Friday, June 24, 2011

82. Interactive Advertising: NUads Mean Kinect is Open for Business

Article first published as Interactive Advertising: NUads Mean Kinect is Open for Business on Blogcritics.

I remember watching Minority Report a few years back, and having a friend say “Yeah right man there’s no way they can do that” in response to the extremely targeted 3D advertising ubiquitous in the film’s scenery. My response, almost discarded at the time, was simple, “They will soon.” Advertising equals dollars, and after all that’s what makes the world go ‘round. Once confined to billboards and TV spots, they now own the internet and are on any shred of free digital space they can find. But, as I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed they’re starting to gradually take up a larger part of our digital lives with every passing day. There is, of course, been blatant product placement and merchandising tie-ins in TV and games, but they don’t interrupt the shows I watch or the games I play, so I can forgive that. We’ve learned to live with TV commercials, going so far as to DVR a show so we can fast forward through them, so now they advertise during the show in huge, fat, view obstructing fashion. It’s been a long time since standard internet pop-ups bothered us too – most browsers automatically kill those. So advertisers have been forced to get creative.

Let me give you an example – I was over on 1up earlier, and I clicked on a trailer link for BloodRayne: Betrayal. While the movies bombed, the games were alright, so I wanted to see what was new. Now videos sometimes take a while so I went into this with intent of being patient and giving it some time. Here’s what I was treated to: first was an overall slow loading page, where advertisements on the top and side bars loaded before any actual content did. Second came the video player through which the trailer would be seen. Once the video started, it wasn’t actually the trailer for BloodRayne at all, but a 15-second unskippable commercial for Comedy Central. This in itself is usually enough for me to cancel loading the video and not watch it altogether these days, lest I put a hole in my LCD in a desperate attempt to strike the advertiser. But today I let it go only to find that there was still more advertising to be done. Now covering 90% of the video player (which was a couple seconds into the Comedy Central ad), a video window pops up for Season of the Witch. If you are wondering, by the way, it’s out on Blu-ray and DVD 6/28.

I’m not blaming 1up, I read their stuff all the time and will continue to, but it’s just an example of a widespread epidemic. I’m not exaggerating though. Here’s a screenshot. A video ad pre-empting an ad before the video I wanted to watch. Then, the pièce de résistance: “The video you are trying to watch is currently unavailable.” Pure excellence. So where does this all end?

Bad news, it doesn’t. Microsoft’s Kinect will be the newest platform of annoyance. In 2012, they’ll be introducing NUads (Native User-interface Ads), a form of interactive advertising. For instance, during a commercial, a user can say “Xbox Tweet” to automatically tweet about the brand to all of their followers. “Xbox More” will send you more information, and “Xbox Near Me” will bring up a list of local retailers. Microsoft’s Mark Kroese heralds the arrival of NUads with flowery prose to try and get us excited about it on the Microsoft Advertising blog. He notes that it “transforms traditional, linear TV advertising into an interactive experience by using the voice-and gesture-control of Kinect for Xbox 360.” The goal of this service, according to him, is to “break down the barriers between consumers and content on the TV screen.” I’ve never met anyone who actively tweets about their favorite brands, but maybe it’s just because NUads doesn't exist yet to allow them to become brand extensions for further advertising. Microsoft has a much happier phrase for that of course – “Social Advocacy.” Kroese also highlights how users can use real time voting and give feedback for advertisements. One thing reported by Gamasutra and others that Kroese omits in his laud of the program is that ads will also be embedded in the dashboard and in-game as well. The second this interrupts gameplay of any sort for me I am done.

Perhaps I’m being too tough on this and it won’t be as big of an intrusion as I’m thinking it will be. I suppose if it doesn’t interfere with gameplay it really won’t bother me all that much. What actually bothers me more is the claim that this is a revolutionary thing that will “unlock the incredible potential in interactive TV” with such gusto and unmitigated chutzpah. What advantage will Xbox users gain from this? What about those who pay for an Xbox Live Gold subscription? Will their payment shield them from the ads? While this is great for Microsoft to court advertisers and drive their own revenue streams, no matter how you cut it, it doesn’t seem like a game changer to the players to me.

Friday, June 17, 2011

81. The Redner Group, 2K Games, and Duke Nukem Forever - a Q&A with Jim Redner

[Article first published as Q&A with Jim Redner: The Redner Group, 2K Games, and Duke Nukem Forever on Blogcritics.]

Videogame review ratings are, as with review ratings of all forms of media, pretty subjective. There have been games that have gotten mediocre reviews which I thoroughly enjoyed, and there have been games with fairly high critic reviews that I only thought were so-so. It’s the same grab bag you shove your digital hands into when visiting Rotten Tomatoes to check out a flick.

There are, however, certain titles (again, as there are in other forms of media) that completely polarize audiences with folks ending up completely on one side or the other of a “loved it/hated it” dichotomy. The Guitar Hero and Rockband games are a perfect example. I don’t know anyone who casually played them just for occasional kicks when they came out. Folks were either rocking out with their finest rock flourish, or throwing things at those dancing the dance of digital rock, asking them how they could destroy music this way.

After all the built up anticipation, we all knew that 2K Games and Gearbox’s Duke Nukem Forever was going to follow this same kind of line. I mean, the game was over a decade in the making. There was an army of loyal fans, with their yellowed, crinkled preorder receipts from way back when chomping at the bit to finally get their hands on a copy of DNF, while another faction wasn’t really buying into the excitement. As the release day got closer, reviews started rolling in, and unfortunately for 2K Games they weren’t good. After receiving a combined Metacritic score of 49 (for the Xbox 360 version), it was 2K Games’ outside public relations company, The Redner Group, that went on the offensive, sending out a few tweets that sparked a lot of controversy, with the following one seeming to be the harshest:

“too many went too far with their reviews…we r reviewing who gets games next time and who doesn’t based on today’s venom."

It looked like TRG was threatening gaming media outlets that gave 2K games low review scores. The tweet was deleted shortly after, and replaced with an apology from Jim Redner and a tweet indicating that it was only The Redner Group, and not 2K Games, that was behind the message. Despite the tweet being deleted, gaming sites around the web immediately began reporting on media outlets being threatened with blacklisting for bad reviews. But not everyone was talking about threats from TRG. In a tweet yesterday,’s Tom Bramwell said “I feel sorry for @TheRednerGroup today. We are blacklisted by @2KGames and it seems to be standard practice.” He went on to mention that they had to buy Duke Nukem Forever to review it.

Everyone had something to say, but outside from a few tweets and a public separation with 2K games, I wasn’t seeing anything from The Redner Group. To get some clarity I contacted Jim Redner yesterday, who was gracious enough to take the time to answer a few questions for me. His answers paint a picture of an emotionally charged man with a passion for gaming who gets very personal with his project. He freely admits that yes, he made a mistake, and the whole situation could have been handled better.

Read what we had to say below.

Tushar Nene (TN): Did 2K Games have any part in the tweets originating from TRG's twitter account?

Jim Redner (JR): No, 2K didn’t have anything to do with the tweets. They came directly from theRednerGroup. theRednerGroup is a small PR agency. In fact, it is just me. I work from a bedroom turned into an office. I hustle to get business and I have to compete with the bigger agencies. I am a 24/7 one-person agency. I hire freelancers to help out on occasion, but for the most part I do it all. I care for my clients and their projects. I work very hard to generate consumer awareness. It’s so hard to put so many hours and then see one story tear it down. I am so emotional[ly] tied to my projects and I acted unprofessional due to one review and it wasn’t even the lowest review. My tweet was plain dumb. I know how I should’ve handled [it]. 2K reacted as they should’ve. I actually offered to resign the account the night of the tweet because they needed to distance themselves from me.

TN: Did the tweet regarding reviewing which outlets would receive future 2K releases reflect 2K's true sentiment, as's Tom Bramwell has tweeted that they are now blacklisted?

JR: Actually, no. I don’t know much about EuroGamer and their standing with 2K. I can’t speak on their behalf at all.

I can speak to how I handled theRednerGroup’s US and Canadian media review policy. I look to support writers who have pre-launch provided coverage on the game or project that I represent. If you provide me with coverage, I will provide you with a game for review. Your pre-launch coverage and review generates consumer attention for both the game and your site. It is a symbiotic relationship. If you haven’t covered the game yet and ask for a review copy, I usually turn you down. I have a limited amount of copies to give out and I try to take care of the writers that have taken care of the game. It’s only fair. Of course I want everyone to review each game positively, but we all know that is not possible. Some games rock and some games don’t. We know well in advance of launch if a game is going generate high or low scores. Overall, we are never surprised.

Reviews are subjective. They are one person’s opinion of the game, and as you know, opinions are never wrong. I read every review. I don’t care if my game receives a poor review so long as the writer backs up the story in fact. I believe that writers have a responsibility to be ethical and fair in their reviews if they receive the game from the publisher. A writer can hate a game and say so. The responsible thing to do is to write the review in a fair manner and back up the review in fact. If they do that, I cannot and will not complain about the review?

Everyone has the right to say what they want, when they want. But, if you are going to be crass and outlandishly mean spirited, I have the right to no longer support you with content or games. Blacklisting is an ugly word. We don’t blacklist anyone. We pick who receives games and who doesn’t. We have limited amount to begin with. I think people believe that games are free for us when in fact we have to pay for them as well. A discounted price, but it still is very expensive. So why would I send a game to someone who I know is going to destroy or is capable of hate-filled stories? Where is the sense in that? If someone hits you every time you see them, would you continue to want to see them? Of course not.

I admire writers who can take a game and write solid reviews based in fact even though they would never play that game in their spare time. For instance, if someone hated sports and was told that they had to review a baseball game and then turned around wrote a well-founded review on it, regardless of the score, I find that impressive. I couldn’t do it. The vast majority of writers in this industry do that all the time and they do it well. There is a common misconception that publisher have to give games out for review. They don’t have to give games to anyone. In fact, they have as much right to refuse to send games out as writers have the right to publish whatever they want.

TN: What kind of response have you received from the community?

JR: The response from writers in the industry has been overwhelming supportive. They provided me with their opinion about my tweet, a lot of well thought out constructive feedback which I welcome. Some agreed and some disagreed but they were honest and open with me. I have tried to uphold several beliefs in how I work with people. I try to be fair. I try to be prompt and take care of the media I work with. I hope that I will be able to rebuild some of the faith I may have lost in the video game media community.

TN: What happens next for TRG?

JR: Since I am a single PR professional, I handle all aspects of a campaign. In order to compete with the bigger agencies with multi-offices and 100s of employees, I have work seven days a week from my bedroom/office. I have to be available all day and all night. I hustle. I work tirelessly and Duke Nukem Forever was my baby. Like a father protecting his son, I emotionally charge[d] when I posted that tweet. It’s hard to read outlandishly bad reviews that are really diatribes. Actually, it was just one review and it wasn’t even the lowest scoring review. It was just a mean spirited diatribe masked as a review. I should’ve had thicker skin.

My next steps are to continue my hustle. This has set me back and rightly so, but I will push forward and move on. theRednerGroup will survive this controversy in some form or fashion. I know what is important in life and I know what isn’t. I love the video game community. Much to the dismay of my future wife, I still play games. Go Borderlands! Call of Duty: Black Ops! I have played games since my next door neighbor introduced me to the Atari 2600. Asteroids, Centipede,Codebreaker. Though my tastes in games have changed over the years, my passion for them hasn’t.


Twitter is a pretty powerful tool. What was a vague idea years ago has turned into a media machine that’s being utilized by folks in business and entertainment to communicate with fans and each other, giving everyone all the latest news. Unfortunately, that kind of instant attention can be a double-edged sword; fame can become notoriety in a matter of a day. It’s just another illustration of potential problems that can occur that people never would have thought of in the pre-Facebook/Twitter era.

I’d like to thank Jim Redner again for answering my questions, and wish him and The Redner Group the best in moving past this situation.

Friday, June 10, 2011

80. could a little tech know-how prevent strangers from seeing you in the shower?

[Article first published as Lack of Computer Knowledge Allows Technician to Hack Customers' Webcams on Blogcritics.]

In my line of work and field of nerdery, I often encounter people who need my help because they just don’t understand computers. I guess normally that’s not really a big deal – I mean my company does pay me to take care of all of our technical stuff after all. A user forgot a password? No problem. RAID array fail? Hand me my tools and that superhero cape in the corner there, I’m on the case. It’s all sanctioned stuff. It’s the other problems that people come to me with, usually about their personal and home tech causing “issues” that give me worry.

Now I put the quotes around “issues” because generally no one would really describe them that way – usually all that’s required is a change in settings to get things the way they need to be. I have no problem walking them through stuff like this. The first few times that is. After answering similar questions from the same people about the same problems, or hearing how they downloaded the same virus from the same fake email address I’ve warned them about a dozen times, that’s when I get upset. Is it an inability to learn basic things? Well, not exactly. It’s more a refusal to try and understand the machines that manage their lives. We live in a time when computers help govern pretty much everything we do, be it something as simple as sending an e-mail to automating manufacturing sites. It’s engrained in our cultural and social DNA. How many of you could go a week without using email? Facebook? The internet? I doubt it would be more than a handful of you. And with every additional piece of our lives ruled by the web, there’s an additional security hole to be plugged. People getting hacked for various things are always present in the news cycle. So why is it that people refuse to try and learn more about computers? I don’t understand it myself, but it can sometimes contribute to serious problems.

I read a story today about computer repairman rigging customers’ machines to take video and pictures (in bathrooms and showers) through webcams without their consent. His setup, as in what he told customers to convince them to move their machines into the bathroom, should have thrown up red flags for most people. The culprit, Trevor Harwell of Southern California, installed software on his customers’ Macbooks to take control of their embedded webcams. This software gave the users fake error messages, telling them to “fix their internal sensor soon,” according to Sgt. Andrew Goodrich of the Fullerton Police. Alright, a standard user may be justified in thinking that there is in fact a generic “internal sensor” in their device. That’s fair. But the second message should have signaled alarms to anyone: “try putting your laptop near hot steam for several minutes to clean the sensor.” So what did this error message prompt users to do? Report suspicious activity? Take it to a Mac Store or Genius Bar? Unfortunately, it prompted many of them to take their computers into the bathroom without question while they showered to get the prescribed steam to fix the problem.

Once Harwell had access, he took photos and videos, primarily of female targets, while they were either undressed or changing clothes. Those photos were routed to his own machine through a remote server. He was finally caught when a Fullerton resident did see the red flags, and reported suspicious messages on his daughter’s computer in 2010. As a result, 20-year old Harwell now faces 12 counts of computer access and fraud (those would be felonies for those keeping score) for the hundreds of thousands of images and videos in his possession. Rezitech, the company Harwell worked for, said that none of this was done while working for them, and are cooperating fully with law enforcement on this investigation.

Now I’m not going to blame the exploited users completely. IT people can operate now from a position of power and authority, much like doctors and lawyers, given the knowledge we have over the masses. Unfortunately the young man in question, a pervert and a predator, abused that position, and took advantage of those who trusted him. Look at who his targets were. They were computer users who didn’t know anything about the devices they were using. They would take anything their Mac told them as truth, and blindly comply without a single hint of suspicion. I know a lot of people who know absolutely nothing about computers, but they’d definitely have the good sense to call me before they took a computer into the shower with them.

Everything is connected these days – computers, game consoles, even televisions. Making sure you’re digitally safe should be a priority for everyone. So I ask of you all, learn a little bit more about the tech you use in your everyday life. You all have nerd friends or family members that are willing to sit down and run through some computer security stuff with you. Just ask them.

Friday, June 3, 2011

79. at&t's sleight of hand to gain political favor?

[Article first published as AT&T's Merger Sleight of Hand to Gain Political Favor? on Blogcritics.]

As the old adage goes, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat.” Why anyone would want to skin a cat to begin with is beyond me, but regardless, the concept is far reaching and used for many purposes. It could be said as encouragement in college labs to aspiring students, or delivered with a smirk and a wink in business and political offices when someone finds a legal loophole. The latter may be true regarding AT&T’s $39 billion merger with T-Mobile, and how companies can try to draw favor from politicians with pull when they can’t directly financially contribute to them. The merger is under scrutiny by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ).

So let’s talk about this cat. The FEC (Federal Election Commission) prohibits corporations from contributing directly to political candidates from business accounts or using business funds. The best they can do is write a check from personal accounts to candidates and political action committees (PACs), in which case there are limits imposed as outlined by the FEC. So how else can influence be, shall we say, financially suggested? They can donate to charities closely associated with said politicians. Watchdog groups like Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington have been seeing a definite uptick in this kind of activity in the last few years. "It’s another way to curry favor when you’ve maxed out in your political contributions," said Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director. "We’re seeing it more and more."

In the case of AT&T, they have given almost $1.25 million to charities affiliated with lawmakers from 2008 to 2010. One such contribution was made to Alzheimer’s Association and the Blanchette Neurosciences Institute, which are charities affiliated with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has direct jurisdiction over the FCC, which means that their approval is required for the merger to go through. Contributions were also made to charities associated with Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), a high-ranking house Democrat.

All of these contributions are 100% legal and the American public is given full disclosure, so who’s really being hurt? The problem is that not many have really put the pieces together here to see the full picture. This isn’t the first time the telecom giant has acted in this manner. Around the time they needed legislative approval from Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA) to sell cable television services, they pledged at least $250,000 to a charity run by Governor Jindal’s wife.

Sen. Rockefeller’s spokesman Vince Morris said in a statement to Politico, “The senator’s interest in supporting Alzheimer’s research is separate and long term and never touches on his evaluation of the AT&T merger.” Further, “Even the idea that donating to a charity would influence him is ridiculous.”

And that may be the case. Against everything else that says otherwise, there may not be any impropriety here. I can’t tell you with 100% certainty that these donations on the part of AT&T were driven by financial and political motives. I’m just a technology nerd. But the timing on them does seem strangely coincidental when there’s a big merger they’re trying to push through that is facing a lot of scrutiny and opposition. Arguments against it include less consumer choice, potential hikes in prices and rates, and the elimination of jobs to reduce post-merger redundancy. Then there are potential anti-trust issues - this deal would turn the mobile industry into pretty much a duopoly, with AT&T and Verizon holding a combined 80% of the market. All potential reasons to try and grease some wheels, if you're picking up what i'm putting down.

Interestingly enough, Sprint Nextel Corp and their CEO Dan Hesse, who has been the most vocal opponent of this merger, reported no donations to any charities with ties to American lawmakers.