Why We Launch a Game When We're Embarrassed By It

We have a relatively unconventional approach to developing and releasing games.

We launched Give Me Fuel in April. It wasn't a "soft launch", or a "beta". It was a launch. We put the game out there for anyone to play. We didn't hype it up, we didn't push for a featuring on the iTunes store. We knew that the game was confusing to new users. It had almost no tutorial. It had little feedback about what you were doing. The animations were repetitive. There was barely any sound. It was often slow and stuttery. It lacked content.

By the standards of most game companies, it was an alpha, at best, and a pre-alpha in some peoples' eyes. And for us, it was the right time to release the game.

Why?

On mobile, conventional wisdom is that you have exactly one chance at success, and that's getting a massive feature spot from Apple on iTunes. You can only do that at launch, and if you blow it, and don't get a feature, it costs you hundreds of thousands of downloads at a value of millions of dollars in free exposure. And all of that is true. If you don't get that, you pass on a massive marketing exposure that's a critical part of most successful games' success. But we consciously passed on that, and instead put out a largely unfinished, extremely rough game we knew had significant problems.

Why?

Because we had a question we needed to answer.

Our process has always been about trying to answer some sort of question. With Give Me Fuel, we have a "big idea" behind the game that you can't see yet. But for us to get to that "big idea", we needed a core game loop that does certain things. It has to be something you can play in short bursts. It has to be something you can play for months without getting bored. It has to be something that can withstand a significant amount of evolution without collapsing. That is, it has to have "hooks" for things we're going to be adding later, and it has to be flexible enough to be able to accommodate that.

And there are a number of ways you can answer that question. The most common is that you build an amazing game, polish the hell out of it, make it perfect, and see how it turns out. Obviously, that's not our approach.

The problem is that making a game "perfect" takes a lot of time. Building the game - all the mechanics, the content - that stuff takes a good long while, and making it all understandable and polished? That stuff can take just as much time. And the problem is, if you're doing that in secret, you've only got yourselves to test on (and potentially limited usability testing and the like). If you've got the resources to bolster your own capacity, great. But it's often an expensive, time-consuming, highly iterative process, and a good portion of the time, the difference between how players in user tests play and how real players play is different enough that you can still release with fatal mistakes in your game.

Mobile development is interesting, because it's different than console or PC development. Instead of taking a month to patch something & test & release, we can release patches to certain things multiple times a day. We can then see how players are playing - both by interacting with them, but also because the game tells us what's happening. Our game's a multiplayer game, and a lot of the game takes place on our servers. So we know how many turns a person has taken. We know when they bail out of the tutorial without finishing it. We know when someone bounces back and forth between screens, confused as to what to do.

The availability of data & the ability to iterate quickly totally changes how you can and should develop a game. Instead of polishing something to perfection, you can release it early, get feedback from players as to what they like or don't, look at where people are having problems, and fix that stuff. Instead of "trusting your (the developer's) vision and judgment", you can instead try something, see how it works, and iterate with useful information backing up your choices. And by doing that, you can make progress radically faster and better than you could if you relied on the judgment and intuition of even extremely experienced individuals.

We believe so much in this process that not only do we release our games early, often in embarrassing states, in order to get that iteration & information, it's been part of our logo from the start:

There are two things at work, here. The first is that our games are a combination of things that are familiar, and something that's explicitly new. The game is the star. Where it comes from is the collision of two paths. The path of the familiar is the bold yellow, circular stroke. It's well known, and we can draw on it with confidence and certainty. The W - our identity - is the new. The uncertain. The thing that we're going to get wrong multiple times, changing course, until we get it right and it merges with the familiar to form something that you've never seen before.

We release this way not because we believe the first iteration of our games are a reflection of our ultimate capability. We release this way because we know it's the fastest way to get to the point where those two concepts finally merge into something great. It's a painful process to go through. You release something to the public that you know isn't the best you can do. You know some people will hate it. You know some people will judge you for it. But you also know that you have to do it that way because its the best way to get the best results. It comes often at great cost - both to your ego, and to things like Apple Featuring, media reviews, etc. - all of which are structured to deal with games that "launch big".

But we are trying to do something different. We're trying to build an audience slowly, and make the game better quickly. We start knowing we'll lose a lot of people, but that the folks who can see through the painful bits to find the "core" of the game - if they love it, that answers the question we need to get answered. And then with their help (and the help of everyone that tried the game & quit), we make it better. And we start to ask a different question. Can we make this game great?

We're going to be answering that question, along with a different one, over the next few months. I hope you'll join us for the journey. It should be interesting, I think - because that second question we're trying to answer is whether we can make an entirely new kind of game from this foundation. Something that, to the best of our knowledge, has never existed before.

Significant Changes Incoming

One of the most interesting things about working on a mobile game is that you can change things pretty quickly. It's not like a console game, where submitting a patch takes months, and is super expensive. Submitting an update & getting approved is usually a matter of a day or two (these days), and some things you can just update whenever you want.

For us, we've been hard at work on a complete overhaul of the in-game UI for Give Me Fuel. Which seems like a strange thing to do after you launch, but we approach game development in a way that is different from most companies. Our process is that we launch as soon as we think someone will be able to find some level of fun in what we're building. The goal of our first release isn't "world domination," it's "validate that there's a core of something good, here."

With GMF, we were building a different kind of card game. An multiplayer turn-based card-combat game, where you can take a turn in just a few seconds. The mechanics for our game are pretty different than anything else out there. While we're shooting for the kind of experience that games like Magic: The Gathering or Ascension provide, we're structuring our cards in a really different way than either of those games. So our major question out of the gate wasn't, "Is this a world-dominating iOS game?" it was, "Are the mechanics of this game any good?" or "Will this stand up to having other people play it & not break in some critical way?"

The interesting thing has been that I think we've validated the last two of those points. We've had a good number of people playing every day since launch, and folks who've played literally hundreds of games against other people, who are still enjoying the strategy, and who haven't found game-breaking exploits.

Where we struggled, as we knew we would, was in the early user experience - that first session where someone who's never played the game jumps in for the first time. We knew we'd struggle, but we didn't know how much we'd struggle with it. For the most part, teaching someone to play a game is a relatively simple process. We could talk through new players to GMF, and get them to understand the basic strategy - seems like it'd be relatively straightforward to translate that to an in-game tutorial, right? But we tried multiple times, and the results were just as confusing every time. Until we made a striking realization - that this wasn't actually a card game.

Which is weird, because it obviously was a card game.

The thing is - it both is and isn't a card game. From a gameplay perspective, it basically is a card game. And that's how we were approaching it. With a physical card game, you read the rules, and then you play the game. But with a videogame, that's not the best approach.

The big problem we had with early players boils down to a pretty simple issue, but I'll have to describe it using a pretty wonky term.

We were asking you to make a decision before you had a mental model of how the game works.

It became clear one day when I was doing a revision of the tutorial text. The text went something like this: "To attack, pick a number, then drag it to the space that says Attack." This is what you'd do with a physical card game.

But one of the folks on the team read, "To attack, pick a number..." and said, "That's weird. It feels like it should be, "To attack, pick attack."" And in that moment, it all kind of came together.

We were asking you to pick a number without understanding what the number could do. Put a new player in front of a game, and show them four cards with numbers on them, and say, "Pick a card." Why? How? We haven't clearly been able to communicate which card is "better" and what actions you could take. But pick a number anyway at random, and then take a turn. Oh, you picked wrong and your turn did nothing good. Keep playing? No.

What we've done with this new UI revamp is that we've done two major things:

  1. We've put the process in the correct order. You'll now pick an action - Attack/Evade/Shield - first. This is much more understandable even without any explanation or context.
  2. The cards will dynamically change based on the action you've taken to reflect "how good" they'll be for that interaction.

One of the biggest problems we had was an assumption that "big numbers are good!" But in our game, big numbers weren't always good. If you were at a low range, say, 2, then the best attack is a 2, not a 13. But people were playing 13, because big numbers are good (right?). Now, if you select "Attack", and have a variety of Range Cards, they'll turn into "Attack Cards" that indicate how much you'll attack for as the "big number" on the card.

So if you have a 2, and the current range is 2, the big number on the card will be 10 ATTACK - which will be bigger than the 0 ATTACK that will appear if you have a Range 13 card. (Yeah, this explanation is confusing if you're not already familiar with the game.) So now, "pick big number" is a totally valid strategy, and if that's all you do, you'll still make generally good moves. The "deeper" strategy involves not always just going for the biggest attack, so it's not like we're showing you the optimal moves - mastery is still up to you. :)

We're shooting to roll this update out in the next few days (though there's some possibility that it won't hit before next week). We've been cranking away on this for a long time, but I hope you'll find it to be worth the wait!

Lots of New Stuff

Still cranking away on improvements to the game. There have been a lot of changes we've made over the last few weeks, and while we'll be cataloguing them on their own page from here on out, I think some of the stuff is worth mentioning in a little more detail!

  • Range Cards: The cards with numbers on them used to be called "Number Cards". Which seemed sensible at the time. Play a Number Card to do something - shield up, evade, or attack. The number card was an abstract little thing, but it'd essentially be converted to "aim" at a range if you were attacking, or "move" to a range if you were Evading, or just get consumed if you were Shielding Up. As we watched people play in user tests, and as we got feedback from folks talking to us, we realized that "Number Cards" may be a sensible name, but it wasn't a clear one. Lots of people were playing high numbers, because higher = better, obviously. But in our game, higher isn't always better. Aiming *at the range* is better. Or moving *far from* the range is better - which sometimes means a lower card or midrange card is a much stronger alternative.

    We wanted a stronger "tie" to Range - the numbers are, functionally, ranges. A few weeks ago, we'd changed the Range icon from the double-arrow-in-circle to the <>, and we realized that the nice thing about the <> "language" is that we can then echo it on the Number Cards, to clarify subtly that they're related. Then we realized, heck, why don't we just call these Range Cards? So we did.

    Why did they used to say Solar? Why were they orange? Sometimes you put something in a game in anticipation of the future things that you'll see later. The only other thing I'll say is that the other cards that will hopefully see one day are "Nuclear" and "Wind".
     
  • Rechargeable Cards: Hopefully you've already seen one of these in-game. We gave one to everyone, and basically, they're the first sort of "differentiating" long-term mechanic we've put into the game. This is your collection, and it'll evolve how you choose to evolve it. These cards aren't consumed when you use them, and you upgrade them by playing other cards in-game. You'll be given a number of options on how you choose to evolve these cards, and we've not shown you what the potential end results are, but some paths lead to the 1st Legendary-class cards.

    How do you get Rechargeable Cards?

    Easy - many card packs come with a chance to get a Rechargeable Card. They're very rare - just to be clear - don't expect these to drop all over the place. But since you get Fuel to buy packs, and if you're playing regularly you open packs pretty often, hopefully you'll get lucky and run into one every now and again! Most of the Rechargeables that drop will start as the lowest rarity possible - but some will drop "pre-evolved" - all the way up to Rares. You cannot currently get a Legendary Rechargeable from a drop - you have to evolve it at a minimum from Rare->Legendary.
     
  • Double Fuel Bonus/Disable Ads: You might have noticed there's a thing in the store to Double your timed Fuel Bonus and disable ads. Forever! It costs 100 Gold, which is sort of $5-ish (if you buy the smallest gold packs, it's $5. If you buy $5 worth of gold, it's $4. Go figure). This will remove the prompt asking if you want to double your Fuel Bonus by watching an ad, and just double it automatically every time. Why? One of the ways we earn $ is through ads, because these kinds of incentivized ads are a relatively non-intrusive way for us to earn some revenue, and for you to get something you want.

    That said, we only earn a few cents (or fractional cents) per ad view, and as a result, we figured $5 felt like a fair deal - you help us out, we give you something you want w/out the hurdle to jump over.

A note on $ and in-app purchases:

One thing I do want to mention, because people don't really talk about it much, is that the $ you spend is how we survive as a game & as a team. We aren't particularly aggressive about monetization, because we know it's annoying, and we do want to give you a good deal for your $. But we do appreciate every dollar that everyone spends, and it goes *directly* into helping support the long-term development of the game. We're running a tight ship because we have limited resources - we need to get the game to a point where we're making $ before we run out of $. So it's a balance. If you like the game, we really hope you'll find something valuable you want to purchase, because ultimately, that's how we keep supporting and evolving the game.

We aren't trying to gate gameplay through $. We give you infinite Basic cards because we don't want to gate your ability to play the game. We give (I think) a ton of Fuel so that unless you play an absolutely exorbitant number of games you shouldn't run out.

Over time, we'll be putting in things like XP boosts, and cosmetic customizations, and if we're lucky enough to be able to get some of the more ambitious features of the game out, we'll have other things that tie into those. It's such a weird and ambitious feature I don't even really want to talk about it yet. But it's not like anything you've seen before. The catch is that we have to get to a point where we're sustainable before we can really dive into that. :)

So if you're enjoying the game, there are a few things that you can do that would help us out:

  • Buy something: Well, yeah! It's the most direct way to support us. :)
  • Write us a review: Reviews actually really, really help in ways that aren't just abstract feel-goodness. Reviews are a major factor in whether someone chooses to download the game or not. Keeping a high review score matters a lot. I'm not asking you to give us a 5-star review even if you hate the game - but I am asking that if you love the game, please leave us a 5-star review. It's a massive, massive help.
  • Tell your friends: While GMF is still a competitive multiplayer game, it's still a lot of fun to play with real-world friends. We've seen some pretty epic rivalries in-game already, and over the next few months, we'll have a lot more in store for folks who like competition. We've also always had cooperative gameplay in mind, and the game's built around co-op as another way to play together. One of the most difficult things about launching a mobile game as a small team is getting the game out to a big enough audience that it can survive. Every friend you tell helps a lot. A lot. Probably more than anything else. Right now, seriously, telling a friend is likely more important than even spending $. Weird, but true! If you can get three friends to download the game, and everyone does the same, GMF would be around for a very long while.

Anyway - we've got a lot more in the pipe. Next up is actually a really unusual (but hopefully fun) addition to the Trainer, to help new players understand what they're doing, and then after that we've got a big upgrade to the "tooltips" in game that help people understand Evade & Attack. Also - we've got a handful of new cards we've been working on today that'll show up over the next few days! So keep an eye out for those. See you in-game!

Post-Launch: What's Up?

A few weeks ago, Give Me Fuel went live! It's been an exciting few weeks. Launching a game is always an interesting experience, because people experience the game in ways that you really can't imagine while you're working on it.

It's been super gratifying to jump online & start playing people we've never met. Even more gratifying, honestly, when they kick our butts!

One of the things we knew going in was that when we launched, the game was going to be really confusing for a lot of people. The reason was that we simply didn't have much of a tutorial in place at all. A single screen was all we had, and even that was pretty hard to understand. What we'd planned was that we'd just be live, quietly, with a small trickle of users for a few weeks as we worked out the kinks and made the new user experience a lot more understandable...

...but that isn't what happened. We were fortunate enough to get some featuring from Apple - they listed us as part of the best Card/Action/Family games for the week after we launched, and we're immensely grateful to have gotten that, but the problem was that we hadn't worked out the kinks yet! :D That's part of the risk for launching the way we do, but all we could do was make the best of it.

I think we confused the heck out of a lot of new players, but it also gave us incredibly valuable information about where & why people were quitting. A lot of the smaller details in the early UI turned out to not be as problematic as we might have thought, which has let us concentrate heavily on the part that really does matter - teaching people how to play the game. Seems obvious, I know, but in practice it's a lot less obvious than it seems. Sometimes fighting through a little early confusion can be part of the experience - and the problem is once you've been staring at a game like ours for a while, you can't really be a good judge of that.

So new users means good data about where & why people are dropping off. It's not like a laser beam pointing at this one thing that we can fix to make everything better - but it gives us a better idea of how to proceed. We put in a new tutorial last Thursday, for instance, and what happened was that a lot more people quit during that tutorial, but the ones that made it through appear to have understood the game better & stuck around longer. And we got more people to stick around than we had without that tutorial, which means that even though we lost more at one step, we ended up with more over the longer run. Now all we need to do is fix that big drop off... before fixing a ton of other things! :D

But for folks who are playing, don't worry - this doesn't mean that 100% of our efforts are now just for new players. We know that folks who've been playing will start to get bored after a bit without new stuff, so new stuff is in the works. The list of things we've got to build is ... well, it's really long. So you'll start to see small things rolling out (like XP) soon-ish, with things like leaderboards to follow. We have some really game-changing stuff in the pipe, but those depend on a few other things being in place first.

So it's a balance - always a balance. Gotta get more folks smoothly into the game, but doing that doesn't make the current players' experience better. So some time goes to making the new user experience better, and then some time goes into making the current user experience better. :)

But we've been hard at work. A lot of places take a break after launching. I think if anything, we've been working even harder.

One note - if you've been enjoying the game, it'd be incredibly valuable if you could leave us a review. We'd really, really appreciate it.

Thanks!

We're live!

You know what? We're live! You can get Give Me Fuel RIGHT NOW on iOS! That's right! What are you waiting for?

The thing that I hope you understand, if you've been following along with us for a while now is that really, the game isn't finished. It's at a point where the core gameplay is really good, but a lot of the things that lead into it aren't. And I know that seems like a weird way to launch a game, but the strange thing is that having a live game & seeing where users quit actually helps us make that early game better, faster than if we just tried to make that early game without any real user data.

We have to approach development really differently than a company with a lot more resources. We have to launch earlier. Rougher. We have to move faster. Improve smarter. Everything we're doing is some sort of compromise between speed, efficiency, effectiveness, and experience, and we're not always going to hit that balance right. But because of how we work, the balance is going to be very different than what most other games feel like.

If you start the game and are confused, go here: wonderspark.co/faq - it'll give you a bit more in-depth detail on how the game works. Why is all that info not in the game? Because it's much harder to distill the correct information to players in-game, in a way that isn't overwhelming. The magic of a good tutorial is that you learn a ton but it doesn't feel like learning, it just feels like a lot of this stuff is obvious. And that takes iteration. It takes a ton of effort, and design - often on very small or subtle things.

But all of that is intentional! We hope that if you've been following along with us here, on our blog, that you're probably the kind of person who wouldn't mind investing a little bit of time & effort, and potential confusion to help us make the game better. And if that guess is correct, then please drop us a line here: support@wonderspark.co, and we'd LOVE to hear from you. Maybe you love the game. We'd love to hear that! Maybe you hate it. We'd also love to hear that. It's even more valuable - seriously - for us to hear that than that you love it. If you're totally confused, let us know, and we'll be happy to help you through it. Why? Because figuring out where you're confused means that we learn something specific we didn't know before, and it helps us make things less confusing for everyone. So the more we hear the better!

What we hope is that you'll give the game a shot. And then even if you're frustrated, you'll give the game a shot a week later. Why? Because we're constantly improving things. Things that are confusing or wonky today will be different tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow. Until they're great. And I know this is a different approach than what you're used to - where you just grab a game and it's either good or it's not. These days, to build a "good" game out of the box either takes a large team or a lot of $. We don't have that, so our strategy is totally different. Our plan is to release now, and radically improve the game while it's live

Which means that every day, the game is a little bit different. Launching was just the start. We've got a long way to go, and we hope that you'll join us.

Thanks!

Submitted.

Just under a year after we incorporated, with just two of us, and just under 9 months of work with the four of us, we've submitted Give Me Fuel to the App Store.

For many developers, submission would be a moment to catch a breath, take a break after a long, hard sprint to the finish.

For us, it's just the beginning.

I think one of the things that's quite difficult about building a "Free to Play" game (a terrible term, but a common one - better would be "micro-transaction-supported game", which is more honest & up-front) is that you have to build something that has essentially massive potential for expansion.

If you build something that is relatively small and self-contained, which would normally be the "right" thing to do for a small developer with limited resources, the problem is that if it turns out to be good, it's limited by its smallness. I've seen some genuinely excellent games commercially fail because they were great, and an audience loved them, but then finished them & moved on, and the games themselves had no potential to evolve over time.

For Give Me Fuel, what we're shipping is like a seed. It's a complete seed, in that it's a small, self-contained thing that we think has all the things we wanted to deliver - it's fun to play, it can be played in extremely short sessions (or if you've got a lot of games going, you can play for quite a while without stopping), and it's got a depth of strategy that's held up, literally, to a year of playtime.

But it's a seed. It's not the tree. It's not all the leaves. It's not the fruit. It's not the forest.

What we do from here depends a lot on what you guys think, and what you guys do. Chances are, the first thing we'll need to do is fix the seed - you can never truly anticipate how players will react to your game. In the first day of our beta test, we fixed dozens of things we simply didn't realize were as confusing as they were, even though we'd been playing that version of the game for weeks! The same thing will happen on release, I'm sure.

But after that? A lot of our future plans will depend on what you like, what you don't, and where you'd like to see things go. The great thing about our game is that release is just the end of the beginning. It's now that the hard work - but also the very satisfying work - begins.

We can't wait to see you online.

Beta & Feedback

Take a look at this screenshot. Notice anything about it?

There are a lot of numbers. Four numbers in the top left. Similar numbers on the bottom right. Some stuff in the middle. Three numbers in a health bar. Three more in the other health bar. Two numbers in icons in the middle of the screen. Another of those yellow circles with a number in it. Then a bunch of squares with both numbers and letters in them.

This is what we released, when we released our closed beta.

The funny thing isn't that players were confused. It's that we thought there was a chance they wouldn't be.

A funny thing happens when you play your own game for a while. You stop seeing what it is. There are a lot of reasons for this - you've been playing it since it was more broken, and so it seems fine, because it's way less broken than it used to be. You think it's simple, because you've been playing it since it was very simple, and since features take time to "come online", you started with something very simple, and it only very gradually got more complex. Now it's very complex, but you ramped up to it, so you don't see that.

There are many ways you can "test" a game & get "fresh eyes" on it. You can run tests at usertesting.com. It's genuinely fantastic resource. You can watch people as they play your game for the first time, and note all the places they get super confused. You can do playtests in person - informal ones over coffee, or more structured ones in a lab. The more you do, the more $ it costs. So there's always a balance.

It may seem very strange that we did very little playtesting before releasing our game to beta. Well, little external playtesting, at any rate. We did spend hundreds of hours playing the game internally, and we've had friends & family playing it for weeks. The big difference with Friends & Family is that if one of them is confused, they can come talk to you, or you can see it on their face as you play. Not so with beta testers - they get the explanation they get, and if they get confused, or don't like your game, chances are you'll never hear from them again.

But the flip side of that is that the best feedback you can get is from live players. The most honest, the most reflective of how someone will actually play your game. And here's the weird bit. It's okay for players to be confused at first. If they can see some of the potential in a game, they'll keep exploring, and work their way through the confusion. Part of releasing in a very rough state is figuring out whether there's something that a player sees that they think is worth fighting through the rough parts for.

Because as much as polish makes a great game great, polish can't save a dud, and passionate players will fight through a lack of polish if something about your game speaks to them.

So what have we gained through this beta?

  1. We know players are confused by the overwhelming amount of numbers on-screen. We've taken significant strides to fixing that, some of which is live in the Beta already, and some which will be live by tomorrow.
  2. We also have a more significant UI update coming, which will make the different potential actions you can take clearer and more distinct to address some early confusion players feel.
  3. We know that yes, some players have been able to figure it out, and that those players are engaged - sometimes extremely so!
  4. We've had some close games, some blowouts, and gotten our butts kicked by some of the beta players. Honestly, there's no better feeling than having a player out-strategize a developer. It's a clear sign something is going well.

The most important thing? It's not that we found out that players were confused. We knew that would be the case. But it's that players were confused in a different way than we thought. And the reason that's important is that without the beta player experiences & data, we'd have continued to improve things that weren't relevant to helping how players are actually getting confused.

This has already redirected/refocused our development process, and made priority #1 clearing up some very specific types of confusion. If that's all we get out of this beta, it'll be a success. But it's not by far all we're getting out of the beta. We've been playing a handful of passionate, engaged people. We've seen how fast people can take up the core strategy of the game. We've learned about focusing users' attention on a very small number of things that are important. We've learned that some "shorthand" we thought would be useful is way more confusing than helpful. We've learned that even though "power" players may want some things, if it makes things unclear for novice players, that's a problem.

There's a lot to take away from this - only a few days of real, live player data. But also, it's validated one thing - we can move fast. We can fix these problems. More, this is what we're good at, and it's how we're used to working.

I'm excited, because it's only getting better - way better - from here.

App Icons

Getting an App Icon right is tricky. You've gotta make sure that it communicates something about the game, but you've also got to make sure that it stands out in a crowd. All in a very limited amount of space.

For us, the one thing that we were 100% sure we weren't going to do was do a yelling guy, a'la Clash of Clans and almost every game under the sun. So we're in the midst of experimenting a bit. Got a favorite? Let us know!

Working With Constrained Resources

One thing we, as a team, pride ourselves on is the ability to move fast and iterate quickly. We're able to try out new ideas with real players, and respond to how things are going. It's a really great way to develop a game, because it means that you don't spend a lot of time polishing up something that ultimately doesn't work.

The way we build stuff is to build an "MVP", or Minimum Viable Product to test out a feature/game/whatever, and then if it shows the correct kinds of promise, we can then polish it up as needed. To me, this is the best way to work. It prevents tons of lost effort, we validate our assumptions & hypotheses as fast as possible, and it lets us develop extremely fast.

But it has its drawbacks.

With Give Me Fuel, we've been working on the game for about seven months as a team. Before that, two of us had been developing prototypes for about another eight months. So all told, it's been a good long while that we've been working on this. But two engineers, one artist, and one designer isn't a lot. So for us, we're building a very small game to try to validate the hypothesis that the core card mechanics we have are fun as a videogame. We've already validated that for us it's fun as a card game.

The other thing that we're trying to validate - a core assumption we're making - is that there's an audience of gameplayers out there that want something strategic that they can play in seconds with their friends. This is, to me, a hole that has as-yet not been filled by anything other than word games (and to some extent, Clash Royale, Supercell's new game addresses an adjacent space).

And while one way to validate that is to spend a lot of time making something supremely polished and beta test regularly & roll out in different territories, etc. etc. - that's a path you can take if you have a tremendous amount of money and time. We don't have either of those things. For us, we have to test our assumptions with very little time and very little money.

Which means that when we launch, this isn't going to be the most polished thing in the world. It's not going to be the apex of our total abilities. It's not going to be the best possible representation of our work and our ideas, in an absolute sense. It's going to be the best we can do with the resources we have. And while that sounds like I'm underselling the game as a cop-out, I assure you that's not the case.

I'm incredibly proud of what we've built. I'm also almost certain that you will see a lot of rough edges and wonder why things are the way they are. And for us, yes, we understand. Here's the thing. Either the core of this game has to be fun enough that you're willing to overlook the rough edges or we've done one of two things:

  1. The game isn't fun enough, and no amount of polish would help.
  2. We made the wrong call about how much polish was necessary for players to understand the core of the game.

The scary thing is that (2) is always a possibility. In a world where there are literally tens of thousands of options to choose from, who in their right mind would choose an unpolished, fairly rough game?

And the answer to that is, someone who isn't being served well by those tens-of-thousands of games.

Our goal is to make a social, strategic game you can play in seconds. If what we're doing isn't unique, and people stop playing because there's a better implementation of our core idea out there, we haven't accomplished our goal, or our assumption was wrong, and testing earlier rather than later is better.

If what we're doing is unique, and it's super rough, I believe that we will hear the response, and continue on the path. And because continuing on the path will lead to polish, and because we actually know how to develop a polished game, much of the rough edges will come off. The things that seem like quirks or failures will get ironed out. Most of those things are a matter of time and money, and not doing them was a conscious decision we had to make to not spend infinite time and infinite money on development.

It's a scary way to develop a game. You always wonder whether you're burying the fun under an imperfect implementation. It's always a judgment call. It's always easy to point fingers after the fact and say that we screwed it up. Maybe we will screw it up. I don't know.

But here's what I do know. Every game I've ever worked on has been wrong about something significant when it launched. Every. Single. One. In some cases, we'd spent months trying to anticipate user's reactions to things, and we were wrong. Months of effort to try to put ourselves in their shoes were wasted. In some cases, a feature just didn't work out as planned. But something always goes wrong. Often horrendously so. IF we spend months polishing everything, those things are going to be just as wrong - because they're not failures of implementation, they're failures of understanding.

If, on the other hand, we put out something rough, four months early, and then take that feedback and iterate on it for four months, rather than iterating on the idea that's trapped in our own mind, at the end of that time we'll have fixed dozens, if not hundreds of real problems people are having as we work toward the idealized version of our game. And as a result, we'll be much, much further along than if we'd put the last bits of polish and shine on the game before releasing it.

It's a method of development & release that requires a lot more interaction with the players. It's tricky, because it also requires that players trust us a bit. At least the very early ones. But I hope that we're building something that will reward a little bit of effort, and a little bit of trust, and that you'll join us on this journey - it is a journey - as we develop this game, and this company, into something we hope that you'll love.

 

Workday

It’s been about a year since we started Wonderspark. I knew, at the beginning of 2014 after leaving the company I’d previously founded, that I wanted to start another game development studio. Not because I had a burning desire to take on a massive amount of risk & pain, but because I knew I wouldn’t be happy anywhere else. I’d spent five years working out how to work, and I knew we had something special. But after getting acquired, things weren’t the same. And no one else worked the way we had. So if I wanted to recapture the way I loved working, we’d just have to start over from scratch.

I spent a decade+ working in traditional AAA/console companies. You’d work to a release date, crunch like crazy, and if your game was successful, great — you got to keep your job. Be grateful you sacrificed months, if not years of your life to ship this thing. Oh, by the way, the moment things turn south, you’re fired. The whole industry is ridiculous. It hangs onto this long-since-disproven belief that crunch is a critical part of developing a great game, and that if you’re not making the rest of your life utterly miserable in order to ship, you’re not working hard enough. What a joke.

At my previous company, we shipped one of the top-grossing apps in history. We stayed near the top of the charts for longer than any other game on iOS. And how many days did we crunch? We had one night where we asked some artists to stay late to knock out something critical. That night, I talked to our art director and we agreed that even though this was shipped, this was not a “success,” and it shouldn’t be treated as such.

You can get around crunch. You just have to want it enough to sacrifice the things that it provides. You have to be able to be flexible with releases. You have to invest in technology that mitigates the risk of releases. Maybe you have to release on an entirely different platform because the platform you want to release on won’t let you maintain that flexibility. I’m not suggesting it’s easy. But it can be done, and those who claim it’s inevitable, or worse, that it’s good, simply don’t value their employees’ lives.

But you should value your employees’ lives. Why? Because if all your teammates know is work, the best knowledge they can bring to bear is knowledge they’ve gained from work. But you already know all the stuff there is to know about work. You need new information, and you need your team to grow. How does that happen? Either you keep hiring new people & beating them into submission, or you actually let people live their lives.

New ideas come from new experiences. They come from peaceful, quiet moments where your unconscious mind can synthesize your experience into ideas. They come from walking the dog late at night, or lying in the bathtub, or sitting at the top of a hill admiring the view. They don’t come from the 16th consecutive hour of staring at a compiler or spreadsheet.

So we’re a year+ into Wonderspark. We’re seven months in to having our “full” team of four. And we’re a few weeks away from releasing our first game. It’s taken us longer than we thought to get to this point — not by much, but by a bit — but we’re not late. Because “late” implies we missed something. We didn’t miss it. We took the time we needed to do the things we needed to do. We didn’t pull a bunch of all-nighters. We didn’t work weekends.

And for a startup, I know that sounds crazy. But here’s the thing — we’re not even close to done. The hard work begins at launch, when we start getting data from real players and learning what works or not. If we burned ourselves out sprinting to launch, we’d be wrecked when the real work started. Everything about this is about sustainability. Creative sustainability. Durability in the face of emergencies. Maintaining high-quality team dynamics.

It’s hard to say that we’re going to take time. It creates a knot in your stomach, knowing it’s going to be another week, and another week, before release. It’s easy to say that we’re going to work late, that we’ve got a “drop-dead” date to make. It’s easy to sacrifice people on the altar of business.

It takes discipline to send folks home at the end of the day.

But we do it because we know it’s a marathon, not a sprint. We do it because we know that the output is better in the end — that even if it feels wrong in the moment, experience has shown that it’s the right thing to do. And we know that we’ve designed the entire company, from the ground up, to support this workflow. We experiement. We iterate. We move fast. And then we breathe.

One of the weird things I regret about my experience doing this before is that I wasn’t publicly vocal about the benefits of how we worked. That I didn’t hold up our team as an example of what is possible — that massive success isn’t a byproduct of misery, and that you can do things differently. With Wonderspark, one of my hopes is that we can also succeed — not necessarily at that scale, but we can prove that the process is repeatable, and not a fluke, and then broadcast it loudly so that others can follow our lead and shed a bunch of the awful practices that have defined game development for the last few decades.

So we’ll see. Over the course of the 2016, we’re going to either be sustainable, or dead. But I’m proud of what we’ve done so far, and I can’t wait to get our game into players’ hands.

Smallness

This afternoon, I started roughing out a quick little video that I was going to post for the beta, as a quick explainer for folks who will be testing the game, and also just as an intro to how to play, since we're not going to have a ton of stuff in-game to explain how it works, other than the normal feedback you'd get.

And I kept looking at the bits of footage, and thinking, "I wish there was more!" I wanted to show off how the animations work. How strategy & luck play into each turn. Moments where you'd see games "turn around" and players might come from behind. And there is all that. But when you take a single turn, it's short. You play a pair of cards, an animation plays, and you're done.

In a trailer, it doesn't seem like much.

So in the context of a trailer, it's a difficult beast to tackle - because it's not the kind of epic, sweeping, crazy thing where I'd say, "LOOK AT THIS IT'S AMAZING!"

So the temptation is to make it somewhere where it'd have more. But that's not the right thing to do. Our goal has been to make something that's fun and exciting in minimal time, and that's what we've been working towards these last few months. It's explicitly not supposed to be huge. It's not supposed to take minutes. It's not supposed to be complicated.

It's meant to be something you'll take out of your pocket, take a few turns, and potentially be done with in seconds. Or if you've got a lot of games going, minutes. Or if you're playing while someone else is online, you can play in basically "real time" as long as you want.

Which makes for a strange trailer, or even teaser. But we're not making a trailer. We're making a game. And the flow and "size" of the game work really, really well as a game.

Getting There...

Been a little bit since the last time we posted anything. The reason's simple - we're getting closer to getting this out there.

I've posted a handful of images from the build we have now, and what's interesting is that while it's full of glitches, sorting errors, etc., it's really starting to "feel" right - and when you see it all in motion, a lot of the things that look a little strange in stills look fantastic.

More than that, we've been playing the game again, now that it's working, and I'm really excited to get it out there and see how people react to it. (Obviously, we hope you'll  love it, but even after launching a good number of games, those butterflies never go away.)

More, we want other people to play. :)

One thing that's been odd is that even though we really hope this is a social experience for players, the game currently has no social features. Not even chat. It will by the time it's in your hands, and it'll be evolving a good amount as other features of the game come online - one of the core "pillars" of the game is a strong social element - but we want to do some things that are a little more interesting than just chat, and those things take time.

Ultimately, the most important thing about this initial release is getting the core card game mechanics to be fun. If they're not fun, and people don't enjoy that element, really nothing much else matters. So making sure that's good is priority 1 for this phase of development. Making it a blast to play with friends is next.

We're not far from the beta, now. You can sign up here if you haven't already, and we hope to play with you in the coming weeks!

...and in to 2016

It's going to be an exciting year! We're releasing our first game, Give Me Fuel, in the first part of 2016, with a beta coming in just a few weeks, barring catastrophe.

It's always a bit nerve-wracking to release a new game. How will players like it? Will you see what we see? Is there something awkward or broken that we've missed that will make it a frustrating experience? You never really know until it's out there & people are playing.

We've been working on this for about a year and a quarter - half a year with the full team of four, and about 9 months before that with just two of us. The game's evolved dramatically, gotten a lot better, but at its core, it really addresses the exact need we started with - it's a game for folks who don't have a lot of time to play, but want a satisfying game to play with their friends in extremely short bursts.

When we launch the beta, it's going to feel "rough" and small. It's not going to be like most betas these days, where the game is basically all done except for the marketing and some minor tweaks. We've got grand ambitions for the ways in which this core game can evolve, and we're going to be constantly adding to it, improving it, changing it.

We don't make games, finish them, launch them, and then move on to the next thing.

We're at our best when we make a game, and then take what works and develop it into something better. Our goal is to make a game that you'll love to play for years. That is fun & interesting two years later, because fundamentally, it's evolving with you. 

If you played one of our previous games, Fleck (no longer running, sadly), from the start, there was almost nothing to do. But the core of what Fleck was was there. It was a big shared social space where you'd garden & do stuff with other people. Over the next three years, a lot of things got added to it - some of which had been part of the plan from the start, some of which were entirely unexpected, delightful directions we pursued because we saw potential.

That's most likely how this is going to be. We have a plan. Lots of plans, actually. What we're releasing is the corn kernel. What we see is a bag of popped kernels, gloriously butter-coated. But the first kernel has to be right first. It has to show the potential. It has to pop.

The stove is getting warmer.

2015

We're bringing 2015 to a close today. It's a little bit weird for a startup to take some time off, but one of our key values is sustainable development, and part of that is taking breaks when we can get them. We build games that have to keep running all the time, which means that this is going to be the last real break, where we can actually not thing about work at all, for a while.

2015 is when Wonderspark started. Two of us have been working on it, loosely since the middle-end of 2014, but Wonderspark didn't become what it is until other people took a chance on us as investors, and Kyle and Sean took a chance and joined the team. So the company was born in 2015, the moment the whole team sat down in a room and we began charting our new path forward together.

It's been a fantastic year. If you've been following along, you know that we're getting closer to releasing our first game, which means that 2016 is going to be undeniably exciting. But these last six months, we've learned how to work together, we've massively improved and evolved the game we're making, we've gotten a small beta distribution out to people, got tons of feedback, got hundreds, if not thousands of turns under our belts, were able to make bold changes to fix the problems that playtesting revealed, and are at the edge of 2016 with a game we're incredibly excited for you to play.

So from all of us to all of you, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year.

We can't wait to show you what's next.

The One Weird Key to Success

This is kind of not strictly game-related, but whatever.  I've been reading stuff on Quora for a while, and posting a bit, and one thing that comes up again and again, not just on Quora but on almost every site where aspiring entrepreneurs are asking folks things, a question you see again and again and again is:

What is the key to success?

And I find it to be an immensely frustrating question. Because I understand why people ask it. If only there was this one thing that folks didn't know, I can know it, and be assured of success. Or I know that I deserve success, but I'm missing something, and if only I can find that thing, I'll be set.

So let me answer that for you. There is no key to success. There is no sign that someone will be successful. You can make an argument that there are character traits that make someone more or less likely to succeed, but here's a harsh truth about the world:

You can do all the right things and still lose.

You can work harder than everyone else. You can be smarter than everyone else. You can have a brilliant idea at just the right time and fail on execution. You can have a brilliant idea and execute flawlessly at exactly the wrong time. You can be born into privilege and totally blow it. You can work tirelessly to move up the ladder of the American Dream and be stuck at the first rung. Forever.

Failure is not a referendum on character.

Success is not a referendum on character.

Successful people want it to be, because they want their success to mean something. They want to feel like their success came because they were better than other people. But if you're not blinded by your own ego, you already understand the truth. Hard work, brilliant ideas, charisma, preparation - all those things make success more likely if circumstances align. But more often than not, circumstances don't align. And you fail.

And you want to know why. You want to know what you could do differently to make sure that next time is a success. And there's nothing you can do to make sure that next time is a success. The only thing you can ensure is that there is a next time.

One saying that goes around is that winners win because they keep trying until they succeed. It's usually framed as something that sounds more like "losers quit", and I think that's a pretty awful way of framing it. It's a truism anyway. Your keys are always in the last place you look, because when you find your keys you stop looking. Success comes from not quitting because those people didn't quit until they succeeded? That's utterly useless as advice.

Here's the thing. I do have advice. But it's not easy. It's not a key, or a secret, or a one weird trick.

  • Love what you do. If you are lucky enough to be able to work in a field that you are genuinely passionate about, you're going to do better than someone that is dispassionate. Or even someone who is highly motivated, but mercenary. If you love what you do, you will be able to understand it better than everyone else. And you won't quit just because it gets hard. Many people simply aren't able to do something they love to sustain themselves and should not follow this advice. If you're privileged enough to be able to, though, it helps.
  • Build a great team. This does not mean "build a team of exceptional individuals". This means build a great team. A group of people that makes each individual better. Where people are safe to try bold things without fear. Where ideas bounce from person to person and gain energy, instead of being shot down. I believe that this is the number one skill an entrepreneur should have, and one reason that I think it is much easier to be an entrepreneur later, after you've established wonderful working relationships with lots of immensely talented people.
  • Learn to Adapt. You will not be able to not make mistakes. You will not be able to get everything right. Very little of your plan will survive intact. The market will change. The platform will change. People on your team will have emergencies. You will have emergencies. Your personal life will not conveniently do what you want it to while you focus on the work. You cannot control these things, and trying to is stressful and pointless. Instead, you have to learn to adapt. Everything about your business has to be able to react to new information, and move as quickly as possible.
  • Plan for failure. I don't mean that you should want to fail. I mean that you will most likely fail. And if you've blown all your time, or all your money, on trying to get that one release just right, you are dead. So don't be dead. Don't assume you'll get it right. Sure, you've heard of that company that put all their eggs in one basket and hit it out of the park the first time, right? What a great story. But you didn't hear about all the companies that did that and failed. That's why this seems like a good plan. But it's not. If your goal is to survive (and that should be your number one goal, whatever a VC tells you (because they don't actually care about your survival unless you're on track to be a unicorn)), then you must give yourselves room to screw up, and at least at a high level, understand what you're going to do to try again if your plans completely fall apart.

The long and short of it is this; The key to success is to be an expert in a field that you're passionate about, build a team whose dynamic improves the product exponentially over an individual's "vision", create the ability to take risks, make mistakes, and try again. As efficiently (for both time and money) as possible.

Oh. That doesn't sound like a quick and easy fix?

That's correct.

A Good Game is One Idea (Game Design, Part 2)

When people find out you're a game developer, a lot of people decide to pitch their ideas at you. So you hear a lot of pitches for games. And the biggest piece of advice I can give to an aspiring developer is this:

A good game is one idea.

It seems too simple to be true, and so people tend to resist it. But when you're thinking of, "Gee, what game should I make?" you have a lot of things to balance.

  1. Scope: This is the big one that most novice game developers can't wrap their heads around. Developing a game is a TON of work, and it's extremely complex. Making an epic RPG that's different from every other game in every possible way is going to take an extraordinary amount of time. And even if you can do it, it doesn't mean you should do it. First, if you make everything different, it means that the complexity of your game goes way up for every novel feature, and it goes up exponentially for every novel feature that interacts with another novel feature. Next, it can also really impact your game's...
  2. Understandability: I don't think that's actually a word, but whatever. The point is that if you change everything, even if it's for the better, if you change too much, people won't be able to understand what's happening. You may have a point that it's better, for instance, to have "Jump" for an FPS be on a shoulder button, so that you can look & jump at the same time. But if everyone else has agreed that Jump is the A button, changing it incurs a cost. You have to teach the player that this new thing is different. That takes time, early in the game. If you diverge from convention too much, your game just becomes confusing and strange.
  3. Competition: Let's say you've got a great game - but it's two totally novel ideas, rather than one. Sure, you may be able to develop that game - it'll be harder, but you can do it. For an example of where that's possible, take Gears of War - different camera perspective AND a new kind of melee weapon. But the thing is, these two things are also part of one bigger idea, which is that it was a game about flanking your enemy. And the point was that the perspective let you get a better view of the playing field, and the chainsaw gun meant that if you properly flanked your enemy & got in a good position, you had an overwhelming (and visceral) advantage. If you have two ideas that don't gel that way, though, they just start competing for attention, and it becomes much more difficult to describe what your game is.

When I say that it's about one idea, I also don't mean that every single thing about your game is derivative except for one tentpole idea. Many, many things may be different - but they're all different because of that idea. Many elements may be recognizable, or conventional - which can be great because it makes the game really easy to understand - but all those conventional bits are illuminated by the one big idea, and made better by it.

For us, we know that we're going to be relying on a lot of conventions. Matchmaking isn't going to be some totally bizarre thing. It'll be fairly normal. We're going to be relying on a lot of normal things relating to how cards work in our game. How turns resolve. How rules are communicated. A lot of things are very normal. But they're also different, because our goal was to make a game that you could play in a very short time that was as satisfying as more "traditional" non-F2P games. And that's changed a lot of stuff. But because we're rooted in a lot of things we understand really well, the complexity of development hasn't gone totally out of control.

A lot of times, people think this belies a lack of ambition, but I disagree - it's about spending the limited resources you have on the most important thing and doing everything else in as easily understandable way as possible.

 

Game Design, Part 1

I've been toying with the idea of doing a "How to Design a Game" YouTube series, where I do a couple short-ish videos about game design, and how to design a game. I figured I'd start by writing some posts, because it'll be a good way to flesh out thoughts on where to start.

First, a bit of background:

I'm not an artist, or a software engineer. I took a few classes in college about programming, and did really badly in all of them. I used to draw like crazy through middle school and high school, but never had any directed instruction, and as a result, never got past a certain level. At the time, I attributed it to a lack of innate skill, but looking back on it, it's clear that what I needed was feedback from someone who was significantly better than I was.

I'm a mechanical engineer, by schooling, but after a few years of working as a mechanical engineer, I realized that if I wanted to build giant robots, making videogames was a better route than mechanical engineering.

I got into game development (relatively) late, at 24. My second job, where my career really started, was at 27. I've been playing games since the launch of the Commodore 64, however, and even back in those days used to type in game programs from the back of Compute! magazine. So it's not too late for you. However old you are.

Over the last 15 years, I've done a fair bit of scripting (writing logic for games using custom tools), a ton of system design, a little bit of level design, a good deal of management, and since 2009, I've founded & run a pair of studios - Self Aware Games in the past, and now Wonderspark.

So my background isn't "Always knew I wanted to make games, got an engineering degree and jumped right in." It was a bit of a meandering path, and I think honestly, that's a good thing for a designer, and it leads me into a good place to start.

Prerequisites.

I know, maybe a description of exactly what a game designer does might make sense to go here. But I think that's better later. Instead, let's start with this. What do you need to be a good game designer?

  1. Communication skills: Far and away the most important tool a game designer needs is the ability to communicate with other people. Why? Because a game designer is responsible for understanding what it is that the team is going to make. They have to be able to communicate abstract concepts that don't exist yet to a team in a way that gets the entire team on board with the same vision.

    You know the old game, "Telephone", where you whisper something in someone's ear, and they whisper it in someone else's, and so on, until finally, the person at the end of the line then says out loud whatever they heard, and it's nothing like what you originally said? Part of your job is making sure that everyone in that chain has the same understanding of a game that doesn't yet exist. Communication is, without question, your number one problem.
     
  2. Massive experience with games: There's a huge difference between playing a lot of games and understanding a lot of games. People who are interested in game design can play tons of games, and when you're playing games as research, it's an interesting situation. You're not playing specifically to have fun, though you need to be "loose" enough to let yourself have fun, because knowing when something's fun or when it's not fun is an important skill to have. So first, you need to have an accurate "fun detector". But that's only the very beginning.

    Because next, you have to be analytical and figure out why you're having fun. And for most people, the answer is simple. "It's fun." That's not an answer, though. Why are you having fun? What pressure is being exerted on you? What kinds of decisions are you making? What kinds of information are you seeing? Why is something aesthetically pleasing? How does this fit into the overall pace and flow of the experience? "Fun" is like "flavor". To most people who don't think much about it, it's an abstract concept. But to a chef, flavor is something they build, piece by piece. It's about more than just the flavors, but the texture, and the atmosphere, and the ebb and flow of a meal. "Fun", similarly, is built out of parts, and it's something that's extremely complicated, and deserving of its own (multiple) posts.
     
  3. Ability to speak many languages: I said I'm not an engineer, but I can speak to an engineer "in their language". I understand the basics of programming logic. I understand the basics of what technology requirements we're dealing with. I understand the general scope of the amount of processing power we have available to us. I'm not an artist. But I can understand when an animation looks wooden, and talk about easing, and squash. Or when a character's silhouette is indistinguishable from another's, and the need for a character to be "readable" and easily differentiated from others. We can explore different styles using references we both understand. I'm not a musician, but I understand the basics of musical theory, and we can talk about a broad spectrum of influences, or instrumentation, or whether I'm looking for something a major or minor key, and I can sketch out a melody to provide as a starting point.

    I'm not good at any of those things - but I'm good enough to be able to converse. It's like knowing a foreign language. You don't have to be fluent, or appreciate the subtleties and nuances of the languages, but being able to break the ice "natively" changes the nature of the following conversation, even if people know you're a foreigner.
     
  4. Business savvy: This may be one of the more controversial entries - no, it's definitely going to be the most controversial - but it's absolutely vital for modern games, and not just in a mercenary way. If you want to design games for yourself, based solely on the things you like, personally, by all means, go for it. But don't expect to be commercially successful, or do this as anything but a hobby.

    Ultimately, what most people want is they want to reach an audience. Being able to understand how to figure out what that audience wants is one of the biggest challenges of game design. And knowing how and why someone will pay you to make it is vital to making games as a sustainable business.

    You also need to understand how important scope is, and why it's important to keep your ideas as small as possible. It's so important that a very early spinoff of this will be "Why Your Game Should Be One Idea." One idea, articulated in a sentence. That's part being a great designer, but it's also fundamentally an issue of being business savvy.

I think those are the four big things that a designer needs in their toolbox. They need extreme depth of experience analyzing games. They need to be able to communicate their abstract ideas effectively. That means being able to speak many languages. And they need to know how to decide what to make, how to make it, and make sure their concept is scoped correctly.

What Does a Game Designer Do, Anyway?

Oh, well, hey. Look at the time. Come back next time for more. :) Leave me a comment if you'd like to see this continue!

You might notice a change to our header image.

In the wake of recent tragedies, I find myself asking, "What can I do about gun violence?" And there are a number of things that people can do. But for me, I have a hard to saying, "I'm making a game where people shoot each other up, isn't it fun?" and "People are getting shot in reality, and it's tragic," and making those two thoughts make sense together.

I brought this up with the team this morning, and we had a discussion. As a team, we've long-since agreed that our game isn't about killing people. It's about disabling their suits, so that the victor can scour an area for salvage unopposed. It may seem like a semantic distinction, but it's one that fits in with the lore of the universe. Humanity is on the knife-edge of survival as a species, it doesn't make sense for people to be killing one another. So taking it a step further, we're removing all the guns from our game.

That's not to say that we've got a ton of guns in there, but the original concept for combat revolved around two people fighting one on one with various weapons at various ranges. Some attacks would be physical melee attacks. Some would be energy blasts. Some would be handguns, some would be rifles. Depending on the range between you & your opponent.

I don't have a problem with combat. I don't mind folks chopping at each other with laser swords or blasting each other with lightning. Thematically, it even makes sense - overload your opponent's suit with energy to force a shutdown. No problem. But shooting people with something that looks like a rifle or a pistol and then explicitly not having them die was ... weird. And uncomfortable. It looked dynamic and exciting and visceral, and people immediately understood what was happening. Finding a replacement that will feel that "natural" in context will be difficult.

But at the same time, for us, it's what we want to do. We're creating this dystopian future from scratch. We can make whatever we want. I always admired Gene Roddenberry's desire for a utopian future, where mankind had moved beyond things like racism and sexism - it was a vision that strived for something better. It's different than what we're making, but in a way, I hope we can emulate part of that ideal. It may be a dystopian future where people fight to survive, but it'll be our strange, fantastical dystopia where people don't murder each other using weapons that mimic those that are a tragic part of our current real world.

I see it as a challenge. Constraints breed creativity. We need ranged combat for the mechanics in the game to behave the way we want them to. Finding a way to do that that feels exciting and visceral and understandable - we'll have to create our own new language for it, figure out how it works, etc. It's an opportunity to do something recognizable and interesting, and not lean on the simple, obvious option.

Thanks for reading.

Go (Against) the Flow

I think this is a post that in 18 months is going to either look brilliant, or incredibly stupid. Just putting that there as a note to the future.

Just read this post, but Justin Kan of Twitch.tv fame, and it really struck a nerve. Back when we started Wonderspark - right at the beginning - we talked to a bunch of VCs, and we got the same sort of "soft rejection" from all of them. And it's hard not to take that to heart. But not taking VC money has allowed us to pursue development in the way we believe is best, and to me, personally, it's the most important decision we've made. We raised money from people who believed in our approach to building a game, and building a company, and trusted us to do the best job possible. For us, that's been hugely important because I think we do things differently than most places.

We're not looking to grow big and fight for the top grossing spots. Everything we've done has been first about building something that is sustainable for the long term, and second about building the best possible game we can that we believe people will want. And that means building something that we are going to be passionate about, not what an investor thinks will have the highest potential to be a "Unicorn".

If you've got a hojillion dollars, and can find yourself a really powerful license, yeah, you can do really well with a "predictable" success, by making a game that's like a previously-successful game. But no "mimic" has cracked the top 10 and stayed there for any appreciable amount of time. The things that have stayed haven't been like the things that have come before them, and the App Store is flooded with the corpses of Clashalikes that have all come and gone without anyone noticing... or caring.

We're building something we want to play. But building something we want to play isn't enough. We're building something that fills a need that we have, which is that we want something that has all the stuff we love about real games - strategy, socialization, mastery, progression - not just a way to kill 5 minutes - and packs them into a game that you can play for 30 seconds, or 30 minutes.

We're not doing this because some analyst believes that there's a "market opportunity" here. We're doing this because no one else is making the game we want, and we've done enough research to believe that others desperately want something like this as well. The sigh of relief, or the glint in an eye when we tell people that we're not monetizing ever-increasing timers, or that we're not going to progressively require an unsustainable time commitment, or that our goal isn't to monetize pain and misery, or that our game will be interruptible at any time without penalty... our focus is on building something great, and doing it in a way where we love coming to work every day.

Our investment is structured differently than anything else I've seen in the industry. We're dealing with equity differently than any other company I know of. Our goals are to build a sustainable place where people love coming to work forever, making games that people will love to play with their friends - hopefully also forever. And that means we're not in it for a splashy launch and smash-and-grab profits. We're not in it to churn through User Acquisition schemes and squeeze as much money out of players as possible to maximize short-term profits.

Make no mistake - we don't have an infinite "runway". We're gonna have to make this work in a year and a bit of time, or we're done. But we believe, fundamentally, that building a game that people will love over the long term, and a company that we and our players will love over hte long term is the right approach. And that means doing things differently than most.

To me, that's the difference between building a company on money, and building a company on love.