Jelly Button Games co-founder and CTO Ron Rejwan started learning to code at the age of 12 aiming to build games, and has been interested in it since they remember themself. At the age of 18 they were drafted to the ISR army as elite army programmer.
In 2011 Ron founded Jelly Button together with 4 co-founders, and since then has been the company’s CTO. While The Jelly Button team agrees game creation is based on feelings and instincts, they prefer playtesting at early stages to validate it. In their Casual Connect Tel Aviv Ron Rejwan explains their approach to playtesting and prototyping, and shares the tips and tricks one needs to know to follow their footsteps.
When Ron founded Jelly Button in 2011, their goal was to create a new type of gaming company in Israel and create an actual industry. Back then Ron took the responsibilities of CTO, being in charge of all technological aspects in the company, and in recent months they’re in charge of leading development and game design of their newest game.
“I have been working with code related directly to games in the past 19 years, and it was an absolute must. My previous venture was a successful web game (released in 2006) that I developed on my own, and I embraced the microtransactions business model a long time before it became an industry standard. Even my time as a big data developer in the army gave me an understanding of supporting large scale systems to serve millions of active players”, Ron recalls.
And even their hobbies are related: Ron names games and programming among their biggest passions in life. “I enjoy trying new games (PC, console, board games, card games) and see what the designers had in mind when they created the game.” But Jelly Button’s CEO has been into game making even earlier: they’ve made their first board games at the age of 8. “I have ran and developed my own MUD (ROM) when I was 13, working on Linux with C code. This is my dream job”, Ron confirms.
making games even in army
Ron’s favorite part of what they do now is seeing the entire process of creation from start to end. “From being a random thought I get on my drive home, turned into concept art and finally being played by a real person and seeing how they react to it”, they share. “I always strive to learn from everything I do; from the things I do right, but even more so from the things I do wrong”.
“Always keep learning” is the advice Ron gives to those wishing to follow their footsteps. “Do it out of passion and love, and always find the challenge in everything you do”. They are excited about how much you can do in so little time with the tools available today (Unity, Unreal, etc). “Learn the most popular programming languages and just keep creating projects; start from tiny games and progress into larger and larger scale ones. There isn’t a single day that passes when I don’t learn something new”. Even while serving in the army: once Ron had a few free weeks between projects, and made a browser-based game (which they later rewrote and released to the public). “It was quite popular and around 100 people in my base played it; it even got so known that a commanding officer wanted to court-martial me for wasting so much time”.
Brainstorms as creativity triggers
As Jelly Button Games company grows, Ron plans to move on to larger projects and hopefully one day even create a AAA game, developed in Israel.
Team player with a great passion for games and the specific field of work they do (whether it’s programming, 3D art, game design or QA) is the description of who Ron would take into their team, with themself trying to be tough and fair and treating everyone with the respect they deserve. “I love it when I’m interviewing a person and ask a question about something they’ve never tried before and they don’t know the answer, and the next interview they tell me they tried it at home.”
Ron says they try to find inspiration anywhere they can, and they don’t believe in direct power of brainstorms, pointing out another use for those: “they do trigger that invisible “back of your mind” creative process that works in the background. I’ll be taking a shower, or walking back home when I suddenly think of something, stop, write it down and the next day try it out. I am mostly inspired by the greats of the gaming industry, whether it’s individual developers (Derek Yu, Rami Ismail, the legendary John Carmack, etc) or great companies (Blizzard, Supercell, Bethesda).”
“I like to physically test an idea as soon as possible; the more you iterate on your ideas with real people playing them and giving you feedback, the more polished your ideas will become”, they comment.
Ron remembers being inspired for their first game by some war movie they saw: “I just thought “wouldn’t it be cool to run a powerful country like in the movie? Using spies, nuclear weapons and creating alliances.”
As for creative blocks, Ron confesses that happens more than they’d like to admit, although now that they have an idea they’re in love with it’s much easier. “But when I was exploring different ideas I tried to keep my mind open to everything, play commercial and indie games of various sorts, read books, see movies/series that I wouldn’t normally see, play new board games.”
“Besides that I always keep notes of ideas for games I have”, Ron adds. “I write down an idea immediately before I forget it. I also make mindmaps, brainstorm with people and I even tried the Japanese game Shiritori which was interesting.”
If given unlimited time and resources, Ron would definitely create a sort of an MMO. They add they had a dream game that someone did almost exactly as they imagined it a few months ago, which was really fun to see.
Sitting in front of a blank page having to come up with a multi-million-dollar game idea and drill it down, especially in a super competitive market we have today is what Ron calls the most challenging part of their job. They note this is a really difficult phase, while most people consider it the easiest. “I actually find adding constraints more helpful. If I tell you to “create an amazing game” or “create an amazing survival game” – I believe most people will find the latter much easier.” Ron is convinced: the most important part is diving deeply into the subject, and then completely releasing it; and your subconscious bubbles up ideas when you least expect them later.
People Like Playing Around Friends
The most rewarding part, according to Ron, is by far seeing people play the game and witnessing emergent play that you didn’t even think of coming out of the game’s mechanics. “I love to see people getting emotional over my games (laughing, getting angry at a friend, that feeling of “almost having it”).”
A small circle of friends can be a relevant test environment for social features of the game, that make a great part of Jelly Button’s titles. “I think that eventually the social elements play out in a small circle of friends, because I believe people enjoy playing the most with their friends”, Ron explains. “So I let a group of friends play the game, if it works on a small scale I feel much more assured it will work out in the wild”. Ron warns that playtesting multiplayer games is much more time consuming as, unlike creating a single player game, you’ll need multiple people to play the game at the same time.
At Jelly Button Games each project is a separate group, and every game lead sees testing a bit differently: “For example, I consider myself much more pragmatic and strongly believe in playtesting game mechanics; and if it’s ugly and people still enjoy it, it will be much more enjoyable once it looks good”, Ron shares. They advice for testing your game even on audiences initially unplanned. “Definitely; you want to throw it into real players’ hands as soon as possible. You can find out so many things you’ve done wrong, or that are completely missing out”
Looking for Negative Feedback
Another part of Jelly Button Games’ DNA is to create new and innovative games; they don’t believe in clones and therefore don’t check what’s popular and decide what will be their next game based on that information. “I believe that players need a relatively recognizable basis, with a new and innovative layer on top that makes people go “Wow, how come no one made this game before?”
Like any successful developer, Ron Rejwan has their history of failures, one of them being their second game that happened to be too much for them to handle at that time. “I invested a lot of my own funds which I have made from my 1st game. After working on it with 3 other paid developers and an art studio for over a year, I understood I bit more than I could chew and I cut my losses. I still think it had great potential.”
While the initial instinct of most humans is to avoid negative feedback, Ron strives to get as much of it as they can. “I’m not looking for “yes men”. I send out anonymous surveys to our playtesters and encourage them to give us their rawest reviews. We’re not here to feel good about ourselves, we’re here to make great games. I can’t count the number of times I had an idea, and when we playtested people just hated it, and I thought “how did I think this was a good idea?”
And the proudest moment so far was when Ron first added micro-transactions (which didn’t even have a name back then). “I was sure I would make a few bucks and keep working my day job; when the gates opened and suddenly money started pouring in, I was blown away by how much people enjoyed my game and how immersed the community that was created by it. They even created a wiki and reverse-engineered a lot of my formulas!”
Ron confesses: they can’t claim to know even what will happen next week; let alone in 5 years, so can’t really predict the trends. However, they believe mobile gamers are getting more sophisticated and their taste in games is growing up just like it did with PC gaming. “I think that we’ll see much more mid-core games with live online gameplay coming to mobile. Supercell is currently leading the industry in my mind, and Blizzard are doing similar amazing work in the PC space. And I think their latest releases show where the industry is moving.”
Share and Iterate
Ron tells they meet so many aspiring game developers who “go into their cave and work on a game until it’s “perfect”. They consider this a wrong approach, and suggest sharing your game idea with other people as soon as possible.
“My final test will be giving the game out without any explanation to a group of 9 year olds and seeing how they interact with it”, they suggest. They add that playtesting affects all sides of development, specs change on a weekly basis, “so, it’s not an easy process for people who like to work in a sterile and ordered environment. We try to be as agile as possible and learn from what we do on a bi-weekly playtest.” As for the visual appeal, Ron warns: a pretty look can sometimes hide a design flaw and make it harder to detect, so they suggest adding the visuals later on, when the gameplay is great and set in stone.
In addition to this, Ron and their team strongly believe in allowing players to play with their friends, and this is a very central part of their game design. “And lastly, once all the foundations are in places, we wrap it with amazing artwork that doesn’t appeal to a specific crowd and is approachable to a wider spectrum of players”.
Orchid is a content manager at Casual Connect and the developer editor for Gamesauce. Orchid loves kittens and all things super cute.