Tags: work


in which kevin waxes zarathustran

In the month following the end of my last contract I've done a lot of recentering. Specifically, I've been trying to rediscover what it is I love about video games so much that I'll gladly work an engineer's hours in an artist's living conditions just for another shot at doing it for a living.

When you're bogged down in interface nitpicking and deadlines and cost-benefit compromises and project management issues, while under constant pressure to come up with a brilliant design on the spot, it's easy to find yourself thinking of games as nothing more than the sum of their parts. You don't see the rapture you felt when you first discovered the zen loop in Pac-Man, or the giddy look-at-me-now thrill of running World 4-1 of Super Mario Bros. in a dead sprint. You see messaging issues in the color of the "HI-SCORE" text. You see meters, gauges, ratios between player resource expenditure and strategic gain. You see points where the scaling risk-reward mechanics from Galaxian can intersect with the scaling risk-reward mechanics of unit specialization in Starcraft. You see pipes. Lego pieces. Playmobils. Prefabricated pieces to be combined, smoothed out, streamlined, made efficient, according to well-understood rules. You know vanilla tastes great and why it tastes great; you know chocolate tastes great and why it tastes great. Your job is to make a better chocolate, a better vanilla, and find new ways to make them swirl.

If you get to this point, the magic is gone. The process of game design has ceased to be a creative endeavor and has become a mere feat of engineering. When you catch yourself building games like this--and I'm sure even the best among us do--you're not making games anymore. You're just making software. You're architecting your game the same way you're building a web platform. And of course no one cares if the newest version of a web platform is exactly like the one that came before it, except easier to use and with some interesting new features--in fact, users prefer it that way. But you know what? Web platforms don't require novelty. They generally aren't designed to be fun.

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in which kevin gets over being fired

(Written on a long Amtrak ride to Oberlin on Thursday, not long after the previous entry. Note effects of sleep deprivation.)

So, what happened next? Less than you might expect, actually. For once, there was no avalanche to follow the mudslide, no downward spiral into depression. I'd started this whole journey into madness from nothing--isolated from all my close friends; stuck in a conscience-eroding, dead-end job; unable to do as much as smile at a woman lest she respond with utter revulsion. But, curiously, the more frothing-at-the-mouth insane I got, the better things got for me, and the less sense my "nerd with nothing to lose" schtick made. You'd think people would look down on someone with a Beautiful Mind-like obsession with modern civilization's most frivolous craft--I mean, what other trade makes all other industry less productive?--but if there's one thing America respects, it's a lunatic with a dream.

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in which kevin is fired for working too hard

(Written on the Amtrak to Oberlin on Thursday.)

Hey dames 'n' fellas. Been a while. I imagine you're wondering where I've been.

Long story short, I got fired from my job three weeks ago, a month before my evaluation period was up. Went home and slept for a week; emails piled up, phone calls went unanswered. Fell into some sad times.

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kevin why are you dancing quietly

Kevin, why are you dancing?


Starting the 15th, I am going to be working three months for Tiny Mantis Entertainment as a general contractor, with the opportunity to negotiate for a full time position at the end of that period. I'm still technically a freelancer, so no health insurance. But I'll be working on site, for real money, for an established (if obscure) developer.

Also, they're offering me twice what I asked for. (In all fairness, the amount I asked for was a pittance--just barely enough to cover living expenses.)

This will be my first rent-paying, five-day-a-week office job in two years.

It will also be my first industry job not paid for in food, rent, or a token sum from a college grant. :]

Then why are you dancing quietly?

I am in my parents' apartment and I don't want to wake the neighbors.

Also I am not wearing shoes.

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fourth quarter evaluation

Kevin. Glad you could make it. Have a seat. Can I get you anything? Water? Coffee? No? All right then.

(Takes off glasses and wipes them with a handkerchief. Sighs.)

I'll...get right to it. Kevin, how long has it been since you've been working for me? One, two years? You've done a lot of good work for us. I appreciate it. I really do. Yes--the Survive Fashion School work we did with Emily--I do remember that--yeah, the residency with Cormac, and the geakStudios thing too. No. Relax. Nothing wrong with your work there. I gotta admit, I had my doubts at first, but you've proven to be a competent programmer. Maybe not the quickest or the brightest or the most efficient programmer, but your code is solid, it gets the job done--that's why I hired you. Right. Let me finish. Please.

(Puts glasses back on.)

Do you know what I have in front of me, Kevin. (Slides a single sheet of paper across the desk.) This is our annual earnings report. Now, tell me. What's wrong with these numbers.

No. That's not it. There's nothing wrong with your expenses; I've been taking care of that.

No. That's not it either. No--Put the calculator down. It's not the arithmetic, the numbers add up just fine. Yes, I'm aware we're in the red. That's part of it, but that's not it either. Look at the other column. Our paid work this year. Yes. Right there.

Helping run Survive Fashion School: three months. Cormac's Stellar Expanse residency: one month. Contract programming for geakStudios: one month.

That's five months total. Five months of work for about four thousand dollars, plus a month's worth of food and shelter, plus the extra value of work experience, new job skills, and networking. Whatever.

Kevin. (Leans back in swivel chair. Throws up arms.)

What the hell have you been doing the other seven months?

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we got game

My contract with geakStudios terminates on Tuesday. (Not coincidentally, this is the same day their grant money expires). Over the past week I've been scrambling to put the finishing touches on a game prototype I've been building for them, and now it's finally done! Hooray!

Play it here. (Be sure to enjoy the other games we've got while you're there, too!)

Melee Hooters is a "beat-'em-shmup"--think of it as Strider meets Touhou and you have not entirely the wrong idea. We made it by tearing out the guts of an old shmup Adam never finished and filling it with yummy yummy nougat until there was virtually nothing of the original code left, nothing, NOTHING but nougat. Delicious sticky nougat from CORE TO SKIN.

Also, turtles. I like turtles.

Anyway. Eliot Lesar on design! Adam Hull on art and initial programming! Kevin Chen on ActionScript, additional art, enemy wave design, sound effects, and everything else! One two three four WE ARE SEX BOB-OMB GEAKSTUDIOS MELEE HOOTERS TEAM.

Despite our official company policy of "no babies" each programmer at geakStudios takes on a pet project, where one person takes charge, and this one has been mine. There's a lot of stuff I wish I had time to put in (to name a few: visual score indicators, enemy hit and death sounds, projectile-shooting enemies, a few more interesting enemy waves, water ripple effects, a scrolling parallax background, better-looking explosions, and so on) but you go to war with the game you've got. Also my Flash CS5 trial ran out and I can't afford the full version. Perhaps the other geaks will see fit to finish what I have begun. Who knows.

Play. Enjoy. Let me know what you think.

And now...time to pack for the big move tomorrow.
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the annaform oracle (part 1)

(part 1 - part 2 - part 3)

So. Cupertino, right. (Months late--sorry. Life interferes with the process of its documentation.)

One day, coming home from work, Cormac told me, "Hey! It's my friend Diana's birthday tomorrow, and we're going to go help her make cupcakes. She's a writer at Cryptic. I think you guys should meet."


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kevin, what the fuck are you doing

It has occurred to me, since many of you have asked, that it's been a while since I've posted what I've been doing with my life. So.

Have I found work? The answer is a resounding sort of. Remember last May, when I flew out to Cupertino to do speculative work for a possible video game startup? Well, it was a bit of a crazy move, but it is already starting to pay off. Now I'm doing part-time speculative work for two gaming startups!

(For peanuts, mind you. Startups, almost by definition, struggle to get the funding to will themselves into existence, much less pay their would-be employees. Cormac, for his part, paid me in a month's worth of food and lodging. My current employers aren't even offering me that much.)

One of my employers found me at the New York Gaming Meetup--apparently word had gotten around that an aspiring young programmer was showing off a homebrew DS game, and they'd fruitlessly gone looking for me at the last few meetups while I was in California. They are the people who do Yeti Knight--a goofy, cynical little interactive animated series that has already developed somewhat of a cult following. Ben is an artist fresh out of grad school and Donnelly is a business guy fresh out of business school, so all they needed to make a game, at bare minimum, was a programmer--and I ended up completing the game developer fetus trifecta. We are working on what will hopefully become a new Yeti Knight game; it will look a little like this. I'll link to more preview material as the project develops.

It's worth noting that Donnelly (I haven't met Ben yet) stood out to me as one of the few people at that month's NY Gaming Meetup who was serious about making good games, not making as much money as possible off mediocre ones. (I guess it didn't help that that month's topic was social media and gaming, meaning that half the people present that month were SEO and marketing types interested in coming up with their own Farmville. Which, basically, means they seek to engineer exactly the kind of tedious, repetitive Facebook games that give social gaming a bad name, the Pavlovian bell-ringing kind that keep you playing long after the enjoyment is gone.) So Donnelly is one of the good guys, as far as I can tell, and Ben--he really knows what he is doing; I am thrilled to be working with his art and his wry sense of humor. They've both met no success breaking into the mainstream games industry, so they're starting their own. A gutsy move--but they know their dreams. And so do I.

The other employer, geakStudios, heard of me via my Oberlin connections. They are an Oberlin-based startup, funded by a grant from the college, comprised entirely of recent Oberlin alumni! (If I had been smart, and a little less risk-averse, I would have done that when I graduated, rather than getting all worked up sending dozens of resumes and code samples to every company I'd heard of in a shrinking mainstream game industry, hoping they'd hire me to be the industry equivalent of a chimney sweep despite laying off seasoned professionals by the bucketful.) As a team of six, geakStudios is marginally bigger than the Yeti Knight dudes, allowing it to enjoy a small amount of mainstream-style specialization. We have a dedicated designer! And two programmers! And a full stack web guy who is doing only web stuff!

And, since geakStudios actually has a small amount of funding, we can afford to be a little more serious about our work. Not serious like my previous employer--I am delighted by how familiarly Oberlinesque the geakStudios team is, and how in many ways they are the exact reverse of Wall Street's very image-centered corporate culture--but truly and passionately committed, in that way that only a company of six or fewer people can achieve. Right now we're in the prototyping phase of the "fail-fast" model, in which, knowing that 80% of the projects we begin are going to be untenable, we seek to accelerate the process by churning out lots of crude gameplay prototypes over the summer and then culling all but the most popular ones for development to completion. We already have two initial prototypes done (a silly quicktime event game and a not-quite-shmup) and we're making great progress towards a third. Getting a team of six to work together is a bit of a hassle, especially with two people in Oberlin, one in San Francisco, and one in New York. But with weekly Skype audioconferences and regular Google Wave, we're somehow pulling a decent production schedule, even with the entire team only working part time. (I am proud to say that I have been slow in updating LJ lately because I have been so busy being productive.) I can't say when our games are going to go live on the site, but it looks like very soon. We're making this shit work, where doing it man, where MAKING THIS HAPEN.

I guess I'd better not self-advertise any further, lest I go broke doing nothing but free work for embryonic game companies. :b

But, this is real experience, I am learning new things, I am meeting motivated people my age with big dreams, and I am doing what I love. If this were even remotely sustainable this would be heaven. I could do this forever. Fuck it, pay my rent and groceries, cover my healthcare, toss me a small stipend for books and video games and theater every now and then and I'd do it for nothing else.

And yet. Oh man. Not even close to sustainable. This is a vacation in which instead of relaxing I am working very, very hard, that nonetheless burns through my wallet like a one megawatt laser through a CD case. I'm already living like a hermit, for a couple months I was even eating only one meal a day (bad idea), but saving money only goes far.

My raft from my Wall Street job and my last paycheck from Emily are close to running out, so I had to ask my parents for money. They've been trying to push some on me for ages--an absurd sum, more than they really can afford to be giving me--so I finally caved and took some of it. I feel horrible about taking it, in part because my parents have given me enough and they can't afford to support me like this, in part because money from parents is never free--there's always an implied debt of reciprocation. (Already you are so ungrateful for all the things your parents worked so hard to get you! That you never asked for and never had any say in receiving any of it, least of all the fact of your birth, is inconsequential.) But now I have another raft. It won't last me forever, but hopefully it will last me until I can turn my game-making addiction into a rent-covering, food-buying full-time job. My father, a self-made businessman himself, is very encouraging. My mother...well, how supportive she is depends on whether she's taken her meds lately, whether my father is away on business, how scary the mortgage on my parents' new apartment is at the moment, and whether the cat is thirsty.

I'll pay them back. On my own terms. Somehow.

Games. It's amazing how much I've invested in the craft of so frivolous (yet beautiful!) a luxury, something I myself can no longer afford. How many current-gen mainstream titles have I bought in the past two years? One? One and a half? Were it not for freeware and independent games--of the very sort I am making!--it'd be almost tragic how working on games means I can't afford to play them.

But, you know what? You see that part of my resume that lists my job experience, where I list all this impressive but ultimately gaming-irrelevant programming bullshit, a decent one-month residency, and that one game I did as a side project at the top? (Which, amusingly, has done far more for me than any of the more traditional resume hooks. It's caused some interviewers to skim past all this hardcore network I/O and multithreading stuff I've done for a multinational corporation and say to me in phone interviews, "Gee, it looks like you don't have a lot of experience, but this homebrew thing you threw together in your spare time looks promising!") By the end of the summer all of that is going to be game industry experience. All of it. My resume is not going to say "snivelling self-entitled web engineer who thinks video games would be more fun than doing enterprise applications," it's going to say "snivelling self-entitled game programmer with plenty of relevant experience WHY HAVEN'T WE HIRED THIS DOUCHEBAG YET."

And, well, if the unthinkable happens? If geakStudios or the Yeti Knight people somehow manage to beat the odds, and become one of the something like 10% of independent game companies to survive to the launch of their first title?

Then there's no point in breaking in anymore. We ARE the games industry then, even if we are just the newest face in a tiny niche market. And then, we get our say, in our little corner at least, in what corporate America is supposed to be. Our own gentle tug against the tide of the great beast of capitalism, and a chance to redeem one shining speck in its long, terrible history. (Remember, alma mater, your old motto: Think one person can change the world?)

Or, more likely, we'll all sell out and blow it all on skyscrapers, suits, and cocaine.

Only time will tell.