Thursday, September 20, 2012

I Took the Bing It On Challenge ... AND LIVED!!!!

Since you are currently on the World Wide Internet, as it is called, you are probably able to use what is called a Searching Engine to find the things you want, be they My Little Pony jpgs, or Gangnam Style parodies, or ... well, I don't know. Erotica? Anyway, since you are using a Search Engine, I can say, with some confidence, that that engine is named Google.

However, you may not be aware that Google is not the only Searching Engine (or search engine, as the technocrats call it). There are actually several of them. For example, Microsoft spent more money than an unaided human brain can comprehend to create one called Bing. However, its market share is still only around 15%, as it is not Google.

To increase Bing's user base, Microsoft created the Bing It On Challenge. This 21st century techno-version of the Pepsi Challenge has you use a computer to enter five search terms. Then it shows you the Bing and Google search results, side by side, and rearranged slightly so you can't instantly tell which is which. You pick which of the search results is better. Then the thing tells you if you preferred Google or Bing. And, if you preferred Bing, WHY WERE YOU USING GOOGLE ALL THIS TIME, YOU DUMB IDIOT!?!?

Here is a commercial for the Bing It On Challenge. Watch it, if you dare.

(A quick aside about this commercial. I find it fascinating. I am amazed at how abrasive and arrogant the Bing guy is. I want to never, ever, ever use Bing, just to make that guy sad. In the very unlikely event that a Microsoft marketing person reads this, a little unsolicited advice: When you are trying to sell things to technical people, remember that this is a demographic that responds very poorly to bullies.)

Well, I can never resist a good challenge, so I took it myself, and Google won. Not by a huge amount, but by enough. And the reason why was pretty interesting, which is why I am writing this. It doesn't mean Bing is a worse search engine than Google, or bad in some Universal Sense, but I think it says a lot about how search engines work and why making a good one is so difficult.

The thing about a challenge like this is that when you buttonhole someone and say, "Search for five things! Now!" this on-the-spot person will probably just grab five well-known proper nouns. Justin Bieber. My Little Pony. Muffin recipes. Stuff that is easy work for search engines. Every single one is going to be able to handle that stuff. But that is not how I (and, I suspect, many others) use Google.

The reason Google became so popular in the first place is because of its almost supernatural ability to guess what the user is thinking. A search engine must take a random clump of nouns, adjectives, prepositions, and so on, and then tease from those words the specific thing the user's brain desires. In other words, it's an artificial intelligence problem, and a very deep one.

The reason Google took over the world is that it knew you were thinking of Justin Bieber even when you didn't type in Justin Bieber. If you put in "annoying teen singer", the words "Justin Bieber" will appear somewhere on the results page. (And it does, on both Google and Bing.) Google isn't as good as it used to be, but it's still pretty darn good.

(By the way, all search results described are as of 5:30 PM, Pacific Time, Sunday, September 15, 2012, Seattle, U.S.A., Third Planet From Sol.)

The search results below are for me using a search engine the way I, personally, use a search engine. Which engine, Google vs. Bing, is best written to match my aging, dumb brain?

Let's find out!

1. For a first test, I picked a real life thing. A friend once told me that I had to check out this Penny Arcade webcomic. Next time I was at a computer, I tried to, but I couldn't remember the strip's name. I went to Google and searched for something much like this:

the cartoon about video games

I think most people would reasonably agree that, if you put this term into a search engine, Penny Arcade should show up on the first page.

Google - First hit is the Wikipedia page "List of television programs based on video games". Fourth hit is Penny Arcade. Pretty good.

Bing - The first two hits are, oddly, general pages for the Cartoon Network. Lots of cartoons, but none specifically about video games. Penny Arcade doesn't show up in the first five pages.

The Winner - Google.

2. I'm still in a nerdy mood, so I pick something a geek might want to hunt for: Classic 80s SF movie Blade Runner. What would you look for if someone told you about its awesomeness but you could only remember the rough description:

the movie where the hguy hunts androids in the future

I mistyped "guy", but I left it that way. Let's see how well the engines handle that.

Google - Wikipedia page for Blade Runner is entry five. As a bonus, the sixth entry is the Wiki page for "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" which is the story Blade Runner is based on. Nice work.

Bing - Blade Runner wasn't in the first five pages, but  "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" is at least on page 3.

The Winner - Google.

3. No more nerdiness. Let's pick a factoid from history. Something juicy. I think we can all agree that there's only one particularly well-known answer for:

the girl who killed people with an axe

Google - Wow. There are a lot of female axe killers out there. The Wikipedia page for Lizzie Borden is down at hit 8.

Bing - First entry is a Yahoo Answers page where someone answers the question. The second hit is the Wikipedia page for Lizzie Borden.

The Winner - Bing, narrowly.

4. Now I'm going to pick something serious. Something real. Something I bet a million worried teenagers search for every day:

how do you get aids

Google - First hit is a basically accurate article titled "How do you get AIDS?" Second hit is a similar article from

Bing - Top three hits are the same as for Google.

The Winner - Tie. Thank goodness. It'd be worrying if either one messed this one up. If some shenanigans caused the first hit to be some bad information (such as that HIV doesn't cause AIDS, which some people actually believe), it could cost real, non-hypothetical lives.

5. For the fifth one, I decide to engage in a bit of whimsy. I wanted to know just how willing these search engines are to sacrifice their own interests in order to help me:

what is the best search engine

Google - First hit is an article called "The 10 Best Search Engines of 2012," that describes the pros and cons of ten search engines. Google and Bing are in there, of course.

Bing - The first official hit is the same. But it's right below an ad link for, you guessed it, the Bing It On challenge. Because of how the page is laid out, the ads look an awful lot like real links. It's kind of shifty, and Google does a much better job of making ads look distinct from results. But hey, if I'm just evaluating quality of search results ...

The Winner - Tie.

What Have We Learned?

Not too much, really. I know that Google AI’s approximation of human thought matches the way my brain works better than Bing's. But who cares? Someone else might use the exact same search terms to fish for entirely different answers. And maybe Bing is better at predicting those.

Microsoft isn't trying to prove that Bing is the be all and end all of search engines. They're trying to get people to give it a shot and they’re hoping that a portion of them will stick with it.

It's a tough job, though. If someone is used to using Google, Bing merely being as good or a little bit better won't get anyone to switch. To get people to actually break a habit requires a big improvement. Very difficult. If that's your goal then getting your targets to actually try the new thing is an absolutely necessary first step. Hey, I gave Bing a try. Didn't work for me, but at least I looked at it. So, victory!

Pity about that commercial, though. MAN, but that guy is a jerk.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Little Bit of Genius at PAX

There were things I saw at Penny Arcade Expo that I wanted to go on about. Something besides Microsoft trying to push us into our exciting Windows 8/Internet Explorer 9 future by providing the world middling adaptions of ancient Atari games for some reason.

There was one game at the Indie Megabooth that deserves special attention from all humans. Not only was it funny, but it has perhaps the best elevator pitch in the history of the human race:
OK. You're a guy living in the suburbs. You have a wife, two kids, and a secret: You're actually an octopus in disguise.
Obvious jokes aside, how can you not want to try that game? Especially when you know it's called Octodad: The Dadliest Catch.


This game is the purest epitome of the Indie spirit. (How's that for a pull quote?) It's unique, intriguing, utterly bananas, and no major publisher will ever do anything like it.

Sadly, the gameplay is focused on maneuvering the octopus, which means struggling to do normally simple tasks with an odd control scheme. I am a little skeptical about how much this particular style of gameplay can catch on. On the bright side, if it's priced cheaply enough, it can make a ton of sales based on the "Oh God. I have to try this out." factor.

My unsolicited advice for the developers: If the game turns out to not be that fun, sell it for five bucks. You'll move a lot of copies based on morbid curiosity alone.

Edit: Oh, yeah. You can support Octodad at Steam Greenlight here. I voted for it. KEEP INDIE GAMES WEIRD!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How Indie Games Can Be Cheap and Awesome

I got to go to PAX over the weekend and be on a panel and see cool gaming stuff and meet lots of cool people and fans of my games. One of the things I learned is that a lot of people actually read my blog. This is very gratifying. Although it terrifies me that anyone thinks my opinion is in any way significant.

PAX is great, of course. Though it is in the unenviable position of being permanently unable to satisfy the massive demand for tickets.

(Sure, its success will probably invite others to copy it with their own gaming cons, but those dopplegangers won't be the same without the presence of all the big companies showing off their stuff. And big companies won't go to a lot of cons, as they need to set aside at least a little time to make games. So, from now on, if you manage to score a PAX badge, just cherish it, knowing that your attendance the following year is unlikely. Just think of PAX as a hot but extremely unstable boy/girlfriend.)

I had a lot of little epiphanies while looking at the many, many highly promising indie games on display at PAX. (The PAX 10 looked cool as always, but the much flashier Indie Megabooth next door seemed to be sucking up its oxygen.) And here is the biggest one:

16-bit graphics are an awesome thing, and more indies should use them.

If you don't know what 16-bit graphics are, think early Nintendo/Super Nintendo. If that still doesn't ring a bell, look here. Or here. Or here. Or especially here.

If you are a small game developer, you have a big problem. You want your game to look great. But graphics can be expensive. Or very expensive. 16-bit graphics solve the great mystery of writing a game with a small team and no budget: making decent production values cheaply in a short amount of time.

Here is what 16-bit Nintendo-style graphics have going for them:

1. They work. Heck, people wrote awesome games using them for years.

2. They look good. It's amazing how evocative an icon you can make with a few well-chosen pixels.

3. They're cheap and quick to make. One talented artist can produce a game's worth in an entirely reasonable amount of time.

4. You have the power of nostalgia working for you. To a whole generation of gamers, those icons are as warm and comforting as a Snuggie.

5. Because of #4, anyone who takes cheap shots at your graphics looks like a jerk.

6. Versatility. With care, they can blend with much more detailed and 3-D effects. Fez is a fantastic example of this. You don't have to be pure when you use this style.

Right now, this style of graphics is seen as a pure nostalgia play, a way of saying, "Look! We look like a Nintendo game! We're silly! Tee hee!" But I think 16-bit graphics are better than that. They've been used in a million great games, and they can be used in a million more. The more people use them, the more they will be seen as an entirely legitimate art style, which in turn will make them available to more generations of poor, promising designers.

Indie devs, don't be afraid to be cheap! It is your sacred right and responsibility as an Indie!