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.

Planning and the Unknown Unknowns

Last November, I gave a talk where I described the story of our video game Ultimate Chicken Horse from early conception to release and beyond. My goal was to amalgamate the answers I’ve given to people when they asked about different parts of the story: “how did you get funding? How did you get your game on PlayStation? How did you find your partners to start your company?”, etc. The format was to stop the story at each point where I felt I learned a lesson, and share those lessons with the audience.

One of the lessons that I drew from the chronological story of this journey was to try to think of everything. It seems obvious of course, but it seems like you couldn’t possibly know what you weren’t thinking of, because obviously you weren’t thinking of those things.  So given that “try to think of everything” is a bit hard to act on, I now use a new phrase: plan for the unknown unknowns.

https://encuentro.gr/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/023_CNT1_03.jpgWhen you don’t plan, you end up with half-built things.

This phrase is taken from a book by psychologist Daniel Kahneman called Thinking: Fast and Slow, in a section where he describes the planning fallacy. The planning fallacy is used to describe plans and forecasts that “are unrealistically close to best-case scenarios” and “could be improved by consulting statistics of similar cases”. The result, of course, is that plans take longer than planned, costs go way over budget, people get unhappy, products under-perform, and everybody loses. Sound familiar? Game development, and surely most other fields of work, are plagued by the planning fallacy.

I’m going to focus today on three proposed ways to mitigate the planning fallacy:

  • Establishing a baseline
  • Taking the outside view
  • Planning for the unknown unknowns

Establishing a Baseline

Kahneman and his partner Amos Tversky did a lot of research into many topics in behavioural economics from a psychology perspective, and eventually won a Nobel prize for that research in 2002. After coining the term planning fallacy, they offered a solution of how to solve it by establishing a baseline.

The idea is to avoid the common tendency to neglect the statistics of similar cases to yours. To use game development as an example: “Most MMOs take four years to make with a team of our size, but we have industry veterans and we’re really well organized, so it will only take us two years”. That’s obviously not a very forward thinking mentality, but it happens to all of us whether we realize it or not, for small tasks and large ones alike.

This idea was eventually formalized and given the name reference class forecasting, and it works in the following way:

  • Identify a fairly vague appropriate reference class (indie games, platformer games, online games, games made with X people, games made with Y budget, etc.)
  • Obtain statistics from the reference class (how long did these other projects take? How much did they cost?)
  • Base your predictions on the stats from the reference, then use specific information about your case to adjust the baseline prediction

You might only realize that you’re the little duck after establishing your baseline

Often, you may find, that you might have to stray away from the baseline prediction by increasing it, not decreasing it. What are your resources like? Does your team have experience with this kind of project? Are there new technologies that can quicken the process? Are there new technologies which need to be learned, which may slow it down?

It sounds so obvious to look at statistics from our surroundings, and yet we all forget to do it and rarely catch ourselves forgetting.

Taking an Outside View

The next thing to do is to take an outside view, and to step back from our situation. We naturally take an inside view by focusing on what we have, what we’re doing, and the experiences we’ve had with regards to the situation. We extrapolate from what we know, we reason using small bits of data, and we get caught up in emotion when making decisions about ourselves and our plans.

The easiest way to get around this, and the way that has worked for me and for my company in the past, is to ask others. Find people who will give you straight up, no-bullshit feedback about your plans and ask you the tough questions that you’ve likely been ignoring.

Asking others means you’re no longer forecasting based on information in front of you, and gives you a more complete picture.

Planning for the Unknown Unknowns

Remember the example about the MMO that was only going to take your studio two years? We already discussed that it’s not the smartest thing to assume that it will take you less time. But most people will take an extra step and actually plan; they will thinking of all of the things they can, take an outside view, ask others, and even look at comparative projects to make their estimates. Once they’ve done all of this, they will sum up all of the things they think they need to do, assign times to them, plan using current and future expected resources, etc. After this whole process, they’re still left with a little over two years in their plan for this MMO project.

This is because they didn’t think of the unknown unknowns. These are the things that can come up mid-project: bureaucracy (and boy do we know about that one in game development), illnesses, divorces,  technical delays, dependencies on contractors, change of personnel, people moving, etc. etc. etc. As I mentioned in the introduction, you can’t know what you don’t know, so it’s hard to plan for it.

This is why we add contingency in our budgets, and why we should add a hell of a lot of contingency time to our plans when starting projects or agreeing to deadlines. We also try our best not to promise anything before it’s ready; many companies (and individuals) run into problems when they can’t meet deadlines for deliverables, but often these dates are self-imposed and do not need to be so fixed. There are, of course, cases where a client is dependent on you, or a project needs to reach a certain milestone because of timing with a season or sale, but I’ve seen many self-imposed deadlines set up by the “suits” for no apparent reason, and this can cause unnecessary stress and perceived failure due to missing those deadlines.

Beyond asking other people what unknowns you might run into (as was the case when taking an outside view), you can also study other projects or companies and see what kind of issues they ran into. Even if you don’t expect to run into the same exact issues, there’s a good chance that it will inspire you to think of potential issues for your own situation.

So first, think of everything you and all of your peers can think of, and then plan for the things you haven’t yet thought of.

Why is this Important?

This is relevant to anyone in a management position or anyone who is making decisions about planning.  In video game development, every single project I’ve ever heard of in the history of games has been late. If it wasn’t late, it was shipped at a way lower quality than it should have. I’m not sure if other industries are as notorious for delays, but I imagine it’s a common issue across the board.

While none of these suggestions are hard science or give you concrete steps to take to ensure success, they should help guide you in a way that can help prevent failure. As I read this section of Kahneman’s book, I realized the direct application that this psychology could have to the game development world and thought I would share, so I hope you enjoyed reading.

If you have comments, please feel free to leave them on the Gamasutra article here.

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
Note: the idea of “unknown unknowns” is originally attributed to Donald Rumsfeld, as Kahneman states in his book.

Daniel Kahneman: Beware the Inside View

 

Is Anything More Important Than a Game’s Consistency?

Hello friends!

I’ve been thinking for a while about what makes a game successful, or rather what makes a game unlikely to fail. My definition of success, in this context, is simply not failing. That is to say, a game has been successful if it can earn its money back and not be a financial and critical failure. I’m not looking for a formula to solve game development, because I don’t think that exists. But I do think we can mitigate our failures by keeping some important points in mind, and I’ve been trying to discover what these points are.

I don’t think we can predict success if we define success as selling 1M copies or having your company bought by Microsoft… but I like to think that we can identify some key properties that will make a game unlikely to fail. This is a hit based industry and I would be a multi-millionaire if I knew which games would be critically acclaimed monumental financial successes… but I’m not. And I won’t pretend that I know the answers to what makes a hit, but I will throw an idea out there to be pondered within my definition of success. This idea was created in hearing tons of game developers talking about their failure stories, and I think there might be something to it:

Consistency is one of the most
important predictors for a game’s success.

That’s my hypothesis, and hopefully it can be discussed, debated, and refined or refuted. I am by no means an expert in this subject and don’t intend this to be purely informative, but I think this is a point worth considering and discussing, and that discussion may help us achieve a deeper understanding of our craft.

I should add, before we get to definitions, that a crappy game won’t succeed regardless of how consistent it is. I can’t claim to know where exactly how high that minimum quality bar is set, but the idea is that many games that could have had success ended up not finding it, mostly due to a lack of consistency.

My Definition(s) of Consistency

When one creates a game, they create a universe. They create at the bare minimum a visual style, a set of rules of physics, a soundscape, interactions between parts, a user experience, and a universe. Beyond that, game developers may create mechanics, rules of interaction between systems, stories, cultures, languages, customs, and more. These systems need to be consistent with how the game is talked about, consistent with one another, and consistent in themselves.

I’d like to consider three kinds of consistency here, and then we can discuss whether this is actually a strong predictor for success (i.e. non-failure). Personally, I think the order I’m presenting them is their order of importance.

Marketing Consistency

We talk about and pitch our games in different ways, on different platforms, and to different people. We try to explain our entire game in a catchy sentence, we show a screenshot, or we make a trailer that tries to convey the player’s experience in our games. Unfortunately, we often break the consistency of the universe we’re attempting to create even in the way we pitch or market out games; we show off static shots of cute characters when really the in-context animations are what give them their charm, we talk about procedural generation in a rogue-like when the real fun comes from the combat mechanics, and we talk about open-world and crafting when the best part is the story.

From a failure workshop talk that Hugh Monahan of Stellar Jockeys gave at Full Indie Summit in 2016, he talks about his early access trailer for Brigador: “The problem is that it looks like a twin-stick shooter. Brigador is anything but a twin-stick shooter.  For some games, Brigador included, the subjective experience of playing the game is totally different from what it looks like watching a video of gameplay or watching somebody else play.” He goes on to explain how the feel is different from what it looks, and how much deeper the gameplay is than it looks: “This isn’t the game I was sold”, is what many players were saying after playing it. “Because this game looked close enough to existing tropes, or existing genres of gameplay, a lot of what was creative and unique and different about Brigador got completely wiped by this instinctive ‘oh, it’s a twin-stick'”.

Now, I know that anecdotal evidence isn’t going to prove my point, because for any example I give I’m sure others can be found that were inconsistent in their marketing but still did well, but I think this shows how this inconsistency can be dangerous.

Genre Consistency

Players have certain expectations about your game based on other games they’ve played in the genre, other games they’ve played with the same art style, and other games that list similar mechanics or features to yours. If a game is a hardcore strategy game, it needs to look like a hardcore strategy game. If it doesn’t, it needs to be made abundantly clear to players why it doesn’t look like they would expect it to. I should add that we have to be careful when making games, because any hint that our game is similar to another game or similar to games in a genre will be picked up by players, and the expectations start to creep up.

This is not to say that we should make games that all look like one another… absolutely not. But I think we need to be aware that player expectations exist regardless of what we want, and that making a deep strategy game that looks like the image below is setting yourself up for an uphill struggle of trying to change player expectations that are already pre-established.

While I haven’t played the game yet, there’s a pretty wide agreement that Yooka-Laylee didn’t live up to expectations. I don’t think it sold as well as was anticipated, and its review scores for metacritic were not too favourable. The issues that reviewers talk about always include the idea that the nostalgia element was good, but the game brought with it all of the annoying things from those old games like Banjo Kazooie: the camera, the pointless currency collection, etc. I’m not sure the Yooka-Laylee team could have prevented this, since the expectations were set high as soon as Playtonic mentioned that they were making a 3D platformer. But at the end of the day, people expected something more than what they got.

Just as a quick aside, I know and respect both of these companies whose “failures” I’m highlighting, and I still look up to them as game developers despite using their games as “failure” examples.

Game Consistency

I touched a bit already on what game consistency is comprised of: things in the game cannot contradict what other things in the game say, how they work, or how they feel. Within the game itself, the mechanics and everything that you’ve created in your game universe need to be consistent and predictable.

A rule that has been established and conveyed to the player cannot be broken by the game, otherwise the game risks losing consistency. If the game is set in the year 2093, the font used in the menus shouldn’t be Times New Roman (unless there’s a damn good explanation, and even then, why are you using Times New Roman??). If the player plays as an extremely kind-hearted, benevolent, peaceful person, they shouldn’t be killing in cold blood in the next level. If the player can always grab ledges in a platformer, there shouldn’t be similar looking ledges that can’t be grabbed. The example here is in Zelda (in every Zelda game I’ve ever played, in fact), a cracked wall means you can bomb it. It never, ever means that anything else, as this would bring the player out of the experience and lead them to question the rule they learned, that all cracked walls are bombable.

We teach our players the rules of our universe in many ways, and if we ever contradict the rules that we established or the rules that players believe we established then we break the immersion and we create a bad experience for players.

Why Do We Care?

Consistency is key, in my opinion, because

player expectations are created by consistency and those same expectations are shattered by inconsistent marketing and game design, leading to a bad experience.

These player expectations are created by you, your universe, trailers, screenshots, menus, game mechanics, art style, website, and everything else that has anything to do with the game. These expectations are also created by preexisting genre tropes, and anything your game does has to be aware of those preconceived notions.

This is why, in my search to find some properties of a game that will help it to avoid failure, I’m pointing to the idea of consistency as a proposed indicator.

Some Good Examples

I’m going to give some examples of some projects that I think achieved the consistency I’m discussing. As is the case with any argument, using anecdotal evidence is not a strong way to provide “proof”… but I’d just like to demonstrate some strong consistency examples after talking about a couple of weak examples in the above sections.

To provide an example of success, I present the game Shovel Knight by Yacht Club Games. That game promised retro, old school, challenging gaming and that’s what people got. What we also got was the innovations in new games (save files, responsive input, longer game, etc.) while not ruining any of the old stuff that we found so charming. Plus, everything about the game kept you in its world by being consistent: the music, the level design, the art style, the menus, the sound design, etc.

Firewatch from Campo Santo is another good example. First I should say that the trailer for Firewatch is a work of art. This is just one of the trailers they made, but they all seem to be consistently amazing.

It gives you every feeling that you’re going to feel while playing the game: suspense, discovery, relationship building, fear, relaxation, everything. This really sets the tone for the game, and it doesn’t fail to deliver. The music, the art, and everything else about the game reinforces this core point.

Like I said before, finding these examples doesn’t “prove” my point, but it can help illustrate why I think consistency might be a major factor in determining success of a game.

Suggestions to Improve Consistency

I can think of a few ways to try to ensure consistency, some harder than others.

Make sure your trailer conveys how the player will feel when playing your game.

M. Joshua Cauller has a great article about this on his blog. This is probably the consistency issue I’ve seen most: developers will create trailers (or worse, have trailers created for them by other companies) which don’t properly explain what the player experience is like. The trailer might completely miss the mark and focus on something that the developers find interesting, but that isn’t the real thing that makes the game fun. Sometimes, trailers can even be good on their own accord, but not linked to how the game makes the player feel. For example, if your game is interesting because of the flow and precise shooting and movements, creating a story-heavy trailer that doesn’t show those elements might cause people to expect something very different from what you’re providing… that lack of consistency leads to bad reviews.

Get an artist.

Probably not this one…

I’m not an artist, and I wish I was better at this… but people need to have an artist with a good eye look at their graphical elements. I’ve seen too many games with strange menu fonts, colours that don’t match the theme, UI elements that look like they came from Hearthstone in a game where the rest of the screen looks like Fez, etc. Strangers and other developers will can you if your visual style is inconsistent… leading to the next point.

Show the game often, and show it early.

By soliciting player feedback early, you practically ensure that you’ll catch the major issues before you get too far. Showing the game to other game developers, artists, film people, designers, architects… all of these will help you to understand the consistency of your art style and your game in general.

Be aware of everything that is in or related to your game.

I might just be picking patterns out of nothing here, but I find that often the inconsistency I’ve seen in games is linked closely to outsourced work that wasn’t well monitored. Art asset creation assigned to other companies, completely outsourced trailers, and far removed audio teams could contribute to this. If we are careful about the details about all of the things that are going in our game or are related to the game’s universe, we may be able to mitigate some of that.

What Do You Think?

Do you agree with that consistency might be a good predictor for success, above a certain low quality bar? Do you disagree? Do you think I’ve missed something important and shouldn’t be focusing on consistency? Do you think I might be on to something, but misinterpreting it? I’d love to hear what you think, so feel free to email me or discuss on Twitter, or leave a comment on the Gamasutra version of this article!

Thanks for reading, if you’ve made it this far! 🙂

 

The Best Book I’ve Ever Read

I just finished the best book that I’ve ever read, ever. In fact, it’s more than the best book I’ve ever read… I would argue that it’s the best collection of words I’ve ever seen in any sort of literary piece ranging from novels to essays to textbooks.

The book is called The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist, linguist, and evolutionary psychologist (on occasion). The contents of the book have pretty dramatically changed the way I think about the world, given me a much clearer understanding of how things work, and given me a ton of insight into the brain and its functions. It has explained to me many behaviours and many human tendencies, and given a lot of credit (and some solutions) to my worry about how the current political climate is affecting our ability to think rationally and reasonably.

The nature vs. nurture debate is a somewhat solved one, in that we all know that pretty much everything is a combination of both. The goal of Steven Pinker’s book is to argue that we rely very heavily on this idea of the blank slate, the idea that everything we do and think is programmed into us from our environment, and that relying so heavily on this very false idea leads to serious issues in policy, education, politics, legal discussions, and more. The first half of the book dispells three popular myths, then discusses how some “hot button” topics such as gender, violence, and children could look when approached through a lens of human nature. Throughout the book, he argues that an understanding of human nature is necessary to understand who we are and how we act, and that challenging socio-political topics cannot be properly answered by ignorantly blaming our environment. In fact, a better understanding of these issues which takes into account the perspective of human nature and evolutionary psychology helps us to make progress toward goals of equality, freedom, and peace.

The first of the three myths he dispells is that of the blank slate itself. The idea that our environment has more of a role than our genes do in terms of our development is false. I’d guess that (especially in the current socio-political climate) the average person would say that over 90% of our thoughts and behaviour are caused by our environment, and that intuition couldn’t be farther from the truth. The best example of the many, many studies that suggest that our genes make up at least 50% of what we consider “personality” is a series of studies with identical twins who were raised in different homes vs. adopted children who are raised in the same home. Time after time, the identical twins showed more similarities in terms of personality, mannerisms, even strange tendencies like twirling a pen when they’re nervous, when compared to the adopted children who were raised with the same parents, same parenting style, same rules, etc. It may be surprising, but you’ll understand if you read the book, which you absolutely should. Ignoring the idea that much of our personality is genetically determined can lead to dangerous decisions, and he outlines that perfectly in his book.

The second is the idea that he calls the ghost in the machine. This is the feeling that there is a “you” inside your head which consists of your conscience and tells your brain what to think, which subsequently tells your body what to do. In philosophy, this is sometimes referred to as mind-body dualism (i.e. the separation between mind and body). The “you” simply is your brain, an extremely complex computer, a circuit of connections and pathways and chemical reactions shaped by your genes and your experiences. With a proper understanding of the brain, there is no need for a soul or a separate “you” that lives inside your head, as if that ghost in your machine can manipulate your thoughts disconnected from your brain.

Lastly, he makes an extremely strong case against the idea of the noble savage. This is the somewhat popular (and completely incorrect) belief that if we didn’t have our current society (technology, capitalism, borders, governments, etc.) that we would live peacefully, like the small tribes of people who have been secluded from modern civilization for hundreds of years. The truth of the matter is that in these pre-state societes, murder rates are unfathomably high, and rape, revenge killings, and violent inter-tribe war are common. The few studies that did find these “peaceful tribes” were completely disproven shortly after their publication, yet their legacy lives on in our ignorant but hopeful minds.

Pinker goes on to talk about some what he calls “hot-button topics” and brings up some interesting, controversial, and I think extremely true things. Among the less controversial are statements like “intelligence depends upon lumping together things that share properties, so we are not flabbergasted by every new thing we see”. This is written when attacking the post-modernist idea that everything is socially constructed, including not only “race, gender, masculinity, nature, facts, reality, and the past” but now extending the list to include things like “authorship, choice, danger, dementia, illness, inequality, school success”, and more. He talks about the mental processes of conceptual categorization and explains how it works and why stereotypes are not necessarily a bad thing, provided you don’t assume that every member of a group shares all of the properties of the stereotype of that group.

 

Another example is when he talks about violence, and how we wrongly blame violent toys and violent media for turning children into violent creatures. We have always been and will always be violent, men will always be more violent than women by nature, and we should try to understand our violent nature in order to correct it and keep improving toward a world where people live happily and peacefully. Not only do we ignore some genetic predisposition toward violence by invoking the blank slate theory, but we also miss the mark in trying to fix the issues that come from it. There’s a whole chapter on this, and then another entire book called The Better Angels of Our Nature where he expands even more on the topic, though I haven’t read that book yet.

The concept of the blank slate is dangerous in a few ways, and I think this is best described by Pinker himself:

The vacuum that it [the blank slate] posited in human nature was eagerly filled by totalitarian regimes, and it did nothing to prevent their genocides. It perverts education, childrearing, and the arts into forms of social engineering. It torments mothers who work outside the home and parents whose children did not turn out as they would have liked. It threatens to outlaw biomedical research that could alleviate human suffering. Its corollary, the Noble Savage, invites contempt for the principles of democracy and of “a government of laws and not of men”. It blinds us to our cognitive and moral short-comings. And in matters of policy it has elevated sappy dogmas above the search for workable solutions.

I highly, highly suggest you read this book. It’s sparked even more curiosity for me to dive into the world of learning about psychology, evolutionary psychology, biology, and philosophy and I think it has presented me with some very good answers. These answers are not only to questions that I hadn’t thought of before, but also intelligent answers to questions which I knew the right answer to, but didn’t know how to express the answer intelligently. This is important because a lot of things in this book can be seen as controversial, but I think many people know that the truth is sometimes not politically correct, and if you can’t defend controversial points well, it discredits the ideas that you might stand behind.

And to end with two quotes for reflection:

“… Popular ideologies may have forgotten downsides – in this case, how the notion that language, thought and emotions are social conventions creates an opening for social engineers to try to reform them.”

“The strongest argument against totalitarianism may be a recognition of a universal human nature; that all humans have innate desires for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The doctrine of the blank slate… is a totalitarian’s dream.”

My Thoughts from E3

Hi everyone!

In case you aren’t in the video game world, or if you are in the gaming world but are living under a rock, E3 happened last week! E3 is the annual game conference where all of the big companies announce new games, release dates, and general hype stuff. Here are a couple of the coolest things that I saw, and some reflections about those things.

The first piece of news that stood out to me about E3 this year was Microsoft buying Compulsion Games along with three other studios, and opening a studio of their own called The Initiative. The reason that stands out is because we’re close friends with the folks over at Compulsion, and they helped us get off the ground as a studio and figure out how to exist in the games world from the very start. We’re super happy for them, and super proud of the Montreal community that helped spawn them (or that they helped spawn, really). Beyond our happiness for Compulsion, I think this marks a pretty big shift in focus for Microsoft. The days of larger companies (Microsoft, Sony, Ubisoft) buying small studios was rumored to be over, and I think this proves otherwise. To me, this is just another step Microsoft is taking to show its dedication to the indie or mid-level (some would call it AA or iii games) studios. You should really check out Compulsion’s new story trailer for We Happy Few:

Nintendo showed some amazing stuff in their E3 video, as usual. Most notably among them was a long segment about the new new Super Smash Bros game, which includes all characters that have ever been in any Smash game! You can tell by the amount of time and focus they spent on it that they aim for this game to be the next Smash Bros Melee, and aren’t going to be discounting it for future competitive tournament play. They also showed a new Mario Party game, and announced a million things that will be coming to Switch, including Fortnite. I think the inclusion of Fortnite along with these other games will be huge for the continued success of the Switch.

Also, Overcooked 2 was announced with online multiplayer! If you liked the first one, this one is similar but has more features such as throwing food items, more dynamic levels, and of course online play. This is an interesting move for a couple of reasons; first, the choice to make a sequel instead of provide free updates to the existing game is one that many indie studios are not making. The aversion to sequels has been described by some people in the industry as being very silly, seeing as sequels almost always sell better than their original counterparts if the first game was a success. Why we tend to avoid sequels is a huge question that could probably justify a whole other article, but we’ll leave it at that for now. Second, the addition of online multiplayer to a game that performed well despite having only local play is an important one that emphasizes the idea that a local multiplayer game simply doesn’t have the potential to do well in the current game landscape. Additionally, it might show that it was easier for them to rewrite significant portions of the game and make a new second game rather than make adjustments to their current one, a strategy that many indie studios have avoided (much to the chagrin of some busy programmers).

Apart from those things that were most important to me in terms of announcements, I was excited to see a Cuphead DLC which I will surely buy, and I might be interested in getting back into the Tomb Raider series if I can get over the fact that the games tend to be more like movies than games, and just enjoy the ride.

There are a bunch of big announcements that I totally skipped because they simply aren’t the kinds of games I would play. Fallout ’76 was announced, a new HaloForza 4 and about a million shooters that will probably be uninteresting but will surely make millions of dollars. You can check out some pretty in-depth reviews of each company’s press conference on any of the big press sites: IGN, Kotaku, GamesRadar, etc.

More posts coming soon!

Deontology vs Consequentialism + Questions

As you might know, I’ve been reading more about philosophy and psychology recently and have been thinking of a lot of interesting questions and learning a ton of new things. Today I’d like to talk about two somewhat opposing schools of ethical thought, describe a few flaws of each, give you my opinion, and ask you some challenging questions that should make you think or make you discuss some heavy stuff with a friend or significant other.

Before diving into deontology and consequentialism, I’d like to present an important term that we should think about while reading this: moral relativism. Moral relativism is the idea that there is no universally correct set of morals, and that your moral code can differ depending on many different factors. Whether or not you believe that all moral principles are universal, some moral principles are universal, or that all moral principles are based on external factors such as environment, it’s an important term to know and think about. I’ll likely give my opinion on this in another post, but for now let’s just keep it in mind.

Deontology

Deontology is an approach to ethics which emphasizes a strong code of moral rules which are abided by no matter the consequence. Some of the most famous deontological thinkers include John Locke and Immanuel Kant, who believed that we should only make moral choices which are universally true and will always be universally true. He suggested to treat humanity “never merely as a means to an end but always at the same time as an end,” meaning that regardless of the outcome, each choice you make along the way is important and should be made in a morally correct way.

Immanuel can or Immanuel Kant?

There are a couple of issues with deontological thinking; first, there are extreme cases where it breaks down. A common example used against this system of ethics is the case where a Nazi officer asks you if you’re hiding a Jew in your house, and you don’t lie about doing it because lying is seen as “wrong”. The result is, of course, a murdered Jew (which hopefully you’re against) when the lie might not have harmed anyone except your moral code.

Second, this manner of thinking only works well if there is a universal right and wrong. While a person could abide by it with their own moral code, the benefit of deontology breaks down as soon as you have conflicting moral codes. Some questions to ask yourself that might challenge deontology include: Is it wrong to kill? What if the person killed your family? What if it’s in self-defense? When is it acceptable to lie? What is the acceptable punishment for a murder?

Consequentialism

On the other side of the coin, we see consequentialism. Consequentialism is concerned with the moral worth of overall consequence of actions, not necessarily the actions themselves. Utilitarianism, made popular by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, is a good example of consequentialism; it aims to maximize outcomes for the greatest number of people, or increase happiness, without much regard for the nature of actions that make this possible. Not all consequentialists are utilitarians, but utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism.

Who do you think wins the hair competition between Kant and John Stuart Mill?

One criticism of consequentialism is that it seems to lack empathy, or any general concern for the well-being of individuals. If people are concerned with the “greater good”, they might make decisions that go out of their way to harm others even if the net result is an increase in happiness of a larger number of people. Many people have drawn links between psychopaths and utilitarianism, whether those links are justified or not.

Another important criticism is that the “greater good” in general presupposes that there is some common thing that is undeniably “best”, similarly to the flaw in deontology. It contradicts moral relativism and assumes that one way is the right way, and that everyone should act in a way that best works to achieve this greater good. Depending on your opinions on moral relativism, this might be a downside to this philosophy.

Some Opinions

So where do I stand on this scale of deontology and consequentialism? I think that anyone who knows me could tell you that I’m more of a consequentialist and utilitarian than anything else, but I think everyone is a bit of both.

The way I see it is that we all have a moral code that we try to abide by, and we make exceptions when the consequences of adhering to our moral code are contrary to our intent in keeping that moral code. The justification of our moral code is a personal thing, but my reasons for trying to keep to my moral code include minimizing harm to others, maximizing happiness for myself and for others, treating everyone as equal, being fair in judgments, and being able to observe situations objectively, even situations that I’m involved in. Given these goals, my moral rules (things like not lying, being fair to everyone, not solving problems with violence, etc.) can bend if the consequence of adhering to that moral code is negative. The amount that those rules bend depends on the severity of the outcome, for good or for bad.

A simple example is lying: we know that it’s wrong to lie, but when telling the truth will harm someone unnecessarily and lying will not harm anyone, we choose to tell what we call a white lie. In that case, the moral rule is bent only slightly, and the outcome avoids harm and increases happiness without strongly contradicting any of my deepest moral core philosophies. On the other hand, killing a 70 year old to save a 10 year old would be hard for me to do, because while the 10 year old might have more potential in their future lives and that might be the right utilitarian / consequentialist decision, my moral code tells me pretty strongly that killing is wrong. In my opinion, on a day to day basis, doing the right thing implies doing the thing that will result in the best outcome as long as it doesn’t break your moral code and as long as it doesn’t compel anyone else to break their rules either, but of course there can be exceptions in extreme cases.

So where do you stand on this? Here are some questions you can ask yourself, and maybe ask a friend or significant other if you want some stimulating conversation:

  • How much importance do you put on having a strong moral code?
  • When do you bend it?
  • Would you ever break some of your own moral rules?
  • Is there a univeral set of morals that should apply to everyone?
  • Do our morals come from evolution and millions of years of emotional development, or are they learned? Do they come from a belief or understanding of a higher power or a god? If it’s a mix, how much of an influence does each source have?
  • Can a universal set of rules exist without a universal higher power?
  • Do you think that outcome is more important than the steps taken to reach the outcome?
  • Are the lives of any two people equal? What if one of those people is your family member?
  • Can you think of a time when your moral code was tested (other than that last question)?

I hope you enjoyed this post, and I hope those questions made you think. I’ll write soon about my thoughts on moral relativism and what I call weighted utilitarianism, so keep an eye out if you’re interested!

References:

Consequentialism
Kantian Deontology
Utilitarianism
Moral Relativism
Against Consequentialism – Germain Grisez

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!