For the Narcissist Lover in You…

Archive for June, 2011

Dream:scape Post-Mortem

Every once in a while a reader commends me on how brave I must be to share my creations with the world. I appreciate the compliment (I assume it’s a compliment), but it always puzzles me a little. Why would anyone create anything– especially something as time-consuming and demanding as a novel– if they did not intend to broadcast it to as much of the world at large as possible? As a writer and artist, the one thing that motivates me throughout the occasionally arduous, desperate, and/or blindingly frustrating process of creation is the stubborn belief that someday (and oh God let it be soon) I will be done and my magnum opus will be unleashed upon the world.

But that’s the funny part.  Whenever that moment does come– that moment of finally opening my hands and letting the world see what I’ve made– I have a sudden sinking moment of recollection, a chill of horror, and I remember that this is, in fact, the hardest and most stressful part of all.  What if they hate it?  What if I’m wrong and it stinks? What if all those months of effort were wasted on an artistic delusion of grandeur?

That’s how it was with the release of Dream:scape, my first game endeavor, which debuted as a featured app on iTunes this past Thursday.  I am finally able to talk about it.  It’s been… er… fun?

More on that in a minute.  I need to work up to it.

When Thursday came, I suddenly remembered when I released my first book.  It was the first in the James Potter series, the Hall of Elders’ Crossing, and I was terrified.  It was released as a free download, one chapter a day, throughout the month of December a few years ago.  The story had gotten a remarkable degree of pre-hype (due, in no small part, to press reports that the hosting website was secretly run by Warner Brothers, or even J. K. Rowling herself).  When the date of the first chapter release came, literally tens of thousands of people downloaded it.  Clearly, I was terrified.

And then the first several reviews began to come in.  And they were all bad.  They hated the story.  They hated me.  They demanded I stop, lamented that I had ruined the world of Harry Potter, and even threatened me a little.  I wanted to die.  Fortunately, those first reviews turned out to be an anomaly.  As time went by, the JP series developed a shockingly large (and unflaggingly loyal) following of very supportive readers worldwide.

The funny thing is, I almost immediately forgot about those first agonizing hours of uncertainty when the JP story launched.  If I had recalled how awful that was, I probably wouldn’t have ever dared to try it again.  It’s a lot like childbirth that way, I suppose.

So I’ve released more than a few stories since then, and I suppose I have toughened up a little bit about it.  I am a little more confident of myself in terms of my writing.

So WHY then (I ask myself) did I decide once again to find something I have never done before and give that a huge go, very publicly and with massive worldwide attention?

I am obviously a glutton for punishment.

I started tinkering with the idea of making an iPhone game in mi- January.  I’d never made a game before, although as a digital artist and writer I felt reasonably (and probably foolishly) confident that I could pull it off, given enough time.  Never mind that the one book I breezed through on the topic warned, in the first chapter, that NO ONE can make a video game on their own.  I skipped that bit.

Slowly, a game environment began to take shape.  A story followed.  Before I knew what was happening, all the pieces were coming together.  One friend helped me write the plot, another patiently recorded most of the lines of dialogue, a third wrote and performed the amazing musical score.  It happened so easily!  I should have been suspicious.  And I was.

I finished the game.  It ran beautifully on my iPhone 4.  I never tested it on anything else.  It never occurred to me that this might be a problem.  (This is the part where you, the reader, can legitimately feel smugly confident that you would never make such a ridiculous error.  Congratulations, smart-ass.)

I uploaded the game to iTunes and began the frustrating process of waiting for them to review it.  I had a plan, though: in the meantime, I would release a trailer on Youtube showing the game and hopefully inspiring some pre-release hype.

Two things happened then very quickly– 1) the trailer achieved international attention from the mobile gaming media, reaching 100,000 hits in a few days, and 2) I discovered that the game didn’t work on, well, pretty much anything.  It worked on my iPhone 4.  Not iPhone 3GS.  Not iPad.  Not iPod.  It crashed, immediately.  iTunes rejected it.

Cue horrified scream.

So I feverishly went back to the drawing board.  I begged for help from every quarter.  I went to Unreal (the creators of the engine that I used to make the game).  I spoke to a handful of programmers.  I got nowhere.  I was desperate.   Then, after a month of hair-ripping-out, a breakthrough (thank me for not boring you with the details).  I got it to work on the iPad I had bought for just that purpose.  It worked on my friend’s  iPhone 3GS.  It worked on another tester’s iPod Touch.

Cue giddy (and somewhat unstable) cackle of glee.

I resubmitted the game to iTunes.  And things started to go a little crazy.

A representative from Apple called me.  They had seen the hype surrounding the trailer and wanted to use Dream:scape promotionally.  Shortly thereafter, I spoke to someone else at iTunes and there was the teasing suggestion that they might feature Dream:scape upon its release.  And then this:  there was serious talk that Apple might make Dreama:scape the keynote example of the capabilities of mobile gaming at the Apple Worldwide Developer’s Conference.  (They didn’t, but still!)

Dream:scape passed iTunes review.  A release date was set.  I waited.

And it was just as horrible as it always is.  Maybe even more so this time.  After all, I am not a game developer.  I’m a writer and an artist, and some of the time I still even have doubts about that.  And now, suddenly, the world seemed to be waiting with high anticipation for this crazy game I made. What if they all hate it?  What if it stinks?  What if this was all just an artistic delusion of grandeur?

Worst of all was this:  my freelance contract jobs had mostly dried up.  Blame the economy, I suppose.  The result was that I had plenty of time to work on Dream:scape.  Soon enough, I came to realize that Dream:scape wasn’t just a fun lark– it had become my job.  If it didn’t pay off, it wasn’t just going to be personally devastating.  It was going to destroy me financially.

Yeah.  So, it was pretty stressful.

Finally, the day of the release came.  I could barely stand it.  What if they hate it?  What if it stinks? 

iTunes uses a rating system.  If the first buyers don’t like an app and they leave it low star-ratings, that has the potential to kill future sales.  Not even being featured by iTunes could save me from that.  As usual, I was terrified.  Releasing one’s creation onto the world at large does not require bravery.  It requires two things in equal measure– unabashed ego and total fool-hardy stupidity.

The first reviews began to come in.  For those who played the game, amazingly, thankfully, gloriously, they seemed to like it.  It was getting five star reviews from them.

But that reveals the problem, doesn’t it?  The one looming possibility that I had completely failed to consider: some people couldn’t play the game.  It crashed on them.  Despite the fact that it worked for me when tested on all relevant devices, and despite the fact that I still have not been able to duplicate the problem, Dream:scape still crashed for some buyers.  And those buyers (quite understandably) left flaming one-star reviews.

It’s one thing to make a game that stinks.  People take that risk when they buy something from an unknown developer.  If they gave bomb reviews for D:S because it was just bad, that I could live with.  But try to imagine the unadulterated shame of knowing that somebody had the faith to purchase something from you and that you, by all appearances, rooked them.  I am a people-pleaser, as many of you know.  Disappointing people, even complete strangers, is my personal hell.

Honestly, I don’t know what percentage of people experienced crashes.  The likelihood is that it was a relatively small (but very vocal) amount.  I don’t know if some of them did eventually get the game to work (in many cases, I suspect a re-start rectified the issue).  Still, upon that first initial crash, a lot of those people did immediately come and leave one-star reviews.  Like I said, I don’t blame them in the least.  I’d probably do the same thing.

So I tried to fix the problem.  I assumed it was due to memory issues.  D:S uses a lot of it, and while it might work on most devices, it obviously approaches a critical threshold that surpasses the capabilities of a few.  I released an update, and it has finally gone live tonight.  I sincerely hope it fixes the problem.  I may never really know for sure.  I wasn’t able to test it myself, because I could never duplicate the crashing issue.

But here’s the up-shot:  where my first attempt at gaming failed a little, it was in the one area where I KNOW I have no expertise at all– the Cursed Technical.  I am so bad at the Cursed Technical that I am amazed I was able to ever get a game working at all.  I guess it’s no real surprise that that’s where my biggest problem came from.

But here’s the amazing bit: like I said earlier, for those who are able to play it, a lot of them like the game a lot.  Despite the glitches, the programming snaffoos, the occasional crashes, and despite my utter lack of ANY game development experience whatsoever, Dream:scape still has more five star ratings than any other rating (followed closely by one-stars, of course).

Unfortunately, Dream:scape has so far not made me rich.  But it did get featured for a week.  It did get the substantial (if temporary) attention of the biggest mobile device company on earth.  It did get good-to-great reviews by loads of mobile gaming websites.

And most importantly, yes, it has so far made enough money to keep me in the game development biz.  No financial disasters.  In fact, for the first time in my life I am living entirely on the income provided by my own creation.  Not bad for some guy who just got a lark of an idea a few months ago.

So in short, WHEW.  I have learned a tremendous amount in the last few weeks.  Like, NEVER release a game unless it has been tested on, well, every device pretty much on the planet.  NEVER try to do a programmer’s job yourself if you are not a programmer (honestly I will probably make this mistake again.  Good programmers are just so damn hard to find).  And most importantly… er… I dunno, I’m forgetting it all already.  It’s been a crazy sorta ride.  I’m just glad it’s close to over now.

I’m going to take a few weeks off.  For those of you who helped, I will eventually contact you about sending a little sugar your way (once it actually comes my way, that is, which apparently ain’t gonna be any too soon).  And then, yeah, I’ll probably start picking your brains about the next project.

Because it’s true.  For better or worse, and until the mood strikes me otherwise, I am now an artist, a writer… and a game developer.



The Boy Who Cried Racism

A sidenote– for everyone tuning into this blog for news about my efforts in the world of writing, I apologize.  For the moment, this blog has turned into a venting mechanism to distract me from the impending release of my upcoming iPhone game “dream:scape” (available on the App Store June 9, and yes that’s a plug).  I will be back to my regularly scheduled artistic angstiness once that game is released and I revert to why-doesn’t-the-literary-world-recognize-my-genius mode.

A few years ago I was hanging out with a group of friends discussing the vagaries of life in general when one of those friends (I’ll call him Jim) used the term “tar baby” in a sentence.  I wasn’t familiar with the term (turns out it’s from a Br’er Rabbit story), but I understood it in context to refer to a quagmire situation that was difficult to get out of.  An African-American member of the group (I’ll call her Susan) silenced the entire conversation by stating flatly that she was offended by the term ‘tar baby’ since it was inherently racist.  Needless to say, Jim was mortified and apologized profusely.  This killed the conversation for the rest of the evening and, I think, affected the group’s interactions forever after.

I have since looked up the term tar baby to see if it has any racial overtones.  While the use of the term by unwitting politicians has resulted in their ostracization by civil rights groups, the term itself, ironically, originates in African culture.  It made its way into popular American culture several decades ago, thanks in part to being featured in a Disney cartoon.  Turns out, Jim is a big fan of classic Disney animation, thus it is safe to say that he got the idea of the tar baby from a cartoon rather than from any inherent dislike of black people.

The main point, however, is this: Susan knows Jim isn’t a racist.  He’d been her friend for a long time.  And yet it was worth damaging that friendship with the allegation of racism– an allegation that made us all feel like we were suddenly walking in a mine field.  After all, we white people have been so conditioned to be fearful of that particular charge that we tend to think we’re automatically guilty of it, no matter what we actually think or feel.

There was something deeply unsettling about that interaction, and it wasn’t just the residual white man’s guilt it evoked or the subtle way it affected the group from then on.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it then, but I think I have finally figured it out.

Over the past few days, I have seen several stories alleging racism.  One was about Naomi Campbell’s horror at being compared, in an ad for Cadbury, to a candy bar:  “Move over Naomi Campbell,” the ad reads, displaying a picture of a chocolate bar lying on a bed of diamonds, “there’s a new diva in town”.  Another news story announced that some social scientist or other has determined that the Smurfs are racist.

Really?  This is what racism has become in America?  A successful model being compared (favorably) to a chocolate bar, and blue Belgian cartoon characters?  I am not arguing that these charges aren’t true, necessarily.  But seriously: is this how we want to define racism in America these days?

Here’s what I find unsettling about this: racism is real, and it is far more serious than the above.  I remember overhearing a former girlfriend’s southern family as they watched a football game, repeatedly mocking the onscreen players with blatant bigotry.  I recall how my grandparents were threatened by their lifelong best friends that they would never be spoken to again if they allowed their house to be sold to black people (and no, that isn’t the term they used).  I know the ugly racial history of the city I currently live in.  I am aware that real racism led to tragic consequences here, and in many other places across the country, and I am aware that real, hateful racism is still alive and well in some places, still festering like leprosy and poisoning minds.

This is why the over-use of the allegation of racism is so dangerous.  It cheapens the entire concept, makes it nearly meaningless, removes it of the power it requires to condemn those who are truly guilty of it.  There is no honest comparison between my friend Jim, who inadvertently used the term tar baby, and the hateful hicks who gleefully hurl racial epithets at people who are different from them.

Maybe I just don’t understand.  Being a white American male, I admit I cannot fully appreciate the difficulties of any minority group, no matter how hard I try (and I do try).  But I do understand that racism is real.  It needs to be called what it is where it is found.  And that label can only continue to carry the weight it needs to carry if it isn’t smacked onto anything and everything that could imaginatively be construed as referring to skin color, ambiguously and in some cases even positively.

Or am I wrong?