Leadership: Thinking vs Keyboard time

I think this is equally important to all employees at all levels.. especially these days. 

As you rise, your work is more strategic (thinking) and less functional (keyboarding)

Leadership tip

Its trying to evaluate how much time you are spending on Keyboard vs Thinking (useful also for your career growth).

1. Create Time to think — not just go meeting to meeting and think that is what work is about. (Pre-think the decisions where relevant). 
2. Start with a 2 hour block once a week where you sit without distractions. Ideally no phone/iPad and don’t think of work/daily life. 
3. Over time try to make this one 4 hour continuous block (if you can)
4. Reading is a good way to start your “Deep thinking” time (and then remember to set it aside after 10-15 minutes when you have shuffled off the other distracting thoughts)

A crude measure of your growth is that over time your ratio of time spent on Keyboard vs Thinking should change as your grow in a company (ie: you are becoming more strategically involved rather than just operationally & functionally delivering).

ie: Thinking output is increasing in important vs Keyboard output

Japan: Travel advice and tips

A lot of you have asked for this – so I made it publicly available (credit to Alka Varma for her tips)

Start with Tokyo 
(Narita Airport Landing. Caution – Narita Airport, though serves Tokyo, is almost 2 hours away despite excellent train lines. Do not take a cab – it’s quite expensive. Trains are very well-organized)

You might also land into Haneda airport (which is closer, and buses operate into the city hotels)

Tokyo is a very fast-moving and crowded city. It has all the modern flavours of a typical western capital. But in midst of all the modernity is eclipsed the real and traditional Japan which most foreigners would love to see.

So all tourists begin with a sightseeing tour of Tokyo. As Tokyo has been a cultural, political and economic centre of Japan since 1603, it has some places of interest. Though Tokyo has been destroyed many times by fire, earthquake and bombing , it has risen from its ashes.Must see places in Tokyo are:The Nijubashi Bridge

  • Meiji Shrine
  • Shinobazu Pond In Ueno area, the most interesting is the traditional entertainment area Asakusa. This has been the Japanese amusement area in Tokyo for centuries. There is also a temple here.

Apart from seeing the old Japan , Tokyo has one of the its most bustling , colourful and lively area called Shinjuku. It has  the worlds busiest pedestrian crossing almost from eight sides (which is often highlighted in broadcast media). Its metro stations are so crowded during peak hours that professional pushers are employed to gently elbow the people in. You see Japanese life in all its shades and forms here.

Phase 2 of the trip to the Kansai area 
South of Tokyo, about 500 kms, 3-4 hrs by Bullet train – Shinkansen.
Major cities are OsakaKyotoNara and Kobe

It’s important to go to Nara.

For 1000 yrs, Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan. As it was not bombed during the second world war, the whole ancient city has been well-preserved.

  • Higashi Honganji 
  • Kinkakuji 
  • Sanjusan gendo,
  • Cherry blossoms in April at Heinan Shrine and beautiful maple trees seen all over the city during the fall season (The cherry blossoms might work well with the timing of your trip. Its quite a sight that Japanese people yearn for themselves)

Kyoto: So many traditional Japanese gardens which make the city cheerful and relaxed. The Japanese gardens are basically two types:  

  • Daisen-in
  • And the very famous rock and sand garden at 

Moving on to This is the one place a lot of people miss out. Must go. 

  • Kofukuji
  • Yakushiji
  • Toshodai-ji
  • Kasuga

Some of them have paintings and sculptures which have been declared national treasures. The citys mascot is deer and no wonder you find deers crossing in front of your cars. They come trailing behind you in the Nara Park often looking for some food. They are docile and friendly.

  • While in Japan one must see the ancient performing arts like 
  • Also while in Kyoto must take part in a tea ceremony called Chanoyu. It is meant for relaxing the mind and to appreciate the natural beauty around while sitting in midst of a garden.
  • Awaji Bridge is another thing you can add-on if you have time. Its a feat of engineering – but might not interest everyone.

You should be able to fly out of Osaka (Kansai) airport. It’s connected to most of the worlds large airports.

Hope you enjoy your trip. This note is more of a guidance of things to incorporate – you might however find that your Japanese travels open up to new places that you would like to share back with us too. Enjoy

Credit to Alka Varma

Changing scene of Ecommerce in the UK – December 2009

As you know we are quite eagerly focused on Ecommerce especially in this market environment since its essentially equivalent to adding a sales team online without the real estate and personnel costs.

I recently attended a very good summit on Ecommerce (Hosted by Bryan Garnier) at the Dorchester Hotel in Mayfair London (with a Bugatti Veyron out front – see my Flickr). The conference was attended by some of the leading ecommerce companies in Europe as part of the panel:

  • SeatWave (CEO, Joe Cohen): They are a fan-to-fan ticket exchange (secondary market for tickets for events, concerts, sports)
  • Wonga(CEO, Errol Damelin): It allows consumers to get short term cash loans
  • ZooPlus(CEO, Cornelius Patt): German ecommerce dedicated for Pets accessories and stuff
  • Google was also there to talk about Analytics and ecommerce side of things from their perspective. (Head of ecommerce partnerships, Adrian Blair)

The audience had many of the leading VCs.

Here are some of our notes.

  • For Ecommerce, Search Marketing is ABSOLUTELY Crucial.
    • It is something you HAVE to get right – there is no margin that SEO or PPC not working for ecommerce companies.
    • Most common business model in ecommerce is that you bring in the user from PPC for the right word, and ensure that you can convert that “lead” into a sale and the PPC than becomes Cost of Customer Acquisition
  • An interesting metric to measure your success as a brand is called:  Net Promoter RankIts basically a measure of how many people would recommend / promote your service to their friends
    • For companies that are selling online, this becomes a big metric
  • When buying for PPC ads – do consider the Long Tail effect, that cheaper words at the end of the tail might be more fruitful. The Google guy suggested that upto 20% of searches on google daily have never been done before (strange stat?)
  • Web is becoming real-time. The Marketing on the web has to become real time too
    • For a company that is dependent on social trends, they have to adapt their marketing rather fast to these changes
    • eg: Seatwave saw that a documentary on Rod Stewart on ITV sent the internet searches related to their concerts soaring. They quickly started buying more keywords (PPC) in that area and brought in additional revenue on the back of that ITV documentary. Real time, flexible, nimble.
  • The CEO of Wonga (Errol Damelin) made a statement: You can pretty much buy everything online now. So the real challenge for ecommerce companies is now differentiation and price comparison
  • Google commented that Google Analytics has really helped observe the user behaviour on the site and how to improve the Conversions of Visitors to Buyers (the others all agreed that Google Analytics has been a game changer)
  • The User Experience and adaptation to the International aspects was also discussed as a great example of how to maximize revenues. What works in the US does not work in Europe (and we know that by looking at the designs of US sites vs. European sites)
  • Fulfillment use to be the biggest struggle – but now isnt even issue for all ecommerce companies. Some of them are selling digital products, so there is instant online fulfillment like e-tickets, vouchers or even cash (eg: Wonga).

So in a nutshell, I think there is a lot of scope for Ecommerce to grow. One of the comments in the summit that really stuck with me, was that the internet industry is still very young (at most 15 years old) – and if you compare that to the automotive or aircraft industry – you realise… that the web is just about becoming a teenager.. with skin acne, some hormonal rushes… and lot more need to grow and mature!

Written in Dec 2009

Core elements of Game Design (from Ernest Adams, NASSCOM 7th November 2009)

I attended the NASSCOM Summit in this past week (November 6th & 7th) on Gaming and Animation as part of my trip arranged by the British Council for UK’s Young Interactive Entrepreneur 2009 program. The conference was a good gathering of the who’s who in the gaming and animation sector in India and also brought about some interesting dialogues through the various forums and panels.

The key note speaker on Day 2 was Ernest Adams who is a well known authority on game design, author, co-founder of the International Game Developers Association, and a regular lecturer at the Game Developers Conference. Ernest has been a lead designer at Bullfrog Productions, and the audio/video producer on the Madden NFL product line.

He has developed games for the IBM 360 mainframe, the Playstation 2, and many other platforms. He is a member of the International Hobo game design and narrative consultancy. Adams’ is the author of “Break Into The Game Industry: How to Get A Job Making Video Games”. He also wrote two books with Andrew Rollings. Their 1st was “Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design”. They followed it with “Fundamentals of Game Design”, part of the “Game Design and Development Series” in 2006.

Summarized below are some of the points from his keynote presentation. While I disclaim that this is an effort to capture all his key points, I hope its a useful summary of his speech (His lectures can be found here)

Ernest started with a very simple but important topic: How does a game entertain its players?
He went on to list some of elements that help create that entertainment value. These might not all apply to all games, but its easy to see that most successful games have covered several of these bases.
▪    Game Play remains the most important aspect. Content is king.
▪    Story is equally paramount to get the user to be entrenched in the game
▪    Exploration adds the required challenge and curiosity
▪    Progression: Hardness, new avatars
▪    Risk & Reward: Again fundamental to user experience
▪    Novelty
▪    Learning
▪    Creativity
▪    Role Playing
▪    Socializing: This is becoming a bigger factor in recent years with the growth of social gaming platform whether on social networks or otherwise with increased connectivity.

One of the issues that Ernest reasoned is important in the growth of the gaming industry is to be able to start creating long games (those that are beyond 12-15 hours). So it raised the obvious question of how to make games longer?
▪    Themes & Variations
▪    New Challenges & Complexities
▪    Progression: Difficulty should increase steadily, not spikily. Character upgrades – Power Up, New moves
▪    Good Pacing: Periods of high activity, low activity
▪    Change Setting
▪    Player Achievements changes story plot (adaptive games)

One fundamental issue that Ernest highlighted was that the very core DNA of short games is different than long games. You cannot just extend a short game to make it a successful long game. And the rationale is in the purpose with which each of these type of games are made: Short games vs Long Games
▪    Short games are intended to be played repeatedly, but yet should be different at every start (i.e.: shuffle a deck of cards)
▪    Long games are once through and never back. Should be realistic goal – but yet challenging.

So what is so unique about Long Games. What makes them its own special class of games?
▪    Long games are a means of escaping reality – bring a dream to live
▪    Reward the investment of time from the player. Let them live something they cant do in live (e.g.: own a farm, own a team, be a F1 racer)
▪    Take care of your players – User Interface and usability is key
▪    Usual budgets of about 5-10mm (EA, Ubisoft, Namco)

Player-Centric Game Design: Actions and game play arise out of the players choices

Animation is also something that game designers have to be extra cautious, especially in this increasingly competitive environment.
Expect users to try to do weird things. Smooth transitions are your saviour.
e.g.: what happens when a character is jumping, and a user presses Crouch. Be ready for that

In Story Telling, animation is controlled. However in gaming, animation has to be ready to adapt to changing demands of the users.
Animation data is stored on the objects, not on the game. Each object has its own dynamics, behaviour, procedural animations.
This has led to the following features in the development cycle:
▪    Inverse Kinematics – Produces graphics on the go (i.e.: the characters shouldn’t have their feet sink into the floor as they walk up the stairs)
▪    Ragdoll Physics – Falling and Gravity
▪    True Locomotion – Speed of character moving should match the speed at which their legs are moving (i.e.: the Skating effect is unwanted)
(Games now create character animations on the go. However there are often pre-rendered motion graphics).

There are only two film companies that have made it in the game area, Lucas Arts and Disney. And this has been because they understand software engineering and not just creative and animation.

Ernest also talked about major challenge for the Gaming industry is: “How do you go from Outsourcing to IP development?”
▪    Design a brand
▪    Begin with characters – create a character that is a strong symbol of the game (i.e.: Lara Croft)
▪    Requires more dedication as a Game Publisher than a Game Service Provider
▪    Everything matters, anything can make it fail
▪    Skilled game producers – if you don’t have them, get them from somewhere (internationally)
▪    Testing, tuning and polishing – spend 50% of time on this. The difference between a good game and a bad game – is the amount of QA and refinement
▪    If development is N days. Then testing & polishing is 2N day.
▪    Don’t promise what you cant do: Don’t hurt your reputation if you cant do. Honesty wins
▪    Know your audience tastes. Understand local styles of entertainment – what works in India is because India works that way. You cant just bring in western thinking and implement. e.g.: German games don’t have blood. British sense of humour is different than American.
▪    Don’t hire just gamers, hire game developers (its a different thing)
▪    Don’t copy – improve
▪    New features alone are not improvement. Do things better, faster, richly, cleaner. Fix the issues – don’t just add things.
▪    If you cant do a thing well – then don’t do it all. A smaller beautifully built and polished game is better than an average longer game

How do you transition into a Game Publisher in a couple years (i.e.: 5 years rather than 30 years):
▪    Education towards Game Development: Education provides a place where students can make risk free mistakes and grow.
(See Ernest Adams 10 Game Development Commandments)

▪    Professional game development training: There are experts and freelancers to teach large scale asset management, SCRUM management, division of tasks

Ernest concluded that the promise of India is still very much there and infact its threefold:
I.    Talent: This is a country with a lot of very talented people: arts, engineering, design, language and education. And it helps that India is an English speaking country
II.    Markets: Don’t just aim at the US & EU are target markets. There are sufficient pockets in your own country. The top 25% of Indian population is larger than the entire US. The early market movers are ready to take advantage. Make games for your own market.
III.    Culture: Don’t overlook your own culture. India invented Chess, Snakes & Ladders, Pachisi… game is part of the Indian culture.

The core issue right now is that game design industry needs experience – but that will come with training and time. Till then its prudent that they the steps to help foster the culture of game design by looking inwards as well as outwards and attract talent where required.

Game companies are mostly making games based on North American stories (i.e.: Tolkien) and a bit from Japan (medieval & shogun). The rest of the world’s stories never make their way into game. What happened to Mahabharat, Ramayana… the opportunity beckons…

P.S.: Of the all the questions he got at the end of the speech, probably the most interesting one was about some of his all time favourite games. To which he replied: “Tetris. Its absolutely perfect. Its simple. If you make any changes to it – you will make it worse”