Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Drastic Changes in Online not-for-credit Education and Training

Out of the blue, today Udemy drastically changed its compensation to instructors.  Formerly, if an instructor recruited a new-to-Udemy student who signed up within two hours of coming to Udemy, the instructor received 97% (3% was for tuition transaction fees (paypal)).  But this rarely happened.  And if the student had even visited Udemy before, without signing up, then he or she was counted as not new to Udemy.

Otherwise, an instructor received 50% of the tuition (or 25% if going through an affiliate - I don't use affiliates).  This had been changed from 70% in the middle of last year.  So many experienced, successful instructors turned to other vendors such as Fedora and LFE that offered 70% and a personalized website with unique domain URL (Courses.PulsipherGames.Com in my case).  I certainly stopped recruiting to Udemy.

Now, the same 97% is offered for *any* student who uses an instructor's coupon, whether previously a Udemy student or not.  This makes an immense difference.  But why would Udemy do this?

I hypothesized that Udemy found they were no longer gaining students.  So I went to siteanalytics.com, which gives number of unique visitors to any largish website.  Udemy personnel had previously disputed the size of such numbers (too small, they said), but as a ballpark figure they give us an idea of trends.

Udemy's April '14 figure is 372K+.  May is 155K+[sic], less than half, and less than they've had since August 13.  June is not yet available.

At the same time, Lynda.com went from 543K+ to 752K+, over 200K more!  Skillshare.com 69K+ and 98K+.  Skillfeed.com 24K+ and 28K+.  (All of these are subscription sites.)  Other, Udemy-like sites do not use a common URL so cannot be checked.

For comparison, boardgamegeek is at 246K+ and 260K+.  Gamasutra.com is at 65K+ and 124K+. 

All of these sites gained users while Udemy plummeted.  And my Udemy sales for May were certainly distinctly worse than I've seen in the less than a year I've been involved - except for June, which was the worst.

I checked Lynda for a change in their fees to explain the huge increase, but it's still $25 a month.  Other subscription sites are $20 and $10.  And there's a new host site (EduPOW) that says all classes will be $5 (or free).  (I suspect that subscription will prevail in the long run.)  In any case, Udemy had to do something to try to recruit more students/replace the apparent loss.

One consequence of Udemy's change is that many of those instructors who went to other sites will now recruit for Udemy because they can make even more through Udemy than from competitors.  I can't see Udemy continuing this new compensation for more than a few months, but I suppose it depends on their bottom line. 



Saturday, May 24, 2014

Education: Should school homework be abolished?

On quora, which is an interesting if not always satisfying site where people ask questions and others propose answers, someone asked is school homework should be abolished.  This is my (modified) answer

"Educational theorists" are infamous amongst actual teachers, for the bizarre courses of action they advocate - like this one.  It's often because they have not actually taught much, and have sailed through the educational system from K12 through college to graduate degree without experiencing much of the real world.

I recall particularly the "expert" who said that deadlines should be abolished in school, that it didn't matter *when* the students did the work as long as they did it.  Not only does this fly in the face of the real world, where you have to meet deadlines, it ignored the impossible situation this would put teachers in, of grading an enormous quantity of stuff at the end of the class (when there really was a deadline).  It also assumes that the teacher's grading can do nothing to help the student improve (there will be no time for the student to improve if everything is handed in very late in the class). Yet this idiot charged $8,000 a day as a consultant, according to the newspaper report.


Homework for homework's sake should not exist.  Homework to help a student learn about the topic, and to learn discipline, is vital.

In one sense, if you ask why students do homework, you may as well ask why students do any work at all?  What is the difference between doing something in class, and doing something at home?

The trend has been that students spend much less time on a class, outside of class.  A problem with homework is that you don't know who actually does the work; in K12 so many parents get involved now, and group activity is common (when it isn't supposed to be), so it becomes difficult to know whether the student is learning anything him or her self, and even more difficult to make a formal assessment.  Formal assessment is crowding out actual learning as it is, thanks in part to government regulation, in part to people who think teaching is only conveying information (which is a minor part of good teaching).

A major purpose of homework in the past was to have students read something that would convey information, so that the class could concentrate on other things requiring more thought during class time.  But many university  classes, with hundreds of students in the class, now amount to oral books where the instructor does not know the students and is very limited in interaction with them.  Further, the habit of reading to learn is going away ("tl;dr": "too long; didn't read"), people want to hear-see-etc.  So even if reading is assigned as homework, a great many students will not bother (some, in college, won't even obtain a copy of a class textbook, whether legally or not).  In this respect, homework may appear to be useless simply because so many students won't do it.

All disciplines require practice.  Virtually no one does something non-trivial once, and then does it well.  A reason for homework is to give students additional practice time.  Some subjects are not as amenable to practice as others; some require practice in groups; some can be practiced individually.

The question is, can the student learn whatever it is they're supposed to learn, using only class time?  This varies a great deal with expectations.  In the USA, expectations have been drastically reduced in K12, where students memorize answers and regurgitate them on a standardized test at the end of a class or year.  Where higher standards are maintained, where students are expected to understand, not merely to memorize, to be able to think, not merely to regurgitate, more time is needed.

So the amount of homework that is reasonable depends on expectations and on willingness and capability of students to learn - learning is not passive, and some students are going to learn quicker, some slower.  It is likely, given the recruiting process, that students at (say) Duke are going to put more effort into a class than students at a community college, not only because of their backgrounds but because of their financial and family situations. The ultimate question is, is there time to do all that needs to be done, during class time.  The answer, as with most things, is it depends.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Pricing Online Courses

We start with something related to, but not exactly, online classes.  

In a recent tweet I said “Why do people pay $4 for a  coffee, not for a mobile game? Maybe because no cost to making more of the game, there is to making more coffee.”   Some people have proposed that the “natural” cost of an item is equal to the cost of making a copy. I’m not sure I can separate this in my mind from other apparently ridiculous propositions such as Karl Marx’s notion that the value of something derived only from the labor put into it (the Labor Theory of Value, which I suspect I may not understand because it is so ridiculous on the face of it). Nonetheless, we have certainly seen the value of mobile video games, which can be copied for nothing, reduced to nearly nothing. Free to play games, which do cost nothing insofar as they are given away, are coming to dominate many sectors of the game market.

People rarely make comparisons between widely different things, but I’m occasionally struck by how people often don’t make comparisons even within a particular segment such as food. When measured by the pound certain foods cost a lot more than expensive cuts of steak, yet people who wouldn’t pay $11 a pound for steak will pay $11 a pound for other food items (that are not priced per pound, so the cost is an obvious).

Some people believe that the price of mobile games plummeted because too many companies were satisfied or desperate enough to price their games at a few dollars or even $.99. That is, prices would not inevitably plummet but they did because there were those willing to sell very cheaply. And of course that’s where the notion comes from that if the cost of making a copy is zero then ultimately the value will be zero, because someone, a lot of someones, will reduce their prices because they can make more copies of the game at no cost.

The question in my mind is, will the price of online classes “inevitably” go down to approaching zero because it costs nothing for another student to take the class, in effect a copy cost of zero?  Or will it go down to zero because some people are willing to offer classes for free?

The pressure comes from two directions. The commercial  online education industry has dabbled for years in MOOCs, free courses using video lectures originally recorded in seated university classes, though now many MOOCs are created from scratch.  No one is making money off this right now though there are visions of making big money in the future.

The second direction of pressure is the online course offerers themselves. Udemy.com, which I’m most familiar with, is in the long run shooting itself in the foot by offering huge discounts for their classes: 65% off, 75% off, $10 no matter how much it officially costs. As a result, those instructors who participate in Udemy’s “kamikaze marketing” as I call it have to price their classes at ridiculous values, often in the hundreds of dollars for an hour or four (or occasionally 12) of videos. And all the students are being conditioned not to sign up for a class unless it’s offered at an enormous discount.

Perhaps this works for classes with a more or less infinite supply of students, and often a short life-span. It must be said that a great many of the courses on platforms like Udemy are for hard skills, programming or learning how to use particular software. I also see a lot of classes on Udemy that I would call “touchy-feely,” how to feel good about yourself, how to be a positive person, things like that. But the online commercial business started with those hard skill classes, and the highest earners (over $100,000 a year) are still doing things like teaching how to use Microsoft Office. My classes, about game design, are soft skills, more about critical thinking than about how to use software (which, it must be said, is relatively easy to learn if you’re already good with software). There is much less demand for my classes, but they also won’t become obsolete when software is upgraded.

Before I opened any classes on Udemy I saw that this price pressure would happen, and opted out of the kamikaze marketing. I price my courses as roughly equivalent of books, so my 12-13 hour “Learning Game Design” course, which is over 100,000 words (about 140 words a minute by actual count with the help of Dragon NaturallySpeaking) is $39 (on my own site) or $49 on Udemy.  (In comparison my book “Game Design ” at 101,000 words is $38.50 .)

Udemy egregiously accidentally offered this course at $10 (I was later compensated for the difference).  I got about 30 people (out of a total of 105 in four months).  I haven’t tried to pin it down to individuals, but I suspect those people are much less active in the class than the average person.

Another way to look at it is, these classes are in competition with Continuing Ed classes that you might take at your local community college, which (in North Carolina at least) cost $65 or $130.  On the other hand those classes are longer, and have an always-available (during class time) instructor you can talk with.


Ultimately a lot of these classes exist and do well because people are unwilling to read long nonfiction tracts such as books, or they simply have difficulty learning from books. Many of those people are much happier learning from videos. A majority of the people in my big game design have never read a book about game design, though many have.

I confess that my videos are mostly me talking over slides so that students have the slides as notes for later (I provide them in downloadable form). There isn’t a lot to “show” in game design, at least not something to show that actually means anything as opposed to showing for the sake of showing. Contrast this with the hard skill classes where the instructor is showing on the screen exactly what to do with the software that the student is learning.

***

My initial strategy on Udemy.com was to offer a free course together a large group of students and then feed them into pay courses. About the time I had more than 3,000 people (which is pretty easy to do) Udemy unilaterally changed their terms so that people who had signed up for a free course were worth much less when they signed up for a pay course. The nominal notion was that with the new system instructors would get nearly all of the money paid by people who they recruited. It has turned out not to be true in practice, because even if someone comes via an instructor’s efforts - not only does Udemy track where people come from but you can use coupons to track where they come from - they have to sign up within two hours of first visiting Udemy, or they’re counted as a Udemy student. In practice virtually everyone counts as a Udemy student, 50%.

Meanwhile the people I had recruited into the free courses were credited to Udemy, not to me as the instructor.  An owner of Udemy figuratively thumbed his nose at those using the free-class strategy and said too bad for you.  At that point I started to look for alternative hosting.

I discovered that it was pretty easy to recruit students to free courses but hardly any of those students actually did any of a course. It’s as though the students were collecting courses rather than taking any.

Udemy made a huge error in the long run, I think, when they changed their instructor terms.  When I signed up, instructors received 70% of the price a person paid, or 85% if the student used an instructor-designed coupon.  That helped me decide to make my first class free, in order to recruit as many people as possible to feed into my pay classes.  When Udemy changed to their new system, experienced instructors saw a large reduction in revenue. 

Instructors asked themselves, why recruit people when they almost never get credit for it?  This encouraged instructors to branch out to other platforms; if they were going to recruit students, why not recruit to their own site rather than Udemy.  Combined with Udemy’s 50% take, this resulted in droves of instructors going to new start-ups who offered to support their classes while taking 15% (plus the 3% processing).  UseFedora.com and LFE.com are two of them.  I’m using UseFedora.  Yet other sites like Skilljar are popping up every week, all of them looking to take business away from Udemy and Udemy’s older competitors, some of them offering better terms (perhaps) than the two new competitors I mentioned.

Udemy realizes there’s a problem.  Udemy instructors are not permitted to put a URL in any promotional announcement to their Udemy students.  I was recently taken to task by Udemy for having my website’s URL in my profile, which had been the case since I joined Udemy because it was a URL.  Though it must be said that Udemy students aren’t very proactive about looking for less expensive sources.


I don’t know if pricing an audiovisual course like a book and offering no discounts is efficient or not.   My “Learning Game Design” course is getting longer as I find myself adding videos, and I may increase the price.  I have not been issuing coupons at all, and that goes counter to the conventional wisdom that people won’t buy online unless they get discounts.  I do know that in four months I’ve earned more from the course than I have from my book in 17 months.  That’s why I’m spending my time making online courses rather than writing books.  After I make the online course, I may find time to write a book or part of a book on the same topic.  Books certainly get more respect than online classes.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Online Degrees: a Disaster for Education

I’ve not posted in this blog for a long time, though I’ve had many interesting experiences in the past year.

I’ve always been opposed to online education for the purpose of awarding a degree, because quite apart from the serious limitations on interaction with students, you don’t know who’s doing the work.  I smile at the extraordinary naïveté of people who say that online students do better in comparable classes then seated students, so online classes must be successful. The reason they get better grades is that it’s much easier to cheat in online classes. Most online classes don’t even consider the possibility of cheating, they simply ignore it. Or at most the instructors say “they’re only cheating themselves,” which is also extraordinarily naïve. In fact there cheating all the other people trying to get degrees, because they’re getting a degree the easy way, and in our litigious society a piece of paper, a degree, has become very important in getting hired.

You pay for convenience, and correspondingly lose efficiency and quality.  Education should not focus on “convenient”, but that’s what we’ve done as it is treated more and more as a commodity.

In Continuing Ed classes, whether there is actual CE credit or not, it doesn’t matter who’s doing the work as long as someone is doing it and learning something. Nor is it necessary to grade people in continuing education, grades are an artifact of earning degrees.

This Dilbert strip amusingly summarizes the obvious problem with online degree classes:
http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2006-02-28/
As it is copyrighted I cannot show it on this blog.


But I bit the bullet and tried, after being recruited more or less by one of the big online degree providers, one whose advertisements you’ve probably seen multiple times. This is a normally accredited university in the northeast that likes to say that they’re not-for-profit, although in fact they make a huge profit on their online classes that they plow into their campus. I went through a four-week course for instructors and discovered that they did not want teachers, they wanted cheerleaders and robotic graders.

First, the instructors had no influence over the form or content of the class.  This doesn’t work well for me as I’m accustomed to making up the entire contents of all the classes I teach, and I’ve taught dozens of different classes over the years. Also the likelihood that there are “instructional design specialists” who have a clue about game design is next to nil.

Second, I am really suspicious of situations where supposed “instructional design specialists” create classes instead of actual teachers. The specialists certainly don’t know the topics very well and I suspect often don’t know teaching very well.  They’ve learned techniques and research, but that doesn’t make them teachers.  This reminds me terribly of the big problem we have an education in general, that somebody comes down from a university to tell high school teachers how to teach, yet that person has never taught at that level and perhaps at any level, and spouts all kinds of ridiculous notions as though they were fact. I have yet to hear a good word from any experienced teacher who’s taken education classes at a typical college or university; the representative reaction is to stick a finger on their tongue and make a gagging motion.

Third, the university tried to apply general grading rubrics for all classes, yet even in the class I was taking they did not fit well and there were contradictions between assignments and rubrics.  The grading standards of the course contradicted the grading standards we were told everyone had to follow.  In general there rubrics amounted to requiring students to regurgitate what they had read.  They were not required to think or to do anything original. In other words we were back to memorization and training rather than understanding and education. The “teacher” was supposed to robotically apply the rubric in the name of uniformity with the result that the “teacher” could do nothing to ameliorate the bad effects of the generic rubric.

The cheerleader part came in the online discussions where a great deal of emphasis was on encouraging students so that they wouldn’t drop out of classes (and cost the university money, of course). I recognize that a certain amount of encouragement is necessary for the current generation, and perhaps even more online; on the other hand, college should be much like the real world, and in the real world you don’t get that kind of constant encouragement. Insofar as the rubrics meant that much of the discussion actually didn’t affect the grading - because students really were only required to regurgitate - there was actually no reason for the students to pay attention to the “teacher” beyond encouragement.

The generic rubric not only discouraged any kind of creativity or critical thinking, it left instructors in a situation where a very high proportion of grades could turn out to be A’s.  When the highest level of requirement is “do what you’re told and regurgitate it,” it’s pretty easy to get an A.

So what we had was generalized pablum even within the class I was taking, and I suspect the same thing happens in the actual degree classes. People pay their money, they do exactly what they’re told, as a result they get good grades and they get a degree: but what they learn is limited and they don’t learn much of anything about thinking.

(I suppose I should interject: to me, education is about learning to think and to cope with and function in the real world, where you won’t have anyone setting up your problems or holding your hand.  The common notion these days, however, is that education is about conveying “knowledge” or even “content”.  No.)

Just as K12 has become training rather than education - memorizing and regurgitating rather than understanding - this training orientation is coming into colleges and universities via online “education”, which is really online training. Training has its place in the world: for example soldiers only need to be trained to disassemble and assemble their weapons, they don’t need to understand the details in order to keep them clean. But soldiers are there to do what their superiors tell them to do (though it used to be, at least, that American soldiers were also supposed to think for themselves; I don’t know if that’s still true).  But I’ve always been a person who wants to understand and explain why things work as they do.  (Which is one reason why I’m not attracted to young children the way other people may be, because children at many points just need to be told what and not why, and I want to treat everyone like an adult and explain why.)

Online education reminds me of the typical big university lecture where hundreds of people listen to the lecturer, who never learns their names and possibly never even grades any of their work. That’s left to teaching assistants who may be graduate students or even undergraduates, who are working in a job and aren’t necessarily really interested in teaching. The lecturer provides a sort of oral book. (Someone once told me that she had a friend who “taught” game design to 500 people per class. No, that person didn’t really teach anyone, they provided an oral book.)

(I was fortunate: in my college and graduate education I was only once in the class of more than 25 or so people, an astronomy for non-majors class. But it was not so large that I couldn’t go and talk to the professor if I felt the need. And that was 40 years ago when college “education” was much less a commodity than it is now.)


So a big university class amounts in many ways to a very expensive oral book. What I’m providing in my new online classes is a sort of oral book, though with some exercises, where people can learn as much or as little as they are willing to. But it actually costs about the same as a commercial (non-textbook) book rather than a comparatively very expensive university class. I don’t provide the piece of paper, but I’ll bet I provide a much better actual education in game design topics than most of the university big lecture classes ever do.

Books can teach, people do learn from books, and nowadays it’s probably easier for people to learn from oral books than from written books. But neither is anywhere near as effective as having a good teacher in a small face-to-face class.  Moreover, I can teach game design from my book or online classes better than anyone can in a seated class if they don’t know game design; an awful lot of people teaching game design in colleges and universities don’t know it, for a variety of reasons.


The “flipped classroom” is a big point of emphasis in education today. The idea is that the lectures and readings are done outside class, and in class students actually DO things to learn. I always tried to do that is a teacher, so it’s nothing new to me; but it’s almost impossible to do online.

After the experience of that class for teachers for that online institution, a disaster from a school that is trying to do right rather than simply taking a profit (for example Phoenix University), I decided to pay attention to my reservations and abandon the idea of teaching for-degree online classes. But soon after on LinkedIn I saw a reference to a place called Udemy.com, checked it out, and started creating classes for it, which will be the topic of the next post.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Dreamers



An amazing number of teenagers dream of making games for a living, if my informal surveys at local schools and colleges can be expanded to the entire generation.

There are all kinds of individual delusions (see http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/2010/09/student-illusions-about-being-game.html ), but I’m talking about the big dream: “I’m going to be famous (and rich) as a video game maker.”

Perhaps the dreamers fall into two categories, those who dream without having any idea how to get there and no plan to get there, and those who dream while doing something to try to get there.  The first group is much the larger, as is likely true with any kind of dreaming.

Teachers are “stuck in the middle” when it comes to dealing with dreamers.  I’ve heard many people say “you shouldn’t destroy their dreams” while others, including me, think that people of adult age (as are college students) need to understand reality, and the ones who dream strongly and are willing to do something despite the odds still have a sufficient chance to succeed.  In other words, they won’t be put off because one teacher or even all their teachers show them that their dream will be very, very hard to attain. 

We have a K12 school system (in the USA) that has endeavored for years to avoid the negative, to pump up student self-esteem without requiring any action to earn self-respect.  People are awarded for participation, and competition is discouraged.  It is the opposite of the real world.   When students enter the real world they're shocked that they're not special, that people won't do things for them "just because" of who they are.  Part of a college teacher's job is to help students realize what the real world is like, to help students learn to take responsibility for themselves and to *earn* respect.

When kids are quite young then they’ll have many dreams and a teacher is probably going to encourage them to find dreams that really fit their personalities and desires.  When the student is close to graduating from high school or is in college then they need a big dose of reality so that they don’t waste years pursuing something that they may not be suited for.

A disconnection with reality seems to have become the norm amongst pre-adults.  In 2007 I had a class of high school students taking a college course in Web design.  We had a discussion about fame and about famous people, and I asked them to think of famous people from the local county.  In the end we could only come up with three football players, all of them retired by that point, and one deceased governor, out of 300,000 people.  We did a little math to show that it was quite unlikely that anyone from a group as small as the class would be famous.  Then I asked them how many of them thought they would be famous in their lives and about a quarter raised their hands.  I understand that this is not an unusual proportion for millennials (Gen Y).

This is an extreme of dreaming.  You can dream of being really good at something and enjoying it but that doesn't make you famous; these folks dream that they're going to be famous.

The tremendous lack of initiative of young people as a group (there are of course many exceptions) has really impressed (or depressed) me.  A "generation expert" speaking at a teachers’ conference described the "ambitious but aimless" tendencies of millennials (Gen Y). They have a goal, but not only don't know how to get there, they may not even be willing to pursue a path to it when the path is available. The expert's example: millennial says "I'm going to be an astronaut".  Well, that's very praiseworthy, but that requires a lot of work, you'll likely need at least a master's degree in some science-related subject, you have to take physics, math, etc. "Nope, I don't do math," says the millennial. Then how can you be an astronaut? "I'm going to be an astronaut". They don't see the connection between where they are and where they're going, but somehow it's going to happen.

Dreams are not a bad thing--as long as you DO SOMETHING about them.  Dreams should be about goals and how to attain them, not pure fantasies.  Talking about dreams isn't likely to go well, as you'll get a dose of reality from those with more experience.  Dreams on their own are empty, vacuous even.  You need to try to get results.

It’s common to hear people say “well, I could do as well if I tried that”.  But they never try it.  And while it’s usually not true in practice that they’ll do as well, sometimes it is, as with the 35-year-old Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, Barsoom) in 1912 when he felt he could write stories as good as the ones he was reading in magazines.    The difference is, ERB went for it, he didn’t just talk about it.

Sid Meier, talking about the original Civilization game, said  "Most of the letters we'd get were almost a standard form.  They were like, 'Dear Sid.  I liked your game Civilization.  Here are the five things I would change to make it a much better game.'"  People who almost invariably had no clue about game design, but thought "I can do just as well as he did," told Sid where he went wrong. Ridiculous.  (And that’s as much the previous generation as millennials, in the early 1990s.)

Fantasist-dreamers can get to the point that they're personally offended by someone who describes a reality much different from the one the fantasist-dreamer would like to imagine.  And blames the person "delivering the reality".  For example, many people love RPGs so much and imagine what great work they can do, then meet the reality of a market that used to be very active, but collapsed several years ago leaving only a few companies able to make much profit.  Some of these folks are actually offended when someone describes how and why the market is quite small (beyond the efforts of those few big companies).

Before I taught curriculum game design, I was at a college where I mainly taught computer networking, and taught a game class on the side.  I was able to find enough students for the curriculum (for college credit) game class, even though there was no degree, but when I tried to do a continuing education (inexpensive, not-for-credit) class almost no one signed up.  A 16-year-old who did sign up said he tried to get some buddies to come as well, but they were "too busy".  I'd bet a lot of their busy-ness amounted to killing time playing video games; but if you're a person who thinks that somehow things will just work out, you're not likely to take the initiative to change the state of affairs.

Admittedly, this lack of interest in learning isn’t confined to younger people.  At my Origins seminars about game design this year I asked people how many had read a book about game design.  Very few.  Admittedly, until my book comes out, there is only one book that begins to discuss tabletop game design (though it’s free), and most of my audience were interested in the tabletop, not video games.  The audience did take the time to come listen to what I had to say.  But surely, if you’re really interested in game design, wouldn’t you read at least one of the well-known (video) game design books?

Remembering that this blog is about game design, my point is this: it won’t just come to you, you have to do it, you have to pursue it, you have to take every opportunity to learn about it (read!).  Then again, if you’re reading blogs like this, you’re already ahead of most of your contemporaries who dream of being game designers.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book review: Masters of Doom



Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, by David Kushner, is a history of Id Software, famous for Doom and Quake as well as many other games, and its founders John Carmack and John Romero.  This is history written in a very personal form, as though it was a novel, and it is written very well.  The author had extensive access to almost all of the major characters, and even then there is much dialogue that had to be invented by the author because no one who was there was going to remember all of those details – and these guys don’t seem like the types who would be recording almost everything they said, though Romero has an extensive archive.

In fact, the guys as a group seem to be the opposite of meticulous, except where programming is concerned.   For years they worked in an apartment amidst pizza boxes and soda pop cans and wild and crazy nights of game playing and programming.  It’s a quintessential story of misfit kids rising through video games to become the equivalent of “rock stars”.

The story of the two Johns is told in great and fascinating detail.  It’s like the kind of novel that you have a hard time putting down.  This is true even for me, long past the young adult stage and not at all inclined to worship anybody, especially “rock stars” – though I grew up with the beginning of Rock I never wanted to be a rock star. 

This book certainly gives youngsters a story to wish for and heroes to emulate.  Unfortunately, the software industry has passed the stage where innovation alone has value: it has matured.  Games must appeal to a broader market, and designers often must design for other people, not for themselves.  The Id Software guys designed games that they wanted to play, and had a great deal to do with the invention of first-person shooters and the fascination of hard-core players with realism in blood and gore, but what really made it go was the genius of John Carmack, who programmed the game engines used in the software. 

I remember when Doom first came out (as shareware, mind you).  I played it for 15 minutes, said “that’s nice”, and had no desire to play again.  I’ve never been a fan of shooters beyond something very basic like Space Invaders.  Yet a 20-something friend of mine who only had a laptop (which couldn’t keep up with Doom’s demands) came over and played it on my desktop, with the speakers turned way up, cackling and laughing as he slaughtered the enemy, and I really enjoyed watching him having so much fun.  Though after a while I left him to it!   My friend was representative of how Doom was received by experienced video game players. I am still fascinated to watch people play shooters, perhaps because I don’t find them interesting to play.

The early history of Id shows the advantages of teamwork when the skills of the team members complement each other.  Workaholic Carmack really does seem to be a genius, someone who found ways to go beyond the evident constraints of early PCs and make them do more than anyone thought possible.   Romero provided the game design, some of the marketing, the tools programming, and the hype, but ultimately Carmack was the linchpin, and when they fell out Romero was forced to leave.  He formed ill-fated Ion Storm and created the even more ill-fated Daikatana, while Ion Storm owed whatever success it had to Will Spector and his game Deus Ex.  In the end Eidos bought Ion Storm and fired Romero and his people, keeping the Deus Ex gang.

In contrast to the late 80s and early 90s, nowadays the technology is not usually a limiting factor.  Any game designer operates under a variety of constraints, and in the past the technology limitations of the platforms was one of the biggest constraints. Where in the past video games have often been as much about technology as about games, now we’re at a stage where most people aren’t interested in the technology, they just want to play games.  While platforms are still a constraint they are much less so than 20 years ago.  And I think this relative independence from technology (along with the costs of the best technology) limits pretty strongly the possibility that a small group of people can take the gaming world by storm because they’ve solved technological problems the way Id Software did.  Games that are big overnight successes like Angry Birds or Draw Something, or games with vast numbers of players like Farmville and Mafia Wars, do not begin to push the technology envelope.

The book is so obviously based on interviews with most of the participants that I was almost surprised to find a list of sources at the end.  The biggest source was extensive interviews with dozens of people, and especially the two John’s themselves. There are end notes and a bibliography as well.

I have a 2004 paperback edition (original was issued in 2003) with an  afterword by the author.  You can carry the story further through Wikipedia.  Kushner, a video game journalist, has recently published another book, Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto.  He didn’t get quite the full access to participants that he did for Masters of Doom, but I expect it will be similarly riveting reading.

(It’s often interesting to see which names are recognized by Dragon NaturallySpeaking, my voice recognition software.  It appears that some of the more well-known people in the contemporary world are embedded in the software.  At any rate it had no trouble with either of the Johns’ last names.)

Friday, May 25, 2012

Attending Origins in Columbus

I'll be at Origins in Columbus OH next week.  I'm fairly easy to spot if you'd like to talk, at 6'6", 305 pounds (I was impressed with the size of NFL offensive tackles until I became that size), bald on top (not male pattern baldness, just a general lack of hair), mustache, glasses.  I may be wearing a hat at times so the baldness may not be evident.


I am giving four different (free) talks about game design, Friday at 7 PM, Saturday at 11AM and 7, and Sunday at 10AM. One hour to talk, then up to an hour for questions.  See the program for topic details.
"Always do right--this will gratify some and astonish the rest."Mark Twain
"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." Albert Einstein

"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." Albert Einstein

"The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal." -- Aristotle