Four #GameDev Lessons from 20+ Years of Software Development

I recently left a long career doing corporate and business software development. In fact, I’ve written software professionally for over 20 years now.

I actually wrote my first game around the age of 9 or 10 and I continued writing games until I joined the army at around age 20 and had to grow up, as society wants to call it. As such, I’ve actually got 10 or 12 years of game development prior to that so I’m on safe ground when I say that I’ve been making computers dance to my tune for over 30 years.

Throughout those years, I’ve learned some valuable lessons, many of which are surprisingly relevant to game development, as different as that is from the “serious” side of software. I’d like to share a few relevant lessons.

1. If it ain’t fun, you’re doing it wrong.

At various times in my career, I’ve moved into different areas of software. Without exceptions, whenever I’ve started developing software within an area, I’ve had incredible fun. Without exceptions, whenever I’ve stopped having fun developing software within an area, I’ve left that area shortly thereafter.

Take web hosting. I built a web hosting company in the 90s and had incredible fun building very complex and advanced publishing solutions. At some point, we stopped doing that because it got too serious and people wanted to buy the company and other grown-up things. We had to focus on what generated revenue rather than what was awesome. It stopped being about fun and started being about making money.

The company failed within a year after that.

There’s a time to be serious and always enough serious to go around. There’s never enough pure joy in simply creating, contributing, and having fun! It is also a lot easier to keep motivated if you enjoy what you are doing.

Lesson learned: Do stuff because it excites you and makes you happy or full of joy.

2. Learn all the time because knowledge and skills are easy to bear

One important thing I’ve learned is to bring as much knowledge as possible with you when you stop working on a project or task. By that I mean that you should always ensure that you learn something when you do something, even if it is how something completely fails if you don’t follow certain patterns.

This serves two purposes. First, it exercises your brain, and from what I’ve read (don’t take this as any scientifically founded claim) your head needs exercise as much as your body in order to stay healthy.

Second, however, is that knowledge is very easy to retain. It’s not something you need to lift when you move to a new city or on which you pay mortgage over the next 30 years. It’s yours, it’s free, and it’s very valuable.

When we built our first game, Maff’s Math Game, we focused more on learning how to build games than actually building the game. In other words, the entire team mostly learned for an entire game development life cycle with no plans or intentions of making a profit.

The result is that when we start new games now, we can skip past many of the learning bits and get results much faster. True, the investment in learning cost a lot of money but we know that long-term, we get that investment returned many-fold.

Lesson learned: Omnia mea mecum porto, my life motto. Google it.

3. Build reusable components always

My company Lobster Games is currently building a new game series called Final Arena. I’m not entirely certain we have the right formula for the gameplay. I haven’t tested it yet but we’re still moving forward with development to the stage where we now hire composers, modelers, animators, and so on.

“That’s madness,” any conventional wisdom will yell at you if you did something similar. “You need to test your idea early and fail fast”. And I agree, but I’ve learned a more important lesson.

You see, the way we build games, the codebase allows us to replace any part of the game fast. If the current gameplay doesn’t work, fine, we can switch it with something better, but that doesn’t change that we need a system for controlling characters, telling the stories, saving the state of the game, keep track of health and inventory, and so on.

By building the various parts of our game as individual components, we can replace parts that don’t work without affecting the rest of the game. Equally important, we can take parts we build for this game and reuse in other games because unless I’m mistaking, there will be a need to have music, a story, and characters in future games too.

Lesson learned: Reuse always. Even if you won’t, assume you will. It’s easier than you think.

4. Language is irrelevant but mandatory

Wiser men than me have spoken about computer languages, but I tend to favor the paraphrased quote that languages are to programming what telescopes are to astronomy. You need one, but it’s never the goal of the operation.

It stuns me how frequently I see debates about which language is best for game development. The truth is that there is no answer, and that’s likely the reason why the debate can go on for decades with no clear outcome.

So, whereas you do need a language to do game programming, it is far less relevant which one you pick.

This brings me to the second part of the heading; you always need a language. Despite how many toolsets now exist for building games with no programming, learning programming is vital to game development. You cannot do game development well without learning to program.

In SharePoint, where I’ve spent most of the previous decade or so, Microsoft has had to cancel the most important non-code development tool, the visual design interface in a tool called SharePoint Designer, formerly known as Frontpage for those that know their history. Microsoft said they did this because SharePoint was getting a MySpace problem with all the willy-nilly modifications people thought were so great.

That’s happening because it is far too easy to get to a certain point and thinking you’re delivering value when in fact more times than not you are just painting yourself and possibly your team into a corner.

A programmer’s mindset, however, and in particular an experienced programmer’s mindset, will understand problems to a much greater degree before they start building solutions. They will understand maintainability, extensibility, security, and many other aspects that the drag-and-drop-and-website generation never sees.

And it’s not about programmers having superior intellects or anything like that. It is rather that writing code teaches you how to approach problems in a very rational and methodical way. As much as I can, I urge people to get into coding even if they will never write a line of production code for the rest of their lives, simply because it makes them more rational problem solvers.

Lesson learned: Learn programming. No excuses.

So, there you have it. Four important, if not the only lessons I’ve learned over a lifetime of software development that I’m not actively applying to my game development career.

Which lessons have you learned in your life that you’re now applying to game development?

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Why Jeff Teper Needs to Get me Back to SharePoint

Don’t worry, @jeffteper, I won’t come back to SharePoint. Not because I don’t think you can do awesome things but because I’m doing game development now and I’m having more fun than a warehouse full of barrels full of monkeys. Oh, and I’m doing it in Costa Rica. This is, I’m not joking, our meeting room at the Lobster Cave.

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SharePoint used to be fun, and may be again, but not this much fun.

But let me get right to the point for those who do not know: Jeff Teper has come back to head the SharePoint team at Microsoft after being promoted just a year ago, a sign, I said at the time, of the death of SharePoint.

Hang on… If he was promoted out of the SharePoint team back then… And he’s back now… Does that mean he got demoted again?

Jeff’s first and perhaps most challenging task will be to get me to do SharePoint again.

But You Just Said…

No, I’m not coming back. But Jeff needs to make me, or more correctly, people like me come back to SharePoint. Those that left in the past couple of years. Whether those are developers, architects, customers, or community supporters.

Because the SharePoint community has been bleeding badly. You may not notice it but people have been leaving en masse. Even those you think do SharePoint are sometimes doing so solely because having it as part of their title still pays a salary, but they secretly look for ways to do other work, or even actively do other work.

This is a huge, huge problem for Jeff and one he needs to solve because the community is one of the most important reasons SharePoint became such a success.

Read: Why I Love SharePoint Part 2 – The Community

The SharePoint community in the olden days built tools that were orders or magnitude better than what Microsoft did. Carsten Keutmann singlehandedly built WSPBuilder and SPManager, tools that completely changed building solutions for SharePoint and maintaining them afterwards. He did so for free. Awesome stuff like that doesn’t happen anymore.

The tech bloggers are diminishing, as does the collective intelligence of the community. The level of questions asked in open forums is going down, which means that on average, the SharePoint professional sucks more these days than they did just a few years ago.

Jeff needs to change this trend because SharePoint is massively complex and without a vibrant community that is passionate about the product, it will die.

Read: Four Reasons Why SharePoint is Dying

So How Can Jeff fix things? I have some suggestions.

Stop the NDA Madness

I’m a vocal opponent to non-disclosure agreements where the existence of such NDAs hurt the people they are originally intended to support. The Edward Snowden case is a typical example of this; the behavior of the US intelligence community was deemed to be detrimental to the US population.

The SharePoint MVP community is also under similar NDAs and it is hurting SharePoint. Up until the public release of information about the removal of design view in SharePoint Designer 2013, MVPs were actively recommending using SharePoint Designer for tasks they knew full well would not be possible in the next version.

Why? Well, they had to. They can’t leak that the next version of SPD completely takes away such an important part and they can’t stop recommending people use it because they’d ask why and the MVP would be forced to lie, avoid the question, or otherwise protect Microsoft rather than its users.

They should have been allowed to speak openly about this and if so, it would have saved the customers a lot of strife.

Note that I’m not saying the decision was wrong. I support the removal of the design view. I just think that the customers who spent time developing solutions that depends on SPD may have benefited from this information being public sooner.

Read: I Was Wrong, Kill the SharePoint Designer Design View

Release Faster and When Announced

I’ve also previously complained about whereas Microsoft in general has adopted an approach of making new version of software available for testing immediately, the SharePoint team refuses and still has often a year from the announcement of a new version and until anyone is allowed to see anything.

Read: SharePoint 2016 Like it Always Was

Jeff needs to drop the time from talking about a new feature or version and until people can start using it from years to minutes or hours at the most. This is the way Microsoft works now,  and it is the way it should work. It gives more feedback in the vital early stages, early insight for better customer decision making, and an overall better public image than the secrecy that dominates the SharePoint team.

And you know what? It seems it’s working. Originally, Microsoft had said there would be a beta version sometimes late this year (2015). Now, shortly before Jeff Teper came back, Microsoft announced a public beta mere months away and far sooner than people expected.

Of course, Jeff has known for a while that he’d be demoted coming back again, so I’m fairly certain he had some say in the early release.

Well done, Jeff! Another notch in your hero-belt.

Stop Feature Creeping and Fix Problems

SharePoint has major issues. Technical issues that have been around for years. Apparently, before SharePoint 2013, there wasn’t time to fix the design view in SharePoint Designer.

Well, why didn’t you cut some of the new features that nobody asked for, like the app model? Nobody wanted that. It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now, as evident by Microsoft’s decision to kill the app model and rename it to the add-in model to get people to use it.

Read: SharePoint App Model Solves Non-Problems Only

Rather than getting new bloat to an already bloated product suite, fix what’s already broken. Stop adding new stuff until you’ve stabilized the current version. I mean, why is there no way to remove the Recent items in QuickLaunch? Nobody asked for it but you felt you had to add it and now there’s no way to get rid of it without mucking about with CSS.

Oh, but one thing remains. The most important thing.

Jeff, if you read only one thing, read this:

Don’t Kill SharePoint Foundation

Look, we know it’s not bringing cash. We know you want to kill it. You’ve said there won’t be a SharePoint Foundation 2016 (or rather, Bill Baer said so).

You know what? SharePoint Foundation needs to be there so that you attract people. It is an awesome place for people to learn about SharePoint so they get sucked into the money vacuum called SharePoint Server.

If that’s not your goal, then I think you’re really agreeing with me that SharePoint is dying. That’s why this is your most important decision, Jeff: Everyone is watching. Kill SharePoint Foundation and you effectively declare that you don’t want people to learn and adopt SharePoint.

Microsoft in general agrees with me, which is why they are releasing things like the free web based Office suites and Visual Studio Community edition; they suck in people to entice them to remain loyal.

Be like the rest of Microsoft, Jeff, because they have turned around and are awesome now and the SharePoint team hasn’t been up to snuff for a long time.

.b

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URGENT SECURITY PSA: Stop Using GlobalCitizen.Org – Your Data Is Leaking

I’m a huge supporter of volunteer work and charities around the world. One major inspiration has been Bill Gates who recently came out supporting a site called GlobalCitizen.org.

Naturally, I signed up on January 23rd 2015 to show my support and help out in any way I could. The organization sports an impressive list of partners and seems to be serious enough.

However, I couldn’t. Or rather, I could, but when I logged in, I got the detailed information, including access to reward points for supporting the organization, for someone completely different. I have no idea why, but I was now logged in as a person was called Anuj K of India, born September 17, 1975.

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Now, this is a very serious thing, both because of the breach of privacy but also because the points volunteers earn are redeemable for real-life goods and services.

The first thing I did was email the group and inform them.

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I’ve blurred out the description of the ‘exploit’ (although it really isn’t).

Several days later, I got a response stating that my inquiry had been forwarded. However, checking a week later, the issue was still present, but now I got logged in as yet another person rather than myself.

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Here comes the shocking bit. I was told that they were aware of the issue and that others had reported the same thing. However, they didn’t do anything to fix it. I offered to help them because I’ve built a number of systems like these myself and could probably get it reviewed quickly, but I got no response.

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I then forgot about it until a few days ago, assuming that they had it under control. But, lo and behold, I logged in, got a clearly faked profile of Arnold Schwarzenegger and today the profile of someone called Rhonda.

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I should reiterate that I have full access to these people’s profiles, including it seems spending of their reward points (although I haven’t tried completing a transaction, for obvious reasons).

I can no longer keep mum when the organization after one and a half month has clearly neglected securing their users from privacy breaches and loss of reward points. I’ve urged them to close logins and signups until they fix the issue, but clearly they do not care enough.

Which is sad, but the short of it is: Do not under any circumstance log in to GlobalCitizen.org as your information will be leaked to the public, your rewards will be forfeit, and your profile is very likely to be misused.

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