Drawing Inspiration from a Global Community of Game Developers

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I've opined before that I think game conventions are a net negative when it comes promoting or marketing your game. If it's a consumer focused event, then player feedback can be valuable. There is an infinitesimally small chance that press or streamers will find your game and help it blow up. But I think many games have proven the digital age it is very possible for you to succeed without participating in game conventions at all. But that's a topic I'll go deeper into for another day, as I've yet to give it enough thought to write anything coherent.

So what value is there in attending conventions? Why did we bring Academia : School Simulator to Bitsummit this year? Well for me, the best thing about game conferences is meeting fellow developers from around the world and hearing their stories. In where political and ideological divisions are becoming more and more stark and divided, it's more important than ever to build bridges and get to know each other better. So here are some stories from Bitsummit, with all the specific details brushed out to protect people's identities.

Note: a reminder that I am from the Philippines, which hopefully helps give context to some of what I say.

Indonesia

Three of my formative years were lived in Jakarta, Indonesia's bustling capital. This year at Bitsummit I met a few awesome young game developers who are really making waves both locally and around the world. We compared notes on whether Metro Manila or Jakarta was the worse city ( I decided it was a tie) and how linguistically interesting it was that even our slang words were sometimes similar (The slang for women's breasts is “dede” in Filipino, while it's “tete” in Bahasa Indonesia). We hoped to one day be able to grow the regional industry to the point where we could have our own GDC, aspirations we shared with a Singaporean dev that joined us for lunch.

In between dick jokes (remember how I said they were young?) they mentioned that they had read my article about publishing games in China and how that had shaped their decision to seek publishers there. Hearing these stories really affirms that the time I spend writing these blogs is worth it.

Just a day after the event, the news about a suicide bombing in Surabaya shocked the Indonesian nation. I've always had close ties to Indonesia, but now having made these new friends, I feel their pain even more intensely.

Denmark

Drinking beer by the riverside is one Bitsummit's most time-honored traditions. I had a conversation with a Danish developer about old age in the game industry. He's pushing 40 and a little worried about it, and I was happy to have a conversation with someone older than me about my fears of aging.

I asked how he felt about the influential Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and he said that while he doesn't agree with everything Ingels does, it's kind of nice that he(Bjarke) is a larger than life personality coming out of a country and region that prides itself on the Jante Law (tl:dr living a modest life is A-OK). I agreed that it's good and necessary for certain people to be able to stand out and make their mark in the world and hopefully improve it. But he agreed with me when I said it's also important not to worship these people or require everyone to aspire to be like them.

He talked about how he owns a gun and hunts in the Danish countryside, but that he can't wrap his head around American gun laws. I just shook my head sadly and mentioned how disappointed I was that some people on our forums seem really eager to have school shootings in our game. I have a standing invitation to call on him and his team if we ever visit Copenhagen.

South Africa and Germany

There is something about bi-racial couples that really makes me happy. It's like my view of the world being interconnected and everyone being equal is encapsulated a relationship between two individuals, and it's a beautiful thing. One such couple was staying in the same guesthouse as us, and we had a little conversation over breakfast. There was a disagreement about how we felt about doing game conventions:

South African : I don't know what you're talking about, I get so pumped doing conventions, I'm fucking ready to go! *stretches and flexes
Me and the German : Ugh, get out my face.

Brazil

I met a Brazilian game developer who is living in Japan. I approached him because we were both building simulation games, and we talked about the difficulty of explaining and showing a simulation game in a convention that tends to favor loud, quick to play action oriented games.

We had a couple too many beers at the mixer, and it became clear to me that with each increasing beer he began to progressively bring out his grab bag of spoken languages and accents, which led to two awkward/hilarious moments:

Ukranian : Hey, I'm from the Ukraine.
Brazilian : *something in Russian!
Ukrainian: That is Russian, but I forgive you.

Third Party : These guys are from Australia!
Brazilian : *something in ridiculous Australian accent!
Australians : …

A couple of beers later (perhaps we should have stopped, but they were free) I brought up the current situation in Brazil and he went on a passionate defense of Lula da Silva and how the charges against him were trumped up. The short argument was that yeah, the left was corrupt, but at least they did some good things. The right will just destroy everything!

I should end this by saying I think he's a really lovely person, but when we meet him next time maybe I'll tell him to slow his roll with the alcohol.

Japan

I tried out a Japanese developer's game and I really liked it. We alternated speaking broken Japanese and broken English to each other, and I encouraged him to shop his game to publishers so that he finds a wider audience. I pointed him out to publisher that I knew, and then proceeded to take one of his flyers over to said publisher.

Me: Hey have you checked this game out?
Publisher : No, what is it?
Me: *explains game
Publisher : Oh awesome man, thanks for this, (you're) always looking to help others out.

Canada/USA

I met a lovely couple living in Canada who were both game designers. We discussed the difficulty of calling their spouse their “partners”, especially in the context of a game exhibition where a partner more often means “business partner”.

One of them brightened up when I mentioned we had made Political Animals. Apparently she had really loved how it took certain risks by showing that politicians were just people responding to incentives. I told her that it really warmed my heart to hear that, especially since the game was a financial flop. She said she thinks it's well known in game designer circles because she hears it being discussed a lot. This is the first I've heard of that, but that certainly made my night.

We talked about how we were both so in love with Japan and were trying to figure out a way to settle down there or just live there for a few years, and how it sucked that Japanese immigration and residency policies made it really difficult to attract people here.

I should say I’m actually quite picky when it comes to my friends, but it was one of those wonderful moments where I felt like we instantly connected and would have been best friends had we lived in the same area.

Last Conversation : Iran

We shared a table space with a couple of Iranian developers. I had given them advice on how to get to Kyoto via Tokyo through email, and it turns out we shared the same guesthouse as well. We shared our extension cord with them, and before we packed up and left I had a quick conversation with one of them:

Iranian : Hey, thanks for being good neighbors and sharing your extension cord with us
Me: Oh no problem, its's really nothing. I uh...good luck with those economic sanctions I guess?
Iranian : *Sigh These fucking politicians.
Me : I know right? We just want to make games and get along!
Iranian : Exactly!

Note: I understand that this is a rather naive statement and obviously having made a game about politics we believe in some sort of political process. It does get frustrating sometimes that people on the ground can be friends while their leaders bicker with each other.

These are only some of the many conversations I had in Bitsummit. I left feeling a little more energized and connected to the world than I had been for a while. It's important to hunker down and build your games. But making games in isolation can become lonely and disheartening, and sometimes it's good to reconnect and feel like you're a part of a larger, global family of game creators.  Here's to next year's Bitsummit!

Bonus Conversation : China

While in line at the airport I tapped a guy on the shoulder because his bag was wide open and the contents looked ready to fall out. He was very appreciative and friendly, and we chatted a little bit while in line. Turns out he's a Chinese businessman with “many businesses” in many countries and doing “distribution”.

Chinese : I distribute cleaning implements
Me: *excited Oh! Like vacuum cleaners? (excitement context: I love my Dyson vacuum cleaner)
Chinese : No, like liquid cleansers
Me: *hiding disappointment Ah.

Since he was friendly enough I offered him by business card before we split up, and he offered his in return while his girlfriend nodded approvingly (she was very keen for us to exchange contact info). When I looked at it, his business card was an “invitation” to join Amway. He texted me afterwards thanking me again for reminding him about the bag. Needless to say, I will not be responding to any and all further texts.

Thanks for reading, and hope you found this interesting! I'd like to take this moment to say you get get Academia : School Simulator now! If you're not ready to buy, please sign up for our mailing list, join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel and help us spread the word!

Squeaky Wheel's 2017 Year in Review

This is the second year of Squeaky Wheel's life as a company, and things are certainly looking a lot different from when I wrote a similar blog post 1 year ago. We started 2017 at a low point. Our first game, Political Animals, was (and still is) a financial flop. We had shifted pretty hard to our as yet unannounced game (Academia: School Simulator) in a last ditch attempt to launch an Early Access game that could save the company. We were fully prepared for this to be Squeaky Wheel's last year as a company, but it turns out we still have some life left in us! Still, as with last year, many lessons were learned. Here they are in no particular order.

We Launched our Second Game!

First things first, we launched our second game on September 8, 2017. We had gotten a lot of interest in the months leading up to launch, but being this was a game that was only in development for all of 8 months, anything could go wrong. I wrote a much longer blog post comparing the launch of Political Animals with Academia, but the short version is Academia did much, much better than Political did. In fact it did well enough in the first month of sales to ensure that we could operate for at least one more year. That's a huge deal for us, because it ensure that we can keep the lights on for all of 2018 working exclusively on Academia : School Simulator.

Political Animals is Getting Recognition Despite Lack of Sales

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As a small team, knowing where to devote our resources is a very important skill. It quickly became obvious that Political Animals was a sunk cost, and we needed to move on. So after a couple of character and language updates, we moved to work full time on Academia : School Simulator.

Despite it's financial failure, it has reaped recognition in other ways. It was awarded a 5 star review by Common Sense Education, the primary resource for teachers looking to integrate games into their teaching. Political Animals was also included as one of Common Sense Educations' Best of 2017 under the Social Studies category. We also did some local workshops using Political Animals as a way to discuss civics and politics with high school kids. So it's certainly paying a lot of karmic rewards and “good feels”.

Moving forward, we want to explore how to get Political Animals into schools by creating worksheets and workshops with teachers to better enable them to use the game in their classes. We're also going to pitch the talk to the Games For Change Conference in 2018 under the Civics track.

It's become very apparent to us that there is a good game buried underneath some bad presentation choices in Political Animals. I'm holding out hope that maybe next year we'll have the opportunity to dig into the game again and release a deluxe edition with new characters, play modes, and a proper tutorial, so that it can fulfill its destiny as a game.

An Evolving Company Structure

When we hired our programmer Don last year, it was a little unclear what his position was in the team. Was he a cofounder? An employee? Legally he was a contractor, but our small team and egalitarian nature meant that we made very little distinction between him and the core team. While that may generally be seen as a good thing, I do think that confusion partly led to his decision to leave the company to develop his own game, Shots Fired. I want to make it clear that we parted as friends, and we wish him the best with his game (go on and wishlist it!) but it did teach us that we needed to have more clarity when hiring people.

My previous work with Introversion has given me some insight into how they run as a company, and that has given me a model to work with. Essentially they have a core group of directors, and with the exception of one (or two?) employees, they hire out contractors as necessary. In fact, that's how they hired me for Prison Architect.

I like this model because in practical terms it allows us to be more flexible with how we operate. So apart from the core team, we can hire freelancers to help us out for short term tasks like art and social media, or contractors for the duration of the project. Contractors can also be offered bonuses based on their time with the project, and can share in the success (or failure!) of the game.

In a hit-based industry like games where there is little to no stability, having the right kind of structure can be vital to the survival of an indie studio.

What's Early Access Been Like?

Honestly? Not as bad as most developers think it is.  I think we have struck a good balance with Academia : School Simulator.  We have been as honest and forthright about what we can and cannot do, and our capabilities.  We've never overpromised, and the fact that we're constantly on the discussion boards and responding to emails when we have free time has built a sense of trust with our community, one which we are very serious about keeping.

It's been really great to get feedback from people, and for that reason alone Early Access has done tremendously for us.  It's still a bit of a balance managing player expectations for the game and the direction we want to take it in, but that's par for the course. The majority of our players have validated my belief that people who buy into Early Access games are mature and understanding of the process, as long as we are open with them.

What's happening in 2018

2017 started rough, and we ground it out, patiently working on Academia and posting updates and Youtube videos dutifully and crossing our fingers for launch. It turned out better than we could have hoped, and we're happy to say that we'll be working on Academia : School Simulator for the rest of 2018 and beyond. Prison Architect took 5 years to complete, and Rimworld is still chugging along and putting out updates with full release nowhere in sight.

2018 will definitely be very interesting. We're hiring two new contractors to help us speed up development. If all goes well, we have many plans that will make Academia an even better and more complete game within the next few months. We're hoping for a Mac release early in the year, and we're currently working on a language modding tool so that even more people around the world can start playing the game.

I'd like to thank everyone who has helped us make it this far, including everyone that bought into the game so early on and believed that we could make it awesome. We wouldn't be here without you!

Lessons Learned From Two Game Launches

A little over a year ago I wrote a rather depressing blog post about Political Animals' launch. You can read it in full if you like, but the bottom line is the launch was a major flop despite the fact that it was featured on Steam's front page. Indiepocalypse aside, a front page feature should still have assured us a enough views to break even. It didn't. Academia : School Simulator, on the other hand, did well enough to ensure that we could continue development into the foreseeable future. In fact, despite not receiving any features from Steam, Academia : School Simulator sold almost 3 times as much as Political Animals in the same time period.

Why was that? Since we're talking about first day sales, I posit that it cannot be the actual quality of the games that mattered. Because if Political Animals was simply a bad game, what we should have seen was a flood of purchases based on that front page feature and then a subsequent amount of bad reviews, returns, and refunds. Instead, what we saw was people finding our steam page and then immediately deciding “nah, I'll pass”.

I realize now it's the months leading up to launch day that matters most.  I'm going to describe and differentiate what we did for Political Animals and Academia : School Simulator with the hopes that you can use the lessons we learned for your own game launches.

Social Media

Political Animals:

This was a social media failure. While we had a Website, Blog, Twitter and Facebook accounts where we would post sporadic updates, we weren't showing anything that the players could engage with. This was our fault. Cliff from Positech would push us to do video devlogs, but we would demur from lack of ability/time. This shot us in the foot at launch, as we had not built up the requisite trust and awareness from our target market for a good launch.

Academia : School Simulator

We did a MUCH better job this time around. We decided from the beginning that we would do youtube devlogs. So as soon as we had a primitive prototype that we could show off, we started doing devlogs. They were really bad at the start, but you can see the improvement in the devlogs and the game as time moved on. We had a very strict once a month devlog rule, even when we had little to show for the month aside from polishing the game for launch. While we didn't get hundreds of thousands of views, we had an active community that was asking questions and sending suggestions, excited for every month's update.

For every devlog, we posted it on Twitter, Youtube, and our Mailing List. There was a great feedback loop where at the end of every month we would see our Mailing List numbers increase.

We've been a bit negligent on the Youtube side since launch, something I'm going to rectify at the end of the month. The honest reason is that these videos are exhausting and take up a huge chunk of time to work on. So at the end of an exhausting dev month, the last thing any of us wanted to do was to make a video of our progress. But they're the touchstone of our outreach to players, so we need to get back on it.

Conclusion

It's important to have a good, consistent media plan and follow through on it. Start as soon as you can, especially if you know you have to build up trust and create a community around your game.

Steam Store Page

This was a fail for both launches. Aside from filling up the requisite store information (which by the way takes a hell of a lot of time) we essentially did not do anything with the store pages before launch. This is a huge mistake. Like it or not, many gamers are treating Steam as a one-stop shop for their gaming information these days. So there will be a lot of people ending up on your Steam Store page that will never have heard of you before or seen your Twitter, Facebook, or Youtube account. So if they end up at your store page and there have been no updates since yo made the store page live, it will look empty, and emptiness breeds mistrust.

This is even more important for Early Access games. Because so many people have been burned by Early Access games before there is a huge hurdle of trust that you have to overcome with skeptical players. In fact, some people on our Steam discussion boards for Academia wrote saying they initially thought we were scammers because of the similarity to Prison Architect and the fact that there were no updates. The worst thing is we only saw this comment days later, making us look even more suspicious! It took us a few days to gain players' trust by sharing all of the devlogs that we had previously made on Youtube and establishing a track record of development.

Conclusion

The lesson here is that once you publish your Steam page you have to start treating it as another social network that you have to manage, if not the most important social network. An active Steam store page assures players that developers are legit and communicating with the playerbase, which gives them more confidence in the game

Conventions

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Political Animals

For Political Animals we went to quite a few conventions, the most important of which were PAX West and EGX in the UK. We got some good press out of it, with Eurogamer even giving us a small writeup as one of their “Best of EGX”. We met some cool players who were super into the game, and it gave us hope that we were on the right track. Sadly, it turns out that this was not the case. We spent a lot of time and energy going to conventions around the world, but I think that money was essentially wasted, especially since for Academia we didn't even go to a single one.

Academia : School Simulator

Aside from our disappointment with the results from Political Animals, the easy answer for why we didn't go to any conventions is simply because we had nothing to show yet. We were way too early in the dev process to be showing it off.

We did go to a convention, but only to a local one in the Philippines called ESGS. While ESGS is one of the biggest gaming conventions in the Philippines, it pales in comparison to PAX and EGX. We also went there post-launch, meaning we already had a game we were selling and could sell to attendees at a significant discount. We also had a free booth courtesy of indiearena, and we wanted to support the local game industry and meet our peers while we were there.

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As with Political Animals, it was great to meet the players of our games, and we even picked up some local press. We also found out later on that we'd been nominated for a local industry awards, and even ended up taking home best game! So there's certainly a lot of emotional value to be gained from doing conventions, but don't go there expecting to boost your sales.

Conclusion

There are many reasons to attend conventions. Meeting players and fellow devs, getting feedback from them, and just enjoying the experience of seeing the other games. PAX was a whole lot of fun when we didn't have to man the booth. But our experience is that they are not very good value for money.

For ourselves, I think we will only go to conventions if we can get a subsidized spot, like with the Indie Megabooth, or even a free booth as with ESGS or Busan Indie Connect. We'll only go if we already have something to sell, so that we can subsidize the cost of travel. While some devs may find value in the cons, there are many devs that completely avoid them as a policy (Rimworld's Tynan Sylvester and Zachtronics for example) but are still successful studios. That's the model we want to emulate moving forward.

Streamers and Press

Political Animals

We reached out to streamers and press a week or so (memory fails me) before launch. I think we gave press a headstart just because it takes them a little longer to write an article, but that was the gist of it. We got some pretty big streamers on board, the biggest of which was TotalBiscuit. It was amazing watching him stream the game. Unfortunately I think it was a mistake to share the game a week early. By the time the actual launch rolled around, interest in the game had dissipated. Every second between the initial impression and clicking to buy a game is crucial. Bigger studios can rely on marketing right before the game's launch to help cover for this, but for a small studio it can be the kiss of death.

Academia : School Simulator

This time around we were adamant that we wanted to close the gap between first impression and game purchase. We released keys to press and streamers a few days before launch with a loose NDA that basically said “We are releasing this to you early so you can familiarize yourselves with the game, but please release your content only after the game is available for purchase. Otherwise you will receive a long, heartfelt email full of disappointment from me.” There were one or two outliers, but for the most part people stuck to the NDA.

Just to tie this back to social media, one advantage of doing those early youtube videos and spreading the word early was that we got youtubers emailing us asking for access even after our first devlog. So they were primed and pretty pumped to share the game by the time we finally released the keys.

For Academia we used a combination of both Keymailer and Woovit, so people could choose what they felt most comfortable with. Email or Twitter was a last resort, but we would ask for some verification before we would give out the keys to avoid the inevitable scammers.

Conclusion

I realize now that I didn't really write too much about press. That's because for the most part, press outlets hold much lesser sway now than then used to. I would suggest picking out the most important one for you and sending out a personal email, then crossing your fingers.

Build a marketing strategy that will inevitably attract Streamers and press to your game. Release as close to launch as you can to maximize day one sales. Cross all fingers and toes.

Timing

Political Animals

We launched Political Animals on November 2.  This was awful timing because A) It was a terribly fatiguing election (The US election in 2016) and people were sick of it and B) November is a very heavy month for launches, and we were sandwiched between some really big attention grabbers.  We had no choice with this as we could not have launched any earlier, and launching AFTER the US elections might have been even worse.

Academia : School Simulator

We consciously went for a September launch.  Our actual target was August but we needed just a tiny bit more time so we settled on September 8.  There was less of a crowd when we launched, and I think we came out the better for it.  We also had the benefit of three successive sales (Halloween, Autumn, and Winter) coming one after the other, where people are primed to buy new games.  We carefully set the discount to 10% so as to be part of the sale but not undercut the value of our new game's release.

Conclusion

The general rule for indies is to try to launch around February or August because those are the quietest months of the year for launches.  Given the number of games coming out every day on Steam this rule is rapidly losing currency, but I would still advise you to never try to launch in the October to December window because you will be facing up against studios with huge marketing budgets that will drown you out.

Final Thoughts

We learned from the mistakes we made with Political Animals and applied them to Academia : School Simulator. While it wasn't the best launch in the world and I'm sure we could have done better, we did do well enough to keep the lights on. In these dark days of the Indiepocalypse, that's already quite a feat.

Thanks for reading, and hope you found this useful! If you're interested, you can buy the game now! If you're not ready to buy, please sign up for our mailing list, join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel and help us spread the word!

A Guide to Modding in Academia : School Simulator

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We recently added Steam Workshop to Academia : School Simulator, and we’re super excited to see what mods our players will create.  We already have an explanation of the actual process of creating and uploading a mod to the game here, but this article will go into more depth on how we manage the art in the game so you have a better understanding of how to create visual mods.

Objects and UI images

Objects are the most straightforward things to change, since they are individual images.  Simply replace the current object image with one of your own, making sure that every rotation of that object is included.  Also make sure that your modded image has the exact same size as the original image.  For example, if you want to mod a chair, which is 128x128, make sure your modded image remains 128x128.

Walls

These are a little bit more difficult.  Each wall image is a 512x512 image divided into 4x4 tiles, with each 128x128 tile being one section of a wall.  Each section of the wall is properly aligned to each other so it’s important to stick to this alignment to make sure that the walls render properly in your mod.  Here is a helpful image to help you better visualize how each section connects with each other.

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Once you are comfortable with how the walls interconnect with each other, you can start making some more radical changes, like maybe making the walls thinner, and seeing how that looks in the game.

Characters

The characters are where you can get really creative with your mods, but it takes some understanding of how we put the characters together in order to get the best results.  
Our characters are separated into four parts (Hair, Head, Body, Hands) as seen in this image:

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We have a few “types” of each part, which we mix and match randomly in the game to create unique characters.  As you can see from the image below, it doesn’t take a lot of art to create quite a bit of variety:  

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You can see we’re severely lacking in variety in terms of skintones and body types, and so we’re planning a substantial update to this in the near future.  We also separate male and female hairstyles, faces, and bodies, so that female type parts will exclusively be combined with each other, and same for male parts.  As with the objects and walls, you cannot create “new” body parts, you can only “replace” them.  So based on this image, you could only create two different male body types by replacing the standard ones.  If you added a third male body type to the image, there is no code as of yet that will extract that image to display it in the game.

Body Orientations

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Another important thing to note is that each body part has 4 orientations: (facing)down,up,right,and closed. It’s important to keep this in mind in case you want to do a full change of all of the images in the character spritesheet.

Prison Uniform mod

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While the current character spritesheet can be fairly limited in terms of modding, there are definitely ways to get creative with it.  The first mod I thought of making was the Prison Uniform mod.  When we were talking about what mods to make I immediately wanted to make this.  It’s both an homage to Prison Architect, and a slight dig at people who insist that Academia is a mod of Prison Architect.  The idea of creating a Prison Architect mod for a “mod of Prison Architect” just tickled my funny bone.

This mod was pretty basic, we can call it a “uniform” mod.  All I did was change the uniforms of the students to prison jumpsuits, and that was it.  This is a great, quick mod with minimal effort.  Our most popular mod so far is a Gryffindor mod which basically uses the same process.

Green Aliens mod

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I wanted to push a little further with this mod because I wanted to show just how creative you can get with it if you spent some time on the images.  For this mod, I basically deleted the faces and bodies of the students, being careful to make sure my new images still kept to generally the same size.  I wanted my students to be “bald”, ie have no hair, so I went and deleted all of the student hair.  In game terms, the game code will still “draw” the hair on the students, but since the image is empty, it will draw empty space, making them look bald.
Why did I do this?  To make our system of matching hair to faces work, we have to be very strict about the positioning and dimensions of our face and hair.  So if I want to make a “taller” face, it would mess with this system.  Deleting the hair means I have a little bit more leeway with the face shapes.  In fact, if you wanted to, you could delete the hairstyles and add hair directly onto the face types.  This would reduce the amount of uniqueness/randomness when generating students, but would allow much more creativity with the designs.

So there you have it!  I hope this blog has been useful to you and made you excited about the prospect of making mods for Academia : School Simulator!

Here are some files to help you out with making mods:

Character texture PSD

Wall texture PSD

Thanks for reading, and hope you found this useful! If you're interested in making your own mods, you can buy the game now! please sign up for our mailing list, join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel and help us spread the word!

Why Introversion had no Choice but to Make Scanner Sombre

Introversion Software recently released a video sharing their surprise about how poorly their latest game, Scanner Sombre, has done for the PC, moving only 6000+ units.  It cameas a surprise to them because their last title, Prison Architect, did incredibly well, selling well over 2 million units.  They've received a lot of guff from the gamer and developer populace for their perceived arrogance and foolishness at having such lofty expectations.  Many say that the right thing to do would have been to capitalize on the success of Prison Architect by making a sequel or another “Architect” style of game.  I'm here to argue making Scanner Sombre was not only the right thing for Introversion Software to do, it was the only thing they could do.  

There are More Reliable ways to Make Money

Mark Morris essentially says it himself in the video:

“Yeah, I think that people will mock us and say about us, well you guys were idiots, y'know. You had prison architect, you shoulda done airport architect, you shoulda done parkitecht...”

He underlines this point later on by saying:

“If we were hardnosed businessmen, we wouldn't be working in the games industry...if that's genuinely what drives you, to make you that rich, just go and work in the City and be a management consultant. There are plenty of other routes to huge wealth that are a lot more reliable than what we do.”

There is and has always been a struggle between any art form and the business that drives it.  A responsible indie game developer lives the struggle between art and commerce everyday.  You need the art to sustain you spiritually, but you also need to protect your physical and mental well-being by making enough money to support a decent quality of life (even more so if you are a dev with a family and the responsibilities that entails).

Prison Architect was a once in a lifetime success story that succeeded beyond Introversion's wildest dreams and made them a lot of money.  The idea that they would then turn around and think about ways to make even more money simply goes against who they are as a studio.  The money is great, no doubt, but what it bought them was a chance to make a game in a shorter time span without the fear that it would bring the studio to the brink of financial ruin.  It is a situation that I am quite honestly envious of as Squeaky Wheel pins its hopes of survival on our next game.  But more on that later.

When I cofounded Squeaky Wheel after working on Prison Architect, it probably made sense to make a similar systems driven game to pitch to a publisher.  Instead, we made a political strategy game called Political Animals.

Why did we do that?  Well, while it would have made business sense to immediately ride the wave of Prison Architect's popularity, I really, really just wanted to make a different game.  I wanted to make a game that explored the idea that it's really hard to keep your hands (or paws) clean in an election.  That was the idea that drove the development of the game. I simply would not have had the heart to immediately run out and try to do a Prison Architect “clone”.

So how did our passion project do?  I have gone into a lot of detail about Political Animals' launch and how it's done in terms of revenue (here, here, and here) but tl:dr it's done even worse than Scanner Somber!  Thanks to the Steam summer sale, we've managed to finally move over 4000 units on Steam (If you want to try out the game during the steam summer sale I sure as hell won't stop you).  

The Cash Grab

Given how adamantly I didn't want to do a Prison Architect clone as our first game, it might seem ironic that we're now working on Academia : School Simulator, or as others might call it, “School Architect”.

But essentially we've just found ourselves in the opposite situation as Introversion.  Our project was a financial failure, so now we're doing what we think is the sensible thing to do, which is to ride the wave of Prison Architect's popularity to hopefully achieve financial stability, if not success.  

But even at this point, the artist in me still can't help himself.  Analyzing the core elements that made Prison Architect work is an interesting thought exercise, but the process of actually implementing them is sometimes really depressing.  It's at those moments that self doubt creeps in and I start to believe it when people say we're just “cloning” Prison Architect.  

But honestly, I simply cannot imagine just cloning Prison Architect's mechanics.  And it's not even for moral reasons.  Iwould just find it so incredibly boring to do that. Everyone at Squeaky Wheel left jobs (as a freelancer, I did a lot of artwork for iOS clone games) where we had to do that, so what's the point of starting a company to do the same thing?

Unfortunately for us, the parts that will be fun to work on, like school dances, varsity sports, dealing with issues like bullying and teen pregnancy and everything else that makes the school an interesting ecosystem to play with?  That all comes later.  And whether or not we will get to do that will ultimately be decided by how well our Early Access does.  If we can sustain ourselves with our art, then great.  If not...well, we'll cross that bridge when we get there.

We Don't want to Be Starving Artists

I want to end this by saying that I'm absolutely not advocating the “starving artist/gamedev” lifestyle.  I'm too practical to ever go that route, and in many ways I believe that the idea that one must suffer in order to create great art is very harmful.  But like Mark said, if we only cared about making piles of money, we wouldn't be making games for a living.  We struggle to find the balance between art and commerce everyday, and its a tightrope that very few companies cane successfully manage.

So sure, make fun of the Introversion guys for not making Prison Architect 2.  Criticize Squeaky Wheel for trying to make a ridiculous political strategy game featuring animals instead of immediately chasing after that “Architect” money.  But please understand that for us to have done anything else would have been a betrayal of why we do what we do, which is the overwhelming desire to create new and interesting games and share them with the world. 

Thanks for reading! Just to prove we have zero interest in being starving artists, here is an obligatory marketing footer! If you're interested in learning about our latest game, Academia : School Simulator, please sign up for our mailing list, join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel!

7 Tips for Aspiring Game Designers

Last week, we introduced you to our game designer Tristan Angeles (That's him on the left, with our programmer Marnielle) and his path to becoming a game designer. There was so much interview content that we decided to break it up into two parts. If part 1 was about his path to becoming a game designer, then part 2 is about practical tips for aspiring game designers.

1. Learn how to code

Or at least learn the basics of coding so that you can understand what the programmers are talking about. Knowing how to code also lets you make your own games and join game jams even with ugly programmer art.

2. Read Lots of Books

Read as many books as you can about any topic that you find interesting. Recently I heard a podcast interview with Sid Meier, he said "The challenge of game designers today is to bring things outside of the gaming world into gaming world."

3. Enjoy using spreadsheets

You will be using them a lot when it comes to game economy and balancing. I used to hate using Excel until I of my QA friends gave a workshop on how to use it for games. Since then I've found it to be both an enjoyable and indispensable tool.

4. Join Game Jams

One of the jams I joined was The Experimental Gameplay Project. It happened once a month, and you'd have to think about weird ideas and make games about the month's theme.

5. Learn to Compromise

Always be open to the possibility that you can be wrong. Ask for ideas from your team mates. These are the things I constantly keep on telling myself. Everything you think you know while designing is just your hypothesis or assumptions, and can only be validated once you start playtesting.

6. Find an Experienced Designer and Ask Them Questions

I once bought a book called Challenges for Game Designers by Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber. I emailed Schreiber to ask how he would approach some of the design challenges I had at Gameloft, and he responded. I think the best advice I got from him was about deconstructing games. He told me when tackling a new mechanic the question to ask was why? Why did the game designer introduce this mechanic? This allows you to make a hypothesis why a certain mechanic was put into place.

7. Watch the Extra Credits Videos about Game Design

These videos were my Saturday morning cartoons when I was getting started. These videos cover a broad range of game development topics from basic game design, to more advanced topics like game economies and balancing.

There was no elegant way to transition between the tips and this last segment, but hopefully it will also provide some more insight into practical game design:

What Resources Were Used While Designing Political Animals and Academia?

Social media was a very good resource when we were developing Political Animals. People would post news on Facebook, and it seemed like there was always something we can use or put in the game as events or a feature. In fact, when we released the game and people were posting about it on Facebook, one of the best parts for me was when people 'got' the game by relating it to things they knew or experienced in real life. For some of the mechanics like concerns, voting and bribing I based the mechanics on how I understood this paper on Vote buying by Eddie Dekel, Matthew O. Jackson, Asher Wolinsky .

Getting ideas for Political Animals I believe was the easy part since the team followed Philippine politics. Also, it seemed then that every person I asked knew something(or was an active participant) or had experience with cheating in elections in their home town.

In designing Academia, I'm trying to keep a balance between using school administration textbooks, and entertainment. I've been watching a lot of TV shows lately about or set in schools. Currently, I'm being entertained by Boston Public, just a few episodes of this series gave me respect for principals. Running schools is a hard job! I've also been watching documentaries about schools so that I can get ideas about the challenges faced by school administrators.

Thanks for reading! You can read more of Tristan's thoughts on his old game design blog (which he unfortunately no longer updates) If you're interested in learning about our latest game, Academia : School Simulator, please sign up for our mailing list, join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel! !

 

Meet Squeaky Wheel's Lead Designer Tristan Angeles!

In the most recent Academia Devlog, you guys got a chance to meet our awesome game designer, Tristan Angeles (Pssst...if you wanna know what he looks like, watch the first 30 seconds of the video).  In this blog post we asked him a few questions so we can all get to know him better and learn how he became a game designer.

 
 

What was the first video game you remember playing? 

I think we're a computer game playing family. My aunt on my dad's side played Mario 1 and 3. My uncle introduced us to Warcraft, Doom, and Heretic. My dad and I played through a lot of the levels of Battle City, and we devised tactics for each level.

I faintly remember my dad bringing home the Casio MSX one night when I was 4 or 5 years old I. The first video game I remember playing was called Monkey Academy. In the game, the player played a monkey and had to solve math problems by getting the missing part of the equation on top of the screen while avoiding enemies. We had another game for the MSX, but I forgot the title(Car Fighter?). In the game you played a car, and you needed to avoid other cars chasing you, and you could blow smoke on them to stun them for a while.

I played with bootleg copies of games as a kid, we had no idea that it was illegal. Me and my brother would go to a computer shop that had copies of games put into diskettes, and we'd play it in my dad's office during weekends. Some of the games I'd play were: Commander Keen (Carmack,Romero) , Prince of Persia (Jordan Mechner), I didn't know the guys who made these games were well known game developers, I just really enjoyed the games.-

 What was the first board game you ever played?

 
 

The first boardgame I played was probably Snake and Ladders or Chess. I think these two games are one of the first games introduced to children. Excluding those two games, the first game I played would be the Mad Magazine boardgame. It was like Monopoly, except the players needed to do funny things based on the cards drawn in the game.

We were interested in Warhammer, but since we didn't have money to buy models, we wrote to Games Workshop in the U.K. and they sent us their catalog along with the basic rules of Warhammer Fantasy. We cut out the pictures of the miniatures and pasted them on cardboard to play with them.

One day a friend of my dad brought a board game he designed to playtest it with us. The game was called 'Success', and I remember that it was a business themed game. The goal of the game was to become the richest player in the game. I can't remember the mechanics anymore.

This isn’t exactly about board games, but my favorite movies as a kid were Candy Man and Congo. I made up a variation of the game tag based on those movies and played it with my friends in our backyard. Weeks later we find out that other kids in the neighborhood were playing tag with our rules.

Candy Man Rules:

In the movie, the protagonists had to destroy Candy Man's mirror to destroy him, so in our game "The Candy Man" hides a piece of stone or broken glass in the play area before the game starts. After the glass is hidden, the other players shout 'candy man' three times to start the game. Once the game starts, the Candy Man player chases the other players around the area trying to 'kill' them(tag them) before they find the hidden piece of glass.

Congo Rules:

Congo plays like Candy Man except the players are divided into two groups, the explorers and the guardians (ape men) of Zinj. The guardians would hide diamonds in the play area for the explorers to find. The guardians win if they tag all of the explorers before the explorers find all the hidden diamonds. A special rule of the game is that the explorers had a 'camp'(guarded by perimeter guns in our heads) in which they could be safe.

Did you always want to be a game designer? If not, what did you want to be?

No but I remember I always made up games growing up. I say made up rather than design, because some of the rules of the games I made were not really thought out, just what I thought would be fun. Anyways, I made games but I didn't really think that game design was an actual job. I mentioned earlier that a friend of my dad’s had made a board game, and that was the first time that I thought making a game was possible for 'normal' people. After that me and my brother started making our own boardgames.

I think a lot of my friends back then would know boardgames but were only exposed to the common ones like Monopoly, Snake and Ladders, Checkers, etc. We had an old copy of this magazine at home called Games Magazine, and there were reviews of boardgames inside. So I guess I was exposed early on to the wider world of board games.

I was in grade 6 when I got acquainted with Dungeons and Dragons through a photocopy of the 2nd Edition Dungeon Masters Guide hidden in our classroom. At first I had no idea how to play D&D since we only had the DMs guide, but luckily I learned that a kid from the lower grade levels had the the D&D Basic Set Players Handbook. I bought it from him for 50 pesos. My love affair with D&D had begun. I actually loved D&D so much that instead of grounding me my dad would hide my D&D rulebooks.

Still, it’s not as if game design or development was a well known career path at the time.  My dad was a lawyer, so it kind of made sense to take up law.  . I took a course called Development Communication as a pre-law course. I spent less time playing pen and paper roleplaying games as I began focusing more on Taekwondo and earning my black belt. 

So how did you end up in game design?

In my last year of college I decided to do my thesis on using Pen and Paper Roleplaying for Teaching History. I was partly inspired by my professor’s research on using Democracy 2 and partly lazy because it was so natural to me already.

One day after I’d graduated I saw a game design contest in GameCareerGuide challenging people to think of a game idea based on a theme. I entered it and then weeks later I found my idea in website as one of the top picks. I joined again a few weeks later and once again my idea was featured. I then joined a contest on Gameful (a website started by Jane Mcgonigal) and won 500$. I joined another contest which had prize money and a chance to talk with Asi Burak, Co Founder of Games For Change. I entered the contest with the game "In The Court of the Spider King" and won another 500$. I bought my very first laptop using the combined prize money and felt like maybe there was something to this whole game design thing.

Me and a few of my college friends joked about it and talked about starting a game company together. Problem was nobody knew how to make games.  I think I took that joke too seriously. When I entered my first job at a call center company as an agent, the trainer asked us to stand in front of the room and tell the class where we saw ourselves in 5 years. I remember saying "I see myself as a game designer travelling the world showing my games to conventions." Around this time I was learning how to program in Python, asking people in the IGDA(including my now team mate Marnielle) how to do stuff.

I eventually left the call center company and applied as a game designer for two local game companies. I got rejected by both and realized that this was because I had nothing to show them in terms of game design work.  So instead I applied as a Quality Assurance Tester. While doing QA, I learned Actionscript and started making games with my brother. I also joined game jams like Ludum Dare and the Global Game Jam. I got an award in Manila Global Game Jam, and a month later I receive an email from Casual Connect that they wanted to feature one of our game jam games at Indie Prize.

Being pressured by time( I gave myself one year to become a game designer or else I'd take law), and thinking I now have some credentials to design game I left the company I was working for as QA and got a game design position at Gameloft.

Who is your favorite game designer? What is your favorite game in terms of game design?

Hard question. I don't really have a favorite game designer I think, because when I say that I like a game designer I'm probably talking about the games they designed. If that's the case my favorited designer would be Gary Gygax(for creating D&D). AD&D(2nd ed) is probably my most favorite game of all time. When I first learned about AD&D my first reaction was like "really? a game that you can play only with your imagination." There are other better designed games than AD&D out there but AD&D is the only game(in my experience) that makes your friends talk about "killing that dragon" years later after playing and make strangers look at them as if they were crazy.

In terms of game design philosophy I'm trying to integrate some of Sid Meier's thinking into my own.  I've listened to all of the Sid Meier interviews on Designer Notes, and the ones on youtube. What I've taken from these interviews is something like, to give the most
importance to the player's fantasy i.e. being pirate, building a civilization, and do whatever it takes to let the player play out
that fantasy in the game. I took this to mean that how a game is designed is less important than the output(meeting the player fantasy).

An example of this is when I'm designing a mechanic of the game, and I design this complicated system trying to make it look 'intelligent'. So as a designer I think we feel the pressure to make 'intelligent' designs, or look for answers in obscure places when the simple solutions may be enough to create that player fantasy. It's easy enough to say this of course, but really hard to actually pull off. I'm still trying to make sense of all of those interviews.

Offhand, my favorite boardgame is Pillars of the Earth because is one of the prettiest boardgames I've ever seen, one of the reasons that kept me from selling the game when I've started selling my boardgames(I had 20+ boardgames once) when I moved to Makati. I like the game because the theme works well with the mechanics. It's a very easy game to play and easy to teach because the steps of the game is already laid out on the board.

My favorite Video/PC game is The Last Express.  I really like how they executed this game. Storytelling with time moving forward. The setting was great( One of my dreams is seeing or even getting a chance to ride the Orient Express after I read the Agatha Christie novel).

What do you in your spare time aside from playing video games?

Actually, I'd like to spend a lot more time 'seriously' playing games. I can count with my fingers the games that really made me sit down in the years since I started designing games professionally. My spare time is split between reading books, learning Japanese, going to the gym,practicing Taekwondo, and learning programming . Recently I think I've started to have an itch for travel, and I've been wanting to travel more. The team recently talked about taking up new hobbies to get our minds off the project once in a while and I've been considering taking up either MMA or Kendo. I also attend meetings of the Philippine Historical Boardgames once in a while, and recently got started playing Advanced Squad Leader.

What are you most proud of in your work as a game designer?

 
 

Political Animals. Seriously and not just because it's a Squeaky Wheel game. The game might not have been financially successful but:

- It was my first PC game on Steam where it has "mostly positive" reviews.

- It's my first game to get into EGX,PAX, and Tokyo Game Show.

- It's been introduced by a former teacher of mine to students and teachers as a tool for learning about Philippine politics.

Aside from what I've stated above, another reason it means a lot to me is that it's a full blown game and a project I was involved in from the very beginning. This game will be like a battle scar I'd be telling younger game designers in the years to come (assuming I stay in the industry that long).

Thanks for reading! You can read more of Tristan's thoughts on his old game design blog (which he unfortunately no longer updates) If you're interested in learning about our latest game, Academia : School Simulator, please sign up for our mailing list, join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel! !

 

Political Motivation : Why Games Belong in our Classrooms

Recently, we wrote a blog post saying that Political Animals was looking for educators who would be willing to analyze the game and see how they might use the game in their classes.  JFP Maligalig is one such educator, and this is the first of a two part series of blog posts talking about his experiences with games and what inspired him to be an advocate for game-based learning.

It was in February 1986 when all my relatives from Metro Manila suddenly came home to our ancestral house in Los Baños, Laguna. My cousins and I thought it was because of my brother’s birthday on the 23rd. We had little interest in the local news, which showed mobs of people and soldiers facing off on some highway. Our family reunion turned out to be a sign of protest for my relatives: each of them was an officer in the Armed Forces. They had refused to fight civilians or fellow soldiers in what turned out to be a pivotal moment in Philippine history, the People Power Revolution.

As a child, I couldn’t have cared less about politics and the prevailing social conditions of the country at the time. Fast forward to 2017, and I wish I could tell you that kids today are different. Most are as in the dark or apathetic as I was in 1986. What’s more frightening is that their parents, our generation, didn’t feel the need for political and social awareness to be a part of their childrens’ education. That is, to quote a popular leader from the West, “sad.”

All Roads Lead to Rome (Before You're Crushed by Germany)

My interest in government and social issues were sparked in high school by something very unlikely: Sid Meier’s Civilization (for those of you who are unfamiliar with one of the most successful digital game franchises of all time, please find a copy and prepare for many sleepless nights). I played Civilization in a computer shop and I spent almost all of my free time building up my Romans (the Roman civilization had become “mine,” an important point that I’ll elaborate on later); I would build cities, discover gunpowder, go to war with the Germans, and be crushed by their tank units (lesson learned: allot more resources for research, because musketeers don’t intimidate German tanks at all). I got so obsessed with Civilization, I started reading history books to find strategies on how my Romans can conquer the world. That might sound funny to the uninitiated, but Civilization was so well-designed, the game’s concepts and mechanics were good representations of social studies course content.

As a side-effect of my Civ­-aholic (yes, they made up a term for it) tendencies, I surprised my social studies teacher by reciting more in class and showing up in the top ten for the highest final grades in my section. The funny thing is that up until that point, I hated history class! That experience got me thinking: if a game motivated me enough to learn something I despised in school, maybe I could do the same for other students like me.

Game-Based Learning using Democracy 2

Since my undergraduate research days, I’ve been trying out analog and digital games in classroom situations to see if students learn better with games. Most of those games belonged to the strategy genre, and almost all of the games I used dealt with the social sciences. One of these was Cliff Harris’ political and governance simulator Democracy 2 (D2). The game (and the other versions in the series) lets the player be president or prime minister of simulated countries (fictional or based on real ones). By changing policies and managing the national budget, players can either make their digital nation prosperous (getting the player reelected in the process) or impoverished (a game over condition marked by the player’s ouster … or worse).

For my Master’s thesis, I performed an experiment involving 1st Year students from the University of the Philippines Los Baños’ College of Development Communication. For one of their foundation courses, these students were taught development issues using conventional classroom teaching, classroom teaching with D2 game sessions, and classroom teaching with D2 games sessions plus a discussion about the gameplay experiences. While performance in standardized tests were not significantly different, the students who played D2 were found to have a deeper understanding of what development was about.

Why did D2 have such an impact on the students in the study? The game allowed the students to make abstract concepts in development (i.e. poverty) more concrete. D2 players were also more aware of the interrelatedness and interaction of issues in governance, as this is a key mechanic of the game. Players were providing more specific solutions to issues when asked, showing that they gained more “experience” with these issues (in the game) that non-players did not have. To quote one of the student-players, “(In class), we were given just theories. It was not a first-hand experience, but the game synthesized the problems and solutions.” Explaining further, the student said that D2 made them “feel” that the problems discussed in class were theirs, and that they felt obligated to use what they learned in class to make solutions to their problems. When I heard this, I smiled, remembering “my” Romans in Civilization and how I dove into history books to figure out how to conquer a digital world (and discover tanks before the Germans, for heaven’s sake).

D2 was a small step towards making games acceptable for Philippine classrooms. After I finished my degree, the college dean at the time (who was also my research adviser) gave me instructions to try out the game as a regular part of the course activities. Jackpot! With the inclusion of an exercise based on my research into the course syllabus, D2 became (to my knowledge) the first digital game to be institutionalized as a requirement in UPLB. For a time, even other degree programs started using D2 for their classes in human ecology and sociology.

Teaching Critical Thinking with Games

That was back in 2010. I’m not up-to-date with D2 use in UPLB, but I still advocate the use of games like it for appropriate courses. Since then, I’ve used other games, both analog (mostly card games and role-playing games) and digital (a Rock Band clone, anyone?) for teaching. But there’s one more frontier for strategy games dealing with governance: political awareness. As a child, my grasp of politics was practically nonexistent, but that changed because of my education and interest in games like Civilization and Democracy 2. Children, especially those in high school (Gr. 7-12), should be given the knowledge and motivation to become active participants in nation building by the time they enter the workforce. But this is easier said than done; the current political landscape has shifted so much, even politicians are scrambling to keep up with the times.

This is where games like D2 would come in. By giving youths the motivation to learn about politics and governance on their own, they would be able to sift through all the available information and determine a political stand based on their own beliefs and not on propaganda. However, playing games without proper guidance might not be as effective at developing these traits; no matter how compelling a game’s mechanics are, they will never exactly match how real-world systems work. That’s why I believe teachers should be trained in game-based learning methodologies: to enable them to mentor students in gameplay experiences that could influence their growth into responsible and active participants in the development of their communities.

Opportunity Knocks!

A few months back, I was looking at Democracy 3 for another game-based learning study when I got a text from an old research advisee, Tristan Angeles. He’d since cofounded a game development company and he told me that their game, Political Animals, would be releasing in a few weeks. It was good timing, too, as I had learned of a research conference where I could present this game’s use of anthropomorphic animals as representations of political stereotypes.  But I'll write more about that in a future post.

Till then, learn on, game on!

JPF Maligalig is an educational communication and technology practitioner and researcher who specializes in analog and digital game-based learning. He is taking up a PhD in Educational Administration so he can develop procedures and policies in introducing game-based teaching and learning paradigms in schools, colleges, and universities. In between classes, he plays “Pocket Academy” on his smartphone.

A link to his study on Democracy 2 can be found here.

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