This irregular column resurrects (relevant) lost blog posts from Mike’s 2006 personal blog on Yahoo 360 and updates them with new relevance and perspective.

From December 2006:

There’s never enough time to do everything right – so concentrate on the little things that make everything else tolerable.

It’s easy to underestimate how big a contribution you make to the world in general in the course of your daily life. It’s even easier to forget how much you owe to others for the little things that improve your own life, that make it more convenient or more satisfying. I’ve been privileged enough to see it happen three times, and those events form a lasting reminder of the second point.

The first occasion was when I went to work for the Australian Bureau Of Statistics on the Australian population census for the second time, in 2002, and saw that many of the suggestions that I had made 5 years earlier had been implemented. Usually, at the end of a project like the census, there is a file about a centimeter thick of suggestions from staff for further examination, and another about 1/4-1/2 that size of ideas that were actually put in place in the course of the project. There’s also a third file of suggestions that were impractical or not beneficial or rejected for any of half-a-dozen more reasons. One of the managers who I knew on both occasions told me that after my first stint on the census, the stack of suggestions taken away for further consideration was a couple of inches thick – so many that my suggestions had been put into a separate folder to those of everyone else!

At the time, I wasn’t aware of how many ideas I was putting forward, and had absolutely no notion of the usual numbers of suggestions; I simply took a moment to jot down, and pass on, ideas as they came to me, in ones and twos, each week. Most of them weren’t all that earth-shaking in nature, either; just little things that might improve efficiency by a fraction of a percent or so. But 50 improvements of one-quarter-of-a-percent each adds up to more than 10% improvement – and when you’re dealing with a multimillion dollar project, and hundreds of staff working for the best part of a year or more, that’s fairly significant. And I hadn’t put forward and analyzed a mere 50 suggestions – there were over 200 set aside for further consideration. That first census took 14 months to process; the second took 10 months. Two of those were saved through advances in technology – scanning and handwriting recognition. At least part (and from what I was told at the time, a large part) of the other two months came from my suggestions. A faster way to code this, or a way to do without that, or a less confusing way to process the other.

The second occasion came on the day in 2006 that this blog was originally posted, when I returned to the Job Network member that I had been registered with prior to my back injury. I hadn’t made as many suggestions there – more complaints about the bureaucracy getting in the way, and a lack of flexibility about the policies. The reply at the time was that they needed to cater for the people who didn’t have access to the resources – the lowest common denominator. I replied that greater flexibility would not only prevent people with the extra resources from being slowed down by the bureaucracy, it would also free up the job network’s resources, enabling them to focus on the people who needed that little bit more help, and put my suggestions in writing. Today, I found that these arguements had not fallen on deaf ears; and that gives me at least a small hand in every job the agency had found for its unemployed members over the 18-24 months since.

The third occasion was with the 2006 census. In 2002, I had wondered aloud as to why people couldn’t fill out the census forms online. The Australian Tax Office had just successfully implemented online personal income tax returns, and I saw no reason why the same technology couldn’t be used for the Census. In reply, a couple of unsolved problems were pointed out to me; this surprised me, because I hadn’t foreseen any difficulty in solving those issues, and set out in writing a number of suggestions for making the technique practical. In 2009 on the ABS website, I saw that they had been trialing an online reply method for use in this year’s census – and from the description of the process, all those unsolved problems had been solved using the technique suggestions I had put forward. So not only will the taxpayers have to pay less for the census of population and housing in 2005, many will also be able to complete the process more quickly and conveniently.

Pretty much the only way to become aware of the impact that you’ve had is to return to a workplace or association after an extended absence. It’s necessary to be able to contrast the way things are “now” with the way they were when you left. When you can remember suggesting some of the changes, even simply raising them as discussion points, that’s when you can put your hand up and say with some pride, “I had a hand in that”.

And yet we make these contributions all the time – just by talking to our friends and neighbors and employers, doing our jobs, and satisfying the bureaucracy that surrounds our lives. Every labor-saving technique or method that you use – usually without even being aware of it – was someone’s idea once. So, if you have an idea that would make your job easier, tell it to someone – and encourage others to do the same. If there’s an inconvenience that can be done away with, tell someone!

We all have to do this, because the average age in western societies is rising rapidly, and the workforce of tomorrow is going to have to do a lot more with a lot fewer staff. It’s not unlikely that there will only be half as many workers, 30 years from now, as there are today. That number comprises two effects: the actual reduction in worker numbers, and the fact that of those who are left, a high percentage (perhaps as many as 10-20%) will be occupied caring for the retired and aged.

During the great depression, unemployment hit a peak of about 40% amongst the white community, and 56% among the minorities, in North America. This will be 50% across the board – which should put it into perspective.

Between now and then, there will be a series of economic crises to be ridden out, just as there have always been. Each of them will be longer and deeper because of this factor. And is it any wonder that outsourcing is a hot topic at the moment, and will remain so? Places like India and Asia are where the people are; the people that need to be recruited and trained, ready to take over when you retire.

Every helping hand the people of tomorrow can get will make the mechanisms of society that you will depend on in retirement, work that little bit more smoothly.

It’s in our own best interests.

Why repost this here?

Most of the posts that I am going to resurrect for this column – and there are only a dozen or so earmarked for that treatment – are directly gaming-related. This one, at first glance, is not. So why repost it here, now?

There are two reasons. Firstly, there are lessons here that apply to games and gaming; and secondly, this is the background against which our hobby must exist in the future, and the economic and social effects discussed at the end of the original post describe the economic and social climate that will shape and influence gaming products in the future.

Return To The Scene Of The Crime

Perceiving the difference that my contributions had made required two things: an interval spent elsewhere and a return to the scene of the contributions.

The same is true of PCs and their influence on the world around them; if they’re living in the location all the time, the day-to-day changes they cause will be small and incremental. While these changes may accumulate over time into something substantial, there is insufficient contrast between what is and what was for the players to really observe that they are making a difference to the world around them in smaller, more fundamental ways than just the immediate outcome of adventures.

This effect should show up in games in two ways.

Deliberate Environment Dynamics

If the GM wants the players to feel like their presence is making a difference in the campaign world, he should occasionally throw in the occasional brief separation from their usual environment. This is especially true of a sandboxed campaign like Johnn’s Riddleport campaign, or campaigns where the whole point is for the characters to change the world (usually for the better, but YMMV), such as a superhero campaign. On the other hand, the more static the game environment is to be, the less time you want them to spend away from a single adventuring environment, because that will minimize their sense of significance in the game world.

Mandated Dynamic Changes

The same phenomenon dictates that if characters DO step outside their usual adventuring environment, the amount of change that they become aware of when returning dictates their awareness of the impact they are having on the world around them. The perceived importance of the PCs to the game world is therefore a manipulable quality in the hands of the GM.

For example, in my Shards Of Divinity campaign, the PCs started adventuring in the Capital City of the Shared Kingdoms; went elsewhere to adventure; returned to the Capital City; again went elsewhere; and are once again about to return to the Capital City. This pattern is an ongoing effect within the campaign until the leader of the PCs sets up his own Kingdom, some time later in the campaign.

The first time that they returned, there was relatively little change, because they had not done very much of significance while in the city the first time around. When they return this time, there will be substantially greater impact evident, because on their LAST visit they became considerably more involved in a number of ways. The consequences and ramifications of those events (which in fact forced them to depart ahead of their planned schedule or face serious trouble) have had plenty of time to develop and snowball and interact, and the political environment into which they are about to step will have changed dramatically in consequence. There will be differences to the social, political, theological, and economic status of the city, and these will start to make themselves known to the party even before they actually pass through the gates of the walled city.

The economics of gaming as a hobby

In any sort of economic downturn, several things happen with regards to society and entertainment. People feel the need to seek out active relief from their day-to-day troubles, even if only for a little while; at the same time, disposable incomes go down, so that the efficiency needed of an entertainment dollar has to increase.

Overall, there is a rise in escapist literature and entertainments in such times, and more immersive experiences also tend to fare better. During the downward slide, dystopian pessimisms and styles predominate both musically and in the media, while these become alloyed with a more optimistic perception during the slow recovery. Get the product right for the time, and success will exceed expectations; work the cycle the wrong way round, and you can lose your shirt. A sufficiently inspirational product can even shape attitudes and trigger a certain social climate out-of-cycle for a period of time, but those tend to be few and far between.

The implications of the combination are not promising for big, deluxe game books like those published by WOTC. They are considerably more favorable for e-books and operations like Drive-Thru RPG / RPGNow. E-books are the future, simply because the lower overheads involved cut production costs to 1/3 or more for a comparable product.

For a product that’s full-color, 200 pages or so, WOTC and similar companies have to charge $50 or more simply because it costs them $40 or more to physically produce and promote the book. Costs can be contained through a reduction in the use of colour, and through a reduction in the quality of paper, and this was exploited by Hero Games in the production of the Hero System, 5th edition, as well as the first edition of games such as Hackmaster by KenzerCo.

But even these production economies fall short of the potential of electronic documents. A full-colour 200+ page e-book can be produced for a fraction of the cost of even a similarly-sized dead-tree product in black and white. That means that profit margins can be the same for a much smaller total price – so the consumers get more for their gaming dollar.

E-book limitations: Dead-tree comparisons

There are three shortcomings to the electronic format and all of these need to be addressed before the full benefits of the format can be realized.

The first is that for all the technological advances, dead-tree products are still easier to read and are still preferred by a substantial slice of the market. This is a social limitation as much as a technological one. There is some reasonable expectation that the technology will eventually solve its part of the problem – there have been several advances in that direction over the last decade – but until reading an electronic format is no more tiring than reading a physical one, the problem is not completely addressed. The social aspect can only be resolved in the long-term by acceptance of the technological solution, and there too progress is being made, but a final solution awaits the necessary advances in technology and format.

There remains essential research to be done before such a solution can be determined. What is the role of strong contrast between type and page, for example? Is the tiredness associated with reading onscreen documents reduced by altering the contrast levels of margins or is it only where text lies on the page? Should contrast levels alter to highlight the paragraph that is currently being read instead of having uniform contrast over the entire page? Should contrast levels change as a function of the time spent reading the document within the current sitting?

Lots of questions. I’ve no doubt that people like Apple (for the iPad) and Amazon (for the Kindle) are looking into this sort of question; a solution is only a matter of time.

Copyright and Fair Use

The problems of properly remunerating creative individuals for their contributions in the face of technological progress is one that will continue to plague electronic media of all forms for the foreseeable future. In many ways, the problems predate the current level of technology involved – analogous issues occurred when Philips first came up with the portable cassette, or when the photocopier was invented.

In recent times, the choice has been perceived in extreme terms, between repressive and coercive monopolies and an anarchic counterculture. Slowly, a compromise is being worked out through operations such as iTunes and other legal download sources that satisfy no-one completely but fall short of the extremist positions previously advocated. In gaming, the analogous development is the OGL, which satisfy both the right to profit from ones labors and the user-friendliness of permissions to utilize and generate derivatives. Unfortunately, the market leader (for good or ill) of our hobby, WOTC, has seen fit to retreat somewhat from the principles of the OGL and adopted a more repressive regime with 4e, one which shows that they never really understood why the OGL made D&D 3.x so successful in the first place. Until these issues are completely resolved, the portability and ease of duplication of electronic products will stifle their acceptability within the industry and the public at large.

In the meantime, another partial solution that will rise in popularity is print-on-demand, which performs a media translation from electronic to dead-tree format. For the next decade or more, this will be a growing aspect of the gaming industry.

Distribution & Marketing

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to be overcome is the rise in background noise generated by so many electronic products scrambling for attention. It was the strength of the existing and established techniques for distribution and marketing that was the media companies’ strongest arguement for perpetuating their role as dominant figures in the entertainment marketplace. (I say was, because there seems to be a lot less promotion going on these days – the money being spent on enforcement of artificial ‘rights’ has been diverted from promotional activities in general, and as a result it is both easier to access music and harder to know what you want to access. Even well-known, well-established artists release new product that vanishes without disturbing public awareness in the modern era. How, then, do the media companies continue to justify their positions as arbiters of public success?)

The same is true of gaming products. There are some that are successful because they have huge marketing and distribution machines behind them; there are others that are successful at a smaller scale through smaller marketing and distribution systems; and there are some small-press organizations that struggle to get noticed. In fact, there’s a whole spectrum from individuals doing it all for themselves all the way up to the 500-pound gorilla of the gaming world, WOTC.

Imagine that you have a product that will appeal to 10% of the potential market, i.e. one-in-ten gamers will consider buying this product. Get the price wrong, and profitability (and with it, longevity), will suffer – or marketability will suffer, if the mistake is in the other direction. But let’s assume that you’ve done your homework and have the price exactly right. Of those one-in-ten, perhaps half will actually commit to a sale – your conversion rate – based on how appealing you make the product to the market. Previews and samplers and adverts and promotions and reviews all feed into the credibility of the product, and its perceived value for money, and hence into that conversion rate. That means that of all those who hear of your product, at best, you will sell to one-in-twenty. The challenge that remains is to have your product noticed. At best, it can be argued that 1% of your possible market will ever hear of your product, or will pay attention when they do hear of it. More likely, only one tenth or one one-hundredth or one one-thousandth of that number will even know that you and your product exist.

Marketing and promotion are the hardest thing to get right, especially when it comes to electronic products, and I speak from personal experience. Until there are mechanisms in place to bring professionalism and expertise to this aspect of e-book production at an affordable price, e-books will run a poor second to dead-tree products in overall profitability – because Book Stores and Gaming Shops are well-established businesses these days, and there is no comparable promotional medium for electronic products save grassroots word-of-mouth.

The shape of the future

At some point in the future – and you can see this happening already with regard to gaming blogs like Campaign Mastery – what I foresee is the rise of the co-op: a number of independent game-product producers banding together to provide professional services to all the members of the co-op. Editing, Marketing, Layout, Promotion and Marketing – all these functions can be provided to a higher standard by a co=op, at lower cost, than by individuals alone. Done right, such an organization can even challenge the existing market leaders.

It has happened before, in the music industry, and in the motion picture industry, and in television production, and even in fiction publishing and general literature. Eventually, the co-ops are treated as just another Big Company within the industry, but that takes years.

Instead of a game writer or producer having to reinvent the wheel in every one of the production disciplines, they would have a backbone of community expertise to draw apon. Everything from budgeting, artwork, legal, and licensing services would be provided. A member pays their annual dues and gains access to all these professional services, as necessary, for a separate fee. Collective bargaining, as always, acts to reduce overheads and increase performance-per-dollar.

Only through such a structure can electronic products really compete with that 500-pound gorilla. And, with the foreseeable changes in market conditions of an aging population, even out-perform that gorilla in the long run.

The games industry – like all industries – faces increasingly challenging times over the next two or three decades. We’re going to need every advantage we can carve out in order to not only survive, but prosper. At the same time, the opportunities for growth are tremendous.

Will we take advantage of them? That remains to be seen.

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