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...

GDEX 2019 wrap-up

OK – he’s back, rested and ready to dive back into dev work.

…ok, maybe ONE more round of Compound before we get started.

GDEX was again amazing, and I’m always ever thankful to the Cleveland Game Co-Op for the opportunity to show my game. It was my 3rd time doing it and each and every year has been an experience I will value for a long, long time.

I also greatly appreciated just getting there in one piece.

Two weeks before I left, the wife had a social engagement after church, so I loaded up the kids in the family car and followed her so we could part ways afterwards. I noticed that her muffler was swaying gently in the breeze; and any bump in the road sent it dancing. I could see myself having to deal with it on the 2.5 hour drive to Columbus and having to jury-rig a solution on I-71S, especially on the return trip on Sunday evening, right around sundown.

So, I enlisted my neighbor Tom (who is rebuilding a ’71 AMC Javelin and knows cars) to help rig up something to at least keep it from falling apart for at least a few weeks. He stopped on by, started poking around and suggested we drill into something and run some metal wire hanger to hold it. As he was drilling, there was a ‘thunk‘ and he handed me the above piece, saying it was part of the frame – but probably not a “necessary” piece. So he tried again, using part of the plastic bumper assembly and off I went.

setup went smooth

I got to the convention center and the rest of the day (and setup) went smoothly – I was excited to see the new postcards that I got for being part of the Playvue app and they did not disappoint:

DAY 1:

The first day is always exciting because its the hardcore gamer community – the people who really love games and want to see what the indie community is up to. I get into a lot of technical discussions and a lot of folk are surprised when I tell them this is a blend of VRTK, Playmaker and duct-tape. I always get a ton of suggestions, info, business cards, offers of help and introductions to other devs that have similar interest. I have several sheets of paper filled with hastily scribbled notes and future searches that I need to do.

Since I’m flying solo, I don’t get to see a lot of other dev booths, just the ones in my neighborhood; and I’d swear – whoever is across from me gets TONS of traffic and usually has a crowd 3 deep. I also get tons of ideas that I’d love to implement (once I have a budget for such things) – a larger screen and a big banner seem to garner attention quick and draw people in. As soon as people start looking, others seem drawn to the crowd and feed off the excitement – which draws in even more people. Maybe I can sell a kidney or something…

The best moment of the day came at the end, when my friend Leonard (and first ‘customer’ I ever demoed my game to) came by. He was feeling the overload of too many people, to much noise and an overabundance of info. He looked at me, looked at my game and asked if he could take it for a spin. I was anxious to get on the road and get some food as my day is spent at my booth and subsisting on power bars and thermos coffee. But, I couldn’t refuse. Leonard is like my good luck charm and whenever I see him, I know its going to be a good show. So I let him play and busied myself cleaning up and prepping for the next morning. After I while I realized I wasn’t hearing the usual game sounds / voiceovers / collectibles being picked up – he was just wandering around the level and enjoying the interactables – jumping in the water to hear my kids making ‘splash’ sounds. After 20 minutes or so, he took off the HMD and smiled, ‘it like a dream’ he said, and that phrasing just stuck with me. Glad to know that my work can be a source of calm happiness.

Post apocalyptic energy drink DJ booth

Day 2

The second day always has a different vibe – its more families and kids and people tend to linger a bit and chat more. This year seemed to be a bit slower and my fellow devs agreed. What was nice is that I had several developers that I had worked next to in previous years sought me out to see how I was doing – I’m always humbled by how many people remember me, the game and the story about my son and how this all came to be.

I also got a pleasant surprise of a visit from my wife’s cousin Bob, who hung out, talked, roamed the floor and even got me a much needed sandwich. When attendees stopped by my booth, he added a nice counterpoint to my frenetic rambling – and gave my strained voice a much needed break. His visit also seemed to fill in a bit of the quiet time and when he left – the crowds started coming back after the post-lunch lull.

remember this for next time!

As the afternoon started winding down and the end of show raffles started, I did get a chance to wander a bit and see people’s displays before they got dismantled and gleaned several ideas I need to put into practice; the booth above had so many cool ideas (and won some awards after the show too!) on how to engage with the community and I might crib and adapt some of these ideas for next time. The coloring station was especially clever and I might take a bunch of my kid’s drawings, clean them up and print them to do something similar. Not to mention the wishlist sign.

I have to admit – there is a certain sadness in wrapping up. Even though I’m pretty introverted; demoing my game brings out a big chatty part of me that I’m still amazed is lurking somewhere inside of me. I had a fellow dev run up and hand me a swag bag full of candy and asked if I’d give it to my kids. I was really touched by how this game connects people and brings out such feelings of kindness. And I dwelled on this during the long ride back.

The best part was after I got home and was just resting, cleaning up and getting back into my normal dad routine; having just got home the night before – slept fitfully, got up early to get the family up / dressed / fed and out the door to work and school. And I got an email that really just struck me in the most profound way:


I only just found out about Booper this past week, so getting the chance to see it in action only a few days after was super cool. But hearing the story of the development process was insanely inspiring. Thank you so much for bringing your game down to demo at GDEX! Really looking forward to seeing the whole thing, and having my own little guy play it with me. 🙂

Man, excuse me – getting kinda dusty in here…

tHERE IS NO GAME

That image has always struck a chord with me.

I’m not sure where this phrase came from – but when I saw this drawing, it kept nibbling at the dark recesses of my brain. I had turned it over, puzzling it out until I was trying to take a nap, and a daydream-ish vison came to me:

Booper, just in a sea of white, and no way to see where you are. Kinda like Morpheus in ‘The Matrix’ when he introduces Neo to the construct:

Except- its a maze.

And my daydream was that the only way you can find your way out is by walking. And as you walk, you leave footprints. I’m not sure if the walks would simply be invisible and the player would have to run into them and see they could go no further; or if the maze was high up and falling off the edges was instant failure and restart at the beginning.

Luckily, my kiddo LOVES drawing mazes.

So I grabbed one, a quick one he made on his Boogie Board that I managed to photograph before he deleted it, and cleaned it up in Photoshop, then ran it through the Cubester add-on for Blender.

original drawing above / 3d output below

I also just got the latest Unity Humble Bundle, which has the Aura2 asset – and its VR compatible. So I quick added some fog and BAM! – I have the start of a new level. I just gotta figure out where it fits in story-wise.

edit – my youngest solve part of the mystery. There Is No Game came from the days they were addicted to online Flash games (most notably, ‘Red Ball’) and they had discovered one called, ‘There Is No Game’ – its a lot of fun; you should give it a spin.

Small Measure of success

After the debacle of having my SSD (the one with my OS on it- of course) start disconnecting at random led to me having to run the gauntlet of reinstalling everything, frantically trying to recall passwords and resetting a bunch of others in an attempt to get back to a fully armed and operational battle station.

I did get everything up and running – was grateful to have a larger SSD just lying around to migrate to, and despite my system freezing up for a minute or 2 several times a day, I’m back in action.

Having lost a couple of days to the usual time suckage of taking care of kids and preventing my house from falling apart completely; I did have a small (but powerful) moment that got me reinvigorated and felt like a big ‘win’ on the dev front:

I thought up a game mechanic, added it- and it just… worked.

I mean, this is huge.  For the guy who seriously debated having a 3rd person game where the character (and the player) could ONLY look forward – no turning- because he did not know, or even consider that a Playmaker action for mouse look had already been made and was trying to reinvent the wheel from scratch. The dev who spent weeks (and still has problems with) getting a VR headset to fade on command – actually got something to work – and on the first try.

For all intents, I should not be so impressed with myself over a simple mechanic like this, its just a trigger zone in front of the door that plays a ‘door opening’ animation, and a black rectangle that fades the view for a sec while moving the player to a new location, in this case, a cube with a wall & ceiling removed and surrounded by a bigger black cube to blot out the sky and environs.

Now let’s see if that streak holds as I try and get my demo on Steam, 2 weeks before I’m showing my game a GDEX…

#$%^&*!!!

So, right after the youngest kid gets sick and I have to keep him out of school and I get my dream toy of a tablet / monitor so I can draw on my screen – my SSD dies.

Reinstalling everything now. Grr.

Fall, or when an old man’s Thoughts turn lightly to…

Kicking everyone the #$%^ out and getting some damn dev work done.

I’m busy trying to squeeze in dev time / prep for GDEX / fix broken stuff around the house and of course; the eternal struggle of what to make for dinner.

I’ve also found myself at a bit of a loss – Oculus isn’t offering all Start members the same deal as last year for Oculus Connect – we ‘older’ members are being offered a $200 ticket price for Connect this year; which when you add airfare, $300 a night hotel + incidentals – adds up to waaaay more than this solo dev can afford. I also did not make the Oculus Launch Pad program – so I’m feeling a bit down about dev work in general.

Introducing… Hop Rabit!

Nevertheless… He kept slogging on. I was helping a fellow VRTK’er with playtesting his game. Since I didn’t quite understand everything about his game, and my limited vocab was not getting the message across; I offered to record some gameplay and post it for him. In my usual manner, I jabbered away like a kid on a sugar rush, adding my own narrative as I explained why I was having difficulty in understanding how to operate simple things like buttons and levers. I must have provided enough chuckles because he repeated said I should start a YouTube channel and record myself being a fool while playing various games. Great – another thing for me to do that I couldn’t possibly explain to my mother in law. She still can’t comprehend hats in TF2.

Booper Loops cereal!

Looks like I’m still on for GDEX this year – hoping to up my game with a new banner and using a tablet to capture email addresses instead of the ‘paper on a clipboard’ method I’ve been using. Hope to get some new enthusiasts and to have my demo up on Steam. I’m also hoping people can take one of the custom postcards I’m having done up, courtesy of the Cleveland Game Co-Op. Also need to start updating my site to not allow spambots to flood my email list.

Perhaps I better get busy then…

Endsommar

or, ‘Why is daddy cleaning the cat with a shop vac?’

Less than 2 weeks to go, and I’m gritting my teeth down to stumps. My extroverted child has taken an interest in science and has a bajillion-and-a-half questions about; volcanoes, black holes, the largest known star, earthquakes, tectonic plates, Marianas Trench and how the world will end.

I just wanna work on my game, kid.

And on top of that, with all the travels, playdates, family gatherings and other distractions – I’m super way behind on basic household chores. Like cleaning the gutters. Or the litter box.

image courtesy of Pixabay

And all of this is keeping from my game. In a BIG way.

Hello darkness my young kid…

In the meantime, my kid has been working overtime creating all kinds of new neat stuff, and I cannot keep up with photgraphing / scanning all of it. There is now a very large pile of 18″ x 24″ newsprint sketchpads growing on the couch in my office and its showing no signs of slowing. There have been all kinds of new dev experiences popping up and I’ve been struggling to find the time to apply to them all (especially since the wife is the better at editing than I am and wrangling her from her busy schedule is a task unto itself)

Stranger Danger.

I did manage to find this lil’ guy in my son’s sketches and he set off a whole slew of creative ideas. He’s the guy skulking around the playground that kids should avoid. He’s the bad guy keeping a close watch on our young hero. I want him wandering around the level and if the play gets too close, he’ll slink away and hide. Eric from the Playmaker Slack channel suggests giving him some dynamic music that gets more threatening as the player gets closer.

Here he is – in game. I realized that his cigar smoke wasn’t parented just right, so that is now fixed and his cigar will puff properly now.

An asset a day keeps the midsummer dev blues away

So, with my limited time (usually gotten by dragging myself out of bed early before anyone else wakes up) I’ve been trying to plug away at the first level by populating it with assets.

(Un)Fortunately for me, this is all I have time for.

Since the kids have been on summer break, I’ve been back to my old schedule of wake at 5:30am, coffee, email, biological functions (thanks, coffee), and work for an hour or so until tis time to wake up everyone for work/ summer camp/ speech therapy/ social camp/ swim lessons/ etc. Which entails dragging at least 2 people out of bed, ensuring they get dressed, make lunch for at least 2 of them, breakfast for all 3 of them all while dealing with a neurotic housecat that simultaneously wants to a) eat. b) be pet. c) go outside to kill things. All at once. And will meow like she’s Lassie lettimg me know that Timmy is in the well again AND the barn is on fire. At the same time.

So – I plug away, making assets as a way to keep moving forward and slowly adding them to my opening scene. Its gottent ot he point where I have to either repeat some of the building I have, or bribe my kids into drawing new ones with juice boxes & snacky bars.


In an effort to help speed up my dev process, I tried using a ‘prefab brush’ I had downloaded as a way to quickly place assets in my scene – like flowers or trees, any sort of element that placing by hand would take waaaay to long with my limited attention. After struggling with the download (either my download was so old as to not work – or my version of Unity was) I ended up on the Asset Store and I found this inexpensive gem.

Its been an absolute steal at the price, and being able to mix and match prefabs, randomly size and rotate and save these brushes as a preset is exactly what I need – the biggest problem is I want to go back to my old demo and paint the $#!+ outta it now…

windmills of my (kid’s) mind

Summertime Rolls

If nobody has ever said anything like this, allow me to be the first:

The biggest detriment to getting work done is the vacation.

There, Now you can quote me. Got back from a trip to Cancun with the missus over a week ago – and while it was lovely, relaxing, restful; I just can’t get back into the swing of working on my game.

Perhaps the time off has my mind & body yearning for a respite. Perhaps its now that we’re in full on summer vacation mode and I’ve got 2 kids, swim lessons, summer camp, social camp, torrential rainfall causing massive amounts of lawn growth, speech therapy, playdates and the desperate need to get my house cleaned and some on the table for dinner – might have something to do with my inability to get something done.

Trying to get even a bit of work done with kids around the house is like trying to brush your teeth while eating Oreos. If I sneak away to work on something; it becomes the most important thing e v e r that I come see the latest Lego creation my kid has made. Or they decide to start smacking each other with electrical cords.

home sweet home.

But – I’m slowly getting back into it – plucking away at a problem I had right before we left; I managed to get a car I had modeled out actually moving around the level and a few more buildings done:

Hopefully when I get a chance to look through the sketchbooks the kids had while on vacation they’ll have some more inspiring work in them.

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.