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Thursday
Nov052009

Making Games Faster

At last week's Unity engine conference, Flashbang Studios gave a presentation about how to make games faster. To me, it was a surprising and great presentation. Surprising because went against my expectations of what a talk at the Unity conference would be about. Great because it summarized much of the best advice I've heard about project management in one place with nothing extra.

Flashbang decided to make games on an 8-week cycle (!!) and post them at blurst.com. They made 8 games this way. They've now decided to change their model and work on polishing up just one of those 8 games into a full version, but that's really beside the point. The particulars of their situation aren't important because their message is appropriate to a very broad audience: not just Unity engine users, not just people who want to make 8-week games--or games at all--but really anyone who is working on a software project.

Reframing the Problem

Matthew Wegner (founder and CEO) and Steve Swink (game designer and kindred sprit) presented. They started by explaining the importance of questioning the framing of a problem, as opposed to trying to find a solution for a problem. A problem you might have is, "It takes too long to place enemy AI waypoints in each level of my game." You might optimize that process by finding a way to reduce the number of clicks the designer needs to place any given waypoint. But if you use a bit of lateral thinking, you might instead design levels that don't need so many waypoints. Or much better than that, design the AI system so that it doesn't need waypoints at all! What they're getting at is that if you take the problem as given, you will probably limit your solution space--the set of things you would even possibly consider as potential solutions.

What if your problem is, "how do we make games faster?" I think they might have given another presentation about how to optimize various things inside the Unity engine (or at least I think they said they did), but here they were saying that that sort of thing isn't *really* the problem. I mean, when they try to ship games in 8 weeks, is it really the inefficiency of waypoints or whatever that threatens the schedule? There are much, much bigger problems. In fact, the question should really be, "how can I get more things done?" (Not their words, but here's a link to the seminal book on Getting Things Done.)

Two Amazing Hours

The first part of their theory is that we really only get about 2 hours of seriously focused, amazing-quality work per day--if we're lucky. Maybe you can get 2.5 or 3 sometimes, but that's pushing it. There are so many distractions and blockers, so many times when you're too tired or hungry or upset about something, or whatever. Flashbang is saying just be real here: accept that you're only going to be able to do amazing work for a short time each day. Knowledge work as it's called, is the type of thing where you could spend 20 hours on a problem and not solve it, but just *one* hour of your fully charged genius-time could solve it.

Ok, so how do we make sure we get that super-charged-time each day? And how do we maybe get a little bit more of it than usual? Flashbang's answer is that the WORST thing you could do is work really long hours as is common in so many game companies. If you're spending all your time at work, tired, fatigued, probably malnourished, how are you going to have any of that time be the amazing 2 hours? Factor in that you probably had no time for laundry, a haircut, your dentist appointment, or your relationships, and it sounds like you're going to be pretty miserable. Do you think being miserable is a good way to increase the number of super-productive hours you have?

Flashbang tried an experiment. For two weeks, they REDUCED their work hours to 10am to 3:30 pm. The idea is that everyone knew they had only limited time to get things done, and they had plenty of time to live a good life outside of work. At first, they actually kicked people out at 3:30 and turned off the power to make sure people left and didn't stay out of some strange guilt. They measured (though didn't give the details) their productivity before and after this change. If it turned out they got less work done than usual during that 2 weeks, they would cancel the plan and go back to regular work hours. The thing is, they found that productivity really did go up. They kept these reduced work hours for the rest of their projects. It's more informal now and sometimes people do stay longer, but they said "if we're still at work and it's time for dinner, we usually say 'hey, that's pretty weird! This is like crunch-mode day!'"

They said that if you see your time as an unending ocean ("hey, I'll be here for another 15 hours anyway today, and again tomorrow"), then it doesn't even phase you if the solution to a problem would take 5 hours of menial labor from you. But when your time is limited, you think about alternate solutions, or question the framing of the problem that is leading to the tedious work. This is one area where I'm not sure I agree though. I do often see my own time as an unending ocean, and if a task takes me 10 hours, that's what it takes. I asked them about this afterward and Matthew said "yeah, when you work from home, it feels like every moment is a moment that you 'should' or at least could be working." I guess spending long hours of my own time on what I choose to spend it on at home isn't quite the same thing as a game company creating a corporate culture where you must be there 15 hours per day to fit in.

48 Minutes of Flow

This concept of high productivity time is really called Flow. (Here's the seminal work on Flow.) Steve Swink gave further advice on how to actually get down to work. He said what usually happens is

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Wednesday
Oct282009

Unite '09

I attended the first two days of the Unite '09 conference, for the Unity game engine. Unfortunately I'll be out of town to miss the rest, but I saw quite a bit.

In case you don't know, Unity is a super great game engine. You can develop on Mac or PC, and you can publish to Mac, PC, and web. You can also get upgrades that let you publish to Wii and iPhone as well, and they finally announced that Xbox 360 publishing is coming soon, though I've known about that for a while. The ability to publish the same game to so many platforms (in one click) is pretty game-changing in our industry. The web player is especially game-changing because it allows full 3d games in a browser that are just as fast (hardware accelerated!) as the downloadable versions!

I'm particularly interested in turning Yomi and two other of my card games into online free-to-try web games, along with a puzzle game. I was wondering how to integrate the Unity 3d web stuff into an actual website in a nice looking way, but the conference answered that too! Two speakers showed how to integrate Flash (for non-game stuff like profiles, chat, nice menus, etc) with Unity (for the actual game). Very impressive results. Now I just need some way to actually make it all happen. ;)

Unity increased its amazingness today by releasing version 2.6 with a great new animation editor (allows you to carefully integrate script calls with animations), a profiler (to watch cpu usage of everything in your game to find out what's slowing things down), and several more features, fixes, and speed increases. But the biggest news was that their Unity Indie license (which lets you do like 95% of what the full version can do) went from $200 to free. Yes, FREE. That's a bold move on their part, but when you look what the small percentage of revenue that version made them overall, it really does make sense to open it up to everyone for free. Your whole classroom can use it for free. Your garage band of game-makers. Your professional studio even. Pros will surely upgrade to Unity Pro anyway, just to remove the Unity slash screen, but there's no break in workflow by upgrading, so you could start your project for free and work as long as you want with that free version, then make the upgrade anytime. Or never. You can ship commercial products with the free version, ha.

Anyway, I'm really impressed. I just need a team now, and we can get to making things. ;)

Special thanks to Mauricio Longoni for making great looking games in Unity, Paul Tondeur for his work on integrating Unity and Flash (Mauricio too), and everyone at Flashbang Studios for being all-around cool guys. Perhaps the special-est thanks of all to David Helgason, CEO of Unity. He explained that one of the things you can do at the conference is book time with just about anyone at Unity you want and ask them any question you want. Like "why doesn't my game controls work right?" and then show them what you have. Or "how would I make an AI system that does X,Y,Z in Unity?" He said last year someone booked time with him, the CEO, and asked "How did you manage to create a community so infused with love?" Interesting question, but one way or another, that is the helpful vibe I get from everyone involved. Unity seems to want to actually enable people to make games, as opposed to some other game engine companies that seem a bit more interested in making Gears of War. Not that there's anything wrong with that engine either, but hey, it's hard to beat free. And it's hard to beat publishing to mac, windows, web, wii, iphone, and xbox 360, too.

Wednesday
Oct212009

The Design of Things

My girlfriend asked, "When someone asks you 'what do you like to do?' do you ever tell them that you like to imagine the meeting that took place where they designed whatever it is that's in front of you? Because that seems like your main hobby."

Owned. And yes it is my main hobby, more than playing games. Here's a couple examples.

The Emergency Shut-off Valve

I was at Costco, a discount warehouse store (does not mean that it sells warehouses) with its own gas station. The layout of the gas station is designed so that you can only approach the pumps from one side. This is actually fine and not a problem. It has the consequence that while you are getting gas, your car is definitely pointed in a certain direction. Several feet in front of you, away from the pumps, is a sign that says "EMERGENCY SHUT-OFF VALVE." I thought this was well-designed, and I should have taken a picture for you, sorry. Anyway, if something goes horribly wrong at the gas station, you or someone else there could push that button and prevent even more gas from catching on fire or blowing up or whatever.

The sign is red with bold white lettering. The words are in all capital letters. I'm usually against all caps as there is some mistaken impression that this makes things easier to read. It doesn't because when letters are all caps, they look more similar to each other than when they aren't. It also has the connotation of yelling. All caps is way overused, and it has no place on my menu saying things like "BAKED APPLE PIE: $8.99." But if there was ever a time to use all caps, I think a warning sign saying "EMERGENCY SHUT-OFF VALVE" is probably it.

Under the sign is one button. Not a panel of buttons, just one button. And it's pretty big and red. It would be impossible to look at this situation and think, "I'm not really sure how I operate this emergency shut-off valve." Further, there's another sign next to the button that describes in a few more words the concept of pressing this button in case there is a fire. It also tells you to call 911, and some other important people you can call too, while you're at it.

I wondered if the sign started out as white with red letters. After all, red letters are attention-getting right? But the red sign with white letters that they actually chose is better, it really looks, um, emergency-ey. Also, do you think there were early plans that put this button right by the gas pumps? I mean that would make sense, it's a button that has to do with the gas pumps so maybe someone drew up some plans to put it there. Then someone pointed out, "Uh, if you need to push that button, you're probably ON FIRE if the button is located right there. How about not right next to the pumps, but instead ahead, in the direction we already know all the cars are facing?"

My girlfriend suspects there was no meeting, and that a non-iditot silently figured all this out on his own, drew up plans, and no one questioned them. Maybe, but that's boring to think about.

The "Silence Ringer" Switch

My girlfriend just an iPhone (finally), and one of the first questions she asked me was how to silence the ringer. I showed her that there is

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Tuesday
Sep222009

Yomi: Testers Wanted

Yomi: Fighting Card Game is suffering from endless art delays, but balance testing is on-going. The testers asked for some new blood though, so join them! (They are a friendly bunch.) You can learn about the rules of the game and see all the decks here. To play online, you can use the virtual card table program called Lackey. Information on how to setup Lackey to play Yomi is here. And stop by sirlin.net/chat to ask for help and for opponents. There are tournaments about every week, but of course casually playing whenever you want is fine too.

Here's the newest version of Jefferson DeGrey's character card.

DeGrey is an educated, noble diplomat who fights for the rights of the oppressed, no matter who they are. He's from an earlier time, so he knows more than anyone how much worse his land has become. Long ago, at the moment of his death, his bargain with the Nox Oracle (a future Yomi character) granted him unnatural, long life and enough time to right the wrongs he's so passionate about. His female companion in life now watches over and aids him--even after her death--as her obligations in this world are not finished either.

DeGrey's character ability in Yomi is called Moral High Ground. His special moves (face cards) deal 1 extra damage for each extra card his opponent has in hand, compared to number of cards in DeGrey's hand. Even when he's low on options, DeGrey still has the Moral High Ground. And if all else fails, he can Pilebunker for a ton of damage.

To get started playing DeGrey and the other 9 characters, read about the game here and about playtesting online here.

Saturday
Sep192009

Kongai: More To Come

In case you haven't heard of Kongai, it's Kongregate.com's site-wide virtual card game. By playing various games on Kongregate. you win cards for Kongai. Or, you can just buy Kongai cards straight up if you prefer. You can even go straight to Kongai, pick a few free cards, then earn cards while playing Kongai itself. Anyway, we're working on the game again.

Right now, we have 20 new characters and 20 new items in development. (Remember, a character card in Kongai is a lot more substantial than a card in other card games. It contains not just an ability and character stats, but also four attacks for the character, each with their own abilities and stats.) This new set of cards doubles the size of the game. With 800 1on1 matchups, and many times that if you factor in that you can also choose an item card for each character, it's a lot to consider! And factor in that games are played with 3 vs 3 characters or 5 vs 5, and that's a ton of combinations of things that can happen!

We're fixing bugs and balance issues every day now, in both the new set and the old cards. I've made over 100 changes in the last 4 days alone, and I'm completely exhausted from it, but we'll keep going. As usual, the balancing goal is to have no "god tier" characters (so powerful that you must play them or lose), no "garbage tier" characters (so weak that it's unreasonable to ever pick them), and to have the difference in power level from the strongest to weakest characters be a small as possible. We're actually so buried under bugs right now that we probably don't need more than a few beta testers, but soon we'll expand the beta test to more and more people, and then push it to live servers in what's hopefully a good state. Ok, back to work now.