A few things Mark Wallace

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Gaming Began With Ameritrash

It’s just now struck me that the however-many-thousand-year history of gaming began with a very distinct class of board game known as Ameritrash. Don’t believe me? Consider the evidence:

  • Senet, commonly mentioned as the oldest known board game, features the movement of each player’s units around a track toward a goal; along the way, superior tactics can cause an opponent grave setbacks — Ameritrash often features unit movement and some kind of conflict or combat among units
  • Movement in Senet is determined by the casting of lots, i.e., the throw of some anciently flavored dice — Ameritrash games are notoriously more dice-heavy than their Eurostyle counterparts
  • Ameritrash is also often strongly themed — Senet has its theme as well: its board seems to depict the soul’s journey to the afterlife, and results of games were thought to carry a certain amount of soothsaying weight.

So there you have it. The first proper board game was Ameritrash.

Take that, Eurogames!

Though to be sure, all it takes is a loose portal token to set you back on the right track…

The Time For A Digital “New Journalism” Is Now

Frédéric Filloux had an interesting post this week on The Need for a Digital “New Journalism” in which he calls for “an urgent evolution in the way newspapers are written” online. Among other points, Filloux — who writes the Monday Note, an insightful weekly column about “media, tech, and business models” — winds up by exhorting digital media to “invent its own journalistic genres.”

The web and its mobile offspring, are calling for their own New Journalism comparable to the one that blossomed in the Seventies. While the blogosphere has yet to find its Tom Wolfe, the newspaper industry still has a critical role to play: It could be at the forefront of this essential evolution in journalism.

While I’m not entirely sure that a kind of New Journalism isn’t already at work on the Web — and it may well have its Tom Wolfe already — I appreciate Filloux’s broader point: instead of decrying the “death of journalism,” newspapers and news reporters of whatever stripe would be far better off to simply reinvent it. Stalwart institutions like The New York Times still carry enough weight to have a serious influence on the future of electronic journalism, should they so choose. But that won’t last forever.

The Board Game That Led to the First MMO

Richard Bartle's Wizards & Heroes board game

In our book on virtual worlds and online games (The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid that Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse), we give a lot of attention, fittingly, to the first persistent multiplayer online world. Known as MUD1 and dating from 1978, the Multi-User Dungeon was designed and developed by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle — the latter of whom had an interesting post on Google+ last week about a board game he designed that had influenced the computer game.

The game, originally called Wizzards & Heros, was “inspired by a make-your-own game article I’d read in the magazine Games and Puzzles,” Bartle writes. As he describes it: “The basic idea was that you were a wizard or hero (or, later under D&D influence, priest) who was out seeking treasure. You would get treasure mainly from killing monsters, [but] simply killing a monster didn’t get you treasure: you had to have an advice card telling you that the monster had the treasure. Advice cards were acquired by ending your turn in a village (red circles on a road) or in a city (red hexes). You couldn’t sit in a village to get more advice but you could in a city; however, in a city there was a risk of plague, so you wouldn’t want to stay there long.”

There’s a great description of the game in Bartle’s Google+ post, including a very cool “corpse run” mechanic that’s common in electronic MMOs but which I’ve never encountered before in an analog game.

One misconception that Bartle corrects: The game predated his and his friends’ knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons, which is often cited as an ancestor of MUD1. D&D had an influence, but perhaps not as much as many writers (including myself) have assumed. “Much has been written about the influence of D&D on the development of MMOs, but in MUD‘s case at least there wasn’t a lot. I drew far more on games I’d made myself,” Bartle says. Another argument for grabbing your magic markers and scotch tape and getting started making board games.

Strategy Game Gets Book Deal

The most interesting part of this press release announcing that Ireland-based game company Digit raises US$2.5m is not the financing news, but the last sentence of the release: “Kings of the Realm [Digit’s free-to-play strategy title] is due out later this year, along with the first book in a series from Penguin.” [Emphasis mine.]

Though it doesn’t seem to have originated as an intentional package deal (news of the book deal was first released last fall: Digit and Penguin ink Kings of the Realm book deal), it’s a smart move nonetheless, and I expect to see a more such deals in future, and more projects that are envisioned as this kind of true “transmedia” marriage right out of the gate.

Rather than cobble together an adaptation after the fact, or take advantage of a property’s popularity to piggy-back a game or other add-on, it makes a lot of sense to craft a number of components as pieces of a larger, more integrated whole, letting each medium take advantage of its own strengths and feed into the strengths of the others involved.

It will take a lot of vision to do this right, and a lot of talent. But it’s coming. And it’s going to be really cool when it gets here, seamlessly reaching into unexpected corners of your media-consuming life to bring you a richer, more immersive style of entertainment than we’ve seen before. I can’t wait to see this happen, and be part of bringing it to life.

Fitting Mobile Games Onto a Board

Temple Run Danger Chase: fun?
This is cross-posted from the Quora blog I recently started as an experiment. Why am I cross-posting this here? Who knows…

I love the idea of board games based on video games. But I’m not sure whether I like that idea better, or the idea of board games based on mobile gaming apps — like the Temple Run Danger Chase game, a review of which I stumbled across the other day.

The idea of tying board games to licensed IP in this way is very appealing. It doesn’t absolve the game of its burden of fun (the Temple Run game sounds like it may or may not have accomplished that), but it does give the games a leg up in a market in which few original titles see any appreciable sales. I know that games for properties like the Walking Dead and others have done very well for themselves, probably much better than if they’d just been pushed out into the market as games qua games.

This, of course, is the same avenue that a lot of electronic game publishers go down, not always with good results. Licensed video games run the gamut from fantastic (some of the Star Wars games) to abysmal (too many titles to list). But then, so do adaptations of books into movies. The license doesn’t make the product any better, it just makes it draw more attention, from a more qualified audience. And in the low-margin world of board games, that’s important.

The reason I like the idea of games made from apps is that the interaction footprint of an app is generally so small that you can extract a nice tight core mechanic from it for use in a game. What’s an interaction footprint? It’s something I just made up; like it? It’s a term that’s meant to characterize the number of possible interactions you can have with an app, or with anything, I suppose. Temple Run has an exceedingly small interaction footprint: you can swipe up, you can swipe down, you can swipe right, or you can swipe left, and two of those do essentially the same thing. In fact, the interaction footprint of Temple Run is so small that it sounds like the designers of the board game saw the need to add some.

Mobile games, especially those playable on a phone, are often forced by constraints of form factor to boil their experience down to a few key interactions. That’s not the only way to design a good board game, but it can be helpful, especially in a game for the mass market. Board games have other constraints, of course, in that feedback happens much more slowly than in electronic apps, and so more variety may need to be built in. But my top-of-head thought is that there must be a ton of mobile games out there with small enough interaction footprints that they would translate well into analog games. I’ll be right back, after I hunt up a few.

UPDATE: Forgot to include the news that board games for DOTA2 and Team Fortress 2 are on their way. Cool!

Blogging at Quora

For some reason, I’ve started a blog over at Quora. Back to Analog will (probably) look at what I refer to in my first post as the Return to Substance: the current trend toward the tactile and physical, toward the substantive and meaningful, that I see going on all over the place these days. Not a rejection of technology, but a more reasonable relationship to it. Go check it out and let me know what you think.

I do like the blogging interface over there, it’s super-smooth. And I can’t find it now, but on the page where they urge you to start your own blog there, they have some great assertions about how easy you’ll find it to immediately garner a huge and productive audience. Which at this point in the history of the Internet, no matter how cool your Q&A site, is a laughable thing to say.

In any case, I’m already up to five posts:


If You Build It They Will Share — Or Not

I like the idea of Quartz, the new business magazine from the Atlantic Group, but I’m not convinced they have a plan in place to reach the people they need to reach. Maybe they do, but I haven’t heard about it yet. Instead, Quartz Editor-in-Chief Kevin Delaney, in an interview with the Nieman Journalism Lab, responds to a question about distribution mostly by citing the quality and accessibility of his content. These are good things to have, but they aren’t the same as a distribution strategy.

Nieman’s Justin Ellis asks, “You aren’t on a print newsstand and you’re not in an app store. How are people going to find Quartz?” Delaney responds by saying Quartz’s content is (a) free, (b) multiplatform, and (c) “made to share.”

That’s not an answer that satisfies me Continue reading

More Evidence of Maturing Private Equity Markets

Entrepreneur, investor, and “data guy” Mike Greenfield has a nice post on how AngelList quantitatively changes the investing game, which lines up nicely with a few of the points I was trying to make in my recent post on whether startup valuations are overinflated as a result of programs like Y Combinator.

Mike finds that startups funded through AngelList end up with a more diverse pool of investors than those that locate investors through more traditional word-of-mouth channels. This is not necessarily a surprise, given that AngelList seems designed to flatten the world of private equity financing and give more people on either side of the table a look at more deals — but it is a nicely crunched set of numbers. And to my eye it’s another indication that the private equity markets — or at least the corner of the market that tech startups and venture capitalists inhabit — is passing into a phase of greater maturity, where more information is available to more players, and the playing field is leveled a bit in comparison to periods that have come before. As Mike puts it, “As AngelList and crowdsourcing grow, the impact of the old boys’ clubs will shrink. For companies, the pool of investors is growing.” Not a bad result.

Season of Change?

Around here, everyone wants to change the world, but it seems that late-September / early-October is the season when a lot of those hopes take shape — if the conference schedule is anything to judge by. Here’s a (very) short list of conferences pushing change in the coming months:

Clinton Global Initiative
The Clinton Foundation holds the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative on Sept. 23-25 in New York City. CGI is notable in that the conference has a very strong focus on commitments for action from corporations and global leaders — although the track record of delivering on those commitments is debatable.

The Feast
The Feast is a young but recently expanded conference, also being held in New York, Oct. 3-5. With its Social Innovation Week, The Feast brings together talks, workshops, and hackathons featuring everyone from Cirque du Soleil creative directors, NASA technologists, startup CEOs like Bre Pettis, and more. “We’re done waiting for the world to change,” states the conference Web site. “The Feast Conference gathers remarkable entrepreneurs, radicals, doers and thinkers that bring their talents to the table to make life better. Our attendees don’t just sit back. They’ll be rolling up their sleeves at roundtables this October to respond to challenges issued by visionary speakers who dare to ask the question, What does the world need now?” Again, the proof’s in the follow-through. It would be great for the site to feature the results of previous conferences more strongly, if anything.

The Social Capital Markets conference — which bills itself as sitting at “the intersection of money and meaning” — is also held in early October, slated for Oct. 1-4 here in San Francisco. SoCap is “dedicated to increasing the flow of capital toward social good,” but has proved slightly unexciting, from all reports, and fronts a mixed bag of panelists so far. If anything, it’s the money that appears to be under-represented. 2011 attendee Nell Edgington has a good account of issues at last year’s conference.

Of course, all of the above raises the question of whether chin-wags like these are really the places from which change will emerge. I do think it’s largely a bottom-up issue, as The Feast holds, but I also think it can’t happen without support from the top, as the CGI is well aware. Stay tuned.

Lamest Corporate Social Responsibility Press Release Ever?

L’Oreal, a $5 billion multinational that bills itself as “the world’s leading beauty company,” had a press release on the Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire yesterday, flagging the $2 million it raised for the Children’s Specialized Hospital Foundation, which “serves children affected by brain injury, spinal cord injury, premature birth, autism, developmental delays, and life-changing illnesses.”

I’m positive L’Oreal must be directing a significant amount of money each year toward corporate philanthropy (see below for more on that), but my reaction when I saw that headline was, “$2 million? Really?? Is that it? Surely you can do better than 1/25th of one percent of your annual revenue for needy kids.” And on closer inspection, this turns out to be $2 million the company has raised not this year but since 2008. And it isn’t even L’Oreal’s money, but donations it helped raise through a charity golf outing.

I’m not often moved to write blog posts like this, but the “news” in this press release is so lame as to be offensive. In fact, L’Oreal devotes a significant amount of resources to its philanthropic foundation, which appears to be doing good work of various kinds, all over the world. Why bother, then, to crow about a fairly paltry sum that the company itself didn’t even donate? Probably for the same reason that Unette Corporation, Century Packaging, Inc., RockTenn, Packaging Corporation of America, and Walker International are mentioned in the release as “suppliers, donors, and sponsors” — for the corporate social irresponsibility value of cheap advertising.

This is very obviously not a new issue. Nor is it something that’s going to shatter the earth. But given the fact that it’s a struggle to undertake truly valuable corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs, or even to highlight the efforts that are worthy, putting out a press release like this only makes the task more difficult. Would it have hurt L’Oreal for the headline to have read “Children’s Specialized Hospital Foundation Raises $550,000,” which is actually what happened?

Then again, L’Oreal is a company devoted to surface and image; how could they have played it any other way?

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