26 Interview

Questions and answers for 26, an organisation for writers:

What is your day job?

I’m CEO and co-founder of Six to Start. We make story-like games and game-like stories, and our most popular game is Zombies, Run!, a running game and audio adventure with over one million sales, co-created with novelist Naomi Alderman.

What are you working on now?

We’re making Season 4 of Zombies, Run! – due to launch in Spring 2015 – and we have four new games and apps coming out in the next two months.

What are your private passions? Is Mars still up there?

It’s a mixed bag. I do a lot of running, walking, and reading. The internet has changed my reading habits; sites like Metafilter and The Browser and 3QuarksDaily feed a never-ending stream of interesting articles to my iPad, which is great, apart from the fact that I don’t read as many books as I’d like. I’m also learning programming, but it’s slow going as I haven’t yet thought of a project that motivates me enough.

Mars, and space exploration in general, is still an interest of mine, but it’s not something I spend much time or money on any more.

What would be the title of your your next Ted Talk be?

“Why don’t we plan for the future any more?”

What do people get wrong about you?

They assume I only know about science, technology, and games.

What does the future life of a writer look like?

Pretty much the same as it does now; staring at a blank screen waiting for the inspiration and words to flow. You’ll earn much less money, but hopefully we’ll have a guaranteed basic income by then.

Which future objects do you think will most interest writers? The Reading Rooms, the Conversation Brokers, Smart Drugs, another helpful tool covered in your book or something so futuristic it’s not even in print yet? All of the above?

A society with a guaranteed basic income will be of great interest, since it would give everyone more time to write – not that that’ll do anything for finding an audience or inspiration!

What advice would you offer new authors on finding the best angle for your book?

I don’t know if I’m qualified to do that, given I’ve only written one book! I’m just glad I picked a subject that I found sufficiently interesting to keep me going through two years of evenings and weekends.

Kickstarter Report: November 2014

Here are the eight most recent projects I’ve backed on Kickstarter:


Radiotopia: A Storytelling Revolution

Radiotopia is a podcast network by Roman Mars, the guy responsible for one of my favorite shows, 99% Invisible. I’ve met him in person and he is a lovely, generous guy who has made it his life’s work to support new podcasters and new ideas, undoubtedly at the cost of his own time and financial success.


The Flame in the Flood

Looks and sounds like Beasts of the Southern Wild: The Game, which is right my up alley.


The Black Glove

Like The Flame in the Flood, these developers were also on the team that made Bioshock Infinite. The Black Glove pinpoints my desire to explore weird worlds with a minimum of shooting things.


Karen – an app that psychologically profiles you as you play

From Blast Theory, the makers of real-world/digital experiences. I’ve always liked to think about what self-help guides will become in the future, and this is an interesting exploration.


Ice-Bound: A Novel of Reconfiguration

Book/game/app/interactive fiction crossover, therefore automatically of interest. I’m not hot on the augmented reality stuff but I guess we’ll see how this unfolds.


Elegy for a Dead World: A Game About Writing Fiction

Pretty weird and I’m not convinced that people are keen on writing fiction, or indeed writing much at all, in a game. However, the prompting mechanism is neat and I look forward to trying it out.


Daughters of Mercury

The artist, Janet Bruesselbach, painted a portrait of me via Skype. It took over two hours and was a fascinating experience. I was happy to support her next project (this one).


Extrasolar: Season 2

It’s difficult for any ARG to attract decent levels of funding, and unfortunately Extrasolar S2 was not successful on Kickstarter. However, Extrasolar was and still is a tremendously clever game and I expect it’s really just a question of figuring out the right business model before it sees greater success.

Pride and High-Definition Prejudice

Here’s the sort of TV I watched in 1995: Red Dwarf, Star Trek: DS9, Star Trek: Voyager, Babylon 5, The X-Files – and Pride and Prejudice. I can’t recall how I was convinced to watch a costume drama based on a book genre that I had never previously shown an iota of interest in, but I’m pretty sure my mum had something to do with it. I was also prevailed upon to make a special batch of popcorn for the occasion using a US-imported popcorn maker I received as a birthday/Christmas present (one which I recently discovered is no longer available for sale on account of it potentially burning down houses due to the predictably unpleasant combination of hot metal, oil, and plastic).

Of course, I was enthralled – how couldn’t you be, with that plot, that cast, that writing? Sadly, the other boys at my all-male school were not into the Austen and so I kept my mouth shut about it for, oh, nine years, when I discovered the BBC series on Amazon Prime Video. Even better, it was in high-definition!

According to Wikipedia:

A high-definition transfer was produced from the original negatives and released as a Blu-ray in October 2008. The HD version has not been broadcast on television, the BBC refuses to broadcast anything shot in 16mm in HD. The same restored version was released on DVD in March 2009. The Blu-ray was released on April 14, 2009.

There is no citation for the claim that “the BBC refuses to broadcast anything shot in 16mm in HD,” but I’m not surprised by the decision; while many outdoor and well-lit shots in the series look perfectly lovely in HD, the noticeable grain and poor colour balance in most indoor shots is quite distracting. What’s more, the series obviously wasn’t produced with HD in mind, resulting in the actors’ make-up often looking a bit off.

Still, it’s well worth a watch if you enjoyed the original back in 1995, or indeed, have never seen it. You may want to wait another year though, as I’d be astonished if the BBC didn’t try to properly remaster the series for its twentieth anniversary in 2015.

Capital Ring Walk

Completed sections 12, 13, and most of 14 along the Capital Ring Walk today. While it was very warm and sunny, sunset was 4:30pm so it was impossible to press onward to the Thames and beyond. Clearly a project for next summer. Also, got distracted by the iMac 5K display at the Apple Store in Stratford.

London, Chronological Ethnocentrism, Zero

Some interesting excerpts:

London: all that glisters… by David Goodhart:

But if London is such a wonderful place to live why do so many people want to get out? One reason for wanting to leave is the scale of churn itself which makes stable communities increasingly rare. According to the UCL publication London 2062 (edited by Sarah Bell and James Paskins) London’s ‘revolving door’ saw 7.3m inflows and 6m outflows in the period 2002-2011, that means the equivalent of about three quarters of the capital left in the past decade and almost a whole new city settled in. In around one third of the 33 London boroughs the equivalent of half their populations move in or out every five years.

Our First Real Gay President by Jim Loewen:

This ideology of progress amounts to a chronological form of ethnocentrism. Thus chronological ethnocentrism is the belief that we now live in a better society, compared to past societies. Of course, ethnocentrism is the anthropological term for the attitude that our society is better than any other society now existing, and theirs are OK to the degree that they are like ours.

Chronological ethnocentrism plays a helpful role for history textbook authors: it lets them sequester bad things, from racism to the robber barons, in the distant past. Unfortunately for students, it also makes history impossibly dull, because we all “know” everything turned out for the best. It also makes history irrelevant, because it separates what we might learn about, say, racism or the robber barons in the past from issues of the here and now. Unfortunately for us all, just as ethnocentrism makes us less able to learn from other societies, chronological ethnocentrism makes us less able to learn from our past. It makes us stupider.

From the same article:

since Thomas Dewey in 1948 no major party candidate with facial hair has even run for president, and Dewey wore only the smallest of mustaches.

Finally, check out Here And There Along The Echo. Damn those talented bastards; damn them to Hades. Glad it exists; same way I feel about Simogo, same way I feel about 80 Days. Just a sense of genuine admiration.

Gamergate is Bullshit

Gamergate is bullshit, and it’s certainly not about ethics in journalism. Threats and harassment against women in gaming is reprehensible for any reason whatsoever, and it’s astonishing that the very people who are pushing the boundaries of what gaming can do and express are the ones being attacked.

Now, I had hoped it would go without saying that that’s my opinion, mainly because I was afraid of saying it out loud. That’s right – even though I own and run a company that, by definition, I cannot be fired from, and even though I don’t have any advertisers who can be threatened, I’m still a bit afraid about speaking out. That’s the chilling effect of Gamergate, and it’s what has made me shirk my responsibility to speak out against it. I thought, better to keep my head down, which is terrible.

I don’t have a lot to add to the discussion, other than to say two things.

Firstly, publicly condemning Gamergate is a good start, but it’s not enough. Whoever you are, if you love and enjoy games, it’s your responsibility to support and champion those people who are taking a risk – whether that’s people making games that are not horribly sexist and that preferably promote feminism, or people who critique the portrayal of women in games (among other troubling portrayals). Do what you feel able to – and then some more. You’re on the right side of history, and this is the moment where your actions will count the most.

Secondly, if I were 17 right now, there’s a good chance I would have sympathised with the Gamergaters. I found it difficult to talk to and relate with girls and that made me resentful and defensive. I felt my life was difficult enough, and the notion that women had it any harder than I did was incomprehensible. I choose that word incomprehensible because I really mean it; I had no idea the level of harassment and unfairness they experienced in life, and anyone telling me otherwise was obviously mistaken and just attacking me.

Thankfully I wasn’t obsessed over this, and I had plenty of other, more productive things to occupy my time with. But it wasn’t for another few years that I began to mix with a wider group of people and read more books and experience better art and gradually comprehend that other people had far bigger and far different problems than my own. So my story is a positive one: it’s possible for people to grow and mature, if they’re helped.

If we declare that the behaviour of Gamergate is not acceptable; if we support and champion the people making games into better art; if we help those who don’t comprehend to comprehend (which will take a lot of time and patience!) – we move forward to a better world, inch by halting inch.


When are you allowed to pirate something?

These days, I rarely pirate anything at all. I subscribe to Spotify and Amazon Prime, and I pay the BBC TV Licence Fee. I buy all my books, apps, and games from Apple and Amazon; these are all unimaginably affordable compared to just a couple of decades ago, when a Nintendo 64 game easily cost £80/$130 in today’s money.

I usually see movies at the cinema but will occasionally buy blurays if it’s something special (plus I get screeners from BAFTA); and because I don’t watch much TV any more, I can get by with intermittent subscriptions to Netflix for the purposes of binge-watching Parks and Rec or similar.

That leaves one major exception: US TV shows that aren’t on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video. I believe the only way of legally watching shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, The Flash, True Detective, etc., in a timely fashion in the UK is by subscribing to Sky, who have bought up the rights to the most popular US shows. Sky is not cheap, especially if you’re only using it to watch literally one or two series a week.

In the absence of any way to buy the episodes outright via Apple or Amazon, I download a couple of shows a week. To assuage my guilt, I try to buy the shows when they finally go on sale in the UK. I suppose I could be more patient and just wait, but we live in a global village these days and I like to understand what my friends in the US are talking about when it comes to popular culture.

Things were different when I was a teenager and at university. There was no Spotify or Netflix, no Amazon Prime or iTunes TV Store. I also didn’t have much money. Accordingly, I pirated pretty much everything other than apps and games, which were a hassle to deal with.

Most of the stuff was poor quality such I’ve since deleted the files or obtained legal copies; but that doesn’t fix everything. I don’t regard piracy as a particularly bad sin – digital content is non-rivalrous and so the concept of ‘theft’ doesn’t apply – but I do think it shows wilful ignorance at best, and contempt at worst, towards artists.

In the olden days (90s and 2000s), you could attempt to justify piracy by claiming – somewhat truthfully – that only a tiny percentage of the sale price actually made it back to the artist. Putting aside the way this devalues the contribution of all the non-artists involved and the fact that even a tiny percentage is better than zero, the fact is that marketplaces like Steam, iTunes, and Amazon provide many artists with substantially higher cuts, from 35% to 70% and beyond. It’s much less palatable to advocate piracy when there’s no question you’re harming the artist financially.

The other argument was that a lot of desirable content was DRMed or not available in certain regions or on certain platforms. That is still the case for a few things including my beloved TV shows, but it’s much less common. As for DRM, it’s effectively vanished from purchased music, and the rise of tightly-integrated digital ecosystems owned by Apple, Amazon, and Google has taken the sting out of DRMed apps and video, for better or worse. I don’t like books being DRMed, but that’s not a good enough excuse for me to not buy them. Having said that, I feel absolutely no guilt in downloading un-DRMed versions of content I’ve already bought – not for sending to friends, but for consuming on incompatible ecosystems.

Today, I atone for the piratical sins of my youth by supporting new artists on Kickstarter. Every single penny counts when you’re starting out, so I like to pay things forward.

Update: @simonth reminds me that Agents of SHIELD is on Channel 4, albeit a few episodes behind.

2001 and Master and Commander

Next month, the BFI is releasing a new digital transfer of 2001. I will be there.

Quite apart from the fact that even a big TV can’t replicate the ultra-widescreen experience required to properly appreciate 2001, I think that most normal people – myself included – are incapable of paying sufficient attention to the movie unless forced to do so in a dark cinema. It’s not just that I’d want to check my phone during some of the slower bits (which, to be fair, is most of the movie); it’s that it’d be near-impossible to avoid interruptions like noise from outside, or phones ringing, or people coming and going, and so on. So, see it at the cinema. Also, live in the UK, because if you don’t, you’re out of luck.

2001 is one of the two movies that I rewatch every year or two. Specifically, the flight to the space-station, and then to the Moon:

(didn’t I tell you not to watch this at home?)

What’s the other movie? Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Here’s the opening sequence:

It’s beautiful, and slow. The movie features few battles other than those against the weather. Like 2001, there is much “competence porn” wherein smart and experienced people concoct clever plans. Like 2001, it is a journey into the unknown, on board a state-of-the-art vessel with serious technical problems.

They’re both – mostly – contemplative movies punctuated by moments of sheer terror, providing an enjoyable mix of ASMR-like relaxation with adrenaline that keeps me awake. And once I’ve finished, I feel like I’ve grappled with weighty questions that concern the future of humanity. What more could you want?

Worrying and Thinking

Over the past few years, I’ve been worrying over a knot of problems that seem to defy any straightforward answers, including:

  • How can we use Google, Facebook, and Amazon’s services when we know they’re putting people out of work, centralising information, and often acting against our interest?
  • There are no more jobs for life, so why aren’t we fighting harder for improved social security?
  • How can we avoid being made miserable or broke by advertising?
  • What happens if we don’t have the time to properly think about what the good life consists of – or we don’t have the means to enact it?
  • Is it possible to resist, or even question, the total political dominance of capitalism and free market economics?
  • How can we possibly criticise massive corporations when we, as consumers and workers, feel complicit in their existence and operation?
  • What can any individual do to change any of this, when meaningful solidarity appears to have totally evaporated within many rich countries?

These are not the only problems in the world; they’re not even among top ten problems humanity faces. Nevertheless, I consider them to be serious problems and given that some people are better placed to address some problems than others, it’s worth thinking about them.

Neither are they wholly new problems. We’ve lived – unhappily – with overpowered corporations, fractured communities, and inadequate social security for decades and centuries. Yet they are affected by technology and culture, and so these problems require new kinds of solutions every generation.

I intend to spend the next few months writing about this, in a ‘thinking-out-loud’ kind of way. Many chapters of A History of the Future were about these problems. Spoiler: I don’t have any quick or easy solutions, but I do think that these worries are shared by many others who would dearly like to do something about them.

The Podcasting Software We Deserve

As summer draws to a close and the evening appears ever nearer, a young man’s fancy naturally turns to the production and distribution of podcasts.

I listen to several podcasts and I co-host The Cultures podcast with Naomi Alderman and Andrea Phillips. As such, I feel I have the bare minimum amount of experience required to examine how the process of making podcasts could be improved, across recording, editing, and publishing, in the form of an imaginary dream super-app.


If you can’t get all your hosts in the same room every week (e.g. because they’re in different cities), then you’ll need to use something like Skype to hear each other. Skype is free and easy to use, but the call quality is not perfect. For the best results, each participant should record their own microphone feed ‘locally’; these multiple feeds can then be combined later on for a much clearer sound.

As mentioned, Skype is free. Call recorders can be found for a relatively low price (free to $25), such as Rogue Ameoba’s Piezo and Audio Hijack, and Ecamm’s Call Recorder for Skype. These are a little fiddly to use, but not too annoying. For The Cultures, I use Audio Hijack Pro to capture my own microphone input along with the Skype audio from Naomi and Andrea; we don’t all record locally because I don’t have the time to edit the podcast. Audio Hijack pretty straightforward but I had to play around with the mix settings a few times before getting it quite right. Certainly there weren’t any preset ‘podcast’ settings.

If we all recorded locally, as most other podcasters do, then you can multiply the fiddle-factor by three. Again, it’s not that annoying if you know how to use computers, but if you don’t, it’s a frustrating experience.

Ideally: I would like a dedicated app, let’s call it “Podsoft”, that each host would install. The app would make recording easier by automatically syncing with the other hosts (through a unique code or user auth) so that we could confirm that everyone was recording, receiving audio, and ready to go; and it would sync with online time servers to adjust for frame loss.

During the podcast, we could type in timestamped comments in a shared document (similar to Etherpad or Google Docs) which would make it easier to compile show notes and set chapter marks. Once the podcast ends, the each app syncs with Dropbox or perhaps just sends the audio file to the designated ‘master’ host automatically, thus avoiding any emailing-and-attaching-file shenanigans. Incidentally, the app would be capable to recording all participants from a single computer (similar to my current Audio Hijack setup) as a backup.


Editing can produce a tighter, more coherent podcast, and better-sounding podcast, but it takes time. For me, the choice is not between ‘no editing’ and ‘some editing’, but between ‘no editing’ and ‘no podcast’. It’s different for other hosts, however.

If you get your hosts to record their audio locally, then you need to assemble those multiple audio files into a single file. On the face of it, this should be easy – just drag the files into separate Garageband tracks, line up the start times, and away you go. In practice, I’m told that frame loss means that the files can drift out of sync over the course of the podcast, which makes editing tricky. You might also want to reduce noise and control the volume so that everyone sounds equally loud.

An experienced editor can do this in their sleep, and probably has access to (or has written) scripts that automate some of these tasks. However, amateurs aren’t quite as lucky and may end up struggling through the process.

Ideally: Podsoft combines and syncs the multiple audio files automatically. It includes presets to reduce noise and normalise voices; not as well as a professional, but better than an amateur.


Libsyn are the podcast host of choice these days, mostly because it ‘just works’ and isn’t too expensive ($5-15/month). However, their content management system looks and feels awful; I’ve made more than one mistake using it in the past.

Ideally: Podsoft allows you to compose all the podcast metadata, including title, description, image, and release data, within the app itself. When you’re ready, you hit submit and it upload it all to Libsyn without you having to deal with the website.

Cost, problems, concluding thoughts

The vast majority of podcasters don’t make any money at all, which may worry developers. Yet while I don’t make money from running, I still pay a decent amount for good trainers, because it’s an entertaining hobby that I spend a lot of time on. Likewise, podcasting is a hobby that a lot of people spend a lot of time on, and I can’t help but think they’d be willing to pay a decent amount for software that makes their lives easier and results in a better podcast.

I think people would be willing to pay around $50-100. If you sold around 1000 to 10,000, that’s not a terrible business given that it’s a Mac app with the potential for upgrade sales every couple of years.

Of course, it’s not a massive amount of money and there’s only so many podcast creators out there. The real opportunity lies in creating a Libsyn competitor – which of course would be a much easier job if you already had a great podcasting app out in the market. Then you could work on providing other services for podcasters including improved statistics, crowdfunding tools, community features, nice-looking website, and so on; not to mention improved discovery for listeners. I don’t suggest this because I hate Libsyn – it’s a decent website that works and isn’t too expensive – but it’s healthy to have competition in a market, since it improves the service.

For the avoidance of doubt, neither I nor Six to Start are about to make this app – we’re plenty busy working on other stuff. But I would love it if someone like Marco Arment or Daniel Jalkut worked on it, given their previous form (Overcast and Marsedit). We can live in hope.