This is Happening

By Mike / On / In Technology

On Monday, I’m presenting a post-mortem of the launch of Lemurs Chemistry: Water at the fourth annual This Happened conference in Amsterdam. It’s going to be a fresh topic, since the app is launching this very weekend. (I’ll be sure to start with my failure to foresee a 38-day app review.)

Another thing I’ll be pondering is my propensity to jump into a market without paying much attention to what others are doing in that space. To wit, I’ve never looked at the paid educational iPad games section of the App Store until I started looking for our app there.

My market research consisted of talking to parents and looking at what they felt were the best educational apps on the market. That gave me a much better sense of how customers were being served over how the market’s being divided.

The upshot is, I don’t care what other companies’ strategies are. I care about why their customers are unhappy. When I did take a look, I was unsettled by what I saw.

A list of the top 21 paid educational iPad games, with icons

Seriously, if I look at that picture too long I start to feel very nervous. All those primary colors and simple topics make our little lemur feel very claustrophobic. I can hear the creaking of a swing and disembodied voices on the breeze, singing, “one of these things is not like the other…”

I’m going to have to reconcile the fact that the market being served by this category is very likely not the market looking for my game. When I tried to figure out what category our game belongs in, I realized the problem was not that we are misclassified, but that most of the page is misclassified.

Some of these don’t seem educational. Some of them don’t seem like games. Most of them are for a primary school audience. I wouldn’t call most of these educational games. I would call these kids games. I would call these apps for children. There should be a category for that. Oh wait, there is.

A list of the top 21 paid kids iPad games, with icons

The time difference between those two screenshots is the amount of time it took me to figure out that there actually was a kids category that, unsurprisingly, is mostly the same stuff cross-listed into educational games.

If the App Store is to evolve games like Carmen Sandiego from its current selection of animated globes, Apple may need to curate this distinction. Maybe busy boxes, toys, and primary tutors should go into the category of Kids Games, while the game equivalent of algebra and higher should be classified as Educational Games.

War is Over

By Mike / On / In Technology

It’s been a busy few months since I disappeared from public life to write some code. Lots has happened, and there’s lots more going on.

Made in Appsterdam

If you haven’t noticed, this isn’t your best place for Appsterdam news anymore, since there’s an Appsterdam blogroll.

That being said, there are a few things I’d like to call out, as they’ve been major events in my life as well as meaningful to the movement.

First, lest Microsoft and Apple have all the fun, we’ve had a management shake-up of our own. I’m kidding about the shake-up, but we have moved a few people around. Bring on the Twitter links!

Tara Ross is joining the board, replacing Laurens Bon, who left last April. Tara will be taking over the role of Chief Community Officer from Judy Chen, who will be stepping into the role of Chief Operating Officer, replacing Klaas Speller, who will remain on the board as member-at-large.

Klaas has been busy as my consigliere and partner at the New Lemurs, as well as the new audio company. We’re blazing a streak of new businesses across this great ecosystem we helped build.

Too much cool stuff, and too many cool people, to mention here, but there are a couple of folks I have to call out.

StartupBus is the strangest accelerator program I have ever heard of. Imagine a bus pulling into your town, inviting you and a bunch of strangers to board the bus, spending the next 72 hours hurtling down some European highway while designing, building, and launching a startup.

Rob Longridge is just your average Appsterdammer who comes to Meeten en Drinken when he’s not too busy with work. Yet Rob has opened his home to so many people over these past two years, asking nothing in return, just to be a pal, just to help the movement.

If the future of Appsterdam is people like Rob, App Makers helping App Makers, then the future of Appsterdam is very bright indeed.

The New Lemurs

As for me and my house, our deathmarch went very well, thank you very much. We finished the game on November 1, after six weeks of literally sleeping under my desk, my fingers disfigured and splinted from progressing RSI, at the peak having twelve people working on this thing around the clock.

They say there’s no money in Holland for crazy new ideas, but we had no problem raising angel funding. Our company includes Floris van Alkemade, our partner and internal VC—a business construct of our own invention—who found people eager to invest in our team and our vision. Maybe it was Floris, or maybe it really is this way, but funding this company was a yawn—way easier than in Silicon Valley.

With funding secured, we started a development process that was truly the most awe inspiring thing I have ever been a part of, a worthy effort by any scale I know—Silicon Valley, Infinite Loop, you name it. We made a lot of hard decisions and sacrifices—you better believe there are some wounds healing right now—but our crazy effort made for a crazy good game.

The game we made is deceptively simple: an action puzzler that starts fun and exploding, but unfolds as far as you’re willing to go with it. Anyone who loves video games will see the influence of tens of thousands of hours of video games. We have gone so very Quentin Tarantino with this one. It’s a short little game—there’s a lot more we want to do with it—but it’s rich like Death By Chocolate.

We’re preparing a bunch of downloadable content this week in preparation for the game making it out of App Review and on to App Store history. Stay tuned for more about this amazing new game.

Lemurs Chemistry

Is that too much? Does it seem unjustified to say such things about a $2 casual game for the iPad? What can I say? I’ve worked on a lot of hits and there’s just nothing I’ve done that is quite like this one.

For too long I’ve felt like video games have gone too far, but somewhere in a time before Zynga, we had games figured out. If we back up a bit, we can make enough fun to cure the world of boredom—but that’s all.

Video games have always been a kind of interactive junk food. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve consumed way too much of both, but that’s just it. As I get older, I start to loathe things that feel like wasting time, and hours spent playing video games are shaving as much time off my life as the hours I won’t be around for all the fried potatoes and sour cream I’ve eaten.

Nutritious and delicious, that’s the solution to all our problems. Make something that is good and good for you, so the right thing is the easiest thing, and everyone will do the right thing. I’m not talking about educational games. Those are usually terrible because they’re made by educators with no idea how to make a fun game. I’m talking about something new.

Making Games Educational

If you break a game down, it’s just a series of small victories, a series of paced challenges and solutions where you get a dopamine rush from mastering some aspect of the system. The system is whatever the game maker makes up. Sometimes it’s a puzzle. All too often it’s graphic violence.

What we did was make a standard game, but instead of making up a system, we used a natural system—specifically the combustion of hydrogen gas in air to produce water. We found an actual MIT-educated chemist, Dr. Anthony England, who not only made sure we were aware of every scientific mistake we were making, but who has a good mind for games in his own right.

We pulled all the scientific literature on how these reactions go and programmed a simulation of it in Objective-C. We hooked it up to Box2D, the same physics engine behind Angry Birds, and started doing reactions at billions of times magnification. It was cool. More than that, it was fun.

Then something crazy happened. We noticed a discrepancy in the literature. When you actually model this stuff to the point you can touch it, you start to notice when things don’t feel right. It turned out that an error had propagated through citation built on citation, so we ended up having to go back to the original authors, the world leaders in this knowledge, the Dryer Group and Collaborators out of the Princeton Combustion Lab.

We had our chemist talk to their chemists, and we worked out what actually happens—to the best of human knowledge—the over 30 reactions that occur when H2 meets O2 to form H2O. By playing our video game, not because it is educational, but because it is fun, you’re actually learning more accurate chemistry than exists in the scientific literature.

Then We Went Overboard

It’s a great story for a great cause, but I have come to learn that a great cause is not a crutch, but an obligation. We went over the top. We didn’t just hand illustrate the characters. We drew those characters again and again until Soesanto Arp, a promising young illustrator, transcended himself by working so hard he may never work production again.

That’s a literal truth you can see in the quality of the game. It’s also a metaphor for everything about this game. Our main coder, Matteo Manferdini, wrote and rewrote this game so many times in pursuit of the fun, more than once tearing our plan to shreds in relentless pursuit of the ideal of making something fun and original, but educational and suitable for kids of all ages.

People started showing up and pitching in. I have always believed that if you are working on the right thing, the right people will find their way to you. After a dozen designers tried and failed to capture our company in a logo, the Amsterdam Gentlemen came out of left field with a concept so different from what we thought we wanted, it was like meeting your soulmate.

Samuel Goodwin spent a day every week running the app through Instruments, making sure it wasn’t leaking memory or wasting battery. André Medeiros showed up wanting to live in my basement and work for free for a year, so we put him in charge of QA and support.

Have I mentioned we have this other company working on next generation audio technology? We borrowed Markus Palmanto from his research and tasked him with taking us severely overboard with sound. What you might mistake for music is actually a dynamic multi-track lemursonic ambiance produced on the fly to seamlessly react to, for example, pausing the game, or switching modes, with integrated sound effects as good as anything you have ever heard.

I’ve already booked Small Mountain, the composer who made all the actual audio content, for our next game. I know once the world gets ahold of him, he’ll never have room on his schedule for me again.

And the fun doesn’t stop there. No, I’m not talking about all the awesome free upgrades we want to do. I’m talking about additional content external to the game that we’ll be uploading to our site all week—gameplay videos (YouTube), screenshots, and a beautifully illustrated manual prepared by our friends at Second Place Gold Medal the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the Golden Age.

We’re putting it all on the line, not just to make a great game, but to build a company that will continue to push the limits on incredible experiences that happen to be educational. We have lots more games to make, about chemistry and other things, all of them fun, all of them educational, and all of them built with love and attention borne not just in dedication to the craft, but to the idea that we can inspire the next generation to see the beauty and power in science, the way toys did back in the day.

Uric and Acetic Acids

This was not an easy game to make. Most of the team is burnt out and never coming back. It was expensive in many different forms of capital and probably took years off my life, but damn it, it was worth it. The hard thing now is coming off the heady high of battle. Stress is my natural habitat, and I came to Amsterdam to bring it down a notch, not to Valley up the place.

I had hoped we could nine-to-five this, but two months before it was time to ship we hadn’t gotten nearly far enough. “Amsterdam Mike is a nice guy, but Amsterdam Mike is going to get us killed” Klaas said in his intervention. “We need Valley Mike.”

I went to my doctor and got some medication for my ADHD, packed some clothes, toiletries, and bedding, and set off for work. That was mid-September. By October we were in full battle mode, and man was it intense. I returned home in November a different person, and began reacquainting myself with the life—and the fiancée—I left behind.

I can’t just turn it off, but I don’t know how much more of Valley Mike the poor people of Amsterdam can take. Luckily, the Australians have stepped in and offered to let me come to their continent to work off the rest of this energy on their local App Makers. This weekend, I’m taking off for two weeks on the east coast of God’s Own Country, hitting Melbourne, Brisbane, and Sydney.

I’m in Oz giving a keynote for the YOW! conference about finding your purpose and doing something with your life that you actually give a damn about, which is all well and good, but difficult for the average conference goer to apply to their job making apps for the man. What people want are specific examples, maybe of other people’s problems, maybe of theirs, and they want them spoon-fed.

So I’m thrilled to be able to do workshops this time, to give people a chance to see these ideas in practice. People will bring their problems, whether those are existing apps, apps in development, ideas for apps, or whatever else is chapping their ass at the moment—and get a dose of brutal honesty for the enlightenment of everyone lucky enough to have bought a ticket.

Sint in Amsterdam

Well, Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten have come to Holland, it’s colder than I have metaphors for, and all the neighborhoods have their holiday lights up. It seems another Dragon year is coming to a close. It has passed by so quickly, yet been so long—twelve years of adventure lived in just one.

I have a few more cool things going on this year. I got to go to a reception with a bunch of other mayors. Not other mayors of Appsterdam, but the mayors of Amsterdam and a bunch of nearby towns. And there’s a bunch of great Appsterdam events I can finally start going to again.

The Ambisonics company is a whole other blog entry. There’s some amazing stuff coming out of there, and the machine at the Waag is blowing people away with killer demos. When we brought the Trans-Dimensional Portal online, they played me the Jaws theme and I started having a panic attack.

I’m not exaggerating; It affected me physically in an extreme and measurable way. It was better than the movie theater! Through a chest tightened with panic, I laughed and laughed, because the machine worked, and the game was fun, and I knew everything was going to be all right.

Enter the Portal

By Mike / On / In Technology

Since giving Appsterdam to the people, I’ve been hard at work bringing up a new team of New Lemurs to explore some new ideas around educational games. We’re currently on a team-building deathmarch to November 1, when our first title will be submitted to App Review.

You may recently have caught wind of my other project, the Trans-Dimensional Portal, which aims to do for audio what the Apple did for computers. As it’s all cloaked in a cloud of mystery and science, I thought today would be auspicious to tell you a little bit about it.

There are three machines that, the first time I used them, changed my life forever: the Mac, the iPhone, and the Trans-Dimensional Portal. When I experienced the prototype in San Francisco last June, I knew I had to bring the team here to Amsterdam to introduce the world to the power of ambisonics.

Whereas current audio technology uses independent channels that combine at a “sweet spot” to simulate surrounding you with sound, ambisonic technology uses cooperative channels to produce a complete, three-dimensional sound field. Simply put, it is the holodeck of sound.

It is the missing piece in the convergence of apps and music, giving artists the control necessary to finally express music they way they experience it. To experience the TDP is to hear your music for the first time. Music is a drug, and the Trans-Dimensional Portal is a hypodermic needle for sound.

Because even if you are listening to the existing music on your iPod, ambisonic audio is a fundamentally different experience. Faced with omnidirectional information, the brain places the signal inside itself. If you will pardon the expression, it is like the music is coming from God.

Spending five minutes in the TDP has forever changed my relationship to music, and that is the least interesting thing about it. The brain has an audio API we know is there, but barely understand. The hope is that it will provide an alternative to the crash-prone, low-level, chemical API.

It sounds incredible, but we can actually measure this using bio- and neuro-telemetry. The TDP is not a fancy stereo. It is a platform on which to build the future of music, immersive apps, and therapeutics. Bose should be scared, and so should Pfizer.

Ambisonic technology has existed for decades, but driving speakers like pixels is expensive, making ambisonic arrays the mainframe of audio systems—think hundred-speaker monstrosities housed at major universities—inaccessible the way computers were in the mid-70’s when ambisonics, Apple, and I were born.

Using the phenomenon of cymatics and the science of spherical harmonics, the inventors of the TDP have managed to generate an ambisonic field using a bare minimum of speakers, bringing this incredible technology tantalizingly close to being something regular people can afford.

For too long advancements in audio have been locked up in proprietary technology, ludicrous pseudoscience, and exorbitant pricing. We intend a Promethean disruption with a system that simply annihilates anything on the market, using open technology, actual science, and prices that reflect how important ambisonics are to our future.

It’s been a year. For those of us who loved him, there is a debt of gratitude that can only be repaid by building a better future, by being insanely great. I can’t wait to show you how we’re earning that legacy.

Good Game

By Mike / On / In Technology

My fiancée Judy is a consummate gamer. The other day I was horrified to see she’d started one of these “harvest and harass” games that have become a cancer on our industry. At the risk of paternalism, I suggested she choose something else to play, to which she protested that she wasn’t able to find anything better. Everything out there was either too violent, or too Zynga.

Since my Twitter stream is a veritable who’s who of the industry, I thought I’d tap the collective wisdom to get some recommendations for her. Capitulating to popular demand, I thought I would share people’s recommendations with all of you.

Note that while I didn’t specify platform, Judy is an iOS gal, so I’ve listed things with an “iOS > Mac > Other” bias. Still, many of these are available on other platforms. Use your least unfavorite search engine, or check the developers’ sites, for different versions.

For starters, a lot of people recommended games by PopCap. These guys are the kings of casual gaming for a reason, and have published games on platforms I’ve never even heard of. Here are their iOS offerings:

Someone recommended anything by Llamasoft. I would have said anything by ngmoco:), yet they were conspicuously absent from people’s recommendations. Why is that?

Other games people recommended are:

In addition, people recommended some games not available for iOS:

Thank you to everyone who gave a recommendation!

Whence Ocelot?

By Mike / On / In Technology

Out of nowhere, Apple announces OSX 10.8 Mountain Lion, and I must say, right off the bat, that I am disappointed.

No, the feature list is fine. It’s the name that disappoints me. I get that there’s a new pattern with iPhone 3G giving way to iPhone 3GS, and Leopard giving way to Snow Leopard. But Mountain Lion?

Right off the bat, there’s a problem with that name, as “Mountain Lion” (10.8), “Panther” (10.3), and “Puma” (10.1) all refer to the same cat: the common cougar, Puma concolor. It’s bad enough that 3 of the now 9 “big cats” are the same cat, but cougars are not even big cats!

Oh, they’re large, certainly, but the distinction is not actually made based on size, but on laryngeal physiology. The big cats, all members of genus Panthera, roar*. Small cats meow. Mountain Lions are actually the largest of the small cats—a group that notably also includes the oddball Cheetah (10.0).

Of course, if you actually research this, you will find that definition is far from universal. Many people just go by size. It turns out cat taxonomy is a surprisingly messy field. In fact, that whole Linnean classification system you learned in school has been turned on its ear by molecular genetics. But I digress.

I might as well just admit that, back in 10.5 days, I called “Ocelot” as the name for 10.8. That’s a long time to let a bowl of Claim Chowder sit before having to sup on one’s predictions.

*Snow Leopards being the exception. They are large cats and have the physiology to roar, but are apparently too polite to actually do so.