Categories
Games Personal Development

Books I’ve Read: The Beauty of Games

I don’t remember how I came across this book’s existence, but I put in a request for it at my local library at some point, and then one day I got notification that my book was ready to be picked up.

And it was a delight to read!

The Beauty of Games by Frank Lantz

The Beauty of Games by Frank Lantz, part of the Playful Thinking series from MIT, starts out by ignoring the “Are games art?” question, but then the argument being put forth is still a large undertaking: a grand unified theory of what games are and how they are important.

Lantz argues that games are an aesthetic form, on par with other aesthetic forms such as music, film, and literature. He argues that while “art” implies certain claims, “aesthetic” merely describes. “The aesthetic is a domain, not of a certain kind of objects but of a certain type of activity, an ongoing process of dialogue and discussion, a series of conversations in which we ask ourselves and each other – what is interesting? What is beautiful? What is meaningful? What is important?”

By talking about games as an aesthetic, Lantz avoids needing to worry about needing to define which kinds of games might be considered art, where the borders are. He makes the claim that all games, not just modern computer games or a subset of them, including chess and tennis, belong in the domain of aesthetics.

I’m no academic, and so I wasn’t familiar with any similar arguments about painting, sculpture, dance, music, literature, film, etc. So perhaps The Beauty of Games was a nice intro to the concept of aesthetics, the idea that an aesthetic experience is for its own sake. Lantz compares the work of looking, the need we have to identify threats in the world, recognize familiar people and locations, and notice changes, to the activity of looking at a painting. We don’t need to look at a painting. We don’t look at paintings in service of some other goal. We do it because the purpose of looking at a painting is looking at a painting.

I loved this concept: that an activity, such as looking or listening, that often has a real-world, beneficial purpose, gets applied for its own sake in certain contexts. We do these activities to better understand these activities.

Looking at artworks. Hearing music. Moving our bodies in the form of a dance.

And playing games, which Lantz argues is about thinking and doing for their own sake.

The turn of phrase that I particularly loved was the idea that “games are thought made visible to itself.” Most of our life, we spend it by thinking in order to accomplish something. We think to earn money, we plan our groceries so we can eat during the week, we win arguments, we budget, we schedule our time. But with games, our thinking and our awareness of our thinking is done for its own sake, and it can be entertaining, and it can also be insightful.

I liked that Lantz focused on not just what games could aspire to but also what they currently are. He compared games such as Go and poker, QWOP and Wipeout, and pointed out that these games already help us see the world differently, help us navigate our own minds with new appreciation for how we do it.

It never occurred to me that the probabilistic thinking of poker was so tied to game theory and to contributing to how someone might understand something like quantum mechanics better, but also to understanding how to model the day to day world we navigate.

At one point, Lantz talked about what impact games could have, specifically in terms of systems literacy. Games are very closely related to systems and to software, and so they can help us understand complex systems that exist in our real world.

Systems are dynamic, and they sometimes have side-effects, which are sometimes unintended. Our criminal justice systems, or our political systems, or our economic systems, all need nuanced understanding.

Playing games is about understanding complex systems. Knowing how to balance all of the mechanics in a farming sim doesn’t mean you know how to work on a real farm, but it might help you to understand a little better how the economy works.

Sounds good, but then he points out that if it is true, and if all games have this capacity, then we should already see these kinds of benefits in the world. Instead, he highlights how “in its most prominent forms, gamer culture often seems to demonstrate exactly the opposite – a way of engaging with the world that is stridently anti-intellectual, stubbornly literal-minded, completely inflexible, combining extreme naivete with massive over-confidence, and willfully deaf to the subtleties of systems thinking even as it exhibits a highly effective practical mastery of actual, real-world networked systems.”

It’s a sober passage about how, even if games COULD have so much potential to help us navigate the complex systems in our lives, so far we haven’t taken advantage of them in that way.

And of course, games don’t NEED to teach us. They are for their own sake, after all. But it definitely feels like a miss for our society if we have this amazing capacity to help improve society, to improve our creativity around approaching our society’s various and interlocking systems, and instead we acted like games are only meant to be frivolous (see how the mainstream media treated Willis Gibson after his amazing accomplishment of doing what was once thought of as impossible, getting the killscreen in Tetris) and so our society’s systems are also treated simplistically and suboptimally, that “the most advanced forms of systems literacy in games are ones being applied by product managers and marketing engineers to maximize engagement and not the kind we would want players to develop for themselves.”

Lantz points out evidence of gamer intelligence, ways that games change how we think, can be positive. Game players learn about randomness and statistics not in a classroom but by actually practicing it when they participate in MMO raids and when choosing how to bet before the river is revealed in Texas Hold ’em. They can understand the concept of state machines when they kite an AI-controlled enemy or need to lay low to avoid the cops for awhile in Grand Theft Auto games. I especially loved the passage about how game theory came about due to John von Neumann’s fascination with poker’s uncertainty in the face of multiple players all trying to anticipate each other’s moves.

Game theory, while it had far reaching impact, also led to the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, the idea that nuclear powers probably don’t want to launch a nuclear strike first because opposing sides will have enough retaliation capability that everyone suffers unacceptable losses. Lantz points out that the film Dr. Strangelove pokes fun at the idea of game theory, its disconnection from reality and sensibility.

But then he says one of my favorite parts of the book, “But consider for a moment that the opposite might be true. It is possible that, without the cognitive toolset of game theory and its capacity to coldly calculate the unthinkable, humans might have destroyed the planet with nuclear weapons.

Maybe, just maybe, a field of knowledge that came out of a close analysis of Poker saved the world.”

I’m happy that I had access to this book thanks to my local library (did you know you can often request new books, and they will sometimes get them for you?), but I’m sad that the book is due back. I want to add this one to my collection.

Categories
Game Development Marketing/Business Personal Development Politics/Government

Planning 2024: Building on the Successes of 2023

It is time for my annual review of the previous year and preview of the coming year!

How did 2023 go for me?

Well, it was a mixed bag, but I am very excited about my successes.

Last year, I wrote in “Reviewing an Underwhelming 2022, Previewing a Better 2023”:

I normally would right-size my goals based on the previous year’s results, but I think last year was an off-year for me. I think those goals are still doable despite the fact that I didn’t get them done.

So, I’m keeping them as my goals for 2023:

  • Release at least 2 Freshly Squeezed Entertainment games by December 31st
  • Increase my newsletter audience from 25 to at least 37 subscribers by December 31st
  • Earn at least 1 sale per month by December 31st

That’s at least one new subscriber and at least one new sale each month, and I’ll need to focus on shipping as quickly as possible to get two games out.

To hit my goals, I had two priorities: game creation/development and game promotion/awareness building.

Published Freshly Squeezed Entertainment Games (Target: 2) — 0

Despite putting in significantly more game development hours than I have ever tracked before (averaging over 7 hours a week, which still isn’t much in the grand scheme of things), I released 0 new games.

That’s two years in a row in which I did not publish a new game.

Much of my current business strategy depends on releasing games in my Freshly Squeezed Entertainment line, which are polished, playable prototypes that provide complete entertainment experiences and are given away for free. The general idea is that the games are supposed to be quick to develop and have a low barrier to entry so that they are more likely to find an audience. I hope to get feedback from that audience, and if enough interest exists, I can always create a “deluxe” version of the game that I can sell.

So not releasing a game isn’t great, because there cannot be an audience for a game that doesn’t exist.

My current project, The Dungeon Under My House, is perhaps too ambitious for my goals. Or maybe the scope of it is. For example, I spent a significant amount of time developing a way to customize the main characters in the game, and perhaps if I had my producer hat or my product development hat on, I could have decided that such work was a nice-to-have that could go into a potential deluxe version of the game so I could focus on the core of the project.

I am going to continue working on it because I like the concept (a non-violent 1st-person dungeon crawler focused on conversation and relationships) and I want to see it through, but I am really going to need to identify exactly what I want in the game and be strict about recognizing nice-to-haves vs enhancements that help make the game playable.

GBGames Curiosities Newsletter subscribers net increase (Target: 12) — net 5 (+8, -3)

My goal was to increase my GBGames Curiosities Newsletter subscribers to a total of at least 37, up by 12 from the previous year. In last year’s review, I lamented that I only increased the number by 3, which was only half as much as I gained the previous year and a far cry from 12.

My newsletter (have you subscribed and gotten your free player’s guides yet?) is the core of my business strategy. As such, it is very important that I grow my audience of people who are interested enough to hear from me that they give me permission to reach out to them.

I started the year with only 25 subscribers, and I ended the year at 30.

I gained 8 subscribers, which is more than I have gained in any one year since I rebooted the newsletter in 2020, so that’s good.

But for the first time since then, I had 3 people either unsubscribe or otherwise get removed from my newsletter.

So, this goal’s metrics had a positive trend, but I didn’t hit my goal and while I expect that over time people might unsubscribe or drop from my newsletter subscribers, I hope it doesn’t become a trend itself.

Sales (Target: 12) — 13

Ok, I am seriously excited about this one!

In the past, I’ve set sales goals such as “$10,000 in sales” or “$10/month in sales” or “1 sale per week” but I’ve always fallen short. They never really motivated me to take the drastic action needed to make them happen.

In 2022, I set a goal to sell at least one game per month, which I considered both a doable yet challenging goal. I figured that if I could hit this goal, I could build upon it, and maybe I should try to hit this seemingly small goal before worrying about making enough in sales to get anywhere near full-time indie status.

But 2022 was kind of a bust, and I had only 4 sales, which I guess was good despite my lack of promotion efforts.

In 2023, I took advantage of itch.io’s various sales and Creator Days throughout the year. Things seemed promising early on when I sold 4 copies of Toytles: Leaf Raking in March through itch.io’s Creator Day sale. I had done a little promotion on social media, and it seemed to be working out well! Add to those sales the two mobile sales I got, and the first quarter of the year was telling me that I was going to make my sales target early!

And then months went by with no sales, until itch.io had a Summer Sale followed by a Creator Day sale in August. I sold one copy of my game in each sale, plus someone donated money to get my free game Toy Factory Fixer. Mathematically, I was still on track for 1 sale per month, but it was disappointing that sales had slowed down.

My biggest disappointment was the combination of the Halloween Sale and the Black Friday Creator Day sale. Despite the time and effort I put into promoting my games then, including the creation of videos, I sold no copies of my game at all.

Luckily, for some reason, I sold three copies of Toytles: Leaf Raking for mobile between November and December, bringing my total to 13 sales for the year.

So on the bright side, I not only hit my target but exceeded it!

But I wish I knew why suddenly people decided to buy my game at the end of the year. Half of my sales came from itch.io, and as that’s where my promotion efforts were aimed at, it is clear that those sales came from my efforts.

But I don’t have any way to determine how customers found the game on the other app stores, and I would much rather have a good idea for how to reproduce these results.

Analysis

I had more sales in 2023 than I had in any of the previous 11 years. In 2011 I had sold 23 copies of my first commercial game Stop That Hero! totaling $91.25 in take-home money, which includes pre-orders as well as actual sales, but ever since, I’ve had very inconsistent and much lower sales numbers.

In 2023 I earned earned $103.91 from my 13 sales. That’s what I get after the various stores take their cut (which is why Creator Day sales are so nice, as itch.io allows me to keep all proceeds from sales on those days). That’s more than I’ve earned in the past six years combined and more than I have ever earned in sales from a single year.

So, relatively speaking, 2023 was a great sales year for GBGames! I mean, I know this is barely pizza money, and I’m not quitting my day job yet, but I set a new baseline for myself and my business!

How did I do so much better than previous years? I spent more time on promotion than before.

I think a big part of my early success was taking advantage of my Facebook page for GBGames. While I always shared my blog posts on that page, I otherwise didn’t do much with it.

At the beginning of the year, I decided to post daily on it. Monday through Friday, I would make sure I had at least one post on my Facebook page. While I still had my blog post link on Mondays, I also started sharing images of my past games, with links to their pages. I also would ask people to sign up for my newsletter weekly.

I didn’t expect miracles, but I thought things would grow, if slowly. I quickly got frustrated with Facebook’s algorithms because I was in a catch-22 of Facebook not showing my posts to people because people weren’t seeing my posts.

They’ll gladly take my money to help promote it, though, or at least the promise of doing so. I paid to promote my Black Friday sale event and got way, way fewer than the estimated number of people reached, so that wasn’t great, but on top of it Facebook said that they’ll show it to more people for real this time if I spend more.

Anyway, I suspect the reason why my sales figures dropped after the initial few months was because I tapped out my friends and family, the only people who Facebook was showing my posts to.

I also have Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, but my company’s Facebook page seemed the most likely social media account I had that could target actual potential customers rather than other game developers.

Recently I had asked a colleague of mine, someone who has had great success with his game sales going back almost 30 years, how he does promotion these days. He used to do a lot of search engine optimization, but in his response he said that “Search engines don’t seem to be the main driver of traffic anymore. Everyone is on social media” and so that is a bit disappointing.

Partly because the dynamics of social media mean that instead of having something out on the web that others can find on their own time, as Cory Doctorow said in The (open) web is good, actually, “The social media bias towards a river of content that can’t be easily reversed is one in which the only ideas that get to spread are those the algorithm boosts.”

Basically, the more I rely on social media to promote my game, the more effort and/or money I need to expend for at best a temporary boost in potential traffic.

If I think of my options for promotion as part of my megaphone, I have my website, blog, newsletter, and various social media accounts, including a YouTube channel that I started using earnestly at the end of the year. None of these have a large number of followers or subscribers. My megaphone is tiny.

Which means that even when I do expend a lot of effort, my megaphone only reaches a small number of people.

As I mentioned in my 2023 Black Friday Creator Day post mortem, even though I had put in more effort than ever before, and even though the metrics showed that the result was more views of my games than ever before, it still amounted to a total of only 50 views. And none of those views turned into a sale.

I go into more in that post mortem, but my overall promotion strategy has been to leverage my own megaphone as much as possible, and to supplement things, sometimes pay small amounts to unreliably leverage the much larger megaphone of a company such as Facebook or Google.

Clearly, this strategy has its limits, or at least my available megaphone has its limits at the moment.

Some numbers

I did a total of 397 hours of game development for the year, a new record for me since I started tracking my hours in 2013 (I was a full-time indie who didn’t track my game development time between 2010 and 2012). My previous record was 299 hours in 2021.

For someone working full-time, that amounts to less than 2.5 months, assuming a 40-hour work week. So it is not a lot of time, but it’s an improvement over not even doing 2 months of full-time game development in a year. You can see why I refer to myself as a very, very part-time indie game developer.

I wrote for a total of 75 hours, which resulted in 76 blog posts published and 18 newsletter emails sent.

My weekly development blog post got paired with a second blog post sharing my new video companion devlog. I published 13 Freshly Squeezed Progress Report videos in the final three months of the year.

I try to send out a monthly newsletter, but in my last few sales I sent out multiple newsletters for the beginning, duration, and end of a sale, which accounts for the relatively large number.

As for my budget, I mentioned my earnings from sales earlier. I also earned some money from a short contract job. While I haven’t been paid for all of my sales yet, I can say that I’ve taken home over $570. Again, not quite pizza money.

I spent slightly more than the previous year, but I still kept my expenses down by resisting games, books, and other purchases. My major expense categories were web hosting (a three year plan), educational subscriptions (Pluralsight and a book club membership), and the Apple App Developer Program annual fee, something that auto-renewed on me when I was still contemplating whether or not to drop it since I wasn’t earning enough to justify the expense. All told, I spent over $2,000.

Eventually I would like to report that I’ve made more than I’ve spent, but this isn’t the year.

I pulled back on some personal goals. I used to try to do a doodle a day and do 15 minutes of focused learning a day, mainly to take advantage of my Pluralsight subscription. But I found it was stressful trying to fit everything in, so I ended up dropping a lot of them. I fantasize about getting back to full-time indie status and being able to spend more of my time on these kinds of things.

In 2022 I had hurt myself badly enough to stop doing my regular exercises. After some physical therapy, I was back to exercising regularly in the morning, but partway through 2023 I had to stop again due to leg and back pain.

Around July, I started regularly doing push-ups again, but I ended the year weighing the most I’ve ever weighed.

I read a total of 64 books. Well, some were audiobooks, and 11 were trade paperback comic books. My favorites for the year were:

  • How to Write One Song by Jeff Tweed
  • Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday
  • This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends by Nicole Perlroth
  • A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
  • We Were Dreamers by Simu Liu
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  • The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi
  • Good Arguments by Bo Seo
  • Sandy Hook by Elizabeth Williamson
  • Magical Mathematics by Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham
  • The Name of the Rose and The Role of the Reader by Umberto Eco
  • The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece by Tom Hanks
  • Time Travel by James Gleick
  • Collaborative Worldbuilding for Video Games by Kaitlin Tremblay
  • Y: The Last Man (the entire series)
  • and Sweat the Technique by Rakim
  • I still haven’t figured out a regular game-playing schedule for myself. As I’ve said before, since I give myself so little time to work on game development, if I find myself with time to play a game, more often than not I treat it as time to develop.

    Steam shows I only played 4 games: Homeworld: Remastered, Etrian Odyssey HD, Nowhere Prophet, and Skatebird. I also played a Etrian Odyssey II on my Nintendo DS, plus Signs of the Sojourner, Oxenfree, Battletech, AI War Collection, Pontifex, and Baba Is You.

    The last two I played a lot while I was recovering from COVID.

    Oh, yeah, I tested positive right before my holiday break and was out of commission for a couple of weeks. I caught up on a lot of TV and played some games, but mostly I slept. It was a forced break that prevented me from finishing the year strong.

    Overall, last year I focused on game development and game promotion, and in both cases I can see room for improvement. My game development focus needs to drive towards shipping sooner rather than having a continuously open ended development. My game promotion revealed to me the need for some more baseline analytics data so I know how to make better decisions and can see whether or not my efforts are effective.

    Goals for 2024

    For years I was setting goals that I thought were right-sized and could be a jumping off point for bigger and better goals.

    But I kept failing to hit them.

    So I find myself in a new position when it comes to my sales goals. I hit my target, and now I can improve! Normally, I would take my 1 sale per month goal and double it. Can I sell at least 2 games per month in 2024?

    And since I haven’t increased my subscriber count by 12 in a single year, I would just keep that goal until I manage to accomplish it.

    But as my colleague Tim Beaudet likes to point out, “goals should be things you can control.” And I can’t control sales or subscriber numbers.

    Those are lagging metrics. They are the results that might get influenced by my actions, but I can’t influence them directly.

    And frankly, I think I struggled throughout the year with these as my goals. The only goal I could control was how many games I released, and even though I didn’t accomplish it, I knew that the thing I needed to do was make a game and publish it.

    But whenever I saw my other goals, there was a vague sense of “Ok, so?” A lagging metric is one that I can look at and see what already happened, but it didn’t by itself indicate actions I should take, and I think seeing those goals always put me in a position of needing to figure out what those actions are.

    So while I like to keep those lagging metrics as outcomes that I am aiming for, they can’t be my actual goals.

    So for 2024, I have the following outcomes I am aiming for:

    • Increase my newsletter audience from 30 to at least 42 subscribers by December 31st
    • Earn at least 2 sales per month by December 31st

    As for actionable goals:

    • Release at least 2 Freshly Squeezed Entertainment games by December 31st
    • Perform at least 2 SEO activities per month by December 31st

    Ok, so make and release games is a pretty straightforward goal. I just need to focus on the shipping part.

    But SEO activities? The benefits of search engine optimization would be more traffic to my site, which means more potential customers turning into actual customers and/or subscribing to my newsletter.

    What’s risky is that the major search engines are, well, becoming worse for people. They seemed to be doubling down on AI and making the search experience kind of awful. Google used to let me see results for multiple pages, but now it seems very interested in showing me videos after the first few results, and if I don’t want videos, there doesn’t seem to be a way to avoid it. Plus, lots of websites are now dominating the search listings with poorly generated content, which makes it hard to find good stuff.

    And as my colleague above said, most people are on social media these days, so what’s the point of SEO?

    Well, I can always stand to make my website better, more effective, and easier for people to find what they want. I can do keyword research, ensure my pages are optimized, and keep my site speedy and responsive.

    More importantly, I can control my website, while I can’t control how Facebook or YouTube algorithms impact whether or not people even see my content even when they like or subscribe to do so.

    I plan to continue my weekly devlog and companion videos, my daily social media posts, and more, but I didn’t think they made sense as annual goals. They are already something I’m doing, so “keep it up” seems the default. Plus, maybe I’ll find that some of these activities need to be changed or tweaked as I find out they are more or less effective or a good use of my time.

    2 SEO activities a month might seem low. If I think of my SEO work as experiments, I think one experiment a week would give me plenty of time to see if a particular change made a difference, and if I spend money to get more traffic, I can see the impacts much more quickly.

    But I am trying to keep in mind that I am not working on this full-time yet nor am I made of money, so giving myself a couple of weeks to make each dent seems reasonable, and if I find myself able to do so more quickly and easily, I can always do more.

    As for personal goals, I liked the ones I had for last year: make my physical health a bigger priority, invest time and money into learning, and give myself time to play.

    For all three, I need to be deliberate and make some habits. I already track my exercise and my reading habits, but perhaps 2024 is the year I start tracking which games I play.

    Well, happy new year! I hope 2024 is full of creativity and that you allow yourself to follow your curiosity wherever it leads you!

Categories
Game Development Marketing/Business Personal Development Politics/Government

Reviewing an Underwhelming 2022, Previewing a Better 2023

At the start of the year, I like to look back on the previous year to see how well reality matched up with my plans, and then, trying to incorporate any lessons and insights I’ve gained, I make new plans for the coming year.

In the past, I’ve found myself weeks (or even months?) into the new year before I get around to this work. I was not exactly hitting the ground running, partly because I was still finishing the previous year’s efforts up until the end of the year and didn’t give myself time to reflect before the new year.

But this time around, I took off the month of December from my day job with the intention of journaling, reviewing the past, and figuring out what I want out of the future. December tends to be my least productive month in terms of GBGames, and while there were still plenty of errands and holiday preparations to work on, I did manage to make some time for some serious thinking effort, especially thanks to an early Christmas present from my wife for a week-long solo retreat.

The short version: 2022 kinda sucked. I’m looking forward to making 2023 into what 2022 should have been.

Here’s the long version.

In A Review of My 2021, and Looking at 2022, Already In Progress, I was coming off of the success of finally publishing Toy Factory Fixer, my first one-month Freshly Squeezed Entertainment project, after about 12 months of development.

I had a goal of releasing 6 such games over the course of a year, and so I was recognizing that my capacity as a very, very part-time indie meant that I needed to be a LOT more realistic about what I could actually accomplish.

My overall strategy didn’t change, but the values were significantly smaller. My goals for 2022 were:

  • Release at least 2 Freshly Squeezed Entertainment games by December 31st
  • Increase my newsletter audience from 22 to at least 34 subscribers by December 31st
  • Earn at least 1 sale per month by December 31st

Maybe publishing 2 games was still too ambitious, but I figured at least one game with one in development was still an improvement. And maybe 1 sale per month sounds laughable, but I didn’t come anywhere close to 1 sale per week OR per month in the previous year. And if it is so laughable, it should be easy to get more than one sale a month even if all I do is post a plea on Facebook asking friends and family to buy the game.

I right-sized my goals for what I thought was simultaneously a small step and also a stretch from what I have so far been demonstrating.

So how did I do?

Not great, actually.

Published Freshly Squeezed Entertainment Games (Target: 2) — 0 (or maybe 1)

I’ll explain more below, but other than working on porting my existing games to the desktop and creating Disaster City, my Ludum Dare 50 game, in a weekend, I made no new games.

I don’t really count my Ludum Dare game, though, because it was conceived and developed for the compo and wasn’t really something I was planning to make into my next Freshly Squeezed Entertainment game. I thought about making it a full-fledged project after the compo, but I never got the energy behind it to do so, even though I liked the germ of the idea I had created. I wanted to be more deliberate than “Here’s a game I quickly threw together, so maybe I can make a bigger version of it?”

At the end of the year, I started putting together a design document for my next Freshly Squeezed Entertainment, but it isn’t ready enough yet for me to formally announce its existence yet.

I might be too hard on myself, as I did put in time and effort to create ports, so it wasn’t a complete blank of a year, but it is my most clear-cut failure for a major goal to not get addressed at all.

GBGames Curiosities Newsletter subscribers net increase (Target: 12) — 3

On the bright side, it’s above 0. I should be pleased about that fact at least. And no one unsubscribed, at least.

My newsletter grew by 6 subscribers the previous year, though, so I’m not happy with gaining fewer subscribers, especially since I have Toy Factory Fixer and Toytles: Leaf Raking released on the desktop and so had more exposure with more incentive (you can get a free player’s guide for each game) to join the newsletter.

I don’t know if I should take it as a refutation of my strategy to release free games and grow my audience through them, or if it is still too soon to tell.

Sales (Target: 12) — 3

I sold 7 copies of Toytles: Leaf Raking in 2020, 5 copies in 2021, and only 2 in 2022, with one person giving me an optional couple of bucks for my otherwise free Toy Factory Fixer to make for what I technically call a third sale.

I don’t like this downward trend, either.

On the other hand, due to one of the two sales happening on itch.io which allowed for one customer paying me significantly more than the asking price (thanks, Mike!), I actually made almost $1 more than the year before, and making more money is a trend that I like.

But obviously I can’t rely on such generosity for everything.

Analysis

My major goals are above, but I also had minor goals to port my existing games to the desktop, especially after Ludum Dare 50 and my efforts to port my game for it to get as many potential reviewers as possible.

But before all of that, there were two big tasks.

One was to finish some post-release efforts for Toy Factory Fixer, such as creating and uploading a player’s guide and updating my website for it.

Another was a presentation I meant to give early in the year that never happened. I was scheduled to give a Toy Factory Fixer post-mortem presentation at my local IGDA chapter in February, but that month the meeting never happened, and the chapter hasn’t scheduled another one since.

At the time, I thought it meant I had more time to polish my presentation before it was rescheduled, but I didn’t really track the time I worked on it, so I don’t know how much effort it took.

My vague plan was to finish the presentation, then switch gears to quickly port my games, then switch gears again to creating my next Freshly Squeezed Entertainment game. Basically, my major goals were on hold, and maybe they shouldn’t have been considered my major goals if that were the case?

I worked on my presentation on and off for a few months, finishing it in May, but then never actually presenting it or recording it myself, completely wasting the effort for this supposed priority.

After Ludum Dare in April, I finally put together a backlog of tasks to port my games, only to kick myself for having put off for so long the 5 minutes it took to do it.

What followed was a few months of development effort to do the ports. Frankly, getting the games onto the desktop was easy work, and while I spent weeks creating the Linux port despite the fact that my main development system is Linux-based, it was because I wanted to make it a one-button, reproducible build. The Windows port was fairly straightforward as well and was almost a one-button build that needed a few tweaks. The Mac port was a little troublesome, but I eventually figured out the arcane incantation Xcode required.

In August, I participated in 60 FPS Fest again, and it was insightful watching complete strangers try to play Toy Factory Fixer. A number of people struggled to figure out how to start, which I addressed through some hints and UI changes in an update I made in the following weeks.

And then, after my Toytles: Leaf Raking desktop ports were announced, for some reason, I did nothing.

Well, that’s not quite true. In September I tried an experiment in which I did a daily game design exercise based on the day’s news headlines, and while I enjoyed the experience and think I got a lot out of it, it required too much of my time, way more than I could justify spending on it.

But I didn’t have a product plan. At the very least, I didn’t have a next project ready to go, and apparently my theme for this year was to struggle with overcoming inertia.

I also had some health problems which impacted my ability to sit long enough to work on anything.

So basically, my major goals took a backseat until I could get what at the time looked like quick goals accomplished, which ended up either taking me longer to get around to or taking me longer to finish than I originally anticipated.

But it wasn’t like I vastly underestimated how much work there was to do. I think it came down to not getting myself to do the work consistently.

In 2021, I had habits that got me to slowly but surely publish a game. I did exercise every day. I dedicated regular time to learning, mostly to take advantage of my Pluralsight subscription.

I had set my course, and each day I executed part of a plan that moved me in that direction until I was at my destination.

But this past year? I found myself between plans often. It’s one thing to take a step forward with an existing project. It’s another to figure out what a new project should be.

I think I usually find that I need a major break after a game project is completed, but I felt like I couldn’t get back into the swing of things this past year, and I still can’t quite put my finger on why.

I was fine so long as I was tracking some effort, but for some reason if I wasn’t dedicating time to development or writing or learning, I found it harder to keep on task, or start a task in the first place, even if I knew what that task was. In fact, whenever I don’t know what I should be doing, I take that as a clue that what I should be doing is figuring out what I should be doing. Yet, I couldn’t muster up the effort.

Was it burnout? Was I questioning why I was trying to accomplish things I set out to do so long ago that I forgot why I was doing them? Was it frustration that the rest of society seems to be trying to get back to a pre-pandemic normal that doesn’t and shouldn’t exist anymore? I don’t know.

But as someone who aspires to one day get back to full-time indie status, this past year felt squandered and lost despite the accomplishments I can point to.

What else?

Compared to the previous year, I only put in a third as much game development, a total of 101 game development hours. I only had five months that were productive, and they weren’t full months.

I blogged a lot less, with only 35 published posts compared to last year’s 60. About 9 of the posts were for Ludum Dare 50 weekend, and I don’t think I tracked my writing time then. Since many of my posts are sprint reports, and I was doing less development, it makes sense that I had less to say, but there are other kinds of blog posts that I could have written. I put in about 53 hours for writing that I tracked which is surprisingly only a little less than the time I put in the year before and which doesn’t include when I wrote for the player guides. My newsletter is supposed to be a monthly one, but I only sent out 4 issues last year, mainly because the only things I had to announce were the ports and updates to existing apps.

I had managed to keep my expenses down significantly relative to previous years, mainly by resisting game and book sales (I have plenty already purchased I could play/read instead), but it was still a bit more than I had planned and a large multiple of my income.

My personal goals were:

  • Do a minimum number of walking hours, push-ups, squats, and planking
  • Read a book per week
  • Create at least one doodle per day
  • Do 15 minutes of focused learning a day

I wasn’t able to keep up with my 15 push-ups, 15 squats, and 30 seconds of planks, mainly because I hurt myself bad enough that I had to stop, only doing the exercises for about half of the year.

I continued to do my exercise and stretches more or less as I have always done it, which has kept my back strong and meant that I haven’t needed to see a doctor about it in a couple of years. Unfortunately, at some point I had a severe pain that was quite debilitating, and I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what might have caused it other than helping someone move a mattress or twisting under a bathroom sink trying to fix a leak.

People tell me that part of the fun of getting old is getting hurt for no reason, and I don’t like it.

So unfortunately I spent a chunk of my summer recovering and doing physical therapy. For some time it was not my favorite thing to stand, sit, or lie down. The latter two were especially tough because getting up would send my back into painful spasms, and working in my office for longer than I needed to for the day job was not happening much. The physical therapy helped, and these days I feel a lot more confident and way less self-aware of everyday movement.

Even when I was feeling well enough to exercise, I wasn’t doing cardio, something I keep saying I’ll prioritize but never make happen, but we just got a new treadmill and I’ve started walking on it daily, and when the weather is nicer I might start making a point of going out for a walk instead. I want to eventually build up to running and perhaps look into actually joining a recreational soccer team. I miss playing the game, and I loved helping to coach my daughter’s awesomely inclusive soccer team in the previous year.

I read a total of 28 books last year, none of which were related to game development. Whoops. That’s usually something I try to prioritize. One book was “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison, which I read because I was playing the game around May, so does that count?

Only 4 of the books were fiction, including Ellison’s. One book was about advertising, another was about product management, and the rest were either about history, computer science, business, self-improvement, and a few other topics. My favorites for the year include The Profiteers by Sally Denton, You Look Like a Thing and I Love You by Janelle Shane, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Work by James Suzman, and Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman.

Compared to the previous year’s 137.75 hours, I only tracked 22.5 hours of dedicated learning. I was trying to keep a daily streak going, which normally is fine since that’s the point of a daily habit, but it was stressing me out to do so. The problem was that I was also aware that I was making enough time for learning but not enough for doing. Why was I stressing myself out to do one but not the other? So I dropped the habit after a few months, intending to pick it back up when I was ready.

In fact, at some point I wondered if it made sense to carry over my daily habits from the year before, especially as I kept finding new ones I wanted to add and wondered what to cut. I don’t have infinite time, and while I find a number of things valuable, I needed to prioritize. It didn’t help when I found myself stressed about trying to keep on top of some of them, such as my daily doodle, daily learning, and daily Duolingo Italian lessons, so I dropped a few of them early in the year.

I found it incredibly helpful trying to stop self-inflicted stress from happening. Much as how in the previous year I didn’t need to stress about an arbitrary game publishing deadline I created for myself, I found myself questioning why I was staying up late to catch up on missed doodles that week or finding myself annoyed that a meeting I was in meant I couldn’t finish a Pluralsight module that day. I instead was trying to live by the philosophy of “do more of what makes you happy” although I did find a lot of relief just removing things from my life rather than adding to it. Pluralsight isn’t cheap, so I have some incentive to actually make use of it, which is what my daily habit was helping me to do, but I need to find a more sustainable way to do it.

Last year I said I wanted to make more time to actually play games, something I usually don’t do because if I have time to play then I have time to do development. I wanted to be more deliberate and regular about playing games, though, because there are obvious benefits of learning from existing games but also because when I do play games I tend to play them obsessively for days or weeks, pushing out other things I need to do. Unfortunately I never did figure out a regular game playing schedule, and so I once again had spikes of play between many long lulls throughout the year.

There was more going on that I won’t recount here, both in terms of challenges at the day job and family health issues and a major death, but suffice it to say that it was a difficult year to feel motivated and inspired.

I think the theme last year was questioning whether or not the path my past self had set me on was still serving me, and in the absence of finding a new path, I stopped traversing it to give myself time and space to eventually figure out where I wanted to go next. Apparently I needed a lot more time and space than I expected.

I also found myself struggling with the fact that I was still a very, very part-time indie, that the day job takes up such a large chunk of my waking hours that I would love to put towards a variety of other activities, so I feel like I have to prioritize what’s left over, and I’m unsatisfied with this situation.

Goals for 2023

My goals for last year were not supposed to be overly challenging. I figured that all I had to do was make a concentrated effort to easily meet them. All I had to do was convince one person to buy a game in any given month. I should similarly be able to get one person interested enough to subscribe to my newsletter each month. If I could do it, I imagined that the next customers wouldn’t be far behind.

Maybe the hardest goal would be publishing two games in a year, but I imagined that it would have come down to project management, prioritization, and limiting scope. So, doable.

I normally would right-size my goals based on the previous year’s results, but I think last year was an off-year for me. I think those goals are still doable despite the fact that I didn’t get them done.

So, I’m keeping them as my goals for 2023:

  • Release at least 2 Freshly Squeezed Entertainment games by December 31st
  • Increase my newsletter audience from 25 to at least 37 subscribers by December 31st
  • Earn at least 1 sale per month by December 31st

That’s at least one new subscriber and at least one new sale each month, and I’ll need to focus on shipping as quickly as possible to get two games out.

My current strategy is that my free games will drive newsletter subscribers who eventually become paying customers, but I of course also have to deal with the fact that my games are quite obscure and off the radar of almost all potential players.

One major focus will be on actual creation and development, things I’ve done before and understand. I have demonstrated that I can design, plan, create, and publish a game, and I just need to put in the hours.

But another major focus will be solving my obscurity problem, to figure out how to get my games in front of more people, something I have long recognized as a problem but have yet to put in a similar amount of effort to solve. While I believe the kind of games I make aren’t meant for the kinds of players found on Steam (and so most typical and accessible indie game marketing literature is irrelevant), I don’t have a solid idea of just who my target players are, and I haven’t defined them for years despite recognizing this need.

I need to actually answer these questions rather than merely ask them like I do each time I think about marketing and sales: Where do they live? How do they spend their time? How specifically do I let them know about my game when they are looking for new games?

But not in a creepy, data-harvesting, privacy-violating kind of way. Just in a “you are clearly looking for the kind of family-friendly, privacy-respecting entertainment that I provide” kind of way.

My goal isn’t to try to make a random hit game. My goal is to grow an audience who cares about what I make. I’ve done a poor job of finding such an audience all these years, and so my work in the coming months is to figure out how.

Outside of my major goals, there are a few other areas of my life I focus on.

I want to make my physical health a bigger priority. For years, I’ve been doing just enough to keep my body flexible and capable. My morning exercise and stretching routine takes mere minutes, and while I do get benefits from it, I’m not satisfied. This past year showed me that just enough isn’t enough, that my body needs to be more capable of handling day to day life as well as the occasional heavy duty chore. I need to move more and challenge myself physically, while also not overdoing it and hurting myself.

I have been fairly happy with investing time and money into learning. Whether it is my daily habit of reading in the morning, paying for books and courses, or going to conferences, I don’t see changing much. For years, my goal has been to read a book per week, but when I stopped listening to audiobooks in my car in favor of listening to podcasts, my total book count dropped. And working from home, I don’t drive as much anyway, but if I take up daily walking or running, I could watch presentations on a TV or listen to audiobooks or podcasts more while also getting the mental benefits that come from cardio. I recently acquired a number of books on game design, plus I have a number of ebooks I never make time for, so I have plenty of content. It’s just a matter of prioritizing quality reading as opposed to allowing myself to jump into social media multiple times a day.

And I want to make sure I give myself time to play. Not just games, although getting back into hosting a monthly board game night or enjoying the occasional computer game in my collection would be good, but I want to give myself permission to not need to be accomplishing or completing or checking-off something. I want to do something for the sake of doing, for exploring, for wondering, and not worrying that I’m supposed to be doing something else to be productive. I want to get some quality work done, but I also want to enjoy the process more.

I hope you have a safe, healthy, curious, and playful 2023! Happy New Year!

Categories
Game Design Game Development Geek / Technical Personal Development

What I Learned Creating Game Designs Based on News Headlines for a Month

As a very, very part-time solo indie game developer who has to wear a lot of hats, I worry that my game designer hat tends to get neglected, especially as I spend the bulk of my time programming, creating art, or updating my project plans.

You could argue that game design activities are infused throughout the game development process, but it feels like my opportunities to do focused game design work are few and far between.

Which meant that I probably wasn’t getting better at game design.

To address this skill gap, I wanted to improve my game design abilities through regular practice and in a way that didn’t require me to completely upend my daily routine. I only have so many hours in a day I can dedicate to my game development business (very, very part-time indie, as I said), and I didn’t like the idea of sacrificing more of that precious little time.

So I decided on doing a daily challenge of taking 20 minutes to create a working prototype or 1st iteration of a game based on that day’s news headline throughout the month of September.

I explained more in my post Quick Daily Game Design Practices, but the short version is that I expect that even a short amount of focused daily game design should result in me gaining experience and developing a better intuition about game design over the course of a year.

I’ll break down the challenge:

  • Daily: if I do it once in awhile, such as every Ludum Dare, or anytime I start a new project, it seems too infrequent. Plus, there is a difference between practice and being on the clock.
  • 20 minutes: the exact amount of time doesn’t matter, but the focus on speed serves two purposes. One, even on a busy day, I figured I could more easily justify carving out 20 minutes than if I needed to spend hours on it or dedicate a weekend to it. Two, the time constraint meant that I couldn’t waste time. I needed to focus.
  • Working prototype or 1st iteration: it’s one thing (and super easy) to come up with ideas for a game. It’s quite another to actually implement those ideas. I didn’t need to make a finished, publishable game, but I did want to make a finished-enough-to-give-to-someone-else game. It will likely be necessarily rough around the edges, unbalanced, or even potentially broken, but it needs to be real.
  • Based on a news headline: having a daily prompt meant that I had some focus for the theme or concept, so I wasn’t starting from a completely blank slate. It also meant that I might have to work with a topic that I might not have picked myself, potentially pushing me out of my comfort zone and challenging me with a topic I might know nothing about.

So how did it go?

First, I will say that I really, really enjoyed this challenge.

Over the course of September, I created 21 playable prototypes based on NPR’s top headline of the day. For each day, I created a one-pager that listed the key parts of the news item, as well as the setup and play instructions for the game I created. I published the one-pager and some pictures I took of my playtesting sessions in Twitter threads, partly to indicate to myself that I finished the day’s exercise but also to encourage others to do something similar.

At least one person posted their own playable video game prototype!

One-pager for daily game design

Playing cards used for daily game design

Here’s the links to those Twitter threads if you are interested in seeing them and the quick analysis I did after many of them:

I made games about indigenous representation in the U.S. Congress, about the need for young farmers, about housing issues for teachers in California, about student loan forgiveness, and the politics of clean water in Jackson, Mississippi.

I made games about monkeypox vaccination and about wearing masks during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

I made games about the death of Queen Elizabeth II, who gets her dogs, and the nations that won independence during her reign.

I made a game about restrictions on safe and legal abortion access, and about the migrants treated inhumanely to make a political point.

I made games about the effects of the war in Ukraine, between a nuclear plant that needs to be shutdown safely and the gas sanctions affecting Europe and U.S. prices.

I made a game about Magnus Carlsen resigning after a single move in a rematch with Hans Niemann.

I made games about hurricanes in general and about Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Fiona in particular.

I made games about presidential term limits, about acquiring voting machines, and I even made a couple of games about the Mar-a-lago FBI seizure and the special master who was assigned to look at the documents.

Some of the games used a regular deck of playing cards, others used dice, and others used a variety of components, such as coins, tiles, wooden barrels, and pawns.

In fact, it was a great excuse to have my game design prototype toolbox nearby, after years of being mostly ignored. In fact, I even changed the contents a bit so that I could add a deck of cards, some dice, and even a minute sand timer.

My updated game design prototyping toolkit

And I decided to order The Infinite Board Game from Workman Publishing, which is basically a piecepack implementation along with a book explaining some of the games you could play with the components. I would have preferred high quality wooden components, but plastic works well enough.

Pieces from piecepack used in daily game design challenges

Now, you don’t strictly need all of these components, but I loved the variety and the ability to choose from day to day what I was going to use.

What didn’t go so well

September has 30 days, but I only made 21 prototypes, so what happened to the other 9 days? Well, I fell behind.

And despite trying to do two or more designs in a given day to try to catch up, it was difficult to do so, mainly because I frequently took more time than I originally hoped I would.

I timed myself once, and it took me 1.5 hours to go from nothing to my published Twitter thread. And I know some of the challenges probably took me much longer. If my actual maximum time on any exercise would have been 20 minutes, I think it might have been much easier to have a game for all 30 days.

Which was fine, in that I didn’t care too much about sticking to 20 minutes. More time spent on game design meant more practice and more benefit to me.

But it definitely ruined the whole “won’t interfere with my daily routine” part. By the second half of the month, I found I did nothing in terms of writing or game development outside of these exercises. In fact, on days when I tried to do more than one exercise to catch up on my backlog of NPR headlines, I found that it got in the way of other routines and habits, like reading or going to bed at a decent time, which had cascading effects on my ability to wake up on time the next day. This situation wasn’t sustainable.

Perhaps 20 minutes was ambitious. Strictly speaking, I might have had a 1st iteration within a few minutes, but my 1st iteration always felt too simple, or it had no connection to the news item, or otherwise it needed work before I felt good enough about it to “publish” it.

Another thing that didn’t go well is that news headlines can sometimes get repetitive.

What makes the news might stay in the news. Hurricanes, political scandals, and the deaths of long-living monarchs tend to dominate the news cycle for multiple days or weeks, and at least once I skipped the top headline to choose another one that covered a theme I hadn’t already worked upon.

And sometimes the headline news is depressing. While I felt like I was paying more attention to the news thanks to this exercise, sometimes doing so felt like getting punched in the stomach. Making a game about how Florida’s governor tricked migrants onto planes and knowingly sent them to areas which did not have the resources to help them? It was my least favorite part of this experience (and probably my least successful design).

Don’t get me wrong. While I imagine many people think of games as “for children” or only for fun, you can definitely make games that model serious situations. My discomfort with confronting the news pales in comparison to the real harms inflicted on human beings who were treated as political pawns.

But even though I anticipated bad news being an occupational hazard of this exercise, I don’t know why I didn’t expect to have my heart broken by witnessing how awful people can be to each other.

Of course, maybe having experience creating games that reflect the real world even when it is ugly isn’t such a bad thing.

Things I learned

In just one short month, I learned a few things that I will carry into my future game design efforts.

  • For quick iterations, I should use fewer components and/or a smaller scope.

    For my first game design exercise, also documented in my Daily Game Design Practices post, I used the 66 cards from the game Iota. In hindsight, it was a mistake.

    It was a bit unwieldy and might have obscured the dynamics because I was simultaneously dealing with figuring out my rule changes AND with the existing how it interacted with the sheer quantity of shuffled cards.

    When I had what seemed like an interesting set of rules, I ran into the problem of the game not ending satisfactorily and being too random, so some games were over almost right away and some took forever to end. Having fewer cards might have helped me iterate more quickly.

    I found that I struggled the most when I used an entire deck of playing cards (more on that below), whereas if I used a subset of the cards, I was able to produce and iterate on designs much more quickly.

    For my non-card games, I found that I still had too much going on. Either the playspace was too large, or there were too many components needed.

    For my game about Magnus Carlsen and Hans Niemann, I was originally planning on using an entire chess board, but I opted to use a smaller board, and I think it was a much better exercise as a result. I was able to quickly play out entire sessions within seconds rather than minutes, modifying rules, and repeating.

    When I think about computer games I’ve made in the past, they tended to be on the large scale. An early RPG prototype I made in QBasic had a massive overworld map, and the individual screens had a lot of tiles, and each town/cave/castle was similarly potentially huge. It was so big that in order to test the entire game more easily, I added a special cave that allowed me to instantly appear at key parts of the world, doing what the kids today call “Fast Travel”. I never finished that game, despite having a fully functional dialogue system that let you talk, buy, sell, or steal (or be stolen from) and plenty of created areas to explore complete with residents. Of course, this description is probably more exciting than the not-quite-a-game actually was.

    My leaf-raking business simulation game Toytles: Leaf Raking might have too many residents/yards, and the game takes 3 in-game months representing the fall season to play but perhaps it is too long. I had one player tell me that there isn’t much to do to fill up that time. I wonder if the reason why Harvest Moon games tend to have a 6 day week instead of a 7 day week is because it allows the pacing to move along more smoothly.

    Similarly, one of the design decisions that I wish I had spent more time on was figuring out what dimensions to make the levels in my non-violent tower defense game Toy Factory Fixer. Maybe larger, easier-to-see graphics with a smaller play area would have worked better? It’s hard to say after the fact, but there were a few times when I was creating the levels that I thought that there wasn’t enough content in the game to justify the potentially long conveyor belt. Players seem to like the game, though!

    But I think my future game designs might start out with fewer moving parts, at least to start, mainly so I can get through iteration cycles much faster.

  • Don’t write down the rules until the end

    I quickly discovered that writing with a pen to create the one-pager for a given design made edits painful and ugly. Crossing out or modifying the instructions did not go well, especially if I didn’t provide enough white space or already used the margins for a previous edit.

    This lesson might be too specific to the fact that I chose to create a one-pager on paper and wrote with a pen. Maybe if I used a digital text file it wouldn’t have been so bad.

    But then again, my iterations were completed on the order of moments, not days or weeks, so I didn’t need to spend time writing down the rules until the very end.

    Not having calcified rules gave me the freedom to make up rules on the fly, which is very useful when I run into an edge case while playtesting. And those edge cases came up often because there are almost always situations not covered by the few rules a game starts out with.

    Basically, I didn’t want to accidentally constrain my designs due to not wanting to try to squeeze text modifications on paper. B-)

    If I could try to extrapolate out a larger lesson, perhaps it means I should also try to spend more time in pre-production before calcifying the rules in a computer game. It is a lot easier to iterate the rules in my head than it is to iterate rules compiled into an executable.

  • I was able to recognize my tendencies as a game designer.

    The fact that I was done with a design each day meant that each day’s efforts were easily compared to the previous ones.

    And I noticed that I might often start with trying to represent more than I needed to. For instance, when I was making Gas Sanctions, the game about the effects of the war in Ukraine, I originally wanted to represent population as well as their energy needs for each region of the world. I ultimately simplified energy demand to a die roll and removed the population concept entirely.

    My card game about Queen Elizabeth II’s corgis, Who Gets the Dogs?, didn’t end up how I intended no matter how long I worked on it that day. I wanted the game to be about gaining favor with the Queen before her death, and I tried to have multiple potential dog owners represented by individual cards. Eventually I changed it to be the column in which you are playing cards, mainly so I didn’t find myself needing the card acting as a token in the course of play.

    I generally wanted to make games with a lot of player agency, and so I often set out to use as little chance as possible, and when I played with dice, I found that I preferred to use the results of a die roll to inform things indirectly. That is, while some games might have allowed a die roll to dictate how far a pawn might move, other games required the player to choose how to apply dice rolls to the situation.

    Unfortunately, what often happened was that I ended up making a game with very little player agency partly due to a lack of a real choice. That is, balance was often not my main concern, and so when I decided to be done enough for a daily exercise, I might feel like the game offered no real choices. There was an obviously best move, which made it the only move.

    Perhaps I can learn to lean on randomness more, or I could practice more to find out how much work there might be to make better choices for the player that are true choices.

    But I definitely liked to try to model causes rather than effects, yet found that focusing on effects resulted in faster iterations. Can I start with modeling effects, then work backwards to mechanics that model causes? It’s something I would like to experiment with.

  • I was able to make a game even when I thought I wouldn’t be able to do so.

    Each day, I didn’t know what headline I would get. Sometimes the news item was about a natural disaster, or about political maneuvering, or about contention over resources. Often I found these items mapped to a game quite easily.

    But other news items were less about conflict or dynamics. Sometimes they were background information. A explanation of someone’s career as a judge or the history of presidential terms limits don’t sound like playable things. And whenever I ran into such a news item, I despaired slightly.

    And yet, I kept surprising myself by making playable games about them, and often quite quickly!

    I found that just the act of doing created results.

    That isn’t to say that those results were amazing. I still struggled, and some of those published iterations have a lot more potential than anything else, but I was not grading myself on how good a game I could come up with. I was grading myself on coming up with anything at all, on putting in the time to do the work.

    Basically, I showed up to the task, put something out there, and moved on. And I was better for it.

  • I need to get more familiar with my game design tools.

    I focused on creating paper prototypes because they are quick. Some of the game components I have at my disposal have centuries of history behind them, such as playing cards. But I didn’t have centuries of knowledge at my fingertips.

    Now, I’ve played card games since I was a child. I’ve played a variety of games.

    But in some of the exercises, I found myself struggling to make the cards do what I wanted them to do.

    Playing cards have suits, ranks, and colors. You can make all sorts of rules using them.

    Yet I felt like I was limited with the mechanics I came up with. The player could match ranks. The player could try to play a higher or lower card than what is on the table. I could borrow solitaire rules. I even found myself using the rectangular shape of the cards, turning them to the side to indicate something.

    I imagine that there are countless other things one can do with cards, mechanics that other games already use, and I wasn’t creative enough to come up with any in a quick session, nor did I have a lot of past experience to leverage.

    Similarly, dice are fun to roll, but often I found myself feeling like I wasn’t applying them well.

    To be fair, I was familiar enough with the nature of randomness with these different tools. You can always reroll a value with dice, while a card dealt is no longer in the deck.

    But what to do with the rolls or the card was a question I wish I had more answers for.

    I should play more games, is what I am saying. B-)

What now?

Actively doing game design every day might be a normal thing for some full-time indies, but it was a new experience for me. I believe I gained a lot out of this experiment, which makes me wonder how much my game design abilities might change if I did this exercise every day for an entire year.

But something needs to change to make it possible for me to do so. When it takes me multiple hours to work on a single game design, those are hours I can’t use for my game development in general, and most days I don’t give myself more than hour in the first place.

Sometimes when I imagine/fantasize being a full-time indie game developer again, I think about what my day to day might look like if I didn’t have a day job. Could a daily game design exercise be a great way to start the day before getting to the “real” work? Or a nice ending to a solid day of development?

Can I get a similar benefit doing one game design a week, such as dedicating Mondays to the task? Or using an entire week of 20 minute days to work on a single game design, with a published post on Saturday?

I’ll need to think on it, but for now, I need to get back to my neglected very, very part-time efforts.

I will say, however, that I wouldn’t have minded hearing from someone at NPR seeking a full-time game designer in residence whose job is to create a daily game to play based on that day’s headlines…

Categories
Personal Development

Still Observing My Personal Indie Day

It’s May 21st, and that day holds a lot of meaning for me.

It is the anniversary of the day I became a full-time indie game developer, after having given two weeks’ notice to my day job two weeks before.

Unfortunately, only a couple of years later I ran out of money and ended up back on “corporate welfare”, and I’ve had a day job ever since. But I still like to observe my Indie Day.

A couple of years ago, I realized it was 10 years since that day, and I wrote a post lamenting how long it has been, how much hasn’t been working out for me, and worrying about not putting in enough time and effort to get back to being a full-time indie.

Last year, I acknowledged my Indie Day with a more upbeat post about letting go of attachments to outcomes and enjoying the process more.

I wrote that I decided that my Indie Day should be a personal holiday from the day job. Well, of course it fell on a Saturday this year. B-(

Since last year, I have published a game, and while it took me probably way longer than it should have, I took a multimonth break from regular development, and only recently have i started working on desktop ports.

I participated in Ludum Dare #50, my first LD since #33, and created a game with a design space I want to continue to explore.

I have reset my goals to be more in line with my current possibilities based on data from the previous year, as opposed to goals that are aspirational yet unrealistic.

I’ve grown my mailing list slowly with an audience of people who want to learn more about my games.

I have a strategy, and I’m adjusting course as I go. My plans are flexible yet focused.

I still feel sad about what could have been, but I don’t focus on it as much. Instead, I spend more of my time figuring out how to spend my time today so that the future could be more in line with my goals.

My wife asked me if it was healthy that I still treat today as a special anniversary, and I think it is. I no longer see it as yet another marker of a year in which I failed to get back to full-time indie status, and instead look at it as a day that reminds me of what I had done and what I can do again.

So to observe my Indie Day today, I’ll spend some time journaling, I’ll acknowledge what’s going well and what I can improve on, and and I’ll try to get some more game development time in than I usually do.

Categories
Marketing/Business Personal Development Politics/Government

A Review of My 2021, and Looking at 2022, Already In Progress

2021 ended weeks ago, and I’m only now getting around to having a retrospective about it.

We’re in our third year of a pandemic that a lot of us thought would be over within weeks or months at most.

Once again, my immediate family somehow managed to make it through the year unscathed as far as we know. I know a number of people who have tested positive for Covid, and we’ve lost a few people we knew.

I’m still employed and working the day job from home, and since I work in software consulting, it translates into a relatively comfortable income and life for my family.

We’re all fully vaccinated, and most of us have gotten a third vaccine. Recently with developments of variants, we’ve upgraded to KN95 and N95 masks.

And since our society in general seems interested in actually helping the pandemic, it seems like this is our foreseeable future.

That said, we’ve started venturing out of the house a bit more in the last year. My children participated in sports, and I even acted as unofficial assistant soccer coach for my daughter’s team. We’ve visited with family.

Some things felt normal, despite feeling weird, and despite knowing that some people are immunocompromised and most at risk as society prematurely decides the pandemic is over. It’s disappointing.

So with the pandemic as background music, how was 2021 for GBGames?

Goals from 2021

As I wrote last year in 2020 in Review and My 2021 Vision, my goals for 2021 were:

  • 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

Increasing sales and increasing my newsletter audience aren’t things I have direct control over. They are lagging metrics, the kinds of numbers I can look at after the fact.

The only one of those goals I had direct control over was publishing games. This is a leading metric. That is, my hypothesis is that if I quickly work on and publish playable, polished prototypes, that it will lead to people finding my games and eventually subscribing to my newsletter.

And what I hypothesize is that those subscribers have shown they like my games and are more likely than random strangers to pay for Toytles: Leaf Raking and future non-free games I publish.

So how did I do?

Sales (Target: 52) – 5

In 2020, I sold 7 copies of Toytles: Leaf Raking. So, selling less means I went backwards in terms of results.

If there’s a bright side, unlike in 2020, I only released one update for the game, and most of my focus was on my new development. So 71% of the previous year’s sales despite a near-complete lack of me talking about the game?

Maybe that’s not bad, but it was clearly not anywhere near the increase I wanted.

GBGames Curiosities Newsletter subscribers net increase (Target: 84) – 6

I went from 16 subscribers to 22, about a 38% increase. Considering how the next goal’s results went, I’m taking it as a minor win, despite not hitting my goal of what now seems like a ridiculous expectation of a 525% increase.

And, no one has unsubscribed, so that’s another win in my book.

As this was probably the most important goal in terms of how much it will impact the future of GBGames, it is a bit disappointing, but again, it is a lagging metric. I can’t control it directly. Which leads me to what I could control.

Published Freshly Squeezed Games (Target: 6) – 1

Toy Factory Fixer was the only game I published last year, and it didn’t get released until mid-December.

So on the one hand, I am disappointed that I fell so far short of my original goal. Having such a late release meant that I spent most of the year not knowing how my Product Development Strategy was going to work out experimentally, which made me worry about the risk of taking so long to release something to get that feedback even more.

On the other hand, I finished and released a game I’m proud of, people are still downloading it and playing it, and I have already received some nice reviews.

And I think my regular posting about development progress has led to people signing up for the newsletter, so there is a direct connection happening there.

Analysis

Now, I think much like my arbitrary one month deadline for Toy Factory Fixer, these goals were more wishes than anything. I had no solid plan in place to make them happen, and any plan I did have was a bit vague and untested.

Literally, my plan was to release free games, hope some of the players signed up for my newsletter, and hope those subscribers eventually became paying customers.

And I think it isn’t a bad strategy overall, but in retrospect I was deluding myself with the fixed numbers I made up without anything to justify them.

I mean, I’ve made games in a weekend before, so taking two months instead of one month to make a game sounded like I was right-sizing that goal, but my experience with Toy Factory Fixer showed me that I was going to need to do something different if I wanted to make games anywhere near that fast that I would still feel good about releasing to the public. And everything else hinged one me releasing Freshly Squeezed Entertainment.

I wrote a post-mortem for Toy Factory Fixer, so you can read that post if you want to see my analysis of what I think went well and what went wrong and what I learned from it.

Otherwise, I think in general my specific goals were unrealistic. Which is frustrating because they feel like they shouldn’t be. In fact, I thought 100 subscribers was something I would hit much earlier in the year, and that what I was really hoping for was 12 games in a year.

Imagine if I made a game of the quality of Toy Factory Fixer every two or three months. Is it so unrealistic that I would have had 100 subscribers to my mailing list by the end of the year?

By my math, if I only gain 6 subscribers a year for some reason, am I really looking at 13 more years before I hit that number? That’s ridiculous.

But clearly something has to change if I want different results.

What else?

Well, I tracked 299 hours of game development, which is pretty close to almost twice what I did the previous year. 300 hours in a year might not sound like much, as it amounts to a little less than two months of full-time effort, but since I am part-time and have a family and other obligations, it represents the fact that I made it a priority to put in effort week after week.

I published 60 blog posts, slightly more than the 58 from the year before, and it was mostly weekly sprint reports. Those reports functioned almost like a combination sprint retro and demo, in which I demonstrated what I got accomplished. I got into the habit of writing the report, then planning the next sprint once I had taken time to think about how things went. Plus, people responded positively, especially when I had animated GIFs or videos to share, and since I love reading about behind-the-scenes of games, I thought others might, too.

I created an update for Toytles: Leaf Raking. It’s more compatible with modern Android and iOS systems. Otherwise, I haven’t changed anything about the game since the previous year. My expectation was that I would work on a Freshly Squeezed game, then work on a Toytles: Leaf Raking update, then work on another Freshly Squeezed game, but obviously I had no concept about how I was going to make that work.

Without contract work and with very few sales, it was very easy to have a lot more expenses than revenue. I can’t control my income, but I can manage my expenses a lot better going forward.

My personal goals for the last year were similar to the year before:

  • Do a minimum number of walking hours, push-ups, squats, and planking
  • Read a book per week
  • Create at least one doodle per day
  • Do 15 minutes of focused learning a day

I successfully did 15 push-ups, 15 squats, and 30 seconds of planks every day of 2021. Look at all that green in those columns!

Morning Exercise Routine In 2021

Technically, my daily exercise streak goes back to October 19th of the previous year.

I also did yoga on most weekends, and I think my body feels more physically capable than it has in a long time. In the past I would sometimes hurt my back or side, but I’ve been able to avoid seeing a medical professional for a long time.

Unfortunately, I rarely did anything cardio-related. Once again, the best of intentions doesn’t mean much, and my goal of walking everyday was hampered by the lack of habit, the broken treadmill I’ve been meaning to repair, and a lack of commitment. I sit too much, especially since I have my day job work and then put in even more time for my business.

I read a total of 33 books last year, the most in a given year since I stopped listening to audiobooks and switched to podcasts in my car a few years ago. I count 11 books related to games, including a bunch from Ian Bogost and a couple about making games with deeper meaning. Another 10 books were productivity or business-related.

I only read four fiction books, including Seveneves and A Game of Thrones, each of which took up a significant amount of my before-bedtime reading. I also greatly enjoyed Redwall, which was seemingly even more brutal than A Game of Thrones was.

Other books were related to history, parenting, comics, or DIY renewable energy.

I continued to do a daily doodle, alternating between drawing faces, drawing objects, and body parts like hands, legs, and feet. Sometimes I did cartoony drawings, and sometimes I tried to make it as realistic as I could. Once in a great while, I would look up a tutorial online, but I felt like I was in a holding pattern of putting in the time to make the doodle but not really growing in skill.

The new thing I tried to do was make explicit time for learning. I value learning and growth, and in the past I have invested in books, conferences, online courses, and such, but I never made an explicit plan to take advantage of those investments. So I made it a daily habit. 15 minutes a day adds up over time. I tracked 137.75 hours of learning, on topics as varied as game programming, game art, game production, creativity, and various personal development and technical things. I have had a Pluralsight subscription for the past couple of years, and this goal allowed me to take advantage of it more than I have in the past.

Goals for 2022

If the last year has shown me anything, it’s that even if I were to write down all of the outcomes I would like, it means nothing without a plan and without my capacity to work on that plan.

In 2010, I quit my job and became a full-time indie game developer. After running out of cash, I went back on “corporate welfare” in 2012. My expectation then was that I would build up some savings and quit again, but I didn’t take into account how being married and having a family would affect my risk assessment (or how much my family’s risk tolerance would inform my decisions), and I have had a day job ever since.

Clearly I wasn’t going to accidentally make GBGames my main employment, so last summer I started writing a “Full-time Indie Plan.” I wrote down how much money I was currently earning from my day job and how much money our family budget currently is vs what it would look like cut to its essentials. I documented details about platforms, revenue sources, challenges, risks, what I wanted to accomplish and what I explicitly didn’t want to do (such as spy on customers or bombard them with ads) and more. And the most important part of it is answering questions about how I was going to make it happen, such as identifying exactly what needs to happen in terms of sales, marketing.

This document isn’t finished, and while I expect it to be a living document, I recognize that I am repeating mistakes I’ve made before when I’ve done similar exercises in the past. Namely, I can come up with a lot of questions or categories, but then I don’t actually address them.

So while I have documented what I value, such as privacy, encouraging curiosity, supporting creativity, and others, and while I have done a SWOT analysis (although maybe I can iterate on it some), I haven’t answered questions about who my audience is and how I can reach them. I haven’t made a solid plan for actually marketing my games besides blogging and sharing on social media. It’s a 13 page document that has a lot of TODOs and headings without content in it.

But of course, I only have so many hours in a day. Even if I could identify 100 marketing activities, if I can’t actually make time to do them or manage someone else doing them, it does me no good.

My current lack of capacity should inform my goals more than they have in the past. Any marketing I would do would be inbound in nature rather than outbound, as it is less expensive and takes advantage of doing something once, such as publishing a blog post, and distributing it multiple times for near free.

So here are my goals for 2022:

  • Release at least 2 Freshly Squeezed Entertainment games by December 31st
  • Increase my newsletter audience from 22 to at least 34 subscribers by December 31st
  • Earn at least 1 sale per month by December 31st

I still think my overall Product Development Strategy is still sound. Create free value, ask for permission to talk with people who have shown they like my games, and then use their feedback to help me make deluxe games that are more likely to sell.

Creating two games in a year should be doable if I put on my game producer hat more often. I would love to try for four games, giving each one on average about three months, but I’m already worried that I’m still overestimating my capacity with two.

My newsletter went up by 6 subscribers last year. Now that I have one Freshly Squeezed Entertainment game out and expect to have at least one more by the middle of the year, can I find 12 more fans who are interested enough in my games to sign up?

I don’t have a sales plan in place, and clearly one sale a week was too ambitious. Still, one sale a month sounds like a ridiculously small amount, but then again, it is clearly a difficult goal for me at this time. It works out to a little more than double the sales I made in 2021, which was slightly fewer than sales from 2020. Making that trend go back up will be huge.

Besides those overall goals, I do want to spend some time porting my existing games to desktop platforms, and I’ll need time for that effort that isn’t going to be going into new development. I already develop on my Ubuntu system, so creating a Linux-based release shouldn’t be difficult, but since both Windows and Mac OS are trying to be walled gardens, I need to figure out how I can create free games for them without it costing me a ridiculous amount of money.

I also want to make time to actually play games. Between all of my old consoles, Steam, Humble Bundle, GOG, and Itch, I have a lot of games, many of which I’ve paid for, that I never enjoy or even learn from. Last year I played Castles I, Sunless Sea, To the Moon, Minecraft, and Super Crate Box, and shortly after I released Toy Factory Fixer, I allowed myself to play The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker during my week off from the day job near the holidays.

But much like my 15 minutes of learning each day habit, I’d like to make regular time to play games, even if it isn’t daily, even if it is a dedicated part of a day once a month.

Ok, so maybe two games in a year is starting to sound ambitious…

Anyway, I hope you have a safe and healthy 2022! Happy New Year!

Categories
Game Design Game Development Geek / Technical Personal Development

Freshly Squeezed Post-mortem #1: Toy Factory Fixer

Now that my first Freshly Squeezed game has been out for a few weeks, I thought it would be a good time to look back and see what lessons could be learned for future projects.

Toy Factory Fixer, a turn-based toy factory management game in which you hire and manage workers to ship toys, was a project I started in December of 2020, the first of my Freshly Squeezed Entertainment line of games.

Freshly Squeezed
Toy Factory Fixer

As I said in the my first progress report post for this project, Freshly Squeezed games were meant to be quickly created within a month and given away for free.

The idea behind giving away free games is that I want my games to have as little friction finding their audience as possible, and if enough demand exists for a particular game, perhaps I will create a “deluxe” version for sale. In other words, rather than guess at what random strangers might want based on trends and fads, I’m trying to find and get faster feedback from the people who would be interested in playing the kinds of games I am creating.

So I’ll start by saying that Toy Factory Fixer was meant to be a one month project, with a target deadline of December 25th, 2020.

Ha.

I ended up publishing the game in the Apple App Store and on Google Play on December 14th, 2021, over a year after I started.

For the mathematically inclined of you, you probably noticed that it definitely took much longer than a month.

But this is a post-mortem! Let’s talk about what went right, what went wrong, and what lessons can be learned from the experience.

What Went Right

  1. Paper prototypes helped me narrow in on the concept and game play early

    At the end of November, right after my latest published update of Toytles: Leaf Raking, I already came up with the general idea for Toy Factory Fixer. So right away, I had the concept on paper. Originally, it was a Christmas-themed game, with the idea being that the in-game shipment deadline was Christmas Eve and Santa needs those toys.

    But how would the game play? It could be anything.

    When you have the proverbial blank slate, there is a lot of potential, with many directions to go in, and it can be quite exciting.

    But you can’t stay in this amazing realm of imagination where anything is possible. At some point, you have to make decisions, which means cutting off some options as you choose others.

    Within days, I thought about a tower defense-style game, with a conveyor belt and workers (and machines, but those didn’t make it into the game).

    Toy Factory Fixer: Paper Prototype

    Toy Factory Fixer initial mechanics
    Now, I could have started coding and creating digital art, but that is an expensive thing to do upfront, especially in terms of game design. It’s faster and cheaper to use paper and markers.

    And doing so helped me to figure out the answer to some early design questions related to what the player would do within the game and how the various parts would work together.

    Should workers be able to do things automatically or require the player’s micromanagement?
    What obstacles would be in the player’s path?
    Should there be a turn limit?
    How does a worker get the parts to put together a Good Toy?
    How do toys on a belt interact with other toys?

    While not everything explored through this phase made it into the final game, it did help inform implementation details. For instance, I knew that I had to figure out what it meant to have multiple toys share the same location on the conveyor belt early on, and when it came time to actually write the code, I had already thought of a few solutions thanks to the quick paper prototypes I was able to come up with and ended up picking one that I thought made the game better than I had originally anticipated.

    I love the benefits of paper prototyping, and I wish I had done more of it, but for the amount I did, it definitely had a huge impact in terms of speeding up development and design work.

  2. Light-weight project planning helped me stay on task for the long-haul

    I’m a big fan of Agile software development, and so I am habitually used to focusing on value-delivery, working in short sprints, breaking down work into bite-sized pieces of value, baking in quality, and keeping the stakeholders/players in mind.

    I know some indie game developers work with a simple list of tasks, or maybe a list of must-haves and a list of want-to-haves, and it works for them.

    And maybe my spreadsheet is just a glorified collection of such lists.

    But from the beginning of this project, I created a backlog of features and tasks, then for a given week, I took a subset of the backlog and tried to get it finished. Then I repeated until I was done.

    Toy Factory Fixer - project backlog

    And that’s oversimplifying it, but that was the secret that kept me going for a year of very, very part-time development outside of the day job, the family time, and other obligations.

    I basically had a small set of things to do at any given time, and at the end of the week, I assessed how it went (usually by writing a sprint report blog post), took a few minutes to plan the next week’s sprint, and repeated.

    The slightly longer explanation is that I estimated how much work any given set of tasks was going to be when it is in the backlog using t-shirt sizes (Small, Medium, Large), and when I planned the sprint, I broke down those items into more detailed tasks so I knew what needed to actually be done. Then whenever I was doing game development, I’d look at the spreadsheet, pick a task, and focus on it until it was done.

    And since I usually didn’t get more than hour of game development at a time, I found great success with small and specific tasks rather than high-level, vague descriptions that leave a lot up for interpretation even though I’m the one who wrote it in the first place.

    I had a daily habit of putting in game development, and my project plan helped keep each day’s game development session connected to the previous one. Even if I went a few days without doing any game development, keeping my project plan front and center meant that it was easy to get back into it.

    I am not saying that everyone should do what I did. I’m merely saying this is what I did, and it worked well enough to keep me focused until the project was finished.

  3. Light-weight project planning helped me adapt to changes discovered mid-development

    I’m not going to pretend that games are special in terms of the need to deal with changing requirements, since so many software (and non-software) products also deal with it.

    But quite frequently I would add a feature, playtest it, take a step back, and realize that the player is going to need more feedback to know what is going on.

    That is, mechanically something might be in the game, but if the player gets no indication, it can be easy to miss.

    So sometimes I would discover partway through the work that there was more work to do.

    And no, I wouldn’t describe this as feature creep.

    Let’s take the time I added the ability to earn money when you ship a Good Toy.

    When you ship a Bad Toy, nothing happens (and maybe I should have added some negative feedback there like I’ve thought about doing for months, but ah, well). When you ship a Good Toy, it looks like nothing happens even though you earned money. If you were paying attention, you would see the money value is different.

    But as a player, you aren’t paying attention to that part! You’re trying to pay attention to everything else going on in the game!

    So I did a few things. One, I changed the value of everything by an order of magnitude. Workers used to cost 10 Money, and then they were 100 Money. Why?

    So that way I could more easily make it obvious that the player’s Money interpolated as it changed from one value to another. There is something satisfying about seeing numbers change over time instead of instantly changing at once.

    Of course, once I did so, I realized that it felt too slow when the numbers change a lot, so I even tweaked it to interpolate faster with larger changes in value.

    And I had the money the player earned fly from the shipping chute towards the Money balance at the top of the screen.

    These were small bits of polish that really helped sell what was happening to the player, and I didn’t anticipate them when I started.

    But I had a plan! Didn’t these changes get in the way of the plan? Didn’t they slow me down?

    No, that’s another thing about Agile that I like. You learn things as you work on a project, and that learning should inform the work.

    So my light-weight planning tool was easy to modify on the fly. I could be days into a given sprint, and I might realize that a given feature had a few extra unidentified tasks in it before I could say it is truly complete. I have the option to add those tasks to the sprint or create a new feature in the backlog if I decide I’ll work on it in a future sprint.

    Toy Factory Fixer - Sprint Plan Change

    It’s mere seconds of work to update the plan, and I can get back to work.

    Now, I could argue that the downside is that I allowed for scope to balloon for any given task, but I’m alone in this project. I didn’t need to argue or justify or push back against someone else’s requests. I just had to make a judgment call on whether or not I should add work. And while I often did, which led to the year-long project, I also had quite the backlog of new ideas that never made it into this initial release because I was trying to keep scope down.

    I think it is easy to let the light-weight part mean that I didn’t put on my producer’s hat often enough, but it did let me make changes on the fly fairly easily while keeping on top of it all, and I think the game is much better for it.

  4. Having testers meant finding major issues and getting feedback right away

    At one point, I put out a call for testers, and two people replied.

    And they made a huge impact, both in terms of game play and in terms of basic functionality.

    When you are targeting mobile platforms, you have to deal with regular cycles of sometimes seemingly-arbitrary changes to those platforms. They aren’t changes I care about other than the fact that they might break how my games work on those platforms.

    So imagine my surprise when I was regularly testing my game on my Android device only to find that a tester couldn’t get past the main menu on his Android device. He said it looked like the game was frozen. And after adding some debug code, we verified the game was not frozen but was, in fact, working quite well except for the tiny detail of touch inputs not getting processed.

    WHAT?!

    Weeks later, I finally figured out that the major culprit was that Android 10 somehow handled touch input differently from my much older Android device, or at least differently enough that libSDL2 wasn’t really behaving the same way. My workaround was to exit out of a message pump any time I process any input, which allowed my code to detect when a player pressed and released a button. It otherwise wouldn’t notice because the press and release happened at the same time and so the before and after input state would look the same.

    Separately, the testers frequently told me what was confusing or what worked well, and a lot of their feedback made it into the game in one form or another (further adding to the scope, but I think for the better). Some of their feedback is still in my backlog as things I want to add to the game but that didn’t make it into this initial release.

    Also, it is quite gratifying to have testers tell you that the game is fun. When you’ve been doing your own testing of an in-development level over and over and over again, falling asleep at the computer (and worrying that the game is boring enough to make players also fall asleep?!), it is so great to hear that someone else is enjoying what you’re making.

    I probably could have been in more frequent contact with the testers, but I was also trying to be mindful of the fact that they were volunteering and had their own obligations and time constraints. As things stand, though, I am really thankful for their efforts.

  5. Little bits of polish went a long way towards making the game look interesting

    I already talked about the money interpolation thing above, but at some point I realized that the game has a lot going on but looked like nothing was going on.

    Still frames and screenshots are fine, but animated GIFs and video tell quite the story. Except they were boring-looking stories.

    And at some point, I had accepted that this project was taking a lot longer than a month, and I wanted to give it the best chance to find an audience, so I thought it was important to add some “juiciness” to the game.

    I added animations, such as having the toys lean back as they are moved forward on the conveyor belt, or having the workers move their arms when they are finished separating a Bad Toy, or having the worker’s eyes look at a nearby Bad Toy.

    Here’s what it looked like in January:

    Toy Factory Fixer -Dispensing Toys

    And here’s what it looked like in September:

    Toy Factory Fixer - Strong Workers separating two toys at once

    My favorite animation is a toy arcing into the air and back down to land on the conveyor belt with a thud. There’s a small dust ring that appears, and the squash/stretch of the toy as it moves it subtle yet works really, really well. And the sound effects really sell it.

    Most of this work didn’t feel like it took too much time to implement, and some of the effects were purely aesthetic, but a lot helped communicate to the player what was happening. Seeing floating numbers appear as toy parts were added or taken away from the inventory worked way better to let the player know that the quantities changed.

    And it made the animated GIFs look way, way more entertaining.

What Went Wrong

  1. I stressed myself out with my arbitrary one month deadline…for months

    Freshly Squeezed games were supposed to be quick. I wanted to create one-month prototypes. But I also wanted them to be polished and finished enough that someone could say “Yeah, that was a complete experience…and I want more.”

    And every week after the one-month mark was another week that my game was overdue and in which I failed to do the “simple” task of creating and releasing a game.

    I especially felt bad after three months had passed. That’s 90 days! I should have had a Minimum Viable Product by then!

    No one was promised this game in one month. I had no customers or stakeholders who paid for it. And yet, I felt pressure to get it done.

    I mean, the longer this one game took to make, the fewer games I could make for the remainder of the year. And without even one published game, I couldn’t find out if the Freshly Squeezed “give away polished prototype, hope people subscribe to learn about future games” idea was likely to work. The entire product development strategy felt like it was in jeopardy! I needed to ship!

    Now, it turned out that I had underestimated the amount of work it would take to make something I would feel proud of releasing. A key part of Freshly Squeezed games was that they were not going to be shoddily-made, and it turns out that quality takes time.

    And as I wrote throughout the year, game development time was not something I had in abundance.

    The game ended up taking as long as it did. I don’t like saying “It’ll be done when it is done” because, you know, I did want people to play the game before I turned 80-years-old. I don’t have the luxury of working on games forever.

    In a well-run Agile project, if there is an arbitrary deadline, you work on the most valuable thing and have something to ship as soon as possible, and you build on it so you always have something functioning and ready to ship. And you expect that a lot of items in your backlog won’t make it into the final product by the deadline, but you know you got the key things in, AND that there is no other optimal way to do it that wouldn’t require inhumane working hours.

    I wanted to have both that arbitrary deadline AND the ability to keep expanding the scope of the work, and it doesn’t work that way. I probably should have realized early on that, no, this project was going to take longer than a month, then figure out what my minimum release criteria was as early as possible.

    Of course, the version that did get released feels like it is already fairly small in scope. Anything smaller, anything I would have released earlier feels like it would have been a much lesser game for it.

    Perhaps going forward, I limit myself to a maximum of 90 days for any one project, and I hold myself honestly to that deadline. It would require me to spend more of my time upfront exploring the basic game play, and only then can I polish it up.

    But it definitely requires me to rethink my product development strategy going forward.

  2. No real design document meant a lot of wasted energy wondering what should and shouldn’t be in the game

    I’ve never spent time creating massive 300+ page design documents, of course.

    But in the past I have found that even a 48-hour game jam went more smoothly when I made use of a living design document.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t use one for this project.

    Instead, I had random notes on sheets of paper, random notes in my development notebook, and the random ideas and features I threw into my project backlog.

    My project plan is in a spreadsheet, and one tab had a vision for the project, but it was very much focused on the purpose it had as a Freshly Squeezed game, as well as some guiding principles such as a desire to make the game family-friendly.

    So, when it came to making decisions about what to put into the game, I didn’t have much of a North Star to guide me.

    I had a lot of ideas, but they were not together in one place, which made it hard to think about them cohesively.

    I used different individual tools separately, and to great effect. For instance, to get the look of the workers in the game, I found images of Christmas elves online. I found a lot of reference art, which helped inform the creation of the sprites for the elves (hey, that’s almost a pun…).

    I doodled and sketched out ideas, and some ideas made it into the game partly because that prework helped me figure out how to make it real.

    But it definitely felt like I was randomly deciding what features were key and which were optional, and it would have been nice to codify that decision even if it was after the fact. That way, when I was revisiting an area of the game months after I last touched it, I wouldn’t have to remember why I chose not to do something or why I went in a certain direction.

  3. I spent time on polish before I spent time on nailing the game play down

    I think reading and watching videos about adding “juiciness” to games got me thinking that my game looked lifeless, and I needed to address it.

    Some of the work was quick, such as making the toys animate as they move down the conveyor belt.

    I’m very proud of the polish I put into the game, but added up, all of this polish and “juiciness” took a substantial amount of time.

    Which is fine, except that even after a lot of polish work, I kept adding major game-changing features since the game felt incomplete without them.

    Now, I’m not sure if it is necessarily wrong to polish existing features before moving on to adding another feature. After all, if I intend to ship any day, having a prototype that looks like it was hacked together is less appealing than a prototype that looks like a finished product.

    But I think the fact that I didn’t have a clear idea of what needed to be in the finished product until almost a year later made it easy to keep extending the work by adding animations, particle effects, and more.

    They were always justified, of course. The animation and sound effects act as powerful and immediate feedback for the player. They aren’t just eye-candy. They actually help the player significantly.

    But I think being more deliberate about fleshing out the core game mechanics first would mean it is cheaper to try exploring a few ideas before settling on them.

    Adding polish basically means I’m baking the features into the game, and they become harder to change.

    Toy Factory Fixer - money text floaters

    I can always iteratively add polish, revisiting things instead of trying to get it right the first try.

    My first pass at income generated from shipping Good Toys was functional and non-obvious to the player when it happened. My second pass added an animated amount that flew towards the player’s money balance at the top right, but it was hard to read as it went too fast and if it went slower it would be distracting. My third pass was to change it to floating numbers that disappeared after a short period of time.

    I think purposefully identifying potential iterative passes for polish might help balance between focusing exclusively on functionality and spending too much time on making things look and feel good before that functionality is all in.

  4. Being very, very part-time meant not a lot of time dedicated to experimenting with game design

    Rereading all of my progress report blog posts, one common theme was that I wish I could dedicate more time to game development.

    I lamented the lack of hours. A lot.

    So, I apologize if you got tired of reading it.

    But besides forward progress being slower than I would have liked, a lack of time meant I had to limit the amount of exploration of the game design space I could do.

    Game development is iterative and incremental in nature. You make something, then you build on it. And sometimes what you build is only obviously wrong after the fact, when you can experience it in motion, so you throw it away and try something else.

    If you could experiment with game play once a day, you could learn a lot about the game you are making, and you can find all of the dead ends right away, and you can find the more entertaining experience sooner. Any one option is cheap to try.

    But if your experiments only come once every few months? Now your changes are expensive to make. A choice to try something is more likely to become permanent simply because there isn’t time to replace it with something better.

    For example, at one point early on, I was worried that it was tedious to direct individual workers to craft toys. And frankly, I still am. But how much experimentation can I do with such a core part of the game, especially when I thought I was almost done for most of the lifetime of this project?

    So that mechanic stayed as it was.

    I did create the Go/Stop buttons partly as a result of tester feedback, so there were some things I thought of that eventually did get experimented with, but the point remains.

    If I wanted to release a playable game in a relatively timely manner, any game design experiments would have to be focused and quick. Maybe instead of fully exploring a design aspect, I try two proposed ideas and pick the best one. Or I try one and see if it works well enough, then move on.

    Much better would be to focus full-time on game development, but until my circumstances change to make that possible, I’ll need to figure out an approach to game design that let’s me maximize design exploration in as little time as possible.

  5. I didn’t pay attention to release criteria until near the end

    I laugh today at how optimistic I was about how soon I expected the game to be released. First, it was by Christmas. Then it was by the end of the 2nd month. Then the 3rd month. My birthday in July? Before a year of development was done. At least by the end of a year of development!

    I didn’t have game play for months, and it was almost six months into the project before I felt comfortable handing it off to testers to try. Why did I think I was almost done when I didn’t have any levels to play in?

    There is a difference between a wish (“I’d like to release this project within 30 days”) and a reality-based plan to accomplish it.

    I somehow fooled myself into believing that I was somehow going to finish the game just because there was a day I said I was going to be done. Even if that day changed every time I missed yet another deadline.

    Much of development early on was infrastructure and scaffolding. I created kind of a template for a menu system that all future Freshly Squeezed games will use. But that didn’t help me get a game done quickly.

    Later, I was solving platform-specific issues with newer Android OS versions, and then I was dealing with iOS build issues. They were important, but they delayed work on the game itself quite a bit.

    And I kept adding scope to the game. Sometimes it felt legitimate, like adding animations to help communicate what was happening in the game to the player, but sometimes it was plain old feature creep.

    I tried to separate my backlog between must-haves and would-like-to-haves, but the must-haves list kept growing in scope.

    I had 25 items in that must-have backlog when I started, and ended with about 95, with another 40 or so ideas that I decided not to include.

    At some point in late October, I decided that what was possible to do in the game good enough, and I created a hard list of things I needed to do to finish v1.0 of the game. The biggest “real” task was deciding on and creating the number of levels I would ship with, but the rest included some key areas of polish, options to toggle sound and music, and creating an in-game help.

    Having that release criteria helped me focus on finishing in the final months. What would it have been like if I had decided earlier on the nature of levels in the game? Maybe that design document above would have helped inform other features.

    But the point is that I spent quite a long time thinking I was almost done, only to identify a significant amount of work late that I could easily have seen if I was serious about releasing a publishable game as early as I would have wished for.

    I’m not saying that a plan would have been perfect, that I would have been able to predict with 100% accuracy how long the project would have taken. But I am saying that I had a plan, and I could have paid attention to it more to give me clues.

What I Learned

  1. Prioritizing the work is important enough to make time for

    Each week, I took a few minutes to plan the next week’s work. Sometimes it took more than a few minutes.

    With limited capacity in terms of hours, one might think that every minute of development counts, and I should spend less time on project planning. Simply work on game development until the project is done.

    But having limited time meant it was even more important to invest some of my time in planning. I always had a direction to go in, I always knew what I was working on next, even if that work was “figure out how to solve this particular problem.”

    My weekly planning cadence produced a lot of benefit.

    That said, I think I could stand to wear my producer hat more often. I overscoped a lot of my sprints, which meant that while I was making steady progress, I was also using any given sprint backlog less as a prioritized list of the most important tasks and more like a sub-backlog.

    Now, I’m generally fine with the work being fluid. If I learn things about a given chunk of work, if I come across defects, I throw them into mid-sprint backlog. Fine.

    But if I only get about two major features done in a given sprint, what sense did it make to add five of them to my sprint backlog? Again, wishful thinking served me poorly.

    What it did was give me permission to say “Well, any work unfinished will just carry over to the next sprint.” Which gave me permission to start work on some items without thinking through them, since, hey, I was just going to work until I thought it was done.

    Which meant I sometimes spent too much time on a given item of work. Or I allowed myself to work on a task that probably shouldn’t have been a higher priority, such as the amount of time I spent trying to create a background image for the game despite the fact that I am not an artist by trade and that all the time and effort I would put in would just result in a slightly less bad piece of art.

    Original menu screen background

    And if I really wanted to make a game quickly, even if I was going to be fine with it taking longer than a month, why didn’t I take advantage of the t-shirt sizing I did to create a rough roadmap or something similar that would help me understand just how much time might be needed to work on the game? I might still underestimate it, but I would probably be able to recognize that I wasn’t “almost done” for so many months if I could see that even the initial work I could identify upfront was going to take more than four weeks of work.

  2. A little polish and juiciness goes a long way

    I think it is safe to say that Toy Factory Fixer is my most satisfying game to play out of all of the games I’ve ever created.

    Most of the games I have worked on in the past were 48-hour game jam entries, and my efforts were focused on putting together a functioning game quickly and not necessarily on how it looks. In fact, many of those games were silent, with at most some sound effects thrown in at the last minute.

    Many years ago, I read a quote from a game developer saying that the lion’s share of game development is in the interface, and at the time I thought, “Ok, yeah, so there’s code and there’s art. Duh.”

    But then around that time while discussing how Model-View-Controller works, I had a realization that the interface to the underlying game system can itself be very complex. For example, when you click on a unit in a real-time strategy game, there is a lot of visual feedback. Sometimes the unit gets a little circle around it to make it clear which one you are currently looking at. The menu might update with the unit’s picture. A sound effect might play, like a worker’s bark. And when you click on a button to issue a command, the buttons will change to indicate which one you selected.

    And all of this isn’t strictly necessary in terms of the bare minimum to issue that command to that unit. That is, the underlying game simulation probably has no idea any of these clicks are happening.

    But the player’s experience? It is greatly enhanced. It is a lot less confusing, and it can often be a key source of the entertainment of the game on its own.

    When I added transitions to the screens of Toytles: Leaf Raking, I found that I loved how something as simple as fading in and out made the game feel better to play. The game is mostly static still, but it’s better than it was, even if only slightly.

    With Toy Factory Fixer, the toys went from merely traveling down the conveyor belt to feeling like they had actual weight and momentum. Functionally, they still moved one tile at a time, but visually and audibly, they arced into the air, landed with a heavy thump, then got pulled down the conveyor belt each time it moved. The toy parts flipped in the air as they soared towards the inventory.

    And when the toys got so much work done, I felt I needed to enhance the workers. They soon talked, blinked, looked at nearby toys, and waved their arms. You got a sense of their personality.

    And floaty numbers made it easier to see when you earned money and when you gained or used items in your inventory.

    Juiciness wasn’t just animations and particle effects, though. I had a list I created in July of various opportunities to add enhancements to the game, and some were more useful than others in terms of player feedback, and less than half of the ideas made it into the game.

    Some ideas were silly and meant just for fun. I always wanted to give the workers random names and irrelevant stats, such as “Laziness: 7” or “Disgruntled: 2”. Apophenia is a powerful thing to take advantage of, but it will have to come in a potentially future update.

    Other ideas that didn’t make it in might have helped communicate the state of workers, such as animations that indicate what they were doing, or communicate the lore of the game, such as letting the player see a description of individual toys.

    But even with the few enhancements I did implement, the game came alive, felt great to play, and seems to delight players.

    If I learned anything, it’s that I want to try to focus on adding personality to the game earlier rather than as an afterthought.

  3. The best of intentions isn’t a substitute for an actual plan

    Between assigning myself too much scope in any given sprint and allowing the game’s overall scope to grow throughout the project’s lifetime, I kept fooling myself into thinking I could do a lot more than I was demonstrating.

    I think feeling like I was supposed to be finished yesterday meant that I was mindful of keeping scope down, but I always felt like I was trying to figure out what was the actual minimum amount of scope I could feel good about.

    After one year, the game has 3 workers, 2 toys types, 2 toy sizes, 4 level layouts with 2 shifts each, and the option to play with a hard deadline or not. And a bunch of polish.

    What would this project have looked like if I was able to actually focus on game play for a month? Maybe one worker type? One level? Would the general design be quite a bit different to make up for the lack of variety of things in the game? And how little juiciness would it have? And is that fine for a short prototype?

    I think wondering about the above is fine, and in fact, it is probably what I should have been doing if I was serious about getting something out quickly. What wasn’t fine was pretending I was trying to make something quick while also not actually operating like I was.

    My original plan was to create polished prototypes, with a guess that a game might take up as much time as a 48-hour game jam entry might. After all, I have shown myself capable of creating a decent enough game in that time, and having that time spread over a month should be fine.

    But none of my games look and feel as good as Toy Factory Fixer did, which required an order of magnitude more hours to develop.

    In hindsight, I think with my current development capacity, perhaps a one month project is too short to explore the design space and develop something I’d be proud of.

    But I definitely can’t pretend my next project will only take a month if I just want it badly enough. I have to actually do the work of managing scope and/or my schedule.

    A project that I allow myself to work on until it is done is going to operate very differently from a project that that has a real deadline.

  4. Slow and steady can still cross the finish line eventually

    Looking at my records, I put in some game development time every week until the game was released.

    My best week was in May at 11.25 hours, and my least productive week was in December right before release at 1.25 hours, which makes sense as I was spending time on writing blog posts and email newsletters. My next least productive weeks were 2 hours each. Otherwise, I generally averaged 6.1 hours per week, which is a bit more than my 5 hours per week goal.

    This project took 299 hours in 2021 and another 32 hours at the end of 2020, for a total of 331 hours.

    It is about the equivalent of a little over two months of full-time effort, although when I was a full-time indie game developer I found that the most I could put in on any given day was about 5 hours, so let’s say it likely would have taken me between two months and four months if I was focused full-time.

    But I wasn’t full-time, so it took me a lot longer, which required a sustained effort over 13 months.

    Don’t get me wrong. I much preferred those days in which I was able to put in multiple hours, especially when solving a big problem. All things being equal, five hours in one day allows me to focus and work faster than five hours spread across a week. I didn’t need to leave breadcrumbs and notes for myself so I knew where to pick up the next day.

    But on the other hand, having a daily cadence of at least some game development time made it easier for me to keep each development session connected to the previous one. Those weeks in which I went multiple days without any game development made me glad I took notes about what I was doing (and curse myself if I didn’t), even if I caught up by putting in a lot more hours than usual. Otherwise, I wasted time trying to remember what I was in the middle of.

    I think that daily cadence, with a weekly goal, did two things for me to help me finish a long project part-time.

    One, I was always focused on outcomes. Whatever I was working on needed to contribute to the finished product.

    Two, so long as I was focused on outcomes, I just needed to put in the hours. Those outcomes weren’t going to happen unless I was sitting in front of my keyboard working on them. And a steady pace was better than crunching and needing to recover, both for my health and my family’s.

    Maybe 20 years ago, I once calculated that after you account for sleep, hygiene, mealtimes, and an 8 hour day job, I still had four hours with which to work on game development if I so chose.

    Today, it feels like there is a lot less time, as there is cooking, cleaning, and chasing after kids, among other things.

    I found I watched a lot of TV shows and movies with my family. I attended baseball games, helped coach soccer, and volunteered. Every so often I played video games, either alone or with someone else.

    And yet I still finished a game because I just kept working at it, day after day, week and week, until it was done.

  5. Player feedback as early as possible is huge

    I wrote about how important polish and juiciness was in terms of player feedback, but the biggest influence of my decision of what to work on came from other people playing my game and telling me how confusing it was.

    Even now, the v1.0 release of the game could probably use some more clues. I’ve seen players try to tap on things that aren’t interactive, or wonder what to do, or get frustrated when it isn’t clear how to get a better grade.

    But it was worse mid-development, and I knew because my testers informed me.

    Outside testers had access to devices that I didn’t, which helped me identify major defects with the Android version of the game early on. When it came time to actually publish the game, it was a relatively smooth review process because I already tackled the requirements earlier.

    I would periodically make time to play the game myself, preferably on a mobile device, and there is value to doing so. I sometimes noticed things that weren’t operating correctly, or weird graphical glitches, or game-breaking bugs. And sometimes I would notice when I wished I had something in the game, and then make it happen, such as the indicator that tells you which production run you are currently on.

    Toy Factory Fixer - production run indicator

    But working on the game everyday has the downside that I’m too familiar with it. I know how to play the game. I won’t run into the problem of wondering what to click on or what my goal is at any given moment because I already know.

    But reading the detailed reports from my testers helped me to see where someone who isn’t as acquainted with the game ran into trouble, and often it’s a matter of the game not providing feedback.

    Early on, the way turns worked was that they would be continuous until you either hit the Stop button or you opened a menu. Then, it stopped advancing turns until you hit Go. This made sense to me.

    But I got feedback from a tester that it was confusing that the game stopped. If you open a menu and it stops the conveyor belt, then closing the menu should start it, right?

    I didn’t initially want to change the way things worked, but as I played it and felt it was tedious, I decided to implement the suggestion.

    Which introduced a problem in that you had less control over the turns advancing. If you open up a worker’s menu and told them to craft a toy, then immediately the next turn starts. But what if you wanted to tell three workers to craft toys, and you didn’t want to waste turns?

    So I added the Stop button to every menu, which gave you the option to take a temporarily paused turn advancement into a stopped one. Once you were ready, you could hit Go.

    And in the meantime, I added a visual indicator that told you if the game was paused or stopped.

    So it was a lot of work sometimes, but the feedback I got from testers helped me see gaps in feedback from the game. Sometimes the solution I came up with was different than what was suggested, and sometimes I had to cut a suggested feature for lack of time.

    But testers helped me take this game to another level in terms of ensuring it had the best chance of delighting players.

Summary

Between Google Play and the App Store, I can see that I’ve had over 90 downloads of Toy Factory Fixer since I announced it.

I didn’t do a big launch, send the game to reviewers, or anything like that. I only announced it on my mailing list, on my blog, and on social media.

What is most interesting to me is that people are still finding it and downloading it weeks after the announcement.

I don’t know if the game or the posts I made about the game led to it, but Toytles: Leaf Raking sold a couple of copies last month after no sales for many months, which is a great outcome I am attributing to Toy Factory Fixer.

So far, even though periodically people do go to my newsletter’s signup form from my game’s menus, only one person signed up for it, and it was someone I know, so it remains to be seen if strangers will decide to subscribe.

The game took longer to make than I would have liked, but I am glad I put in the effort I did to make it understandable, entertaining, and enjoyable.

I once again validated an Agile approach to product development while also recognizing areas of production in which I could improve in the future.

It’s not exactly a complete success in terms of what I set out to do originally, but this first Freshly Squeezed game is published, getting played, and is acting as an ambassador for GBGames to the public.

Thanks for reading!

Want to learn when I release updates to Toytles: Leaf Raking, Toy Factory Fixer, or about future Freshly Squeezed games I am creating? Sign up for the GBGames Curiosities newsletter, and get the 19-page, full color PDF of the Toy Factory Fixer Player’s Guide for free!

Categories
Games Personal Development

Teacher Streamer: Learn About Games and Their Classroom Potential

Last week was the Games for Change Virtual Festival 2021, and I learned about an attendee named Scott Beiter, a science teacher who also streams games on Twitch.

Specifically, every Wednesday this summer he is playing a different game and talking about its potential use in science classrooms on https://twitch.tv/sciencestreams.

Recently he played the games Red Planet Farming and Surviving Mars, obviously to explore the science behind the planet, and he talked about what his students experienced when playing through the games, how to get the games, and other logistics.

Most recently he has been exploring marine biology through games such as Subnautica: Below Zero.

I admit to not exploring a lot of his videos, and I wonder how many of these games end up amazingly adapted to classroom use as opposed to games that end up completely inappropriate or challenging to use.

Still, it’s pretty neat to see an educator not only using games in the classroom but also live streaming about his research into which games work well there.

Categories
Personal Development

Celebrating My Own Personal Independence Day

On this day in 2010, I quit my day job to work on my indie game development business full-time.

Even though a few short years later I was back on “corporate welfare” after getting a job again, I still mark it on my calendar as my own personal Independence Day.

It wasn’t the first time I had quit a job. I’ve had part-time jobs as a cashier at a pharmacy chain and a grocery store that I’ve quit, but those were either for scheduling conflicts or inconvenience with my schooling. This personal holiday is about celebrating the first time I quit because I decided to put my full-time efforts into my own business.

To this day, it’s also the only time I’ve done so. In 2012, when I was getting my new day job that was at once familiar and foreign, I remember thinking that I’d quit within a few years at most after saving up some money to try again.

So it’s been almost a decade since then, and I am still working at a day job as my primary means of income, my indie game development business is still making almost nothing, and my overall strategy of slowly building up something on the side might be too slow to make work.

Last year I wrote about my worries about not having much to show for it all these years.

It’s a bit melancholy.

In it, I talk about a lot of other responsibilities I had, and with the COVID-19 pandemic last year, I found that a lot of extra-curriculars kind of fell off my plate. I was able to work the day job from home, which meant I didn’t need to commute. I didn’t need to drive a kid to a club or sporting event every day. I rarely left the home, in fact.

It was an opportunity to think about what I prioritized in my life.

Last year I did get back into game development, putting out multiple updates to Toytles: Leaf Raking, and eventually starting what would become the still-in-development Toy Factory Fixer.

And even though it was still slow, it was steady, and it was attention spent more on my business. It’s only a few hours a day at most, and I think nothing has changed much since last year in this regard, but somehow I’m enjoying the process more.

I’m still worried about going too slow, but somehow I’ve let go of an attachment to a need to be faster or arbitrarily productive. I no longer stress myself out or lament what could have been. I just accept how things are, and then I try to make it better.

After some back and forth, I finally decided a couple of days ago to take the day off from my day job. I really should make it a permanent work holiday for myself rather than questioning it each year.

I expect to spend the day mostly on game development, something I usually put off until my day job hours are done.

But I plan to do some journaling and planning, too.

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.