People have encouraged me to keep my passions strong about my own work. But, there were some dark moments of 2014 that I took my own passions for granted. For example, during crunch times of consistent 80-hour-plus work weeks, I have forgotten the extent of how to manage my own energy output. I tunnel-visioned on actualized results and deadlines, and neglected the joys of learning. I mistook workaholism for passion and momentarily misplaced my personal identity.
 Eyes_final_sm
Because of this, I’m charting my career growth in 2014 in terms of what I’ve learnt, not what milestones I have met. I believe it is a positive and healthy mind-shift for one’s own professional goals. And learning is incredibly valuable to someone who is fairly new to freelance and developing their own projects. Self-employment has a kind of freedom that requires self-reflection and self-discipline. Freelancers ought to develop their own brand through how they work and what they want to learn. This, I found, is the best way to know how to say yes and when to say no.
At the same time, do I really have a “final product” to show for my learning this year? Not really. But, for my self-initiated projects aimed at commercial release, I’ve finally lived through what it truly means to pivot and transform a project. I needed to do this because otherwise I may be staring at a 3-year wall of work, but now I have a project that has a scope that better reflects its core strengths. And I will likely continue to pivot again and again. The growing pains are harsh, and they always will be, but I think that making myself more adaptable and malleable is for the better.
Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology demonstrates how employees’ mandate of meeting milestones and deliverables is a well-intentioned structure, but it isn’t actually efficient if the final product does not have meaning or contribute value.
Now, there’s several ways that we can understand value, such as value in the marketplace by real users, as well as value by the people who have worked on the product. We can measure value for professionals based on our empowerment, through learning and gaining confidence in our contributions. And I believe that this goes all the way down to the individual level. That, even and especially when there are failures, we ought to still measure our professional achievements by learning first, at the very least for ourselves. Because that’s how we create positive change from failures, and it’s how we pivot.
This is my 2014 learning chart:

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One thing that should be clear from such a chart, at least to remind myself, is that a lot of my efforts did translate into learning opportunities. And I don’t think anyone should forsake that. Instead, we should remind ourselves of our recent accomplishments which are meaningful and that we can feel proud of, even if they don’t contribute to a final product. I had forgotten, for example, how much time and energy I’ve focused into creative writing this year. This is compared to treating it as a hobby in the past, and it feels great to treat it respectfully as its own process. I think that I still have far to go, but practising it and utilizing a multidisciplinary approach can only make better practice. And I finally created a Babel: Episode 1 storyline that I am happy with. Even in October, as I stared at an abyss of really needing to pivot away from 3D, or face a high-risk project of years of development and multiple team-mates’ contributions on the line, the story was what kept it grounded.
But there is also a lot of room for improvement. For example, there was such little time spent on coding. I barely even remember anything of UE3’s Unrealscript because it was sandwiched between a lot of crunch and having too many obligations simultaneously. UE4’s Blueprint didn’t even register on my chart because I felt like I gave myself so little time to learn how to make dialogue and trigger objects work. However, as I move forward, I need to provide more time and patience into learning coding. The only time that I feel like coding started to click for me is when I recoded my TOjam game, Scar Tissue, into Unity for more flexibility. The first pass was also done in a crunch of four days, but it felt really neat to turn nothing into a set of workable and simple game mechanics.
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By assigning key dates to the work that I’ve done, I really became aware of how little breaks I have given myself. I was working non-stop from August 2013 to June 2014, worked straight through 2013’s Christmas holidays, and didn’t give myself a complete weekend off until early September 2014. It’s not healthy, and in hindsight I believe my pivots for both Scar Tissue and Babel would have been less painful processes had I just given myself real breaks. Half-weekend work days are still not entirely a breather. There were some instances where I should take a continuous two-and-a-half days off in “don’t-even-think-about-it”-mode, to look at it again with fresh eyes.
In terms of art, 2014 was the year that I had dealt with the most diverse aesthetic explorations, both of my own choosing as well as that of clients’ or teammates’. The biggest learning curve was for the Remington client project that I managed game engine-side graphics for, but a really valuable takeaway from that is that anything with aesthetic unity requires R&D / storyboarding / mockups. Lots of it. I will improve on my artistic practices in 2015, for I will develop a stricter process of experimentation to key the right aesthetic vision to Babel and other projects. 2014 as a whole was a good mix of both organic and inorganic artworks, and in mid-December I finally crunched out my first human 3D model since game arts graduation in 2012. All of the above learning feels rewarding and memorable.

It’s been a hard year for a lot of people in the entertainment and video games industry. I’ve seen how hard people have worked to get to where they are. I’ve seen how prototypes and final products feel like two divergent paths, because the former feels like a roadtrip and the latter feels like grind. I know now how difficult it is to hit that sweet spot of game design that feels meaningful and heartfelt to players and unifies the game as one cohesive journey. A lot of us are perfectionists. Some of us go through this self-destructive passage in forgetting the rest of the world, or even our own, and burn out.
It happens. The greatest privilege is to know that you can dust yourself off because you’re learning, training yourself anew from the shells of your old projects. And I must recognize my own privilege that I’m in a game development community that is very supportive of emergent voices and experimentation. There are friends who encourage me to follow my dreams. Experienced designers and engineers who send the elevator back down, to encourage the growth of opportunities for the next generation. I don’t want to squander anything that I’ve learned over the years, whether in school or starting out like this in freelance. I have finite energy, but, by focusing on learning, and aiming to share what I can, it all feeds back into a cycle of renewal. We ask questions and we learn more as we teach what we know. I want to encourage that aim for a great journey, of wondrous lessons and its stories, and not just that perfect result.
(All images in this post are illustrated by yours truly; Header image is an “unfinished” concept piece for Babel.)
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