Archive for November, 2006

Media Hazards

November 14, 2006

I attended a parents’ seminar last night on protecting children and teens from harmful media. It was the standard fare: your children are being targeted, and technology has enabled a torrent of bad messages that studies have shown to be highly correlated with all kinds of undesireable behavior.

Also, as expected, we heard a warning about Internet social networking sites: they are the new forest where predators lurk.

There was one idea discussed that had not occurred to me before: social networking technology has enabled a new torrent of bad messages from your children’s most powerful influence: their peers. And here I was, worrying about strangers, evil corporations, rappers, and video game developers!

So today I am checking real estate listings in Pennsylvania Dutch country and looking at horse and buggy catalogues.

P.S. Here are some web resources I got from the seminar:

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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

November 13, 2006

The theater business has been wringing its hands for decades wondering, “How can we get the bums back in the seats on Broadway?” I saw one terrific answer last weekend: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Reviewers have said plenty about this Tony award-winning show. I will only add a few thoughts: One is how little it takes in terms of effects, sets, lighting, and costumes to make so much entertainment. If every show could return so much on so little, Broadway would be a gold mine.

The structure of the show is ingenious. Since the whole story takes place at a spelling bee inside a high-school gym, practically no set is required. The upright-piano-plus-three orchestra is perfectly appropriate to the setting as well. The spelling bee provides a built-in narrative arc for the story to ride on. The real story is the human problems of the show’s nine main characters.

It fascinated me how the show incorporated the audience into the performance. Not only does the audience play the part of the spelling bee audience, but the show picks four audience volunteers at each performance to compete against the cast members as part of the story. This was truly interactive entertainment.

There is no “fourth wall” in Spelling Bee. This, of course, works fine for comedy. All stand-up comedians talk directly to the audience, and improv shows have long been incorporating audience members. However, Spelling Bee is no hit-or-miss improv show. It did have the whole audience laughing until we were gasping for breath, but one of the numbers—“The I Love You Song”—also had me weeping openly for the first time at a live show in years. This number is a young girl’s fantasy, triggered by her given word, “chimerical” (meaning “wildly fanciful; highly unrealistic”), that her self-centered parents might notice her and display affection. The characters’ stories deliver that all-important “meaning” to Spelling Bee that you don’t get with stand-up or improv.

Spelling Bee was an inspiration to me. It is an example of that rare thing that is so hard to achieve: interactive entertainment (albeit live) with humor, pathos and heart.

The Atlantic on Game Design

November 10, 2006

There is a very good article this month in The Atalantic Monthly about the “creative underachievement” of the video game industry. Unfortunately, you have to be a print subscriber to read it.

The article profiles Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, and their project, Façade—an attempt at an interative storytelling experience with “meaning.” The description of the challenges they faced and the opportunities they see could easily have been written about Cecropia and The Act.

Will Wright’s upcoming game, Spore, is also glowingly previewed, and Will Wright is heavily quoted. Excerpt:

“Interactive design is a really large box, and we’ve really only explored one little tiny corner of that box.”

Perhaps some day The Atlantic will get with the new millenium and provide some way to read their content online. Perhaps you might (as I did) accept the risk that the mailman will think you are a flaming liberal and subscribe.

Omar Tells Canadian TV, “I’m an Idiot!”

November 8, 2006

We just received a copy of this spot that aired September 23 on Canada’s Global National TV network (posted with permission):

After I said this, Brenda body-slammed me and told the reporter I was the crazy janitor who thinks he is President. Apparently, he didn’t buy it.

Video Shoot

November 7, 2006

Yesterday, I got to act out my childhood fantasy of being a movie director. We went to a sound stage and taped some actors playing The Act for a promotional video. I was on cloud nine, shouting things like “Makeup!” and “Action!” and “OK, people, let’s take five.” When I wasn’t laughing, that is. It turns out, one of the actors is a stand-up comic (Stephen Donovan), and one is a comedian at Improv Boston (Mark Odlum). The sound guy had to gag me, and most of the time Bob Dreissig directed the show while I convulsed on the floor.

You can check out Stephen at the Mohegan Sun on December 1, and at the Comedy Connection in Faneuil Hall Dec. 15-16. Mark’s show is called “Psychic Improv,” and it runs Friday nights at 8PM at Improv Boston through December 8.

P.S. Bob told us that this year seems to be the year of the video. His calendar is jammed because all of corporate America—even the smallest of companies (like us)—is thinking, “Let’s shoot some video and put it up on the web.” The Long Tail phenomenon at work!

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New Article

November 6, 2006

There is a great article by Barbara Robertson about The Act on the Computer Graphics Society website. Thanks, Barbara!

Update (11/7/2006): Great comments, too! 🙂

What is the ESA Hiding?

November 5, 2006

A trade association is supposed to advocate for its industry. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) is doing only a part of its job by tirelessly cheering for—and rebutting criticism of—video games. The ESA is failing in another important part of its job, that of being a credible, authoritative source of data about the video game industry for all the world to cite. In fact, the ESA has never done this part of its job well.

Consider one of the most basic statistics that anyone might want to know about the US video game industry: “How many Americans play games?” On the ESA web site, there is a section called “Facts and Research/Game Player Data,” where the ESA poses the question verbatim and offers this answer: “Sixty-nine percent of American heads of households play computer and video games.”

Excuse me? Isn’t that the answer to a completely different question? It may seem at first odd that the ESA would sound like a political candidate dodging a question on their own web site, but on close inspection it becomes clear that the “research data” on the site has been cherry-picked for positive results.

There are lots of “facts” cited on the ESA site, but even putting them all together, they don’t tell you how many people play games and how much they play. The ESA talks a lot about “game players,” but does not even define the term.

Compare this to the excellent research reports offered by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). In their published reports, the MPAA explains that 58 percent of the entire US population aged 12 and over attend movies in theaters at least once every six months. The term, “movie goers” is clearly defined and segmented by age and frequency of movie attendance.

If you look at the two sets of reports side by side, the difference is quite striking. Sure, the MPAA tries to put a positive spin on their data. For example, they valiantly claim that theater attendance is “holding steady,” when the graph clearly shows a downward slope. However, the reader is able to get a clear picture, because all the MPAA terms are straightforwardly defined, and the data are therefore useful.

ESA, the video game industry is doing well, and there is no need to obfuscate. Please give us some meaningful stats.

Get into “The Act”

November 3, 2006

We are having another Free Play Night for The Act at Boston Bowl (820 Morrisey Blvd., Boston, MA) tonight from 9 – 11 PM. Come check it out! (For more details, see today’s Boston Globe Sidekick.) Bring friends!

Abundant Choices

November 1, 2006

Last week, I had an odd first-time experience. I was at a neighborhood party, when the host asked if anyone had heard the funny story on NPR about the cocker spaniel. Some of us had not, so he went to his PC (hooked to the stereo via Airtunes) and played it.

As technological advances reduce the cost of storage and distribution, we are getting more and more choice as to what media content we consume and as to when and how we consume it. This trend is expected to continue until we can watch or listen to any TV show, radio show, movie, concert or song any time we want on any device.

But how will such abundant choices affect the content that is produced?

Chris Anderson argues in his Wired article, blog, and book, The Long Tail, that this trend will cause our economy to shift away from producing a small number of hit products to producing a large number of niche products. He has found hard evidence that, “The biggest money is in the smallest sales.” (E.g. Amazon’s total sales of less popular books is greater than their sales of bestsellers).

I see clearly how this will affect distributors—I would much rather be Amazon (whose technology allows them to sell Long Tail as well as hit products) than Tower Records (whose limited shelf space only allowed them to sell popular titles).

As for producers, there will now be a place at the table for the little guy. Lots more low-budget content will get produced because Long Tail distribution will make it economical. For example, this excellent video on how children can train puppies with clickers probably made a profit.

It may be true that all the Long Tail content out there will siphon some consumer spending away from hit content. This would mean smaller hits or fewer hits.

But does the Long Tail phenomenon mean big producers will stop trying to make hits? I think not, for two reasons. The first is emotional: humans are competitive and ambitious. Even the little guy making low-budget productions really wants to have a hit. The second is rational: for those few producers who have the dough, there will always be a reasonable inducement to spend money on things that increase sales (e.g. in movies: star talent, special effects, and advertising).