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Month: January 2016

The chairs at PAX

We were a bit late with preparation for the PAX South booth again, so the night before the event mostly involved racing around the San Antonio periphery visiting Best Buy and Target. Things went really well, and I quickly found a bunch of cheap televisions and computers, table cloth and power strips – but one thing I couldn’t find was chairs. Target’s entirely chair isle consisted of chairs as expensive as the televisions, and I was about to give up when I spotted four bungee chairs – not what I was looking for, and probably not super comfortable, but they’d suffice.

So Adriel drove me and all the stuff I’d bought back to the showfloor, and we set up one of the bungee chairs, sat down in it and they were amazing. We set up all four, one for each playable station, and got ready for the show. The laptops were set up within twenty minutes, and we loaded a playable build onto them. Together with the usual Vlambeer booth crew, we were done with setup in under two hours.

The first day was a massive success, and nothing exceptional happened. On the second day, a group of four friends walked past our booth, one of them pointing at the Nuclear Throne banner and excitedly exclaiming “this is that game!”. The friends stopped, came over and picked one of the station. One of them sat down, looked up to their friends and nodded.

“Oh wow, you’re right, these are amazing!”

The four friends left again without even looking at the game.

Idea debt

A while ago I was introduced to the concept of idea debt – which approximately states that any time spent on planning an idea without taking concrete efforts to realizing it will increase the mental friction to actually starting those efforts. It’s a simple concept, but it’s been occupying my brain for quite a while since.

What is important is that concrete planning is distinct from abstract planning – contacting a potential collaborator is concrete, while thinking I wish this person would join my team is not.

It’s far from a perfect metaphor, but think of ideas as unstoppable architects and your execution as little construction workers. Depending on how complex the idea is, and how important the idea feels, the architect is allotted a larger part of your mental city plan. Any time you spend any mental time on the plan, your architect starts drawing ideas, plotting the ground, and moving from there. At first, it’s a single pillar, but as things evolve, the plans get more complex. Walls emerge, then rooms and floors and – if your construction workers haven’t started doing some work – the task suddenly starts seeming unsurmountable. And the architect is unstoppable, so they add new floors and helipads and in-building airports and a slide from the 249th floor to the 3rd floor. Sure, every building is built with a first stone, but if the drawing tells you to build a tower into space because the architect just couldn’t stop drawing, no construction worker will take on that job.

And I guess, looking at my life, I’ve got a lot of construction workers that saw the drawings and walked away. I have ideas that have been building this incredible tower of expectations and hopes, in impossible fidelity and flawless execution, and it’s time to admit that I’ve let those ideas construct that tower for too long. They’re outdated, irrelevant purely by the passage of time, or simply have reached an almost mythological status in my imagination.

It’s time to let those ideas float away, clear the allotted terrain in my mental space for new ideas, and maybe start work on building those a bit sooner.

Physical stuff

IndieBox made a Nuclear Throne box. It’s an amazing little box, and we actually waived our part of the box profit so the box could be even cooler than their normal efforts – which are already magnificent. The reason we did that is because we love physical stuff. It’s exciting to see merchandise become such a common thing in independent games, and to see the idea of physical editions come back. I still buy most of my games on disc, and I’m infinitely frustrated I still need discs to play the games after installing them. Buying them digitally would be infinitely more convenient, but then I’d miss out on the box. I don’t want to miss out on the box. I already hate that my Kindle means my book cabinet isn’t growing as fast as it used to.

The other day I bought a Polaroid Snap. It’s a Polaroid camera that not only saves photos to a microSD card, but also prints the photo onto a new type of printable material called Zinc paper. It’s an awkward camera with an amazing retro look, and I’ve wasted several prints by accidentally pressing the button or messing up the aim or light. Regardless, I cherish the camera. A digital camera is infinitely more convenient, but then I’d miss out on the little 2×3” print. Even if it’s not perfect, I long for physical memories and products.

I’m going to make a photobook full of photos that printed right there and then, and it’ll be one f the nicest things I own.

Design Entitlement

The notion of player entitlement is a common one in the industry, and rather often an applicable one. The industry has often failed to inform the audience of the effort a lot of things take, and presented itself as flawless and perfect. That created unreasonable expectations, and aggressiveness was considered part of the culture – all of that inevitably led to disproportionately aggressive responses to balance changes, and other forms of player entitlement.

There was a lot of discussion today about the use of guides for the gorgeous The Witness, and whether that’s appropriate or not, or whether it’s the right way of playing the game. Obviously it’s not the intended way of playing, but I guess there’s also such a thing as design entitlement. Games nudge players in a certain direction and evoke a certain intent – creators like to think of our work as something with an intent and purpose, and (hopefully?) often end up getting personally attached to our work. Since often that intent is clear, we think a game has a right way to be played, and the honest reality is that no one can make that call but the player. I’d encourage you to embrace or even encourage more wrong ways of playing in your design and conversation. After all, that attitude did bring us anything from tower defense to speedruns, Twitch Plays to beautiful game photography and many more.

There’s no wrong way to play, and the value of your game might come from unexpected places.

Camel Up!

Camel Up! is a 2014 board game about betting on camels racing, but also about camels stacking on camels. While it’s the 2014 Spiel des Jahres winner (and German awards for board games being a huge deal), I wasn’t introduced to it until Randy and Kristy Pitchford challenged us to a game today. No wonder they would introduce it to me – it’s a deviously clever game of probability and gambling for 2-8 players, although it feels like it wouldn’t become fun until 4 players were present.

Each ‘leg’ of the game is played by using the dice pyramid, a clever contraption that randomly rolls one colored dice from its innards. The colors relate to the five colored camels, and the dice control how far the camel of that color moves. Camels that share a space stack on top of each other, and if a camel carrying other camels moves, it takes the others with it. The camel on top is considered in the lead, and that mechanic combined with the randomness of order and movement makes the entire game of probability very simple to visualise, but rather interesting as a game of chance.

Most of the game is built around the idea that acting fast on limited information gives you higher odds of scoring big money or losing a little of it, while safer bets earn you little but can’t lose you any money. Combine that with the earlier game of probability, and you’ve got a fascinating little game of calculations and gambles – and although there is usually one right move to make, playing the game with some mischievous troublemakers really helps the game along. In many ways, Camel Up! is an amazing starting or ending game for a board game night – simple yet full of interesting situations -although it’s just as easy to spend a few hours playing races, hoping for that perfect sequence of events to leave your camel ahead and on top.

Airtime

One of the things that hurt me most throughout my career in games was my complete inability to rest when I needed it. It’s a discussion that came up a bit when Witness developer Jonathan Blow posted a rather curious joke tweet, seemingly implying that he’d been working so hard he never had opportunity to leave his desk. Whether it’s truth, or an unfortunate joke isn’t extremely relevant – but what is important is to recognize that this by all means should’ve never been a joke to begin with. Jonathan Blow spent seven years of his life making The Witness. It’s a game he cares about a lot, and a game many people (including myself) are looking forward to.

No game is worth hurting yourself, your health, your rest or your social life over. It just isn’t. I’ve released a dozen games since I started in games, and the romantic idea of the starving indie, working from early day till late night on just pizza and Coca Cola? It’s not romantic. I’ve seen it in hundreds of developers and students. It’s exciting until you burn out, and then you lose it all. It’s a bad way to start a company, already relying on overtime to make your income. It’s miserable, but you don’t know it yet.

If you’re crunching on your own game right now, please don’t. Do something that relaxes you for today. I’m stressed, and I’m under a lot of perssure, but I’m watching the clouds pass under the airplane on my flight to Dallas, and it’s calming me down. I need to finish my work on Nuclear Throne, but I’m sure people that like the game want me to be healthy enough to continue working on it and to work future games. I’ll get the work done, but for now there’s clouds.

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Open opportunity

One response that I always get to posts about diversity like my feature last week on OFAC SDN sanctions unfairly impacting non-Western developers is ‘then why don’t you do something about it yourself?’. It’s a response that baffles me for a variety of reasons – one being that I am trying to do something about it, but the other reason it’s confusing to me is far more fundamental.

The comment often comes combined with the idea that ‘people have to earn things themselves’, suggesting that the worldview of people who invoke such responses is capitalistic and that they believe the world operates as a meritocracy. But given that, wouldn’t someone pointing out an opportunity that nobody has capitalized on be extremely valuable? My article offers an invisible and unmet demand, an opportunity for impact, and -if you want to consider the capitalistic aspect of it- the potential of an enormous marketshare.

I guess it suggests that most people that suggest ‘you have to do something about it yourself’ either don’t have the capacity or mindset to do it themselves, or have no idea how to achieve success in a capitalistic environment.

Feeling a fraud

Polygon wrote an article on what I feel is one of the most common and underdiscussed topic in creative work: imposter syndrome. I’ve talked about my own extensively, and discussed how I believe it fits into the Donning-Kruger curve. While there is no right or wrong way to feel when it comes to making creative work, it can be helpful to understand some very common feelings aren’t discussed out of fear of not fitting in anymore. Imposter syndrome is one of them, and as such, I decided to ask Twitter about imposter syndrome.

As expected, I got hundreds of responses from developers, press, content creators and anything in between. While an overwhelming majority confirmed they felt that way, some people pointed out they don’t. That’s all perfectly fine. If you want to see just how common struggling with your self-worth in any capacity is, just scroll through this list.

Community Momentum

As of this writing, Steamspy reports the lovely OXENFREE has sold about 6,500 units in it’s first week or so. That’s a solid start, considering that recently most games made within what I’d estimate to be the $100K-$250K budget range have launched at around 2,000 units. 2,000 units isn’t bad, considering these games tend to sell between $8 and $20 – which is a revenue of about $25K. It’s not a break-even by a long shot, but it’s definitely a good start on the way there. Recently, I’ve seen a lot of talk about game launches becoming less relevant – and while it’s definitely true that livestreaming and discounts have made the long tail more important, I’d argue the launch is still relevant.

I’d like to think of it as community momentum, and the idea is best illustrated with Kickstarter. Kickstarters that hit 30% of their intended funding goal in their first week seem statistically likely to reach 90% by their last week, and get funded as people on the fence about pledging get pulled over by the Kickstarter being so close. While there’s no data beyond the Kickstarter finishing (and as such, there’s nothing to be said about long-term effects), the basic effect seems to mirror in indie games as well.

Community momentum isn’t as much about making money, though – it isn’t about virality either. It’s simply about sustained conversation about the game. Conversation about a game tends to have a gravity, something that pulls back towards the game. Like gravity in real life, the only way to get rid of that gravity is to gain enough momentum. Very few games truly break free, but for most games the obvious truth holds: the higher the community momentum, the less gravity pulls conversation back into a niche. The higher you go, the more people can see you from down on the surface. The more people that see your game, or conversation about it, the more likely they’ll start adding to your momentum. It’s an obvious and simple effect, but it’s worth considering when you’re working on figuring out the best approach to market or launch your game.

It sure would be a shame if something happened to your dreams of becoming a game dev.

As a frequent public speaker in the games industry, I recently had the honor of presenting at the lovely XOXO Festival in Portland. As a game developer that cares a great deal about the economical and technological democratizing game development, I tend to speak about the practicalities of the creative process and the commercial aspects of game development. XOXO’s venue challenged me to speak about something more personal, so while I normally focus my talks on empowering anyone to express themselves creatively through games development, I decided to discuss a part of me that I normally avoid in public speaking.

I might be one of the most visible half-Arab and Muslim game developers in the world. I say that with pride and with sadness, because it is a situation I would love to remedy as quickly as possible. A large part of my activities, outside of running an Forbes 30-under-30 award-winning independent games studio, are focused on supporting developer communities and game creators in emergent territories by visiting them – almost always without receiving speaking fee and frequently at personal expense. I strongly believe in the medium of games, but I also believe that diversity is central to it reaching its full potential.

One of the many remaining invisible barriers to the actual and full democratisation of the games industry is cultural democratisation. As you might have noticed during the tumultuous last few years in gaming, gender diversity is currently the main focus of that discussion. Rightfully so, considering 52% of all people playing games are female, versus only 22% of creators. The struggle for racial diversity has thankfully slowly been gaining more mainstream visibility, as slow but hopeful progress is being made regarding gender diversity.

The America- and Eurocentrism of Game Development

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The notion that the games industry is entrenched in Western culture is often overlooked. When we discuss diversity, it (unintentionally) almost always discusses the Western notion of diversity. This is, as many of these issues are, exacerbated by the cultural entrenchment and history of computing and the technology sector in general.At the core of these concerns one tends to find the issue of the language barrier. For example, as Aditya Mukerjee remarks in a fantastic piece on the issue, “you can text a pile of poo”, while most languages still do not enjoy full support in modern computers even in 2016. Conceptual artist Ramsey Nasser created a conceptual art piece called ‘Qlb’, a programming language in Arabic –that sadly remains a conceptual art piece to this day – simply because the technical hurdles of implenting it on devices that were meant to process English are staggering.

This means that creatives in non-Western countries have to deal with a ridiculous plethora of additional obstacles on their journey to game development: most if not all game creation tools are provided in English only, programming languages only support primarily English, their language might not properly display on computer devices, information and documentation on game development primarily exists in English, the mainstream games press is almost exclusively English, and in many cases they face a political and geographical distance from trade events, conferences and games press. If you dare to ask a (support) question in any gaming forum in any language but English, you’ll get reminded that this is an English-speaking forum, and then probably made fun off for making a typo.

If any person outside of the Western world is creating games, I can’t but conclude that they’re exceptionally determined to be making games.

Did Rami Get Random Checked?

After the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, the United States have implemented increasingly draconian security measures in all sorts of parts in life. Getting access to the United States can be a troublesome chore for many around the world, and sometimes requires intervention from ‘Western’ friends or embassies to broker at all. Every time a major Islamic terrorist attack happens, every muslim is held accountable. After the Paris terrorist attacks, anti-muslim sentiment and violence in the West surged.

Not that that’s particularly new: I’m used to the United States overreaching on their security. My advocacy for diversity takes me around the world, and I often fly up to ten times a month. In 2013, I noticed that I got additional checks for an extremely high percentage of my 70+ flights that year. These checks are presented as ‘randomly assigned additional checks’, usually simple procedures that sometimes include interrogation rooms or other delays. As I started talking about these checks with fellow game developers, the notion that they were actually ‘randomly assigned’ quickly became less and less probable.

A fellow Arab pointed out to me that the checks weren’t random after all. My boarding passes had a mark on them that I hadn’t noticed before as being out of the ordinary, since it showed up on quite a lot of my boarding passes.

I am fortunate enough to avoid most of that in my daily life, living in the generally progressive Netherlands. But I’m reminded that I’m “undesirable” every now and then. In 2014, I flew approximately one hundred flights. For the entire year, I publicly kept track of how often I was random checked and where I was random checked. Where most fellow game developers – even those that travel frequently – mentioned having been checked once or twice in their life, I got random checked on one out of five flights. The majority of the checks I received were on flights to the United States, under their Secondary Security Screening Selection program.

So sure, I’m reminded that everybody thinks I might be a terrorist twice a week during a pat-down or interrogation, but that’s “just an inconvenience” to anyone who doesn’t have to deal with that kind of thing. I am scared of checking at what time I can eat during the fasting month of Ramadan aboard an airplane, because doing that often looks like this on a laptop screen.

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When I was younger, I learned to avoid mentioning I’m partially Arab or Muslim, even when it was relevant. Then I unlearned it again. My name is Rami Ismail, and I’m half-Dutch, half-Egyptian and raised as a muslim. I am also a game developer.

Ragdolls

Let’s look at what Muslims, people from the Arab world, and people from the Middle East look like in games.

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That sign on the left? Not Arabic.

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I’ve gotten so used to people pushing back on the idea that there are barely any ‘good Arabs protagonists’ in games that I’ve developed a metric I call ‘time to Prince’, the amount of time in seconds between asking the question about ‘good Arabs in games’ and someone mentioning the 1989 classic game ‘Prince of Persia’. The prince is Persian, not Arabic. There’s a hint in the name somewhere.

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The few Arabic playable characters that do exist have either been thinly veiled terrorist metaphors such as ‘the opposing force’, or whitewashed to the point of not being recognized as such, or are made to seem as non-threatening as possible. The one example I can think of is 2007 Ubisoft title Assassin’s Creed, which placed you in the shoes of a flawlessly English-speaking Christian and potential Syrian.

Named ‘Altaïr Ibn La’Ahad’, the ‘Ibn La’Ahad’ meaning ‘son of no-one’ and referring to Altaïr being orphaned at a young age. His father was later said to be named ‘Umar’, which would’ve meant Altaïr’s name would’ve been ‘Altaïr Ibn-Umar”. His father’s full name is later revealed to be ‘Umar Ibn La’Ahad’, meaning either his father was also orphanaged at a young age and only passed on the name ‘Ibn La’Ahad’ by sheer ironic accident, or it’s some sort of horrible joke the entire family is playing on everybody they know.

While a lot of the Arabic in the game is spot-on, the voice acting tend to have some rather cringeworthy accent to it. That’s still far better than most games, in which Arabs and Arabic are seemingly considered barely relevant beyond making sure they ‘look like terrorists’ – which, as we’ve all learned from TV Series Homeland, just means you’ve got to play into the bearded men in a desert street stereotype. The budget is going to explosion effects for abandoned cars and IED’s and ragdolls for dead terrorists, so that they fly away properly when shot.

It seems that Western media has agreed that adding some of that “Arabic singing in the background” makes something Arabic. It sounds Eastern to me. And maybe some rituals. I saw Morgan Freeman doing something that looks Muslim to me somewhere in a movie.

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Come to think of it, I’ve rarely heard proper Arabic in Western movies or on TV, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an flawless authentic Muslim prayer in any mainstream production, ever. It’s a pretty solid reminder we’re the “others”, and it sure seems to suggest that the games industry tends to think of us primarily as ragdolls.

My name is Khan

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In spite of a culture in which their culture continuously being ridiculed and antagonized, the games industry is a dream for many Arabs, Muslim or not, and for many Muslims, Arab or not. In 2015, the Global Game Jam, a simultaneous game making competition around the world, had one of its best attended locations in Cairo, Egypt. To become part of the games industry, they have to face antagonism towards and ridicule of their culture and politics, stereotyping, a language barrier, geographic distance, reduced access to resources and marketing, and yet they’re here.

I’ve met many aspiring developers like them around the world, and in many places people face similar problems. Whereever I go, access to funding, tools, documentation, marketing, trade events and language support are mentioned too. Russian developers lamented the one-sided and poor representation of their country, history and language in “historic” games. South American developers discussed the “South American threat” trope in modern shooters with me. They don’t feel taken seriously in the medium, and they want to make a difference. They want to make games. So they decide to download one of the most popular game development tools in the world.

The screenshot, posted by Zakir Khan, shows up when registering an account for the Epic Games website. While they were signing up for access to the Paragon beta, the Epic Games website does not only include games but also one of the most well-known and powerful game creation tools on the planet. Apparently the combination of one of the, if not the most popular first name in the world, and one of the most common last names in Asia, prohibits you from downloading the development tool at all. An imposing message notified Muhammed Khan, who was born with two of the most common names worldwide and literally has a movie named after this same type of confusion, that they’re blocked from creating an account because their first and last name is blocked by the United States of America’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, because they’re a Specially Designated National.

It sure would be a shame if something happened to your dreams of becoming a game develope

After some digging, it quickly became clear what happened: the US maintains a sanctions list called the OFAC SDN. The purpose of the SDN is to help US businesses identify people they’re prohibited from dealing with due to terrorism, narcotics, or economical sanctions. People included can be part of dozens of ‘sublists’, including Denied Entry lists, US PATRIOT Act lists and Sanctions list. The entire list is 1008 pages long.

US businesses are to avoid doing business with any person or entity on the list, risking criminal penalties for willful violations including fines ranging up to $20 million and imprisonment of up to 30 years. Some civil violations can be fined over a million US dollars for each violation.

Proper implementation of the OFAC SDN list is as follows: if a probable match occurs, US entities are requested to take steps to ensure it is not an exact match, first by checking against the rest of the available information. Further steps often require manual intervention. To ensure no rules are broken, companies are encouraged to “freeze” any assets or transactions under “duediligence“, whether it’s service- or money-based, until further checks have been completed.

We need more diverse diversity

Two hours after the issue was reported, Epics’ Tim Sweeney offered this competent and genuine apology

With that, many would consider the issue resolved; but obviously I disagree. While the response itself was great and worthy of praise, I disagree that their handling is to be applauded, as in the meanwhile, the actual issue remains. Thesymptom was rapidly and perfectly dealt with, but one can’t help but wonder how many Arabic, Persian and Muslim developers without a visible social media account ran into this issue & gave up on UDK, or worse, discouraged from game development entirely. The issue is that nobody with proper understanding of the impact of this system was requested to look at it, or nobody with that knowledge was available at Epic.

Because how is it possible that engineers for a major coorporation in a global medium didn’t once think, ‘maybe implementing this list by names only is a bad idea’? Any person even remotely aware of the Middle East, the Arab world, or Islam, would’ve been able to tell you filtering by Muhammed would be a bad idea. Or someone simply didn’t give it any thought, despite literally withholding access to their product and service at the most basic level.

And if the only person touching this filtering system was an engineer, that’d be bad, because not only is it a bad implementation by the standards offered by the OFAC, it also involves a diversity problem that should be dealt with by someone versed in those issues. If a designer touched this filtering system, it’d be bad, because they clearly lacked the understanding that would’ve helped them realize that almost 2 billion people on the planet are at a relatively high risk to be negatively impacted by this.

Even though Epic Games seems to have not implemented it, it seems many implementations of the OFAC SDN list use fuzzy string search<, or approximate checks, to further reduce liability. And while it sure is a great way of reducing liability, using fuzzy string search for this is a bad idea. I’ve entered the names of every prominent Arab or Muslim developer I could think of into the official SDN Search Tool, and at 90% accuracy it return the majority of them as a positive. At 85% accuracy, it returned all but one developer. I was included as a positive in that list. The only developer that didn’t return a match is literally royalty.

The world is a big, complicated place, and we all make mistakes. One part of dealing with mistakes is acknowledging them, taking responsibility, and fixing them – as Tim Sweeney so eloquently did in less than 140 characters. Another part of dealing with mistakes is ensuring there’s a structure in place to ensure similar mistakes are less likely to occur again.

Part of improving, and diversifying the games industry is gaining an understanding of the challenges that exist in emergent territories, and understanding the challenges that exist simply because of the West’s primary position in the games industry.

We need to understand that, while our progress regarding visible diversity issues is extremely important, diversity cannot be limited to those things that are already visible as problems in our industry. Part of diversifying a medium is understanding that the invisible voices are those we need to be listening to most. Part of diversity efforts should be an understanding that diversity is a powerful word, and that any diversity effort itself will always fail to represent all that it means.

Muhammed Khan, whoever they may be, wanted to make an account on a website that contains games and game development tools. That website, and through it our industry, no matter our intent or goals or reasons, told them that they weren’t welcome.

We need to do much better than that.

How much does it cost to go to GDC?

The wonderful discussion around the IGF and the Game Developers Conference initiatives around scholarships for international visitors made the part of me that deeply cares about emergent territories a bit wary: the costs of visiting GDC are often trivialized, which tends to neglect the very real issues the EEMEA territories (Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa), South America and Asia have in attending the largest industry event in the world. Since these things also affect the cost of submitting to something like the Independent Games Festival, or the ability to submit to events which require nominees to showcase the game without adequate travel reimbursement, I was wondering what the impact of the geographical and economical status of each country around the world is on the expenses required to GDC.

The Game Developers Conference, or GDC for short, is the largest annual games developers conference in the world. It takes place in San Francisco, usually at the end of the first quarter of the year. GDC is potentially the most potent networking event of the year, with developers from all over the planet, from all aspects of the industry, meeting for talks, conferences, networking and informal events. It is attended by a enormous variety of industry professionals, press, media and video content creators. It’s the event to be at if you’re looking to break into the industry.
So I spent all of my spare time today using Skyscanner to figure out how much the cheapest flight to and from San Francisco would be for each country in the world (and entering CAPTCHA’s every time the bot detection balked at me), I figured out how long a stay from Sunday the 13th of March to Sunday the 20th of March in the cheapest hostel I could find with availability would cost, did a cursory check for general Visa fees, estimated that $15 a day will get you fed and transported in San Francisco, and added a $325 Independent Games Summit pass to the total. Then, I’d add up the amount of hours lost to travel for each country, and the amount of hours spent in San Francisco (~170 hours). I multiplied the time lost as an opportunity cost with the GDP PPP divided by 365 divided by 24, giving us a highly unofficial but useful GDP PPP per hour. The GDP PPP has the advantage that it standardizes every currency into Geary–Khamis dollars, a hypothetical currency that corrects for purchasing power, thus eliminating the need to further adjust for that. I added the opportunity cost expressed in Geary-Khamis dollars to the cost tally.

Note that I am not, by any interpretation of the word, really qualified to figure this out. I did pass my statistics class, and my topology, history and economics class in high school, but I’ve been a game developer first for most of my life. I am, however, curious – so I decided to see how far I’d get with what I know. Some of the data here is deeply generalised or flawed – there is no way to adjust for income disparity since GDP PPP is an average, for example, and averages are a terrible metric that tends to get less reliable as countries have larger income disparity. Some countries are rather big, which also leads to inconsistencies. For larger countries, I picked the capital city. In case the capital city did not have an international airport, I went with the largest international airport, and if none existed, the closest international airport. I also compiled several sources into one, which might lead to some minor differences in the datasets, the airfare changes on a daily basis and fluctuates wildly, as does the time spent traveling. The result, however, would be a somewhat useful indicator of relative costs.

I then calculated a ratio of cost to go to GDC as part of the GDP PPP, and used that value to calculate a rather generalizing but useful real cost of GDC per country, expressed in US Dollars. I mapped out the data, and got the following map.

The U.S. is the anchoring point at $1451. A few things stand out immediately: As soon as you head into Central and South America, things get expensive fast. Mexico, which is close to the United States, still ends up paying the equivalent of $2,897 for a week at GDC. A Brazilian game developer pays the equivalent of $4,321 (14% of their GDP PPP), while a Bolivian game developer ends up paying the equivalent of $10,077 (or 33% of their GDP PPP). The difference between Europe and Eastern Europe becomes rather visible too. Where a German developer pays the equivalent of $1,837, a developer in neighbouring Poland pays the equivalent of $2,779. Move a single country further East, to Ukraine, and the cost rise to $7,188, which is almost five times the price of a German visit to GDC.

African and Southern Asian developers end up paying the most by far. A developer from Niger pays the equivalent of $79,234 to come to GDC, or two-and-a-half times their yearly income. An Afghani developer pays the equivalent of $44,345. A developer from India pays the equivalent of $10,218, while a developer in Somalia, Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo each pay the equivalent of what would be $125,000 for an American – or the equivalent of more than four years worth of income to be able to visit GDC. I had to exclude their values from the color scale to not turn the entire map yellow.

The cheapest countries to develop from are surprisingly in Europe. Liechtenstein, where GDC costs the equivalent of $1,189 and Luxemburg, at the equivalent of $1,254. Bermuda falls right in between those two, as in Bermuda a trip to GDC will cost you the equivalent of $1,225.

I don’t really have anywhere to go with this data, as the issues here are infinitely complex and barely understood. All this data really says is that things are more expensive for some than for others, and that developers from many places on the planet at GDC are potentially spending years of income for their shot at being at the event, so give them a super huge high five if you come across them. I haven’t had time to properly process the data mentally or figure out if there is any actionable response to the data I can attempt or take. For now, it’s just data – but it’s data that didn’t exist before, and in many ways, I find it more shocking than I anticipated.

If you’re as curious as I am, I’ve uploaded a copy of the full dataset on Google Spreadsheets. Sources used are Booking.com, the CIA World Fact Book, Indexmundi.com, Skyscanner.net (January 19th, picking the cheapest flight every time) and several airline websites for Island groups that weren’t represented on Skyscanner. I got help from my ever wonderful partner Adriel in compiling the data. The map was generated using a trial version of Tableau. The map data was made interactive by Antanas Marcelionis using his magnificent amcharts.

E-mail policy

Since I started receiving over a few hundred of them a day, I created a number of rules for handling e-mail. There is no perfect system, and while some of these self-imposed rules sound harsh, After experimenting a lot, I’ve found them to lead to my highest volume of e-mails answered in a qualitative way.

My main rule for handling e-mails: try to avoid writing e-mails longer than three sentences.

I have three rules for responding to e-mail:

  1. Don’t respond unless necessary. If it is important, people will follow up. No answer is better than a useless answer.
  2. If it takes more time to make a to-do entry out of an e-mail than to respond and complete the task, respond and complete the task. Otherwise, do not respond to e-mails until response is required or requested. Threads drag on too long with too much fluff.
  3. With the exception of urgent e-mails, prioritize ‘e-mails to which a response would really mean something to someone’ over ‘e-mails for work’.

I have three rules for writing e-mails:

  1. Don’t write an e-mail for something that isn’t absolutely necessarily an e-mail. E-mail is best for formalities, external communications that require archiving and communications that are not decidedly urgent. If you’re working with someone and things can be urgent, make sure you have another method of contact.
  2. Get to the point in the first line, and if pleasantries are expected, integrate them into the sentence with a comma or semi-column, regardless of the grammatical appropriateness. Nobody cares. (ie. Hope you’re doing well, I was writing to check in about [x])
  3. Set a reminder for a follow-up. Expect a response time of about a week, and follow-up after three to five days. If someone mentions a time-frame, set a follow-up reminder for 80% and 120% of that timeframe. People often need a reminder for communications through e-mail.

That leaves me curious: what are your rules for e-mail?

Zach Gage discussing award categories

But the IGF is in some ways a lumbering beast. It’s an institution, and part of being an institution means carrying your history with you, and changing slowly. This history is part of what gives weight to the awards the IGF bestows, but it also can be a drag, pulling the IGF behind the times, especially in the rapidly changing field of independent videogame design.

In a short but thought-provoking article, Ridiculous Fishing and Sage Solitaire designer Zach Gage suggests a new way of categorizing games at awards that would serve the medium as one of wholistic products. Zach recently released the sublime Tharsis in collaboration with Choice Provisions.

Read the whole article here.

Dying Light’s sublime sense of Panic

Dying Light is a game I played over the course of a full year, originally buying the violent zombie Mirror’s Edge on launch day back in January 2015. While I normally play through a game in one go, Dying Light had so many pacing issues in the first quarter of the game that I had to take breaks for months before I felt like returning to the game. I loved much of the promise of the game: during the (60-minute) day a freerunning agent running through a zombie-infested (Turkish?) city, setting traps, completing missions, setting up safe zones and saving survivors – and during the (10-minute) night, desperately sneaking through the dark, quietly avoiding the nightmares that exist within it, the hunter turned the hunted.

But Dying Light also suffers from every possible design issue you could run into in its design – odd checkpointing, bulletsponges to deal with the almighty player, finnicky controls at the worst moment and escort missions. The worst offender, however, and one that’s hard to avoid in a open-world game, is a difficulty curve that starts the player helpless, and then evolves the player into something so powerful only one-hit kill exploding zombies and earlier mentioned bulletsponges can form any danger to.

In that difficulty curve, then, naturally, has to be the sweet spot – and that part is magnificent. It’s where the player has started to gain skills and weapons that are useful and don’t continuously break and is slightly weaker than the average zombie. Accidentally making a loud sound attracts the zombies, and every time you do so, you run for your life. The (gorgeous) sunset feels terrifying, the phone calls to warn you it’s about to get dark instill genuine worry and the alarm of your watch informing you night has fallen is a beeping terror.

It’s during this part of the game I ran across a moment that I played wrong, but it also shows how perfectly Dying Light sometimes executes its premisse. Tasked with retrieving a video in a side-mission, the player has to navigate the city to a video store. This video by ZackScottGames below gives a pretty accurate impression of the scene as I played it – you can stop watching as soon as the ‘video tape found’ prompt displays.

[stag_video src=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-e_qV8uEm4I&start=1610&end=1670″]

As you approach the store, there might or might not be a number of zombies you can dispatch of, distract or sneak around. You then have to quickly lockpick the door through a minigame, after which you enter the store. As soon as you take a step or two into the store, the alarm goes, the short delay surpressing the players’ response of backing out of the store. The alarm will be attracting a large number of nearby zombies to the store in the next few seconds, and the player can opt to lock the front door. Then, the game suggests you find the tape manually, by having the player character utter ‘C… C for Charly’. So as the zombies gather around, rattling the store you just locked yourself into, you have to keep your calm, look around and find the tape. If you look carefully, you’ll notice you can shut the door, you’ll spot a bright orange light that is actually the alarm switch (you can turn the alarm off), and a back door you can escape through. The panic is enough to instinctively focus the player on the tape.

In the games’ best moments, it’ll repeat similar tricks, but always messing with the most powerful obstacle the player needs to manage: distance. Dying Light is continuously throwing off the players mental mapping of distance. Something that’s relatively close suddenly feels very far when the sun starts setting. An easy jump before a short run can turn into a terrifying distance to cover if your landing is too loud, and the ceiling gives way. Increasingly loud sounds make five meters feel like a hundred – but at night, running past a trap you placed during the day can turn a hundred meters into a short walk. Dying Light’s most masterful showcase of using mental distance is in its delays before scares and panic increases, because distance behind a player always feels longer than distance ahead of them,

Any moment can go from calm and controlled, from feeling powerful and jumping from building to building with accurate movement, to sheer panic and scrambling around with the smallest mistake, and Dying Light is perfectly set up to create those moments organically. Until you become too strong. Or you die and respawn. Or you realize Dying Light features a ‘hunterdetectiveeagle vision’ equivalent – one of my most hated game design tropes – that totally removes this moment, but thankfully I didn’t think of using it.

But for those moments in that sweet spot, and in its best side-missions, Dying Light creates a sublime sense of panic.

Sad IHOP

Over at my ask.fm, I received the following question:

How does one sad IHOP?

Sad IHOP is a tradition I’ve tried to keep over the past few years of conference-hopping, which I’ll start on again in less than 9 hours. The idea is really simple: conferences are full of life, people, interesting ideas, thoughts, inspiration, chaos and just all-around good things. One of my conference rules is to try and never have food alone. Always find other friendly developers, be they old friends or people you just met, for every meal at a conference – whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner. Sad IHOP is none of those meals, but it adheres to that same rule.

The International House Of Pancakes – which in full American tradition is named International despite being a North-American chain that only opened its first non-North American store in 2013 – is a cheap fast-food breakfast chain that tends to be open very late. It’s not very good food, and it’s not a very good atmosphere.

What IHOP is, though, is a great way to slow down after a long day and night, chat about the day with some friends, reset your expectations down to ‘what am I doing with my life’ and make sure no matter how terrible you feel when waking up after too little sleep, it’s at least better than the lukewarm pseudo-pancake you half-ate at 3:50AM. That’s what Sad IHOP is.

My dentist is an artist

A sterile room, slight wrinkle on a shining bald head, the man is staring at his computer screen. He wistfully stares at a photo of my teeth taken years ago, and makes a dismissive gesture towards the screen. “I’m still not entirely happy with that root canal”, he mutters under his breath. It reminds me of the people I work with, people that are primarily artists. I don’t like the dentist, but I’ve realized my dentist is an artist. Maybe every dentist is. It’s a surprisingly personal little piece of art, a root canal or a cavity filling. I wonder if he has a favorite tooth he has ever worked on, or regrets about a tooth that didn’t work out.

2015

It’s January 1st and even though that’s an entirely arbitrary measurement of time that we came up with a few centuries ago, it means yesterday was a day of entirely arbitrary customs and celebrations. Real life mimics videogames sometimes, I guess. I’m not complaining, because to me, it’s a day of oliebollen, family, friends, reflecting on the year that has passed and celebrating the year to come. It also means I’m reflecting on 2015, and I’m just going to braindump everything I’m thinking right now into a giant blogpost, so that I can read this in seven years and wonder what the hell was up with 2015.

2015 was a long year. It’s not that it wasn’t interesting – it was fascinating in so many ways, but it was fascinating in so many ways. Such a ridiculous amount of stuff happened.

The apartment I’ve been working on with Adriel has finally coalesced into something that feels ‘home’, and appropriately, this was the first year since 2011 I felt a strong longing for home a few times. That doesn’t mean I didn’t travel a lot – I circumnavigated the globe like in 2014, but I also flew a ridiculous Seattle, Argentina, Helsinki, Johannesburg, Portland trip in ten days. I think I’ve grown a fondness for the stillness of the world up in the sky – the suspension of everything but this little cabin in the middle of nothing but air for miles in any direction, and I don’t think it’s a feeling I can recreate on the ground. Space, maybe. Things are looking better and better for space travel in our lifetime.

Destiny: The Taken King takes the honor of most played game this year – again. The Taken King shows Bungie coming to an understanding of what Destiny is, and how their abilities and experience can tie into that experience. After the somewhat unnatural motions of the narrative and level re-use, The Taken King offers Bungie’s trademark action sequences and a tremendous example of re-use of existing content with new content to create all-new feeling content. My favorite conversation about the game was with budding designer Lisa Brown, with whom I talked about how clever the Taken as a construct are to allow for never before seen enemy combinations. The Oryx raid also makes for exceptional time with friends, and beating it for the first time is a great feeling.

The double jump is also still really good.

I spent quite some time racing around the bizarre United States of The Crew: Wild Run, and spent a lot of time playing Rocket League and slowly mastering my first ‘dunk’ goal. I went back to play a lot of games series that have been around for at least five years, trying to catch subtle evolutions of mechanics and understandings of design. I ran through The Master Chief Collection and the Nathan Drake Collection, and had a great time looking at how they changed. I can’t wait for (more) Mass Effect and Gears of War remasters.

There was a lot to see in 2015 in games. A lot of experiments in structure that were fascinating, from indie games like Undertale’s ‘Save The Date’-esque persistence both in the gameworld and outside of it, to AAA games like Black Ops 3 allowing you to play its campaign in any order, or Sunless Sea playing with the idea of legacy.

One of Eric Pope’s last achievements at Harmonix must have been that he finally convinced me to buy Rock Band 4, so I did, and I tried playing the drums and never stopped since. I play for an hour every day, trying to gain the elusive skill of limb independence, and after a few weeks I’m slowly getting there. My sense of rhythm is still nothing close to good, but that’s slowly getting there too.

I am also super excited to see the evolution of design to account for Twitch spectatorship, especially after games like Jackbox Party Pack and Party Hard are paving the way for more thought-out integrations. It has been fascinating seeing Free to Play mechanics and structures slowly working their way into paid games. Thanks to both of those, crafting and procedural generation are very 2015, even though they’ve been around for a bit.

Sadly, with that, open-world games also finally stepped over the line for me in terms of investment against what I get out of it. Fallout 4 didn’t grab me despite clearly having a lot of love poured into it, Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Menace is lovingly designed and intricately crafted, and also not for me. The Witcher 3 has my favorite games moment of the year in the Bloody Baron quest, but immediately loses its sense of pacing after that. Dying Light never got a second chance from me after early pacing issues (I should give it a second chance). Just Cause 3 is the closest to open world I saw, and I enjoyed that immensely.

Snakebird was lovely. ICBM was lovely. Her Story was lovely. SOMA was lovely. Prune was lovely. There was a lot of lovely in independent games. I wrote a thing over at Giant Bomb about my favorite games.

And that’s just games. There was so much this year! I didn’t have too much time to delve into movies deeper than the blockbuster layer this year, but I’m looking forward to spending some time seeing what else happened in 2015 in cinema – based on their AAA stuff, though, it was a great year. Mad Max: Fury Road was great, Inside Out was sublime and The Martian was brilliant. Beyond that, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a start-to-finish grin, Furious 7 was a lovely movie and a worthy send-off, Ex Machina was fascinating (and a great movie to argue over). The Force Awakens was a worthy successor to a series I fondly remember.

I listened to the Spotify Global Top 100 the other night, and I was surprised by how much music on there I thoroughly enjoyed. I got my own ‘Marioke’ song earlier this year, a variation of Sia’s Chandelier. I built up a tradition with CHVRCHES, them being at every games event I skip, and me being in cities they’re playing at days before or after they go there.

I didn’t read too much exceptional stuff this year, but I did read a reasonable amount. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mindset for it in 2015. My most recent reads were Death by Video Game by Simon Parkin and Embed With Games by Cara Ellison. I also re-read Ventus by Karl Schroeder, which remains one of my favorite books after it got recommended to me by a friend a few years ago.

It was a strange year in gadgets. I was amazed by the HTC Vive, bought a DJI drone for my birthday and crashed it immediately (luckily only destroying the majority of the propellers, which thankfully can be replaced). I was thoroughly impressed by the Hue Tap working without batteries or electricity (it gets its charge through the interaction!). I kind of fell out of love with the iPad Air, but I did get a iPad Pro for testing and surpisingly liked it.

For travel, I bought a HORI Playstation 4 monitor that has become a travel mainstay, and got a Casio Solar Edifice Black watch that is not a smart watch, but does automatically adjust to my time zone – which is lovely. I switched out the Parrot Zik 2 for a Bang & Olufsen H8 early on in the year, and by the end of year switched to a Sennheiser Momentum Wireless set because, while lovely, the touchpad on the H8 kept messing me up. The Momentum Wireless has enough battery to last the DL201 flight and a transfer, which is really all I need.

My old trusty Samsonite Pillow backpack, the one I bought after my identical one was stolen at E3 a few years ago, finally gave up on my trip to Hong Kong, and was replaced by a Samsonite Pro-DLX 4 17” backpack. They don’t make the Pillow anymore. I carried it home, and it sits in a cabinet full of memorabilia from my life (I also can’t bring myself to throw out the leather jackets I own).

As for what I carry in it, my old MSI laptop died within the year, and their customer support was the least pleasant experience I’ve had with customer support on this side of cheap ISP’s. Buying a new one, the HP Omen won out over the Razer Blade. It looks pretty silly, but it’s a powerful laptop that is both useful for work and entertainment. I’m pretty happy with it, but the battery life is awful, so I still have to carry my trusty Macbook Air. I can’t wait until they properly figure out the Microsoft Surface Book series.

The Samsung S6 Edge+ was my phone upgrade this year, and it works pretty well if you’re carrying a multitude of portable USB batteries around. Did you know the majority of the planet doesn’t carry portable batteries around? I do now, after spending an hour in the cold in Philadelphia outside a door without any charge in my phone, unable to get the people inside to look for me.

I saw a lot of the world this year! Hong Kong was a personal favorite, with a lovely and growing indie community. This year’s A MAZE Johannesburg was so, so lovely as usual. I had a great time in Skövde, Sweden and spent some time in Dundee, Scotland with YoYo Games. My return to Buenos Aires was an amazing trip that led to my favorite memory of 2015: singing a Dutch song during an impromptu improvised karaoke in the cellar of a bar – with two dozen variably inebriated Argentians trying to sing Dutch along with me.

In terms of people and experiences and memories, 2015 was lovely. There was Train Jam again, or a great night at a silent disco in Philadelphia at the Forbes 30 under 30, playing The Beginners Guide as a full game after discussing an earlier version with months earlier, having friends over with their Xbox One’s because supported or not, we will play the Halo 5 campaign together. Adriel and I drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles with Adam Boyes in the back of our car hours before his E3 stage performance. I ate a ridiculously hot habanero pepper on a YouTube show together with The Future Host Of The Star Wars Premiere and Shuhei Yoshida. I spent a lot of time with people that inspire me, veteran developers whose work I’ve played since I was a kid, spent a lot of time with developers all over the world making amazing stuff, went to magic shows with close friends, and wandered fields and mountains alike. I spent a few days in a little cabin in the middle of nowhere with Adriel, near a giant crater lake, just doing nothing.

I’ve spent time with old friends, and met a lot of wonderful new people.

In terms of my talks, I think I’ve given some of the best ones I’ve done this year. I noticed that I’ve slowly transitioned my talks a bit – I used to be of the mindset that I’d rather be slightly over-optimistic than scare off potentially great designers, but I realize my words is rather unlikely to scare away somebody that’ll do great work. Instead, I focused more on the challenges and realities of independent game development, giving practical advice and reality checks. A last-minute talk in the Netherlands in that style was extremely well received, although it might’ve shattered some dreams here and there. I’m still not sure where the tone of my talks will evolve to, but I’m still enjoying doing them a lot. My audiences seem happy, so that seems like a good deal.

gamedev.world is still on hold, while I wrap up on my final responsibilities on other projects. I’m extremely excited to start working on it after the announcement earlier this year, and most of the pieces are in place, but after two false starts, we’ve decided to take more time to think through the project. The project comes with a lot of responsibility, and we intend to do it right rather than fast.

distribute() finally gained steam, after investing a reasonable amount of money and working on it for over a year with fellow developer Martijn Frazer. presskit() obviously has way more reach, being free and self-hosted, but distribute() fills a void that no one had filled yet. I’m seeing different services pop up that offer the same services for a small fee, and I hope distribute() being free indefinitely will force those other prices to stay affordable for independent developers.

Finally, and obviously, we released Nuclear Throne. I am so extremely proud of what we’ve achieved in the two and a half years we’ve been working on it. It was such a long stretch, and we could’ve not gotten this far without support from Steam, Twitch, Humble, YoYo Games and SONY. We spent so much time working with lovely people. The sales figures are wonderful, the support we’ve had from new and old fans alike has been overwhelming, and people’s patience with the problems the game had on launch was heartwarming. Nuclear Throne is sitting on a 9.0 score average, and we’re receiving enormous amounts of fanart and love. We’re currently working on ensuring the game is stable, works well on all configurations, and getting a patch out for Playstation platforms.

There are quite some lessons to be learned from the development of Nuclear Throne, but that’s a story for another day, when we have some more distance and perspective.

It’s never going to ‘click’ for me that I have an opportunity to have a positive impact for creators worldwide in this medium, but I’m slowly learning to deal with things like the responsibility of having a 100,000 Twitter followers, or getting recognized at events (or even in public sometimes). It’s odd, but I’ve been on the other side of that so often that I’m extremely grateful to anyone who decides to come over and say ‘hi’ despite nerves or hesitations. If you ran into me in 2015, but didn’t say ‘hi’, please do so next time we run into each other. If we don’t run into each other in real life, maybe come hang out in one of the livestreams. I intend to do them a bit more frequent – and a bit more scheduled – this year.

For now, I continue to be so grateful for the fantastic people around me, and the people I interact with and run into around the world that continue to grant me more hospitality and friendliness than a traveler like myself could possibly hope for. I hope to travel, learn and make so much more, and to share those stories with you.

Make games,

Best,

Rami