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Alexander Bruce, Blogger

March 30, 2012

8 Min Read

At GDC 2012, I won the IGF award for Technical Excellence with Antichamber, a game that has been in active development since 2009, based on ideas and prototypes dating back to 2006. For me personally, winning the award was a real honour and something that I'd spent the last 3 years trying to achieve. For others at the show, it was a win that reinforced everything I'd said at the Independent Games Summit the day before.

I'd presented at two sessions at the summit. One was a debate about using middleware versus building your own technology, where I argued against the necessity to write everything yourself these days, as I built my game using the Unreal Engine. The other session was a microtalk where I was given 5 minutes to talk about whatever I wanted. After much hesitation as to how it would be received, I decided to share a personal story. One which made its way to Penny Arcade yesterday. 

I've decided to post the full text of my IGS microtalk here, because I've since had many people tell me of the ways in which it impacted them positively, and I know that not everyone was at the show or will be able to see it in the GDC Vault. It's lengthy, but stick with it. Full text follows:


The story of my success is one of chance. Of a random day in Shibuya, Japan, in 2009, where I made a spur of the moment decision to chase a stranger down and introduce myself, with the mindset that I may never be in this position again. This was the moment that set in action a chain of events that would eventually lead me to here.

I was in Japan for Sense of Wonder Night, an event held at the Tokyo Game Show designed to showcase experimental games. I’d entered it because I saw a video of The Unfinished Swan being presented at the 2008 showcase, and I wanted to know what made Ian Dallas, its creator, any different to me.

I was in the final year of a university degree, had already done more than a year in industry as an Engine and tools programmer, and had further work lined up when I finished. Friends thought I was wasting my time by trying to enter a competition, because I wouldn’t get selected anyway. The deadline for another competition called Make Something Unreal fell roughly around the same time, so I submitted my game to that too... a decision that friends thought was even more useless, because my game was nothing like what Epic were looking for.

About a week after the submission deadline closed, I received an email telling me that I would need to be in Japan in September to present my game. I told my university that I had to take a week off to speak at this thing called the Tokyo Game Show, and they told me that that decision was going to cost me a week away from my university work, which was the more important thing to be focusing on... a statement that I will never let them live down.

A day or two before the Tokyo Game Show started, I was walking around a busy mall in Shibuya when I saw a foreigner in the distance who I thought looked familiar. Having just watched the Sense of Wonder Night presentations from 2008, it looked like Simon Carless, one of the judges and IGF Chairman at the time. I couldn’t be sure, and was about to disregard it, when I had a nagging feeling saying “what if it is him. Why don’t you talk to him? He’s right there.” He’d disappeared around a corner, but I had something compelling me to chase him down.

When I caught up with him and introduced myself, it was a conversation like any other. We talked about Sense of Wonder Night, and I mentioned looking for work outside Australia. He said I should go talk to The Behemoth and to Dylan Cuthbert from Q-Games. I can’t remember what else was said.

On the first day of the show, I managed to find The Behemoth and speak with them for a while. I couldn’t find Dylan at the Q-Games booth though.

Looking through the show guide, I noticed that Mike Capps, the president of Epic was giving a lecture early in the morning of the second day. I woke up that morning late enough to feel that I’d missed the session once accounting for travel time, but the same feeling that had nagged me to chase down Simon Carless was nagging me again. What if I wasn’t too late, and I did get a chance to talk to him? I never get opportunities like this in Australia. I had to try to get there in time.

I arrived half way through, and the entire time he was speaking, all I could think was “What am I going to say to him? I am no one, and he is the president of Epic. This is stupid.” When the session ended, I almost left, but I knew that if I didn’t at least try to talk to him, I’d regret making that decision.

I approached him, handed over a business card and said “Hi. I’m Alexander Bruce, and I made a mod for Unreal Tournament 3 that I’m presenting here at a thing called Sense of Wonder Night. I was just wondering, do you have a solution for independent developers?”. His response was “Yes. We have this thing called the Unreal Development Kit that we’re not ready to announce yet, but I will put you onto Mark Rein. We will find a solution to your problem.” I had walked up expecting to be brushed off, and instead received the best response possible. This moment made me realise that at the end of the day, everyone is just another person.

My presentation at Sense of Wonder Night was on the evening of the second night, and by the morning of the third day, I didn’t have much reason to go back to the show. But I had that nagging voice again. I’d been to the Q-Games booth several times, but still hadn’t spoken to Dylan Cuthbert, as Simon suggested I should. I would never be in Japan again, and I had to try just one more time.

I did manage to find Dylan that day. We spoke for a while and nothing came of it at that time, but the fact that I was there at all made me run into Steve Swink, Matthew Wegner and Scott Anderson, who had presented Shadow Physics at Sense of Wonder Night as well. We spent the day hanging out, and at one stage Steve mentioned that he thought I had a great game, and that I should go independent. All I could say was “I can’t. I don’t have enough experience. I was just messing around” He said “I think you would fit right into the independent community. You should go to GDC.” After several hours, the day ended with them saying “See you at GDC”, and I just said “maybe”.

When I returned to Australia, I had a lot to think about. The experience of being in Japan by myself opened my eyes to a world that I had never seen before. I now knew that I could take my mod, which was worth nothing, and turn it into a standalone game that was worth something. And despite people back in Australia telling me I was wasting my time, in Japan I’d met someone who knew a lot about independent games and was telling me that I was onto something.

I already knew what would happen if I continued my plan to return to industry. But I felt like I may have been passing up something great if I didn’t follow through with this game. I told my parents that I’d take four months off in the new year to release this game, and then go back to industry.

During those 4 months, Matthew and Steve invited me to speak at the GDC based on our conversations in Japan. I also became one of the Grand Prize Winners in Make Something Unreal.

The point of this story is not that I was lucky enough to go to Japan and have these events happen. These events were merely the start of a long chain of other events over the next 2 years that would lead me to here. The point of this story is that the desire to always make the most of whatever situation I’m in and to not talk myself out of opportunities before I’ve even tried is what caused these events to happen, and is the reason I am here today.

Some of the things that have had the biggest impact on my career came from the smallest moments like these, but they’re moments that won’t happen unless you actively go out of your way to find them.

I’m telling you this story because I hope that by hearing it, some of you who would have let opportunities pass you by at this GDC can instead chase them down and try to make things happen. Because even if most of the opportunities that you chase amount to nothing, at the end of the day, what’s the harm in trying again?

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