Given Strava, can I now be a soul cyclist?

Given Strava, can I now call myself a Soul Cyclist? According to Wikipedia, a soul surfer is defined as:

Soul Surfer is a term coined in the 1960s, used to describe a surfer who surfs for the sheer pleasure of surfing.

I bike for pleasure not the competition, so I’m a Soul Cyclist right?

Raphael Track BikeI’ve been an avid cyclist since I was 15. I’ve gone through upwards of 20 bikes, had a few hand-built for me, and try to visit the North American Handmade Bicycle Show every year. I’ve biked across Iowa 8 times as part of RAGBRAI. But one thing I have never done is competed. And not until a visit to my “alignment guy” to correct a misaligned hip that was impacting my cycling, did I not know how odd I was. He asked how I did on Strava? To his amazement I said I had never used the app, in fact I didn’t have a cycling computer and never kept track of my rides – distance, speed, time, anything. He said I might be the first of his friends or patients who didn’t.

When did I become the oddball? Since when did everything become a competition? robicellis had a great line in her post on the truth about jogging:

I’ve decided, at the age of thirty-two, to start running. Not as a result of a desire to be healthier or out of a competitive spirit; not even because it is a very grown-up thing to do and you will be assimilated into the cult of running if you wish to be taken seriously as a professional adult. I’m doing this purely out of spite.

I couldn’t agree more living out in Silicon Valley – it’s part of being a professional adult in a way. You must run, cycle, CrossFit, something and do it competitively. If not in actual competitions than keep time to compare with friends and co-workers. What happened to just doing it for exercise or fun? No longer can you just run, you have to compete in marathons. You can’t even workout without it becoming a competition – competitive CrossFit. Isn’t CrossFit something you do to get in shape to compete? Isn’t that equal to turning soccer practice into a competition itself?

Don’t get me wrong, I like to compete. I played on the competitive paintball circuit the NPPL for a few years as part of Desert Heat and the Bushwackers. I competed in the pole vault and javelin in high school. I just don’t turn everything into a competition. I’ll continue to cycle for the pleasure of it – a soul cyclist.

Soul cyclist

IMG_0378_smI don’t wear the whole cycling outfit. If I wear spandex shorts I have shorts over them. I have a few jerseys but I typically only wear them on extremely hot days. I usually ride with a backpack and on steel bikes – weight is not a huge concern for me. I don’t keep time, distance, or any such data. I stop when I want. I search out hills and mountains. I’m a soul cyclist. Actually that sounds pretentious, I’m just a dude who likes to bike. I don’t need to race myself or anyone else. I don’t need to compete. I just like to ride.

 

What the game industry needs is a healthy dose of skepticism

Zynga_logoTo say Zynga is in transition is an understatement, laying off 18%. As part of the layoffs they seem to be betting on smaller teams.

Zynga is also trying to follow the lead of mobile gaming companies like Supercell and King.com. Apparently executives were impressed to see massive hits created by small teams and small workforces. The hope is that by restructuring the company, Zynga can replicate the success of some of its startup competitors.

“Impressed”? Really? Small teams delivering big results is how business is done in Silicon Valley. Frankly I’m shocked when I still see big bets, but then again I’ve seen more in my limited time in gaming than I did in over 10 years building web services. You also see a lot of Waterfall in the gaming industry which is even more shocking at this day in age. Coming from Agile, Lean Software Development, the Lean Startup, and Customer Development I’m shocked at how easily game companies slip into old habits of making big bets. This isn’t the console days anymore. Then again, consoles started with smaller bets and ballooned into big ones. Why? From what I can tell it stems from two intertwined things – the search for safe bets and lack of skepticism. Both are fatal for the same reason, they take your eye off the ball. That ball is getting in touch with your users, getting feedback, confirming your hypothesis. Big bets are more about execution.

The search for safe bets

Games are a hits driven business so it’s understandable game developers are constantly in search of some stability. They typically try to find that stability in three ways:

  1. Cloning other successful games or game mechanics
  2. Push for quality
  3. Out market the competition

Cloning other games or game mechanics

Cloning isn’t that different than any other industry, however it gets a bad name in the games industry. Yahoo! mail was a copy of HotMail, Gmail a copy of Yahoo! Mail. They all add their own twists but they’re essentially the same thing. Of course Yahoo! Mail took almost a decade to surpass HotMail in users. Most clones offer diminishing returns as Zynga is seeing recently.

This strategy of buying or borrowing on others’ success basically amounts to staying one step behind the competition. It also ignores the process of earning—and understanding—your customers.

Diminishing returns can be combated however through innovation as Gmail did by offering almost unlimited storage at a time when Yahoo! was charging a premium for additional storage. All too often in the game industry though the innovation they’re shooting for is quality. Raise the quality bar they say.

The inevitable push for better quality

Zynga's FarmVille 2I’ve only been in the gaming industry a few years and have already heard the words, “raise the quality bar” more than I care to remember. It seems to be the easy win. There is some merit here, users tend to pick the game with more polish if given two equal games. But that is given two equal games, what if they are completely different? And for that matter what is polish? Better game mechanics or better art? Better animations? What the push for quality does it takes they eye off the ball. You’re no longer trying to get in touch with your users or get in there head, you’re trying to execute. The game had only 16 colors before, wait till the get a load of it with millions.

Out spending the competition on marketing

If you’re big, this is your basic game plan. Whether you license IP or just buy more ads you are basically saying you won’t win by building a better game. And if you’re drive isn’t to build a better game there is less of a need to keep in touch with your users.

Silicon Valley has already been through this

As I outlined above, all these strategies take you away from your customer. Your focus isn’t to test new mechanics or art but to execute. All this reminds me of Steve Blank’s critique of startups from 20 years ago. Those startups were all about big investment because they involved hardware. You had to know you would win or no one would give you that much money. And since you already knew what users wanted, cause you convinced a VC to invest, all you really needed to do was execute on that vision. You can get feedback from users when you were done building. I can’t tell you how much this sounds like the games industry.

What the games industry needs is a healthy dose of skepticism

Writing made Mark Twain rich but he lost it all on bad investments. One of the commentators in the Mark Twain documentary from PBS had an interesting explanation of why.

I’m sure there were writers that were great businessmen  but I never met any. There is an excess of imagination in writers, they can foresee this thing being a massive success all over the world when it has fatal flaws it will never work and the careful businessmen of course would well look at it and say, Well it ain’t going to work.

You have to be skeptical in business. You have to always be reaching for confirmation through data, feedback, listening to your users. Games are built by artists who have complete confidence in their vision. Games are also run by business people looking for some stability in the hits driven business. This leads to them taking their eye off the ball and not listening to their users. Startups and much of the Silicon Valley has learned how ignoring your users can lead to a quick demise. I hope entertainment companies can learn this as well and be a little more skeptical and adapt some of the entrepreneurial techniques developed in Silicon Valley – Customer Development, Lean Startup, etc.

Predictions for Google Glass

Google_Glass_logoGoogle Glass is generating a lot of discussion – from fanboys to others coining the term glasshole. What surprised me in all of this is how quickly the fanboys showed up and how limited some people’s vision was for the technology. Technology predictions are notoriously difficult and fodder for jokes years later.

Some predictions are just limited

CNet’s Donald Bell put out his Top 5 Potential Uses for Google Glass.

  1. Navigation
  2. Instruction
  3. Face Recognition
  4. Biofeedback
  5. TV Enhancement

Bell is of course very snarky in the video, “You have every right to be ambivalent about this thing”. This probably explains why his list is rather limited.

I already get all the TV enhancement I need with my tablet. Biofeedback visualized in front of my eye might be nice but I already have a Nike FuelBand. What does Google Glass really offer here? Is it actually better than solutions I have right now?

Getting instructions on Google Glass seems like it could be nice and in some situations a better solution than a YouTube video. But what does it offer to see a meal prepared minute by minute? How can you account for a kitchen with a slow burner? How many times do you need to watch someone flip an omelet?

None of the uses are that imaginative nor practical outside of the obvious – navigation, face recognition, and the classic of just using it as a camera.

Fear of being filmed

This is overblown. Sure it’s annoying but so is someone tagging you on Facebook every thirty minutes. For that matter who would have thought people would share as much as they do on social networks. It’s not for everyone but it also isn’t that big of a deal.

Facial recognition is a similar issue. I wouldn’t mind if people used it to recognize me, especially if I’m at a party or networking event. They’re will also likely be mechanisms to block it. “Don’t want to be recognized? Service X will make sure your information is never passed along”.

Games

I can see games jumping out to an early lead on the platform as they can generate buzz and quickly leverage what’s unique about Glass. However I doubt they’ll be much appeal outside small or independent developers. It will take years for Google Glass to reach any meaningful numbers and its most defining feature is location based. We’ve already seen a slew of location based game studios flame out on mobile. The reality is building a great game is tough, adding location to the equation only adds to the difficulty. I’m still hopeful though, I think Google Glass is ripe for interactive story based games.

A camera is the most practical use

Record your day – it’s something we’ve seen in science fiction movies for years. At I/O, Larry Page pointed it out if you have kids just taking pictures of them is great enough. I’m having a daughter myself and would buy a pair just for that. Sure I could use a camera but there’s something different about having the camera fade into the background.

Considering the battery life however, I doubt the dream of recording your day will be realized anytime soon. Until then I expect it to be used to record conversations, children, and things you would use a GoPro to record today.

I doubt voice commands will go very far on Google Glass

A Google Glass wearerHow many of us walk down the street taking phone calls on wireless headsets? Talking to control computers has always seemed cool. Bill Gates seemed obsessed with it, but experts always pointed out that the fastest way to get information into a computer is through a keyboard. So not only is talking to things odd but it isn’t always the most efficient. Touch, swipe, tapping – I can see all that working to control Google Glass but I doubt voice will be that common.

I can see tethering Google Glass to a phone becoming a very popular way to interact with it. This might become so common that it opens up games beyond “location based”.

What functions will Google Glass usurp?

The phone is quickly usurping other gadgets and form factors better suited to a particular use. A bike computer on your handlebar is more ideal than having a bike app on your phone in your pocket. However the ubiquity of the phone and the easy access to the network makes the phone more compelling than an old bike computer. What gadgets are at risk of Google Glass usurping if not because it’s better but it’s more convenient?

We still need to get more creative

We can make predictions where Google Glass will go but they might all look laughable in time. That is the fun of new technology though. We need to get over the fear that is holding those like Bell back and just explore the possibilities. Google is doing a good job of just trying to stay out of it – let the developers dream. They certainly aren’t hurting for developer attention at the moment. And if these early developers fail to come up with something revolutionary, maybe Google could spur some creative thinking through other measures. They could sponsor a screenwriting competition around Google Glass. Las Vegas did this for years trying to spur film development in the city, all you had to do was write a screenplay that included Las Vegas in 25% of it.

Welcome to the modern world screenwriters – meet data analysis

Head First Data AnalysisIt was inevitable, data crunching has reached the lofty art of screenwriting. For a mere $20,000 you can have World Wide Motion Picture Group analyze a script; giving you the chances it’s a hit and advice on how to increase those chances. Of course screenwriters are no fans of the new service, many in Hollywood ashamed to admit they might use the service.

Script analysis is new enough to remain a bit of a Hollywood taboo. Major film financiers and advisers like Houlihan Lokey confirmed that they had used the service, but declined to speak on the record about it. The six major Hollywood movie studios declined to comment.

Being an aspiring screenwriter myself and having spent the last few years of my career working in the games industry I can certainly understand the conflict between art and data analysis. It’s something I still see the social games industry struggle with even though data crunching is what separated it from console games – gather live data from millions of users, analyze, and quickly make adjustments. Though being thought of as an artist is way more appealing, if you’re going to make decisions based on data you might as well be a “Product Manager”. Additionally data analysis is work. Mostly though we got into entertainment because we’re dreamers and data has a way of crushing dreams. But what happened to, “you’ve got to kill your darlings”?

Nobody knows anything

Adventures in the Screen TradeAs William Goldman‘s famous line goes, “Nobody knows anything”. He was referring to how no one in Hollywood actually knows if a movie is going to be a hit or not until it opens. But is that really true anymore? Goldman’s line gained popularity in the 1980′s when the only hard data was box-office receipts. Then came focus groups and now cold hard data analysis, soon big data.

Screenwriters, artists must adapt

Data analysis is just another tool in an artists toolbox. Like any tool you must learn how and when to use it. Sure data can be used to give a producer false confidence in their opinion and completely wreck your script. Screenwriters will just have to fight back, which is something they’re not known for. I once saw Shane Black go on a tirade about how when producers and executives meet to discuss a script it’s the screenwriter who’s in the corner not saying a word. But afterwards the screenwriter will complain incessantly about how they wrecked their script. Screenwriters are going to have to learn how to argue, fight, convince others.

Increasingly art is becoming collaborative, or has always been – just look at the group that wrote Casablanca. That was writing by comity – a group of staff writers. If you can’t work with a team and/or argue your point of view you’re going to lose out. If World Wide Motion Picture Group evaluate a script and say it will bomb, the screenwriter should be able to dig up some data or present a convincing argument that casts some doubt. If they can’t, the screenwriter might be wrong and the producer, analyst, etc. might be right. This is how it’s been in the tech industry for years. Granted the tech industry didn’t have the cloud of “Art” hanging over it, but both industries are trying to do the same thing in the end – figure out what the audience wants.

I’m all for data crunching to come to screenwriting and would love to get a hold of the data the World Wide Motion Picture Group has gathered. I don’t kid myself, I’m trying to write a screenplay that audiences will love. The more data I can get and earlier the better. It can’t rely on the data alone, but that’s a balance I’ve developed over the years working in the tech industry.

Original content model from Netflix and the forgetful customer

NetflixIt’s great to see Netflix’s bet on original programming pay off. Stock is up and others are looking to jump on the bandwagon with their own original programming. Looks to be a great time for content creators. The Wachoski’s have even been signed to do a sci-fi series despite delivering such box office bombs as Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas. But how long can the good times last, especially when much of it is based on forgetful customers?

Those new subscribers are too lazy to quit Netflix, HBO, or Spotify after they finish watching the show they signed up for. So they stay members for 10 years, paying $120/year or more.

This model reminds me of my days working for FreeCreditReport.com. You could certainly get your credit report for free but only if you enrolled in monitoring for $19.95 or so a month. It was possible to cancel before getting charged the first month, but the business model was built on a majority never remembering to quit. The business model was built on the forgetful customer. This made product meetings rather comical at times. Discussing the launch of a new feature the suggestion to email our user base would always come up, usually suggested by a recently hired Marketing person. Sometimes the discussion would proceed for a few minutes as we discussed the actual size of the user base and type of email to send. Then someone would remember that we try never to email our user base – any contact might awaken the sleeping beast. If the new Netflix model is based on the forgetful customer, how far can it go you ask? Actually I think it can go pretty far. People are forgetful and the reality is they aren’t paying that much for Netflix. I can see a father looking to cancel Netflix after watching all of “House of Card” only to have their daughter ask to keep it for a little longer so she can finish all of Gossip Girl. For Netflix this model turns into a constant quest for the next talked about series to encourage signups, as HBO has found.

In the end it turns into a hits driven business which I’m hoping will lead to more experimentation. It reminds me of  “New Hollywood” where the studios experimented with giving artists more freedom in light of the growing popularity of television. The new-found freedom gave us the first blockbusters - Jaws, Star Wars, The Godfather. That freedom also led to the movement’s downfall when a few costly bombs hit screens in the early 80′s. It’s a hits driven business, let’s hope the hits keep coming or at least nothing wakes the sleeping beast.

Google Glass for Interactive Story – Anyone?

Google GlassI have to admit, I’m envious of the 4,000 who won the opportunity to be the first adopters of Google Glass. They won by posting to Twitter or Google + how they would use Google Glass under the hashtag #ifihadglass. Over the weekend a Stanford PhD student Andrej Karpathy compiled a partial list of the winners and their winning post. Skimming the list you see can make out a few themes – interesting apps to connect glass with other resources such as smart watches or search, filming interesting things to show others, doing good, and to a small extent entertainment. What I found surprising is that there were none that dove into Google Glass and interactive story.

There were a lot of doing good.

Think about applications for use with kids and learning disabilities.

I’d help develop new applications for its use in health & medicine & inspire others to as well

Innovate: App 2 reduce gun violence!

All great endeavors but when I see Google Glass I mostly see the opportunity for entertainment.

hook them up w/my gloves to help me navigate music making in 3D

Heh. Google, I don’t need 50 words. I’ll give you ONE word. GAMES. -SJ

What I didn’t see much of was story outside maybe:

I’d make the first truly first person action flick.

That sounds interesting but it’s mostly leveraging Google Glass as a camera. What about an app that let you play with story? Augmented realty which you start by visiting a special location. There you meet an AR character. Soon you find yourself at a crossroads – go down the alley or enter the bookstore? The story changes based on whichever path you take. That still seems a little basic and something you can do with a phone today, but Google Glass would make it all more immersive and maybe that’s all that you need to make it click. I’m sure you can come up with more ways to experiment with interactive story and Google Glass. Then again I probably should have entered the contest. Now I have to wait and see what Google does next about granting access.

 

A product guy who’s passionate about virtual reality, can’t escape allure of interactive story, and is persistent about writing the Great American screenplay

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