The Value of a Game

Recently, a handful of game devs, mainly in the indie space, have started speaking out to players who question whether or not a game is worth the price being asked. It’s an interesting discussion, because it starts to expose the otherwise opaque economic workings of game development, and it brings up some issues that have been growing for a while now.


The basic gist is that a player might pick up a new indie title for $15 or $20, complete it in two hours or less, and think about a refund on Steam, or complain that the game isn’t worthwhile for the price they paid. It asks the question of how much a game is worth to players, and whether or not that’s enough to keep a game developer afloat. For a lot of indies, it doesn’t appear to be. An impassioned forum response by a Firewatch dev talks about how long it took to develop the game and how that relates to paying themselves minimum wage. A similar reply by a Brigador dev breaks down exactly why their game costs $20, with a surprising amount of transparency.

It’s a discussion that hasn’t come up previously, not between devs and players directly. There’s an expectation of sorts that game devs are imperious, detached, and separate from players. We’ve come to expect an air of mystery, a sense that the devs know things we don’t and are comfortable in their ivory towers, so much so that when a game isn’t taking the direction we want, we’re quick to siege that ivory tower, not realizing that it’s often less a tower than a shack, and less ivory that cardboard and scrap metal.

I’ve spent long enough working in games to know that content is expensive. It costs a lot to make, in time, resources, and manpower. Content creation is a joint effort between multiple different skillsets– art generating assets, tech creating the infrastructure, audio bringing in sound, design pulling it all together, and QA ironing out the bugs– and that’s a bare minimum. Generating an hour’s worth of content can take a month or more of time from start to finish. The more elaborate the content, the longer it takes.

The question becomes, is the return on investment for creating content worth it? We love content, we love consuming it, but by and large we don’t want to pay for it. Games haven’t increased in base cost in a decade– by comparison, the average movie ticket has increased in price by 30% in the last decade. Movie tickets are a decent comparison to games, because they follow a lot of the same rules– they have a brief window of relevance (2 weeks to a month), after which sales drop off immensely, they’re expensive to make, rely on having a lot of people see them, and are content-driven works. Yet, movies have gone up in price 30% on average, whereas games have stayed the same. Why aren’t games $80?

Players, in large part, aren’t willing to pay $80 for a game, regardless of how much it costs to make. Many refuse to buy at the $60 price point, and the existence of services like Steam are invaluable for extending the lifespan of a game much longer than it otherwise would have been– games only survive on store shelves for a few weeks, tops, if they even show up on shelves. The advent of DLC has filled in the gap between the current games price point and the cost of creation, but people balk at this.

Instead, we wait for Steam sales, or pre-sale deals, or Game of the Year editions, or whatever will let us get away with spending less on a game. On the consumer side, the pull is towards cheaper and cheaper games, and on the development side, margins get thinner and the ability to absorb risk drops, with many studios simply not making enough to stay afloat.

It begs the question of whether or not the ROI on content is ultimately worth it. Star Wars: Battlefront has clearly decided that it’s not– there’s no campaign mode, and regardless of the frustration from players at this lack, as of January it was exceeding sales projections. Other games have similarly stopped bothering with story modes and other poor-ROI inclusions; the modern MMO is a lot more like a series of lobbies than an open world, and more and more games are dropping singleplayer entirely, or are purely singleplayer experiences and drop multiplayer entirely.

My big fear is that it isn’t, and what we’ve been seeing with shorter and shorter games is the natural reduction of story content because it’s simply too expensive to produce. It’s not a fast process, but I feel like there’s a pretty clear map of average game length that trends downwards starting in the early-to-mid 2000s and continues trending downward now. Games with a lot of content tend to spread that content very thin, or fill it up with relatively trivial things that are very cheap to produce.

A big problem with all of this is that the inherent instability of the games industry means there isn’t a lot of institutional knowledge over long periods of time to reduce the cost of creating content. Most teams are starting fresh with every new game, and it’s very difficult to see long-term trends on the development side. The studios that manage to stick around and develop institutional knowledge tend to release excellent game after excellent game, but getting there is very rare, and often requires being in the right place at the right time, with a lucky release.

This is what’s currently swirling around in my head from a “future of gaming” standpoint. There aren’t that many examples of content creation to draw from as a direction for games to go to stabilize and become less luck-driven, and the trend for consumers continues to be to pay less and less for content. Now, this trend is squeezing games that don’t have the margins to absorb it, and don’t have the resources to recoup the costs elsewhere (via DLC or otherwise). I’m interested to see where it goes, because I’m not sure how it resolves.

VR’s Killer App

As more and more excited, breathless news comes out of this iteration of the virtual reality push, it’s hard for me not to feel like this all isn’t really familiar. It seems like I’ve heard the same promises, the same giddy excitement, and the same “this is going to change everything” sentiments that existed the last (few) time(s) this circle has come around. Back then, Virtual Reality was a great big helmet you wore with screens for your eyes, and you looked around and waved your arms to interact with an immersive 3D… wait.


Frankly, I have yet to hear what’s different this time. What’s the magic sauce that’s going to get millions of customers to buy a giant headset for a lot of money when they weren’t willing to do it the last time? I keep hearing the promises— movies rendered in glorious 360-degree panorama, games so immersive you’ll swear you aren’t in your living room with a big helmet on, life-changing experiences that you could never have in reality, but in VR it’s like you’re there. I don’t doubt that any of these things could happen, but they’re the amazing things you get on a mature platform. The best games of a console generation are rarely the release titles– it takes a while for developers to get comfortable with the hardware and really spend time investing in it.

To get those really awesome, mature-interface applications, you need a product with a userbase worth investing in. You need a spark that drives people to absolutely need that VR helmet. I feel like game consoles are a good analogue– consoles watch for exclusives because they all want that one killer app that makes everyone absolutely need to buy it. Even late in a console’s lifecycle, those apps are sought out, because they’ll sell consoles and grow that ever-critical userbase. Almost every major console release has a significant uptick corresponding to a massive, blockbuster release, that game everyone just has to have that drives not just game sales, but console sales as well.

There’s likely a business/marketing term for this kind of product that I don’t know; I know the term as “killer app”, because that’s what I’ve seen on the consumer side. These killer apps have a lot of things in common– they’re big, with very wide appeal, and very sticky. For consoles, they’re games that people play for hundreds of hours, sometimes they’re the only game people own on their console and STILL play it every night. They’re that experience you just can’t get anywhere else.

Why did smartphones take off when 3D TVs didn’t? 3D TVs are/were the new hotness in living room entertainment– buy this fancy TV and wear goggles while you watch to have an unparalleled moviegoing experience. Problem is, you can have an experience about as good without the need for (multiple pairs of) goggles that you have to wear in your own home every time you want to watch a movie. The addition of 3D is not compelling enough to sell millions of TVs, despite the marketing push. Smartphones, however, gave us something we didn’t realize we wanted but quickly couldn’t live without: easy Internet at our fingertips at all times. The killer app for smartphones wasn’t programmable alarms, or fancy touchscreens, or the camera, or the built-in camera or notepad apps. Those things are nice, but being able to easily check e-mail and browse the web and get GPS directions got us hooked. The more elaborate apps came later, once smartphones became ubiquitous. Arguably, these things weren’t even new, they were just presented in a user-friendly way when before they were obtuse, expensive, and unfun to use.

So. What is it that VR is bringing to the table, at launch, that’s going to move millions of units and build up a userbase big enough to make investing in cool 3D movies, immersive VR games, and promising virtual classrooms all worth it? I still don’t know. The latest thing I’ve seen touted as “the reason to get VR” is an astronaut sim– float around in space and be an astronaut. It’s got the same problems as all of the other launch VR apps; it’s a cool experience for about ten or twenty minutes and then you’re done, telling your friend who showed you the app that it was really immersive and thanks for showing that to me, that was awesome and then you go home, and, importantly, DON’T instantly go out to your local electronics store to buy one for yourself.

As an aside, I think Augmented Reality (AR) is much more likely to catch on, because the instant applications are much more obvious. Get a decent HUD on a pair of glasses, get a set of haptic-feedback gloves (or even just fingertip sensors), and plug both into your laptop. Now you have a computing space that doesn’t require a massive desk and multiple monitors, yet gives you more (virtualized) screen real estate than even the most elaborate monitor setup. You can get as much work done on the bus as you can in your office, and you don’t need a huge, bulky PC or even a table to set down your laptop. It doesn’t require terribly much in the way of technological breakthroughs, and you don’t need a screaming fast laptop to get the full benefit. That’s the hook, and once you get enough users sold by that (relatively-easy-to-deliver) promise, then you can start looking at the really exciting AR apps.

In the meantime, however, I still don’t know what problem VR is solving, or what app is going to suddenly make masses of people decide that this time, they do in fact want to wear a big headset. It’s a massive hurdle for VR to get over– we’ve proven time and again that people just don’t want to wear a massive thing on their heads for casual entertainment. Even 3D glasses for the TV was too much. I’d love to see VR become a thing, it’s been the promise of the future since I was a kid, but I still can’t tell you what would get me to plunk down a few hundred for an Oculus Rift or similar, and I like that hardware.

I’d like to be proven wrong, but I’m still waiting to see how it might happen.

As Long As It’s Well-Written

I’ve been playing more of the Shadowrun: Hong Kong Extended Edition content– the post-game storyline that ties up some loose ends that the main story resolves but doesn’t quite clean up. It’s really satisfying, because (avoiding spoilers) some characters at the end of the main storyline don’t get the comeuppance I’d like to have had the chance to deliver, and while that’s a very Shadowrun-feeling thing, it’s nice to be able to go after them in the epilogue.


The Shadowrun games are, mechanically, a lot like many other games out there. XCOM is a superior tactical shooter in many ways, Satellite Reign does some more creative stuff with real-time stealth and cover, and most turn-based isometric tactical games offer a lot more functional customization than Shadowrun does. I still keep coming back to it over those other games, and it’s based on one key feature that beats out its competition: writing.

A manager of mine used to half-jokingly tease our team’s (excellent) writer when asked about some narrative plan or plot twist. Do what you like, he’d say, “as long as it’s well-written”. Different game, different set of people, but that sentiment really resonates. I keep coming back to Shadowrun because I adore the writing. It’s nothing fancy, no voiceovers, lots of text in boxes, very old-school in that regard, but it consistently sets the mood, fills in details without getting bogged down in them, and makes me laugh, seethe, and sigh at various times. It introduced me to a slew of characters that, on paper, I liked none of, and by the end of the game I was completely attached to.

More than anything, it inspires me to write my own stuff, and gives me ideas. It provides little hooks, various options, and lots of choices throughout the game. It sets up no-win situations that are still satisfying in the end, and I’ve rarely if ever felt like I’ve been forced down a choice that I didn’t want. There’s lot of side content, lots of little extra details filling out the world and suggesting that it *is* a world, just one that I’m seeing only a small part of, and other bits in glimpses. In and among all of this, it manages to surprise me in ways I don’t expect. It’s not just that there are plot twists, because I see those coming, it’s that the twists still happen in ways that I didn’t expect, that still make sense.

I place a lot of value on writing that can surprise me; I’ve read a lot and have seen the same tropes unfold in lots of different ways, so seeing something I’m familiar with flipped a slightly different way, or seeing something I didn’t expect at all tends to stick with me. Good narrative sells me really quickly on an experience, and I’m willing to trade fidelity in a lot of other things to get it. I’m reminded of Warframe here, and how a good game became enthralling when the storytelling suddenly improved dramatically. I like almost nothing about the gameplay presentation of Persona 3 Portable, especially after having played the more refined Persona 4, but the story was compelling enough to hook me.

In the meantime, there are plenty of truly excellent games where the narrative (or lack thereof) leaves me wanting. I love Elite: Dangerous’ gameplay, but the lack of any compelling storytelling keeps me from bothering to log in. Star Wars: Battlefront’s lack of a campaign left me ultimately unsatisfied with the game, despite it being incredibly fun in other ways– I even loved CoD: Modern Warfare because of its excellent single-player campaign. I started playing Dex, and while the game’s setup and art was really interesting, the writing turned me off.

I’ve been listening to Bel — Mr. “I don’t care about story just give me something to fight” himself — talk about the Division, and what I hear from him is how enthused he is about the setting and the story they’ve set up. The very first thing he linked me was a youtuber deep-diving into the game’s story, piecing together scraps to see how much he could uncover. Story matters, and having context makes a huge difference.

As it turns out, I’ll play pretty much any game… as long as it’s well-written.

A Bit of Fantastic

We talked a bit on this weekend’s podcast about The Division. It’s a game I feel like I’d really enjoy if I were playing it with friends, though I’m pretty sure I heard at least one person audibly check out at the point where it became clear there was neither sorcery nor swords of any kind, including indistinguishable-from-magic technology.

credit: Dennis Chan

credit: Dennis Chan

I’m in a similar boat– the game is much more interesting than I expected (I was a bit cynical about it) and honestly looks like it could be a lot of fun. I just wish there was a bit more fantasy in it. I feel like I’m roaming the streets of modern-day New York, and while it’s gorgeously rendered and surprisingly detailed, I can also hop a flight and literally walk around those locations myself. It’s just barely enough escapism for me to enjoy, and I can completely understand how it wouldn’t be enough for someone else. I tend to like my “modern” to be followed by “supernatural” as far as settings go.

That having been said, I loved Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, and like I’ve said elsewhere, The Division feels like a deeper, more varied, more refined, and more complete version of that, just in a different setting. I’m still pretty likely to pick it up and give it a go at some point. In the meantime, I’ve continued to play a TON of Warframe, which has continually managed to surprise me and get more interesting.

I do keep thinking about that key amount of fantasy it takes to make something compelling. It’s a delicate threshold, and different for everyone. Too much fantasy, and you can’t relate to it enough to get into it, and too little and it feels boring. I know some people who instantly check out of entertainment that has magic or advanced technology of pretty much any kind, and I know others for whom there’s a minimum threshold of one or the other (or both) that has to exist before they’re interested. Personally, I like at least a little bit of fantasy, but I’ve run into things that are just too much for me to get invested in.

Weirdly, what I’m looking for lately is a game where I can really appreciate the worldbuilding. I want to walk around fantastic cities and see people living everyday lives, and live part of a fantasy, virtual life myself. I’d boot up Deus Ex again if I couldn’t still remember it so well; there’s something really awesome about walking around its cyberpunk cities among ordinary people, doing largely ordinary things. It’s part of why I picked up Cradle, the first-person sci-fi puzzle game that held such promise but ultimately disappointed me.

I’m waiting on a few games that might scratch that itch– I really want to play through Dreamfall Chronicles once the season is complete, since there’s a lot of cool wandering through a real-feeling cyberpunk city there. I’m tentatively hopeful for CD Projekt Red’s cyberpunk game, though I’m leery thanks to The Witcher– not a game that meshes well with my tastes. I continue to wait for Persona 4, and I’m actually excited about Final Fantasy XV thanks to the demo; it’s not without some obvious flaws, but I think it’ll be fun anyway.

Kind of a rambling post today, I’m having the gaming equivalent of having a craving for something specific but not quite being able to place what that specific thing is. This post is trying to put words to that. If anyone’s got good recommendations for an open-world cyberpunk or otherwise sci-fi game, I’m open to suggestions!

Where’ve you been, Tam?

It’s been a crazy few weeks. I started a new job (part-time, but I’m trying to ramp up quickly) while juggling full-time classwork and wrapping up some side projects. Then, the site goes belly-up and locks me out. A bunch of backend corruption caused me to have to reinstall and restore pretty much everything; we’ve been working from a cache for the last week.

The short version is, for the first time in a very long time, I haven’t had the spare energy to write, so the site worked through my post buffer and then, this week, ran out of material. At any rate, things should hopefully be calming down somewhat soon and we can return to regularly scheduled posts.

As for what I’ve been doing lately, game-wise, I’ve been playing a LOT of Warframe. The game really appeals to me once I found my niche in it, and I’ve been playing it more or less to the exclusion of all else recently. I have some thoughts percolating on it and also on MMOs, kind of the present and future of persistent online gaming (is there any other kind anymore?), but it’s all half-baked. I want to get a bit deeper into the game and see how various things hold up before I go blathering about one system or design philosophy or another.

On the business/management side, I’m doing a lot with finance and operations management lately, which doesn’t necessarily make for terribly compelling blog posts (it’s interesting for me, but I don’t know that I need to inflict it on other people).

At any rate, hopefully things will be calming down here soon and I can get back to regular posting. I don’t have Bel’s relentless devotion to posting even when he’s so sick he’s basically dying; I try to post only when I have something to say, and recently I’ve been listening a lot more than talking.

See you next week!


Managing My Backlog

I have a Steam backlog again. Somewhere in the autumn of last year, I’d managed to pretty much clear it out, but it really didn’t take long to grow again.


Something I’m realizing, as I scroll through it, is that the sheer list of titles is overwhelming, and sorting it is somewhat difficult. When I was actively working in the games industry, I kept a paper-filled binder with one page devoted to each game– as I got it, I’d write the game title at the top. It was easy to check and see which games were “in the queue”, because I could just flip to the first blank page in the notebook– that was the game I was going to play when I sat down to play a game. I could move on after playing either ten hours or filling up a page with notes. Sometimes a game required that I stick in more pages, but most didn’t.

I don’t really play games in that kind of directed way in my spare time anymore. While effective at making sure I played everything, it really sapped my enjoyment of playing games in general. I scheduled several hours a week to sit down and play the queue, and I managed to make even games that were fun less enjoyable because of the constant press of both note-taking and the backlog.

When my hard drive died a while back, I had an opportunity to look at my Steam library with fresh eyes. I had a crazy number of games that were “in the queue”, but I no longer felt obligated to play all of them, and particularly before moving, I was burned out on playing games as much as I’d been. When I moved to Seattle, I pared down my physical possessions, but I also went through and looked at my video games, to see what I was going to keep and what I still wanted to play. I couldn’t move all of it, so I kept a very small number of console titles and took a long, hard look at my Steam library. What I wound up doing was going through the entire list and installing only what I knew I wanted to play, and ignoring everything else, even if I hadn’t played it. Some games had been “in the queue” for years, and I’d find myself doing pretty much anything else if it looked like I’d have to play them.

It’s the main reason I was able to clear out my backlog– I reduced my backlog to only games I wanted to play, then played them. It helped that for most of last year I couldn’t really afford new games. I still got some pickups, mostly gifts over Christmas and some new releases, and I’ve accumulated a small backlog at this point– probably about ten games. I know this can spiral out of control quickly, so I want to come up with a better way of managing it.


It turns out Steam has the ability to set games as “favorites”. While it’s probably going to make my store suggestions a little insane (they’re already kind of nonsense thanks to Hatoful Boyfriend as Aggrochat’s Game of the Month, so no big loss there), I can put all of my active backlog games in Favorites, and then remove them as I play them. It kind of lets me focus on what’s “active” for me right now, and if I see something languishing in the list, I can de-favorite it.

As of this writing, here’s the list:

Among The Sleep — a first-person horror game where you play as a very young child

Binary Domain — I picked this up during my cravings for cyberpunk games, but never played it (got distracted by Shadowrun Hong Kong)

Pillars of Eternity — This has been in my “active” queue for a really long time, and I’m waiting until I’m on a fantasy kick to try to delve into it again.

Read Only Memories — another cyberpunk title, picked it up, never sat down with it.

Satellite Reign — I really liked the couple of hours I put into this, but haven’t picked it back up

Shadowrun: Hong Kong – Extended Edition — probably the first game on the list I’m going to play, for the new post-game content which is already rather good.

Sorcery! Parts 1 & 2 — I don’t remember where I heard good things about this, but the premise (narrative fantasy RPG in an interactive novel style) sounds neat.

Tales of Zestiria — I got really heavily into this for a while, got to a point where I needed to run around the world at length, and lost steam. I want to finish it, because I want to see where it’s going, but I haven’t quite gotten around to getting over that timesink portion.

Warframe — The game I’m actively playing right now, it sits here because I’m logging in most days, it’s about as “active” a game as I can get.

Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide — I’ve heard good things about this and I want to give it a shot. It got drowned in Warframe a bit.

The Witness — Heard incredible things about this, I really want to jump into it when I have the spare mental bandwidth for a ‘heavy’ game.

I’m going to try to write about these as I play them, we’ll see how well that works.

Shadowrun: Hong Kong Enhanced Edition

I really enjoy the Shadowrun games by Harebrained Schemes. The writing is great, the quality jumps up every iteration, and new, interesting options arise with each new release. This past week, SR:HK got updated to the Enhanced Edition, offering a new “epilogue” portion of the game to come after completing the main story.


I’m really excited about this. The ending of Shadowrun: Hong Kong left some loose ends, and it seems like the epilogue is there to help tie them up. I jumped in briefly this afternoon and I’m already interested in the setup and its new characters. It’s got layers of stuff going on and I get a lot of opportunity to express my character, really quickly. It also pulls from my complete-game save file, and so I’m starting with my gear and stats, so I’m already pretty badass to start with, no mucking about with terrible roomba-drones, I’m going straight to the flying minigun drones.

Part of the reason I really like the Shadowrun games is because they give me that “running around in a high-tech future” feel without getting bogged down in unwieldy controls or overly-convoluted technology or stories, or being post-apoc. There are precious few really solid sci-fi games out there, and I often find myself frustrated that I just want to jump into a cool cyberpunk world and explore, but there aren’t many of those. I’m really excited about the upcoming Deus Ex, for example, but otherwise pickings are slim.

What I like about the Shadowrun games is that I get the impression there’s a lot of world out there beyond what I’m immediately looking at. Even what I’m doing, the big victories, are still fairly personal and likely not one for the history books– even Deus Ex, which I love, has a whole thing where the earlier games in the timeline are literally in the history books of the later ones. Another game that feels similar is Satellite Reign, which I haven’t had time to play more of but I really enjoyed right off the bat. It seemed a little more story-lite than Shadowrun, though, but I liked the mechanics more.

I often finish games and want *just* a little bit more, which is why the SR:HK epilogue is so exciting for me. I don’t necessarily want to extend the experience out forever– I’m actually frustrated when I try to do this in games, because it feels like I’m not actually moving forward, I’m just spinning my wheels (a problem I often have with Fallout games once I’ve finished the main storyline, and why the main story is important for me in those games). The addition of the epilogue really adds a lot for me, and often makes me want to restart and play the entire game again, something I rarely do. I wasn’t totally happy with my SR:HK ending, for example, and kind of want to play through it again and make some different choices before going into the epilogue.

In a similar vein, I want to return to Mass Effect 3, since the “citadel party” DLC came out a while back and I’ve heard it’s very good. It makes me want to go back and look at some of my other games and see which have come out with cool post-ending DLC with more epilogue-style content, there’s got to be a number of them.

It’s Okay To Be Good At Things

So many people I know are loathe to talk about themselves, particularly about things they’re good at. They will hasten to deflect compliments and deny endorsements like they’re warding off demons, lest even accepting praise mark them as a braggart, that most terrible of labels. We’ve accepted this as standard, even praised it as “humility”, without realizing that our underestimation of ourselves limits both us and the people around us.


I’ve seen people oscillate between wanting to be recognized for their achievements and not wanting to call attention to themselves, even when it’s warranted. I’ve seen people overlook other people because they don’t realize what their skills are. I’ve known people for years without realizing what they’re capable of, because we’re so trained to avoid talking about ourselves.

When we see people who do talk about themselves, and we see their success, we’re often resentful. I’ve been there, and silently raged at someone whose self-aggrandizement got them attention and praise while my silent, hard work went ignored.

We can’t know what everyone around us is good at, unless we see them at it or they tell us. By extension, everyone around us can’t know what we’re good at unless we tell them. It’s not just okay, but important that people know what we’re good at, because that helps us all solve problems more efficiently and effectively. Communication is important, quite possibly the most important thing, and part of that communication is allowing others the opportunity to know what we can be relied upon to do.

I poured a ton of work into perfecting a prototype at one point, submitted it to my boss, and proceeded to have it ignored for years. I didn’t want to come off as arrogant or pushy, so I left my initial pitch and left it without further comment. This frustrated me, and festered, and when, years later, I was told that I should demonstrate building something unique and interesting, I was livid– I’d done exactly that and was completely ignored. In not communicating this thing that I had done and done well, I had simultaneously absolved myself of responsibility for recognizing it.

Here’s the thing: no one knew that prototype better than I did. No one knew that it had survived, stable and without problems, through more than a hundred codebase iterations. No one knew that it was implementable from scratch in less than an hour, and was modular enough that every implementation could easily be unique. All of these things were valuable, but in expecting other people to notice the work that I’d done, in being “humble” about my work and not self-promoting, I had pushed the responsibility for recognizing the strengths of my work on people who weren’t in a position to realize them.

A few friends of mine, after reading my post on Impostor Syndrome, suggested that impostor syndrome could be called “humility” elsewhere, and implied that it was a good thing to be, as one person put it, “realistic about your shortcomings”. I don’t disagree that being realistic about one’s own shortcomings is valuable, but recognizing shortcomings without also recognizing one’s strengths is very problematic. It dooms us to laboring unseen and unrecognized, and to resent those around us for not magically realizing how awesome we are. It can be very damaging, as that lack of external recognition (through a simple lack of knowledge) turns inward, making us disbelieve our own skills and making us worse at what we do.

It doesn’t take a lot to find scientific studies that support that we are capable of much more when we believe ourselves capable, and much less when we don’t. When we put ourselves in a downward spiral, where we don’t believe in our own skills, we actually get worse at those skills. When we believe in our skills, we measurably become better at them. It’s why positive feedback is vitally important for any manager, and why specific recognition is crucial. Those things fuel a fire of productivity and capability for us, but we need to start that fire with a spark. That spark is communication– letting people know that there is ample space and material to start a fire.

It’s okay to be good at things. Everyone I know is good at things, and many of them know it, even if they refuse to admit it. Accepting that you’re good at something is a key step in becoming great at them.

Four Emotions

Something I’ve picked up recently is how difficult it is to talk about emotions. We define very complex emotions for ourselves, and use them to mask underlying feelings. We’re “stressed”, or “frustrated”, or “excited”, or we “feel like” and follow up with an analogy.


An exercise I’ve done recently cuts to the root of that. It asks people to express feelings, but limits the available emotions to only ones that can be universally understood. Sadness, anger, happiness, and fear are all we’re allowed to use to describe our mental state. Analogies are not emotions, “stressed” isn’t an emotion; we have to revert to those four. The explanation given is that if, say, someone close to you dies, you may have a broad mix of feelings about that, mostly sadness, but the specific way that you’re feeling is unique to you. No one can understand that, but they can understand sadness.

In a way, it removes context from emotion, and I’m continually surprised by how much it isn’t necessary. I don’t need to understand the complexities of office politics or management structures to understand that being passed up for a promotion makes someone angry– I know anger, even if I don’t know the context. It might be a blend of anger and fear– said person is angry about being passed up but afraid to say anything lest they rock the boat too much– I don’t need to understand the politics involved to know the fear. They might even be a little happy to be passed up, because the position wasn’t exactly what they wanted and it means they’re next in line for something they might like better. It can be a very complicated situation, but I can understand the anger, the fear, and the optimistic happiness.

The exercise also forces us to break apart how we feel about things into discrete pieces. I can feel sad and happy about something at the same time, and while I might call that “bittersweet” or “wistful”, I can break it down into simpler terms; bittersweet for me may be a mixture of happiness and sadness, but it could be happiness and anger for someone else. For some people, nostalgia is a blend of happiness and fear– that things have changed and that kind of happiness is lost. Nostalgia might also be happiness and anger– things were good, but they’ve changed and shouldn’t have. Language has endless ways to obscure our true feelings behind elaborate words.

One of the things I’ve caught myself doing since doing the exercise a goodly number of times is mentally reducing my emotions to simplest terms. I find it’s easier for me to understand them, and I’m a lot less conflicted about how I feel about things, because I’m used to forming clear definitions. Simple emotions allow me to feel multiple things at once without getting bogged down, and most things make me feel more than one. I’ve found that it’s easier to express how I feel to other people, and moreover, that I can express myself in such a way that people’s responses make me feel more understood, and thus happy.

One habit I still have is to express my current state in terms of objective fact, leaving the feelings hanging and unexpressed. I’ll state what is happening but not how I feel about it, leaving it up to the listener to infer. I’ll do this when I’m not yet sure how I feel about something, or if I don’t feel strongly about it, or if I’m afraid of being judged if I express how I feel. I’m trying to break myself of this habit, because while it often leads to conversations, it rarely leads to an exchange of feelings, and thus often feels detached or impersonal.

On the other hand, I’ve found that people I would never have expected to understand me can relate when I express myself with just four basic emotions. It felt overly simplistic at first, but I’ve found I’ve been able to communicate a lot more clearly, at least judging by the responses I get, and I find out a lot more about people when I express myself.

We’re heavily socialized to avoid talking about emotions, and tamping down how we feel about things, to the point where we forget that it’s okay to feel things– it’s part of what makes us human. By expressing my own emotions more readily, I’ve found that I can draw out other people’s and allow them the space to express their own emotions, and I always feel closer to that person as a result. I’m very glad that I was in the right frame of mind to be accepting and open to the series of exercises that spawned all of this, because as much as I wish I could share it with everyone I know, I’m aware that not everyone would be as receptive, for any number of reasons.

It’s kind of the other piece of things. It’s okay to feel things, and it’s okay to choose not to share. I just hope that everyone reading this has someone they can share with if they so desire. If not, get in touch with me privately; I’ll talk to you.


I’m really motivated by efficiency. I like to see how things can be done effectively, and once they’re done effectively, how to do them faster, using fewer resources, and in general, “better”. It’s rarely enough for me to get something done; I’d rather get it done well. I had someone the other day ask me about this, and ask me about my process for writing and working, so here we are.

I want to meet this guy's tailor.

I want to meet this guy’s tailor.

I’m big into efficiency because I’m fundamentally lazy. My mom is nodding her head right now and probably doesn’t know why, but her admonitions during my childhood were pretty much spot on. I don’t like to do unnecessary work, and I like to figure out ways in which I can do things that need doing quickly, because getting things done quickly means less time spent doing them. Speed isn’t everything, though, because getting something done fast but having to do it twice isn’t saving me any time, and I have to retread (boring!) work I’ve done already. “Measure twice, cut once” resonates with me because measuring is a lot less work than cutting, the savings in materials aside.

People ask me how long I spend doing various tasks, and tend to be surprised by my answer. I recently finished a paper for a class in about an hour and a half, for four pages. A classmate of mine expressed surprise that I was so quick; it didn’t seem particularly fast or slow for me. Part of it is that I’m used to writing– these blog posts are 700-1200ish words every day, and I rarely take more than 30-45 minutes writing them. A lot of it, though, is just writing efficiency. I write like I play Tetris, setting up a block of thoughts and massaging them until they’re complete, then moving on. It means I don’t have to keep the entire paper in my head at once and can focus on what I’m saying right now, because I’ve put the previous bits to bed, as it were. A lot of my editing is done on the fly, as I’m writing a sentence. If I’m editing something bigger or that needs deeper review, I ignore it for two or three days and return to it then– my mind is fresh and I’m not still thinking about the details of each paragraph, so I can review it more objectively.

My work process is similar; I look at a task and think about the minimum possible amount of work necessary to complete it, to establish a baseline. From there, I can then add content and broaden the scope reactively, as I work. A lot of times, I find that the parts I think are going to be time-consuming or have little room for further attention turn out to be easier than expected, and that parts I thought would be simple require a lot of careful thought and iteration. Knowing the minimum lets me get something in and functional quickly, then focus on where it can be improved effectively, without wasting time, effort, or resources.

All of this means that I have a long list of little ‘tricks’ to make my life easier, so when something requires a lot of focus and attention, I have the energy to spare. I never really know when these are going to come up, so I try to ensure that my daily energy expenditure is conservative, to keep that reserve going. I used to be apologetic about this, now I’m simply straightforward about it. Sometimes I don’t put in extra energy because that reserve is getting low, and that reserve is what allows me to keep a cool head in a crisis, or juggle lots of different things at once.

I’ve found it’s always worth taking the time to think about the process, because process is where a lot of work and time is lost. Sometimes the best solution isn’t necessarily the most complete one, just because the most complete one isn’t efficient. Coming up with a highly elegant, reusable and revisable script to automate a task I’m only going to do once isn’t terribly efficient; sure it does the work quickly, but I could do it by hand in about the same amount of time and run less risk of wasting a lot of effort. To that point, risk management is an important part of my process; if something I’m trying to make a task complete faster might end with me wasting a ton of time and not moving forward with the actual task, that’s a fairly high risk, and probably one I’ll avoid.

I don’t know how much of this is interesting or useful to anyone; all of the things I’m saying sound like really obvious, “duh tam, everyone knows that” kinds of thoughts. I’m still not yet great at getting out of my own head enough to know what things are obvious to everyone and which are obvious just to me and useful to others. Working on it, though, we’ll see.