All Games, All the Time

Working on AAA game titles by day, and my own little indie game by night. For a few months now, this has been my life. It’s fun, it’s everything 12-year old me could have ever dreamed of, and it’s a lot of hard work. Though I’m currently working overtime and out of the house 14 hours a day, I do not miss trying to eke out a living as a photographer, which is kind of awesome.

Bound by NDAs, I can’t talk about the AAA title I am attached to, but it involves Microsoft and some cutting edge gaming technology. And I can safely reveal that it’s exciting to be part of a huge production. My role, as an assistant LQA test lead, has me talking to testers, other leads and producers, and I get to see what goes on at different levels. These are multi-million dollar titles, and pretty much a completely different world, compared to the one I live in on the weekends.

My own game – Salvage Trader – has a four person team: an artist, a composer, a PR/marketing person, and me for everything else. I started a company, Tagunda, but there are no actual employees – everyone is a freelancer, except me. There is no office except the one in my apartment, and project management is all done online, using the excellent tool, Podio. Communication flows easily on such a small team, and everyone is genuinely excited to finish it and see the result. My only complaints are, that I’d love to have more time and a bigger budget. But when is that not a concern?

On the day job, there are many more people involved. In fact, I don’t even know how large the production is. I’ve never met the actual developers, nor seen a line of code. Assets come from multiple locations, depending on their nature, and just managing all these is a major task involving lots of people. With such a large production, communication can be a challenge. There are many links in the chain, and thus many places it can potentially break. Like I said, a different world.

So, while life isn’t all fun, all the time, it is all games. Somehow, though not often at the day job, I still find time to play. I do think playing is a necessary part of making games. It’s not enough to just do your own thing – you have to see what else is out there. Not because I see other games as competition, but because it’s both fun, eye opening and inspiring to play.

For more on the projects mentioned, check the sites linked to in this post. You can also find both Salvage Trader and Tagunda on both Twitter and Facebook, so feel free to follow/like, and you can follow the process and development.

Full Time in Gaming

What follows is a personal story, likely too long for many to read, so if you’re looking for some sort of point, let’s go with this one: In Life you will experience ups and downs, but if you look for opportunities to get inspired and better yourself, you’ll find ways to get through all the crap.

Over the last couple of years, my life has changed in many ways. Some good, some not so much. Tomorrow I start a new chapter, taking on my first full time job in several years. During the time I was “off the market”, I was trying to build a business of my own, and having a go at a photography career, blogging and being artsy on the side. It was a lot of fun and a lot of work. Basically I sacrificed security and stability for freedom and the pursuit of creative urges, and for about a decade it was how I lived my life.

In 2011 my wife got diagnosed with a couple of hardcore medical issues, and not only were there medical bills to pay, but one of the household members was also unable to work for several months. Suddenly “security and stability” became more important than “freedom and creativity”. After a few months of not finding the work I was hoping for, I took a part time job in retail to make ends meet. This allowed me to still do a bit of freelance work, and take on a personal quest of sorts.

During Kelly’s slow recovery, we played a lot of Minecraft. When she was incapable of doing anything in the real world, she could still build castles in the virtual one. It was a great way for her to stay active, or not go completely stir crazy, and for us to do something fun together. For me, playing Minecraft also rekindled a deep love of mine – creating games. Since grade school, I have been telling stories through games in one way or another. From the text adventures I would code on my old C=64, to elaborate Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. And so, I started learning about video game design theory and touching up on ye olde coding skills.

The first game I finished was Nebula Rescue for iOS. It’s not what you would call a conventionally handsome game, but I like to think that the gameplay makes up for that. I’m particularly proud of the game balance I achieved, and the way the difficulty progresses. The day someone set a high score that was more than double that of my own, I squeed. You can find it in the App Store.

My second game – Salvage Trader – is currently on Kickstarter (go back it, I’ll be here when you’re done). It’s inspired by some of my favorite types of games, space trading, exploration and little mini games to break things up. A much more complex and ambitious project, but equally more rewarding to work on.

The greatest reward however, was realizing that I really do love making games, and that I want to have a go at doing it for a living. I’ve worked with many types of storytelling in the past, from novels and song lyrics to photography and video, but there is an added thrill of the Player, and his or hers part in how that story unfolds. I hope to be able to work on games more, for many years to come.

Which is why the next big change is an awesome one. Tomorrow I start my new job, going full time, as an “LQA Tester”. If you don’t know what that means, it’s short for Language Quality Assurance. In short, I help translate and test new video games before they hit the market. It’s also a perfect opportunity to study the game design process from inside the industry – and on a much grander scale than making games on my own.

This particular change is exciting and welcome for more reasons than one. I’m happy to be back working on storytelling things, and excited that it is even in the industry I wanted to work in. I won’t miss doing photography for a living (taking pictures for fun is way more, well, fun), and I definitely won’t miss retail. Side note: I have great respect for anyone who has the stamina to work retail for years on end – having to deal with the General Public on that level is soul crunching.

I share these things in the hope of inspiring others who might feel stuck or overwhelmed by the adversities of Life. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, much of the above will already be familiar to you, which leads me to thank all those who have been supportive and encouraging through the last couple of years. Thank you!

The Year of Change

2012 was a year of fighting for recovery, even survival. Last year, my year-in-review post centered around some of the good people that had influenced my life. I could rewrite that same post today, because there is no doubt the fight would have failed, had it not been for the help of friends and family. There were some insanely tough times, and a few hard decisions were made.

I’m not going to write a long sob story, but 2012 sucked on several levels. We were hit hard with financial trouble, and dealing with the aftermath of Kelly’s Cancer treatment and surgery. Not just the bills piling up, but also the fact that she was out of commission for several months after the fact (radiation treatment is a bitch to recover from, throw in abdominal surgery for a few months of not being able to bend over or lift anything). At the same time, continually dropping sales in stock photography only made each month bleaker than the one before.

It was time to make a radical change, so I gave up on full time freelancing and got a part time job (in a coffee shop of course, I do live in Seattle after all). I’d been working for myself for about a decade, and making that change was not easy – but definitely worth it. The stress relief alone more than makes up for having to be somewhere, not in my pyjamas, several times a week. Having a reliable, base income has allowed me to focus on the things I want to do, instead of always running down the next client.

Speaking of clients, 2012 was a year full of lessons. I realize now, that most of my stress from freelancing comes from client relations. I do not like dealing with sales, and so I have promised myself two things to compensate for that in the coming year. First, I’m raising my rates. Second, I will strive to only accept client jobs that are fun and interesting.

Unless something irresistible comes along, the priority will remain my personal projects, designing games, telling stories and learning. I have many, many ideas, including photos I’d like to take – for a while there, I wondered if I had lost interest in photography altogether, but it was working in stock photography that had nearly killed my love for the medium. In relation to that, I finished off 2012 by canceling my exclusivity agreement with iStockphoto. Wow, what a liberating feeling that was!

I’m hopeful for 2013. The world didn’t end in 2012, though it felt like it was getting close a few times. What follows are a few links that mark points of interest from 2012.

  • A Nerd Comes Home – I started the year by proclaiming that 2012 would be the year I let my nerd out. I did. It’s been fantastic!
  • The Fork in the Road – in the beginning of 2012 I still had savings, still ran Another Passion and still thought I might make it.
  • It Gets Better – I was asked to be part of making this video by Mike Selinker and Stepto. It was a ton of fun to do, and the message never gets old.
  • Nebula Rescue in the App Store – my first video game to ever be sold anywhere! Launching Nebula Rescue was a major accomplishment for me. I’m a proud game daddy.
  • Hard Booting Life – from when things were pretty much their worst, financially, I wrote about looking for work.
  • “Natural 20” – a set of three songs I wrote and recorded, inspired by my love of gaming (old skool pen and paper style, specifically).