|Sometimes You Just Can't Win - An In Depth Look|
I'm assuming by reaching here, you've finished the game. If not, please do, as I think it gives more context and weight to the rest of this page and what I'm going to say.
If you're ok with spoiling the game (not much to really spoil really), or just don't care much for playing it (and I can understand), please read on.
First, an apology
First off, let me apologize for the what you've just played. I am, by trade, a designer first, and programmer second. I really don't have any business doing actual art or music, and I'm sure outside of maintaining some sort of "bad cohesion", the game's forced pixel art style and bad imitation chip tunes are offensive to all senses. I've had numerous offers from friends and other people wanting to help me out when I said I was working on a game, which I had politely declined. This "game experience" cannot be what it is with other people's involvement, which is why I had to do everything myself.
Basically, this game cannot be my story if it's not told entirely by me.
Secondly, as a game, it wasn't that good. I'd admit it myself. Although on paper, I've spent around 7 months on this, the bulk of the time has been on technical aspects of coding, project building, art, etc, and not really on design, which was what I really wanted to work on. The in game menu system, for example, was concepted within 3 days, without a prototype version (which is a big no-no in design). The actual gameplay driven events, hilariously, was done within 24 hours of shipping the game out. It's tested in a way that "it's playable", and "evokes the feelings and experience" I wanted out of it.
Essentially, this game is the type of game that I'm not a fan of: a game that holds the story and the "feelings" first, before the core gameplay mechanic. The basis of interesting mechanic and dynamics is somewhere deep, but it's not the point of this game, and I'm ok with that: this game tells a personal story.
Lastly, and mostly importantly, I hope no one who's involved feels offended by what I've said. I knew what the story was going to be about, and the player reaction I was hoping to evoke, but I was still surprised at how dark it got. Specifically, I hope no one feels like I've thrown them under the bus for something they did for me or to me - because at this point, it's all water under the bridge at this point, and for me, it's more of a talking point that a statement of blame.
With that out of the way, let's get to business.
So, why Sometimes You Just Can't Win?
For the longest time I was still employed, I had always thought about how I was going to quit (and more importantly, when I was going to quit). The daily grind was getting on my nerves, and I had been thinking about what elaborate ways I could leave and make an impact for other people. As a designer, it was clear that I was going to make a game of some sort about it/for it.
And I wasn't the only one thinking that way: around the same time, there were a few of these "games" that popped up too that supported this idea, notably William David's Leaving and Farbs' message to 2K. I would like to acknowledge here that the idea of me doing a game about me quitting wasn't born in a vacuum.
But wait, you didn't quit, you were let go!
And life is never perfect either, you just roll with it.
While the idea of making a game for when I was going to quit was always on the back of my mind, I had never really thought about when it was going to happen. When wrapping up on Warriors: Legends of Troy, I had seriously contemplated looking for another job already, but I was more than willing to stick around if I could finally see an original project through from start to finish (something I had yet to do at that point). When I was let go, I had thought about coming back to this game idea again, but it now has to be something different.
As you can tell after playing the game, it's no longer "I quit", but rather a artistic interpretation of what had happened, and what would have led to me quitting. For me, what happened in real life wasn't how it was suppose to end, and it lacked closure.
For me, this is therapy, a proper closure.
But I've jumped ahead too far now, so let's start from the beginning...
In the beginning...
I won't bore you with the details of how, but back in 2007, straight out from University, I got a job at Koei Canada (name was changed after the company merger) as a programmer. It was always an "accidental job", because as far as I know, I was not their first choice (or second, third, fourth, or fifth). In fact, it took at least one person to turn down the offer for me to get the job. I knew I wasn't the best programmer out there (not a big deal), but I was still thankful for the job and opportunity.
My time at Koei Canada was interesting, I've done the odd jobs covering the whole spectrum of things, and slowly moved away from actual programming to all other design/qa/testing/management stuff. For the longest time, I felt like I was batting cleanup for whatever else wasn't high enough priority, and was slowly getting disgruntled with it all already. Yet it was something that one of the lead mentors that said to me that stuck to this day (ok, maybe not in this exact wording), "think of this as training, you get to see all aspects of the project, how long things take, what's involved, and it gets you a better understanding of how things work/can work".
I remember that even back then, I've had people come up to me and tell me I should get out then. They knew I wasn't happy, that I was doing way too much overtime and way too many weekend work, but I refused. In my mind, it was still something new and exciting, it was me paying my dues somewhere, and at the very least, I learn something out of it.
Dragging my foot
Eventually I bounced around to different projects, and slowly drifted away from programming and into the more general designer (planner) banner. I've ended up doing 3D modelling work on XSI even though I've never used it before, I've done scheduling for workflow (that I've never done before), and along the way, I've had a fun 2 month crunch time(60 continuous working days, and I think I've worked through some long weekend too!). I was miserable, but I kept on lying to myself that, "hey, you lack experience, this is how it's gonna work, and eventually you'll actually do something related to creative design". Even though I was working on ports and didn't have too much creative input in the process, it was still a rewarding experience because of the team that I had around.
During that time, I've had people ask me if and whether I wanted out, and they'd be willing to help. I declined. Games to me back then, was still an unfinished business.
Enough is enough
Working on Warriors: Legends of Troy was a bittersweet project - I had joined maybe halfway through the project, so it was never really my baby, I'm just the caretaker; yet on the other hand I'll still defend it for what it is, the game turned out to be what it is despite everything that it had going against it. Sure, the metacritic score is abysmal(and I have an axe to grind later about that), but you ask me no whether I'm proud of what I did, I would tell you right now: yes, I am still proud of the work I did on it.
You often hear stories about developers saying that reviews are wrong, but I personally believe that they're lying. Did I expect such low scores on Metacritic? Not exactly 44/54 low, but yes, I did. A good and honest designer would be able to look at what they have, and know what kind of game it is. Anyone who works on a project, and comes out saying that they're disappointed by how it turned out from a review standpoint is either lying or not that good a designer.
When I started on the project, did I just throw my hands and give up, leaving the project for dead? No. I can honestly say I gave my 100%, and I tried to do as much as I can within the restrictions I had. The big takeaway on it was learning that a game production is a team effort, and a single person alone can't drastically change the outcome. But by the end of the cycle, I was completely drained, bitter at the whole process: I wanted more control over my own destiny, and I wasn't sure if it was going to ever happen.
At the end of the project, I was finally feeling more hopeful: whatever comes next would either be a fresh start to a fresh project, or it would have been me quitting and looking for something else to do.
Officially, I was let go March 31, 2011. Many talented individuals were also let go that day, and almost all have landed on their feet now somewhere. It's interesting to note that less than 50% now work in the games industry (including indie/studio work), and then there's me, trying to figure out what's next. I've had people telling me to get out of games, just because the pay isn't there, or that there's just nothing stable, or that everyone and their dog is moving onto social games.
Personally, I don't feel good making that decision (of getting out of games). I always thought that if I was on a project from start to finish, and it failed spectacularly at reaching it's goal, then I could walk away from games, clearly acknowledging that I was a terrible designer and just go away. I haven't been able to do that yet, it's unfinished business. I enjoy games, and I actually enjoyed making games (despite all it's problems), and I just can't see myself doing anything else. The only problem really, it's making a living out of it. Technically, I'm still looking for some sort of job within game design, but I've grown bitter knowing that either a) 3+ years is a lot of experience in design, b) my metacritic score is too low (but should it matter if I wasn't a lead) and c) everyone is looking for social games now, so what I know isn't all that useful.
In the last year, I've started a new journey in iOS development, training myself in programming again, and created, as you just played, this game. I know it's not that good, but with some of the technical stuff out of the way, I think if I do work on a next game, I can actually work on the actual design and make something compelling.
But that's a story for next time, right...?
Thanks for letting me ramble on. If you have any questions, comments, whatever, feel free to contact me on twitter @HaroldLi or email me: harold.hf.li [at] gmail.com
Fellow ex-TKC friends and co-workers: Thanks for the last four years. It may not have ended the way we wanted it to end, but we had something special. Good luck in your current and future endeavours. Keep in touch.