Always & Forever Computer Entertainment Acknowledges Year 2

When asked “How are you?” how often do we give an honest answer? 2016 was a pretty mixed bag for me, as I imagine it was for a lot of people. Personally, I excel at focusing on the negative, but forcing myself to write these yearly reviews gives me a chance to remind myself of what’s working and what’s not. Follow me on the tale of self-realization that was Always & Forever’s sophomore year.

Click here if you missed Episode 1 of Always & Forever’s Birthday Series.

One year of Always & Forever on Instagram. @aaf.nyc

Good: I was named an ADC Young Gun and appointed to the Board of Directors for AIGA’s New York City chapter. I gave talks at Visualized, NYU, and Spotify. I learned some new software and challenged myself to post to Instagram daily. Most importantly, I released my first VR experience on Steam, called Playthings VR, an interactive musical sandbox. It’s been featured at Tribeca Film Festival, TIFF and SXSW Interactive.

Bad: Following what felt like an underwhelming reception to the release of Playthings, I spent the Winter in a dark place. I meandered without a project to pour myself into. I still feel like I could have done so much more with that time. Low self-esteem made me shut off my social life, led by the misguided notion that only work could make me feel better. At least that misery translated into productivity, but towards no identifiable end goal. It’s a hole I’m only recently climbing out of.


Playthings in the wild

As of August 2016, Playthings for the HTC Vive is available for purchase on Steam. Playthings puts virtual drumsticks in your hand and drops you on a tropical island filled with musical junk-food.

The trailer for Playthings VR. The most ambitious project I’d ever completed.

Playthings was in development for about 8 months. The team consisted of myself on programming and art, Jon Baken on sound design and music composition, and Neil Cline on user interface. I had the extreme pleasure of working with one of my musical idols, Jesper Mortensen of Junior Senior, on a rap for the game’s ending credits.

This was the first time I’d ever released a “product.” I can’t recall a time that I was happier than during the development of Playthings. The last thing I want to discount is all the gracious praise I’d received in person (thank you!). But if I’m completely honest, the reception online hardly lived up to my expectations.

The small handful of reviews for Playthings on Steam are mixed, and that just doesn’t jive with all the positive feedback I’ve gotten in person. I don’t know if those people were just being polite in front of the creator, or mistakenly giving me credit for the novelty of VR. It just doesn’t seem to have made it in front of very many people outside this studio, in spite of all the great reactions I’ve seen here.

I’m left wondering what exactly it is I did “wrong.” I guess it’s not enough to just make something good. Should I have worked harder on getting press? Should I not have turned away all those people who wanted to give me money in exchange for their name on my work? I’m still really not sure. Feel free to offer suggestions / mitigate my self-pity in the comment section below.

At the end of the day, all I’ve really ever tried to do is make work that I’m proud of — the type of work I would never see someone else make. At very least, on that count, I feel like I succeeded.

Download Playthings VR for $4.99 on Steam!

C4D Vacation

I spent the majority of Winter wondering what the hell to do with myself, definitely suffering from post-partum-project-depression. After 8 months of programming Playthings I was ready to power down my left-brain and just detox with image-making. I started learning Octane, this incredible rendering engine for Cinema 4D, and kind of just went ape.

I stopped programming and working in Unity for a long time and spent a lot of time making images and animation with no particular outlet or purpose. I’m happy I was able to stay productive and creative despite feeling somewhat lost. Follow us on Instagram and like every post. But there’s something about starting and finishing something every day that hurts me a bit. I want another big, ambitious project to sink my teeth into, but I haven’t felt that burning sting of inspiration.


Music Visualization

This at least seems to be a never ending obsession. I gave some talks this year about my work visualizing MIDI data, at Visualized, NYU’s Clive Davis Institute and Spotify’s Music Hackathon. That’s given me new perspective on my body of work as a whole — a more holistic view of how I want people to consume and interact with music.

There’s a common thread throughout what I make, be it static or interactive: the ears are not the only avenue through which we consume music. We can “listen” to music with our eyes, and in virtual reality, with our bodies as well. During my odyssey, I made two “mini-music-videos”: one featuring Erik Satie’s classical piece, Gymnopédie No. 1, and another for friends and musical idols Ice Choir’s latest release: Designs In Rhythm.

Cool 3D World and 360 Video

I’ve had the honor of collaborating with 3D art prodigies Jon Baken & Brian Tessler of Cool 3D World many times this year. Cool 3D World produces musical 3D animations featuring repulsive, uncanny, and entrancing human forms that tow a tight line between awe-inspiring and hilarious.

After having worked in interactive VR for so long, I was actually dying to explore 360 video — something I’ve historically poo-poo’ed upon. I’m still not ready to call 360 video “virtual reality,” but it has its strengths as a medium in its own right. Especially in its accessibility.

My first 360 video, Human Horde, featuring music by Jon Baken.

Where room-scale VR has a ways to go in terms of market saturation, pretty much everyone can watch 360 video on Facebook. This year, Cool 3D World and A&F released two wildly successful 360 videos, The Roller Coaster & The Dinner. Jonathan also scored my first piece in 360, entitled Human Horde.

Feeding myself

You might be wondering how I can do all this pointless bullshit and still pay rent. I was lucky to have subsisted on the money I’d made exhibiting Playthings for a time, but money has a habit of getting spent. Not “needing” to work contributed to the aimlessness I was feeling, but this is the definition of a first-world problem. This year, I’ve been lucky to find paid work that’s given me opportunities to keep working in VR, and a great degree of creative freedom.

Lately I’ve been doing some contract work for a cool company called TheWaveVR. The Wave is a social platform where you can actually attend concerts with other people in virtual reality. You can also take drugs (called “Trips”) … and guess who’s designing thooose? (yours truly). The trips are VR vignettes where you’re transported to a whole new world with another concert-goer for just one minute.

One trip puts you on stage holding a pair of electric guitars with telescopic necks that you use to destroy an infinite supply of guitar amps in front of a roaring crowd. Another puts you at the front of a robot dance troupe with giant TV heads that you can choreograph with your own body. It’s a really fun job, and the format is a great outlet for bite-sized VR sketches that wouldn’t otherwise have a home. The guys at The Wave have been awesome about shouting out A&F in-game with our own special section of the trips storefront too.

What’s next.

I’ve been splitting my time about 50/50 working for clients and focusing on self-directed work. Before I left Google 2 years ago, I remember saying I’d be happy to take a 50% salary cut to get 50% of my time back to make whatever the fuck it is that I want. That prophecy has been realized, and for that I’m extremely grateful.

To the future.

Working for oneself comes with its own unique set of headaches, just as does working for a company. I have no idea where my next check will come from, but there’s an exhilaration that comes along with that too. Watching one’s bank account balance magically increase every two weeks is nice, but cashing a check after a big project feels a lot more fulfilling.

Hopefully this post will help other self-employed individuals such as myself come to grips with the fact that it’s not all roses. All we can to do is make good work and try to get good emails.

Onward,

George Michael Brower
Founder, CEO, COO, CTO, CIC
Always & Forever Computer Entertainment

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