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Paolo's Blog Posts

A serious doubt

The other day a friend of mine passed me this message:

Never until now have people boasted of not having read a book in their lives, of not caring about anything that might smell slightly of culture or that requires a minimum intelligence.

Today’s illiterate people are the worst because in most cases they have had access to education, they know how to read and write, but they don’t exercise.

Every day there are more and every day the market cares for them more and thinks more about them. The media compete in offering content designed for people who do not read, who do not understand, who ignore culture, who want to be amused or distracted, even with the dirtiest gossip.

The whole world is being created to suit this new majority, friends. Everything is superficial, frivolous, elementary, primary… so that they can understand and digest it.

They are the new ruling class, although it will always be the dominated class, precisely because of their lack of culture. And so it goes for those of us who are not satisfied with so little, for those of us who aspire to a little more depth.”

Jesus Quintero, Journalist, writer and presenter of radio and television programs

I work in mobile free-to-play since 2012. I started my journey in video games in 2007, dreaming of joining Bethesda, Bungie or Nintendo. More in general some company that impacted deeply in my personal life with their titles.

Free-to-play is based on a simple concept: you need a huge amount of people playing your game. For that reason, everything should be very smooth. Frictionless. We ignore conflict for the sake of keeping attention and awareness toward our service. People has to stay, everyday, with you. So that an obstacle may frustrate too much someone, and that person will go away. They will churn.

Many free-to-play games end up becoming an escuse to get people’s attention without offering any spark of culture. Without requiring any mental effort. Just come in, it is easy and rewarding!

Investments go towards those products, because they can scale dramatically. They can become profitable business. People doing game with passion, games that make people think, instead, have to fight every month to survive. To pay salaries and their bills. Maybe a YouTuber will take their game and stream it next week. Will someone simplify it for the people? Few people will invest in them, because they do not promise growth. They promise a message to the World.

My doubt today is: what am I doing?

First impressions on the new podcast by Hideo Kojima

As a great percentage of game designers out there, I really admire and respect Hideo Kojima. He has a big ego, he doesn’t speak one word outside Japanese but still he managed to introduce many innovations to the medium.

The main advantage of mister Kojima is probably also his greatest weakness. He didn’t managed to become a movie director and he adapted many things from movies and books to the games mediums.

Today the first episode of his new podcast was published on Spotify:

I like that he explains exactly WHY he helped creating the stealth genre. It is very interesting to hear his chain of thoughts. He acted like a true designer: he understood a genre (shooters or shooting games) and he had a personal tought on storytelling . Shooters of the time, in fact, had no story. No reason why to kill enemies.

Plus, technical limitations on MSX gaming system made impossible having many shots at the same time. So that Mr. Kojima, starting from a personal thought and using the limitation as creative leverage, created the perfect excuse to eliminate enemies: infiltration, heroism.

I like a lot that, before of answering the question regarding the secret of MGS’s success, first thing he says is: I don’t know. Then he starts to reason. Very humble attitude, hard to see out there.

I would like to wish huge success to this new initiative by Mr. Kojima!

How to build the next Supercell

I have a secret to build the next Supercell. Really, I have it! Have I ever built a company like Supercell? Of course not, but I mean: we live in the age of suggestions, advices, best practices, influence, likes, follows… So why shouldn’t I write some wise article about how to do things, right?

As any secret, this one is very easy to understand too: stop treating people like children. Easy, right? Let’s see three common ways in which you are treating your people like babies, including before they join your company.

Technical tests and assessments

In some case those are necessary, especially for junior talent or for talent that is switching radically the sector. For instance, passing from free-to-play to AAA. Anyway, if you are hiring a person in his forties please: give me a break!

Our curriculum, carreer and our ex colleagues speak from themselves. We have nothing to demonstrate anymore and we are completely capable of doing the job at a technical level. Do I really need to show you how I structure an economy in a spreadsheet? Do i really need to demonstrate my presentation skills? Do you want me to create a flow and a wireframe? Or worst, a single GDD bible? Please, I do this since probably before you joined that company. Again: give me a break!

Do this instead:

  • Interview for cultural fit
  • Review in detail past experiences
  • Ask for referrals of ex colleagues and employers

When I see a test proposal I just think: “ok, you are not capable of evaluating my kind of profile. Next.”

Show me the next things to do with no context

I remember when I was a little dude asking to my father: “Why should I do that?”.

“Because I say so”, was his answer.

35 years later, history repeats. And I am very tired of that. You give a task and a deadline, with no perspective. I will do that for you the best I can. I swear. But I will never understand anything like this. Why is this important for the project? And how will we demonstrate that in fact it was? When we shoud have some learning? What about the past iteration? How did it go?

Maybe you are too busy to explain well the vision behind any choice. That means that you are not doing the job you should, to me. Because if you are my manager, you should be focused on manage my team and myself. Not the game. Not the code. Not the art.

Put your hands on my work

This is tipically something that you do to game designers. And tipically something that occurs in small-mid sized companies. We spent weeks designing something, researching, getting the problem right, sync with all the people involved. And then you decide to change everything because you have your own idea in mind. You are the founder or the leader of the project and you have the last word.

I could be wrong and you right, of course. Still, you are stealing my opportunity to learn more about the audience and the kind of product we are doing together. I just feel that my solution will never be tested on the field. Your solution maybe can be successful. And probably you will be happy and still will recognize my work. But you stole my opportunity of seeing a design I made going out there.

Stop play with my toys, those are mine!

Push your boundaries

I see a lot of professionals getting a name in the industry working on successful projects. Then they decide to go indie. And they do the exactly same thing they were doing at the mother company, but with less resources. After a while, they return back to some corp. Classic.

One of the things I always suggest to the people I mentor is this: do not remake things you already did before. I am not sure it is the right way of thinking, honestly. It is just mine.

To me, remaking stuff is always a mistake. Maybe the thing you want to remake is an old experiment that failed for some reason. Learn from it and do something else, don’t try to take shortcuts or you will repeat other errors you did for that same experiments that were eclypsed by the major errors.

If a project was successful, instead, it probably was for a bunch of reasons. It wasn’t just your work and effort, but also the timing and the context of that time. If you decide to invest your time and effort for a new project, try always to push your boundaries instead. It is usually a better choice.

Being loyal

Year ago I was running a very promising free-to-play project in a local incubator. It was very promising, it was the future. My lead artist said: you are inventing the devil. Of course, it was just in my head. The project had no chance to go forward, because I wasn’t being loyal to my will of creating a new company around it.

Being loyal with ourselves is not just to maintain the promises we make. It’s not to respect the compromise. Is also to make well our numbers. If you want to build anything and we consider ourselves game designers it is necessary to stop and think well to all costs and scopes of the things we want to build. And then add a 20% of error to all of that. Otherwise we will most probably fail.

My project failed at many levels, but the main one is that you cannot start a free-to-play ambitious project without great professionals and lot of money behind. The art of giving games for free is very expensive, needs a good monetization strategy and the acquisition of new Players requires huge efforts.

I am glad that I didn’t invented any devil, and I am glad to be here happy telling you those stories.

Your indie can become the Metaverse

I am actively looking for a new job, while preparing my next step which will be a course on game writing and also a deep study of the Unreal Engine. I am arrived at a point where I consider myself pretty good at free to play, but I am constantly playing indie and AAA games. Why not try do some small indie experiment?

So that I fell in this paradox lately. I see a lot of huge investments and acquisitions towards companies and projects which are basically clones of existing success cases. I see also a bunch of independent people with really good ideas struggling to pay the bills at the end of the month. What the heck is going on? Why those people cannot manage to get investments?

So that the next guess is that maybe they don’t even try to sell something. Every game studio needs something who knows how to sell the idea behind. And suddendly some very old concept, like 3d lowpoly characters in a 3d World becomes the Metaverse. And some people buys that idea.

Show your impact

When you get an interview you can demonstrate your skills in three ways:

  1. Taking a test
  2. Showing a portfolio
  3. Demonstrate the impact of your work

Often, you are required to do more than one thing at the same time. In fact, many companies ask you to take a test. Before, they review your portfolio and later they ask you about the impactful initiatives you lead in your previous jobs.

Impact is, by far, the most interesting thing. Still it’s not really easy to understand the specific impact of your designs. Many times (too many times) your designs are strongly influenced by the context. It may be some specific software constraint or also the green light process at which every initiative is submitted.

Still it is very important to learn how to estimate the right impact of your work. In data driven contexts, like f2p for example, you should also accompain your reasonings with concrete KPIs increment (in % to not break any secrecy).

Lore and freedom

I am playing Horizon Forbidden West and everytime I meet a new character, the game invites me to hear minutes of dialogues. The story is intriguing and well written, but I cannot just walk away such as in Skyrim for instance, leaving the NPC speaking alone. Different design pillars, different approach to narrative.

Still, a great game. This forceful dialog creates somehow a connection with the lore of the game. So that a new intellectual property is reinforced.

I am also playing the classic Gothic. A game that says you NOTHING about what to do. A game from the past. You have to really strive to understand what to do, where to go and so on. I killed a man, today. I found him hidden in a mountain. I spoke with him and then I killed him. Why? The game gave me 40XP. There will be no consequences to my character.

And that fits into the game’s narrative of brutal freedom and high insecurity. So that I was the big fish eating the small fish, today. It fits. Gothic still has fans all over the World.

Humbleness and feedback

When someone asks me for a feedback for their game, I try to never give my opinion. In fact, I believe that working in games makes us liable of huge biases that come from experiences which are subjective.

I try to make them questions, instead. Try to understand really what’s behind their choices. Then I tell them what I would ask to playtesters to challenge their assumptions.

I believe that is the best way of giving feedback. From the other hand, the tendency is to say what one would do instead. And the worst is that then someone may follow blindly your advice. Applying that advice in their understanding, not what you said them in first place.

That is why it’s important be humble, somehow. Being humble is being completely honest. In order to be that, the right start is always a certain amount of questions.

Smiling Suns

I was talking on the phone with my mom, and she said: “your brother sent me yesterday photos from the beach. He was happy, he also put a Sun that smiles in the message.”

The “Sun that smiles” is her interpretation of the smiling emoji. I grew up typing ASCII symbols to create smileys. Then with MSN, those symbols were automatically translated to a smiley. In our interpretation, a smiley is a face, not a Sun. My mother, instead, had nothing to do with all of that. First time she saw a smiley was in WhatsApp. Her interpretation is a Sun, not a face. And she is right, is a yellow round circle with eyes and mouth. It is not a face, definitely! It is more a Sun.

Her meaning is more poetic than mine, too. A Sun that smiles, a Sun that cries. That is not the face that my brother wanted to show. There was a third entity in their conversation. It was an happy day at the beach, and the Sun smiles. I love it!

Sometimes the same happens to our games. The shapes we present to the Players have a meaning for us, developers. And then the game is out, everyone in the World will play it. Some of them will see a face smiling. Some other will see a Sun, instead. And that’s very powerful.