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When is Deadweight?

I’ve been making magnificent progress on Deadweight. Looks like I’ll be releasing the game later this summer, most likely July. I have some obligations in August and October that I don’t want ruined by the anxiety of still having work left to do. Plus I want the money sooner than later. I know as an “artiste” indie developer I’m not supposed to be concerned with my financial well-being and be in it purely for the creativity, but we all know deep down inside that that is bull. I want money and lots of it. There.

That said, I want to finish Deadweight on the cheap and on the quick. I DO NOT consider it my masterpiece. I have little intention to make it spectacular. But why? Why not kill myself to deliver the absolute best game I can possibly deliver?! Let me make a pop culture reference to our beloved superhero icon, Iron Man, for a sec. In the beginning of the first movie he is held captive in a cave with nothing but time, scraps of metal, some basic tools, and extreme self-reliance (along with a helper who I don’t want to mention because it doesn’t serve my point). The Mark I suit he made was an ugly tin can that served only one purpose: escape from that hell hole of a cave.

Iron Man returned home and now under more favorable and comfortable circumstances, he began work on a sleek and shiny version of his suit, the Mark II. Don’t you think that it would’ve been foolish of Tony Stark to attempt making this sleek shiny Mark II back in the cave? A supremely unintelligent exercise in futility that would have resulted in our watching the entire movie of him still working in the fucking cave.

To bring the analogy back around to my point… I am in a cave right now. I’m cut off from friends, girls, and any semblance of a social life. I’m broke, and haven’t bought a brand new $60 game or a pair of new clothes in ages. I live with my mom. And there’s only so much quality I can muster for my game working completely solo. So Deadweight is simply my rough-around-the-edges Mark I, an escape vehicle to return me back to civilization. To a metropolitan city full of creative like-minded people, friends, culture, excitement, and a social life. To good financial shape so I can live independently and perhaps hire some help on future projects.

It’s under those favorable and comfortable circumstances in which I can begin work on my absolute best video game I could possibly deliver. But Deadweight is still gonna kick ass and take everyone by surprise the way Iron Man’s Mark I did*.

*No guarantee, of course. I am, however, actively stacking the odds in my favor as best I can. :-)

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Be Lazy!

I frequently struggle to restrain myself from building more art assets, throwing in more detail, geometry, variety, features, and so on into my game. The reason I don’t is two-fold: I know it won’t add real value to the game and, because I’m the one who’ll be doing the work, I get lazy and find another way around the problem with a quick and easy solution that requires little to no extra work.

This isn’t just in the service of my laziness. There’s practical value in it, too.

I’ve observed that there is no correlation between a game’s density of content and its sales. In fact, over the course of many months habitually checking the Steam charts, concocting my own crude math algorithms for coming up with ballpark sales figures of countless games (no need for that anymore thanks for steamspy.com), I learned that some games are made quickly with little content and massive sales, while others were developed for years with heavy content and abysmal sales.

Why? The devs who slave over a big but boring game put stock in things that ultimately don’t matter. Things that don’t add true value for the audience. The devs who work smart only put their chips in things that provide the biggest return on their investment of time, energy, and other resources. I don’t scour the charts on Steam everyday to find out which game genres are trending or what the formula for a good game is. There are no trends or formulas. Rather, I look for what successful indie games DON’T have.

It let’s me know what I could get away with NOT having.

How can devs differentiate between what’s important and what’s a waste of time and money? Well, the most resource strapped devs will not have any choice but to spend their time and energy sparingly to the things that absolutely matter while cutting everything else out. The devs that have some more resources are bound to waste it on something that strokes their ego more than it serves their game.

As much as I’d like to show off my sweet 3d modeling skills, I also hate putting in more time and effort than I have to if there won’t be a noticeable difference in the value I provide to the audience. From my very first playtest of DEADWEIGHT, I realized how little players pay attention to your art and detail. That piece of furniture you built in painstaking detail for weeks? Players will zip past it with hardly a glance. So much for all that extra care you put into the normal maps and the material shader. No, my rule of thumb is minimalism.

When it all comes down to you or a few others to execute everything, your laziness will guide you to focus on a few things while letting go of others. That’s why if you’re a solo developer or part of a small team with no money to spare, you cannot help but be significantly more creative in your execution than others. I’m sure you could think of a few film directors whose movies became worse when they had bigger budgets to play with. The indie developers’ perceived weakness is actually an advantage.

We see opportunities mainstream devs cannot. Their big budgets and large teams often blind them to these opportunities. That is precisely where us indie devs can thrive.

No Shame In Not Being A Programmer (When Making An Indie Game)

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Programming was the first major roadblock I ran up against when I tried making games on my own at the tender age of 11. Back then the tools were laughable and markedly aimed at the amateur crowd who, like my 11 year old self, had no chance of producing a marketable game that will sell and earn money. Of course, that wasn’t the point then either, but relying on pre-made templates defined by the poor selection of game making software wasn’t something I was interested in. And learning how to program? Aside from taking a few classes in middle school on basics like how to get a computer to print out the words, “Hello, world,” I simply didn’t have the patience or wherewithal at that young age to teach myself.

So instead I took up other hobbies and creative pursuits, namely piano and then filmmaking. Less technical hurdles and easier to get right into.

Many years have passed since then and now our collective heads are spinning from all the rich selection of powerful and proven game engines at our fingertips. Documentations are aplenty, with thriving 3rd party markets springing up in these game engines’ wake, offering time saving shortcuts to lower the technical barriers way down where they’ve never been before. And as luck would have it, I found a plug-in that takes care of my lack of programming experience not unlike Ruby on Rails. In fact, it is due to the hard work of highly skilled programmers who understand the plight of non-programmers that someone like me can even have a semblance of sophisticated logic that my work-in-progress game enjoys. Ruby on Rails, for those of you wondering, is as the name implies, a framework of code that makes Ruby a much more accessible coding language to non-coders. It’s what indirectly gave birth to such revolutionary pieces of code like Twitter. The two dudes who built it hashed it out in a matter of days without a programming background.

That’s power.

Like giving someone a car so he can save himself the trouble of training how to ride on horseback (which is not easy and takes time, believe me I took lessons). Start the ignition, steer the wheel, step on the gas pedal and you’re on your way to going from point A to point B in just a few minutes of learning, not months of hard training. Likewise, instead of laboriously working through a C# or C++ bible only to get a grasp of it a couple of years later, I learned how to implement logic, behavior, and features into my game within months.

The term for this concept of taking something difficult and having it simplified or made more accessible is abstraction. We all live on top of layers of abstraction all around us. The operating system on our computers, the paved roads we drive over, and the food available at groceries, all represent high levels of abstraction that save us from speaking in 1’s and 0’s to our computers, driving over rough dirt roads, and hunting and growing our own food. The use of visual node-based programming in games allows artist/designers like me to get on with our lives and focus on our areas of interest without having to “hunt for our own food.” What a miracle we live in these days.

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.