My Trip to PAX East 2018

Greetings!

This past weekend, I went to Boston for the game expo called PAX East. This is a massive event, with an estimated 200,000 people showing up throughout the weekend (though this isn’t an official number). I had a good time and made some interesting observations throughout the weekend.

The reason I went to PAX, even though we weren’t showcasing anything, was to see what the current market is like, meet other developers, have some meetings, and try to get some inspiration for whatever it is we’re doing next.

I wanted to give a sense of my overall feeling from the show, then talk about my three favourite games, but it should be noted that I didn’t spend much time looking at games from Montreal teams because I already know them, so those will be omitted from the list. Sorry Montreal friends!

The PAX Vibe and My Observations

The vibe at PAX is always amazing… with creative developers, passionate fans, happy people, and awesome cosplayers, it’s hard not to have fun. But I wanted to take a look at the games landscape, what I think the market will look like in the next few months, and play some games to try to find some innovative mind-blowing projects.

I was somewhat surprised, though, that I didn’t see a ton of innovative of mind-blowing projects. This isn’t to say that I think I have the ability to produce stuff that’s better necessarily, but I noticed some common threads and wanted to describe them below.

Lots of people are still making puzzle platformers. I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise, as they’re some of the easiest / cheapest games to make, but I think I was surprised by the sheer number of them and the perceived notion that it can still be a financially sound idea to make a game of that genre.  Those kinds of games can work, but it’s going to take a lot of innovation, amazing art style, depth of mechanics and more to stand out from the crowd. A cool one that I played was called Projection, and as much as I found it very interesting, I wonder if there’s a market there for it to work.

People don’t really know how to pitch their games. Pitching your game is not an easy thing to do; it can be incredibly hard to find one sentence that describes the entire game and appeals to every audience that’s being spoken to. Regardless, everyone needs to find the one-liner or pitch that explains their game to the general public. A large part of this involves knowing what is interesting about the game. Throughout development and testing, developers need to learn how to hone in on the most interesting and important parts of their games, and express that clearly. I found a lot of people would explain their game to me in a way that either 1) I didn’t understand, even as a developer, 2) focused on something unimportant to the game (i.e. explaining the story in a mechanics based game), 3) went on for five minutes to explain something that should have taken 30 seconds. The solution to this, in my opinion, is to take the time to carefully think of what works, what doesn’t, practice pitching, practice the one-liner, and listen to feedback.

The level of gameplay seems to be far behind the level of artistic ability. As I was writing notes about every game that I played, I started to see a pattern emerging. The first point was always “art is really cool!” or “love the hand-animated style” or “beautiful lighting!”… but then the lines that followed described other things. Incomprehensible user interface, way too long tutorial, sloppy animation, inconsistency between animation and mechanics, solvable game mechanics, and probably most commonly: I’ve seen 26 other games like it already.

…on the plus side, people are still equally positive and happy to share with other devs. This is a great thing that one might think would decline as the space gets more crowded and it seems harder to achieve success, but developers are as friendly as ever. Maybe on the inside, they’re harboring feelings of dread about the state of the industry, but it seemed that everyone was still helping each other and I got really positive vibes from the people and fans.

Favourite Games

Lonely Mountains: Downhill by Megagon Industries was probably my favourite game I played at PAX. The game is a downhill biking game with a beautiful low poly art style, where your goal is to make it to the bottom of the mountain. The coolest thing I found about this game was that you can play in two ways: you can either try to get the fastest time, find the best shortcuts, and race down while making precise turns, or you can take your time and explore the scenery and enjoy the ride. I’m the kind of person that would explore and see if I could find all the secrets, and maybe come back for more competitive play as well. Really excited for this game!

The next favourite game, which I’ve seen before but just had to mention because it’s outstanding, was The Messenger, by Sabotage Studio. It looks like a classic NES platformer executed absolutely perfectly.

With echoes of Ninja Gaiden, this game does a great job of giving that retro, nostalgic feel while keeping some of the elements of new games that we know and love, that the NES simply didn’t have the capacity to do. I see this game a bit like Shovel Knight, in the sense that it stands out from the indie retro platformer crowd by very clearly showing that it’s a professional throwback executed with great care.

Last but not least, was a game called Synthrally by Roseball Games. The below gif is a bit confusing, so I’ll explain.

You play as a red or blue shape / character, and a disc is passed back and forth. Your goal, depending on the game mode, can be to not get hit by the disc, to knock the disc into another players target, etc. When it comes close to you, you can press a button to hit it back, shoot it with an arrow, or use other abilities to move the disc. There was actually a lot of depth to the game, and when playing as teams of two there was even more depth; players had to choose their class and abilities and try to compliment each others’ play style. While I think the game is really great, I wonder if its minimal art style won’t hurt it down the line, similar to how Videoball was a fantastic game but might not have had enough flair to attract the average gamer. Time will tell, but I hope it does well.

All in all, the PAX trip was really great. I learned a lot, practiced my analysis of design, talked to some cool devs, and got a good snapshot of what’s happening in the indie scene. I’ll admit I didn’t see much of the AAA world, but I did see another billion class-based shooters and battle royale games.

Thanks for reading, and see you next time!

Reflections and Lessons from GDC 2018

For the last 4 years, one of my favourite times of the year has been the week in March marked by the Game Developer Conference, or GDC for short. It’s the biggest game conference in North America, and attracts a bajillion extremely interesting and inspiring people. This year, we were fortunate enough to bring the whole team. Our goals included some team bonding, learning, keeping up business relationships, and more. I definitely think we succeeded, and wanted to share a few of the most important things that I learned. I hope this post will be useful to game developers and non-developers alike.

First off, talking to the amazing devs at GDC for me thinking about Ultimate Chicken Horse and about its future. I’ve had a bit of a feeling that we’ve been working on the project for a long time, and I want to start working on new stuff… but on the other hand, the game is doing well, the community is great, and there’s still a lot of potential. So what’s next for the future of UCH? I didn’t outright ask people their opinion on this, but it was somewhat obvious that it is / was on my mind, so I got a lot of feedback on it. Do we want to go more casual and community-heavy? Do we want to add more mechanics to level the playing field, like Mariokart-style? Do we want to go more competitive? What’s required if we do that? How can we improve the tech? What does the community want? Do we have the funds to hire more people, and if so, what will they work on? I won’t go into too much detail here about my thoughts on the matter, because I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up (or down) before the team talks about it and decides what’s next, but it’s definitely on my mind more than it was before.

Many, many games come from game jams or quick prototypes.

It feels like the majority of the successful indie games that I saw at the conference started off as game jam ideas. This was the case for Ultimate Chicken Horse, and it doesn’t really surprise me that it’s the same for many other games. It seems like game jams are a good way not only to practice skills, but also to come up with great ideas. There’s some fairly common wisdom that it’s easier to be creative given some constraints, and without thematic or timing constraints I think it can be easy to stare at a blank page forever, waiting for the next revolutionary idea to pop out of your brain. Even in the AAA studios, some of the games came from quick pitches from someone who wasn’t an owner or creative director at the company. These were as simple as a short presentation with some mechanics and some concept art, and they were off to the races. Of course, I should emphasize that it’s absolutely critical to be able to kill the project early on if it’s not working, but that’s the case whether it came from a game jam or any other method.

Ask. Just ask!

We’ve been pretty good at this, as I’m somewhat shameless when approaching people for help. But it works! You’ll never know how much you could be missing if you don’t ask other developers, publishers, platform holders, friends, family, etc. for help. The industry has a lot of wisdom that it’s very willing to share if you’re able to overcome the shame of not wanting to bug people… so do it!

Different ways work for different people, there is no right way. This point is actually what my talk with Tanya Short (Kitfox Games) was about, though we looked at it from the business side. We talked about general things that should be considered: burn rates, revenue sources, projections, diversification of studio into multiple projects or not, etc. But I also spoke to people about the creative process, and it was interesting to hear some pretty opposite views.

The big one that stood out to me was when I was talking to someone about coming up with content updates. He said that he tries to envision what the trailer for the update will look like– that is, what’s interesting that the public will latch on to, before starting work. The idea there is that a patch with a bunch of bug fixes and user interface improvements isn’t enough to get people excited, and the trailer helps guide the production toward something useful and exciting. On the other hand, some people like to go the more organic route and play around until they find something that works well. It’s not marketing-driven and is easier to get early feedback on, but whether one way is better than the other is really up to the studio. And as with anything in this industry, many different strategies can work!

You need to build a community before launch.

This is actually a bigger topic, and I’m going to write a full article on Gamasutra and my personal website about this sometime soon. The basic idea is that you give yourself a much better chance at success if you’ve created a community around your game before the game launches.

On a less educational note, there were a couple of highlights that I wanted to point out from the conference this year, that include talks and just general feelings.

The first one of those was my favourite talk, the ‘Composer Confessions 2’ session. The talk was done last year as well, and it brings together five composers to talk about some times that they’ve screwed up and what they learned. I’ve always had a very strong personal interest in game music, and I like to write some myself (even though I’m not nearly professional), so it’s really inspiring to hear people like Austin Wintory (Journey, Assassin’s Creed, Tooth and Tail), Gareth Coker (Ori and the Blind Forest, ARK), Darren Korb (Bastion, Transistor, Pyre), Peter McConnell (Hearthstone, Psychonauts), and Gordy Haab (Battlefront 1 & 2, Halo Wars) talk about their craft.

I only mentioned a couple of the games they each worked on, but there’s a ton more and these guys are absolute legends in the field. Some of the main lessons included making sure to delegate work and not be a control freak, learning to accept what the client wants even if it’s against what your musical instincts tell you, and learning to show completed examples instead of work in progress because producers can’t imagine the finished product in the same way musicians or the composer can. Beyond that, the talk was hilarious. Each person had a 10 minute slot to talk about whatever they wanted, and somehow they all ended up being hugely entertaining and funny.

Another thing that I really liked was THAT Party, a party I hadn’t been to before because tickets sell out super quick and I had other, more “businessy” parties to go to each year. This time I went and I found it really nice to see and meet some indies that I haven’t met, but also to be able to “party” in more of a traditional sense, with drinking and dancing and such. This isn’t because I’m a natural born party animal, but rather because I like the idea of moving from the business contact mentality to the friend mentality, so a mix of that combined with more professional cocktails was nice this year.

Beyond that, I feel like our team had a good chance to bond– not necessarily all of us at once around a table, but in pairs that would split off as we walked places, shared hotel rooms, and talked about non-game stuff together.

Alright, so it looks like this post has become huge and I should probably stop writing before everyone falls asleep. Thanks for reading if you made it this far, and I’ll have more articles coming soon so check the website or follow me on Twitter @RichMakesGames for updates.

Some of My Favourite Design Elements in Super Mario Odyssey

Recently, I’ve been trying to look at games through more of a designer lens. In order to improve my design abilities, I think it’s important to look at games as a designer. This means thinking about the choices that were made while designing the game, the levels, and the systems, as well as trying to understand what an average user would experience in your position.

That being said, I finally started Super Mario Odyssey last weekend. I know, I’m late to the party. If you’ve ever played it, you already know that it’s great. But I wanted to talk about some of the things that I think the average gamer might not have noticed, but are really fantastic design elements or layers of polish. These are things that even independent developers on a tight budget can do in their games, so I think they’re important to talk about.

The first two involve the level design, and the clarity with which the player is directed through the level. Firstly, players can always see where they need to go without looking at a map, and yet don’t feel forced to follow a path because of the opportunity for exploration. The thing is, the opportunity for exploration is very carefully given to you. When the game wants you to go somewhere and not step out of line, it shows you clearly. In the below image, this is the part right before encountering a boss. Behind Mario is a ton of open space to be explored, and in front is a clear goal without distractions or options:

The game strikes a nice balance of making you feel like you can explore and wander off and discover things on your own, while still giving you a very linear path to follow, similar to how Ocarina of Time on N64 felt.

The second level design point is that the game doesn’t just aimlessly add places to explore in the levels. I’ve seen some games where it seems like the mentality was “the level looks too much like a boring square, let’s add some nooks and crannies”… and it’s awful.

In Odyssey, every time you explore a place you haven’t seen before,
you get rewarded.

These rewards can be seeing cool stuff, finding things you’ll interact with later, finding a Power Moon, or finding a mini-game (which leads to a Power Moon, as shown below).

Another game that did this really, really well was the new (2016) DOOM game. The level design was obviously quite a bit more complex than in Mario, but it trained the player well in the same way. It gave the player options to explore that were somewhat hidden, but once the player had decided “okay, I’m going to check this out” it always gave a reward. In the image below, let’s say the pink arrow is the story / linear path, the green path would be shown with some hints or a semi-broken door, and the player would explore.

This trained the player to look for hidden things and secrets (apart from the game obviously telling you that there are “secrets” in the levels), and so when a player felt that there was a hidden path, they would explore it.

This is where DOOM and Mario both do magic; you never have the disappointing experience of “Oh, I was sure there would be something here” or “Why can’t I do that? I expected it would lead me somewhere”. Those feelings are bad for design because they break the immersion by breaking the rules that the designer had created previously for the universe / game / level. Both games reward your exploration and you don’t even feel like exploring in the places where the game doesn’t want you to explore, because it directs you through those places well.

The next main point I wanted to talk about was the purchasing system for outfits. In Mario Odyssey, you can purchase things from a shop at the beginning of the kingdom you’re in. There are two currencies, the regular coins and one that is specific to the kingdom.

Some of the options in there include Power Moons, but also include custom outfits or souvenirs from the region which you keep with you on your ship as you travel throughout the game. This is super, super cool. Character customization stuff is always cool, and seeing it in Mario is certainly unexpected, but that’s not what I find so interesting about this game design choice. What I find interesting is that

The game rewards you based on the effort you’ve put in, leaving you feeling more accomplished than simply having “beaten a level”.

This ability to purchase allows you to choose your reward, choose what you value in the game, and creates a feeling of a collection challenge. Some people like to try to finish everything in a game (they’re called completionists). I’m not one of them, but, with this new feature I really want to go back and get all of the kingdom-specific currency in order to buy all of the cool things in the region. As it stands, I moved forward but made sure I had at least one physical souvenir from each kingdom and that I unlocked all of the outfits; that left me feeling satisfied and accomplished, much more so than simply “you beat the level”… which is easy enough in most Mario games.

As far as polish goes, there were a couple of things I noticed in the first couple of hours of gameplay. Personally, I love it when games throw me off and react to something that I do when I don’t expect it.

When you encounter this sphinx (it makes more sense in the desert level, even though it’s kind of Mexican themed and there are ancient Egyptian style ruins and a sphinx…), it asks you a “riddle” to pass. I tried climbing on it to get somewhere at one point, and your magical hat says to you “Er, Mario? You’re not a hat.” There are a few minor things like this that I found really great.

Another one I noticed was that when you move into 2D mode with Mario wearing an outfit, he keeps the outfit on and they made a pixel art version of this. It’s somewhat logical, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if it just defaulted to the regular Mario… I was pleasantly surprised. Surely there are many other little things like this, but I really appreciate that extra effort that the developers made.

That’s all for this time, I just wanted to jot down some of my ideas and hopefully some other game designers can read this and get inspired by some of the choices made by the Nintendo team. And if you haven’t played it, I highly suggest it… I’ll be getting back to it as soon as I can!

 

An Introduction to Stoicism

Hey all!

I wanted to share some information about what I’ve been reading about recently, and see if I can pull out the most important points in a coherent, understandable fashion.

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor who lived from 121 AD to 180 AD, and is said to be one of the most influential people toward our modern day understanding of Stoicism. I picked up his book, or rather a collection of his writings, called “Mediations” (the Gregory Hays translation) and have been making my way through. It’s essentially an amalgamation of the scrolls on which he wrote his own personal notes, kind of like a diary. The book has no specific order, division of chapters, or anything. Simply small sentences or paragraphs which he wrote at some point to himself, for some reason. It’s inspired me to learn a bit more about the philosophy, and I quite enjoy it.

The greatest thing about Stoicism, in my opinion, is that two of the most influential texts on the subject were written by a slave (Epictetus) and an Emperor (Aurelius)… but the principles still apply. I can’t imagine a better justification for how a philosophy could be applied by all people than the idea that a slave and an emperor can share the same ideas.

So what is it?

Stoicism got its name from the Greek word “Stoa”, meaning porch, because it was taught by Zeno in Athens in a (kinda porchy) place called Stoa Poikile. A philosophy grounded in logic and ethics, Stoicism has many tenets, but the few that sum it up for me are the following:

 

Don’t try to control what is our of your control.

Frustration comes from trying to control things that you can’t control. Accept that things have happened and that you can’t do anything about them now. It would be illogical to get upset or angry at something that you can’t affect, so live in the present.

 

Deconstruct things and see them for what they really are.

A great example of this, which I heard on an episode of the Kevin Rose podcast, was a Louis Vuitton bag. If you strip away all the surrounding stuff (name brand, socio-economic status symbol, etc.) you realize that it’s still just a few pieces of leather that holds some stuff in it, sewn together in a sweatshop in China. It doesn’t matter if it’s Louis Vuitton or a no-name brand, be aware of what the object is.

This doesn’t, however, mean that Stoics try to live without any material objects. From what I gather, the idea is that you set your baseline as the bare minimum that you need. If you need a car, any car that gets you from point A to point B will do. Once that baseline is set, if you have the money for it and feel like it, you can buy a Lexus. But, if ever that was taken away, you’re still above your baseline and should still be equally happy.

 

Make decisions according to the universal logos, follow reason and logic instead of emotions.

The Stoics believe(d) that there is a universal logos, which has been defined many ways, but I believe is properly summed up by this definition in Merriam Webster:

‘Reason, that in ancient Greek philosophy is the
controlling principle in the universe.’

There’s also a strong link between this logos and God, the gods, nature, and other terms. Basically their idea is that there’s a natural flow or order, and that there is universal truth in all things.

 

Eliminate unnecessary speech and action.

“No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts. No retreating into your own soul, or trying to escape it. No overactivity.” This quote from Meditations can be a helpful reminder to stay away from useless activity, as it won’t help you and it won’t help the people around you.

“If you seek tranquility, do less. Or rather, do less but do it better.”

 

Perception is the most powerful and most dangerous tool humans have.

Your reaction to people’s actions is what decides your happiness, things can’t affect you if you don’t let them. There is very little that is “good” or “bad” in the world; most things, actions, circumstances, etc. simply exist, there’s no need to label them. With this kind of objective approach, it’s easier to see things clearly. Humans are very capable of deciding their reaction to situations, feelings, and emotions, but we are also extremely affected when we let our emotions get the better of us.

 

I think that this book, and this philosophy in general, has a lot to teach. I don’t agree with every single point that I’ve read about Stoicism, but I do believe that everyone could learn something from reading about this philosophy. Especially in times like these, with the world seemingly so divided in thought and unable to have discussions about their differing opinions, we could all use a bit of emotional control in our thoughts and reactions.

Some other suggested books on Stoicism (which I’ll get to) come from Seneca, and Epictetus, and there have been a number of newer authors who write about Stoicism as it applied nowadays, such as Ryan Holiday’s very successful book The Daily Stoic.

See you soon!

 

A Guide to Surviving Urban Biking

Hi all!

As I was biking home from work today, I saw another biker almost get doored (hit by a car door opening) and on the next block, saw a driver almost hit another bike, seemingly oblivious to the entire world around them.

After having biked every day for many years now, summer and winter alike, on bike paths, roads, bigger roads, and roads that probably shouldn’t be biked on, I figure that I’m qualified to give some tips about city biking. If I’ve survived thus far, it must mean I’m doing something right… right? Let’s go with that. So here are some ways to not die while biking (especially in Montreal).

 

1. Make sure that a car can’t hit you, even if it tried. The basis of survival on a bike is not to trust anyone: cars, bikes, pedestrians (especially pedestrians). Just make sure that you don’t get in anyone’s way, and make sure that whatever they do, you can avoid them.

 

2. Keep a door length between you and parked cars. This is probably the toughest guideline to follow, so if you are squeezing between a lane and parked cars, go slowly and watch out for a few things:

  • Check the direction of front wheels; if they’re straight, the car can’t pull out unexpectedly.
  • Check the lights; if the lights were just turned off, the door is likely to open any second. If the lights are on, it’s anyone’s guess.
  • Look at the side mirror; often you can see if someone is in the car by glancing at the mirror.
  • Check the lane next to the parked car (that is, the lane you need to swerve into if they open the door); if it’s tight and there are cars passing, make sure you’re going slowly enough, otherwise you can swerve.

 

3. Stay on the left side of cars that are turning right. While this may be counter-intuitive to some, it’s extremely important because drivers never check their blind spots ever, and even if they did you shouldn’t trust them to see you (see point 1). By getting between the turning car and the other lane, you ensure that the car can’t hit you, no matter what.

I’m quite sure this one is not legal, but is way safer than what is recommended. This is a photoshopped image of the “right” thing to do… in fact the recommendation is “drivers should yield to bikers”, but we know that doesn’t happen much.

 

4. Be aware of your braking and accelerating abilities. If you’re going down a hill in the rain, be aware that your braking distance will be significantly less than on a flat road when it’s try. And when a light turns yellow, you need to know what gear you’re in and how hard you can push it to make it through before the light going the other way turns green. Usually when you screw this up it doesn’t lead to death, but it’s just generally a dick move.

 

5. Don’t bike on dangerous bike paths. For the Montrealers among us, you may already know to avoid the De Maisonneuve bike path. I’m not sure what insolent city planner thought up that one, but so far I know three people who have gotten hit while biking, all three were hit while on that bike path. For those of you that don’t know, essentially it’s a one-way street with a bike path as shown below.

The issue is that because it’s one-way (and even if it was two-way), drivers will sometimes check their blind spot behind them to see bikers coming their direction, but then forget to look at the other side. Honestly it’s safer to bike on Sherbrooke (a bigger street without bike paths).

 

6. Take a lane! Legally, in Quebec at least (and likely elsewhere in the world too), you should take a lane and should not squeeze between a lane and parked cars. Further, you should definitely not squeeze between two lanes of moving cars unless death is the kind of thing that appeals to you. If you’re in a sketchy situation, take a lane. Yes, people might get pissed off because you slow them down, so maybe consider another route next time… but take the lane this time to be safe.

 

7. Don’t take risks if you don’t know the lights. Ideally, you wouldn’t take risks at all, and you’d come to a full stop at stop signs, and you’d never go through a red light. But if you’ve been biking for more than 43 seconds, you’re bound to do these things. My suggestion then, be smart about it! If you don’t know the walk light timing or the synchronization of lights while going down a hill, don’t risk it. Play it safe until you know your way around your route.

 

8. Clearly show pedestrians and cars where you’re going. What I do to make sure that people know where I’m going is that I’ll often dip my shoulder and turn my head a bit to the side, tilting my body as if I was leaning on my bike but not actually doing it enough that the bike turns. Usually this clearly indicates where I’m going and they react accordingly. It’s like that awkward thing where you walk straight at someone and don’t know which way to go, so you sidestep awkwardly. Just… higher speed.

 

9. Bike in front of where a pedestrian will be when you cross their path. This is probably the most controversial and debatable guideline. In many cases, I don’t even do it, but I believe that it’s the right thing to do. All of bike-bike, bike-pedestrian and bike-car problems are basic kinematics problems. In the case of crossing paths with a pedestrian, I’m going to present a very counter-intuitive idea.

 

If a pedestrian is walking at a constant speed, and you’re biking at a constant speed, it should be easy enough to predict where they will be when you cross paths with them. Some bikers choose to go behind the pedestrian, so as not to scare them or make them feel cut off, but this presents a big problem. If the person gets worried, they’re going to freeze or slow down instinctively. If you’ve predicted where they won’t be, well then you might be running right into them.

People rarely (if ever) speed up when they feel like you might not know what you’re doing, so if you plan to be ahead of where they will be then you ensure that if they walk at the same speed, slow down, or even freeze up (some people really don’t understand how much control of our bikes we have!) then you’re guaranteed not to hit them.

 

10. Avoid leaves, gravel, and salt. Especially if any of this stuff is wet, it can really slow down your braking time or make you slip if you’re turning. Wet leaves can be even more dangerous too, because sometimes they can get caught in your brakes and make your brakes hugely ineffective. The salt part is less for braking and more for the health of your drive-train, but this is usually a winter biking problem and most people aren’t that crazy.

 

That’s all the knowledge I have to share right now, I hope it helped at least to make you more aware of the decisions you make while biking, and maybe helped to create some good habits as well. I think that people who are just starting to commute by bike as well as people who have been doing it for a while can benefit from a reminder once in a while. Also I really like biking and was inspired to write, so there you have it!

Why Fixed Hours May Provide More Freedom Than “Free” Ones

At a game developer conference last month, one of the speakers talked about the work culture at the studio they founded, and it seemed great. Their philosophy boasted flexible work hours, a month of vacation, and good pay. Seems like the perfect setup right?

Not quite. Today I’m going to make an argument about why fixed work hours may provide more freedom than free hours, however counter-intuitive it may sound. When I say “fixed”, by the way, I imply set hours but respecting your employees such that if they have an emergency, they won’t be penalized for coming in late.

The studio head giving the talk went on to say how they have flexible work hours… but everyone works super late anyway. Oh and the month of vacation is an amazing employee benefit too… except no one actually takes it, he said. “They all love their work too much to go home early or take their full vacation time”.

Really? I mean this as no slight to the speaker, as they’re a great person who I respect and like quite a lot. But, really?

Social pressure doesn’t come from official documents, regimented structures or micro-managing bosses.

No, social pressure is something that can come from all sides and can come in many forms. Let’s take the theoretical stereotypical Silicon Valley tech startup. Company has some founders who work 80 hours per week, killing themselves to build and grow (this is bad too but I’ll save that for another time). They hire, and those employees see this behaviour. They have some interest in the company and its success, so they push themselves as well. All of the sudden, you’ve got a team of 50 people who are working hard… great. Except that it becomes competitive. Who’s the next head of department? Who’s going to be attending the next conference? It will likely be the hardest workers, or rather the employees who appear work the most. See where I’m going with this?

It can be hard to see how well someone is performing in a tech startup, so it’s extremely easy to believe fall into the trap that the people who are coming in early and leaving late are the ones producing the most. While you may have built a great company, along the way you’ve taught people that over-working is the way to succeed.

Not only is this bad because it promotes behaviour that’s unhealthy for the employees, but it’s also bad because it promotes behaviour that can be detrimental to your company’s success. The mentality of “I should stay at my desk for another 20 minutes because Jane left five minutes ago” is awful, and all too common. Often the issue isn’t even over-working (that is, actually working more), rather a feeling of pressure from other employees to show that they’re working harder.

So how do you solve this culture problem, and get people to enjoy their work without the pressure of feeling like they need to out-do or out-stay the person next to them? How do you create a meritocracy that’s actually based on merit and not on apparent dedication to the team?

So, here are my 4 arguments as to why working fixed hours actually results in a feeling of increased freedom:

No pressure to work overtime or skip vacation: This is essentially what I’ve talked about up to now in this article. If you know when you’re going home, you’re not being judged on some sort of potentially superficial quality like how long you stayed at the office.

Easier to separate work and life: If you can plan your life with a predictable schedule, you will have more time to do things like go on dates with your significant other, take your kids to a hockey game, or see friends regularly. You’re ‘on’ at work, and ‘off’ at home.

Forced vacation is good for the employees and the company: If you take vacation, it will give you time to recharge. The feeling of “oh I should really be working now”, when you’re unwrapping Christmas (or Hannukah!) presents with your family is something that should never exist, ever. It will exist if you feel beholden to your work, but forcing vacation time means that you couldn’t work even if you wanted to.

Everyone is at the office at the same time, and off at the same time: This one is definitely the most subjective, but I feel that knowing that your employees are either ‘on’ or ‘off’ at the same time as you can be empowering. Knowing that you’re not expected to respond to that email at 9pm feels better when you know that no one is responding to their email at 9pm.

But going too far in that direction can be detrimental as well. Being so rigid in your timing is detrimental to freedom because employees feel that they MUST be in the office by exactly X:00am, and that leads to stress. My proposal to solve this is the following:

Respect for your employees and for their lives leads to work hours that are flexible enough to reduce stress, but rigid enough to avoid unwanted social pressure.

Don’t penalize someone for coming in 10 minutes late, or leaving early for their daughter’s dentist appointment. But do create the expectation that an employee will be at work between the hours of X and Y, and that will avoid the social pressure I’ve been talking about.

So far, this is the kind of culture we’ve been building, and with the exception of emergencies (a server crashes, a horrible bug appears, etc.), we’ve managed to stick to it. My partners and I believe in respecting one another, respecting our employees, and respecting our own lives as they exist outside of work, and I think this mentality will lead to the continuation of a healthy work culture.

Cognitive Biases to Watch Out For When Running a Business

Cognitive biases are everywhere and affect our daily lives in a huge way. They affect the way we think, the way we act, and the way we interpret information. A cognitive bias is essentially when our brain slips up and uses some illogical reason to come to (sometimes harmful) conclusions. These slip-ups are so common and so predictable that we can actually quantify, categorize, and test for them.

Today, I wanted to talk about a few cognitive biases that can specifically relate to the workplace, and describe how we might be able to get around them to produce better results and happier people.

 

Survivorship Bias

I put this one at the top because I believe it’s the one that we’re most guilty of in the games industry. Survivorship bias is looking at the successes without acknowledging the failures, and it comes from the fact that most of the people we see are the ones who have succeeded. The companies that failed, well, they aren’t around to tell you about how they failed. This is clear in the games industry when we go to conferences, listen to speakers, meet people at networking events, and so on. The people that we meet are the ones who were at least successful enough to be at the event, and that’s already a big step up on the majority of start-up studios.

There has been a recent trend toward listening to people’s failures, which I think is a great thing. People are becoming more open about their failures, and we’re seeing things like “failure workshops” at the Game Developer Conference which is a series of talks about what went wrong and why.

My first tip to avoid survivorship bias is to start small and dig deep. It’s harder to find stories about failures because people are ashamed about it or these stories aren’t visible on the platforms you’re looking at. So start small, by looking at slight failures. In the case of games, this might be a game that appeared to have great hype but only sold 2,000 copies. Why didn’t it sell well? What went wrong? This should be easy enough to find by looking at public-facing information: trailers, reviews, etc. Then, try to go a little deeper. Find some games that look like they might have had a chance, but have no reviews and no public statistics. Sometimes, you might have to reach out to developers directly and ask them what went wrong, and usually (in our industry at least) they’ll be happy to tell you.

For an interesting resource about failure, autopsy.io has a list of failed startups and the reasons why they failed.

The second tip is to strip it down to its core. If you see something that worked, don’t focus on small details or hang on to gimmicks; the game didn’t sell because the main character had a hat, the game sold because the main character was relatable and their motivation was easily understood. This still falls into the trap of looking at successes, but it’s both less likely to lead you down a false path and more likely to allow for pattern recognition if you can strip it down to the basic building blocks of the success. Replace “the art style was pixel art with watercolour painted backgrounds” with “the game had a distinct, captivating art style”.

 

Conservatism Bias

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I’ve heard this a lot about companies; “stick to what you know, make small incremental improvements”, etc. Conservatism bias is rejecting new information and not being willing to venture into the new because the old way seems to work just fine.

I’d argue that this approach doesn’t work in any industry. I’d say toilet paper is probably one of the most basic products I can think of, where it hasn’t changed in years. But if you want to be competitive in the toilet paper industry, I would guess that you still can’t be afraid to push the technology, push the manufacturing techniques, or push the boundaries of marketing efforts.

In the games industry this is especially true. The technology is changing so quickly and the market is changing so quickly that we have to adapt with the times. Not only do we have to adapt in terms of the games we make, but we also have to adapt in terms of the way we manage our people, manage our workspace, and manage our lives.

There are two suggestions I have to help with this bias. The first is to keep your eyes and ears open. Don’t say no to ideas flat out, and listen to what other people are saying. The second suggestion would be to respect your peers. Your colleagues, partners, employees, and contacts often have more experience and knowledge in certain fields than you do. To step outside of the box, sometimes you need to trust in others.

 

Pro-Innovation Bias

This is the complete flipside of the previous point. Pro-innovation bias involves being overly excited about new technology or innovation without thinking logically about potential outcomes. A good (made up) example could be trying to make a game with photo-real 3D graphics for mobile using new technology that requires 8x more RAM than other games. While the technology might be cool, our phones aren’t ready for that kind of thing, and the idea might fall flat on its face… if it has a face.

This isn’t to say to avoid innovation… not at all. The key is thinking realistically and logically about the limitations and the potential of the new innovation and deciding whether or not it’s a path you want to go down.

The most important thing to do to avoid this bias is to do your research. Is the market ready? Is the technology there? Is there a demand? Can you create a demand? A cool idea is cool, but that’s not necessarily a good enough reason to commit significant time and money to it.

 

Outcome Bias

Survivorship bias and outcome bias can be closely linked in the field of video games. We often judge our decisions based on the outcome of the situation, even if it wasn’t necessarily the right decision. That’s the core of outcome bias, and it can be dangerous, especially when the sample size of your “experiments” are so small. For example, if you make a decision pertaining to one game and it works, you might be likely to think that that was the right decision simply because it worked. Another company may make exactly the same decision, and it doesn’t work out for them.  In fact, even your own choice that works once (yes, we definitely need a live-recorded trailer because we had one last game!) won’t necessarily work the second time around… you’re probably missing a piece of the puzzle.

I think that one way that we can try to avoid the bias is, as I said previously, do your research. If you can find cases where the same decision led to failure, while in your case that decision led to success, there’s probably another factor at work. Another important way to avoid this bias is to argue your decisions based on facts or logic. I mean, the whole point of avoiding these biases is that you make your decisions based on logic, but if you can defend your original decision based on logic and not based on evidence, you have a much stronger argument. That way, when you make the decision again, you won’t succumb to this bias.

These cognitive biases can be found in this neat little infographic (which has been re-posted everywhere). There really are a million of these, and we could talk about them for days… but here I chose to focus on a few specific ones. Another great resource is this talk from my friend Dan Menard from Double Stallion Games. Seriously, go watch it. But read the paragraph below first 🙂

An interesting little experiment to try involves going through a day questioning your own decisions and actions, and really trying to take a 3rd person observer seat of yourself to see what kind of biases affect your decisions. Everyone does it, but being aware of it will likely lead you to more logical decisions in the future. I hope this article helped in some way to open your eyes a bit to things to watch out for when in a leadership role, be it in game development or in any other field.