Archive

State of the Machine

This is the last of a month of daily Problem Machine blog posts. It’s been a tiring month. I’m looking forward to never writing another word for the rest of my life, or at least a few days. I guess this is the time to reflect back over what I’ve learned.

  1. Ideas are not rare

I worry sometimes that I’ve already thought of every topic that I’m going to think of, that the barrel is dry and I’m just scraping out splinters. I don’t consider that a reasonable worry but also I don’t consider it an escapable one. What’s been driven home over the last month is that not coming up with any ideas has more to do with where I’m at on that day – that when I can’t think of anything it’s not a permanent affliction, but just one day where my brain is interested in doing different things that aren’t coming up with ideas for something to write.

Unfortunately, when I’ve committed myself to doing daily essays I can’t really allow my mind the extra time it wants to come up with something, so I end up having to push myself to write after several hours of thinking and false starts. This is the most exhausting part: The actual writing is usually (not always) fairly effortless, comparatively.

  1. Ideas do, nevertheless, become scarcer

The first 10 days or so were fairly forthcoming and exhilarating, though it still took a certain amount of pushing to get myself to come up with concepts, and a while to build up momentum. The next 10 days were probably the easiest, where I had my habits built up and still had a creative reservoir, but I started feeling the strain.

The last 10 started really taking a toll. It might also be the weather changing for Winter I suppose, but I’ve been very tired. Nearly every post now takes a few hours of sitting and thinking and reworking before I can turn it into anything, and this isn’t leaving me a ton of time and energy for other work. Fortunately, for today’s post I had the incredibly convenient pre-made topic of this being the last daily post to write about!

  1. Super Hexagon is a good video game

I’ve written in the past about how I like to use Super Hexagon as a creative tool, almost a form of meditation, since it requires such acute spatial concentration it really leaves the verbal/abstract parts of my brain free to think about this and that. Thus for the last month, as I try to write every day, I have been playing approximately one shitload of Super Hexagon – enough to actually get good at the game again and beat most of the best times on my friends list.

It’s a relief, when I’m drilling myself on the abstract ideals of improvement at art and what that means in this world, at the unsolvable dilemmas of game design and how to do better, to spend time in bits and pieces in something that I can definitely and quantifiably improve at. Many games promise this idea of visible improvement, but few single-player games in particular can satisfyingly offer it – frequently offering upgrades to equipment and characters instead of instilling a direct change in the player’s skill. The aspirational goal being measured in mere seconds is pleasing in both its straightforwardness its limitedness: Even an amazing time, for me, would be at most a few minutes, which is something I can definitely fit in my schedule. Even though I described the last month as having contained one shitload of Super Hexagon, in fact I think I’ve spent less than 10 hours actually playing it over the last 30 days – it just feels so dense and active that it felt like many more.

What’s next? I think I’m going to be going back to weekly posts for the immediate future, though I’ll probably be skipping this Saturday for obvious reasons and will probably be a bit spotty through December for other obvious reasons. At one point I was considering going twice-weekly and starting a Patreon to support my writing, but though the readership seems to have increased a bit – around 30 views a day, which is encouraging but not astounding – I don’t think I have much of a readership base sufficient to really offer significant support. Feel free to pipe up in the comments if you feel differently.

That said, I do generally feel more confident in both the quality and consistency of my writing ability now, so I’ll probably be working on collating a bunch of past Problem Machine posts into some sort of structure and begin the process of converting that into a book. At a rough estimate, I think I probably have about 5 years of weekly 500 word blog posts, and between overlap and unsuitability I figure I’ll probably be able to use maybe half of these, so this book will start with around 60,000-70,000 words, which I can then revise and add supplementary material to to round it to probably around 100,000-150,000 – pretty substantial. We’ll see when I get there, but I think it could be something I can be really proud of when it’s done, and encompass a lot of the philosophy I’ve put into this blog.

Part of the reason, as well, that I think I’d like to put a book together is pursuant to one of the ideas I’ve been talking about recently: The idea that to be a good artist is to be a good promoter of your art. It’s not an approach that comes easily to me, but I think as a naturally cautious person I have a much easier time promoting the idea that this thing I have made is good than the idea that this thing I will make will be good – I am generally very chary of making promises about what will happen in the future. Having one discrete thing that I can promote as my work sounds very appealing. If people then take that work as evidence that I can produce work of similar quality in the future, that’s on them – even if I, too, hope and believe that they are correct in that presumption.

I will probably also do another month of daily work in the near future, even if this one made me want to die a little bit. December’s no good, and I will need to stabilize my money situation a bit – this writing-binge was enabled by a small windfall I received a few months ago, which I’ve tried to be careful with but which half of has already eroded. Probably next up will be a daily music project: I’ll post the results here probably in weekly digests. This is all up in the air, but I thought y’all might be interested in hearing where I’m going with this.

So, to close out this month, here’s some of my other stuff you can check out:

As I just mentioned, I write music. Here’s where most of it is:

http://problemmachine.bandcamp.com

I also stream on Twitch! My current schedule is Tuesday, Thursday, Friday at 8pm Pacific time, Sunday at 6pm Pacific time:

http://www.twitch.tv/problemmachine/

I’m also working on a game! I’ve been having to dial back my efforts on this recently due to increased focus on the blog, but I post about my progress on that project here as well.

https://problemmachine.wordpress.com/category/devblog/

Thanks for checking out my work. Every view and every like means a lot to me, since it’s so easy to feel isolated and powerless in the world today. I hope I’ve brightened your day or broadened your perspective a bit, as well, through the work I’ve put in over the last month, and the last five years.

Advertisements

New posts are being rescheduled to 10am Mondays. I’ve been slowly hemorrhaging readers over the last couple of years, and I never had that many to start with. I think there are a few possible explanations for this:

  1. Maybe my work is getting worse. I don’t think is the case but there’s not really any way to rule it out.
  2. Maybe my newer posts don’t have the same readership appeal. Earlier posts were mostly about specific game design issues and new ways to approach problems: Newer posts are much more about how we generally interact with art and its impact on us as human beings. I think these are both interesting, but one is a harder sell to new readers, stymieing the word-of-mouth that has bolstered previous posts
  3. Maybe Saturday at noon is a bad time to post. It made sense to me at first, since those are peak leisure hours so people would have lots of free time for reading. On further reflection, I don’t think many people are interested in thought-provoking mini-essays during peak leisure hours – they want to spend that time pursuing their own interests. I think many more people are interested in this sort of article-reading when they’re on break or procrastinating at work. The numbers on when new posts are successful seem to bear this out.

So yes. Mondays at 10am PST. I’m also going to be blocking more writing time into my schedule, which may result in longer pieces, though we’ll see how that shakes out in practice.

In any case, I don’t say this enough but this seems like a prime opportunity: If you read my work, thank you. Even while I put only a few hours per week of dedicated work time into this blog, it’s one of the rocks I anchor myself to in my life. I only hope that, in return for the attention, I can provide some sort of insight to those of you who choose to visit Problem Machine.

EveHeader

This is happening exactly the way I worried it might.

I’m coming to think I have some sort of attention disorder. I have a very difficult time focusing on almost any tasks for more than an hour at a time, and even that much becomes extremely difficult if it’s a tricky task or one I’m unenthusiastic about. And now, before me, I have weeks and weeks of animation work that need doing.

Don’t get me wrong. I think animation is interesting. However, in trying to sketch all these animations out as prototypes, I’ve robbed myself of much of the fun of animating and left myself a big serving of tedious pie. All the interesting stuff, figuring out the motion, expressing it, giving it weight;  I did all that in the prototype phase. All that’s left is drawing it in pixels, making sure the frames are consistent with each other, making sure each individual strand and strap lines up properly, that things don’t float into place but move naturally, that each distinguishing mark stays consistent; I’ve separated much of the artistry out, done it months ago, and left myself only a very dry kind of craftsmanship.

And my enthusiasm suffers.

And my productivity suffers with it.

And I wonder, what am I doing? Where am I going? Maybe these are good questions to ask, but the dissatisfaction that is pushing me to ask them is indicative of a more immediate problem. At this rate, the game will not be finished. At this rate, I’ll drift away and find something else.

I prefer to make decisions like that rather than have them made for me by circumstance.

Well: What’s the good news? The good news is that I have the running animations done and the turning animations done and the stopping animations mostly done except I need to polish them up a bit to maintain consistency. What’s the bad news? The bad news is that I keep noticing that at the end of the day when I’ve done as many of the tasks I’ve set out for myself as I could manage, right before I go to sleep, this game is almost always the one that is left over. I listen to podcasts while I work and I don’t often manage to get to the end of the podcast before I get tired of the work and decide to stop. If I don’t feel like listening to a podcast, I don’t work.

What happens now? I need to take a step back. The animations are of vital importance, yes, but they’re one part of a project that still has many many parts that need doing. If my productivity suffers when I try to do too much animation work, I need to do less animation work, simple as that. Perhaps one day or two days a week will be satisfactory, allow continuous forwards progress, while the other days I’m working on EverEnding can be dedicated to other parts of the project. Parts such as:

Special effects work: The game still needs some water effects and other level-specific effects that need to be programmed. Each of these could be a confounding programming problem; satisfying if I can solve or study my way through it, but potentially just as much of a dragging point as the animations, so I’m wary of over-committing just yet. Still, I should be keeping these on the table so I can research/ponder them as opportunity permits.

Enemy design: I’ve concepted most enemies in terms of behavior and appearance, but only in the sense of creating descriptions; most of the work of visually designing and programming these creatures remains to be done. This would probably be a good thing to work on concurrently with animations, since the two fields are somewhat dependent on each other.

Bosses: These are a combination of the above two, each boss requiring special level effects and animations and behaviors all wrapped up together. These are still pretty intimidating, but I should at least be planning out how to try handling them in the future.

Levels/Tilesets: I was doing this before animation work and felt like I was achieving a lot more satisfaction and success then. Along with enemies, this would be a really good thing for me to be working on

Attention management is so difficult, and I’m only now realizing how carefully I’ve curated my fields of view to make it easier and how hamstrung I’ve been by the necessity of doing so. I’m going to be pushing at this from a few angles: First, seeing what I can do to treat my attention issues. Second, expanding the section of the project I’m working on to avoid exhausting myself on tedious work like I’ve been doing. Third, trying to get a bit more going on in my life, non-work stuff, so that I don’t feel so down and out when the project isn’t going well. I don’t expect any of these to be easy – in fact, I expect them all to be quite challenging in their own ways – but I think they’re all vital to the continued help of myself and the project.

I’m having a bit of mixed feelings about this shift to monthly updating. Though it is nice not to have to write these each week, and I felt like they became rote and obnoxious to the people reading for more analytical content, they were also a useful mechanism for me to assess where I was at in the project and how I felt about it, a functionality I failed to appreciate until now that it’s missing. I don’t really want to go back to weekly updates, but it may be worth considering another process for capturing the internal insights that found their way into the devblogs previously.

Since tomorrow’s the day I put together the schedule for the week, it will be an excellent opportunity to assess what I should be working on when. Here’s hoping next month’s update is more substantial and encouraging.

 

So I just got back from a vacation, and due to the timing of that vacation I’m taking two weeks off from the blog despite it being a week-long vacation. It feels fine. I’m glad to have the opportunity to step back and think a bit more about what I’m doing.

What am I doing?

The blog will continue chugging away at its leisurely one-short-piece-a-week schedule for the foreseeable future. However, I’m starting to feel that I really need to develop this pursuit – essentially, because of pressures both financial and creative, I’m getting less and less comfortable just doing the same thing week after week. I’d like to, perhaps, start creating video pieces along the same lines as what I’m writing here, but I haven’t quite yet figured out how that all will fit together. Or, maybe, I could expand what I’ve already written, augment it with more examples and connective material, and try to turn it into a book. Or maybe it would be better to choose one piece, really flesh it out, and try to turn it into an hour long talk that I could give at any conference that would host me. Maybe, maybe, maybe: I haven’t quite figured out what to do, yet, but the upshot is that I want to take the work I’ve done here, that I continue to do, and expand it, make it bigger and realer and louder – and, perhaps, if I’m lucky, more profitable.

The ‘Lets Plays’ I’ve been doing on my youtube channel will probably stop, at least for now. There’s not much of an audience for the game I’ve been playing and it’s been really difficult to maintain productivity on EverEnding and other stuff while recording an hour a day (and spending another hour watching what I recorded). However, I’ll be building a new PC soon, and that should allow me to stream play/stream some other stuff I’ve been wanting to – without naming names, let’s just say it rhymes with “bark poles spree”. While I work on that, I may stream some other stuff: I’ll post about it on twitter before I do, though, so if you’re interested just follow me there.

I’m also planning on developing a side-game concurrent with EverEnding. Even though attempts to do similar things in the past have been low-key disasters, I’m fairly confident in being able to do this if I approach it properly. My first step will be, over the next few days, coming up with a plan to tackle this project – in essence a design document delineating the full scope of the project, but with most of the focus on how everything will fit together technically. From there I make a prototype, and from the prototype I develop the game. I’ll talk more about the specifics of that project once I get further in on it – in the meanwhile I’ll continue chugging away at EverEnding animation and tileset work.

So, sorry about taking a couple of weeks off with no real warning. I held out hope for writing an update while I was on the train, which of course turned out to be completely infeasible because I was mostly just really sleepy on the train. I’ll try to be more realistic in my expectations of myself in the future.

If you’d like to read some interesting things in this time when I am temporarily waylaid from writing interesting things, you might consider checking out my friend’s blog at http://strangenewwords.wordpress.com/ . There’s not as much of a theme going, but he’s far more scrupulous about frequent updates than I am, so check it out if you’re interested in spy thriller re-interpretations of erotic visual novels, critical analyses of tv adaptations of Agatha Christie mysteries, or meditations on who and what The Devil really is. Also: Cat pictures when his time or energy prove insufficient to produce a piece of cogent writing.

I got the piece I wanted to post today up to around 1300 words, with 2/3rds of the outline left to fill, and realized I wouldn’t be able to finish it in time.That’s okay, though, because I just finished a piece of music; so now I can take the good ol’ musical coward’s way out once more.

While I’d wanted to do vocal tracks this year, I’m finding that more challenging than anticipated. I wrote the lyrics, I wrote the melody, and then when it came time to actually record some singing I hit a wall. I have a very hard time speaking into microphones, to the point where it’s kind of a phobia, and while I was hoping that this would be something I could just kind of power through in the moment it’s clear that I’ll have to go for a more circumspect approach. Towards that end, and for other reasons, I’m going to try to get into game streaming, particularly my playthrough of Dark Souls 3. I’ll be doing test streams this week: I’ve already tested my video and it’s working decently as long my internet connection holds (it gets a bit finicky), but I’ll need to get my audio set up, something I’ve been kind of dragging my heels on (for some reason). Once I get things set up in a way I’m comfortable with, I’ll start announcing streams on twitter. In the meanwhile I suppose I’ll be doing more instrumental tracks.

I’ve also been working on getting a new site set up. This is kind of a tricky decision, though, since as much as I’d like to get a more proper and permanent set up through which to promote the game and my work, I already have a fair number of followers on here, and am concerned that they won’t make the jump to a new site. Alternately, I could double down on this version of the site, put together some proper front pages, tidy everything up and make it look nicer and more professional, and then pay to have wordpress remove their part of the domain name and remove all the ads. That might be a better solution, but probably wouldn’t result in as nice a site and might cost me some fine control. I haven’t decided, but probably by end of month I’ll get a proper domain set up, on one service or another.

Anyway, sorry there’s no piece this week, but next week’s will probably be a doozy. By my standards anyway, since I tend to usually keep things pretty short.

 

ct_00000

I’ve been thinking. Not on purpose, it just happens. I’ve been thinking about where I’m going, with my work, with this blog, as a person, as an artist, as a symbol representing an artist or person in the mind of someone else. I’ve been thinking about self-promotion, and how it doesn’t come naturally to me but also I’ve been avoiding doing it because before I promote myself I have to understand what part of myself I want to promote and find worth promoting, about how maybe a lot of my “just do your own thing” beliefs stem from a fear of looking too closely at who I am and what I actually have to offer– or, perhaps, want to offer.

I have a tendency to follow the path of least resistance. Most people do, I think, it’s just that people encounter many kinds of resistance so even when water always flows downhill the direction of the hill changes for everyone. I’ve been confused in a bunch of slight ways about what this site is and what it’s about. First and foremost, I consider myself a game designer. Actually, I consider myself a wannabe game designer, and perhaps I always will no matter how much game designing I actually do, but as best as I can observe I have a relatively strong understanding of what works and doesn’t work in game design and why. Discussing these aspects of game creation, especially in the context of a specific game or set of games, is very similar to what critics and reviewers do, but I don’t consider myself a critic or reviewer. While I deeply admire the work that a lot of critics put into dissecting and understanding the medium, I think what they pursue with their writing and what I pursue with mine is slightly different: Understanding vs improvement, the generalities of mechanics and specifics of narrative vs the specifics of mechanics and generalities of narrative. I don’t mean to speak too broadly here, and depending on how each subject is approached they can become very similar explorations, but thinking about design of an experience is, in general, a bit different than critiquing that experience as a whole.

Though, it ought be noted, not as different as many people believe either. The design of the game encompasses the whole experience. Narrative vs design is a made-up conflict. But let’s table that for now.

Here’s what I’m getting at: I want to refocus my work here. I want to go back to having regular writing deadlines, even though that can be very difficult, and I want to stick primarily to thoughts on design and the experience associated with it, both as creator and as audience. I will probably still dip occasionally into other realms of systemic thinking or whatever else catches my fancy, but I will regard these as auxiliary to my writing’s intent. Assigning myself games to write about will probably continue, but I’ll just write about them when I’m done with them and write other pieces in between, rather than waiting weeks to complete them and posting when I’m finished. New posts should go up at noon on Saturday, new devblogs will go up noon Sunday. There. Simple.

Another thing I want to do is give this its own dedicated site. WordPress.com has been good to me, and made it incredibly easy to get started doing something which I felt a lot of initial resistance towards and has been a tremendous positive in my life, but I can’t keep doing things the easy way and the very url I pass around makes it look like I don’t take this seriously – and that’s made me feel like I’m not taking it seriously, and thereby end up, in fact, taking it less seriously. Over the next few weeks I’ll see about getting Problem Machine hosted somewhere, and then consider what to expand the site with. If nothing else, this will give me someplace to put a full webpage for EverEnding when it’s ready for it.

I’ve also been wanting to create some sort of video content for a while. I’ve been very hesitant because I’m, frankly, uncomfortable with the sound of my own voice, and the thought of speaking into a microphone fills me with subtle but potent dread. This is something I’m just going to have to fucking get over, because if there’s one thing I can’t afford to be as a developer in a personality-driven subsection of the game industry it’s shy. I’m not quite ready to set a deadline on this (need to get the new site up and everything first), but I’ve said it here so at least now it’s out there as a thing I said I wanted to do.

Finally, expanding out from the previous point, I’d like to speak at some events. I don’t really know how to get started on this, though I’m sure there are resources out there to find out, but before I start applying to speak anywhere I need to figure out what to talk about. I’ll be looking through my old posts to try to find some of the more interesting ones and see if I can turn one or more of those into a 30-60 minute long lecture.

It’s strange the way that just saying words about what you intend to do shapes your future. Just by saying what I want, I chart a course. I may get lost along the way, but at least, no matter what comes next, I made that decision. I spoke a future.

I’ve barely touched Brothers, but I have a big ol’ followup to my Transistor piece in the works now. I will finish it SOMETIME. I think this might be a bit more in line with traditional criticism than my previous approach of “these are some feelings this game made me feel”, but I don’t actually know. I’m not paid to be a critic. I’m not paid.