Monday, August 30, 2010

I think it's working

I have to say, I was doubtful about the whole calorie slamfest thing, but now that I'm over a week into the new diet and exercise regime it's starting to look like it might be a success. I've been tracking every ounce of food and drink going into my system and logging every minute of exercise using the Livestrong app, while getting on the scales every day to watch it bounce up and down all over the place but trend in specific directions.

As warned by the nice nutritionist lady, the adjustment to what she called a "proper" diet resulted in an immediate weight gain of a little over six pounds. This, I'm assured, is the carb reserves coming back along with the associated water that they are suspended in. After five days, I topped out at what I can only describe as a weight I'm uncomfortable with, but miraculously it didn't stay up there for long. The trend now, thankfully, seems to be in a steady downward direction. It's a little early for jubilation at any kind of freefall fat melting dive, but I'm reasonably confident that things are working the way they should, and more comfortable with what's going on than I have been in a long while. There's more of a tangible feedback loop between going to the gym and the bathroom scale, and I'm back into the healthy habit of obsessing over food levels and nutritional values.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

System Reboot?

So, today marks day 5 of the "new" diet as advised by the nice nutritionist lady. Rather than going for the full bore 3,000 calorie insanity that she had initially proposed, I've been aiming for something in the less porcine 2,200 to 2,500 range with the hope that that is sufficient to reboot my metabolism and get things cooking again.
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Remarkably, it has proven to be immensely difficult. You'd think that simply eating more calories would be as easy as snarfing down burgers, pizza, and ice cream at every available opportunity but it's far more challenging than that. The trick has been to move my overall daily calorie intake up by more than 500 calories while ensuring that no more than 20 per cent of them come from fat. The only way to tackle it successfully has been to turn it into a bit of an ongoing mental game. I punch everything I eat or drink into the MyPlate application on the LiveStrong website and iPhone app and track calories, fat, protein, and sugars to make sure that everything sits within the range that it's supposed to be.

Not. Easy.

On my first day I struggled to eat more than 1,900 calories and with over 800 calories burned on the bike and at the gym, my net intake for the day was actually less than usual. The following day wasn't much better, but because I didn't work out at all I could at least feel comfortable that I nearly squeezed 2,000 calories into my system while only overshooting my fat goal by 5 grams. By Sunday I was getting into the swing of things more, but I was starting to realize that the optimal mix of calories and carbs necessitates a lot of lean protein, and a lot of vegetables and high fiber breads and cereals which make you feel bloated in the short term and, um... let's call it "loose" in the longer term.

I've been loathe to step on the scales for fear of the horrors that it will reveal (I could put on between three and six pounds before things start moving in the right direction, apparently,) but I have to say that by yesterday I was noticing a distinct difference in how I felt.
I wasn't feeling hungry in the middle of the night (a big no-no according to the nutritionist, and a sign that something is seriously amiss) but I was starting to feel much hungrier during the day. The recommendation/warning that I would need to eat six or more times a day was pretty much on-target, and I find that I have to keep topping up the tank every three hours or so to avoid feeling absolutely ravenous.

Given that today is the fifth day of this madness, my whole system should have rebooted by tonight. If the changes in hunger pangs are any indication, something is definitely happening, and so far it all seems to be along the lines of what was described.

Given that I'm a gentleman of leisure for the time being while I spend a fortnight between jobs, I'm able to put a lot more time and effort into this than I would otherwise. I'm also able to spend a lot more time exercising. Sadly though the weather is conspiring against this. Today I had to cut a long ride short at just 20 miles due to the fact that the thermometer was pushing well north of 100' on my chosen training route. As I pushed up White's Hill in Fairfax I thought my tires were going to melt. It was so hot that my insulated water bottle, which was also packed with ice to chill the Gatorade even further, heated up so much that in less than an hour the contents were undrinkable.

It was all a necessary evil though. If, indeed, my new diet is working today's ride should have elevated my resting metabolic rate by more than 1 calorie a minute for the next 24 hours. That may not sound like much, but it means that with the right fuels I should now be burning 1,440 more calories while resting. It also means that if I have this carbs/fat thing balanced correctly that I should have retrained my body to burn through things in the right order.

The proof will come later this week when I start weighing myself again, I guess.



Sunday, August 22, 2010

Eat more to lose weight. What?

For as long as I can remember I've struggled with my weight. I was far from a skinny kid, and after slimming down as a teen, its been harder and harder to stay in shape as I get older. A job that involves sitting down for most of the day, and involves lengthy research that's also best performed sitting down doesn't exactly help. "Sedentary" barely describes it. There aren't many things you really have to get up off your arse for when writing about video games, or working with teams that write about video games. If you want to get active, it's got to be a conscious effort, and you've got to really make the time for it. Not drinking beer helps, too.

Things got particularly bad after the kids were born - the incentive to just bounce between work and home with nothing in between (and even the commute is sedentary, just 40 minutes sat in a car instead of at my desk or on the couch) became even more pronounced, and as I crept ever closer to 40, my metabolism slowed to what seemed like a complete halt.

For the past three years I've been making a concerted effort to be far more active with the goal of melting some of that wobbly flab away. It can't be sexy, right? Mrs. D says nice things, but this stuff can't be attractive. After topping out at a number far further north of 200 pounds than I can ever feel comfortable admitting, I finally shamed myself into putting some concerted effort into it. I've dabbled with gym memberships for years, but somehow there has always been something more important to do than bang out 20 reps of something painful. Not any more.

The first big push was getting on the bike. After a friend questioned how I could possibly live in Marin and not spend as much time as possible riding up and down mountains, Mrs. D indulged me for Christmas and it didn't take me long to get hooked. There's an excellent feedback loop that comes with cycling, because pretty much every time you go out you get a little bit better.

After a year of creeping up to 20, 30, 40 miles at a time, I eventually signed up for the Marin Century - a 100k (62 mile) ride that snakes its way from San Rafael to Petaluma, up murderous hills and through some beautiful scenery, as a key fitness goal; partly to prove to myself that I could do it, but also to affirm to Mrs. D and the kids that when I say I'm going to do something, I really mean it. Along with this, I started tracking my exercise and calorie intake so I knew exactly what I was doing to my body, with the hope of being able to fine tune things and drop some more weight.

Then came the weird part. After successfully dropping a little flab, I started to plateau. This is completely normal, I'm told - but as my fitness increased, and I was hitting the gym four times a week and riding 40 miles or more at the weekend nothing would budge. The belly was still there, and the scales weren't moving. At all. I do have thighs that appear to be made out of rock though. Cycling has a way of making your legs solidify.

I went to the doctor, and he just sort of shrugged at me before reminding me that effective weight loss comes from eliminating about 500 calories a day from your daily routine. "If you're usually eating 2,000 calories, drop it to 1,500," so that's what I did. I went to a fitness instructor who just said that working out really, really fucking hard would make a difference. Fearing that he was confused or overenthusiastic or something, I went to another fitness instructor who basically said the same thing. So I followed their advice; "work as hard as you can until you think you're going to puke," said fitness guy #2, so that's what I did. I never actually barfed from exertion, but there were times when I came close.

Result? Nothing. I trained for my second Century, and again nothing.

In fact, on occasion my weight was going up rather than down. Back to the doctor, who did the shrug thing again before suggesting that maybe I should talk to a nutritionist, because perhaps there was something weird about my metabolism or something. Or something? Like what?

I put it off and put it off, because...y'know, isn't that a bit much? But after the plateau entered month seven, I decided that enough was enough. Working out like mad and eating carefully for that long with zero results is demoralizing, to say the least.

One hour with a nutritionist later, and I have a whole new understand of how my innards work, and came away with what felt like extremely counter-intuitive advice. My "tenacious plateau" (as it's called) is, in fact, a problem with my metabolism. Turns out I've not been eating enough, and that coupled with all the exercise has resulted in my body dramatically slowing my metabolism down as a kind of survival mechanism thing. "Your brain thinks you're in a semi-starvation state, so it's clinging on to all the fuel it can," she said. "You need to eat considerably more, and make sure you get plenty of good carbs to reset your system."

She went on to explain how the results seen in low-carb diets like South Beach and Atkins are a result of something not entirely natural happening inside your body (the 10-12 pounds that you lose so fast aren't fat, they're the result of burning through your natural carbohydrate reserves, which along with the water they're suspended in weigh about 12 pounds) before explaining how the body processes food, and how it will react once I get my shit together.

So here we are. I've gotten so used to eating 1,500 to 1,700 calories a day that eating more than that is actually proving to be much more difficult than I expected, particularly when factoring in the fact that no more than 20 per cent of my calorie intake can be from fat. She suggested I shoot for 3,000 calories - which just struck me as batshit insane, and would surely result in me piling on pounds, but she assured me it wouldn't. "Start with about 2,200 to 2,500 and then tune it from there," she suggested - so that's what I'm doing, and it's tough. I'm three days into the craziness now, and within the next two or three days I'm assured that my whole system will reboot and we'll start to see some results.

Fingers crossed.

 

Friday, August 20, 2010

Moving on from GamePro

Earlier this week, I announced that I was going to be leaving GamePro to do something new. My last day in the office was this past Wednesday, and it was sad to say goodbye to everyone. I had a great, if very brief, time working with the team, and I feel like we achieved an awful lot in a very brief space of time. We changed people's perceptions of the brand, completely rethought the editorial direction and design of the magazine and website, and hopefully got people thinking about how games media can evolve in the years ahead. I was given a tremendous amount of freedom and latitude by the management at IDG, and for that I'm extremely grateful.

My time at GamePro certainly had an impact on me, and judging from the little in-jokes on my leaving gift (below) it seems my many little quirks and foibles were clearly noticed by everyone...

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1. An easy one... I've been pretty into iPhone games for a while now, and I still get requests on Twitter for an "iPhone game of the week" based on something I used to do on the 1UP podcasts a few years ago.

2. This one's not about the line itself (although there were some download-heavy mornings)...it's the four exclamation points that are important. Fairly early on in my time at GamePro I instigated a blanket exclamation point ban on all content, and particularly on all headlines because they were starting to get out of hand. I soon escalated this to a blanket ban with a $1 fine for any individual usage. Not exactly my most visionary moment, I'll concede. It was both necessary and effective though.

3. While training for the Marin Century bike ride this summer, I was run off the road while about 20 miles from home and went over the handlebars at 25 mph. I landed on my head and cracked my helmet. Fortunately I was just bruised, and nothing else was broken.

4. Sometimes, conference calls can be very long, and very frustrating. On one particular occasion I was feeling a little under the weather, and that coupled with the frustration directed at some... let's call them "less progressive" individuals... led me to start feeling a little nauseous, much to the amusement of everyone on my end of the phone.

5. It's true...sometimes the Brit accent can help in unexpected ways.

6. I hate, hate, hate introductions/decks to interviews that start with "we sit down with..." because it's lazy and cliched and you see it so often in magazines and on websites. Not just video games stuff, but everywhere. Also, more often than not, it's not true either. I know "we sent emails back and forth that were subsequently sanitized by an over-zealous PR person" doesn't have quite the same ring, but if we didn't "sit down with" the subject, let's not say we did. Apparently my vehemence on the subject didn't go unnoticed.

7. Not sure if you can see it here, but the on-sale date for the fake issue is my last day in the office - 8/18/2010.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Too Big and Too Hard

I wrote the following early this year, and it generated a lot more attention than I anticipated. Developers, particularly, responded very positively and noted that the topics covered are a big part of the cultural shift that is taking place at the moment. On the flipside, a lot of hardcore gamers thought I was talking absolute nonsense and treated me like a harbinger of doom. In retrospect, this ably highlights the challenges that lie ahead for video games. The audience is expanding and shifting away from stuff that satiates the core's tastes, developers are able to be more experimental, and the shifts in distribution methods are facilitating this stuff way faster than any other change in the industry's history.

 

Since we rebooted GamePro at the beginning of the year we’ve spent an awful lot of time talking to game designers and creative directors in an effort to try and get into their heads and find out what makes them tick. While we’ve lots of different stories about what motivates them to get out of bed in the morning, there have been a surprising number of common threads that we’ve pulled from each of these conversations. Most pervasive is the notion that the games business is currently going through a once-in-a-lifetime period that should be relished as much as humanly possible. Unlike any other part of the entertainment business, gaming’s auteurs and its most influential (or at least most affluent) consumers are maturing at roughly the same pace. So as the vanguard of creatives in charge of our experiences adjust to their own life changes, they are able to channel their learnings back into their products (reasonably) safe in the knowledge that they’ll be well-received and broadly supported. As an overall community we’ve grown up together. We’ve gotten older, settled down, and had kids together. So as designers are deciding that they want to make different experiences to indulge their own lives, they can be fairly confident that their audience is in the same boat. This period is unique in that the industry will only be as naturally in tune with its audience as it is right now for a brief period, and its still adjusting its technology at roughly the same pace as its artistic vision.

This whole scenario isn’t just based on anecdotal evidence and wishful thinking from people that want to go home and spend time with their kids. Like everything else about game design, the tools available to designers that prove these theories are more useful than ever, and they’re providing the sort of data about the way we all consume games that’s proving very surprising.

The revelation that I’ve heard from more designers than anything else is this:

Games are too hard, they’re too long, and they provide way too much stuff.

While this may sound like an excuse from an aging group of individuals faced with technology that takes an increasingly large degree of effort to utilize, there’s an enormous amount of data being collected that backs this up.

Conventional gaming wisdom thus far has been “bigger, better, MORE!” It’s something affirmed by the vocal minority on forums, and by the vast majority of critics that praise games for ambition and scale. The problem is, in reality its almost completely wrong. The vast majority of gamers don’t need more. They don’t have the time or the inclination to invest enormous amounts of time and effort with a game. This isn’t the kind of conclusion that can be reached through surveys or questionnaires, because when it comes to our behavior we all have far too much pride, we’re all greedy, and we all lie. If someone asks us, collectively “do you want more or less game?” it’s fairly safe to say we’d all go with the former rather than the latter. Also, when someone asks us if we want to coast through something that’s just challenging enough, we’d say “oh no, I’m a gamer - I need the challenge.”

The problem is, the vast majority of gamers don’t really behave the way they say they do. How do we know this? Because an increasing number of games incorporate telemetry systems that track our every action. They measure the time we play, they watch where we get stuck, and they broadcast our behavior back to the people that make the games so they can tune the experience accordingly.

Every studio I’ve spoken to that does this, to a fault, says that many of the games they’ve released are far too big and far too hard for most players’ behavior. As a general rule, less than five percent of a game’s audience plays a title through to completion. I’ve had several studios tell me that their general observation is that “more than 90 percent” of a games audience will play it for “just four or five hours.”

So what does this mean for the future of games? Well, before we all get our panties in a bunch over the inevitable endumbening of games, it seems that games will become increasingly modular in order to accommodate different tastes. Currently, Microsoft’s development guidelines tell developers and publishers that the optimum time to release DLC is “within the first 30 days” of a game’s release. The problem with that though is that it’s not enough time to gather enough data about the audience’s behavior and then generate content that reflects it. Content delivered in the first month has to be pretty much finished and sitting in the first party approval queue before the actual game comes out. So right now, that first bunch of DLC we see for something is usually based on a hunch, rather than the way we actually play. For some games that appeal to specific tastes, that’s easier (I guess) to anticipate. But as games are increasingly under pressure to achieve monstrously huge sales, the whole system will have to change.

The nature of the majority, as one developer told me recently, is that their preference is to “just dick around” rather than follow the structure. It’s not just an occasional thing – in terms of behavior its fairly pervasive. There’s always a minority that plays things the way the studio intended, but as another developer told me, “sometimes, you just want to tell people that they’re playing it wrong.”

The thing is, we’re not playing it wrong. What’s happening is that studios are starting to look at the way they make games and concede that they’re making them wrong. The vast majority of releases, even the most spectacular and successful, adhere to structural conventions that date back 20 years. As an audience we’re getting bored of that, if we’re honest. Right? Younger gamers demand something more sophisticated, while older gamers don’t have the time or energy to play through something for a bazillion hours.

So expect this; more games that reward that “dicking around” and celebrate emergent game modes, and more games that accommodate the hardcore based on behavior, rather than assumption. Big time multiplayer shooters like Call of Duty and Halo can always rely on an unusually large hardcore contingent, but the teams making many other games can stop beleaguering under misguided assumptions. Consequently our experiences will be “tuned” over time to a far larger degree than they are currently, and they will do so based on how we’re actually playing them, rather than how its hoped we’re playing them.

Hopefully the notion of “value” won’t be lost during all of this.


This originally appeared on GamePro, April 30 2010.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Social Games are the new Coin-Ops

When I was a kid, the gaming landscape was probably pretty different to anything that many of you remember. For one thing, I’m old. Hopefully I’m older than you actually think I am, but honestly based on many of you that I’ve met at PAX, I’m old enough to be your dad. No really, I totally am. Secondly, I’m foreign. I write this from the perspective of being in America while not being American, so my assumption is that to you I’m “that old guy with the funny accent.” I do understand that there are plenty of Brit readers to GamePro these days, but for many of you, my personal history with video games probably differs quite substantially from yours.

I never owned a Nintendo as a kid. There you go, there’s my thermonuclear starting point. The first Nintendo device I ever had any prolonged exposure to was an imported Super Famicom at my first full time writing job in 1990. This explains my occasional on-again, off-again reputation on gaming forums as a bit of a “hater” when it comes to old-school Nintendoness. It’s not that I hate, it’s just that I don’t have that ingrained sense of Mario-centric personal history that many of you do. I didn’t grow up with Zelda, Square never had the opportunity to earn my blind faith, and my earliest “favorite Nintendo game” was, I dunno, probably F-Zero.

My personal gaming history comes in two distinct fruity flavors; home computers, specifically Atari home computers, and arcade machines. I’ll no doubt meander back to the former at some point in a future Friday editorial, but for the purposes of this week’s thoughts, I want to focus on the latter. Yes...there is a point that I’m getting at, and the clue is in the headline.

Some of my favorite gaming memories are of playing arcade games for brief moments with my dad. I say that the time we had was brief because a) I had limited exposure to them, so b) the money dropped into the machine rarely lasted very long. The place where I grew up in England is a small hamlet in the middle of nowhere in which there are probably more chickens than there are human beings. Most of the houses were built before America was even discovered, and there was only one general store within 15 miles. The nearest arcade was probably 50 miles away. Consequently, I only ever saw the fabulous coin op game technology of the late 20th century when on road trips or on vacation (that’s “holiday” in English.) When we visited my grandparents, we’d always stop at a “service station” (rest stop, I guess, to Americans) at which there’d be a handful of arcade machines blinking in a corner. It was here that I first saw Space Invaders, Pole Position, Gyruss, Battlezone, and the original Star Wars machine. My dad and I would put our money in, play for a few moments, and then gawp at the amazing graphics while wondering what it would be like to play something like that for longer than a couple of frantic minutes.

This was before the arcade business was completely obliterated by Nintendo, Sega, and later the original PlayStation, of course. This was 1980-something, when arcade machines were designed to relieve you of as much money as possible. They practically reached out and stole the coins right out of your jeans. Gameplay was tuned to be a little too hard, but no so hard as to discourage you from emptying your pockets completely. As an exercise in entertainment ROI they were fabulously effective. If you were vaguely competent, you’d survive long enough to feel a rush of excitement, and there was the constant social motivation of getting your three-letter name on the high score table for all (that cared) to see. Some people got really good at these games, but they still had to pour a ton of cash into the machines in order to become that competent.

By the mid-90s of course, all of this changed, and our gaming habits were altered forever by increasingly impressive home consoles. Or so we thought.

Skip ahead to 2010, and the coin op model is back with a vengeance. It’s not location based like that old Star Wars machine, and it’s not targeting those of us that are most interested in playing games, but it’s gobbling up attention at the edge of our collective comfort zone and drawing in millions of new “gamers.” (I’m using air quotes there, for reasons that will become clear in a moment.) As it does so, it’s causing the entire industry to take a long, hard look at how it asks us all to pay for our games, and it’s changing the way that many new experiences are designed.

What is it?

Social games.

There are plenty of examples that wander vaguely in the direction of my point here, but given that I’ve already tried to hold your attention for 807 words, I don’t want to push my luck.

First: At the Game Developers Conference this year, there was plenty of talk about this stuff. Social games were identified as being cheap and quick to make, and the importance of their “virality” was cited frequently. Part of this process was also identified as optimizing games for revenue opportunities - which means designing the game around the parts that will motivate you to pay for something that makes things happen sooner. Make your crops grow faster, make the thing you’re building appear sooner, buying mana/gold/fuel/mojo/awe to cause specific actions to happen quicker.

Second: That social motivation of getting your name on the high score table and having something to boast about has morphed into something quite different. One of the primary motivations in social games like Farmville or We Rule is shame. Because you’re inherently connected to people that you know, your performance is very visibly reflected in the upkeep of your game. You don’t want your crops going bad in Farmville, and you don’t want your minions looking all ragged in Godfinger. If you’re playing regularly and drawing benefits from the social aspects of these games, you need to keep up appearances. Doing so requires work, and in the absence of the necessary time to do all that work, you can spend real cash to speed things up. Genius, huh? As long as you’re super engaged in a game like We Rule, the likelihood that you’ll spend money on it increases because it’s preying on your available time, and your patience.

If you’re a hardcore gamer you’re probably looking at this and thinking “so what? How does that affect me?” Well, given the enormous success enjoyed by companies like Zynga, Playfish, and Crowdstar, the whole industry is starting to look at the psychology of this stuff, and wonder if it would be possible to make more money out of a return to what is, essentially, the coin-op model. Zynga, as has been widely publicized lately, is making several hojillion dollars a day out of its social games and is quickly becoming one of the most profitable games companies in the world. They don’t “sell” any of their titles - all of their revenue comes from encouraging players to pay a small amount of cash regularly. For a company like Activision, which never met a revenue opportunity it wasn’t afraid of exploring, this has to have them frothing when they brainstorm the future of franchises like Call of Duty.

The future of how we pay for games is nearly upon us. In part, it’s a return to the ways of the past, but it’s creeping up on us disguised as simple and innocuous social games that many of us don’t even think of as being video games to start with. Brace yourself.


This originally appeared on GamePro, April 23 2010