Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

6 August, 2009

A reliably volunteer project
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:36 PM

I’ve professed a belief that independent game development is more likely to produce a breakthrough than large, corporate development. The bulk of my career has been focused on independent development, allowing me to develop the skills necessary to do something special in online games.

The drawbacks are numerous, of course. The primary one being that money doesn’t grow on trees. That means you have to be extra creative to get a game going because you can’t just write big checks like a large company can. Often, this means using like-minded volunteers.

Unfortunately, my experience has been that volunteers are not very reliable. Why is that?

History of a project

I’ve been working on simple bit of technology for doing games for a while. I have a Stackless Python server that handles the basics of communication, account management, and other nice functions. I want to have a Flash/Actionscript based client that runs in a browser. Nothing mind-blowing or destined to be the great WoW-killer, but something that would allow me to make games that explore some of the unusual design concepts I have without having to convince someone to bet millions of dollars that my insanity will work out in the end.

Now, while there are MMO games developed primarily by a single person, I want to make games, not just work on tech. So, I’d like to find others to help out, particularly people who have some experience where I don’t. You can look through the blog archives here and see where I asked for people to lend a hand to the projects.

But, as I’ve said, volunteers haven’t necessarily been reliable. My current focus is learning Actionscript 3 so that I can write the client myself.

My own faults

Let me first put the spotlight on my own failings as possible explanations for this situation.

I’m an asshole. Let’s be honest here, I know I’m not always the nicest person to be around. I can lose my temper easily enough if things keep piling up. Sometimes you just have to get stuff done and that “arbitrary” deadline is one way to make sure things don’t take forever. Or, maybe I dictate too much of the project and expect others to dance to my whims.

I don’t give enough guidance. Game development is hard. I have many years of experience by this point. Some volunteers are bright-eyed newbies just getting into their first project. Of course, I hate to be micro-managed, so I try not do the same to others. But, perhaps I’m a bit too hands-off?

I suck at communication. Maybe I don’t communicate my needs well enough, and others are confused. Or, the communication media that I choose (IM and email) are not very efficient or appropriate for what the project needs.

The faults of other people

Perhaps I’m not entirely to blame?

People don’t understand what’s required. As I say to a lot of people who want to break into game development, making games isn’t the same as playing games. Perhaps people get disappointed when game development starts to feel like actual work.

People experience crushing disappointment. Maybe people are just disappointed when I talk about a grand project and they finally realize that there’s only a few bits of basic code written. They were expecting to work on a nearly finished product, but instead they have to worry about the fundamentals of how to implement a tile map.

People can’t keep ego in check. Working on someone else’s project, I find I have to keep a handle on my ego. You might think you know best, but someone else has their own ways of doing things. Perhaps others feel its easier to leave than deal with someone who is just wrong, in their opinion. Or, perhaps they want to work on their own stuff and working on yours is not as interesting.

People want to keep a toe in the pool. Maybe that project will turn into something really high-profile and exciting! Maybe you’ll get some sweet recognition if things take off.

Real life takes control. Sometimes real life does get in the way of a good project. One person I was working with was very talented, but had the nerve to get engaged and move across an ocean to be with his better half. He had to get a better job to support his new family. How rude! ;)

The nature of volunteers

Volunteering for a project has its own issues.

Volunteers aren’t motivated by money. Threatening someone’s paycheck is an effective way to keep them motivated. Volunteers don’t have that, so they need some other motivation. Pride in a job well done is hard to maintain when the end seems so distant.

Volunteers don’t feel special. Volunteers are just one in a crowd. It’s hard to feel like a superstar when you were just in the right place at the right time to find out about the project.

Volunteering isn’t working. If you’re really good at what you do, you should be paid, right? Volunteering for a project isn’t helping your financial situation. Might as well get paid if you’re going to do something that feels like work.

Recent experiences

I recently signed up to help another person implement a simple project. The goal was to take a well-known game genre and put it on a modern platform. Volunteers were requested, communication was set up, and goals were established.

The end result was that the professional developers contributed work but only one other person picked up the slack. The project had goals and people signed up to complete the goals, but few other people actually delivered anything toward getting the project done. I was not in charge, so I don’t think my faults were the root cause here. The professionals got together and chatted about the situation. Why did we step up when others didn’t?

Leave it to the professionals

So, why did the professionals step up and get things done?

Reputation was on the line. If we slacked, the others would know and talk about us. That could hurt us in the long run. But, what does a volunteer care if we say, “That person wasn’t reliable.” if they don’t care to get a game development job?

Our jobs were “easier”. My job was to write design documents and post discussions on the Wiki. Another professional is a writer, and was working on story concepts while offering design suggestions. Neither of us was doing the “hard work” of programming. (Although the third professional did do some programming.)

We’re used to the work. We knew what to expect. We weren’t surprised when the tasks felt a bit like work. This is, after all, what we do for a living. We were interested in working on a game project and knew what we were signing up for.

So, what now?

We’re talking about rebooting the project and putting some stricter entry requirements. You actually have to do a task before you’re welcomed into the project proper. This means that people who are let into the project have at least a bit of skin in the game. We’ll see if that changes the level of commitment people are willing to make.

As for my personal project, I’m forging forward. I can’t wait for someone reliable to come along and want to help out for free, so I’m focusing my efforts on acquiring the skills to do it myself. We’ll see how far I get. But, don’t expect sparking innovation in MMOs if I have to move at the pace of doing nearly everything myself.


  1. Money grows in a field. Its made of cotton.

    Comment by heartless_ — 6 August, 2009 @ 5:30 PM

  2. BTW, if you need any Cisco configs or T3 level backhauls configured when you get big, let me know :)

    Comment by heartless_ — 6 August, 2009 @ 5:33 PM

  3. I think you’re dead on. The key motivators for volunteers on any kind of creative, non-humanitarian project are on a spectrum of obligation, anticipation, and interest. People will put in their best work if they’re keenly interested in the project, but it’s the nature of big creative projects to eventually drift such that people lose interest. You’ll still get good work if they can anticipate a final product that justifies their input, but, as you note, this is harder towards the beginning when the result is far off. Finally, a lot of people will hang on out of obligation, but their work will gradually suffer if anticipation or interest isn’t rekindled periodically.

    One of my groups of friends formed around LARPing around 10 years ago, and gradually became synonymous with the team that ran a series of games. The team was fairly stable over many years due to everyone being interested in making games, and the quick payoff of being able to run games monthly. Then the leader of the team and several members decided to diversify into indie film projects, and initially had the entire LARPing team on board. However, the core that’s interested in film has been continually annoyed at the shrinking size of the active team, and how much less effort is being put in compared to when we were running LARPs. But it’s a simple matter of less interest and much more work for much less regular payoff; obligation only carries you through so long.

    For a video game project, I’d suggest:

    • Assess every volunteer’s reasons for joining the project, determining what factors interest them and what they hope to get out of their involvement. Some might think the game idea is cool, some might want a chance to build skills, some might want to work on design, etc. If you don’t think you can support that interest for long, be ready to lose the volunteer early. Periodically make sure you’re giving each volunteer the opportunity to do what interests him or her.
    • Break the project down into whatever milestones you can, and go public with whatever pieces you can, giving credit to everyone that wants it. Even if your real goal is far off, the volunteers may feel like it’s a real thing that has a life outside the team, and can anticipate tangible progress.
    • As you mentioned, you may not give enough guidance. But that only matters to some people. Others are self-starters that need only to be given a direction and the freedom to work on it. The trick is to identify the people that are happy to help but aren’t certain exactly what they can do, and give them as much guidance as they require (down to setting micro milestones and asking for estimates on when they’ll be done), while giving a much looser leash to people that are strongly self-motivated.
    • Figure out who’s burning out before they do so. You may be able to talk to them and give them some new interest or anticipation that gets them going again, but it’s much harder once someone’s realized they’re not having fun anymore and made the decision to quit.

    Comment by Stephen — 6 August, 2009 @ 8:33 PM

  4. A couple of thoughts about the management of volunteers.

    1) Volunteers generally do it for recognition. Praise, credit and thanks are vitally important to keep your volunteers motivated.

    2) Volunteers are territorial. No idea why, this is simply what I’ve observed. Give volunteers a little corner or an area of responsibility and let them get on with it (within reason) empowers them and keeps them on board.

    3) IT people in general have very high turnover compared to other industries. I was at a big city law firm in London where the longest serving member of a team of 50 had been there 2 years. In the library our second newest staff member had been there longer than the entire IT department.

    I think the secret is to make people feel they are working with you not for you.

    Comment by Stabs — 6 August, 2009 @ 9:08 PM

  5. Good read, Brian, thank ye. I just started leading and organizing a volunteer project with lofty goals (as usual), so I’m sailing into these same waters.

    Comment by Julian — 6 August, 2009 @ 9:32 PM

  6. I don’t think writing is necessarily easier than coding, but did anyone in your project have the experience to write the design documents for the coders? (I mean, fairly detailed ones explaining exactly what needed to be done in each work package and how the high level object and architecture design was going to work.)

    I think with an experienced coder in charge, you’d expect to get better results from the volunteers (it comes down to assigning appropriate work packages and making sure they communicate with each other) — that’s just in general, without specific volunteer type issues.

    As for voluntary work, I do one day a week as a volunteer myself. It’s going to be a struggle to get people to really focus when it’s something they are doing as a hobby, and especially when they do it from home. But that’s not to say it can’t be done, just whoever is in charge needs to spend more time and effort working with them (like I say, assigning work packages carefully is one of the things.)

    Comment by Spinks — 6 August, 2009 @ 11:01 PM

  7. I’d say it’s just unconscious risk-management on the part of the volunteer. I do this type of thing occasionally when my independent consulting gets busy. If the threshold to get involved in something is low, people will push that button. “Sure, I’d love to be involved; it’s easy to sign up, and it might be awesome.” But later on, when requirements to -stay- involved implicitly mount up, or the anticipation of rewards is disappointed, they will quickly adjust their calculus and put their time into whatever looks most likely to pay off in kind.

    Comment by Bret — 7 August, 2009 @ 6:59 AM

  8. Um, pretty unrelated but how are you like stackless python? I’m about to start up a personal project myself using stackless python.

    Comment by Logo — 7 August, 2009 @ 7:08 AM

  9. Bret’s comment hits home for me. I’ve put together a small group (4 people right now, with a 5th one more than likely joining in a few days) and so far it’s been smooth sailing, everyone is excited to work on this, we’re lucky to have great material to work on, but I’m concerned about maintaing that enthusiasm. I know it will naturally decay, that’s how it is, but how to keep it from decaying too much?

    I want to make a strong point and tell them it’s been smooth sailing so far, but to prepare themselves for the whole thing to start getting uphill soon, but I don’t know how productive that might be or if it will have any effect at all. We’ll see.

    Comment by Julian — 7 August, 2009 @ 7:32 AM

  10. Fascinating insights, as usual, and jibes with my experience of volunteer projects elsewhere (game-related, but not game design, and tabletop/live rather than online). Some days I kick myself for only being the writing type, other days I’m kind of glad I never wanted to learn to program. Besides, I’m too unmethodical and right-brain for it (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!). Today, I’m somewhere in the middle.

    Comment by Ysharros — 7 August, 2009 @ 7:55 AM

  11. We’ve had hundreds, maybe even thousands, of volunteers work on Iron Realms games over the years and except for 2 exceptions, every employee we’ve ever had (including Iron Realms’ President) started out as a player and then moved to being a volunteer (and then to a paid employee in a distinct minority of cases).

    A few pieces of advice on effective use of volunteers:
    1. You wrote that volunteers don’t feel special. Well, it’s your job to make them feel special. It helps to have ways to tangibly reward those who actually are special. For instance, we have a hierarchy of positions they can work their way up through, gaining increased privileges (both in terms of what they can do and, in a live game, what powers they have that might make them envied by players). Just because you’re not going to pay them doesn’t mean you can’t create a structure within which they can feel rewarded.

    2. “Volunteering isn’t working.” This issue is purely a matter of how well you’re motivating volunteers. I’ve had volunteers that put in 30-50 hours a week, week in, week out, for years. Most volunteers won’t do this, but you find the really dedicated ones and nurture them.

    3. It’s a numbers game. The more volunteers you have, the better your chances of finding those diamonds in the rough.

    4. To help weed out those diamonds in the rough, create a system that weeds out the flaky ones. For instance, in Achaea the goal of the more serious volunteers (we’ve got a few different opportunities for volunteers to contribute) is to eventually become an in-game God. However, before they even have a shot at being considered they’ll have to put in between 600 and 1200 hours of volunteer time, doing work that doesn’t bring them any real prestige in the minds of players (that prestige is valuable to many of them). The flaky ones just give up somewhere in that apprenticeship period.(I’m specifically referencing a live MMO here but you can create something similar in a pre-release game, just have to find a different ‘goal’ for them.)

    Comment by Matt Mihaly — 7 August, 2009 @ 8:39 AM

  12. Hah, interesting to read somebody from Iron Realms posting here! Mainly because I have such a split view of the company. In years past (1994 on) I was a text MUD player. I watched the decline of the text MUD multiverse with sad gamer’s eyes, until Iron Realms appeared as The Destroyer sounding the death knell for the old ways of infinite variety and individual creativity. Much later, now with much more experience in business and game development both, I recognize that you guys have actually done something pretty amazing. You managed to standardize, modularize (? :p), and revive a dying genre and make a success out of it. Anyway, total tangent. But Iron Realms gives me hope that text MUDs will still be around for my kids to play someday.

    In response to the volunteer thing, a resounding YES! Volunteerism is quite horrible, and you have to spend much more time managing feelings and motivation than anyone should have to. I myself have been one of 3 who initiated a major volunteer project designed at creating bots to farm gold and sell it online in a few specific MMOGs. Obviously a financial goal motivated some of us, but it was insanely hard getting volunteers to do things as simple as checking and responding to email. Oddly, before apathy was able to take its inevitable course, our group broke up when several members received vague email threats from seedy Chinese companies that already do this sort of thing in every game in existence. How they knew anything about us, I’ll never know, but it’s scary.

    Finally, in response to PC’s generations idea in the post he linked to. This mechanic is GREAT at extending content. I have played under various forms of that mechanic already in the text mud NetherWorld. Currently, in that game, your character levels from 1 to 30. Then, you can at-will ‘reincarnate’ into a different race, back at 1. After you reinc 10 times, you are , and go from levels 5 to 35 each reincarnation. After 30 reincs you are and go from levels 10 to 40… and so on, up to and 99 reincarnations, each time allowing you to play as a different race with different characteristics, abilities, and strengths. There are even ‘race chains’ that you can only get through a certain racial path, and class restrictions on races. Finally, class abilities at levels 35-50 can only be reached by being high enough in reincarnations to access those levels, so even the classes change drastically over the course. All told it’s like having 3000 levels across content designed for maybe 50 levels. The ‘grind factor’ depends entirely on how interesting and varied each new race is that you play. In previous ‘incarnations’, the reinc system allowed you to choose different or additional classes upon reincarnation.

    While these are pretty much just grind extension mechanics, it very successfully causes players to continually meet up – for instance a super-veteran that just restarted at level 20, leveling in a similar area to a new at level 20 trying to finish off his current incarnation.

    So I suppose I’m supporting your generational character idea and saying that, from personal experience and a design perspective, it can be extremely successful. Let me also tell you that it is HARDLY an exit point! On the contrary! Reincarnating is the most fun because you get to fight level-appropriate content but you blast through it, ace monsters that used to give you trouble, and level very fast while playing with your new powers (albeit slowly outgrowing these areas as you reincarnate further). It is the difficult and later levels where people usually ‘frazzle out’ and bog down, and where grouping becomes difficult – for example, a level 45 (out of 50) in NW can’t group with anybody but other high level s, of which there are very few.

    Comment by Gar — 7 August, 2009 @ 12:20 PM

  13. Oh, jeez, the website deleted my notes of reincarnation levels. just assume every odd blank is ‘R1′ or ‘R4′ or the like ;p

    Comment by Gar — 7 August, 2009 @ 12:34 PM

  14. Julian,

    Not that you asked for advice :) But one of the better employers I ever had made his people take a quick little personality test, the point of which was to determine what intangible on-the-job rewards best motivated us. Essentially it broke us down by degrees into four types: people who want new experiences and adventure, people who want to take pride in doing something well, people who want to feel like an accepted member of a group, and people who want to be in charge (probably not too many of these at the volunteer level).

    Matt Mihaly’s system seems to address some of those needs… I think in a lot of cases it’s just about knowing your people, giving them the kinds of roles that will please them, and phrasing things well.

    Best of luck with your project!

    Comment by Bret — 7 August, 2009 @ 2:14 PM

  15. I’ve led volunteer projects in the past (the biggest one had 14 people involved and actually had a playable release), but even hired hands can be disastrous and/or mismanaged. So, I’m just biting the bullet and doing it all by myself until I can get revenue going and then I will pay people to polish everything incrementally.

    One key to volunteer projects is strong communication (remember, it’s an n^2 problem, so you need good tools and email doesn’t cut it, in my experience). Set up a forum and use Skype with voice chat for brief but regular team meetings. The comaraderie is also useful for keeping volunteers invested in the project.

    Another is managing expectations. The suggestion about finding out what your volunteers expect and want from the project is a great piece of advice. If they’re coming into it with one thing in mind but it turns out totally different, they’ll leave and you have no chance to give them what they want.

    Also, granting ownership is really important. If volunteers can have a creative stake in some part of things, they’re going to be less likely to quit. Walking the line of directing and dictating isn’t easy, but it is critical for volunteer projects.

    Good luck, Brian!!

    Comment by jason — 8 August, 2009 @ 3:43 PM

  16. “Volunteerism is quite horrible, and you have to spend much more time managing feelings and motivation than anyone should have to.”

    Erm, you organised people to help you farm gold. They were unpaid. You took the gold and sold it against the terms of the EULA to players who wanted to get an unfair advantage?

    And you’re surprised your volunteers lacked motivation?

    I’m amazed they even gave you the first hour.

    Comment by Stabs — 10 August, 2009 @ 3:18 AM

  17. On a more constructive note if you struggle with finding the patience to constantly pep talk your volunteers then delegate. To a volunteer.

    Games industry has a number of people with excellent social skills such as the various community managers, some of whom blog. Find someone pursuing that career path and give them useful experience and recognition in return for social troubleshooting your volunteers for you.

    Comment by Stabs — 10 August, 2009 @ 3:21 AM

  18. “Erm, you organised people to help you farm gold. They were unpaid. You took the gold and sold it against the terms of the EULA to players who wanted to get an unfair advantage?

    And you’re surprised your volunteers lacked motivation?

    I’m amazed they even gave you the first hour.”

    That’s quite a silly attitude, but unfortunately very common. Many players and even devs seem to think of the online gold & item trade as some sort of horribly amoral shady piracy. ‘Unfair advantage’, ‘against the EULA,’ are all meaningless terms. Every single MMOG in existence has an online goods market now, and it’s just antiquated fist-shaking now to expect otherwise.

    The way I look at is this – Angry Dev has a game for which I am ‘farming’ gold and selling it. Angry Dev claims his game would be ‘wonderful and much more fair if only I didn’t farm and sell gold’. I claim his game is so poorly designed that players would pay real money to avoid pieces of it, and that the dev should have designed the game so that farming and selling gold didn’t have a market, if he is so angry about it. If he created a design in which sold gold has a strong demand, then it is inevitable and unstoppable that someone will farm, so why complain?

    Who’s right? Probably both of us, just from different viewpoints. For my part I will say this, though – I didn’t ‘organize’ unpaid people to farm gold. We were programmers creating a bot to do it, on a game already swamped by the supposed Chinese sweatshop farmers. We weren’t necessarily motivated by evil money grubbing. It was more about the challenge of programming and ‘beating the sweatshops’. Didn’t go very far :P

    Comment by Gar — 10 August, 2009 @ 6:42 AM

  19. I wanted to post, but Matt already hit a lot of the points I was going to make.

    We don’t use volunteer programmers on Threshold, but we have used volutneer “CSR” staff for years. We work very hard to make them feel special with titles, access to the developers, special events just for them, etc. I think that is key.

    On Primordiax, we do have volunteer programmers. Again, we try to make them feel special with the way we treat them, by listening to their input, etc. Most of those volunteers are there because they want to eventually be part of a commercial game in a professional way, however.

    Comment by Muckbeast — 13 August, 2009 @ 12:36 AM

  20. Some interesting perspectives here. For the most part, we did most of the things suggested. Communication was very important and took center stage. Whenever I work with someone, I make sure to work with them about their skills if they say they want to get into the industry. The problems I pointed out, such as me being an asshole, are more possible reasons I thought about, not necessarily likely reasons. I wanted to brainstorm some ideas, not have someone come along and say, “Hey, maybe you’re just an asshole!”

    Adam Martin wrote up a post about the recent project I mentioned. It’s interesting to see his thoughts about getting a prototype done with coders first before bringing on the others, as is suggested for tech startups. This is very different than the typical way games are made, where the designers and lead coders work out a plan then go with it. Does the entertainment part of it make this change necessary, or is it a relic of the way games have been made the in recent years?

    It’s also interesting to see that the two main professionals in these comments who have used volunteers came from a text game background. Does adding graphics change the nature of the game? Is it harder for volunteers to see a game taking shape if all they have to look at is crude graphics?

    Some things to think about.

    Comment by Psychochild — 15 August, 2009 @ 3:38 AM

  21. Brainstorming puzzles in dungeons

    [...] a recent project I participated in, the goal was to clone some of the old style RPGs in mazes, with Dungeon Master [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 21 August, 2009 @ 4:10 PM

  22. Indie funding

    [...] biggest downside is that it can be very hard to find people willing to join you. I've had poor luck with volunteers in the past. While money isn't the only motivator for many people, it can be a powerful motivator [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 20 July, 2010 @ 7:59 PM

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