Monday, August 30, 2010

Commentary on Commentary

Since you people were nice enough to help us reach 2000 pre-orders of Amnesia: The Dark Descent earlier this year, we have been forced to record some commentary. This was not something that we had done before, but thought that it would be a really simple task. As always, it turned out to be a lot more trouble than we had first assumed.

Adding Commentary to the Game
Our design was inspired from the kind of commentary that can be seen in the Half-life 2 episodes and Riddick: Escape from Butcher bay. Essentially, it consists of icons that are scattered throughout the levels and when interacted with you hear a developer ranting. I first just wanted to have some kind of text-billboard that you could click on and that was it. Simple and Effective.

Then Marc, one the artists here at FG, put a really nice looking model instead. Now that we had a nice model we of course wanted more! So decided on giving it some kind of nice gold shader and started to experiment with this. We went through various versions, but it did not turn out that well. Unfortunately we could not have the gold shader as it was not visible enough in dark areas (something Amnesia is filled with) and we went with a more flat-shaded-thingie, that made it stand out more, instead. Now I also felt forced to add some effects to this and put an hour or two into making a part of the icon spin and radiate some "Waves" (that Marc made) when activated.

Final icon design when crosshair is over it.

Now, further complications happened. When playing commentaries, they could be drowned out by other sounds, so we had to find ways to lower this "background noise". Some of the functionality for this already existed, but a few new effects had to be added before it worked like it should. In the final version all background sounds/voices are faded out and the commentary is faded in on top of that. It actually turned out quite nicer than I thought it would and makes it extra fun to listen to the commentaries!

So that is how something I thought would take 5 minutes, ended up taking a full day.

Recording Commentary Voices
Before recording could be begin we had to find a some interesting stuff to talk about and this was not always that easy. We wanted the commentary rants to be short, connected to where the icon was and not require images or similar. So there was a bit of discussion on what to talk about. When that was done everybody were to write scripts and to read from these when talking. We had set a Monday as "recording day" and assigned all day to fix the recordings.

The first recording problem was getting the microphones ready. I sounded like a the captain of an airplane in mine and had to run down to town to buy a new one. Others did not have stores nearby and had put their faith into Jens to do some sound magic. To make sure the voices where free of smacking sounds and similar, we used the old trick of putting socks on the microphones. A set up that looked quite stupid and when my girlfriend came home she thought I had gone crazy, sitting talking to a sock-puppet (after all the crunch-time I put in this was not that implausible and I was already talking to myself from time to time).
¨Marc's attempt at creating a sound studio

..and here is Luis's (other rooms were too noisy)

When the voices in the microphones finally sounded good, only the actual talking was left. This was of course not easy at all. I think we all learned to appreciate the work our voice actors have made as we tried to talk make good commentary voices. There is so much to think about: Speak at the right range from mic, speak slowly, say the right words, do not spit into the microphone, do not make silly noises, avoid external interferences, etc. Whenever any of these errors popped up it was retake time. I think the last voices was recorded something like 1:00 in the night, after having started at 08:00 in the morning. Who stayed up that long will remain an internal secret.

Despite this rather strange workday, the voices actually turned out pretty nice. I know I do not sound perfect all the time, and there are some sound bytes, where you clearly hear I had not had water for a while and my voice sound like some deranged drunkard. I guess that is part of the fun though and most of the time we should be very comprehensible.

Final results
To learn how me, slightly confused, talking to a sock sound like, and other fun stuff you will have to wait for the release of the game! In the meantime Mikko, our extremely talented musician, made a little video where you get taste of some of the stuff we will talk about:

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Why I hate "Cinematic"

"Cinematic" still seems to be a kind of buzz-word for videogames these days. Often scenes that are extra emotional or involving are called "cinematic". I do not really like this word and its usage expose many of the problems videogames have today. I guess some explanation is required. My two major reasons for disliking the word are:

1) Movies are not rolemodels
It means that videogames should strive to be more like cinema, that there are really important lessons to be learned by doing things like "in the movies". There is so much done in games the past 20 years, based on cinema, that has kept videogames from evolving. Linear and strict plots being one of the biggest. Because movies rely so much on being extremely specific in what the viewer shall see, it has standards that are direct opposite of what a videogame is. By having these "cinematic" goals, we have gotten things like cut scenes where all the "fun stuff" happens, quick-time-events and annoying camera angles. Games would have been far better off if these things did not become the design standards they are today.

2) Movies are not better
It implies that film is a superior medium. I would like to say that it is actually reverse. Film is probably the lesser of all story telling media. It leaves less to imagination and is the least fulfilling. Films do not require any real effort and leaves very little to the imagination. Sure, there are films that are hard to get and with very subtle imagery, but these are far between, and in my eyes does not live up the fantasies a great novel or piece of music can conjure up. In my mind games take all this a step further. While all other media gives us a prefabricated descriptions, videogames places us in living breathing worlds. I feel the difference is like reading about climbing Everest and actually doing it. Videogames as a medium is not inferior, I would say it is far superior than any else.

Does this means that the best games of today trump the best films, music and books? Far from it and quite the reverse. But videogames as a medium has an awesome potential. It would be very bad to let catchy buzz-words such as cinematic to stand in the way of fulfilling it.

Friday, August 27, 2010

We just turned into gold!

Today we can proudly announce that Amnesia: The Dark Descent has gone gold! So what does this mean? Well, it essentially mean that the game is done! What is left for us now to do is to send it away to our Russian publisher and online retailers. We will also start to focus 100% on doing PR and make sure people know about the game. In less then two weeks it will be released to the world!

It has really been a long journey and Amnesia has been the focal point of our existence for quite some time. With all that work behind us it now feels very nice to be done and we are extremely pleased with end result. I actually enjoyed testing the game until the very end, something I cannot say about Penumbra. I feel we have bettered ourselves on all accounts with Amnesia and are very excited to hear what all of you think about it once it's released.

Thanks to all who have supported us so far! And please continue helping us spreading the word.

Below follows a brand new gameplay trailer about water, doors and being hunted. And if you are interested in seeing new environments from the game check here and here.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Laissez Faire

Following having our dirty laundry aired on NPR, the Gans household has swiftly moved back to fundamentals in the allowance policy. No more arbitrary restraints on spending although the health tax remains.
This has led to a upkick in spending -- just at the time the US economy could use it -- and, for the most part, it is responsible.

I say, "for the most part," because the 6 year old has moved quickly to corner the Silly Bandz market. You can see the result to the left. It is an embarrassingly large number -- in fact, that's 222 elastic bands. We know this because the only thing one does with 222 elastic bands is count them. This, of course, moves it partly from frivolous purchase to educational one but there will be no subsidy forthcoming.

When I asked the 6 year old why she bought so many she claimed that so and so had more, "a Googol-plex" in fact. Suffice it to say, keeping up with the Jones is a losing cause. I pointed out that she would eventually run out of money and asked what would she do then. She said, "I'll just stop buying things." She has that right. That is a day I'm looking forward to.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Some allowance tools

The NPR podcast has brought forth a number of online tools to assist in allowance setting and management.
  • FamZoo: this site allows you to set up virtual accounts -- which can have real world mirrors -- and offers tools to teach your kids about saving and interest. 
  • ThreeJars: this also allows you to set up virtual accounts (with real world mirrors). It looks a little less economically sophisticated with FamZoo but then again it offers some other tools to think about allowances. For instance, there is this tool (discussed here) that tries to help you answer the question "well, in my day ..." by adjusting your allowance for inflation. In my case, my children are getting too low an allowance relative to that benchmark.
  • PayJr: this one has similar management tools but also a Visa card for teenagers.
  • SmartyPig: again allows online management but also seems to use social networks to foster goal keeping habits. I guess that makes it more for older kids although the design seems targeted at younger ones.
  • NetworthIQ: you might be thinking, hey, maybe I could use some online tools like these. It turns out that this site, featured in the NYT Magazine can do just that.
There are also a few iPhone and iPad apps that can help too including Kids Allowance and Rewards, iRewardChart, and BeGood.

Of course, you can just use Google Docs as this post suggests. I haven't really tried any of these but if anyone has, feel free to leave your impressions in the comments.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A quick rant on school supplies

OK, I have just spent an hour in Staples armed with a 5th and 7th grade school supply list. I figured that since Staples rakes it in at 'back to school' time that they would find an organised way in which to take our money. But no. Despite it surely being the case that everyone is coming in with much the same list, the whole organisation of the place was just as it always was and I had to search high and low for the few graphed paper spiraled notebooks that there were. Sure there were some displays with some of the stuff but that was not what I needed. I needed organisational sense and marketing saavy.

If you are in a local area, surely they could contact the school district and have collected some boxes with all of the supplies needed and then charged us for them. It must be easier than the search we had to go through. I'd also have been happy for a web site where I could have simply sent through our lists of needs and bought the lot. The Staples website, for one, seemed so unsuitable for this that I figured going to the store was better. Sounds like I got that wrong.

I'd be very happy for anyone to report and advertise common sense approaches that they have heard of in the comments.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

NPR and Potty Training

Half of the NPR Planet Money podcast was on potty training and its challenges -- particularly for an economist.  That was the subject of the very first post on this blog back in 2003. In celebration of all of that, I thought it would be good to post the entire chapter from (the Australian version) of Parentonomics on the subject.

NPR's Planet Money Podcast

Last week, Child No.1 and I recorded an interview with Chana Joffe-Walt for NPR. You can download and listen to the result on the Planet Money podcast. The topic for the interview was supposed to be the economics of allowances but it steered more broadly.

Before I get on to the economics of allowances, I have to just say how proud I was of Child No.1's (now known as 'B's') performance. We were in a hot small studio for 90 minutes with the interviewer in another city. Nonetheless, she rose to the challenge of communicating the complexities of our household to a global audience including speaking in American rather than Australian (although you can see, she hasn't lost her accent).

Child No.1 would also like to make it clear that she is not buying any dresses and will resist all efforts to have her wear one. There was some ambiguity in the interview but she would like it to be known that that all has to do with higher little sister.

In preparation for the interview I put some thoughts on the economics of allowances into an email and I thought I'd just share that here:
There are two main economic motives for allowances: (i) giving children incentives to work hard and/or (ii) giving children incentives to purchase well. In each case, the parenting goal is supposed to be generating good habits and experience so that 'cash doesn't become king.'

The idea that allowances are a form of payment for effort is fraught with difficulty. Basically, if I say to a child you will get your allowance if you take out the garbage each week (without being nagged), the child may want to broker a fee for any household chore. When it comes down to it, most parents think the child is part of the household and when they can they should contribute without some extended negotiation and possible legal claims based on precedent. That doesn't mean you can't use payments to get something extra but my guess it is better to have an independent bonus system than having that as part of a regular wage.

The other motive for allowances -- getting children to purchase well -- makes more direct sense. The idea is that a budget constraint can teach kids the 'value of money' or to translate it into another form -- it can allow parents to say 'no' to stuff more credibly. 'No you can't have those silly bandz. If you want them, you should use your own money.'

But here is the difficult part with that -- it works well in theory but what happens when your child wants to buyer what for want of a better word you consider 'crap.' The idea of giving them a budget of course is for them to make crappy decision so that they learn from their mistakes. You just have to grit your teeth and let it happen. The problem is that it may be that they want to spend their hard saved pocket money on special treats. So you think it is crap but they don't. That's a tougher issue and it is the one Tim Harford grappled with.

Here is how I dealt with the issue with our eldest daughter. She could purchase sweets but every time she did so, I would impose a health tax to compensate us for the additional expected health costs this behaviour would cause. The tax as a pretty hefty 100% of the sweet purchase price. My ever frugal daughter decided that was too much and figured that she would wait until she left home and enjoy the full benefits of the likely sizable fortune she would accumulate by that time.

That all leads me to another thing I have been thinking about and comes out nicely with allowances: how much should parents use behavioural economics to guide them (i.e., Thaler and Sunstein's Nudge)? For instance, you can get your child to save their allowance rather than spending it but not giving them cash but doing transfers to their bank accounts. They don't spend because it is 'out of sight, out of mind.' Another thing you might do is a create a friction. The kids wants to buy X on impulse at the store and you say, well, not now but if the next time we are here you ask again then you can buy it. That quashes the impulse and more often than not, they forget.

It seems like that would work but in some respects is killing the whole point of providing a budget for the purpose of learning about the value of money. You actually want to set them up for mistakes. That way, when they make them, it is off small amounts of accumulated savings. If you nudge towards saving, then they have a ton of money and when they make a mistake it is a big one. That strikes me as problematic.

Anyhow, it is a great issue and a big one for parents. I haven't even got to the amount of the allowance. We do $1 times their age per week but that is just poetic. Others eventually use some benchmarking. I suspect that I would want our kids to suffer a little from a low amount and then use evidence to negotiate a higher allowance. At the moment, with all of their money transferred directly to savings they haven't thought to do that. But it will come.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The costs of protection

Two things provoked me this week to think about the costs of over-protective parents. First, there is this post by Daniel Reeves. It echoes a theme well-known to followers of Lenore Skenazy that parents over-estimate the probability of harm. It points out that this also happens to non-parents and when they interact -- say, because a lost child isn't found because someone didn't want to be accused of abduction -- the consequences can be tragic. 

Second, there is this episode of This American Life. If you are a parent -- over-protective or not -- you will be surely driven to despair about the first story of a child who grew up effectively in restraints. Not physical ones but extreme boundaries.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

An interesting picture

And before you call social services ... it is apparently a pinata. That said, gives one pause about pinatas at parties.