A Retrospective on 2019

2019 has been a good year for me, personally, and for my family. I’m blessed to have a new job, a new home, and plenty of learning experiences under my belt. If there’s any constant I can identify that sums up my overall take, it is this:

If you fight hard, you’ll put yourself in position to take advantage of good fortune, and find it easier to overcome struggles.

I want to trace back through the events of the year and offer my thoughts and commentary on them. My hope is that you, dear reader, may find some nuggets of truthful wisdom from these words of mine to help you in your own journeys, whatever they may be.

2019: Continuing the Game Development Journey

The start of last year found me working as a full-stack PHP/JavaScript developer for a small company in Rochester, Minnesota. Coming off my first-ever game jam, Ludum Dare 43, I started planning for the next game jam I intended to participate in, Ludum Dare 44. Part of that preparation would include learning Godot, an open-source game engine. I had built my own game engine, in JavaScript, as part of my game-dev self-education in 2018, in order to get an understanding of how game engines work, and having acquired that knowledge, I now wanted to focus my time more on games-making over engine-craft. I chose Godot due to its being open-source, as well as having first-class Linux support (so I could develop games on my Ubuntu laptop).

I also started vlogging my game development progress on Instagram, under the handle AspiringGameDev. It’s linked in my social media sidebar, if you should want to check it out.

By the time April arrived, and with it the start of the next Ludum Dare, I felt I had learned enough knowledge to be at least adequate in making a Godot game. With my wife handling the artwork, we dove headlong into Ludum Dare 44. Frankly, I was less pleased with the end result, “Impact!”, than I had been with the Ludum Dare 43 entry, “Sanity Wars”. The tight three-day deadline for Ludum Dare resulted in us being forced to cut out a lot of content we had planned to put in, and the resulting gameplay felt lackluster and boring. Impact! was judged accordingly, finishing with a worse score than Sanity Wars.

No matter, though. It was a learning experience all the same, and at this stage of my game development career all experience is good experience.

For the next few months, I started to work on small game experiments, practicing my craft. The first of these was an attempt to implement a mechanic I’ve always wanted to work with: free-form wall climbing, akin to that of a gecko. I spent about a month’s worth of time (minus work and family time) trying to make this work the way I’d envisioned. Alas, though I was able to get the wall-climbing aspect of the mechanic working, I found myself struggling to implement a smooth, intuitive way for the test character to climb from wall to ceiling. In the end, I chose to put the project aside, for now, in favor of working on a new experiment.

The next project I tackled was creating a top-down orientation game. Up to this point, most of what I’ve developed game-wise used a side-scrolling perspective, as this was what I was most familiar with. I wanted the experience of making a top-down game, as this would allow me to eventually make RPG-like games with exploration, narrative, and questing. I had just finished implementing some map mechanics, and was getting ready to work on dialogue systems, when something happened that would instigate a major force of change in my life.

On July 1st, 2019, I was laid off from my job.

2019: The Quest for Gainful Employment

Obviously, the layoff caught me by surprise, and my focus immediately shifted from game development to finding new employment. As part of that process, I needed a portfolio project to work on that could adequately showcase my programming proficiency. The JavaScript framework React has enjoyed considerable popularity the past few years, and though I did have a few small sample projects from my learning of how React worked, I believed I needed to create a more complex project with React if I wanted companies to take my React skills seriously (I had worked with vanilla JavaScript and Vue in previous jobs, so I had no professional React experience).

At the same time as I was considering this path, I heard of a site called Koji, a platform for users to create JavaScript game templates for other people to customize and publish, and they were looking to hire programmers to create templates for others to build upon. The idea came to me: what if I made a Koji game template in React? It’d be killing two birds with one stone: I’d get experience making a complex React project, and I’d be making a game I could potentially showcase to Koji. I had the perfect game in mind to make, too: Hangman. In the back of my mind, I’d always wanted to attempt making a Hangman game someday, but had not yet had the chance to act upon it.

It was settled: my portfolio project would be React Hangman. In between job applications and company interviews, I’d work on this portfolio project. Frankly, it was harder than I expected. Not the game mechanics themselves; I implemented the basic Hangman mechanics over the course of a weekend. The difficulty lay in adding all the other features necessary to make this feel like a smooth, polished game: save state, user menus, animation, artwork for the gallows, responsiveness at multiple screen sizes, bug-squashing…

Near the end of July, I got the prototype for the game solidified enough that I felt comfortable showing it to potential employers and contracting partners at in-person interviews. As it happened, I had several on-site interviews the last week of July, and where those interviews involved React I showcased React Hangman as example of what I could do. One of these interviews was with Best Buy, up in the Twin Cities (for those outside of Minnesota, that is the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area). They liked what they saw, I presume, for at the end of the week they made a contract offer to me (through the contracting agency filling the position), which I gladly accepted.

2019: The Move and the Collateral

I was no longer jobless, but now a new challenge arose: I needed to move from Rochester to the Twin Cities as soon as possible. Cue another month and a half of searching for places to live in the Twin Cities (we settled on a townhome rental in Apple Valley) combined with packing and moving, all around three weeks of having to commute three hours (minus traffic) to Best Buy’s corporate headquarters. During that time, I was also preparing a talk with a friend of mine around a UI tool called Framer X, which we gave at a Rochester coworking space called Collider.

Finally, around the end of September, things started settling down and I could start figuring out what personal projects to tackle next. The next game jam I was planning to take part in, Github’s Gameoff Jam, was due to start on November 1st, and I had wanted some time to experiment more with Godot before it began. Instead, however, I chose to finish the React Hangman project, since I felt it was close to being done. Plus, I wanted the experience of actually finishing and releasing a project.

So I spent the next few weeks running through my list of bugs to fix and features to implement. Yes, the next few weeks. Remember when I said I felt close to being done? That small amount of polish and bug-fixing took weeks of off-work time to finish. It taught me a valuable lesson: polish is not cheap. It’s not something you can just throw on a game and call it good. You have to account for significant development time making a game look and feel good.

The effort paid off. I had multiple comments from people to the effect that this was the best hangman game they’d ever played. One person commented on how smooth the game felt. My two previous Ludum Dare games lacked this level of polish and “juice” (a game-dev term for stuff that makes games feel good), and it was evident, even for a simple game of hangman, how much a difference polish really makes.

Fun fact: the music I used for React Hangman was originally an old song of mine that I threw in as a placeholder; I’d intended to compose my own music for the final release. People liked the temp music so much, though, that I chose to keep it as the release song.

This entire time, I had neglected to really unpack all the stuff in my home office and organize it the way I wanted to, so after releasing React Hangman I dedicated another week solely to this purpose. I’m pleased with how the end result turned out.

Now, only days remained until the start of Github Gameoff jam. I wished there was more time to spend on game experiments, but the time had been spent how it needed to be. Plus, I felt the experience of finishing React Hangman would help me in developing whatever effort would come from the Gameoff jam.

2019: Github Gameoff Jam (Or, How I Spent My November)

November 1st rolled up, and the theme for the jam was revealed: “Leaps and Bounds”. From now, Rebecca and I had an entire month to develop a game. I thought that would be more than enough time to get the job done.

Narrator: It was not.

My thoughts turned to puzzling over the theme. With a name such as “leaps and bounds”, I thought platformer would be an obvious choice of genre. I had spent a lot of time making platformers, however, and I felt the need to come up with at least some kind of twist to keep things interesting. In the end, we settled on the idea of a side-scrolling real-time strategy game, tentatively titled “Rabbit Trails”, in which the player’s goal was to place various gizmos to help colonies (“groups”) of rabbits make it from one location to another. I also decided that I wanted to add some kind of story to the game, having wanted to do so in previous game jams and run out of time to implement. The overall flavor was that the player was working for a company that catches rabbits and sells them for research, and interacts with a couple of company employees during the course of a game mission.

With the plan in mind, I started work on implementing the game’s core mechanics. I had never attempted anything close to a real-time strategy game before, so there were numerous foundational systems I needed to build: unit selection (and deselection), unit building, unit placement with validation, mouse camera movement, dialogue system… Looking back, that was a ridiculous number of features that I needed to create, and mostly from scratch at that (I used Godot Open Dialogue as the base for my dialogue system).

Unsurprisingly, these things took me a long time to develop, and before I knew it we were at the last week of the competition, and while many of the core systems were almost in place, there were still plenty of game-breaking bugs that needed to be resolved. No game content had yet been written, no sound effects had been created (and, on top of that, I’d have to implement spatial sound so players couldn’t hear the sounds of units halfway across the map where the camera wasn’t even looking), no game music composed…the scope of remaining work was daunting. Our son went to stay with the grandparents for the whole week, but I still had to work around my day job (contracting with a retail company means working Thanksgiving week, after all).

There was nothing for it but to tackle the challenge head-on. Rebecca cranked out needed artwork, while I steadily plowed through my list of bugs and features needed to make an MVP (minimum viable product, the bare minimum necessary to play the game). The days passed by slowly and quickly at the same time, and as time ran slowly out I cut more and more things out of the list for that MVP, including sound effects and music. It wasn’t until the night of the second to last day that I finally had a working prototype with full gameplay implemented. I spent the remainder of my time creating a tutorial stage, along with as many additional stages as I could manage. That turned out to be just one.

When time came to submit our project, I uploaded builds for my game (Windows, Linux, and web) on itch.io. When I went to submit the project to the jam, however, I found that the form for submission was gone. I was minutes too late.

We’d missed the deadline. What’s more, when I tried to open one of my builds to test (I’d been in such a rush I uploaded the builds without testing them first) and discovered that every single one of them crashed on load. This didn’t happen in any of my development builds, only on the releases. Oddly enough, I didn’t feel crushed, as one might expect after seeing a month’s worth of effort end up for naught. Truth be told, I was emotionally and mentally exhausted; practically every moment of free time I’d had the entire month had been spent solely on developing Rabbit Trails, and I felt relieved that the pressure was finally gone.

2019: Rest, Relaxation, and Reflection

Ultimately I chose to spend the entire month of December resting and recuperating. From the start of July onward, I really had not had a moment to really recover from the strain I placed myself under, what with the job hunting, the move, and then multiple subsequent projects I needed to finish, culminating with the game jam. I’d spent those months denying myself relaxation in dedication to getting work done; I resolved to spend December doing the opposite, favoring rest over rigor.

A month later, I think I made the right choice. I spent time (a lot of it) playing Remedy’s Control, a brilliant game. I watched some movies, something I hadn’t had time for in months. I started reading again. Not just fiction, but also books on game development theory, to percolate my mentality and kick around theories and ideas. I came to a realization that I’ve spent so much time on learning the programming aspects of game development that I’ve neglected the art of actually, you know, creating games. It’s a malady I intend to remedy.

2020: The Future

So ends my tale of yesteryear. What are my plans? I intend to keep vlogging, but I want to figure out how to present game development material that isn’t solely related to programming or the progress of personal projects. It’s not just for the sake of content; I myself need to focus outside of the programming side of things and embrace all the aspects of making games.

Speaking of making games…after my experience with the last jam, I had an epiphany of sorts. I was treating game jams as kickstarters to get me to make and finish some kind of project. What was really happening, though, was that the enforced time limits resulted in me not really getting to practice the aspects of game development I really needed to learn — crafting good gameplay, implementing juice, storytelling, etc. — and, without exception, each game jam project resulted in spending most of my time implementing features and not actually building much atop those features. Therefore, I have resolved to not participate in more game jams, at least for the near future.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m still going to work on games. Instead of enforcing arbitrary time limits and grinding myself to the bone to release what I can, I plan to focus on making playable prototypes, soliciting feedback, and ultimately settling on one to fully develop to completion for release. That’s been my goal since the start of my game development career, to make and release a game. After two years of focusing on learning, it’s time to start doing. We’ll see how this approach pays off.

I still have my day job as a web developer, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I still have my family, and I’ll still do my best to manage the balancing act of developing side projects and being a good husband and father.

And, somehow, someway, I want to find a way to introduce more time consuming content, instead of creating it. If I don’t rejuvenate myself, how can I energize the people I want to experience my work? Of course, this is easier said than done; my ambition far exceeds the physical limits of calendar days, and developing a game is going to take plenty of time. I don’t yet know how I can squeeze more time without sacrificing sleep (an act I find myself less capable of doing as the years pass by). But I want to find a way to make it work.

2019 was a good year, and I’m grateful for all that God has blessed me with, in opportunity and well-being. Here’s to an even better 2020. I’ll keep fighting hard, so that I can be ready to take advantage of any opportunity which comes my way.

I also want to blog more, especially some of the Godot stuff I’ve learned from the efforts of the Github Gameoff Jam. The project may not have been finished, but it was by no means a wasted experience!