Friday January 26th, 2024
time: 11:34:07 AM MST
from: chris
tags: industry, history
subject: 17 years ago, at Electronic Arts

way back in 2007, I started writing a little blog about the game industry, game development and design. I had no experience with any of the above, but - as an academic and an outsider looking in - I very badly wanted to sit on the sidelines and bark things at the team.

Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect had been smash hits, and BioWare had seemed to have hit its stride. it seemed like the studio could do no wrong, and somehow managed to turn a stultified 2D RPG genre into a mass-market 3D success overnight. this of course attracted interest from major publishers, and it became the target of an acquisition by Electronic Arts.

although long forgotten, an online industry mag called The Escapist published an incredibly detailed history of Origin Systems' acquisition by EA, called The Conquest of Origin. It painted an ugly picture of the behemoth and its internal politics. To me, it served as a cautionary tale about what an EA acquisition of BioWare would look like, and I wrote an extensive analysis of what repercussions I thought this might have for the company.

in retrospect, many of the guesses I made about BioWare's future did not come true: BioWare did not close after 7 years, it had some massive successes with the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series and didn't produce "lukewarm" or "niche" titles. but just as many turned out to be eerily accurate: it was contracted to produce a massive failure MMORPG called Star Wars The Old Republic, Pandemic Studios was indeed closed, BioWare did have a string of commercial ARPG failures, and employees left en-masse to found their own studios like Inflexion (which is hilariously, now owned by TenCent and seems to be repeating history).

after BioWare laid off 50 employees a few months ago, and seeing Embracer repeating the same behavioural patterns as EA, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at my old article again. so here it is, published exactly as it was seventeen years ago:

Originally published Nov. 10, 2007 as Electronic Arts, the Destroy of Worlds, sets its eye on BioWare

In the excellent Escapist article The Conquest of Origin, writer Allen Varney paints a picture of the rise and fall of Origin Systems Inc., the creative masters behind series such as Ultima and Wing Commander. Throughout the article we are shown how Origin gradually loses its managerial and creative control as (in)famous publisher Electronic Arts asserts its corporate dominance.In the light of that story, I was concerned when I heard the news that local developer BioWare Corp. was purchased wholesale along with co-conspirator Pandemic Studios in an $855 million-dollar sale. The question resting on everyone’s lips was, of course, what does the purchase mean? Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk seem to be claiming outwardly that the sale is the best thing for their company and that they “believe in John ‘s vision”. Others are more concerned about the purchase; there is no shortage of doomsaying, fear-mongering, and other generalized anxieties of EA.

The question is of course, how can we make some sense of the purchase? What might the purchase mean for the future of BioWare/Pandemic, the future of role-playing games, and PC gaming in general? In this article I try to make sense of the purchase by looking at some of EA’s corporate history, their modus operandi with the companies they’ve owned, and the vision that CEO Riccitiello has for the monstrous game publisher.

A Brief History of Electronic Arts

EA began its life as a publisher under founder Trip Hawkins, who envisioned a game publishing company that highlighted the independent developers prominently in games and promoted software as an “art” and not simply another consumer product. Hawkins himself had experience programming for games, and obviously recognized the artistic skill that went into game design and development. Under Hawkins, EA published an impressive library of games, including: M.U.L.E., Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set, Archon, The Bard’s Tale, Populous, Wasteland, The Immortal, Marble Madness, and The Faery Tale Adventure among many other classics. EA also built its own in-house development studio, mostly known for its sports games such as Dr. J and Larry Bird One-on-One, Bulls vs. Blazers and the NBA Playoffs, and the precursor to the now ubiquitous Madden series – John Madden Football.

By 1990, EA began porting its already award winning library of PC, C64, Apple, and Amiga games to the Sega Genesis and Nintendo Entertainment System. According to Gamasutra’s interview with Hawkins, the decision to begin developing and publishing for consoles was a major direction change for the company:

“It was very contentious because many employees and developers did not like consoles, or did not like action games,” he said. “The goal was to stop making esoteric products for an elite customer base, and go make it in the big-time with mainstream gamers. Several employees were outraged and quit, but I convinced the team that if the public chose to buy consoles like the Genesis, then to satisfy our customers we had to make the best games possible on the platforms chosen by the public, not the ones our engineers wished they could afford.”

The move from the esoteric to the mainstream, as I see it, indicates a shift of understanding games as an art, to understanding them as a product potentially purchasable by a large audience. Although it may appear to be only coincidence, during this time EA also moved from the unique 45-rpm vinyl record album-style game cases, toward the traditional boxes we recognize today.

The Escapist article paints a much less sympathetic picture of Hawkins however,

As one example, EA had filed a frivolous lawsuit against Origin. Forced into a costly out-of-court settlement, Origin execs asked Trip Hawkins why he had allowed the suit; he responded, “This is just business. This is the way we’re going to win.”Furthermore, EA was all about marketing. For Hawkins the question was never, “How good is this game?” It was always, “How can we sell this?”

The move toward developing for consoles also came with a shift in publishing strategy. If you examine EA’s software library from 1989 onwards (thank you Mobygames!) you start to see the first appearance of in-house developed sequels such as Skyfox II, Archon II, Starflight 2, Fountain of Dreams (sequel to Wasteland), Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer 2.0, and Skate or Die 2. However, it should be recognized that at least until the mid-1990′s the number of sequels EA developed was far outnumbered by the original titles it was publishing – this too would change as we will see.

It is in this time that Hawkins stepped down to found 3DO, and appointed Larry Probst as the new CEO of Electronic Arts. It might be surmised that Probst’s interests in video games only seemed to extend as far as their potential profitability. The following excerpt from an interview with Probst is rather revealing:

Q: Did you ever dream of making video games? Can you tell us how you got into this?

A: The answer is no because video games didn’t exist when I was growing up. I started my career in the packaged goods business. I worked for six or seven years for Johnson & Johnson and another couple of years for Clorox. The video game business started to emerge in the late ’70s with the Atari 2600. I was recruited into the business in 1982 by a company called Activision, which in those days was the Electronic Arts in the business.

Q: What game do you play most, and do you know all the cheat codes?

A: No, I don’t know the cheat codes. And to be very honest, I don’t spend a lot of time playing games. I spend a lot of time watching people play games. My most favorite games tend to be the ones selling the best at that moment. So right now, my favorite game is Fight Night.

Q: So you don’t play the games yourself?

A: Occasionally. I’m not somebody who spends 20 hours a week playing video games, but I spend a lot of time looking at products.

These quotes were not cherry-picked for mere effect: Probst has always shown a disinterest in video games as a medium, and treats them purely in terms of marketing and profitability. Richard Garriott said of Probst, “Larry Probst was often not supportive of the things I was doing, but I respect Larry because he was always clear, rational and consistent in his lack of support” – not quite the picture of a visionary publisher that one would hope for as a struggling developer.

The Acquisitions

Under Probst, EA began a series of high-profile development studio acquisitions that eventually led to the rather twisted and painful demise of Origin. Within months of acquiring Origin, the management at EA began putting pressure on the developer to meet corporate deadlines – a business practice that ultimately led to the publication of unfinished or unpolished games such as Ultima VIII and Ultima IX according to Garriott in the excellent book Dungeons and Dreamers. Small-profit or original (“risky”) games were categorically left unfunded by EA; blockbusters and sequels would only get green-lighted. In the end, Origin would close up shop – its staff had lost faith in the company as EA shelved or cancelled their projects one-by-one to focus on more financially exploitable sequels like Ultima Online 2. Many of the developers left for greener pastures, and Garriott himself finally left founding Destination Games which later partnered with NCSoft to create Tabula Rasa.

But Origin was not the only company acquired by EA. A year earlier Distinctive Software (developer of Stunts and Test Drive) had been purchased – the major deal struck a death-blow to already struggling rival publisher Accolade who now had lost one of their major developers. The studio was renamed to “EA Canada” and later became EA’s largest studio, employing over 1000 people. The studio would no longer produce any original titles, and instead became the developer of many of EA’s sports series, such as NBA Live, FIFA, NHL, SSX, and Need for Speed.

In 1995, Bullfrog Productions (developers of classics such as Populous, Theme Park, Syndicate, Dungeon Keeper, among others) was purchased by EA. According to a Business week article,

After Bullfrog, the acquisitions went into rapid fire, at least one a year, nearly every year: Lost in L.A. developer Manley & Associates (1996); Maxis (1997); Westwood and Tiburon (1998); pioneering online developer Kesmai (1999); Dreamworks Interactive (2000); former Sega Sports studio Black Box (2002); racing game developer Studio 33 and PC port master NuFX (2003); Criterion (2005); and three more studios this year: JAMDAT Mobile, Mythic, and DICE.

Of those companies, almost all would either close or be renamed under the “EA” umbrella, and few would continue to develop original titles in the spirit of their founders. Westwood and Maxis, famed for their originality and visionary game designs, were relegated to parts of the EA machinery that put out sequel after sequel based on the new intellectual property they acquired. Both of these studios would be eventually closed and their capital/human resources redistributed to other existing EA studios – Westwood was absorbed into EA Los Angeles, and Maxis was eventually absorbed into EA’s Redwood Shores HQ. Of the two companies, only SimCity developer Will Wright survives as a remnant of his company’s former glory.

EA Under Riccitiello

With the replacement of Larry Probst as CEO in 2006, there has been a brief glimmer of hope for EA. According to the New York Times, EA’s new CEO John Riccitiello has promised a whole new corporate structure and game development strategy,

“If the E.A. of four years from now isn’t a bunch of properties you haven’t heard of on a bunch of business models that aren’t familiar to you,” Mr. Riccitiello said, “and if most of them can’t be picked up the first time by your mother and she can’t have fun with it, we won’t be the company I want us to be.”

In short, Riccitiello sees the future of gaming in the casual games sector – a relatively untapped audience so far, apparently due to the complexity of the current games. But what does that mean? Is Riccitiello serious about a move toward innovation and original titles?

Partly. And this is why it is important to understand his vision in terms of EA’s history. Riccitiello is in fact making the same decision that Trip Hawkins made back in the day – that in order to reach broader audiences (and higher market penetration; profits), EA had to open itself up to new territories. In Hawkins’s time it was video game consoles, in Larry Probst’s time it was corporate growth through acquisition, and now Riccitiello has recognized the financial potential of the casual gaming market. The “innovation” that Riccitiello envisions only exists insofar as it broadens the potential audience that can play games, and ultimately lead to even more market dominance by EA. Nowhere in his vision is a commitment to improving the overall quality of games for the sake of quality alone. Riccitiello, like Probst, was never a game developer nor gamer, and his interest in games is purely in terms of product marketing and sales. He’s a Coca-Cola salesman, through and through.

What kind of evidence do we have that Riccitiello will not change much about EA’s business strategies? The clearest evidence came from this week’s closure of the EA Chicago studio which was responsible for the original titles Def Jam and Fight Night. In an internal e-mail posted earlier this week, President Frank Gibeau (an old managerial holdout from the early Probst-led days) had this to say:

“Within the EA Games Label, we are committed to running each franchise and facility as a city/state, teams with unique creative identities as well as responsibility for product quality, ship dates and profitability….Unfortunately, EA Chicago hasn’t been able to meet that standard….Closing EA Chicago is the toughest decision I’ve made in my career – one that in no way reflects on the talent and dedication of the people who work there.”

And, the same day, EA announced their quarterly earnings as well as the future closure of several of its other studios,

… EA’s Board of Directors approved a plan of reorganization on October 29th in connection with the reorganization of EA’s business into the new ‘label’ structure. Over the next two years, EA anticipates closing certain facilities, including EA’s studio in Chertsey, England; relocating and/or eliminating certain job positions…

In response to the planned closures and losses, Riccitiello had the following to say:

“Our strategic priorities on quality, innovation and managing cost are showing progress,” … “Highly accessible new properties like Skate and MySims have broken through with consumers and EA Sports continues to deliver great experiences on every platform. We’ve also announced a restructuring as part of a plan to better align cost with revenues.”

In short, it is clear that Riccitiello is following quite carefully in the footsteps of his forefathers and will do nothing to upset the corporate modus operandi that began with Hawkins’s move into console gaming. But how then do BioWare and Pandemic fit into this picture?

The Future of BioWare/Pandemic

From the preceding text, it should be clear that BioWare and Pandemic fit very well into EA’s ongoing plans for monopolization of all gaming markets. EA’s CFO Warren Jensen has said himself that BioWare and Pandemic are the missing corporate pieces that will allow EA to finally penetrate the RPG and adventure game markets; to him the acquisition is part of “an important step for EA in driving growth and profitability.”

The implication here, however, is that BioWare and Pandemic now face the same financial constraints that now-defunct EA Chicago faced under the EA Games label: produce something profitable, or we’ll shut you down. This should be especially worrying for fans of these companies – EA paid almost $800 million for the companies and will be looking to recoup these losses as soon as possible, especially given the recent financial strains I spoke of earlier.

While many hail BioWare’s upcoming Mass Effect as another must-be hit, it is very important to recognize that the company itself has had a major shift in its interests: Mass Effect will only be published for the XBOX 360. That choice should stand in particular contrast to BioWare’s long-standing commitment to publishing their games for both consoles and PCs. In essence, BioWare’s new console strategy (Mass Effect 2 and 3 have already been announced) fits perfectly into EA’s strategies: making old genres more ‘accessible’ and bringing them into new markets.

The following comment from an Swcollect mailing list subscriber also pointed out some potential problems that BioWare may face in the future:

'Please don’t forget that Bioware’s “cashcow” had always been AD&D. When Atari got the rights of AD&D and gave them somewhere else (Obsidian, for Neverwinter Nights 2), the attention went elsewhere. Knights of the Old Republic was a decent profit as well, but will Lucasarts let Bioware keep the rights now that they’re part of EA?'

In that light, what kinds of outcomes might we expect in the next 5 years? Based on the account I gave earlier, some of the following situations are plausible:

* EA will relocate either the Edmonton-based BioWare studio to Vancouver (merging into EA Canada), or collapse the Austin-based Pandemic offices into a nearby EA-branded studio, as part of their current financial restructuring plan.
* EA may front large sums of cash to BioWare in the hopes of producing a mass-market subscription based MMORPG that directly competes with Sony and Blizzard’s blockbusters. If the project runs over budget, or takes longer than anticipated, BioWare/Pandemic will be held responsible for the overruns.
* After producing a few lukewarm niche successes for the next 3-4 years, Riccitiello will become uneasy about BioWare’s financial output. The studio will be pressured to produce titles with shorter development cycles and wider mass-appeal. This is perhaps already congruent with their interest in publishing Mass Effect only for the XBOX 360.
* If any of the aforementioned business techniques do not staunch the financial wounds, EA will resort to its default corporate behaviour and BioWare/Pandemic will be closed and their employees will be redistributed to other EA studios. The developers uncomfortable with EA will leave both companies and form their own rival studios focused on niche games, and join the industry ecology of upstarts-buyouts-shutdowns that has typified the gaming industry of the last 20 years.

With that in mind, it is foreseeable that EA now has a potential timebomb in its hands. Of Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Mercenaries 2, and the unnamed MMO, only one of those games are sequels; the rest are original titles that have not yet been tested against a rather unreliable audience. Despite BioWare’s rather ardent fandom, their expensive Jade Empire project drew nowhere near the kinds of crowds that their Star Wars and AD&D-licensed games did. If Mass Effect or Dragon Age suffer from the same kinds of mediocrity, BioWare/Pandemic may in fact become an $800 million notch in EA’s bedpost. However, if any of these games meet even moderate successes it is quite clear that EA already intend to milk every sequel possible out of them – when has EA ever called it quits on a financially successful franchise?

In the end, I’m left conflicted with the way I’ve painted things here: if BioWare/Pandemic are financially successful their games will become increasingly mainstream and casual. However, if they do try to push innovation and originality and aren’t met with the kinds of profits that are expected of high price-tag budgets – EA will likely shut them down within the next 5-7 years.

Sunday January 07th, 2024
time: 08:15:39 PM MST
from: chris
tags: design
subject: daily update

studied japanese mythology & ghost folklore today, and found some wonderful resources on various kinds of spectres and undead creatures for the game. i'm not making a horror game, but it will have some of the spookier visual elements of one.

the game set in a late-1980s alternate version of east Japan, on a formerly populated island after a major catastrophe.

rand & robin miller's Myst meets koichi mori's Cosmology of Kyoto. all drawn in 1-bit monochromatic line art, as if it was a long-lost japanese Hypercard stack recently rediscovered
Saturday January 06th, 2024
time: 12:01:59 PM MST
from: chris
tags: design
subject: what to do when you have a bad design

i'm used to frustrating design experiences when i'm working on a game. they usually involve gameplay or story elements that don't quite pan out the way they appeared in your head. sometimes it costs you weeks or months of development time to find out that something you designed just doesn't work - or more specifically, isn't very enjoyable for a player.

i found this out again most recently with designing, from the ground up, tomodashi's launch title. i wanted to start this company fresh. instead of continuing work on passion projects that had been years in the making, i would design something truly different. something exciting, something new, yet recognizable.

i thought back to the MS-DOS era and the games that left a huge impression on me. on my shelf was a copy of X-COM 2: Terror from the Deep. this was the sequel to X-COM which was met with a lot of criticism: it was hard, it was all underwater, and the land-based terror missions sucked.

but it had something going for it: the underwater missions were incredibly beautiful and intoxicatingly claustrophobic, owing to an isometric perspective and very carefully chosen aquamarine palette.

but I didn't want to make a strategic or tactical combat game. it's been done, and done so much better than anyone deserves already (see: Jagged Alliance 2). so I spent some time re-imagining what the environment of Terror from the Deep might be like in a different genre.

that's when I stumbled upon some old screenshots of an MS-DOS game called Cadaver. Cadaver was an Amiga title made by the Bitmap Brothers, back in the early 90s. it had gorgeously drawn isometric art, with systemic realtime gameplay organized around exploring a cavernous dungeon full of doors, traps and creatures. puzzles were solved using a combination of physics, movement and inventory items.

i thought: what if I combined the gameplay and visual style of Cadaver with the setting of X-COM 2? and what if, instead of fighting alien creatures, you could explore and document your surroundings, like in the adventure game The Dig?

the design came together in a couple of days. the setting would be an ancient asteroid impact in Antarctica, that had deposited spores of alien creatures in the ice. millions of years later, as the polar caps melted due to global warming, the alien spores hatched and weird alien creatures began populating the area. Antarctic research stations were deserted due to the danger they posed, and only tiny expeditions of xenobiologists would be sent in to monitor and explore the area for short periods.

it would be a role-playing game, where you played the role of a solo xenobiologist. would you explore the area and collect alien specimens purely as a hands-off observer of wildlife? or perhaps bully your way past, or even kill, dangerous alien creatures in your pursuit of the rarest ones? or - with a touch of evil corporate intrigue - you could extract the DNA ("XNA") of certain species and sell them to the highest bidder.

it was exactly the kind of game i would have wanted to play when I was fifteen years old. an MS-DOS game re-imagined for 2024, with a variety of gameplay mechanics that went beyond combat.

i wrote it all up in a four-page design document, giving it a working title of Xenobiosys. a few highlights:

Xenobiosys: An Aquatic Role-Playing Adventure

General Overview

The setting and story of The Dig meets Roadside Picnic, with an isometric perspective and Fallout-style gameplay.


Xenobiosys targets an overlooked population of adventure/role-playing game players that value exploration over combat, creative tool-use over deterministic logic puzzles, and interaction over character dialogue.

Design Overview

Xenobiosys is a role-playing adventure where a player creates a character whose primary purpose is to scientifically explore, document, analyze and report their findings in a beautiful, dangerous underwater environment full of alien creatures and environmental hazards.

In a turn-based isometric presentation, the player descends through successively hazardous environments while collecting, studying and/or exterminating unique alien species and artifacts. Identification and study of collected specimens unlock new gameplay options, and provide the player with the tools necessary to continue the descent.

The game values emergent player-directed problem solving over traditional puzzle design, through scenario prompts that the player responds to using a combination of tools and skills.

Xenobiosys is unique in striking a balance between player-enacted problem solving and traditional storytelling in an open world, that focuses on skill development and emergent systems.

it all looked perfect to me. on paper. so I found a couple of my close designer/player friends and asked them to look over the design document. both of them were fairly open to the idea of an old-school RPG with modern sensibilities, so i thought the idea would be a smash hit. i secretly hoped that they might even want to work on the project as contractors.


both of them had no response at all to the design. not only did they have no particular interest in the game, they had no particular response to what they read. not even criticisms. it just wasn't even interesting enough to respond to.

so I thought to myself, "okay - maybe it's because they can't envision the artwork or the gameplay"... so I spent a week painfully learning how to illustrate the art style I was aiming for (art tests), hoping that it would help clarify what was in the document. neither person responded to the art either.

a friend once told me, "the only thing worse than a movie that's so bad it's good, is a movie that's so mediocre that it's not even bad." judging from their responses, this was that kind of game. one so mediocre in its design that it is just uninteresting.

a week away from the design document and the art tests gave me some much-needed perspective. yes, the world I was describing was perhaps conceptually interesting - but the minute-by-minute gameplay wasn't interesting at all. there were no strong characters, no particular story for the player to follow, and - let's face it - "evil corporation getting you to do dirty deeds" is so commonplace today that it's not even worth using as a quest context.

in the end, the design was a non-starter. if this design document couldn't convince two friends who were already sympathetic to old-school DOS games, there is a near-zero chance of convincing anyone outright hostile to the genre to play it.

I was disappointed. I felt like I had lost two weeks on a bum bet. but what on earth was I going to make instead? i spent a week spinning around in circles trying to find a way to make the alien game more palatable.

my mind slowly drifted back to a project I had started way back in 2020, after seeing screenshots of the beautifully illustrated World of Horror. I had come up with a novel design, using a similar 1-bit style of art, set in a post-catastrophe alternate history of Japan. I worked on the game for years as a passion project, generating some interest in it from friends and followers. but gave up on it in 2022 after hitting some difficult design and art problems.

a few days ago, I dusted off that old git repo and looked at what I had. it was surprisingly playable, even if it wasn't enjoyable. it needed a ton of work, but it was far further along than I had realized.

what do you do when you have a bad idea? you don't get hung up on it and try to make it work. you move laterally, as a friend told me recently, and keep up your momentum. moving forward is the only way to getting a game finished.

so tomodashi's first game will be one that I've already worked on for a while. in future journal posts, I'll talk about the setting and gameplay.
Saturday December 30th, 2023
time: 08:55:56 AM MST
from: chris
tags: creativity, design, life
subject: the failure to choose

i've been pulling my hair out with different art tests over the past two weeks, trying to come up with the visual style for tomodashi's first game. each art test gets me one step forward, and two steps back. i just can't seem to choose one.

the word "choose" really struck a chord. in the bath i had a long think about what got me here, after over 15 years of "thinking about" starting a game company and making my own games.

back in the mid-2000's, my best friend and i at the time were in graduate school, and miserable. we both hated being teaching assistants, we hated a lot of the research, and we hated the subject areas we worked in. what got us excited was *games*. whenever we talked about games, our faces lit up, and we'd spend hours arguing over what made Metroid or Tetris or Fallout the best. we'd spend an equal number of hours tearing apart games like Baldur's Gate, and why we thought it was an inferior role-playing game (compared to pencil'n'paper experiences). those chats soon transformed into a couples role-playing group (Deadlands, Planescape) that lasted for years.

that semester we took a game design course together, and cemented a plan: we were going to keep working as grad students, but moonlight as game developers. we had no idea what we were doing, but we were sure that whatever game we made, it was going to be better than Baldur's Gate. we wrote design documents, we went on long walks arguing over mechanics, we learned python; eventually we began building a game in pygame.

but we needed money, we figured, if we were going to do this "right". we thought up and registered a business name, and then we opened a business banking account. but with no prospects for game development contracts, we rebranded ourselves as software engineers. we scored a couple of (to us) lucrative database and web contracts that added up to several thousands of dollars by the end of the year.

but after a year, we still had no game. our pygame-based engine was barely in its infancy, and all of the excitement around making an amazing RPG had long since faded away. programming a game after programming databases and web front ends all week felt like a chore, even if it was a happy chore.

after two years, we called it quits. we were both close to graduating from our Master's programs, and had no idea what was next. we liquidated the bank accounts and went our separate ways.

i was despondent. without him, i felt like i didn't have the skills or the motivation to make a game by myself. instead of plugging on, i gave up on games. i soon graduated, and my academic supervisor offered me a position as a Ph.D student.

thinking i had no other choice, i became a Ph.D student. i continued on in my graduate program in misery for years, and considered quitting many times. i moaned to my friends about how much i hated graduate school, but all of them assured me to keep mushing on, because coming out with a degree was better than coming out with nothing. i listened to them.

in the evenings, i'd pass my time by writing about games and talking about them non-stop. i wrote several designs on paper, but never quite committed to making one on my own. years passed.

in the late 2000's, i graduated and started teaching in my discipline as a travelling "adjunct" or sessional lecturer. this type of work consists of short-term (one-semester) contracts that pay little, and are incredibly demanding. after a year of it, i was absolutely burned out.

out of nowhere, i was invited to apply for a faculty position at a respectable university in another town. faculty positions are rare, highly sought after, and guarantee a degree of permanence never found as a sessional. the staff in the department were kind and generous, and a lot of fun to be around. everyone i knew told me it was an incredible opportunity. being asked to apply for a position was practically the same thing as being offered one outright.

so i applied. and four months later, i was offered the job. but instead of feeling excited, i felt a knot of dread in my stomach. the job would mean a lifetime of marking and teaching and research in a discipline i didn't care about anymore. when i approached the hiring committee about changing my research focus to gaming and media, they all shrugged and said that it wasn't a very interesting subject to them. couldn't I pick something sexier?

i felt torn. how could i turn down a job that any other recent grad would saw off their left arm for? i went to a buddy of mine who was a department chair at a local university, and asked him what i should do. how did i know this was the right job for me? he smiled kindly and said, "chris, the right job is the one that someone will pay you to do for them."

i was stunned. i sat there in silence and processed his words for hours. a part of me knew that he was right: these jobs are one in a million, and the department *wanted me* there. and yet, a part of me knew that this was terrible advice for someone like me. i hated my discipline, and ultimately just wanted to be making computer games instead of teaching.

a few days later, i called the chair of the hiring committee and announced my decision: i was not going to take the job, and i was leaving academia for good. it was one of the hardest, and most important phone calls i've ever made in my life.

i realized today that i've struggled with making choices for myself most of my life. when my game development partner quit, i gave up on my dream. when my grad supervisor offered me a Ph.D slot, i took it without asking myself if it was what i wanted. i allowed other people to make the choices for me. i took the easy way out, which meant accepting whatever career opportunity came up because "anyone else would say it was a good choice". they were never *my* choices, because the choices were made by values external to who i am as a person. i failed to choose.

that makes starting a game development company of my own, using ideas out of my own head, a terrifying prospect. so even something as seemingly-benign as picking a visual style or colour palette for a game can be anxiety-inducing.

and yet - being in the position to choose, really choose, feels wholesome. picking how the world and characters should look feels just as good as the day i chose to quit academia. even if my choices turn out to be the wrong ones, i can at least say a few years down the road: they were my choices.
Tuesday December 26th, 2023
time: 07:43:16 PM MST
from: chris
tags: studio
subject: boxing day

took all of christmas day off and spent it with my wife and family. tried not to think about the site or the company or any game ideas with some success.

back at work on the site today, learning how to cartoon. i gave up trying to emulate other cartoonists styles, and just went with my my hands know - sort of - how to do.

can't say that i love the results, but it's what my mind and body are capable of for the time being. deposited $100 that my wonderful grandmother sent me as a christmas gift, into the tomodashi account. will write a letter to thank her, and explain to her what i'll use the money for. how do i explain to someone born before the second world war what computer games are?
Sunday December 24th, 2023
time: 11:16:42 AM MST
from: chris
tags: studio
subject: the beginning

today I made my first deposit of $148.02 to my (business) chequing account, which will be the home base for any of the funds for tomodashi.
why $148? because that's a bunch of trashy cryptocurrency that was sitting in a coinbase account over the past few months, slowly self-inflating due to idiots ruining their lives listening to other manipulative idiots. i didn't pay for a cent of it - all gifted from coinbase's "learning rewards".

i've spent the last couple of days designing tomodashi's launch site. most of it is statically generated from php that i wrote building