Reflections on ‘Sapiens’

It’s been a while since my last post! I’ll try to get on it more often. I guess that’s more for me than it is for you, but oh well. Now you know that I’d like to blog more often.

Today’s post is a reflection on the book Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. This book came highly recommended by some friends, and I found it absolutely fascinating and eye-opening. It tells the story of humankind from the time before we were recognizably human up to today, hitting all the major points of development like the advent of writing, money, religion, etc. I wanted to talk about a couple of big points that made me think, and as usual, try to give people something to reflect on as opposed to summarize the book or teach what was learned.

The first major idea was the idea that Sapiens destroyed everything we’ve ever touched, ever. Since the time that we were tribes of chimp-like creatures, we’ve multiplied and obliterated everything in our path. Even before industrial deforestation, before the industrial revolution and the associated pollution, before global warming was a thing that we knew about, we were killing thousands of species and leaving desolation wherever we went. The giant mammals of Australia are a good example; these giant mammals had never seen predators like us, who managed to invade their territory by boats, and by the time they could learn that we were dangerous, we had already slaughtered them all. Bonus: I learned about the diprotodon, a cute giant wombat.

Another idea I found very intriguing was the idea of money, capitalism, communism, and humanism as “religions”. On religion, Harari says:

Religion can thus be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.

We know that football is not a religion because it was clearly invented by humans and has a well-defined set of rules and rituals. According to Harari, a religion must “espouse a universal superhuman order” and insist on spreading this belief to everyone. Capitalism is an interesting example of this, because it seems to exist outside of individual humans and while it’s not associated with deities, it has a superhuman way of controlling the entire world’s behaviour. It may not spread in the form of missionaries like other religions, but it spreads through education, culture, and I would argue it’s a strong meme (in the sense of actual memetics, not internet humour). Something to ponder!

Lastly, the idea that agriculture was the beginning of the end for humankind is an idea that resonates very strongly with me. It’s something I had thought before, and he does a great job of explaining this without explicitly saying it in his book. I think a lot of the problems we have in society today and have had throughout the history of modern society have their roots in the fact that we changed from a nomadic hunting and gathering animal to a sedentary, farming one. The range, at least in my opinion, is huge. Materialism (especially exaggerated, damaging forms of it), depression from loneliness, bad eating habits, a culture where work takes up more than half your life, bad sleep habits, disease, the list goes on. I have hundreds more questions about this when thinking about how individualism came about, at least partly from sticking people in tiny houses that they “owned” and separating them from their tribe. So many questions!

But I won’t ask them all here, I’ll simply tell you that overall the read was fantastic and I highly recommend it to everyone. It also makes a good gift!

Tough Questions to Improve Your Leadership

A few weeks ago was the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. GDC is where a bajillion (I think that’s the official figure) people talk about games for a week, and we get full of knowledge, tons of new contacts, inspired and tired. I was fortunate enough to give a talk at this conference called “Tough Questions To Improve Your Leadership”, which is available on the GDC Vault here, but unfortunately it’s not made available to people who didn’t get a GDC pass.

The view from the podium!

I wanted to write about this talk because not everyone was able to attend the talk, or went to GDC, or has access to the Vault. I gave out a handout during the talk to follow along with, and it listed the questions I brought up in my talk. Here they are, and you can download the sheet here if you wanted to actually fill it out yourself or with your team.

Along with these questions are some of the sources I used, or keywords to search that are related to the questions and could help you learn more.

Are you your own worst boss? How could you improve your own leadership by improving how you take care of yourself?
Seth Godin blog post – “Are You Your Own Worst Boss”

How do you make your employees or colleagues feel like they’re appreciated, heard and empowered?
For this question, I asked the audience to break up into groups and discuss this with the people around them, then write down those answers.

How much cognitive diversity does your team have? How can you promote that?Cognitive Diversity Harvard Business Review
Cognitive Diversity Forbes Article
Six Thinking Hats Exercise

How much psychological safety does your team have? How can you promote that?Psychological Safety Harvard Business Review
Psychological Safety Google Study
Cognitive Diversity and Psychological Safety HBR

Are you the rock? Are you the static, immovable force that doesn’t sway in the face of opposition? Do you show vulnerability? Can you be both? How do you see yourself on this topic?
The Power of Vulnerability – TED Talk by Brené Brown

Do you fall prey to the Sunk Cost Fallacy?
Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast & Slow (book)
“How We Think About How We Think” – about Daniel Kahneman & Amos Tversky
Sunk Cost Fallacy, Loss Aversion, Prospect Theory

Do you ever do things because of your role and not because of your knowledge or expertise?

Do you ignore statistics because you think you’re “different”?
Justin Kruger and David Dunning – “Unskilled and Unaware of it”
Dunning-Kruger Effect
Daniel Kahneman – Superiority Bias & Planning Fallacy

Do you reward extroversion over introversion?
TED Talk by Susan Cain – The Power of Introverts

What project management tips could you learn from other studios?
For this question, I asked the audience to trade papers with the person next to them and write an idea on the other person’s sheet.

Do you fill the space in meetings? Try not doing it, see what happens.

Does your team know where do you want to be as an individual in 2 years? 5 years? 10 years? Do you know where they want to be?

How adaptable is your organization? Have you ever answered “that’s just how we do it here” or worse, “that’s how we’ve always done it” when asked about something you do in your company?
Adaptability

How effectively is “work time” used at your studio? When are people at their most productive? How do you help or hinder this?

Do you know the quality of the tasks you’re doing, assigning, or being assigned? Do you know which tasks are “chores”?

Do you communicate your vision or your feelings properly to your team?

Have you considered the unknown unknowns? How do you plan for those?
Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast & Slow (book)

Do you give advice that you shouldn’t give?
Source: literally everywhere, myself included.

The talk went really well, and I was really happy to see a full room. In fact, I was expecting it to be a smaller room and not full, and it was way bigger than expected! I’m not sure if people came because it was part of the Producer Bootcamp sessions or because of the content of the talk, but I’ll take it, whatever it was. It was also the first time I was speaking alone on such a big stage in the games industry. Last year I did a talk with the lovely Tanya Short, which you can see on the GDC Vault if you have access.

I’m just realizing now that every video ever posted or to be posted of me giving talks will show me in a t-shirt with an animal on it from our game, Ultimate Chicken Horse. I guess I should just make sure to rotate through them often enough…

I’m looking forward to more talks in the future, and I hope that the talk and/or this article was able to help people on their journey, be it in game development or any other industry.

Bonus! Some other stuff I drew inspiration from but didn’t use directly:
Seth Godin on the Tim Ferriss podcast
Alex Dorans – 5 Signs That You’re Compromising Your Approach to Quality
Brené Brown on the Chase Jarvis podcast

How Did My 20 Year Old Self Think My 30 Year Old Self Would Be?

A good friend of mine asked me this question today, on my 30th birthday. Still weird to write that I’m 30, especially when I often feel 12. But this question was an interesting one, and while I can’t know exactly what I was thinking, I have some idea of what I expected and didn’t expect. It’s a nice thought to ponder, and I encourage you to ponder it.

I didn’t expect to be working in the games industry, co-founding a company, or doing any work related to running a business at all. At 20, I would have been in cégep (the school we have here in Quebec between high school and university) and just switching out of music and into sciences. My goal at that point was to become an architect, to design work and living spaces that affected people on a daily basis, without their knowledge of it. The dream of creating a universe in which a person can explore and go about their daily life, the idea that each person who connects with this world I’ve created will have a different reaction to it… this was what I really liked about architecture. After that description, it shouldn’t surprise anyone (myself included) that I ended up in video games.

At 20, I thought that meditation and mindfulness and subjectivity of experience was too spiritual and hippie-dippie for me. I’m certainly not what you’d call a “spiritual” person now, and science is still the absolute only thing that I try to use to describe our experience in this world, but I think that I’m connected with myself in a way that I never could have been ten years ago. In fact, I think all of that has happened in the last year or so, thanks to some great people around me.

I would have thought that by now I would be married, and maybe thinking about children. I didn’t imagine some perfect suburban house somewhere with a backyard and a white picket fence—I always assumed I’d be living in a smaller space, closer to downtown. But I did picture myself married like my brother was a few years back. While we’re on the topic of homes and families, I didn’t picture myself owning a condo, but hey here we are. Here I am, I guess. Hopefully you’re not here in my condo right now.

Overall, I didn’t think that I would be in the spot that I’m in, and I’m extremely grateful for it. I also know now that if I were still my 20 year old self, I wouldn’t have the capacity to be grateful for it, because I didn’t unlock that part of life (that part of the brain?) yet. Besides being happy that I’ve made it 30 years on this earth without any major diseases, without any traumatic injuries, and without, well, dying (knock on wood), I’m also happy with how I’ve changed over the last ten years. I think if you asked my friends, I wouldn’t be noticeably different from how I was ten years ago, and that’s fine. Under the hood there’s more going on, and I’m glad for it.

How about you? What did ten-years-ago you think that you’d be like ten years in the future?

How Does the Future of the Streamer-Developer Relationship Look?

In our sprint meeting this past week, the question of paying streamers to play our game on Twitch and YouTube came up. It led to a longer discussion and brought up some important questions that I’d like to bring up here, and without trying to reach a conclusion, make people aware of the things we have to consider for the future.

The conversation centered around the idea that we want some streamers to play our new update to our game Ultimate Chicken Horse a few days before the release, so that we can build some hype around the launch of the new content. How should we approach these streamers? Do we pay them directly? Do we go through something like the Twitch Bounty? Do we simply offer them the exclusive early content and hope they play it without compensation? There isn’t necessarily a clear answer for this question, so I’ll try to formulate some thoughts here.

The first thing to look at is the relationship between all of the parties. The ones involved here are:

  • game developers
  • streamers
  • Twitch, YouTube, etc. (we’ll call them platforms)
  • companies that pay for ads on those platforms (advertisers)
  • viewers of content (viewers)
  • purchasers of ad products (ad consumers)
  • people who buy and play the game (gamers)

So here’s what I think the current situation looks like, and the green arrow with the ‘?‘ is what my team discussed in our meeting.

If you look at the relationship between any two groups mentioned here, it should make sense; for example, platforms receive money from advertisers, and advertisers get visibility in exchange. Advertisers also pay streamers directly and get visibility directly through them. The cash comes back to them from viewers of the content which become ad consumers when they buy the products being advertised to them.

The relationship between the streamer and the developer is the more complicated one here. The developer creates games that the streamer can use to create content for their viewers, and content for the platforms to show to their viewers. In return, the game developers get visibility from the streamers (because of their viewers). The question we were discussing seems to be whether or not the creation of the game is enough to justify the visibility being given to the developer, or if there should be money involved that comes from the developer and not only from the advertisers (either directly or through the platform).

So if we look only at the money flow, it gets injected into the system by people who are engaging with the system, presumably funded by their jobs. The cash comes to the developers when the viewers are convinced to buy the game and become gamers. The cash goes to the advertisers when people become ad consumers. The cycle can continue because the developers, streamers, platforms, and advertisers are making money and the gamers and viewers are happily spending it.

I won’t claim to know what is best for this system or how we should go about ensuring that everyone is happy and well-paid. I’m glad the conversation came up in our meeting because I think it’s useful to write this kind of thing out, and it brings up some interesting questions:

  • Should developers be paying streamers directly for the exposure they give to the game?
  • What kind of precedent do we set for this interaction, in either case (developers paying streamers or not paying them)?
  • Who “owes” who more, between devs and streamers? That is, a huge influencer playing a small game is much more advantageous for the dev than the streamer, but a huge game being created and given for free to a tiny streamer is more advantageous to the streamer. Where’s the tipping point? Does it matter?
  • If developers are paying streamers, how do we decide the basis for the payment? Time? Viewers? Engagement? Actual game purchases?
  • How do we avoid viewers being turned off by constantly seeing what are considered “ads” (paid streams) as opposed to content that was chosen without bias by the streamer?
  • How do we open the communication between developers and streamers without going through platforms to discuss these things?
  • What do we think is fair to all parties (including advertisers and platforms)?
  • How much should the advertiser money (ad revenue) be going to the streamer as opposed to the platform?

Another thing that came up, for better or for worse, was the idea that indie game studios sometimes ride on the big marketing budgets of the AAA companies in terms of streamers getting compensated. If a streamer makes $30k for playing a new Ubisoft game, they won’t bother asking a small indie for $200 for the same amount of time in their game (for many reasons). If the decision is that developers should pay streamers for the visibility they provide, is it fair to ride on the back of these huge studios?

I realize that this post is asking a lot more questions than it’s answering, but that’s kind of the point. We don’t know what the future of this relationship will look like just yet, but it’s going to be us (developers) alongside streamers who will need to figure it out. We all want what’s best for all parties, and we want to be fair to all parties above all else.

What do you think about this?

The Opposite of Progress

In the last few years, I’ve seen countless examples of regression in social change and equality under the guise of progress. One that I saw this morning was so blatant that I needed to share it:

This article in the BBC News came up, and is a complete failure in my opinion. The answer to the question, and this entire article, should read as follows:

“Yes.”

That’s it. End of conversation. But apparently not…

At the end of the article it talks about the cycle where a lack of mixed-race people at universities leads to the idea that mixed-race people won’t feel like they belong (which is true). It concludes with: “Is it right for me? I’ve got to decide by May.” Are you fucking kidding me? You have the privilege to go to Cambridge and represent mixed-race people across the world in an Ivy League university and you’re asking whether or not you fit in?? For all mixed-race people, to set an example, to reach your highest potential, and to prove equality between all people, yes you should go.

I’m not sure what the article was trying to prove or suggest, but apart from being topical in order to get clicks, I don’t think it realizes the incredible damage it can be doing to the progress we’ve been fighting for for the last 60 years. We’ve reached a point where a mixed-race person has the opportunity to go to Cambridge, and now we’re going to publicly, in the form of “news”, question whether they should use this progress and opportunity to make real change in the world?

Yes, it’s going to be harder for that person to fit in at Cambridge, harder than it would be for a white person. I can understand that at the individual level, there would be some hesitation or nerves about it, no one will condemn someone for that. But the next step is to push past that hesitation, be the change you want to see in the world, and make a difference for every other mixed-race child that thinks about Ivy League schools for the next hundred years. The hesitation that you have to overcome will simply not exist for the next generation of children who follow your example.

We need to encourage this progress by simply answering “YES” to that article. On top of that, we should explain the statistics (as they do in the article) and use that as fuel to powerfully, strongly and unapologetically encourage this positive change.

My Trip to PAX East 2018

Greetings!

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

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

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

The PAX Vibe and My Observations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favourite Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading, and see you next time!

Being Your Own Boss: Some Things I’ve Learned

In starting my game development studio with two partners, I’ve learned a lot of things. Today I wanted to talk about what I’ve learned while being my own boss (or at least being 1/3 my own boss).

Self-Motivate and Have Discipline

Last year I wrote about How to Not Explode When Working From Home, which was just one of the pieces of motivation and discipline needed when running your own show.

The first key to staying motivated is to set short-term and long-term goals, and to always keep them in mind (or better yet, written down somewhere). It’s extremely daunting to think about creating a whole project without seeing the steps along the way, and writing the steps (and organizing them well) means that the amount of motivation needed is only what’s needed to get to the next step.

2017-04-19 Mountain

The next important thing is staying disciplined. If seeing the short-term and long-term goals leads to motivation, the discipline to follow through with the steps consistently and without excuses is what actually moves the project along. I can’t say I have the secret to staying disciplined, but each person has their workflow that keeps them in line. Find your routine and the thing that keeps you working consistently and focused. For some people, working from home is too distracting. For others, skipping the gym in the morning means they won’t be focused. Especially when you’re not directly reporting to someone, it can be easy to let deadlines slip, to put work off till “later”, and to lose sight of goals both short-term and long-term.

Separate Work From Rest-Of-Life

I was able to do this fairly early on after starting our company; in less than a year or so, I managed to separate work from the rest of my life in a way that I feel has been successful and satisfactory (but maybe I should ask the people around me if that’s the case…). I see a lot of people, even people who aren’t their own bosses, bringing their work along with them everywhere. I was in the car with a friend on the way to an event on a Saturday night and they were on the phone talking about a business deal. No one should ever be expected to be doing business deals at 9pm on a Saturday night, and if you’re your own boss, you actually have a choice.

2017-04-19 LateWork

You can choose when you’re “on” and when you’re “off”, and no one is expecting you to answer them at that time, unless you get in that habit from the start. If, when starting your company, you get super excited about every opportunity (which you should) and answer emails at midnight on a weekend, so be it. But realize that if this becomes the norm, this will become expected of you by your business partners, employees, suppliers, etc.

To make sure that you maintain your relationships with friends and loved ones, you absolutely need to make sure that you’re making time for people that are important for you and that might mean giving yourself a hard limit of when you’re “on”. For me, I decided not to answer work emails after 7pm. I’ll check them sometimes, and if they’re extremely important, I can make exceptions, but for the most part if someone is waiting on an answer for something, they can wait until the next morning. It’s more important that I spend time with people who matter and don’t become one of those 80h/week startup people.

Set the Example

Realize that the people around you and eventually the people working for you are following your example in terms of how hard you’re working, how disciplined you are, your accountability, and how much you care about your work. This seems to happen more later in life (or as owners have had their companies for a long time), but the divide between employee and owner increases when the owners don’t show that they’re doing important work.

Ducks crossing road

I was working at a lighting firm doing engineering before getting into the games industry, and while the bosses weren’t making engineering drawings or cutting lenses for light fixtures, you could see them doing hard work. They were in meetings, they were on the floor talking to the assembly team, they were asking us if there was something they can do to make our lives easier, and they were generally showing (in one way or another) that the work they were doing was because they care. If employees feel like their bosses are using them as money-generation tools without contributing to the products or services themselves, it causes a divide which leads to resentment.

Treat Your Employees Like You Treat Yourself

This one is tied closely to the previous point; being your own boss means that you have certain privileges that most people don’t have. Be thankful for the advantages that you have, such as leaving early because you have a doctor appointment and not worrying about being looked down upon or judged. Being thankful for these kinds of things and being aware of how it feels will lead to the understanding of what it feels like on the other side, as an employee who might feel some unnecessary pressure. Not sure why this picture is relevant, but it looks like freedom and a cute puppy so I can’t not include it here.

2017-04-19 Freedom

If you treat your employees like you treat yourself (or as closely as possible), I think you’ll see an increase in respect from partners and employees alike, which will in turn lead to better work from those people. Reward them for doing good work, treat them as people who have responsibilities and problems outside of their work lives and not just as numbers or money-printing machines (unless they literally are money-printing machines), and I would bet that the net outcome is positive for you and your company.

This became much longer than anticipated. In short, being your own boss is awesome, and despite the lack of security and the pressure of knowing that if you screw up then you don’t eat, the success, accomplishment, money, etc. feels great knowing that the energy put in directly results in the rewards you receive.