Postmortem of Pixel Art for Game Developers
Things that went well
Natural growth of the idea
Like most indie developers I usually have roughly a gazillion ideas for things i want to create bouncing around in my head at any given time. I reflected for a time trying to figure out which game idea I wanted to build - but I had a hard time choosing just one.
Eventually I made three lists: a list of projects I wanted to work on; a list of products that I thought people would want; and then a list of projects that I felt would be 'easy' (in this case easy = thought I'd be likely to finish). Then I made a note of what was on all three lists - there wasn't much... But that was kind of the point.
And of the items that made the short list, the idea of making an e-book on how to create pixel art was the clear winner. And... Once I decided on what to do and got started - the project seemed to have its own inertia. Almost as soon as I started writing what was then going to be a 50 page digital pamphlet, the momentum pulled it farther than expected.
I was talking to a friend of mine - a professor of game design at American University - discussing our current projects. When I told him about the Pixel Art book he exclaimed "I need a book like that for my class! Do you want me to introduce you to my publisher?". I indicated that this sounded great and attempted to try my best to avoid soiling my pants with excitement (with mixed results).
So I pitched my book to CRC Press and they were interested. My little 50 page project instantly quadrupled in scope. It was feature creep on steroids.
Good scheduling and daily routine
The agreement with CRC was to write the book in 9 months. In the end it took 10 months and this was split into two sorts of work styles: ultra-casual for 8 months and 'crunch' for 2 months.
In ultra-casual mode I'd wake up a before the kids and get what I could done in that half hour span every day. This worked well for quite a while - there was steady progress and I never really lost my focus (although a sizeable part of that was not allowing myself to work on any other projects until it was done). But at some point I realized that I only had a month until my deadline and (more than) half the book still needed to be done. Steady progress is good - but I had to step things up significantly.
So I worked out a plan with my day job to take unpaid leave on Tues and Thursdays so I could have 16 solid hours a week to devote to the book. And I worked! I basically mirrored the schedule of my day job – working from 9:00 - 5:30… And it worked perfectly! I quickly fell into a schedule: start the day with a walk; work; take a shred guitar break (kind of like a smoke break but with a different instrument of destruction); work some more; eat lunch; go to Starbucks to work some more; pick up the kids.
I am aware that this is much less sexy than the idea of staying up all night in an inspired bout of writing between valleys of writer’s block and depression.
- But throughout the project I simply budgeted time every day to work on the book... And followed through on it. And this turned out to be a very happy (albeit short lived) lifestyle for me. My 'crunch' was wonderful - productive and relaxed.
Getting a few developers to talk about their games and why they chose to use Pixel Art was genuinely one of the most rewarding things I did while working on the book.
I was able to get James Petruzzi of Discord Games (Chasm), Jochum Skoglund of Crackshell (Hammerwatch), and
Alex Preston of Heart Machine (Hyper Light Drifter) to do brief interviews - and it was super inspiring. When we see people who have success - it can be challenging to see the humanity present behind the curtain of the project. To talk to people and hear about their struggles and concerns (most of which were off-the-record), I am reminded that behind each success there are beautiful and dreadful stories.
While working on Pixel Art for Game Developers I had a little game I played with myself – to see how many dirty jokes I could squeeze into the text. For the most part this was just something to keep the process from getting too stale – I fully expected that the copy editor would edit them out and save me from myself. As it turns out she did not edit them out. After a bit of anxiety about how they would be received, I've come to terms with distinct possiblity that I'm likely to offend somebody. Some of them even make me chuckle.
Starting the book with a blasé attitude
I went in with such a nonchalant attitude – basically that games are hard so a book must be much easier. While it is true that games are difficult to create this was simply not sound thinking. The sad truth is that if I realized how difficult it was going to be, the book would likely never have been written. Ignorance is bliss so I try to stay as ignorant as possible.
Focusing on just one project
Just before starting this book in earnest I read a book called ‘Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less” ( http://www.amazon.com/Essentialism-The-Disciplined-Pursuit-Less/dp/0804137382 ) and this got me to consider the act of committing to ONE project at a time. It also helped me to pick this project over many others I was considering (although I will not go into that right now). Once committed to writing this book I did not allow myself to work on any other projects until this one was done. Although I slipped up from time to time, it was still an excellent guideline that I followed reasonably well.
Things that could have been better…
Echo chamber of doubt / Insecurity
Without a doubt the most challenging thing was that working independently kind of created echo chamber of doubt. Although I enjoyed the process tremendously, whenever I considered people actually reading the book I'd get super anxious. Suddenly the snarky tone and quasi-dirty jokes seemed like a bad idea. The publisher had someone edit for copy (grammar and spelling, etc) but nobody reading for CONTENT (accuracy and idea clarity)... And just like coding for any game - I'm fairly confident that there are still bugs lurking around, waiting to be found. Hopefully there are no system critical bugs...
I kept forgetting that I was working with non-developers.
Them: "Hey, can we get a 300 DPI version of that image?".
Me: "Sure. You can have 800 DPI if you'd like... But it's going to look identical. "
I had some version of this conversation with almost everyone I had contact with.
Don't get me wrong - everyone was wonderful - but it became clear that each member of the team had their own area of expertise within the various print related processes - and it was my own responsibility to make sure to lobby on behalf of the pixels... And explaining that the images were intionally blocky did become a bit stressful at points.
400 images to create = feature creep on steroids
There are a shit-ton of images in this book… And some of them could have used screenshots from games to convey the point. A more organized writer would simply contact some studios and get the proper permissions. For some reason I couldn’t be bothered with that simple task – and therefore most images in the book were created by me – special for this publication.
Finishing is hard
I had such a good time during the first ¾ of the writing period… What happened? It doesn’t seem to matter whether it is a game, piece of music, artwork – finishing projects is just plain difficult. There are a ton of reasons that make this so:
- Fear of failure
- Optimistic time projections
- Putting off boring stuff until the end
- Fear of success
- Forgetting some aspect of the process
I seem to have all of these (except Perfectionism – in which I may have the opposite affliction: Good-enoughism)
As time goes on I see finishing as a skill in itself. A damn hard one, too. If you haven’t you should read Derek Yu’s article on this – it’s excellent:
Still learning from this experience
Pixel Art for Game Developers has just come out and I’m still in the dark as to what to expect. Releasing the book was almost comically anti-climactic – no email or phone calls of congratulations… Just a weird physical copy of the thing that had been in my mind for the better part of a year.
BTW - If you're curious, you can take a peek inside here: http://amzn.to/1jKquDP