Eulogy for My Grandfather

On the night of April 21, 2011, my grandfather Joseph Splingaerd passed away in his home in Southern California.  He was 92 years old, just a few weeks short of his 93rd birthday, and had been in failing health for quite some time.  I decided speak at his funeral mass, and spent the past week agonizing over what to pick, out of 40 years of memories, as the right words to say.  I knew that no matter what, many things would remain unsaid, and that was hard to live with.

I ultimately decided to let others speak of his remarkable history, positive traits, and achievements, and instead allow myself to focus on my relationship to “Grandpa Joe”, some stories and memories that would make people smile and laugh, and to take the scary step of allowing people to see the parts of him that remained alive in his grandson.  It would be risky and audacious to make those comparisons, and a delicate matter to invite laughter at a funeral mass, and I approached the podium with a speech that was unrehearsed.

Today I read it aloud, unrehearsed, to the congregation of his loved ones.  It was received better than I could have hoped, and I was told afterwards–by many of the people who had been closest to him–that I had succeeded in evoking his memory, and my resemblance to him.

I would like to now share with everyone that eulogy.

“I wanted to write something that I thought Grandpa would like.  I hope you like it, too.”

“Thank you all for coming.  Let me start by saying that, twenty years ago, I was overseas and missed my grandmother’s funeral, so I will have a few words about her, too, by way of goodbye.”

“Last night, I arrived here in Los Angeles by plane, and walked from the gate to the baggage claim area down a hallway that hasn’t changed in decades, and this triggered a memory.  When my sister Cindy and I were children, the airport was a place that we went to, more than for any other reason, to pick up Granny and Grandpa for one of their visits.”

“Dad would park the car in the lot and we would all walk to the international arrival gate next to baggage claim.  I would scan every face walking down that long hallway towards us, until we spotted one another, and there we would all smile and wave to one another.  We would all chat happily as we piled into the car and headed home, where Cindy and I would eagerly bounce around the guest room while Granny and Grandpa unpacked, because we were eager to see what toys they had brought us this time.”

“Mom, Dad–  since Granny and Grandpa can no longer get into trouble, I can finally confess:  When you weren’t around,they would spoil us.  No, no, it’s true.  For example, when Granny and Grandpa had a house just a couple of miles from ours, and I would visit them, there was a bowl of candy on their coffee table.  In that bowl was a particular candy that became one of my all-time favorites.  So, when there is candy on a table somewhere, and you notice that the strawberry candies with the gooey centers are missing, I can now look you in the eye and say: (pause) Granny and Grandpa made me do it.”

“But let me talk about my Grandpa now.  Age 91.  Almost 92.  I think that’s a new high score.  It means that Grandpa and I were born a half century apart.  And we were born on opposite sides of the world, to completely different cultures. But we still had some special connections, a few things in common, a little symmetry in our lives here and there.”

“I can start with the obvious physical similarity.”

(I touched by bald head here)

“Yes, I inherited his hairline, which skipped a generation and landed squarely on my head, so thank you, Grandpa, for that.  I also inherited his waistline, and expanded on it a little.  But it looks like my Uncle Pete didn’t dodge that particular bullet.”

(“I’ve been waiting 40 years for a chance to tease Uncle Pete.”)

“Life in China was something else we had in common, if only for a little while, but that little bit counts, because we each fell in love with, a pretty girl at about the same age, in the same city of Tient’sin, China.”

“We both enjoyed creative expression through music.  I am sure that for everyone here, some of your most powerful memories of Grandpa are going to be of his amazing singing voice.  When I started reflecting what I would talk about today, the details of conversations, fishing trips, and family gatherings are blurry compared to the strong, sharp memories of his singing voice.”

“For my sister Cindy and me, some of our first memories of Grandpa are of sitting on the living room floor as children, listening to a cassette tape that he had made of himself singing us various children’s songs.  Later, the sharpest memories would be of his voice filling a church without the aid of any microphone.  To this day, when I think of—or hear—any of those children’s songs, like The Itsy Bitsy Spider, or religious songs, like Ave Maria—I hear his voice.”

“I have one more thing to share with you about his voice.  Grandpa had a wonderful, distinct greeting on the phone, and I found it easy and fun to imitate.  When I would phone home and my Mom would answer, I would frequently use that voice when saying “Hi!”  I don’t think she was ever fooled, but it still got a laugh out of Mom so I kept at it for the past ten years.  I won’t be doing that anymore, but I thought you all might appreciate my insight, because imitation, in addition to being the sincerest form of flattery, involves becoming, for just a moment, who you think that person was.”

“Here is how you do it:

You make your softer and gentler, but keep it clear.

Expand your chest to hold a bigger heart.

And into the word “Hi”, you inject all the joy of a doggy greeting his pet human.

Or, as I realized this morning, the joy of peering into a crowd at the airport and recognizing the face of someone you love.”

“Thank you, Grandpa.  And goodbye.”


April 4, 2011

The Frugal Game Studio

Warning: Lots of technobabble in this post!

In addition to taking on contract jobs in the games industry, I also like to work on my own projects.  It effectively means that I run a one-person game studio out of my home.  I was fortunate enough to have been at two tiny startups in my recent past, one of which was unfunded and one of which was fully funded. In a small startup, you get accustomed to having a small number of people wearing a large number of hats, being absolutely devoted to the products, and figuring out to do things efficiently and inexpensively.

I am working on a game  that I call Dragonlings, which is a light action strategy title about herding baby dragons.  I think that the game would be marvelous on tablet devices such as the iPad, but there are some challenges.

  • I have an all-Windows household, which makes development for any Apple hardware difficult at best.
  • Adobe’s Flash would be a great way to develop a cross-platform game that runs on multiple machines, but Apple explicitly forbids Flash from running on their mobile devices.
  • Development for Apple hardware is done in a language called Objective-C, which is syntactically different from the other major object-oriented programming languages.  In other words, Apple forces its developers to learn a language and method of development that is a non-transferable skill.  They require a high level of commitment and a high barrier to entry for making iOS products.

There are a few development packages out there which can ease the pain for such developers.  The ones of most interest to me are those which let me develop the game in Windows, and then easily port it to iOS devices.  In my case, I picked Unity3D.

Unity3D is a 3D, cross-platform game engine that works on desktop machines and a great many mobile devices.  There is a basic version for free, and a “Professional” version for $1,500.  The basic version is sufficient for prototyping a game, so that’s what I’m using.  If the game has potential, then I can decide at a later date to upgrade to the Professional version.  At that time, I may go out and buy a cheap Mac so that I can easily port the game to iOS, too.

I have been working with Unity for about 8 months now, and have a pretty good understanding of its strengths and weaknesses.  One big problem is that Unity is largely incompatible with Version Control systems, which are how multiple people can collaborate on a single project, and maintain an accurate paper-trail of every change made to a project.  Unity offers its own, proprietary solution for $500 a seat.  It’s not great, so I’m reluctant to fork over that much money for a flawed solution.

Instead, I am using DropBox, a free application that synchronizes a directory across as many machines as you like.  It’s not the optimal system for version control, but it does allow me to drag a copy of the latest version of Dragonlings into a folder on my machine, and have it automatically update that same folder on the machines of anyone whom I am sharing the game with.

I have a strong aversion to letting anything slip through the cracks on a project, so I favor meticulous note-taking, followed by frequent reorganizing of those notes.  Getting these hundreds–if not thousands–of “to do” items out of my head, and into some medium that I trust, is vital.  It clears my head of the nagging worries that I’ve forgotten something, and allows me to fill my brain with the stuff that I’m actually working on at the moment.

Since I’m a one-man studio without a budget (’cause there’s no money!) or a deadline (as soon as possible!) I do not need to track estimated times, dependencies, or load-balancing among a team with several people on it.  Mostly, I just need to track elaborate, hierarchical to-do lists that are constantly being elaborated and updated.  For this, I use the free online application CheckVist.  Like DropBox, it can be shared among many people if I like.

There are other free tools that I am using to make my projects, which I will talk about later.  But for now, I need to get back to work on Dragonlings!

A Note on “Coconut Queen 2”

Recently, a fan of Coconut Queen contacted me to ask about the sequel.  It’s true, we tried setting the game up to end on a cliffhanger, with lots of unanswered questions, to help push for a sequel.  We loved making that game, as the subject material was rich with humorous opportunities wrapped around a very solid mechanic.

But the sequel was not meant to be.  As I explained to George T., the game was a critical success but a commercial flop.  I won’t go into the reasons, but the game made back less than 10% of what it cost to develop it, by my calculations.  Under those circumstances, no sane company would throw more money at a franchise, and I’m not one to disagree!  To compound things, the publisher owns the rights, but has gotten out of the casual games industry in favor of a new core competency, and I am no longer with that company.


For George and the few other fans, I dug up my notes on CQ2, and will share them here:

Liz made her way to the other side of the island, to find a mirror image setup of the situation she was in, only with a man on the throne, surrounded by beautiful women.

What players would have found out next is that Arthur (yes, the protagonists are Queen Elizabeth and King Arthur) had a similar situation.  The natives, who were transplants from Colorado half a century before, had established the original Lui-Lui resort, but had been unable to agree on how to rescue their island from financial and ecological disaster.  The natives had finally agreed to try two approaches–tourism and agriculture–in relative isolation from one another.  They did their best to pick “clean slate” candidates, and give them nearly completely free rein in tackling their respective problems.

CQ2 would have focused on Arthur’s story, starting a little bit before Liz forced the eruption of Mount Kaba-Lui (an event that one of the level designers with a degree in geography assured me was utterly impossible).  Where the first game had you more or less banishing the ugly industrial side in favor of better looking tourist attractions, CQ2 would have you focusing on how to make the best of the food production aspects of life on Lui-Lui.

You would get to meet the female counterparts of Kane, Manu and the rest of the gang on the other side of the island as we poked fun at concepts of “male fantasy” this time around.  Picture beautiful women in CoCoCo Coconut Bikinis, an emphasis on gadgets to solve problems, bamboo hot rods and motorcycles (which we cut from the original game), and more.

I wish I could have continued the story and the type of gameplay, as I like “Environment-as-character” mechanics.  It’s not entirely out of the realm of likelihood that a sequel could be made, and retroactively boost sales of the original, thereby justifying the investment after the fact.  It happened with Westward, another of my games.

But game development is not free.  The cost to you, the player, is $7 to $20 for a few hours of entertainment.  The idea is that a game will make back its development costs through a high volume of sales at a low price.  And there’s no guarantee that we could bring that gang back together for a project.  Even if I heavily reused the art and engineering from the original, I’m talking $50,000 to develop, at a bare minimum.  It would take 5,000 people paying $10 each and then waiting several months for a return on their investment.  I think Coconut Queen, at her best, sold 3,000 copies.

You might think “How about going episodic? Sell each episode for $5-$10, and let each one fund the next?” I’d be for it, but that effectively shuts the door on the major distributors like Big Fish Games.  The casual game portals will not sell partial games, modifications to games, or expansion packs, only complete games.  They understandably don’t want to be in a situation where a developer forces them to carry a certain product, because it’s required by another product.  Every game must be a complete, standalone experience.

That being said, I’ve seen some remarkable crowd-funded projects.  This one’s a bit daunting, though.

So there you have it.  The passion was there to make a sequel, and the people who played the game enjoyed it, but the numbers didn’t add up to make a commitment to develop it.

The Relevance of “Serenity” in games

Over on the 4 Bean Studios blog, I have just resuscitated an older note of mine about the relevance of “serenity” in a computer game, and how my initial assumptions were incorrect, but obvious in retrospect.

Go take a read here.

Social Games and the “Adoption” Pattern

I’d like to gather a few thoughts together here from various sources, and show a few conclusions.

“Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” Clay Shirky

“The middle of the market is the juicy part, where profit meets scale.  The paradox is that it’s almost impossible to make a product or service for this segment, because they want the tried, the true and the boring.” Seth Godin

My friend and former coworker, David Fox just posted his own thoughts on social games, too.  He concluded that the social game industry is closer to pop music and fast food than to any other industries.

Each of these conclusions fits within the broader pattern of adoption.  Malcom Gladwell no doubt speaks about it in The Tipping Point, but I haven’t read that book.

Here is the story of adoption:

A new story begins. It could be a technology, like cellphones, e or moving pictures.  It could be a genre of book, like Teen Supernatural Romance, or a genre of game, like 2D physics puzzle, click management, or match-3, or first-person shooter.  It could be a dance craze, like salsa, breakdancing, or lindy hop.

The Early Adopters pounce.  The EAs are an interesting group, typically spending more than most and being more vocal than most.  They are the first to spend on something new that they perceive as solving a problem, easing a pain, or generally improving their lives.  It is their modest economic clout that starts the process of driving manufacturing prices down.

The public takes notice.  The first stage of critical mass is reaches, when an entire industry is speaking about the same thing.  When a clear pattern like this emerges, then the mainstream media begins covering the new item, because it’s in their own best interest to demonstrate awareness of a trend.  Social networks (a term that itself has only recently become ubiquitous) also take notice, and act as an accelerant, forwarding information and anecdotal evidence about the Coming Craze.  Social networks are like pouring rocket fuel on a fire.

It spreads in a novel, but primitive form. Novelty more than anything drives adoption.  This wave surges powerfully, as everyone is exposed to the new item.  It’s almost always crude and simplistic.  Look at the first movies, consisting of setting a camera on a beach and filming people who walk up to it and wave hello.  Look at casual games, which started out as the most primitive of products, well beneath the notice of an evolved multimillion dollar games industry.

And since it’s the new kid on the block, it will also get blamed for social ills, immoral behavior, and disrupting if not outright destroying some prior technology.  It’s usually hyperbole, and incendiary controversy started by the incumbent popular media.  It’s just a rite of passage for anything new, and will eventually blow over.

It becomes practical and ubiquitous.  Costs are driven down even as massive amounts of money are invested into the mass production of the item.  Demand remains high, but innovation gives away to accessibility and “market penetration”.  Features are steadily added, and consumers are monitored to see which ones get used.  And the incumbents who had previously sent looks of scorn and hostility towards the new item adjust and redefine themselves.

The Early Adopters are replaced with True Fans.  The novelty has worn off, and there is a changing of the guard among the consumers.  The Early Adopters leave to seek their new thrill, but the pervasive nature of the new item, now widespread, has finally reached those consumers for whom there is true resonance.  The True Fan drives incremental innovation by spending more than the average consumer, for whom the New has become the Commonplace.  The overwhelming majority of the item or product serves some common denominator that is low but reliable.

And, usually, the new item solves some problems while creating new problems that have never existed before.  Phones eased communication but demanded attention right away, and tethered you to a certain location at a certain time in order to communicate.  Answering machines and eventually cellphones came along, but then presented their own problems, moving the “rudeness” factors back across the phone line to the caller instead of the recipient.

Rinse, and repeat.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

In the games industry, I have witnessed multiple adoption waves, and have even played my part in a few.  When social games took off, I was pretty sure I knew how it would play out:

  • The current crop of social games is ubiquitous.
  • They are primitive, reacting to market trends and metrics rather than any human stories.
  • They are bland.  Nobody is offended in any way by the subject matter, premises, or themes of social games.  They do not challenge anyone’s cherished beliefs or perceptions.  There are no rough edges to pull us out of the experience and get us to consider walking away.
  • Since they are hosted on the very networks we use for our online interactions, they spread like wildfire.

They will not die.  Instead, the Early Adopters will get bored, the mass market will consume them in their primitive form like any other commodity, and a few passionate innovators will refine these rough beasts into something polished and compelling, while supported by the True Fans.


Ten Things

The meme just went ’round talking about things individuals have done that others probably haven’t.  (Hi Lise!) Okay, fine.  This looks like relatively harmless fun.  I’m in.  Here are ten things I’ve done that you probably haven’t.

  1. Written, choreographed a number for, and performed in a dance musical.  There were pirates.
  2. Broken into a closed Buddhist temple in China.
  3. Made my sister into a video game character as her college graduation present.
  4. Rowed the Davey Crockett Explorer Canoes at Disneyland before work.
  5. Tricked my mother onto a thrill ride.
  6. Assembled an international team and paid them out of my own pocket to develop a game I came up with.
  7. Run a game development studio where the women outnumbered the men.
  8. Come home to find my apartment surrounded by police, with a dead man on my living room floor.
  9. Fallen off the Great Wall of China (those steps are for much smaller feet)
  10. Watched lava flow downhill towards me at night.

If anyone has had any of these things happen in your life, I’d love to hear about it.

The Secret Objectives of Queues

I won’t belabor the obvious.  A typical guest experience at Disneyland, or at any of its relatives, involves lots of standing and trudging in lines.  The higher the attendance and more popular the attraction, the longer the line.  The more efficient the throughput is on the attraction, in terms of guests moved per hour, the faster the line moves.

In the absence of reservations, the queue is the de facto method for fairly and impartially giving every guest who wishes to go somewhere an opportunity to do so.  There are a couple of variants out there, which are getting plenty of coverage in popular Disney-centric blogs, so I’ll get into those later.

BUT! At a theme park, the queue serves other purposes of which you may not be consciously aware.

  • It reaffirms a sense of fairness in the world.  First come, first serve is inherently egalitarian.  A guest’s position in line is a direct and transparent consequence of when they chose to get in line.  “Fairness” is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but it’s something that many people incorporate into their mental model of the world.  Issues of impatience aside, reaffirming that can instill a sense of well-being.
  • It reaffirms the guest’s choice of attraction.  If a line for a non-mandatory process is long, then everyone in front of the guest must agree that the attraction is a desirable experience.
  • It controls the perceived population of the park. Here’s a simple but surprising observation: If a guest is spending more than half their time either in line for, or on, attractions, then that must mean that less than half of the park’s population is actually visible in publicly accessible areas.  As an example, an aerial photograph of Disneyland might show 15,000 people in the park on a day when there are 35,000 guests.
  • It controls the perceived popularity of an attraction.  Call this the blockbuster effect.  Movie theaters and themed attractions play a game with guests, balancing the need to keep paths open and safe against the desire to flaunt the popularity of an attraction.  The perception of the length of a queue can be controlled by opening and closing additional switchbacks either in highly visible areas, or in regions not seen by guests outside of the attraction queue.
  • It distributes an attraction’s features over a broader area.  The theming, pre-show, props, set dressing, mood lighting and ambient sounds can spill out from an attraction and be distributed over a larger footprint, to be absorbed in a less dense concentration.  The senses can be filled at a lighter pace than during the main show.
  • It builds anticipation by exposing the exit.  In addition to having attractions exit into a retail area, many more recent attractions place their exits somewhere highly visible to guests who have not yet embarked.  The idea here is to see the excitement, the afterglow in the facial expressions and body language of disembarked guests.  We are biologically wired to read and respond to cues in the faces and posture of others.  In effect, we “sip” some excitement from the pleased folks walking by.
  • It lets guests see how wet they will get. VERY important.  I could spend a blog entry on this one all by itself, and how it changes from country to country.
  • It allows special sightlines into the attraction.  Some attractions are completely out in the open, where their every twist and turn are visible to the public.  Others can tease, offering only glimpses into the interior.  The best way to make someone want to see something is to conspicuously hide it.  An attraction that offers you no glimpses into its interior until you make a commitment by getting in line? Very sexy.
  • It gradually immerses the guest in an internally consistent universe.Lights, cameras, roll sound, and….action! A gradual reshaping of the world over the course of several minutes gently and steadily suspends a guest’s disbelief, leaving them receptive to absorb the tenets of a new, internally consistent reality.  An attention to detail here allows information to be absorbed consciously and unconsciously.  Like the magician’s unspoken pact with an audience, this is how the covenant between attraction and guest is sealed: The attraction says “I will entertain you within this illusion” and the guest says “I will accept this deception in order to be entertained.”
  • It presents backstory at a more leisurely pace.  The high-throughput main show will necessarily have a high concentration of sensory information and story, either offering a summary experience or just the climax of a narrative, or some combination of the two.  Moving the backstory into the queue, like setting the stage, reduces the sensory load and informational prerequisites for guests.  They can learn what they need to know beforehand in order to better appreciate the main show.
  • It presents safety information. It informs guests of any safety regulations, policies, or limitations on how they enjoy the attraction, and warns of any risks or items that for whatever reason, a guest will find the experience unpleasant or potentially hazardous.
  • It presents embarking instructions. A queue is a great place to train guests how to help keep the line moving, so that they can enjoy the attraction sooner.  The assumption, too, is that everyone in front of the guest has been made aware of the same information, so that they all made the same commitment to an efficient queue that the guest has made.
  • It commits guests to the attraction. Look at the line at Starbucks.  There is a lesson–and a trick–here.  Starbucks’ baristas and cashiers are trained to take your order long before they will have an opportunity to make your beverage or ring up your transaction.  Ordering ahead does not in any way speed up the process by more than a second or two.  But the act of taking your order is enough to deter you from deciding to take your business somewhere with a shorter line, or no line at all.  Likewise, getting in line for an attraction establishes a covenant.
  • It triggers the loss-aversion behavior.  As soon as other people line up behind a guest, their position in line takes on value. That position increases in value somewhat as the people ahead of the guest embark on the attraction, but more significantly as more people queue behind the guest, because that position has just become desirable to a larger number of people.  Demand effectively increases.  Getting out of line would remove the perceived value to the guest without offering anything of equal value back.  Instead, the value is passed on to everyone behind the guest.  Smarter guests can do a conversion between the value of their place in line and the value of their time, but it’s a highly subjective one, affected by other events, time left in the day, quality of company in line, entertainment value in the queue itself, and missed opportunities (i.e. I’m hungry, or there’s a parade somewhere else that I could be watching)
  • It offers the perception of advancement and progress. The passive act of waiting is transformed into the active act of advancing in line.  Long lines that move are much more satisfying and life-affirming than short lines that don’t move.

Stuck in a line at a theme park and feel like nothing’s happening? Remember this list, and realize that a whole lot is going on.

Just not a lot of walking.