March 11, 2015

GDC 2015

This post is for the wonderful people who have asked me how GDC was. It's for the wonderful people who I met at GDC, and the equally wonderful people I didn't have a chance to meet. It's for me, when 6 months from now, I need a reminder at how life-changing that week really was.

But first, a primer on GDC. GDC is short for Game Developers Conference, and I've attended the past 4 years now. The conference is always nothing short of amazing, but I noticed a troubling trend from prior years. I came home every year with a stack of business cards, and maybe 2 or 3 people that I actually stayed in contact with once I was home. I needed contacts, allies, mentors, and friends. So I decided to mix it up this year; I applied to be a Conference Associate.

The Conference Associates are a group of around 400 people who run the conference, doing everything from badge scanning to info-booth manning to make sure everything runs smoothly. Apparently the program is pretty hard to get in to- and why shouldn't it be? A free pass to the conference and discounted hotels alone is worth the 25 or so hours of work I put in. But the program is so much more than that.

And now, for a primer on me. I've always been an introvert, though I've forced myself out of that shell over the course of the past 5 years or so. I've done so mainly out of necessity. I think we introverts have it kind of rough in a society where the people you know matters more than the things you know. That said, even though I can be friendly and sociable, the introverted nature never fully goes away. Sometimes we have to go find our quiet place and recharge for a bit. Sometimes we just don't want to talk anymore. And sometimes, it's really hard to inject ourselves into an environment where everyone seems to know each other. That's what I was most worried about in joining the CA program.. with so many veterans, maybe it would be hard to meet people?

Luckily, it wasn't. At all.

This isn't just a group of employees, or volunteers, or people hoping for a free pass to an expensive conference. The CA program is a family. It's a group of people who default to loving you in a world where people default to judging you. There aren't many rules, because everyone is already on the same page. The whole atmosphere is contagious; just being among CAs makes you want to be happy, encouraging, selfless, and welcoming.

Leaving the conference, I'd say I met about 100 of the 400 CAs at some point. I could probably call 20 of them close friends. I can't name a single person who I disliked. Quite a bit better than 2-3, I'd say.

And if I'm being completely honest, I did struggle at first. Monday night, after the first day of the conference, I found myself completely socially exhausted. I slipped off by myself to find a nice, quite restaurant where I could collect my thoughts and relax. A few times throughout the week, my body ached so badly and I was so tired that I didn't know how I would be able to go on. But how can you not push forward when you have 399 other people willing to lend an ear or a hand? You draw energy from that sort of crowd, and it's great to not be alone.

To my new CA friends, stay in touch! If I can help you somehow, ask! And I had better see you all next year, if not sooner.

To the CAs I didn't get to meet, I consider you family. You know, like that cousin you've never met but who can totally crash on your couch if they need to. The same offer as above applies to you- if I can help you, ask! I think it'd be really awesome to know more CAs at the beginning of GDC 2016 than I do now, so don't be afraid to introduce yourselves!

And to everyone else, surround yourself with amazing people. It makes a world of difference.

April 21, 2014

What Makes Me Different?


Background: For those who don't know me, my name is Cody Albert and I'm a 24 year old game programmer. I graduated from University of Maryland with a Computer Engineering degree in 2012, and have spent just over a year programming for a company that makes educational games and simulations primarily for the government. I have a mobile platformer that has been in and out of development for several years, which I view more as a learning tool than anything. Video games are my passion.

This year at Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I had the misfortune of missing a talk by Alexander Bruce (of Antichamber fame) called "Antichamber - An Overnight Success, Seven Years In The Making". Luckily, it was posted today for free on the GDC Vault, and I highly suggest that anybody interested in game development checks it out. There was one phrase repeated throughout the entire talk, a phrase that captures the spirit of the talk far better than the title: "What makes me different?"

Throughout the talk, Bruce walks through the years and the trials that lead him from humble beginnings to joining the upper echelons of indie rockstars. He compares himself to his fellow students, past indie successes, his competition, and the games that fell off before they hit it big. I liked this approach, so I started from the beginning. What makes me different from Alexander Bruce?

A lot, as it turns out. In fact, I could only come up with two areas in which we're similar: an overwhelming passion for the video game industry, and a history of self doubt, anxiety, and mental/emotional breakdowns. That's a pretty grim list, to be sure. Rather than focus on all the areas in which I feel I'm not good enough to do something remarkable, I looked for strengths. What can I do better than all of these awesome people I follow on twitter, bump into at GDC, and genuinely aspire to be like? In the end, two interesting thoughts came to mind.

The first major revelation was that I'm passionate about video games, but not necessarily as passionate about programming. Don't get me wrong, I'm a pretty good coder and I enjoy being seen as that. I like solving problems, and my degree prepared me for the job I'm in today. However, it's the industry that I fell in love with, not the job. Perhaps I'm limiting myself too much by identifying with one specific role? Maybe there's things I'd love doing in other areas of game development? What about aspects of the game industry that don't even involve directly making games? There's a lot of people who are remarkable within the community, even though they aren't making games, such as educators, journalists, event planners, and more. Maybe it's time to get involved in other ways?

The second idea that came to mind was that there are some aspects of my personality that set me apart from these great developers. Just looking at my skill sets is very discouraging; there will always be better programmers, better designers, better developers. In fact, the biggest strength of every indie success story I've read is that these people just. won't. quit. I struggle with motivation when it comes to my own side projects, but I've come to realize that lack of motivation is usually a symptom, not a problem. I don't always have the drive to get up, go to work, come home, and make games all night. It can't be helped. But I think I do have something that makes me interesting; I bring people together.

In middle school, our class was given personality tests which identified various traits in which we excelled. My results had me pegged as some sort of leader, a designation I promptly dismissed. You have to understand, I was a nerdy introvert. I was meek, a wallflower that just wanted to get by and move on to the next task. However, the test did manage to pick up on something years before I would actually see it in action: I did what needed to be done when nobody else would. Fast forward to the middle of my college days, and I was heading up biweekly LAN parties that peaked around 35 attendees. I lead a ~100 member raiding guild in World of Warcraft for about a year. I became the go-to event planner for any convention that my group of friends was interested in. I could book hotels, find flights, create party plans, and build an itinerary flexible enough to allow for the ever-changing convention plans but detailed enough to ensure there was never a dull moment. I did all of these things because nobody else would. After a while, I did them because nobody else could.

So what's the point of all this? I'm definitely not saying that I plan to quit programming for a career as a travel agent, or that I'm not happy with where I am in life. The bigger takeaway for me is that the source of my anxiety is that I'm comparing myself to these people on their terms. I would love to have the programming genius of Renaud B├ędard, the tenacity of Alexander Bruce, the insight of Jonathan Blow, the charisma of Ichiro Lambe, and the following of Marcus Persson. But I do have something that is my own. I'm a fantastic leader, and I know how to bring people together. When people tell me I can't make everyone happy, I prove them wrong. When nobody wants the responsibility of making a decision, I take the risk. When plans don't work out, I take the blame. People follow me. Now I just need to figure out where that fits into the industry I'm proud to call myself a part of.

June 13, 2012

Adventure

I haven't written much recently. What has it been, almost a year? Life has been moving so fast in every direction, even I don't have words for it. So let's talk about this year.

Rewind to New Years day. I spent it at the beach with some great friends and probably drank too much, but I very distinctly remember saying one thing: 2012 will be a year of adventures. I don't really know where that came from, or how I knew, but we're almost halfway through it and I've already been so many places I never imagined I'd be. Some great news, some terrible news, and a whole lot of not staying in the same place for very long.

When I wrote Flux (the post before this one), I was sort of at a breaking point. The crest of the wave. I knew where I wanted to go but no idea how to get there. All I could hope for was something amazing. Now I'm an intern working 40 hours a week making video games. I decided I wanted to go into games almost exactly a year ago, and now I'm doing it. And I'm in love with the industry. I suppose I'll explain how that happened.

Marty came up to me last December with a crazy idea. Let's make a game together. I had absolutely no idea how to do that, but for some reason I agreed. Crappy android programs turned into a prototype turned into a complete first world, which has netted over 10,000 downloads by some miracle. Being free definitely helps, but I'm still incredibly proud of that. Unfortunately I've lost a lot of momentum on that project, but here's hoping it's temporary. I convinced myself I could make a game, and I had something to show others.

Next, Emily convinced me to go to Game Developer's Conference in the middle of the freaking semester, and that turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. Surrounding yourself with people who are passionate about the same things you are.. words don't quite describe what that can do for you. Whatever your passion may be, surround yourself with like-minded people and the amount of inspiration you receive will be incredible. Come to think of it, I really don't spend enough time telling those two how much I appreciate them. None of this would be happening without them.

After all of that, a little game called Fez came out. It looked amazing, so I bought and played it. A few of the puzzles were so intricate and difficult, the internet as a whole came together to compare notes and try to crack them.. when we weren't busy collectively begging a few people with insider information for a hint or two. In beseeching assistance from those blessed with knowledge from the gamedev gods, I accidentally met Trey, the coordinator for the International Game Developer's Association chapter in DC. Oops. Now this is where it all comes together.. so try to keep up with the acronyms. I had joined IGDA at GDC, had a game on my resume thanks to the project I worked on with Marty, and found a lead for an internship after talking to Trey and checking out the IGDA Facebook page. I think that qualifies as sorta incredible.

So here I am, making video games while still being completely and delightfully unclear about where I will be at the end of the year. Working has given me confidence that though there are many things I don't know, I'm surprisingly adept at learning on the spot. There are definitely some areas of my life where I'm really hoping for answers, but at least I found the transience I was looking for.

I'll write more soon, hopefully.

September 19, 2011

Flux

I named this post after Bit.Trip. But don't worry! It's pretty relevant.

A lot of my posts on here are pretty depressing. That's not because I'm a sad person, but because I need somewhere to throw all of the sad thoughts so that I don't have to hold on to them and dwell on them. I'm actually a pretty happy person, and this will be a pretty happy post. But let me begin with the one thing I've been struggling with.

It's easier to not know what you want to do than to know and have it constantly called into question.

I've been questioning a lot of things recently. I'm not happy in my major, I don't like my job, and I know I want to make video games but I'm not really sure how to get there from here. It's hard to find the motivation to do much of anything when you can't really tell what direction you're headed. So that's been my struggle recently.

That being said, I've been pretty hopeful recently. Somewhere between playing Bit.Trip and spending more time thinking about things, I'm starting to see the adventure in all of this. Like I said, I'm a happy person. I'm always trying to be happy, even when everything is coming down on me. I think it's better to enjoy the journey than to wait for the catharsis. I'm such a curious person, I love discovery.. it's amazing what that can do if it's pointed in the right direction.

Back to Bit.Trip.. a series of 6 games about Commander Videos journey. The story here is so vague. The characters have names, but no words are spoken. I'd imagine most people wouldn't even feel the gravity of the story that is being told. See, the trick here is to combine the names of the levels with the tempo, mood, etc. of the beat used for that level. The first game's levels are Transition, Decent, and Growth. Each level has heavier beats and a slower and steadier tempo than the last. I think I first described Growth's music as "grinding". It feels like the beginning of a trial, sinking slowly into depression but starting to find meaning in it all. The second game features Discovery, Exploration, and Control. Curiosity kicks in, and things start to unfold like a flower in bloom. The final game in the series, Flux, takes Commander Video home from his journey with Epiphany, Perception, and Catharsis. Do you see what's happening here?

Intentionally or not (I'd like to believe it was), Gaijin Games created a series that captures every emotion experienced in the human journey. These games are incredible because the music works to evoke those feelings. You get to see the whole picture, and you reconsider a lot of things in your own life. It's devilishly hard, but the end is beautiful. Flux is absolutely gorgeous, and the name definitely hit home if you've seen some of the things I've written about transience in the past.

Okay, I just analyzed a video game and attempted to parallel it to my own life. Yes, that is weird. Inspiration comes from the strangest places. I've often compared the way I feel while playing Runner (The 4th game in the series) to the way I felt when I was in love, a comparison that often comes off as a joke but is actually completely serious. But that moment when I played Flux, that moment where I saw the end of the journey and the fulfillment of it all, I found the strength to keep moving forward. I hope that never goes away.

September 13, 2011

Direction

Where am I going? I've been wandering for so long.. I'm not even sure I know what I'm looking for.

So much has changed. And yet, I feel the same. I know roughly where I want to go in life, but I still feel like I'm stumbling around waiting for something to happen. Everything is constantly up and down, give and take, an eternal tug-of-war between the demons that haunt me and the ferocity that forces me to keep fighting them. I'm not sure anyone really understands. They treat me so normally, like nothings wrong. I try to warn them. They don't know what they're getting themselves into.

I think I've always sort of seen myself as the lone wanderer. Bearing the world on my shoulders, trudging from place to place doing what needs to be done but never staying for long. Even as a kid, I never really felt like I fit in anywhere. Over time, I accepted that..embraced it, even. The absurd thing is that I tried to be normal. I've tried everything these past few months. I'm capable of it, but it feels wrong. Fitting in feels wrong, doing what I want feels wrong. The further down that rabbit hole I go, the less things make sense. This struggle feels like home for me. I feel like I'm accomplishing something here. I just don't really know what.

Have you ever been lonely? Not just physically, but emotionally. Have you ever had thoughts or ideas or experiences that you need to share, but you don't have the right person to share them with? You don't need someone who can listen, you need that person who happens to have exactly the right cognitive infrastructure to feel with you. It comes and goes for me. It seems like the less I try to fit in or chase after selfish desires and the more I accept myself, the lonelier I get. Some sort of unexplainable guilt keeps me from settling, and the "beggars can't be choosers" principle goes out the window. How much longer do I have to do this?

Where are you? I'm so alone..