Category Archives: smArt Management

Make Your Own Way: The Rise of Indie Content Developers

UPDATED 2016-05-05! I originally presented this as the keynote speech at Gameacon 2015, and I’ve since presented it at the Albany IGDA and updated the content and the slides significantly. This page has been updated to reflect that.

Click here to see the slides in Google Slides in a new window.

Here are the slides:

Summary:

With development tools and game engines becoming cheaper and freer and the rise of engine-specific content marketplaces, an entirely new type of career is emerging: a self-sustaining, independent content developer that creates standalone products for sale to developers across the world for use in their projects. Whether it’s art, audio, code, scripting, or some combination thereof, Jon shares his tips, tricks, and insights as the Content Curator of the Unreal Engine Marketplace to help you know how to decide what to create, what product design means in this context, various techniques for marketing your products, how to be a developer’s developer, and tips on how you can turn this into a self-sustaining career.

Whether you’re creating art, audio, code, scripting, or some combination thereof, there’s a target market for what you’re producing and there are places to sell it. Epic Games contracted me to help build and run the Unreal Engine Marketplace, and I’m here to share what I learned. I’ll give advice on what to create, and how to design a product for this kind of market. I’ll give you and your company ideas for marketing, and how to be a developer’s developer. This is not a self-sustaining career for everyone, but I’ll show you what I’ve learned so you can decide if this makes sense for you or your company.

Introduction

Over the last few years, online marketplaces for content created by developers for developers have emerged as an increasingly viable option for independent game developers to prototype and develop their projects. This saves them thousands of dollars commissioning work from other developers, and also thousands of hours learning new peripheral skills that distract from simply prototyping and executing on their ideas. Inspiration strikes quickly and ultimately it’s about the end product. Having access to low-cost content and tools built by professionals is a valuable resource. I’ll show you how to benefit from that as an indie developer, a content creator, a contractor, or any combination thereof.

From sellsword to selling swords

Over the last few years, many developers have started selling content that they develop for fun and turned it into a lucrative sideline. It’s a dramatic shift away from making money as either a full-time employee or a work-for-hire contractor. Selling components of a game as a product instead of a service is a very exciting and different way to develop games, especially with engine costs approaching zero. Many of them have actually become so successful at it that they’ve been able to leave their fulltime jobs and live on the income they generate. Again, they are in the vast minority on this, but it is starting to happen, and it’s worth paying attention to. Whether or not you go down that path yourself, it can benefit you to be aware of people that do, because their efforts can benefit you and your projects.

What do I want to sell?

What’s your skillset? Artist, designer, scripter, coder, musician, or some blend thereof? Let’s start there.

Your junk drawer isn’t hot product

First, cast aside any idea that you can take old content you have laying around and can quickly flip it for cash. That’s the wrong mindset. Rummaging through your junk drawer to make a quick buck only fulfills your needs. And don’t think you can just crank out something simple in a single weekend and sell that. Your best chance for succeeding in this is developing content that fulfills the needs of other game developers, and this requires planning, research, and forethought. Being a developer yourself will give you some valuable insights into that, but you’re developing products for a large-scale audience, and that must always be kept in mind.

Focus on your strengths

Start from a position of strength. Don’t learn a completely new skillset to compete in a market already full of experts in that skill. That’s a frustrating uphill battle and not worth your time. To keep yourself motivated and encouraged enough to see this through, focus on creating something using your strongest skillset. The creative challenge is “how do I design this to save the time of a large number of developers?”

Is there a market for this?

People purchase content based on their passions and ambitions and the things that inspire and influence them. When they shop for content, they think of the pieces they need to assemble into the type of product they want. People first decide on the type of game they want to develop, and the first thing they seek is a “starter kit” for that type. The most popular type of product I’ve seen are prototype kits to fit specific game types. For example, kits for an RTS, RPG, FPS, tower defense, endless runner, and so on. After their prototype is at minimum functionality is when they look for art and audio. These markets are surprisingly large and are a great opportunity for independent content developers.

Popular themes and trends

In early 2015, I saw a spike in Minecraft-style crafting, survival, horror, and zombies. Each tied into the hot property of the moment, offset by the weeks it took to develop the content after the inspiration. People would create a set of props designed for survival games. Another example is a Blueprint-based crafting system for either Minecraft or survival games. Others created horror-themed audio packs, modular zombies, animated blood splatters, etc. The creators analyzed the games, reduced them to modular components, then designed content to mix and match.

Pick a niche

Pick your genre, theme, style, and platform. You can’t be all things to all people. If you’re not sure where to start, look at what the top selling games are in the last year. Then research what the biggest upcoming games are, based on press coverage and hype. Here’s a sampling of games:

Popular games and styles

  • Fallout 4. First-person RPG, realistic post-apocalyptic, next-gen platforms.
  • Madden NFL 16. Sports, realistic, next-gen platforms.
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. First person shooter, realistic war game, next-gen platforms.
  • Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Third person RPG, stylized\cartoony fantasy, Nintendo console.
  • Halo 5: Guardians. First person shooter, realistic sci-fi, next-gen platform.
  • Gran Turismo. Third person racing game, realistic, next-gen platform.
  • Super Smash Brothers Brawl. 3D fighting game\brawler, cartoony, Nintendo console.
  • World of Warcraft. Third-person RPG, cartoony fantasy, PC.
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Third-person RPG, semi-realistic fantasy, next-gen consoles.
  • Minecraft. First person world-builder, cartoony retro, current-gen consoles and PC.

Select your audience

This is a reasonable spread of the art styles and types of games that move a lot of units. These are the kinds of games that get the most attention from people at a broad level. They set trends that aspiring independent developers will emulate for their own projects. However, most of these are big-budget AAA productions. Customers seeking themed content inspired by these trends are usually small teams with modest budgets. It’s important to factor that in, and to stay in touch with what’s going on in the indie game dev community. Keep an eye on those trends, ebbs, and flows.

Understand the indie games market and its trends. Follow indie game dev websites to see what’s popular. What are people building? How do the games review? Identify gaps that need filling. Look for ways to simplify repeatable processes, especially if they’re annoying. Finding annoying problems and solving them is a great way to win the hearts and dollars of potential customers. Bonus points if your product or description is worded in such a way that it can get favorable search rankings when people are looking to solve that type of problem.

One excellent resource to find out what people are playing and what developers are creating is www.steamspy.com. That is a gold mine of information to help you market and design products. Write it down now. It’s one of those things that’s so amazing, you can’t believe it actually exists.

Keep an eye on geek culture

It’s also well worthwhile to tune into other forms of media and geeky culture. Is there a major movie, TV, or comic book release coming in the next few months? Something big, like an Aliens sequel, a new Avengers movie, the new season of Daredevil, the TV adaptation of Preacher, or really any other influential, beloved property that’s going to land in the coming months. Even science can be exciting and drive sales. When I was running the Unreal Engine Marketplace, I saw a massive spike in space-themed content of all types after NASA started showing off the high-res closeup photographs of Pluto. Tying in your product to something reminiscent of that need or that ties into it meaningfully could be a good way to drive interest and sales. Follow indie game dev websites, see what’s popular, see what people are building, and analyze your competition to see how well that need is being filled.

Reduce the games to components

Pick apart the games and think of what types of components they’re made up of. For example, Fallout 4 is an RPG. An RPG has various systems that can be reduced into modular component parts, NOT counting art and audio:

  • character creation (visual customization + UI)
  • combat (weapon types, enemy types, damage, etc)
  • armor (defense bonuses, etc)
  • weapons (damage bonuses, weapon modding, etc)
  • XP \ leveling
  • vendors (buy\sell\repair)
  • minimap (tracking agiainst real map, fog of war, etc)
  • speech and branching dialogue systems
  • quests (quest givers, and ties into XP\leveling, speech, etc)
  • AI (NPC and enemy)
  • stealth
  • locking\unlocking doors

Each of these is a modular component that has been turned into at least one product. If you have a particular skill set that can develop one of these, take a look at the market and examine the precedents. What can you do better? How well does it review?

How do I build it?

After you’ve picked a market and a niche to fill, spend time thinking about not only how end users are going to ultimately use your content to build their games, but also how it can fit together with other pieces of content. At Epic, I created lists of products that worked well when used together to help promote content. It helped connect creators, and gave them ideas for comarketing and collaboration. Not everyone needs to be a competitor.

For example, this is a list of content you can use to build a fully functional third person multiplayer shooter for less than $500:

  1. Gameplay: Generic Shooter. This Blueprint system will help you flesh out all your FPS’s basic systems.
  2. Level prototyping: SuperGrid. This is a level prototyping kit for laying out full levels and gameplay.
  3. Player character:Military Character Silver. Here’s a soldier character rigged to the default Unreal skeleton. You can use any Marketplace animation set with this!
  4. Animations:Rifle Animset Pro. Professional motion captured animation for all movement associated with two-handed weapons. Apply this to your military character above!
  5. Weapons:Weapon Pack: Assault Rifles. This is a set of randomizable procedurally-generated combat rifles for your soldier.
  6. Environment art:Urban Construction Pack. This is a well-desgined set of modular props to flesh out urban city levels with after prototyping with SuperGrid.
  7. VFX:Bullet VFX Pack. Add these pre-made bullet FX to bring your weapons to life as you take it from others! This contains FX for bullets hitting metal, brick, concrete, ice, flesh, and more.
  8. Sound effects:Universal Sound FX. This is a great variety pack of audio to add a broad range of basic sound effects.
  9. Music: Blockbuster Tension + Action Music Pack. After all, you need good music!

To tie it all together, add a modular UI system and frontend.

How do I price it?

Here’s the tricky question! Setting a price on content to sell on a marketplace is fundamentally different than setting a price for contract art services. One is a product, and one is a service. You sell services once, you sell a product as many times as you can. Commissioning a character might take 40 days at USD $200 per day, but you’re not going to sell that on a marketplace for the $8000 it cost. Most people buying content don’t know the price of these services or the labor involved. To be realistic, someone with an indie budget might balk at spending even $100 for it.

There are a wide variety of factors in how you decide on a price to set. The first and best way, of course, is to look at what other people charge. That’s your baseline. The second way is to put yourself in your customers’ shoes as they try to decide if it’s a good price or not. All they have to go on is your presentation materials and the price. So they ask themselves: “How many and at what price?”

If you’re looking at a pack of props, for example, 100 props for $20 averages out to $0.20 per prop. Not bad! But 10 high-quality PBR rocks for $80 is $8 per rock, and that’s 40x more per prop. What about a set of 3 background mountains for $125? Geez, that’s $41.66 per mountain, this is getting expensive!

I’m sure you’re thinking that this is a comparison of apples and oranges. And to you, it is. There are massive variables including quality, texture resolution, polygon count, modularity, and much more. You also know exactly how long it took to develop, but that doesn’t matter to anyone but you. To the consumer, unit price will be the first consideration. Fortunately, you can still work with that.

The next question the consumer asks is “how much can I do with it?” This is where you differentiate yourself from the competition and justify the price you set. People love knobs, dials, controls, and customization.

How do I convey value?

The best answer I’ve found is to illustrate the value by showing how you can save time by compounding effort. “With this set of 50 modular cave pieces with randomized materials, you can create thousands of possible cave configurations in minutes. Just click to draw, and flip these switches and see what you get!” People love modularity, randomization, sliders, swappable parts, and procedural generation.

The sales pitch there is giving someone the tools to create almost anything they can imagine for the game of their genre. That’s harder to quantify and harder to put a price on, so if you can start out with a basic number of modular parts or bullet points that they’ll do the basic “how many and at what price” math on, you can increase the price even more beyond that by adding the procedural and customization options, as well as making it *really* easy to use. Adding tutorials, documentation, and demo levels is also a confidence booster if your content is expensive.

“I want to make caves with dungeons — oh wow, this pack is $85, but I could make thousands of them with this. It comes with 40 walls, 16 kinds of stalactites and stalagmites, and includes a demo level showing how it all fits together. I’m sold!”

Really, how much should it cost?

As for actual dollar amounts, impulse purchases can be almost anything $30 and under. If you set a price above $50, include a well-produced video to demonstrate your content. Think of it as a short commercial. Invest effort into it and make it look clean and polished. Convincing people to spend more than $50 requires more effort, and a good video is a powerful sales tool. More on that in the next section.

As a rule of thumb, anything above $50 should have more supporting content. A short commercial, video tutorials, written documentation, and ongoing support threads increase buyer confidence. If you keep the buyer’s confidence high and engage with your customers, you can justify higher price points.

Finally, remember that anything you sell in European countries is going to have an additional ~23% Value Added Tax (VAT) added to the price. Keep this in mind when setting your prices, and be prepared to answer a lot of questions about it.

If you’ve done all this and are still not sure, ask your audience!

What makes a good video?

Keep it between 90 and 120 seconds long. Ease of use and the end product are what is most important. Begin with examples of the finished product, then show your content in the editor. Show the controls and options you provide. Demonstrate the most useful and visually interesting configuration options your content offers. Remember that this is just a commercial to sell your content, not a tutorial video. Long tutorial videos are a must if your content is complex, and they add value. However, it is not a substitution for a commercial. On its own, a lengthy tutorial is a terrible sales tool for most people. Think of it this way: the commercial sells the product, and the tutorial is the product instruction manual.

Dazzle them with video of how it could work, then show them what knobs they can turn to use it. Try to keep it under two minutes, and you’ll be in a strong competitive position. The easier it is for the buyer to visualize “what is it? Now how can I do it?” the faster you’ll get them interested.

Finally, having a lengthy tutorial video can help convince the more stubborn, technically-minded prospective customers.

How do I build a loyal user base?

Live where you sell. Join the forums where creators like you hang out. This is a good place for potential customers to shop around for content that’s in development.

When dealing with potential customers on the forums, be responsive. Create a dedicated support email address, and a support thread on the forums where you sell. Interact with the community, make friends, answer questions, be respectful, and listen. You won’t always have answers that will satisfy. That’s fine. The simple act of responding and listening is important for building customer relationships.

It’s important to know that for every person that responds to you, there are ten that are lurking. It’s easy to make or break a reputation based on how you interact with people in public. Pay attention to how you’re perceived when interacting on forums. Always treat others the way you’d like to be treated. It’s good general philosophy, and people also make purchasing decisions based on the behavior they observe.

– Join forums
– Get invites to Slack and Skype chats
– Find or create a Twitter list for interesting or influential people and interact with them there
– Join Facebook groups

Don’t lurk. Interact in a positive way. Encourage people, be positive, give constructive feedback when requested, and support those around you. Always add value.

Embed yourself and publicize

Embed yourself with other content creators. It’s a great way to find potential collaboration and comarketing partners. Go where they go, and emulate them. Get involved with other creators in your community and surround yourself with them. Making friends that work toward the same goals you have is a great way to stay motivated and interested. You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. This also puts you in the position to discover opportunities as they arise, either for yourself or others.

Create ongoing development threads for your content. It’s a great way to build publicity in advance of your content releases. You can also receive valuable input and feedback from other creators and potential customers. Engagement is a strong differentiator, both before your content releases and after.

Analyze other creators’ work

Analyze your competition. What works? What doesn’t? What are the most common complaints on forums? What do people identify as being positive? These are valuable data points for positioning both your product and customer support efforts.

Look for other creators whose content complements yours. Always keep an eye out for potential collaborators, because you can help promote each others’ work. Every competitor is a potential future partner. Their value as a content creator is equal to their power of their network and reach.

Analyze your competitors’ content through the lens of a potential customer, not as a competitor. Content that may seem mediocre on the surface may be valuable and widely loved. At the same time, content you think is amazing may be difficult to work with and widely loathed. This is where reviews and public feedback are crucial: people are communicating what is valuable to them and worth spending money on.

Another strong differentiator is the quality of support the developer provides, if any. Do they consistently update their content with bug fixes? How do they interact with their community? Are they deeply involved, or do they view content development as a dumping ground? I’ve seen smart creators crush their competition by being responsive and offering better support, even if the quality is lower. People feel more comfortable buying content from people they like and believe will support them, even if they’re only spending $30.

Set up a support structure

Set up a separate email address and an online support system for all support requests. Here’s a list of support ticket software from least to most expensive:

These are all viable options for tracking your support requests. This is important: stay on top of customer support. It’s not optional. This is how you build a good reputation. Word of mouth is everything, and these are simple and cheap ways to stay organized. This is something I hammered on Marketplace sellers to maintain. I’ve even removed content from the Marketplace for people that wouldn’t support their products. This has a direct effect on sales, loyalty, and repeat customers.

If you cannot personally handle customer service, or have someone in a dedicated role to handle it for you, don’t sell content online. After quality, providing good customer service is going to be the biggest differentiator that makes you stand out in the crowd. It’s not always a pleasant job, but sucking it up and being great at it anyway will give you an incredible advantage over others that won’t.

Where do I sell it?

It depends on the market you’re targeting and the game engine you’re building. Here are a few of the markets:

They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Naturally, I recommend the Unreal Engine Marketplace because I helped build it, but you may prefer asset stores with a larger content base or that specialize with different engines or types of art, such as architectural visualization. Shop around, see what appeals to you, check in with their communities to see how they are, and familiarize yourself. At this point, I recommend developing a content production pipeline that makes adapting your content for compliance and sale on as many different marketplaces as possible.

Tips and tricks for success

  • If you’re in the US, form a limited liability company (LLC). For more information on limited liability companies and the other types of companies you can form, check out this helpful page from LegalZoom. I’ve formed two LLCs through LegalZoom and I highly recommend them. Get an accountant. Be smart and organized about this from day one.
  • The most important thing you can do when supporting your customers is to acknowledge them quickly. Even if you don’t have an immediate or even satisfactory answer for their concern, this is important.
  • This is the best piece of advice you’ll get in this entire presentation: When doing work-for-hire content for your clients, identify which of your assignments could be sellable product. Negotiate a lower rate if they accept non-exclusivity so you can sell them on an online marketplace. You can open yourself up to a larger client base, make work-for-hire money, and generate a recurring revenue stream and a library as you do it.
  • Ship something every month. A regular release schedule and a library of content is important for marketing beats and re-promoting your earlier work. It’ll keep your motivation high.
  • Indie devs: If you’re working on a game, consider selling some of the content you develop for it on an online marketplace. You can promote your game, attract talent and interest, and monetize early. Remember: Kickstarter is even more of a marketing vehicle than it is a fundraising tool.
  • Contractors: Selling content on a marketplace is an excellent marketing vehicle to drive interest toward your service-based offerings. What you get is publicity, reach, and an audience that will spend money for your product. If they want a more customized version of what you sell, or if they really like what you do and want to pay you to do it, let them. This could be your way out of a job you don’t like.
  • Good luck out there!

Link: A complete guide to ready-made game assets

A complete guide to ready-made game assets

This is an excellent read for anyone in game development, from indie to AAA. Utilizing online content stores like the Unreal Engine Marketplace or the Unity Asset Store can be extraordinarily useful for game dev, starting from prototyping all the way to final shipped content. I especially like the idea of asking the artist for custom work if you like the content you purchase.

 

Color in games: An in-depth look at one of game design’s most useful tools

Excellent, detailed and well researched article on the use of color in games. Well worth a read!

Link: Gamasutra: Herman Tulleken’s Blog – Color in games: An in-depth look at one of game design’s most useful tools

How Dark Souls concept art may have deep ties to its environmental design

This is a fascinating analysis of Dark Souls’ environment concept art, concept art’s purpose, and even some cool art history. Art leads and art directors will certainly like this. :)

Link: Gamasutra: Ario Barzan’s Blog – How Dark Souls concept art may have deep ties to its environmental design

smArtist Tech 2015 Year End Review

Hi all! As the year 2015 draws to a close, I decided to look back at the last year to see what tools and tech I still use on a daily basis to continue my happy life as a location-independent freelancer. I spent the last year contracted by Epic Games to build up the Unreal Engine Marketplace into an efficient and sustainable business, and I did it while working remotely from New York City three weeks out of the month. Being able to prove that I can be available, responsive, and always connected was crucial.

For a quick recap, here’s a speech I gave at the External Development Summit in 2014 where I laid out the fundamentals of the tech and tools I use to work remotely and securely:

Being a tech geek, I constantly experiment with new and better ways of tackling my day-to-day responsibilities and put out fires as they arise. Sometimes I’ll overestimate the utility of a particular app or set of hardware, and other times I’ll underestimate the importance of always having [x] on hand. Based on using the hell out of these on a daily basis for the last year, this is a list of the tech and tools I used to the job done most effectively in 2015!

HARDWARE!

Primary PC: 15.4″ Macbook Pro with Retina display.

05244140-photo-macbook-pro-retina

I love this machine. Since I have to be portable, I can’t use a desktop PC as my primary, and that suits me well because this is a beast. Two tips that made owning this vastly more convenient:

  1. Buy a second power adapter, and keep it permanently plugged into your primary working space. Keep the other one in your go-bag. This makes it a LOT easier to pack up and head out in a hurry without having to re-fold and re-wrap all the cables.
  2. Buy a Kuzy brand laptop cover. It fits snugly, it looks great, and it protects the surface. I actually have two cases, one of which I put stickers on. I swap the top lid when I’m either traveling across borders, or want to have a more professional-looking device for client meetings.

Using the Macbook Pro also has the added benefit of not needing to use Windows 10, which is a horrific privacy nightmare I won’t touch with a ten foot pole.

Primary mobile device: Motorola Nexus 6 64gb.

MOTO-NEXUS-HERO-CARD-540w0ftz8d8

Best phone I’ve ever used. It’s slightly too large to use one-handed, but it’s the perfect size for two-handed use, fast typing, and a large clear screen. When I’m using it, I feel like I have a universal communicator in my hands that can do anything. It’s a fantastic device. If you get one, I recommend finding the smallest case possible, because my first case for it made it unwieldy and bulky. This is the case I currently use.

Secondary mobile device: Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5.

main_visual

Absolutely amazing tablet, beautiful screen, impossibly thin, and works well with my Microsoft Wedge Keyboard to have basically an instant laptop. I strongly recommend the MoKo brand tablet cases. They offer excellent protection, and can also easily fold into different positions to prop the tablet up so it can stand on its own at various viewing angles. The case is half the reason I love the tablet. Between this, my Nexus 6, and my 15″ Macbook Pro, I feel like I have the perfect spread of form factors from small to large.

ACCESSORIES!

  • For transferring files on a flash drive to or from a mobile device, the Sony MicroVault drives are pretty awesome. One end is micro-USB and the other end is regular USB. Fast and easy. Not as fun as simply using BitTorrent Sync, but it saves you from needing to install an app to quickly share files in person.
  • For charging your devices on the go, I use the LimeFuel Blast 15600mAh USB charger. It can charge my mobile device 3 or 4 times on a single charge, it can charge multiple devices at once, and it’s a very cool thing to have if you’re at a conference or out with friends and someone needs juice. Remember to bring the Lightning adapter!
  • For audio, the best earbud set with a microphone I’ve found is the Sony MDRXB50AP Extra Bass Earbud Headset. Music sounds great, I can always hear people on conference calls clearly, the microphone has reasonable noise cancellation and has never caused an issue. They’re durable, easy to throw in a bag and retrieve without breaking them, and they prevent me from needing to switch to a proper headset if I have a sudden conference call and need to be on the line. I’ve had these since May and so far, they’ve survived my possession longer than any other set.
  • When I need a mousepad, I’ve always got my 3M Precise Mouse Pad in my go-bag. It’s thin, has a grippy surface on the bottom to stay on the table and in my bag, and is always handy when I’m working on a glass table (like now) and want to use a mouse. Yes, I know there are mice that work on any surface, but I’m still very happy with my trusty Logitech M305 and haven’t needed to upgrade.

APPS!

For communicating online, it’s all about Hangouts.

hangouts-logo

I’ve yet to find a communication tool or IM app that can match Google Hangouts’ ease of use and seamlessness across devices. I’m constantly switching between my phone and my laptop, and occasionally my tablet, and being able to effortlessly continue the conversation and maintain the history (extremely important) is a lifesaver. I’ve tried iMessage, Adium, Pidgin, and others, but nothing can beat the simplicity of Hangouts. It’s especially powerful if your client\employer uses Google Apps so that everyone is accustomed to working within the ecosystem already. It’s easy to hop on a voice chat, paste files\images, link people to content in Google Drive, share links directly to a contact on mobile, and easily add people to a group conversation for quick troubleshooting of issues.

That being said, my primary criticisms of Hangouts are:

  1. Searching for a name on your contact list searches ALL of Google+ by default before looking through your contacts, and even then it sometimes can’t find it. It’s infuriating, completely nonsensical behavior.
  2. Its tab management for multiple conversations is very clunky. When I’m working I’m frequently in 5 – 10 conversations at once, many of which are ongoing group conversations, and keeping track of that can get tricky. To fix this, I highly recommend checking out Common Hangouts, which creates a really nice iMessage-style tabbed layout for all your conversations.

I strongly prefer Hangouts to Skype, which is messy, unreliable bloatware. I have frequent issues with low call quality, dropped calls, broken contact syncing between web and mobile, not receiving messages or calls, IMs getting stuck trying to perpetually send, and heavy memory and cache usage on mobile. It’s a mess and gets worse over time. If it wasn’t a professional necessity to maintain it and take calls via Skype, I’d uninstall it and never look back.

For typing on my phone, Fleksy has become my favorite keyboard.

fleksy_logo_black

I’ve found that even great keyboards like Swype still slow me down when all I want is responsiveness to my finger-pecking and ease of switching between words. It’s highly customizable and very fast to learn, and I recommend giving it a shot. However, whatever you do, don’t connect it to your Gmail account when it offers. It’s ostensibly to give it the chance to scan through every email you’ve ever sent to learn your vocabulary and typing style, but really, it’s a terrible idea letting any third party app access your Google account for any reason.

For a powerful unified notification center that makes using multiple devices a breeze, use Pushbullet!

pushbulletlogo-resized

Pushbullet is pretty amazing, and I’ve grown increasingly fond of it over time. In short, it connects all your devices so you can easily send files or text to any of all of them, mirror phone notifications on your PC, have a shared clipboard across all your devices (select and copy text on mobile, paste on PC), and generally make sure important data gets routed to you no matter what device you’re currently using. Quickly sending links or files from my phone to my PC is something I do frequently, for example. No need to email files to myself or drop them in Dropbox or Google Drive when I can Share it from my phone and immediately bring it to the foreground on any of my other devices. If those devices are off, then the links I send open up as soon as they’re powered back on. Nothing gets lost.

Not only that, but it connects with IFTTT, my favorite task automation tool, to connect to other services so you can be immediately notified of… well, basically anything. Pushbullet + IFTTT is slowly becoming an all-in-one, customizable notification center that’s seamless across all of my devices. Here are some examples of handy Pushbullet + IFTTT recipes:

IFTTT Recipe: Push My Trello Tasks connects trello to pushbullet

IFTTT Recipe: If the forecast calls for rain tomorrow get a push notification connects weather to pushbullet

IFTTT Recipe: If my package's shipping status changes, then send me a note connects boxoh-package-tracking to pushbullet

IFTTT Recipe: Recurring reminder to take your vitamins/medicine every day at a certain time connects date-time to pushbullet

IFTTT Recipe: When markets close, then send me the closing price of a specific stock connects stocks to pushbullet

For jotting down quick notes, I prefer Google Keep.

Google-Keep-Featured

I’ve tried for years to find a place for EverNote in my workflow, but it just doesn’t work for me. I usually do long-form writing in a text editor (I’m using Sublime Text right now), and I’m more comfortable there. If I’m on my phone, I’m probably not writing something long-form, and I really just want to write something down quickly so I can remember it later. For this, I use the Google Keep widget on my phone so I’m always one swipe and a tap away from rapid note-taking that’s instantly synced to the cloud. I’ve ultimately found this to be faster and more legible than keeping a pen and notebook on my person at all times like I used to.

For reading news, it’s gotta be Feedly.

signup-feedly-logo

Ever since Google Reader was shut down, I’ve switched over to using Feedly for all my news consumption. I spend enormous amounts of time reading news about game dev and technology, and Feedly is incredibly slick and easy to use both on web and mobile. It integrates cleanly with tools like Pocket and Buffer, it makes sharing content or saving it for later very easy, and it’s simply the best there is at what it does. Give it a shot! Also, here are some nifty IFTTT recipes that work with Feedly:

IFTTT Recipe: Save your feedly saved articles to a Google Drive spreadsheet connects feedly to google-drive

IFTTT Recipe: Add feedly subscriptions to google drive spreadsheet connects feedly to google-drive

IFTTT Recipe: Add a random #Wikipedia article to #Feedly every day to increase my knowledge connects date-time to feedly

For simple paintovers and documenting process, Skitch has long been a favorite of mine.

The tools it offers — drawing lines and arrows and boxes, adding text, highlighting, pixellation for sensitive details, etc — are very simple, but can be used to great effect if you need to quickly make a point or demonstrate process. When I was managing outsourcing on Just Cause 3, I used it extensively for process documentation for both internal and external teams. For another example, here’s a quick how-to guide I created using Skitch on preventing your Facebook friends from sharing your data without your consent:

It’s not exactly pretty, but it’s also easy to understand and took me less than two minutes. And it works great on mobile devices, too!

For two-factor authentication, use Authy.

authy-facebook

It works anywhere Google Authenticator does, and it has the benefit of letting you back up your two-factor authentication codes and switch between devices if necessary. It would suck enormously if you lost your phone and all your 2FA codes were lost to you forever, wouldn’t it? Dump Google Authenticator and grab Authy. And if you haven’t set up two-factor authentication on your apps yet, go to twofactorauth.org and start now. It’s literally the bare minimum you can do to keep yourself and your personal information safe online in the event of a data or password breach for any of the sites you visit. You don’t have to be targeted to be a victim.

For more information on this and how to take one-time steps to secure yourself online, have a look at my GamerGate Survival Guide. At the very least, follow steps 1 and 2, which should be mandatory for anyone using the internet today.

For reading saved articles on the go, use Pocket!

logo-pocket

When I was still working for Avalanche Studios and commuting into Manhattan, I used to spend my entire commute reading articles I’d saved in Pocket. Since there’s no internet access on the subway, having offline reading material was a lifesaver. Anytime I wanted to have something to read on my commute, I’d click on the browser bookmarklet to automatically save for offline reading on my phone, then I’d be ready to go. Even better, it has IFTTT support, which lets you do a lot of really cool things, the simplest of which is connecting an RSS feed you like to Pocket so you’ll automatically have interesting things you care about waiting for you to read. Here are some more example recipes:

IFTTT Recipe: Save in Pocket the popular articles from your favorite NYTimes section connects the-new-york-times to pocket

IFTTT Recipe: Store Pocket Articles to Evernote connects pocket to evernote

IFTTT Recipe: Everyday at 08:00 AM, add a random How Stuff Works Article to my Pocket connects date-time to pocket

IFTTT Recipe: Add saved Reddit posts to Pocket connects reddit to pocket

One additional bonus of using IFTTT and Pocket together that’s slightly more advanced is setting up IFTTT triggers to recognize tags you create in Pocket. For example, if I read an article about a cool tool I want to try out, I’d tag it with “tools” and an IFTTT action would look for that keyword, then automatically add a new line with its information onto an ongoing spreadsheet I maintain of tools to try out. Another tag-based trigger would be tagging my assistant’s name, which would send her an email with the content of the Pocket article I was reading.

Best of all, these tags can be added while offline, and when your device finds a cellular signal again, it syncs to the server and all the actions you set up immediately start working. This is especially cool because most apps that require some sort of internet connection force you into an offline read-only mode where you basically can’t work, but Pocket and IFTTT neatly circumvent that. It’s pretty awesome if you frequently enter and exit spaces with no internet access, such as a train or an airplane.

SERVICES!

I’ve switched my cellular phone plan from AT&T to Google’s Project Fi.

ProjectFi

Project Fi is a prepaid phone carrier offering by Google. It uses T-Mobile and Sprint for mobile data, switching intelligently between the two depending on whichever is fastest. Calls are automatically routed over wifi whenever possible, voice calls and texting is unlimited, and mobile data starts at 1gb\mo for $10, and whatever data you don’t use is refunded at the end of the month. The net effect is that I’m paying $40\mo now for what used to cost me $85\mo with AT&T. It’s fast, reliable, and I get to use the fantastic Motorola Nexus 6, which is the best phone I’ve ever used.

Even better, I’m writing this article in Mexico right now, and I get the same texting and data rates that I do in the US. It’s still only in a limited rollout and the phone compatibility list is very short, but coverage and support are growing steadily. I’ve been using it since July or so, and recently cancelled my service with AT&T and I’ve been very pleased with the service, the phone, and their customer support when I needed it. Go Google!

That’s the latest!

Aside from what’s mentioned above, the rest of my kit from the video linked above is pretty much the same as before. I’ll be putting together a guide in the near future on security basics for freelancers securing their clients’ content, as well as a few other fun experiments. Thanks for reading! For now, I’m going back to my vacation in Mexico. See you next year!

City Builder Games: How to manage isometric graphic assets

Here are some practical tips for file management for isometric assets. More great art production info by Junxue Li!

In a city builder game, the in-game graphic of a building is simple: a static image, plus a few simple animations. But in the production, we have a whole bunch of resources to manage: 3D files, textures,…
Link to full article.

How to design isometric buildings | Junxue Li | LinkedIn

Junxue Li is back with another great art production overview, this time on designing isometric buildings:

This title is a bit misleading, in fact this article is not about how to design to its essence: how to use colors, forms, how to draw… these are mastered during the long time training in an art school,…
Link to full article.