Design Journal - Part 3

This post is a first person perspective into the (chaotic) creative everyday of our game startup.

-- Originally published at


The past blogs I’ve taken a serious look into the nature of design. I trust most of us have an idea of their optimal creative process. We break that workload into phases such as concepting, proofing and polishing. It looks great on paper. However, in reality, the workflow tends to end up being a hectic scramble for the next tangible goal. Your established guidelines become something of an undercurrent, all but lost amid a sea of unforseen complications.

This blog is a story about the Real creative process, an average day for me at Epic Owl. Described events may or may not be founded on reality.


It’s 11:14 in the morning as I step inside the office. Our daily meeting was supposed to start at eleven. I’ve barely peeled off my coat when Vainio reminds me of the time, using that same tone fathers apply when telling their kids they’re not angry – just disappointed. Too tired to feel guilt, I drone something incoherent and crawl to my desk. My ears pick up Vainio’s snide remarks about rebranding our daily to an eveningly. I shake the mouse and my desktop wakes up, producing its familiar buzz that sounds like an industrial dehumidifier. The folded sheets of paper and strips of duct tape adorning the chassis attest to the valiant battle I fought to muffle the blasted thing, but to no avail. Damn cheap PCs.

I ease myself into the work day by scrolling absently through facebook. Nothing new here. A few recycled clickbait articles shoving old youtube hits in my face. No thanks.

“Do you have the mockup for the settings screen?” Ville’s voice demands behind my back.

I turn around. “Yeah, it’s somewhere here,” I reply and rifle through the stack of papers invading the sovereignty of my desk. I find it.

“This is the profile mockup,” Ville states as he studies the sketch. “I need the settings one.”

“Oh, right. Well let’s use it as a concept anyway, the layout’s roughly the same. Only difference is that navbar in the top end of the screen.”

Ville falls into a ponderous silence.

“No,” he blurts.

My mind suddenly fires up and I see before me the vast multitude of implications, drawbacks and benefits of this solution, clearly and perfeclty. I harness my intelligence and distill this epiphany to the best of my ability.

“Yes,” I reply.





Ville pauses.


He shuffles back to his desk and starts hacking away at the keyboard. I shift my weight on the chair and open up a massive excel sheet. The rows of numbers and graphs assaulting my retinae are supposed to hold the key to giving our game the perfect pacing, longevity and progression. I can’t shake my gut-feeling that something’s still off. It taunts me, keeping me awake at night. I squint and try to goad out the flaw with sheer willpower.


“I can’t do this before I have the general button art,” Ville’s voice snaps me out of focus.

I swivel around to Carolin. She is obliviously poking at her fresh Cintiq, headphones covering her ears.

“Carolin,” I call to her. No reaction.

“Caro,” Ville echoes.

Vainio snatches a post-it, crumples it into a dense pellet and throws it at Carolin. She jolts and removes her headphones.

“Sorry! What?” she yelps.

“I need the general button art,” Ville explains.

“Right! Sorry!” she squeaks apologetically.

“Don’t worry about it,” I wave my hand. “Here, this is what it should look like,” I continue while pacing to her. I take one of her pens and doodle on a scrap paper, quickly shaping a sleek, standard button. Carolin diligently takes notes.

“Well, this didn’t end up so pretty,” I mutter under my breath and flinch at the sight of my creation. “But you get the idea. Just keep it simple. It’s UI: no reason to overcomplicate it. Clean and nice, alright?”

“Yeah, alright,” she nods vigorously. “Thanks.”

“No. Thank you,” I reply and shuffle back to my chair. I plunge back into the excel.

“At this point I would stop playing this game and uninstall it,” Juho suddenly blurts, breaking his morning-long silence. I roll in my chair to face him.

“That’s great,” I sigh.

“I feel like I’m not progressing at all. There is no reward here, only punishment,” he states in a matter-of-fact voice. A vividly crimson defeat screen is looming on his second display.

“Care to elaborate?” I ask.

“No matter how much I iterate my approach, I just can’t pass beyond this level. I’ve been stuck playing in the same tier for the last three hours.”

“Hmm,” I reply prudently. “Maybe I should increase the rewards for victories?”

“That fixes nothing if you can’t win in the first place.”

“Why don’t we just make that phase shorter?” Ville chimes in.

“Because that still doesn’t fix anything,” I retort. “Perhaps it would be smart to implement more consistent rewards in the loss scenario?”

“That breaks the power curve,” Juho explains. “It just makes everyone stronger at an earlier stage, and that screws up the whole matchmaking system.”

“Well, give them buffs during early tiers. That offsets the imbalance,” Ville tries again.

“We thought about that,” says Juho. “The matchmaking tables would end up being skewed the moment someone enters ranked matches with a higher level than intended.”

“Risto,” Vainio suddenly addresses me. “Did you confirm the invitation to the startup event?”

“Wait, when was it?” I blink, caught off guard.

“The fourteenth. Next week. It’s in your email.”

“Ah, damnit. I haven’t yet,” I shrug and scroll down my inbox.

“Why was it that we removed the experience gains from casual matches?” Ville continues the debate.

I find the email and click through a few links. “Casual matches were too prone to abuse. And they break the leaderboards.”

“It isn’t in fact that trivial a question,” Juho begins his in-depth analysis and assumes an authorative stance. What follows is a bombardment of technical specifics I cannot even pretend to comprehend. However, what I do understand is that the mechanics need an overhaul.

“I’ll just redesign the defeat compensation,” I cut his monologue mid-sentence. To my surprise, this seems to elicit a positive response. Then Juho lapses into thought again.

“You might just end up perpetuating other, unforseen issues,” he points out.

“Did you send your reply?” Vainio inquires.

“Yeah, I sent it. I’ll handle the balancing. Don’t you worry about that part,” I answer to both.

“Okay,” Juho says, completely dropping the topic. I can’t recognize whether its passive aggressive or not. “When do we have lunch?”

Since Ville shared his observation with me, I can’t help noticing the same now. Juho loves food. Really. Every time he even skims the prospect of eating, his pupils dilate with a surge of endorphin. It’s more than just mildly disturbing.

“I’ll eat later. Not too hungry yet,” I say, trying to shake the idea of organizing some manner intervention for his sake.

“Sushi?” Carolin drops her headphones and grins in anticipation.

“Sushi,” Juho confirms. Vainio groans in protest, but starts putting his shoes on.

“Ville, you coming?” Vainio asks.

“Work,” Ville replies without looking. Everyone knows better than to press the issue.


Some hours later I’m sitting on the sofa, some cheap takeaway in a bag next to me. The low square table encroaching on my knees is habited by a Go board. There’s a half-finished match played out on it, the white stones mercilessly outnumbering the black ones. It’s a quick deduction who’s playing the winning side; Juho brought the game here for some “casual pastime and relaxation”. Both claims have been proven ridiculously biased. My theory asserts Juho introduced the game to enact some personal vendetta on all of us. And it’s not enough for him to beat the crap out of us: the humiliating evidence on the board tends to remain there for days for all creation to behold.

“Is the build ready yet?” Vainio asks Ville, who sits across the table with an iPad in his lap. Judging by the amount of hair he has been pulling out in the last hour, I don’t get my hopes up.

“No,” Ville grunts. “Xcode is still dishing out some errors.”

“Multiple errors?” Vainio asks.

“Eight thousand one hundred and seventytwo.”

“That’s not too bad,” I try to sound optimistic. Ville does not reply. “Is there anything you’d need from me?”

“Peace and quiet,” he answers.

“Ooookay,” I drag and sink back into the sofa.

“I’ve got your button finished,” says Carolin. “Would you want to give it a look?”

“Great, sure,” I mumble through the food in my mouth while getting up. On her Cintiq I see a very fancy piece of art. On her second display there’s an obnoxious, looping League of Legends spoofsong playing. The button is detailed, rich and skillfully executed. I can hear that stupid song through the headphones on her desk.

“It’s beautiful,” I begin. Carolin doesn’t react. She knows my critique always comes in sandwich form. Compliment, disaster, compliment. “But it’s not viable UI. It screams for attention, and it’s way too artful. You see, the best UI is the one you really don’t even notice is there, right?”

“Right,” she concurs. “I’ll just remake it.”

“No, no,” I slow her down. “Just cut out the details on those borders, and give it some transparency at the bottom end. It needs to look glassy like all the other elements.”

Carolin doesn’t reply. Her disappointment is palpable, and I realize how asinine it is for someone far less talented with visuals to dictate art direction. She fiddles with some layers and thows around a few filters.

“Like this?” she asks after a hasty revision of the button. Now it’s even further from what I wanted.

“Carolin, do you know what glass looks like?” I ask, and the moment the words leap from my mouth, I realize how condescending I sound. Juho, sitting next to us, chuckles audibly.

“Wow, Risto,” he leers. “That was constructive!”

I wipe my hand down my face. “I’m sorry, Caro. I’m obviously not in a smart mood today. Just do whatever you think works, or then give this one a break and have a look at something else. It’s not urgent anyway.”

“I can’t make the settings screen without it,” Ville jumps in.

“Eight thousand -something errors?” I say, “We’re not in a hurry here.”

“Fair enough,” he nods and turns back to the iPad.

“It’s fine,” Carolin laughs, “I think it’s pretty horrid as is too.”

“Risto,” Vainio turns to me. “Are you coming to meet those lawyers?”

What lawyers, I think. “Umm… I don’t think I’ll be able to join this time.”

Vainio reaches for his heavy-weight coffee mug and gives me the kind of look that makes me anticipate my head is about to be on the receiving end of a mug-turned-projectile. His overwhelming eyebags add alarming quantities of plausability to the scenario.

“Okay,” he says. “I need to get going then.” My anxiety subsides.

Vainio gets up and puts his coat on. I catch myself wondering whether this “meeting” actually exists. If it were but an excuse to escape the office for an early drink or two, I wouldn’t judge. I’ve seen the towers of red tape he wrestles with daily. I have no idea how he summons the strength for it.

“See you guys tomorrow,” Vainio waves and retreats from the room.


Hours pass. I’m washing my hands in the bathroom. From the mirror stares back a tired, but content face. There’s a glimmer of silver inside his nose. I lean closer. Unreal. I thought it was bad enough to get grey hair at this age, but now – grey nasal hair? Give me a break, life. I pluck one, and it stings. I wash my hands again and return to our room. I pry open the intimidating excel sheets again, and bore my eyes into them. Skype blips happily, and I check the new message in our group chat. Carolin sent some link. I click it, get sent to Youtube, and recognize the annoying music as the same damn loop she was running on her desktop earlier. I peek discreetly over my shoulder. Yep. She’s still running it.

I have a flash of insight. I realize it will make the game so much better. The problem is, it’s an onerous tweak to make.

“Ville,” I say, trying to sound as relaxed as I can. He turns to me with an expressionless face. “I need you to have a look at the victory prompt. Let’s add in a gauge for your leaderboard progression.”

I know he spent days finetuning the layout and animations of that UI element. He explained to me that virtually any change to the current design requires him to redo everything. Ville hates building UI. He doesn’t show it, but under that placid surface of his there is now a boiling caldera of murderous rage. The tension in the air is tangible.

“Sure,” he answers, and turns back to his computer. I’m not certain this is a good sign.

Juho is having his last meat protein milkshake of the day. I find the very idea repulsive. Carolin let’s out a defeated sigh.

“What’s up?” I ask her. She drops her headphones.

“Oh, nothing.”

I know this to be a blatant lie.

“You’ve got a new button for us?” I ask carefully.

“You tell me,” she says and gathers her legs onto the chair.

“Awesome. Let me have a look,” I beam at her and walk over in a brisk pace. The button I see is a good, solid piece. “That’s really nice, Caro. It works.”

“Meh, I don’t know if I like it,” she fidgets uncomfortably.

“I like it. It serves our purpose.”

She smiles back at me, slightly encouraged. “Thanks. I also made that graphic for the Valkyrie,” she mentions in a humble tone while flipping through some files. I don’t recall asking for that piece. She finds the art and opens it up on the Cintiq. I am blown away.

“Wow,” I blink, completely fazed. “This is awesome. Amazing.”

“I think I like it too,” she says, her voice reduced to barely a whisper.

“I think I should direct you less,” I confess.


Soon after Juho retires for the evening. Ville and Carolin follow shortly after, and I find myself alone at the office. The sun has gone down a while ago, not that anyone realized, since the only window in this room is tiny, away from all the desks and behind a bookshelf. I shut the lights and collapse into my chair, basking in the seemingly amplified luminance of the displays. I burrow back into the excel sheets.


Several hours later I think I’ve found it. There it was, one poorly estimated function that made the scaling a bit too aggressive. I’ve gone through the numbers ten times over, and I think I’m willing to let it drop – for now. It’s 22:38 in the evening and I feel it’s been one catastrophe of a day. Just backfiring features and a host of new bugs.

I absently drop down the SVN menu of our project and call an update. The game refreshes several files, and some new ones appear as well. Hmmh. I launch the game. I’m greeted by a really cool view I did not expect. Ville, you son of a gun. You fixed it. I didn’t even know. I play around for a moment and enter a battle. Our server runs the matchmaking algorithms and I’m faced against an opponent of my skill level. What. Juho? When did you have the time to implement that? I thought we wouldn’t be there in weeks. My opponent is playing with the Valkyrie, and it looks even better ingame than it did on Carolin’s display. Wow. I smile gleefully. This is awesome.

I check my inbox one last time before setting back home. I find some inconspicuous email from Vainio.

“Risto, the contract is a GO. The funding was approved. See you tomorrow!”

I recline and smile from ear to ear before shutting down my PC. The absence of its humm envelops me in a deafening silence. I check the keys in my pocket, lock the doors and head out into the night of Helsinki. I was wrong. This was a good day.


That’s it for this round. And, as always, stay tuned!



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