Category Archives: Design / Production

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!

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!

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!

Characteristics of high-performing teams

Good team.

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

Spry Fox currently has several original f2p games in development, not including ports of our existing IP. Each game is being produced by wholly separate teams that are geographically dispersed, using different technologies and tools, under different contractual arrangements. And each team is compensated entirely via their future royalty; none are being paid cash in advance.

While we won’t know for a while to come whether our development strategy has been wise or flawed, we’ve already learned a great deal about the ideal composition of small, geographically-dispersed development teams. Some of our active teams have exceeded our expectations in terms of game quality and development time, while some are significantly behind where we expected them to be by now. A few of the characteristics shared (or not) by the high-performing and slower groups may obvious to you, and some may surprise you:

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The Magic Test

“People are willing to pay for magic.”

That’s what my friend Brian replied when I told him that no one in Microsoft’s target audience would purchase an Xbox plus Kinect for a minimum price of $300 when they either A) own a Wii already, or, B) can purchase a Wii (with MotionPlus, Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort) for just $200. Brian, as I frequently must admit, is a perceptive fellow.

People are indeed very willing to pay for magic. They have lined up around the block to pay $500 minimum for a slice of magical iGoodness from Apple. They lined up to watch Avatar in 3D (multiple times.) And they — that is, we — will continue to line up for the products and services that dazzle us, recession or no.

So, if you want to know who “won” E3, perhaps one way to figure that out is to apply a magic test to the products that were unveiled there.

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“Amazing Throwing”

For a trip down memory lane, check out this old TV commercial for Super Mario Bros 2:

What I find interesting about this commercial (aside from the cheesiness) is how pure it is. Unlike its predecessor, Super Mario Bros 2 was a game about defeating your enemies by throwing stuff at them as opposed to jumping on them. So Nintendo focused their commercial almost exclusively on that aspect of the game.

If the first Super Mario game was all about “amazing jumping” (as Miyamoto has supposedly said), then the sequel added and focused on “amazing throwing.” The developers got it. The marketers got it. And not surprisingly, the rest of us got it, too.

What’s the essence of your game? Can you say it in a few words? Can everyone else you’re working with say it in a few words?

If not, why not?

IGF Observation #3: Polish Required

Observation #3: A polished game stands out from the crowd.

Some of the games that I played could really have used a few additional rounds of playtesting and design iteration before they were submitted to the IGF. The developers of those games would probably have been better off holding back their games until next year’s competition.

I know this can be tough to swallow. Perhaps you’ve worked long and hard on your game, and you really want some recognition for your effort. You might be counting on that recognition to help boost your marketing or business development efforts. I can imagine many an indie developer thinking, “My game isn’t perfect, but it shows a hint of something great, so I’m going for it!” And to be clear, that’s a fine attitude — if you wait until your game is “perfect,” you’ll probably never finish it! But unfortunately, some developers jump the gun and submit their games before they are truly fun, much less “perfect.”

If you’re creating a new gameplay mechanic (or an interesting twist on an old mechanic), make sure that you have implemented at least one very polished, very entertaining instance of that mechanic. A single, excellent level is better than five mediocre levels, in my opinion. Per observation #2, other developers are making me trudge through hours of tedious gameplay, so I’m going to be especially appreciative of a developer who wows me with ten short minutes of brilliance.

Of course, “very polished” doesn’t necessarily mean “short and sweet.” But many independent developers don’t have the time or resources to produce several hours of very polished gameplay, so all I’m saying is that if you can’t, you might as well err on the side of short and sweet. I’m fairly certain that you’ll be better off!

PS. Don’t forget to frequently playtest your game on other people. It doesn’t take long to lose your sense of perspective when immersed in a project; a pair of fresh eyes will significantly increase your odds of ultimately developing a polished gameplay experience. Also, for an example of a relatively simple indie game that is extremely polished, check out geoDefense (or its sequel, geoDefense Swarm) on the iPhone.

IGF Observation #2: Slow Initial Experiences

Observation #2: if at all possible, it’s best to entertain a judge from the very first minute — just like a potential customer.

Several of the games I evaluated simply weren’t very fun to start with. Some even came with explicit caveats which I will collectively paraphrase as follows: Dear judge, you must play this game for several hours before you understand why it is special.

Who wants to slog through an endless tutorial that isn’t inherently fun before actually getting to enjoy themselves? Who wants to trudge through hours of uninspired gameplay before the “magic” of the game’s design reveals itself? As a judge, I’m willing to do it because I feel obligated, but which game do you think I’ll probably give the higher score: the game that entertained me for three consecutive hours, or the game that entertained me for only the final hour out of three hours, total? With rare exception, it will be the former. And you can bet that most consumers will vote the same way with their wallets. In summary:

  • Long-winded, boring tutorials are bad (seems like this should be self-evident, right?)
  • Conversely, dumping people into a game without any explanation of how to play is also bad, unless the initial gameplay experience is very intuitive. For an example of a game that does a good job of introducing the player to the core mechanics of the game, see Braid.
  • Games that don’t become very interesting (or don’t reveal their “special sauce”) until the player has invested lots of time into them are not inherently “bad”, but unfortunately such games are often doomed to smaller audiences. Most people simply aren’t willing to give a game the benefit of the doubt if it doesn’t entertain them relatively immediately. Long story short, developers should think carefully about finding ways to expose their game’s “special sauce” right away.

PS. On a tangent, my old post on crafting a good game demo might be interesting to some of you.

Almost Lucid

Anyone developing an original IP for XBLA, PSN or Wiiware should take note of LucasArts’ Lucidity. Why should you take note? Because Lucidity is a truly delightful game that unfortunately showcases two of the most common “big mistakes” made by developers and publishers on XBLA. If the leaderboards are any indication, Lucidity’s sales are suffering as a result.

First, it’s worth recognizing how many things Lucidity gets right. It is beautiful, distinctive, and offers an original gameplay mechanic that actually works. Many game developers will never manage to create something that meets all three of those criteria in their entire careers. And many developers, with such a game on their hands, might assume that their success is all but assured.

There’s just two problems. If you’ve been reading this blog for any significant period of time, you already know one of those problems: insufficient marketing. Lucidity was unveiled mere weeks before it was released. No time to build consumer awareness. No time to woo the press. Nothin’.

The other problem is the game’s unforgiving design. (I won’t say the game’s “difficulty”, as something can be difficult without being unforgiving.) Lucidity lacks a checkpoint system, and that combined with a few other design issues causes the game to quickly become a punishing experience. This is apparent to players even in the demo.

It’s no accident that most modern platformers are more forgiving than their ancestors. While many XBLA and PSN users enjoy a stiff challenge, their patience is ultimately limited. Don’t let the success of a few insanely challenging retro titles fool you — those games have generally succeeded because of nostalgia, not because today’s gamer longs for the relentless butt-whooping of old.

1) Come up with a meaningful value proposition for your game. 2) Craft a gameplay experience that emphasizes that value proposition and that accommodates as many players in your target demo as possible. The latter can almost always be accomplished without noticeably diluting the gameplay experience. 3) *Repeatedly* communicate the value proposition far in advance of your game’s launch. –> These are the fundamental tricks of our trade.

PS. A year ago I wrote an article on game difficulty that is relevant to this post. The comments on that post were solid, too.

Triangulating Accessibility

A couple of months ago, Eve and I played The Maw together, and I’ve been mulling a related post ever since. The Maw, for those of you who haven’t played it, is one of the more approachable titles on XBLA. It has relatively simple controls — for a modern 3D platformer, anyway — and a cute style and theme. I’m quite fond of it. Anyway, watching Eve grapple with The Maw was enlightening, to say the least.

A bit of background for newer readers: Eve is a perfectly capable smarty-pants, but she didn’t grow up with video games and is often frustrated by the few console titles that I have introduced her to. I knew that she would have trouble with camera management in a 3D space; that’s a skill that simply needs to be learned over time. And I knew that she’d have difficulty remembering which Xbox controller buttons mapped to which in-game behaviors, even though The Maw has relatively few mappings; that’s partially an experience issue as well, and partially a consequence of the Xbox 360 controller’s near-magical ability to terrify and stupify casual gamers.

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