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Month: November 2023

My testimonial book

Today in the morning I sent many emails to my clients to ask them to write a brief endorsement for me. Let’s hope to get enough answers!

The fact is that I lose many opportunities because new potential clients ask me for a portfolio… and I cannot show anything at all! In fact, for each project, I sign contracts that include an NDA. I cannot reveal anything about the project I am working on.

That’s why my idea is to have people speak about me. A testimonial book to show potential clients the moment I introduce myself. I prepared a document on Google Docs for each one with their face, name, title (at the moment we worked together), and the space to leave a few words.

I am excited and at the same time worried that not more than 30% will answer my request. That’s because writing an endorsement for someone is not a trivial task. Especially when the language is not your native one. I asked them to use the English language.

We’ll see, I suppose.

Game design audit | find new ideas

Today I published this video on my LinkedIn profile.

Many companies struggle to find new ideas, so that I believe that it would be great to provide an audit on certain games to give them a starting point. This can become a subscription based service I can provide online.

The key to me is to start by playtesting your competitors to really understand why their games are working and what can be enhanced and improved. Then I complete my study by both playing the game for a week and studying its reviews. Finally, I create a game design audit. If you read this on my blog, here you have the audit for FREE.

The mind behind the tool

A tool without a good mind can become a piece of garbage, an obstacle, a weapon, and many other things. The problem is never the tool, but the fact that not any tool is useful to everyone.

That’s why I tend to stay suspicious when I see best practices. That is why I don’t use any tool without making it mine, somehow.

If you give me a space rocket, which can be seen as a space travel tool, I will probably sell it. Or make a mess, I don’t know. The problem is that I am not prepared to use that tool. It’s amazing, but just not for me.

I see a dangerous trend on social networks like LinkedIn. It is proven that strong opinions spread better with the algorithm. People tend to make declarations like brainstorming are useless. Roadmaps are killing your product. Design documents are a waste of time.

All of those things are just tools. Great games have been created by using those tools at certain points. It’s a matter of mindset, not tools.

Returning to our example, best practices are great for unlocking meaningful discussions. But most of the time, they are bad to just speed up the process. We can say that the no.1 best practice is that you need time to make things simpler and better.

The pizzaiolis preproduction

(The post was inspired by the last podcast from Seth Godin and a bunch of other things)

I live in Barcelona, but I was born in Naples the city where the pizza was born. Every time I travel I see famous pizza chains spread all across the World. Probably everyone with my background finds that pizza awful.

How is it even possible that people eat something like that?

But that pizza sells, and volumes are probably higher than the pizza places I know. The ones that make me dream of coming back to my hometown. Professional “pizzaioli” from Naples make the better pizza, at least in my opinion. But they earn less than entrepreneurs who probably never put a foot in one of their franchises.

Is that even fair?

It is what it is. There is a convenient way of making a pizza, that is looking for big volumes to make a profit. But the final product is worse for the connoisseur.

Then there is the inconvenient way of doing pizza, the one that makes people dream. You cannot reach high volumes without ruining the experience. You need simple ingredients. People need to eat at the moment. You have to be patient. But your legacy will last.

The inconvenient way leads the way to the convenient one. Once you find the right formula, you can decide to go for more volume. The pizza entrepreneur, instead, will have a hard time figuring out how to start an inconvenient pizza place. When you start from convenience you miss important steps.

The best preproduction of new games is exactly like the inconvenient pizza place. You need to understand well the market by serving a small niche first. You need innovation coming out from a true personal thing. You need to lead with uncertainty. You have to be patient, using simple game design ingredients. And this is hard, especially for big companies. That’s where I help my clients find new ideas in a professional “pizzaiolo” way. 

An epic win is always possible

I was watching the Half-Life documentary released by Valve a few days ago. Right at the start Dave Riller says “I think most of us had no game development experience… There were 3 or 4 people who had actually shipped a game before”.

This story repeats over and over in the history of games. Baldur’s Gate (the first one) has a similar story. League of Legends, too.

But that was a different time, right? Nowadays, games are more complex and you need a lot of experience to make a successful game.

I discovered this game called Atomic Hearth thanks to a new friend I made here in town. It was released this year, the first game from a remote multi-national small company. They reinvented Bioshock. Huge success.

Someone tells you that you can’t be successful with juniors. Other people say that your first game cannot be a success. You need to fail 50 times, first. I often tend to believe the same things, but facts contradict me every single time.

The history of games teaches us that an epic win is always possible. Do the best you can do with the resources you have. The future is built very often by people belonging to the future. Our industry is where it is because people with no experience had their chance at some point.

What you gain in pre-production

I work for businesses, someone says B2B. My clients are usually medium-sized companies that are willing to find new formulas. New ideas to disrupt the market out there. And I think it’s a great choice for them to hire contractors like me for this stage. Someone calls it 0-to-1, but I still prefer the classic pre-production.

With internal teams, it is very hard to innovate, because of many factors. External contractors, instead, can help you find new ideas or variations to your ideas. You don’t have to pay the salary to an employee for this research, plus you engage with someone who is doing this every single day. I am looking at different challenges from different realities every single week of my life. My vision is broader than a common employee working on a single project every time.

Because the games industry has changed a lot in recent years, many companies are looking for people that make the whole games from start to end, but I think this should evolve. We need specializations in specific development areas. Pre-production, production, operations.

Over the last few years, I think I acquired huge experience with the first stage, the pre-production. This is because of specific requests from my clients. My clients helped to build my little business. My technical skills let me focus on both vision/strategy and content (level design with Unity, dialogues, and so on).

  • Pre-production: this is where I operate. I help you find new ideas to work on.
  • Production: your team will develop the complete game, once you decide to go for it. Once you have the 1 of the 0-to-1 stage.
  • Operations: your team operates the game. Still, sometimes I do small consultations for new features that need pre-production. New ideas for service based games.

One thing that I put the focus on is on the fantasies and aesthetics (more on this in another post), but the most important thing to me is quality. Oftentimes people tend to avoid quality in pre-production to quickly pass to production. For good games, the duration of pre-production is 1/3 of the whole project. Imagine your development time is 3-5 years, we are talking of 1-2 years of pre-production. A good 0-to-1 is fundamental to go 1-to-1000.

One game per year

We live around 75 years. We have 75 summers, around 80 travels (in my personal economical condition of course). The people we will meet are relatively few, the projects we can tackle too.

Imagine you start to work at 25 years, because you are born in the lucky side of the World. You have 40 years working. If a game takes 3-5 years, you can make around 8-14 games in your life. Game for companies, that may be successful or not.

Or you can go indie, maybe solo dev, going alone and try to publish one game per year. Small game, of course. In that case you can leave 20-30 good games (the first will surely be a disaster). That can be your legacy as a game designer.

Data driven is not fortune telling

Over the last 10 years, I have assisted in the rise of many services and information providers that offer concrete predictions based on data. I had to quit a big company too, because of that. They were also testing game concepts based on the people’s responses to some text. So everything we proposed was texted out using a text redacted by someone with a high salary and very few things to do.

I went to a local indie fair where a friend pitched a game to publishers. One of them said, “Don’t you know that games with vegetables do not work?”. Then we ask why the publisher’s business model doesn’t work. It’s because of things like that!

Games are made by people who believe in a concrete vision and work hard to deliver. Many games will fail, because maybe people are not interested, because of the quality or many other factors. But you cannot use data to predict the success/failure of something without having tested it out.

Data-driven (or better, data-informed) development works when you work with concrete data from your things and compare them with your past. It doesn’t work when you read data from others and try to replicate it blindly. Sometimes it works out, but it’s because of other factors. It’s always because there is a passionate team behind that did something great. And lots of luck, the state of the market, and factors you can never control.

You can avoid risks by going iterative, of course. You can test prototypes and demos and see the actual reaction of people to that. That is good. But you cannot assume “this kind of game with these features is working in the market, so if we made something like this we would probably have success”.

The games I finished

Yesterday I went to the ending ceremony of a master on game development, here in Barcelona. One of the teacher told the students: you finished a game. And that is a lot. Lot of people that sell themselves as experts cannot say the same thing.

Well, that sentence struck my hearth. I immediately thought about the games I finished. All of them were games made by companies. Games that I liked to work on, but games that I don’t care about. Every single game was not successful.

First I finished Lucky Turkey, an arcade 2.5D shooter.

Then I moved to Barcelona and I worked for Zitro. I worked on a couple of games, the one I remember better was Taco Mania.

Then I was hired by Digital Chocolate where I worked on a GaaS called Blackjack Buzz up to the first playable (demo). I have to say that the final game was a polished version of that. And it didn’t worked on the market.

Another game I worked on and completed was Hovercabs, an endless runner. The company closed right after release, so I had no time to work on liveops for that.

After that I worked basically on a bunch of uncompleted projects. Also personal ones, I had no luck nor the strength to bring ideas until the end.

This has to change. Now or never.

The silent contract between the players and the designers

When we play games for work we often misunderstand the real motivations for the true fans to play that game.

Maybe we are working on a social casino game but we don’t really like this kind of games, as players. So that we study that game from a cold perspective. And we can also think that it would be easy to replicate mechanics and dynamics. Social casino games have really simple interactions, right?

Then the degeneration of that discourse leads to something worse. We start believe that a machine can build this in series. Today everyone is talking about AI, but also before of that there were kinds of fun experiments.

one of the best GDC talk ever!

But then we notice that these kind of experiences are hardly successful out there. Best social casino games have teams of more than 50 people working hard and passionately every day to deliver the best experience.

To me there is a silent contract between the Player and the Designer. For designer I mean the whole team, also. That silent contract states that there is a creator from one side that propose a challenge to another person on the other side. The motivation to play (or fun, if you prefer) comes mainly from this contract.

You decide to play a game. You know that the game has been made by someone. Part of the challenge is to beat that someone’s mind. If you read reviews of games you will notice that many comments go in the directions of creators.

What happens if the Player know that a machine created that game? Will they give these games the same value? People are smarter (and dumber) than we think.