Thursday, 31 December 2009

Well, that's Christmas done, now for the Easter eggs

Shortly before Christmas, regular users of the VLC media player will have noticed that the program's little orange traffic cone icon sprouted a tiny Santa hat - indeed, it still has one.

The original image can be found here.

What I've found myself wondering since is, firstly, why exactly did this little touch make me smile so much, and, secondly, why don't more of the (non-entertainment) programs and web applications we use every day contain more of these kind of hidden surprises, or Easter eggs? I mean, let's face it, we need all the smiles we can get in life.

An initial answer to the first question, of course, is that it was an especially incongruous and unexpected addition - when a program's noted for being so stripped-back and basic in appearance, the sudden whimsical appearance of a Santa hat is about the last thing you'd expect. It can't help but be a pleasant surprise.

More than that, though, there's something genuinely cheering about happening upon a sudden little touch of warmth and humanity in the often sterile digital world of computers, about seeing that a program's creator genuinely has in mind those who use it, and about them being bothered to offer an otherwise totally pointless and unnecessary little something extra to raise a smile.

As for the second question; well, doesn't all this remind you of another organisation?

VLC might have its Santa hat, but Google is a company that gives out all manner of Easter eggs and surprises - from its logo doodles to its April Fool's pranks, to iGoogle wallpaper surprises, to all those bizarre autocomplete suggestions, and more besides. On one level, it could arguably get away without doing any of these things - they're not practical, integral parts of its services; they're mere fripperies. But on an another level, it's those very moments of unpredictability, playfulness and creativity that humanise the organisation, make it seem accessible, benign, exciting, and add to the sense of discovery. They build goodwill - and not just of a seasonal kind. If Google offer Easter eggs, and benefit from them, shouldn't other companies consider it?

By way of contrast, let's take Microsoft; which formally stopped including Easter eggs in its software in 2002.

If you read the Wikipedia entry, admittedly you can see, to an extent, the reasoning behind such a policy; but what the decision seems to mean in practice is that Microsoft programs no longer contain much that will (pleasantly) surprise, little that joyously rewards or positively encourages discovery and doing the unexpected, no real suggestions of humanity, humility, fallibility, play, exploration or openness - and if Google, or Apple, is far more strongly associated with discovery and creativity than Microsoft, if people see truth in those Mac vs. PC ads, and indeed if the Windows strapline "Where do you want to go today?" tends to ring hollow, maybe a lack of Easter eggs is at least a small part of the reason why?

The human touch, of course, extends even further with Google, into the somewhat quirky way it routinely chooses to release its products and services. Calling them betas or experimental Labs features, despite their often being perfectly useful and usable already, admits fallibility, suggests humility, invites input, gives Google valuable leeway to get things wrong without overly alienating its users. Microsoft, on the other hand, by taking its more formal approach, gives the impression of offering a finished article, so that any updates feel (perhaps misleadingly) less like improvements, more like tacit admissions that the original release was rushed and incomplete, flawed rather than evolving.

Adopting a more human touch and the inclusion of Easter eggs isn't without pitfalls, of course: if there's one thing humans are good at, it's disagreeing with other humans, and if there's another, it's being offended. Even VLC's Santa hat initially led to a complaint (later partially rescinded) - never mind that a Santa hat is hardly a religious symbol, or that it didn't even seem to be the commercialisation/secularisation of Christmas the user was at odds with!

On the upside, though, by being human and open, at least any offence, or actual misjudgements, can perhaps be more easily and reasonably addressed, should they occur - as above. And wouldn't a few people being offended be more than compensated for?

Whatever the case, though, there are surely plenty of companies, not just Microsoft, that might see their image benefit from a less staid approach; from every now and then doing tiny unexpected things to brighten our day; and generally, from seeing users of their products as fellow human beings, rather than captive consumers. Handing out Easter eggs at Christmas might seem an odd way of going about it, but it could be one of the easiest ways to start trying.

Monday, 28 December 2009

More than words?

When you earn your living from words it's always interesting to find new lights in which to view them - new ways of responding to words, putting them together, or even reading them - which is at least one reason why I've found myself, over the last week or two, digging into the world of independent video games (the other: it's Christmas; anyone who isn't feeling too lazy and bloated to do anything even remotely productive really hasn't got the hang of it) - and specifically, I mean the kind of independent games that, in one way or another, depend to a significant degree upon words.

Some of you (i.e. those that still remember such computers as the BBC Micro) will probably be thinking of text adventures right about now - or interactive fiction as the overall genre tends to be called now. We'll get to those a little later.

However, the games I've happened upon lately, and which I most want to highlight here, are more what might be termed 'art games', which is to say games created with the intention that playing them might evoke the same kind of effects and emotions that viewing a piece of art, or reading a poem, say, might evoke. To generalise even further: these are games that perhaps seek to move, more than to entertain. These are games like The Company of Myself.

On the surface, The Company of Myself is a simple platformer, but with the twist that in order to solve a puzzle and reach the green door to the next level you often have to co-operate with echoes of your own playing character - and on that level alone, it's an interestingly different way to while away some time. But reading the overall story of love and loss (and something altogether darker) that appears at the beginning and between levels - and which, you realise, you are playing out as you play those levels - is what gives it a strong and unexpected emotional hit, the strongest part of which is only clear once you have reached the end, heard the full story, and understood the implications of some of the actions that you've had to perform to progress. It's the quality of the writing as much as the game mechanics - and in combination with the game mechanics - that make this such a poignant experience. (A walkthrough can be found here, should you need it).

Another game that might be of interest to anyone with a professional interest in words is Today I Die, a sort of interactive poem of a game. A main character is controlled with the arrow keys, but at the same time in order to complete the game a poem must also be manipulated (changing its mood and meaning with each alteration to its words), with your character's final action also determining the final line and ultimate meaning of the poem. Again, it's a very satisfying example of interactive storytelling, and for me at least sparked off a new way of looking at words. (Again, hints are here, should you need them).

A rather more literal (and very literary) take on games that rely on words is Silent Conversation, by Gregory Weir, a platformer in which the landscape of each level is composed entirely from the text of a famous poem or short story, through and over which you must try to safely manoeuvre a letter 'I', even as you read the words themselves. In the background, sandstorms of the word 'sand' might fly past; or you'll find yourself leaping off the words 'ledge' or 'leap'; or the text will sometimes mirror its content, by forming a tunnel, for instance. Also, particularly poignant or affecting words are highlighted in red, the resonances of which you have to avoid and neutralise if you want to achieve the full score for each level.

How successful it is as a game may be open for debate - during longer levels things can get a bit repetitive, sometimes you'd rather just get on with the story, rather than going back or stopping to complete a particularly difficult section, you could find yourself wanting to argue whether some words really are the most powerful in any given text - but it definitely hints at what might be achieved, and at times it does genuinely seem to add something to your experience of reading the stories themselves (in fact, an involving new way of reading might ultimately be the best way to take the idea).

(Another wordy Gregory Weir title worth a look is The Majesty of Colours, by the way).

As for interactive fiction; I haven't investigated nearly enough yet to confidently recommend standout titles, but nonetheless the highly ambitious Blue Lacuna, especially, seems to go far, far beyond those frustrating Tolkien-esque things in which, as a kid, I always seemed to just blunder around getting hopelessly lost typing 'GO SOUTH', 'HELP' and 'WHERE AM I?' over and over again. Of the very few I have played, Aisle's been the most inspiring so far - essentially it's a very short story, with numerous potential endings, suggesting larger, more complicated stories, mostly reflective of the sanity or lack thereof of the actions you type.

As yet, I haven't enough experience of the genre to say exactly what I think there is to be learned from playing interactive fictions, but it's definitely a different way of writing - one that's very much about involving and immersing the reader - and one that excites me with its possibilities.

So here's an early New Year's resolution: to write an IF title myself. That should keep me busy...

N.B. For more IF game recommendations, the Interactive Fiction Database is a great place for short reviews and downloads. (Most interactive fictions come in story files, but an interpreter like Gargoyle will run most of them).

And on another note entirely...

A belated Merry Christmas and an early-ish Happy New Year from all at Radix!

Monday, 14 December 2009

Radix appoints new account manager

A press release we have issued today announcing that Matt Godfrey has joined the Radix team:

Penryn-based communications company Radix Communications has appointed a new account manager.

Matt Godfrey joins the company after a successful 15 year career in retail. Godfrey said, "Radix is a rapidly expanding business and is perfectly positioned for further success in a highly competitive industry. I am delighted to be given the opportunity to be part of that success."

Radix Communications provides copywriting, editing, design and translation services to a range of clients in the technology industry, placing a strong emphasis on clear, consistent and compelling written communications. Founded in 2007, it saw annual turnover grow by 14% in 2009 despite the economic downturn, and is on course to exceed this rate of growth in 2010.

"I am thrilled to welcome Matt to the team," said Radix managing director Fiona Campbell-Howes. "His management experience and exceptional commercial awareness will make him a tremendous asset to Radix as it continues to grow."

UPDATE: Here's the story on Business Cornwall - thanks Jay!

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Advertising on Facebook - is it really pointless?

"Facebook now has 350m users - and there's no point advertising to them," said John Naughton in last Sunday's Observer (or possibly that's what his sub-editor said, but in any case it's a pretty accurate summation). What's more, he had some numbers to back him up:

In 2007, the market research firm ComScore reported that 32% of internet users clicked on banner ads in a given month. By 2009, that number had fallen to 16%. ComScore also concluded that a hard core of 8% of all internet users – christened "Natural Born Clickers" – are responsible for 85% of all banner clicks on the web.

His basic argument: that because we are all now so adept at ignoring online advertising, Facebook and Twitter are deluded if they think that selling advertising can keep them afloat in anything but the short term; Twitter and Facebook are not effective advertising spaces.


Leaving aside that 16% - or even 8% - of 350 million is still a considerable audience*, and also leaving Twitter to one side (for now), since details on how it will eventually incorporate advertising are still thin on the ground, do the figures above prove that Facebook is necessarily any less effective a medium for advertising than any of the more traditional media, such as TV or print?

I would argue that they don't: all they show is that the majority of internet users aren't clicking on ads - and why would they?

I mean, if you could click on a TV ad, or a newspaper ad, would you? I certainly wouldn't very often. Just as with online ads, there would first need to be a fairly real chance that I might gain in some way, or the product being advertised would have to be in an area in which I'm particularly interested (for instance, a new model of mobile phone when I happen to be due an upgrade).

Moreover, why assume that clicks are the sole measure of whether an online ad is effective?

Many of us routinely try to ignore any kind of advertising, wherever it appears. But even offline it's everywhere, and at least some of what we see still lodges itself in the brain - either by being very entertaining, highly unusual, very annoying, or just unavoidably prevalent. That its effect isn't instantly measurable in the form of a click doesn't, though, lead us to assume it hasn't fulfilled some purpose - improving brand recognition, for instance. So why should we assume this of online advertising?

Is Naughton, then, perhaps confusing what an online ad can do with what it should do? (And no doubt some advertisers too).

What do I mean? Well, just because an ad is online, and clickable, does that mean that it has to be clicked on to be effective? Has it totally failed if it hasn't taken its viewer to a virtual cash register or to more information? This seems to be his assumption.

If this were true, though, there would be little point advertising anywhere - offline, or on Facebook. That online advertising can be clicked on, and linked directly to online stores, is surely a bonus over offline advertising, not necessarily its be-all and end-all. (Or perhaps that's how it should be seen).

What the apparent reluctance to click shown by the ComScore figures suggests to me, then, is: either a) a lot of online advertising could be much, much better; or b) most internet users simply don't want to click on ads - and if so, then perhaps advertisers need to find out why, or just accept it and reassess their expectations, their methods, and their measures of effectiveness. In fact, whatever the case, perhaps a lot of marketing departments simply haven't yet figured out the best ways to utilise Facebook, or the online space in general?

Any of them wondering where to start might want to study Dell's use of Twitter: according to Monday's Guardian, Dell has "made $6.5m in revenues through links on the micro-messaging site" and "its aggregated followers on social media... now number 3.5 million." Dell's senior manager for corporate affairs also points out that this kind of engagement with its customers delivers other benefits too, such as helping Dell improve its products and respond quickly to problems.

Agreed, this is marketing, rather than advertising, as such, but surely there are still lessons to be learned here - primarily that consumers aren't going to click on just anything without a very good reason.

So maybe the Observer headline should have read: "Facebook has 350m users - and there's no point advertising to them badly. Same as any other medium, really..." It wouldn't have been as snappy, I grant you, but it at least might have been the more accurate and workable conclusion.

To an extent, I've been playing devil's advocate in this post. Your opinions welcomed in the usual box...

*because, for the most part, that's probably an over-simplification: with one of the main advantages of advertising on Facebook being that ads can be more specifically targeted, many ads won't be seen by anything like 350m subscribers.