Time for a quick recap of the year. The main thing I accomplished was making a lot of new friends in Barcelona, mostly in the English standup comedy scene. It’s been a great way to meet creative and intelligent people. I don’t know if that’s true in every city, but if you ever move to a new place and want to find an interesting community, the comedians are worth a try. I wasn’t sure whether I was going to stay in Barcelona since I ran into a lot of frustration after the initial honeymoon period, but I think I’m sticking around for now.
The other big event was the announcement of the game I’ve been working on at Oxide. It’s a historical strategy game called Ara: History Untold. We had a private alpha testing phase already and will have a second one soon, but I don’t think I can talk publicly about release dates or anything too specific. I can tell you it’s being published by Xbox Game Studios for the PC, and you can wishlist it on Steam if you like.
Not much else to report. I got to do a bit of traveling, including trips to Toulouse, Madrid (twice), and Stockholm, as well as back to the US. Hoping to do more of that in the year to come. One of the best parts of living in Europe compared to America is how easy it is to get to different countries with their own unique history, culture, cuisine, etc. I also got a properly intense World Cup pub experience during the England-France elimination game, although I stay home sick from the final.
Anyway, it’s been a pretty good year for me overall. Here’s hoping for another one in 2023!
Since my last post, I’ve had the good fortune to be able to move out of the United States. This has been a goal of mine for several years, mainly for cultural and political reasons. It finally became a possibility this year as I attained citizenship in a European Union member state and got a contract job that I can do remotely. I moved to Barcelona, Spain at the start of this month (December 2021).
The move itself was fairly painless, as far as trans-oceanic moves go. I spent months freaking out about whether my cats would make the long indirect plane trip successfully, but it went off (mostly) without a hitch – other than Persephone nearly getting stuck under a big machine in the private security check room. The kitties quickly settled into the new place and are doing great.
So far I’ve had a pretty chill expat experience. Due to the holidays and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been hard to meet new people, but I have gotten a couple opportunities to make friends. I’m hoping that things will pick up next year, maybe after the winter. I haven’t yet decided whether to stay here or move to a different part of Europe – my apartment is leased for 3 months, so I have until the end of February to decide. Barcelona seems like quite a nice place to live though.
As far as my career goes, I did a brief stint on the upcoming F2P mobile game Starborne: Frontiers with the Icelandic company Solid Clouds. They were lovely people, but when my initial contract expired I decided I just wasn’t very interested in working in F2P again… not to mention, I didn’t love how cold it was when I visited Reykjavik in June. Since then I’ve been contracting with Oxide Games on [REDACTED]. I, uh, am under a heavy NDA but let’s just say… it’s… a thing. I don’t think they can break my kneecaps for saying that.
Of course, 2021 was not the best year. In addition to the pandemic and everything else, I had to face the tremendous personal frustration of having my company fail and my project go nowhere. But with the move, I’m hoping to at least have a chance for a fresh start.
‘God save thee, ancient Mariner! From the fiends, that plague thee thus!— Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow I shot the ALBATROSS.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
There’s a lot for me to reflect on from the past year and a half.
I left my job at Mohawk Games at the end of September 2019. I had been unhappy there for months and felt utterly drained, creatively and emotionally. Afterward I decided to take some time off before starting anything new or looking for work, just to decompress.
One week later, an idea came to me out of the blue. Something I felt was brilliant and new. It was such an obviously good idea that it couldn’t fail, as long as I found the right support for it.
The prototype for Severed Sky. Created by Loa and me, with in-game art by Miranda Schneider.
The idea was to take the bones of a turn-based 4X strategy game, reduce your unit count to just a handful, and make every unit a unique character. They would all have their own backstories and develop relationships with each other as they worked together during gameplay. The elevator pitch: Civilization meets Fire Emblem.
I was thrilled to have had another creative idea, and I couldn’t wait to start working on it. Soon I brought on my friend and Sumer partner Loa Gunnars as a co-designer. First, we built a (digital) paper prototype on Tabletopia which turned out to be quite promising. We briefly worked with the writer Tori Schafer, who suggested its “solarpunk” theme. Loa and I immediately took a liking to the genre’s bright, hopeful aesthetic and focus on environmentalism. The game would take place on floating islands and be called Severed Sky.
Game logo design by Jim Alley. Background: concept art by Matt Houston.
But how to find funding? We needed the rest of a team. I proposed working with several of my ex-coworkers from Mohawk, and while they were interested, the one key person who could have easily secured funding for us declined to get involved. After shopping it around a bit we decided the budget was no longer viable, so we scrounged up a more junior team and pitched at a much lower price tag. In the meantime, I secured a small investment from a friend and co-founded a company with Loa: Ancient Mariner Games.
Company logo design by Miranda Schneider.
So we sent our pitches and I reached out to my network, and waited… and waited…
Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean.
…and waited. Ultimately, we sent out 15 pitches and only even heard back from 3 places, all rejections. By now it was March 2021 (the time of writing) and I’d been working on the game for about a year and a half. The team had been patient so far, forgoing work opportunities for the chance to work on something cool that they could have an ownership stake in, but I felt like I owed it to them not to drag it out any longer. Today I sent a message saying that we’re planning to shut the project down and encouraging them to go look for other work.
So what went wrong? I’ve identified five possible failure points: the concept, the prototype, the pitch, the team, and the budget.
Concept: I’ve always felt that our concept was incredibly strong. It’s easy to explain (unlike Sumer) and it combines the cores of two super successful franchises, bringing a new twist to the underserved 4X genre. I almost always got a positive response when I explained it to other people. Nevertheless, I’m biased in favor of my own idea, so it might not be as great as I thought.
Prototype: While the mechanics of the prototype are quite simplified compared to our ultimate vision, I felt like they did justice to the core concept. Especially after Neil Quillen added music/sound and we implemented Miranda Schneider’s art, in my opinion the prototype was quite strong. I don’t think this was the problem.
Pitch: We spent months and most of our investment money working on our pitch deck. However, we could have gone into a lot more detail explaining the core gameplay loop and progression. It’s also possible that my lack of experience and salesmanship harmed us when writing intro messages or filling out pitch submission forms.
Team: Our team had a mix of experience levels, including two members who had never worked in games before and zero who would be considered “senior” at a typical game company. Now in my opinion, we had a surplus of talent and would have had no problem executing our vision. However, I can see why a publisher just looking at the number of years under our belts would have felt otherwise.
Budget: This is the one that kills me. We were asking for a little over $1 million for a 5-person team plus 2 freelancers to work for 2 years. No office rent, low salaries. The sense I get is that this is way too high… but I don’t understand how the hell you’re supposed to bring it much lower. Even if we’d eliminated all expenses but salary, we would have ended up at $750k. I think indie games are supposed to be created by teams who are making virtually no money and just living off their savings or doing it as a side hustle. This was very frustrating to discover.
There’s one other major point to bring up, which is the circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic started just a few months into the development of the game, meaning we never got to pitch it in person at events like GDC. It’s totally possible that this all would have worked out if not for the quarantine. But we’ll never know.
In any case, it’s time for me to move on. I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. The one bright spot is that I’ve recently become a citizen of Austria, which frees me up to live and work anywhere in the European Union. I’ve started scoping out possible landing spots across the ocean. Even though things have been very bleak and I’ve been struggling with my emotions recently, I can still be excited at the possibility of starting fresh somewhere new.
If I’m lucky, I’ll at least have learned something from all this, like the Wedding-Guest in the final stanza of the Rime:
He went like one that hath been stunned, And is of sense forlorn: A sadder and a wiser man, He rose the morrow morn.
At the end of September, I amicably parted ways with Mohawk Games. I wasn’t happy there for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, but I do wish them the best with 10 Crowns. Since then I’ve been feeling a lot better and more creative. I’ve started working on a new prototype that I’m very excited about. My plan is to see how it’s going by the end of the year, then make a decision on whether to continue pursuing it or start looking for a new job.
In other news, in July I took my first trip overseas since Iceland in 2015-2016. This time I went to France. I started in Paris, then visited my friend Pierre’s family castle in La Reole near Bordeaux. From there it was quick stays in Carcassonne, Nimes, Avignon, and Marseille before an early-morning train back to Paris and then home.
Part of the castle in La Reole.
France is as beautiful as they say, in both its architecture and landscapes. I saw a lot of the greatest hits, like the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, Pont du Gard, and Versailles. Except for the Eiffel Tower and Versailles being too crowded, which was my fault anyway for going in summer, they all exceeded my high expectations. Other highlights included Sainte-Chapelle and Napoleon’s tomb in Paris and the Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica in Marseille.
The Eiffel Tower is way bigger and cooler than I thought.
Interior of Marseille’s Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica.
View of Marseille from the Chateau d’If, the island prison from the Count of Monte Cristo.
There was of course a ton of great food, but the clear winner was a dish called cassoulet from Meli et Zeli in Carcassonne. It’s an Occitan specialty and pretty straightforward, just a stew of white beans and meat (in this case a pork sausage and duck leg) served in bubbling hot gravy. Nevertheless, along with the pear-and-goat-cheese tart appetizer, it may have been the best meal I’ve ever eaten.
That’s all I’ve got for now. One random note, Twitter deleted my account because I left it deactivated for too long, so don’t look for me there. Anyway, I may show up at MAGFest or GDC, but otherwise I’m going to be keeping a low profile and focusing on my new game prototype. Until next time!
Hey all, not too much to report since last year. Sumer has been out for the Switch since last April. We’re planning to resume work on the Steam version so we can finish up online play and finally take it out of Early Access. Otherwise, I’ve just been working away at Mohawk. Everyone there is super smart and world-class at what they do, so even though it can be intimidating I’ve been learning a lot. (They’re also really good at games – I’m not used to being one of the lesser gamers in the room!)
I’m about to head off to France for a two-week vacation. I’ll be in Paris for five days and then blazing through several cities in the south. I’ve been spending an hour a day practicing my French on Duolingo – I doubt I’ll be able to have any kind of real conversation, but I’m hoping it will at least help me read signs, menus, etc. It’s also just fun to learn languages in general.
One other thing I got to do this year was to be a Conference Associate at GDC for the fifth time. They have a great community, and I was happy to be able to see old friends and make new ones. Hoping to return in years to come.
Ah, and I also got to be the best man at my oldest brother’s wedding. I successfully stood at the front of the room and didn’t lose or fumble the ring, and my speech at the party seems to have gone over well.
Hi all! I’ve barely posted since I started at Big Huge Games, since there wasn’t much to report while I was working full-time.
First off, my big news: I’ve left BHG and will be joining Mohawk Games at the end of March to work on their upcoming 4X strategy game 10 Crowns. Working on DomiNations, I learned a lot about the massive free-to-play market, but ultimately it wasn’t a good creative fit for me. Mohawk will be a return to the kind of work that made me want to be a designer in the first place. I’m excited to get back into it.
Second, Sumer is coming out very soon for the Nintendo Switch. It’s been in Steam Early Access for quite some time already – the full release will come when we’ve added online multiplayer. The Switch is a perfect platform for the game, hoping it does well on there.
Otherwise, I’ve settled nicely into Baltimore. I’ve always liked small cities, so it’s much more my speed than New York ever was. I made a lot of friends at BHG and intend to keep hanging out with them. Since Mohawk is very close by, I won’t even have to move for the new job.
The kitties are full size now, but at 2 years old they’re still kittens at heart. They each have their favorite toy and distinct personalities – Freya’s athletic and outgoing, while Persephone is a bit more strategic and shy. They’re both very sweet and loving, and having them in my life has been amazing. Here they are chillin on my bed:
I’ve also been cooking up a couple side projects, but nothing really worth reporting on yet. I’ll post updates if those pick up any more steam. That’s it for now – until next time!
Well, it’s been about eight months so… time for an update!
I’m still at Big Huge Games working on DomiNations. So far, I’ve led the design on Expeditions and a few other small features. I also manage two-thirds of our live ops design, specifically our events and limited-time discounts (another designer handles sales).
Adjusting to free-to-play design has certainly been a learning experience and sometimes a struggle, but there’s a lot to like. The company environment is wonderful, and I love working on games based in history. I also enjoy being responsible for a lot of the new text that comes out, including historical descriptions for all sorts of things.
Sumer has been coming along nicely following the successful Kickstarter. We’re constantly adding polish and improving the tutorials and readability. The biggest remaining tasks are an overhaul of the voiceover and adding online play.
The game is currently in closed beta for our Kickstarter backers. We intend to release it Early Access within a few months, and hope to be able to do the full release (including online play) sometime in late 2017.
In more adorable news, I’m now the proud owner of two sweet little kitties! I got Freya and Persephone as kittens back in May, and they’re now playful adolescents. Here they are being silly (Freya is in the foreground):
I don’t really know anyone in Baltimore outside work, but I’m never lonely with my little kitty sisters around. Gotta say, moving around a lot was fun but I’m grateful to be in a more settled situation where I can take care of kitties!
I have very exciting news to share: I’ll be starting as an Associate Game Designer at Maryland’s Big Huge Games in April! This will be my first long-term full-time position at a game studio. I used to love their first game, an RTS called Rise of Nations. Their current game, DomiNations, takes that concept and builds a quite fun free-to-play mobile game around it.
They seem like a really great company, and I’m happy to be going somewhere that will combine my love of strategy games with my love of history. Can’t wait to start!
As for Sumer, we had a great showing at the Indie MEGABOOTH at GDC. We’re expecting to be launching a Kickstarter relatively soon, so keep an eye out! Of course I’ll have to take on a much smaller role now that I’m going to be working at another studio full-time, but I will remain involved with Sumer and Studio Wumpus to some extent.
One of the first orders of business after I get settled in Maryland will be to get a kitten, so hopefully kitty pics are coming up soon.
Major news: We’re going to be showing Sumer at the Indie MEGABOOTH at GDC this year!
The MEGABOOTH is a showcase that appears at festivals and conferences to highlight exciting new indie titles. Only 15 games were accepted into their GDC showcase, so it’s quite an honor and a great opportunity for us.
It’ll be up and running all week, so if you’re going to GDC this year, stop by and check it out! I may not be there myself, since I was lucky enough to be selected as a Conference Associate again, but the rest of Studio Wumpus will be around.