Cognitive Surplus and Narrative Architecture

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.

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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.

Corporate-Sponsored Creativity… Good or Bad?

Source: TG Daily

After watching last night’s Community, I tried to shake off my inner-anti-corporate bigotry. I really did.Yes, Subway was all over the episode, and they did a tremendous job of integrating it into the storyline of the show, using some of the worries that I had about corporate sponsorship as part of their continuing meta-approach to storytelling that has become their forte (that’s forte, not fort, as in, “building a blanket fort is his forte.”).

Source: NBC

So after watching it, I turned on Guns, Germs, and Steel (which you have to go watch, by the way; it is fascinating to the nth degree), and proceeded to semi-zone out while my brain did some work (I instantly went back to a simpler time in my past where I got my minor in History).

At some point during the documentary, I realized that Subway paying for time on the television show is not that much different from an author getting paid for writing an article for a newspaper. Well, except for the whole corporation-not-a-human-thing…

I may get a little to far afield right now, but that’s what I do, so bear with me.

Humans want content. We get that content through various channels, most of which require an extensive amount of infrastructure to even maintain (have you ever though how freaking complicated it is to have a GPS that tells you when to turn left, or the fact that you can pick up HD television signals in your house where you watch someone talk about the latest city council vote LIVE?). So, someone’s got to foot the bill, right?

Beyond the infrastructure, then you have people who actually make the thing. If we’re going to talk about books for a second (and why wouldn’t we?), just think about all of the different people who had to contribute to the thing being written, edited, designed,  printed, shipped, bought, sold, marketed, and read. And then go watch this video that will make your head explode from the awesomeness of craftsmanship at these people making books.

Okay, now this isn’t going to be one of those corporate-sponsored blog posts (but seriously, doesn’t a nice, big, footlong in your mouth sound good? I’m talking about Subway), but I do have to say that maybe sponsorship isn’t such a bad thing. Subway helped keep Chuck on the air for a few more seasons (even though I swear to God I heard someone whisper “Five-dollar footlong” on the show once).

I’m not saying that I would be okay with someone coming through and giving me some money for putting brand name shoes on my characters, or even having them all go to eat at Burger King or something. But why not? Do I think that my artistic worth is so great that corporate sponsorship would taint my immaculate words?

If a working-class joe wanted to spend ten bucks on something I wrote, I’d let them, right? So what if a soulless corporation wanted to give me a couple thousand to include them in the story?

True, I don’t think that changing the content to fit with a corporation’s values would necessarily be the best thing, but most of us work for a business, right? What kinds of things do we do for them from 9-5, M-F?

And what makes that different?

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?

What is Wrong with Price Collusion?

If you’ve read The Wall Street Journal’s article on the impending DoJ’s investigation of potential price collusion between Apple and five of the Big Six publishers, it might seem kind of cut and dry.

But with anything having to do with publishing and books, it never is.

Mike Shatzkin talked about some of the potential implications for other retailers, ebook manufacturers, distributors, and publishers (don’t take my word for it; go read it here), and I must say that it’s kind of scary. Shatzkin always has a lot of smart and wonderful things to say (even when they’re scary as hell from an independent publisher’s perspective), but I wondered if there was something else that might be at play here, something that could end up being good for the author…

One of his last points is this: “But, in the long run, all authors will just get less. They will join the legion of suppliers beholden to a retailer whose mission is to deliver the lowest possible price to the consumer.”

As I think about this, I’m just too damn stubborn to accept it. I don’t think that publishers have been passing the savings along to the author, and maybe it’s about time that the authors themselves rise up and say that they are going to control pricing in a way that is actually beneficial to them and not the publisher or distributor (one of the unsung middlemen in this whole thing). Yes, I agree that publishers are the ones that do a lot of work in the process, but they should be in service to the author, not the other way around (which seems to be the case, especially if you consider just how honored a writer is who is actually published). They should be running to authors right now, saying, “holy shit, things are crazy, but we promise that we’re going to take care of you; just let us figure this thing out, so we can make sure you get honest pay for honest work.”

Maybe I’ve got too much idealism floating around in my head right now; maybe I’m just too hopped up on the sunshine spilling in through the windows. Distribution is changing the entire business, and agency pricing seems to be in place to keep the status quo moving along, and to a degree, I’m okay with that shit going away.

I wouldn’t be surprised if when the dust settles, there will be a new approximation of what it used to be like: digital storefronts, great editors with their favorite ebooks that they’ve worked on, author/publisher relationships that are mutually beneficial, and readers with books.

And that sounds perfect, as long as authors are eating…

 

The Burning Fire

The Kindle Fire is out now. Big freakin’ whoop, right?

Right.

A couple of months ago, I told my wife to go ahead and start saving up for my Fire, ’cause come Christmas time, that’s what I wanted Santa to put in my stocking. And so the story goes.

As Amazon has released the thing this week, amid competition from B&N’s Nook tablet (am I the only one who hates that name? I don’t know why either.), and some of the reviews are in. It seems to be a mixed bag; some of the people are talking about the tablet in relation to its price (thereby forgiving some of the potential technical issues), while others only refer to it in the greater scheme of tablets at large.

Which got me thinking: if price impacts ratings, how far can we extend that mentality?

Do we buy a shitty car because of its near-disposable pricetag? Hyundai would say “yes.”

Do we buy those crappy DVDs that wind up in the bargain bin, beckoning us with their $1 price tag? My 80’s movie collection would suggest that is the case.

Does a crappy tablet, one that is basically a content-delivery device (as opposed to what, I wonder?) justify the $199 price-point? If not, what is the amount that we are willing to pay? I’m not sure if I want a not-quite-big-enough-to-enjoy-emagazines-tablet for 200 bucks. And growing up tinkering with the family’s 8088 computer back in the day (you know, the one that booted into DOS) has left with me a hesitancy to deal with technology that doesn’t allow you to manipulate it on the most basic level. You get a Fire, you go straight to Amazon for your content. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Amazon is probably losing some money on this, which should be a warning flag. Why would a company be willing to lose money on something like this, a product that might sell 5 million units? Well, the same reason why sometimes it’s okay to give away some chapters and songs and crack: it makes the consumer come back for more. And Amazon is hoping that the Fire is a portal to Amazon content, making people more easily consume consume consume.

So I’m not sure what’s going to happen after all of this. There’s a good chance that a lot of people (shit, around 5 million people maybe) will go out there and get their grubby mitts on the Fires as they sweep across the land. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because that’s 5 million more people who could potentially be buying books and reading newspapers and all that stuff. It’ll probably be 5 million more people playing Angry Birds or something, though.

But there are some of us who want tablets in people’s hands. Not because of some ultra-technophile reason, but because we have stories to tell, and there are more options than just printed text on page.

The sad story of Push Pop Press

Let me begin by saying that it’s a sad story for most of us; it’s not a sad story for Push Pop, nor is it a sad story for Facebook. I’m not really sure Facebook is capable of having a sad story these days. Even when people erupt over Facebook privacy concerns, somehow we all quiet down soon afterwards, content with our toys. Even Zuckster just tells you about all of the other people in the business stealing your information, trying to divert our attention. And we usually look over there (“Squirrel!”), forgetting what we were originally talking about.

I know that sounds a little harsh, but still.

Everyone is lamenting the death of the book these days. Everyone, meaning all the people who care about publishing. So I guess that means like 47 people in the world. Whatever. And there’s good stuff out there. There are tablets to reinvigorate storytelling (and no, I’m not going to link to Apple, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble. I mean, we all know who they are, right?), and there are platforms like the Atavist, helping publishers tell those new stories.

I love the Atavist stuff; I recently talked to them about working together for my future publishing projects, and while the terms weren’t mutually beneficial for the scope of my work, I still think that it’s some good stuff. I started thinking about a story I read a while back about Push Pop Press, who gave a pretty cool TED demo about their own publishing platform.

And so this morning I donned my interwebs spelunking gear and went searching for some prices for this platform that they were going to be releasing for publishers to help re-invigorate the industry.

Instead, they sold their platform to Facebook. Here‘s the release on Push Pop’s website. No biggie, right? Everybody’s gotta get paid; I can dig it.

But.

On the website, I noticed that Push Pop’s founders referred to Facebook as “the world’s largest book.” When I read that, I got up, went to the office, and started scrounging around for some Tums so I didn’t spew my breakfast all over the computer screen (and I share this desk with like seven other adjunct faculty members, so I didn’t want to be rude).

I thought Infinite Jest had to be one of the bigger books in the world. You know, besides the Bible. But there’s also this book, which apparently has 1460 pages, each of which is “three and a half feet wide, five feet tall and five inches thick.” So yeah, that’s pretty big.

Seriously, though: Facebook as the world’s largest book? Please. Only if the world’s largest book is a collection of what-we-eat-for-breakfast, funny looks our dogs make, and horrible pictures of us from when we were seventeen posted by that that girl from high school who we barely remembered but apparently has a helluva collection of pics of us with braces, gawky bone structures, and acne. But I digress.

The real concern in this story isn’t necessarily that the big guys bought up the fancy tech. It’s not that some really smart people who know their shit got paid. It’s that those of us who think that there is something valuable in working with books in all of its new potential forms wish the coming transition was going to be easy. Well it’s not.

I know nothing about making software and all that stuff, but maybe I need to start learning, because I don’t have the millions to wave at programmers, convincing them to let me use their knowledge to tell stories. All I got is way too much idealism. Mixed with some sadness at the thought of what could have been.

Oh Push Pop, we could have made some sweet, creative, and intellectual love together.

The future of publishing (part 3 of 3): publishers

When considering the future of the business from a publisher’s perspective, it must be noted that this is extremely hypothetical.

Too much of the business is in a state of flux to offer any concrete examples (provable or otherwise) of what it will look like, but here are some educated guesses.

Based on the availability of POD technologies, what is going to happen is that the independant publisher is going to be able to compete to e certain degree with the bigger publishers.  By being knowledgable of the different aspects of publishing, an Ooligan grad will be able to handle all aspects of a job, ranging from acquisitions (I have several friends that are working on manuscripts, and I’m sure you do too) to editing to design.  The software is readily available and the work is limited only to the amount of time that you want to spend on a given project.

However, the big publishers will have to widen the scope of their own publsihing efforts, taking into consideration all of the various online methods of community building and author support.  The fittest will survive, and they will be the ones that cultivate a good working relationship with the author, providing social network access, alternative methods of author readings (podcasts as freemiums on websites), and cross-media applications of their intellectual properties.

A press will be viewed as successful only if it is able to manage all of these different avenues (multiple ebook formats, POD versions of the book, and collector editions for the hardcore fan).  Books will not go away (as long as people like vinyl, there will be people who read books), but the alternatives will bring more readers into the fold, so publishers will have to be ready.  There will be companies that have dedicated social networking staffs who manage social components to marketing campaigns, as well as designers well versed in Xml, xHtml, and epub formats, and they will work with all versions throughout the entire design and production arc of a book’s creation.

Online marketing will no longer be an optional component of publicity, but will be the cornerstone of a book’s life cycle.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if some publishers get their own island in second life.  I’m just saying….

-bk

The future of publishing (part 2 of 3): the authors

With the inevitable changes taking place now and in the future, I believe that authors are going to benefit in the long run.

As more and more of us publishers learn how to do our jobs, and then find that there aren’t enough jobs to go around, we’ll actually start to manipulate the business structure in the pub world.  With the different POD options out there and the limited turn around time for making an Ebook from an Indesign file, it’s going to be easier to help authors get there books in print and available.  With limited time and money, sliding scale royalty rates should apply, giving both the author and the publisher the opportunity to tailor to each individual project.

This means that instead of having to pay several hundred dollars to self-publish, an author could have a publisher do the same amount of work, getting paid only if the work sells.  I know, I know, doesn’t sound like too good of a deal, right?  But it just means more opportunities for the author to get their work out in the world.

Additionally, with all of the content that will be used in the big publishing houses (I’m thinking of creative marketing plans, web content, hyperlinked backstories, webisodes, etc.), authors will be some of the best people to fill those roles.  Creating content, blurring the lines between real and virtual reality, will fall to the most prepared of the authors.  Blogging, creating narratives (which can then be easily converted to some new Ebook device), and telling stories on netbooks and cellphones will serve some of the multiple narrative streams that authors will get to do.

While there might not be as many ways to make a huge ton of money off of a book directly, if (and this is a big IF) the book in question gets to that “tipping point”, based on the future’s interconnectedness, it will be easier to analyze the chances of getting viral (when fully analyzing the mavens and network brokers that visit your site), thereby helping well-connected authors get assistance in getting published.

Hopefully.

Again, while there not be as many opportunities to make money, there will be many outlets for creativity.

And if they can eat and stay clothed, will be a good thing.

-bk