To Be Continuous: Game Changers and Product Clones

By Kevin Smith   •   February 10, 2021
LaunchDarkly

In episode 59 of "To Be Continuous," Edith and Paul talk about the economy of mobile gaming, corporate monopolies, the importance of monetization, and Pink Floyd.

This episode of To Be Continuous is brought to you by Heavybit. To learn more about Heavybit, visit heavybit.com. While you’re there, check out their library, home to great educational talks from other developer company founders and industry leaders

TRANSCRIPT

Edith: Hey Paul.

Paul: Hello.

Edith: It's been awhile.

Paul: How long has it been since we did a thing? Like an entire pandemic has happened since we did our last episode.

Edith: We released a couple after the pandemic.

Paul: Okay, okay. Did anyone listen to them? Because certainly for the first few months of the pandemic, there was just like all the protests, and the fascisms, and the Covid. Was anyone listening to tech podcasts?

Edith: You're sounding a little Pink Floyd now. You know, hello, is there anybody out there?

Paul: Uh-huh.

Edith: Is there anybody listening? I don't know if Pink Floyd made it over to, uh, where you grew up.

Paul: Yeah, we're not complete savages.

Edith: (laughs) I don't know how much popular music you listened to.

Paul:

Wasn't Pink Floyd English?

Edith: Yeah.

Paul: Okay. No, I've seen the, um, Epic trolling Apple.

Edith: Oh.

Paul: They put out a video that was like a parody of one of the original Apple launch videos.

Edith: Yeah. Well, what do you think about that one?

Paul: Yeah, I mean, 30% has always been a fucking rip off.

Edith: I disagree.

Paul: Oh wow. You're pro rent seeking? That's an unusual view.

Edith: Okay, so I was at Tripit and we were the number one travel app.

Paul: Uh-huh.

Edith: And you pay that cut for distribution.

Paul: So distribution is a thing that doesn't have a cost, right? So it could be any number.

Edith: Um, what you pay for is, well, say distribution and also ease of purchase.

Paul: Sure, and you think that's worth 30% of, you know, the thing that you pay for?

Edith: I don't know if 30% is the right number but there is some number. Let me give you another example. So I used to work at a hardware company and we- we sold a device. Doesn't matter what the device is.

Paul: Mm-hmm.

Edith: And I was the product manager, so I also tested the flows about purchase at our own website.

Paul: It's funny. I swear you've told some sort of story about this like plant hardware thing a million times and so it's funny that you're already here saying like, "It doesn't matter what the hardware was."

Edith: (laughs) Right, it was a flat hardware.

Paul: Uh-huh.

Edith: What I found in my own testing is, uh, you know, it's an eight person company so I was product manager and also product marketing.

Paul: Mm-hmm.

Edith: Was though Amazon took a bigger cut than if we sold it on our website, we sold a lot more.

Paul: Mm-hmm.

Edith: Because people saw Amazon as a trusted vendor.

Paul: Mm-hmm.

Edith: And they already had their payment information on Amazon.

Paul: Mm-hmm.

Edith: So it was much easier for just somebody to say, "I want to buy it on Amazon."

Paul: Mm-hmm.

Edith: Rather than them going to our website and, like, typing in all their credit card and, like, you know-

Paul: Mm-hmm.

Edith: So we actually- when I ran our ads, I would actually push for that, Amazon, instead of our own website.

Paul: Was Amazon shipping?

Edith: Yes. Amazon's shipping was much cheaper than ours because Amazon had bulk deals.

Paul: Right. So Amazon was doing, like, physical work to sell your products and to ship your products to people.

Edith: And also payment and a trusted vendor was a huge thing.

Paul: Uh-huh.

Edith: So I would do follow ups with our customers about why they bought from Amazon.

Paul: Mm-hmm.

Edith: They're, like, "Well, 'cause I trust it. I know if something goes wrong, I can ship it back to Amazon as opposed to you, risky- looking startup site.”

Paul: So the thing is that you had an alternative with Amazon.

Edith: You mean selling on our own website?

Paul: Yeah. You, in fact dozens of places. You could have sold it in retail stores. You could have sold-

Edith: Oh, we tried them all. Like I actually- I flew to Florida-

Paul: Right. But you had all those options. There is no option on the iPhone. There's the app store or fuck you.

Edith: Where there goes our clean reading, Paul.

Paul: Have we ever had a clean episode? I don't think so.

Edith: All right, anyway you were saying that if people are in Apple, they don't have as many outlets to sell?

Paul: There are no options apart from Apple.

Edith: Well, there's Android.

Paul: That is not an alternative. You need both.

Edith: And in defense of Apple, they do put a lot of work into making sure they have a good ecosystem that, like, apps in there are vetted. They're not going to do something terrible.

Paul: Okay, apps aren't going to do anything terrible. Well done on hitting the, you know, absolute minimum that is required. But portraying Apple as some sort of benevolent overlord here, you know, at the same time they have, like, absolutely destroyed gaming.

Edith: Well gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry. I don't think they've destroyed it.

Paul: Oh they've destroyed the actual experience of gaming. Like converting everything to in-app purchases across the board is, like, it's a huge net evil for the world.

Edith: Okay, so Paul, you say we always agree but I strongly disagree.

Paul: Oh, finally. (laughs) An actual disagreement.

Edith: Yeah. (laughs)

Paul: All right, let's hear it.

Edith: Why is it bad that everything is in-app? Why is it? I mean, isn't this a consequence of just people being on their phones more and more casual gaming? And kind of the democratization of gaming so it's not just people sitting around their basement with a console?

Paul: So I accept that, uh-

Edith: And I say that as a proud owner of a very early Atari.

Paul: Yeah, I mean the way they did it in the old days, shareware, not opposed to, like, the concept of shareware or the idea of it being free. What I'm opposed to is, like, turning games into click mining for dollars and where you have situations like... there's multiple situations I've read about where some kid, you know, spends $6,000 of his parents money on whatever it is, skins, or hats, or whatever the fuck is going on.

Edith: Well I'm of course against that, but just to say games are bad because they're on phones, like-

Paul: No, I'm not saying games are bad because they're on phones. I'm saying games are bad because every game is now oriented around this trying to, like, get you to buy more gems, or coins, or credits, or whatever it is, so that you can actually have the in game experience.

Edith: Why is that so bad? It is directly linking-

Paul: It ruins the games.

Edith: But, like, games have to monetize somehow.

Paul: Yeah.

Edith: What would the alternative way be?

Paul: I mean, how games were always done. You know, it's free for the first episode and then you buy the full game for $20 or $50 or whatever dollars.

Edith: Yeah, but like games now are so much richer because they have a continual stream. Like I'll say, and this is—don't judge because I'm not ashamed. I play a lot of Pokemon.

Paul: Mm-hmm.

Edith: And I've been playing it for, like, years now because the game is always changing because they have a stream of money.

Paul: So, you know, if you were to pay a monthly fee for your Pokemon, that seems like totally legit. 

Edith: The Spotify model.

Paul: Yeah. Are you familiar with the tower defense genre?

Edith: I might be but I'm not sure.

Paul: It's like Plants vs Zombies was, I think, the original one of these. It's like, you know, there are hoards coming and you get to put things in their way and you have to level them up and that sort of thing. And they're really fun games but almost every single one of them is impossible to get all that far in because in order to get beyond the certain threshold, you just need to pump money into the game. And it just takes all the fun out of the game.

Edith: But, I mean, people need to monetize. Like, they’re game developers-

Paul: I understand that people need to monetize. What I'm saying is that Apple's specific incentives have caused games monetizations to ruin games. Like one of the reasons the console games are still pretty good is that you buy, you know, the full game and then you play the full game.

Edith: I'm gonna dissect this argument a little bit.

Paul: Mm-hmm.

Edith: Even in console games you can buy upgrades now. I don't think that's an Apple thing so much as a shift to the cloud and  and being able to unlock stuff over a certain time.

Paul: I mean there's also a difference between buying, like, you know, if you have a complete game and then you can buy an extra episode to the game in DLC, that's substantially different from what I'm saying, which is games where you have to just keep spending money to unlock the main content. And where the content is designed to cause you to keep going through the cycle.

Edith: I don't think that's anything to do with Apple. I think that's just the nature of, you know, continuous game development.

Paul: Uh, I mean, for AAA titles and console titles, that's not the case at all. You pay your $20 and then it's fine.

Edith: Well then I think, like, Android, they have the same issues. I think this is more a shift to the cloud and Apple is a convenience.

Paul: Oh, Android also has the same issues, for sure. I think it was originally caused by Apple's pricing of apps so low and encouraging apps to be priced so low.

Edith: Yeah. I mean, well that's how you get distribution.

Paul: Yeah. The purpose of what I was saying there is that Apple is not in anyway a benevolent overlord of the space and 30% for what they get is absolutely fucking ludicrous.

Edith: I think you're conflating two things with the shift to the cloud and more casual games in Apple.

Paul: I'm saying there's lots of things going on and I don't think that, like, Apple is some sort of- I'll say it again, benevolent overlord.

Edith: I think it's good to have some sort of link between player behavior and what they value, and money. Which leads me to ask you about Mozilla.

Paul: Oh my. Some shit going down there.

Edith: (laughs) Well, summarize it.

Paul: 250 people laid off?

Edith: Wow.

Paul: How many people work there?

Edith: I don't know. You worked there but it was a long time ago, right?

Paul: Yeah, so I worked there about 10 years ago and it was 600 people at the time. But I think they had a layoff before but, I think, not as big as this. So in this layoff that they've laid off a bunch of, like, teams that are sort of like… they laid off the MDN team. They laid off the people working on Servo, which is the next generation browser engine. I haven't even kept track of the whole thing but people are describing it as pretty brutal on the internet.

Edith: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that I read which made me kind of wince was them saying, "Hey, we have to focus on stuff that makes money."

Paul: I mean, they do, right? You know, you need money to survive.

Edith: Yeah. I don't know if there was some negativity or lack of belief in gravity that, hey, we can employ a lot of people without money coming in.

Paul: Well, I mean, it's interesting because a couple of years ago, they shifted back towards focusing on Firefox as the core thing, right.

Edith: Do you think that was a belief in trying to make more money?

Paul: No, I mean, Mozilla has always had this utopian ideal of the internet and they are the force that, like, is, you know, probably the only people out there. I mean, they're a non profit and they probably are one of the only people out there who are trying to make the internet open and free. Where everyone else is trying to do, you know, basically trying to keep people in their walled gardens and we talked about the app store.

You know, Google is trying to keep everyone on Chrome. Apple won't let anyone even install another browser on the iPhone. Microsoft ships their browser and has a terrible history of trying to make proprietary things and trying to keep it within Windows. So the role that Mozilla had was great but also, you know, it was not, I think what you were saying earlier, it was not particularly aligned to their to their revenue streams.

Edith: Yeah. And then always some reckoning happens.

Paul: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I mean, I don't even understand how Mozilla could make products, if you know what I mean.

Edith: Tell me more.

Paul: Like companies tend not to invent products from the middle of nowhere.

Edith: Mm-hmm.

Paul: Right? New companies create products for things they see in the world.

Edith: Mm-hmm.

Paul: But like companies that don't have the DNA of creating new successful products. How do they even do it?

Edith: Yeah. I was really active in this startup group in, um, well this sounds weird now, in like the 2013, 2014-era.

Paul: Mm-hmm.

Edith: And I remember there was a big debate after some speaker said, like, "Big companies have all the advantages of startups and more money so they're gonna win." It's, like, well no, no, no, no, no. (laughs) Like they have all the advantages of big companies and the money, and that's why they can act like a start up.

Paul: Mm-hmm.

Edith: Like, the incentives are totally misaligned.

Paul: Mm-hmm.

Edith: Like, at a big company, if you put out a new product and it totally flops, you're gonna get fired.

Paul: Mm-hmm.

Edith: If you're at a startup and you put out a product and it flops, you hopefully have enough runway or time that you're like, "Okay, that didn't work. Let me try something else."

Paul: Mm-hmm.

Edith: But you're scratching that itch. Not, “I only get one shot, it better be the right one.”

Paul: Right. I mean, you can sort of look at Google putting out products to see this. You know, they just keep churning out these complete products that presumably are ready to scale to tens of millions of users but, like, that no one actually wants to use.

Edith: Yeah. Their last big hit was really Google Maps.

Paul: Yeah, which they acquired.

Edith: Or Gmail?

Paul: Gmail was before that. That's the thing that they actually built themselves.

Edith: Yeah. Google Cloud is picking up.

Paul: Uh, Google Cloud is a very good product.

Edith: Yeah. Did you use Google Cloud at Dark?

Paul: Yeah. Except their databases suck.

Edith Harbaugh: (laughs)

Paul: It's kind of hilarious. Like, we know, Amazon has Aurora, which is like their cloud version of MySQL and PostgreSQL.

Edith: Mm-hmm.

Paul: And then Amazon also has Dynamo DB and, you know, S3 is functionally a database. And, they have all these cloud products. And Google has Cloud SQL in order to check a box because they have Spanner, which is their cloud product. And, it's like this massively scalable everything database but, like, if you want to use Postgres, you know, it's really like fuck you.

Edith: (laughs)

Paul: Sure, we'll manage a box of Postgres on it.

Edith: (laughs)

Paul: And like good luck.Their Postgres product is so bad. We pay them for high availability. I don't think it has ever been, even when they do maintenance, it doesn't even switch over to the high availability. It's ridiculous.

Edith: (laughs)

Paul: Like the- I mean, that is just one example of the many things that are wrong.

Edith: Well so, Paul. Okay. Are you multicloud? Are you all on Google?

Paul: Jesus, no. No, we're all in on Google Cloud. It's, like, all Kubernetes and Google Cloud.

Edith: What informed your decision? I mean-

Paul: So a couple of things. So one is that we were going in on Kubernetes at the start and AWS didn't have a good Kubernetes solution.

Edith: Mm-hmm.

Paul: That was one.

Edith: Okay. I'll give Google a lot of credit for that.

Paul: Yeah.

Edith: Kubernetes.

Paul: The other thing is that Amazon is, like, so opaque in all the things going on. Like at the time, Google, you know, automatically reduces your costs and that sort of thing over time whereas Amazon made you really work to figure out how to do it cheaply. That was one big thing. And then the other big thing is, like, fuck Amazon. Like if ever… is this the episode where we're talking about monopolists and their shitty practices? 'Cause Amazon is fucking king of it.

Edith: Well, we already talked about that near the middle and you said then that Amazon was not a monopoly because there are other places to buy products.

Paul: Oh, I'm talking about AWS.

Edith: Yeah. But there's Azure in the mix.

Paul: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Do you know any startup using Azure?

Edith: Some.

Paul: The only ones I knew, Azure was buying them by giving them, like, hundreds of thousands of dollars of credits.

Edith: I do know some startups that use Azure.

Paul: Uh-huh.

Edith: So that was your decision tree? Did you look at any of the others like Oracle Cloud?

Paul:

I don't think Oracle Cloud existed but obviously never looked at Oracle Cloud. Not even once.

Edith: Not even once?

Paul: Uh, but, like, Amazon- like I remember being partner. Partner's an extremely generous term for, you know, for a person that you're built on who is, like, trying to undercut you and clone your product to undercut you.

Edith: Well that's what happened with RN-

Paul: With- with who?

Edith: RNIO.

Paul Biggar: What happened?

Edith: Oh, they were basically lambda and then-

Paul: Oh, yeah.

Edith: Amazon came out with Lambda.

Paul: Yeah, literally if anyone has a claim to be Lambda before there Lambda, it was RNIO.

Edith: Yeah. They were workers as a service.

Paul: Uh-huh. Oh really, did Amazon clone them? Is that where Lambda came from?

Edith: Oh, I don't know if it was a direct clone but I know that was their entire business then.

Paul: Uh-huh (affirmative). It was, yeah.

Edith: Yeah. And then Lambda came out. I was, like, well...

Paul: Yeah. It wasn't a noble end. I mean, like, they wouldn't be the first and they won't be the last company that just gets killed by an Amazon PM wanting to clone something to get their promotion.

Edith: Yeah, but on the other hand, they don't always work. I mean, that's always what people ask us is, like, can't somebody just clone this? I'm like, "Yeah, sure. But it won't be as good."

Paul: Has Amazon cloned your product yet?

Edith: Shhhhhh.

Paul: (laughs)

Edith: The eye of Sauron draws near. (laughs)

Paul: (laughs) Well the thing that I always find interesting is I think Amazon… I've probably said this before on multiple podcasts, Amazon is good at, it'll occasionally invent a thing and it will be, like, a game changer. Like S3 or Lambda, and when they don't invent things, when they copy it, they just end up with these shitty box checks and, you know, there's like of the 160, 170. I don't know, you can't even keep count of them, services in AWS, how many of them are amazing, high-quality products that people love to use? Versus, you know, piece of shit clones. And I mean, it's almost as bad as the app store.

Edith: Well that ties it all back together.

Paul: Yeah, you see what I did there? That was- I felt really good about that. So the thing that I was thinking about with the Mozilla situation is, like, I'm remembering when I was at Mozilla and just, like, how much of an advantage Google had. You know, they were putting, “You should download Chrome” in Google search.

Edith: Which is why people hated Microsoft.

Paul: Right, exactly.

Edith: That was why Microsoft had their huge antitrust suit. They were putting it into the OS.

Paul: Right. And so now there's, like, this, uh, you know, tech antitrust stuff that's going on about how Apple is, like, monopolistic, and Google is monopolistic, and Amazon is monopolistic. And they're right. They're all monopolistic. And they all have their unique little monopolies that they use to stifle everyone. And I think, like, really that's what Mozilla is the victim of. It the victim of massively unfair competition by Google, who is also Mozilla's partner and source of revenue.

Edith: No, I disagree with you once again, Paul.

Paul: Oh.

Edith: I love saying that.

Paul: Love it.

Edith: Mozilla's competition was they never figured out how to monetize.

Paul: That is absolutely correct. You know, they're making money from search revenue was—I don't necessarily want to say a mistake—but I remember they had just this golden goose. And I think honestly they shouldn't have scaled it up. They should have kept it and just kept spending much less. Because when I was there, I remember there was these fucking lavish, you know, all hands where they flew us all to Whistler to spend, like, I think it was something like five million dollars or something like that.

Edith: Oh my gosh.

Paul: On just that one all hands. And they flew, like-

Edith: What? What?

Paul: They flew like all the employees but then they flew, like, you know, hundreds of contributors as well, and-

Edith: I mean, I'll say I guess that's great if you're making enough money you can afford that.

Paul: Yeah, I mean, they were making, like, they were bringing in about $300 million a year and they're a non profit so, like, I'm not even sure they're allowed to keep it but they if they had spent $50 million a year on building Firefox, they could have lived forever.

Edith: Yeah.

Paul: Or good enough to live forever. But I don't know if you can build a browser with 50 people. But, well, okay. Here’s my own personal thing. When I was at Mozilla, I was looking at what is our competitive advantage? Mozilla's competitive advantage is contributors. You know, if they manage to leverage contributors they can, but they just never did.

And I worked on, like, contributor engagement and tried to make it easy for people to contribute to the thing which actually was pretty helpful around Dark, to have that experience. And just, like, nobody cared. You know, they hired every contributor to be a Mozilla employee except, like, a handful of them. And it just killed external contributions.

Edith: Yeah. I mean, we've done a bunch of podcasts around open source and community.

Paul: Mm-hmm.

Edith: It's just hard to maintain that.

Paul: Yeah, I remember my boss at the time. I was working on the javascript compiler and my boss said, "We pay you to be a senior compiler engineer and not to be on contributor engagement. And if you want to do contributor engagement, you can but that has different pay scales."

Edith: Well that's worthy of a whole podcast. Let's pick that up another time.

Paul: It truly is. Yeah, absolutely.

Edith: All right. Thanks, Paul.

Paul: All right. Next time.

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