Learn to Steal

Not money, but ideas, gameplay, philosophy, user interface design etc. When you see a good idea that’s succesfully used in some context, try using it in your game or in your business. Maybe add thing or two to it. For example, web hosting companies use ‘live chat’ on their websites. Maybe you could add ‘live chat’ for your software’s buy page – and respond questions from potential buyers.

Or maybe you see a really nice website template – could you perhaps use that as an user interface in your game?

Or maybe you have read a good book about customer service – maybe you can use the same ideology in your business.

Learn to steal, it’s good for your game business.

Never Use These Words

Here’s a list of forbidden words to use in your speech, or in your texts or articles:
- always
- most
- all
- every
- never

For example: if you say that “all match-3 games suck” you are making an assumption. There might be some match-3 games that are so good that even you might like them.

Instead of saying ‘always’ or ‘never’ you can say ‘in my experience’ or ‘the cases I know’. It makes a big difference on how you use these words.

Virtual Team Management

Question:

I want to ask you to write an article about your experiences with team management via the internet. How do you deal with people, what channels do you use to communicate (e-mail, IRC?) and how does it differ from working with people in real life on a game?

Answer:
The main tools we use to communicate are:
- MSN (for live chat)
- Skype (to talk)
- Forums (although currently I haven’t set up one, used in the past)
- Emails

Use of Skype is very limited in projects where I’ve been, but it can be used. It’s especially good if you need to test something and need your hands free. Forums can be efficiently used to assign tasks, report progress and get the team together more efficiently. Email still is the very useful tool for virtual communication. It’s something everybody uses & reads, and it’s cheap. We exchange lots of emails all the time, although the use of forums might reduce the need for emails. MSN is a good for meetings and for explaining some tasks in greater detail.

In my opinion, team management is much similar virtually than it is in an office. The major differences I’ve experienced are:

[1] Different times of work & timezones. For example: I’ve worked with people that come from USA, UK, Hungary, Finland etc. and they all have different timezones. When I wake up and start working, the guys might be about to go sleeping on the other side of the planet. This limits the live chat options & meetings, but on the other hand: it (theoretically) makes it possible to build product 24 hour each day – when one guy goes to sleep, other guy continues. In theory, but not much in the practise. The best ones have been the cases where I’ve (for example) programmed all day, given artist a job to do, gone to bed and wake up next morning with a finished 3D model to use next day. This way timezones can help production.

[2] Need to use more formal ways to assign tasks: in an office, you can use non-formal ways to assign tasks, but in virtual workplace you need to write down everything, draw & scan papers, email more details, pictures etc. to make sure the team member understands the task correctly. In fact – I think this is something that [i]should[/i] be done anyway – whether we are at the office or not. Too many times I’ve heard verbal instructions that get forgotten the moment after manager leaves the room. Virtual working place kind of forces team leaders to give written instructions, and that’s a good thing.

There are other differences also: such as less chit chat, working in your own separate office, using more English but these are – at least for me – minor issues compared to the 2 previously mentioned ones. Technical requirements are pretty much the same (instead of intranets you can have similar system in the Internet, version control software work well across the Internet), same problems (how to motivate people, how to hire the right persons, how to be on schedule etc.) stay.

For a person who likes to be among people, virtual team management can be tough – but for those who like to work from home and can handle timezones this method of working suits very well I think.

7 Risks in Indie Games Production

Indie game production contains risks. The size and the odds of risks vary, and as a game producer, your job is to identify the potential risks and plan for the risks.

#1 – You
The most crucial part of the indie game production is you. This risk might have low propability to actually happen, but if this risk comes true then the consequences can be enormous. If you get a burn out, then the production will stop. There are at least three different ways to prepare and avoid the risk. First one is taking care of your health. Exercising and eating healthy food (pizza & coke are for programmers, not for game producers…) can have great impact. Besides getting in good shape it also can improve your motivation to work. One hour break walking outdoors can improve your energy to work inside. Another way to avoid risks is to remember to rest. Taking a day off, having breaks are good ways to charge your batteries. The third option is to take an insurance. If something happens at least you know you can get proper medication for illness.

#2 – Funding
The second risk is money: if you run out of money, then your business will die. Besides trying to sell more there are other ways to prepare for this risk. Part time jobs, or freelance jobs can generate some income. Saving and living frugally (but not in the expense of healthy food) are good ways to get better surviving propabilities. I also recommend checking out what governments can offer. There are programs that can help you to fund your international business. I’ve checked 2-3 programs and some of them can offer several hundreds euros each month while others can be bigger one-time funding opportunities – without need to pay the money back.

#3 – Team member leaves
This risk always exists. Even though the team member might be very trustworthy the external conditions might force him to discontinue working with you. This happened to me in Edoiki production and I managed the risk with good relationship with the programmer and simply adjusting the game time line. Contracts and NDAs can be useful in preparing for this risk.

#4 – Data losses
Data losses can be tremendous problem and making backups is essential to avoid the risk.

#5 – Time
One of the biggest factors in games production is time. What happens if the game comes out after the specified deadline? Will competitors get ahead of you? Preparing to the time risk can be difficult, but scheduling the game properly and planning the project properly can help in defeating the risk. Sometimes you might need to leave away some planned features just to make sure the project gets finished on time.

#6 – Quality
Besides time, the quality of the game is important. If you drop away some features to save time then you might avoid one risk, and get another one instead. Your project must have extra high quality. The game should be the best in its field. If your game is not good enough, then you might need to polish the game more to make it a really top notch product. This might mean balancing the quality with time and costs. Prototyping, internal and external testing and getting player feedback can help you to produce a high quality game.

#7 – Costs
Costs are the third parameter in the time-quality-costs triangle. In games production avoiding one risk might mean problems in some other factor. Plan for what you really need to buy and don’t purchase anyhing if you can survive without it. Of course purchasing equipment that adds yours and team’s productivity can be good a investment, but consider carefully on what to purchase. Project budget can get very high in little time.

There are risks in indie games production. Some of them might require planning, while some can be transferred or ignored without much effort. It’s game producer’s job to manage the risks.

How to Get the Right People in Your Team

In some point of your game production you will hear word from potential team members who would like to contribute to your project. I believe there is two major issues you need to do:

First: Ask yourself if you really need the new team member
If the new team member knows how to do 3D model textures and you need a 3D modeler who can also model, skin and animate then I wouldn’t consider letting the new guy in. The smaller the team, the easier it is to lead. Every additional team member adds his own spice in the soup. Think if you need the person before hiring a new person.

Secondly: Do a ‘joining test’ for the new member. Ask him to do small piece of code or art before you accept him to be part of the team
This second point saves everybody’s time. If the new guy can actually do anything, you’ll hear from him right away. Within days most likely. These are the guys that you can count on. On the other hand, if weeks pass and excuses are coming then you know that the new guy won’t be a good one to accept.

These two simple methods will save your time, and make it much easier to get the right people to join your team.

Don’t Blame The Dogs

Some time ago our two dogs decided that I spend too much time online. The newcomer chewed the network cable. I was hopelessly offline.

First I was bit angry, but managed to think who was to blame here: was it the dogs or me. My initial thought was to blame dogs, as it was the smaller one that chewed the cable. Then I thought that maybe the dogs thought had found a new toy. They have never seen a network cable before, how could they know it wasn’t meant to be eaten. I also thought that it wouldn’t have required much from me to plug off the cable when dogs were left alone.

It was me to blame. I hadn’t taught the dogs. Dogs had a reason to chew the cable – they wanted to play. I didn’t plug off the cable.

How this philosophy works in games production?
I hadn’t heard from our artist for a several days, even when I had emailed him and given game specific instructions. I was bit surprised, but I decided to give him time. I know he is a busy man (terribly busy man) so he simply might not have had enough time to deal with my post. After few days I was about to ask him… an email had arrived to my mailbox. He apologized… and said that he had wondered why I hadn’t contacted him after his latest post, but realized that the post was still saved in his drafts. He thought he had emailed me, but the email was not sent. Simple human error caused us both to wonder what’s happening.

The lesson behind these stories are that you shouldn’t blame others – they might have reason for their behavior. Instead of blaming others, ask yourself how you could take responsibility and contribute to solving the issue.

Don’t blame the dogs.

Walk Your Talk

You all know the story about a boy who cried wolf. It ends in these words:

We’ll help you look for the lost sheep in the morning,” he said, putting his arm around the youth, “Nobody believes a liar…even when he is telling the truth!”

The best way to predict someone’s future behavior is to look at their past behavior
If you have a habit of promising something, and then forgetting people. That’s what people will think about you. If you cried ‘wolf’ too many times, you can rest assured nobody will believe you when you really mean something. Nobody believes a liar, even when he is telling the truth.

Don’t promise what you cannot keep. If you cannot meet your commitment, deal with the consequences.
I got a message from one disappointed customer who said I hadn’t meet my commitment. I promised to personally email this person when new updates would be available for Hightailed game, but failed to do so.

I could have mentioned that I was very busy setting up my company, building gameproducer.net, chasing some other rabbit or telling some other task I had to take care… and all these would have been excuses.

I made a promise, I should have kept it.

If I knew that I couldn’t promise something, then I shouldn’t have promised anything in the first place. I apologized for the harm I had caused, and offered that the player could test our developer version of Hightailed (something that’s not available to public). I’m not sure if that was enough, but it was the best thing I could think of at the moment. I tried to deal with the consequences, but I assure you – it’s much better to deal with the promise than trying to fix something afterwards.

How To Get People To Do What You Want

One of the challenges of game producers is to get people do what they are supposed to do. And on time. It might be true that it’s easier to get people to do what you want as long as you have money. You just give people money, and they do what you want. That’s partially true.

But, that’s definitely not the whole truth.

You cannot force anyone to do things for you. Even with money. If the person is not motivated – if he doesn’t want to do the job then even money won’t help. He might do a lousy job, or finish only partially if he doesn’t want to do something. The only way to get people to do something, is to get him want to do it.

There are much more other things people desire besides money. Here’s a short list of what people want. When you give people what they want, they are more willing to do what you want.

#1 – Money
As mentioned earlier: people want money. Some people want it more, some less. Everybody needs some amount of money to survive, so money can be one vehicle for motivation. Even small bonuses or upfront money can motivate people to work for a long period of time.

#2 – Trust
Team members want a game producer they can trust. If they think you are hiding something, making deals without telling them or keeping more money and royalties than was agreed then the trust is gone. And when the trust is gone, the game project progress stops and the fighting begins.

Be honest, open and trust your team members – that’s the way to build trust.

#3 – Listened
People want someone to listen to them. Don’t just hear them while they are talking. It’s important to listen what they are saying, comment and notice what their message is. If you ignore everything they are saying, then they start feeling that you are not interested. That leads them to be uninterested about your assignments. Why would they listen to you, if you don’t listen to them?

#4 – Involvement
Team members want to be part of the team. Don’t keep mentioning it’s ‘your project’, ‘your game idea’ or ‘your something’. Start speaking about ‘our project, ‘our game’, ‘our team members’. Have an attitude where you are the ‘king’ of the project and doing the hardest work. Start thinking how lucky you are actually having interested people in your team. When you get team members… be darn sure to let them – and others – know that you are doing the project together. Team members want to a have a solid team – and a feeling that they are part of the team.

#5 – Peace & Quiet
Even though people want to be part of a team, they also want work individually. In an indie project where people can be located all over the world this is not much of an issue, but in an office where interruptions can happen there is need for peace & quiet.

#6 – Recognition & Rewards
Team members want to hear that they’ve done a good job (when they’ve actually done a good job), they want their name to be mentioned in interviews, websites, credits… Don’t flatter people, that’s cheap. Give reward & recognition when you’ve think they’ve done a good job, but also let them hear if something is gone wrong. Group rewards can also be important for team members.

#7 – Titles
This is something that’s been a bit of a mystery to me, but people are keen to have a nice title. They want titles like ‘marketing coordinator’, ‘CEO’, ‘game producer’ or ‘lead designer’. I’m not saying you are like this. I’m not saying that marketing coordinators, CEO’s, game producers or lead designers are like this. I’m saying that some people are. Some people need to have a title for their jobs to feel important.

I see that this can be practical for communicating with other companies: if someone is looking for business deals they might want to talk to CEO, and when someone is looking for a job they might want to talk with the human resources. In this way it’s practical to have a title for external communication. But personally, I don’t think there’s need for titles in internal communication. But, I understand that some people want titles – and that’s fine with me. Just remember: people appreciate titles

#8 – Plan
Team members don’t want just automatically process everything that’s given to them. People want to plan their work, and work their plan. If you get people involved in the game planning – even in areas outside their responsibility – you are sure to get people motivated. The feeling of mutually planned goal is important.

#9 – Freedom
People want to freedom to choose the methods of working. You should focus on results, not the method. If you need a great looking 9000 polygon 3D orc model with a 512×512 .png texture in a .3DS format then say it. Don’t tell the artist to start using Milkshape & Gimp to do the model. Let him choose the way he wants to work – just make sure the results are okay.

#10 – Responsibility
People want to get responsibility, and they want to know the are important for the whole project. If you don’t give responsibility to your team members, they lose interest. They want to know that others are dependant on their work. They want you and other team members to know they are important for the project.

And keep in mind – everybody is different
We all have different wants and needs. It’s true that some people usually want some of the things mentioned (Rewards for example: everybody wants to know they’ve done a great job. You want that, I want that. Even humble people want to hear that they are humble – even though they don’t mention that… If you are honest with yourself, you feel good when somebody mentions about a job you’ve done well). Everybody is different: some people want more formal way of working, some people want informal. Some people like challenges, some people don’t. The secret of getting along with people is to think the project, tasks and assignments in their point of view. Find the unique needs of different persons. Be motivating, be inspiring, be professional and be happy. Find out what people want, and present the assignments in their way.

Team Members Are NOT Mind Readers

Have you ever encountered a situation where team member did not do what was supposed to do?

I have.

And usually the one to blame is NOT the team member… It’s usually the guy that stares at you from the mirror when you are shaving. Yes, that would be you – the game producer. For some reason game producers – or at least me – think that team members can read our minds. You have all plans sorted out in your mind, game play roughly sketched on paper and ideas dotted down… and you go to the artist or the programmer to do some task. After he has finished the task, he comes to you and you look stunned: the result is NOT what you asked. That’s because he cannot read your mind. If you think how something should be done, that’s not enough.

When mind reading fails, these tricks might be handy:

  • Write down what you want
  • Write also what you don’t want
  • Describe the situation
  • Make sure you write in a language he understands, not the language only you understand. Art monkeys don’t necessarily know programming terms!
  • Draw pictures
  • Draw flow charts
  • Draw diagrams
  • Use mind maps
  • Build/show/use physical objects if you need to! (Like they do in films studios – they build small objects to represent what needs to be seen in the movie. If you have a nice looking knife or chair you’d like to get modeled, show that to your artist)
  • Show design documents
  • Have references to other games when necessary
  • Give links to screenshots that might be relevant for the task
  • Use phone, skype or MSN to speak & chat, and to make sure the task is understood
  • Ask if the team member understands what he is supposed to do
  • Ask the team member to describe what he needs to do, or to somehow confirm what needs to be done
  • Sum up: number the tasks he needs to do ((1) 512×512 texture, (2) 2000 polygon 3D orc model, (3) …) instead of telling a fuzzy objective (‘I need an orc model’)

That ought to get you started.

Now, do you know what you are supposed to do when giving the task?

Consider Different Cultures In Games Production

Consider symbols/settings you use in your game, and show them to people before you use them in your game.
Not long ago I learned something totally new about games production: people are politically very aware, and notice cultural aspects. Somebody might get offended if you don’t.

Some days ago I posted secret game project concept art.

The image is here:

After showing this picture to people and explaining that these would be the evil/dark units in the game we got comments that the characters/symbols had similarities with the following themes:

Issue #1 – Similarity with Turkey’s flag
I agree that the symbol has similarities with Turkey’s flag (somebody said it reminded he about Islam/Turkey). Just look at the picture below and compare the flag with the symbol that units have (in the picture above). This is a coincidence – not intended.

First of all I need to say that I noticed the similarity and we discussed with the artist before we showed the concept art in public. I want to make it really clear to everybody that the similarity was a pure coincidence, and the image/symbols don’t reflect our opinions on any religions or Countries. We don’t think that Islam/Turkey is evil nor have any meaning to bring this kind of message to public. We change the symbol to some japanese/chinese character (maybe ‘evil/dark/black’ and ‘good/light/white’).

The main reason in bringing this issue up is that you fellow game producers can learn or be reminded as well. I don’t think we all need to do the same mistakes. The lesson learned: Remember to consider symbols/settings you use in your game and test them with people. It just might backfire to you if you ignore different cultures in global marketplace.

Issue #2 – Other similarities, although not so serious ones…
Similarity was found with Dr. Zoidberg (from the terrific Futurama series) and Cthulhu (the Lovecraft monster – great novels & great RPG game btw):


(Found this Cthulhu image using google picture search. The same image appeared on several pages, so if somebody can point me to author, I’d be happy to put his link here.)

As you can see, they have similarities with the Dark Chi Wizard. That was unintentional, but sometimes it just happens – I guess it’s the same as with game ideas: sometimes people get same kind of ‘unique’ game ideas just to find out someone else is already working on it… It’s fun to see how people can spot these kinds of things – and it’s fun to notice how people comment and bring these up.

In this case we won’t do any changes, our concept is ours and if it has similarities with any cartoon or fictional character, then be it.