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Spellbound: May-July Updates

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slayemin

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Tomorrow morning, I have to fire someone.

It's been a tough three months with a lot of big life changes. My girlfriend and I were unable to pay our apartment rent in downtown Seattle, for the months of April and May. So, we were strongly encouraged to move out. We were paying $2461 per month in rent, plus $200 a month for parking, plus utilities, all for a 940 square foot two bedroom apartment with no air conditioning. Then they raised the rent. So, we moved out and found a house to rent in Edmonds, a small sleepy town about 12 miles north of Seattle. We doubled the square footage and only pay $2000 a month in rent. It's amazing. It's so peaceful and quiet. It is far superior to living in an apartment. The Seattle apartment was two blocks away from a fire station, so you would often have fire engines roaring down the street with sirens blaring at 3am. Or, there'd be someone unloading product all night for the business next door, operating a hydraulic lift. Or, maybe there'd be homeless or drunk people having an argument outside my window. I don't miss it one bit. The only thing I miss is my 15 minute commute to work by walking.

Moving was a bit of a... problem. The day before, I fell off of a horse, you see. I was at my ranch, testing out a new horse to see how well it rode. It was acting a bit anxious. The saddle didn't quite fit. The horse wasn't responding very well. I figured the horse needed to get used to a rider a bit more and that I'd tire it out a bit by galloping around and break it in. So, we did. We galloped down the forested road a bit, went down the field, galloped some more, and did two loops. Then, I brought the horse back to the hitching post. This stupid daschund dog came running and barking at me and the horse, completely oblivious to the sheer difference in size between a 7lb dog and a 700lb horse. Despite that, the horse was even more anxious. So, I turned it around and went over the bridge into the field by the creek. I was going to gallop it a bit more to tire it out. So, off we go again! I see some sticks and logs in the field ahead, so I start steering the horse to the left, except its not listening. We're just running at a good 30mph. Then, at the very last second, the horse sees the debris -- and makes an almost 90 degree left turn at 30 miles per hour. Naturally, this isn't a video game, so the principles of momentum apply, and my body wants to go straight. I stomp really hard on my right stirrup, with all my body weight, to stay on the horse -- except the saddle slides to the bottom of the horse and I go with it. Keep in mind, the horse is still galloping as I'm falling. In a split second decision, I decide that I'm doomed to fall and get hurt, but the smartest thing to do is get my boots out of the stirrups so that I'm not dragged behind the horse. If I don't get my boots out, I will get killed, and that's more important to avoid than getting hurt. I did it. I got my boot out, just in time. Then I land HARD on my right back onto hard dirt. Immediate pain. I'm writhing on the ground in sheer agony, screaming in pain. It's arguably the most pain I'd ever felt in my entire life. I left myself writhe in the dirt for ten seconds and then decide its time to man up. I lay still. What's my damage assessment? My legs work. I have feeling. No broken spinal cord. I have extreme pain in my rib cage and back. I feel swelling already. Breathing is hard. My immediate assessment is that I probably broke a rib and its probably got multiple fractures. Nobody knows where I'm at, so I have to get up. Moving is excruciatingly painful, but I gotta do it. Little by little, I upright myself, then slowly stand up on my two feet. Then I slowly, ever so slowly, hobble my way back to the farm house. It's a long walk.

My girlfriend sees me. I tell her what happened. I go sit in a rocking chair for a minute. Then I decide it's time to go to the hospital. The pain is getting worse. I struggle to get into the car. Then, we seem to hit every. single. fucking. pothole. along the way, each one inducing nightmarish pain in my back. We get to the emergency room. I'm brought inside immediately and put on a gurney for evaluation. I'm brought into this machine to get a CAT scan and X-Rays at the same time. It hurts so much to even breathe. Despite that, I'm calm. I'm not in mortal danger. I'll get through this, but it's gonna hurt. Well, the good news is, I don't have any spinal problems and no broken ribs. I do have a bruised right lung, internal bleeding, and as I discover later, the main source of pain was a torn back muscle. The torn muscle was the worst. It felt like every time I moved, someone was stabbing me in the back with a screwdriver and twisting viciously. I was cleared to go home and given pain meds.

The whole day I laid on the couch, not daring to move. I needed two people to help me sit up, and that was extreme pain. The hardest part of my day was getting up to go use the bathroom. It literally took me a good 45 minutes to walk down the hall to use the toilet because the pain was so bad. The second day, the pain got even worse. The third day, the pain was slightly less, but still excruciating. We returned to my apartment in Seattle. We had to move out. How is that going to happen when I can't even move? Thankfully, friends and family are the greatest blessing in the world. My brothers, sisters, mom, and friends all came to help us move (and a couple hired hands). The only thing I could do is lay in bed and watch as everyone around me moved furniture. I know I was supposed to be relaxing and getting better, but I just felt so guilty watching everyone else working. Anytime I had dumb ideas about getting up, my back would hastily remind me not to.

It took me a full week of laying down to recover enough to the point where I could walk around with minimal pain. I went back to work on Monday. However, my commute was now a bus ride and some short walking. With virtual reality game dev, you frequently have to get up and test something out in room scale VR. It's a bit more physically active development work than you'd think. I couldn't quite do that yet. I took it easy. Then, late evening came. It was time to walk to the bus stop and go home. Now, for those who don't know Seattle, it has some hills. My bus stop was two blocks away, but it required walking up a slight incline. Normally, I'd just power walk it and have no problems. But this time, walking even at a slow pace was just too much for me. A bruised lung left me so faint that I was about to pass out. I literally had to stop and take a breather. Maybe it was too early for me to go back to work if this was my condition? So, I decided to continue resting for another week, doing light duty. By the end of two weeks, I felt nearly completely recovered. It was an amazingly speedy recovery, considering the pain and seriousness of the injuries. I am very lucky. I could have been hurt much more seriously. Now, I am a lot more cautious around horses. I don't need to repeat that life experience. 

What's funny is how different riding horses are in real life compared to video games. Never, ever do you ever worry about falling off of a horse in a video game. Riding a horse is always like driving a car, it always perfectly does exactly what you want, as if the beast doesn't even have a mind of its own. It's interesting to think about the difference in user experiences between real life and game design and the balances between trade offs.

Anyways, long story short, I fell off of a horse and was out of commission for a bit.

During the month of May, I started doing some freelance contract work. I built a VR application for Dell, just in time for their annual Dell World event. The film guys in my office went to three different parts of the world and shot some 360 video to highlight the philanthropic programs Dell was doing to make the world a better place. We wanted to create a seamless and easy to use, interactive and immersive VR experience. People would pick up the GearVR, place it on their head, watch a couple videos, learn about the programs, and continue on with the conference, just a little wiser. We nailed it. We completely blew everyones socks off. The beauty of the Unreal Engine, coupled with good design and good assets, made an incredible VR experience. After the conference, they told me about one guy who was acting like a know-it-all, claiming that 360 video was not VR and pre-judging our app as being shit. Then, the skeptic put on our headset and tried out the experience. He's immediately in a stereoscopic world and able to use his gaze to interact with objects in the scene. Sure, the 360 video is projected onto the insides of a sphere, but that doesn't mean that all of the environment has to be projected onto a sphere or be a passive experience ;) Afterwards, he couldn't stop raving about how amazed and wrong he was.

I also started doing consulting on the side for a small local VR company here in Seattle. They were having some major problems with shipping on the GearVR platform. The problem is that the Samsung Galaxy S6 phone is notorious for overheating. The Oculus Store won't accept any submissions which cause the S6 to overheat within 15 minutes. Their app was overheating the phone within 5 minutes. So, this was clearly an optimization problem. Their dev team wasn't the very best when it comes to creating high performance systems. What they created is more than acceptable for a PC, but on a phone? Terrible. I spent considerable time testing and optimizing the scene and trying to get the app to run for 15 minutes before overheating. It's a really tedious process, where you have to document what change you made, create a package, deploy it to the phone, run a couple sessions, take an average, and figure out whether your change had any effect on the overall temperature heating rate of the phone. This workflow could easily take a few hours to test a few things. I got tired of this monotonous process, so I started just measuring the rate of temperature increase over time. The goal was to keep the phone temperature below the shut off value for the entire experience. As the temperature of the phone increases, we throttle down the experience quality. As the quality decreases, the temperature delta decreases and we squeeze out more lifetime. It was sort of like a temperature based LOD system. I was kind of proud of it. I'm not sure if anyone else has had to invent something like that. Anyways, I proved that it worked and got the app to run for at least 15 minutes on my test phone. I submitted it to Oculus for review, eagerly waiting for the test results... days go by... and then... REJECTED! Why?? Supposedly, their S6 was overheating within 5 minutes. How is that possible? We have the exact same phone! I'm still a bit baffled.

For my own game, it's development has taken somewhat of a back burner. It sells on average, 1 copy a day on Steam. That volume is gradually decreasing. The bottom line is that it barely makes any money. Contracting work pays much, much more. However, Spellbound is my baby and I will continue working on it in between higher paying projects. I still spend a majority of my time working on it though. I have identified a couple key problems and areas to work on. The problems are as follows:
1) The content is too short and incomplete.
2) There is a marketing and advertising problem. Nobody knows about my game.

#1 is relatively easy to fix: Just keep working on the game and adding in more content. The challenge is to create more content without spending any money or increasing debts. You want more art? voice acting? sound effects? music? You gotta pay for that... with money you don't have.

#2 is the really hard one. How do you get your game in front of more people without spending lots of money? I have come up with a few key strategies:
A) I need to identify and develop hardware companies in the VR space and create a cooperative partnership with them. I'll make my game compatible with their hardware, and their hardware will have compatible content. It's a win-win for both of us. Hardware sells content, and content sells hardware. If 2000 people buy a unique hardware peripheral, the next thing they'll do is look for quality content to use with the hardware. I want to make sure that Spellbound is at the top of that list everywhere they look.
B) I also need to make my game as "discoverable" as possible. This means that it should be easy for people to stumble onto it. Let's face it. Nobody is going to go into their search bar and directly type in the name of my game and buy it. The only way people know about it is if they accidentally find it. Okay, that's a bad thing to rely on, right? What if... we make it easy for people to stumble onto the game in multiple places? What if we have the game available on multiple online distribution channels? Buy it on Steam! Buy it on Oculus Store! Buy it everywhere! Wherever you buy it, I don't care, so long as I get paid! If I make one sale a day on one channel and that becomes my average across all channels, then I just need to be on 50 channels to make 50 sales a day! (yeah, right)
But, that does speak to the value of diversifying and broadening your footprint and availability.
C) Make game content so good that people will talk to other people about it. This is extra hard for a lone indie with no budget. I'm convinced that there is only *one* way to do this right. I have to tell the most amazing story ever in the history of stories, and I have to keep the world super small and highly polished. Small, amazing story & polished. That's a tall order. Everyone else will beat me on scope. Everyone else will beat me on quality art assets and uniqueness. Everyone else will probably beat me on tech as well, though using UE4 helps even that playing field. A great story is my only chance. I can write, but is it any good? Can I write an epic story which speaks to the very heart and soul of the player? How exactly do I do that in VR? What's unique about VR that no other medium has? What do I need to discover that nobody else has discovered yet? ... short & scary answer: I don't know yet. I just have to have faith in my abilities, hard work and dedication.

In line with my first strategy, I have created a partnership with NullspaceVR. They're creating the Hardlight haptics suit for VR. I got to try it out at their office and get some first impressions. It's pretty cool. They have a vest you wear which has a bunch of rumble packs placed all over your body. The developer can control which rumble packs activate and the intensity and type of the vibration. By selectively controlling the rumble packs, you can create various physical sensations on the players body. In my game, I want players to feel an impact on their body at the precise location a zombie hits them. I think this would heighten the sense of immersion and presence players experience and also work as an additional user interface medium (rather than having graphical damage indicators). The key consideration is that the support for this hardware should be treated as an optional accessory to enhance gameplay rather than a requirement to play -- additional hardware requirements only increase the consumers barrier for entry, and it's already high enough as it is with VR hardware.

I have also started refactoring the artificial intelligence system in my game, for the fourth time now. This may be a mistake, but I'm doing it anyways. It's not broken. It works. But it's too scripted. The current systems are just hard coded expert systems and I don't find them very interesting or convincing, and worst of all, if I want to change behavior, I have to rewrite code. So, I've been doing some hard thinking and designing a new approach to AI. Characters now use "abilities". Abilities are a type of polymorphic action which can be assigned to a creature. If I have a zombie and a knight, I can grant both of them the "Melee Attack" ability. They can both activate the ability, but the creature response to the ability differs by creature type. The ability mostly contains meta data, such as ability cooldowns and timings for effect activations, but they can eventually be treated as "nodes" in a graph. So, I grant a creature a long list of abilities (eat, sleep, melee attack, ranged attack, run away, cast spell, etc) and ideally, it will choose the most suitable ability to use in context to its current situation. How do we determine which ability to use in the current situation? We use a weighted graph (similar to an artificial neural network). Okay, but how do we find the graph weights then? I don't want to run thousands of training simulations to get the most appropriate behavior. Instead, what I really, really want to do is just give a creature a bunch of preferences it wants to satisfy and then it chooses the most important preference to satisfy and figures out what action to take to satisfy it. Initially, the weighted graph would probably be all wrong, so we'd have to run through a few training cycles -- but not too many! The secret sauce would be to use the same graph weight for the same creatures, save them to disc so that learning is persistent through various play sessions, and also share the graph weights with some sort of online database which other brains download. That super smart zombie you are fighting? He's smart because he trained against 1000 online players and he shared his training knowledge with all zombies. At this point, ideally, all I would have to do to get different behavior patterns out of wildly different creature classes, is to tweak their innate preferences and reward systems. Zombies are constantly hungry and crave living flesh. Goblins absolutely love gold above everything else. Dwarves just want to forge stuff out of iron. Demons want to own souls like goblins own gold. Bandits just have a lower moral standard than regular people. etc. etc. Slight tweaks to preference parameters would ultimately result in different behavior patterns and it would slowly get replicated universally across all game clients over time. If I can do this, and just sort of create a sandbox game world, will the AI actors live interesting lives? Will every play through be significantly different? I don't know. It's a lot of extra scope to digest.

The real question is, does the player give a fuck? Or would a scripted AI be "good enough"? Am I engineering stuff that doesn't increase the bottom line? Or am I creating something ground breaking? It's hard to tell. I need money but I also want to make cool stuff at the same time.

Anyways, tomorrow morning I have to fire someone. One of the staff at our ranch has been taking our tools and selling them in town. This is the last straw in a long list of second chances. My younger sister told me something wise: "You get what you tolerate." I can't tolerate theft and the distrust that creates, no matter the sob story. The line has been crossed. I hate firing people, I take no pleasure in it, but it's a necessity for the future success of a business. You know you're ruining someones day/month, but people have to be held accountable for their own actions, good or bad. Running this ranch has been a valuable teacher on the nuances of business and management, but I can't help but feel there are many lessons for me yet to learn.

P.S. I am probably the closest to being a cowboy coder right now.

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