2019 - My year in review

by Joon

Another year concluded recently, and it's apparently still impossible to start an article like this without sounding corny. Last year's article gave me a lot of energy throughout the year. It's a great way to combat the irrational feeling of being unproductive and lazy, or the need for validation, to have your achievements listed somewhere that you can get to easily, and with some assurances (i.e. self hosted and backed up) they'll be there for a while. Achievements sounds more braggy than I want it to, since most of them are personal milestones, or just fun free-time projects that turned into a cool thing.

Don't Trip launched in the last month of 2018. In January of 2019, it was clear that it wasn't going to be able to sustain my career for any considerable length of time without additional investment. People were (and still are) playing it, and the review scores were good enough to get featured regularly (e.g. Game of the day!), but the monetization model and retention loops weren't doing their jobs. I don't regret working on it, and I'm still very proud of it, but it was also tough to have to start looking for work a few weeks after delivering the biggest solo-project to date. Apart from financial disappointment, Don't Trip was successful in two ways:

(a) it proved that I can shoulder the design, development and delivery of a project (of course not without the help of contributors and friends). I didn't crunch, and bar very few exceptions I didn't work in the evenings and weekends. That's a big thing for me. The game only went 2 months past the original planned end-date, mostly because I took some time off during development which I didn't schedule in the project timeline properly. Leaving Glitchnap has been very scary, but this gave me the confidence that I'll work it out somehow.

(b) it got the attention of some parties interested in funding a larger project… which ended up eclipsing a lot of my 2019 (in a really good way). I'm pretty sure that at least in part, thanks to Don't Trip, I managed to secure funding and start working on NUTS.

Don't Trip was supposed to be a compromise. A way for me to mix some of the things I find wonderful about making games (e.g. make people approach their devices more critically) with a way to pay rent. It didn't do that, in the short term, but it really feels like NUTS grew out of the ashes of Don't Trip. NUTS has much more potential of achieving both of those goals anyway, without feeling like a compromise. And from what I've learned in (a), I'm also making sure that I make the journey as comfortable as possible, instead of just looking at the end result. I can't talk too much about the specifics, but it's exciting, and all will be revealed sometime in 2020 :)

What I can talk about is the effect that NUTS has had on my life in 2019. It has allowed me to do long term life- and career planning for the first time. It offers a level of stability that I have not enjoyed before, and it's allowing me to get a bit more distance from the crazy whirlwind of the first years of being in the games scene. The ability to re-focus, to think about what I actually want to get out of being in the games scene, as well as the project itself, has been refreshing (while bringing in some extra anxieties as well).

The middle of a big project is a weird time to do a retrospective, so I'll leave it here for now, and talk about all the things that made 2019 amazing.

January

Gently Down the Marsh

Joi, Torfi and I got together and made a game in a cozy winter evening of January 2019. We had a meeting, one day after work at IDNO, because Joi had the idea of creating a series of local multiplayer games together. He wanted to present the idea, and talk about it. We quickly realized that it might be better to just make one thing that we can finish, rather than plan a series that we might not be able to finish. Torfi did most of the programming, while I did the art production, and Joi did the art direction. Completely from scratch, we brainstormed a little rowing mechanic and an art style, and in 6 hours, we had made a new game.

 

More info about the game here.

February

Canabalt 100p

Louis, from Bar SK in Melbourne, asked if he could run an old project of mine: Canabalt 100p. If I was going to make it work for him, I might as well put it online, and with the blessing of Adam Saltsman, I finally put it online. It was curated for a show called JUMP, in collaboration with Zachariah Chandler

This game was selected for the first ever ALT CTRL showcase at GDC, and thus a part of getting Glitchnap to go to San Francisco. It was an attempt to staple my name onto the legacy of Canabalt, and seeing it get picked up 5 years later by a gallery in Melbourne made me really happy.

 

More info about the game here.

Escape Room Consulting

As I mentioned above, I was looking for work at the start of 2019. A startup in Iceland was moving into game publishing at the time, so I created a pitch together with Torfi. We got approved for the prototype stage, but after 2 few months of full-time development, the negotiations fell through. We had a really good time working on it, and it showed a lot of potential, so I decided to include it here.

 

The pitch was for a 2-player online escape room game, with procedurally generated puzzle structures. We played and analyzed about a dozen existing escape rooms, and managed to find a universal structure. We then created some modular puzzle components, and a pretty advanced generator that could spit out multiple rooms and distribute all the clues necessary to escape. It didn't take long before the complexity surprised even ourselves, and required us to actually think about the puzzles when playtesting.

 

It was a bummer that we weren't able to continue the project, but who knows what the future holds… at least I know a lot of stuff about escape rooms now.

 

Virtual Dérive

Atli Bollason, an Icelandic artist I've worked with through Isle of Games, was inspired by the Live Games Live Music shows and proposed to do a small standalone event at a bar in Reykjavik. He brought up Zelda, and both Marín and I had recently spent a lot of time playing Breath of the Wild, so we concocted an ambient night, a virtual Debordian dérive, in Hyrule. Atli, aka Allenheimer, took us on an ambient audio journey, while Marín took us through the sprawling landscapes of BOTW. It was all very cozy.

More info on the Live Games Live Music page.

Tiny Massive controller

Torfi and I created a controller for the Tiny Massive project. During the Winter Lights festival, a bus served as a tiny (but warm) venue, from which people could control the lights on the facade of Harpa. They are individual light rods (as opposed to projection) for which Owen and Atli have engineered a way to control them, and they did an open call for visuals and interactive project, that all used our proposed control scheme.

More info on the Tiny Massive Controller page.

March

Meditations game

My friend Rami, and a bunch of other cool folks, created a project called Meditations. Every day of the year, a new short game will sit inside the program they've created. On that day, anybody with the program, can read a short text and play a short game made by someone, about the theme meditation, made in 6 hours. That's (theoretically) 365 games. Mine was one of those, and I made it in December 2018 when I was staying at the Free Lives house. I decided to not publish it anywhere else until 2020, so here we are.

 

It was an exploration of scale, and skeletons, inspired by the idea that all humans have a pretty similar looking skeleton underneath, even though they are often discriminated based on their exterior appearances alone. It's nice to walk around inside a big skeleton, and I'm happy with how it turned out, though it's a little rough.

More info on my Meditations game page.

April

Teaching

I co-taught Advanced Game Design & Development course at Reykjavik University for the third time, to another lovely group of students. It's still really inspiring to see the work we put into tweaking the material, as well as a general constantly improving game literacy, manifest itself in noticably different projects.

 
 
 

April was, for the time being, the last time I'll be teaching the course. My co-teacher and friend, David Thue, took a position at Carlton University in Ottowa. It didn't look like the school was ready to find a replacement for David, and while they told me I could continue, I couldn't imagine taking over his role in addition ato mine, in addition to working on NUTS. On top of that, it also felt a bit like I personally got out of it what I wanted, and would either want to refocus the curriculum, or find a different context (like an art school, or standalone workshop?) to fulfill my teaching ambitions. Fortunately, the course ended up in good hands, as Torfi and Sig took over the games courses in the end, so they're in excellent hands, and I can probably show up occassionally and do a song and a dance.

May

NUTS

Like I said earlier, it's way too early to do a retrospective of NUTS, since I'm pretty much in the exact middle of the project (assuming it finished more or less on time). But there are a few exciting things I can talk about. Like the team! I'm working closely with Pol Clarissou, who's making models and colors and art direction. Charlene Putney is writing the story, and Muuutsch (Almut Schwacke) is making audio and music.

It's by far the biggest and most ambitious project I've ever done, and navigating it is a continous challenge, but… it's happening, and I'm figuring it out :). Keep track of it on nuts.game.

also…

  • I made some devlogs in the early months, which I hope to get back to, but it's difficult to find the time (and to continuously find subjects to talk about).
  • Polygon has given us a shoutout, twice!
  • NUTS was selected for the Leftfield collection in London, and for the Day of the Devs event in San Francisco

…we'll see where this all ends up, but I'm feeling good about it!

June

Svartkolla

At the Isolation Game Jam, Marín and I made another little game together. I've been wanting to experiment with making a more linear or narrative focused game, rather than focusing on mechanics (which is what I usually do), and Marín challenged herself by making all the assets in ProCreate on the iPad. It came out really nice, and I'm kind of hoping we get to make more games like this in the future.

"It’s not often you see many games focused entirely on a single location, especially ones that diverge from the traditional design mantra of “an inch wide, a mile deep.” Svartkolla sets out to do exactly that, breaking expected form and delivering an experience that is charming in its small stature, with no need or desire to try and overreach for something it is not. It’s comfortable in being minute, a “lunch-break game.” Its papercraft looks and lighthearted atmosphere are a comfort, at once easy to simply slip into and back out of, with a brighter spot now remaining in your day because of it." - Catherine Brinegar on Rebind

A very cool indie game critique blog used it as a starting point for an argument about game length, which I really liked as well.

Play the game in your browser here.

July

Isle of Games #002

The second edition of our games and art event went very well. We looked critically at what we did last year and realized a few things. For one: we don't need to make this a party*. Another is that we don't need to include work by international artists to validate ourselves. We can just be an art collective that does an art show, and not feel like we need to have Indie darling or superstar games in our line-up. We wanted more dialogue, so we added a block of artist-talks. And most importantly we wanted to root the event deeper into our own work, and the work of people around us, and sought out more local collaborators.

 

Two games I worked on were part of the show. Svartkolla was exhibited as a framed painting, and Gently Down The Marsh was controlled by the oars of a canoe. I also played ABZU again, with musical re-score by Iris Thorarins, wearing a safety vest and goggles.

 

Read a summary of Isle of Games 2019 here.

 

October

RASK

RASK is a collective of young Icelandic artists that work in the field of interdisciplinary art and technological development. They invited me to showcase my work, and talk about it at Mengi. It was a nice and cozy little gathering. It's fulfilling and eye-opening to show my stuff to a non-game minded set of artists.

 

Ape Out + Live Jazz

One of my personal highlights of Isle of Games was one of the live performances I produced, which went on to become a standalone show at Mengi. Inspired by this youtube video, we pulled on our connections to musicians at IDNO, and put the game Ape Out on a stage with a live drummer and saxophone player. It created one of the most suspenseful live performances I've ever witnessed, and it completely opened up the possibility space for a different kind of live game performances. I always thought they would only make sense as slower evolving, ambient pieces, but this has proven otherwise.

 

November

Blandscapes

In November, the Isle of Games crew and a few friends went on a retreat in Laxahvammur (a Salmon lodge in off-season). The weekend was there to get to know each other, and maybe work on some new projects, without there being a looming deadline of an upcoming event. It was super fun, and we ended up making a little digital museum with a pieces made by everyone who was there (inspired by the Zium museum). The theme was "Blandscapes", a word that came to me on a train ride through Zemst, Belgium. The pictures that inspired it are on the wall to the left as you enter.

Play Blandscapes here.

… and also

  • I'm still a member of the Game Developers Conference's Independent Games Summit Advisory Board, or GDCIGSAB.
  • I co-hosted another Tech Toolbox session at GDC 2019, and made a website that archives all editions.
  • Still co-running the co-working space here in Reykjavik. We had our first residency: Reykjavik Ensemble. Ewa and Pálina created a theater show with predominantly imigrated stage-performers, who are underrepresented in the cultural landscape. All credits to them, but it was wonderful to offer up space and facilities to such a project.
  • I hosted one of the talks-sessions at A MAZE. Berlin this year.
  • I was supposed to teach a "Creative Problem Solving" course which I came up with, but had to bail on it last minute because of Don't Trip and the closing of Screenshake. I still think every computer science program should have a mandatory course about automating workflows using… anything (but I would probably use Node.js).
  • Last year's Iris vs. ABZU performance has grown legs, was performed in Stockholm (without me) and was supposed to be performed at A MAZE. with me, but then a certain purple plane company went bankrupt a little while before the event and it all went to shit.
  • Marín and I got engaged and will get married in 2020 :)

To also include the moments between "work" or being productive, I made a compilation of all the random videos I have on my phone, with a Vine-limit of 6 secs per clip. I did this when Vine closed down, and really enjoy revisiting it, and it only took me about two hours to put it together. Enjoy my 2019!

 

That's it. I'm done with 2019. See you in 2020!
written by Joon, on Jan 6, 2020