Reflections, Strategy

Chaos and assorted ramblings about management by numbers and judgment calls

(Note: This is by far one of my shortest and weirdest articles, ever. This also might be one of the worst written, most horribly convoluted, obnoxiously pretentious and absurd articles on Strat.in, and well, I’m not forcing you to read it, am I? This is just an experiment I’m trying, mainly because I’m sleepy and cramped and the goddamm berths on AC-III coaches have gotten smaller, and I have a nagging suspicion that while to my credit, I didn’t study at all in IIM-C, I might have missed a few chances to learn as well. Also, this is from the point of view of one of the most significant literary figures of all times (although the narrator kinda changes towards the end), and since I am writing this at four in the morning in a moving train, give me some leeway. Read on if you want, because all I promise is chaos. You have been warned)

“Look upon my works ye mighty, and despair”
, said my husband and thought my creation. Fire and brimstone went up as clouds near Indo-china, and brought about the fall of the conqueror of Europe. I know this because I am hindsight personified, just as I was the first with a foresight. Was I a Cassandra? Did I bring about horror and fear and hope. Or was it something in the air that night? A sky like Gogh’s nightmares from an island on the other side of the earth. Did a butterfly cause this sky?

Now speak of pirates and religion, and how morality is lost in Kalyuga, just as pollution rises with the decline of buccaneers. Do we accept causality? Do we correlate the passage of time with human spiritual decline as we look back to The Golden Age, The Satyuga? Or do we accept that it is logic that drives our faith, even as faith becomes an excuse for being human.

What little butterfly caused those skies, and what manner of hunger caused the first Great War. Small pebbles cause avalanches, and yet, when the storm is past, no one looks for the butterfly. I question then, can we ever truly find those pair of wings? Can we trace the symmetries as events unfold and clouds gather and the hammer of heaven falls on the just and unjust alike?

And if we can find that butterfly, then can we not find the gust of wind, the ray of sun, the sight of a bird that caused it to take flight? How do we correlate when we cannot see beyond our caves? After all, Watson, its quite elementary.

What caused this recession then? Myopia? Greed? Fuld? Who can trace a line from the shutters going down to a specific signature on a specific piece of paper? Shall not the judge of all things take his/her time and travel back in time and witness the mundane event that started the avalanche? What if this disaster finds its genesis in a rational act of increasing value?

But then also, judge of all things, how will you know where to stop looking?

Is it a circle you see, or are you looking down at an infinite spire? When you trace a case-study down to its bare bones, do you work within the boundaries or do you tread outside to the white space where it is written “Here be Tygers”. When you crunch those numbers, do you spare a thought for pirates and pollution and the might of The Flying Spaghetti Monster? What butterfly caused those numbers? What caused that particular factory to produce exactly this amount of shoes as against that amount of shoes last year? Do you accept the given logic within the context, or do you accept it as a matter of faith?

Of course there are procedures and best practices, but then again, who watches the watchmen? Who ensures that the second decimal in an option does not cause a catastrophe decades after the ones who made the deal are dead and gone? How do you trace the decision to use a weak hull for a ship that was unsinkable? How do you know which butterfly to stop at? How do you determine which butterfly was the correct butterfly? Do you have faith in the numbers you crunch, and do you have faith in the correlations you draw, the causality you imply? Do you have faith in your logic?

What sets an IIM grad apart from the rest? For all you know, you have got someone who got lucky twice in six months.  Do you choose an IIM/IIT/Whatever alumnus to act according to numbers (why not get trained monkeys and a bunch of bananas), or do you choose them because you have faith that when push comes to shove, they will make the right decisions? And then, how do you know that you have not got someone who was just lucky twice in six months? Is it not a matter of faith? Isn’t all logic a matter of faith in the absence of significant butterflies? In the face of unknown variables, aren’t all such judgment calls matters of faith and experience and hope?

And yet, if faith is allowed in judgment calls, then who decides if a judgment call was what was needed? Who takes the judgment call to call it a judgment call? What data drives this thought, if any at all? Is it correlation and analysis based on previous patterns that might not hold true in a changed and chaotic environment? Do you accept the circle or do you dissect it? And what if all you find is a cross section of a Lacuna Coil. Do you make the judgment based on faith or logic? What judgment do you use to make a judgment? What strategy do you use to write about strategy? Once again, who watches the watchmen?

I’m just a puppet who can see the strings. But is there a puppet master? And if yes, then is there someone who controls the puppet master’s strings? Do I request more and more data, each diminishing return bringing me imperceptibly closer to a solution, bringing me closer to the razor’s edge? Or do I judge that I know enough to pronounce judgment, and hope that the logic behind my faith is correct?

Do I search for butterflies, or do I embrace the random? What do I decide, and how do I decide to decide?

Chaos is just the begenning.

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Reflections

Why are the Ramayana and Mahabharata so different (and make good case studies)

(Just a bit of context: I’m an atheist, however, I do have a keen interest in religion and culture, and have studied different versions of both these great texts. I think the insights they offer into the Indian, or rather, the Human psyche, are as relevant today as they were when these texts were written. What I write is my view on these texts and their purpose, and my intention is not to offend anyone’s religious sensibilities. Also, I highly recommend the epics Mrityunjay by Shivaji Sawant and Chandrakanta by Devki Nandan Khatri, which I myself am reading right now)

I have a job with Proctor & Gamble, arguably the world’s biggest FMCG firm. At least, I have a job in theory. When the HR calls you up every week to tell you that your joining being delayed is not because of the recession and there is absolutely no reason to panic because there is a bit of restructuring going on and there is no need to panic because these things happen all the time and there is no need to panic, well, I think there is every need to panic.

Anyhow, to come to the point, I loved working for P&G during my internship. I read up on their history, saw their best practices etc. and it was an awesome experience. I felt like I was in a firm that could do no wrong, and then, I got the jolt of my life.

I found out where the soap in the soap opera comes from.

Now, I detest soap operas. I find them boring and over dramatic, and I can understand the market for them, and I know I don’t understand the appeal of a soap opera but some of them would be good nonetheless, but there is one thing I do know, that the Soap operas aren’t the biggest thing on Indian TV ever, no matter what the spin doctors say. That right belongs to one of the biggest epics of the world: Mahabharata.

Mahabharata was not a TV show. It was a cultural phenomenon. To be honest, it did no justice to the source material, but that’s because of the sheer awesomeness of the source material, not any flaw in the serial itself. Most of us are perhaps too young to remember the kind of impact it had when the show was first broadcast. The streets used to be deserted and parliamentary proceedings would be rescheduled so that the MPs could catch the episodes as they aired. Suffice to say, the nation was crazy about Mahabharata.

There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the Mahabharata is an awesome piece of work, the second largest epic of all times (bowing out to The Epic of Gezar), with a stellar ensemble cast of characters, each of them giants in their own rights. The plot itself was brilliant to say the least, with millions of subtle nuances underlining the character motivations and how their interactions and machinations had far reaching impacts (just as an example, consider the relationship between Krishna, Balram and Duryodhan). Each character was brilliantly portrayed in various shades of grey, with all of them portrayed equally righteous and monstrous, and there was always a certain inevitability about how events moved towards a bitter and tragic end that struck a chord with the reader. The Mahabharata is a story of dharma and filial obligations, as much as it is a story of what jealousy and greed can do to us, but most importantly, it is a discussion on what means to be human and imperfect, and contains some of the best dialogues and scenes ever written. It is also a reflection of the conditions of the Dwapar Yuga. (bear this in mind, I’ll be coming back to it)

The other great Indian epic, Ramayana, is completely different. Like the Mahabharata, it also has strong characters, a basic and driving plot, titanic forces and a resolution of the fight between good and evil, and the inherent inevitability of all things. The Ramayana however, is much more black and white than the Mahabharata. The characters do not work at cross purposes and the story is pretty linear. There is a clear distinction between good and evil, and yet, it is also explained how these values are intrinsically tied to the concept of dharma and the inevitability of fate and actions.

There isn’t moral ambiguity in the actions of the characters, and even the rakshas behave according to what is their true nature and dharma, and in a sense, have a purity of thought and actions that the characters in Mahabharata do not engage in (note: here, purity of action has nothing to do with good or evil, rather, it is about being true to one’s self. It is possible to be pure and evil and malicious at the same time). To be sure, there are scenes where the characters engage in something morally ambiguous (the killing of Bali by trickery) but these scenes tend to highlight the setting more than take away from them. (The Ramayana was set in the Treta yuga, a fact that’s quite relevant to the present discussion)

Now, this is where it gets interesting. Both of these books are said to be written in the same time period, yet there is a huge disconnect in the treatment of their subjects and the actions of the characters. However, this disconnect can easily be explained if we consider the following factors:

1) These epics were written as a part of cultural propaganda/case studies.
2) They are set in different yugas

Cultural Propoganda/Case Studies

Most of us loath case studies. Its usually because they are boring and repetitive and about as much fun as a root canal treatment, and since I’ve graduated from IIM-C and have had a root canal treatment within three months of the same, I can claim to be an expert on the matter. As one of my profs at IIM-C rightly said, one of the best case studies on the growth of family businesses and succession policies was this little book called The Godfather. It is my opinion that management education could be made vastly more interesting if all profs thought like this, and instead of Kotler, Sun Tzu and Clausewitz became required reading for marketing. Anyhow, I have this little theory (to my knowledge, no one else has claimed this) that these epics are in effect case studies.

Think about it, they talk about different facets of human behavior, contain most of the situations a person can be reasonably expected to face (or at least, could be expected to face back in 1000 BC), can be seen as a treatise on both statecraft and warcraft, and deal primarily with Kshatriyas and their Dharma. Now, bear in mind that in those times, high quality education was the right of mostly Kshatriyas and Brahmins, with the Kshatriyas being required to learn about diplomacy and correct behavior, while Brahmins studied rituals and lore. Also, keep in mind that kings and princes were Kshatriyas, and any Kshatriya student at a higher place of learning could be reasonably expected to be a leader of men when he grew up. What better way to teach and invite debate on accepted behavior than through the example of a man who was the Maryada Purushottam (an example of best amongst all men). Or for that matter, the killing of Bali (it goes like this, Bali was technically the rightful king of the vanaras, but had turned into a bit of a psycho and a despot. Sugreeva, Bali’s twin, promised to help Ram if he could help him bump off Bali and hence make Sugreeva the rightful king. Consider it from this point of view: Ram knew he needed the help of the vanaras if he was to take down Lanka, but killing Bali by trickery went against his upbringing. Another matter to consider was that Ram, although still exiled, was of royal blood and was a prince of Ayodhya, and hence, it was his moral duty to help out Sugreeva, who was of royal blood himself, and Ram’s actions would cement an alliance between Ayodhya and Sugreeva’s people in Kishkindha, but on the other hand, striking down the king of the vanaras without actual provocation could be considered an act of war).

However, if you really wanted hours of debate on the finer aspects of ownership and rights, look no further than the Mahabharata (Draupadi’s harangue against Yudhishthira: The pandavas lost themselves and became slaves first, and then lost Draupadi, but by definition of being slaves, they could not own property, and hence, could not have bet Draupadi. One can imagine Draupadi being quite vocal on the issue). It also featured a debate on the finer aspects of misinformation (Ashwathamma maro, naro va kunjaro: Ahswathamma is dead, but man or elephant, I know not), what to do when your part-rakshas step-nephew is rampaging through your army (the case of Ghatotkacha), or for that matter, what constitutes a weapon on the field of battle (the death of Karna).

Another interesting aspect is their possible use as propaganda for Arya Khatriya supremacy against the existing Dravidian cultures in south India, particularly in the case of the Ramayana. It is a theory that is gaining momentum with historians, and it is highly probable that these stories were carried with the north Indian kshatriyas and Brahmins (not pundits, because temples started gaining momentum with the Gupta periods, which was centuries away) as they explored further south, and the fact that versions of Ramayana exist in most nations of Indo-china, coupled with the knowledge that South Indian kings regularly sent their navies as far as Indonesia, it is not any stretch of imagination to assume that these works found their way into these cultures as a part of their conversion to Hinduism (or what was Hinduism back then, like many religions, Hinduism has never been a stable concept except for some core ideologies like the concept of dharma and karma and its inherent polytheistic nature).

It can also be argued that the vanaras and the richhas (the ape/monkey-men and the bear-men) could simply have been shamanistic societies that used these animals as their totems, and therefore, their dress and mannerisms would suggest their belief in kinship from these sacred animals, and therefore, Hanuman and Jaamvant could have had some basis in fact.

Different yugas

Basically, there are four yugas (Satayuga, Tretayuga, Dwaparyuga and Kalyuga). These yugas represent the degradation and decay of society and morals, and are cyclical in nature, with a calamity at the end of the kalyuga acting as a reset and the cycle beginning again from the Satayuga. It is also said that the duration of each of these yugas is directly in proportion to the purity of thought and action in them, with Satyuga being the longest and Kalyuga being the shortest, and that we are currently in Kalyuga. Now, consider the fact that these epics are set in two different yugas. The Ramayana is set in the Tretayuga, which was preceded by the Satyuga, while the Mahabharata was set in the Dwaparyuga, which was succeeded by the current kalyug. In essence, times were better in Treta than in Dwapar, people were more honest and pure of thought, and it was still possible to define people by whether their actions were righteous or not. This is the crux of the argument, that since the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were written to represent these two ages, Mahabharata is understandably darker and more morally ambiguous than its predecessor. This is also why the subject matters of both deal with wildly different topics. While Ramayana is a tale of good vs evil, the Mahabharata concerns itself more with intrigue and counter-intrigue. Ramayana represents evil by the rakshas, while in the Mahabharata, there is no true or pure evil, but rather, it is given to understand that all men are susceptible to evil through circumstances and emotions (the only notable rakshas in Mahabharata fought from the Pandava camp, while Draupadi avenged herself by washing her hair with the blood of Dushasan). Also, while the Ramayana is more concerned with righteous action and consequence, the Mahabharata builds its case through the ambiguous actions of the players (there is a case for the theory that Shakuni brought destruction upon both the entire Kaurava and Pandava clans because of his anger at his sister marrying a blind man for which he blamed the entire family. Also, consider the actions of Balram and Krishna, and how Duryodhan became the point of contention between them).

Mahabharata and Ramayana are the greatest epics of Hinduism and the cornerstone of Indian mythology and culture. It is my belief that if we are to understand the true significance behind them and understand their intended teachings, then we have to correctly understand the context in which they were written as well, and this article has been an attempt to explain that context as I see it, and to explain why there is no disconnect between the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and how they are case studies for the examination of immortal concepts like Dharma through the ages.

(Note: It wasn’t my intention to offend anyone’s religious sentiments with this post. This post contains my personal views and nothing else. Also, once again, I’d highly recommend Mrityunjay and, if you can get your hands on it, The Golden Bough by J.G. Frazer)

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Marketing, Planning, Strategy

Game and Metagame: Part 3… Force Multipliers, schoolyard fights, The Afghan war and the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae

(Note: This is the third part in my series on Game and Metagame. For some references, I highly recommend you read the first part of this series to get a feel of what I am talking about. There is a rather decent article on Wikipedia about the whole thing, and my article differs from that on several counts, as my attempt is to talk about it from the perspective of everyday games and metagames. Also, I suspect you would have seen the movie 300, and if you haven’t check up on the Battle of Thermopylae here.)

300

300

I hated 300 (both the movie and the comic). It might have to do something with the way Miller butchered history to present a “fantasy” that was chock full of his overtly idiotic extremist right-wing lunacy. That Frank Miller is kinda cuckoo is a whole other topic, and that his version of the Battle of Thermopylae was a piece of propaganda Goebbels would have been proud of. As someone who is has liked reading about history and ancient cultures since he was in eighth standard (yes I was a bookworm and had a rather slow social life, how did you know?) I was shocked and appalled by the treatment this legendary battle was given by Frank Miller. Miller’s changes had little to do with making the story more accessible and exciting, but more about propagating his own twisted point of view (for which, he would have had Batman take on Al-Qaida in the caves of Afghanistan, had wiser heads at DC not prevailed).

With that little outburst out of the way, let’s get down to the brass tacks, namely: Force Multipliers.

In my first article, when I analyzed the game of chess from the perspective of the Metagame, I used a term called the 3M prism which provided three of the force multipliers in any situation. The 3Ms basically defined a player’s chances of winning the game on the basis of the position of the pieces. The 3Ms are Mobility, Mass and Momentum, and I would suggest you read that piece for a better understanding of what is about to follow.

After reading that piece, you would have gained a fair understanding of what I am trying to convey about Force Multipliers, but for the sake of simplicity and elegance, I will formally state here my definition, or rather, the definition I want the term Force Multiplier to have in the context of my articles. The definition is as follows:

Force Multiplier: Any factor/element in a game that gives an advantage to a player. It increases the ability of a player to affect the outcome of a game in his/her favour, and it can be gained by both the actions of the players or by randomness or luck. In any game, the possible force multipliers shall be unique, but with the proper metaphors, a set of Force Multipliers can be carried over from one game to another. It is also possible to have a universal set of Force Multipliers that can be applied elegantly to any and all games.

For all intents and purposes, the players are assumed to be two abstract entities that are equal in every aspect, and all of their strengths or weaknesses are represented by their force multipliers. To simplify that, see the diagram below:

A bully, a boy and a mace

A bully, a boy and a mace

In this diagram, you can see the bully and the boy being represented by abstract circles, with their respective Force Multipliers being represented accordingly.

It’s very easy to explain all of the above using a very simple example. It’s the fourth standard. You and two of your friends are playing cricket, and suddenly, the ball goes over to another group of kids from another section (who, for the sake of convenience, we shall refer to as the Armies of Mordor). They claim it as their own, and since there are ten of them and three of you, it obviously belongs to them (numbers, a very effective force multiplier). You and your two buddies get together with the rest of your friends (bringing up your number to fifteen, good enough to sweep the floor with those two bit players from the Armies of Mordor). You send a delegation to the opposite side, explaining that they have to give up the ball and control of the basketball court for playing cricket on the Wednesday and Thursday common games periods. The delegation returns with inks on their shirts and torn knickers. It appears that one of the members of the Armies of Mordor has an elder brother in the sixth standard, and he has entered into the equation (superior weapons, another effective Force Multiplier). Now, since none of you have an elder brother, you do the dirty trick, and go as a bunch to the class teachers in the teacher’s room and bawl your hearts out (the moral high ground and outside influence, the dirtiest trick in the book, it might have been outlawed by the Geneva convention, not too sure of my sources here). The class teachers punish the Armies of Mordor and the elder brother is nullified, and you get the ball back, and the prestige that comes with cocking a snook at a sixth standard student. (Based on a true story)

All in all in the above confrontation, three different Force Multipliers were used by the either side, and they are as follows:-

1) Superior numbers
2) Superior weaponry
3) Outside influence/sanction of a higher authority

Now, in any situation that you encounter, you will realize that there always are effective force multipliers. A rather humorous example of this (and an interesting case study) could be the making of groups in a class for a presentation. The key is to see where the girls are going, because having girls is a very effective force multiplier in your arsenal. Another key is to see where the smooth talkers and hard workers are going, because these are the people who will get you the highest marks, and are quite useful as Force Multipliers for the success of any group. A case can also be made that while a certain number of girls/smoothies/hard-workers is desirable, having a surplus is simply overkill, but thats another story altogether.

Anyhow, back to the Spartans. I hope you’ve either seen the movie, or at least read the link. Anyway, here is the breakdown. Two cultures are at war. One is based on freedom and respect for all religions and races, and gave the world its first human rights charter, and the other is based on slavery and fascism. One of them loses, while the other one wins and forms the core of the western civilization. Really a pity that the slave-owners defeated the Persians eventually, but that can’t be helped now.

Anywho, back in 480 BC, Xerxes was marching up to the Greek city states with one of the greatest armies the world had ever seen. His goal was to cross over to the main cities of Greece and take them by force. His army, which numbered about 200,000, marched and sailed from Persia, and was nearly at the doorstep of Greece. The Greek city states decided to hold the Persian advance at Thermopylae (the hot gates), a small stretch of land which provided the only land route to mainland Greece, and which could be easily held by a small, well stocked force (of about 7000) against a much larger opponent.

Thermopylae

Thermopylae

Since the Greeks held navel superiority, the Persians could only proceed on land. This also meant a longer, and consequently, more vulnerable supply chain, which meant that any battle would have to be won swiftly and decisively. (Thermopylae cost Xerxes an entire week, by which time Athens was properly evacuated and armaments of the Greek forces was almost complete)

The three days that saw actual battle are hereby quoted from Wikipedia:

First day

On the fifth day after the Persian arrival at Thermopylae, Xerxes finally resolved to attack the Allies. First of all he sent Medes and Cissians against the Allies, to take them prisoner and bring them before him. They soon found themselves launching a frontal assault on the Greek position. The Allies fought in front of the Phocian wall, at the narrowest part of the pass. Details of the tactics are scant; Diodorus says “the men stood shoulder to shoulder” and the Greeks were “superior in valor and in the great size of their shields.” This is probably describing the standard Greek phalanx, in which the men formed a wall of overlapping shields and layered spear points, which would have been highly effective as long as it spanned the width of the pass. The wicker shields and shorter spears of the Persians prevented them from effectively engaging the Greek hoplites. Herodotus says that the units for each city were kept together; units were rotated in and out of the battle to prevent fatigue, which implies the Greeks had more men than necessary to block the pass. The Greeks killed so many Medes that Xerxes is said to have started up off the seat from which he was watching the battle three times. According to Ctesias, the first wave was “cut to pieces” with only two or three Spartans dead.

According to Herodotus and Diodorus, the king, having taken the measure of the enemy, threw his best troops into a second assault the same day: the Immortals, an elite corps of 10,000 men. However, the Immortals fared no better than the Medes had, failing to make headway against the Allies. The Spartans apparently used a tactic of feigning retreat, and then turning on, and killing the enemy troops when they ran after the Spartans.

Second Day

On the second day, Xerxes again sent in the infantry to attack the pass, “supposing that their enemies, being so few, were now disabled by wounds and could no longer resist.” However, the Persians fared no better on the second day than on the first. Xerxes at last stopped the assault and withdrew to his camp, totally perplexed.

Late on the second day of battle, however, as the Persian king was pondering what to do next, he received a windfall; a Trachinian traitor named Ephialtes informed him of the mountain path around Thermopylae and offered to guide the Persian army. Ephialtes was motivated by the desire of a reward. For this act, the name of Ephialtes received a lasting stigma, his name coming to mean “nightmare” and becoming the archetypal term for a “traitor” in Greek.

Herodotus reports that Xerxes sent his commander Hydarnes that evening, with the men under his command, the Immortals, to encircle the Allies via the path. However, he does not say who those men are. The Immortals had been bloodied on the first day, so it is possible that Hydarnes may have been given overall command of an enhanced force including what was left of the Immortals, and indeed, according to Diodorus, Hydarnes had a force of 20,000 for the mission. The path led from east of the Persian camp along the ridge of Mt. Anopaea behind the cliffs that flanked the pass. It branched with one path leading to Phocis and the other down to the Gulf of Malis at Alpenus, first town of Locris.

Third Day

Basically, the Greeks got pwned.

Now, let’s take a look at the force multipliers that came into play and whether they benefited the players or not.

1) Strength in numbers/Mass: The Persians had the numbers. However, that meant nothing since they were not deployed on an open field, and hence, did not have enough Mobility.

2) Superior weapons/Momentum: The Greeks had weapons far superior to the Persians, as well as an advantage due to the narrow terrain that did not allow the Persians to deploy their famed cavalry. This allowed them to dictate the terms of battle to the Persians, or in other words, the Greeks carried the Momentum.

Greek Phalanx

Greek Phalanx

3) Ability to deploy forces according to their strengths/Mobility: The Greeks were first at the pass, but could not retreat properly due to the fear of being cut down by the Persian cavalry. However, they did have strong navel and logistical support, while the Persians did not have adequate navel support, and could not settle down for a long battle on the pass, which is why they had to spend their resources wastefully. I would go as far as saying that the Persians, in this case, had negative Mobility.

However, on the third day, things changed dramatically:

1) Strength in numbers/Mass: The Persians could suddenly deploy a larger force, which meant that the advantage of Mass shifted in their favour, although not by much.

2) Superior weapons/Momentum: The Greeks were winning because of their longer spears, which gave them superior range against their opponents. However, once the Persians deployed around them could comfortably bring their archers into play in the second half of day 3, the advantage went to the Persians. Also, the Persians could now trap the Greeks in a pincer movement if they stood their ground, or run the Greeks down with their cavalry if they retreated. The balance of Momentum shifted to the Persians again.

3) Ability to deploy forces according to their strengths/Mobility: Once again, the Greeks lost all advantage once it became clear that their flanks and rear were exposed to the superior numbers of the Persians and that their options had become very limited, the advantage of superior terrain would no longer help the Greeks, and on the open plains, they could be easily out maneuvered by the cavalry or even the Persian light infantry. Advantage: Persians.
As you can see, it was actually quite easy to re-apply the Force Multipliers from chess onto a real-life battle. However, the same force multipliers could also be applied to any other game with a little bit of change. This is exactly why every marketer should read Sun Tzu’s the art of war, since it offers a rather detailed view of how to conduct a campaign and how to identify the Force Multipliers.

It should also be noted that anyone who plays a game often enough gains an intuitive understanding of what the force multipliers for that game are, but it takes more than an intuitive understanding to successfully implement them. Xerxes used the simplest and the least effective Force Multiplier, namely numbers, and almost lost the battle. The Greeks used a rather more interesting Force Multiplier, and gained an insurmountable advantage for a time. When making business decisions, it should always be kept in mind that the big can always be toppled by the small if they use the proper force multipliers. IBM was brought low by Microsoft, and the U.S car makers lost to the Japanese.

I should also point that even though I have re applied the 3M model to an actual battle, the 3M model should not be taken as the definitive set of Force Multipliers. That is not to say that there will not be a definitive set of Force Multipliers. It is my belief that that set of Force Multipliers exists, and they would be abstract enough in their meanings to be tailored to fit any situation, yet not as abstract to lose any sense of context within a real world problem.

Also, I thought it would be interesting to see some discussion on a specific problem, so I would like to see your opinions in what constitutes a good use of a Force Multiplier in an activity as ordinary as forming a team to do an assignment, to something as complex as the current Afghan war. I would also appreciate it if you guys could bring up your own examples to discuss this concept.

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Entertainment, Strategy

Game and Metagame: Part 2… Grinding, The Indian Education System, Quake III and World of Warcraft

(Note: This is the second post in my series on the Metagame. The first post can be found here, and is recommended reading in order to understand some of the terms etc that I will use. It is intended to be light in nature, but prove an interesting point)

I read an article a while back on computer games, specifically RPGs (role playing games), and one of the terms caught my eyes: ricing. Ricing has often been described as a necessary evil by the game developers. However, what caught my fancy was the thought that this could exist outside computer games, and in real world games, like the education system.  Now, I didn’t have a lot of respect for the education system, to me, it was all very boring. However, after I read that article, I came to realize how efficient the education system is at doing what it is supposed to do. This article is takes a look at ricing in real world games, especially the education system.

Ricing/Grinding is an integral part of most computer games. It involves doing smaller, boring tasks again and again, so that you slowly gain experience. It is also one of the most hated parts of the entire gaming experience (an average ricing task in World of Warcraft would include something like: kill ten rats and skin them). However, it serves a very important function, it levels the playing field. In order to demonstrate how it works I will talk about two computer games for a little while, World of Warcraft and Quake III

Endgame Content refers to the actual desirable challenge that the player plays for. In computer games, it translates into a fight with the level boss. In real life, it might include exams and performance reviews.

World of Wacraft

World of Warcraft - Orc Crest

World of Warcraft - Orc Crest

World of Warcraft is the most popular computer game in the world today (11 million subscribers and counting). It is an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role playing game) by critically acclaimed game developers Blizzard, and is part of their Warcraft franchise. Those of you who play computer games would be well aware of what the game is about, so you can skip the next paragraph. For the rest, I’d advise you to read on.

Warcraft takes place on the fictional world of Azeroth (as well as a few other locations). It is primarily a fantasy based game, with elements of steampunk thrown in. The player controls a character from one of the ten races that are divided into two factions (Alliance: Humans, Dwarves, Gnomes, Nigt Elves, Dranei; The Horde: Orcs, Trolls, Tauren, Forsaken, Blood elves). A character is also given a class (warrior, priest, rogue etc), and not all races have access to all classes. Based on the race and class, a character will have a set of unique abilities and advantages. There is also a system of having a profession that will help you with your game (leatherworking, fishing etc). Player characters gain experience and gold by completing tasks. Gaining a certain amount of experience will help them learn stronger abilities, while gold helps with better equipment etc. For more in depth information, look up www.wowwiki.com

I joined up to be a warrior. No body mentioned this!

I joined up to be a warrior. No body mentioned this!

The most common way to make your character stronger is by doing mundane tasks. This includes hunting rats, fishing, being a courier etc. Even at higher levels, the common tasks are merely variations of these boring tasks (killing a certain number of enemies, delivering a set of instructions). The game difficulty scaling isn’t that steep, an easy task for level 1 will be just as easy for a level 1 player, as an easy task for level 50 is for a level 50 player. However, the players tend to spend the majority of their times doing these mundane tasks (ricing), and then a small percentage of their time doing what they would much rather be doing, ie tackling bosses and endgame content. This can best be explained by the Pareto Principle.

For the purpose of this article, I have taken the Pareto Principle to mean that (broadly) in any group, 80% of the population is responsible for 20% of the desirable attribute, while 20% of the population has 80% of the desirable attribute. Eg: 80% of the wealth (desirable attribute) is with 20% of the population. (Remember the definition, we’ll be using it again and again)

The Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle is seen in almost every, if not all, spheres of life. In the case of World of Warcraft, the principle goes like this:

80% time spent using “useless” tasks (ricing)
20% time spent using “interesting” tasks (endgame)

Now, the question that comes up is this: why do programmers and developers put in the grinding/ricing tasks if the players hate it so much? Are they egomaniacle self-obsessed scumbags who don’t care what the user thinks? Probably true, most of the times, but in this case, there is a certain beautiful logic to this. There is a very awesome presentation on the internet by Raph Koster that I would recommend all of you who are interested in games and game theory to check out here. Simply put, adding boring, repetitive tasks ensures that the game remains a level playing field. How does that even make sense, you might ask? Well, here is how:

The pareto principle states that for any game, 20% of the players will have 80% of the skill level and ability. That means the hand-eye coordination and tactical thinking of 20% of the individuals will be far greater than that of the remaining players. This loads the game heavily in the favour of these 20% players. This means that in an open competition, the 20% of the players will be far better than the 80%, and hence will have access to better gear and rewards, making them inherently stronger than the rest. This decreases the incentive for the 80% to play the game, as they know that they will be beaten because they have inferior skills. This is where ricing/grinding comes in. This ensures that there is a level playing field for the majority of the game, and that the rewards that the players get is a function of their time spent on the game, and not because of the inherent skill. Simply put, an average player now has a chance to have the same gear and experience as a pro by simply spending more time at the game, and can go into the endgame content knowing that he has the same quality of gear and experience as the pro players. This helps retain players by providing a level playing field, and ensures that developers can spend the majority of their time making the endgame skill based and the grinding stage non-skill based (at least in theory).

In essence: ricing/grinding helps remove any inequality based on skill for the majority of the game, thus giving less skilled players an equal opportunity at reaching endgame content as the pro players.


Quake III (Randomness and Ricing)

Quake III - Arena

Quake III - Arena

To say that Quake III is an awesome game would be an understatement. It is still wildly popular amongst gamers even though it was released a decade ago. One of the biggest reasons for its popularity is that its learning curve is simplicity itself. Simply put, you shoot everything that moves. It is quite difficult to be a pro Quake III player, but it is very easy to be a decent player. In Quake, there is no leveling and experience system, and the game revolves around the skill of the players. This might mean that higher skilled players will easily beat down the lower skilled players, and therefore, reduce their incentive to play. However, Quake, and all the other games like it, have a very interesting approach to grinding: adding randomness.

In Quake III, you have no control over where you spawn. You might spawn near a rocket launcher, and then take the battle to the enemy who is more skilled but only has a shotgun. Your enemy might spawn near a rail-gun, but his aiming isn’t that great, so you can take him out with a plasma rifle. The grinding stage of Quake is basically your character getting guns and items, and the fact that items are easily available and the skill requirement for getting an item is low (usually, only some basic jumping skills are required), that anyone can get a high class item by luck. Now, this does not necessarily negate skill. My strafing and backpedaling are horrible, and therefore I’m usually a favoured target in open rail gun centric arenas. However, I can use rockets pretty well, and that makes me dangerous in closed arenas.

Real men use rockets

REAL MEN USE ROCKETS

However, even while facing an experienced rail user in an open arena, I have managed to get a few wins simply by being in the right place at the right time. There is so much randomness in games like Quake III, that they can afford to compress the ricing stage into just getting a powerful gun, and hence, have effectively increased the amount of time spent in the endgame content (killing other players). Heck, one of the most powerful force multipliers for Quake III is the equipment you use, and anyone who has a 7 button mouse that allows you to select any gun at any time will have an advantage over a player that uses the mouse wheel to cycle through the available guns. It also means that winning is a combination of both luck and skill, such that it is possible for a lesser skilled player to kill a higher skilled player simply by being lucky. This makes it a more interesting and open-ended game, where a higher skilled player can not take anything for granted.


The Education System

Just another brick in the wall

Just another brick in the wall

This brings us to an observation that I had about the education system. Its simply a huge ricing stage. All of us are made to go through tasks that seem boring and repetitive (study, write exam, pass, forget), and it usually has no bearing at all on the endgame content.

There are people who are inherently good at getting decent grades, while the rest might have to slog at it. Unlike ricing in computer games, however, here, you don’t have the luxury of unlimited time, and the tasks must be completed in a stipulated time. Other than that, it fits the model of ricing pretty well. The advantage that the students have is that there is a wide spectrum of subjects, and you can have good grades even if you manage to do above average in all, and that if you have a weakness in one subject, you usually have a strength in another subject that you can use to counter-balance your grades. Like World of Warcraft, the rewards are usually proportional to time spent, and a minimum investment of time and effort is required on the part of the students. Also, unlike Quake III, the randomness is only limited to the exams, and even then, it doesn’t have that much of an impact on the outcome. the system seeks to reward students who are at least average in all disciplines, and above average in some, and going by that, does a good job of it. The system is apathetic to those who are above average in one discipline and below average in others, as well as those who are below average in all disciplines that are featured, but are above average in some subjects that are not featured (eg: a student being bad at maths, english and science could be an awesome painter or dancer). This can help explain why being mediocre across the board might not be such a bad thing for a student whose goal is to just “get along”, and why some brilliant people have had issues with the education system (most notably Einstein), and why that can’t be used as an excuse by the rest of us.

If you understand the concept of ricing/grinding, you can see that it can be applied to a lot of other real world games as well, especially in conjunction with the Pareto Principle. For example, it is possible for senior leaders in political parties to gain an advantage simply by having spent a lot of time ricing (doing organizational work etc), without having any sort of political acumen or skill. It also can be used to explain why at the starting positions in an organization, people are usually given menial tasks that might have no bearing on the endgame (I know a lot of my friends with I-bank summers will agree with this). The trick to succeed with this is to try and understand the system, figure out what part of it is ricing and what part is the endgame content, and how you can make that work for you.

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IIM, Marketing, Strategy

How MBAs killed Superman (and fundaes behind Modern Retail)

Supes bites the dust

Supes bites the dust

(Note: Like Alan Moore, I am a huge fan of comic books, but I hate the industry. The reason? The comic book industry is one of the few industries that treats its loyal consumers with utter disdain. In this article, I will justify that statement, and also, try to explain why it is so, and why they have been getting away with it for so long. Much of my rant has been covered in my previous article here, but I would still urge you to take a look at it, just to refresh your memory, it will come in useful later in the article. This article will also cover basic distribution concepts, Modern Retail concepts and various other topics of no small interest)

Usually, one of the first things that someone says to me when I tell them that I am a fan of comic books is “Really? when will you grow up? Its all kid’s stuff!” At this point, I control my homicidal urges by imagining the said person being lowered into a vat full of boiling oil by Spider Jerusalem and Tetsuo, with John Constantine throwing trade paperbacks of “Deadly Habits” at him/her (and if any of these names don’t make any sense, google them, you’ll thank me later).

Spider Jerusalem

Spider Jerusalem

However, in all honesty, I don’t blame them for thinking the way they do. Comic books do tend to be inane and childish at times, and unfortunately, its got less to do with the medium and the creativity of the people involved, and more to do with market forces.

Here is something that I’d like you to do. Close your eyes, free your mind, and think comic books. Chances are, the first thing that came to your mind was a super-hero. There is a reason for that. That reason is called “a monopoly”. But how can the US comic book industry be a monopoly, you might ask, aren’t there two major comic book firms, DC and Marvel, and aren’t they bitter rivals locked in a bloody spiral of eternal conflict and editorial sarcasm? Yes little one, that is indeed the case, however, things aren’t as simple as that. In my previous article, I described how the comic book industry went through a recession in the 1990s, and how that resulted in nine out of ten comic book distributors going out of business. Well, if you didn’t take the trouble of reading the last article, let me highlight the key points here:-

1) Publisher sells to distributor, distributor to retailer, retailer to consumer (your standard distribution chain)

2) Retailer is usually short of cash, and therefore, can only buy limited copies, and therefore, has to make a choice based on a catalogue sent by the distributor and pre-order next month’s comics based on this month’s demand.

3) Speculators buy multiple copies of some comics which promises Earth-Shattering Change, forcing the retailer to pre-order more copies of that particular comics for next month, meaning he has lesser amount of money to spend on the rest of the catalogue, meaning his inventory loses diversity,and becomes more risk-prone.

4) The Earth-Shattering Change falls flat on its face (see previous article for examples). The comic books that the speculators bet upon falls flat. It is worthless in the long run, and has cost the speculator the better part of his yearly wage. However, things are even worse for the retailer, who now has an inventory consisting of multiple issues of the comics that the speculators bet upon (which no one wants now), and more importantly, doesn’t have some titles that people DID want, and is basically screwed.

5) The pain and anguish pass up the distribution chain, till it reaches the publisher, who may be forced to declare bankruptcy (as Marvel did)

The best(?) part is that you can substitute certain key-words, and get a recession in the industry of your choice.

Right, so its the fag end of 1990s, the industry is in a downward spiral, and Marvel is on the verge of bankruptcy. Two interesting incidents happen which we shall take one by one.


The Distribution Mess (and the dangers of modern retail):

During the recession, there were ten major comic book distributors in the US. For some reason, Marvel listened to a random consultant they had hired, and happily announced that from now on, all Marvel books will be available only through one distributor (Heroes World) and retailer chain. What this meant was that if you wanted to sell Marvel Comics, you could only go to the designated distributor. This gave Marvel and Heroes World unprecedented power over the consumers and the industry.

At least it should have, in theory.

DC responded by entering into talks with the other major comic publishers, Image and Dark Horse, and announced Diamond Distributors as their sole distributor. This combine represented nearly two thirds of the comic books sold via this distribution chain. Soon, nine out of the major ten distributors went out of business (including Heroes World), and Marvel was forced to do business with Diamond. What this essentially meant was that Diamond distributions suddenly found themselves sitting on a gold mine as the sole distributor of comic books in the US. What this also meant was that suddenly, Diamond could treat publishers whichever way it liked, which it then proceeded to do.

(And herein lies the danger inherent in Modern Retail. To draw an analogy, in Australia, there are only two players in modern retail, Woolworths and Coles. I don’t mean that these are the major players, these are the ONLY players. All the firms that wish to sell their products are at the mercy of Woolworths and Coles. A firm cannot afford to make a deal with only one of them, it HAS to make a deal with both of them, otherwise its reach is cut down into half. Both the players know this, and hence, can make the demands that they like. Distributors in unorganized sectors usually go for margins of 30-40%, and rarely, more than 50%. The modern retail players, however, can demand margins of upto 60%. They can also set up arbitrary rules and regulations, that can force bit players to bow out.)

Diamond has been increasingly making life miserable for the smaller publishers, by refusing to carry titles that it deems “unprofitable”. It seems like good business sense, right? I mean, why would you want to stock something that doesn’t perform as well as other alternatives? Well, here is the flip side. Diamond has a cozy deal with the Big Four (DC, Marvel, Image, dark Horse), wherby, Diamond basically agrees to blatantly promote any book that they publish, quality and popularity be dammed, and in return, Diamond gets nicer cuts from the books that do make money. So, essentially, independent publishers have an arbitrary constraint placed on them, while no such constraint is placed on the Big Four. This essentially means that all independent publishers are at the mercy of Diamond, and have to suffer their books being pushed out by the piles of unreadable mess that the Big Four churn out. In essence, Diamond is a monopoly, except that legally, it is not, due to some technicality that no one even remembers anymore. Diamond can do whatever it pleases, and the small publishers have no legal recourse.

Warlord of IO, a humourous indie book cancelled by Diamond

Warlord of IO, a humorous indie book cancelled by Diamond

The sad part is that these smaller publishers generally focus on a wider range of genres, such as comedy, sci-fi, horror, chick-lit etc. and the potential for all these genres in comic books is being stifled because of the unethical business practices being used by the major powers. The only other way for small publishers to sell their stuff is either through the internet, or through comic book conventions (comic-cons). However, Diamond has expressed their displeasure over this small mercy as well, and in a recent press release, described the selling of books by smaller publishers at conventions as “detrimental to the industry and the spirit of ethical business”. The unfortunate part is that Diamond and the Big Four exercise a lot of influence at conventions as well, and might actually bring in regulations that stop people from buying or selling books at conventions.

Hi, Im the PR manager from Diamond, Ill take your questions now

Hi, I'm the PR manager from Diamond, I'll take your questions now

Thankfully, the last recourse for the small publishers is free of hurdles, and just might prove to be the turning point for the underdogs. The net is vast and infinite.

MBAs, Focus Groups and Marvel Comics:

In the late 1990s, Marvel comics was forced to file for bankruptcy. The new board, most of them Wall St Execs, sat down and decided that massive change was needed in the way Marvel did business. The board was true to its words, and Massive Change was effected. However, this massive change was not directed at editorial policies and creative content. This massive change was not directed towards better relations with fans and allowing greater freedom and credit to the creative brains. The massive changes were directed at Marvel’s revenue streams. Since the late 1990s, Marvel stopped being a comic book publishing house, and became a licensing firm. Marvel’s policy changed from promoting ground breaking characters and story lines to promoting merchandise and adaptations of their characters in other media, such as movies.

Why movies and merchandising? Well, the Lion King had been a huge success for Disney, and everyone wanted to copy that success. Unfortunately, this meant that decision makers threw art and creativity out of the window, and relied on the tried and tested “focus group” methods and their general superiority in terms of business acumen (I’m an MBA for chrissake! I can run this company better than some writer and editor with twenty years of experience in the industry, but thats another story altogether). Suffice to say that studio bosses decided to follow the first cash stream they saw.

This makes me better than you

This makes me better than you

Now, movies based on comic books generally tend to suck. This is because most movie houses feel that comic book writers are talentless hacks, and any half paid script-monkey can do a better job, with some direction provided with a focus group or two. So, they put together a focus-group or two, and feed the results to half paid script-monkeys, who “improve” the script keeping in mind the requirements of the movie bosses. This usually results in a mess like Batman and Robin, Daredevil, that Catwoman movie, or League of Extra-ordinary Gentlemen. Sometimes they get it right, for example, with Road to Perdition. However, these are just flashes in the pan. I’ll do an entire post on this phenomena later. Suffice to say for now that movies based on comic books generally suck, and hits are exceptions, rather than the rule.

Who the hell thought that this could work?

Who the hell thought that this could work?

In light of this, Marvel’s new strategy had mixed results. Spider-Man 1&2 did well, while 3 was merely profitable. All three X-Men installments did well (not counting Wolverine), while the original Hulk, Electra and Daredevil bombed miserable, and Spawn and Punisher are hardly mentioned. In fact, salvation for Marvel came in the form of an alcoholic technocrat, Iron Man. Till date, Marvel has had a track record of about 50:50 with their movie attempts, which is way ahead of what DC could manage. (more on that in another post)

Getting back to the matter at hand, Marvel decided that the path to profit lay not through quality stories, but through gimmicks and licensing. It initially worked, giving DC the incentive to follow suit. However, because of this, storylines and sales figures suffered. Marvel, especially, saw a slide in the quality of its stories, but that didn’t matter. Sales figures were going south, but that didn’t matter, because the money was in the merchandising. Now, repeat the same story with DC, whose only saving grace has been Geoff Johns and the team that he works with.

Akira - One of the best Mangas ever

Akira - One of the best Mangas ever

This also left the comic book industry vulnerable to the invasion of Manga, and just like their counterparts in the auto industry, the Yankees are feeling the heat of the super-efficient businessmen from the Land of the Rising Sun. Manga does not rely on traditional comic book distribution chain since it is published in the form of magazines, and therefore, may be sold in common book-shops, grocery stores and petrol pumps. This gave Manga an advantage in terms of reach, as well as a greater audience. More women read manga than traditional American comic books in the US, simply because Manga offers more genres, rather than just super heroes (pretty similar to the situation in India, despite Raj comics trying every trick in the book, Amar Chitra Katha still retains the number one comic book brand in India). Essentially, this closed business policy left the entire industry open to an outflanking movement by a competitor, and Manga has delivered that blow. Not allowing enough diversity within their own industry has meant that there were lots of unsatisfied consumer segments that switched to the better alternative as soon as it presented itself. The excessive focus on superheroes by the Big Four made them susceptible to attack. Within the next few years, the situation for the US firms will become critical, and they might have to have a rethink on their policies.

In essence, the major comic book firms (guided by businessmen who had no understanding of the complexities of the industry) found alternate revenue streams, which meant that they no longer had to give a damm about the quality of their core offerings. In an ideal market condition, everything would have sorted itself out, as the low-quality behemoth would have been replaced by a high-quality new comer.

Right?

Remember that entire deal with Diamond distributions? It has come to pass that Marvel and DC can publish any trash they feel like, and they still don’t have to feel the heat from the other publishers. Just because Batman and Wolverine make money, Diamond along with DC and Marvel can afford to force down a Final Crisis: Aftermath, or Ultimate Avengers down the throat of the consumers, simply because there is no other choice available. This is the perfect example of a free market monopoly, where the entry barriers are so high that inefficient firms can still retain their leads.

This also stifles the market, since it ensures that only one kind of product is on offer. Remember that Coles and Woolworth’s example? Now suppose Colgate-Palmolive makes a deal with both, whereby they will stock the Colgate-Palmolive shaving creams (which don’t sell that much) in high quantities, so that they get to stock higher quantities of Colgate-Palmolive toothpastes (that sell rather well) at better cuts. This ensures that the competition for the shaving creams is pushed off the shelf and the distributors make better money out of the better selling product. Now, this sort of setup is usually possible only in either a monopoly or a duopoly, but when it comes into play, it translates into consumers getting inferior products, smaller firms with better products losing money, and an overall loss of value for the industry, but is completely legitimate because of the market dynamics, and the people who suffer can’t do anything about it.

This was just one single example of the perils associated with Modern Retail. There are many more. That, in a nutshell, is why mediocre super-hero comics flood the shelves while independent publishers with better comics and stories go out of business. That is why comic books are still seen as kids stuff. That is why there aren’t more comics like From Hell or History of Violence, and that is why I hate the comic book industry.

(PS: Through this article, I hope you guys got a broader understanding of the market forces at play in the US comic book industry, and more importantly, how Modern Retail functions, and can lead to monopolies and unethical business practices.)

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Strategy

Game and Metagame: Part 1… A game of Chess

(Note: This is first in a series of posts, in which I shall examine the concepts of Games, the Metagame, Game Theory without resorting to complex equations, various facets of economics, Social Interaction Games, and most importantly, why its useless to fill your head with all this nonsense)

Heath Ledger’s Joker isn’t my favourite version of the character. Its got a lot to do with how they took Joker and dumbed him down to a badass psychopath who was adept at mind-games (another example of how movies more often than not don’t capture the nuances of the comics, and I might do a post on that later), but one of the things I disliked the most was how The Joker, after claiming to be a creature of Chaos and Anarchy, let the control of the game pass from his hands to that of the Batman after being captured in the building.

My views might not make sense right now, considering the context of the article. However, through this series, you might come to understand my views on the dis-connect between The Joker’s claims and his actions at the end of the movie. You may or may not agree with my views, but you will understand why I said what I said.

Before going down to the brass tacks, I’d like to clarify certain terms related to Games and Game Theory. My take on these terms might not correspond exactly with what you might find on Google, but for our intents and purposes, the meanings serve the purpose. Don’t worry, the meanings of these terms will be illustrated with a set of examples.

Game: An collection of a set of values and attributes that form the basis for an interaction between a set of players between themselves and/or the game environment.

These values and attributes may take any form and differ from game to game. For the time being, lets just say that the most important types of these are Rules, the Characters and The Game Environment.

While the rules and the game environment are easier to understand, Characters are a bit complicated. They are part of the game environment, but can be manipulated externally (by Players or external conditions), albeit only in scripted ways (exceptions may exist). The Characters cannot have an impact on the Game.

Players: Those who interact with the game environment and/or with each other in non-scripted ways. Players usually play the game until some pre-defined goal is met. Players may also have the ability to impact the game itself (lots of examples from the great game called Real Life)

Metagame: Wikipedia defines it as “using out of game information to affect the outcome”, which in my opinion is too simplistic and does not convey the full meaning. For the purpose of this series, let us define the metagame as “The way the game is actually played, keeping in mind the rules and regulations and the game environment”. A sound knowledge of the Metagame is usually necessary to be good at any game. Metagames also consist of Force Multipliers, which are attributes of the player/character/game environment that present an advantage. A detailed description will follow in the example.

Also, a metagame is totally dependent on the game. It is possible to change the game without changing the metagame, but it is impossible to affect changes in the metagame without having changes in the game. Later articles in this series will deal with real life games and how to analyze their metagame, so that you can stay one step ahead.

Goal/End-state: A state in the game that players strive for. A game may have several end-states, or none. Even in the cases where you have end-states, reaching an end-state is not always guaranteed, and is not always a sign of victory.

In simpler terms, Players employ their knowledge of the Metagame, use the resources and rules and characters and the game environment of the Game to achieve a desirable End State.

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

However, since most of you have had their faculties for accepting new, groundbreaking thought atrophied by the rigours of an outmoded education system (which is also a surprisingly efficient game, just not a very enjoyable one), I shall illustrate all the rubbish that I just spouted with the help of diagrams and examples.

Over the course of this series, we shall be visiting many examples of simple and complex games, including (but not limited to) ancient Japanese courtship rituals, politics and law making, battles, and playing music in a band. However, by way of an introduction, we shall start with a game that is a timeless classic, chess.

A Game of Chess

A Chessboard

A Chessboard


1) The Game

Game Environment: An 8×8 checkerboard, with alternating black and white squares.

Game Rules:
1) A two player (white and black) turn based game, with white moving first according to convention.
2) The rows and columns are referred to by numbers (1-8) and letters (a-h), and so, individual squares can be uniquely identified.
3) The square a8 (lowest right) is always white

(and so on and so forth… I am not going into all the chess rules, you know most of them as it is, and besides, this is just an example)

Characters:

Pawns: Each side has 8 pawns, and they fill the 2nd row (white), and 7th row (black), can move only in single steps (except on their first step), and can capture a unit only if it is on a forward diagonal square (with the exception being en passent)
etc


2) The End-States:

Victory through Checkmate (includes smothered mates and resignations)
Stalemate
Draw by mutual consent
Draw due to external factors (eg: a meteor strike)

All these are pretty much self obvious. Now, we come to the fun part:


3) The Metagame:

What can be the metagame of Chess? The objective is to capture the opponents king, (or to prevent the capture of your own, as the case may be). We have a set of cannon-fodder (Pawns), which are used for the initial build up, a line of protection, cheap support, and more powerful units in the end game.
We then have the minor pieces, the light artillery (Bishops) and cavalry (Knights). Used mainly for feints and incursions in the early-mid game, mainly against pawns and other minor pieces. Can also be used to support major pieces in late game, as well as a more aggressive role in the mid-late game.
Finally, we move to the major pieces, the long range shock troops (Rooks), and the elite guard (Queen). These pieces are used to beat down the resistance in the mid-end game, and provide long range support and cover.

Of course, the beauty of chess is such that each of these pieces can very easily fit into the role of another, and its not surprising to have games where the Queens and Rooks come out to play in the early mid-game itself, or where the Knights and Bishops deliver the killing blow. It may even happen that a single lowly pawn can affect the outcome of a game.

We now have a set of possible roles for the Characters in the game. Since the rules and the game environment cannot be affected, the only interaction the players can have is through the pieces. Its easy to see that the Metagame for chess would revolve around getting to a position of advantage where your units can do maximum possible damage, while protecting your own king. A player’s position may be termed “strong” or “weak”, depending on the position of the pieces on the board. However, actually translating that position into a desirable end-state is a matter of skill.

For the purpose of the metagame, the player’s position may be viewed through the following prism (which, as far as I know, is my own creation)

The 3M prism

The 3M prism

The three facets of this prism are the force multipliers Mobility, Mass and Momentum. Each of them is represents a unique facet of the metagame, and is defined by the current board position, as well as the game history.

Mobility: It is defined as the capacity of your pieces to move freely into desirable positions.
Mass: It is defined as the weight of your pieces. Having a set of stronger pieces is more desirable than having a set of weaker pieces.
Momentum: It is a rather tricky concept. For the moment, treat this as defining which player has the initiative at the moment and is driving the game.

Broadly speaking, in the metagame of chess, you have an advantageous position if your pieces are free to move as they wish, are stronger than your opponent’s pieces, and you are on the attack. While it is advisable to have all three force multipliers, sometimes two are enough. It is also possible that a player may have an unsurmountable advantage through a single force multiplier, the best example of which is the following classic smothered mate:


Smothered Mate

Smothered Mate


As you can see, Black has the stronger pieces (in the actual game, Black had a queen as well), but a single White knight was able to defeat the king on an empty board, where Black had two very big advantages according to the metagame, better pieces (queen, rook and pawns against knight and pawns), and better mobility. Of course, analysis of the game will show that White had superior momentum in the preceding moves, and sacrificed his own queen (and his mass), in order to force a mate by sheer momentum (Black could not respond with a counter-attack, and could only react to what White was doing).

Of course, the personalities of the players and their state of mind also plays an important role in determining the outcome of a game along with these three force multipliers. Chess is a very difficult game to win, but an easy game to lose. Sometimes, games can be won by simply breaking the opponent’s confidence (a favourite tactic of mine involved rapid exchanges of minor pieces, which left the opponent completely unsettled). This becomes very important when you play with the same set of people regularly, or are a part of a competitive chess scene, where you can follow your would be opponent’s progress. Hence, while this psychological warfare is an external factor, it is an integral part of the chess metagame.

In essence, the metagame in chess revolves around gaining positional and psychological advantage through the three force multipliers: Mobility, Mass and Momentum. The utility of these force multipliers varies according to the position of the board and the players involved. For instance, usually, mobility and mass are preferred in the early game, and momentum and mass in the end game, but it is also common to sacrifice mass for momentum in the early game. Also, a player can change his gameplay across different games, favouring momentum over mass in one game (Queen’s Gambit), and mass and psychological advantage over momentum in the next (Anderssen’s opening). The beautiful thing about chess is that there is no “perfect” metagame. The rules and characters are elegant and open-ended enough to allow many different combinations, with the only limiting factor being the game environment. There is a rock-paper-scissor dynamic that exists in all chess strategies, which means that every single advantage based on the metagame has a counter (the interesting is that not all games are this well balanced). A dragon attack will have its yugoslav defence, Bishops can be boxed in easily by pawns, while Knights can make life hell for Queens and Rooks. There is no inherent advantage in choosing white over black, for momentum in the early game is in a state of flux and can easily pass between the players before settling down. A skilled player can easily achieve a position of advantage (where he has the three positional force multipliers working for him) over a non-skilled player. The rules and characters of the game do not give any inherent advantage to a player, and so, the positional force multipliers are worthless without the most important force multiplier: skill.


This is exactly why Chess is a beautiful, robust game, where skill plays the most important role in determining the outcome of the game. I chose the example of chess because it occupies one end of the spectrum as far as games are concerned. It is based on an ideal set of rules in an unchanging game environment, and uses skill as the deciding factor. The metagame revolves around being more skilled than the opposing player and achieving positional advantage, which is a very idealistic situation. However, in the next few posts, we shall be looking at games where the metagame revolves around a lot more than the skill of the players.

However, all of this would drastically change if the rules of the games were changed in certain ways. For instance, if we changed the rules so that a coin toss determined which player got what colour, and allowed the White king to move two squares in any direction as well as like a knight, or allowed the Black queen to move only three squares but gave the rooks the ability to move one square diagonal, the metagame would change from one that is based on skill to one that is based a lot on the luck of the draw. Aggressive players would prefer White over Black, and would be cramped by the limitations on the Black queen. Again, if we allowed the Black pawns to capture pieces directly in front as well, defensive players would start preferring Black over White.

This post was just an illustration of the phenomena of Metagames. There are many games (including situations in real life) that give unique advantages and disadvantages to the players, and I will be covering some of the more interesting ones in later posts, including games with evolving metagames and actual battles.

(Disclaimer: Most of the theories and definitions used in the post are a product of my bored, anarchist mind. Therefore, don’t use them as set-in-stone-divine-wisdom. If you so choose to use them as set-in-stone-divine-wisdom, then credit me as the creator, and send a huge cash donation to me :) )

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Business, Marketing, Strategy

Why Archie won’t marry Veronica (and how that is bad for the industry)

(Note: I wrote this article because I am a huge fan of comic books and I feel that they get a very raw deal when compared to other visual art forms and literature genres. I feel that comic books represent a different kind of medium whose growth has been stunted because of monopolies and unethical corporate practices. This article is not just a look at whether Archie will marry Veronica or not, but also a look at how the comic book industry in America functions, push and pull dynamics, speculation driven busts and booms and how they can affect an entire distribution system, marketing and line extensions, and very obliquely, what makes a recession. I know that its a long article, but bear with me)

For the past few weeks, most Indian newspapers have been covering the fall of Riverdale’s most eligible(?) bachelor, Archie Andrews. Yessir, just a few issues ago, Archie went down on a knee and asked Veronica Lodge to marry him, leading to heartbreak for one of the most desirable blondes in literature, Betty Cooper. Feminists all over the world seethed in anger, (which is kinda funny, considering Veronica is closer to the new age women than Betty), men all over the world nodded in agreement (as soon as their girlfriends were out of sight), and Archie Comics Publications is looking to milk the gullible masses for all they are worth. Archie and Veronica are set to tie the knot in a few months, and we are all invited (provided we buy the comic books).

Another one bites the dust

Another one bites the dust

Its heartbreaking, its romantic, its the story of coming of age and understanding responsibilities, its a story of true love and choices. Also, if the voices in my gut are correct

(yes, I have voices in my gut, even though I have no idea where gut is), this is all a load of c***, and unfortunately, its also bad for the industry.


I will attempt to answer both the topics I have raised: 1) Why Archie won’t marry Veronica, and 2) why it is bad for the industry.


Why Archie won’t marry Veronica:

Three is company

Three is company

If comic book history is anything to go by, Archie won’t marry Veronica. Why? Well, its a HUGE change, and in comic books, nothing ever changes. Thats right, people die and then come back to life. Comic book bosses and editors are yellow bellied namby pambies (got that one off Wodehouse), who are afraid of even the slightest change in the Status Quo. There have been innumerable changes that have been retconned (see below), and most of these decisions have been based on myopic editorial policies.

Archie marrying Veronica is a big thing. People have already voiced their concerns about Archie and the gang growing up, but the interesting thing is, it might actually be better for the comic in the long run. Currently, Archie and his friends cater to the following markets:

1) Young Adult/Teenage Girls (The regular Archie universe)
2) Pre-Teens (Little Archie’s old issues)
3) Boys of ages 10-13 (TMNT etc)

Of these, the majority of their readers lie in the first segment, and because Archie Comics is run by the same kind of people who run all other entertainment industries, it is my opinion that this story arc is nothing but a publicity gimmick to boost sales (for some examples, see The Death of Superman below). This story arc has generated a lot of publicity already, and battle lines are drawn over whether Archie made the right choice or not. IMO, Archie is making the right choice, and marrying Veronica is a groundbreaking step that will make the series more relevant and interesting. However, that Archie won’t marry Veronica is almost certain, for the following reasons:

1) It will push the comics away from what the biggest consumer segment (Young Adult/Teenage Girls)
2) It would spoil the love triangle that was the hall-mark of Archie comics
3) It would be a good thing for Archie comics in particular and comic books in general, and therefore, the Powers That Be will not even consider it.

These are legitimate concerns, but all of them have simple solutions (except for number 3, which is because of Murphy’s Law). People have correctly predicted that a married Archie might put off a lot of current readers, but what they are missing is that a married Archie can appeal to a different audience, an older, matured audience. Mangas sold in the USA and other parts of the world already have dedicated titles for girls and young women, focusing on content not very different from your standard Archie comics. They are a target segment that Archie comics is not even considering at the moment (and I bet a Betty comics that focuses on Betty dealing with this would be a huge success in that target segment, if handled well). Also, a married Archie need not necessarily translate into loss of numbers from the Young Adult/Teenage Girls target segment, since you can have a separate product line that focuses on content more suited for that audience. (Both Marvel and DC have such a policy in place, in fact, if memory serves right, there are currently two different versions of Wolverine and Teen Titans). Of course, we run into problem number 3, which unfortunately has no possible solution.

This is why I feel that Archie won’t marry. He should, but he won’t.
(And in case he does, let us pretend this article never happened)

Why is it bad for the industry:

In order to better understand this article, please bear with me for a little while as I explain how the system works. It’ll be useful to both comic fans and non-comic fans, since it explains market dynamics and various strategies at work, and how Wall St Executive types can ruin industries. (particularly relevant in these times of recession)

The publisher sells to the distributor, who then sells to the retailer, who then sells to the consumer. However, the dynamic that usually exists is a pull strategy, (ie retailers place orders based on the mood of the public). This takes place along the entire distribution chain. However, sometimes, under satanic influences, the publishers decide that it would be awesome if they could put out a book that would capture the imagination of the masses and chronicle events of such magnitude that they literally shake the space time continuum, and in an unrelated development, bring in lots of moolah. The publishers give pointed glances and drop subtle hints to the editors. The editors cough in a meaningful way towards the writers, and like Clockwork Oranges (check up the origin of the term, its rather interesting), churn out a story encompassing all the details mentioned above. The publishers then put out huge ads and use the entire marketing muscle at their disposal. They literally force this “Epic World Shattering Story” down the gullet of the fans in a classic push strategy, and then wait for the money train to pull in.

But how does this ruin the economy? Well, that’s where the speculators come in. The speculators buy multiple issues of major comic books and sell them years later for high prices. What’s that? I can hear you at the back. Oh, so comics are niche, are they? Nobody reads comic books, how much can a comic book sell for? Well, the comic book industry is about 1.3 trillion dollars, globally, and as some collector’s editions have sold for as much as 250,000 dollars. An average collector’s edition can fetch as much as 10,000 dollars in 10-15 years. Considering a comic book costs about 3 dollars, and an entire special/collectible series can be had for as little as 100 dollars, it is a sounder financial investment option than what your average financial institution sells.

However, the risks are high as well, and a wrong decision by a collector can be disastrous. Speculation booms have fuelled recessions in most industries, and the comic book industry is no exception. It went through three major recession in the past three decades, and the last one (addressed later in the article) in the mid nineties, set off a chain of events perpetrated by idiotic executives and board members, that resulted in nine out of ten major distributors going out of business, the number of comic shops going down by two-thirds, and ultimately, Marvel declaring bankruptcy.

And as for those “Earth-Shattering” changes? The following is a list of major earth-shattering changes that were rolled back faster than the speed of light:


1) The Death of Superman:
in 1993, DC killed off Superman in a highly publicized story arc, that was very well

Supes kicks the bucket Supes kicks the bucket

received at first. Fan horror and admiration turned to horror and outrage when they found that it was all a stunt so that DC could sell limited merchandise at high rates, and use the speculator market to their advantage. It worked well for DC, they made a lot of cash, most speculators who had bought hundreds of copies of the special editions and high prices went out of business, (since Supes came back, these special limited editions were now worthless), taking with them lots of book shop retailers, (who were left holding excess stock that no one wanted, since people had used all their money buying the ridiculously overpriced special editions, and hence couldn’t afford other comics, which then turned to pulp in the retailer’s basements), and this in turn drove the distributors in the red. Don’t get me wrong, DC made a lot of money out of this, but they also sent the entire comic book industry into a slump (notice any similarities with the current market fiasco?)


2) The Marriage/unmasking of Spider-Man:
Spider-Man married Mary Jane Watson, his second love, in the 1980s. For the past twenty years, Spider-Man had been a married super-hero who juggled his unusual work-life balance with unusual aplomb. Enter Joe Quesada. The Ed-in-chief of Marvel decided that a married Spider-Man wouldn’t appeal to kids (fun fact, average age of a reader of Spider-Man comics: 15-24), and hence, they should dissolve the marriage, so that Spidey could be single and “fun” again. (Also, they had recently unmasked Spidey in public, resulting in him and his family being on the run from enemies and the media, an awesome premise, but something the Powers That Be had declared to be too revolutionary and something beyond the grasp of the kids who read the comics). But wait, divorce was not an option. Kids are impressionable (particularly when they are in the age group of 15-24), and we don’t want to break a marriage like that, especially when its Spidey, who is such a role model. So they had Spider-Man make a deal with the devil, where he agreed to dissolve his marriage and re-arrange the past so that he and MJ had never married, in order to save Aunt May’s life (who is about 80, and more hated as a character than Jason Todd, who, if you are a fan of Batman, should know that fans actually voted and paid money to have killed off), and to remove the memory of Spidey’s unmasking from the public. In essence, the current editorial policy at Marvel seems to be, a legitimate divorce is not nice, so we prefer making deals with the ultimate evil instead.

So now, Spider-Man is single, 30, and living in his aunt’s basement, rather than married with a beautiful and successful wife and a successful career. Somehow, I fail to see this new avatar as a role-model.

The fans reacted in the only way possible. Sales of Spidey comics have dropped significantly. However, the industry isn’t hurt so bad since the speculators didn’t bite the bait that hard, and anyways, Spidey wasn’t Marvel’s top seller (Wolverine and New Avengers are). While this did not have as serious an impact on the industry, it did send a lot of fans over to DC.

Superman’s marriage is doing rather well, by the way.

3) The Clone Saga: No, not Star-Wars, but Spider-Man once again. It goes like this: Spidey is revealed to be a clone of Ben Reily, a new character. It goes on for some issues, until it is revealed that Spidey was real, and Reily was the clone. It goes on for some issues, until it is revealed that Reily was real, and Spidey was the clone. It goes on for some issues, until it is revealed that some other dude was real, and Reily and Spidey were both clones. It goes on for some issues… you get the drift. The strategy behind this mess was to flood the market with Marvel products and drive the competitors off the shelves (something that Colgate-Palmolive does rather well).

It nearly drove Marvel to bankruptcy.

Of course the speculators got hit bad once again. The story started on a high note, but went so bad that today, the comics aren’t even worth the paper they are printed on. This was felt all along the chain of distribution, from retailers to publishers.

The biggest fault in this matter rests with the higher ups who do not understand comic books and the audience. Keep in mind that these are the same people who were responsible for Disney’s 2-d animation department going bankrupt and shutting shop (might write a separate article on that later).

It took the industry nearly ten years to come out of the recession that began with the Death of Superman and culminated with The Clone Saga. Then, in early 2000s, the industry faced competition from Mangas, and answered not with innovative, creative storylines, but by playing safe (Wall St Execs, I’m looking at you) and publishing the same old boring stories. Now, with Captain America coming back from the dead again in July, and Batman expected to come back from the dead next year, comic book fans are pretty jaded. Sales that began to rise in early-mid 2000s started falling once again. While the Death of Superman sold millions, the recent Batman R.I.P. story arc failed to cross the 200,000 mark consistently. Spidey’s books have reached as low as 30,000 copies a month. Add to that the hype surrounding Archie’s wedding, and the certainty that it will come to naught, the American comic book industry might have dug themselves into a hole that they might not come out of anytime soon. The unfortunate part is that while in the past, the economic conditions were such that the comic book industry could recover, in these times of recession, if another speculator bust occurs, the whole industry could spiral into oblivion.

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Marketing

Viral campaigns, the new “in” thing

When viewers went to the multiplexes to watch “Rab ne Bana di Jodi”, they were greeted by ushers sporting the famed Ghajini hairstyle. King Khan frothed at the mouth and waxed eloquent about this hijacking, but the die was cast, Viral Marketing was here to stay in a big way.

Wikipedia describes Viral Marketing as “marketing techniques that use pre-existing social networks to produce increases in brand awareness or to achieve other marketing objectives (such as product sales) through self-replicating viral processes, analogous to the spread of pathological and computer viruses. It can be word-of-mouth delivered or enhanced by the network effects of the Internet. Viral promotions may take the form of video clips, interactive Flash games, advergames, ebooks, brandable software, images, or even text messages.”

Lets simplify that wall of text with the Ghajini example. The target audience was the movie going public, and what better place to capture them than at the point of sale and consumption itself. Traditional advertising at the movie theater consists of posters and standees. These media, tried and tested though they are, do not spark a conversation. No one, for instance, calls up their friends and says: “I just saw this really awesome poster!”. If, however, half a dozen guys in the cinema hall are sporting the Ghajini hairstyle, you are sure to mention this fact to your friends.

While on the surface, this extra excitement and word of mouth that these viral/guerrilla marketing campaigns generate doesn;t seem like much, after all, when we are bombarded by information 24/7. Indeed, most people who saw the guys in the Ghajini haircuts already knew that Aamir Khan was going to sport that hairstyle in the movie, and therefore, this campaign did not impart any information to the consumer (a cardinal sin!). However, this did send out a signal that the Ghajini experience was going to be truly unique (You should have seen them! I mean, come on man! They had those dudes specially cut their hair for this! Man, thats some awesome thinking!! I am definitely gonna watch that movie!!!)

In this case, the viral marketing campaign helped Ghajini break through the clutter of the other movies. Similar techniques have been used all over the world for different media, such as games, music and comics. Over the course of the next few days, I am going to examine the impact of Viral Marketing in much greater depth, taking examples from pop-culture, and explore how the rise of the web and integration of communication devices might helped Viral Marketing rise above traditional marketing.

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