As if I didn’t already have enough projects and hobbies on my plate.
Recently, the Quinlan Circle held a private game jam. The three of us wanted to make a small game from scratch in a week. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time—years, even—but had never really followed through on by officially putting it on our calendar… until now.
So we finally put it on our schedule, in the only empty week we had left in the first half of the year: right between the group Homestuck reread (for group-origins-nostalgia and for secret project inspiration) and the release of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (which we knew would fully consume at least one of us for weeks or months) (and that one of us… is me).
Anyway, we decided on Unity as our development platform, and we spent the week leading up to the jam sharing various Unity tutorials and videos with each other.
The only problem: out of the three of us, I was the only one with any prior game development experience. Or any programming experience at all. Or any Unity knowledge, since it turned out I was the only one really going through any of those Unity tutorials…
The game jam was a catastrophic failure for a number of reasons. From the fact that none of us took time off from our jobs for this project like we considered doing, to the fact that we were all in different time zones spread across the planet so real-time collaboration was logistically difficult, to the fact that none of us knew how to use the software we were supposed to be using, to the fact that each of us had wildly different assumptions about how much we could accomplish in a single week in terms of game features and map size and dialogue written.
And it turned out all of us were vastly overestimating how much could be accomplished, even me with my years of occupational software development project management experience. Because the end result turned out to be “nothing.” Nothing came together whatsoever.
But one very good and exciting thing did happen as a result of this “failed” project: I got some of my creative spark back.
Way back when I was still in high school and trying to decide which college to go to, I knew I wanted to be a programmer of some kind. I had spent parts of my childhood wanting to make my own websites; I had spent my early high school years deep in the online subculture of TI-83 Plus graphing calculator programming and game development; and now (by which I mean, in 2008/2009) I was kind of leaning towards colleges with some kind of game development concentration within their computer science program.
Which is how I eventually landed at Stevens Institute of Technology. (That, plus the fact that their campus vending machines were for Pepsi instead of Coca Cola. I wish I was kidding. It’s even stupider in retrospect because I gave up drinking soda completely around the same time.)
I took a few game design classes while I was there. “Game Engine Architecture,” which was a hardcore dive into the code that makes game engines so efficient and powerful; and “Introduction to Game Design,” which was my favorite class ever, to the point that I read the entirety of its textbook for fun. The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, by Jesse Schell. It was just so educational! Not to mention, I saw how easily I could apply its lessons to not just game design, but creative writing as well.
I was also a member of the school’s game development club, through which I made a handful of small games—the most exciting of which was basically a multiplayer snake game. Eat the apples to grow your snake, and also avoid your own tail, and also avoid your opponent’s tail!
But when the time came for me to graduate, my first job out of college was with web development, and I’ve been making websites and loving it ever since. No regrets there. Professional game development is a cutthroat industry and I’m not a fan of that culture.
Plus, more importantly, and the reason I’ve always floated away from game development over the years and over the many times I’ve been drawn to it… I don’t actually play many games. Pokémon, main line Mario platformers, Mario Kart, a few other Nintendo first party titles here and there… and that’s it. I know nothing about Dark Souls or Elder Scrolls or Elden Ring or Grand Theft Auto or whatever PC games and non-Nintendo console games are out there. Most of the most popular games of all time? I haven’t played them. So logically, I’m barely a gamer. So logically, it makes zero sense for me to even make games myself, right?
But once again, just when I thought I was out, game dev has pulled me back in.
I’ve been creatively wayward ever since the death of URGY. I spent a long time bouncing back and forth between other writing projects that ended up going nowhere. I spent a few months 100% addicted to Breath of the Wild. I went through various personal life upheavals, a car accident here, moving to a new house there, a bunch of stuff that just completely destroyed my ability to focus on a single project. Or to get into one in the first place, really.
And then the Quinlan Circle Game Jam happened. I was skeptical from the beginning of our choice of Unity, because I knew it would have a higher learning curve for the top-down RPG we wanted to make than, say, RPG Maker. But for some reason, I just hunkered down and started trying to learn it anyway.
Collision detection. Making the player character move when you press the move buttons. Physics. Title screens. A thousand tiny things to learn. All things I’ve done before, whether on my TI-84 Plus Silver Edition calculator or in the XNA game dev framework in Visual Studio, but now I was learning how to do it again but with Unity. And… I was having fun. I was making stupidly small amounts of progress one day at a time, but I was having fun with it.
I made a working “prototype” of a “game!” Sure, all it has is a title screen with a “Press any key to continue,” and then it drops you into a box and all you can do is move left and right and jump up and down, but it’s something! It’s the first traces of a skeleton of an actual platforming game! Wow!
Unity has reawakened something within me: the joy of just creating something and being able to be proud of it on its own merits, as minor as those merits may be. Since I started this new journey, I’ve already had at least three ideas for different games I could make.
I had almost forgotten what it’s like to come up with new ideas. Years ago, during the peak of my creative writing passion, I was coming up with new ideas for stories all the time, to the point that I needed a spreadsheet to manage them all. I… really hope that doesn’t happen to me with game ideas, because games take even longer to make than stories, so I’d be able to make even fewer of those ideas.
Anyway, I might be going hardcore into game development with Unity now. Or I might not be, because Tears of the Kingdom came out last week, and I’m just as hooked on it now as I was when I played Breath of the Wild a few years ago.