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Link: Life Lessons from a Lifestyle Business

Over at IndieVC, A Lifestyle Business Can Kill You Life Lessons from a Lifestyle Business: A really honest, worthwhile interview with Matt Haughey, the creator of MetaFilter.

I crave simplicity and I don’t want complications. I’ve counseled my friends many times to just make things that make a little bit of money and make you happy. Why isn’t that good enough?

Matt Haughey

It should be good enough. You don’t have to build an empire to make people’s lives better and to do things you love. I’d even go so far that digital empires are in direct opposition to making people’s lives better. But that’s a rant for another time.

Update: So, the title felt kind of incongruous, and doesn’t really have a lot to do with the post. Apparently Matt felt the same, so it’s been changed:

Thoughts on XOXO

XOXO Festival LogoIt’s been a few months since the XOXO Festival happened, and it’s been written about to great effect in a number of places. The recordings of the talks are now up and available to the public, even. All of this means that it’s probably time I sit down and share my own thoughts about it, as well.

A little background: the XOXO Festival was a conference conceived of and planned by Andy Baio and Andy McMillan, funded through a Kickstarter drive, targeting creators and makers. The goal wasn’t technical discussions of How to create, so much as exploring Why we create, the process we take to make it work in our lives and our culture. It was held at the YU Contemporary in Portland, Oregon, in mid-September, 2012 (a great time to be in Portland). The event was a rousing success, and there are a number of factors why:

Crowdfunding

By funding the event through Kickstarter, they were able to keep the focus of the event where they wanted it, rather than needing to kowtow to corporate sponsors. That’s not to say there weren’t corporate sponsors — there were three — but there was never a point where it turned into shilling a product or service (they were thanked on the website, in the program, and at the opening and closing. That’s about it). It felt refreshing, and allowed the focus of the event to stay where it belonged.

Establishing the Social Contract

In the opening talk, Andy Baio made a point of calling out that everyone there was a peer, and that all should feel welcome to come talk to anyone else. By doing so, he established a social contract among the attendees and staff. It explicitly demolished the social inhibition of joining what appears to be an established group or discussion, and it felt like the attendees took it to heart — there were no cliques that I could see, and the amount of commingling and interaction was fantastic. I’ve been to a fair number of conferences, un-conferences, conventions, meetings, and other events, and I cannot think of any other occasion that was so committed to openness and communication. It felt great. I’m not alone on feeling like this — it was a recurring observation while chatting with people during the after-party.

Including Portland

A lot of events could basically be held anywhere. XOXO, however, had a distinctly “Portland” flavor, and attendees were encouraged to get out and enjoy their time in the city. The opening party was Thursday night, but the talks didn’t get started until Saturday — Friday was used to host social events for the attendees around town. Panic graciously opened their offices for an ice cream social, while Wieden+Kennedy held a rooftop cocktail party, and Ground Kontrol opened their doors for an attendee-only “free play” afternoon. As the day rolled into the evening, this was all followed by the “Fringe” portion of the festival, with music and an indie arcade set up within walking distance of each other. To top it off, half a dozen food carts were invited to set up directly outside the event, providing a wide range of incredibly delicious food. They even brought in Stumptown Coffee to provide fresh coffee (as a volunteer, I particularly appreciated that the baristas decided to hook staff up with coffee for free).

Also? The talks didn’t start until 10-10:30am. People had time to go have a good breakfast, or sleep in a little, so no one felt rushed or harried. It’s amazing how much giving people a bit of morning time can help set the pace and mood of an event.

Keeping it Focused

It’s easy to try and ratchet on a bunch of extra topics and themes to an event like this. Instead, the talks were targeted to creatives (and more specifically, creatives who were involving in Doing something, the folks who took something they were passionate about and made it work), and the surrounding events were likewise very specific. It even applied to the schedule itself — there was only one track, so speakers didn’t have to feel like they were competing with others for attendance, and attendees didn’t have to weigh which talk to go to next.

The whole event was like this. The vendor area was curated — it wasn’t just anyone who wanted a table, it was groups that the organizers felt made something genuinely interesting and crafted with care and intent. The food carts outside were all explicitly invited and carefully chosen as some of the best Portland had to offer. The Fringe portion of the festival highlighted specific independent games and musical artists — again, curated with an eye towards craftsmanship and the quality of the experience.

When there is that sort of clear attention to quality and aesthetic taste applied, people pick up on it. They are more likely to try something new, because they feel they can trust the taste of the curators. That all leads to an event where everyone is interested in trying everything, and makes for an amazing participatory experience.

I’m really glad I was able to participate in the XOXO Festival, and I sincerely hope I’m in a position to participate again whenever the next event happens. It’s had a pretty lasting effect on me, causing me to seriously pause and consider what I’m doing with my life, and what direction I want to go now.

Other Links:

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Sherry Turkle on Social Media

Social media, for all of it’s bounties—and I’m very enthusiastic of all the bounties of social media—it also gives us an opportunity to hide. We perform ourselves on social media, and that is different from being ourselves on social media. That ability to perform yourself is also an ability to hide. It leads to something that I call “Fear of missing out.” You’re always watching what other people are doing and you begin to be jealous because they’re showing their best selves and you’re showing your best self. You almost become jealous of the life you live on Facebook. You have to remind yourself that it’s your life because you’re showing your best self. Sherry Turkle

Indie Web Wishlist

I’d like to self-host everything, and then broadcast those materials out to the relevant locations (rather than vice versa). With that in mind, these are my wish list services I want to replicate in a self-host+broadcast method:

  • Status Updates — broadcast automagically to Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Google+, including long-form article notification
  • Gallery (media management) — with broadcasting to 500px and flickr.
  • Bookmarking — with broadcasting to delicious and google bookmarks
  • Identity management — tracking what services I’m connected to, with notes as to which are broadcast TO, and which are still broadcast FROM (plus aggregation of all these services into one self-hosted spot wherever possible)

Comcast, Walled Gardens, and Games

There’s a lot of talk currently about the Level-3/Comcast mess, where Comcast is demanding additional money from Level 3 (an internet backbone and current partner with Netflix for providing streaming media) before they will allow streaming media onto their network. Comcast’s reasoning is that Level 3 is acting as a Content Delivery Network (CDN), not just as an internet backbone, and thus no longer qualifies for the peerage agreements that would allow for traffic between the two networks without additional fees. Which is a bogus assertion, and feels like a money-grab: Comcast’s customers are paying for that bandwidth already, and making a legitimate request for the data being provided — all Level 3 is doing is sending the requested data. To then block the data that the customer has paid for (twice: they pay Comcast for the bandwidth, and Netflix for the content) directly violates the principles of an open internet.

This is a prime example of why there are concerns over the imminent Comcast-NBC Universal deal (for those who haven’t been paying attention: Comcast is trying to purchase NBC Universal from General Electric for $6.5 billion dollars CASH, plus investing an additional $7.5 billion dollars in programming), in terms of media consolidation and vertical control effectively creating a walled garden. To quote Senator Bernie Sanders:

The sale of NBCU to Comcast would create an enormously powerful, vertically integrated media conglomerate, causing irreparable damage to the American media landscape and ultimately to society as a whole.

This is hardly the first time Comcast has been caught with their hand in the proverbial cookie jar, taking censorial action while claiming to be in favor of an open internet. Their behavior is antithetical to net neutrality on a fundamental and obvious level.

So, why does this matter to game development? A variety of reasons, actually. Regardless of what type of games you are talking about, modern gaming takes bandwidth: assets need to be downloaded, whether as a standalone game title, or even the casual, cloud-based games you find on Armor Games or Kongregate or even Facebook. If there is any type of online component, there will be regular communication between client and server. This sort of bandwidth costs money, and if developers have to start paying additional fees to be allowed into walled gardens, the cost may reach a point where it is no longer feasible for many developers to continue. Even already, a number of games are looking at solutions to mitigate the costs of hosting content, such as distributed downloading solutions like BitTorrent (yes, believe it or not, peer to peer isn’t just for illegal uses). While some price fluctuation is expected and reasonable as the market shifts and costs of hosting and bandwidth change, at what point do developers (including smaller developers without the resources of large publishers) have to start dealing directly with Comcast (or other gatekeepers) for the right to sell their own product to the public? One of the biggest benefits of the internet, open access, not having to go through a gatekeeper process and large publishers to share your work with the world, is already being challenged by device-specific gates, like the Apple App Store for the iPhone, and to a lesser extent the Playstation Network and Xbox Live Arcade and WiiWare. (I say lesser extent because those networks are ones that ostensibly can’t reach the rest of the internet without additional effort, if at all, whereas the iPhone App store has no such issues.) We do not need, nor want, service providers blockading legitimate customers from our products.

Browser Hell

While there are a variety of methods to view the web, the vast majority of people use only one of a few options: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera, and (johnny-come-lately but gaining market-share fast) Chrome. While it’s fantastic that each of these browsers are doing well enough to be considered major players, the problem is that they all have some pretty serious failings.

Internet Explorer LogoThe problems with IE are well documented, and frankly given that it’s Windows-only, I’m going to gloss over it here by simply saying: don’t use it unless you have to. Don’t support it unless you have to. Just. Don’t. This may change with the upcoming IE9, as there’s been a BIG push by developers to get Internet Explorer up to date and standards compliant. If even half the features and support Microsoft has promised actually make it into the final product, Internet Explorer may well be worth another look. In the meantime, take a pass.

Firefox LogoNext up is Firefox, a very popular open-source effort run by Mozilla. It’s free, it’s open source, it’s cross platform, there are lots of themes and profiles and extensions you can get for it to make the browser do more, all of which makes it the darling of the geek community. It isn’t without its faults, however: the same extensions that make Firefox useful often contribute to browser instability, but Firefox without extensions is… well, lackluster. Which is to say: a plain copy of Firefox is a perfectly serviceable browser, but lacks anything to set it apart from other major browsers. That coupled with one of the slower load times and a rather substantial resource footprint makes it a less than ideal solution for someone trying to run a lean, stable system.

Safari LogoWhile Safari doesn’t have anywhere near the usage rates of IE or Firefox, it’s still a major contender in the browser wars, for three reasons: 1) It’s the default browser on every Mac system, and has the highest browser rates on Macintosh computers; 2) It’s the default (and until Opera Mini managed to strongarm their way onto it, only) browser on the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad; and 3) It’s cross-platform and free. I’ve been a diehard Safari user since it came out, only occasionally switching to Firefox or Camino. However, as they’ve continued to add more features, the overall quality has (in my opinion) gone down. Reports of stability issues are prevalent on the Windows version, and I’ve been discovering massive resource consumption on my Mac. Since Safari 5, the memory footprint has grown significantly, causing repeated beachballs for the most basic browsing tasks because my laptop, with 2gb of ram, was out of memory. (My frustration with this is actually what has prompted this post.) I can only assume it’s a memory leak that slipped past them, because I cannot fathom how that sort of resource consumption would be acceptable for a shipping product.

Opera LogoOpera is a trooper from the old browser wars. While it has incredible market penetration on devices and globally, as a desktop web browser it didn’t really get a strong foothold in the U.S. They’ve continued to improve the browser over a number of years (the current version as of this writing is 10.60), and at this point boast one of the most standards compliant, fastest browsers on the market, with a ridiculous amount of features. Which is the problem: there are so many features and customizations and tie-in services like Opera Unite and Opera Link that it’s incredibly easy for the average user to get mired in unwanted complexity. Additionally, while they have support for widgets (which can even work as standalone applications from the desktop), I had trouble finding any plugins to fix some egregious oversights (despite all those features, Opera tends to only play with itself — service integration with third party options like Evernote or Delicious are non-existent). Some of the interface I found cumbersome, but I was willing to work through that (all browsers have some quirks, after all), but was off-put by the sheer number of browser themes that were for Windows only, leaving Mac users very few options to try and find a more suitable interface.

Chromo LogoThe last of the “big” browsers I wanted to mention was Google’s foray into the browser market, Google Chrome, and its development sibling Chromium. Despite being very new, Chrome has already gained a significant market share in terms of browser statistics, and not without reason: it’s fast; it breaks page viewing into separate processes to keep the entire browser from crashing when one page hits bad code; and, well, it’s made by Google. Frankly, while I appreciated some of the features of Chrome, I found it to be an incredibly slipshod application. The user interface was inconsistent and unclear on numerous occasions, with the preferences window being a morass of poorly explained buttons and hidden panels, and their handling of tabs becoming utterly useless once you get much over 20 tabs open. It’s easy to start cutting them some slack by saying “It’s a beta,” but let’s be realistic here. Google has made a point of hiring some of the smartest, most talented, capable people on the planet, and invested millions into the development and marketing of Google Chrome already. A product with that sort of backing feeling this slapdash is embarrassing for them and frustrating for the user. (Final gripe about this: despite their session-splitting to help prevent browser crashes, Chrome crashed on me when I tried to quit.)

So there you have it, the biggest, most popular browsers out there. The reality is that they all have MAJOR FLAWS, and there is major work that should be done on all of them. The bright side is that each of these browsers is under active development, so a lot of the work that needs to be done will be done. Until the problems are fixed, however, I’m inclined to look into one of the numerous smaller browser projects being developed out there, and hopefully find a diamond in the rough that blows the big boys out of the water.

Where to Build Your Next Team

According to the ESA’s reports, the five states that are serving as game development hubs in the US are California, Washington, Texas, New York, and Massachusetts. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone; cities like Seattle, San Diego, Austin, and their peripheral towns are often mentioned in gaming press. This is fine –€” certain hubs are expected to rise up in any industry, and game development, at $22 billion domestically per year, absolutely qualifies as industry. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is a need to start expanding into new locations if studios expect to continue to grow profitably. It comes down to cost: the cost of living, and cost of business.

The cities and regions that game developers are based in right now tend to be expensive: the amount of money it takes to maintain the same quality of life is higher than in other cities. As an example, comparing Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, two cities that offer similar climates, similar cultural opportunities, overall a similar quality of life. In Seattle, an examination of average office lease rates are running between $25 and $40 per square foot depending on where in Seattle you are (and where most of these companies are located, you’re looking at the high end of that range). A similar examination of Portland puts the lease rates between $12 and $25 per square foot. (To put those prices in perspective, Bungie recently announced their move into downtown Bellevue, leasing 85,000 square feet. Assuming they got a killer deal and only paid $30 per square foot, that’s still $2,550,000.) An equivalent space in Portland, assuming, say, $20 per square foot, is $1,700,000. That’s an $850,000 price difference, and that’€™s only one part of the overall cost of doing business.

Looking at the cost of living for the employees themselves, median apartment rental prices drop nearly in half between Seattle and Portland. While other price comparisons are less dramatic (the cost of heating a home doesn’€™t vary much, which is unsurprising considering they share a similar climate), it still works out to a net savings for the employee to be in Portland. What this means for the employee is that they can live at the same quality of life, for less money. What this means for employers is that they can price their salaries accordingly (as they already do), and again, save money to either a) bring down development costs, or b) hire more developers.

Of course, so far we’ve only discussed basic numbers, on the assumption that one would have to pay for everything involved. For a number of developers, this is already not the case: both Ontario and Quebec (and respective cities Toronto and Montreal) offer significant subsidies to game companies to build studios there. It was reported a few years ago that the city of Montreal and the province of Quebec combined subsidized over half the salaries for Ubisoft and EA, two major developers and game publishers. Ubisoft is expanding again, opening a new studio in Toronto, who have committed to investing $226 million into Ubisoft over the next ten years. Here in the U.S, 8 states have already passed initiatives to encourage game development, including significant tax breaks and other incentives to draw the industry in. The city of Savannah has gone so far as to offer a full year of office space free to any company willing to commit to offices there.

Now, I realize it is pretty rare that a company is in a position to be able to perform an en masse relocation (there have been a few examples, such as when Square moved from Washington to California, or when Bungie moved from Illinois to Washington), but that isn’t really what anyone is trying for: as development teams grow, new facilities are needed, and new development teams are created. These new studios and teams are in a prime position to make use of the lower development costs of setting up in a less expensive city. It would be foolish for a large game developer to not at least consider this when building out their next team.

The cities I expect to be great additions:

  1. Portland, Oregon: the city has so much going for it in, and is already starting to undergo a bit of a cultural explosion thanks to its fantastic music and art scene, green policies, and laid back atmosphere.
  2. Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota: it’s been largely off the radar for a lot of people, yet sports a remarkable diversity within the area, low costs, and is something of a jewel of the central states.
  3. Boulder, Colorado: it is already becoming a pretty significant tech hotspot, housing a number of startups and offering a range of support for the software industry.
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Intel's Social Media Guidelines

In an excellent example of corporate social-transparency, Intel just posted their social media guidelines, which they expect their employees to follow when engaging the public. I think this is fantastic, and a great example of a major company “walking the walk” when it comes to social media and community interaction. For anyone engaging in online communities and social media interaction, they’re an excellent guide to go by.

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Ubiquity

I recently got clued into a new system being developed by the folks over at Mozilla called Ubiquity. The short of it is that they’re trying to create a method to allow the web to function more seamlessly using natural language. Ubiquity in Depth explains a bit more about the logic and reasoning and path forward for the tool. Should be very interesting to see where it goes.