No Moss Co.
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No Moss Co.

How the Army Helped me Make Games

In Singapore, where I was born, it’s mandatory for every male to do 2 years of army duty. If I had to summarize my army experience in one phrase it would be ‘to take ownership’. Ownership was a mindset I had to apply to how I handled myself and my charge in the army. Now, I find myself needing to take ownership of my game’s success in the same way, to act on my own, and to assume responsibility of my success.

Army experience

One of the many things the army has got down like clockwork is the delegation of responsibility. Taking responsibility, be it for making my bed or a platoon of 60 men, was a reality I had to get used to very quickly. During my time in the army, I had the privilege of being selected to train as an office in command school. In my training, the concept of taking responsibility was explained to us with the phrase ‘taking ownership’. As an officer, we were expected to become leaders in the army. The officer cadet school (OCS) motto is ‘To lead, To Excel, To Overcome’. It is expected of officers to step up on every occasion, to be the leaders that the men can turn to, in good and bad times, and be giving the direction needed for mission success. This means that the will and ability of an officer to make decisions and act needs to come from themselves. When everyone is looking to you, you need to be able to call a shot and own the decision all by yourself. Because when lives are at stake, there is no time for second guessing and indecision.

My platoon during training at OCS

The second part to taking ownership involves doing everything you can to continuously improve. To allow the people and processes you are in charge of stagnate is the same as letting them die. In a world where change is the only constant, failure to acknowledge this in the army means risking lives. This is a mindset that officers need to adopt, to constantly question everything and how it can be improved. It is almost pessimistic in nature with questions we need to ask ourselves like ‘what is the worst thing that could happen?’

A mindset towards owning your game

These concepts of ownership, to own your decisions and to continuously improve, are really generic enough to be life lessons one can apply anywhere. So the area I find myself applying it to is in game development and growing of our game studio.

Ownership as a mindset

Games can be fantastic fun to make. There is nothing wrong with taking up game development as a hobby and having fun with it. However, if you have more ambitious goals with your game, such as to make a living selling games, things need to change. For an independent developer, you become the sole driver of your games towards mission success. Like men in your platoon looking to you for direction, your games won’t move towards success if you don’t take conscious steps towards it. It is as simple as that. Yet it can be immensely difficult to pull off if one stays complacent and fails to own their decision. One of my co-founders wrote an article on a similar concept called, ‘Called Shots’. So what have you taken ownership of and what are you doing to live up to it? These are the questions that I often ask myself since making a decision to start a game studio.

Now this can all sound intimidating, as it should be for making decisions are never always easy, but often the most effective action to take are smaller, more manageable, steps towards your goal. Of course there are time and resource limitations, but this must be balanced with managing your time such that you can sustain your efforts for the long run and not burn out in a flash.

Steps to take

So we decide we want to make a successful game. What now? There was a lot of time spent figuring out what to do next. The strange thing is that there are countless sources of information online, developers sharing their experiences and advice, giving hints at what one needs to do to be successful. The issue is that there isn’t a single source which processes all this information in a concise form that makes it easy to apply for your game. Now something that the army does ridiculously well, almost to a fault, is creating checklists for the missions they need plan to execute. Although checklists run the risk of breeding complacency it has a lot of value in accelerating the learning of someone new and creating common understanding between the team.

So that is where I would start, if you have not already, create a checklist of everything you know about creating a successful game. It will allow you to assess what you know and what you don’t know. Make it a living document. Add to it as you come across advice you find valuable or modify it as you learn over time. Of course success is also subjective, so this checklist should be for what a successful game means to you or it can have multiple sections for different versions of a successful game.

The last thing to address is how we continuously improve the way the work towards success. One form this improvement mindset takes in the army is in review activities we call ‘BAR DAR PAR’, which stands for ‘Before activity review’, ‘During activity review’ and ‘Post activity review’. The intention for such review activities being to dedicate time towards inspecting the current outcome and how we can improve for next time. It would usually involve an hour before, during and after the activity to talk about what went well, what didn’t go so well and how we can improve.

At No Moss Studios, we practice Scrum, a framework for working closely related to Agile work principles. There is a meeting in Scrum known as the Retrospective which is designed specifically for improvements of the team. You can learn more about Scrum from the official Scrum guide. To start, it does not really matter what process you pick. What’s important is that you have a way of regularly inspecting how you work and improving. Growth is the only way to deal with change over time.

Conclusion

As a homage to army checklists, here is a summary of how I approach ownership of my game’s success:

  1. Decide what success of your game means to you.
  2. Create a living checklist of steps towards success.
  3. Have a method for regular inspection and improvement for your ways of working.

Ownership is a mindset more than anything else. It takes time to develop it but it is the natural outcome when you pursue something you find meaningful. I do believe that we bring out our best work when we take ownership over what we are passionate about.

Zhiming is a creator at No Moss Studios. He has worked on titles such as Monster Kitchen and the games from the 6 games in 6 weeks project. You can follow No Moss Studios and Zhiming on twitter.

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Zhiming Chen

Zhiming Chen

To share inspiring experiences with the world. Game developer and co-founder at No Moss Studios based in Sydney, Australia.