Becoming a Game Developer in LA

Chapter 1: The Value of a Dollar

On a Saturday afternoon in a Mandeville canyon residential courtyard, I was conversing with one of my mentors about why game companies fail so often. After some careful thought, Nolan Bushnell set down his dry martini and made an aphoristic declaration: “A successful business should be focused on generating outcomes, not just ideas or intentions.” What he meant was that when you decide to build a product or start a company, you have to envision how to generate a real outcome as fast as possible. A real outcome is a finished product that puts money in the bank. If you are not dead set on getting money in the bank as soon as possible, you should not start a company. If you meet someone who is not dead set on getting money in the bank as soon as possible, do not go into business with them. You should always err on the side of pragmatism, especially when you are young.

If you want to make an original game, you need investment capital. Video games are an industrial art form and they ordinarily require lots of teamwork combined with lots of money to yield a successful result. In order to receive investment capital, you need to have already made money off of a game and proven that you know what you are doing. If you have not already made money off of a game, you will not receive investment capital – unless you have great connections.

The reality is that people do not understand how hard it is so make just one dollar doing what you love. It is a major achievement which takes time, experience, dedication, and repeated failure. Even the most creative or artistic person must confront the reality of having a solid revenue stream if he or she wants to get serious about having a lasting creative career.

The ultimate challenge in video game development is making enough money from your own games to continue to make more games without having to do contract work. Like any problem, it can be dissected and broken down into constituent parts. One part is that people do not have a basic need for video games. In order to sell a video game, people have to be convinced that they need it. Here are a couple of ways that someone could be convinced that they need to buy a game:

  • Joe has a crush on a girl named Sally who likes a certain game called Fire Dash. Sally loves talking about Fire Dash, but since Joe has not played it, he cannot keep up the conversation. He goes home and buys Fire Dash just so he can have a better conversation with Sally. Sold.
  • Wendy’s little brother has a birthday coming up. He likes video games. She asks a store attendant for a recommendation. The store attendant says Fire Dash is the perfect gift. Sold.
  • Alex wants to be in the know regarding the latest indie games on the market. Fire Dash comes up on Steam as a top new release. Sold.

It is obvious that there is a market for video games. A huge one. But achieving the aforementioned sales scenarios in a saturated market is very difficult and almost impossible for someone just starting out. Selling even a few copies of a game is incredibly hard. Finishing a game and having it accepted by an online store is incredibly hard. Working on a game by yourself can be a deathtrap.

The first thing you need to do in your mission to become a game developer is join a game company and work for someone else. This is the first step in getting experience and making connections.

If you are not qualified to work for someone else, work for free until you are. If you cannot afford to work for free, save up money until you can. Every obstacle is a problem that can be broken down into constituent parts. Getting a job at a game company is about being in the right place at the right time and having the evidence that you are going to add value to someone else’s team. To provide evidence, have sample work, prototypes, and a CV ready at all times. To be in the right place at the right time, well, you just have to move to Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is without a doubt the best place on earth to become a gamedev. Given USC’s constant stream of newly founded game projects, AAA studios including Riot and Naughty Dog, and weekly networking events helping newcomers integrate into the scene, if you are not in LA and you are trying to become a game developer you should pack your bags and fly out tomorrow “Mulholland Drive” style because no where on earth is there better opportunity for gamedev success than here in Silicon Beach.

No matter who you are there is a niche for you in this city. With LA’s rich history in art and entertainment you find a lot different types of artists, writers, and musicians coming into the game world making LA’s games the coolest and best. Video games are just beginning to be recognized as an artform capable of self expression. LA is a breeding ground for this type of direction in games due to its booming indie game developer scene concretized by groups like Glitch city a game dev collective or the youtube celebdevs like YandereDev. However, LA is a brutally isolating and unforgiving place. Between the traffic, urban sprawl, cost of living, heat, and generally closed off social climate, Los Angeles is the type of place to chew up and spit out a newcomer who does not have the hustle and thick skin to endure the dramatic ups and downs that come during the acclimation period. It is for this reason that Los Angeles produces such incredible works of art. People constantly struggle to exist – whether the struggle is social, financial or psychological, many people here are suffering and the only way to alleviate that suffering is by working hard.

Spending money is an essential part of living in most big cities and to spend money you have to earn it. The differences between earning 20k, 40k, 60k, and 80k per year are quite different. You do not become comfortably independent until you are making between 40k-60k, and you do not really get to buy things you want or save money until you make more than that. This is just for taking care of yourself. If you throw another person into the equation it is another story.

The reality of money hits hard in this city, but it is important to remember that everyone started out broke and that successful people are not expecting you to be rich. Even if you are not making a whole lot of money, if you are passionate, humble, hardworking, well mannered, and fun to be around, you will find that helpful people will give you the benefit of the doubt. These people will provide you with the support to find your path and make money off of a career that you believe in.

As a creative person, it may be easy to say “I do not care about money, I am just going to be an artist and dive right into an ambitious project and hope that it gets picked up,” but the unfortunate truth is that you will most definitely fail if you have that attitude, especially in Los Angeles. You need money to survive and connections to achieve your dreams, you cannot do anything on your own.

There are a lot of ways to become financially successful in LA, but if it means working with people you do not like or doing something you are not passionate about, you will find yourself with a state of depression and regret. People with power will see talent in you and want to keep you around so they can get a cut when all of your work pays off. These people will employ you or even help you out when you need it most. But they will also hold you back once you are on your feet. Remember that just because people appear to care for you does not mean they do. You have to be skeptical of almost everyone and truly get to know people before getting into serious business. The worst thing that can happen is going into business with someone who you cannot trust.

Book Recommendation: “Genealogy of Morals” by F. Nietzsche, for a look into the history of good and evil, good and bad, power relationships, societal organization, and the study of asceticism and its effect on the individual.

Riot Games: “Day in the Life” Blogs

Me via text message: How do you feel about company blogs?

Friend at Riot Games: They are the single most effective recruiting tool.

http://www.riotgames.com/articles/20160707/2315/day-life-software-engineer

The above link is an exemplar of blog as recruiting tool and company culture branding. Reading through it, we find out about a smart, self-motivated engineer who works at Riot’s Hong Kong location. What is particularly effective about this blog is the way in which the man’s day is scheduled and how it reflects both his personality and the company culture, the two things that prospective employee are going to want to understand before working at Riot.

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League of Legends, Riot’s world famous title.

On the train to work, he spends time doing a little extra programming OR plays some mobile games. This shows that he is both disciplined but understands how to relax in smart ways that boost his knowledge in the games space: he is a go-getter. At work by 8am, we see that his morning is not too overwhelming, he gets communication and a bit of work in before the 10am meeting, programs hard until noon at which point he goes out to eat with his friends. When he gets back, he plays LoL against his co-workers until around two, he then goes into a deep focused programming session until around 5 at which point he works on his personal growth by researching tech or playing with Unity3D for his side project. Before heading home to his WIFE, he stops by a yoga studio to meditate.

Chalking up his day, this man only programs for two intense 2-hour sessions. The rest is communication, meetings, and leisure. You can tell that every day is extraordinarily well balanced and not oppressive in the slightest, and that this man is a highly productive, top talent, major value add who loves his job and lives an ideal life.
Riot is a billion dollar leader in today’s game industry and a forerunner of “zen” tech culture replacing the “crunch” video game culture of the past. Riot seeks to enrich the lives of its employees rather than oppress them, but the more important fact is that this could be a myth and perhaps there are many overworked employees at Riot. Nonetheless, the best game developers on earth are going to want to work at Riot simply because they heard the myth in the first place, a myth that is generated by word of mouth and blogs like this.

Book Recommendation: “The Power Elite” by C Wright Mills, for anyone interested in a fascinating look into the origin of neo-conservative beliefs.

New Mr. Robot Inspired Game Project

I am working on a new game called Silicon Beach Psychopath inspired by Mr. Robot and my personal experiences in Los Angeles.

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The gameplay revolves around David P Luna (seen above) as he wanders around a nightmare version of Los Angeles trying to get better at programming so he can get a job. I expect the game to take around 30 minutes to play and 6 months to develop. Playing as David, you have to manage your anxiety which increases every time you use a computer or run into a psychotic trigger. You alleviate your anxiety by talking to your therapist Dr. Goldberg and answering his questions correctly.

I will be revealing more about the other characters and nuances of design in future updates – stay tuned!

Book Recommendation: “Console Wars” by Blake J Harris, for anyone who wants to find out how the old video game industry worked and how it differs from what it is today.

Unity uNet [ClientRpc] to Update Color of an Object

I have been hard at work on my game Sentry Wars, a VR RTS for HTC Vive.

I struggled for several days trying to figure out how to update the Color of a Network.Spawned object, but I finally got it to work. The trick is that you have to call a ClientRpc from the Server, pass the color as a parameter, and have the color set as a [SyncVar]:

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 7.06.11 PM

In this case, SetMeshRendererColor is called from another script which checks isServer before calling it. GetBuildingColor in my case is just checking which player owns the building, and sets thisBuildingColor accordingly. Worked like magic. Thanks to Miller Tinkerhess and Zack Rock for helping me understand Client/Server relationships.

In other news, Mykolas and I are hard at work on our book about Pathologic, we have recently received advice from Gabe Durham of Boss Fight books regarding steps in completing a book of this sort. We are still gathering notes, reading up on additional resources, and coming to basic conclusions about how we want to approach Pathologic’s game design analysis. Mykolas found this gem: Pathologic Games as Art Manifesto which goes to show just how deliberate Ice Pick Lodge’s artistic intentions were when beginning the production of Pathologic – we definitely plan on citing this in the introduction to our book.

Book Recommendation: “Road Side Picnic” by the Strugatsky Brothers, for anyone who wants to know about an author who had a tremendous influence on Russian Film and Video Games, especially STALKER the film and STALKER Shadow of Chernobyl.

 

carPG-13: NPC Metrics

User Story: As a player, I want each NPC car to react to every action I take in its proximity.

In carPG-13, NPC cars react to how you behave when you are around them. If you get too close to a car who likes his space, he will get upset at you and back up. He will also angerCounter++ his metrics. If he hits his angerThreshold, say 3, he will getAngry(). In the video below, I show the programming of a Mechanic NPC’s getAngry() function which triggers a machine gun turret to start firing at the player. Check it out:

 

Book Recommendation: “Inner Work” by Robert Johnson for anyone who wants to learn how to incorporate their dreams into their spiritual life and conscious self.

My New YouTube #gamedev Series

I have just started a new youtube series where I stream myself programming various game projects. For the next few months, I will be streaming the development of a Drone Simulator and the development of carPG-13.

My intention with these videos is to interact with other game developers and also reflect on my own game development process. Here is my first video:

In this video I build the basic components of a Drone Simulator. My gamedev videos will be long because I will often have to refactor and debug due to the lack of time I have in planning these videos – I am doing them on top of a full time job at a start-up. However, I will be sharing the source code for Drone Simulator which will help compensate for the lack of concision in my streams.

Book Recommendation: “The Stranger” by Albert Camus, for anyone looking for an introduction to existential fiction.

 

 

Unity3D: Creative Design Process

I recently developed a standardized design process for my team at BrainRush because we had so much design work that it needed to start being distributed to members that were not previously ordained as “designers”.

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A screenshot from one of our recent corporate games.

If you do not create a Design Document before implementing a design, you will find yourself conceptualizing solutions to problems while working rather than just quickly implementing items off of an already solved list. Determining development solutions on the fly can lead to lulls in attention of “what to do next” and make for a slower development process. Of course, a Design Document does not need to be followed in extreme detail, but it certainly serves to expedite the process of implementation and keep a nice record of work progress.

At BrainRush, we follow the Design Document template below to complete a design task: a creative task that a developer must complete before implementing a substantial feature into a game. Design Documents do not work for everyone, but in order for teams to share responsibility, trust one another’s design sensibilities, and maintain transparency of intention, it is always best to have a preconceived set of solutions and tasks before programming, modeling, and developing a feature.

Design Document Requirements:

  1. Written List of Core Design Elements
    1. All of the core pieces of programming functionality required for a design to work from start to finish
    2. All of the art assets that will be required for the design to be visually complete from start to finish
    3. All of the audio assets that will be required for the design to be aurally engaging from start to finish
  2. Synopsis
    1. A paragraph about how all of the programming, art, and audio will work together in the completed state of the design.
    2. A paragraph about major challenges or unknowns that will need to be confronted during the design process
    3. A paragraph about the goals behind the design and what the user will ideally experience with the completed version of the design
  3. Technical Design / Drawings / Flow Charts
    1. A technical design for a strictly programmatic design can be
      1. A highly detailed pseudo code word documents that outlines the functions and variables of each class
      2. A flowchart or diagram for the flow of input data, classes and their relationship to one another, and changes of state that may occur in the application.
    2. A level design, UI design, or 3D Art Design can be
      1. A hand or computer drawn sketch organizing the visual elements with text description of each element
      2. A series of images that represent the different visual states in which a design may appear and how they transition between one another
    3. NOTE: Hand drawn/written documents are encouraged and are to be photographed and uploaded to the design document in addition to written text of sections 1 and 2
  4. Submit the document for manager/peer review

 

Book Recommendation: “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards for anyone looking to improve their drawing and perception skills. This book provides foundational insight into how to interpret images you want to draw such that you can break them down into elements and procedures rather than feel overwhelmed by their complexity.

-Pablo Leon-Luna