Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Change of Direction (Again!?)

Incoming rant! I feel like I'm posting about this every five years or so.

So in July of 2015, I relocated to Las Vegas for an awesome career opportunity - Las Vegas has small commute times compared to Southern California, tech jobs abundant, and 'all you can eat' buffets for miles, and cheaper living expenses. (Don't get me started on studio apartment prices in Los Angeles.) And it's close enough where I can take a 2.5-3 hour trip back to Southern California to meet my team. On some weekends, I would beat my friend to San Bernardino from his work in Los Angeles leaving at the same time. Anyway -- For the next five years I got to live the awesome bachelor life, and I don't regret any of it. (Ok, well, maybe SOME of the buffets.)

The COVID pandemic really has me re-thinking my direction. Now there's no commute times at all, tech job opportunities are remote and a lot more sparse, and buffets are non-existent (who needed all that processed food anyway?). Why am I still in Las Vegas? There's not much of a reason to be when all the things that enticed me to the city are not really relevant to my situation any more.

Based off the inconsistency of how the government and business leaders are handling this, (of course none of us know what's going on), how am I to trust them with what's going to happen to my opportunities and my life in the next three months? Two months? Next week? 

I'm not going to.

I say this as I sit here with Selatria being worked on constantly for the past 9 years. I don't think I've been giving the project what it needs to really get it done, so since the pandemic started I began really crunching down on finishing the damn game. When things were going well, I saw the studio as something that I could rely on as side revenue or extra money when I'm older. But if I can't trust our economy to get through this depression we're going through, I can really only rely on my own projects and my own aspirations.

During what was to be E3 week, I took some time off from my day job, went to San Bernardino and locked myself in the (physical) studio for a week just hacking away at the Selatria backlog. Where do you draw the line between things you feel need to be cut and things that are essential? I used that time to figure that out. A lot of stuff I've been sitting on I finally got to sit down and work on it, but I still feel like it needs some more time.

As of this writing the metrics consider the game to be "93% complete" with about 178 tasks left to go. If I had to give a more accurate non-metric number based off my gut, I'd say Selatria is more 70-75% done. We still have about one chapter's worth of boss battles, cutscenes and dungeon design to go, and those are the hardest things to implement. This past month having taken a week off, we were able to get 83 tasks done. It's a bit of an outlier given the normal month was like 50-60 tasks a month. So that means about 4-5 months left to go? I wish I could be that optimistic. The closer to completion, the harder it gets to finish.

Our Selatria HackNPlan Metrics


Instead of treating the studio as an increasing hobby, I've been pivoting to make it something where I can actually rely on it to be a business that I can employ others and eventually myself. I'm going to be changing some things to make this happen. I'm going to be stepping down from the IGDA Las Vegas board and resigning my position as chair in August to relieve some of my responsibilities there and going to be spending more time working from the studio physically (but socially distant) in San Bernardino. I'm not going to leave my existing day job for these plans, but I'm going to redesign the studio area so I can seamlessly go from my day job to studio work after the day ends and really continue my pace of hammering out this progress and then move on to some new project ideas I've had brewing on paper. I love the Selatria project and I appreciate the team's ongoing work, but I'm also really excited to finish this and move on to different non-RPG projects after this is finished on a different, more modern game engine.

I really want Selatria, Spellbearers, our future projects, and our other partner projects like Corpse Castle to take off so I don't have to ever be in a situation again where I have to wait for the company I work for or the government to tell me what's going to happen to my opportunities or my income, and not have to be in a position where I have to worry about extremely unreasonable commute times.

I'm extremely fortunate that I can just kind of do things on a whim and still young enough to do it where it doesn't impact anyone except me. If I wait too long and just continue taking this for granted, I feel that I won't be able to do it as easily. But I guess that's the spirit of whimindie and why we have our name, right? I'm excited for this change.

We'll make our own opportunities. And with that, I'll leave you with a fitting quote from Futurama that explains this in a nice tl;dr.




Tuesday, May 19, 2020

I scheduled a staycation - a workcation? Some time to really sit down and hash out my project and clear my head

I've been getting that hopeless feeling in my day job again. I think it's a mix of frustration, burnout, and uselessness. Not based off my personal ability and skill, and not even based off my immediate team members, but mainly because my equipment doesn't work, and no one really knows why and can't really help during the pandemic. That's all I can really say without breaking confidentiality. I really feel like I need some time off to recharge...

...So I've scheduled a week's worth of vacation for my day job in a few weeks
(June 8th-12th) to knock out a significant portion of Selatria's progress. A hardcore Selatria game jam, if you will. I aimed to do this at some remote location but due to COVID traveling that far to an unknown location is just too risky to do this time. So I plan on being in the San Bernardino studio just knocking out tasks going off a priority.
  1. Reviewing content in Testing column and doing whatever it takes to be marked as Complete
  2. Knocking out In-Progress tasks I can't do in a normal workday or too tired to do without stopping.
  3. Giving a LOT of detailed feedback if the task involved is not something I have the skills to do myself.
  4. Start throwing in tasks from backlog that I never had time to get to if I really want this done by November.
The goal is to try and get a first draft of the entire game by year's end and I might be swinging an axe to cut things down or change it as needed. I'm really excited for June and seeing how this is going to go, and really moving the needle on getting the game done and rid of a lot of tasks in the backlog.

I know it's weird to say that work is the one thing that'll really clear my head, but I feel like these mental blocks to get the game done is one additional thing hampering my personal growth and getting a whole week to sit down and work on it without having to wake up at ungodly hours in the morning or walking around for a convention will really allow me to recharge and flourish.

At least I hope so.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Indie Developer Rebranding/Company Image/Acquisition/Buyout Ramble




So I saw the news about the rebrand of Mojang Studios today, and it has me reflecting/reminiscing  on how much their studio (and ours... and me) has evolved. The year Notch released Minecraft to alpha was the same year me as a college student decided to work on games under an (at the time) unofficial "Whim Independent Studios" label. That year was 2009. Due to the original founder's racist, sexist, and homophobic thoughts and opinions (and he has long since left the company), Microsoft made the move to largely downplay the founder's involvement in making it the success that it is, and I understand their decision on that. I would have done the same thing. That being said, I still wonder what he thinks about his indie creation blowing up into this giant phenomenon. While Mojang Studios is now a money-making machine for parent company Microsoft, whimindie is a small indie studio still done largely in our moonlighting time while we work our day jobs.

With the cross of indie games becoming mainstream successes, bigger companies are making pushes to buy out the indie and call their successes its own successes. Well, that's how most acquisitions are supposed to work, anyway.

Some background: As a gamer, I was really saddened by what happened to Rare when they got purchased by Microsoft in the early 2000's. (Rumor has it that Microsoft was even initially celebrating that they got the rights to Donkey Kong. Oops!) Either way, the Rare that existed after Microsoft's acquisition no longer had Nintendo's golden hand in creating the franchises that brought them to the fore-front, and it definitely showed in what I feel was a large decline of their games quality in the years passed. A lot of their awesome talent left, some of them went freelance or banded together and spun off into what's now known as Playtonic. And their games have gotten a lot better and I feel they're underrated. (I'm a huge fan of Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair BTW)

My initial thoughts when forming "Whim Independent Studios" in 2009 was not that it was after my last name or even that we were an indie game developer. Nothing was thought out like that. I gave it that name because I just thought of games on a whim and started creating them, and if one of them became enough of a success that a company would want to acquire the company, good luck, because we're independent. No one was going to take my company and my games away from me and ruin my franchises and company the way Microsoft did Rare. Can you tell bitter 18-year-old me didn't have the long-term business mentality?

It's been 11 years since then, and now I feel like I'm in a crossroads. We're making awesome games, we're making awesome content. What if we were offered a buyout in the future? Would I be willing to part with my stake and have a big company muddy my original visions of my games?

Maybe that viewpoint is still a bit unfair. The Microsoft we see today is a lot different than the Microsoft that existed in 2002. They have had many successful acquisitions since then and know where to leave them alone. They've also embraced cross-platform even more than Sony at this point. I really appreciate them allowing 'Cuphead' and 'Ori and the Blind Forest' on the Switch. Two really awesome games.

There's also the inevitable comparisons that any weird creative pursuit I have after that initial one will always be compared to the one that was the breakout success. Also the concern that what I'm making is on-message or on-brand as a subsidiary or with someone else pulling the strings, and that's almost antithetical to the mindset of an indie game developer. I don't want whimindie (or myself) to be known to just make one type of game. We should be able to make any type of game we want as long as it's fun and multi-platform. (Or maybe that is our message to stick to those two "defining" principles.)

I see things a bit differently now. If someone was willing to buy out my game franchise/company/ideas, I feel like I could eventually go on leave and try something else independently. When I was younger, I was so concerned about someone stealing my concepts or my games that I wouldn't tell anyone about them. Now I'll freely tell my stacks of ideas and diagrams that I know would be successful but no one really cares about doing them. And I know they won't. The really creative people I know have their own ideas and their own pursuits. I don't have time to do my other ideas/plans right now. Maybe I won't have time to ever get to them. I'm still working on finishing a game that was based off a mentality I had 10 years ago, let alone making a game that matches the tastes and views that I have now. Games take a lot of work to do. If someone were to capitalize on only one of my pursuits, I have many more I can follow.



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Saturday, May 16, 2020

Whim Independent Studios - Development Log #51

Hey everyone! This is the 51st development log for the studio. It's been about a year and a few months since the last one. In the 50th development log, I said that I was planning on stopping writing these as we were planning on rolling out more small bite-size updates with the studio through more conventional social media platforms. I've kind of reversed this stance and will continue to add development logs.

In the past year since this last development log we've announced two new games. Spellbearers which we're developing in-house (I'll talk about that a little later), and Corpse Castle which is a game we're publishing by Wicked Cake Games.

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A new look/era for the studio

This week, we had the debut of new look and logo for our studio.


With this new logo, we wanted to have a consistent visual style for different forms of media and a recognizable logo that shows we are involved with making the product. Our new logo and branding was developed by the talented Jessica M. Jacuinde.

Demonstration at Playcrafting!



With the state of where we're at, there's been a large increase in virtual game demonstrations. We were invited to show off Spellbearers and Corpse Castle at the Global Game Night: Made in Los Angeles event. There were a lot of other awesome games there and we are fortunate to have shared the virtual stage with other very talented developers.

You can see the full lineup of Playcrafting games shown at Los Angeles on the Playcrafting website.




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Selatria Announcements

Progress is coming nicely on Selatria. We are currently working on development of the final two chapters. Polishing the second to last chapter and creating cutscenes, boss battles, and dungeon designs for the final chapter.

We are making some quality of life improvements when it comes to the main menu screen. Originally the player would have to navigate to an obscure Exit/Options menu to get to additional Options and Quick Save. We noticed this was being missed by our players who left feedback on Selatria not being friendly to quick/short play sessions.






With the release of the full game, we're making it easier to tweak sounds/visuals in the game and easier to access Quick Save by prominently featuring it on the main menu. Also, features that unlock later in the game will not be pictured in the menu at all instead of being blocked out with question marks. Unfortunately due to the screen size limitation of older RPG Maker games, we had to compromise the size of the area window. For places with large names, we did our best to abbreviate things in a way that makes sense.

Also, it's time to say good bye to "Advent of the Dakk'rian Empire". We released the first half a few years back as a compromise to not being able to hit our funding goals for the full game. We are planning on de-listing the first half to be available for purchase on June 1st, 2020. 

For those who have already purchased it and purchase it before that date, you will be able to play the game indefinitely. We still have plans to allow you to carry over data obtained in Advent of the Dakk'rian Empire to the full version of the game when we announce a release timetable for the full game. The full release will also include all "Advent of the Dakk'rian Empire" scenarios and cutscenes.

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Spellbearers

In general, I think this is the first time I've had the opportunity to really talk about our new game "Spellbearers" on this blog since we announced. Spellbearers is a co-op twin stick shooter inspired by the retro game "Smash TV" but with a medieval Zelda/Castlevania like twist.
Gerren Willis pitched Spellbearers to us as a new game he's been working on after we finished ANTics together a few years back. After hearing the pitch, we were enthusiastically on board and brought on our team's artists, composers, and marketing to help develop the project further!

Though we originally had a playable build at LVLUPEXPO 2020 at the beginning of the year, we kept the first boss a secret... until now.

If you didn't see the Playcrafting show, here's a little bit of what you missed. During the show we showed off the first boss of the game to the public for the first time. The Harlegon! If you missed footage of the game, here are some screenshots.













We'll have plenty more to share about Spellbearers later this year. Please look forward to it!

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That'll do it for this development log. It's good to be posting again. Until next time! Or I'll see you on our Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or Discord! Stay connected. Stay safe.



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Saturday, April 25, 2020

Final Fantasy VII Remake Thoughts

Background:


The original Final Fantasy VII is a game that is really dear to me. It was the game that got me interested in the Final Fantasy series as a whole. I was introduced to FF through a family friend shortly after my mom's passing in 2000. I didn't really know it then, but perhaps I used FFVII and its constant sense of loss in the game to the personal real life loss I was dealing with that the time. Either way, I spent over 100 hours on the original for PlayStation, and the first game where I maxed out the clock timer. Though I've been playing RPGs like Lufia 1 and 2 and Pokémon Yellow before I was introduced to Final Fantasy, so it was not my first introduction to RPGs, but it was certainly the one that started my lifelong love for the genre. Final Fantasy VII is not my favorite Final Fantasy game (hello IX), and I do think it is overrated and the game being milked to death, but it doesn't overwrite the fact that it's an objectively good game. Since FFX-2, I don't play most FF sequels and spin-off games, so I can't give my opinion on how Crisis Core, Dirge of Cerberus etc affects the plot. With that being said, here's my thoughts with the remake.

Remake Thoughts (no Spoilers):

I feel like Final Fantasy VII Remake was a fun polished game from start to the end of this installment. Almost every moment from the original is there, all of the story beats are there. The memorable characters, songs, victory poses, etc all make an appearance in one way or another. The battle system is fluid but simplified from the original. Limit Breaks have been changed to only one per character, are all cinematic (assuming you're in control of that character) and other ones like "Braver" have been shifted to be standard ATB abilities.

I still feel a lot of the game I feel was unnecessarily padded, like the Hobbit film trilogy or like a college student that was assigned to create a 20 page paper and begins to run out of creative steam around page 16 or 17 and feels like they need to add more paragraphs/sentences for the sake of filling in that missing space.

There's nothing inherently bad with linear games, as this section of Final Fantasy VII was linear, and I wholly expected this to be similar, but they did a lot of things to hide that linearity, with sidequests, odd jobs, additional characters, and banter between the main characters after battle. The battle system felt like a polished mix of FFXIII's Stagger system, and FFXV's Active Cross Battle system, and you can tell the team learned a lot from criticism from prior titles of the game. If this game design direction is the future of Final Fantasy, I would be comfortable with that.


Remake Thoughts (Spoilers): (Highlight to Reveal)

Who is Roche and why should I care? I feel like characters were unneccessarily added and then thrown away with little explanation, or perhaps more info about them was cut in final production.

I feel like the Enemy Skill materia was underused throughout the game. From the first moment I obtained it to the end of the game, I was only learned one enemy skill and it was in the third to last dungeon.

I also noticed from a game design standpoint that the enemies tend to favor hitting the character who is mainly in control by the player, so more often than not I switched characters to the one with the highest HP and went from there. The pairing of Manawall with All materia (forgot what it was called in the Remake) also made a lot of encounters really REALLY easy. (I am only speaking from Normal mode) - So I didn't have a lot of issues that a lot of the other editors and reviewers had when they went through their playthroughs. Especially the "dreaded" bloodhound fight in one of the later chapters.

Speaking of later chapters, I honestly feel the last chapter was unneeded. I feel the epic one on one fight with Rufus Shinra and the bike escape could have been it and stopped there, but it seems the writers and game designers wanted a way to resolve the issue with the ghosts. A friend slightly spoiled before I got there that the final boss was going to be Sephiroth, and they tried to put a final epic boss feeling and even reuse parts of the original FFVII, but I really don't think that fits for Part 1. It just seemed convoluted.

In the original FFVII, after the bike scene the party goes to the town of Kalm where they learn more about Sephiroth. It's been 23 years since then and most people know who Sephiroth is now, but I feel the way they handled him throughout Part 1 making him this constant nag rather than a scary background character in the original was un-necessary. I honestly would have kept it the way the original had it and make you get immersed with the feeling Shinra was the main enemy and cut it at the end of the bike chase and as they walk into the wide open world.

A lot of people have hangups about how the ending went with showing Zack being alive still, carrying Cloud to Midgar or with Biggs and Wedge surviving the previously fatal blast. I honestly feel that this is just them in some kind of alternate timeline or a distortion of Cloud's memories. If Zack is still alive, why does Cloud still have his gear and sword? I just think it's a sign of his hallucinations and not necessarily a revision of canon. Or maybe Biggs and Wedge die later on in part 2?

I also really like how you can do a New Game Plus of sorts and be able to go back to prior chapters and previous sections to complete quests or re-gather missing summons.


Conclusion:

Going into this and mentioned multiple times in interviews, we knew that Final Fantasy VII Remake was going to be split into multiple games. What we don't know is how is this going to happen? Will Part 2 be a standalone game like the FFXIII trilogy or FFX-2? Will it operate as DLC expansion packs like FFXI and FFXIV? How will part 2 carry over player progress? When will part 2 be done? How many parts of Final Fantasy VII will there be? As of this post, Square-Enix has remained silent on the issue.

I do recommend playing Final Fantasy VII Remake, both for newcomers and veterans of the series. It does feel like a new Final Fantasy game but with familiar characters and settings. However, I do have recommendations. I don't believe this should be a replacement of the original Final Fantasy VII, but a companion piece to the original. In fact, playing the remake just motivated me to want to get another copy of the original for the Switch. The original still holds up as a game and should definitely not be ignored, even if the English translation is poor and the graphics aged terribly.

I'm also concerned about the future of the series as whole and the way they market things. Do we expect the inevitable next entry to the mainline series to be a split game over multiple installments for the sake of telling a full story with lots of content? We'll have to see how future entries of the Final Fantasy VII Remake saga go. I'm cautiously optimistic.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Stack of Shame got significantly higher

Stimulus and paycheck come on the same day - I may have went a bit overboard... lol

Luigi's Mansion 3
Final Fantasy VII+VIII Physical
Final Fantasy X/X-2
Final Fantasy XII
Witcher 3
Skyrim
Megaman 11
Captain Toad's Treasure Tracker
LA Noire
Astral Chain
and a new game rack to hold it all - all for Switch

With money left over for savings, bills, financial obligations, and the like. If I'm going to be trapped at home for the foreseeable future, might as well make it fun and help the economy.

Oh, and I'm also donating to the WHO as a rebuttal to our president for putting blame on everyone but himself for the way he's handling the pandemic in the United States. You can donate to help the response fund here: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/donate

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Quick thoughts on Coronavirus and work from home culture

The Coronavirus is the biggest disruption in daily life I've seen since 9/11. This is really crazy and scary times. I am concerned about my family, friends, and my team. Hopefully we'll make it all through this. Stay safe. Don't panic. We'll get through it.

Due to my introversion, I've gotten a lot of work done at my home as opposed to being around people. I wonder how this is going to change how we view work from home going forward. I hope for the better.