U.S. aviation regulator starts rule-making process for public drone flights

A DJI drone taking off.

WASHINGTON (By David Morgan for Reuters) — The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday said it would develop drone regulations allowing some unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to fly over people, an authorization eagerly sought by a range of industries including real estate and agriculture.

The U.S. aviation regulatory agency, under pressure from Congress and industry to accommodate commercial drones, said it established a rule-making committee that would recommend a new regulatory framework by April 1.

Authorization to fly over people would be vital to the kind of package delivery services envisioned by Amazon.com Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google. But the new committee will focus on smaller UAVs that are used for aerial photography in real estate, agriculture and surveying.

The drones to be examined would include micro UAVs that weigh no more than 4.4 pounds (2 kg). But larger ones could also be included if their design, shape or slow speed posed little or no risk to people on the ground or to manned aircraft, the FAA said.

Commercial drone operations are illegal in the United States without specific FAA permission. The agency is expected to release final regulations by late June that would allow flights by commercial drones weighing up to 55 pounds (24.95 kg).

An FAA spokeswoman said the new committee’s work was part of a separate effort.

“We recognize the significant industry interest in expanding commercial access to the National Airspace System. The short deadline reinforces our commitment to a flexible regulatory approach,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

Lobbyists predicted the process would take years to produce an actual rule.

The announcement came as lawmakers in Congress consider legislation that would greatly reduce restrictions on micro drones. A six-year FAA reauthorization bill, which could be weeks away from a vote in the House of Representatives, would exempt small drones from requirements including the need for an operator to acquire a pilot’s license.

The FAA said the committee will develop recommendations for performance-based standards fordrones that can be operated safely over people and determine how drone makers can comply with the requirements.

The agency will draft a rule-making proposal after reviewing the committee’s report.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Bill Rigby, Chris Reese and Phil Berlowitz)

Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast turns iconic metal band’s mascot into a mobile gaming star

Maiden's going to mobile.

Few bands could probably inspire a mobile role-playing game, but Iron Maiden has always been special.

Since forming in 1975, the heavy metal group has created 16 studio albums, including The Book of Souls just last year. It was the 10th best-selling metal album in 2015. In total, Iron Maiden has sold over 14 million albums worldwide. But fans have celebrated the band’s mascot just as much is its music. Eddie is a zombie-like creature whose appearance often changes. He’s been front-and-center on the cover of every one of Maiden’s albums. He also adorns nearly every Iron Maiden T-shirt. Now, Eddie’s traveling to the world of mobile with Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast. The game hopes to take advantage of a $34.8 billion mobile industry and potentially introduce the band to a new audience.

GamesBeat interviewed Llexi Leon, creative director for Phantom Music Management (which represents Iron Maiden worldwide) and Hammish Millar, director of the game at developer Roadhouse Interactive. We discussed the Legacy of the Beast, how it’ll incorporate Iron Maiden’s music and art, and why Eddie has become so popular.

Tell me why I had to be a power slave.

Above: Tell me why I had to be a power slave.

Image Credit: Roadhouse Interactive

GamesBeat: How did these two entities, Iron Maiden and your developer, come together?

Llexi Leon: I’ll try and keep a long story short. There’s a gentleman named Gavin Shackell. He’s a partner in a company called 50cc Games. He’d previously worked in the music industry as an executive at Virgin Records. He’d worked with Bruce Dickinson [Iron Maiden’s lead singer] and Rod Smallwood, Iron Maiden’s original manager and still manager today, many years ago. Then he moved into games and felt that Iron Maiden would be a great partner and property to work with for the games industry.

He reached out to us. We said it sounds cool, but we get a lot of offers for all kinds of things. We’d need to see your take on this and why we should do it. We should be compelled to do it for the right reasons, with it being a fantastic product. It turned out that Gavin knew James Hursthouse, the CEO at Roadhouse. James is a massive Maiden fan, an incredible knowledge of the band. They came to an arrangement and came back to us with a very detailed pitch with a lot of love that went into it, a lot of interesting takes on Eddie as a character, how they’d interpret that and interpret the world of Maiden.

That caught my eye, because at the time I’d been brought into the company to oversee some of the digital and interactive and new media creative. I said, these guys know what they’re doing and this is an interesting take on the character. It went from there. It was about six months to a year of back and forth over that and how we’d actually do it and what shape it would take before we knuckled down and did the business deal.

GamesBeat: What exactly is the concept that you settled on?

Hammish Millar: Initially we went through a number of stages in arriving at the concept. One of the starting points was that we wanted to tell the story of Eddie like it hadn’t been told before. We were looking for a format within mobile to flesh out his character and all the facets of Eddie throughout the history and lore of Iron Maiden.

Looking at mobile and knowing that we at Roadhouse are in the free-to-play space, we thought that the party battle RPG would be a great fit. We worked with the biz dev team here to establish that as our core genre. It worked really well, because if you look at the history of Eddie, he has so many different incarnations. That worked quite well in terms of turning each one of those Eddies into a different character.

Look at all those Eddies.

Above: Look at all those Eddies.

Image Credit: Roadhouse Interactive

GamesBeat: Is it a linear exploration of his history, starting with the original Eddie, then going to hell, then being lobotomized, and so on? Or is it all those different versions coming together at once?

Leon: There’s a certain mystique to Eddie. We wanted to preserve that. Even though we’re taking Eddie on a journey and telling a story with him for the first time, a lot of it is about looking at the mythology and a lot of the things you just referenced. Eddie when he’s lobotomized in the asylum, Eddie when he’s a cyborg, Eddie as a space monster, and all these different facets of Eddie and what he has been, is, and will be. Trying to condense that down into a cohesive narrative where we’ve created something new in order for there to be an Eddie that encapsulates all of these things.

So it’s not, to answer your question, a linear tale that tries to tell the story as the albums came out, what was happening to Eddie between these times. It’s a new overarching mythology, but with a lot of details going into it to bring in all of these different imageries from the tour shirts, the event shirts, the tour posters, the album art, the single covers. We’ve looked at everything across four decades of the band’s history and tried to create a new overarching tale that brings that all in and gives it a reason for existing within the context of this game. We want to bring as many of those different Eddies to life as possible, but the way the game is set up is that really they come from all the same Eddie, this Eddie Prime if you will.

A big part of the story, without giving too much away, is that in the beginning, a malevolent force kind of tricks Eddie and shatters his essence and scatters it across the universe. Each piece of his essence represents a different facet of Eddie, one of these different versions of Eddie you would have encountered on your favorite event shirt or album cover.

GamesBeat: Do you guys look at any other RPGs for an influence on this game?

Millar: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve been fairly original in terms of art style. I’d say the one area that we really needed to take influence from was just in terms of the RPG metagame in the mobile space. We want this to be a game that players will play for months and months, not a short set story arc that’s over. That’s more akin to a premium product.

Some of the games we’ve been looking at in terms of benchmark metagame would include Contest of Champions and Summoner’s War. Both of those games do an incredible job of giving the player long and compelling upgrade paths for the characters and reasons to build different teams of characters for different purposes in the context of the metagame.

Aces high!

Above: Aces high!

Image Credit: Roadhouse Interactive

GamesBeat: This is a free-to-play game, so what kind of things will people be able to buy?

Millar: We understand soft and hard currency. But within that context people will be purchasing XP boosts and largely running through a gacha system, where players will be collecting souls as they navigate the worlds of Iron Maiden. Souls can be purchased or collected. That’s where the character collection comes from in the game.

There are Eddies that will be familiar to Maiden fans, for sure. Those will be the rare and valuable characters. But we’ve worked with Legacy to expand the lore of Maiden and invent all these other fascinating characters that we can imagine populating the worlds familiar to Maiden fans from the album covers and tour posters. We’re looking at roughly 200 characters at wide launch. Dozens of Eddies and over 100 supporting characters.

GamesBeat: Will the band members themselves be appearing in the game?

Leon: No. We decided — it’s very much all about Eddie and exploring the worlds that Iron Maiden have created with both their lyrical output, the songs themselves, and the artwork. We’re bringing that to life. The band members aren’t part of that. But their music is a huge part of it. That’s something that — a huge amount of work has gone into re-creating a lot of the music for the game. Long-time fans of the band are going to be excited to hear a lot of previously unreleased recordings of iconic songs from the current band’s lineup that we’ve specially tailored for this production.

GamesBeat: So you’ll be using actual Maiden songs as the soundtrack?

Leon: The soundtrack is expansive. It contains tracks from across the band’s entire history, a huge number of tracks and ever-expanding. The way we’ve tried to incorporate them thematically is that there are worlds in the game, which speaks back to how the main narrative plays out — there are worlds within the game, four at wide launch, and each world is an amalgamation of different Iron Maiden tracks with similar thematical content.

You think about a track from, say, Brave New World, like “The Nomad,” and then a track like “Powerslave.” They’re both set in the desert sands and ancient Egypt and all of this, so we have a world in the game called Kingdom of the Sands that encapsulates all that good stuff. Obviously the soundtrack is appropriate to that.

Reaper Eddie doesn't look happy.

Above: Reaper Eddie doesn’t look happy.

Image Credit: Roadhouse Interactive

GamesBeat: Was it a fun thing to sort of go through all these songs and try to pair them up by theme like that?

Leon: For me it’s the ultimate geekout, having an excuse to listen to nothing but Iron Maiden nonstop for six months, trawling through all the liner notes and the gatefold vinyl stuff. We have something called the Iron Maiden companion, which was compiled by an Italian megafan about 10 years ago. It’s a 400-page compendium of every single piece of tour artwork and shirt artwork and album or single variant artwork he could get his hands on going over about 20 years of the band’s career. Then he followed up and did a volume two that had another 10 years of stuff.

Looking at all this imagery and all the lyrics and all the music and trying to piece it together thematically, seeing what works where and how we can build worlds and narrative out of this stuff. Things, for me, that have been really rewarding seeing it come together — taking concepts, and in some cases things like the Wicker Man, and making that into an actual character and part of the story, how Eddie interacts with that character. And also iconic characters from Maiden history like the Ancient Mariner, which obviously has a deeper history beyond Maiden in the literature that inspired that song. And then we’re looking at both Maiden’s interpretation and the actual poem and drawing from both of those things and bringing that character into the world. There’s a lot of exciting stuff like that in the world-building that’s been thrilling for me.

GamesBeat: I was going to specifically ask you about both of those songs, so that’s awesome.

Leon: It’s all coming. There’s a lot of content at launch, and we have a long-term schedule to bring in more. We’re just starting with these four worlds. As you can imagine, the worlds of Maiden that have been touched on are quite broad. There’s a huge amount we can do in the future as well.

You take my life, but I'll take yours too.

Above: You take my life, but I’ll take yours too.

Image Credit: Roadhouse Interactive

GamesBeat: Other bands have had mascot characters, but it seems like Eddie has sort of transcended the mascot role. He’s become something more. I don’t know exactly what you’d call it. But why do you think Eddie has resonated so well over the years?

Leon: From my point of view, a lot of people initially — I remember as a teen being drawn to Iron Maiden by the album art first. You’d heard of the band and you’d see Eddie on people’s T-shirts or on the cover of Metal Hammer and instantly you’re just like, that’s really damn cool and I want to know more about that. A lot of people, that was their first exposure to Maiden, through Eddie. They were drawn to the band because of the character.

But in terms of why he’s transcended that role, I think it’s because the band, they’ve never really put themselves in the spotlight. It’s always been Eddie. There are very few bands that, over 16 studio albums, have their mascot, if you will, take the spotlight on every cover and every tour poster. Whenever they go to different countries they do these themed versions of Eddie, so as well as the iconic album ones, you then have Viking Eddie or samurai Eddie that’s come about from the band going to those territories and wanting to bring Eddie with them. He’s obviously become part of the live show, so all of a sudden you have a seven-foot cyborg on stage battling the band. This is something unique to the theatrics and imagery of Iron Maiden.

The game, because of the mystique around Eddie, he’s sort of all things to all people. Or he can be a lot of different things to a lot of different people. That’s fascinating as well, because he isn’t this archetypal hero character, or even an anti-hero. He has so many different guises and so many different roles that people gravitate toward him for different reasons.

That, to me, is probably the thing that’s most exciting about Eddie. You can’t put him in a box and say, this is what he is. You can get a huge amount of feedback from the fans about what Eddie is to them, and then we can try and act on that and allow the fans to tailor Eddie to what they want him to be based on all the things he has been.

Millar: To add my perspective, first and foremost, Maiden has the coolest shirts. Most of the metal bands I’ve seen interviewed that have been asked about that will agree. Because it was working so well, I think the band just continued with it. If you look at some of these other bands that have grown and changed over time, there’s a difficult balance to strike between growing and changing and still maintaining a sense of cohesion.

Eddie seems to be that conduit for Iron Maiden. They can branch out and change and experiment, but it’s all sort of anchored in Eddie, whether it’s the live theatrics on stage, the album art, or tour posters and localizing those just as Llexi pointed out. In many ways he’s this conduit through which all of the band’s experimentation gets pushed, and he ties it all together really well. It’s really cool.

Eddie from the band's second album, Killers. This is often considered his most classic appearance.

Above: Eddie from the band’s second album, Killers. This is often considered his most classic appearance.

Image Credit: Rock

GamesBeat: You were talking about how part of Eddie’s appeal is how he can be different things to different people. He doesn’t necessarily have a set personality or anything like that. Does that make it challenging when you try to adapt the character into something like a game?

Leon: You have to treat him with the reverence he deserves. There’s certainly an attitude and an energy to Eddie that comes through in almost all the imagery I’ve ever seen of him. We try to capture that. The decision was made early on that Eddie’s kind of a primal force, almost a force of free will. He’s not necessarily a character that articulates in English or has verbose conversations. We went with what I refer to as the “hero of all of time” approach, which is fitting given his predilection for time travel.

The story is driven forward by the characters around Eddie that he interacts with. Eddie doesn’t actually converse directly. So we maintain this mystery around him, which I think is pivotal to his character. In his case, it’s about what he does, not what he says.

Millar: We have that challenge there, where you do want to leave him open enough that people who are playing the game can project themselves onto Eddie and identify with him. But the more specific you make him, it’s a bit like when Final Fantasy [X] gave Tidus a voice. Suddenly they lost some people and their connection to the main character.

For the most part he’ll be a silent protagonist. But at the same time you’ll see him go on his own character arc over the game. While it doesn’t follow any linear fashion, the exact part that Eddie’s taken throughout the history of the band, you will see some parallels. One of those would be, when you look at when Iron Maiden first started as more of a punk band, more aggressive — you look at the Killers cover, for example. As the band matured and they started — the pure aggression became intertwined with larger questions about life, what is real, what is right, what is wrong, what is here.The clairvoyant Eddie, the Seventh Son Eddie, almost transcending the initial state that Eddie began in.

You’ll see Eddie change and grow throughout the game in parallel with that. Starting out as perhaps more of a pure revenge motivation and then really starting to ask larger question in terms of, what is this plot that’s starting to unravel? Perhaps it’s actually bigger than Eddie himself. Maybe Eddie has a greater purpose in the game.

Cyborg Eddie is the best Eddie.

Above: Cyborg Eddie is the best Eddie.

Image Credit: Iron Maiden

GamesBeat: Do you guys have a favorite version of Eddie yourselves?

Leon: For me, it’s kind of an amalgamation thing. I really like Holy Smoke Eddie, the classic Eddie with the white hair and the leather jacket. That’s why, when I got the opportunity to that bit of live video, I immediately went for him being the archetype — ripped jeans and a T-shirt and a leather jacket, that very classic look. But they’re all just fantastic. There are a few cool new ones we’re doing as well. One I’m working on right now I’m very psyched about, but I can’t talk about it.

Millar: The answer to that question has been somewhat influenced by working on the game. Some of the Eddies really show well in our game engine. Somewhere in Time, the cyborg Eddie, has become my favorite as a result of looking at him and playing with him in the game.

GamesBeat: Cyborg Eddie is the right answer. [Laughs] Somewhere in Time was my first Iron Maiden album, so that’s always the one I’ve loved the most. Do you guys have a target release date for this?

Millar: We do. We’re planning on soft launching the game toward the end of March within a small set of countries. That list hasn’t been confirmed. We’ll be rolling out into a wide launch in the next few months following that. More details on an exact worldwide launch will be forthcoming.

More information:

Netflix Now Testing Autoplaying Trailers

family watching netflix Netflix is again testing how to best integrate teaser trailers into its user experience. At Mobile World Congress, the company talked about a test of autoplaying video trailers that would begin to play when users hovered over a title. But the company is also quietly testing a different format of teaser trailer, as well. Some Netflix members are now seeing audio and video teasers as they… Read More

YouTube now lets you blur out anything in a video

The new Custom Blurring feature in YouTube.

Google today announced the launch of a smart feature people can use once they’ve uploaded videos to YouTube. Now you can draw a box around the thing you want to blur in a video, and YouTube will automatically keep that thing from being seen clearly, even as it moves elsewhere in the frame.

With this new Custom Blurring feature, you can adjust the size of the box, move it, and adjust the start and stop time. A Lock button keeps the blurred box in the same place. You can save the changes to your video or create a separate one that reflects your changes.

“While the use cases for this tool are vast, we built this feature with visual anonymity in mind,” YouTube privacy lead Amanda Conway wrote in a blog post. “We wanted to give you a simple way to blur things like people, contact information or financial data without having to remove and re-upload your content.”

Custom Blurring builds on the introduction of face-blurring capability in YouTube in 2012. But this is far more granular.

YouTube has more than 1 billion active users, and Google frequently adds or ipmroves features to the service, including some intended just for creators. For instance, Google recently improved the system that recommends frames that people can use as thumbnails for videos they upload. Google also recently launched a translation marketplace for creators.

You can find Custom Blurring in the Blurring Effects tab of the Enhancements tool in YouTube.

Microsoft launches Azure Security Center Advanced Threat Detection, third-party tools coming in a few weeks

Microsoft's booth at Mobile World Conference 2015 in Barcelona.

Microsoft today announced the launch of multiple products that are meant to make companies more secure online.

Perhaps the most compelling new feature is a more intelligent way to spot threats that could affect applications and data that companies are running on Microsoft Azure. Today Microsoft is introducing a service called Advanced Threat Detection for the Azure Security Center that’s been available in public preview since December.

“After years of examining crash dumps that our customers opted to send to Microsoft from more than a billion PCs worldwide, Microsoft has developed the capability to analyze this data to effectively detect compromised systems because crashes are often the result of failed exploitation attempts and brittle malware,” Bret Arsenault, Microsoft’s chief information security officer, wrote in a blog post. Not surprisingly, Microsoft won’t be going it alone here. In the coming weeks Azure Security Center will make room for add-ons from third-party vendors, Arsenault wrote.

With many customers, Azure operates at scale. Now Microsoft is taking advantage of that scale. This is one way for Microsoft to try to stand out from cloud infrastructure rivals Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud Platform.

But cloud infrastructure isn’t the only layer in which Microsoft gets cloud business. The company also fields Office 365 and other software. Toward that end, last year Microsoft acquired cloud security startup Adallom, which monitored usage to discover irregularities that could turn out to be threatening.

Microsoft took the Adallom technology and used it to build something called Microsoft Cloud App Security. Now that tool will become available in April, Arsenault wrote. That service can give Office 365 admins alerts on suspicious activity and information about the cloud services that end users are using.

Microsoft also will be extending its Customer Lockbox technology for limiting what Microsoft employees can do with end users’ data. The tool will become available for SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business early in the second quarter of 2016. (Last year Microsoft said SharePoint Online would get it in the first quarter. The feature currently works with Exchange Online.)

In addition, Microsoft is starting a public preview for a new service called Azure Active Directory Identity Protection. Here’s Arsenault’s explanation of it:

Azure Active Directory security capabilities are built on Microsoft’s experience protecting consumer identities, and gains tremendous accuracy by analyzing the signal from over 14 billion logins to help identify 300,000 potentially compromised user authentications per a day. Azure Active Directory Identity Protection builds on these results and detects suspicious activities for end users and privileged identities based on signals like brute force attacks, leaked credentials, sign ins from unfamiliar locations and infected devices. Based on these suspicious activities, a user risk severity is calculated and risk-based policies can be configured allowing the service to automatically protect the identities of your organization from future threats.

The preview begins next week, Arsenault wrote.

Facebook AI Research is donating servers to European academic researchers

Facebook Coke cans Social FTW Flickr

The Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research (FAIR) lab today announced a new partnership program that will benefit academic researchers in Europe. It’s not just that Facebook will work in lockstep with the academics — Facebook will actually be giving out 25 servers powered with graphics processing units (GPUs), free of charge.

“These will be utilized to accelerate research efforts in AI and machine learning. FAIR will also work with recipients to ensure they have the software required to run the servers and send researchers to collaborate with these institutions,” FAIR engineering director Serkan Piantino and research lead Florent Perronnin wrote in a blog post.

Why is this interesting? Because it’s a novel way for Facebook to keep its eye on some of the most promising AI researchers and techniques. Eventually these giveaways could turn into hires for Facebook. And if that does happen, the researchers will already be well acquainted with Facebook’s AI hardware and software. There are certainly other stacks to choose from. With the donations of real gear, Facebook is being proactive.

The first person to receive four of these GPU servers is Klaus-Robert Müller of Technische Universität Berlin. “Dr. Müller will receive four GPU servers that will enable his team to make quicker progress in two research areas: image analysis of breast cancer and chemical modeling of molecules,” Piantino and Perronnin wrote.

It’s not as if the appearance of the hardware in claustrophobic university basement offices will be a revelation. Facebook last year shared the designs for its AI servers for all to inspect. And Facebook has open-sourced some of its AI software.

And the FAIR lab has been growing, particularly in Europe. With this partnership program, continuing expansion would not be a surprise.

Qubit Raises $40m in Series C Round

When the University of California-Berkeley's School of Information asked 43 industry professionals for their definition of "Big Data" in 2014, it received 43 different answers. Most answers touched on the "three V" parameters of Big Data popularized by Gartner, Inc.: high-volume, high-velocity, and high-variety information assets requiring advanced forms of information processing to fully unlock their potential.

How Bruce Shelley brought a board gamer’s view into designing Civilization

Bruce Shelley, co-creator of Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, and Age of Empires.

Before he worked on Civilization with legendary game designer Sid Meier, Bruce Shelley was a board game designer at companies such as Avalon Hill. He designed games on paper back in the 1980s and 1990s, and it was easier to keep revising until the game was right. That’s a lot like how Meier made one prototype after another on computers.

Together, they worked on Railroad Tycoon. And then they doubled up on the first Civilization empire-building game, which debuted in 1991 to great acclaim. Evidently, they did something right. Civilization has 33 million copies in sales to date, including 8 million for its latest, 2010’s Civilization V and its expansions. Meier’s teams at MicroProse and Firaxis created 66 versions of the game across all platforms throughout the history of the franchise. Based on extrapolations from sales on the Steam digital distribution and community platform, the Civ series has been played for more than a billion hours.

Shelley, Meier, Brian Reynolds (who created Civilization II and Alpha Centauri), and Soren Johnson (lead designer for Civilization IV) talked about the 25th anniversary of Civilization at the DICE Summit, the elite game industry event in Las Vegas last week. Afterward, I caught up with Shelley to ask him to go deeper on designing Civilization and how he designs games today.

Shelley went on to work on titles such as Age of Empires at Ensemble Studios. More recently, he worked at Zynga and as chief game designer at BonusXP, creating the real-time strategy mobile game The Incorruptibles for MaxPlay.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Civilization box art

Above: Civilization box art

Image Credit: MicroProse

GamesBeat: How did the celebration make you feel? Nostalgic?

Bruce Shelley: Nostalgic, sure. I was gone after the original Civ, so learning more about the details of Civ 2 and Civ 3 and Civ 4 was interesting for me. I didn’t know some of those stories. The things they had to deal with—I think both Sorin and Brian were articulate about some of the things we dealt with. I’d never considered that. I was there for the original project, but it was interesting to learn about how they dealt with what followed.

GamesBeat: How many years were you at MicroProse?

Shelley: I was there about five years. I came in February of 1988 and left at Christmas of 1992.

GamesBeat: What was most memorable about the original Civ for you?

Shelley: There were a couple of things. First of all, we just knew we were working on something that was going to blow people’s minds. Nobody knew that this little town north of Baltimore was making something that was going to go off like a bomb. I thought we were making something really special. But the thing that was most interesting about it—Sid trusted me to a point where I was the only one allowed to play the game for months.

I still have this 5 1/4” floppy disc dated May of 1990. That was the first time I’d heard about the game. He gave me this disc and said, “Play this and tell me what you think.” That was the beginning, for me. From there on, on a daily basis I’d get a new version from him and we’d find a couple of hours to sit down and talk about what we played. Then he would write new code. Sometimes he’d ask for a suggestion – “I’ve got a problem, how do I solve this?” – and usually he’d come up with an answer. I never knew if he took any of my suggestions until all of a sudden it might be in the game next time I got a build.

But for months I was the only one who got to play the game. Other people were dying to play it. I’d have a crowd in the office sometimes watching me play. But he just wanted me to do it. Looking back, I’m thrilled it was me, but in the long term it was probably a mistake to have the focus be just one person. I’ve learned that you need to have many more people looking at the product and get more input on what works and doesn’t work. He said, “You were like Everyman. I treated you like Everyman.”

GamesBeat: Were you just a designer, or did you do some of the actual coding?

Shelley: I didn’t do any coding. My jobs were—I was running other projects, producing other things. I was assigned to him to do whatever he needed. I was his producer, so I liaised with marketing and sales and the president and anybody else who needed to know what was going on with the game. Unless Sid wanted to, it was my job to go down the hall to the meetings and tell everyone what we were doing.

I had to work with the artists about what pieces we needed when we got to the point where we needed art and music. When we did playtesting I ran all the playtesting sessions and kept the bug lists. He would be busy coding and designing. I was also expected to play and tell him what I was thinking. I also wrote a lot of things – the manual, all the text in the game. I think I wrote most of that. There’s another guy says he wrote a lot of it, so maybe he did. I don’t know.

Civilization 5: Gods and Kings

GamesBeat: You were prototyping way back then. That was the main way of finding out if something was good?

Shelley: I came from board games, and that’s how we made board games. We’d have paper and pencil and cards and blackboards and we’d try to break down the rules as we went along. That’s what he was doing, essentially. I learned from that. He always had half a dozen prototype games on PC. Every once in a while he’d show me something. “Take a look at this and see what you think.” Usually it would never come to fruition. It was just an idea he had, and he couldn’t get it past that stage. But Railroad Tycoon and Civilization were both ideas that he puttered around with and then turned into products.

There was no design document. There was no plan. It was like Shigeru Miyamoto in Japan said once. You put a guy in a cave, what’s he going to do? What does he see? He builds a game based on what that character is seeing. This is a different approach, where you take a basic game, play it, and ask yourself, “What’s it missing? What’s not working? What does work? What do I change?” Then you code some more and do it over again.

The only design doc we had was the stuff I had to give to the test people for a plan. “This is what’s supposed to work.” We’d test against that document, but it wasn’t the design, not directly. I took that idea with me when I got involved with Ensemble Studios. I was one of the few people there who’d ever made a game before. I said, “This is what I know. This works.”

The problem was, we didn’t realize what would happen when the timing sped up. It’s hard to predict when you’ll be done if you’re constantly prototyping and evolving and iterating. When is the game finished? You have to make a call. There’s enough here that it works as a solid body. That’s why publishers don’t feel comfortable with that. But we were lucky at Ensemble to have Microsoft as our publisher. The guys in charge at the time were gamers. We could demonstrate that the game was close, but it needed a little more work, and the company had the resources to let us pursue it.

We learned a lesson, because all of those games we made were very successful. They were late, but nobody cared that it was late once it started selling really well. The old comment was, “A game that’s mediocre and on time is a failure. A game that’s great is a success whenever you release it.” But you have to have the pocketbook to allow that process to continue. We had skilled people that would let us do it.

Sid was the same way. No one knew when Civilization was going to be finished until Sid said, “Okay, I think we’re done. We have enough in it. It’s working. The systems all integrate well.” The guys at MicroProse were always saying, “When will this game be done? What are we doing with this thing?” I’d tell the VP of development, “I don’t know. Sid doesn’t know.”

GamesBeat: What happened with the change in Civilization’s ownership? What happened after MicroProse?

Shelley: That’s a good question, and I don’t really know myself. I was gone. They did Civ II. MicroProse merged with another company, I think, a California company. Spectrum Holobyte? They merged, and then they were purchased in a fire sale by Infogrames. Then Infogrames blew up. Somewhere along the line Take-Two purchased Firaxis and then bought the rights to Civilization from whoever owned it. I believe it was Infogrames, but I’m not sure. But they reunited Sid with Civilization and they’ve been together ever since.

the incorruptibles

GamesBeat: One of the legacies of Civilization seems to be that it created this group of designers who went off in different directions and created more games inspired by Civilization — Age of Empires, Rise of Nations.

Shelley: Soren hasn’t given up on doing something along those lines. Brian’s working on DomiNations.

GamesBeat: It almost seems like the game industry and gamers are better off for it.

Shelley: It’s a good point. Brian went to work with Zynga and build FrontierVille. I was freelancing with a German studio at the time. He said, “I’d like you to consider doing some work for Zynga. We needed more people from the Sid Meier school of design at Zynga.” They had metrics and all that other stuff, but they didn’t have enough game design. I remember that comment. “We need people from the Sid Meier school.”

I believe that I influenced how Ensemble Studios did things. Now there are three or four companies in Dallas, and several of them—At least the one I work with now, BonusXP, we build games in the same way. I have a photograph of Dave Pottinger with a paper prototype of the game we’re building now. It started out on paper. It worked, we liked it, and in three weeks we had a multiplayer game that you could play over the internet. We’re proceeding on that project today.

GamesBeat: What was the last game you worked on, the mobile game?

Shelley: It’s called The Incorruptibles. It’s an attempt to bring RTS to mobile in a shorter experience.

Age of Empires II

Above: Age of Empires II

Image Credit: Microsoft

GamesBeat: What inspired that? Is there anything you’ve learned working in mobile?

Shelley: It was started before I came to work there. There was a little bit underway. It’s evolved. But I think mobile—You have to teach people and get them interested faster. Mobile is a throwaway platform. People load and try a game and throw it away in half an hour. You don’t have a lot of time to convince them that this is something they want. There’s a heavy emphasis on the first experience. The minutes and seconds are important. How do you hold on to people? First-day retention is a huge metric. We have to think about that.

When you’re dealing with monetization, that’s whole different animal. We have to design a great game, but we also have to design a way to make money with it. It’s a whole layer of design I never had to deal with before I got to mobile. It’s been a big struggle for a lot of people. We’d all like to just go back to the PC days. Firaxis has done really well on Steam.

If we had our druthers we’d go back to making a game where you paid a little up front and downloaded some content. This whole idea of trying to get you to monetize with mini-purchases and paywalls, I find that very irritating as a gamer. I don’t know if the idea’s days are numbered. Some very successful games are doing well. But it’s hard for a small studio or a new game to compete with the top 15, 25, 50 games on the grossing lists.

GamesBeat: What do you think of the state of the game industry at large?

Shelley: It’s rich and vital. It’s exciting to see all the stuff that’s happening. I’m concerned a bit that a few games are taking up so much play time. But new audiences are playing these games that we never had before. The Facebook platform was making entertainment for people who hadn’t played traditional games. Many of those people had played solitaire and not much else. Now they’re involved in all these other games.

I’m not sure that Clash of Clans and Candy Crush—Are those people from the traditional gaming population, or are they all new? My guess is that if we figure out a way to entertain people who were not in the gaming community 10 years ago, those people are willing to pay enough money to support a whole new segment of the industry.

Meanwhile, people who’ve liked more traditional games are still getting plenty of stuff that entertains them. I’m staggered by the sales numbers for games these days. If you don’t do multi-millions, you can’t even get funding for a triple-A title these days. At Ensemble, in the beginning, they said we had to do 100,000 units for our first game. By the time we finished Age of Empires the break-even was more like 600,000, and we thought, “Oh my gosh, what a hole we’ve dug!” Then within I don’t know how many months we matched that number. It was a revelation.

There are so many more people involved in gaming, though. It’s a rich, vital universe. I still think a small team can make something interesting. That’s never changed.

GamesBeat: Are there certain kinds of games you want to keep making?

Shelley: I don’t have a lot of ambition anymore. I’ve gotten to make most of the games I ever wanted to make. I’m not sure I feel completely comfortable with some of the new things that are happening. I’m not really happy with the monetization in free-to-play games. It just doesn’t feel right to me. I’d rather pay five bucks up front and buy a game.

Civilization IV

Above: Civilization IV

Image Credit: 2K Games

GamesBeat: Some of the games that dominate the top-grossing charts don’t seem like very fun games.

Shelley: None of them hold my attention. I play them because I feel like I should see what a successful product is like today. I think I understand why they’re successful. But it’s not what I want to do. I’m happier with something more complex.

I was asked to speak to a German game group. I said, “Here are some speeches I’ve given elsewhere. Do any of these fit the bill?” They said, “Yeah, this one works.” I talked about how there are these archetypes, these player names – the explorer, the achiever. They’re the types of people who play games. I said, “I don’t understand how you build these games where people work on their towns or whatever and they just manage them.”

They said, “Well, we have a different player type here. We have the laborer. A fellow comes home from work and spends an hour building his cathedral. Next day he comes back and lays some more bricks.” There’s not any intense confrontation going on. He’s just building something, working on something. It’s more satisfying, maybe, than his own job. The game is feeding him back information – “You’re doing a great job! Your cathedral is beautiful!” He doesn’t get that satisfaction at work, maybe. It replaces some of the satisfaction he doesn’t get in the real world. I’d never considered there was this other concept, this other type of player. I believe that some of these games, Clash of Clans or something like that, people just plug in and labor for a while.

The typical American gamer, I want to think, would rather play a game of football. He doesn’t just want to manage the team. I’ve never liked the soccer management games. But that’s very popular in parts of Europe, where you’re the general upstairs instead of the general on the field. There’s some satisfaction in that. It’s obviously fun for people. But it’s not what I grew up playing. I grew up pushing pieces around and finding out if I was winning or losing by how I was managing my team.

GamesBeat: What do you think of new platforms like VR and AR?

Shelley: AR is closer to being significant. I look at this table and imagine the pieces there alive and moving. That’s something I can do socially. VR is inevitable, but it has to be something like my glasses here. A big bulky thing I put on, I don’t know. I’ve done some VR stuff to just try it out. I’m very impressed with it. It’s very cool. But I’ve read that games are only five percent of the expected applications for VR in the near term. I don’t think we’ll drive that industry like we drove PCs.

GamesBeat: It’ll all be part of the next 25 years.

Shelley: I was supposed to say, “Look back in 25 years and we’ll see what happened.” I thought I’d say, “We’ll see what’s happened to the game of Civilization, or what’s happened to real civilization.” 25 years is a long time. We didn’t have email 25 years ago. Will there be something coming along in the interim that will be such a dramatic change in our lives that we’ll still be aware of it in 25 years? I don’t know. It seems like the rate of change in technology is increasing. I’d expect some dramatic change. But it may be in something we haven’t anticipated.

There is so much work being done in energy. We may have a revolutionary technology in energy. It won’t matter to us as gamers, but what if there’s a breakthrough on fusion or battery technology? Any of that could revolutionize our lives. We don’t see it coming, but you know people are working on it. There are lots of little breakthroughs. We saw this recent discovery on gravitational waves. What are the implications of that in the next 25 years?

I’ll be 92 in 25 years. I don’t know if I’ll be around to see it. I was joking with them a bit. There’s a good chance that all those other guys will be there in 25 years, but I’m not sure about 92 for me.

Civilization: Beyond Earth - Rising Tide

Above: Civilization: Beyond Earth – Rising Tide adds a host of aquatic units that do more than look pretty.

Image Credit: 2K Games

GamesBeat: Well, modern medicine could change all that.

Shelley: My mom’s 93, but she’s confined to a wheelchair. She’s not the college professor she was at one time.

GamesBeat: There are still these new generations encountering Civ for the first time, though.

Shelley: Yeah. I don’t know if they have any metrics on that. How many of these people are new? I wanted to bring this up. Civ V sold 8 million copies versus 1.5 million for the original Civ. When Civ was released, the Iron Curtain had just come down. China hadn’t taken off. India wasn’t taking off economically. Are China, India, and eastern Europe big markets now? Do they know how many games they’re selling into those markets? There were no sales there 25 years ago. Is that part of the 8 million?

They get a lot of mail from people who’ve been playing Civilization for a long time. They’re fans. They’re proactive. They have a lot of ideas. They’re all waiting for Civ VI. I assume that’s in the works, although I don’t know for sure.

It’s a question for me. Why is this game succeeding? Why does it do so well in a world where we play things in five-minute bursts? Here’s a game where you have to invest hours. How does that work? Are those the same laborers? Is this our approach to that kind of “labor,” a game with winners and losers and little victories instead of just watching a cathedral go up slowly? I don’t know.

Email multivariate testing: What it is and why you need it

ab testing.shutterstock_228385906

This sponsored post is produced in association with MailChimp.

If you’re buying a new car, you don’t just walk into a dealer and open up your checkbook when you see a vehicle that has a pretty color. You do your research, look for the best price, but also carefully evaluate the features and specifications that you want — and finally jump in with the salesperson for a test drive to see how it handles in real-world situations.

If you regularly do that when you’re buying something important, then why would you create a pricey marketing campaign and send it out in the world without a similar tryout process?

Collateral damage

The fact is, a lot of marketing departments do just that, putting their budgets at risk with untested campaigns. The smart ones, though, are staying abreast of cutting-edge marketing tactics and taking advantage of the latest technology, using multivariate testing to help them quickly and easily figure out what email content works most effectively with their audience.

Another way to put this? At a time when email volume has increased by almost 25 percent year over year, you simply can’t afford to not be testing and determining what will make your customers click.

A/B testing has been the norm in online/email marketing for a long time, where a company does a comparison between two different approaches to figure out which is more popular. Multivariate testing takes that to an extreme, enabling a marketer to try out different combinations of content – as many as eight different campaigns simultaneously — to determine the version that gets the most attention and activity. From there, using the “better” campaign should bring the best results, leading to improved return on your time and resources investment.

Multivariate testing platforms like MailChimp enable you to alter the content, trying such things as:

  • different headlines with varied wording and word counts
  • different design elements/layout
  • different subject lines
  • different times of day or different days for sending out emails

You can then easily measure how each of these changes affects the results – and it can be dramatic. You get a breakdown of how each combination is pulling — gauged on open rate, click rate, revenue generated, or any other data you feel is more indicative. You can then follow that by expanding the audience and running the “best” promotion, conceivably generating the largest returns across your entire consumer base.

What makes your audience click?

The key is to alter different variables in your testing, and multivariate testing gives you the ability to try out different permutations, determining what will impact your open rate the most.

For example, you may find that your audience is more likely to open your email when there’s a specific person’s name on the “From:” line instead of your company name (maybe you’ve established a “personality” as the face of your brand). Or an emoji in the email’s subject line may make it more likely that they’ll read the piece over a plain-text subject.

Time of day/day of week can also impact open rates depending on your specific product and audience behavior. Will recipients be more likely to engage if it’s sent at 10am or 6pm…Wednesday or Friday…Wednesday at 10am or Friday at 6pm?

Similarly, you can test which call-to-action graphic performs better by analyzing how the click rate varies from one to the next (and what was clicked on). Perhaps a particular color scheme within the content inspires your audience to tap the mouse button more, an animated GIF drives more clicks than a static image, or recipients respond more to linked text over a linked image.

Separating the wheat from the chaff

You can collect all the data you want, but it doesn’t actually help you much if it’s not coupled with detailed analytics. Multivariate testing will undoubtedly generate plenty of valuable data, and the software breaks out all of those results into rich reports you can use to compare the campaigns being tested.

You’ll get to see how many users opened your email, what they clicked on within the email, and how much they purchased as a result of the campaign mailer, as well as how many emails bounced, how many generated unsubscribe requests, the number of times your email was reported as spam, and more.

It’s also critical to get information on whether users shared the email, if there was social interaction (such as Facebook likes), and if the email spawned subsequent conversations between customers and staff. If the intended recipient forwarded your email to others, you’ll also see how many times it was forwarded and how those pass-along recipients interacted with your email.

Ask and ye shall receive

You’ll only know what works if you “ask” your audience, and multivariate testing becomes your own private focus group to decide what your users prefer versus what they don’t (with a much lower price tag than watching a random group chatter and eat pizza for a few hours from behind a one-way mirror).

Because your audience changes organically over time, multivariate testing is a vital tool that should be used to keep up with the wants and needs of your audience. But there’s only one way for you to know for sure how your audience will react: Give multivariate testing a try, and see if you can spark a dramatic improvement in your marketing efficiency. It’s worth a test drive.

Mobile virtual reality on track to hit $861M in revenues this year

People wear Samsung Gear VR devices as they attend the launching ceremony of the new Samsung S7 and S7 edge smartphones during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 21, 2016.

You’re going to need a big ol’ pile of cash if you want to get into high-end virtual reality on the PC, but that is creating an opportunity for Samsung and Google to sweep up entry-level consumers.

Mobile VR is on track to reach $861 million in revenues this year, according to data firm SuperData Research. That is a big increase for a market that is only just getting off the ground thanks to Samsung’s Gear VR (which it makes with Oculus VR) and Google’s Cardboard casings, which enable smartphones to power virtual reality games and apps. While Samsung and Google are not jumping out of bed each morning to fight over less than $1 billion, both are treating this as a chance to establish themselves as leaders for early adopters and developers.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs is predicting VR will grow to $110 billion by 2020 if you also include the related augmented reality space that combines virtual imagery with the physical world. With that kind of money up for grabs, Google and Samsung see an opportunity to control how you download VR software. The Google Play store already has dozens of VR apps, and keeping that library growing is one of the key ways that the companies could stand to profit.

So Google and Samsung are doubling their efforts to capitalize on mobile VR spending and controlling software distribution.

“Samsung will soon expand the mobile VR audience by bundling free Gear VR headsets with preorders of its Galaxy S7 smartphone,” SuperData chief executive and head researcher Joost van Dreunen said. “Google, which already dominates the low-end of mobile VR with Cardboard, wants to move upmarket and is rumored to be working on a Gear VR competitor.”

Google’s rumored VR system will sit somewhere between the Gear VR, the high-end Oculus Rift, and Microsoft’s AR HoloLens. It will probably use primarily smartphone components, like the Gear VR does. Google is reportedly building it specifically for VR, so it’s not a smartphone holder, like the Rift. And it will not need to hook up to your PC because it is an all-in-one device like the HoloLens.

A device like that would get expensive, but it could probably pack in a bigger battery and more sensors than the Gear VR, and it wouldn’t need a $1,200 PC to power it.

“With the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive costing $600 and $800 respectively [on top of the cost of a PC], mobile is how mainstream consumers will experience VR in the near future,” said van Dreunen.

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