Sunday, July 29, 2007

Who To Blame? - A story about lousy customer service

I recently had a horrible experience trying to get my hands on the last Harry Potter book (yes, I'm hooked and proud) and it opened my eyes to some of the complexities of modern commerce, customer service, and the problems this can raise when things don't go right.


Several months ago I was making a multi-book order on Amazon (one of which was The Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille -- a book I highly recommend, but that's another post altogether) and I decided to pre-order the 7th Harry Potter. As all the hype built over the early summer I was confident I would have my copy thanks to a well-publicized special service Amazon had for the release -- day-of delivery to any major center in Canada even though the release date was Saturday, July 21st (no postal services in Canada on Saturdays).


Unfortunately, I had other more important things to do on that day then sit at home waiting for the mailman. I had assumed that the book would be left in my mailbox or, worst case scenario, a slip directing me to my local post office (one block away) would mean I could pick the book up Monday morning on the way to work.

The slip was indeed there and first thing Monday morning (on the way to work) I went to the post office to pick it up. The guy at the counter scanned the slip and told me the package wasn't at his post office - it turns out that scrawled onto the slip in nearly illegible writing was an address of another post office in Anjou. For those of you not familiar with Montreal, that's far - a 40 minute drive by car for me.


That night I called the Anjou office to ask if they would transfer the package to a post-office closer to me or try to re-deliver it. They said they could not because it was a special package and Amazon wouldn't let them (finger pointing the first).

My next step, obviously, was to call Amazon. They said that since the package had been delivered it was out of their hands and that I had to deal directly with Canada Post (finger pointing the second)...of course they "Appreciated my Business" and "hoped they had helped to resolve my issue today".

To make things just a little more interesting Amazon further confused matters by giving me the address of a different post office where their records showed the book had been delivered. I double checked on the canadapost website and, sure enough, the address where the book was apparantly waiting was not at all in Anjou but rather just a few minutes from my house. Naively hopeful I rode out one night after work only to have them tell me that no, in fact, they did not have it and that I really truly needed to go out to the Anjou location. The chicken scratch of one postman, apparantly, trumps the canadapost website and tracking system.

Finally I called Canada Post directly. They had obviously fielded more then a few similar calls because the woman I talked to had a speech prepared: It wasn't the fault of Amazon nor Canada Post but in fact Amazon's Canadian partner in this endeavour -- Chapters. It was they, apparently, who had mandated that the package not be allowed to leave this one particular post-office in order to guarantee that their customers who missed the Saturday delivery could pick it up on Sunday (it turns out that this Anjou post office is one of the few in the city that operates on the weekend). The third and final finger pointing in this love-triangle of confusion.


Finally, having abandoned all other options I had no choice but to drive out to Anjou and back to pick up my book that Canada Post was so considerate to imprison for me.

The logic behind the operation seemed sound -- if someone is going to go through the hassle of pre-ordering a book it means they want to read it day of (or at least weekend of) and therefore restrictions needed to be imposed to ensure the packages stayed available at the most accesible (in terms of hours of operation) post office possible. What they neglected to factor in was the relative remoteness of this post office and the fact that once the initial launch weekend had passed, customers like myself cared much less about reading the book on the first day and much more about actually getting their hands on the book they had purchased. Time became less of an issue and was quickly trumped by convenience and, quite simply, customer expectations about how a package delivery experience should operate.


The interesting lesson for me in this experience is that it isn't enough to try and think like one's customer if said mindset is restricted to a very limited window of time. Amazon/Chapters tried to think like their pre-order customers, knowing that early access was important, but failed to factor in how quickly a pre-order customer becomes a frustrated customer when the initial window closes.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Resident Evil 5

Just watch.

This is game trailer magic. An evolution in use of the trailer as a communication and promotional tool. It starts out very cinematic, setting the stage, focusing on drama and tension more then actual gameplay, but then seemlessly blends into footage that anyone who played RE4 will immediatly recognize.

The action-shot 2:23 seconds in looks straight out of hollywood and yet is that much more powerful because I know I'll be able to play that experience.

I could have done without the cheesy dialogue ("I have a job to do" -- *gag*) but other then that this is easily one of my favorite game trailers. Resident Evil 5 has just jumped right back onto the top of my most-anticipated list.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Jordan Mechner Interview

Gamasutra has a nice interview up with Jordan Mechner, the creator of the Prince of Persia franchise.

As you can probably tell (I've been involved in three POP games in the last two years: The Two Thrones, Rival Swords, and Classic) I have a vested interest in all things Price Of Persia so I found it a real pleasure and honor to have the opprotunity to speak on the panel with Jordan Mechner while at the Hollywood & Games summit. It was very kind of Jordan to name-drop me in this interview of his with Gamasutra.

Thanks Jordan! ;)

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Magic of LittleBigPlanet

The PS3 has a couple of upcoming 'killer apps' that will almost certainly make me fold and finally pick one up: If Heavenly Sword or Lair don't do it, Metal Gear Solid 4 almost certainly will. None of them, though, are as 'must have' for me as LittleBigPlanet which has been at the top of my watch list since it was announced at this year's GDC.

If you're not yet familiar with LittleBigPlanet and its online-multiplayer-collaborative-level design process, take a look at the embedded video below.

Update: I Hate embedded video because it always causes problems with the formatting of this blog. Anyone else have this problem? Regardless, please follow this link to watch the video.

There are a lot of special things about this game (gorgeous graphics, multiplayer, intuitive looking physics based gameplay) but one thing stands out for me more then anything else - they've made 'creating' fun. The game is basically one big playable level editor and an absolute core part of the experience will be working with friends to build one's own maps, playing them on the fly to test out the experience before setting said map free out into the world for others to download, play, and rate (insert customary Youtube and Longtail comparison and analysis).

Think back to when you were young (especially true, perhaps, if you are male and played with G.I Joe or Transformers as a boy) and how a typical 'play' session would unfold. For me, it would go something like this: a friend would come over with his box of G.I Joe, I would unpack my box, and we would spend 2 hours constructing the scenario to be 'played'. I would set up my base, he would set up his, we would argue about tactics and positions and strategy and what our world was supposed to be ("this pillow is a huge cliff").

Then, when we had everything set up just perfectly, there would be 15 seconds of "bang, kapow, I shot that guy with this guy" until, ultimately, everyone of our soldiers was dead and the 'play' was over.

Two hours to set up, 15 seconds to 'play'. Rinse wash and repeat. For us it was always the building and set-up of the scenario that was fun. The actual actions that said scenario was supposed to permit were only a small fraction of the total enjoyment of the experience.

The developer of LineRider understood this very well. This 'game' is 99% about the experience of iteratively building one's level - drawing a line (building and setting up), 'playing' (watching your guy on the toboggon slide down the slope) and then returning to the building phase (draw more lines). This loop continues until you are satisfied with the 'play' output and the final video is generated to be shared with friends.

LittleBigPlanet takes this same philosophy -- make the 'work' part truly fun -- and adds the extremely appealing multiplayer (multibuilder?) component. I'm convinced that this mentality is absolutly critical to avoid the 1% rule and allow user-generated content within videogames to reach the critical mass it needs to become mainstream and mass-market. Game 3.0, as it were.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

E3 2007

I'm not at E3 this year, but man do I ever wish I was. The quantity and quality of exciting news coming out of the once-mighty behemoth is staggering. We all knew that this was going to be the year that 'Next-Gen' became Current-Gen and came into its own, but even with my already high expectations I'm finding this a very exciting time to be in the game development industry.

A bunch of games caught my attention as particularly exciting this year. I don't claim that my list below will be particularly unique or uncover any hidden gems that you haven't already heard of, but I'll endeavour to explain a little why I think these games are special from both a player and production point of view.

First off I have to tip my hat to the Assassins Creed team for a truly impressive demo. I had the good fortune of playing through the E3 build myself (one of the perks of working just down the hall from them) and can honestly say that they nailed the free-running, open-world feel. There is an incredible sequence in the demo where you're chasing an NPC through the streets, avoiding the crowd, using the buildings and rooftops to your advantage to take shortcuts, all in the name of catching up to and eliminating him with a satisfyingly dramatic assassination. I played the demo three times and the chase sequence unfolded differently every time. This game deserves the hype and the team deserves all the accolades they're sure to receive!

I've never been the largest Halo fan (although I've purchased, played and won both games) but a lot of attention is being given to one particular aspect of Halo 3 that I'm very excited about. The User-Generated content that is being called 'Halo 3 Game Films' is an idea whose time has come and will revolutionize competitive gaming, meta-game participation and community building in general. One important detail about these films is that they are recorded entirely in-engine and so are only playable by those who have the game as well. This will be important for some of the advanced features (pausing an explosion, rotating around 360 degrees to capture the perfect angle then sending a screenshot to your victim) but will cut out some of the more mass-market appeal of easily uploading one's user-generated videos to YouTube. I'm anxious to see how long it takes for someone (maybe Bungie themselves) to come out with a simple tool that will allow players to feed their video files into an application that outputs a non-interactive video. With that we will see a true explosion of Halo3 content on YouTube.

I'm excited about EA's Skate for many of the same reasons as Halo 3 -- in that Skate is also going to feature a very robust Game Film feature (likely even more so then Halo3) to try and attract the significant culture that revolves around distributing real-life skateboard videos. This talk by Skate producer Jason Balmer doesn't focus on the user-generated content but is an excellent example of how anyone representing a game should act when confronted with a question regarding their competition. Jason is gracious, humble and gives plenty of credit where it is due. I would not at all be surprised to see someone from Activision making it a point to return the favor, giving reciprocal praise to Skate due in no small part to the grace Jason shows here. Oh yah, and Skate looks sh*t hot, too!

I can't pass up Rock Band because I'm pretty sure it will come out of E3 as a front-runner for Game Of Show. I defy you to watch the embedded video without dreaming of all the fantastic parties you'll have while playing Rock Band, your pile of Mario Party games sadly gathering dust in the corner. EA and MTV have lofty ambitions to change the way the world looks at the distribution of and participation with Music entertainment (the way MTV did in the '80s with music videos). It is not yet clear to me how succesfull they'll be in this endevour but I'd bet money that no game will come close to the party appeal. Rock Band is going to help make it cool to play videogames!

I'd really like to know what games coming out of this year's E3 most excite you and why. Are there any titles (*ahem* Bioshock *ahem*) that you're surprised to see not recieving much press? Any 'must-play' titles added to your list because of this year's E3?

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Brittany Aubert

I just saw over on Penny-Arcade that Brittany "my husband is the most romantic geek ever" Aubert is a contestant in this year's PAX Omegathon.

I finally have someone to root for in the most insane competitive gaming competition the world has ever known. Sweet. Steve -- you must be very proud!


Brittany Marie Aubert aka baubert
Hometown: Bellevue, Washington
Age: 20
Favorite game: Ocarina of time.
Favorite genre: Action/Adventure
Worst Game: Superman 64
Best gaming moment: “I made a pretty cool football strategy game called Gridiron Tactics while attending DigiPen.”

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Monday, July 09, 2007

John Riccitiello

John Riccitiello, EA's new CEO, has been talking a lot recently about the dangers our industry faces. The games we make are too hard, we've counted on sequels for too long and innovation in general is lacking -- in short, the failings of our industry to reach critical mass and mass market acceptance is our own fault.

For many people this is likely music to their ears - validation of a message they've been screaming from the top of soap boxes for years. To have EA's CEO echo these points surely must feel like vindication.

I wonder, though, could this strategy backfire? EA, like the rest of us, is 100% dependant on the talent of the game developers it attracts to make their product and profit. Many developers will be attracted by this message, perhaps seeking out positions at EA (a company they might have sworn they would never work for) if they believe that doing so will allow them to work on something truly innovative. Could others, though, be turned off by the finger-pointing of Riccitiello? Does anyone out there feel slighted by these comments? Surely we've done something right as an industry or we would have stopped with E.T...

So -- a question for the readers out there in the industry. Do John's comments make you more or less inclined to someday accept an offer at EA (assuming you don't already work there)?

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Rock Band

Penny-Arcade's Tycho has some interesting analysis of the video:

...the way that a kick drum note is represented by a glowing bar on the staff. Or that the drummer is given fill sections to extemporize after sections. Or that there is a huge freakout at the end of a song that feeds into a universal bonus. [...] it's nice to see normal, bonus, and atonal sections in play
I've already called Drums in the band my wife and two friends are forming. I just hope and pray they've done justice to online band competitions.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007


I'm going to be on the road for the next four days without access to internet - my father and I are taking a trip to Chicago to celebrate my birthday. During this time I don't expect to be struck by a flash of inspiration relating to this blog, so please accept my apologies for the extended silent period. I'll be back on Monday and, hopefully, ready to jump back into things.

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