Serious Business.

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We may be a quirky, fun place to work, but there’s one thing we do take very seriously. Piñatas.

Pinata Trophy Wall

It all started back on Cuatro De Mayo. From that point forward, at each company party, new employees get the chance to smash a piñata. The heads are saved, Mars makes a plaque, and the trophies are mounted on our wall. Future victims stand below, in grim appraisal of their fate. Chompy, our handmade Fleck zenomite piñata, is the prize of our collection. May he rest in peace.

Fleck News.

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There’s no good way to say this, guys. We have some really sad news about the future of Fleck.

We’ve made the very difficult decision to wind the game down and cease operations on August 16. Read on for more details and personal messages from mars, helava, and blue.

<3

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From Mars:

Thanks for all the Dahlias.

1,964 friends. 1,326 Pink Dahlias. 1,790 Peach trees. 1,179 Ornamental Maples. That’s what I’ve collected over the nearly 3 years I’ve worked on Fleck. I wasn’t here for the launch of the game; I signed on with Self Aware in October 2010, a few months after the game went online. There was practically nothing there at the very beginning – just a map and some flowers. Everything else has been added since then, and the game has grown into the wonderfully complex thing that it is today. It’s been more fun to work on this game than anything else in my career, and I’m immensely proud of the work that the whole Fleck team has accomplished in those 3 years.

Free to play games are hard to make, and even harder to make succeed. The games industry in general is a hit driven business. Not every game has to be a hit, but if a game can’t attract a wide enough audience with enough players who keep playing, it will fail. Our games are built as services, which lets us do tremendously cool things like put every player together in the same world at the same time, but it also means our games have substantial ongoing costs to keep them online.

It’s with a heavy, weary heart that I now have to tell you that Fleck hasn’t been capable of paying for its own development and maintenance (not even close), and we have to make the difficult, painful, heartbreaking decision to stop working on it, take the game offline, and move our team onto other projects. We may still do some wacky stuff with Fleck, but we won’t be doing regular Thursday updates anymore, and Fleck’s last day of operation will be Friday, August 16.

Today we have disabled the bank and turned off in-game purchases. We don’t want anyone spending money on a game that won’t be around much longer, and we want to do our best to do right by the people who have so generously supported the game so far. If you made any purchase this year, we’ve credited you as many gems as you bought again, so you have something to play with for the next couple of months.

If you’ve spent money on Fleck we’d like to offer you currency in one of our other games, Big Fish Bingo or Big Fish Casino. I’m afraid we don’t have an automatic way of doing that, but if you write in to Customer Support with your Fleck ID we will very gladly help you out. We’re also working on some real-world merchandise to remember the game by. We’ll keep you updated on that.

It’s been an incredible pleasure to make this weird, unusual, quirky thing we call Fleck. It’s different from pretty much anything else out there. Maybe too different. It hasn’t been able to find its audience, but it has found you. Our mission at Self Aware Games is to make games that bring people together. Thanks for coming out and playing with us. Thanks for all the Dahlias.

-mars

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From Seppo (helava):

There’s a lot to say about Fleck.

Mostly, that it has always been a challenge. It’s a staggeringly complex game, both from a technical and a design perspective. It is, in many ways, completely unlike anything else out there. Over the last three years, more times than not, when we were confronted with a question, we knew we had to create the answer because no one else had done what we were doing before.

I know there are going to be people who say, “If you tried this,” or “If you hadn’t done that,” things would be different. I know there’s going to be a lot of speculation about “why”, and the simple fact is that we couldn’t find Fleck a large enough audience to succeed. We take responsibility for that. Believe me, no one is more heartbroken than us at this outcome.

This isn’t something that just happened – it is something that *has been happening* since January of 2012. This isn’t a result of recent changes. It is a result of us spending years trying to fix a problem, and finally coming to the understanding that there is a fundamental issue with Fleck & new players that we simply cannot find a way to resolve.

I want to be clear, also, because I’m sure it will come up: This isn’t a result of Big Fish acquiring Self Aware Games. This isn’t a decision we were forced into by someone, it’s a decision we were forced into because there is no way to move forward. Part of the *reason* that we were acquired by Big Fish is that we felt that Fleck would have *more* of a chance at success, not less, and that has absolutely been the case.

If we felt we could make it a success, and it was just a matter of a reasonable amount of time, we would absolutely continue. That’s not the case.

All that sounds very formal – and I think it’s important that you know this is not a sudden thing, and that it’s not someone who forced our hand. It doesn’t really address the grief of losing something you love, even if it is a game. I’m sure there will be more to write later, both to answer questions, and just to talk through the process. We’ll all be online, and you can ask us anything. Some things we may not have answers to, or may not be able to answer, but as always, we’ll be as open as we can.

Lastly, I want to remind folks that Fleck was made by a team of wonderful people. Hard-working, brilliant, devoted artists, engineers, designers, and support staff. People who absolutely loved the game, and put a lot of themselves into it. I know some of you will be angry. You can find me in game and yell at me if that’s what you need to do. But please, please, please take a moment, before you express your anger, and understand that this is not something that we want, and it is as heartbreaking for us as it is for the players who loved Fleck.

But I hope you all know that we did our best.

seppo helava (helava)

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From Jordan (blue):

I’ve only been on the team for a short period of Fleck’s life, but Fleck has been a part of my life in various forms since the first day I logged in back in January of 2011. Since that day, I’ve made weird and occasionally cool things out of plantable objects, been both victim and mastermind of countless Fleck-based pranks, made attempts at creating games and other fun stuff within Fleck’s mechanics, and in the process I’ve met all sorts of crazy awesome people both in game and in person. The time I’ve spent working on Fleck with Self Aware Games could never possibly be long enough. But in the limited time I’ve been privileged to work with these awesome people, I’ve seen these folks pull out all the stops and put everything they have into finding Fleck a home – trying to introduce new people to Fleck and show off all the things that you were discerning enough to notice whenever you joined that convinced you to stick around and play with us for awhile.

I want to thank you all immensely. Both as a player and in my short time as a programmer for Fleck, I have nothing but piles of fond memories and fun times with friends to take away. I hope that you also have similar experiences to carry with you and if not, there’s no better time than now to make a few lasting memories. See you in game for the festivities!

-Jordan (blue)

(Near) Death and Videogame Stories

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Something that struck me while playing Bioshock Infinite (which is pretty darned excellent)…

A lot of folks, justifiably, make the argument that most of the writing in videogames is fairly juvenile. Jesse Schell, at his recent GDC talk, talked about the notion that games are really good at “neck-down” verbs (running, jumping, punching, etc.) while other media (books, movies, etc.) are better at “neck-up” verbs (talking, asking, pleading, etc.). Still, I don’t think there’s any argument that we’ve had videogame stories that have really stuck with players over the years. So let’s just take, for argument’s sake, that game stories are currently not as effective as stories than other media, but they can resonate as effectively in the player. Why?

(and yeah, I realize I’ve just set up a really arbitrary argument.)

Listen to this: http://www.radiolab.org/2010/sep/20/ – you should listen to the whole thing, ’cause Radiolab is just awesome, but the part I’m specifically thinking of is under “Letting Go”, where David Eagleman talks about time seeming to slow way down. The tl;dr version, at least as I’ve interpreted it, is something like this:

Your brain takes in information at a set rate (whatever that rate is). As your brain “stores” data, you have a perception of time passing. Basically each “write” is a block of time. So let’s say it’s 1 write per second. In times of crisis, your brain stores WAY more data, because if you survive, having as much detail as possible to analyze after the fact may make the difference between life & death the *next* time you encounter something similar. So your brain writes 5 times as fast. Since your brain still perceives the flow of time as 1 write per second, you’re now writing 5x/second, but you still perceive the time passing as 1 write/second, so 1 second now feels like 5 seconds.

Essentially, crisis primes your brain for an influx of important information.

So, with games – let’s say you’re playing some hardcore FPS, where every moment is life & death. You get through the crisis, just barely. For some period of time after that crisis passes, you’re still in this “primed” state – your brain is taking in more information, and giving it a LOT of significance, because you believe it will be vital to your survival. Even though you’re no in a shoot/be shot kind of mode, the narrative “break” (cutscene, perhaps) is given a lot of perceptual weight, because something in your mind still believes it’s in crisis mode.

So I’m not saying that games stories all suck otherwise, or games stories are inherently better – just curious if there’s something to having a combination of “high-risk” situations followed by story that gives the story a higher priority or more significance than the story itself justifies independent of gameplay, and whether that’s part of why a lot of us who grew up with games remember game experiences at a very deep level, even if the actual experiences themselves weren’t necessarily amazing on their own.

Death March

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Ben Kuchera wrote this on the PA Report about the “inhuman cost of game development”.

His take on it is entirely accurate, and it’s something I wanted to expound on a little more here, because we work really hard to do things differently than most “AAA” game companies.

A bit of history may be in order.

My first job in games was working on Seaman, at Sega. I was 24, and dating my future-wife who at the time lived in San Jose. We both worked ridiculous hours and basically only saw each other on weekends. I regularly worked from 9:30am until midnight, and about half the week, I slept on a couch in the office for the entire six months of the project.

My second job in games was at Maxis, working on the Sims. The longest stretch of crunch I did there were 14 hour days for 43 days straight, and I know that the folks who were working on the game on the floor above us had it much, much worse. We were regularly required to be in the office on the weekends even if we didn’t have anything to do because our managers wanted to impress the execs with our presence.

Every job I’ve had in the traditional game industry has been rife with crunch. The expectation is that you will work until the game is done regardless of anything in your personal life and regardless of whether the schedule is absurd or not. At another previous job, I was brought on to help figure out how to fix a demo that was being made, because it was due in six months, and the current schedule had been estimated at 153 person-years. The team was 15 people.

We started Self Aware Games in early 2009. It was an interesting time, early in the App Store days, when for the first time in years, independent development seemed possible. Circumstances were such that we could give it a shot, but there was one big caveat – my wife & I were going to have a child in 8.5 months. So that impacted a few things. First, either we succeeded in ~7 months, or I’d have to find a “real” job. Second, we knew that even as a sustainable thing, we’d have to deal with balancing work & kid, and that was going to be a non-negotiable element of making this work. Better still, the other co-founder of the company *also* was having a kid (though a few months later), so we were all on the same page about long-term sustainability.

There are a lot of reasons crunch exists:

  • Creating “fun” isn’t something you can schedule. Game development isn’t “production”, regardless of what anyone says. It’s always “Research & Development,” and R&D isn’t something you can lock to a timeline. It takes iteration & failure.
  • Most packaged games have to hit a specific date, because a lot of stuff “lines up” around a release. Marketing, shelf space at major retailers, etc. – and they’re usually tied to “holiday” – so everyone’s trying to hit the same date & the same shelf space. Missing a date on an AAA game means you lose a.) millions of dollars and b.) damage your relationship with retailers.
  • Most games are designed to contain too much stuff. That’s not intentional – but the R&D nature of it, combined with designs that are really ambitious (or bloated by marketing-dictated bullet points), lays the trap. The trap triggers because what you need to do is cut stuff, and it’s very difficult to cut stuff, because it all seems critical. Or execs say you can’t. Or you really really want it. Or all kinds of reasons.
  • A lot of “managers” “manage up” – they want to seem like they’re getting a lot out of the team, and they don’t care about balancing short term gains vs. long term costs. This sounds insane and incredibly cynical, but I’ve experienced it first hand.

Okay, so there really aren’t a lot of fundamental reasons, but they work together in all manner of insidious ways. Ultimately, it’s a cost-benefit analysis somewhere that comes down to the following:

  • Is the cost of burning out this team worth more or less than shipping the game?

In many cases, the answer is unfortunately that for whatever middle manager/exec/whoever, the cost of burning out the team is perceived to be low. They can hire more people. There’s ALWAYS a glut of folks out of school who would kill for a job in the game industry. The cost of missing a date is high, because it’s their neck on the line. They have to weigh their personal career vs. the general team, and the general team often loses out. Obviously, not all crunch is a single weak middle manager who can’t make the right decisions. Often it’s a whole ecosystem of poor management – not just folks managing up, but creative directors who have negotiated bad contracts or overpromised, or marketers who have sold more than the team can provide, or circumstances that dictate inflexibility on certain variables in the equation (movie games, for instance).

But in the end, it always comes back to the cost-benefit analysis.

For us, it’s simple. It’s never worth burning out the team.

Oh, it’s easy to say, but it’s not an easy situation to be in. We can do this for a few reasons (more bullets incoming):

  • We develop on mobile, where the overhead of a new release is low.
  • We make games that are “services”, which means they’re never done.
  • We have built an infrastructure that allows fast iteration.
  • We release new content often.

The important thing here is that we create an environment where no feature is so time-critical that it can’t be pushed. Obviously, we’d love to have everything out faster, faster, faster – but we can’t. Some stuff slips. It always slips. So rather than saying, “We’re locking down this hard-and-fast date for feature X,” we don’t do that. Which sounds simple, and frankly, it is. The difficult part is mitigating the practical cost of missing those features. You have to be able to release often, because then instead of slipping and missing a ship date, in which case the feature doesn’t slip, it gets cut, you can just push it to the next release with minimal cost. You have to be able to adjust your schedule quickly enough that those changes don’t create huge ripples out through a bunch of dependencies (and weirdly, the way we do this is by not having a long-term plan we know we can’t stick to – which also sounds a bit crazy). This is radically different on every level than traditional AAA development, where there is X content that has to be pressed to disk and shipped on Y date – intentionally so. No, I don’t know how to solve the crunch problem in AAA development. I think the way to change it is to change everything.

So the key is being able to remain flexible. Basically:

Now, this isn’t just a thing we do in order to not burn out the team. It has additional very positive benefits:

  • Obviously, not burning out the team is a huge priority – we do run games that are a service, and as a result, stuff periodically gets explodey. If I have to personally call an engineer at 3am to get the game back up & running, I want that to be an astonishingly rare occurrence that I would only do in a dire emergency, and for them not to mind (as much as possible). I can’t do that if we’re already working someone into the ground.
  • Games are “young” as a medium. If you work all the time, and all your do is games, then the experience you will bring to the table is all from existing games. A lot of new things come from synthesizing new experiences. So go cook. Make something out of wood. Dance. Fight. Whatever – learn something new, and bring that experience back to the team. Teach people stuff. That will all bleed into the games in some way. One of the things I’m proudest of having made in my career was a new system for cooking food in the Sims, and that was directly tied to my personal enthusiasm for cooking. But you NEED that diversity of experience. When you have a team that eats, lives, breathes, and sleeps work, then work is the only experience they have. That sucks, and your games show it.
  • It’s sort of folded into general “burnout”, but a big part of what we want is for the team to like each other & be able to work well together. Stick a bunch of people in a high-pressure environment for long enough, and the vast, vast majority of the time they’ll just end up hating each other. You get some Stockholm Syndrome elements in there, and some folks will build a very strong bond, but for the overall team it’s just not sustainable.
The proof is in the pudding. We have a small team of folks who work together incredibly well. We’re able to be more flexible, and move faster than our competition. We make (in my totally biased opinion) a better game than our competitors. Success is never a true metric of quality, so don’t take this to mean that – but we’re regularly in the top grossing charts on iOS, and we’ve made one of the most successful iOS apps ever. That’s no small thing, particularly given that the casino market is insane – hundreds of new competitors every week, and it was dominated by folks like Zynga – companies with much larger budgets, and much larger teams. We succeed because a team that works well, isn’t burned out, doesn’t hate their jobs works better than a team that’s overworked, exhausted, has no life outside of work, and is 100% stressed all the time.

Ultimately, the issue really is simple – there is no point –  none – where game development is worth more than your marriage, attending a funeral, missing an important milestone in your kid’s life. None. There should be no way that any individual’s task is worth so much that we cannot account for it in some other way.

  • Communication should never be so bad that something like this springs up out of the blue.
  • Information should not be structured in some way that someone else cannot lend a hand at a critical time
  • Our business should not be so brittle that one thing causes the whole thing to collapse.

Now, are we perfect? Of course not. But we work really hard to maintain that balance. And I feel confident enough that I can say this without any “cover-your-ass” clauses involved. If we EVER demand our employees to miss something like a funeral, or plan the birth of their child around a company milestone, or crunch them so hard their relationship falls apart – I will fire myself, or anyone who wants to make the call can do it as well if I have lost perspective. They can point to this post.

There are times when we’ve asked folks to work some overtime. They did it, we got the feature done, and everything worked out really well. There is a very strong impulse at that time to say, “Good job, manager – you pulled it out of the fire.” And that is part of the message that was delivered. Usually it ends there. But the other element of the message was, “This is still a net negative. We should have planned better, and we have to do better next time.” The message overall was not rewarding, because the experience overall was not rewarding. It was a failure of planning, and the team came together to compensate for it. Team++, manager–. It’s important to maintain that, because it is not a success for the manager to succeed in overtime at the expense of the team, even if it wasn’t an expense this time, because if you reward that, then you’re encouraging a repeat of the same situation. (<- game design = business design sometimes.)

I want Self Aware Games to be a place where people can work for a long time. They can have a career that doesn’t end because they can’t deal with the hours anymore once they have a family. They can have a career that doesn’t end because they hate game development, and can’t stand it for another minute. They can have a career that doesn’t end because they’re not exhausted all the time, and have lost all their relationships outside work. They can keep making games. They can keep contributing that experience to the games we make. We can have people who have worked in the industry for 20 years working alongside people who are just out of college. We can have continuity, because continuity is tremendously valuable. We can have a team that’s worked together for years and years, and knows each others’ idiosyncrasies and instinctively account for them because they know each other, care about each other, and all want to make something amazing.

That has a cost. I’d pay it a thousand times over.