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  • Dan Holbert

The Winding Paths and Dead Ends of Game Development

Game development is rarely a straight path. There are many prototypes, changes in direction, and design and technical challenges to overcome. And when you’re a scrappy, little studio, it can be hard to just find the right partners. 

I spent a good chunk of the last half a year working on prototypes that I decided to put on the shelf. You may remember from the previous email that I took at job working on apps for HoloLens. During this time, I got more and more into virtual and augmented reality. So I was inspired with various ideas for virtual reality games.

Decommissioned VR Prototype


Some friends and I did a hackathon project with a few friends and friends of friends. In a weekend, we created a surprisingly fun little prototype of a VR battle royale game with a novel locomotion method (movement is a big problem for VR). Several of us (four, to be precise) liked it enough to want to continue working on the project. I even created a big document describing goals and design pillars.

But it's hard to keep a team committed when everyone already has a full-time job. One guy didn’t even make it to our first meeting. We tried some new ideas, but those didn’t end up being as fun as the original hackathon project. That would have been fine, but the other two remaining team members got busy with work and life, and I didn’t want to shoulder the weight of the whole project myself, so that project died. I still have regrets about it, as we had something quite fun.

When we started the project, there really weren't any VR battle royale games. But shortly thereafter, Stand Out VR made a bit of a splash and was quite successful. I thought we were building toward something better than that, more custom-tailored to VR. But they were first to Steam, and this was too big a project to take on on my lonesome. Oh, well. Just when you think you have something novel, Simpsons did it.


Beat Down AR Prototype


After that, an artist and former coworker joined up with me to put together a concept video for a VR/AR rhythm fighting game. This was fantastic, as I had wanted to work with an artistic partner who could set the art style and do the world-building while I focused on the game mechanics and programming. I think that world-building and art directing are skills that I lack, so this seemed like the kind of partnership that would be great. We create the video because Magic Leap was offering grants,and we were hoping to get one. In the end, Magic Leap offered very few grants to video game projects, and most of those were for porting existing games, so we weren't lucky recipients.

Despite not getting a grant, we wanted keep on working. However, the artist started looking for full-time work and fell off the project. I pushed on for awhile. But VR rhythm boxing projects started popping up on the internet. Simpsons did it.

I tried to pivot to a somewhat different design, but ultimately realized the scope of the project would balloon way too large, so I decided to move onto a new project.

One of the alternative prototypes for Beat Down


I’ve long been a fan of nature and hiking, and I’m a big enough nerd to read all those interpretive signs in National Parks. Being in the state of Washington, and seeing the effect that the terrain had on local climates and ecosystems, I wanted to create something that could simulate that. So I set about creating a little planet simulator.

Pet Planetoid


Progress was rapid and encouraging in the beginning. Within a week, I had something promising (though very incomplete). I started streaming the development on Twitch. The audience was pretty much just friends and people they referred. At first, it was just me coding and trying to add features or fix bugs. I tried to save visually-interesting tasks for the stream, but it still sometimes got bogged down with digging through the code to fix some crazy issue. Not exactly primetime TV. So I switched it to be more of an interactive video dev blog, showing off changes since the last stream, talking about goals and how it all works. I also changed the stream time. Both of these changes seemed to help a lot.

It was quite fun to work on this one, and it also had some amazing bugs.

One of the various planet-exploding bugs


That game, which I have been calling Pet Planetoid, was originally the one that I wanted to talk about on this mailing list. As it turns out, there’s already this game that’s been in development for at least 3 years. I just learned about it the other day. It looks fantastic. Simpsons did it.

Now, I could have pressed on with this project anyway. But it is a very desktop-centric project, it has big technical challenges, and I don’t really know if it will be fun or if anyone would want it. With the new consoles coming out next year, I really want to create something that takes advantage of that opportunity. I’ll be talking about that in an upcoming email :)

I hope you found this story interesting. Say hello at dan@dissidentlogic.com

Thanks! -Dan Holbert