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My 2014 freelance year in review: Remembering to Learn

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.
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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.)
Scar Tissue Narrative Interactive Story Video game presentation at Dames Making Games, Tanya Kan and Mikki Benaglia
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Scar Tissue from TOJam 9

While buried with other work obligations, I was really pleased to have the chance to work with some really talented people at this year’s TOJam 9, the largest game jam in Toronto. For the uninitiated, it means that participants in teams of their choosing have 48 hours the weekend of April 25 to 27 to create a game from start to finish. For TOJam, there was a great creative atmosphere of students, aficionados, and professional game developers all collaborating together. The point is to try something new, or work with a new team, to put together a playable prototype. If it doesn’t work, it’s okay! It’d still be a productive weekend of experimentation.

Platform art by Mikki Benaglia

We created a team with Eric Roberts as Programmer, Oskar Pruski as Composer/Sound Designer/Artist, Mikki Benaglia as Artist, and me, Tanya Kan as Designer/Writer/Artist. Because Eric Roberts has a lot of experience with 2D games, I was inspired to try my hand at designing a 2D game as well. He told me to stick with my strengths, which is writing and art direction, while I am simultaneously trying something new. I feel like this is a great advice for many jammers, especially for those, like myself, who have not played the designer/producer role under a jam’s time constraints. As such, I designed an interactive novel-platformer game hybrid, under Eric’s advice. The whole idea is that whatever one player goes through narratively will not be the same experience as another player’s, even if the number of platforms is static.

The story is about a superstar so stressed out by the pressures of her industry (and plastic surgery) that she skips in and out of time, and creates disarray of her “private” life as a result. The narrative itself has been living with me for some time. It first inception was in my little Twine experiment, Sound is a Spectrum, which is playable (but narratively incomplete) on this site.

Scar Tissue Interactive Game spreadsheet preview of dialogue

As also recommended by TOJam organizers, we came prepared with a list of programming priorities. I also created a spreadsheet of all of the game writing/dialogue and corresponding art assets. I created a Grooveshark playlist of the atmosphere that I was trying to set. On Google Drive, I defined the look of the game with reference images with consultation with Mikki, and then we all tried out these experiments at the jam itself! Eric went with an engine structured around 2D called Godot, currently in beta, as he wanted to test drive it at the jam.

Jam version of the game is available for download on itch.io, but is unfinished:
Scar Tissue as created at TOJam in Godot, programmed by Eric Roberts, designed by Tanya Kan

After the jam, I realized that I quite like the idea behind the game as a free release. As such, Mikki and I have continued to adapt the game. We changed the game engine from Godot to Unity, even though the languages are not compatible, because I am trying my hand at programming for the first time. I went with Unity because I really like the documentation and community that Unity has to address most of my questions, and I know that the Engine is flexible around the development needs of my future games. It was definitely an interesting learning curve to say the least, but not as much of an uphill climb as I feared! The other part is also that I can ask silly, simple questions of my Toronto friends about programming.

 

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Now, for this new version, we have a lot more art assets to augment the story. Each platform is meant to have a different visual design to hint at the story inside each of its collectable dialogue boxes. Mikki designed and illustrated about 2/3rds of the platforms and they inspire me to have better design for those that I am in charge of! We tightened the art style so that it is more unified in the fashion illustration meets Dadaist hybrid. I am also playing around with the inclusion of some harder-to-reach platforms so that we get more narrative variety, and have some great friends to help out with the programming side!

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Mikki and I were very kindly invited to present our game at Dames Making Games Speaker Social, where we shared some of our design considerations! It was a fantastic experience, where we received positive and constructive feedback. Thank you DMG and Bento Miso! Here’s the unabridged Powerpoint slides if anyone’s curious.

Update 2015: Scar Tissue is currently on hiatus.

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Knee of the curve

In hindsight, I had a lot of fun new experiences in the last month and a half. This was despite my developing minor but chronic medical complexities since January of this year that lend itself to a whole host of stresses. Two months and a few days ago, I joined EVE Online after very inconsistent or indirect gaming experiences for years and years, such as logging into MUDs for socializing with old friends (that’s text-based multi-user dungeon for you folks playing Crysis on Ultra mode) and watching my boyfriend play his PS3 titles.

In fact, I knew what I was getting into when I was joining EVE Online. I had meant to play the game because I was thrilled by its portended difficulty. Also, less than two months after establishing my account, I would’ve completed a 45 page essay on EVE Online’s game interface and interactivity towards my degree in Cinema Studies. This was a few weeks ago. Now, looking back, the ache of the stress over academic pressures and the debilitating lack of self-confidence had faded almost into nothingness. Not just for this one paper, or this one class, but now I look back over the course of the last year and I think to myself: Wow, I did that. With the guidance and the kindness of many people, I have played hard and I have worked hard.

I had read a lot of articles about EVE before ever starting out on a trial account. Thus, on the thirteenth day, I was gutsy enough to be the last writer to meet the deadline for the 17th Blog Banter presented by CrazyKinux, where each of the eighty participants addressed the topic of how women have engaged with EVE Online, and how EVE Online ought to engage them in turn. With my modest knowledge amounting to an entry of nearly 3,000 words, and where other players may have far more in-game experience and astute writing background than I, CrazyKinux must’ve had his work cut out for him! Somehow, I have managed to find myself in his top ten winner’s list. My heart skipped a beat and butterflies (or frigates!) tickled my stomach when I read his announcement of the winning entries:

  1. The Ghost Report: Eve Blog Banter: The Girls Who Fly Spaceships
  2. “Prove It”: Women In EvE
  3. Blog Banter #17 – Women in Eve
  4. The Ladies of New Eden (An Analysis on How Men are not from Mars, & Women are not from Venus)
  5. Cloaked and Watching You: The Ladies of New Eden
  6. Space Broker: Gal-Ristas!
  7. Tech 2 stilettos
  8. It’s a woman’s world (they just don’t know it yet!)
  9. Ladies of New Eden
  10. Lady Vengeance, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pew-Pew

And a list of recommended reads:

CrazyKinux pronounced that it was near impossible for him to designate who is actually ranked #1, and whom #10, because of the complexity and expansive style and content of all entries. Regardless of where I am placed, I am honoured to be mentioned at all in the 10th spot, on the same list as the talented individuals above me. There is much that I would like to learn from the diversity of style, humor and experience that these and other entries exemplify. The lovely thing is that creative activities such as this generate continual discussion, from forums to TeamSpeak to commenting on other blogs, and are furthermore written by individuals of differentiated interests and backgrounds. After all, I take the attitude that games do matter, even when actions taken within it appear to only affect a self-sustaining alternate universe, with a certain set of rules and premises for conventional behavior. Indeed, they help us build connections between peoples and ideas, both in mundane and exceptional actions in our lives.