Give Me a Sign

This week I had a counter-intuitive realization. I need to work harder on boring stuff in order to stay motivated. Boring stuff?! “Ew–gross,” you might say. Granted, I already do a lot of things in life that people consider boring (I was an accounting major after-all). But this time, what I mean is that I need to do more boring stuff related to the logistics of our team’s operations. More specifically, I realized that I need to spend more time detailing our team’s business plan.

A couple key conversation points led to this realization. First, Wu-Gene asked Austin and I what our target release date is for the game and we both gave different answers. Now, this may not be as bad a sign as it is in other lines of business. After all, all indie release target dates get pushed back like 7 times anyway right? Nonetheless, I feel strongly that we need a release date goal that we can all get behind – if for no other reason than to make sure we all have the same expectations. However, beyond the release date incident, I found myself feeling overwhelmed again this week. I always feel overwhelmed — but especially this week.

I think I’m getting to a certain emotional point that I suspect most people experience when undertaking a cool yet difficult project. It’s the point where your first wave of energy has been depleted. You still think the project is awesome in principle, but you need to look within yourself to find the motivation to push through this “dry period.” On the bright side, I’m still excited about the work itself. I still enjoy writing blog posts and learning about the indie game industry. What I realized though, as I talked to Austin after our last meeting, is that I need a sign – a small sign of progress. I do see progress every week, especially in Austin’s script writing efforts. However, I want to see more progress on an overall strategic level. I want to see that on the whole, our project is progressing as a business.

Somewhat counterintuitively, I think that in order to see this strategic process, I need to see more small incremental signs of progress. Not only do I need to have a more clear vision for the completion of our game, but also I need to have week by week production goals set out for our team. We had this at the start, but we’ve gotten away from it as we’ve reached more nebulous parts of this project. The thing is, at the start, the first things we had to do were very obvious, discrete steps. Open a Bitbucket account. Paint these 10 placeholder art assets. Write a blog post. But now, it’s much harder to define our goals. How do you decide if you’ve adequately increased your market engagement for the week?

I need to break this down into little, quantifiable goals. This all sounds very corporate, but occasionally corporate things are useful. This detailed planning would definitely help with my organization – the fact that I’m finishing this post a day late is evidence enough that I could use at least a bit of help in that department. Or, at the very least, I can factor passing out while working on blog posts into the overall production schedule.

Joking aside, creating a plan to the level of detail that I’m aiming for is going to be difficult. I’m even thinking of using one of corporate America’s most terrifying tools – a Gantt Chart. If you don’t know what that is, consider yourself lucky. But, in the end I’m confident that it will be worth it. For one, if there’s a concrete plan, it’s much harder for me to let myself off the hook. If I fail to do something I said I would do, it will be there on the paper or in the spreadsheet staring back at me and haunting my dreams.

But, on a more positive note, if I have a better plan, once I accomplish something on that plan, then no matter how overwhelmed I feel, I will have little signs of progress. I can point to that plan and say “I made 10 widgets today damnit! I will not be deterred!”

I know — perhaps not the sexiest motivational speech in history, but it’s just what I need right now.

More Money, More Problems?

In past posts, Austin has talked about choice in game design and Rich has talked about lasers and the black magic of HTML 5. So, this week I wanted to write a post more from the business and marketing perspective.  Unfortunately, as I sat down to write this, I realized that there is so much that I still need to do that it may not be worth writing about our marketing strategy yet. I’ve got plenty of ideas in the works, but I still feel like a kid on the first day of school when I think about how much I still have to learn. To put it lightly, it can be a crushing, overwhelming feeling.

How do I convince people to care about this game? How do I get more Facebook followers? How do I get a respectable number of Twitter followers? Will I need to resort to posting scandalous pictures of myself online? You have to understand – I think the strategy of marketing is fascinating. Yet, at the same time, I’m actually a deeply introverted person, so the part about reaching out to other people can be scary for me.

Thankfully, I’ve found many detailed and down to earth guides on indie game marketing. I’ve been devouring these as fast as I can, and I feel like I have a decent handle on the work that needs to be done. Right now, the biggest challenge is just dealing with feelings of insecurity (fear of failure). Unfortunately for me, major stories have been breaking in the gaming press over the last week or so that have only added fuel to this emotional fire.

Specifically, the gaming media world has been blowing up over revelations that some influential Youtube game reviewers have been paid to review certain games in a positive light. More qualified writers than I have been thoroughly investigating this issue and have produced some very thoughtful pieces on the matter. Personally, I found writer Simon Parkin’s  “Blurred Lines” piece to be the most illuminating. Considering the issue from multiple angles, Parkin ultimately asks whether this practice is ethical.  His piece really deserves to be read in full, but in short the answer is “it depends.” Parkin quotes John Bain, a Youtube reviewer known as TotalBiscuit:  “People must be clearly notified when they are watching sponsored content…It’s as simple as that.”

Overall, I would agree with this conclusion. If you are representing yourself as an impartial reviewer, then you should not be taking sponsor money. If you are going to take sponsor money, then make it clear to your audience so that they are at least aware of any potential bias. To me, as long as this transparency standard is followed, I don’t necessarily see anything unethical about taking money for game reviews. I’m certainly not the first to reach this conclusion. Furthermore, as industry commentators have noted, this situation is not so different from paid television ads. Eventually, money catches up with effective advertising mediums.

Yet, even if this transparency standard does solve the ethical question at hand, the question still remains: how does a small indie game startup (such as AOTW) hope to compete in a world where marketing venues that were previously independent and niche become increasingly capital intensive?

This question can be scary, especially given the emotionally fragile state that I described at the beginning of this post. However, I think that there are two important things to keep in mind.

First off, as all those overused t-shirts say: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” It’s not necessarily the end of the world. Yes, some potential publicity venues may be harder to access because we can’t pay for positive reviews the way some larger studios can. However, not every video based game reviewer is going to follow this model. Some will likely see it as counter-productive. After all, a star Youtube reviewer has nothing without credibility. As Parkin hints at, some reviewers may fear that they will lose this credibility if they start taking money to make certain reviews. And furthermore, even if every Youtube reviewer decides to make only paid reviews, I still wouldn’t want to quit working on AOTW. We have so much work still to do to be ready for someone to review our game. It would be a shame to quit now simply because there is the possibility that we will encounter industry challenges in the future.

Second, the gaming review industry may still further evolve. Yes, money is catching up to the fact that Youtube is an effective advertising medium. This is in my view inevitable. But, there are other ways to make money. Especially if the fear of losing credibility plays a role in reviewers’ minds, the question arises: How can a game reviewer make money without losing the essential currency of credibility? One answer, which Parkin touches on, is “pre-roll” advertising, which is essentially old-school ad video that plays before the main video.  In fact, Parkin notes that the most popular Youtube reviewers can actually make a full living off pre-roll advertising alone, rendering sponsorship deals irrelevant.

The problem is – this strategy only works for the very top reviewers. For everyone else, revenue from pre-roll advertising is typically too low to compete with the temptation of a cold hard cash sponsorship review deal. Yet, perhaps there is an alternative. It seems to me that the assumption has always been that Youtube type reviewers should stand on their own. But, what if these reviewers were backed by organizations that had some financial wherewithal and were not beholden to a particular game? What if Rock, Paper, Shotgun could use some of its advertising revenue from other parts of its site to support a prominent Youtube reviewer in making unbiased reviews? Granted, I’m making a lot of assumptions as to the financial viability of this model. But, I don’t think it’s impossible. In fact, Alec Meer of Rock, Paper, Shotgun recently said “I would be lying if I said I didn’t wish I’d encouraged RPS to try its collective hand at Let’s Plays a couple of years ago.” Well Alec, maybe it’s not too late. Maybe RPS or another gaming media site has a chance to make a real difference here. Would Youtube reviewers lose some independence in teaming with a major game press site? Probably. However, if your aim is to be an impartial reviewer, better to serve a cause that impartially promotes the industry at large than one that promotes only itself.

At the end of the day, I don’t think indie developers should despair over this. No matter what, developing an indie game is a great challenge and an extraordinary amount of work. We should try to spot the rising challenges and adapt. But, I don’t want to give up just because those new challenges are arising. There’s always going to be something standing in the way, and that shouldn’t change anything.

Is Gaming Worth It?

As you may remember if you are one of my favorite people in the world (someone that reads this blog weekly), our team now has an artist! This is very exciting for many reasons, especially because we get to see this game come to life visually. It also means that we have a much more official logo now – no more of my nonsense.

This also means that I can focus more on promoting our game and engaging with the indie development community. Our team has been sharing our experiences about our development experience so far. This is important, but it needs to go further.

So, beyond sharing our feelings, we also need to find ways to learn from the community at large. I don’t know if it’s the dry British humor or the vaguely hyperbolic name, but for me, the natural starting point in this quest for wisdom is PC gaming site Rock, Paper, Shotgun. After diligently clicking through to the “About Us” section, I discovered RPS founder Jim Rossignol’s autobiographical book This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities. Personally, I’m a big fan of biographies – I love seeing life from another person’s perspective and trying to understand his or her motivations and fears. Now, technically this is not a full autobiography (Jim Rossignol is not in fact dead yet), but nonetheless I was inspired by the title and decided to give it a shot. The bulk of the book is divided into sections based on significant cities that have shaped his experience with gaming: London, Seoul, and Reykjavik. Being slightly compulsive, I’ve decided to write 3 blog posts over the next few months in which I reflect on what I learn from each section.

Part I: London Calling

First off, picking up this book is one of the best decisions I’ve made so far in my experience with indie development. Rossignol writes very authentically, which I really admire. But beyond that, even after reading just the London section, I have found that his writing addresses a question that has haunted me from time to time: Is gaming really a valuable pursuit?

Very early in the book, Rossignol makes his purpose clear: “I am going to try to persuade you here that games are worth paying attention to. They are worth taking seriously and thinking and talking about in some detail. They might even be a very good thing for our culture as a whole.”

I really appreciate that he is addressing this question because it is something that I worry about. Don’t get me wrong, gaming has had a very important impact on my life that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Nonetheless, so many people deride gaming as a waste of time or “anti-social” or “nerdy” behavior that it’s hard to shut this question out entirely.

Rossignol presents several arguments for the value of gaming. But before looking at those, it’s important to understand that he looks at gaming through a very personal lens. Much of the London section is devoted to his description of how becoming an expert in Quake liberated him and helped him make a career in gaming. By liberate, I mean that he got fired from his job as a London based financial journalist. But, he got fired from a job in which he was not at all fulfilled. Fortunately, he’d spent so much time reading forums and coaching online teams that he was eventually able to translate this experience into a career as a gaming journalist. Things don’t work out so well for everybody, but they did for him and the industry is better for it.

However, despite his experience of personal transformation, Rossignol does not rely on this to argue that games have worth. He presents substantial evidence about how gaming can potentially improve reaction time, motor skills, and information processing capabilities. Yet, neither does he use this evidence as the centerpiece of his argument. At the end of the day, he argues simply that games are important mostly because they combat boredom by offering entertainment and the opportunity for intentional leisure time.

I found this argument very gratifying because essentially, what it does is it implicitly sets gamers on equal footing with everyone else and pushes back against the “nerd as inferior” vibe that is often present in American culture. I think that too often, people that are into gaming are on the defensive, trying to justify doing what they enjoy by pointing to greater social benefits. But, at the end of the day, why should gamers have to justify how they want to spend their leisure time? If it’s okay to spend a Saturday watching college football, why isn’t it okay to spend a Saturday conquering new worlds online with your friends? Obviously, gaming, like anything else can be taken to an unhealthy extreme. However, just because something can potentially be abused doesn’t mean the thing itself is bad.

This all got me thinking about where I fall on the gamer spectrum. I personally don’t actually consider myself to be a huge gamer. Between working on a game and keeping up my day job, I have ironically little time to play games. That said, gaming has had a truly important impact on my life. When I rushed home in grade school to play Age of Empires, secretly happy that baseball practice had been cancelled on account of rain, gaming taught me what it felt like to be myself. When I got drunk with Austin on cheap rum and hot chocolate (terrible combo btw) and played Alien vs. Predator, gaming became a bonding experience in one of my most important friendships.

My point is – gaming is wonderful because it’s one of the few activities in the world that can meet you wherever you’re at in life. If you just need to escape for a few hours, gaming offers an intellectually stimulating option. If you need war stories to bond over with a friend, gaming is there. Or, if you find yourself unfulfilled in life and you need to find meaning, you can dedicate yourself to a game and become the master of that universe. Last but not least, gaming also offers a creative, generative option. Thanks to all of the work that has been done in the indie industry, creating a new game is now really an option for everyday people that are willing to dedicate themselves. I believe that the opportunities for personal growth in such a venture are vast, and I wouldn’t have had the chance to face any of these challenges if a vibrant indie gaming community did not already exist.

So, I guess I want to end this post by saying thank you to Jim Rossignol. Thank you for inspiring me, and thank you for helping me find meaning in what I’m doing right now. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book.

Welcome Aboard Wu-Gene

The feelings behind this week’s blog post are pretty straightforward. I’m really, truly happy. I’m not the most expressive person in the world when it comes to emotions. So, trust me, if I use two adverbs in the same sentence to describe my happiness, then I’m downright ecstatic.  Why the good mood? Well ladies and gentlemen, I’m pleased to announce that we finally have an artist joining our team!

For the last couple of months, finding an artist has been one of the biggest things on my mind. It’s the one piece that our team has been utterly lacking. There were ups and downs in our search for an artist, and for a while there I was starting to worry that our entire game would need to be based off of a stick figure aesthetic. We did have some great applicants from all around the country, but we are especially excited about the person that is joining us. He is extremely talented, and he is living in Seattle. So, without further ado, please allow me to introduce the newest member of our team, Wu-Gene Hong!

Wu-Gene actually has significant local roots, beginning his college days not far from our “company headquarters,” attending Seattle Pacific University. However, in order to further pursue his artistic dreams, he transferred to art school at SVA New York, graduating with his degree this last May. In art school, Wu-Gene started out learning how to be a cartoonist. Eventually, he discovered more of a passion for sci-fi conceptual art, and he shifted the focus of his studies to this arena. Beyond helping us with AOTW, Wu-Gene’s goal is to build an artistic career in the entertainment business, either with video game or movie art.

There are also a few non-artistic details to know right away about Wu-Gene. For one, he gained some very valuable practical perspective while in New York. For example, living in the Big Apple among artists taught him the true meaning of cramped living quarters. In fact, he learned to endure so much on the East Coast that his new perspective even moved him to dub Rich and Austin’s apartment “really clean” in comparison.

Wu-Gene also enjoys watching sports. Like many Americans, he is kind of a soccer fan but not really. So, understandably, his passion for the sport died with the US loss to a small European country this last Tuesday. Wu-Gene’s real love is in baseball. His heart belongs to the hometown Seattle Mariners. Consequently, his heart has been broken for about 13 years straight. But hey, playoff hopes spring eternal, especially this year.

At this point, you may be saying to yourself “Wu-Gene seems like a cool guy and all, but what exactly is he going to do for the art in your game?” Well, in short, the answer is everything. He will have a great deal of artistic control over the game, creating everything from unit sprites to environmental backdrops to characters. He’ll likely work very closely with Austin to make sure that his overall aesthetic fits with the story. I’m very confident that he will be able to go above and beyond all of our expectations and truly take our game to the next level. I can already tell that he is passionate about this type of art. He’s also very creative – constantly making connections between different art forms and inspirations. Rich, Austin, and I hope that this project will also give him a chance to get a feel for the process of working with a team during the art creation process; a skill that will stand him in good stead in what I am confident will be a very long career in the arts.

Furthermore, at least for me, bringing a new member into the team makes things even more real. I mean, in convincing him to join the team I’ve set a lot of expectations about the opportunities that this project will afford him. No matter what, I don’t want to let him down now. I know he won’t let us down.

All that said, this is just a very brief introduction to our newest team member. Please look for future blog posts by Wu-Gene himself in which he talks in more detail about his creative process. But for now, check out some of his early tank turret design concept art below. These are scale models, both from a side and top view perspective. Also, be sure to click through to his full online portfolio to see some of the amazing work he has already done!


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