2014 In Review

When word broke in early May 2014 that a new Unreal Tournament title was in the works, I was pretty sure that I’d already left that world behind pretty much for good, after about a decade of consistent involvement in some form.  UT has driven a lot of events in my life since the year 2000. It started with one afternoon, hanging out with a friend back in Canada. Looking through his pile of cd’s one day, I happened across the GOTY edition of what we now call UT99, the original and some would argue best.  For a guy in his early 20’s looking for his place in the world, a little scifi escapism proved to be just what the doctor ordered. By 2009, I’d gone from pubbing to clans to mods to creating video tutorials, and for the next few years, hoped to transition fully into my own projects. The release of Unreal Development Kit helped facilitate that, and I did more tutorial work there.

Enter 2014, which found me working on a book in a different field, and continuing to truck away on an animated project I’ve obsessed over for years.  UT was definitely in the rear-view mirror, and nobody believed that Epic would be picking up with it again any time soon.  And then, Gears of War was sold to Microsoft.

Forced to shift their focus and redistribute manpower, the studio had to take a look at what they had, and examine whether it was worth going back and looking at existing franchises, perhaps doing something new with them which they hadn’t done before.  Historically very mod-friendly and with a track record of huge events like Make Something Unreal plus a community which was still hanging in there, returning to UT probably seemed like a no-brainer, especially for such a new experiment.

Once I thought about it a little bit, it was a no-brainer for me to return too, albeit in a different capacity.  This would be a cooperative effort between the company and community, and what was immediately clear was that they were looking for people who would stand up and help lead the way with development efforts.  It was apparent that this is what was needed as others bickered about what we might get out of the deal.  To be honest I didn’t care much about that, or even whether my work was used, it just seemed like a good way to carry on creating content for the online following I’d built up through my previous UT3 and UDK work, and also to polish my skills and portfolio which had perhaps gone somewhat underdeveloped since getting one of those “real world jobs”.

So that first week, I immediately began throwing together some rudimentary concept art, then started on some music, and eventually came the call for logo designs.  My art skills might have suffered from years of neglect but I was pretty sure I could nail the logo, since I’ve been creating them professionally for over 15 years.  I had some experience.  There was good competition and it forced me to really look at my designs in new ways.  It also made me a heck of a lot more efficient at mocking up ideas.  So right there, the process and time invested was already beneficial.

In August I got an e-mail from the community manager Stacey Conley, asking if I’d be interested in flying over for a playtest event at their headquarters in North Carolina.  Having gone through a lot in recent years, participating in an event like this would be a big step for me, and I gave it a few days before sending my response in the affirmative.  Sometimes you have to take a step of faith and challenge yourself even when you’re afraid.  It proved to be the right choice; getting to know the team, a few of whom I’ve talked to online for years, changes the dynamic somewhat and gave me a new perspective on game development too.  I spent a lot of time in the “war room”, and had a few hours with art director Chris Perna and other members of the art team too.

When I went in to the trip I thought “What do I really have in common with these people besides a love for UT?” Development was just a hobby of sorts.  I usually consider myself to be other things than a game developer, like for example a musician, maybe a philosopher or someone who wants to do something important for the world.  I look at things like games through critical eyes at times, analyzing its social and personal impact;  I was, after all, an addict at one time.  When I met Chris, we immediately started talking about his sculptures and a mutual love for the work of figures such as Frank Frazetta and Stan Winston, and it turned out we even shared an interest in heavy metal.  I already knew Stacey and we further discussed our design careers and the trajectories that led us to where we were now.  During the testing, dinners and over rounds at the hotel bar I got to connect with some of the other attendees as well.  So, it kind of helped put my mind at ease about whether I really “belonged there”.

Soon after the event was over and I’d flown back to Europe, Chris and I began spitballing a few ideas for logo finalization.  Eventually we went back to an earlier iteration that had received a lot of praise and modified it according to suggestions from various Epic staff.  A final version was approved and announced during the next week’s stream.

After I became an official contributor along with Gooba, and a few others had earned prototyper or concepter tags, I began to notice what might best be described as somewhat “frustrated” behavior from some of the community.  These people seemed to believe that there was favoritism going on, or that whatever process they believed should be followed was being bypassed with things happening mainly behind closed doors, and perhaps most importantly, that work they had done was being completely ignored.

I had a few PM exchanges with some of them and attempted to make the same point I have often repeated via the forums, which is that pages worth of analysis, editing and critiquing the work of others is rather different than coming up with something from scratch repeatedly and putting it out there to be picked apart.  Nothing is harder than that.  Subjects such as elitism etc were also discussed.  It’s my view that everyone is “elitist” about something.  Most of us have some hard opinions.  What we have to do is find common ground.  Sometimes that’s hard to do.  It’s even harder to do when you dwell on imagined negative scenarios.  Hard work will eventually pay off, and it speaks for itself.

It is true that when you develop connections, it becomes less necessary sometimes to go through the same process of crowdsourcing certain things, since from Epic’s perspective, they know what they are going to get from person A, B or C, and it is easier to manage less people.  Some advocate holding contests as a main path to developing a solid game, and I disagree with that completely.  It isn’t so much that there is no room for the occasional contest, but what’s much better overall is to use a more one-on-one approach built through forum and chat interaction to build opportunities for those who want to earn them, and to show them the ropes.  That is an appropriate sort of compensation.  Through events like the two playtest / developer meetings held in September and November, that has happened, and I suspect that as things ramp up in 2015, and more media coverage occurs, new people will continue to “come into the fold” at a natural pace.

Overall the progress and response has been rather positive, both to the project at large and to my contributions.  I hope to continue at some level in 2015, and perhaps I will be able to better focus on some particular areas rather than the old “throwing everything I can and seeing what sticks” approach, which can be creatively freeing but utterly exhausting too when you see how far you really are from the mark.  Yes, sometimes we can have a keen eye when it comes to critiquing others but still lack some “it factor” needed to take our own work all the way.  I consider myself blessed that I’ve managed to make my way into the game credits in such an immediately visual way, and so early.  Not many people can point at someone’s shirt or a poster and say “See that?  That’s my work.”  So whatever else comes is sort of icing on the cake I guess?

See you all more in 2015!