Ryan Goes Overboard

Feeling the pressure to top last year’s TOJam collaboration with Cassie on Ponycorns, i’ve cooked up something new for 2012 that could bring joy to many more people. It’s called Project Overboard:

The opinions i’m about to express are my own, and haven’t been filtered through or approved by the Project Overboard team.

Spreading the Love Around

Project Overboard is great, because it benefits lots of people. It benefits folks in and around the Toronto game scene who can’t ordinarily participate in a game jam, because they don’t have art or programming abilities. It benefits the at-risk children and youth who get to go to summer camp with the money we (might) collect from game sales. It raises the profile of TOJam (although, at 400 participants this year, they probably don’t need the exposure!)

But what am i hoping to get out of the experience? Project Overboard is going to be a ton of work, and it would be a lot easier for me to find some five-year-old somewhere and make another crayon game.

black van

Black van + candy = new game jam partner.

i’ve run Untold Entertainment for five years, and the company still has only one full-time employee: me. i left my corporate job on the threshold of being groomed for management, but i came away particularly ungroomed. i’ve always wanted to see Untold grow to a team of people, but it’s almost a blessing that it hasn’t, because i wouldn’t know how to properly manage that team.

There’s No “Ay Yi Yi” in “Team”

My first big flop as a leader, and a manger of people, came when i took my first stab at developing Spellirium. Armed with some government funding, yet tied to some government time restrictions, i had to assemble my team of artists and programmers in a scant six weeks – all while holding down a work-for-hire project as the sole employee of Untold Entertainment. i cobbled together a group of complete strangers with whom i’d never worked before. What could go wrong?

migrant workers

Let’s make a game, random truckload of migrant Libyan workers!

Those initial four months of development were like a slow-motion explosion in a munitions factory, really. i’ll tell you all about it later in a Spellirium post-mortem.

i learned many lessons that summer, but one key lesson was that i’m a lousy manager. i’m too nice, too permissive, too easily pushed over. i lead people into the fray without a clear enough battle plan. i also don’t trust people enough to delegate tasks to them, because i’m afraid they’ll screw things up. But that last one is not a lesson in learning to better delegate; some of the folks i’ve worked with really would have screwed things up. The lesson there, i’m convinced, was to somehow find people i could trust so that i would feel comfortable delegating to them.

Finnegan, Begin Again

Project Overboard is, for me, a do-over. As with Spellirium, i’m slapping together a team (a much larger team this time) of people i’ve never worked with before, and in a very short timeframe. i’m putting humility and brotherly love aside for this project: i’ve christened myself Creative Director, and i’m calling the shots on the game. Project Overboard is a dictatorship, not a democracy.

A colleague of mine clued me into the difference between artisans, who make creative decisions in their work, and craftsmen, who are told what to do, but who are charged with doing it very very well. One of the expectations of the Project Overboard team that i communicated in our planning document is that ours is a team of craftsmen, not artisans. i’m the designated artisan on the team. We’re all going to be craftsmen, by building a game together very very well.


Hand-crafted video games: you can feel the old-timey goodness.

My chief reason for claiming creative control of the project is that many jam teams waste their time trying to be nice to one another, without designating a single person who has veto power to choose a direction and run with it. The results are often telling of a design-by-committee approach. Not to pick on them too much, but at last year’s TOJam, friends of mine created Bacon Shark: a shark made out of bacon wearing a jetpack who is from the future reverses through a ruined platformer level, trying to un-crash himself through broken objects to avoid causing a time paradoxes (announced by the burrito-eating Paradox God), after having set off an atomic mayonnaise bomb.

Bacon Shark

Bacon Shark: a strong case for appointing a Creative Director on a jam game.

The plan with Project Overboard is that i will develop a full GDD (game design document), break it all down by task, and assign those tasks to my game production team. When TOJam starts, we’ll all begin burning through our respective lists, building assets and integrating them into the build. It’s the difference between following a set of Lego instructions, and building your own Lego monstrosity.

Lego AT-AT

Letting Go

Project Overboard will also help me with my issue of not trusting people enough to delegate to them. i really have no choice: i MUST delegate to people. The audio team is going to be halfway across town recording voice over, and even though i’d really like to be in the studio directing, i have to be on-site with the dev team building the game. i’d love to spearhead our marketing effort, but i’ve put together an entire marketing unit for that; every marketing effort i put forth is an opportunity i take away from them.


Behold, my wildest fantasy. (Er … cloning, i mean. Not a menage-a-trois with two sheep.)

By the end of Project Overboard, someone will have screwed up. (It might even be me!) Another colleague told me that one out of every ten employees is good. 1 in 10. That’s an extremely bad ratio if you’re like me, and you constantly need to hire contractors for projects. (To put a fine point on it, i initially hired only six people to work on Spellirium. Those are bad odds.) But since we’re all working on Project Overboard for free, i now have a financially risk-free opportunity to work with thirty other people, to figure out who’s worth working with on future projects when the stakes are higher, and the money’s coming out of my pocket.

Once i know who i can count on, after seeing everyone in action on Project Overboard, i’ll be able to get past that reluctance to trust people enough to delegate. The trust will be there. Delegation will follow.


Free your mind and your ass will follow.

That’s the self-improvement benefit that Project Overboard holds for me: i’m tightening up control and authorship in one area, while relaxing my sphincter a bit when it comes to enacting the plan and leading the team. When the project is finished, and we’ve (hopefully) built whatever it is we’re gonna build, i’ll loop back and let you know how it all turned out.

9 thoughts on “Ryan Goes Overboard

  1. McFunkypants

    You, good sir, are a gorgeous gentleman gamedev god. A rockstar demon coder straight outta jamnation. Project overboard is going to overheat TOjam with superfunkydelic awesomnitude. I heartily tip my flagon of mead in your general direction. Good luck, brave adventurer. Untold treasures await you in the deptch of codeblivion.
    – Christer Kaitila aka McFunkypants

  2. glue

    I read a good book recently called “The Speed of Trust” by Stephen M. R. Covey. It really opened my eyes to how trust really works with people. I think you would become a better leader if you took the time to read it too.

      1. kt

        Totally opinionated note here–my corporate overlords brought Covey Jr to speak and “seminarize” at us following the publication of said “book”. It was all common sense nuggets that somehow excluded, “Look both ways before crossing the street” and “Wash your hands after going potty”. We re-titled the whole thing, “Don’t be a Boob.”

        You already HAVE all the right ideas. Go thou, and continue creating. yo.

        1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

          Alright! We’ve heard from both sides now. Can anyone pop on and claim the book was so-so?

          “I was in a band once. People either loved us, or they hated us. Or they thought we were just all right.” – Mitch Hedberg

  3. Dan Spiler

    I had lots of respect and admiration for your game dev pursuits before…but now, I think you’re a freaking genius. This is PRECISELY the issue that I faced at the GGJ; I’m focusing on design, and in a Jam, Designers take to the wayside over more ‘concrete’ disciplines like programmers and modellers/artists.

    This is a brilliant, albeit intense, organizational-nightmare of an idea, and I really hope it works out. If it does, you can bet I’ll be cheering you on and hopefully participating future attempts. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll steer be cheering you on, like a loser of a Presidential vote.


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