I keep thinking about Agile

How can I use Agile methodologies to deliver better and faster with my planned update on Find the Gnome?
It is a question that is bothering me for some time now.

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I share my personal experience developing games professionally.

The things at hand

When I look at developing games from a birds-eye perspective, I see the following area’s where Agile development has its impacts:

  1. Planning and executing on work
  2. Delegating responsibilities, building on trust
  3. Team-only driven improvements, Full-product deliveries after (a few) iterations, Course alignments on real consumer data only. (Inspect & Adapt)

For point 1, I think everyone is already on board. Across all industries we know the iterative approach is a more manageable way to execute on work. I had trouble finding evidence that game studio’s are on-board too, but I recently saw this YouTube video from a big studio that confirms my thoughts on this (link below).

Point 2 is already a bit more difficult as it seems. I know from personal experience this delegating/responsibility thing (and most of the times, combined with true multi-disciplinair teams) takes already place in the smaller companies. For larger companies though it is really difficult to get away from the line thinking, because due to the scale of the organisation the money and legal things tend to be too concerning to let them being handled by individual teams.
However, I’m seeing signs of change too. Due to the huge amount of pressure to innovate. But they are still doing it ‘differently’ from the small companies because at large there are KPI’s, organisational guidelines and other steering tools that are introduced to keep things in line.

Point 3 is where the icing is on the cake. Because this is where even small companies don’t dare to venture. In this area of Agile, the bosses aren’t the ones leading but facilitating (and don’t like being called ‘the boss’). It is this area where you aren’t an expert when you have idea’s but you are an expert only when you are able to execute on proven demands from consumers, or when you are data-proven able to forecast real consumer demands.
I know of a few companies that seems to have this down, or at least had it down in some point of time: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Tesla, Netflix (or the Chinese counterparts). But these are way too big to be an example for most of the companies in the world, especially game companies.
I did find one example of a small game dev studio that is even able to execute on point 3, see the links on Gram Games below.

But, how?

To succeed on my own game development projects, I have to think big when maximizing benefits from my experience as software developer in business software.

So, I think I have to go with the maximal Agility on my own projects. Inspired by the Gram Games YouTube video I think it will look like this:

  • Keep releasing full products at steam at low intervals
  • Release features stand-alone to mobile platforms
  • Move winning features to the full product release

The release-feature-to-mobile-first is the core idea, and here is some more depth to it:

  • 1-3 iterations
  • Real stand-alone gameplay
  • Full of metrics (but AVG compliant: I don’t need user specific data, only the global feeling)
  • No monitization
  • When 10 people use it 7+ days it is a win for me

The odds

Do I think I am right by choosing such a strange method?

Well, I can only think of 1 real cave-eat

  • It is really hard to separate features and prove their individual value

But other than that, I think It is worth the try.

The links

The video on a recent (2019) big company (Total War series, 550 people) that are doing some Agile form of planning and executing on work:

The video on a recent (2019) small company (Mobile games, 20 people) that are doing maximum Agile:

To succeed, create something you love (it seems)

Well, you probably heard this saying. And it could be that you have positive feelings about this idea.
But this is my take on this saying, and how this send me in the wrong direction.

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I share my personal experience developing games professionally.

The start

It started with me wanting to make a game. At that time, I did already know it would be hard to keep focus on finishing the game, so I sought advice. The interwebs are full of advice, and the ‘create something you love’ is one of the advices you get for staying motivated.

So, I thought ‘what would be something I love?’
‘Well, me and my son (5 at the time) enjoying building the game together’
And, after some more thinking
‘Yeah, lets create game with a little bit more depth than the average child-focus game in a world childs of 5 could love, and with mechanics they could understand’

That was my start of ‘Find the Gnome’.

The catch

Immediately I ran into problems. My son did like to draw monsters and play monster vs monster scenes with Lego. So I thought it would be a cool thing for my world to contain monsters. But to get it child-friendly, those monsters would need some ‘friendly-ness’ over them. This proved to be very hard. And on top of that, I don’t like monsters fighting monsters.

So I switched focus. ‘Lets build something I like’.
‘Lets think… I want to create a game because that way I discover what parts in gamebuilding and publishing I am good at and what parts I’m not. So just choose… nah, just choose something I am already working on’

That was the start of the 3D-ish puzzle-like game ‘Find the Gnome’ with Gnomes.

And I discovered I don’t like to create puzzle games…

The assumption of the phrase ‘create something you like’ is that you know what you will like, that things you like to play are the same as things you like to create, and that things you like will stay like-able until the end of times.

In hindsight

I do personally think it is hard to find something that you like to play and create, and continue to like to play and create.

And after a few months after releasing this game, I found out that there is something else. Creating games professionally (subconsciously my intention) require other parameters to be satisfied than games created for private use.

I am a professional software developer so each day I build software related things. Thankfully I find everyday something I like in the job I do, so everyday I do what I love to do.
But do I like the subject? Or the people I’m working with? The requirements? All the tasks I have to fulfill? (Answer: not always everyday, but enough to keep the fun in it)
It is this mentality that I had to translate to game dev to get things going again.

And at last, a youtube I did find about this subject. I think it is a bit harsh on personal projects, but on the other hand: developing professional is a whole different game. Thankfully. Because, if not, what would set me (professional business software developer) apart from all those guys crafting excel-sheet-tools in their office-basements?

Starting a game company

As I see it now, there are 3 ways of starting a game company. They vary greatly in the change of success, but they all have their own dislikes.

  1. Find an investor, or
  2. Do it on your own, or
  3. Just do something

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I share my personal experience developing games professionally.

I thought I did the ‘on your own’ kind of starting up a game company. But in reality it was more of the ‘just do something’. It did bring me a lot of experience, but the result wasn’t me being independent and having a job in my own game company.

Don’t get me wrong, I value the experience greatly, but if you (like me) want to get more out of it than experience alone… you have to do things differently.

Option 1: find an investor

  • Catch
    • Build on trust.
    • Money injections on various moments in the development cycle.
    • You need to invest your own money and love time, the investments acts as levers for more success.
    • Biggest change of success, if you know what you are doing.
  • Identifying characteristics
    • At least 1 dedicated core team, investors must be able to trust them in being able to deliver.
    • Your daily job.
    • Clear product goal and product vision (for this and future products).
    • You have ample and solid evidence you are making games for markets that want these game.
    • Investors have control over your company and products.
    • 1+ years of development per product.
    • Big budget for marketing.

Here are two video’s that inspired me on the investor subject:

Option 2: On your own

  • On your own
  • Catch
    • In theory fun, in practice not that good. You don’t know when you can support yourself or your family. Brings big issues with timemanagement.
    • The invested time is not worth it (time vs gains) for a long time.
    • In the end you have very few financial means, change of a (even small) success is small.
    • If it works you have full control and are completely self sufficient.
  • Identifying characteristics
    • Part time (or dependent on cheap householding services of others like relatives).
    • Many small games.
    • Max half a year dev time per product.
    • Becoming a master in a niche (genre/style).
    • Small but dedicated fanbase.

Here are two great video’s. The first one inspired me to give it a try, the second one is afterwards when I discovered this option isn’t that great nether.

One important thing on this 11 years thing, if you missed it: the person in the video above made his fame before and in the Indy Apoctalyps. Things are different now. See the next one.

Option 3: Just do something

  • Just do something
  • Catch
    • Fiddling around.
    • Watch out with what you think what you are doing: it is very easy to get lost thinking that you are making something great.
    • Very very few people are able to make money this way. Although we know the examples (I look at you flappybird) these are extremely rare compared to the amount of people that tried. Just buy a lottery ticket, you then at least know your chance.
  • Identifying characteristics
    • You are just doing something.

Here is the video I saw that opened up my eyes and made me think ‘Am I this developer he is talking about?’

Booting up

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I share my personal experience developing games professionally.

I am currently working on Find the Gnome again 😛

It is almost a year ago Find the Gnome hit the markets.
A lot of the original intended game-play didn’t make it into the version that came out on March 2018.

Expect a few updates in the coming year. They will change Find the Gnome quite dramatically.

I am still recovering from a burn-out, so I don’t promise anything.
But in the past months I was finally able to squeeze some code out again.

For those who think: why not abandoning Find the Gnome and bring a total new version instead?
Well… I am stubborn. It’s my game and I think it could be improved upon.

Update v1.0.2

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I share my personal experience developing games professionally.

Quality improvements

I did some updates over the past months. The 6th of Juli I did a minor update, and today the 21th of August, I did another update.

  • More vibrant game play.
    • I make sure the action is happening in front of the camera. Gnomes in view do more actions/minute.
    • The visible triggers (shivering/runnig) updated. They had some issues: shivering did not trigger enough, and the panic running did not trigger consequently.
  • More consistency
    • If I need the player to click, I ask him to click. If there is nothing more to a mechanism, I keep to what it really does. So the expectations are now more clear from the text messages.
    • The Chaos mechanism revamped so it guides you in how you have to click the gnomes. And it gives a reward if you do search careful and click controlled.

Sales

A small update on the business side of things.

I did find out what the massive increase in traffic on Steam was that I experienced during launch and the weeks after it.

Quite simple:  Steam automatically starts a ‘visibility campaign’ of 1 month when you launch a game. Combine this with the ‘soon coming’ and ‘out now’ pages, and you have explained all the traffic boost I experienced.

So yeah, this ‘discovery’ of mine was a bit of a drawback. I hoped Steam did some underwater magic and had find some players that probably liked my game. (As they advertise they are doing.) But no, that’s not the case.
It is just… well… if you get increased organic traffic, Steam will introduce you to more players. Otherwise you have to ‘pay’ for more traffic by using the finite supply of visibility campaigns. (You get a finite bunch at launch and you can’t buy them)

And… I did my first sale. 10% off in the week of the 13th of August. That did work too! Got 4x more traffic out of it.

But I really have to get to work on my marketing. And start with a better Steam store page so I can turn the traffic into sales!

What next

I’m currently working on 2 projects.

  1. I’m working out how to improve Find the Gnome to get it to be a more fun game to play.
  2. I want to increase my profile as a game engineer and for that I’m updating my personal website to be more of a portfolio site. See https://erikderoos.nl/portfolio/

So my major gamedev focus is to improve the game-play of Find the Gnome.

This is because I think the game has some major issues that make it fun for a few minutes but not longer than that. Player feedback is also quite negative about the expectations the game sets and what it actually delivers.

I do have a couple idea’s laying around that originally had to be in the release. I’m quite sure they will improve the game, I just could not get them into the release because of issues that started happening in my personal life. So when my things get quiet again I will start by implementing them and just see where it will take Find the Gnome.

Reviews

I can’t build a game without people reaching out to me and to other players informing them about my game.

So, here is some more coverage on youtube.

And some text reviews:

http://findthegnome.hyperstudios.co/

How did the launch go

How did the launch of ‘Find the Gnome’ go?

Thanks for asking 😉

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I share my personal experience developing games professionally.

Well, it was a really great launch. Way better than expected and received way better than expected. The sales do lag behind, but more on that later.

Expectations on forehand

First of all, what was my expectation before the release:

  • A few more people on my steam page due to being in the ‘just launched’ section. So instead of the normal 30 views/day average, an increase to about 120 views/day.
  • First 3 months a wish list conversion of around 50%.
  • One to three reviews, probably all negative or just indifferent. And a few notes in them how to improve the game for my audience.
  • A better understanding who the audience of ‘Find the Gnome’ is.
  • A few bug reports.

Reality at launch

The day before launch day there was a massive increase in traffic to my steam page. 11 times more to be precisely. And on launch day it peaked at 43 times more traffic. It has seen a decline since then but way less then I expected. Still on all time highs on 5 days since launch.

The wish list conversion is zero to nothing. But still got around 25 buyers in 5 days.
I got a load of people adding the game to their wish list: 4 months having a store page life NETS THE SAME amount of adds as from the day before the release until now (5 days)…

And I got a bunch of reviews: 1x steam review, 3x steam curator reviews, 5x YouTube gameplay coverage.

There were no bug reports.
But there was certainly some expression of not knowing what to expect. In the week before the launch I contacted reviewers to review my game and some of them told me the game was unclear in what to do: I immediately countered it by adding a help section to the game. It became clear to me that there the game-play is not guiding the people in what to do.

Retrospective of the launch

The game was received better than expected. The sales lag behind but I can’t be for certain yet because it is a common known phenomenon that you need to start doing sales in staffels to get people to convert. But yeah, this game is in the lowest regions of Steam units solds, compared to the other Steam games.

I am exhausted. That’s not good: It makes it a lot harder to counter some known issues that did arise on the launch day. As a father working full time at a job, I have a hard time directing energy to any kind of mind activity after working hours. I did promise some more updates on the game but I’m really glad I didn’t mention a time span. So mental note to myself: don’t target launch day as ‘the day there will finally be some rest’ but rather 2-4 weeks after it, and spread the energy accordingly.

The reviews were all-right. Although I did think my audience through, I have a hard time reaching out to them. Instead a whole other audience is playing my game now, and of course they have other expectations of the game.
But that’s oké for me. I just need some months redirecting the game a little so it fits my ‘real’ audience better.

The reviews

Goodies!
The youtube coverage I got so far:

Steam is learning…

Since the June 2018 update of Steam there are some updates to counter mis-use of tradingcards and achievements. That is because of a select group of ‘poisonous developers’ (not my words) use these system for things they are not ment to be used for.

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I share my personal experience developing games professionally.

Don’t get me wrong. I like it when Steam tries to balance things out. They have special trained algorithms in place that will redirect users to to games they will like. Even in a crowded store.

But now this algorithm has marked my game… and there is nothing I can do about it.

screenshot find the gnome store page achievements issue small.PNG

It obviously is an evil mark to the uninformed potential buyer. Because it is a mark of something fishy that’s the algorithm thinks is going on with my game. Or that’s how I think the uninformed potential buyer will experience this mark.

To me it seems as that my game indeed correlates to the games that misuse the system, but there is no real connection at all. Yes my game is small, yes it’s quality is low, yes it is available at a low price tag, yes I don’t have many buyers…. But that’s not intentional. There is no intent from my part whatsoever to do ‘poisinous’ things like making money of trading cards / achievements / game counts etc.

I don’t have the power to change this system, nor do I have the time to improve my game to be less likely associated with this ‘Steam is learning about this game’ tag.

So I’ll leave you with this so you all know the background to this mark on my game.
Sometimes it is just better to let it go.

I have changed

“I have changed, and I really like my new self.”

This line could be from a self-help blog or another source of talk-to-the-mouth style information source.
But no, it is really here on this blog on games of GameFeelings.

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I share my personal experience developing games professionally.

I will give you an insight in my latest discoveries on how to better manage yourself when doing big projects, and what impact it has on me while delivering Find the Gnome.

Short introduction

For those who did not know it: I’m a guy, 30, married, dad to 2 kids, has a full-time job as a software developer, I like playing computer games in my spare time, I like to renovate my house… and I want to develop computer games.

This game I’m developing, Find the gnome, is my first game. I am using the development of this game to learn how to better develop games.

Reality

Being a married man and dad to 2 is a daytime job on its own. And then there is my ‘real’ job of being a software developer, with all the con’s attached to it: needing to stay relevant, additional meetings outside office hours…

So this ‘game development’ is more of a love work. I need to really like it to be able to get the needed hours into it, but to also get the needed amount of relaxation and the needed sense of achievement out of it.

Reality is that nothing comes for free. And that some things in life are more important to you than other things. And that everything always ends in a trade-off.

Pushing harder

But I didn’t want the trade-off. I want it all, and I wanted to earn it. So I just pushed for it.

I needed more experience? I tried something a lot. I needed new skills? I tried to make it my own. I wanted the game to be good? I tried to get every aspect of the game right. I wanted to get even better? I tried to get a good team of people around me to show me the good and the bad.

It did work out for me. For a while. You can see this in version v0.2 and v0.3. There you see a confident me trying to push for it, making every version increase even better than the previous increase.

Managing yourself

So there I was, working my ass off, and it suddenly stroke me: I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t listening to my body, I wasn’t on the look-out for easy shortcuts to just reduce the amount of work to do.

For not listening to my body, I got myself nearly burned-out. And that shortcut thing was very vague to me: I knew I needed something like that but it sounded like an empty promise to me.

At that moment in time I was also at some other crossroads in life. I was in therapy because of earlier near-burnout issues, I was desperately searching for new goals in my ‘real life’ job, at home my wife was going trough some near-burnout issues herself.

I wasn’t paying attention… the shortcuts were all the time right in front of me:
It’s all about priorities. About letting go. About ‘going with the flow’. ‘Trusting your gut feelings’. ‘Doing things you love to do’. ‘Listening to your heart’. ‘Clearly communicating your needs to others’. ‘Experience takes time’. ‘You need to fail to learn and/or progress’…

The world is full with books, movies, coaches, religions… people. The best they can do is teaching you something of yourself.

That enabled me to start managing myself. And then to take action. And cut in the workload of life and then to find those things that will keep me going.

Back to the subject

So, what has this to do with the game? I promised you all a game!? I should just deliver on that promise, shouldn’t I? With the exact content as described in all blog posts and al comments please… And I need to stop talking about ‘managing yourself’. In the time I took by writing this blog post I could have completed a new gnome model!

Yes that is true. But no that is not the right thing to do. Not at this moment.

Watch this, in version v0.4 you see mee finding out that the game is not the game I wanted it to be. I found out that for me, to love building the game, it needed to be something else. And while iterating on my new idea’s, I also found out that I had enormous scope creep in the project starting from the earliest versions. And right after the v0.4 release I took a break to do some home improvements (yay, new kitchen!) and I realized how much I was demanding from my body.

So I picked a new pace. That’s what’s visible in my last post.

Back to the future

This new pace is one I can sustain for a long time. I will finish Find the Gnome, that’s a feat I really want to accomplish. And then I really like to get on a new idea.

There is one thing left I like to add: I know what I like about building games. Support old ones (20% of my time), build new ones (50% of my time) and spend the remainder on company related things.

“I have changed, and I really like my new self.”

Project 1 – v0.4

The V0.4.0 milestone is there… but is hasn’t been reached! If you know what I mean 😉

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I share my personal experience developing games professionally.

We didn’t get anywhere in the V0.4.0 milestone, it is in a state that you can’t submit it for Beta review. If you look at that from an Agile project methodology point of view, this means that something has horribly gone wrong.

Well, it is a lot better than before. There are now 15 levels in it, aside from the story levels. And there is a whole new immersing main menu in it. And story telling and story driven progress. And saveslots. And funny AI. And better animations…
You can see this for yourself in the youtube video on the progress I made in this version.
So I think everything will get right in the next release.

The not-so-bright-side is that the project did go southwards fast due to a few circumstances. Most of which I didn’t have influence on.
So the current approach to get going again is: freeze the scope. And to delay the release date. And: get to a Beta testable state as fast as possible, to get feedback on the (major) changes as fast as possible.

The next official project update is scheduled at 5 June 2018, we will hit version 0.5 by then. It will finish the gamemodes and complete the settings menu.
It is the last update before quality control and the release.

Quality takes time

I thought I would never ever make a blog with the title ‘Delayed’. So instead I put something with ‘quality’ in the name to empathize the positive. But yeah, the idea is the same: delays.

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I share my personal experience developing games professionally.

First, the delay: Instead of releasing on the 4th of June I’m going for the 29th of June.

Second, the reason. And I hope you are all with me on this one. If not, speak out!

Beta testing

I have conducted a lot of beta testing, and especially the v0.3 feedback proved to be very usefull. So I started the ‘one fix to fix it once and for all’ and announced v0.4.

But, as you could read between the lines in the recent update on the progress on v0.4, the amount of work to do is huge.

Back then I didn’t go into details of what that feedback was. So I’m going to give you all some details on where this game is currently and what I envision it to be when it releases.

Gamemodes

It it all about the gameplay, isn’t it?

In v0.3 the game is like this: 1 small scene, 1 large scene, and 14 levels that use a segment of one of those scenes. There are 2 gamemodes: in normal you try to find them all, in timed you have to find a portion of these gnomes but they are in random spots this time.

In v0.3 this is the ‘why’ you should play: because of the challenge it is to look for gnomes in dark area’s or in parts of the level you easily overlook. And the reward you get in the end: full completion or a good time.
But the testers did point out a huge issue with this kind of gameplay: why am I doing this and why should I keep playing?

I think that the underlying issue in my game is that difficulty should not have been the foundation under the ‘why’. This game targets children and wants to entertain adults as a by-product.
Currently both gamemodes focus on the difficulty of finding objects in a 3D landscape, and both gamemodes don’t offer much else.

Experience enhancers

And I did know this.
If you look at one of my first posts, I point out that the core experience is situated around finding. It doesn’t state that it should be ‘a hard discovery’ that makes up all the gameplay.
Rather, all of the words I use are situated around the ‘experience’ of finding. So difficulty is not a target in this, at most it should provide the experience. And if it doesn’t, what it clearly does not, another instrument should be used to provide this experience.

So what are the instruments I could think of to implement in v0.4 to make a more interesting experience?

  • Make it like the ‘find wally’ cartoons. There is an established reference for how to do this and people are known for loving it. I do love books with this theme myself and I even have some of them. By the way, it was a beta tester that directed me to this approach.
  • Add a story. With a story the ‘gnome’ idea could be given more context. And gnomes are known to do cool things, so that could improve the game feeling dramatically.
  • More vibrant environment. Stuff that moves, rotates. It should fit really well into the game because it will make it harder to search but at the same time make it a more diverse experience.
  • Make it a phone game. Add sparkles, events, flashes, power-ups… lootboxes?! (I have to admit I didn’t want to think of this whole ‘going mobile’ option, but a tester pointed it out to me. It has a good some really nice underlying mechanics that could be integrated in our desktop game (without lootboxes of course… hehe))

A bit of everything

Well, there is a big problem with all of the previous pointed-out improvements: the cost time. A lot of time. That’s because it is situated more around content production and less around programming, and with me being a senior programmer but a junior designer/writer/modeller… things get out of scope really quickly.

So after a lot of thinking, planning, talking to people and staying true to myself, this is the idea:

  • Story driven progress. The main menu is the 3D map of the Netherlands. Between each level you get back to this map, someone talks to you and points out the progress… you get the idea.
  • Story driven ‘main gameplay’. A few levels ‘find wally’ style where the mechanics gets introduced. In these levels you see a lot of same-looking gnomes but a few of them are strange and you have to pick them out of the crowd.
  • The ‘original’ gamemodes are now transformed to an ‘in-between’ for the story levels. These are now called ‘hide n seek’ and there you just have to find all gnomes.
  • This ‘hide n seek’ mode has 2 game formats available in each level:
    • the first format is called ‘normal’ and consists of childish ‘just find them’.
    • the second format is called ‘time trial’  and is the more arcade ‘do fun stuff more mobile like and get a good time’ approach to the same levels. (I try to get as much sparkles, power-ups and stupid things in there as possible with my junior modelling skillset.)

I think this is the maximum I can pull of if I want to stay true to the original scope of the game. (The scope was: learn a lot, do it myself, make a fun game for myself and my son, stay withing the deadline.)

Next

So, do we get a new delay somewhere down the line? Isn’t the new goal even more ambitious?
I don’t hope so.

Where are we at now?
Currently the story driven progress is 50% on modelling, 90% on programming, 50% story writing. The ‘find wally’ style levels and mechanics are on 50% modelling, 25% level design, 90% programming, 0% story writing. The ‘hide n seek’ mode ‘normal’ is on 100% modelling, 95% programming, 100% level design. The ‘hide n seek’ mode ‘time trial’ will get the remaining time… and thus is likely to be skipped to be enhanced after release.

And yeah, I did think of the other open issues: need for music and more diverse sounds, more settings, and a few good screenshots and video’s that show of the game.

Release

I think the release will contain all story and all ‘find wally’ stuff. And the music, sounds and overall finish of the game will be good.

After release I will add more to the ‘time trial’ mode, add more Steam integration (achievements, cloud, etc), and look for ways to add more levels (or a whole new country) to the game, controller support… but this depends on the feedback I receive on the game.

Thanks for reading!