Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Making Lemons Into Lemonade

Hi all. Thanks for following my musings. This edition is less about Power Up and more of an introspective on where I am in the real world, how this is impacting on Power Up and generally why I do what I do. It's a bit real and as usual it's a bit off the cuff. If you think you can hack it, let's get to it...

Notes from a back bedroom - This is how we indies roll.

So you know me as Mike, the guy behind Psychotic Psoftware. Here's a little more about me outside of that role. As you probably know, I work as a games artist. The last I heard, my official title is Lead Artist (though these days, I'm never sure they made that official) and I work for a small mobile games company just outside of Stoke-On-Trent. I'm on a bit below the UK national average wage and I'm told that this is because Stoke is one of the countrys poorer areas. Turns out there's not much games industry here and outside of my current employer my skills aren't in demand.

Workwise, I'm versatile with my art styles and pretty organised. When times are good, I'm leading a team of about 3 people in making multi resolution art for lots of games at the same time. This incorporates everything from 3D, pixel popping and vector art to claymation and covers everything from in game assets to UI, device icons and marketing materials.

When times are bad, the company lays off those other artists and I alone take on the majority of the workload, which I meticulously organise to have it done on deadline.

...When times are really bad, the company stops paying outsourced musicians and puts my composition and production skills to work too. It's understood that these extra skills come at no extra charge. Contrary to popular belief, there appears not to be a lot of money in the UK games industry. I've heard employers say that we're trading wealth and job security for the work that we love. and that's almost true...

Accepting this I continue to make the boss' game ideas. Mostly small casino, boardgame, card or puzzle games that I wouldn't usually play... That said, I'm informed by smarter people than myself that other people love the games!

These people must be right however, because despite the grind and the mounting list of Cons over Pros, these games pay my bills and keep a roof over my head...

This said, no matter how hard you try, there's no lying to yourself. Not really. And sometimes it takes people who love you to point out when something's really beginning to affect you.

Last year, my partner mentioned that without realising it, I had begun to think of my job, and indeed the current culture of the UK games industry in the manner that the victim of an abusive relationship does their partner. I raised arguments to the contrary, and accepting that there are fundamental differences she maintained the core of her argument suggesting that if I couldn't bring myself to leave the industry, I needed to rediscover my love for it and get some real pleasure back out of making games. After all, who's going to love my work if I don't?


What did I do about it?

Have a read of some of my previous posts and you'll hear all about the practicallities of how Power Up started life. The game was born out of a hobby that was previously just a spot of tinkering, but there was more to it than that. Something much more emotive, visceral and personal. As I progressed with it, it started it to fill a void in my professional work which I felt that small soulless social puzzle games with a failing emphasis on generating income had created in recent years.

I had become consumed by a sense of loss over all the great things that made up great games of my youth. Chip tunes in a warm cozy bedroom at the back of mum's house. Joysticks, rubber keys, tape decks, loading screens, the clunk of cartridges, drawing labels on my disks, the sounds of loading and the comraderie of my likeminded friends.

I can remember the way places smelled, the way rooms were lit. I remember four players around the Ninja Turtles machine in the GX superbowl when the cowabunga bug kicked in and we all got millions of lives. The awesomeness of Strider sprinting down the second level mountainside amidst rampant explosions and truly excellent musical score (still my favourite moment in all versions of that game), and the sheer dread I felt watching the spinning blade moving ever closer to the ninja's face in the gruesome and totally moving continue sequence on the Shadow Warriors machine!

Making Power Up unlocked something and this outpuring of reminiscences of the soul forced me to recall christmas at my mate Dan's house, when he unveiled his new Amiga and the intro to Bart versus the Space Mutants was the most incredible piece of animation we'd ever seen... Until we discovered Deluxe Paint of course. Then there was that feeling when me, my brother and the lads from down the road slept over and made a mission out of completing Kings Keep for the Spectrum. A wonderful game that now seems lost to living memory.

But it wasn't just the loss. It was the isolation.

None of the people in my life seemed to relate. Even the people who shared it only recalled shards of the video games experience. Almost all of the magic had faded in the mundanety of modern life and gaming values. My brother plays Fifa now. That's his games collection. Stacks of Fifa from previous years. I don't think Dan even plays anymore. Years ago he left his Amiga at my mum's. I think he gave it to me for the parts. ...Dan, your Amiga is here. It's in the same condition you left it in at my mums house and takes pride of place on the shelf next to mine. If you ever want it back man...

Yeah, yeah. So all this is totally a crisis of the loss of youth. Textbook! God knows I'll be nightmare when I hit 40 and the midlife thing kicks in properly.

The trouble with all this was that I felt like I was selling my skills and soul at below the national average! ...And every working day was becoming a reminder. I could only reconcile that for my worklife if I gave myself something back. Power Up has become my first real attempt to do just that.

For me, Power Up really is a labour of love. I come home from work spend a little time with my nearest and dearest, then two nights a week, retire to a little desk in the back bedroom of our half-renovated house and set to work. While I work, I'm totally absorbed by the evolutionary directions my game is taking and I'm dreaming that one day I might be able to find a niche market for people who like it and my future games.

Maybe it's people like myself, who grew up on the mechanics and principles of the 16-bit computer and console era and feel the real love for those games and memories that I do.

Maybe I can help to reawaken that love in those who've forgotten it like my old friends. That can only ba a good thing right? ...It's a nice feeling.

Maybe it's for people who love to share and invest in one person's journey in making all aspects of a game from start to finish, possibly with a view to even doing it themselves.

Maybe the gap I'm filling is just someone's desire for something homemade and rough around the edges. You know, a bit less commercial and a bit more human.

I haven't put my finger on it yet. I just know it's all come from a thirst to create something of myself, for myself, that makes me feel like I did in those halcyon childhood days.

(Incidentally, I'd love to know if there's anything that particualrly drew you to my work. I'm immensely greatful that it has and I'd like to try and do it more... whatever it is! :D)


Wouldya believe that while I work, I even allow myself to hope I might eventually build Psychotic Psoftware and the games I make under that name to be something of value. Providing stabillity for my family's future while bringing some of the best feelings and memories of my youth back for lots of people to experience with me.

These are high hopes indeed, but if you've been following me for any period of time, you've have probably gathered by now that I'm tenacious, multi-skilled and extremely hard working. Family asside, there's nothing I love more than the recapturing and sharing the magic I felt through my early experiences with computer/video games.

With all that in mind, Power Up is looking quite promising, and at least I have a relatively rewarding day job to pay the bills while I work on it, eh.


Er... No!!

So as of new year's day, I'm unemployed.

Yep. You read that right. I got the official word early November. After six and a half years of steady employment, the cash ran drier than ever for the games company I work for and the rug was pulled on the Art Department (me). I'm not surprised. a few months earlier, my workload had been increased to get a few projects done in advance of the programmers so I was half expecting it eventually... saaay, Spring or Summer 2013?... Not this soon!

The whole thing stirred up quite a storm of emotional memories for me... and totally oposite to the warm, fuzzy sort we just discussed.

I experienced my first redundancy back in 2002. "No problem" I thought, I was living at mum's with no dependants so with very little experience, I had a go at starting a new games company with a former colleague. I won't go into the details but after four years, it failed spectacularly to pay off and ultimately, I was dropped for more experienced artists with specific skills in their field. Quite right from a business standpoint, though the company continued to decline and eventually went under.

It took a lot of pulling myself together to get over the trials of that company. It introduced me to my first taste of accute anxiety disorder and all the chemical fun that comes with it. Looking back as a more mature and level headded adult, it's a mindset I'll never allow myself to return to, but by the same token I'll probably never quite be able to fully leave it behind. Those scars run pretty deep.

I've fixed a lot of the damage I caused myself back then. Quitting my 40-a-day smoking habbit was one of my little victories. Getting off the Xanax and finding the perseverance to get another job was another. Not to mention working extremely hard to become invaluable within that role.

When these last guys made me redundant, they had to close the art department to do it... which speaks highly to my self esteem.

But enough about how this stuff effects my fragile ego.


Let's not forget there's a mortgage to pay here.

So, to business... previously, I'd hoped that Power Up might actually make me some money. with luck, eventually I'd be able to sustain myself from my games. But I'm not ready!

Power Up is not ready!

Like I said, the real issue is that I wasn't expecting this redundancy thing quite so soon! I was planning to release Power Up in the Spring. Here in the UK, that's somewhere between March 1st and May 31st. Quite a decent window really.

However, to do that, I was accounting for three months of QA time. Having never submitted to the AppHub and having heard horror stories of developers waiting for weeks to get their much-needed feedback, I decided that three months would cover that. Of course, to give myself three months would mean making my submission in early January to get the game out in early March.

While we're talking dates, I should probably point out that as my employer had my services for 6 and a half years, I'm entitled to statuatory redundancy pay of 6 weeks at a capped ammount that ultimately comes out just slightly over my monthly salary. That's due to be paid at the end of January and will cover our mortgage for the start of February.

What I'm trying to say is this. If I don't have a job or source of income by the end of February, we can't pay our mortgage for the beginning of March and these uncertain times become just scary!

So there's the reality of the situation. Now you know.


So what the heck am I doing about it?

Now that I'm out of work on garden leave I was hoping I could just get stuck into Power Up... maybe even have it out early, but things are never that simple. There's a few things on my to do list alongside the game and I wish I could give them a lower priority. To give you guys a taste into the real life problems of this one man indie game developer, I'll share the brunt of it with you.

1. - get the office job-ready.

A bigger chore than it seems. But if I want to be organised and doing 8 hour days to get through this to-do list, I've got to have a decent space to work in. While I've cleaned out a bit of this back bedroom, I'm still surrounded by the debris of a house under renovation. 8 hours a week is ok but 8 hours a day in here would drive me stir crazy! Luckily, when we bought this house, the clincher was that it came ready equipped with a seperate office built onto the back. For the last few months it, and the garage have been out of action due to the sheer volume of storage in there. I'm currently in the middle of the clearance. So far I've made nine trips to the tip and the next pile to-go is building up.

I might be able to fit the rest of this job in around Power Up work but I'll need at least tomorrow to make the office ready to use.

Even Topsy says "Hey Dad. Let's ditch this joint and get a proper office."


2. - Apply for jobs.

If I do manage to get Power Up out early, there's still only a minute lottery-win chance that it'll take off and make me the sort of money I need for my continued existence. I will need to work. I'm thinking of this as a chance to renew my acquaintance with the games industry.

That said, I have to figure out why I'm so at odds with it. I came of age at a time when video games were transitioning from 2D to 3D. Drawing skills were replaced with modelling skills while UK colleges and universities were behind the times, providing no courses in anything video game related to my generation. To get into games, I had to teach myself what I needed to know, and there are rather a lot of sub-trades. I'm a jack of many of these. I'm a master of none! In an industry favouring expertise in very specific skillsets, perhaps there's a company out there that needs my self taught, rounded set of skills.

With that in mind I've been applying for a job a day. As my daily feed of industry sites brings in jobs for the day, I'm choosing the one closest to my skills and having a crack at it. I won't lie though. I'm not particularly confident. I'm keeping notes and having sent off 49 applications to date, the ammount of interviews I've been offered is zero. Still, Rome wasn't built in a day. It was my tenacity that earned me my last job and my hard work that kept it. I'll continue to do my best here.

Add to this section of the list a much needed update to my portfolio website and showreel, and we've added another 3 days of work to my to-do list.


3. - Have something else going on.

My family have all put their ten pence worth in on what I should do next and they're all in agreement that I really need to have more than just this Psychotic thing on the go in case I can't get another job before the money runs out.

As it happens, this summer we went away for a week. We left our cats with a catsitter. you know, someone who comes in once a day to feed your animals and generally check that you haven't been burgled. She did a great job so we got her a card to say thanks. In it, I drew a little cartoon of our cats saying "fank you". Then I forgot all about it.

A few weeks later, the lady contacted me, asking if I would do her a logo for her dog walking, pet sitting service. I looked into prices and found there might be a good, if irregular living to be made in designing vector art for small companies. I did the logo and she loves it. Every now and then, my artwork comes zooming by on her van and that's a kick, I can tell you.

Anyway, the family are determined that I should go at that. I'm not sure where to start or how long starting that up would take out of precious Power Up time, but it's there on my to do list.

(Again, if any of you guys have had experience in that sort of thing, I'd love to hear about it).


4. Keep my promise and get Power Up ready for a new year submission!!

I've been on garden leave for a week now. That basically means I'm at home, doing my own thing but still on call if the company need me. I spent that week lifting, dragging, breaking, tipping everything I could remove from our home and office to get my workspace organized.

The whole time I was thinking of what I could have been doing on Power Up and how long I'd have to allocate to each task. The flu bug I caught on Thursday is still slowing me down but the job is almost done. Hopefully, this blog is one of the last little tasks I'll be doing in this back bedroom. My next port of call tomorrow is to move this one horse operation out of the house and into Psychotic HQ.

Once there I'll be clearing up the above to-to list into a set of achieveable tasks and dates.
I will have the game submitted in the new year... Just now that real life has taken priority, by new year I mean sometime in January.


Thanks for sticking with me guys. I won't let you down and allow these troubles to stand in the way of progress on the game. I'll continue to do my best by my family and by you. Power Up will get every free time hour I can spare from my incessent hunt for work. Maybe a job will turn up and all the worry will be over nothing. In the meantime, I'll endeavour to maintain a sunny disposition and in the words of my favourite self-redeeming antihero, the Count of Monte Cristo:

...we wait, and hope.