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.

 

The Will and Desire of Corporations

It’s really easy to blame corporations. Corporations can be big, evil, and swallow up other companies in their wake. They can exploit, push down, discriminate, and do all of the things that we hate to see people or organizations doing. But why do they do it?

I’m of the belief that the majority of people aren’t evil, exploitative, discriminatory, or mean-spirited. I don’t even believe that the majority of people are greedy enough to manipulate people to get their way. So if people aren’t evil, and people make up corporations, how are corporations so evil?

AT A CERTAIN POINT, THE CORPORATIONS START RUNNING THE PEOPLE, AND THE PEOPLE STOP RUNNING THE CORPORATION.

Corporations have one goal: to make money. They will do everything they can to make money. They are not human, and they have no morals or feelings… all they have is numbers, productivity, efficiency, and profit. Is that bad though? Well, not necessarily.

This post was inspired by a cool game that I saw called paperclips. You can play it for free, online, here. The game is about making paperclips. First, you make one. Then you make more. Then you buy an auto-clipper, which makes paperclips for you automatically every second. Then more auto-clippers. Then you research to improve your auto-clipper efficiency. Then you research even more to make even more paperclips. I haven’t played a ton of the game, but suffice it to say that taking over the world isn’t even the end of the game.

The lesson learned from this game is that it’s not the people who are growing corporations to an insane degree, or being evil through their greedy business practices. At a certain point, a company becomes large enough that it has its own goals, and its own desires. As we can see from the paperclip game, the point where the spirit of the company moves from person to non-human entity can be pretty quick. The corporation then has the goal to make money, to grow, to take more market share (to make more money), to hire people, to fire people, to find cheap labour, to find new markets… it’s rare that all of these decisions are being made by one single person.

As early 20th century American writer Ambrose Bierce put it:

“CORPORATION: AN INGENIOUS DEVICE FOR OBTAINING PROFIT WITHOUT INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY.”

This isn’t to say that all of the people in corporations are wonderful and generous people, and it’s not to say that there aren’t some leaders of businesses who actually do evil things for their own benefit. But it is important to note that it’s easy, especially for groups, to make decisions “for the corporation” even if those decisions are not perfectly aligned with one’s own morals.

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As much as it’s easy to hide behind the guise of a corporation to make decisions that might be questionable, it also allows us to blame and hate corporations vehemently in an unreasonable fashion, and without feeling bad about it. It’s fairly well known that one of the easiest ways to justify feelings of hatred, anger or violence is by dehumanizing the person or thing that you’re mad at. People do this all of the time for corporations and might not hesitate to say that a corporation should be burned to the ground, destroyed, or dismantled without considering the human element. Dehumanization is a two-way street, and as much as you can hide behind the wall of anonymity in a large corporation, you can also hate unreasonably and without hesitation.

Companies, big and small, need to be mindful and careful to not get too carried away by the will of the corporation. Business owners, employees, and customers / uninvolved people need to be aware that this can happen, it can happen easily, and that it’s important for the people to keep control of the corporation. Our company is small, and doesn’t plan to become huge any time soon, but we aim to keep that human element and are always careful to be aware of it. If you stay human, the company will stay human, and people will recognize the corporation as having human values.

Cuphead Isn’t Ashamed of Being a Video Game

If you haven’t played the beautiful, 30’s era cartoon-inspired game Cuphead yet, then you should. It’s an extremely challenging platformer shooter made up of a slew of intense boss fights mixed with some run ‘n’ gun levels as well. You can check it out on Steam here, and I’ll put the trailer below for reference.

I’m not here to review games however, as there are a bajillion other people who can do that better than I can. What I wanted to talk about today was one of the many things that Cuphead does right, beyond its precision platforming, innovative art style and skill progression. One of the things that I noticed is that:

CUPHEAD ISN’T ASHAMED OF BEING A VIDEO GAME. THE GAME DOESN’T MAKE EXCUSES.

 

The game presents the player with an extremely clear, simple motivation right at the start and explains why you need to fight all of these bosses. Next, an elder (your grandfather, maybe? I don’t remember) tells you he can bestow upon you some super-power that makes you shoot from your hands. What?

The answer to that “What?” is that it doesn’t matter. At all. You know why you’ve bought this game and why you’re playing it. The developers know why you’ve bought this game and why you’re playing it. Why should the game need to go and make excuses about what it does and why? The game should also know that you’ve bought this game, and it should definitely know why you’re playing it.

An example of what might have been done in another game would be that you would be told some elaborate explanation of the lore and the justification behind these super-powers, or you might be sent on some sort of process to figure them out. Once you get this ability (to shoot), you’re sent to a tutorial, which pretty clearly states that it’s a tutorial. Again, no bullshit. You’re in a game, playing a tutorial. That’s it. You’re not playing through what is an obvious tutorial, while the game attempts to hide it by pretending it’s a a part of the story or making up another excuse as to why you can, for example, swing a sword at people infinitely but never die.

The final example of this is when an ability is unlocked or purchased. Forget the fact that you can buy new “weapons” even though it’s just your hands shooting stuff; it also tells you “Press Y to equip your new weapon” or something similar. Clearly, you’re in a video game and need to know how to play.

I won’t claim that all games should be this up-front about everything they do: motivation, control, tutorial, etc. Different strategies work for different games, and each game has their way of doing things. But it was a nice relief to see this kind of approach after playing many games which try to pretend that everything has to make sense within the world of the game, as opposed to admitting that they’re video games and that people need to understand how things work, even if it breaks the “immersion”.

Anyway, go check out the game. It’s doing amazingly well and with good reason, so give credit to the folks over at Studio MDHR.

Next Steps for the Subscription Model?

It’s no secret that a ton of services and software have moved to a subscription-based model and are having amazing success with it. A subscription-based model, when talking about products or services, basically means that you pay a subscription fee (monthly, usually) to access the product or the software you want to use. Traditionally, software was sold in a packaged bundle: pay $199.99 for this accounting software and have it forever. I’ll talk quickly about why the shift is happening, and then expand on some ideas of where I think it might go.

Why the shift away from the traditional model?

Updates

Back in the day (i.e. a few years ago), you had to buy a CD with a software on it, put it in your CD-ROM drive (ha!) and install the software. When an update came out, you had to buy the new version… Office 2003, Office 2005, etc. This made sense, because updates weren’t super quick, and it was like buying a new pair of shoes; you buy what you need now, and by the time you’re ready for a new pair, new technology has come out.

Nowadays, patches for software are coming out on an almost weekly basis, and new features are being added to existing products all the time. There’s no longer a need for CD-ROM drives as you can download the newest version from the web, and this means that companies can update their products quickly and efficiently. This can work with the traditional model; you buy a license key and then sign in to your account online to download the updates, but it comes with security risks and a logistical hassle when you need to manage users and keys.

 

Less Risk for the Buyer

For the customer, there’s less risk in trying out a product for $30 for a month as opposed to buying it for $720 and expecting to use it for two years. This is pretty obvious, and makes it easy for consumers to make an educated choice.

 

Increase in Product Quality

This isn’t an argument that directly helps the service providers or product creators, but I think it’s something that naturally evolved due to competition. You can no longer sell your product based on bullet point descriptions and images, because people get to try it without committing a huge amount of money. That means that the quality bar is raised, and now when people start using your program or software, they need to be presented with a fully functional, easy-to-use solution.

What’s Next?

We’ve already seen a ton of games move to a subscription model, as well as the online play portion of console games. Our accounting software that we use at Clever Endeavour Games (the games company where I work) is subscription based, as is our website hosting, email management (Google for business), the game engine we use, etc. Almost all of these things used to have a fixed price that you would pay at once, and they’re all moving away.

But what happens after this? What industries can you think about that are currently selling products in a traditional way, that might move to subscription models soon?

The first one I’m thinking of is transportation. There’s already a lease system, which is somewhere between rental / subscription and purchasing. But with things like Communauto (here in Montreal), people can register to the service for a monthly or yearly fee, and take a car wherever they want. They don’t own anything, just a license to take the car from point A to point B and forget about it. Imagine a world where you could take any kind of car you’d like, have it pick you up and drop you off where you’d like, and all it required was a monthly subscription… I think this is next once we have consistent self-driving cars.

Next thing is clothing. Wait what? Why would you want to wear clothes used by someone else? Well… you already do. People rent tuxedos for weddings, ball gowns, and elaborate Halloween costumes. If you’re looking for the perfect outfit for your night out, why be limited to the clothes you own? Imagine being able to pick up whatever you wanted from a huge catalog, and the clothes were clean every time you wanted to wear them? This wouldn’t be for every day of course, but I could definitely see its potential for special events in the future.

Flights might also be something that could be subscription based… if you’re someone who flies often or in some sort of consistent manner, it might be easier to simply pay a yearly or monthly fee and be free to fly wherever you want.

This all came up because I’m going to soon be starting to pay a subscription for a virtual instrument pack for music production, which costs $25/mo. This is instead of a software which costs around $900, and requires a $200 update every year. The goal of the subscription-based model is that they can update the instruments more often, and as long as you’re signed up, you can open projects which use those instruments. For me, I get to try it for $25 and see if I want to continue. For them, they can rope me in by offering me over $900 of value worth of instruments, and keep me longer term if I like it.

Anyway, just some food for thought. It’s incredible how obvious this kind of thing seems, but it took a while since the internet was a thing to actually start taking over. Let’s see what the future has in store for us!

From Business Contacts to Friends – GDC and PAX

Hi everyone!

As you may or may not know, I just came back from a week in San Francisco followed by 4 days in Boston, for GDC (Game Developer’s Conference) and PAX (Penny Arcade eXpo) respectively. These are a couple of the biggest events in the gaming industry and have been extremely important for myself and for our company.

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My first GDC was three years ago, and was useful for us to put ourselves on the map in the game developer world as well as making important contacts that would lead to our eventual success (success in this case is defined as continued existence). We hustled, somewhat aggressively, our way into meetings with Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Google, and others. I spend most of the conference in meetings and walking around the business development section of the show meeting people and pitching our game and our studio. It was hugely successful, as we ended up getting fast-tracked through the portals which allowed us to ship our game on XboxOne, PS4 and now (eventually) on Switch. It was all business development, all the time, and it worked.

At this year’s GDC (and PAX), I noticed something different. Instead of hustling into meetings with people to do “business development”, we did a lot more of catching up with people we knew. This makes sense, since we already knew them… but the thing I noticed is the tone of conversation and what was talked about. From conversations with people like Microsoft to conversations with other game developers, we talked significantly more about life outside of game development. We talked of travel, of family, and of the struggles of running a game dev company on a more personal level, and it allows me to feel not only like this community is here for support for the company’s needs but that it’s also there for my needs. We didn’t have a new product to pitch so we weren’t looking for new contacts who might be able to help us get our game out, and this may have contributed to my realization, but I think it’s still quite valid; had we had a new project, that would have been additional to the relationship building that I’m talking about.

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I never thought that this kind of progression could exist when you only see people once or twice per year. In Montreal, I have some game dev friends that I see often enough that we’ve managed to build a relationship beyond what’s traditionally work, but now that I see it happening with developers from Seattle, Austin, and even on other continents, it just reinforces how amazing this industry truly is. People are genuinely out to help each other, and have seemingly no concern that their help might be detrimental to their own sales… I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t imagine this kind of thing exists in other industries.

Anyway just wanted to share this realization with you, and encourage people to see their “business contacts” also as friends, because it makes for much more enriching relationships and probably leads to better business down the line as well.

Say “Hi” With Confidence

This is a life lesson that I think should be fairly obvious, but wasn’t obvious to me. I’m not sure where I learned it, or what I experience that made me realize that it was a necessary thing, but it is. Confidence is something that I find extremely finicky; if you sound like you have it, people will treat you as if you have it, and if people treat you as if you have it, you start to have it. If you give off a lack of confidence, people treat you as such, you observe that in their response to you and it hits you hard, lowering your confidence further.

So what I wanted to say today was that when you say “hi”, do it with confidence. I’m not talking about with people who you’ve known for years, your family and friends, or your colleagues. These people you could probably nod at and get a favourable response. I’m referring to people that you don’t know, especially people you would like to know.

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Two great examples of this:

The business / art / music idol you’re meeting for the first time: Being in the games industry, this is something that happens to me fairly often. I meet people who I consider leagues above me in terms of where their studio is at, how much they’ve accomplished, etc. In the end, they’re just normal people. That might be a whole lesson on its own, but for now I want to address addressing them (see what I did there?). When walking up to a group of three people, one of whom is the person you really want to meet, saying “hi” in a strong, confident voice makes all the difference. It shows that you’re at their level, it shows that you feel that you deserve to talk to them (which you do!), and it places you in the conversation (even if the others still hang out).

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The cute girl / boy walking by at the hostel: Very different scenario, but also one I’ve been in quite a lot. I’ve done a fair bit of backpacking and hostel-travelling and I’ve found that the difference between a confident “hi” and a shy, mumbled “hi” can be the world. Well, not the world, but it can significantly affect your morale. A strong, confident “hi!” will get a strong response, or a confused look… which will then turn into the person thinking that they should have said hi back. The next time you see them, they’re likely to spark up a conversation. My example was, when travelling alone, saying hi to a couple of people in the hall, then going down to the lobby and finding them there, waving and immediately getting an invitation to go sit with them. This would not have happened had I been quiet and reserved.

I find that I catch myself sometimes not doing this, and it takes a toll. You might not have noticed your body language or the way in which you speak in these kinds of settings, but I urge you to do so the next time you’re there. It doesn’t even have to be an important setting; if you say hi to a random person on the street under your breath they’ll think you’re a creep, and if you say it confidently they’ll respond with equal enthusiasm, and probably with a smile.