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.

NaNoWriMo Excerpts

I'm not saying the following text is any good. NaNoWriMo isn't necessarily about writing things that are good, it's about writing a lot, and hopefully some good stuff comes out of it. At least, that's how I've approached it. All this may change, of course, but I'm posting a few excerpts here so you have some idea of the kind of world the game inhabits. Woo! Feedback welcome.


"Well, a new study came out today. From the "Center for Climate Research". It's..."

"Look," John cut in. "You can't believe any of those studies. Things like the 'Center for Climate Research' - what kind of name is that? It's partisan politics, trying to smear companies like ours. Good companies that provide hundreds of thousands of jobs..." He was on autopilot, now. Indignant. Passionate. On the offensive. Who was she to question the integrity of Exxo America? Who provided jobs to working Americans? Who gave hundreds of millions to education programs and charities? Who, "...wait, what did you say?" John stammered.

"It's a positive feedback loop," Sarah said, frustrated that it's taken this long to actually get a word in edgewise. "Incontrovertible. And new. No one understood this before, but in less than twenty years, every coastal city in the world will be underwater. And a summer day in San Francisco in 2015 is going to be, on average, 125 degrees Fahrenheit."


A thousand images flashed through John's mind. Graphs of lines going up and to the right. EXXO's quarterly stock report. Projected global temperature. He knew. He knew they knew. He knew that his boss understood the potential for an event like this, and that his job was to go before Congress and paint a rosy picture or their stock price was screwed and his bonus was screwed and without all that crap he'd have lost his house in Cabo. He didn't want to lose the Cabo house. He loved that place.

"You think evil is being some moustache-twirling villain in some comic book? It's not. No one does that. No one's out to be a supervillain so they can take over the world and crush their enemies and live in some secret mountain lair like some Bond movie. Evil's not wearing a white suit and stroking a cat, John."

"Then what is it, Sarah. You some f-ing saint or something?"

"Your testimony ended the world, John. It's over. For all of us. And there's no going back. In twenty years this place is going to be under water, and your vacation home is going to be uninhabitable because it'll be so hot that you'll die. We had a chance to change things. To turn them around. Fifteen years ago, you could have done something different. But you chose your house in Cabo and you screwed us all. You killed the goddamn world."

"I was just doing my job, Sarah, I..." John said. He was. He was just doing his job.


“You’re what, 50 years old?” Whitman asked.

“Fifty-two,” Gabriel replied.

“So you remember what it was like,” Marshall said, as he pulled a chair up next to the table & gestured for Gabriel to take a seat.

“Yeah. Before. How old are you?”

“Thirty-four,” Whitman replied.

“Do you remember?” 

“I don’t know. I think I do. I feel like I remember seeing the sun. I remember the sky being blue. I remember it being really hot. But it’s just flashes of things. Maybe it was a book I read as a kid. Maybe it was reality. What do you really remember, when you’re four?”

“Yeah. I don’t know, son,” Gabriel chuckled. “I remember the way that dirt felt, before it all turned to dust. I don’t know why I remember, or what I was doing. But I remember feeling the dirt squeeze between my toes and looking up at the sky and laughing.”

“How would you like to do that again?” Whitman asked, serious.


Sasha sprinted forward. The Nuke lifted its head, as if quizzically, and watched as Sasha sprinted towards them. It trudged a step back. Pop, pop, pop. Three little plasma balls crackled through the air. The first flew over the Nuke’s left shoulder. The next two landed dead center in its chest. The Nuke’s arm lurched, shocked by the blast. A whirr, a crackle, then THOOM. The stray shot missed Sasha by feet, but the pressure wave from the slug knocked her off balance. She slid on the ground, kneeling on one knee.

The Nuke staggered, not braced for the force of the blast, the gun knocked them off balance. Sasha ran towards them, firing a few shots from the hip. As she closed in on them, she held the rifle in her right arm, and clenched her left fist. Four panels on the back of her armor opened up, the white plastic panels revealing a network of black solar panels underneath. The panels crackled with energy, and a blue blade formed around her left fist - two feet long like a push-dagger. Not something you swing. Something you stab with. She leapt into the air and dove toward the staggering Nuke, and twisting her whole body, lunged, blade-first into the Nuke’s chest.

The blade didn’t ‘sink in’ to the Nuke’s chest. Its armor was too thick for that. But the blade was made of energy - it wasn’t meant to puncture armor. It was meant to deliver a massive overload to the suit’s control systems and shut the whole thing down. The lights on the Nuke’s suit shut off. Its body shuddered, and it collapsed into a rusting heap.


He approached the suit. Stepped into a boot, then the other. One arm in. Fit each finger in the glove. Next arm in. The two men folded the suit around him. Then latched it shut. “THUNK” one latch shut. Then another. It was hot in the suit. He knew he wasn’t the first who’d been in it. The metal of the suit was already suffused with radiation. He felt it warm his skin. The men checked the outside of the suit. Grabbed the hoses & pulled them. Inspected all the fittings and latches.

Solomon began to sweat. “Hot in here,” he said. One of the men looked at him briefly, then went back to their work. A forklift drove in front of him, and pulled up to his back, lowering the massive reactor and cooling tank onto his back. Everything in the suit settled a few inches, as half a ton of gear was latched to it. The two men talked to each other as they ran through the diagnostic procedures. A “whoosh” of water as the system was connected to the suit’s cooling hoses. Immediately, the temperature in the suit dropped to tolerable levels. Solomon was still sweating, and the viewports fogged over.

“System is go,” one of the men said. Solomon heard it as “Shhstm ish ghhh”. A whisper. Being in the suit was like watching the world from a distance. The reactor started. Solomon had expected something dramatic. A bang, or a bright flash of light. But nothing - it started in silence. The only indication anything was happening was the whoosh of water through the suit’s cooling system, and moments later, the first bloom of steam from its vents.

The men were gone. A series of lights lit up green, and a huge doorway on the far side of the room opened. Light bloomed from the opening, with a brightness Solomon had never experienced. He raised his arm, and with a delay, the motors in his suit’s arm brought it to shield his eyes. He took a step forward. THOOM. Then another. It was like walking through waist-deep water. Everything felt slow and deliberate and delayed. He stepped forward into the world and with extraordinary finality, the hatch door closed behind him.

He was Above Ground.

Swag!

I love stickermule.com - I've used them a handful of times now, and their stickers are just really, really well made. So yeah, we got stickers! Do you want one? Send us a note with your mailing address via DM @1derspark on Twitter, or through our Facebook page. Or just e-mail us your mailing address via info [at] wonderspark.co, and we'll do our best to get you a sticker (or two) ASAP!

Also, it's just about Thanksgiving, and while it's totally sappy to say, I couldn't be more thankful to be working on something I really love with a bunch of creative, generous, brilliant people that get to learn from every day. It's looking like we're going to be launching in early 2016, and I can't wait to play our game with you. Happy Thanksgiving!

Novelizing

About ten years ago, I did NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. I didn't have any aspirations to be a novelist (and I still don't), but it was a genuinely life-changing experience.

It's an exercise where you're committing to write 50,000 words during November. The idea is that everyone thinks they'll write the Great American (or wherever you are) Novel "tomorrow", but you really shouldn't wait. It's also that writing isn't just about being inspired, it's about doing the work of writing, which means also showing up and powering through even when you're not inspired at all.

The goal is also ambitious enough that you've gotta write a significant amount every day. I write really fast, and it takes me about 45 minutes, minimum, each day to get to the 1,600 words (or so) I need to stay on track. And you cannot do any extensive editing if you want to write at a sustainable pace for the whole month. Hell, you can't even really plot, because you've gotta write fast enough that you just write... whatever.

And that's the magic of it, for me.

When you're just forced to write, and you can't plan, and you can't edit, you go places you don't expect. Your characters come alive, and direct you where they want to go. They do things that you would never expect them to, and following those surprising twists and turns is incredibly exciting.

It completely changed not just how I write things, but became a catalyst for changing my entire creative process, and even how I manage folks when working through creative collaboration. It's not about the plan. It's about knowing at a high level where you want to go, keeping that in mind, but also exploring and experimenting, and following promising leads to places you don't expect. It's about not worrying whether it's perfect, it's about moving forward. It's about the work of creativity, and how you don't get inspired and then do the work, you do the work and it inspires you, which lets you do more work, which inspires you some more into a big virtuous cycle of self-reinforcing creativity.

It's about letting go of that inner editor that is scared the ideas aren't good enough, or perfect enough, for the world to see. it's about letting go of the idea that this might be wrong, or stupid, or a waste of time, because sometimes you've got to power through the less obvious places to get somewhere special.

But mostly, it's about showing up and never quitting.

On days when nothing's easy. On days when everything you do is garbage. On days when you ask yourself why you're doing this stupid thing wouldn't you rather be watching TV?

The thing that NaNoWriMo did is it changed my life. It showed me that creativity isn't the magic fairy dust. It forced me to understand that inspiration is the result of work, not the other way around. For that, I'll always be grateful.

---

This year, I'm doing NaNoWriMo again. I'm using the month to just write about the world that Give Me Fuel is in. What the cultures of the three factions are like. How their technology diverged. What they think of each other and why, and how reality isn't at all like their prejudices. How the world burned, why. What it's like to try to survive on the surface of a world and scrape out a living on a planet that's no longer fit for human life.

It's been interesting. Lots of little details emerged that I didn't expect. I think, for instance, that this is actually a prequel to the game, and that the timeframe the game will take place in is when the three factions finally meet - not just on the surface, fighting each other for the scraps of civilization that remain, but when they actually meet and start talking to each other, and exchanging bits of their culture. It makes more sense from a "mechanical" perspective to have these three cultures intermingling, but to not have things figured out yet.

We'll see. There's still a couple weeks to go. Tonight, I'll cross the 40K word mark.

Art

A lot of the stuff we do is really rough. There are huge benefits to not investing a bunch of time into detailed, beautiful work - art, code, even design - until you know that you've got a solid enough foundation to work from that it's worth  polishing things up.

It's a great way to work. You don't invest a lot of time into things you may throw away, you don't get emotionally invested to the point where it crushes your morale if things need to get changed. You experiment, you test, you iterate, and you improve.

That's all great internally, where we all share a vision for the destination. But when you start to talk to people on the outside, it can get a little messy.

Showing a character sketch may get the point across to us, but it doesn't have any emotional "punch" to it. You don't know who this is, or why they're here, or what those bits on their suit are all about. It might give you some insight into what we're up to, but it's not something you're going to get excited & tell your friends about.

And for building the game, that's the correct approach. Because this isn't the be-all end-all sketch of the character we're going with. This is a sketch that gives us an idea of whether we're "directionally-correct". We've got a better idea of what the character's needs are. We have the things that make the character "who they are". How they fit into the game lore. Why they look the way they do. How they'll read to the player. We did dozens of sketches for the main character - some too bulky. Some too futuristic. You'll probably see some of those over time.

But when you're trying to deliver a first impression, none of the work behind the impression matters. The only thing that matters is the impression.

Give Me Fuel

Coming soon on iOS.

 

Still plugging away.

We're in the midst of a pretty big pile of engineering work. We started out by making something playable as fast as possible. With that, we were able to playtest the game as you'd actually play it - on your phone, wherever you happened to be.

Turned out great. The game was fun, you could play over and over and not get bored, there were often times when there was no one good choice - you'd have to make decisions & just react to whatever happened next. All very positive.

We got a ton of feedback about a ton of important things. Parts of the UI have been completely reworked. We learned a lot about how we're going to show the results of actions on screen. We tested out a way of visualizing a card game that (as far as I know) no one's ever done before.

There's a point, though, where you make a transition from "It doesn't matter how this works, it just needs to work in some form as fast as possible," to "This needs to be able to be maintainable and extensible over the long term." You don't invest in long-term infrastructure until you know that it's worth doing. We had to verify that the core game was interesting and fun first.

But leads to an interesting ebb and flow in development. For a while, we were adding new features, changing the UI, modifying the art, etc. really quickly. Our engineers would hack in changes quickly, and we'd see them play out. Lots of iteration, lots of learning. And then we'd learned "enough". Enough to make that transition from short-term to long-term.

But now, nothing's changing. Nothing visible, anyway. Everything is changing under the hood. It's like we put together a really nice clay mockup of a car. It looks like a car. It teaches you a lot about what the final car will be like. But now, we've gotta go back and fix all its guts, and make sure it works, and that it can be built in some reasonable quantity.

For a game designer, it's kind of a boring time. :D But as a game developer, it's super exciting. It means we've crossed a really difficult threshold, and we're on the long slope toward release. We've got a ton of work left to do, and it's going to be a few months before we get anything out the door. But it's exciting. It's progress.

The Message

When you're working on a startup, one of the things you're supposed to have honed to perfection is the "elevator pitch". The idea is that you end up in an elevator with someone influential, and you've only got the time it takes to get to their destination to convince them that your idea is worth investing in. 30 seconds or less. Ideally, a sentence or two.

It's a surprisingly hard thing to do. You can try it. Describe yourself in one sentence to someone who's never met you. Capture the nuance of what makes you different than anyone else. Why someone might love you, or hate you. It's like making a really elegant one-page resumè, but then instead of one page, you have one sentence. All the nuance, all the complexity, the depth - all the things you see in your idea that are wonderful and beautiful and unique, in one sentence.

On a previous project at a previous company, I'd been moved to a project that had been going on for a year. It struggled to find its unique identity, and after talking to a lot of the folks involved, it was clear that the project lacked strong direction. So I convinced folks that it would be worthwhile to take everyone in a leadership position on the project and lock ourselves in a room until we could describe the game we were already making in one sentence.

It took an entire week.

And while it sounds insane to say that it's worth eight people in a room for a solid week to craft a single sentence, the results were astonishing. Before, the concept art was brown and green, and largely indistinguishable from anything else out there. The features of the game were basically "everything", and there was no way for anyone to make a decision about anything, because when your game is "everything", there's no way to know how to focus your efforts. Ask eight people, and you get eight different responses.

At the end of the week, we walked away with this: "[GAME NAME] is a super fast, hyper-agile gun & run... with style."

Everything in that sentence is important. It's not fast. It's super fast. It's not agile. It's hyper-agile. It's not a run & gun. It's a gun & run. The order matters, because in this game, despite the focus on agility, shooting is more important than running. Oh, and it's got style. The environments are stylish. The character is stylish. The animation is stylish. What kind of style? The kind that facilitates hyper-agility. The kind that can move super fast.

The thing with a sentence like this is that you can use it like a razor. You can chop away everything the game is not. At a time when the cover mechanics of Gears of War were still novel, should we follow their lead? No - because Gears of War is about "stop & pop" gameplay. That's not super fast. It's not hyper-agile. And it's not stylish.

It becomes immediately clear what the game is, and what it is not.

This is one of the "before" pieces of concept art. Sure, it's beautiful and technically well made, but what is it? What's important? The scale of the humanoid character implies a certain "largeness" to the world, but beyond that, I'm left without much of an idea of what this is really about.

After?

post_art.png

Oh, look. He's moving. The background is blurred, because he's moving super fast. He's jumping off an enemy, dodging attacks & shooting simultaneously, because he's hyper-agile. What's the first thing you see? The huge red blast of the ricocheting energy beam, because focusing on the firepower puts the gun in the "gun & run" hierarchy in the right place. The background may be a blur, but it's colorful, because the world is stylish. The character's armor is orange, not grey, because stylish. The gun is bright, and the ricocheting balls have a neat trail because stylish. 

The amazing thing is that all the concept art became immediately coherent, and a story almost started telling itself, through the design of the character, the design of the environments, and the design of the enemies. When you've got everyone on the same page, and they're all working off the same core idea, and share the same core values, you don't need to tell anyone what to do. They know, themselves, what to do. All you have to do is sometimes remind them.

It's a super fast, hyper-agile gun & run... with style.

This game pitch - we did it eight years ago, and I'd bet money that if you asked anyone who was in the room that week, and anyone else on the team who worked on the project, they'd recite that line back to you, most with 100% accuracy. That's how clear the message was. And if you go back and ask whether it was worth getting everyone in that room for the entire week, yes, it was worth it a dozen times over. It seemed like a lot of effort for a small result before, but the impact was enormous.

Last week, I was lucky enough to attend a conference where I heard a handful of talks on "messaging", and it was really great to hear this concept repeated by people who've achieved a good deal of success in the world. It was a two-day conference, and I left halfway through the 2nd day, because it was clear that our biggest issue was getting the message right. It starts with the team-facing message, like the "super fast" one. It lets the team focus on what we're doing, even if as a marketing slogan it's a little clunky.

For us, what we're working on, our internal message is this:

"[GAME NAME] is a stylish, constantly-evolving social card-combat game you can play anywhere in minutes."

Like the previous message, it's meant as a "razor". Is a feature going to enable "constant evolution"? Is it social? Can you play it anywhere in minutes? No? Cut it. Change it. Focus on the things that reinforce the message.

These things can change over time, and as a much smaller team, we're okay with an evolving message. But we need to be able to tell you, "this is what we're working on", and we all need to understand what that means. At some point in the future, we'll need to re-focus that in a message that will let us tell you what we're working on, in a way that hopefully gets an idea across that you really want to engage with. It has to be clear immediately that this a game you'll be interested in.

"Fight your friends in a casual, strategic card-combat game you can play in minutes."

It's still a work-in-progress, but we'd love your feedback. Is this something you're interested in? What kind of game does this sound like? What about it works for you? What about it doesn't work, or turns you off from the idea?

Let us know!

The Possibility Space

A lot of developers seem to think the difference between a "free to play" game and a "premium" game is simply adding a bunch of timers or items for purchase. The reality is quite different. To create a sustainable free to play game, you need to create a game of infinite possibility.

The business model changes everything about the game. It's not just a matter of slapping on a few incidental purchases to a game. That doesn't work. It's not just a matter of restricting content behind timers. A good "free to play" game is a service.

In most games, you pay $ and you get X. It's a deal that a lot of people are used to, and people understand it well. Then there is a different model, where people pay $/month, and get X as an ongoing service. It's pretty well established, but one big tradeoff of subscriptions is that because you know you're signing up for an ongoing expense, there's a huge amount of overhead to make that decision. "Will I play this every month enough to justify the expense? Will I remember to cancel the subscription? Will I actually get value out of this?" It's a transaction people have a lot of experience with for very specific things (magazines, TV, etc.), but for something like a game where they don't know what they're getting, it's a really difficult "ask", because convincing the player that your game will have ongoing value is difficult. Most games don't have long-term lasting value.

If your game is based on microtransactions, everything changes. First, you need to provide something the players want. Second, you have to keep the game engaging over the very long term, so people keep playing it.

That last one is something a lot of folks gloss over. Your game needs to be not just expandable, but nearly infinitely expandable. It has to be expandable via more in-game content. Developers should have a huge number of ways to expand the in-game content. Not just along one axis, which can get "tired", but along many axes. New content that expands the number of features. New features, that enable new content.

Expandable as more people play the game. When a small number of people are playing, you need different ways of matching them up than when many people are playing. You don't need to build the latter at the start, but you need to be able to build it when it's necessary.

You don't need to build the whole game. You don't need to build in the expandability. But what you do need to do is create a core game mechanic that can expand, develop over time, and constantly surprise people with new stuff.

I know this seems sort of obvious, but the weird thing is that almost no one does it right. Take a platformer, for instance. Let's say Super Mario Bros. F2P Super Mario? Great - just sell more levels. But the problem is that eventually, folks master the mechanics, and the possibility space of the level design is exhausted. Then people get bored. This is where most F2P game design falls apart.

You don't just need one axis of content expansion. You need, over time, to be able to evolve in many ways. Maybe start by adding new levels. Then add a double jump. No - don't do that, because it will upset the design of all the current levels. But add a new building block for the levels that enhances all the existing mechanics. Add social speed runs, which enhances all the existing mechanics. Add the ability to comment on others' playthroughs. Some kinds of games can handle this kind of expansion gracefully, and others can't.

Start with a concept that is intended from the start to handle this kind of expansion. You don't have to build it. You just have to know that it's in the future if you're lucky enough to keep developing the game. Ignore this, and eventually your core concept hits a wall it can't recover from.

The Prototyping Process

If you've been following along from the start, undoubtedly you've seen a bunch of photos & screenshots of our prototypes. We started out with cards, and iterated a lot with those cards. It's still a way we can quickly test variations on the gameplay, major tuning adjustments, and new content.

Once we got the broad strokes of the game down, we started looking at how we might visualize the characters on screen. This didn't go super far, because honestly, it's just not important very early on.

But once we got a general idea of how things might look, we moved on to sketching out the game's UI. Menu flows, what it's like to open up a card pack, what kind of things we'd need in a settings menu - that sort of thing.

After that, a lot of work went into making this a playable code prototype. I think it's important to note that by the time we got to this point, we'd iterated on the basic gameplay for months and made massive, massive changes to it that would have been tremendously wasteful to do in code. We started out the code prototype with all placeholder art that I'd done in Photoshop with my massive skills. We played around a bit with layout here, even though we knew that the sprites we'd gotten online weren't going to be what we'd use in the end anyway. We messed around a bit with how we'd show the characters on screen, and you'll see it wasn't long before we went back to something really similar to that first photo with miniatures.

Once we got the code prototype up and running - that was about when Kyle and Sean started, and you'll see some immediate visual differences. Not necessarily that it looks *better*, because the mandate at this point wasn't to make it look good - it was to make it work well. So at that point, we go through another several rounds of UI revisions and layouts. Only after we've finally got something that works well is it worth making things look better.

So hopefully by the time you get to the end, you'll understand where we're at in the development process. :)

Work in Progress

We're making progress on a lot of fronts. UI's a lot clearer than it was. Gameplay's a lot better than it was. For the last few months, you've seen what our art has looked like, but finally, it's time to start making things look better, and iterate more toward the final style of the game. Obviously, not the most polished thing in the world, so expect things to keep changing. But things are starting to find their footing, stylistically. Psyched!

For the initial release of the game, we've got two characters. Eventually, we hope to get to a point where we can offer character customization, so you can make your character a reflection of your tastes - and customization here is intrinsically part of the game, so it's actually important instead of just a cosmetic nicety, which means we've got a better chance of getting to it than say, curly hair or shorts (for folks who've been following along with us since Fleck).

There are also two other "factions" in the game, which we've talked about a little bit. These folks, as you might guess, draw some of their power from the sun. :)

Social Connection

I use my iPhone a lot. Like, probably an actually unhealthy amount of the time. I use it enough that this Saturday, I took a break from it because my wrists hurt and realized that constantly focusing so close was probably not doing wonders for my vision. No, I'm not proud of that - but as a parent of two kids, the iPhone's been a lifesaver in more ways that I can count. Not proud of that, either, but it is what it is.

Still - it was time for a break, so Saturday morning I just left the phone at home & took the kids out to go for a walk around Lake Temescal. It was great. We ran, we hid, we climbed - it was a great time on a beautiful day, and I have to admit that it was pleasurable to not even have the technological distraction as an option. It'll be something I do a lot more going forward. But that's neither here nor there - I'm not saying "iPhone bad!" I'm just saying for me, I enjoyed the change of pace. There are plenty of other times where in the midst of being a parent, having a connection to the outside world saved my sanity. :)

But while the kids were playing on the play structure, and I sat there (kind of wishing I had a camera!) thinking about things, I realized that at its heart, the social connectivity of the iPhone is what I value most out of it. Things like Twitter & Facebook, which have kept me in touch with friends I've had since childhood that might otherwise have fallen away. Things like having access to e-mail, being able to share photos - all those are things that I feel have changed my life for the better. As someone with kids, in my (very) late 30's, it's harder and harder to meet up with people in the real world. Kids consume so much of your time, and of your mental bandwidth that a lot of other things fall away.

I remember wondering why, when I was a kid, my parents had so few friends. Folks would come around once every few months, and they'd talk to a handful of people here and there, but I thought, "Geez, they must be really anti-social," even as a kid. Now, I sympathize. Time is extremely limited. So many things fall down the list of priorities - not even intentionally. I want to see my friends more often, but half the time I'm exhausted. I want to go on grand adventures, but we've still got a little guy who needs a nap in the middle of the day, and that makes things logistically challenging.

So a lot of these things fall away. And in my experience, one thing that's been critical in maintaining a lot of these connections, even in their reduced state, is the connectivity offered by the supercomputer in your pocket. That has real, life-altering value, and isn't just a distraction or a way to kill time.

And of course, that comes to games, as well. There are plenty of ways to kill five minutes on your phone - but I've found that more and more, that's not the experience I'm looking for. I have dozens of brilliant games on my phone. From Best Fiends to Alphabear to Xenowerk to Star Wars: Uprising to Legend of Grimrock. And while those games get some of my time, the games I really love are the ones I'm playing with other people. Capitals. Spellwood (though iOS9 appears to finally be the nail in its coffin). Hearthstone. 

The thing I want out of these games is the ability to play with friends. This is why I keep playing Destiny (PS4), because it's the game that's most likely to evolve at any point into an actual social experience with people I enjoy playing with.

And the key isn't just that I want to play a game where I'm "socially adjacent" to someone, like the map in Candy Crush (or any of its countless imitators) - I want to be playing with someone, or against them. I want a game that enables me to compete against another person's ability to strategize, or react, or something that captures the infinite variability of playing against another person. More, I want a game that will let me create new memories with that person.

One of my favorite things about playing games in college was that my housemates and I would spend an hour playing something like Warcraft, and then we'd spend the next three talking about it. All the close calls, the weird mistakes, the brilliant strategic moves - they all became fodder for our real world experience with each other. The best parts of those games were the memories we formed together.

So when I look at the phone, for all the things it does, the thing I value about it the most - and by far - is the ability to keep in touch with other people. Through things like Twitter and Facebook, I can hear about their day, and we can chat. I can see pictures of their kids, or their travels, or whatever their life has to offer. That's great. But with games, we can do something even better. We can do things together. Even if we're a thousand miles apart. Even if one of us is trapped under a sleeping toddler. That's something that has made my life hugely better.

And it's something we hope to do with our game, for you.

Fleshing out the world

One part I really enjoy about game design is figuring out the lore of the game. What's going on? Why's it happening? Stuff like that. One way I've found to do that is just to start writing about stuff. Once you've got a base idea to write about, just start writing - and a lot of weird stuff just falls out of that process.

At the start, our game's not going to be narratively heavy. It's likely to not have any narrative at all. But our goal is to add this over time, and to make the narrative a big part of the experience of playing the game. Even if there's no "story", though, the world matters, because it influences the visual design of the characters, and how the mechanics of the game work.

So, since we're not bound by any sort of requirement for secrecy, I figured I'd post a bit of what I've been noodling about. And just to be clear - it's all basically a "narrative sketchpad". None of this is polished or edited. Still - would love to hear what you think.


All the buildings had burned. Nothing could stop that. As the heat had risen, it was only a matter of time before something spontaneously ignited. In Manhattan, as the days passed, the sun would reflect off of buildings and focus on random things - a piece of paper in a building would catch fire, and from there, nothing would stop the whole floor from going up in flames.

There were still some buildings where some floors were intact. We went looking for those floors. For the things contained there. Remnants of a long-distant past - things that people in those days didn't think twice about. Staplers. Lightbulbs. Cubicle walls. So much technology had been lost - even though the bunkers had workshops, and artisans passed building skills down through the years, making something like a lightbulb took a level of knowledge that we simply couldn't muster these days. Every scrap of tech we had went into building the suits and staying alive. It was all we could do.

So we search the land. For stuff. Remnants of years past. Computers. Pens.

Gasoline.

Eighty floors up I'd walked. Out of the sun, it was much cooler, and walking up the stairs wasn't difficult. I'd be safe from the Nukes at least. Their suits were so ungainly that getting up this high was nearly impossible. And this floor still had its windows, somehow, so I'd be safe from the Windwalkers. If they were coming in, they'd take the stairs like the rest of us.

I looked out over the edge, down to what used to be city streets. Now twenty-foot deep toxic rivers. The buildings formed a grid of skeletal vertical islands. Most of the buildings still stood tall, but some had leaned over to rest on their neighbors. Rickety, makeshift bridges connected the buildings above the waterline - the Nukes were the only ones who could tolerate walking underwater through the toxic sludge. Windwalkers would jump from building to building using their boosters, but we had to cross on bridges like regular people.


Working on the suits was difficult under normal conditions. Getting the armor plates just right when all you have to work with are recycled car doors and a crude smelting station is hard enough. But to work on the reactor is misery. You have to wear a containment suit. So you can't feel things anymore. Trying to disassemble and reassemble a miniature nuclear reactor through thick gloves, staring through a grungy glass plate is like trying to do brain surgery underwater.

Disassemble the heating coils, and the pumps that manage the cooling water. Replace all the seals on the pressurized tanks. Clear all the vents. Remember that every piece of this system is infused with astronomically high levels of radiation that would kill you in less than ten minutes.

That's why the suits are so bulky. The Dustwalkers have to slog a forty-pound nuclear reactor on their back, and hope that nothing fails in the system or they'll die. The suit is so heavy that everything they do has to be assisted through an electromechanical exoskeleton. Plates creak as they rub against each other. Walking is difficult - it's like walking around in one of those old scuba suits they used to have in black-and-white movies. The kind that were attached to the boat above them by a big hose, where you looked out through tiny portholes. The suits didn't even look that different to him, except the face mask was more like a World War 2 gas mask crossed with a diving bell. It had an ominous look to it. But this was an ominous piece of hardware.

Seven feet tall. Covered in radioactive rust. Getting into the suit - just putting it on - probably took a year or two off the Dustwalkers lifespan, and they'd venture out to the Wasted Lands two or three times a week. They're hailed as heroes and treated like kings - but I see their pain. The radiation burns on their back. The hollowness in their eyes. They're being cooked alive in those suits, not just from the heat - they're being cooked from the inside out.


Anyway! That's the bright, cheery world we're inhabiting. Whee! 

Money money money

"Would you like to start a business with more money or less money?"

Seems like a simple question with a simple answer, right? More money is more better. Gives you the ability to do a lot more a lot faster. Lets you find the best people. More team = more ideas = more feedback.

When we started Wonderspark, one of those questions you have to ask is, "How much money do we need to have a shot at success?" And my answer at the time was that we'd need something on the order of $2,000,000. That'd give us funds for a team of 6-8 people with a couple hundred K (see how you can casually refer to giant piles of money so casually?) for marketing.

It seemed like not an unreasonable amount to raise, coming off having made one of the most successful iOS games ever. But the landscape for raising money had changed, and raising money wasn't where our experience was, and we found it impossible to raise anything like that. In fact, we found it impossible to raise any money from traditional venture capital investors.

And oh, god, in retrospect I'm so glad that was the case.

Instead, we raised our initial capital from friends. We got much less, and had to form a totally different strategy, but at least so far, not having a huge amount of money has been hugely beneficial. Here's a few ways:

  • Focus: Because we didn't have a lot of resources, we had to be very deliberate about when we should hire someone. We absolutely would not hire anyone else, no matter how much we wanted to, no matter how much we felt like we needed to, until we knew we had a concept that was worth hiring someone to help with.

    We weren't going to hire someone & start paying them real $ to help us during the phase where things are the least understood, because that was something we could do for "free" with just the two of us. (And by "free", I mean that we weren't paying our salaries, but we were still burning money every month on living expenses, so even with just the two of us, we're not talking about having infinite time.)

    So we waited. We worked on the concept. We worked on the prototype. We played the game. And it wasn't until we'd gone through five or six major iterations on the game until we felt like, "This is good enough that we should hire someone to help us with it." If we'd hired someone earlier, getting to that core would have taken longer. We'd have tried to "keep them busy" with work, but with work that we'd almost certainly throw away as we changed direction.

    Even after we hired folks, the game changed dramatically. I think if you ask Sean & Kyle whether or not this game is "theirs" the answer would be absolutely yes. Their contributions have shaped the direction of the game in ways that have massively improved it. But you need something to start with. You need a core idea that works. And because we didn't have a lot of money, there was a huge pressure to get that right before we had a lot of people working on it.
     
  • Creativity: I think being resource-constrained is a really great way to work. Why? Because you can't do whatever you want.

    When faced with a problem, you can't go with the first, obvious solution, because usually, it's expensive. You have to figure out a more elegant solution - and in the process of trying to find a cost-effective way of doing something, you find a better, more meaningful, more elegant way of doing something instead.

    I'd love to do full-3D graphics for the game we're working on. In some ways, that'd be super nice. But we can't afford to do that to the level of quality where it'd be worth doing. And as a result, that drove a different, 2D-based solution that (I think) will be better for the game we're making than if we went the full-3D route. It will focus on the things that are important - being able to communicate very specific information and moments of emotional impact in a way that full-3D wouldn't necessarily let us do as well. It'll also be massively cheaper, easier to iterate on, and have a more "signature" style, all of which are also benefits. But the core structure of how the game looks will actually be more in service of the gameplay & the information we need to display, and that's something we wouldn't have gotten the same way if we'd gone with the option we'd likely have gone with if we'd had a bigger budget.
     
  • Flexibility: Step 1: hire a dozen people. Step 2: Start development. Step 3: Realize you need to make a change. Now Step 4 is, "Figure out how to coordinate everyone on the team to make that change in the least demoralizing way." When you have a team of 4, and everyone's engaged in the development of the game, making a change is easy. And that means that for all the times we need to make changes, which is a lot since we're in the process of finding the "fun" of the core mechanics, we just ... change. There are no meetings. There are discussions. Sometimes long ones. Sometimes intense ones. But we talk, then we change (or don't change). That's it.

    If you ramp up your team too early, you lose that flexibility. You get tied into bad decisions because the cost of change gets too high - not just re: morale, but also re: money. You've spent too much, and it's too hard to make the decision to scrap what you've done & change course. A huge part of what we do is we retain that agility as long as possible. Here's a screenshot from our game right now:

Sweet, right?

The answer is "Yes, it is, because even though it looks like it was drawn in 5 seconds (it was), it communicates everything we need to know about the moment effectively. And because it cost so little to do (in both time & $) no one will feel bad if we have to change it."

We've been playing with the game looking more or less like this for nearly a month. And we've learned huge amounts from it. We've changed huge things in it. We've added new interactions, renamed dozens of things, done multiple passes on the interaction UI, etc. etc. etc. And we haven't changed this piece of art. Why? Because right now, it's exactly what we need. It doesn't need to look any better, and Sean's time is better spent on making other parts of the game more understandable.

If we'd had money, we'd have spent time on making this look better. Look nicer. We'd have wanted to have screenshots to show media folks. We'd have wanted to have this look better before we showed it to anyone.

But we don't have money to do that. And so our playable multiplayer alpha build looks exactly like this. And best of all? It's fun.

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When you're resource-constrained, you often have to make compromises and not do exactly what you want. In the process of doing that, it forces you to really think about what you want to do in a way that you don't get when you can just do whatever. More, no one has any expectations about what you're doing. If we'd raised a couple hundred K on Kickstarter, we'd have backers expecting AAA quality (despite the fact that AAA quality costs multiple millions these days, even for simple, small things), and folks would be not just disappointed by how the Alpha looks, they'd be furious.

We're not beholden to that pressure. The only pressure we're beholden to is to do the right thing, as efficiently and within-our-means as possible. As it turns out, that's also a great pressure to face if your goal is to make the best thing you possibly can.

Voice Actors vs. Game Developers

There's a potential strike in the works, where voice actors in videogames are fighting for residual payments on successful games.

The initial reactions from game developers appear to range from "f**k those greedy bastards" to... well, that appears to be most of it.

And I understand that response. Last time this stuff came up, something like a decade ago, my thought was, "What the hell? Why should someone who works on a game for 2 hours get residuals while I've sacrificed months (if not years) of my life working nonstop to finish this?" It didn't seem fair. It didn't seem reasonable. I was pissed that voice actors could be so arrogant to believe that they deserved ongoing compensation when none of the devs who slaved away on the game day & night got anything of the sort.

And I stayed that pissed for a while. But then I had a complete change of heart.

Here's the thing - they're not saying that any developer's contribution is worth less than their contribution. They're not saying that we're entitled to ongoing compensation and you're not. They're not saying that their contributions to the game are more OR less meaningful than any developer's. They're saying that they should share in the success of a game they participated in.

And you know what? They're right.

And also? We should, too.

The thing that the actors have going for them is that they have the ability to collectively bargain for such a thing. The game industry isn't unionized. There's no collective bargaining for workers. So if you don't want to crunch, fine - you're fired. If you want residuals, then fine - you're fired. And no residuals for you. What's happened is that developers' ire has been directed at those who would dare ask for their fair share. Instead, it should be directed at the people who aren't giving the developers their fair share.

I've never worked at a game company that had profit sharing in any meaningful capacity. I've worked at places that made certain people very wealthy. But the people it made wealthy were never the same as the people doing the actual development. Why not? If a game's making hundreds of millions of dollars a year, is it just that one or two people make hundreds of millions of dollars and the rest get squat? 

Not to me.

Sure, there's risk involved in starting something. There's effort and pain beyond a "normal job" that goes into being a founder of a company. But when you're building something like a game with an engaged team, the success or failure of the game is a team sport, and a team effort. And the team should be rewarded. If the game is successful to a degree, everyone keeps working, and that's the shared reward. If the game is wildly successful, the team should share in that, as well. Equally? No - of course not. Equal is rarely actually fair. But hundreds of millions, if not billions, to a CEO and nothing to employees isn't exactly fair, either.

We're trying to bridge the gap. Our goal is to make sure that if we're successful, the team is successful. Even though we've got two founders, and two "team members", and we're working under different conditions (founders aren't getting paid, for instance), the success or failure of our game isn't in the hands of an individual, it's in our hands as a team - and basing profit sharing primarily on that and not "who was here first" or "we started it!" isn't how we're going to approach it. If we're successful, everyone who made a significant contribution to the game will share in that success.

I can't change the game industry by running around & demanding profit sharing for everyone. But what I can do is run a company based on an ideal that this is a team. And if we're successful, we're going to share in that success as a team.