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Self deception of the Startup Founder: Paralysed decisions

This week I’m paralysed on some of my simplest decisions while happily making complex decisions quickly, and being incisive and highly effective on others. This problem occasionally crops up in my work and personal life, and it frustrates the hell out of me; I’m going to write about it here, see if it helps me find a new way forwards. Hopefully this may also help others who’ve experienced a similar problem in their own lives.

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What programming language should aspiring game developers learn in their free time?

I was asked this recently in private mail by someone heading off to University / College. For people choosing between a Computer Science/Software Engineering course vs. a Game Design / Game Development course, I’d said:

If you love games, you’ll do both anyway; one you’ll learn in lectures, the other you’ll self-teach. Which will you find easier to self-teach (given no-one is prodding you), and which will you need the extra benefit of having a formal course/teaching/teachers? (usually: people find it easier to self-teach “designing and making my own game experiments”. Usually, people find formal Computer Science / Maths is ‘hard’, and they need the help of a formal course)

Gross generalization: Most game-developers in the indie community are programmers; most of them are programmer-centric when looking at the world. I’m a programmer, but I’ve done approx 40% of my career in project-management and studio management (and even a tiny bit of publishing) over the years.

There’s one interesting point I want to clarify a little: By “indie community” I mean “focussing on the places filled with people who actually ship games”. Most game designers who want to make their own stuff have to learn programming, even if they’re 100% non-programmers, since it’s the only way to get “your” vision launched. Even the ones that started-off as pure artists often end up being highly technical (whether they admit that to themselves or not).

So … this is not a popular view, but I think it’s more accurate than most: by the time you finish a 3-4 year course starting “today” … C++ won’t be the game-dev language people care about. Already, for entry-level jobs most studios are more interested in “how good are you at Unity? How good’s your C#?”. That trend will only continue/increase.

amusing education iphone programming reputation systems

Over 9,000…

profile for Adam at Stack Overflow, Q&A for professional and enthusiast programmers

I never imagined I’d reach anything even close to 10k rep. Lots of thoughts and some analysis to come on this in a future post – but I’ve got two deadlines coming up, so very rushed right now.

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Teenagers learn to program, write own 3D game, in 3 weeks


Last year, Pearson ran the first ever Innov8 competition, giving tech startups a chance to make their own innovative new product/project. The grand prize was £5,000 towards building the product.

Most of the teams were adults (even: real companies), but a team of students from Blatchington Mill School won, with their idea for an iPhone/iPad app: “My Science Lab”.

Team: Quantum Games

The three students named themselves “Quantum Games”: Jon, Nick, and Oli. All three of them have been studying for their GCSE’s in parallel with this project.

They’ve been supported by Mark Leighton, Assistant Head / ICT Director at the school.

For mentoring and game-development expertise, they had me – Adam Martin – previously CTO at MindCandy and NCsoft Europe, now an iPhone/Android developer


The students chose to focus on a game that would help other students revise the “Momentum” part of GCSE Physics.

In summer/autumn 2012, they learnt the basics of game design and development. We didn’t do any formal teaching – they simply had to pick up the skills they needed as we went along. YouTube videos, and “trial and error”, were our primary techniques…

In particular, they learnt 3D-modelling and texturing (using Wings3D and Photoshop) and game-programming (using Unity3D and Javascript).

By the end of 2012, they’d written their own physics engine, some basic gameplay, and a simple simulation of an exercise/problem in Momentum.

Last month

The big thing this month has been BETT. Pearson had a large stand, and asked the students along to talk about the project. They gave an excellent presentation to an audience of approx 30 people at BETT, covering the background and some of the things that went well, that didn’t, and what they’d learnt from it.

Leading up to BETT, they worked hard to squeeze in a new build of the game, with a rethink on the interactive sections and how they hang together. Unfortunately, we hit what seemed to be a major bug in Unity’s camera-handling, and none of us could fix it in time (nor could we get an answer from Unity support in time). But the students managed to invent a workaround at the last minute which worked fine for demoing at BETT.

The game isn’t finished yet – GCSE’s and schoolwork left too little time to complete it before BETT – but we’re very close now. The students are aiming to finish it off this month and next, and I’m hoping I might even be able to take a copy to the GDC conference in March (taking place in San Francisco, GDC is the commercial games industry’s main annual conference).

In the meantime … you can sign up now on the Quantum Games website (, and we’ll email you as soon as the game is ready – or sooner, with a private beta-test!

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BBC’s “The Code” maths/TV game/ARG: pre-run commentary

The Code is about to start, and Adrian’s on good form here with some concise bashing of ARG-design stereotypes:

“the ‘inverted pyramid’ model of engagement for ARGs and transmedia! But I don’t like it

feels like a post-facto justification of why only a few people get really engaged in most projects by suggesting that what you’re making is just way too awesome/hard for the public, who’ll have to make do with lightweight stuff (yes, like Flash games).”

He’s been banging this drum since PerplexCity, but IMHO there’s been comparitively little success. He’s long been wrestling with ways to make that actually work in practice, as opposed to a believable bit of theory. From the tone of this blog post, I’m pegging this as “one to watch”, and see if there’s a big step forward.

Something else to highlight, too; something *I’ve* been banging on about for a long time:

“The fact is, most people are smarter and more engaged than you might think.”

4 games, 4 *educational* games, on the BBC (who publishes some of the best pre-school games / learning content in the world). Fingers crossed this does something new and novel *and which actually works* :).

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EA Skate videogame helps pros practice skateboarding?

A year old, this quote, and the original source is from EA marketing (i.e. accuracy / provenance needs to be carefully checked), but still interesting, from Joey Brezinski:

“Its so sick trying to take a video game trick and make it reality, it just takes way longer with your feet then the sticks..

I can think of a trick, do it in the game and see how it works visually…the mechanics, weight distribution…then go do it in real life with a headstart I never had before. It just takes longer and hurts more in real life!”

(found via this very long and interesting article on the history of Skate video / camera work. NB the quote is a long long way down and unreferenced, but the EA marketing page seems to the be the original source)

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TED: rejected

With only 250 tickets available, I guess a lot of people in Brighton will be getting one of these today:

Dear adam martin


I’m sorry to inform you that your application to attend TEDxBrighton on 21st January has been unsuccessful.

As the first TEDxBrighton event, and offering free tickets, we have had a huge level of interest and the ticket application was very oversubscribed. … hope that in the future we might be able to offer a TEDxBrighton event with a larger capacity than the 250 this one can host.

Selection criteria in 2011…

It was an unusual process for a public event – the tickets are free, but there’s very few of them, and to be “allowed” a ticket you had to go through a review process, answering questions from the obvious, like “who are you?” to the bizarre, like “what’s your favourite web-site?”.

I remember at the time thinking it seemed very reasonable at the start, but increasingly invasive and judgemental towards the end. You want to allow/deny access based on the personal reading habits of the visitors? IMHO that comes perilously close to opening a can of worms that conference organizers should be steering clear of.

But it’s a brand with a very high reputation, so I ran with it, intrigued to see what would happen. I felt I had as good a chance as anyone – the conference is taking place in my home city, very close to where I live, and many of the TED themes have been a big part of my career and background.

Now that it’s done, I’m rather disappointed. (and of course disappointed too not to be attending the conference!) For such a high level of invasiveness, and an arrogant (although justified!) approach of “don’t call us, we’ll call you … but only if we like you enough”, I was expecting at least *some* kind of feedback :). This is the age of feedback, A/B testing, validation, and openness.

(c.f. my post the other day on UK Education and the A-Level blacklists: on the whole, those institutions that are holding-back info about public decisions tend to be frowned on these days)

What were their criteria? Who did they accept, and who did they reject? Why?

It’s not who you choose, it’s *how* you choose them

Over the years, I’ve become innately suspicious of any and all selection processes that aren’t fully “open”: with the judging criteria clearly documented in advance, and ideally with actual (theoretical) examples of good and bad submissions.

Partly … because of my own experience as a judge. I’ve judged or helped judge everything from obscure community programming contests, through game-design contests with cash prizes, to competitions giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash funding to new businesses.

Every time the judging criteria were given to candidates in advance, the overall quality of submissions was massively better, across the board. Every time the criteria were vague or secretive, the volume of crappy submissions was depressingly high.

…speaking of which, I still have some user-submitted game ideas from 6 months ago that I promised to review publically and critique on this blog. Every time I fire up the laptop for a long journey, I pull them out and go over them again, and I can only apologise profusely that most of them are still unpublished. A new-year resolution for me, perhaps?


Death of the UK University – not a moment too soon

Adrian just wrote an excellent article for the Telegraph, on the role of physical Universities, and the extent to which they’re rapidly becoming irrelevant, eclipsed by low-fi educational resource on the internet.

QFT, a few hilights that fit *entirely* with my own experiences, both as an undergraduate, and as a tutor for undergraduates:

  1. modern lecturers are merely “talking textbooks”
  2. we act as if a non-teaching degree miraculously makes you “a brilliant teacher”
  3. most universities only give each student a few hours a week of face-time

and, personally … although I have a Computer Science degree from Cambridge University, and although the syllabus was great, and the faculty highly skilled, I credit a lot of my degree to:

the University of Hawaii

…because their lecture slides were of a universally higher quality than the sum total of Cambridge University’s slides+lecturer+tutors.

That’s shameful, on Cambridge’s part, but it also underlines Adrian’s points: I graduated almost ten years ago, and the writing was already on the wall.

Disruption is already here

The beautiful (terrifying) thing about disruptive businesses is that – for the incumbents – they are invisible and seemingly irrelevant until it’s too late. And then, suddenly, the disguise is thrown off, and the incumbents are put out of business in a matter of months.

Universities that had coasted for decades (or centuries) on a patherically weak teaching structure are now facing real disruptive business, including competitors that don’t even *need* revenue. Nowadays, I think many Universities are soon to find they’re already too late to turn around their own laziness and buck-passing. The (hidden) revolution has already begun…

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The audacity to believe

Do you live in San Francisco? Or, have you ever been there, for a conference, perhaps, or a holiday? (since the games industry’s biggest annual conference takes place in downtown SF, literally adjacent to and physically underneath the memorial)

Have you been to the Martin Luther King memorial?

No, not the famous one(s) elsewhere that are all over the web in arguments and rantings about costs etc. I mean the small, quiet, semi-secret one hidden in the heart of San Francisco, in the Yerba Buena Gardens.

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Serious game researchers: this is you.

Your professor tells you that you can’t study them for their own sake. However, if they’re as exciting as you say, and all the young people are reading them, then perhaps you could write an educational one? He therefore instructs you to go away and write a novel to teach addition.

For one of the conferences I was asked to speak at this year, I proposed a talk on the topic:

“Why the Serious Games movement is fundamentally bankrupt based on an idea that will never work, and what you should be doing instead, because there’s some great stuff you’re doing under that banner – but only when you undermine or ignore the classic definition(s) of Serious Games”

Unsurprisingly, they didn’t accept it. They kept on asking me to talk on something more “positive” and “business encouraging”; I kept on replying that it needs to be said, that it would be more valuable to their audience than anything else I personally could talk meaningfully on, and that if they didn’t want it, fine. Not my loss. Ah well.

(and to those of you who are doing great stuff and calling it Serious Games, but not following the foolishness of the majority – well done, keep it up, and we’re looking forward to what you come up with next!)

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Online Games cause Students to drop out of US Universities. Maybe.

In the best tradition of ignoring 100 years of the Scientific Method and the concept of a Control Group, the FCC Commissioner has been talking about American students dropping out because of computer games, MMOs especially.

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ARGs in Charity and Education – Channel 4

Alice Taylor, Channel 4

From the ARGs in Charity and Education conference last week. Alice was forthcoming on real data – and, more importantly, C4’s outlook/perspective – on a bunch of issues. Very useful stuff.

As ever, errors and ommissions my own, and my commentary [in square brackets].

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ARGs in Charity and Education – Operation: Sleeper Cell

Juliette Culver

Main post on the conference is here.

As ever, errors and omissions my own, and any personal commentary is in [square brackets]

EDIT: updated with some corrections, courtesy of Juliette

alternate reality games conferences education

ARGs in Charity and Education – Summary + Keynote

This week, I was at the tiny one-day conference on Alternate Reality Games, and their use in charity and/or education, at Channel 4’s offices in London. All proceeds from the conference went to Cancer Research UK (I think it was mainly organized by the team that this year won the competition to get funding for their idea for a charity ARG, sponsored by CRUK, with help from the guys at Six to Start).

As with all other conferences I go to, here’s are writeups of all the sessions I attended. Unfortunately, Channel 4’s offices are a bit … um … 20th Century: their auditorium has no power points. It has sockets that have been covered over with screwed-on metal covers to prevent you using them. Pretty amazingly dumb, considering how funktastic the rest of the building is. So, I ran out of power halfway through, and couldn’t cover all the sessions. Sorry!


10% of what we read … is not what we remember

Education is one of the most important drivers of mankind, after oxygen, food, and sex. You would think we took it seriously, as a society. Sadly, we continue to perpetuate insanely stupid myths when it comes to education. Here’s one of those that often annoys me which I was just reminded of:

Seen this graph? Believe it?


Well, you really shouldn’t (see this report on Multimodal Learning through Media, from Cisco)

As it turns out, doing is not always more efficient than seeing, and seeing
is not always more effective than reading. Informed educators understand that the optimum
design depends on the content, context, and the learner.

For example, the bogus percentages on
the cone would suggest that engaging students in collaborative learning in general would result in
higher levels of learning than would a lesson where a student listens to narration or reads text
about the topic. The reality is that, for the novice student engaged in basic skill building such as
learning chemical symbols, individual learning through reading or simple drill and practice might be
the optimal learning design. Yet, for a different learning objective – for instance, understanding
cause and effect of a specific chemical reaction – involving that same student in collaborative
problem-solving with fellow students through a simulation might be the most effective learning

The concept here – that that graph is completely wrong – was pointed out to me more than 10 years ago by my line manager at IBM, who’d done badly at school, and in later life heard how the cone needed to be mapped to different dimensions according to context (the learner themself, the subject at hand, etc), – and discovered that his primary mode of learning, according to basic testing, was to watch other people do stuff. He confirmed that that “50% Watching a demonstration” was for him often more like 95-100% retained – yet (thanks in part to this myth) was rarely offered as an option whenever teaching was happening. Sigh.

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Syllabus for an Entrepreneurship Degree

a.k.a. “An MBA that would actually be worth my time doing”


When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge University, a new society was founded – Cambridge University Entrepreneurs – which started an annual business-plan competition for members of the university and local community, giving away £30,000 (about $50,000) to the winners, and modelled on the pre-existing MIT 30k ($30,000).

I felt greatly let down by this competition and society in the first year, so the founder and president co-opted me over the summer holidays to change it for the next year. I ended up being involved directly with running the society / competitions (we branched out to multiple competitions) either as a committee chairman (there was more than one committee) or ex-officio for more than two years. Unofficially, one of the core reasons for founding the society was that Cambridge University at the time did not have any dept devoted to Entrepreneurship; the closest it had was a few classes on entrepreneurship within the Engineering Faculty (Engineering at Cambridge being an exceptional course of international reknown, and hence very large in terms of undergrads and well-funded in terms of diverse courses and extra lecturers; it also had a history of graduates going and founding successful startups). In the belief that the university would take many years or decades yet to found a new faculty for entrepreneurship, this society was created instead. Teaching entrepreneurship was a major mandate and one we took very seriously, running our own entire lecture course (!) each year, for which we co-wrote the syllabus with our sponsors (law firms, accountancy firms, management consultancies, venture capital firms, marketing consultancies, etc) who were also providing 2 or more speakers for the “course”.

The whole exprience was fascinating, and I learnt a lot both from working with the various people involved (sponsors, angels, investors, organizers, contestants) and from entering the competition myself one year (making it to the finals but not winning the cash prize) – but perhaps most of all from seeing what happened to the competition alumni AFTER the competition was over (we maintained strong links with them). I even worked for one of the alumni companies as a summer intern (with the title “Lead Developer” IIRC).

But we never did do very well at the “teaching entrepreneurship” part; our lessons were great, high quality with lots of juicy information, and generally very well recieved – but with hindsight they never seemed to have taught much of what was really needed by the entrepreneurs. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot in the back of my mind in the intervening years.

Here’s a new idea: get rid of the lectures, get rid of the tests, get rid of the business plans, get rid of the competition based on “40 page plan + 10 minutes pitch to a panel of real investors”, instead…

It’s all about the pitch, baby

  • Given the facts, can you pick out the bits that will make the company succeed?
  • Given the facts, can you pick out the bits that will make the company fail?
  • Can you convince someone you’re right when they’re trying to find a reason to condemn you?

The whole course would be built around Pitching. Everyone on the course would spend half their time pitching, and … half their time reviewing other people’s pitches.

The key abilities participants should be developing are:

  • Ability to sell, given some info
  • Persuading a cynical and suspicious interrogator who’s allowed to dig further into anything you said
  • Keeping a time-limited meeting on-topic despite the above
  • Seeing through the BS in someone else’s pitch (useful both in self-analysing your own pitches, and also in evaluating business partners and vendors)
  • Understanding what needs to be said about a company and what – given a time limit – is unnecessary to be said, even if it’s critical to the company
  • Understanding what can be said, and sounds good, but in reality means little, because it doesn’t actually differentiate sufficiently from the failures

When I say “reviewing”, I mean something specific that is NOT what you normally see. I have a trap…

The pitching game

Each pitch-session, you have 3 teams pitching, and 3 teams reviewing.

One of the pitching teams is told that their company is fake, a lie – they have to try and trick the reviewing teams into giving them the money. They are allowed to say ANYTHING in their pitch, and present it all as fact. The other two teams are given the facts of real companies to pitch (names removed), and MUST stick to the facts (this to be assessed by person running the course; some leeway is allowed, but its assumed there will be a due-diligence session further down the line, and veering too far from the facts will count as failure).

Here’s how it works to achieve the learning goals above:

The real teams have to learn, by trial and error, what “facts” about a company are the ones that will A) convince investors, and B) make them stand out from the liars.

This forces them to think about what makes a company suceeed – and, possibly more importantly – what makes a company *appear* to succeed. Competing against liars, they’re going to have to succeed at both.

The liars just have to master the art of the sell. Which is crucially important both to building and running a business and to raising funding and keeping investors happy enough to raise follow-on funding.

There is more to it than that, and there were some better ideas I had half-formed for the game part of this, but I’m out of time for today. The essential idea should be clear though: use “the pitch” as the recurring fundamental element of all the teaching.