Cary Walkin is the creator and maintainer of Arena.xlsm, a full-length RPG written and coded entirely in Excel. Yes. Excel.
Can you give some general background info about yourself? Origins, education, etc.
I’m a 25 year old chartered accountant from Toronto, Canada. I completed a Bachelors of Business Administration at Wilfrid Laurier University, then I completed my chartered accountancy though five years of financial auditing and tax work, and a Masters of Business Administration at York University.
I’ve always been passionate about games — I hope to continue to make games and be a part of the games industry.
So, the obvious question — what inspired you to make such a massive game out of Excel of all things?
As an accountant, I use Excel every day. As part of my MBA, I was taking a course called Advanced Spreadsheet Modeling that covered Excel macros. I quickly realized that the concepts being taught could actually be used to make a game.
In hindsight, making the game in Excel was actually the most critical part of it being completed at all. I’d previously attempted to make a game using more traditional game making tools, only to give up when the pace of progress would slow due to significant technical challenges. By creating the game in Excel, I chose a tool that I was comfortable with and as such the technical challenges seemed surmountable.
This created a great feedback loop as I watched the game grow throughout development.
What exactly does an Excel game development cycle look like?
Game development in Excel differs significantly from working in a traditional game development environment.
When you’re stuck in a traditional environment, you can usually search your problem online and find a community of game developers who have posted solutions, sample code, and tutorials to help guide you through your challenge. When you’re stuck in Excel, the solutions you can find online are largely technical in nature rather than shed light on a particular game mechanic.
I’m working on changing that through a series of Excel game development tutorials called VBA4Play.
My personal development cycle with Excel was one of trial and error. All of the code, balancing, and game mechanics was a result a result of me making a guess as to what it should be, testing it, and assessing whether it was fun. I’d then iterate to get it closer to whatever felt the most fun.
The public response has been huge, with a wide variety of reactions. What surprised you the most about how people responded to your project?
The most surprising thing has been the sheer scale of the public response. The original intention was to release the game to a very niche audience, with the expectation that very few people would actually “play a spreadsheet” regardless of the game’s quality.
I didn’t expect that the people who first played and enjoyed the game would try to share it with as many people as they could, or the overwhelming support of an online community of people to help make improvements to the game. I wrote a blog post soon after the game’s release that outlines some of the initial reactions and how I was completely unprepared for them.
What does Arena.xlsm’s future look like?
[The game] has been a phenomenal learning experience for me. The Excel game is complete and I am very satisfied with it; I’m currently learning to use Unity in an effort to bring everything that made Arena.xlsm awesome, outside of the spreadsheet to a proper game.
*Awesome! Besides the obvious — using new technology and tools — is there anything you’re going to try and do differently when working on the new project? *
While specific features are subject to change and everything is still very preliminary, my focus is on learning from Arena.xlsm to make it better. This includes:
Streamlining the user interface so that a significant portion of screen real-estate is not dedicated to statistics.
Adding more variety to enemy encounters: such as enemies that spawn other enemies.
Adding more variety to items: such a new item crafting system that will allow the player to customize their items with modifications that serve a strategic purpose.
Adding more variety to arenas: such as new puzzle mechanics and new points of interest that impact game play in procedurally generated arenas.
Multiplayer Co-op… I definitely could not do that within Excel!
What do you think you learned from the entire experience of making the game?
I’ve learned a lot of great technical skills: programming, game design, level design, story writing, public relations, quality assurance, and marketing.
However, I would say the most valuable part of the experience was to reinvigorate my ability to be creative. As an accountant, I rarely have the opportunity to be creative and I had begun to lose that ability after years of neglecting those creative skills. I learned about myself and what I enjoy in life. That alone made this a worthwhile experience.
Ned Hepburn is a freelance writer who’s written for Motley Crüe, MTV, and most recently Death and Taxes. He’s also the founder and editor-and chief of The Worst. You can find him on Twitter as @nedhepburn.
Bluntly, what is The Worst about? You’ve got a pretty broad content base right now, ranging from reviews of New Balances (which I own, and are absurdly comfortable) to a retrospective on James Gandolfini. Are you aiming for a specific audience, or going for some other criterion?
The Face magazine is/was a huge inspiration. They were a British mag that kinda peaked around ‘98-‘02 which was pretty much my teenagehood. They had an incredible balance between fashion and music and movies and had incredible photography, and it was a style all their own that’s hard to explain in this age of everyone aggregating.
Right now, in 2013, nearly everyone is trying a “newsroom” format and I’d like to offer a more curated approach simply because I appreciate the sites that do. When a print magazine article is good, you can still go back years later and still get a kick out of it, and I guess that is the way I look at it: you don’t need 20 posts a day, just one good one. The Worst is still trying to find its feet — it’s only 2 months old at this point — but hopefully with some outside funding it can grow.
Gavin McInnes-era Vice was an inspiration, too, he had great swagger and it didn’t always make sense but that set Vice apart from the rest. I just post what I think I’m still going to find interesting in the future.
I guess I didn’t see anyone doing what I really wanted to see so I made it.
Are there any modern-day outlets that you find a lot of inspiration in, as well?
I think Ryan Schreiber, [founder of] Pitchfork, is the closest our generation will come to what Rolling Stone used to be. Even if Pitchfork can get really heady and brow-beating at times, it’s still doing entirely its own thing, has its own aesthetic, and is a true brand name. Ideally, I’d love for The Worst to come even close to that.
In terms of online, British Esquire and French Vanity Fair are the only two big outlets that I can name that totally nail that balance between incredible aesthetic design and interesting, curated material. The French Vanity Fair website is jawdropping. I think in 5 years time – when tablet computers are more prevalent – we’re going to see a huge surge in curated sites. Whoever did that French Vanity Fair site deserves a fucking award.
Ryan O’Connell (Thought Catalog) had a good thing going for a while, maybe 2009-2011 or so. Whether he knows it or not or whether people will give him credit for it or not, he genuinely inspired a huge amount of people to write like him and he built a company off of it. Now, those kids that grew up reading him and writing like him are writing for other places.
Tavi Gevinson is a big inspiration despite her being 13 years young than I (I’m 29). She built Rookie. That’s massive. She’s the future [editor-in-chief of American Vogue] Anna Wintour. Really. I’m very excited to see what she does in the future. I pray she doesn’t get jaded and corporate. She’s incredible. I’m so far out of the demographic of Rookie, but she’s leading the pack in terms of structure and voice. She follows the same mentality I do on volume of material – she only posts 3 things a day to Rookie. But they’re all, for the most part, incredible.
Hillary Weston (currently senior editor at Blackbook) is a very dear friend of mine and if people give her the creative reins of a publication she’ll make something incredible out of it. But she’s young. She’s so immensely fucking talented, though.
We’ve seen stuff like The Daily and The Magazine and more niche things come out that are tablet-targeted, but how do you think curated media is going to respond to a more tablet-centric readerbase?
I think that there’ll always be an appetite for news, and I think that there’s places like Buzzfeed’s political wing that are doing it right. We’re going to get our news in real time, and our ‘entertainment’ curated.
Right now there isn’t a distinction between news and entertainment, and they’ve bled into each other with the birth of the Internet. People feel like they have to do everything all of the time; be the first to post whatever, which gets you more page views, which gets you more ad dollars, technically speaking, but that model (think banner ads - which are .001% effective) is outdated and once that disappears and advertisers wizen up, there goes 90% of the smaller blogs. That’s why people are trying out advertorials, which is a really fucking 1953 way of going about things and dangerous in the long run – if you can’t discern between the news and an ad, how can you trust the source?
Having things on a glowing screen close to your face breeds a certain amount of intimacy, which leads to people wanting constant updates, constant access to new information. I wrote an article on internet addiction and it showed how insanely active to new information we are. There’ll aways be internet tabloids like Gawker or BuzzFeed to check out if you want that fix, just as there are the Sun and the New York Post. And people will get their news from trusted sources, like the AP or Reuters.
I think readers will actually respond well to a curated less-is-more feed on the tablet, because you can curl up with it once a week and catch up on 7 good articles or pictorials or what have you — about how long it would take to flip through a magazine. You don’t need everything all the time like we’ve been accustomed to; I think that’s underestimating the audience, and I think that as this current 18-35 generation grows up their habits will, too. Your wife reading the New York Times on her tablet in bed next to you, you catching up on a Tom Junod article on Esquire. Or an interview on The Worst.
As the price of smartphones come down, millions more people in places like Russia and Africa and Brazil are going to be using the internet in the next 5 to 10 years. Think about it. A $50 phone with internet access. That will breed a whole new user pattern; with those new people using the internet, my original point I think will ring true: We’re going to get our news in real time, and our ‘entertainment’ (if you will) curated.
Do you think popular media is shifting away from [quality over quantity], what with the era of things like HuffPo and BuzzFeed emphasizing breadth and recency over everything else?
I think most popular media feels they have to broadcast a lot, daily, in order to continuously capture people’s attention. It’s the newsroom mentality, that for 12 hours a day you have to be plugged in. I think it undermines true editorial sensibilities when you feel you have to come up with 20 things that day to stay relevant. Everyone’s hanging off of Buzzfeed and HuffPo’s dick and that is no way to create something different than the rest of the pack.
The thing is, eventually, that model of operating is going to become so oversaturated that people are going to want a much more curated experience. I’m willing to bet on that. I can still go back and read issues of The Face, Spy Magazine (another inspiration for The Worst), or even George Magazine from 10-15 years ago. You can’t say that about Buzzfeed or HuffPo.
The general public views the internet as a new medium and once the dust settles and the novelty of seeing ‘25 Cats Who Hate Wednesdays’ wears off people are going to want something more substantial. It’s like television or movies or any other medium.
You’ve had experience with a number of indie publications before — particularly D&T, where you’re still working. How did that shape you in trying more of a solo effort? What motivated you to start The Worst?
It was to try and replicate what I missed about print magazines from that era. That, and I needed an outlet that didn’t just focus on news aggregation. There’s a big difference between timeless and timely, and a lot of the industry is focused on a quick fix because so much of online advertising right now is driven by pageviews and direct branding. I don’t always agree with him politically but [former editor of The New Republic and writer of The Daily Dish] Andrew Sullivan going out on his own was an inspiration, too. I’d like to switch to a subscription model, too, in the future.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced when starting something on your own, especially given the daunting landscape of publications right now?
I stopped looking at them as challenges. Fuck ‘em.
NewsBlur has been around for almost four years, which is a nice contrast compared to the crop of new RSS Readers emerging in a post-Google Reader world. Can you talk about some of your initial motivations behind creating it?
I started NewsBlur four years ago because I was dissatisfied with the current state of readers, and I wanted something better. I also wanted to teach myself various technologies and techniques that were new: Mongo, Redis, follower graphs, etc. The first year all of my motivation was internal, but after a year and the initial release, my modification became external when I had real users, and soon, premium users who used NewsBlur every day.
The site’s grown massively more popular in recent months, both in terms of traffic and mindshare. How have you dealt with the growth?
By working every single day (just completed a 123-day-long streak you can see on GitHub) and dealing with broken database machines as they broke, which was near constantly. Thanks to a multitude of secondary machines, I kept downtime to a minimum as I switched out one broken database machine for another.
You’ve taken a pretty brave tactic with NewsBlur in terms of transparency: the thing’s on GitHub, of course, but you’ve got a pretty extensive dashboard on the landing page that shows, notably, premium user count and average load time. Why did you decide to go down that road?
Because I’m no good at hiding things, always trying to remember what you did and didn’t disclose. This also has a secondary benefit: by showing my numbers I’m incentivized to optimize them. And you can only optimize the things you measure.
What are the plans for NewsBlur moving forward — at some point did working on it transition from ‘development’ to ‘maintenance’? How much time do you spend working on it in a given week?
I work many, many hours a day, but I don’t really consider it work. I enjoy the three parts of my job: new feature development, infrastructure work, and user support. Each one takes 50% of my time, so I have to dip into weekends and nights. Going forward I have a bunch of features planned, although I don’t like to pre-announce features as I sometimes switch priorities mid-flight to hit a more pressing feature or infrastructure work.
Can you talk about your marketing strategy (or lack thereof, if applicable) a little bit, as the RSS market grows more crowded?
User support is marketing. It translates into word of mouth, and that’s the best kind of marketing you can buy (with your time). I’m not in it for the money, which coincidentally is part of how NewsBlur is able to support its ever increasing server farm so well.
What’s the strangest challenge you’ve dealt with so far, in the process of growing and sustaining the service?
Lots of parts break at a certain scale, so it’s my job to not only fix them when they break, but pre-empty breakage with monitoring. In terms of strangeness, some database (and I use four: Postgres, Mongo, Redis, and Elasticsearch) will break in mysterious ways, like locking the entire db every minute for approximately 1.5 seconds (ahem, mongo). Others will fail in quiet ways, like stopping its background writing process while keeping data in memory, only to hit an out-of-memory error on the host machine and getting killed (ahem, redis). Thankfully, redis forked a background process to persist a week’s worth of data to disk, and that process wasn’t killed, saving me from losing a week of unread items.
Sometimes I rely a little too much on my karma to keep me alive.
Eric Bandholz is a self-described “urban beardsman” and proprietor of Beardbrand, a beard-focused blog and online webfront. He grew up in South Carolina and currently resides in Spokane, Washington.
What motivated you to start Beardbrand? Specifically, it’s one thing to make an online community and another to make an entire store dedicated to it — what pushed you to go the extra mile, so to speak?
In May of 2011, I quit my job as a Financial Advisor at Merrill Lynch and decided that I would go for the “yeard” - aka year long beard growth. I’ve had my own personal blog for a while and I would write about my experiences as I grew it out and how it was viewed within the business community. It was really a blast and I had a good time sharing my journey with other beardsmen online. In February 2012 (9 months into my yeard), I went to the West Coast Beard and Mustache Championsip in Portland, OR. To put it blatantly, I had the best weekend of my life. It was so much fun and the people involved were a blast. It was at that point that I decided to create Beardbrand.
Initially, Beardbrand was a website to help grow the bearded lifestyle. Specifically, we were targeting a group of guys who were more urban with the activities they pursued. Historically, bearded individuals have been associated with outdoorsmen, hippies, bikers, vagabonds, and homeless folks - never the white collar, educated, and stylish men. After my beard competition, I realized there was a group of people out there who wasn’t being served and rather than wait, I did it myself.
After making videos and blogging for nine months I got contacted by the New York Times for an article they wanted to write on beard care. Those nine months, I had been dragging my feet about starting an ecommerce business. With a little nudge from my co-owners, we took the plunge into business. We started the store with only 3 products and launched a day before the article published. Our sales numbers were very small for the first couple months, but man was it ever exciting.
What does a beard and mustache championship entail?
It’s basically a pageant show for men, and men take things way less seriously than women. There is a bar for competitors down below the stage and the party gets started. People are grouped together in categories ranging from full beards, mustaches, and styled mustaches. A lot of people will wear a costume to go with their facial hair so it adds to the whimsy.
Beardsmen are so unique, interesting, and nice that it makes the event very fun. Everyone is complimenting each other on their beards and it’s a great way to build friendships. The reality is that words would never do justice to how fun the events are.
Consumer goods are notoriously difficult to get into, especially as a bootstrapped or niche company. Can you talk about the process of getting everything up and running?
We started off by wholesaling our first three products. Our vendor is also in the startup mode and we were lucky that for a relatively small order we could get off the ground and test the market. We’ve always wanted this business to be self funded and we don’t want investors or bank loans because we want to build a business that allows us to be free. Working for a loan or investors doesn’t seem like a fun plan to me at this point in my life.
Our first orders came in before our product arrived to my house, so we had our vendor handle the drop shipping for us. After the first few hectic weeks, things settled down and we were able to fulfill our own orders. I am a graphic artist by trade and was able to design our logo, build our website, and all that marketing jazz.
Our most successful marketing efforts have been me trying to connect with our audience at a personal level. I like to answer emails, chat with people on reddit, and reply to YouTube comments. Basically I’m really involved online and I’m trying to be the face of the company.
Can you expand a little on how you cultivated this [audience] — what kind of stuff did/do you blog about and talk about?
I was also involved on various communities online, from Reddit to Beardboard.com and BeardedGents.com. I am able to talk and get to know other beardsmen around the world at a personal level. I think it helps that I’m passionate about what we are building and people see that in me. With my YouTube videos, I’ve made a lot of how-to videos that people have really liked.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned so far during your time at Beardbrand?
I’ve been most surprised with how addicting it is to watch orders come in. It really gets me excited every time I see an order come in or an urban beardsman (our phrase for clients & fans) tell me how our products have improved their lives. In fact, this quote really moved me:
"I have a 23 month old son who has never been a fan of my beard; so it is hard to get some good hugs sometimes. So I purchased the Morocco beard oil and he was watching me put it on the other day and was fascinated to smell it (he likes to smell things). He then wanted to smell my beard. That night when I was putting him to sleep he put his head up and smelled my beard on my cheek and gave me a big kiss and said ‘Good!’.
You and your Beardbrand made me a happy father!”
What are the next steps for Beardbrand?
I’d love to get to the point where [my wife] can stay at home if she wants and help raise our daughter. I think we need to be at about three times today’s sales to get there — which I think we can hit quickly because we are about on pace to be three times the sales from May in this month.
We’ve developed our own product line and will be expanding into the wholesale market, which we just launched a few weeks ago and are already seeing good traction. We haven’t advertised at all for these products except listing them on our website. From there, it’s continually adding new products that align with the urban beardsman lifestyle.
There’s surprisingly little background information about you available, besides the fact that you’re from Ottawa. Can you talk a bit about yourself — where you grew up, education, interests?
I grew up in Ottawa, more or less, and spent a lot of my formative years hunched in front of the family 386, coding little distractions in QBasic. I distinctly remember copying the bundled version of Snake, line by line, to see what made it work — I like to think that makes me like Hunter Thompson.
I spent four years at the University of Toronto getting my degree in Computer Science, then spent a year traveling. Now I sling code for a living, and write games in my spare time. When I’m not playing games, of course. Or drinking coffee. Those other ones are probably more common, actually.
Moving to A Dark Room: it’s definitely a unique game, both in terms of mechanics and aesthetic. Can you talk about where you drew your inspiration from, both in terms of the decision to make it and in what directions to go?
The immediate inspiration came from aniwey’s Candy Box. About ten minutes into it, I knew that there was huge potential for the genre. Exploration as an aesthetic tends to be used spatially, with the player wandering around vast worlds and uncovering interesting things along the way. This is a great mechanic, and I’ve sunk more hours than I care to admit into Bethesda’s epics.
Less common these days is exploration of the mechanics of the game itself. This was a huge part of PC gaming in the early days, though not necessarily intentionally, and I miss it. Contextual controls and ever-present on-screen hints are excellent for removing the barrier to interaction and allowing the player to easily express themselves in-game, but what’s lost is a certain sense of the game as a mystery to be solved.
Once I’d decided to riff on Candy Box, I threw together a quick mockup of the interface. The vast expanse of white on screen screamed “post-apocalypse” to me, and so I ran with that. The rest just sort of came together as I built. I’m terrible at pre-production. I shamelessly stole the resource management stuff from games like The Settlers and Anno. I adore juggling complex economies, which probably makes me beyond saving.
You talk about the older PC games that also encouraged exploration of the mechanics — in my mind I’m thinking of stuff like the Monkey Island and Ultima where there’s a particular emphasis on experimentation. Are there any specific older series or games that you’re fond of?
I’d go back even farther to parser-based adventure games like the early Sierra titles. I’m particularly fond of Space Quest, myself. In those games, you weren’t even sure of which verbs the game would understand, or which objects could actually be interacted with. This is totally frustrating game design that would never happen these days, but it led to all sorts of fun side-effects. Developers would hide easter eggs and jokes behind many of the non-functional commands, encouraging experimentation and creativity from the player. Any game with a complex enough interface will give you this kind of experience, though, if you refuse to read the manual…
You obviously opted for the ultra-sparse narrative style and stuck to it — did you find it was easier to write this way, or more difficult?
Oh, definitely easier. Writing content is approximately 100 times less fun that writing code, so the sparse narrative helped me maintain interest. The game was actually in danger of not getting finished once all the mechanics were in place. All that was left was writing the encounters and dungeon paths, and I desperately did not want to do it. Once I fell into the writing style, it flowed pretty easily.
You open sourced ADR last week, to the delight of many (myself included)! I know you’re working on internationalization, but what other plans do you have for it? Was it an easy decision to open-source it?
Speaking of plans — what are your plans for Doublespeak Games? Currently, the only content from the site is pertaining to ADR; do you plan on working on other titles?
I’ve been writing games under the moniker of doublespeak for over three years now, and ADR is the first thing I’ve actually finished. That should give you a little insight into my work habits. There are always game ideas rolling around in my head, and I start building a few of them. My problem is ambition. It’s really hard for me to keep the scope reasonable for a one-man development shop. I’ve got a couple ideas right now that I think are promising, and I’m going to pick one and start hammering out some design soon. I’ve promised myself a shiny new ultrabook if I can actually finish a professional grade design document before diving in to the code. Whatever it ends up being, though, it’ll be quite different from ADR.
Can you expand upon [the issues of ambition and scope] a little bit, if you don’t mind?
My imagination doesn’t care about timelines or my own personal sanity. Often, I’ll come up with an idea that I think is awesome and start hacking at it right away. Two months later, with only a tiny fraction of the game finished, I’ll lose interest and the project will die. This has happened more times than I care to admit. With A Dark Room, I specifically tried to keep the scope small enough for me to finish before getting distracted. Turns out that takes about a month. My original plan actually called for another section of the game after leaving the planet, but I felt myself starting to drift away and so decided to cut it short rather than leave it unfinished.
Are you surprised by the response to ADR? Were you expecting it to be as popular as it turned out?
I knew when I started that idle games had pretty large viral potential, so when the hits started coming in I wasn’t terribly shocked. Then I got linked on JayIsGames and my traffic went up by an order of magnitude. That felt pretty great but, as I watched the hits start slowly trailing off, I was convinced that that was the end of it. That cycle has repeated itself three times now, and I’m shocked every time. It honestly never gets old. About 160,000 people from all over the world have played a game I wrote here in Ottawa, and that’s pretty amazing. I love the internet.
That’s definitely an awesome number, and I can only imagine the accompanying feeling. Have you read any of the feedback about the game? Is there anything, either from a structural or actual mechanics perspective that you wish you would have done?
Oh yeah, I read feedback all the time. In the past few weeks I’ve learned that I’m actually incredibly vain. The majority of the feedback is really good — people really like the expanding scope and the sparse narrative. I love reading through forum threads where communities are playing through the game together and figuring things out collectively. Of all the complaints (except for the people who dismiss the game out of hand as boring), most people hated the ending. Some people wanted more exposition, which I will never give them, but some just felt like the loop invalidated all of their work.
One of my GitHub contributors pointed out that the spirit of ADR actually calls for space at the conclusion for reflection, which is denied by the loop. I totally agree, and the next version will end differently. There’s definitely things I wished I would have done. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that a work is always released before it’s “done.”
The problem is that “done” is unattainable. It’s constantly on the horizon, just a few more features away. At some point you just have to cut it loose, or you’ll go crazy. I definitely wanted more content in general: more random events, more paths through the map locations, more variety in map generation…
The idea of releasing something before it’s “done” definitely makes sense — there’s the idea of the Minimum Viable Product, and I think the idea of a Minimum Viable Game is even cooler. How did you know when to say to yourself, “okay, this is ready for the world”?
When I got sick of working on it, to be honest.
When production switches from being fun to being work, I know I’m in danger of abandoning the whole thing. I hit that point with A Dark Room and knew that I had to wrap it up quickly, or not at all. That point came while I was writing all the paths through the towns and cities, but before I’d built the space segment. I bribed myself with some fancy visual effects at the end to get all the writing finished, and then closed the book.
I played it for a few more days to iron out most of the bugs (but not all… There were quite a few fixes made in the first week after release), and then posted it. I was actually really worried that there wasn’t enough content to keep it from getting too repetitive, since I’d written only about half of what I’d planned.