Getting It Done

I recently did a talk for Gamecamp Edmonton about the development process of Invisible Hand which I thought had some interesting takes about running a project staffed entirely by volunteers, working part time, and remotely. I’ve heard some interest from those who missed it so here it is in blog form!

A short background about myself, I’m a programmer and game developer based out of Edmonton. I started my career with EA Vancouver working on the FIFA franchise before moving back to Edmonton to work with BioWare on titles like Dragon Age Inquisition, Mass Effect Andromeda, and Anthem. I had a quarter life crisis as I was approaching my thirties, since I had always wanted to work on my own titles and hadn’t done so outside of hackathons and Global Game Jams. I now work part-time, with a few days a week reserved for personal projects like Invisible Hand.

I want to give credit to everyone who helped in this process. It would have been a very stressful 10 months without them. Many of these folks I met through Gamecamp and that’s a testament to the value of having a tight-knit local gamedev community. 

If you are reading this, you likely use the internet extensively. It connects people in many amazing ways, but also exposes us to differing opinions than those we might see in our social circles. With the polarization of politics on the rise, it’s not uncommon for me to come across statements like those above. I’m continuously reminded that many people have the wrong ideas about homelessness, mental health, addictions, and the intersection of those issues. 

In Alberta, it’s not just the average citizen that feel this way. Our politicians, leaders, and policymakers share these misconceptions too.

Put more formally, I wanted to create a serious game to help people empathize better with the homeless. I’ve always believed in the incredible ability of interactive media to teach and educate. Coupled with the rise of right wing populism globally, this seemed like an opportunity to make something that can speak out against these loud and backwards opinions that confronted me daily. 

This project started as a long winded design document covering all the systems that could model these real world problems. Upon review, I quickly came to the conclusion that many solo developers encounter:

I’m not going to be able to accomplish this on my own, neither in a reasonable amount of time nor at the quality players would expect. This was my first foyer into working at home and being my own “boss”. As an employee of a big studio, I always imagined that finding the time to work on my own projects would be the ticket to success. I greatly underestimated the problems associated with deciding what to work on, and sticking with one project. Working with others created a sort of social contract to follow through on my goals and help keep me on track.

I created this teaser and showed it at Gamecamp back in December 2018 as a call to arms. That evening, several people from the group approached me and offered their skills in writing, art, and music. I never anticipated so much interest in finding other collaborators to help finish this project. Turns out these social problems resonate with a lot of people.

However, I replaced one problem with another: working alone is much different than managing a small team. I had never managed a development team before, however I could pull from my experience in AAA games. Keeping everyone engaged and contributing would be my top focus. It was crucial that the build was always playable, that we showcase progress often, and highlight the work of contributors constantly.

Regular online check-ins showcased this progress and gave everyone a reason to keep thinking and talking about the project. Additionally, meeting in person every few months allowed us to make bigger decisions about the project and get to know each other on a personal level.

After a few months, it became apparent that we lacked a medium to long term goal for the project. The design document was too extensive and unfocused for our ragtag team of volunteers to tackle. This lead to the creation of our MVP, also known as a vertical slice. We decided on a short 20 minute demo for showcasing the idea, and narrowed the scope based on the moment by moment player experience .

This gave the team concrete deadlines and contributors agency over their domains, both of which are essential for motivating development. Although these deadlines were arbitrary, the team had a collective understanding of our target. This culminated in the delivery of our gameplay trailer and subsequent release of the vertical slice on September 12th, 2019. 

It's been a few weeks since we released, and here's what I've noticed so far:

Turns out auto assigned us as NSFW based on our tags (mental health, addictions, homeless). This has made up about a quarter of our traffic and, given the other titles with this tag, I doubt this is what visitors were expecting. But hey, traffic is traffic.

We’re now in the process of reaching out to municipal, provincial, and federal groups to gather feedback and seeking funding to continue developing more content in this style.

If you get a chance, please try the vertical slice and join the discussion online. Forward this along to anyone who you think may be interested as we rely entirely on word of mouth. Perhaps most importantly, start talking about these issues with family and friends. Education and discussion are the first steps to gaining a better understanding of the complexity of homelessness.

Get Invisible Hand

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