Saturday, May 26, 2012

How 'Minecraft' became an Xbox blockbuster

(CNN) -- Do gamers prefer to build or destroy? A look at the combat-intensive themes of most top-selling console games would suggest the latter.

But then along came "Minecraft" for Xbox.

The long-established PC game that focused on building and crafting was released for the Xbox earlier this month -- and the results should shake the notion that gamers just want to kill something.

In the first 24 hours of the May 9 release, the Minecraft Xbox 360 edition was downloaded more than 400,000 times, smashing the Xbox Arcade's first-day digital sales record and becoming the fastest selling Xbox Live Arcade title in history.

Markus "Notch" Persson, the creator of Minecraft, tweeted that this console version of Minecraft was "profitable in an hour."

Since release, Minecraft has been skyrocketing up Xbox Live's weekly activity ranking. The most recent numbers place Minecraft in second place, ahead of the first-person shooters "Call of Duty: Black Ops," "Battlefield 3" and "Halo: Reach," in addition to the sports title "FIFA '12." Only "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" remains ahead, for the moment.

This achievement is not surprising to those familiar with the "Minecraft" mania on the PC, where it was first launched in late 2009 and became a gaming phenomenon. In its first 15 months, Mojang, the gaming company Persson built around Minecraft, reported revenues totaling $80 million.

"Minecraft" was not a product of the typical game development and it's not produced by one of the best-known production companies of the gaming industry. Instead, it was started by Notch -- as he's known to the game's fans -- an independent game developer who was willing to experiment with a unique game design, try a risky new online business model and forge a new relationship with gamers. He shared his thoughts on this at the official launch for Minecraft in Las Vegas.

"When I grew up with games, there was a lot of experimentation going on. People would try and create an idea, and not just copy the most successful game out there," he said. "Initially I was mostly doing it because of the technical challenge, and then it became fun."

The game's formula is not entirely new. Open world "sandbox" games have been a part of many successful titles. This is where the player is not restricted to a particular path, either in the game's physical world or in the game's narrative.

But no one had really taken this concept to the extreme that Notch has. In "Minecraft," the player is placed somewhere on a gigantic world at sunrise, and that's it. There is no apparent storyline, mission or purpose, beyond a few tips and achievements. Players are given a world of their own to do with as they like, which often becomes an addictive adventure of survival, exploration and building.

Yes, building. This is the core mechanic of "Minecraft." The world is composed of blocks that you can remove and replace. This is first done in order to survive, as players wall themselves in at night, nervously listening to the creatures roaming nearby. But then, if things go well, their imagination takes hold and a simple house becomes a castle, or the Roman Colosseum, or whatever else the player can imagine.

Then full-grown adults spend the next four to six hours in a state of childhood bliss, virtually playing with Legos again.

When Notch first released Minecraft to the online public, the game was far from finished, and was still in an early Alpha stage. Releasing it at this point held significant risk, he said, as players could dismiss what could be a great game because of the glitches, bugs and the unfinished quality of a pre-beta version. Instead, the opposite happened.

"Fairly soon, people started talking about it and actually appreciating it," Notch recalled. "And ever since then, that's what kept me going -- people actually liking and playing it."

If selling an unfinished game online by himself wasn't risky enough, Notch took it a step further by making the classic version of the game available free. This skyrocketed the game's popularity, and close to 25 million people have since downloaded the game on their PC. More than 5.8 million copies have been purchased.

Another result from this unconventional business model is the relationship it has formed between Notch and his fans. Instead of just being consumers, these early players felt they were a part of the game's development. The game updates felt like gifts to the players, instead of the natural progression toward a title's release.

"The players got invested in the testing and the suggestions and the feedback kind of early on and actually started buying the game early," he said. "The way that they talked about the game is definitely why it's spread so fast, because there was no marketing before that -- just word of mouth."

One way players talked about "Minecraft" was through more than 4 million YouTube videos. Notch and his team at Mojang have been very responsive to fan suggestions and ideas, and have also supported the modding community, which has built a host of add-ons for the game.

This collaboration has created a loyal following that culminated in November with the official launch of "Minecraft." Most gaming companies hope to build interest and a player base with a successful launch, especially for their first title. For "Minecraft," the company held a convention in Las Vegas with 5,000 fans from around the world.

At this convention Microsoft had a large booth, showing an early playable version of Minecraft for the Xbox 360. As the crowds swelled, with many dressed as Creepers and other creatures from the game, the Xbox team was surprised by the passion of the fans.

"The level of excitement of everybody here, to be in the room with the creator of one of their favorite games -- you don't see that on the same level with any other game title," said Michael Wolf, who does marketing for the Microsoft Xbox Live team.

The Xbox launch has brought "Minecraft" to the console generation, and initial sales indicate they are quickly joining the ranks of block builders. Notch has placed "Minecraft's" further development in the hands of his colleague Jens Bergensten, and has turned his sights on developing a space game, tentatively called "0x10c".

Not much has been revealed so far, except the promise that he will keep experimenting, an approach he's already proven can work.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Pulitzer winner to publish new story, one tweet at a time

(CNN) -- At first blush, it sounds like a torturous way to read an 8,500-word short story. But in a nod to the social media age, The New Yorker is offering up new fiction on Twitter in a series of 140-character bursts.

"Black Box," a new story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan, was to begin appearing on the New Yorker Fiction Twitter account Thursday at 8 p.m. ET. A single line will be published every minute for the next hour, then from 8-9 p.m. on each of the following nine nights, through June 2.

While waiting for new snippets might not sound like the most fun way to consume a story, lovers of the written word can take some solace in the fact that Egan, no stranger to nontraditional storytelling, wrote "Black Box" with Twitter in mind.

Egan's 2010 novel, "A Visit From the Goon Squad," won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. "Black Box," she says, takes a character from that book and tells a "spy-thriller" version of her tale.

"This is not a new idea, of course, but it's a rich one -- because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in 140 characters," she said in a New Yorker post about the experiment. "I found myself imagining a series of terse mental dispatches from a female spy of the future, working undercover by the Mediterranean Sea. I wrote these bulletins by hand in a Japanese notebook that had eight rectangles on each page."

Egan said the story was originally twice its present length and that she spent about a year writing and revising it -- using Twitter's character-counting tool to make sure the final lines would make the cut.

As Egan's statement suggests, she's not the first to tackle fiction on Twitter and other digital short forms.

In Japan, "keitai shousetsu," or "cellphone novels" written in the form of text messages, have become perennial best-sellers since originating in the early 2000s.

In 2008, Penguin Books launched the "We Tell Stories" project in which six of its authors used interactive media, including Twitter, to tell new tales. (One, Toby Litt's "Slice," was told as a series of blog posts and tweets from the story's main character and her parents).

And in 2009, author and noted Twitter-phile Neil Gaiman worked with BBC Audiobooks on an interactive novel built from tweets.

Egan is no stranger to nontraditional approaches to writing herself.

"Goon Squad" hovers somewhere between being a novel and a series of related short stories about an aging music-industry executive and other rock 'n' roll characters. In it, one chapter appears as a PowerPoint presentation.

In July, The Guardian printed Egan's "To Do," a short story told as a seemingly innocuous list of chores.

Call "Black Box" gimmicky if you like, but you can't claim it's just Egan wanting to screw around on Twitter. She has an account, but before two tweets promoting Thursday's serialization, she'd only posted four times since signing up in 2010.

And fear not if you can't stand the thought of reading a story tucked into your Twitter feed (of, for that matter, if you can't stand the thought of Twitter).

The New Yorker will be publishing a daily summary of the story-so-far on its Page Turner fiction blog. The story also will appear in its entirety in the venerable magazine's upcoming science-fiction issue.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

IBM worries iPhone's Siri has loose lips

(WIRED) -- If you work for IBM, you can bring your iPhone to work, but forget about using the phone's voice-activated digital assistant. Siri isn't welcome on Big Blue's networks.

The reason? Siri ships everything you say to her to a big data center in Maiden, North Carolina. And the story of what really happens to all of your Siri-launched searches, e-mail messages and inappropriate jokes is a bit of a black box.

IBM CIO Jeanette Horan told MIT's Technology Review this week that her company has banned Siri outright because, according to the magazine, "The company worries that the spoken queries might be stored somewhere."

Apple's new 'spaceship' campus: What will the neighbors say?

It turns out that Horan is right to worry. In fact, Apple's iPhone Software License Agreement spells this out: "When you use Siri or Dictation, the things you say will be recorded and sent to Apple in order to convert what you say into text," Apple says. Siri collects a bunch of other information -- names of people from your address book and other unspecified user data, all to help Siri do a better job.

Tips for using Siri Siri: Apple's new voice recognition Siri: Apple's new voice recognition

How long does Apple store all of this stuff, and who gets a look at it? Well, the company doesn't actually say. Again, from the user agreement: "By using Siri or Dictation, you agree and consent to Apple's and its subsidiaries' and agents' transmission, collection, maintenance, processing, and use of this information, including your voice input and User Data, to provide and improve Siri, Dictation, and other Apple products and services."

Apple and Samsung begin settlement talks

Because some of the data that Siri collects can be very personal, the American Civil Liberties Union put out a warning about Siri just a couple of months ago.

Privacy was always a big concern for Siri's developers, says Edward Wrenbeck, the lead developer of the original Siri iPhone app, which was eventually acquired by Apple. And for corporate users, there are even more potential pitfalls. "Just having it known that you're at a certain customer's location might be in violation of a non-disclosure agreement," he says.

Apple designer 'winces' over some past product choices

But he agrees that many of the issues raised by Apple's Siri data handling are similar to those that other internet companies face. "I really don't think it's something to worry about," he says. "People are already doing things on these mobile devices. Maybe Siri makes their life a little bit easier, but it's not exactly opening up a new avenue that wasn't there before."

But other companies have been pressured by privacy groups over the way they store customer data. Google, for example, has come under fire in the past for the way it handles a massive database of user search data. But IBM doesn't ban Google. Neither Apple nor IBM could be reached for comment Tuesday, but there are a couple of important differences between Siri and Google that may have IBM worried: For one, Siri can be used to write e-mails or text messages. So, in theory, Apple could be storing confidential IBM messages.

Former Apple employee explains 'upside-down' logo

Another difference: After being dogged by privacy advocates, Google now anonymizes search results -- making them difficult, if not impossible, to trace back to an individual user -- after nine months.

Maybe if Apple agreed to do something like that, Siri would be welcome over in Armonk, New York.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Inventor of the TV remote dies

(CNN) -- The inventor of the TV remote, Eugene Polley, died on Sunday at 96.

After his death was announced on Tuesday, the Internet paused -- get it? -- to remember the man and the wireless television remote control, which ushered in the era of channel surfing and couch potatoes.

Some tributes were humorous. Others were fawning.

"Gush all you want about Facebook, Twitter and other recent tech innovations. I'd stack Polley and his TV remote against all of them," wrote David Lazarus at "After all, which would you be more willing to give up -- Facebook or your remote? ... Thought so."

Polley, who died of "natural causes," according to a news release, invented Zenith's "Flash-Matic" wireless remote control, which was introduced in 1955 and was heralded as the first of its kind. "It used a flashlight-like device to activate photocells on the television set to change channels," the Zenith news release says.

In the 1950s, the mechanics of using a remote were a little clunky:

"The viewer used a highly directional flashlight to activate the four control functions, which turned the picture and sound on and off and changed channels by turning the tuner dial clockwise and counterclockwise," Zenith says.

Rosa Golijan from MSNBC writes that eccentricities always have been part of the remote control and its odd history:

"Because the remote shined visible light, TVs could be confused by other light sources. In spite of its quirkiness, the Flash-Matic was a revolution, and the reason Polley was bestowed with humorous titles ranging from 'the founding father of the couch potato' to 'the czar of zapping' to 'the beach boy of channel surfing.' "

And an advertisement from that era underscores just how new this invention was.

"A flash of magic light from across the room (no wires, no cords) turns set on, off or changes channels," one ad says, "and you remain in your easy chair!"

Born in Chicago, Polley had a long career as an engineer at Zenith, where he worked his way up from the stockroom. His inventions, mostly in the field of television, earned 18 U.S. patents.

Technology analysts, commentators and remote users are using the occasion of Polley's death to celebrate his invention and tease a bit about its legacy.

"Thanks for the belly Eugene," someone wrote on the tech blog Gizmodo's Facebook page. "Just kidding. Great invention."

Others chose to focus on the way Polley, who won a Emmy Award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for his creation, changed the world with the invention.

The TV remote was the precursor to interactive entertainment -- and it's part of the reason we're able to navigate digital content so freely, says The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal.

"The new device meant people could change channels quickly and easily from the comfort of their sectionals, and that affordance meant that television stations could not continue to sell advertising or deliver programming the way that they had before when it was more difficult to change the channel," he writes. "I do not think it is an accident that we started channel surfing (1986) before we started surfing the Web."

As if taking a cue from that thought, one Twitter user wrote:

"R.I.P. Eugene Polley, inventor of the TV remote control. Please honor the man by reading this tweet for at least 5 seconds before scrolling."

Gizmodo also muses on the post-remote world:

"Cordless control allowed audiences a vastly new experience of consuming television: For the first time ever, they could switch programs without getting up to turn the dial. No longer were programs endured simply because they were too lazy to get up off the couch. Commercials could be avoided by switching channels, or muted, with just the press of a button. 'Channel surfing' become a thing."

Who owns the remote in your home, and why? Tell us about your relationship with TV remotes in the comments section.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Microsoft launches a 'social search' network

(CNN) -- Does the Web have room for one more social network? Microsoft thinks so.

With Facebook hogging the spotlight last week and Google working to stay in the game with Google+, Microsoft has quietly launched, which it describes as a social-search tool to share information and meet people with common interests.

What it's not, Microsoft says, is a rival to Facebook.

" is an experimental research project focused on the future of social experiences and learning, especially among younger people," Microsoft said Monday in an e-mail.

The tool was launched late last year for students at a handful of colleges and universities. Last week, the company quietly made it available to anyone for a public beta test period.

Among the features of (pronounced, of course, "social") is a "bookmarklet" feature similar to Facebook's "Like" button. That lets users share sites or pages they find interesting with other users. You can share, comment on or tag other people's posts. also has a "video party" feature that lets users chat with others and incorporate videos into those chats.

The tool comes from Microsoft's FUSE Labs, which works with product research and development teams on new Web and social tools.

The initial focus on students still shines through. With, users can build posts with many elements -- such as photos, video and text -- and share them. It also lets them find other users with similar interests and build communities around specific goals, educational or otherwise.

The researchers behind deliberately sought to collaborate with a student audience that is more holistic -- encompassing representation from the sciences as well as the humanities -- rather than simply technical, says Lili Cheng, general manager of FUSE Labs.

Just don't call it Microsoft's answer to Facebook. Google and smaller rivals have struggled to gain a foothold in a social-media landscape that Facebook dominates. On's FAQ page, Microsoft makes it clear that their new tool is designed as a layer on top of existing networks.

"We expect students to continue using products such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other existing social networks, as well as Bing, Google and other search tools," it says.

"We hope to encourage students to reimagine how our everyday communication and learning tools can be improved by researching, learning and sharing in their everyday lives."