All posts tagged Technology

  • Backchannel story: ‘How I Snuck Through Wikipedia’s Notability Test’, March 2015

    A story for Backchannel, the technology section of Medium.com. Excerpt below.

    How I Snuck Through Wikipedia’s Notability Test

    I’m not famous. But judging by my expansive Wikipedia entry, I’m a star!

    Backchannel story: 'How I Snuck Through Wikipedia's Notability Test' by Andrew McMillen, March 2015

    The English-language edition of Wikipedia is composed of 4,735,036 articles at the time I write this sentence. One of those articles is a ridiculously detailed biographical summary of my career as a journalist and author. At 1,905 words in length, excluding references, it is shorter than the entries onThe Simpsons’ family dog, Santa’s Little Helper (2,908 words), spontaneous human combustion (2,347), the internet meme Rickrolling (2,307) and Barack Obama (10,302).

    The article in my name is longer, however, than the ones devoted to the Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand (1,880), The Simpsons character Barney Gumble (1,848), screenwriter and director Lena Dunham (1,480) or stand-up comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan (1,029).

    I’m not well-known by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not that journalists get some kind of special treatment on Wikipedia, either. Take Jon Ronson, a journalist who is two decades and several global bestsellers ahead of me. Casual readers of nonfiction may know him as the author of The Men Who Stare At Goats and The Psychopath Test. His latest title is So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, an excerpt of which appeared in The New York Times Magazine in February 2015.

    In a 2012 story he wrote for GQ on income inequality, Ronson, 47, declared his annual income to be in the range of $250,000, a figure that I can assure you is much greater than my own. He also co-wrote the screenplay for a 2014 feature film, Frank, starring Michael Fassbender. Yet by some strange quirk of the web, the Wikipedia summary of Ronson’s remarkable career is 1,223 words in length—precisely 682 words shorter than my article.

    The story of how my entry came to be reveals the quirks of Wikipedia’s process for determining what to keep, and what to jettison, on the encyclopedia’s servers. There’s a name for this: the ‘notability test.’ I had the rare opportunity to observe this process up close, in real time.

    As a frequent Wikipedia reader, I had long wondered about the people who studiously edit its content, writing paragraphs, creating links, sourcing citations and tweaking code behind the scenes to keep it running smoothly. As a professional writer, I’ve been particularly intrigued by the unpaid nature of this work, as I abhor the notion of writing for free.

    I wanted to know what compels a person to create—from scratch—an article on some esoteric subject, landmark or person. I needed a case study. Purely by chance, that esoteric subject turned out to be none other than me.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

    Note: since the publication of this story in March 2015, the ‘Andrew McMillen‘ article on Wikipedia has been trimmed considerably, having survived a deletion debate.

  • CNET story: ‘Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth’, February 2015

    A feature story for CNET; excerpt below.

    Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth

    We embed in the field and go behind the scenes of Google’s augmented reality game, Ingress. Is walking through the streets of hundreds of countries the future of gaming?

    CNET story: 'Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth' by Andrew McMillen, February 2015

    Eleven of us gather deep in the enemy heartland on a balmy Sunday evening to partake in Operation: Green Court. Meeting in secret, we are agents of the Enlightened, a faction which seeks to advance society through our actions. The enemy will be unaware of our presence until we begin attacking and capturing a long corridor of their prized portals, flipping them from blue to green while figuratively flipping them the bird. Our movements must be coordinated and efficient, as it won’t be long before we attract the attention of the Resistance, the opposing faction which fears change and seeks to crush our idealism and progress.

    In actuality, we are 10 adults and one child meeting on a street corner to bond over our smartphones — specifically, an app called Ingress, a free-to-play augmented reality game that has been downloaded over 8 million times and is being played in more than 200 countries.

    The massively multiplayer mobile game encourages its players to walk around the real world, using data overlaid atop Google Maps to attack and defend real-world public locations known as “portals”. Our common goal for this operation is to turn the suburb green — the colour of the Enlightened, and the colour of the shirt of Aladrin, the 39 year-old agent who arranged this operation via Google+ earlier in the week.

    Milton — an inner-city suburb of Brisbane, Australia — is usually coated in blue, thanks to the dedicated efforts of its Resistance population, many of whom work at nearby IT firms. Our own neighbourhood, just across the Brisbane River, is firmly green-held, but on this Sunday night we’ve set out to ruffle a few blue feathers. Owing to their team colour, Resistance players are commonly referred to as “Smurfs”. The Enlightened tend to self-identify as “frogs”.

    Among the eleven of us is Apocs85, a dedicated level 15 agent who is widely known and respected as the unofficial guardian of Brisbane’s West End. The 29-year-old loves his day job of testing video games, and his Ingress statistics show that he has walked 118 kilometres (73 miles) in the last week while defending and rebuilding portals throughout the inner-city.

    Niantic’s ‘success failure’

    In-game action is shown on our smartphone screens, which act as “scanners” to reveal the portals located all around us. They’re invisible to the naked eye, but with Ingress loaded on our Android or iOS devices, we’re able to see portals attached to structures, artwork, historic locations and buildings of cultural significance — train stations, public parks and post offices are three common examples.

    The portal locations are user-submitted and manually checked by staff at Niantic Labs, the game’s Google-owned developer, to ensure their accuracy and suitability. Globally, more than 3 million such locations have been approved so far, in numbers far greater than expected when the game was first released as a public beta version in November 2012.

    “At Google, we call that a ‘success failure’,” says Niantic Labs founder John Hanke with a chuckle. “It’s a failure because it’s so successful: lots of people submitted portals, which is great, but now it’s more than we can really handle to keep the response time down.”

    To read the full story, visit CNET.

  • 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.

  • The Vine story: ‘What Was Silk Road? A eulogy for an online drug revolution’, October 2013

    A story for TheVine.com.au. The full story appears below.

    What Was Silk Road? A eulogy for an online drug revolution

    The Vine story: 'What Was Silk Road? A eulogy for an online drug revolution' by Andrew McMillen, October 2013

    Prior to its seizure by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the early hours of Wednesday, October 3, Australian time, a website named Silk Road was the holy grail for illicit drug users of all stripes. Since mid-2011, dealers and consumers had been drawn to the site like iron filings to a magnet. Their reasons for downloading a Tor browser and copy-pasting the complex URL that housed Silk Road (SR) can be reduced to two key motivating factors: cash and product.

    For drug dealers – or, in SR-preferred parlance, ‘vendors’ – the lure of a steady supply of international buyers was enough to motivate the investigation of innovative, stealthy shipping techniques that would see their packages of powders, crystals and pills delivered to intended addresses without raising the alarms of border security. This quickly became a point of pride among the most dedicated vendors, some of whom marketed their packaging options as ‘undetectable’ and cherished buyer feedback that praised innocuous, ingenious delivery methods. Subterfuge was the name of the game.

    It helped, too, that SR offered vendors the opportunity to turn the risky, dangerous job of face-to-face dealing into the ultimate work-from-home gig. When I began poking around the site in late 2011, while researching a feature story for Australian Penthouse, I interviewed several vendors via SR’s plain-text messaging system. One told me that SR was “better and cleaner” than dealing drugs offline. “Customers are more educated and nice, and it leaves you more spare time to study, play with the kids, and clean the house,” I was told. “It’s telecommuting at its finest.”

    This was the defining image of Silk Road: a mild-mannered, sober, white collar professional who casually fielded an order for a gram or two of cocaine, printed the buyer’s address and applied it onto an anonymous envelope, vacuum sealed the illicit product inside and dropped the package into a random mailbox – with the correct amount of postage stamps attached, naturally.

    That image clashed violently with that of the stereotypical drug dealer, who stands on a street corner and controls his territory and product distribution through coercion, extortion and violence. Both operate outside of the law through necessity, since the supply, traffic and use of many drugs remains illegal in all but a handful of countries, most notably Portugal.

    Where once small-time dealers were confined to a few inner-city blocks, or their regular clients within nightclubs on Saturday nights, enterprising Silk Road vendors were limited only by their own ingenuity and imagination. Both online and off, intelligence is what set apart savvy dealers from those behind bars. In February, a 32 year-old Victorian – SR username ‘shadh1’ – was sentenced to three and a half years in jail for importing and reselling drugs purchased on the site, with reckless disregard for anything resembling security, self-preservation or stealth, three of the essential values on which SR was founded.

    It is telling and troubling for long-time SR users, too, that even the man alleged to have established the site was not above careless security slip-ups; he advertised his personal Gmail address on public forums requesting an “IT pro in the Bitcoin community” to assist with the site’s early growth, according to an FBI affidavit.

    Cash aside, the motivating factor for users was always the product. Cocaine, heroin, LSD, MDMA, cannabis, methamphetamine, psilocybin; Silk Road did not synthesise any of these compounds, nor discover the natural substances. It simply revolutionalised their distribution. My interview with a newbie SR buyer for Australian Penthouse was emblematic of what the site offered buyers.

    “I’m interested in taking drugs casually, but I hate the process,” the 24 year-old Brisbane resident told me. “I don’t know any dealers. Even if I want to get weed, I don’t know anyone, so it always becomes this drawn out process of finding someone who knows someone who knows someone. It’s a real pain in the arse. Whereas this way, it’s so direct and private. I didn’t leave my room, and then nine days later there was something in the mailbox that was for me. It’s discreet and exciting. Imagine the fun of shopping on eBay, but then you can also get high.”

    While Silk Road’s days are numbered, and its founder seems set for a long prison sentence, the cat is certainly out of the bag. The site was a brilliant intermediary between drug dealers and users right up until it wasn’t. But to imagine that humans will suddenly cease synthesising, cultivating, pursuing, distributing and ingesting substances that alter mind and mood is at least wishful thinking; at worst, high folly.

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Department of Homeland Security and associated organisations can today congratulate themselves for a job well done in seizing Silk Road and its significant stockpile of assets and intelligence. It is their job to catch criminals. Although the plug has been pulled on the most open illicit drug marketplace that the world has ever seen, tomorrow is a new day.

    The seemingly infallible Silk Road has been beheaded, but two heads will appear in its place, hydra-like. Right now, its competitors will be quadruple-checking their security practices and managing server loads, while new registrations and orders pour in. The mail won’t stop. At the heart of this conversation is the fact that humans like to get high, and they’re willing to pay for that privilege. This is but a stumble on a very long walk. Absolutely nothing has changed.

    Further reading: Australian Penthouse story: ‘The High Road: Silk Road, an online marketplace like no other’, February 2012

  • 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.

  • Wired story: ‘Daft Punk’s album premiere in Wee Waa, Australia’, May 2013

    A story for Wired.com – my first contribution to the website. Excerpt below.

    We Went to the Daft Punk Album Premiere in Wee Waa, Australia, Pop. 2,100
    by Andrew McMillen / Photographs by Rachael Hall

    Wired story: "Daft Punk's Australian album premiere in Wee Waa" by freelance journalist Andrew McMillen, May 2013. Photo by Rachael Hall

    WEE WAA, Australia – The world premiere of the latest Daft Punk album, Random Access Memories, was originally scheduled to take place on May 17 at a farm show in the rural Australian town of Wee Waa, population 2,100. The unconventional choice of locale made worldwide news, as intended. The event (and its marketing) was always about more than just two French guys releasing an album: It was an attempt to breathe life into the idea that a distinct collection of songs could still be relevant in 2013, when digitally downloaded singles dominate and launch dates have become almost meaningless.

    Imagine Sony’s frustration, then, when Random Access Memories trickled onto the internet on May 14, three days ahead of the intended world premiere in Wee Waa, and Daft Punk hastily started streaming the album on iTunes to tide over listeners till the actual release date. The impact on the planned celebration was immediate. A journalist from the local newspaper The Narrabri Courier told Wired that the Wee Waa Motel experienced 37 out of 60 cancellations in the day following the leak. What had been sold as a world premiere now seemed humdrum, an experience that anyone with an internet connection, BitTorrent or iTunes could have.

    To many music fans, Tuesday’s news was an inevitability, and surprising only in its lateness: most big releases appear online weeks, or even months ahead of their true street date. So what value, if any, does an album release event have after once an internet leak has removed the mystery? I went to Wee Waa to find out.

    When I wake up on the morning of 79th Annual Wee Waa Show, I add Random Access Memories to my to collection on the streaming music service Rdio, a process that takes only minutes. During the seven-hour drive to Wee Waa, the temptation to listen to the album is powerful. After all, it’s right there. I resist, though, out of respect for the album and the experience ahead. I figure that saving that crucial first listen for the first night will be worth it.

    Situated 560 kilometers (347 miles) north-west of Sydney, Australia’s most populated city, Wee Waa was previously known for its cotton production, and little else. The choice to host the album launch here had everything to do with sheer disorientation — hence the global headlines. Sony first floated the idea with the Narrabri Shire Council in February, two months before the news was made public in mid-April. The Wee Waa Show committee discussed at length how the showgrounds would cope with the influx of tourists; local accommodation was fully booked soon after the news broke.

    This three-day event is an important cultural staple of the region, even when Daft Punk isn’t around. The show format combines elements of agricultural presentations (cattle judging, pet shows) with competitions (horse-riding, cake-baking) and carnival rides familiar to attendees of American state fairs. It’s easy for city-dwelling outsiders to poke fun at these meets, but for local farming families, these regional shows provide a welcome respite in their routine. It’s a chance to put down tools for a couple of days, socialize with one another, and celebrate successes.

    In the days before the main event, rumors of a last-minute appearance from the French duo still circulate, and Sony stokes the flames by refusing to rule out the possibility. On Friday, there’s talk of the local airport being temporarily closed for a couple of mysterious, high-security chartered flights. Perhaps Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo had elected to make the trek after all, people say; perhaps their statements to the contrary were a smokescreen to deter all but the true believers, the fans who still thought an album launch meant something, leak or no leak.

    For the full story, and more photographs, visit Wired.com.

  • 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.

  • CNET story: ‘Josephmark: the Australian architects of the new Myspace’, January 2013

    A feature for CNET Australia; my first story for the site. Excerpt below.

    Josephmark: the Australian architects of the new Myspace

    The Brisbane design studio tasked with rebuilding Myspace tells CNET Australia about its vision for bringing Myspace its sexy back.

    "Josephmark: the Australian architects of the new Myspace" story for CNET Australia by Andrew McMillen, January 2013

    Picture a racehorse wearing blinkers, galloping across the turf, completely oblivious to its competitors. The animal runs its own race, at its own pace, never for a moment considering whether it’s leading or whether it might ultimately win. This is the image used by Ben Johnston, co-founder of Brisbane-based digital design studio Josephmark, when describing the ethos of a unique Australian team that has just put the finishing touches on a refreshed version of Myspace.

    Speaking exclusively to CNET Australia, studio director Johnston was enjoying a rare opportunity to touch base in Brisbane with Josephmark’s general manager Carl Watney and creative director Jess Huddart. The studio’s 21-strong team has scarcely been in the same room in the last year, when Josephmark [pictured above] landed a contract to retool the world’s first truly global social network.

    Johnston prefers the racehorse-with-blinkers analogy because he lives by the same mantra in his personal life. “[The point is] not to win a race, but to not get distracted by what’s on either side of you,” the 29-year-old said. “You set your own benchmarks, I guess. That, joined with a sense of curiosity, is what drives us to work, to go beyond a brief — to invest heavily in our own learning.”

    The blinkers are evidently helping. All three Josephmark leaders told CNET Australia that they can’t name any other company in the design sector that they aspire to emulate. “There are aspects of other companies [that appeal], but I think we inherently live those traits,” said Johnston. “It feels good, because it means that as a company, we’re leading — even if we’re going in the wrong direction!” he laughed.

    Though Josephmark has driven unique web design projects in recent years — including real-time music chart We Are Hunted and Australian independent journalism hub The Global Mail — this is the first time it is competing on the world’s stage as Myspace’s design and vision partners.

    The pitch

    Five design studios were invited to tender for the Myspace partnership; four of those were based in North America. The invitation arrived at just the right time for Josephmark. “Past clients helped firm up our resolve about what we know, and how we know things can work, too,” said general manager Watney. “If you’re going to do something bold and radical, and it’s design-led, the design has to overcome bureaucracy and egos and whatever else might be involved, and actually push through it. We have to stick to our guns if we’re committing to something of this size.”

    Josephmark’s approach to the Myspace tender was straightforward. They simply asked themselves, “If Myspace was ours, what would we do with it?” Though the brief was “quite thorough”, creative director Jess Huddart said that the team soon decided to ignore it.

    “We looked at it and went, ‘if you do what you think you want, then we’re just going to end up creating what you already have. That’s not going to solve this massive problem that’s ahead of you’,” Huddart recalled. “Then we took ownership of it, and I think that’s a massive difference between us and perhaps other studios in their responses. Rather than just simply doing what the client’s asking you to do, we actually own it as if it’s our own project.”

    “There’s a certain boldness in that [approach],” admitted Johnston, “but effectively, it comes back to how we value our own time.” Josephmark didn’t approach the project with a pay cheque in mind. The studio saw this as an opportunity to make a real difference to an ailing, yet historic online media brand. “Obviously, there were certain things in the back of our minds, like, ‘it’s f***ing Myspace! Is there a chance for this thing to turn around?” And what would it take to turn it around?'” Johnston said.

    The solution developed by Josephmark was delivered as a video pitch — which Johnston described as a “two and a half minute narrative capsule with a voiceover that painted a picture of what Myspace could be” — accompanied by a more traditional pitch document. “Unbeknown to us, the video went down extremely well, to the point where [Myspace executives] called everyone in and showed the whole company, saying ‘this is where we’re going!’ This is before they even engaged with us.” That video then went on to be used in the company’s sales pitches as they sought potential partners.

    Josephmark’s pitch became the company’s decisive flag in the ground, allowing the company to state proudly: “This is what we’re doing.”

    For the full story, visit CNET Australia. More on Josephmark here.

  • Kotaku story: ‘What Went Wrong With Silicon Knights’ X-Men: Destiny?’, October 2012

    A 6,000 word feature story published on Kotaku in October; excerpt below. This is the result of 15 months’ investigative work.

    What Went Wrong With Silicon Knights’ X-Men: Destiny?
    by Andrew McMillen

    Bad video games are released all the time. A raft of factors conspire to influence the quality of the outcome. Maybe tight deadlines are to blame. Or maybe the problems include inexperienced developers, incompetent project management, impossible publisher requests, funding concerns. It’s a seemingly unavoidable fact that not every game can be great, or good, or even average.

    So how does a game, one made by a celebrated studio and backed by one of the richest game publishers in the world, turn out to be a bad video game? This is a story about exactly that. It’s about Silicon Knights the studio behind the great Eternal Darkness, the miserable X-Men: Destiny. It’s about a proud leader, frustrated ex-employees, many internal clashes and a secret sequel everyone hoped would be great.

    To an extent, it’s the role of the gaming media to warn potential buyers away from these inferior gaming experiences, and encourage them to spend time with well-designed games developed by skilled teams, led by sound project management, and unhurried by unrealistic demands. The conventional wisdom is that life’s too short to play every game — or read every book, or listen to every album, or see every film — and as a result, we tend to only want to invest our time and money into the very best.

    X-Men: Destiny — developed by Canadian studio Silicon Knights for Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii — could have gone either way. Sure, previous X-Men titles didn’t exactly set the world on fire: 2006?s X-Men: The Official Game, averaged a score of 52 out of 100 on Metacritic across seven platforms, while 2009?s character-focused X-Men Origins: Wolverine averaged a 65 across six platforms.

    But X-Men: Destiny (XMD), released September 27, 2011, underperformed them both with a dramatically low Metacritic score of just 41 across four platforms. (The DS version, developed by Canadian studio Other Ocean Interactive, registered a 33 on the site, making it the single worst-reviewed X-Men title in Metacritic’s records.)

    There are plenty of possible explanations for the poor result. Maybe the game’s publisher, Activision, rushed the release in an attempt to hit a quarterly revenue goal. Maybe it was just dragged down by the weight of a crappy, overdone superhero licence, as so many games before it. Maybe the title just didn’t come together in the end, or simply failed to resonate with reviewers.

    These are all possible, but discussions with former employees of XMD developer Silicon Knights suggest that the game’s fate was sealed long before Activision gave the project a green light back in 2009. The following story excerpts extensive interviews with former Silicon Knights employees who describe their experiences at what they say was a disorganized, unfocused company that squandered ample time and resources before being forced to release a game it was far from proud of.

    Management at Silicon Knights refused to be interviewed on the record for this story, despite repeated requests over many months. A spokesperson for the game’s publisher, Activision, also declined requests for comment. Accordingly, keep in mind that what follows is but one side of a very complex story. When first confronted with wide-ranging allegations of XMD‘s tumultuous development in mid-January 2012, company president Denis Dyack gave the following statement:

    “Silicon Knights is obligated to its partners (in the case of X-Men: Destiny — Activision and Marvel) to not disclose the development process of any project they work on. These obligations also apply to all the people who worked on X-Men: Destiny. Silicon Knights appreciated the opportunity to work on the game and we hope to get an opportunity to work together with Activision and Marvel again.”

    This statement remains the only comment that Kotaku can attribute to the man behind the biggest failure in the studio’s 20-year history.

    Enter: “SK Whistleblower”

    It’s not as if Silicon Knights was some untested, fly-by-night developer brought on to quickly crank out just another licensed title. Founded in 1992 by current company president Denis Dyack, the St. Catharines, Ontario-based company is best known for their 2002 GameCube hit Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, which scored a “universal acclaim” score of 92 on Metacritic, based on 41 reviews. The company’s 2004 Metal Gear Solid remake, The Twin Snakes, scored 85 across 54 reviews. And while Silicon Knights’ 2008 Xbox 360 release Too Human averaged a sub-par score of 65, the company’s history still suggested it could produce good games.

    But X-Men: Destiny stands alone as the worst game that Silicon Knights has released since it was founded. How did a company that was once known for compelling, original, quality video games come to release a title best described as “mediocre,” “mindless,” “generic” and “an absolute mess”?

    (1UP gave the X360 version a D+, concluding that the game is “is an absolute mess that isn’t worth your time.” IGN gave the PS3 version 5.5 points out of 10 — “mediocre” — and remarked that “even for an action brawler, this one is as mindless as they come.”GameSpot reviewed the same version and awarded the game 4 out of 10, noting that XMD “does the incredible: it makes being a genetic marvel a generic bore.”)

    “I am writing to you in regards to Silicon Knights’ upcoming title X-Men: Destiny,” read the July 21, 2011 email from a mysterious, throwaway Hotmail account with the handle SK Whistleblower. “Silicon Knights’ executive team has just recently implemented a new policy to discredit all employees who have recently resigned. This includes employees who have worked on it for between six months and three years. Between 35 to 45 former employees will fail to have their credits appear in the game.”

    I knew firsthand how to deal with such serious allegations. At the time, IGN had recently published my 4,500 word feature story based on interviews with 11 anonymous former employees of the Australian studio Team Bondi, in which those developers detailed seven troubled years of work on L.A. Noire; years that culminated with many of those employees failing to receive the credit they believed they deserved for their work. Now, someone was suggesting that Silicon Knights was having similar problems with its latest title.

    “Much of what was written about Team Bondi’s situation can be said about Silicon Knights as well,” SK Whistleblower continued. “I am certain that if you contacted former and current Silicon Knights employees and offered them anonymity, you would receive evidence of an appalling antipathy from management towards the employees, publishers, and the quality of their games.”

    Anonymous allegations are easy to make; verifying them is much tougher. I spent the next couple of months reaching out to dozens of former Silicon Knights employees, including a list of 32 allegedly omitted names supplied by SK Whistleblower. Many of those who responded confirmed that they, too, had heard the rumours of their names being removed from the credits of XMD. Some refused to speculate (“I can’t confirm who made it into the credits or not until the game is released, so I’m unable to comment”); some expressed concern for their former colleagues (“I feel that any information I give you will only hurt the current employees at SK”); others feared the ramifications of their involvement in this investigation (“any other information possibly leaking would not look good towards my professionalism and possible future opportunities”).

    Ultimately, I secured interviews with eight former SK employees who worked on XMD, including the initial whistleblower. Between them, these former staffers represented over 45 years of service to the Canadian game development studio. All of them spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, for obvious reasons. Interviewees suggest that the company has been plagued by a complex set of internal problems for years. It soon became clear that this story was about much more than a minor grievance with SK’s crediting standards.

    To read the full story, visit Kotaku.

  • The Global Mail story: ‘Unchained Melodies: streaming music in Australia’, June 2012

    A story for The Global Mail, published in June 2012.

    Excerpt below; click the image to read the full story on The Global Mail website.

    Unchained Melodies
    by Andrew McMillen

    What are you listening to? Chances are you accessed it from a streaming music-subscription service. Who wins and loses from the surging popularity of such sites as Rdio or Spotify?

    Little-known fact: among David Bowie’s many talents — singer, guitarist, hit songwriter, actor, multi-million record-seller, one-time androgynous alien — he’s also a soothsayer. The English pop star told The New York Times a decade ago, “The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it’s not going to happen.”

    Bowie continued: ”Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity. So it’s like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen.”

    That New York Times article was published in June 2002. Ten years later, Australian music consumers find Bowie’s out-there predictions have become reality. Music sales have taken a severe dive worldwide; according to the most recent Recording Industry in Numbers report, 2011 delivered the “least negative result in global recorded music sales since 2004”; overall revenue fell by just three per cent, continuing the year-on-year decline.Today only a handful of the biggest artists can successfully earn a living from recording and releasing music alone; the vast majority of singers and players must tour regularly to top up their bank accounts, while simultaneously promoting their latest release.

    And, perhaps most significantly, technological innovation and begrudging record-label cooperation have combined to offer music fans the chance to shun the concept of traditional ownership entirely, in favour of streaming millions of songs wherever they want, as often as they want, in exchange for a regular fee. It’s Mr Bowie’s music-as-utility forecast come true. Streaming music is here, and likely here to stay. For music fans, the benefits are clear. Subscribe to an online service like Rdio or Spotify — the two most popular players in an increasingly-crowded Australian market — for $12.90 or $12.99 per month, respectively, and you’ll have access to almost any song you’ve ever loved, plus a whole galaxy of tunes you don’t yet know. You’ll also be able to hear new music on the day it’s released at the record store and on Apple’s iTunes Store. (Since April 2003 the iTunes Store has sold more than 16 billion songs.)

    Streaming offers an all-you-can-eat buffet of music, on your computer and your smartphone, and no matter how much you ‘eat’, the monthly fee remains the same. (Spotify also offers a free subscription, which automatically inserts audio advertisements into your playlist every 10 minutes or so.) Streaming is the most cost-effective and convenient means to music discovery ever mass-marketed; indeed, the initial enormity of the music library on offer — both Rdio and Spotify host 15 million-odd songs each — will overwhelm even the biggest fan.

    That record labels succumbed to streaming service providers by licencing their artists’ music was no doubt driven by a desperate need to regain some control over their ailing profit margins. Peer-to-peer file-sharing technology like Napster, Kazaa and — more recently — BitTorrent are widely acknowledged to have decimated overall music sales from 1999 onwards. The record industry learned a hard lesson: if the option is available, the tech-savvy will choose not to pay for music.

    Exactly how much this lesson cost the industry in lost sales revenue is impossible to measure, but it’s safe to say that the number in question is a whole number containing many, many zeroes. The labels’ great big hope is that the sheer convenience and relatively low cost of streaming will function as a finger in the proverbial dyke. A month’s unlimited subscription to Rdio or Spotify costs less than the average album does in-store, or on iTunes. Better that people pay a little money to hear their artists’ music, the labels figure, than nothing at all. The recording artists generally can’t choose whether or not their music is streamed, as their record labels usually hold the rights over how and where their music can be sold. Only the biggest fish can swim against the tide: bands such as The Beatles, Coldplay, Metallica and AC/DC all have opted out of including their respective catalogues on streaming services. Spotify won’t be drawn on the amount of revenue that gradually filters down to individual artists; spokespeople have only ever stated publicly that 70 per cent of the company’s revenue from subscriptions and ad sales goes to record labels, which then pass on a small percentage of the per-stream revenue to the artists.

    Perhaps it’s always been true that only the foolhardy would pursue a career in music with the primary goal of wealth in mind. But now it seems that the money-laden scales are tipping further away from the songwriters and performers in favour of those who build and maintain the tech services which enable the sale, distribution and consumption of music.(Just ask Apple’s shareholders.) So, is streaming going to kill the rock star?

    To read the full story, visit The Global Mail.

    Elsewhere: a conversation with Scott Bagby and Carter Adamson of streaming music service Rdio, February 2012.