Week 33.21

Am not really in the mood to write a post this week and have been playing music and shuffling around the room for half an hour to avoid it. I say this as acknowledgement that it’s not always fun or easy to keep traditions up, but we often do anyway. Even if nobody cares whether we succeed or not. We’re simply accountable to our own past decisions and future retrospectives.

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Rather than continue reading Firebreak this week, I looked into a few topics I’ve been feeling ignorant of: what’s going on with social tokens? What do people mean exactly when they say “metaverse”, since they can’t literally imagine it’s Snow Crash, (insert Princess Amidala face) right? And how exactly do NFTs and proprietary platforms fit into the theory of a unified metaverse? I’ve still got lots to learn about both, but I found this account of large European football clubs participating in Socios very surprising; I had no idea the tokenization of entertainment franchises was already a reality for some football fans, and it makes sense that this would be a much smoother gateway to digital assets for most people than cartoon animals trading for thousands millions of dollars. On the metaverse topic, I found this 9-part essay by Matthew Ball that was recommended by many to be an enjoyable and very helpful read.

Twitter updated their design language, changing the font I look at for hours each day. I think I’m already used to it. To the chagrin of many users on my timeline, they also flipped the logic behind displaying buttons as either filled or outlined. It personally didn’t bother me past the first 30 seconds.

I then had a brief conversation with some colleagues who build out design language systems for digital products. It occurred to me that teams today already have their hands full managing 2D screen-based designs, and the transition to an XR spatial future will probably explode the complexity of design systems as they are currently defined, and call for the further melding of multiple domains like branding, architecture, industrial/interface/interaction design, accessibility, visual communications. It might be an opportunity to tear up much of the bland, homogenous work we see now. I see this as a challenge for anyone recruiting to do design for enterprise/late-stage products. Who’d want to keep fiddling with round rects when the most interesting work is just around the corner?

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Now that some Beatles’ remasters are available on Apple Music with Dolby Atmos, I listened to Abbey Road and Sergeant Pepper’s on my AirPods Max. Never mind if it’s wrong; they sound so right. The spatial separation of each instrument helps you better appreciate what they did on those albums.

Amazon Prime Video somehow got worldwide rights for all four Rebuild of Evangelion films, including the newest installment which never got a chance to screen here. I’ve been eager to see it, but there’s just so much homework to do first. I wouldn’t call myself a fan, but I saw all three previous Rebuild films in cinemas starting in 2007. They are now just an ancient, jumbled mess in my memory. Online guides recommend watching the entire 26-episode TV series on Netflix first, followed by the original movie, and THEN the four new films which are do-overs (but also maybe part of a meta-textual narrative on repetition and iteration?!) I decided to jump straight into the new films first, and pick up with the series on Netflix where I left it midway later, maybe.

I’ve now seen the first three. What a depressing and senseless and infuriating but beautiful journey so far. One left to go, and it’s supposedly the best one. I’m lost half the bloody time. 3.0 in particular is a cautionary tale of what can go wrong if you don’t get crisis comms to survivors right, and they end up becoming your enemy. It’s PR training in pretentious anime clothes.

You can’t be watching sci-fi biomech bible allegories all the time, so I also saw two Liam Neeson action films this week: The Commuter and Non-Stop. The former is about an ex-cop who has to play a bit of sleuthing on a train, and the latter is about an ex-cop who has to stop murders on a plane. They’re both by director Jaume Collet-Sera (who’s just done Disney’s Jungle Cruise) and I find their existence fascinating. He’s done two other films with Neeson, Unknown and Run All Night and I don’t think life would be complete without seeing them too.

Hold up, HEY

The debut of HEY email has been an interesting case study in launching a new service, in part because it took place on social media — a two-way street that led to them getting public feedback that’s already led to significant changes. As others have done in recent years, the launch was a staggered rollout with invite codes and a waitlist, and the resulting members-only feel and scarcity drove tens of thousands more to join the waitlist. Some say this is intentional marketing, but it’s also legitimately done to manage the experience when someone isn’t sure how much interest there will be.

I took notes on my hands-on experience in a previous post, and have spent a week now getting to grips with it, trying to picture it as my primary email service for the foreseeable future. The commitment isn’t just a new email address to inform people about; it’s also paying a perpetual premium service fee. After 16 years of “free” Gmail, that’s a big decision. Yes, you’re free to leave any time and they’ll forward all emails sent to you anywhere else you’d like, but I wouldn’t use a @hey.com address if I wasn’t actually using HEY.

Everybody’s got opinions

But before the details of my decision (like, who cares, right?), I wanted to comment on the fascinating public launch of HEY that we’ve been spectators to, and how its creators have had to walk back some of their design decisions after product met reality.

As my friend YJ says above, Basecamp and HEY are heavily opinionated products by opinionated people; it’s what allows them to take a well-established thing like email, with its standard organizing paradigms of Inbox, Outbox, Sent, Spam, and Trash folders, and try something new. It’s only meant to satisfy a certain type of user with certain needs and preferences.

It’s not easy building something out of new ideas, at huge scale, and making sure it’s robust enough to carry the personal and business correspondence of paying customers who’ll depend on it for time-sensitive messages. By Basecamp’s account, they’ve been working quietly on HEY for two years before this month’s semi-public launch. I think they deserve a tremendous amount of credit both for attempting it and for how stable it has been.

When we design services, we know we won’t catch everything or get it right the first time. It’s about having priorities and principles, and optimizing against them every step of the way. If you’ve defined and studied your target audience, and care about pleasing them to the exception of everyone else, then you can make decisions based on their needs. If you put in the work to develop a core experience that will set your business apart, then that becomes the thing you protect even if Apple or anyone else tries to make you change it. Some companies famously put speed over certainty, and while it dazzled a lot of CIOs and inspired them to try and do the same, its pitfalls are now well known.

We don’t know what HEY’s development process looked like, or what they prioritized, and so we can only guess from what they actually shipped and what they’ve done since. Upon contact with the wider marketplace, some of those opinionated ideas are now being challenged as problematic or discriminatory. Could more user research and testing have caught them before launch? Probably. Was catching them before launch a priority for the team, or did they intend to test them in public and fix unintended consequences as they were discovered? To their credit again, they’ve fixed a lot of things very fast in the past week. From adding disposable functionality suggested by Apple to dumping fully built, non-trivial features… their responsiveness has been impressive.


Things that came broken

Let’s look at a couple of Twitter exchanges and changes I’ve spotted. On my first day with HEY, I noticed an unusual option in the “More” menu on every email thread. It was a button labeled something like “Generate Public Link”. This actually published the entire email conversation thread to a public webpage, allowing any third party to read and follow the exchange. I used it to help share a problem I was seeing with their support team, which is a nice way of enabling them to help customers without giving full access to all mail. And while you could always share private emails to a third party with copy/paste, screenshots, PDFs, etc. there was something unsettling about this. None of the other people would receive any notification that they were being “listened in on”, and anyone with the link would be able to see not just all previous emails, but any new ones added to the thread for as long as it was publicly shared.

You could be in a conversation with 20 people and not know if any one of them had generated a link and leaked it. When I explained this in a group chat, there was some disbelief. One person called it a “built-in whistleblower feature”. After others complained on Twitter about the potential for abuse, this feature was completely removed.

Continue reading “Hold up, HEY”

Homework

In my last update here, three long months ago, I’d just set up a new WiFi system with enough reach to connect our largely neglected study, which gave me a new place to hang out and play music too loudly.

Shortly thereafter, I decided the acoustics of that room were too boomy for the Beolit speaker I’d put in, and picked up a little Sonos which can be tuned to suit the space (it’s much better).

Shortly thereafter, a measure of hell broke loose everywhere, which I don’t need to explain. In the tiny window before nationwide lockdown was called, my wife and I decided to celebrate our anniversary with a staycation since getting away was impossible. We booked ourselves in for a weekend, visited the buffets, had cocktails in the lounge, and sat by the pool that first day reading more news and feeling something in the wind.

Literally overnight, we saw the hotel reconfigure their club lounge for social distancing, cutting the capacity in half. With not much else to do but eat canapés and drink while watching the news, I distinctly recall the numbers then: 380,000 infections worldwide. Yesterday, I saw that number in the news again, for global deaths.

According to the log my teammates have been keeping, we started working from home in the third week of March, later than our other colleagues not attached to client projects at the time. For that period of about a week, showing up at a reduced occupancy office building/mall was surreal, recalling Ling Ma’s novel Severance, where the protagonist keeps going to work at her Manhattan office long after the city stops working, and we were glad when the call was made to not take any more chances.

That move to make our home study more usable/livable/enjoyable just before this hit, which on hindsight was just down to luck and the High Fidelity TV series, was probably the most well-timed decision I’ll make all year. It’s given me a separate workspace from my wife who’s taken to occupying the living room’s solar-facing counter. Given that we’re both on calls a lot now, if I had to be nearby for WiFi purposes, I think there’d be trouble.

A lot of what we do with clients and their customers in the business of design used to happen in person. Speaking with people, watching them at work, communicating ideas — it takes a lot of channels to supply the necessary bandwidth, from spoken words and scribblings on a board to body language and moving things around in space. It’s also true for many other professions, and is probably why many fantasize that VR will be the long-term answer in the event that there won’t be a vaccine, if we agree that plexiglass shields in the office aren’t a solution for getting back to work.

We started working from home on a Wednesday and had to figure out how we’d start interviewing people the very next day; interviews that were originally planned to be in-person conversations. For a bunch of reasons, it wasn’t as easy as sending a Zoom meeting link. We ended up keeping those sessions simple and voice only; better to get the basics right and extract some good data than get fancy and fuck it all up.

Two months later, between us and other teams across the studio, I think we’re beginning to see how many of the old activities can be done virtually. The next step will be to devise new activities that aren’t constrained by assumptions about how work should be done. Maybe we’ll go back, maybe we won’t. One thing about remote work of this sort, technology constraints (including literacy) have a huge impact on who you can involve and co-create with. Almost anyone can pick up a pen or gesture at a thing. Now try to get them to manipulate content on a Miro or Mural board using an aging laptop. Now try to get them doing it in VR. What’s the equivalent of a Post-It note for virtual work: the simplest, most flexible atom of a tool for thinking aloud with anyone? Texting in a group chat?


Otherwise, I’ve done some of the usual quarantine things. I’ve tried cutting my own hair (bought some clippers for it). I’ve been making cold brew coffee (bought a Hario bottle for it). We made that dalgona coffee one time but it was foul (already had turns out we actually bought the apocalypse-ready instant coffee for it). I’ve been making more cocktails and drinking IPAs at home instead of at the bar (bought the ingredients and ordered the cases, respectively). I’ve put on weight (bought a lot of takeout for it). I’ve been reading more (bought a Kobo reader for it). I’ve played upwards of 110 hours of Animal Crossing New Horizons (bought the game day one for it). Uh… having made that list, I am a little disgusted. Clearly, if life gives me lemons, I buy a juicer.

The national lockdown here in Singapore ends in name next Monday, but the cautious re-opening will surely take more than a couple of months. The first people to be allowed back into office buildings at first will be those who haven’t been able to do their jobs from home for legal or technical reasons, and I think it’ll be September before most white-collared types find out what their leaders think about ending the great WFH experiment vs. saving a ton on commercial rent.

Note: This post contains a couple of Amazon affiliate links, which I’m trying out… again? I have a vague memory of using them on a couple of my sites before.

➟ Turning Paper to Pixels with a New Game Design Tool

From Paper to iPad, Pixel Press Turns Drawings Into Videogames
Bonnie Cha, recode.net

I loved play­ing videogames as a kid, but I can’t say that I ever spent any time sketch­ing out ideas for my own games like my broth­er and his friends did. (My doo­dles usu­al­ly involved cute ani­mals or spelling out my crush’s name in bub­ble…

The core concept is every kid’s dream: designing their own games for friends to play through, or just for the heck of it. But without some serious inspiration, what you can do in a short platformer level is very limited. I remember a D&D game maker tool for PCs in the 90s; that was infinitely better because you could create a STORY, and set up narrative funnels for your players. 20 years later, our idea of imaginative play can’t be restricted to letting kids carve out crude worlds in 3D chunks and 2D lines.

Some Recent Games And Storytelling

I’ve had the luxury of some console gaming time these past few months, and managed to complete Metal Gear Rising, BioShock Infinite, and the rebooted Tomb Raider, while making progress in Devil May Cry, Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon, and Super Mario 3D Land.

The observation here is that in my advanced age, the definition of fun has changed. I used to be excited for sandbox experiences, building/business simulations, and multiplayer combat. I think if Minecraft and LittleBigPlanet existed when I was younger, I’d totally see the point of building a giant robot’s head in a mountainside. Now, the thought of spending hours on that kind of play instead of catching up on reading or working on other projects is out of the question.

Open-world games are in a precarious position. Five years ago, I could spend hours collecting Crackdown’s Agility Orbs. I’d mess about in Assassin’s Creed and forget the main quest entirely, writing my own inner narrative about Altair being a medieval pickpocketing Batman. When life next comes collecting, these games will be the first to go.

So when the nights are short, what games make the cut? The aforementioned games on Xbox360 (Metal Gear Rising, BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, Devil May Cry) are marked by strong, cinematic narratives, or at least entertaining ones in the case of MGR and DMC. The remaining Nintendo 3DS titles succeed on pure mechanics, where joy is extracted purely from the timing of button presses, helped by exuberant character animations and inventive set pieces.

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Luigi’s Mansion 2 might be one of the most charming games I’ve ever seen, and like most portable titles, it satisfies in a different way than a blockbuster console title. Each level is polished and detailed to the point that it vibrates. From one minute to the next, you’re constantly having your assumptions challenged by experimental level designs, new enemies, and ingenious puzzles. There’s a simple set-up about why the ghosts are loose, but the game’s real Story is located in the way that these parts interoperate, and in how the characters react, much like how design was famously said by Steve Jobs to be the craft of how things work, not how they look.

Stories are perhaps the best reason to engage with any entertainment medium; often they function perfectly being the only reason, but videogames call for a balance between play and involvement to be fully realized.

Take BioShock Infinite, one of the year’s most highly rated games, if not the highest. To experience a playthrough is to see an ambitious, first-person SF story with many smart things to say about games, politics, gender, religion, and whatever else people want to see in it. As a game, mechanically, it’s mediocre for a lack of innovation. Fights play out in the usual fashion, with a few superficial gimmicks. When the supporting character, Elizabeth, throws you a health pack mid-firefight with a press of your "X" button, it’s an Auto Heal/Use Potion action in disguise. Much like how artists can throw new textures atop a game engine to create an expansion pack, BioShock’s gameplay designers have reskinned a generic FPS using emotion and worldcraft.

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Finding the combat somewhat boring, I started to cynically see places where narrative paint was employed to make the shooting gallery journey seem shinier than it was. It’s sad that a week after finishing the game, I mostly remembered its central conceit and frankly awesome ending sequence. This doesn’t happen in Luigi’s Mansion 2, because the gameplay itself is what you think about when not playing.

Why is BioShock Infinite so overloaded on the story side of things, constantly trying to shove more story in your face with voice recordings, environmental artwork, snatches of conversation, meaning-laden anachronistic pop song covers, in-game exposition cutscenes, etc., but so underdeveloped as an action game? I’m pretty sure the experience of watching someone play the game is >90% as satisfying as playing it yourself. It doesn’t have to be your hands on the wheel. I’ve played games where after a momentous moment unfolded on screen, I was left acutely aware of a lingering sensation under my thumb where things had been set in motion. The button press echoed through flesh and time. Triumph seemed to reside directly in my actions. Because of how little I cared for and enjoyed the gameplay, BioShock felt like pressing Play on a rented movie.

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Tomb Raider is more successful in several of these places. While well-written, the story isn’t mind-blowing in the way BioShock’s is, but it has its own surprises and is superbly paced: you always feel like the game’s climax is drawing near, and then the story horizon stretches out in front of you again like a challenge, taunt, and gift all at once. Traversing the world, hunting with a bow & arrow, scouting for hidden objects… did I just get tricked into playing an open-world game I said I didn’t have time for? As a combination of story and fun, and critically, by allowing enough freedom for its player to feel a sense of grace and mastery of the world, it succeeds.

Although progression is linear, how you navigate Tomb Raider’s world feels under your control. Lara is continuously gaining new abilities that open up previously impassable areas. It’s the old Metroid design, and a sound one. You could argue that the superpower-granting Vigors in BioShock play a similar role, but they are few, and the fun is taken out of them by the ammo limits. Tomb Raider doesn’t charge you for the joy of shooting a rope arrow across a chasm and zipping down it. Incidentally, where the ropes go is largely predetermined, but because the player personally installs them, the feeling is completely different from BioShock’s steel skyline cables, which herd you heavy-handedly around the map like the rails they literally are. A minor difference, design-wise, but one with an outsized impact on the experience.