DVD Review: Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball

Speaking of product design, today’s convalescence (bad head cold) meant I could gorge on the DVD for the documentary Tilt and it’s copious extras.

The movie focuses on the development of Pinball 2000, an attempt by Williams to salvage a dwindling market for its pinball games. I found out about the film through Khoi’s post from last July (definitely worth reading), and, as one who plays the silver ball, thought it was worth a shot.

The movie itself is quite short, barely over an hour in length. It probably serves best as a Harvard Business Review-like case study in product design, development, marketing, and strategy. What’s most interesting is how Pinball 2000 accomplished nearly everything it set out to do (and in a remarkably short period of time), and Williams killed its pinball business anyway. In an interview (MP3) with the filmmaker Greg Maletic, radio host Faith Salie introduced the film by saying, “You’ve probably heard the saying, “Innovate, or die.” But what happens if you innovate and die?”

As Khoi points out, there are plenty of tasty bits for those of us interested in experience design. Most of that is in the trove of extra material provided, including in-depth discussions of the process of designing a pinball game, the different styles that different designers have, and how these designers were very much aware of not just the playability (which was paramount), but feasbility from a cost, engineering, and maintenance perspective.

Unfortunately, I can’t recommend this film to those who aren’t interested in pinball. From a filmmaking standpoint Maletic had two big strikes against him — focus on a niche product (pinball companies were happy to build 5,000 of a product), and a story that, at the time of release, was 6 years old. Maletic never makes it clear why this is an important story that overcomes its nicheness and its age, so it’s really only interesting to pinball devotees. But, as he explains in the commentary, he tried very hard to make a movie that appealed to a non-pinball audience, and so he watered down some of the interesting discussion of design and technology, forcing interested parties to scour the extras to get all the meat off the bone.

My Negative Nelly-ism notwithstanding, Maletic is to be congratulated on producing a quality doc on what must have been a shoestring budget, and pretty much all on his own (he even rendered the animations in the film). It turns out he’s an active blogger with a passion for entertainments of all sorts — amusement parks, pinball, movies. He’s currently working at Bunchball. (What the hell is with the Bunchball website? When Bunchball first launched, it seemed to be about social games. Now it’s about “engagement,” “web catalytics” and “making your site sticky,” all kinds of hideous marketing-ese that obscures just what on earth they are about. Oop. There’s the Negative Nelly again.)

Locating value in interaction design consultancies

One of the trickiest challenges I have is defining what kind of services firm Adaptive Path is. For the sake of this post, let’s say AP is a firm that designs for interactive media — websites, software, mobile phones, devices, and kiosks.

Design for interactive media is a hot space right now, because of all the money flooding in online advertising. For example, Schematic was acquired last September by WPP, a massive holding company of communications services firms. Unsubstantiated word is that Schematic went for 6 times earnings, which is astounding, considering services firms typically get at best 3x. (12 years ago, I worked with Schematic CEO Trevor Kaufman when he lead up the website at Voyager. What a long strange trip!)

The thing is, AP is not an interactive design firm like Schematic, Organic, Razorfish, Digitas, etc. For one thing, we’re much smaller (though we feel big to ourselves, at 32 employees, we’re about a fifth to a tenth of the size of these others firms). But, and this is the crux of this post, we pretty much don’t touch marketing, and never advertising.

(In 2005, we decided to never do “just marketing” work again. This is because, although lucrative, as attested to by the growth of these other agencies, we realized that the people we brought on pretty much loathed marketing communications. We don’t want to work on the stuff that talks about the thing — we want to work on the thing itself.)

See, all these other companies are essentially interactive agencies, with a heavy emphasis on advertising and media planning. And currently, because of the movement of advertising dollars online, these companies are doing remarkably well.

Adaptive Path is more like an interaction design analog of an IDEO or Frog — where they began with industrial design, we began with interaction design, and we’ve all evolved into product strategy and design firms. In 2007, we found ourselves going up against IDEO and Frog far more than interactive agencies.

Now, back to the title of this post. I suspect that “the market” finds it a lot easier to find value in interactive marketing agencies more than in interactive product consultancies. And what I’m trying to figure out is why this is the case. Products (and I’m using that term generically, to include services and all manner of offerings) are what provides value. They are what get people to spend money, to engage in a service. They *create* value. But it’s marketing design, particularly advertising, which is what has been lucrative — think of the big ad firms going back 40, 50, 60 years. There are no big product design firms more than 30 years old, and there still isn’t anywhere near the kind of money in product design as in marketing.

(As I write this, I realize that the rise of the product design firm over the last 30 years, and the two companies I most associate with that rise (IDEO and Frog) are pretty much the result of the increasing complexity of product design thanks to computerization.)

I don’t have a close to this thought. I’ve just been mulling over why product design firms, which create value, don’t seem to be perceived as valuable as marketing design firms.

A Book Only San Francisco History Dorks Should Read

I also just finished Wings of Cherubs, a book that uncovers the history of Pisco Punch, a San Francisco cocktail famous at the turn of the last century. I’d stumbled across Pisco Punch in an article from an old California Historical Quarterly titled “The Secrets of Pisco Punch Revealed” (reprinted here). I then traveled to Chile and Peru and had many Pisco Sours, and have been smitten with the history of the concoction.

Wings is the strangest book I’ve read in a long time. The author has done some amazing research on the history of pisco and Pisco Punch in San Francisco, and a little bit about early bar scenes. Instead of presenting this in a straightforward fashion, he adopts the mode of a quasi-historical novel. I say “quasi” because he uses tales of his present-day research (poring through archives in the San Francisco Public Library, visiting the sites where the history happened) as mechanisms for transporting him to the past, meeting the various personages important to the story. Also, it’s clear that English is not the author’s first language, and that no copy editor was employed — sentences run on, the structure is clunky, and at times you’re unclear of what, exactly, is happening.

All that said, I eagerly recommend this book to SF history nerds. The poor diction is more than made up for by the passion, enthusiasm, and vigor with with the story is told, so the reader is swept along by the historical discoveries. It’s also one of the few histories of this period of SF that neglects the earthquake, which is fine by me. I also appreciated the insight into San Francisco’s early connections with Peru, which was an important port on the trip around South America to and from SF.

It’s a shame no bars in San Francisco make Pisco Punch any longer. A true San Francisco original, it speaks fundamentally to the development of the city in the world.

A Book Everyone Should Read:: The Shock Doctrine

It’s long (500 or so pages), and depressing (all about how US-influenced monetary policy has wreaked havoc throughout the world), but don’t let that thwart you. Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine is an important book about forces that manipulate the world.

Now, I am not an anti-globalization state socialist. I support free trade and the free movement of people. But, I definitely have concerns with the winner-takes-all reality of laissez-faire capitalism, and when such practices end up ruining the lives of millions, nay, potentially billions of people, you have to take notice. And Klein’s book does that.

It’s not flawless, but it’s definitely eye-opening, and also a satisfying primer on economic historical developments in Chile and Bolivia in the 70s, Poland in the 80s, Russia in the 90s, and much more.

You probably won’t agree with everything she writes, but you owe it to yourself to disagree meaningfully. Unfortunately, I can’t find substantive criticisms of the book. The most prevalent is Tyler Cowen’s surprisingly shrill screed that opts to not critique the fundamental principles of the book in favor of potshots at rhetorical flourishes.

The most useful website for coordinating travel launched in 2007 is….

Tripit!

Now, I’m guessing most folks, reading the post title, would have thought I’d say “Dopplr.” And don’t get me wrong — I dig Dopplr, and occasionally play with it.

But, man, Tripit is *useful*. Now, it’s interface/interaction design is woefully mediocre — it’s often not clear how to engage in an action, the pages are laid out clunkily, the home page doesn’t know who you are when you’re logged in. Dopplr definitely scores many more points on such matters.

But Tripit is the tool I use again and again. I love forwarding confirmation emails to Tripit, and having it auto-populate my itinerary. I love coordinating with my coworkers for business travel. I love being able to check one place for all my travel information, instead of rooting around my inbox.

I guess if I had a Christmas Wish for the Web, it would be for Tripit and Dopplr to merge into one truly beautiful and useful tool for coordinating travel between me and my friends and colleagues.

On the radio…

Talking blog

Two weeks ago I was interviewed by a producer from NPR about coining the word blog. It was for a piece on the 10th anniversary of the word “weblog,” which they ran today. (When you get to the page, click “Listen Now” — I can’t seem to find a direct link to the audio file itself.) You can hear me in there — they used about, oh, 20 seconds of my stuff. You hear me explain how I derived “blog,” and you hear me “link” to Justin Hall.

Huh.

I’m using this holiday time to clear through some old links I set aside and never visited. One of them pointed me to the 1982 short film Arcade Attack. It starts off as a documentary about the rise of video games and the glory of classic pinball, and then, well, it gets weirder. Much much weirder. You can watch it online: Part I, Part II.

I don’t want to give too much away… Give yourself the 20 minutes or so it takes to complete. Don’t let the clunkiness and slowness of the filmmaking deter you — STICK WITH IT.

Brief Film Review: I Am Legend

Resoundingly mediocre. The movie was made because we now have the technology for a convincing and interesting abandoned Manhattan. Such shots in the trailer draw you into the film, which, sadly, isn’t able to deliver much more than that.

Driving home, I shared with Stacy my frustration that, because this was a big budget Hollywood film, it sadly couldn’t be darker, and thus more interesting. I’ve never read the original novel, but this film review (which spoils the novel, but not the movie), showed me that the novel’s author recognized the importance of a truly dark and twisted scenario in order to make the story honestly compelling. Instead, the writers play it safe with cliched monsters, mindless battles, and an ending with redemption and hope.

By far, the best post-apocalyptic film about a loner and his hound is the 1975 cult classic A Boy and His Dog, starring a pre-famous Don Johnson. It’s a remarkably twisted story, and definitely worth seeing on DVD and listening to the director’s commentary track.