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Just staying ”it isn’t” doesn’t help

Yesterday we had one director of a major game company make inflammatory replies to peoples concerns, mocking them. Today it seems that an executive of another major game company wants steal the limelight from them on the stage of questionable online behaviour.

If you are into gaming there should be no news to you that Electronic Arts latest version of SimCity didn’t get the warm welcome most would expect from such an old and loved franchise. Again it was the ”always on” part that riled users. If you had no interest in playing online, why the need to have your computer online to be able to even play? Later on the always-on requirement was shown to be not entirely true.

Most people consider this to be some kind of DRM since it forces you to authenticate against official servers to be able to play. Now Peter Moore, EA’s chief operating officer, speaks up and writes:

Many continue to claim the Always-On function in SimCity is a DRM scheme. It’s not. People still want to argue about it. We can’t be any clearer—it’s not. Period.

Then tell us Mr Moore, what is it? We don’t want to know what it isn’t. I can tell you infinitely many things it isn’t. It isn’t a chicken sandwitch. It isn’t a stroll on a sunny beach. It isn’t helping legitimate users having unreliable internet connections. So what is it?

Just saying, ”it isn’t” doesn’t help. If you want to gain sympathy and recover lost fans, make sure your products and services are ideally better for those that pay for them than those that pirate them, but at least not worse! Otherwise you just stiff paying customers, that is not the way to maintain a faithful customer base.

If you have a part of the game that requires absolutely no interaction from another part, why should there be a requirement for internet connectivity? Tell us what the always-on function adds to the gaming experience. Then back your words with action. Show us that we want to be online, that this extra gaming experience is worth more than the offline experience. I assure you that gamers will then not mind the always-on requirement. I have played more than one game where online experience is much more fun than the same game with local bots. I don’t play these games in single player mode any more.

If it is a dedicated online game (MMO, a shooter like MAG, etc) we expect the online component and we buy the game for it. If SimCity had been marketed as SimCity Online – the new MMO version of the old franchise, we probably wouldn’t have seen half the uproar EA faces now. Perhaps people would even loved it and started praising it for using online to boost a already good experience. Who knows?

But coming out afterwards and lashing out at a internet poll this way? A great way to alienate your customers.

If you treat paying customers like little children who don’t know what is best for them, you will see the money trickle away slowly sooner or later. No one wants to be patted on the head.

Again, I am appalled by companies lack of media training within their management. Personally I don’t have any media training other than breezing through a little booklet (sorry, swedish only) I found in a recycling bin, and I seem to have grasped more from those few seconds than these guys have.

Automated grading systems, are we there yet?

Today I came across this article (courtesy of Slashdot). I know we are getting better and better at letting computers do work for us, and one day we might have true artificial intelligence. But even though I am not actively keeping up to date on the latest research in this field, I highly doubt that we are at a place where we can leave the grading of papers to the computer.

I was an assistant teacher at my university roughly a decade ago, and I know how hard it is to grade exams. And I only graded CS exams where the problems were short programs written in a very well defined and unambigous language. Even for people this is a hard problem. Just grading can be simplified, but being fair and consistent in grading, very hard. One might object and say that a human grader is prone to subjective grading and a computer would be more objective.

Still, a computer is not better than the programmers programming it. It can learn, but only within the constraints set up by the original programming. If it cannot perceive things outside of a box, due to programming, how can it use that and add that to it’s knowledge?

I remember when I was a student in the course which I one year later taught in. In one homework assignment I had a moment of genius and solved the homework in a non-standard way. The grader didn’t like my solution, even though I clearly got the correct answer and without it being any less efficient or hard to understand. Luckily for me, my teacher which the grader answered to didn’t agree and gave me a much better grade on that homework.

I think it is great that some grading work can be done, but relying on a computer to grade the homework has a big drawback. I think it is neat that we can offload some work and the student can get a quicker feedback, but learning is not only something that the student does from the teacher. A good teacher exists in a feedback loop with the students. While grading the students essays, the teacher learns what the students’ didn’t grasp and where to put the effort. Perhaps a grading system can tell the teacher what areas students need to focus on, but I doubt that it works as well as if the teacher graded the exams himself/herself. Second hand information is rarely as good as first hand.

If you, as a teacher, teaches to many students that you cannot keep up and keep track of their progress, you should seriously consider holding fewer classes and lowering your work load. Being a good teacher means that you are in contact with your students, not that you try to disassociate yourself from them.

The day computers can grade exams reliably for us, it can also write exams for us. Then humanity is in for a bleak future, we are then becoming more and more obsolete.

How to be an insensitive clod

This story has two parts, one technical gaming related, and one social. I’ll start with the second one first, since that is what attracted my attention in the first place.

Apparently, rumors have been circulating (ArsTechnica, TheSixthAxis) that the next generation gaming console from Microsoft, popularly called Xbox 720, needs constant internet connection to be able to play and validate games. Not surprisingly this made more than a few gamers raise their voice.

Then Adam Orth, creative director at Microsoft Studios, wrote on his personal Twitter account:

Sorry, I don’t get the drama around having an ”always on” console. Every device now is ”always on.” That’s the world we live in. #dealwithit

Later on his twitter feed was made private, but not before people could make screengrabs.

Making assumptions that everyone out there is the same as you, does the same as you, has the same as you and likes the same as you is rather insensitive. Replying to people with ”Deal with it” just shows how little you can empathize with other people and understand their situation.

This didn’t make the situation any better and ignited another discussion drawing more attention to the rumors. Making the feed private instead of making an apology is in my opinion even worse. If you are not a spokesperson for your company, it might be a good idea not to reply to rumors with inflammatory comments.

This will not blow up in Microsofts face, but I think they should consider sending Mr Orth to media training, and perhaps some empathy class or two to brush up on his people skills. Even a creative director needs to be able to empathize with people around him.

The technical problem lies at the heart of this. Personally I don’t care if this rumor is true or not. I am not a potential buyer of the Xbox 720 at the moment, and this has only made myself even more sure of that fact. But I know of a lot of people that are interested and can see why they are concerned.

Personally, I am lucky to have a low latency high speed ethernet connection to my apartment. When they installed the jack they simultaneously prepared for fiber access, if needed in the future. They haven’t put a fiber in the channel since there is no demand right now, but in the future they can install it with very little cost.

But this is not to brag, I consider myself to belong to the privileged ones. My internet connection at home beats the one I have at work. Still I know that this is not the norm, not even in Sweden where broad penetration is among the best in the world. None of my Swedish friends has this good internet access. And among my foreign friends, it is something entirely else.

One third of those I met online have flaky internet connections that kicks them off the net every now and then. Having a copy protection scheme that requires you to be online all the time is a PITA if your only option is one of these substandard internet connections.

When I got my first gaming console it was to be able to play with friends sitting in the same room as me, it was for social gaming. Even after getting into online multiplayer I still like the couch-multiplayer variant. And most of my games are pure off-line single player experiences. So why should my console need to be online all the time? Peter Chapman has written an excellent piece over at TheSixthAxis questioning this. A user at Slashdot also had another great insight on why this is not desirable: I can still play my old PC games from 15-20 years ago because there never was a DRM server to be shut down. I don’t expect them to keep the servers for multiplayer online forever, but why should my single player games stop working just because the company don’t want to keep the DRM server online any more?

If the always online requirement is to enforce some kind of DRM, this is the wrong road to go down. I have such a hard time to understand why companies think obtrusive copy protection schemes are good. They are not! I have yet to be shown a copy protection scheme that has not been broken. And if it was hard to break, it was even harder on the legitimate users, needing to jump through hoops to use their legitimately bought product. The users of cracked versions of the same product often had a much better customer experience. There is just one thing to say about such behavior: WTF?

What did you think when you designed that devious scheme? When did you think it was a good thing to treat paying customers like dirt? I think that sooner or later there will be a huge backlash, and that will definitely blow up in the face of those trying to enforce these schemes.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for creators to get paid for their work, and I am more than happy to fork over my cash for something good. Still, this is not the right way to do it. In the very short term perhaps, but not in the long run.

I have no doubt that we will have broadband pretty much every where in a future. But we are not there yet. Yes, you can hurry it up by making things that need it and then customers will increase demand. And if you don’t care about losing a customer or two right now, why not? It is entirely Microsofts decision, let them design their console. And let the customers choose if they will buy it. Sony and, to some extent, Nintendo are players in the same arena and the customers have some options at least.

But calling peoples opinions ”drama” and tell them to deal with it… Well, then you are an insensitive clod, sir! #dealwithit


Update: Microsoft released an official comment and something akin an apology yesterday, around the time I was typing up my post. Although it is hard to control what every employee writes, it shows how much you need to have a organization policy regarding comments in the media, especially among management since they might be seen as spokespeople for the organization. I think Microsoft did the right thing here and acknowledged those offended by the comments and they did it rather promptly. Remember that in these internet times, something can grow infinitely big in a very short time. It is hard to contain something when pretty much everyone can join in and spread their views.

As for what they should do with Mr Orth, well, that is another thing. I have told my position already. I saw people demanding they should fire him, I think people screw up and everyone should get a second chance. But he could use a lesson in how to act to potential customers.

Now I have read a more complete set of tweets sent between him and Manveer Heir and am rather horrified by what Adam Orth wrote. Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but they way he voiced it was not cool. I can only hope that the later tweets were intended as sarcasm, even though I rarely advocate the use of irony and sarcasm online as they tend to translate to written media very poorly. But that would be the topic of another post.



Some thoughts on communication

Have you heard of #donglegate? Chances are good that you have if you are following tech sites (Slashdot, ArsTechnica, OSNews). Later on, other sites like Forbes has picked up the story and of course the blogosphere is full of entries (Amanda Blum, Adria Richards herself). I find the whole situation quite sad, all of this reminded me of something I learned a while ago.

A while back I was on a conference with my work colleagues. One of the parts of the conference was to improve communication skills between us, the co-workers. More specifically giving constructive and helpful criticism. I found it helpful and learned a lot that really should have been common knowledge or in some cases perhaps even common sense. It turns out that is not always the case, but that is another story for another time.

The woman holding the workshop said something that stuck in my head: ”If you express criticism to another person in front of a third party, you have some kind of hidden agenda.” (Freely translated)

Her point was that this kind of criticism was not meant to help the person you are giving it to, but rather show that third party something or publicly humiliating the one you claim you are criticizing. The type or criticism we were learning to use were quite the opposite, something to help the recipient.

But that statement sat in my head and I felt that it had an even broader scope. After having thought about it I rephrased it to:

If you choose to communicate with another person in front of a third party, you have some kind of hidden agenda or ulterior motive.

That motive might not be of malice, but still there is a reason to why you chose to communicate in public. This decision might have been done consciously but most of the time it is an unconscious decision and my point is that you should observe yourself when you do this and try to think of why. Try to make it a conscious decision.

An example might be wishing someone happy birthday on a Facebook wall post. Is there a reason to why you want other people to see that you are wishing someone  a happy birthday? Why couldn’t you just send a personal message? It is equally simple, the button for a personal message is right there, not far from the button for new wall post.

Some people might say ”why not?”. Perhaps you are not feeling that the type of forum matters, and perhaps it doesn’t matter that much. Still, you had a choice and you chose to use a more public forum.

Is it very important that other people see you congratulating someone else? Are you perhaps doing this more to show the world around you that you ”care” than to actually congratulating the recipient? How much do you really care then? Is this merely an opportunity to strengthen an image you are trying to build for yourself?

We are living in a world where more and more are done publicly, but we are manufacturing a facade, we are not doing everything in public. As a matter of fact, most people are very conscious of what image they want to convey. Also we are constantly being told that we must take care of our personal brand and we must market ourselves online.

In this world I feel that we are getting worse at communicating, especially one-to-one. When shouting out to a huge crowd, we are forgetting that each and every one of the recipients is a person. Often I see people writing things online that they never would tell that person to their face, yet they have no trouble saying it to them in front of everyone in their social network or everyone on a forum.

It is so easy to hammer away on the keyboard and press send. So easy that one often forgets to read through what one has written and try to imagine how the intended recipient might recieve the message. Just because the digital era allows us to communicate quickly and without delay, it does not mean we have to communicate like that all the time.

I prefer a well written letter to a quickly scribbled together incoherent one. In this day and age, having someone putting some thought and effort into their letter is something I appreciate. It shows that they care a little extra. They could have chosen the quick route, but chose to give me some extra time.

I think we should get better at seeing the recipient. Everyone wants to be seen and appreciated. And we should get better at choosing the right forum. In the wrong forum the message will not come across as intended. And if it isn’t important that it does, why did you bother sending that message in the first place?

I don’t claim this statement to be an universal truth, but I do find it useful in many different situations. And remember, no one is perfect. From time to time I find myself doing just the opposite of what I am trying to do. But it helps me to think about this every now and then.

In the case of donglegate, I am not sure what to think of the public shaming on Twitter. If it was just about stopping sexist jokes, I can think of a number of ways that would have gotten a much better result without the aftermath we have now seen. It has been blown out of all proportions.

From what I have seen so far, donglegate has only losers. If we thought a little more about the way to communicate, we might be more successful in the future.