Taking a Breather

Hi internet!  It’s been a while – let’s catch up again.

Let’s see.  A while ago I launched my first commercial game on Steam.  The game was in development for far longer than originally intended, and its release was much overdue.

Unfortunately, though I say I “launched” it, I don’t know if that’s really the fitting word, as most of the traffic the game received (maybe 90%?) is purely due to its place on the Steam storefront, meaning I did not succeed at publicizing the game or getting it the exposure I think it deserves.  And overall, it has garnered a small fraction of the views that its much smaller and cruder prequel had (not talking about sales here, just hits), which is pretty discouraging.  After all, the main reason I decided to work on this sequel was because of the apparent interest that was shown in the original.

But now the game is out there, and I can say that I finished and shipped a product with a pretty substantial play-length, considering the game consists 100% of scripted content.  There has been a lot of positive response from the people who have played it, and some really glowing user reviews that have just been a joy to read through.

I haven’t been as productive after release as I thought I would be.  I had all sorts of ideas for projects that were crowding my head, which I thought I would just speed through after being caught up on such a large undertaking.  Nope, turns out I was completely burned out from development and all of the stress leading up to release.  I have been working on several projects and have participated in local game jams, but so far haven’t been as possessed to publish something else with my name on it as I had been with At Sea.

get it?  possessed?

Partially I feel like I’ve proven to myself that I can see a project through to its end, so I don’t feel the pressure or need to finish every little idea that I come up with if it turns out that it isn’t really as interesting as it seemed at first.  Which is usually the case.  The fickle developer who can’t complete anything is a cliche, but in truth I think it’s important to also know when to leave a project.  Yes, you can learn a lot by completing a project, and it is an important skill to be able to “finish” something.

“Art is never finished, only abandoned” – some dude

There are definitely diminishing returns however.  The skill of “finishing” is only one of many, many skills that are required in game development, and it may not even be the most important one in this era of early access and open betas and development live-streaming and twitter GIFs and oh man, things change really fast don’t they?

But one thing I have definitely noticed is that my productivity and general ability to make stuff is so much greater than before I had originally set out to ship a premium game.

When working on other things, it kinda feels like the training weights have come off.  I’ve just spent some time catching my breath.

Family and Firecrackers

Although I’m overdue for an update on WAIDAS and have some exciting things to share on that front, it would be a shame if I didn’t even acknowledge some of the things that have happened while I was away from the keyboard.  Today seems like a fitting day to write about that, since I have dedicated it a mental health day.

So, about a month and a half ago I moved from northeast America to the city of Xi’an in central China.  On the weekends I teach English, and during the week I develop my game.  It’s a wonderful situation in that the teaching fully supports me, yet gives me more than enough freedom to pour my sweat and tears into WAIDAS.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been in China, or in Xi’an even; I studied abroad here for about five months.  So while it took some time to get used to my new job, my location inspires just as much sense of nostalgia as it does homesickness.

Then, on October 1st, I took a road trip with a Chinese couple that I’m good friends with to the southern province of Hunan.  It was the time around National Day, which is seems to be a combination of the American holidays July 4 and Thanksgiving: lots of fireworks, and lots of family reunions.  So we drove to the husband’s childhood home in the sprawling metropolis of Shuangfeng, Hunan.

Sprawling metropolis
Sprawling metropolis

After a 15 hour drive, we arrived at his house around 10PM.  As we pulled up, I heard a noise which in most other contexts I would have assumed was my imminent death; but in this case, it was the sound of a full wheel of firecrackers being set off a meter from the car.  I then got to meet the husband’s family, nearly all of whom spoke a deep Shuangfeng dialect, rendering my three years of Mandarin studies near useless.  That was by far the biggest shame of the trip, since I would have loved to have actual conversations with these people; instead, it was a challenge to even understand single-word commands.

The front of the farmhouse
The front of the farmhouse

This was a farm-house through and through.  On the opposite side of the small dirt road were wheat fields; chickens scavenged around, and in, the house; pigs resided in a sort of stable that was attached to the rest of the house.  Generally anything we ate was killed within a twenty yard radius of the house.  And eat we did, for if rural Chinese people are anything, they are hospitable.  Perhaps most of the conversation I had with the family involved them telling me to eat — and me replying that I was!


While the husband may have come from here, he spent enough time outside of it and in the city to speak much more standard Chinese.  Much of his family and friends, however, have stayed here since birth — I got to meet cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and classmates of his, most of whom I think have been in Shuangfeng for, well, ever.  This certainly left an impression on me, and not just for the obvious reason that I’ve come far away from home — but also because my family immigrated to America (on both maternal and paternal sides) not so long ago, and is in comparison very stretched and scattered, with faint geographical affiliations.  In contrast, the husband called this the land of 楚国, a state that existed more than two thousand years ago.

Image2None of that is to imply that this is somehow a pure land before or without time, of course!  While the house that we stayed at was more rural, it actually is a bit outside of Shuangfeng proper.  The center of Shuangfeng, while referred to by Chinese people as still a part of the countryside, could pass as a small city in Pennsylvania.  I noticed several relatives wearing clothes with English letters on them, which is the stylish thing to do.  The husband has two nieces, both of whom have been studying English.  And one moment that stuck out to me happened when we were trap fishing in a small lake, and a modern Chinese song played faintly from a country home in the distance.  The wife, for whom this was her second time staying in Shuangfeng, began humming along absent-mindedly.  The show that I’ve seen advertised on the side-wall of my apartment elevator (小爸爸) could be observed on the TV sets of several houses I visited while I was there.

While I didn’t see any particularly famous sights, I don’t really care too much about those.  It’s the mundane things that are more interesting and meaningful, because it’s the mundane things that make the world.


The time spent vacationing and travelling certainly bit into development time.  I arrived back in Xi’an on  the evening of October 7, so I was gone for about a week.  But it’s experiences like these that enrich, well, everything — not excluding game design.  There is a strain of advice that I’ve heard bouncing around in the independent community which cautions against locking yourself away in order to crunch out your game.  And this is advice I’d echo any day, as much as I have to isolate myself at times to get work done.  Because every aspect of the game I’m working on which I like most about it, which allows me some amount of optimism in its prospects, and which keeps me convinced that I have to finish it and release it, is something that I gained from a time that I wasn’t expecting to gain anything from.

Western Peace

Since graduating, it’s been my desire to travel abroad and teach English.  This has been something in the works for a while, as I’ve approached it with a large, perhaps excessive amount, of caution.

Which is why I’m very excited to say that just over the past month I accepted a job teaching English as a second language in the beautiful city of Xi’an, China.  Obviously, the work needed for this came before my work on my game project, which was a large part of why I had trouble holding to my development schedule for last month.  If that means I don’t feel comfortable submitting to Indiecade, I will consider it a small blip on the screen compared to this news!  I’ll be leaving the states at the end of this summer, and it can’t come fast enough.

xian-chinaI’ve known since before graduating that I wanted to travel outside the US in some capacity; I had studied abroad in China for a semester, and found the experience eye-opening and fulfilling.  And although I would love the idea of going to other foreign countries besides China, I’m just too tempted to continue studying the Chinese language (老实说,我也想吃中国饭,哈哈)!   The decision to teach ESL in conjunction was a practical one as much as a personal one.  Most ESL jobs allow the kind of flexibility that would allow me to actually see China, and there are many more openings across all of China, allowing me more freedom in the location I work.

That the job is located in Xi’an is no accident — it is in the dead center of China, and loaded with ancient history for which I am an unapologetic romantic.


Teaching ESL also dovetails with my interests in education.  Although I don’t often mention it in this blog, I’m extremely interested in what games can do for education, and I believe that the art of game design and the art of teaching are very similar at their core.  Both require one to design a system with the intent of conveying information to an audience by guiding them through it.  The game designer uses code to convey emotions and information to the player, while the teacher designs lesson plans and exercises to convey information and patterns of thought to the student.  In both games and education, interactivity is vital — the game designer must use mechanics other than walls of text or cutscenes, and the teacher must have exercises other than mindless drills.  There are still other, more specific similarities, but I’d rather not ramble on about this too long!  Suffice it to say that I feel there is a connection between gaining experience as a teacher and improving as a game designer.

And I would also love to continue my independent development while in Xi’an.  I obviously will be more restricted with development time than I am now, but I will still have more than enough time and resources to do work on the side!

More WAID2 art and news to come shortly!

Research is FUN

First of all, let me get this out of the way.

Steam Summer Sale is here, which means boat-loads of prices for video games which would have been a downright abomination to the gaming market of ten years ago.  Wanna buy a AAA game for half-price a mere couple months after its release?  Go ahead.  Wanna buy a batch of indie games for something like 75% off a pop?  You do that!  You wanna buy an ENTIRE AAA FRANCHISE for what would be the normal cost of only one of the games in said franchise?  WHY NOT.

So this is an ideal time to start my updates on what games I’m playing, as opposed to what games I’m making, since my gaming library has just had some really interesting additions.  Later on, I may write a more detailed analysis of a game I’m going through.  But just to break the ice for now, I’ll give a speed-run of my reactions to the games I’m playing, or plan to play in the near future.

Terraria : Though comparing it to Minecraft could quickly become obnoxious, it’s impossible to avoid at some level.  Terraria compensates a lack of freedom in construction (no 3rd dimension) by having a more involved crafting system; so the building isn’t as fun in itself, but is more tied to the core gameplay.  Unfortunately I find cave exploration marred by the lack of field of vision for enemies, and smacking around zombies 10-20 times lacks the tension of fighting off creepers.

Bastion : I haven’t played far enough to give a serious response.  The aesthetics, game, and narration go along together excellently, but that’s established fact by this point.  My only complaint is that I feel the narrative, while promising, should probably be moving at a faster clip than it is.

A Valley Without Wind : I’m a sucker for procedurally created content.  I suspect it’ll take a while for me to digest all of the different things this game is trying to do.  Not crazy about the art though.

Cave Story+ : Not having played this game is an ongoing source of shame that I will soon rectify.

Mass Effect 3 multiplayer : As with many others, ME3’s ending left a poor taste in my mouth, which sort of squashed my curiosity in the game’s multiplayer for a while.  But my initial curiosity was justified.  The blend of F2P mmo concepts with the squad-based combat that Bioware has been refining for three games works really well.  In addition, and perhaps most importantly for me, is that the presence of a tier of challenges gives me the excuse to suck in public games.  I don’t have to be dumped into a team of professionals who have already logged 100+ hours, as in games like Left4Dead where I continuously bring shame upon my team.

 Morrowind : I played this game a bit some years ago, but it really warrants more attention from me.  I loved Skyrim, but felt it was over-zealously streamlined.  Oblivion’s inter-city fast-travel obliterated my desire to explore.  I think Morrowind may end up being my favorite Elder Scrolls game so long as I can tolerate cliff racers.

It goes without saying that I let none of this interfere with work on my own game!  Playing other games and remaining aware of what other people are doing is, obviously, essential to designing your own work.  And knowing what other people are playing is perhaps the easiest and most direct way of understanding from what perspective their design is coming from.

Games for Change Reflections

So, I got back from Manhattan a few days ago and I’ve been letting my experiences at the 9th annual Games for Change festival rattle around my brain for a while.  There were lots of really interesting talks, some of which were truly amazing, and so I have lots of different reactions; more than I could feasibly write down with the hopes of actually maintaining a reader’s attention.

So, instead, I’ll give a general impression that I’m left with.

There’s a lot of room for both optimism and pessimism regarding the Games for Change movement.  On one hand, the amount of attention that it’s getting, and the amount of legitimacy it commands, is rapidly growing.  It’s obviously still small in comparison to commercial pursuits, but its trajectory is decidedly upwards.  The festival’s audience contained just as many (if not more) federal agents and educators as it did game developers, and many of the pre-festival summit talks were directed at federal agents looking to fund game projects.  So, hopefully it can be said that the fact that games can positively transform society is not so controversial.

The room for pessimism comes from what is actually being produced at the moment.  In regards to quality and the actual ‘fun’ of the game, there is a rather large divide between impact games and commercial games, and this is indicative of a faulty perspective.  You can model any dynamics, create anything, do whatever you want with games; and yet, transformational games often simply take rather trite and simplistic game mechanics from the arcade and slap an educational theme on top.  This approach treats games as some sort of passive vehicle you can use to push your message, rather than for what it is: a radically new way to construct your message.  With this approach, maybe with the help of federal agents you can get your game funded, and maybe with the help of educators you can get it into schools, but it will never truly infect the population the way commercial games have been able to.

When I was a kid, this game collected dust.

However, without the faith and goodwill of educators and federal agencies to open the door, I don’t believe transformational games will become a lasting trend in the commercial world, and so while this partnership of disparate occupations is going to result in some serious misunderstandings and lack of unity in direction, I think its end result is going to be a rather radical thing.  So in this sense, I think that there’s much more room for optimism than for pessimism.

I have to admit, though, that I’m still far more interested in impact games that are tied to the commercial market, rather than to federal funding: for instance, Navid Khonsari’s 1979, for which he apparently got accused of being a spy, looks to be an interesting historical narrative turned into a game.

This should be how education looks.

 I’m almost positive that this game will be very problematic in regards to its treatment of history, but it at least tries to turn history into something which can be marketed; which is, after all, the ultimate test of engagement and audience appeal, the two things which education sorely lacks at the moment.