Is Technology Bankrupting The Gaming Industry?

Ever since the beginning of the personal computing era, technology has been said to enhance our lives and ever since someone said that, we’ve been doubting that this is really a productivity boost. One area that’s interesting to look at is the effect of technology on businesses and business models. Take the gaming industry for example.

20 years ago, a team of 1 programmer could create an entire game in 2-3 months. He would write the text himself, do the graphics and code the engine. The money required to create a game was minimal and so were the risks. As time went on, teams grew first to a few more people (2-5) and then more (10-20) and again and again. As it is now, graphical technology is so powerful that it takes an army of artists , programmer, writers, Q&A and managers to create a “triple-a” game. The result is that a major game will now cost upwards of 15-20M$ to create and that 1M copies sold is now a bad result. You may well lose money on a project that has sold 1M copies. To cope with the increased price to create a game, the retail price of games have gone up.

The software industry is lucky enough that so far, we’ve been exempt from the technology race. It has actually had the opposite effect: as new processors and more memory become available, we get to be more and more lazy about the way we create our application. Gone are the days where we had to carefully plan every byte, we now have garbage collection and scripting languages to help us out.

What’s true for the gaming industry is also partly true for the movie industry. When special effects, green screens and virtual actors became the norm, the price to create a movie went up. So did the ticket prices at the local theater.

The real question then becomes when do we stop. 20M$ to create a game is a big number, but as we add more resolution and as 3D displays become standard, where do we stop? The race to create the next big “hit” means that every year the price to create 1h of entertainment goes up but as we’ve seen, there’s a limit as to how much people are willing to pay for said entertainment.

Over the last few years we’ve seen new platforms come out that has rekindled the market for smaller games. Digital games download on consoles and portable gadgets like the iPhone have enabled programmers to go back to more manageable budgets and mitigate the risks. Unfortunately, as these gadgets become more and more powerful, the budgets will increase.

So when does it stop?

How About an App Store for the Desktop?

When Apple released the iTunes Store back in 2003, the company revolutionized online sales of Music. It did the same for mobile Application in 2008 when it released the iTunes App Store for the iPhone and iPod Touch. While many would argue that the App Store is far from perfect (long delay in approbation, you can only publish stuff that Apple deems acceptable, etc.), there’s no┬ádenying the numerous advantages of having an App Store. Search for “football” and you’ll get a bunch of games and apps that relates to your favorite sports. From a developer perspective, there’s certainly a big advantage. On a personal note, there’s no way my application would sell as much without the centralized listing.

Even with as many as 100 000 apps, even a listing of only compatible apps for your device come up when you search for “football” is basically the equivalent of coming out on page 1 of a Google search for that same term.

This whole thing begs the question, should Apple and Microsoft create a centralized App Store for the desktop? When you think about it, we already have that for games. It’s called Steam and it’s been a huge success ever since it came out back in 2004. As is the case with Steam for gaming, having an App Store for the desktop doesn’t mean you cannot sell your app any other way, it just gives you an additional place to sell it.

The gaming consoles also have that same concept. All the major consoles today have their own integrated store where you can buy games and add-ons for your device. So far, computer software is the exception to the rule and the negativity surrounding the App Store policies might make Apple or Microsoft think twice, but I don’t see why it would be a bad thing. Again, it’s an additional place to sell your stuff, not the only place to sell your stuff.

With the success of the iTunes App Store and Apple’s way of doing things, I wouldn’t be surprised if the company came out with such a concept in the near future. It could be one more way for the company to differentiate Mac OS X from Windows and add to the list of reasons why “OS X is easy to use”.

Managing The Unmanageable

Over the past 2 months or so, 2 stories came out where Microsoft didn’t look too good. The first time around, the company was accused of stealing open source code for its USB/DVD Download Tool for Windows 7. Paul Thurrott had the story in early november on his SuperSite for Windows. In that case, we later learned that a contractor for Microsoft had built the tool using open source components without telling anyone. The company later apologized and will reissue the software shortly with full source code to comply with the GPL.

Today, Techcrunch has another similar story. We do not yet have all the details, but it seems like Microsoft China decided to build itself a Twitter competitor for the local market to compete with the small (but popular) startup Plurk. So what did they do? According to the report on Techcrunch, they copied the design almost verbatim and then copied many of the code too. I mean, why stop at the design?

Now it’s obvious Microsoft inc. did not issue a directive to all employees to start stealing code left and right. The problem here though, is that it’s the kind of thing that’s really hard to manage when you have over 35 000 employees in several countries around the world. God, when I managed my team of 6-8 programmers here in Montreal, it was sometime hard to see if one of them wasn’t screwing things up, so it’s easy to imagine managing 35 000 employees in this regard being incredibly hard.

Interestingly, Apple has not yet been accused of this kind of thing, so perhaps the company does manage to do a better QA or code revision on everything that’s sent out? There are pluses and minuses to mandatory code reviews (and certainly, many programmers dislike the idea) but this is one area where perhaps it would help. Then again, Microsoft most certainly does code review for its main products (Windows, Office, etc.), but how do you ensure everything is A-OK in China where some mid-level manager might just decide using a competitor’s code is good enough. Deadline, you know?

The scary part as I said is that in my 12 years as a programmer, lead developer, team leader and tech leader for various businesses, I’ve seen similar problem creep up from time to time in what can only describe as very small projects. How do you manage the unmanageable? Maybe the solution is to simple accept that inevitability and react once you get caught.

Unlocked & Unsubsidized, The Future of Cell Phones

While I’m a big geek and a guy who loves coding many hours everyday, I’ve been spending a lot of time on this blog talking about business. I love business aspect of technology and it’s obvious there’s a lot going on and it’s sometime worthwhile to analyze things a bit.

Techcrunch has an interesting post on long-rumored (and hopefully soon to be released) official Google phone. The parallels to Apple are quite interesting. When Apple first came out with an “iTunes phone”, they went to Motorola to create it and it ended up being a mixed bag. Not a terrible product, but clearly not Apple’s vision. The next logical step was obvious and from that the iPhone was born.

When the iPhone was first released, Apple decided to try and change the way the industry worked by selling the phone unsubsidized. It worked pretty well, sales-wise, but obviously Apple released that selling a 600$ (or even 400$ phone limits the number of people who will buy your phone compared to a 99$ phone.

With its first in-house phone, Google is taking a similar route and going one (important) step further : according to Techcrunch they will sell the phone unlocked and will forgo the carrier. Buy the device, insert your sim card and you’re good to go. It’s something I was hoping Apple would do and it’s clear that AT&T in the US hasn’t been the best of partner for Apple. If Google does succeed with this plan, hopefully it’ll pave the way for Apple and others to follow suit.

It’s interesting to see the newcomers in the telecommunication industry change the way things work. The iPhone has done quite the revolution with regards to user interface and acceptance of the smart phone for the general public and hopefully Google will be able to make even more changes to get that industry to be a little bit more user friendly.

Forget Market share, It’s All About Mindshare

When you think about it, Apple’s place in the tech industry is a bit weird. Even before the iPod took the MP3 player market lead and at the same time helped Apple go from fledging computer company to tech industry leader, Apple has always been included in almost every tech discussions. Even today, with both the iPod and the iPhone being huge successes, Apple has managed to keep its Mac computers in the news despite the smallish market share.

Same with Safari on Windows really. Whatever Apple does these days, it will be discussed, it will be analyzed and it will bring about both very ardent fans and very ardent detractors. Contrast this with a new computer released by HP or Dell and you’ll understand why mindshare is what matters.

Apple has always done things differently. “Think Different” was their slogan for a while and it certainly applies to what Apple does, even to this day. When Apple updates its online store, the store goes offline for a few hours. When they release major new products or major updates to a product, Apple invites journalists to a special event. When Apple created the Mighty Mouse, they ceded on the 2 buttons issue but still did it their own way by having a 1 button mouse with a sensor. When Apple created the iTunes App Store, instead of going the open route, the company decided to control everything that goes on sale. Instead of using Linux or Windows, Apple has its own operating system and for a long time was using its own special CPU architecture.

Why? I don’t know the answer to that for sure, but I can certainly say that it’s been working to their advantage for many years now. Since they never do things like everybody else, whatever they do is discussed. There’s no doubt the Droid is a very good phone, but other than “can it beat the iPhone” stories, it hasn’t come close to getting the kind of attention the iPhone gets. Dell is a very big company that has had a lot of successes, but they release stuff that many other companies release and they do so the way many other companies do. The result? They get the same “normal” coverage and buzz everyone else get.

With the success its had in the past 10-12 years, Apple will no doubt be studied for a while in business classes around the world. Hopefully people will understand what it is that make Steve’s company a different beast. Apple may only have 5-12% market share worldwide, but it doesn’t really matter. They are winning the mindshare war, and that’s what will matter in the long run.

Google Public DNS Servers

This blog is rapidly becoming a blog about Google. That’s not the plan, but it seems Google makes the news every week with a crazy new initiative. This week : the Google Public DNS Servers.

Of course, there are other free alternatives (other than your ISP’s servers). OpenDNS has been a popular and quite reliable one for years. Google’s initiative is interesting because, well, it’s Google and that brings a lot of interesting questions (Google has a FAQ available).

The first one for many is one of privacy. That to me, is a non issue. For one thing, regardless of what you think Google may know about you or how much they care about you personally, remember that your ISP knows (or can know) a whole lot more than any web sites out there. Anything you type, anything you visit goes through them. Using Google as a DNS server is hardly threatening in my opinion.

The second question is why. Why is Google doing this? As with Chrome, Chrome OS and SPDY, Google lately is all about speed. They want to make the Web faster and DNS queries is one of the areas where a speed improvement could be achieved and Google jumped on the idea. For one thing, Google has tens of thousands of servers world-wide and Google must pay its bandwidth as cheaply as it’s humanly possible to at this point, so they are well positioned to enter the market.

Of course, a public DNS is also interesting because it’s yet another way Google can aggregate data about us and make their ads make even more sense. That’s not a popular thing to say, but you have to think that was one of the reasons behind the move and I mean, why not? If you’re going to show me ads, might as well show me stuff that might interest me.

Those worried about privacy need not apply however. As for me, I’ll enjoy the extra speed the service has brought me so far.