Sunday, November 21, 2010

Game Jam

So I went to my first game jam yesterday. It was a get together of about 12 people. We split up into two groups. Each had about 4 hours to come up with an idea and make it into a fully functioning game. I didn't even know it was possible to do that, that fast, but it is.

Ok, to back up a little. The site was the game studio of 5th Planet Games in Roseville. The guy hosting the event even bought us all pizza. Apparently, there was a never ending supply of soda and candy there too, though I passed on that. The two teams were pretty unbalanced. The host, who was a programmer who worked there, the guy running the event who was also a programmer and worked at a different gaming studio, and another guy(who I think teaches game design at a local community college) was there... yeah, they were all in one team. The rest of us that had never been to a game jam before, we made up the other team. There wasn't much thought involved in setting up the teams. It was the people that sat down on the left side were in Group A, the rest in B.

But putting that aside, we managed to put something together. As "the writer," I knew long before I signed up to go, that there was going to be nothing productive for me to contribute to a quickie game. But, I knew it would be interesting and hoped to maybe learn something and network a little. As it turned out, I was the only "artist," so I ended up drawing sprites for our 2D tank combat game. I mostly downloaded sprites off the internet and photoshopped them to fit what we needed--ie, the gun had to rotate separately. Well, our "programmer," wasn't all that experienced. So the best he could do is get the tank to drive around in all 4 directions.

The other team didn't have an artist at all, so they had a fairly(for 4 hours work) complex game with smoothly moving boxes and circles. The object was sort of like Pac Man. So our game has some cool sprites with limited game play and theirs--the opposite.

Not that I know much about the game industry, but it seems like Facebook and the Iphone created this revolution of simple, quick and dirty games that small teams can knock out in a week. So these little studios are popping up and making money cranking out silly games. I dunno. These aren't the kind of games I have any interest in playing or making. I only care about role playing / adventure games or puzzle/strategic games. Twitchy, fast paced games that rely on reflexes... I've never liked those. So neat revolution happening, but nothing I can really hop on. But, it is good practice to get in and brain storm with fellow gamers and work as a team.

I guess this is the dilemma on the job front. Do I diversify or intensify? I could diversify by teaching myself level design. There's a lot more companies looking for level designers than writers. A lot more. Or, do I intensify and just focus on trying to pad out my writing credentials? Maybe I can focus on some short stories, get them published professionally in some small markets, and add it to my portfolio.

In either case, I'm still plugging away at my novel. I'm pretty happy with it. The main character is also the narrator, and she's a young woman. She's still naive about the world. So there's some things here and there that she doesn't pick up, but the reader will. It's fun writing that way. I think people will really like her once I finish the book. She's a strong character with strong convictions and perseverance in a brutal and unforgiving world. But she's also very lonely despite being surrounded by people. That's probably something a lot of us can relate to. Speaking of that, I should go back to it.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

New Chapter

I've spent my entire life in school. Sure, I've worked over the summers either doing construction or teaching since I was 14. I've had other jobs here and there to take a break from school or while I went to school. I worked as a journalist for a music magazine, was a professional musician, taught computers to 4-6th graders, booked bands at a night club, and many other less glamorous positions involving far more monotony than skill. But I always held on to going to college, despite changing majors a billion times. It was like this life line, this promise that one day I'd have the education to get into a surefire job to launch me into a brilliant career. Essentially, I've been waiting my whole life for life to happen.

So a month ago, despite acing my programming classes and Calc II, I decided I've had enough school and it was time to really go after my passion--creating. Now, being creative and having someone pay you for it, is about as hard a way to make a living as looking for a job as a breather. Everyone is creative. If literacy is the only real qualification, I'm literally competing with over a billion or two English speakers in the world. Ok, so what do I have going for me? I've sold my writing before, so I'm a published author. That narrows things down a lot... uh, to half a million people? I have a BA degree in something. About 15% of Americans do. And my BA is in something pretty useful for writing--Anthropology. Yay me. I'm starting to get somewhere. I sure play a lot of video games and know a lot about them. But as I narrow out my competition, I also narrow out my job fields. How many published writers who are game enthusiasts, native English speakers, and have a college degree in a social related field are there out there? I dunno. Maybe a few thousand. Ok, but how many game companies are there hiring full time game writers? Heh, wow, really not many. The overwhelming majority of writing done in games is done by someone who has another function in the game rather than a single person dedicated to just writing. There might be a hundred companies in the world big enough to consider a full time, dedicated writer. This is a really, really hard route to go. Not to mention, I have no experience in the game industry, and any company with a big enough project with enough overhead to support having a writer is not going to want to go with a rookie.

But I'm doing it anyways. One thing I have on my side, though big games take tens of millions of dollars to make, there's no shortage of people in their basement making smaller games for free. They might not be able to pay a writer(or anyone else on the team), but they certainly want one and won't turn down free help. Some of these games... well, they, of course want to be able to make enough money to pay people if the game sells or enough people donate. The reality is that 90% of these games that actually do make money, will make very little. If a game makes a couple thousand dollars in donations, and you and the other 10 guys on the team spent a year working on it... well, you see where I'm going here. Not a happy prospect. But most games won't "make it," and just fizzle out long before they ever get published. Even big companies often go broke before they're able to finish a game. As is, all companies publish their games before they want to. Everyone wants to spend just a little bit longer polishing and fixing bugs, but have to go to market to keep from going belly up. That won't stop the players from posting on your game's website about what idiots you are because there's bugs in your game like you didn't wave your magic wand over the game enough times to get all the bugs out.

So anyway, back to me. I decided I could spend the next 3 years finishing the prereqs to get into the Masters program at CSUS, then another year or two getting my Masters in Programming all to ensure a nice stable job sitting right next to the guy with my dream job. Or I can spend that same 5 years working for low to no wages as a game writer, hoping to make some contacts and build up a portfolio strong enough to get me that dream job of creating stories for games. So a month ago, I dropped out of college(hopefully) for the last time, and I'm going to go for it.

Well, it didn't take me long to get involved with several projects. The main one I'm working on, there's a small company in Canada looking to transition from software development to games. They're already programmers and game enthusiasts. They just needed to add some artists to the mix and have the start of a game company. I'm under an NDA, and although no one reads this blog, I still can't give the details. But what I can say is there's about 20 active team members--which is still small. The concept artwork for the game so far is very good. I really like it. It's quality stuff as good as anything you'd see in any top notch studio.

The project lead made a post on a game forum, looking for more artists. They weren't looking for a writer, but I contacted them anyways and talked my way in. It's sort of a Star Wars like game with lots of weird aliens and something like "The Force," so there's fantasy elements too. The concept artists draw these really bizarre looking aliens and I write about them and come up with names for them. Wow, having a degree in Anthropology(both cultural and evolutionary biology specializations) really helps here. So I look at physical adaptations they have, decide how they eat, what they hunt, how they defend themselves, etc. And I turn these concept art drawings into an entire ecosystem with highly detailed information. My background as a professional journalist helps here too. I give these highly detailed bio sheets for these little critters. This company is really happy with me and the work I'm doing. But, I mean, I'm a published author with a technical degree, and I'm working for free for a position they weren't originally looking for. The bar isn't very high. But... they are happy. I talk to them through Skype a few hours a week and we brain storm ideas about what players can do in the game--so I have a decent amount of say as well.

But I dunno. Many of the people working on the project are people that actually work on games professionally, so it's not a bunch of kids. So will the game actually get published and be big? Interestingly enough, part of that be based on me. The game's not going to go far without an investor(s) coming along and funding it. It's just not possible to make a great selling game without a big investment. Artists make $60k a year on average and programmers a little more than that. Big games have about a hundred of them working full time for a few years(bigger games have 3 or more times that). There's not much the 20 of us can do working part time to match that other than making a small, playable demo like we're doing now. But as "the writer" on the project, I'm the one that's going to be writing the pitch to investors, the dialogue that the characters in the game say, and the written content on the game's website. So it's my words investors and play testers will read.

Ok, so I have some in game quests to write.