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Rami Ismail Posts

Time & Money

For work on the PlayStation build of Nuclear Throne, I need access to a PlayStation 4 devkit, a physical device much like a modified PlayStation. There’s one set up at our office, and I’ve ensured I can access it from anywhere through the internet via a VPN connection, which (simplified) makes a computer from anywhere in the world pretend it’s connected to the PlayStation devkit directly. Sadly, my VPN connection from Los Angeles to Hilversum, the Netherlands was slow. While it was definitely functional, it wasn’t great and only refreshed the output from the PlayStation once every 4-6 seconds. That meant that a lot of bugs would be hard to spot on the first try. Assume a Nuclear Throne build takes about 2 to 4 minutes, sending the executable over the internet adds about a minute, and I might have to restart the process a few times to ensure I didn’t miss anything.

I did some quick math with how much time it would cost me, took Vlambeer’s hourly income, and basically figured it’d be a sound choice to fly home to work on the actual devkit. Time is worth money too, and the amount and stress that’d come from running the VPN connection isn’t worth it. So, I’m flying 11,000 miles – 5,500 both ways – this week because my VPN is slow.


Pitching feelings

I spent some time today guest lecturing at USC, and one of the most common pitching errors I come across is the idea that you have to primarily pitch mechanics. Sure, you can pitch what the player does in the game, but that is far less important than what that makes the player feel or achieve. Think about that when writing your pitch, and avoid the usual hyperbole, quantifiers, numbers, subjective words and common positive words or qualifiers without meaning.

Bad Info

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned the Dunning-Kruger curve before, the psychological effect of illusionary superiority by relatively unskilled people. I usually discuss the effect in terms of imposter syndrome, but that’s just one of the many implications of this simple law. Another implication of the curve is that if you place a lot of relatively unskilled people together, you create an environment in which a lot of information is exchanged as being true, regardless of its veracity.

This is something I’ve seen to painful effect in many environments: I’ve seen it at many universities, but also in game development forums, or extremely popular Facebook groups. When all opinions are equal in a creative process, you don’t necessarily get the best result: you get the safest result. If the majority of participants are either uninvolved, unaffected or unskilled, you get way worse than that. If they’re all of those, it’d be a miracle to get something awful regardless of intent or effort.

The best way to avoid bad information is through reckless collision with reality, or smaller and more specialized communities. While these communities definitely create a sense of security, and a sense of others getting it, the reality of game development is often far harsher. Reach out to game developers you look up to, or experiment with social media. In the end, it’s hard to make bad choices, but really easy to make uninformed ones. Check your information by seeing if you can find the opposite position argued, check your assumptions by rigorous playtesting with the intended audience, and check who is giving you what advice and what their credentials are.

Having no information and having to figure it out yourself is a much better spot to be in than being bombarded with and following bad info.

Middle of nowhere

My idea of distance as a person raised primarily in the Netherlands is entirely not applicable to the majority of countries in the world. Travel two hours as the bird flies, from my apartment, in any direction and you’d better know German, French, English, or whatever the fish near the coast of Norway speak. My inherent understanding of distance is that two hours of driving is far, and my mother used to pack lunch boxes for a huge undertaking like that.

The Netherlands, regardless, house almost 20 million people – making the country incredibly dense. The distance between most cities can easily be traversed by bike in the time of a normal driving commute in many countries. To many Dutch people, the Middle Of Nowhere is a place that takes more than 20 minutes to reach by bike from a major city, small villages that have limited access to the public transport system.

So even though I’ve driven across the US multiple times now, I am still fascinated by the real Middle Of Nowhere. There’s nothing. No human settlements, nothing beyond the roads and powerlines and the occasional advertisement. At night, you can drive for hours without encountering a single soul. You can see the stars against the deepest dark.

Someone built these roads through the Middle Of Nowhere just recently. I wonder if that was scary or lonely.

La Equis

I was curious about a giant, red, X-shaped monument we drove by on our trip to Los Angeles. Situated on the Mexican side of the border near El Paso/Juarez, the construction easily grabbed our gaze. I spent some time researching the monument, but couldn’t find much information beyond that it was made by Sebastián and controversial for its excessive costs. It’s apparently named ‘La Equis’ or simply ‘Monument X’, and the artistic statement behind the monument is almost impossible to establish through the internet. Some say the ‘X’ symbolizes the creation myth of the Five Suns. Some say it’s a reference to the diverse genetic background of the Mexican people. Sebastián himself is said to have said it’s a reference to many things, but also that it refers to president Benito Juárez, who changed the official spelling of Méjico to Mexico.

That last notion fascinated me, because I’ve been told both spellings are still being used today across the planet. Searching for that just gave me a whole lot of ‘Mexico o Méjico’, and the Wikipedia page for Benito Juárez warns me that a lot of his life’s story might have been exaggerated by the then-ruling elite.

A piano

One of the few things in live I really wish I had as a kid that I didn’t was creating music as part of my life as a kid. We weren’t a very rich family, although we got by, but the luxury of a piano was never there. I’m not sure if that was because we didn’t have the space, time, or knowledge in house – but regardless, it is something I regret.

So for my 2,5 year relationship anniversary with Adriel – who did learn to play piano as a kid, and thoroughly misses having one at home – I saved money for a few months and ordered a piano for our apartment. It’s a gorgeous digital piano, one that took me weeks to pick.

I don’t believe in expensive gifts, and I always believe that experiences are better gifts than material goods, and as such a piano is a bit of an odd gift for me to give. In the end, though, I concluded that that missed experience in my life – the one of not having a piano around as a kid – means that an instrument might not actually be a material possession. It’s just a very long-term experience.

My hope is that the gift not only a way for her to play an instrument she loves, but also something that anchors our apartment in a gift that evokes consideration and confidence in our relationship, a gift for us, something that makes our apartment more ours. I hope she likes it.

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.


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.


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, the CIA World Fact Book,, (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.