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Bookmarks for January 19th through February 3rd

These are my links for January 19th through February 3rd:

Principles and Practices for Productive Teams - Slides from my GDC Paris 08 talk

Regular readers may remember that back on June 23rd 2008, I gave a presentation on productivity and being a producer at GDC Paris.

Well, I am happy to announce that about 6 months later, I have finally given the slides a final polish and converted them to an accessible format. It only took me a few hours. I have no idea why I kept pushing it back. Alex Champandard even encouraged me to record the talk afterwards (since I forgot to record it during the conference - d'oh!), but somehow I just never got to it. Speaker's block? I don't know. Good thing I am not a 'pro' blogger.

This talk may interest you if you are interested in productive game development or being in a leadership position in a game development team.

You can download the slides here (it's a 1.6 Mb PDF).

Please let me know what you think.

How I manage my email

The odds are high that if you are in a lead or management position in the games industry, you are getting a lot of email. This post presents the system I have been using to manage my email since March 2008. It is easy to set up and easy to use.

My approach is based on Gina Trapani's system, which she describes in this Lifehacker post. Her system is based on a slightly more involved method by productivity expert Merlin Mann, described here. And I suspect that his system is based on David Allen's GTD, probably the most popular general time management method right now.

The four folders

I use IMAP to access my email. I archive all of my emails on my main computer, which is being backed up regularly. I've created three folders on my mail server: FollowUp, Hold and Later. On my main computer, I have a folder called Archive.

Here is what these folders are for:

  • FollowUp contains any emails that require an action on my part. Not necessarily a response - an action. If I need to reply to an email, it goes in here. If I get an email saying someone is following me on Twitter, and I need to decide if I am going to follow them back, that email goes in here. Even if I just need to read and think about an email, but don't have the time to do so right away, it goes in here.
  • Hold contains any emails that I need to have around for awhile, but do not require an action. Examples are shipping information emails and flight and hotel reservations. The nice thing about IMAP is that I can access these emails from anywhere, as long as I have an internet connection. I don't have a lot of emails in here, but I wouldn't know of a better place to put them if I didn't have this folder.
  • Later contains emails I want to read later. It's that simple. It usually contains emails from mailing lists or links to articles I intend to read. There is a grey zone between FollowUp and Later. Later means you will read it later, but that is an action, so why isn't it in FollowUp? If it's not important, why isn't it in Archive? My rule is: If the email requires an action, but I can afford to ignore it, I put it in Later. Otherwise, it goes in FollowUp.
  • Archive contains all emails I have dealt with. Again, it's that simple. I used to archive using a hierarchical set of folders, but I stopped doing that and now just put everything into one huge mailbox. It makes archiving that much easier - meaning I actually do it - and search is powerful enough these days that I can find any email I need. I haven't missed my hierarchical folders at all, especially now that I've added some smart mailboxes.

The final folder in this system is the Inbox. And again, the rule is simple: keep it empty.

My old system

Before I explain how I use these folders, let me tell you about my old system. I had a pretty full inbox. If something needed following up, I would flag it. I added a smart mailbox showing me all flagged emails so I could quickly see them all. This seemed a reasonable approach to me, but it didn't work. It didn't give me clarity of mind. I would still look at my inbox and feel stressed over certain emails, whether they were flagged or not.

I think there are a few reasons for this. First, when I looked at my full inbox with flagged emails, there was a lot of information on the screen, a lot of emails that all required different things: reading, replying, processing. In my new system, all folders except Archive contain a very low number of emails, and most of them are basically a little list that I can work through email by email.

Second, it was not clear from looking at my inbox which emails I had processed - in the sense of determining what I needed to do with it - and which I hadn't. To me, the key element of GTD and similar time management methods is the processing and classification of items. You separate the time management itself from the actual work. You sit down and process your unsorted, messy list of (as David Allen puts it so well) stuff and you classify it into containers corresponding to how you intend to treat each item. Then you actually deal with the items.

When you do this, it becomes incredibly clear what you need to do with each email. Everything becomes nice and crisp. If it's in your inbox, you haven't processed it yet. And that is something that became hard to see in my old system. Unread status just doesn't do it: often you need to read an email to decide what to do with it. Setting the mail back to unread is cumbersome, and then you can't tell which are the really unread emails, and which ones are read, but unprocessed ones. With my current system, it doesn't matter if a mail is read or unread: if it's in my inbox, it's unprocessed.

How to use the folders

After setting up the folders, there are a couple of routines you need to follow on a regular basis. First of all, keep your inbox clean. The nice thing is that this requires almost no brain power. I do this on my iPhone in the subway. Just go through each email and move them to the right folder.

Second: check your FollowUp folder and, well, follow up. The FollowUp folder is like a to-do list (but only like: I use a different program to handle my main to-do list, as I don't think email clients are the right tool for this). Effectively managing a to-do list is a topic that is beyond the scope of this article.

Third, occasionally check your Later and Hold folders. This should be lower priority. You should not be able to get into trouble over ignoring these folders for a while. You did put that flight on your calendar, right?

How to get started

So how do you get started with this? It's easy. Set up the folders, and process your inbox. I had one full inbox and at least two 'DMZ' folders containing emails going back years when I started using this system. I blew through all of them, many hundreds of emails, in a few hours. Just process. Archive, FollowUp, Later, Archive, Archive, Hold, Archive. Don't think about what the email is about or what work it entails: just put it in the right folder. It was very easy, and incredibly satisfying.

So that is how I've been managing my email. It works for me: I have had an empty inbox since the day I started using this system. Maybe it can work for you as well. I have not used this system under the toughest of conditions. When I was a producer at Rockstar Games, I would get an incredible amount of email. We had many automated emails: repository summaries, vacation requests, build process reports. Everyone was strongly encouraged to communicate using email, and to put a ton of people on cc. However, I think this system, perhaps extended, will be able to deal with that kind of pressure.

How do you manage your email?

BLDGBLOG, a mind-expanding blog on architecture

I've been wanting to write about BLDGBLOG for a long time. This post perhaps explains why I think Geoff Manaugh is one of the most interesting speculative fiction writers today:

[You] begin to fast-forward the video at 4x speed, then 8x, then 16x, then 32x — and you realize, with a collective gasp, that that droning sound in the background is not a drone at all but a piece of music played slow to the point of unrecognizability. It's Beethoven, say, or Jimi Hendrix.

Someone is playing incredibly slow music, like a kind of acoustic glacier, inside the building. It's avant-garde Muzak.

You go a little crazy upon discovering this, however, and begin to make field recordings all over Manhattan, recording drones. You stand in alleys, beneath trees in Central Park, and inside abandoned warehouses, capturing ambient background sounds on tape. You visit the airport, deliberately seek out traffic jams, and illegally access basements on the Upper East Side.

I love stuff like this. As the blog says: Architectural conjecture, urban speculation, landscape futures.

Twitter: Another new way of blogging

Things never get boring here at Intelligent Artifice. OK, actually, sometimes they do, but not right now is what I guess I want to say. Mere days after announcing the use of Delicious to automatically generate blog posts, I've added another way for me to more easily get content to you: Twitter.

Twitter, or rather what is cool about Twitter, is notoriously difficult to explain, so I am not even going to try except to say that it's a micro-blog where each message is 140 characters or less.

I've created a public Twitter account to accompany this blog. I foolishly chose a long and obscure name for my blog, but I have grown older and wiser since then, so I chose a shorter, clearer name for Twitter: JurieOnGames. You can see my tweets in a box on the right on the main page, unless you're reading this in a feed reader of course. (You can subscribe to the RSS feed of my Twitter stream.)

Overlap between the blog and the tweets should be minimal, and I promise I won't announce every blog post here in a tweet... only some, and using hand-crafted messages. Nothing but the best for my readers.

(Some of you may know I have a second, protected Twitter account. That one is for people I know personally, and I use it to rant about life in Vienna and report on headaches etc. So you're not missing much.)

Two milestones

I remembered just in time that 18 years ago today, I started my first day of professional and paid work in the games industry, at the long-defunct, quasi-legendary German company Thalion software. I can't recall if I've blogged about this before. Every year it grows slightly less meaningless, until 2011 when I hit 20 years I guess.

Also, 5 months ago today I met my lovely girlfriend, a far more significant milestone.


My good friend Mark Barrett sent me a link to an article about Pathologic, a game from 2004 that I had never heard of before. Mark seemed excited about the game, and, after I read more about it, so am I.

The article is Butchering Pathologic, by Quintin Smith, over on the excellent Rock Paper Shotgun. It starts with:

I'm going to explain, right now, why a Russian FPS/RPG called Pathologic is the single best and most important game that you've never played.

Intrigued yet? Go read the article. It's in three parts, so it may take a while.

So why am I getting so excited about a Russian game from 2004? Because somewhere, in an obscure little notebook, I keep a list of Things I Want To Do In Videogames. And Pathologic happens to contain an astounding number of those things.

Things such as 'unfun': tragedy, horror, despair, negative consequences, ruin. We're not using the full spectrum of emotions in games, and there's no good reason for it.

Or playing with the medium. I looooove playing with the medium. A lot of my designs use it.

Or a living world that changes significantly during the game and reacts to the player's actions. John Walker, in his review of Pathologic over at Eurogamer, correctly points out how shallow most so-called "living cities" in games are. Pedestrians walk around, but nothing ever changes. Pathologic apparently goes a lot further. And why not? I think people don't do this for wrong reasons.

Or what I call 'plastic reality'. In Pathologic, even the buildings become sick.

Or plain old weirdness, of course. I am a David Lynch fan after all. Things don't have to make sense. Or at least, not in an ordinary way.

And finally, Ice-Pick Lodge, the developers of Pathologic, seem to take storytelling very seriously. And that is also something to be applauded.

Ironically, all of this happens in a game that is apparently very hard to play - in other words, the kind of game I would normally delete within 5 minutes, and then spend 30 minutes ranting about. Will I ever play it? Who knows. I've seen it online for 10-15 Euros, well within impulse-buy range.

I think what is most inspiring about reading about Pathologic is the fact that a group of people managed to cram this many non-mainstream elements into one game. That someone managed to make a game, to quote Quintin Smith:

[...] as daring and unique as one of those 15 minute indie games that everyone raves about (and rightly so!), only blown up into a 40 hour epic.

That warms the cockles of my heart. And it makes me wonder, once again, if I am not making games like this because of the constraints of "The System", or because I don't have the courage to do it. I console myself by the thought that I don't know enough crazy people to make something like this with. Well, crazy and available people.

Contemplating why wildly ambitious games like these often seem to come from non-core games industry countries is worth a blog post of it's own.

I realize, of course, that the game I am imagining based on the articles I have read is likely quite different from the real thing. But the excitement is real.

Update: Corrected the developer's name.

Bookmarks for January 12th from 04:49 to 11:55

These are my links for January 12th from 04:49 to 11:55:

  • Creepy electropop video - 'If I Had A Heart', by The Knife. Very nice music video.
  • Genre, give up your secrets! - James Henry on why a lot of genre TV in the UK is crap. Nice if you're interested in writing genre or wondering why stuff, e.g. games, is crap.
  • Why is joining the WGA mandatory? - John August briefly explains aspects of the WGA and Hollywood's guild system. I will take this up again in a planned post on credits in the games industry.
  • Best of Bootie 2008 CD - The 2008 Best of Bootie compilation is here! There are some great mashups on here. Check out the previous years too - you'll wonder why Careless Whisper and Wanted Dead Or Alive were ever separate tracks.
  • A late 2007 article on Harold Pinter from The New Yorker - I like reading about how other artists in other media have changed what can be done in their medium.

Bookmarks for January 9th from 10:17 to 10:51

These are my links for January 9th from 10:17 to 10:51: