Thursday, August 29, 2013

Left Hand Meet Right Hand: Advantages of Distributed Development and Work from Home (Part II)

In Part I, developer Judy Tyrer discusses the disadvantages and disruption caused by mandatory colocation. In Part II, she demonstrates how distributed development can be more productive but cautions that team building is still necessary.

Making Distributed Development Work

Communication Becomes Top Priority

I doubt anyone will argue that if two people need to collaborate, it is much easier if they are in the same room. But how many times in game development is collaboration limited to two people? Entire teams are collaborating. And while entire teams can be brought into a meeting in the same location, the dynamic instantly changes. There is more discussion. And there is more opportunity for communication failures. Here are some examples:
  1. A meeting is called for 10 minutes from now. The entire team attends, except Bob, who is the only back-end developer on the team. Bob is at the dentist. They make a decision for a new interface. No one tells Bob. Bob continues working on the back-end based on previous assumptions. A month goes by before anyone discovers the problem and a month of development time is lost.
  2. Carol and Alice meet in the hallway to discuss a problem with the controllers. They decide to tweak an algorithm to fix the problem. They don’t realize that the algorithm used for the controllers is also used for AI. When they check in the fix to the controllers, they break AI movement.
  3. The art team is gathered around a monitor to view the latest models. Stan is in the back and can’t see the entire screen. The art director points out an area where there needs to be some work but Stan doesn’t see the entire piece and while he thinks he understands the direction he’s being asked to go, he’s not correct because he missed a critical element.
When the team is distributed across multiple locations and time zones, then how the team communicates becomes a top priority. No one can assume everyone is available for a meeting in 10 minutes; therefore any meeting has to go into the calendar where it would be obvious to everyone that Bob was at the dentist. The meeting would have been held when Bob was available.

Alice and Carol would not have been in the hallway, they’d have met in IRC chat where the entire team would be able to watch the conversation and the AI developer could have pointed out the problem at design time. And Stan would not be huddled around a monitor trying to see around others, but would have the screen he was supposed to be looking at shared on his computer so he can see it clearly.

None of the three meetings in the examples have a record of what has transpired. The tools used in distributed development in some cases automatically record the meeting and in others lend themselves to easy documentation. IRC automatically logs chats. In Skype meetings at Linden Lab there were usually side bars in chat along with the conversation in voice. This allowed everyone to more easily insert their opinions without interrupting and provided a chat log of what was being discussed. Screen shares can also be captured. All of this documentation becomes available to those at the meeting, to ensure everyone understood and also to those who could not attend so that they can quickly get up to speed on any changes. This is invaluable when bringing new people into a project.

Team Building

Having the right tools does not solve problems with attitudes. While people all in the same office can also get into cliquish behavior, when teams are distributed as teams rather than as individuals an “us v them” mentality can easily slip into the culture. This kind of attitude requires management intervention and needs to be aggressively addressed. Team building exercises are critical. Video cameras to bring the people more directly into the room in meetings help, but so do meetings that are just for team building. And if you can meet in a virtual world as avatars that adds a uniquely wonderful touch, particularly when your boss wears a brown paper bag on his head or the CEO is a rocketship. My personal favorite will always be the bloody meat cleaver wielding tiny fairy with the bass voice of one of the rendering devs.

 Judy Tyrer began in serious games with PLATO in the late 1970s, moved into distributed operating systems and enterprise software before rejoining the game industry in 2005. She worked for Ubisoft, Sony Online Entertainment and Linden Lab before branching out to start her own studio, 3 Turn Productions LLC which is coming out with the virtual world of Jane Austen for Kickstarter this summer.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Left Hand Meet Right Hand: Advantages of Distributed Development and Work from Home (Part I)

In Part I of this article, developer Judy Tyrer discusses the disadvantages and disruption caused by mandatory colocation.

Marissa Meyers recently made headlines with the call for all Yahoo! employees to return to the office. She has dismissed studies of improved productivity when people are allowed to work from home and asserts, instead, that colocation of people is required for innovation. While Yahoo is in the unique position of a company trying to turn itself around, many will be watching to see whether this proves to be a successful move.

The game industry is not Yahoo!, however, and before we jump on board to adapt Ms. Meyers' theories, we need to first examine the cost of having all developers in a single location to the industry as a whole. .

Disadvantages of Colocating 

Personnel Costs of Relocation

IGN reported 20 studios closed in 2012. In addition, it reports 35 incidents of smaller studio closures or significant lay-offs. Speaking from personal experience, I saw one RIF (reduction in force) and one studio closing within a 1 year period resulting in 2 cross-country moves within that same year. Psychologists list the stress of moving as the most significant stressor short of losing a loved one. It is not only disruptive for the employee, but for the entire family. In two-career homes, it leads to arguments over whose career takes precedent. Some careers are only available in limited geographic locations forcing the game developing spouse to stop developing games or forcing the spouse with limited geographic options to forgo their career. When children are involved, it removes them from their schools and friends. For high school students, this can mean having to take extra courses and summer school since standards are local. For example, my son could not count ROTC as his PE requirement when moving to a school that did not have ROTC and would require an additional year of high school to meet that requirement alone. .

Limited Talent Pool 

Thousands of young people fresh out of school are trying to enter the game industry. However, with the Quality-of-Life issues rampant in the industry, we find a shrinking pool of experienced developers. People who start families begin to rethink 12/7 work weeks and leave the industry for a saner lifestyle. According to the most recent IGDA QOL Survey, 74.4% of respondents had less than 8 years of industry experience. The average age of developers was only 31.22 years and 76.9% of respondents have no children. .

If you draw a correlation between the age of developers and their child-free status with the exodus of developers with greater than 7 years’ experience, the logical conclusion is that this industry needs to become friendlier to older developers with children. One way to grow the experienced developer pool of talent is to look beyond the confines of local studios. Experienced developers live in the all the major game hubs, but many are settled in those locations and experienced enough they don’t need to leave for a good job. So a studio seeking top talent will expand its talent pool for developers if relocation is not a requirement..

The Bottom Line 

Next to hardware for server farms, salaries and benefits are the largest expense for a game studio. The more expensive the location of the studio, the higher salaries required. The difference for a developer in Denver and in San Francisco is 55%. So a $50K developer in Denver will cost $77,500 in San Francisco. And yet your game does not sell for 55% more in San Francisco than in Denver. It sells for exactly the same amount. From a simple bottom line perspective, it makes more sense to hire the developer in Denver..

Judy Tyrer began in serious games with PLATO in the late 1970s, moved into distributed operating systems and enterprise software before rejoining the game industry in 2005. She worked for Ubisoft, Sony Online Entertainment and Linden Lab before branching out to start her own studio, 3 Turn Productions LLC which is coming out with the virtual world of Jane Austen for Kickstarter this summer.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The State of Game Journalism

In this article, author Jason R. Rich reports on the growing presence of social media in game journalism and its impact on game developers.

Just as interactive entertainment has evolved dramatically in recent years, so has the way consumers are able to obtain the latest gaming news, reviews, game play strategies and gossip. For game publishers and developers, this now means having to take a multi-faceted approach to sales, marketing, advertising, public relations and promotions.

While printed, special interest gaming magazines, like Game Informer, and printed strategy guides (from publishers like Prima) still exist, their importance to gamers has somewhat taken a back seat to the vast number of online-based gaming websites, blogs, YouTube channels and special interest Facebook pages, for example, that are now populating the Internet.

Marc Saltzman, a longtime video game and interactive entertainment columnist for the Gannett newspaper chain and USA Today, explained, “Over the last five years, we have seen a lot more mainstream media interest in gaming, but far fewer specialty publications focusing on gaming. There is also a lot more opportunity for bloggers and online social media to cover gaming.”

Today, the success of a new game title no longer depends on positive reviews appearing within a few key printed gaming publications. Instead, word of mouth among consumers via the online social networking services can quickly make or break a game. Plus, news, game play strategies and other content related to new games can be disseminated almost instantly thanks to the Internet.

Thus, game developers and publishers need to continue working with the few remaining printed game magazine publishers to coordinate reviews and share game-related content in order to cater to the wants and needs of hard core gamers. However, it’s also necessary to reach consumers by working with the growing number of mainstream media outlets that now also cover gaming.

Meanwhile, having a strong online social media presence to promote word-of-mouth hype about games is more essential than ever, as is reaching out to the influential bloggers and YouTube channel hosts that cover gaming. Many of these individuals have larger and more dedicated audiences than traditional media outlets.

Andy Eddy, the editor-in-chief of @Gamer magazine (the official games magazine of Best Buy), stated, “Video game journalism, like other forms of journalism, has expanded quite a bit, so there are a lot of different ways for a gaming enthusiast to get information. There are still reliable game magazines, such as @Gamer, and game-oriented websites, but the Internet has enabled other forms to proliferate, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The ability to easily publish game-related information on the Internet means that there's now a lot of content, from reliable and not-so-reliable sources, to be had.”

He added, “As a result of there being numerous methods for enthusiasts to gather information and news, I think there's less loyalty. Instead of relying on one or two sources for content, gamers are able to do a keyword search on Google, and instantly be taken to a number of sources with the exact information they're looking to get. And along with that, there's a desire for instant access to news stories.

“Consumer tastes vary. There's no single or definitive source to tell you whether or not you'll like a game when it comes out. Simply put, I think it's now much harder for a developer or publisher to bring out a bad game and blow it past the buying community, given how quickly word-of-mouth opinions and media coverage spreads via the Internet,” said Eddy.

Word travels very fast about new video games thanks to online social media and blogs. “If a game gets a lot of positive buzz, starts trending, and word on the street is that ‘You’ve got to play this,’ a game is going to do very well,” added Salzman.

“Recently, we have seen games from small publishers come out of nowhere, that did not initially receive attention from the gaming or general media, become the next big thing in gaming. Look at Minecraft, for example.

“If there are two things that have changed the face of gaming media, it’s blogs and online social networking. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become very important tools to game publishers for spreading the word about new games. It’s widely accessible and instantaneous. It also provides a way for gamers to share their own gaming experiences and opinions,” said Salzman.

Game developers and publishers should still rely on the traditional gaming media to help them reach serious gamers. However, it’s important to understand that the gaming media is now segmented, with various publications and outlets covering specific aspects of interacting entertainment, such as online gaming, mobile gaming, console gaming or computer gaming.

“Game developers and publishers need to do their homework. Target the gaming media that caters to the genre of gaming that’s appropriate to their titles,” said Salzman. “Next, target the specific journalists at those outlets who cover the type of game you’re trying to promote. Otherwise, you’re just spinning your wheels.”

Today, when it comes to promoting a game, utilizing the traditional gaming media and mainstream media, along with reaching out to bloggers, game-oriented YouTube channels, and utilizing online social media, are all equally important.

Jason R. Rich (@jasonrich7) is the bestselling author of more than 55 books, as well as a frequent contributor to numerous national magazines, major daily newspapers and popular websites. Beginning in the late-1980s, he spent more than 15 years covering interactive entertainment. Most recently, he wrote the Pottermore Secrets and Mysteries Revealed: The Unofficial Guide To strategy guide for Que Publishing. His own blog, which covers iPhone and iPad apps (including games), is called Jason Rich’s Featured App Of The Week.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

How not to sound white: Exploring my culture through a video game

In this article, game producer Angel Inokon recalls how the struggle to connect to her Nigerian American culture led to the creation of her very first video game.

“You Oreo!” Of all the names the bully could have called me, I kind of liked Oreo. My round belly and chubby sixth grade arms made no secret of the fact that I enjoyed dunking chocolate cookies in milk until they crumbled into a mush of goodness. Yumm....

But it was intended to be an insult. I was a brown-skinned little girl with nappy hair who spoke like a white person. An Oreo is black on the outside and white on the inside. This is the story of how a video game helped bridge my cultural identity as a Nigerian Black American.

I never felt like I belonged – not at home or at school. My parents ate funny food, wore funny clothes and spoke a funny language. We were forbidden to learn their native tongue, Ibibio, one of Nigeria’s 400 plus dialects. To make matters worse, they had a British education so we were hopelessly out of place at school.

We weren’t Nigerian enough to speak our native language and not American enough to sound black. I would beg my parents to teach me Ibibio. I fantasized about how awesome it would be to have my own secret language – I could talk about people in public, understand jokes that seemed funnier in Ibibio or eavesdrop on my parents.

They would laugh as we mangled sounds that don’t exist in the English language. For example, 'akpan' means first son, a common name for men. The ‘kp’ pops from your lips like a hard bouncy b. My parents wouldn't teach us because they feared discrimination if we spoke with an accent. Assimilation meant survival. Therefore we had to sound white. I’ve gone through cycles of acceptance around this fact – indifference, annoyance, anger, self-pity, resignation and back again. Hungry for power, I ordered books on Ibibio from Amazon. Books suck. They don’t speak to you. You can’t easily learn a language from a book.

Books weren’t the solution. So I created a video game.

What I was trying to accomplish was darn near impossible. I wasn’t a programmer. I didn’t know the language. My parents wouldn’t teach. And we were the first generation to speak full English. Undaunted I opened up Macromedia Flash 8 and designed my first game – Ibibio Hangman.

It was a bilingual hangman game where you selected the mode - Green for Ibibio or Blue for English. If you selected English you saw a blue screen with spaces and letters to guess the secret word. If you clicked the hint button you would see the translated word in Ibibio. When you got the word right in either mode you could hear a pronunciation of Ibibio. One problem – I can’t pronounce these words.

So I cornered my mom and got her to say a couple words into my cheap microphone before she escaped. I felt sorry for my mom. She had a geeky daughter. I was not interested in being in the kitchen learning to cook fufu soup or wearing a lace buba dress. I wanted to code. At my computer, I converted her voice to wav files using Audacity and put them in my game asset folder. In the end my game had an external dictionary of about 10 words. If you failed to guess the word a bomb would explode which somehow made sense as a lose condition for Hangman. It was a game, it worked and it was mine.

Now almost ten years later I make games for a living. Video games can act as a time capsule capturing experiences we can relive again and again. There will be a day I’ll want to hear my mother’s voice. I’ll wish I was able to hear her speak our language. While I no longer have the source code for the original game, I have the memories. Now as I’ve started my own mobile gaming company my wish is to rebuild Ibibio Hangman and invite you too to become an Oreo.

Angel Inokon is a game producer, entrepreneur and a member of the IGDA living in Oakland, CA. She is creating That's My Move!, a mobile game for shy wannabe dancers who want to have fun doing flash mobs with friends. Follow her at @angelinokon or @thatsmymove.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

August 2013: Spotlighting Trends

When I wrote the feature article, The Social Network Game Boom, for Gamasutra, in 2009, I guess it was so early that the editor had to add that the potential of social games to dominate the market was "according to her."  I had been lucky enough to have been there at the beginning of social gaming (even witnessing it firsthand in China!) and I was also there at the debatable end, as social game companies shifted their focus to mobile gaming.

I worked at several social gaming companies.  They all faced inevitable change in the market and strove to make that shift from Facebook/Web to iPhone/tablet games.  Of course, no one wants to be at the tail end of a trend.  After 20 restaurant Diner Dash type games in the marketplace, is the 21st going to be any better?  Even with the short production cycles for social and mobile games, companies wanted to do some trend forecasting so that they didn't end up with last season's now-boring flash-in-the-pan.  The business people had meetings to decide if 9 months from now, would a girl-centered shopping game do any better than a vampire-themed shooter?  They were trying to forecast trends and "likes."

This month, I'd welcome articles about the science or intuition of forecasting trends and also any trends that you've noticed in our industry.  What changes do you think will impact us in the future?

If you would like to submit an article, please read the submission guidelines to the right first.  Thanks!