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Go read this. It’s a startlingly thoughtful transformation. I think regardless of whether it does anything for your opinion on the matter you have to admit it’s laudable to publicly realize you’ve lived long enough as the hero to see yourself slowly transform into the villain. And then clearly express the desire to change.

It’s a very different kind of post than an apology, something John Scalzi wrote about quite well. I wanted to read and re-read it over a few days before talking about it then realized it’s just a little too personal for me to really comment on other than to say go read it. I’m not saying people shouldn’t comment, but the more I read it the more I thought “well there but for the grace of the flying spaghetti monster go we all sometimes.”

Over the summer I assisted on a whitepaper regarding "Second screen experiences" for major video game and entertainment properties. (Second screen really just refers to extending games and movie experiences to tablets and phones, etc). I found myself continually surprised over major property holders’ reticence to actually own this, rather than simply do "me too" features developed by outsourced dev houses. To put it another way, people with an almost George Lucas level of control over a particular entertainment property when it came to books or comics or other experiences with their storylines were perfectly happy for a third rate development firm to make their iPhone app or iPad version of their game.

When I asked why there wasn’t someone overseeing the efforts with the same level of "end to end" customer viewpoint that they maintained for their quality of writing or story continuity they looked surprised and said that customers really didn’t expect too much out of alternate experiences yet. They said customers’ expectations of games on tablets and phones were more cartoony and casual as opposed to high fidelity or were relegated to simply being a nice front for a web page or data view rather than a true added value to the experience. Not a single one of the IP owners I talked to had a "butt on the line" for the end-to-end quality of their game’s experience being awesome whether it was on Console, PC, web, or other device. They were designing for the lowest common denominator both of the technology and the customer expectation, without having someone truly own looking at both and trying to maximize the impact and value to the people buying the product.

I asked what if a customer could suspend their game on a console, then grab their tablet and continue where they left off on the bus. I was told no customer expected their tablet to be able to give them the same experience so why bother? I noted tablets now have quad core 64 bit processors, more RAM than the console, and separate GPU’s, why not at least try? Besides, who mandated it had to be the exact same experience? Reasonable customers would know there would have to be minor changes. I even pointed out the potential brand damage to an intellectual property if a third party app contradicted continuity or was so unpleasant or unstable it hurt the game. I was told that wasn’t a big deal either, since customers should have lower expectations of experiences outside the main one in terms of quality. None of these people had invested in a point of contact in the company to oversee the total and complete experience of all their offerings for their top shelf brands and experiences, other than perhaps their executives (who are great at the “Vision” level but notoriously bad at the execution level).

This isn’t new. Back in the early to mid 1990′s, one of the single most powerful divisions inside the Microsoft Corporation was Product Support Services (PSS). This was the group inside the company that supported all of Microsoft’s products either by phone, Compuserv forums, on site support for corporations, or even Fax (Really!). When a Microsoft product had reached its final milestone, which was typically called a Final Release Candidate, the build was handed over to PSS for something called "Sign Off."

Product Support Services was the customer representative. It was the first group within Microsoft that would deal with the full ramifications of releasing a product out to millions and tens of millions of customer configurations. As such, PSS had to monitor both how much it cost to support a product, and how well a product worked based on the assumptions that developers made about customer expectations. A year or so after a product was released, PSS would gather all the lessons learned and customer feedback gathered and present it to the product teams for incorporation into the next version. In this way, customer wants and needs were represented in real world scenarios, not just sales meetings where customers tended to ask for the sky and sales people might promise it. This process also meant that PSS could halt a product from shipping, even if development considered it finished. That was what the sign off process was all about. PSS oversaw the complete end to end use of a product both during development and after.

Final Release Candidate CD’s or disk images were provided to PSS, and teams all over the country would pound on the product and log bugs against it. All shipping software of significant function and complexity has bugs. PSS’ job was to measure the impact, potential pain to customers, and cost of supporting the product shipping with a known issue. If those factors ran too high, PSS would refuse to allow the product to be released until the issues were brought back into line with the quality bar. One of the reasons the final shipping build of Windows 95 was build "950 r6" was that the "final" build had to be revved six times before ship due to issues found during sign off and other last minute testing. There was an enormous amount of customer advocacy talent, support talent, and quality assurance talent in the PSS organization because almost everyone involved was a full time Microsoft employee. If PSS refused to sign off, the product didn’t ship.

PSS was the "butt on the line" for shipping quality software to Microsoft’s customers.

Not long after shipping Windows 95, the process changed due almost solely to Netscape. Netscape shipped "betas" on a continual basis, just propping them to the web when built. The Internet Explorer team was in direct competition with Netscape and constantly complained about having to be held up fixing bugs found during the sign off process and the slow method of releasing.  Soon they were granted exceptions and the release of "perpetual betas" became the pressure release valve to allow the shipping of "Internet" software to be more nimble and competitive. Slowly over the next few years, sign-off as a process became less and less, outsourcing was developed and all that customer focus and expertise was trimmed, cut, then basically eliminated relative to what it used to be. Software quality and customer satisfaction suffered, and more and more products were developed in a silo mentality. I truly believe the security issues in Microsoft software in the late 90’s and early 00’s were a partial result of these changes.

These two anecdotes might seem unrelated, but they are not. I bring it up because lately the vitriolic nature of some Internet comments regarding software or hardware is obscuring a larger problem. Fanboys will be fanboys, and there will unfortunately always be someone willing to type out an anonymous death threat over a designer changing the muzzle velocity of their favorite ammo in their favorite space gun. Those individuals number in the tens of thousands.

What we’re losing all across the software industry, from a services to software to content perspective, is the view of the customer. Or, to the extent it’s taken into account it’s the lowest common denominator of what someone surmises the expectations to be on the customer’s part based on sales.

That audience, outside the vitriolic one, is in the hundreds of millions. For most things, it isn’t a big deal. Call of Duty: Ghosts sold just fine. Both the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 will sell out of their allotments for Christmas. iPads and iPhones are in high demand.

But I watch a major product launch or announce go badly and everyone asks "what were they thinking?" or I see dozens of reviews that state "it’s almost perfect except for this one glaring omission that seems so obvious" or I hear someone point out "This particular feature would add so much and detract nothing and we’ve been asking for it for years" and I realize that we have lost/are losing an essential skill in the software industry: Customer advocacy. We’ve moved it from being a role to being a checkmark box on a long list.

I get that features have to be prioritized and I understand resource triangles better than most. But why should it take a mountain of bad press, social media, or forum posts to note a major product change is a terrible idea in regards to how people actually use your product? It’s gone beyond the simple Redmond Reality Distortion field, Youtube’s recent comment changes are the biggest indicator. Decisions are being made based on what the user base will bear with trying to monetize or compete, not as much on what the user base wants in order to keep choosing your product.

And there’s no reason the two things cannot work together.

We need to establish (are re-establish) the concept of the Ombudsman. People whose job it is to own the end to end experience in both development and release, and serve as the point of feedback publicly when something goes horrible pear shaped on Steam or a new policy or Terms of Use change is announced on Twitter that angers everyone. People who have real veto power when it is needed and can balance the worse angels of the development culture. People who actually get paid to pay attention to what customers like and want and need as opposed to biasing every decision on "We need to make this change because our competitor made it and we need to be the thought leader here. Try and implement it so that customers like it."

We sometimes lose sight that *customers* are the ones who use our products and are important, even when the offerings are (for now) free.

If you don’t believe in strong customer advocacy and making that an actual discipline and separate section of your process then you run the risk of not just failure of your product, but obsolescence of your brand. Usability studies and surveys can only tell you so much.

To use a sportsball metaphor: When competing if you aren’t truly listening to customers you can’t swing for the fences because you will have no idea where the pitch is coming from.

inb4 strawmen:

“But customers will ask for everything!”

Some might, a good Ombudsman will balance this out.

“Apple doesn’t care what customers think, and they sell pretty well!”

Apple works in fits and starts. It’s now on a minor decline as it has gone from epiphany regarding phones and tablets to stagnation. Think about all those lean years before the iPod and iPhone. I’d argue if they would listen just a tad more they could even out their peak and valley cycle and make even more money. One need only look to Vista or Windows 8 to see what happens when you take the platform bully pulpit too far. To think that couldn’t happen to Apple ignores a lot of Apple products that were just as bad.

Besides which, why *wouldn’t* you want to be seen to be listening to your customers instead of dictating to them? I’ve never understood how Apple somehow got away with making their customers feel dumb for things they wanted (like when they said people didn’t need customized SMS tones. Whahuh?) It’s like “I’ll let you purchase my product but I get to slap you one time first.”

“Is this really that big a problem?”

Yes and no. It’s certainly not a crisis. It’s just something I feel like the industry is truly missing out on lately and it represents incredible opportunity for companies, especially big established ones, that move to it or commit to it publicly. It’s low hanging fruit. Customers *love* accountability but better than that they love not making mistakes in the first place. Think about Microsoft’s Xbox One announce then the backpedal. What if they’d had a customer experience advocate who could have prevented the worst of those choices they had to walk back before they wasted time developing them? Someone who was paid for that as their expertise and role instead of relying on a heavily overworked team somewhere in marketing to hope they can get around to it?

Or, when the backpedaling does have to happen, it comes from one voice all at once with a clear message and clear expectation rather than dozens of executives using events over months of time slowly walking back each bad thing.

Community managers are trying to fulfill this role, but many companies simply do not understand Community management is more than just using Twitter or forums. It’s time someone high profile makes a public commitment to having someone like this on staff and actually listens to them. Someone beholden to customers not agendas.

In which I give up Alcohol.

September 24th, 2013

It was the midsummer of 1990, and I was still jet lagged from the trip all the way from Dallas to Frankfurt. I was sitting on the outside deck of the Kreuzberg Abbey, a few kilometers southwest of Fulda, taking in the fantastic view of the midsummer greenery of central Germany. It was an amazing day, brightly sunny and warm but nice and cool in the shade I was sitting in.

My Aunt was a teacher on the military post in Fulda, a civilian but with a military grade. My parents had given me a choice when I graduated high school: I could have a used car or I could spend a month in Germany with my Aunt touring around Europe on a Eurail pass. Knowing I would probably get my father’s car, I easily chose Germany.

My cousin Katie and I had arrived the previous day, and after some recoup time my Aunt set about her first most important order of business: introducing us to German beer.

In high school I didn’t care a whole lot for beer. Or even alcohol for that matter. Most of what we could afford was crap and most of what we could pilfer from parents’ stores was usually either crap or too refined for the average 15-16 year old. So I never really got the beer thing.

With a thick clunk on the solid wood table a glass of pitch black beer with a foamy head was placed in front of me. Immediately I was intrigued. Beer that you could not see through?  What sorcery is this? The monks at the abbey have been making the ale the same way since the early 1700’s from a recipe created in the late 1500’s when the monastery was formed. My Aunt was giving us a history of the abbey and the beer as she drank hers and I took my glass and took a drink.

And suddenly I understood. I understood beer. The flavor was complex and rich, the temperature of the beer was cool not ice cold. It was thick and felt like you were eating something rather than drinking it. That was the moment, sitting there in central Germany on a warm summer day just out of high school and not yet in college, that I feel in love with beer.

I was 17 years old.

The trip to Germany spoiled me so much on beer that when I did drink beer in college it was exclusively Shiner Bock, a staple of south Texas beer. South Central Texas was mostly settled by people of German and Czech descent so the crafting of beer was very important to them. I rarely drank to extreme excess, a couple of times a year I would get “College level” drunk, but for the most part I was more a steady state style drinker.

Once I left college my drinking moderated significantly as I began working at Microsoft in a standard corporate job (albeit with 12 hour days). For most of the 90’s I would say I drank perhaps three times a week at most, and even then nothing harder really than beer.  But in the late 90’s I discovered Cognac. And things sort of began to unwind from there.

Cognac, like that first true beer I enjoyed in Germany, was a real sensory experience. It’s not just the complexity of the flavor, but also the aroma. Not to mention the science, history, and overall craftsmanship that goes into making something so refined. For my 40th birthday I shared with my friends a bottle of cognac distilled in 1724 and decanted in 1974. That’s 350 years of aging. The bottle was easily worth many thousands of dollars.

From Cognac I discovered Scotch, and found a slightly less intensive but every bit as interesting level of craftsmanship, chemistry, and history. The interplay of flavors depending on the region the Scotch was distilled or the barrels used or pairing it with a cigar all interested me on a million levels.

All of these enjoyable aspects were independent of the intoxicating effects of alcohol. For a long long time it was more a sensory experience than a drinking experience. Until the past few years. I had a startling realization a little while ago that I had probably become an alcoholic.

What led me to this realization was simple: I was drinking every single day, and I was doing it to feel “normal”. I never got drunk, or blacked out, or drove drunk or anything. My drinking was a steady thing through out the day or night, never really getting drunk just maintaining a strong buzz. The issue became clear when I realized that over the course of a night I could put away a half a bottle of Scotch, or a six pack of extremely strong beer, and I was doing it without any consideration at all. Then I realized I had been doing that for years. Somehow, alcohol became the thing I needed. And I needed it every day.

Go to lunch with friends at work? Beer. Hang out for an hour after work? Scotch.  Go home and watch a movie or play video games? Beer and Scotch. Saturday day off? Why not have a beer at 11am while I write, which turned into drinking through the entire day.

The glass sitting next to me became too important, an extension of my mind where its absence would make me agitated.

Alcohol was still a sensory experience for me to be sure. I appreciated the beers I drank and looked forward to trying new ones and new variations. I especially enjoyed drinking the beers my friends make, because they are actually really good at it and also beer.

But that glass next to me really began to bother me. I didn’t get blind drunk and do something dumb, I didn’t “crash” in the classical sense when people come to this realization. But chances are I was going to. Chances are I was headed down that road.

The opening to Ringworld Engineers finds Louis Wu a slave to his Droud. He wakes up, exercises, eats, showers, and puts on the Droud and sets a 10 hour timer. It goes off, the Droud shuts off, he eats, exercises, showers, and goes to bed.

That’s his life. Every time I read that chapter it shocks me. How could someone let themselves get to that state? I’m not saying I was anywhere near there, but I was exploring the border of it and realizing that made me unhappy.

So!

I quit alcohol. To stave off withdrawal I used a “Tapered Detox” which worked really really well. It’s been a little while now and the things I was scared of are all turning out ok. I was scared writing would be different (it isn’t) I was scared playing games or watching movies would be different (nope.) Most of all I was scared I would miss it so much I wouldn’t last without it (I’m ok!)

I’m making this public because I know too many people to tell individually, and to anyone out there in a similar circumstance I’m here to say you can do it. I feel much better mentally and physically and there is plenty of help and support available either medical, social, spiritual, etc to help you do it.

Some quick points:

This was my own realization, there was no inciting incident.

If you’re a friend of mine and you drink you do not have to walk on eggshells around me. Enjoy your drink. I have gone out now a couple of times in drinking situations and done just fine. Please don’t feel you are making me uncomfortable. I had a problem I didn’t like and did something about it that satisfied me that I addressed it. I still want to go to my favorite places with my friends. That’s what’s more important to me now.

Will I ever drink again? No idea. I have to assume I will want to, because that helps me put in place the will power. I do know this, if I ever decide to make the conscious decision to have a drink it will not be alone, I will never have more than 2 beers or 2 drinks in a day, and I will never drink two days in a row. But for right now, I’m off alcohol completely and plan for that to be true for the foreseeable future. I quit smoking a long time ago and can enjoy a once a year cigarette sometimes, but I gotta get far away from that guy who needed the glass next to him before I could even consider it.

I’m happy to write up a blog entry on my taper regimen if people would be interested in that. Alcohol withdrawal can kill you, especially when you are over 40 like me. And I drank enough for me to at least factor that into the process of stopping. Tapering is basically avoiding detox drugs (which have their own side effects and nastiness) to achieve the same goal: weaning the body off alcohol without the full side effects. I repeat it was very effective for me but it requires some very specific physical and mental adjustments.

I understate in the above how much better I feel. My blood pressure is down 20 points, I’ve lost weight, I have more energy and it reinforces just how much I was in a cloud with my body over drinking.

So there’s that. If you have any questions about it please feel free to leave a comment.  :>

PAX is nigh! Nigh means that it’s right on top of us! I’m talking Imminent PAX-AGE.

Having alerted you properly, here is my schedule:

THURSDAY:

I’ll be hanging around the Kris Straub and Mickey Neumann Two Iron Thrones show at the Triple door!

FRIDAY:

Join me at 7pm in the Wolfman theater for “Hey Vasquez, you ever been mistaken for a man? A discussion of military servicewomen in Video Games

Join Stephen “Stepto” Toulouse alongside a panel of expert gamers who happen to be women who have served our country. We’ll discuss tropes, cliches, and good examples of how to portray women in military scenarios, and take your questions about how the industry can better portray women as more than just “female armored men” and instead be the strong military members they actually are in real life.

PANELISTS:

Stephen Toulouse [Head Chief of Presidency, Stepto.com], Ana Visneski [na, NA], Sarah Mccaffrey [na, NA]

 

SATURDAY:

Sadly I will not be taking my old seat on the Major Nelson Radio podcast as Larry has too many guests to fit me in, but that doesn’t mean YOU shouldn’t go see it! It’s at 4pm in the Serpent theater. But then, immediately after at 5:30 in the Serpent theater, join me for “All You Zombies: Why the Genre Still Holds Our Attention.”

Please join Stephen “Stepto” Toulouse along with Chet Faliszek from Valve software (Left 4 Dead) and Dean Hall (Bohemia Interactive) alongside other zombie game industry vets in a discussion around what attracts gamers to zombies, inspiration when making a zombie game, whether the genre needs a break, and where do we go from here.

PANELISTS:

Stephen Toulouse [Vice President in Charge of the Presidency, Stepto.com], Chet Faliszek [Valve Software], Dean Hall [Bohemian Studios], Gary Whitta [Writer, The Walking Dead, Telltale Games], Jeff Strain [CEO, Undead Labs]

SUNDAY:

I’ll be at Cards Against Humanity LIVE at the Triple Door! Then right after, please join me and many other guests as we remember our friend Ryan Davis at a very special episode of the Cards Against Humanity PAX Panel at 9:30 in the Kraken theater.

Join the creators of Cards Against Humanity and special guests to remember our friend Ryan Davis. As always, we’ll take card suggestions from the audience; the best ones will be included in the game and the worst will be mercilessly ridiculed. Out of respect for the wishes of Mr. Davis, no toe-shoes will be permitted in the theater. BYOB.

PANELISTS:

Max Temkin [Cards Against Humanity], Ben Hantoot, Josh Dillon, Daniel Dranove, Eli Halpern, David Pinsof, David Munk, Eliot Weinstein

I cannot stress enough how amazing and wonderful the Card Against Humanity panel is going to be. We’re going to be bringing all the feels yo, and laughing as hard as Ryan would want us to. Please join us so that we’re not all crying alone in the dark.

MONDAY:

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

 

So that’s it!  As always I will be in and around the event itself, please feel free to stop me and say hi

I made my share of Internet snarky comments but here is the deal:

Miley Cyrus is a grown woman and if she wants to shake her butt on stage for the entertainment of herself and others then more power to her and she’s not a slut nor making a horrible mistake.

I didn’t hear anyone wailing about how Justin Beiber was ruining his life forever when he rubbed his junk on a fan’s cell phone.

Instead people just shook their head in that “What a scamp, he’ll grow out of it.” tone.

I am concerned at her use of racial sexual stereotypes (many thanks to my friend Sara for pointing this article out to me.) but you know what? It’s really not my area of expertise or life experience. So I reserve the right to poke fun from a “Internet Snark” perspective because the performance was, in my mind, just plain bad. But a grown woman being sexual and we’re going to angst on “how far she’s fallen?”

Haven’t we already screwed up sex enough in our society to go down this road yet again?


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