Categories
Geek / Technical Personal Development

Doodle-a-Day 2020

In my annual review blog post, I shared that I wanted to get better at drawing, so I decided to do at least one doodle per day in 2020.

Besides taking a drawing and a painting class in high school, I am mostly self-taught as an artist, which means that a lot of basic principles and such are things I either only recently came across or still don’t know.

I learned about the book “Fun with a Pencil” by Andrew Loomis from Hayden “Docky” Scott-Baron, and I used it to help me learn how to create faces and bodies of various sizes and shapes.

I was actually hoping to finish the book, but I’m at the part where I am creating rooms and scenes, so I’m dealing with perspective. While my doodles were once a day, the book was something I looked at periodically to learn the next lesson.

I also watched the Great Courses series on How to Draw, and between the two of them, I’ve learned the value of shape, volume, and drawing with a darker pencil once you figure out the shapes you want with a lighter pencil. B-)

Here’s how my doodles looked at the beginning of the year:

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

About midway through the year I started to focus on drawing hands and feet when I realized that my characters can’t always have their hands in their pockets:

Doodle-a-day 2020

I love this sad clown character who kept popping up in my doodles:
Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Later I started to draw monsters, and I tried to add shading and details to make things more realistic. Other times, I tried to make things more abstract and cartoony. Sometimes my phone’s camera started identifying faces, which I took as a good sign of my progress:

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

I periodically had to catch up when I missed a day or a few days, but otherwise, I managed to not only draw something each day but also draw better than I had a year ago.

It’s exciting to have learned so much and start to recognize concepts and ideas that I didn’t know existed at the start of 2020, as well as understanding how much more I don’t know exists.

Sometimes I rushed to get a doodle done, and other times I took the opportunity to explore reference art and practice trying something new. But it was fairly low pressure, and I enjoyed the habit. I plan to continue it in 2021.

Categories
Marketing/Business Personal Development Politics/Government

2020 in Review and My 2021 Vision

Another year has passed, and I feel very fortunate that my family and I survived it fairly unscathed. I know that a lot of people didn’t, and I know the COVID-19 pandemic is still taking its toll, both in lives and lives affected.

It has been a tough year, but I continued to be employed and was able to work from home. Most of our extracurricular activities, such as taking our kids to dance and Cub Scouts meetings, basically stopped. I rarely left the house all year except to pick up groceries or go for a walk around the neighborhood with the kids.

I got to spend more time with my family. Without school providing meals, my wife and I cooked a lot more, and we found that we enjoyed doing so together. We got the kids playing Just Dance and following yoga videos online to get daily exercise in. Internet outages went from being a minor annoyance to having a major impact on our work and school, and as I am the main IT department in my house, it all fell to me to make sure that the Wifi kept working.

It took a lot of adjustment, but we made it.

Goals from 2020

I had a few major business goals for last year:

  • Finish the contract game project
  • Game Sales: from $0 to $10,000 by December 31st
  • Release one more game before December 31st

The contract was finally finished in January, and aside from one more update to comply with changes in the App Store in the summer, I was done. I was happy to have had such a direct impact on the creation of a published game, as well as getting paid for it, but I was even more happy that I could direct my attention back to growing my own business.

Last year, I said:

Ostensibly my goal for the last few years was to get from $0/month to $10/month in sales. Again, the goal was meant to be achievable and to be a stepping stone to increasing sales over time.

But I think what might help is if I gave myself a much more inspiring goal, something that is doable but also would require me to stretch to make it happen.

So my 2020 goal is to get $10,000 in sales by December 31st.

It’s not quit-your-job money, but it’s not so small as to let me think I can procrastinate and make it happen in the last weeks of the year, either. It’s also not about the money, but money is an easy metric to track.

I came nowhere near to making that amount of money. That sum did not end up inspiring me, and it is probably because I didn’t see a clear path to it. Last year I wanted to start creating and finding my audience again after ignoring my business in favor of contract game development, but I didn’t formulate a coherent plan to do so until December. So for most of the year, I worked on creating updates for my existing game.

In the end, I was paid a total of $16.79 from sales of Toytles: Leaf Raking, my leaf-raking business simulation game (I have another payment coming this month from a sale from last month).

Now, I know there are a number of reasons for the low sales. Almost no one knows about the game, for instance. I haven’t been doing a good job pushing it out there.

But I did port and release the game for iOS, and then I published 6 of what I called Personality Injection updates since July. Each time I did so, I not only posted an announcement on my blog and shared it on social media, but I also sent out an email to my GBGames Curiosities Newsletter subscribers.

Oh, that’s another thing I did: I brought back my mailing list. I used to have one years ago, but I decided to start a new one. I invited the previous subscribers to join, and some did. Sign up, and you get a free player’s guide for Toytles: Leaf Raking, which is another thing I created last year.

Since I had a new mailing list, I also added a new goal for the second half of the year: grow my subscribers by 10. I ended up increasing the number of subscribers by 3, but since I didn’t promote it any more than the game, I think that’s a decent improvement.

I ended up publishing a total of 58 blog posts throughout the year, partly because I started writing a weekly sprint report, documenting the highlights of what I accomplished in the previous week of game development. Considering that I published a total of 3 blog posts the year before, this output is a significant improvement, and I think it directly led to people learning about Toytles: Leaf Raking.

Now, I thought I would get to a point where I would consider myself “done” with Toytles: Leaf Raking updates and could start working on a new game early enough to get one released by the end of the year, but since I was only working an average of about 5 hours a week as a very, very part-time indie game developer, those Personality Injection updates sometimes took me over a month to get out. So no new game has been published yet.

But if you’ve been paying attention, you know I’ve been working on one since December, and strategically it is the first of my Freshly Squeezed line of games. More on that later.

I also had a few personal goals for 2020:

  • Do a minimum number of walking hours, push-ups, squats, and planking
  • Read a book per week
  • Create at least one doodle per day

Take a look at this chart of the year:

Morning Exercise Routine Tracking in 2020

The green indicates days in which I did a minimum of 10 push-ups, 10 squats, and 30 seconds of planking. The red indicates days in which I skipped. There is a big block of red near March, when my back was bothering me significantly enough to prevent me from exercising, but otherwise most of the year I kept up the habit. I feel fitter and more capable. I also did yoga on weekends, which I credit with preventing my back from hurting throughout the rest of the year.

I was trying to walk on a treadmill for 30 minutes a day but our treadmill’s motor started to smell like burning, so I haven’t been using it. I did walk with the kids during the summer after lunch, but otherwise I didn’t do walking regularly.

I read a total of 25 books, which is less than I read the year before. Still, between listening to podcasts instead of audiobooks in my car (and then not driving anywhere when the pandemic hit) and reading longer books, I think the fact that I was able to keep up a reading habit during the pandemic was a win.

But my favorite habit was doing a daily doodle. This one appealed to me partly because I always liked drawing but I also liked the idea of getting better at it. My programmer art is decent, but I want to make it more decent, and I know to get better I need to practice more than I do.

I’ll have a separate post about the improvement of my doodles, but here are my first few drawings:

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

And here are some of my favorites:

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

Doodle-a-day 2020

My 2021 Goals

Creating an aggressive sales target didn’t seem to work for me, but I still managed to make some sales happen despite a lack of advertising or contacting reviewers or anything.

It was a total of only 7 sales across Google Play and the App Store, but I can build on that.

My goals for 2021:

  • Go from ~0.146 sales per week to at least 1 sale per week by December 31st
  • Increase my newsletter audience to at least 100 subscribers by December 31st
  • Release at least 6 Freshly Squeezed Entertainment games by December 31st

I explained a bit what Freshly Squeezed Entertainment means, but the main idea is that I will be following through on my goals to create more and find my audience. I want to create free, quality games that encourage curiosity and support creativity. I want the games to find the people who love playing them and encourage them to sign up for my mailing list. And I want them to see my mailing list as a way to give me feedback and collaborate with me on the kinds of games they want to play, which means that when I release a game for sale, I am more likely to have an audience interested and willing to pay for it.

There’s a lot of uncertainty to this strategy. I don’t know how many people who play games would be willing to sign up for a newsletter these days. I don’t know if people who play free games are less likely to pay for a game. I don’t know how many people will sign up, nor do I know how many who do sign up will read the emails I send out. I don’t even know if my free games will be seen or get lost in the huge number of games that get released each week.

But the general idea is sound: give away value to attract players, get permission from players to talk to them, and use conversations with those players to get feedback and learn how to make what my audience is willing to pay for.

It’s way better than hoping and praying that strangers discover and pay me for each new game I create.

I was originally aiming to release one Freshly Squeezed game a month, but so far I think my 5 hours/week isn’t going to make it work out for me. It’s especially doubtful as I still want to create updates for Toytles: Leaf Raking in between Freshly Squeezed games. Still, I hope to have a release for my first new game before the end of this month.

One thing I realized is that out of the three goals, the only one I have direct control over is publishing games. I can’t control how many people sign up for my newsletter or how many people buy a game. But if the three goals are as connected as I expect they are, then releasing quality games should attract newsletter subscribers who eventually become customers.

Again, there’s a lot of uncertainty, and I recognize that 1 sale per week works out to almost 7 times what I am currently (I originally had a goal of 60 sales per week but realized it was much, much more ridiculous to expect an almost 400x increase in sales), but I can’t wait to get some hard data in the coming months to see how well this strategy plays out. I’ll adjust my expectations accordingly.

As for personal goals, I like aiming for a book a week as well as not sweating it when I don’t make it. I will continue to do daily exercise, and in fact I’ll increase my push-ups and squats from 10 to 15. I need to either fix my treadmill or get a new one so I can get in daily walking or running even when the weather doesn’t work out. I think I’ll continue to create daily doodles, but I am going to want to learn other aspects of art, such as color, character design, perspective, environmental design, and more.

Happy New Year

I hope 2021 sees the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, a safe transition of power, and justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. I hope my kids can play with family and friends without worrying about someone getting seriously or fatally sick. I hope you and your loved ones stay safe and healthy in the coming year.

Categories
Games Personal Development

Is It Wrong to Ask My Son to Play His Own Game?

We got my son The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for the Nintendo Switch for his birthday. He has never played a Zelda game before, and I had fond memories of playing it on my Game Boy when I was roughly his age.

In fact, I pulled out my Game Boy and played the original Link’s Awakening while he played on the Switch, partly so I could revisit Koholint Island while he saw it with fresh eyes (and in 3D rendered color).

Links Awakening - Switch and Game Boy

I also wanted to try to get ahead of where he was so that when he had questions about how to proceed, I could be a bit more knowledgeable about what he was dealing with.

But I also believe that a big part of the entire point of playing a Zelda game is to solve the puzzles and overcome the challenges.

Now, my son fancies himself a gamer, but he does not have the same internalized language of games that I grew up on. Specifically, Link’s Awakening very much builds upon the language of the SNES game The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. For example, I know that there were some boss battles that mimicked boss battles from the SNES game in that you had to deflect projectiles back at the enemy, but nothing in Link’s Awakening tells you this fact. You just have to try things and figure it out. In fact, that’s probably how the SNES game was, too, and I’m just aware of the clues and norms in hindsight.

So my son struggled on parts of the game because he did not see the opportunities to do Zelda-like things because he didn’t know what Zelda-like things were possible in the first place.

Which is fine. He’s solving puzzles and overcoming challenges.

Except when he wasn’t.

He would ask for help, and I’d try to give him clues or hints without giving away the solution. And most of the time, it worked, and most of the time, I’d hear a report from him that he actually figured out quite a bit of the game on his own.

But multiple times he asked if he could look up the solution to a puzzle on the Internet. And I told him no.

My reasoning: “What’s the point of letting someone else play the game for you?”

I grew up as one of those kids who had Nintendo Power subscription. I knew details about games I didn’t own. I got the free strategy guides they sent out.

But I never liked the idea of playing a game by following a walkthrough or using a strategy guide to tell me how to play a game. Yeah, I could advance faster and have an easier time, but to me, it would feel like cheating.

So I insisted to my son that he play the game and figure it out. I figure he would feel a sense of accomplishment if he did it all by himself that he would never get from doing what he was told by some Internet stranger.

But am I wrong to do so?

Is it wrong for me to insist he plays the game the way I want him to?

I never want to be a gatekeeper and say that Real Gamers ™ play a certain way and everyone else is just pretending. People play games for all sorts of reasons, and who am I to tell them how to enjoy them?

Some people play games for the entertaining story, and I have no problems with them using a walkthrough, strategy guide, or even cheat codes to do so.

In fact, I’ll admit that I got stuck in Link’s Awakening in my replay, and I looked up how to get through a certain dungeon because I’m a grown-up with limited play time and didn’t want to spend the time doing trial and error to figure out which way I was supposed to go. Don’t tell my son I’m a hypocrite.

My intent was for my son to use the game as practice for perseverance. He struggles with challenges, whether in games or not, and often gives up and even says he no longer wants something if he discovers it takes some non-trivial effort to acquire it.

Games are all about learning, and I felt that looking up the answers not only gave him a shortcut in the game but would also make him less self-sufficient when it comes to problems in real life that you can’t take shortcuts to get past.

But we also gave him a game, and then I insisted that he play it differently from how he wanted to. No one did that to me when I was younger.

I suppose I could have told him my reasoning, that I wanted him to want to figure things out on his own for the benefits and practice it gives him, and then let him decide if he wanted those benefits. But based upon previous opportunities to let him decide whether to take the easy route or the more rewarding yet challenging route, I figured he would not care and would simply look up the answers.

So I struggle still. Was I parenting well by preventing my son from what I would consider cheating himself out of the experience and growth? Or was I parenting poorly, forcing him to play a game the way I wanted him to play, taking away his enjoyment and agency?

Maybe it worked out?

As I was writing this post, I asked him about his time with the game, which he has now played through twice. He told me he really liked it. He remembers the game fondly, and he even mentions figuring out how to “get past it” in a positive light. At the very least, it seems he hasn’t been turned off of games, and in fact is now playing his way through Pokemon Sword.

So I hope his experience with the game has prepared him for the future just a bit more. Maybe he’ll be less likely to give up on a math problem that troubles him. Perhaps he’ll stick with a craft project of his own making for longer. It’s possible he’ll be more capable the next time we play Mighty No. 9, a game which provoked so much frustration from him that he quit playing before finishing the first level.

He’s already asked about other Zelda games in my collection. I’m trying to decide if I should introduce the original NES game first, or if I should show him Wind Waker.

I never did finish either game myself. It might be a good challenge for both of us.

Categories
General Personal Development

Happy Indie Day to Me

May 21st is my own personal Independence Day. Even after running out of money and returning to corporate welfare, it’s a day that holds a lot of meaning for me.

10 years ago, I went to Chief O’Neill’s Pub & Restaurant to celebrate my last day working at a company that made slot machines.

Chief O’Neill’s is where we went to send people off whenever someone moved or changed jobs, and I remember realizing that no one was organizing an outing to do so for my last day.

Welp.

I told everyone that I was going to Chief’s, and for the remainder of the afternoon, people from work came in and out, hung out with me, and wished me luck on my next endeavor. It was a pleasant time.

Two weeks before, I had given my notice that I was quitting to pursue full-time indie game development.

Rereading the comments from other indies and friends from my blog post about going full-time indie brings tears to my eyes every time. Everyone is so encouraging and supportive. And I love how since that time I’ve even met some of you in person!

When I reported how things were going 6 months into my indie journey, which was frankly embarrassingly not well due to a lack of focus and direction, I got even more advice and encouragement.

You know, I miss everyone being into blogging rather than toxic social media.

Anyway, within a couple of years, I ran out of money and ended up back in a job, as I said. I wrote a bit about it in I Have a Day Job Again, but it was hard to go back to a day job, partly because I felt like I had squandered an opportunity.

I remember the first day. The commute felt foreign. Sitting in a cube and seeing everyone else sitting in their cubes felt foreign and familiar at the same time. I remember it feeling wrong.

And then I remember the day when I noticed that the day job didn’t feel different anymore, when it felt normal and I hadn’t noticed, and it was another sad day for me.

When I went back to having a day job, I figured it would be for just a couple of years at most. I would do what I did before, working on my business on the side, saving up money, and building myself a runway.

I’ve been working a day job for about 8 years now.

Most of the following comes from a tweet thread I did late last year.

10 years ago, I took a leap, and I hovered for a bit, but then fell.

I’d like to say that I’ve been trying to get back up in the air ever since, but things are different for me now.

Actually, I’ve considered myself an indie game developer for about 20 years, most of it very, very part-time.

I struggle with whether I can still call myself an indie game developer due to my lack of significant output in all that time.

When I was five years into it, I once asked a question on IRC & the response I got was not terribly helpful. That’s fine. But it ended with “I wouldn’t worry about it at this stage.”

Me: This stage?

Them: As a beginner.

I felt quite insulted at the presumption, but then again, I hadn’t shipped anything in those five years.

I have both the identity of a veteran and a never-was. It’s a weird place to be to think that I don’t have a beginner’s mind about game dev when maybe I need it more than ever, but, like, no, kid, you don’t need to introduce the concept of a navmesh to me.

And since I’m older, married, and have kids, plus have some volunteer work, my indie game development time is a lot more constrained than it used to be.

I used to have this fear that time was running out, that I needed to work faster to get something out before it was too late.

And by too late, I mean I was worried that once kids entered the picture, if I hadn’t gotten my business off the runway, it wasn’t going to get off that runway.

I feel like, 20 years later, I have the skills, the knowledge, the business sense, and more, but I’m not practicing it regularly, so I’m atrophying and falling behind.

Comparing yourself to others is a recipe for stress and anguish, but it’s hard sometimes seeing others building upon past successes while I’m still trying to build upon past failures. They are inspiring, but they’re also a reminder that I’m not as far along as I thought I’d be by now.

My priorities aren’t the same. Some people take on mortgages and credit card debt to get their runway extended and give their all. I never went into debt, but I quit my job once and had no income for a year while I tried to make indie dev work.

I’m not in that position anymore.

I think if I had a 2nd chance to focus full-time on indie game dev, I would do a much, much better job of running my business as a business, unlike last time when I spent a lot of time spinning my wheels on unfocused game dev and almost nothing on customers or marketing.

But I’m no longer in that position.

I have a family to take care of.

So my current indie game development plan for the last few years has been to slowly build up something until it becomes my primary source of income.

I just worry that there is such as thing as “too slow” and that I’m fooling myself.

I always had it in my head that one day I would eventually be a full-time indie game developer again.

Today’s not that day.

But today I am a husband, a father (that one is still new), an advocate for transgender rights, a speaker, a writer (even though I don’t blog as regularly as I used to), and a very, very part-time indie game developer.

My life is very full, and I often stress myself out trying to fill it even more, especially when I don’t see what’s there for what it is.

Part of it is greed. I want to experience and learn EVERYTHING. I want to turn my backyard into a garden. I want to learn how to play guitar. I want to learn Italian and maybe another language. I want to learn how to cook. I want to play soccer regularly again.

And I am running into the limitations of doing all of that while I have a day job AND a part-time business AND volunteer work AND being with family.

I’ve always liked the idea of being a Renaissance man. Why pigeon-hole myself into a single job or identity?

But, hoo, I’ve discovered in the last year or two that there are limits, and sacrificing sleep is a loser’s game, it turns out.

I realized I needed to start saying no to things a long time ago, but I haven’t quite internalized how much I have to say no to.

I had a side contract that I finished recently, which freed up the limited time I currently dedicate to it, but what kind of effort can I dedicate to my business?

Again, I worry there is a minimum amount of time and effort that I’m not going to be able to give with my current plan of working on my business on the side.

It would be one thing if I was Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a mountain and having to do it again and again. It’s another if I am barely budging the boulder while it grows moss.

I don’t know if I am mourning a past life or just the illusion of it.

I still identify as an indie game developer. I still expect that I will make games in the future as an indie game developer.

But what if I’m wrong?

This isn’t Imposter Syndrome. I don’t worry that I’ll be found out that I’m a fraud.

It’s more like I’m concerned that I’ve deluded myself into thinking I’m an indie game developer when any independent observer would think, “Eh, but are you really?”

I moved to Des Moines, Iowa in 2010 thinking that I would be a major driver of the indie game development scene, and instead I’ve been MIA from local meetups for many months. I have only recently been getting back into it, and I don’t have the energy or time to be a real leader there. I’ve had to be fine with being a participant who just happens to have access to the admin discussions.

I haven’t participated in game jams in years, and that was at least an area I could point at and say “See what I did as a game developer?”

The only fully complete game I’ve made commercially is from 2016. The contract game is finished and out, so that’s something to feel good about, but other than a name in the credits, it’s not really my game.

But I think the priority I give my indie game development isn’t where I would like it to be. There are competing priorities, and that’s a big part of the struggle I have with my identity as an indie game developer. A giant chunk of my waking hours are taken up with Not Game Dev, and the things that are Not Game Dev? Well, I’m not willing to sacrifice them for a variety of reasons.

And since I’m getting older, I’m finding myself getting tired sooner. It could be the lack of exercise? But it’s a phenomenon that I’ve noticed. So I don’t find myself spending as much time pushing past sleep to try to get some productivity in because I just can’t do it like I used to.

Still, May 21st is my Indie Day.

And I can lament all that isn’t going well when it comes to being an indie game developer, but what blessings can I count?

  • My business has a purpose, vision, and mission. It didn’t 10 years ago. My definition of success is not merely the default “I’m making money making games” and instead is focused on encouraging curiosity and supporting creativity.
  • My contract game development for the last two years has allowed me to throw significant money into my business accounts. It’s not quit your job money, but it’s money that means my business has turned a real profit for the first time in many years.
  • It also means that I have some money to spend on making my games better than they could be if I didn’t have the resources.
  • My 2016 game, which hasn’t seen an update in a few years, is now available for iOS and has new updates coming.
  • My insistence on ignoring the current hotness, whether it was Flash or Unity or casual game portals, and focusing on just doing what I was doing means that after all of these years, what I’m doing is still relevant somehow. Continuing to use C++ and SDL2 and focusing on supporting multiple platforms means that my games aren’t lost to some 3rd party’s decision to obsolete their technology. It might mean I don’t get to take advantage of some neat developments in existing game engines, but it also means that when something goes wrong, I feel empowered to figure it out and fix it rather than frustrated that someone else is not doing so for me.
  • I’ve got years of experience and insight into what does and does not work for me, and I know what I’m willing and not willing to do.

So happy Indie Day to me. It’s been years since I was a full-time indie game developer, and it might be years before I can do it again, but I was independent once, and it will forever be a part of me.

Categories
Marketing/Business Personal Development

My 2019 In-Review and My 2020 Vision

Every year end and start, I spend time reassessing how my life is going. I look at my goals, think about what I envisioned at the beginning of the year and how I would change things with an entire year of experience, and set new goals. It helps me collect a summary of my thoughts and plans, and it makes them public.

I just checked and found that my last published year in review was for 2016. My next post reviewing 2017 was still in a draft state and never published, which is too bad, because 2017 was a year to report on!

A lot happened in the last couple of years to throw me off of my pattern, but let’s do a quick recap of 2017 and 2018, then I’ll focus on 2019.

A QUICK LOOK AT 2017

From my 2016 New Year’s post Looking Back on 2016; Looking Forward to 2017:

2015 was about keeping my goals in front of me and establishing habits.

2016 was about being outcome focused. I logged more game development hours in 2016 than in 2015, but the more important thing was that those hours were aimed at targets.

In 2017, I want to focus on promotion and sales.

I didn’t need an overnight hit to be successful. I needed a foothold.

My goal was to go from $0/month to at least $10/month in sales by December 31st.

I know $10/month doesn’t sound like much, but that was the point. It should be relatively easily achievable, but it still required me to put in the work to setup my business to make sales. The idea was that once I had $10/month in income from sales, I could build on it to $20, then $50, then $100, and so on. I was in it for the long haul, and I was fine with being patient while I learned what I needed to learn and put in the hard work to make it happen.

In 2017, I had my first profitable year in probably forever. Awesome!

But I had $0 in sales. Not so awesome.

My income came from part-time contract work. In 2017 a colleague from a former job introduced me to a family in Chicago who wanted an app created. I explained what I knew about game development and mobile in particular, and then offered my services, being completely upfront about my inexperience with contract work and my day job obligations which would prevent me from working on the contract full-time.

It has taken a long time, much longer than I thought at first, and there have been requirements changes, art direction changes, and porting challenges.

But I remember that first payment coming in and feeling pretty good. Here I was, getting paid to create games. It wasn’t full-time work, but within just a few months, I had earned more in 2017 than I had in 10 years from advertising and game sales combined, which was simultaneously a good and awkward feeling.

On the learning front, I got ambitious.

At the end of 2016, I saw a tweet by IGN’s @_chloi about her plans to read 100 books in 2017.

In the past, I would try to read or listen to one book per week, but I was so enamored with the idea of all of the learning and exposure to new ideas that doubling my efforts would bring. So my 2017 reading goal was to read two books per week.

In 2017, I read:

  • 29 books on success
  • 25 non-fiction books (histories, technologies, true crime stories, biographies)
  • 12 books on game development
  • 7 works of fiction
  • 6 books on software development
  • 5 books on marketing
  • 4 books on business
  • 4 books on leadership
  • 4 books on productivity
  • 1 book on child-rearing
  • 1 book on creativity
  • 1 book on sales
  • 1 book on speaking
  • 1 book on writing

That’s a total of 101 books in a single year, just short of 104 to meet my goal. Even though I failed, it was a year that really expanded my mind. I learned so much about so much, and getting it all in a compressed time period helped it all reinforce each other, especially when it came to the success and game development books.

Also that year I set a goal to attend at least one professional development event a month. According to my records, I attended 8 local IGDA meetings, giving a presentation at one of them. I went to two software development conferences as well.

But in 2017, I also succeeded in stressing myself out. I put too much on my plate. I wanted to do it all: marketing, writing blog posts and newsletters, game development, contract game development, exercising, giving presentations, joining the chorus at my church, and getting more involved in social justice efforts at my church as well. Oh, yeah, and my wife and I were licensed for foster care as well.

2017 was going to be a year of market research, customer development, and sales. It turned out to be full of stress and pain, a lot of it self-inflicted.

I realized at one point that I never gave myself time to just be. If I wasn’t reading, writing, programming, designing, planning, or exercising, I was worried I was squandering my precious resource of time. I had to make every second count, and I didn’t realize that my priorities had gone out of wack, that I was letting down my family for not recognizing that I was taking them for granted.

Once I stopped putting so many expectations on myself and demanding that I put in 29 hour days, my life immediately became less stressful. It only took a few months of talking with a friend for me to be convinced to give myself a break, that I’m only one person and can only do so much.

Thanks, Shane! I miss our regularly scheduled talks.

WHAT I WANTED 2018 TO LOOK LIKE

I wanted to finish the contract, which would free up time to focus on my own business again.

I realized that my blog, while enjoyable to write, attracts other game developers primarily, and other game developers are not the primary audience of my games. I mean, yeah, sure they might buy some of my games, but my target customer is not “indie game developer.”

So I planned to change my blog’s target audience.

I wanted to read more books by women and people of color. I wanted to play more games. I wanted to spend more time enjoying life.

While I enjoyed the experience of trying to finish two books a week in 2017, it didn’t give me a lot of time to reflect on what I had read or heard before I was off on to the next book. So I scaled back to one book per week.

WHAT 2018 ENDED UP LIKE

2018 was a bit of a mixed bag.

I did not finish the contract, which meant I did not spend any time on my own business. My profit was still mainly due to income from the contract.

I did have almost a handful of sales of my game Toytles: Leaf Raking, although I am sure it was all people I knew personally.

I showed off my game at a local art and games expo, so it was great and gratifying to get feedback from strangers.

My writing output dropped significantly. I had a total of four blog posts for the year, and they weren’t exactly focused on building an audience for my games.

I surpassed my reading goal with 56 books for the year although I did not read much in the way of game development books. I cut myself some slack here, though.

And I gave a presentation at dsmAgile, earning myself a nice Amazon gift card for it, which I’ll count as getting paid for presenting for the second time in my life. It helped me buy myself a 4K monitor.

In the spirit of realizing that I can’t do everything all the time, I cut back on extra-curricular activities, such as choir or attending IGDA meetings, especially when I became a parent of two kids.

I was trying to have a day job and be a parent while continuing to work on the contract at the same rate as before. The more I put into it, the sooner I could be done, right?

But it left a lot of the burden on my wife to act as a single-parent, which was not fair to her. So I cut back the hours I let myself work on the contract in order to contribute to the labor of our home. She still does the lion’s share of the work, especially when it comes to scheduling appointments and coordinating with school, but I do dishes and laundry a lot more often. Our home is still stressful (we went from 0 to 7-year-old and 9-year-old within months), but it’s a bit less so.

Becoming a parent was a huge change, and I’m still coming to terms with how much of a challenge it is. I was always told I’d be a great father, and now that I’m here, I feel like I suck at it. To be fair, parenting is a skill that I had no practice with. Still, I used to think I was a disciplined, calm, patient, and easy-going person, but it turns out that I’ve just never been tested before.

FINALLY, LET’S LOOK AT 2019

My two main goals for 2019 were to finish the contract and earn $10/month in sales by December 31st.

I accomplished neither of these goals.

My expectation was that I would focus on finishing the contract, which had been “almost done” for over a year, then port Toytles: Leaf Raking to iOS, then work on a very quick project to get it published before the end of the year.

But my primary focus was the contract, which was in a weird state. I was pretty much finished with my part of it by September. There were no more deliverables for the client to test, and so I was helping the client get the app into the Google Play and Apple App stores. It’s been waiting to be published for months. I would periodically get a request for a small change or a question about the project, but otherwise, the rest of the work of publishing the game is on the client’s plate.

I’m not actively working on it, and since there are no more deliverables I am no longer getting paid, but it feels like sitting in front of the finish line instead of crossing it.

Before the contract and kids, I had regular morning habits and routines related to my business. I needed to relearn or reconstruct them all. Despite having the time, I finished the rest of the year doing very little non-contract game development. I opted instead to focus on resting and being more present for my wife and kids.

I only wrote a total of three blog posts. Heck, I barely wrote in my own personal journal.

I only read 32 books for the year. It sounds like I fell very short of my one book a week goal, and if I compare it to previous years in which I tracked the books I have read, it is the fewest I’ve read since 2013.

However, the 100+ books in a year experience from 2017 drove me to choose relatively shorter books and audiobooks. I would often go to the library and pick a 5-CD books over a 20-CD book, even if the latter was something I found very interesting, mainly so I could get more books finished sooner.

This past year, I decided to consciously pick larger books, which took longer to get through. Also, I decided to stop listening to audiobooks in my car in favor of listening to podcasts for a change. Currently, I am catching up on the strategy game podcast Three Moves Ahead, which led me to research some older yet fascinating games.

So between the longer books and lack of audiobooks I can listen to on my day job commute, my “# of books read” metric was lower, but I’m not sweating it. I’m still learning and exposing myself to new ideas, and with podcasts I’m getting a wider variety of ideas than before.

Last year, I showed off Toytles: Leaf Raking as well as the contract game at the local art and games expo again. I felt a bit more prepared, and I enjoyed the experience of getting feedback as well as connecting with others showing off their games and art. I wish I had a newer game of my own to show off, but there’s always next year.

GOING INTO 2020

I’ve been assessing the last few years and comparing them to what I wanted them to be.

My main efforts and income came from the contract. I just received my final payment for helping to get the game through the app store publishing process. The contract is over after 2 years and 10 months. It is no longer a source of income, but it also means that I can put my focus back on my own business.

And I’m going to pick up where I left off in 2017:

In 2017, I want to focus on promotion and sales.

Ostensibly my goal for the last few years was to get from $0/month to $10/month in sales. Again, the goal was meant to be achievable and to be a stepping stone to increasing sales over time.

But I think what might help is if I gave myself a much more inspiring goal, something that is doable but also would require me to stretch to make it happen.

So my 2020 goal is to get $10,000 in sales by December 31st.

It’s not quit-your-job money, but it’s not so small as to let me think I can procrastinate and make it happen in the last weeks of the year, either. It’s also not about the money, but money is an easy metric to track.

Ok, so that’s a goal. How do I go about accomplishing it?

I’m still working on my plan to do so, but I can already think of a few things that will feature as key to that plan.

I need to start creating again. Between the lack of game releases and blog posts, I feel quite irrelevant in the game industry. It’s been years since my last new game. I haven’t been participating in game jams either.

I need to find my audience. Blogging for the benefit of other game developers is great for building relationships, and I want to continue to do so. But I also need to work on finding and reaching people who are interested in entertainment that encourages curiosity and supports creativity.

2017 is when I challenge myself to be incredibly proactive about putting myself and my work out there.

Uh, ditto for 2020. I will be working on getting back into the swing of things and doing my part to contribute to the indiepocalypse (are we still calling it that?).

It will be challenging, and a big part of that challenge will be in trying to be present for my family. With a day job, wanting to sleep a full night, and spending real quality time with my family, I only have so many hours available to make things happen for my business. Luckily, I can dictate what the pace and cadence for my business will be instead of trying to hold myself to other people’s expectations for how I should run it.

Perhaps it is unrealistic, and something will have to give. A giant chunk of my waking hours are taken up with “Not Game Dev,” with the day job taking up the lion’s share. Maybe I will find I am moving so slowly in my business that I’m actually falling behind, that it takes me months to do what others do in a few days of concentrated effort.

I worry there is a minimum amount of time and effort required that I’m not going to be able to give with my chosen priorities. It would be one thing if I was Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a mountain and having to do it again and again. It’s another if I am barely budging the boulder while it grows moss.

I’m saying no to a lot of things in my life to try to make sure I do have time for the things that are most important to me. I have been greedy in the past and have wanted to do and learn and be everything, but I know now that I have limits.

But in the spirit of my past goals, I’ll make slow and steady progress, and then I’ll build on those successes.

And perhaps those successes will give me the capacity to start saying yes more often.

Let’s start.

Categories
General Personal Development

Dealing with No Longer Being Player 1 in My Own Home

My wife and I gave our son a Nintendo Switch for Christmas.

In the week leading up to the day, it dawned on me: this will be the first video game console in my home that wasn’t mine.

I mean, I think the Atari 2600 was the family’s console. But otherwise, my parents gave me an NES. I saved up and bought myself a Game Boy, opting to get the system without a game so I didn’t have to save so much allowance to get it. Santa got me an SNES. I bought myself an N64, then a Gamecube. A friend gave me a Famicom with a few games when he came back from Japan. A girlfriend gave me a Nintendo DS. I got a great deal on a used Wii as i came with a bunch of games, then my wife got me a Wii U. I believe I had a Tiger electronic handheld of Pitfighter of all games, as well.

In case you’re wondering, I never had a non-Nintendo console other than Sega Genesis someone gave me when they couldn’t get rid of it at a garage sale. I never played it. I used to be a partisan of the console wars, but I haven’t cared about it since high school. But I also didn’t care enough to get an Xbox or Playstation in the years since. I much prefer PC games these days anyway, and specifically look for games that run on my Linux-based system.

Anyway, the point is that every console in my life has been mine to play whenever I wanted to.

And now the Switch…isn’t? How does this new world order function?

When I was younger, no one in my family cared about video games. My mother would play Tetris on her Game Boy, sure, and I would play games with my sister, but I was always Player 1. She gets to claim credit for finishing Super C before I did, but I claim that I carried her to the end and she stole one of my lives and happened to land the finishing blow that I had worked hard to get to. Otherwise, if a game was being played in my home, odds were very good that it was me doing the playing.

The games were mine. I subscribed to magazines about games. I bought RPGs, platformers, strategy games, and more. I was given games as gifts for years of birthdays and holidays.

And I’m not sure how things have changed exactly, but I know it would be presumptuous of me to assume I could just use my son’s Switch without asking. I mean, we gave it to him, so I should not act like it belongs to me or the family.

The day after Christmas, he asked me to play Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle with him, a game I was delighted to discover was a Mario-themed turn-based tactics game. I said I would love to play a game with him.

And then he handed me the second controller. Huh.

When my friends and I would play games at each others’ houses, the unwritten rule was that Player 1 was the person who’s house you were at. A college friend said he had a different upbringing, that wrestling matches would start to fight for control of Player 1, but where I came from, it was peaceful and understood. Player 1 was the home team, and Player 2 was the visiting team.

Realizing that I am now Player 2 in my own home is weird.

But I think this weirdness is something I’m still getting used to as the father of adopted children. We went from 0 to 8yo and 10yo very quickly here over a year ago, and part of what I am getting used to is the idea that my children are going to be given a lot of my time, effort, attention, and resources, that my time isn’t just mine anymore, and that one of my goals is to help my children become more capable of reaching their goals.

In another example, my son came home from the library with a collection of Archie comics, so I pulled out a tote I’ve been carrying around with me since the 90s with all of the Archie digests and comics I used to get. I told him to be careful with it all, but frankly it is more about him learning to take care of his and other people’s things than it is about me caring about my old comics. I don’t care about the comics anymore. I haven’t read them in forever. They might as well be read by him, and to be a lesson in how to take care of things that can be ruined if you’re careless is a bonus.

I’m finding myself sharing stories about toys I played with when I was a child. I have given him some of my collectible cards I have held onto for decades. Some of my old books are now on his shelf in his bedroom. We’ve played games on older consoles before, often with me watching him play through a game I have fond memories of.

But these were always things that were mine to pass down to him, sometimes like relics of my past, and sometimes as junk I have no use for. I was in charge and making the decision to let him have access to things I thought were important to me, and so I hope he likewise finds value in them. I once let him play a Mega Man game to see how he would handle something that was Nintendo Hard(tm) and not as forgiving as Minecraft. I have also withheld things I didn’t think he was ready for, such as some movies I enjoyed as a child (it turns out that PG meant different things in the 80s than it does now) or anything I was worried he’d get jelly or something else on (kids are gross).

But the Switch was never mine. It was his first. It is at his discretion whether or not I play games on it.

He has become Player 1. And I realize now more than ever that, as a parent, I am a non-player character in someone else’s adventure.

Categories
Game Development Geek / Technical General Personal Development

Derek Yu’s Updated Pixel Art Tutorial

In ancient times, around 2005, Derek Yu of Spelunky fame created a 10-step pixel art tutorial. It took you through the process of creating a cartoonish lucha lawyer, including brief discussions on lines, shading, dithering, and more.

Derek Yu's pixel art luchador
As seen in archive.org’s history of Derek’s old site.
Also, Derek, please don’t sue me.

Yu recently tweeted that he’s rebooted the tutorial, which can now be found at https://derekyu.com/makegames/pixelart.html and takes you through drawing an orc.

Derek Yu's orc from start to finish
Who would win, this orc or the law?

It’s a more detailed tutorial, and it shows what Yu has learned about teaching pixel art with almost 15 years more experience since the original was created.

There’s also a tutorial about common pixel art mistakes to go with it, so you can see what you’re doing wrong as you try to follow along.

Thanks for contributing to the world of game making, Derek Yu!

Categories
Marketing/Business Personal Development

Slides from My Presentation at #dsmAgile: “You Are Not a Code Monkey So Stop Acting Like One!”

The relationship between organizations and IT can be quite dysfunctional, and unfortunately they grew up together thinking poor results and demoralizing interactions are perfectly normal.

Developers tend to learn they have no control over their situation, which is unfortunate because they have so much more to offer an organization than merely following orders and writing code to a specification. Some internalize their status of “code monkey” and even take pride in it.

Organizations want efficiency, but then behave in ways that discourage developers from helping them actually become more efficient, and developers behave in ways that give organizations no reason to even think to ask developers for their input.

At dsmAgile 2018, my presentation “You Are Not a Code Monkey So Stop Acting Like One!” seemed well-received, and I had a number of people come up to me afterward to ask if I had been in their organization recently.

You can download the slides here:

Based on conversation I had at the conference, I think I should have focused a bit more on hope for the future and less on itemizing the symptoms and illustrating the problem. My goal was to ask developers and organizations to step up and treat each other as partners, and not to provide ammo for a gripe session. Next time…

What are your thoughts? Do you feel your organization treats you as a partner or as a code monkey?

Categories
Geek / Technical Personal Development

Come See Me Speak at dsmAgile on September 28th

dsmAgile is a one day Agile conference in Des Moines, Iowa, and I’ll be presenting at it this year.

On Friday, September 28, 2018 from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM, you can discuss, discover, and learn more about Agile software development from people who have been practicing and living it. And it only costs $100, a great deal.

My presentation is called “You’re Not a Code Monkey, So Stop Acting Like One!” You can read more about in the dsmAgile session descriptions, but the main idea is that software developers can and should do more than write code.

You are responsible for not only creating value through technology but also for maintaining that capability, and you don’t get to pretend that “they won’t let me” is a valid excuse.

Merely slinging code is not enough. You are not a code monkey following orders. You are a first-class citizen in the organization, more than capable of driving value as well as delivering it. Let’s discuss how you (and your organization) can start acting like it.

I have enjoyed attending dsmAgile in the last few years, and I look forward to being part it. Will I see you there?

Categories
Marketing/Business Personal Development

Don’t Pigeonhole Me: In Defense of the Jack of All Trades

Back when I was going to school at DePaul University in Chicago, the computer science school was introducing a game development minor. To kick it off, they had a panel involving a few people from local game companies such as Midway and Volition, as well as a few members of the Xbox team from Microsoft.

I remember the vice president from Midway Games answering a question from the students in the audience about how to get into the game industry. He referred to some advice that had shown up somewhere from Midway’s HR that essentially said, “Specialize, don’t generalize.”

I remember not liking that advice then, and I still don’t like it now. It sounded to me like “pigeonhole yourself and don’t you dare try to step outside of your hole”. Telling students who are interested in a future career, “You can improve your skills, but only in this one area of life” sounds overly restrictive and a path to misery. Or at least getting let go when your limited expertise is no longer needed.

Two Pigeons

Now, specializing isn’t necessarily bad advice. It’s just not the only valid option, and yet people like to talk as if it is.

I was catching up on my news feeds and saw that artist David M. Kessler wrote If You’re Talking to Everybody, You’re Talking to Nobody.

Don’t be a jack-of-all-trades. Pick what you like to do best, then get really good at it. Try to be better than anybody else. Let people see that you are an expert at the “thing” you do.

When you get known for that one “thing” you’ll see your art career soar. Now get in that pigeonhole and start working on your “thing.”

He says “Any successful marketer and business owner knows that you have to focus your efforts in order to target your market for sales. If you can’t target a market, you won’t make any sales – that’s business 101.”

He’s not wrong about needing a target market, but I don’t think “targeting your market for sales” is synonymous with pigeon-holing yourself into a single specialty.

He listed a bunch of artists as examples to further his point. The idea being that if you think of someone such as Monet or Jackson Pollock, you will inevitably call to mind some representative work of theirs.

But then, what about an artist such as Leonardo da Vinci? What was his “thing”? What about Leon Battista Alberti? Did he have just one thing?

How about someone more contemporary, such as Viggo Mortensen? I knew he was an actor from his role in Lord of the Rings, but I learned he is also an abstract painter and a poet, among other things.

There’s a lot of advice about specializing, and often it is very good advice, but just as often it is also not really supported by any sort of economic principle. Rather it’s more like “common wisdom” that “everyone” knows.

There’s no actual need to pigeonhole yourself into a specialty. Maybe it’s a tougher route to communicate your “thing”, since someone else can’t easily pigeonhole you as an abstract painter, but no one said it had to be easy.

Maybe rather than thinking about arbitrarily self-imposed limits, the more important thing is finding the thread that ties your story together as Pamela Slim argues in her book Body of Work.

Apple makes a lot of different products. Their thing isn’t merely iPhones or Macs. Their “thing” is elegantly, well-designed computing devices. Their “thing” is bigger than what a single product can encompass.

Telling executives at one of the most financially successful businesses in the world “Stop it. You need to niche down” wouldn’t make sense, would it?

The benefits to a focused approach are more than just increased sales. As you begin to focus your work, you’ll begin to get really good at it – better than you thought possible.

While I can see the logic, I also think that I could see someone get really good at their craft if they are able to work with different approaches, techniques, and mediums.

If all you know is oil painting, maybe you’ll get really good at oil painting. But if you know water color as well?

And if you think, “Huh, I wonder how it would look if part of the painting was oil but part was water color?” Would the result potentially be a more interesting work? Would the skill developed in each medium overlap, complement, or reinforce the other?

I don’t know, but I bet a conversation with someone who focused on creating the best work they could with all of their varied skills would be more fascinating and interesting than someone who is Yet Another Oil Painter.

And if their work is more fascinating and interesting, would commercial success also be possible?

According to Vigo Mortensen’s Wikipedia entry, “Mortensen experiments with his poetry and music by mixing the two art forms.”

Do you think his work in one influences the other and makes him a better artist, or does it reduce him to mediocrity because of a lack of focus? How about his music and his film efforts?

Dismissing the jack-of-all-trades as doomed to financial failure easy, but I see no supporting evidence. In fact, in software development, there’s a premium on so-called “full-stack” developers. Rather than hiring someone who only knows how to work with back-end databases or front-end forms, you get yourself a programmer who can do both as well as everything in between.

No one says, “Oh, sorry. we’re looking for a programmer who only knows one kind of programming language.” That’s like saying, “We want programmers who can’t think beyond one paradigm.”

On the other hand, a jack-of-all-trades without a larger purpose, vision, or mission? THAT I can see as being a problem, financially and otherwise.