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Alex Papadimoulis

My month with Release!

16 June 2014

Alex and his team at Inedo are developing a game – inspired by development strategies like Lean, Agile and DevOps - about software and some of the people who make it. In this opening of a short series, Alex looks at how games affected his office culture, what he’s learned about designing games to do more than just be fun, and how his team are hoping to share their passion with the developer community.

This has been a weird month. A great month, but definitely a weird one. In the middle of May, my Inedo coworkers and I posted a small project to Kickstarter. It wasn’t really about the software we make, or even about Inedo at all; it was a card game.

Release! is a light card game about software development, one that we came up with around the office. It was something that we just tossed on Kickstarter for fun. We thought it would be neat to print off a few copies, and see if any other people in the industry would be into it. In a few days we hit our funding goal, and now with about a week to go we have exploded to 11 times our funding goal!

Now that I have had a little time to shake off the initial confusion and surprise, I find myself thinking about what that kind of whirlwind support means. Not just for us, but what it says about the software community.

Pre-Release

A few years ago, one of the units under our offices was rented out by Kidforce Collectables, a tiny haven dedicated to all things nerdy: comics books, collectible cards, and of course, games. And pretty soon after it opened, I found myself walking out with a brand new copy of Settlers of Catan.

If you are unfamiliar, Catan is a classic game, and while I had settled that island dozens of times, it was always with a friend’s copy. Owning your own Catan is almost a board game nerd rite of passage, and oddly comforting, inasmuch as now I could play whenever I wanted, with whomever I wanted. That said, it hadn’t occurred to me to bust it out with my coworkers, and honestly it probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t casually left the box on the conference table.

It couldn’t have been a couple of hours later when Karl popped his head in my office, “Hey is that your Catan?” Following which, it couldn’t have been more than a couple of minutes when we were opening the box and sorting the pieces.

Love of games often comes with an odd mix of shyness and exuberance; once we had discovered that common quirk, we both were quickly listing our favorite games. The rest of the office took notice, and a couple more of the guys volunteered that they played euchre, or loved Risk, and soon we had an informal break just talking about games. We got back to work after a bit, but with the promise that we would take some time at the end of the week to break in my new Settlers.

That week was the start of a small tradition around the office; nothing too wild, just taking an hour or two every few weeks to play some games. This changed our office. Inedo had always been a fine place to work, but now it was a fun place to work. We talked more, we were all a little happier to be at work, and honestly, I think we worked better.

Why Games?

If you really think about it, games make sense as a facet of developer culture. In board games, you navigate a series of abstract rules and logic puzzles in order to achieve a previously defined outcome. This bears a striking similarity to how we develop software: both are examples of exercising creativity in bounded system, and both require working and communicating with others in a social but productivity-driven setting. It’s really not that surprising that games should be a great social activity for engineers.

This concept seems important; an intersection between two things I genuinely love doing, playing games, and making software. Plus, seeing how well received it was around our office, I was excited to find out if others in the industry would be as into as we were at Inedo. So we made a game, and it fell flat on its face.

Our First Game

Around 2009, we developed CodeMash 2010: The Game, a game to hand out as swag at a small conference. This was a marketing project, one we thought it would drum up interest, and get attendees at this conference talking about Inedo. It was a memory game about conference-ers running around the vendor halls trying to collect as much matching swag as they could grab. Very meta, and not to toot our own horn, pretty funny. It wasn’t a very complicated game, but it was fun, and well received by attendees.

So why was it a failure? It wasn’t about the game, it was about the goal. CodeMash 2010: The Game was a marketing project that led to zero sales of our software. We learned there that the idea of a gaming culture at work wasn’t something that we could leverage for sales, as that sort of venture lacked a necessary sincerity.

What Did We Learn?

We actually learned a couple of things from that first venture. First of all, we discovered that we had it in us to design a fun, playable game that folks enjoyed. Secondly we learned that, while people love games because they are fun (obviously), that also means that the fun often subsumes any complex external goals you might have in mind when designing your game.

What that means in practical terms is that you either need to be modest, honest (with yourself), or cunning if you’re doing to design a game to meet practical goals.

That’s why Release! was posted as a Kickstarter – we opted for being both modest and honest about why we’re doing this. Aside from being born at Inedo, it actually has nothing to do with our products. It is simply wish fulfillment: deep in our nerdy hearts, we really want to make our own games. We want to share the way we play games with like-minded peers. To us, Release! is an expression of a culture of gaming that grew up at Inedo, and one that seems to have resonated with the community in a very meaningful way.

Community Supported

Actually support has been incredible. We have had industry leaders like Jez Humble, Patrick Debois, Linda Rising and more, all jump on board and let us use their likeness as face cards. We have had companies like Red Gate and Gibraltar throw in on the idea, and more than just financially too. They wanted to actually participate in making the game.

Most importantly though, we have had an amazing amount of support from individual backers, who tweeted, shared, and contributed to Release!, right up to and past its funding goal by an unbelievable margin. It turns out Inedo wasn’t the only software company full of people who loved board games.

Shared Passion, Shared Knowledge

I really believe this says something about the community. Not just that they liked our game, but that they are so willing to get behind a project like this one. Release! sits right at the cross-roads of software and gaming, and we want to build a great game that gently introduces some of the fundamental ideas of software development to new players, and nods knowingly to old hands. I am excited to get Release! into their hands, but I am even more excited to explore this idea in such great company.

Editor's Note:

Alex will be writing about the intersection of gaming and software engineering for the next few weeks, in between finalized, play-tested and releasing his up-coming game. As a gamer, a developer, and a guy who hangs out with game designers, we’re looking forward to his observations!

If you have any stories about gaming in your office, send them to Alex at apapadimoulis@inedo.com to be included in his upcoming articles.

Update - February 2015

Release! has been released! The game was successfully funded on kickstarter and you can pick up a limited edition copy from Inedo. Simple-Talk scored an interview with Patrick Roach, Release!'s lead game designer, to talk about the influential people behind the game and the wider continuous delivery movement.

Alex Papadimoulis

Author profile:

Alex is speaker and writer who's passionate about looking beyond the code to build great software. In addition to founding Inedo – the makers of BuildMaster, the popular continuous delivery platform – Alex also started The Daily WTF, a fun site dedicated to building software the wrong way.

Search for other articles by Alex Papadimoulis

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Subject: Balancing fun & education?
Posted by: Chris Massey (view profile)
Posted on: Monday, June 16, 2014 at 11:10 AM
Message: This sounds like a really fun project. Glad to hear you're taking a carefully light touch to the "educational" aspects of your game as - in my experience - it can be all-too-easy to tip a game from huge fun to painful boredom. Looking forward to hearing more about what you folks are doing / learning on this project.

Subject: Good story
Posted by: paschott (view profile)
Posted on: Wednesday, June 18, 2014 at 11:14 AM
Message: Must have missed the game when it first appeared on Kickstarter, but I'd really have nobody with whom to play anyway. :( I like the story behind the game design and appreciate that you get to play games in your office. I have one or two who'd bite here, though I'd probably pull out Star Realms of Lords of Waterdeep. (not a huge Catan fan, but I acknowledge its place and importance)

I look forward to the future articles. It sounds like they'll be pretty interesting.

Subject: Publicity is key
Posted by: Rosuav (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, June 18, 2014 at 5:58 PM
Message: If you look at kicktraq for this project, you'll see that funding picked up slowly, crossed the original goal and kept climbing at a reasonable, but unexciting, rate... and then suddenly took off at a steep angle. The point where that happened seems to be the point where the game got mentioned on TheDailyWTF, and a lot of people suddenly found out about it. (That's where I found out about it!)

Paschott, it's still up on KS - about a day to go. I won't be playing it at my office, probably (the last one I was in was run by a guy who absolutely *detested* games, even to the extent of being offended by gaming references in the code - I got in big trouble for naming something idkfa(!)), but I'm hoping my family will enjoy it.

Subject: Re: Publicity is key
Posted by: paschott (view profile)
Posted on: Thursday, June 19, 2014 at 9:54 AM
Message: I totally missed it on TheDailyWTF and try to read most of the articles there (could be why I missed it if it was separate). We don't have a problem w/ gaming stuff for the office, but most people concentrate on video games. We wouldn't have a place or time to play any interesting board/card games and my family/friends just wouldn't get into this particular theme. :-/

Still, the concept sounds interesting and I really do look forward to games tied to work.

 

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