Thursday, November 15, 2012

Heuristic teaching challenge

I am excited. Our company is taking a huge step in the direction of completely individualized learning, and we are hiring a lead server engineer to that end. Here's the listing, just in case you want to help us find that person:

This position is SO important to me that I want to discuss how the person that takes it is going to change the learning experience for our students. My hope is that we can have an open discussion about this project so that it improves everything for everyone. Certainly work of the type described here is being done in different areas, but since this is going to be so unique to our programs, I feel that it is completely okay to speak of this openly.

Some background on our company: we have a series of educational products that teach vocabulary and critical reasoning. They are amazingly effective and they do actually adapt to students' knowledge. But they could be so much better.

Some background on me: I've been making video games for 20 years. I believe that we can take gaming concepts and apply them to other fields, like education. That's why I'm here at FastPath.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) within video games can create situations that make for truly memorable and engaging experiences. If a game's AI is too easy, the game is boring to a player. If the AI is too hard, the game is considered unplayable. Neither of these are acceptable in the gaming market. However, when the AI is neither impossible or too simple, it can be called "just right," the experience is then considered "fun." This can also be called "pleasurable frustration."

The challenge of creating an experience filled with "pleasurable frustration" is that a players' ability to play or interact with a game continually changes, whether it's because they are gaining experience or maybe because they are having a bad day.

This can be adjusted for in gaming by adding "handicaps" such as in a foot race where you give someone a 10 second lead, or on a carnival midway when the barker gives you a couple of extra softballs to knock over the milk jugs. But those are done with people that can continually assess the situation.

The same can be said for having a teacher that understands their student well. They can take what they know about the student and use that to adapt their curriculum accordingly. For instance, they may be a soccer player so their physics discussions surround making a goal in a vacuum, or they may be sick and they need a few reminders in order to keep their mind focused upon the current topic.

In a video game, creating a dynamic experience that adapts to the players' performance is a challenge, but it is a common practice. Some games adjust the likelihood that you will get hit by a laser bolt, while others may make the enemies move slower so you can catch them easier.

In an automated online educational product, measuring a students' knowledge and wisdom is a challenge. Currently we use an assessment test that creates a score based upon a series of questions with different difficulties. The performance of a student in that assessment determines how far we move a student forward. This is a very valid way to customize a program, but it is not perfect.

Our challenge is to create an educational program that constantly adapts to an individual students' performance from every conceivable angle. This will create an educational version of "pleasurable frustration" that will also result in "fun."

We have a plan in place that, more than anything, needs a special person to make it a reality. I don't think I'll find the right person without making this plan somewhat public. So here goes my attempt at explaining my current take on it:


We take the data from all of our products and add it to a single database. This means we can then edit everything and preform analytics across programs.


This is where, I believe, we can start grading and sorting the data about how students perform in a way that we can build patterns of performance from. For example, we can compare the data for everyone that missed question 1 and begin predicting what other questions they may miss or get right.

To accomplish this, we'll need to build some serious analytics tools and some creative data storage concepts.


All data must be served up and measured / tracked based upon A/B testing so we can ascertain that we are providing students the best learning experiences. The types of things we could choose to test: audio files, questions, answers, button sizes, button colors, page layouts, etc.


Once these pieces are in place, we can track and measure performance of each user, find trends within groups of users, change the level of difficulty to determine if a student is ready to jump forward, and find many other ways to provide students a completely unique learning experience that is heuristically determined to be the "best" content for them at that moment.

If this sounds interesting to you, and you want to make it happen, then we need to talk. Now.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Old-fashioned Management Memes: Who do You Want to be as a Leader When You Grow Up?

What do I know?

Feel free to look me up here.

meme mēm noun: an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.

As a manager (and reader of a bunch of stuff) for the past 20 years, I have had requests for management tips. Some things work; some don't. Some are magical wins. Some are spectacular failures. Your mileage may vary. Whatever the case, these techniques have worked magic for me, time and time again.

This tip is for managers that are not 100% sure of who they are... yet. You're welcome



A good writer should write about what they know. I know about me and my experience. Maybe you'll get something out of this. Maybe not. My plan is to expand a lot of these ideas in future blogs, so this might be a good place to start when I've done enough of these.

Over the last few years, I have gone through some interesting changes in my career. I have owned my own studios, contracted my services to others, and have even been hired by "the man." At each company, how my leadership style worked with the company's style has been fascinating.

As a leader, I believe in complete transparency, I attempt to live up to a standard of total, painful honesty, and I live within the realization that I don't know everything. 

At my own companies, my leadership style is, essentially, the company's style. As a contractor, my leadership style is not for sale but for rent. If clients don't like it, then we don't have a deal. 

MANAGEMENT STYLE FOR SALE As an employee, my style has been bought. If my style does not match the style of the company, then there is some disconnect that I'll have to deal with somehow. I still have the opportunity to walk if I think I'm compromising who I am. But isn't this the way it always is?

Although I have read hundreds of management / self-help / leadership books, I had to learn just about everything about real management the hard way. Luckily, I had the opportunity to learn on "someone else's money" at other companies. The culture of the places I worked at sometimes fought me while I tried to become the manager that I wanted to be.

I am 100% focused on being honest and factual as a manager. I believe that surprises are the enemy of team cohesion and progress. It's sometimes difficult for people to come to terms with managers being honest, because they are so used to people lying that they think there is another trick up that person’s sleeve.

I have found that being a leader at any company that you do not own yourself is quite difficult. Unless you are the owner of the company, you cannot forge the culture of the group, so you are forced to follow the cultural "lead" of the organization. 

It also is my belief that you cannot make promises if you cannot be 100% behind delivering them; all you can do is make a promise based upon the best information you have available to you.

Ideally, leadership, to me, is: full transparency, no surprises, and team involvement in decisions. When you lead, you must have transparency surrounding your goals so you know what the landscape is all about, whether there's budget, how other projects link together, etc. 

Transparency also means that you have to bare your goals to the world, so that if you’re smoking your own crack... everyone can tell you so. As a leader, you have to be ready to hear about that, too. 

You have to create a plan with your team that accounts for as many variables you can, eliminating surprises and becoming ready for unexpected issues. 

Finally, you have to get your team to help create a plan that will get you to where you want to go. They have to provide you guidance on whether your goals are actually possible given what they know about the landscape where they are the experts. And again, being a leader means being ready to hear about how the experts think things need to happen. It’s all about healthy feedback.

In my world view, more information is better, whether things are going according to plan OR if they are way off track.

My question to you is this: how do YOU deal with things when they start getting scary? Do you share more or do you share less? So far, I've had a lot of success when I shared everything. I don't think it's the standard way of running a company, but I'm not sure why. 

Any ideas? Bring 'em in the comment section!

Thanks, Vishal, for the kick - Lessons from Gaming for the Music Business...

The original thread:

In the late 80s, I was in the music business for a few years as a performing musician, and because I was really interested in learning on how to make a living at it, I took a lot of classes in commercial music management.

After spending 20 years in the video game industry, I think I can compare the two industries somewhat fairly.

The traditional music business is VERY similar to the traditional video game publishing business. You are advanced money that you make a product with, you have to make a commercially relevant product on a schedule, and you have to work with the assets that are available and that the publisher allows you to have. Assuming you release your product, everyone takes a piece of your work. If you are very lucky, you may make something back, but most likely, you'll never see a penny of royalties.

So much of this mimics my experience in the video game industry. I’m sure there’s a novel in there somewhere.

However, what is fascinating to me is that, unlike the music industry, the video game industry reinvents its business model continually. As an ecosystem, it does that because people are willing to try anything to make it work. Companies have tried everything from hard core DRM to giving their product away for free, hoping that people will pay for it if they like it. When a model works, others copy that model and riff on it. The more disruptive the new model is, the more interesting it can be for the customers. This is absolutely healthy and is the most honest way to help connect with your customers. People want to pay for great content. You have to find the way that works best with the people that are enjoying your content.

I think a key component of this is that it works because the people that make the content own it completely. They do not have to rely on “how it is supposed to be done” because they have no buy-in to the system. They are completely free to take chances. And the rewards can be huge, from a ton of money to just being in charge of your own destiny.

Without writing a thesis on all the different methods that have evolved through the years (and wow - game publishing is an infant compared to music publishing, here is what I want to propose to the music industry: challenge your business model. Try something that “won’t” work. Try everything! You see this with smaller bands that have complete ownership of their work - they have nothing to lose so they are inventing opportunities for themselves. Some succeed wildly. Others fail.

Challenge the entire structure of the music business. Publishers, unions, guilds, copyrights, etc. are doing well for some people but not for everyone. What would happen if everyone released their music under creative commons? Whatever you decide to do, make lots of mistakes as quickly as you can. Learn from them and keep doing more of the things that work. And talk about your mistakes openly so others can learn from what you have tried.

Good luck out there!

Monday, September 17, 2012

What is Immersion in a Video Game?

In video games,  as well as other mediums, "immersion" is the zen-like removal of the game interface, where thought and action are one. Once a player can become immersed, they can achieve "flow," which is the ultimate state of consciousness you can achieve in gaming.

When you can forget about the interface, as in playing music on a mastered instrument, you become the instrument. The same holds true for gaming.

The measure of the game designer's skill at creating immersion is therefore the amount of time it takes to get past the interface. Creating a slick experience that trains the player to be an expert by using the interface, rather than requiring them to read a manual is fundamental to this experience.

By beginning with the core controls, and adding more over time, ideally by letting a player experience them rather than lecture them, game designers / developers are able to convey a sense of exploration and learning that bond players with the experience in a profound way.

Super Mario is a fundamentally beautiful experience, simply because you are "forced" to learn and master the base mechanics immediately and entertainingly. A thing of beauty upon your first try. I can remember it well.

The best games create these learning experiences in memorable ways, hopefully having a degree of leniency as well as challenge.

Teach your players to be masters secretly. They need to master their environments and the game's controls to become fully immersed, and your role in this experience is to be an invisible teacher. Are you up to the challenge?

These are my thoughts. Love to hear yours!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Examples of characters' emotions as part of game mechanics

I was on an email thread where one game designer was asking about characters' emotions as part of game mechanics, so I shared some of my experience from being the lead designer on Wing Commander Prophecy. Wing Commander Prophecy (and many Wings) had a few systems built into it that would simulate emotions. These comments are specifically directed at WCP. We tried to do everything we could think of, from gameplay itself to the interaction of cutscenes and gameplay. My motto was gameplay first, so the movies had to support gameplay; not the other way around. In fact you could even disable movies in the options and it wouldn't affect anything. All the comms in the game told you what you needed, so the movies were not absolutely necessary to "feel" the emotion of combat or learn that there was in fact a war going on.

Shooting a friendly a couple of times would elicit a comm telling the player that "hey - I'm a good guy" written in the character's style. We had to allow for a few stray shots. Hitting an enemy would knock this back down, but if you hit them too many times in a row, you were considered a traitor and you'd be marked as an enemy and killed by Confed. It was pretty fun watching the "good guys" change into red targets.

Each pilot had a stat that told the pilots whether they would take orders or not. I believe we adjusted that based upon the number of kills you had made during the mission to simulate "leadership." Noobs would automatically follow them no matter what (ahh the redshirts) and Maniac was extremely unlikely to EVER follow orders. :)

Every pilot had comms that played when they did something and those were tuned and written to match their character. Some were verbose and others were not. Guess what Maniac's verbosity was set to? We wanted to have stoic characters as well, like Hawk, so if they said anything, it was rare. Some pilots would also eject early because they were chickens, and others would go down with the ship, ejecting at the last moment. Plot characters would always live, unless it was "their time," but we lost a lot of red shirts so we could simulate real deaths. We added new ones to the roster (you'd see them on the kill board) so you'd watch some noobs get added throughout the game.

When you returned to the Midway, we rated the damage on your ship so Rachel, the head mechanic on the ships, would give you different types of feedback.

Depending on your performance, you may have won a specific medal.

For the player that wanted to really dig into the game and add their own emotions, when pilots died, their names were listed on the Killboard as KIA. This worked for redshirts as well as main characters.

Plot that happened on the ship would directly affect comms and such, but one of the things I liked was that we made some plot deaths happen in flight where YOU caused them and if you managed to save them (I mean, really, who wants a mission where you can't possibly win), they died somewhere else and you just heard about it later. Man that was so long ago, maybe that was something in the original script that we had to cut after our budget was gutted. Anyway, you see the idea.

And never forget the interactive music! It changed based upon gameplay and the emotion we wanted to elicit. Some of the concepts that had associated tracks that would be swapped between at any time (really on the correct measure) was: no threats, threats, you're in deep shit, congrats you killed something, congrats you killed something HUGE, threats on the way, and more).

I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot more. Suffice to say, we did all we could to make the game as "personal" as we could. I'm sure most people didn't notice much if any of this, but it was there.

Hope this is somewhat interesting. Let me know what you think! bjc

Monday, July 23, 2012

Investing in Content: A Reply to Mitch Laskey's blog post

JUNE 06, 2012


Mitch Laskey's Blog

My response:

He's right.

What I think is interesting about this blogpost is that he really has done a good job of summing up the history of game development from a publishing perspective. I've lived through the console cycles and watched companies pour ridiculous amounts of capital into manufacturing those cartridges before they ever even had a chance to see if they were going to sell. And they had to guess how many they would sell or they'd eat that inventory. It was ugly. Back then, it was hard to imagine even entering the console market. Publishers had a stranglehold on the customers through the capital requirement, relationship with console manufacturers, wholesale distribution, and control of wholesale to retail. The game makers never interacted with retail, much less the players. When I explained this to my friends and family, it always seemed to me that the console owners were like a mafia that controlled access to the fans and publishers had to pay to get on the shelf. Developers were always at the mercy of "the deal."

Then from a developer perspective, you were constantly strung out for the promise of royalties, but whenever a smaller company struck it "rich," the royalty rates and contracts were re-written so that it made it next to impossible to have a hit game propel you into the big bucks. It still happened, so we all believed it could happen to us. That is some ridiculous insanity and I was completely caught up in it for years.

And that's not even to calculate in the music mafia style chargebacks and advances that had to be paid back through your royalties. Many many bands found that they actually wound up owing the music publishers / record companies money after their first album was released. That contract style still lives on with bigger publishers and developers.

Nowadays, the field is much more level. Small teams can speak directly to their customers, both online through forums / blogs and through their games themselves. Adapting at lightspeed to the desires of their SPECIFIC players, game developers can turn on a dime to give them exactly what they want and need. It's a fundamental twist that is absolutely changing the game. For the better.

We're delivering entertainment. We can adapt to the ever changing desires of the public instantly. As long as we know how to listen, we will succeed.

Okay developers, let's rock!


Friday, July 6, 2012

Kickstarter and Stoic in Austin, TX

Today, I am in north Austin, behind the Pour House on Burnet road, at Stoic's game studio. They are in the process of making a game that is funded, in part, by the PEOPLE that want to buy it. The team reached out through Kickstarter and are hard at work.

I was asked by an old friend and colleague, Michael Morlan, to come in and interview them for their fans, and I really had no idea what I was getting into. They are super smart, super tight, and super focused. In fact, I'm pretty jealous.

They are a super tight, small team (right now, I'm sitting on a couch in the middle of a single room with 5 Stoics and 2 others shooting film and recording audio. Their lead artist is explaining the "look and feel" of the game on camera. The room might be 20x20. It literally is a converted goat shed. Yes, a lean-to. Super bad sheetrock and painted exterior siding as a ceiling. They have a small window unit A/C that's cranking its best against the Texas heat. Small. Indie. Driven.

I love small teams. I really love small teams.

Their group funded themselves by their savings originally, and are continuing to do that, while the funds from Kickstarter are set to only be spent on the game and prizes.

I've never interviewed a game team before; this has been really interesting! My role is essentially to move the team through a standard set of questions, but the fun part is following up interesting answers to dig deeper. Michael made a good decision when he asked me to do this, because I'm just as much of a game geek as I am a game developer. It's been GREAT using my experience to ask additional questions that I *hope* that the viewers will want to hear about. C'mon, Michael, leave those answers in! I'm not on camera or on audio; I'm just feeding questions to the team.

The release location or date of the video hasn't been decided yet, but I'm sure Stoic will get it up on their site soon after it is edited. Or their Youtube channel. Or their Kickstarter page. I'm not gonna give any details away, because that's their thunder. It has been a pleasure being part of this, not only because they are so nice, but because they are so HONEST with their fans and so open with their information. They are open kimono and I respect that greatly. Only success can come from this. Openness is the only thing that allows for complete creativity; hiding information and keeping knowledge private are the death knell of an organization, IMHO.

These guys are going to be successful. Their fans are going to be happy. This is raw game development. Like I said... I'm jealous.

Go guys. Make Austin proud.

[UPDATE: The final interview is located here:]

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Overtime burnout

When I got my new gig at FastPath Learning, I was HIGHLY suspicious that I might have to work overtime, no matter what was said during the interview process. So far, we've had a few days here and there, and who cares about that? Not me.

Even now, we have a big deadline coming up, and a little overtime is happening, but it is NOTHING compared to the craziness of doing everything you and everyone on the team can to release a Game of the Year title. Man, the work to do that is insanity.

Well, it's been 8.5 months since I jumped off the commercial game train and into this world of "gamification." I cannot believe how my life has changed for the better. Spending time with the wife, kids and family is fantastic. My friends that I knew and hung with before I entered the game industry (it'll be 20 years in November) have been put through the ringer as I entered one crunch project after another. Right now, I'm trying to find ways to get involved with them again. It's a slow road and I am sure that those friends that saw me go into the breach are pretty hesitant to trust me again.

Yes, a LOT of the crunch was me driving myself to so the best I could, whether it was to start a company or to make sure that we could feed some babies.

At some point it's workoholism. And on another level, it's trying to prove that you have what it takes. Trying to "save" the company and other people's jobs has been a part of it as well. I'm sure these are only a small fraction of the factors involved in creating this insanity that is the requirement of creating fantastic work in the game industry.

I think there must be stages of withdrawal from this amount of crunch. For me, I have a few highlights / plateaus that I can try to describe:
- Complete disbelief that there was a job outside the traditional game industry that would be interesting and fun. Not to mention that it's teaching reading skills to kids.
- Skepticism about whether the job was real.
- Trying to accept that I really COULD leave after 8 hours.
- Assuring the family that I would, indeed, be home after a reasonable hour. And that I would get to talk to the kids EVERY day, instead of coming home while they are asleep.
- Starting to realize that I would actually have free time
- Becoming really selfish with my free time
- Balancing out free time with time the family needed
- Getting to the point where everyone in the family wasn't "desperate" to spend time with me so I could start figuring out what I wanted to do with my free time.
- Realizing that I needed to do ALL of the things I had been "putting off." My honey-do list is about 10 years out of date.
- Taking the time to actually get some of that done.
- Soul searching to think about how this has all affected me.
- Sharing this experience with close friends and then... here.

Now, I'm feeling like normal life (at least as it applies to me) may be closer than ever.

There's still a long road to recovery. If you are / were in the game industry... What's YOUR story?

Digital Footprints

For years now, I have been thinking about "what are my kids going to do with my presence on the web after I die?" Morbid, but whatever.

Ideas are a dime a dozen and the only thing that makes them have value is to actually DO something with them. I want to give this idea to the universe in the hopes that someone actually does something with it.

Imagine a FREE service that crawls through the internet and pieces together all of the things you put out there and puts it in a chronological order like a timeline. Of course you could cull out the things that aren't "your" but you get the drift. It should be smart enough to cull out repeats and distinguish between your work and others. I have tons of other details that should be there, but really... I am just trying to plant the seed so someone else will make it BETTER.

Digital Footprints. Please. Someone. Make this.

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