Friday, May 14, 2010

So you wanna be a producer?

hat is it I do, anyway? My title is 'producer', but if you're like me, before I really started doing the job, I had little to no idea what that actually entailed. I'm also a producer on the publishing side, which - I am led to believe - is distinctly different from a producer at a developer studio.

We know what producers do for movies - at least we think we do - something like that? The short answer is yes, but there are a lot of things that a game company's producers do that you don't see elsewhere.

Honestly, the producer is the real 'Boss Monster' or villain of the video game industry. Generally reviled because we are the people who have to stop thinking about the fun parts and start thinking about distribution of funds and how to make a product profitable. We're the caste of party-poopers who are unloved by gamers because we came up with and rolled out paid DLC schemes and are responsible for pushing games out the door that aren't ready for market, et-cetera.

Now, I'm not a full-fledged producer yet - more like a mini-boss, if you will. I don't decide what gets monetized, but when it's decided, I'm setting price points and debating how far we can go in trying to make a product profitable before people will turn away from it. I also am the one with my eyes on the rest of the companies in the industry - seeing how they're charging their customers and reporting back to the brass on ways to maximize gains. I keep a lot of records, make a lot of charts and analyze a lot of market data.

The role of the producer, more seriously, is overall management of a project. From the very beginning of a project, where we green-light a proposal, through to roll-out and distribution of DLC. We interface with sales and marketing to give them the information about the game to push to the media and distributors, we also keep our eyes on development schedules - set milestones for developers to meet, and enforce those deadlines. We loan equipment as necessary to developers and make sure that they have all of the tools they need to get the project done within our specifications and are the ones who say when content needs to be cut.

When a game is ready to go to the licensor (Console manufacturer), we are the ones who talk to them, we burn the master discs and get them into the licensor's hands for review. If they have a question or concern, we make sure it's addressed by the right person and gets taken care of. If we drop the ball, things come to a screeching halt.

In Japan, the producer is also the face of the project much of the time when dealing with press and media. We are evangelists - presales men right along with the PR force who are responsible for telling the world just what the game is all about. The foremost expert on the product, as a product.

Here the producer often takes a semi-creative role, directing the creative vision of a project - I am led to believe this is less often the case overseas. The producer can frequently also play the role of the creative director, becoming more hands-on with the game than just making sure it gets done. Traditionally, this doesn't fall within the realm of our responsibilities, though.

In the end, the producer is the 'business' end of a video game, for better or worse. A necessary evil, if you will.

Because of my position within the gaming industry, I am exposed to every side of an argument in the development of a game. It also makes me a champion of some unpopular ideas, like DRM and DLC, both of which will be the subject of entries to come.

But I'm also a guy who just loves video games. I am proud to see my name in the credits of every game that I've been involved with, because I know that although I didn't do the art, I didn't write a line of code or a note of music - nothing I've done is immediately visible to the player (usually), but through our hard work and faith in a project, it sits on the shelf or - even better - in your game machine at all.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What happened?

o all of a sudden, almost as expected, I stopped blogging. Now and then I logged in to a community site like Facebook or the like to check on things, and I continue to read other peoples' blogs, but I basically have been 'lurking' for a while, so to speak. Why? Because I've been working.

It's funny how as soon as I picked up the job I was searching for, I lost the motivation to write about it. A lot of that is probably due to the fact that I've been party to something of a steep learning curve - and have taken these last few months as time to adjust to my new environment, but I would like to announce officially - though close to 4 months late, that I am now a producer.

Of course, in video gaming.

During the Raku Job fair I mentioned back a few months ago (One or two posts ago), I met with a lot of representatives of a lot of companies. My original plan was to go for a position in an art department - showcase my talent for pixels and let that speak for me. To be honest, I was relatively sure that as a stranger in a strange land, I wouldn't really be taken seriously for the more management-type jobs of game planning, direction or production; still, I had a nice, if brief conversation with the HR head at Japanese mid-sized development and production house, Acquire (Primarily known in the west for Tenchu and Way of the Samurai, as well as the ridiculously long-named
"Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman: What did I ever do to Deserve This?"as a developer - and a title recently licensed overseas by Atlus called Class of Heroes).

He mentioned that there might be an opening sometime in the near future (as of that time) in their Sales & Production team for an assistant Producer position. Acquire as of only a few years now has started work as a publisher, on top of their development work, and with a team of only 2 producers, in order to maintain momentum and bolster growth, they needed someone with a mind for business, and an eye for games as an assistant producer. This eventually became me.

However, that eventuality was actually postponed (Perhaps for the best? I'm not sure) by my preconceptions that Foreigners aren't taken seriously in the Japanese game market. As it wasn't an official entry for an open position, I was just asked cordially to send an e-mail with my detailed resume and a self-introduction, and to take it from there. To me (With the mind of a headhunter still strong) I labeled it as an
off spec (i.e. sent over without a specific position in mind) entry, and therefore very unlikely to actually stick. I really wanted the position, but I was prioritizing jobs that were urgent to the hirer, like a good little recruiter.

I went ahead and applied to a handful of positions in companies that e-mailed me with entry methods for specific positions, and even went pretty deep with an application to Porn Game maker Front Wing.

However, everything fell through. I was back to square one, and the only card I had left in my hand at the time that seemed at all likely was with Acquire and the vague thought that there might be something open. I bit, sent in my application, and got a reply asking to come in for an interview the next week. I was elated. I researched as much as I could about the company and their games, read up on what a Producer actually does (It's a lot different than you might think - I intend to post about that separately), and went in to meet the two gents who would ultimately become my bosses.

The interview went average-to-well. Ever self-doubting I was kicking myself in the ass for asking one or two stupid questions, including repeating myself because I started saying something, didn't know where I was going with it, so recovered by restating a pretty simple question they'd already answered.

Regardless, they apparently liked what they saw, and asked to see
Kuma Story and Red Flagg Redux, and said they'd get back to me in a week.

Fast forward 1 week, still no word, and girlfriend visiting from Korea. I was diligently checking my e-mail while the missus lay on the bed watching some cooking program on TV, when I saw an e-mail from Hyakuzuka-san, the HR gent at Acquire and flipped out. It wasn't the rejection e-mail I expected - it wasn't even the '2nd interview' e-mail I was hoping for, it was an offer of employment. I was dumbstruck, and turned to express what I could to my girlfriend - apparently I looked more shocked than I imagined, since until I told her specifically that I got the job, she was sure from my expression that I had been turned down.

They asked me to start working from May 1st, and that I did. I was there from right after the release of Dungeons & Dam, and am now in full-gear with production of some newly announced titles, Gladiator Begins and the exciting revival of the Wizardry franchise, with "Labyrinth of Lost Souls" (Still a teaser site, as of this writing).

I hope to keep up with the blog again, and maybe someone will find it interesting enough to actually read. I doubt I'll post more than at a weekly pace, but hopefully something will come of it, and I won't leave it stagnant for another 5 months.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Putting in the Hours

recently put out my first serious finished game project, after a handful of late nights and a whole lot of hard work and script study. Kuma Story is much more a personal project than this one was, and in such, was a much easier project to see through to completion.

As they say in the AGS forums, if not the entire business - start small. For the 6+ years that I've been fiddling with the engine, only since the beginning of 2009 have I truly made a vested effort to complete one of my projects in a timely and organized manner. It took a simple, small-scale premise on the monthly MAGS gaming contest to really give me the inspiration to work out a project on a level that I thought that I would be able to achieve. Even a simple, one-room game like this proved to amount up to something along the lines of 50+ man hours in order to get the project to the level of quality that I wanted for it.

As a little background about the project itself, it may help to give some insight into what the MAGS competition is, for anyone that isn't already familiar with it. On a monthly basis, the AGS community has a competition to create a game (short or otherwise) that fits into a specific theme. The winner of the previous month's competition provides the theme, and it is moderated by the MAGS caretaker, Mr. Klaus Schlichter. This month the job was to remake and re-envision one of two classic AGS games made around the time when the runtime was still a DOS-based engine. As opposed to explaining it all, I'll provide a link here to browse at your leisure.

I chose to remake the game Red Flagg: Don't call me Blue, since it seemed to be a straightforward game, while still offering the wiggle room to create something with a little bit of meat on its bones. I joked to myself and a few others I correspond with during the developing process that fishing is simple enough a "sport" that it shouldn't be hard to make an accurate representation without breaking my back. For my part, I think I did a reasonable job in that respect, although it still could use a fair bit of polish to make it a more engaging game experience.

The original Red Flagg, Creadted by Scid

The original game, aside from some witty responses to attempted actions, is a somewhat bare-bones. You start the game having already caught the fish you set out to get, as well as a hat for your 'great aunt Hattie' (much to the hilarity of the 'Hodzinsky family' living in the bushes/forest across the lake). The only really required action of the player is to walk off the edge of the screen and to enter their house. Which is followed by a semi-substantial blooper reel (which I ultimately didn't bother with).

So I made the executive decision to reel back the gameplay a bit (no pun intended) so that the player is responsible for catching the fish, and perhaps a few other things - which ultimately gives me the option to add a little more interactivity to the game, which I feel people would probably prefer. I took most of the text from the original game, at least as set on the Pier area, verbatim from Scid's original piece and adapted it to my own devices. All in all, the game is still very limited in terms of what you can accomplish, but I liken it to a fishing minigame that you would find in a game like Breath of Fire or the older Suikoden games. Incidentally, I was listening primarily to the Suikoden 2 soundtrack's minigame BGMs during much of the production of the game, for inspiration.

By no means am I a background person, so I'm glad that I took the time to develop my 'Behemoth in the Desert' image a few weeks back (which I will write about soon). The experience certainly helped to streamline my artistic process. Partially influenced by the 'Header' image created by pixel art master, Fool, I tried to take the minimalist background created by Scid for the original, and make it a more convincing natural environment. About 2 hours and a fair bit of fiddling later, I had the setting for the entire game.

My take on the lake/pier, and what you'll see a lot of.

Though I would have liked to have added the house as well, it plays such a small role in the actual 'meat' of the game, it didn't really seem a necessary addition. I may deign to add it back into the game in a future update, but as it is, the game is a 'one room' piece. If I had been this diligent a few years back, I could have released it for an AGS OROW (One room, One week) contest as well.

As is my nature as an animator and character artist, the largest portion of the game development process was devoted to animation of the eponymous main character, Red Flagg. I'm no stranger to character animation, but had to spend a fair amount of time after the standard movement animations on making a convincing fishing rod wobble, and the swinging and snaking of the fishing line. There were complete animations of 140+ frames done before the fishing line was added, specifically so that I could focus on the kinetics of the line itself. I'm still not 100% sure that I got it right, but I'm satisfied, at least, with the end result of my toil.

The GUI was a last-minute addition, only really added because I was already over the deadline by a few hours, and didn't think that an extra hour of polishing up the GUI for final release would hurt. I made alternate graphics for the standard SIERRA style GUI, and removed their top bars altogether. Like Kuma Story, I attempted to keep the game as simplistic as possible. Considering the scale of the game, I felt no real need to include saving/loading (though they're still accessible through F5/57), and used my original Kuma Story 'X in the upper right corner' quit button, which I may develop into a standardized interface for my games going forward.

I'm particularly proud of my 'inventory system'. Truth be told, I had originally planned on having a graphical inventory, but running out of time, I decided to do something slightly more innovative, and have Red describe the contents of his cooler instead, using a series of if/else if calls in the engine to tell him exactly what to say. I think the end result, especially since there's really nothing you can do with the inventory, is perfectly acceptable.

All in all, it was a great learning experience, and helped to recharge my batteries to continue working on my current large-scale project with the Screen 7 team, Kinky Island.

You can find and play the MAGS release of the game here.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The way of the Dodo

o, rounding up on the end of the business week after the Raku Job festa, I'm pleased to announce that for the first time in a while, I'm seeing a vague, flickering light at the end of the tunnel in the form of one (adult) game developer, and one game outsourcing firm. Both of them seemed fairly interested in my profile during the fair, and we shall certainly see if I can wow either of them with my portfolio.

It definitely brings back a spark of creativity when you know someone gives a damn about your work.

But I digress, let's step away from my personal life again for a while, and contemplate something that happened during said job fair that stuck with me. I was having a conversation with one of the developers who was at the fair during my alloted
n number of minutes with him. I mentioned that I was a pixel artist, and he was intrigued - like some sort of endangered species, he mentioned to me that pixel artists are a rare breed, and not really called for much in the gaming industry anymore. "Pixel art is ending" says he.

I tried to make the argument that it's still in use commercially within DS and some PC titles - casual gaming comes to mind, but he says that even DS consumers are shying away from the Retro 2D graphic art, and everything's going 3D on the console now. So I ponder - is pixel art truly being relegated to the realm of
niche art along with cubism and scratch art and their ilk? Obviously I have a lot of exposure to it, with my involvement in the indies/retro gaming scene, and communities like Pixelation and Pixeljoint, but it seems even in those realms that pixel art is really being considered just that - art. Much moreso than as a medium for interactive entertainment.

Granted, we do see plenty of very high quality animation coming out of pixel art, especially in the public forum of the places that I mentioned above, but what about the general gaming public? Obviously 3D is a big thing, and someone truly serious about being an artist in the mainstream gaming industry is probably going to want to spend some time familiarizing themselves with the tools of said trade, but what will happen to the great pixel artists as time goes on? The optimist in me says that one day, we'll see an influx of low resolution/2D art coming back, but that could just be the optimist in me saying I'm not obsolete.

Apparently, according to the gentleman I had said conversation with, even cellphone applications are quickly sliding in the direction of vector-based animation programs like Flash.

Regardless, Asobism (the aforementioned outsourcing company) was intrigued in the good way with my pixel art background. Hopefully this gives me a leg up over any competition I may see. I don't doubt that competition
will be stiff, but I will persevere.

Viva le pixel.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Raku Job Aftermath

ell, folks, I have been to and back from the job event held by Raku Job. I must say that I entered the event with very low expectations. I certainly thought that there would be things there for me to see and I would have the opportunity to make one or two connections in the game industry, but I'll be completely honest and say that I didn't have high hopes for getting any truly good leads.

Well, I guess my cynicism can be ratcheted back perhaps at least one notch for the time being. In retrospect, the whole event was a great move. Especially considering that I was planning almost on blowing the whole thing off and sitting around at home tinkering with my Fallout 3 mod instead. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting some great folks from Pixiv, Asobism, Acquire, Frontwing, Oh-Ami (Amiami), Digital Hearts, e-Smile, and some others in the gaming and other digital entertainment industries, but the most interesting happening was that of me running into the Director of the company that put on the event, Be Higher.

After having a great time wandering between booths and having some entertaining conversations with the people there, discussing the current life and future of pixel art with the folks I was talking to, I was winding my day down and taking a breath on one of the seats around the corner from the main event and staring off into space when a gentleman wearing a STAFF card around his neck walked over to me and struck up a conversation.

Like a lot of Japanese businessmen, it felt at first like he was just interested in practicing his English with me, which I have no qualms with - especially when their English is understandable and they're friendly, much as this man was - but after a few minutes of idle chit-chat, he revealed to me that he was one of the top people at Be Higher, the company that owns and operates Raku Job, and upon my revealing my background as a headhunter, we immediately found that we had a lot to talk about.

I don't want to get ahead of myself and say that things are going to happen when they may not, but it seems that they as a company are also looking for people, and someone who has a background in recruitment/consulting, strong knowledge of gaming, animation and cartooning, and the skill at English to help to develop a foreign market (Check, on all three counts) would fit the bill rather smoothly. He even offered to introduce me to the CEO of the company, who was sadly indisposed, but I was introduced to one or two other members of the staff, and first thing upon getting back to my apartment, I sent off a thank-you mail and a copy of my English and Japanese resumes to him to peruse.

Hopefully, he'll be interested and get back to me soon. This could well be the break I've been searching for.

An unusual twist, I suppose, as I've been desperately trying to get out of headhunting, but I think that this is one brand of recruitment that I could still see myself getting behind: portal-based, commercial, organized, and focused on three industries that I'm both passionate about and have a fair bit of knowledge in. I know that with my age, and lack of practical business experience with game development/art, that I don't have as much chance in the
proper gaming industry, but I'd be more than happy to be in a position that puts me in close contact with people in the industry, to help pad my future with them, perhaps a ways on down the road.

Either way, fingers crossed - and of course fingers crossed for the plethora of other tentative applications that left my hands on Sunday afternoon.

My advice for people interested in changing their jobs? Go to Job fairs. I may just have had a good experience and this could well not be indicative of what they all have to offer, but I chose the right job fair - one that caters to my niche. I had a lot to talk about with everyone there, and it was eye-opening in many ways.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Raku Job Festa '09

nd so, I get ready to embark on a journey to my first ever job fair. Even when I was in University here in Japan, I was always under the impression that I was one day just going to up and leave the whole country behind me, so I never really tried the whole 就職活動 thing. Mostly I just watched bemused as my fellow students who prided themselves in being individual and nonconformist squeezed into their crisply pressed suits and crowded into lecture halls to hopefully have a shot at this thing we call 'employment'.

Of course, this was during the glory days where employment wasn't so much an issue. Not guaranteed by any right, but in the age where half of the businesses have gone tits-up in a matter of months, employment is no longer as common a commodity as it once was. Most of us are glad to have
any job these days. So today I dust off the ol' hire me grin and cinch up my best necktie, and off I go to the cattle pen. I will be attending the 2nd annual "Raku Job Festa", which is a job fair being hosted by the ラクジョブ job site.

What's unique and intriguing about this particular job fair is that it's very niche - insofar as it's meant specifically for geeks of my particular species who are interested in the entertainment industry. More appropriately, Raku Job caters to people interested in the Gaming, Cartooning (manga, to be exact) and Animation branches of the entertainment industry. At one point many years ago, I fancied myself a cartoonist, so I may very well just see what they have to offer in that venue as well, though I doubt anyone in the publishing industry is really looking for a foreigner.

Which brings me to one point of contention - I will be at the distinct disadvantage of not being a native. I don't like to rain too much attention on Japan's often inherent xenophobia, but it is there, and though I don't think my disadvantage will be quite
palpable, I can imagine that I will get a few passing glances as I sit in on lectures and drop by the booths of the visiting companies to drop off a brief resume-ette and speak with them about their open positions.

By no means am I a stranger to business here in Japan, mind you. I have worked in the headhunting business for more than a year and a half, and although most of that work is done with foreign capital enterprises, I was the man who was given all of the Japanese clients when there were Japanese clients to be had (Though being a foreigner on top of being a headhunter was sort of a double-whammy when trying to build a trusting relationship).

So I will try my luck with a few companies in the gaming indutry tomorrow. I may bring a small sheet of some of my portfolio pieces, though it seems they aren't really looking for such things. At this point, I would even be happy to be considered for a relatively entry-level position. I understand that my status within the indies community (which isn't exactly huge as it stands) doesn't really amount to a hill of beans in the professional gaming world of Japan, but I will be attempting to showcase what I can to the lovely folks I hope to be meeting with tomorrow.

If I were allowed to take photos, I would, but it's one of the 2 rules posted on their website, so I can imagine that enforcement will be done. I will be bringing my MP3 player and probably recording some audio for posterity, however. Especially if it seems like there will be something interesting to learn.

So I ready myself. I will need to drop by a photo booth in the morning to take a picture of myself, as I realized that I don't have any shots of myself with the beard that I can attach to my application, but that will be a quick matter, and afterwards, it will be meeting with my fellow job-seeker Emery, for dinner and
war stories related to the daunting task of finding employment in this global economic situation, in a country where it's already tough to find a job as a foreigner that doesn't involve teaching language to people who pay too much to learn it.

Wish me luck.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Modding is the new Developing

ser Generated content is the in thing in gaming these days. One way of looking at it is the common misconception (in my opinion) that developers are lazy. Yes, they can certainly be lazy but I really don't think that the user generated content thing is a sign of laziness so much as following the money. People are less interested these days in an immersive and well thought-out experience as they are with being a part of the action. Perhaps for the very same reason I've become so interested in working in the gaming industry myself.

User generated content is the next logical step, when a developer realizes that the player wants to have a part in the creation of the game, and ultimately, the player knows what they want to play. This isn't to say that a game with a great plot isn't going to be something that people crave. If Fallout 3 was only a sandbox game and the GECK, then I don't think it would've been nearly as popular as it ultimately turned out to be. However, especially in the case of companies like Bethesda who specialize in very pretty games and detailed construction sets, they can rely on the players and the modding community to make 'improvements' on an already good product.

Modding has been around as long as people have had any idea how to mod a game. Even way back as far as the year I was born, two guys named Doug Macrae and Kevin Curran started a company called General Computer whose entire purpose was modding (though they did it the old-skool way, through hardware). Through their mod work, they were the guys who originally made Ms. Pac-Man and various other vast improvements on existing arcade titles of the day.

So when modding is as old as I am, it can be said that it's an institution, almost. And if it can get those two guys swanky jobs at both Atari and Midway simultaneously, it can't hurt to get one's hands dirty in other peoples' code.

Of course, this all could be a pretense for the fact that modding can also be lots of fun. I recently took my first walk down the path with a mod for Fallout 3 (which I spend a shameful amount of time playing these days), and forever put out into the world just how dorky I am a gamer by basing it off of content originally created for the Black Isle Fallout 3 game (that was never finished before the company died), codenamed Van Buren. Say hello to the Experimental Stealth Boy. Originally, the item is a short-term predator-esque light-bending technology that renders your character invisible and a fair bit more stealthy.

Because I'm an enormous Fallout fanboy, I actually did some research into the Fallout world, in order to make something canon that would be an improvement in an already pretty decent experience. Because I don't see myself as one of those modders who wants the Fatman to fire off 96 tactical nukes at once, or completely eliminate the point of having stats that affect my efficiency in gunplay, I decided to put together something that doesn't just give things away, but also adds an element of danger (?) to the game.

Taking a leaf from the Circle of Steel plotline for Van Buren, I decided to start my path down the road that is modding with a small item mod. A unique object. Although there was no talk of the Stealth Boy tech being modified in any way by the Brotherhood of Steel in the game (For non Fallout Players, the Brotherhood of Steel is a post-apocalyptic order of knights focused on gathering, cataloging and reengineering the technology of the past), I created a small modification to the existing tech to make it more interesting.

It turned out to be more complicated than originally thought. I wanted the Experimental Stealth boy to deplete a resource, be able to be switched on and off, and to have an element of risk if the player uses it too much, to discourage people from using it as a 'god item'. Think sort of like the One Ring, but with a replaceable battery pack.

So I went about the task of learning the Scripting language for Fallout 3 (Incidentally, mostly the same as the scripting language for Bethesda's other RPG titles), and worked out all the details of how to accomplish what I needed. After much muddling with base effects, actor effects, writing a custom addiction script and ammo depletion script and figuring out a workaround for the fact that the sound made when an item is picked up is also the same as when it's equipped in the game's standard setup, I have a beta version of the mod out.

It's still not perfect, but I'm proud of myself. For teaching myself some elements of a semi-complicated scripting language (With much help and hand-holding from awesome Fallout Nexus forum user Cipscis) and for building something that other people will use in their game.

It's still not real game creation, but I'm happy with what I've done, and I plan on expanding my jaunt into FO3 modding in the future. So if you play Fallout 3, and you care enough, give it a shot. If you missed the link above, here it is again. Feel free to drop me a comment here or at the Nexus, and if you like it, give me a good rating. It'll raise my clout in the modding community, and maybe help me on my way.