Foodshot Video

A video promotion for a food journal app called Foodshot. The app was created by my designer friend Vinh Tran, and co-staring the lovely Helly Tong ^^.
Contributions: Copy editing, Acting, Voice Over.

Posted in Acting, Design, Video | Leave a comment

On Place and Belonging

Alone: somewhere between LA and SF

For most of my life I was very opinionated about place. For a while I was like “I have to live in SF, I could never live in LA.” Later I was like “I have to live in Saigon, I can’t even imagine ever living in the USA again.” But after a recent trip back to the USA I now feel that I can find happiness and a sense of belonging no matter the place.

This is in large part due to the social interactions possible, regardless of location.

So here is a heart felt “thank you” to all friends — past, present, and future — who have shared and will share their good times and bad times with me, giving me a place of belonging.

Posted in Life, Philosophy, Travel | 2 Comments

Eulogy for Lovers

Even players fall in love, opening themselves up to the opportunity to have their hearts broken. When you play with fire you expect to get burned but that’s part of the excitement too.

I knew what we had wouldn’t last forever but I always wanted it to last just one more day.

We didn’t care about the rules of society; it was all about communicating honestly. Being happy when we were together and learning to deal with complex emotions when we were not.

You triggered my enlightenment with your words “I’m happy when I’m next to you” and for that I am eternally grateful.

Posted in Poetry | 1 Comment

On Feeling Bad

It is hard to keep balance in life while trying to meet all expectations;
Disappointment and sadness are inevitable when we overextend
and probable even when we don’t.

I wish I were better at life and responsible for less suffering;
Avalokiteshvara vows to save innumerable beings with her 1000 arms
but I only have two and wasn’t there for you.

Simplify, closer, simplify; Embrace, further, embrace;
The path to eternity is to die 1000 times today
and to find your smile in time to die again tomorrow.

Posted in Life, Philosophy, Poetry | Leave a comment

The Professional Designer

A Human Endeavor

Design is about providing solutions to problems. When I talk to engineers they say: “that sounds just like engineering” and when I talk to marketers they say “that sounds just like marketing”. There is indeed a lot of crossover.

Design is a human endeavor, it isn’t just for designers. Whenever you decide to do something one way instead of another, because you’ve determined that it is better, then you are engaging in the act of design.

Janitorial staff engage in the activity of design when they have a choice of several cleaning agents and several scrubbing utensils like a brush or a scour pad or a cloth. If they do not use their power of discernment, and just use the same solution to every problem, they will damage a surface.

When you do steps 1 through 3, just as your boss instructed you to do, you are not engaged in design but instead in menial labor. When you exercise your powers of observation and discernment you are engaged in design.

A Commitment to Self Improvement

If everyone can design, then what is the difference between a professional designer and any person engaging in the activity of design?

It might be helpful to think about the difference between a professional athlete, an amateur athlete, and someone who is able bodied but not athletic.

Take a moment to visualize what the differences might be.

Taking tennis as an example; any able bodied person is capable of swinging a tennis racket.

An amateur or enthusiast tennis player probably plays with their friends every weekend for fun, they’re so much better than the non-player but still the difference between them and the professional player is pretty big.

The professional player practices every day. They practice with the intent of getting better, not just having fun. They practice serves over and over again. They practice returning serves over and over again. They do simple drills over and over again. They are committed to their craft.

Their craft is burned into their muscle memory, and their perspective on life is changed forever.

A professional designer is just like this.

The difference between an amateur and a professional is their mindset. For the amateur the activity is fun, for the professional it is life or death. The professional has made a commitment to improve their craft every day.

If you would like to become a professional designer, or a professional anything, the first step is to change your mindset. Say: “I am a designer and I want to become a great designer”, then set about practicing your craft year after year until you one day wake up and realize that you are a professional.

If you don’t have this kind of passion or commitment for your current occupation — stop — pick something that you really want to become better at and throw yourself into that activity.

Getting Paid to Design

Of course one mark of being a professional is that others are willing to pay you for your services. It is hard to imagine a world where a non-professional tennis player can get paid to play their game, but people without this kind of commitment get paid to work as designers all the time. Tennis is perhaps more honest.

Professionalism vs Mastery

You can be a master at something without being a professional, but you still need the same commitment to continual self improvement.

You can be a professional at something without being a master, you just need to provide value to your client, customer, or employer.

There are professional monks who perform funeral rites. They may not be zen masters at all. There are zen masters who never perform services for patrons.

Professionals and masters both have high levels of skill. While mastery implies the highest tier of skill, it carries no financial or client satisfaction expectation. A professional is someone who strives to provide value for their services. They must look at the bigger picture.

The Big Picture

My zen master (who is a senior consulting architect) once told me that design is the balance of form, function, and cost; three legs of a stool or table, if you neglect one the project will fail.

I’ve thought about this model for years and think I have an improvement to it: design is the balance of form and function within constraints.

The balance of form and function, this is the observation and discernment skill mentioned before. This is the core design skill. But what separates a professional designer from an enthusiast designer, more so than the commitment or the pay check, is the stoic consideration of a project’s constraints.

Constraints are all of the issues that producers and project managers concern themselves with:

  • Project budget
  • Deadline
  • Skill of team
  • Number of team members
  • Government regulations
  • Health and safety best practices
  • Hardware limitations
  • Client mandates
  • Client feedback
  • etc

As a professional designer you can’t just make the building or game or car or website that you want, because you think it is cool. You must fully take into account your proposals’ impact on — and adherence to — the project’s constraints.

I once read: “A designer’s job is to ask for more and a producer’s job is to say ‘no’.”

If you’re designers are not professional, then sure, your producer will have to enforce the constraints, but good designers should have taken those constraints into consideration in the first place.

Talent Isn’t Enough

One of my best friends is the most talented designer that I know. He has been doing paid design work since he was 15 and has worked in senior and director level positions at top fashion magazines and international design thinking firms. He is a professional today, for sure, but as a youth he wasn’t. He lost a huge client in his youth due to missing a deadline.

Talent isn’t enough, you need to mature to become a professional. No one is going to hold your hand. You have to deliver value, which means you have to deliver the expected quality on time and on budget.

If you’re young, you probably won’t take this seriously enough, and it won’t be until you lose your job or your client that the sting of failure teaches you. That’s ok. Maturation is hard to force, so please focus on the rest of this article: commit to your craft, provide value, consider the big picture. Do this day after day until one day you realize you’re already a professional.

Posted in Articles, Design, Game Dev, Philosophy, Shugyo | 9 Comments

Note to Self…

Stop trying to invent yourself as a creative genius and start thinking of yourself as a competent craftsman!

 

In my own journey as a game designer I frequently find myself not exploring an idea because it isn’t cleaver enough or original enough or mind blowing enough. I’m guilty of spending far too much time in an “arm chair” philosophically waxing and not enough time getting my hands dirty.

As people working in a creative field it is easy to fall into this trap. It is easy to forget that the greatest works aren’t great because they crawled out of a genius’s mind but rather because they are refined products crafted with attention to detail by hands well practiced in their art.

So this post is a call to arms to myself, and to anyone else likewise afflicted by this delusion: Stop trying to invent yourself as a genius and start thinking of yourself as a competent craftsman!

Further Reading:

I’m reminded of this rant from Chris Hecker where he tells indies to fully explore their ideas.

Or Neil Geiman’s commencement speach advising students to “make good art” no matter what’s happening in their life.

Chris Hecker specifically calls out Jonathan Blow’s Braid as an example of an indie game that fully explores the depths of a game mechanic. It is incidentally a very polished product all around, it isn’t just the game mechanic. Braid, while seemingly a work of genius, is actually a refined products crafted with attention to detail by hands well practiced in their art. Like the Sistine Chapel it was a feat accomplished after many years of labor. Or to put it another way, genius is hard work.

And you know what, if you just want to release a bunch of not fully explored ideas, a bunch of experiments, that’s fine! In fact, if you’re just starting out, that’s what you should do. But please do something. Do something, and refine your craft!

 

Posted in Game Dev, Philosophy | 1 Comment

Infinite Gratitude to Death

Infinite gratitude to lovers;
who have shared their body and soul with me.

Infinite gratitude to mentors;
who have shared their wisdom and skill with me.

Infinite gratitude to friends;
who have shared their good times and bad times with me.

And infinite gratitude to death;
who patiently waits for me in the void.

Posted in Life, Poetry | 2 Comments

Threats to Ouya — You Win!

There is a new Android based game console on the horizon called Ouya. There are plenty of people excited about it and plenty of people saying that it will fail. I had some thoughts while commuting on my scooter (seems that’s where most of my thoughts occur these days) that I’d like to share.

First, I’ve identified three threats to Ouya.
Second, consumers and developers win.

Three Threats to Ouya

First a quick background:

  • Ouya’s business model is to take a 30% revenue share of games/apps.
  • Ouya is an open console, open to hacking, rooting. This is one of their main selling points.
  • Ouya is based on Android, a commodity (and open source), operating system used to power most of today’s smart phones.

The threats:

  • Piracy
    Since their ToS allow for device rooting, the device will be easily capable of playing hacked/pirated versions of games.  
  • An alternative App/Game Marketplace running on Ouya
    There is nothing stopping other companies from releasing an alternative storefront that runs on Ouya. Similar to piracy, except consumer revenue goes to a 3rd party instead of to no one.  
  • Competition from other Android based consoles, or game ready televisions
    There’s nothing stopping anyone else from releasing a similar device. Also, most televisions will come with the ability to play games in the near future. 

Actually these are threats to any platform providers. But while all platforms face the risk of piracy, 3rd party stores, and competition from other platforms, Ouya feels particularly at risk since there is nothing proprietary about their system. They’re offering virtually nothing other than “good will” and — we’re promised — good industrial design.

Consumers and Developers Win

Regardless of Ouya’s potential success or failure in the marketplace, both consumers and developers will come out on top.

Why developers win:

  • Market Defragmentation
    One of the biggest problems with Android on mobile phone is the wide range of resolutions, interfaces, aspect ratios, and system specs. This is called hardware fragmentation. Only large companies like Gameloft really have the resources to properly support porting to a fragmented market. While smart TVs, Ouya, and other consoles might not share standard controllers or hardware specs they will share the resolution and aspect ratio of HD television. This is more than half the battle.Many have critizised Ouya’s chioce of Tegra 3 as being not powerful enough but I think it makes sense as a minimum system spec to target for small developers. Make your game run well on Ouya and it will run well on any newer system that hits the market. Differences in gamepad isn’t a big issue as they mostly mimic the successful playstation controller.
  • Author Once, Deploy Anywhere
    Back when I was the marketing manager for Unity we used the slogan “Author Once, Deploy Anywhere”. The idea is that a small (or even large) developer can create their content and then deploy to multiple platforms with a single click. It isn’t quite that easy as you do need to take differences in controller interface, screen resolution/aspect ratio, and system specs into consideration.If you’re developing an iPhone game, it might not make sense for you to port to more than the top 5 Android phones and Tablets, but because Ouya leverages a Chipset/OS combination that is widely used, and because of the defragmentation mentioned above, the market should be significant enough to warrant the relatively little effort to create the port, especially since commercial engines like Unity and Unreal have already pledged support for Ouya (as well as smart TVs).
  • Wet Dream
    Lots of developers dream to put their games on a console but historically it wasn’t possible for hobbiests or even small companies without a track record. The barrier for a small developer to create and share their game with others on Ouya is super low (and they can use Unity instead of XNA!).

Why consumers win:

Consumers will win because they will have access to television gaming experiences that may not have been created if Ouya hadn’t cleared the path for Android based TV gaming. People are excited, I think the genie is out of the bottle, and even if Ouya fails someone will pick up the baton and keep running with it.

Posted in Business, Game Dev, Tek | Leave a comment

New Days

I’m having one of those mornings where
you didn’t get to sleep
you punished your body
and you have some regrets
but the cool morning light
washes it all away
and you’re so damn happy
to be alive
namaste

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Like a Boss: Four Talents for Middle Managers

Last week a would be Studio Lead Game Designer asked me to summarize the traits of a good middle manager. I came up with four:

Leadership

Leadership and management are not the same thing. Leadership requires that your team listens to you. Before they will listen to you they have to respect you. Leadership requires the kind of confidence that can only be gained by sticking your neck out there at the risk of looking like a fool: think public speaking or stand up comedy. As a leader you need to make decisions and provide solutions. It also requires being honest with yourself and your team. I suspect this last point is where most people fail. One of my favorite frequent utterances of Zen master Dogen Hosokawa is “I don’t know.”

Management

The act of management doesn’t necessarily mean the management of people. You could manage inventory, or a portfolio, though as a department head you’re probably managing people. From this perspective, management means allocating the right resources (people) to the right projects. It also means firing people who are not making a positive contribution and hiring those who you hope will.

Facilitation

There are two types of facilitation that a department head or team lead will have to engage in frequently. The first type is like that of a counselor resolving interpersonal conflicts. The other type is helping your team to navigate your organizations political structure. You know what will help them be productive and happy, now make it happen.

Facilitation requires that you be able to “read the tea leaves”. You need to be sensitive to the feelings of others. If you attack too straight forward the other person will become rigid and they will not hear your words. More on this in Research below.

Research

Don’t make decisions out of hubris or ignorance.

When you don’t know the answer to a question you have three options:

  1. Admit that you don’t know.
  2. Make up an answer.
  3. Research until you do know. Ask your staff for their opinions, ask your peers, and scour the internet. Combine this knowledge with your wisdom and come back with some solutions.

Another aspect of research is an empirical approach to management/leadership. You will come across many situations that you’ve not had to deal with before. Conduct your own experiments and learn from your own success and failure. These can be experiments with new team structures, management methodologies, business models, etc.

You can also experiment with your communication. As you are talking with someone, be aware of their body language. If they start to look defensive, confused, bored, or uncomfortable find a way to lighten the mood and then try to communicate the same thing from a different angle. Each person responds differently so what worked with one person might not work with another. Keep up these experiments and build up your wisdom.

On Fear

Zemsky Roshi used to tell me “the primary concern of managers is to protect their position in the hierarchy.” If you are a manager, please don’t do this. Don’t be afraid of someone usurping your position; if your decision making process is governed by protecting yourself instead of making the best product or protecting your team, then you will be making sub-par decisions.

If someone does get promoted above you, or replaces you, then it was probably time to move on anyways.

Also, you have to involve yourself in all kinds of potentially uncomfortable situations such as speaking in front of your team, having disciplinary meetings, or making proposals to your boss. It is natural to feel fear in these situations but you must find some way to engage in these communications despite the fear.

And as I mentioned in Research, don’t be afraid to conduct small experiments.

Further Reading

Posted in Business | 2 Comments