Review: Hyperbole and a Half – Allie Brosh

I just finished reading the Hyperbole and a Half book. It was pretty wonderful in a lot of ways. I wrote a slightly longer review on Goodreads, which is also very helpfully reproduced below. You should follow me on that site if you like books and like hearing about the ones I read.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That HappenedHyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Allie Brosh’s charmingly crude art and blunt, authentic writing translated well to a book format. I only wish there had been more of Brosh’s commentary and inner monologue throughout the book — background and commentary on early/popular blog posts that made it into the book, for example. The production was also disappointingly unadorned, although the simplistic style fits the source material well.

View all my reviews

Stuff I’ve learned from working independently

Abstract: I’ve been working independently on game development full-time for the last couple months. People often ask me how things are going, whether I’m enjoying myself and what my next steps are. Rather than respond to all of the above with a succinct and accurate “I don’t know,” I decided to write a bunch of other stuff about my experiences so far in the hopes of shedding some light on the mysterious creative process and to provide some context and advice for anyone who’s thinking about doing something similar. I think there’s a huge potential for personal and professional growth from taking your career into your own hands, but it’s one of the hardest paths to take, and the more you can prepare yourself for the challenges that come with it, the better your odds of success are.


I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned from making a career shift from the familiar into the unknown. I’ve talked to lots of friends who dream about starting their own companies or developing a skill or craft into a career, but very few people I know actually follow through on it.

Honestly, they’re probably the smart ones; going independent is a terrifying, uncertain and, on some level, somewhat foolish thing to do. Having a routine, steady income and benefits is nothing to scoff at, and freedom can be suffocating when it’s all you’ve got. But these challenges aren’t insurmountable, and knowing a bit more about what you’ve gotten yourself into can make a huge difference.

So I thought I’d share a few thoughts about how to struggle, fail and occasionally succeed with a bit of grace.

feelin' fine

A lot of you have been asking how work on my game is going, and I feel like I haven’t really responded with a good answer. I’ve been meaning to be more transparent and share more updates about the game I’m working on since it’s taking up so much of my time, but instead, I haven’t said much at all.

Why? Because I was afraid of admitting that it’s not all roses on the path to independent success. Truthfully, it’s kind of a mess: There’s no tried-and-true method for shipping a “real” game, and as a result I usually don’t know what I’m doing at any given time. Like so many great success stories, I’m mostly making things up as I go.

i have no idea

And that’s fine — that’s how we learn — but it’s not exactly giving me the confidence to stand up and proclaim the virtues of the path I’ve chosen. It’s certainly not the kind of path I’d recommend without reservation. If we’re being honest here, it’s actually kind of a shitty path; the kind with loose rocks strewn about to trip you up and that kind of tall, itchy grass that irritates the hell out of your ankles and camouflages wild Pokémon. If I sat down to write a Yelp review of this path, I wouldn’t be able to decide between a 1 or a 5 star rating and would just close the tab out of frustration. But I never wanted a rose garden; I wanted to work hard, to push myself, to walk away at the end more knowledgable and capable than ever. I made my bed, so I guess I’ll have to write my C# in it.

Of course, I wasn’t jumping in with blind faith that things would just work out on their own. I knew there’d be lots of hard work. I knew I’d have plenty of days when I didn’t know where to go next or how to solve the next set of problems. But I honestly didn’t anticipate what a toll those doubts and uncertainties can take on a person.

It sucks not knowing how to get from point A to point B. We spend so much of our lives in environments where there’s an established structure and way of doing things — in school, sports, careers, clubs, and so on — that it can be jarring to try to succeed in a vacuum where no mutually agreed-upon methodology exists. It doesn’t come naturally, which means you’re bound to struggle in finding a way to success, which means there’s gonna be some anxiety. Not just any kind of anxiety, either; this is some harsh, unyielding, end-of-Toy-Story-anxiety.

Or, in other words: Just because I know how to write code, design and manage projects, design interfaces, animate sprites, create music, generate sound effects, build websites, manage social media and promote a product (whew) doesn’t mean I can just sit down and crank through everything step-by-step for this project without having a few niggling doubts creep up and threaten to derail the whole thing. Fortunately, doubts can be defused before they totally ruin your day.

TL;DR 

If there’s one crucial thing I’ve learned from trying to make something out of nothing on my own, it’s that the greatest challenge doesn’t come from actually executing on the work — which runs contrary to what I’d expected. If you’ve got an idea you’re excited about, inspiration and execution will eventually follow.

Instead, the greatest challenge I’ve encountered is navigating those doubts, uncertainties and anxieties that crop up without warning or invitation and foul up all your best-laid plans for making a damn thing and getting it done before you go broke or crazy. It’s not easy to develop and internalize a support system for the times when I encounter a roadblock, am stumped by a problem or am just feeling like I got in way over my head. When you’re a member of an organization, you can always fall back on an implicit support system — your peers, the rules and regulations that come with your position, the precedent set by others, etc. — and there’s a sort of safety net that comes with that familiarity.

But when you’re doing something on your own, you’re in free-fall. There are no backups, no failsafes, no quick fixes. It’s liberating, but it’s also dangerous.

The best solution I’m aware of is to structure your own stability so you can be productive without reservation. Some ways to do that:

  • Meet people who care about the things you care about. I’ve had mixed results with the Seattle independent game development community, but I know there are a lot of inspired, creative, hard-working people in this area whom I could benefit from knowing. Going to meetups and grabbing coffee to catch up and chat can provide the sort of context-setting you need to take stock of where you’re at and how things are going.
  • Make it work first, then make it not suck: Nothing you do is ever going to be perfect on the first pass. (Sorry.) Even if it is, there’s no telling whether your insanely clever innovation will have any place in the scope of the final product. The most important thing to keep in mind is momentum- find a solution and move on before you wind up banging your head against a wall. Components can always be polished up in time, and worrying too much about perfect execution can wear you out before you get a chance to build up some creative momentum.
  • Don’t be afraid to dumb things down. It’s always easy to add complexity, but taking it away down the road is much harder. Think of your project like a Jenga tower.
  • Own your time. Build timetables; map out dependencies; make sure you’re always working to understand the full scope of your project and the work that’s required to make it happen.
  • Hold yourself accountable for your own success. Track your work. Examine how you spend your time if you’re having trouble focusing on what needs to get done.
  • Take the time you need to make sure your baseline is structurally sound. If you’re feeling disconnected or frustrated with what you’re working on, take the time to figure out why. What sucks? What could be better? Contrastingly, what’s going well? Taking inventory of the bad and the good gives you a better perspective and helps you fix stuff before it gets worse.
  • Ask for advice. This is one I’ve always struggled with. There’s no shame in asking for help. Doing everything yourself might seem admirable, but there’s no substitute for the experience and expertise that others can share.
  • Give yourself permission to have fun. Creativity and anxiety don’t mix. If you’re having fun in dreaming something up and making it come to life, it’ll often show through in the final product. That’s a good thing. Enjoy the ride and grant yourself the freedom to poke fun at whatever you’re doing.

I don’t know where I’ll be in six months or a year, but it’s a good feeling knowing that I’ve already learned a fair bit about how to stay focused and chart my own course even when the path forward isn’t obvious. Whether you wind up in the same place by choice or by happenstance, having the right perspective can mean all the difference between embracing chaos and succumbing to it.

Doubt

For the last few years, I’ve been writing pretty actively on this thing called 750Words. It’s based on a concept called “morning pages,” an idea that you can do your best work if you spend the first few minutes of your morning dumping everything you can out onto three blank pages (which adds up to approximately 750 words). This is a good concept, and it seems like a decent method for overcoming writer’s block.

The problem is that my own published output has dwindled quite a bit as a result. I’ve gone back and looked at the weeks and months where I’m most active on 750Words, and during those times I wind up not writing a whole lot for this blog, Silicon Sasquatch or anything else I contribute to.

Call it selfish or call it pragmatic, but I want to get my words out in public more frequently. So I’m gonna try something different: I’ll use this blog for the same purpose, more or less. It’ll be censored to some extent simply by virtue of the fact that it’s a public, visible website, but I wouldn’t ever compromise my values on my own blog.

I’m back from a long trip and am trying to refocus my energy around this ideal of…I guess I don’t know what you’d call it, exactly. This notion, or this belief, that I can make it as a game developer. It’s an untested idea. But I feel like, at this point, I need to really take stock of where I’m at, update my original gameplan, and redouble my efforts so I can kick this thing’s ass.

I’m a realist, and I’m pragmatic. I don’t do things if I don’t see the path to success, and while sometimes that causes me to be too risk-averse it also means I’m a pretty methodical and strategic person. So the strange thing is with game development I can see that path to success. I see all the components that add up to a successful shipped product, and I understand how to link all the steps together to get from here to there. And I think that, one way or another, I’m capable of creating all the elements of a game. I understand design; I’ve been creating visual art and music and sound for years; I’m not the worst programmer I’ve ever met; and I’m a pretty hardcore social media enthusiast. (Unsurprising, considering where I spent the last few years working.) But if those are all the elements, and I believe I can orchestrate this chaos into order, what’s stopping me?

As usual, it’s doubt.

Doubt is the shittiest mental construct I’m aware of. Of course it’s helpful if you’re considering doing something life-threatening or severely disruptive, but when it stems from something innocuous, that’s when it becomes a burden.

The doubts that have kept me from going all-in on game development are the harmless ones. As usual, my subconscious is my own worst enemy, feeding me with doubts about whether game development can actually empower me to help others and to have a meaningful impact on people’s lives. Shouldn’t I go get an advanced degree instead? Or maybe get back into the social media and technology world?

For years I’d hoped those voices of doubt would go away, but I’m starting to realize that’s not very likely. There will always be reason to second-guess the decisions I make, and ultimately, that’s probably for the best. What’s important is having the strength to trust your gut and follow through without worrying too much about the consequences. I’m driven to make meaningful games and to help contribute to a medium I see so much promise and potential for value in; it’d be crazy not to give it my all, at least for a few months.

I’ve invested a great deal over the past couple months in building out my toolbox and teaching myself the bizarre, arcane science of game-making. I’m in a much better place than I was before. I think at this point, there really isn’t much of a question: I should keep going.

And hey: even if I do wind up broke and destitute, at least I’ll have some great stories to share.

Abandoned titles for the blog post about coming back to Austin that I’ll never write

  • You Can Never Go Home Again, but You Can Always Eat Breakfast Tacos
  • One-Dollar Bus, Seven-Dollar Beer
  • Austintatious
  • Oh, Right. Humidity.

Arrested Development

I’m frustrated.

I love games; that’s no secret. Watching a medium grow from an 8-bit curiosity to a transformative and omnipresent fact of life has been fascinating. There’s something that’s driving me to help play a small part in making interactive media as relevant and meaningful as possible; I’m still a little fuzzy on how I’ll ultimately wind up doing that, but I’ve loved honing my skills and trying things out every step of the way.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Hundreds of game developers, independents and big-name publisher types alike, see the vast, untapped potential in this medium that’s still so misunderstood and underestimated by most of society. Their passion and confidence inspires me to keep trying, to keep working through the rough days.

But I struggle to reconcile the progress and innovation I’m seeing on the development side with the exclusionist rancor that still defines so many gamers. In other words, the stereotypical image of the racist, misogynist, homophobic, privileged white guy sitting at home in shorts and a button-down shirt, spouting vitriol over his headset and posting incendiary responses to any author who challenges his dominance is still alive and well. The “gamer” is very real, and he’s an asshole.

Maybe that’s the problem. I’ve never defined myself as a “gamer” any more than I’ve called myself a “reader” or “runner” or “car-driver.” To take a single facet of your life and define yourself by it is something I’ve always shied away from. It can be empowering to identify so strongly with a single thing, but it can also corrupt the rest of your life. I don’t want to make games because of some bizarre belief that they’re the culmination of human achievement. They’re not. They’re simply a new and rapidly evolving means of shared ideas and expression. And I want to believe there’s a strong and growing audience out there of people who also see games not as a way of life but as a necessary component of being well-rounded and culturally conscious — people who want to be challenged not just in how many headshots they can score in a round of team deathmatch but by complex moral questions, evidence-driven historical debates, and experiencing a moment in time from a point of view that’s very different from their own.

Then there’s the issue of survival. I need to make money at this at some point, which means I need to go out on a limb and hope that I can not only make the sort of games that appeal to this sort of thoughtful consumer, but that I can also market it well, distribute it well, and have enough luck on my side to get the exposure it needs. And that’s all assuming whatever I make winds up being polished enough to sell. But those are my own challenges to take on.

What keeps me going is this belief that I’m not the only one who wants to see games that challenge us to see differently, to think critically and to spark new conversations in our own lives. If that’s the case, the demand for those sorts of games is probably a great deal higher than the supply. I want to help change that.

Legality aside, stop checking your work email all the time

It’s now illegal to check your work email after 6 p.m. in France, as FastCompany reports via The Guardian. I’d say I know next to nothing about legal norms and processes in France since the Revolution, but I’m expecting I’ll see two very different opinions circling about this news.

One group will point out how ridiculous, even invasive it is to have the government regulating when you can and can’t do work. They’ll point to this as Big Brother-style governance and question what a state could do if it asserts power over an individual to such a discrete degree. I think those are all valid concerns; I mean, it is a weird-ass law.

The other group, however, will point to this as yet another example of how much it sucks to be a worker in the United States compared to most other developed nations. We guarantee far fewer rights to time off, parental leave, healthcare, and other benefits that are just considered basic decency in other comparable cultures. Those are also all valid concerns to me.

It seems highly unlikely to me that anyone in the French government would levy a fine against an employee for violating work-email curfew, however. If anything, it sounds like a way to guarantee employees the right to separation between work and personal life if they’re ever challenged by an employer for not meeting implicit expectations. In my own experience with the tech world, there’s often a tacit (if not outright spoken) agreement that no job can be done in just 40 hours per week. If you’re not responding to emails in the evenings and early mornings, you’re not “plugged in” enough to your role. You’re letting your peers down.

Meanwhile, countries like France and Germany mandate a 35-hour work week.

I’m not in favor of government telling people they can’t work. I like that, historically, the United States has avoided imposing limitations on how a person spends their time and money. But there’s no question in my mind that, as the wealth gap continues to grow and the middle class has dwindled consistently throughout my lifetime, things are getting worse for the average worker in the U.S. Even if we laugh at or decry a law like the one in question, we ought to consider if we’re vouching for our own well-being and rights or simply echoing what the wealthy elite have been trumpeting as “the American Dream” for so long. Put in more blunt terms, what’s the point of participating in jingoism if you’re being manipulated into getting the short end of the deal?

Instead of focusing on how and why these practices became law in other countries, I want to see more of a conversation domestically about why we don’t offer paid vacation time, paid maternity or paternity leave or even more flexible amounts of unpaid maternity leave (here’s a good comparison).

But until those conversations start happening, there’s something you can do for yourself: turn your phone off anyway. Don’t sacrifice your personal life for fear of your job performance. If there’s no explicit requirement in your job description to be on-call, challenge any implication from management or peers that says otherwise.

What’s new with me

It’s been an awfully long time since the last update. I guess a lot’s been happening? Maybe we should talk about that? I don’t know. Lists are easy; let’s go with a list.

  • I started a job with Nintendo late last year.
  • I left that job not too long ago.
  • I’ve been focusing all my energy on building up my game development skills in the intervening weeks. I figure if I don’t do it now, when will I ever get the chance again?
  • I dove straight in to learning Unity and worked my way through a dozen-odd tutorials and how-to guides. I made about a dozen mini-games or projects as a result. Most of them aren’t worth sharing, but I might revisit a couple to polish them up and make them more fun.
  • I entered games into a few game jams. One of them did pretty well, and one of them did very poorly. I learned a lot from both of them.
  • I went to San Francisco to crash this year’s Game Developers Conference since passes were outlandishly expensive. I still met a lot of people and had a great time, especially at Lost Levels.
  • This isn’t exactly résumé material, but I finished Dark Souls, which was about as grueling as all of my college admissions and placement exams combined.
  • I’ve spent the last couple weeks working on a single game that I’m not ready to talk about just yet, but I’m hopeful it’ll turn out to be something a lot of people are able to enjoy. Writing a game engine from scratch in JavaScript is kind of a pain but at least I’m learning a lot. I hope to have something to share in a few weeks.

I could write a whole lot more about what brought me to this point and what it’s been like trying to stake out a career on my own, and I probably will at some point. But I’d be lying if I said these past few months haven’t been some of the most challenging I’ve ever encountered, and I’d rather save that story for a later date — once it has an ending or a moral to take away from it. As it stands, everything is really tiring right now and while I hope it’s going to pay off in the long run, it’s a little too early to say just yet.

The Designer’s High

Building a Nordic dungeon in Skyrim

Building a Nordic dungeon in Skyrim

I spent most of my free time this past week messing around in Bethesda’s Creation Kit, the proprietary tool for creating content for Skyrim.  I remember as a young kid I used to lose hours at a time building and refining virtual worlds in games, and it seems that age has done little to teach me how to watch the clock better. That’s fine by me; the time I’m spending crafting caves, dungeons and houses and populating them with light, objects and people is almost euphoric.

What I’m talking about is usually described as being in a state of flow — kind of like a runner’s high (or a designer’s, in this case). For me, flow can only be found when I’m actively designing things — books, videogame levels, small-team projects, snippets of code, newspapers, and everything else in between. Something about that kind of work, where you’re constantly nudging things into place and taking leaps of faith based on intuition, is unlike anything else for me.

There are other things I love doing too, like writing or coaching people or analyzing media, but I’m always very much aware of the energy I’m expending and the time that’s passing while I work on each of those things. It’s hard work, and that’s good to have in your life. But now that I’ve sort of rediscovered just how natural and effortless the design process feels to me, I feel like I need to spend some time thinking long and hard about how that should inform the planning of my career.

Writing Again

I just finished reading The Making of Prince of Persia: Journals 1985-1993. It’s a collection of Jordan Mechner’s personal journal entries from the moment he graduated from Yale throughout the development process and post-release support of the original, classic Prince of Persia up through demonstrating the then-in-development sequel at a trade show.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked it up. We owned a copy of the Mac port of Prince on our old Quadra when I was young, but truthfully I never finished the game. (I remember being distinctly terrified by the “shadow man” who leapt out of the mirror a few levels into the game.) But having played Mechner’s subsequent games, the beautiful and unforgiving The Last Express and Ubisoft’s brilliantly reimagined Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, I figured there was a lot I could learn from seeing the process behind the making of a classic.

It’s a great read, especially if you’re familiar with Prince of Persia or just curious about what game development in the ’80s and ’90s was like. (I’m guessing that audience is growing exponentially slimmer by the year.) But it also reminded me that I used to keep journals of my own. I updated them pretty frequently, too.

Why’d I stop? Why does anyone stop? Life intervenes, or you convince yourself that it has, and you resign yourself humbly to the notion that, well, doing is better than thinking, and who the hell’s ever going to care about what I write to myself, anyway? Still, there’s something intangible and valuable that journaling does. It stimulates the creative portion of your mind; it asks you to get real. It gives you, ultimately, a chance to meet your audience at regular intervals — your “personal board of directors,” to use a phrase a friend of mine’s fond of — and to take stock of where you’re at.

Life has brought me to an interesting juncture. I’m in Seattle, unemployed, and just today signed a one-year lease on a wonderful bungalow in the Wallingford neighborhood with Nae and her six-pound wonderdog, Baxter. I have some money saved up and I’m here to do something. Make games, ostensibly. Easier said than done. Still, the process of creating is a wonderful one, and it’s something my last jobs haven’t given me the opportunity to do. The time I’ve spent crafting dungeons in Skyrim and assembling alien worlds piece-by-piece in GameMaker has been some of the most rewarding work I’ve done in years, and it feels like such a natural use of time that my mind enters a high-productivity state and the hours just melt away. It’s sheer bliss.

So my challenge to myself is to keep thinking about what I’m doing and to take a few minutes every day to write about it. Even if it’s just a paragraph I scribble out on my iPhone before crawling into bed. Even if it’s a link to a banal image meme. Whatever. I just need to document what I’m doing now because I think it’s the best (maybe the only?) way to chart out where I’m going from here. It’s a critical time in my life and I’d like to think I’m on the road to something great. It’s just a matter of making sure I stay in touch with what’s right for me.

Exeunt Omnes

Aut inveniam viam aut faciam

This post has been a long time coming, but so have the events leading up to it. I’m just glad that I can share some news more broadly, explain why it’s such a good thing and — most importantly — talk about what’s next.

A few weeks ago, after a months-long period of intense introspection, I made the difficult decision to leave Facebook. Actually, “difficult” is an understatement; Facebook was the first job I ever had that pushed me to be more than I was, and each hard-fought victory instilled a genuine sense of progress within me. I felt myself getting better at getting things done as the months flew by. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that great jobs weren’t just the stuff of legend; they’re real, and man, what a difference finding that kind of job can make. So when I say I’d always feared giving up something so rare, hopefully you’ll understand why.

But the ideal of a “great job” isn’t just different for every person. As it turns out, they’re fluid — temporary at best. And after a few months of slowing personal growth and a growing yearning within me to push myself in new and unexplored directions, I began to come to terms with it.

Ironically, it was Facebook that ultimately convinced me to make the jump. One of my favorite things about the company’s culture are the awesome posters that are designed by the Facebook Analog Research Laboratory. Maybe the most famous one is the one that asks “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” It’s a question I asked myself more frequently as I began to suspect that it was time to pursue new challenges.

So one day, while cleaning my apartment, I found a smaller version that my friend had picked up for me while visiting the main office in Menlo Park. I stopped and stared at it, and suddenly — finally — everything just clicked. I knew what I would do if I wasn’t afraid; the only challenge left was to overcome that fear.

what_would_you_do_if_you_weren't_afraidFacebook also brought me to Austin, and I can’t decide which one I grew to love more. Facebook gave me a challenging and rewarding atmosphere where I could push myself and grow alongside some wonderful, talented and genuine peers, and Austin brought me an eminently livable city full of parks, live music and — of course — the inimitable majesty of the Alamo Drafthouse.

But change is important, and ever since I began feeling the tendrils of domestication and “settling down” seeping into my brain I knew I was running out of time to try another new city.

So: I’m moving to Seattle, a city I’ve always loved, and I’m shifting my career into game development, a passion that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me.

It’s funny: I’d always feared acknowledging the depth and intensity of my love for video games as a medium for communication and expression. Games are often misunderstood as crass, senseless violence simulators or mere toys for children, and the truth is that there’s so much power in interactive storytelling that’s just now beginning to come to light. It’s something I’ve always sensed as a kid — it’s what drew me to games from my earliest years — and after spending a lifetime closely following the medium’s growth and maturation I’m ready to take the plunge into participating in some small way.

Which brings me to this blog post and, in turn, this blog itself. I’m planning on going all-in on game development, and I have no misgivings about the uncertain nature of my future there. I may hate it; I may fail miserably; I may realize all those years in Austin’s blistering heat has somehow, in a cruel twist of fate, instilled in me a permanent hatred of overcast weather. There are lots of risks, and I’m doing everything I can to be mindful of them. But the possible benefits of chasing a dream I’ve had my entire life — and being able to leverage my skills in design, production, and operations to make something I’ve always loved — makes the chance entirely worthwhile.

I’m ramping up my job search in the coming days, and my goal is to land a position at an awesome developer where I can add some value from my design and operations background. However, experience speaks volumes, especially in the games industry. With that in mind, I’m also going to challenge myself to be making things: games, mods, demos, proofs-of-concept, and whatever else comes to mind.

I need to keep myself accountable in getting that stuff done, so you’ll be seeing a lot more from me as I chronicle the challenges and small victories of learning a new industry’s language and familiarize myself with a number of new tools. I’m planning to start a dev blog over at Silicon Sasquatch, but I’ll probably wind up posting a few things here as well.

Anyway. That’s what’s up. Austin’s been great and Facebook was an irreplaceable experience for me, but I’m ready to take on the next challenge and face my fears. Stay tuned.