I’ve made a couple small personal projects before (one was when I got my first Android phone, made a simple native app with smiley faces that you could have bop each other, gradually making them become sadder and sadder emojis), but nothing outside the scope of a simple weekend-or-two. I thought I’d take the opportunity of unemployment time to make something a bit larger in scale.

First things first, I set myself up with a few goals:

  1. Gameplay that focuses on choices made
  2. Playable from a web browser
  3. Can be considered “Finished” within 2 months

Alright, goals. Good, I’ve set a loose framework to fit my next steps in.

I thought back to my early days, the days where I was standing up and doing presentations in front of the company with the fancy new things I wrote in C#. As a Systems Designer, it was important for me to be able to showcase the system working agnostic of the game environment. After all, on a team of people everyone has their prioritized tasks and it’s going to take many people doing many things before it all comes together in a lovely visualized game environment. So when I stood up and did my presentations they were 100% text from a custom C# Terminal program.

See, I would sit by people who spent their days working on their power-point presentations for their next meeting. Literally, days. I would estimate the ratio of work that was contributing to projects vs. the presentation of work they were doing for projects (images, dozens of iteration on wording, sometimes animations, etc.) would be around 2:99 – I’d watch this while seeing many co-workers pressured to achieve tangible results of very complicated or difficult things and think to myself… what a waste.

Myself, I would set a goal to invert that ratio, 99:2. Basically, I would build out my tools and tech and content in a way that I could do it live in front of the company. And it wouldn’t be pretty. But if the people who needed to be informed got informed, I felt it was a successful strategy.

There were many jokes and playful (or not so playful?) groans by the time I did my third presentation. In my mind, this was always offset by the thoughtful questions and genuine excitement I received from a few members of the studio – but, I’ll admit, when there’s 100~ people watching a presentation of just text it’s not the most exciting thing non-tech people will enjoy. Even if I can show cool things like: “Hey look, this combat system is 100% simulated and we can use it to shortcut reproduce bugs or tests faster than it takes to load the game!”. For the 6~ people in the audience who genuinely appreciated it, thank you, you were the reason I stood up in front of everyone 😉

As a call-back to those early days, and because it fits within that framework of goals I’ve set for myself, my first real solo project (that will be web-based, and I can send links out for people to play) will be a text-based game with an emphasis on choices.

As to what “Finished” means, whether it’s a solo endeavor or working for a company, games are never “finished” these days. If my text-based style doesn’t find an audience then it will probably just hang out in “demo” form. If I can find some people who enjoy it though, and are willing to pay for a more “complete” version… well then, maybe that’s how I’ll be spending my subsequent months.

One can dream!

Several weeks ago our small team was informed that funding has been withdrawn and the company paying us will cease to exist at the end of the month (yesterday). I’ve put together something I wish I had done on my previous project, a memorial to look back on in the years to come.

It was a project in its infancy, recently erupting from beta to a live audience, fresh off a fairly significant update just a month after its release. It always started from a… highly irregular place, to summarize: The boyfriend of my previous project’s Lead Engineer worked with a guy who knew a guy who acquired funding and was tasked with starting a North American game development studio. They weren’t quite sure how to go about that from the actual development standpoint, so they recruited us.

I haven’t been at the start of a studio before, but I suspect it was… irregular. So we had a studio of 5 people, and our first week on the job was to… figure out what game we were making! Up to that point, I’ll be honest, it was all very strange. When I received my first paycheque I was still quite surprised (despite: hey, they bought computers and we have an office) and also immensely relieved – I had been living off of a very generous severance given to me by IGG when they shut us down at my previous job, but it was running quite low. If this crazy start-a-studio-from-scratch thing didn’t pan out I’d of had to jump on a pretty aggressive job hunt.

The game had some fairly serious requirements: it was to be a 1 year project to a beta with live (non-development) humans playing. It had to be fully server-authoritative and have some hefty anti-cheat security. It was a mobile game that will launch internationally (including China), and it was expected to ramp up to some significant revenue numbers fairly quickly. That was December 2018, we spent the rest of December building up a technical foundation and determining art style. I got excited, I spent my Christmas “vacation” building our combat simulation and its various dependencies, throughout the entire project I took only a single vacation day for a long-weekend away.

I seem to have a linear narrative so far, I’m going to drop that and just type a bunch of words to indulge the whimsy of where my heart wants to meander.

So I’ve lost weight during the pandemic. Weird segue right? One of the perks of our office-sharing space was we had free beer on tap, and generally at least one pretty good one (though the sour they got in… so good, but also no other beer keg had been demolished so fast, so maybe too good?). Turns out when I stop drinking beer every day I shed pounds, hah. As a studio we had opted to work from home since the beginning of March.

In fact I made ample use of my own work-from-home setup back in November (2019) when I was suffering from what a doctor described as: “either a very bad case of bronchitis or pneumonia“. I was miserable for 8 weeks and absolutely wrecked for one of those weeks – but even during that week, the hours I spent out of bed were on the project for at least 40+ of’em. So I was accidentally very prepared to hunker down for a pandemic at home already.

One of my early goals was to design and create game systems that could be re-used across many game genres. To validate that these systems could be used outside of the Soulite Monsters project part of my process was to have them all working in a stand-alone C# terminal before integrating the library into the Unity project (and later, also the server). This had some really solid compound benefits, including the ability to rapidly reproduce bugs with simple text commands sent to a terminal, and verify those bug fixes without all the visual/UI overhead of the project.

We originally weren’t talking about building a single project, the goal was a sustainable studio. In month 2 I was already writing out plans and team structure on how we could evolve to both develop and support multiple projects (that shared technology that functions agnostic of any game project was one of the key elements of this). In fact, I got out of bed one night to have a conference discussion on what it would look like if we needed to immediately ramp up to 30+ people.

It was a wild ride. It sounds like people who have been part of a start-up can most relate. In a large company, responsibilities are dolled out, and if something slips through the cracks a meeting is held and by the end of it that floating responsibility would have a dedicated handler. We started with 5 people. There’s no committee to decide optimal work-load – you want that thing? No one else currently has the band-width to do the thing? You probably need to learn to do the thing.

This is also true for requirements passed down from the voice of the person funding the project. Need a trailer? Alright team! Who wants to put this together?

… no takers? Artists are busy? Errr… okay, guess I’ll make a trailer… that’s a first. I got to learn that Blender is pretty darn usable for making trailers, that was unexpected and neat. Context: I have near-zero aesthetic sense, probably why I’ve gravitated from Game/Systems design to blend it in with programming in general. So I’ve never, ever, had the desire to play around with video capturing and editing tools. My morning started with googling, and before lunch I sent out two 15-second trailers that disappeared into the ether that was some overseas business stuff that we weren’t exposed to.

It was an incredibly unique experience, and I hope a lasting learning experience for everyone involved. After all, whether it’s a risky start-up or multi-national company the games industry is not a stable place. I was told by recruiters many a year ago that the average life-span of an employee in the games industry is 2 years. I defied that by spending 7 of my first years at Relic Entertainment (until their parent company THQ declared bankruptcy), and continued to be stubborn by staying at every company I joined afterwards until they shut their doors.

Very rarely is there an opportunity to really persist with something lasting over a long period of time, though sometimes you’ll have your gems out there that you can continue to enjoy (I shockingly still see the odd news blurb for Company of Heroes crop up and my heart warms up each time), so there’s at least that. But when it comes to Mobile and more modern games… they get taken down, forgotten. As support dropped I’ve seen many of the games I’ve worked on just… cease to exist. That’s why I felt it was important to put together something of a memorial for Soulite Monsters, something I can selfishly look back on or to share with friends over the years.

Many people over many projects have tried to quantify costs or estimate time of having something done. Rarely do the people who are (or feel) responsible for this measuring agree on the best method of measuring. I once was on one project separated by 5 “Scrum” groups, theoretically fully-autonomous smaller groups of people on a large team who have all the resources they need to accomplish something. Each Scrum Group used an entirely different method to track progress or estimate tasks (various software, some simple spreadsheets, one was post-its up on a wall).

It’s always a debate, sometimes the lines are drawn by discipline, sometimes by origin (enterprise software vs. traditional game development), sometimes purely on differing philosophies regardless of past experience or role. It’s experiencing these many, many debates that my own personal philosophy emerged. I have a tendency to geek-out-on-details so here’s an excruciating effort to summarize:

Within Game Development any given problem or goal can have a large number of solutions or paths to take, bureaucracy can have a very dramatic impact on the time it takes to get anything done. To reduce bureaucracy and give a sense of ownership over their own work the idea is to not task developers with specific paths to take, but to state the goal and conditions for that goal and allow them to define their own path.

From the developers who aren’t sentenced to endless meetings and debates, this means they don’t end up with a list of implementation details. Implementation details that may be inefficient, unimaginative, or unbeknownst to the developer completely miss the intent behind the details. Being the person “on the ground”, the developer/s are empowered to look at their resources, see how to efficiently tackle the goal, and even have some creative leeway to push some boundaries in places no one in the “planning meeting” would have ever expected.

The scary thing about this approach for some people is that by providing creative freedom it becomes much harder to measure in those planning meetings. Here’s a simplified example:

Traditional (at least, based on my previous experience in mid-2000’s and on)

“Create 40 Skills, 5 for each of the 8 Characters in the game”
Depending on who is doing the planning, this may get broken down to which character get which skills, even the names and functionality embedded in a sub-task to meet the Task, each skill gets an estimate based on complexity and based off of that it’s all tallied up to let’s say 80 days of work, average of 2 per skill assuming at least 2-3 developers are involved with each skill, the developers come in the next day to a big list of broken down tasks.

Goal Oriented

“Create skills for each character in the game that provides each character with a unique play-style and a distinct approach to combat
Conditions: At least half the characters are playable if unpolished by 1 month, goals to be re-evaluated”
There’s a time limit to deliver the experience, but details of that experience are left up to the developers. Their focus shifts from ticking-off a task-list to creating the best experience possible in that time frame, and this may mean they determine through experimentation that with the games current features the goal will best be met by reducing the overall character count.

As strongly as I feel about empowering the “on-the-ground” developers, and that I’ve witnessed amazing results (small teams out-competing teams 5-10x or even greater their size), reality always has a way of asserting itself. I couldn’t advocate the approach for every team, because that would ignore a critical component… the people on the team.

Some cases where I’ve found Traditional planning to have advantages:

  • Sometimes the job is a job, it’s there for a paycheck
    • It’s totally valid to just want to pay the bills, it’s just not a good mental space for creativity
  • Old habits die hard
    • Sometimes people just needs things a specific way
  • Finish-line Anxiety
    • It’s always there for some people, but additional unknowns certainly doesn’t help

It’s not as cut-and-dry as those observations, but as with anything it can be powerful to be able to identify which style can work best in which situation and be flexible enough to pivot.

On one hand: I am so, so grateful to have stumbled on an industry that I can easily work-from-home, and thus have no worries about making rent next month.

On the other hand: I had a multi-hour discussion today about how we need to up our revenue numbers by a specified date, and strategies to do so. During a global pandemic.

Where I wish I was: Thinking of ways to bring some semblance of entertainment, joy, or sheer distraction to those trying to reconcile a complete shift to their life through games.

Here’s also where I admit that this project has burnt me out fairly thoroughly. I’ve reached a state I’ve managed to avoid for over a decade, and I’m finding it saps my energy to even consider extra-curricular (outside of work, or helping day-to-day things function, like laundry or dishes) activities that don’t involved spending quality time with loved ones.

So we launched, it wasn’t sprinting to a finish line (it never is for mobile anyway), there was no grand “HURRAH!” (due to social distancing we won’t be having any kind of launch party), and we just smoothly transition to “how to make more money”. I spend as much (if not more) time looking at data and analytics of COVID-19 spread as I do the game that just launched. Oh by the way, Congrats USA, on this date you reached #3 in the world with with 43,734 cases by jumping up +10,168 in a day. Ugh. Just… ugh.

Going to try and keep my writing words here connected to gaming and game design… or try to. In this case, I think the best connection I can make are the importance of rules. Here in BC, the “rule” was people were politely asked to social distance themselves, it was a soft rule with no penalties. Result? Vancouver’s Mayor yesterday had to tell his city to stop congregating and playing beer-pong in public.

Soft-rules (in games, rules that are either not fully enforced by the simulation, or with reasonable penalties that don’t prevent the action) can be used to help players define their own experience. Like cheats (an extreme example), if available, it leaves it to the players hands, whether the developer thinks it will genuinely create a better experience or not. Some players find more value in challenging/breaking certain rules than having them enforced.

In a multi-player scenario this is why security within the rules is incredibly important, choices made to challenge/break rules for personal enjoyment may negatively impact the enjoyment of other players, resulting in an overall net-negative and a smaller player-base online. I’ll showcase Starcraft as an example of both.

Soft Rule: Pathfinding. Navigation around resource collection units disrupted pathfinding in ways not intended, changing the rules of pathfinding expectations. Skilled players could use this to their advantage to win battles they otherwise should have no possibility of winning. From what I observed, when this was used it was celebrated much more than frowned upon.

Soft Rule: Map Observations. The client was trusted with all observation in the game making “map hacks” easily available, showing you information you shouldn’t normally have. These hacks provided an uncanny experience of opposing players, making them feel like nothing they attempted could ever succeed. Super disheartening. Additionally, because this became a known hack, the suspicion of someone hacking could be stronger than reality, making people extra-upset when they would lose games.

Two cases, one soft-rule which could be challenged/broken that allowed player ingenuity to create a positive, competitive experience vs. one that left people feeling powerless, taking net-joy away from the game.

When making rules, having an idea how those rules will be exploited are very important. Right now, of all things, obtaining toilet paper is incredibly difficult due to the rules in place here and people trying to exploit those rules to turn a profit (Seriously, it’s extra bizarre here, there’s a freakin’ toilet paper factory in the area – the hoarders/resellers can’t possibly win this fight, but they’ll keep tryin’). Fines are now being introduced for not obeying a social distancing order so those beer-pong players may lessen, but looking at all this data it feels to me those rule changes came in a little too late. Definitely too late for our rule-makers to publicly show their outrage.

Hopefully not too late that we look back on those soft rules and what appears to be a fear of “over-reacting” that we aren’t feeling an order-of-magnitude more pain than we otherwise would have.

So that happened. A general message of “hey, don’t worry about it too much” switched to “… so maybe don’t leave your home please” over a weekend. It wasn’t unexpected yet reality vs. (un)expectations is still a thing that needs reconciliation.

Development wise this is hardly a hiccup. We work out of an office-sharing space and are fully set up to work-from-home as it is. I had a bout of bacterial pneumonia back in September that I worked through entirely from home for 3~ weeks, COVID? No biggie! The game will go on.

Latest project’s been getting beta feedback/reviews for months now, my excitement of how that translates to a “full release” at a waaay higher numbers of players is competing with… fuck, people I know are in risk territory for this thing, people who going through further hardships would send all sorts of fractures through my heart.

The best correlation to any part of game development or design I can make: no matter how much effort you put in hoping something happens or not (player behavior, KPI met, any other developer hopes and dreams they feel their job relies on), reality will always assert itself. I’m doing my best to self-isolate and so is our household to prevent this from spreading, in this case my own example is the best way I know how to encourage others to do the same and prevent high-risk people from being exposed.

I’ll put a huge effort in to keeping aware, if there’s further effort I can take I’ll keep taking it, if there’s data to collect I’ll try to keep informed by it and pass it on to those close to me. At this specific point in my life, I wish I knew how to make a stronger social impact than I know how to do.

Shipping a game, it never happens the same way twice. My first experience was when the game earned its “gold master” label. Ride of the Valkyries blasted over the company speakers and celebration drinks ensued. This evolved to the insanity just several projects later of a “0-day-patch” based on reviewer feedback. Fast forward to modern day and it tends to mean real humans are playing, but also development is business as usual as we slowly increase regions and platforms, providing bug fixes, updates, and additional localization, evaluating analytics the whole way through.

Those are the broad strokes, the details are where the stories are. Like how for my second project, lowly 2-whole-years-of-experience-in-the-industry-me during work hours had a phone call. Who would dare call during office hours?! Oh, that fellow who managed that EBGames that I frequented and ended up becoming friends with due to the sheer volume of time I spent buying games. Right.

Anyway, he calls me up (on the phone, actual telephone lines were used, it was a thing): “Hey, didn’t you say your game was out today?” – yea, I let him know his memory wasn’t failing him, and also why the weird question? Turns out he was told by his regional manager that we had a launch date in the future and he was forbidden to sell any copies. They were physically stuck behind the counter. Little-old-me contacted our studio GM to pass that on who worked his way through our parent company until finally this major retail chain was able to sell our game.

Funny story. We were done early. Rather than spending a mythical, coveted time not adding new features, not adding new content, but actually having the entire team focused on play-testing, optimizing, bug fixing, and polishing for an entire two months (which was always the target, but was never met)… we shipped early to fit within the prior quarter. It looked good for stocks, or something.

I mean, how good could it look to investors when you fail to mention to the major retailers the game can actually be sold.

Each game launch has its own story, usually with a significant collection of stories leading up to it. My latest project is no exception, which will be promoted from Beta to “live in stores” any minute now, or hour, or day, or possibly weeks, we’ll find out after we hear back from the fellows that need to hear from their person about that one last thing.

We have platform aspirations, but right now it’s available in Android Beta and can be checked out here: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.sevenelements.google.soulite&hl=en_CA
Don’t be fooled by the Developer address, that’s our modern-day hyper-lean agile publisher. The development team is all right here in a single Vancouver WeWork room.

One hour to office
Another hour back home
Eight percent of day

Welcome to the height of my poetry, which of course needs to involve numbers and patterns. During today’s commute I started reflecting on the things that don’t… spark joy. 10 hours a week in crowded transit is definitely one of them.

Loosely reminds me of a concept I used to chat about ages ago (pre-developer time > 15 years) with online friends, “preparing to have fun“. The idea that game features can be used as a carrot-on-a-stick to entice gamers to stick with a game for a longer period of time while forcing a highly-repetitive “grind” of time-investment before they can access these things.

It’s all a matter of perspective, I mean, as a child I’m sure I killed the higher end of 3 digits worth of Dragon Quest Slimes in the NES Dragon Warrior, them level-up stat points giving me all the reward required to keep slaying until I felt confident I could smash through the next thing. Today various idle games have kept me coming back waaaaaay more than I would’ve ever expected to.

That said, weapon skill grinding for hours in an MMO before getting to use that shiny new toy? Double to triple digits of hours invested before I get to enjoy the competitive portion of the game (and start actually building my strategy and skill that can only occur after the peak vertical progression point has been hit)? Many no-thanks. Games are primarily entertainment, and after turning over our dollars or choosing to invest our time it seems like we should be offered more than just the promise of fun later.

When I’m playing games, I know that feeling of preparing to have fun distracts me from the joy of playing, so while developing it’s something that I keep in mind. I like to view the pace of feature introduction in any game through both the lens of on-boarding and as a reward mechanism, I feel they go hand-in-hand quite well. “Hey! Congratulations, you’ve shown a level of mastery with what we’ve shown you, here’s more complexity” vs. looking backwards with a target and dolling out features in an attempt to hit that XX’th hour of gameplay.

Preparing to have fun is a lot like a commute. It’s a necessary time investment forced upon you to get to the thing you actually want to get to. When it comes to my own entertainment, I have options, and I tend to go with the one without the commute to fun.

Hi, I’m Blake. I’ve never owned a journal or diary, I tend to share my stories synchronously over beers at the complete absence of any asynchronous sharing. Had an idea to start putting down my thoughts on Game Development that aren’t theoretically owned by whatever corporate entity I currently work for. It’s been a lovely experience over many years of professional development (since 2006) that I feel I want to express, or wish I had something I’d of expressed to look back on.

I don’t think I’ll be reminiscing about past experiences, those I feel are still best delivered over drinks and good company. Pretty sure I won’t be rambling on about current experiences, as all the juicy bits tend to be covered by the standard Non-Disclosure Agreement. For now, I’m leaving this site as an available platform for when I feel something… fits. It’s just the seed of a concept, not sure which way it’ll grow just yet.

I’ve been a huge fan of iterative game development. Whether it’s a 100+ or a 5+ person team, as the ecosystem of the game expands reacting to its current state and not following a rigid blueprint or scripture tends to yield better results, and that’s how I’ll be treating this site.