Australian entrepreneur with FanFooty (alive) and Tinfinger (dead) on his CV. Working on new projects, podcasting weekly at the Coaches Box, and trying not to let microblogging take over this blog.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Journalism's just another word for nothing left to lose

The slow sinking and senescence of the Australian mainstream media continues apace, with Fairfax farewelling another lifeboat filled with grizzled old veterans over the last week or two (above). When they have let Leaping Larry L go, you know they're cutting muscle not fat, or maybe by now it's bone.
Something I used to bang on about in this blog (when I was posting regularly) was how these ex-MSM journos now have a golden opportunity to reinvent themselves by starting up new Web sites, rescuing their careers in journalism by applying a bit of entrepreneurial spirit. It is an indictment on the sort of people employed by Fairfax and News that so few of them have explored this challenge, notwithstanding how difficult it would be. It doesn't take much to launch a blog these days. Maybe the main problem has been that they didn't want to bite the slowly withering hand that used to feed them, but as the blood drains out of the corpse of Fairfax in particular, that should seem less and less of a deterrent.

Ah, it's all very well for me to say these things, but what business model would work in this crappy economy, what models can use, what examples can I give of strategies that have worked? Much of Australian industry is a copy of what has been tried overseas, particularly in America, and online journalism is no different. The moderate but nonetheless steady success of Allure Media is testament to how taking foreign templates and repurposing them for Australia is a relatively low-risk method to create a local business from scratch.

In sports journalism, however, there has been precious little of this, and I don't quite know why. Back Page Lead rose and fell using a more generic and ultimately unsatisfying formula, with Charles Happell trying to do what I was exhorting others to do but never managing to align the business towards generating enough traffic and revenue to stay afloat. The Roar continues on but seems from the outside to have settled into a groove not unlike Crikey, where it will remain viable but is long past the point of being able to break out to garner mass audiences (I guess you could pigeonhole my sites with that observation too).

If one or a group of these ex-MSM journos were to try an Allure-style mode of attack without actually paying for the brand of overseas examples of successful sites, which would be the most likely candidate? (Yes, the above is just preamble for this list.)

Bleacher Report
What it is: Sportscenter in blog form, focusing on game video highlights, match preview/reports, breaking news in short form and content that is trending on social media, plus some multimedia features using animation. Mobile app focuses on TeamStream curated news links and image slideshows. No liveblog match coverage (links to other sites).
How it works: Their early success came from shockingly exploitative clickbait and low-to-unpaid work, incentivising budding journos to boost page views by lowering standards they may not have started with in the first place. This would be anathema to most ex-MSM journos, especially those who have just escaped Fairfax and News whose online vehicles have been just as guilty of publishing clickbait crap in recent times. BR's focus on quantitative analytics over qualitative subjective assessment - the Moneyball-esque theory of editorial direction via spreadsheet - would also be deeply unfamiliar to those whose careers were groomed in traditional newsrooms. Their pivot to quality post-acquisition by Turner is irrelevant to this discussion.
Verdict: The Roar took half of this model - the financial part of building a pathway for unpaid amateurs to become professionals which meant a heap of cheap content - without also enforcing a ruthless editorial focus on increasing traffic. BR are top of the dunghill in the US no matter how many people bag their quality, and you can't argue with numbers in business. It would be a rare bird indeed who had the guts to implement all of this template. I certainly couldn't stomach it, personally, and if I can't then prominent, established journos who have a reputation to protect probably won't either.

SB Nation
What it is: A federation of 300+ team-specific blogs staffed by paid writers with backgrounds ranging from amateur (mostly) to semi-pro to former MSM pro (rarely). A content core of reviews and reports plus highlights, as with all such sites, but more feature-focused. Includes UGC contributions called Fanshots. No slideshows, but some video highlights. No liveblog match coverage apart from straight scoreboards.
How it works:  Linked by a shared CMS called Chorus with cloned structures and a consistent design across the network. Innovated its own method of linking articles on the same event by grouping them in Storystreams, leading to increased stickiness. Sells the vast majority of its advertising inventory direct at premium rates
Verdict: The team-specific model has already been tried and failed here: BigFooty had a lash several years ago, and there are long-running single-team blogs like 1Eyed Eel, but their attempts to expand into a network many years ago also came to nowt. Part of the problem is that teams in US sports are almost all in one-team towns, or two at most in massive markets big enough to justify them. Major Australian sporting teams, apart from maybe the Brisbane Broncos and Lions, are competing in the same geographical area as one or as many as nine other teams of varying sizes. It's hard to make the economics of a North Melbourne or Cronulla team blog work. The Chorus advantage is probably less important in 2016 where any decent Wordpress theme can produce the same effect with a bit of customisation - I have done it myself with Gameday on FanFooty et al. Melbourne startup Cognitives.io has built a Chorus-like platform for FansUnite but I don't see any startups using it; not that it's not a killer app (I've seen it in action), it's just that it's bloody hard yakka to get someone interested in paying for blogging software these days. Finally, The Roar do an excellent job at direct sales but it's an even harder row to hoe, especially in Australia with its smaller market. For the purposes of a startup, though, no one has really given this basic model a decent shake in this country, and there may be more scope for it once the MSM organs shrivel and the likes of AFL Media take over primary reportage, leaving a hole for unofficial openly biased commentary.

What it is: A federation of 150+ team-specific blogs staffed by paid writers with backgrounds ranging... hey wait a minute, this is an SB Nation clone! But it also expanded horizontally into lifestyle categories, which is more of a VICE thing to do (or Vox Media, of course). The difference with SB Nation is that it is more focused on social, to the point where they include tweets and vines as lead stories. Rant doesn't focus on straight previews and reports, sticking to a more opinion-based model (thus "Rant") supplanted with viral video and tweets. As with all of these sites, Rant started focused on desktops and are only slowly figuring out how to deal with the consumer shift to mobile. No live coverage.
How it works: Growth in the early days was straight out bought from Outbrain and Taboola, sources which are notorious for bringing low-value readers and not producing repeat visits. Rant worked with those companies to refine their techniques for converting those clicks into organic traffic (i.e. repeat visits that cost you nothing because they come directly). Like BR, they have gradually tried to pivot away from cheese and towards fine wine, but they have always been undervalued by the market due to their lingering cheesy aromas, which meant that when billionaire media mogul Robert Sillerman bought them recently he paid a lot less per user than he would have had to for a lot of Rant's competitors. Nevertheless, Rant's investors and founders secured an excellent exit.
Verdict: No, I'd never heard of them either before researching this blog post. If you're an old school journo looking at all of these models and shaking your head at the unscrupulous methodology to manufacture gold out of scraps and garbage, Rant would be more unpalatable than most. Has all the drawbacks of SB Nation and none of the job satisfaction that a true journo craves - unless all you care about is bottom lines.

What it is: At its best an independent voice holding sports to account, at its worst a dirtbag snark blog posting pics of drunk athletes. Or both at the same time. Focused on opinions and human interest features, with a contrary attitude as befits its membership of the Gawker network. Its comment sections, as with all Gawker sites which use its proprietary methodology for promoting quality, is sometimes better than the articles. No live coverage.
How it works: Day to day it may not be the most compelling read, but every now and then they will break a story through investigative journalism work that will blow up way beyond normal levels of virality. These periodic boosts have lifted the baseline daily traffic over time.
Verdict: I won't spend much time dissecting Deadspin's business model because no self-respecting ex-MSM journo would touch it with a 40-foot barge pole. They wouldn't be let in to the Quills or welcomed at regular journo bar haunts, because part of the model is attacking the MSM outlets and embarrassing prominent media personalities with thinly-sourced gossip. Australia's libel laws would probably put paid to this concept locally, not to mention our more carebear kind of community. You'd have to have the skin of a rhino to try this in Australia, ad good luck to you if you do.

What it is: Another SB Nation clone at its core (albeit launching at around the same time so it's more great minds thinking alike), growing from a single Kansas City Chiefs blog in 2011, but like Rant it has since expanded into horizontal lifestyle areas to broaden its targeted demographic appeal towards young men. Based on opinions from unaccredited amateurs, which has led them to turn their unofficial outsider reputation into a status symbol of independence, taking the fans' side in every debate.
How it works: You may be wondering how this is different to several aforementioned sites, and fair enough, but their story highlights another aspect of sports blog startups that it's crucial to get right: partnerships with larger sites. There are a few other blogs I haven't included in this list due to their relationships with larger sites in the early days being too close to call them a truly independent startup: ThePostGame with Yahoo!, for example, and Scout with Fox Sports. FanSided has never taken funding of any kind, and this meant it couldn't sink VC dollars into buying traffic from a network like Rant did with Outbrain and Taboola. Perhaps out of necessity, the founding team of two brothers dabbled with partnerships with Fox Sports, CBS and NFL.com to try to kickstart their traffic inflow, before settling on a successful 2013 deal with Sports Illustrated which led two years later to an acquisition. This is a strategy that it will be tempting for ex-MSM journos to explore, especially with the company they recently left. It is a tried and tested entrepreneurial formula for escapees from a big company to strike out for new territory only to be peacefully subsumed back into the mothership a few years later, having effectively acted as the team leaders of an outsourced R&D skunkworks for the BigCo by taking almost all of the risk (apart from a little inoculatory seed capital injection). I don't have experience in how to make such things work but it's not a surefire strategy, as can be seen by the Moneyball/Fairfax affiliation which mysteriously petered out several months ago after a blaze of publicity. Securing financial or practical support for a startup with no reputation is a massive pain in the arse no matter where you get it, so ex-MSM journos should leave no stone unturned, even if they left their previous employer in some degree of dudgeon.

I have many more thoughts on this subject swirling around my head at the moment, so maybe I'll put them in a follow-up blog post some time soon.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Burnout and the sole trader

I am spending most of my blogging time at my new poliblog Loaded Dogma, as well as the exhumed FanFooty blog, but this comment I made on Renai LeMay's Delimiter blog entry on him shuttering his paywalled Delimiter 2.0 project is suitable for reproduction here:
Renai, I’m sorry to hear that you have had to press the pause button. 
As a person in a somewhat similar position to you in a slightly different field, I can sympathise with the constant battle with burnout. You have ideas for new things and want to try them out, but there’s only one of you. As your life accretes commitments and relationships, it seems like there’s never enough hours in the day to get to everything you want to do. You launch things and then can’t do them justice because other events intervene. Burnout is the greatest foe of the sole trader. 
The solution which would seem obvious to those looking in from the outside would be to hire people to grow the business so it’s not just reliant on you. This is harder to do than it sounds, though. Bringing someone else in to inhabit the cocoon-like home that your business has become is emotionally difficult. I have had problems with it because I don’t want to exploit young employees and burn them out on my watch, because I had the experience of getting burned out working on someone else’s publication when I was that age - not sure if you’ve gone through the same process. Nevertheless, expansion through payroll is probably the right thing to do. I am only following my own advice on this very slowly, mind you. 
One of the early lessons I learned in my business is that you have to be constantly looking out for the trap of making the entire business about you and your knowledge base, such that it wouldn’t operate without you. Apart from the dangerous burnout factor, letting yourself fall into this hole means that you can’t sell your business and get out. Reducing it to repeatable processes that can be done by any competent journo who is parachuted in by a prospective buyer is the path to an eventual exit. I’m not there yet, and I’m guessing you’re not either, but IMO that’s the goal we should all strive for.
 I brought in Ben Gogos last year to help me out with the FanFooty liveblogging, which has been an excellent move from my perspective, and he is helping to recruit more bloggers to round out the stable so that I can concentrate on other things. My life has become more complicated over the last year with a wife, two mortgages and our first baby due in July with another one planned soon after, so it was necessary to step back from the weekly grind. The Mr Football project is currently down the pecking order, as is the BigDoor gamification platform which I have implemented on FanFooty but not done enough with.

Like Renai, I'd love there to be at least three of me so I could get to all I want to do. Don't even talk to me about my dreams of doing an Australian HuffPo, or an Australian SBNation - heck, anything Vox Media related. Well, on that last one maybe I'll explore some new realms this year. I'm just glad I'm not in the sort of trouble that Cricinfo and Cricbuzz are in.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Aggregator opportunities agglomerating dust and rust

After a long period of neglecting Gabe Rivera's creations, I have recently returned to Memeorandum, as part of my current part-time obsession with politics and economics blogs. There is a certain vigour and urgency about economics blogs in particular these days, due to the disconnect between many economists and the policies of those who are in charge of the levers. Techmeme doesn't interest me, and hasn't done since Silicon Valley gave up on game-changing consumer-facing innovation many years ago in favour of focusing on built-to-flip outsourced R&D for whales like Facebook and Google - which of course isn't Gabe's fault. Aggregators are only as strong as the sites they aggregate.

As the long, inexorable decline of Fairfax and (to a lesser extent) News Ltd comes to a head, with the demise of their newspapers possibly only months away, I find myself wondering what opportunities exist for aggregation startups once the concept of a front page moves beyond the static dead tree version, once and for all. Gabe's model is still the best, I think: target the insiders, make it about prestige, obscure the algorithm, and keep 'em hungry.

His model has evolved over the years to the point where he now has six human editors to supplement the robot rhythms, and is looking for more. News is much more often found through social media or superstar blogger links these days than through ersatz front pages, of course, but I still think there is a place for semi-automated aggregators where there isn't a connection with the linkers. This is because there is still value in crowds, especially crowds of professionals, not just the immediate social network. Gatekeepers who do a good job of prioritising news sources are valuable in their own right, especially in the Techmeme model where users still believe there is a strong element of meritocracy to the classifications.

Professional gatekeepers also make the blogosphere better. Applying rules in the algorithm to reward length and originality over "quote unquote RTWT", supplanted by the judgment of human editors to promote stories which provide fresh perspectives, trains bloggers to write the sort of stories that readers actually want to read. This creates a virtuous circle where bloggers work harder to impress the aggregator, but end up impressing the readers as a byproduct, leading to readers relying on the aggregator to deliver them the better stories, meaning the bloggers have to work harder to get on the aggregator. This is what Google PageRank is supposed to be about, and it is still a good system if policed to avoid abuses by content farms.

If there is a market niche yet to be filled, actually, it is an aggregator which makes this "nudge" effect explicit, in that it applies a series of robot- and/or human-generated judgements to individual stories with user-exposed editorialisation. This happens already of course, in that the placement and ordering of stories is a series of judgments on the worthiness of stories. I'm talking here about going beyond the low-added-value listing of stories linking to a primary story, and instead giving readers some easy visual indication about how closely the stories adhere to the topic of the cluster (i.e. avoiding the contentless "pundit roundup" or "today's links" article), how early in the story the link appears (i.e. avoiding the gratuitous end link in an article mostly about something else), whether the story adds any substantive analysis (i.e. avoiding the lazy "here's what someone else said" summary article), and whether the story agrees or disagrees with the premise of the original story (i.e. to promote stories that rebut the primary story, as has happened recently on Memeorandum with several misreported PRISM-related stories). These visual indications could be established through colour, icons, text, or just placement through further clustering.

One of the major ways I think Gabe is still streeting the competition is that he keeps his business structure simple - he owns it all AFAIK, and at least has 100% control - and he keeps his burn rate low. This means he is under little pressure to splash ads in the faces of his users, unlike Facebook or Twitter whose sponsored posts are way more intrusive these days than Techmeme or the others. People still tell me another social network will supplant Facebook eventually, and if there is then excessive advertising is why they will fail.

Aggregation, if not the Techmeme brand itself, is extensible to the post-newspaper world, even in (or because of?) these overcast times of the Great Recession. You don't necessarily have to do everything that Gabe did if you want to succeed, but you'd have to have a damn good reason to do something different. Gabe, in his wisdom, has left a vast amount of vertical and horizontal sectors open to competitors. What would it take for someone to take up the cudgel and get stuck in?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Larry Pickering & Michael Smith: Woodward & Bernstein, or Burke & Wills?

I don't tend to get many comments on this blog, but my last entry a couple of days ago got an interesting one from Andrew Elder. I follow Andrew's Politically homeless blog, which seemingly has as its raison d'etre the cataloguing of all the reasons why Tony Abbott will fail to become Prime Minister, and how the mainstream media has been getting that narrative completely wrong for years now. His editorial line on that blog is a classic Sir Humphrey style "courageous" stance, and I can't help but admire his chutzpah in the face of what has, at times, been almost insurmountable evidence that Abbott would be our next PM. (I am also a strong left-winger who supports Gillard, BTW.) Thus his comment moves me to respond at length to justify my argument in my last post.

I have spent a fair bit of time over the last two years reading and commenting on political blogs. I had an idea that it might be a good business concept to launch a political blog. I found out quickly that that was a terrible idea, because there was no money in it. The subsequent closing of Larvatus Prodeo has left a void on the left side of the poliblog space, which was the subject of my last post. In that time, there has been a gradual but unmistakable connection made between mainstream right-wing journalism and the poliblogs on the right. The Australian newspaper, most notably, has begun littering its pages with references to Catallaxy Files, Professor Bunyip, and other members of the hive of scum and villainy that is the wingnut blog brigade. This culminated during 2012 with the AWU scandal, which was engineered in large degree by Larry Pickering and Michael Smith. Their reports percolated back up through the Australian and eventually made their way to the ABC and Fairfax, such that by the end of the recent parliamentary session it was the Opposition Leader himself who was prosecuting the case based on evidence first aired on these supposedly disreputable outcast outlets.

I praised Pickering and Smith as having "new noise and energy", which Andrew replied "consisted merely of being noticed by the MSM". But that's kind of the point. Worthy but unseen journalism is not worth much. If independent journalism is going to be important after the fall of Fairfax, it must be viewed by the public in large numbers, not hidden away behind paywalls for the rich minority. The right has seen the light, and it has now established an ecosystem to carry the nutrients from the fertilised fungi that is a Pickering or Smith post all the way up through the food chain to a national audience. The right also have created a bully pulpit to cower the "centrist" media into following their agenda, so that while the Australian itself is not widely read, it has colonised other media to run their editorial lines.

Where are the vehicles for Margo Kingston, or even Andrew himself, to carry their messages to the average Aussie in language they can understand? No, The Drum doesn't count, and neither does The Conversation. That's the echo chamber. Margo can post all she likes at New Matilda, and I don't wish to be unkind, but her stuff merits a larger audience than NM and her Twitter followers.

My praise, such as it is, is for the fact that the right have got themselves organised. The left are being far too passive. You may say that journalism should not be debased like that, with everyone taking sides like it's a schoolyard fight. Welcome to the future, it's here and the Fairfax dynasty aren't going to save you! This is what happens when the old self-funded institutions of journalism die. The survivors are subsidised by millionaires, or live via other means like Pickering and Smith. So far, no mass medium journalism publication has arisen from Australian new media, because the economics don't work and the professionals haven't taken it seriously. Yet.

Ex-MSM journos would need to reskill if they are to be the founders of whatever it is that is going to come next, to replace the role Fairfax has played. Andrew is right in those points. While I wouldn't go so far as to say the online journalism scene in Australia is terra nullius, though, there is a big hole in the middle of its continent, and the only incursions so far have been made are restricted to the coastline. There is so much more potential yet to be realised. Pickering and Smith are like some of those hopeless early explorers, doomed to perish in the desert due to poor planning, lack of support and antediluvian notions of competence. We remember ostensible disasters like Burke and Wills today though, because they blazed the trail that others followed with far more success. Who will follow in their muck-flaked footsteps to bring civilisation to the scrub?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Journalism will die. Long live journalism?

2012 has been a bad year for journalism in Australia. The mainstream kind of journalism has undergone thousands of job losses, announced by News Ltd and Fairfax most notably but by no means restricted to them. It is harder for new graduates to find any work as journalists, and hundreds of grizzled veterans look up and find very little in the way of paid work as journalists in prospect. There is hope, but more of that later.

The Finkelstein inquiry has been and gone, blithely ignoring the obvious reality of the inevitable destruction of the basis of journalism's funding structure. As a document of the current state of the media industry in Australia with its Pollyanna attitude towards the future of journalism, it was exposed as a hopeless joke mere months later when two of its major targets slashed their staff numbers and announced drastic measures to stave off corporate death. If anyone is looking towards regulation or other government instrument to save journalism, look elsewhere.

It is no longer controversial to point out that not only is the ABC not motivated by the profit motive, neither is News Ltd. The new corporate structure of News and Fox, where all the safely profitable broadcast media properties are stuffed into the public listed Fox entity, and the poorly performing newspapers relegated to the News basket save for the Foxtel cash cow, means that Foxtel effectively underwrites the losses at the newspapers, and will probably do so in perpetuity. Journalism has always had to rely on a tangentially related revenue source to fund it, and the Murdochs have found a way to fund their global journalism vehicles by strapping them to the back of the Foxtel juggernaut. And Foxtel's major property is the AFL, and the AFL is increasingly focused around fantasy football. So Dream Team is saving the Wall Street Journal! Well, maybe that's a bit cheeky. Helping to save. :)

Anyway, back to the point. The non-mainstream kind of journalism has also not had a good year. I suppose it's a win of sorts that the likes of New Matilda, King's Tribune and Crikey are still going, albeit that they don't seem to be expanding much. The demise of Larvatus Prodeo shows up the fragility of such worthy efforts. The Global Mail is iterating, painfully, but it hasn't been kicking many goals lately, beyond Ellen Fanning's excellent series on electricity industry goldplating. As startup founders are wont to do, Graeme Wood looks like he's on the verge of restarting TGM from scratch.

Most of the new noise and energy, however, came from much less reputable blogs, like those of Larry Pickering and Michael Smith. The chaos of the American political system is encroaching ever further on our own, egged on by operatives from both sides, and it is influencing the kind of journalism that is practiced both inside and outside the mainstream. Little of this advances the causes of objectivity or sensibility.

What will happen in 2013? The most important thing, for me, is that a lot of journalists with a lot of experience will suddenly be out of work. They will need a new job, and many of them still have a lot to say. Many of them will have fat payouts from their former employers for their many years of service. This smacks of opportunity.

What I would like to see is groups of these newly retrenched journos take up the cudgel and found journalism startups. The Global Mail example shows that it is entirely possible for ex-mainstream journos to be completely unsuited to the rigours and pressures of startup life, but surely there are some entrepreneurial types among the sacked lizard swarm who could live off their redundancy packages for long enough to bootstrap a new Web vehicle for their talents.

If there are any such journos out there, my main piece of advice would be: do not be afraid to feed of the carcass of the mothers which just spurned them. Treat the industry as a zero-sum game - or better, as a walking corpse. Assume that Fairfax is going to die. Act as if you won't have AAP feeds forever. Figure out what comes after the fall, and how you can be part of the new media economy. Don't feel sorry for your mates still working at the places you're putting the sword to. They will join you if you succeed. Someone's going to do it, it might as well be you.

This is what worked for the Business Spectator mob. They attacked the Financial Review like a band of cutthroats sailing the Spanish Main, plundering and pillaging. They worked the freemium marketing angle through Alan Kohler's ABC involvements. They got their exit, they reached the startup Holy Grail. Whoever has the skill and chutzpah to follow their lead could be the next winner.

Ah, but you might say, what else is there to attack? The Spectator crew had a nice, fat target in the Fin, but there aren't too many profitable sections left in the Fairfax or News stables. My advice would be to look to other media platforms, specifically TV. Draw your sights on Seven, Nine and Ten. Target Foxtel and Telstra. Lord knows they're busy attacking each other, they won't see you coming. Look at when, how and from whom they make their money, and try to steal their eyeballs.

How will all this rampant capitalist thought benefit pure journalism, you cry? What about investigative journalism, who will break the big stories? That's the problem with the Global Mail experience: it's folly to pretend that the commercial imperative doesn't matter to journalism. The commercial imperative draws you closer to your audience. Of course there has to be a wall between advertising and editorial, but the two sides are both trying to connect with consumers of their content. Journos at the Global Mail were guilty of the sin of creating a job which fulfilled all their needs, not necessarily the needs of the audience. I'm sure that's not what Graeme intended, but the lack of urgency which his obligation-free funding encouraged has led to the evident problems. Journalism startups are just like any other startup, they will fail if they are not instantly responsive to user feedback. So there won't be any journalism - investigative, pure, or otherwise - if there is a disconnect between journalist and audience.

 2013 is the year where I would hope to see half a dozen other Alan Kohlers emerge at the head of other jackal startups, scampering across the savannah, scavenging the scraps from the pungent masses of rotting flesh where their former employers used to be. Now is the time when the ideas for these startups should be brainstormed, if not already. Good luck.

Note: early signs are not, sadly, hopeful.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Seven year niche

2011 has been and gone, and it's been almost a year since I've blogged here. Time for a bit of an update.

I didn't get Mr Football finished in time for the start of last football season, and truth be told I may struggle to get it fully up and running as a Facebook app in time for the 2012 season. As I expected, I was not mentally able to keep myself working on it once football season had started. The offseason has been far more productive on that score, albeit that I am behind schedule on where I wanted to be.

I'm kicking myself that I only thought of the idea for Mr Football after Christmas in 2011, as I wasted the last three months of 2010 moping around, thinking my business was going to flatten off as Dream Team and Supercoach registrations had also flattened off. Despite fantasy registrations again showing zero change in 2011, FanFooty surged on regardless at the same exact growth rate in real terms as the year before, making it a full 100% increase in revenue and traffic in 2011 over 2009. This pleasant surprise has made my life a lot easier.

I can foresee many more opportunities now than I could back in Q4 2010. I am now confident that FanFooty's growth is not tied to fantasy registrations, so I see no reason why it shouldn't continue to grow as it has done, if I keep pouring the same amout of energy into it. If it doesn't, well, it's big enough now to keep me going. Mr Football is coming along nicely, if slowly, and I think it's going to be a solid product with the elusive (in a Facebook context) quality of staying power.

News of (possibly) forthcoming fantasy sports television program The Fan Show is very promising, and I hope to help out Warnie and the lads where I can to make it a success.

I will also be getting back into "serious" blogging in 2012, at a new location.

Nevertheless, there are still significant challenges facing me and the business. I'm still not part of the official AFL family, even after seven years of building the site up to be top 500 in Australian traffic in winter months. This is an ongoing regret to me. There are things I would like to do from inside the tent that I am unable to do. I don't know if a rapprochement is ever going to be possible given the politics of the situation. I'd like to think so.

I'd also like to expand the business on the production side beyond just me, particularly this year when Saturdays are going to be so hectic. I don't know how workable that is going to be, as it involves accountants and payroll and all those extraneous complications I have been avoiding for years.

The mobile side of FF has also been sorely neglected, in the sense that I still don't have an app for iPhone or Android. Based on trend data, more than half of traffic to FF will come from mobile devices this year, which is quite astounding really. Do I even need an app? Of course I do. But what will it do to my revenue model? I am a believer in ad-less apps as I don't think ads on mobiles work, which means I would give up a significant amount of ad impressions. Can the revenue from the app outweigh that? I don't know. This dilemma is part of why I have been de-prioritising the app behind Mr Football, I suppose, as the whole issue is full of doubt to me.

I'm not a worrier, as such, but I have been feeling a bit lately as if I am sick of things always hanging and never seemingly being done with, of there always being a huge barrow in front of me that I have to lug ever onwards. Finishing off Mr Football would help that feeling immensely, of course. But then I'd want to expand that code to other sports. The process of creation never ends. That's part of being an entrepreneur, though! So I'm being silly. I know. Gnomes aren't going to visit in the night and finish my cobbling for me. I do hope I don't have this feeling forever, though.

Overall, I have very little to complain about, notwithstanding the above. I am completely in control of my destiny and financially beholden to no one, which is where every entrepreneur wants to be. Deadlines are ruffling my hair and making that familiar whooshing sound as they go by. I trudge on. Soon, hopefully, I will once again experience that sweet emotion I am working towards: the warm feeling in the pit of my belly called satisfaction. :)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Facebook games, CCGs, board games and Mr Football

Today I announced the first public demo code for my new project tentatively titled Mr Football, which is an Australian football management simulation game which is intended to launch across Web, Facebook, iPhone/iPad and other mobile platforms throughout the year. It's just me building it on my own, folks, so it's not going to be speedy. The reason I'm blogging about it here on my largely neglected Tinfinger blog is that (a) I like to post feature-length dissertations for historical purposes on this blog, and (b) in researching Mr Football's ruleset and technical structure, I had a lot of thoughts which I would like to get down in pixels while it's all swirling in my head.

First, a bit of an explanation as to the influences behind making this game. FanFooty, while it is an excellent site of which I am very proud, does not consume all of my time, especially in the offseason. I am thus left at my leisure in the sunny months, whereby my idle mind turns to thoughts of new projects. I got hooked on some Facebook games this summer, two of which are significant influences on Mr Football: Atomic Moguls' whitelabel game for CBSSports.com called Franchise Football, and EA Sports' Madden NFL Superstars. Both of these games launched in 2010, with at current count Madden holding steady making good use of its official NFL licence at 1.8 million monthly active users and Franchise Football trending downwards at a mere 68,000 without licence or player images.

Both of these games are, like many of the insanely popular games from Zynga and its clones like Farmville and Cityville which are introduced in this GamaSutra series, based on collectible card games (CCGs). You click, click, click and then click some more until you get enough of the in-game currency to buy a virtual item. Rinse and repeat until you collect them all... ah, but when you have the full set, they bring out more stuff for you to collect. The items are intrinsically worthless, having only the virtue of scarcity (to start with) and social investment. There is no strategy to success apart from faithful repetition, unless you have real life cash to speed the process up.

The analogy with card collecting is made even more stark in Madden NFL Superstars because instead of choosing the players you want on your team, you have to buy randomly seeded virtual card packs and hope that your favourites fall your way eventually, just like collecting real sports cards. Both of these games are highly limited in scope, which is I think why Franchise Football is falling away to nothing and Madden is levelling out in popularity - although that may be seasonal as the NFL draws to its January close.

The main structural problem with these games is that they are linear, not cyclical. There's a progression to collecting the best items, then after that it's a dead end of boredom watching your perfect set of numbers tick over like cells in a spreadsheet. There's no "management" game there at all: no tactics, no choices, just maximising totals. The game makers have to keep creating new items to maintain interest, Zynga-style. That's all very well when you are Zynga working your own intellectual property, and can think up endless new items to throw at players (though I'd argue even that has its limit). In sports games based on the real leagues, however, you can't make up new players.

Given that the CCG market itself went through a revolution more than a decade ago with the advent of Magic: The Gathering, which combined the collection formula with legitimate gameplay mechanics, I am surprised that Facebook game developers have chosen to stick with the old paradigm. It seems to me to be a no-brainer to adapt successful M:TG tropes, which themselves rely on the ancient technique of rock-paper-scissors to add contrast and factionalism to gameplaying. In short, M:TG cards come in five colours which corresponded to five different types of card types which enable varied playstyles, some of which are better or worse at defeating others in a rochambeau manner. If MT:G's current owners Wizards of the Coast had their shit together, they might have dominated Facebook by now, at least among their nerd demographic.

Thinking about all of these things led me to go back to an old favourite game of mine: Blood Bowl, which I have blogged about before on these pages (five years ago, really??). Go read that post for background, but in short, Blood Bowl is a board game based on American gridiron football with some intricate and well balanced league rules for creating and maintaining franchises over time with rules for building and developing many different kinds of teams with a lot of replayability. The game was embraced and extended by the site FUMBBL.com (which is still going strong) into an online gaming community juggernaut with myriad complexities unforeseen by the game's creator. As in the first paragraph of that old post, I felt that this along with the aforementioned elements were training me to brainstorm something better, using bits of the old plus my own creativity.

This has led to the carpet in my apartment getting a bit ratty lately, as when I am thinking hard I tend to pace, and there's not much room to wander at my place. Over the course of the last three weeks or so, I have dreamt up and am now coding my response to all these inputs, in the form of a game which I hope will bypass the flaws of previous efforts. Like Blood Bowl, every random element is resolved via structured dice rolls, although in this case I am taking advantage of the whole thing being computer-based to roll far more dice than a real life board game player would be able to withstand without getting RSI - something I learned from the Civilization video game series, which is effectively the world's most complex board game.

Unlike Franchise Football and Madden, in Mr Football players are developed, have a good run and then age and retire. Also, you can't just buy the best players with money, you have to pick them in randomised drafts when they are young and undeveloped. In fact, Mr Football has no currency for buying items or players whatsoever at this stage. This subverts the collection mechanic at a fundamental level, and means that teams will rise and fall in cycles as good players come and go through your list. Trying to fight the cyclical nature of sport and instead build an lasting dynasty will be the core dynamic of Mr Football.

You may ask: if there's no items to buy in microtransactions, and Facebook apps are notoriously hard to monetise through advertising, where's the beef? I didn't say there would be nothing to buy. If the core gameplay is sound, then I am hoping that players will pay money to expand their ability to play. This will mean having regular pay-to-play tournaments, divisions, leagues and special events. FUMBBL has developed a number of good ideas for this sort of thing, so I'm standing on the shoulders of giants here.

That's not to say that I think I have thought everything out already. Players of other games complain about various game mechanics that encourage cheesiness and gamesmanship by coaches to gain advantage. At FUMBBL it's "cherrypicking", where coaches are able to beat up on lesser opponents to pad their win stats and avoid injuries. In Franchise Football it's "sandbagging", where teams load up on draft picks of good players in lower divisions despite their teams being good enough to advance, thus making things harder for teams that do want to progress. Fans of Madden have started to emulate the Zynga hardcore users by employing third party scripts to abuse the gifting system. They can now spam 40 gifts at a time to other players on Facebook and accept 40 back per day en masse with a single click. It's madness, really!

In this vein of minmaxing, I fully expect the real AFL bugbear of "tanking" to rear its ugly head in Mr Football. Under the current draft rules, coaches will play to lose for dozens of games on end despite having a good squad, just so they can get better draft picks to go on a dynastic run in the future with a crop of great players drafted in successive seasons. I'm not sure how to combat this... though to be frank, neither is the AFL. Unlike Andrew Demetriou, though, I don't have the luxury of putting my head in the sand about such a crucial issue of competitiveness and fairness. f I get it wrong, the game will suck and ultimately fail.

That's all to come in the future, though. At the moment I'm still enjoying myself immensely, in the early stages of architecting what I hope will be a very good product. It's a lot of fun to make, hopefully it will be a lot of fun to play. :)

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