Grandma + Skype

Sunday, November 27, 2011

So here’s something interesting.

I spend my Thanksgivings out in Pennsylvania with my 94-year-old grandmother (my mom’s mom, the PA Dutch former kindergarten teacher). For various reasons, including that I have a tiny extended family none of whom live particularly close to one another, it’s usually just her and I for this particular holiday. My parents stick in Texas. We usually do the obligatory “Happy Thanksgiving” call with them, which is fine.

This year I decided to try something a bit different. I had my laptop handy (natch), and since my parents had recently discovered the brave new world of video calling with Skype, I figured I’d see what happened when I cranked up Skype and stuck my grandmother in front of it to talk with the family.

My grandmother is, I should note, mostly deaf. And blind to a certain degree. Speaking with her is a relatively slow and deliberate process of picking simple sentences and enunciating them clearly a couple times until she gets what you’re saying. The blindness I’m not as clear about, but she claims that faces are mostly blurry — although she apparently reads lips to a certain degree to help with the hearing issue. And she’s hit and miss being able to see what’s happening when she watches TV. (Hits: Horse racing and sports when the teams are wearing distinctive enough colors. Misses: Anything with text on the screen or that changes too quickly, as far as I can tell — although she has a standard-def TV set which can’t possibly be helping.)

Anyway: Skype was a hit. She claimed to be able to see my parents quite clearly on my 15” MacBook Pro screen and I could tell she had a very easy time hearing them — a definite surprise considering the relatively weak quality of the laptop’s speakers. But they held their conversation and then did the sort of usual first time Skype user tricks of aiming the laptop camera at different things and showing off the cat.

Now. For me — and for you — this is nothing new. In fact, it’s easy to slip into a weird sort of elitist “oh, crap — the family found Skype” thing, as if (as with e-mail and online chat) this going to lead to some increased level of annoyance as the noobs start using these things all wrong. And Skype itself as both a (former) company and as a software service has all this baggage attached to it, and blah blah blah.

But grandmother’s mind was blown.

Which expressed itself in a couple of ways:

1) The degree of connection it gave her with my parents amazed her. She was right there. They were right here. She could see their house. My mom could comment on her turkey sweater. Grandma even said at one point, “You could just put a bunch of these around the table to have everyone over for dinner.” This sounds simplistic, but grandma does not do much brainstorming about technological innovations in her day-to-day. And she had a little melancholic emotional moment when we shut down the chat, like she had been dropped back into the real world where the family was actually a couple thousand miles away in Texas and not just sitting across the table.

2) After the Skype call she asked me all about what just happened. Again: Grandma decided a while back that she Just Doesn’t Understand Computers, so this was a rather rare occurrence, having to get into explaining how, exactly, we just did this rather futuristic thing on her dining room table. I did my best, but we’re talking about someone with an extremely low level of technological literacy.

She clearly wanted something like this, so one question was: “How much does a device like this cost?” “Well, it’s a piece of software that runs on my computer. This is the same computer I use for work and other stuff.” Confusion. She doesn’t seem to understand the distinction between a computer as a piece of hardware and application software that runs on the computer. She thinks in terms of unified devices. Like the telephone, TV set, or dishwasher. “So the software and that call were free,” I continued. Again, confusion. “And do the neighbors use something like this?” “Yeah, probably.” Anyway: This sort of conversation continued.

It’s nice to occasionally be reminded that we’re living in a bizarre future, and that it’s pretty cool. I do things regularly that feel so pedestrian — and yet would shock someone just ten or twenty years ago. Remember those AT&T “You Will” ads from the mid-90s? Go back and watch them. Video calls? On-demand movies? Checking e-mail on the beach? Sci-fi concepts. Now imagine you were born before radio became a thing.

(As a quick aside: I have a feeling that text messages seem like some kind of psychic connection from my grandmother’s vantage. Like, we’re taking a walk and I blurt out, “Oh, Christin’s having burgers with her dad in Florida.” But she didn’t see me check my phone or anything (remember, hard of sight). I don’t know exactly how she envisions I got that transmitted nugget of info, but (to wear out a term) let’s go with “magic.”)

(Another quick aside: I suspect my mom will get around to reading this post to her. It’s happened before. Surely grandma has no concept of a “blog,” as she doesn’t use the web. So he may not realize that damned near anyone on this planet can read what I write here instantly, just a second after I publish it. Obvious to you and I. But not necessarily to her. And quite amazing, again, once you kind of step back and appreciate the technology. Even though Twitter was totally down for, like, fifteen minutes the other day and it totally sucked why can’t they get their act together the internet is so fucking stupid.)

So, yeah. Not sure how much grandma actually understood about how the tech worked. But clearly the call was a huge success, so I started considering how to get grandma access to Skype more regularly. My thought: Get grandma an iMac with Apple Remote Desktop. Set it up. She literally never has to touch the thing — I just get into her computer remotely and bring up Skype. We may instead use an old laptop, which she’d have to at least touch to open the lid, but would otherwise work the same. We’re considering getting her a new flat-screen TV, and some of those have apps (including Skype). But I just don’t trust the user experience and there’s almost no way (I think) the grandma would be able to navigate any kind of menus or whatever to make it work. But. After a couple years of trying to get her to agree to let us buy her a new, nice flat-screen TV — I think she finally acquiesced. And my theory is that she saw things well on my laptop screen and the whole experience of “living in the future” kid of jostled her a bit. Maybe the new things do work a bit nicer than the older things.

And so on.

PS. And only very obliquely related: I eventually have to write up at least a little something about my other teaching experiences this autumn. I’ve been teaching a web programming class at ITP (NYU) and co-teaching with Bob Giraldi a more conceptual class over at SVA called “The Interactive Idea.” And they’re not exactly the same as the above, obviously, but I have sort of similarly been forced to retrace my own steps a bit and break down what I know about technology into digestible chunks for my students and it’s a pretty revealing experience, for sure.

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Scenes from South Carolina

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Our friends Nick and Nancy had their wedding down in Hilton Head, South Carolina on Saturday. (Congratulations!) I’ve never spent any time in that part of the country, so Christin and spent a few days in Charleston, as well. We went out last Wednesday and were supposed to come back Monday night, but crappy weather in the Northeast caused our flight to be cancelled and we wound up getting home yesterday, Tuesday. Apart from that flub, we had an awesome time. Charleston is very charming. Hilton Head doesn’t have quite the urban charm, but the beach is gorgeous and we got some solid R&R time on the beach and by the pool.

Anyway, I’m not going to get too much into the gritty details, here — but I thought I’d post some photos for everyone. Not a full account of everything we did. Just some… stuff.

First: Some photos from our first day walking around Charleston:

In Charleston, we stayed at Two Meeting Street Inn (in the Music Room) — possibly my best hotel/lodging experience ever. The building had previously been an old home and they left it furnished as such. And the staff were the utmost of southern hospitality. And the porch was perfect for hanging out on while drinking iced tea and eating whatever little sweets they happened to have out.

That first night we ate at Husk, which we enjoyed.

And Thursday we took the ferry out to Fort Sumter. By the way: The weather through our entire trip was hot and sticky. Especially at Fort Sumter, but all over Charleston and Hilton Head. Whew.

And, of course, the wedding — our reason for being out there in the first place. Nick’s family had a home on the beach, so they held the ceremony right there. Gorgeous spot! We even had a few spectators…

And the reception… Some teenage rock band played covers for the first few hours down kind of in some park. Pretty good, especially considering that they looked to be around 15. “Barracuda” was a hit, of course. Otherwise: More drinks, some food, toasts, dancing, and such!

We had a rental car for the drive back to the airport at Charleston, so we took some time after lunch to visit an Boone Hall Plantation. The house itself had been rebuilt in the 1920s, but there were original slave homes and other buildings scattered about. Interesting stuff (and the home itself — currently someone’s real home, by the way — was pretty cool).

And so that’s that! We’re back home in Brooklyn, now. Back to work…

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Civilization

Sunday, July 10, 2011

I did it. I bought Civilization V. Off of Steam (which I quite like, by the way). They had it discounted as a part of their Summer Camp Sale promotion. And, honestly, I’ve been reading about the game for months and I just couldn’t help myself. Don’t judge me.

My experience with the Civilization series of games goes way, way back. I actually remember the first time I heard about it: Two friends (Jason and Yirong) were talking about the original game on the bus home after school one day during what must’ve been 9th grade (circa 1992). An odd conversation about playing as the Germans or Aztecs or whatever and fighting battles and dealing with barbarians and such. “I realized they had settled on the other end of my continent!” It all seemed kind of mysterious, and even at age 14 or 15 these terms of history and culture carried enough weight that hearing them mixed up into bizarre and unreal configurations seemed pretty novel. Enough so that I still kind of remember the conversation (loosely).

Anyway, somehow I got my hands on a version for my little old black-and-white Mac Classic. Probably from Floppy Joe’s, Austin’s computer game rental place that eventually folded (I suspect) after lawyers got involved and accused them of facilitating exactly what I did to get a copy of Civ for myself: Piracy.

(I should make a side note about Floppy Joe’s. First, I really can totally bring to mind the feel and layout of the place as I sit here just now. It sat up near 29th and Guadalupe in Austin TX, right next door to where the famous Toy Joy now sits. It’s a place my mom probably remembers, as well, since she took me there fairly often after I got my first Mac. They rented computer games, which really kind of meant that the games with decent copy protection got rented and the ones without got pirated. And most Mac games back then didn’t have very good copy protection. So that’s how I wound up with stuff like Civilization, Kid Pix, Spectre, Oids, Prince of Persia, Zork Zero — games I could never have afforded to buy. Piracy is one of those very hard topics to deal with because on one hand, yes, I knew that my behavior skated on the bad side of the law. But I had so many seminal moments with games and just interactive “stuff” in general that I got from Floppy Joe’s — I think there’s a good chance that I wouldn’t be where I’m at today as far as working creatively with technology if I hadn’t had those experiences. I also remember being exposed there to stuff like shareware for the first time (back when shareware came on floppies you’d buy for a few bucks (yes, yes, yes — and BBSes)) and, of course, the vast world of PC gaming which I had no way to really participate in — although I could check out the boxes and try to imagine what was going on.)

Anyway, I played the hell out of it. Civilization’s a remarkably addictive game. I remember phases of playing this game to the point of having dreams about military units moving around on the square grid and forming boundaries and blockades and skirmishing, building cities, trading, etc. On the one hand, I feel like surely there must’ve been something better I could’ve been doing with my time (I’m going to guess that this impacted my schoolwork). But then, looking back, I don’t think Civilization is quite the worst game a kid could spend his or her time glued to. For one thing, every single element of the game has some sort of historical underpinning. For example (and, honestly, I could be talking about Civ 1 or Civ 5 twenty years later — the core game is almost identical): You start with one single band of settlers in 4000BC and play the game on a randomized planet full of islands and continents with a collection of competing civilizations. You might, say, play the Romans. And in this random world a bunch of other civilizations — the Germans, Americans, Zulu, Indians, etc — are also trying to grow and flourish. But the game tries to make the world “feel” like the world as it stood circa 4000BC and later 1AD and 1500AD and 1996AD not by flashing a title card and announcing “Now You’re in the Industrial Age!” but by incrementally taking you from one phase of history to the next with things like the technology tree (where you must first spend some years researching agriculture which then lets you research horseback riding and eventually on to other more advanced technologies like gunpowder and semiconductors). So in a sense it kind of was a game about how resources and the sort of random arrangements of land and the starting points of civilizations along with their tendencies towards things like science or war can lead to different results for different people thousands of years down the line — kind of a gamified version of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Which may sound obvious. (I’m certainly not the first person to make that connection.) So I do wonder how much this one game might’ve influenced my outlook on how the general flow of global history works. I did, after all, play it well before I ever read Guns, Germs, and Steel.

I also remember picking up a certain amount of vocabulary from the game. “Phalanx” and “trireme,” for example, are words which I first saw in Civilization which I them went and looked up and learned what meant. (The Extra Credit video series has a great piece up about this called “Tangential Learning” — written by the same James Portnow as the previous link.) This stuff does also seem important (and literally, like I said, the entire damned game is packed with historic and cultural references — there’s so much to tangentially learn). To me, though, it feels kind of secondary to the bigger picture stuff about learning a perspective on how history “works” on a more fundamental level. But interesting, nevertheless. And healthy, no doubt. I’m going to guess that one major reasons kids do poorly in school — especially in subjects like history — is that they’re expected to memorize the information, but not really use it beyond regurgitation in some way. When you need to know what a phalanx is in order to prevent Napoleon from barging in conquering your cities — you’ll remember what the hell a phalanx is.

And I’m not going to argue that the version of how history works presented in Civilization is really the Way History Really Works. No one has that figured out. But it does present a picture, and I feel like if nothing else it put into my head a starting point — something which I could knock other ideas and experiences up against.

Anyway — that was then. I did pick up Civilization II (at Floppy Joe’s, no doubt) a few years later (still in high school) and played the hell out of that, as well. And that was more-or-less the end of my life with the game.

Until.

They released a kind of lite version of Civilization IV for the iPad last year. Which I couldn’t resist and played around with for a bit. Fun fact: It’s great for flights because it doesn’t necessarily take much thought (or reflexes, since it’s turn-based) but is addictive enough that I can burn through an entire five hour flight playing with it — exactly what someone like me who fucking hates flying needs.

And so I saw Civilization V at a discount on Steam and decided to grab it. And I knew what would happen. Last weekend I kind of felt crappy, so I just played Civ for, like, ten hours over the course of a couple days. Until my brain started viewing everything in my real world fixed into a hexagonal lattice (Civ V uses hexes instead of squares — the most radical change in the game in 20 years, I think). And I made a mental agreement with myself to not play during the work day, but I’ve been sneaking an hour or two here and there while Christin’s out or doing other things in the evenings. And I played about an hour earlier today. (And might play a bit more before dinner!) I don’t have a ton of time and my brain just works differently than in did in the early nineties, so I’m not quite as compelled to just sit for hours and hours and hours playing with it — but certainly if all of my other engagements went away for a weekend I could probably fall into that trap.

So, yeah. One thing I’ve been thinking about during this play-through is just why it’s so crack-like and addictive — if not to everyone, than at least to me. I guess I have a few ideas…

My first idea is simply that when I play Civilization, I’m not just fighting battles and trying to win the game or whatever. My mind constructs a story around the whole thing — a story of my own creation, mostly. And this isn’t really done consciously — at least, I don’t feel like I do something like “Well, now I’m going to sit down and create a narrative.” I think it does have to do with the fact that the names of the peoples, cities, and such are real: I’ve been playing as the Americans, and when you found a city called Philadelphia, immediately my brain has some kind of resonance with that city, even though it has basically nothing to do with the real-world Philadelphia. (My Philly’s landlocked mid-continent and on the edge of a desert.) But I guess it subtly makes you care about these things (or at least have an opinion on them) and it makes the differences between the fake and real cities kind of stick out in starker contrast. My Philly’s on a desert. My Washington has city walls and the Brandenburg Gate. My Atlanta is just about the southernmost city in the world. It gives some connection to the game and it pokes that “what if?” part of my brain. And I guess that pulls me into caring about this new alternate reality history I’m building. I do find the alt history that is created over the course of playing a game to be very engaging and interesting.

The second idea about why I get so hooked isn’t quite as high-minded. In Civ, there’s just never any end to anything. There’s always something in the middle of being built, or in the middle of being fought, or whatever. Since there’s never a clear stopping point mid-game, like there might be in an FPS between levels or scenes or whatever, it’s easy to get locked into an extended period of “oh, just one more thing.” I know I’m susceptible to this because I do the exact same damned thing with the web sometimes: I get locked into these extended cycles of “oh, let me just see what’s on Gawker — then that’s it” through twenty-ish sites that’ll last hours. In a way, the game does play itself to a certain degree, only bothering the player when it’s time to make an important decision. So you can get locked into a trance-like period of pointing and clicking and responding. It’s a game you can watch TV while playing. I’m not sure if this part of the game is good or bad or what, but I do feel like the designers have mastered the art of doling out little rewards at just the perfect rate to make it difficult for people like me to escape the game. (But at least I’m learning about triremes.)

Anyway. These are just a few thoughts on Civilization. I’m enjoying Civ 5, although I’ll probably just finish with this run-though and then shelve it. I don’t need to spend hundreds of hours at it. But it is nice to be reminded of these other bits of my personal history with the Civilization series and games in general…

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Game Design for High Schoolers, Classes #2 & #3

Sunday, May 29, 2011

More notes about the game design class Iím teaching over at the Academy of Urban Planning, a high school in Bushwick.

So. Class #2. Werewolf didn’t happen. I had my fresh deck of cards and everything. But. Only four kids turned up for class due to a field trip — simply too few to play the game with. Sadly. Because I still think it’s a useful educational game because it’s so easily modified and extended. But it looks like I might not have a chance to test that idea since we’re rapidly moving into the actual “make your own game” part of the class. And now that we’re officially into learning GameMaker, I don’t think we can turn back.

GameMaker. Since Werewolf fizzled, we spent most of our second class learning the basics of this mostly drag-and-drop game-making software. (This after another round of get-to-know-yas and a recap of our general definition of what a game is and a review of some terms from the first class.)

Teaching GameMaker is both easier and more complicated to teach than I expected. Easier because all four of the kids got it that first class. We downloaded it, along with a little pack of graphics and sounds that I put together for them to use — mostly simple Nintendo sprites and a selection of sound effects that come pre-packaged with Mac OS X. And we got it installed in nothing flat on the four machines the kids were using. Great. And then I took them through the basic first steps. First, we made our player character. I had them make a sprite (and reviewed the definition — something that appears on the screen and moves). I had them make an object that used that sprite. I had them make a room. I had them put the object in the room and attach a set of events that made it move in different directions when they pushed the arrow keys on their keyboards. Run. No problem. The kids know how to use computers quite well.

(“Sprite” and “event” are two of our big vocabulary words, by the way.)

I found it a bit difficult to read their reactions, but I think they felt a nice little “whoa” moment when they saw their creations (as simple as they may have been) on screen and were able to interact with them. Processing, the Java-based tool used at ITP to teach programming, sort of had that same philosophy: The faster they can go from zero to seeing something move on the screen, the more students will be willing to learn. I know from personal experience that on professional programming projects there’s a whole list of steps you have to go through before you even get to the point of seeing a blank screen when you run what you’re working on. As experienced as I am, my first time playing around with GameMaker I felt it quite satisfying to just open the software, click on a few things, and poof — simple game that runs right there. Took me five minutes. Took us as a class about maybe 15 minute to get to this first point — really quick, honestly. That was the easy part.

The hard part will be on-going through the remainder of the class. It only consciously occurred to me during our second class that these kids would not be working on their games at home. This ain’t grad school. Or undergrad. Or even, really, normal high school. And when it comes to talking about games and computer stuff at home… Well, okay. This may sound weird for a second, but might as well write about it and see what it looks like on the screen…

I’m a white boy from Texas. My high school happened to be largely black and somewhat hispanic, but there was definitely an unfortunate barrier, for the most part, between the Science Academy kids (mostly white, including me) and the normal student body (mostly not). And maybe that has nothing to do with anything. But — it’s inarguably true that I’ve never been in a high school outside of Texas. Certainly not one in Bushwick. So I feel like I don’t have a clear grasp of what, really, the home lives of these kids might be like. It’s not a huge deal — they all seem reasonably smart, happy, and well-adjusted — but I don’t know what growing up in a minority community in Bushwick is like and so I find myself tripping on my tongue when I ask about things like computers at home. There actually may also be zero racial or geographic element to it — I’m a very hardcore computer user and I’m surrounded by people who are nearly all very hardcore computer users of one flavor or another. Regardless of our incomes, we all have fancy computers and mobile phones and all variety of digital doodads. Maybe this isn’t an issue of me not having a grasp on what the kids tech lives at home might be like — it might be more of an issue of me simply not knowing what the average American’s tech life at home is like. I don’t know. This paragraph feels all sorts of weird and rambling, but I’ll leave it in. I had no solid idea what the kids would be like before I first stepped into the classroom a few weeks ago, but the reality (so far) appears to be that this group of kids is not unlike my little group of nerd-friends in high school. So there’s not a huge cultural bump, but these are all minority kids living in a very different sort of urban environment and that must have some impact on their outlook. Maybe I’m making more out of this than I ought to, but I feel it’s worth being alert about. Anyway.

My point: It dawned on me that I couldn’t assign them homework. So suddenly we’re talking about a total of maybe eight or ten hours to learn enough of GameMaker for them to still have time to make their final project games. Which is the complicated part of teaching GameMaker, because one kid has already started talking about making his own version of RollerCoaster Tycoon (which, as a sim game, is already kind of a make-your-own-game game). And I’m already fielding questions about doing things with GameMaker which I’m sure are possible, but I don’t know if we’ll get to. (Especially given that I’m more-or-less learning this tool along with them.)

But they do seem to pick up what I teach them very quickly and all of them took the reigns and began playing around and experimenting with the software after I taught them each thing. The other stuff we did that first class included making enemies that walk around the screen, making walls to contain the level, and making collision events between the player, enemies, and walls. Basic top-down Legend of Zelda-style stuff.

So. Fast-forward one week to this past Tuesday. Five kids. And computer science teacher Andrew “Mr. Drozd” Drozd assisted instead of the usual Lisa Kletjian (although she stuck around for the first bit of class). More GameMaker. We started with a review of terms, which I think will be the new thing for each class. For those of you playing along at home, our current vocabulary list:

  • Strategy
  • Interactive
  • Triple-A Games
  • Indie Games (Interesting to note: Mr. Drozd asked if any of the kids new what “indie” meant. They didn’t. So I had to clarify.)
  • Sprite (The non-lemon-lime soda definition.)
  • Event
  • If-Then
  • Loop
  • Variable
  • Relative (In a mathematical sense, because GameMaker always asks if you, for example, want something position in a fixed place on the screen or relative to something else.)
  • XY Coordinates

So we’re getting in a solid set of programming terms, which I like.

Alright. So that happened. And then back to GameMaker.

We had one new kid who missed the previous week, so I felt a little bit of a confusion as to get him up-to-speed without boring everyone else. But two kids immediately opened up their previous projects and started messing around with them (in a good way) and the other two kinda seemed to need a review, anyway, so I just took the new kid and that pair through the steps from the previous week. Funny thing though: One kid — I swear she was just barely awake through the previous week’s class. And seemed kind of uninterested and I had to kind of push her through each step. Not her fault on the drowsiness thing — it’s a long class at the end of a long day for these kids (4-6pm on Tuesdays, remember). But. This past Tuesday when we cracked open GameMaker, she totally remembered how to do everything. And I think actually quite enjoyed working with it. A nice surprise. And the other one who I thought might need a review also didn’t need much of one. And the new kid picked it up quickly. So. Success.

Fun story: During this part of the class I poured myself a glass of pink lemonade (Lisa always provides drinks and snacks for the kids). And then managed to spill it all over my crotch in front of everyone. Good times.

So, we moved on to the new stuff. This time I had on the agenda three things: 1) Bullets. 2) Multiple rooms. 3) Points. And talking about bullets forced me to introduce the term “instance.” And points, of course, required a quick discussion about variables. (As for teaching variables in a computer science context, game lives and points would seem to be excellent hooks to get kids to understand the concept.) And we did get through all of this by the end of class. One kid — the new kid — even got a crazy multi-leveled reverse bullet-hell shooter thing happening with a screen full of enemies and bullets flying absolutely everywhere. Another kid made a maze-like game where one had to maneuver around the level to get to the door to move on. I mean, they only had a few tools at their disposal, so they weren’t going to create a wide range of games, but I was pleased to see they were coming up with different approaches.

Oh: And one kid found a sort of top-down zombie defense game made with GameMaker. And rather well-polished, as well, with good graphics and sounds. Like the zombie level in Call of Duty: World at War (but top-down): You’re in a house with a gun and zombies are trying to break in and you have to kill them before you’re overwhelmed by the flood. Definitely a game like games they had enjoyed before. But. Since made with GameMaker, I could prompt them to think about how the maker of that game might’ve built it. The kids knew how to make a player. They knew walls. Enemies. Bullets. Points. They had all of the pieces to make something like this zombie game. I think it was interesting for them to make that connection.

Another observation: For a couple of the kids, I don’t think they had quite formed in their mind a difference between player and designer. On kid, especially — the bullet-hell kid — seemed to kind of treat the bullets and points as things you might upgrade as a player in a game like Call of Duty. So he made a million bad guys. And then kept increasing the bullet spray until he cold kind of wipe them out no problem. And then he made them each worth some massive amount of points and showed off his, like, 16-digit score. Which is fine — nothing wrong with that sort of experimentation at all. But. Definitely funny. And a little insight into how these kids might think about making games, just the idea that they might need to develop a bit more of a designer’s mentality as something distinct from a player’s mentality. But. Game designers also aim to make experiences that are satisfying. And clearing off a whole screen of hundreds of enemies with a massive barrage of bullets is, indeed, satisfying.

What else? Oh, yeah. I set up the blog on its own domain (hidden from the world, for now, because of privacy concerns — sorry) as to bypass the school’s, ahem, dumb restriction on Tumblr. But we ran out of time and I didn’t get a chance to get the kids going with it. I’m getting worried about this part of the class. I very much wanted to have them contribute to the blog, especially since so much of our in-class time will go towards GameMaker. But it may not come to pass. I’ll give it another shot next week.

So that’s about it. I haven’t fully decided on what we’re going to do next week. I’m guessing a vocabulary run-down, because that’s become our thing to do at the beginning of a class. Might add a couple of new terms in there for ‘em. And then more GameMaker. I’ve tentatively got a few things on the agenda, there: 1) Lives. 2) Scrolling levels. 3) General variables (like having a limited number of bullets and picking up new supplies). 4) Something else I’m forgetting right now.

Actually, I’m like half-sick right now. And sitting up on my roof writing in the dark because the fresh air is nice (and the wifi works up here, which is convenient). So my thinking may be a little generally muddled. But there you have it.

Onward.

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Game Design for High Schoolers, Class #1

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I wanted to write a few words about the game design class I’m teaching over at the Academy of Urban Planning, a high school in Bushwick. We have our next class tomorrow and I should get get out some thoughts about the first class before things get jumbled.

So, yeah. We had our class. And it went very well, happy to report. We had about nine kids turn up altogether, and they kind of trickled out over the course of our two hours so by the end we had four present. Apparently it’ll take another class or so before they get into the rhythm of staying the entire time. The class is a bit of an elective — and it’s from 4-6pm on Tuesdays through the summer, which is… odd for kids of that age. And that class schedule really feeds into my feeling that I’m teaching a graduate school class for 15 and 16-year-old. Or, at least, an ITP class for kids that age: The first class was definitely very conversational and I’m trying to let the kids guide me as much as possible towards what they want to learn. And like an ITP class, everyone’s going to have a group project due at the end… We’re going to make simple games with YoYo Games’ GameMaker software, a fun little casual game-making tool I’ve been playing with for the past few days. Perfect for building some early-era Nintendo-style 2D creations. (And which Brad Hargreaves over at General Assembly actually recommended to me — good call on that!) I think the kids will have fun with that.

Anyway: More about this first class. Before we started, one kid introduced himself and mentioned that he’d googled me and watched my Ignite talk — a good sign. And during the class he talked and talked about games — very engaged, and even a little self-conscious that he was chattering too much. I was pretty excited at the engagement. And to see that the other kids were mostly into it, as well — especially the ones who remained as the class went along. Everyone talked. Everyone seemed more-or-less comfortable, although these are high school kids and prone to goofy awkwardness (something I’ve tooooootally grown out of). But I felt a good vibe and nice energy as we went along.

So what did we do? Well. I had very neatly picked out a few casual online games for us to play together a lead-in to some conversations about different kinds of games. (See my last post on the matter.) Two things happened, though:

1. Fun fact: Schools have content blockers. And those content blockers block games. (And Twitter. But not Facebook or YouTube, which surprised me.) So my game selections we a no-go.

2. Honestly, after getting to know them a bit… These kids mostly seemed to have XBOXes and Wiis. Or, at the very least, they had spent a fair amount of time playing games online. My game selections felt kind of dinky and a bit below what they were already used to. I don’t need to introduce teenagers to video games. They pretty well know them.

I had to do something, though, so Lisa (the woman who helped me teach that day) and I clicked around trying to find some games that the blocker had missed. Found some terrible ones clearly for elementary schoolers which just sucked. But during this one of the kids found an HTML 5 version of Lemmings that someone had created, so we wound up playing that, each kid pulling it up on their computer screen and playing for 10-15 minutes. And then discussion. Which led into the meat of the class:

What is a game?

This is when things got interesting. I started doing my thing, prompting them to think about games they’d played and what made them different from a non-game. And it really didn’t take them any time to hit on the key things. Goals. Rules. Strategy. Etc. We went through and talked about the features of games and I tried to push the boundaries of their thinking a bit, toward things like: What makes a game bad (which one kid entertainingly hijacked into an elaborate rant against ET for the Atari 2600, which came out when he was, like, -14)? And we talked about level design. Like, when playing Lemmings, how were the levels ordered? You have all of these powers and controls… Did you start out with access to all of them or just some? That kind of thing. Again, they got it very quickly. They play games all the time. They know about increasing difficulty.

And this was one of the major takeaways, I think. And why I think this is an important sort of class. These kids do play games all the time. And they put a fair amount of thinking into them and I’m sure that almost every kid there has had moments when they’ve mentally stepped back a bit and considered in a more abstract sense what they’re doing when they’re playing a game. But. I don’t think they ever get to talk about this stuff, at least not in a way where they’re allowed to think about it and get a little bit of direction from an adult. Or validation that it’s not a flat-out waste of time. Almost certainly not at school. At least not in an official sense — I bet there are teachers who play games and talk about them a bit with the kids. Maybe? I don’t know. At any rate, I felt like I had a subject at my disposal that the kids both wanted to talk about and were already, to a certain degree, experts on. Just without realizing it.

And in a broader sense, I want to see more classes like this taught in high schools because I know that kids have different sorts of brains and I feel like game design (like computer science) appeals to a kind of systems thinking which brains like mine do very well with. I happened to be smart enough to skate by and do reasonably well in high school, but I felt like my classes very rarely connected with the way my brain really liked to learn. Most of the stuff I really enjoyed learning about I kind of just did on my own. I definitely kind of created my own personal curriculum during high school and definitely college, not limited to technology by any means, but certainly that’s where I picked up my mad computer skills. I’m good with computers.

Anyway: I think there’s room, here, to appeal to some kids who might not’ve connected to a subject yet at school and get them excited. And slip in some computer programming, geometry, and art talk while we’re at it.

Big picture stuff.

Tomorrow is class #2. Werewolf day. More reports afterwards, I’m sure.

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Two Classes on Game Design

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Yeah, so it looks like I’ve got an exciting week coming up. (I also think I sort of broke the “s” key on my laptop’s keyboard — it sometimes doesn’t trigger when I hit it. And until I have evidence to the contrary, Iím going to blame the cat. But thatís an issue for another day.)

So. Iím leading two classes next week, in two very different educational contexts. On Tuesday, I’m doing my first day of a class called “Play” — an eight-week summer class for high school kids about game design. Then on Thursday I’m doing a talk over at General Assembly on my usual subject of the past year-or-so, game design and social media. A couple hours with 9th and 10th graders. A couple hours with industry people. I’m expecting that by Friday I will have another interesting blog post rarin’ to go…

Anyway. Let’s take these one by one.

Tuesday. Iím honestly most nervous about this one. Iíve done professional talks before, and theyíre fairly nerve-wracking (especially Ignite — yes). But. I essentially know my audience, I know what they want, and I can at least predict how I think theyíre going to respond to me. For example, I know I can go and talk for about an hour straight on a fairly esoteric topic and people will sit there and politely lend me their ears (I hope). I will be confident that I can just blab whatís on my mind and people will be basically on my same page a far as context. Weíre all social media players, we know what the big issues and common complaints of the day are, we know most of the same memes. We all spend our days sitting in front of the same internet.

But. I do not think this is going to be the case on Tuesday, with this group of kids. Now, I expect them to be reasonably tech-savvy. In fact, I sat in on fifteen-twenty minutes of Andrew “Mr. Drozd” Drozdís computer class last Wednesday and got a taste of what their level of sophistication is. Just saying this makes me feel like grandpa, but: Theyíre already well beyond where the average high schooler was when I was in high school. Granted, thereís way more stuff for them to explore — Iím not saying my peers were tech-dumb. But I think these kids will have a basic knowledge of what, say, Facebook is and how social networking online works. They might even have some programmer-mindset sorts of mental stuff going on — Iím sort of convinced that if you enjoy using technology at a young enough age thereís almost no way you canít develop a programmerís mentality about computers. As you explore and push the boundaries of Facebook, for example, youíll get to understand computer logic and flow and how things fit together conceptually. I think. Maybe Iíll be wrong, here. Which is part of the reason Iím so excited to teach this — I just want to see how kids use technology. I know how tech nerds use technology.

Iím also hoping that this “programmer mindset” thing is happening with some of these kids simply because I think the game designer mentality is very, very similar. Game design is all about creating complex and purposeful systems and making sure those system work as intended, while making sure there are no holes or exploits that will break them or make them un-fun. You may not need to explicitly know what a for-loop is, but you do need to be able to mentally run through many, many “what ifs” and think about how the players are going to interactive with whatever you create.

So, yeah. I think this first class on Tuesday will be a couple of things. The biggest: Simply me feeling them out so I can get a read on what their mindset about gaming is already. They play games. That Iím confident of. They doubtless play many more games than they even realize, and I think game design is also a very interesting subject to talk to kids about because itís quite possible that they play more different games for longer periods of time than almost any adult does. They probably play sports. Basketball or baseball or whatever. And some Xbox. (Maybe too much Xbox.) And they seem to have Facebook accounts, so Iíd be surprised if some werenít into social games like Farmville. No doubt they get distracted while online and find casual games to mess with, as well. They might play board games. Checkers? Chess? Thereís probably some casual gambling of some sort happening. Who knows. But this is the kind of stuff I want to get a read on. Before I do, I donít think I can make any sort of concrete plan of action for the coming weeks.

Iíve also found a handful of online games for us to play together (with special thanks to the fine folks at ask.Metafilter for their many suggestions). I donít think weíll get through them all, and Iím really hoping that theyíll have some games in mind to play in class — but Iíll list Ďem here, anyway. Maybe youíll find something you enjoy. These are, by the way, games Iím hoping they can play in five or ten minutes and get the essence of the experience.

Casual games:

Strategy games:

Games as art or personal expression:

Cooperative games:

Puzzlers:

  • notpron. (Although, jeez — a name like that makes me nervous about using it in class.)

Anyway — you may know much better examples of these kinds of games (or other kinds of games Iím missing altogether). Hit me up in the comments, please, if you have ideas. But you get where Iím kind of going. And I hope to take the class through a few of these games during our couple of hours.

One final comment: The part that makes me the most nervous is simply the possibility that some kids just wonít care. That Iíll have to fight to get some to pay attention or that Iíll be exhausted just keeping conduct in line or whatever. Iím going into this assuming that the topic will be enticing enough that I can rely on the kids being fairly interested. If nothing else, if I sense that Iím losing them, I can totally switch gears. Itís nice not having to teach against a prescribed curriculum. But weíll see.

Itís all a big experiment.

And then, yeah: Thursday. At General Assembly.

So Mike Dory put Brad Hargreaves over there in touch with me (thanks!) — they wanted someone to come talk about game design, Iím always willing to talk about game design, so here we are. The talk has been put together quickly, but Iíve been pondering this topic long enough that I kind of had a nice set of points I knew I wanted to make.

Iím talking about how game design impacts social media design. My grouchy pitch: Iím really tired of all of this “gamification” crap because itís vastly oversimplifying why game design is so important for people who design other kinds of interactive products. So many people seem caught up in their points and badges — 90% inspired by Foursquare, it feels like. And thereís been this happy-hippie GAMES WILL SAVE THE WORLD thread of conversation which Iím getting tired of because itís letting people who donít really have much to say grab everyoneís attention simply and get everyone all excited by just listing all of the things that we can now suddenly fix with a few simple game mechanics: Global warming! Solved. The economy! Fixed. Social inequality! Easy-cheezy. Education! Fixed over my lunch break.

Obviously Iím kind of overstating the case, but I do thing thereís tremendous room in here for a much more nuanced conversation about game design and interactive design. Iím hardly a ground-breaking genius on the subject of either games or social media, but I think I have the right attitude and Iím hoping that I can at least try to point some people in the right direction. Itís all about opening up peopleís minds to possibilities. My own, included. I love doing talks mostly because of the amount of research and thinking I am forced to do leading up to them. Even if they cancelled the actual talk, it would be worth it for me.

Brad had me tone down some of the bitchiness in my talk description — with good reason. I promise: My talk will not full of complaints. And even though I get snarky about some game designers when they get all starry-eyed about this sort of stuff, Iím very pleased that this line of conversation has become popular. I do think thereís a lot to learn, here, and I appreciate the idea of people having this conversation amongst themselves — even if theyíre sometimes amateurs or just people shooting the shit.

Anyway. More on that later, as well. Iím going to post my talking notes online as I did with my SXSW 2010 talk.

Itís 2am.

Goodnight.

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Book Reviews 2011, Part 1

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Continuing the tradition

I’ve certainly been packing away the books this year. It’s probably a combination of things: 1) I’ve got free time. 2) I’m becoming a better developer (maybe), so that takes less mental energy and I’m looking for other outlets. 3) I own an iPad which at least removes most of the overhead of having to go out and buy physical books (and eBooks are cheaper). But really: Who knows.

And so, here’s a selection of reviews I’ve left on Shelfari the first three months of this year:

The 25th Hour by David Benioff

“It’s good. I like the set-up: Monty’s last 24hrs before heading off for a stretch in federal prison. And the characters are very well-painted. But it fizzles a little bit at the end and doesn’t wrap things up in a totally satisfying way, which is a bit disappointing. But I like Benioff’s style. City of Thieves is definitely a better work of his, though.” ✭✭✭✭

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

“I don’t know… I kind of hazily cruised through this one. I liked the character of Pnin and the depiction of Waindell but wasn’t really gripped by the story.” ✭✭✭

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

“Hm. So I read this simply because I’m working on a project where we’re throwing around the term “whuffie” quite often. I wanted to make sure I understood where the term came from. And Magic Kingdom is a short read — and free — so why not?

“Overall: I like some of the ideas. I like exploring what happens when people live in a world of total abundance — when they don’t die, they don’t starve, they can totally remake their bodies at a whim, etc. But this book kind of suffers from existing in this universe where Nothing Really Matters: Magic Kingdom is way too light. There’s almost no substance to it. The central plot feels utterly inconsequential. The hundred-plus year-old characters have the wisdom of teenagers. And the moments when the story should take us aside and really explore some of the implications of all of this life-extension, social-currency (“whuffie”) economy, etc stuff — it doesn’t. Which is a shame.

“Anyway: It’s a fun read. A quick read. Just lacking in substance.” ✭✭✭

American Splendor by Harvey Pekar

“This is really the kind of storytelling I like best, the sort of slice-of-life stuff. I guess it’s the depiction of the little moments of beauty or epiphany in plain life… It helps me step back and appreciate the details in my own mundane world a bit more. Good stuff.” ✭✭✭✭✭

A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut

“Just a guy talking about life and stuff. A mellow read. Good for getting a little perspective.” ✭✭✭✭✭

Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson

“I enjoy reading about physics and astrophysics. And while I don’t have much of a mathematical background in those sciences (beyond the basics), I took enough classes in high school and undergrad (and have read enough books with interest) that I feel like I know a thing or two about what goes on up there.

“Tyson (whom I find utterly charming on television) doesn’t break any new ground in science — this isn’t a book about string theory or any other single cutting-edge topic. (Most of it’s not even about black holes.) What this book is, rather, is a series of science essays, each one tackling one specific piece of the astrophysics puzzle and explaining it in a very approachable, understandable way. In doing this, Tyson builds up a fairly detailed picture of how the universe works without ever getting too complicated or dull.

“So while I felt like I had been exposed to much of this information in the past (in a liberal arts sort of way), I really appreciated the science refresher and I appreciated being taken away from my mundane day-to-day back to a place where I could appreciate space and science. It’s something I used to enjoy — but it’s hard to find the time to fit into an otherwise rather busy life.

“My only criticism is about the last two sections, which were mostly about earthly concerns such as lack of public scientific literacy and the place of religion and intelligent design in science. Tyson and I are on the exact same page on these issues and he, of course, can make his arguments much more elegantly than I could. But. I really don’t need to be convinced of these issues and I really just wanted to hear more about the actual science. And it ended the book on a kind of oddly combative note.

“So: Great book! It’s a relatively quick and easy read given the subject matter and Tyson’s almost as charming on the printed page as he is on TV.” ✭✭✭✭✭

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Should you join that start-up? Running the numbers.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Earlier this year I was approached to join a social media start-up as a developer. I’m not going to get into any details about it except to say that I would’ve been developer #1, tasked with taking the software from zero to beta (and beyond, presumably). And the founder of this company had plans to go through what seems to be the standard-issue VC funding and growth process. So. Before receiving an offer for compensation, I knew next to nothing about how start-up economics work for developers (or, really, for anyone). I still am certainly no expert, but I tried my best to do my research and talk to people who know about this stuff — and a picture did begin to form in my head of how it works and of what metrics I should use to judge whether joining a start-up is worth my time.

I’m going to share that thinking with you, here. And the goal isn’t to share specific information about that start-up or what compensation I was offered: The numbers I’m going to use are not real. But my logic and thinking is. And if you’re considering an offer to join a start-up (or starting one yourself), I’m hoping this might be of use to you. At least for some perspective.

(Also: I’m fully expecting to come back to this post in a few years/months/days and think, “Christ, what a noob.”)

So.

Here are my steps for deciding whether the opportunity to join a start-up makes economic sense for you as a developer (or any other hire, really).

1. Assess what your base yearly income is (or would be).

To start: I feel developers oftentimes undervalue themselves. If you know how to code or otherwise create using technology, you have something that’s immensely valuable right now. If you can sit down at a computer and make a thing, even if simple, and even if done in a clumsy way: That’s valuable. Many people in our industry cannot do that. And it’s not just valuable because you can do for yourself for free what someone else needs to pay for. It’s valuable because if you can manipulate technology, you can get dirty with the tools of the trade, play with them, and learn more about what possibilities they contain.

So, Mr. or Ms. Developer, the first (obvious) step when making a decision like this is to assess what you’re worth. If you’re already full-time employed, use that as a base. I work on contract projects, so my income fluctuates radically year-to-year. But let’s say you’re worth $100,000 per year as a full-time employee. (Again, this is not the number I chose for myself. But it’s a nice, round number that will be easy to plug-in below.)

On thing to think about, here: For my number, I factored in my income but I also kept in mind quality-of-life issues. As an independent developer I can take as many holidays as I want. I work at home with my cat. I can be very selective about the projects I take on and I can vary my income on a whim if needed. These perks are very important to me and I would need to be paid more that just my standard yearly income to pull me away from them. If you’re working a desk job you don’t care for in a cinderblock room with no windows and a single 40 Watt lightbulb to keep you company, you might adjust your numbers the opposite direction.

So: Pick your yearly value. $100k, for example.

2. Understand the offer.

Again, not using real numbers, here. My offer came in the form of a yearly salary plus options. Let’s pretend this was $3,000 per month (a low number designed more to help keep start-up employee afloat while the company gets its wings) and 3% stock options vesting over four years with a one year cliff (common vesting and cliff numbers). First, make sure you know some terms:

Vesting. This means you will slowly accrue these options over the course of four years. If you quit after two years, for example, you only get 1.5% of your 3%.

Cliff. This means you won’t accrue any options until a certain amount of time has passed. So in this case you would see no options until after one year, but on the one year mark, 0.75% of your 3% would immediately vest — your entire first year’s worth. Does that make sense? It’s a little weird.

And finally you absolutely must understand dilution.If you fail to factor in dilution, you run the risk of grossly overestimating how much stock you will have when your options vest. Dilution is this, in essence (again, using very round numbers for easy math): When a VC invests in the company, she usually doesn’t buy existing stock (as I understand it). She makes new stock, so your stock will be worth less. Say there are 10,000,000 shares. If a VC puts $10,000,000 into the company, they might add another 10,000,000 shares to the pool. If you had 3% of the company, you now own 1.5% of the company. You have the same number of shares, but now there are twice as many shares total. (Although hopefully your shares are each worth more!)

My math on dilution (which more experienced friends have agreed with), is that a few rounds of VC funding might reduce your stake in the company down by 50%-75%. These are the real numbers I used for calculation. And, of course, numbers like these are wildly speculative. But to run the math, you will need to figure out what expected dilution you are comfortable using as an estimate. A 75% dilution means your 3% would actually be 0.75% of the company after several VC rounds. Granted, if you’ve gone through three rounds of funding, your start-up’s probably doing well and that 0.75% may be valuable. But you need to know what dilution means.

Finally, stock options I’m not going to get into the details, here, but be aware of what that means. It doesn’t exactly mean immediate ownership. Fred Wilson has much more elegant descriptions of how this sort of stuff works.

So: You’ve been offered $36k/yr with 3% stock options on a four year vest with a one year cliff. And you know what that means.

3. Understand the gamble.

Math time.

You are making a gamble.

You are joining a start-up and will make significantly less money that you would otherwise make. For maybe a year or two. Possibly longer. And you’re a responsible adult, so you’re not just doing this for the sheer joy of working in a crazy start-up environment. The gamble must have a financial upside: If you do a great job and the cards turn up in your favor, you want a nice pay-off for your sacrifices today. That is the essence of entrepreneurship.

To understand this gamble, you must understand your investment and the nature of the possible pay-off.

My friend Jason Cohen made this argument to me when we discussed this:

Imagine you were being hired at your standard yearly income (see step #1 above — $100k/yr). The founder of the start-up would need to find an angel investor to pay for you. And that person would expect a return of 300% over three years of 1000% over five years to make it worth their while. But! In this case, you are being offered $36k/yr. So you’re, in essence, putting $64k of seed money into the company that first year. After one year, you will be down $64,000 from what you otherwise would have earned. So you want to see that investment grow. And you might as well use 300% growth in three years and 1000% growth in five years. Meaning, if there’s an exit in three years, you want $64k times 3: $192,000 return. If that exit’s in five years, you want to see $640,000 come back to you.

Big numbers can seem crazy or greedy or whatever, especially if you’re like me and used to smaller projects. But use them. Like I said, if you think you’re worth $100k/yr and they’re offering a base of $36k/yr — that’s a massive difference. Like, a couple or three new automobiles worth of difference. Do not give that up lightly.

In my case, there was also no guarantee that I would go up to my natural salary point anytime soon, so I doubled this first year investment to give myself a number that felt comfortable stretching over the course of three to five years. In this case, that would double your $64k investment to $128k. Which would make the return you’d like to see $384,000 after three years or $1,280,000 after five. Let’s knock this down to $300k and $1m even to account for the fact that you’re not putting this in as cash right at the beginning — it’s spread over time.

I know: These numbers aren’t perfect. You’re going to have to make your best estimates given the information you have. If you’re very confident in the idea behind the start-up, for example, you might be willing to accept a gamble with less pay-off. Or if there are other reasons to join such as getting exposure to an industry in which you’d like to work. But if you are going to invest yourself in this start-up project (especially if it’s as an employee), you need to establish what levels of returns your comfortable seeing in return for the gamble of time and money you’re putting in up front.

So: Let’s say, given the numbers I’ve been using so far, that you consider your risk to be $100k over the years you’d be working on the start-up and you’d like to see $300,000 after three years or $1,000,000 after five. And let’s say $500,000 after four years, when all of your options vest. I’m fudging the numbers down a bit to make them more round and just to pretend I’m factoring in some other stuff when doing this math.

4. Spreadsheet time.

Let’s plug all of these numbers into a spreadsheet and see where we’re at.

Yearly Income Your Cost (4yrs) Stock Options Dilution Exit (mil) Full Vest Gain $ Gain %
$36,000 $100,000 3% 60% $10 $120,000 $20,000 20%
$20 $240,000 $140,000 140%
$30 $360,000 $260,000 260%
$50 $600,000 $500,000 500%
$100 $1,200,000 $1,100,000 1,100%

What this means:

Yearly Income: How much the start-up is offering you in salary.

Your Cost (4yrs): A ballpark of what you’re giving up in cash over four years to work at the start-up, based on the thinking described above.

Stock Options: What percentage of the company’s value in options are you being offered?

Dilution: The ballpark percentage of reduction in your ownership in the company after several rounds of funding.

Exit (mil): Let’s say the company has an exit right after all of your options vest — after four years. Let’s pretend it has exited at five different valuations, just to run some numbers.

Full Vest: What are your options worth at that exit point, after this hypothetical four years. Which equals Stock Options minus Dilution (which leaves you with 1.2% options) multiplied by the Exit.

Gain $: What’s your profit? Equals Full Vest minus Your Cost.

Gain %: The percentage of return you would see in this case (to compare to the numbers an angel investor might want to see, as described above).

Okay. Whew.

What you want to look at is Gain $ and Gain %. In this case, to get a good return on your investment, you’d like to see the company exit in the $30m-$60m range. $100m would be wonderful. A $10m exit would give you a terrible return, a mere $20k bonus after the years of risk you just took. These are your magic numbers. Given what you know about the industry and the start-up’s idea, do you think it can reach a $50m valuation? Is it even possible? Is it probable? Would you do this if there was a 10% chance of that? What about a 1% chance of that? We’re now in the range of questions only you can answer. This is where your professional judgment comes into play.

And be honest with yourself. My philosophy regarding optimism and pessimism is this: When you’re being creative and making things and throwing around ideas and making the business happen, be optimistic. Be joyous. Get excited. Have fun. Rock out. When you’re dealing with financial numbers you need to be realistic, sober — which for me means concentrating on the negatives. Being more pessimistic than I usually like to be. It can be a little uncomfortable, especially during negotiations when you have to talk with founders about dark crap like what happens if the business flat-out fails after a year.

So: Run that math. Think about the various possibilities and make your judgment about whether the gamble is worth it.

Caveats.

In my situation, I was talking to a founder who had essentially no code and no users and for whom I would be developer #1 and employee #1. So I didn’t factor in stuff like the current value of the stock options. Meaning: If the company were already worth $10,000,000, 3% of options could be considered to be worth $300,000 right from the start (a massive amount — I doubt a developer would get an offer like that, unless they’re someone really special). So be aware of that difference. But — it’s not hard to incorporate these numbers into the math above.

Also, I must say this once again: I’m a start-up business noob. I’m giving you my experience and I’m running through my rationale when understanding and making a judgment about my situation. If you’d like real advice, these are the two blogs which I read the most of and game me the most solid, usable information: Fred Wilson’s A VC and Jason Cohen’s A Smart Bear. Paul Graham has some good articles, as well.

My conclusion.

I turned down the offer I received. Which saddened me because a friend was making the offer. But, the money had to be right before I could get on board. And I’ll be honest: I feel like solid developers in New York City at the moment have tremendous opportunities. There are plenty of jobs out there, if nothing else.

Also, y’know: I consider myself a pretty creative guy with an entrepreneurial bent. I haven’t started a company any larger than my one-person contracting biz, but I’ve got years and years of experience working independently. I’ve met all sorts of people and have had all sorts of experiences. Why not brainstorm my own idea? Why just take some small percentage of someone else’s? Especially if I’m doing all of the development, anyway: Why not fit it around my life and start with 100% equity in a project — no vesting, no cliffs. One could start a relatively small business and with a little pluck and luck possibly walk away with more cash than one would get taking the deal above with a company that eventually had a $50m or even $100m exit.

I think this is a strong argument for that kind of philosophy. I can’t say I’d never join a start-up like this, but I do think this is a very good argument for cultivating one’s own ideas and learning how to make them valuable rather than jumping in on someone else’s thing. I have a strong independent streak, anyway. I like working at home. I like small projects with at most a couple of people working on them. I prefer working with friends. I’m not a big fan of business for business’ sake: I like to make things. And I like to be able to say things I make are mine, not that they belong to someone else. These are my tendencies — very much non-economic issues which I had to consider when working out my decision on this issue.

Anyway. I hope this brain-dump helps someone out there. I am not an expert. So if there’s something wrong about my thinking, please let me know in a comment. I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface on this and I would love to know more.

Thanks for reading!

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