Friday, November 30, 2007

The Value of Entertainment

Pondering the pricing of videogames, I've decided to try some simple economic analysis to see what conclusions can be drawn. I'll start with a quick snapshot of some common entertainment purchases, ignoring details like taxes, shipping, and bargain shopping.

The following table lists several different entertainment products as examples of various categories.

ProductPrice     Time SpentCost per hour
CD: Magic by Bruce Springsteen$18.981 hour$18.98
Comic: Conan 46$2.9910 minutes$18.00
DVD: Harry Potter
special edition
$34.993 hours$11.66
Movie: Enchanted
movie theater
$10.251.5 hours
(plus 30 min. of commercials)
Videogame: Halo 3$59.9910 hours$5.99
Videogame: Cloning Clyde
XBLA Download
$10.005 hours$2.00
Paperback: Storm Front$7.995 hours$1.59
Videogame: Oblivion$59.9980 hours$1.33

This table is loaded with assumptions, don't go jumping to conclusions just yet. Let's break down some of the key issues in the above table, as I see them.

First off, I'd never pay some of those prices. Getting the new Bruce Springsteen CD, or Harry Potter at a reasonable discount isn't that hard to do - I'm showing list prices above. If you're willing to buy things used, you can save more money. You can also rent some of these items, check them out at the library, or resell them when you are done with them. Movies are a little bit cheaper at matinées, or if you buy coupon books in advance. I'll ignore these details for the rest of this discussion though.

Second, in this crude utilitarian view, I'm completing ignoring any of the extra associated values of the various items. If you are sitting around the lunch table discussing a book with your co-workers, or in a movie theater laughing with friends and family, those are important parts of the experience which are not easily captured in a simple table like this.

Third, is the question of ownership. With the exception of two of the above items, after enjoying the product, I have a physical artifact left. Depending on inclination, that can be a burden or a blessing - I can put it on a shelf, and enjoy looking at a collection of stuff, or I can put it in a box, and move it from house to house over the years, I can loan it to a friend, which very effectively reduces the cost per entertainment hour. Or I can resell it on eBay, and perhaps recover some of my cash. Movie theaters and virtual content are the two exceptions. (Although without DRM, virtual content can be shared effectively without limit, leaving ethical and legal issues aside for the moment).

Fourth and finally, there's bound to be a lot of variance in the time spent section. I've generally marked these as the "first time through" - Harry Potter got some bonus minutes to view the extra content on the special edition. How fast you read books or comics is a matter of ability and preference. In some cases, multiple people can experience the same media simultaneously, effectively multiplying the time spent (hence the family watching the Harry Potter DVD is much cheaper than going to the movie theater).

Most importantly, some of the media is more likely to be experienced by a single user multiple times. Looking at the above list - I've pretty much packed the videogame times with "beating the game". After the time shown, I'm unlikely to play the game any significant amount of time. If you are a fan of multiplayer Halo, you might easily get 80+ hours out of the game, though. DVD's I rarely watch more than twice, even if I buy them. The only media I am likely to experience over and over again, would be music. If I have an album I enjoy, I can listen to the same track ten times within the first year, easily. Depending on the album, I might want to listen to certain tracks lots of times, and other tracks only once. This is an important distinction between music and other entertainment media, and speaks somewhat to the issue I raised earlier about why consumers are so keen on buying individual tracks. (Another difference is that music can be a passive listening experience, while doing something else - that's not true of most of the other cases.)

I will, however, note that in this naive view, some of the best entertainment bargains are videogames. Although the up front costs tend to be the highest, the time you spend with them can easily make up for that investment. Assuming, of course, that you actually end up spending that time with them - of the above media, videogames are the ones likely to have the most variance in time spent. You will almost always listen to the full cd if you buy one, watch the whole movie if you rent one, or (perhaps to a lesser degree) read an entire book once you actually start it. But how many people will really get the full value out of a videogame? That's a subject I intend to explore in another post.

If you think I've missed some key points, or you would like to contribute to the discussion, please leave a comment. I didn't include blog reading in the above chart, but if you neglect the basic costs of internet access and electricity, it's free.

WishBox: An Abundant Fable in Five Parts (3 of 5)

New to the story? Start with part 1.

Part 3: Recovering My Senses

About half way through my mandatory stay in the logosphere, I got lucky. Using some credits from an earlier job as a beta volunteer I was able to buy my way into a study on CuddlyBumps - the fuzzy little sheep heads were a big improvement over the sharp teethed rodent faces pushing fantasies for consumers of all ages.

My last two hours of state-mandated recovery were spent in a group focus session, the hospital beds arrayed in a circle around the floating holovids, as the medical instruments monitored our collective responses to the vids, and each other.

At the declared microsecond of freedom, my environment was transformed into my most recent profile, and I sank down into the overstuffed designer pillow, with opulent silk. Fragrant knick knacks were suddenly present on the conviently arranged bedstand besides me, and two-thirds of the walls were filled with the recent entertainment snips which I'd missed while incapacitated.

If it weren't for the occasional visit by the Hospital robotic staff, I wouldn't have known I wasn't at home. Well, I thought, home was really the WishBox, right?

Part 4

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Personal Touch

Let me preface this post with a little background. I have a son who's a freshman in high school. He's doing a great job, and the school has some amazing opportunities - for example, one project involved building boats from 2 liter bottles and other supplies, and reenacting historical naval events at the community pool, with several students riding each boat. Great stuff for sure.

I think, though, in their quest to communicate with parents, a little bit of the personal touch might have been lost. Getting pre-recorded phone messages from the principal, reminding us about upcoming events, is fine, although I'm not a huge van of robot phone messages.

Yesterday, however, I think it probably went a bit too far. I answered the phone, and got the following message, spoken by a computerized voice. Words in [brackets] indicate pauses in the speech where various fields were filled in by the machine. Name is, of course, a place holder.

Today, your [son], [name], is doing [an excellent job] in [seventh period]. To hear this message again, press one.

That's it. Great to hear he's doing so well, but exactly what did he do? Did something impress one of his teachers? Should I congratulate him on the robotic kudos? It's just not very much to go one. I'd rather have a written note, with a little more information, to give some nice positive encouragement - it's a bit weak to say "Hey, son! Nice job on that thing you did in seventh period. Keep it up!"

So, to cap this story off, I asked my son how seventh period was going. "Dad, it's just P.E. - we don't do anything except stand around and shoot hoops". Huh. So I asked if he'd talked to the teacher or done anything special in class that day. As it turns out, that day was a "minimum day", and they didn't even have a seventh period. So whatever "excellent job" he did, he wasn't present for.

Kinda makes me want to install some software and leave a voice message for the school:

Yesterday, your [impersonal voice automated system], left a [confusing] message. You might want to [check your computer].

WishBox: An Abundant Fable in Five Parts (2 of 5)

New to the story? Start with part 1.

Part 2: The WishBox

"It would have been so much easier if you had just found a way to turn lead into gold," sighed Annette.

"What do you mean?" asked Dr. Barker.

"Well, that would have created an abundance of materials without disrupting the economy so much," Annette explained.

Dr. Barker chuckled. "Nothing of the sort - it actually would have changed very little," he countered. "Creating a limitless supply of gold would have just made gold very cheap. It's not like currency's been backed by gold for a long time. No, that would've been akin to making synthetic oil, and you saw how that worked out - all that changed was who made the money. What we're doing is changing how society keeps score."

Now it was Annette's turn to look confused. "I don't get it," she said after a minute.

"Well, in the old days, you could tell who was successful by how much money they made. Nowadays, money's not even a collectible like postage stamps, because everyone can create as much as they like."

"But won't digital currency survive? You can't copy that with your machine."

"Perhaps," he said, "but who cares about numbers in a database somewhere, if you can create anything you want out of thin air?"

Part 3

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A New Look

I decided to celebrate the digital publication of my short story with an updated theme for my blog. If you're reading this on RSS, you might want to stop by and take a look, and let me know what you think.

This particular theme is by Todd Dominey, and I chose it because it has more of an old-fashioned parchment feel. Something to get me in the mood to write.

I'm not totally sold on the complete presentation yet - you'll see that a few of the elements on the left sidebar are truncated. I did some fiddling to get the sizes to work out better, though, and overall think it's a nice change of pace from the old white-on-black design.

With the new look, I'm also in the mood for a new name. "Whicken's Blog" has the advantage of being completely unpretentious, but is a bit dull and doesn't communicate much. If nothing else, I would like this blog to communicate. If you have suggestions for a new name, drop a line in the comments.

WishBox: An Abundant Fable in Five Parts (1 of 5)

Part 1: Waking Up

The first thing I noticed, besides the throbbing pain in my head, and the inner silence without a hot connection, was the Logosphere. Crap... I hate getting stuck in here. I was lying in a bed covered with Bump-In's - those annoying textures, generally applied to chairs or sofas, designed to imprint their Sponsor's logos onto your skin when you press into them. A lot of people had been upset when the Sponsorship Party had taken over, and enough time lying on a Bump-In might be enough to make me agree.

Shortly, an attractive nurse entered the room, responding to my increased neural activity. She checked my vitals briefly, and pointed to a small remote beside the bed. "Your WishBox is over there, if you need anything."

"How fast can I get transferred out of the Logosphere?" I asked, head still stinging painfully.

"We have a legislated 24 hour waiting period before you can be moved out, assuming your papers are in order," she replied apologetically.

I groaned, picked up the WishBox, and started flicking through the catalog, looking for something without Bump-Ins.

Part 2

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

E-commerce Update

Well, the Amazon Tag Cloud has been sitting over there for a few days now, and I'm already bored looking at it. And based on the reports, apparently the rest of you are as well. In fact, most of you are using RSS readers, and can't even bask in the digital glow of the Amazonian recommendations. So, that little experiment has officially run its course, and will disappear "real soon now".

On the other hand, the tip jar icon turns out to be a useful way to let people buy Totally Scorched, the complete CD collection of the original Scorched Earth. So, I've created a new PayPal button, which does exactly that - $20 and a shipping address gets you a secure and easy way to buy Scorch. If you've been waiting, and didn't want to send a check, now's your chance to own a piece of gaming history. Try out the button below, and if you have any problems, let me know.

I want to get Totally Scorched! for $20

Or you could, you know, download the game off the web for free. Either way, right?

(I'll update the official site once I've got the kinks worked out of this button).


Over the next few days, I'll start posting a short bit of blog fiction, for your enjoyment. According to Wikipedia, this is a "small-scale fringe activity", which suits me fine. In my case, though, the blog is just the distribution media - I'm not trying to create a fictional blog.

I won't start posting until the whole story is written, so you can count on the next installment each day until the story completes - at the moment, my initial story is 5 posts long.

Hopefully, forewarned with this introduction, it will make a little more sense - I hope you enjoy the story, and I encourage reader comments. There will be no other warning, although I'll make sure all the posts are tagged fiction.

Achieving the Metagame

Last night I crossed 5,000 Gamerscore, working my way through the amazing Xbox 360 game, Bioshock. This reminds me of the Xbox Rewards program I wrote about back in February.

The challenge was to get 1,500 points in 2 months, in exchange for various prizes. I had a lot of fun working for that goal - I finished it a couple weeks early, and eventually got my free stuff (a download of Contra, and some other minor bits). Here's my digital proof:


However, somewhere along the way, something was lost in the games themselves - I went too far towards focusing on achievements, and less on enjoying the games.

It's not all bad, I did spend some time on some of the games I probably wouldn't have otherwise, but at the end of the goal, I sort of burned out for awhile, and mostly stopped playing with the 360. (This is the point where my Xbox started getting mad at me, according to its blog.) It took quite a few months before I started again, but now I try to keep a better balance between achievements (which I still think are awesome), and just kicking back and having fun.

I've got more thoughts on this, which I hope I'll have time to write about in this blog, but I wonder if I'm the only one who "burned out" on the challenge - I haven't seen any new updates to the rewards program since that first challenge. Or maybe they were disappointed by the negative feedback that came in as a result of the rewards site being frequently inaccessible during the launch period, as they received much higher traffic than anticipated.

If there is a new challenge, will I try to participate? You bet - but this time I'll try to keep a closer eye on how I'm playing the metagame.

Monday, November 26, 2007

First Experiences with the PlayStation Store

So, I read online in a few places that Sony had finally opened up their store to PC's. Up to now, if you wanted to buy online content for your PSP, you needed to own a PS3. Which I suppose was supposed to encourage people to buy PS3's, but just made this consumer more cranky.

Anyways, no small amount of Googling or search found the store... amazing how many articles say it's online, but provide no link. Well, here it is:

Creating an account was a rather long proces, more than a dozen steps, including a CAPTCHA/email loop halfway through. At least the opt-in to spam was disabled by default, and my gamer id from Xbox was available.

At the end, I was stuck with a "Thank you for registering" page, with nary a single link - retype the URL for you, my friend. Seriously, did they do any user testing?

Anyways, since I'm on a Mac, I expect a few extra difficulties, since their app is PC only, and Parallels is still allegedly a bit dodgy under Leopard. In any case, I can't seem to find any "must-have" downloads yet after all - the really good PSOne games I bought back when they were new, so I guess I'm looking for any hidden gems I missed back in the day, which are still reasonably playable on the PSP.

If you've played with the PlayStation Store, and have recommendations on what's worth buying, let me know in the comments.

Happy Blog Nothing Day (Whoops)

Today is Blog Nothing Day. Quoting the facebook event page:

Support the WGA Writer's Strike by participating in Blog Nothing Day on November 26, 2007. 24 hours free of posting, commenting, or contributing to the blogosphere.

If you'd like to participate, please don't leave a comment to this post. That'll show those money grubbing corporations...

(It's not stated explicitly, but I assume Blog Nothing Day may have been inspired in part by Buy Nothing Day, the anti-consumerism version of Black Friday.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007


While exploring rumors about the upcoming death of Batman, I ran across a site with a blog widget - a like to get access to a widgetized version of a blog. This led me to the site Widgetbox, and the creation of this:

The web: killing your productivity, 5 minutes at a time...

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Will the Real iTunes Please Stand Up?

In order to maintain my curmudgeonly street cred, I'm going to vent a little bit on one of the few issues that bug me about my iPhone (not feature requests, but just plain silly stuff).

In particular - it's that little new iTunes icon that's driving me crazy. For those without iPhones, this is the button you use to bring up the iTunes store, so you can purchase songs over your iPhone. Aside from the fact that it only works over wireless, and not the phone, what's really bugging me is that when I want to play music, my brain pops right over and says "Ah, your music is in iTunes", and I tend to go there by mistake.

The reason for this is that on the desktop, iTunes is both the application and the store. I tend to associate the name iTunes with the app much more strongly than the store. (Those of you who've been reading my blog since the beginning may recall that Microsoft outdoes this confusion by using the Zune name for their device, their software application, their store, and their community - it's like a 21st century version of the word Smurf).

The "music" button, happens to be labelled iPod. Of course, if you want to see your Photos (which you might be used to seeing on your iPod), you don't go to the iPod app - oh no, then you go to the Photos app. Videos? Well, it depends... if you want YouTube videos, go to that app. If you want your own videos, go back to that iPod button.


Why not have a Music button, a Photos button, and a Videos button? Drop the silly iPod button, that should just be fully integrated. Merge YouTube into the new videos section, and make your store online with the phone, and accessible from both music and videos. (I'd setting for Music being called Audio, since presumably that's still where podcasts and audiobooks sit).

I suppose that part of the reason for the current mishmash is a variety of branding/business decisions getting in the way of the user experience. YouTube wants the prime brand position of a button on the home screen, and Apple wants to reinforce their iTunes/iPod brands.


Consumer Wars

A brief followup on my earlier post about JD's comments.

Edgar Bronfman, apparently of Warner Music, provides a more eloquent answer to JD's question (at what point does any business care about consumer complains).

we inadvertently went to war with consumers by denying them what they wanted and could otherwise find and as a result of course, consumers won

I still think Edgar's missing the bigger picture (at least as far as this article presents it) - your relationship with the consumer shouldn't be a war, where one side wins, and the other side loses. It should really be more of a collaboration, where both sides find mutual benefit. Is that really such a shocking concept?

He goes on to address the mobile market, and says what people really want is buying music with a single click. Well, maybe. If anyone's listening to this consumer, if I ever buy music from my phone, what I really want it to own the music - so I can listen to it on my PC, my iPod, or, heaven forbid, even on my Zune.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Zune is a Four Letter Word

Too funny for words... I was updating my "status" on my Zune account, just playing with software, so I wanted to set it to say

Fiddling with my Zune

Apparently Zune is considered an "off-limits" word (dare I say it... a four-letter word). So I opted for the more truthful

Listening to my iPod

iPod is, of course, also four letters, but not filtered like Zune and other curse words. If you care, you can check out my Zune Card online. If any songs ever show up, you know I got it to work.

An Enchanted Shout Out

In between pie for breakfast and pie for dinner (and a little bit of pumpkin pie frozen yogurt), the family headed out to the movie theater to catch family celebrity Amy Adams in her newest movie, Disney's Enchanted. The audience definitely had a good time, and we enjoyed the movie a lot, although now I can't get those songs out of my head...

I've been dreaming...

After watching the dancing cockroaches, I remembered that I haven't checked out the recent update for the Zune... off to check that out.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Discovering Realistic Models

The DRM saga continues... according to this article, the Entertainment Retailers Assoociation (ERA) blames DRM for slow sales. Copy protection is "stifling growth and working against the consumer interested" (Kim Bayley). They are asking the music industry to "put an end to DRM".

It's worth pointing out that the ERA doesn't seem to own any content, so you could argue that it's easy enough for them to say don't protect it. Still, they see their business growing as a result of removing DRM, and if they are right, then the recording industry's business would presumably also grow as a result. According to some reports, EMI's experiments in this direction have been positive so far.

All in all, it's been a good year for DRM opponents, as key big players, like Amazon, have entered the fray. Amazon's offering a whopping 20% referral fees to help promote their store - as a consumer, this sort of thing makes sense to me all around. There's a sample referral link to an album I've been enjoying lately over to the left. You can pick songs up by the track for the usual .99 cents each, or save almost six bucks by getting all 14 tracks for only 7.99. Cheap prices, no DRM, high bitrate (256), are pretty near my sweet spot as a customer.

(Even better? Add a locker feature, so I can re-download tracks at any time, and make the files lossless.)

Which Holiday Is This?

Lending credence to the theory that Christmas music starts around Thanksgiving...

Perusing some traffic reports from other sites, I noticed a recent abrupt bump to a holiday post from 2006, featuring the top 100 Christmas songs, according to MusicDNS. This post is currently the number 5 result on Google for that search term, making me wonder what sort of traffic bump the 4 higher results are getting...

If there's interest, maybe we could do a follow up this year with the most popular versions of each Christmas song... who's rendition of Silent Night is most likely to show up?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Welcome to my Blog

One nice thing about having a blog is that you can do pretty much whatever you want with it - as long as you aren't trying to make a living off it, you don't need to get too hung up on how often you post, whether you're rambling, or how much traffic you get.

I've been pondering posting more, with a corresponding increase in the randomness of what I post about... (I know, hard to believe that's possible). If past trends bear relevance, this little experiment should last until about Christmas, when I can finally open the nifty new Rock Band game, and start my own virtual band.

So, what's on my head as I ponder my blog? According to Google Analytics, this blog has had about 243 visits over the last month, which doesn't include any RSS syndication, just people visiting the page directly. The average user spends a whopping 90 seconds on my blog before seeking greener pastures (I bet I've lost most of you by now...)

Something I've also found fascinating about blogs, is the fact that some people actually make money from their blogs. Some people disparage those people making money as selling out, or being inauthentic. To those people, I say... how about spending a little money at Amazon this Black Friday? (Yes, that's an affiliate link.) In fact, I stuck an Amazon tag cloud widget over to the right - it's fascinating to see what comes up. As I write this, it's busy selling Zunes and Cookbooks. The former, I suppose, because I've talking about them on occasion (although not generally favorably, alas), and the latter no doubt because of my fondness for cocoa. If I get bored of the widget it will come down - I doubt it will make me any money, but I certainly won't complain if it does.

And here's one other tidbit to experiment with... if you find my writing entertaining, and you want to drop a dime in the hat, feel free to use this spiffy little PayPal widget:

No more iPods! (Really?)

Jermaine Dupri has an interesting post promoting the artist's right to create albums instead of singles. If that was really his focus, I'd have to say I appreciate his point... he compares a well-crafted album to a book, and notes that stores don't sell books "by the chapter". (At least not yet... if eBooks take off, maybe that will start to change just like music has...) Some albums are indeed continuous artistic wholes - like, say, The Wall by Pink Floyd (just to name one example).

I do think there's a real opportunity for music to grow into different formats, if the business side gets worked out. Who says that the "60 minute" format is ideal - why not a "15 minute" trilogy of music? Or something else altogether? It's a new frontier, who gets to decide how people are allowed to listen to music? (Hint: if your answer for who decides how I get to listen to music is anything but me, you can probably count me out as a customer).

But back to JD... I don't think he's as much interested in defending the artistic merit of all albums as much as he is in keeping the profit margin in his comfort zone. If singles were selling for 9.99 I bet he'd be happy selling by the track. He talks about manipulating the market to spur album sells and say "Did consumers complain? Maybe so. But at what point does any business care.." Well, that's out in the open at least.

How about this? The business cares when the consumers says "Forget your marketing, we're going to buy and listen to music the way we want to. We'd rather make illegal copies than pay 'album price' when all we want is a track." It's easy to see consumers have been rejecting physical cd sales - I don't think stopping individual track sales will stop this trend in the least (a few high profile exceptions notwithstanding). JD naively thinks the record labels have the power to take MP3 players off the market ("No more iPods! They won't have nothin' to play on their players!")... he does realize most of those iPods aren't using tracks bought from iTunes, right? No, I guess not...