About Developing A Game, Our Brains & Startup Weekend

Friday night, Startup Weekend Groningen. A ton of people meeting up for the second Startup Weekend in my cozy awesome little hometown. I see a lot of familiar faces, ranging from developers who I frequently have a beer with to high profile entrepreneurs who I look up to for having created great companies in our tucked-away region in the north of the Netherlands.

Change the world, build a business, have fun

That's pretty much it.

This is my fourth Startup Weekend and I know the drill and how to work my way around the room. I’m here mainly to have fun and meet great people with great ideas and see them come to life. I’d highly recommend going to one, or multiple, because it will change you and your life for the better.

One of the main things I caught on to during my first Startup Weekend was that it’s better to not have business people on your team. I’m not trying to insult anyone, and it isn’t applicable to every Startup Weekender, but I feel this is merely a consequence of becoming/being a lean startup; having 5 business people and 1 developer will flood the developer with great and not so great ideas and will impede his/her ability to create an MVP within the time allotted for a Startup Weekend (54 hours). And so I pitched my idea and moments later had a team with 9 developers and no business people. I was ecstatic. Developers are the smartest group of people I know, and I’ve got 9 of ‘em joining my ranks!

My idea was very simple, and the execution also seemed pretty straight forward. We were going to build an online digital version of the game 30 Seconds, in which (at least) four people compete in two teams against each other to describe and guess as many people/concepts/objects/landmarks/etceteras (“Words”) as presented to them. The game is internationally known by a number of names, amongst others “Alias”, “Who Is It” and “The Word Game” and is pretty similar to “Twenty Questions”.

Designers  Martijn & Suzanne dreaming up our awesome screens

Designers Martijn & Suzanne dreaming up our awesome screens

We started out by mocking up the screens that would be used during the game. New Game, Join Game, Words Listing, Score Confirmation, Waiting Screen and Scoreboard were the first to be recognized. But during the weekend, we realized we missed a number of screens. Actually, a lot of screens. It became clear that the way the human mind works is that it uses a lot of assumptions and shortcuts to get to the end result; a thought, an action, or a spoken word. But computers don’t work that way; you have to explicitly define the implicit. This is hard, because the implicit is, well, implicit. Figuring out these shortcuts your brain takes is hard because your brain takes, well, shortcuts. It’s hard to grasp a fleeting concept.

An analogy to explain this is to describe the game mechanics of a game we all know. Lets take Monopoly. The game mechanic “Movement” is easy; you move your token around the board a number of places, the number of which decided upon by the dice. Now let’s break down some implicit concepts;
– How many times do you throw the dice?
– Is there a Movement multiplier (i.e. the result of the dice roll times 1, 2, 3.5?)
– When is a token allowed to move (i.e. can’t move when you’re in jail or when it’s not the players turn)
– What is the direction of movement (i.e. clockwise or counterclockwise?)
– Is the player allowed to skip certain squares? Or obligated to?
– Is the player allowed to move the token counterclockwise or clockwise by their own decision?
– etc.

FortyTwoApp home screen

FortyTwoApp home screen

As you can see, making implicit concepts explicit is hard up to the point you’d say “but that’s obvious!”. Realizing something is obvious is the first step in getting a game off the ground. We’ve learned this the hard way over the weekend, and well after that.

One noticeable example came during the demo at the end of the weekend. Although explicitly warned against, we went and did a live demo anyway, relying on the wifi signal, our server and our badly written code all at once. The demo actually went pretty smooth, up until the point where we got to the scoreboard at the end of round one. Although I had opened up two screens with the game, one being one team each, we had Team 1, Team 2 and Team 3 in the eventual round up! My initial shock was picked up by one audience member who quickly confessed to also joining the game while I was setting it up and playing along (he was awarded two points out of five bytheway). Turns out, we had totally forgotten to check whether there were already two teams in the game, thereby allowing a third party to enter and partake. An implicit game concept we forgot to explicitly define.

Call it lack of game mechanics knowledge, call it lack of sleep, or call it stupidity, I was amazed by how much thinking goes into taking a relatively simple game (ages 12 and up) and making a playable digital version of it. I’ve begun to appreciate the simplest games even more and my deepest respect goes out to game developers everywhere.

Devs hacking away

Devs hacking away

We eventually won third place at Startup Weekend Groningen with our game 42 Seconds, which can be played at FortyTwoApp.com and is open sourced on GitHub. My thanks goes out to the awesome team who did all of the thinking, the wireframing, the designing, the scraping, the developing, the beer drinking and the laughing during the weekend! It’s still a work in progress and you’ll see a lot of updates on December 1st, when we’ll be hacking away at it during post-event Startup Weekend Groningen Super Saturday!