Navigating challenging conversations

As you may know, Spry Fox has been an entirely virtual (work-from-home) studio for all ten years of its existence. So I’ve been getting a lot of pings from folks whose studios are suddenly in the same boat and are looking for advice.

In particular, I’m hearing from lots of folks who started out thinking, “wow, I’m amazed how easily we’ve switched to working-from-home!” and, after a few weeks, starting transitioning to, “uh oh, we’re starting to notice more friction between employees who aren’t accustomed to communicating so much via text.”

So I wanted to share a page from the Spry Fox team handbook, entitled “navigating challenging conversations”, which I thought might be of help to anyone in that predicament! (It also covers multi-cultural issues, which are a separate thing but can be exacerbated in virtual environments.)

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Navigating Challenging Conversations

Spry Fox employs people all over the world. We consider this to be a net strength, not a net weakness. Unfortunately, we miss out on regular face-to-face interactions, and that’s an unquestionable downside. But we believe that having the ability to hire the best, most “foxy” people anywhere in the world, and consequently benefiting from their diverse perspectives, makes us better as a whole.

That said, Spry Fox only works well when we acknowledge that remote communication — especially via text — is more prone to misunderstanding than face-to-face communication. Research has demonstrated that you’re twice as likely to misjudge someone’s tone and/or intent when chatting via text as you are when chatting in person! For this reason, we generally recommend that when a conversation starts to feel confusing, unpleasant or tense for any reason, you immediately switch to voice/video chat if possible. You should never feel reluctant to suggest this to the people whom you are communicating with!

Similarly, Spry Fox only works well when we all make an effort to respect each other’s cultural differences. Please try to remember that you may have grown up under very different circumstances than other Spry Foxes. Communication styles, emphasis on (and very definition of) “politeness”, and comfort with physical proximity are all examples of important interpersonal areas that may vary widely from culture to culture. Two equally wonderful people may have a completely different idea of the proper way to discuss a topic. What seems like an innocuous comment to one person might seem offensive to another.

We function well as a group despite frictions that might be caused by these cultural differences because we remind ourselves that Spry Fox makes a conscious effort to hire kind, decent people who want to make the world a better place. When you are interacting with another Fox, and they say or do something that rubs you the wrong way, please remind yourself of this. It’s hard to be angry at someone when you stop and think “they care about their work, and they are probably under stress, and/or they may not realize that what they are saying is likely to irritate me, and/or there may be a simple misunderstanding underlying this situation!” Put another way: when there’s doubt, assume the best of intent!

In summary: in any tense situation between Spry Foxes, there are half a dozen innocent things – totally unrelated to negativity or unprofessionalism – that might be underpinning the tension. Being remotely distributed and chatting via the imperfect medium that is text only exacerbates such tensions. Try to remember that the other person probably isn’t intentionally being a jerk… most jerks don’t make it through our hiring process and the very few who do eventually get fired. Whoever is upsetting you probably has different ideas and communication styles than you do. Or perhaps you are misunderstanding their intent or state of mind, because text chat sucks. Odds are high that you’re both lovely, hard-working people. 

If you’re struggling to work effectively and happily together with anyone, please don’t be afraid to talk to other Foxes (esp Pat, Dave and Danc) about it. We’ll help and we’ll be very happy to do so!

Welcome to the world, Alphabear 2

Today, my Spry Fox family and I launched Alphabear 2. This game is very special to me and I want to tell you why.

The first Alphabear – a quirky English word puzzle game, for those of you who haven’t played it – was an award-winning and relatively popular game. It has been downloaded well over five million times. It didn’t make much money relative to other games with similar popularity, but people who loved it really loved it, and that has always been more important to us.

More interestingly, we kept hearing (predominantly via reviews) that some people considered the game to be educational, even though we hadn’t intended to create an educational game. Truthfully, I still don’t believe that the original Alphabear was particularly educational, but I could understand why some folks felt it had that potential, and it seemed like we could build on that.

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Lessons learned from 7 years of Spry Foxiness (Unity Dev Day keynote)

The lovely folks at Unity asked me to keynote their Mexico City conference, and asked me to focus on topics that would benefit independent game developers. I ended up trying to summarize the most important lessons that I’ve learned, in retrospect, from 7 years of co-managing Spry Fox with my partner Daniel Cook. It wasn’t easy to write. I cut several things that seemed wise but also very possibly a product of survival bias. What remains are, I hope, a few kernels of truth that might benefit other folks who are just starting out.

Alphabear Postmortem (My GDC 2016 lecture)

I did a 30 minute postmortem on Alphabear at GDC San Francisco, and the good folks at UBM were kind enough to make it freely available online. Check it out!

The Affordable Care Act

Warning: this rare post of mine has nothing to do with games. Worse yet, it’s political in nature! I know, I know… how self-indulgent of me. If you’re easily offended by political commentary, skip this article.

Lately I’ve been depressed by the number of arguments I’ve witnessed about the US Affordable Care Act that revolved around anecdotes as opposed to facts. “My buddy Joe’s premiums doubled because of this stupid law!” “Oh yeah? My cousin Susan was dying of cancer and couldn’t get insurance, until this law saved her life!” I expect this kind of thing from politicians (“Let me tell you about Mary Sue of South Dakota…”) but not from my friends and family. How about we break down a few simple stats instead:

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F2P game publishing is a tricky thing

When Christian Nutt asked me to write an article for Gamasutra on the topic of publishers, I wasn’t sure what to do. Spry Fox is relatively committed to self-publishing our games and I haven’t kept up with developments in the publishing space. So after writing and discarding a few half-hearted introductions to this article, I decided that the most useful and honest thing that I could do is simply explain why, with one aging exception, Spry Fox has avoided working with publishers.

An important thing to bear in mind, if you’re not familiar with our company, is that we are primarily focused on developing F2P games that we hope to maintain and evolve for years to come. We haven’t been trying to secure a slot on XBLA and we haven’t been trying to sell boxed product. We view everything through the lens of “will this partnership enable us to make a better game, to learn important lessons and to eventually become more independent.”

So, that said: I’ve met a few really interesting publishers in the past couple years; folks who seems smart, motivated and knowledgeable about things that I wish I knew more about. We haven’t done any deals. Why? It always comes down to three issues:

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The Power of Relativity

This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the seventh in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.

One of the most frustrating things a game developer will ever hear is “that [PERCEIVED GENRE] game isn’t worth [PRICE]—I can get [OTHER GAME] for [LOWER PRICE].”

It’s frustrating for a whole bunch of reasons. Your game might not be very similar to the games to which it is being compared, or might offer more content or replayability. Heck, you might simply think your game is “better” and deserves a higher price. But it doesn’t matter. The comparisons are being made and now you’re getting 2-star reviews calling your game good but your company “greedy.”

If that sounds familiar, congratulations: You are part of the very large and growing club of developers who underestimated the power of relativity. No, not E=MC2. I’m talking about the fundamental human tendency to compare everything in our lives to something else we’re familiar with. An organic apple seems ludicrously overpriced to you at $1.99 because conventional apples sell for $0.79, but that same apple would have seemed cheap if your grocery store only carried the organic variety and if organic mangos appeared nearby for $5.99 each. It’s all relative.

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Avoiding tunnel vision

This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the sixth in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.

Back when I worked for Xbox LIVE, I frequently commented on the dangers of what I called “developer tunnel vision.” Nearly all of the devs I spoke with were not paying attention to a diverse set of industry news sources. What’s more, they were focused on at most couple of similar platforms, and were ignoring the rest of the market. (Back then, everyone was talking about XBLA/PSN; today it’s Steam/iOS; tomorrow it will be something else.)

At the time, this seemed completely insane to me—even suicidal. Didn’t these devs understand how quickly things change in our industry? How quickly their current efforts could be rendered irrelevant by shifts in the marketplace, or by strategy shifts made by the platforms? Developer tunnel vision…it was so obviously reckless and short-sighted!

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Spry Fox settlement with 6waves

As several news outlets have discovered, we have amicably settled our lawsuit with 6waves. We are very happy with the outcome and glad to be finished with this matter. The full terms of the settlement are confidential, but I can disclose that as a consequence of the settlement, ownership of the Yeti Town IP has been transferred to Spry Fox. We look forward to putting 100% of our time and energy into our games, like the upcoming Leap Day, Steambirds 2 and Panda Poet mobile. 🙂

Your First F2P Game: Where You Will Go Wrong

A video of my 2012 Casual Connect lecture is now freely available online. TY to Casual Connect for sharing it!