Monday, December 28, 2015

Game Changer

As I sit here on my first day of my "staycation", with a to-do list for a bunch of creative projects I've been dying to work on for months, I couldn't help but feel an overwhelming need to spend some time reflecting and coming up with my goals for the next year. I've been writing these posts for a few years now and always enjoy seeing what I was thinking last year, how I've changed since then and which goals I met, which I did not and why.

Looking back, 2015

The last year for me has probably been one of the busiest years of my life, with a mix of accomplishments and struggles. Here's my list of highlights both good and bad, in no particular order, from the past year.

  • Motorcycle - I decided that this was the year I got my motorcycle license, a sweet ride and the gear to boot. Went to an awesome course with Pro Ride where they taught me to ride in few days, then started hunting for a ride. Ended up finding this beautiful 1982 Yamaha XV920R custom built cafe racer, made by Chappell Customs. She's a feisty, old, over-powered beast but it's a beautiful ride and I'm looking forward to touring around this summer.

  • Buddy's Health - Poor puppy dog developed some pretty serious issues over the last year, after many vet visits, tests and expensive bags of food we eventually found out he had developed an allergy to protein. After months of struggling (and him wearing a cone of shame the whole time), he's finally back in good health thanks to some prescription food with hydrolyzed protein.

  • Maïsha - My talented, beautiful girlfriend, who has brought a lot of joy to my life. Fun fact, when I first met her I wanted to ask her on a date but didn't get a chance to that evening, which I regretted many times. A full year later, our paths crossed again at our friend Kaitlyn's birthday. Let's just say, I didn't miss the opportunity again and it's been a fantastic relationship ever since. She's such a dork... but so am I, which is awesome and I love her for it!

  • Entrepreneurial & Creative Goals - In all honesty, I lost all motivation to pursue these the over the last year. After years of doing my own thing, taking risks and working for myself without finding any financial success, I think I just needed some time to recover and enjoy other things in life. It still bothers me that I accomplished nothing in this area; fuel for the fire.

  • Day to Day Life - Despite having a lot of positive changes in my life, resulting in an overall gain, I've been finding over the past year that I'm not enjoying my day-to-day living as much. Anyone who knows me well will know that I like to work on my own terms and that I'm an appreciator of quiet rural life. Right now, I'm doing the 9 to 5 day job and live in a city. I find myself missing the simple pleasures of being able to look up and see the stars, find a quiet spot in the woods to relax and having physical space to work on projects or grow a garden. While I can find many positives in my current situations, the monotony of existing in a less than ideal situation has slowly been degrading my overall happiness. Just something I've been pondering lately, no solution yet.

  • GranFondo - After moving to Vancouver, I told myself that "one day, I would ride from Vancouver to Whistler". One year of commuting to work later and a decent used road bicycle later, I signed up for the GranFondo and made it happen. Took me seven hours to finish the 122km and 1700m elevation gain, but now I'm left wondering what my next big cycle challenge will be.

  • Dan Moved to Van-couver - My younger brother unfortunately found himself out of work with the crashing oil prices and had returned to Sudbury for some time to figure out his next step. After discussing it with him, he decided to take a chance and come move out to Vancouver. I flew out to Sudbury to enjoy the cross-country drive with him and it's been great having him around. Our claim to fame is crossing the prairies in about 12 hours overnight by taking shifts.

I was scrolling through my photos from the past year and there's lots more I could have mentioned, but I figured this was a good enough summary. If I missed something you thought of, well, put it in your retrospective!

What's in store for 2016?

I honestly came up with these goals while in the shower. There's nothing quite like giving yourself a day of un-structure time, by yourself, where you're free to let your mind wander... then stepping into a hot stream of water which apparently has the magical power of resetting your mind and giving you the ability to see clearly.

  • Savings & Investments - By the end of 2016 I want to have saved up enough money between my savings & investment accounts such that I could live a comfortable, furgal life for two years without a source of income. The reason for this is to give myself that "safety net" for when I start to pursue more risky career moves again. In the past, I've jumped in with no money to my name and while I've managed to survive, I did not find financial success or rewards. Doing so without safety means you're far more likely to be highly stressed and be forced into taking on low quality, poor paying and terrible client work to pay bills. I want to avoid that next time, so I'm building up my funds now.

  • Reduce Work-Time - I'm not entirely sure how I'm going accomplish this one, but I want to reduce the number of days in which I generate direct income (employment, freelance service contracts, consulting, etc...) to no more than 3 days per week. The goal here is to ensure I am meeting my sustainability needs by earning enough income to live my comfortable, frugal life without having to dip into the above mentioned savings, while freeing up 2 days per week for exploring my own creative projects, incubating business ideas, developing games, etc... At least that way I'll get to enjoy the majority of my time in life, and who knows, maybe one of those projects will take off and I'll be able to afford things like a house and retirement, while enjoying life!

  • Travel - I haven't done much travelling, but after doing a week long US road-trip with my good friend John, I've started to really see the value in it. It really gives you a chance to explore not only something new, but yourself and see what you value in life based on what you discover while out traveling. I'd like to do more of it this year, at least one or two "big" trips with a few small weekend get-away's packed in there for good measure.

  • Explore Long-Term Potential - I need to find a way to have a healthy balance between urban and rural life. As much as I joke about wanting to live in a cabin in the woods, it's not a realistic option and unfortunately the housing market around Vancouver is so expensive (20-30% increase in the last year with no sign of stopping) it's literally impossible to ever plan on living here long term with the kind of goals I want in life, even though I genuinely enjoy living here. With that said, I expect the next year to be filled with a lot of exploring options and contemplating longer term decisions.

So there you have it, my goals for the upcoming year! They might not seem as exciting as previous years, but to me they are because each of the new goals speaks directly towards building the foundation of a life I want to be living. Given the majority of my life is spent either working or at home, I figured making those two things as enjoyable as I possibly can is a worthy goal for the next year. Happy New Year!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Asteroid VR

After a few months of poking around and experimenting with VR, using the Leap Motion as a control input, I ended up making a pretty interesting little tech-demo (not shown). It actually started as a game jam as part of Leap Motion's 2015 3D Jam and I was dead set on winning, but unfortunately life got in the way and I only got to scratch the surface with this project. Thankfully I'm stubborn and decided to pick up this project again early February and have been actively experimenting with it in my free time. Check out the early preview here...

Lesson's Learned
  • Building gestures based on hand positions is not as difficult as I had anticipated, but it also required a significant amount of planning before code even began. You have to take in positions, facing directions, trajectories, magnitudes and somehow build interactions out of them that feel comfortable to the user and make sense. It's not trivial, but if planned out, it's also not as difficult as I originally thought.

  • If your first idea doesn't work, go in a different direction. I originally wanted to have the game be set in a broken down city where the user could choose which path to take, sort of like an on-rails shooter. However, the assets caused far too much slow down on my computer making development almost impossible. So I went to something simpler; what was the easiest fun thing I could create. Just shooting moving targets. And thus, Asteroids became the new target, and quite honestly, I think the result is far more fun than the original idea would have been. Be willing to adapt.
  • Hand tracking just isn't there yet. The Leap Motion is fantastic and I can certainly make great use of it, but there's still a lot of room for them to innovate and improve on optical tracking (and perhaps motion / gesture prediction).
  • VR is exciting! It's an entirely new technology that is emerging, it's something I dreamed of as a kid and now I get to participate in it's creation. There are no "rules" to doing VR yet, it's all experiemental and that excites me greatly.
  • The last 20% of polish yields 80% of the perceptual excitement. I had almost the exact same game finished about two or three weeks ago, but it wasn't until I put in nice looking graphics, effects, audio and music did it really start shining. There's literally nothing different in terms of the code or how the game operates, but the polish really helps sell the "fun factor". Even with half of what I had planned missing!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Jet Pack Slaughter Dome!

Update - So I gave up on 1GAM as I realized it doesn't suit my style... I much prefer to work towards larger scope projects, rather than make a bunch of small throwaways. Though, I might try to re-visit is in 2016. Either way, I got 3 games in and it was fun!

After writing my post about "New Years Revitalization" goals, I made a spur of the moment decision; I decided I'd spend 2015 completing the One Game a Month Challenge where participants are tasked with creating and releasing a game every single month. The point of the challenge isn't necessarily to create something you'd end up selling with a full set of features and polish, but rather to go through the motions of creating a game from scratch through to release. It's about practicing finishing something, no matter whether the result is good or bad, so long as it's playable by others in some format, you've accomplished the goal.

Personally, my goal with this isn't necessarily to build everything from scratch every month. For example, I've got a bunch of half-finished projects that I could move forward and release in some playable format, or I could work with others to create something interesting, or even use a pre-made template and adapt it to fit my needs. For me, it's more about releasing something playable, interesting and practicing the thought process behind game development & designing those mechanics.

January's Release! Download "Jet-Pack Slaughter Dome" for PC (Requires 4x XBox 360 controllers)

Created as a team project during Global Game Jam 2015 here in Vancouver, BC (sorry, we forgot to upload it to the website, so it's not officially available). You play as Bill Suitor or one of his clones from rival nations as they battle for the right to be the jet-pack-man in the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympics!

We went into the jam knowing we wanted to make a 4-player, controller, couch-style game you'd play with friends in the same room. We drew inspiration from popular titles like Mario Party and TowerFall while designing the game. Having gone through a few concepts, we eventually settles on this bizarre arena style battle mostly because it was making the whole team laugh. When you're at a jam making a game for 48 hours, it's pretty important to make sure you have fun with the idea.

We had a few challenges while designing the game, a few features didn't get finished and overall it could use another weekend of polish to really feel proper, however overall for a game that took one weekend plus about a day's worth of fixing on my part... it turned out pretty damn good! Check out the video below as well or scroll up to the download link & play it for yourself if you'd like...

Lesson's Learned
  • Screen Shake is super important to a good feel. Check out this video on the subject if you'd like to learn more about "game feel"
  • Keep it Simple = You'll actually finish on time, well... not really, but close?
  • The State Machine I've been tinkering with over the years is absolutely key to having an easy to use game architecture. There's still room for improvement, but it works adequately for now.
  • Managing controllers across multiple platforms (PC & Mac) is difficult, drivers don't exist on Mac for Xbox 360 controllers
  • Post Processing Effects are key to improving the overall visual style. In this game, I used a cheap (hardware-wise) plugin that allowed me to create my own LUT. That, on top of a bloom effect, really helped sell the visual experience.
  • Having dedicated artists really helps me focus on core game-play and overall presentation. At ComboMash I've given myself the title of "Creative Director" and I think for future projects I'll need to focus more in this area.
  • Humor is key to team cohesion. We had a blast just coming up with random shit, laughing at our game jokes and when things got tough we took breaks and told jokes to lighten the mood.
  • Not finishing is okay. If we put another couple of months into the game, we'd probably have something we could go stick on GOG or some other Unity enabled website... but that's fine. We learned and gained experience, and that's a worth goal in itself.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year's Revitalization

For the past few years I've been keeping a tradition of writing a post summarizing my goals for the upcoming year. This could be considered participating in setting "New Year's Resolutions" but I feel that these are often newly created ideas and therefore are much more difficult to stick to. I much prefer the practice of continually reviewing your priorities in life as things happen and instead view this yearly tradition as an opportunity to write down where I currently am. Recording my thoughts gives great insight into previous years; being able to reflect on what I accomplished, what I did not and why.

Creativity & Passion Projects

Anyone who knows me will be aware that I've always got a few projects cooking on the back-burner. Even though I haven't had much success releasing projects, it's fun to tinker and I can't go very long without some form of creative expression. This past year has been filled with many challenges between my career and social life, which unfortunately left me completely burned out and unable to really pursue my passion projects.

That all changed one foggy morning when I opened my inbox to discover that Hextraction was Accepted into Greenlight! This was a project which those of us at ComboMash Entertainment Inc had put our heart & souls into through Kickstarter (one which I quit my job to pursue), but it ended up flopping miserably. We learned a lot from the experience, but the next 7 months were pretty tough for us all and we pretty much abandoned the project. Receiving that email was like finding the golden ticket to the Wonka factory, and immediately gave us the boost we needed to get back into the swing of things. Knowing we'll have access to the most popular online sales portal for PC games when we finish is a pretty big motivation factor, after all!

Riding this wave of motivation & renewed creative energy, I'm going to be focussing my creative efforts for the next year in three areas:

  • Hextraction - Working with the ComboMash team to bring new life to our game as we work towards release. We've already got a much more solid & mature concept in place and have begun experimenting with Unreal 4, so I have high hopes we'll have an awesome project given enough time & effort.

  • Oculus Rift - Having purchased a DK2 and began experimenting with developing for VR I can safely say this technology is going to explode in the coming years. Not with the big clunky headsets of today, but with the sleek well designed minimal glasses we'll see 5 to 10 years from now. Learning how to create engaging experiences for VR has huge potential so I'll be jamming out some small projects to start experimenting. Might even try to do One Game a Month challenge, focussed exclusively on VR experiences, if time allows.

  • IP Development - I've always enjoyed creating unique, off-the-wall, somewhat risqué characters & story-lines. Yeah okay, I'm basically just talking about Pole Force One, a project I've had in my back pocket for years now. What I've learned from it though is that I should focus less on building something for a specific medium (such as a game) and instead get into the habit of creating compelling universes that could be made into animations, games, merchandise, comics, etc...

Exploration, Nature & Freedom

I'm not a city person, can't stand being around concrete and given an ideal world would be out living in a cabin in the woods only emerging to go to work or spend time with friends. Unfortunately that doesn't seem possible here in Vancouver, so instead I'm going to try and focus on finding some compromises that will allow me to get out into nature more often and get that sense of freedom.

  • Motorcyle - After chatting with a friend who rides, and looking enviously at the beautiful landscapes she gets to see while out riding, I decided now was the time to get my license and purchase a motorcycle. I've already picked up some protective leather and have booked lessons in February, so I have no doubt that come summer time I'll be out riding deep into the mountains and enjoying the beautiful landscape the west coast has to offer.

  • Long Distance Cycling - I suppose I enjoy being on two wheels? I'm going to start building up my stamina, learning to do on the road repairs for my road bike and will be doing a few long distance treks on the bicycle. After doing a 200km charity ride last summer, I've got the itch to strap a tent to my backpack and ride off somewhere far away; just me, my bicycle and whatever I discover along the way.

  • Hiking - Okay, so I already do this but I'm hoping that the above two goals will help me do this even more often. Even if it's just cycling up to the Grind every other weekend and demolishing the tourists trying to do it in jeans & flip-flops, I think that would be enough to keep me satisfied for now.

I had a few more items that I wanted to write down about relationships, friends, health & fitness... but I think I'm satisfied with my entry for today. The other areas are just as important but I feel writing about them would be less tangible. They're far more circumstantial and part the continual process of self development that everyone goes through. Happy New Year to anyone who happens to be reading this!