Environmental Storytelling for Dummies

When it comes to energizing your creative mind, there’s really something to be said for pretending you know how to make something and then telling a bunch of people you’re going to make that thing. Biting off more than you can chew can be really stressful, especially when you’ve got a reputation riding on it, but it’s true that necessity is the mother of invention.

I decided to pitch in to my third game jam for itch.io once I saw the theme – “Space Cowboy” – and the host – Venus Patrol. I have a soft spot in my heart for whatever the hell the space-cowboy genre is (if it’s even well-established enough to be considered a genre?) and Venus Patrol is the source of some wonderful game appreciation right out of my dear old home, Austin.

I hear that a lot of great games start with a single moment or experience in the creator’s mind. This was a first for me, but when I set out to make this game I had one specific vignette in mind: a bounty hunter in their ship, stranded on the far edge of space, set up and betrayed and left with nothing but a few cigarettes — and minutes of life support — left to burn. Do your choices matter at that point? What do you reflect on? What does the notion of a legacy mean to someone who’s about to die alone and outside of distress-signal broadcast range?

That moment wound up almost exactly resembling the finished version of End Transmission. I’m actually pretty happy about that — I think it might be the best job I’ve done of tailoring the final product to my initial vision, which means I was able to clear a lot of the hurdles I encountered along the way that would’ve forced me to change direction dramatically. And oh jeez, were there hurdles.

I’d never figured out how 3D object modeling worked before I made this game, but seeing as I was fixated on making a first-person experience in 3D, I figured I’d better get my act together and learn a thing or two about vertices and faces and tesselation and all that stuff. I started using Wings3D, a modeling and rendering program that looks ancient and ugly but is still being worked on and is pretty damn powerful — and best of all, it’s free. Within a few hours I had gone from some pretty messed-up-looking spheres and cones to objects that, against all odds, started to resemble their real-world counterparts: whiskey jugs, throttle levers, ashtrays and smoldering cigarettes, and so on. It wasn’t perfect, but I learned a whole hell of a lot from it, and what is a game jam for if not pushing yourself to explore some new territory?

I wasn’t sure how the game would be received. I’m still not. But a few friends have reached out to share their feedback and that’s just been the best feeling ever. I know it’s got some big flaws, but it seems that the core message — the concept — is surviving transit between creator and player. That’s the most important thing to me, that the vision survives and resonates.

It was exhausting crossing the finish line — I think I worked three twelve-hour days in a row getting it out the door — but once it was done I couldn’t wait to dig into a few other game ideas I’d been tossing around in my brain for a long time. I feel a whole lot more confident about my ability to tackle bigger challenges than I did before, and I have a feeling that’s what makes all the difference.

 

Want to start playing games? Consider starting here.

Once in a while, someone will ask me “Hey, I haven’t played video games in a long time but it sounds like there’s some really cool stuff coming out these days. What should I play?” My answer would be the three games we talked about in this week’s Backlog entry over on Silicon Sasquatch. Each one features brilliant writing, excellent design and very accessible controls and play concepts.

  1. If a modern southern gothic story with elements of magical realism sounds cool, you’re going to love Kentucky Route Zero.
  2. If you like stories with a sharp wit and inspired puzzles in the vein of Monkey Island or Grim Fandango, you’ll love Broken Age.
  3. If you enjoy light resource management and minimalist aesthetics, A Dark Room poses some interesting dilemmas and will give you a lot to think about.

You can’t go wrong with one of these games. Hope you find something that sparks your interest.

 

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.