The Million Dollar Question

I occasionally get asked what game I would make if I had a million dollars or some other large sum of money. This is one of those questions (like “Where are you from?”) that irritate me because I can’t really answer them.

I have a ton of ideas for things I’d like to do and that might turn into something. If I had a million dollars, I’d develop a lot of those ideas as cheaply as I could and then pick one to expand, polish and release. Or I’d get a bunch of super-creative people together for a couple of days and see what happens. I don’t have this one dream concept lying in a desk drawer, and I’d worry if I did.

But back in 2001 I was asked that question in an interview for a job at Ion Storm Austin, and instead of explaining why I didn’t like the question I told this group, about 10 people from one of the hottest development teams back then, about this crazy game idea I had. (TL;DR: I didn’t get the job.)

A guy I worked with once remarked that Lara Croft’s view of the world in the original Tomb Raider resembled that of a psychotic character: everything is grim and trying to attack you. This goes for a lot of games, not just Tomb Raider, but I thought it was an interesting point. And it led me to the following idea:

Imagine the US, anytime between the last ten years and the near future. Society has a problem. People are frequently running amok and killing others indiscriminately. (I mean more than in our world.) Nobody knows why, but the FBI has an elite squad of agents who can sense these attacks a short time before they happen, and then rush in to prevent it from happening, or at least to limit the damage. And you are one of those agents.

In between missions you’re in your elite squad base, watching TV. Then you or someone else gets a hunch, and you run off to some mall or square or public building to find and stop some man or woman about to snap and go crazy. Then you go back to your base to watch TV, and you’ll see an anchorperson reporting about some incident, a terrorist tried to attack, brave officers saved the day, etc.

But then, over time, something starts to change. Little things you see in the corner of your eye. Little flashes. Monstrous shapes that turn back into normal people. This happens more and more. Your colleagues start asking if you’re OK, but you insist on you’re fine and continue to go on missions. And then you realize you understand what those people, the people who snap and need to be taken out, are screaming about. You realize you can sometimes see what they are seeing. A grim world, all brown and grey, populated by monsters. (A world from mid-90s Quake-likes.)

Pretty soon you see this world all the time. And the monsters are coming for you. And you have to defend yourself.

And then you’re not in your base, watching TV. You’re skulking through alleyways, cradling your gun, catching glimpses of the news through the windows of bars. Some madman is on the loose, they say. A rogue officer.

And you know you’re former colleagues aren’t far behind.

So in the end you get shot because you’re crazy (OR ARE YOU). Basically it’s an elaborate joke to say something about how first-person shooters used to be. The setting doesn’t fully make sense and I don’t know if the game would even work as a game. Ironically, the chances of this getting made are not bad these days, and there might even be an audience for it if you did a good job. In 2001, in a commercial context, it was not the best answer, and I didn’t get the job. Over 10 years later, it’s at least an amusing anecdote.

Goodbye Steve

This morning I woke up hearing that Steve Jobs had died. It has hit me surprisingly hard.

Why grieve over the death of someone I never met? Someone who had his dark sides? Who made products that are not perfect? Someone who we all knew was not doing well, health-wise? Why grieve over the death of a rich white man who made expensive gadgets, while many things that are much worse happen every day?

Because I find Steve Jobs inspiring. He was a creative person who cared about quality and details, and who won. He pulled it off, he was successful both creatively and financially. His success was not something only insiders could appreciate. It is measurable in crass numbers.

As someone who is creative and who cares about quality and details, it is immensely inspiring to know that it is possible. It is possible to be uncompromising, to care, and to succeed. That doesn’t mean I can do so, but knowing that it’s possible makes me at least want to try.

And I love using Apple products. I don’t consider myself a dyed-in-the-wool, hard-core Apple fan. I’ve never used an Apple II. I used Macs at work in the 90s, but I was indifferent about them.

I bought my first Mac in 2003, a second-hand white G3 iBook, after my Windows PC, the only one I ever bought, started getting too long in the tooth. Then I bought a G4 iBook. And an iMac. Then I got a G5 PowerMac for free (long story). Then I bought my current machine, an Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro. And now I’m considering buying a new Mac.

I won’t bore you with the details of my iPods and iPhones.

But I’ve obviously become a fanboy. I drank the Kool-Aid. I buy the line about control and integration leading to a better user experience. I care about user experience, and nothing is as nice to use as Apple products. They may be imperfect, but that doesn’t mean they’re not miles better than the rest. By now I have trouble understanding why anyone would not want to get an iPhone if they could afford one. Or use Windows, except for hard-core gaming or because you’re forced to, by work. It’s a mystery to me. (And I realize this might offend some people. Sorry!)

Sounds cultish? It gets worse. One reason why I’m sad that Steve Jobs has died is that, while he was alive, I knew there was someone who was actively making my life better. Who was bringing me the future, in a way that had a real impact on my life.

And now he’s gone.

This morning I started watching the 2007 iPhone presentation on my MacBook Pro. I had never watched it before. (Because I had all the time in the world. Right?) While I was watching, the screen started flickering and glitching. And then it turned black. I closed the lid, opened it again. It stayed black.

So I realized I had a MacBook Pro, that when opened would show a black screen and Steve Jobs’s voice would come out.

Anyway.

Jason Kottke has an excellent summary of what people wrote today about Jobs’s passing, as well as the same question I’ve been asking myself:

I am incredibly sad this morning. Why am I, why are we, feeling this so intensely?

Marco Arment, maker of the excellent Instapaper, puts it nicely:

But it feels like someone close to me has died. He was so intimately involved in his company and its products (which have become critical parts of my career and hobby life), and he has publicly injected so much vision, personality, and care into our entire industry for so long, that I do feel like I knew him, even though I really didn’t.

Panic are an excellent example of the kind of software developers that make software you just don’t get on Windows. Here they explain why (although it might be gone by the time you read this).

Be sure to watch (or read) Jobs’s 2005 Stanford commencement speech:

One more thing has been going through my head today. Jobs was 56. I’m 40. What have I been doing with my life?

Lazy Sunday

Today is my first day off in what feels like a very long time.

As you may or may not know, I co-organized Stagconf, a one-day conference on storytelling and games, together with my wonderful wife Andy Schmoll and our good friend Harald Eckmueller.

Like the best of adventures, it seemed like a good idea at the time, turned out to require much more work and energy than we naively expected, involved a lot of drama and excitement, and had a happy ending.

It took place last Tuesday, September 27th. So far, the positive feedback has been very, very positive, and the negative feedback was along the lines of “I didn’t get a chance to eat one of the donuts and they looked yummy”.

I didn’t write much about it here. Apart from the fact that I don’t blog much anymore in general, the main reason was fear. Fear of announcing something that might turn out to fail. Fear that my terror of this whole thing becoming a spectacular and costly failure would be obvious, and would jinx things. Conquering this fear was a wonderful experience, one that I’m very glad to have had. Despite it being terrifying.

At some point it became clear to me that we were effectively running a little startup on the side, next to our day jobs. A day job which in my case involved working at another startup. If you’ve been in a startup, you know it’s an emotional roller coaster. Being on two emotional roller coasters at the same time was stressful to say the least, especially in late July and August when we had just started selling tickets and had not closed any sponsorship deals.

This stress also lead to, ironically, me not wanting to deal with games or storytelling in games or any other side projects. And in the final weeks, it lead to my wife and me not wanting to deal with cooking, cleaning or having a social life.

But now the conference is over. The last speaker is flying back to the US. I still have to organize some feedback surveys, and we’ve started thinking about next year’s conference. But today, I can sleep in, catch up on my reading, think of new adventures, and enjoy the beautiful weather.

Back from Game Forum Germany 2011

My wife and I just got back from Game Forum Germany (GFG), a small game developers’ conference that takes place once a year in Hannover, Germany. Just like last year, it was an amazing experience.

Sadly, I missed the opening keynote by Martin Schwiezer on AAA development in Germany, but I was able to squeeze into the completely packed room for Ron Gilbert’s presentation on the making of Maniac Mansion. It was great to see how that game was made, and one of his key points was that not knowing things (such as “making a game with 3 main characters out of a possible 7, with custom puzzles and endings for each combination is really hard”) can be very liberating.

Ron was followed by Mike Acton from Insomniac, with a talk based on his recent blog post It doesn’t have to suck, which was reposted on Gamasutra. Mike used a very simple presentation structure combined with a lot of interaction with the audience. This worked very well for this topic, because he challenged the audience to think about how to decrease the suckage in game development in their daily lives.

After the lunch break Ryan Challinor from Harmonix Music Systems explained how the the gesture-based UI navigation approach in Dance Central was developed. I, like many others in the audience, haven’t played Dance Central, so hearing about all the dead ends was actually quite suspenseful, and I was glad to hear that they found something that worked well in the end.

Mary-Margaret Walker then talked about how to nurture your career and why you should keep your resumé updated, even if you’re happy in your job. It was great to get tips from someone who’s seen as many resumés as she has.

I missed the panel discussion on recruiting talent, partially because of the amazing apple pie that was served during the coffee break and for which I must get the recipe, but I was back in time to see Benedikt Grindel and Christopher Schmitz’s presentation on how Blue Byte took the Settlers brand to online and social games. It was very interesting to hear how they were able to cut costs by reusing assets, and how these games fit into the larger Ubisoft strategy. (It was also somehow touching to me since I worked at Blue Byte a long time ago.)

The first day ended with a great party in the Sol y Mar, where I got to catch up with old friends from the German games industry and talk to new ones.

The second day started with David Hellman’s presentation on the art of Braid. It was amazing to hear how much thought and effort had gone into creating the look of that game, and it made me want to start up my industrial vacuum cleaner Xbox and play it again, and maybe finish it this time.

Andrew Walker then gave an overview of the publisher-developer relationship ten years ago versus now. Working at a small developer, this is a subject I have a lot of interest in, so it was great to hear what someone who’s worked at a very high level at a top publisher had to say about it.

Mary Bihr from LucasArts Entertainment talked about the history of games based on movies, specifically based on Lucasfilm movies, going back to the very first Star Wars games and the humble beginnings of LucasArts. She also gave away prizes (sadly, I was not eligible), which greatly increased audience participation.

After lunch, Richard Dansky gave a really good talk on genre stories in video games and why they are so common. The audience responded very well to his talk and there were a lot of questions, including the dreaded question-that’s-not-a-question, in this case about Heavy Rain being the savior of interactive storytelling. Hmmm….. no. Although I have nothing against Heavy Rain, I wasn’t convinced before, and certainly not after Richard’s comments on it, which were of course blithely ignored by the questioner.

Jeff Ward gave the final presentation on pitfalls and best practices in data-driven development. He had shown me some of what he’s done in AngelXNA and it’s definitely a cool system.

The conference ended with a discussion by Mary, Ron and Noah Falstein on the history of LucasArts. I missed that for no good reason, but I hope I can catch it on video.

The presentations were great, but for my wife and me, being involved in the organization, the real treat was hanging out with the speakers. Just like last year we had a really great little group, all passionate about video games, and we had a ton of very interesting discussions. We spent Saturday walking around Hannover and visiting the Wilhelm Busch museum, finally ending up in a great steak restaurant. Today my wife and I flew back to Vienna, exhausted, but also energized and inspired. I’m already looking forward to next year.

Slides from my presentation on game production at ENJMIN

Here (13 megabyte PDF) are the slides from the presentation on game production I gave at ENJMIN on Tuesday, January 11th. The presentation went well, people seemed to like it and remember things from it, and in general it was a very pleasant experience and I was impressed by the students.

If you looked at the rough structure I posted earlier, you will noticed I changed things around a bit. Although this is not the first presentation I’ve done, I feel I learned more from the process. Which is why I like doing presentations.

The slides come with notes but naturally it won’t fully convey everything I said during the presentation.

Update: Right, forgot to mention this. If you were at the presentation, I mentioned two things. First, Andrew Chen’s blog. Read this to see how internet / web thinking can apply to games. Second, Darius Kazemi’s series of articles about networking. Enjoy!

20 years in the games industry

On the 14th of January 1991, I started my first day of work at Thalion Software, a small and long defunct game development studio in Gütersloh, Germany. Which means that today I have worked in the games industry for 20 years.

Although it’s a nice number to drop into conversations from time to time, it remains, of course, an arbitrary milestone. There are enough people with a much longer career in the industry.

But arbitrary or not, it’s a good opportunity to reflect. I like to think that I’ve managed to keep learning and growing, and that, with time, I am slowly managing to make new mistakes instead of just repeating old ones. I’ve found that delivering good work doesn’t become easier with time, but I’ve mostly grown used to the difficulty.

Today’s date also means that I moved away from my native Netherlands 20 years ago. I have now lived more than half of my life abroad. Is that meaningful? I don’t know. It has definitely changed me.

Today, after some detours into jobs where I was removed from hands-on development, I am not that far from where I started 20 years ago. I design and manage now, but I also still program.

I now work in a time when games are much more accepted as an industry, a medium and an art form, and when the interactive entertainment landscape is as exciting as ever, with more platforms, more play contexts, and more paradigms for games than ever before.

I am as passionate about the combination of interactivity, technology and storytelling as I was 20 years ago, and I still believe that the best is yet to come.

I could write more, but I have work to do.

Rough structure of my upcoming presentation on production

(Update: I wrote about how the presentation went, and uploaded the slides, in a newer blog post.)

Next week I am giving a presentation on production at ENJMIN, a game development school in Angoulême, France.

I roughly know what I want to talk about and I’ve been generating a lot of material. I felt I had reached the point where the structure was somewhat clear to me. Sometimes working with physical objects is much more pleasant than using a computer, so I fiddled around with index cards.

You can see the result here:

World’s most boring video, I know. Anyway, here’s a little more detail on each sub-topic:

Don’t waste effort. This is the overriding goal, the takeaway, if you want. Why am I telling you this? So maybe you’ll waste less effort.

Games are multi-disciplinary and You don’t know what you need to build. These are two central themes I keep referring back to. This is why you need the techniques I am going to present, if you want to waste less effort.

Breaking the baguette. I intend to buy a baguette and a plastic bag and demonstrate this live :). This is me explaining the concept of task dependencies and the critical path, project management concepts that few developers know, but should. And it ties into:

Decouple production chunks. In programming, loose coupling reduces complexity and thus difficulty (of implementation, maintenance, etc.). The same goes for production. Example: Rock Band. Their 3D band rendering is very loosely coupled to their actual gameplay, which I bet makes things easier than a typical 3D game. On the other hand, Uncharted 2, with its super-tight integration of gameplay, graphics and story is all the more admirable when you realize how complex it must have been to make, because a lot of the game is very tightly coupled.

Iterate the right way. There’s a couple of rules of thumb we tend to use at work when deciding what to do next, and they’re all tied to iterating. Bang for the back, ROI, low-hanging fruit are terms we throw around a lot. Also: do the thing that lets you the learn the most fastest (which works on lots of different scales). And my personal metaphor: walking up a hill is easier than jumping a ravine.

Integration integration integration. Because making games takes many different disciplines, you need to integrate early, and stay integrated, or you’ll have people working hard but not towards a common goal. And integration takes more time than you think. Setting the right goals also helps here.

Make your workflows flow. You need two workflows in a game team: the personal workflow, which needs to be fast, and the team workflow, which needs to be robust. This is the central engine of your production: get this right and you can actually build a game. But! responsibility for this is not obviously tied to one discipline, so it often falls between the cracks (an interesting dynamic in itself).

“Bonus rounds”, aka stuff I can use to fill time and/or I don’t know where to put yet but feel passionate about:

When is a task done? Dedicated to everyone who stayed in the office till 1 AM because a coworker claimed they were ‘done’ at 5 PM and left.

Testability. Really workflows again, only for testing. Not so much bug reporting and fixing, more being able to test anything at all. Forget this, and your QA people will want to kill you.

Project planning the quick & dirty way. Bonus material. My personal gut feeling / back of the envelope planning method. Great at parties. Start at the end, then do the start, then divide up the middle with some sensible-sounding milestones.

Localization. Again, workflows. If you’re not prepared for managing a localization kit and efficiently integrating translations into your game, you will be in a world of pain. I wanted to submit just this for GDC Prime 2011, but my honeymoon interfered with me working on it.

Making 13 games in 1 year. Because that’s what we did in our first year at Mi’pu’mi Games, and it was kinda cool even if the games were quite simple DS/DSi titles. And we used some of the techniques I discuss here.

It’s a bit heterogenous, as my talks tend to be, but I don’t think it’s entirely all over the place. I may still split up or rename some of the topics – this is the first draft of the structure.

What do you think? Does this make sense? Is this a nice structure? How would you present this?

Self-publishing is not the answer

It is an answer.

Alex Champandard summed up my entire previous blog post as:

Essentially, making self-published games requires the skills running a business — and not everyone has, or wants, those.

He should know: He has the skills for running a business as well as deep programming skills. Just look at AIGameDev.

Here is the other side of the coin, from Cat Valente, via the excellent (not game related) Making Light:

Funny thing is, if this future came to pass and the market were nothing but self-published autonomous authors either writing without editorial or paying out of pocket for it, if we were flooded with good product mixed with bad like gold in a stream, it would be about five seconds before someone came along and said: hey, what if I started a company where we took on all the risk, hired an editorial staff and a marketing staff to make the product better and get it noticed, and paid the author some money up front and a percentage of the profits in exchange for taking on the risk and the initial cost? So writers could, you know, just write?

And writers would line up at their door.

This applies to game development as well as to writing. It is basic economics.

So not everyone is going to be self-publishing. We’re just going to move away from the pure publisher-developer constellation to a more diverse situation.

And naturally it is a huge oversimplification to even talk about a “pure publisher-developer constellation”. Things are already diverse, they’re just getting more so. The future is already here, it’s just badly distributed, to quote William Gibson.

Ever notice how whenever there’s a new profitable market segment, the leaders in that segment do not resemble the leaders of the older segments? MMOs, Flash, free to play, social…

Marketing, sales, and other scary new game development tasks

Yesterday morning in the office, after my second cup of espresso, I wrote a tweet. And then another, and another, and pretty soon I had about 6 or so:

The rise of social games means more developers need to get comfortable with the concepts of marketing, selling and profit.

Seth Godin makes a strong argument in Purple Cow and Free Prize Inside that design = marketing. (In fact he says everything is marketing.)

In fact, the rise of social games is just ONE of several factors that put pressure on developers to change their attitudes to development.

Or rather, the rise of social games exemplifies several forces that have been growing over the last few years.

Lower barriers to entry. More platforms. Direct access. Disintermediation (insourcing, if you like). The common factor is the internet.

A lot of changes, and changes are scary. A lot of new skills to learn, and so a lot of new ways of failing.

(David Barnes from Facebook Indie Games, who writes about similar topics, kindly bundled these tweets and commented on them here.)

This all ties back to a whole bunch of somewhat related topics I have been thinking about over the last couple of years.

This Economist article (for subscribers only, sadly) explains that blockbusters have grown bigger, not smaller as many people expected due to the effects of the Long Tail. This was one of the most interesting articles I read in 2009. Dave Edery referenced it in his talk at GDC this year. Basically, in media these days, you want to be huge and number one, or tiny and quirky (like a tiny purple cow). You don’t want to be second best. This goes for TV, movies, music, newspapers, books – and games. There are a lot of interesting conclusions to be drawn from that.

At GDC this year, as you may have heard, there were some quite vocal reactions against Zynga and Farmville. What caused those reactions? I say it’s fear, fear for something new which is not the something new that some of us were hoping for, or striving for.

That doesn’t mean Zynga is the future of games. But everyone in the industry is now aware that Farmville’s 70 million monthly players, not to mention its revenue and valuation, are remarkable. (There are, of course, other numbers that are as impressive as that iconic 70 million, and other markets that are as interesting as Facebook – see, for example, Nicholas Lovell’s provocative post.)

This February I was at Casual Connect in Hamburg, my first time at Casual Connect. It was weird: the majority of sessions were about game design AND business. Which makes total sense in the casual / social / free to play space, but which probably confuses and scares a lot of game designers out there. Are we no longer cool? Are we going the way of the adventure game designers? (Many of my adventure game designer friends are actually doing quite well – some of them in social games.) Did I waste 20 years thinking about storytelling in games?

Changes on the internet, over the last 5 years or so, have revolutionized every single aspect of game development and publishing, and are continuing to do so. I held a presentation on this in 2007, and things have only accelerated since then. You can develop your game using open source software (itself developed and distributed over the internet), then market and sell and distribute it over the internet. Players can buy it and play it over the internet and you can converse with them over the internet.

One of the biggest changes caused by this is disintermediation. Basically, getting rid of publishers. Because from one perspective, developers have been outsourcing marketing and distribution. As I said about a month ago:

We’re in the middle of a major transformation of our industry that was essentially caused by the internet and the various disruptions it has enabled. One of the questions small developers should be wrestling with right now is whether to self-publish. I know I’ve been thinking about this a lot in 2009. Developers building up expertise in marketing, PR, financing and other business areas that we traditionally have no experience with is going to transform the games industry (in fact it’s probably happening already). I’m not saying everyone should do it, and in fact there are good counter-arguments – there is a reason why there are developers and publishers. But I think the status quo has been out of balance for a long time and that things are now moving the other way, towards self-publishing.

But that is a big, big leap for people who tend to think of themselves as artists and engineers. And you can bet a lot of institutional knowledge – the way things are done – no longer applies. And some of that knowledge is encoded in how companies are structured, in how they work. (When a older, bigger company is disrupted by a younger, smaller company, it’s the differences in company culture that cause this as much as the technology.)

Working at a small games company, I think a lot about this stuff. About my experience, about what I instinctively think is the right way to make games, about how to make big leaps. About my fears of the unknown, of failure, of being laughed at. Even though it’s not all that hard and lots of people have done it before.

Reading the two Seth Godin books I mentioned above made me realize a lot of people in a lot of industries are probably going through that. I don’t buy all of what he says, and I am not quite sure which conclusion I am going to draw from them, but I recommend reading them. Fodder for a future blog post, or a bunch of caffeine-fueled tweets.

“Developers outsource publishing to publishers”

It’s interesting to trace ideas.

In October 2008, Andrew Chen wrote about the cultural differences between games people and web people. Having been “games people” since 1991, but with a strong interest and even, in 2007, a brief stint in the web world, I found this a really interesting post. Especially this insight (emphasis mine):

Another interesting difference was the perspectives around content. For many of the games people I met, the content is everything. How good your game is perceived to dictate its ultimate success. I think this makes sense in an industry where distribution is essentially commoditized! The big publishers have many of the same relationships, and games developers in general have been outsourcing their distribution expertise out to the publishers for the past couple decades. As a result, it seems clear that the only place to compete is in the content of the game, rather than in the distribution.

This is a really interesting perspective – to me it was a very different way of looking at things. We’re in the middle of a major transformation of our industry that was essentially caused by the internet and the various disruptions it has enabled. One of the questions small developers should be wrestling with right now is whether to self-publish. I know I’ve been thinking about this a lot in 2009. Developers building up expertise in marketing, PR, financing and other business areas that we traditionally have no experience with is going to transform the games industry (in fact it’s probably happening already). I’m not saying everyone should do it, and in fact there are good counter-arguments – there is a reason why there are developers and publishers. But I think the status quo has been out of balance for a long time and that things are now moving the other way, towards self-publishing.

Adam Martin just wrote something about this topic. He links to a post by Nicholas Lovell, who is a strong proponent of self-publishing – in fact, he makes his living consulting developers about it. Nicholas puts the idea more strongly and clearly than Andrew: Developers outsource publishing to publishers.

I met Nicholas at Casual Connect in Hamburg and had a great conversation with him, and, if I recall correctly, I mentioned Andrew Chen’s article. I am not writing this to claim credit or say anything about how Nicholas got the idea, I just find it fascinating to see how ideas spread and develop, whether I had a role in it or not.

If you’re interested in this subject at all, I recommend subscribing to the blogs of Andrew, Adam and Nicholas.