All posts by Fletcher

A former New Yorker, now in the Midwest - raising 2 boys and trying to break into game / VR development before I get too old and curmudgeonly to care about anything other than where my cane is...

Counting down…

…until the last day of school.

And family vacations (two of them) and summer camp (2 hours of driving each day) and play dates and social camp for my kid on the spectrum and swim lessons and..

WHEN does school start again!?!?

It’ll be just a bit better this year, if I’m fortunate enough to go back to GDEX; its slated for October. And not on my eldest’s birthday weekend, as usual. So, I’ll have a couple of extra weeks to polish the very basic first ‘real’ level of my game, which is currently somewhere in between crude stick figure storyboard sketches and whiteboxed with Legos and action figures.

Layout of Stuyvesant Sq. Park

One of my favorite gems of NYC was Stuyvesant Square Park, it was always well manicured, quite and held some manner of quintessential ‘park-ness’ that always appealed to me- so I thought I’d use it for a basis of my first level; where we meet Booper, see the kind of world he lives in and set up how he gets lost.

Just an early look at the park

Seeing the start of this level makes me realize I will have to work a ton to get to the level of polish I’ve been demoing at the shows I have been attending. And having two boys and a filled activity schedule does not make for easy dev work. I’m dreading the idea of having to rouse myself at 5:30 in the AM to squeeze in any solid time of un-distracted work. I’m hoping that I can get the kids involved; having them record sound effects or draw me a prop that I need on the fly is a huge bonus.

Perhaps the kids are going to get a little more TV time than I’m normally comfortable with…

Lately I’ve been watching a lot of GDC talks about all this things I don’t know about game development and the wife noticed. After a while of watching my face wrinkle and morph as I puzzled over these talks, ranging from ‘WTF is this guy talking about!?!?’ to those random ‘Aha!’ moments; she threw me into a tailspin by asking: “What would you talk about, if someone ever invited you to do one of those?”

I really don’t know. I’m not anyone’s idea of a developer, not in the classical sense. What little attention I’ve gotten has been from sheer dumb random luck and based on when it looks like some these talke place – it might just be past my old man bedtime.

BUT – I do know this – if I ever do, I wanna just talk about being a dad, trying make a game whilst being a stay-at-home parent and I wanna do it in the style of Spalding Gray: a table, chair, mic and a glass of water – and just monologue about how I got to where I am-

Endgame

So, I’m getting reeaally close to having my demo finished.

Thing is: I’m getting into such a state of Flow that I’m having a bit of a tough time with my non-stop brain coming up with more and more ideas. I’m totally cognizant of feature creep, but this is aesthetic stuff that really send the game to a whole new level – like making the flower / money level happen all at night.

I’m anxious to get this demo playtested, and with a little luck, I might just get some soon. As I was showing off some stuff on Facebook, I got an invite to join the Educators in VR Discord, and they created a whole new channel for playtesting, based on me stumbling about blindly asking if anyone wanted to play my little game. Looks like one of the teachers will be demoing it to a class full of kids on the spectrum; hopefully they enjoy it as much as my little guy does.

The other reason I want to finish is that I finally started making progress updating my project to the latest version of Unity – and I am so ready to play with ProBuilder, the newest version of Playmaker and nested prefabs. I did a quick experiment and was able to export a Probuilder mesh, pull it into Oculus Medium, sculpt it and put it back into Unity with very little fuss, and no scale changes.

Pro Builder on the left; Medium sculpted version on the right

I’m hoping this sort of whiteboxing method will help increase my productivity and reduce the time it takes to playtest my levels. I have rough ideas and when I sculpt them out in Medium, the scale is usually way off and I need to futz and kludge the mesh until it sorta work – with luck, this can eliminate the back and forth I’ve been doing. In the meantime, its back to the grind – and trying to figure out why any time I get a game breaking bug, my materials get deleted off my player:

someone said he looks like ‘Barney’… shudder.

Have to admit – I love showing off my game

So back in September, when I was fresh off going to Oculus Connect 5, I immediately turned around and rushed to Columbus to show my game at GDEX for the second year in a row. I was distracted by life shortly thereafter and only wrote about the OC5 experience and I never wrote about what GDEX was like on my 2nd go-around.

2nd time was as much fun as the first!

It was as much fun as the first time – got to see people that I met my first time, including Leonard – my very first ‘customer’ who was the very first non-family / neighbor person to try my game; and we hit it off immediately.

One of the people I met was a gentleman who asked if I would be interested in showing my game at a Maker-space type convention early in 2019. I immediately jumped on the opportunity and gave him a business card. And promptly forgot about it in the hustle and bustle of showing off my demo to the crowd of kids that swarmed my table.

Until he wrote, months later; asking if I was still down with exhibiting my game.

So, I mandated myself a deadline to finish my demo – polish it up as best I could and use that as the reason I would release my ‘vertical slice’ to the public and start getting serious feedback and (fingers crossed) funding to make the game proper. I threw myself into a frenzy and got a lot of the problems that had plagued me for a long time knocked out, and to a point where I was 75 / 80% comfortable with maybe, possibly considering it ready for public consumption. Then I got ready to show it.

image courtesy of @phatboysh

I’m fortunate that my brother-in-law and his family live just outside Columbus, I get to crash at his palatial mini mansion and raid his beer fridge before crashing in his guest room; instead of having to get up crazy early in the morning to drive the two and a half hours from my house to C-Bus. Even with his proximity I still end up skirting being late due to our late night geeky chats – but I’ve done this enough that my setup time is really short and suddenly I’m in the thick of demoing my game. And quite often I had a line. I needn’t have worried about having enough content – parent were often cutting their kids playtime short to accommodate the gaggle of young faces eager to see what the game was about. Mental note: I need to see if I can get a 2nd PC running so I can demo more than one at a time.

MakerX was different, it was a lot more family & kids. More just pure ‘consumer’ perspective than fellow devs looking to network and swap ideas. I love seeing kids play and how they react that someone their own age was crucial in making this game possible. I got a lot of questions about what programs I used and how could people get started, and I think my ‘non-coding’ use of Playmaker inspired a few people who might have been put off by having to learn coding.

I also appreciate parent feedback, who feel that while kids are desperate to use this new technology, it is dominated by zombies / shooters / violence and that there is a shortage of kids content; so I’m happy to have a niche that I can fill with Booper. I was also surprised to see that in my one day at MakerX, I got as nearly as many sign-ups as 2 days at GDEX.

The day passed quickly and before I knew it, I started seeing people pack up their booths – except it was an hour before closing – and I was still going strong; showing my game to plenty of newcomers, as well as several repeat customers who came back to explore a little more or to go further than their parents let them the first time. Eventually these trickled off and I packed up for home – realizing that this time around I had ONE glitch and no problems that I had to make a note of to fix when I got back.

I might just be ready to ship this thang.

Post script: After posting photos and tidbits on social media, I got this pleasant surprise:

Panic…


It crept up my spine like first rising vibes of an acid frenzy.

HST ‘Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas’

So. After returning to the old Ice Cream level to see if I can hammer it out – I had a realization that I have A MONTH LEFT on my self-imposed deadline. Not a good feeling when one also has the responsibility of getting 2 small humans and 1 normal sized one up, dressed, fed and out the door 5 days a week, running a household in dire need of repair and a neurotic cat with a 24/7 need for attention and affection.

It doesn’t help that this last part seems to bee the biggest hurtle when it comes to finishing this demo. The pacing seems off; tying the 3 quests together so it flows feels *wrong* – Its like I’m throwing crap at the wall to see what sticks; except I keep forgetting I coated the walls with NeverWet. In my desperation, I posted a gameplay video on the Playmaker Slack channel in hopes that I could get someone with sharp eyes to point out what was wrong with it.

hearing the song ‘Help!’ in my head…

Fortunately, the gang came up with some ideas – and between kids being off for a week for spring break; getting a nasty, kick my butt cold that has me sleeping more than I should and a lot of other distractions (like St. Patty’s day and a neighbor who makes excellent smoked brisket) – I *might* have a shot at getting my level sorted and looking decent.

Two steps back; one forward

So, in deciding that my ice cream level just didn’t have any pacing or flow, I decided to try and sculpt one out in Medium real quick and test my ‘fail fast / fail often’ skills to see how quickly I could prototype a level.

And, from a VR / gameplay standpoint; it worked.

Except, when I pulled it into Unity, my framerate dropped into the kinetoscope zone. A quick check of the profiler showed my physics was going haywire and drawcalls were through the roof. I was stuck trying to figure it out – and getting sucked away more and more because we’re getting ready for a kid’s birthday party for our second son; who is turning six.

save $$ by making your kids create birthday cards for free

On top of party prep – I got a missive from my sis, who said she might attend. This threw me into overdrive, because I could show off the VR re-creation of our childhood home; something I’ve been desperate for my family to try and see if it stirs the same feeling of ‘presence’ and nostalgia that it does for me.

But trying to upgrade from a Unity 5.x project to 2018 threw a $#!+ton of errors and I bailed because I saw a tweet about MakerX, which is coming up soon. And it hit me like a ton of bricks:

I’m not getting any serious work done on my demo.

So, back to my original design – enough messing around with stuff and let’s get it done.  The idea is to have a finished demo – release it into the wild and start working on the actual game. Enough. Too many distractions.

Perhaps I’ll be giving up social media for Lent.

windmills of my (kid’s) mind

 

 

Back to it…

So, finally the Winter Break has ended; kids back at school, the missus back at her job. Everyone rested and ready to get back to work.

And me?

I’m ready to get this demo DONE. So – a brief recap (in snippet form) of all things I’ve been up to.

I just recently got accepted to show my game at MakerX in Columbus in April – and that is my deadline. And while I have the 3rd level modeled and mostly textured and a lot of props in it – there is still a LOT to get done. Including a strong feature creep problem, as I realize I’m starting to gear up for making the actual *game*, and I keep thinking of things to add in.

This cute lil’ kitty is destined to be Booper’s sidekick. A travelling companion, friend, helper – and part of me that grew up on dark Disney movies wants to have something bad happen to him. If I had to suffer through Old Yeller and Bambi’s more horrific moments, I feel compelled to pass along similar gut-wrenching things to a new generation.  As a dad, I can always throw this design decision under the blanket clause, ‘it builds character’. The kitty was animated by the extremely talented Chuwawa, you should check out his work here.

I also got THREE pairs of Steam Knuckles controllers,

1 pair of THREE Steam sent!

because I asked for one pair and they said, ‘if you could have more – how many pairs would you need?’ – I had said 2, thinking that included the pair I asked for initially, but Steam being Steam sent me 3 total. So any team members I add will be getting a nice bonus.

I also made an impulse purchase over the holidays:

Glycon VR Mocap system – I had gotten some $$ from the Mother-in-law as a Xmas gift and decided this was worth a shot as I’ve decided the Kinect mocap I was using really didn’t cut the mustard since it didn’t really tackle some of the finer movements I want (like finger controls) and since the dev said he was adding Knuckles support, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Feel the joy of capturing one’s motion

Plus, some of the characters that kiddo has drawn are fairly humanoid – hoping I can act out their animations (or even get them younguns to do it!) and give the characters a bit of their own personality.

Lastly – the final level has a bit of feature creep, but its a tough back & forth: try and wrap up the demo vs. try and gear up for making the actual game. Some of the mechanics will be needed, such as a day / night cycle. Others are just idea that keep popping into my head, like linking the 1st & 3rd levels with a character I call ‘Boo’ who warns you not to go in his cave, and if the player disregards that advice, the level will fill with slime, forcing the player to travel by the high ground.

Here are some of the highlights:

Which is nice and all, but I also have a (self imposed) April deadline – when I need to show this off at MakerX down in Columbus.

Better get to it, then.

Ye gods, when will it slow down again!?!?

Ever since the awesome week of dev back in September; I have been more slammed than I can remember. Between sis-in-law’s 40 birthday rope line adventures, wife grandma’s 100th birthday, Fall Foliage tours, Boo at the Zoo for the kids, going to see Steely Dan with bro-in-law, Halloween and the ever increasing list of crap that needs done around the house, I’m amazed I’ve even gotten any work done at all.

my kid has them.

What dev work that has been done, has been centered around a offer from Phatboysh –  a fellow VRTK dev that I met up with at GDEX. I was busy hawking my game when he dropped by and asked to play (and later provided one of the best quotes of the weekend:  ‘I got kicked out of @fletcherstudios booth today because the mass swarm of kids wanted to play his game’ )

As he was playing -he had asked if the sock quest was a static distribution or randomly placed. I told him that while I’d love to have sock randomly distributed around the level, it was beyond my ability to create. He surprised me by offering to create a script that could do it – and did so rather quickly. The biggest hurdle then became backing out my old sock quest and integrating this new mechanic. Trying to hunt through multiple FSM’s and recreate everything from UI updates to win conditions left me overwhelmed – and resolved that I need to document my crap better.

Re-doing the Ice Cream level

Another hurdle I gave myself was to re-do the Ice Cream level – after my wife pointed out that where I was putting a spider web had no physical place to attach itself to. That, and I’ve been feeling that breaking up my 3 level demo to have a end point, then load something new felt cumbersome. I decided to delete the Boss Castle after finding all the coins, and add the Ice Cream level in its place.

Which means now having to go and recreate everything I already had worked on, including all the intricate FSM’s I had in place. All the carefully crafted mechanics now have to be copied over and I’ll have to re-tweak some of the gameplay now that there is new level geometry to contend with.

I think I’ll make it harder by adding new enemies too.

Recap of Oculus Connect 5

What can I say, getting up at 4:15 in the AM, guzzling a cup of coffee and driving to the airport isn’t all that its cracked up to be. Check in was uneventful – and other than being scanned in what looked like a Star Trek transporter, my flights were uneventful. Coming in for a landing, I looked out over San Jose and this alien landscape of desert mountain ans sparse vegetation – different from anywhere I’ve been before.

Since check in wasn’t until 3, I screwed around in the San Jose airport, checking e-mails and eating crappy pizza. The ride into town was quick and easy, and my driver liked pointing out the various offices, over here is Adobe, there is Microsoft and we chatted about the VR conference (he had only tried Google Cardboard) Since the convention center was across the street from the hotel, I wandered around for a bit taking in the sights – grabbed a few pix of palm trees and exhaustedly wandered into the hotel, and was able to snag an early check in.

dunno why – I just think it was neat looking

After a brief, failed, attempt at a nap, I showered, changed and went to the registration, got my badge and headed down to the opening reception, nibbled on snacks; chatted with other devs and carbo loaded on several ales to help power me through the rest of the night. I had to force myself to stop accepting every tray of food being offered to me, so I could at least have some of the Start Program members dinner. Which, if I didn’t start wending my way there; I was going to miss it.

Which really wasn’t going to happen, since other people leaving all had Oculus Start hoodies, easy enough to follow them to a banquet room, set up with tables and more free appetizers and ales for all. Ate and chatted some more, until Jim the Grim found me and led me back to the table where Dark_Muppeteer was. We ate, drank and talked like we were already old buddies, all of us impressed with how swank Oculus had set us up.

Dark_Muppeteer & Jim The Grim

About half way through beers and figuring out which presentations we’d attend, I suddenly felt the weight of being up for 20 hours and the extra ale percolating through my system didn’t help – a bade my fellow VRTK’ers a good evening and proceeded to flop out for a good long time.


Next AM, up early, coffee, email and got to the convention center just as people were starting to mill about, waiting for the doors to open.

taken about 15 minutes before the doors opened at 8.

Breakfast was a pretty fancy affair, long tables set out with steam trays, offering dietary options for every taste:

catering for 2000 ain’t easy

Dark showed up a little later and we ate and chatted until people started queuing up for the Keynote address, and filed in with the rest of the VR enthusiasts. I was impressed with the sheer size of the room, and that they had 19 screens set up, of various sizes, with the OC5 logo pulsing around, giving the auditorium an electric feel.

courtesy of Jim the Grim

The Quest announcement was exciting, kinda bridging the Go and its portability and the 6 DoF of the Rift. I kinda figured we weren’t getting them, because I took a pre-emptive look under my seat – which was sadly barren. The rest of the speeches were a bit of corporate rah-rah fluff, but still; it was hard to deny the enthusiasm they had for their new product, and Dark & I wondered if a farm equipment convention would muster the same excitement.

After the keynote, I sat in on a chat about using Medium and Quill for prototyping, but it ran for only half an hour and seemed more like a live advertorial for the programs, rather than actual usable instruction on things like reducing polycount, UVs or texturing. Other programs were far more informative – like the Fireside Chat with John Carmack.

Dark & I met up and as we were seated, we ended up near a very excited gent, who told us of his adventures tracking down an original 3.5″ floppy of Doom, that he hoped he could get autographed. I swore right then and there if I get to do this again, I’m bringing my original Quake CD for Carmack and Abrash to sign…

The man, myth & legend

The day was packed with more lectures and boxed lunches and strolling around looking at stuff until my feet were sore.  I had planned to join Dark & his wife for dinner at an Indian place they had heard of, so I asked him to text me later so I could join them and headed back to the hotel.

There I saw the oddest thing… coming out of an alley between the hotel and The Bowers Institute was Palmer Luckey, with a couple of hanger on-ers chatting with him, like he was some sort of sleazy VR dealer followed by junkies looking for a fix. It was so odd, I totally forgot to get a photo, and had to resist the urge to scream insults about meme factories at him.

Back at the hotel, I didn’t want to lay down – thinking that if I fell asleep, I’d never rouse myself for dinner – so I opted for liquid carbs in the lobby bar. Sipping my ale, I noticed a bunch of devs approaching the front desk and asking where the dev dinner was. ‘Whoops,’ I thought to myself, ‘better follow these chaps and see what’s up.’ Trailing them, I soon found myself in a conference room with a huge buffet table set up, a bar at the end and tables everywhere loaded with computers, VR rigs, peripherals of every kind and people checking out demos. I wish I had known about this.


The 2nd day had a fairly similar start – breakfast with the VRTK gents and hanging out until the keynote – this time delivered by Carmack, which was interesting because after a while; Dark & I sorta looked at each other like, ‘wasn’t this in his fireside chat?’ – and we realized that he was touching on the same topics (almost in the same exact order, too)

We split up and I ran back to the hotel to grab my stuff and check out – a little sad that this was the first step in this trip coming to its conclusion. In order to lighten the mood a bit, I decided I was going to dive into some VR. First up: Face Your Fears 2.

I enjoyed the Quest – it was lighter than I had anticipated, the controllers felt pretty similar to the Touch and it felt pretty liberating to not be tied down to a box with a cord. I impressed the demo helper because I didn’t scream, yelp  or freak out – he seemed amused that I actually laughed at some of the jump scares (to be fair, I play a lot of them and can almost anticipate when a jump scare is coming, and I was laughing at just how predictable their timing was with them) – as my day progressed I kept seeing this:

was amazed to see this man out here for hours just talking to people

Carmack was always talking to people, always seemed to have something positive to say and was just at it for hours. If they made him the face of VR; they could not think of a better tempered, more enthusiastic person to be its representative.

As I wandered about (after grabbing a box lunch) I just so happened to be outside this lecture as it was starting (it was on my ‘to do’ list, but had been debating to do more VR demos) and it was one of the better ones:

When this was done, I found a quiet spot to call my kids, since they were getting ready for bed and my time was coming to an end. Told them I would see them soon (after a bit of GDEX!) and went to the closing reception with Dark & Jim. We shared ales; ate and generally agreed that if the opportunity arises next year –

Fletcher & Jim

The Finns staying with Jim, Dark & Fletcher

we will be back. I bade them farewell and went to my Oculus Office Hours meeting and discussed my game, getting the feeling that people are having problems passing the store and getting stuck in ‘keys’- basically hanging out in limbo giving free keys until get get enough positive votes to be put into the store proper.

My last look at CA before heading back home

My leaving was a bit sad, but still filled with promise, as I made some new friends at the airport (damn, those Oculus Start hoodies were everywhere ) and as I took off, I wondered about the future, my family, my game and the promise of exciting days to come.

Warning: Crazy Week Ahead

So, I’m busy packing. Polishing my demo. Getting my PC exhibition worthy. Polishing my demo. Getting the house clean. Polishing screwing up my demo. Printing up biz cards. Reinstalling working version of my demo…

I’m leaving in a day to drive down to my bro-in-law’s house. Spend the night. Get up at an ungodly hour to get to the airport. Fly to San Jose for Oculus Connect 5 and be wowed with the 1st major hardware convention I’ve ever been to. I’ll be meeting people I’ve only ever shared the joy & heartache of VR dev’ing with online (as well as a hefty dose of snark) and I’ll have a chance to sit down with actual Oculus people to get their input on my game.

I’ll also get a chance to see some conferences on a bunch of topics that I’m hoping will help me in the year ahead. Now is the time to start actually making the game and I hope these lectures will provide the impetus to get me cranking on it.

The I fly back and get ready for GDEX.

I will have ONE day to turn it around and get back into my time zone, rest up, catch up with the world before I drive into Columbus to set up my booth (sharing it this year, curious about what its like to have more devs to chat with) and get into my ‘game show / boy scout / ever helpful salesman’ mode.

And have my family join me for #1 son’s 8th Birthday party. I’m hoping to bring him into GDEX for a bit, show off our game and take him on a tour for a bit. I think he’d dig it.

It’s the hap-happiest season of all…

Back to school! Both of the kids! 6 hours of no one asking for treats, can we go outside, screaming at his brother over which inane YouTube video to watch.

And time to seriously crank out some progress on my game. This summer I’ve felt like anytime I so much as breathe in the general direction of my computer, 10 things pop up that demand my attention.

And now we are ONE month from heading out to San Jose and Oculus Connect 5 and then GDEX, the day after I get back. Need to finish the demo, polish it; have the neighbors kids come over and playtest it while the dads & I guzzle beers and then tighten up all the mistakes the kids will invariably find.

Then pack.

Part of what I’m working on is the level that will have 2 main quests and maybe some mini-quests on the side. Deliver 4 piece of mail for a dude in a castle who wants a party and help a sad girl get an ice cream cone from the mean machine that spits them halfway across the level.

Keep your fingers crossed that I can get it done in time.