Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Video Game Gold: From Trend to Mainstay

At Mass TLC's recent event entitled "Video Game Gold: The Prosperous Gaming Industry In Massachusetts," a panel comprised of the minds behind hits like Rock Band, Lord Of The Rings Online and GSN's online gaming arm assembled to encourage and inform any and all who might be interested in the state of Massachusetts' gaming landscape.

While the conversation jumped around from subscription vs ad based business models to the need for more original intellectual property in the gaming world, two points stuck out as particularly noteworthy.

The first originated from a statement made by Harmonix VP of Biz Dev Florian Hunziker who claimed that the video game industry was "counter-recessional." Reason being that if people are putting a halt on spending, there is a good chance that the first thing to go would be activities outside of the house (eating out, vacations, shopping) forcing people to entertain themselves at home. Clearly video games fit this bill. Following this statement, the four panelists who hailed from game development companies (Turbine, Harmonix, 38 Studios and Worldwinner) all pointed to the fact that amidst economic tragedy, they were still hiring and they were still growing revenue.

While Hunziker was quick to mention that despite this growth and ability to continue hiring, big gaming stocks (EA, Activision etc...) were seeing significant drops in value, indicating that perhaps the pain from the recession was simply over the next horizon for these companies. Regardless, as the news can't find enough room to report on all the layoffs occurring across the country, it was certainly encouraging to see these publishers communally celebrating their successes and the successes of the industry on the whole.

Secondly, and on a slightly more philisophical note, there was the exciting discussion that sparked from Hunziker's story regarding the origins of the Rock Band game. Hunziker explained that Harmonix has been working in the music simulation genre for years, many of which were unfruitful financially prior to the outrageous success of titles like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. He explained that the company was comprised almost entirely of musicians when it was in its infancy, first planting the seeds that would eventually grow into their current mega hit. They worked with a goal in mind that, at the time, seemed somewhat ridiculous: they wanted to create a game that brought people together, in a room, experiencing something that, without this game, they might never have the opportunity to experience. Knowing that being in a band and performing provides a feeling like no other, and also well aware that not everybody can play an instrument, and even fewer people get to play in a band, Harmonix wanted to create a game that would not only simulate this experience, but maybe even inspire people to give the real thing a try. In fact, a recent study by instrument retailer juggernaut Guitar Center supports this notion saying that 67% of Guitar Hero/Rock Band gamers want real instruments.

It is very doubtful that the sales of actual guitars and drums have risen at the same astronomical pace as the sales of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, but there is no doubt that this communal sentiment has played an integral part in the rise in popularity. It was not long ago that gaming was considered escapist and anti-social, an activity relegated to dark basements and desolate living rooms, but with innovation from companies like Harmonix, and of course with the aid of the internet, this notion has been completely flipped on its head. Gaming now spans the population. A stat given by the moderator said that 97% of teenagers play video games on a regular basis. What percentage of them will stop gaming as technology only improves? What does this say about the future of the industry? Bright indeed. Hunziker shared an anecdotal story as well about a 70 year old woman he met on the T who told him how much she loved playing Rock Band. If games can speak to such a wide range of people, then it is a medium of art and entertainment that must be taken seriously and considered as a key aspect of our culture's future.

Not only that, but maybe creating games such as Rock Band, or Wii Fit, or Dance Dance Revolution might encourage people to give the real world activities they depict a try. It could be argued that instead, this is giving people an easier, less enriching alternative to forming a band, learning an instrument, exercising outside or joining a dance team, but playing these games with friends is certainly better than not engaging in the activities at all and the aforementioned study supports the fact that people are making the jump from digital to real in sizable numbers.

Guitar Center executive VP and chief marketing officer Norman Hajjar is quoted saying "Most video games sell fantasy, but Guitar Hero and Rock Band are selling a dream that can be realized. These games plant an achievable goal in the heart of the player and that, in turn, drives our business." Clearly this is not limited to music games and is something to be considered. (How this translates to violent video games and their real life impact is a whole different discussion).

When you boil it down, is playing video games, especially in the communal arenas that are now available, really more anti-social than going to the movies, shopping or going out to dinner? One could argue that multi-player gaming actually allows for more social benefits as the people you play with are often all working towards a common goal (not so different from team sports) and the internet allows for gamers to reach out to people that they could have never had contact with in a normal, social setting (people in other countries, age groups, occupations). And with more family friendly games popping up all the time, it is now common for families to actively unite in front of the TV much like they would over the dinner table.

As time progresses and more and more people buy into the video game world, it stands to reason that the stigmas attached to it will slowly fall to the wayside and it will become a mainstay in our culture.

All in all, the event was a great success and the wonderful people from Mass TLC were very intentional in letting everybody know that this was the first in what will be a series of video game industry focused events. If the quality of discussion and impressive turnout for the debut event are any indication, this will be a great series for a long time to come.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Own a Piece of Red Sox History - Fenway Seats for Sale!

In 2005, we all initially were paralyzed by the images of Katrina. As the shock subsided, we asked what we could do to help. Like so many companies across the country, we wanted to translate our good intentions into productive action.

And so, we started planning our first fundraiser for the American Red Cross. Luckily for us, Network World stepped up to co-sponsor. And now, we're working together on our fourth annual event.

We hope you'll be able to join us for our December 3rd soiree at the Doubletree Suites in Waltham, from 6-9 p.m.

A highlight of the event each year is our silent auction, and it just keeps getting better. This year's belles of the ball are bound to be two pairs of seats directly from Fenway Park. These seats were removed as part of the annual remodeling and are coming from the dugout, field box, loge box and roof box seats. Just think of what they've witnessed: from Yaz to Ortiz and everything in between. And two World Series.

Other fun auction items include:
  • a signed Red Sox jersey from three-time World Series winner Curt Schilling
  • tickets to Celtics and Red Sox games
  • a private dinner for six prepared in the buyer's home by a locally renowned chef
  • fine wines
  • gift certificates to some great restaurants

We're also thrilled to have Boston-based singer/songwriter Chris O'Brien on board to entertain us. With musical influences such as David Gray, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Dar Williams, O'Brien has appeared at numerous influential folk festivals and won coveted awards such as WUMB's New Artist of the Year, played as part of a benefit for ABC's Extreme Makeover Home Edition, and was chosen from a pool of nearly 1,000 contestants to appear on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion as part of its People in Their Twenties talent contest.

Whether it's a natural disaster, a fire or flood, we take it for granted that the Red Cross will always be there. Come help us ensure that's always the case.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What a(n) (E-)Waste!


At the risk of sounding old school – or perhaps just old – 60 Minutes has been one of my favorite television programs for years. Celebrating its 40th anniversary in September, the venerable CBS News magazine is the most successful broadcast in television history.

And this week’s edition – once again – demonstrates why.

Correspondent Scott Pelley presented a brilliant, yet disquieting expose titled, “The Wasteland.” The story follows the “e-waste” journey, which originates in the United States to a destination Mr. Pelley refers to as “a sort of Chernobyl of electronic waste” – the town of Guiyu, China.

Kudos to InformationWeek Editor At Large David Berlind, who blogged about the investigative report Monday. Helping make my job much easier, and thus, this post significantly shorter, he provides an excellent synopsis, including a bulleted list of notable excerpts – particularly the health and human atrocities occurring in southern China…

  • ...a town in China where you can't breathe the air or drink the water, a town where the blood of the children is laced with lead.
  • With the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world and pregnancies that are six times more likely to end in miscarriage...
  • The recyclers are peasant farmers who couldn't make a living on the land. Destitute, they've come by the thousands to get $8 a day.
...as well as some striking e-waste statistics:
  • it is the fastest-growing component of the municipal waste stream worldwide.
  • ...we throw out about 130,000 computers every day in the United States.
  • ...over 100 million cell phones are thrown out annually.

Unquestionably, Pelley’s piece was a sobering commentary on American consumerism. Especially with the holidays approaching, it makes you pause and ask: “Do I really need that [fill in the name of the latest/greatest high-tech gadget], or can I make do with what I have just a little longer?”

And I agree with Berlind, who noted that the story should win an award for investigative journalism. For me, it seemed to truly capture the essence of the think globally, act locally credo.

If you haven’t viewed the segment yet, it’s definitely worth watching, which is the reason the video is embedded here. The transcript can also be read here.