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Paolo's Blog Posts

Shape up your game development!

I am studying Shape Up these days, a new way of working with remote and asynchronous teams created by 37signals. Game development is software development so I believe that Shape Up can be adapted.

Instead of working on a product backlog, that oftentimes becomes huge and gives guilt (a good feature now can be not a good feature in 3 months), you work on giving form to the ideas. In game design, we call them concept documents. In Shape Up they call them pitches.

Your job as the creator should be to develop your taste and motivate the appetite of the team. Shape Up is based on betting on specific pitches. At every iteration, instead of reordering priorities on the product backlog, you sit at a table and decide on which concept document you will bet on.

Your team is composed of adult people, they should be able to self-organize to complete a project in a 4-6 weeks fixed time frame. Maybe this time window may vary with game development, we have a heavy art pipeline.

The constraint here is the time to complete a project. Other processes require the team to be involved in too many meetings and to estimate the time of each task. With Shape Up you don’t need any of that, so you can just focus on bringing value to the table.

Seems to me more agile than agile!

Raw ideas, good ideas

If an idea is a good idea you will see it very often. From your collaborators, community, and critics.

There is no need to store all the ideas on a list.

Instead of doing that, land ideas down preparing concept documents. Spend time on giving values to good ideas, not on storing every idea.

Concept document structure

  1. Problem (Use case) – What motivates this idea
  2. Appetite (Constraints) – How much do you need to spend developing this idea
  3. Solution (Overview) – bullet point list with core elements needed to properly realize the idea
  4. Rabbit Holes (Risks) – Detect all things that are not central to the concept and can slow down the development
  5. No Gos (What is NOT) – Define well what is NOT included in the idea

At every iteration, you sit at the table and review all the concepts. Then you decide with which you proceed. It’s a bet, you need a taste.

Get rid of product backlogs

Product backlogs kill productivity. They are a list of things to do that grows over time. You spend time looking at them, you may also feel guilty.

Get rid of product backlogs! Some raw ideas that seemed interesting 3 months ago probably are not anymore. Your team is designers, artists, and engineers. They need autonomy to work on concrete, well-shaped ideas. They are not ticket-pickers.

What to do instead? Develop your appetite for ideas, and train your taste.

  • What motivates you?
  • How would you define sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami?

Find the right partners

My grandfather told me once: Stay with those who are better than you. He intended humanly better, of course, not to those who have more futile stuff.

Understanding who is humanly better than us is an art and often we make mistakes. The important is to strive to stay with the best that we meet on our road.

Partners are the most valuable predictor of success. This is valid in all areas of life. Want a better career? Find the right partner. Starting a business? Find the right partners. Looking for a job? Find the right partners. Launching a new game? Find the right partners.

When you hire a freelancer, you are the client of a 1-person business. At the start, we have to test each other from both sides.

  • Will this person be the right one to delegate this job?
  • Will this new client pay me on time?

Oftentimes, after a couple of weeks, we may become partners. The company found someone to produce faster. And the freelancer found a business from which to learn to spot and solve more problems. This helps us to be faster with future clients, too. In fact, we see every week different kinds of situations and challenges. Many sources of data and very different readings of those. Wide picture.

Treat freelas like partners!

My suggestion then, is to treat your freelancers not simply like service providers. The best clients I have ask me “How are you doing?” “How do you feel?”. Speak to us also of other struggles you have, maybe we can help. This creates bounds. This fosters a partnership. This creates value.

Maybe you do not need our service anymore at some point. Our job is done. We can still be a partner, though. You can recommend us to other businesses, for instance. Write to us the updates on your product. “Hey, I am coming to this conference next month, what about you?”.

Be a good partner first, and you will find the right partners. Gigs, businesses, and jobs come and go. What the people think of us stays for a long time.

Indie Dev Day recap

This beautiful week was Indie Dev Day. I have seen this fair born and evolve, this year the growth has been astonishing.

Cities like Barcelona allow us to follow our passions. There are many entities that allow people to try and make their way into the industry of their dreams. We have free rights, healthcare is the classic example, so we can try without running too many risks.

What is talent? I did the math. I counted 101 stands with Spanish studios. Let’s say 1 out of 5 (I am being optimistic here) manages to find success.

What is success? As a talk from The Game Kitchen rightfully said: “Success is when you earn 1 euro”. You make the game, a bunch of people during years. Your time has a value, maybe you have salaries. Expenses. Then you start selling the game, and part of the revenues go to the platform and publishers. Eventually, you recoup and maybe you earn the first euro. Profit. 1 single euro. Can you do that? Well, you had success.

Now 76 teams, made out of 5 people on average, will not have success. 76×5 = 380 talents. Why talents? Because they struggled for success, they learned things the hard way. And, my bet, is they will be very grateful and compromise employees for companies. They have been on the other side, making hard choices.

I had the opportunity to try various games presented in more than 80 stands. There are three main trends:

  1. Conceptual games of simple artistic expression. They are presented as an installation rather than something with a commercial release.
  2. Content-based games. A story to complete, levels to pass. Time and energy are invested in content that is only experienced during a moment. You need a great vision.
  3. Games based on repeatable systems. Especially rogue-lite and coach co-op games. Games that invite you to play and repeat, and above all to connect with the community. Online, to understand which are the best builds (rogue-lite). Play with your family and friends at home (coach co-op).

These games I have to say are my favorites. Especially if RPGs, the genre that accompanied me to this profession.

Recommended games to check out:

Perception, reality and imagination

Our perception shapes the reality that is presented to us. This is a double-edged sword, and any person working with creativity knows it.

We get the information using our cognitive system and we form meaningful patterns. Perception is the system that holds those patterns. On the one side, we have fewer things to store in the memory. On the other, our cognitive system doesn’t have to understand everything. It can reuse those patterns quickly!


Working every day as game designers, our perception of games forms lots of patterns. And so does the reality we think we know about the Players in our games. And we are players too, maybe in other kind of games.

We work almost always from a desk, too. And a desk is a dangerous place from which to see the World, as John le Carré said in a novel.

To mitigate the risks of perception:

  1. Be aligned with the business, understand how the system works. Listen to your producers. How can our design be impactful?
  2. Be aware of the context and processes that will deliver the final piece of software. Understand the code architecture, and how art pipelines work. Something that seems like “a little change” can turn into weeks of work.
  3. Get in the players’ shoes and empathize with them. Understand what they do in our game and why. Be informed on what they will be looking for.

Nowadays we have a lot of information available! When I start a new project or the design of a feature, I start by researching the solutions already adopted. Be aware of the business. I use Liquid&Grit which offers reports and has a db full of captures and videos. In that way I speed up my work, every design takes me 20% less than before.

Then I switch to YouTube, looking for gameplays to watch and take notes. Many games nowadays have a Reddit page and a Discord server, too. It is not that hard to put ourselves in the Player’s shoes. I need to really get their jargon, and understand what they look for. I need to form new patterns with which to read reality.


Perception helps our memory system. We form patterns we can reuse in a different context. And this helps our imagination as creators. For instance, when we have to create the plot for a story. 

The image below is a joke, it’s Friday! I am a lover of fantasy and was a heavy D&D player. Because of that, I have already many patterns formed.

  • The left side is a quick overpaint I made with GIMP on a very popular photo of one of the lowest moments in the history of sport.
  • The right part was generated with Midjourney using the prompt: “a dungeons and dragons scene where a mind flayer has taken the head of a female ranger in his head to attack her”

I am a game designer

I remember the opening of Jesse Shell’s book, The Art of Game Design. There is a mantra: I am a game designer.

When I think about game design I identify 4 main areas:

  • Systems design
  • Gameplay (or UX) design
  • Level design
  • Narrative design

To be more concrete, all game design is system design. Level and narrative design create gameplay and shape the player experience (UX, if you prefer). Narrative design has many things to share with level design too.

The narrative design delivers the most evident pieces of the game, from the Player’s perspective. The system is less visible but rules them all. In the middle, there is gameplay and level design.

Rules, which are part of the gameplay to me, influence the design of the UI. The UI is that part of gameplay (or UX) that connects with the narrative. UI is evident and tells something to the Players. So that is narrative to me.

There are many points of view on that, and that’s good. The simple term “design” has a broad meaning. And the geo where we work influences our vision too. Companies from the US tend to focus more on hyper-specialization. Here in Southern Europe, we do EVERYTHING. Also the coffee!

Then there is the personal factor. I am a game designer. That to me means:

  • work with everything from system to narrative
  • grab a course on narrative design and a year later on level design.
  • strive to master Excel, Unity, Unreal Engine and all the tools to create systems and gameplay
  • take screens and create wireframes and docs detailing rules and mechanics.

Support their autonomy

Working on player retention is always a challenge. You must be careful with all the levers you touch. By concentrating on one you can inadvertently change another.

As a general rule, I always recommend thinking in the long term. Very often to improve player retention on the first days, we offer just external motivators. Daily bonus, shop bonus, special offer, weekly tournament.

Anything that controls players’ autonomy is to the detriment of their intrinsic motivation.

  • “Come in every day for 7 days and you’ll get this”,
  • “Hey, check the shop now”
  • “Watch this ad, double your coins”

Especially that part of Players that enjoys our game, can see their internal motivation shrink. This translates into lower long-term retention (60, 90 days).

There are games with low short-term retention compared to the average. Those manage to retain players in the long term because those who stay motivated.

Why do match-3s work well in the long term?

  1. They offer a very intuitive mechanic: combine 3 or more elements of the same type in line to match
  2. Every match counts because it can unlock a cascade
  3. Players can create power-ups: special tiles that help them towards their goals.

Feeling that you can create power-ups with your ability is great for intrinsic motivation. There are many elements that support the autonomy of Players.

If we add rewards and bonuses for playing a match-3, we will see that D1 retention increases. But the intrinsic motivation of our PRO Players, true fans, can decrease.

If we add mechanics to support and encourage player autonomy, in the short term things can get complicated. This can mean lower D1-D3 retention. But in the long term, we could have a more stable curve.

It is much easier to think about rewards, deadlines (tournaments), and bonuses. But the art of game design is a Swiss army knife that offers many tools. If you see that in your pipeline there are only new bonuses and tournaments to develop, ask yourself: “how will that affect the long term retention?”.

Trees and leaves

When we talk about free-to-play casual puzzles, we generally hear about a predominantly female and adult audience.

However, we have no idea how many kids play the most popular match-3 games. If you notice, the narrative theme is very childish in most of them. There is a reason for that: a connection between adults and children. Adults also download games for their children, and children influence the choices of adults. It’s fun to play a game that your kid also plays, right?

There are successful puzzle games with adult themes (see Gardenscapes, Lily’s Garden, Project Makeover). But pay attention: the most popular (Candy Crush Saga, Royal Match) offer childish fantasies. The concept of reign, candies, smiles, and so on.

When you think about your audience, also think about their child version. It works like a tree: on the trunk, there are the children, and the branches are all the directions they can take in life. The leaves are the adults.

You may want to think in the whole tree if you are aiming to build the next free-to-play hit. Every adult was a child in the past, there are fantasies that still resonate with us when we grow.

It’s always good to start from the trunk if you want to have a massive audience!

Designing tools

We always talk about target audiences, game loops, and meta mechanics. Much of a game designer’s job is to help design the tools needed to generate content. Be they the levels, dialogues, cutscenes, source-sink systems, etc.

The first piece of advice is that the work speeds up a lot for the first versions of a feature if we think of a single path. Too many variables to control slow down the development of the first iteration. Better to go direct with a concrete version with concrete numbers.

The second piece of advice is to prepare tools that serve the game you are creating. Thinking too far ahead, perhaps about future games, makes you lose the main focus. The focus must be on creating the best game possible. Leave the vision of the big picture to the product managers, and focus on the design of the game in question.

The last tip is to think modularly. A useful tool must be designed so that it can be unplugged whenever you want and inserted into other projects that could use it. Communicate with the engineers this intention and design a versatile and modular tool.

I love balancing

I’m here working for a good client balancing the resources of the game I’m helping design. A great way of closing my week!

Balancing offers a very interesting challenge to my mind. It’s about establishing intentions and predicting player behavior.

Balancing is not putting everything in balance. If everything is flat and there are no cliffs, everything also becomes monotonous. It’s about understanding and working on players’ intrinsic motivation to perform certain activities. Balancing does this through strategic introduction, gating, and withdrawal of game resources.

It’s a practical and concrete activity. Sometimes I have to change numbers on a spreadsheet. Other times I have to tweak numbers in the game engine.

Balancing is putting the game at play together with the Players. They use the mechanics as levers to create gameplay. We use numbers, flags, and other metrics. It’s very cool if you do it empathetic.

My creative drive these days

I am reading this classic book on game design, called Rules of Play. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. The book manages to join thoughtfulness with a practical breakdown of things.

In chapter 12 there is a note about what drives a game designer. It can be:

  • The will to change some rule
  • Explore storytelling
  • Visual aesthetics
  • Social interaction
  • Explore new technologies.

In my case, the context influences my drive. All those points are interesting to me, I have to feel there is a clear vision to help close up land down. I love to connect the dots, more than strive for a revolution.

There are “the Kojimas”, that come and shape the future with their vision and personality. But those are like unicorns, the majority of us are good to serve and deliver.