Picking apart the hype of new and classic video games.


A New “Day”

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While news organizations contract and struggle to monetize their Web-based coverage, Cambridge Day editor Marc Levy has begun an online experiment he believes will preserve local news in his community.

At 34 years old, Levy worked in the New England media for 15 years and watched from an executive editing position at the Journal Register Company in central Connecticut as executives sold off paper after paper in the mid 2000’s, hoping the sales would keep the company afloat until readers returned to the traditional print format.

Those readers never came back, but the loss in circulation to local bloggers was an inspiration for Levy to try something new.

There had been a lot of talk at the time about hyperlocal news coverage, covering the stories in your neighborhood and telling your neighbors what had happened,” Levy recalled. “I decided that if that’s where all the news was going, I wanted to understand it and be a part of it.”

Levy turned to the neighborhoods surrounding his longtime home in Cambridge, a city he believed deserved continuous independent coverage that other blogs and traditional news outlets had failed to provide. Following a short stint in 2005 as a printed monthly paper, Levy turned the Day into an online presence to cut costs and quickly pass information to his growing readership.

Levy has carved a niche for himself in Cambridge, most notably with parents who circulate his continuous coverage of Cambridge School Committee meetings through email lists the night they hit the Web.

Because it only takes a single parent to begin a long chain of emails, Levy said he no longer struggles to find his audience; his audience now comes to him.

Because I’m online, my readers do all the promotion work for me,” Levy said.

Despite his site’s growing popularity, Levy maintains a fulltime job and sees his work at the Day as more of a learning experience as he gets a handle on what Web-based readers want to see most.

Boston-based blogger and media critic Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub has followed Levy’s site develop and notes that the Cambridge Day’s recent partnership with Watchdog New England, a Northeastern University-based investigative reporting project, reflects a shift a larger trend in which bloggers shy away from news aggregation and instead provide coverage of a caliber previously reserved for traditional newsrooms.

Author’s note: I have worked with Watchdog New England at the Dorchester Reporter, though not at the Cambridge Day.

This is a relatively new phenomenon driven at least in part by the collapse of traditional media outlets,” Gaffin said. “For better or for worse, you have all these excellent reporters looking for work and some are going to turn to their own neighborhoods.”

The numbers back up Gaffin’s assertion. A recent Pew Research Center report says newsrooms have shrunk 30 percent in the past decade, swelling the ranks of potential citizen journalists.

Despite making some promising gains in his online readership, Levy is quick to point out that the Day is still a non-profit experiment. Despite taking a newspaper website format, stories are displayed chronologically, which he worries makes tracking down the most important news labor-intensive compared to more developed Web pages.

Levy is wary of running advertisements on the Day in what he considers its unfinished form, but Gaffin believes a future network of local bloggers could garner enough online readership to attract large advertisers that still rely on printed ads.

There are a number of folks like Marc trying to do very similar things,” Gaffin said. “There are issues [they cover] that go across neighborhood lines…if you have 20 to 30 blogs working together, you are now making a serious offer to potential advertisers.”

While there has been a growing effort to cover life in Boston and Cambridge through blogs, citizen journalists looking to make a profit from their work face new competition at the hyperlocal level through AOL’s Patch network, The Boston Globe’s Your Town sites and GateHouse Media New England’s Wicked Local websites, all of which have dedicated advertising departments, not to mention name recognition for potential advertisers.

GateHouse Media New England was one of the first local news companies to make the shift online, and with 18 weekly papers and hyperlocal sites in the metro Boston area, including the Cambridge Chronicle, the company has maintained a considerable online presence despite the growing number of independent blogs.

Greg Reibman, GateHouse Media New England vice president and Cambridge Chronicle publisher, said that while the Chronicle maintains a print presence, the paper operates as a “week in review” supplement to the daily updates provided online.

Despite this increasing reliance on the Web, Reibman said the presence of independent news bloggers is not a detriment to online circulation, but rather evidence that the paper covers a community willing to take part in an ongoing conversation about current events.

I don’t think [blog coverage] is a threat,” Reibman said. “All ships rise with the tide and if you are a talented blogger or Twitter person, we want you to join that conversation.”

For Levy, maintaining that conversation is one of the driving forces behind continuing his work at the Day. When asked what communities lost when local papers were forced to make cuts, Levy was quick to point to the arts and events sections that have fallen by the wayside, and sees the Day as an important way to ensure residents don’t find themselves bowling alone.

It used to be you wanted to know what was going on in your town, you would turn to the day’s paper,” Levy said. “We need to be online telling people what  is happening in their neighborhoods, get them out and involved in their communities again.”


One Single Life will make your commute even more stressful

The name says it all. In physics-based iPhone platformer One Single Life you have one life to make increasingly difficult jumps from building to building. Screw up and the app sits locked on your phone (until you delete and re-download the free game.)

So why design such a nail biter of a game? Lead designer Anthony O’Dempsey explains on his company website:

“The reason I was never truly afraid of that ‘perilous’ jump in an otherwise thrilling adventure game was that deep down, I knew the worst possible consequence was having to start the level over or be returned to the nearest checkpoint.

The rules of the game told me “Failure is just a speed bump” and sub-consciously I relaxed just a little.”

I can’t say I dislike where his head is at. You can practice jumps in a no-risk training mode, but the tension of  finally nailing a jump (and warned by a sign that says “x% of all players will die here) in the actual, lethal mode is a discouragingly rare feeling in a video game.

I’ve played with the idea of death/lives/checkpoints for a few weeks now, trying to come up with a less gamey way of handling mortality, and Escapist Columnist Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw ran a nice piece inspired by the no-deaths experience in Kirby’s Epic Yarn, but this all-or-nothing approach really has teeth I hope other development teams can recreate.

…As long as the game is free.

Inside the Christian Science Monitor

Earlier this month I was given a chance to sit in on an editorial board meeting of the Christian Science Monitor to get a feel for how a century-old paper handles the web.

                Or, to be more accurate, how a former paper handles the web.  Two years ago the format shifted from a daily print paper to an online presentation run alongside a weekend news magazine. Since then, editor John Yemma said the paper has seen a fivefold increase in web traffic as well as a rise in their (now cheaper) print subscription rates.

                The CSM began in 1908 through a fund provided by Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy as an international paper with a goal to not only highlight problems but track down possible solutions for the public. While the mission of the paper has not changed, the means through which the Monitor staff displays their stories certainly has.

I was extremely impressed with the amount of attention Yemma and his staff dedicated to the interactive component of their online paper. Throughout the budget meeting my class sat in on, the list of stories would often stop when a staffer inquired “how clickable is this story?”

                While many of these debates were resolved quickly, I did notice a few occasions where it seemed lists and slide shows may not have been the best way to present a story, but the need for click generation seemed to be the highest priority for many on staff. Granted, a look at the website on a given day seems to indicate that there is plenty of content floating around to keep the CSM’s audience busy.

                Even though the paper’s move online is only two years old, I have to admit that the staff seems to have a real handle on how to draw in readers and keep them coming back. Of particular interest to me was a brief talk we had on search engine optimization.

Although many online news sources are content to run short, searchable headlines, the CSM seems very well versed in presenting headlines that include every major keyword, but also add a healthy touch of context.

Have notebook, will travel: How does J-school support other majors?

Earlier this month I watched members of Northeastern University’s recently formed College of Arts, Media and Design present on some of the projects professors and students have put together in recent years.

The presentations were very interesting, but the overarching objective of the presentation was left largely unanswered: how do students from such a diverse set of skills contribute to the overall success of the CAMD program? Or, more to my point, how do journalism students contribute to these efforts?

I’ve dragged my feet writing this post largely because I’ve been playing with the idea in hopes of pulling out an interesting suggestion. So far I’ve come up with one idea that may make it up the chain and give the school of journalism a fighting chance at helping the less abstract CAMD fields:

Synergy! (for lack of a better word!) – The CAMD program has some really amazing projects going on, from massive abstract art exhibits across the country to training the next generation of video game designers. Unfortunately, I only learned about these projects by attending this seminar. Maybe j-school students can cobble together some sort of CAMD publication meant to shed light on interesting projects. Not only would it give some hard working students and professors some much-needed attention (and possibly funding,) but could foster future interdisciplinary collaborations.

Maybe the architecture students are struggling to understand how a visitor will experience a building they are working on. What’s to stop one of the level designing classes (having read an interview shedding light on some of the challenges faced by architecture students) from turning a first person shooter engine into a 3D into an architectural aid meant to simulate walking through a new project?

For that matter, this is an online news class. How about an entire class devoted to maintaining some sort of craigslist-style blog where students can request the help of other CAMD programs while J-schoolers cover beats throughout the college, tracking down interesting programs and asking not just what students are doing, but what they are struggling with due to a lack of resources or training.

I think the best way the school of journalism can prove to other programs that we are not only a relevant, but potentially helpful force in the CAMD program is to do what we do best: track down interesting information, make som sense out of what we learn and ensure that information gets to the audiences that can do something about it.

World Bank: Gold Farming Benefits Developing Nations

The research arm of the World Bank recently released a report indicating players forked over more than $3 billion in gray-market transactions in 2009.

Although practices like gold farming and power leveling, in which wealthy players pay others to either generate in-game currency or grind characters to build up their stats for real-world money, are almost universally frowned upon by the video game industry, the World Bank says these services can provide the foundation for a bustling online economy in nations with few economic prospects.

According to the report, gold farming businesses can in some cases be more beneficial than traditional agricultural trade because the majority of the money stays within the earning countries.

“The gross revenues of the third-party gaming services industry were approximately $3.0 billion in 2009, most of which was captured in the developing countries where these services were produced. In comparison, the global coffee market…was worth over $70 billion – but only $5.5 billion was captured by the developing countries that produced the coffee beans,” the report says.

Given the margins, it’s easy to understand why the practice has spread like wildfire through many developing nations where more traditional job opportunities have become scarce. According to a 2006 New York Times article, China accounts for about 35 percent of the farming business and was estimated to have over 100,000 people working 12-hour shifts at the time (and making up to $250 a month for their troubles.) The World Bank estimates that number has increased in the past five years.

Although farming was predominantly found in online role playing games like World of Warcraft, the recent social gaming boom has drawn farmers out to greener pastures like Farmville, the Facebook focused farm simulator/feed clogger. Last year Farmville developer Zynga leveled a suit against farming hub playerauctions.com claiming the website has been siphoning money away from Zynga-approved transactions by offering cheaper rates on in-game goods.

I’ve always believed the journey is greater than the level 60 destination when it comes to role playing games and that being pounded into the ground as a low-level player in COD Black Ops simply makes ranking up that much more of a reward. But at least the time-strapped, financially-solvent gamer, buying into the online gold economy seems to have a better net social impact that purchasing from any of these 10 major companies.

NewsTrust: Watching the Watchers

*Update – my NewsTrust member page can be found here.*

In the past week I spent some time evaluating articles on NewsTrust.net, a website meant to aid online news consumers in the quest for good journalism by posting and critiquing stories.

Overall, I like what I saw on NewsTrust and think that if the project can expand its membership beyond hardcore newsies, the site could be a definitive voice in online news coverage.

Like most crowdsourcing projects, NewsTrust relies on a large community to sift through information and pass judgment on articles and their authors before the information becomes irrelevant. Because these articles are so time-sensitive, a larger, more active group of reviewers could go a long way to ensure journalistic gems from smaller media outlets are not overlooked.

As it stands, the 20,000-plus reviewing community largely gravitates towards mainstream news like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, rather than smaller local publications where readers could most benefit from an uninvolved third party reviewer.

Additionally, people tend to review websites they agree with and often pass over reviewed articles from news sites they would not normally read, creating some minor bias issues since unpopular news platforms face less reader scrutiny. As an experiment, I posted a review for a profile from MSNBC and an AP report posted on FoxNews. Not surprisingly, my MSNBC article had a lot more follow up reviews compared to the Fox report.

While the uneven focus of reviews is an issue for the site in its current state, I feel like this problem will decline as the number of users making regular reviews grows and the community becomes more active and diverse.

As a journalist, I see NewsTrust as becoming a handy source for both reviewing my own work as well as helping me find reliable information of past events which I may be pushed into the middle of and asked to cover. For example, if I were to cover the school board in a city I have just transferred to, I would want to not only read up on past events, but do so with the comfort that what I am reading has been established as fair, unbiased coverage before I start forming my own questions.

Hot Coffee Controvesy Scarred Rockstar Bigwig, Few Others

Wired Magazine’s GameLife blog posted an interesting exceprt from journalist Harold Goldberg’s new book All Your Base Are Belong To Us, which could shape up to be the definitive history of the video game industry.

The excerpt details some of the mental anguish experienced by Rockstar Games co-founder Sam Houser, who was forced to testify before the Federal Trade Comission in 2005 after a Dutch hacker found files for a sexually explicit minigame in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Although the content was impossible to access without downloading a difficult to find user-created patch, lawyers pounced on the in-game hanky panky for a quick buck. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and less than 3,000 individuals claimed they had been offended by the cartoony love-making of San Andreas protaganist C.J., netting each person named in the suit a settlement ranging from $5 to $30.