New Frontiers: Intro to indieGeoff

TL;DR: Starting the journey to become a game designer/developer in 18 months

Background

Video games have always been a passion and interest of mine. From my childhood I remember most vividly being about 8 or 9 years old, and building (what I felt were) massive Ancient Egyptian cities in the game Pharaoh. I was in a huge phase of being interested in ancient civilizations. This brought my interest to life, where I was able to interact with ancient city systems and aesthetics in a totally engaging way. 

Pharaoh (video Game) — Have You Played... Pharaoh?
Pharaoh – Impressions Games (1999)

My interest in these games would persist outside the screen, when I would be inspired to doodle cities in class or make presentations on some-or-other aspect of Ancient Egypt. And games would continue to be a huge facet of my life to present, influencing my appreciation for aesthetics (including sound), narratives and systems. 

I’m more of a dabbler than a completionist: I like trying out many games from many diverse genres, but a few have had huge staying power. The Fallout series, Half Life 2, Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Red Dead Redemption are some of my favourites from an aesthetic and narrative standpoint. The Civilization, Age of Empires and Anno series are some of my favourite strategy series. But I credit SimCity and other tycoon and economy-building games like Dyson Sphere Program for encouraging a love of systems that helped bring me to where I am today in my education. Over Covid, I have taken gaming to be a main hobby. And I love it.

The bottom line is: games have probably been my most influential form of media over my lifetime. But I never really thought to look under the hood and think about how this magic was presented on screen, or how it was built. 

Until now.

This blog will chronicle my quest to change that ignorance: by learning to make my own games. 

I want to start a career as a game designer and developer and I am fortunate enough to be able to take time, rather than attending college or university for another degree, to learn these skills and build a portfolio on my own.

My goal is to learn as much as I can about making games in an 18 month period, with 6 sub-goals:

  1. Make, on average, one game per month (can be as simple as a pong clone) 
  2. Make a 3-month timeline game prototype 
  3. Make my own 6-month timeline game from concept to market launch
  4. Do at least three Game Jams
  5. (possibly) do an internship at a studio
  6. Start a career in interactive experiences:
    1. Start job in the industry as a designer (and perhaps a designer specialized in economies – it is a thing I promise )
    2. Start a game studio for economy-building games or a consultancy for game economies

These are big goals, and they have to be broken down into chunks. So this is what this blog is about: to chronicle my successes and failures in this effort, to put my process out in the world and elicit advice and feedback from those more experienced than me, and perhaps inspire others to take on their interest in games (or anything else, you can do it!). 

Most importantly, this blog is to keep me motivated, on track and self-reflective about my learning. There are all the tools in the world out there to make games, most of them for free, so it’s really about keeping focused that allows you to take advantage of them.

In this post I want to talk about three things:  

  1. “Why Now?”
  2. “What have I done so far?”.
  3. “How might I form the next steps?”

You might wonder why I am putting this idea out there so early. These are huge goals; do I even have a chance of accomplishing them? The reason for posting is because I want to learn to learn more effectively and more efficiently. If you have tips for doing this kind of learning, or doing learning of this kind better – please let me know! gcevamyhill [at] gmail.com

Why now?

Background

I am currently a student at OCAD University in Toronto taking the Master of Design in Strategic Foresight Program. Over the course of this program I’ve met amazing people and done design, futures and systems projects in group projects on topics as diverse as: strategic planning for airplane manufacturing, the future of food, collective intelligence for economic development, Canadian innovation systems, toy sales and marketing, AI and democracy, the past and futures of economic planning, and the future of biodigital convergence. I hope to be adding this portfolio to my website soon!

I’m reaching the end of this amazing experience by completing my Major Research Project (MRP). Unfortunately for the timing of my completion of the degree, but very fortunate for the subject of this blog, I had to pivot away from my original research topic in early April. The topic was “The futures of economic planning in Canada – 2041”. I won’t get into it too much (I’ll one day post as much of a draft as I got to before I pivoted on my main blog here), but I ran into problems. 

To be fair, I love the topic. But it just wasn’t suited for the type of exploration that was needed. The biggest drawback is that nobody wanted to talk to me about it. Nobody accepted my interview requests. I quickly lost passion for the specific instance of the project itself. I simply couldn’t write any more on it.

So I had to move on, but when one door closes – another opens. Serendipity awaited.

Spark

Around the time my initial project topic was imploding, I saw a video from Polygon (a games news website) on YouTube about “SimCity’s Black Box”. I watched it and it got the gears turning – it was about the influence of game systems on player’s thinking. It made a claim that the city building game SimCity was originally designed based on a flawed set of assumptions in city planning, and this was influencing generations of people – especially planning professionals. It intrigued me so much because I had written an essay on a similar topic back in 2014 for a Philosophy of Economics class, entitled: “Consumer-grade simulations: economies in single-player computational games”.

Polygon 2021


I noted my reaction to this video, I was hooked in. I started to look into more information about the procedural rhetoric of games – a concept I had encountered in a 2014 uWaterloo English course that I adored. Procedural rhetoric refers to how games can be persuasive due to their mechanics – not just their aesthetics and narrative. I ended up finding a podcast from Psychology and Games about a researcher who was looking into the psychological reality of procedural rhetoric. With these concepts matched up, I was able to land on a new topic combining economics with game design: “Flourishing Consumer-Grade Simulations: a toolkit for designing new economic models into single-player economy-building games”. It’s about how we can introduce fun models based on ecological economics into games. I will be posting a little bit more about this project in future, but mainly waiting for it to be finished in August 2021.

Not only did I have a new topic that lent itself better to design and foresight research – I had released a passion. As you can see partially by other content on my website ( like the concept art for the game Pax that I have come back to for over a decade; or the idea for a modification for one of my favourite city-building games Workers and Resources: Soviet Republic, that I posted to my blog last year), I have been interested in this for a while. 

Photo 2012-09-19 9 07 44
Pax Concept Art – gceh (2014?)

I’ve been learning to program for the past 8 months (after many attempts since 2010), I’ve always had a love for design, and I am a long time artist. What better way to bring it together through game development. So I decided to look into the game design and development in parallel to my academic research. I thought about how maybe I could do a PhD in Game Studies as my next degree. But I realized, I just want to actually make games. I want to have a tangible skill and realize some of my creative ideas across disciplines. In the long run, I didn’t want to just talk about games – I want to make them. And I realized it doesn’t have to be only other people making games, it really could be me too.

I’ll talk about what made me realize that I could learn these skills on my own in the next section.

What have I done so far?

The last few weeks have been an amazing time of discovery. Initially, I was thinking that maybe, if my research project was successful, I could become a consultant for economy design in games. I could bring a pluralist economics insight into fun mechanics to game design. Or do a PhD in Game Studies. But that all changed when I coincidentally saw an advertisement for a Narrative Designer position for Anno 1800 by Ubisoft – a global game studio in Germany. 

I thought, “Why not apply? I love that game dearly and it’s worth a shot.” So I put together my first game industry application. The result truly surprised me: the application was solid from my perspective. I saw that I did have relevant experience over the years and a very interesting portfolio to tell stories in games. While I was swiftly rejected, it opened up a new sense of the possible.

Iterated Inspiration

On April 26, just a couple weeks ago, I was walking down the waterfront in downtown Toronto, thinking about how I could eventually create design briefs based on some of the case studies I am using for my masters work by applying some of the ecological economics ideas. It then occurred to me that I could turn one of my favourite essays I wrote, “The impact of Zero-Sum Thinking on the failure to implement a “Soviet Internet” and its lessons.” into a simple and fun game itself. I had done something like this as a modification for one of my favourite games Workers and Resources: Soviet Republic (a city builder) and you can read it here, but I wanted to create my own thing.

Workers and Resources: Soviet Republic – 3Division (2019)

I named it, in my phone notepad, OGAS: the planned economy simulator (click the link to the Wiki for more info). The basic idea is that you would be a planner in the Soviet Union, trying to introduce the computers to replace you and do the planning. You would have to manage the growth of GDP with the accompanying growth of information to process. If you failed to process the information before the computers arrived, GDP and the nation would collapse, as (very) arguably happened in real life.

When I returned home, I immediately got out the sketchbook and sketched out some of my ideas – iterating and iterating and getting some of the user interface down. My goal was how to turn the concept into something of a game both in terms of design and mechanics.

The next day, I went to the online whiteboard tool Miro and worked through some of the mechanics further. I then took my shot as to what a user interface could look like. I realized that some of my initial graphical ideas were way too far outside my skill range at the moment, so I took inspiration from the web-baser javascript-language clicker game Universal Paperclips. This is a viral game where you progressively click the numbers of paperclips up to eventually consume the whole universe! I thought: what if mine was a clicker game where you had control to drive some numbers up, some down, but the numbers affected each other like a rock-paper-scissors relationship.

Working through ideas visually with Miro

After that, I was stumped as to where to go. I was still trying to figure out how to model these mechanics to see if they were fun, and to work through how I might code them with my limited Python (a coding language) skills.

Then, through research, I discovered a tool called Machinations. This tool helps to model in-game economies of resources (whether they are simulated health or dollars) and find balance in their design. It was free to try, so I tested it out. Further iteration occurred – and this was the result:

The tool animates these relationships and even allows you to interact with them. I iterated a basic manifestation of the game that I found surprisingly fun and challenging, despite how simple it was. But it was not playable by others. This was just my design that I would use for a design brief (which I created) and for upcoming portfolios.

Or so I thought.

Engine Realization

This is where I caught the bug, and was the beginning of my decision to start my self teaching 18-months of GeoffU.

I had heard of game engines, even free ones like Unity. But I had always thought they were something I would approach down the line, when I had a stronger grasp on programming. Game engines, by the way, are tools or platforms that allow you to build a game. Out of curiosity, I started researching “free beginner game engines”.

And boy, was I surprised.

I found a treasure trove of engines I had never heard about before. Some completely free forever, the rest inexpensive, or with free trials. I compared them closely, and ended up choosing the free trial of GameMaker Studio 2. I chose this because it was drag and drop code (which means you can code visually by “dragging and dropping” different logical elements), and I think I just liked the user interface. Also, it emphasized 2D which was key for this project.

I started, and I was confused. So I looked into YouTube and found a tutorial on how to make a basic Asteroids game. I followed it, and the first thing I learned from that and some other tutorials was that drag and drop is a pain, won’t teach you to code, and will become more complex over time than coding. So I followed the tutorial in GML – a simple coding language that exists in that platform (based on JavaScript I believe).

I followed along, and I was hooked. It was so much fun! Here’s the final product below:

my “space rocks” game – from following an official tutorial

Setting good foundations

When I was finished I knew I needed to turn my own game into reality. So I did, and here are the results of CYBERSOVIET (still missing the art, but that will come). It’s fully playable and decently fun for how simple it is, in my opinion. I hope to have something shareable in the next couple weeks. It has a main menu, one win condition, and three lose conditions. I was so proud.

However, I realized the limitations of the Game Maker engine. I was hearing that the language was so simple that it was easy to build bad habits. And that there were limits to what could be accomplished, for instance it was only in 2D. I knew about Unity, and now with the bug of game making in me, I knew it was time to upgrade to learn the programming language C# and move forward with Unity. That’s what I’m muddling through with now: following tutorials! More updates on that to come next week 🙂 .

Learning to Learn

All I hear and read is that there has never been a better time to start learning how to make games. As soon as I realized what I was on to in terms of my interest, I applied to the Game Design Postgraduate Certificate at George Brown College and looked into some other Game Programming diplomas. But I realized through a lot of research: at this point in my life, I can likely learn this myself more efficiently and effectively, and come out with a stronger portfolio. Also, an important point was opportunity cost and flexibility. That is really what set me off on the journey for indieGeoff (AKA Independent Game Geoff University).

There are an abundance of resources for learning and free tools to bring that learning into reality. I’m building a strong foundation: I’m 40% through the CodeAcademy C# course already. I had bought a student membership over the winter, and I started this course last week. I am following YouTube tutorials and learning from videos, and also using the official Unity Learn. I will be sure to share these resources in weekly posts or highlight them in individual posts. 

Most excitingly, next week I will be attending Toronto Game Jam and making a game with people over a weekend! I can’t wait! And I am so excited that a game design friend who is also learning C# and I will be checking in every two weeks to share our learning. I think this will really help.

Next steps

So you’ve made it this far, thanks and well done. I promise that this is the exception and not the rule in terms of length. I just wanted to set the background for posterity.

I’m working on next steps. I hope to make a post next week on my formal learning plan and share as much of that as possible. Part of why I wanted to get this out there was to elicit feedback on my goals and plan, and apply the feedback to a more detailed learning plan. I would love your thoughts!

I hope that if you are reading this and you are starting your game development journey, or any other passionate journey, that it will give you inspiration. 

Remember you can always contact me through my social media channels, like @gceh on twitter. There are more socials on the bottom bar.

Finally, I want to note that I am not limiting myself to games specifically. I am interested in all types of simulations and interactive experiences.

So, my mission:

TO APPLY MY SYSTEMS THINKING CAPACITIES IN CREATIVE PROJECTS INTEGRATING ART, SCIENCE, FORESIGHT AND DESIGN IN THE FORM OF INTERACTIVE DIGITAL EXPERIENCES.

My goal:

TO BECOME A GAME DESIGNER/DEVELOPER IN 18 MONTHS THROUGH SELF-STUDY, PRACTICE AND JUST MAKING A LOT OF STUFF.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you will follow along on this journey!

Best,


Geoff

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