Tuesday, February 28, 2012

On Coming out as an Independent Game Developer.

Part 1: The Timeline

September 1979: I am born and the history of the world is changed forever. ;-)

Early 80's:

-A couple of my earliest memories are seeing the original 'Tron' and 'Return of the Jedi' in the theater.


-I am 7-8 years old and start learning to program in Basic on a TI-99 my dad got at a refurbished electronic shop.  I continue learning Basic on my parents new Dos based 80286.  They got it for the spell checking feature of an early word Processor (my Dad is a writer) after my Mother discovered it on a borrowed PC for a temp job as an at home typist.  Someone where my dad worked left to make video games, and he tries to get me interested in it.  But with no concept of number lines in either one or two dimensions and with no one to recognize my need who could explain it to me, the idea goes nowhere at the time.

-Thomas Edison is my proclaimed hero, and I announce that I will be an inventor when I grow up while secretly fantasizing about building intelligent robots.  Despite problems at school, I was recognized as above average intelligence by a couple of Boeing Engineers from my parents church (Aerospace engineers were seen as the super smart people before the age of computers).  I also wanted desperately to understand electricity and magnetism, but no one would (actually could) give me good explanations.


-On the School bus to the 4th grade a female student is drawing her own Original Super Mario Brothers levels on graph paper and announces that they are really levels for the then unannounced Super Mario 2.  (It was just a kid drawing on a bus, but the idea that you could do that stuck in my head.)

Early 90's: 

-I am given a book about Pascal, but never bother getting into it as I was more into playing my guitar.  I later wonder if I had continued with my programming as a kid I might have been close to the demographic of Cliff Bleszinski (the designer of Gears of War), although he is several years older than me, so I think probably not.

Mid 90's: 

-Mr. Kenny from Cheney High School starts giving our Algebra class 100+ problems a night.  Despite bitching about it, I get the fundamentals DOWN, and years later would become the most sought after math tutor in my university.

-I discover the video game 'Doom' and really want to know how it works.

-My High School Physics teacher is forced to use the student AFTER me as the top of the curve so the rest of the class can pass, despite the fact I never did any work other than the exams.


-I am 18 and working at Burger King while attending WSU (it is the same Burger King from the riots).  A coworker spends every day talking about Ultima Online, the predecessor to Everquest and World of Warcraft.  I never saw the game, but my imagination of it mixed it with 'Magic the Gathering' started me imagining ways to build micro transactions into video games roughly a decade before the real video Game Industry starts to explore the idea.

-I start designing a game on paper which was effectively Battlefield 1942, four years before the game comes out.  My ideas and abilities are belittled by the one person I remember actually sharing it with.

-I realize I want to major in Computer Science when I take the intro C programming course (the most infamous weeder class on campus).  In the course we are assigned to make the game Tic Tac Toe.  After finishing the assigned requirements I want to play against the computer.  I realized I could 'look ahead' by having a choose_move function call itself as opposite players on a secondary board.  Something in my implementation doesn't work right, but when I go to the prof he throws me out of his office because he says most students can't even finish the assignment yet I am already trying to write artificial intelligence.  (Later I studied artificial intelligence and realized that my idea, despite being undebugable to my then total noob programmer skills, was exactly the right solution even though I had never even heard of recursion at that point.)  Despite this, the prof tells me I my never likely understand what I need to to write something like Doom, and refuses to answer my questions.

-Complete disparity between the TV reports of the WSU riot and my own first hand experience and insider knowledge of the surrounding events drives home the idea that maybe nothing in the mainstream media is real or accurate at all.


-I start my computer Science Degree at EWU and start making Text Based adventure games, which was followed by Tetris, Asteriods, etc.


-I discover that I am actually learning many of the things I really wanted to know back in grade school but had given up on ever learning by Jr High (the lack of these topics had caused me to lose interest in school).  I realized that I was learning these things in the third quarter of calculus based physics and the reason no one could explain what I wanted to know back when I was a kid was because the elementary education majors were the ones who had the most trouble passing basic algebra in the Math Lab where I worked in my free time.

-My College Physics Prof uses the student AFTER me as the top of the curve so the rest of the class can pass.  He tells me he would have given me the 5.6 grade he thought I earned, IF the university would have let him.

-Battlefield 1942 comes out and I realize that the game design ideas I had back in 1998 really were worthy as they now were in a smash hit, made by someone else.

-I am yelled at and told I am a total moron by a professor when I try to find out from him how to send data over a network.  3 weeks later I had found out about sockets and with help from a forum I wrote web chat apps in several programming languages and API's after learning how to setup a home network.

-I start teaching myself DirectX and find that the prof who berated me over the sockets teaches the OpenGL class to seniors and has a low opinion of students.  He would later tell our Graphics Programming class that these days it was impossible to build games by ourselves or on small teams.


-While working on a 3D terrain rendering app in my free time I have an idea for a game in which you can dig tunnels in 3D.  My idea is similar to Minecraft, but it never occurred to me to make voxels out of triangles and  so I dropped the idea.  Even though I had never heard of voxels at the time, I had originally thought that was how 3D graphics worked until the triangles of OpenGL and Direct3D came in and temporarily limited my thinking on the subject.  It was a real forehead slapper when I saw Minecraft the first time.

-My personal confidence grows when a former NASA engineer drops out of my Artificial Intelligence course because he cannot keep up.

-I graduated and started working at 5th Cell Media writing cell phone games.

Early 2005:

-I have built a prototype MMO on the Nokia s40 after the creative director and I are inspired by the release of World of Warcraft.  At the top of the Jamdat tower (later EA Mobile) in LA, I am told that while their engineers couldn't do what I did on that model of phone, our game is unsellable because cell phone games have a completely different and very limited market.  I am told that the game of bowling which is only two button presses (one for angle and one for speed) paid for the whole tower.

Late 2005:

-I move to Handheld Games where I write a 3D engine for the Nintendo DS from scratch and coordinate it's use between artists and Game Play programmers, eventually on more than one team at the same time.

-One of my best friends and coworkers burns out from crunch and completely retires from the industry.  The team is crunched for 60-100 hours a week for 8+ months until most of us could not function.


-Having built my own 3D engine I move to Midway to study the Unreal3Engine and end up on another extended crunch.  A 20 year industry veteran who had been the coder of thrill kill burns out in front of me.  I also work with several other heavy hitting industry veterans, including one of the main coders for the old Lucas Arts Adventure games, the N64 Army Men, NBA Jam, and more.

Late 2008:

-I am phone interviewed to work on "World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Litch King" but fail due to, I think: A) obvious disappointment over the fact that the interview wasn't for Starcraft2;  B) Admitting WoW was to much of a grind for me; and 3) Not recognizing immediately that the correct answer to a technical question was actually to point out a game design problem in the proposed scenario.

-I turn down a six figure salary at Rock Star Games because I get the impression crunch was the norm, and narrowly escape the "Rock Star Wives" fiasco.

-I move to Crytek in Frankfurt Germany because they promise me I will not have to crunch anymore (I had been crunching for nearly 2 years solid, as much as 100hrs/week) and because I am told I will get to build the multithreaded entity component system which will become a key feature in future versions of CryEngine.


-I am surprised when an author of one of the books I learned Game Programming from does not pass inspection for a job at Crytek.

-I raise awareness to some issues that would prevent Crysis2 from shipping on time.  This spawns a huge meeting of senior engineers from all the Crytek studios in which the technical and game design plans for Crysis2 are radically changed.  I knew in advance raising the issues would likely cost me (and the Team) the entity component framework that I had taken a 50% pay cut to build (and it did) but I knew I had to do it anyway.

-I start building a new Engine in C++ at home out of frustration.

-I am asked if I have interest in Leading Crysis2, but say no and am eventually transferred to Cryteks Artificial Intelligence Research and Development group.

-My youngest Brother, who had previously been studying nuclear engineering and could speak 5 languages commits suicide.  His death, combined with my being near burnout, having inadvertently debunked many of my childhood beliefs, and being thousands of miles from home where I could not speak the language was an overwhelming combination.

-After 6 months in the AI RnD group I finally burn out and spend roughly a year and a half sleeping in my apartment, too depressed to get out of bed or often eat or drink.  This burned 10's of thousands I had saved to start my own indie game company.

Late 2010:

-I turn down an offer from Havok in Dublin along with the chance at a second degree in neuroscience at the nearby trinity college and accept my first non game development job at Logica to work on contracts for the European Space Agency.  I do this in part to avoid the standard part of all Game Studio contracts that give them the legal right to claim ANY intellectual property you come up with, even in your own free time.

-I start my newest Game + Game Engine in HTML5 with the intent to use it as a platform to pursue many game design ideas I have been accumulating.

***February 29, 2012***:
-I announce to the world that I am now an Independent Game Developer with a project underway.

Part 2: Why?

There is not one answer to this question, but I want to put out a few reasons behind my decision:

1) Working in the Game Industry has largely seemed like factory work to me, especially on larger projects.

I really hate being programmer 125 out of 350.  If you are, you often may have little or no control over even the code you work on, let alone much input on any interesting technical or game design decisions.  I got into this business because I wanted to make my ideas reality, and I have the know how to do it.  So why shouldn't I?  It is my dream.  While I would like to earn a living from my own projects one day, I don't need to be rich and in fact think I might be better off if I am not.  I want to do this the best I can for the love of it, not hack some ugly shit in mandatory crunch because we were suppose to ship 5 months ago so some publishers producer who isn't me will get extra millions in a bonus.

2) The Big developers lack creativity.

Do NOT miss understand me.  I know MANY seriously brilliant and creative people in the industry.  For instance, at Crytek there are a couple of brilliant designers, one of which made a couple of the most famous Counter Strike Maps.  And I know other smart people at Blizzard and other companies, even ones you never heard of.
But IMO the game industry has grown up WAY to fast.  If we were film we would still be black and white and silent, yet we already have budgets for development and advertisements that rival summer blockbuster films.  Given that we still don't even know, for instance, how game play should interact with story, this seems pretty stupid to me.  Huge projects have little room for innovation, and as a result the mandate from on high will often be: how does Call of Duty do it?  Then that's what we are doing too.  There is so much copying going on that everything from controller schemes to cut scenes are obviously just taken from whatever else is selling well at the moment.

I also think it is worth mentioning that the WoW killer is probably WoW itself.  There is so much investment in that kind of game that I think people will just burn out of it eventually, but never seriously go anywhere else for that kind of game.  The way to beat WoW is to do something totally different and not even try to be WoW.  But few big publishers are going to even try it because of the herd mentality.  But if you think about it, an MMO doesn't even have to be an RPG with quests and actions bars, it could be any game world with whatever rules as long as it supports lots of players.  It's just that most people can only think about what they see working already and currently making money, so they are rarely if ever even going to try something else.

On MMO's in particular, some of the original design ideas for Star Wars galaxies were IMO much better than WoW ever was (even if poorly or never actually executed) and other features from MUD's going back farther shows there are many other paths one could take.  But you are going to have to be an indie if you even want to try it.

3) Game Play RnD

Before 100M went into developing Grand Theft Auto 4, there was a GTA3 and 2, and 1.  The first two were top down 2D but the game play was there and it was a lot of fun.  If you want to develop new IP, start small. Lots of people I know who want to have their game ideas made imagine their idea only with a budget to rival Gears of War or Crysis, but that is never going to happen unless it is already a proven idea, or you are know as a god game designer.  And your idea shouldn't be if you haven't proven it yet.  If you can't make a fun game in 2D, why should you get hundreds of millions of artwork and marketing put on top of it?

On Crysis2 it took weeks for time for a gameplay coder, and animation coder, and an animator to get a guy to mirrors edge parkour through a window, only to discover it wasn't fun.  I want higher iteration time than that.  So I am going to start small and build some 2D games where I can explore some basic ideas, and occasionally do my own take on established ones.  Some new Skyrim style dynamic world interaction systems don't need millions of $$ of artwork and development.  Most game AI is working in 2D anyway.

Part 3: What I am going to do!

My main goal at this point is to develop cooperative experiences as well as team based competitive / cooperative game play.  I also want to bring in educational stuff in a fun way so people don't even notice it, but are learning real 21st century skills.  I expect augmented reality to be here within a decade, and neural interfaces in my lifetime.  Supposedly genetics, Nano Technology, Neuroscience, and more are all following a Moore's law type of exponential growth.  40 years ago something far less powerful than my cell phone took up a whole building.  Where will it be 40 years from now?  Probably smaller than cells.  Video games and virtual reality, along with things like the Khan Academy are going to change the very nature of education and ultimately how the Human Race interacts with each other as well as the universe around us.  I am bored of making games publishers copy paste together thinking they will earn them lots of cash in the short term.  I am going to find a way to do something that I enjoy, and makes the world a better place.  Follow me and see what happens.

Final Note:

In the coming weeks I am going to be setting up and or linking info outlets on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, Linkedin, Github and this Blogger account to make a trail of my actions to come, so stay tuned.

Twitter: @JeremyKBGross
Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/user/TheJeremyKentBGross/videos?view=u

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jeremy
    Just read through the article and I‘m quite curious about this story: " I raise awareness to some issues that would prevent Crysis2 from shipping on time. This spawns a huge meeting of senior engineers from all the Crytek studios in which the technical and game design plans for Crysis2 are radically changed. I knew in advance raising the issues would likely cost me (and the Team) the entity component framework that I had taken a 50% pay cut to build (and it did) but I knew I had to do it anyway."
    Could you please shed some light on that? What exactly is the issues? What change was made to the technical and game design? Thanks in advance.