Super Saver Sandbag

I order a LOT of junk from I do this because I like how they have everything I could ever want to consume (books, DVDs, music, games, gadgety bits, even sports equipment) in their database, which I can store using their “wish list” in one convenient place. I’ve always liked surfing from product to product seeing where my interests take me. In fact, I was in a Barnes & Noble this week with the girlfriend and I was paralyzed: I didn’t know where to browse! I pined for my Wish List and for a Recommended List.

So needless to say, I’m a fan of their site. I’ve been ordering from there since May 1999.

However, since their debut of Amazon Prime, the shipping scheme for suckers and compulsive buyers, I’ve noticed that the speed of their free shipping option has been steadily declining. Now, I’ve always been of the assumption that the different shipping rates were based on the costs of the shipping partner to get the product from their warehouses to my doorstep. Clearly, this was incorrect.

I ordered a couple books on Monday. These books were listed as In-Stock. Yet in checking my Order Tracking page, these items will not even ship until the 27th, eight days after I ordered. This isn’t the week before Christmas – I know they cannot be hammered by unexpected activity. So what is causing them to just sit on my order for eight days? My guess, and it is only a guess, is that they want to skim money off the top on shipping fees and force people into their idiotic Amazon Prime conjob.

Zappos, on the other hand, provides free shipping (both ways if you need to return something) and the time between warehouse and door is usually 2-4 days.

Providing inferior service on purpose has never been a strategy that succeeds in the long term.

Cube Prison

Seth Godin has a very back-of-the-napkin feel to his blog. But every once in a while he casually mentions things in passing that should be in every Tech Management 101 book. In his latest post, he talks about the “new rules” for face-to-face time.

I’ve worked in three companies that had lots of people and lots of cubes, and I spent the entire day walking around. I figured that was my job. The days where I sat down and did what looked like work were my least effective days. It’s hard for me to see why you’d bother having someone come all the way to an office just to sit in a cube and type.

I do this a lot and I know other designers here do it a lot – we come in, grab a Coke or coffee or cereal, sit down and type away, usually being distracted by the Internet or a new build until we are no longer really productive. Since my last two project were canceled, I’ve spent almost a year in a continual state of pre-production and very rarely did I have a support team beyond an art director. So for a year, I’ve come in, typed a bunch, did some decks, sent out emails/docs and spent the rest of the day sitting around trawling the web or updating my blog (guilty).

The real value of being in the office is when projects ramp up. The designers need to be there to answer questions, give/receive feedback promptly and respond to issues. But right now (and for the past year), I’ve been in blue sky time. There’s no reason I couldn’t do what I do from my laptop at home or on the beach. I’m isolated right now while here behind an impenetrable cube defense, it isn’t a big step for me to be three miles away at home.

This would be a great perquisite for game companies to adopt for their artists, designers and possibly engineers (given the infrastructure a company uses) that would cost said companies very little money.

Seth is right. I’ve felt so damn unproductive this past year even though I’ve actually produced some of my best work (that no one will ever see, damnit) because 90% of that time was spent spinning in my chair thinking or browsing blogs and photo sites looking for inspiration. The time I felt most productive in my entire career was when I was onsite with Santa Cruz Games when they were trying to finish Superman Returns DS. Yet, I did very little actual designing for the game! Yet I felt productive because I was interacting with the team and earning my way.

I doubt I could ever convince a studio as large as mine to adopt that policy, but it is a damn fine idea.

Books by Their Covers

Via kottke, I came upon this interview with book cover designer John Gall (I wonder how many Atlas Shrugged jokes he gets in his line of work?) that was fairly compelling. I love this guy’s covers despite having only ever seen them in this video. If you can’t get the video to work in Firefox, I got it to work in IE – just a warning.

He gives five rules for book cover design:

1. Read the Book
2. Inspiration is Everywhere
3. Be Thrifty With Fonts
4. Practice Sound Time Management
5. Rules are Made to be Broken

I think these are great and with a little massaging, can apply to game design as well. Here’s my version:

1. Understand the Context
2. Inspiration is Everywhere
3. Be Thrifty with Mechanics
4. Practice Iteration
5. Rules are Made to Be Broken

Number one seems like the hardest to shoehorn, but really was the first thing I thought of when how to apply this presentation to game design. Galt’s reasoning is that you have to read the book to understand where to go with the cover. It is about preparation. A designer has to have context. Reading the book is context. Playing games that have come earlier in a series, games that evoke similar aesthetics, understanding the fans of a licensed property – these are all ways to gain context and are absolutely essential.

One of the things that the designers on Superman Returns absolutely nailed was that earlier Superman games never let the player feel like Superman. They were hard to control, you ran into technological limitations that would not be limitations for the hero, etc. So they worked on really nailing the feeling of flying at speeds past the sound barrier. They really nailed the feeling of being able to use just your breath to blow away cars. They understood the context that Superman fans wanted the feeling of being Superman more than they wanted the specifics of any particular Superman story. They failed on numerous other fronts and that is a discussion for another time, but they did nail flight and power.

The second rule is just great advice and I didn’t have to change it at all. You would be surprised at how many designers limit themselves to only playing good games or only playing games of the genre they specialize in or never play indie games or Flash games or never read stories outside their comfort zone. You’ll never know what will stick with you, so expose yourself to as much as you possibly can.

Text is how cover designers deliver specific information (the ultimate purpose of the book’s cover) to readers/browsers. Fonts are the way that text is styled. The natural analogue to this in games is mechanics. Mechanics are the style that designers relay the purpose of the design to the player. Much like a book cover can have fonts that confuse, obfuscate and distract from the cover’s purpose, so can a game have mechanics that simple do not fit the setting or desired aesthetics. It isn’t impossible to be successful without being stingy with mechanics, GTA4 is a good example. World of Warcraft is another. Madden is another, at times. But the mechanics in those games are all working to fulfill a desired aesthetic. If the plan covers this, embrace gluttony of mechanics. Otherwise, be miserly. It is good advice.

By “practice sound time management”, what Gall really means is “don’t be stuck throwing shit on a cover because yous pent too much time pursuing the wrong avenues”. You see this excuse all the time in honest postmortems: “Well we had a great idea for an xyz system, but we just ran out of time.” Iteration, while it is turning into an industry buzzword, is one of the designers best tools in avoiding throwing shit mechanics into a game because you don’t have time for anything else.

Rules are made to broken is a cliché, but clichés usually stick around because they are grounded in truth. Most “rules” aren’t so much rules as they are guidelines or heuristics. Developers eager to ax a feature like to say “We can’t do that. It was terrible in Game ABC”. That may be. But is Game ABC of the same genre? Was it trying to evoke the same play dynamics? Did Game ABC’s team have time to figure out why that feature didn’t work? Sometimes those features are terrible by nature, but sometimes they just need massaged into fitting properly. This is why you see few game design rules. Given the proper setting, almost anything can be made to be fun.

All in all, this was a good list to keep in one’s back pocket.

On The Western Front

EA Sports has been added to the BrandTags website yielding some interesting results such as “Sweatshop”, “Monopoly” and “Crap”. Thanks all. But no worries, each of those terms seem to be used on over a dozen companies each.

My GTA progress has been suspended for a month or so due to my second Red Ring incident. The first was when I was just getting into Oblivion, so I guess the box doesn’t care too much for “open world” titles, hm? I could bitch about it, but there are more important things in the world. I feel like I’ve gained a (likely temporary) perspective after finishing Randy Pausch’s book. Seriously, go buy it or borrow it from someone.

Talk to you all when something riles me up. 🙂


Tom Chick is much better at the whole journalism thing than I:

I’ve variously read that the GTA4 storyline is “Oscar worthy”, “Oscar-caliber”, and “our Citizen Kane”, which makes me cringe. It just goes to show that the average games writer wouldn’t know a good story if it played itself for him. I still think it was a great game – yes, great – in spite of significant shortcomings. But now that I’m done, I wish Rockstar had made a better game for Liberty City and I wish they had written a better story for Niko Bellic. Because these are two of the most memorable characters you’ll meet in any videogame.

I’m not finished with the story mode yet, but I keep feeling anticipation that the Big Artistic Moment is coming if I’m patient enough. I had the same disappointment over the lack of such Moment in Bioshock. This is less of a rag on Rockstar, as GTA4 is better than anything I’ve been allowed to put out there and more of a rag on the Fanboy Media for failing to challenge us developers.


First, the headline…

Penguins honor Beaver County teenager with cancer

…is horribly and hilariously ambiguous. Secondly, the kid gets an e-high five from me for the following quote. Non-Pittsburghers: Rooney owns the Pittsburgh Steelers and Lemieux is part-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Kevin McClatchy, majority owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, much like his team during most games, was absent.

As John Challis was standing between Mr. Lemieux and Mr. Rooney, he looked at them and said, “Wow. I never thought I’d be talking with two owners of sports teams in the city.”

“There’s only one missing,” Mr. Lemieux said, referring to the Pirates.

John quickly replied, “Yeah, but at least the two winners are here.”

Oh, snap!