Timberman, a mobile game

There’s little downside to downloading Timberman. It’s free and take under 30 seconds to figure out what’s going on. If nothing else, it’ll teach you a little more about mobile games.

I totally unlocked Mr. Tree.

I totally unlocked Mr. Tree.

I want to talk about Timberman because it’s an incredibly simple game. Tap the left or right side of the screen to chop the tree and avoid branches. Get as far as possible while the time pressure increases. That’s it. Within the first few seconds the player has experienced the entirety of the gameplay.

This is the whole game.

This is the whole game.

I’m jealous of Timberman, because it’s the kind of game I’ve been wanting to make for years. It’s a tight polished package with a very small scope. I would love to be making a game like this every month. With that model, the goal is to rapidly deliver small games with decent quality, then see what sticks. Hopefully this cycle provides quick learnings that can be applied to the next game. A rapid feedback loop is incredibly difficult to find in the game industry, but it’s exactly what I’m looking for to improve as a game designer.

Now I imagine myself having released Timberman, and it seems to have stuck. So what now? I think the next goal is to up it from the Flappy Bird level of complexity to something more like Jetpack Joyride or Ridiculous Fishing. (Two games I love.) Even then, I think Timberman wants to remain an incredibly simple open-and-go game. I think that’s a key part of what makes Timberman work, so I wouldn’t want to lose that.

There are a lot of things I could talk about to improve this game, but I’m going to focus on one aspect: how losing feels. Right now, it feels bad. Usually the player hits a branch after making some dumb mistake, then it immediately and unceremoniously brings up the “Game Over” screen, with their best score and current score.

That's my high score. 500 even.

That’s my own high score.

Here are a few ideas on how to improve the Game Over moment.

Add a sense of progress. Make the player feel like every game moved them forward. There’s already a count of the total wood chopped that can unlock characters. At a minimum, that total could be shown on the the Game Over screen, along with how much the player just added to that total. Maybe this is a bar that represents the distance to the next content unlock, though that system would need to change to support this. The League of Legends end screen does this well.

LoL End

 

Make a big deal of a new high score. I’m surprised at how unceremonious this is. It should be, like, crazy sparkly with all kinds of fireworks. This animation should actually stop the player from hitting the play again button for a few seconds. The high score number could animate up from the old score to the new score, to emphasize how much progress was made. This is also a good time to add a sparkle to that share button.

Make a big deal out of new content unlocks. There’s not a lot of content in the game to unlock, but there are a few cool skins. As-is, the player unlocks new skins, but they’re not really called out. Similar to the new high score animation, new content should be messaged on the Game Over screen, with an animation that stops the player from hitting play immediately.

Take a breath. Right now, it jumps RIGHT NOW to the Game Over screen as soon as the player hits a branch. The animations I talked about above would help, but I think adding just one second of animation to the character death could go a long way. That said, it’s still important to make sure this game remains a quick and easy experience. I wouldn’t want to put too much time in between a game ending and the next game starting, but I think there’s room for a little.

Give the player a sense of their place in the world. I hesitate to suggest backend work when I’m not sure what Timberman has access to through the app store, but here we go. I think a leaderboard type stat would be great on this screen. I wouldn’t say “#12345 out of 99999!” More like “Top 20%!” Or “Better than # of your friends!” This can be done for both the total number, and the best number. Heck, even a daily standing could go a long way. There are a lot of options here, and they don’t all need to be done, but I think one would go a long way.

Shop

So there you go. It’ll be interesting to see if Timberman ever expands. Even at its current small size, it still has design lessons to teach.

Thanks for reading,

-Jon

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Monument Valley, a mobile game

If you’ve got an hour and $2 to spare, you should play Monument Valley from Ustow.

Monument Valley

It’s a puzzle game, but I didn’t find it particularly hard. The small scope of the game keeps you focused, so it’s easy to know where you should be looking for answers to the puzzles. This is a pleasing, low-stress experience with a focus on rewarding discovery, instead of difficulty. This isn’t a puzzle game where content can be created infinitely. It’s clear that each level was carefully hand-crafted, and you can get through all the content in a satisfying hour or two.

What most fascinated me as a designer was how well the game pulled you through its mechanics with barely a word of explanation. It’s really important to communicate to players which parts of the game can be interacted with, especially in a puzzle game, and especially on a touch screen. Monument Valley is a great example of clarity and simplicity in UI.

Monument Valley has a satisfying amount of story. Just enough to pique curiosity, but not enough to get in the way. It’s a good example of story more as a way to set the tone than to actually convey a plot. Story in games is one of my personal weaknesses, so I appreciated the lesson.

I also want to call attention to the awesome level-select screen that is superbly introduced. After beating the first level, you’re transitioned to a screen with a floating four-sided building in the middle. You’re staring at one of the sides with a gray roman numeral “X” symbol on it. Then the building starts to rotate, and you see a side with “IX”. Then “VIII,” and “VII.” It’s counting down in roman numerals. Then, as you think it’s going to rotate back to the “X” side, instead it’s a “VI.” This continues until it hits “I”, which starts to colorfully animate. Then it rotates back to “II”, which appears to activate.

This moment is awesome for a few reasons. Most importantly, it wordlessly emphasizes the primary mechanic of the game: impossible geometry. It also gives the player a sense of scope and location in the game – there are ten levels, you just completed level one, and now you’re on level two. Lastly, it teaches the player how to navigate the level selection screen by showing rotation in one direction, then in the other. This also subtly reinforces one of the major ways the player interacts with the game – rotating objects in 3D space.

It’s so great to see this level of care and subtle design applied to the level select screen. It’s such an easy screen to “level one” design and just stick in a grid of levels with padlock symbols on the locked ones. Granted, sometimes the typical level-select screen is the way to go. It’s typical for a reason – it’s cheap, and sometimes resources are better spent elsewhere. In the case of Monument Valley, taking the title screen to the next level really reinforces the goals and messaging of the game. This game is meant to be artistic, and it was made with care.

Overall, I love when a game know its scope so perfectly. This isn’t a puzzle game like Cut the Rope that can pump out forgettable content. (Don’t get me wrong, I like Cut the Rope.) They made ten levels, and they made them beautifully. They picked their mechanics, integrated them into the experience seamlessly, and didn’t stretch them too thin. The story serves the tone of the game instead of its own ends. Monument Valley just wants an hour or two and a few dollars in exchange for an artful experience, and it’s clear that the game was crafted with that goal in mind.

Design Thoughts – Introduction

One of my favorite things about being a game designer is that I feel like every creative experience I have makes me a better designer. Every piece of entertainment I consume contributes to my creative knowledge base, be it a game, movie, tv show, book, podcast, stand up comedian, music video, whatever. I love learning new things from all kinds of mediums. Heck, even mundane activities, like going to the dentist, can teach you things about entertainment if you’re looking hard enough, but creative pursuits tend to be more interesting.

I’ve also found that I absorb lessons better if I’m looking at something through that lens. If I’m thinking about learning while I’m consuming, I tend to learn more. Knowing this, I’m going to try writing the things I’ve learned down, here, on this blog. When I consume something new, especially a new game, I’m going to try to write about what I learned, even if it’s small.

It’s not my goal to completely dissect what I’m talking about. If I’m talking about a game, I’m not going to rate gameplay, sound, graphics, controls, multiplayer, blah blah blah. My goal is to stay brief, and just talk about the bits I found most interesting.

I hate making a big deal about starting something new when I don’t know if it’s actually going to stick, but here we are. Time to go write the first post.

Leaving the Dream

This is the story of why I left Wizards of the Coast.

My name is Jonathon Loucks, and I was a digital designer in Wizards R&D. I sat in the pit, right next to Shawn Main. I worked on Magic Online and Duels of the Planeswalkers, was on a few FFL playtesting teams, was on a few design teams, worked with the technology team and the business team, and worked on stuff I can’t talk about. When you’re in R&D, you end up doing way more than just your job.

If you’re looking for me to trash talk Wizards or any of its employees, that’s not what this is. This isn’t a story about Wizards being a “bad company.” This is a personal story, about me. It’s about how and why I started working at Wizards of the Coast. It’s about what it was like to finally work in my dream job. It’s about why I wasn’t happy.

This is the story of why I left Wizards of the Coast.

How I Became a Wizard

In the summer of 2002, fresh out of 8th grade, I bought an Odyssey tournament pack, my first Magic product. Later that year I started playing in tournaments at the local card store, right after Onslaught came out. In my sophomore year we moved, but I still drove 2 hours on Fridays to draft at that store.

Playing tournament Magic was a big part of me coming out of my awkward shy shell. It gave me confidence and helped me find friends that I really connected with. So did getting a girlfriend my junior year of high school – more on that later.

In my senior year of high school, The Great Designer Search began. I had been reading Mark Rosewater’s articles, and I started to seriously think about game design as a career path. I didn’t win, failing out in the multiple choice section, which wasn’t a big surprise. I continued to think of game design as my dream job, but I figured the chances of me actually doing it were slim. I focused on math and science and all that stuff I thought I was supposed to do, all while continuing to play Magic.

I went to the University of Washington for college. I was somewhat familiar with Seattle because I had family there, and it was the closest place to PTQ from Missoula Montana. I knew Wizards was in the area, though I still didn’t quite consider that a realistic option.

During orientation I just happened to hear about a class being taught by Richard Garfield and Skaff Elias on game design, and I managed to get in. Boy am I glad that worked out – there was some luck involved. Skaff liked me and hooked me up with his friend Tyler Bielman, a Wizards alumni, who was looking for an intern for his TCG, Xeko. Thanks to my understanding of TCGs through Magic, I got the job.

The rest is history. That job, and Tyler, taught me a lot about game design and broke me into the industry. The job gave me a sense of purpose and direction, helping me correct my failing trajectory in college and graduate with a degree in economics. I finally knew that game design was what I wanted to do, and I could actually do it.

Flash forward to 2013, I was working at Amazon.com as a game designer, and I was living with that same girlfriend from high school. I had failed a few times to get into Wizards, most notably with The Great Designer Search 2, but I really liked my current job. I was working closely with programmers on mobile game prototypes. Prototypes of games I designed myself. I felt like I had finally made it as a game designer. Until then, my connection to the game industry had felt like it was hanging from a tenuous thread. For the first time I was feeling secure in my career.

I was also very much connected to the Magic community. I was a part of the Limited Resources podcast, which gave me a lot of joy and sense of purpose. I wasn’t playing Magic as much as I used to, but I was still playing. I really enjoyed streaming, and it felt like a way to just hang out with my friends. Nearly all of my friends were Magic players.

Enter Ryan Spain, the original cohost of Limited Resources and current Wizards employee. He told me that there was a position opening up on the Magic Online design team, and he thought I’d be perfect for it. I had come to enjoy digital game design more than the paper stuff, so the job sounded like the perfect way for me to work on Magic. I met with Ken Troop, digital R&D lead, who said I was a little more junior than he was looking for in that position, but that he had a lot of faith in me. I passed the interview and was given an offer.

At this point, I had a tough choice to make, but I think I always sort of knew I would take the Wizards job if I had the chance. I had to. It had been a dream for so long. But I liked my current job, a lot, so I asked my friends and connections for advice. They all agreed that it was a tough choice, one only I could make, though they usually cautioned me about Wizards being a potentially difficult environment. Many of these contacts hadn’t worked at Wizards for several years, so they weren’t sure what it was like these days.

I Signed the Contract

I knew it wasn’t going to be entirely smooth sailing, but I took the Wizards job. A big part of my acceptance was that I really wanted to make Magic Online the best that it can be. I wanted to give the Magic community the Magic Online that we’ve always wanted. This fire burned inside of me hotter than any Magic tournament fire. Game design had become my passion, and I wanted to turn my sights on the product that I cared the most about.

What I didn’t quite expect was how big of a life shift this was going to be. I had to stop playing tournament Magic, an activity that used to be a real drive for me. This also meant that I lost my primary connection to a lot of my friends. I had to stop doing Limited Resources, losing a tight connection to one of my best friends, Marshall Sutcliffe. We had become really close over the show, and our final show together was emotional. (Don’t worry, we’re still good friends.) I also lost my connection with the Magic community, especially given Wizards’ tight restrictions on social media – I couldn’t even stream myself playing other games. On top of all that, I left Seattle and moved to Renton.

This was a lot of change.

Then, after my second day at work, my girlfriend of 8 years broke up with me.

That was not an expected change. Things hadn’t been great between us for the last few months, but I never actually thought the relationship could end. Her leaving college was a transition that put new strains on our relationship, but we had survived all the other big transitions before. I assumed things would work out, because they always had. This time, they didn’t.

I was devastated, and it made the transition into Wizards incredibly strange. People kept congratulating me on the new job, gushing about how jealous they are, and saying how happy I must be that I finally got my dream job. I could only fake a smile and say “yeah, it’s great.” I couldn’t imagine being happy.

In that moment, I felt like all I had left was the job. It felt like everything else was gone. Wizards was it.

Working Through It

It was easy to pour everything I had into my job. I hated being at home, which was a painfully empty place. I worked a lot of late nights. I knew that I couldn’t fix my relationship, so I thought I could at least fix Magic Online. I felt like I owed this to the community, and I felt a great deal of pressure to deliver. Magic Online became some sort of weird metaphor that I still don’t completely understand.

I was clearly depressed. It had been building up for a few months, but the breakup and the shift to Wizards brought it out in full force. I lost thirty pounds in only a few months because I just wasn’t eating. The things I used to enjoy suddenly felt numb. Whenever I tried to play a game, I’d be bored within twenty minutes.

I wasn’t a great employee during this time. Sure, I was working hard, and I was told that my work itself was very good. However, being a good teammate is more than the quality of your work – you’ve also got to be able to work with people. I felt so out of control in life, I hated it when something stood in my way at work. I tended to take setbacks personally.

And there were setbacks. Wizards is a fairly big company with a lot of inertia. This helps Wizards ship high-quality card sets at pace that no other company can match, and always on time. Unfortunately, it also makes change difficult. Features that I cared a lot about weren’t gaining traction, and process improvements could take months.

My primary job was to create the “set spec,” a document I’ve written about it in my articles on dailymtg.com. This is the handoff document that R&D gives to the cardset programmers with each set. It’s meant to include all the information the programmers need to code the set.

A big part of what I liked at Amazon was working closely with the programmers. I literally sat next to them, and we could talk to each other freely. We hung out, and one of them is now one of my best friends. I thought this relationship was a key part of the success we had at Amazon. When I got to Wizards, I was surprised to find that the cardset programmers were not only sitting away from the design team, but they were on an entirely different floor!

I would describe Wizards as “siloed.” Each department is fairly disconnected from the others. There are strict channels of communication, and the departments tend to look out for themselves. There are a lot of documents being “thrown over the wall” to other departments, without a lot of communication. The set spec, at the time, was one of these documents.

As I started diving into the set spec, I realized that communication was one of our big problems. R&D just wasn’t giving the cardset team enough information. In turn, the cardset team wasn’t communicating with R&D when they had questions or needs. This lead to a lot of inconsistencies in how cards were coded, and new mechanics weren’t getting the design attention they needed. To Wizards’ credit, I think they knew this, which is why they hired me.

When I started working with the set spec, it was just a few notes on new mechanics and a handful of complicated cards. Nine months later, I had made the set specs a detailed design of the implementation for every mechanic and every card, down to the text on the buttons in the prompt box. I expanded the scope of the set spec to include all digital releases, like cubes and commander decks, instead of just the major sets. I also befriended the cardset programmers, looping them into our process earlier, collaborating with them in design meetings, and enjoying their company over lunch. I was determined to break down the wall between our departments, because that’s what was best for Magic Online.

I tell this story specifically because I feel like it’s the biggest win we had at Wizards for Magic Online. It actually worked. You can see the difference by comparing my earlier articles to my later ones. In my Theros article I’m talking about single-card implementations that I honestly wasn’t that proud of. Eight months later in my Journey into Nyx article, I’m talking about multiple system-wide improvements that are going to help all sets going forward. This was all due to a massive improvement in our process and the willingness of the two teams to collaborate. The rest of digital R&D and the cardset team deserve credit as much as I do.

So I should be happy, right? I wasn’t, and it sucked.

I was still incredibly frustrated. The improvements we implemented with Journey into Nyx were things I originally asked for with Theros. I wanted more. I couldn’t help but see what I wanted MTGO to be, so I couldn’t see the progress we were actually making. I had a lot of conversations with Ryan Spain, who kept assuring me that I was making more progress than anybody on MTGO. He would get visibly frustrated with me when I couldn’t see it. When Ryan Spain is frustrated with you, you know you’re doing something wrong.

I continued to be unhappy. Ken Troop, my boss, would take me on walks around the building and try to figure out how to make me happy. He needed me to be a productive member of the team. Eventually, something had to change.

The Day I Gave Up

In early March 2014, Ken pulled me into his office. He told me that he was moving me to the Duels of the Planeswalkers team. He hoped that the faster-moving and more stable Duels team could channel my design skills in a productive way. He appreciated my work on Magic Online and the progress I had made, but said that he needed to move me somewhere where I’ll be happier and more productive.

I hoped that I could be happy on Duels, but I know I kind of just gave up at this point. I didn’t go to Wizards to work on Duels. I had barely even played Duels. I wouldn’t have left Amazon for Duels. My fire had been snuffed out.

Around this time I also made my way onto a design team, codename Lock. Years ago this was my dream, and I would have been ecstatic. For whatever reason, it’s just not what I want to be doing with my career full time right now. I like digital games, and I want to build something.

I told various contacts I had in the industry that I was willing to leave, and I waited for the right opportunity to present itself.

Over the next few months I enjoyed the card design I was doing, but I didn’t really feel like I had a place at Wizards. Duels ended up not having that much work for me (I wasn’t really looking for it anyway) and the things I designed never went anywhere. I felt like I had been put out to pasture. I went from working late to cutting out early.

If I’m honest, it was also really hard to watch other people continue to work on Magic Online, essentially doing the job I was fired from. I was bitter. I think I still am, mostly because I know they were right to kick me off the team – I was hard to work with. I hated myself for failing.

It took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t just unhappy, but that I was unhappy at Wizards. At first I blamed my misery on the breakup, but as I worked through those issues I realized that Wizards was also contributing to my unhappiness. When the right job offer came along, I took it.

I felt like I had really let myself down, as well as the community. I still feel that way sometimes. It’s rare that I think I tried my best, was prepared, and still failed. Unfortunately, my best wasn’t good enough this time. Making the choice to leave Wizards was really difficult. I still feel some guilt about it, though I’m starting to recognize that it wasn’t entirely my fault. It was a tough project to work on. In my time on Magic Online, three other designers had left the team, so I wasn’t the only one.

I Feel Better

I’m sitting at my computer, the night after my last day at Wizards, and I feel better. I feel like I’m connected to the community again. I feel free and unshackled.

This last year has been a struggle, but I’ve done a lot to get through it. I started going to therapy, which was a big help. I was on antidepressants for about 6 months. I gained all of the thirty pounds back. Then I lost twenty of them in a much healthier way by eating less, eating better, and exercising sporadically. I reconnected with friends that I had been pushing away as my relationship started failing, and I’ve become closer to them than ever before. I tried new hobbies, stuck with some, abandoned others. I went to Burning Man. I had a new girlfriend for a few months. I dyed my hair, grew a beard, painted my fingernails, shaved the beard, and repeated that cycle a few times. I went on a cruise with my parents, pushed myself out of my comfort zone, then wrote about it. Eventually, I left Wizards.

Leaving was an important part of my journey. Despite everything, I’m glad I worked at Wizards. I learned a lot, including stuff that you can’t learn anywhere else. I’m a much better game designer than I used to be. I made a lot of friends. Saying goodbye was hard.

On July 28th I start my new job at Dropforge, a mobile games startup in Bellevue. I’ll be a game designer working on bringing Card Hunter to tablet, among other projects. I’ll be their 13th employee, and I really like the people on the team that I’ve gotten to meet. I’m really excited about getting my hands dirty in design again. I think I’ll like the startup atmosphere, especially being a key piece of growing a company. I can’t wait to have something to show you!

What’s the Deal with Wizards?

Wizards isn’t a “bad company.” In some ways, it was the best job I ever had. I loved coming into work every day, even when my job itself was frustrating. I loved being in the pit. I forged a lot of new friendships. It was such a great place to actually be.

Unfortunately, Wizards just wasn’t a good fit for me. Maybe in a few years, but not right now. It was too big for me to feel like I could have the sort of impact I needed to be satisfied. It has too many ingrained, yet necessary, processes that make change slow and difficult. I also think I prefer working on games with a smaller scope. I made an exception for Magic, because I love Magic, but I think I prefer smaller, more agile projects.

There’s one aspect of Wizards that I feel like the public vastly misunderstands. If you take anything away from this article, I hope it’s this: Ideas are not Wizards’ problem. People are constantly talking about what we should be doing. Feedback from the community is constantly being analyzed, shared, discussed openly, and integrated into decisions. It kills my every time I hear somebody in the public say that Wizards doesn’t listen to players or care about their needs. It’s just not true.

When you feel like there’s a missing or poorly implemented feature on Magic Online, Wizards probably agrees with you. They would love to give it to you. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, and in ways that I never fully understood, they don’t have the resources to give it to you right now. You can argue that they should be able to give you the features you want, but I promise you that they want to give you those features just as much.

Lastly, can you please stop begging Wizards to “fire the design team” or “fire the programmers”? I was at Wizards longer than most of these people have been in their roles. They’re trying their best, and they’ve been handed the same program as you.

To The Future, and Be-Loucks!

A lot of people have been asking me if I’m going to return to podcasting and other things. I might. I hope I do.

First, let me get my footing. I need to start playing Magic again. I need to see if I still like playing Magic. I need to get comfortable in my new job and see what I have the bandwidth for. I also have about a year until all the tournament restrictions are off and I can fully compete – I’m still learning exactly what those are.

If things go well, I see myself grinding PTQs again. I see myself streaming often. Maybe traveling to some Grand Prix. Marshall and I have been talking, and I’m sure we can work something out if I want to podcast again. I’ll be more active on Twitter and Facebook now that I don’t have to watch what I say as closely. I’m looking forward to being able to connect with the community again, and I’ve really appreciated my welcome so far.

I think that about covers it. I hope you liked this oddly personal tale that isn’t really about Magic all that much.

As always, thanks for reading,

-Jon