Bits, Bytes, Birds and Ego
When someone asks me what I do for a living, I now say with a little hesitance that I am a game developer/producer, and a software consultant. Why am I hesitant? Well, I am fresh out of the oven when it comes to [being] a game developer/producer. It has not sunk in yet. It’s not like I haven’t been coding for the last 22+ years. I have worked as a consultant writing numerous lines of code/applications for Windows, web, web services, mobile apps and many other areas. I have even coded a game when I was 12 but had no idea what I was doing.
Gaming on a handheld device started for me, well back in the early 80’s playing with Coleco’s Electronic Quarterback. Flash forward a few years later to like 1984 and my twin brother and I were fortunate enough to have been given a Commodore 64 for Christmas. We would walk down to the local Kroger grocery store [which was a mile away, but it wasn’t in deep snow or over treacherous terrain, nor were we carrying railroad ties on our shoulders] to buy a copy of the latest Compute! magazine. Ah…the benefits of having a twin brother when typing pages and pages of machine code just to play a game. It was amazing [more like a miracle] that typing in that many zeros and ones and rarely making a mistake. Maybe twins are connected? Ha, not! Anyway, computers faded for a bit when I learned to drive and started dating. In the last 2 years of high school, most of my computer usage had to do with taking classes in BASIC, FORTRAN, and Pascal. Sadly, at this point I was no longer tinkering with coding a game on them. That’s not to say that I didn’t have an Atari 2600, Intellivision, and other systems.
The next four or five years I learned a lot about what I didn’t want to do the rest of my life. Like working in a factory, owning two pizza shops, being a bill collector, a courier, and a contractor. Finally, at almost age 25 I started college taking my first computer science class. I finished with my bachelor’s degree, moved immediately into consulting and have been doing that ever since. I even went on to get a masters degree in information systems. I also became a trainer and taught college for 19 years.
This brings us to present day, but I must circle back to the birds. What birds? Well the flappy kind. Oh man, he is going to bring up that stupid Flappy Bird game, right? Yep, you are correct. I was working on contract as a mobile web services developer on a team of eight at Thirty-One Gifts. I remember walking into our sprint review meeting and literally 20+ people are going on and on about this game where the developer pulled from the stores, and all the controversy around it and so on. I honestly never heard about it, but one of my friends leans over and shows me on his phone. I literally said, Is that it? You are kidding me right? It was at that point I was like, wait a minute, I always wanted to code a game. Let’s cue the hopeful inspirational soundtrack here.
I spent the next six or eight months evaluating different game engines, toolsets, researching, and reading anything game related. I tried a few that I hated. I tried a few that seemed like they were going to solve gaming world hunger, but all of it was meaningless unless I had a game to develop. I wanted something unique, something fun, and something, well damn it, that was going to make a million dollars and be known worldwide. Have you heard of Tuggie the tugboat game? Nope! Why because I tinkered with that idea for a few months before I sank that ship.
At this point, nearly 6 or so months has past, and I have turned my dream into the proverbial treadmill. I needed motivation. So, I thought to myself…hmmm, the university I worked for had a game and simulation degree, and guess who gets free classes. Well, I took like 10 classes online in about a 6-month period to force myself to get into the gaming mindset. I even took some classes I hadn’t in forever, like Calculus and Physics. Is this still for fun? Heck, my wife didn’t even know. Anyway, in one of the classes we had to create a game on a team with other students. Well, me with all the coding and project experience ended up doing most of that part of the project [though I did have others code as well]. We did a 2D tower defense isometric game with zombies and medieval towers in Game Maker.
At the end of that term, it was mid-December . Working on that game had inspired me a lot and it was fun. I was trying to think of something I was passionate about and marry that to a game. Well, also being an educator, I thought maybe I can make a zombie tower defense game that was educational. That is when I wrote a short story about how there was an apocalyptic event, and you the player, was the only one who was not infected at your school, and you had to use your problem-solving skills (STEM) to defend it. The capital ED in ZombiED stands for education. I was going to create an education portal where teachers could present objective based questions to users in the game to earn items. The theme of the game is highly unique. Every character, tower, level, and other assets must be something you would find in a school environment. Every asset in the game is 100% custom.
I had to enlist my graphics guy to sketch and design my zombies based on my words—trust me you don’t want to see my art. It was a nice change of pace from the normal business assets I have him develop. Thank goodness he is also an artist. We initially created 6 zombies and 4 towers. My ambition grew quickly, but so did the scope. I was going to fund this new adventure with a Kickstarter campaign. At one point, I was trying to manage all 3 projects, the game, the educator website portal, and the Kickstarter campaign. I started developing a 2D game in Game Maker, and then one of my friends pointed out that I should make it in Unity and leverage my C# experience and make the game 3D. I converted the game into Unity and that is when I realized I needed a 3D modeler.
Over the next year, I would have AJ, our modeler work on zombies, towers, and levels. It was still very slow progress at this point, as I was still teaching 16 credit hours, and consulting. I had to fit it in when I could. Even AJ would veer off on another project here and there as he knew it wasn’t my priority. At some point, I realized that the KickStarter [project] was starting to cost me more than what I was wanting to raise. I cut that project, whew, one weight off my shoulders. Then a few months later, I decided that I had to focus on just the game and cut out the education portal. I know that sounds horrible, but what about the kids? Where’s your humanity?
At this point, the focus is just the game. Things went okay for a few more months, but it was not moving as fast as I wanted it. Well I had a realization. A realization that my kids (6 and 12) would have kids and then their kids would graduate college before I get this game done. What was holding me back? My pride, my ego. I had always wanted to develop a game. I mean be the only developer. How cool does that sound? It doesn’t because it would never get done. The project was going slow because I couldn’t get out of my own way. Stupid pride!
I should mention, that this game is 100% funded by me. Every graphic, 3D model, other assets, and licenses I’ve paid. The time had finally come to go all in and get another developer. We looked for a few weeks on Upwork, which is where I found AJ, and that is where we found Dima. We knew after the first week we had found the right person [developer]. And within 3 weeks, I could see a launch date. Mind you this is December of 2017. We knew we could hit a launch date of May 8th 2018, and we did. Well Apple was May 21, but that is just because I didn’t plan the submission to you all correctly. Another lesson learned on my part.
It is worth mentioning, that I have never met anyone else on the team. Mark Combs at DzinDNA has been my graphics go to person since 2007. AJ Erb has been with me since 2016, and I should point out that he is just a kid, with no degree, getting work on Upwork.com and has worked on a few games since age 15. Well, you know how we found Dima aka Dmitry Bazyleu. He no longer works off of Upwork.com as he left Russia and is now living back in Belarus. We all work so well together, that I decided to maintain him and now just wire him his pay. We also consider our sound team (SerialLab.com) to be a part of our team, as Gina Zdanowicz, even helps with non-sound related items. Recently, we brought AdHawk into help with advertising and we were assigned a fantastic account manager Lorenzo von Zerneck. He too also helps us with non-related advertising items. Who knew you needed a press release? I brought in Leigh Walker [ThatGuyPR] who is from England to handle that. When I publish a new specs document, I automatically share this with all of them. I should also mention that one of my good friends Ted McKenna helps with game sequencing. Now, with exception of Ted, I have met none of them, and I have never even spoken on the phone with Dima, or Gina. We all work so well together.
I can’t believe how much I actually enjoy the Producer role. Now, I should say that I’ve coded ZombiED even since the release, as when Dima was moving, someone had to do it, ha. I even get to do all the deployments.
We look back now and realize how much we have learned. I know it takes a lot to develop software, but wow, game development has so much more to manage—analytics, sound, advertising, reviews, localization, game trailer, store management, community management, messaging, feature submission and much, much more. We read every review and evaluate all feedback, good and bad. We have continually improved the game with update, after update, after update. Our minimum viable product MVP was just the beginning. In school terms, we’ve had our commencement and now we must go forth learning even more and making ZombiED better, and making more games.