AuthorRichard Atlas

Planning and the Unknown Unknowns

Last November, I gave a talk where I described the story of our video game Ultimate Chicken Horse from early conception to release and beyond. My goal was to amalgamate the answers I’ve given to people when they asked about different parts of the story: “how did you get funding? How did you get your game on PlayStation? How did you find your partners to start your company?”, etc. The format was to stop the story at each point where I felt I learned a lesson, and share those lessons with the audience.

One of the lessons that I drew from the chronological story of this journey was to try to think of everything. It seems obvious of course, but it seems like you couldn’t possibly know what you weren’t thinking of, because obviously you weren’t thinking of those things.  So given that “try to think of everything” is a bit hard to act on, I now use a new phrase: plan for the unknown unknowns.

https://encuentro.gr/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/023_CNT1_03.jpgWhen you don’t plan, you end up with half-built things.

This phrase is taken from a book by psychologist Daniel Kahneman called Thinking: Fast and Slow, in a section where he describes the planning fallacy. The planning fallacy is used to describe plans and forecasts that “are unrealistically close to best-case scenarios” and “could be improved by consulting statistics of similar cases”. The result, of course, is that plans take longer than planned, costs go way over budget, people get unhappy, products under-perform, and everybody loses. Sound familiar? Game development, and surely most other fields of work, are plagued by the planning fallacy.

I’m going to focus today on three proposed ways to mitigate the planning fallacy:

  • Establishing a baseline
  • Taking the outside view
  • Planning for the unknown unknowns

Establishing a Baseline

Kahneman and his partner Amos Tversky did a lot of research into many topics in behavioural economics from a psychology perspective, and eventually won a Nobel prize for that research in 2002. After coining the term planning fallacy, they offered a solution of how to solve it by establishing a baseline.

The idea is to avoid the common tendency to neglect the statistics of similar cases to yours. To use game development as an example: “Most MMOs take four years to make with a team of our size, but we have industry veterans and we’re really well organized, so it will only take us two years”. That’s obviously not a very forward thinking mentality, but it happens to all of us whether we realize it or not, for small tasks and large ones alike.

This idea was eventually formalized and given the name reference class forecasting, and it works in the following way:

  • Identify a fairly vague appropriate reference class (indie games, platformer games, online games, games made with X people, games made with Y budget, etc.)
  • Obtain statistics from the reference class (how long did these other projects take? How much did they cost?)
  • Base your predictions on the stats from the reference, then use specific information about your case to adjust the baseline prediction

You might only realize that you’re the little duck after establishing your baseline

Often, you may find, that you might have to stray away from the baseline prediction by increasing it, not decreasing it. What are your resources like? Does your team have experience with this kind of project? Are there new technologies that can quicken the process? Are there new technologies which need to be learned, which may slow it down?

It sounds so obvious to look at statistics from our surroundings, and yet we all forget to do it and rarely catch ourselves forgetting.

Taking an Outside View

The next thing to do is to take an outside view, and to step back from our situation. We naturally take an inside view by focusing on what we have, what we’re doing, and the experiences we’ve had with regards to the situation. We extrapolate from what we know, we reason using small bits of data, and we get caught up in emotion when making decisions about ourselves and our plans.

The easiest way to get around this, and the way that has worked for me and for my company in the past, is to ask others. Find people who will give you straight up, no-bullshit feedback about your plans and ask you the tough questions that you’ve likely been ignoring.

Asking others means you’re no longer forecasting based on information in front of you, and gives you a more complete picture.

Planning for the Unknown Unknowns

Remember the example about the MMO that was only going to take your studio two years? We already discussed that it’s not the smartest thing to assume that it will take you less time. But most people will take an extra step and actually plan; they will thinking of all of the things they can, take an outside view, ask others, and even look at comparative projects to make their estimates. Once they’ve done all of this, they will sum up all of the things they think they need to do, assign times to them, plan using current and future expected resources, etc. After this whole process, they’re still left with a little over two years in their plan for this MMO project.

This is because they didn’t think of the unknown unknowns. These are the things that can come up mid-project: bureaucracy (and boy do we know about that one in game development), illnesses, divorces,  technical delays, dependencies on contractors, change of personnel, people moving, etc. etc. etc. As I mentioned in the introduction, you can’t know what you don’t know, so it’s hard to plan for it.

This is why we add contingency in our budgets, and why we should add a hell of a lot of contingency time to our plans when starting projects or agreeing to deadlines. We also try our best not to promise anything before it’s ready; many companies (and individuals) run into problems when they can’t meet deadlines for deliverables, but often these dates are self-imposed and do not need to be so fixed. There are, of course, cases where a client is dependent on you, or a project needs to reach a certain milestone because of timing with a season or sale, but I’ve seen many self-imposed deadlines set up by the “suits” for no apparent reason, and this can cause unnecessary stress and perceived failure due to missing those deadlines.

Beyond asking other people what unknowns you might run into (as was the case when taking an outside view), you can also study other projects or companies and see what kind of issues they ran into. Even if you don’t expect to run into the same exact issues, there’s a good chance that it will inspire you to think of potential issues for your own situation.

So first, think of everything you and all of your peers can think of, and then plan for the things you haven’t yet thought of.

Why is this Important?

This is relevant to anyone in a management position or anyone who is making decisions about planning.  In video game development, every single project I’ve ever heard of in the history of games has been late. If it wasn’t late, it was shipped at a way lower quality than it should have. I’m not sure if other industries are as notorious for delays, but I imagine it’s a common issue across the board.

While none of these suggestions are hard science or give you concrete steps to take to ensure success, they should help guide you in a way that can help prevent failure. As I read this section of Kahneman’s book, I realized the direct application that this psychology could have to the game development world and thought I would share, so I hope you enjoyed reading.

If you have comments, please feel free to leave them on the Gamasutra article here.

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
Note: the idea of “unknown unknowns” is originally attributed to Donald Rumsfeld, as Kahneman states in his book.

Daniel Kahneman: Beware the Inside View

 

Is Anything More Important Than a Game’s Consistency?

Hello friends!

I’ve been thinking for a while about what makes a game successful, or rather what makes a game unlikely to fail. My definition of success, in this context, is simply not failing. That is to say, a game has been successful if it can earn its money back and not be a financial and critical failure. I’m not looking for a formula to solve game development, because I don’t think that exists. But I do think we can mitigate our failures by keeping some important points in mind, and I’ve been trying to discover what these points are.

I don’t think we can predict success if we define success as selling 1M copies or having your company bought by Microsoft… but I like to think that we can identify some key properties that will make a game unlikely to fail. This is a hit based industry and I would be a multi-millionaire if I knew which games would be critically acclaimed monumental financial successes… but I’m not. And I won’t pretend that I know the answers to what makes a hit, but I will throw an idea out there to be pondered within my definition of success. This idea was created in hearing tons of game developers talking about their failure stories, and I think there might be something to it:

Consistency is one of the most
important predictors for a game’s success.

That’s my hypothesis, and hopefully it can be discussed, debated, and refined or refuted. I am by no means an expert in this subject and don’t intend this to be purely informative, but I think this is a point worth considering and discussing, and that discussion may help us achieve a deeper understanding of our craft.

I should add, before we get to definitions, that a crappy game won’t succeed regardless of how consistent it is. I can’t claim to know where exactly how high that minimum quality bar is set, but the idea is that many games that could have had success ended up not finding it, mostly due to a lack of consistency.

My Definition(s) of Consistency

When one creates a game, they create a universe. They create at the bare minimum a visual style, a set of rules of physics, a soundscape, interactions between parts, a user experience, and a universe. Beyond that, game developers may create mechanics, rules of interaction between systems, stories, cultures, languages, customs, and more. These systems need to be consistent with how the game is talked about, consistent with one another, and consistent in themselves.

I’d like to consider three kinds of consistency here, and then we can discuss whether this is actually a strong predictor for success (i.e. non-failure). Personally, I think the order I’m presenting them is their order of importance.

Marketing Consistency

We talk about and pitch our games in different ways, on different platforms, and to different people. We try to explain our entire game in a catchy sentence, we show a screenshot, or we make a trailer that tries to convey the player’s experience in our games. Unfortunately, we often break the consistency of the universe we’re attempting to create even in the way we pitch or market out games; we show off static shots of cute characters when really the in-context animations are what give them their charm, we talk about procedural generation in a rogue-like when the real fun comes from the combat mechanics, and we talk about open-world and crafting when the best part is the story.

From a failure workshop talk that Hugh Monahan of Stellar Jockeys gave at Full Indie Summit in 2016, he talks about his early access trailer for Brigador: “The problem is that it looks like a twin-stick shooter. Brigador is anything but a twin-stick shooter.  For some games, Brigador included, the subjective experience of playing the game is totally different from what it looks like watching a video of gameplay or watching somebody else play.” He goes on to explain how the feel is different from what it looks, and how much deeper the gameplay is than it looks: “This isn’t the game I was sold”, is what many players were saying after playing it. “Because this game looked close enough to existing tropes, or existing genres of gameplay, a lot of what was creative and unique and different about Brigador got completely wiped by this instinctive ‘oh, it’s a twin-stick'”.

Now, I know that anecdotal evidence isn’t going to prove my point, because for any example I give I’m sure others can be found that were inconsistent in their marketing but still did well, but I think this shows how this inconsistency can be dangerous.

Genre Consistency

Players have certain expectations about your game based on other games they’ve played in the genre, other games they’ve played with the same art style, and other games that list similar mechanics or features to yours. If a game is a hardcore strategy game, it needs to look like a hardcore strategy game. If it doesn’t, it needs to be made abundantly clear to players why it doesn’t look like they would expect it to. I should add that we have to be careful when making games, because any hint that our game is similar to another game or similar to games in a genre will be picked up by players, and the expectations start to creep up.

This is not to say that we should make games that all look like one another… absolutely not. But I think we need to be aware that player expectations exist regardless of what we want, and that making a deep strategy game that looks like the image below is setting yourself up for an uphill struggle of trying to change player expectations that are already pre-established.

While I haven’t played the game yet, there’s a pretty wide agreement that Yooka-Laylee didn’t live up to expectations. I don’t think it sold as well as was anticipated, and its review scores for metacritic were not too favourable. The issues that reviewers talk about always include the idea that the nostalgia element was good, but the game brought with it all of the annoying things from those old games like Banjo Kazooie: the camera, the pointless currency collection, etc. I’m not sure the Yooka-Laylee team could have prevented this, since the expectations were set high as soon as Playtonic mentioned that they were making a 3D platformer. But at the end of the day, people expected something more than what they got.

Just as a quick aside, I know and respect both of these companies whose “failures” I’m highlighting, and I still look up to them as game developers despite using their games as “failure” examples.

Game Consistency

I touched a bit already on what game consistency is comprised of: things in the game cannot contradict what other things in the game say, how they work, or how they feel. Within the game itself, the mechanics and everything that you’ve created in your game universe need to be consistent and predictable.

A rule that has been established and conveyed to the player cannot be broken by the game, otherwise the game risks losing consistency. If the game is set in the year 2093, the font used in the menus shouldn’t be Times New Roman (unless there’s a damn good explanation, and even then, why are you using Times New Roman??). If the player plays as an extremely kind-hearted, benevolent, peaceful person, they shouldn’t be killing in cold blood in the next level. If the player can always grab ledges in a platformer, there shouldn’t be similar looking ledges that can’t be grabbed. The example here is in Zelda (in every Zelda game I’ve ever played, in fact), a cracked wall means you can bomb it. It never, ever means that anything else, as this would bring the player out of the experience and lead them to question the rule they learned, that all cracked walls are bombable.

We teach our players the rules of our universe in many ways, and if we ever contradict the rules that we established or the rules that players believe we established then we break the immersion and we create a bad experience for players.

Why Do We Care?

Consistency is key, in my opinion, because

player expectations are created by consistency and those same expectations are shattered by inconsistent marketing and game design, leading to a bad experience.

These player expectations are created by you, your universe, trailers, screenshots, menus, game mechanics, art style, website, and everything else that has anything to do with the game. These expectations are also created by preexisting genre tropes, and anything your game does has to be aware of those preconceived notions.

This is why, in my search to find some properties of a game that will help it to avoid failure, I’m pointing to the idea of consistency as a proposed indicator.

Some Good Examples

I’m going to give some examples of some projects that I think achieved the consistency I’m discussing. As is the case with any argument, using anecdotal evidence is not a strong way to provide “proof”… but I’d just like to demonstrate some strong consistency examples after talking about a couple of weak examples in the above sections.

To provide an example of success, I present the game Shovel Knight by Yacht Club Games. That game promised retro, old school, challenging gaming and that’s what people got. What we also got was the innovations in new games (save files, responsive input, longer game, etc.) while not ruining any of the old stuff that we found so charming. Plus, everything about the game kept you in its world by being consistent: the music, the level design, the art style, the menus, the sound design, etc.

Firewatch from Campo Santo is another good example. First I should say that the trailer for Firewatch is a work of art. This is just one of the trailers they made, but they all seem to be consistently amazing.

It gives you every feeling that you’re going to feel while playing the game: suspense, discovery, relationship building, fear, relaxation, everything. This really sets the tone for the game, and it doesn’t fail to deliver. The music, the art, and everything else about the game reinforces this core point.

Like I said before, finding these examples doesn’t “prove” my point, but it can help illustrate why I think consistency might be a major factor in determining success of a game.

Suggestions to Improve Consistency

I can think of a few ways to try to ensure consistency, some harder than others.

Make sure your trailer conveys how the player will feel when playing your game.

M. Joshua Cauller has a great article about this on his blog. This is probably the consistency issue I’ve seen most: developers will create trailers (or worse, have trailers created for them by other companies) which don’t properly explain what the player experience is like. The trailer might completely miss the mark and focus on something that the developers find interesting, but that isn’t the real thing that makes the game fun. Sometimes, trailers can even be good on their own accord, but not linked to how the game makes the player feel. For example, if your game is interesting because of the flow and precise shooting and movements, creating a story-heavy trailer that doesn’t show those elements might cause people to expect something very different from what you’re providing… that lack of consistency leads to bad reviews.

Get an artist.

Probably not this one…

I’m not an artist, and I wish I was better at this… but people need to have an artist with a good eye look at their graphical elements. I’ve seen too many games with strange menu fonts, colours that don’t match the theme, UI elements that look like they came from Hearthstone in a game where the rest of the screen looks like Fez, etc. Strangers and other developers will can you if your visual style is inconsistent… leading to the next point.

Show the game often, and show it early.

By soliciting player feedback early, you practically ensure that you’ll catch the major issues before you get too far. Showing the game to other game developers, artists, film people, designers, architects… all of these will help you to understand the consistency of your art style and your game in general.

Be aware of everything that is in or related to your game.

I might just be picking patterns out of nothing here, but I find that often the inconsistency I’ve seen in games is linked closely to outsourced work that wasn’t well monitored. Art asset creation assigned to other companies, completely outsourced trailers, and far removed audio teams could contribute to this. If we are careful about the details about all of the things that are going in our game or are related to the game’s universe, we may be able to mitigate some of that.

What Do You Think?

Do you agree with that consistency might be a good predictor for success, above a certain low quality bar? Do you disagree? Do you think I’ve missed something important and shouldn’t be focusing on consistency? Do you think I might be on to something, but misinterpreting it? I’d love to hear what you think, so feel free to email me or discuss on Twitter, or leave a comment on the Gamasutra version of this article!

Thanks for reading, if you’ve made it this far! 🙂

 

The Best Book I’ve Ever Read

I just finished the best book that I’ve ever read, ever. In fact, it’s more than the best book I’ve ever read… I would argue that it’s the best collection of words I’ve ever seen in any sort of literary piece ranging from novels to essays to textbooks.

The book is called The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist, linguist, and evolutionary psychologist (on occasion). The contents of the book have pretty dramatically changed the way I think about the world, given me a much clearer understanding of how things work, and given me a ton of insight into the brain and its functions. It has explained to me many behaviours and many human tendencies, and given a lot of credit (and some solutions) to my worry about how the current political climate is affecting our ability to think rationally and reasonably.

The nature vs. nurture debate is a somewhat solved one, in that we all know that pretty much everything is a combination of both. The goal of Steven Pinker’s book is to argue that we rely very heavily on this idea of the blank slate, the idea that everything we do and think is programmed into us from our environment, and that relying so heavily on this very false idea leads to serious issues in policy, education, politics, legal discussions, and more. The first half of the book dispells three popular myths, then discusses how some “hot button” topics such as gender, violence, and children could look when approached through a lens of human nature. Throughout the book, he argues that an understanding of human nature is necessary to understand who we are and how we act, and that challenging socio-political topics cannot be properly answered by ignorantly blaming our environment. In fact, a better understanding of these issues which takes into account the perspective of human nature and evolutionary psychology helps us to make progress toward goals of equality, freedom, and peace.

The first of the three myths he dispells is that of the blank slate itself. The idea that our environment has more of a role than our genes do in terms of our development is false. I’d guess that (especially in the current socio-political climate) the average person would say that over 90% of our thoughts and behaviour are caused by our environment, and that intuition couldn’t be farther from the truth. The best example of the many, many studies that suggest that our genes make up at least 50% of what we consider “personality” is a series of studies with identical twins who were raised in different homes vs. adopted children who are raised in the same home. Time after time, the identical twins showed more similarities in terms of personality, mannerisms, even strange tendencies like twirling a pen when they’re nervous, when compared to the adopted children who were raised with the same parents, same parenting style, same rules, etc. It may be surprising, but you’ll understand if you read the book, which you absolutely should. Ignoring the idea that much of our personality is genetically determined can lead to dangerous decisions, and he outlines that perfectly in his book.

The second is the idea that he calls the ghost in the machine. This is the feeling that there is a “you” inside your head which consists of your conscience and tells your brain what to think, which subsequently tells your body what to do. In philosophy, this is sometimes referred to as mind-body dualism (i.e. the separation between mind and body). The “you” simply is your brain, an extremely complex computer, a circuit of connections and pathways and chemical reactions shaped by your genes and your experiences. With a proper understanding of the brain, there is no need for a soul or a separate “you” that lives inside your head, as if that ghost in your machine can manipulate your thoughts disconnected from your brain.

Lastly, he makes an extremely strong case against the idea of the noble savage. This is the somewhat popular (and completely incorrect) belief that if we didn’t have our current society (technology, capitalism, borders, governments, etc.) that we would live peacefully, like the small tribes of people who have been secluded from modern civilization for hundreds of years. The truth of the matter is that in these pre-state societes, murder rates are unfathomably high, and rape, revenge killings, and violent inter-tribe war are common. The few studies that did find these “peaceful tribes” were completely disproven shortly after their publication, yet their legacy lives on in our ignorant but hopeful minds.

Pinker goes on to talk about some what he calls “hot-button topics” and brings up some interesting, controversial, and I think extremely true things. Among the less controversial are statements like “intelligence depends upon lumping together things that share properties, so we are not flabbergasted by every new thing we see”. This is written when attacking the post-modernist idea that everything is socially constructed, including not only “race, gender, masculinity, nature, facts, reality, and the past” but now extending the list to include things like “authorship, choice, danger, dementia, illness, inequality, school success”, and more. He talks about the mental processes of conceptual categorization and explains how it works and why stereotypes are not necessarily a bad thing, provided you don’t assume that every member of a group shares all of the properties of the stereotype of that group.

 

Another example is when he talks about violence, and how we wrongly blame violent toys and violent media for turning children into violent creatures. We have always been and will always be violent, men will always be more violent than women by nature, and we should try to understand our violent nature in order to correct it and keep improving toward a world where people live happily and peacefully. Not only do we ignore some genetic predisposition toward violence by invoking the blank slate theory, but we also miss the mark in trying to fix the issues that come from it. There’s a whole chapter on this, and then another entire book called The Better Angels of Our Nature where he expands even more on the topic, though I haven’t read that book yet.

The concept of the blank slate is dangerous in a few ways, and I think this is best described by Pinker himself:

The vacuum that it [the blank slate] posited in human nature was eagerly filled by totalitarian regimes, and it did nothing to prevent their genocides. It perverts education, childrearing, and the arts into forms of social engineering. It torments mothers who work outside the home and parents whose children did not turn out as they would have liked. It threatens to outlaw biomedical research that could alleviate human suffering. Its corollary, the Noble Savage, invites contempt for the principles of democracy and of “a government of laws and not of men”. It blinds us to our cognitive and moral short-comings. And in matters of policy it has elevated sappy dogmas above the search for workable solutions.

I highly, highly suggest you read this book. It’s sparked even more curiosity for me to dive into the world of learning about psychology, evolutionary psychology, biology, and philosophy and I think it has presented me with some very good answers. These answers are not only to questions that I hadn’t thought of before, but also intelligent answers to questions which I knew the right answer to, but didn’t know how to express the answer intelligently. This is important because a lot of things in this book can be seen as controversial, but I think many people know that the truth is sometimes not politically correct, and if you can’t defend controversial points well, it discredits the ideas that you might stand behind.

And to end with two quotes for reflection:

“… Popular ideologies may have forgotten downsides – in this case, how the notion that language, thought and emotions are social conventions creates an opening for social engineers to try to reform them.”

“The strongest argument against totalitarianism may be a recognition of a universal human nature; that all humans have innate desires for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The doctrine of the blank slate… is a totalitarian’s dream.”

My Thoughts from E3

Hi everyone!

In case you aren’t in the video game world, or if you are in the gaming world but are living under a rock, E3 happened last week! E3 is the annual game conference where all of the big companies announce new games, release dates, and general hype stuff. Here are a couple of the coolest things that I saw, and some reflections about those things.

The first piece of news that stood out to me about E3 this year was Microsoft buying Compulsion Games along with three other studios, and opening a studio of their own called The Initiative. The reason that stands out is because we’re close friends with the folks over at Compulsion, and they helped us get off the ground as a studio and figure out how to exist in the games world from the very start. We’re super happy for them, and super proud of the Montreal community that helped spawn them (or that they helped spawn, really). Beyond our happiness for Compulsion, I think this marks a pretty big shift in focus for Microsoft. The days of larger companies (Microsoft, Sony, Ubisoft) buying small studios was rumored to be over, and I think this proves otherwise. To me, this is just another step Microsoft is taking to show its dedication to the indie or mid-level (some would call it AA or iii games) studios. You should really check out Compulsion’s new story trailer for We Happy Few:

Nintendo showed some amazing stuff in their E3 video, as usual. Most notably among them was a long segment about the new new Super Smash Bros game, which includes all characters that have ever been in any Smash game! You can tell by the amount of time and focus they spent on it that they aim for this game to be the next Smash Bros Melee, and aren’t going to be discounting it for future competitive tournament play. They also showed a new Mario Party game, and announced a million things that will be coming to Switch, including Fortnite. I think the inclusion of Fortnite along with these other games will be huge for the continued success of the Switch.

Also, Overcooked 2 was announced with online multiplayer! If you liked the first one, this one is similar but has more features such as throwing food items, more dynamic levels, and of course online play. This is an interesting move for a couple of reasons; first, the choice to make a sequel instead of provide free updates to the existing game is one that many indie studios are not making. The aversion to sequels has been described by some people in the industry as being very silly, seeing as sequels almost always sell better than their original counterparts if the first game was a success. Why we tend to avoid sequels is a huge question that could probably justify a whole other article, but we’ll leave it at that for now. Second, the addition of online multiplayer to a game that performed well despite having only local play is an important one that emphasizes the idea that a local multiplayer game simply doesn’t have the potential to do well in the current game landscape. Additionally, it might show that it was easier for them to rewrite significant portions of the game and make a new second game rather than make adjustments to their current one, a strategy that many indie studios have avoided (much to the chagrin of some busy programmers).

Apart from those things that were most important to me in terms of announcements, I was excited to see a Cuphead DLC which I will surely buy, and I might be interested in getting back into the Tomb Raider series if I can get over the fact that the games tend to be more like movies than games, and just enjoy the ride.

There are a bunch of big announcements that I totally skipped because they simply aren’t the kinds of games I would play. Fallout ’76 was announced, a new HaloForza 4 and about a million shooters that will probably be uninteresting but will surely make millions of dollars. You can check out some pretty in-depth reviews of each company’s press conference on any of the big press sites: IGN, Kotaku, GamesRadar, etc.

More posts coming soon!

Deontology vs Consequentialism + Questions

As you might know, I’ve been reading more about philosophy and psychology recently and have been thinking of a lot of interesting questions and learning a ton of new things. Today I’d like to talk about two somewhat opposing schools of ethical thought, describe a few flaws of each, give you my opinion, and ask you some challenging questions that should make you think or make you discuss some heavy stuff with a friend or significant other.

Before diving into deontology and consequentialism, I’d like to present an important term that we should think about while reading this: moral relativism. Moral relativism is the idea that there is no universally correct set of morals, and that your moral code can differ depending on many different factors. Whether or not you believe that all moral principles are universal, some moral principles are universal, or that all moral principles are based on external factors such as environment, it’s an important term to know and think about. I’ll likely give my opinion on this in another post, but for now let’s just keep it in mind.

Deontology

Deontology is an approach to ethics which emphasizes a strong code of moral rules which are abided by no matter the consequence. Some of the most famous deontological thinkers include John Locke and Immanuel Kant, who believed that we should only make moral choices which are universally true and will always be universally true. He suggested to treat humanity “never merely as a means to an end but always at the same time as an end,” meaning that regardless of the outcome, each choice you make along the way is important and should be made in a morally correct way.

Immanuel can or Immanuel Kant?

There are a couple of issues with deontological thinking; first, there are extreme cases where it breaks down. A common example used against this system of ethics is the case where a Nazi officer asks you if you’re hiding a Jew in your house, and you don’t lie about doing it because lying is seen as “wrong”. The result is, of course, a murdered Jew (which hopefully you’re against) when the lie might not have harmed anyone except your moral code.

Second, this manner of thinking only works well if there is a universal right and wrong. While a person could abide by it with their own moral code, the benefit of deontology breaks down as soon as you have conflicting moral codes. Some questions to ask yourself that might challenge deontology include: Is it wrong to kill? What if the person killed your family? What if it’s in self-defense? When is it acceptable to lie? What is the acceptable punishment for a murder?

Consequentialism

On the other side of the coin, we see consequentialism. Consequentialism is concerned with the moral worth of overall consequence of actions, not necessarily the actions themselves. Utilitarianism, made popular by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, is a good example of consequentialism; it aims to maximize outcomes for the greatest number of people, or increase happiness, without much regard for the nature of actions that make this possible. Not all consequentialists are utilitarians, but utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism.

Who do you think wins the hair competition between Kant and John Stuart Mill?

One criticism of consequentialism is that it seems to lack empathy, or any general concern for the well-being of individuals. If people are concerned with the “greater good”, they might make decisions that go out of their way to harm others even if the net result is an increase in happiness of a larger number of people. Many people have drawn links between psychopaths and utilitarianism, whether those links are justified or not.

Another important criticism is that the “greater good” in general presupposes that there is some common thing that is undeniably “best”, similarly to the flaw in deontology. It contradicts moral relativism and assumes that one way is the right way, and that everyone should act in a way that best works to achieve this greater good. Depending on your opinions on moral relativism, this might be a downside to this philosophy.

Some Opinions

So where do I stand on this scale of deontology and consequentialism? I think that anyone who knows me could tell you that I’m more of a consequentialist and utilitarian than anything else, but I think everyone is a bit of both.

The way I see it is that we all have a moral code that we try to abide by, and we make exceptions when the consequences of adhering to our moral code are contrary to our intent in keeping that moral code. The justification of our moral code is a personal thing, but my reasons for trying to keep to my moral code include minimizing harm to others, maximizing happiness for myself and for others, treating everyone as equal, being fair in judgments, and being able to observe situations objectively, even situations that I’m involved in. Given these goals, my moral rules (things like not lying, being fair to everyone, not solving problems with violence, etc.) can bend if the consequence of adhering to that moral code is negative. The amount that those rules bend depends on the severity of the outcome, for good or for bad.

A simple example is lying: we know that it’s wrong to lie, but when telling the truth will harm someone unnecessarily and lying will not harm anyone, we choose to tell what we call a white lie. In that case, the moral rule is bent only slightly, and the outcome avoids harm and increases happiness without strongly contradicting any of my deepest moral core philosophies. On the other hand, killing a 70 year old to save a 10 year old would be hard for me to do, because while the 10 year old might have more potential in their future lives and that might be the right utilitarian / consequentialist decision, my moral code tells me pretty strongly that killing is wrong. In my opinion, on a day to day basis, doing the right thing implies doing the thing that will result in the best outcome as long as it doesn’t break your moral code and as long as it doesn’t compel anyone else to break their rules either, but of course there can be exceptions in extreme cases.

So where do you stand on this? Here are some questions you can ask yourself, and maybe ask a friend or significant other if you want some stimulating conversation:

  • How much importance do you put on having a strong moral code?
  • When do you bend it?
  • Would you ever break some of your own moral rules?
  • Is there a univeral set of morals that should apply to everyone?
  • Do our morals come from evolution and millions of years of emotional development, or are they learned? Do they come from a belief or understanding of a higher power or a god? If it’s a mix, how much of an influence does each source have?
  • Can a universal set of rules exist without a universal higher power?
  • Do you think that outcome is more important than the steps taken to reach the outcome?
  • Are the lives of any two people equal? What if one of those people is your family member?
  • Can you think of a time when your moral code was tested (other than that last question)?

I hope you enjoyed this post, and I hope those questions made you think. I’ll write soon about my thoughts on moral relativism and what I call weighted utilitarianism, so keep an eye out if you’re interested!

References:

Consequentialism
Kantian Deontology
Utilitarianism
Moral Relativism
Against Consequentialism – Germain Grisez

My Trip to PAX East 2018

Greetings!

This past weekend, I went to Boston for the game expo called PAX East. This is a massive event, with an estimated 200,000 people showing up throughout the weekend (though this isn’t an official number). I had a good time and made some interesting observations throughout the weekend.

The reason I went to PAX, even though we weren’t showcasing anything, was to see what the current market is like, meet other developers, have some meetings, and try to get some inspiration for whatever it is we’re doing next.

I wanted to give a sense of my overall feeling from the show, then talk about my three favourite games, but it should be noted that I didn’t spend much time looking at games from Montreal teams because I already know them, so those will be omitted from the list. Sorry Montreal friends!

The PAX Vibe and My Observations

The vibe at PAX is always amazing… with creative developers, passionate fans, happy people, and awesome cosplayers, it’s hard not to have fun. But I wanted to take a look at the games landscape, what I think the market will look like in the next few months, and play some games to try to find some innovative mind-blowing projects.

I was somewhat surprised, though, that I didn’t see a ton of innovative of mind-blowing projects. This isn’t to say that I think I have the ability to produce stuff that’s better necessarily, but I noticed some common threads and wanted to describe them below.

Lots of people are still making puzzle platformers. I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise, as they’re some of the easiest / cheapest games to make, but I think I was surprised by the sheer number of them and the perceived notion that it can still be a financially sound idea to make a game of that genre.  Those kinds of games can work, but it’s going to take a lot of innovation, amazing art style, depth of mechanics and more to stand out from the crowd. A cool one that I played was called Projection, and as much as I found it very interesting, I wonder if there’s a market there for it to work.

People don’t really know how to pitch their games. Pitching your game is not an easy thing to do; it can be incredibly hard to find one sentence that describes the entire game and appeals to every audience that’s being spoken to. Regardless, everyone needs to find the one-liner or pitch that explains their game to the general public. A large part of this involves knowing what is interesting about the game. Throughout development and testing, developers need to learn how to hone in on the most interesting and important parts of their games, and express that clearly. I found a lot of people would explain their game to me in a way that either 1) I didn’t understand, even as a developer, 2) focused on something unimportant to the game (i.e. explaining the story in a mechanics based game), 3) went on for five minutes to explain something that should have taken 30 seconds. The solution to this, in my opinion, is to take the time to carefully think of what works, what doesn’t, practice pitching, practice the one-liner, and listen to feedback.

The level of gameplay seems to be far behind the level of artistic ability. As I was writing notes about every game that I played, I started to see a pattern emerging. The first point was always “art is really cool!” or “love the hand-animated style” or “beautiful lighting!”… but then the lines that followed described other things. Incomprehensible user interface, way too long tutorial, sloppy animation, inconsistency between animation and mechanics, solvable game mechanics, and probably most commonly: I’ve seen 26 other games like it already.

…on the plus side, people are still equally positive and happy to share with other devs. This is a great thing that one might think would decline as the space gets more crowded and it seems harder to achieve success, but developers are as friendly as ever. Maybe on the inside, they’re harboring feelings of dread about the state of the industry, but it seemed that everyone was still helping each other and I got really positive vibes from the people and fans.

Favourite Games

Lonely Mountains: Downhill by Megagon Industries was probably my favourite game I played at PAX. The game is a downhill biking game with a beautiful low poly art style, where your goal is to make it to the bottom of the mountain. The coolest thing I found about this game was that you can play in two ways: you can either try to get the fastest time, find the best shortcuts, and race down while making precise turns, or you can take your time and explore the scenery and enjoy the ride. I’m the kind of person that would explore and see if I could find all the secrets, and maybe come back for more competitive play as well. Really excited for this game!

The next favourite game, which I’ve seen before but just had to mention because it’s outstanding, was The Messenger, by Sabotage Studio. It looks like a classic NES platformer executed absolutely perfectly.

With echoes of Ninja Gaiden, this game does a great job of giving that retro, nostalgic feel while keeping some of the elements of new games that we know and love, that the NES simply didn’t have the capacity to do. I see this game a bit like Shovel Knight, in the sense that it stands out from the indie retro platformer crowd by very clearly showing that it’s a professional throwback executed with great care.

Last but not least, was a game called Synthrally by Roseball Games. The below gif is a bit confusing, so I’ll explain.

You play as a red or blue shape / character, and a disc is passed back and forth. Your goal, depending on the game mode, can be to not get hit by the disc, to knock the disc into another players target, etc. When it comes close to you, you can press a button to hit it back, shoot it with an arrow, or use other abilities to move the disc. There was actually a lot of depth to the game, and when playing as teams of two there was even more depth; players had to choose their class and abilities and try to compliment each others’ play style. While I think the game is really great, I wonder if its minimal art style won’t hurt it down the line, similar to how Videoball was a fantastic game but might not have had enough flair to attract the average gamer. Time will tell, but I hope it does well.

All in all, the PAX trip was really great. I learned a lot, practiced my analysis of design, talked to some cool devs, and got a good snapshot of what’s happening in the indie scene. I’ll admit I didn’t see much of the AAA world, but I did see another billion class-based shooters and battle royale games.

Thanks for reading, and see you next time!

Reflections and Lessons from GDC 2018

For the last 4 years, one of my favourite times of the year has been the week in March marked by the Game Developer Conference, or GDC for short. It’s the biggest game conference in North America, and attracts a bajillion extremely interesting and inspiring people. This year, we were fortunate enough to bring the whole team. Our goals included some team bonding, learning, keeping up business relationships, and more. I definitely think we succeeded, and wanted to share a few of the most important things that I learned. I hope this post will be useful to game developers and non-developers alike.

First off, talking to the amazing devs at GDC for me thinking about Ultimate Chicken Horse and about its future. I’ve had a bit of a feeling that we’ve been working on the project for a long time, and I want to start working on new stuff… but on the other hand, the game is doing well, the community is great, and there’s still a lot of potential. So what’s next for the future of UCH? I didn’t outright ask people their opinion on this, but it was somewhat obvious that it is / was on my mind, so I got a lot of feedback on it. Do we want to go more casual and community-heavy? Do we want to add more mechanics to level the playing field, like Mariokart-style? Do we want to go more competitive? What’s required if we do that? How can we improve the tech? What does the community want? Do we have the funds to hire more people, and if so, what will they work on? I won’t go into too much detail here about my thoughts on the matter, because I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up (or down) before the team talks about it and decides what’s next, but it’s definitely on my mind more than it was before.

Many, many games come from game jams or quick prototypes.

It feels like the majority of the successful indie games that I saw at the conference started off as game jam ideas. This was the case for Ultimate Chicken Horse, and it doesn’t really surprise me that it’s the same for many other games. It seems like game jams are a good way not only to practice skills, but also to come up with great ideas. There’s some fairly common wisdom that it’s easier to be creative given some constraints, and without thematic or timing constraints I think it can be easy to stare at a blank page forever, waiting for the next revolutionary idea to pop out of your brain. Even in the AAA studios, some of the games came from quick pitches from someone who wasn’t an owner or creative director at the company. These were as simple as a short presentation with some mechanics and some concept art, and they were off to the races. Of course, I should emphasize that it’s absolutely critical to be able to kill the project early on if it’s not working, but that’s the case whether it came from a game jam or any other method.

Ask. Just ask!

We’ve been pretty good at this, as I’m somewhat shameless when approaching people for help. But it works! You’ll never know how much you could be missing if you don’t ask other developers, publishers, platform holders, friends, family, etc. for help. The industry has a lot of wisdom that it’s very willing to share if you’re able to overcome the shame of not wanting to bug people… so do it!

Different ways work for different people, there is no right way. This point is actually what my talk with Tanya Short (Kitfox Games) was about, though we looked at it from the business side. We talked about general things that should be considered: burn rates, revenue sources, projections, diversification of studio into multiple projects or not, etc. But I also spoke to people about the creative process, and it was interesting to hear some pretty opposite views.

The big one that stood out to me was when I was talking to someone about coming up with content updates. He said that he tries to envision what the trailer for the update will look like– that is, what’s interesting that the public will latch on to, before starting work. The idea there is that a patch with a bunch of bug fixes and user interface improvements isn’t enough to get people excited, and the trailer helps guide the production toward something useful and exciting. On the other hand, some people like to go the more organic route and play around until they find something that works well. It’s not marketing-driven and is easier to get early feedback on, but whether one way is better than the other is really up to the studio. And as with anything in this industry, many different strategies can work!

You need to build a community before launch.

This is actually a bigger topic, and I’m going to write a full article on Gamasutra and my personal website about this sometime soon. The basic idea is that you give yourself a much better chance at success if you’ve created a community around your game before the game launches.

On a less educational note, there were a couple of highlights that I wanted to point out from the conference this year, that include talks and just general feelings.

The first one of those was my favourite talk, the ‘Composer Confessions 2’ session. The talk was done last year as well, and it brings together five composers to talk about some times that they’ve screwed up and what they learned. I’ve always had a very strong personal interest in game music, and I like to write some myself (even though I’m not nearly professional), so it’s really inspiring to hear people like Austin Wintory (Journey, Assassin’s Creed, Tooth and Tail), Gareth Coker (Ori and the Blind Forest, ARK), Darren Korb (Bastion, Transistor, Pyre), Peter McConnell (Hearthstone, Psychonauts), and Gordy Haab (Battlefront 1 & 2, Halo Wars) talk about their craft.

I only mentioned a couple of the games they each worked on, but there’s a ton more and these guys are absolute legends in the field. Some of the main lessons included making sure to delegate work and not be a control freak, learning to accept what the client wants even if it’s against what your musical instincts tell you, and learning to show completed examples instead of work in progress because producers can’t imagine the finished product in the same way musicians or the composer can. Beyond that, the talk was hilarious. Each person had a 10 minute slot to talk about whatever they wanted, and somehow they all ended up being hugely entertaining and funny.

Another thing that I really liked was THAT Party, a party I hadn’t been to before because tickets sell out super quick and I had other, more “businessy” parties to go to each year. This time I went and I found it really nice to see and meet some indies that I haven’t met, but also to be able to “party” in more of a traditional sense, with drinking and dancing and such. This isn’t because I’m a natural born party animal, but rather because I like the idea of moving from the business contact mentality to the friend mentality, so a mix of that combined with more professional cocktails was nice this year.

Beyond that, I feel like our team had a good chance to bond– not necessarily all of us at once around a table, but in pairs that would split off as we walked places, shared hotel rooms, and talked about non-game stuff together.

Alright, so it looks like this post has become huge and I should probably stop writing before everyone falls asleep. Thanks for reading if you made it this far, and I’ll have more articles coming soon so check the website or follow me on Twitter @RichMakesGames for updates.

Some of My Favourite Design Elements in Super Mario Odyssey

Recently, I’ve been trying to look at games through more of a designer lens. In order to improve my design abilities, I think it’s important to look at games as a designer. This means thinking about the choices that were made while designing the game, the levels, and the systems, as well as trying to understand what an average user would experience in your position.

That being said, I finally started Super Mario Odyssey last weekend. I know, I’m late to the party. If you’ve ever played it, you already know that it’s great. But I wanted to talk about some of the things that I think the average gamer might not have noticed, but are really fantastic design elements or layers of polish. These are things that even independent developers on a tight budget can do in their games, so I think they’re important to talk about.

The first two involve the level design, and the clarity with which the player is directed through the level. Firstly, players can always see where they need to go without looking at a map, and yet don’t feel forced to follow a path because of the opportunity for exploration. The thing is, the opportunity for exploration is very carefully given to you. When the game wants you to go somewhere and not step out of line, it shows you clearly. In the below image, this is the part right before encountering a boss. Behind Mario is a ton of open space to be explored, and in front is a clear goal without distractions or options:

The game strikes a nice balance of making you feel like you can explore and wander off and discover things on your own, while still giving you a very linear path to follow, similar to how Ocarina of Time on N64 felt.

The second level design point is that the game doesn’t just aimlessly add places to explore in the levels. I’ve seen some games where it seems like the mentality was “the level looks too much like a boring square, let’s add some nooks and crannies”… and it’s awful.

In Odyssey, every time you explore a place you haven’t seen before,
you get rewarded.

These rewards can be seeing cool stuff, finding things you’ll interact with later, finding a Power Moon, or finding a mini-game (which leads to a Power Moon, as shown below).

Another game that did this really, really well was the new (2016) DOOM game. The level design was obviously quite a bit more complex than in Mario, but it trained the player well in the same way. It gave the player options to explore that were somewhat hidden, but once the player had decided “okay, I’m going to check this out” it always gave a reward. In the image below, let’s say the pink arrow is the story / linear path, the green path would be shown with some hints or a semi-broken door, and the player would explore.

This trained the player to look for hidden things and secrets (apart from the game obviously telling you that there are “secrets” in the levels), and so when a player felt that there was a hidden path, they would explore it.

This is where DOOM and Mario both do magic; you never have the disappointing experience of “Oh, I was sure there would be something here” or “Why can’t I do that? I expected it would lead me somewhere”. Those feelings are bad for design because they break the immersion by breaking the rules that the designer had created previously for the universe / game / level. Both games reward your exploration and you don’t even feel like exploring in the places where the game doesn’t want you to explore, because it directs you through those places well.

The next main point I wanted to talk about was the purchasing system for outfits. In Mario Odyssey, you can purchase things from a shop at the beginning of the kingdom you’re in. There are two currencies, the regular coins and one that is specific to the kingdom.

Some of the options in there include Power Moons, but also include custom outfits or souvenirs from the region which you keep with you on your ship as you travel throughout the game. This is super, super cool. Character customization stuff is always cool, and seeing it in Mario is certainly unexpected, but that’s not what I find so interesting about this game design choice. What I find interesting is that

The game rewards you based on the effort you’ve put in, leaving you feeling more accomplished than simply having “beaten a level”.

This ability to purchase allows you to choose your reward, choose what you value in the game, and creates a feeling of a collection challenge. Some people like to try to finish everything in a game (they’re called completionists). I’m not one of them, but, with this new feature I really want to go back and get all of the kingdom-specific currency in order to buy all of the cool things in the region. As it stands, I moved forward but made sure I had at least one physical souvenir from each kingdom and that I unlocked all of the outfits; that left me feeling satisfied and accomplished, much more so than simply “you beat the level”… which is easy enough in most Mario games.

As far as polish goes, there were a couple of things I noticed in the first couple of hours of gameplay. Personally, I love it when games throw me off and react to something that I do when I don’t expect it.

When you encounter this sphinx (it makes more sense in the desert level, even though it’s kind of Mexican themed and there are ancient Egyptian style ruins and a sphinx…), it asks you a “riddle” to pass. I tried climbing on it to get somewhere at one point, and your magical hat says to you “Er, Mario? You’re not a hat.” There are a few minor things like this that I found really great.

Another one I noticed was that when you move into 2D mode with Mario wearing an outfit, he keeps the outfit on and they made a pixel art version of this. It’s somewhat logical, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if it just defaulted to the regular Mario… I was pleasantly surprised. Surely there are many other little things like this, but I really appreciate that extra effort that the developers made.

That’s all for this time, I just wanted to jot down some of my ideas and hopefully some other game designers can read this and get inspired by some of the choices made by the Nintendo team. And if you haven’t played it, I highly suggest it… I’ll be getting back to it as soon as I can!

 

An Introduction to Stoicism

Hey all!

I wanted to share some information about what I’ve been reading about recently, and see if I can pull out the most important points in a coherent, understandable fashion.

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor who lived from 121 AD to 180 AD, and is said to be one of the most influential people toward our modern day understanding of Stoicism. I picked up his book, or rather a collection of his writings, called “Mediations” (the Gregory Hays translation) and have been making my way through. It’s essentially an amalgamation of the scrolls on which he wrote his own personal notes, kind of like a diary. The book has no specific order, division of chapters, or anything. Simply small sentences or paragraphs which he wrote at some point to himself, for some reason. It’s inspired me to learn a bit more about the philosophy, and I quite enjoy it.

The greatest thing about Stoicism, in my opinion, is that two of the most influential texts on the subject were written by a slave (Epictetus) and an Emperor (Aurelius)… but the principles still apply. I can’t imagine a better justification for how a philosophy could be applied by all people than the idea that a slave and an emperor can share the same ideas.

So what is it?

Stoicism got its name from the Greek word “Stoa”, meaning porch, because it was taught by Zeno in Athens in a (kinda porchy) place called Stoa Poikile. A philosophy grounded in logic and ethics, Stoicism has many tenets, but the few that sum it up for me are the following:

 

Don’t try to control what is our of your control.

Frustration comes from trying to control things that you can’t control. Accept that things have happened and that you can’t do anything about them now. It would be illogical to get upset or angry at something that you can’t affect, so live in the present.

 

Deconstruct things and see them for what they really are.

A great example of this, which I heard on an episode of the Kevin Rose podcast, was a Louis Vuitton bag. If you strip away all the surrounding stuff (name brand, socio-economic status symbol, etc.) you realize that it’s still just a few pieces of leather that holds some stuff in it, sewn together in a sweatshop in China. It doesn’t matter if it’s Louis Vuitton or a no-name brand, be aware of what the object is.

This doesn’t, however, mean that Stoics try to live without any material objects. From what I gather, the idea is that you set your baseline as the bare minimum that you need. If you need a car, any car that gets you from point A to point B will do. Once that baseline is set, if you have the money for it and feel like it, you can buy a Lexus. But, if ever that was taken away, you’re still above your baseline and should still be equally happy.

 

Make decisions according to the universal logos, follow reason and logic instead of emotions.

The Stoics believe(d) that there is a universal logos, which has been defined many ways, but I believe is properly summed up by this definition in Merriam Webster:

‘Reason, that in ancient Greek philosophy is the
controlling principle in the universe.’

There’s also a strong link between this logos and God, the gods, nature, and other terms. Basically their idea is that there’s a natural flow or order, and that there is universal truth in all things.

 

Eliminate unnecessary speech and action.

“No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts. No retreating into your own soul, or trying to escape it. No overactivity.” This quote from Meditations can be a helpful reminder to stay away from useless activity, as it won’t help you and it won’t help the people around you.

“If you seek tranquility, do less. Or rather, do less but do it better.”

 

Perception is the most powerful and most dangerous tool humans have.

Your reaction to people’s actions is what decides your happiness, things can’t affect you if you don’t let them. There is very little that is “good” or “bad” in the world; most things, actions, circumstances, etc. simply exist, there’s no need to label them. With this kind of objective approach, it’s easier to see things clearly. Humans are very capable of deciding their reaction to situations, feelings, and emotions, but we are also extremely affected when we let our emotions get the better of us.

 

I think that this book, and this philosophy in general, has a lot to teach. I don’t agree with every single point that I’ve read about Stoicism, but I do believe that everyone could learn something from reading about this philosophy. Especially in times like these, with the world seemingly so divided in thought and unable to have discussions about their differing opinions, we could all use a bit of emotional control in our thoughts and reactions.

Some other suggested books on Stoicism (which I’ll get to) come from Seneca, and Epictetus, and there have been a number of newer authors who write about Stoicism as it applied nowadays, such as Ryan Holiday’s very successful book The Daily Stoic.

See you soon!

 

A Guide to Surviving Urban Biking

Hi all!

As I was biking home from work today, I saw another biker almost get doored (hit by a car door opening) and on the next block, saw a driver almost hit another bike, seemingly oblivious to the entire world around them.

After having biked every day for many years now, summer and winter alike, on bike paths, roads, bigger roads, and roads that probably shouldn’t be biked on, I figure that I’m qualified to give some tips about city biking. If I’ve survived thus far, it must mean I’m doing something right… right? Let’s go with that. So here are some ways to not die while biking (especially in Montreal).

 

1. Make sure that a car can’t hit you, even if it tried. The basis of survival on a bike is not to trust anyone: cars, bikes, pedestrians (especially pedestrians). Just make sure that you don’t get in anyone’s way, and make sure that whatever they do, you can avoid them.

 

2. Keep a door length between you and parked cars. This is probably the toughest guideline to follow, so if you are squeezing between a lane and parked cars, go slowly and watch out for a few things:

  • Check the direction of front wheels; if they’re straight, the car can’t pull out unexpectedly.
  • Check the lights; if the lights were just turned off, the door is likely to open any second. If the lights are on, it’s anyone’s guess.
  • Look at the side mirror; often you can see if someone is in the car by glancing at the mirror.
  • Check the lane next to the parked car (that is, the lane you need to swerve into if they open the door); if it’s tight and there are cars passing, make sure you’re going slowly enough, otherwise you can swerve.

 

3. Stay on the left side of cars that are turning right. While this may be counter-intuitive to some, it’s extremely important because drivers never check their blind spots ever, and even if they did you shouldn’t trust them to see you (see point 1). By getting between the turning car and the other lane, you ensure that the car can’t hit you, no matter what.

I’m quite sure this one is not legal, but is way safer than what is recommended. This is a photoshopped image of the “right” thing to do… in fact the recommendation is “drivers should yield to bikers”, but we know that doesn’t happen much.

 

4. Be aware of your braking and accelerating abilities. If you’re going down a hill in the rain, be aware that your braking distance will be significantly less than on a flat road when it’s try. And when a light turns yellow, you need to know what gear you’re in and how hard you can push it to make it through before the light going the other way turns green. Usually when you screw this up it doesn’t lead to death, but it’s just generally a dick move.

 

5. Don’t bike on dangerous bike paths. For the Montrealers among us, you may already know to avoid the De Maisonneuve bike path. I’m not sure what insolent city planner thought up that one, but so far I know three people who have gotten hit while biking, all three were hit while on that bike path. For those of you that don’t know, essentially it’s a one-way street with a bike path as shown below.

The issue is that because it’s one-way (and even if it was two-way), drivers will sometimes check their blind spot behind them to see bikers coming their direction, but then forget to look at the other side. Honestly it’s safer to bike on Sherbrooke (a bigger street without bike paths).

 

6. Take a lane! Legally, in Quebec at least (and likely elsewhere in the world too), you should take a lane and should not squeeze between a lane and parked cars. Further, you should definitely not squeeze between two lanes of moving cars unless death is the kind of thing that appeals to you. If you’re in a sketchy situation, take a lane. Yes, people might get pissed off because you slow them down, so maybe consider another route next time… but take the lane this time to be safe.

 

7. Don’t take risks if you don’t know the lights. Ideally, you wouldn’t take risks at all, and you’d come to a full stop at stop signs, and you’d never go through a red light. But if you’ve been biking for more than 43 seconds, you’re bound to do these things. My suggestion then, be smart about it! If you don’t know the walk light timing or the synchronization of lights while going down a hill, don’t risk it. Play it safe until you know your way around your route.

 

8. Clearly show pedestrians and cars where you’re going. What I do to make sure that people know where I’m going is that I’ll often dip my shoulder and turn my head a bit to the side, tilting my body as if I was leaning on my bike but not actually doing it enough that the bike turns. Usually this clearly indicates where I’m going and they react accordingly. It’s like that awkward thing where you walk straight at someone and don’t know which way to go, so you sidestep awkwardly. Just… higher speed.

 

9. Bike in front of where a pedestrian will be when you cross their path. This is probably the most controversial and debatable guideline. In many cases, I don’t even do it, but I believe that it’s the right thing to do. All of bike-bike, bike-pedestrian and bike-car problems are basic kinematics problems. In the case of crossing paths with a pedestrian, I’m going to present a very counter-intuitive idea.

 

If a pedestrian is walking at a constant speed, and you’re biking at a constant speed, it should be easy enough to predict where they will be when you cross paths with them. Some bikers choose to go behind the pedestrian, so as not to scare them or make them feel cut off, but this presents a big problem. If the person gets worried, they’re going to freeze or slow down instinctively. If you’ve predicted where they won’t be, well then you might be running right into them.

People rarely (if ever) speed up when they feel like you might not know what you’re doing, so if you plan to be ahead of where they will be then you ensure that if they walk at the same speed, slow down, or even freeze up (some people really don’t understand how much control of our bikes we have!) then you’re guaranteed not to hit them.

 

10. Avoid leaves, gravel, and salt. Especially if any of this stuff is wet, it can really slow down your braking time or make you slip if you’re turning. Wet leaves can be even more dangerous too, because sometimes they can get caught in your brakes and make your brakes hugely ineffective. The salt part is less for braking and more for the health of your drive-train, but this is usually a winter biking problem and most people aren’t that crazy.

 

That’s all the knowledge I have to share right now, I hope it helped at least to make you more aware of the decisions you make while biking, and maybe helped to create some good habits as well. I think that people who are just starting to commute by bike as well as people who have been doing it for a while can benefit from a reminder once in a while. Also I really like biking and was inspired to write, so there you have it!