Chief Creative Officer, Spry Fox
Who are you, and what do you do?
I’m Daniel Cook and I run our design experiments at the game company Spry Fox. I’ve been lucky enough to have 10 of millions of people play the games I’ve worked on. It is very strange meeting people that played my games since what I do is pretty geeky and solitary. My games range from shooters like Tyrian and Realm of the Mad God to more tactical designs like Steambirds and Triple Town. I’m really interested in design invention; how do we create new forms for games that push the medium forward. I don’t want to make yet another adventure game. Instead let’s try to create an entirely new genre. These days, we are exploring interesting multiplayer experiences and figuring out what happens if you treat a game like a decade long service instead of a consumable boxed product.
Our team works remotely so a big challenge is how to be innovative when you aren’t constantly interacting face-to-face. As a side project, I run Lostgarden.com where I talk about game design. The Creative Commons art that I give away on that site has been used in dozens of released games at this point. Actually, Khan Academy just started up their new CS courses and I was delighted to find out they were using some of my art. You never know where a seed is going to blossom.
What hardware do you use?
I have two setups tailored to different tasks. My main station is a 27” monitor with a mid-tier Dell with 12 gigs of ram. This is where I do art and a little writing. I don’t bother much with the details of my computers since the only things I’ve noticed that impacts my output is the size of my screen and having enough memory to keep multiple Illustrator files and prototypes running simultaneously. There’s also a Wacom tablet as well for when I do digital paintings but lately my art has been leaning towards a more graphic vector style so it doesn’t get quite as much love.
My second machine is an overly solid 15.6” Thinkpad T530 with an SSD. What I love about this machine is the keyboard. Each keystroke is a joy. For some reason most laptop manufacturers completely skimp on keyboards and touchpads. It is like they are selling the idea of a computer instead of an actual functioning tool. I’ve been tempted by Macs, but the thought of repurchasing all my software is a little worrisome. I take my ‘tank’ out to coffee shops and the change of location (plus the wonderful Seattle caffeine injections) does wonders for the occasional creative block.
Perhaps the most critical element of my home setup is a giant bay window looking out over some lovely trees. We live in such a technological cocoon, that is seems important to connect with nature just a little. A good day is when I ‘m drinking a nice cup of oolong and I raise my gaze past my monitor to see birds flocking over the evergreens. Of course during Seattle winters, that means watching wet crows, but I love ‘em all the same.
And what software?
The bulk of our conversation happens in Skype. We’ve got each team set up in chat rooms and then we have on topic conversations throughout the day. What is great about this is that it is asynchronous. If you are in the middle of something, then a message from someone is stored until you are ready to read it. Since it is a team chat, everyone sees the conversation so there is less trouble keeping people up to date. When conversation starts to rathole, a quick voice chat usually brings things to a conclusion. There’s also a screen sharing function. When I want to run a playtest for a game, I just call up someone on my Skype list, send them the URL to the latest online build and get them to share their screen.
For writing, we use Google Docs. The ability to collaboratively edit documents in realtime and share them over the web with the click of a button has really changed how I write design docs. Recently someone sent me a Microsoft Word file in the mail and I realized that I haven’t actually opened such a thing in months. The whole concept of ‘files’ is a bit outdated now. Many of our prototypes store their balancing data in Google Spreadsheets and then we can quickly tweak a value and have it published live to the game. So you get all the version control and group editing of Google Docs feeding directly into your game… this is much nicer than throwing XML files back and forth.
I’ve been using Adobe Illustrator for interface design. My favorite technique is to set up all the UI elements on separate artboards and then I can quickly export them out with full name to all sorts of different resolutions with a single dialog. This saves my bacon every time Apple doubles their target resolution. :-) We also use Dropbox for our file storage and everyone has a variety of iOS and Android devices for testing the latest builds and playing Drop7.
Early in my career, I was a big fan of co-located teams since I couldn’t imagine that anyone could create original games when you are dealing with A) different time zones and B) the lack of nuance inherent in electronic communication. However, Spry Fox is going on three years now and distributed teams have been surprisingly effective. Last year, I was on vacation in Japan and we launched three titles. I slowed down my interactions, but at no point was I completely disconnected from the teams. It is a freeing feeling.
For the games themselves, we’ve used Flash, Unity or HTML. Essentially, we want to be cross platform so that once we’ve found an interesting game mechanics, we can quickly distribute it to as many people as possible. Having one codebase per game makes this a lot easier.
What would be your dream setup?
I carry a paper notebook with me everywhere. It is light, easily passed around the table. It can deal with scribbles, lists, prose and being rained on. Tablets are so close to being a replacement, but no one has yet figured out how to make touch devices into productivity tools. There are some rough attempts, but the majority of folks are using tablets as media consumption devices.
I’d be happy with the following magical machine: a 1.5lb 17” tablet with 10 hours of battery life and a matte 200+ DPI display. Give me a pressure sensitive pen like you find on a Wacom Cintiq and art software that works with a pen interface. Slap on a Surface-esque stand and a keyboard/cover with decent key action and we are starting to build a real productivity tablet. Oh, and make it crazy fast with enough memory to multitask. Such a thing is probably 3-5 years out. Just in time for me to use it when I’m commuting to the coffee shop in my self driving car.
Can you imagine carrying such a thing as your only machine? Alternatively when you get home, it seamlessly syncs with your 40” standing drafting desk whose surface is just another always connected window into your network of projects. I’m not as interested in augmented reality or virtual reality. Ultimately I want to be working with my hands manipulating physical objects.