Monthly Archives: March 2014

One Letter at a Time

The other day, I saw the following brain-teaser posted on Reddit:

tumblr_lcev8fTt341qbjttfo1_500along with the claim that “Startling” is the only 9 letter word where you can remove one letter at a time and still have a word.

Let’s see if that’s true using IPython and a long list of words from http://www.mieliestronk.com/wordlist.html

It turns out that there are seven words of length 9 that match this property,  and one word of length 10: “Splittings” (actually an incredibly relevant word to this problem).

Just goes to show: don’t believe everything you read on the internet 😉

The Broadcast Problem

In which I ramble on for a while before concluding nothing. You’ve been warned.

Snapchat and Facebook

Snapchat is quickly becoming my go-to communication tool for sharing moments with close friends. There’s a certain intimacy to it: just you and your chosen few recipients get to see the picture for a short while. It’s a way to show off your interesting life without inconsiderately clogging up others’ newsfeeds. A way to send photos of yourself drunkenly wearing a lampshade without worrying about your boss or parents seeing it.

It’s a broadcast medium with a specific range. However, you don’t know who else got a copy of the snap as well. The question this blog post poses is: Is it impolite to not respond to a snapchat? Let’s take a look at some similar media.

Facebook – for me – is becoming a place to share memes and interesting internet finds, not moments from my life. It’s broadcast is powerful – without carefully choosing your settings, it’s easy for your photos to become globally available. Any of your friends (which these days includes parents, coworkers, and random business contacts) can go through your photos. There are ways to tailor your security but they’re often obtuse or difficult to get at.

Posting on Facebook is a broadcast with a large range. You assume that everyone’s friends can see a given post. If someone doesn’t specifically mention you, there’s no social penalty for not commenting on or “liking” a post.

SMS, IM (incl. Facebook Chat), and Email are direct message systems. When you get one, the assumption is that you are the only recipient unless it directly says otherwise. These more direct forms of communication create a one-on-one channel between the sender and recipient that have social weight – not replying to one is rude.

Broadcast and Direct Message

When choosing whether to reply to messages, people consider how direct the original message was. This metric, “replies”, is important in the social media world – especially that of dating applications – because it measures how much interaction users are having.

My cursory research for this article doesn’t turn up much in this realm of prior research, so I’m going to go ahead and make an unfounded claim based purely on my own observations: The more direct a message, the more likely a person is to respond. A somewhat spammy marketing article boasts a 50% response rate to Twitter DMs where they use the username in the message. That’s crazy good.

Why is a DM so much better than just an @-mention? While DMs do require the users to be following each other (meaning there’s already an element of trust), a DM is also only visible to the messagers. If I get an @-mention on Twitter I’ll only respond if I’m particularly in the mood to or if I have something to say about it. If I get a DM I’ll at least make a note to reply to it later.

With these direct messages, there’s a social stigma to not replying since it means you got the message but chose not to respond. With a broadcast, it’s always easy enough to claim that it was lost in the sea of other broadcasts. In most apps, there’s no way to verify that a specific friend saw a broadcast message.

Snapchat sits in the awkward in-between here. You can see if a friend has opened your message. But Snapchats are also often sent to large groups of users at the same time. Let’s investigate further.

Public and Private

Voice to text is far faster and more accurate than typing on my soft keyboard, but I choose to fat-finger my way though the words because speaking out loud broadcasts what I want to be private. The people around me aren’t interested in my mundane texts, and I find it as impolite as talking on a cellphone to say them out loud. These are private messages – not because they’re risque, but because they’re not interesting to anyone else.

You can’t tell who else a Snapchat has been sent to; when you get one, there’s no way to see how public or private that information is. Especially with very interesting Snaps, (“Hey look at me doing this cool thing”), I assume that a large portion of the sender’s contact list just felt a buzzing in their pocket.

Facebook is “public”. IM, Email, SMS are private. Snapchat is… kind of both?

Conclusion: Does Snapchat Bridge or Widen this Gap?

In my opinion, Snapchat is a broadcast and not a direct message, so it doesn’t warrant a response. Greta, my fiancee, argues the opposite – each snap appears as a direct message despite its actual dispersal. So… who’s right?

Per my warning at the beginning of this post, I don’t know, and I would love to find out. For Snapchat users: do you feel obligated to reply to snaps?

What kind of messages should people be obliged to respond to?

Povio: On its way to cool

An open letter to the developers of Povio including some hopefully constructive and totally unsolicited feedback about the user experience.

1. Povio is cool

I heard about Povio through Hacker News and immediately installed it. It’s new. It’s humble. It solves the problem of people sharing useless stuff about themselves. I can ping the people I’m interested in, and I feel good when people ping me for a photo of myself. As a member of their target demographic, I’m hooked.

Really – I like the app and I want to see it succeed. The rest of this article is my thoughts on how to accomplish that, mainly directed toward the developer(s) but also as a way to open up a conversation about modern app development, privacy, and heteronormativity.

It solves what I call the “broadcast problem”. Basically the idea that some forms of communication are “broadcast” (snapchat, facebook) and others are direct (texting, skype) and it’s sometimes easy to confuse the two. You can read my thoughts on the broadcast problem if you’re so inclined.

2. Povio needs to not be a dating app for straight white men

The video for Povio features mostly a good looking female who is Povio’d (new verb!) by a male friend and they end up getting ice cream together, or something. Whatever – sex sells, and especially to the coveted 18-24 year old male. But there’s also a problem here, which is that Povio needs to attract people of all genders and backgrounds if it wants to be successful.

In my opinion, if Povio tries to be a dating app like tinder, it’s going to fail. It will turn creepy and the vast majority of users will abandon it. I worry that it’s already on its way to this. Here are the users that are added automatically as friends:

2014-03-24 22.37.26

!!!???

All white, and seriously: Miss Hotty?!

Either Povio will change this, or they’ll lose a lot of users who aren’t heteronormative white males. Even if, at best, it’s based on your facebook gender, race, and “looking for”, which is almost a neat idea for user acquisition, but still gives me a bad feeling about the app.

3. Povio has a neat UI with unintuitive UX

Povio’s UI and graphic design: Clever.

Povio’s UX and command structure: Obtuse.

Let’s say I want to unfriend a user. (I actually had to reach out to the devs on twitter to figure this one out). Expected: I long-click on the user’s list item and get options. Nope – long click does nothing. I click on Best Buddy’s face. Nope – a close up of his profile pic.

2014-03-24 22.37.33

What is he so smug about?

Turns out it’s as simple as single-tapping the list item. But it took me a good 5 minutes and a twitter conversation to figure that out. And who wants to see a large version of their friend’s profile picture?

2014-03-24 22.38.19

Finally.

Suggestion: Use the standard long-press for options. Remove the click-to-open-profile-pic action. Get some user testing and work on having a really intuitive user experience.

4. Povio needs to have the ability to turn on strict privacy settings

Yep, just like I suspected. Been on there for 10 minutes, and already getting friend requests from creepy guys I’ve never heard of. I would only use this with close friends. —natasham25

Make sure people know each other on Facebook, Google Contacts, or something. Have an option for anonymous friend requests to require a three-digit password. Photo apps like snapchat already toe the “creepy” line and enabling users to lock down their profile is the best way of combating this.

Allowing “creepy guys” to anonymously ping people is only going to reinforce the “dating app” vibe.

 5. Povio shouldn’t show me who pinged my friends

A) I don’t want to see how popular they are compared to me.

B) Nobody wants to see all of the people pinging their S.O.

It’s rare that someone enjoys the feeling of “sharing” a friend. Especially a S.O. or more. I pinged my Fiancee and was surprised to see a list of all the other people who had also pinged her. I’m not a jealous guy – who she sends Povios to is not my business. But I know more jealous types probably wouldn’t be happy to see those names, especially if they’re potential rivals. It also creates the feeling that you didn’t just get a special picture created and shared just for you.

Who is this guy anyway?

Not making me feel unique, here.

6. Povio is awesome for shy and boring people

Not a criticism!

Povio makes it really easy to ask your friends to include you in their life. As long as it’s easy enough to ignore a ping (with plausible deniability for ignoring it) from someone you don’t want to share with, I think there’s great potential here for an app that allows people to ask “hey, what are you up to” without feeling inclusive.

Snapchat is for broadcasting cool events. I get snaps from some people a LOT more than I do from others. I only send snapchats when something interesting or exciting is going on. To send a snap, you have to feel like you’re doing something worthy of taking up someone else’s ten seconds.

Povio solves that by allowing me to request my friends’ presence when I’m bored and lonely, and therefore makes me feel more social and wanted. I can get pings from friends and be inspired to set up something cool to take a picture of.

Epilogue:

Povio is up-and-coming and I hope the best for it. Based on the reactions of my non-immersed-in-the-tech-world friends it has a lot of potential and I can’t imagine it’s userbase is less than viral already.

With a few tweaks and fixes, I think Povio will quickly become a household name.

From Brooklyn,

— Erty Seidel

Edit: Povio’s creator has responded to this post:

P.S. – Shameless self-promotion: If you liked my writeup, know that I’m currently looking for work!

Terminal_’s Rules of Game Development: A retrospective

Terminal_ is a game that Evan Conway , Max Feldkamp, Mike Gold, Julian Delfino, and myself worked on during the winter of 2012-2013. I’ve since left the project, but I believe that Evan and Max are carrying it forward despite having day jobs. That winter, I had the role of Product Manager, and came up with the following “helpful suggestions” to guide our development. I was chatting about game design with my friend Matt Davis, and decided to write up these rules so that they might be helpful to others.

The rules:

  1. This is not a workstation
  2. This is not a sim game
  3. Playtest Playtest Playtest
  4. Our drill is the drill that will pierce the heavens!
  5. Early optimization = death
  6. What is it really about?

1. This is not a workstation

Our early ideas for Terminal_ revolved around the player interacting with the game solely through a computer terminal. The problem with this is that we kept having ideas about implementing existing *nix tools and commands (like top, grep, etc.) in our game. I wrote rule #1 to remind us that the game was not a workstation, and that anything that didn’t contribute to the player having fun was just a distraction.

Takeaway: Focus on fun, not functionality.

2. This is not a Sim Game

We were constantly skirting Bottom-Up Game Design, basing the fun on the idea that the player was interacting with a terminal, instead of focusing on the challenges of level and puzzle design. Retrospectively, this is probably the biggest problem that we had. Our game was cool, it had a great atmosphere, but it didn’t have anything that was actually fun and engaging for the user.

Some games *are* sim games, in which case you can totally ignore this rule. But remember that sim games are only fun because they’re not exactly the thing that they’re trying to simulate. Otherwise they would be just as boring as that actual thing. If that makes sense.

Takeaway: Focus on fun puzzles and levels, not accurate simulation

3. Playtest Playtest Playtest

The Terminal_ team would get bogged down by arguments over the best way to implement a feature. When this happened – and I was usually one of the offenders – I would bring down the force of rule #3. Implement it one way, then playtest it. If it doesn’t work, try the other.

There’s A/B testing on websites, and really, data is an amazing way to make sure that your game is fun and playable. Valve knows this. They playtest each level over and over and over, making radical changes to the puzzle design until they get something that is fun and challenging, not frustrating or obvious. Portal 1 is a great example of this – listen to the developer commentary especially to see how many times they reference changing something because of playtests.

Takeaway: Data trumps opinion 99% of the time.

4. Our Drill is the Drill that will Pierce the Heavens!

If you don’t recognize this quote, you need more galaxy-sized robots in your life.

#4 was a reminder to not give up on the game, even when things were tough. We watched Gurren Lagann together as (mostly) a team at college, so whenever we were feeling down about the slow progress of our game, we would shout this at each other to remember that this game was achievable through hard work.

We obviously didn’t end up making the game, but I attribute that mainly to the fact that we only had 5 weeks to work, an ambitious schedule, and no clear person in charge to make final decisions about what went in the game.

Remember – you’re making something new, and even if the idea has been done before, you can do it better, or different in ways that are fun. Flappy bird is an idea that has been around forever, but Nguyen did things just right to make a worldwide sensation.

Another thought on this: Pare your game down to the minimum viable product. Get that done. Then expand on it until you have all the functionality you want. Whether you have a public beta is up to you, but despite your ability to pierce the heavens, you need to set realistic goals for the size and experience of your team. Once you’ve created something fully, you’ll be better prepared to embark on a larger project next time.

If you do fail, focus on the ways in which you’ve grown throughout the project, and the lessons learned for your next project. Then pierce the heavens next time.

Takeaway: Don’t give up on a game. If you run into trouble, see what you can cut. If you do fail, focus on the things you learned so that you can succeed with your next project.

5. Early Optimization = Death

I was chatting with Evan about one of his games recently – a dungeon crawler with a very innovative “sense” system. What you see, hear, smell, etc. in each room is passed through messages, and these messages also affect the wandering monsters. Nobody likes a room that reeks.

Evan was worried about the performance of iterating through all of the monsters and messages on each frame. He was beginning to consider alternate data structures and optimizations for the problem.

I fall prey to this all the time. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it quickly leads to spending more time working on the code than it does working on making the game fun. And really, there were no performance problems here, or in the similar problems we faced making Terminal_. This ties in to rule #3 – once playtesting has determined that something isn’t optimized enough is when it’s time to go back and rewrite it to be more efficient.

Or, if you have extra time and hands at the end of the project to make sure that your program will run on older PCs. Otherwise, just ship it, and work in the performance tweaks through patches later.

Takeaway: If you’re worried about performance, you’re probably wrong unless something actually isn’t performant.

6. What is it really about?

Especially in strongly-aesthetic games like Terminal_, knowing what your game is actually about is an important step toward putting reason behind your choices.

Even Flappy Bird has a “really about”: it’s about minimalist, fast gameplay. Nethack is really about exploring complex, programmatically generated dungeons. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is about atmosphere, memory, horror, and helplessness. Portal is about an insane AI testing you on puzzles which require you to think in a different topology.

What was Terminal_ about? I’m not sure. We kinda failed at this one because I think everyone on our team had a different idea.

Know the central themes of your game, whether you can describe that in a few words, a few sentences, or even an essay. Then, when someone proposes a new feature, you can really ask yourself and your team: does this fit into the theme?

Feel free to edit this theme as you go along, but when you do, check to make sure everything in your game still works toward creating something whole.

Takeaway: Have one idea about the themes of your game.