RTS eSports Opinion

Most RTS titles from the big game companies are attempting to move in a direction of eSports.  This is somewhat similar to the arch of Magic: the Gathering.  If you are not familiar with M:tG it’s the classic CCG that came out in the early 1990’s.  When first released most players were hardcore table top RPG nerds playing classic Dungeons and Dragons.  The draw of the game was being able to cast spells and magic away from the D&D table.  Eventually it became about competitive winning at the pro tour.  Creating the DCI (Bonus points if you know what DCI stands for) was an amazingly smart and forward thinking move on the part of Wizards of the Coast.  However the tournament scene caused the innovation and the refinement of winning deck design to take over the community.  There were really two different games running simultaneously.  The people playing ‘just for fun’ and the people playing in the Pro Tour.

The RTS genre is going through a similar change.  Warcraft was originally about fun and storytelling.  Dark Reign was also a very entertaining, although buggy, RTS game.  Blizzard has, however, moved the genre towards entertainment by way of competition.  Whether you claim they are learning from real sports, or M:TG or getting their ideas from somewhere else, proponents of esports are definitely aiming to keep players attention by making them compete with each other.  It’s an interesting solution to the problem of longevity in AAA title design.

On the other end of the gaming spectrum we have the absolutely amazing success of Minecraft.  Some people may say they have gotten a ‘lucky’ hand dealt to them at just about every turn. I think they have tapped something altogether lacking in most game titles.  There is no real sport to MC.  Not at the moment at least.  I personally doubt that Spleef or any other Minecraft activity will ever dwarf the amount of time people spend simply expressing their creativity.  At least I hope that is the case.  The game is about expressing one’s creativity and has tapped a deep seated desire to create and control a world.  The replay value of the game comes not from competition with others, but rather through expression.

Competition is not inherently worse than creative play.  It’s just not what everyone is into.   The major game labels are missing out on an audience that is looking for creative sandbox play.  There are plenty of eSport RTS games out there (Starcraft II, Firefall), but it would be nice to have some more titles out there like Dwarven Fortress, Minecraft, Dungeon Keeper, where yes it is real time, and yes it is strategy, but it also provides the opportunity for creative play.

Basic Project Management is important.

Although failure is always an option, and something we should learn from, what are some things that we can do to reduce failure?  Two tips tied together into one: Deadlines and Feedback.

Not everyone has taken on Project Management as a studied discipline which is unfortunate as some of the tactics a project manager will use can be really handy when making a computer game.  Any good business college will have you take at least one class in PM, and you might walk out of it with a PMBOK (Project Managers Body of Knowledge).  As an Amateur Computer Game Designer you most likely will not need every piece of information in the PMBOK, but you can still benefit from a couple points that project managers are fond of.  They also happen to be popular advice among Indie game developers.

During his talk at PAX Scott MacMillan stated that Deadlines are very important.  It was something that he learned the hard way.  You can see his slides from that presentation, but you cannot see what he discusses during those slides.  It’s something that I have also been learning about on the ZoRTS Project.  Let me synthesize what has been learned first hand, what Scott was trying to say in his presentation, and a couple things picked up from Boston University.

Deadlines should be small tasks which can be completed regularly.  There is an art to setting deadlines (with deliverables) in that they should not be made too big, nor too small.  For example, here is a little list of things that could be deadlines for a computer game project.

  • Game engine (due 1 year from today)
  • Art (due 1 year from today)
  • Sound (due 1 year from today)
  • Text (due 1 year from today)

These are some of the major components when building a computer game.  You have to produce the engine that runs the game.  Someone has to produce the visual and the auditory art and someone has to write text (could be in the game, could be website material).  What is wrong with this list of deadlines?  They have no specificity to them, and no deliverables.  Which means it will be harder to determine if progress is being made within the project (no feedback).

Instead lets try goals which are tied directly to a deliverable and have much shorter durations.  The actual times, deliverables and goals are going to be based on your project, theses are just used as an example, they are not specific suggestions.

  • Game Engine Prototype, with 1 unit, 1 building, 1 vehicle (due in 1 month).
  • Art for each of those basic entities (due in 1 month)
  • Intro music (due in 1 month), sound effects for each basic unit (due in 2 months).
  • Completion of the Game Design Doc (due in 1 month)
  • Basic website text (due in 2 months)
Chances are that upon reading the first list team members get a sense of dread and unease as it feels like an impossibly large task with a very long time frame is looming over them.  The second list, however, feels much less intimating for those who are trying to complete the tasks.  There is an added bonus here.  The next step is much clearer based on the second list.  What do we do when the first prototype is done?  Revise!  Add more units.  Debug.  Repeat.  
There should be someone on the project who can see the big picture and break it down into reasonable tasks for the rest of the team to complete.  In an Amateur setting this might be the whole team discussing the project together during a planning session.  Or it could be one person, a creative lead/project manager.  They should be applying the second list to drive the project.  If they were so inclined (or a business major) they might create a Gantt Chart or a timeline.

Failure is always an option.

The Zorts Project is most likely going to fail.  TapDave asked me a direct question about the future of the project, and point blank the answer was “I am planning on the project failing”.   The reason behind that is the project may come to a point where we stop working on it.  That does not mean that we have failed.  Quit the opposite actually.  Learning something is never a true failure.

What are we learning from the ZoRTS Project?

There is, of course, another school of thought that only when you embrace that something could fail are you actually prepared from something great to happen.  Failure could even be the very thing that drives the economy!  What are your stories of success through failure?  Share in the comments!

Finals are done!

The final final was taken last night!  It feels really good to get that done.  As a (relatively) free man it is time to start looking for a job, and working more on the ZoRTS project, which by extension means this blog.  It is time to take the advice of Markco (err Chris) and go through and cross link all my old blog posts.  Hopefully that way someone other than myself will actually read this!

Coming up in the near future: More Networking.  TapDave pointed me to TheRubyRiot.  A networking event for startups, people looking for employers and perhaps, a person like myself, learning about the business of computer games.  Time to dive in and see what happens.

Amateur Gamer Designers

I am an Amateur Game Designer.  I do not make a living from the creation of ZoRTS.  I am not even indie (not yet anyway).  Scott MacMillian was trying to make a point that many people that want to make a computer game should not try and build a company to do it. My Project Management Professor once told me that its important to understand the difference between starting a project (a computer game) and starting a company.  You do not have to do one to do the other.  And many, many people would be better off just making a game, and not trying to make a company.

Somewhere between being a Gamer, working for an Indie Game Company, and working for a AAA company lies a zone that not many designers or gamers talk about.  The realm of the Amateur Game Designer.  There are no websites which support the Amateur Gamer.  No place where people with a day job, who like making games can chat about running a project.  If you talk with someone in the industry it can be a little intimidating.  They have concerns like deliverable products and deadlines, and those things are tied to dollar values.  People really can and do loose money when projects fail in the professional space.

But on the other hand we do have a non professional space.  Generally flash games, but not necessarily.  Kongregate is an interesting showcase of games which most likely are not professionally made.  I don’t want to talk in absolutes because there are 40,000+ games on one website.  There have to be rule breakers in there somewhere.  Anyway…

So here’s to the Amateur Game Designer… The non professional.  Maybe one day we all want to be professional game designers, and maybe we will be.  Maybe one day we’ll all have a place that we can discuss how the pros make a computer game, and how we can cheaply do the same.  But until then we can create fun games.

Networking Round 2

Todays round of networking quickly follows yesterdays.  Had an amazing chat with Dave Bisceglia CEO of The Tap Lab.  And I forgot to ask him how to pronounce his name!  Damn.  We chatted about games, games, QR codes, Retail Impulse Purchasing, funding startups, being a start up, our favorite professor at BU… John Meyer (“…” used to emphasize that John Meyer is not our favorite professor at BU).  We talked about the Zorts project and why it is not a company.  Very positive chat and I think a future freind.  It was exactly the kind of conversation I was looking for, both ‘nuts and bolts’ and dreams of what gaming can be.  My lunch with Chris produced a lot more actionable items for the Zorts Project, but then Chris is an amazing project manager so that’s to be expected.  Dave is a CEO who is dealing with funding issues, venture capital companies, finding users…  Two very different conversations, but two very good ones to have.


Today I had a lunch meeting with Chris Canfield at Subatomic Studios.  If you play games on the iPad you may know their game FieldRunners.  Considering that I am a rank amateur and an ancillary acquaintance it was awesome of Chris to have lunch with me, and we had a great chat.  He is a great project manager and had tons of great advice.  He reminded me what I’m doing wrong as a project manager, and motivated me to do it better.

What we talked about will have an immediate impact on the Zorts project.  And most likely future game projects as well.  I regret falling into the trap of talking about my project because that was not what my goals were.  However Chris prodded me and provided tons of great feedback.

Tomorrow I have a coffee meeting with Dave (don’t ask me to pronounce his name) Bisceglia, co founder of The Tap Lab.  In fact that may be my first question for him tomorrow.  Dave is a business guy in game design and my goals are to talk business theory with him.  There has been this question in my mind about the difference between someone who builds a company and someone who just works for one.  It’s one of those existential questions which is hard or impossible to answer without a life spent in the field.  I’m going to put that question to him tomorrow and see what happens!

Will anything come from these meetings?  I’m not sure at the moment.  I don’t expect anything tangible immediately.  What I’m hoping for is getting to know people who I can ask further questions and advice from.  I’m hoping for mentors.  Trying to find role models.  What is the take away for the reader?  Getting out there, meeting people, talking to people, and getting excited seems to be the path to getting stuff done.