Learnings From Our Most Recent Hiring Experience

Ah, the hiring process. Exciting, tiring, and fun. I thought I would share my experience of this round of hiring at our company, Clever Endeavour Games, in the hopes that readers might get inspired or learn something. The process is very far from perfect, and I’d be curious to hear any thoughts or improvements in the comments section that might help readers as well. I’ll talk about what we did differently in hiring this time around, the selection process, biases, interviews, tests, responding to candidates, and tips for employees applying for jobs (if that’s the only thing that interests you, skip to the bottom!).

Let’s go.

We just went through the hiring process again, this time to hire a new community manager at Clever Endeavour Games, as Geneviève (our current one) is moving into a production and marketing manager role. She helped tremendously in this hiring process, and while she had a big part in the process, this post is meant to reflect my learnings throughout the process, not her learnings or the learnings of Clever Endeavour Games as a whole.

The job description was written to be as fair as possible and attract as many qualified people as possible, especially ones who are members of communities that are marginalized in the game development sphere. This is in line with our recent commitment to fighting for change in the industry, and it led to some changes compared to our last hiring round:

  • Writing a job description that was open to people who had volunteer experience and not only professional experience
  • Explicitly stating our intention: “We welcome applicants from a variety of backgrounds and levels of experience, and are ready to dedicate the necessary amount of time to onboarding as needed. We recognize that members of marginalized communities often face challenges when it comes to gaining experience in the gaming industry, and we want to make our hiring process as equitable as possible.”
  • Moving several things from “requirements” to “assets”—many of the things we thought were hard requirements initially could be learned fairly easily upon further inspection
  • Reiterating at the end of the “assets” section that candidates should “Please remember that a job description is a starting point and not the end of the line—even if you don’t tick off all the boxes above, we highly encourage you to apply”
  • Running the posting by a diversity consultant who helped us to refine our wording and make some of the above changes

The result? We had more applicants that were women and/or members of BIPOC communities than ever before. We were also really, really impressed with the applications that we received. But was that because of the nature of the job itself or because of the job description? Hard to say, but we’ll craft our job descriptions carefully going forward in hopes that the wording had some causal effect on the diversity of the applicant profiles we received.

Selection Process

Of the 65+ applications, only a small handful had no related experience or cover letter, and at least 25 passed a ‘first look’ round. My method for looking through these applications was to actually start ranking them as I read them. I put my notes about candidate A on a page, then the notes about the next application went either above or below that first person. I continued that process until I had my ordered list of 65+ applications, and after a second look there were very few changes to be made to that order. It would have been impossible to do them all and then try to sort through them afterwards!

Our hiring committee was made up of me, the current community manager, and another co-founder who handles some HR with me. It was important to have this committee to try to mitigate some of the biases which I’ll talk about in the next section. We discussed our top picks and narrowed it down to a top 14 list, and ended up choosing 7 people to interview and test. It’s worth noting that each of our top 10 lists were vastly different from one another, which is more proof that a hiring committee is a good idea.

Biases and potential questions to ask yourself as employer

In trying my best to not be biased, I became acutely aware of all of the biases that inevitably come up when reading through applications. I’ll talk through a couple of things that went through my mind, but I certainly won’t claim to have “solutions” to these. Hopefully sharing them here will help make people aware of biases they weren’t aware of, or give them inspiration to think about how to do better in their evaluations.

Years ago, I learned about research that suggests that “white” names receive more interview callbacks than other names (compared to African American and Asian names according to this study). A blind hiring process involves removing any information from candidates’ applications which are not essential to the job (including names). While we didn’t use this process (and admit that there could be bias that crept in because of it), a blind hiring process can help with this. There are some suggestions of tools or ways to do it in this article from GlassDoor, and we may consider a tool suggested there in the future. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t realize these tools were as accessible as they seem to be when we went through this hiring process.

Another bias I recognized was when I caught myself thinking about the tiny, seemingly insignificant icon next to people’s email account in Gmail. Did a picture help the candidate favourability, or harm them? Does an image of something non-human—say, a colourful abstract picture, help or hinder? I found myself liking to see the person’s face, even though the image is something like 20 pixels wide and can’t be seen any larger. I found that in cases where there was no picture at all, the person seemed mysterious to me, like they were hiding something. If they had an abstract picture or a picture of a character from a movie or show, I found it more personable. When someone had a cartoon picture of themselves, that gave an even closer feeling but still not as human as an actual picture.

But then that got me thinking, how much does physical attractiveness come into play? We’ve all heard studies about physical attractiveness leading to bias in hiring, but does this come into the equation in a place as inconspicuous as the tiny email icon? I like to think not, and I think learning that this bias exists and recognizing it is the first step toward fighting it. So then the question for job-seekers would be: is it better to put your face or not put your face in that picture?

On a similar note, pictures on resumes generally seem to be discouraged in 2021—many sources say that having one is a bad idea (JobScan blog, Workopolis blog, and others) and that some employers won’t even consider applicants with a picture on their CV. However, a study from the Society for Human Resource Management suggests that a lot of recruitment is done with the help of social media, and some job sites suggest that not having a photo or presence online can be a turnoff to employers. In our case, since the role we were looking for is social media, most applicants shared their social media profiles up front and encouraged us to look at them. This makes the idea of blind interviewing nearly impossible, even if it is the fairest method. In the future, for roles that are different from this one, we might try to employ a more blind process at least for the early stages.

We had applicants from a very wide range of educational backgrounds, possibly due to the nature of the job, possibly because of the wording of the job posting, and possibly due to chance. I started to wonder how much I value—or how much any employer values—different degrees, and where that value comes from. I believe that people have some sort of degree hierarchy in their minds, perhaps based on prestige, competitiveness of the programs, salary of jobs in that field of work, what their parents did for work, etc. And what about no university degree at all? There’s also individual bias related to particular interests—as someone who is more interested in music composition than history, maybe I’m more likely to think favourably about a music grad than a history grad. In this case, the university degrees were examined more closely if there was little or no job experience, or no samples of work. Generally, I used this as a guide to applicants’ secondary skills. In general, this degree bias is something that we all need to try to check at the door before walking into the room of applicants—again, a blind process can help with this, but so can consciously not ranking one candidate higher than the other based on their degree or where they got it.

There is a positive side to seeing this great variety in degrees though, as it got me thinking about secondary skills that we might be lacking in the studio. We’re a very small studio (7 people, with this new hire), and if someone has a music background or a writing background or a graphic design background, this could be extremely valuable as it fills some skill holes in our team. That said, if the hire would actually rather develop their secondary skill, you may find them unhappy to be working in the job you actually hired them for. This discussion was brought up within the team and actually acted as a window into a larger question of whether the company should be aiming for more specialized employees or more jack-of-all-trades employees. I’ll spare you the details of that conversation, but there is no right answer to this, only preference!

Interviews

We finally whittled the list down to seven candidates who we wanted to interview and administer a test (that we referred to as a writing exercise to take some of the edge off).

To reduce bias and give everyone an equal chance at success, the questions were the same and were asked in the same order for every candidate. There’s plenty of data on why informal interviews aren’t ideal, so I won’t touch that here. We ran our interview questions by the diversity consultant to see if there were any improvements to be made. I’ll list some of the questions here which I had thoughts about, and share those thoughts in italics. If anyone is curious about the whole interview question list, let me know and I can share that too.

  • Introduce ourselves and what we do on the team, explain formality of interview and why
    • ↑ This came about because our most recent hire had told us that the process seemed very formal while our every day interactions were very informal, and it was a bit jarring. We wanted to clarify that and explain why it’s important to give every candidate the same questions in the same order.
  • Describe the way we work—who does what, how often we talk, our meetings, etc.
    • ↑ This was a bit odd to throw in right in the middle of the interview. The idea was that we wanted to explain how we’re quite democratic but we still have a structure where specific people make specific decisions, and see if there were culture questions that came up. In reality, this explanation was mostly met with silence or some comment of “oh that sounds great” (whether the candidates actually believed that or just said it to be polite and fill the space I’m not sure…).
  • Do you have a favorite content creator in games?
    • ↑ This was a great question for a community manager who will be doing marketing and outreach work. It was clear to us who had a good handle on the streamer ecosystem and some candidates even gave examples of streamers / content creators that they liked because of their values and community, which tied in perfectly with the values we tried to put forward on the job posting itself.
  • Can you tell us more about yourself, any fun facts or interests that you want to share?
    • ↑ This was one of my favourite questions because we finally got to see (for most candidates) how they speak and act when they’re no longer nervous about doing an interview. That said, this leads dangerously into the realm of informal interviews, which is both why it’s natural for me to like it but also why it’s an easy trap to fall into that we restricted to only the last few questions.

Of course, as in all things hiring, there are a plethora of biases that pop up in interviews. I’ll list a few here.

A candidate might share common interests with you—growing up in the same city, sports you both play, having the same favourite video games as a child, etc. and this might affect how much you connect with them. A hiring committee should help with this.

The order and scheduling of interviews may affect your judgment as well—are you more likely to pick the last candidate because their interview is freshest in your mind, or least likely because you’re tired of interviews already? Are you more likely to pick the first one because you’re constantly going back to them as the marker of what a candidate needs to beat to get through, and recalling the interview with them enough times that it becomes familiar? Or is the first one the least likely because it’s the farthest back in your memory? I don’t see any way around this, except to maybe make sure not to schedule all of your interviews back-to-back, which will surely tire you out by the time you reach the last few candidates.

How does the time of the interview affect your feeling about the candidate? While the study suggesting that judges give harsher sentences when hungry may have some correlation-implies-causation issues, there may still be something to the fact that we act and differently in the morning, in the afternoon, when hungry, when tired, etc.

How much does the composition or quality in video calls affect your judgment of the candidate (probably unconsciously)?

There was one mistake that we made in the first interview that I wanted to bring attention to in case it helps someone in the future: at the end of the first interview, we told people that there would be a writing exercise and then a second interview, but there was only a second interview for the candidate we actually selected! The “second interview” was more of an informal job offer and chat to get to know the person, so it was misleading for us to close the first interview by saying there would be a second one.

Tests

There was some back and forth within the studio about whether or not to have candidates do a test, and whether or not to pay for the tests. After speaking to other indie studio owners and some very successful (i.e. in high demand) freelancers, we decided to do a paid test for all candidates that were offered an interview.

As I mentioned previously, we had hired a diversity consultant to look at the job posting and interview questions. Initially, she was quite adamantly against the testing process due to concern that the candidates with professional experience would almost surely score better on the test than ones with only informal or volunteer experience, and that we would need to develop a clear marking scheme before we receive the complete tests. We took her consideration into account and tried to design questions that allowed candidates with less professional experience to compensate with creativity, and we tried to avoid questions that would obviously be easier for those with professional experience. For example, we had drafted a question that asked: “if you had $10k to spend on a marketing campaign for Ultimate Chicken Horse, what would you do with it?” This was changed and, in hindsight, was quite obviously a question that would test someone’s ability and experience in working within a marketing budget, which is against what we were going for in the original job post.

On the other hand, one of the questions we kept was the following: “When you think of good online community management, is there any game, game studio, or non-game brand that comes to mind? Which one, and why?” This is the kind of question that, in my opinion, would allow anyone who has been in and around game communities to answer well, without giving advantage to people with professional experience.

Having applicants do a written test was definitely the right call—we found that the results from the writing exercise were very eye-opening, especially combined with the interview notes that we had. Some people who did extremely well in the interview were a bit underwhelming in their written test, and some who didn’t amaze us in the interview came out with an extremely impressive written test.

An additional argument for having help in the hiring process: there were details that came up in the writing exercise which I didn’t anticipate, but that Gen—my colleague who wrote this part of the test—did. For example, we asked candidates to make sample images for social media—this tested people’s ability to size images correctly for different social media platforms, using fonts or colour schemes similar to what we have on our website, using the right hashtags for the right social media platform, etc. These details helped to differentiate candidates in important ways.

Different analyses for different job posts

The analysis of the candidates for our previous hire—a Unity tech artist—was very different from the analysis of the candidates for this community management job.

For a (mostly) art position, content is the most important thing—what is their portfolio like? Is there a diversity of project types and styles? Can they show that they have a good understanding of the basics, like anatomy and perspective? A test might be less important but still necessary to see if they can match our style and work quickly. For a programmer position, I imagine that playable projects might be the most important thing, followed by a test (but I admit it’s been a few years since we hired a programmer).

For this job, it was much harder to define exactly what we were looking for. We were open to a candidate surprising us with a skill we didn’t know that we needed, and we were open to changing the way we do things to accommodate their skills. As the person who is ultimately responsible for culture at the studio, I was also focused on what kind of energy that person brings to the team and how that would change the team dynamic. On a team of 7 people, this is more significant than you might expect, and I would argue that it’s a valid part of the analysis. That said, this made the analysis very difficult, especially given the fact that people can be nervous in interviews and the fact that video calls are always less personable than in-person meetings. In the end, we had several candidates who would have been a wonderful fit for the position.

Telling candidates they didn’t get the job

Most candidates were emailed individually to let them know that they weren’t selected for the job. For the top candidates who weren’t picked—the 6 other interviewees—I wrote as much feedback as I possibly could about their application, interview, CV, and why they were not chosen. For the top 25 people who made it past the “first look” round, I also sent them individual emails. These emails had a copy pasted portion, and a sentence or two of specific feedback about why they weren’t selected for an interview. The remaining 25 or so applicants were sent a copy pasted email, though they were still individual emails (that is, I didn’t just put a bunch of them in BCC).

I realize that giving this amount of individual attention to each applicant isn’t always possible for a large company that receives a thousand applications for a job, but in my case this proved to be worth the effort. Here is why: “Thank you so much for getting back to me and providing genuine feedback regarding my application. I can’t express how much I appreciate not receiving a cookie cutter response.” And “I can honestly say I’ve never experienced this level of effort from an employer before. And based on this exchange alone I know that Clever Endeavour is a studio I’ll always keep my eye on for more opportunities going forward.” You can be sure those people will be good for our company image—it’s a small industry and respect goes a long way. I also reached out to some of our top applicants to send them a job posting that went up around the time we were hiring for another position they might fit. It was as simple as 3 minutes of sending emails, and based on their responses they found it both surprising and refreshing.

If anyone is curious about what these emails looked like, feel free to reach out to me or comment on the blog and I will share (without names or identifying details of course).

Miscellaneous stuff for employers

I’d like to take some time to share some more miscellaneous learnings for employers, especially those who are relatively new to hiring.

  • It always takes longer than expected (this is true about everything in game development, but let’s stick to hiring for today heh). Going through applications takes longer than you think—even with only ~65 applications, that’s still 65 CVs and about 60 full pages of cover letters to read.
  • Setting up interviews can be drastically sped up by using a service like Calendly, as opposed to going back and forth a million times with all of the candidates. Still, getting all of your interviews done as close together as possible can be challenging, and extra time should be factored in for trying to juggle interviewees schedules.
  • It might be a good idea to quickly tell the lowest rated candidates that they were not chosen. I found that I was leaving a lot of people hanging as we reached out to our top candidates for an interview, sent a test, waited for tests to come in, and then reviewed those tests. We could have told the top 15 applicants that we need some more time, and told the bottom 50 that they weren’t chosen for interviews to save them some time and nerves about the job search.
  • Leave more time than you expect between the final interview and the expected start date. Even when you choose a candidate, there’s a contract to sign and there may be some back and forth about it.
  • A candidate may be already employed elsewhere, and will have to tell their current employer that they’re leaving. It might be more respectful for them to give a month’s notice to transition smoothly out of their position and allow the employer to find a good candidate to replace them, compared to an abrupt notice of departure in two weeks. Again, it’s a small industry. If your future employee tells their employer that their new job will allow them the time to transition out nicely, they will have more respect for you and your company and this could go a long way.
  • I can’t remember who said this, but I read somewhere that when thinking about the likelihood of success for a new hire, 80% of the process happens after they’re hired. What I gather from this is that with even a few good candidates, it’s hard to make a “wrong” pick, but it’s important that you onboard them well, set clear expectations, and help them grow into the position you’re hiring them for.

Tips and tricks for employees

Lastly, I’d like to share some tips and tricks for people applying for jobs. I wrote these down as I was going through applications, so they’re in a bit of a random order.

  • I’m reading over 60 applications, time is of the essence!
  • Make sure to link to relevant material. Every click is precious, and I’ve had to dig pretty deep to find some people’s work. If you’re including anything that exists on another site, like a Twitter account for example, hyperlink it. Some applicants said that they have a YouTube channel and associated community that they manage—but it took me a while to actually find it (Google to find their Twitter, try to guess which one is them, find the right Twitter, get their YouTube channel link, etc.) since their channel doesn’t have a massive following. Now imagine if there were 1000 applicants instead of 65. Every second counts!
  • Tell me why we should want you, not only why you want us. There’s an implied and undesirable power dynamic created the instant you say “your company is so great and amazing and I’d be honoured to be able to work there” without saying “this is why your company will be better off than it was before with my presence on the team”. I know it’s difficult to express this—many people worry about coming across as over-confident—but it needs to clear in an employer’s mind that it’s a win-win when we hire someone, not an act of charity to “let someone work for us”. And let’s be honest, no company is perfect enough to deserve that kind of worship anyway.
  • Formatting is important. It’s an unpleasant feeling to be on your 16th application of the day and open a 2000 word email and a cover letter that’s 2 full pages of size 9 font. Also, please don’t riddle your CV with a million different fonts. There are many great resources about combining fonts and creating appealing visual layouts, please use them! If you’re not good at this kind of thing, ask a friend who is.
  • My favourite email and CV format was as follows:

    Hey Rich (or Gen, but not “dear hiring manager”),
    One or two sentences that introduce themselves and explain why we should be interested in them—”I have experience in (insert topic)”, and explain why they’re interested in us—”I saw your job posting and find it interesting because…”
    • Bullet points listing the most relevant experience and skills
    • Bullet points listing the most relevant experience and skills
    • Bullet points listing the most relevant experience and skills
    Sentence with links to portfolio and work samples
    Attached CV and cover letter

    This format allowed me to pretty much copy paste their bullet notes into my own notes about all of the applicants, which means that this applicant basically determined what I was going to say about them to the hiring committee, and didn’t need to depend on my biased and potentially hurried judgment. Another top format pick that I liked was the same, but the whole cover letter was in the email itself after the links to portfolio and work samples.
  • Keep your interests on your CV! I know that in high school or university they tell you not to include interests because it looks unprofessional, and maybe this is a personal thing, but I would rather hire someone with diverse interests relative to the interests of people on the team than someone who has exactly the same interests. And, seeing as people tend to have pretty unique interests, it’s always better to see your interests to encourage the idea that there’s more to you than just your work experience. That said, the video games industry is a creative one, and I could imagine some people arguing that this isn’t “professional” enough if you were applying for a job as a lawyer or accountant. But even then…
  • I now understand why people tell you to write your address on your CV. When I was looking through and considering remote work for the duration of the covid pandemic, it was important to know who lived where.
  • Mention the languages that you speak—secondary or tertiary languages can be an asset even if you don’t think your knowledge of that language is useful, or even if you’re just a beginner.
  • Don’t send zip folders where possible—if files are large, send a Google Drive link so that we can view things online. While the zip is downloading, I might click to something else and either forget about it (again, imagine 1000 applicants and only a couple of days to look through them) or just be slowed down generally. If samples can be attached directly to the email, great, otherwise links to websites are great.
  • Make sure to keep the 30 minutes after your interview free, they often run longer than expected. Employers should respect your time, but if the interview is going great and runs long, you want to be able to get as much of yourself into that interview as possible.

Thank you for reading! I learned a lot through this process, and I hope I was able to share some of that learning with you in this article. As always, feel free to comment or to reach out to me directly if you have questions, thoughts, feedback or anything else.

Rock Stars vs Superstars at Work

I started reading the book Radical Candor by Kim Scott after several team leads in the games industry mentioned it being the best management book they’ve ever read. There’s a section in the book about understanding what motivates every member of your team, and working toward managing with that in mind.

She talks about knowing who your “rock stars” and your “superstars” are—this idea apparently came from another team lead at Apple with whom she worked. Rock stars are the people who enjoy their craft and are reliable and consistent in their work. They don’t necessarily want to “move up”. As she says in the book, “not all artists want to own a gallery; in fact, most don’t.” Superstars are ambitious and need to be constantly challenged and given opportunities to grow. A large part of the rest of this section in the book explains how one is not inherently better than the other, and how your bias—as a boss or simply as a person with a personality—can lead to thinking that one type of worker is superior.

Most importantly, how you reward these different personality types should be very different. The rock star type doesn’t necessarily want the promotion, and the superstar doesn’t necessarily want the stable, fixed-duration contract.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4b/Kiss-live-at-allphones-arena-070.jpg
Rockstars and superstars but not rock stars? I dunno.

It’s interesting to think of these people in the context of the games industry for a few reasons. First off, can you think of people on your team who are (paraphrased from the book): a force for stability, ambitious outside of work or simply content in life, and happy in their current role? Can you, on the other (and equally positive) hand, think of people who are: a change agent, ambitious at work, and wanting new opportunities?

Second, when you’ve hired in the past or if you’re planning to hire in the future, what level of ambition (if we want to call it that) are you looking for? How much is your personal bias a factor in this decision? Do you know what the other folks are thinking who are equally responsible for hiring? Maybe in the case of a work-for-hire studio, you know which projects you’re hiring for and you want more of a rock star to get the job done within budget, on time and without stress. Alternatively, maybe you’re just branching off to start a second project in your studio and you’re looking for a person who can start off as a programmer, move to team lead, and then run an entire project on their own within two years.

I thought this was an interesting reminder to check my biases. Hopefully this—and surely the rest of this book—will help make me a better manager. Either way, food for thought!

Two Problems with “Mark Unread”

If your job is anything like mine, you need to do deep concentrated work but you also have to be on top of things outside of your control, like responding to people and fielding tasks that pop up seemingly randomly.

In my quest to become more productive and less distracted, I’ve been doing my best to focus on one task at a time, and I try to get that concentration by ignoring additional things that come up. Ignoring, in this case, means seeing a notification for something business-related or seeing an email pop into my inbox and marking it as “unread” after reading it.

Two problems with this.

The first is that I probably never should have seen the notification in the first place. I shouldn’t have the email tab or Outlook client open on my computer at all when trying to focus, and I shouldn’t be getting Slack notifications for something that isn’t urgent.

The second problem lies in acknowledging the distraction. If I’ve opened an email, I’ve read it, and I’ve wasted time. I’ll have to re-read it before responding anyway, plus I’ll probably have to slot it into my email priority list (even if that list is only in my head).

Here’s a puppy to break up the text for ya. Pictures of email are boring.

Some ways I’ve been trying to improve this:

1. My “focused task” window is now the same one where my email is, meaning that while I’m doing my task, the email tab can’t be in focus. I have two monitors, and I used to have email open on one screen and whatever I was doing—manipulating an Excel doc, writing a blog post, whatever—on the other. I’ve switched it so that I have my task list on one screen with the current task or some reference open, and the screen where email once was is switched to my working task so I don’t see email pop up.

2. I clean up my inbox at certain times in the day. Usually this is first thing when I arrive, right after or before lunch, and at the end of the day. Anything that comes into my inbox can wait a few hours, if not a few days.

3. I use gmail filters to tag emails automatically when they come in, which gives me a head-start on prioritizing. “Bills to Pay” emails are tagged and red, “Bug Reports” are pink, “Learning Stuff” is blue, and “Received Payments” is orange (you’d think I would have made it green but oh well).

3.b I only clean up things with a certain tag at larger intervals than my usual inbox clean-up. “Payments”, for example, need to be noted in our accounting software, documents need to be renamed and saved, etc. Nobody is waiting on this with any amount of urgency, so I do these once a week or so. “Bug Reports” need a quicker response, so every few days or couple of days I clear these out.

Do you have any tips for improving focus at work or managing things that pop up unexpectedly? Feel free to share in the comments! Thanks for reading!

Work Hack of the Day

Mini work-hack! I guess some would call it a life hack, but I’m not sure it helps your life so much outside your work—and if your work is your life there are other problems to address. Anyway, I’ve been using this cool thing called AutoHotkey at work, which allows you to set hotkeys to type things for you. Essentially, I press ctrl+shft+X and it works its magic.

I have one for my email, one for the date (types the current date), which is super useful for naming files since we name them with 2020-01-09 [filename] to keep things in order. I’ve got one for our work address, which makes form-filling much faster, especially when you have to fill a form in 13 times because it keeps breaking. And finally—after over 4 years of typing “Ultimate Chicken Horse” 90,000,000 times—created a hotkey for it. I probably could have saved an entire 24h of work time and a sore pinky if I had done this years ago.

All of the credit goes to my co-founder Kyler for showing me this, and of course to the people who make this software. I’m sure there’s other software that do the same thing, but AutoHotkey has been very reliable for me for years and it’s a non-profit company making an open-source software. Download it here.

At this point you may have gotten what you need from this post, which is that you should use something like this to speed up your life. If you want to know how I set up the software at Clever Endeavour, read on.

I don’t think there’s a more basic way to use this software than the way I use it, which essentially follows the first steps of the beginner tutorial. My script looks like this:

^+u:: ;Send UCH
Send, Ultimate Chicken Horse

^+a:: ;Send address
Send, 123 Sesame Street, Montreal, QC, H2E 3R9 

^+x:: ;Send email
Send, rich@somewherecool.com

^+d::  ; This hotstring replaces "]d" with the current date and time via the commands below.
FormatTime, CurrentDateTime,, yyyy-MM-dd ; It will look like 2018-01-29
SendInput %CurrentDateTime%
return

There are a ton of things that you can do with this software. At one point, Kyler was using it to do something like: open a program, move the mouse some number of pixels down and to the left, click, type something in, move the cursor again, press a button, and close the program.

Hope you enjoy! If you have questions, I’m probably not the best person to ask but they have damn good forums and tons of documentation exists about the software.

My Experience on the IGF Design Jury

I was on the jury this year for the Independent Games Festival design award, an amazing experience that made me rethink what good game design is, and what game design is in general. None of the stuff I’ll be talking about will reference games in any way that will divulge what games were played and nominated, and the fact that I was on the jury was made public a while ago. This post will talk about questions that came up in my mind, and I’ve saved the best and most controversial one for last.

The first thing that came up in discussions between the judges was the question of what constitutes game design, and where the limit is on what falls under design vs. some other aspect of the game. Keeping in mind that there’s also a Grand Prize to vote for, we started discussing. On one side of the spectrum, people will say that everything is design. How the audio interacts with the setting and the movement of the player, how the story interacts with game mechanics, the difficulty progression, the art style serving the game’s purpose—all of this is design. On the other end of the spectrum, people will say that design is what is left when you remove everything else: the art, the story, the environment, the audio—if you removed all of those things, are the underlying systems, level design, skill progression, reward systems, etc. well designed?

In our group, it seemed that the majority ended up agreeing that we should be looking at design as specifically the elements that designers touch, and the Grand Prize discussion would take into account more broad design things like how it all comes together. For this case, I concluded from discussion with judges that game mechanics themselves need to be cleverly designed, well balanced, and tie in with the other elements of the game, and the design has to be innovative in some way. Doing something that’s already been done—but doing it really well—is definitely praise-worthy, but I don’t think it’s what I imagine for the Design award for the IGF. As someone who tends to skew more on the side of “everything is design”, I was okay with this mostly because I put my favourites for all-around design as votes for the Grand Prize.

Opus Magnum by Zachtronics was the winner for design last year. I haven’t played it, but I’ve heard great things.

This brings up the point that our definition of design depends on what we’ve read and learned, and how we came to be game designers. In my case, I consider myself a designer but not “the designer” on my team, as we all pitch in on overall design tasks. We’ve never hired a designer whose job title isn’t either artist, programmer, or something else along with designer. That surely plays a large role in my feeling that the game design includes everything about the experience and not only its systems. I’m sure someone who did a bachelor’s and master’s degree in game design would have differing views on this.

Another question was how innovative the design of a certain game actually was. For example, I played a game which had a very innovative storytelling mechanic, and I thought it was incredible. Then, in discussion with other judges, I learned that the mechanic had actually been done several times in other games that I hadn’t played. That changes things. I didn’t have time to play all of those other games—some of which were 10 years old and on PS3—and so I had to rely on gameplay videos and other judges for input.

How good did the overall game have to be for it to win an award in design (or anything else)? How much is your opinion about the design mired by something like bad writing, or an inconsistent art style? Two points here: first, I think it’s unlikely that a game that fails miserably in some important facet (other than design) will be nominated for design, simply because people will not have had a good time with it and that will influence their thoughts about its design. Second, I think I would have trouble voting for a game for design if it was truly awful in another respect. Some of the games I saw were decent in writing or art but had great design, and that was good enough. Anyway, all of these questions came up and needed to be addressed while looking at the nine gazillion games that were played.

The last, and most fun question, involves whether or not good design = commercially successful games. Games were sorted by votes per view, to avoid giving an advantage to games that were voted for simply because they were popular and judges had already played them. It seemed that the top voted games in votes/view in design also happened to be mostly commercially successful games. This doesn’t give anything away because there were plenty of top design contenders that weren’t as commercially successful, just for the record. The question is: were games nominated for design because they were already popular and more people knew them? Or are well-designed games generally commercially successful because good design leads to good game sales? I don’t have the answer, but it’s something to think about and discuss.

Thanks for reading! It’s been very enlightening and hopefully I’ll be invited back again!

Catching Yourself

I’ve been rushing to get an American Dollar credit card by the end of the month in order to pay a US supplier on time, and finally I got a confirmation email today (the 29th of the month) saying that everything is approved, the card is ready. That is, the card will be ready after 5 days of processing and 5-10 days of something else, so actually it will come in 3 weeks or so.

In my email response about this, I started off by writing something along the lines of: “Thanks for the help on this. I was hoping this would be quicker so that I could get my bill paid on time but I guess it’ll wait until next month.”

I caught myself before sending this. Was that last sentence necessary? Who did it help? Maybe it helped me to get some frustration off my chest, but that’s not a reasonable excuse. Did it help the bank to do their job better next time? Did it help the person to feel good about trying to push for this as quickly as possible? No.

Instead I wrote: “Thanks for the help on this. I’ll pay next month’s bill with the CC then!” The meaning is exactly the same, but without showing useless frustration or implying blame.

Moments like this happen all the time. Moments where you can catch yourself and say something much more useful for yourself, the person you’re speaking to, and the relationship between the two of you. Ask yourself: is what I’m about to say actually helping? What is the outcome if I refrain from showing frustration and keep my emotional reaction in check? How much is ego a factor in my behaviour? To me, there are two important reasons to do this.

The first is that I see relationships being strained all the time from a simple lack of awareness that what people are saying is for themselves and not for the other person or the relationship. The second is that often, reacting in a way that is not showing frustration, anger, upsetness, etc. will actually cause you to feel less frustrated, angry or upset.

See if you can catch yourself sometime today, or this week, and try to reflect on how you feel about it. You might be surprised!

Wouldn’t it be nice to learn for a living?

I was listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast recently, and at the end he promoted his “five bullet friday” newsletter where he shares his five favourite things that he’s discovered during the week. These can be life-hacks, books, new strange things to ingest (supplements and otherwise), or whatever he feels like.

That got me thinking: wouldn’t it be nice to learn for a living? Wouldn’t it be nice to work in a place where we can learn new things all the time? Or as a leader or owner of a business, wouldn’t it be nice to create a work environment where our colleagues can learn and develop themselves professionally?

Back to Tim Ferriss for a second though: wouldn’t it be nice if your day job was to interview people and learn new things? Many of these famous podcaster types (Tim, Joe Rogan, Chase Jarvis) support themselves by doing research, asking the right questions, and taking in massive amounts of knowledge. I wouldn’t try to rob them of the ridiculous amount of work they put in to get to this point, where people like Elon Musk and Lebron James will happily be on their podcast, and I also realize that at this point it’s somewhat self-perpetuating. Famous people come on the show, more people listen, more famous people accept invites to the show, etc. But I can’t help but think of how nice it would be to be constantly learning, speaking to the best of the best in various fields, and making money doing so.

But wait a second, can’t we get paid to learn already?

Post-docs and researchers are essentially doing that, though there are a couple of differences between the academic path and what I’m talking about. First off, they don’t tend to get paid very much for it. Generally they have to sacrifice some pay to follow their passion and research the thing they love. Second, they’re often learning very specific things for a few years at a time, if not longer. This hyper-focused learning can be fun for some, and that’s great for them and for everyone their research serves, but it’s not the same as learning about anthropology one day, followed by a day of neuroscience, astrophysics next, and politics after that.

Then I realized that maybe there’s a middle ground. And actually, there are two ways to achieve that middle ground. First, the work itself can inspire me (and even force me) to learn a wide range of different things related to my trade. Second, that work can leave me enough time in my personal life to learn the rest.

Fortunately for me, I’m one of the owners of Clever Endeavour Games, our game development company, so I can try to help create this magical place in both of those ways. Maybe you can too, if you’re a leader or business owner.

We decided, as a company, that we were going to allocate and dedicate time to learning, in whatever way we (and our employees) deem appropriate for our development within the company. That could be by prototyping new ideas, by taking an online course, or by honing our pre-existing skills.

This promotion of learning time in the workplace serves a number of important purposes. First, it allows our team to improve their skills, which they will bring to the table for current and future projects. Second, it shows that we value our employees and care about their individual development regardless of whether or not it directly impacts the company. Third, it helps keep employee morale up by making sure that they’re working on fun things part of the time. Lastly, it gives us a better chance of finding innovative and creative ideas, as we’ll be constantly drawing inspiration from new sources of learning and experimenting.

For me, I can split my time between the work I need to be responsible for (keeping the company alive, finances, bank stuff, accounting, management) and learning. This week that was in the form of learning a visual scripting tool for Unity (a game engine), next week it may be making art for a prototype I’ll start working on with that tool, or something else.

Regardless of how you choose to integrate learning into your company culture, workflow, or daily routine, I think it’s important to make the space for it and foster that creativity, innovation and happiness in your company and work life.

Some People Just “Have It”

I was speaking to my father last week about public speaking, and about the talk I’m going to be giving at GDC (Game Developer’s Conference) this March. I mentioned how there are some people who just “have it”, they speak and it comes out perfectly and everyone simply needs to listen to them. Then he told me a story.

He was at a law event, a dinner I believe, and someone wanted to make a little speech. Off the cuff, he broke out this flawless, heart-warming narrative thanking the partners for their service and he was met with thunderous applause for this improvised speech. Afterwards, my father told someone how impressed he always is that this guy can just whip out these speeches and deliver them with such grace, and without any preparation either. The response, from a friend of the speaker, was surprising. “You didn’t see him practice that in the mirror 6 times before coming into the room then, did you?”

It takes hard work and practice to be good at something. Often, if not always, the people who we think are “blessed” with innate talent are really just people who have worked harder than everyone else to get to where they are today. That could be with regards to sports, public speaking, academia, singing, or fine arts. Sure, there is some amount of genetic influence and some people are able to learn certain things more easily than others, but let’s not take away the fact that the people who are really exceptional at what they do have also worked their asses off to get there.

Paying them the respect they deserve for their skills humanizes them, and makes us realize that we can get there too through hard work and dedication. It also increases our ability to be proud of them and grateful for what they bring to the table, as opposed to resenting them because they’re simply born with talents that we don’t have.

Choosing Your Inputs and Avoiding Overwhelm

If you’ve read my blog recently, you’ll know that not long ago I discovered Seth Godin and his genius wisdom. At one point in his interview on the Tim Ferriss podcast, he talks about controlling your inputs in order to overcome a feeling of being overwhelmed. In fact, not controlling your inputs can lead to overwhelm, stress, ignorance, dependency, and more, so I’d like to talk about this idea today.

Everything you read, hear, see, and do comes to you somehow as an input. The news you read in the morning, the stories your friends tell you, the tasks you choose to do at work, the art you choose to go see, these are all inputs that you engage with. But what happens when these inputs are too many, too time-consuming, or too demanding? We feel overwhelmed and stressed. What I’m about to discuss can apply equally to your work life as it can to your personal life, and I find that this is a problem I’ve faced while running the business side of my game development studio.

Many inputs!

In Godin’s words, it’s a systems problem. We’re not controlling or managing the inputs we have in an efficient or effective way, and it leads to stress. The imagery he used (which I absolutely loved) was that “drinking from a firehose is a really bad way to get hydration. It’s a dumb choice to drink from a firehose,” even if it could hydrate you. I, of course, pictured someone grabbing a firehose, turning it on and carefully trying to get their lips in the stream only to have their face blown sideways by the ridiculously high pressure water over and over again. So how do we manage these systems?

Removing and Rebuilding Inputs

The first step toward diminishing stress from overwhelm is to remove all unnecessary inputs, to the best of your ability.

In Seth Godin’s case, he says that he doesn’t have a television, he doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter, and he doesn’t go to meetings. Not every input can be removed of course, but many of them can. When I say unnecessary inputs I mean anything that you have control over, even if it’s something you enjoy and feel that you need. Then, you can properly start from zero.

Zero inputs!

The next step is to add carefully picked inputs back into your life. By choosing the ones you care about most, you may realize that some of the things you do are done without you really wanting to. Again, I’m not talking about the things you don’t have a choice about, but rather the things that you do have a choice about but you might not realize it. Once this breakdown and rebuild of inputs is done, you will almost surely end up with less inputs than when you started.

Say No to More Things

In both business and in our personal lives, a lot of us (myself included) have trouble saying no. We think we’ll be missing opportunities or that we’ll offend someone, but I’ve found that saying no to things frees up my time and energy for much more useful things. I almost never miss much, and I’ve always found people to be more receptive to “no” than I thought they would be.

More specifically on the work side: do you really need to follow that business lead? How long will it take you to look into the new software they’re offering? Who told you about the software? How long will it take you to learn it if you do follow through with using it? For our company, I try to make sure that we choose the inputs we see when it comes to things like software. We don’t just open our ears to anyone selling us anything, we seek out a solution to a problem we have only if it’s an actual problem we actually have. Otherwise, I try to defend my team from the noise firmly and unapologetically.

Prioritizing Inputs

Sometimes we feel like we just have too much to do. Maybe this concerns work, maybe it concerns our social lives, and maybe it concerns hobbies. We’re overwhelmed, and we don’t know where to start. I can think of two good ways to prioritize these inputs: starting small and pushing past discomfort.

Starting small is the best way to get past any kind of procrastination, and is an equally valuable strategy to get started when feeling like we have too much to do. When you look at a messy room with clothes everywhere, dust on shelves, and papers on a desk, you can start by choosing a small corner, working on it until it’s done, and moving along from there. This is an over-simplified situation, but it’s an example of a negative input that you didn’t choose and you need to deal with. In the past, I’ve written very brief outlines for documents I’ve had to prepare. This was as simple as starting a 90 slide presentation by writing six bullet points on a page. That was my first bit of work on the presentation, and that’s all I did on the task that day. From there I could go back another day and put more bullet points between the ones I had already created, and start moving along from there. The tiniest commitment to the start of a task can make a huge difference.

The second situation when prioritizing is to decide whether or not you have the energy to push past what might be a negative or difficult input. In Godin’s (paraphrased) words:

Do I care enough to experience discomfort to get to the other side? If I don’t, then I should turn off the input. Because sitting with an uncomfortable input when we don’t care enough to make things better is just a formula to be unhappy.

As I mentioned above, sometimes it’s not worth the effort to deal with the input. Oftentimes, the seemingly impossible-to-turn-off inputs can actually be turned off.

Control Your Inputs on Social Media

This one relates more to our personal lives, but could have applications in work as well. In our everyday lives, assuming you’re using social media, you’re being bombarded by ideas and thoughts and suggestions of what to do, where to go, how to dress, and what to think.

As much as Facebook’s algorithms are good at serving you information that you already want to see, you can’t stop there. If you do, you risk complacency and ignorance. Facebook, Google, etc. do not control your inputs, and I find that blaming them for your lack of balanced information is irresponsible. You actively choose to use their platforms to get your information, and even within those platforms if you stick to only the things that are being served to you, you will end up missing out on finding greater knowledge and truth.

Read opposing views of news stories that involve conflict between two sides, do the fact-checking on topics you’re going to consider sharing with others or being passionate about, stop spending time scrolling through your personalized news feed, stop falling into YouTube holes watching silly videos… these are all ways of reducing your inputs to things you actually control.

Seek Out Inputs, Don’t Let Them Seek You Out

To conclude, the common thread in this whole post is that you’ll be better off if you actively choose to seek out specific inputs. If you can avoid inputs that throw themselves at you and more purposefully seek out inputs, it can lead to less stress, less feelings of being overwhelmed, less time wasted, less ignorance, and less complacency. Generally speaking, this will create space and time for you to improve in the way you want to improve and live your own life, and not the life someone else tells you to live.

From Funnel Marketing to the Teacher-Student Dynamic

I wanted to talk today about two opposing concepts in marketing and how they might apply to game development. This article is strongly influenced by Seth Godin and I highly suggest reading some of his work (his blog, TED talk about the spread of ideas, his book “This is Marketing”, ) if you haven’t already. I’m going to try to discuss what I learned from him in a recent podcast and apply it to game development in a way that hopefully is instructive to some.

The marketing legend and wizard, Seth Godin

The first concept is the traditional view on marketing, which is the idea that you start out trying to reach the widest audience possible, and some of those impressions become clicks, some of those clicks become further clicks, and eventually some of those become customers. This funnel method is how TV ads, web page takeovers, and other mass impression strategies work. According to Godin, this is what happens when young and inexperienced marketers have money to play with, and this method is on its way out in many markets.

You may be already saying to yourself: “but I don’t do that kind of marketing, plus we don’t have the budget to do that kind of thing even if we wanted to”. Unless you’re a massive AAA company, that is likely true. But even without paying for TV ads, you may be finding yourself analyzing your follower growth under a microscope, paying for Facebook ads to get page likes, or trying to plan how to get your Reddit post on to the main page of the Gaming subreddit. These are all things that use the approach of “how do I reach the biggest possible group of people and pick some off as future customers”. What I’d like to propose is another way to look at the problem.

Seth Godin calls this the classroom method, or at least refers to a teacher / classroom dynamic when describing this. The people who like your game(s), buy your games, join your Discord communities, and come to meet you at expos, these are the students in your classroom. Remember your favourite teacher in school? Probably not the most conventional, and probably not everyone’s favourite teacher. But this teacher had a style and a way of teaching that you liked, and they surely showed that they cared about you as an individual. As Seth describes, your goal shouldn’t be to produce the most appealing thing to that giant funnel and hope you get some customers in the end, it should be to

cater to the students in your class who are already
paying attention to you, who are there for you, and who would
be disappointed
if you didn’t give them something interesting.

In an age where we fight not only for attention but for trust, we need to focus on serving the customers (gamers) a high quality experience that doesn’t try to please the masses. By doing our thing, doing it well, and caring about the people we do it for, we can actually create greatness which appeals to a larger niche than we expect. By dumbing down our content and product and trying to hit ten million people, we risk not creating something that’s special to anyone. If you can’t capture the single person and make them passionate about your product, you won’t be able to do it for the masses either.

Image by Vectorpocket

This is not to say that we don’t need to have a lot of people see our work in order to have financial and critical success. What it encourages is changing the focus, and in focusing on the small, personal aspect of what we do, we have a better chance of achieving that wide market and critical success.

This is a massive shift from thinking of your target audience as all the people who don’t already like your product to thinking of your target audience as the people who you already know like your product and trust you.

These are individuals with personalities, thoughts, feelings, and lives and by respecting that you give yourself the best chance to succeed.

Your goal should be first and foremost to make a quality product, and then to serve your customers (in this case, your game fans) in a way that makes them want to come back and makes them want to talk about you. By focusing on this smaller core and caring about them at the smallest level, you create an atmosphere that is highly valuable.

I think this new approach is especially instructive when it comes to the community and has a very clear link to the development and sustenance of the community around your company and game. The goal is to create the experience (or product) for that person in your classroom that makes them feel like they’re getting value from it. The value one gets from being part of your game community can be many, many different things. On the surface, it can include fun and exciting content, new people to play with, direct communication with developers, new strategies and play guides, etc. On a deeper level, this community can also provide: comfort, excitement, emotional support, friendship, and other more fundamental human needs. We need to take special care to offer whatever value we can to our community and make sure that our players know that they’re appreciated and taken care of. If you treat people right who are already your in classroom and who are willing to learn, the word will spread because these people will feel truly special. If you advertise that anyone and everyone could enjoy your community because it pleases everyone, you’re likely to 1) miss that audience because it’s not offering interesting value, or 2) appealing to people who you don’t even necessarily want in your community.

What about with respect to the game or game design itself? I’m not entirely sure where I stand on that, so if people have additions to this please feel free to write in the comments… but I’ll give it a shot. I think that intelligent, consumer-facing design decisions should do the trick here: intuitive UI, proper difficulty curves, in-game moderation, etc. These will be done differently for different games, but should always be done to serve the small classroom of people who have come specifically for you (your game in this case). Making something interesting, exciting, and different is a way to engage this classroom in the same way your favourite teacher growing up did for you. By making something that is so inoffensive that you think no one will be turned off by it, you try to reach this massive audience and it could lead you to making decisions which alienate your biggest and most dedicated fans who are also your champions. Where this becomes complicated with respect to the classroom model is that I’m not sure if the classroom is already established or if the classroom gets filled with fans of your game. That is, are you creating a product to serve these students or are you creating a product and the students come to see you?

I hope this blog post was useful to some people in helping them focus on the smaller-scale, person-to-person care that goes with creating and sustaining a good community. In our company, we will continue to focus on this approach and hopefully the word will spread about our game and community.