The End of 5 Gallon Games

I went to a dinner with my brother’s friends a few years ago.  After I explained that I make video games for a living, I found myself asking a question that I find a bit strange.  The question was: “Do you play games?”  The reason I find is so strange is that there are so many mediums where the question is almost meaningless.  With film, you can jump ahead to “What is your favorite movie?” and with music, you can jump ahead to “What music do you listen to?”  I found myself wondering why.

I think the industry is definitely making some movement in the right direction.  I think the Wii, iPhone, and Facebook games are all helping to solve this problem, but what exactly was the problem?  There were so many pieces to the problem, but they all stemmed from one single thing: cost.  In this case, money was the root of all evil.  To start with, creating hardware was expensive.  So even without starting, every developer is burdened with the original sin of the hardware development and manufacturing costs.  Then you add the actual high development costs.  Then you add the marketing costs.  With such huge costs of development, you need to pass the expenses onto the consumer.  Each console is a few hundred dollars, but significantly worse is the fact that each game costs $50 to $60.  Then because of this high retail price tag, you need to justify the price by putting 20 hours of content into the box.  So not only have you self selected for people who can afford the high price tag, but you’ve secondarily selected for people who have 20 hours to spend playing the game.  Console games are basically the wholesale version of gaming.  If you’re in the mood for a drink, you need to buy a 5 gallon bottle or nothing.  And in a world where beverages were only sold in 5 gallon bottles, you wouldn’t have the variety of beverages that you have.  You’d have water, coke, and coke knock offs.  Likewise, if you’re forced to purchase gaming in 20 hour increments, you have to stick to gameplay mechanics which are fun in bulk, which terrifyingly, is heavily drawn to the black hole of murdering things.

So when I say that we’re making some movement in the right direction, I’m not really focused on the fact that there are more varied genres or the fact that the games are shorter or even the fact that you can play more of these games with your friends.  The important progress that we’re making is that there are games that are less expensive to make.  Everything else is a natural consequence of that.  When you haven’t sunk millions of dollars into a game, you don’t need to put a huge price tag on it.  When you haven’t put a huge price tag on it, you don’t need to provide a Costco sized bucket of content.  And when you don’t need to provide 20 hours of gameplay, you can diversify what games are.  And even better, when you’re not only selling 5 gallon bottles of gameplay, people are more willing to try it out and maybe even find out that they like it.

It’s been emotional

Doing a start up is hard.  Let’s get that out of the way.  I think it’s well known that it’s hard as well.  There’s just so much to do and so little time to do it.  I find myself having to split my time between coding the game, preventing the server from exploding, responding to community feedback, technical support, managing business queries, following up on all the administrative stuff, and sometimes trying to live my life.  I was fully expecting that part of the difficulty, though, and in the end, I do less coding than I’d like, but it all gets done.

The part of doing a start up that I wasn’t expecting is how emotional it can be.  I might just be a baby when it comes to this stuff, but in general, I’m not a remarkably emotional guy.  It’s funny because one of the biggest reasons that people do start ups is that they want to be in control of their own destiny.  They don’t want layers and layers of people above them to override their decisions or to make decisions that they’re ultimately going to have to do the work for.  The other side of the coin, though, is that when the power is in your hands, you feel the responsibility for each and every decision that’s made.

Launching MonstrosCity made it all real.  I hated the period before launch when I would have to talk to people about what might happen or what we expected or what we hoped for.  There’s simply no emotion tied to the nebulous pondering of what could be.  Now that we’ve launched the game and we can see how it’s going, it’s great.  Once you have something concrete, you can start thinking about how to improve it, no matter how good or bad it is.  From an emotional perspective, though, having something concrete amplifies everything by an unbelievable amount.

I’ve often said that the biggest mistake a person can ever make in life is to assume that human beings are rational machines.  People often take that as a statement about other people.  They believe that I’m saying that I’m rational and everyone else is irrational.  I could talk about this forever, but fundamentally, I think logical thoughts and data are things that pull us in directions, but the way that the human mind overshoots, undershoots, misinterprets, oscillates, and gets stuck in local extrema is astounding.

The other day, I was working on a new feature for MonstrosCity with YouTube in the background on a video of the gymnasts that just tried out for Britain’s Got Talent and suddenly I just found tears streaming down my face.  I couldn’t really put a finger on what was going on.  If I had to put my emotions into words, it would have been something like “Look at the beauty of truly accomplishing something great.  This start up is your performance.  Do you have what it takes to be great?”  It’s funny because all at once, I felt completely inspired to do something great, but in the instant so small and powerless to know if I ever would.

When I look back on it, it seems so absurd.  Did I just cry from watching some gymnasts?  But it wasn’t about gymnasts.  It was about everything that was in my head.  It was about whether or not we’d recover from the small hit in daily active users we took from our server host going down while we slept.  It was about a brand new feature that I had just started on not being amazing after an hour of work.  It was about if the vision of one day creating games that appealed to a universal audience is an impossible pipe dream.  It was about it being Monday and our game mysteriously monetizing poorly on Mondays.

On the other side of things, there are so many experiences that I’ve been absolutely elated by.  The first time other than our friends bought something, I exploded into the other room to hurry up and tell my girlfriend about the $.40 we just made (even though Facebook takes 30% of it).  I got ridiculously excited I got when a friend linked me to a review on Inside Social Games and it was our game.  One of my happiest moments during this start up was when I won a free copy of Flash from a poker tournament to save our company £600.

If I counted the number of times I’ve been absolutely devastated and the number of times I’ve been ecstatic in the last month and compared it to the rest of my life, they’d probably be relatively close numbers.  If there was any one thing that reading the blogs about doing start up didn’t sufficiently warn me about, it’s how emotional it is.  Sometimes when I’m working on my own, I put Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels on in the background.  At the end, Big Chris (Vinnie Jones) comes in and says, “And there’s one more thing.  It’s been emotional.”  I think that line punctuates my start up experience thus far.

Nature Versus Nurture: Wrong Question

The nature versus nurture debate has risen again [Fred Wilson, Mark Suster, Vivek Wadhwa] in regards to entrepreneurship. However, I feel like the question is fundamentally misdirected. The sheer concept of an “argument” between nature versus nurture demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the human behavioral process.

It would be pretty impossible to discredit either side. Speak to anyone who has had more than one child and we can wipe Locke’s tabula rasa concept off the table. From the very first instance of being, humans have a set of tendencies that comes along with them. And of course from the other side of the equation, look at studies about twins separated at birth or even identical twins who aren’t separated at birth. They do not end up as identical people in the long run.

The question is not whether a particular aspect of a person can be attributed to nature or nurture. The question is whether from any given state, what set of inputs would cause a person to develop a particular value for a particular attribute. So, for someone who is born with “the entrepreneurial spirit”, what paths could their life take such that at a certain point in their life, that spirit is or isn’t present. Likewise for someone who isn’t born with such a spirit.

I think there are three important concepts in this discussion: state, inertia, and inputs. The state of any person is just how they are at that moment in time. For a new born baby, this state is relatively simple and heavily skewed toward genetics. For an adult, it is significantly more complicated. Inertia is how ready this state is to change. In general, it’s going to be correlated with how fast the state is actually changing, but the pure concept is how ready the state (or a particular aspect of the state) is to change. And the last part is inputs, which is just the experiences that this person is going to encounter.

In order to determine if someone is going to “learn to be an entrepreneur,” one simply needs to take a look at difference between their present state and the target state (entrepreneur) and how ready they are for this type of change. From this, there is a theoretical set of inputs that would be sufficient to be the action potential to enact this change (or one of the many changes in the sequence that would be required to enact this change) and the respective probability associated to it.

There are a few key observations for why it’s easy to believe that entrepreneurs are born and not created. Firstly, there are many aspects of our lives in which our inertia nearly hits zero at a relatively early age. For example, confidence tends to get set around high school and stay with you regardless of how much you change. Secondly, having the entrepreneurial spirit is a pretty complex and remote state. There are so many people in this world who struggle to keep a stable job, let alone a good job, let alone a job where they are progressing. Having the courage to put yourself on the line to do something world-changing is quite rare. The set of requirements is vast, rare, and serial (they all have to be present for it to work).

However, looking at the process of life, it’s not impossible. If someone is already almost there, it might just take working at a start up to push them over the edge. If someone encounters the right mentor at the right time for the right duration and begins to fundamentally understand all the steps and aspects of being an entrepreneur, it’s possible. I definitely wouldn’t categorize it as likely or easy, though. For someone to actually acquire all the attributes required to be a truly great entrepreneur at the same time and to be able to hold onto those attributes for long enough to actually see the vision to greatness is very, very unlikely–even more so if those attributes are newly acquired.

This is my first time trying to be an entrepreneur and don’t think it was something I was inherently born with. Also, I know that I do not singularly possess all the attributes necessary to change the world. What I am hoping, though, is that I have enough vision to know what attributes I lack and the luck to find the right people to fulfill those attributes and teach them to me.

As a random aside, the code name for the game we’re working on was Nature Versus Nurture and all our files are still named ‘NVN’.

Our New Game: First Screenshot

Media Molecule Pay Stubs

When I was working at Media Molecule, Mags (accountant) and I had an understanding that if she couldn’t think of anything clever to write on the envelope of my pay stub, I’d have to be fired.

I was shredding some old documents today and came across all my old pay stubs and thought I’d share them.

MM Pay Stubs

Super Metroid Lessons: Focus on Abilities Instead of Obstacles

My favorite game of all time is Super Metroid.  It wasn’t always that way, though.  When I was young, I had a pirated copy of Super Metroid.  Yes, you could pirate SNES games.  No, I don’t pirate things anymore.  One quirk of my bootlegged copy was that it would launch straight into the intro of typing out text and run at 10% framerate, completely unskippable every time.  For this reason, the first year I “owned” Super Metroid, I just thought of it as the stupid game that typed text slowly and made my angry.  One fateful day, though, I was patient enough to leave the intro on while making and eating a meal of macaroni and cheese.  About fifteen hours later, I had completed a gaming experience that has remained unrivaled to this day in my life.

The reason Super Metroid is my favorite game is the fact that it is the first game I played where you could focus on the your abilities and look for the obstacles.  Most games are comprised of abilities and obstacles.  The obstacles are the challenges presented to you and the abilities are what you use to get past the obstacles.  In every game that I had played before Super Metroid, I felt like I was presented with a singular obstacle and spent my entire gameplay experience looking for the ability that would let me get past that obstacle, whether the ability was in myself as a player or in the character.  As was the case in early game design, when you did finally overcome an obstacle, the prize was generally a disappointment (ie. your princess is in another castle) and you’d be forced to focus on the next obstacle at hand.  In other words, you focused on the obstacles and were constantly searching for abilities to overcome them with and by the time you overcame the obstacle, the prize was already gone.

Super Metroid was different.  It would give you an incredible ability and present you with a multitude of obstacles.  Overcoming some obstacles would lead to nothing.  Overcoming some obstacles would lead to something small.  Overcoming some obstacles would actually give you the ability to overcome even more obstacles.  Because of this simple structure, the experience of the game isn’t that of hitting an obstacle and getting frustrated when you fail or being disappointed when the prize wasn’t worth the effort.  The primary thought process of a Super Metroid player was not “What abilities can I use to overcome this obstacle?”  It was “Which obstacle is the best obstacle to tackle right now given my abilities”.  I think the difference between these two mentalities is subtle, but I believe that difference is also fundamental to the core of my being.  By seeing how much I enjoyed Super Metroid compared to other games, it really told me something about myself and what algorithm I used to live my life, even at a young age.

In my life, I’ve met so many people that primarily focus on the obstacles.  They think they’re not happy because they have a crappy job or they think they’re not happy because they’re single.  I also see this mentality applied to start-ups.  They think success will come once they hit critical mass or they think they’ll find success once they catch their big break or they’ll find success once a VC invests in them.  I’m not saying this perspective never works out because sometimes it obviously does.  I think it simply takes a lot more determination, discipline, and luck than what I will call a means-driven perspective.

There are three reasons why I prefer a means-driven perspective over a ends-driven perspective, even in the results-focused world of business.  The first is experience.  When you make an attempt at a goal, the results are either success or failure.  As much as success is nice, failure is not, and it only takes a string of these failures to really damage the confidence and morale of a team.  When you focus on the means everything is just something you do because you can.  If it leads to something good, that’s great.  If it leads to nothing, then you’ve learned that this particular ability wasn’t useful for this particular application.

The second reason is momentum.  When you’ve succeeded in accomplishing a goal, it’s great.  Nobody can take that way from you.  Doing something successful does have long term value in itself in building credibility onto your team.  However, unless you’ve accomplished that goal in a sustainable way, that credibility will waste away very quickly if you can’t repeat the success.  If instead, you are focused on what you can do and you progressively build up knowledge about how to combine your abilities, you become stronger as a team with every new ability you acquire as well as every new way to apply an ability or a set of abilities you already possess.

The last and probably most important reason that I prefer to focus on means rather than ends is that nobody can predict the future.  You may look at the current market and make a guess at where you need to be, but if you ever set that in stone, the next time that the world takes an unexpected turn, you’re fighting your way into a castle with no princess.  If you focus on what you can do now and what next steps those abilities can afford you, you can pilot simply by speed and direction rather than committing to turn by turn directions for the foreseeable future and beyond.  There are so many great success stories of individuals and companies who hit it big with something that wasn’t what they set out to do.  It’s important to focus on your abilities and always be looking for opportunities to apply them rather than to focus on a single goal and let some of your greatest strengths go to waste.

I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite movies, Zero Effect:

Now, a few words on looking for things. When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad. Because of all the things in the world, you’re only looking for one of them. When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good. Because of all the things in the world, you’re sure to find some of them.

The Gaming World in Chart Form

After a chat with Mike “Marc Hernandez” McManus, I realized this is how I see the landscape of today’s gaming world.

Gaming World in Chart Form

Why I’m Making a Facebook Game

Last night I went to a poker tournament sponsored by Adobe and had an absolutely amazing night for many, many reasons.  Firstly, it was a very well organized and orchestrated event.  They really tapped right into the jugular of crossover between poker players and programmers.  Secondly, as a start up, we’ve really been trying to watch every penny we spend and one big cost that we’ve been trying to push off for as long as possible is Flash.  As I somehow lucked my way into the final table, I should be getting a free copy of Flash posted to me soon.  However, saving £600 was surprisingly not the highlight of the night.

For me, the highlight of the night was just getting a chance to talk to all the other Flash developers there.  When we were working on HashBangTV, I spent as much time talking to random people about my ideas as I did actually implementing them.  It was partially because we still had to figure out if the concept had any legs but also because it’s just more fun to talk about a big, crazy idea that doesn’t currently exist.  Since we’ve changed direction toward social gaming, I’ve mostly just been coding along as quickly as I can.  So, it was nice to get out at all and talk to people, but it was even more interesting talking to Flash devs.

I’ve received a lot of flack for moving away from console game development and building a Facebook game and with a room full of flash developers, with many of them wanted to move into what they referred to as “real” games, there was no lack of doubt regarding my move.  I guess I can see their perspective.  From the outside, people must wonder why anyone would ever walk away from working on a project like LittleBigPlanet and even more so walking away from working with the likes of Alex and Mark.  And there really is no bigger betrayal to the hardcore gamer than making “casual games” or “social games.”  But from the inside, it’s a very different view for me and it was nice for people to hear me out on my decision.

To start, I’m the type of person that really fears stagnation more than anything else.  I’d much rather be completely shit at something new than to keep on doing the same thing that I’m good at.  I decided that I wanted to do something that would allow me to develop my skills other than programming.  When I think back on my career up to this point, ironically, the thing I’m most proud of isn’t a programming task.  The thing I’m most proud of is the hiring that I did at Insomniac for the Ratchet and Clank Future gameplay team.  To complete my team of 7, I hired 3 guys with either no experience or relatively little experience and they took on the work load of a much bigger and much more experienced team that preceded them.  Going from a 150+ team at Insomniac to a 30+ team at Media Molecule was a great experience, but it really got me wondering if there were projects that would interest me that would require 8 or less people.

As I mentioned, our first idea was HashBangTV, a social game around video aggregation.  It was trying to embrace the growing concept of real world gaming, but we decided that it was a big gamble into a space that we didn’t know anything about.  So then we started looking a bit more closely at social games on Facebook.  I’ll admit that when this all started, I was one of those people who thought social games were just games for idiots.  It’s just that if you analyze the mechanics of a social game from the perspective of hardcore games, it doesn’t make any sense.  There is no risk-reward balance.  There are no obstacles.  There is no twitch skill.  There is no “trying too hard to be epic” storyline to follow.  But then once I started playing some of these games, I realized that social game mechanics are fundamentally different than hardcore game mechanics.  Hardcore game mechanics are fundamentally based on users trying to stand out.  Almost every game is about playing a character that overcomes the impossible obstacle to become the ultimate warrior.  When we play hardcore multiplayer games it’s trying to get into that top position.  It’s about trying to defeat others so you can get ahead.  Social game mechanics are the opposite.  Social game mechanics are about how you can work together with your friends to reach common goals.  They’re about bettering yourself such that you can help others better.  It’s about having a common framework with which to communicate with people you wouldn’t otherwise have much to communicate about.  Once I made this realization, I became obsessed with social game mechanics.  It’s not just that social games reach a new audience, social games provide a game designer with a whole new set of mechanics to engage users.  During the PR campaign of LittleBigPlanet, the word “coopetition” was used for better or worse.  Social games are the cooperation end of the spectrum while hardcore games tend to occupy the competition end of the spectrum.

The other big appeal of doing HashBangTV is that it was embracing the technologies of web development, and more importantly, the iteration time of web development.  When I applied to Media Molecule, there was one aspect of the potential of LittleBigPlanet that got me most excited.  I had this idea that we’d be fully integrated into the community and we could just implement whatever crazy ideas the community had whenever they had them.  Just as I hadn’t been satiated by the drastic improvement from a 150 person team to a 30 person team, I wasn’t satisfied with the patching approval speed compared to the instantaneous deployment of the web.  I can’t wait to launch our first Facebook game because I really want to work on the dream of being able to connect with a community and respond fast enough to keep them engaged.  I’ve always had this dream that I could be working on a game and see some random idea on the forums over lunch and code it and deploy it in the game by the end of the day.  I’d really like to build a community who really cares about a game and match it with a development team to make them feel justified in their engagement.

There has been so much work put into getting games to be recognized as a respectable medium and there is still much work to do.  However, I think one big step is finding out how to really engage a proper distribution of the human population.  The Wii and Guitar Hero have done a lot of good bringing non-gamers to the television screen, but I think social games are a big part of the next wave.  I dream of one day creating or working at the Pixar of games–the company that truly creates masterpieces for all audiences.  I’ve never been very interested in the “can games be art” debate.  I’m much more interested in trying to prove that games can have universal appeal and a big step on that path is really understanding the mechanics that appeal to all the various audiences.

Why I Decided to Do a Start Up

I woke up early this morning and haven’t been able to sleep and my mac is in the other room, so I thought I’d take some time to jot down some notes on why I decided to do a start up.

Three years ago, I was living in LA working at Insomniac Games.  I was the Lead Gameplay Programmer on Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, the fifth game in the series and the third Ratchet and Clank game that I had worked on.  There were some good things about the situation and some bad things.  One of the most obvious bad things was having worked on sequel after sequel and being able to code up Ratchet gameplay mechanics in my sleep.  Moving onto the PS3 made things a little bit more fresh, but not much.  The up side wasn’t bad, though.  I was making more money than I could possibly spend which convinced me into buying a fancy car and property, which currently looks like a disasterous move.  I worked with a lot of talented people at Insomniac who really taught me so much in terms of technical ability as well as pure determination.  However, with a team of over a hundred people working on the project, I had quite a flow of unpleasant human encounters.  Back then, I used to refer to is at the jackass count.

When Luke and I started considering moving to London to work on LittleBigPlanet, one of the most attractive things was the team size.  Going from a team of over 100 people to a team of 30 sounded absolutely amazing.  I remember Luke saying, “There is a number of people that if the team grows above, and the number is lower than 40, I will have to quit.”  For me, the formulation was slightly different.  For me, it was, “If I have to deal with more than a certain number of jackasses daily, and the number is less then 7, I will have to quit.”

Looking back on it, though, jackass is definitely the wrong concept.  I’ll admit, sometimes it was that people were simply jackasses–not necessarily absolute shit, but nowhere near as good as they acted like they were.  However, in most situations, this was not the case.  It was usually a consequence of infrastructure: too many tiers of management, too many meetings, gamable accountability, decision by committee, highly skilled workers being promoted to managers, and various other factors.  The key is, though, it was far less often the case that there was a problematic individual than a problematic placement of an individual or a problematic process.

I decided that I wanted to get out on my own because I wanted to build the right team with the right infrastructure with the right culture.  I knew that as long as it wasn’t my company, all I would ever be is another annoying voice in the ear of upper management.  It’s not that I think I’m so brilliant that they should listen to everything I say.  It’s the fact that I am an individual who is never satisfied with the way things are and will always want to know if things could be better.  I want to try my ideas and see if they sink or swim.  I want to stay fluid and really focus not on just finding the right people, but finding the right roles and environments for the right people.

To me, the worst thing is stagnation, and from my experience, without finding the exact right process for a company, it is the natural consequence of human endeavors.  For every bad hire that isn’t fired and for every promotion that shouldn’t have been given, a company loses options.  For every unnecessary policy or invalid internal metric, a company loses options.  The more mistakes a company makes, the more it is forced down a certain path that makes making good decisions more difficult and more mistakes inevitable.  For me, the key is having a culture where the perspective is more like the scientific method than a series of goals.  Running a good company is about making and testing hypotheses, not about setting goals and succeeding or failing.  When a hypothesis turns out to be false, you have learned something valuable and saved a lot of time because you need to go no further with it.  When you fail, there is always the risk that an ego gets in the way and wants to hide it or present it as a success.  Facts–true and false–are objective.  Quality-success and fail–are not.

I am starting a company because I want to build something that is evaluated not by what it has done, but by how many doors have been left open and how much it still can actually do.  I am starting a company because I want to find out how many other people share this passion for means over ends.

Exciting Side Effects of Square

I often feel like I get excited about the wrong parts of technology.  I just watched the fireside chat with Jack Dorsey about Square from Le Web.  He did a demo of Square and one thing really stuck with me. There was a point where he was entering the email address for the receipt and it remembered what email was last used with that card.  I realize that the exciting part of Square is that people who would otherwise have difficulty taking credit card payments now have a solution.  I know that the next exciting part is getting rid of paper receipts and having them all emailed.  However, those things are all obvious and core to what Square is.  What fascinates me are the side effects that seem to always come along with great technologies.

I think what excites me more than any individual part of Square is the fact that it is the next generation of credit card billing.  I don’t mean to say that it will replace the existing infrastructure of credit card billing.  I mean that it is a solution that is designed from a new foundation, asking questions that the dominant players wouldn’t even think to ask.  Because of this, there are countless opportunities that have been overlooked for far too long.

As a credit card user, the closest thing I have to a profile is online banking.  This allows me to gather information from the bank and for the bank to gather information about me.  The problem there is that my interaction with the bank is far less important than my interaction with the retailers where I’m spending my money.  This is because I interact with more retailers more often in more ways.  My only interaction with the bank is that I’ve told a robot somewhere to give it money every month.

This is why Square excites me as a consumer.  It allows me to create a set of information that isn’t just shared between myself and the bank, but it allows me to create a set of information that is shared between myself and retailers.  One of the other side effects of this that Jack showed off is a photo that they can use to verify my identity.

This type of profile ties into two themes that really excite me about the future.  The first is the ability to carry less stuff with me.  I find the amount of stuff I have to carry everywhere I go that does nothing but carry information.  The second is the power of a world that knows more about me.  I’m already seeing it with Facebook ads being infinitely better at advertising than any before it, but I think there’s still a long way to go.  I know a lot of people were laughing at Blippy, but I think we’re only seeing the beginning of the power of transparency.