My #GDC16 | Mentally Hit by a Bus

Have you ever felt like you’ve been blindsided by a bus, but that’s a good thing? In addition to some great sessions, this year’s GDC brought about a number of personal realizations about my life as a game developer. I’ll start this post with a brief recap of the best sessions I attended. If you’d like to read the personal info, read on past the summary.

My Augmented Reality, “Tactical Twitch” Prototype (in case you haven’t seen it)

Sessions Overview

The sessions I attended ranged between useful, and inspiring. This is just a brief summary. I took detailed notes, and over the next few days I will have a full write-up on each. This year my chosen topics delve into deeper technical waters, and I want to be sure I understand the material before I pass it along.

IMG_0302From a One Person Shop to Indie Dev to AAA: What it Really Takes to Grow (Presented by Amazon)

Mike Hines  |  Developer Evangelist, Amazon
Peter Heinrich  |  Developer Evangelist, Amazon

GDC Description: We’ve entered a golden age of creativity and experimentation. Today, anyone with an idea can build a game and publish it to a global audience. How does the gifted amateur become a pro game developer, and from there, a games industry success story? Hint: it requires more than just programming or artistic talent. In this session, we’ll show you how to approach game development as a business – even if business isn’t your “thing.” We’ll look at the single most-important skill you can develop, and show by example what happens if you neglect it. We’ll also offer practical insights on choosing a game genre, development environment, and target hardware as well as how to monetize your game.

IMG_0342The Power of Fanbase: Growing Your Audience with Twitch (Presented by Amazon)

Garnett Lee  |  Senior Business Development Manager, Amazon

GDC Description: In the future, the top games will have fully realized fan bases that will drive their user acquisition and engagement engines. Without it, high customer acquisition costs and low customer life-time value can sink any game. How can you turn your players into fans? Broadcasters need interesting content to show on their channels, and game developers need to get their games in front of players. Leveraging Twitch in your game development process helps build an audience and keep them interested. Come hear experienced broadcasters and developers discuss new content opportunities you can use to expand your broadcast and better engage viewers with Twitch.

IMG_0371The Design of Everyday Games

Christina Wodtke  |  Associate Professor, CCA

GDC Description: In 2013, Don Norman updated The Design Of Everyday Things. In 2015, references to “affodances” and “feedback” were everywhere at GDC. As games reacher broader audiences, it’s critical that game designers make games accessible to players who are more familiar with Amazon than Fallout 4. A positive user experience can create the next Monument Valley or Clash of Clans. Norman pointed out that a positive user experience begins with usability, but it doesn’t end there. Great user experiences anticipate the user’s needs and then go beyond that to delight. User experience designers have evolved a variety of approaches and tools to assure that the a product is “a joy to own, a joy to use.” In this talk, Christina will explore the core principles of user experience design, and how it can create games that are elegant and complete experiences that both serve and delight their players.

IMG_0385AAA Virtual Orchestration on an Indie Budget

Wilbert Roget  |  Composer, Music Supervisor, RogetMusic

GDC Description: While quality standards for orchestral music in games continue to rise, budgets for games at the indie and “AA” level do not. This session will use examples from my DICE-Award Nominated score to “Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris” to show how we achieved the best possible orchestral sound quality with less than a shoestring budget. This will cover effective use of samples, hall simulation and reverb, instrumental solos and overdubs, and final mastering.

IMG_04208 Bit & ‘8 Bitish’ Graphics-Outside the Box

Mark Ferrari  |  Commercial Digital Illustrator, Terrible Toybox

GDC Description: Mark Ferrari will discuss and demonstrate some of his techniques for drawing 8 bit game graphics, including his celebrated methods for use of color cycling and pallet shifting to create complex and realistic background animation effects without frame-animation. He will also discuss his current work for Ron Gilbert’s retro adventure Game, Thimbleweed Park, and demonstrate techniques for using Photoshop to create what he calls ‘8 bitish’ graphics for retro games today.

IMG_0427Angry Birds 2 – Next Gen Audio in Only 10 Megabytes

Jonatan Crafoord  |  Co-founder, The Brain
Elvira Björkman  |  Music Composer, Two Feathers

GDC Description: Rovio’s new flagship game Angry Birds 2 had to stand out from its predecessor and still be downloadable by *everyone*. But how do you fit the expectation of console quality audio on a mobile platform, with only 10 megabytes of space? The audio team at Rovio looked at compression and trends in headphone usage to make the most of the platform limitations, and created the music and sound design to be varied and grand but with a bird-sized memory footprint. Jonatan Crafoord, Audio Director, will talk about best practices for sound design and file formats to save space without compromising quality. Elvira Björkman, Music Composer, will show how the music was composed and implemented to feel as refreshing as possible while staying within memory limits.

Now for the Personal Bit

I didn’t start learning about 3D Design and animation until I was about 23 years old, and I wouldn’t call myself good at it until I was about 27. I didn’t start learning to program until I was around 26 years old, and I wasn’t proficient enough to be employable until I was 29. Why did I start so late? The answer is because I wanted to make games. I don’t mean that the pursuit of making games put off learning, I’m saying that making games is the only reason I thought to try.

I never thought I had the ability to do any of the tasks required. I felt it was all permanently over my head; however, since I was a kid I’d been contemplating my own game ideas, writing short stories, and terrible comics. In the second grade I sketched out my ideas on binder paper, and mailed them to the corporate address for Nintendo that was listed on the back of the NES system packaging. Later in in life, after my first few attempts at education and career didn’t work out, I finally gave in to “the calling”.

The pursuit of making games has helped me develop skills across a wide range of technical fields, and whether I’m making motion graphics or building websites, I’ve never gone without a paycheck. At this point, all of the time and skills I’ve acquired have brought me into an awesome job where I teach game design at a high school. I can’t complain. The decision to professionally pursue the art of making games has had a net effect of improving my quality of life.

 Getting to the Point

Here’s where things start getting heavy. At the expo this year I’ve been impressed with a number of indie projects both at the IGF, and the Indie Megabooth. As I talked with, and listened to other developers, I’m starting to realize the age gap. The indie developers are talking about all of the time, years even, that went in to creating a game they’re willing to show, and/or release. If one does the math, it’s not hard to realize that they all started learning this stuff when they were in high school, or shortly after. I’ve never been one to view the age gap as a big deal, but I’m starting to see how life can turn it into one.

The change that began setting in is that I am now past 30, I have a great wife of over 10 years, and beautiful little girl. I need to provide stability for them, and possibly more important, I need to actually be around to spend time with them. Having to make this change isn’t so much the surprising part of growing up. The surprise to myself is that I’m okay with giving up other pursuits in order to meet all of the needs of my family.

I don’t want to leave the world of game development, but it falls behind my desire to actively be in the lives of the people I love. This is the big realization for me, and it breaks down into a few parts:

  1. At this time, it seems that the only way I get to have a long term involvement with the video game industry, is if it becomes my full time career.
  2. Embracing game development as a full time career is financially/emotionally risky.
  3. Due to life events (which I love) I’m out of time in my life for taking financial/emotional risks.

This is the metaphorical bus that ran me over at this year’s conference. It may sound like I’m building up toward a sad conclusion, but the emotional pounding provides an immense burst of passion, ambition, and inspiration towards one goal; to finish “Tactical Twitch”, and make it the best experience that I have the ability to create. After that, I can move on.

Move On to What?

Best case scenario, “Tactical Twitch” is a runaway hit that demands leaving my “day job” to pursue games as business. That would be a lot like winning the jackpot. Here is what I expect to happen. I cease to exist in mental anguish over releasing a product, and the pursuit of game design becomes something I “play” with. I’d love to keep experimenting with augmented reality, and gamification of that technology. I may even release something again. The difference is, I won’t torment myself if I don’t.

I’ll still poke my head in at the conference. There are always great sessions. Another thought I have is to embrace board game design. The technical skills required in that are almost entirely artistic, making it easier to do as a relaxing side project. It’s specifically the all consuming task of creating a complete, quality video game that I’ll likely have to leave behind; however, I just can’t do that until I’ve taken it as far as I can go, and I’m not quite there yet.

Follow Along this Summer as the Dream Comes to… Something

This Summer you’ll be able to follow my development in a number of ways such as, YouTube dev blogs, Twitch streaming, and play testing the game yourself. I’ll have more complete information on the game in the coming months. Those I’ve explained it to in person seem to think the idea works. The best thing I can say about the game so far, is that I know I will have fun playing it. It’s a game not just for second grade Hodge who wrote all of those letters to Nintendo, it’s for me right now. I can’t wait to share it with everyone. Development will resume as soon as my current class of students are out (late May).

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