More about my passion (or lack thereof) as a Game Developer

On March 31, 2009, in Experiences, by Steffen Itterheim

Today i’ve had some time to think more about Passion. My girlfriend and i were cleaning up the house, throwing out old stuff to make room for less old stuff. A couple of things popped into my head here and there. One being that i need more exercise. I’m exhausted.

I also remembered this one time i’ve actually asked for a raise because i wasn’t satisfied with my pay. You see, you can make more money if you’re not in the game business. Ah, oh, you knew? Well, i hadn’t gotten a raise for years, so …. Alarm! Alarm! Isn’t that a warning sign of having lost passion for making games if you’re asking for more money? Not that i was making not enough. Not that money makes you happier, or more motivated. Not that it would have made any difference for me personally.

I also had to think about a friend and former coworker of mine. A brazilian guy who was so not cliché, meaning he didn’t play soccer at all – except on the Playstation. He was a great asset to the team, i believe, not because of the work he did or the knowledge he had. No, because of his character. He was a very friendly, honest and approachable guy and truely cared for everyone around him. But most of all he showed passion for what he did. My opinion now is, if i had the chance to hire someone like him for my team, i would – it wouldn’t matter if there were better candidates with more experience or knowledge. People like him are great facilitators, and great facilitators are important for building great teams. And with enough passion you can make up for almost any lack of knowledge or experience.

Some embarrassing feelings came up, too. Should i delete what i wrote yesterday? I don’t like it anymore. Maybe i should add someting, clarify, add more details? But no … i shouldn’t. I really shouldn’t because what’s said is said and only needs to be done. Follow up on what i say, i should say. If i don’t, then there goes credibility. Also, i shouldn’t be afraid of lecturing if i have the passion. But doubt kills passion in an instant. However, if i do hold that lecture i should strife for two things: no slides and involving the audience. Entertaining them as much as educating them. The best way to do that is to involve the audience. Not sure if that’s possible, it’s been maybe 4 years since my last talk during a GCDC and that was in front of 20-30 people in a very small room. I’m not sure what to expect from GDC Cologne.

I’ve been a Manager, too. I almost forgot. Probably because i wasn’t. It was just a title. I was eager to learn but had no passion for all the managerial things. You know, if you know that you’re not heading off a cliff, isn’t that enough? No, you gotta make plans and deliver documents for 3rd parties and what not. Too bad i didn’t know about Scrum back then. Probably wouldn’t have mattered though, since you need strong backbone to actually implement it. I wanted to remain connected with the team but not knowing what i got myself into the connection was already on the decline. It wasn’t at all like my experiences at NEON as Lead Level Designer and for the most part, i blamed it on me. At the same time, i did not connect with the rest of the management team either. It remained a foreign world for me. It became especially noticeable in meetings where only those talked who got to start talking before the other person had fully finished his/her last sentence, strictly kept talking and/or raising the voice if two or more people started talking at the same time, or blatantly interrupted others. This type of conversational behavior remains foreign to me to this date. Actually, it’s nothing but rude and offensive, period.

On a positive note i remember that i once wanted to make a game with Physics. At that time my tool of choice for making hobby games was Game Maker which hadn’t any support for Physics. So i took the Open Dynamics Engine (ODE) and wrote a DLL wrapper for Game Maker. I didn’t actually make any games with it, just some fun demos and testlevels. However it eventually spawned the “physics movement” in the Game Maker community, culminating in such excellent titles like Ragdoll Matrix. I certainly had fun porting ODE, even more fun seeing it in action and playing around with it. In addition i learned a great deal about ODE and extending Game Maker via DLLs. Unfortunately the code was rather sloppy, as it was initially intended to be only for my personal use (what a lame excuse, i know) and i don’t think i ever released the source code – probably out of shame but it’s a shame in itself because i’m sure someone would have picked it up, fixed the bugs, added new features and maintained it to make use of newer ODE version features. Still i remember fondly working on GM_ODE and most of all, that it gave the community the ability to create games that weren’t possible before (with Game Maker).

Oh my … is it 1000 words already? Again? Damn i keep writing such long-winded posts … if only there were someone reading them and eventually leaving a comment.

Nah, don’t worry, just read. No pressure. Just come back for more updates … or else! 😉

Tagged with:  

The Passion of the (Game) Developer

On March 30, 2009, in Experiences, by Steffen Itterheim

Ever since i got notice that the GDC Europe in Cologne is looking for lecturers i’ve been thinking wether i should take that opportunity and submit a lecture proposal. Moreover, and more specifically, i’ve been thinking about what the heck should i be talking about?

Soon i was questioning myself: what am i really good at? Do i have anything to say that intelligent people of the games industry would enjoy hearing me talk about? What kind of knowledge, or experience, do i bring to the table to justify the talk, to be taken seriously, with the necessary authority. Like most potential lecturers (i assume) i don’t want to come across as a douchebag who is talking about something he doesn’t really have a clue about, experience with or worse yet, lecturing to people who actually know a lot more about the subject matter.

So i’ve began wondering … somewhere in the 10 years of my experience as a professional game developer has to be something compelling, some concentration of knowledge that is so utterly groundbreaking, earth-shattering that everyone would just love to hear me talk about. I did not see it. I did not find it. But i knew it was there, it was just hiding. That thing that would make the crowd roar. Which would everyone leave the session with a feeling of joy.

What could it be?

I digged. I digged deeper. I even went as far back as my childhood. Still, nothing. Is my professional game developer life really all about, well, scripting Lua? (that’s just too basic and boring) Or grinding through numerous localization problems? (i’d prefer to never touch that subject again) What is it that i perform well … writing an excellent database frontend tool? (most of my internal users would beg to differ) Producing great code under pressure? (i’m not even a great coder to begin with) Or … what?

It left me stumbling for quite a bit. I even considered reverting to the obvious … something like a BattleForge Postmortem. Most of which i would have to piece together through interviews with various of my coworkers, and honestly, there would be better people for that kind of lecture. Producers or Manager with the oversight, and insights into the business side. Who experienced all the difficult decisions first hand. No, it would feel like i would just be a representative of something bigger. But my consideration was to take the lecturing opportunity for two reasons:

  • Attend the GDC. Network. Learn from others. And to get myself out there.
  • Lecture about something that i really feel passionate about – because that’s when i can deliver great lectures.

I didn’t think it would be so hard to find something i’m really passionate about. It was actually (and is?) kind of depressing. I’m questioning my whole life here – as i do frequently, i mean just for fun, you know. We all do it. So i do what any man would do … i called my girlfriend for advice.

I asked her: “What am i really passionate about?”

Without even a fraction of a second thinking about it, she answered: “Sex.”

Well, not quite the topic that i could present during the GDC, i believe … but it got me thinking. I asked for more examples but she just couldn’t think of anything else other than sex – weird, because that’s normally how my brain is wired. Anyway, at least i knew I was looking for something that is really comparable to passionate love, or lovemaking for that matter. And then i wondered … when was the last time i felt like this? Absolutely passionate about what i do, how i do it, and why i do it. I was slowly unfolding the things that made me happy when i do them. Like being helpful, enabling people to do their job, to solve problems for them. Most problems … hmmm, for most of them, anyway. So the team factor is also important for me. But there’s more, for example developing something i truely believe in, something that would make everyone’s job better, easier and would allow them to work more efficiently. Like that SpellForce 2 dialog scripting language i wrote a few years ago. There were some more examples but actually they aren’t the point.

The point is that i realized: the work i really loved doing and kept coming back at with joy, is the work i started on my own accord and (for the most part at least) owned it. I drove the direction of the work, i designed and defined it, i improved it by working in the feedback i got. I thrive on feedback if it is given properly and i have my hands free to do that work the way i want it to be done, and when. But it all works best if i can feel that others around me work on their tasks with the same passion than i do. Otherwise, it can quickly turn frustrating and depressing. Wrong people, wrong time, wrong tasks – and it all goes downhill before plummeting into a bottomless, black pit. I’ve been a programming, thinking and designing tool who put the work and dedication into what i did so others who may be “technically challenged” can benefit by leveraging the powers invested into the tools by me.

Now if that tool is a game or used to build a game’s core features … then that’s my passion. It’s as simple as that. Helping others make great games, and making great games myself. Directly without outside influence unless it comes in the form of user feedback and meaningful suggestions.

Still, i got no further with my idea for the GDC lecture. What am i going to say … that i’m a helping hand, putting myself in the service of the greater good? That i deliver such outstanding tools that everyone watching my lecture should listen to my every word in awe?

Eventually i pondered about this back and forth, going from enthusiastic to giving up on myself – until i realized: all i really need to do is to talk about passion! How passion affects us all and how not doing what you’re passionate about will ultimately lead to a 9-5 job (or drive you insane). And the seductiveness of that. How easy it is to lose your passion, giving up hope (unless used as a strategy), and just doing your job as good as you can under the circumstances – each and every day, thinking you’re just passing through a depression in your life and everything isn’t as bland as it seems. How it should actually be great, if it weren’t for …. things like wether the light is too bright in the room, the noise outside is too much, it’s too hot or too cold and bickering with your colleagues about all of that. No big fights … just nuisances. Every day a little bit. And trust me – people obsess about that irrelevant stuff as if it were heartfelt. With passion, if you so will. I know i did, too.

In that situation, the only thing you can agree about with your coworkers – due to a lack of common interests or shared goals – is the fact that the others aren’t really doing their job like they’re supposed to. How the recession is just going to fuck us all up. How utterly wrong and completely ignorat decisions are being made. Stuff like that. Things that we obsess about only in the absence of passion. And the worst part is: that kind of behavior/thinking re-inforces itself.

While on the other hand great work was and is done if it is done with passion. And i usually didn’t even realize that it was passion that made me love my work, that helped me crack the hardest coconuts and allowed me to push through mundane tasks without taking some form of cellular brain damage. Just like good sex makes you feel more powerful even though you’re completely exhausted. For the moment.

And that is what i would like love to talk about during this year’s GDC Europe. No authority needed, just passion and a long experience going through uphill joyrides and downhill battles. Giving my experience to the audience – with passion. And maybe throwing in a sex joke here and there.

If they let me.

Tagged with:  

Why i quit my first game development job …

On March 29, 2009, in Experiences, by Steffen Itterheim

Circa autumn 2001. I was working at NEON Studios as Lead Level Designer. We’ve just finished up Santa Claus Jr. for the Gameboy Color. Then corporate decided to cut costs, slashing about half the staff. Including almost everyone of the teams i was used to working with. I did not get fired but the repercussions were such that i left about half a year later, in May 2002.

From that time on, nothing at NEON felt the way it was before. Previously being an independent Studio, NEON Studios was bought by an Austrian publisher sometime in 2000, i believe. I still have that christmas present from the first corporate Xmas Party – a warm winter jacket. “The best thing they have ever produced” we still say jokingly and by “they” i mean the publisher aka corporate – just to make that perfectly clear. But without the team and friends i’ve enjoyed working with the soul was gone. NEON was still a great place full of great, artistic, intelligent, visionary people. But the corporate identity we had assumed was now consuming us. Feeding on us. Leaping a few years ahead, NEON was shut down sometime after the release of Legend of Kay (PS2) but i was happy to hear that most of the team almost instantly started a new company, called keen games.

Back to the present in the past. Soon after we had finished Santa Claus Jr. followed the search for a new Gameboy Advance project. We pulled together 4 very intruiging, intelligent and enthusiastic ideas for our pitch, ready to push the new Gameboy Advance hardware and gaming abilities to the limit. But we had to include a fifth pitch, the obvious sequel to Santa Claus Jr. We made it so that the effort and issues of that project were a bit exaggerated because none of us wanted to do another Santa Claus project, even though the first one was a joy to work on. But the Gameboy Advance technology was something we really wanted to push, we saw opportunities for games that weren’t possible on the old Gameboy. Another jump’n run game for kids just wasn’t going to cut it.

Of course the obvious happened. None of our pitches ever had a chance. Instead we got Santa Claus Jr 2 stuffed down our throats and swallowed. I couldn’t swallow it hole, something got stuck and i couldn’t breathe anymore. Sequelitis, my old team gone, me having to do Level Design for a jump’n run. A genre i’ve never had much passion for, and in general i haven’t done pure Level Design for a loooong time (not since DooM was kewl). I was used to do a lot of scripting and actually wanted to become a programmer. I’ve scripted all the “AI”, controls and menus in our previous titles and as far as i can remember, if there was any remote possibility to script something, i did it.

Until that time i did not know how lack of passion feels like and how much it can pull you down. Much of my later Level Design work was reworked but i’m still glad that most of the ice world was left untouched. That’s where you start the game, see the screenshot to the left. These were the levels for which i’ve actually tried to build something fun and an easy introduction for the kids. It was created during the time i really tried to make the best of the whole situation. However that changed when i had to move on to the next world (town) which didn’t inspire me at all.

As time progressed, pushing tiles around, trying to squeeze out something interesting gameplay-wise for which i had absolutely no feel, no understanding and got no sense of accomplishment out of – it became more and more of a drag each day. It felt as if my career just seemed to turn in the wrong direction and i had to get my hands back on the steering wheel. I was so down at the time i did not see any other option than to quit.

And then the obvious happened, again. Santa Claus Jr. Advance was released and sold a few hundred copies initially. Much less than the original, which came out early in development of the sequel and had sold just a few thousand copies. Which in hindsight would have been a good time to reflect and maybe cancel the sequel.

Disclaimer about the sales numbers: They may be grossly exaggerated for all i know. They might even be completely incorrect. We didn’t get such information directly, it was always someone knowing someone else who knew.

Tagged with:  
Page 1 of 512345