SIEGE 2016: Serendipity In Events Gamers Envision

After SIEGE 2014, I wrote a blog entitled:
SIEGE 2014: Don’t Judge This Book by It’s Cover.

This is it’s sequel, and as before, I will be using mostly code names for individuals and leave it as a puzzle for those reading this to figure out (if they feel like it).

Before I get started, I was coming into SIEGE this year on a high from releasing Clutter VI and my team was all there at SIEGE at different points in time. If you met me, I’m sure I talked your ear off about how great a year it’s been and how I’ll most likely have to eat my words of the past 6 year….that gameplay mechanic is the only thing that matters, and finally admit that Story & Art matter. And it was great to show off my team’s work whenever possible, but that’s really a minor piece of what SIEGE is for me. For me, it’s actually when I slow down long enough and force myself to get out of “The Joe Show” mode that I have the most fun and interesting times at SIEGE.

So yeah, I participated in the investment conference and there’s a blog for you there that I might do some day, and I did the Rants again…and I threw a party this year (but that was mostly thanks to Chip Silvey for his generous donation to the SIEGE/GGDC cause)…but this isn’t about those moments either. So, although I did so much talking this weekend, (that I’m horse) this is about the quiet moments…where I was just listening and/or observing what all the awesome folks at SIEGE were doing. So, in no particular order…(which makes it harder to discover who I’m talking about)…here’s some shared remembrances of those moments.

The guy who most inspired this blog is someone who showed up after hearing about it just a little over a week ago. It was fun watching the SIEGE-effect on him because for someone who didn’t really know anyone before showing-up he fit right in.

It was great to see so many people from the Dave & Buster meet-ups doing various things all around SIEGE. I know that shouldn’t be a big surprise but I was so happy to see so many D&B friends there this year.

Jumping around…I got to know many people better this year that I’ve felt intimidated by in the past. Sometimes it’s physically intimidated, sometimes it’s on a more mental level, sometimes it’s status…and sometimes it’s all four. It’s always a great feeling to let go of those intimidation feelings when realizing how nice they really are.

I’ve been around long enough now…that I also enjoy seeing “kids” I met a few years ago morph into talented, hard-working adults. And I also realize that I can be intimidating the first time I meet/interact with someone, so it’s nice to observe the flip-side too…where someone who used to be intimidated by me…is no longer intimidated.

Met some really nice/random folks that I immediately clicked with. Just friendly, smart, happy, dedicated people that have the ability to make anyone feel comfortable in their presence. Whether it’s a Keynote level speaker type…or the newest volunteer…it’s always great to meet someone new who’s so enthusiastic about life.

Yeah, not giving many clues…but that’s ok…it’s not so much the specifics this year.

For instance, I can think of at least 10 old friends of varying degrees…that I always feel at home with more than the family and friends I grew up in. Now some of those folks I’ll never forget their names, but some I will if I haven’t seen them in a bit…but the thing is, although I may not be able to always remember a person’s name…I almost always remember “who there are”.

And a short digression…It’s the best 3 days of the year for me…mainly because I know that anyone may start busting my balls for any reason at any time…and I’m really happy that that’s the kind of environment SIEGE is. It’s a direct result of intelligent people that feel comfortable with each other. It’s a family thing.

This is really going long…and I think I need to do a whole blog on the two Rons and how awesome the Indie Cluster was this year…so I’ll stop here.

(Although…I’ll close with thanking/mentioning everyone that chose to break bread with me (or chow down with me) (or had lunch/dinner with me).  It’s one of my favorite things to do: Enjoy someone’s company over a good meal. Even if that meal is Oreo’s and 18 Year old Scotch….but I digress…)

Got errands to run….be back with the Indie Cluster in a bit…

 

 

 

Life

Are You a Dabbler?

When someone tells me they’re “pretty good” at Ping Pong, I respond by asking this question: “Have you ever played 8 hours a day for 4 months in a row?” When they answer “no” to that question, I say, “Well then, you’re only fair.”

That may sound harsh, or make me sound like a jerk, but I’ll stand by it. If you’ve never played ping-pong 8 hours a day for 4 months in a row, then odds are, I’m better than you.

Now, it makes no difference if you’ve dabbled in Ping-Pong, but it makes a huge difference if you’re dabbling in your career. And if you’re dabbling in a career in Games, then you’re really in trouble. And that’s because many, many people in Games are not dabbling, they are living it, every day of their lives once they got bit by the Games bug.

So, my newest answer to the “How do I break into Game development?” question is: Stop Dabbling. It’s no longer just “build a game”, it’s “build many games”. Build up your portfolio. Create gameS with a capital S.

One of my best friends in high school was a pretty good Trumpet player, and he was very good but because his father was a Musician, he was just a pretty good Dabbler. He was annoyed that he wasn’t first chair in band and he spent a whole summer practicing for 8 hours a day (or more) in the woods behind his house. And that’s how he earned first chair. And whatever motivated him to do that, transformed him from a Dabbler, to someone to be reckoned with.

In music, I’m a dabbler. I took piano lessons from 6th grade to 10th grade and I learned as much in those 4 years as most people learn in 1 year. The main reason I was such a slow learner, is that I only practiced the day before my lesson (and just about 30 minutes if I was lucky). Now I still enjoy the Piano, and I’ve been playing for almost 50 years now, and back in my college days, I even wrote songs here and there…but I’m still a dabbler. I sound ok, I can even play Moonlight Sonata, but it takes effort, because I’m just a dabbler.

Don’t get me wrong, there is something to be said for  “natural talent”, but a lot of people have some “natural talent” in a lot of directions, but it’s the people that choose a direction and put in the hard work that take their natural talent to the next level.

My “natural talent” was for pure math and logic. I’ve been doing puzzles since I was 3 years old and several times in my life I did something difficult, by myself, which helped boost me to the next level. Although not doing “programming”, I was becoming more algorithmically strong by the kinds of puzzles/tasks I set for myself. At 5 years old I learned long division from my father. At about the same time I sat for a whole afternoon on my Grandmother’s living room floor with a deck of cards proving that you can’t get a 19 hand in Cribbage. In 3’rd grade I learned how to use a slide-rule from a book. In 6th grade I learned some algebra from a puzzle book 2 years before I knew what algebra was. In 1981, I solved the Rubik’s Cube by myself in about 10 hours, and then proceeded to carry it around with me for the next year or so, getting down to about 40 seconds on average (using my own method).

In 1981, I got my first programming job (with only one programming course under my belt while getting a B.S. in Mathematics) and I was a semi-dabbler as a business programmer for the next 3 years (and a couple more depending on how you count things).

In 1988-ish, I stopped being a dabbler in programming when I decided to learn C on my own. I spent the next 3-4 years learning C while writing my first computer game by coding 20+ hours a week (in addition to my 40 hour programming day-job (with an hour commute each way)), mostly nights and weekends. That game made less than $200 for me, but it led to 4 job offers (at different times)…and…it got my foot in the door as a Tools/Game-Dev for a small pre-internet company called Interactive Network that sold a device that let you play along with TV (in real time) while watching sports or gameshows like Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy.

Jump forward, from 2000-2003, I created 9 games on my own while semi-early-retired and/or doing some consulting. Those 9 games directly led to being hired by iWin to create a downloadable version of Mah Jong Quest (with a complete redesign). (7 of those games made me less than $500 total, and the other 2 made about $3000 each). That’s when I sunk my teeth into designing and coding a “bigger game” while learning C++ for real, and while learning a huge framework/cast-system and dealing with an asset pipeline and doing it all while working remotely (which has it’s own set of issues). Although that was just a 40-ish hour per week salaried position, there were times I put in 60+ hours because of something in the framework that I thought needed improving (but didn’t directly affect the game I was working on) that I just “wanted-to-do” because it was interesting and it had a chance at improving performance. (No dabbling there.)

Jump forward to the end of 2009, and after 3 Mah Jong Quest games under my belt (and a couple of other failed projects (where I wasn’t the designer)), I decided I was ready to go on my own and create games that had a chance at making more than $200 or $3000.

But I was no longer a dabbler. Around 1988-ish, I stopped being a dabbler as a programmer. I started reading a lot of books about programming even while learning C myself. (And shortly thereafter learning C++). I stopped dabbling in games about the same time, but didn’t get in the industry until 1993…and then as just a really good “tools guy”. In 2000, I stopped being a dabbler in design, by creating many, many games from scratch and breaking through many other walls in programming. C++, Windows, DX7, Graphics, etc…, etc…

In 2011, Clutter was successful enough to warrant a sequel. In 2012, Clutter II was more successful but I realized I was just dabbling in the business end of things. Since then I’ve stopped dabbling in business, and I think about all the different business aspects of creating games on a daily basis. Business-wise, it was time to start really paying attention and “proving” what I did and didn’t know for sure about the casual games market.

For me the opposite of the “dabbling” mindset, is the “take no prisoners” mindset. It’s “set a goal, and do whatever it takes to achieve that goal”. And as I’ve started to add team members to the Puzzles By Joe family, that’s the attitude I’m looking for most.

In the past year, I’ve been actively looking for non-dabblers to help me take Puzzles By Joe to the next level. I made the mistake of looking for “talent” more than attitude, but I got lucky in that two talented non-dabblers found me about 6 months ago, and we’re currently  finishing up Clutter 6 and starting to work on Clutter 7.

I’ve yet to find a programmer, interested in my type of games, that is both good enough and a non-dabbler. But that’s my goal for the rest of 2016.

Another time, I’ll write about how I think that Unity promotes dabbling…but for now, regardless…my first question to any programmer who wants to work for/with me is this: “Are You a Dabbler?”

 

Games

We are Indie…

For 6 years now, I’ve thought of myself as Indie, but I’ve been fooling myself.

Going to ramble a bit. For all passengers safety, it is recommended that you buckle-up now for the rough ride ahead. It may be quite a while before we reach our destination.

Now, first off, “indie” has a lot of different meanings depending on whom you ask. For myself even, it has different meanings based on context. When I first came to GA (summer 2010) and attended my first Game-Dev Meet-up, I considered everyone there “indie” because the word wasn’t well defined yet (for me). But really, there were Small Studio Devs there that survived by mostly doing 2nd and 3rd party development. There were some professionals that were gainfully employed by bigger  companies like CNN, Cartoon Network, or a host of other local Game companies that support their own original IP. And the rest were either students or hobbyist or both. There were only a couple of people like myself that were actually making a full product and trying to leverage the sale of that product into supporting their business. At the time, I started to think of myself as “indie” but also as a solo-“indie”. So much so, that I thought the IGDA stood for Independent Game Developers Association (which is wrong by the way…but in Atlanta maybe not as wrong as in other parts). It actually stands for International Game Developers Association and Atlanta is just one chapter.

Now, the first person that remembered my name and actually enquired as to how my first Clutter game was going was Andrew Greenberg. At first, I was super impressed with this, but when I realized he is the Ambassador to all things Georgia Game related, then it’s not as impressive. (Because it’s kind of his “job” in one sense. And I know this, because as I made the decision to get more involved in the local dev community, It’s become part of my “job” to be better at that as well (remembering people, and enquiring what they’ve been up to – I don’t do that “job” well…but I’m only a Junior Ambassador)).

Ok…now…a few years ago (Summer 2013), I made the mistake of accepting an opportunity to “showcase” my game (Clutter III at the time) at the San Francisco Casual Connect. I say mistake, because that’s when I got a closer look at the “indie community” and how a lot of that “scene” is diametrically opposed to what I’m about. My view is so tainted, that at the last Game Jam, I created a sub-company to Puzzles By Joe called Piaget Games…where Piaget stood for (Pretentious Indie Art Games ETc…). I felt like I was just a piece of meat or a seat-filler, and although they let me speak at the conference, even that experience was not exactly a confidence builder. And I felt like the “indie” scene…was more like the Fashion or Art world than it was about games.

For a guy who’s mantra was “Gameplay Mechanics Tops Art”…I was easily repulsed by the “indie” scene, especially the whole notion that Story/Narrative/Art is what matters most, and worse…the personal “story” of the people that created the games…sometimes overshadowed the game itself. It’s like we’re stuck in a real world gamer version of America’s Got Talent where we have to understand the great hardship that the performer has overcome to be there, so that America can “fall in love with them” and they can be the next great America’s Got Talent winner. Yes, even in a “talent” contest. Narrative reigns supreme (over the actual Talent on display).

But I digress. But wait, there’s more. All of a sudden, I learn that “indie” can mean 5 professionals that split off from a huge non-indie company, secure a few million in VC or Angel investing and create the next great piece of Art (oops, I mean game).

And don’t get me started on Kickstarter, where 3-5 professionals can get together and “pitch” their “idea” for their next great piece-of-Art…involving an IP that no one’s heard of for 20 years and raise a few million for their next “commercially viable success”? (Or early access STEAM…where we can just give you an unfinished BETA and hope you’ll tolerate it long enough until we make enough money to finish it).

But again, I digress…and I’m obviously biased.

I work in a land where I know my final product will be seen and all that matters is what percentage of people actually play and like it…and the crux here is this. They get to make that decision BEFORE they actually buy it. Yep, the game has to stand on it’s own.

After the negativity of the Casual Connect and the up close look at “Indie-Prize-Contest” like events, I started re-evaluating the local game-dev community and started pushing back a little bit. I noticed that even in the local community that people seemed to confuse the notion of “talking about games” versus actually “making games”. My new mantra became – “talking isn’t doing”. But I started thinking of these folks as a new kind of “indie”, for me, those folks reflected the “indie” in “industry” as I realized that there was a whole popular-culture (similar to the Art scene) aspect to the “indie scene”. And just like who cares about the Kardashians, I find myself hardly ever caring about what the Rock Stars of Indie are doing (with maybe the exception of Rami Ismail because he’s always got something interesting to say).

About the same time, I realized I was a true indie-fish-out-of-water, because I was a Puzzle Guy surrounded by FPS, RPG, MMO and/or other “serious gamer” types. To this day, I still don’t use a controller or play X-Box, PlayStation or even Wii. I never learned to navigate a 3D game or even a side scroller. If an arcade game had/has more than one button on it (in addition to a trackball) then that arcade game wasn’t made for me.

But again, I digress…

So for many years, I lived with the “I’m a semi-successful-solo-indie” label even though there was so much of the indie-scene I didn’t like or was just missing out on. (Even watching “Indie Game – The Movie” confirmed this…as I watched it and thought…”Well, at least I’m not as crazy as those people”.)

Now, I’m so much an Indie…that when I get an idea and my first thought is “Wow, there is no way Jim (or CJ, or Peter, or any other producer/boss I’ve ever worked for) would let me put that in the game”, I know that I’m on the right track. So part of indie to me means “defiant”/”rebellious”/”take no prisoners”/”get the job done”/”Doing it My Way (cue music)”. Or just…”Damn it…I’m just going to prove I can be successful at this.”

Now after 5 years of being a defiant solo indie, I decided that I really wanted to grow beyond the “solo-indie” label and find some folks to collaborate with. It took me about a year to find the right collaborators but luckily they found me about 6 months ago now. And it hit me just yesterday during one of our every-two-week-or-so meetings/meetups, that I now had a much better handle on exactly what the indie label means now.

Now, that would take another blog, that would be just as long as this one, to explain but part of it is the small-family-community aspect of “indie” as opposed to how the anti-indie soulless-corporations are believed to be. But what I realized most is that I no longer had to define “indie” anymore. Like pornography, art or beauty…I know it when I see it.

At yesterday’s company-meeting, we (3 of us) hammered out the details to the Clutter 7 story. And regardless of the specific details, it will be a better story due to our collaborative efforts. And although it’s a messy rambling process, it was a highly productive meeting…and it’s obvious that they both care about the final product as much as I do.

What hit me as the meeting ended was this…

…although I play the part of the soulless corporation and I pay them…

…We Are Indie…

 

 

Games

Ask the Next Question…

A person I just met at a GGDA meet-up asked if he could talk with me about my business and the games business in general. He’s a student that’s trying to decide between pursuing business application development or game development. Although some of his questions surprised me, I thought all of them were interesting and worth answering in this blog (that way, they’re out in the world for posterity). My answers are just MY answers. They should not be taken as gospel, other than they are my truthful answers at this point in time. I welcome comment on them, but I’m not looking to debate anyone about my opinions, because that’s all they are…my opinions…based on my experience as both a Business Programmer (once upon a time), A Tools Programmer (the less fun part of Game Development), and a Game Developer (working for someone else), and even a Solo/Indie Game Developer (the most fun part of all).

1) Hows GDC going btw? Did you have a booth setup for Puzzles by Joe and all that? (He also added that he got a free expo pass but wasn’t able to attend due to other expenses).

GDC is always great. There is an IGDA scholarship program you can check out for next year and a few other scholarship programs out there that provide All Access passes. (For my money, the expo isn’t the best part, it’s all the lectures…especially the first two days which have their own specialized tracks (I usually do the Indie-Dev Track…but there’s an Educational Track, an Artists Track, Programming, Business, etc…)

I don’t do the “booth” thing with Puzzles By Joe because I have several distribution channels that allow me not to have to work that end of the business. I think that deserves it’s own blog someday. In a nutshell though, I’m lucky to have distributors like Big Fish Games, iWin, Game House, Wild Tangent, Exent that all distribute my games for me.

2.) I know in game development, companies tend to layoff people if there isn’t a project to be made (I think this ties into the game industry being saturated with new people as well, but idk for sure). Is this true in regular software development as well? Once a software is developed, are there usually layoffs?

In “regular software development” layoffs are much rarer. In most (not all) businesses, it’s not a “hit-based” or “project based” model. I worked for a Bank, Grocery Store Chain and a Restaurant Chain as my first 3 programming jobs and there was never a worry about layoffs (unless the company was bought out and absorbed by a bigger company). I also worked for two tech firms and although layoffs happened, they were never project based. If a company is providing an ongoing product or service, it always has plenty of things to do beyond the next “upgrade”.

3.) Are there long hours in software development? I know in games there is crunch time of sometimes 60 hrs, but I’m not sure about regular programming.

In general, I’d have to say No to this, but there are exceptions. When I switched from being “just a programmer” to a “Software Engineer”, I was a “salaried” employee and at that job it was expected that we would work between 40-50 hours doing whatever it took to get the job done. However, there was hardly any real “crunch times” because there were no arbitrary “ship dates” to meet. We had schedules but much more relaxed.

Lastly though, IT has changed and if it’s non-games but still “Apps-Development” then maybe there is crunch time there. I can’t say for sure.

4.) I have an ME degree from gatech, but I don’t know if that means anything to hiring managers and engineers from software development companies. Is an ME degree okay, or do they usually dismiss people without CS related degrees?

I don’t know how it is today, but I’ve always found that “smart is smart” and that “rules are meant to be broken”. Back in the day, I had a pure (non-business) Mathematics degree and had only taken one computer course. I answered an ad for a bank and took a “programming aptitude test”…to get that job. After working 3 years using a language no one outside of NCR knew called Neat-3, I got a job at a Cobol shop…but I quickly became the only non-Cobol programmer in that shop (solving problems because of their lack of understanding the Cobol file system). I then learned C on my own and got a job at an proprietary OS/Fault Tolerant company. Then I broke into games as a tools programmer. Finally, at one point I got hired by iWin to create/design/port (not really port) a Mah Jong game for the Casual PC Download market. That was in C++ which I was only using as “a better C”….not really doing Object Oriented C++.

Really finally and to come full circle, while seeing how Clutter performed in the market, I took a job at a local slots/gaming company and became their “Math Guy” part-time for a little over 2 years.

So your ME degree actually says a lot about you. You might actually be a better programmer/developer than someone who graduates in a less formal discipline. Once you feel you’re a competent programmer, the fact that you completed an ME degree could help differentiate you in the job market.

Some companies may dismiss you because of the non CS degree…but a lot may not, but most companies will respect the completed-related-degree…especially if you’re confident about it, and keep learning programming on your own.

5.) Is it stressful? Like are there a lot of deadlines that MUST be met and generally cannot/will not get pushed back?

I’ve never been in a true “big-games-company” that had the severe crunch time that a lot of companies have, so I really can’t say much on this. Most stress is self-imposed and even in non game companies, management will often try to “take advantage” of it’s employees and get more work out of them than is reasonable. For me, I’ve always pushed-back in the few cases I felt it was excessive, and I never had a problem in this area.

In fact, in one case (and I’ve worked remotely since 1997…and saving the 1 hour to 2 hour commute time does wonders for the overall “stress” and “how many hours are you putting in” issues.) I self-imposed a 10 week deadline on myself so that I could do Mah Jong Quest II my way. Management felt that I was asking for enough rope to hang myself with…so they agreed to the terms (they thought sure I couldn’t do it). I proved them wrong….which was a win-win for both of us.

6.) So far I’ve been teaching myself programming (~5 years in C, C++, and now C#), but I know programmers usually work in teams in the industry…and I’m not sure what THAT is like lol. To get experience in working in a team, I guess working on an open source software would be good right? Do you think open source projects is a good way to get teamwork experience?

I’ve never done the open source thing. “teams” can me a lot of different things. Very few companies do “pair programming” and in most places what you work on is not worked on directly by someone else. You end up carving-up little niches that the other people kind of know that you’re the guy they need to see, if they want changes made in that area. For instance, I wrote tools for a few years…and sometimes I supported tools that already existed and sometimes I wrote new ones. If one of the other game developers needed something (like the tool doing something new)…they would most likely just tell me what they needed and I’d go do it. It was a rarity where someone else would actually dive into the code and put a fix or change in themselves. (That might be different elsewhere, but not anywhere I’ve ever worked).

So lastly…I know you want assurances and hard-fast answers to your questions, but there are none. It sounds like your doing the right things, and often the right path just presents itself. My current advice to anyone in college or just starting out is this…

Follow your passion….but….perfect your craft….while looking for ways to get paid for doing either. I think you’re asking the right questions…but don’t be fearful that you’ll go in the wrong direction. You won’t know for many years whether Games or Business is the right path for you.

I wanted to be a Teacher…until two things happened. I got a Math degree from RPI (similar to GT) because I wanted to know more than the teachers I had in high school that just had “teaching degrees”. I took one course in computers (on keypunch) and although I was a “natural” I was bored and annoyed to wait 3 days to find out I missed a semi-colon. Although I got an A in the course, it was the only computer course I took.  Went to get a masters in Education…and was bored again by what they wanted to teach me about teaching. At the same time, I sat down to a CRT (green dots, black screen) and helped a friend of mine with her computer course. Well…instead of a3 day wait to find that missing semi-colon….we found it immediately, told the CRT to run the program again….and BOOM….it worked. The heavens opened, I began salivating like Pavlov’s dog and never looked back. I would be a Computer Programmer.

So…3 years as a business programmer….followed by 10 years as a “Software Engineer” working for “real computer companies” like Triad and Tandem…followed by 6 years being a “Game Tools Developer”…followed by 3.5 years creating games that no one wanted to play…followed by 4 years being a Game Designer/Developer…followed by 6 years being a true Solo-Indie-Developer.

So…ask the next question, but don’t worry about the answer.

Show no Fear.

Games, Life, Programming

The Magic of GDC

(Wrote this back in February but incorrectly posted it as a page where no one could reach it. Posting now but it’s really from March.)

So 3 semi-quick GDC stories to provide the flavor of why I try to attend the GDC each year.
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Games

Slapping Things In

I just realized this morning that one of my favorite things is – the last couple of weeks tweaking and tuning my games before they ship. And it’s not really “polishing” like most people do right before shipping, because I try to “polish” as I go. It’s actually two different things:

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Clutter, Games, Programming

Commencement

This is a prelude to a horror novel, I started way, way back (I think the date in it was close to when I wrote it – 5/12/02). Enjoy.

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Writing

Living in A Pretentious World

pre·ten·tious
     pr??ten(t)SH?s
adjective
    attempting to impress by affecting importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.
———-

Here’s 10 signs we’re living in a pretentious world (and if I were pretentious, I’d point out that it’s also the same 10 signs of the apocalypse as well).

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Games, Life

Succeeding in Games: A Blog to Myself

How do I break into the games business?
How do I create successful games?
How do I succeed in games?
How do I make my own games (the ones I want to make)?
How do I succeed as an artist/creator/designer?
How do I get better at anything?

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Clutter, Games, Life, Programming

SIEGE 2014: You Can’t Judge This Book By It’s Cover

SIEGE 2014: You Can’t Judge This Book By It’s Cover

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Games, Life