is not clear enough, and because you can never fully predict what game you're making in a document. Outsourcing the game design during preproduction effectively means you're choosing the waterfall model, with all that that implies. A good free-lance designer can compensate to some degree. You can also organize follow-up reviews with the designer during production.
Maintaining the game's design

Typically, during production, you will find out that parts of the game design document are unclear or don't work. The more ambitious your project is relative to your capabilities, and the shorter your preproduction phase was, the higher the risk is that this will happen. Additionally, new ideas will come up that need to be considered.

All of the above will lead to changes in the game design document. If you don't have a full-time game designer, you can still have a game design process. Essentially, it's a change management process:

  1. The need for a change is identified. Normally, this just means someone on the team walks to the game designer and asks a question. When you don't have a game designer, you can still designate someone to be the contact person for questions about the game design document. This can be the person who owns the game design process (e.g. the producer), but it doesn't have to be.
  2. Possible solutions are generated. A game designer could do this alone or he or she could ask for feedback from the team. Without a game designer, this can be done by a group of people or the entire team. The important thing is to make sure the process doesn't stall.
  3. A decision is made about which solution will be used. This is probably the hardest part. Again, you can use a group (for instance the leads) to discuss the possible solutions. However, it is vital that you have one person making the final decision. This greatly clarifies things, it helps keep the process moving, and it increases the odds that the decisions are made in a consistent manner. Also, this person can then own this process and be accountable for it, which is good. The producer is typically a good candidate to make these decisions. He or she may not have game design sensibility (about which more later), but at least the decisions should take cost and feasibility into account, and the producer's focus typically generates a certain disinterested pragmatism that helps here.
  4. The solution is documented. Finally, the solution must be written down and communicated to the team. This can be done by anyone who is capable of clear expression. Just be sure it gets done consistently.

Make sure people know how to bring up questions or issues regarding the game design. Since you have less game designer time to work with, you can avoid wasting time on trivial questions by funneling the questions through the leads, who hopefully can answer some of them before escalating them into this process.

Additionally, make sure the process keeps running. Try listing all the currently open questions (for instance in a wiki) and handle them on a regular basis. I recommend weekly meetings for this. Make sure people see the process is active.

Implementing the game's design

By this I mean balancing and tweaking: data needs to be conceived, entered and adjusted. I can't think of a generic solution for how to do this without a game designer. It really depends on your team. If your game design process described above works well, try partially running it through that. If you have someone on the team who is interested in doing it, have them do it. It might be a gameplay programmer, a level designer or a project manager. Just make sure it gets done.

As with any work delegation: be sure everyone involved knows what is expected. You probably want your project manager to go back to managing the project after tweaking enemy data, so watch out when he shows up for work wearing a black beret. Your lead programmer needs to know how long the gameplay programmer will be entering weapon data. And you should especially be clear about what the outcome of the balancing / tweaking tasks will be. For instance, in a realistic shooter, you probably don't want shotguns to blow people through walls.

The risks of not having a game designer

It is important to remember that the solutions I've described above are essentially crisis management techniques. Assuming a typical industrial approach to making games and a certain team size (say, 10 to 20 people), you may be able to make a decent game despite the lack of a dedicated game designer. However, you should be aware of several risks.

For one, you may not have design capability on your team. Call it talent, skill or awareness: game design is not easy. You can outsource game design to some degree, but you still need a minimum of design sensibility. Also beware that many people think they understand game design, but they really don't, just like many people think they can write, only they can't.

Second: Game design tasks may not get done. If there is no clear responsibility for game design, there's a good chance it won't happen. Values won't get tested and tweaked, decisions won't be documented and communicated. The lack of a game designer is probably not the only problem in your project, so there will be stress and urgency. Under these conditions, people will focus on their own areas of responsibility, because that is so much safer. The worst case occurs when player entertainment is no longer the focus of development. Every feature or asset is ticked off, but nobody cares anymore whether the game is fun. If you find yourself in this situation, you have a tough choice to make:

  1. Pull the emergency brake. Force everyone to take a step back, reorient, and refocus. This costs an enormous amount of courage and energy (especially if you're not the producer) as well as time and money.
  2. Finish the project anyway. Sometimes this is the best solution. Your team, your publisher and your players may hate you for it, but at least it's over and you can try to do better the next time. Finishing the project may ensure there is a next time.
  3. Cancel or quit. Some projects can't be salvaged. Some projects won't finish. Some organizations won't improve. Don't throw good money after bad, or good years of your life after bad ones.
Welcome to the games industry. You just got a look at how those sausages are made. Like I said: it's a tough choice. Try not to end up in a situation where you have to make it.

Every team and project is different, so what works in one case may not work in another. I could go into way more detail, but this post has already become very long. Still, I hope I've given you some ideas for what to do if you don't have a full-time game designer on your team. Please let me know what you think in the comments.

Rockstar Games lacking sense of humor?

According to this article, someone from Rockstar Games objected to the 'Grand Theft Scratchy' posters for EA's upcoming Simpsons game that were displayed at the Games Convention in Leipzig this year. I kind of find that hard to believe. First of all, GTA has been parodied a billion times already. Second, Rockstar Games generally does have a sense of humor. Third, it would be uncool to actually show annoyance. So maybe it's just EA FUD. But on the other hand, Rockstar Games hates EA's guts. So who knows?

(Via Alice.)

"Try Telling That To My Baby" by The Heavy Blinkers

I really like this video for The Heavy Blinkers' "Try Telling That To My Baby":

Because what's not to like about cute animated cupcakes and Busby Berkeley numbers involving candy? I like the song too.

This kind of setting used to be much more common in games, especially in the jump and runs of the 16- and 32-bit eras. But now it's become rare to see games that look like this, which is a pity.

The video was directed by Fluorescent Hill. The quality on YouTube is not great, but you can download a 21 MB QuickTime version here and here.

Electronic Arts buys Bioware / Pandemic for $800 million

Reuters says Electronic Arts is buying Bioware / Pandemic for $800 million.

I think many people saw the Bioware / Pandemic merger, with support from private equity firm Elevation Partners, as a bold move to create a large-scale independent developer.

With this news, it looks more like a fancy move by John Riccitiello, who worked at Electronic Arts, left to co-found Elevation Partners, came back to EA as CEO, and now this.

As usual, it is a bold move that makes sense for EA. I wonder how long it takes them to crush the soul of those two companies.

(Thanks, Mark!)

Update: Greg has some more in-depth analysis.

More about 4mm Games, Jamie King's new company

Way back in June I wrote something about how Jamie King, co-founder & former VP of Development of Rockstar Games, started a new company called 4mm Games.

It turns out a shady rumor blog linked to me and added a little additional information:

We hear… that Jamie King, the not-so recently departed co-founder of Rockstar Games is working on a big virtual world's [sic] project under the name of his new company 4mm Games. Apparently, the company is quite far in the process of building the environment. We hear… that it's aimed at teenagers and is more play ground rather than straight-up strategy game, like World of Warcraft. Think Second Life, but surely (knowing Mr. King's cutting edge knowledge of cultural trends) cooler, more expansive and with an eye towards interactivity. If this proves to be true, don't hesitate to get involved in some level. King is known to be a rain maker.

This was posted at the same time as my original post, i.e. 4 months ago. It's some kind of anonymous blog written by an 'agency spy', so I would take it all with a pinch of salt.

And yeah, I am being called a psyched kid by an anonymous blogger. Jesus, you work in the games industry for over 16 years, and this is what you get. I will have to tone down my crazy enthusiasm in future posts.

Sony drops PS3's backward compatibility

According to this Gamasutra news item, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe is going to release a 399 Euro PS3 (that's a 200 Euro price drop) with a 40 GB hard drive and no backward compatibility with PS2 games.

The most significant exception, according to SCEE, is that the new model is no longer backwards compatible with PlayStation 2 titles, reflecting what SCEE says is a "reduced emphasis" on the feature among later purchasers of PS3, and promises a total of 65 PS3-specific titles to be available in the region by Christmas.

So, PS3 sales figures are lower than anyone except Sony expected, and then when a new cheaper PS3 model comes out without a feature that requires special hardware, we are supposed to believe it is because gamers asked for the ability to do less with their hardware, and not because it would reduce manufacturing costs? This from the company that made up half a dozen lame excuses for not including rumble support in their controllers at launch? That created FUD about backward compatibility when Microsoft had trouble with it during the Xbox 360 launch?

I don't think I am ever going to believe another official statement from Sony.

New York Times op-ed about the potential of the games medium

Daniel Radosh has written an op-ed about the state of the interactive medium in the New York Times. Some choice quotes:

Games boast ever richer and more realistic graphics, but this has actually inhibited their artistic growth. The ability to convincingly render any scene or environment has seduced game designers into thinking of visual features as the essence of the gaming experience.


If games are to become more than mere entertainment, they will need to use the fundamentals of gameplay — giving players challenges to work through and choices to make — in entirely new ways. The formula followed by virtually all games is a steady progression toward victory: you accomplish tasks until you win. Halo 3, for all its flawless polish, does not aspire to anything more. It does not succeed as a work of art because it does not even try.

None of this should be news to anyone inside the industry. The real news is that there is a decent article about games as an art form in the New York Times.

(Via Grand Text Auto.)