R.I.P(?)

In 2010 and 2011, I was part of two consecutive game projects that didn’t make it.

The first was a project that I started while still at Gameloft- a TF2-esque team-based online multiplayer game that I still have salted away for when I have a million or two to put into it. The reason it failed? One and only one-Scope. It was (is) a truly awesome game, but way too big for a team of three working part-time. We had put a decent amount of work into it before we went our separate ways. That was…

Lesson #1. The importance of Scope.

The most common mistake, apparently, and one that I repeatedly make. I think that at the root of this mistake lies an ego that refuses to understand that like any other discipline, making video games needs to be learned gradually. You can study about it, you can hear about it, but you’re never going to figure it out ’til you do it. And you have to start small, if you’re doing it on your own or as part of a small team. There is a (subconscious) assumption that “I know how to play it, so I know how to make it”. The scope of the project has to match the resources (time, money, team) and that is easier said than estimated. A thorough risk analysis of any project based on what you know, is always a good idea.

The second project was one that I started with my students. It struck me (and this was by no means an original idea) that I could fulfill my game-making ambitions by involving my students in a project. I would have creative control, a willing and enthusiastic team and I wouldn’t have to pay any salaries or rent or bills. They, in return, would graduate with a live title at the top of their resume- if the game did well I’d even pay them! Win-win for everybody! Right?

Lesson #2: Motivation and Vision.

The concept we came up with was interesting enough. A side-scrolling 2D game with a hot-air balloon that would surf air currents, collecting objects and avoiding enemies. It needed prototyping and proving, but it had the germ of a really good game. We had two good programmers who delivered the prototype on time, but by that time the rest of the team was falling apart. We had six artists with creative differences among them, with the result that there was zero output. Design-wise, we were at a standstill. I would have had to pretty much do all the level design and everything else myself, and also hire somebody to do all the artwork. By the time I got around to deciding to do this, the programmers (also students) had moved on to other jobs. It was 6 months and all we had was a very un-fun prototype on the iPad. I decided to pull the plug.

SwitchCurrent

I hold myself responsible- I wasn’t able to motivate my team or ‘Hold the Vision’, and had delayed some crucial project-saving decisions like hiring a 2D artist to complete the work. There was also too much democracy at work within the team, where I let some crucial (design and otherwise) decisions be made by committee that I should have made on my own. If a team member is showing a lack of commitment, give him/her a chance to improve, even two chances. If there’s still no improvement, fire him/her and either do it yourself or get someone else.

There is a initial euphoric phase in every project cycle when everyone is simultaneously motivated and enthusiastic, and there are phases when this enthusiasm starts to flag. Team members quit or fall sick, a few realize that it’s turning out to be harder or taking longer than they expected, and then the question raises it’s head-“Am I wasting my time?” In my experience, every self-motivated project needs at least one team member to be unreasonably optimistic, or at least seem to be- that guy is usually me, but this time that wasn’t enough.

Advertisements

In the beginning

My first experience of making a game was at Vancouver Film school. I was one of a five-man team, and we took five months or so to make a wacky little side-viewing 2D game using Flash where you control two characters: Wally, the one-eyed Vampire Walrus and Joe, the seven-armed Pirate Octopus. Behold the trailer:

COUNT PENGULA’S CASTLE (PC) 2009

My primary role was level designer, but I also got to write some of the low-level code in AS3 and created most of the the 3D/2D environment assets. It was a wonderful, nerve-wracking, back-breaking yet exhilarating project, the lessons of which are still seared into my mind.Prime among these: Keep The Passion and Mind The Scope.

After graduating from VFS in June 2009, my aim was to find work in the video game industry in Vancouver, a task made very difficult by the fact that I did not have a work visa. While I looked unsuccessfully for a company that would not only be willing to hire me straight out of design school but also make the (extraordinary) effort to sponsor me for a work visa, I put my ‘other’ skills to work trying to make some cash.

First, I thought I’d making my fortune picking blueberries. It’s a thing in BC- you go to a farm and they give you a trough. Pick ripe berries all day, and you get paid by the kg. Turned out that I spent five hours and twenty dollars commuting to the farm and earned thirty dollars picking berries. I decided to seek my millions elsewhere.

Flyer

I was good writing resumes, so I started by plastering these flyers all over downtown Vancouver and posting ads on Craigslist. I used to meet clients at Starbucks, get their details and make their resumes, cover letters and bios, at $30 a pop. “The Perfect Resume”, I called it.

I was starting to make half-decent money at this when a resume I had written for myself hit the spot.I was ‘hired’ as a QA Intern at Piranha Games. I worked 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, for free, testing a PS3/PC/Xbox NASCAR racing title for four months. It was a good gig, all the same. I got to participate in a live project, participate in scrums and work with some really smart developers. Also, free Coffee, Bagels and Cream Cheese!! The pantry was always well-stocked.

After this, a resume I had posted on Naukri.com caught the eye of some HR folks and I moved back to India to work as game designer at (the now recently deceased) Gameloft Hyderabad, where I handled the the transition from a single-screen mobile phone to the dual-screen Nintendo DSi of these two games:

Crystal Monsters (Nintendo DSi)

Date or Ditch (Nintendo DSi)

I had to re-do most of the screen layouts and figure out what to put on two screens that was previously on one, write some design documentation and make some decisions on graphics updates. Not really the forefront of creativity, but at least it said “Game Designer” on my employee ID. Right after this, the studio stopped doing creative work. After spending six months on Facebook and playing Left for Dead 2, I was shifted into Production (porting). I quit within two months.

“I’ll make my own games”, I said. 

Just before I quit, I’d started teaching game design part-time at Backstage Pass school of gaming. I would teach the Diploma class after work, from 7 to 9PM. It was great, because

(a) I got to interact with students that played waaay more games than I did.

(b) When you teach, you’re also learning- for yourself, and your students; it’s a two-way interaction, and

(c) I now had an alternate source of income. This turned out to be a crucial factor.

The other significant development was that I had decided to start a business of my own in cooperation with a family friend. It had nothing to do with games or even software- I’d supply frozen food to hotels and restaurants. At that time, I imagined that I’d do it for a while- a year or so, and then get into making games full-time. It’s been two years now, and I’m still doing it.

MNR Card-1