Hey everybody, today on Five Questions we’re going to be joined by Jon Shafer and we’re going to be discussing how Google is taking over his life. Hey Jon, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me. It’s good to be on.
Jon, why don’t you introduce yourself to the guest before we get into it?
I am the president of Conifer Games
which is a new game development studio in Michigan. Prior to that, I worked at Stardock Entertainments for a couple of years and then before that I worked at Firaxis
mainly on the civilization franchise where I was the lead designer on Civ V
. That’s my professional career. As you pointed out, yes, Google is taking over my life. I’m excited to get into that further and hopefully maybe save me before it’s too late.
Yeah, we will see. Obviously, I was being a little hyperbolic. But a mutual friend of ours, Dirk Knemeyer who’s also a host on the show recommended that we maybe have a conversation about this after you made a comment to him a little while ago saying that a lot of the apps that you use are almost exclusively now Google based applications. We thought we’d have you on the show and talk about what that experience has been like and what that might mean for how you do your work.
Absolutely, it sounds like fun. It’s funny because at this point, as you pointed out I suppose, that is pretty much all I use now. It seems almost unnatural to not work that way. Whenever I hear about working in MS Word or something it makes me chuckle. I guess I’m still in the minority there though.
Why don’t we just jump right into it and take a step back a little bit and tell us the story of how this evolved, was it a sudden thing or just evolved over a course of a couple years? How did you get to a point where you’re exclusively using cloud based Google applications?
Yeah, sure. In the games business, it’s highly … it requires a lot of documentation, be it schedules in spreadsheets or design specifications or outlines for programming structures. Whatever, there’s just a lot of I guess what you could call paperwork which isn’t paper anymore. At Firaxis, like I said, I was the lead designer on Civ V and a large part of my job was producing descriptions of how the game play mechanic should work. What various leaders were going to be part of the game. What their personalities were, all those sorts of things.
Getting that out to the team was a ways a little bit challenging. At that point, Cloud services really hadn’t taken off yet and a large part of the reason why I’m so excited about this is because it solves so many problems that I dealt with during that time. What we would do is we would just produce documents and then we would e-mail them around or we would put them in a shared network folder where everybody could access them. It was never all that convenient, there was no versioning, there was no backups, just built-in to that system. You had to do everything manually.
When I started at Stardock, this changed a little bit where they had been using Google Docs a little bit but weren’t really fully all-in yet. When I discovered that they existed and how it worked, I grabbed on to that pretty quickly because as a game developer, you also tend to switch machines a decent amount of times. I had a laptop that I do a lot of development on and a desktop machine. Going back and forth between them, there was no really convenient way of switching work stations and having everything there.
I’m sure there’s some types of software that can sync things up through the network but we never had that or never did anything like that. Having something that was a simple as Google Docs really, really grabbed me immediately. In one part, it was because of how easy it was to collaborate. You would have a document that obviously is in the Clouds, everybody can access it. If they have an internet connection you just go to your browser, you go to the link, boom, there it is. That certainly makes things a lot easier. It also simplified needing to access it on different machines. I typically do most of my development on one machine now. I actually have a second one on they way so it’s handy there.
At that time I was definitely doing a lot of work between home and work on a laptop, on a desktop and Google Docs allowed me to more easily sync those two up. That was how I originally got started into it. Prior to my time at Stardock, I think that was in, actually, early 2010 or 2011 actually. January 2011 is when I started there and that was when I started getting into it and it really took off from there.
You talk a lot about the collaborative aspects and I think some of that was collaborating with yourself and moving from machine to machine. I know at the studio, within the studio, we use Google Docs a lot when we’re just collaborating on a document and going through and editing the same document simultaneously instead of passing back versions. We always have to get out of Google Docs typically when then we send that to a client to have them give feedback or something like that. I’m wondering, is everyone within your studio, everyone within the company working in that ecosystem or do you have any issues with that barrier between getting in and out of Google Docs with your collaborators?
It was never an issue at Stardock. It isn’t right now with my company in part because there’s really just myself and a couple of people helping part-time and a couple of contractors. I can direct things more easily there. At Stardock, everybody was ushered into that ecosystem and it was pretty much required. Google Calendar was also required at that time. That was the company calendar. Instead of using Outlook or an exchange server or something like that, we did that up for Google as well.
It was never too difficult getting people to use it at a base level but with games in general, it’s hard to get people to use documentation and organization in any sense. In that way, it’s still a challenge and maybe we can get into that a little bit more later.
Sure. That’s a great idea. You’ve painted a pretty good picture of what your experience has been so far. Has there been any drawbacks at all?
There are a couple of things, most of my issues with it are pretty minor. One issue with Cloud base solution, Google in particular is that the tools they provide do tend to be fairly generic, they’re one size fits all. In Google docs you can do most of what a Word processor can do but it doesn’t have all the features that you might find in an MS Word for example.For example, the spreadsheet program that they have is fairly limited in what sorts of logic it is able to perform compared to a fully developed program like Excel that’s been around forever.
You have to adapt your workflow to what they offer and I know some people that are just so familiar with Excel and are doing such specialized tasks with it that they really don’t even consider moving to the Google Cloud base services for that reason. That’s been one of the issues. On a related note, you are basically at the win of your overlord which in this case is Google. When they say that they’re going to shut something down, that’s it. You can’t just save a copy of the program to your hard drive, it’s gone.
I’m stuck in this Google ecosystem where I have Google accounts. I have all these information out there, everything is shared and there is a subpar section of that suite and I really can’t switch away from it. There are certainly a vast number of task managing programs in the Cloud and otherwise available out there. I’ve dabbled in some of them but there’s just so much inertia in terms of sticking with what Google has there already that it’s never really stuck so I’m still using this program that isn’t as good as a lot of the alternatives.
Is there anything where you’re going outside of the Google ecosystem where they provide a solution but you’ve chosen to break that?
I don’t think so. I think everything that they have out there I’m using. Although, they have so many different pieces of software at this point, it’s hard to keep up a little bit.
I found it interesting with Google Reader shutting down. When that was announced, I initially looked for alternatives of how I could continue that behavior and what actually happened was I found a couple, I tried them out, they were okay and I really just stopped looking at any of my feeds and I found some different ways in terms of behavioral approaches not an application solution to fill that gap. I find it really interesting as being dependent on this application for several years in building up probably over a thousand feeds that I was looking at or at least how to log anything and maybe not looking at every day. Just have that just drop and to see what the resulting behaviour was and that was … I find that really … and actually surprising that so quickly just let it go.
I feel that’s the directions things are heading in and I know a lot of people don’t like that and they certainly have every right to not like that but as more and more goes into the Cloud and more and more goes to just computers in general, that’s how it’s going to work.Most people aren’t using software that was written 20 years ago, unless you work at certain companies that don’t upgrade their hardware ever. Time marches on, technology marches on. Interfaces and software solutions march on and that’s how it is. That’s part of my approach when it comes to these issues. I would prefer if that weren’t the case but the convenience that you gain is worth it. I feel like it’s an overall net positive even if there is some inconvenience along the way.
Those conveniences, I think you sounded like you’re saying collaboration and just the seamlessly syncing all of your stuff and not really having to think about how to transfer that stuff. What are the other big benefits you’re getting from having all of your information in the entire ecosystem?
A big one that is related to that is having everything on every device including your phone, including your tablets, everything. This was actually the motivation behind me switching to Gmail. Originally I had a Comcast account that I’ve had forever and I actually have my name on it. Shocking, so hard to get your actual name these days. When I switched over to Gmail, I didn’t get my name. Comcast support for webmail applications and syncing between devices was just really, really poor and their web portal that you access your e-mail through is basically just covered in ads. It’s their way of poking you for a little bit more revenue.
Every time you go and visit it, you feel a little bit dirty. At some point in the past few years, I just decided, you know what, I’m going to switch everything over and I’l have all my mail everywhere, whenever I want. Maybe a year or so ago, they started adding notifications on your phone. What used to be the cases, I would chronically check my e-mail all the time because that’s just how a lot of us are wired. Now, I don’t have to do that because I just put my phone next to me and when an e-mail comes in, my phone dings and then I can check it. You can also get that behavior on your desktop computer now as well.
In a lot of ways this weird tendency of just always needing to go and check something, always needing and updating is mitigated by the fact that there’s now a Cloud based e-mail solution that integrates with the phone really well and can eliminate that. Not only is it more convenient but it also eliminates that certain level of stress of I have to go do this thing always. That was a big part with Gmail and there’s certainly other advantages to it as well. The convenience of having one log in is really, really beneficial. If you had all of these different software programs from different companies, you would probably need an account with each one.
You would have to remember which e-mail address you use or if they allowed you to use an e-mail address and maybe they have weird rules for the password and maybe their service is down because it’s not built off as huge ridiculous Google infrastructure. With the Google Suite, you have one Google account and you can get to everything. It doesn’t matter what it is and it just automatically works and it’s automatically part of your account. In some ways it’s a little bit scary but it’s, again, very, very convenient and very useful. I’ve been attracted to those aspects.
Google also has some other smaller conveniences, the commenting solution that they have in the docs, in the spreadsheets and that sort of thing is pretty neat. It allows you to collaborate with people a little bit more easily. I’ve been doing that quite a bit with an audio intern that we have working on our latest project where at the spreadsheet with a big list of sound files and I described them and then he adds a comment to the cell with the name saying, “Hey, I have a first draft up.” and then I’ll go listen to it and then I’ll reply to his comment and he can see it. E-mails are sent out anytime a comment is put in there.
Nothing super, super sophisticated. But again, it just goes back to its pretty easy to use, it’s very convenient, it’s always there at your fingertips and in classic Google style, it pretty much does exactly what you wanted to do. Maybe it’s missing a couple of things but it always hits the big points. Those are a few of the bigger reasons why I’ve migrated more and more over to Google.
I think my experience has been very similar to yours in terms of the benefits and the positive experiences. You mentioned something that I want to touch on. I think there’s obviously been a lot of talk in the public and in the media and into design circles around the mobile and designing for mobile. As I listen to you talk and walk through your experiences, what I really hear you saying and I don’t want to put words in your mouth but what I really hear you saying is that this dream of mobile as the silver bullet or this killer app or this solution, it’s really being fulfilled more by the cloud context to where cloud behaviors that it’s not really a mobile solution that is answering the problems but it’s really this seamless cloud activity that allows you to change your behavior and let you do things that you just want to do and be in the world and it’s there acting as this supporting mechanism that you don’t really have to think about.
There are elements of both and that is certainly part of it. If I want to, if I come up with something, a good idea while I’m waiting in line for lunch, I can just pull up my phone, open up the Google Drive application, pull up on the document that I’ve been working on, punch something in quick and then, boom, there it is. Huge part of the convenience of mobile is just the fact that it is wherever you are and the Cloud is almost an extension out of that. Without the Cloud you’re missing some of that. It’s almost like you have given the functionality where, okay, you have this really cool mobile device but you can’t do a couple of things that you really want to do.
Still a really, really nice piece of hardware, it’s still really convenient for a lot of ways. You can plug up, go to Wikipedia or whatever, do a Google search, play your music, what not. But yeah, it is almost I guess just an important subset of what you expect from a mobile experience. You want to bring your environment, whatever it is, whether it’s entertainment or work and bring it with you.
I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about privacy and security. You mentioned the convenience of having all of your single sign on so you can just get in and work with all of your apps. I wonder if you’ve ever had any security issues or if you ever think about the security aspect of having everything in the Google environment?
I haven’t had any issues and to be honest, it’s not something I am too concerned with. I guess I should explain that. I am definitely concerned about security and privacy. I have a mint.com account which manages or I guess collects all of the information for all of my banking information and then I can see as new transactions come in across all my accounts and verify that these are transactions that I made, that sort of thing. Obviously, at a certain level, you’re always putting yourself at risk whenever you’re doing anything on the internet, or really, anything anywhere. By being a part of Mint, I am submitting my bank information to another company they now have this information on me. They know my bank accounts and if somebody took them over or hack them, that could a really big deal. In large parts, you have a decision to make between how you spend your time and your concern versus what you’re going to get and what’s its worth. If you really wanted to be safe about everything in life, you would go through life extremely meticulously and you would never go on the internet and you would shred every single piece of paper that had your name on it and you would always drive 10 miles an hour under the speed limit and, and, and, and all these things.
There might be a few people out there that qualify for all of those. The most part, the rest of us are … we’ve made a decision of a certain amount of risk is acceptable in order to live life the way we want to live. We’re going to do what we want to do, that’s our priority and we’re going to spend a certain amount of time thinking about privacy and risk and security but we’re not going to let that be the overarching driving force in our lives. Not to say it shouldn’t but that’s certainly not something that really appeals to me. I’m a busy guy. I run a company. I have things I want to do in my free time which is getting less and less these days.
If I were reading every single line of the every single EULA in every single program that I use and if I was calling my lawyer every time somebody had a question about a contract thing or if … all these examples where you could play it safe and back a way a little bit but what is it worth? Everybody has to make that decision for themselves and for me, a lot of times a certain amount of risk is acceptable especially when it involves some of these larger companies where their best interest are served by protecting my information. For example, Mint, I forget who exactly owns them. I think it’s one of these bigger financial companies. I don’t know if it’s Experian or something.
They have an incentive to protect information. If they get hacked, that’s going to be a huge, huge problem for them. That’s going to cost them business and probably millions of dollars. They really don’t ‘want that to happen. Google is based very much on these club services now and storing people’s information. Certainly to some extent, they’re using that information for their advertising engine but they have a huge incentive to make sure that these platforms are secure. If they’re not then you lose a lot of business, you lose corporate sponsors or I guess corporate accounts that are paying quite a bit of money for some of these tools.
You have to have a certain amount of trust otherwise you just can’t really go through life. For certain companies, I’m willing to extend that trust, for others I’m not. Maybe they can earn that one day but it’s a trade off of convenience versus risk and that line is going to be different for everybody but for me I’m willing to assume a little bit.
I think that’s right. I think that’s a pretty summary of trying to understand, we all need to make these decisions and understand what the incentives are, the companies that you’re engaging with and then be willing to take those risks and do it at least mindfully, right? I think this idea of privacy and a lot of what we have is … and there are conception of these privacies based on false assumptions. I think it’s similar to that, the notion of people get freaked out a lot more about travelling in an airplane than they do by getting in a car. Statistically, people are probably more likely to get in some car accident. People don’t really think about it when they got in the car every day.
Yeah, exactly. Something else, I mean I think a lot of people don’t like to think this way but I’ve trained myself and that’s basically anything that goes on the internet is on the internet, it’s out there. Whether it’s on a hidden Facebook page or if it’s in your e-mail account or whatever, it’s out there. Some people really aren’t comfortable with that and, again, that’s fine. For me, I’m okay with that. For my company, it’s a PC game development studio. We don’t really have any critical sense of information that’s going to cost us millions and millions of dollars. If it gets out there, we’re not going to get sued if any of these documents get leaked and so on.
In fact, we’ve actually taken some steps to open things up a little bit. We recently did a kick starter funding campaign back in February and one of the reward incentives was giving backers at a certain level accessed to our game design documents in Google Drive. We’ve actually opened things up a little bit for people that are willing to help us out. Again, that’s another example I guess of how Google makes things a little bit convenient because we just put together a Google group and invited a bunch of people to it and they joined it and then I gave the Google group access to the documents and, boom, it was done.
Trying to share hundreds of documents with hundreds of people could very easily be a huge undertaking but with the tools that were available through Google, it was really, really easy, a plug again for Google there. Fortunately, we are in the position where we don’t have to worry that much about the information that we put out there. That’s not the case for everybody. People, either in terms of what they put out there personally or business wise. If they have certain trade secrets or plans or information or whatever that could get into economic or legal trouble, they can’t take that risk.
We have a little bit more leeway there. It gives me a bit more flexibility to not concern myself too much with that. I do to a certain extent. I’m not going to just trust anybody, I’m not going to log in any website but a lot of these bigger companies that do have a track record and do have an incentive and are known to be more secure, I am willing to trust a great deal more than some of these other new players. Maybe that’s not fair but that’s the advantage that you get for being around for a while and establishing a reputation. That’s just how it works.
I think that’s right. I think the point you made a little earlier on with just the idea of anything that you put out into the world or anything you put on the internet. Even if it’s not meant to be open, it could potentially be open. I think if people go forward with that mindset, they’d understand that the stuff that I’m putting out there could get opened up and live your life in a way that is more open and not putting things that you think are really private. It’s probably just a better approach in general.
I don’t want to get too philosophical. Having secrets and having stuff that you don’t want shared either for personal or professional reasons is a little bit stressful. It’s nice being in a position where I can say, “All right. Everything that’s out there, anywhere in any corner, I’m fine with.” Maybe I prefer if this random person didn’t read the e-mail I sent to somebody else asking about what they were up to. If they saw it I would say, “You know what? That’s how it is. Sorry.” It’s not anything that would be too incriminating.
It is a little bit tougher because people like to think that certain corners of the internet are still safe that your e-mail inbox is safe, it’s just not going to get out there that these documents in Google Drive are safe and they’re not just going to get out there. I mean, to a certain extent, I’m trusting in that as well. I’m not literally just putting everything up there with no security because well, hell, somebody is going to look at it anyways. What is the matter? I’m still locking some of the stuff down but it’s a difficult issue and I know some people are more passionate about it than I am.
Maybe there will be a certain incidence or a certain movement in the future that is more concerning and is a little bit more dangerous. At that point I’ll have to reassess. I think right now things are safe and secure enough that it’s worth using what’s out there and not worrying about it too much.
I think that’s right. I think for now the benefits seems to outweigh the risk and if you do it mindfully and not put super secure information out there I think that everyone will be all right. I just want to wrap up and we’re getting to the end of our time. I’m wondering. I think in some of the correspondence that we had going back and forth before we came on tonight. You said, you’re the kind of person that is first in line for a Google glass and you’re looking for implants and Nanomachines and it sounds like you’re up for just this new cyborg reality.
Do you think that this type of approach of going all in with cloud based applications is just for those early adopters, for those people that want to engage with technology or do you think it’s really close to getting to the point where it’s going to be acceptable by mainstream public?
I think it’s a slow progression. I do think we are getting there and making progress. You see that just with the e-mail now. In the 90s, in the early 2000s, everything was client based. You would have your e-mail protocol, you would hook your e-mail client into it and it would download it from the server and that was it.Things moved a little bit more to web-based where you could go to a website and access everything wherever you want and now we’re going full on cloud where you can get anything in just about any format on any device and any program where it’s just so accessible.
Tons and tons of people are using those types of programs. People are using Gmail everywhere. Millions and millions and millions of people are using it and more and more, e-mail is moving in that direction. I know some documents are going in that direction as well, it’s still not to the level certainly of my usage, same with calendars. I feel like we are heading in that direction and even Apple who is spearheading a lot of efforts on the technology side now that so many people own Apple devices. They are pushing thing a little bit more and more in the cloud direction.
A little bit more in getting things on the internet and sharing them and syncing them between devices. The Apple experience there is still a little bit rough between devices. They still have some work to do there but it is heading in that direction. It may take awhile before everybody gets to the same point that I am in terms of connectedness. That’s probably okay. It’s not something that has to happen overnight and obviously enough people are using it that Google is able to make a lot of money doing what they do even if it’s just mostly from ads where they can leverage the software in a different way.
I’ll definitely be curious to see where a lot of this goes. I think one of my biggest concern is obviously, I think it’s a trust issue with just being able to let go and trust that they’ll all have access to this information. I’m looking at trends now with fortune 500 companies that the lifespan of these companies is dramatically shorter than it was even 50 years ago. Where is this information going to be in? Have a tendency to want to hoard the information and have that at least personal and tangible product of that even though hard drives die and all those things die and that can lose the information just as easily even if I posses it.
I think getting over that hump for me of just trusting that it will be there in six months, in a year, in five years and what information what I actually need in five years that I am using today maybe is the question I should myself but I think that’s my biggest issue of fully adopting a cloud based solution.
I think that is part of it and certainly that is true for some of the large companies in particular. I feel for the general public, it’s really, and for corporations as well, it’s more a matter of inertia. We have something that works right now. What are the advantages of changing it? Certainly, me on my own and me with my small company where I can make that call, it’s fairly easy to just say, “Hey, let’s check this thing out. Hey, it’s really cool. Let’s switch over to it today.” Boom, done. If you have 500 people then even just making that decision of switching over is a really big deal.
Let alone, millions and millions and millions of people in the public who just don’t know how to get it or don’t know really what’s out there or don’t have a great internet connection or just really honestly don’t even care. Microsoft Word has worked forever, why do I need something else? I have one computer and and it’s six years old already. What is the incentive for them to switch to something that has these advantages? I feel like it’s just something that is gradually and gradually going to change overtime as technology as a whole marches forward step by step, bit by bit, where we do sneak these thing in through phones that just about everybody has and on tablets and new laptops.
As the world becomes more and more connected it’s just naturally going to gravitate in that direction. It takes time to change that many millions and millions of people over. I feel like the progress that’s been made already has already been pretty spectacular. I’m pretty happy with where things have gone already. I’m definitely excited to see where they all head further in the future.
I agree. It will be interesting to see where it goes. Well, thanks for joining us today Jon. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you. How can people get a hold of you if they want to follow up this conversation?
Yeah. Thanks for having me on. I have a few different ways you can get a hold of me. You could go to my personal website where I write about gamezine in particular and that’s jonshaferondesign.com, you can also find me on Twitter @JonShaferDesign or if you’d like, you can e-mail me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yeah. My pleasure. Anytime.