One Night in Qatar

On my recent flight from Washington DC to Chengdu, I had an 8-hour layover in Doha, Qatar. I had never been in Qatar before but knew it to be a newly-rich Arab nation attempting to challenge Dubai’s ostentatious reputation with their own over-the-top luxuries. Although I was only in the city for an evening, it was eye opening and not like anywhere else I’d ever been.

For starters, it seemed that most people I encountered fell into two categories: fantastically wealthy and clutching a gold iPhone in pristine white robes, or a poor immigrant.

I passed the time by exploring the sprawling Souq Waqif market, drinking mint tea, and smoking peach shisha in the hot evening air. Here are a few photos from Souq Waqif:

Souq Waqif

Souq Waqif

Souq Waqif

Published on April 17, 2014

Visiting Beijing’s 798 Art Zone

I recently visited Beijing and spent an afternoon in the historic 798 Art Zone, which is set amidst 50-year old decommissioned military factory buildings on the outskirts of the city. Now it’s a collection of art galleries, studios, and exhibits by local artists. Local specialties are painting, graffiti, and sculpture, and the star of the Art Zone is Ai Weiwei, China’s most respected, and notoriously anti-authoritarian, rebel artist.

Here are a few photos: Beijing 798 Art Zone 2014

798 Beijing

798 Beijing

Published on April 17, 2014

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Graffiti

MH370 Graffiti

Created by good friend and legendary Chengdu graffiti artist Gas along with Seve. This piece is in the downtown district of Chengdu and depicts Malaysian Airlines flight 370 disappearing en route to China.

I’ve been reading news about the vanished flight daily and have learned an incredible amount about aviation. The fact that something this large can just disappear is amazing, and in fact, this event is completely unprecedented. The disappearance has a lot to do with aviation being stuck in the 1960′s.

I presume this event has a good chance at changing that and taking additional steps to improve standards, safety, and awareness of how important having modern electronic systems inside airplanes are.

Published on March 14, 2014

A Rose in Bloom


There’s a florist directly underneath my apartment. I pass it everyday, but never bought anything from there until a few weeks ago – this single rose.

Published on March 12, 2014

Song of the Day #156: Rebel on Roots Corner

Tippa Irie – Rebels on the Roots Corner

Last night a UK reggae MC named Tippa Irie performed in Chengdu at a local performance venue called Here We Go. Although I listen to a lot of reggae, I had never heard of Tippa Irie before – judging from the people I’ve spoken to and Wikipedia, it seems that he was most well-known during the 1980′s and 1990′s in England. His performance was very good though, and it’s been a few years since I performed as an opener when the legendary Jamaican record producer Clive Chin came to Chengdu on tour of China. Before that one of my most memorable reggae performances I’ve seen was Jah Faith & Family Tree at Dub Club in Echo Park, Los Angeles.

Of all the songs that Tippa Irie performed last night, this one (“Rebels on the Roots Corner”) was easily my favorite. Brilliant production by Mad Professor on this track.

Read about Tippa Irie on Wikipedia

Published on March 3, 2014

Game Review #4: Disco Zoo

Disco ZooI have yet to find anyone who isn’t compelled merely by the title of this game, Disco Zoo. It’s a resource management game in the form of a zoo, with a quirky disco mechanic which can be triggered by using a consumable in-app currency (called Discobux).

The developer of this game, Nimblebit, is a very notable team of two brothers who have made some of the most successful freemium games of all time like Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes. If you’ve played either of those, you will have a basic understanding of how Disco Zoo works: you endlessly expand your real estate and populate it with in-game creatures.

The “Hunt” & “Sleep” Mechanics

Disco ZooThe new mechanic in Disco Zoo is a Battleship-like search for animals to populate your zoo with. You uncover tiles to reveal animal shapes underneath them, “freeing” them to populate your zoo. Once you begin to populate your zoo, patrons start hitting you up which replenish coins that you spend while continuing to search for animals.

With freemium games of this type, a constant call-to-action is necessary for keeping high engagement. So what is the constantly-nagging element of Disco Zoo? Your animals fall asleep, and when they do, you stop earning revenue on them.

This part seemed dark and contrived to me, but it’s almost so ridiculous that is crosses over into entertaining.

Push notifications will begin popping up repeatedly asking you to “Wake” the animals to bring visitor revenue back. Ideally your animals will never sleep, will constantly earn you revenue, and will disco dance on command.

Much of this games charm derives from the fact that it is ridiculous in so many ways. The graphics are bright and pixelated and animals happily hop around their pens continuously.

Free-to-Wait Gameplay

Although Nimblebit are well-respected, many games of this type are criticized and labelled as free-to-wait, and this game is certainly one of those. There’s little to no actual strategy required other than basic pattern recognition in the hunt sequence. No, what this game demands is commitment. Once you develop the habit of striving for the next achievement like upgrading your zoo size, it becomes engrained and you mindlessly perform the same actions everyday. That’s when you know a game has got you.

Like Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes, you build and build and the reward is basically the process of building. Other than a leaderboard you cannot compete with others, and there is limited social functionality aside from sharing achievements which there is no real incentive to do.

Disco ZooCertain areas of this game are exceptional, which elevate it to the best of the freemium resource-management crop. As with all other Nimblebit pixel-based games, it looks clean and exactly as you’d expect: colorful, cute, and full of charm. Browse through your zoo and see animals and visitors speak through speech bubbles. One of my pens was under construction and an onlooking visitor said “Nice hardhats!”

Conclusion & Rating

When I showed this game to a friend and he played it, he said that he didn’t even consider this to be a game. I can understand that perspective but the mobile era has tested and broken many preconceptions about what games are. I embrace this new definition and can see the value in time-intensive gathering games of this type when they’re done this well. It’s mindless, charming, and can be played in seconds.

But I don’t see it holding up over time. Without introducing major new gameplay mechanics, I will likely lose interest after a few weeks of gameplay. This is exactly what happened with every NimbleBit game before this – for me, they’re a joy for a brief period of time.

Disco Zoo App Annie

So far it has yet to break #100 on the Top Grossing charts, which is a lukewarm reception considering it is being prominently featured by the App Store right now. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops and what it does to recent other Nimblebit games which are so similar to this, like Pocket Planes and Pocket Trains.

3.5 Stars

Disco Zoo on iTunes App Store

Published on March 2, 2014

Game Review #3: Card Wars – Adventure Time

Card WarsI’ve been following collectible card games (CCG’s) on the App Store for about a year now. This is an interesting subset of the strategy genre of mobile gaming, which has established a stronghold in East Asia and begun encroaching into Western markets.

Only a handful of of card games have achieved success in the West, but I noticed an interesting one based on an American cartoon on Adult Swim that quickly moved up the Free and Top Grossing charts after release: Card Wars – Adventure Time.

When I downloaded it, it was ranking within the top 10 grossing apps on iPhone which is quite an achievement for $3.99 collectible card game based on an American IP. This has happened once before with a Marvel-themed CCG, but is otherwise very unusual. As a general rule, for-pay apps rarely have shots at the top position on grossing charts, but when they do, it’s almost always very short lived.

Below is a screenshot from App Annie of the performance of this app through the top grossing ranks. Money isn’t everything but games that are well engineered and implemented are those which will most effectively convert users into buyers. That’s why I focus on the top grossing chart as opposed to the top download charts.

App Annie

Card Wars Overview

Select cards to create a deck which you battle against an opponent, turn by turn. It works almost exactly like Magic: the Gathering, with creatures, spells, and building that you can summon. You can fuse cards together to create new cards, which adds a lot of depth and replay-ability to the game.

Each card has a special ability called “Floop” which can be triggered during your turn, casting spells and effects on your enemy. With dozens and dozens of PvE points immediately visible on the game map, the amount of content here is overwhelming. I believe that users would have benefited from hiding the later stages of the single player game – I’ve been playing for about 10 hours and I’d estimate I’m at 20% completion.

Card Wars

Although a typical battle will only last about 4 or 5 rounds, I find the play sessions to be a little on the long side. When creating a CCG most developers will use one of the following methods:

  1. Automatically complete battle sequences, moving combat strategy to deck preparation. Battles are on auto-pilot.
  2. Require manual battle instructions, adding strategy to the combat sequence.

There are benefits and drawbacks of each option, but as a generalization, the former is a contemporary casual mechanic which monetizes better and the latter is a traditional staple of real card games like Magic. I personally prefer the latter, in the style of Magic: the Gathering, so Card Wars provides challenging and engaging gameplay.

The cartoon art style keeps it feeling lighthearted, and characters from Adventure Time are all faithfully reproduced here (although I haven’t seen much Adventure Time, I understand that this card game is depicted in the show).

Unconventional Monetization

Some very strange decisions were made with Card Wars’ monetization system, but I’m reluctant to call them a major problem since the game has performed well so far. I would expect a freemium CCG (that is, a free-to-download game with in-app purchases) to perform better than for-pay since the IAP model allows you to monetize buyers so many more times. However, Card Wars goes for what is a reasonably high up-front price for the App Store at $3.99, and then hits you up for consumable IAP like Gems and Hearts (which in this game are energy).

Card Wars

Multiplayer & Social

A major missing component to this game is multiplayer. I have not seen any option to play with other players, either through selection or randomization. Without PvP (player versus player) functionality I feel like I’m building up my decks and have no chance to test them against calculating opponents.

Paying players really need a way to show off their decks, which brings me to the next thing lacking: social features. One could argue that because their primary monetizer is the up-front purchase cost, features like social and PvP aren’t essential to this game. But I disagree because this is, after all, a board game – it was made for multiplayer.

Conclusion & Rating

I had no reservations about paying $3.99 for this game, and I have not regretted it since purchasing. I think Card Wars could be even more successful if it were free and monetized entirely with in-app purchases, although I don’t think there’s any doubt that a change of that magnitude would absolutely require the missing multiplayer and social components.

Although the presence of consumable energy in a for-pay game bugs many people, myself included, it hasn’t presented much of an obstacle. Unless you play Card Wars for hours in a single sitting, you’re likely to meet that restriction.

In the end, there’s little chance of me convincing many friends to check this out because the game is neither free nor offers the option of playing against a friend. The $3.99 cost of entry is steep for someone dipping their toes into CCG, but if you know you like this type of game or watch Adventure Time, I think you’ll love it.

4.5 Stars

Card Wars – Adventure Time on iTunes
Card Wars – Adventure Time on Google Play

Published on March 2, 2014