Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bringing Up the Average, Pt 2

Had a good talk with Jansen. I thought it might be interesting, it contains some further ideas to further refine the pay-what-you-want pricing model.

It's a chat log, so pardon the format. I have edited it somewhat, to reduce clutter and skip over stuff that doesn't matter. I've added some [editorial notes] as well.

[Stuff skipped]
me: The point isn't to keep people from being asses, or to put them in a bad spot. It's to make sure that people realize the value that they're actually getting.

Jansen: however, i think they're going about raising the avg the wrong way
the way they have it, they've set a bar for amt to get extra stuff
everyone's just going to pay $7.40, which will do almost nothing to raise the avg. prolly should have been $10. b/c, with that bar in place, fewer ppl will pay between avg and $10

me: You have to pay more than whatever the average currently is, as I understand it. That's an excellent way to bring up the average.

Jansen: Help us bring up the average! Everyone who pays more than $7.38 gets the first Humble Bundle as well!

me: Refresh in ten minutes. It'll be a different number. The "bar" is moving, and is based on the average.

Jansen: which is the problem. it limits the $8 to $10 range donors, they will prolly do $7.40 instead

me: I agree that the idea needs polish.

Jansen: okay

me: However, the fundamental idea is brilliant. "Bring up the average, get more stuff". Most people are strongly influenced by the average price. It's a big win!

me: Hopefully keeps the downward spiral these things tend to suffer from from happening.

Jansen: i haven't really noticed a downward spiral. the avg's increased since i bought mine. i'm not saying it doesn't exist though, it's just not happened in the past week or so

me: At some point, it settles into a saddle point. Something with as high a buy rate as the HIB2 settles very quickly.

Jansen: but, if everyone has the incentive to go above avg, then the avg will be higher

me: Exactly! [The saddle will be at a higher price.]

Jansen: however, the avg can easily go above ppl's price range

me: That's fine, it's pay what you want.

Jansen: it's penalizing ppl who are less wealthy, rather than less generous. there's little difference between $5 and $10 (unless you're lacking in any income at all). but if the avg were, say, $40 (just spouting a figure)

me: It's true that that might theoretically be able to happen, but the chances seem extremely remote. It's far easier to bring the price down than bring it up.
Plus, if you can only afford $5-10, it's still pay-what-you-want, so you can still afford it.

me: Although you'll feel like a dick. And you won't get the extra.

Jansen: this is true. so, the answer is this: the extra needs to be less than the main bundle. bundle of five games, one or two games for above avg payees

me: Well, I think that's probably true, but it hasn't been tested. It may be that there's actually a sweet spot where the bonus is better than the default. Then you essentially have a "climbing bid" situation.

[Technically, the extra could be anything at all, including things like swag or even just a web-comic-like "voting incentive" image. Having a bonus worth more than the baseline would probably be bad, but it hasn't been tried, as far as I know.]

me: That WOULD penalize the poor. [To have a better bonus than baseline.]

Jansen: it's truly a penalty for ppl who cannot pay above avg in good conscience to their finances

me: Yes, I agree. However, I'm not sure, from a business standpoint, which is better. Poor people can't buy some things, and that's just the way it is.

Jansen: i assume the HIB ppl don't directly want to screw with poor ppl lol

me: It may be ten or twenty times more profitable to accept that.

Jansen: that's true

me: If you're getting along on a shoestring budget yourself, you might need that extra cash to keep making games. Or music.

Jansen: yar

me: Also, there's the HIB option more directly: The awesome bonus this time is the standard next time. So if you don't buy it now, you can pay what you want in a few months. [This better-bonus stuff has screwed up the language a bit, but the basic idea is sound.]

Jansen: interesting


me: Here's another interesting thing you may not have noticed, just so it's in the chat log: Did you look at the highest payments? The top ten list?

Jansen: they're by ppl who think along your same lines about the avg (most notably Notch of Minecraft) and are deliberately trying to raise it

me: No...

Jansen: i noticed that when i saw Notch up there. no?

me: Look again... They're mostly ads. That's an... interesting kind of ad space... So that's just one more way to bring up the average, if you implement it.

Jansen: it is. one of the ads is by a company that's involved in the bundle

Jansen: however...
Jansen: ppl paying more than avg to get kool stuff and increase the avg == good
Jansen: ppl noticing the avg is low and deliberately trying to raise it == good
Jansen: companies artificially increasing the avg to buy available ad space == BAD
Jansen: it only happened thrice this time, so that's fine

me: I'm sure it happened lots, and they just fell off the bottom.

Jansen: but, if you're suggesting utilizing that on a larger scale.... i'd not think that was a good idea

me: Why is it worse than normal advertising?

Jansen: b/c it directly costs the user money, kinda

me: It raises the average at least a little, which in turn probably causes the buyers to spend a little more. But let's reframe it just a bit.

me: Have you ever seen a pay-what-you-want that seemed too high? Ever?

Jansen: that's true. so, assuming the avg is too low, it's alright

me: With the understanding that it's not quite as pure-summer-breeze as giving out extra stuff for raising the average, it seems a valuable tool.

Jansen: assuming it's implemented in a way that causes the avg to skyrocket, it's bad. it all depends on implementation

me: Hah! Wait, let's think about that. If the advertisers actually cause the product's average to skyrocket out of control, then they are your primary target audience.

me: Once you've reaped your money from them, give the product away for cheap later.

Jansen: which defeats the purpose of a "humble indie bundle"

me: Yes, it certainly wouldn't fit for them. [And it seems unlikely to ever happen, a note that was removed when clipping the chat.]

Jansen: [first-day sales pitch is] "top ten commercial contributors get the ad spot!" so, it's a competition. it raises the avg to, say, $50 (given the commercial contributors and other buyers eager to get in on it)

me: Well, if you really want to get a bidding war for ad space going, then you allow them to add to their payment later. Classically, this kind of bidding technique can get people to pay $4+ for a $1 bill.

Jansen: yes, that' fine. but commercial bids end first day of sale

me: Hm. Why?

Jansen: so the avg steadily decreases after first day of sale. you get the commercial revenue, and then the price tapers down with time

me: I'm not sure I follow your no-commercial-bidding-after-day-one argument, but I do like the idea overall.

[Clipped tangent about wagering on price decreases]

Jansen: that way, the price will eventually get to a lower level

me: I think that will always happen, though.

Jansen: and so ppl who can't pay more are just losing time.

me: The wait-and-pay-less idea is valuable, but mostly if either the wait is longer than a month or if the thing you're buying is extremely time sensitive.

me: Anything sold today will be free tomorrow in this kind of world, so I'm not sure it makes sense to overcomplicate the sales.


Jansen: ^.^

Bringing Up the Average

Although I love the Humble Indie Bundle 2, I'm in just the right spot to get utterly hammered by news of it. For the past week, virtually all my feeds, friends' chat statuses (stati?) and so on have all been about the Humble Indie Bundle 2. So I was getting pretty damn sick of it.

But my interest is renewed! They've done something way more interesting than release a bunch of indie games. They may have found an interesting technique for price management.

The HIB2 is pay-what-you-want, which means that many people pay crappily. The average payment is indicated when you buy, and I would bet it strongly influences what other people are willing to pay. However, I would also bet this is a negative spiral: if the average is $10, cheap people will pay $8, and the price will go down. When the average is $9, cheap people will pay $7...

I think pay-what-you-want pricing is the next big thing for indies who want to make any money. But the prices always go too low. For example, at last glance, HIB2 had an average of around $7.30. Anyone who buys HIB2 for less than $10 is, frankly, a tremendous ass. But they don't realize it, because the only indicator of value they really have is the average payment so far. Since the average payment is so low, most people must be paying at least that low and, therefore, they are all being terrible jerks. Any one of those games should be worth $7.30.

The HIB2 folks aren't quite as aggressive as I am, but they came up with an incredibly clever idea:

If you pay noticeably more than the current average, you get extra stuff. In this case, the original HIB.

Oh! That's fucking brilliant.

From now on, every pay-what-you-want pricing scheme should have this same idea built into it. I bet the average price may be improved by as much as 50%. I think this may actually increase profits substantially. IE, to a point where you might actually be able to live off them as an average indie developer or musician.

I think it's an amazing idea. It's too bad the HIB2 crowd didn't think of it before they started, but even coming in late, it's a valuable technique.

Let's do that from now on.

EDIT: The point of the technique isn't to keep people from paying too little. It's to drag the average up so that they realize the value of what they're getting. If someone's gonna pay $5 for a bunch of games regardless, that's fine, it's part of the pay-what-you-want ideal. But everyone should hopefully understand that the thing they're buying has more than $5 of value, and they should realize that they're being a jerk by paying so low.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ad Hockery

Being a geek, I love thinking about the next technologies that may make a splash. One technology whose time is slowly approaching is wide-range ad hoc networks.

We're nearing a point where ad hoc networks among personal devices will become very common. You're probably already using wireless keyboards and connecting your phones to wifi networks - both of which are examples of a nascent, budding ad hockery between our various devices. Your thumb drive is only an inch away from not needing to be plugged in. Your DS is only an inch away from being able to interact with people playing the same game on their phones.

In addition, the technology has reached a level where individual people can create/deploy large numbers of ad hoc wireless nodes. Hell, we're maybe a year away from being able to print them on our home fabricators, aside from a few generic parts like batteries.

It seems to me that, even though nothing has really started moving yet, this is about to explode. Especially when net neutrality fails and the EU passes its internet censorship bill.

A lot of people want to fight against governments and corporations screwing up the internet, but I'm more interested in what comes next. It seems far more likely that geeks can come up with a new technology that slowly replaces the internet, and far less likely that geeks can oppose all the money on the planet working against them. So, I'm betting on ad hoc networks.

What I see initially is ad hoc networks largely limited to your personal devices - your computer recognizing your phone, and your lights detecting your iPad, for example. Already happens to a large extent: every time someone turns on the 360, my computer tells me I should share my media with them. If my DS is near another DS playing the same game, it often pops up and offers trades. I simply predict more of it.

I see this network expanding to allow approved foreign devices. Your friend's phone automatically connects to your phone and tags your friend's location when he's in walking range. Hold up your phone, and you see markers where your friends are. This voluntary sharing requires fewer privacy breaches since A) your friend is only reporting his position to you, not to a central network, B) your friend is free to obscure or hide his presence in any way he sees fit (or lie), C) you do not have to report your position to him.

This kind of connectivity will rapidly grow into a painfully insecure ad hoc network that supports your game playing habits, connects you to random passerbyes because you signed up for the same dating service, pops up today's menu from the restaurant you're passing, and trades computational data about traffic patterns.

At this point, the ad hoc network will shoulder more and more of the bandwidth that a user tends to use. Not because it's good at it, but because it's available. A lot of products will come out that rely heavily on short-range ad hockery or extending ad hoc networks to wider areas. Ad hoc networks will begin to integrate with internet connections, such that a phone browsing the internet might connect to a node through an ad hoc network instead of relying on a 3G connection.

The nature of ad hoc networks of this size strongly favors individuals and open source products. Even if a corporation or government seeds an ad hoc network with a few thousand nodes, it's unlikely they'll keep up the project, and it's also likely they'll have misimplemented something (on purpose or on accident). Individuals are likely to deploy their own devices (either stationary or carried) to take advantage of better technologies, better implementations, and higher security. In addition, owning a reliable ad hoc node will probably give good karma and interesting tidbits of information.

Once a baseline ad hoc network reaches a certain level, it essentially replaces the internet. It may use many of the same data backbones for ease of long-range high-bandwidth transmission, but even if you are surfing "the internet", you are surfing through a largely anonymous connection via an untracked route. Similarly, you probably won't be surfing that obsolete old thing any more: a large ad hoc network will support applications and data presentations we will have a hard time imagining. But they'll be just as much part of our day as the internet is today.

(There are some REALLY wacky things you can do with large ad hoc networks, especially ones with moving pieces. But that's definitely a whole other article. Lets just say that the most straightforward few of them are augmented reality.)

Anyway, I've spun a tale of large ad hoc networks springing up in the relatively near future. Let's say... five years from now, it'll be obvious they're starting, and in ten years they'll be a major part of many lives.

As predictions go, I'm pretty comfortable with it. There are a lot of barriers in the way, but most of those barriers go away instantly if individuals can manufacture low-energy wireless relays in their spare time, or buy open hardware versions on the cheap.

I just can't imagine the internet remaining as it is today. It's so... seventies. And the only route I see away from the internet involves massive ad hockery.

Fortunately, if there's one thing we geeks are good at, it's ad hockery.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Everything is Game?

The idea has always been lurking, but I've recently been bombarded by it actively, so let's talk about the idea of games as things other than entertainment.

I hear a lot of people saying things like "learning should be a game!" I use learning arbitrarily - there's loads of other things people also think should be a game, such as working, finance reform, engineering, watching TV... anything and everything is a fair target for the "should be a game!" folks.


"Game" is a hopelessly vague term that carries an awful lot of baggage. When someone says "learning should be a game!", what they actually mean could be any number of things.

It could be "learning should be fun!" or "students would learn faster with a progression of tasks and rewards" or "learning would benefit from a strong set of social interactions with other students such that students are exposed to many possible view points while they learn" or "this is an algorithm which can be represented in a computer program, and the students can learn it by simply making the inputs and outputs clear."

These are all great ideas, and I'm sure there are loads more. However, these are not games. When someone says "game", they often end up meaning "something that teaches so I don't have to". And that's not something you normally want to mean.

Games use a wide variety of techniques to entrain players in many different ways. What techniques are used vary from game to game. Some techniques are great ideas nearly all of the time, others have significant drawbacks. Simply saying "game" is vague enough that it isn't very helpful, especially since when people think of a "game" they usually think of something that includes techniques that aren't suitable for most non-game purposes.

For example, most games have a feedback system that trains players to become good at the game. Good at the game, not at what the game is trying to teach. This is so common it rears its head in non-games, and we call it "gaming the system". How easy will the system be to game when it is a game?

It is possible to design a game that keeps players carefully on task, but this has many drawbacks. For starters, it's normally a deadly dull game.

Instead of saying that "such-and-such should be a game!", think about it a bit more. Which techniques do you actually want to use? Make sure you understand the potential drawbacks. Once you understand what you want, just do that. There's no need to make a real "game" out of it: just take what you need, drop the baggage you don't need. Call it a game if you like, but don't take the baggage that normally comes with the title.

Let's say you want to teach children math. But children are notoriously uninterested in math, so you want it to be a game! Well, what you actually want is for the children to want to learn math. "Game" is irrelevant.

What common game-related techniques would be useful to you? Well, that depends on the age bracket. If these are young children, they might benefit from simple aesthetic rewards, such as being told the problems and results in a fun way, or given balloons or stars for getting right answers.

Sound familiar? Yeah, these techniques are common. Because we're not idiots: we already use a lot of these techniques commonly, without calling them "games".

But we can learn from games in more advanced cases. For example, if you're teaching algebra to high school students, giving out stars and talking in a squeaky voice is going to do the opposite of make them want to learn.

Fortunately, games have figured out some good formulas for appealing to high schoolers. It's somewhat difficult to create a challenge/reward progression, since it's difficult to find rewards that will be even vaguely universally appealing. Time off, passes on homework, and fragments of upcoming tests are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head, but they might be especially good if you allow students to trade or upgrade them.

Getting the students to work together and teach each other can be extremely valuable if you can get them to do it right. Game techniques can be used here - techniques pioneered by multi-player games since time began use a combination of competition and cooperation (often only meta-game cooperation) to drive both the teaching of gameplay and the pioneering of new gameplay. This same technique could theoretically be replicated by mixed teams of two or three where the members are periodically required to do individual tasks that affect the grade of the group. Alternately, "gating" such that advanced students have to bring up the grade of a weaker student before they can get a particularly nice reward.

Obviously, there are a lot of logistical problems, but that's one of the reasons you don't just say "game". "Game" brings with it a bunch of solutions to completely different logistical problems. Such as the logistical problem of not having a teacher.

One thing you can inherit, if you choose to, is the way that games often have a variety of tasks types and understand that any given player will only be interested in a few of them. While this may be difficult to do in a structured classroom environment, I did mention that "learning" was an arbitrary choice. Having many interactive threads that appeal to many different kinds of people will allow a wide variety of people to participate together in their own way.

Scheduling is another factor you can steal from games. Games use a variety of reward scheduling tactics that are suitable for many situations, although you need to be careful not to seem arbitrary or erratic if you're an actual person handing out rewards. One key is having multiple concurrent threads for each person, such that they can receive a reward for an accomplishment in one thread while they continue to work on another thread. This eases the long gaps between rewards in any particular thread. However, you need to keep the threads carefully interlocked, or the participant may simply speed ahead on one particular thread while leaving the boring or less easy ones behind. Again, a kind of "gating" is a fine solution. Something like "you can't work on the next task in this thread until everyone in the group has accomplished that other task in that thread". Classic CRPG stuff.

Creative play can be rewarded in the same style that open market games such as SecondLife or 3D chatrooms use. Creating fun expressions of whatever you're working on and sharing it with the rest of the players is rewarding, fun, and leads to a lot more involvement from everyone involved. Structuring this can be quite difficult since it is so context-dependent and you need to make sure nobody feels afraid to submit creations. But, done carefully, you can easily find the players forging ahead far past where you expected any of them to go.

What I'm trying to say is that talk like this, regardless of how thorough or slapdash, is hugely more effective and useful than saying "should be a game". Take the parts of games that seem to work for you and drop the rest.

Because it shouldn't be a game: it should be whatever it is, but better.

This make any sense?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Christmas Song

This is the season of Christmas songs. And more Christmas songs. AND MORE! MORE! Fortunately, I do have a favorite. It's a little old fashioned, but it ends like this:

Darkness falls across the land,
The midnight hour is close at hand
Reindeer crawl in search of blood
And terrorize your neighborhood.

The foulest stench is in the air,
The funk of forty thousand elves
And grizzly ghoul from northmost pole,
Is closing in to eat his dole...

And though you fought to change his list,
You weren't completely good
For no mere mortal can resist
Snacking on Santa's food.

Ho ho ho ho
Oh-ho ho ho ho!