Good Advice and what to make of it

On April 23, 2011, in Good Advice, by Steffen Itterheim

If you’re reading this, I think it’s fair to assume you’re one of those developers who likes to read other developer’s blogs. If you’re anything like me, you’ve read a ton of different articles from various blogs, from very popular developers down to the “little man” just starting out with indie game development, or software development in general. A lot of these articles reveal good advice and tell a story about success, and sometimes failure. But with all these developer stories and the advice those developers give their readers, what should you make of it?

You’ll likely be asking yourself exactly this question while reading all those articles from Gamasutra all the way down to first-time-developer’s blogs.

What stops you? The back and forth!

The biggest problem with all this advice is that you may be tempted, and (as we all do) use it for rationalizing about certain decisions. If someone tells you you can’t make money on the App Store anymore, and there’s a lot of supportive evidence (eg dozens of iOS developers mentioning how little they make) – would that influence your decision not to publish a game on the App Store?

On the other side, have you been attracted to the App Store exactly because of the success stories in which iOS developers tell us how they were able to make a living off of it, and some even got rich (*) from the App Store? And then did you wonder how you could repeat that success? Later, did you think you were a fool to believe that this was even possible?

(*) rich as in: at least US $100,000 in less than a year.

So many questions, and what’s worse: to each question there are seemingly thousands of different answers. If you read a lot of developer blog posts, what you’ll learn eventually is that the best blog posts are from developers who took some advice, put it into action, tested and analyzed it and blogged about the results. This makes for very interesting posts and is advice supported by actual facts put into context. But more often than not you’ll come across another post by a different developer having taken the same advice but coming up with entirely different results. What should you make of that now?

Well, it turns out there’s only two things you can do:

Test it, or ignore it!

If you’re interested to find out if an advice works for you, you can only test it. Speculate and rationalize about it all you want, without applying the advice you’ll never know. And without some metrics it’ll be hard to figure out how much that particular advice helped your game to greater success. Particularly the metrics part was never something I was too keen on doing or monitoring. For my blogs I used the least possible amount of measure points, a bit of google analytics here and whatever stats I am provided with by my eCommerce vendor or iTunes Connect.

If you have the same disinterest about measuring the actual success of your website and product sales and marketing efforts, you can get away with the bare minimum too. As for making games, you should just make the game you love, for the platform you love developing for, and do everything the way you want to ignoring other developer’s advice entirely.

Some might say this may be dumb advice, but interestingly, if so much of a particular advice is subjective and works out differently for different developers, the best you can do for your game and with your time is to ignore that advice and find your own way. I suppose that most indie game developers’ biggest problem is actually finishing a game in the first place. Reading conflicting opinion pieces about game development and business can only lead to one thing:

Confusion with a chance of stagnation

Easy answers may or may not be not inexistent. But what’s for sure is that if you can’t make heads or tails out of a situation, your mind won’t stop thinking about this unresolved issue. It just keeps going at it. Should you better do A or rather go along with B? Both have their advantages and disadvantages. This is so difficult.

Did you ever catch yourself in this kind of thinking? Not knowing about something you are about to do or are in the middle of it, and not knowing the results and not even having any grounds to base your decisions on other than other people’s experiences, how could you possible decide which option is best for you?

The answer is: you don’t!

You just have to make a decision – any decision really – and the decisions you’ll feel most confident about come naturally. The stomach feeling. Your first reaction when confronted with a difficult choice. The first answer is the best when there’s no obvious choice. Always! Even the unreasonable choice. Why?

It’s the decision that’s right for you that’s right

That’s basically it. You just listen to your inner voice and it’ll guide you through the decisions that are too context-sensitive, so to speak. By that I mean if some piece of advice, the way to go, or any life decision for that matter – depends on a lot of variables of which most are outside your control and/or very specific to your life, your experience, your situation – then the best decision is the one that just feels right for you. And that’s almost always the gut-feeling reaction you have when confronted with a choice.

This has one big advantage: you’ll feel good about your decision, because you own it! And confidence in a decision is actually more important than which of the options you decided to do.

But alas, we humans are suckers for easy answers. We go through a lot to be able to get an easy answer, or even just to believe we found it. That’s why religion is so popular, it gives easy answers to complex and unsolvable questions. Conspiracy theories work in a similar fashion because they allow us to simply ignore the facts and allow us to accept the answers that we prefer to believe as true. Then we’ll find the evidence to support that believe. Simple and beautiful.

We want the feeling of confidence that a particular decision is the right one before acting on it. But unlike religion and thanks to the Internet we end up finding so many varying results and we lose the confidence to decide naturally what’s best for us. Too bad the bible doesn’t have the answer for us, nor does Roswell or the 9/11 inside job.

Against all odds

If 80% of the opinions and data on the Internet tell us to do one thing with our game to be able to make a living off of it, but that’s exactly something you have a bad feeling about – then you shouldn’t do it. Free yourself from thinking that that’s something you have to do (*) to be successful. That is never true.

(*) About the only things we really, really have to do are breathe, eat and drink. Everything else is entirely optional. Even fucking.

You can’t do something right if that’s not what you want to do, and you’ll feel much better about your game by not doing it, which in turn is likely going to make the game better. For example, many developers have a strong aversion against offering microtransactions in their games. If you’re one of them, ignore the advice to use microtransactions as the money-printing method and just don’t use them.

You can rest confident that if you added microtransactions without embracing them fully, you are likely not going to make much money off of it anyway. Because you think they suck the money right out of your gamers pockets – and then that’s what you’ll end up doing, and you’ll end up feeling terrible about doing it! You might even get rich financially against all odds but even then you’ll lose some of your spirit, something that makes you, well, you.

What is success, anyway?

While you’re at it, you might also want to reconsider your definition of success. What do you really want to achieve? Without a clear goal for life, everything you do is prone to fail anyway. Do you really want to get rich? Or would you rather redefine rich as in: earning enough money to support yourself and your family while working less than 40 hours per month? Richness in time vs. richness in money. You can achieve the latter and not have the former, and vice versa. Think about it.

Why is it so important to know your life’s goal? Because it puts everything in context and guides you through the difficult decisions that could go either way. If given the option to work on a dull, boring and time-consuming job for 6 months but with great pay – would you do it if your life’s goal is to spend as much time as possible with your family? Would you do it if your life’s goal is to be creative and define your own destiny? Even if your goal is to get rich quick – would this job be the right choice for you and get you closer to your goal? Think about that, too.

In essence

If you can’t decide, ask yourself how you would decide if you just did this for yourself. That’s going to be the right answer. After that you can google the web and read through the conflicting opinions if you want, but unless there’s a clear indication that what you’re going to do is going to spell doom and failure – like making a porn app for the App Store (*) – you should just do what you feel is right. And do it with confidence.

If you do love porn so much and making the perfect porn app is your calling, let me tell you that the problem isn’t the porn, it’s the App Store! Once you realize that there are always other options, you’ll find other ways to succeed.

Interestingly, I’ve seen the oddest things happening when following your gut instinct against all odds and reason. There is this former colleague of mine who wants to re-engineer mathematics (website in german). He wrote a series of articles about his new way of doing mathematics with lots of tables and new definitions for multiplication and division to get rid of, among other things, the “division by zero” conundrum. On first and second sight it is probably the dumbest thing to do, right after suicide. But somehow it was also fascinating, and spawned an ongoing discussion and actually had me think about how the basics of our mathematics work. At the very least I realized just how much we take for granted without actually knowing too much about it. On the other hand, if you don’t know much about something, you probably shouldn’t try to re-invent it either.

The point is: you don’t always get the results you want, but you’re certainly going to get something of note if you follow your gut instincts and remain confident in your decisions and be involved with what you do. This is how the most exciting things get made. And exciting tends to attract more attention from others. What you do with this attention is up to you. And I’m sure you can do better than reinventing the wheel. Or mathematics, for that matter.

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Why?

Because the rules of play have changed, specifically with the advent of App Stores – be it the iTunes App Store, the Xbox Live Indie Games and Arcade Games stores, the Playstation Network PS Store, Wiiware, various Flashgame hubs (Kongregate etc), the ever-present Facebook games, Steam and a growing number of independent publishers on the web specializing on publishing downloadable and free to play games for the masses and niches.

The result of this onslaught of new game titles, the release of more game titles over various platforms has to result in the abandonment of the “captivate the player within 15 minutes” rule. It no longer holds true, maybe with the exception of expensive, high-quality productions where players might be a little more patient with games – but even that bastion is slowly succumbing to the sheer quantity of titles a player can select from. Players are increasingly becoming impatient with games, many times not even enough to give a game a trial run for 15 or even just 5 minutes. But if you’re actually lucky enough that the player chose to download and start your game, what should be the most important goal to make the most of this fortunate event?

Of course:

Engage the Player within 15 seconds!

That is the new rule: “Engage the Player within 15 seconds!”
… “or you’re screwed” I wish to add. 😀

This rule tweaks two crucial aspects, the most obvious being that the time frame is now one sixtieth of what it used to be.

The other is the change from captivation – which to me means any game that puts the player in a state of excitement and exposure to game mechanics that lets him forget the surrounding world and everyday business – to the word “engage” – which means to actuate the warp drives and accelerate past the speed of light. Or in non-Star Trek terms: to give the player something meaningful to do, something to play with, something to go on. It doesn’t need to excite, it doesn’t need to shut off reality, it certainly doesn’t have to be so immersive that mobile players walk blindly on the street right in front of a truck. But it should give the player an experience that’s new to him, that’ll spur his interest, a small “A-ha!” moment, the “oh that’s nice” thought, or just a smile on his face.

The new rule doesn’t mean that you should aim lower than before. In fact it could well work together with the old rule. It’s more a change in priorities, down to the point where we have to question a lot of traditions and standard ways of doing things, like the ubiquitous main menu being the game’s first interactive experience for the player. The new rule does tell you that it has become and will continue to become ever more important to engage players first and very, very quickly before you even have a chance at proving to captivate the player. Because most games these days will be dismissed by most people – and most certainly this includes game reviewers – within a very, very short period of time.

To engage, you need to get to business ASAP

That it the essential message of the “engage player within 15 seconds” rule. Your first priority – and this is even more important the lesser known you, your company and your game’s brand are – is to not bother the player telling him about who you, your company and your game’s brand are. At least not as the first thing the player experiences, and especially not if this costs valuable seconds of the player’s time. Put your logos elsewhere. Postpone the gist of your wonderful story until the player innocently stumbles over the story root himself.

To make it even possible to engage the player within 15 seconds, you need to get rid of old conceptions that used to define how a game is started the first time. Most games today follow the traditional sequence that often includes a series of company logos, an intro video, a main menu with too many options, multiple selections to make before the game is actually loaded. Keep in mind that most pre-game selections like difficulty have consequences that only become clear while playing the actual game, when it may already be too late to change the difficulty. Another intro video or animation sequence or ingame cutscene can be deferred until after the basic gameplay has been experienced. And certainly don’t do a text-message based tutorial alienating both experienced gamers and newcomers alike when better options like context-sensitive visual hints are the less intrusive alternative.

I dare you …

… to re-imagine the game you’re currently working on and figure out a way to put the player in control of the actual game as soon as it has launched. No logos, no main menu, no difficulty selection, no intro video, no cutscene. Just put him right into the game (*), and allow him to figure out the game all by himself.

Use text, icons or other visual or audio indicators to guide the player and have him find out how the game is played organically. If he wants to start killing things right away, let him try it. If he fails you might want to tell him why he failed – many reasons are pretty easy to discover programmatically: he didn’t side-step, he didn’t jump, he shot the wrong weapon, he focused on suboptimal targets, and so on. In essence, allow the player to be in the game right away and learn it like a baby does: by experimenting, by failing often, by having an advisor point him in the right direction, pointing out flaws in his approach and giving suggestions for improving his skills and tactics the next time.

(*) = Minus the necessary and accepted selections of course, for example on consoles you usually have to have the “Press Start to Play” screen followed by the selection of the storage device. But other than that, the player should be in the game right away.

Oh, and …

… don’t piss off the player!

Things that piss off players, and little kids for that matter, include anything that is forced upon the player and goes against the nature of being in control or how a game is normally played. Actually, if this happens among human players it’s usually cheating and frowned upon.

Forcing the player to flee, to die, to not do anything goes completely against the idea that the player should be in control. In the games I worked on, we had a number of such scenarios that required you to do the unusual. For us it was innovative, and some players really, really enjoyed those scenarios because we managed to make them fun and entertaining and fit the flow of the game nonetheless. But the times it was forced onto the player, for example by sending ever stronger waves of enemies at the player, the players started to get frustrated. They did not want to flee, so they failed over and over again. Some even found exploits that made it possible to survive but with the scenario being designed that it has to be completed by fleeing instead of fighting, the result was a feeling of emptiness. The player achieved the impossible but he wasn’t rewarded for it, the game did nothing to acknowledge his achievement.

But there are more subtle ways to force something onto the player. The aforementioned sequence of company logos that you can’t skip. An intro video or cutscene that can’t be skipped or fast-forwarded. Having to complete seemingly unrelated or mundane quests or chores (*). Buttons that are too small to tap correctly 100% of the time. Button sequences and combos that require perfect timing or the reaction time of a 12-year-old on steroids.

(*) = It works for World of Warcraft and most other MMOs. But keep in mind that these games are about social interaction, and the gameplay is designed to keep the players in the game as long as possible. In other words: MMOs are designed to be time-sinks for players because without many players staying online an MMO is pretty much worthless. In that sense MMO design is completely different from regular game design, which IMHO also explains why so many new MMO game developers fail. They want to make their MMO more “fun” but that’s not what an MMO does. MMOs challenge the player’s resilience to perform (mostly) mind-numbing tasks in order to gain a relatively miniscule reward or achievement. Over time, accumulation of these micro-achievements give you a sense of greater achievement and bragging rights, especially in the social context that MMOs have. Or, as I like to put it: MMOs are modern religions, the players are minions united under a common belief (aka reward) system, the guild leaders are clergymen and the successful game developers become gods while the beta-testers of soon-to-be-released MMOs have to have a lot of faith.

Inconsequently implemented design features are also great offenders, for example mouse-over-highlighting only some of the game’s items but not all of them. Making deadly bombs suspiciously similar-looking to health packs so that you’re usually close enough not to be caught in the detonation is only fun for the sadistic developers. Making the game adapt the difficulty as soon as one player is leading, for example a sports game that gives the opposing player or CPU team a noticable boost when they’re behind. Especially in sports you would rather frequently see the other team taking a hit on morale when they’re behind, so this design clearly goes against our real world experiences (Hello, Fifa 10!).

I could go on … I’m sure you’ll have your own list of grievances. Feel free to share them with me in the comments!

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I think this topic is of general interest, so i’m reposting it for those who only read the GamingHorror blog.

Please visit www.learn-cocos2d.com to learn why you should ignore everything you’ve read about App Store Piracy!

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