Posts Categorized: Personal

Indie Game Dev: The Jumpoff.

I have been in the game industry for almost four years, and it has been quite the ride thus far. I graduated a Computer Scientist from Syracuse and only had decided that I would make my mark on the game industry months before I received my degree. Not phased by my lack of personal development experience, I was determined to find a way into the industry, knowing that I could find my way once I got in there. Through a ridiculous amount of networking, I started at Harmonix in their QA department as a tester in March of 2009.

Almost two years later, and four products shipped with my name on them (The Beatles: Rock Band, Rock Band Network, Rock Band 3, and Dance Central), I came up for air. I had learned a ton about game development at (relatively) larger scale for the industry — at it’s peak, Harmonix was around 350 people, and has multiple projects and teams working on new stuff all the time. With such a large company, however, it is important to have some people be dedicated and focused on a particular task. By developing and harnessing experts for very specific parts of your pipeline, you can create a really strong foundation for the rest of your development team to flourish. I found my work becoming more and more pigeonholed to a direction that I wasn’t comfortable with (it was far more directed at tools than it was at game development), and I decided a change would be appropriate for me. I wanted to have my fingers in a bunch of proverbial pies, so to speak. I am fairly certain that games are my passion, but I wanted to take some time actually trying a bunch of different facets of it before I settled down into something.

Through some networking, I managed to land one of the most rewarding three months of work I have had yet, doing some development on a demo for Moonshot Games. The game is called Fallen Frontier. I did some light work in their engine, worked with the designer, implemented auto-aim, created a crowd system, and even got to design and develop a fun cannon-fodder enemy, the drone. If that experience wasn’t mind blowing enough, I got to present the game with the team at PAX East 2011. Check out some of the gameplay footage, I think everyone who worked on that is very proud of what we managed to put together for that show.

After PAX, I went full time as the lead developer on a game I had been working on in my spare time. A company in DC who does training for the DoD wanted to add a game to their training to help instill the issues that they are trying to teach their students. The game puts a player in the role of the people that they will be working with to help the player gain a broader cultural awareness of the communities, views, and goings-on of the location they are being deployed into. At a basic level, the game is a resource management and decision making game, supported by primary source information that is showing to be very successful in generating meaningful conversations in the classroom setting during the training. Being the lead developer on the project has taught me some invaluable lessons about creating systems that can systematically grow very large over the course of the project. Forcing the team, at times against their will, to deal with these larger systems during the build out caused changes much later in the project to be much smoother and understood by everyone. I can happily say that most of the requests that we get for feature additions play into the original design of the game’s system.

After about six months of full time work on that game, my tasks are starting to wrap up, and I’ve reduced my time to a four day workweek so that I can (finally?) open up some time to do some game development on my own and discover what to focus my energies on.

I bit the bullet and purchased a Unity 3 license, and am determined to release something. I hope to share some of that experience of the games I make here, not only to review the decisions I made down the road, but to hopefully help others learn from my successes and missteps, IN REAL TIME.

Hello 2010! :)

I decided to start my year off on the right foot. I got married to an exceptional woman on January 2, 2010! Below is a picture of her wedding present, courtesy of the very talented Milo from Sack-Planet. (Working with him doesn’t hurt either!)

Geeky tidbit, 01022010 is a palindrome.

Features, features, features!

Rather than get actual planned work done, I ended up getting my feet stuck in a timesink to update a few things to my liking. To my dismay, “my liking” was far too ill defined, and one thing lead to another.

For starters, with the help of Delicious Library 2, I put together a small page of all the games I’ve amassed in my library. I’ll be using this to keep track of the games I’m currently playing, books I’m currently reading, etc.

I’ve also been quite active on Twitter as of late. I generally use it to post things going on with/around me (as I have Twitter updating my facebook status), pass along links people post at work, and discuss the game industry and current events. With a bit of tinkering, I found a WordPress widget to include my five latest tweets, and I styled it to my liking.

Lastly, I updated the links present above my tab, to include some links, including my LinkedIn page.

Should be posting soon, but no promises. :)

Link: Torture in Video Games

Love them or hate them, video games pervade our society. Sometimes they act as social commentary, sometimes they guide social behavior. Clive Thompson from Wired talks about the latest episode in how games affect society with an interesting response about torture in video games.

A quest in the recent WoW expansion pack Wrath of the Lich King poses a big cultural, aesthetic and political question: Should games include torture? To which the answer is simple: Sure they should. In fact, I’ll go further. I think we need more torture in videogames.

The article is thought-provoking and a quick read. I have to say, if games can spawn healthy debates about interesting and important issues in society without breaking the player out of the box, I’m all for it.

Coming up this week (hopefully) my thoughts on Mirror’s Edge and Psychonauts.

Taking an elevator pitch by storm

I had the wonderful experience this weekend of participating in Syracuse University’s YES Symposium, presented by the entrepreneurship department. To say the least, the day was energizing – I was surrounded by successful alumni and local entrepreneurs, as well as over 150 bright young minds looking to tackle tomorrow’s problems. I participated in a panel discussion titled “Stupid Mistakes I Could Have Avoided” with Michael Librizzi of briz.com and Dave Mueller of AT&T Premier Technologies. For the panel, it was a pretty good mesh, Michael and I were versed in tech start-ups, and Dave had over a decade behind him of starting brick and mortar stores throughout CNY. Next time I go to one of these things, I’m definitely bringing a backup stash of business cards, it seems like my card holder wasn’t ready for all the networking that was to be done.

On top of being a panelist and talking with quite a few people, I was asked to be a judge in the $1500 elevator pitch competition. Having participated in one myself, I was thrilled to be able to be a judge in the event; knowing how exciting and fast-paced these tend to be. Out of the fourteen teams that participated, we had an incredibly varied group, both in age and ideas being presented. There was very little time for us to approach all the competitors afterward (and absolutely no time for reproach in between the pitches), and I am still bursting at the seams with tips on how some of these teams could have outdone themselves and improved their pitch.

The Presentation

Dress the part. This doesn’t mean that you are required to wear a suit of some sort, however if your business proposal is a formal business that expects that attire, then you should be in it. Nice jeans and a clean shirt work for a more informal business proposal. Two years ago, a woman wear an entire chef’s outfit for her restaurant pitch. It was memorable and played to her strength, which was perfect.

Know your lines. This goes for any business pitch, but even more so for an elevator pitch. This isn’t a speech you are reading to the judges, its a one-act play that you are putting on to entertain, inform, and amaze. Memorize your talk, and keep a set of your talking points (not your speech) handy, if you were to lose your place. I absolutely hate it when people are reading off a paper for me, it feels like a lack of preparation. Memorizing what you are going to talk about shows preparation, and confidence.

Know your limit. These competition rules that you are entering are passed out and posted much in advance. In conjunction with my last bit, you should not go over the allotted time period by more than missing your “thank you”. It’s important to get everything you have to say about your product and why the judges should give you the money above the other equally qualified competitors.

Don’t be a statue. Avoid sticking yourself behind a podium unless required to do so. Get out in front of it, be active and move around while giving your talk (but don’t pace). You should be so energetic in your talk that you need to have duct taped your shoes to your legs else you would be jumping out of them. And most importantly, smile! An average idea will seem less mediocre to the judges if you are doing back-flips in your presentation over your idea. However, there is a line in this matter, be careful not to cross it.

The Content

Attach yourself to the product. Why should you be working on this product/invention/idea? Give a one sentence kickoff some point to show that you belong doing what you’re doing. However, I absolutely do not care what degree you have, whatsoever. It does not make you better in my eyes that you have a college degree, or an MBA, or an MFA, or a PhD (unless you are the leading expert in your field). People have been incredibly successful with much much less. I get incredibly irate when people waste their breath to even throw that out in any presentation. When I would pitch UtiliTeam to people, I simply pointed out that I was a “Computer Science student and most importantly, a gamer”. There, I establish that I am a geek, and that I play video games. So of course a tech start-up focusing around video games is a legitimate place to find me. Find something that shows that you belong, that you had a connection to this idea more than a money making scheme. By relating yourself to your market, or your product, you instantly make yourself appear more knowledgeable about what you are presenting.

Paint a picture. Not literally, unless it involves your idea, but you should be giving a clear and concise picture to the judges. In the time that you have, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What problem are you looking to solve?
  • Who are you looking to target?
  • Why will your target market want your product, or how will you create a need?
  • How will your idea make money?
  • How will your idea grow through it’s success?
  • What makes your idea unique?

Save story time for later. A few people will tend to try to tell you a heart wrenching story about their lives and how they overcame adversity to get to the point where they are today. While it may be a great story, the judges want to hear a great idea that has the opportunity to turn a profit. If you waste your time telling the judges how tough your life has been, you will either lose their attention, annoy them, or simply waste time you could have better spent talking about what makes your idea better than the others. And since you are being timed, this is an important decision to make. Stories should be kept to ways your product or idea has or will change someone’s life.

Attack your weaknesses. There are some business ideas that are amazing, but have some outright questions that will be asked immediately after your pitch. You should be able to identify these big questions, and answer them in your pitch. For example, this young lady had a great idea for a cafe in which pets and owners alike could be eating together. The cafe would provide healthy food, and a welcoming environment to like minded people to mingle and meet. Great idea, absolutely nothing was said about the sanitary issues that come with bringing animals into a eating establishment. What happens when an untrained animal does number one or two on the floor? What about bugs (fleas/ticks/lice)? This isn’t limited to this sole situation too, but if you finish your pitch leaving the judges with more questions then you did answers, you need to rework your approach.

Get harsh criticism. Being optimistic is great, but you need to find someone who hates your idea, and can tell you why. Finding opposition to your idea lets you identify potential issues or holes your pitch may have, and you can learn what others are going to like or dislike about it. Don’t take one persons opinion for it, they might just not be in your market. The important thing is, don’t let a friend, or loved one lull you into a sense of security and perfection because they think your idea is better than sliced bread.

Be weary of your market. Judges at these competitions are incredibly weary of trends, and will avoid them at all costs. It is this reason why fashion pitches/plans tend to do poorly at these competitions. Woman no longer get a weekly perm, your hammer pants have been long since donated, and baggy pants went out of style years ago. Start ups take time, money, people, and its very risky to consider starting a business where the winds may have changed direction by the time the company opens it’s doors. You want to be careful that your idea is not focusing on a trend, or a trendy market.

Know your costs. This goes into researching your pitch, answering the questions before they are asked, but it came up a few times yesterday. People were offering to start up companies that had incredible start up costs, and the return on investment would be incredibly slow. While it wasn’t in the competition – take a gym start-up: not only could you consider something like “Curves for Women” trendy (which would be a red flag) but at the same time you need to buy a multitude of top-of-the-line very expensive gym equipment, and then you need to charge reasonable rates to get new customers in the door. One elliptical machine can be a few thousand dollars, and you want to charge $240 a year. Either you have a very small gym to start off, or you have to expect to turn an entire town into customers before you break even in a few years.

While this isn’t a surefire way to win a competition, and it isn’t nearly everything that you need to cover when considering a pitch, it should put you in the right mindset for planning for your next pitch or business plan competition. Hopefully you find this helpful – and good luck.