Friday, December 26, 2014

Competition is for Losers!

The "How to Start a Startup" series of lectures from Stanford University are quite interesting to watch and follow, however, the talk from Peter Thiel : is quite in contrast with the other lectures and very thought provoking. Thiel is indeed a very interesting person.

The basis for that lecture is that if you are doing something where there is serious competition, then you are doing it wrong and it is best to pursue journeys where no one else is engaged in, in order to gain monopoly. It is s a very aggressive mindset for doing business and developing projects and ideas. He describes very well how our whole culture is fixed on cheering people to enter specific competitions and hope they succeed, which in reality a tiny fraction of them will and most will not. He believes the sole reason there is serious competition there means the odds for success are very low.
The whole startup hype these days is around the idea of Lean Startups and he is against the whole idea and believes that the best businesses show quantum leaps and not incremental improvements to existing ideas. 

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Remaking the Hero

I am very much proud to see this project come to life, Epic of Kings, a remake of the hero that started it all for us, Garshasp!

Bicephalous Monster

Hello blank page, hello white page ... long time no see.. well I should correct myself... I saw you a few times but did not see what you are turning into now ... a non blank page .. oh yes... you are changing with every press of my fingers ... hmmm... goodbye white page ... goodbye blank page ... it happened again, wanting to write about everything and many things and ending up writing about nothing at all .. I'm just going to be cool with it and let if flow this time... lets see how it goes..

Where should I start from ... hmmm... ok ... I know ... I will just start ... days are good... these days are good ... I don't know how long they will last but they are good ... and they aren't good because of any specific thing or event ... they are good because I don't believe in the infinite chain of causality being real .. well this statement had some contradictions in it apparently but I will let it pass for now since this post is about letting it pass... a free form brain dump ...

Work is still a major player in my life ... we are experiencing the new office with a slightly larger ecosystem .. ecosystem of developers ... making sure one project lands well in Steam airport, trying the best to make sure another takes off ... supporting a third project with a brand new team and dedicating any available time to a fourth remote project with great friends ... oh and at times mourning on a few dead opportunities ... embracing the high low waves of reality. The situation while being very challenging is extremely fun to be in and something to remind you that you are alive. Balancing this with "Memento Mori" will bring the ultimate joy.

More projects would mean more interactions with people, the most important part of every project. Now I am absolutely sure that great people will deliver great product and mediocre people will deliver nothing! The biggest challenges however seem to be two things: First knowing what to do, also knows as project/product validation (a very hot topic in lean startup methodologies) and the second making sure the team morale is what it needs to be. Knowing what to do refers to "Are we building the right product" as opposed to "Are we building the product right". The second is the topic of numerous books, articles and academic research but the first is probably hidden somewhere in black magic books and accessible to the inner circles of the high rank freemasons only. Which you and I are not part of and our only chance is to learn it the hard way.

The second challenge is the challenge of the century! From the outside, it appears that creative projects require developers that are highly skilled in various fields and know their craft inside out. This is what I believed in before getting serious about game development but as years pass and you get involved in serious development, you become to realize that somethings are much much more important than developer talents and skills and those are the attitudes and team morale. Three good developers that are highly motivated, trust in one another, are honest and work passionately can do miracles that teams of 50 with low morale can never even think about. This is probably my biggest understanding today after having the company founded for 11 years now. The biggest assets for a company are its people and you need to care about two things on a daily basis: 1 - Are they doing the right thing? 2 - Is the morale high enough? I think the reason small companies often do great things that leave the big giants in the dust are because of these two factors.

In order to make my attempt at caring about the above two points, I had to change course a bit in the past few months and distance myself from technical tasks and coding. This has been extremely hard to do since I really enjoy working on technical challenges and losing myself in the zone wrestling various programming related issues but that would directly translate to a major absence from seeing where we are heading as a team and how satisfied and happy the other members are. A great analogy for this situation is the Player/Coach position in athletic teams which I have had some experiences and know how destructive it can be. I am not sure how successful I have been regarding the two issues but I have recently found an area to devote some pure programming time to recently and I hope the big euphoria I get from the little dopamine rush of it is enough to keep me alert and alive for focusing on the two main issues.

I recently read the wonderful book by Ed Catmull called Creativity Inc. where he talks about how he changed his role in the company to make sure they can continue and work on great products and found it very much aligned with what Gabe Newell always talks about regarding his role in Valve and the people that work in there and how all this is very much inline with how Walt Disney operated at his great company as described in his biography, The Animated Man. Reading about all the great leaders and how they handled their great teams further reiterates the fact that what is important for success in such teams is very much related to the above mentioned issues.

I really wanted to write about many other things in this post but since it somehow ended up with this two very important points, I would rather keep it like it is and pretend this is a post that focuses on the two grand challenges for any creative project. There is always time for the other stuff, or is there? Memento Mori!

Now all I have to do is find a proper name for this post, oh, you have already read it? Well ... thanks to the nonlinear feature of digital media! ... I can scroll up there and add a title for this post ... lets see.. hmmm.... ....... oh.. I have an idea ... google ... hmm... wikipedia ... hmm... ... yup .. I have it .. scroll up ...

Good night! 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Porcelain Heart

I ... lost all I had - that April day,
I ... turned to my friends - nothing to say,
I ... wrote down a name - and read it twice,
I ... wallowed in shame...

Akerfeldt, Opeth

Losing all you had ... wallow in shame ... no matter the reason ... no matter the cause ... no excuses ... wallow in shame ... 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Shadow Blade: Reload release date set!

The enhanced PC version of Shadow Blade will be ready for Steam Early Access on July 21st, here is the launch trailer:

The team has done a great job in preparing this version of Shadow Blade for the PC platform. Some changes and additions include more challenging levels, various difficulties, new abilities including the all famous Shuriken!, a level editor and multiplayer race mode.

This is a very exciting time and despite the many ups and downs in our development process, we are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Shadow Blade Lessons

Every project contains an ocean of hidden knowledge that can be learned and tons of valuable experience. One of the ways to strengthen this learning process is to reflect on the whole development process of the project a few months after the end of the project. Thinking about what went right during the project and what went wrong, all in the hopes of doing better on the next project, being more efficient and producing better quality products.

Here is a postmortem article I wrote today for Gamasutra about Shadow Blade:

Shadow Blade Postmortem

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Three Commandments for The Fall of Video Games (As we know them)

Free to Play has been on my mind for a while now, thinking about how it works, what people expect from it and its dynamics overall. It has never totally clicked for me and I still have a lot of open questions regarding free to play games and their corresponding economics and their effect on the game industry. I certainly don't just hate it and I do believe that there are certain games that are perfect for this over popular monetization model, but that is just it, a certain group of games!

The whole concept can be studied from various different angles, I want to touch upon one of my concerns in this post. I always thought that in any business, not just in games, the creator does his best creation and knows that the users of the service or product will use it and hopefully enjoy the experience and be happy about the product or service, once they are happy with it, then they will pay and you make your money from the happy customers of your business. Very basic, very classic and just what the human race has been used to for centuries, want to make more money? Make the people who love your product or service happier so that they are willing to pay more! What does this have to do with free to play? Well I'm afraid a lot, here it goes:

Only a portion, in fact to be more exact a very small portion, of the players pay in f2p games. There has been a recent report by Swrve lately about f2p monetization that you can get from here. In this report they conclude that 50% of the f2p games revenue comes from only 0.15% of the gamers! Another shocking number is that 9% of this revenue comes from purchases over 50 USD! Well these rare species that spend so much in f2p games have been known for a while now as whales. In other words, we can easily say that people do not pay for f2p games, but there is a tiny portion of them out there who have kept the f2p economics alive. Alive and kicking and generating tons of revenue for the hit titles. Now what is the problem with that? Let the developers suck the cash out of the whales you say? Well lets proceed then:

Developers, especially those who liked to defend the f2p model said that the proper way to charge people for in-app purchases is for cosmetic features, things that do not have any effects on gameplay, in order to provide a fair situation for all players and avoid "pay to win". Well this was a dream that vaporized as fast as a drop of clean water evaporates in the middle of the Sahara! Soon publishers realized that the best things that sell in games are stuff that give you super advantages so that you can clear a level or an obstacle in the game. This is the trend that all major titles such as even Angry Birds have followed. It was not good for gamers to clear these games too quick, since they would not have an option to pay for in-app items, so these games need to block your progress and by the way enable you to proceed a bit if you pay.

Blocking the progress can be done by the following methods

    1. Make the game extremely hard and provide powerups that can be purchased (hard levels, requiring certain amount of starts to proceed, ...)
    2. Make the player need to repeat levels for different excuses
    3. Rely on non skill-based game mechanics that rely on numbers and stats in order to have progress and provide options to buy stats or time, like Clash of Clans.
No wonder why the number of paying players is so extremely low. 

  1. What kind of a person would want to pay to buy super powers in game to clear the levels? This is directly contradictory with the basic nature of games which is all about challenges. Alas why play a game if you do not want to confront a challenge? Classically this is known as cheating for athletes and gamers. 
  2. Who would like to repeatedly do the same thing in games just because the designer wanted you to? The best way this is implemented in games is known as grinding and that is not a positive point among the gamers for a game to have, especially if you know that the designer has added it to increase the game play time.
  3. Who likes to rely on non skill-based mechanics? Non skill? Skill is hand in hand with challenge and the essence of a game.
The people who like to do the above are definitely not the traditional gamers, the people who like to play to get engaged in a challenge with themselves and their abilities or with their friends. But hey, who said such people are playing games these days, the total number of gamers that want to play games for games is maybe at most 40 million in the world. The close to 1 billion that play Angry Birds are then for sure a different target, thanks to the ubiquity of the mobile devices. Out of those new gamers that are in fact non-gamers, there are a tiny fraction that are interested in paying for whatever they can in the game so that they can have progress, the whales!

From the Swrve report, this is a serious suggestion for f2p game designers:
  • Have we identified these customers within our own business?
  • Are we investing appropriate time and resources on retaining this specific group of players?
  • Do we understand where they come from, and have we amended our acquisition strategy accordingly?
By "these customers"the report is clearly referring to the paying customers. 

I like to call the above rules : "The Three Commandments for The Fall of Video Games"!

What happens if we identify those customers, the whales, and then invest the appropriate time and resource in retaining that specific group of players, in other words, design our game so that that specific group are happy with us, the whales are happy with us, and do we know where they come from and amend our acquisition strategy so that we can target them and invite them to our lovely game! Maybe we should focus our acquisition strategy in the north pole and install large billboards there!

So this is the root of my paradox, who are we designing and creating for? The gamer or the whale? Mobile games have been made by people from the game industry with "Game Design" mind sets, maybe this is why we still can play some of the mobile games, seems like it won't last long since the more designers start to obey the above three rules and base their design on the loyal paying customers, the more those games will be strange for people looking for pure play experience and challenge and fun and the more they will appeal to hip wannabe douche bags who will pay more than 100 dollars just to be a bit on the higher parts of that other gamer list on their Facebook account and will share that with all their aunts and grandmas so that they get praised for how cool and adorable they are! If a creator is to pay attention to its customer and create for its customer so that they are happy and bring him wealth, then game designers better start and study these valuable assets and see what clicks with them and brings them joy. I am sure the final product will look nothing like the best games that we have all experience and have changed our lives to some extent and we have been craving for just another close experience for some time now.

Designers will follow those rules, they will make many whales happy and bring tears to their eyes and they will make a lot of cash in the way, all I hope for is that a few designers will remain to stick to what games are and make the digital experiences for the few game lovers that remain in the future!

EDIT: I just read this news: Square Enix president admits that company 'lost focus' and the part of it that I liked very much and brings hope is this:

"Matsuda seems to be suggesting that Square Enix will be changing how it approaches developing games for a global market, by focusing on making games that appeal to what it believes to be a "niche audience" and trusting that players who appreciate those games will seek them out, rather than attempting to make games that will appeal to a broad audience."