Abhishek Radhakrishnan on gaming, game design, and life


 

About Abhishek Radhakrishnan

featuredAbhishek Radhakrishan is an alumnus of the National University of Singapore who graduated from Faculty of Mechanical Engineering. He started his career at Logic Mills where he grasped the fundamentals of building games and developing games. Aside from collecting game XP (experience, in Abhishek’s lingo) at work, he gathered it by playing games and teaching rules of games to anyone who’d listen. He then co-founded Lambda Mu games and now, he designs games for a living with his team at Lambda Mu. Lambda Mu’s game, Pixel people, was released to critical acclaim and was released in partnership with Chilingo, EA’s mobile games division. Chilingo has previously released world famous games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope.


Interview transcript

 (00:00)

Rohan:  I knew you as a mechanical engineer who enjoyed a bunch of creative pursuits.  How did you get from there to being a game designer?

Abhishek:  If we’re going to go all the way back, even as a kid I always liked playing games whether it was board games, video games, or sports which I consider to be a very important form of gaming as well.  I was always into semi-competitive means of having fun just playing around.  That was a very compelling activity for me back then and probably the most consistent hobby I’ve had throughout my life.

In my last years of university, I started getting exposed to more formal theories of this hobby and how games are actually designed.  I started becoming aware of gaming as more than just a hobby.  I realized it was something people actually design.   People actually come up with rules. People actually figure this stuff out.  It’s not like I was not aware of it before, but I became more aware that this was something people can actually do.   I actually started thinking about it.  The creative side, the arts, was always more interesting to me in college than mechanical engineering.   I was always into design and making stuff.  When I got done with university, I knew that I didn’t want to do any of the engineering jobs.  I wanted to do something fun and creative.  I was actually looking at teaching as a possible career choice because that seemed to give me the most flexibility to do things.

Fortunately, a job landed on my lap which was for a place called Logic Mills where they were trying to merge the fields of education, gaming, and game designs to develop classroom activities in the form of games to teach critical thinking and analytical skills.  When I joined them, my game design knowledge got more and more formalized.  I learned a lot more about the mechanics of games, anatomy of game design and other things like that – all of which complemented my more intuitive creative skills I had back then.  From there I met my partner, co-founder of Lambda Mu. When the iPhone industry phenomenon started moving, we spun off from Logic Mills, and started our own game building company.

(00:11)

Rohan:  How did you make that transition to somebody who played games and thought about games?  I’d love to understand some of that transition.

Abhishek:  I think what was really valuable for me, which I think maybe is not something that a lot of people experience, was my ability to teach people how to play games.  That was the first step.  For some reason, I have a really good memory for rules.  It started with more rote based learning before understanding.  I just remembered all of the rules really well so every time a game is being played and someone was doing something wrong I said, “No, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be done.”

You remember the rules.  And then slowly the more rules you’re thinking about and the more you keep repeating them, there is only so much you can remember.  So, slowly you start to see patterns in your head and you think, “Wait, this doesn’t make sense or that this should be the way this rule works.”

Then you go verify in the rule book and verify that that’s not right. Your knowledge from repetition and memory starts becoming understanding. You start reflecting and start thinking – why was something made that way?  

The more games I got exposed to, the more people started teaching me games.  Even though I never saw the game before and never heard the rules to the game before, I’d just feel wrong when someone started teaching me the rules. I’d be able to tell you that you can only play this many cards and then you throw these cards away.  That just doesn’t seem valid.  It doesn’t seem like a fair mechanic and I’d just sneak off to the side while they explained the rest of the rules, pick up the rule book and check.  Yeah, he’d be explaining it wrong.  That’s not the way it’s supposed to happen.  That’s how you build a knack for understanding how good mechanics work.

That was very intuitive.  I learned a lot of understanding about how games work by teaching them.  Then you also understand how people, who are the end target for the receipt of that experience, interact with the system that you’re designing.  If the people can’t understand how the game works, then it’s not a well-designed game.  Through teaching I understood what kind of games may be great games from a design perspective but not from a practical implementation perspective.  This game is hard to teach people, this game is good for people to understand really quickly, this game needs another way of explanation.  That builds your communication skills as well. 

Now when you’re building a video game, you don’t just worry about designing good mechanics, but also about presenting them.  How is the experiential aspect of it?  When the user gets the game in their hand, how quickly is he going to be able to grasp the concept?  I think those many years of volunteering and then professionally also teaching kids, adults, and families how to play games, factored into my own ability to design those experiences that are now easier for them to understand.

(03:30)

Rohan:  What other skills does a good game designer need to have?

Abhishek: It’s not an exhaustive list, but just off the top of my head, exposure to as many games as possible matters.  You need to know what’s out there.  I did this by reading lots of books just to see the different styles that are out there, to broaden my horizons, to see what are the different elements I can use and combine, and to find inspiration. That’s one of the most obvious ones.  It’s necessary but not sufficient.  The next thing you need is to realize that a game is an experience.  You’re creating an experience for a person and it’s very hard to create an experience for other people if you haven’t had experiences yourself.   You need to go out there and try to do as many things as possible, see as many things as possible, and read as many things as possible.  Watch TV, movies, try things.  Read about history and literature.  Inspiration for a game can come from anywhere.  Psychology is an important field to be well-versed in because they understand behavior.  A really broad exposure to as many subjects and experiences as possible really helps the design angle.  

From the practical angle, you need really good communication skills. Unless you’re working solo, then maybe you don’t need communication.  If you’re working on a team you need to be able to communicate your ideas to other people on the team.  Even if you’re working solo you eventually need to be able to communicate your ideas through your art and design.  That’s probably the trifecta.  Play lots of games, have lots of experiences, and be a good communicator.

(05:49)

Rohan:  What was it that made the app store such a game-changer?  There’s the obvious fact that anybody could go and put something out there, but I also think that there is some dynamic of the publishing houses lost a little bit of power in the process.  There’s been an explosion.  A lot of people are designing games and very few people are making money.  How do you see this whole thing working out?  Do you see a huge explosion and then a lot of people getting out of the business?  What has been the dynamic so far? 

Abhishek:  The explosion has already happened.  It hasn’t started contracting at all.  It’s just expanding and expanding. I think you identified it correctly.  The first part was just the fact that developing was made very accessible.  If you look at the whole production line, the start-up cost was minimal.  Equally important to note is that the delivery cost was completely removed.  So, from author to consumer, there is only one step in the middle as opposed to having a dozen different steps.  That was the critical part, the obvious part.  

You see now the market is getting saturated and you have your traditional model.  Twenty years ago if you were a game developer, you would work for a studio or for a big publisher, because the development of a game cost so much money. You would design the game, get somebody to manufacture the game, print it on a CD, put the CD in a box, put the box in a cardboard box, ship the box to a warehouse or distributor, the distributor reaches it to a retailer, and the retailer gets it to a person.  At every single point somebody is taking cost.  So the percentage used to be single figures at the end of the day.  The Apple games came in with a 70% cut for game designers which is almost ten times what they were seeing earlier.  That was the game changer.

(08:14)

Rohan:  You love the Apple app store, as a result.

Abhishek:  What’s not to love?  Everybody is following that model.  It’s pretty fair.  They’re making a truckload of money out of it, but developers are making that kind of money as well; they would never have seen that kind of money.  It’s just that that money is split amongst thousands of developers and that 30% is taken always by Apple.  They came up with this, good for them.

What’s happening now is because the market is getting so saturated, it’s hard to get visibility.  Again, for a person to come in and compete against the millions of apps coming out a week, you can’t throw all that money behind marketing.  You may not have all the press contacts.  You may not even have that much experience because it’s your first time. You don’t know what’s going to be successful in this slightly maturing market.  People are coming in and taking everything by storm.  But there are some things that people have learned over the last few years.  That’s why you’re now seeing the market approach a slightly traditional model.  That is one more middle man between the developer and the consumer which is the publisher.  Their role is now to help you with those aspects which are becoming difficult because the market is no longer a manageable size for people.

(09:54)

Rohan:  You’ve been working with Chillingo which is EA’s subsidiary.  What are the kinds of things that they do for you that really add value?

Abhishek:  On the production level, they give us a lot valuable feedback during our process based on their experience and understanding of the market.  It is extremely valuable to just have qualified, knowledgeable, and experienced people giving you constant input on how to improve your game.  That’s one aspect of it.  The other aspect is being established and being credible.  They have great media and press contacts or resources.  This year was great for us.  We’ve been publishing until last year.  Each game we did incrementally better.

(10:50)

Rohan:  How many games was that?

Abhishek: About four or five.  Each game that we did, we did better both in terms of critical recognition, press reach, and revenue as well.  The jump from our second most recent game and the most recent game in goal was much higher.  The game itself was better, but also the fact that we had this relationship, the fact that on our own we could probably reach most of the mobile gaming sites, that they could feature us, and that they have reviewed our games pretty well – that was awesome.  But, with Chillingo, for the first time we had acknowledgement and great reviews from sites like IGN which have broader audiences.  They don’t just cover mobile games, but all gaming.  That’s definitely one of the advantages.

(11:53)

Rohan: You’ve obviously gone from two people trying to make games to a twelve-person team completely boot-strapped.  What are the big learnings from that process of expanding from one developer and one game designer to this big team?

Abhishek: It’s not that big yet, but it’s definitely a lot larger than where we started out.  It has its benefits and challenges as well.  You have four or five separate plans to manage.

(12:34)

Rohan:  What have been the biggest learnings in this journey both as game designer and as the co-founder of the start-up?

Abhishek: Being a game developer and being a start-up is not going to be easy.  The odds are always stacked against you.  That can be very daunting a lot of times.  I’m a very product driven person, so I think that the company is product driven too.  If there’s anything we’ve learned it’s that you have to keep focused and keep believing in your product and believe in your process.  You’re going to keep trying.  You cannot give up.  This is something that you believe in and are very passionate about.  Even if things went bad, because of unfortunate events, bad circumstances, your servers crashing or something else releasing the same weekend as you did, you can’t give up.  You have to keep calm, carry on, and just keep going at it.  If your product and process is good and if your motivations are true you will come out with something good at the end.  The most important thing for us as a company and as developers is that we want to make something we are proud of.  That’s the first thing.  If you don’t make something that you’re proud of, there’s no point in doing it, at least for us.  We don’t want to be doing stuff that doesn’t make us happy because that has to be the starting point.  Next is translating that into something that can also make you rich.

(15:18)

Rohan:  Tell me a little bit about your process.  What do you do to make sure it’s not just a product but a repeatable process?

Abhishek:  We invest a lot in our people.  We hire a lot of kids who may be young and inexperienced, but that comes with its own set of challenges.  You might not always have everything running smoothly from the get-go.  It can be quite frustrating at times, quite disillusioning at times also because things are not going the way you want.  You don’t want things to go the way you want now just because everything worked fortunately.  You want to build a team and a process that can reliably and consistently perform at an incrementally better and better level.

Making mistakes, screwing things up is inevitable and you just have to look at it in a positive light. You need to consider it as very valuable experience that you picked up and believe that the next one is going to be even better.  If the next one is better but it also fails on some levels, great.  The next one’s going to be even better.  You just keep telling yourself that.  Not only telling yourself that, but making that happen.  Every time there’s a crisis, or failure, or something has gone wrong it’s not about hindsight.  It’s about finding out what went wrong.  We just lost 10,000 dollars on this screw up, let’s get 10,000 dollars’ worth of education out of it.

(17:14)

Rohan:  What are some of the things you do to stay productive?  It must be pretty chaotic.  You have to balance managing people and designing games.  

Abhishek:  There are a lot of hacks that we keep trying.  That itself is a productivity tool because changing up the work process every now and is fun because it makes work interesting. You have another new challenge to work with.  Then, in another six months, we try something else.

We picked up one of the latest things from another company that we were working with.  We saw them do it in their office and we decided to try it out here.  Everybody has one of these Justice League characters. Because of the nature of our job sometimes we can be very immersed in what we’re doing, we get into a zone.  We want to finish something before we get into something else.  If somebody wants someone else’s time they take their character to that person’s desk and leave it on their desk.  The person can respond immediately.  If they don’t respond immediately, you just go back to your desk and when the person finishes their task they look at the people who are waiting for them and then go back to their tables and talk to them.  I find this very useful for me especially because my time is asked for a lot because I’m the main designer.  People often need to ask me different things.  Sometimes I just tell them that I will get back with them later and then I forget and they are waiting for me to come back and I’ve already moved on to ten other things.  So, now, after I finish whatever I’m doing I look to the side and there are four or five action figures on my desk and I make sure that all of them are attended to.  

(19:24)

Rohan:  Do you have any favorite books, TV shows, or movies that you would recommend?

Abhishek:  Everybody should go watch The Lego Movie whether old or young.  It is really awesome.  That world will have new meaning and when you actually go watch the show you’ll understand.  It’s very clever, really well-written and it has great message as well.  If you don’t believe me, you can just go to Rotten Tomatoes.  It has a 99% rating which doesn’t come easily.  It’s also something that’s very close to my heart because I’ve been playing with Legos since I was a kid and that was probably part of building my play habit and hobby.  That’s a great one to watch now.

Of all time, I’m a big fan of The Lord of the Rings and The Game of Thrones series.  I read a lot of sci-fi.  I was really into Lost, but I would have to say my favorite show of all time is probably The Office.

(21:18)

Rohan:  What is one inspiring idea that you would like to share?

Abhishek: I’ll share an idea of my own that gets me out of bed every morning.  Being a gamer and a game designer, you tend to see things in that life.  It is plain to see life as a game.  It’s actually the other way around.  Games are designed, as any other art form to reflect life.  There is something very similar in the way we live our lives and the way games are designed.  We have challenges and complex mechanics.

In most role-playing games, one of the main goals is to get as much XP as possible, or experience.  That’s the thing for life also.  You have some unknown number of years to play this game.  We don’t know where the endpoint is, but you know that there is an end and the object of the game is not necessarily to see how much that coin balances at the end because that’s not the score that’s recorded.  It’s not even what high score is pulled out but it’s how much XP your character can get by the end.  That’s how I try to look at life as well.  What can I do today to up my XP?  Every day little by little make sure you’ve done something to increase that XP bar.  Get a little more experience at something or another.  That’s really motivating.  Even when you start to lose that focus, just remember the XP bar.  I’ve got to make sure that that’s going up.  The worst situation should be turned into a learning experience.  I think that factors into where my game design intuitions come from.  Any bad situation I’m in, any monotonous job I’m stuck with, the first thing I do is try to turn it into a game.  Then it becomes fun, whether its grading papers or stapling things.  How can make this fun?  Slowly I have turned that silly habit into something that keeps me fed.

(24:10)

Rohan:  Life is a game is the biggest take-away.

Abhishek:  Yeah, life is a game.  I think that statement can be explored in many ways in a whole conversation.  In fact there’s a very recent article that just came out where a graphic designer drew a whole instruction manual for how to play life as a game.  It’s a lot of things I’ve been thinking about that I shared just now.  I’ve been thinking this for many years and somebody just put this into existence, or into a tangible form.  The moment that it came out I had four different friends message me to say “Hey Abhishek, this is what you’ve been talking about.”


That was an amazing dose of gamer’s logic, Abhishek! Life is indeed a game, and we’re going to be working hard to raise our XP.

Real Leaders Team