Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Top Albums of 2009

Continuing the pattern of a shorter list each year (as I get increasingly out of touch with the contemporary hit parade), here are my top albums of 2009. Feel free to let me know what I should have been listing to / liking using the comments link below.

Be Set Free
Langhorne Slim

Standout tracks: Say Yes, I Love You Goodbye
Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella!
Ben Folds & Various Artists

Standout tracks: Magic, Jesusland
Regina Spektor

Standout tracks: The Calculation, Folding Chair
Hombre Lobo

Standout tracks: Beginner's Luck, My Timing Is Off
The Duckworth Lewis Method
The Duckworth Lewis Method

Standout tracks: Jiggery Pokery, The Age of Revolution
The Resistance

Standout tracks: United States of Eurasia (+Collateral Damage)

Related posts:
Best Albums of 2008
My Top 20 Albums of 2007
My Top 25 Albums of 2006
My Top 25 Albums of 2005

Saturday, October 24, 2009

What should Zynga do next?

Ok, so it's not too difficult to look at a successful company and describe some of the smart things they've done and why they might be considered significant; much harder to say what they should do next. Here's my attempt to map out four next steps for Zynga:

1.) Enable interactions between games
The logical step on from cross-promotion - hinted at by their dynamic CTAs ("Did you milk the cow? Take a break with a milkshake in Café World!") - Zynga's portfolio of games is just crying out to be joined up at a more molecular level. What better way to increase reach and dwell time than to start create rich interconnections and dependencies between the games, enabling the pigs raised on your FarmVille farm to be dispatched to your Café World café (possibly via your Abattoir City slaughterhouse - you can have that idea for free guys ;-) You wouldn't necessarily need to own all the businesses yourself - your network of friends could form a mini cooperative (or cabal, should you be so inclined) with one venture supplying another (not hard to see how Mafia Wars might fit into this setup).

2.) Prioritise development of mobile apps
Zynga have already made a start with iPhone apps for four of their titles, but if I were them, I'd be inclined to bump mobile app development right to the top of my to do list. They wouldn't need to be Rolls Royce ports of the desktop browser games - pared down versions which enabled you to harvest your crops or take your dish off the stove would be sufficient at this stage. There's obviously huge potential for push notifications announcing calamity (or opportunity) in your game world and Apple allowing free iPhone apps to use in-app payments clearly presents some attractive revenue possibilities.

3.) Fill in the obvious gaps in its portfolio
Accusations of derivative / copycat games are rife in the social gaming space at the moment (Psycho Monkey has sued Zynga, Zynga has sued Playdom as well as a number of other developers) so Zynga would need to tread carefully in filling in some of the holes in its current portfolio. One of the most obvious gaps is pets, which are big business in the social gaming world, as Pet Society, Neopets, My Fishbowl, Animal Paradise and countless others will testify. If I was in charge of the 'what next?' list at Zynga, a pet game would be somewhere near the top...

4.) IPO (or get bought by EA)
Both have been rumoured, with the former probably more likely than the latter. Either way, the next 6 months look like a good time to capitalise on its rapid ascendancy and position as market leader. Who knows what the landscape will look like in another couple of years time?

Having said all that, they do seem to be doing ok without my advice... ;-)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

6 reasons why Zynga is truly game-changing

Chances are you haven't heard of Zynga. However, if you're a Facebook user (and 19 million UK Internet users reportedly now are) then you may well have played one of their games and have subliminally registered their 'powered by Zynga' logo (a silhouette of the founder's bulldog). With 45 million daily active users (yes, daily!) across their portfolio of games and an estimated $150 million in revenue this year, they have rapidly become a very big fish, not just in gaming, but in the online world more generally.

This astonishing rate of growth is best exemplified by their Facebook app Farmville, a real-time farm simulation game which launched in June 2009 and now boasts over 50 million monthly active users, making it the most popular game on Facebook.

So, what's their special sauce, magic ingredient? Here's six reasons why Zynga is truly game-changing:

1.) Smart leveraging of your social graph (it's only fun with friends!)
One of the big draws for Facebook app developers is the ability to leverage users' social graphs, not only to enable social play, but to encourage the viral spread of the application. Most early apps which attempted to exploit this tended to be crude 'you're it' type games (e.g. Zombies) which achieved a lot of installs but didn't offer the user any real depth of gameplay and soon became regarded by many as tantamount to spam. What Zynga have done (although there's undoubtedly still some residual app invite fatigue for them to overcome) is to make games which offer more depth than the one-trick pony 'you're it' games and provide a more nuanced reward mechanic, with genuine ongoing incentivisation for users to expand their 'neighbourhood' of friends via gifts (cannily limited to one-per-day-per-friend), offers of help/employment, and rewards based on acts of citizenship). In fact, those interactions are so key to the game mechanic, that it's really only fun with friends, as Alice recently bemoaned.

2.) Stickiness through Tamagotchi-style plate-spinning
Part of the reason Zynga's daily reach is so high is that it's games are invariably 'high-maintenance'; in order to maintain your hard-won status and progress, you must return on at least a daily basis (and are invariably rewarded for doing so more often). This model might prove frustrating on a more traditional gaming platform, where you have to find time to fire up the console and load the game, but works perfectly on Facebook where frequent repeat visits are already the order of the day, largely driven by communication tasks (messaging, status updates etc.) There's both carrot and stick in this equation as neglecting your Zynga game will result in dead crops, spoilt food and unhappy customers just as surely as regular visits will send your revenue and status skyward.

3.) Persuading users to make micropayments
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Zynga is the amount of revenue it is now generating. Building a sizeable web audience is one thing; successfully monetising it is quite another (hello Twitter!) People's willingness to part with real-life cash for virtual goods has been well established by immersive 3D environments like Second Life and WoW, but it's testament to the engagement that Zynga's casual games engender, that once users virtual currency runs out, a sizable number of them are willing to dip into their pockets to keep progressing.

4.) Exploiting the endowment effect
Another genius element of Zynga's game design is the way in which they exploit some very basic aspects of human psychology, in particular the endowment effect. Whereas many game worlds are populated with alien objects for you to navigate or obliterate, with the main protagonist your only point of identification, Zynga's games tend to give you immediate ownership of a domain in which you very quickly start to take civil pride. You care how your room/cafe/farm/theme park is perceived because it's very definitely yours (a point reinforced by the status boasts / screengrabs you are encouraged to publish to your wall and your friends' homepages).

5.) Easily repurposable game-engine
One of the best things about Zynga's recipe for success is how repeatable it is. The basic game engine for CafeWorld is identical to the one powering FarmVille, YoVille and Roller Coaster Kingdom. The ability to apply this model to new domains, and in so doing, reach new audiences (as well as extended reach/time spent with existing audiences) is a game developers dream.

6.) Effective cross-promotion / upselling of its other games
With 17 Facebook games now in its portfolio, Zynga does an extremely good job of upselling its other titles from within the individual games. In addition to a carousel running underneath each game promoting their big ticket releases, dynamic CTAs are also inserted above the Flash app (e.g. in Farmville: "Did you milk the cow? Take a break with a milkshake in Café World!")

It's worth saying that Zynga aren't the only company pushing the envelope in online social gaming at the moment (check out Playfish), they just happen to be doing it bloody well.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

30 Must-Download iPhone Apps

So, you've just purchased a shiny new iPhone 3GS and you're wondering which apps to download? Here's an update on my previous lists, this time organised by category:

Best utility apps
The apps you'll fire up again and again
1.) Tweetie (£1.79) - the best iPhone Twitter app bar none
2.) London Tube Deluxe (£0.59) - a must for all Londoners without chauffers
3.) National Rail Enquiries (£4.99) - never have to call 08457 48 49 50 again
4.) Urbanspoon (Free) - find an eatery by location, cuisine and/or price
5.) Ocado (Free) - the weekly food shop just got even easier
6.) Stanza (Free) - eBook reader. $200 cheaper than a Kindle :)
7.) Movies (Free) - find out what's on at your local cinema
8.) Spoonfed (Free) - find out what events are going on near you in London
9.) (Free) - check words without a web connection
10.) RadioTimes (£2.99) - the best of the UK TV listings apps

Best games
The apps which will make even the longest train journey fly by
1.) The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition (£4.99) - pocket sized version of one of the best games of all time
2.) Fieldrunners (£1.79) - fiendishly addictive tower-defense game
3.) California Gold Rush (£1.79) - engrossing gold mining puzzle game
4.) FlightControl (£0.59) - draw finger-fightpaths to safely land aircraft
5.) Toki Tori (£1.19) - Lemmings-style platform puzzler
6.) Bejeweled 2 (£1.79) - a great port of the gem-swapping classic
7.) Rolando 2 (£5.99) - quirky platform puzzler, which makes full use of the iPhone's accelerometer
8.) Let's Golf! (£1.19) - the best golf game for the small screen
9.) Stoneloops! of Jurassica (£0.59) - Bejeweled meets Space Invaders
10.) Wurdle (£1.19) - no, not the word cloud generator, but a rip-off of that old family favourite, Boggle

Best novelty apps
The apps you'll show your mates that will make them want an iPhone
1.) Face Melter (£1.19) - hideously distort your friend's face and then animate it
2.) QuadCamera (£1.19) - passport booth in your pocket
3.) Rimshot & Crickets (Free) - for all your badum-tish needs
4.) Ocarina (£0.59) - turn your iPhone into a primitive musical instrument by blowing into the microphone
5.) Photoswap (Free) - creepy real-time random photo-swapping

Best music apps
The apps which make the world's best music device even better
1.) Simply Music 2 (£3.49) - remotely access your computer's music library
2.) (Free) - stream over 5 million tracks for free
3.) Shazam (Free) - algorithmically identify that mystery choon
4.) midomi (£2.99) - Shazam for hummers
5.) GuitarToolkit (£5.99) - tuner, metronome and chord database

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Recent BBC Vision web launches

Quick round-up of some recent BBC Vision web launches which I've had varying degrees of involvement with:

Robin Hood game

Noteworthy primarily for its use of the Unity plug-in which renders Flash-beating in-browser 3D graphics - definitely a technology to watch. Game development by Playgroup and Specialmoves. BBC credits: Marc Ramsay, Richard Lynton-Evans, Paul Thomson and Rosie Allimonos. Trailer embedded below.

Adam Curtis Blog

Peak inside the mind of the legendary documentary film maker (The Power of Nightmares, The Century of Self, The Trap) and find out about his forthcoming collaboration with the Punchdrunk theatre company, It Felt Like a Kiss (see below trail). All I can claim credit for here is the green-on-black retro screen font which I used in a presentation I pulled together for Adam last year. The real props go to Nick Cohen, Roo Reynolds, Cathal Coughlan and Lucy Kelsall.

Comedy Extra

Made-for-the-web comedy clips from a mix of established and up-and-coming talent, including Adam Buxton, Mitchell & Webb, Matt Lucas & David Walliams, Stewart Lee & Armando Iannucci and the don't-try-this-at-home Amazing Wizards. Credit due to Al Boley, Martin Trickey and Will Saunders amongst others.

Remember, you can keep track of all new site launches from BBC Vision at the BBC Vision site launches blog.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

BBC Apprentice clips widget

Suffering Apprentice withdrawal symptoms after last Sunday's final? Here's a bundle of best bits (including James' car-crash interview - "In a nutshell, I put a leash on people who spunk money up the wall..." and "I can bring ignorance to the table") in an embeddable widgety package. No link back to unfortunately, so I'll have to provide one myself: Lots more good stuff on The Apprentice website and keep an eye out for more BBC widgets.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

'Search online for...' - The return of keywords in advertising

Hands up who remembers AOL keywords? Back in the late-90s / early naughties (when AOL was still spamming the world's letterboxes with CD-ROMs) it was commonplace to see an AOL keyword alongside, or occasionally in lieu of, a regular URL on marketing materials. Movie trailers and posters, in particular, would often carry them (see posters for 2001 box office stinkers Swordfish and 15 Minutes).

Fast forward to 2009 and search keywords in advertising seem to be experiencing something of a renaissance, although this time it's Google rather than AOL who are the go-to guys for finding stuff online. However, where AOL keywords were tightly controlled (check out the official Keyword Guidelines), keywords input into Google will return results entirely at the mercy of Google's special sauce search algorithms.

This presents a bit of a dilemma for marketeers; whilst inviting users to Google for your brand more closely mirrors online behaviours (80+ percent of online journeys start with a search), you don't have control over what appears on that results page.

The first URL-free ad I noticed recently encouraging users to search for a keyword was the Orange 'I Am Everyone' campaign, which boldly invited users to "search online for 'I am'", complete with magnifying glass icon (which seems to have inexplicably become the universally recognised symbol for search - I guessing either Microsoft or Apple is to blame...)

The problem was that the newly-created campaign site was decidedly short on Googlejuice (the top organic search result for 'I am' was on Google and on MSN), forcing Orange to shell out for Sponsored Links (still live at the time of writing). Whether the additional cost of the Sponsored Links was offset by a greater response rate to the search-based call-to-action (or the insight they got from being able to more easily track the response rate) would be interesting to know (although the figures from Compete don't speak of a unqualified success).

The decision to promote keywords over a URL is probably easier when you feel confident of getting and retaining the top spot in organic search results. Tamlyn Rhodes points to More4 and Act On CO2 both using the 'search online for...' CTA; both having sufficiently distinctive names and Googled-up parent domains ( and to ensure they secure the top spot. Warner Brothers also recently adopted the 'search for keyword' approach for elements of their Watchmen marketing campaign, banking on keeping the mighty IMDb off the top spot. Dyson went for belt and braces after its TV ad invited users to "Search online for dyson ball", taking a Sponsored Link as well as the top two organic search results.

Another example which recently caught my eye was the TV and poster campaign for Dido's forthcoming album, 'Safe Trip Home', which makes no mention of Dido and looks more like a movie campaign, inviting users to "view trailer now" by Googling for enigmatic keywords such as 'Lady Landfill', 'Mother Lay-By' and 'Blackeye Lashes'. What's interesting about this one is that the top matches are all YouTube videos which - YouTube being a Google property - get a thumbnail and visible rating; far more eye catching and inviting than your average search result. The video then directs users onwards to the official album site.

Despite the potential pitfalls of promoting search keywords in advertising, it seems likely to increase as marketers seek to respond to how users actually navigate to content online and counter the URL blindness which I'm certainly starting to suffer from. Just watch out for a resurgence of Google bombing/washing...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Holiday reading

Just returned from a week's holiday at the Likya Residence and Spa in Kalkan (thoroughly recommended if you're looking to get away from it all - see Flickr set) and thought it was high time I ended my three-month blogging hiatus with a gentle re-entry post. So, with a nod to Roo Reynolds, who's 'recent reading' post format I've cribbed, here are the books which kept me occupied on the sun lounger:

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson - probably not a book that I would have picked off the shelf in a bookstore (the cover gives some of the wrong signals - the likely subject of a future blog post), but a loan from my brother, whose literary recommendations I trust - a trust rewarded with a thoroughly engrossing novel exploring the universality of love and loss through a rich tapestry of interwoven narrative strands and the birth of an irresistible hero in the shape of private investigator Jackson Brodie. I already have the next in the series (One Good Turn) lined up on the shelf.

Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper by Diablo Cody - an eminently readable, if ultimately inconsequential, memoir from the writer of 2007 indie hit, Juno, which pretty much does what it says on the tin, serving up enough memorable characters and anecdotes to justify the 200+ pages.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow - probably still best-known as co-editor of Boing Boing (but better known to me as Mr Alice Taylor), Cory conjures a hugely engaging narrator and protagonist in Marcus Yallow, a 17-year old tech-head, battling to outsmart the Department of Homeland Security as it clamps down on civil liberties in the wake of a major terrorist attack. The book was released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license and can be downloaded from Cory's site. Go do it.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Twitter play: Lyric for the day

Four weeks ago I set up a new Twitter account called Lyric for the day and started posting snatches of song lyrics on an (almost) daily basis. I then tweeted it's existence on my main Twitter account, encouraging fellow tweeters to guess the track and artist by replying to @lyricfortheday. 28 lyrics later and the account has 37 followers and a burgeoning sense of competitiveness, as well as some indie snobbery. There's only one rule (no Googling!). Below is the high score table (one point for the first correct answer) and the answers to date (only three of which went unguessed). Come play! :)

Lyric for the day hall of fame:
R4isStatic (4)
aarons (3)
LouiseBrown (3)
onpause (3)
willhowells (3)
chunkylover (2)
dogwinters (1)
helenroper (1)
ms_jackson (1)
rooreynolds (1)
slim_cop (1)
SplintUK (1)
tbgkerry (1)

Answers to date:
1. Sympathy For The Devil - The Rolling Stones (onpause)
2. Abattoir Blues - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (aarons)
3. Babies - Pulp (rooreynolds)
4. Our Mutual Friend - The Divine Comedy
5. Sit Down - James (willhowells)
6. O Maria - Beck
7. Take Me Out - Franz Ferdinand (willhowells)
8. When The Sun Goes Down - Arctic Monkeys (R4isStatic)
9. Faith - George Michael (slim_cop)
10. Mexican Wine - Fountains of Wayne (helenroper)
11. Mrs Robinson - Simon & Garfunkel (R4isStatic)
12. Playground Love - AIR (chunkylover)
13. Singing In My Sleep - Semisonic (R4isStatic)
14. Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) - Kenny Rogers & the First Edition
15. Fat Bottomed Girls - Queen (SplintUK)
16. Me In Honey - R.E.M. (chunkylover)
17. Cabron - Red Hot Chili Peppers (R4isStatic)
18. Mile End - Pulp (aarons)
19. The Bends - Radiohead (aarons)
20. Chasing Cars - Snow Patrol (dogwinters)
21. Where Is My Mind - The Pixies (onpause)
22. Don't Speak - No Doubt (LouiseBrown)
23. First of the Gang to Die - Morrissey (willhowells)
24. Tiny Dancer - Elton John (onpause)
25. Mysterious Ways - U2 (ms_jackson)
26. Shakermaker - Oasis (tbgkerry)
27. Bohemian Like You - The Dandy Warhols (LouiseBrown)
28. Frontier Psychiatrist - The Avalanches (LouiseBrown)

Job opportunity: Head of Multiplatform Products, BBC Vision

Looking for an exciting new job and at a loose end this weekend? Why not spend it applying for the role of Head Of Multiplatform Products for BBC Vision? Don't know what any of those words mean in this context? My earlier post on my elliptical job title should explain some of them.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

BBC widgets

At the tail end of 2006, I confidently predicted that 2007 would be the year of the widget and thanks in no small part to Facebook and iGoogle both 'going large' in that year (see respective news stories), I wasn't embarrassingly wrong.

Yesterday marked a more modest milestone in the 'mainstreamisation' (warning: made up word alert) of widgets as some of my colleagues quietly launched It's pretty light on widgets at the moment (four at the time of writing) but I've got a feeling that could grow pretty quickly, even if all it does is aggregate more of the BBC widgets already out in the wild (e.g. LiveUpdate, Lily Allen, Glastonbury, Olympics).

One of the new widgets available is the BBC iPlayer widget (embedded below) which promotes a selection of TV and Radio content available to consume on-demand via BBC iPlayer, with some very light-touch personalisation built in (thumbs up, thumbs down). You can't actually watch programmes within the widget (I guess the viewing experience might be slightly sub-optimal at 300 pixels), although the Clearspring wrapper provides easy integration with an extensive range of social media sites (incl. Facebook and iGoogle) as well as the vanilla embed code.

Designed more as a proof of concept than a major distribution play, it will be interesting to see whether it garners many installs. Of course it'll need to get linked to first; here's link number one for Google to spider: BBC Widgets. Now go forth any embed...