Tag Archives: creative media education

Pitfalls in Working with a Game Publisher

There are thousands of indie game developers all over the world who make games. But, only a fraction of those developers have any experience working with a game publisher. I was one of those developers when I saw an opportunity to work for a start up that published educational games. I submitted my game portfolio to the company and was accepted shortly after. It was a super exciting moment. I couldn’t wait to start working with a game publisher on a legitimate platform.

Unfortunately, my experience working with the company was less than ideal. Perhaps there were some warnings early on, but I did not know what signs to look for. Also, the company seemed eager to share information with me about how to complete the project successfully. They set up a video call with me and e-mailed me the PowerPoint that illustrated the requirements needed. They immediately gave me access to the platform where other developers submitted their games so I could get some inspiration for what game I should make.

I immediately noticed many of the games submitted through the platform were very simple. This made sense, because there was a requirement to complete the game in three months. Still, I felt pretty confident I could make a game that was more interesting. There was a clear incentive for making the games more engaging. Developers were paid by the percentage of users who play their game.

What I didn’t realize, and what wasn’t made clear to me, is that the game I built had to work seamlessly on an internet browser on older iPads. This was the reason that the games I saw on the education platform were so basic. Unfortunately, during my on-boarding the technical aspects of just how simple my game needed to be were not discussed. I had no idea that I could not have a three dimensional game where you could move a character around an environment with arrow keys because the iPads running Chrome could not handle rendering at that frame rate.

It can be difficult to export a game to an iPad or the web by itself, but both at the same time? VERY DIFFICULT

It was a huge blow to my motivation and excitement about game development when the testers reviewed my game. They said that it was unplayable on the required platforms. It was also a shock because I had been using the testing platform provided by the company many times. Before I submitted the game I played through it on the testing platform religiously. It seemed very counter-intuitive for the company to provide a testing framework if “passing” the test didn’t actually mean it would run on the final system.

I attempted to re-factor my game by reducing the complexity. For starters, compressing the graphics and simplifying the 3D models in the environment. After another round of testing I realized that there was no way my game would work within a web browser on an iPad without making huge changes. I had only a few weeks left at this point.

Some of you may be wondering why I didn’t create a build of the game and run it on an iPad myself. The problem was that the game had to connect to the companies proprietary API’s, and those API’s were only designed to run on the companies domain where the testing platform was. To make matters worse, their API also didn’t run on an iPad — only a computer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NRVqZ58EcP8&feature=youtu.be
A brief video preview of my game, Grand Canyon Adventure.

In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if the company was trying to take advantage of eager indie developers. The kind who are too new to know how to distinguish a sketchy arrangement from a legitimate one. I was one of those developers, who trusted that the information I needed to succeed would be provided to me. Maybe it was disorganization and mismanagement on the part of the company that made the technical requirements unclear. Regardless, the result was the same.

I wanted to share this story because I’m sure there are other indie developers out there looking for contracts to prove their capacity and get their work seen by more people. It’s an admirable goal, and far be it from me to discourage any indies from doing that. However, its important to be aware that many companies take advantage of indies eagerness to get professional experience. I wish I had done more research and asked more questions before diving into making the game. Hopefully this post will help those of you reading to be aware of some of the pitfalls. Especially in cases where you are working with a publisher that has very specific rules about the types of games that they accept.

It was not a lack of motivation or excitement about making the game on my part. I read through the rules, visited the forums, and took time to explore the platform the company used. Sadly, I had pretty much completed the game before I learned it would not be publishable on the platform..

Spending three months on a game that ended up not returning any profit is bad enough. Whats worse is the bad taste is still there an entire year later. I can only imagine how much worse it would have been if I signed a contract for a year. I know this has happened to other developers. It is my sincere belief that the industry needs to do a whole lot better. Especially in terms of making the technical limitations transparent, without taking advantage of indie developers passion.

My itch.io page for Grand Canyon Adventure

Even though my game didn’t get accepted while working with the game publisher, I decided to publish my game publicly on itch.io instead. After all, it is a shame to work on something and have it sit unseen on my hard drive. It’s an educational game for middle school students where you navigate a boat through the rapids of the grand canyon. You earn points by collecting gems and answering questions about erosion.

Are you an indie developer? Have you had any bad experiences working with a game publisher, on educational games or otherwise? I would love to hear from you in the comments.

Thanks for reading and feel free to follow me on Twitter @nadyaprimak where I talk more about game development, art, technology, and more.

Why I Don’t Make Art For a Living: How Capitalism Kills Creativity

I’ve been writing a lot about game development and coding so far on the blog, especially from a creative coder perspective. However today I am going to empathize the “creative” more than the “coder”. I initially created this blog with the help of a book called Renaissance Business by Emilie Wapnick. I discovered her after listening to her amazing TED talk . Basically this blog is my platform to celebrate and share my many passions with readers, instead of forcing myself to fit into a specific niche mold. This post explores the question about whether capitalism kills creativity, and how I have personally found that it’s difficult to focus on creative expression when trying to sell my work and make it marketable.

To bring this back around to the topic of art consumption, I have always thought of art as the center of all things, because artists can make work about almost any topic under the sun, and in almost any form, and still have it be recognized as art. I won’t get into an art history lecture here but if you’ve ever been to a modern art museum you will know what I am talking about. I think that makes art, in many ways, the original Renaissance Business. Why business? Because artists need to eat, too.

A little more background about me before going further. I have been working professionally as a developer for four years. However, I actually majored in Visual Arts in college and still have a lot of passion for the arts. When I was in school I imagined myself being a graphic designer and selling photography and illustration on the side. In my sophomore year I got my first DSLR, a Canon 60D and I was utterly thrilled. I was also lucky to have a family that loved to travel far and wide.

I used to take my Canon 60D with me every time I travelled

As you can guess by now, I took a lot of photos. I also knew a fair bit of photo editing with Photoshop, because it was the same tool I used for graphic design. I loved to tweak my photos and create vibrant, luscious imagery of nature. Unfortunately for me, there was already tons of these images on the internet. I didn’t think about that while beaming at some of my best photos. What I was thinking about was how great my photos might look on someone’s wall. Or how with my nice fancy camera I could print them out at large sizes.

You can probably guess where this is going. Like millions of other people on the internet, I decided to open an online store. There were quite a few platforms to choose from: DeviantArt, Shopify, Etsy, Cafepress, Fine Art America, and all of these other options. I did several hours worth of research and settled on Fine Art America, because I liked how I didn’t have to deal with any of the shipping or printing, and basically just had to upload my digital files and set my prices while letting the platform do the rest. Below are some of my photos, for context:

At first I was hopeful. I saw visitors looking at my images, sometimes commenting. I decided to share on Twitter and Facebook. Got some more visitors. A few family members bought some prints in the first couple of weeks. Unfortunately, that was all that ever came of that shop. Even today I still get visitors checking out my photography, because I haven’t bothered to take down the shop.

That was when it hit me. Being a skillful artist, photographer or otherwise, was not enough to see any success selling your work online (not implying that I believe I am exceptionally talented, just that I put in many hours to hone my craft). In fact, being a skillful artist didn’t even mean that you would get noticed. It might have worked years ago when artists relied on selling to local communities that didn’t have access to a tool allowing them to view beautiful art with one simple click or keyword. Back then, seeing a skillfully painted landscape or illustration might have been at least a little bit rare.

You have to advocate for yourself to make it as an artist in the twenty first century

Perhaps that is not entirely fair of me to say. I have sold a few small creative items over the years. Once I had some illustrations featured in a magazine, and I’ve drawn some portraits in a park for donations that people seemed happy to hand over. Some might even accuse me of being delusional. What was I expecting, that posting some art on the internet would actually mean something? I admit, I was naive. But I think there is something sad about the state of art consumption. It seems the business acumen of an artist ends up being more of a contribution to success than the years they spent perfecting their craft. Maybe this is nothing new though, after all, we know Van Gogh died penniless and hated by many.

Yet I wonder even if artists who were successful in the era of Impressionists would be able to succeed in today’s online world. There are so many things an artist needs to know in order to be able to sell their art to make a living. First, they must be active on social media. They must be active members in several online groups or communities. They must post updates of their work frequently to their followers lest they lose interest. Finally, they must be in tune with popular culture and understand things like SEO, content management, and web hosting. Then they must continuously keep their finger on the pulse of the creative industry they are in. That was when it hit me. Could this mean that capitalism kills creativity?

Competition for selling art online is fierce

Naturally I didn’t know all of these things at the time. My thinking was that I could simply put up my photos and people would come and buy them. I wasn’t ready to devote hours of my day to promoting my new photography store and getting my name out there. I thought my photography could stand on its own, but I realized that was simply not the case. The store has been up for five years now but the only sales were in those first couple weeks.

Fast forward to 2018. I was missing graphic design after working for 3 years as a front end developer. My husband was in law school and after work I was often bored while he studied. Recently I had finished reading The Handmaids Tale. I knew that on Etsy, people liked to buy posters, purses, and mugs with quotes on them. My thinking was that maybe I could sell digital prints with quotes from feminist literature. I bought Photoshop and started to collect quotes from books and authors I liked and download beautiful cursive and italic fonts that would make the quotes look more like a work of art than simply text on a page.

My most popular print on my Etsy shop, Literary Ladies

In many ways the Etsy store I created with these feminist literature inspired quotes was exactly the kind of thing that most marketing gurus and even other successful artists encourage creatives to do. Find a niche that fits into popular culture, create a style or brand, and make items that fit into it. Finally, they must create a store only for selling those items, and make it easy for consumers to purchase.

Sure enough, following these guidelines did lead to some moderate success. Certainly a lot more than my photography store. I sold dozens of my download-able designs (I didn’t want to deal with printing and shipping myself), though most of them were all purchases of the same thing. A Wonder Woman quote (see image above) that I made after the Marvel film was released.

If I had to be honest, this was the most discouraging part of all. It meant that unless my quotes were centered around something popular, nobody would buy it. Even if it was a specific niche with a specific brand. I had been more interested in finding quotes from literature, but those quotes sell in much smaller quantities. It felt like if I wanted to make art for money, I wouldn’t ever be able to follow my heart. Instead I would need to follow hours of research based on trends and popular culture. That concept essentially sucked all of the joy out of making art.

Screenshot of a site letting you buy posters. A good example of how capitalism kills creativity: everything has to be pop culture related.

Perhaps this is more of a philosophical question, but isn’t true art the kind that comes directly from the heart, and brings the artist joy? I don’t mean to disparage people who make art for a living, because I have tremendous respect for them. Especially Japanese animators who toil away under extreme deadlines and often work themselves to death because of the time consuming nature of the art they make. In this case, capitalism kills creativity by literally killing the person. What I really hold at fault is capitalism, and how it turns art away from joy and into another corporate product for consumption. A product that can be broken down into business components instead of creative spirit.

Even if the artist actually enjoys the art they are making, the value of the art is considered so low that it is considered OK to burn them out and basically, torture them. To me, that is a sign of a culture that does not appreciate art at all. It’s a sign that maybe capitalism kills creativity after all. Although my Etsy shop and my Fine Art America website are still up, I don’t really have any expectations that they will ever turn into actual businesses. In fact, I’m not sure that I want them to, because making art is one of the few joys of adult life and I don’t want that joy to be stolen away from me.

Some people say that if you do what you love at work, you never work a day in your life. I would argue that, at least under a capitalist system, if you do what you love at work, what you love could eventually become what you hate. That is why capitalism kills creativity. That is why I have continued to work as a front end developer and make creative works like games, drawings, and generative art as a hobby and passion. I wish this wasn’t the case, but sadly after my past experiences that is what I have concluded.

The most overused quote on the internet.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the state of art consumption, and what you think could be improved. Do you think capitalism kills creativity? Are you a professional artist? Hope to become one some day? I know this op-ed may be a bit depressing, but by no means do I want to discourage readers from making art. The world needs it, even if it goes under-appreciated.

If you enjoyed this article, consider following me on Twitter @nadyaprimak or if you need more tips on breaking into the tech industry, you can read my book “Foot in the Door” in paperback or Kindle now.

Making Your First Video Game: 10 Tips

Over the years I have participated in several game jams, some solo and some with peers. I don’t regret getting involved in any of them, but there were definitely some disappointments and frustrations along the way that I think could have been avoided if I had done a bit more of my own research first. I hope this post will offer some useful tips for making your first video game to help readers to avoid some of the pitfalls that I encountered.

Game jams are one great way for someone to get their feet wet with games, even if they’ve never made a game before. The most important thing to remember is to keep the game simple. It should also be mentioned that there is sometimes a pretty thin line between interactive art and game development. Take for example, Nathalie Lawhead‘s work, which I wrote about here. Don’t let the traditional perception of games as mindless shooters burden you. Make sure you check out games on itch.io to see how diverse games have become.

One tip for game jam success: having a good team makes a big difference
  1. Be extremely cautious of teaming up with strangers on the internet. This may be the most controversial suggestion for some and the most obvious for others. The thing is, I do not have any friends that wanted to work on a game, so I decided to team up with some people I met through a discord group. It all seemed fine at first, and many of the team members delivered. We had a story, music, and graphics for the game. Unfortunately, our game developer disappeared a few days before the project was over and never came back, leaving the game unfinished.
  2. Keep your scope small, ESPECIALLY if developing solo. When I was developing one of my first games, I became excited about all of the cool mechanics and logic I could add to make the game more interesting. What I didn’t think about was how each feature I was adding would affect the actual game play. I ended up play testing the game an insane number of times, and still wasn’t sure if it was winnable at the end.
  3. Make sure your UI is not an afterthought. It’s easy to get so caught up in the mechanics and other features of your game that you can forget about how important it is for players to actually understand HOW to play. This is probably my biggest regret with Education Sim. I assumed that players would look at the instructions before they started playing, which is usually NOT the case. The engine I was using added limitations to how intuitive I could make the UI, and if I had given myself more time to think about those challenges I would have had a better game.
  4. Agree on regular check in’s with your team. There is nothing worse than getting ghosted by a teammate when the project is about complete. You can avoid this happening by agreeing on regular check ins where teammates share their progress. That way, if a teammate does not show up or have any progress to share, you can find someone else. This ensures the game still gets completed on time.
  5. Make a game design document early on. Probably the best way to do this is in google docs, so you can share the document with the team and give them editing rights. You want your team to be on the same page about what you are making and what the major features will be. Until it is written on paper you don’t know what ideas are really in everyone’s head. It’s important to know whether you are all really on the same page. This also goes for solo developers, because it will work as a reference for you and keep you clear on the scope of the project.
  6. Draft a time table/schedule to stay on track. You don’t want to be polishing off your graphics when there’s less than a few hours remaining (if you’re doing a game jam) and you’re missing key features. Use google spreadsheets and map out how long you (roughly) want to spend on each aspect of the game. That will keep you from getting carried away. Make sure to mark the priority items as well.
  7. Be experimental. You don’t have to make a clone of another game. Sites like itch.io are not for professional, polished AAA titles. People want to see the trashy, the bizarre, and the experimental games so let out your inner weirdo.
  8. Stay reasonable with your expectations. Many people dream of making it big in the game industry, but the indie game scene is vast. As a result, it’s unlikely your first game is going to be a huge success. You are more likely to be noticed after growing a portfolio of games, with fans who will come back to see what you make next!
  9. Share your progress on social media. Don’t wait till the game is out to share! Twitter has a strong indie game developer community, with hashtags like #indiedev and #screenshotsaturday. You can also consider streaming your game development on Twitch or Youtube. I haven’t tried this myself, but it seems like a good way to build a following. Beginners enjoy following developers who stream. Make sure to save your past streams and link back to your portfolio/game to keep new players coming.
  10. If something is not working, pivot. If you’re not enjoying making the game (and you know you usually do, otherwise what are you doing???), or something is majorly wrong, the final product will probably not be very good. Don’t be afraid of switching it up! Just be sure to account for having less time and knowing the scope of the new game should be smaller.

I hope you found these tips for game jam success to be helpful! If you did, please let me know in the comments and share your games. What tips helped you the most?

If you enjoyed this article, consider following me on Twitter @nadyaprimak or if you need more tips on breaking into the tech industry, you can read my book “Foot in the Door” in paperback or Kindle now.

How to Make a Poetry Bot

A while ago I published a post about how I used Spell, a machine learning framework that allows you to train your models faster without the pain of dependency management on your machine, to implement a style transfer. I’ve continued to use Spell, and have expanded into exploring other training models. In this post I’m going to show you how to make a poetry bot.

Today I wanted to write about making your own text bot with Spell. I’ve always been a huge fan of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I know some find her work a bit morbid, but her poetry has spoken to me throughout many years and I continue to marvel at how someone who rarely left her home could have such incredible insight into the human condition, the natural world, and the realities of life and death.

A portrait of Emily Dickinson, the famous reclusive poet

Since Spell conveniently had a video tutorial for creating a bot trained on lyrics from DOOM, I figured I could apply this quite easily to Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

Surprisingly for me, the hardest part was not the training but the web scraping component. I started out with the Node.js tutorial for web scraping and then poked around some documentation for puppeteer. I also looked at cheerio to figure out how I could get the scraper to press the “next” button. This was necessary for when it reached the end of the results on a page.

At first I decided to scrape poets.org, which only had 5 pages of poetry by Emily Dickinson. It seemed like a paltry amount, and I knew Emily Dickinson had been very prolific. So, I did some searching online to find a better source. Although a bit more difficult to scrape, poemhunter.com ended up being a better source. It had 31 pages of poetry by Emily Dickinson. Jackpot!

I used NodeJS for scraping a website with all of Emily Dickinson’s poems

I did run into some issues at this point, with lots of errors about the socket hanging up that I thought was crashing the scraper. It was hard to deduce exactly what was the cause, but by modifying my file writing function to add each poem to the file one by one instead of appending each poem to an increasingly long string and writing the file at the end, I still got the data back that I was expecting.

All of Emily Dickinson’s poems were added to the same text file. This made it easier for the LSTM training model to process the data. Once the model was created, I downloaded it back to my machine and created a small web app with ML5. The app uses the model to generate new poetry, with an adjustable variable called “temperature”. The variable allows you to change the amount of randomness you see in the generated text. As opposed to the AI drawing purely from the poetry data in the file.

Here is a brief sample of output from the bot, for your reading pleasure:


Birds at the Corn— The Sun— With Men Orchard with Me— The Bone at House— The Bonnet Day— The Milly strain of He can the March— And then I star me— And Death— A Dread His Eyes the Sun— And then the Sun too Day the Birds— The Room To only still— And I too see the Soul That Desert face of Sun— The Man As House He stand— And stand to the Soul a Bee— And then the Soul as Beauty

If you’re interested in creating your own text bot with Spell, check out this video tutorial which I used:

Hopefully now you have a good idea of how to make a poetry bot! Of course if you’re having any trouble and want to see my code, I have it up on github here.

The Best Way to Learn Game Programming Online

Coursera hosts the game development specialization by Michigan State University

Last week I wrote a post about why I don’t think that a game development degree is worth it. However, that does not mean I don’t believe you can learn game programming online. About two years ago I enrolled in a Game Development Specialization on Coursera offered by Michigan State University. At the time I had just moved to a new city with a new job that wasn’t very engaging, so I decided that, after building several JavaScript games, I might enroll in some online courses to finally learn Unity. I believe the specialization offers some of the best MOOC game courses out there.

I had already done an Interaction Design specialization on Coursera, which is probably why I gravitated toward choosing another specialization. Sure, it wasn’t a graduate degree, but a specialization still looks more impressive on a resume than just a single class. Plus I really did have a lot of time to kill. My husband was in law school and was busy with coursework, so I didn’t have much going on at home.

Michigan State University has one of the best game development programs in the country

In fact I had so little going on I completed each course in a fraction of the time. That is, each of the 5 course was designed to take a month, and I completed 1 per week. The first was an introductory course where you make a couple of basic Unity games. The second teaches game design principles, and the third is about selling and promoting games. Finally the last two courses take you back to Unity to build some more complex games. That course also guides you through the game publishing process.

What’s special about the Michigan State University program is that the coursework is laid out in digestible chunks. This is in contrast to an overwhelming list of sections like you often see on Udemy. For example, I bought a Blender course on Udemy that is something like 500 sections — a tad overwhelming. There’s still another reason why I think this program offers the best MOOC game courses. Michigan State University has one of the top-rated game design programs in the country. You may be thinking yeah, but that’s not the same as their online offering. True, but the courses are taught by the same professors, so I would argue that they might be more similar than you would expect.

Roll-a-Ball is one of the first games you make in Intro to Game Development

Like any online course, you do have to have some self discipline in order to get through the material. With a $79 fee (per course) you can prove you completed all of the coursework. At the end you receive a certificate of completion that you can share on LinkedIn. Because I am someone that lacks self discipline, I decided to pay the fee. That way it acted as an extra motivator for me to complete the coursework. The certificates of completion also lend me a little more authority, which is useful.

If you’re interested in hearing more about a particular course, hit me up or drop a comment below. I might write some future posts about my favorite parts of the courses. If you are just interested in the technical side, skip Business of Game Development and Principles of Game Design. The Intro to Game Development Course by itself is enough to get you making relatively simple first person perspective games. But you can also take Advanced Game Development if you want to learn about how to make platformers.

Super Sparty Bros is a 2D platformer game you make in Advanced Game Development

Have you taken any of the courses I mentioned in this post? Finish the capstone? Think there are better courses to learn game programming online? I would love to see links to your projects in the comments, as well as your opinions about the specialization. Maybe you took another course and want to swap notes? Please share your thoughts below.

If you’re curious to see the projects I built in this class, here are the links below. They are in order from the first project to the last project. The last project, Queen Dungeon Escape, is probably the most fun since it actually has some unique mechanics.

Roller Madness – 3D Roll-A-Ball

Box Shooter – 3D FPS

Queen Dungeon Escape – 2D Platformer

If you enjoyed this article, consider following me on Twitter @nadyaprimak or if you need more tips on breaking into the tech industry, you can read my book “Foot in the Door” in paperback or Kindle now.