Zarf life updates

Monday, December 4, 2017

Comments: 2   (latest 16 hours later)

Tagged: m37, unity, zarfplan, spirit ai, jobs, comics, interactive fiction, steam, shiga, if

My life has been more interesting than my blog, these past few months. Time for a public catch-up post.

The big news is that, as of December 1, I have accepted a full-time job at Spirit AI.

This is, in some sense, the end of the great Zarf Goes Indie experiment. I have thoroughly mixed feelings about that, as you might guess.

I quit my last salaried position at the end of 2010... in order to work on Hadean Lands full-time. Wasn't that simple, was it? I shipped Secret Hideout and Meanwhile and Pocket Storm and even Seltani before HL saw daylight in 2014.

Those were all satisfying and successful projects... except they weren't covering my rent. Not Boston rent, for sure.

In 2015 and 2016 I took on a couple of large contracts -- which haven't emerged from their subterranean lairs, so I can't talk about them. I also worked on the Steam release of HL. Adding all that together, I can say that 2016 was a profitable year for Zarfhome Software. Yay!

"But," I asked myself, "can I really expect that 2017 will be as good?" And the answer was no. I wasn't building up a proper contractor's portfolio or steady client list. I was very wary of taking on game-writing gigs, because I wanted to save my writing mana for my own game projects. I was basically waiting for nifty-looking programming contracts to trip and fall at my feet -- and while that sometimes works, it doesn't work reliably.

(Oh, and I helped launch an IF nonprofit foundation, which is going great. But that's not a paid position.)

So what about my own game projects? I teased something called The Flashpaper War. I built a Flashpaper prototype, followed by another prototype, followed by yet another prototype -- none of which really felt like they were turning into games. (You can play with a couple of the prototypes here.) I messed around with some hexagonal cellular automata, which seemed like they had game potential, but I didn't develop them far.

The upshot: as of the beginning of 2017, I hadn't shipped a new game for two years and I wasn't close to shipping one. The hexagon-automata toy might turn into a game -- I have a pile of good puzzle sketches -- but certainly not in less than twelve months. Which meant that 2017 would be another year of red ink. And that was just not a good idea.

(Plus, the new president was promising to destroy my health care. I will say more on this in a moment.)

"Lo," I said to myself, "time for a Zarf to start looking for job opportunities." And at that moment, I heard a great peal of silent thunder and saw that Spirit AI was hiring. (Okay, "that moment" give or take four months. Who's telling this story?)

So what is Spirit AI? The fastest answer is their about page. Yes, that's Emily Short and Aaron Reed working on a project together. Now I am too.

The Character Engine project is no longer secret (it was unveiled last GDC), but the web page only gives an overview and I can't add to that. Basically, it's an authoring tool for personality-driven game characters, which can then be embedded into a game engine. Unity, for example. See the web site for more PR! Or visit our booth at GDC 2018.

(I'll be at GDC but probably not on booth duty.)

(The company is also developing an AI-based forum monitoring tool called Ally. I'm not involved in that project.)

I began full-time contracting work on Character Engine back in July. I wasn't at all sure how I would feel about Having A Job... but it's turned out pretty well! I get along with the team, I understand the codebase, I like the project. And so, when autumn rolled around, we started talking job offers. And here I am. Employed. First time in seven years.

Spirit AI is a UK-based company, but I will be staying in Boston. (Many of the team work remotely. There are a couple more of us in Boston, in fact.) I went over to London for an office visit in November, which was great, except for the fact that we all exchanged germs and were laid up sick for two weeks thereafter.

I'm feeling much better now.

Speaking of my health, a few words about this week's tax bill.

The Republican Party hates me and wants to destroy my career. They hate all independent game designers and want to destroy all of our careers.

Since 2011, when I quit my day job, I have gotten health care through the Massachusetts Health Connector -- one of the original "state exchanges". That became part of the ACA in 2014. And the GOP has relentlessly worked to destroy the ACA, MassHealth, and my health care. Not "replace" it, not "improve" it, just destroy it. This past fall they came within a few votes of destroying it legislatively. When that failed, the President was able to knock a hole in the system with an executive order. Now the GOP tax plan has blown another hole in the system.

When I say "hole" I mean "skyrocketing premiums and millions of people losing health care." That is the Republican goal; that's what each of their bills and orders has aimed to do. Because they control they government, they are achieving it. Not easily -- we have been able to slow them down -- but they are doing it.

Now, as I've just admitted, I'm fleeing the flooding ship. The job I've accepted comes with traditional, employer-provided insurance. I have a lot of reasons to give up on the indie lifestyle, but health insurance is absolutely one of them. The MassHealth premiums are already rising for 2018. Maybe the MA state government will be able to protect the system; maybe not. I have to protect myself.

I'm able to get out because I have a software engineering background, a nice resume, and a college degree that my parents paid for. I am a lucky bastard. Hell, you knew that; I couldn't have spent five straight years losing money if I hadn't had some awfully good luck back in the dot-com days.

The next generation of game designers will not look like me. They have crippling student loans rather than dot-com nest eggs. They may have to drop out of grad school under the new tax regime. They may be stuck in dead-end corporate jobs in order to keep any health care at all.

I'm not making up fantasy victims here. One of my IF friends just said:

This bill makes it impossible for me to ever go to graduate school or quit my toxic, abusive day job to pursue freelance opportunities. I’m stuck.

(@bravemule, who has been working on a Kickstarter IF game since February)

Another friend (who wishes not to be named) is now rattling paperwork to find a way to finish grad school without blowing their life savings. Did I mention I was working with Aaron Reed now? He finished his PhD in June. If he'd started a year later, who knows if he'd be able to afford to finish.

Republican policy is malicious and cruel and serves nobody but billionaires. That's what I have to say about that. Back to my hopeful future.

So I have a day job again. Where does this leave me as a game designer?

The regrettable truth is that I write games slowly. I thought that going full-time would let me write more games in a year -- but it didn't. I was able to write more of my own code in a year. I built the Seltani engine, Lectrote, and a bunch of iOS apps. But writing IF (any narrative game work) remains a struggle, just as HL was a struggle.

I haven't given up on games. I have bunches of game ideas. But I'm not sure which one will come to fruition next, or what the path will look like. What I can say is that, just as quitting my job didn't speed up my writing process, taking a new job won't slow it down. And hey, now I know Unity.

Blogging will continue, at the usual irregular rate.

I will continue to support my old apps. Pocket Storm has now been updated for iOS11; I will do the iOS Meanwhile and HL apps this month.

Meanwhile is still coming to Mac and Windows! (The Steam page isn't live yet, but it should go up this week.) I am aiming for January 17th as the Steam launch date.

I remain uncertain about the future of The Flashpaper War. I sense there's something in the vicinity of my prototypes, but I haven't been able to get hold of it. Or am I just shy of the amount of writing involved? Hard to say.

The hexagon game (no clever title or code name!) remains an interesting pile of puzzle sketches. Once Meanwhile is out the door, I want to get back to it, for there too I see potential. (And some writing, because come on, I'm going to have some story no matter how puzzle-oriented the game is. I'm not that shy of it.)

And other ideas? I have other ideas. I have too many ideas, just like all of us. We'll see what ferments.

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