2018 in review
A lot of different things happened this year and I want to be able to remind them. So what follows is basically a long blog post; read at your own discretion.
Short summary of my life leading up to 2018: studied to be an architect for a couple of years, but spent most of it horribly depressed. I was at the verge of being hospitalized when the psychiatrist found me medication that actually seemed to help. Decided to turn my life around by starting with something new: enrolled in at an arts school to study game design.
Oh wow, yeah. January. I just released Setsu and I was really pleased with it. It was purely a free time project, so I started the year with my head down, focusing on schoolwork and working with new technologies. I made this handheld game system that could generate mazes from RFID tags. It played a little jingle when you cleared the maze.And it kind of looks like a weird salt rock. It was the first time working with arduino and physical prototyping. Two of many firsts this year.
At the the end of the month I had my first game jam and my first time working with Unity. I worked together with two other amazing designers (Luan Stotijn & Bas Weijenberg) on Spintol during the Global Game Jam. Communication went over so smoothly and it was a lot of fun. I got really frustrated in the final few hours when it became the clear that the game wouldn’t be entirely finished and I felt like my skills as a programmer were holding the team back. I knew it was the most likely outcome going into the jam, but it still stung pretty deeply. I desperately wanted to get better.
I started working on little Unity prototypes in my free time. Little games that were simple to understand and highly visual. Basically just games that would translate well into twitter gifs. At this point the endeavor became more of a branding effort. I wanted my prototypes to have a shared visual style that was unique to me. And so the prototyping effort drifted into the learning of shaders.
At this point the next school assignment was already well underway. I was working together with 4 other developers on a game that was going to EXPOSE RUSSIA. Around the time Russia was in the news with some pretty intense psyops targeting Ukraine and the rest of the world. I started reading a lot of documents about information warfare and theories about Russia and we decided to put these subjects together in a game. The result was Maskirovda, a game in which you try to break up a little town by slowly manipulating news. It was such a big subject and our approach lacked a bit of depth, so in the end the game was something like generic anti-Russian propaganda.
It was interesting however, how we organized the team. We followed a AAA structure with very clear role distinctions and responsibilities. Everybody worked in their own little specialty and the scrum board was uniting it all. As team lead I picked up as much as possible from every other discipline. The team had a lot of combined Unity experience and I was glad to learn as much from everyone else as I did.
Next school project! Abalone was a really neat experience. Our team of four was mostly comprised of artists and we formed a very clear vision of what we wanted the underwater environments to look like. I did the main programming, including the building of the right water shaders and lighting. I also wanted to try lazy UV wrapping all the objects to make them pick colours from a small palette. This made it really easy to tune the look of the environments and made everything very cohesive. In the end I got so absorbed in creating environments that the basic structure kind of suffered. Someone else was handling AI programming and some roadblocks in that department kind of held up development. I think the game ended up really pretty, but not all that playable. The team was really fun to work with, though.
During all of this I was working on this narrative driven game, because that was something I had always wanted to try. I worked out The Island of the Nosemen to be kind of a linear adventure that devolves into (SPOILERS) absolute surreal nonsense. The game pulls a lot of the narrative content from a textboard I manage and the results were kind of shocking to read in a different context. Development was just a slow burn throughout the second part of the school year. I finished it up during the vacation.
This summer I had the best vacation of my life. I come from an upper middle class background that has made a lot of wonderful things possible in my life. My parents love to travel and this year they decided to splurge a bit and take the family to Japan. For me it was a big experience. I spent a lot of time in the mountains and more rural areas between Tokyo and Kyoto and I could totally relax there. My itinerary in the cities was packed and I got see and do a lot. I met zep, Nomi and Science_Patrols in Tokyo and they were all so extraordinarily nice. I really want to go back and visit the country again. (for example, I didn’t use many of the contacts that Brandon Sheffield was so very kind to introduce me to. I also missed Club MOGRA, the Ghibli museum and Naoshima.)
Back to school. First off a small VR project designed for an actual client. We built Flat Earth is Real and this is How it Works as an asynchronous VR experience where the people playing on the couch have the most fun. It’s basically a game in which the VR player balances blocks that the phone players try to drop onto a large flat earth. I feel like managing the team went really smoothly and we delivered a product that the client was very happy with.
For my game design class I was working solo on a board game. With bodem I built a game that was about spatial tactics in a four player setting. You build shapes by laying down cards on a shared board. You collect the shape when you complete it. The end product works really well in a 1V1, but gets a little bit too chaotic when you play it with more people. But it pushed me to think more in concrete game design terms, rather than those of an experience.
I still have to release both of these games somewhere, huh?
Took part in #blocktober, giving it the same spin as I did the year before. Basically I challenged myself to do one piece of level design each day. I think I’m straying further from the original intentions of the month each year. I built levels for an old pico-8 prototype where you play the entire level in parallel. In TORI he levels are layered on top of each other and you play as a bird that can hop to the next layer at will. Fun to work on, but the concept turns out be pretty weak in play.
Next big assignment at school was a so-called ‘hybrid space’. A game that combines the physical and the virtual in an interesting way. I noticed that the alt.ctrl.gdc deadline wasn’t that far away and it seemed like a perfect fit. I proposed to the team that we built a game for GDC and everybody was very enthousiastic. At the cost of our other classes we went all-in on hybrid space to make the best alternative controller we could in the limited amount of time. In the resulting Koo-Koo you play a legion of cuckoo birds with an actual cuckoo clock. The game that the cuckoos engaged in is very closely modeled after VIDEOBALL.
We were crunching pretty hard for the last two weeks running up to the deadline. It was pretty hectic to get the product out on time and I was dead tired after we finally submitted our video. I had to immediately jump back to my other classes to make up for the lost time, but it was all a bit too much. I was too tired to keep on going and showed some signs of depression for the first time in two years. I decided to take a big break from school and just sleep off the wear on my body.
It’s now December and I have been taking a big rest. Halfway through the month we got the news that we had been selected to show our games at alt.ctrl.gdc! This is beyond exciting. I’ve been looking up to GDC for a very long time now and it will be amazing to be a part of it and see a couple of talks in person. I can feel that as we’re getting closer to the end of the year, I find it more difficult to talk about myself. I think the present is a bit more personal than the past.
As I’m writing this it’s New Year’s Eve (my favourite holiday) and I’m pushing to get this out before 2019. Do you know that saying that the first 10 games that you are going to make are going to be pretty bad? I think those first 10 games have mostly dictated how my 2018 went. I have been working my ass off to get those first 10 out of the way; maybe working a bit too much. I hope to maybe make some good games next year.
Thanks for reading and have a very happy new year.
Looking forward to the next year I hope to finish up this Carboniferous period racer that I have been working in my free time. I also kind of have to decide what kind of direction I want my career to take. Rami Ismail has very kindly offered to help out with some introductions at GDC, but first I have to find out for myself which people I want to talk to.
I’ve been thinking more about a future in games academy. Maybe something like a post-graduate at NYU? Frankly, I have no idea.