Game Design Case Study: Kaos War

At first I was going to subtitle this post “Follow your game-making dreams like a crack-crazed, howling, insensate lemming plunging from the peaks of Mt. Everest into the fiery pits of Hell itself.” So… should you?

What am I talking about? I’m talking about big talkers and bootstrappers in videogames. And I’m talking about how to build your dream game.

I’m specifically preaching about Kaos War, an old virtual team videogame project that had some dude in San Francisco – name of Damon Grow – betting the farm and bankrupting not only his wallet but also all of his personal relationship capital. I’m talking about an MMORPG dream that either Jesus or Satan engraved into this dude’s brain with a icy scalpel. posted a series of video minidocumentaries by Wendy Chan that are unfortunately no longer online (I checked Youtube as well). There are nine of them, all revealing and painful. I regret you can’t see them, because they are full of lessons. And lesions.

It’s old news, but I think you can still profit from some of Grow’s mistakes and successes. And stick around… later I’ll post an update on Kaos War and Grow so you can see what ended up happening in this drama.

If you don’t already know, a virtual team is an international group of dreamers who group together – often never having met in real life – and communicate via the internet to cooperate on a project. Of course, especially when they’re building a game, this fails pretty frequently. In Damon’s case, I have to give him props. He seems to have picked people who are dedicated and have some experience. The video clips gloss over that fact a bit. That’s one of the big keys to success, and Damon seems to know how to pick ’em and hook ’em.

In the documentary, they made a big deal out of the fact that he has no experience. Frankly, the suits don’t need to get their hands dirty, and in the world of Kaos War, Damon’s definitely a suit, and probably best doing suit things. Damon seems to have some of the necessary elements to become a gaming executive, truth to tell. He’s obsessed. He loves to talk. He believes 100% in his game. He inspires people and gets their juices flowing. He sacrifices. He’s abusing drugs (okay, caffeine and energy drinks). He’s insane. He makes bad decisions and has skewed priorities. If you can find the video, check it out. Let me know what you think.

p.s. Nice work, Wendy.

Damon’s did a lot RIGHT with Kaos War. He worked hard. He motivated people just by his presence and his words. He recruited talented people from around the world – people he’d never even met.

This guy has charisma, and he was getting stuff done.

For Chrissake, the guy actually managed to get real funding from a game company. He deposited a check. I’ve never deposited a check except as an employee. Many, many pros in the industry have never gotten Funding with a capital F. This boy is delivering.

But what’s he doing wrong, in hopes that someday, someway someone like Damon can follow in his footsteps but do it just a tad better, causing a degree or two less human suffering? What was Damon doing wrong? What not do to when starting your project?

5. Bitch about cosmetics to the guy who just paid your rent.

In one episode, Damon and his forgiving roomie Brian go over to the warehouse district to look at a possible development location. It’s a skunky warehouse and the place is doubtlessly riddled with crime. Surprise – it’s cheap real estate in San Francisco.

Damon immediately carps on the lack of paint and the fact that “it has birds*** all over it.”

Damon, your project has no funding and your team is eating ramen and sleeping in your bathtub. Embrace the birds***.

In fact, you’re not to the birds*** stage yet. You aspire to birds***. I admit that maybe you could skip this stage entirely if you get funded. But you’re not. Why’re you even shopping? Later, Damon and the boys go over to the Boardwalk of SF real estate, Lucas’ digs in the Presidio. Someone mentions that he could hire (and pay!) a programmer a year’s salary with the rent. Hmm. I wonder which one will win in a pinch? Employee salary or fancy-pants suite next to Lucasarts? Hopefully Damon will get this one right.

4. Assume that human suffering is a substitute for excellence.

Damon tells us that one of his teammembers has been homeless for two weeks. We’ve sacrificed so much! he avers.

I’m sorry, Damon. This is wrong in two ways. First, you’re kind of using this guy’s horrible situation to further your project, and in a way, YOU made it happen because he’s spending energy on your game instead of on finding a decent crackhouse to sleep in. This is a bad example for the troops. If you don’t mind bragging that a guy went homeless to work on the game, maybe you won’t mind bragging about having the whole art department on the street.

And second, there are a lot of homeless guys in the world who suffer every day. How many hit MMORPGs have they made?

3. Tell your team to shoot for Goliath.

Taking on World of Warcraft, geez, Damon. What kind of expectations are you trying to set? “Plan B” might be good to have. Good leaders prepare for all cases. Good leaders pick achievable goals that won’t crush the troops if they aren’t met.

A real MMORPG team is 30+ professionals working fulltime… and building ungodly amounts of art, script, story, characters, monsters, and code. These guys have done it before. They have all the tools and training. They can concentrate on their jobs without having to worry about spaghetti supplies or being pushed off the futon at 3 am by the kid they’re sharing it with. These are significant advantages.

Dreamers keep the gaming industry alive. But practical dreamers achieve their goals and start out with baby steps.

2. Shop for your Blofeld-style mountaintop headquarters.

It’s rough to see these game newbies picking their game dev “mansion” when the guy has no money and his rent is due. What the hell? Seriously, who’s supplying these boys with nose candy and uppers?

This is the equivalent of a high school baseball player shopping for bling at Shaq’s favorite jewelry store in Beverly Hills. Helloooooooooo in there! Earth to Skyler!

1. Force your CTO to pull up roots for a pitch meeting – or quit the project.

Lead programmers are gold. They make everything happen, and the whole game is built on their tech design. If your CTO is in Europe and living with his folks, you respect that and let the poor SOB telecommute.

It’s nice to have warm bodies in the boardroom with you when you meet with the publisher, but warm bodies can be hired at the local Walmart. Sure, you want the CTO there to talk tech with the brain trust, but if your publisher doesn’t have the ability to call a guy in Europe you don’t want them.

You don’t force your #1 guy to choose between leaving the country and leaving the project. Most of the time he’ll choose the latter.

Seriously, kids. I urge you. Be realistic. Do some research. Stay focused.

Well, I wanted to respond to Mike’s post from March 6th with some new angles. Hopefully you folks will find it interesting to see two designers honing and whacking on an idea a little – and hopefully Mike won’t mind. ;)

On the 6th, Mike brainstormed up a bold new idea that pivots on something very common yet also very evocative – the thumbtack. He proposed that the game involve a mystery that the player solves by arranging photos on a corkboard using the thumbtacks.

Here’s my feedback:

I like this idea – as well as the concept of building different game pitches here for people to ruminate on.

I do have some suggestions – I fear that the game as described in the main post would be technically challenging (for a developer, due to its nearly unlimited permutations) and could be hard for some gamers to get invested in (because the medium of a corkboard and flashbacks doesn’t give the game much room for interactivity and narrative).

Maybe we could make it a murder investigation where thumbtacks and pushpins are also used to plot travel paths or mark murder locations. These additional uses would introduce more scarcity and require the player to strategize their use. Each pin’s color or material (plastic, metal) could have different properties or affinities.

And for narrative/interactivity, the player could travel around the world and take photos and ask characters about the images shown in them, or combine photos of different suspects to trigger more focused flashbacks.

To explain the scarcity of such an inexpensive item as a tack or pin, we’d have to make the player’s tacks special. Perhaps she’s a psychic and can only use these tacks because they’re not her memories that she’s unlocking – they’re the victim’s, and the player/psychic found them drenched in the victim’s blood at the crime scene. Under duress, the player could even use the tacks to write notes in a desk, punch Braille messages to a blind friend, or let her own blood to trigger memories or distract a vicious dog.

Dang, I didn’t know I’d get so carried away. Thumbtacks! Who would’ve guessed. Fresh ideas come in all shapes and sizes, and they can be powerful.





Quick Notes on the New Star Wars Movies

The New Heroes

I thought Force Awakens was merely serviceable as a movie, a huge chunk of fan service and a merry-go-round of “hey remember Star Wars?” but not a lot of new life. And honestly, that means it was a massive failure.

It was the vanguard of the new guard, the movie that was supposed to introduce us to new heroes that we’d love as much as the old ones. Instead, we got Rey (generic gee-whiz do-gooder with a hardscrabble past who can somehow fight and fly better than all the others), Poe (generic impulsive anti-hero type), and Finn (indecisive cipher). To be fair, Awakens was more of an ensemble romp, more like Avengers than Star Wars, but none of these characters are given full living breath in Episode VII; they all feel like stand-ins for real heroes, or Saturday morning cartoon characters.

Finn is the most glaring screenwriting problem. For once, we have a character who’s been inside the machine, who’s served as a stormtrooper, and yet he’s as bland as porridge. He was sold at a young age to be trained by the First Order as a killing machine, for crying out loud! And then he got reassigned to sanitation, apparently. Do we get to peek inside his head? Aren’t the rebels going to treat him with a little suspicion, deprogram him, debrief him, pump him for secrets, test him, find out what his true motivations are? Do we find out what it’s like to be a ninja who’s been bumped down to trash detail? Does he think about his family or his friends back in the Empire? Does he undergo a journey of self-doubt and self-discovery (Rey) or discover the meaning of sacrifice and leadership (Poe)? Nope, nope, nope. If anything, he’s the counter-example to Poe’s learning as he tries to sacrifice himself futilely against that space cannon thing.

In the real world, we have examples of kids like this, who were abandoned by family and trained to be child soldiers. People like this are usually scarred, hard, fragile, difficult, unpredictable, and inherently compelling. But Finn does not behave like a Sudanese child soldier. He behaves like a suburban dork.

I think Force Awakens is a good case study on what does and doesn’t make a hero. Star Wars shows Luke Skywalker suffering great tragedy and then struggling to understand himself and his tremendously dangerous challenges, building a framework for action and self-sacrifice. Force Awakens shows a group of stock videogame characters running from objective to objective, completing quests to get to their next level-up. It feels cheap.

Cinematic Tension

Last Jedi, however, does a better job of capturing that Star Wars panache, in my opinion. While watching it, I remember saying, “Finally, a Star Wars movie that brings it back to these loaded, fraught, incredibly tense face-offs between powerful and determined heroes and villains.” Chiefly, the emotional psychic connection scenes with Rey and Kylo; the Kylo-Luke confrontation; and of course that brilliant faceoff between Rey, Kylo, and Snoke in the throne room. Jedi also does something that none of the prequels ever did: it gave real immediate stakes to a character’s moral choice. Game of Thrones isn’t a brilliant show because of the bloody battles; it’s a great show because of the memorable tensions between great and unpredictable characters.

The Star Wars prequels are boring because there are no mysteries or surprises. Kylo is definitely one of the more interesting elements in the new Star Wars.

For me, Jedi also performed the miracle of redeeming Rey as a character. She was bland and uninteresting to me in Awakens but in Jedi she developed passion, self-doubt, and purpose.

Killing Off Heroes

I agree that Jedi wrote Skywalker out in a weak and anti-climactic fashion. Honestly, the magnitude of Luke’s Force achievement– broadcasting his convincing self across the galaxy, blah blah blah– was never convincingly shown in a cinematic way. To the average moviegoer, Luke could’ve just jumped in an x-wing and flown over in five minutes… and Disney would’ve been better served to shoot that and let Luke die epically in the flesh.

I also take issue with the way in which the creators have chosen to close the chapters of the three primary heroes of the original movies. For a franchise as mythological and metaphysical as Star Wars, does closure on a character arc have to be a death? I think that’s short-sighted. Look at all the great movie endings through history. Many end with deaths, but just as many end with small victories or new journeys. (And of course that’s also what I hope happens to Princess Leia.)

Bad Technology

I was deeply annoyed at Holdo’s sacrifice, not because of any complaints about the character, but because of the holes it punches in the rules of space combat that Star Wars has always upheld. If lightspeed is really the ultimate weapon, why aren’t the x-wings firing off little miniaturized lightspeed missiles instead of stupid lasers? Is it because a lightspeed drive is too big and expensive to put in a missile? Cellphones used to be too big and expensive to put in your pants, too.

Those Other Tiresome Dustups

As for the fuss over Holdo, here’s a great article that puts Jedi‘s leadership lessons into laser focus. If you missed the Poe leadership thread in this movie, shame on you.

And here’s another great article about the much-ballyhooed Canto Blight casino scenes in Jedi and what they brought to the franchise. Say what you like about the inclusivity, which I think expands the Star Wars universe rather than tainting it, but you have to admit that Blight itself represents a whole new facet to the universe.