All posts tagged digital

  • Backchannel story: ‘The Social Network Doling Out Millions in Ephemeral Money: Steemit’, October 2017

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    The Social Network Doling Out Millions in Ephemeral Money

    Steemit is a social network with the radical idea of paying users for their contributions. But in the crypto gold rush, it’s unclear who stands to profit.

    Backchannel story: 'The Social Network Doling Out Millions in Ephemeral Money: Steemit' by Andrew McMillen, October 2017. Illustration credit: Lauren Cierzan.

    Every time you log onto Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to share a photo or post an article, you give up a piece of yourself in exchange for entertainment. This is the way of the modern world: Smart companies build apps and websites that keep our eyeballs engaged, and we reward them with our data and attention, which benefit their bottom line.

    Steemit, a nascent social media platform, is trying to change all that by rewarding its users with cold, hard cash in the form of a cryptocurrency. Everything that you do on Steemit—every post, every comment, and every like—translates to a fraction of a digital currency called Steem. Over time, as Steem accumulates, it can be cashed out for normal currency. (Or held, if you think Steem is headed for a bright future.)

    The idea for Steemit began with a white paper, which quietly spread among a small community of techies when it was released in March 2016. The exhaustive 44-page overview wasn’t intended for a general audience, but the document contained a powerful message. User-generated content, the authors argued, had created billions of dollars of value for the shareholders of social media companies. Yet while moguls like Mark Zuckerberg got rich, the content creators who fueled networks like Facebook got nothing. Steemit’s creators outlined their intention to challenge that power imbalance by putting a value on contributions: “Steem is the first cryptocurrency that attempts to accurately and transparently reward…[the] individuals who make subjective contributions to its community.”

    A minuscule but dedicated audience rallied around Steemit, posting stories and experimenting with the form to discover what posts attracted the most votes and comments. When Steemit released its first payouts that July, three months after launch, things got serious.

    Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are only worth whatever value people ascribe to them, so there was no guarantee that the tokens dropping into Steemit accounts would ever be worth anything. Yet the Steem that rolled out to users translated to more than $1.2 million in American dollars. Overnight, the little-known currency spiked to a $350 million market capitalization—momentarily rocketing it into the rare company of Bitcoin and Ethereum, the world’s highest-valued cryptocurrencies.

    Today, Steem’s market capitalization has settled in the vicinity of $294 million. One Steem is worth slightly more than one United States Dollar, and the currency remains a regular presence at the edge of the top 20 most traded digital currencies.

    It’s a precipitous rise for a company that just 18 months ago existed only as an idea in the minds of its founders. More than $30 million worth of Steem has been distributed to over 50,000 users since its launch, according to company reports. It’s too early to know whether Steemit can hold onto its users’ interest and its market value. But its goal—upending a model built by social media giants over decades of use in favor of a more populist system—is significant in itself. By removing the middlemen and allowing users to profit directly from the networks they participate in, Steemit could provide a roadmap to a more equitable social network.

    Or users could get bored or distracted by something newer and shinier and abandon it. The possibility of a popped bubble looms over every cryptocurrency, and the bubbles are filled with both attention and speculative investment. Steemit’s value is based on money that its founders have virtually willed into existence. Fortunes could vanish at any moment, but someone stands to get rich in the process.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel. Above illustration credit: Lauren Cierzan.

  • The Ascender story: ‘Digital Delta’, November 2013

    A story for the debut issue of online magazine The Ascender. Excerpt below; click the image to read the full story.

    Digital Delta

    Two men from different fields are teaming up to create the future of mapping in one of most biologically diverse wildernesses on Earth.

    The Ascender story: 'Digital Delta: Into The Okavango', by Australian freelance journalist Andrew McMillen, November 2013

    Deep in the heart of the remote African wilderness, ten men laboriously drag canoes across the high grass of a dry floodplain. Living representations of the idiom ‘fish out of water’, their companions include wild hippopotamuses, crocodiles, birds and elephants unused to seeing humans in their midst this time of year. To make the scene seem even more out place, inside one of the makoros – a traditional Bayei dug-out canoe – sits a gigantic blue-and-white solar panel, its heft manifested on the strained, sweat-strewn faces of the men as they slowly traverse the rugged terrain.

    For three days, the explorers have been confined to land, pushing through the harsh conditions under a scorching sun, burdened by the weight of their equipment that besides the panel includes batteries, computers, cameras and other gear for surviving the trying, 18-day expedition.

    If viewed from space, the humans’ circuitous path would look rather random as though this band of travelers had absolutely no idea where they were going. The men climb trees and scramble to the top of termite mounds in an effort to spy a more efficient route and get to the place they’d much rather be: on the water.

    What, then, are these men doing here?

    This is the annual flood time in the Okavango Delta, one of Africa’s last remaining wetland wildernesses in northern Botswana, and Dr. Steve Boyes and his team of wildlife researchers and local Bayei river bushmen are attempting a world-first: to record wetland bird and wildlife sightings in September, a month for which no data previously exists.

    It is ironic then, that this expedition, set against the backdrop of this remote wilderness, is on the cutting edge of location-based innovation and real-time mapping. Boyes and his team are instruments of data transmission, the hefty, solar panel offering the efficient, silent power necessary to conduct their all-important research. Every twenty minutes, the team uses a global positioning system (GPS) to sync their location onto a live map hosted at a dedicated website, IntoTheOkavango.org with evenings spent packaging the days’ captured data using watches and tablet computers – bird and wildlife sightings, photographs, text messages, body temperatures, and their heart rates – and transmitting the precious digital cargo by satellite to a team located on the U.S. east coast.

    “The whole point of the Into The Okavango campaign is to inspire,” says Boyes. “Our research is obviously the primary task out there; first we backed up and uploaded to our server all of the research data, but right after that came the campaign stuff: all of the sharing, tweeting and blogging. We were on a research expedition, but we’ll stay up later and push ourselves harder to be able to share that experience. There are certain sacrifices in this world if you really want to inspire people to be different.”

    To read the full story, visit The Ascender. The above image is titled ‘Sunset on the Hippo Pool‘, by Lawrence Murray.

  • Shorthand story: ‘The Making of England v Australia’, July 2013

    A story for Shorthand, a Brisbane-based digital technology company. Excerpt below; click the image to read the full story.

    The Making of ‘England v Australia’

    The Making of 'England v Australia' by Andrew McMillen for Shorthand, July 2013

    The first project released by Australian digital publishing company Shorthand details one of sport’s ultimate rivalries, yet ironically, it only came to fruition after partnering with an iconic British media outlet which recently launched down under. In collaboration with the Guardian Australia, ‘England v Australia’ is a long-form interactive story that traces the history of the the two countries’ ongoing contest, which spans generations, oceans and sporting codes.

    “We wanted to develop a tool that would be used by the publishing industry,” says Shorthand executive manager Ben Fogarty. “And what better way to find out what it needs to become than working with someone like the Guardian, with their experience and their approach to storytelling, news and features? It was a great opportunity to get straight into the thick of it with a very well-known, professional organisation, and see how and where Shorthand fits into that scenario.”

    The Brisbane-based start-up was founded in March 2013 in recognition of a problem that had emerged in online journalism: how could publishers tell ‘epic’ stories without the requisite eye-popping budgets, labour-intensive web development, and months of lead time?

    In short: how to craft an interactive masterpiece like ‘Snow Fall’ without breaking the bank each and every time? The start-up saw a gap in the market to provide a high-quality, affordable platform for digital storytellers. Although Shorthand’s goal was clear, the team still had many unanswered questions.

    “‘England v Australia’ helped us define our scope very well,” says Fogarty. “We had a big question around where the content was going to come from, and how digital storytelling is crafted. Do you start with media and put text around it? Do you grab text and find the media to go with it? Being part of that process from an early stage with the Guardian Australia has helped shape in our minds how to create the product features that’d work best for telling these sorts of stories for the web.”

    To read the full story – and get a better idea of the tool that the company is developing – visit Shorthand’s website.

  • Sydney Morning Herald story: ‘How hackers can switch on your webcam and control your computer’, April 2013

    A feature story for smh.com.au, the website of the Sydney Morning Herald. Excerpt below.

    How hackers can switch on your webcam and control your computer

    A malicious virus known as Remote Administration Tools (RATs) can be used by hackers to switch on your webcam and control the machine without your knowledge. Andrew McMillen reports.

    'How hackers can switch on your webcam and control your computer' story for Sydney Morning Herald by Andrew McMillen, April 2013

    The 14-year-old couldn’t believe his eyes. The virtual currency he’d worked so hard to amass in the online role-playing game Runescape had vanished. He’d lost the equivalent of $700 in the blink of an eye, after investing his pocket money into the game’s economy for months. All that remained was an instant message dialogue box: “Haha, you got RATted!”

    Sitting in his bedroom in Wauchope, on the mid-north coast of NSW, the teenager wrote back: “What does that mean?” He didn’t know at the time that his machine had been compromised by a Remote Administration Tool (RAT), an aggressive form of malware that allows hackers to access a victim’s entire computer. It was too late. The thief had disappeared. “He ran away with my money, like a girl,” laments Alex (not his real name).

    Weeks later, his desolation and rage had been replaced by joy. After researching RATs and spending an entire day spreading an innocuous link using Runescape’s in-game chat function, in the hope that someone would visit the page and run the Javascript application embedded within, Alex had his mark.

    Within a few clicks, the teenager had access to a stranger’s entire computer, without their knowledge. “I was the happiest kid in the whole entire world,” he says. “I could see their desktop, what they typed, the history of what they’d typed, stored passwords, files – everything.”

    His victim didn’t have a webcam, so Alex wasn’t sure of their gender or their appearance, although he assumes they were male. But he knew that they played Runescape, so he got straight to work on what mattered: looting their gold, just as he’d recently experienced himself.

    After emptying the stranger’s account, the teenager watched, intrigued, as his mark realised that he’d been hacked, and began trying to close the connection. Fifteen minutes later, Alex’s first “slave” – hacker shorthand for a compromised user – had disconnected himself.

    The RATted had become the RATter. “I felt unstoppable,” says Alex, now 17 and studying Year 11. “I was really insecure about myself at the time. I felt like the most powerful person on Runescape.”

    The senior security manager at antivirus software company Trend Micro has another name for RAT: Remote Access Trojan. “It’s a piece of software loaded onto somebody’s computer that allows it to be controlled or accessed from a third-party location,” says Adam Biviano in Sydney.

    “They often arrive on a computer masquerading as something else,” he says. “Just like the mythological story, you open your gates up and you allow it inside your protected walls. All of a sudden, you think you’re getting one thing, but in reality you’re getting what they call a ‘RAT’. You’re giving access to your computer to … who knows who.”

    To read the full story, visit smh.com.au.

  • ZDNet story: ‘The Digital Beat: policing social media’, July 2012

    A feature story for ZDNet; excerpt below. Click the image for the full story.

    The Digital Beat: policing social media

    Your business may not have to deal with issues of life and death in social media, but there are lessons for everyone in how Australia’s police forces interact with the public.

    If you were in Queensland during the floods of January 2011, Kym Charlton’s iPad may have saved your life.

    The device itself has since been superseded and effectively retired, yet its weathered, black leather case still features a hastily scrawled note, which, at the time, acted as both a mnemonic and a reality check. Two words in thick, white text: DON’T PANIC.

    As executive director of the Queensland Police Service’s (QPS) media and public affairs branch, Charlton [pictured above, centre; to her left, senior digital media officer James Kliemt] was bunkered down in the State Disaster Coordination Centre while then Premier Anna Bligh and her team of emergency-services specialists alternated between internal briefings and live-streamed press conferences.

    The matter at hand? How best to deal with an uncanny series of weather events that would ultimately leave 90 per cent of the state declared a disaster zone.

    iPad in hand, Charlton was responsible for posting live updates to the QPS social-media accounts — vital information which, for some Queenslanders, meant the difference between fight or flight; home ownership or homelessness; life or death.

    Having convinced the deputy commissioner to sign off on a six-month social-media trial in mid-2010, Charlton and her media team had grown the QPS Facebook page to a respectable following of 6500 by the end of the year. As rain saturated the state throughout December, QPS was in the ideal position to establish itself as the state’s singular, trustworthy news source in a time of need.

    “It was quite an organic thing for us,” Charlton said from her office in the QPS headquarters just outside of the Brisbane CBD. “We’d been using social media for six months, so we immediately moved to get the information out through those channels, because time was so critical.”

    Charlton is a calm and confident narrator, having had plenty of time to reflect on this topic both in private and public — including a presentation at the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism in Marrakech last year — yet it’s clear that the urgency and quality of the work that her team produced in January 2011 is never too far from her mind. The numerous framed awards hanging on her office walls make such matters difficult to forget, in any case.

    The QPS social-media presence meant that Charlton didn’t have to waste time with the clearance processes that ordinarily hamper police news dissemination. “Rather than me sitting in a disaster-management meeting, listening to the premier being briefed, taking notes, going out and giving it to someone to write a media release, then spending the rest of the day chasing around incredibly busy people to clear the information, I started to post status updates as I heard the premier being briefed,” she said. A self-imposed limit of 140 characters per update meant that the news could be bounced from Facebook to Twitter with ease, and without diluting the message.

    “We were able to pump out a whole lot of information that we knew wouldn’t make the mainstream media; they just wouldn’t have picked up that volume of information. It was quite low level, but it was really important if it was about your area,” she said.

    “For example, the day that the Lockyer Valley flooded was the same day that Brisbane and Ipswich realised there was going to be a major flood. All of a sudden, you had the entire population of both cities desperately trying to work out if their houses were going to flood. A lot of people weren’t here in 1974; also, there are way more houses [now] than there used to be. We saw a huge jump of people coming to the page to find that information.” On that particular day, 10 January, Charlton sent her first and last tweets at 4.45am and 11.45pm, respectively.

    The numbers surrounding 10 January are astonishing. The QPS Facebook page received 39 million individual story views — the equivalent of 450 page impressions per second — while being updated by staff every 10 minutes or so. (“That amount of traffic would have crashed both our public website and our operational website,” Charlton noted.) Their Facebook audience grew from 16,500 on 9 January to 165,000 within a fortnight; many of those joined the page during the 24-hour period following the Lockyer Valley torrent. Overnight, the QPS social-media accounts had become a lifejacket to which many Queenslanders clung.

    Though neither QPS staff nor their newfound legion of followers would have realised it at the time — it’s fair to say that there were far more pressing matters to consider, like whether their houses would go underwater — this confluence of events exemplified the great big promise of social networking that Zuckerberg et al proselytise: to connect humans with one another, and to share meaningful information immediately.

    Charlton’s decision to establish and nurture the QPS social-media presence the winter before that unforgettable summer was fortuitous. “We were in that wonderful position where we knew enough to be able to use it [during the floods],” she said. “It wasn’t a decision where anyone said, OK, we’re going to focus on social media’. We just started doing it because it worked.”

    For the full 3,700 word story, visit ZDNet. Above photo credit: Andrew McMillen.

  • The Weekend Australian book reviews: ‘Digital Vertigo’ by Andrew Keen and ‘The Blind Giant’ by Nick Harkaway, July 2012

    Two digital-themed non-fiction books rolled into one review, for The Weekend Australian. The full review follows.

    New portals of perception in a digital age

    As cyberspace encroaches ever deeper into our everyday lives, it’s worth pressing the pause button to question how we choose to spend our time in an era of digital distractions. The two books under review present opposing viewpoints on this conundrum.

    In Digital Vertigo [pictured right], Anglo-American entrepreneur Andrew Keen takes a critical stance against the technologists behind social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, for reasons exemplified in the book’s subtitle. Keen knows his topic from the inside: on the cover the title is presented as a Twitter hashtag and the author’s name as @ajkeen. He has more than 19,000 followers on that medium, and this book seems to have been written between his frequent pond-hopping to speak at social media conferences.

    The tale begins with Keen staring at the corpse of Jeremy Bentham, the long-dead British philosopher and prison architect best known for his Panopticon design, in which inmates can be watched by outside observers at any time: “a prison premised upon the principle of perpetual peeking”, as Keen writes. Per his wishes, Bentham’s body is permanently exhibited inside a glass-fronted coffin — an “auto-icon” — within University College, London. Keen’s segue is that social media represents the “permanent self-exhibition zone of our digital age”.

    A curious introduction, no doubt. Time and again, Keen revisits the concept of the auto-icon while examining how our culture has become “a transparent love-in, an orgy of over-sharing” and comparing today to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where “to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude was always slightly dangerous”. Many readers will recognise a kernel of truth in this comparison: to log on to the internet in 2012 is to be inundated with requests (demands?) to share, to socialise with other humans.

    Keen’s title is also a reference to the 1958 Hitchcock film Vertigo, where the protagonist eventually learns that everything he believed to be true was the product of malicious deception by his peers. Keen ties this to social media by describing it as “so ubiquitous, so much the connective tissue of society” that we’re all “victims of a creepy story that we neither understand nor control”.

    The scenic route that Keen takes to arrive at this tenuous point is not particularly interesting. He fills entire chapters by paraphrasing academics and journalists, and attempts to list seemingly every start-up social business making waves in Silicon Valley. As a self-described “super node” of the social network, Keen seems quite proud to tell us that he closed his personal Facebook account in September last year.

    What could have been an original tech-dissident’s tale from the belly of the never sleeping beast is instead convoluted and messy. Keen draws heavily on historical references and too often these miss the mark, though a thorough examination of the creation and fiery destruction of the Crystal Palace in London is a highlight. It’s worth considering whether the meandering and messy nature of Digital Vertigo — including many typographical errors — is a symptom of the author’s inability to avoid the attention-shattering properties of the web.

    At the time of writing, @ajkeen was still tweeting, by the way.

    Conversely, British novelist Nick Harkaway tries his hand at long-form nonfiction for the first time in The Blind Giant [pictured right], and strikes on a narrative that immediately grips the reader. Using tight language and evocative descriptions, Harkaway’s introduction is a nightmare vision of a dystopian, tech-led society where “consciousness itself, abstracted thought and a sense of the individual as separate from the environment” are all withering away. A contrasting vision of a “happy valley” follows, and is just as realistic and compelling.

    Harkaway admits in the afterword that the book had its origins in “unpicking the idea that digital technology was responsible for all our ills”. This late-declared bias aside, The Blind Giant is a measured and thoughtful take on a problem that will concern us all soon, if it doesn’t already.

    Though the author is clearly tech-inclined – he notes on page one that he was born in 1972, the same year as the release of the first video game, Pong – he is not fanatical. He compares attempts to switch off from the internet with refusing to open your mail: “It doesn’t solve the problem, it just leaves you ignorant of what’s happening, and gradually the letters pile up on the mat.”

    His narrative arc is well considered and draws on disparate topics such as neuroplasticity (how the brain alters its make-up to take on new skills and abilities), whether social media helped or hindered the anti-Mubarak revolutions last year (in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and London) and the intriguing idea that we are living in an era of “peak digital”: “the brief and impetuous flowering of digital technology during which we inhabit a fantasy of infinite resources at low market prices”.

    Harkaway is a consistently engaging narrator: his fascinating analogies, elegant word play and occasional use of humour all point to his storytelling skills. True to the subtitle, his book cuts to the core of what it means to be human and how we might go about managing new and emerging technologies.

    It’s no self-help guide to unplugging yourself from the wired world, nor does he encourage us to spend more time with our heads in “the cloud”. Instead, Harkaway urges us to acknowledge our humanness on a regular basis, regardless of whether that human happens to be engaging online or off.

    Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution is Dividing, Diminishing and Disorienting Us
    By Andrew Keen
    St Martin’s Press, 246pp, $32.95

    The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World
    By Nick Harkaway
    John Murray, 288pp, $21.99

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist.

  • GameSpy story: ‘The Health of the PC Gaming Industry’, October 2011

    A story for GameSpy.com; my first for them. It’s a feature split into two parts: one to discuss the retail side of PC gaming, and one for digital.

    Excerpts from both halves included below.


    The Health of the PC Gaming Industry Part 1: Retail

    Dying or developing – just how is the PC doing?

    If you want to make a hardcore gamer roll their eyes in exasperation, tell them that the PC gaming industry is dead and/or dying. Variations on this well-worn statement have been circulating for years, and it’s never been particularly true. In 2011, it’s less true than ever: thanks to digital distribution, more people are buying and playing PC games, so it’s no surprise that developers and publishers continue to invest heavily in the space. Their efforts don’t necessarily have the goal of extracting gamers’ wallets from pockets, either: the burgeoning ‘free to play’ model is being taken seriously by publishers like EA and Activision. And though the hardcore among you might be loath to admit it, those who choose to while away their hours playing Facebook games are technically PC gamers, too.

    All told, PC game sales accounted for $16 billion in revenue worldwide last year, according to research conducted by DFC Intelligence on behalf of Nvidia. If DFC’s forecasts are to be believed, PC games will eclipse console game sales in 2014, and incur a sense of deja vu among those gamers old enough to remember a pre-console period where the PC ruled the emerging market for home video games.

    In this two-part feature, GameSpy will examine the health of the PC gaming industry across two fronts – retail and digital – in an effort to dispel those pesky death rumours once and for all.

    Bricks and Mortar
    When compared to the reams of laudatory material that have been dedicated to praising the virtues of digital distribution platforms, it’s easy to overlook the roots of PC gaming: the humble bricks-and-mortar retailer, a place where chunky, colourful cardboard boxes containing CD-ROMs once received pride of place on shelves a few short years ago. Though the cardboard boxes have been downsized and the CD-ROM technologically superseded, Steve Nix counters that there’s still a significant market for over-the-counter sales of PC titles.

    As general manager of digital distribution at GameStop, the world’s largest video game retailer – who employ some 17,000 full-time staff, and whose annual earnings in 2010 were $9.47 billion – Nix is well-placed to survey the PC gaming landscape. It also helps that he spent four and a half years at id Software, as director of business development and later, director of digital platforms. He’s been with GameStop since February 2011. “Many years ago, PC games were the largest category for GameStop,” he says. “But PC retail sales didn’t look good over the last ten years. There’s been a steady decline. As a PC gamer first and foremost, that always was very concerning. In the early 2000s, I was wondering, ‘What’s going to happen to the PC? Is it going to become completely extinct at some point, as a gaming platform?'”

    We now know that the answer to this question is a firm ‘no’. At the time, Nix reflects, “my strong belief was that we were seeing a user experience problem with PC games in a retail box, versus console games. Really, if you think about the fastest, easiest way for people to get a game and start enjoying it, it’s the consoles. They offer a really nice experience: you get your game disc, you pop it in, and you’re playing in under a minute. Whereas, by the mid-2000s, for PC gamers, games had gotten quite a bit larger. Before the DVD, you’d have nine CDs for some games. And then you might have to search the web for the latest patches. If you’d done everything correctly, maybe a couple of hours later, you’d actually be playing the game after all this work. Really, I think that a lot of customers who were PC gamers started transferring to the consoles just because the user experience on the PC was poorer at that point,” he reflects.

    According to Nix, all GameStop saw at that point was “the decline of the physical PC box sales, so they decided to focus on the console business. But fortunately, in the last few years, some of the leaders in the PC digital space have been more public about going out with their numbers. They’re seeing amazing growth. That information started to get back to GameStop, who did some extensive research and said, ‘the PC market is thriving, but it’s just shifted online. It makes sense for us to be a major player in the PC digital space’.” The company will invest $100 million in digital initiatives in 2011, according to a report in March. We’ll return to Nix and GameStop’s recent forays into the online marketplace in the second part of this feature, which focuses on the digital market.

    To read the rest of part 1, visit GameSpy. An excerpt from part 2 follows.

    The Health Of The PC Gaming Industry Part 2: Digital
    There’s money to be made in them thar online hills.

    In part one of this feature, we examined the boxed-retail past that many gamers have abandoned. Now we take a microscope to the digital-driven future of PC game distribution, which many gamers have already embraced. Like downloading music, downloading games for your PC makes a shitload of sense: it’s fast, convenient, better for the environment, and you can do it in your underwear and no-one will ever know. Sneaky and classy.

    Where did all the money go?
    Half to 70% of the $4 billion market for downloaded PC games are purchased through a platform named Steam [pictured below right], according to an article published by Forbes earlier in 2011. (Steam operator Valve refused to comment on the accuracy of this claim.) Though Steam was a right royal pain in the ass when it launched in 2002 during the beta period of Counter-Strike 1.6 – any gamer who recalls that frustrating time will no doubt concur – using the software is now as akin to the average PC gamer as breathing and circle-strafing. It’s the gaming equivalent of iTunes. Both are clear market leaders; both maintain an enormous brand loyalty worldwide.

    That same Forbes article quotes North American market research firm NPD Group as stating that, in 2010, “sales of PC games via download outstripped sales of boxed games in stores for the first time”. When I question Valve VP of marketing Doug Lombardi on the significance of this outcome – was this always a goal on the agenda, or happy coincidence? – he cryptically replies, “Our goal has always been to deliver a higher quality of service to the customer, regardless of where or how they purchase the product.” Perhaps enormous consumer uptake and financial success was always going to be a consequence of aiming to develop the market’s best digital distribution platform.

    Lombardi makes it clear that Valve still values traditional retail and healthy competition in the digital distribution market. “We don’t advise folks to skip retail, or other digital outlets,” he says. “Every publisher and developer should consider the widest possible distribution possible.” I’m curious as to how he pitches the service to prospective Steam clients – from indie developers, to the world’s biggest publishers. “We start with the 30 million-plus gamers connected to the service, the instant access to data on their Steam sales, and the increasing number of Steamworks features we offer free of charge such as matchmaking, anti-piracy, support for in-game DLC, and more.” Also of note is Lombardi’s eyebrow-raising claim that “Steam has grown over 100% year-over-year for the past six years.” A userbase of 30 million is a fairly compelling reasoning for both developers and publishers to do a deal with Steam, I’d imagine.

    Game developers such as Tripwire Interactive are among the legions of Steam supporters. The Roswell, Georgia-based studio – creators of Red Orchestra 2 and Killing Floor – have been fans since they signed up in 2005. “And we still are”, says vice president Alan Wilson. “They still have that Valve sense for what the people buying the games actually want, will give it to them at a good price, good customer service – and they treat the developers/publishers right as well. They’re always easy to work with. There are other good services out there – D2D, GamersGate and so on. But until Steam either starts getting it all wrong, or the others find some miracle formula, Steam will stay king of the pile.”

    To read the rest of part 2, visit GameSpy.

  • Native Digital blog project: One Movement For Music 2010

    A couple of months ago I undertook a blog project for One Movement For Music 2010, a Perth-based event whose five days (Oct 6-10) consisted of daily MUSEXPO panel discussions, nightly industry showcases at live music venues throughout Perth’s inner city, as well as a three-day music festival. I first blogged for One Movement during its first year, in 2009.

    On behalf of my employer, Native Digital, I coordinated blog content on One Movement Word and operated the event’s social media accounts – Facebook and Twitter – from the beginning of August. On the ground in Perth, I live-tweeted it and blogged daily highlights of the conference, as well covering the festival and showcase acts in photo form – links included at the bottom of this post.

    The difference between last year’s traffic and 2010 was significant. Whereas in 2009 we were starting from a literal blank slate – zero Twitter or Facebook followers, and thus no traction – this time around, we had 300 followers on Twitter and 600 Facebook fans, which meant that our blog content instantly had an audience. These numbers grew as the blog campaign continued: as of 1 November, we have 945 Twitter followers, and nearly 2,500 on Facebook.

    The growth in overall blog traffic speaks for itself – compare 2010 (top image, 17,000+ visits) to 2009 (bottom image, 6,700+ visits).

    August – October 2010:

    July – October 2009:

    This year, One Movement Word’s blog content was split into the following categories – click for further info:

    Posts in the latter category included:

    I want to give a special mention to the ‘State Of Global Independence’ panel, moderated by Nick O’Byrne of AIR, as it was an incredibly inspiring discussion, and by far the best music industry panel I’ve witnessed. Which doesn’t sound that impressive, really, but trust me: Nick and his panelists touched on some brilliant, universally-understood topics, like pursuing your passion, the nature of independence, and being kind to others without expectation of repayment. I’ll say no more; you’ll have to read my transcript of the panel at One Movement Word. It’s totally worth it. I promise.

    Thanks to Sunset Events and Native Digital for again allowing me to be a part of the One Movement online campaign.

  • The Big Issue story: ‘Changing Resolution’, May 2010

    A story for The Big Issue #355 about Brisbane-based publisher Interactive Publications and one of its young authors, Josh Donellan.

    Click the below image for a closer look, or read the article text underneath.

    The Big Issue story: 'Changing Resolution', featuring Interactive Publications and Josh Donellan

    Changing Resolution

    Brisbane-based publisher Interactive Publications has leapt aboard the digital revolution – to find a world wide web of opportunities stretching far beyond the printed page.

    David Reiter is well aware that his industry is in flux. The director of a Brisbane-based independent publishing company, Interactive Publications (IP), is referring to the book industry’s transition from print to electronic publishing – and with the Australian launch of the iPad imminent, discussion on this topic has reached fever pitch.

    Publishers’ attitudes are split between those praying that consumers’ love for the physical book will endure, and those embracing the electronic format as a more profitable, and arguably more environmentally friendly, medium. (Something covered at length in the cover story of our Ed#352, ‘Read All About It’.)

    David Reiter of Interactive PublicationsWhile still valuing conventional books, Reiter [pictured right] believes publishers need to embrace emerging digital technology. In his mind, the biggest problems facing Australian independent publishers are market access and international promotion. Yet, he argues, these concerns are largely side-stepped through digital media. “We’ve have been able to bypass some of the traditional channels – overseas agents, overseas distributors, selling rights to overseas publishers – by having a significant online presence.”

    Reiter estimates it will take just “six to eight years” for digital sales to catch up with those of traditional books – and that’s being conservative. Overseas, digital publications already comprise 15–20% of the market. “When you consider the volume of titles being published these days, it’s actually a phenomenal growth figure relative to print books,” Reiter says.

    His company’s first major digital title came out in 2000; digital sales now account for approximately 5–10% of their total. “That’s not a remarkably low amount, given what’s happening elsewhere,” Reiter says. “I think that even the major publishers are in that situation at this point.”

    IP also recently launched the Digital Publishing Centre, as a one-stop-shop for businesses, or individuals, interested in going digital. Manuscripts that are run through the centre are assessed and edited, then mastered for print-on-demand formats, as well as e-books.

    But Reiter acknowledges that e-readers remain a rare commodity in 2010 – and, despite the availability of the Kindle and the coming of the iPad, he is wary of the assumption that people will start buying e-books in vast quantities. “I still talk to younger people, in their twenties and thirties, who trot out the view that ‘I love my book, my regular book and I’m not too keen about reading on screen’.”

    And, Reiter says, publishers could be an even harder nut to crack than the readers. This, he argues, is “because many of the big publishers in Australia are tied to the apron strings of multinationals. Even if they wanted to change, they couldn’t, because they have to get approval from head-office overseas.”

    But, he continues, “It’s good news for us because we’ve been leading the pack; we’ve been able to put some distance between us and the mainstream publishers who still seem to be sitting in the corner, twiddling their thumbs while all of this is happening, wondering what they need to do.”

    Josh Donellan, author of A Beginner’s Guide to Dying in IndiaDespite their significant investment in digital media, IP haven’t abandoned the traditional format. One of the publisher’s most recent print edition books is A Beginner’s Guide to Dying in India. Reiter discovered its author, Josh Donellan [pictured left], after the Brisbane local entered IP Picks – the company’s annual national writing competition for unpublished manuscripts – in 2009. Donellan was given the nod for Best Fiction, which led to the offer of a publishing contract.

    A Beginner’s Guide opens with a bang: its protagonist, Levi, watches his house and all of his possessions going up in smoke. Earlier that morning, he’d been fired from his job. Racing to seek comfort from his fiancée, Levi discovers that she’s leaving the country to become a nun – and all this happens within the first six pages. Emotionally drained, Levi flies to India, where he’s greeted by his older brother, who’s in the midst of planning for his last-ever farewell party (read: funeral).

    The novel – which features a devilish sense of humour, well-formed characters and whip-smart pop culture references – has found a strong audience among young adults, almost selling out of its first print run. But the book is also one of IP’s strongest sellers in the digital realm. It is available for Kindle on Amazon.com. And readers can buy a copy through ‘print on demand’ – which is the sort of technology that, for a young Australian author like D0nellan, offers exciting prospects for overseas sales. With this format a reader in, say, New York could order a freshly printed copy of Donellan’s book in just a few days – rather than waiting weeks and paying costly international delivery fees.

    The Big Issue, #355: Heroes and VillainsThat’s all well and good. But, as Donellan himself argues, in all this talk about print versus digital, the most fundamental element of book publishing seems to be missing. “I think there’s a danger that sometimes the focus on the packaging outweighs the matter itself,” says Donellan. “I think [digital publishing is] an important change, but it still really matters how good the material is.”

    by Andrew McMillen

    A Beginner’s Guide To Dying In India is available now – in print and digital formats.

    Learn more about Interactive Publications at ipoz.biz, and click here to visit the homepage for Josh Donellan’s book, A Beginner’s Guide To Dying In India. I don’t read much fiction, but I enjoyed the hell out of this story and would recommend it to anyone.

  • A Conversation With Faux Pas, Melbourne electronic artist

    An interview that I’ve published at Waycooljnr.

    Melbourne electronic artist Faux Pas a.k.a. Tim ShielLast week I wrote a feature article for Australian music website Mess+Noise about Faux Pas, a Melbourne-based electronic artist whose ‘digital DIY’ approach has intrigued me since Waycooljnr founder Nick Crocker pointed me in his direction.

    I’ve since found Tim Shiel – the man behind the Faux Pas moniker, pictured right – to be a great example of an artist willing to invest time in developing his online presence. Besides using his computer to write and record his art, Shiel offers his music openly and honestly with bloggers, and allows fans to buy and share his material with minimal fuss. Below is the unedited interview that I used as the basis for my Mess+Noise feature ahead of the April 2010 release of his new album, Noiseworks.

    Full interview with Tim at Waycooljnr.