2022 Year in Review

2022 was the one of the busiest years of my life – even busier than 2021, when I sold my company, Six to Start, and wrote most of my book critiquing gamification, You’ve Been Played

I’m still CEO at Six to Start. This year we continued expanding the company to more than double its pre-acquisition size to support new projects like localising Zombies, Run! to four new languages, notably bringing on and training up a whole new set of managers and team leads. 

My book was released in September. I hadn’t expected how it would feel compared to self-publishing or writing essays – far more protracted, with a long gap between finishing writing and starting an endless series of interviews and commissioned essays and articles. Many people whose opinions I value have been very complimentary toward the book, and it had some excellent reviews in The New York Times and The Irish Independent, a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, yet I still have mixed feelings about the entire process.

Oh, and I started writing a monthly column for EDGE magazine about video games. 

All of this took place amid the gradual lifting of travel restrictions around the world, and I took full advantage, travelling to Paris and New York and San Francisco (the latter two for my book launch) which was delightful and also tiring. 

Learning Figma at Six to Start

I’ve already mentioned the big news in the introduction, and there are some unannounced projects I can’t talk about yet, but I do want to highlight my experience learning Figma this year.

Screenshot of the Figma editor

I’ve been the lead game designer of Zombies, Run! since we started work on it in 2011. Less publicised is my role as lead UI and UX designer. This made a lot of sense when we were a tiny team and makes less sense today given all my other obligations, but I find it immensely satisfying and a way to remain directly connected to our users. Also, the UI doesn’t change that much on a year-to-year basis, anyway.

I originally created mockups in Omnigraffle, a vector-based rapid prototyping and design app. I moved to Sketch a few years later, a more powerful tool more suitable for app design. It was very easy to mock up new designs in Sketch and give our developers a sense of how things should be arranged on our app’s various screens, but the way I and many other designers used Sketch was more like Photoshop than anything else, creating mockups that didn’t use consistent layouts or properly cater for different text or screen sizes. This would save me time but would entail a lot of headscratching and questions from our developers when they came to implement them in code.

A big chunk of designers have moved to Figma in the last two or three years. It has two enormous differences from Sketch. Firstly, it’s a web app, whereas Sketch is only for the Mac. This has some obvious limitations (e.g. you can’t use it offline) but it enables seamless real-time collaboration, not to mention eliminating the need to constantly update apps or keep file versions in sync, all of which Sketch struggles at.

More importantly, Figma encourages designers to use its sophisticated auto-layout system rather than placing elements willy-nilly, a la Photoshop. This means that when you’re creating a list of items (e.g. a settings screen), you have to specify a consistent amount of spacing between elements, along with considering what happens when a text field is very short or very long, and ideally set up libraries of images and icons that can populate each part of the list.

Every carousel everywhere all at once

In practice, this means that creating a new mockup (e.g. a carousel of banner images) takes ten times longer in Figma than in Sketch because you have to figure out how to make everything line up perfectly in all cases while not turning it into an incomprehensible mess of layers; the goal is rather to craft a beautifully nested series of reusable, configurable components that can be intuited in the briefest glance such that your developers will cheer your name through the streets as they behold its clarity and logic. If you’ve done your job properly, instead of designing five near-identical carousels that can’t be reconciled with one another and need five different implementations in code, you’ve designed a single super-carousel that’s adaptable for every conceivable circumstance that only needs to be coded once. 

I realise it’s a little ridiculous for me to still be doing any amount of UI design work as CEO. The way I justify my work on Figma is that I’m setting up a design system which will be far easier for others to understand, adapt, and extend; and that it’s actually quicker for me to lay the foundations myself rather than explain it to another designer. 

But if I’m being honest, Figma’s puzzle-like nature is probably the closest I’ve ever gotten to actually-useful programming. It’s hugely satisfying to know that designing things “properly” makes life much easier for our developers and results in a better experience for our users, who get a more reliable app and consistent design. Figma is a tool which seems daunting and unnecessarily fussy at first, but also rewarding to learn, to the point where I can now look at community-created designs and work out how to do them better. I like to understand the details of how processes work in my company because it helps me know where our limits and opportunities lie, even if I end up delegating the work later on.


My first book, A History of the Future in 100 Objects, was effectively self-published back in 2013. There was a print edition published by a small company and a new edition was published by MIT Press in 2020, but its original funding from Kickstarter meant I had near-total control over its writing and publicity.

Cover of You’ve Been Played

My new book, You’ve Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All, has gone through a very traditional non-fiction publishing process with Basic Books. The advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing vs. publishers are quite well worn these days and I mention them briefly in my review of John Thompson’s Book Wars, so I won’t reiterate my fairly obvious reasons for choosing differently this time (distribution, prestige, getting an advance, having an editor, getting reviews, being more well-known such that I can get an agent and publisher more easily, etc.).

What I’ll say is this: publishers still add a lot of value, but not as much for someone like me as I’d expected. I’ve always had to be my own editor, publicist, and marketer.  I’ve always been happy hiring people to help me, like getting the excellent Jen Monnier to throughly fact-check my book. That’s not to say I didn’t have any help from my editor, but it wasn’t what I imagined.

I’m a little exhausted from talking about the book. I finished writing the core of it almost a year and a half ago, which might as well be a lifetime. Sometimes when I’m being interviewed, I find myself relying on the same examples over and over again, and I wish I could express its ideas as clearly as I did in writing. A book is the crystallisation of thousands of hours of thought by a single person into form that can be consumed in just a few hours. A podcast or a video might be more approachable, but I can’t imagine making one that would have the precision of argument or the breadth and depth of my book. All of which is to say, I can’t even really talk about the substance of the book here, all I can think about is what’s happened in the last few months, which is the book launch, the publicity, and the initial reception.

Some of the very biggest publicity hits for You’ve Been Played were things I did on my own, like being interviewed on Anne Helen Petersen’s massive Culture Study newsletter, or speaking at the NYU Game Center, or trolling Elon Musk into thinking my terrible ideas for gamifying Twitter were good. I often think I could’ve done these just as easily if I self-published. But I don’t think I’d have gotten reviewed by the NYT that way, and for better or for worse, that review is of immeasurable value.

I ended up wasting a lot of time on the book’s publicity, too. I said yes to every single interview for this book, bar one. Most of them were from pretty small outlets and podcasts and, I’m quite sure, did nothing at all except tire me out. I also said yes to every invitation to write essays and articles about gamification. At one point this summer, I was writing three original multi-thousand word essays simultaneously in my “spare time”. I was paid pretty well for most of them, but it was more work than I should’ve taken on. 

Three months on from a book’s launch is a strange place to sit. Unless your book blows up instantly – which very few do – most people will still be in the process of reading it or hearing about it, so you won’t know what its ultimate reception will be yet. By any objective measure, my book has done well. Most authors would kill for the reviews I’ve had – I know past Adrian would’ve! But like most authors, I’d hoped it’d do even better. I wonder if gamification has been dismissed as being too obvious and old hat in the tech world, and too niche or unimportant by everyone else. There’s little I can do about that other than writing the best book I can, so I’m always pleased when readers say how engaging and accessible it is, and how it stimulates so many conversations.

Maybe it’d have done better a year or two earlier, when the topic was fresher. That might have worked had I self-published it, or been more famous so a publisher rushed it out, or if I were a full-time writer. Or maybe the title should’ve been something more obviously about gamification; practically every review used the word “gamification” in the title.

Me in conversation with Eric Zimmerman at NYU

But this is just my impatience speaking. A History of the Future made far less of a splash on its launch and went on to gain an important audience in the following decade; in a year or two’s time, I hope You’ve Been Played will have had much more influence. And I hope my complaints here are understood as someone who’s spent three years writing about a subject he cares about deeply and wants it to have the very best chance it can get to reach an audience. Anyone who’s spent this long on any creative endeavour is going to feel a little protective of what they’ve made, whether or not they let it show. 

Perhaps in the future, I can channel my impatience with the publishing process into solving the same problem for others.

Continue reading in Part 2…

Games in Translation

Run down the list of last year’s top ten bestselling books in the UK and you’ll find ten books that were originally written in English. It’s the same for movies, though in fairness Parasite, from South Korea, just about squeaked into 2020’s top ten. Brits just don’t seem to be excited by fiction from other countries – but the trend is very different for games.

Out of the top ten games sold last year, franchise stalwarts like FIFA and Call of Duty made up most of the list – but if you included digital sales (which Nintendo doesn’t report, annoyingly) Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Animal Crossing: New Horizons almost certainly would’ve made it in, with Super Mario 3D World and Pokémon Brilliant Diamond also in the running.

It’s strange to think of Mario Kart being a “foreign” game in the same way that we think of Squid Game as a foreign TV show. If you told a non-gamer it was made by an especially imaginative British developer I doubt they’d bat an eyelid, whereas there’s no mistaking Money Heist’s Spanish origins. This is partly down to the fact that game translations are really good now; we’ve come a long way since “all your base are belong to us” to the point where many people may have no idea their favourite game wasn’t originally made in English. 

It’s certainly not because games have less to translate. Sure, Mario Kart doesn’t have a hundred hours of audio, but Final Fantasy and Beyond Good and Evil have far more words needing translation than the average movie or TV show. The difference is that developers are now willing to spend more for better quality translations, and the lack of visible dubbing in any game that doesn’t use FMV or pre-rendered cutscenes – which is most of them, these days – makes it easy to overlook any minor issues. And though it pains me to say it as someone who cares about storytelling in games, a lot of gamers clearly don’t care about a shaky narrative (whether or not it was originally written in English) providing the mechanics are solid.

This happy circumstance has made games one of the most cosmopolitan forms of entertainment in the last century. I don’t think most players are intentionally seeking out foreign games, though; they just want to play good, original games, and the cost of development and distribution has sunk so low that you can find world-class studios in practically any country. 

There are obvious standouts, like France’s strength in story-driven adventures, or Japan’s strength in practically every genre other than first-person shooters. I still marvel at how Life is Strange, one of the most beloved adventure games of recent years, was originally written in French, despite being set in the Pacific Northwest; or how The Longest Journey was written in Norwegian. Before COVID tore up the plans for the Tokyo Olympics, Nintendo’s characters reportedly were going to be a major part of the opening ceremony, in recognition of their worldwide fame.

For a while, it looked like games might become China’s main cultural export too, with the sensational international success of titles like Genshin Impact, Dyson Sphere Program, and the beautiful retro-styled RPG Eastward. The Chinese government’s recently-lifted freeze on new domestic game releases since the summer of last year hasn’t helped the industry, but it’s clearly as good as the best.

Most developers don’t set out to be cultural ambassadors, but even the most abstract and fantastical games tend to hint towards their origin; Tetris features St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, and my own Zombies, Run!, recently translated into French, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese, takes players through the London Underground and into the Hebrides. Anyone playing the Chinese Parents life simulator will get a taste of what it’s like to prepare for the gruelling “gaokao” high school exams, or what it means to receive “red envelope” gifts. 

During the pandemic, I started travelling vicariously by reading translated novels. It shouldn’t surprise you that one of the best French alternate history thrillers in recent years, Civilisations, is still an incredible page-turner in English, or that the best Polish sci-fi writer, Stanislaw Lem, remains funnier and smarter in translation than practically every native English author. 

We’d all gain as individuals and as a society if we spent more time with media from other places. Sadly, there are countless great books that have waited years or decades before being made available in English. We’re fortunate we don’t have to wait anywhere near as long for the best games to get translated.

Originally published in EDGE magazine issue 377 (December 2022). Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash.

We Need to Talk About Video Game Awards

Pity the poor awards voters. Yes, Elden Ring will surely win game of the year just about everywhere, but what about all the other categories? Anyone doing a halfway-decent job at judging this year’s best narrative game or the best debut game will still have to spend hundreds of hours to get through the longlist. And while you might not sympathise with the plight of those poor games industry voters who get to play dozens of games, the practical impossibility of judging puts the entire notion of games awards into question.

I’ll focus on one of the most well-known awards bodies: the BAFTA Games Awards, which I’ve been part of for over a decade. Each year, perhaps a couple of hundred games are up for consideration across multiple categories. Around 850 members then vote on the best games in each category, with the top ten going before a jury of nine to twelve games industry experts (see the rules PDF).

Ten games doesn’t sound too bad, but jurors need to play them to completion in just a few weeks. According to How Long To Beat, a representative set of ten games a jury member might judge would take the average player 150 hours to complete. Even if they’d already finished a couple of the games, that’s still over 120 hours – a solid four hours a day, every day for a month. That’s only just doable if you have a full-time job, which most games industry experts do. And forget about experiencing any optional sidequests or New Game Plus, because those definitely aren’t included in the 150 hour total. 

A single month of relentless after-work gaming might be tolerable, but most jurors should have been playing dozens of games before that point simply to vote on their top tens in each category. It leaves barely any time for voters to experience other art like TV, movies, and books to inform their opinions.

It’s useful to compare this process to the BAFTA Film Awards, which sees around a hundred films across all categories each year under consideration by voters (rules PDF). That’s two hundred hours to watch every movie – not just all the movies in a single category – spread over a considerably longer voting period of a few months. It’s still a lot of time, but you can manage it with a mere movie a day, meaning it’s possible for film voters with full-time jobs and families to get an appreciation of the entirety of the awards field in a way that is completely impossible for games voters.

Other games awards aren’t any better; in my experience, BAFTA does a lot to ensure a diverse, representative array of games and judges. Ultimately, any awards body that claims to represent the entirety of video games suffers from the same problem of demanding too much from its voters.

Should we get rid of all game awards? Maybe. Some say awards are more about the prestige of the voting body than anything else. In far too many cases, that’s true – but it’s also true that the best award bodies can draw attention to art that would’ve otherwise been overlooked. In the case of games, I have to question whether the top games of 2021 really needed more attention than they already had; did we need to spend so much time deciding whether It Takes Two (winner of The Game Awards’ Game of the Year) was really meaningfully better than Resident Evil Village or Deathloop?

The solution lies in the overreach of games awards themselves. Back in 2018, the V&A Museum held an exhibition called Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt, exploring the design and culture of games, to widespread industry praise. I was a little more sanguine – not about the exhibition itself, which was very good, but about its framing. Imagine the V&A holding an exhibition called “Painting”, or one called “Fashion”, aiming to sum up an entire artform in one go; it’d be laughable. Instead, outside of games, the V&A correctly focuses its exhibitions on individual artists and genres and styles, which gives it the space and focus to do them justice.

I can’t blame awards bodies too much. Games have exploded in quantity and variety over the past few decades in a way unparalleled by other art. We should celebrate this diversity, not by trying to crown the best game of the year, as if we could crown the best piece of “video” from all of TV, movies, YouTube, and Twitch, but by creating new awards bodies for every genre and style. If we did that, voters could give every game their due – and maybe get an early night.

Originally published in EDGE magazine issue 378 (Christmas 2022). Photo by Joshua Golde on Unsplash.

What Really Happens in Aftersun?

Aftersun is a story about how we remember. It is also a story about a father and his daughter going on holiday in Turkey. 

But it’s also a story about… well, that would be a spoiler. So please stop reading now if you haven’t seen this movie, as I don’t want to rob you of the pleasure of discovering it for yourself. It’d be a great shame if you read this and went into a cinema assuming I’m right.

With all that said: spoilers!

Playing With Wikis

Back when “transmedia” was an innovative new term rather than a way to describe everything Marvel or Sony or Harry Potter does across movies, video games, and comics – in other words, about 15 years ago – there was a brief craze of “second screen” experiences to accompany TV dramas. As viewers watched the show, they’d browse a website on their laptop (smartphones didn’t exist yet) for extra bits of story, like text messages between characters, or news articles reporting on whatever had just happened on screen. The idea was essentially: why watch one screen when you can watch two for twice the entertainment?

Back in 2008, I designed one such experience for the BBC’s Spooks: Code 9 spinoff. Sadly, our Liberty News website wasn’t nearly enough to rescue a decidedly uneven drama that had been overdesigned for the “youths”. In any case, the second screen fad was quickly forgotten amid the oncoming tide of smartphones and social media apps, which were far more interesting and distracting than any transmedia made for TV shows.  

The story wasn’t over, though. As soon as smartphones and tablets became ubiquitous amongst gamers, there was flurry of second screen experiences, this time to accompany video games. Anyone playing Mass Effect 3 in 2012 could install a Datapad iOS app to get messages from crewmates, read the game’s codex, and grind away on a minigame that’d help you see the game’s supposed “good ending”. 

Ubisoft, always helpless before transmedia’s charms, built similar companion apps for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and Assassin’s Creed Unity in the following two years. They were… fine. I found it handy to set waypoints on the map and get bonus items, but juggling a phone and a controller was a lot of hassle for not much benefit, especially compared to using in-game tools. 

Evidently other players agreed, and game companion apps are no more. Maybe it was foolish to think they could ever work given how interactive and immersive games are meant to be. But the problem wasn’t the apps – it was that they weren’t giving players what they really wanted. What’s better than a map of where you’ve already been? A map of where’s best to go next.

I’m not too proud to admit I played long sections of Elden Ring with one eye on a tablet loaded with walkthroughs and levelling guides. And while I’m sure there are some Stardew Valley players who’ve never visited the fan wiki to find out a villager’s favourite gifts, or Animal Crossing: New Horizon players who’ve never been tempted to check out a turnip price calculator, I just don’t think there are a lot of them – the volunteer-run ACNH API, which services an entire ecosystem of Animal Crossing apps and websites, gets three million requests per day.

Walkthroughs, wikis, Reddit explainers, YouTube how-tos – they all make games more fun. I don’t think I’d have stuck with Elden Ring if I hadn’t follow a route to get an overpowered meteorite staff early, or to become overlevelled by farming runes. The game’s sheer difficulty – and lack of difficulty settings – seemingly made the community more forgiving of people doing whatever they needed to to make it easier, rather than sneering at those who couldn’t hack it. Despite the help, Elden Ring never got remotely easy for me, but it was a lot more enjoyable. 

These companion apps and websites, practically all unofficial and fan-made, smooth over the bumps in games, whether that’s a boss that’s too tough, a level that’s poorly designed, or simply a player who – for whatever reason – just needs a hand for a while. They make games more approachable and accessible. They make games better. But they only exist because people are already excited; a truly dreadful or unbalanced game is unlikely to have the level of community devotion required to create great resources. 

Interestingly, few people think of these companions as cheating any more. These days, people are most likely to find them by typing “how to use flasks in elden ring” into Google, as if asking a knowledgeable friend. It’s reminiscent of the “extended mind” hypothesis, which suggests that some tools, like pens and paper – and instantly-accessible online resources – can become so integrated into our thought processes that they’re basically turn into an extension of our minds. 

Maybe that’s why one person’s speedrun feels like an achievement for the entire community. With the internet, we’re all playing these games collectively, learning from each other, whether or not they’re multiplayer. And that’s worth keeping two screens on at once.

Originally published in EDGE magazine issue 374 (September 2022). Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash

It’s Always Sunny in Cupertino

My favourite weather app is WeatherPro, from Germany. It isn’t the prettiest – apps like Weathergraph have better widgets for the iPhone and Apple Watch – but in my experience it reflects the UK’s changeable weather best of all:

WeatherPro, showing the forecast for today (Thursday 21st July) and the next three days

If I look at the icons alone, today in Edinburgh is somewhat sunny, tomorrow is a bit rainy, Saturday is like today, and Sunday is a classic mix of sun, rain, and thunder.

The forecast has been correct for today, at least: as far as I could tell, there wasn’t a drop of rain. Maybe there was rain somewhere in Edinburgh, but it was a nice and sunny day overall.

Apple thinks differently:

Apple Weather’s forecast

According to Apple’s weather icons, every day is the same: rainy. Yes, they all have different likelihoods of rain, but it gets boiled down to “rainy”. Apparently if there is just the chance of a drop of rain, Apple thinks that day is a total washout.

Maybe that’s true in Cupertino! Maybe the risk of a single drop is enough to change your behaviour for the whole day – you’ll carry an umbrella, you’ll cancel the barbecue, you won’t hang up the washing outside (lol, I know you can’t do that in the US).

But that’s not how it feels in the UK. If a day is mostly sunny with fifteen minutes of light rain in the afternoon, that’s a sunny day. It’s not a rainy day.

BBC Weather agrees with WeatherPro:

BBC Weather’s forecast

Today is cloudy, tomorrow is rainy, Saturday is the same as today, Sunday is sunny and thundery. Not bad, as you’d expect for a weather forecast designed for Brits! It fails to reflect the fact that today was fairly sunny, but never mind.

And to hammer the point home, Google agrees with Apple:

Google’s weather forecast

Rainy, rainy, rainy, and rainy.

What’s the moral of the story? It’s not just that weather patterns vary around the world, it’s that perceptions of weather also vary. A weather forecast that uses icon classifications designed by Californians is useless for anyone in the UK, and likely many other countries.

The fact it’s so bad in the year of our lord 2022 demonstrates just how little Apple and Google care about the rest of the world.

All these games, lost in time

Almost all of the games I’ve made over a fifteen year career are unavailable today. Of the dozens of mobile and web-based titles I’ve been involved in designing, some of which had millions of players, only three can still be installed. Games are an astonishingly ephemeral art form.

Outside of a few devoted preservationists, most seem resigned to the permanent disappearance of all but the most successful games. When game designer Emilia Lazer-Walker recently highlighted Apple’s policy of removing “outdated” apps and games that hadn’t been updated in the last three years and weren’t being downloaded, many applauded the company for keeping the App Store clean and free of abandonware. In other words, if your game was removed, it deserved it.

Apple’s impulse to highlight the most modern games is understandable, but there’s a big difference between removing games that are still perfectly playable, and simply not promoting them in search results. The latter is a reasonable way to ensure most users are happy; the former uses download numbers as the ultimate arbiter of worthiness.

I can guarantee you that in thirty year’s time, there are obscure games, unloved today, that will be recognised as incredibly important and influential in the history of our art. Just because we can’t predict which they’ll be isn’t an excuse to treat today’s unpopular games as trash.

Apple may be the most egregious offender in its cavalier treatment of older games, but it’s not alone: most publishers and platform owners actively oppose making games better available for study by scholars, especially through emulation (they’re worried good emulators will make piracy too easily). By doing so, they rob form us the ability to learn and gain inspiration from past games, let alone the chance to document and understand the history of game design.  

Despite this formidable legal opposition, digital preservationists have made incredible advances in game emulation. These efforts, largely open source and driven by volunteers, range from emulating consoles like the PS4 and Nintendo Switch on the PC, to the Internet Archive’s browser-based emulation of old Mac and PC games. The Analogue Pocket’s hardware FPGA emulation allows players to experience handheld games from a whole host of consoles.

The iPhone is an unusual case. Apple makes installing apps outside of the App Store (“sideloading”) very difficult, so once something is no longer officially distributed by Apple, it really is gone. I’m sympathetic to Apple’s belief that it’s important to lock down phones since they contain so much sensitive personal data, but there are choices they could make to keep older games around longer, such as developing compatibility layers or allowing virtualisation and emulation. In contrast, Microsoft has extended backward compatibility across four generations of Xbox, and even Sony recently created a “Game Preservation” team.

But we shouldn’t leave game preservation up to volunteers and platform owners who might one day lose interest. Instead, we should be inspired by the institutional and legal protections that exist for other media. The British system of legal deposit requires that a copy of all print publications (and now, eBooks) must be given to the British Library for archiving, and five other UK libraries are also entitled to request a copy. The British Library’s Emerging Formats project is exploring whether and how this should be extended to other formats, which could include some types of narrative games, but this needs to happen faster. Games may be “emerging” when looked at from a millennia-long perspective, but art is being lost right now.

In the meantime, the games industry should drop its bad faith argument that games preservation could harm its finances through piracy of games that it might one day re-release. It’s laughable how an industry that endlessly boasts of being bigger than Hollywood and changing lives through art is worried about the lost earnings from researchers – or indeed, anyone –  being able to play games from the 80s and 90s for free. Barely any old games are ever re-released and even then their earnings are a rounding error against those from latest titles. The history of our art form is being left to moulder out of apathy and spite. 

The British Film Institute has a list of “Most Wanted” British films that have been lost. Among them are Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 movie, The Mountain Eagle, and The Last Post, a 1928 silent movie unqiue for having been created directed, written, and produced by women. Imagine what we could have learned from them. How could they have been so shortsighted? 

This is how.

Originally published in EDGE magazine issue 373 (August 2022). Photo by Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash.

The Forever War

Review of Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing by John Thompson, originally published in The Author’s Spring 2022 issue.

In 2007, Penguin commissioned the company I co-founded, Six to Start, to help its authors design stories that could only be told online. Previous storytelling experiments and marketing campaigns had used the internet, but chiefly as a delivery mechanism – a book serialised through emails, for instance – rather than changing the form of the story itself. We wanted to try something new, and original.

Always with an eye on the main chance, Penguin also wanted us to promote its classics, which is why we ended up with stories such as The (Former) General in his Labyrinth, by Mohsin Hamid, Your Place and Mine, by Nicci French, and Alice in Storyland, by Naomi Alderman. These stories were wildly inventive, variously told over Google Maps, within an interactive dungeon crawl, written and read in real-time, and hidden across multiple websites.

When the campaign, called We Tell Stories, garnered hundreds of thousands of readers and won Best of Show at the South by Southwest festival the following year, I imagined it would usher in a digital storytelling renaissance. And instead of giving our work away for free, as so many digital experiments did, we’d help authors sell to this new audience.

This did not come to pass. We went on to make a ‘Young Bond’ spy game with Charlie Higson and an iPhone app with Wilbur Smith, but We Tell Stories and its descendants made approximately zero lasting impact on the bottom line of publishers. Their bread and butter was, and continues to be, selling books – mostly printed – containing 50–100,000 words of plain text each. My company turned away from the publishing industry toward the more profitable lands of smartphone apps and games.

None of this would come as a surprise to Cambridge sociologist John Thompson, whose new work Book Wars (Polity Press, 2021) provides a crisp, systematic review of how the ‘digital revolution’ has shaped the last decade of book publishing. Just as every tech company has had to sprint to keep ahead of giants like Google and Amazon, so too have book publishers had to reinvent their businesses lest they die at the hands of those very same companies.

I am always a little suspicious of accounts of ‘digital revolutions’ since it’s very easy for writers to pander to their audience, whether that’s tech industry boosters with a penchant for regurgitating press releases or committed sceptics who shudder at the thought of reading a book on anything other than paper. Thompson has deftly steered between those poles by interviewing over 180 senior executives and staff in the publishing industry, not to mention drawing on research from his previous book, Merchants of Culture (Polity Press, 2010).

Reinventing the book

An early chapter on the possibilities of reinventing the form of the book, as I tried with We Tell Stories (rather than its delivery mechanism, which Thompson terms the ‘format’ of a book), covers the many attempts to make dazzlingly interactive books on the iPad. Some of these, such as Touch Press’ iPad app The Elements, were highly profitable, generating $3 million in net revenue. But as a deluge of apps drove down the price that consumers were willing to pay, from £10 to essentially nothing at all, businesses couldn’t justify investing the hundreds of thousands of pounds required to make high-quality interactive books.

Despite being on the wrong side of this shift (at least, until Six to Start began making smartphone games), I read all of this with great satisfaction. Why? Thompson’s research was impeccable. The challenges he described, and just as importantly, the figures, all matched my own experience working with major UK publishers in the late 2000s and 2010s.

Those in the traditional publishing industry are likely to skip straight to later chapters on the ascent of audiobooks, the eternal problem of how to increase the ‘discoverability’ of books in a crowded marketplace, and the growth of fan fiction and social media storytelling platforms like Wattpad, perhaps in the hopes of transformational tips. It is unlikely that they will find any, as most of the good case studies will be well known to anyone paying attention (like the importance of collecting readers’ email addresses for marketing newsletters), and with most of Thompson’s interviews taking place up to 2019, the strategies are inevitably becoming a little dated. The value lies more in Thompson’s synthesis of scattered details into a few big pictures.


Take the theme of disintermediation (ie cutting out middlemen), which manifests in crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Unbound but most threateningly in the hulking beast that is Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). KDP allows authors to self-publish ebooks in a fraction of the time and effort required to go through traditional publishers, and gives them access to hundreds of millions of Amazon and Kindle users.

Depending on whether you include KDP in your analysis of the book market as a whole, traditional publishers are either doing just fine or are being utterly dominated by Amazon. The problem is that the exact size and contours of KDP can only be determined through guesswork and inference, which Thompson relates through an amusingly secretive meeting in a San Francisco cafe with ‘Data Guy’, an anonymous software engineer and self-published author who has attempted to estimate the sales of KDP books compared to traditional publishers. The short answer is that as of 2016, self-published KDP authors may have accounted for a substantial proportion of all genre fiction and perhaps more than half of all romance sold by Amazon.

Some in the publishing industry may not feel especially threatened by KDP, treating it instead as an R&D facility to identify promising new writers. (Andy Weir, for instance, whose self-published smash hit novel The Martian was picked up by Crown in 2014). It remains to be seen whether Amazon will be content to leave this money on the table, or if they’ll begin to court successful KDP authors to its own publishing imprints.

Speed vs prestige

The latest version of disintermediation to hit the publishing industry, Substack, isn’t covered in the book. Launched in 2017, Substack allows writers to easily publish email newsletters. Many newsletters are entirely free to read, but some writers charge a subscription. Unlike self-publishing, which still has a whiff of the vanity press about it (and I say that as someone who has self-published), Substack has enticed well-known and well-paid authors to join its platform, like former New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel and former Guardian columnist Roxane Gay. The top ten publications on Substack collectively bring in more than $20 million a year, and the platform as a whole has over a million paid subscriptions to newsletters.

Writing a newsletter is seemingly complementary to writing a book, but I wonder whether the speed and direct engagement with readers it offers might compensate for the loss of the prestige of getting published. For writers with decent social media followings, or simply those who can keep up with a gruelling weekly (or semi-weekly!) schedule, newsletters can be rewarding in more ways than just making money. Writers – not their editors or publishers – can see exactly who their readers are and who’s paying. They might not get editors, but some don’t feel they need them, and those that do can pay for freelance editors directly.

Substack is notable because it has cracked the seemingly impossible problem of getting readers to pay for non-fiction words on a screen – to the tune of $5-10 a month each, which amounts to roughly £45–75 a year. Email newsletters certainly aren’t a get-rich-quick scheme, but it’s working well for a lot of authors. Just ask George Saunders, whose Story Club newsletter launched in December 2021 and already has thousands of subscribers paying around $50 a year. Publishers need to think what they can do for their authors, lest they face a supply problem as well as a demand problem. Several authors who write about technology and culture have told me how discouraging it feels to finish a book manuscript about, say, the impact of TikTok on society or the growth of remote work, and then have to wait 9 to 18 months before it’s published – at which point their analysis is not only dated but also overtaken by swifter newsletters and magazines. If this keeps up, the best writers on fast-moving subjects may abandon book publishers entirely.

Book Wars focuses largely on English language trade- publishing in the US and UK, which is understandable given that the research was a one-person job. Still, I could have done with hearing more about what’s going on in the rest of the world, and in China in particular, where digital short stories, serialised fiction and microtransactions are flourishing in a way thought impossible by English-language publishers. My father is an avid reader of Chinese historical fantasy on his iPhone, and he was astonished to learn I don’t read fiction in the same way. According to Shaohua Guo’s The Evolution of the Chinese Internet (2020), in 2017, half of the country’s online users – over 350 million people – read online literature through websites, forums, blogs and WeChat.

On the subjects Thompson does focus on, his insights are clear, refreshing and unvarnished, perhaps because he stands outside the publishing industry. He is ultimately optimistic about the future of long-form reading, audiobooks and printed books, all of which have held up remarkably well in our new age of smartphones and tablets. Book Wars is more ambivalent about the future of ebooks, which Thompson believes to be best suited for genre fiction, where books are most often read quickly and linearly, unlike, say, reference books. It seems to me that there is more room for experimentation here, including and beyond Substack, but of course this is a battlefeld littered with the corpses of companies that thought they could reinvent publishing.

Thompson has a long view of publishing, one that isn’t mired in nostalgia. He isn’t dismissive or jaded about the digital revolution, which is exactly the right attitude for any publisher hoping to navigate its turbulent future. As for authors, the new possibilities offered by self-publishing, crowdfunding and newsletters may seem daunting, but they only exist because there are countless people ready to pay good money for good writing. The future will always have a place for authors.

Tear Down This Wall, Mr. BBC!

When I opened my Overcast podcast app to listen to the latest episode of In Our Time, BBC Radio 4’s excellent show on the history of ideas, I was presented with this:

Screenshot of app showing "Looking for the latest episode? New episodes of In Our Time will now be available first on BBC Sounds for four weeks before other podcast apps."

Release dates matter. If they didn’t, the BBC would just release an entire season of In Our Time all at once, Netflix-style. Releasing them one-by-one on a schedule means you can concentrate attention and focus audience conversation. Delaying the release of key shows to third-party podcast players by four weeks attenuates audience’s attention, and therefore its influence and spread.

Of course, the BBC is hoping everyone will download its app and the audience won’t be divided. That way it can have its cake (more app engagement and captive eyeballs) and eat it. But even if BBC Sounds was as good as other third-party players, this is hard to believe. People aren’t keen on installing new apps willy-nilly, and since BBC Sounds can’t play non-BBC podcasts, you’re asking a lot of listeners to make them juggle two apps.

Sadly, BBC Sounds is not as good as other third-party players. It’s really quite bad. Here’s a list of where it falls down compared to Overcast:

  • No speed control (e.g. 1.2x, 1.5x playback)
  • No smart speed (stripping out silences)
  • No voice boost (enhancing the sound of voices in noisy audio)
  • No ability to save and share audio excerpts
  • No custom intro/outro skipping
  • List of episodes doesn’t show download status
  • Requires registration for use
  • Home screen doesn’t show recently played episodes (instead, it foregrounds stuff I have zero interest in, like music and sports)
  • Can’t select episode description text
  • Can’t download non-BBC podcasts

Spotify – perhaps a closer comparison to BBC Sounds – can’t do all these things, but it can do a lot of them (e.g. speed control, better home screen design, selectable description text, etc.).

The bottom line is that BBC Sounds is vastly inferior to other podcast players. It’s been inferior for years and does not show any sign of getting better quickly. In Our Time has been thrown on the pyre of the BBC’s digital empire-building ambitions in order to juice BBC Sounds’ engagement stats, and it’s yet another sign of how far the BBC’s digital strategy has fallen today.

Without Reservation

Since the pandemic began, I’ve taken to walking up and down a nearby hill every lunchtime. Every day, I pass the Burns Monument, a Neo-Greek temple commemorating Robert Burns. Normally it’s closed to visitors, but during the Edinburgh Art Festival this month you can visit a sound installation by Emeka Ogboh.

Visiting is free, but I was surprised to discover that advance booking was advised. Then again, everything seems to require booking nowadays. It’s especially intense right now due to the pandemic reducing the capacity of, well, everything, but the growth in reservations began long before 2020. Reservations are accepted, and often now required, at museums, restaurants, bars, galleries, and even parks.

Since I like planning, I welcomed this development. I find it satisfying to put together itineraries for days out and holidays, and since most reservations can be made online, it goes hand-in-hand with the increased availability of transit schedule information on the web and Google Maps. No more crossing my fingers that a restaurant won’t be too busy or we can get into a popular exhibition – everything can be secured well in advance.

So you’d think the more things that can be reserved, the better for planners like me. That’s what I thought, until I went to Disneyworld a few years ago – a place where demand management has become such a well-honed science it makes even the most hardened planners blanch with fear.

Disneyworld is so busy that until very recently (more on that later) if you wanted to avoid queuing for hours at even moderately popular rides and restaurants, you had to make reservations months in advance. You couldn’t make all your bookings in one go, either; I had to repeatedly check back in case more convenient slots opened up. 

Once you’re in the park, you can’t sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour as you get extra FastPass reservations every day, best spent strategically on popular rides to fill gaps between more valuable reservations made earlier. The problem is that since the popularity of rides changes in real time, if you want to be really efficient (and hey, I’m a planner), you’ll want to refresh the Disneyworld app a few times an hour. 

(You might wonder why I care about seeing everything so much. It’s partly because I’ve done consulting work for Disney Imagineering in the past, and so I was professionally interested to know what was going on in the parks; but mostly, I find these kinds of ultra-designed immersive themed environments to be endlessly fascinating. Also, hey, Disneyworld is expensive and I wanted to get my money’s-worth!)

On our trip a few years ago, we went on practically every single ride and the longest we waited was 40 minutes (Frozen). Mission accomplished – but at what cost? It was a surprising amount of work for what was meant to be a fun holiday. I suppose I could have not bothered making any reservations at all, but then we would likely have seen barely a third of the things we would have otherwise, and the rest of the time would’ve been in queues. So there wasn’t a great alternative.

The rest of the world is rapidly following Disney’s lead. Whether it’s the Avatar ride in Animal Kingdom or a fancy restaurant in Edinburgh, the goal is to fill every single seat for every single hour, as far as possible in advance, with reservations going to the most valuable (i.e. big spending or committed) customers.

So nowadays, a trip to London or even a weekend at home requires reservations days and weeks ahead. There’s the nagging feeling you’re always being rushed. Are we going to the coolest places? Did we plan too many events, or too few? We’re always checking our watches to know when we’ll need to leave for the next place.

Is this what our leisure time in cities has become? And how much worse could it get?

There’s a view that someone is a planner because of their personality. That’s kind of true, but I prefer to see planning less of a character trait and more of an act, and the act of planning requires resources:

  • Time and energy, to research options and make reservations – a sometimes frustrating process involving poorly-designed websites and long phone calls.
  • Knowledge and experience, to know that reservations are even possible and understand which things need to be reserved and when.
  • Freedom and security, to know your work and holiday and family schedule and budget securely enough to book time weeks or months in advance. The bigger the group, the harder to organise in advance.
  • Money, for deposits or full-price tickets.

Planning is an inherently privileged activity. Even if you love planning, you’re going to be stymied if you don’t have these resources. Planning is also paradoxically risky for people in precarious situations since it requires you to commit to a future course of action, one that could come with financial penalties if you have to change your mind; but also, penalties if you don’t plan, in the form of fewer options and higher prices. Yet if you’re wealthy, those penalties are a trivial price to pay, and you can even outsource the entire job to a vacation planner.

A lot of people are in the middle – not so precarious they can’t plan a holiday six months in advance, but not so rich that easily write off the loss of all their deposits if their circumstances change. So you exist in this in-between world where you’re constantly trying to decide how far ahead it’s worth planning.

On the face of it, businesses ought to benefit the most from reservations. Reservations allow them to maximise profits by charging more at peak hours and offering discounts to fill quieter periods. Confirmation emails and paid deposits also reduce the chance of no-shows. Finally, the ability to predict demand means businesses can scale staffing accordingly, though it’s easy for this to result in poor working conditions.

But I don’t get the impression that after a restaurant switches on reservations, it immediately rakes in the cash through increased efficiencies. Rather, I suspect the gains are largely realised by companies selling reservation software rather than the restaurants themselves. The software usually costs a few hundred dollars a month, and platforms like OpenTable can charge a dollar per customer (i.e. per seat) for certain bookings, which is a lot given the razor-thin margins of most restaurants.

Restaurants could always roll their own reservation systems and try to avoid the charges, but there are a couple of reasons why they don’t. Firstly, good software is very expensive to develop and maintain – well beyond the abilities of most small businesses, or even a small chain of business. Taking payments and integrating with Apple and Google Pay is no simple task, especially when the rules keep changing.

Secondly, the most popular reservation systems like OpenTable and Resy have grown beyond simply selling software for restaurants to use on their own websites into destinations in their own rights where people discover restaurants as well as booking them. In other words, when people think “I want to go to an Italian restaurant tonight”, they don’t go to the website of a restaurant they saw in the local paper, they just visit OpenTable and click on “Italian”. Booking platforms offer something that simple software doesn’t – the ability to reach a wider audience.

The shift of OpenTable into a platform has seen it sell marketing opportunities to restaurants like bonus points promotions (from $4/cover) and boost campaigns ($3-5/cover) that increase their visibility to customers. This is happening on a broader scale with Google Maps and Tripadvisor, both of which encourage visitors to make reservations directly (i.e. without going to the restaurant website, or even OpenTable/Resy). And those platforms also sell marketing opportunities for businesses to promote themselves.

So it isn’t clear that businesses, especially small ones, are adopting reservations because it’s profitable or empowering. Instead, it may be something they’re forced to do because these platforms have become the new mode of discovery, and not offering one-click reservations harms them versus the competition. And the simple availability of reservations contributes into the pressure for customers to make reservations.

Who’s profiting? The small businesses? Maybe.

The customers? Maybe.

The platforms? Definitely.

The end result of this movement is that our access to real world experiences is experiencing a kind of digital enclosure. The experiences are still there, but increasingly the way in which you discover and access them is through just a few giant companies. That said, our access was never quite free before – it was just gated in different ways, sometimes more explicitly by class or race.

Is there a way out? Well, you could opt-out of real world experiences entirely and just do everything at home, with all your entertaining delivered to you on-demand (and your food and drink, why not). A lot of people already do this, whether by choice or by force of circumstance. The problem is that home entertainment and food delivery are even more digitally-mediated than real world experiences, with entire forms of media dominated by a handful of conglomerates. So while you don’t have to do much planning at home, your options are being constrained in different, albeit more subtle, ways.

Assuming you still want to go outside, you could stop going to popular places: if you go to an average restaurant or bar or museum rather than the highest-rated on Google Maps or Tripadvisor, you probably won’t need to book ahead. This would freeing in some ways, but it’d sharply limit your experience of the world – not everything popular is good, but a lot of good stuff is popular. Sure, some people could manage this, but there are plenty of forces pushing you towards places requiring reservations:

  • Ranking systems and algorithms mean that average places are increasingly invisible in maps and lists, a phenomenon exacerbated by social media.
  • The discovery of real world experiences is increasingly happening through sites that promote and earn money from reservations (including Facebook).
  • If your job doesn’t give you much holiday, no wonder you’ll want to secure the “best” experiences for the little time you have; Disneyworld made a lot more sense to me when I realised Americans have no holiday.
  • At least some of your friends and family will still like going to popular places.

So there isn’t much you can do as an individual. What can we do as a society?

We could build more stuff! More restaurants, more bars, more attractions, more museums, increasing overall capacity. This might mean less profit for owners, of course, which is a real problem given we live in a capitalist economy. Another problem? It costs a lot of money to build physical experiences, so either you need to raise lots of money somehow (usually from investors who want profits) or reduce costs (possible, but really hard for cultural, technological, and political reasons).

We could also try reducing the gap in popularity between physical experiences, to spread demand more evenly. That would probably require greater redistribution of profits to prevent concentration of market power, and changes to how places are discovered, algorithmically or otherwise.

Reservations are, of course, a hidden way to increase prices, since you can often pay to skip the queue. Usually this is artfully hidden to prevent normal customers from becoming too annoyed (e.g. separate or hidden VIP lines at theme parks), but not so hidden that customers don’t realise the benefits of paying more. 

You can tell how desperate a business is for cash by how obvious the “skip the queue” option is. Museums, usually quite coy about how their members can walk into booked-out exhibitions ahead of the general public, have lately been aggressively promoting memberships everywhere. But the best barometer has been Disney’s theme parks, which exist at the leading edge of technology, customer experience, and capitalism.

Historically, Disney has offered plenty of ways to skip queues and reserve attractions more easily. For example:

  • Full-price theme park tickets could reserve rides further in advance than other ticket holders
  • People staying at pricy resort hotels could get into the parks earlier than everyone else and stay later
  • VIP guides, costing thousands of dollars a day, allowed groups to skip most lines

Still, Disney tried not to draw too much attention to these techniques (especially the VIP guides) and even the cheapest tickets still had some access to the same FastPass lines as higher-spending visitors.

One result of this complicated arrangement was that a lot of people (including me) felt they had to spend a lot of time making reservations weeks or months in advance, a ritual that spawned a mini-industry of planning websites and guides. When some of my friends heard about this gauntlet, they were put off visiting Disney entirely.

I saw Disney’s first moves in solving this problem when I visited Disneyland Shanghai in 2018. Unlike other parks, no advance ride booking was possible, and visitors only got a meagre one or two FastPasses per day. If you wanted more, you could buy “Premier Access” FastPasses to skip the line, either for a bundle a rides, or for individual rides. During my visit, the bundle had already sold out by the time I made it into the park, so we had to buy Premier Access Fastpasses for individual rides at about $15 each – not cheap at all for China.

The lack of advance booking meant I was spared the distraction and stress of planning before our visit, which in any case was a last-minute decision (so, in a way, I was advantaged). That stress would have manifested inside the park if it weren’t for the fact that I was willing to spend more money to make it go away, not to mention that I knew how to make the app work. The inequity of paying to jump the queue was not lost on other visitors; I can’t speak a word of Mandarin but I can tell when someone is deeply unhappy seeing rich people waltz past the scary uniformed security guards posted at every FastPass entrance.

This year, Disneyland Paris introduced Premier Access at a cost of €8-15 per ride each time, swiftly followed by huge changes at Disneyworld and Disneyland involving a new “Disney Genie” app. This app sells access to a new Genie+ option costing $15-20 per day that lets you skip the line on rides a few times a day, something you used to get for free via FastPasses. But if you want to skip the line on the most popular rides, you’ll have to pay again, for some undisclosed price – I’m guessing another $15-30 per ride.

As in Shanghai, I don’t think you can reserve rides weeks in advance any more. In fact, you can only really reserve rides when you arrive at the park (or at 7am, if you’re staying in a hotel resort). This is in keeping with another newish demand management idea from Disney called virtual queues, which lets you wait in line for super-popular rides without having to physically stand in line (so you can go on other rides and buy more stuff); crucially, you can only join a virtual queue when you are inside the park. But again, this just shifts the stress of planning from the weeks before park entry to the moment after, whereupon visitors desperately hammer their Disney apps for five minutes to enrol in all the virtual queues they can, and soon, book all their Genie+ reservations.

What of the visitors who can’t afford Genie+? The Disney Genie app is the final piece in this puzzle – it creates personalised itineraries that respond to real-time demand, perhaps suggesting nearby rides with shorter queues. This is… good, I guess? It could level the playing field between app-savvy ultra-planners and more casual visitors, at least.

Disney has described this whole Premier Access/Genie venture as a way to “distribute demand much more effectively through [our] ecosystem.” Ecosystem is an interesting way to put it. I suppose since they own the entire park, they can call it whatever they want, and given the parks’ popularity it’s understandable and arguably necessary that they do something like this.

Where I get uncomfortable is when that ecosystem expands beyond the walls of a private theme park and encompasses entire cities and countries, as the tech giants would surely like to do. When companies like Google and Apple and Tripadvisor seek to own the entire “stack” of discovering, booking, and paying for real world experiences, it’s a short leap for them to create their own Genie that plans everything for you.

Unlike Disney’s Genie, which will only know what you tell it, these tech giant Genies already know what food you like and what brands you buy. They already know how busy a location is and how long it’ll take you to walk there. They’ll construct an itinerary for you, taking bids from businesses for your custom, just as they do online. You won’t even know what you’re missing, because their Genies will gently steer you away from places that you can’t afford. Of course, if you can afford it, you’ll always be able to skip the queue and reveal more options.

All of us will finally be able to explore the world without a care, guided not by own our whims but by algorithms claiming to work on our behalf. Not flaneurs, but fauxneurs.

Follow me on Twitter: @adrianhon 

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