The Graceful Duck

The beginner's guide to the interactive content development industry | by Tony Bove |

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

This is a periodically updated column about the interactive content development industry from my point of view. Sometimes I rant and rave here before refining the process and producing a column for some other publication; other times, my ravings are not refined but stay right here, just hanging out in the ether.

Some of you may know me from my days as a computer-industry journalist and analyst, the editor of the Inside Report on New Media (formerly the Bove & Rhodes Inside Report, and before that, Desktop Publishing -- the newsletter).

What happened to that newsletter? The content business changed dramatically from when we charged a fee for a yearly subscription. Now, with the World Wide Web, most newsletters are free. My partner, Cheryl Rhodes, and I sold the newsletter to NewMedia magazine. We started a company called Rockument and published our first entertainment CD-ROM, Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties.

Ain't no luck
I learned to duck!
-- Grateful Dead, "U.S. Blues" (Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter)

My experience with developing that title and with the various forms of marketing, distribution, and publishing deals forms the basis of this report. I'll be writing about producing multimedia titles, including the perils of production, licensing on the media liberation front, pixel painting 'till the midnight hour, scrambling for hip jobs, stomping on the multimedia terra, and working on the burning shore of the newest media technology.

How to Save Money by Not Going to Conferences

The interactive multimedia industry, from its entertainment side to its educational side, is rife with trade shows, conventions, and speaking engagements. The recent attempt to create a virtual trade show on the Internet simply points out that the need for these complex lifelike interactions in overcrowded, flu-infested, badly illuminated convention halls can never be fulfilled in a virtual way. The airline and hotel industries are not worried.

I've noticed that there are basically two types of conferences: those that are free but are still mostly a waste of time, and those that cost a great deal of money and are mostly a waste of time.

The parts that are not wastes of time are the schmooze fests. Human beings still need to communicate to each other by means of touch (handshake), facial expressions (face to face conversation), and fantasies (flirtation, the unexpected encounter, or the relationship-building pat on the back).

Highlights of such schmooze fests are usually excited discussions about possible mergers (that mostly never happen), excited talk about partnering and working together (which inevitably fail in the harsh daylight of the everyday world outside of the conference), and excited flirtations with attractive people (most of which are never consummated).

With all this frustration, it is surprising that people keep coming back to these schmooze fests, but they do, on the off chance (like going to a singles bar) that they will "find someone interesting" or find something to do that will change their lives.

Of course there are also all those humorless souls who simply go to these things to make sure their deals close. We won't talk about those people -- they're too successful in work and too boring in real life.

Besides the schmooze fests, there is the conference program itself, mostly populated by speakers who are speaking for free and thereby feel it is their right to promote their companies and products. Everyone tacitly agrees that this is OK, yet everyone complains about the lack of quality discussion in these conferences. This sad capitulation to corporate promotions occurs in even the paid conferences, where presumably there is a budget to pay for real speakers. There may in fact be a few "real speakers" paid to impart real wisdom -- usually keynoters who are famous and from other industries who presumably have some insight into our industry, though they typically have no experience with what our industry is making or selling.

Recently I received a promotion to attend one of these expensive conferences. It was one I had attended last year. I was indulging in the fantasy that since I had produced a great CD-ROM product (at least the critics thought it was great, as did most customers), I would be able to schmooze whole-heartedly with the top corporate leadership of our industry.

Fat chance. Every single one of these captains of industry I approached expressed some interest in what I was doing, but that interest evaporated as soon as we parted company. I'm just not a member of that butt-nuzzling crowd of syncophants that hover around the super-rich captains of industry hoping for a little patronage, and I'm certainly not one of the captains, either. I'm not even one of the eccentric, off-the-wall but humorous keynote speakers from some other industry. I'm just another producer-drone who makes products within this interactive multimedia content industry, and the class differences within the industry are profound. I'm not an alligator-shirt-wearing golf partner, not a Morgan Stanley customer, not an amateur pilot with my own Lear Jet, not even a purple-haired celebrity with a nose ring.

So the schmooze fests were, for me, somewhat of a waste of time (other than providing fodder for columns like this one). I spent most of my schmooze-fest time hanging out with other misfits on the edge of the crowd, trading personal anecdotes and business stories about the captains of industry. Most of these misfits were part-time or full-time journalists.

As for the conference program, I was more disappointed that I thought I could ever be. The captains of industry probably liked the conference program because many of the speakers come from their ranks, and they tell their peers (and subordinates) in the audience exactly what they want to hear. The speakers that don't are usually consultants trying to win over more clients in the audience. The odd speaker that is there to crow about a success story is most often an exception to the rule, such as the producer of the only lucrative edutainment title (while hundreds of others languish in obscurity), or the webmeister of a particularly popular site (while millions of others squat rather lonely in the ether).

Perhaps it would be good to hear from a failed producer or webmeister that exemplifies the norm, so that we might all learn something, rather then hear from the very few successful ones who were mostly lucky.

Let me take the promotional literature's conference topics one by one, summarize what you will probably hear (and what I think), and perhaps save you the time and money of going to these things -- or, at least, going to the next one.

1. Making money on the web: can it be done?

Yes. Here's how: sell something, or use the web as an advertising medium for just about anything (and the money you make is the money you save by not printing flyers or paying for expensive advertising in the traditional paper and TV media).

If you sell something, it should be something easy to sample on the web, such as music CDs or books (photographical coffee table books are best). In fact, the music CD is the most popular form of merchandise on the web, because it is easier to hear a sample on the web than in a real store.

2. Making a brand name for the online world.

This is simple: spend money on marketing. There is no other way. Oh yes, first you must hire a creative person for at least one week to come up with an idea, or steal one you hear about while eavesdropping at a trade show.

3. Why most interactive designs suck.

Another simple answer: people don't inhale. What do you expect from humorless, self-annointed caretakers of design and ease of use? Give them wine, cheese, Volvos, and public radio stations. Let them run the government and put on these conferences.

Then, if you want a design that doesn't suck, go out and find a young kid who hangs out with the punk wireheads at Brainwash (a laundromat-coffee house in S.F.) or similar place, and let her work for next to nothing designing something entirely new. That's fine, but for the next project, don't let that person work for you again (because success perverts design) -- go back to Brainwash and find someone new.

The point? Interactive designs suck because interactive designers take themselves too seriously.

4. The newest and greatest tools for content creation.

Answer: Be sure to stay on top of what is happening, what new features are available, and so forth. Then, work backwards from the result you want: what is the easiest, fastest, and most reliable tool that will get that result?

At this point the current answer is Macromedia Director for most Mac/PC hybrid CD-ROMs and Enhanced CDs and for Shockwave, Visual Basic for anything having to do with Microsoft, a proprietary engine for fast-action games, any of a variety of HTML editors for web work, Javascript for Java, and Apple's MPW for QuickTime VR (no other choice there).

Oh yes, and keep an eye on all new tools, but don't use them until they are (1) past the version 1.0 stage and (2) capable of both Windows and Mac playback without royalties. Those conditions pretty much narrow the field down.

5. Is CD-ROM dead? Are there any opportunities for CD-ROM?

You simply can't get your CD-ROM product into mainstream distribution without the explicit help of one of the major publisher/distributors who own the shelf space. That means either working for them, or doing a publishing (royalty) deal with them. The heyday of affiliates is nearly over.

What are deals like? As a developer, you can get 20 percent of the wholesale price. Sales are not as high as expected, and prices are dropping. As far as marketing is concerned, either you spend your money on it, or you suffer at the hands of the publisher/distributor, who is likely to spend nothing on it.

Shelf space is increasing at a much slower rate than the rate of development, which means that publishers are begging for shelf space, and titles, especially niche-oriented ones, sit in warehouses unsold. Ironically, the consumers are looking for niche-oriented titles, and they complain that the titles for sale are similar to each other and don't offer enough depth.

The web is slowly coming to the rescue. One of the benefits of using the web to sell CD-ROMs is that you can offer a sample (albeit a sluggish experience) of the CD-ROM, something stores can't offer everyone who walks in. Another is the unlimited amount of shelf space, which acts as a sort of leveler -- all products are equal on the web.

However, the business model is different if you sell on the web: you are essentially a web merchandiser, with CD-ROMs as your merchandise, in a world where the lowest price rules. Overhead is directly related to profitability. And yet, you have to spend megabucks to advertise a web site, using the web itself and other media.

This is the fallacy of the so-called "liberation" of distribution by the web. Once again, the economic model favors the larger publishers who routinely throw money into advertising. Good luck.

6. Intellectual property, censorship, and all that legal stuff.

No matter how you slice it and dice it, these topics are best left to lawyers. You should avoid trying to license content from others unless (1) you can afford the royalties, (2) the content is ready for multimedia licensing because the owners already know about this, and (3) the content is so worthwhile that you simply can't create your own in its place.

Most likely you will (1) not be able to afford the royalties or fees, but even if you can, if they don't understand interactive multimedia, you will spend an inordinate amount of time explaining it to them, only to find them at the end of this process infected with the do-it-yourself bug and unwilling to relinquish control.

If on the off-chance you run afoul of the new censorship law or find yourself outside the mainstream market due to the new ratings, the simple sad fact is that you need a lawyer; no conference speech will explain how to avoid getting caught by the thought police, some of whom are in the audience.

7. The latest and greatest techno-fantasy.

This is usually the only good reason to attend one of these conferences: to see first-hand what everyone is already talking about. If you haven't seen a demonstration or proof-of-concept for things like agents, custom news filters, avatars, and automatic scripts that go out and populate the web world, first check the web, then, if you must, go ahead and attend the conference.

I can't give demonstrations of these things, but I think most of the techno-fantasies like agents, avatars, and VRML are special effects that give certain games and web sites a marketing edge for a year or two, much the same way that certain types of effects are used in the film industry to make summer blockbuster movies. The one-upmanship of special effects world makes it impossible to take any particular effect seriously for any length of time -- if you don't do the special effect within a certain time frame, you miss the opportunity to have your product or web site stand out; if you spend a lot of money and take too much time, it's a waste because your product or web site doesn't stand out.

There are some fantasies that stay fantasies. News filters, for example. How could you possibly already know what you want to know from the news? The point of news is to find out things you didn't know. Perhaps these things come in from left field -- do you really want to filter out certain topics? It is far more appropriate to create an advertising and bullshit filter, because you usually know who is spewing the bullshit and you can block it. For news, go directly to the newshounds and editors who already act as filters.

There it is: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, all good children go to keynote sessions. Watch this space for updates on the interactive multimedia dream.

Tony in the hottubTony Bove, Gualala, Calif. 5/11/96

Other pages to visit:

The Bove and Rhodes Report on computers and media.

What's the New Mary Jane


Copyright © 1996 Tony Bove


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