The 2s Have It

Hi! It’s been a while since I posted on this blog. A lot has changed, not all of it for the better.

Apologies for the radio silence, nonexistent readers, and I don’t really have a very good excuse. I’ve fallen into something of a slump these past few months. While I’ve kept my online obligations running (new SPUF of Legend videos, new Daily eSports articles), I’ve let a lot of my creative projects fall to the wayside. I’m not sure if it counts as ‘depression’ per se, but I’m really starting to feel the stress of my inability to land a job.

Feels like I’ve sent thousands of applications, and I hear literally nothing back. I’ve made it through two rounds of interviews at one place, but I haven’t heard anything in over two weeks. I had to borrow money from my parents to pay rent 5 days ago. It really feels like I’m running on a hamster wheel, the same wheel I’ve been on since leaving Ohio to chase a gamedev jobs in Austin 4 years ago.

I have to admit I’ve never felt more worried this was all for naught. Everyone I know from my graduating class has landed gaming jobs except me. It feels like I’ve blown thousands of dollars moving to SF and trying to break into a thriving industry that has room for everyone else. I feel like I bring a lot of skills to the table, but apparently they’re not the right ones for anyone to take notice.

My cumulative internet traffic is the only silver lining to my situation. I’ve broken 2 thousand views on itch.io, 2 hundred thousand views on YouTube, and 2 million views on Gfycat. Too bad I’ve had almost no luck translating those numbers into user activity, or a real community.

So…happy 2019 everybody. It’s weird to think I now have 7 years experience as a game developer, and yet I’ve never felt like less of one.

Pixelberry Wants a Writing Assessment!

Just got my first writing job application that wants to move forward! Pixelberry has asked for a writing assessment to see if I can move onto the interview stage. This is super cool, and I’ve taken the day off school so I can fully focus on it.

Wes.png

I like the artstyle, and I can definitely do this sort of writing, though I hope they assign me to the sci-fi/supernatural/fantasy/not-just-high-school settings. The “every good option is locked behind a premium currency” business model is super frustrating but I bet it makes a fortune

I’ve kinda taken everything else off too, just to send out job applications fulltime. I repurposed my old C++ learning story into an all-purpose story for working on things in the third-person, and it’s got a pretty cute spreadsheet tracking my job applications and their status.

jobs.png

I’ve kinda let my YouTube channel fall by the wayside as I sort this stuff out, but it’ll be there when I get back. My viewers almost exclusively come from my reddit threads, so this might actually be a chance to test whether a brief hiatus even hurts my numbers. Itch.io’s been sitting barren since February, but I’m pretty happy with the game selection already on there tbh.

itch.png

Just broke my 200th download on itch.io, which is genuinely cool. It warms my heart to check every few days and see a handful of people have downloaded stuff. Almost all of the hits are from TV Tropes, since I wrote full pages for Gamer 2, Find the Cure!, and Oedipus in my Inventory. Any of my future creative content will get its own page no questions asked, it’s great for building steady (if minor) traffic. My Clickteam Fusion tutorials and C++ Projects are steady hitmakers too, the latter of which I don’t really understand but I’m not complaining.

I can’t help but be a little worried overall. Literally no other job I’ve applied to has even written me a rejection letter, so if Pixelberry doesn’t work out I may not have a lot of options going forward. One safety net is that I’m in the running for their Senior Writer position, and if they say no, I can ask if there’s any chance I can downgrade to their Junior Writer position. I mean, you never know.

A Pizza the Action – first look

I’m working on my next game title! This one’s all about procedural generation, since it started as a final project for my ProcGen class. You can see the video I turned in for said project here:

 

(or the tie-in PowerPoint, which I’m not going to record myself presenting because it’s only a five-minute presentation)

I’m almost immediately taking a two-week break from this game as I survive finals and travel around showcasing Major League Magic at various cool events like Sammy’s Showcase and The Mix, and I don’t suspect I’ll be done with this game any time soon. It’s looking to be something of a complicated endeavor, (I’m learning more about the RandRange command than I ever cared to) but I am excited to finally get to use my “flying angelic pizza sprite” in an actual game 😀

Medical Necessity Post-Mortem

Bad news regarding the most important video game project I’ve been talking about this year. I only mentioned it once on this blog, but it’s had more of a presence if you follow my other communication channels, and it was definitely the most difficult of the many assignments. But it has come to something of an inglorious end.

I am talking, of course, of Hurdles, which got only 25/30 on Google Classroom, including a teacher comment that I’d made a classic rookie designer mistake of making the jumps too pixel-precise, leading to nobody being able to make them except myself. He is absolutely right; I’d needed to make the jumps easier because now nobody can see the rest of the game which I’d painstakingly balanced so no jump was possible that shouldn’t be. The intention was that the player progress through the life stages of the main character, crafting their life story through making decisions at each stage of the character’s life, and that failed jumps would signify failing at said life choice, leading to lesser options and locking off parts of the map. When the jumps are too hard, this is all really difficult to see. Alas.

Bad news for the other game, Medical Necessity, too. The final hurdle in pre-production was to convince a panel of judges that we’d finished adequate work on the project to justify continued development next quarter. We failed.

 

First, let me say that their criticisms were 100% valid. Medical Necessity just wasn’t fun. It had been fun at first, and people really enjoyed the early prototypes as we hammered out the foundation of the project, but as the game came together, it lost that spark. We’d marketed it as a fast-paced puzzle game, but it was neither fast-paced nor tactical. We’d lost sight of what our playtesters had enjoyed in the early builds, with each design decision slowing down gameplay even further.

Part of this blame falls on the programmers, which constitute the other 3 people on the dev team, but I firmly believe that the buck stops with the leader, and I was creative director. My premise was called out for being part of the problem, and I’d also failed to provide my team adequate directions, as I’d feared would happen. I was too tentative; I hated having to tell a tea member that something about their work wasn’t perfect. Worst conversation in the world is when a teammate comes back on Monday with his weekend work and I’m staring at it, and I have to find a way to say, “This work is well-constructed, I have no particular complaints or criticisms I can point to, and it fulfills the requirements I gave you, but it doesn’t work for the project. You need to make changes.” I always copped out and avoided telling them, instead I fell back on my common strategy of praising its positives and trying to pitch my request as “That’s really good! Can we add onto it by doing X?” More than anything else, I favored their contentedness and ensured my teammates felt like they were contributing to the vision of the game, as these were qualities I’d always wished to see in my leaders. However, this led to my team having inadequate guidance, and contributed to the lack of focused identity the game perpetually suffered from.

I can’t decide whether we didn’t playtest enough. We playtested with multiple people each week, and most of them enjoyed it. The high schoolers in particular thought it was a blast. The seasoned panel of game developer judges and program directors were the only playtesters who flatout disliked the game, but I don’t consider this a case of Critic-audience dissonance because multiple factors nourished the divide. Playtesters are subtly encouraged to be nice, and most are affiliated with the program and/or knew us personally. That being said, I’m not sure what we could have done to alleviate the problems. We took what playtesters told us, analyzed their feedback for useful kernels of enlightenment, and improved our product thusly.

One of my biggest regrets was listening to a piece of feedback the program directors gave us two weeks before the vertical slice. At the time, our gameplay looked like this:

The levels were segmented into individual arenas, which the player defeated or restarted upon failure, and progression to the next level happened with the spacebar. This was the design we’d envisioned from my first pitch, as it allowed the player to move at their own pace and ensured the gameplay remained fast-paced. But for that same reason, the program directors disliked it. They mentioned that good gameplay is supposed to have “peaks of intensity and periods of inactivity” that let the player take breathers after particularly intense moments. Everyone on my team, myself included, resolved to fix this problem by revamping the levels into connected campaigns, where the player progressed physically to reach the next level. See the below GIF, where we’d successfully reached this goal after two weeks:

I was the only one who didn’t like this new system, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. It felt like an unnecessary lull in the gameplay; forcing the player to physically march upwards between rounds took a lot more explaining than “Press Space to start the next level”, and the benefits of the new system felt incredibly minor compared to the effort of making it. A friend later added another good point, that it conflicted with the mobile-based gameplay we were gunning for, where users enjoy constant little levels that can be left at a moment’s notice, not long PC-styled campaigns with checkpoints. Even worse, we were going to use those two weeks for polish, to make our game look better and improve the gameplay we already had. Instead, by spending those two weeks implementing this system, we entered vertical slice looking significantly less flashy and put-together. If I had to name a single choice that most resulted in our game dying, it was the decision to implement that campaign system instead of commit to the bite-sized levels.

We were not plagued with any of the typical problems besetting a cancelled game. The four of us are good friends and worked hard every day creating new features, improving the old and remaining on schedule. Week after week we completed everything on our to-do list on time and under budget. I personally spent over $400 securing commissioned sprites and music, something we’d been told is an important step in passing vertical slice. Shame I couldn’t afford to spend more, as Tyler took our environments directly from the Unity Asset store, and they looked bland and generic as a result. This problem wasn’t completely our fault: the university had initially told us that we’d be cooperating with graphic art students at the University of San Jose, and it wasn’t until a week into pre-production they’d admitted the deal had fallen through. I’d leaned heavily on building my team around programming rather than artists for this reason, but I should note that we weren’t the only group severely-affected by this, and every other game survived vertical slice. Several other groups had artist/musician friends who agreed to work for free on their projects, but I paid mine market rates because I feel like professionals deserve to be paid for their work. Every freelancer, myself included, has found themselves in the situation where friends are begging them for free work, and it sucks. Harlan Ellison was the focus of a documentary called “Dreams With Sharp Teeth“, and he has an amazing scene where he explains why artists who work for free are negatively hurting the entire creative industry:

 

 

So I guess I can be proud that I wasn’t part of this problem from the contractee side. Medical Necessity paid for it, though. But honestly, in the long run I can’t help but feel a little relieved. Sure I’m disappointed the project got canceled, but I’d never wanted to be a creative director, and it was really difficult trying to lead other people. And it was really stressful to watch as the game slowly transitioned away from what I envisioned. Honestly, I didn’t even find the final product fun, and if I ever reattempt the premise, I’ll be tackling it from a completely different perspective. (Probably an arcadey, unrealistic shoot-em-up with powerups and no reloads.) And more importantly, I’ll be doing it alone.

New game! Road Rage

I made another in-browser game! This one doesn’t use my own art (I only had a few days to make it) and the assignment was to practice level design so I needed to make a bunch of maps with different themes.

Road Rage

I tried to make each map play different from the others. The cityscape is really cluttered, the island is more open. The bridges map is mostly corridors and long-range combat, the Crossfire map is claustrophobic and bullets will (unlike every other map) rebound off walls and remain in the playable space until colliding with another bullet. And the circus map has bouncy walls, meaning players will rebound if they crash into obstacles

Also, if you’re wondering where those dev diaries went, I’m posting them on the other blog every Saturday. Here’s the first one, you can figure it out from there.

Dev Diary #0

New quarter, new set of dev diaries! They didn’t actually assign one this week, but I’m writing one anything just for recordkeeping purposes. These upcoming Dev Diaries are gonna have a slightly different tone from the old ones because we need to write them as if they were press releases. So kinda like the “What We Are Up To” updates the Killing Floor 2 devs love to release. And I don’t think a press release would talk about the first (and, honestly, only) hurdle we had to tackle: somehow it wasn’t until our third meeting as a team that I finally discovered none of them played shooters. Like, there were fundamental elements to the core concept of shooters that they were really missing. So yesterday, we skipped our daily meeting and all played Team Fortress 2 together on a server full of bots. They had a blast, learned a lot about the relationship between different classifications of firearm, and I’m hoping I can get them to play Counter-Strike next, even if it probably won’t be as fun and accessible.

And on every other front, we’re ahead of the 8-ball. San Jose University dropped a bombshell that they won’t be sharing their artists with us next year, which affects every team except us because we already have Will and his art degree. Unity decided to restrict free Unity Collab to teams of three or less, which all the teams are freaking out about. Luckily, my team is only four people and I don’t program, so the other three just made a Collab and we’re off to the races. Me, I’ve been working on a design wiki, since I love making wikis and I’ve found it a great way to sort my thoughts out in a clear, understandable way. Enjoy looking at what you see, because my team requested that I port everything to a private wiki so we aren’t forced to commit to everything I write down. A reasonable concern, I just have an uncontrollable urge to publish everything I ever work on so the hypothetical masses can see it. I really need to work on reining that in.

weapons.png

Had fun making these little filler icons too. They’re not Rembrandt, but I do think I’m getting better at pixel art. 

 

Ford project conclusion

In an NDA-friendly nutshell, Ford Motor Company showed up and invited everyone to pitch games that fulfilled very specific criteria. The three winners got three thousand dollars each, and my game was one of the three winners. I’m not gonna lie, it feels weird thinking that I just won three-thousand dollars for making a game.

I’ve been thinking about why I won. There were some great games up against me. Honestly, I think it was my presentation. I printed my cards out on cardstock, the Heroes and Weapons were light blue decks, the Culprits and Catastrophes were pink, and The President was yellow. The font was professional and the text was properly spaced. and I brought a sheet full of 40 card artworks I paid $120 for, just to hammer home that I was serious about my game looking spick and span. Most of my competitors were using hand-drawn cards or, even worse, scraps of papers.

Update: I talked to the prof, and he says the reason I won was because of how flexible I demonstrated the concept was. How you could basically delete the entire game’s content and replace it with an entirely original frame narrative with all-new keywords. Considering I added that in last-minute, it’s nice to hear that helped. 

The other reason I won, IMO, was that my opponents forgot a few of the requirements. Ford said they needed a game playable by 2-5 players, and several of the other games were not two-player compatible (granted, neither was mine, but that’s why I added a 2-player variant in the ‘alternate rulesets’ section). Ford said the game needed to stimulate natural conversation, so half of my opponents made codeword-based games. This was the wrong call on their part, codewords are the exact opposite of natural conversation.

The real question is what happens next. I’ve spoken to the other two winners, they’re buying iPhones with their winnings. I want to invest it into this game, because everyone is telling me this game is amazing. Most people seem to think I should start a Kickstarter, and I’m not against the idea in theory. So I guess let’s cover that option first.

Option 1: Self-publish. In this day and age, self-published board games are downright commonplace. More than any other creative industry, the board game industry has loads of support for the developer who wants to skip the rat race and market to consumers directly. My battle strategy would probably look like “create a public domain prototype (not a normal step, but mandatory in this case because the 66 cards in my Ford prototype are required to be public domain) –> market it through the Daily SPUF, reddit, twitter etc –> people fall in love with the free version hopefully as hard as all my playtesters do –> create kickstarter and make money –> use money to pay artists and, uh, I guess that’s it until –> use an online card-printing company so people can order decks printed on demand and sent to their house.

Pros: I make way more money than option 2. I retain full creative control. I have many different groups who can market for me, from Mom and her businesspeople to my internet circles and UCSC. Also, I can technically skip the part where I earn startup money because the costs are extremely minimal for this particular project.

Cons: Fuckton of work. High chance of failure due to the nature of the industry. Will never reach as many customers as option 2.

Option 2: Pitch game to a publisher. Use the extremely positive reception from my playtesters to sell the game to Milton Bradley or Parker Brothers. Far as I can tell, I basically hand them the game, they do whatever they like and I just get a slice of the sales forever.

Pros: It’ll be in Targets and Wal*Marts and shit for free. They’ll do marketing and other stuff for me.

Cons: I’ll have to explain the public domain thing. I will lose a bunch of creative control. I’ll make less money in the end of the day (unless it takes off beyond my wildest dreams. But even then I’m not sure how much money I’d get after corporate takes their cuts)

Other issues: Not sure The Just Us League title is going to pass legal, but I’m having a lot of trouble thinking of a name with the same punch. Heroes of Just Us is best but has the “Begging To If you Seek Amy” problem. As previously mentioned, the core cards are mandatory public domain since they won the contest. (I retain no rights to them, but Ford doesn’t either). My only option for selling is to make a bunch more cards and sell those as like “expansion packs” to the free-to-play base game, or to make dapper glossy artwork’ed versions and justify a price on those extra bits. Ford’s gotta be okay with that, right?

This is all something to worry about after the Greenlight pitches. Luckily I’m not even fussed about whether I win or not. Gimme a choice and I’ll take $3K and working on someone else’s game for the rest of the year.