Monday, January 27, 2014

Taking the EGO out of your creative work

In the old days
When I first started making games, I was heavily investing my ego / emotions into my work. When things didn't "work" with a player, I would feel personally hurt. And sometimes, I'd be upset that someone "couldn't figure something out."
Over the years, those reactions were slowly worn down so that I was able to let go and let the player become the most important part of the design.
Here's my take now
Believe in what you're creating. Believe in the heart of the project. Believe that you're taking a player on a journey. Know the core of the experience that you want to create.
Document it. Thoroughly.
Start building your project.
Now, get ready to change everything you thought would work. Just remember the core experience you are creating. The only thing that matters is that goal.
It is time for the rubber to hit the road, and the only person that matters is the player. Their experience is what matters. You have to let go and build the product for them.

Watch people play
Watch how they play the product. How do they interact with it? Are they having trouble with the interface? Are they delighted at times where you want them to be? Are they experiencing the emotional journey you want them to live? Watch their hands. Watch what's happening on the screen.
Most importantly... watch their emotions. Look at their eyes. Are they happy? Have they broken through the difficulties of the interface or do they struggle to figure out where things are or how to move, etc?
Let go
It is at this point where you have to LET GO of what you thought worked. You MUST listen to their emotions.
If you are really listening to your team, especially your quality assurance / testing team, you should have already learned these things and have addressed them. However, oftentimes your testers have played the game for so long, they have lost perspective.
You have to get people that have never played the game to sit down with it. Preferably people that have never played a game like yours.
What confuses them? What delights them?
Your emotional checklist will vary, but rest assured that you need to pay close attention. These players are representative of your real audience. If you don't listen to them, you'll find that once your product hits the market, your hubris will be met with a lack of sales.
This is why I tell people that need RAW feedback. Always. There is NO need to sugar coat ANYTHING. After all, if I don't hear exactly what they are thinking, I'll be facing the same resistance / concerns from people that won't tell me, and that just makes my products fall flat in the market.
I have NO ego about my work; I gave that up years ago. There's no point in it. Can you let yours go and listen to the players? Let me hear how YOU do it. Am I way off base? Light up those comments.


Billy Joe Cain started his game industry career at Origin Systems in 1992, and has participated in the creation of over 250 hit games for home game systems, mobile platforms, and PC / Mac, and has launched three game development studios in Austin, Texas. He believes that games are going to save the world through improving brain plasticity in adolescents as well as making education fun. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Management Memes: Fast is Better than Perfect

Get to market. NOW!
This tip is for everyone. 


Money is wasted trying to perfect products that you don't know how a userbase is going to react to, so your best bet is to get something that works out there and see what "sticks." Listen to the users and do more of what they like. Fix the stuff they think is broken, and remove the rest. 

This does not and cannot apply to every product or feature, but the point is to get some perfectionists and control freaks to let go of SOME of their own personal issues and get the product in front of a user. Let's see what I'm suggesting. 

Perfection can make you extinct
Entertainment products don't have to be perfect. They have to work. If you are spending your time perfecting products, you could be wasting your time. Or becoming a dinosaur. 

Get something out there that works before it works perfectly. You need to know what features the public wants; not what you think it wants. Why spend money and time on a feature only 1% of the user find useful? 

And they are opportunities
to make things right
People can handle things not working as they expect, if you give them a way to talk to you. This is what social media is for: so you can talk to your customers. Listen to them and they'll take you far. 

Users are smart. They know when you are lying and when you are telling the truth. Lie and they leave. Tell them the truth and they stay. Not every time, but as a generality, that's the way it goes. If you are lying, they eventually catch you and you'll have to do a lot of damage control to get things back to right.

When you release a product that's not complete, but it works, they expect that their complaints are going to be listened to. Provide them with updates on the status of their requests and you find that they are still behind you and are on your side. 
Real users matter more, anyway

When you are making a product that is user-centric, the best way to know if you're making what they want is to watch them. Since you likely can't afford a thousand people coming in for focus groups, the best way to get that feedback is to release it to the public. They can tell you what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong. Listen to them and you'll go far. 

Good luck!


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.

Billy Joe Cain started his game industry career at Origin Systems in 1992, and has participated in the creation of over 200 hit games for home game systems, mobile platforms, and PC / Mac, and has launched three game development studios in Austin, Texas. He believes that games are going to save the world through improving brain plasticity in adolescents as well as making education fun. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Making mistakes: You should be!

Today, I responded to a Facebook post asking me if I had a plan to talk about mistakes in a job interview. Thought I would share my answer.

My plan is to immediately admit my mistakes openly and share those mistakes with everyone. The goal of this is that we can all benefit by making mistakes.

In fact I *encourage* mistakes. If you aren't making mistakes, you're not trying hard enough to do something daring.

The only thing wrong with mistakes is when you DON'T share the knowledge you earned. Or of course if you can't seem to learn and make the same mistake over and over. That would be another mistake. :)

Monday, January 13, 2014

Best First Day Ever! Origin Systems, Incorporated Rocked It!

Origin Systems was a game developer and publisher that existed from 1983 until 2004.

My roommate got a job there in early 1991 (as I recall) and I couldn't believe that was even a career opportunity. I fell in love with the possibility when I got a taste of the inside of a game company while visiting him at the office. 

So many smart people working together on a common goal! 

Right then I decided that I needed to be in games. I did SO many silly things to convince them that I would be a good hire that I could just about fill up a book. Ultimately, I spent 1.5 years becoming part of the team at Origin while I watched for job openings and applied for each of them I felt qualified for. Persistence and kindness ultimately paid off because I finally landed a job there! 

Arriving at the offices on my first day, a Monday morning in September 1992, I find out that Origin had just been purchased by Electronic Arts! 

The entire day was set aside to walk everyone through an orientation at Electronic Arts and what that would mean to us. Halfway through the day, we were all escorted to a party boat on Lake Travis where we each received a Sega Genesis and some EA games. And all the drinks we wanted. 

Nicely played, EA. Nicely played. 

I stayed there until 1998, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I'd never trade it for the world, and honestly I have my doubts that first day at work will ever be topped. But we'll see!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

"The 10 Commitments" of Successful Gamification Solutions

Gamification isn't for the light-hearted. 

Winners in the gamification arena are those that ruthlessly listen and adapt to their users' needs and desires. Are you up to the task? 

While the title of this blog is a bit tongue in cheek, the following are some of the most important ways you can perform a self-assessment about how serious you are about gamifying your product. See how you rate out of a possible score of 10. 

World-class gamification solutions require near 24 hour management and adjustments to user performance. 

Companies implement gamification solutions to get financial results but the best implementations do it by engaging with their users in a genuine, honest manner. To wit, the gamification experience must:

  • Be genuine to users in a way that matters to them
  • Generate delight for users
  • Learn from mistakes
  • Do things right more often than not
  • Be honest. Brutally honest. Inside and out.
In order to achieve these goals, I have put together "The 10 Commitments" of Successful Gamification Solutions.
I like the tablets, that's all.


Measure your company or product against these commandments. To how many of these can you say for sure that your company can (or does) commit? 

Following these commitments as guidelines can give you the edge on your competitors and help your staff or customers reach their potential and ideally help the bottom line. 

Here is more detail on each:

Companies that want the most from their gamification results have to truly commit. This means honesty within the company around sharing what works and what didn't work as well as telling the users about the same things. It turns out that EVERYONE wants you to succeed, because THEY WANT TO HAVE FUN. Involve them in the solutions. 


You have to be ready to fail. A lot. Until you figure out what works for your staff or users, you're only guessing. Good game designers make lots of mistakes until they get it right. It's true! 


When things work for a while, you have to be ready to shake things up and do something unexpected. Nothing succeeds like the same thing over and over, said no one. Just when you think you have it together, your audience gets tired of the same old routine. Get crazy. Do something unexpected.


You have to be ready to constantly delight your players. This may mean doing the same thing over and over, trying new things, returning to the old stuff that worked, or getting creative to come up with something new. People want to be entertained. That's your job, now. 


You have to have proper expectations. Tell your users that things are going to change over time. Let them know you're going to make mistakes. Let them know that you're going to listen to their feedback. And don't promise anything, and I mean ANYTHING, that you aren't going to deliver. That's just bad expectation management. 


Your strategy has to be attuned to your audience. What works for the "sales" department doesn't work with the "production team," for example. What works for users that like one style of "play," whether it's customization or competitiveness... doesn't necessarily work for another. Remember who you're trying to entertain.

Incentives and rewards have to mesh with the company culture. This is as custom as your company. You'll have to figure this out. Do the "little guys" get verbally rewarded? Do the "head honchos" get called out at meetings? Do the sales leaders get cash bonuses? Is your company committed to social change? Do your employees get comp time for doing community service? Whatever the culture is... reward people against that as a measuring stick.

Most importantly, only stick to positive affirmations of what you want. "We expect 75% completion of TPS Reports per day," for example, rather than "You will fail if you don't exceed 74% completion of TPS Reports per day." It's a mindset shift and your company needs to do it. Immediately.


Your strategy must focus on end user objectives -- the desired behavior - and align with business processes. If your users aren't doing what you need them to do... it's time to get real with your objectives. Do you really know what you need them to do? Why are they doing something other than what you've created? Time to assess and adapt. See above commitments.


Gamification provides a method to measure adoption and engagement. Avoidance of the gamification systems is be a clear signal that something is not working. If your metrics are showing that people are not motivated, it may be time to modify your gamification strategy. 

Gamification is more like building and performing live maintenance on an MMO or a social game than any game you'd release in a fire and forget scenario.

Each of these above reasons are why you have to commit to be fully successful. 

Rate your organization against this as an X out of 10 scale. Think about whether you can get a higher score. Every company does NOT need to get 10/10 to be successful; these are merely guidelines. 

What is your company doing? What is your score? Why isn't it higher? What did I forget? 

Your comments are welcomed below.

Moving all my Defender Posts to a new blog... Defendering!

Please enjoy their new location, where it's all Defender... all the time!

Monday, January 6, 2014

My resignation email at Origin Systems June 19, 1998

A few months ago, I found my old .PST file from Origin. Here's a little sample of what I found! I had posted this as a Facebook note a while back, but wanted to share it here as well.


From: Cain, BillySent: Friday, June 19, 1998 3:54 PMTo: ML EVERYONE @ OSI; ML EAWORLD @ OSI, PO01; ML EVERYONE @ BALTIMORECc: 'Email - - my home address'

Subject: SPAM: Giving Notice

This is not easy (to say the least.)

I've turned in my resignation, effective today. Quite simply, I've been offered a position that I couldn't refuse, and I'm looking forward to it with mixed emotions (scared, reflective, happy, amazed, you get the drift). Origin has been my home away from home for over five and a half years. Wow.

(Please excuse the bad grammar and changes in tense.)

I was one of the first employees when EA bought us, and since I had been trying to get a job here for over a year, I knew exactly what I was getting into. I knew that Strike Commander was going to take a lot longer than EA expected, and I knew that crunch mode was going to be a mantra for years to come. I didn't care. I wanted to be part of a fantastic organization that allowed people to follow their dreams. I wanted to be surrounded by the smartest people I had ever met, creating games and universes that lived and breathed on their own. I got the job thanks to Mike Sims and a need on the Super Nintendo team run by Alan Gardner. We were known as Origin Siberia, since the 'real' teams were in another building, working on PC products. I spent enough time in the second building to know that we weren't well respected. But that was okay, because I knew that (eventually) things would come around.

Time passed quickly, and after a while, the Wild Basin home (and tons of Green Guns matches after hours) became too small, and we moved over to north 183. The Rockbusters (thanks Dicko!) made a lock-in at the new building feel like a new home. We shipped our SNES games, and even finalled one that never shipped. 

Around this time, I had been trying to make an impression on anyone, so I could 'get my chance.' An EA exec that had been in the office a few times promised me a jacket if I came to his office. I was sent out to San Mateo for a focus group on a game we were working on, and I 'ran into' Rich Hilleman (the aforementioned exec) in his office. After a while I asked about the jacket, and discovered that they had to be ordered in advance. So much for the jacket. But I left a pebble of an idea in San Mateo: Give me a chance.

Time passed, and one day Rich gave me a call: "Can you pack for England by Friday?" Apparently EA Sports Rugby '95 was a crucial product for the UK office, and they needed an Associate Producer (that understood "carts" - now called "consoles") to handle details and help get the game done by Christmas. I took the chance. I met the team and after 3 months of curry, bad Tasty Bite breakfasts, and showing the team how an ice maker worked, we managed to get the game done in time for duplication for Christmas. But I had to return to Austin.

Upon coming back, I got a position working with Eric Hyman as an Associate Producer. I worked with Paul Steed on Cyclone Alley and then with Paul Isaac on Prowler. Neither projects managed to ship, but I learned a lot about helping people and how much I needed to learn about calming down.

Eric's group was eventually dissolved and Joye and I (we were both APs in the group) tried to find places for everyone. Some were good fits, some weren't. Some left, and some stayed. It was really painful. I managed to stay faithful, hoping to be able to make a contribution. Then Abuse came across my desk, and Mike Grajeda asked if I'd help make it multiplayer with the guys from Crack dot Com. This got me back on my feet believing I could make a difference again.

Soon after that, Rich (again) was trying to help wrangle the Maverick team after Chris decided to leave. My ragtag group of PlayStation(esque) people were brought over to the Maverick team to help with Wing Commander 5 (the Code Name at the time). December came again, and with it came a big budget cut from EA. Time to cut back on the team. By this time, Rod Nakamoto had come on board and we had to make some really tough decisions to help keep Maverick afloat. The Playstation version had to be cut. Another very painful, emotional time for our group, but those of us who were left managed to pull through and get an idea to run with.

Then Phil W. (the real lead designer on Wing Prophecy) decided to leave, so I could 'just finish up.' Yeah right. Over a year on crunch and a lot of takeout meals later, Prophecy shipped, and I really have to say that I am proud of the work done on it. The team (you know who you are - Maverick, Loose Cannon, QA, Customer Service, Creative Services, and on and on) did a fantastic job, under UNBELIEVABLE conditions to get it done and out by Christmas.

After a while of vacation, Rod, Frank and Neil all offered me a job as Project Director on a new title. The team (Andy, Rob, and Will) were tasked with creating a world based around Barbarians (insert subtle nod to Frank Roan here), and they took to it with fervor. Frank suggested we use Golden Axe as a game mechanic, and we all agreed. Even to the point that there's a machine in my office right now (for reference).

That about brings us up to the present. Eric Hyman has been working at Kinesoft, reassembling a team (his empire) in Chicago, and just opened an office in Austin with a great group of people that I'm pretty familiar with (and some others that I don't know much *yet*). Eric asked me over to the office to meet everyone and I have to say that there are a lot of good people that really seem to want to do a great job. Eric says I'm just supposed to help them find a direction and get to the finish line. I think I can do that. 

Hopefully I will be able to help them realize their dreams and if I get my way, it'll be a place where they want to be and stay.

Well that about sums it up. Here's to your continued success.

My closing thought for Origin - both exec and front line workers: You have a great group of fantastic people that all desperately want to do a great job. The only thing that stops them is the systems that we (yes myself included) have put in place. Find ways around those systems, and help your people succeed as much as they want to. Try to remove the barriers and let the creativity run loose. You'll find that there is more energy in this building than you ever realized possible. I tried to do this, and I know many of you are doing it as well. This will be the answer to many of your problems in the future. 

Oh yeah, I've got one more comment I couldn't pass up: "It's all about people."

In case anyone is wondering, I believe in what EA and Origin are doing, but I must go my own ways for my own reasons. I wish all of you the best of luck, but you don't need it nearly as bad as some of you think.

Thanks go out to everyone I've met in EA World, including but certainly not limited to:

Mo Channon - for being the BEST!
John Guentzel - for all the rides, and listening to my morning babble.
Rob Irving - for proving that you can indeed manage your overdesign.
J. Allen Brack - for keeping a list of what you need to do better within sight.
Frank Roan - for setting up great systems and taking me running.
Rod Nakamoto - for leaving us alone.
Mike Grajeda - for giving me the chance with Abuse.
Rich Hilleman - for believing in a loud-mouthed punk.
Kevin Buckner - for being the best all around producer I've ever worked for.
Hugh David - for saying we'd work together again and meaning it.
Jon Law - for those damn grey stones in Rugby!
Chris Roberts - for creating Wing and giving me a world to help build.
Richard Garriott - for creating a culture that inspires and endures.
Jeff Hillhouse - for what you did to Alan Gardner at my house in the kitchen.
Alan Garnder - for giving me the chance in the first place, and hopefully forgiving me.
Eric Hyman - for letting me head to England before swapping to your group.
Andy Sommers - for being willing to listen about design meeting programming.
Pete Shelus - for being the Angry Scotsman.
Cindy Wallingford - for taking the pictures!
Jason Hughes - for knowing when to cheat.
Mark Vearrier - for not killing me like I'm sure you wanted to.
Adam Foshko - for letting me run around like a crazy person.
Jules Burt - for "Dueling Banjos."
Robert Garriott - for getting your conversational train thrown off course over lunch.
Ben Potter - for "SHOES!"
Grant McDaniel - for all the trips to Wal*Mart.
Bing Gordon - for Redneck Rampage tips during Prophecy brainstorm sessions.
Pat Becker - for constructive "feedback."
Paula Singleton - for being a 'proper' vegetarian.
Rhea Shelley - for being Mr. Liner notes.
The Ultimate Frisbee guys - for picking a better field.
Kent Raffray - for really believing that you're not like Elvis, even a little.
Nathan Daugherty - for loving Ronald Reagan.
David Downing - for taking big chances, since those are the ones that matter.
John McLean - for billing it to Frank.
Keith McCurdy - for letting me bill it to your room.
Starr Long - for keeping the bass fisher alive.
Joye McBurnett - for listening when it really mattered.
Cathy Cantieri - for the boogie nights.
Craig Miller - for Mr. Owl.
Trey Hermann - for being another cog.
Jennifer Davis - for telling it like it is at lunch in a chinese rood restaurant.
Greg Barwis - for being number one with ALL the hardware.
Kenny Hott - for just being the Hottman. 24!
Al Carnley - for letting us sing for your wife in Padre.
Meg Curtis - for getting us quarters for laundry.
Mark Day - for having the balls to oppose people - literally!
Mark Baird - for being the fastest sketchman in the world.
Eric Lux - for being a believer in getting me into the Eidos party.
Rupert Easterbrook - for taking me out like a pro.
David Ladyman - for telling me 'it will be fun.'
Dave Beyer - for being honest. Always.
Danny Garrett - for telling Dewey 'Hi!'
Jim Franklin - for continuing to take your meds.
Micael Priest - for swapping palettes in DPaint.
Richard Mather - for being Dicko.
Sam Laskowski - for being an ant.
Eric Lund - for being a singing bandit.
Paul Isaac - for passing me up on my Strike Commander interview.
Leland Madren - for bringing the beer for the long nights at E3.
Jay Mahavier - for all the printed notes on the walls.
Dean McCall - for bequeathing the Falcon and the guitar.
Brian McLean - for letting me know I'm a Jedi Bastard.
Ric Neil - for being a bastard.
Stan McKee - for not stopping the arm wrestling match.
Flora Lee - for never complaining about my stock option info requests.
Steve Pietzsch - for talking about work.
Chris Primozich - for staying in touch.
Paul Tidwell - for the stormtrooper.
Phil Wattenbarger - for the California trip and leaving me holding the ball.
Chuck Zoch - for being Chucky Z and kicking ass!

And there are SO, SO, SO many more of you that I simply cannot thank enough for making my stay here memorable and so great. Please forgive me if I didn't say thanks on this list. I have so many great memories... they'll last a lifetime.

With that... I'll see you all later!

PS Tonight, there is an impromptu gathering at Copper Tank. Come if you wish!

PPS On August, I will be having a birthday party at my house. Email me at home for directions.

PPPS Please send me your physical addresses and home email addresses so I can have them. Jacque and I have gotten married and we need to send you all invitations to the reception sometime in the Fall or Spring.

PPPPS If you want to go 'over the top' push a business card under my door so I'll have a remembrance of everyone here at Origin! :)

Billy Joe Cain started his game industry career at Origin Systems in 1992, and has participated in the creation of over 200 hit games for home game systems, mobile platforms, and PC / Mac, and has launched three game development studios in Austin, Texas. He believes that games are going to save the world through improving brain plasticity in adolescents as well as making education fun. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Vinyl is making a resurgence with a younger generation. That's awesome.

That makes me feel good.

Connecting with an artist can be very personal when you sit with their entire musical vision and take it as a whole audio/visual experience.

Albums can be spectacular. Get ones with great cover art that interests and intrigues you, that hopefully includes a lyric sheet and do the full immersion with comfortable, full dynamic range headphones and a lot of alone time to hear every pop and nuance while you examine the art and read the lyrics. The holistic experience when it is all put together is sublime.

I truly recommend headphones for the first listen, because you get the total separation of channels that was carefully crafted to the artist's desires, and because it takes the other aural "noise" and distractions away from your immersion.

It is a fact that it takes 15 minutes to get into "flow" while you work. It is my contention that albums can take you into that state, allowing you to slip into the music completely. Removing all other input helps you get there.

It can reach the point where as you hear the needle caress the album on its initial drop that it is an almost hypnotic welcoming into the warmth of a cozy blanket.

When you can, try experiencing the music in a dark or darkened room. For me, it can change everything.
Let me know what you think in the comments section, below!

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