On Full Disclosure
Full disclosure: since a large part of what many voices that co-opted GamerGate are asking is full disclosure, so I’d…
Rami Ismail is the Business & Development Guy at Vlambeer, a Dutch independent game studio known best for Nuclear Throne, Ridiculous Fishing, Super Crate Box, LUFTRAUSERS, GUN GODZ, Serious Sam: The Random Encounter & Radical Fishing.
Through his work at Vlambeer, Rami has come to realize that the marketing & business facets of many independent game developers could use some help. As such, he created the free presskit-creation tool presskit() and is working on releasing its first add-on, release().
Believing sharing knowledge openly is the cornerstone of independent development, Rami has spoken on a variety of subjects at dozens of game events around the world, ranging from the Game Developers Conference to Fantastic Arcade & from University seminars to incubator mentorship.
He is a avid opponent of game cloning after Vlambeers Radical Fishing got cloned. He is also a proponent of searching for new, beautiful things in places no-one is looking for them and thus organized Fuck This Jam, a gamejam focused around making a game in a genre you hate. Rami also works closely with the Indie MEGABOOTH team to enable indie studios to showcase at the larger game conventions.
Rami exclusively drinks cane sugar Coca Cola.
Full disclosure: since a large part of what many voices that co-opted GamerGate are asking is full disclosure, so I’d…
I’m a bit upset at 10 million euro subsidy for game dev in the Netherlands and no mentions of a…
As Vlambeer, the studio I work at, has gotten bigger and our community has grown beyond our biggest fans, I’ve…
Livestreaming. It’s kind of a big thing nowadays, and for many developers it’s increasingly common to stream their work or game as they develop it. At Vlambeer, we’ve been livestreaming the development of Nuclear Throne twice a week, and the results have been rather stellar for a two-person studio/six-person team. Streaming can help with building community, getting feedback and keeping you focused and motivated. But streaming might seem daunting, and since it’s public-facing you might want to start slightly prepared.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been slowly getting my new home office set up for proper streaming, and although I’m not quite done yet, this post is as much of a ‘to-do list’ for myself as a ‘best practices’ that I’ve learned over the past two years of streaming.
Getting set up for streaming is kind of a hassle. In general, it consists out of four elements: you need to set up your physical space, you need to set up streaming software, an online channel and general assets. I’ll run through what you need as a minimum and what I use personally.
Setting up a Twitch stream sounds simple, but it actually gets relatively involved. Making sure your camera, light and sound are properly set up takes a bit of effort and knowledge. In general, you want a high quality microphone, a mid- to high quality webcam and a well-lit room. Finally, you need either a plain background or an interesting backdrop.
To stream a proper high quality stream, you’ll need a decent broadband internet connection. Note that most internet service providers advertise only their download speeds, and you’ll want to check whether their upload speeds hold up. With 10Mbits up you should be able to stream relatively well.
You’ll also need at least one computer equipped with a relatively capable graphic card. While you can stream from a single computer, some people use a setup where one computer is used for gaming, and a second, capture-card equipped computer handles the streaming itself. In most cases, a relatively high-end laptop or a mid-end desktop suffices. I’ve streamed from a Lenovo Y510P and currently stream from a docked MSI GS30.
If either of these conditions are not met, your output will have hiccups and stalls, creating a rather poor viewing experience.
Finally, since you’ll likely be using full-screen applications on one screen, having a separate monitor to keep track of your streaming software and chat is an extremely useful aid in livestreaming. Some people use an iPad or similar tablet device for those purposes and set hotkeys to switching scenes.
A common streaming microphone is the Blue Snowball, which costs about $100 and stands on your desk. It’s a microphone that is relatively versatile, allowing you to set it to both omnidirectional and cardioid (unidirectional) capsules depending on your needs. The downside to the Snowball is that it sits on your desk and even in the unidirectional mode picks up a lot of background noise, including your computer hum and keyboard sounds – especially if you have a mechanical keyboard.
For a slightly pricier but more advanced solution, I recommend the Rode Podcaster with the shock mount and mounting arm. The total package costs about $300. It connects relatively easily to most desks and has superior audio quality – but more importantly, it manages to strike a perfect balance between clarity and filtering out unwanted sounds. It also allows you to hook up a headphone directly to the microphone so you can hear the raw output of what you sound like, or the full output on the computer you’re using.
In all cases, you will want to play around with the volume settings on the microphone. Open Audacity and set the program to record. Turn on every possible background noise you can find, stress your computer with a graphics benchmark, turn on your air conditioning and run the dishwasher, and then mash your keyboard while speaking at regular volume in a normal manner. Play with the volume settings on your microphone or in your operating system until the recording is just your voice.
In terms of camera, your main consideration is the resolution and framerate. Most decent HD webcams will set you back about $50 to $129, and I personally use and recommend the Logitech C920. Very often, stores will try to upsell you on light-sensitivity, which allows you to record better in low-light environments. Since I recommend streaming from a well-lit room, I don’t think this should be a consideration in your choice. What is relevant is in what ways you can set up the webcam – some can be attached to the top of a computer screen, while others have to stand on a desk. Make sure you pick one that fits your streaming set up.
Like with any visual recording of reality – whether it’s photography, drawing or video – light is what decides whether your stream will actually look good. Even the best camera cannot turn a bad lighting situation into something decent-looking, so this is something to think about properly. While you can technically stream using sunlight, the sun creates highly diverse and unpredictable light patterns, and I generally recommend eliminating it as a factor through curtains or blinds.
The optimal light situation includes two lights on either side of your screen, and one light – a rim light – right behind you, out of frame. This set up is called a three-point light setup, but similar results can be achieved using two lights or even a single light, depending on the distance to and the color of walls and ceiling.
The effect you’re trying to create is that your face is fully lit, but that creates a really flat look. By making sure one side is slightly less bright than the other, you create a bit of depth and shade. Finally, the rim light accentuates your silhouette and creates distance between you and the background, while keeping your background well-lit.
This doesn’t need to be expensive. I’ve seen professional looking light setups created by proper positioning of the desk, two IKEA lamps with dimmers and some lampshades, while using a single ceiling light that was already in the room as a rim light. Professional light kits can get really expensive, and what you’re paying for is versatility. Since you’re dealing with static circumstances, the expense is rarely worth it.
You’ll either want a flat, single-color backdrop, or a background that is rich and decorated. Whichever you prefer, getting your backdrop right can make a huge difference in how professional your stream looks. If you have a flat, single-color backdrop you can consider using ‘chroma key’ to create a visually interesting backdrop – or alternatively you can actually use a green screen. In general, posters and filled book, movie or game cabinets create interesting visual backdrops without being visually overwhelming.
For your channel, you’ll have to register with one of the major streaming providers. There are many, but generally three are popular. Twitch is notable for a strong focus on games, YouTube is kind of for everything and Hitbox is an upcoming platform in the gaming market. To set up a channel, you simply create a profile. Take plenty of time to get things right – tweak your descriptions, set up panels, find good avatars and backgrounds and images for when your stream is down.
If you have a schedule, you probably want to put that in the description, and any rules that are relevant might be best left there as well.
Finally, you want to consider a good chat bot for your channel to enforce those rules. Nothing works as well as human moderators, but chances are that those are either unavailable or not always available. The most popular options are Moobot and Nightbot – both of which use a freemium model. Basic functionality is free, and more advanced functionality and customization is paid.
In both cases, you can set the behavior of the bot through a dashboard, allowing them to welcome people to the stream, inform them to follow or subscribe, show how long the stream has been going or timeout or block people misbehaving or spamming. Take some time setting up your bot properly, as it’ll save you and potential moderators a lot of time.
When it comes to livestreaming, your OS options are generally limited to Windows systems. While there are some exception to that rule, currently the most popular tools for livestreaming have their only or best offerings on the Windows platform. You can generally choose between the freeware XSplit (which also has paid premium functionality) or the open source OBS.
Whichever you choose, the tools work relatively similar. You can create ‘presentations’ which consist out of ‘scenes’, and those ‘scenes’ in turn consist out of ‘sources’. You can think of a presentation as a blueprint for a specific show. Scenes are different views that you will show your viewers. Finally, sources are inputs, like overlays, webcam feeds, a window on your screen or an entire monitor.
In general, you’re going to want to create at least 5 scenes: the pre-show, full-screen camera, picture-in-picture camera, interruption/break and post-show scenes.
The final part of setting up your software is to connect to your streaming service of choice. Most popular streaming tools have settings pre-configured for popular streaming services (Twitch, YouTube and Hitbox) when you’re setting up. Usually, this is where you configure your bitrate – some tools allow the software to handle this for you, but play around a bit with these settings.
The lower the bitrate, the more your GPU will have to handle before sending a smaller stream over your connection. The higher the bitrate, the less compression but the more capable your pipe has to be to handle the data being sent. In general, setting your bitrate to about 80% of your upload speed should be fine, but you probably want to experiment a bit with this too.
Livestreaming is an exciting place to be right now – not that different from the indie scene back in 2008-2010. It’s transitioning rapidly from purely a hobby to something that can be a job, and it has its own heroes, publishers, drama and struggles. Being a young community, the atmosphere is generally collaborative, which means that to be a part of the community requires you to actively participate in it. Visit other livestreams and casters, try to keep up to date on events and vocabulary and see what kind of things are popular. You shouldn’t want to copy all that, but you should try and at least stay informed. If you enjoy watching livestreams, that shouldn’t be a problem, but if you’re not really someone that watching streams, it might be worth forcing yourself to. Streaming, as it happens, also has its own etiquette.
If you’re visiting another stream, make sure to read the rules for that particular stream. Generally avoid self-promotion unless given permission, and don’t post links or repeat messages. If you want to be part of the conversation, go for it. If you’re just trying to drop a link and get out, that’s not going to get you any goodwill. At worst, it’ll get you a ban.
A lot of getting used to Twitch etiquette has a lot to do with understanding the rhythm, delays and cadence of the chat. Twitch chat can get really chaotic, and part of it is knowing when to speak and when to avoid speaking. While a lot of people in chat are annoying, spamming or just flat out immature, you’re going to have to be better than that.
To build meaningful connections, you probably want to visit a stream multiple times. Streaming and stream chat are extremely ephemeral, and it requires some repeat interactions to make people remember you.
One of the key things to realize about streaming is that –in almost all cases- a large part of it your success stems from interacting with your community. You can achieve that by frequently responding to the chat, by acknowledging new followers or subscribers, by having sub-only events or by playing games with your community. If you spend some time hanging out in popular livestreams, you’ll notice that while most streams adhere to those ideas, they’ve all personalized them in ways that feel genuine or fitting.
Streaming, similar to (good) public speaking or improv, is a combination of sincerity and stage presence. It’s fast-thinking, interactive and often unpredictable. You want to be able to respond to a joke in a sincere way, but not have that response feel out of place with your persona. To be able to do that, you’ll have to build your identity around yourself. If you’re not somebody that speaks a lot, don’t feel pressured into doing that. If you like jumping around and tend to shout at things, do that. Either way, figure out how you can take ‘you’ and turn ‘you’ into a show.
It’s important to realize that ‘you’ are an important part of the community you’re trying to build, you alone are not enough to build a community. In the end, a community is a group of like-minded people. The reality is that if you’re the shows’ creator (ie. a creator), and the community is viewers (ie. a consumer), chances are you’re not actually like-minded – even though it might seem like it. What you want to do is ensure the community interacts with itself.
You want to encourage that, and there are several effective ways of encouraging such interaction.
Using overlays to celebrate new followers or even having the chat overlaid on-stream can help make your interactions more interesting and more transparent. In turn, that transparency allows people to feel like they’re part of something larger.
Predictability is a huge help too. Casting at specific hours, having recognizable patterns or elements to your shows, responding to follows or subscribes in specific ways – learning how something works makes people feel comfortable. It also allows for rituals to take root in your community, like ways the community welcomes new followers.
Pre-stream and post-stream were some of the best advices I’ve had for my livestreams. You announce your stream, and then instead of immediately starting the shwo, you go live to a static image that indicates that you’ll go live soon (some streamers use count-down timers), and play some music (that you have the rights to). You leave that up for ten to fifteen minutes, allowing your followers and viewers to talk amongst themselves and get excited for the show. You can do the same thing at the end of your stream, the post-stream, allowing people to say goodbye for a bit before signing off.
You can also promote interaction between streams. Twitch allows streamers to host other channels, but a less committal and very common thing is to raid friendly channels. While the exact definition of raiding varies, the idea is that at the end of a stream, the caster picks a new channel for their viewers to go to. Sometimes, a caster will ask those raiding to post a message in the target chat, announcing their arrival.
Twitch doesn’t seem particularly fit for short-form content, and it’s generally more of a slow-burn. While our Vlambeer streams frequently attract several tens of thousands of viewers, the amount of simultaneous viewer count has very rarely gone over 1,500. We tend to stream for five hours or more.
For the first few weeks, we got barely any followers, despite being on the front page of Twitch every episode. It wasn’t until my younger brother pointed out we weren’t asking people to follow us that we realized how important it is to actually ask people to do things.
No matter how corny it sounds, you need to say “If you like the stream, please hit the follow button”. Teach yourself to directly ask people for things you need. Don’t hint at it, don’t expect people to do it on their own, ask. If you need donations, ask for donations. If you need followers, ask for followers. If you need subscribers, ask people to subscribe.
You have to dare to ask. Your audience will ask things of you. Find a nice balance, and enjoy streaming!
Publishing is an odd part of the industry. It’s also the most tricky business interaction a lot of developers will have to deal with. The platforms themselves often have rather standard deals and tend to not deviate from those unless you specifically negotiate changes. Publishers, however, vary wildly in what they can & will do for you, how much they take and whether you should reach out to them.
Earlier today developer Matt Atkins posted the heartwrenching story of submitting an app to notorious publisher Ketchapp. Ketchapp is best known for the runaway hit 2048, which incidentally was an oddly indirect ripoff of Asher Vollmers’ hit game Threes. While Atkins’ game was rejected by the publisher, he later found a game with an extremely similar design published by Ketchapp on the App Store. Whether this means that Ketchapp intentionally cloned the game is a seperate issue, and while I object to many ideas in the article, it does lead to an interesting conversation. What is important is that I fear a lot of new developers are struggling with the same issues and feelings Atkins describes. Atkins was searching for a publisher that would churn out ‘crap’ like a ‘well-oiled’ machine to publish his game.
“A company with resources that could take my games about jumping and balls and cats to the top of the charts for all good people to play. Someone with no scruples or moral resolve. Someone like Ketchapp.”
In case you are dealing with questions on whether you should find a publisher, those are complex issues that I can’t answer in a blog post. What I can do is sort of explain how publishing works, and give you some things to consider when you’re considering working with a publisher for your next game.
If you’re working with a publisher, you’re doing more than ‘letting them do marketing’. You’d hire a PR agency if you wanted to pay money for those services. A publisher literally publishes your game, which usually means that they handle (in some capacity) promotion, publishing and paperwork. In almost all cases, they’ll fully handle finances. That means that you’re literally handing the keys and the financials to your project over to them, and trusting them to uphold their end of the bargain in exchange.
• Check for the experiences other developers. If you’re interested in working with a publisher, check on their website for developers that they’ve worked with. If you know a developer they’ve worked with, ask for their experiences. If you don’t, e-mail some of the developers they’ve worked with and ask if you can ask them about their experiences. Use the responses to figure out whether this publisher is good to work with. If you’ve got no idea who could publish your game, just ask other developers you know. This is not a strange thing to do – I get questions about Devolver Digital on an almost weekly basis after working on LUFTRAUSERS with them.
• Check for controversy. The games industry is a small industry in so many ways, and a reputation is valuable. That also means that if somebody screws someone over, the news about that spreads like wildfire. Check the news for plausible controversy, and see how the publisher handled that. If you agree with their defense or stances, go for it. If not, walk away. Your name and brand is not worth being tied to a publisher whose stances you disagree with.
• Ask them what they can do for you and make sure they can do what they promise. If they promise main capsule features on iOS, check whether any of the games they’ve published made it there. If they promise E3 stage presence during a Sony presentation, make sure they’ve achieved and fulfilled that promise before. If they promise a PS4 launch, check whether they’ve done a PS4 launch before. If they promise money, ask for an advance. Talk to them about what they can do and what their experience is in each field. A good publisher doesn’t need to evade or exaggerate.
• Make sure feel their terms feel reasonable to you. As a general rule of thumb, 30% is a relatively common cut for the publisher, but depending of the risk, investment and efforts you are asking of them a cut can be as low as 15% or as high as 70%. Don’t forget that publisher cut comes after the platform cut, so at a 30% publisher fee you’re basically losing 50% of your revenue. If you’re asking a publisher for money, expect them to recoup that money with profits from the game’s profits before you start getting a serious part of revenue. The more a publisher is legally committing to, the higher the cut will be – if they ask for 70% for basically hitting the release button, in most cases you probably want to walk away.
• Do not commit to anything without taking some time to think. You are never required to make a decision right now, especially when it’s sprung on you. If a publisher doesn’t want to give you time to consider their contract, or their terms, walk away. If they were good terms, they wouldn’t be in a hurry. Always see what information you can find on deals for the platform you’re launching on.
• Get them to put skin in the game. Whether it’s a monetary advance or a clause in the contract for specific marketing efforts (don’t forget: a business deal isn’t a business deal until it’s in a contract!) – get the publisher to commit to something. The cut itself might sound like enough reason, but the reality is many of these publishers publish games as a way to invest or spread risk. If they don’t want to do that, it might be worth seeing if other publishers are more willing.
• There are a lot of publishers. Don’t be afraid of pitching to a couple of publishers. There are many, and comparing the terms you get from a number of them might be beneficial to your understanding of the worth of your game.
In the end, you’ll have to add all these together and make up your mind. The core thing you’re looking for is trust. You’ll have to build your studio upon a foundation of trust with your players, and you should consider yourself a consumer in this market. They have to make you trust them, not the other way around.
Personally, I’d never sign a deal with someone I’ve not personally met and don’t feel good about – many good publishers either have offices around the world or have agents flying around the world (even in many emergent territories!). You can probably get a face-to-face meeting with them at a relatively low expense. My first meeting with Sony was on the sidewalk in Utrecht, eating cheap Burger King with a representative that had come out to the Netherlands for an event.
Keep in mind that usually the job for people like that is to get you to sign on. An agent for a publisher being a seemingly nice person, or being excited about your game, means approximately nothing – it’s the follow up emails and the signature on the line at the bottom of the contract are the sign that they’re invested.
And don’t forget, exchange business cards at the start of your pitch. It’s a common way to duck out of a pitch by saying ‘that’s great, have my card and stay in touch’. It’ll force them to be a bit more honest if they want out, or to check out your game just that tiny bit longer. They’re just doing their job, too, so just don’t waste their time. Have a build or slide deck and a good pitch ready.
Quick Thoughts are short articles written in a minimal amount of time as a response to current events in the industry. My apologies for typos and mistakes, and generally for being a bit less thought out and eloquent out than the rest of my writings.
During the last few years, I’ve found myself focused on community development in emergent territories around the world. Territory is loosely defined here: it can be a city, a province, a state or an entire country. Game development communities tend to develop along very similar lines, and at some point I’ve started to mentally organize these community growth thresholds into a model. Note that this model is not scientific in any way, and is mostly used by me personally to figure out how I can help a certain territory when I visit. Many people I mention the model to asked me to write things down, and many developers in emerging territories found it interesting to talk about where they fall on the scale. As such, here’s my six stages of community development.
The model is separated into six major stages that communities go through. Certain communities can skip steps through governmental or cultural support, or in some cases even thanks to one or several well-intended individuals throughout the community. There are historical moments in which certain territories have fallen back one, or even multiple stages.
Stage 1 is one of the less common stages around the world. In this stage, developers do exist in a territory, but are spread thin and often unaware of each other’s existence. No events exist, or the events that exist are extremely local. The goals of a territory in this stage are very utilitarian: the dream is to make money. Developers are commonly amateur developers without access to knowledge that is prevalent throughout the industry, and the games they make will very often be limited both in execution and cultural value. As such, games very often (closely) resemble ideas already prevalent in established territories.
Stage 2 is the most common stage around the world. Developers in the territory have found each other, established communication hubs and organized internal events for the full territory. In most territories, thought leaders emerge from these meetups, creating informal community leaders. Exchange of knowledge rapidly becomes prevalent in the territory, and with that a voice emerges for a territory. Since knowledge shared is mostly based on assumptions made by unestablished developers, the growth of such a territory is usually limited. In this stage there commonly is a noticeable lack of understanding of basic concepts as ‘polish’, ‘game feel’ and ‘context’, because such concepts evolved as jargon in established territories.
In Stage 3 the focus moves to international knowledge exchange. Either the territories events or community leaders invite external thought leaders or experts, or developers from the territory visit events in established territories, creating informal ambassadors. Existing knowledge in the community is validated or invalidated through this collision with the established territories. To create more reach, a territory joins international organizations such as the IGDA, or establishes local organizations or groups that speak on its behalf. Companies rapidly grow to adapt to the structure of the international games industry, learning to reach out to press and media. In this stage, a territory defines an identity, but not a cultural flavor. Commonly, the goal for developers is still ‘to make it big’ in ‘the West’, and as such games still overwhelmingly resemble existing popular games, often with a minor twist.
This is by far the most important stage. This stage begins when a hero emerges, and international knowledge exchange has been established. A hero is defined as any individual or company that has reached economical and critical acclaim in the established territories. These heroes bring in valuable money, contacts and knowledge, and often act as a bridge between the international industry and the local industry. More importantly, the hero validates the idea that game development can be lucrative, and presents a measurable point of success for other developers to look up to. Ironically, this stage often includes a lot of developers making games based on similar ideas as the hero game, even though the hero game is frequently highly similar to a game from an established territory. Developers in this territory frequently refer to the hero when asked about their work.
Stage 5 is the most common stage for Western Europe and large parts of the United States. Commonly, the visibility of the hero has created a huge influx of new studios and developers, and with that a huge new influx of ideas. Local developers stop looking up to the hero, and start rebelling against the hero. In this stage, the goal for many developers is to be like the hero developer, but “not that”. In stage 5, multiple heroes emerge rapidly, diminishing the value of a single hero. During this phase, a territory evolves a more cultural perspective on games as the goal shifts from trying to prove game development is a feasible expense of time to making interesting content. As the community grows more comfortable, games become more personal and less utilitarian.
In stage 5+, a territory is seen as a thought leader in the international games industry. Very few territories ever reach this stage, and it is my belief that there is no possibility for very many Stage 5+ territories to exist at once. Note that the existence of large international events in a location does not automatically create a Stage 5+ territory, but that it should be seen as a fleeting and temporary status as a thought leader. Many Stage 5+ territories float between Stage 5 and Stage 5+ continuously.
Ways of assisting a territory
I want to emphasize once again that these are simply my thoughts on how to best help a community in a given stage. None of this is scientific, and a lot of this has developed through personal preference and experience over the past few years. I don’t take these considerations as ‘formal’ myself, and will usually figure out what I’ll do after getting my bearings in a territory. In general, they fall within or near the parameters I discuss below.
The wonder of emergent territories is how much a slightly different perspective on history, culture, art or play can bring to our medium. Some of my favorite conversations of 2014 took place in countries like Uruguay, Argentina, India or Taiwan – places that you wouldn’t immediately think of when you think about games, but are rapidly growing to be a big part of our industries cultural output in the future. At the Games for Change conference in New York City next week, I’ll be presenting a curation of games from around the world that I feel express their territories culture in an interesting way.
Let me know if you recognize your own territory in the model, and what stage you think your territory is in currently and why.
ICBM is a freeware title that is very clever, very propagandistic, very stylish and very well made. It makes no excuses for the experience it’s trying to convey. Highly recommended.
I will be writing many more words about gamedev.world in the future, but for now I want to take you back to where it was announced. One could say I’m a veteran speaker at the Game Developers Conference by now, but the weight of the announcement definitely had me a bit nervous. This year, I was lucky enough to have a talk as part of Richard Lemarchand’s Microtalks. Richard is an amazing inspiration to me, both in his work and in his tireless optimism, kindness and care for the medium and the people that contribute to it. The entire session is wonderful and full of powerful talks, some lovely talks, some clever, some unexpected but all of them thoughtful and engaging.
My talk is towards the end of the panel (it starts at 55:50), but I would urge you to watch all of them if you have the time.
During my main session in the Advocacy track, I used a novel way of getting my point across. It’s really hard communicating the severity of the language barrier to people that (overwhelmingly) understand only one language – which is sadly still a very common situation in the United States specifically – so I had to approach my talk a bit more carefully. In my microtalk, I decided to not use written English unless it was a single word or used as illustration. For the main talk, I would teach the entire audience Arabic.
All of my talks are available on the GDC Vault, which is a veritable treasure trove of wonderful talks -of which many have been made available for free– by the Game Developers Conference.
Most of my metaphors about game design mention trees. I didn’t think much of it at first – after all, why would my choice of words matter that much – but then again, I gave a talk on the importance of language at GDC just the other day.
Whenever I teach a guest college to game students, I do an exercise inspired by Interaction Designer Norbert van Geijn. He used to teach class at my university before I started Vlambeer with Jan Willem Nijman, and one day he did an exercise about the fallibility of words. He asked each student to write down whatever word came to mind when he said the word ‘sun’. After a few seconds, he asked a person in the class to read out what they wrote down. Someone wrote down ‘light’, and someone else wrote down ‘yellow’. ‘Holiday’, ‘Warmth’, ‘Summer’ – I had picked ‘Egypt’. In a class of sixty, the frequency at which two or more people picked the same associative word was less than ten percent.
What he was getting at was that words exist in the context of our own knowledge only, and that our choice of words is never coincidental. That class, many years ago, was what made me realize that my metaphors aren’t about how games relate to trees, but how the process of making games relates to trees.
Games are not just mere calculation. Sure, a lot of games are the product of calculated design, writing code, adding assets and wrapping things up. The games that are really impactful tend to be a result of growth, of something almost organic. They start as mere seeds – a singular point of inspiration. Then, the seeds grow into saplings with a direction – a three-dimensional vector, something one can pursue. Eventually, these vectors grow into a tree, growing into a shape rather than an abstract arrow.
We can plant a tree, we can nourish it, but ultimately we have to accept that the tree is its own living thing.
Very often, when we have game ideas, they are oddly defined. There are arbitrary specifics, like a boss fight at the end of the third chapter, that float in the periphery of our mind. They’re nonsensical, and frequently they end up being scrapped halfway through the project anyway. But they’re seeds.
We find a spot where we want our tree to grow, a spot right beneath where we intend the tree to grow. The seed, our inspiration, grows into thin saplings. We work on our game with blind enthusiasm, those first wonderful weeks of developing something with potential.
And then suddenly we’re off track. The sapling doesn’t grow straight up. It bends one way or another.
Over the years, I’ve seen the reflex many designers have when that happens. I’ve seen it in myself, I’ve seen it in students and in experienced designers alike. It’s the urge to get back on track. The need to straighten the vector back to what it was supposed to be. Straight up, a beautifully straight tree from the seed of inspiration to that boss fight at the end of chapter three.
As soon as you start traveling down the path of the vector from the seed, from the origin, the only points that really count are the points where you’ve been. Every decisions, big or small, is informed by and will inform every future decision. Like a sapling growing slightly in an odd direction, it doesn’t really matter where you intended it to go. You can’t just bend it back onto the original path at the top, you’ll have to bend it from the ground up. If you don’t, you get something that wants to be a straight line, but really is a line that has the strangest odd bend in it halfway to the the top.
You can’t bend a sapling that has grown sideways back onto its original course. If you want to do that, you have to remove everything down to the point where it first started bending.
At the bottom, a small amount of bending takes a lot of effort, and has relatively large repercussions for the rest of the sapling above that point. If you damage it there, the tree might just die as a whole. At the thinner parts, higher up, a sapling will only take that much bending before it snaps off completely.
It takes confidence to just let it grow. An obsession with making a tree that grows straight up to where we expected it to go creates a really boring cultivated forest.
Creativity isn’t going from point A to point B. It’s departing from a known point to an unknown. It’s having confidence that, whether the trip leads to something beautiful or not, at least we chose a path and followed it. If we knew where the journey would take us, it wouldn’t be an exploration – it’d be a commute.
We know where we plant the tree, and what type of tree we want it to be, and the general direction it’ll grow – but anything beyond that is something we can’t fully control. Or maybe, it’s something that we can control, but shouldn’t.
Games live while we make them. We just plant them, care for them, and eventually – with hard work, loving care, talking to it and tremendous patience – we can nourish a game into a beautiful tree.
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