Ouya’s game-funding controversy may deter developers

Video game company Ouya had a very idealistic plan with its program to help finance independent game developers using its console. But it only took a month for important questions to be raised.

The Ouya, a game console built on the Android operating system, was funded through a Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $8.6 million. The consoles were released for sale to the general public in June, at a price of $99.

The console includes the tools one needs to develop a game of his or her own on the Ouya. With this open source development, anyone can make a game.

To encourage game development, Ouya launched the Free the Games Fund in July. Under its provisions, Ouya will match the pledges of anyone who successfully gets a game project with a minimum funding goal of $50,000 funded on Kickstarter, as long as the game remains exclusive to the Ouya console for six months following its release. After that, the developer is free to take the game to other platforms.

Ouya will match funds up to $250,000. The fund ends after Ouya has contributed $1 million total. Participating project creators had to start their campaigns on or after August 9, and the campaigns must end by August 10, 2014.

Since the contest began, two games have come under scrutiny for allegedly trying to game the system.

Gridiron Thunder by MogoTXT and Elementary, My Dear Holmes! By Victory Square Games face allegations that the game developers “pledged” money to themselves to raise more funds for Ouya to match.

A Kickstarter representative investigated Gridiron Thunder’s campaign and found nothing objectionable, but Elementary’s Kickstarter page has been suspended.

Gridiron Thunder may receive a matching contribution from Ouya, but Elementary, My Dear Holmes! has had its campaign suspended by Kickstarter. Images from Ouya.
“Gridiron Thunder” may receive a matching contribution from Ouya, but “Elementary, My Dear Holmes!” has had its campaign suspended by Kickstarter. Images from Ouya.

Ouya CEO Julie Uhrman released a statement through the company’s blog Tuesday in response to the controversy, but her statement did not address the games directly, saying only that the intention of the program “seems to have been lost.”

The rest of Uhrman’s statement reiterated the purpose of the contest and the company’s goals of opening game design to anyone who wants to develop a great game.

The Ouya community was appropriately upset. Developers commenting on Uhrman’s blog post said they would not be releasing their games on Ouya, and they believed others would do the same if Ouya followed through on matching MogoTXT’s Kickstarter funds.

Other commenters said even if Gridiron Thunder were funded legitimately, the situation highlighted the contest’s potential for abuse. The contest’s terms of service allow Ouya to disqualify, at its sole discretion, entrants who tamper with the entry process, but the controversy could still keep developers away from the platform.

The question-dodging feel of Uhrman’s blog response won’t be winning over many developers either, though Ouya will likely make further statements as the situation progresses, and those statements may be more substantive.

Uhrman said of the controversy, “I wouldn’t do it differently. We’re not going to let bad apples ruin the whole bunch.”

That’s a fair point. Many developers will practice good faith when getting their campaigns financed.

However, the potential damage to Ouya’s company image might not be worth the benefits of holding the contest. If enough abuse comes to light, Ouya could get a reputation of being unstable. For a brand new platform, attracting developers is crucial.

I love the idea that anyone can develop a game using this console and admire Ouya for wanting to accept the risks of open source development. But unfortunately, not everything can work on an honor system, so restrictions might be necessary to keep developers confident in Ouya’s goals.

Around the Blogs: Smartwatches yield mixed responses while Apple remains silent

Samsung and a crowdfunded company are going to release a new mobile device before Apple. Two years ago, I would have laughed at the notion, but here we are.

The Pebble smartwatch, which raised more than $10 million through a Kickstarter campaign in 2012, was released in Best Buy stores and on Pebble’s website on July 7 at a price of $150.

The Kickstarter-funded Pebble smartwatch is currently available. Image from Pebble.
The Kickstarter-funded Pebble smartwatch is currently available. Image from Pebble.

The second modern smartwatch, Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, will be released in 140 countries on September 25 and in the US and Japan in October. The watch will retail for $300, with bundles available for the Galaxy Gear and Samsung Note 3.

For those unfamiliar, smartwatches are digital wristwatches that connect to smartphones. Wearers can use the watches to take pictures, make and receive calls and send messages through text, Facebook, Twitter and email, as well as operating other apps.

In short, smartwatches work as supplements to smartphones. For a more detailed explanation of their functions, see this rundown of the Galaxy Gear from Gizmodo.

In addition to information about smartwatches, Gizmodo recently published two vastly different opinion pieces on the subject.

Eric Limer said a smartwatch will allow him to see his notifications with greater immediacy and will be convenient in situations where his phone is less accessible. In the comments section of his article, Limer pointed out that because he works on the Internet, he sometimes receives notifications that are urgent, so the quickness of a smartwatch has even greater value.

Jesus Diaz, on the other hand, contended that smartwatches are ugly and lack clear purposes. Further, Diaz criticized technology companies for pushing a product that was never in demand.

“After the commoditization of phones and tablets, companies are desperate to find the next big thing,” Diaz said.

Stuart Dredge of The Guardian technology blog had similar concerns, wondering, “How much of the excitement about smartwatches is due to the desire within the technology industry (yes, including journalists) for a new category-shaking range of devices, rather than actual demand from buyers or a strong sense of why these smartwatches would be useful?”

Samsung will release its Galaxy Gear smartwatch in the US and Japan in October. Image from Samsung.
Samsung will release its Galaxy Gear smartwatch in the US and Japan in October. Image from Samsung.

In any case, Dredge saw some genuine interest in smartwatches, noting that Apple trademarked the name “iWatch” in Japan in June, and Google bought smartwatch company Wimm Labs in 2012.

Apple is of particular interest, as it has been the greatest influence on the mobile market in the last decade, so it seems odd that Apple is being beaten to the punch by Pebble and Samsung.

On a similar note, Wired Business blogger Marcus Wohlsen wrote that Apple’s image as an innovator has become a liability rather than asset. People expect new, breakthrough products from Apple, and when Apple fails to deliver, people are exceptionally disappointed.

Wohlsen mentioned that Apple’s recent unveiling of its new iPhone 5 models, the 5C and 5S, was met with apathy from investors, causing its share price to decrease.

“After the presentation came to a close at the strains of Elvis Costello—no iWatch or new Apple TV in sight—the company’s share price began to trickle lower,” Wohlsen said.

It is possible Apple is coasting on its reputation. I have been an Apple fan for several years, but I’ve been more impressed by what I’ve seen from Android platforms in recent years, while Apple’s upgrades have felt like more of the same.

However, it is also possible that Apple is letting its competitors test a questionable market before it puts time and resources into developing a new product for it.

I don’t want to make a judgment on smartwatches before most of them even come out, but the concept does not strike me as one that will have much appeal beyond the community of technology enthusiasts. Wider audiences may be harder to convince that they need phone companions on their wrists.

While I can see how smartwatches may be helpful (if only marginally) or, at least, fun in a novel way, their functionality is not even close to being worth their price points. For almost the cost of my phone, I want a device to do more than tell me to check my phone.

If most smartphone users are like me, then Apple might have dodged a bullet by being late to the party. Apple’s other innovations fulfilled real wants consumers had. There were markets for high-capacity mp3 players, phones that work like computers and tablets that could replace laptops.

Is there such a market for a tiny computer in a watch?

Comedy Central adopts growing trend with DRM-free stand-up

Continuing some themes from last week’s post on digital comic sales, another personal interest of mine recently saw a new DRM-free business model: comedy. In July, Comedy Central unveiled CC: Stand-Up Direct, a website on which it sells stand-up comedy specials for buyers to stream online or download.

The videos are $5 each and can be streamed and downloaded as many times as users want on computers, tablets, smartphones and video game consoles. Currently, 24 specials are available from such comedians as Demetri Martin, Kristen Schaal, Hannibal Buress, Paul F. Tompkins, Eugene Mirman, Bo Burnham, and more.

Hannibal Buress and Paul F. Tompkins are among the comedians featured on CC: Stand-Up Direct
Hannibal Buress’s “Animal Furnace” and Paul F. Tompkins’s “Laboring Under Delusions” are among the specials featured on CC: Stand-Up Direct.

DRM-free streams and downloads have become more popular among comedians in the last two years, after Louis C.K. made over $1 million in 12 days selling his 2011 special Live at the Beacon Theater directly through his website.

While the comedians do not get all the money from sales of the specials (Comedy Central takes a portion), the marketing capabilities of the network could be a worthwhile trade-off. As the AV Club pointed out, not every comedian has the exposure and funds to sell his or her specials independently. Partnering with Comedy Central would allow less famous comedians to reach wider audiences.

Erik Flannigan, EVP of multiplatform strategy and development for Comedy Central parent Viacom Entertainment Group, echoed this sentiment, saying, “As awesome as a direct-to-consumer transaction is for comedians, it also puts the entire marketing burden on them. The one piece of the equation that we can bring the loudest is the marketing. We can tie the exhibition of the special on-air to the transaction on this platform, using the television window to promote what you will put on CC Direct. Of course, we’re still counting on every comedian to activate their [sic] fanbase and tell them that their special is available.”

Louis C.K. grossed over $1 million in 12 days with direct sales of his special, "Live at the Beacon Theater."
Louis C.K. grossed over $1 million in 12 days with direct sales of his special, “Live at the Beacon Theater.”

Flannigan’s last point is crucial; Comedy Central’s TV promotion, as well as its active YouTube channel, can create strong hype for a comedy special. If viewers see a special they like on TV, or clips from the show online, they can own it before the TV hour even ends.

Of course, people could always record the specials, but CC: Stand-Up Direct has a few important advantages over DVR. First, its specials are not cut for time. For one-hour specials, most comedians record about one hour worth of material, but their specials are often aired in hour-long blocks including commercials, which brings the runtime of the comedy itself down to 40-45 minutes.

Second, the streams and downloads are portable. This might not be a big draw for some people (I’ve never watched a whole hour of television on a tablet), but others may like the convenience of being able to access the videos anywhere.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, the specials sold online are uncensored. This point might have the greatest appeal for comedy fans. While virtually any good comedy hour is still funny when bleep-filled, the uncensored versions are the way the comedians conceived the specials, and they generally flow better and do not feel disrupted.

Plus, with more and more people declining to subscribe to cable, streams and downloads may be their only legal option to watch these specials.

However, the extent to which comedians will benefit remains to be seen. Comedy Central has not disclosed the amount the comedians receive from each sale. If those royalties are too small, then comedians might be better off selling downloads on their own or pursuing other options.

Another uncertainty is how much the service will help up-and-coming comedians. So far, the comedians featured on the site seem to be at least fairly well known. I’m not extremely well versed in stand-up, and I’ve heard of nearly all of them and seen material from a little more than half. I wonder if Comedy Central featured established comedians to garner interest in the site at launch, or if fame will be a barrier of entry to CC: Stand-Up Direct.

Despite these concerns, Comedy Central has made a platform that fans will find interesting. I’m certainly willing to pay $5 for a full-length, profanity-laced version of a comedy show I can watch at my every whim.

Blogroll: Recommended Blogs

I read other blogs, as any blogger should. Here is a list of some blogs I follow and would recommend to others interested in branding, social media, new Internet business, and developments in digital mass media. These blogs are all current and are updated at least somewhat frequently.

Douglas Rushkoff: Media theorist, author, and CNN writer Douglas Rushkoff analyzes current events and issues related to digital media and news.

Gizmodo: Gawker Media’s technology blog includes coverage of popular digital media platforms, especially mobile devices.

Kickstarter Blog: The official blog of Kickstarter posts news updates about the site and its success stories and responds to controversies surrounding its projects and creators.

Nieman Journalism Lab: As part of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, this blog covers the latest stories and issues in online journalism and blogging.

PBS MediaShift: PBS bloggers explore the current and developing landscape of digital media, with particular attention to journalism, publishing and education.

Spin Sucks: Gini Dietrich, founder and CEO of Chicago-based IMC firm Arment Dietrich, discusses trends in strategic communications and gives advice on brand development. Her posts frequently involve social media.

Spinnakr Blog: Internet advertising company Spinnakr operates a blog about digital marketing with a focus on data.

The Buzz Bin: A variety of writers analyze current advertising, PR, and marketing communications, from campaigns to crisis communication.

The Future Buzz: Adam Singer of Google Analytics writes about PR in the social media world and monetizing new media platforms.

Wired Business: Bloggers from Wired magazine discuss the hits and misses of technology-oriented business, covering major players in online commerce and up-and-coming companies.

Digital Comic Sales: Competing Views on Convenience and Ownership

When I have some time away from coursework, graduate assistant work, or thesis work, one of my favorite things to do is read comics. Not only do I love the comics medium, but I also enjoy reading about new developments and issues in the comics industry.

One important development in comics today is digital comic sales. ComiXology, the leading seller of digital comics, was the third highest-grossing app for the iPad in 2012. Image Comics, publisher of bestselling series The Walking Dead and Saga, reported 12 percent of its overall revenue in 2012 came from digital sales. The company expects a 3 percent increase in 2013 (chart from Wired, data courtesy of Image Comics).

imagecharts

At its annual Image Expo in July 2013, Image announced it would begin selling all its comics via its website in PDF, CBR, CBZ, and EPUB formats in addition to its print comics. Buyers can download these comics directly to their hard drives free of any digital rights management (DRM) restrictions. While DRM restrictions can help protect a company from online piracy, they may inhibit users’ experience.

In an interview with Wired, Image publisher Eric Stephenson made a case for removing DRM restrictions as a piracy prevention measure. “My stance on piracy is that piracy is bad for bad entertainment,” Stephenson said. “There’s a pretty strong correlation with things that suck not being greatly pirated, while things that are successful have a higher piracy rate. If you put out a good comic book, even if somebody does download it illegally, if they enjoy it then the likelihood of them purchasing the book is pretty high. Obviously we don’t want everybody giving a copy to a hundred friends, but this argument has been around since home taping was supposedly killing music back in the ’70s, and that didn’t happen. And I don’t think it’s happening now.”

ComiXology’s business model is more akin to buying a subscription to content on a website. On comiXology, users create an account with the site and pay for the comics they want to read. They can access these comics on any device by using a web browser or the free ComiXology mobile app. The requirement of reading the comics in-app is a form of DRM.

In a panel at this year’s Comic-Con International called “Digital and Print: Friends or Foes?” ComiXology co-founder and CTO John D. Roberts defended the company’s business model by asserting the benefits of the company’s cloud storage system outweighed customers’ disdain for DRM.

“I have always thought that people may not like DRM, but if you gave them a really convenient product, that kind of outweighed what DRM was. In our cloud-based system, you can download a comic right here, but if you have a PDF file sitting on your computer, you then have to get into iTunes, you have to copy it to your device — it’s not exactly the most user friendly experience…,” Roberts said.

Roberts makes a very compelling point. I strongly prefer print over digital for my comic reading, but at the times I have bought digital comics, I used ComiXology. I found it much more convenient to download an iPad app than copy a PDF and, more importantly, cloud storage keeps me from filling up more hard drive space on my laptop and tablet. Space is a hot commodity, and in the age where more and more media are sold digitally, the ability to spare some room is always welcome.

However, DRM restrictions are the major reason I could not fully embrace digital over print (other than just having a preference for reading print, of course). In the ComiXology model, I do not own the comics. With direct downloads, I do. I would always have reservations about paying the same price (or only saving a little) for a ComiXology purchase as a print edition or download of which I have full ownership.

Particularly disconcerting is the idea that if ComiXology went under, users’ access to their purchases might go down with the ship. This very thing happened this past spring to users of JManga, a site for buying Japanese comics with a similar model to ComiXology. The site shut down in May 2013, so users could no longer read the comics they had bought. While the likelihood of ComiXology suffering the same fate is extremely slight, because of the company’s success at the forefront of digital comic sales, the possibility of losing content I have paid for makes it a tough sell.

A growing number of creators, including influential writer Warren Ellis, seems to support the viability of DRM-free downloads. Ellis, along with artist Jason Howard, launched Image’s new online store with their webcomic “Scatterlands.” A high-profile creator willing to release material exclusively through the site from day one is quite an endorsement.

Scatterlands-1

ComiXology can be a great place to find new comics. It is very easy to use and accessible to people new to comics, as well as those new to digital platforms. It features sales every week on a wide variety of comics that give readers a low barrier of entry to discovering new stories. Issues never go out of print online, and there are stories I probably never would have read if they were not on ComiXology, as their collected editions are expensive or hard to find. But for digital sales to further grow in the long run, customers may need more protection for their purchases.

Introduction: Strategic Communications in Today’s Media Landscape

As you can tell from my blog title, my name is Kevin Duvall. I am working on a Master’s in Journalism at West Virginia University, focusing on strategic communications. I also work as a graduate assistant at the P.I. Reed School of Journalism, where I help sharpen young minds, or at least grade their papers. I’m a West Virginia native from the Charleston area and, at 26, I’m the old man of my graduate cohort.

The purpose of this blog is to examine the ongoing development of new business practices that utilize social media. In any market today, social media are instrumental in both selling products and services in the short run and strengthening one’s brand in the long run.

Social networking sites and user-generated online content have become widely used and popular enough that they are no longer merely a novelty or entertainment form; they are a significant part of daily communication for millions worldwide. The impact social media have had on brands is substantial; clever, innovative social media campaigns can bring new fans, while more conventional use, especially using social media pages as company news feeds, can make a brand seem behind in the times.

These ideas cover a broad spectrum of topics, but in particular, I will focus on three things:

1) How companies use social media to reach out to their audiences: most, if not all companies, big or small, need two-way communication to attract customers. New communication tools can work swimmingly for building a brand, but they can be difficult. Social media make it easier for audiences to connect with companies, but those connections are not always favorable for the image the company wants to promote. Companies must find a balance between letting people do what they want and maintaining some degree of control over the content of messages

In early 2013, CNN Money highlighted nine “Social Media Superstars” that used social media most effectively in communicating with customers. While these companies used a variety of social networking sites and campaign tactics, all of them encouraged participation from audiences and communicated directly with participants. The brands that best use social media are those that do not use social networking sites to simply send information to the masses, but to actively engage their customers. Those are the ones I want to cover.

2) How people use new media to create new business models: in the current media world of two-way communication, there is a more direct link between producer and consumer than in any traditional form of mass production. In recent years, people have come up with fascinating new ways to fund and sell their projects without the need of an intermediary, such as a publisher. This increased ability for “grassroots” production has allowed some great ideas to come to fruition, while challenging longstanding ideas about what was needed to market.

Concepts like crowdfunding and pay-what-you-want digital sales have expanded in recent years, and they will likely continue to grow. With the growth of new business models, however, comes new issues. Are these business models sustainable? Can they grow beyond relatively small initiatives? Should they? I always look forward to reading about the people and companies that cause debate for these questions.

3) What companies’ social media use and new business models mean for mass communications as a whole: in less than a decade, social media have had a profound impact on traditional media. Two years after Facebook launched, “You” were the TIME Magazine Person of the Year. Twitter has been the premier breaking news feed for so long that people are not surprised by that notion anymore. What do these ideas say about audience behavior? Do people really want to engage with brands, or do they want brands out of the picture as much as possible? Will they pay what they want when they do not have to pay at all? Can markets survive if the answers to these questions are negative?

After graduation, my goal is to work for an advertising, PR or IMC firm, or a company strategic communications department (if some of my professors cannot convince me to go further into academia). By exploring the issues I’ve discussed in this post, I will be up-to-date with the latest developments in the influence of social media on branding and able to analyze these developments with proper depth. I’m excited to learn about all the new ways creators use the Internet to realize their goals, and to apply the knowledge and enthusiasm I gain to my own creative endeavors.