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I got to play with the Oculus Crescent Bay VR headset and my brain shifted

I got to play with the Oculus Crescent Bay VR headset and my brain shifted

I got a peek at virtual reality yesterday thanks to my old buddy Bernie Yee. He flew out from Oculus’ Seattle HQ to show me and my SVA students a peek at the future.


There were a number of demos to enjoy, but my two favorites were the Alien and the Mirror Room.

With the headset firmly on my noggin, the alien emerged on a barren landscape. He was a cute guy — long neck, kind eyes. His motion was peaceful, even deferential. The only problem with writing about the experience is that, well, I’m writing about the experience! No words will convey that the alien was right there. In front of me. I could lean forward and see up his nose (which I did). I could get too close to him and make him back away. It was easy to relate to him and I felt an attachment that made me want to know more about him.

The Mirror Room demo was a different kind of experience. Imagine being in Dumbledore’s office and standing in front of a huge mirror. But when you look in this mirror you don’t see yourself, you see the face from the witch’s mirror in Disney’s Snow White. And your face changes as you move your head around. At one point my head turned into an adorned box, with beautiful details that made me lean in close to see more. It was like being nose-to-nose with a mirror and seeing someone else. Someone magic! I think this experience was my favorite because it not only changed the world around me, it changed ME!

So thanks Bernie and Oculus for the peek at the future. It has me thinking of the storytelling possibilities. I can’t wait for the launch of the headset in 2016!

Microsoft’s new phone OS – the Sony PlayStation of the mobile games world?

Years ago Nintendo sat on top of the game console world. Sega had a share of the market, but Nintendo really bowled people over with new takes on the old platformers. People were hooked.

Then along came Sony.

Before the PlayStation came out I worked at Rizzoli, a bookstore in Soho (since shuttered). With a liberal dress code I wore my Nintendo t-shirt to work one day. Right before store closing, a guy in an expensive suit and ridonkulous tan sauntered up to the register. He took one look at my shirt and pssh’d.

“They are so going down,” he said.
“Pardon me, sir?” I asked, all too accustomed to the arrogance of Soho shoppers, and wondering what beef with the world this bozo was going to take out on the minimum wage monkey.
“Nintendo will fold under Sony’s PlayStation.” His wife came up behind him and did her best to excuse her stupid husband with a “boys will be boys” smirk.
“I doubt it. Nintendo makes good games,” I said. Correct, as usual.
“I’m an SVP at SCE and I can confidently say Nintendo will be #2.”
And with that he looked down his nose and walked away from the guy who just made .0215 cents (before taxes) while ringing up his impulse-buy books.
He was right. And, as usual, so was I. PlayStation kerplowed the world and redefined gaming. They went to #1. For awhile. Now they’re #3. Such is life. I wonder where SCE SVP Man is now.

The point? Besides the historical insight into Soho shopping in 1992, I think we could be looking at a similar shift with the introduction of Windows Phone 7 Series.

It’s familiar isn’t it? The big player in the space in an upstart innovator (iPhone=Nintendo) who stole the crown from a stale gaming market (Sega=Symbian). They seem unstoppable, but what if a big player in entertainment steps in with a better gaming experience at a better price point? That could be Microsoft’s role in the upcoming shake-out. If the hype is even half right, MS is going to release their best mobile OS yet. That may mean nothing, but it may also mean they can carve a massive chunk out of the iPhone’s ridiculously large market share. I mean Apple sells 90-95% of mobile apps. On one device. Uh, there’s room for competition there.

It won’t come from Nokia. They learned their lesson. It won’t come from Google. Their attempt to get into games has been…wait, have they even tried? Nintendo could but don’t seem to want to. They’re a toy company after all.

But Microsoft…well. Microsoft has the urge, the resources, the experience and with W7 Mobile (maybe) the weapon to clear the battlefield and make us re-evaluate what we put in our pocket.

Good times.

I, for one, will be checking out what they have under their raincoat at GDC. I may even miss the iPhone summit to be there.

Some random thoughts (and surprising ‘learnings’) on web game development at AOL’s

I’m currently producing seven online games for We’re building everything from a brain game (to make America smarter) to a Zombie game (to make America dumber).

While they’re mostly in the Alpha stage it’s pretty clear which titles will need more TLC than the others. It’s always interesting to see how quality, or lack thereof, can emerge almost immediately. Every game is a “game-of-the-year” contender before it starts getting built, but the sheen of a fine-tuned spec is the first element to dim.

Even in the face of problems on the battleground, I enjoy the process of guiding the design and getting at the fun of a title. It can be tough, especially when tackling a few at a time, but good teams ultimately hit a stride where the final product comes into focus and everyone converges on what needs to be done.

In many ways it’s like writing a book with an outline. But in the case of crafting online games, the outline’s ending is doomed from the moment fingertip meets keyboard and the first line of code is laid down. With online games, in fact with any game development, you’re working with committee (especially at AOL). This means the product is more at risk to get paralyzed by points of view; and conversely, a team effort can blossom into tremendous gains for the title.

Case in point is a game we made last year called Ice Breakers. There were only 3 people building it — all of us focused on making the same game. Then we had the larger team, which had other tweak ideas and various methods of communicating said ideas. For a while it was a mess. But as we hammered through the frustrating meetings, the harrowing internal tests, the hurt feelings and late nights, we arrived at launch with a great game. Ice Breakers now sits at #2 on and has been there, consistently, for a year now. It rarely has less than 2000 people playing at any given time. People spend an average of 30+ minutes engaged and enjoying themselves. That’s what I call a success, by any standard.

Will any of the other games we’re making reach that level of success? Definitely. Will it be because of well-crafted specs, clear communication and hierarchical design decisions that sweep confusion and delay aside? Not a chance in hell. But the semi-organized mess of opinions, ideas, sweeping arguments and eurekas that will get us to the next hit will likely be as fun as the product we launch. In hindsight, of course…