Development Insights – Use Deadlines As A Tool

I’ve been making very rapid progress lately on my game and in the video I explain the tool that used to make that happen: self-imposed deadlines. I realized that games that come out in a reasonable amount of time probably designed the scope of the game to match how much time devs were willing or allowed to spend. While aggressive deadlines are often seen as the culprit for rushed and flawed games, like any tool with with a sharp edge it could be used to harm or to benefit. Deadlines and other limitations can have the positive effect of influencing creative and design decisions to be lean and focused. It forces you to carefully consider what is and is not important to the game.

A Peak Into My Luxurious Executive Office

Most game developers only put up pictures of their studio space after moving into a newer, nicer one. Or when they want to add one more good reason for prospective employees to join them by showing off the completely unnecessary but awesome lounge the size of a tennis court. And when they do take pictures of the office space, it is likely dolled up with extra lighting and a meeting the day prior urging everyone to tidy up. Well, I’m sorry to say that I am no different. I want everyone to know just how fancy and pretty my office is.

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The mac is 6 years old. The keyboard is 10. I only use priceless vintage equipment when it comes to music.
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My VP of operations, Dalma, is a micromanager. He watches over my shoulder all day long as I work.
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He’s always watching.

Deadweight Video Update 1

I wanted to experiment with speaking to the camera to talk free-form about my game’s progress as well throw in other bits of insight regarding the experience of making indie games. As it’s my first foray into vlogging it could look and sound a little rough.

Deadweight Is the Name of the Game

Screenshot (269)Today, I share with you a small piece of my game Deadweight for the first time with the screenshot above. For now I’ll just say it’s a first person action-puzzle game.

The last time I posted anything on development of my game was last year in June. My intention back then was to put up regular updates on the game. I stopped doing that because the game wasn’t going in a straight line trajectory toward completion. Rather, it went on a wild loop de loop for a long time as I indecisively jumped from one idea to another. I don’t think I could have posted updates on this blog even if I wanted because you would have seen a different game every post. I spent most of 2014 flailing in the middle of the ocean with no solid land to be seen anywhere in the horizon.

What’s crazy is that I had no shortage of ideas. Ideas for games came to me at an overwhelming rate. At first I wrote them down by hand in notebooks. When I realized I barely read anything I wrote down because it’s a huge mess of undecipherable scribbles and bad handwriting, I moved over to Google docs to have a better organized and type-written account of all my ideas. After writing hundreds of pages of these, I failed to see the point in writing down anything. Over and over again, my ideas clashed violently with what I could and couldn’t actually put on the screen. Some ideas sounded good only for a day, others posed too difficult an engineering problem far beyond my capabilities, and the rest I tried out in janky prototypes that went nowhere.

That’s when I came to thoroughly understand that ideas hold very little value by itself and forming any attachments to a single idea is counterproductive. So I started writing my gameplay ideas on digital post-it notes that can be easily discarded and not saved anywhere in the hard drive. This format makes it easier to focus on testing one idea at a time and avoid forming any attachments to it. Game development is about discovery. It’s about the search. It’s about finding where your ideas align with your ability to execute on that idea.

I return to this blog because I am seeing a stable trajectory toward completion of my game. I aim to deliver regular and insightful development updates from now on until release.

On 2014

I guess now’s as good a time to look back at this year and reflect.

2014 started out a little stressful because I was out of a job and instead of aggressively looking for a new one I decided to take the deep dive and go the self-employed route. If you were someone who was used to many of life’s comforts, it was time to forget it all as they became luxuries one by one. As for all major decisions in my life, I made an objective list of pros and cons to check against my gut feeling. They were aligned. My conversations with various game industry insiders made it clear what was in store for me at any potential new job regardless of the company’s pedigree: misery and the same bullshit, just a different place. So the decision was easy, just not EASY.

With hindsight by my side, I can see what things were bothering me the most and how in the past couple of months, as corny as it sounds, I arrived at a “peaceful place.”

Artificial deadline. I created a game development timeline in which I get such and such done in this month, this and that done in the next, and I missed every “milestone” I set up. Little did I realize at the time that I was to spend over half the year just learning and getting to grips with the technology needed to make a game, namely programming. Other areas of study that I now have a handle on are user-interface, AI, animation, and much more. I’m still learning, but by the end of summer I had built enough of a foundation to begin development in earnest (what I’m making I’ll reveal in time when I feel there’s enough to show). Currently I have no idea when I will finish my game – six months, a year, maybe more? – nor do I care. I trust in the process. And that process is improving the game just a little every single day. If I improve or add or fix just one thing a day, I’m happy.

Need for success. With so many success stories flying around of indie developers who came from nowhere coming out with hits, it is difficult to enter this journey without thoughts of equal success for oneself. I admit the thought has definitely crossed my mind more than a few times. But the thought that whatever I make would amount to nothing more than a faint blip in the radar in a tidal wave of awesome, better games was crippling at first. This is obviously not a healthy idea to indulge in and I noticed it affecting my work. I’d second guess myself constantly and turned game development into a dreadful chore. I nipped this motherfucker in the bud by letting go of ALL expectations. I am no longer attached to the outcome of the project I’m currently working on. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in my game. I like very much where it’s at and I have high hopes for it’s eventual final state. While I’ll do my very best, I’m mentally prepared for the always real possibility that it’ll burn to the ground.

The balanced life. Initially I was overly concerned with having a balanced lifestyle where I’m regularly going out socializing, travelling, dating, and exercising all while working on my video game. I maintained this “balance” throughout most of the year until I reset my priorities after a particularly frightening accident. Accidents can do that I suppose. Suddenly, what I used to regard as essential appeared to be unimportant distractions that are a drain on my time and energy. I still exercise, but development is all I do now and I’ve been the happiest all year. Of course there is a time for rest, recreation, and relaxation, but I’ve determined that that time is not now. When I’ve earned it, I will return to those other areas of my life in full force – with a fucking vengeance.

The reason, I think, why I’m so happy right now despite having very few digits in the bank account, despite losing touch with friends and turning down potential girlfriends and retreating into a cave, is because I’m living the dream. Not the adult dream of wealth, security, family, or recognition but a child’s dream of making a video game about whatever the hell they want without anybody’s permission.

Merry Christmas!!

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You don’t get mad at the weather

When we find other people irksome, the natural response is to feel somewhat angry towards them or to feel annoyed by them.

Realizing that there will always be people in this world who have this affect on you more than others, I was reminded of the natural weather. We get rained on, snowed on, made to freeze and shiver violently or to sweat profusely on top of getting searing sun burns. Typhoons and floods come in and leave a wake of destruction.

Yet there is no one to blame directly, so the emotional response to the effects of weather is never personal. The weather will always be a force we can’t change, so we deal with it. We deal with it by using an umbrella, wearing warm clothing, putting on sun tan lotion, or by getting out of the way.

If we deal with other humans the same way, we might feel a lot less emotional about it and just figure out a better way to deal with them. Hell, even be amused by them.

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An emotional endurance test

Unhealthy obsession.

We’ve all been there. You are fully engaged in your work both emotionally and spiritually. You’re giving it your all to the point of obsession. You can’t think of anything else because you are doing the work you’re meant to do, the kind of work that is meaningful to you. You’re not doing busy work at a factory (which is how I felt at my previous job), but instead doing important work with artistic intent. This is what allows us to work harder than possible and longer than possible. Sometimes, though, we work our asses off to the detriment to our mental health.

I recently experienced something of an emotional breakdown. Moments before it happened I was feeling fine when suddenly I was overcome by an uncontrollable burst of weeping without any warning. I made sounds that I didn’t know a grown man could make, pouring my eyes out while lying prone. What the hell came over me? I can’t be sure but I’m willing to make some guesses.

The following is a list of ways I’d describe my life for the past several weeks:

  • Working 18 hours a day in front of my computer, everyday including weekends.
  • After getting little sleep I’d frequently wake myself up in morning with a cold shower to get out of my groggy state and get started with the day.
  • Little activity outside my bedroom. In other words, an abysmal social life.
  • Not having daily reminders that I’m alive and that I exist. Simple things like greeting someone with a “good morning” and hearing “good morning” back.

 

A lone wolf.

Working completely alone on my video game, I was feeling similar effects to what prisoners in solitary confinement must go through. Or cabin fever, just going stir crazy. I’d turn on music or an audiobook while I work, but the sound of working alone is deafening. I just didn’t realize it at the time because I was thoroughly enjoying the work, delighted by seeing my thoughts and ideas slowly realized on screen.

I’ve immersed myself deeper and deeper into game development while losing interest in everything else. Not an uncommon story. Independent game developers have the general appearance of not giving a shit about grooming, fashion, or fitness because they lose themselves in their work. They have beards. I have a beard. Game development has a way of encouraging you to experiment with your grooming habits more boldly than ever before.

Fortunately, I haven’t completely let go and gone fat or anything. In fact, I’m in better shape than ever. I’m cognizant of what I eat, maintaining a balanced diet of carbs, proteins, and fats with plenty of water to boot. I don’t mean to brag but I’ve gained nearly 20 lbs. of muscle thanks to my workout routine and diet. The only problem is I also work out in my bedroom.

 

Better way to endure.

Making a video game that reaches a high level of quality is something you sign up to do for the long term. I’m only six months in (most of those months spent on various prototypes I’ve since discarded) and I’ll need to maintain my mental health for much longer so I’m taking steps to address my ability to endure a long development process:

  • Introduce meditation into my routine. This, I think, will yield the greatest benefit of all. Meditation is nothing but flushing your mind of the gunk that tends to accumulate over time. Useless thoughts that create a nagging low level buzz of anxiety stuff our ever busy minds. Meditation allows you to look at your life from the third person perspective of someone outside looking in. It is then that you realize what you perceived to be so dire and serious is actually silly and innocuous. Meditation lets you take a step back and gives you a fresh and more accurate picture of life.
  • Give myself mental breaks by engaging in other activities. I’ve started to become more active in the local film community by volunteering my time and expertise for various video projects, namely VFX work both on set and and in post-production.
  • Add running to my exercise routine. There’s something called a “runner’s high” which I know to be a very real effect of a nice run. I’m not talking about the pansy run where you do a lap or so with a lot of walking in between. I like to run at a decent speed without stopping or walking for 4 or 5 miles. That always puts me in a fantastic mood.
  • Hang out with others/get outside. Kinda falls into the points mentioned above. Also, experiences outside and away from the computer can feed back into the creative process, filling you with new ideas and inspirations. Your time away from work can actually become productive in that way.
  • Limit periods of complete immersion. I think working really hard for 2 weeks at a time is okay, but I gotta slow down and enjoy periods of rest every so often. Recharge and get back at it with full force. Recharge and expend, recharge and expend.

 

The takeaway.

My personal meltdown that led to a brief, but startling experience of torrential crying was a weird one. I see it as my body’s way of telling me to take it easy once in a while and pace myself because the work I’m doing is a marathon, not a goddamn sprint! It’s interesting to note that independent game development is not simply a test of skill, creativity, technical expertise, and craftsmanship. It is a trial of your mind. A battle against yourself. A measure of how well you manage your emotions and mental health. Those dudes in Indie Game: The Movie are on edge for a reason. And they are champions of not only game design, but of themselves. Don’t blame them for a few loose screws – it comes with the job :)

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The abstract and the literal

The appeal of creating a literal game is immediate. You have characters who speak, emote, and express themselves through delicately crafted animation. You have 3D backgrounds that translate every piece of wood, dirt, grass, and worldly materials as we know it in real life with astonishing accuracy. Every plot point is conveyed explicitly. Every action and game mechanic backed by some level of logic shared in the real world.

The appeal of creating an abstract game is not as ego-gratifying or as loud and sparkly. The abstract game gets by with very little in the way of production value, which often come in the form of highly detailed polygonal objects, recorded voice and sound, and other costly components of a literal-minded game. Take the classic game of chess. With each piece representing different figures of a medieval kingdom hierarchy set for war with a rival kingdom, the game is basically a simulation of war.

On both ends of the extreme, the Battlefield games claim the spot as the most literal simulation of war on the one end while chess offers the most abstract experience on the other. The newest Battlefield games put you into highly detailed and realistically rendered war zones where every visual and aural detail you might encounter in a real war is presented in as literal a manner as possible. You shoot your gun, enemies crumple to the ground, dust particles from debris fly everywhere, and the sweat on your fellow soldiers’ faces glisten in the light of the sun and explosions all around your virtual character.

By focusing everything on the literal representation of war, the Battlefield games miss out on the more cerebral aspects of carrying out a successful skirmish. Chess is a game played by many people in positions of power and leadership such as military generals. Battlefield is not played by those people. Battlefield is played by people coming home after a long day wanting to blow some steam. The reason is simple – as far as simulations go, chess is far more representational of the intellectual process involved in winning a war. Principles of strategy laid out by Sun Tzu in The Art of War can be applied to chess.

It is ironic then that for all of its detail and supposed realistic portrayal of battle, modern shooters boil down to performing a very binary mental process that goes something like this: see enemy, kill, see enemy kill, see enemy, kill. Even if the game is not violent or action oriented, there’s a correlation between how literal a game is and how much it can tell us about the world. This is true for the vast majority of games that do everything in its power to rid of as much abstraction as possible. In the hot pursuit of surface-level realism, these games have less and less to reveal about inherent truths that exist in our universe.

Yes, I see the sweat dripping from that character’s face. Yes, I see every strand of hair on its head reacting to the wind blowing by. Yes, I can distinguish every pore on that concrete surface. Yes, I hear the characters’ voice and can piece together everyone’s back story, the premise, and the history of this game world. But I am going down a predefined path set down like a red carpet for me to follow with every key moment triggered by invisible pressure plates installed on the ground throughout the game. In my experience, the world moves on regardless of whether or not I show up. And as far as I know the only time people get boxed in and allowed only to move within a narrow confine is if they go to jail.

In the end, literal video games have far less potential for true realism than the most abstract of games. At the same time, a completely abstract video game destroys the point of video games. It might as well be a board game instead. A well struck balance between both literal and abstract approaches to game design and development might yield some interesting results. After all, a game with elements of realism lends itself better to drawing players into a fantasy. Of course, realistic games still have abstract elements like inventory menus or upgrade systems. For example, when you put on a disguise in the Hitman games, the new clothing instantly pops onto your character instead on being put on one leg and arm at a time. These are understandable workarounds and corner-cutting methods.

The kind of abstraction I’m talking about is rarely used to represent something deeper that goes beyond saving developers some time and money. I’m interested in abstract simulations of certain human experiences that games have not thoroughly ventured into. The video game industry has covered all manner of physical activities – shooting, fighting, running, jumping, driving, and so on. However, this is still but a small spectrum of the entire human experience. We also interact with the world and those around us intellectually and socially. Games that have attempted to portray these experiences literally don’t get a lot of mileage out of their attempts. Dialogue trees present only a small set of canned outcomes. When games can recreate more social and intellectual human experiences with as much fluidity, freedom, and creativity as with games based on physical interactions with the world, that’ll be the day.

Ebenezer Scrooge (JIM CARREY)

Generosity

How generous do you feel when doing the work that you do?

Consider working hard on a project and then just giving the resulting product away after pouring so much time and so many resources into it.

That’s exactly what the folks at Epic are about to do with the new Unreal Tournament. When it’s done, it’ll be plain free and not free to play with in-game purchases or upsells. They’re generosity and gift will certainly turn a lot of attention towards their new Unreal 4 engine, the licensing of which makes up a major part of their revenue. This plan may just work out as it delights people who would never have expected to get a top-tier brand product free of charge or any form of monetization.

Sadly, another engine house, Crytek, elected a different path far away from that of generosity. When I read that their new free-to-play online shooter Warface charges you for something and takes it away in a week or two so you can buy it again, it was clear that they’re in the business of doing business and not in the business of delighting people.

That’s not to say that you should work hard on something and not make money off of it. But between Epic and Crytek, one has a future while the other is struggling to keep its doors open. Crytek is in dire financial crisis ( :) they made games called Crysis but no pun intended) and it’s not hard to see why.