singin-in-the-rain-1

You don’t get mad at the weather

Personal

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.

emotional endurance

An emotional endurance test

Personal

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 :)

chess_battlefild

The abstract and the literal

Games

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

Games

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.

tale of two cities

It’s the worst of times. Or is it the best?

Games

Some say the video game market is more difficult to penetrate than ever because of increased competition. That the indie bubble is about to collapse. That going forward, success will be more and more unlikely for those not already established with a hit. They make it sound like some golden age of independent video games has passed and we need to brace ourselves for the worst of times coming at us from around the corner. Sounds like loser talk.

 

Competition is not your problem. You are.

When you compete with garbage, yeah there’s a ton of competition. When you’re putting out a great product, the pool of competitors decreases drastically. If you make a one-of-a-kind super high quality game, suddenly there’s no competition.

It’s not frightening, but rather comforting to know this because the quality of what we produce is entirely up to us and our skills. How well we play to our strengths, how well we adapt to our weaknesses, and how smartly we handle production and marketing is completely up to us.

When I finish and release my own game, I will take full responsibility for whether it ends up doing well, okay, or terrible. I will NEVER blame Steam, the thousands of other people making and putting out games, or any outside factor if my game happens to do poorly. I will point the finger at myself and ask why I didn’t just make a better game. The notion that you can’t sell your game because there are too many others is a cop out. This zero-sum game theory floating around among independent devs is counterproductive. Let’s all let go of the scarcity mindset and adopt this one:

There is infinite money and infinite success in the universe.

 

They are desperate for something amazing. 

Some folks like to subscribe to the idea that as a direct result of so many new games coming out every day, the attention of all the gamers in the market are somehow divided among the growing list of games available to them. This is a ridiculous idea because gamers IGNORE just as many games as there are crappy games that come out.

This means that their attention is NOT magically divided. In fact, their attention is laser focused on quality games. They are on a constant lookout for something worth their attention. They are lying in wait, sifting through the dirt, ready to pounce on a great new game at any moment.

The hundreds of new games flooding the market? They don’t count. 95% of games released everyday are garbage.They’re not taking away anyone’s business. They are simply ignored like they never existed.  Garbage is invisible. If anything, as more and more crappy games get made gamers are becoming increasingly desperate for a quality game. And they will happily devour it when it comes along.

Notice what you’re doing when you go on Youtube, Facebook, and Netflix. What are you doing when you go on Steam or the App Store? You’re scanning the sea of content for something juicy and relevant to you and your tastes. You’re looking for the good stuff. Hoping, praying, begging for something great to come up. That’s how I imagine the game market in my head – desperate and hungry.

What’s that? Demand isn’t going up as supply rises ever so rapidly? No, friend. There is infinite demand!

 

The world needs more artists, not businessmen. 

The only difference between then (before the floodgates opened to make it easy for everyone and their mom to publish a game) and now is that average mediocre games are not as forgivable as they once were. I think this is what most devs are actually lamenting. They can’t get away with what they used to get away with. Average or good is no longer good enough. Forget about poor design, lazy execution, and derivative mechanics. Games with any of those are dead on arrival. There are too many great choices for gamers to put up with that anymore.

We live in an age when it’s easy and even necessary to ignore the vast majority of media output and indeed, the game industry’s output. As gamers get pickier and choosier, some devs may feel pressured to to get mathematical about what they make. After all, no one will blink twice over burying a studio or developer by closing off their wallets to them. So how about some guarantees for making money back?

I, for one, am not spending much at all on my game. For everyone else, though, the proliferation of games is probably affecting how small to medium studios operate today. Here’s the paradox: on the one hand it’s worthwhile to spend some time conducting market research to decide what to make, but on the other hand we should be making games for us regardless of what the market seems to want.

Actually, it’s not a paradox. You can make a game molded by personal taste and a unique design philosophy while NOT making a game that tries to anticipate what the audience wants. I don’t use market research to find a game to emulate. I use it to find the types of games to avoid making by checking whether there’s already plenty of them or if there’s a well executed example, negating the need for another made by me. I’m like a sapling trying to find a piece of open land away from all the tall trees that will cast a shadow on me if I tried to plant myself underneath them. I want to plant myself where I can grow and prosper.

Beyond that, we don’t need our business hat anymore. During the thick of production, let’s put on the artist hat – be an artist expressing his or her self and crafting an experience – and be solely focused on that. Let’s be free of outcome and free of concern for profit. A mind set on the results is a mind hindered by expectation. Expectation prevents us from taking risks. It sets us on a safe path that will most likely succeed. And the safe path is the one that will most likely to fail. But failure’s okay. Just do it early and a lot.

There’s no game trend you need to follow when there’s an infinite amount of untapped, untried, untested ideas for great games. Do your own thing. We all have the tools and platforms to do that. How can it get any better than that?

3back-to-the-future-original

Video Games and Time.

Games

Play me… AGAIN!

Sequels to big franchises come with just enough incremental improvements to convince fans like me that it’s worth buying the same game once again. Hey you liked that game we made last time? Well here’s some more of the same. See you back in a year or so.

I think this is wonderful. A great way to relive awesome gaming moments in new and improved ways that keep the experience fresh and exciting. This is not yet another article bitching and moaning about the lack of original IP’s and how the ubiquity of sequels is somehow wrong.

But do we really need to experience the same games over and over again? I already did my time with this multiplayer game and that RPG game. Apart from the monetary cost of a new game purchase, it’s the hidden cost that I absolutely cannot afford…

Time.

 

Around when Metal Gear Solid 4 came out in 2008, I tried convincing someone in his late twenties to get himself a copy. While he’s played Metal Gear games before and enjoyed them, the first thing he asked me was how long it took to finish. I gleefully told him it’s got so much content that it’ll be a solid 18 hours. While the longevity of the experience was a positive bullet point for me, it was a turnoff for him. I couldn’t understand. Did he know what he was missing out on?

Now that I’m in my mid-twenties, I understand fully why he chose to “deprive” himself of some Metal Gear goodness. Your twenties is a precious period of time when building up and honing skills is your main area of focus – hopefully, at least. When that’s the case, suddenly those time consuming RPG’s and multiplayer games present an enormous opportunity cost. It’s the hidden cost of games beyond the initial $60 upfront investment. It robs you of the opportunity to use that time instead on genuinely productive work.

I played and finished Demon’s Souls way back. I thoroughly enjoyed the expertly balanced dichotomy of challenge and reward in that game. Back then I had time to kill and needed something to kill it with. Video games are definitely the perfect weapon against time. They were a great way to relax between semesters or between completing homework and attending classes the next day. Now that school is over, my guiding compass in life is no longer simply to graduate with good grades and earn a degree.

Every minute of the day now counts toward where I’ll end up a year, five, or ten years from now. Anybody can afford to part with 60 bucks now and then for new game, but I can’t afford to spend hundreds of hours sitting in front of the screen as I watch pixels rearrange themselves as a result of my controller inputs. My guess is that the guy who missed out on Metal Gear Solid 4 simply didn’t want to miss out on life, on productivity, on creativity, on learning, on sharing, and on improving the life of others.

His time was precious. Six years later, so is mine.

 

If a game is just a different version of what I already played, I’m not playing it. I take comfort in knowing that I’m only missing out on the incremental improvements and that I’ve already had more than a taste of the core experience that exists in the previous iteration.

Personal Examples of Sequels Denied:

Played Demon’s Souls. Skipping Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2.

Played Battlefield 2 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Skipping Battlefield 3 and Battlefield 4

Played Assassin’s Creed. Skipping Assassin’s Creed 2, 3, and 4.

Played Killzone and Killzone 2. Skipping Killzone 3 and Killzone: Shadowfall.

Played Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Skipping Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Most of these games demand a significant investment of time. Even though I know I’m totally missing out on some really amazing gameplay and fun, I refuse to pick up copies of these newer games lest I become addicted and get nothing done! I’d rather spend the time learning, growing, and meeting new people. I’d rather create more than I consume.

I still play video games, just not nearly as much as I used to. These days I dabble in them. Get in, get my fix, and get out. But if you got nothing better to do, get on that couch and by all means enjoy your stagnation :)

2014-06-09_1022

The Shrinking of a Giant Head

Development

It’s tough to post updates on a game that is rapidly undergoing a lot of iterations. By the time I post something, it’s already old news. I’m beginning to understand why some of the development blogs I follow go quiet for a few months at a time. I’m tempted to do the same, honestly.

But no! Even though at times I think what little progress I make is not worth showing, or that it doesn’t matter because nobody reads this goddamn blog, I’m going to show up and produce even when I don’t want to. If we only do things when we feel like it, then there’d be a lot of things we don’t get done.

I also want people to see that maybe a game that starts out as a stinking pile of shit could come together into something cohesive, finished, and attractive. I’d like this blog, as well as being an additional avenue for expressing myself and my ideas, to be a place where one can witness the slow growth of what started out as just another Unity project.

So without further ado, today’s development blog update covers the 3 C’s of any game where you can see and control your character!

 

CHARACTER

Silhouette – Halsted’s giant head dominated the screen from a topdown view, so I made it smaller in proportion to the body. It was a bit boring to look at the top of the head because it’s the part that’s not moving while walking. So now the arms and legs, as well as some of the torso are more visible. The giant nose is an attempt to make a better topdown silhouette for the head.

2014-06-09_1010

Animation – Whereas before I implemented characters with floating hands and feet, I found out I could still use the hard-coding animation technique with full limbs. Looks a lot more natural. Well, as natural as hard coded animations get :)

These 3D character models are just placeholder by the way.

 

CONTROL

The initial control layout felt bloated so I took steps to streamline it. Final layout of the controls is still to be determined but at its current state it looks a bit like this: control_layout

 

CAMERA

I found the vertical straight down camera was making a lot of things hard to read. Go off-vertical and it’s like I’m seeing the game in a different lens! Everything suddenly reads as it should – a desk is a desk, a chair is a chair, etc.

2014-06-09_1011

Then I ran in to the dangers of bringing the camera too low where you can see things from more of a side view. At that point the background looks better than ever but the character model and it’s hard-coded rotation based animations look atrocious.

After tinkering back and forth I believe I found the right balance. Slightly tempted to do bone based animations but that’s not important for now.

 

CONCLUSION (aha another C!)

You may see that the running theme on the development of this game is refrain. Refrain from doing everything. Even though you can do anything (you have the skills, the technique, the software, the connections), it doesn’t mean you should do everything. I learned from past experience that trying to do everything can sometimes not pay off. At all.

Pick and choose, man!

constipation1

Idea Constipation

Development

It’s great to have a ton of ideas and solutions come out of your head, whatever project or situation you’re dealing with. But ever felt like all those ideas floating in your head just confused you from choosing which way to go? Suddenly, those ideas are paralyzing and you stop making progress. This would be the opposite of a writers’ block. This is a case of too many ideas trying to pour out at once. It’s idea constipation.

I experienced this yesterday as I pondered what features to cut and which to keep, how to compensate for the cut or remedy what is lost in the process. I’m talking about my game, of course. I was trying to think 2, 3, or even more steps ahead, and I was getting ahead of myself. I fell into an unproductive trap of mental masturbation. Then I sighed and asked myself what should I do?

All the different ideas and solutions seem like they’ll work fine, but which one will work better? Which one is more interesting? I felt lost for a sense of direction. At that moment I wanted someone to tell me what to do, which is ironic because I thought I left all that bullshit of being told what to do behind me. The freedom to now make decisions based on my own judgement was failing me.

As my friend who I was talking to about this struggled to give any useful feedback, I realized the solution to my problem. I don’t know which ideas will work or which ones won’t, so the smart thing to do is try out all of them. Throw out assumptions about the merit of each idea and just test them all. Assumptions are often wrong. And what we play out in our heads doesn’t always translate well in reality. If you’re lucky you might even discover a new idea within the idea you were trying out. Something like that cannot be anticipated or calculated beforehand.

The lesson for me here, and hopefully for those of you also finding yourselves in a bit of an analysis paralysis bind, is to spend less time imagining how ideas will play out. Go straight to testing it out. Making games is a bit like being a scientist – constant experimentation is rapid succession is key to weeding out the good ideas from the bad. And good ideas are often born from accidents during the process of creation. First you must allow it to happen.

 

 

2014-05-27_1036

May the Best Camera View Win

Development

Up until yesterday, I was juggling with 3 camera views for Halsted. One is default, another is zoomed in, and the last one is zoomed out acting as a map view. It felt like too many options and I always thought in the back of my mind how I’d like to stick to one view. And I found a way to do just that.

Here’s my thought process on how I arrived at my new decision.

 

1. Pointless zoom-in feature

2014-05-27_1127

Ooooh, the graphics!

The zoomed in view was really for me. I like staring at the graphical details within games. I tend to zoom in for a closer look at the environmental details, characters models, and so on in any 3D game I play. While most games use the zoom function to allow players to scout ahead, thus serving as a useful gameplay function, that’s not the case in my game. Aside from a closer look at the floor and some props, there is no functional purpose that aids players in any way, so I eliminated the zoom-in function altogether.

 

2. Map view that doesn’t do it’s job

2014-05-27_1130

A map view, eh? So where do I go?

With the “map” view, which is just the same camera high up in the sky, I wanted a more 3D representation of the environment by tilting the camera angle. Then I realized that some paths can get obscured by walls and such, defeating the purpose of having this map view. I attempted to alleviate this problem by having the map view camera rotate around the level slowly. When I tried this it only achieved to disorient you further, again defeating the purpose of this view.

One quality of the map view that I thought was excellent was that it gave you a sense of place through environmental details like the water, the large concrete container, the cables by which the level is suspended, and the shark swimming round and round. Much of the game’s mood come from these elements. Yet as a map view that players only occasionally activate when they’re lost, these elements are hidden during the majority of play.

I wanted to reverse that.

 

3. Realizations about the default view

2014-05-27_1125A

I see… walls for 50% of the screen. Nice.

I took a cold hard look at my default camera view and realized how much it sucked. The only thing I like about it was the character size to screen ratio, and perhaps the ability to see my pretty props a little better. But those small gains hardly justified keeping this view as the default in the face of a major issue I spotted. A large portion of the screen gets covered by wall or areas you can’t navigate in. A camera view does it’s job when it frames the game in such a way that you get as much useful information as possible on the screen at once. My default camera frames a lot of useless information that the player can’t do anything with, making it a rather boring camera view in general.

So I sacked this view and…

 

4. Map view gets a promotion to default view!

2014-05-27_1038

I was able to realize my wish to streamline the camera system into one view instead of 3 by making some adjustments to the map view camera and making it the default view. The only view, in fact. No more zooming in or out. I took away the tilt angle so it’s facing straight down, and brought it down lower just enough so you can comfortable see your character and control him. In this new default view, you can see your surroundings and take in the environmental details so players can absorb a sense of place and mood at all times, while never feeling lost.