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Rami Ismail Posts

An inline response to “wage-slaves”

I read this guest post by Alex St. John today on Venturebeat (which is one of my favorite destinations for industry news, by the way). I got angry. I wrote an inline response. The bold parts are the article’s original text. My responses are the rest of it. Yes, this lay-out is half-copied from the amazing (which you should read) because I couldn’t come up with another one this fast.

I read this article by Dean Takahashi the other day, and my jaw nearly hit the floor.

Mine too, I can’t believe structural crunch is still a problem in the games industry in 2016.

Many modern game developers have embraced a culture of victimology and a bad attitude toward their chosen vocations. They complain that the long hours and personal sacrifices great games require are a consequence of poor management.

And rightfully so, structural crunch is a horrible attitude and can really damage someone’s ability to function and enjoy their dream job.

They want to pretend that they can turn an inherently entrepreneurial endeavor like game development into a 9-to-5 job.

Wait, only entrepreneurs are entrepreneurial. People that are employed aren’t entrepreneurs. The whole definition of entrepreneur is that if you mess up, the risks are for you. The definition of employee is that you work the hours assigned to you for a wage.

Somehow, these people have managed to adopt a wage-slave attitude toward one of the most remarkable and privileged careers in the world.

I’ll give you that game development is a remarkable job, and I’ll give you that it’s a generally privileged career, but ‘wage-slave’? Isn’t that a tiny bit hyperbolic?

I’ve been working at technology startups since I was in my early 20s and later founding and running them. I’m fortunate for the career I’ve had, and I’ve always been grateful for the incredible opportunities that the technology industry has afforded me, especially when you consider that I grew up in a log cabin in Alaska with no electricity, plumbing, heating, or cable TV. I grew up largely home-schooled; I never did get that high school diploma. None of those educational shortcomings seems to matter in the high-tech world. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of truly amazing and hyperaccomplished people, many with backgrounds just as unorthodox as my own. It was my job at Microsoft and later at WildTangent to develop relationships with every leading game developer on Earth.

It’s lovely that this industry accepts people of “unorthodox” backgrounds. Definitely something I’d like to see more of.

I know I’m going to offend a lot of people by saying this, but I do so with the hope that a few will wake up and shake off their mental shackles. I’ll grant that it’s been 23 years since I used an outhouse or had to hunt for dinner, but I’m stillthrilled by the incredibly decadent luxury of porcelain toilets and fast food. I can’t begin to imagine how sheltered the lives of modern technology employees must be to think that any amount of hours they spend pushing a mouse around for a paycheck is really demanding strenuous work.

If your job is just pushing a mouse around, I can see how you got this attitude. However, game development is far more than that. Programmers are continuously working at their utmost mental capacity, solving and optimizing highly complex and intricate codebases. Modelers and artists are continuously creative, operating complex software to create high-quality art that needs to not just look nice, but also animate, shade and interact nicely. Musicians are continuously creative, exploring new ways to weave game and sonic qualities. Designers are continuously struggling with communicating ideas, creating interaction, player feedback, test feedback, at the forefront of our understanding of human-machine interaction. There’s dozens of more jobs that are all equally important to creating a great game, and none of them ends with pushing the mouse around. The jobs involved in the actual creation of a game require high degrees of specialization, research and care. All that happens when you push your mouse around is that the cursor moves. That’s the easy part.

I’ve hired thousands of people over the years and can’t help but notice the increasing frequency with which I encounter people with a wage-slave attitude toward making video games. A wage-slave attitude exhibits itself in several tragic ways.

I’m just going to assume ‘wage-slave’ is how you spell ‘healthy’.

I’ve known a lot of stupid self-made millionaires — really, hundreds of them — and they’re usually young as well. I’m talking about kids who made some of the worst games you can imagine and got rich accidentally, working in their parent’s basement in the Florida Everglades. They make their first game, get rich, and they’re gone, never having attended a single networking event at the Game Developers Conference, done.

This has absolutely nothing to do with your point, but good for them.

Contrast the dozens and dozens of these kids with the many game industry veterans I know that have long storied resumes listing dozens of triple-A console titles they have “labored” on, who decry the long working hours they are expected to invest in the games they are employed to work on.

Aren’t these veterans probably better equipped to discuss structural issues in the games industry than the Florida Everglades kid that made one game and never attended an industry event and then left the industry?

These people are smarter, more experienced, more talented, better trained to produce amazing games and they’re still working for paychecks and whining about avoiding long crunch hours to finish big titles or about not being paid fairly by some big employer.

Your complaint here is literally that someone asked to be paid fairly.

Listening to them complain about it, you would they think that they are trapped in some disenfranchised third-world country forced to dig for blood diamonds to feed their families.

I don’t know where you got that from, to me it sure looks like they’re just complaining about avoiding long crunch hours to finish big titles or about not being paid fairly by some big employer. The rest is your imagination.

I’ve never been able to mentally reconcile these conflicting experiences.

Conflicting experiences? You mean the conflicting experience of a Florida Everglades kid with an accidental hit and the 30-year industry veteran that has seen the structural shortcomings of the industry? You can’t mentally reconcile those? Or do you mean passion and health? You must either not be passionate or not healthy. They’re pretty easy to reconcile. You must lead a pretty sad life if you can’t seperate a passion for games and development from having a healthy and sustainable life.

Any time I hear this stuff, I tell these people; quit, go make great games on your own, pursue your passion, you’re better equipped to succeed than any of the dozens and dozens of amateur kids I’ve seen retire early while you were still “trapped” in a job you hated and trying to rationalize mailing in a 40-hour work week makingvideo games.

What I’m reading is “You don’t need to pay rent. Just do exactly as the Florida Everglades kid did. It’s a simple process. Step 1: Quit your job. Step 2: Move your family of four to your parents’ basement. Step 3: make a multi-million dollar game. Step 4: done.”

To my great shock and disappointment, they never respond to this feedback with any sort of enlightenment or gratitude for my generous attempt at setting them free — usually, I just get rage.

What a surprise.

Being a victim of their employers has somehow managed to become a deeply cherished part of their core identities and any suggestion that they are far better equipped to rekindle their sheer passion for making games, do a Kickstarter startup with their other talented friends and crank out an original hit game, than a bunch of amateur kids working in Flash, is greeted with a lot of anger.

You literally told them that their requests for ‘fair wage’ and ‘not horrible crunch’ is only to be valid if they go independent and risk their financials and families.

They rant about the value of “work-life-balance”,

That’s a great and important thing to rant about.

how hit games can be delivered on a schedule with “proper management”

Which is (mostly) true.

and how they can’t produce their best work when their creative energies are tapped after a long forty-hour work week

Creatives can’t do creative work after doing too much creative work? You’d almost think this is common sense. Athletes can’t perform their best after their athletic energies are tapped after a long forty-hour work week either.

 … sitting … at a desk….

You keep forgetting the actual work part that the sitting at the desk thing enables.

Apparently people can even “burn out” working too hard to make … video games….

Did you just say burnout in the industry isn’t real? I can’t figure out if that’s what your saying but it sure seems like you’re saying that.

Having worked with many of the game industry’s most legendary game developers and also many of the game industry’s least known early retirees, I can’t help noticing a clear and distinct difference between the people who really make it huge in gaming and the people who just have long résumes.

Me too.

It’s the attitude.


Every legendary game developer I’ve ever known pursued gaming as a vocation out of sheer passion. Most could have made more money, had more security, lived more “balanced lives” in other tech jobs, but they wanted to make games and they pursued it 110 percent all the time.

You act like this is exclusive to ‘legendary game developers’, but this goes for pretty much most people in this industry. You work in the industry because you care.

Not a single person I have ever known who went on to greatness in the gaming industry has ever exhibited a shred of wage-slavishness.

That’s because those people tend to be the CEO, or founder. They pay themselves, and they can choose when to go home. The only valid point you’re making here is that as an industry, we’re still not good at celebrating or communicating that great games are made by an amazing team, instead of a single designer.

Making games is not a job — it’s an art.

What is it with this making two compatible things mutually exclusive? Passion and taking care of yourself aren’t mutually exclusive. Making art and a job isn’t mutually exclusive. Monet was a painter. That’s a job. His job produced art. Shakespeare was a writer. That’s a job. His job produced art. Marina Abramovic is a performance artist. That’s a job. Her work produced art.

You can’t “make fun” on a schedule, under budget, on time with a bunch of people who are all grumbling about what a miserable time they are having finishing a game together.

You can’t, which is why you make sure that your employee’s aren’t miserable finishing a game together, because you did stay on schedule, under budget and on time. This situation occurs when your schedule sucked and your budget sucked, and that’s the fault of the entrepreneurs – not the employees.

That’s not to say that there aren’t good organized ways to produce games,

Then why not use those, so that the tragic complaints go away?

but it will always still come down to the same thing. Great games are exclusively made by giving them everything you’ve got and more, and then hoping it’s enough.

Great games can be made by giving them everything you’ve got and more, and great studios and developers are made by not burning the fuck out. Turns out great studios and developers make better games, because they have more experience that they can apply because they did not burn the fuck out.

There’s no amount of money that anybody can pay people with a wage-slave attitude to let it go and put themselves completely into a great game.

Wage-slave attitude just means ‘employee’ here and thank you very much but those hundreds of ‘wage-slaves’ that work on each AAA title deserve not just our utmost respect, but also reasonable wages and working hours.

There’s nothing that can compensate people “fairly” for the sacrifices that great art requires.

I’m having a hard time ‘mentally reconciling’ you saying game development is ‘just sitting at a desk’ and ‘the sacrifices for great art’. But, I agree. There’s no way to compensate fairly for those sacrifices. Especially not if your schedule is awful and your budget is too low. So maybe don’t have an awful schedule and too low budgets.

It’s art.


You need to get an actual job producing productivity software if you want to be paid “fairly” and go home at 5 p.m.

Last time I checked ‘producing software’ is exactly the job description you have working at a large studio and there is no shame in that. What guts to imply people demanding more sensible hours are lacking passion for the art games. Fuck that. They just care enough to wanna do it forever.

Anybody good enough to get hired to write games can get paid more to work on something else.

And yet they’re here. Because they care.

If working on a game for 80 hours a week for months at a time seems “strenuous” to you … practice more until you’re better at it.

How about the people doing scheduling and budgeting get better at it? The entrepreneurs take the risks, so they should pay for mistakes. If your crew has to work overtime, pay them for it. If you’re a AAA, make sure they’ve got good health insurance, holidays, make sure they’re mentally & physically healthy and capable of creating the best game ever.

Making games is not a job,

If you’re doing it as your job, then yes it is.

pushing a mouse is not a hardship,

Repetitive strain injury disagrees, and I’m still curious what job you do that pushing a mouse is your full job.

it’s the most amazing opportunity you can possibly get paid to pursue …

I think everyone in this industry agrees with that one, but many of us also feel being paid ‘fairly’ and for all hours we work should be part of that deal.

start believing it,

Can I pay for this loaf of bread with my belief in how cool my job is? No?

and you’ll discover that you are even better at it.

Maybe if your job is pushing a mouse, believing will get you further. In this industry, you get better from making games, practicing and experience. You only get to use that experience if you don’t burn out entirely and leave for a saner industry.

Great art isn’t made by burning out making it. Great art is made through passion & experience and you won’t have either if you burn out.

Don’t be in the game industry if you can’t love all 80 hours/week of it

Don’t listen to this person. Please be in the games industry if you want to make games and care. I don’t care if you want to make games for 2 hours every night after work, or for 40 hours for a paycheck, or for 80 hours as an entrepreneur. Just don’t make others pay with their health for your shitty scheduling.

— you’re taking a job from somebody who would really value it.

Don’t worry, the way you see this industry they’ll burn out really fast too.

Devs, this is an absurd article. I care so much about games. I’ve dedicated my life so far to making games, to enabling others around the world to make games and to learn as much as possible about this medium – mobile, casual, AAA, indie, whatever. I tell you here and now: structural crunch is bad, and burning out is real. I hope you’ll take care of yourself, so we can have you and your games and your experience around in this industry for many more years to come. Whether it’s as a 9-to-5 employee making AAA games, a legendary developer, an indie working on their first games, or a part-time developer that makes games for fun. Be passionate. Make games. But please take care of you.


A good choice between A & B

Quantum Break is a video game intertwined with a TV series. It’s neither, and also both. It’s hard to explain. If there’s any spiritual predecessor for the game, it’d be Remedy’s previous release, Alan Wake. The game is set up similarly, in Episodes that are effectively TV series episodes, complete with cliffhangers and credits sequences. The actors used for the real-life TV series are also the motion capture, body capture and voice capture artist for the in-game models, and Remedy’s ability to seamlessly transfer us from game to real-life video is impressive.

In Quantum Break, the central idea is that the player plays two roles – the first role is Jack Joyce, our do-good protagonist who accidentally ends up setting the End Of Time in motion. The other role is the central antagonist, Paul Serene.

The majority of the game is played as Jack Joyce, and plays as a pretty good Third Person Shooter With A Twist – the ability to freeze and unfreeze time in certain locations. This can be used to really fun effects, slowing time down to stack bullets, dodging around an entire battlefield to flank your attackers, or creating a safe bubble around you to Catch Your Breath And Heal Bulletwounds. There’s some rather solid level design at work here, and the skirmishes are generally set up well. The game itself is gorgeous, and with the exception of some odd platforming puzzles, the atmosphere and set design is as consistently good as you’d expect.

At the end of each gameplay Episode the player switches perspective to Paul Serene, the antagonist, to show what he’s been up to, and to make a choice as Paul Serene between two options – a Junction. Both of the choices can be previewed, but those previews can be quite unpredictable.

After the Junction choice, the game switches to a TV episode for 20 minutes or so, where the contents of the series are directly affected by said Junction, and in smaller ways by events from the game. Usually, they show events that are happening at the same time as the player’s actions – some characters you run into in the game and some characters you never meet.

In the world of Quantum Break, time itself is collapsing, and the world is slowly unraveling into an infinite ‘stutter’ of time. Paul Serene has seen many futures, and his choices are built around a larger understanding of the mechanics of time and a way to stop the End Of Time.

Jack Joyce is mainly driven by anger and confusion, and only later comes to terms with what is at stake. This makes you vie for both Serene and Joyce, and that is the victory of Quantum Break. I found myself struggling at Junctions, trying to figure out whether my choices would harm not just my protagonist, but also my antagonist. At pretty much any point during the game, it is unclear whether the solutions suggested by both the protagonist or antagonist are capable of fixing Time.

In the end Quantum Break is a story about two conflicting and flawed humans at the center of extraordinary circumstances trying to do good, with many other flawed humans around them trying to do what is good. Remedy’s willingness to showcase protagonists and antagonists as humans – even literally so through the TV series – pays off. Remedy’s willingness to depict all primary and secondary characters as trying to solve a shared issue in different ways pays off beautifully through the Junction system.

It’s a good reminder that simplest game constructs in the world, in this case a choice between A and B, can be fascinating if the context is right.

The Nuke That Makes It All OK

To me, one of the most fascinating narrative things in games is the narrative justification for whatever unholy acts you have to fulfill to somehow end up on the side of good again. Where most games cater to a power fantasy, they also cater to a sense of moral justness, and to resolve the two people need a good reason for their spectacular murder sprees.

One of my favorite examples of that was very popular around 2005-2008, the peak of the FPS military single player campaign, and I have to admit I kind of miss it. It’s the third act nuke launch.

For the first two acts of the story, the game maintains a politically plausible narrative – a political faction separated itself from the forces of stability and order, but not unlike current political events. The player is sent to the Wartorn Country Du Jour, where they fight local inhabitants and their puppet masters. Players get to participate in something realistic.

While that creates a great theater for a story, games are commonly unhappy to tell a story – they’re expected to tell the story. The soldiers that breached the walls and died shortly thereafter while ensuring ultimate victory aren’t as interesting to the player’s agency as the one person that singlehandedly took down an army and the superweapon and the person that built it and also the person secretly behind all of it.

If your antagonist is a politically realistic faction, it’s unlikely you can tell that story. Reality rarely is that absolute, and few political factions are interested in triggering something of the scale that places the protagonist in the camp of Absolute Objective Good.

But we want to tell the story, the story of the hero – and as such, we need an absolute evil to the player’s rampant but absolute good. So at the start of the third act, we justify the player’s violence up to that point with a satisfying “They’re launching a nuke?!”

And it’s kind of reassuring, that nuke. We haven’t shot all these people for nothing. And everybody we shoot after that is fine too. You can have everything in your game script: realism and heroism – all you need is to launch the tired old nuke.


Convenience is something that sounds exclusively positive, but I was reminded yesterday that it can have rather harsh consequences.

During my irregular call-in show Call Me Ismail yesterday, Palestinian developer Rasheed Abueideh reached out to talk about his upcoming game Liyla. It’s an Android game based on the events of the Israeli attack on Gaza of 2014, from the perspective of a girl who lived through the war.

Rasheed called to talk about general advice, and one of the advices I gave him was to submit a game with such personal meaning to an event like IndieCade. The conversation that followed is included below.

IndieCade uses the convenience of a payment processor for the submission fee, which is $80. Payment processors are extremely convenient, in that dealing with payments in 2016 is still far more complicated than it should be – they take care of pretty much everything for you. Usually, processors allow multiple methods of payment – PayPal, creditcard and Amazon are popular offerings.

The problem is that convenience is often aimed at those already convenienced – and it’s difficult to consider beyond those boundaries. IndieCade’s payment processor accepted PayPal and Amazon, both of which are US regulated and both of which do not accept Palestine as a sovereign state, leaving Rasheed with a completely filled out submission form and no way to pay $80.

Whenever something others interact with is convenient for you, try and think how it might affect others. If you’re dealing with international issues, there’s too much to know – but there’s definitely steps you can take to consider geographical & cultural diversity. One of them is to put a message on your payment page allowing alternative payment requests to be made via e-mail, and having a clear user flow available upon request.

I’ve reached out to IndieCade organizers, and they have since started working on making clear there are alternative ways to pay.

Lightbars in Her Story

One part that’s interesting to analyze in a game is what the player’s presence is. In most modern games, players assume the role of a character, while in games like Candy Crush or Tetris, the player is simply that – the player. In some games, as Brendan Keogh pointed out in his analysis of SUPERHOT and Cibele, the player is intentionally kept out of the game world entirely or forcefully. One of my favorite recent games in terms of presence is Her Story, which has you assume the character of a detective (not very original) sitting behind a computer sifting through files (the player character does the same as the player, also not super original). But the light bars that reflect in the virtual screen of Her Story, those are something I hadn’t seen used like that.

The light bars, in the screens’ reflection, are inferred to be behind you in the physical world, your real-life reflection mixing with the reflection the game projects into our the real world. In a way, Her Story reaches into the real world and puts something there that isn’t real behind the player. It creates a weird sence of being enveloped by the game world, as your reflection and the game’s reflection meld together into what you see on your screen. It’s an extremely simple and subtle effect, but it created a sense of presence I’d expect of VR or AR, just like that.

Designed Language

I was thinking about language the other day and realized there’s a beautiful example of a system that is partially designed with intent, and partially grown through chaotic iteration. Most language has a design, but mostly has grown organically through a history of centuries and centuries. Anyway, I got curious about purely designed languages, such as Esperanto, and found an entire list of designed languages. There are two that stood out to me: Toki Pona, which is designed to be as small as possible, and Ithkuil, which is made to express human thought as accurately as possible. Where Toki Pona can be learned in days, a thought expressed in Ithkuil can easily take hours to construct.

The […] goal is to attempt the creation of what human beings, left to their own devices, would never create naturally, but rather only by conscious effort.

There’s an interesting notion there, design as opposition to organic and uncontrolled growth. I’m not sure whether I found anything to really dig at here, but I do know reading through the Wikipedia page for Constructed Languages is fascinating.

SUPERHOT and ripples

There’s one mantra that has guided me over and over and it is that every structural action you take causes ripples. I don’t want to go as far as to say I believe in the butterfly effect as much as 2015 horror title Until Dawn did. What I do believe in is that facilitating things pays off in the long run. If you worry that there are not enough developer meetups in your town, create one. If you want a certain game jam to exist, organize it. If you think games should be in gallerys, contact a gallery nearby. There’s no reason not to try, and it might just ripple further than you think.

A few years ago, fellow Vlambeer Jan Willem decided he had gotten bored of pretty much all AAA First Person Shooters, and that indies needed to make some First Person Shooters to create innovation. That led to him organizing the first 7DFPS in 2012, a seven day gamejam focused on the FPS genre. That, in turn, led to the jam being held again the year after. That jam saw a group of Polish developers creating a prototype of a first person shooter that played with time and movement. That first person shooter got popular enough that the developers decided to pursue it as a commercial project. That project came out today, and it’s named SUPERHOT. And it’s fantastic. It’s also priced at $25, which is awesome. Who knows. Maybe that’ll cause ripples.


Adriel and I were visiting Campagne Cafe in Seattle at the recommendation of a friend & got to talking about salads when Adriel ordered one. We ended up talking about how salads are referred to as ‘rabbit food’ by people in the US sometimes, and I thought it was interesting as the Dutch will call it ‘konijnenvoer’. The two of us being huge etymology fans, but the etymology here seemed obvious (did you know the English word “rabbit” also comes from Middle Dutch robbe?) – what caught us this time is that the term is usually used in a negative way, while salads are generally a healthy and good thing to eat.

The solution is obvious: since salads are a generally healthy and often low-calorie thing to eat, it triggers the holier-than-thou backlash in people who are not eating a healthy salad. The same effect exists when it comes to vegetarians, people on a diet eating small portions, and people that don’t drink. The salad one is extra devious when it comes to traditional and outdated gender expectations: it’s most commonly employed by men, and societal expectations nudges women to put more effort into looking good and thus getting into (delicious) salads, it’s mostly employed against women. In other words, men generally expect women to look slim, but they also poke fun at them for using diets or employing more considerate food choices to achieve that. That’s kind of messed up.

I asked a few female friends to see if they ever felt made fun of for eating a salad, and it ended up being a thing that was almost unanimous. I was told it’s a common annoyance in business and work environments, and in fact, some mentioned, it’s so common that men will make fun of ordering a salad, that some of them have started having salad parties away from men. Turns out that healthy food also tastes great, and that people generally feel great about being allowed to eat their food without being made fun of.

I, for one, have decided to just not poke fun at what people order in terms of food – whether it’s quantity, type or place. I hate it when people make ‘witty’ comments about me not drinking, and I realized phrases like ‘rabbit food’ kind of do the same to people that like salads. Next time, I’ll order some sort of salad too, because chatting with my friends sure seems to suggest they’re awesome.

Fire Emblem: Fates & Localisation

One of the most interesting conversations happening in games right now is the controversy surrounding Fire Emblem: Fates, a Nintendo game in the popular Fire Emblem series. While the game originally launched in Japanese markets in June 2015, the US version of the game came out today (as of this writing, there is no mention of a EU release date), and it’s already one of the most controversial launches in quite a while. The controversy is focused on the localisation of the game.

The goal of localization is to create an enjoyable, non-confusing play experience for the end user by paying heed to their specific cultural context. The suspension of disbelief is of utmost importance to the process; if a player feels as though the product was not meant for them, or if the localization creates confusion or difficulty in comprehension, this may break immersion and disrupt the player’s ability to continue the game.

In Fire Emblem Fates, a number of changes have been made to accomodate US audiences. To reflect the PEGI-12 rating and US culture, some dialogue has been changed to avoid reference to drugging a character and gay conversion, a mini-game in which your character – the leader of a warrior force traveling the lands – could pet other characters has been cut, some character personalities have been made to fit Western story archetypes and obviously, the game and audio have been translated.

These changes have particular parts of the internet up in arms about the purity of the game as art being lost. As they see it, the game is art, and as such should not be modified from how it was created originally, regardless of anything. Others argue that localization and game development are both expensive, and that as such an entertainment product should be optimized to be as profitable as possible – to ensure future games can be made.

What I do know is that Fire Emblem: Fates would’ve not existed without Nintendo funding it, that developer Intelligent Systems worked with Nintendo on creating and localizing the game through localisation studio Nintendo Treehouse, and that there is no reason to believe the developers feel their intention has been modified or thwarted.

This comes back to a larger issue: audiences believe they know the developers of their games – while very commonly, they have no idea. Somehow, it seems completely reasonable to people on the internet to claim ‘the purity of the games’ intent’ has been modified’, while the only people that can really say so are the developers and the publisher. Seeing the publisher made the choice to localise the game and signed off on it, I think the ‘purity’ argument doesn’t hold. If the average user doesn’t notice that the localisation changed things from the Japanese version, it seems like the localisation was a success. Those who want to play the game ‘pure’ can import the original Japanese version.

That doesn’t leave me ultimately conflicted: I believe a large strength of games is that it reflects the creators’ culture. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to reconcile that with localisation, but I do believe that having access to localised content while funding new projects is better than not having access at all. In an interesting move, groups of fans that didn’t just go and yell at things have created patches that allow the legally bought version of the game to be ‘patched’ to use a fan translation and restores the mini-games.

Only Nintendo has a good idea of how the controversy affects their bottom line, and what the majority audience of Fire Emblem: Fates is. I’m looking forward to seeing how it handles these issues in the future.

Devil Daggers

Sorath’s Devil Daggers released today and it is fantastic. It’s fast-paced, it’s brutal and it’s relentless. What is most striking about how relentless it is, though, is not the relentless action – the type of overwhelming mayhem Vlambeer uses in our own games to force flow in the player –  Devil Daggers is relentless in its identity. More than anything, it has become clear that independent titles that manage to relentlessly adhere to their internal style are amongst the only ones that really stand a chance. Games like Hotline Miami, Undertale, Her Story and The Witness are all games with their own flaws and strengths, but what they have in common is that they are succesful, and that they refuse to be anything but themselves. They have a sense of identity, and they understand that identity from start to finish.

I argued the other day that auteurship might have its potential pitfalls too, and this all seems to loop back to games and trees. Games grow an identity, and it’s up to the developer to recognize, amplify and communicate that identity. If you’re working on a independent game, see if you can find anything that looks, sounds or plays similar. If you can, you might want to think very carefully about where the identity of your game is.

And if you haven’t picked up Devil Daggers, you should do so.

The disappointing ending of Firewatch

[stag_icon icon=”exclamation-triangle” url=”” size=”32px” new_window=”no”] Content warning: discusses Firewatch spoilers

Campo Santo’s lovely debut title Firewatch has released to both critical and financial success, and yet the internet seems to be split on one specific element of the game: the ending of the game. During the course of the game, the player assumes the role of Henry, a man running from life and a marriage falling apart by taking a job as a firewatch in a national park. Through a walkie-talkie, he speaks to his supervisor Delilah, who is a mountain away. Throughout the course of the game, the two get personal and flirty, and something of a romance blossoms in the subtext.

As the game progresses, it sets everything up for Delilah and Henry to meet. The problem to a lot of people is that they never do. During a raging forest fire threatening the entire area, Henry discovers that an oversight made by Delilah might mean she is partially responsible for a young boy’s death, Delilah is devestated, but says she’ll wait until Henry arrives at her watchtower, so they can finally meet. Before he can, though, she has been lifted out by rescue chopper. When he pleas with her to meet up later via the radio, Delilah tells him to go back to his wife.

That’s disappointing. Games aren’t meant to end on a disappointing note. Since we identify so strongly with the avatar, going for an impossible objective in your final stretch is pretty much the biggest fuck you the game could give you in terms of game development. You fail. Henry is dependent on Delilah, looking to meet finally her, and you can’t. Delilah leaves and decides things are better that way. She doesn’t want to meet anymore.

And you know what? I love it. It’s brilliant. Delilah doesn’t want to meet. Life sucks sometimes. Deal with it. I’m glad a game can be that, too. That people can leave feeling upset, incomplete, frustrated, and thoroughly sad.

So to everyone complaining that Firewatch has a disappointing ending? I’m glad you liked the ending.

Ludoludologic dissonance?

The Witness has an interesting design premise: it’s a game that comes from a strong and singular authorial vision. However, having played through many hours of The Witness so far, I would posit that that strength is also its biggest weakness.

The strengths are easy to discuss: The Witness was created over seven years purely around Jonathan Blow’s vision of the game – creating something strongly consistent and focused.

The weakness is more subtle: while The Witness is absolutely magnificent at certain times, I felt myself feeling uneasy most of the time. For some reason, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Jonathan Blow was standing behind me, looking over my shoulder as I played, nodding appreciatively every time I solved a puzzle, and shaking his head disappointedly every time I took a minute too long.

In the case of The Witness, very often I feel it was created entirely for the creator. In many ways, it’s amazing that a game like it can exist, and just for that reason it’s worthwhile playing it. But at its core, the game is dissonant with itself. It’s not ludonarrative dissonance, but ludoludologic dissonance. It’s a game based around auteurship, but it can’t avoid that games, ultimately, have to be about the collision with the player, too.

Red Barrels

Speaking of Firewatch yesterday, this tweet by the amazing Jane Ng went out a few days ago, and I had strong feelings about it. Jane Ng is an artist on Firewatch, which was made by the around 10-person strong San Francisco studio Campo Santo. A few months ago I gave this talk at Develop 2015, which should explain why.

My basic argument is that, unlike traditional wisdom says, actual honesty with your community is important to your community health, humanizes you as a developer and ensures audience expectations of games and game developers remain realistic. Our industry has pampered our users for far too long, while most of them are capable of acting like adults that can deal with a healthy dose of reality.

Those that don’t, don’t have to be part of your community. The transaction of buying a game entitles a player to the game, and not to participation in your community forums or discussions. They’re not entitled to you being nice just because they bought a product. You are not a hostage of the few dollars they spent on your game, ensuring that whatever nonsense they say, you should smile and nod. They spent those dollars on your game, not on you having to ensure they can shout in your forums.

I’ve started calling the traditional notion of community management the “Red Barrel” strategyWe’ve traditionally been taught that every member of the audience is a Red Barrel. If you touch it, it’s liable to explode and destroy you and everything audience Other Barrels around itself, some of which might be other Red Barrels. Any member of the audience can write a scathing review, drum up support on some online forum and cause you some discomfort – the metaphorical Red Barrel.

That traditional view implies we view our audience as things in the world without agency, though – Other Barrels. When you start considering them as player characters with full agency in a multiplayer simulation, the whole situation changes a lot. Now, we’ve got one player with a “Red Barrel” perk that might or might not self-detonate on being touched, and a lot of other players walking around. Just the notion that there might be players that self-detonate will shape every players behaviour, leading to all players having a healthy dose of distance, skepticism and pro-active aggression towards each other.

That’s why I prefer to honestly engage with posts like the one Jane responded to, or, metaphorically, engaging with any “Red Barrel” as soon as I’ve cleared the environment. At worst, you’ll find a Red Barrel, and it’ll detonate. That’ll cause you discomfort, but it’ll also let your community know Red Barrels will be taken care of and that you’ll engage with them as adults with full agency. At best, it turns out the player wasn’t a Red Barrel at all, and was just being conditioned by the potential presence of other Red Barrels. In that case, literally everybody wins.


Being half-Egyptian, the ongoing and unstable political situation in Egypt is extremely worrying to me. This AP article has a great short description of what’s going on, but the quote I want to talk about is this one:

The standoff between policemen and doctors suggested that Egypt’s powerful security forces may have overstepped their limits by clashing with one of the country’s most respected professions. On Friday, the Arabic hashtag “support the doctors’ syndicate” was trending on Twitter in Egypt. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a prominent local rights group, said the doctors’ assault was “a reflection of the level of police abuse of authority these days.”

Many third-world countries around the world still have very strong connotations of family honor, and Egypt is no exception to that. In the mind of Egyptian parents, there are three professions that have status: a Doctor, a Lawyer or an Engineer. For women, being a Nurse or a Teacher are considered acceptable too. There’s tremendous pressure, whether imagined or real, for kids to adhere to those aspirations to ensure a good income and support their family and their future families. Game development can luckily be argued to fall under engineering, although it’s not always accepted as such, so most kids with aspirations there simply refer to it as pure computer science.

It’s a pressure I don’t really know an equivalent for in most Western culture, but the pressure is common enough that it’s become a meme (a م?) amongst kids of Arabic descent. With how powerful memes are in spreading local culture, it seems that there might be a push to more diverse jobs and more creative jobs, which – sadly – the economical and political situation in Egypt currently does seem to not afford. The Arab Spring was largely fueled by the internet, through memes and Facebook and digital communication, and the new Egyptian regime has learned from its predecessors mistakes. I’m anxiously looking forward to an election year, and while I’m fearful that’s when things go sour, I’m hopeful Al-Sisi will do the right thing.

If you’re interested in the Egyptian revolution of 2011, I can recommend the English-subtitled Netflix documentary الميدان, which powerfully shows an on-the-ground perspective of the Egyptian revolution from the perspective of Egyptians – people speaking Arabic, living in Cairo.

What am I arguing anyway?

[stag_icon icon=”exclamation-triangle” url=”” size=”32px” new_window=”no”] Content warning: discusses US abortion debate

If you’re on the internet, you’ve probably noticed it has effectively split into two camps. One believes the internet should be a place where people get treated with respect, where disagreement is handled properly and where people are generally held to the standards of decency you’d expect in real life. The other group believes the internet’s power is that you can say whatever you like, even if that is awful or has no purpose beyond trying to hurt others.

I see a lot of people outraged, and then people outraged about people being outraged. The solution, however, is “simple”: fix the social imbalance or issue at the heart of the anger, and the anger goes away.

One of the clearest examples to me is the pro-choice versus anti-abortion debate in the US. In the United States, there’s an almost unbelievable discussion about whether abortion should be allowed at all. In the Netherlands, that topic has been cleared since 1984. Guess what happened? The anger and outrage, the protests and discussions? They went away. It turned out the women who wanted abortion to be a right were being held back by unfair laws, and the opponents were speaking on behalf of embryo’s, fetuses, and God.

The other day, a US pro-choice group was extremely critical of a Doritos commercial.

To someone from the Netherlands, getting upset over this commercial feels ridiculous – but we haven’t lived with the requirements of debate, and the oppression of laws regarding abortion for over 30 years now. To most people in the Netherlands, that discussion is not part of their life. In the US, hundreds of millions of people are directly affected by the outcome of that debate, and the slow progress of freedom. What is and isn’t important to get upset about is so dependent on perspective, that my golden rule has become to check what side I’m on: those arguing their personal freedom, or those upset on behalf of something else. Am I arguing that I’m upset, or am I upset that others are? One is valuable. The other is a waste of time. Freedom isn’t one big thing. It’s lot of little things.


My favorite ‘laws’ in life are those that seem remarkably simple & obvious, but that have a lot of unexpected implications. One of my favorite is a Human-Computer Interaction law called Fitts’ Law. While there’s a lot of specificity you can discuss, the basic version of the law is as follow:

The further away and the smaller something is, the more difficult it’ll be for the user to point at it.

That’s it. If you’re using a mouse, and you’re trying to hit a tiny button half across the screen, it’ll take more effort than it’ll take you to hit a giant button right next to your cursor. The law extends far beyond that, but that’s the basic gist of it. While I’m not going to jump into the math behind it too much, in a mathematical way, it was originally written in 1954 as:

ID = log2 * ( ( 2 * D ) / W )

ID is the Index of Difficulty, or basically how hard the task is. is the distance to the object you’re trying to point at, and is the width of the object. For W, consider an infinite line from your current position – for now let’s use the mouse or cursor as an example – through the button you want to point at and all the way to the edge of your screen. Any point of that line that touches the object you want to touch is part of W. That means a vertically oriented button you’re trying to point at from a point underneath it is going to be easier to point at than a horizontally oriented button.

I was thinking about Fitts’ Law today because I was discussion Destiny’s fantastic menu UI with a fellow designer. You see, Destiny uses Fitts’ Law in a very clever way – by increasing the functional size of the items you want to point at. What’s important to realize is that Destiny’s buttons actually aren’t as big as they seem – they’re much larger than that. When you move your cursor towards an interactive element, your cursor ‘sticks’ to them and slows down, at least until you’ve passed well beyond the object itself. That means that the functional size of those buttons is extended. Because of the slowdown, the width of the button is virtually increased, and thus the difficulty of pointing at it reduced.

In Windows, you can find another really interesting implication of Fitts’ Law in the shape of the Start button. Since the button is in the lower-left corner of the screen and the screen is a hard bound, the Start buttons’ width has become functionally infinite. There is no way to overshoot it, so any fast movement with enough distance to the lower-left corner will always land you on the Start button. It doesn’t just sit at the edge of the screen – it sits in all the non-existent space beyond that too. When you look at good UI design, you’ll notice important elements tend to be aligned to the edge of the screen. Apple OSX then combines both the edge of the screen and a literal size increases in their Dock.

There are many more fascinating implications of Fitts Law, but what I always appreciated about it as that after your first moment of ‘of course, this is so obvious‘, there’s always that moment where it suddenly clicks, and you start seeing a new system in the world. Suddenly, it’s impossible to not see. To me, that’s the beauty of simple laws.

Essence Statement

If you’re working on a creative project with multiple people, think about your essence statement. An essence statement is a single sentence that explain the core value and purpose of your product. It is not used for external communication like a product pitch is, but is mostly for internal communication in the team. It doesn’t describe the mechanics or aesthetics as much as it discusses what the goal of the project is as a creative product.

Nuclear Throne is a top-down shooter that’ll stay fun to play for us as creators.
LUFTRAUSERS is a game about being the best fighter pilot in the world.
Ridiculous Fishing is a game with an infinite and positive feedback loop.
Super Crate Box is a game against camping.

Every game is different, and the thesis for each game is different. Being able to communicate why you’re making your game, or what feeling you’re trying to effect in the player, will help a lot with figuring out what your goals are. Is your essence statement more of a feeling – like we did in LUFTRAUSERS – you’re probably going to want to focus on things that create that feeling. What makes a fighter pilot feel like the best? Skimming over the water, avoiding ridiculous amounts of bullets, taking out overwhelming odds, airobatics and stunts. In Ridiculous Fishing, our focus was elsewhere entirely – we tried to create a multi-stage feedback loop that was rewarding and positive regardless of level of play.

Communication is hard enough without a clear direction, and I find essence statements help me lock on to what we’re creating.


When I arrived at Dallas airport I decided to buy and try a Tile. They’re nifty little gadgets, basically tiny square pieces of plastic you can attach to whatever thing you own. After you activate a Tile, your phone will be able to monitor the distance to the phone within Bluetooth range, saves the last GPS location the Tile connected to your phone, and you can trigger the Tile to make a sound. Finally, Tile’s connect to any phone running the App, meaning that even if something is very far away, other Tile users will update its approximate location for you.

It’s clever design – not using the Tile’s GPS but your phone’s GPS means that all the Tile needs to do is broadcast a low-energy signal that the phone can collect. That way, the battery can work for a year before running out. I think the thing that I appreciate most is how it’s solving the issue with an inverse and almost playful solution: if you want to know where something is, you don’t need its exact location: the distance to where your phone last noticed it, and some playful testing of what direction to move in, should be enough.

I was happy to have one in my backpack last week in Arizona, as I couldn’t find where we’d parked the car when we visited the Grand Canyon. The Tile in my backpack led me there perfectly.

Strong & Weak

[stag_icon icon=”exclamation-triangle” url=”” size=”32px” new_window=”no”] Content warning: discusses Gamergate

One of the most fascinating political ‘public relations’-plays in the world is something I like to call ‘strong and weak’. It’s something I first noticed in the continuing coverage of the conflict in Israel & Palestine, but once you spot it it becomes very clear very quickly that it’s used in all sorts of political situations. It effectively is used as such: we are ready and capable of overcoming this obstacle, but this obstacle is impossible to overcome. It presents the user as both strong and weak at the same time, sometimes contradicting itself, but usually using two seperate perspectives to get the advantages of both.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is used by both sides to justify violence. The Israeli miltary forces effectively have to ensure to the world and themselves that they are extremely prepared, and surely will be the victor in any armed conflict. At the same time, they have to emphasize how vulnerable their position is, and that their defenses are easily penetrated by terrorists. The violent Palestinian factions that oppose Israel need to emphasize that they are capable of eradicating Israel, but also that they are fighting a foe that has superior weaponry and military. The reason is simple: people won’t follow a losing faction, but they’re more likely to have sympathy for a losing side. Nobody feels bad for the winner, and nobody celebrates the loser. You don’t want to be on the losing side, but you can’t make a difference for a winner anyway.

It’s a similar thing you could’ve spotted in Gamergate. First, they hated and attacked just one person. Then they got too big and loud and things weren’t just bad – they looked bad from a PR perspective (yes, everything that interacts with an audience has PR, including things like that) too. Then it was two people and they had room to grow louder again. They grew too big, and then it was half a dozen people. Then it was all the games media. Then it was all the social media. Then it was all mainstream media. Then it was a conspiracy that included the US government. Eventually they settled on a perceived global culture of political correctness. You can trace that development – they needed to appear strong enough to change things but also weak enough that you can make a difference. So as the harassment increased, and things started looking bad bad, they grew too big to need more support. So an extra threat got added. Conspiracies appeared. First they were small, and eventually the conspiracy theories included the US government.

It’s an interesting dynamic to keep in mind, and a fascinating one to look for. You can see it currently in US election rhetoric – mostly on the Republican side, but also on the Democratic side. You can find it in Islamophobia everywhere. It’s in every good Kickstarter pitch. We can make this a reality, but we don’t stand a chance. It’s a proven tactic, a subtle and powerful one. It’s is also a delicate one – go too far one way or the other and you need to escalate the opposite one.

Duality is an extremely powerful way of communicating with crowds, which behave very different from individuals. This strong-weak duality just happens to be an example that I’ve come to spot easily.


+ 393 days =

= $11,231.

$11,231 / 393 ≈ $29 per day for charity since the first tweet that would eventually lead to Squarebowl 2016.

Throw your ideas out there early. See whether you can get people on board. If your idea is any good, you’re an important element to the execution. Execute on the ideas that feel good.