Wanna Play Risk?

i’m a big fan of stepping outside of your comfort zone, in much the same way that i’m a big fan of YOU punching that grizzly bear in the face so that we can enjoy some sweet, stolen salmon for dinner. That is to say, i’m excited about the possible benefits of reward for risk, and i know assuming risk is an important thing to do, but i still makes me afeared.

Fearful squirrel

Since settling into a full-time job ten years ago and sinking into a job coma, the amount of risk i’ve assumed has dropped steadily year after year until at last, to coin a quaint colloquialism, i wouldn’t piss with my pants on fire unless my employer gave me the go-ahead.

The Seven Year Itch

That changed about seven years into the job, when i put my name on the “please fire me” list. For a number of reasons, it was time to go, and i was one of the lucky few who left at the exact right time. But make no mistake: it took stones. i had a daughter in diapers and, i found out later, another little girl on the way. i had a mortgage to pay and a fierce angel dust habit, and i owed money to Timmy Two-Fingers for a rigged boxing bet gone sour. (No … just kidding about the mortgage).

So it was then, after a long absence from risk, i took the very big step of incorporating a company and striking out on my own, instead of finding the next available corporate teat to suckle. And it was terrifying to do that. And it remains terrifying. We’re approaching three years of profitable operation in July, but every year is a nail-biter.


(Mmm … nails. Nom nom nom.)

i’m assuming even more risk with our upcoming game Spellirium. As you may know, the project is made possible with funding from the OMDC’s Interactive Digital Media Fund – free, non-repayable money. They’re putting up 50%, which we have to match. We’re matching it with another batch of free money from the SR&ED (Scientific Research and Economic Development) grant, which we earned by twisting technology to our steely will. So the entire budget for the project is essentially paid for. Sounds like very little risk, no?

Because there’s such little financial risk involved, it seems an opportune time to audition some new risks, risk-free … if that makes sense. It might be the angel dust talking.


In an earlier post, i talked about the first risk we’re assuming – a new (for us) development methodology called Agile/Scrum. This terrifies me. i’ve been absorbing as many videos and articles as i can about it so that i don’t fall completely flat on my face when we start work next week, but it’s a shiny new thing, and it’s apparently difficult to implement and easy to fail at.

Essentially, instead of spending two weeks putting together a rock-solid Game Design Document – a game bible, from which you shall not stray – you describe all the stuff your game is gonna do, you prioritize the list based on value to the player, and then you start building. That’s it. You just start building. And you look back after two weeks and evaluate what went right, and what went wrong. Then you grab more items from the Big List, and keep building. At the end of every two weeks, you have a shippable product. That means, friends, that two weeks from today, you’ll be able to play a shippable version of Spellirium. i promise you, i will suck, but you can start providing your feedback right away, and we’ll be Agile enough to respond. This way, we can find the fun as fast as possible, and spend the rest of our time developing a game that you will find increasingly awesome and worth your time and monays.

Word Game World Logo

(Note: if you like word games and story-based adventurey-type games and would like to be on the SpellCaster mailing list to play these early builds, head over to Word Game World and sign up here. If you DON’T like word games and story-based games, kindly DO NOT sign up. We’d love to get your feedback on other projects, but if you’re not a wordie, please move on. This is not the game you’re looking for.)

We’ll try using an online tool called Pivotal Tracker to help us through the process. It does burn-down charts, which frighten and confuse me by virtue of the very fact that they are charts, and they incorporate the word “burn”. If there are two things that make me nervous in this world, it’s statistics and being set on fire.

i’ll share more about how the Agile/Scrum process is going for us as the project progresses. i can already see we’ll run into some early problems because the start times of our talented artists and programmers are staggered … i’m still trying to figure out how to gracefully fold everyone into the batter. The second problem i’m seeing is somewhat more troubling.

Off-Site Collaboration

In the early days of the company, i was very proud of the fact that we did things differently than our competitors. We paid our employees money, for starters … you wouldn’t believe the number of game developers in this province who are working for free, or for points on royalties that never materialize. Our other point of difference is that we work with everyone in-house. We have ample face-to-face time, giving us the advantage of fast an frequent team communication, so that stuff doesn’t get lost in the email/MSN morass. i was very surprised to learn that many game companies work remotely. Everyone’s on Skype, scattered across bedrooms and coffee shops around the world. It didn’t strike me as an effective way to work.

Chat Roulette

This is what i see when i picture remote collaboration.

Now, due to the requirements of Spellirium and our relatively small office, i’m taking another risk: i need to hire 6 or 7 people, and i can only fit 3 of those people in-house, so half the team needs to be remote. Or i need to hire only midgets, and build bunk-desks.

The prospect of working with people remotely causes me anxiety. i like to have everyone within what i wryly call “strangling distance”. Communication – FAST communication – is very, very important to me, and i’ve been stung too many times by email threads where people’s true intent isn’t adequately conveyed through text, and people get needlessly hurt or frustrated. There’s only so much the mighty happyface can cover:

You’re an absolute idiot.


You’re an absolute idiot. :)

i’m considering using Google Wave as our online collaboration tool. i know i’ll have to try to get Skype or some other video chat software working so that we can beam at least one guy in via satellite. i’m wary about paying someone money to sit around at home in his underpants eating cheese fidgets and watching daytime soaps when he’s supposed to be making gameage for me, but maybe this is all part of an important process for me of slowly easing up on control and trusting other people a little more? i know other game studio heads who have been burned by remote workers, but i can’t help but think that at the slightest sign of smoke, my reaction will be swift and decisive. Spellirium is too awesome to be plagued by dead weight.


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6 thoughts on “Wanna Play Risk?

  1. Bwakathaboom

    Would it be considered unreasonable to require outside employees to make a trip to Toronto once a week for a team update meeting? Then you’d know at least one day a week they’re forced to wear pants.

  2. Michael Vargas

    For whatever ounce of value this may be worth, I’ve heard that in game development, the Scrum process tends to replace “shippable” with “playable”.

    I’d love to hear how it goes, though. To paraphrase a quote by C.K. Chesterton with which I completely disagree, but may agree with in the context of Scrum: “[Scrum] has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

    1. Ryan

      Michael – actually, that *is* pretty helpful. i’m having a few problems translating Scrum instructions for apps to game process, but i’m getting there. User Stories don’t translate all that well either.

      For example, here’s an app user story for a bulletin board system:

      “As the post moderator, i want to be able to view incoming posts in real-time and approve or reject them quickly and easily, so that content appears on the site rapidly, and my job is as simple as possible.”

      And for a game:

      “As the player, i want to use a sword to kill a monster, because … uh … because killing monsters is awesome.”



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