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.

Stress Management For the Hyperanalytical

There’s a point a highly stressed person reaches where their thoughts no longer follow a cohesive line. Instead, the brain moves rapidly and haphazardly from one thought to another, leaving no discernible trail. Any attempt to gain focus or grab onto something is hopeless; synapses misfire and the mind flails. There’s probably a medical definition for people in this state, but it’s easier for me to think of it as simply “crossing the line.”

After another day of barely making it through my responsibilities, I’m trying to find my way back over the line to the realm of sanity. Unfortunately, there’s no clear process to follow, and I usually just try to sleep it off with the hope that tomorrow will bring a mental sea change for me. That, and I write.

People handle pressure in all kinds of ways. Some play sports. Some dance. Some paint. Some ignore it while it wells up inside. Some write. But there’ll always be those moments where you can’t bring yourself to kickstart your sluggish body into the activity that helps sort things out. And after spending thirty minutes just getting to the end of this third paragraph, this week seems to be one of those times.

I know how this plays out, and I’m not worried. Periods of major transition are always stressful as the mind and body adapts to its new surroundings. Things will calm down eventually. But it’s disheartening not being able to write my way through it.

I’ll just close this out by saying that I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about mortality, happiness and personal relevance. (Nothing too heavy or anything.) One thing I’m struggling to figure out for myself right now is how to chart a course for a life that’s meaningful to me when my culture pushes me to aim for audacious and even brazen goals. Why spend existence pursuing the unattainable? Sure, it’s a good way to get a lot done, but at what point can you allow yourself to feel satisfied? Never achieving the things you strive for isn’t a sustainable path through life—at least, not for me.

I know when I’m old and my body’s failing I won’t care about my professional achievements. All that ultimately matters is cultivating a rich inner life and an authentic and enriching social presence. The struggle, I think, is writing your own definition for professional success. What does “job satisfaction” actually mean? Where should work fit on your personal hierarchy of needs? And where should you look for meaning in your work?

A few years ago, I wrote down a quote from a speech I admire. I never write things down, and I never pin them up on my wall in conspicuous places, but this quote from Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech is still hanging in my bedroom, next to the door I see on my way out into the world every day:

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

It’s a great quote. It still resonates with me. But I went back to that speech and found a new section that suddenly seems far more significant:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Making time

Since we’re at the halfway mark for the year, I’ve been thinking about how well I’m tracking on some of the goals I set for myself. One area I wanted to invest more time in is Silicon Sasquatch.

At the beginning of the year I decided I wanted to grow as an editor and site manager while also getting my writing chops back up to snuff. Six months into the year, I think I’ve been partially successful. In terms of management and editing, I feel like I’ve done a passable job of getting the other writers’ work reviewed and published within a reasonable time frame. (The main exception being a freelance writer who I desperately owe some feedback and edits to — sorry about that!) Considering I’ve had no set schedule or concrete goals set for myself, things have gone pretty well.

In terms of original writing, it’s another story altogether. I’ve barely published anything under my name all year. Writing is absolutely vital to my success — it’s a big part of what got me where I am — and I can’t let a craft I love fall into disrepair.

So here’s what I’m going to try for the foreseeable future:

Silicon Sasquatch is now a part-time job. I owe a minimum of one hour per day every weekday on writing, editing, site management, or some other work that benefits the site.

It seems logical that framing my blog as a job (not work, though) will compel me to keep up with it more consistently. If you’re struggling to keep up with your own projects or ambitions, setting concrete expectations for yourself may be more beneficial than you’d think.

27

27 * 2 = 54.

27 * 3 = 81.

27 * 4 = long dead.

Birthdays aren’t all that significant. Life doesn’t adjust on a fixed schedule, and once you’ve passed 21 there aren’t any real meaningful legal benefits to growing older for quite a while.

But it is kind of reassuring to know I can count almost precisely how many times I’ve flown around the sun. I like to keep a perspective of absolute insignificance — that things are happening all the time on a scale I can’t possibly comprehend and that I’m nothing but a minuscule variable in some irrational equation. It’s nice in the same way that having someone step in to cover a shift for you when you’re feeling miserable is nice: the weight’s off your shoulders, just a little bit, and you can breathe again.

“Perspective” is the word I keep coming back to when I look back on my last year. I’ve been so wrapped up in arbitrary things like career goals and increasing my other blog’s output that I spent barely any time on the stuff I really care about. I’ve only been to the park maybe twice in the last year. I finished three, maybe four books in that time. I don’t think I’ve taken a day to just relax and not worry since last summer.

It’s so easy to spend life fretting about how you can best position yourself for success. Every minute that passes can feel like a missed opportunity, and finding the “right path” is a fictitious concept that’s frighteningly easy to obsess over. I think struggling is a necessary part of life, but too much of my last year was squandered worrying about when and how I’d find a way to get to where I want to be.

My birthday present to myself as I officially enter my late twenties is to stop worrying about finding the right path or the right perspective and, instead, to just do what I know is right. I’ve been habitually doubting my gut instincts for quite some time under the guise of testing myself to make sure I’m always being cautious, thorough and absolute. But when it comes to enjoying life and developing a sense of self-reliance, it’s a pretty shitty way of doing things.

This year I’m gonna throw caution to the wind a bit more, spend less time worrying about things outside of my control, give up on any pursuits that aren’t valuable or fulfilling, and just give myself the time and space to breathe, think and exist. That’s where the best things always come from.

This year I will learn to stop worrying and love the bomb.