Scott Howard
These are the personal musings of Scott Howard, Producer / Designer / Gamer

Over the last 15 years in the games industry I have worked on console, mobile, social and free to play games enjoying the nuance and challenges each of these brings. 
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Ca$h Royal - “Show me the Money” or Monetizing on value.

Since the simple pleasures of Adventure on the Atari 2600 days, I have been a life long gamer. Since the uncharted frontier of the first out of the box, internet connected console - Sega Dreamcast, I have been a 17+ year, (and counting) veteran of game development. I have seen various business models, distribution models, technologies, etc come and go, like the ebb and flow of ocean currents. I have spent most of my career working on, “the" thing, before if became, “the” thing. Connected consoles with 56k modems, mobile games years before an iPhone ever shipped, F2P when it was called, “Social Games”, etc. Some times it has felt like paddling for hours only to miss the big wave before it had time to develop. After awhile though, you see certain patterns emerge that create some basic truths about the video games space and real market places in general. 


After making the transition early on into free to play (F2P), I found it to be hugely liberating and exciting. See previous blog post, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Free to Play”. Here I wrote about what I saw as the basic order of operations of game development of the two models.


Order of operations for F2P
  • Step 1 - Figure out how to make a fun game that engages people.
  • Step 2 - Figure out how to get a reasonable amount of the player base to spend enough to sustain the business.
Order of operations for P2P
  • Step 1 - Figure out how you are going to get people's money.
  • Step 2 - Figure out how to give them entertainment value greater than or equal to the money they just spent.
Five years later and I still believe in that same core concept. Free to play is not evil, the devil or the beginning of the apocalypse. It has pros and cons which we have seen play out in myriad ways. The problem is that so much of the F2P space, (and even in some ways the premium space), has pretty much become Las Vegas, minus geographical limitation and regulation. Blackjack is a game. Craps is a game. Poker is a game. Slots are games, but Vegas has no desire to make those games any better, they simply want to optimize their KPI’s. In other words, get people to monetize more, engage more, retain more and incentivize people to tell their friends about all the great fun they had losing money in Vegas (i.e. Virality). 


I am not saying there is anything wrong with Vegas, go ahead and get your gamble on, but lets call it what it is, gambling. The two main differences are, one, that in gambling you know, (or should know), that you have a greater than 50% chance of losing your money and two, you actually have some chance at winning real money, (true value), vs winning virtual goods that have only perceived value.


This is why when I see and play games like League of Legends (LoL), Dota 2, Clash Royal, Hearthstone, Team Fortress and a number of others, I actually enjoy them vs feel angry at them. They are monetizing on value vs monetizing to remove discomfort. When you buy a Champion in LoL or Dota 2, you are buying something of obvious value, the significant time and effort it took a huge number of artisans (concept artist, modelers, animators, VFX artist, writers, designers, engineers, sound designers, etc). This is not lost not the player when they open up their wallets. When you buy a new skin or champion it is actually a pleasurable experience like opening a brand new lego set or other recently purchased toy or coveted item. This also holds true for card packs in Hearthstone, or chests in Clash Royal (though, some subtle differences exist there which I will get into).


One of the things that I believe makes Clash Royal so successful, is that it takes an existing monetization mechanic, the Gatcha box and switches it from effectively a slot machine, to a more straight forward monetization for goods. In so many games, that use the Gatcha mechanic, such as Eternity Warriors, Summoner Wars, Puzzles and Dragons, etc, the player must wade through mountains of crap to find the rare, rare item of any value. In effect they are playing a slot machine that clearly, "pays out" way less than 50% of the time. Most of these games have secondary systems in them where you effectively, “trash” your crappy drops into very small incremental progress towards useful gear or items. The exchange rate is so terrible, that it is only barely worth more than not doing it at all.


To me this is the true innovation of Clash Royal, that when a player spends a small amount of hard currency to open a chest, they actually feel good that they are getting something of value, instead of removing discomfort (chest timers). Sure you can argue that they are using the standard timers so many other games use to monetize, but what is in the chest is pretty much always valuable, the cost is relatively low and the timers are effectively fixed and don’t scale up over life time play. Additionally the time cost is proportional to the reward and not in a BS way, such that a higher tier chest really does have more and better items in it.


I am not saying Clash Royal is perfect, clearly they are still tuning a bunch of the game, but they have managed to find a sweet spot in terms of taking a tried and true, yet some what, “dirty" monetization mechanic and tweak it towards returning real value to the player for their purchase. It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming months as the game scales and certain units become useless, effectively power deflation. In time we will see if they are back at square one, with much of the items in chest being perceived as useless or functionally are useless. Only time will tell. Of course in that time, I have me some games I have to get back to playing ...



That is a terrible idea. What time? (HCLS - Recap and insights)

Why do this and what is my why?

"The unexamined life is not worth living" --Socrates

Now that I have had some time to let the events of the GoRuck HCLS (Heavy, Challenge, Light and Scavenger) sink in, I want to reflect on what got me (and a few amazing friends) through it all.

For me it starts with my “Why”. Part of that is the great quote from Socrates, but specifically it is the unending questions of; what am I capable of? What scares me? What is possible? How can I aspire to be closer to those that inspire me? The ongoing and relentless pursuit of self discovery is a strong motivator for me - to dream more, learn more, do more and become more. This last bit is part of a John Adams quote that has found a permanent home in my head since the first day I read it.

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." --John Quincy Adams

As someone who leads teams and projects as part of my day job, I constantly struggle with how to be a better leader, which usually goes back to self discovery and learning to be a better follower, something that GoRuck is real good at introducing you to, both quickly and harshly.

So what is a GoRuck HCLS exactly?

First let me tell you what I call it - “The Stupid”. Why you ask? Let’s break it down. “Heavy” brought to you by the letter, “H”. The Heavy is a 24 hour team event, where you strap on 35+ lbs rucks (backpacks) and get led around an unknown area for roughly 30-40 miles. Seems simple until you realize that the 35lb ruck is the lightest thing you will carry all night. For example, we were handed a “pain train” of ten sandbags, ranging from 120lbs to 20lbs, some logs, a 12” diameter PVC pipe, roughly 10 feet long and filled with water (loads of fun to carry up a hill), a 50lb team weight, buckets (soon to be filled with water and sand), and a large sheet cake to celebrate the 240 birthday of the US Marines (more on that later). Also being led around is not really accurate, more like soul crushing PT sessions run by Cadre who are veterans from special operations in the military (current or former Green Berets, SEALs, or Marines) who have zero fucks to give (ah, ah, ah, ah) because they have already done far worse than you or I can imagine. Interspersed between this are things called, “Time hacks” which are simply, get all of your asses and your coupons, (all the extra heavy stuff they gave you), to a new location within a limited timeframe of suffer the consequences. Of course something this fun wouldn’t be complete without extra entertainment of having all your food taken away and doing it on a restricted diet of less than a thousand calories. Oh, but at the end, you do get to eat that cake you carried for over 24 hours, of course it too is a time hack. Cake had to be gone in less than two minutes. Rabid bears could not have finished is faster than us - it was gone in 23 seconds.

Once you have finished the above party, is when you realize that it is only one out of the four events that comprise HCLS, now you get about an hour to prep for the Challenge, brought to you by the letter, “C”. This time only 12+ hours of more of the same and roughly 12-15 miles. After you stumble in delirium to the end, you get to enjoy what feels like a huge amount of rest over the next hour and a half. Now to get your mind right for the Light. The Light is now just fun, PT is so normal at this point, you don’t care and giggle at it, (no joke), partly from how easy it is in comparison and partly because after so little sleep, even push ups are funny.

When you finally finish that little party, you get some real rest, nearly eight full hours before you start the Scavenger, which would normally be about running around the city for six hours, trying to beat other teams taking a photos of themselves in front of all sorts of random objects, but for you and the soon to be nicknamed, “Stubborn 31”, you all are chilling out in a bar/brunch spot seeing how fast you can eat giant plates of pancakes, (less than two minutes btw). Eventually, you head out and rack up some points in the Scavenger hunt, but you know what you really won was HCLS.

Beyond all of the endurance challenges, what made this particular event special was Veterans Day. Every now and again the cadre would sit us down and open up about their personal stories, or stories of others they have served with. These intimate windows into the lives of those that serve was especially meaningful to me as someone who has not served, but respects all those who have. I have always felt limited and frustrated by the generic and nearly meaningless, “support our troops” banners, pins, stickers, etc. Taking the time to experience a fraction of a veteran’s world, felt infinitely more useful in understanding and appreciative of those who serve.

So how did we do?

In the immortal words of my teammate Kristina, "we crushed it!" <insert pantomime of her crushing a can>

As a team we were a relentless force of positive leadership, pack mule power and huddled up penguin heat. From start to finish we put out, helped out and laughed at the silliness of what we were willing chose to do and paid good money to be part of. No doubt this was facilitated by sleep deprivation delirium. Also when I say our team, I mean everyone, including everyone we trained with, and the support team, who were absolutely essential in getting us across the finish line.

For me personally it was a mixed bag. I started off great with tons of energy and enthusiasm. When they brought out the coupons I tried to find something heavy and share it with my teammate Steve. This strategy proved fantastic as we each put as much effort as possible for the other, stretching our collective energy out further than if only one of us was pushing hard on their own. Something I realized pretty quickly, was that there is a sweet spot of giving near maximal effort, but not going over is ideal. Give to little effort and the other person has to work that much harder to compensate for your lack of output. But, push too hard and exceed your own limits, then you can't recover enough to be useful again. It doesn't help the team if one person plays powerlifting superhero, because everyone at some point runs into their limit and you either walk into that wall gracefully or you hit it head first like a battering ram of arrogance.

Around hour 23 of the Heavy I started to approach that invisible wall and found myself in my own private pity party. We were on a near endless hill climb doing 13+ miles that we really needed to push hard on and immediately you could see people well past their limits. At this point I started to resent the other people, why were they not more prepared? Why didn't they move faster? Why do we have to carry their packs? This is bullshit! What was bullshit was my attitude, not them. It's not about me, it's about the team and the person next to you. Once I was able to snap out of this I looked for the person who was having the hardest time and tried to help them. The person I helped was already being supported by someone, so then it became the two of us helping pull a third up a hill. They say when you are at your worst, find someone worse than you, there is always someone worse than you ... Once you start helping them you forget all about your own suffering. The reality is, when you are that fatigued you can only (barely) focus on one thing at a time and once you stop focusing on yourself your pain goes away, you simply don't have the capacity to notice it.

After the Heavy our support team kept the pressure on us just like the cadre, but instead of crushing us they propped us up with the same fury the cadre used to break us down. They never let us focus on anything but the next thing we needed. Eat food, drink this, get in the van, get to next start point, lay down, rest feet, sleep, get up, get gear on, get to start point. They never gave us a chance to think about quitting. If they had, I am sure my demons would have creeped in and told me I had already done enough, that there was no reason to push harder. Instead the demons never got a chance to show up, chased away by Troy and the gang of demon slayers.

The challenge started with a hell of a welcome party - translation is hours of push ups, burpees, flutter kicks, etc on the beach in between runs into the water to, "get wet and sandy" again I have to thank my team and our training. Even after the Heavy I never felt like I had nothing to give, especially on the flutter kicks. Our pre event workouts often ended with 100 four-count flutter kicks for, "durability" which I hated at the time, but now was paying off on event day. I found whenever they asked us for flutter kicks, it was like giving me a free rest period. In my head I could laugh at the cadre and have my own personal victory lap. Again just showing that it is the team that gets you through this, even your training team matters - choose them wisely.

There is this sense of euphoria once you finish the welcome party and it is on to moving heavy stuff over distance. Plus, now there is a ton of more people, since many people sign up, (there was a total of 91, including us), just to do the Challenge. Those folks have no interest in the Heavy, much less “The Stupid”. Things continued to go well until they didn't. Now the effects of sleep deprivation get added to the mix. To be honest there are large chunks of the night I don’t even remember. The low parts I remember - continuing to be under a massive log with my teammate as we get more and more pissed that all the new, fresh people are not carrying more. Again this is where having an amazing team makes all the difference. Out of the blue I see Kristina smiling and checking in on everyone, she seems impervious to, “the suck” and just like that you realize pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. It really is that simple. You can choose to say this is BS and not fair, or you can say, I don’t care what fair is or is not, life is never fair. I am simply going to pick this thing up, carry what I can and keep moving forward. It was not about DFQ - Don’t Fucking Quit, I was not going to quit, not out of some macho proclamation, it just was not that bad, I and my attitude was just making it worse. If you can realize you are your own enemy at this point in time, then you can just stop doing that to yourself.

At this point I become intimate with the phrase, “It could always be worse …” and kept on trucking. Somewhere in the morning I realized we have been going for ten or so hours and that we’re in Golden Gate Park, not sure how we got there, but that I need to buddy carry a fellow teammate or their ruck as we run as fast as we can towards the beach - welcome to the Mogadishu Mile. Once we finished another round of PT on the beach, including getting toppled by a monster wave, we were done with round two.

Again our support crew comes in like the cavalry to whisk us off to the next destination. As always they make sure we are fed, hydrated and that we rest as much as possible in the hour and a half we have before round three - the Light. From this point on a strange level of confidence sweeps over us. There is no way we are stopping. Maybe it could get worse, but we just don’t care. There is this strange sense of certainty that infects you, where you know at your core you have more you can give and that it is enough to handle anything else that comes next. The Light and Scavenger events are now a breeze, just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and moving. Now we have the time to get to know the people we have been spending the last 40+ hours with. We get to hear their stories, share ours and connect with people we have been put through the crucible with and are still standing.

What have I learned?

First and foremost, the good - it takes a team. A team to inspire you to take on things outside your comfort zone. A team to train with, keeping you on track and holding you accountable to show up and put in the work. A team to be there with you side by side, so that in a sea of strangers you can find the familiar smile of the filthy, smelly, exhausted moron who signed up to do, “The Stupid” with you. A team to support you when you step over each finish line, filling you up with nutrients of food, water, rest and encouragement. A team to laugh and hug when it is all over. A team dumb enough to ask, “What’s next?”

Second the bad. I could have done better. Sure I finished and I am proud of that, but my goal was to do HCLS with a smile on my face the whole time and a positive, cheerful attitude. In this goal I came up short.

"It is not the load that breaks you down, it is the way you carry it." — Lou Holtz.

The above statement could not be more true during the event. As you are constantly burdened under massive loads, I found I was at my lowest, not when I was under the most weight, but when I wasn’t carrying myself internally with the right mindset. It was how I carried the load that was hurting me. That being said, to experience the feeling of helping others and crawling out of my own funk was a great learning experience, as well as seeing my other teammates thrive, while also facing the same challenge I was. The challenge to not only keep going, we were real good at that, but to carry yourself with your head up and positive, helping others who benefit from your optimism.

The ugly. My feet were f*cked up. I did not put enough hours and miles in my shoes and with extra heavy weight, (at least 80lbs or more). By the end of the Heavy my toes were banging against the end of my shoes, because I had not broken my shoes in enough, nor prepped my feet for 24+ hours of load. After the Heavy, when I went to swap shoes to my spares, my feet were too swollen to fit in my alternate shoes. By the end of the Light, I took off my shoes for nearly all of the break time (eight hours) allowing them to swell up more. When the Scavenger started each step was a painful mess. As I look at my poor feet I know I going to lose at least two toenails and maybe a third. That is not an indictment of the event’s difficulty, but of my own lack of preparedness in a very specific area. A mistake I don’t ever plan to repeat.

What’s next?

Now what you say? Not sure exactly. Time to rest up a bit and get back to the gym, establishing a baseline before deciding on the next goals to tackle. For me personally, I want to try to take on the Endeavor Team Challenge, gain the next level of instructor certification in Krav Maga and improve in a number of my benchmarks in physical training. Oh and gain back the 12+ lbs I lost during HCLS (weight loss further exacerbated by horrendous bout of food poisoning a week after the event). Other than that. We start back at the top remembering, “The unexamined life is not worth living” How do I get my actions to inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more? Last quote before I go, since it will be the north star that guides the next event.

"Part of the art of choosing difficulties is to select those that are indeed just manageable. If the difficulties chosen are too easy, life is boring; if they are too hard, life is defeating. The trick is to choose trouble for oneself in the direction of what one would like to become at a level of difficulty close to the edge of one’s competence." - Nicholas Hobbs


Down Time = Game Time

Having some down time on my hands gave me a chance to catch up on a bunch of games I have been wanting to play for a long time now. I feel like when I got home from my grandparents house on christmas eve, busting in the door to dump the contents of my stocking on the floor and tear off wrapping paper like a thresher maw from Mass Effect. 

So what have I been playing?

I could write up a ton of stuff on each, but I actually wanted to call out three games that I thought were really doing some good stuff in the F2P mobile space. 

HearthStone - Fit, finish and polish
The attention to detail is just fantastic. The art is beautiful, just sifting through cards is a pleasure. Sound is great and doesn’t get old. Everything is animated and feels alive. They “Peggled the shit out of it” (Thanks David Scott for this term), when you win a match and even when you lose there is a sense that you can surely win the next one. What is amazing to me is that for all the visual polish, the game doesn’t feel noisey, or cluttered. In fact it feels simple and easy to use, with a clear consideration that less is more when it comes to interaction design. In short all F2P games should be looking at HearthStone and asking themselves, “How can I make my game feel like it has this level of quality”. Unfortunately, the answer is usually suck it up and make the effort to put the quality in. Don’t shortcut things or trim the details, they matter.

Hitman GO - Tactical shooter becomes turn based puzzle game. What the what?!?
I love me some stealth games, especially stealth assassin games. Metal Gear, Thief, Rogues in every Bethesda title, Assassin’s Creed, Dishonored, Deus Ex and of course Hitman. All of these scratch a particular itch for me. At their core though, they are puzzle games. How do I get in without being seen? How can I make it out alive? Etc. Since FPS’s all pretty much play like ass on tablets I thought Square Enix’s solution to bringing the Hitman franchise to mobile was brilliant. The game is incredible accessible, beautifully done and I believe will introduce a number of new players to the franchise, hopefully without alienating existing ones. This last point is of course a concern, people who play Hitman, have certain expectations, e.g. running around and either shooting people in the head or stabbing them in the neck. Time will tell if Square made the right call, but good on them for taking the risk to test the hypothesis, that there is a market for the Hitman series that doesn’t have to be more of the same, but can be something new and unique.

Trails Frontier - The complete package
Full discloser, I have worked with the amazingly talented people at RedLynx before, so of course I tend to like their work. That begin said, I was never a big fan of the Trails series of games. It’s not that they are bad games, quite the contrary in fact, it’s just that they are not really my thing. Now here comes Trails Frontier and I can’t put it down. Similar to HearthStone, the attention to detail is superb. Beyond the detail though, they have a fun story, solid humor, accessible controls, short play sessions, RPG mechanics as you level up your bike, a monetization system that feels fair and not “grindy”. In short, they put it all together extremely well. RedLynx has honed the gameplay to a razor sharp edge and packaged the whole thing up, serving it to the player like a prix fixe meal from the French Laundry

So food for thought.

Consider new ways you can use your IP. In the case of Hitman, even if you are using exsting IP, think about how you can use it in more interesting ways that might appeal to a broader audience. 

Pay attention to the details, fit, finish and polish. Sure, everyone wants to make a quality product, but that doesn’t mean you have to fill it with a ton of stuff. Take what you have and refine it so the attention to detail is unmistakable.

Lastly, make sure you put it all together like a fine meal, soup to nuts. That each piece of the puzzle works harmoniously together so your players put the game down satisfied to the fullest.

Ok now I have to get back to feeding my own personal game addiction ...



Never Work for Someone Who is Not Willing to Out Work You

I just finished reading, The Gates of Fire by Steve Pressfield which is a fantastic book about the historical (though fictional) account of the battle of Thermopylae and the 300 Spartans (and thousands of Greeks) that fought there. In the book there is one of the best passages I have read about what it means to lead. As an executive producer becoming a better leader is paramount to me and this message really nailed it.

Leonidas and the 1000 yard stare

[From The Gates of Fire describing Leonidas (King of Sparta) and what it means to be a leader, told to Xerxes (King of Persia)]. 

“I will tell his majesty (Xerxes) what a king is. A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch along the wall. A king does not command him men’s loyalty through fear, nor purchase it with gold. He earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads, but provides it to them - he serves them, not they him.”


All of us have heard the phrase, “lead by example”, but leading teams, especially game teams is a lot more complex than that. In Stanley McChrystal’s memoir, My Share of the Taskhe outlines 16 lessons learned from his time as a four star general. I don’t want to cover all of them, but a few are worth mentioning, you can read the rest on your own here

“Leadership is the single biggest reason for success or failure”

If you are misinterpreting that as leaders are the most important people and individuals on teams don’t matter, then you need to re-read the quote above. Leaders serve their teams, not the other way around. In other words, leadership - the act of serving others on a team is the single biggest reason for success or failure. Managing a game team is about giving ownership to the team to solve the problems in ways one person alone could not possibly do on their own.

“Success is rarely the work of a single leader”

Just to further hammer it home, success is not a one person show, nor are leaders just the people who have direct reports. As John Quincy Adams is quoted, "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

John Adams doing his best Leonidas impression

I have a simple rule as a leader, never ask anyone you lead to work longer or harder than you yourself are willing to work. If you feel that next feature is worth staying till midnight to get done right, you better be willing to be there till 1am to see everyone home. If that bug needs to be fixed at 8am tomorrow before the release goes out, then you better be there at 7am with coffee and donuts (I recommend Dynamo Donuts, specifically the apple, maple bacon variety). Let’s re-read that quote from The Gates of Fire as defined for an executive producer.

“I will tell the CEO what an EP is. An EP does not sit within an office while his team toils at cramped work stations. An EP does not go out to fancy dinners while his team stays late and works, nor go home and sleep when they pull an all nighter. An EP does not command his team’s loyalty through fear, nor purchase it with bonuses. He earns their love by the sweat of his own brow and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, an EP does first and finishes last. An EP does not require service of those he leads, but provides it to them - he serves them, not they him.”

Scott Howard

Beyond my simple rule for those who lead, I have a simple rule for those who report to a leader, and let’s face it, we all report to someone. Never work for someone who is not willing to out work you.  



Who's Job is it Anyway?

“What is the difference between a product and a project manager?”

I am often asked that question, especially these days since you see both roles often used (erroneously) interchangeably. The important question though is not simply what is the difference between those two roles, but really what are the critical roles and responsibilities in game / product development? How do they work together and against each other? How do you build a team of people who share mutual admiration and respect for the different skills each bring to the table?

Let’s start with roles and responsibilities - Roles are broken into responsibility and authority. You can not be held responsible for something you didn’t have authority over. 


Product Manager - Responsibility and authority over the business of the game.
Designer - Responsibility and authority over the player experience of the game.
Project Manager - Responsibility and authority over the schedule of the game and the health / morale of the team. 

Each role has a person or aspect they serve or champion and when in gridlock, they carry a trump card of authority on. In the case of design, when in subjective debates of what is, “fun”, the designer is the person who holds authority over this domain, because, at the end of the day, they are the ones who will be held accountable for the results. For product managers, when the discussions are about what will make the most money, improve engagement, vitality or retention, they get to make the final call. Lastly project managers have an often overlooked responsibility to the team. It is almost perfunctory to say a project Manager owns the schedule, but a great project manager also has the pulse of the team and knows how hard they can push, what they will push for (as different people are motivated by different things), and when it is time to get some easy wins in. It is this triumvirate that fights collaboratively together to make the best overall product, feature by feature, point by point. 

So what is the role of an executive producer (or general manager)? In an ideal world everything naturally works itself out and everyone agrees on what the best course of action is all the time, but alas that is rarely the case. This is where the executive producer role comes into play, they are the arbiter and decision makers for the overall product success (the balance of fun, business and time). Where as each of the triumvirate have their domain to fight for, it is the executive producer’s job to see all the pieces of the puzzle as a gestalt and discern the best course of action. Like the golden triangle of project management - good, fast, cheap and you can only pick two, the executive producer balances these tradeoffs - fun, monetizing or fast and you can only pick two. This is not to say that is the only job of the executive producer, but more on that in a future post …