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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!

Being Your Own Boss: Some Things I’ve Learned

In starting my game development studio with two partners, I’ve learned a lot of things. Today I wanted to talk about what I’ve learned while being my own boss (or at least being 1/3 my own boss).

Self-Motivate and Have Discipline

Last year I wrote about How to Not Explode When Working From Home, which was just one of the pieces of motivation and discipline needed when running your own show.

The first key to staying motivated is to set short-term and long-term goals, and to always keep them in mind (or better yet, written down somewhere). It’s extremely daunting to think about creating a whole project without seeing the steps along the way, and writing the steps (and organizing them well) means that the amount of motivation needed is only what’s needed to get to the next step.

2017-04-19 Mountain

The next important thing is staying disciplined. If seeing the short-term and long-term goals leads to motivation, the discipline to follow through with the steps consistently and without excuses is what actually moves the project along. I can’t say I have the secret to staying disciplined, but each person has their workflow that keeps them in line. Find your routine and the thing that keeps you working consistently and focused. For some people, working from home is too distracting. For others, skipping the gym in the morning means they won’t be focused. Especially when you’re not directly reporting to someone, it can be easy to let deadlines slip, to put work off till “later”, and to lose sight of goals both short-term and long-term.

Separate Work From Rest-Of-Life

I was able to do this fairly early on after starting our company; in less than a year or so, I managed to separate work from the rest of my life in a way that I feel has been successful and satisfactory (but maybe I should ask the people around me if that’s the case…). I see a lot of people, even people who aren’t their own bosses, bringing their work along with them everywhere. I was in the car with a friend on the way to an event on a Saturday night and they were on the phone talking about a business deal. No one should ever be expected to be doing business deals at 9pm on a Saturday night, and if you’re your own boss, you actually have a choice.

2017-04-19 LateWork

You can choose when you’re “on” and when you’re “off”, and no one is expecting you to answer them at that time, unless you get in that habit from the start. If, when starting your company, you get super excited about every opportunity (which you should) and answer emails at midnight on a weekend, so be it. But realize that if this becomes the norm, this will become expected of you by your business partners, employees, suppliers, etc.

To make sure that you maintain your relationships with friends and loved ones, you absolutely need to make sure that you’re making time for people that are important for you and that might mean giving yourself a hard limit of when you’re “on”. For me, I decided not to answer work emails after 7pm. I’ll check them sometimes, and if they’re extremely important, I can make exceptions, but for the most part if someone is waiting on an answer for something, they can wait until the next morning. It’s more important that I spend time with people who matter and don’t become one of those 80h/week startup people.

Set the Example

Realize that the people around you and eventually the people working for you are following your example in terms of how hard you’re working, how disciplined you are, your accountability, and how much you care about your work. This seems to happen more later in life (or as owners have had their companies for a long time), but the divide between employee and owner increases when the owners don’t show that they’re doing important work.

Ducks crossing road

I was working at a lighting firm doing engineering before getting into the games industry, and while the bosses weren’t making engineering drawings or cutting lenses for light fixtures, you could see them doing hard work. They were in meetings, they were on the floor talking to the assembly team, they were asking us if there was something they can do to make our lives easier, and they were generally showing (in one way or another) that the work they were doing was because they care. If employees feel like their bosses are using them as money-generation tools without contributing to the products or services themselves, it causes a divide which leads to resentment.

Treat Your Employees Like You Treat Yourself

This one is tied closely to the previous point; being your own boss means that you have certain privileges that most people don’t have. Be thankful for the advantages that you have, such as leaving early because you have a doctor appointment and not worrying about being looked down upon or judged. Being thankful for these kinds of things and being aware of how it feels will lead to the understanding of what it feels like on the other side, as an employee who might feel some unnecessary pressure. Not sure why this picture is relevant, but it looks like freedom and a cute puppy so I can’t not include it here.

2017-04-19 Freedom

If you treat your employees like you treat yourself (or as closely as possible), I think you’ll see an increase in respect from partners and employees alike, which will in turn lead to better work from those people. Reward them for doing good work, treat them as people who have responsibilities and problems outside of their work lives and not just as numbers or money-printing machines (unless they literally are money-printing machines), and I would bet that the net outcome is positive for you and your company.

This became much longer than anticipated. In short, being your own boss is awesome, and despite the lack of security and the pressure of knowing that if you screw up then you don’t eat, the success, accomplishment, money, etc. feels great knowing that the energy put in directly results in the rewards you receive.

Life is Better When You Work at 10am

I’m not a morning person. I was never a morning person, and I’ll never be a morning person. I had a hard time waking up to go to school by the time I was 13, waking up for high school. When I started high school, I had a long bus ride to sleep / to wake me up if people were loud, and I arrived mostly awake. As time went on, I found that the early classes started to give me less and less, and by university it was almost worth skipping them and reading the material later because I couldn’t keep my head up at an 8:30am lecture about thermodynamics. AND, this is with over 7 hours of sleep per night.

2016-08-01-clock1

 

Some people just aren’t cut out for being productive at 8am. I found that I was learning well and retaining information when I would study around 11pm until 1-2am, and generally a happier person. When I worked as an engineer, I’d get to work around 8:45 or 9, and found that it was alright but my productivity certainly picked up after 10.

Now that I’ve started my company (with my two other co-founders), we get to work at 10am and leave around 6pm. Same sort of nine-to-five hours, just a little pushed back. You wouldn’t believe the increase in productivity; the second I come in I’m ready to go, working and focused. I feel refreshed when I wake up, I feel fine when I get to work, and life is just generally better. I think that people who work flexible hours or have a more lenient schedule would agree, but I’d love to know your thoughts on the matter. I’m pretty sure the average person isn’t super productive at 8am, especially not the average person in their twenties. I know that as a team, my colleagues and I work better with this more relaxed schedule, and I’m quite confident that they enjoy the extra sleep.

2016-08-01-sleep

 

I should add, however, that I really love my current job. I was motivated at my previous one as well, but now that I’m working for myself I feel a much greater sense of responsibility and pride in my work, which I think probably contributes to my productivity as well. What do you think? Are you more productive later in the day? Do you think the norm is shifting to a later workday? Is that a good or a bad thing?

The Trick to Get Over Procrastination

Okay so it’s not really a trick. More of a technique… I don’t want to sound like one of those stupid clickbait ads that you see at the bottom of your screen: “The one food you should avoid!” with a picture of a banana… bull. Anyway, on to the point.

Procrastination is something that plagues all of us, and has plagued us since the dawn of time. I’m sure some neanderthal cave-people put off hunting or procreating for one more game of “throw the rock at the other rock”.

So here’s the technique: make an outline. Simple, no? This is something that we all ignored throughout high school and university, and something that actually makes sense to do. My justification is the following:

The reason that people procrastinate is because they’re faced with a daunting task that they don’t know how to approach, or because the task seems too large and they have trouble figuring out what the first steps might be.

The first step, then, before even starting the project, is to make an outline. Write a really vague skeleton of whatever it is you need to do, and it can start as simply as this:

outline1

Literally that’s all you need. Once this is done, you’ll be more motivated to come back to your work, and you also won’t feel lost when you start working on it. Next step is to start to fill them in, extremely vaguely.

outline2

Once this is done, when you come back to work on it you’ll have a very clear plan of what you have to do. Maybe you’re only working on topic 1 today. But look! That’s all you have to worry about because it’s already divided into parts that you should worry about now and parts that you can worry about later.

By the way, this doesn’t only apply to schoolwork. I only realized this once I got into the working world, and I find that this is most useful when I’m working on projects like writing out a PR plan, planning my company’s presence at a game expo, or creating a press kit for our game. In fact, what inspired me to write this was that I was about to start the PR plan thing… wait am I procrastinating? Cause I don’t have an outline! Geez. Alright back to work.