Game Development and Media Reviews

Tag: GameDev

The Art of War for Game Developer

The Art of War is a book about warfare that was written over 2500 years ago by Sun Tzu, but its teachings are still relevant today. They even transcended the battlefield and are taught in business schools around the world. What can a game developer learn from this classic? Let’s look at the core teachings of the book.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

As this is a book about war we might have to think of our customers as the enemy and the making and selling of our video game as the battle. If we know what our customers want, and we know our abilities and what we can deliver then we will not be surprised by our sales numbers. Game developers who don’t understand the desires of their audience or overestimate their abilities to create a game that serves a specific craving have a higher chance to fail.

Sun Tzu expands this statement by referencing the conditions of the battlefield which we should not ignore. These conditions, like technological advances, can render our strengths and weaknesses completely irrelevant. Knowing yourself, the enemy and the battlefield, you will be able to predict the outcome of a battle and therefore know which battles to fight and which to avoid. It is therefore up to the game developer to understand industry trends or the regulations of the country you are trying to sell your game in. Armed with that knowledge, a wise game developer just has to pick the right game to make.

Avoid what is strong. Attack what is weak.

Sun Tzu urges you to utilize your resources in a meaningful way. Don’t try to compete with the strengths of your competitors but try to figure what they do wrong. It is almost impossible to compete with GTA5 when it comes to creating a large and living world. If you don’t have the resources or if you are not exceptionally talented, you will end up with mediocre results. However, if you look at reviews of popular games you will be able to create a list of issues that your planned game might improve upon. If you isolated a requested feature that your game can do best, you found yourself a valuable unique selling point (USP).

Open up Steam and look at games that are similar to what you are making right now. What do people dislike about these games and ask yourself if you can do better.

To win 100 battles is not the height of skill, to subdue the enemy without fighting is.

Sun Tzu argues in his book that the best generals only go into battle when it is absolutely necessary as every conflict is a drain on resources. Reaching an agreement with your enemy that benefits you both is therefore the highest goal.

Every hostile argument within your team, with somebody on Twitter or every legal issue you might have with another company is comparable to those battles. Not every single conflict is therefore worth fighting as projects are constrained by time and money.

All Warfare is based on deception.

Sun Tzu explains that deception is key to winning battles. In the video game industry this is called marketing. You have probably seen a spectacular trailer for a video game that created expectations that were left wanting. These acts of deception will generate negative reviews. Every game developer tries to invoke an emotional response by showing you the highlight of the game while hiding the ugly and the mundane. However, the degree of deception varies wildly, and the number of negative reviews will too. If your game does not have a single negative review, you are probably very bad at marketing.

Hope that helps.

The 4-Hour Workweek Reviewed by a Game Developer

The 4-Hour Workweek is a book by Timothy Ferriss that describes the lifestyle of the New Rich. A member of the New Rich is able to work remotely from anywhere in the world and has developed a system for income automation in order to focus on the important things they actually want to do before they hit retirement. The title of this book promises a lot and I was curious if this book offered any insights that can be applied to the life of a game developer. Here is what I found.

Ferriss starts off by attacking the traditional work / life balance of working +40 hours a week and instead argues that these jobs can be done in a fraction of that time by using the elimination method. His method describes the cultivation of selective ignorance. This line of thinking is based on the principle that 20% of your work achieve 80% of your results and that 80% of your issues stem from 20% your activities. He detailed how he ditched a majority of his labor-intensive clients to only work for his most profiting ones and that he stopped offering time intensive services like international shipping. He was able to cut down his client management time from 5-10h per day to 1hour per month while still generating 90% of his income.

How does this translate to game development? Supporting multiple platforms for a video game is a great way to reach out to more customers but its also a good way to pull your attention away from the things that will make your game great. Every minute you invest in Linux support is a minute you lose on polishing your website, trailer or core features. Analyze what features sell your game and what features are more work than they are actually worth.

The book recommends people to start rejecting meetings without an established agenda and to start checking e-mails only twice a day. This helps you to focus on your previously established goals and not the priorities of others. The processing of e-mails in limited time windows forces you to focus on the important e-mails while ignoring the rest.

How does that translate to video game development? Meetings and e-mails from colleagues are a part in every office environment. Additionally, video games with a social media following tend to create a constant stream of notifications which can be very tempting to react to right away. Try to batch your reaction to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube comments and answer as many as you can in a very limited timeframe. Ignore social media for the rest of your day.

‘Doing the Unrealistic is Easier Than Doing the Realistic’. The book argues that you should aim for the extra ordinary when working on your projects. 99% of people aim for realistic goals with mediocre results. This creates a market where the competition ends up being the fiercest. It is therefore supposed to be easier to raise a $1,000,000 than it is to raise 100,000. Ferriss elaborates further by saying that unusually large goals lead to an adrenaline infusion that help you overcome inevitable trials. Realistic goals are supposedly uninspiring and barely fuel you through the first problems. He describes a process to achieve unrealistic goals that he calls Dreamlining which forces you to create specific steps for goals you think are out of reach.

Ferriss proposes a challenge to overcome a mindset that is limited by mediocre ideas. Contact a celebrity or somebody you would normally think is out of reach and get them to respond to your e-mail. He says that this is typically easier than you might think and entices you to have bigger goals.

How does this translate to game development? As I am a mostly introverted engineer I stuck to creating video games that I knew how to make. I knew about technical limitations and what I was capable of. I rarely left my comfort zone and created a number of games that were generally liked, well designed and technically sound. However, these games failed to attract a larger audience because they were not inspiring as I never dared to venture into the impossible. I came to the conclusion that every project needs realistic limitations but also unrealistic ambitions to become successful. You therefore need to have two driving forces in your team. The game designers and sales people have to think big unburdened by the knowledge of what is actually possible while the programmers have to make it work somehow.

The next chapter focuses on how to build up an automated business that passively generates revenue without requiring more than a minimum amount of work which he calls muses. Ferriss explains that that running a business is not the goal and instead shifts the focus on setting up structures to enable other people to run a business for you. However, instructing people is a difficult and time consuming task that needs training. This training can be cheaply acquired by hiring a virtual assistant that takes over simple tasks for you. You will learn how to communicate deadlines and expectations in the process. Ferriss also writes about the value of writing e-mails in an if/else structure to enable your employees to work on their own. Additionally, frequently asked questions should be addressed in a guide to empower your employees to act without you.

How does this translate to game development? Communicating your expectations to artist or voice actors is sometime pretty difficult and failure to do so might end up being really expensive. I already had my fair share of expensive misunderstandings and missed deadlines. Hiring a virtual assistant to handle social media posts or work through bug reports seems like a reasonable idea to get started with the concept of leadership before committing to your first hire.

Creating a muse is not easy and you might have to test different products until you find the right one to sell. Testing if a muse is viable should be possible for less than $500. He recommends you to simply setup a website with an interesting product that you can order from a factory in China and pay for online ads. The product you are selling doesn’t even have to be already in your hands and your website might simply indicate that the order was cancelled after it was placed. This gives you real data without investing too much money to an unproven idea. If your cost-per-order (CPO) from advertising is decently covered by your profit margin you have found yourself a muse.

How does this translate to game development? Before committing to any project for 2 years you might want to create a Steam page with a couple of screenshots of your fancy looking prototype as early as possible. Everything in those screenshots can be mocked as long as it communicates your vision well. If a significant number of players adds your game to their wishlist your prototype might be worth the effort.

Ferriss goes on and claims that it is easier to sell a product if you are known in your industry. He describes a process of becoming an expert in everything. You start off by becoming a member of multiple trade associations within your field. The next step is to read the most popular books on your topic and to write a short summary about them. Call your local university and offer a free seminar and use posters to advertise for it. Try to do the same thing for well known companies and cite your memberships and your previous seminars at universities as reference. You can also try to write articles for trade publications or offer to conduct interviews with well known experts for them. He references a service that is used by journalists to find experts on specific topics. Your new credentials are supposedly enough to sign up, be found and to be asked for interviews.

How does this translate to game development? Having a following on social media definitely helps you to sell games. Joining game development associations or writing articles for online magazines is certainly useful for that. Holding seminars at universities is a great way to recruit talented people who want to start out in the business. Additionally, creating a network with peers and journalists enables you to share ideas or collaborate with others. While it might be very unlikely to get contacted by a major news outlet to talk about video games, this might work on a smaller scale. It’s a huge opportunity to have a poster of your game featured in the background of your next Skype interview.

Lastly, the book gives very practical advice about building up your muse, negotiating remote-work agreements and about traveling the world. As working on video games does not necessarily require your physical presence in an office, this advice could be useful for solo developers, small teams or even employees of AAA studios. Ferriss claims a lot of things and makes difficult things sound very easy. I see at least some value in his pretty unusual perspective and his knowledge as a salesman, even though I might not be able to replicate any of that.

Hope that helps.

Politics in Video Games is Everywhere

Far Cry 5 surprised a lot of players by openly referencing modern politics.

The recent discussions about including politics in video games seem pretty dumb to me. When people complain about politics in video games, they usually complain about an attack on social norms. The conversation is mostly limited to inclusiveness and gender politics. It lacks the realization that there are political messages in every story and therefore every video game. Even the ones you would normally deem apolitical. This inclusion of politics might not even be intentional but there is usually no way around it. You either reinforce societal norms or you try to challenge them. Let me prove that to you.

Games like Cyberpunk 2077 started to move away from traditional character creation by letting the player select a body type instead of a labeled gender.

Remember Star Wars from 1977? Star Wars is the story about a young man named Luke Skywalker joining the Jedi in fighting against the evil Empire to free the galaxy from oppression. It is not the story about a radicalized teenager turned terrorist who joined a cult and blew up a space station with tens of thousands of people inside. Why is that? It’s because George Lucas chose to make Luke his protagonist; he became the hero of the story and not its antagonist. Remember that the next time you are playing Call of Duty. People usually don’t recognize the choice of protagonist by a game developer to be a political decision as long as it doesn’t go against established norms. Your enemies are called terrorists and you have the duty to shoot them. Now think about the last time you fought off an evil invasion force from the west to protect your family? People would call that blatant political propaganda.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare made it simple to understand who to root for. This was not deemed controversial by most as this game was published during the height of the War on Terror.

The science-fiction setting is usually pretty immune to feeling political as most contemporary context is removed. Ironically, most stories that are set in the future are in fact as political as they can possibly get because they have to predict the future of humanity. Finding the trajectory for humanity has to start with an analysis of the current political situation and its problems. Is humanity prospering without the need for money like it does in Star Trek or are mega-corporations taking over and making everybody miserable like they do in The Outer Worlds or Cyperpunk 2077? Those cases represent massive criticisms of capitalism. Have we learned to live together with aliens and embrace diversity like shown in Mass Effect? Or is humanity locked in a constant war for survival like it is in Halo? Curiously, the latter game is about a pure and homogenic group of warriors with blue eyes that kills diverse groups of aliens. These games touch on the subjects of strength through purity vs. strength through diversity – which sounds pretty political to me.

The Outer Worlds parodies the consequences of unchecked capitalism but its message was not seen as controversial as the context of todays political parties was completely removed.

Let’s look at games like Cities: Skylines. This game is political and it doesn’t even have a story. As you build your dream city you eventually have to navigate your city’s budget. What is a fair amount of taxes? At what point are your citizens going to protest your government? How does lowering taxes impact growth? You can’t get around answering those questions without making a political statement, even if you really don’t want to.

You can adjust the tax rates of your city in Cities: Skylines with several sliders forcing the developer to set a ‘default tax rate’ associated with economic and political consequences when moving away from it.

Politics has always been in video games. When people say that they don’t like politics in video games, they usually just refer to an isolated statement that disagrees with established norms.

Hope that helps.

5 Books That Helped Me Become A Better Game Developer

As a game developer I was never much into books. I loved playing video games, binging shows and watching movies but I was always alien to the greater value of reading. I had to work through a couple of math books in college, loved Harry Potter and Game of Thrones but rarely picked up anything beyond that – and at some point in my professional life, I stopped reading books altogether. And then 2020 happened. With some time on my hands and the desire for self-improvement I stumbled upon this statement:

If you don’t read, it’s like you can’t read at all. There is no difference.

These words resonated very strongly with me. I started to wonder about all the missed opportunities for self-improvement and all the valuable insights I lacked. Independent video game development is much more than knowing how to create art, code or design – it’s also about understanding goals, noise, and habits. I started to have this massive surge of FOMO about broadening my perspective that pushed me right into compiling and working through my first reading list. These five books are not specific game development but they really helped me to find focus in life and therefore become a better game developer.

7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey was actually on a recommended reading list for my computer science degree in college. It’s a classic that introduced the concepts of proactivity and synergy to a broader audience. It took me around 10 years to finally read that book and I am quite saddened to have waited that long. The first part of the book focuses on personal growth. The author explains to you how to identify what is important to you and how to get there. The second part teaches you how to engage in meaningful relationships. This book profoundly shifted the way I perceived my work and the interactions I have with others. I realized that making video games should have more priority in my life – waiting for the perfect moment to focus all my energy to advance my life’s agenda doesn’t cut it anymore. I recently reduced the hours of my current day job significantly and started to reach out to publishers and other independent game developers in hopes to someday be a part of something great. ‘Your project looks fantastic! How can I help?’

Atomic Habits by James Clear is a book about the power of habits. It focuses on how to develop and maintain good habits while also explaining how to get rid of the bad ones. I started to compile a weekly habit tracker to make sure that I work out, clean my apartment, study Russian, and wake up and go to bed on time. So far I’m almost half a year into this fixed daily routine. If you can figure out how to manage your life outside of game development, you have a better chance of focusing on it

Make Time by Jake Knapp taught me about the dangers of smart phones. I used to waste a lot of time on my phone scrolling through Reddit or watching YouTube videos. Don’t get me wrong – it’s absolutely fine to watch videos or read articles you are actually interested in. I use the word ‘waste’ here because I remember distinctively how I wasn’t even enjoying much of that time. To stop this, I removed all games and social media apps from my phone. I blocked websites like Reddit and Facebook and put restricting timers on apps like YouTube and my browser. I deactivated all notifications and put my phone permanently on silent mode. I also started charging my phone in the living room over night. This helped me to avoid those ‘30 minutes’ of phone time before going to bed and after waking up. I was able to massively cut down the amount of procrastination and fatigue that I experienced every day. As a result, I ended up having more time and energy for game development.

Getting Things Done by David Allen is a book that focuses purely on productivity. It argues that people who feel sluggish and overwhelmed might have too many things on their mind. The book describes a system where you have to create and maintain a set of lists. These lists enable you to offload all the things you worry about onto paper. The things you have written down do not occupy your brain space anymore and you don’t have to waste your time thinking about doing your taxes over and over again. The book inspired me to write down all the raw ideas I come up with and all the raw feedback I’m getting for my game into a list – this is my ‘Inbox’. I review that list when I plan my next update and assign an action and a priority to it. Writing everything down helped me to finally implement ‘would have been nice’ features that I had in my mind for almost 2 years.

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon is actually the reason I started this blog. The book recommends you to detail your journey as a creator as a way to promote your work. People are interested in the process of making video games or are interested in what you can teach them. Some people might even want to collaborate with you. The book argues that creating your little space on the internet and sharing your work beyond the pure product connects you not only with potential customers but also with likeminded people. Great artistic endeavors do not originate in a vacuum, but are usually the product of a network of artists.

These are some of the books I have read in the last six months. Hope that helps.

How to Find a Voice Actor on An Indie Game Budget

I’m currently working on my very own indie game where I had to find 4 voice actors. I’ve heard a bit about Fiverr but did not have any previous knowledge on how to actually hire and direct talent. Fiverr is where I started my journey and I came to believe that Fiverr is actually a decent place to start looking for people.

If you are working on a cutscene and need to work on the pacing and mood of your scene, you can hire somebody for 5$-$10 to read around 100 words. You won’t be able to use the recordings in the game though as licensing is not included and usually an extra $40 in that price range.

Having a real person read your lines helps you tremendously to further determine what you want and don’t want from a voice actor. I found 2 of the 4 final voice actors in my game on Fiverr. It’s really a random hit or miss on this platform as the ratings and price do not really reflect the quality you can expect. I had people for $50-$100 sound bored and asleep while people for $20 really sold their lines. I am hesitant to give out bad ratings on Fiverr as I don’t want to be responsible for ruining somebody’s livelihood or even burn an industry contact – we all have a bad day after all. I believe many of my game development colleagues feel the same. The selection of voice actors is a little bit limited. I looked for an English-speaking voice actor with a Latin American accent for my character Pablo Escobeer and I did not find a lot of options.

The is another website I checked out to find a quality voice actor for my game. The selection of voice actors seems bigger. You can submit your lines on the website along with some direction and a couple of voice actor will read your lines for free. The quality of voice actors varied a bit with some of them being truly amazing. That talent comes with a price. The license for using that voice in a video game is $115 for 100 words. This sounds like a good deal, until you realize that this does not even allow you the creation of a YouTube video featuring your gameplay footage. That license is $200, which feels like quite a lot for an indie game budget. The restrictive licensing and the forced indirect communication with the talent caused me to refrain from hiring somebody from

Another option I can highly recommend is social media. I found a really talented voice actor here on Reddit and another one over at Twitter with the handle @VACastingRT. Tweet your voice acting requirements mentioning @VACastingRT and find your inbox full of voice actors wanting to audition. The price ranges here from $20 – $250 as you encounter voice acting enthusiasts and seasoned professionals.

I found working with voice actors to be really fun. Just be friendly and communicate your expectations clearly. Don’t leave them on read if you have trouble deciding which one to hire or if you have already decided to hire somebody else. There is always another project and another opportunity to work together, so be as respectful as you can be.

Quick shoutout to @lalaboowelsh, @Isaakwells, @TonyrayVA and @StevenPFortune for helping me with their amazing voices!

You can check out their work in Run For Cover!

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