Monthly Archives: April 2013

Personal Profile: Zach Larson

biophoto-zachHi! I’m one of the founders of Threadbare Games. I’m also the closest thing to a suit we have; I handle marketing, business development, and strategy.

I’m also a life-long gamer. The first video game I played was Dungeons & Dragons on Colecovision which made sense since pen and paper D&D was my first exposure to role-playing. I played Tetris on the original Gameboy until I saw the shapes everywhere. I’m one of my groups usual Game Masters too. I’ve created worlds (which, let’s be honest, were mostly ridiculous rip-offs of mediocre fiction), made more characters than I can count, and still seethe when I remember one of my friends killing my star NPC in one blow.

I don’t tend to play games to win. I play games ’cause I love ‘em. I’m perfectly happy playing a game and losing. Just so long as I’m playing a game. I have a special fondness for co-op games (because I want you to win too!). I also have the attention span of a meth’d up gnat.

I’m married to an awesome wife who indulges my gaming (and startup!) hunger. I have a wee daughter who’s just starting to learn to love games. In about 9 years she’ll be horribly embarrassed by me and I’m OK with that.

Prior to founding an indie game studio I worked at a variety of web centered businesses. Most recently I was the product guy behind SideReel ( It was acquired in 2011 and I eventually stepped away to try my hand at making games professionally.

I like more than just games though. I find strange satisfaction in dragging heavy weights up hills and drinking bourbon in front of fires.

Currently playing: Mage Wars, Backgammon, Hold ‘em, Shadowfist, King of Tokyo, and Roborally. When I get console time I’m slowly working my way through Mark of the Ninja.

Currently reading: The Vorkosigan Saga and A History of Future Cities.

Currently watching: Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and The West Wing.

On Twitter I’m @zachlarson and, if you follow me, I’ll send you a hug via the internet.

Tips from the Pro(s)

Last week I dropped a post about my merciless trouncing on the Game Center leaderboards and got some responses from our reigning Shifts champion, holder of the current top score of 54,556, Slabymushina!

Slabymushina (which is most likely not their real name, but you never really know) had some hot tips and advice for all you wannabe heros of humanity. Rather than leave them spread around a variety of comments sections on our blog, I’m giving ‘em the front page treatment!

Here’s what our top scorer has to say to help you help mankind:

More seriously, I agree with your advice, preserve Arks at all costs (everything else is repairable, Arks aren’t), and scan, scan, scan.

The one insight I might have is that you lose Arks in two different ways, and you care about them differently, depending on the stage of the game. At the beginning of the game, I am fanatic about minimizing percentage losses of Arks, and am relatively indifferent to losing 15 Arks a pop. When I’m down to 100 Arks or less, I could care less about percentage losses, but will do anything to not lose the 15 Arks a pop. Between those two points, I slowly care less about percentage Ark losses, and more about losing 15 Arks a pop. The key to having a high score is to minimize percentage losses of Arks for as long as possible. Remember, your people actually get better at fixing things as time goes on, so if you can keep the game going for awhile with a high number of Arks, you’ll tend to do well.

So, I tend to deploy my robots to minimize Arks losses, given the priorities above. However, Shifts has replay value because you never face the same situation twice, so rules are made to be broken. Depending on circumstances, I may use a robot on an non-Arks repair, if use of that robot is the difference between not fixing something this turn, and a guaranteed fix this turn. Also, I (usually) will do a fix if I am losing 15 hull points a turn – if you are losing 15 hull points a turn, you will be doing little other than fixing hull points, whereas 10 hull points lost a turn is tolerable.

I have a number of other rules of thumb, but those are the key ones. It also helps to be lucky – on expert level, you are going to lose frequently, no matter how well you play.

Thanks for the tips!

A Team is a Bag of Dice. You need d4s AND d20s.

DICEKotaku had a great post this morning about the state of the publishing part of the video game industry.

It echoed a lot of points that I’ve been experiencing as an experienced tech/product guy but a neophyte to the gaming industry. First, making games IS hard and it IS different from making a non-game consumer app. Primarily in the need to have a ‘fun’ Minimum Viable Product (i.e. the smallest fun thing that can be used for testing) before you can get market feedback. Games, however, are not film. They’re not TV. They’re not built on the back of the narrative that a writer develops, they’re built on the back of a technology that a team develops.

I can’t speak to the publisher angle much as we’re an indie shop and are publishing our own stuff. However, as a small shop we ride the fiscal razor’s edge. We HAVE to constantly make the best fiscal decision we can, or close down. Sometimes that means killing a project because it’s going to take too long, sometimes it means doubling down on something we find less shiny than our newest project, sometimes it means spending a few weeks making the code better so we can make later changes faster. All of those decisions MUST have input from all the disciplines involved in making a game. They can’t purely come from the business side. Nor can our designer decide solely what must be built.

If a dev team is put entirely at the behest of the business team (as it appears in the dev/publisher dichotomy in games) then there will be tension between the two. Unhealthy tension since their goals aren’t necessarily unified. Business folks have to remember that games must be fun to be successful, devs must remember that games have to address a market at the right time, and designers must remember that perfection can’t be achieved. Everyone is trying to achieve the same thing, make fun games that people want to play at a price they’re willing to pay. In short, everyone wants to make successful games.

Our team is small, just 6 in-house folks (and a smattering of part-time assistance), but we’re a balanced team. Devs, business, and design are all required to make our games exist. Without the important contributions of each, our games wouldn’t be successful. As an industry we have to move towards a more balanced team approach. Games need d4s as much they need d20s. We can’t point fingers and perpetuate “us vs. them” thinking. Good teams make better games. We’re all in this together.


So I was feeling a little smug when we were working on scoring.

I held the office high score with like almost 40,000 points. I was untouchable.

My name was whispered in tones of hushed awe. After work at the bar, I drank for free. (come to think of it, that might have been because of the fringed suede chaps and my pole dancing, but I’m going to cling to my beliefs)

After I’d made enough money off of the inter-office Shifts tournament to pay my rent for the year and buy a large stake in that alpaca ranch, the other guys all de-friended me on Game Center and stopped telling me their scores. (actually, they stopped talking to me altogether…)

Needless to say, I went into our update release feeling pretty confident that I’d be able to feel pretty confident about my score for a good, long while. I wouldn’t even need to play on Game Center. No one could possibly touch me, I MADE this game.

Yeah, that lasted about 25 minutes.

My awesome score, which I achieved once, before we went live, on an internal build, that I didn’t screenshot, and thus have no proof of, wouldn’t even get me in the top 10 now.

You guys have kicked some ass.

At the time I’m writing this, the #1 score is 53,339. That’s impressive. I’m suitably humbled. With a score like that, you shouldn’t even need the chaps to drink for free.



My CEO went to PAX East and all I got was this video….

Zach went off to PAX East last month, and the nice guys at interviewed him for their iOS report!

Check out what he has to say through the crushing grip of his jetlag below:

You can check it out on their site and see some other great approaching games here:

Early days

Starting up a game development cycle involves a whole lot of talking. It’s not sexy, but it’s the truth. There’s two phases we went through today – the post-mortem (a term Zach hates) and the scheduling for the next project.

Post-mortems are probably one of the least fun parts about making games, because by the end of any project, teams are usually a little burned out, and the entire purpose of a post-mortem is to figure out what you’ve done right and what you’ve done wrong, which means looking at all of the decisions of the past months with a magnifying glass. That said, post-mortems are also one of the most important parts of making games – the point where you figure out how to do better next time, no matter how good or bad you did this time. Nothing is off the table, everything is up for discussion. This involves a lot of discussion, and there’s always the danger of going down a path further than is useful. 

Scheduling often doesn’t seem like a lot of fun, but there’s a certain sense of excitement that comes with starting a new project. There’s lots of discussions and every door feels very open. But this is also a very fundamental part of building any game, because it’s the step where a mistake can be felt the hardest down the line. It’s impossible to estimate how long each and every task will take to perfection, but the team needs to make sure it gets in the right ballpark, otherwise the whole schedule will start to slip. It’s also important to have flexibility when baking the schedule, because game development, software development, is a very fluid thing, and things change all the time – needs, design, plans, etc.

We’re still in the early days of our next project and I can’t wait to tell you all more about it, but it’s far too early to talk about it yet. That said, once we get to the point where we can talk about it, we hope you’ll be as jazzed about it as we are!