Friday, 6 June 2014

Subnautica Pre-Orders or Not?

It is now June 2014, and Subnautica has been in full-scale development for a few months. While much gameplay is still in the research and development stage, other components of this new game are starting to take on strong form. Subnautica has advanced far enough that Unknown Worlds can begin thinking about offering a product to potential paying customers. (Gasp!)

Subnautica at a very early development stage
There is a loose consensus on the team that we wish to release Subnautica in development form sometime in in the third quarter of 2014, which means a day in July, August, or September. We are fairly confident about doing this, having gained much experienced from Natural Selection 2's "Alpha" and "Beta" releases.

But could we offer Subnautica for sale before this date? Charlie and I had an interesting discussion about this option today. Might Subnautica be made available for pre-order? After all, like every game developer, selling stuff is how Unknown Worlds wheels keep turning. Surely selling more stuff earlier is a win?

Look, don't touch.
Not exactly. Step back to the third quarter target: What do we want to release at that time? If we do it, Subnautica will be in a very early development state. Gameplay will be limited to some basic systems, the environment restricted to a subset of its envisioned glory. But at the core, Subnautica must be fun. If it is not fun, we must not release it.

If a customer purchases Subnautica later this year, on Steam Early Access or another platform, we want them to be thrilled by it, enjoy playing it, want to talk about it, be delighted by it. We then want to update and build upon the game regularly, consistently and inexorably until it is ready for release. What we are selling is therefore twofold: A great gameplay experience, and joyride of updates improving and growing the game all the time.

This is the guiding principle. Make customers happy, and everything else follows. Marketing, public-relations, trailers, reviews, they all become a side-show that could very well help, but are not the core of what it means to be a good game developer.

Spot the Jumper...
What does a customer get if they pre-order Subnautica now? Not much. They do not get a great gameplay experience, they do not get updates, they get a receipt. And a wait. Woo-hoo. That's not to say there would be no value in the wait for some. Occasionally, after releasing development news such as pre-Alpha screenshots, we have received comments like 'I am throwing my money at the screen and nothing is happening!'

Comments like this are humbling, exciting, and morale-boosting for us. By offering Subnautica for pre-order, we might well make a few very excited people happy by giving the opportunity to turn that comment into a purchase. But we would not be doing right by them: We would be selling a promise we have not yet fulfilled. Unknown Worlds would have their money, and they would have a confirmation email. That is not a fair exchange of value, and not an exchange that is likely to induce real happiness in a customer.

Submersible concepts
Sometimes, pre-orders offer more than just an outlet for excitement. For example, some projects cannot proceed without early development stage funding. Kickstarters and Natural Selection 2 are great examples of this. Anyone who pre-ordered Natural Selection 2 was not purchasing a receipt and a wait - They were purchasing the chance for a project they felt passionate about to happen at all. The same goes for countless other worthy crowd and pre-order funded games.

This is not the state Unknown Worlds finds itself in now. Natural Selection 2 was a very successful game. Enough people found challenge and joy in it to fund not just its own development, but Unknown Worlds' future projects, including Subnautica, for a reasonable (but not infinite!) amount of time. Anyone pre-ordering Subnautica would not be purchasing the chance for the project to happen. While we can't be sure we can develop the game fast enough for this to stay true, we think we can.

Instead of offering pre-orders, we are going to double down on making sure that later this year, anyone that purchases Subnautica is absolutely delighted with what they find beneath the waves.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Steam Store Page Graphics Guide

Setting up Steam Store page graphics can be a bit daunting at first. There are lots of different images to create and upload throughout Steamworks. Here is a cheat sheet that shows examples of where each of the required images goes.

Steam Store page graphics cheat sheet!
Each of the images pop up in a few other places. For example, the Header Image is also used in Grid view when Steam is in desktop mode. Steam will also often re-size images - The Small Capsule Image in particular can get down as low as 120 x 45, so make sure the image and any associated graphics are readable at that level!

The list of required graphics is:

  • Large Capsule Image (467 x 181)
  • Main Capsule Image (616 x 353)
  • Page Background (1004 x 626)
  • Small Capsule Image (231 x 87)
  • Header Image (460 x 215)
  • Community Icon (32 x 32)
  • Client Icon (32 x 32)

And here are Photoshop size templates for the main ones:

This is all up to date as of May 2014. Given how fast Steam evolves, it might not be up to date by the time you read this.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Resource Allocation: Deciding What Ideas to Pursue

Deciding which projects to fund, staff, and pursue is simple in theoretical financial terms. Once can calculate expected cash flows from a project, discount them at the cost of capital, and then compare the size of resulting returns. The project with the biggest discounted cash flow number wins - And that is a wrap.

Such calculations are a test that large companies often get wrong, and that small companies, such as independent game developers, cannot reasonably undertake. Rather than attempting to concoct myriad unjustifiable input assumptions in an effort to produce a likely useless number, a degree of abstraction is required and a more qualitative decision making process appropriate.

In forming the structure for this decision making, it is prudent to maintain one constant assumption: You know very little. The effectiveness of the decision maker is limited by their necessarily incomplete cognisance of relevant information. The decision making structure must account for this limitation and not depend on unsustainable attempts to defeat it.

A first principles approach may allow a decision maker to work within those limits. Rather than attempting to define individually what components of what ideas are good or bad, those ideas may stand before guiding principles, and be culled or accepted according to their showing. An example set of first principles that I apply when deciding on how to allocate resources to projects is as follows. A project must,

  1. create value for the company and,
  2. create value for customers and,
  3. create value for creators.
Note that creators and company are separate entities for which value creation is required. A company is a non-human corporate form, the people (whether employed by the company or not) creating products are individuals with goals and desires not necessarily perfectly aligned with those of the company.

Any project that a company undertakes for which I am the decision maker must satisfy these first principles. In achieving such satisfaction, the project ensures that it is viable, that it is capable of execution through intrinsic motivation of all parties. No volunteer need be convinced to work on such a project, no customer need be fed marketing, no employee need be cajoled into contribution.

These first principles represent the initial stage of a decision making structure. The second stage is to consider the relative magnitude of value creation across potential projects. Resources are finite. It is a trap for naive leaders to believe that they, or their teams, can successfully execute all viable projects. It is essential that projects creating the most value must be given resources ahead of those creating less.

The difference between more and less valuable projects is an opportunity cost. To allocate any portion of available resources to a less valuable project is to incur an opportunity cost of magnitude equal to the progress foregone on the more valuable project, less the value created by such allocation. Incurring an opportunity cost is the result of bad decision making.

Such an assertion may appear cold-hearted, but it should not. Any project that incurs an opportunity cost under this method is necessarily preventing the creation of greater value. If an opportunity cost is consciously incurred, then a decision maker has foregone greater value in favour of lesser, to the detriment of their customers, their creators, and their company.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Dangerous Waters: The GDC Effect

Amongst game developers, March - June is often referred to as the 'silly season.' Game Developers Conference (GDC), the Penny Arcade Expo East (PAX), and the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) all fall in close succession. To further reduce breathing room, UK shows such as Eurogamer/Rezzed often schedule into the same space.

The PAX East 2013 show floor
Any developer that wishes to attempt a showing at any of these events must view each one in the context of the entire event landscape. Whether or they intend to show at all or just one, the presence of each event affects the other. They are an interconnected, in potentially unexpected ways.

Consider a team that intends to target PAX East to reveal a new game. That reveal will clearly require high-quality content, likely a playable demonstration build. That content would in the most ideal situation require focused, accurately scoped, effectively produced, and sufficiently resourced development time.

Of course, no development situation is ideal, and certainly not the lead up to PAX East. Sitting right before PAX, like a landmine on a war torn highway, is GDC. The value of GDC attendance to a development team is various: Conversing with fellow professionals, attending informative lectures, and gaining motivation and morale by working the party circuit.

Blacking out GDC week in any development cycle is prudent, but possibly not enough - The hangover, literal and figurative, can and likely will last well into the following week. Nutrition, sleep, exercise, often take a dive across the development team during this period. In the context of an entire game development, one week might not make a material difference to the value of the final product. In the case of a PAX East development milestone, that week is pure platinum.

The short term loss of productivity that GDC invokes (I am not in any way passing judgement on the long term productivity effect of GDC attendance: Wide consensus appears to be that it is positive) is not limited to your own team. Every partner that you may be working with to produce a PAX East presence may be experiencing a post GDC slowdown. Press, hardware partners, and contracted third party development resources are attempting to get as much out of GDC as your own team!

Effective planning for the GDC landmine is not sufficient. Consider that post PAX, E3 is less than two months away. If you intend to attend that show as well, then the potential intervening development time is limited. Scope must be reduced to compensate for the risk inherent in a fixed schedule (neither PAX nor E3 will not move for you!), and your team productivity will necessarily taper after a PAX push and need to be ramped up again.

With proper planning, a highly motivated team and a tightly controlled scope, it is possible to navigate the dangerous waters of this particularly crowded part of the gaming calendar. Without it, a team risks missed objectives, the destruction of morale, the breaching of budgets and a failure to achieve the very goal that these events are intended to celebrate: The creation of great games.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Stellar Alignment: The Finances of the Lord Howe Island Board

Over the seven financial years preceding 2013, the Lord Howe Island Board (the 'Board') has reported comprehensive income either very close to zero, or comfortably in surplus. In 2013 the wind changed, and the Board reported a significant loss. See figure 1:

Figure 1: Reported comprehensive income of the Lord Howe Island Board, selected years

Reported comprehensive income is generally used as the 'headline' result for an entity, informing general public perception of financial performance. It includes revaluations of property, plant and equipment. Such revaluations should treated with caution, as they are easily manipulated by management to support desired reporting outcomes. Their inclusion may mask operating deficiencies.

Further, it is a basic rule of thumb that when examining reported earnings, healthy professional scepticism should be applied to 'small profits.' Insignificant positive comprehensive income can be indicative of manipulation - A small profit is a much better headline than any loss. Such manipulation is not necessarily malicious, it may simply be an application of nominally legitimate accounting techniques that align with the particular incentives management are subject to. Chiefly: Losses do not look good in the press.

Figure 2: Board comprehensive income net of revaluations

Above, figure 2 displays the Board's comprehensive income, net of revaluations. The application of professional scepticism would necessarily engender curiosity as the probability that appropriate revaluations would consistently match, to within a few hundred thousand dollars, underlying losses. Such a fortuitous stellar alignment occurs in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011.

The removal of revaluations is one step towards obtaining a clearer picture of the underlying health of the financial performance of an entity. Revaluations are not an income source that may be sustainably recognised over the long term in a typical enterprise, least of all a local government body. They may therefore not be relied upon to fund general expenditure.

Such a principle may be applied to any income source which exhibits inconsistent magnitude and frequency. The Board reports a second income source that fits this description: Government grants.

The Board receives grants from the federal and state governments from time to time, to fund specific or operating expenditure. These grants are inconsistent, subject to  the political mood, and vulnerable to elimination. Given all levels of Australian government (and governments across the developed world) are presently seeking to reduce unsustainable levels of debt financing, the risk of grant elimination must be seriously confronted. In the context of such risk, consider figure 3:

Figure 3: Board comprehensive income net of revaluations and government grants

Without government grants and revaluations, the Board is left with massive, consistent losses. In 2013, this loss represented 52% of recurrent operating expenditure. Without further analysis, it is premature to declare a judgment on the Board's financial performance. However, accountants can borrow rules of thumb from other professions: A wise ship's captain would give the tip of this iceberg a wide berth.

Data used in this article is drawn from the NSW Department of the Premier & Cabinet,  various deprecated NSW regional development agencies, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Australian Census (various years), and Lord Howe Island Board publications.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Sex, Drugs and Video Games

Of all the things you do not want to see in your manager's hand, a giant pink dildo is pretty high up on the list. David Brent, played by 'The Office' creator Ricky Gervais, does an admirable job of keeping a straight face as he waves one such offending instrument about the cubicles, seeking an explanation for its migration into his desk.

Is it yours?
There is an impetus for my pondering of Ricky's unique way of engaging with workplace sexuality: The excellent self-immolation routine recently performed by one Josh Mattingly, a gaming journalist. If it wasn't so disturbing, Josh's little number could be a piece of cringe-comedy worthy of Gervais. I could just imagine Dawn Tinsley shifting uncomfortably in her chair as Brent says, and I quote, 'let me know if you need a penis for anything in the [near] future.'

Back to that in a moment, let's talk about games, and the industry that makes them. An 'industry' is a loose association of people, companies, and themes. These entities share experience, opportunities and wisdom. Seasoned executives smash the egos of young guns, grizzled solicitors feast on the fatigue of new graduates, senior accountants force fresh meat to audit payroll, and sage surgeons assign midnight ward rounds to eager registrars.

Many industries have been around for centuries: Finance, mining, teaching, the public service, and so on. Some of them are very new: Computing, mobile telephony, and of course: Video games. Even by the most optimistic definitions, games have not even been around for half a century yet. That's not long enough for inter-generational knowledge transfer to occur on a wide scale.

There are certainly 'old hands' about - John Carmack and John Romero are examples of widely respected figures that regularly pass wisdom down the chain. But these blokes are still young, and they are rare. Games companies tend to be populated by whipper-snappers, with the only people over fifty (if that!) being founders and executives. 

Such youth is a doubled edged sword. Those who were not there 'for the war' do not always have an appropriate sense of perspective, adequate emotional intelligence or requisite depth of experiences to execute a business most effectively. Yet an industry built independent of old ways of thinking can also cast off limitations.

Consider more flexible work time arrangements, less hierarchical corporate structures, and more 'human friendly' office environments. There has been much progress in eliminating ineffective, old thinking in the games industry. Such progress that one could be forgiven for harbouring hope that a particularly nasty piece of old thinking might be on the hit list: The boys club.

Let's consider a particularly egregious example of the boys club: The white collar graduate. Long hours, smashed shot glasses, sleep deprivation, fast-talked clients, a 'work hard, play hard, spend hard' ethos, and a need to prove 'manliness' amongst peers. The behaviour that comes out of some city firms is a modern male initiation ceremony, played out in slow motion over the course of a nascent career.

For young females entering these firms, the boys club is a barrier tougher than the shields on the Enterprise. The proverbial glass ceiling forms as the club looks after its own - Shutting out those that do not operate according to its social form, or worse, engaging in overtly patriarchal, predatory behaviour. The male analyst receives high-fives from mates after successfully 'conquering' a female colleague. She keeps quiet.

This behaviour is real, and if you have not witnessed it firsthand you have likely seen its less extreme manifestations. Males making remarks about how the girl from marketing (and note, it's always marketing) has 'a nice pair of tits.' That bloke you always catch staring at your colleagues' ass, and them smiling at you. Or maybe you have just noticed the gender imbalance amongst the people running your company.

The boys club has existed for centuries. It is a damaging parasite that has evolved and advanced itself within entire industries. It is entrenched along with all the great things about older industries, the experience and inter-generational wisdom that can make wonderful positive contributions to business.

What of games? Our industry is so new, so immature, surely we can cast off the limitations of the boys club just as we have eliminated cubicles, ill-fitting suits and the nine-to-five workday. Surely we are clever enough to recognise the potential benefits of such reform?

The Steam Dev Days after party in Seattle

Recently, Valve hosted Steam Dev Days - A mecca for game creation. It was a great event, and at its conclusion attendees were treated to a well executed party at a Seattle venue. There were several noteworthy elements to the bash: Excellent food, good music, a good amount of space, and an overwhelming sausage-fest factor.

The 'ratio' in front of the stage would not have surprised anyone who has spent any time at game industry events. It is a fact that we are a profession currently dominated by dudes. This is an immediate cause for concern - But surely these men are all reformed, aware of the imbalance and conscious of their behaviour around female colleagues.

Alas, that party provided spectacle - The 'Josh Mattingly' moments not recorded in Facebook chat logs, but indelibly inked in memory as awkward, drunken, cringe-inducing encounters in a dark room with loud music. The macho male graduate boys club replaced with a nerd version - Slightly unsure of itself, slightly uncertain about its chances, but quite sure that girls are a very nice thing.

While not as headline-friendly as (quoting again) 'I will kiss your vagina,' The SDD after party is a far more news worthy item. It was the culmination of a brilliant event, an event that lifted game development higher on all fronts, and yet it brought us back to Earth. The gender gap it displayed, and the boys club it revealed, is the poison pill inside the gourmet spread.

As an infant industry we have the opportunity to advance the cause of half the productive potential of our our species. Gender equality is not a zero sum game: Unshackling the capabilities of so many of our fellow creatures is a flood of industry that lifts all boats higher. 

Set aside such soaring ambition and there are still other potential benefits: Industry event after parties might be be more engaging and fun, if freed from the constraints of being totally gender skewed. The social dynamics of highly gender-biased groupings are not conducive to spawning the rich and rewarding relationships that help people grow, be they professional networking, one night stands, or both.

Recently, for a brief moment, we applied a powerful spotlight upon the behaviour of one troubled journalist. If we applied that spotlight consistently to gaming as a whole, we might make strides in gender equality that match our advances in other areas. To do anything less is conduct unbecoming. To do anything less is to invite gaming to be any other industry, and invite a David Brent to judge us.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Meta Valve

Observations from Steam Dev Days

During Steam Dev Days (SDD), the air was positively buzzing with excitement. Developers of all stripes excitedly swapped notes and ideas, fed by the great content that Valve (and other) speakers were disgorging upon us all. The quality of presentations was generally excellent and comfortably eclipsed the general quality at Game Developers Conference. There were many 'takeaways' from the event: At Unknown Worlds, we will no doubt change many plans and practices based on what we have learned during the various sessions. But as good as the explicit messages were, they did not contain the most important information.

The 'Steam Central' hall at Steam Dev Days
Step back from SDD and consider the holistic view. The company hosting and providing the majority of the content of the conference is arguably the most loved, probably the most financially successful, and undoubtedly the most respected single game company on Earth.

Any games company that aspires to lofty heights would do well to listen when Valve speaks. At SDD, multiple Valve employees, the very people responsible for Valve's success, presented not just explicitly in the form of their knowledge but implicitly in the form of themselves. SDD is the possibly the highest concentration of sustained exposure to Valve employees that any other game developer can experience.

Their manner, their attitudes, their dress and bearing, their character, and their priorities were all on show. These attributes are critical because people are Valve's competitive advantage: Gabe Newell has consistently referenced the importance of attracting, retaining and developing top talent to the success of his company. Without exception, every Valve employee on stage at SDD was exceptional. They were consistently impressive individuals, and in that impression lies a substantive explanation for Valve's efficiency and efficacy.

Valve employees demonstrated not just depth of knowledge about their particular topic but breadth of knowledge regarding Valve and game development. Mike Morasky did not just talk about how he creates wonderful music for Valve games, he demonstrated an understanding of how music fits into the development process, and how it affects other elements of the game as a whole. This breadth of knowledge contributes to Valve's ability to produce products of consistently high quality, across all disciplines.

Collaboration between those disciplines is facilitated by communication skills that are evidently a cut above. Every Valve presenter had measured pace, good voice levels and intonation, confidence, appropriate humour, and well-controlled mannerisms. This speaking skill was brought into stark relief when juxtaposed with non-Valve presenters.

In all cases, the delivery of ideas by Valve employees was based in the real world, not their own sense of superiority. They did not 'think' things, they 'knew' things - And if they did not know things, they acknowledged hypotheses as such and never stretched beyond the bounds of inference justified by the knowledge they did have.

Mark Ambinder formalised the phenomenon when he discussed the data-driven decision making at Valve. The company does not have a structured decision making process, but comprehensive databases are made available to all employees. An absurd number of data are recorded across Valve's properties - At one point, every single bullet fired in CS:GO was recorded! Those that make arguments based on analysis of data naturally win out over conjecture, 'instinct' and other less rigorous decision making methods, As Mark so poignantly put it, the scientific method of hypothesis, observation and analysis has allowed knowledge to be built over the course of human history. Valve employees apply this first principle in their way of thinking.

It would be the most hubristic game company that believes that they too replicate this data-driven and rigorous decision making method. It is not compatible with traditional corporate structures, and I will humbly admit that Unknown Worlds, despite being unstructured like Valve, does not consistently make decisions in a rigorous, analytic manner. Such thinking is not ingrained in the way we go about our daily business, as it so evidently is with employees at Valve.

Another consistent theme across Valve speakers was reference to 'customers.' Not 'players' or 'community,' though those words were occasionally used, but customers. Instead of referencing 'games' or 'services,' they referenced 'products.' How can we improve the product for our customers. How can we create value for both us and our customers. Combined with frequent call-outs to the 'financial' performance of products and the creation of 'value,' Valve employees evidenced their understanding that they are part of a business. So many game companies avoid business terminology, in attempt to present a softer or more 'game-friendly' manner. This is a catastrophic mistake. Valves success as a games and game service developer is entwined at the most base level with its success as a business.

The warmth and openness exuded by Valve employees during their talks was of itself impressive - But even more so when set against their remarkable ability to not talk about topics in an inappropriate way. It is only natural to expect that when a company puts large numbers of its employees on stage, at least several of them will put their foot in their mouth. Gabe Newell alluded to the need for self-restraint when delicately avoiding a question during his keynote address, by describing it as a 'land-mine.' Nathaniel Blue and DJ Powers gave nuanced and considered answers to tough questions about Valves business practices. Mike Morasky was superlatively tactful when baited with a question about an employee that left and then rejoined Valve, deftly deflecting any suggestion of disharmony. It would not be appropriate to describe Valve employees as being 'politically astute,' that could be misinterpreted, but they are undoubtedly consistently diplomatic when asked tough questions.

I could go on and on about these individuals. There are remarkable people in every organisation. What makes Valve remarkable is that their people are consistently brilliant. That has been my primary take-away from SDD. Not the future of VR, Steam Machines, or the expansion of Steam. Instead, the team behind some of the biggest phenomena in gaming has inspired me with their very form, and other game developers that aspire to Valve's success should consider how we can build our own teams to be as effective.