Broken Age – Act I: Trust Between Puzzle-maker and Puzzle-solver

I played the first act of Broken Age this morning and I want to highlight a well designed puzzle in each character’s chapter.

Vella: In the clouds (Meriloft), Vella’s goal is to get back down to the ground, and it becomes obvious that the only way to do this is to make one of the platforms really heavy. Which objects in Meriloft happen to be really heavy? The golden eggs. You can acquire these eggs in any order after getting a couple key items which you use to help you get to the final steps. This puzzle stands out to me because I trust the clues I’m being given by the puzzle-maker and I’m not constrained to do this puzzle, which has a 3-part answer, in any exact order.

Shay: In the ship, there are three teleportation doors. For some reason, they shrink Shay’s head when he uses them and the door’s robotic voices make a point to tell Shay that he has to teleport back through the same door to increase your head size. So you have to remember the order of doors you walked through to make his head a specific size for the final puzzle. This works because it’s discovered quite organically and you may end up encountering multiple times before actually using it for the final puzzle. 

In a game with puzzles that have unique paths and eventually converge together, it’s really crucial to allow the player to solve them in any order. Additionally, they need complete trust in the puzzle-maker that they’ll find the right pattern.

(I may be mad about the puzzle in Vella’s chapter in which you have to switch out the diamond glass and the 300-year old guys says “yep you even got them in the right place” WHEN IN FACT I DID NOT and I spent 20 minutes trying to find more glass before looking up a walkthrough)

How I attended GDC for 7 days for less than $1000

The 2020 Game Developer’s Conference begins March 16th! There are many hot topic articles on why and how you should attend the conference (or even if you should), and I’m gonna add my experience with budgeting for the trip to your list of helpful reads as you prep yourself for an exciting and stressful week. Attending GDC is a L.U.X.U.R.Y. and just because I did it for less than $1,000 doesn’t mean I think everyone can. But I hope you can figure out how to have a better GDC budget by reading about how I saved and spent my GDC Fund.

The past couple years, I’ve seen more and more devs be disgusted by the cost to attend GDC. It’s not just the badge, of which the cheapest worth buying (the regular Expo badge) at Early pricing was $149 for the 2019 conference and then went up to $249 after January 30th. The All-Access badge? Minimum $1,999. And hotels? And then travelling there? There’s some overwhelmingly expensive costs in San Francisco that don’t have anything to do with the conference itself.

Today I’m going to show you some screenshots of my original budget for attending GDC in 2019 and what I actually spent. Additionally, I want to preface that I have been practicing budgeting each month since the beginning of 2018 (and is the reason I didn’t attend GDC 2018). And my budget is not “oh I spent $22 at Target, gonna log that.” Nope I mean like at the grocery store I have a damn spreadsheet on my phone that I input all the prices of things as I put them in my cart and I won’t put something in my cart, even if it’s potentially something I need, if it doesn’t fit what I’m planning to spend. I’m talking about that kind of budgeting.

The badge: As mentioned previously, a badge to get in to GDC quite the expense. However, there are ways to get it for free: scholarships, become a speaker, or work as a volunteer via the Conference Associate program. My college even did a raffle for an Expo Pass. In order to attend GDC for the experience that is most worth it to me, I was sacrificing putting money in my savings and towards my student loans, so there had to be a limit; a boundary that I wouldn’t break because it would be irrational to spend more. I decided I wouldn’t attend GDC unless I acquired a badge through one of these aforementioned opportunities. I would apply for them as they came up.

The budget: To decide on what my budget should even be for GDC 2019, I looked through my bank statements and email receipts from March 2017, and what I could remember from my attendance in 2016 and 2015. I researched hotels and flights and food to get an estimate on what I would likely spend in 2019. I concluded that $1700 was my magic number, and I started saving in August 2018.

With six months until I’d need to start spending the month, I calculated I’d need to save $283 a month to reach my goal. August 9th, I transferred my first $300 in my fund.

Above are screenshots of my GDC Fund August, September, October, November, and December. In the latter months, I got really excited and saved quicker than predicted.

Travel & Hotel: In January, I found out I had been accepted to the CA program (takes care of the most important expense: the badge!), so I needed to purchase my plane ticket. I realize I’m pretty lucky to live only a 4-hour flight away from SF. This can be a big cost blocker for any trip; so as you make your budget, know the approximate price to get to SF from wherever you are by whichever mode of transportation you pick. I chose to fly in Sunday morning on Alaska Airlines, Non-stop, SEA -> SFO. I also arranged to have a hotel room a friend had reserved (and no longer needed) transferred to me, so I knew at this time my hotel total without roommates was going to cost $1,190.40. This hotel was right by the Dragon’s Gate in SF, a 15-20 minute walk to Moscone Center. I chose a hotel room over a hostel or AirBnb just because of my personal comfort level with SF, but I know these other options can be cheaper.

In February, I had new business cards printer via Staples. I designed them myself in Illustrator, and they looked good enough for who they were for. I even did double-sided printing because I have a puzzle on the other side. This isn’t an “every year” expense for most of us and sometimes your company will even get you business cards so you may or may not have this cost. Additionally, I’m chair of the IGDA Jewish Developers SIG so I have to keep my membership with the IGDA valid. I was coming up on the expiration and they had sent an email with a discount code, so I took care of that.

Below is where the spending really happens!

I wanted a couple new clothing items to make me feel professional. I bought a super cute blazer and some shirts from the thrift store and I looked professional AF. Right before the trip, I also lost my sunglasses and discovered my watch didn’t work; I didn’t have enough time to get the battery changed so I got some cheapo piece from Claire’s that appears nice (but would likely break by the time I got back). Preemptively, I refilled my Starbucks card through the app, giving myself a budget of $20 of Starbucks while in SF. However, the Seattle airport has a really good Dilettante place right after security and I hadn’t budgeted time for breakfast. There are the four items that I could have done without, but that just means a little less while in SF.

I took the BART to my hotel from the airport, which I HAD NEVER done before and public transportation in Seattle is apparently terrible and I’ve never experienced anything else. So, I was freaked out, but I’m a big kid and I know krav maga… and I saw some underclassmen from my alma mater so I asked for help. A BART card filled with $19.30 was the perfect amount to get to my hotel and also to get back to the airport later in the week.

You can also see that two of my hotel-mates paid their share of the room before the conference (which was equal to my share). At this point, I had to be a bit careful because my fund showed an excess amount when the hotel had not yet charged me. Using Venmo, I was able to transfer the money to bank account easily, and separate it from the fund until the end of the week.

Above is the week of the conference. (Our other hotel-mate was not staying with us quite the whole week so I charged her less.)

Food: You may notice the lack of money spent on food; this is because CAs also get a food stipend of $75 to use during the conference on con food and sometimes there’s free breakfast/coffee in the CA Lounge in the mornings. I additionally had the speaker stipend, also $75, because my SIG was hosting a roundtable (I only had one badge though). I used up the CA stipend by Thursday, and I spent around $10 on the speaker stipend card before handing that off to my friend on Friday (a couple hours before it would expire anyway). If I didn’t have this stipend, I would likely have gone to Trader Joe’s (as I did two times, one mislabeled as just “food”) and spent less of my own money, since con food is like minimum $10. Also I love TJs grab n’go meals, especially the salads. I still ate at restaurants/food trucks with my friends, but it wasn’t every meal or even every day. Obviously that way is more costly, but I had budgeted for more eating out than I ended up doing.

A few nights during the week, I went to mixers that had free food. I didn’t pay to get into these mixers, so it wasn’t like I was paying a $30 ticket fee and then getting a few appetizers. These mixers had open buffets and trays of food laying around, so I could eat and mingle as much as I want. I’m not shy about taking advantage of free food, and how upset would the organizers be if they paid for all the food and had too many leftovers, hmm?

Souvenirs: The biggest mistake I made was purchasing some books at the GDC bookstore and I learned my lesson. Let’s not talk about that.

On the 23rd, I left SF. On the 24th, I took the money I had leftover and put it on my debt.

I started with $1,700 in my fund and had $766.26 leftover, which means I spent $933.74. Less than $1,000, but that’s still a lot of money! I definitely consider $1k trip to be an expensive vacation, especially with all the amenities I was fortunate enough to have.

A few months ago, I was pumped and excited to start saving for it. I submitted my first talk to GDC’s main conference; I got my conference associate essay drafted; I started planning up my SIG’s roundtable submission; I was even emailing back and forth with some other groups about hosting a joint party.

This was in August and September. Now, in November, I’m second-guessing going. I haven’t managed to save any money in my GDC fund. When I’m putting my money into my funds every month, I think “Do I really need to aside this money for GDC yet? Nah, bulking my emergency fund is where my heart is.” It’s a luxury to go.

My advice for financially planning this trip would be to financially plan it. If you can’t make it work, there’s always next year. The conference parties and talks are kind of the same after you’ve gone a couple times. Think about why you are attending GDC and how can you plan to use your money to help you achieve those goals. Everyone’s situation is different and I don’t know if anyone could attend GDC for much less than I have (but if you have, please share your tips), or if I could attend GDC for the same cost again.

Game Critique: Microsoft Studio Stacker card game

I usually like to talk about parts of games that are well designed, or how they could even be made better with simple improvements. But today, I’m going to critique one that I do not believe accomplished its design goals. I will also provide my solutions for the issues.

Just before GDC 2019, Microsoft announced their game platform, Microsoft Game Stack. They were demoing and giving away free copies of a tabletop card game Game Studio Stacker at GDC in the first area (named the Game Stack Lobby Lounge) attendees enter before heading to the expo floor. So first off, I think it’s wonderful that Microsoft explored the intersectionality of digital and tabletop design with this game. As a professional tabletop game developer, I was pumped with medium-high expectations. Maybe this is why I was so disappointed and am confused by certain design choices.

I was told by the demoer that the goal of this game (in addition to promoting their new platform and draw attention to their lounge) was to “bring people together” at GDC. It’s important to know that this is where my expectations were set. If you know anything about GDC, you’re aware that conference goers are rushing around to meetings or sessions, or to grab food or go back to their hotel for a quick nap. The game defied these goals in two very large ways: the suggested playtime is 60-90 minutes and is competitive with minimal player interaction. There are of course other goal-defying issues, but I’ll analyze those later because I believe the aforementioned parts are larger issues and high level addressing/solving those first will let me better address the randomness issue. I’m going to do this by using the existing components and playmat, which btw, I think are beautiful and do a lot to intrinsically communicate what the players do. I’m also going to try my best to not address the rulebook document itself, because I write rulebooks and my company follows a different style than others and that’s okay (but I have opinions that it is Not Good™; there’s no components list and the setup is in paragraph format with no numbers/ordering and there’s sadly lots of screeching on my end).

Proposed design changes: make this a cooperative card game in which all players are working towards building a successful games studio with multiple successful games; give it a 10-15 minute playtime (maybe even less than 10 minutes of playtime, but that’s a stretch goal);

Solution 1: Make the game co-op

Player vs. the game: In order for the game to be co-op, I have to change who the players are competing against. What does it take to win and what elements prevent them from doing so? The primary goal changes from “be the first to make the most games” to “publish a game with your team”. They’re competing against the game environment instead of each other, and additionally all players are a team and can play cards to help each other.

Turn actions: Sharing game concept cards, giving event cards to others for their turn, off-turn assisting players with what they’re trying to accomplish, etc.

The goal: With a co-op game, the goal of being the first player to have 8 stars worth of games doesn’t fit anymore. The new goal is to survive your first five years as a new studio using a threshold mechanic. A round (each player taking one turn) is a year, and at the end of five rounds, if your group has a certain number of stars, you win!

Solution 2: Make the game shorter

Reduce the card count: The game combines event cards and team member cards into a “studio stacker” deck consisting of 119 cards. There are three types of cards in this deck that serve completely different purposes: team members (60 cards), publish events (23 cards), and studio events (36 cards). Instead, only have enough cards from each player to have touched maybe 10-12 cards the entire game. In one example, players go through two to three team members each, instead of there being 10+ for each player. Another example is that the game has 33 game concept cards. It’s good variety, but too much for a 2-5 players game that should only take 10-15 minutes (that’s 6+ game concept cards for each player in the largest game and 15+ cards in the smallest game. Both of those are too much). I propose bringing this down to 3 game concept cards per player (15 cards total) in the largest game. Still, a lot, but I want to be careful of players not feeling like there’s enough content right from the start because all this information with be shared in our co-op game.

Split decks and reduce turn actions: I would also split the studio event cards, publish event cards, and the team member cards. I was hoping to not have to change these components, but they all have the same card back and to make deck sorting easier, they should be unique. Splitting these up allows me to redesign turn actions to be: recruit team members (draw from the team members deck), play a studio event (from your hand, assuming you have any, then redraw), and work on a game (moves a game up the game concept track). Publish events are already build to have good and bad consequences, so when a game hits the “Publish” slot, players will draw from the publish event deck to see how their game does in the market place. I would want to put some other caveats on these as well, such as more senior team members working on the game means it’s less likely to be hit by a negative publish action. In this world, I’m unsure how to get players to engage with negative studio events, so that’s something I need to think about more, but I think the best solution may be to remove them or repurpose them to occur at some other time.

Misc: Max hand size may be good at three instead of seven, reset your hand instead of take a turn, give cards to others.

The changes are high level changes, ones that have an influence on everything else in the game. I don’t want to dive too much into the ruleset in this post, mostly because it took me a month to even have some time to write down these thoughts.

Group Identity and User Connections

I have recently been researching and teaching myself more tools to polish my user experience skills and be more connected to my players. Earlier this week I realized that the stuff I’ve been reading and trying out on my own is showing up in my work and I feel even more confident in my designs.

I’m in the middle of How to Get People to Do Stuff by Dr. Susan Weinschenk and doing some freelance web design for a local non-profit arts group. The ideas from the second chapter, “Use Nouns, Not Verbs” has impacted how I have initially designed asking people to subscribe to the newsletter and apply to be a volunteer.

Dr. Weinschenk says “The need to belong can have very subtle effects.” I think this applies even to people who belong to the identity of avoiding belonging (a “non-conformist” or “hipster” aesthetic). She identifies a survey in which more people voted the following day when asked about being a voter instead of voting. The people who identified as voters felt that they belonged to that specific group and had an obligation to fulfill their role within the group. She goes on to say that when you “invoke a sense of belonging… and people are much more likely to comply with your request.”

In another part of the book, Dr. Weinschenk is talking about the power of stories and the “Anchor to a Persona” strategy in order to create new personas. The first study cited talks about how a group of Californians (group A) were asked to put a “quite large and fairly ugly” sign in their front yard that said DRIVE CAREFULLY. Naturally, fewer than 20% of group A agreed. A different set of people, group B, were asked to put a small “Drive carefully” sign in their car windows. Three weeks later, when this same group was asked (by a different experimenter, so no relationship or trust had been established) to display the original sign in their yard, 76% said yes! Dr. Weinschenk concludes that group B over the first three weeks were able to create for themselves a story and activate the persona that they cared about safety on the roads, so a request to amplify that persona was very likely to be accepted.

So, how to relate this to my current project: I know viewers are on this website because they have a non-0% interest in the arts community. The hardest part is done, really. But how can I get them to keep coming back? While I’m not the one who will be sending out newsletters, answering questions, or assembling volunteers, I am doing the initial prompting of “hey be part of this group”!


A weak call-to-action based on How to Get People to Do Stuff:

  • Sign up for our newsletter
  • Subscribe to community updates
  • Enter your email to receive our newsletter

A better way: These ways identify the group/subtly poke a persona or story someone has for them self, then prompts the sign up.

  • Community members can stay updated through our newsletter
  • Care about the arts? Subscribe to our newsletter.

Recruiting Volunteers

The same weak call-to-actions as above apply, but volunteering is more effort than just reading a newsletter, so there are some other requests I want to use, other than simply “Be a volunteer”:

  • Organizers needed for theatrical events
  • Be one of our creative volunteers (saying “ours” and “creative” anchors two other identities to this persona)

Building this project alongside reading this book as helped me identify more create ways to “get people to do stuff” and put it into practice. The website isn’t live yet so I don’t have any data beyond the art board giving me feedback, but I’m hoping it will have a strong impact along with the board’s personable outreach efforts.

P.S.: Yes I do totally want to improve the wording of this blog’s featured image to “Calling all trendsetters! Don’t miss the latest styles.” or “Influencers find it here first. Sign up to be the most fashionable fashionista on your feed.”

UX Design Challenge #2: Identify my skills

My next challenge is to focus on what skills I do have that go well with UX, and what I skills I need to grow and how I can do that. Currently my area of expertise is game design, but there are a lot of skills that crossover. It’s difficult for people to analyze themselves this way and even more so to do in a blog post. I would be lying obviously if I said I have all the UX skills ever (same with game design but that’s not my focus today). I think it’s important to just be vulnerable in this moment and be publicly (lol as available as my blog is) accountable for my shortcomings so I can improve. This includes soft skills and hard skills.

I am not afraid to speak up with my feedback or concerns in a meeting – my shortfall is doing it in the right way. I think I can come off really harsh sometimes, and if I am nervous about what I’m going to say, it shows because I stumble over my words and I can’t make myself form the feedback that I’m emotionally trying to communicate. Using a white board and pictures is much better for me. My visual and written communication skills are more advanced than my verbal ones.

I’m always asking myself what a player is going to do or think in my games. I can continue to grow in my empathy towards a user by doing more research with them and continuing to keep them part of the design process.

I do calendar blocking and keep a written planner so I feel confident in my organization skills. Like, every hour of my week is blocked out as I start it and there’s room for flexibility. It’s safe to say my organizational skills are strong.

User Research
I have done “user research” in the form of game playtesting. I have not done this through interviewing the user, surveys, or focus groups. Game playtesting is much less formal, and while I typically have pinpointed questions that I’m solving during that test with players, I can bring this to a more traditional research level through a variety of testing for more than just mechanics and flow.

Information Architecture
I can’t say that I’ve ever consciously done this outside of creating my own website (which you’re on) and some rough student work. If you can find your way around here, maybe I’m okay. I can definitely practice this more by building prototype sites and wire frames to identify where I’m struggling with this skill. For now, it is mostly unexplored.

Wire framing & Prototyping
I am assuming that most wire framing and prototyping is quite similar to how I would create a paper prototype for a game. It’s just the bare bones of what you need to communicate the experience – typically little art and only placeholder text. Games typically take a little more work than a post-it or index card for a prototype, but the value gained from wire framing and prototyping is just as valuable (if not more because you’re doing *so* much of the work without using technological resources that undoubtedly cost more).

A final reminded for me as my UX skills develop: UX is the process of creating functional and usable applications where UI is making them visually and aesthetically pleasing. I’d like to get good at both, but I find myself caring a lot more about function and usability because if no one can figure out how to use your product, it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is. Similarly, it doesn’t matter how beautiful a video game is if it’s too buggy and doesn’t flow well because no one will be able to play it and discover all that nice art. I understand that having a solid and functional foundation for the UI to stand on is the first step to creating an awesome product that people want to have.

UX Design Challenge #1: Spot the Good and Bad

Today’s challenge has a focus on seeing what’s intuitive or frustrating about a website or app I normally use. I’ll be using the budgeting app EveryDollar. To start, I want to highlight that the goals of this app is for budget tracking and seeing at a glance where your money is coming from and going to. Another note, budgeting is assigning “every dollar” a name before you spend it, not tracking after you spend, and this app is designed to work on that level.

begin budget feb.PNG

I’m starting by creating an example budget on my own account for the month of February in 2019 (since I haven’t budgeted out that far yet). I think this screen is pretty great because most people’s expenses will about the same in back-to-back months. If this user isn’t used to budgeting yet, it also helps them create their foundation for a few months out while they get the hang of it.

income current

The median income in the US is $56k/year, and broken down after tax, that’s about $3,700/month. Another stat shows 38% of Americans have one or more side hustles, so I added that in here as well. EveryDollar makes it VERY easy to quickly see what you exact income is and notes at the top left how much you have left to budget for the month.

housing budget.PNG

I filled out the housing budget using averages again, and I love that EveryDollar shows you the exact amount and percentage (highlighted in the lower right). As more categories get filled in, having the pie chart with highlighted colors for different budget categories is also helpful to the user at a glance. Note again that our “left to budget” amount has also been updated. When you’ve filled out every penny, (see below) the “left to budget” changes to a “It’s an EveryDollar Budget!” exclamation point and all. The user also knows that this is the ultimate end goal for this tool because there’s a green check mark beside it that symbolizes “complete”.


Say the user is more visual and doesn’t *feel* where there money is going. Housing costs and debt are most static month to month, so the next category where this user is spending the most money is their food. They are now able to adjust their budget for the month going forward and tell their money to go where it matters most to them (the end goal of budgeting).


My least favorite thing about EveryDollar’s user experience isn’t a huge turn-off, but it does make the app difficult to use. Above is an example that uses one of my actual student loans. I wanted to show this part of the app, but I could not create an example for a future month because the app doesn’t let you “jump ahead” (or back) and create new debt line items. I get why because this is a Ramsey app, but I think it would be helpful to be able to update totals of future and past months. The app doesn’t have a place in the debt box to calculate interest, so you have to put the interest in as an “expense” transaction on the line item or adjust the “starting balance” number which feels messy. I do think the “extra payment” box is helpful. The little party hat (despite the spacing typo) makes the user feel accomplished in paying off debt. Still, all this is minimized by the lack of ability to manipulate the balance and add an interest rate because everything else about this tool is extremely accurate.


Games for School

I provide child care for a few families in my area, and recently one of the 5th grade kids was doing homework through a game. He told me it was algebra, and it mostly looked like fractions using sides of a die. It seemed that the goal was to drag a static die to the correct value, but there were a few levels where it mostly just looked like he was dragging it to random spots on the screen.

So I started wondering about how I could improve such a game. The challenge I faced, as I’m sure all educational games do, is that what’s to stop a student from just dragging and clicking until the land on the right answer? That’s a terrible way to learn. It reminds me of when I somehow miss the directions of a tutorial and left to jump around for 10 minutes until I do the right move or go to the right place. The success of completing that segment doesn’t actually feel good because I didn’t find the solution; I just happened upon it.

Some possible, but not great, solutions to this problem:

  • Time the level? Kids would just wait until the timer runs out.
  • Add hints? Kids might feel a bit of a confidence boost, but these hints have to be the same ones their teacher taught them for them to remember.
  • Don’t show success rate until the end? Then it’s like a quiz and kids don’t like that.

Maybe the answer is a combination of all of these somehow. Math homework is stressful enough though, and adding a timer and not giving immediate feedback on if the answer is correct would probably make kids hate math even more.

My favorite math activity was in 1st-5th grade when I was home-schooled, and the lessons had me use actual building blocks and make equations on the table. These weren’t LEGOs (although they looked pretty similar), but each block was a different color. For example, I remember the block of 100 squares being a maroon red. I think the straight block of 10 was yellow and the 50 was blue. I found a newer version of what these look like on Amazon and they’re just as cool as I remember them. So I’m totally a more visual learner and this is why I had a lot of frustration with math the rest of my school years. It was very hard to see the equations.

If I think about the things that make math fun for me, it’s when there’s pictures or visuals that show the numbers. I like DIY stuff and construction. I don’t mind adding fractions of flour and sugar. I love zeroing out my budget. The big difference here is that this math has context and a purpose. If educational games, particularly math ones, could be designed with a purpose that kids relate to, that would increase their engagement. I don’t mean “get the right answers to get through the story of this young kid and his dog”. I mean “you invite 8 friends to your party, but the cake is cut into 12 slices. How many slices can you and your friends eat before there’s no more cake? How many friends won’t get a second piece of cake?” I know that’s not the best question, but it involves the student (“you”) and makes them consider others (their friends) while thinking about a food they probably like during a time of year that will definitely come to pass. Every student can relate to having a birthday. There’s always that one mom that won’t let your friends have seconds until everyone finishes their first piece (like come on, if they’re being slow they probably don’t care for more).