Crash Dot Com Part 4: A Moral Quagmire

By Shamus Posted Thursday Dec 1, 2016

Filed under: Personal 95 comments

The meeting drags on. I’ve been the only person in the room answering questions for about half an hour now. I feel like I’m on a gameshow where every answer is wrong and the penalty for wrong answers is more questions.

Like the Real World, Only Worse!

Oops. These products are small and I clicked on the wrong one and I don't know how to get it out of my cart. I clicked on it a few more times to get rid of it, and now I have 10 of them. Never mind. This is stressful. I'll just visit
Oops. These products are small and I clicked on the wrong one and I don't know how to get it out of my cart. I clicked on it a few more times to get rid of it, and now I have 10 of them. Never mind. This is stressful. I'll just visit

John Business returns to his printed notes. “When a visitor clicks on an item on a shelf, can we have it fall into their shopping trolley?”

I somehow resist the urge to make a horrified face at the suggestion.

People are going to push shopping carts around your virtual mall? Doesn’t that have the stench of low-end shopping? Will the carts collide with shelves? If so, then people WILL get stuck, frustrated, and log out without buying anything.If not, then expect people to navigate as if the cart didn’t exist, which means they will constantly end up clipping into walls. Everywhere you go, you’ll have the front ends of shopping carts peeking at you through walls and shelves. In addition to being really ugly and immersion-breaking, this will be confusing to people. And don’t even get me started on the ways people might confuse or harass each other with them. What if I leave a store without paying? Does my cart vanish, or is it cleared? Will the items be restored if I return later? We need to figure out what the “expected behavior” is going to be before we know how to design this.

Isn’t the advantage of a VIRTUAL mall the fact that you don’t need to worry about the physical hassles of carrying items? I know in your head you’re picturing people simply replicating real-world behavior, but that’s not going to happen. People will act in ways that don’t make sense. What if I click on an item that’s nowhere near my cart? Should the item fly across the room and land in the cart? If so, then expect new users to be confused by random items flying all over the place. Or you can give them an error message telling them to move closer. That will stop the flying merchandise, but now you’re inconveniencing people trying to buy stuff.

How will they get items back out again? Physics engines that operate in a shared space are years away, so making them rummage around a pile of loose items won’t work. What if they want to remove an item from the cart and it’s buried under others? What happens if I go to the other side of the store and then remove the item? Should it fly across the store to where it belongs, or should we replicate the real world where fickle shoppers constantly scramble your inventory by abandoning items in random parts of the store? Or should it just poof away?

What I actually said:

“Sort of. We can show an object falling into the cart.”

“But will the object disappear off the shelf?” This point seem to be awfully important to him.

You… you want to create a virtual store with scarcity? WHYYYYYYY? Madness! If this is possible, people WILL try to empty the shelves into their cart so that nobody else can buy anything.

Ten minutes after the doors open, every item in the store is in the shopping cart of some prankster. As you approach him, the thousands of items in his cart bring your framerate down to the single digits while he laughs and calls you a fag over and over.
Ten minutes after the doors open, every item in the store is in the shopping cart of some prankster. As you approach him, the thousands of items in his cart bring your framerate down to the single digits while he laughs and calls you a fag over and over.

What I actually said:


The actual answer would be “It depends”, but it would be long and complex and I sense everyone is just looking for simple answers to complex questions. We could make shelves that deplete of stock and need to be refilled, but this would create all sorts of interface headaches and the need for a bunch of new coding, because we’d need to create a program to track the position of all items and handle restocking them. I can spend ten minutes explaining that the timetable is already WAY too tight and there’s no way we have time to code experimental new features with unknown challenges for purely cosmetic effects.

The meeting drags on like this, with John Business casually asking for monumentally difficult things that will make the store less useful in order to re-create the limitations and frustrations of the physical world.

This doesn’t even touch on the more serious problems with the design. They sensibly want to focus on selling expensive items at first: Cameras, electronics, that sort of thing. The idea is that you’ll walk up to a shelf, click on an item, and it will appear in the center of the screen where you can turn it over and examine it in detail. Then you can put it back or buy it.

The problem is that this stuff is often quite small. Right now the vast majority of users are equipped with 800×600 monitors. That’s not a lot of pixels, and many of them are spent on stuff like the chat window and other interface elements. At this resolution, something small like a camera is going to look like an indistinct lump of black until you’re very close. Do we make items oversize? Do we put a large picture of the item beside the indistinct lump?

Good luck getting users to look up and down at things that aren't displayed at eye level.
Good luck getting users to look up and down at things that aren't displayed at eye level.

How will they navigate the store? Signage? Imagine trying to find your way around a modern department store with blinders on, because that’s what it’s like exploring a world through a screen. You have no peripheral vision. Typically, people navigate stores based on overhead signs, but in virtual worlds it’s really hard to get people to look up.

On top of all of this is the problem of texture data. I’m sure the dream is that the user can walk up to a camera and examine it closely and see all the little details. That means every item on every shelf needs to be using enormous texture maps. Laying aside the cost of making those textures and the problem of fitting them into video memory, how on earth will we get that much texture data to the user? A non-trivial portion of the population is still on dial-up.

You’ll end up with the user being frustrated. They can’t see the texture on the camera they’re looking at because their computer is still downloading the toaster oven one aisle over.

The texture problem could be solved through some sort of smart streaming system that downloads low-res textures first and then acquires progressively detailed versions according to what items are nearby. Years from now, Google create Google Earth using a similar technique. But that’s a huge R&D project and we’re a small company. Given the choice, I’d love to spend a few months working on something like that, but there is no time in the budget.

My problem isn’t that they didn’t allow for enough time to create these features. It’s that nobody realized we would need these features in the first place. Money changed hands, contracts were signed, and corporate power was shifted to make this project possible, and nobody stopped to ask these questions first. Our guys didn’t ask them because they didn’t know what was involved in running a mall and how it would differ from the usual work we do, and their guys didn’t ask because they’re not technologically literate. It’s like an automaker and an aerospace company teaming up to make flying cars. Each of them assumes that the stuff they don’t know how to do will be handled by the other party, when in reality there’s a bunch of stuff right in the middle that nobody knows how to do.

Everyone seems to think you can just make a virtual store shaped like a real store and end up with something that’s experienced like a real store.

Am I the Bad Guy?

It's the old investment axiom: Don't burn money you can't afford to have set on fire. Or something like that.
It's the old investment axiom: Don't burn money you can't afford to have set on fire. Or something like that.

I hate this meeting so much. This is literally the worst meeting I’ve ever been in. I feel like a nautical engineer who’s been tasked with making a passenger ship out of cardboard, and the client is spending the whole meeting asking me if they can get it in red. If I build him the ship, am I complicit when it sinks into the harbor?

Giving truthful answers to his questions makes me feel somehow dishonest, because I’m telling them how to do something self-destructive. What should I do? Tell these guys their plan is ridiculous?

I dragged my wife and baby daughter here to Boston for this job. If I get fired, then we’ll have moved away from our families and support network for nothing. We just bought a condo here. We’re barely making ends meet as it is, because housing prices have skyrocketed on account of the boom. That’s fine if you’re making engineer money, but I’m making artist money and things are tight.

These people are smart enough to run a business and employ people for years. What am I missing? Am I supposed to keep my mouth shut and let these people blow their fortune on an unworkable concept? Or am I obligated to try and save them from themselves by giving them advice that will be ignored except to cost me my job? Am I the bad guy here? Why am I the only one with misgivings about this project? Have I gone mad? Is this actually a good plan and I’m just too dumb to see it?

To be continued…


From The Archives:

95 thoughts on “Crash Dot Com Part 4: A Moral Quagmire

  1. Brigdh says:

    Umm, did I miss parts 2 and 3?

  2. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Part 4?Man,that was a big crash,it obliterated parts 2 and 3.

  3. Da Mage says:

    I think the wrong article got made public….

  4. Pyrrhic Gades says:

    Where’s part two? When I click on the “Take me to the previous” article button on this page, it takes me to Part 3.

    1. This is part 4. Click two back to find part 2.

  5. lethal_guitar says:

    Just wanted to say that I hugely enjoy this series so far, and can’t wait for the next entry. The waiting is really the only bad part about it ;)

    1. asterismW says:

      Seconded. These autobiographical series are one of my favorite things on this site.

      1. Mistwraithe says:

        Agreed, it is a great read. But the same goes for pretty much anything Shamus writes (ie not the video or audio material which I don’t consume).

  6. Daimbert says:

    This really makes the meeting strike me as being a clash between ideas. From what you’ve said, you constantly applied standard MMO tropes and behaviours when assessing the ideas, but they weren’t building that. They were building a shopping mall. While some of the things you noted would be valid, some of them wouldn’t be things that people shopping would want. For example, people shopping might want the ability to teleport, but they’d certainly want the ability to wander, window shop, and chat with friends in a group while doing all of these things. Even here, the idea of a physical shopping cart would be difficult, but there definitely would need to be something to hold their potential purchases so they can review them later, which then could lead to a summonable shopping cart that things “fall into” or whatever.

    So it seems to me that that was the big issue here: they were building a shopping mall, and you were assessing their ideas as if they were building an MMO, leaving them frustrated because they didn’t know about and didn’t care about MMO games at all.

    1. Mephane says:

      So it seems to me that that was the big issue here: they were building a shopping mall, and you were assessing their ideas as if they were building an MMO, leaving them frustrated because they didn't know about and didn't care about MMO games at all.

      An MMO is precisely what they want to build. Multiple users (a mall implies thousands) on the same server, running around, doing stuff while being able to interact with each other at least in some rudimentary ways (i.e. chat). At some point John Business might even have asked Shamus “Can customers make gestures at each other? Beckon a friend over, point their finger at a particular item?” – in other words: emotes.

      1. Daimbert says:

        Yes, but there’s a difference between an MMO game or an MMO built for another purpose and an MMO built to try to recreate a shopping experience. Applying what people like in those other things to what they’d like in a shopping experience isn’t always going to make sense. So if Shamus’ objections WERE purely technical, that might have gotten a better reaction, but from what’s been said here he often tried to talk about user experience using examples that weren’t the same kind of user experience.

        1. Andrew Blank says:

          This is true but a lot of those game design things came about because they’re more convenient anyway. Like, the only games that make your inventory take up physical space are stuff like survival horror games, and they do it BECAUSE it sucks. Yes there would have to be a place to review your purchases but it would be a menu, not a model.

        2. Shamus says:

          To be clear, I wasn’t saying that the mall should be an MMO, I was saying the mall would face all the same usability problems as an MMO. (Here I’m using MMO in the REALLY broad sense that includes stuff like Second Life and Playstation Home.) Regardless of what the experience is going to be like, people still won’t want to look up or down, they’ll grief each other if they can, they’ll get lost in seemingly simple spaces, and they’ll quit if they get frustrated. I can believe that different software has different needs, but it will still be used by people.

          1. Daimbert says:

            That’s the thing though: I think it quite possible that people in an virtual shopping mall or museum might be more willing to accept that than with other applications, for a couple of reasons:

            1) They’re used to doing it in real life (looking for aisle numbers, scanning shelves).

            2) Arguably they’re less rushed so stopping, then doing some kind of “mouse look”, and then moving on is less annoying that the alternatives. In short, they should just be more willing to stop and do/look at things than other applications allow.

            It might have been an issue, sure, but I think the applications different enough that maybe the behaviours would be different … and, at least, think that the applications are different enough that it wouldn’t OBVIOUSLY be a problem.

            1. Matt Downie says:

              The problem is, shoppers are much less likely to be able to adapt to first-person control conventions than gamers. These things seem easy to us because we’ve been doing them for so long, but non-gamers often find them baffling. So then you probably wind up trying to force everyone to do a tutorial level before you let them buy things, and that costs you 60% of your potential audience who lose patience…

              1. Kylroy says:

                So much this. Anybody who’s ever had to help the general public deal with technology knows that they will find everything an order of magnitude more difficult than people who already deal with technology for fun.

                Combined with the fact that this is all taking place before the Internet was an everyday thing for most people, I’d imagine that about half of these users wouldn’t even be familiar with left and right clicking.

                1. Daimbert says:

                  Which is why appealing to conventions may not be a good idea. Non-users don’t know them, don’t understand why they are that way, and will wonder why those conventions will stop them from getting what they think they want.

                  1. Theo says:

                    That’s the thing: you could certainly design a user experience that a totally inexperienced layman would find intuitive, but it hadn’t been done at the time, maybe hasn’t really been done even today, you’d be grossly limited by the available tech level, and the entire foundation of the project was that both companies were probably expecting to be able to do this with only minor alterations to an engine that was already built. This would be a research project on the level of the Google Earth-style streaming textures that Shamus mentioned, if not even more involved.

                    I know exactly where you’re coming from, because as I read this I was thinking, for example, no, the cart clipping wouldn’t be an issue! The cart has a predictable path through the aisles, you could have it pathfind its way ahead of the player and avoid collisions, and it could fade out if a bunch of other carts are in the way. Hey, maybe you could even have some kind of futuristic hovering cart that dodges around, that would probably fit the feeling these people are going for.

                    But I say that stuff with the benefit of 17 years of game and virtual space design having already been done. I can’t say I would’ve had those ideas in the room at the time.

                    1. Syal says:

                      Also, Shamus’ company has built an MMO, and is presumably being hired because of that. If John Business wants something different it’s on him to explain what the difference is.

                    2. silver Harloe says:

                      ” you could certainly design a user experience that a totally inexperienced layman would find intuitive”


                      I’d say “maybe” there. So many different people find so many different things intuitive that it might be difficult to hit more than 20-40% of the population.

                      Actually, it might be difficult to get that many. If we’re talking total nubs here, then even getting them to grasp something as simple as “mouselook” might need a tutorial or hints. Not because people are stupid, but because the ideas are actually kind of complex and unintuitive and unlike reality.

                    3. Alexander The 1st says:

                      Re: mouselook standards…

                      This was back in the day before inverting mouselook was a standard option, let alone what direction is “normal” and what was “inverted”.

                      So on top of trying to figure out a layman interface for a bunch of people, you’d need to account for the fact that some people, even learning a new interface, are going to have some biases about how the interface *should* work.

                  2. Kylroy says:

                    Conventions barely existed among *gamers* for this sort of thing in 1998 – how long did it take for WASD and mouse-look to become standard in first-person games? Ignoring them amounts to ignoring what little data existed at the time, necessitating spending *even more* time and money on a project that was a black hole for both to begin with.

                2. Decus says:

                  Left and right clicking? Some of them wouldn’t even have the option! Even in 1999 it was not at all uncommon to see people using a mouse with only one button. For some people this would be because of complete illiteracy and on the other end it would be because of a literacy that likely disdained even needing a mouse in the first place, especially not one with a second button.

    2. Wysinwyg says:

      MMOs weren’t really a thing at the time b/c anyone not at college was connecting by dial up and there wasn’t enough bandwidth or computing power to share graphics in real time like that. Shamus was applying knowledge about how people interact with game worlds but even moreso practical design sense. This business idea is REALLY bad and that’s why you shop online using an interface lime amazon instead of second life

      1. Daimbert says:

        I’m not saying that the idea was a good one, or evaluating it at all. I’m just pointing out my impression that a lot of the disconnect here seems to be Shamus applying standard game experiences and design ideas to this shopping mall idea where they at least don’t obviously fit.

        1. Echo Tango says:

          It’s the only model you could apply in this situation. Do you want to apply non-game 3D ideas to this project? In this historical time that either means shitty museum exhibits that nobody likes, or expensive simulators that only exist for specialized training. Non-game 2D ideas? That’s designing Amazon or eBay, which was somebody else’s project entirely.

          1. Daimbert says:

            Which means that you have to use the existing models – arguably all of them — as starting points and massage them to get what you want. I believe that the other side thought Shamus was focusing too much on the standard and not really thinking about how an experience different from that would work, which is what annoyed them.

            1. Echo Tango says:

              There is no amount of “massaging” that could make any of this project work, with any software model. Simulations are expensive, and this company is paying for the small software/game studio that Shamus worked at. 2D shopping like Amazon doesn’t fit, because the company specifically wanted 3D.

              The fundamental problem is that a computer is completely different from the physical world, yet this company assumed that computers act the same way as the physical world. Yes, a company could design a user experience form the ground up to make an “online 3D shopping mall” work, but the company in question clearly hadn’t thought deeply about this project, which means they weren’t expecting it to be a from-scratch, experimental, time-consuming RnD project.

              1. Daimbert says:

                There is no amount of “massaging” that could make any of this project work, with any software model. Simulations are expensive, and this company is paying for the small software/game studio that Shamus worked at. 2D shopping like Amazon doesn't fit, because the company specifically wanted 3D.

                Yes. Technically, they can’t provide precisely what the company is asking for. But Shamus’ first comment was not about technical feasibility, but was about what users would want, based on the existing standards. If he hadn’t started with that but instead with “This will use a lot of memory and loading for something that most people will eventually ignore”, things might have gone smoother, especially since later he could indeed say for things like the carts that the technical aspects would be difficult to manage and it wouldn’t sound as much like “I don’t think people want this experience”.

        2. Chaotic says:

          You gotta understand this is happening in 1998. Everquest would be released in 1999. The closest applicable program to what the business side wants to accomplish would be Ultima Online (released in 1997), or something like Meridian 59, one of the earliest MMOs. Basically, the user interface would be horrible, half of the things the business side wanted to make would be practically possible, and even if the technology existed to make this happen, no software producer would have the practical knowledge to create it, without a significant R&D budget. Even if you made the program specifically to shopping purposes, it still wouldn’t look much better than the best “virtual online malls” of the time.

          1. Theo says:

            Y’know, Super Mario 64 came out in 1996, and there are games even today that don’t handle movement through a 3D environment as well as it did, but no one would think to use that as a model for a mall. Actually, I think it’d be hilarious if they had, and maybe even successful. Imagine a bunch of people loading up the e-mall on “cyber monday” and triple-jumping their way over each other’s heads to get to the best stuff.


            The controls available to an average PC user wouldn’t support it even if it really were a really great idea, though.

            1. Decus says:

              Alright, now make mario64 an MMO and make it render objects in such detail as to make you want to purchase them. Fill shelves with multiple objects while multiple other “objects” are walking around in this virtual space, compared to your average mario64 level with its low polygon, blocky models of which there are rarely more than a few on-screen at once. Still in 1998. When most of your potential customers struggle to load and navigate 2D web-pages, both due to rendering and internet connection.

      2. Joshua says:

        Interesting thing is, even MMOs don’t use 3D modeling for shopping, they use menus similar to what you’d find on Amazon or something. Can you imagine taking your avatar to browse around a shoppe and clicking on actual models of items to see what they are and what they do? Sounds great in theory with verisimilitude and all that, but horribly clunky in reality. Is cool exactly once, and then gets old quickly.

        1. Daimbert says:

          Many, though, are using the idea of “trying them on” for things like armour and weapons so you can see what they look like before buying, and so for anything with an aesthetic component being able to see and rotate it DOES seem to be important. Useless for specs, though …

    3. Burning says:

      At least in your examples, you are criticizing Shamus for things I’m pretty sure he didn’t say.

      In the teleport issue, the point of it wasn’t to prevent people from walking, it was not forcing, them to walk. Sure, they might want to walk sometimes. They’re going to be less keen when they are shopping alone and the two stores they are interested in are on opposite ends of the virtual space.

      In the shopping cart issue, he was protesting having an inventory management system. He was protesting making the inventory management system have a constant presence in the virtual space.

      In general, artificially forcing real world limitations onto a computer interface is a bad idea, unless the challenge imposed by them is desirable. In an MMO, teleporting always either has a cost or has time limits or is rationed in some other way. And there are a lot of good gameplay reasons for this, not least being that it helps make territory that’s supposed to be unsafe feel unsafe. But your backpack, or whatever the inventory management system is called is just a little thing down in the corner of the window that you can expand into a pop-up. They don’t make you sling something off your avatar’s back, and then root around in it for the thing you want.

      In a shopping environment, imposing challenges is unlikely to be desireable, so the only real world features you should be including should be ones that improve the experience.

      1. Daimbert says:

        The teleport issue was built on not having an external facade to walk through because most people wouldn’t want to walk that much. The counter was that it would provide the right environment to get them into the mindset of being in an actual mall. While I think people would ignore it really quickly — after all, that’s what they do in the real world — it’s a valid comment that making it seem more like actual shopping might be a good thing, and probably wouldn’t be annoying enough to people to cause issues. But, again, that’s just an example of the two different approaches and viewpoints, which is why my belief is that the meeting went so badly because of the clash of visions. Sure, they didn’t know the technical side, but I think they expected to be told that things weren’t technically possible. But a lot of the answers, it seems to me, are about what the experience should be liked based on the experience gained from working with significantly different experiences, which may not map that well.

        For the shopping cart, I think things were already in trouble by then and everyone was frustrated with everyone, but that would be a perfect time for an answer of “An actual physical shopping cart is going to be difficult to maneuver in the world given the engine we have. What can we do to give the same sort of experience but not have to have a physical cart?”

        And to summarize my point, the idea here was to build an experience like that in the real world, and thus to keep the things that people like in the real world and only dump the things that can’t be done, or that annoy them. So my experience with this sort of design — for different things, obviously — is always to avoid specific solutions and ask what it is they want to get out of that. Sometimes, I can give them a better idea. Sometimes, they’re right about what we’d want to do. And sometimes they’re right about what we want but it can’t be done, so we need a compromise. That it’s that way in real life isn’t always a benefit, but in general if people are familiar with that it’s better than something they aren’t used to at all.

        1. Groo The Wanderer says:

          I would say this ..

          Let’s say they somehow get it all right, even though most of this technology didn’t exist in a usable form at the time, but let’s say they strike gold and get it all right and they replicate the actual experience of Shopping in a mall.

          WHY would I do it online when I could go to a real mall and get it then? Keep in mind that at this time overnight delivery was REALLY expensive if even available. You are probably looking at the better part of a week to ship and at least a day to a week to fill the order. So I am waiting probably 6 to 10 days to get a camera that I could have gone to the real mall and gotten in under an hour. Also at this time most online stores offered little real discount from their Brick and Mortar counterparts because it was expensive to build that online presence and back end infrastructure and even when the discount was there the shipping costs almost always ate up those savings. I remember trying to shop online at the time and it always worked out as more expensive than purchasing it locally. The only things I bought online were things I could either pickup locally (essentially just submitting an order) OR things that I simply could not get any other way.

          People who shopped online, or were likely to start, at that time did it for one of two reasons (in general).
          1. People hate the hassle of actually going to a store and then having to deal with other customers, staff, etc.
          For many this is the reason they shop online. For me it’s the only reason really, I can’t stand rude people and shopping seems to bring out the worst in so many. If you try and replicate that real world feel (physical carts I have to push, items I have to sort through, etc) then you are essentially introducing many of the elements that I want to avoid when shopping.

          2. The item wasn’t available in their area / they didn’t have a mall.
          This is valid for sure but keep in mind if they don’t have a mall nearby at that time they were FOR SURE on dial-up which is a tough way to play in an MMO style program. Also there were other digital storefronts available at the time. Many were garish, primitive and even clunky to use but they did get the job done. Why would I want to download what would have to be a large program / engine to shop online when I could quickly hit a website and get the same deal (granted it would be in a less immersive experience).

          Having said that I will grant that their idea, while horribly flawed, is on the bleeding edge at the time. They are basically wanting to make an “MMO Sims shopping” game well ahead of the Sims or MMO’s even being a thing. Unfortunately the vision is being applied to COMPLETELY the wrong experience and situation.

          You don’t need hindsight to be able to see that this was a horrible, horrible idea, though it could build out some interesting technology that could be ported into a game engine IF they could actually deliver on this guys expectations.

          1. Daimbert says:

            The things is, though, I think their idea was to branch out into another market, and aim this at “social shopping”, essentially the group of people — stereotypically women — who treat shopping as a social activity. This would let them do that in a huge mall, with lots of choices, no annoying downtown of travelling to and from stores, geographically separated, without the issues of trying to find a time when the stores are open (do it at midnight if you want). I agree it’s a bad idea, though, for two reasons:

            1) Technically it wasn’t — and still isn’t — possible to do that in a satisfying way. You probably need full VR to really make that work.

            2) It’s not clear that there’s enough of this to make money. Sure, a lot of these social shopping trips result in a lot of purchases, but a lot of them are just browsing and rely heavily on sales. It’s not clear that they’ll really make money on this.

            But the initial idea of trying to appeal to this market can sound appealing. At the time, it just couldn’t be actually realized in a way that worked.

            1. You’ve clearly never worked retail, because shoppers like this don’t actually exist in the real world. People don’t actually wander around malls and stores with their friends to any great extent. I’ve been working retail jobs for 20+ years. I’ve worked every conceivable type of retail, from outlet discounters to grocery stores. I’ve even worked online retail. This is how shopping is portrayed in MOVIES.

              In real life, If you encounter two women shopping together, one is the mom and the other is the daughter and one of them is there to give the other one advice. They are not socializing, they are probably arguing. If there is a “group of friends” wandering around they are browsing, not buying, because they don’t have anywhere else to be at the moment. (Chances are good they’re either broke pre-teens, teenagers, or college students. They have free time but no jobs.) Chances are that none of them will spend a dime on anything over $5.

              People who “shop for fun” are HORRIBLE customers. They return 5 out of 6 things that they buy and cause so many hassles for the staff that there’s probably a huge loss on item number 6. They don’t shop with friends. They shop alone, generally rummaging through the clearance racks. Neither of which you can do online.

              The people who socialize in stores aren’t socializing about SHOPPING. They’re just blocking the aisle to chat with their friends about something completely unrelated. Or they’re lonely old people who buttonhole random strangers or the staff to tell them long rambling stories for 45 minutes. For them, this is mostly an opportunity to GET OUT OF THE HOUSE FOR A WHILE. They don’t want to do this online because doing it from the comfort of their own home would actually COMPLETELY DEFEAT THE PURPOSE.

              The social aspect of shopping is not actually a real thing the way this guy was describing it. It is not something that people do and enjoy. For the vast majority of people a shopping simulator like this without any other real game elements is roughly equivalent to having a “do the dishes” or “rake the yard” simulator. Yeah, you can DO it. But WHY.

              What John Business was asking for here is virtually identical to a proposal to create a Virtual Coffee Shop that’s actually a word processing program but in order to open up your file you need to buy virtual coffee, chat with the virtual barista, wait for a virtual table to open up, find a way to plug in your virtual laptop, and then finally get to work. It’s just like going to a coffee shop to work on your novel! People do that, right!? It makes perfect sense!

              No. No, it really doesn’t.

              1. Daimbert says:

                I disagree that these sorts of social shoppers don’t exist, as I have seen and heard lots about them (mostly from husbands complaining about it, but also in other ways). I agree that the bulk of retail transactions are not of that sort. However, it certainly at the time was not uncommon for women particularly to get together and go shopping every so often as a social outing. The shopping was pretty much just an excuse for the women to go out together in an environment where they all shared common interests. Kinda like spa days. The stereotypical male equivalent was men going out to the sports bar to watch the game. So, it does exist. It’s just not, again, the majority. Could you make a virtual mall that could provide a good enough experience to draw enough of this small, inconsistent market to make a profit? I say, as I said, no, because the market isn’t big enough and the technology does not exist to make it a close enough experience to make it worthwhile.

                What John Business was asking for here is virtually identical to a proposal to create a Virtual Coffee Shop that's actually a word processing program but in order to open up your file you need to buy virtual coffee, chat with the virtual barista, wait for a virtual table to open up, find a way to plug in your virtual laptop, and then finally get to work. It's just like going to a coffee shop to work on your novel! People do that, right!? It makes perfect sense!

                No. No, it really doesn't.

                No, it doesn’t for the people who just want to get out of the house. It WOULD for people who either don’t want to or can’t get out of the house, but still want to feel like they’re, in some way, around other people. There are indeed people who might think that way — and I warn you that if you deny that I will take it quite personally [grin] — but not enough to make that a viable business, even if those technical details could be worked out.

                Again, the problem here is that their idea isn’t possible technically, and the market that would want it is too small to make it financially viable.

              2. If you encounter two women shopping together, one is the mom and the other is the daughter and one of them is there to give the other one advice. They are not socializing, they are probably arguing.

                Have you been spying on me? o_0

                That said, I have done “social shopping” with friends (and spent rather more than the local equivalent of $5 doing so), but personally it is very much NOT my natural state because generally I don’t like shopping. What I like, usually, is to have a plan of what I’m looking for, track it down, buy it, and take it home, with as little deviation from this path as possible. Even when I do go social shopping, I will rarely go without some compatible purchase goal in mind. I really do not understand the point of shopping for the sake of shopping and browsing – I can usually think of many things I would rather do with that time (and potentially money). If I consent to go social shopping with you, that means you rank extremely highly in my social order.

          2. Abnaxis says:

            I think it’s a valid point to counter that just looking at why current online shoppers shop is not necessarily the best idea, because there’s a slew of non-online-shoppers that you can get all to yourself if you give them a shopping experience they can’t get anywhere else.

            I mean sure: people shop online so they can avoid crowds and buy stuff they can’t get locally. There’s already tons of sites for those people, so why not create a site for the millions of other people who shop because they enjoy it and consider it a social outing instead, so we don’t have to compete with those other sites?

            I thin the real problem with this meeting is that video. From what I gather, it probably had a bunch of BS buzzwords and general statements that didn’t make clear what sort of consumer they wanted to cater to or what the overall goal was, it was just “let’s make a virtual mall because it’s shiny.”

            If I was in Shamus’s shoes, at the first impractical question I got I would have answered with “what do you actually want to get out of this,” but that’s largely because I do have an engineering degree so I know I could find a job somewhere else.

            1. Daimbert says:

              I think it would have been valid, not a CLM, and useful for Shamus to have asked “Who do you see as the typical user of this product?”. Technical people ask that all the time, so it wouldn’t be seen as any kind of denial or question, and the answer could have opened up some insights. Also, Shamus could have dodged questions by saying that he needed to look at how an interface could work given that user and the technical limitations.

              But, of course, hindsight’s 20-20.

            2. “There's already tons of sites for those people, so why not create a site for the millions of other people who shop because they enjoy it and consider it a social outing instead, so we don't have to compete with those other sites?”

              Because shopping online isn’t an OUTING. When the literal point is to *physically go somewhere else* there is NO way to replicate this experience online. This is like asking “why don’t some travel sites focus on people who like to stay home for their vacation?” Because that is NOT TRAVELING.

              1. It’d probably be possible to build something like a “virtual mall”, but the core of the experience wouldn’t be shopping or “socializing while shopping” per se. Any items that changed hands would be secondary to the primary program functions of drawing people in and entertaining them in some way.

                Exploring, getting virtual swag, showing off said virtual swag, people watching, collecting things, various games, etc. It would work much better as a large *marketing machine* than as a store.

                Which, in retrospect, might have been a way to pitch it to John Business that he could grasp. This isn’t a store/point of sale. It’s a gigantic, ongoing, and expensive marketing campaign.

              2. Daimbert says:

                This is like asking “why don't some travel sites focus on people who like to stay home for their vacation?” Because that is NOT TRAVELING.

                But it would be “staycations”. So having a vacation site — to avoid the tautology — that focuses on arranging staycations rather than actual traveling might work, as it could hit that market. The question is if that market is big enough to keep the site going.

                In terms of a virtual travel site, again if you could provide a reasonable enough experience, there are indeed a number of people who would like to, say, go and see and somewhat explore famous landmarks without having to go through the trouble and expense of actually traveling there. They’d be willing to accept a diminished experience for the convenience and lack of cost if the technology could be “good enough”. So, in this case, if VR ever takes off there’s a market for VR tours and vacations. Sure, you lose some things, but it can potentially offer other things (for example, greater interactivity because you can’t, say, move things around in a real landmark because you might damage the artifacts, but that’s not a concern here).

                Which ties back to my original points about why this virtual mall they want is a flawed idea:

                1) The market of social shoppers isn’t big enough and doesn’t spend enough to make an idea that seems focused on them financially viable.

                2) Even if it was, the technology of the time — and even today — can’t provide a “close enough” experience for them to do it regularly.

        2. Gilfareth says:

          I agree that a clash of visions is partially responsible: John Business in this meeting appears to be married to the idea of perfectly replicating the experience of mall shopping in a virtual space, down to the act of placing items in your cart and (presumably) wheeling it to a checkout. Down to the point where users start outside looking at the front of the store itself before going inside.

          But there’s two problems here. The first is the basic misconception John went into the whole project with, but second his technological ignorance was so great (and his trust of Shamus so small) that even with his communication skills Shamus could not have gotten to the core of the problem and have John Business really understand the basic fault of his vision for the project.

          Plus, at this point the idea has so much inertia and the only chance Shamus has here to fix things is within an environment where he actually has very little power to fix anything.

          1. Mistwraithe says:

            A key point here is that Shamus appears to have only been asked to provide technical advice on what could be done.

            Really the meeting needed to be taken back several steps and instead be a design discussion about what SHOULD be done.

            It seems pretty clear that Shamus didn’t have the power to re-structure the meeting in these terms.

    4. Alex says:

      With the benefit of hindsight, what they _should_ have been building is, of course, amazon. The clash of ideas here is between a workable e-commerce platform an a pipe dream.
      Through that lens, Shamus’ objections are totally on point. The MMO frame of reference is a red herring.

  7. Andrew Blank says:

    You can actually come kind of close to replicating the shopping experience by just browsing Amazon while talking on Skype. It’s obviously not as good as physically being there, you can’t pick stuff up or try it on, but the social aspects are all there.

    1. Decus says:

      Yeah, even back then you could replicate it well enough using a messenger. Online shopping wasn’t as big, but you could easily have just made your own chat program targeted at shoppers, designed to link them together. I remember talking through shopping with relatives over a messenger at some point in the late 90s or early 2000s.

      Johnny Business probably just thought encarta’s mindmaze was super neato and wanted to do a virtual world of shopping as his pet project. Nobody around him was the correct combination of knowledgeable and willing to tell him why that was a bad idea.

  8. Fizban says:

    Instead of a full shopping cart, you use a handbasket. When they click on an item their avatar walks to the shelf. Only the last couple items are displayed on top, and if there’s more stuff below a general pile of stuff shape is placed under them, but even that’s starting to say variations of “no” again. I can’t even deal with talking to basic managers, let alone corporate stooges.

    1. Burning says:

      There’s a further problem with a “physical” cart or basket that Shamus didn’t mention. Today in online shopping, there are essentially two models. In one, the “shopping cart” is really just the list of things you intend to order. If there’s some indicator that quantity is getting low, you know not to dally, or you risk someone else ordering it first. Most users recognize “shopping cart” as just a catchy name and understand that you have no claim to the item until you click “check out.” In the other (usually applied more to things like event tickets than physical goods) selecting an item does claim it, but only for a limited window of time. If you don’t pay up before that little clock runs down to zero, it goes back on the publicly available list.

      If you are wandering a virtual space, and an item goes into some container that you are carrying or pushing around, you will feel like you’ve “claimed” it. It should be available whenever you decide to check out. The user is likely to become quite cross if it isn’t in fact still available once they check out.

      1. Duoae says:

        Taking that excellent analysis to its logical end point, you can quickly imagine the shopper who, having picked up an item off the shelf, fails to make it to the checkout in time because it’s such a long way away and they are forced to walk!

        I actually think that this is why John business wanted scarcity on shelves so that when an item is taken it is reserved.

  9. Vermander says:

    Wouldn’t having actual avatars pushing shopping carts around also present serious issues for users with older PCs or poor internet connections?

    I would think a large part of your customer base would be people who live in more remote, or less populated areas that might not be able to support a high end shopping mall and aren’t able to visit one regularly. I would also assume a good portion of those people might not have the latest hardware and might have spotty internet access (especially since this is 2000).

    1. Decus says:

      It would depend on the products being sold/envisioned. High-end fashion and high-end electronics? As he noted, they did sensibly want to sell expensive products first. That was also why he mentioned shopping carts as at-odds in the first place–nobody buying high-end goods wants to use a shopping cart, real or virtual! That’s what you use when shopping with the commons.

      1. Syal says:

        For high-end merchandise you use a solid gold shopping cart that’s being pulled by a team of horses.

  10. Zak McKracken says:

    It's like an automaker and an aerospace company teaming up to make flying cars.

    In unrelated news, the actual attempt to make flying cars is very close to what Shamus describes here: Planes need to have properties (large wing span, lots of wing area, nice low drag, generate lift, very low mass) that do not square well with the properties which are good for cars (no wider than 2 meters max. maybe 5 meters long if you must, flat underside, low drag if you must but definitely never generate lift, engine which can change loads in fractions of a second, so turbines are out). You can overcome those limitations by not caring about efficiency. So you could build a “transformer” which lugs around useless foldable wings and stabilizers in car mode which do nothing but be in the way, look ugly, and they’d be both heavier and smaller than they’d be for a good aircraft. In airplane mode, it’d have to fly with those crummy wings but also lug around all the car stuff, and the external shape of the whole thing can’t really be ideal for an aircraft so there’s additional drag, which means you need a larger engine (itself some strange mixture of an aircraft and a car engine, unless you’re okay to have separate engines — but that’s even heavier), and a bigger tank, which needs even more power to get off the ground … it’s all technically totally feasible and has been for ages but the compromises you’d have to make would make for a chimera of a bad car and a bad plane — and that’s why we don’t have those.

    1. SeekerOfThePath says:

      BTW, an inventor in Slovak republic is on a good way to mass production of flying cars:

      They are expecting to start taking orders next year and deliver the vehicles 2-3 years after that.

      1. Zak McKracken says:

        They are not the first company to do this, and proabably won’t be the last but I guarantee that they will not sell a lot of these things. That’s like buying a small plane and a sports car at the same time, except for the same money you could get a better car and a better plane. And you still need to drive to an airport to actually take off.

        I will say, though, that this particular incarnation looks way less crappy than others:

        That said, my favourite is still this series:

    2. Daemian Lucifer says:

      Various prototypes for flying cars already exist.The main problem is not the design of the car,its how they would drive?You already need at least some practice in order to drive a regular car,and even then there are countless accidents that kill countless humans every day.Now imagine what would happen if suddenly all of those people had a third dimension to work with.

      No,we wont have commercial flying cars until self driving cars become at least 75% of ground traffic.

      1. Lachlan the Mad says:

        Another problem with flying cars is that the maintenance will be more expensive, more difficult, and much more essential.

        By way of analogy, my terrible little student car has a small transmission fluid leak. If I don’t keep it topped up, then whenever I try to accelerate from a stop, it fires off a big old cloud of blue smoke and only picks up speed very grudgingly (because it’s trying to accelerate from zero in third gear). This is annoying for other drivers and really hurts the fuel economy, but it’s perfectly drivable and not (to me) worth the cost of a new transmission (because a new transmission would cost almost as much as a new car).

        Now imagine what would happen in a flying car. If you tried to take off with a dodgy transmission, your car would not work. Best case, it would splutter on the ground; worst case, it would jump up, stall, and crash. Even the tiniest flaws in a flying car’s mechanical parts would require immediate service, or the drivers would be at serious risk of death.

      2. Sven says:

        I have a private pilot license, and can definitely attest to this. It takes a lot of effort, time and money to learn how to fly. It requires you to learn about aerodynamics, aircraft systems, weather, air traffic control, airspace, and many other things. We don’t need flying cars blindly wandering into the class B airspace of a major airport. We already have that problem with drones!

        If they ever want to use their flying cars during a day where visibility isn’t optimal (i.e. there’s low clouds), you also need an instrument rating, and now you’ve got all these people filing IFR flight plans? And you’re back to needing an airport to take off/land, because I don’t think the road outside your house has a published instrument approach.

        Flying cars are absolutely impractical unless they are 100% automated, and integrate into the existing airspace system seamlessly to minimize their impact on commercial and general aviation.

        And yeah, as Lachlan pointed out, the maintenance side would be interesting. There’s a reason why pilots do a full inspection of their plane before every flight. How often have you checked the fuel in your car to make sure there’s no water mixed in? I’m guessing never. When flying, you do it every time you fly, and after you fuel. A stalled engine on the ground is inconvenient, while one in the air is a big problem (although fairly survivable in a small plane, unless you’re in the mountains).

        Again, you’d have to have some way to completely automate every part of the pre-flight check, including things like checking if the leading edges of the propeller don’t have any dents, and translate it into a check engine light. One that the owner would not be allowed to ignore.

  11. Slothfulcobra says:

    From the sound of the meeting, it seems like John Business had a very, very specific idea of what he wanted, but was expressing it in the worst possible way.

    Maybe just write up a paper with all the specifics you’re after if there are so many, dude. This isn’t how proposals and design documents are done. You might as well be designing an air conditioner by playing 20 questions.

    1. Matt Downie says:

      I think he has a fairly clear vision – he is imagining every possible feature of real-life shopping put on a computer. But he hasn’t realised how that’s an expensive way to create a worst-of-both-worlds scenario. Communication isn’t the problem. The problem is he is trying to implement a bad idea.

    2. Daemian Lucifer says:

      Yeah,the problem was that he expected the main issues being the same as in real world.Instead,he shouldve simply said “I want XYZ,so you guys plan ABC that would most closely resemble that and show it to me”.

    3. Decus says:

      I doubt 1998 was a time where both the engineers and businessmen realized the importance of requirements engineering. Heck, even today I’d say the business side rarely realizes the importance of it until after you’re explaining to them that they’ll need to pay extra for something because that thing you wrote up and that they signed didn’t mention it as a requirement.

      Remember that this was during a bubble. During a bubble the primary principle everybody operates under is fast fast fast gotta go fast. You don’t want to be too slow to get in on the bubble before it bursts. I don’t even want to think about the legal nightmare most of those projects became if they didn’t have clear requirements documents.

    4. Xeorm says:

      It’s far more that the entire process is out of order. Ideally the process is something like this: Have an idea, run it through a feasibility exam, then work on the project if it ends up looking like a good idea. This third bit is when you hire a company like the one Shamus was hired at. (Or more precisely, run it through a meeting first to make sure said company can do what you hired them to do) This is where the meeting with Shamus should come into play. Can you do it? What do you need if you can’t? What are any concerns you might have?

      Instead, the business people skipped a few steps. Most notably they started with the idea, skipped the feasibility check, and then went straight to hiring the company to produce their idea, before even checking with them on how the idea would work out or how things would ideally be run.

      This was precisely the problem with the dot com bubble. Lots of people with lots of money throwing it around, but no one doing good business. An idea like this should never have gotten to Shamus like it was, because it was beyond stupid. But, no one wanted to hear no, and everyone too much money for their own good. So you had stupid wastes of it like this.

      It’s also a classic engineering problem. Engineers do not have access to money. That’s for richer people, or the scarce few engineers that manage to sell their inventions for lots of cash. But, because the non-engineers are not engineers, they make stupid decisions on where money goes and how it’s used. John Business has a clear vision and is clearly detailing what he wants, but his vision is one constructed by a non-engineer. The job of the engineer is to make it work, even though it cannot. Shamus’s problem is that he’s trying to elevate himself to the position of business guy and tell what the vision should be.

  12. wswordsmen says:

    I am going to repeat my last comment from post 3. You should have gotten out immediately. You knew that this was the biggest most important thing the company has ever done and you know it will be a massive dud. That means the company is going to take a huge hit in value and that will probably cost you your job anyway.

    Once again you probably already know all this and don’t appreciate a rando telling you this.

    Not actually sure why I am posting it.

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      The benefit of hindsight.

      1. I predict this meeting will end in disaster!

        *Crash Dot Com Part 5*

        I stand correct.

    2. Zak McKracken says:

      I think that is way more difficult to do in the moment, especially when everyone around you thinks otherwise. The thing is: If everyone around you thinks you’re wrong there’s a real chance that you are indeed wrong. Because, you know, people are sometimes wrong, and that includes the protagonist of your life as much as anyone else.

      So, would you end your career based on a single meeting where didn’t think the project presented was a good idea, or would you maybe rather try and work out whether things are indeed as bad as you fear, or whether you either misunderstood a few things or the course can still change, if early focus group testing reveals that users don’t like the things which Shamus already knew they weren’t gonna like? Or maybe the deal is cut in a way that Shamus’ company gets lots of money for their work even if it does not work out for the customer? Much of that will depend on the fine print of contracts of which Shamus would have no insight at this point.

      Hindsight is 20/20, is what I’m saying.

      1. Anon says:

        Exactly this.

        In this type of meeting you’re scrabbling to figure out the answer to the question “Why is everyone else in this room happy with the concept?”

        While at the same time trying to answer the questions directed at you, in a way that doesn’t burn the bridges you’ll need tomorrow or accidentally commits any of your team to anything they can’t do.
        – And as you don’t know which bridges those are, you can’t burn any of them.

        That said, ending up in a meeting like this is a sure-fire indicator that your management is incompetent, and something is going to go very badly wrong. The problem is – what?

        A few years ago I was in a similar situation, and eventually the project manager was fired – but not before they’d dragged my name through the mud.

        Even though I managed to ensure the customer got what they needed, the way I ended up being hauled over the coals destroyed all trust in my immediate management.

        Anon just in case.

  13. NFK says:

    This whole fiasco sounds like the insane disconnect between programmer and producer that occurred on the production of the Doom port for 3DO. Essentially, the producer had no clue about how making a video game worked, and assumed that adding new guns or enemies was simply a process of conjuring up the art assets and bundling them into the game.

    Something laypeople often fail to grasp about computers is that they will perform any instructions given to the letter, and no more. It’s not for nothing that Joseph Campbell (the same one who discussed the monomyth) quipped that “…[the computer] seems to me to be an Old Testament god with a lot of rules and no mercy.”

    1. wswordsmen says:

      Joseph Campbell knew what he was talking about. That is exactly what a computer is. Very powerful, inhuman, merciless entity that can make your life significantly easier or significantly worse depending on its action.

    2. Daemian Lucifer says:

      Something laypeople often fail to grasp about computers is that they will perform any instructions given to the letter, and no more.

      But often far far less.

    3. Xapi says:

      “The thing you have to know about the computer,” said my grandfather, as he was teaching me to use Lotus 123 and some early precursor of Paint on his 286 in the early 1990s, “is that it will do what you tell it to do. It will not do what you WANT it to do, but what you TELL it to do. And you need to know the difference.”

      1. Or as a professor told us on the first day of Intro to Programming, “A computer is just a dumb box. It only knows how to do three things: Read and write data, count, and answer yes/no questions.”

  14. Jabrwock says:

    I think the fundamental misunderstanding was that they were trying to treat a virtual store as a carbon copy of brick and mortar, when what they should have been treating it was as an enhanced mail-order catalogue.

    This is why Amazon took off. It was Sears’ wish book with more info.

  15. Paul Spooner says:

    This series seems to be all about peer pressure.

    A huge part of the fun of shopping is that it is engagement in group activity. It appeals to peer pressure. You see someone else buying something, and you want it too, there must be something to it, after all, if all these other people are doing it. You can’t see the other people on a website though, so this feeling is lost, and with it the buying pressure. Looking at people taking things off the shelves gives you the feeling of urgency. John Business understood this. He wanted to bring the social and peer-pressure motivations to make purchases to the online shopping experience.

    The meeting you’re describing is miserable because you are feeling the tension between peer pressure and your own convictions. Peer pressure is useful because it helps us to accept already-proven optimal solutions without proving them for ourselves. But in this case, it was working against the group, because they thought they knew what was important about shopping (carts, architecture, scarcity, physicality) and were missing the drawbacks. They also missed the core idea, that of bringing peer pressure to online shopping. Amazon would get part-way there with their “People who bought this also bought…” ribbon. I think we have still to see this principle fully explored, and perhaps that’s for the best.

    And the whole bubble itself is an example of peer pressure gone awry as well. A triply nested peer pressure misunderstanding shenanigan.

  16. Christopher says:

    These last couple of blog posts are the most nerve-wracking articles on the site besides that one blog post where Rutskarn talked about improvisation and storytelling-only RPGs. That’s a rough situation to be in.

  17. VaporWare says:

    …right around the point you started talking about items disappearing from shelves and falling into carts my brain started screaming about simulation granularity and Dwarf Malls.

  18. On top of all of this is the problem of texture data. I'm sure the dream is that the user can walk up to a camera and examine it closely and see all the little details. That means every item on every shelf needs to be using enormous texture maps.

    So… is this like when I see a pixelated version of something in a game and then it slowly gets more fixed to be finely detailed to see the intricacies?

    They’re trying to build this in 1998? Most games back then couldn’t even do this. Most games looked like Minecraft but more pixelated.

    1. Sunshine says:

      I’m reading this after watching “Twenty Minutes With…Opposing Force” (and Josh’s troubles with the controls) so I have a clear idea of the problem.

  19. Hypatia says:

    The whole thing was so amazingly doomed even if you could pull off a miracle where lay users could use it perfectly and without frustration because the social experience of a mall would be the most impossible part of the mall to replicate. It wouldn’t be able to replicate why people go to the malls as a social experience, which is not just that there is shopping but that it is often the easiest air conditioned space that isn’t the home for people in an area to meet at and being able to try many of the items physically with friends and family. Given that most users would be using this at home, no way in heck was there going to be voice communication in 1998, lack of facial expressions, and at most canned emotes, why wouldn’t they just use a chat room?

  20. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

    1.) in public administration we have entire quirks and twists of the rules for one purpose: to evade open meetings laws so that we do not end up in this exact situation. This never should have been done in an open meeting. These design goals should have been floated to the staff weeks in advance for them to comment back to their principals. Our hosts boss should have sent the document to him way earlier so that he could send back a memo saying “Boss, this idea is horrible!” (I have actually seen such a memo from the city planner to the city manager saying, in effect, no way, no how -can’t be done, absolutely batty idea, and if you try to do it anyway, I want the right to say “I told you so” after it explodes in the city’s face. Though that planner was a particular type of manager.) The boss could read the memo, and then go back and talk to him and work these problems out in private. Only after all the staff has had the chance to work the problem and come to a position should they go to an open meeting where words have actual consequences.

    We do this because if a quorum is present, then the decisions of the body are binding -thus if we aren’t ready to make a decision, it is essential that there not be a quorum present either. Only one or two officials in the room with the staff, and even then, frequently none while the staff gets its ideas together, and then pitches to one or two officials at a time. The private sector, not having these rules, should be easier! I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse, actually.

    2.) I wonder if the year is important in another way. Enclosed malls became a thing in the late 1970s in part because of the start of the crime wave that began in the same time period. The idea dated back further, but what developers in the period thought was that the walls and gates and security guards made the mall a safer place to shop than the open streets of the city. That idea persisted until the crime wave broke in the late 1990s (I’m cribbing Joel Garreau’s argument from Edge City here), when open-air malls and downtown revitalization became prominent in developer circles.

    So I wonder if what the business guys are really thinking is “if the enclosed mall is safe, then the virtual mall is safer!” That is, what they are really going after is the mall but with more restricted access -which a computer doesn’t actually achieve (as we know, from dealing with trolls).

  21. venatus says:

    I’m pretty sure it was shamus’s twitter that pointed me to this video in the first place but this whole project is kinda reminding me of that sketch “the expert”

    1. Xeorm says:

      That video always makes cringe so badly. It amazes me that this is actually what happens at times. The world constantly astounds me.

    2. EwgB says:

      Oh my god, you made my day. Thank you!

  22. Duoae says:

    Never been in a situation like this but it strikes me that the problem is entirely that the purveyors of an old way of doing things want to get into the new way of doing things.

    Now, it’s great that they are seeing the opportunity here because the tendency is to ignore and stomp on the new way of doing things (a la the record and visual entertainment industries). However, they clearly don’t understand how the new way works out what makes it new and exciting, they just know it *is*.

    You can also see this in the early (legal) streaming and DRM music/video scene when, after having resisted the new thing, they tried to implement their old ways of doing things into the new way…. and it was just frustrating and inconvenient. In the same way, this ‘physical’ virtual mall is a ridiculous concept notwithstanding technical limitations 20 years ago, today or 20 years into the future…

  23. Marty says:

    I’m working on a play based on this series:

    John Business: Can we have users wait in line before they check out?
    Shamus: … well, yes, but…
    John Business: Great! How about when users are checking out, could some items need a price check?
    Shamus: … yeah, but…
    John Business: Superb! Could users have to find virtual store clerks to get items off of tall shelves?

  24. Oleyo says:

    Hey Shamus, thanks for the PTSD style flashbacks that this article is giving me! I vividly recall making that first camera model and being terrified at the prospect of having to make reams of items to stock virtual shelves.

    Also, your face after coming out of those meetings… Many an enjoyable whiteboard conversation was had over the ‘can-o-beans’, however. Good Times… ?

  25. Rollory says:

    Amazing read.

    Compare to Amazon today, and everything people get annoyed about in MMOs, and it becomes obvious just how much Mr. Business didn’t know and didn’t want to know he didn’t know.

    I was in some similar meetings a few years after this, where I was thinking “what they are doing is a terrible idea and they SHOULD be doing THIS” but figured I was just a nobody and they wouldn’t listen to me so I stayed quiet. They probably wouldn’t have, but have decided in the years since that speaking up in such situations is nearly always better.

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