Radical Honesty

General / 04 June 2018

Usually my first blog after wrapping a personal project is a Post Mortem on that project. I wrapped up The Park Bench: A Diorama roughly two weeks ago and I plan to do a very in-depth Post Mortem as well as some small tutorials that focus on my use of GameTextures assets. I’d expect those tutorials to be hosted over on the official GameTextures blog once they’re ready.

That is not what this post is. Today I will be sharing some recent trials and tribulations; and how it is bringing forth personal growth and great discomfort. I think this blog post is a part of that growth. In doing some reading on the idea of the “Shadow Self” (Carl Jung), I came across a few videos that delve into that idea. A few of them were by the controversial Psychologist Jordan Peterson. One video I found fascinating is where a reader or viewer asks him about how to “confront your shadow”. After a minute or two of his trademark rambling, Peterson distills his thought on “confronting the shadow” to a simple phrase: Radical Honesty.

Radical Honesty it is. Last month (and a little bit of April too) was a cesspool of varied emotion, and this entire year has been a constant stream of bright lights that reveal themselves to be freight trains. I wrote to start the year that I didn’t know what 2018 would bring, but that it would be a year of choice. All I had to do was execute. I wasn’t necessarily wrong. I made a few choices alright; most of them have backfired and caused me financial pain, incredible stress, immense anger, and a sense of insecurity in my place in this professional world.

Choice 1: Chasing Money

I don’t believe chasing money is a bad thing. It shouldn’t be your primary motivation for any decision you make if you can help it, but it should be an important factor. Statistically, as a graduate of the class of 2009, I’m going to have a lower net worth than many of those who graduated college just a few years later, in say 2011. When you factor in my family and their general lack of financial literacy and rather iffy financial well being (lower middle class), it makes it easy to understand how I can drift into some poor decisions when money is involved.

When I closed 2017, I did some work for a foreign client I will call DERP. DERP paid, and the project was cool, but it was obvious DERP didn’t really know what they were doing. I figured that I’d be done with DERP after that.

January rolled around and DERP needed a new artist. So they reached out to me. Or I them, I’m not positive. Either way, DERP had a number of red flags that came up from from my prior work with them. I was also privy to some information from a fellow freelancer for DERP, so I figured that I’d ignore the red flags and work with DERP on their project. I wasn’t getting paid my usual rate, but if all worked out it’d be a decent rate for an indie title.

The biggest problem when working with DERP; DERP requested we have no contract as they were “hurt before”. I have never worked without a contract before, but as DERP seemed well funded and the project and team were cool, I ignored this.

I plan to tell the full story one day, but the short version is that DERP and I had a falling out, and in all fairness I was also a bit to blame. Using their “financiers”, they filed a PayPal dispute and easily won despite clear evidence provided by me. This has caused me to have a negative PayPal balance that, if I wish to continue to use their services (and avoid bill collectors), need to pay off. It’s a fairly substantial sum of money for a freelancer like myself, and it’s going to hurt when I finally decide to pay.

I haven’t paid yet, partly because I’m just as angry at PayPal as I have been with DERP.

I ended up working out a deal with DERP to finish up some work I was in the middle of doing in exchange for being paid roughly 2/3 of what I owe PayPal. The problem, is that I’m no longer motivated to work on this project. I have to force myself to drudge through and wrap it up. Due to this entire situation and the transition I’m attempting partly due to it, I haven’t even had much time to wrap it up. There isn’t much work left to do on it, but there also isn’t any motivation to squeeze it in to my free time.

The worst thing though, is that this ordeal with DERP and PayPal has left me angry, bitter, and defeated.

Choice 2: The Life Raft

I started teaching at Drexel in 2015 in part because my freelance business wasn’t doing well enough to sustain me in Philadelphia. While cheaper than Boston, the increase in cost associated with more expensive rent and splitting utilities with less people meant I was feeling the pinch pretty badly. I saw teaching as a way to earn some extra money, and hey, maybe I’d like it. As it turned out, I did.

I really do enjoy teaching overall, and Rob and Nick at Drexel are very cool guys who let me have a decent degree of freedom with my classes because of my experience.

When I returned to teaching in the fall of 2017 it was an incredibly stressful quarter. Overview of Gaming, a class I taught before, was fine. But GMAP 421, a Unity game art class, became mostly focused on teaching the basics of Unity from an artist’s perspective. I also had to teach a fair bit about general 3d modeling and texturing for games to these students all over again. I put a lot of work into it and wrote the class from the ground up for students that wanted to learn about game art. That took a lot of time.

This only expanded in the winter. I taught three ANIM 140 classes, which are introductions to 3d modeling and texturing, on 3 different days of the week. My travel time to Drexel from my old apartment was probably 20 minutes total. Today, that can range from 30 if I hit the trains right to over an hour in the evenings. Winter 2018 was a long quarter with freshmen students who, as always, struggle through their first quarter of 3d modeling. I spent far more energy and far more time answering emails and staying after classes during that quarter than I ever did before. Perhaps this is because many of my students find me approachable and knowledgeable on the subject. I genuinely want to make sure these students graduate with  the skills needed so they can get jobs right away. Because of that, I spend a lot of time being available to them.

For the current quarter, I was to teach 3 classes again. However, as an adjunct, Drexel staff always have priority for classes (even if I’m more qualified as an instructor). A scheduling snafu caused me to have a class bumped from my schedule, costing me $1000 a month. While theoretically I can spend more time on my own work, I continue to spend a lot of time answering emails, staying late at the school, and continuing my commute than I would like.

Spring will give way to summer soon, and while un-confirmed due to potential job opportunities, I’m slated to teach 3 classes. Two of these classes I’ve not taught before and one needs significant updates. One of them, a motion capture class, is going to be brand new subject material to me. I’ve never worked with mo-cap before and I have barely any experience animating. The good news is that I have been getting help and some training from Nick, and I will attend his class before I teach mine so we can maintain consistency. The bad news is that, if I’m being radically honest, I don’t want to teach this class at all. I’m doing it because it’s the only way to hit a cash flow amount that lets me pretend I’m comfortable.

Teaching, and by extension Drexel, has become a bit of a life raft for me. It allows me to pay my bills and have some cash while I can freelance and try to save (in ideal circumstances). If I was forced to rely only on freelancing like I did in Boston, I’d find myself in bad spots more often than not. On the other side of the coin, Drexel takes up a lot of my time and makes it hard to carry clients full time. I’m always juggling student grades and time versus my own, and while I made it work before, I’ve lost out on remote jobs in recent history in part because of my commitments to the University.

Drexel has become a trap for me. It keeps me afloat financially and lets me help students grow, but it ties me down every quarter with the time commitment it requires. I am not compensated appropriately for my experience nor my class reviews, and I will never be considered for a professorship because I have a lowly Bachelor’s Degree and Academia is one of the most self fellating sectors in existence.

Why stay somewhere if I have no potential to grow?

Choice 3: Philadelphia

Elliott Hulse, a YouTube fitness guru and psudo-philosopher, has a rather interesting saying that has started really sticking with me the last month or so as this series of events has unfolded. “You don’t make the right decision, you make the decision right.” The gist of the phrase is that there are times when there are no right decisions, you just have to choose a path and make it work. For instance, do you take a job that offers you $2 million dollars a year but you never see your family, or do you take a job that lets you work from home but you’re only making $50,000 a year. Each choice clearly has pros and cons and some people will put more value on providing money for the family instead of providing their presence, or vice versa. The point is, you have to choose and them make that choice work.

I’ve more or less been doing that in Philly.

My brother and I argue about location and career stuff all the time. We disagree on many points, but he is not wrong when he says that Philadelphia is NOT a location that is conducive to my career. I knew that when I made the choice to follow my fiancee down from Boston.  So, “how have I made this decision right” from a career perspective.

If I look back at my time in Philadelphia, from 2015 to now, the honest answer is…that I made it right by not being here.

“How does that work” you may wonder. The easiest explanation for this sentiment is that 2016 and 2017 were my best years of work ever. My income increased year over year by substantial margins while I was working on new and challenging projects, both AAA games and VR”ish” experiences. The main driver of that was self employed income, although Drexel was helpful as well. The majority of 2016 and 2017 income was earned out of state in New York City and Austin, Texas respectively. I made quite a lot of money compared to my previous years during both periods, and it’s no coincidence that I wasn’t home during that time. Philadelphia doesn’t have many game studios, it doesn’t have Manhattan money, it doesn’t have offices for top tier creative agencies, and Gary Vee doesn’t live here.

I have been working like hell to make Philadelphia right. I thought I had been doing a great job of that. Now I see that I’ve been fooling myself. If I’m doing good work and making great money, but I’m not physically here in my home with my fiancee, am I really making this work in a sustainable fashion?

Forty Six and Two Just a Head of Me

That is a handful of the questions I’ve been having to ask myself. It’s been tough. I’m not one to sit idly by and wallow in my despair, at least not long term. This time around, I’ve taken the tactic to examine my own weakness and attempt to be radically honest and clear in my thoughts and intentions. Again, this was inspired by the idea of the “Shadow Self” by Carl Jung, and the reason I even thought to look there was because of the Tool Song Forty Six and Two. I heard it for the first time in probably a year or two last month and it’s lyrics just clicked, and I needed to know more about it’s subject matter.

I need to step through and confront my personal weaknesses and come out the other side a new me. The last time I did a version of this, I was in therapy for a year learning to deal with chronic personal negativity (I’m optimistic by nature, except for myself #Rosecurse). This time, it’s about examining my career and no longer letting it define me. At the same time, it’s about accepting my current reality.

  • The past experience with DERP, as well as the general slowness I’ve experienced since returning from Bluepoint, are pushing me in the direction of wanting to exit the freelance/contract world.
    • Along the same lines, I’m ready to have stability. I’d also like to not have to leave home for months at a time to make money. I genuinely love Philadelphia. I’m finally growing a friend network here. I want that network to grow, and I want a professional network to start growing too.
  • I’m ready to take a break from teaching so much. It can be exhausting, and I put far too much of myself into teaching my classes. Part of that is my honest want for my students to succeed more than I have thus far. Part of that…is that I think I want to be liked. I need to get over that. I get anxious when I feel I’ve made someone upset with me, but with my students that shouldn’t be an issue at all. I need to find a balance between accommodating their situations while exercising discipline.
    • With Drexel, the life raft needs to become a fun way to earn some extra cash. As it is now, which is a part time job with full time hours, it’s becoming a hinderance. Additionally, Adjuncts aren’t paid according to professional or teaching experience and I’m done with that. I should be paid more than a fresh graduate. Any adjunct with experience should.
  • I’m going to continue to try to “make Philadelphia right”. Part of that process is an interview I wrapped up at DreamLine last week, and reaching out to local production and VR companies in the area. I plan to create more in-depth asset kits and explore the current trend of offering mentorships via Gumroad or other store fronts (perhaps my own site) as well. There are options that abound in this day in age and while I have hit a pretty fucking hard bump in my career, I haven’t lost all hope.
    • While working in New York isn’t ideal in this context, New York does have more opportunities for someone like myself than Philadelphia does, and those opportunities are also being explored. Is it making Philly right? Probably not. It is however much better than if I had stayed in Boston.
  • I’m taking this time as well to meditate more and try to step away. It’s difficult when I still have various different types of work to do, but I can tell this is as much a self care issue as it is the fuckery of life.

I need to also mention my fiancee, Kelsey. She has been incredibly supportive during this time. She’s seen the stress, anger, and frustration first hand. I’m not easy to be with sometimes, with my general financial instability, occasional moodiness, moments of stubborn determination, and fear of bees. The last month has kicked some of those elements up to 11, and she’s been there to help me brainstorm, laugh my ass off, or just be reassured that everything will be ok.

Coming Out the Other Side

This, hasn’t happened yet. I’m still in the weeds, though I feel like I’m starting to emerge. I need a few more days of ‘self care’ (I hate the term even though it’s quite important) and for my potential employment situations to clear up. Once that’s done, I’ll know where I’m headed in the near term. In time, you will too.

It’s all just ahead of me.

 

One Goal Down: Asset Stores

General / 16 April 2018

Original Content

At the end of every year, usually the last few weeks of November, I sit down to write out my goals for the upcoming year. I’ve been doing this now for a few years and I’ve found it to be quite helpful when framing what a year is going to look like. 2017 was easy to map out (it was structured around Bluepoint) while 2018 has been a bit more of a freelancer’s gamble (structured around teaching and building my own brand up again). 2016’s goals revolved around being re-invigorated to do what I’m doing and the feeling of it being a big year. The past two years and what has been 2018 so far have all had different feels and goals associated with them with one exception: Content Creation.

I’ve been wanting to make my own content and sell it for a while now. First it was Project NONA, a love letter to my grandmother. That was derailed by client work and a project scope that was FAR too big for the time. After that I settled on asset packs. With Unreal having a Marketplace and the Unity Asset Store having existed for years, I figured I could work to gain a passive income through selling assets. Much like project NONA, any pack I conceived seemed to be derailed by client work or poor planning.

The more I think about it, the more I have been planning poorly.

I’ve been working on a version of my recently released Pots and Pans Pack for the past three years or so. At first, it was a full kitchen pack with such a large number of assets it was going to be a pain to finish. I had pots, pans, 4 different kinds of utensils, protein powder…it was far too large. When I went to New York for work in 2016, that killed any momentum that version of the pack had. 2017 saw me not get started on anything as I focused on Shadow of The Colossus. It wasn’t until January of 2018, when I was in a period of little client work, that I was able to re-focus my efforts on my original content. I started working on the pack again this time simplified down to the essentials; pots and pans that would come packaged together along with a spatula and spoon. I was almost derailed again by client work (a client I’m still working with) and my own experimentation.

How can experimentation derail a simple asset pack you may ask? Why, by over complicating the workflow I say! Prior to Unreal 4.19, you had to set up Material Functions and Blending in a somewhat more complicated way. In addition, I was really hooked on the soon dead ParagonParagon drove Unreal forward with amazing rendering features and cutting edge workflows. The material workflow (demoed below) is probably a large portion of the basis of the new experimental Material Layering Workflow.

Seriously, this is just an awesome video to watch over and over.

In an attempt to mimic and learn the way that Epic was handling a large library of shared materials, I tried to set up my pots and pans to use a Scorch, Grime, and Scratch mask to drive blending. Each asset would call an Aluminum, Rubber, Plastic, Non Stick, and Paint material and a series of masks would drive the details. I managed to get it somewhat working in the engine too. It was after this initial success that I had to focus more on other efforts and it turned out to be a good thing.

My current client project is a VR game. I want my Pots and Pans Kit to be available to all platforms, including VR. As I’ve been working on this project, I’ve had to keep optimization in mind. As I thought more about my asset pack, I realized that while cool, my workflow would be difficult to make sell-able. With 5 materials being driven by three 4096×4096 masks along with a few normal and roughness maps per each material, these pots and pans wouldn’t be useful in anything but a high end game or visualization project. They’d practically be useless in VR. So I decided to go back and re-work them.

https://www.unrealengine.com/marketplace/pots-and-pans-kit

My final asset kit release shares a single material and 4K Texture Set for the entire kit, except for glass which is either the more expensive refraction based material or a simpler dither opacity material. The main pots and pans material DOES retain the ability to change paint color, as well as to enable or disable Scorch, Grime, and Scratch masking. The user has the option to adjust the roughness and color of those three layers. This was a holdover from my previous workflow experiment, and it gives this kit an amazing amount of flexibility. If you need clean pans-it’s right there. Is this a world gone mad? Turn on a few masks and tweak a few colors and you’re done.

It took a while to get this release out. Epic has a fairly smooth process for approval in place, although it can take a few weeks for your asset to get reviewed. Once they see it though, they are quick about giving you feedback and making sure you fix any mistakes regarding the submission.

I did it! I met a goal of mine for 2018. I’m not done though. I have other personal environments in the works and I plan to pack up what I can and release them as kits too.

Everyone has a Store

While I was out at GDC this past year, I attended the Gnomon and ArtStation Party. Besides having a good time finally meeting my buddy Rogelio and meeting his bad ass coworker Brad (dude’s an amazing character artist) and randomly bumping into old Turbine Co-Workers (shout out to Chonny and Anthony) I learned that ArtStation is currently at work on a Marketplace of it’s own. Currently in closed Alpha for a handful of sellers, ArtStation will allow artists to sell any range of art, from prints to 3D models to tutorials and more. You can find out more in the March issue of the ArtStation Magazine.  From what I can tell, it’s set up to be as artist friendly in payouts as possible while still being profitable for the site. I definitely want to be on this marketplace when it launches, which served as extra motivation to wrap up my current assets.

Do you know what is live and available to myself and others right now? Sketchfab’s store front.

I’ve been an off and on Sketchfab user for years. Early on the viewer was cool but limited, and it was hard to use proper PBR maps. I had a few test models up there but didn’t do much with them. I checked them out again two years ago and the viewer improved. It was easier for me to upload PBR models and embed the Sketchfab Viewer into various websites like LinkedIn and Polycount. I had a few standalone assets that I shifted between Sketchfab and Marmoset Viewer, and found that Marmoset gave me slightly better visual results. Still, I liked using Sketchfab . In 2016 while I was working in Manhattan I swung by their office. I had met Alban before (good dude) and it was great to reconnect with him and try out Tilt Brush and Sketchfab in VR. It was great!

I still don’t have a ton of models up there, but I’m working on it.

Sketchfab launched their store at the start of 2018, and I didn’t know about it until sometime in February. I didn’t think much of it…but as I went to GDC and saw that ArtStation was getting in on the Marketplace Game, I went back to see how Sketchfab handled their store. It all seemed pretty standard and the Sketchfab Viewer is so good now that it’s easy for me to display my work properly.

So, I uploaded a few more models I had ready from some Work in Progress Environments or older projects and set up my store: sketchfab.com/rose3d/store. Sketchfab has a very easy approval process, and they give you access to a sellers only forum so they can get feedback and constantly improve the store. In addition, they link directly to PayPal which I think is pretty great. When you sell a model, you have money immediately.

You’ll notice my Pots and Pans Kit is A) here B) a bit more money and C) white on Sketchfab. I’m using Sketchfab to sell source assets, FBX files and raw TGA files. Unreal uploads everything in .uasset format. This is great for their specific projects and how assets are transferred, but if you want my assets but don’t use Unreal or Unity, you can grab them from Sketchfab and tweak them yourself for whatever application you’re using.

The White color is that way so it’s easy to define shader color in Unreal, by the way.

Next Steps 

So here I am, a content manufacturer (for tax reasons) making content that’s being sold on multiple store fronts. I plan to expand this aspect of my business too. So what am I to do? I have a few ideas.

  1. Add to or re-work my personal portfolio site to focus more on my asset packs and business and less on my full portfolio. I’ve wanted to use ArtStation as my main portfolio site for a few years now (I always send both links to prospective clients or job opportunities) and with the launches of my assets, it may be worth it to finally make that shift. This means that Rose3D will become more focused on my assets, my blog, and my services.
  2. Crank out more content in a timely manner. A simple pack shouldn’t take three months to get out, and my current diorama has been in some form of production for a year. If I’m having to continuously provide content, it needs to be a core tenant of my business. This means more time paid to it.
  3. Leverage the strengths of each platform. I know Unreal very well (from the environment art side) and can craft assets specifically for that platform. I can then take those assets and break them down a bit more for Sketchfab, since it’s strength is the ability to offer full source assets. I’m not sure what ArtStation offers yet, but I know it’s strength is it’s social aspect.
  4. Learn how to write Ad copy and join Instagram.
    1. Ok, I don’t really want to join Instagram. I’m happy with Facebook (personal mostly), LinkedIn, and Twitter. But as someone who is in a very visual medium, it might be worth it to look at how Instagram can be used to showcase my work.
    2. Ad copy is a bit of a joke, but I do need to craft tweets and posts that focus on selling my work.

I’m really excited about selling my own content. I may not see 100% of the revenue, but I’m happy to support the platforms that are making it possible for me to sell work directly to consumers. It serves as strong motivation to keep working on personal art-not just for the fun-but also for the potential it has to improve my business.

Dan

PS: In case you missed it, you can purchase my Unreal Pots and Pans Kit here. If you’re interested in browsing what’s currently for sale on my Sketchfab store, it’s sketchfab.com/rose3d/store. Thank you for you patronage!

 

Q1 2018 Quarterly Report (January-March)

General / 30 March 2018

Back on Schedule

Last year I split my quarterlies into halves. This was done because I had two distinct periods of work last year: Bluepoint and Non-Bluepoint. Now that I’m back in Philly and back on my usual schedule, I’m back to reporting quarterly as I was before. Mostly. My quarterly blog posts tended to run a bit late. I would often write them a week or a few weeks after a quarter would end. Not so this year. For 2018, I will be writing reports at the end of March, June, September, and December. This follows nicely with the quarters of my business and with the quarters as they relate to Drexel. I know that most businesses off-set Q1 and Q4 and shift everything else around those dates (typically for tax reasons), but I have the freedom to align my quarters with how my year actually flows.

GDC and Me

If you’re curious about the big picture and big takeaways I had from GDC, check out my GDC Blog I posted yesterday. On the smaller scale, GDC reignited my want to focus on my own content.

Unreal Marketplace, the Unity Asset Store, Turbosquid, Sketchfab, and now even Artstation…digital marketplaces are everywhere and I have been sitting out of those markets for too long. It’s long been a goal of mine to get content live and start selling it. Well now, at long last, I am. Today, the last day of Q1, I submitted my Pots and Pans Asset Pack to the Unreal Marketplace for approval. If approved, it probably won’t be live until the end of April, so I’m not actually selling yet. But my part of the process (pending any corrections) is complete. This has been a goal for years and now all I have to do is wait for Epic to approve my content.

But that’s not all. I plan to make a wide variety of source assets (FBX, TGA) available for purchase via Sketchfab’s Store as well. Once Artstation opens up their Marketplace to all (it’s currently in closed Alpha), I’ll put content there too. I have enough models and kits that I can re-purpose a few of them to be part of a pack, and I can sell them online at all of these store fronts.

My goal isn’t to pump out kit after kit…I’m a solo artist with teaching and contract work to do as well. My goal is the re-purpose what I have for Sketchfab and Artstation, and to prepare a second Unreal Kit for release later this year. With a bit of social marketing, I hope to have a small drip of income from these kits, and from them I hope to add to my overall business bucket. (Unity Marketplace kits will be on a special basis, as most of my art is geared towards the Unreal Engine anyway. Hard to create fancy shaders in Unity currently).

Other Q1 Happenings

Other than GDC and FINALLY getting my first kit submitted for approval on the Unreal Store, Quarter 1 was busy. Drexel took up a lot of time during the entire quarter. I re-worked portions of my class to better focus on modeling and texturing fundamentals (WORTH IT). It ended up eating up quite a bit of time.

In January, I signed a work order to create a level for the Early Access VR game Shadowcore. Not long after I started, I was asked to polish up an existing level, which I went in and significantly improved the look of. That pushed the original work order from a due date of March to a rough due date of Mid-May. (If you’re interested in it, do check out Shadowcore. Just know it’s Early Access and that comes with a HOST of issues. Don’t expect Shadow of The Colossus levels of polish).

That mostly rounds out what I spent Q1 on. I did a little bit of writing for GameTextures and I finished up my Pots and Pans kit, but most of my time was spent on Shadowcore and teaching at Drexel.

Task Tracking

  • Hours Worked (Total Working Time): 468.54
  • Billable Hours: 388.96
  • Average Efficiency: 82.9%

Income

Anything from this year is, more than likely, NOT going to match up with what I did at Bluepoint Games last year. So instead of comparing year over year results like I have previously, I’m going to compare my quarterly income with my historical averages from 2014-2016, excluding 2017. Until another contract on the scale of Bluepoint happens, it’s an outlier.

% difference in income vs. historical averages: +27%

An incredibly strong January and a solid March led the way to my strongest open to a year yet, Bluepoint excluded. This is due to how I negotiated my work on Shadowcore, as well as handling a full class load at Drexel.

Looking Ahead

Q2 2018 is going to be a quarter that hearkens back to my days of hustling in Boston.

Initially, I was set to teach a full class load again at Drexel. However, at the last second AFTER my adjunct contract was signed, they pulled one of my classes and gave it to a full time professor. I became a casualty of University Regulations. I still have two classes, but 30% of my expected income for the quarter needs to be made up.

The silver lining in all of this is that I can focus less on the University and more on my own business. I’ve been working some crunchy hours on Shadowcore, and that has to stop for a myriad of reasons. So I’ll be introducing “Dan Friday’s” to the mix. Much like Epic Games or Google, Friday will be the day where I work on MY OWN PROJECTS. This will keep me moving forward on my own content and goals related to that. Additionally, I’ll be working the Gametextures Blog back into my rotation of paid work. When I get crunchy, the blog tends to be the first to go. They have a few big things cooking over there, and the Blog needs to get back to doing what it does best: talkin’ about the industry.

I’ll reach out to some old contacts as well and ask if they have any small bits of work I can jump on to fill in some gaps…in addition to fishing for larger contracts.

Speaking of larger contracts, I will have to make a concerted effort in April and May to try and find large contracts for the summer, as Drexel is often in a slow period during that time.

This quarter is going to be busy.

 

The Four Year Drought Ends: GDC 2018

General / 29 March 2018

In the sad, stupid way that life works, it’s appropriate that I got sick after this year’s GDC. In the past, I’ve returned from the conference with, at most, a sniffle. I have a pretty excellent immune system and usually figure it’s strong enough to get me through most germ infested conventions. I haven’t been wrong. That’s the way it goes though. You’re not wrong until you are. I was wrong this time. I think it was less the crowds and more about my choices surrounding those crowds that led me to my current diminished state.

  1. My flight out of Philly was delayed significantly due to weather, so by the time I got in (2AM Pacific) I opted to sleep at the airport until it made sense for me to get to the city. I slept MAYBE two total hours of the 4 I was there. What a way to start a day.
  2. I chose to stay in a hostel. It was nice! But it was dorm living. Dorms have issues. In this case, it was the hard mattress and sleeping on the top bunk.
  3. I walked everywhere, and on Thursday that might not have been the best choice. Thursday was wet, cold, and windy. I did not dress 100% appropriately for the weather that day. I’m convinced this is what did me in.
  4. Drinking never helps the immune system.
  5. I was under-fed, again mostly on Thursday.

This led to exhaustion, which is what I thought my leg and back pain was on Friday as I drug myself to the airport early in the morning. But nope. That was the onset of a brutal sinus infection and fever that laid me out for an entire weekend plus. I’ve been on antibiotics since mid-day Monday and I’m feeling much better, but I’m still less than 100%. I want to go to the gym, but my body is definitely saying no. It’s killing my progress and I feel my body just slowly atrophying.

Was GDC worth it? Yea. Absolutely. But maybe next time I should behave like a 30 year old and not a college kid.

Finding Meaning

I had a few reasons to go to GDC this year, but the main reason I honed in on leading up to the conference was pretty concrete: find out how other studios used contractors like me. I wanted to make connections and see if mid to large studios used remote artists or temporary, highly skilled and specialized contractors to ship games, much like Bluepoint used myself and a handful of other artists to ship Shadow of The Colossus. As I started talking to the indie studios that surrounded the Epic Games booth, the two HR representatives from Sony that I met with, and others who I met through different events or mutual friends, I came to a sobering realization: I couldn’t define myself. For a sole proprietor who’s looking for contracts, that’s a very bad look.

The struggle I had most often looked like this:

“Hi I’m Dan”

“Hi Dan, I’m so and so”

Talk a bit about what so and so does, what my past experience is

“So Dan, are you looking for a job?”

“Well, umm…err, yes and no…it’s difficult to explain”

Proceed to word vomit what, at it’s core, is “yes but not on-site but also not quite right now”.

It is difficult to explain. Most people, even in an industry like gaming which moves quickly to adapt to new technologies and working methodologies, still stand by the old view of being employed by someone somewhere as the end goal. That is not what I have done for the last several years. While I worked on-site at Bluepoint, in practice it is no different than my current work on the VR Early Access game Shadowcore or my past ‘gun for hire’ work on LawBreakers or Defiance. I am creating content for use in YOUR game under a contract where the content I make IS YOURS. I am not YOUR employee.

I’m being intentional with my phrasing above-the new tax laws have some limitations as it relates to who claims the new Pass Through Taxation benefits and I’m attempting to clarify that I manufacture (create) content. 

Because the previous paragraph is often considered a “stop gap” solution for new graduates or people between jobs, it’s never really considered a true employment end goal. My friends, that is where I failed. I lost sight of what I’m trying to do-to be a contractor who works remotely or, for the right price, on-site, to ship a game. You don’t have to worry about me stressing out about being hired, or about benefits, or anything like that. I’m here to ship your game, be paid appropriately, and then peace out when the contract ends. Instead of trying to distill that down to a sentence, I was distracted by shiny lights, friends in great jobs, and my past desires.

Expanding on this point, specifically those past desires, would dovetail this into a blog that should be it’s own. Suffice to say, my inability to share effectively what I was looking for professionally at the conference is complex and personal.

If GDC 2018 did one thing, it’s solidify the notion that I need to re-identify with the greater meaning of what I do and to distill that down into a single, pitch-able sentence. Without that, I’m a deer in headlights.

Friends

One of the best things about GDC is being able to re-connect with old friends. The past years I went, I used it as a chance to chat up old Sony Bend co-workers. This year, with that team working on Days Gone, I focused on meeting some other cool people.

I’ve been working with the Gametextures.com team since 2014 as a writer, and as of the past year+ I’ve been a member of their Slack Group. So, they kind of sort of like me.  I have met Greg before, but to kick off GDC I got to finally meet Tanner Kalstrom and Arvin Moses. I spent a good portion of Wednesday hanging out with them and we briefly went to Unity’s party before sulking off to a corner bar to drink and chill with Dan from Allegorithmic and to talk shop. I had a lot of fun with the group and it was great to finally meet the majority of the core team in person.

Thursday I re-connected with Anthony Garcellano. We met back in 2012 or so as he was looking to break in to the industry proper while I was looking to get a job post Sony. Anthony is now at Hardsuit Labs in Seattle and is doing well. He’s a super connected dude who’s one of the nicest guys around. If you need a guy who posts silly selfies, he’s your man.

After YEARS of knowing him via Twitter, Facebook, and Polycount, I finally got to meet Rogelio Delgado in person! Rogelio is another super awesome dude and a great artist. Our paths have never directly crossed in person, but out on the internet we’ve always been in touch. He started at WB in Boston after I left, and then TOOK MAH JERB at Funcom in North Carolina. We were both in the running for an art job there in 2014, and he got it. After Rogelio was laid off down there, I hooked him up with an HR rep for Bungie and sent him my examples of what NOT to do on their art test and he’s been kicking ass ever since at all manners of high end AAA studios. He and I hung out at the ArtStation Party where we randomly met up with some former coworkers from WB Turbine of all places.

Thursday was a great example of what happens when you just venture out on your own and work your personal little network. I met some internet friends in real life, met their amazingly talented friends, and had a great time.

Highlights of The Show

  • Houdini: I initially wasn’t going to spend any time at Houdini demos but SHIT am I glad I did. Houdini looks like it’s ready for game prime time. I know it’s been used in some specific circumstances before, but what I saw…I would love to dig into it more. It’s on my list of software to check out ASAP.
  • Epic Steals the Show: Epic had two booths setup on the show floor, one for Unreal Engine and one for Fortnite and indie games using Unreal. It was AWESOME. After 1pm, Epic also gave out some pretty awesome beers. The real party, as Chance put it when I was introduced by Tanner, was on the show floor.
    • In addition, the Real Time Ray Tracing demos by Nvidia and Epic were outstanding. They aren’t going to be in games for the next several years (they ran on 4 Volta Cards in Parallel) but the future isn’t that far away…
  • Crypto is everywhere and it’s dumb still.
  • Unity 2018 looks great…in a vacuum. It’s still behind Unreal in terms of rendering features and usability. BUT, the new lightmap baking looks outstanding.
  • Everyone has a Marketplace. Sketchfab has a Beta, Artstation is running a closed Alpha, Unreal, Unity, you name it everyone is selling something. And I’ve been slowly trying to get in that game. Now it’s time I dive in.

Final Take Away

When I went to GDC in 2014, it was to find out if Freelance was the way of the future. It was. Tools became cheap, the industry was in a weird funk, and the indie revolution was in high gear. 2018 is a different world. It’s the world of the marketplace and indie saturation. It’s the world of more tech than you could possibly imagine but no time to use it. And its the world where AAA studios can be a choosy as ever as talent continues to flood the market. I’ve survived by being flexible enough to change gears as needed, yet sturdy enough to never quit on my goals no matter how rough it can be. I’ve been slower to shift gears since I got back from Austin, for some good reasons. Life happens (even if some people pretend it doesn’t). Now I think it’s time to get back up to speed.

Dan

2-2-18

General / 02 February 2018

I’m sitting in my home office not technically working. I was hoping to be writing an article for GameTextures right now, but my flash drive has apparently decided to not read on my Girlfriend’s Mac Book. I have an electrician doing work on a new panel in the basement, so the Substance Designer work I wanted to do is having to wait. We’re having a wall outlet replaced and the two electricians I had take a look at some stuff for the job all said the same thing: Our Panel is too tightly packed. I had planned for this with putting a few things on the Flash Drive, but if it’s broken (or maybe this laptop is, I don’t know) that ends my plans.

Perhaps it’s for the best anyway. After a slow start, 2018 has been absurdly busy. I’m in the middle of a contract, art test, and teaching job right now. I have 50 or 60 kids in my three classes at Drexel right now, and even-though I’ve taught ANIM 140/CGI I before, it’s still a beast of a class to tame. I am fast to answer student questions and I try to make time to see them but I have other work that needs to be done too. It also doesn’t help that my teaching schedule is Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday Night, and Thursday afternoon. I walk to the subway, walk to and in my classes, and walk back. By the time I get back on Thursday, I’m completely exhausted from not just the commute, but from teaching and helping others as well.

Working has been difficult the past few weeks. Between tying to get my own asset kit online and finishing The Park Bench (both of which have taken back seats), I’ve signed on to work on “arting” up a level for a VR shooter. It’s fun (Unreal ftw!) and it pays well. Between that and my teaching, I have very little time for other work. I want to make my weekend personal art time, but I’ve blocked out this weekend for a texture test I’ve been working on. Everything overlaps with everything else.

Maybe I should have rescheduled the electrician.

I’ve taken to waking up at 6am most days. My internal clock isn’t a fan of this. It would rather wake me up around 9 or so, but if I’m up at 6 I can squeeze in 5 or more hours of work before I head off to teach. I’ve cut my workouts back to three times a week too, instead of four. This was done a little while back, but I’ve since swapped gyms to a closer facility and there is no way I have the time to modify that now. I’m actually liking the change up as my strength keeps increasing, but I’ve found my Wednesday workout gets cut short most times. I just keep running late.

I guess that leads me to my Fridays. Even if I didn’t have any drinks last night (I had some), I’d still be mentally fried. I have been the last 4 weeks. I think I’ll need to modify my schedule more and make my Saturday and Sundays almost full work days. My Friday needs to be a weekend to recharge. It’s not just my mind, my body is exhausted too. Walking to the train, working out, riding the spin bike…when I say I’m exhausted on Friday, I am. By the time my class rolls around on Thursday, it’s a toss up on my energy level. Tuesday I’m chipper and ready to teach! Thursday I’m either struggling to push though the content or I’m excited to share my knowledge. Total crap shoot.

It sounds like I’m complaining, and because I want to do nothing more than take a nap and eat lunch right now, I am. But in general, I’m enjoying the current pace of life. I like the pressure, the hustle, the speed at which work needs to be done. And I believe that I can get it all taken care of. Perhaps that belief is a tad misplaced because I’m so burnt on Friday. I feel especially burnt today…I need to manage my Thursday happy hour better. On the hangover scale this is a two, but on the mental capacity scale I’m at a -10.

That’s why there’s tomorrow.

2-2-18

Is Paragon CoTD?

General / 23 January 2018

Last week it appeared that Paragon might be circling the drain.

I am a Paragon player. I started playing towards the end of their closed Alpha. It wasn’t the most fun I had playing a game, but there was something in that Alpha that definitely felt sticky. Perhaps it was seeing a game early in development, or the third person shooter feel of a MOBA when most in the genre use an almost top down view. Whatever it was, when I got the opportunity to jump back into the closed Beta I took it. Paragon had grown further into its own skin at this point, but wasn’t yet the game it would become. That took many updates, system re-works, speed adjustments, entire meta changes, and a brand new map to work out. I think it was worth it though. Paragon today plays faster, has (generally) short match times, and its more visceral than many of the other MOBA’s that are out there. That is why I play it-it’s fast, it’s pretty, it’s in your face, and I enjoy the hell out of it. If the game can grab players like myself, players who don’t play MOBA’s at all, and make a hardcore fan base out of them, it must be doing well!

It would seem that’s not the case.

Last week, Epic posted a lengthy message in their Paragon sub-Reddit. You can read the full text on their forum here. The short version is more or less the following: “Paragon isn’t growing at the pace we need it to in order for us to continue to devote the resources to it we have been during development. Fortnite: Battle Royale has become so huge that we’re needing to focus on it more and that is going to have to hurt Paragon short term. Long term, because of our inability to grow the play base as much as we like, we’re looking at our options.”

Paragon, one of the few competitive online games I play, might be circling the drain.

I have been involved with one other MOBA in my gaming and professional career. Unlike Paragon, where I am a player, I was a developer on the art team. Like Paragon, the MOBA I worked on eventually started seeing player numbers drop and as soon as it was officially released, it started circling the drain. You can’t even play it anymore.

That MOBA is Infinite Crisis. 

Because of my involvement with Infinite Crisis, I think I have a few ideas as to what is going on with Paragon and how it might be able to remain a viable, consistent product for Epic Games amidst the success of Fortnite. Both games can exist simultaneously as two sides of the same coin, or two or more of the pillars of Epic’s current gaming catalogue.

The Problems

  1. Player Retention. Paragon hasn’t been able to grow at the rate Epic would like to see. The last big growth spike, based on what I can estimate from agora.gg (unofficial, but you can make guesses based on their numbers), was during the big Monolith Map update. This is the biggest problem Epic seems to have internally.
    1. Infinite Crisis ran into player retention issues later in development. During my time on the game, the community was super excited and pumped about having a DC Comics based MOBA to play. WB thought it was going to be a huge franchise and funded and pushed it as such. Unfortunately, IC ended up having a very long Beta period, and the developers eventually disabled what the community considered the best map (I don’t know why, I was gone). By the time the game launched, IC had already lost a number of players, and I would imagine WB was off the ship as well.
  2. Pessimism in the Core Community. When the Monolith Map was introduced and replaced Legacy, many in the core community were crushed. Legacy was and is a beloved map by the players at the time but Monolith was needed to drive down match times, speed up the pace of play, and work on a less complicated Jungler role. This comes with good and bad, but with a number of core players refusing to get past this change, Paragon’s most fervent fans ended up being less enthused about the game.
  3. Lack of a True Competitive Mode. Paragon does not have ranked play, yet it’s been in open Beta for almost a year at this point.
    1. This is the opposite of what Infinite Crisis attempted to do. WB and Turbine saw IC as having a huge E-Sports following and it was immediately marketed as such. It had a ranked mode pretty early on in development. I don’t think that was necessarily a bad game plan. Paragon has taken the opposite approach; casuals and players like me first, then introduce the ranked modes. I don’t think that was a bad approach either. They just haven’t given competitive modes a solid push yet and I think the lack of urgency on this point of development has been a huge miss for Epic.

I think the problems all feed on themselves. Player Retention will be driven by either the core community feeling positive and jazzed about the game, or by these new players having an officially ranked mode within the game that pushes them to grind for a higher rank. It’s the only reason I play Rocket League. Without a ranked mode, there really isn’t a point to grind and improve unless you care about agora.gg, and realistically you shouldn’t as it’s not an official ranking site. With no official ranked play, less players stick around chasing the high of competition. With some of the older, core players longing for a mode of play that won’t be coming back (this is on that group of players, not Epic) the core community shows some toxicity towards Epic online, which pushes away new players as well.

Solutions

  1. Get ranked play operational quickly, regardless of it being a perfect system. This will galvanize some of the core players who have a competitive spirit and hopefully keep around a few more new players who also love competing.
    1. As part of this, the PS4 version needs some additional tweaks so players on PS4 can be competitive with PC players. I had to move to PC once Monolith came out. The pace of play got too fast for me to be effective on console.
    2. Also on PS4, fix the game. I’ve seen many more disconnects lately than usual and I think it’s the PS4 players. Maybe that’s a PS4 network issue that isn’t related to Paragon…but it should be looked into.
  2. Plan an update that adds a new game mode based around the old Legacy Map. This wouldn’t be a “bring back Legacy” change so much as the map is introduced as a secondary way to play the game, unranked at first, using the existing systems. It’ll be a little unbalanced and broken, but it’ll be a fun playground for players and that hardcore audience who won’t shut up about Legacy might come back.
  3. If possible, combine these updates into a huge patch that comes with a marketing push. This will get people in and playing and hopefully sticking around.
  4. Exit Beta with these updates. Infinite Crisis was in Beta far too long and that slow plodding development course helped kill the game. Paragon needs to become a released product with a push (and aimed at PS4 frankly) to drive its player numbers.

I personally think Paragon will only circle the drain as much as Epic allows it to. I don’t see it ever doing DOTA or LoL numbers, but I believe it can be a sustainable game with good player numbers and a really great competitive scene as long as Epic takes the foundation they have, which is a great one, and build on it in a meaningful way. It’s not about changing the meta this or balancing tanks for this because of how some individual players feel. If the data supports the current meta, then keep it as is and focus on bigger issues.

Those are my thoughts on the current state of Paragon. I’m still playing for damn sure.

2018 Goals: The Gamble

General / 05 January 2018

I started 2017 with a very clear goal in mind: Go to Austin, show up at Bluepoint Games, and work really hard. I didn’t know the game I was working on, I just knew it was good to be back with a AAA team. The rest would fall into place.

When I sat down to write my goals for 2016, I was in a mixed place. My gut told me that 2016 was going to be a big year but I didn’t have any real proof of that. I had a number of questions I was working to answer. What I did know was that I had 3 questions every decision had to answer:

  • Does it support a better version of myself, my business, and my relationships?
  • Do I believe in what I’m doing?
  • Can I give X 100%?

2016 ended up being a big year because I made choices that answered those questions in a positive light. Those choices helped set up 2017. 2017 was an even bigger year, but it’s hard to say how it will impact 2018.

As 2017 came to a close and rolled into 2018, I’ve had to step back and examine not just the immediate surroundings of my life, but the changes I know will be coming in just a few short years. My goals for 2018 reflect the general sense of uncertainty I have regarding the future. It’s not fear, it’s not worry, it’s the knowledge that choices I make now will have some effect down the road.

I noted in my notebook that 2018 is the year of options as long as I execute well, and that none of the options are necessarily wrong. Wrong might not be the correct term. I think some of the choices I will eventually make in 2018 will set up a stronger 2020 or 2022 than others, and that’s important to remember.

Drexel

Goals regarding Drexel are relatively unchanged for now. I continue to enjoy teaching and the freedom that being an Adjunct brings. As long as I have 3 classes a quarter, I have a base level of financial stability (this generally means I can pay my bills). Traditionally, the Summer Quarter is the quarter where I don’t have any classes lined up. I’m looking to change that this year, assuming I don’t do any contracts on-site. Many of my students this past year have suggested that there be a game-centric (if not just a general) texturing class. Students need to know how to use Photoshop to create textures and not to rely on Substance Painter. It’s something I plan to talk to the program leads about.

Longer term, I need to have a few discussions with some of the faculty at the school. When I was writing out my goals, the idea of being a full time professor came to me. Would I be happy? Can I work on my own games while also teaching? Am I required to do research and write papers that I don’t want to? I don’t know. I have questions I need answered and I plan to get that figured out sometime this year, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Remote Contracts and Freelance

There is no doubt in my mind that part of the issue I’ve had finding solid remote work the past few months stems from my time in Texas. I didn’t focus on freelance at all while I was there. When I returned, I went back to my old ways of scouring the Polycount and Unreal Engine Forums, checking ArtStation, tweeting, and even using Upwork to find leads. I came close to two huge contracts but both went in different directions that were better for their particular visual styles. Other than those two contracts, It’s been hard to find work that pays well enough for me to consider it. When you factor in that a long time client has reduced their pay as well, I’ve had to step back and examine the current Freelance landscape. What has changed since mid 2016?

Most of my client base leading into 2016 came from word of mouth or Polycount Forum postings by small studios or individuals who had clear visions. Some of those visions did not come to pass, but in general, I had solid work for pay that ranged from not great but consistent to good and semi inconsistent. It’s not the worst mix. 2016 started with a big client who, once I finished up half of the work expected, stopped returning my emails (I was paid for the work done so I didn’t push the issue much). I had a number of smaller clients that filled in some gaps until I went to New York, where I worked with Psyop and Vayner Media. To close out the year, I worked with Karl Strauss Galleries on a visualization of their new gallery. I was more or less booked solid until mid December. Then I went to Texas to work on Shadow of The Colossus. During the time I spent working with larger clients on a mix of game and non game projects, the digital distribution platform Steam continued to evolve. In addition to being THE place to sell your independent game, it also became a place for greedy developers to try and make a quick buck or for the inexperienced to get a shipped title added to a resume. During 2016, over 4000 games were released on Steam. In November of 2017, it was reported that 6000 games were released on Steam. In the two years where I’ve been working on large contracts, over 10,000 games were released on Steam. More than likely, most of those games are a mix of asset flips (games made by buying pre-made assets and code and duct-taping them together with no changes or original uses) or games made by inexperienced developers who are working to get a published title out. If you watch The Jimquisition on YouTube at all, you’ll be very familiar with Jim Sterling’s critiques of Steam’s quality control.

With tools being cheaper than ever, the ability to distribute your game costing almost nothing, and more people wanting to make games than ever before, the landscape has shifted so that it’s difficult to trust forum posts anymore, even on reputable sites like Polycount. Yes, you might be signing up to work with a developer who has a track record and some funding, but you might also be signing up to work with a 14 year old kid who is using his first credit card with a $300 dollar limit to fund his MMORPGFPSRTS.

I’m in a place where I can turn down work that doesn’t pay what I’m worth or is for a client I don’t believe I can trust. I also don’t turn away everything that I probably should. As long as there’s a deal to be made, I negotiate. This has led to some issues, both in the past and more recently, where I have taken on work that I, for various reasons, should have passed on.

I’m still figuring out exactly what to do, but after discussing the market with a valued colleague and discussing the topic with my brother, I think my approach needs to change. If I’m being honest with myself, it should have changed a few years ago.

My initial goal was to hunt for 1 big contract starting in March, and have it be either remote or on-site. I now think this should be my focus. Instead of filling gaps with smaller work with less reputable clients (with projects that may never see the light of day), I need to consolidate those gaps into taking on fewer but larger projects with clients who have some sort of a track record and funding. My work experience speaks for itself, and as a freelancer, I’ve been tracking my efforts long enough that I can provide detailed quotes that will be accurate if I’m working for a fixed dollar amount. The market has shifted and the mid tier that I made my money in from 2014-early 2016 has been compressed downward. In 2018, it’s time to focus in on the hunt for bigger fish.

So what will I do if I’m focusing on big fish and not focusing on gap fillers?

Content Creation

Every year since 2014 I’ve always had a goal to get some assets up on The Unreal Marketplace or Unity Store and sell them. I’d like to combine that with the ability to sell the source assets via my site and a PayPal button. It hasn’t happened because I’ve been delayed by contracts. Big contracts, small contracts, away contracts, or burnout because of contracts, I’m delayed by all of them. 2018 possibly presents an opportunity to finally start selling something, and maybe to do more.

I almost had an asset kit done at one poit. It was a Pots and Pans kit. However, I made a number of mistakes building it and it wasn’t a project I was truly into. Perhaps it is worth revisiting again. It’s a kit that’s quick to make, easy to customize (if I build intelligently and don’t split time like last time) and something I can see a number of possible developers (of all kinds) standing in line to buy.

I also would like to sell my current Park Scene once it’s done. It has a number of generic assets that others can use, and the few assets that aren’t generic can be modified to remove logos that might cause legal problems.

If I’m focusing on hunting for big contracts, I think making my own content is the perfect gap filler and skill-set builder. I can pick what I make, sell parts of or whole environment kits, and have a drip feed of income for the entire year. It also might be the perfect way to fund projects of a grander nature.

‘Member NONA? I ‘member!

Project NONA was a project that I started prototyping for in 2015. I got a simplistic whitebox demo working and then the demands of teaching and contracting took over my schedule. In addition, I realized I scoped out a game that was far too large for me to complete with no budget.

That idea however, of making my own title, hasn’t died. I’ve kept it alive, work-shopped it down, and have taken notes of many games that exist in similar genres the past year. I have a few ideas I’d like to explore with most of them being much smaller versions of NONA. Think of them like short stories in game form. I can’t say I will start these projects this year, but they are in the back of my mind and might factor into the choices I make this year.

Re-Investment

Last year I was able to purchase some equipment that helps with my work speed and quality (a new awesome Intous tablet and 16GB more RAM) and with my ability to take on new work remotely (Oculus Rift). It was well worth it already.

In 2018, I may be looking at a new full build. My current PC will be 4 years old in March. She’s still running strong and can play most games at Max or close to Max at 1080p. I’m able to run most VR applications properly as well. I also know that moving up to the latest Intel Processors, adding 4 more cores, and having a brand spanking new GTX whatever will set me up for another 4 more years. I don’t think I need a new build quite yet, I believe I can sit tight for another year thanks to my over-clocking, but I really did enjoy the speed the machines at Bluepoint gave me.

If I did a new build, what would I do with this desktop? I’d probably hand it down to Kelsey. She could use it (and a new desk) and have a killer at home setup, much like myself.

2018 Forecast: Cloudy with a chance of Awesome

In my notes, 2018 was a year of no wrong choices, no right choices, and mild uncertainty. Choice and future consequence, in addition to market forces, will drive what I do. In the process of writing this blog and in talking with friends, I believe I’ve narrowed down my choice and intentions. In some ways, now is the perfect time to take a big risk in going for bigger, notable clients. I have a base level of stability that makes investing time and resources into original content viable, and I have freedom to work away as needed if the opportunity arises. If I find a large contract that is fully remote, I get the best of all worlds. It’s a gamble, but the more I have throught on it, discussed it, and written here about it, the more I’m prepared to spend 2018 being a gambler.

When I have gambled on myself before, I’ve done fairly well. If only my casino luck was the same.

Bring it on, 2018.

 

 

 

The 2017 Finale (Reflections and Quarterly Report pt. 2)

General / 03 January 2018

2017 Reflections 

2017 has professionally been the best year I’ve had since I started working. I started the year out at Bluepoint Games where I worked with an incredibly talented and ‘smallish’ AAA team. We put a lot of work into the upcoming Shadow of The Colossus remake, and I think anyone who gets the game will really enjoy it. Working on a game like that is an environment artist’s dream and being able to add my own twist to an existing design was a lot of fun and creatively fulfilling. I was also paid well for my time, and I used that to invest in my Oculus Rift Headset, a new Wacom Tablet, and an extra 16GB of Ram. All have been very needed purchases.

When I returned home there was a bit of an adjustment period both personally and professionally. I saw Kelsey roughly once a month while I was in Texas. When I returned home and started to settle back in, Kelsey and I had to re-adjust to sharing a living space again. Our house is significantly larger than our apartment was, but the space isn’t so grand that I can set my stuff in another room or two of the house and not have to split space. Both of us had to adjust. Time wise, I had to slip back into a schedule that allowed me to teach, work out, and freelance. My gym was a half hour walk from my house, or a ten minute bus ride. However, too many bus rides made membership there expensive, so I had to balance bus rides with walking. Balancing my time between teaching, freelancing, and keeping fit became a struggle that took a few weeks to settle down.

Once I was settled, contracts were slow. I’m not the most active on forums, but  when I’m freelancing full time I’m active enough that it usually doesn’t take long for me to get work. This fall was different. I had a few recruiters reach out with some full time prospects that I turned away for various reasons, and I had two potential remote contracts fall through due to either a mismatch in style or potential scheduling conflicts due to my teaching schedule. They would have been huge gets for me too, and one project in particular looked to be really exciting. It took until November for me to start finding remote contract footing.

Slipping back into teaching at Drexel was easy. For the fall I taught GMAP 260, a relatively introductory game course I had taught before, and GMAP 421. I should have spent more time prepping for GMAP 421. The first 5 weeks of my teaching contract for the fall was incredibly stressful. I spent more time working on that class than doing much of anything else. GMAP 421 is a class that, at least as I taught it, made great use of my environment art skillset and knowledge. However, I had to make the class from scratch as I went. I didn’t know what level of knowledge the students had when it came to 3D Modeling, Texturing, or Unity when I started. It turned out the answer was “barely any” for anything that wasn’t modeling. It was one of my favorite classes to teach, but it also was very stressful and showcases that, quite frankly, Drexel could use my skills to teach more classes at a higher level than is currently being done when it comes to game art.

I write out goals for every year during the holidays, usually around Thanksgiving. As I review my 2017 Professional Goals, I see a lot of successes with a few minor failures.

  • I DID NOT continue to freelance while in Texas. I think NOT doing this was the correct call as my time was better spent working on Shadow.
  • I DID NOT continue to write for GameTextures while in Texas. This is something I should have forced myself to do. Happily, the GameTextures team happens to be very understanding, and one of their team members picked up some of my slack.
  • I DID NOT complete any significant personal projects in 2017. I’ve had one on-going since February, but scheduling realities and burnout factored in heavily to not getting this project done.  It’s still in progress though!
  • I DID pay off all of my student loans. This wasn’t an initial goal, but I was convinced to do it and I do like the extra cash flow.
  • I DID recover and grow financially from the house purchase. I was able to re-coup and surpass where my savings were before the house was purchased.
  • I DID make new connections in Austin.
  • Fun fact: I estimate I worked a total of 1604 hours and 15 minutes. That’s billable hours, my actual butt in seat time more than likely exceeds 1700 hours.

Personally, 2017 was successful as well.

  • Two Big goals to start 2017 were finally realized at the end of the year. Both are in progress as they take some time.
  • My mental health has improved in 2017. I was in therapy for the majority of 2016 and that year has helped me notice negative trends in my mind. 2017 built on that.
    • Unfortunately, my Meditation tailed off at the end of 2017 after I got back home. One of the cornerstones of 2018 will be to get back to meditating. I found it very helpful.
  • I made more personal connections in Austin and in Philly.
  • I DID NOT get my Passport….
  • Fitness wise, it was hard to judge for a while. All things considered, I’m happy enough. I also discovered that I respond well to total body workouts 3x a week, at least as far as building strength is concerned.

I entered 2017 with a great contract in front of me, a new home, and a positive attitude. I left 2017 feeling even more secure in my personal life as I grow in my relationship with Kelsey and start to expand my friend network here in Philadelphia. Professionally, 2017 was very good to me. I did learn some lessons that I hope to take into any future on-site contracts that will make them even better.

Stay tuned for a 2018 Goals post.

Quarterly Report Part 2

If you remember, dear reader, I split up my 2017 quarterlies into halves. it made more sense for me to write from a Bluepoint and post Bluepoint perspective. This short summary will serve to describe my business from September to December. I spent the majority of my time teaching, but I did pickup a few contracts along the way.

Task Tracking

My general goal to end the year was to teach and take some small contracts. This is exactly what happened. My writing for GameTextures got really involved at the end of the year and if you head over to the new home of the GameTextures Blog you can see why. Look specifically for the Art Stories and Paragon Blogs to see the current direction the team and I are taking the blog in.

  • Hours worked (total time working): 470.37
  • Billable Hours: 374.8
  • Average Efficiency: 84.15%

Income

My last paycheck from Bluepoint was in September. It wasn’t a full check, but I had planned for that to be the case. It was a long dry spell until October however, when I started to get paid again from Drexel as well as resuming work at the GameTextures blog. October was the best month from this time frame. November was on the drier side, but December picked up as I had a few different small contracts going as well as the remainder of my teaching earnings.

Year over year for September to December, I did not match last year. I didn’t have quite the contracting momentum as I was away from the east coast, and I did slow it down when I returned. I had a year over year loss of 28.5% during this time frame. When paired with my excellent first part of the year, that loss is mitigated.

Looking Ahead

I plan to do a longer form 2018 blog where I’ll be addressing some of the changes in the market for someone such as myself. I expect that in a few more years, my personal life will be significantly different and those changes have to inform choices I make today. As a teaser, I see 2018 as a year of opportunity and choice with no wrong answers, but nothing that screams that there is a right one either. I will have to rely on my gut, contacts, and people skills to steer myself towards greater prosperity.

 

South Park: The Fractured But Whole (Minor Spoilers)

General / 01 December 2017

I beat South Park: The Fractured But Whole last night (on my 31st birthday!) I really enjoyed my time with the game. I am a huge South Park fan and the type of fan service that both Stick of Truth and Fractured But Whole give to fans like me can’t be explained very well. Being able to be a kid in the town and have an adventure with the boys is truly a great experience and I’m so happy that Matt and Trey are interested in giving us more and more experiences that make South Park alive in 2017.

While I enjoyed Fractured, I couldn’t help but feel that Stick of Truth was just…more South Park.

South Park, to me, is one part crass humor, one part social commentary, and one part excellent narrative structure. Stick of Truth was a bit weaker in social commentary due to it’s extended development time. What it lacked in social commentary, it made up for in crass humor and over the top fan service. Randy getting anally drilled by aliens was one of the funniest scenes in gaming to date, and the finale featuring Morgan Freeman had me laughing the entire time. It was a bit rough in spots, but that roughness made it feel more like the 2004-2010 or so era South Park. It was crass while delivering some social commentary, and it had excellent plot lines and threads that all delivered.

Fractured But Whole is a bit of a different story. The game is a bit more contained (you’re not going to Canada) and focused on the kids and their superhero personas. That works very well, even if the super hero story lines aren’t your favorite thing (they aren’t mine). Much like the Stick of Truth, the finale is hilarious. It was less laughing my ass off and more “what the hell is this!!” kind of funny, and in the context of the story, characters, and South Park universe, it worked brilliantly. At the same time, the path the story takes to get to the climax lags in spots, especially early on. Some of this is for gameplay reasons, some is explained in the story at the end, and some of it is just poor pacing. Stick of Truth suffered from this a bit as well, but I think it had shock value that Fractured But Whole lacked. That shock value made the slow story sections feel significantly better.

When it comes to social commentary, Fractured But Whole is dripping with it, far more than than Stick of Truth did. In fact, parts of Fracture But Whole’s gameplay are bits of commentary themselves. When gameplay can also be commentary, you’re doing something right (see Spec Ops: The Line). Fractured was made in about 3 years, while Stick of Truth was done in 4 and change. Snow Drop, the engine used for Fractured But Whole, was able to use show assets directly. This meant that it was easy for rewrites and additions to be done to the script. I’m pretty sure this is why Fractured is so topical. With Stick of Truth, the lack of being as topical and eventual need to lock that script earlier than in Fractured But Whole might have been why there was more toilet humor and shock moments. It’s up to the player to decide what they liked more, but when you get to go into Mr. Slave’s ass…it’s hard to top.

When it comes to being a game, Fractured But Whole is easily the superior title. The gameplay is more strategic thanks to the tactics elements of movement that have been added to the battlefield. Fire, while still useful, isn’t 100% over powered. You might not be exploring as much, but you do get to explore a more dense and gentrified South Park thanks to season 19. Social Media serves as collectible, social commentary, and necessary part of gameplay. Farting also is expanded greatly here as well. It sounds like it wouldn’t be important, but in addition to all of the time mechanics it has, I beat Morgan Freeman because of farts (and some sort of gameplay logic bug I found with the lineup of Kyle, Kenny, and Stan. Seriously, use it and let Kenny be dead most of the time. It wigs out by the 3rd phase.)

In the end, Fractured But Whole is a great and hilarious game. I just wish it had a bit more of the classic crass, shock humor of old South Park. I might be getting older, but my sense of humor hasn’t aged a bit.

I’m all in on their DLC too. I think it’s going to be rad.

-Dan

Tax Reform: Part 2

General / 28 November 2017

A little while ago (October 3rd to be exact), I wrote about the hypothetical Tax Reform plan the House GOP Leadership, in conjunction with the Trump White House, was working on. At the time very little other than the super basic framework was put forth. I had some fun crunching a few numbers and looking at what good could come out of whatever the Republicans were cooking in the kitchen. It was an optimistic blog to be frank, but I always try to look on the bright side of things.

Today, we have a tax plan sitting in front of us. Two of them really, one from the House of Representatives and one from the Senate. Both plans have a few similarities, both have a ton of differences, and both plans have garnered strong reactions from all sides.

I am both unqualified and uninterested (for the purposes of this blog) in going over the entirety of both tax plans. That’s FAR too much for me to read. I previously took the perspective I am quite familiar with; that of the Sole Proprietor. I will be doing the same for this post as well. I will be examining the broad strokes that affect a Sole Proprietor and at the end, draw a conclusion that I think works best for this incredibly narrow segment of the tax paying population.

More than likely, I’ll have a few notes about the overall plans at the end as well. I have other feelings too!

What’s in this thing for a Sole Proprietor (House)

There’s quite a lot to digest, but in general there are a few big issues that a Sole Proprietor will want to focus in on:

  • Any Pass-Through Corporation has its maximum tax liability capped at 25%, unless you are a service company or a lawyer. In addition, the final bill has a 9% rate on the first $75,000 in income if your total income is below $150,000. So, in essence, a Sole Proprietor like myself would be taxed at a rate of 9% instead of my current rate of 25%. Needless to say, assuming this is accurate, it’s HUGE for many freelancers.
  • Taxes are set to go up in 2023 for many Americans. This is tied into the expectation of the Family Flexibility Credit expiring as well as the measure of inflation shifting around that time.
  • Tax Brackets are reduced from 7 (10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, 35%, and 39%) to 4 (12%, 25%, 35%, and 39.6%). The top rate really only applies to those who make a million dollars a year for married couples or $500K for single filers.
  • The Standard Deduction is doubled to $12000 for individuals and $24000 for married couples. This comes with a few caveats. First, most individual deductions are going away. Mortgage Interest can still be deducted but it’s capped at $500k. Also, State and Local Taxes, or SALT, will be removed.
  • Regarding college, you would no longer be able to deduct student loan interest. In addition, grad students with tuition waivers would have to pay income tax on the waiver, which is a huge deal when you consider that it’s not “real income”. There’s a story/meme going around where a current grad student would have to basically give up her income from teaching to pay for the waiver. This isn’t necessarily a Sole Proprietor issue, but it’s a big issue non the less.
  • My understanding is that the majority of business deductions that Sole Proprietors can utilize remain.

What’s in this thing for a Sole Proprietor (Senate)

While the House and Senate bills have some similarities, they are really two significantly different bills.

  • Pass-through companies continue to get good benefits out of the Senate Bill, but in a different way. Instead of capping it at 25%, most pass-through income earners can deduct 17.4% of their income. This lowers the top rate paid. In essence, this plus the ability to write off half of your self employment tax means that you’re going to be paying roughly no self employment tax when it’s all said and done.
    • The Vox article I’m sourcing this from mentions that the rich could ‘incorporate’ as sole proprietorship and ‘contract’ with their employers so income is pass-through. While technically true, this will likely only affects someone who runs the business they work with. Plus, there are a lot of legal laws in place that define who is and isn’t an employee and what benefits employees can receive. Some of this is easy to work aound and ignore, but bigger things (insurance and having taxes withheld, direct control over the worker at work) can’t be ignored. That brings in a bunch of questions that would span a brand new article. So in short, this Vox article gives me good bill details but absolutely editorializes a bit more than I would prefer.
  • The tax rates are tweaked, but the overall number of brackets remains at 7. The breakdown is as follows: 10%, 12%, 22.5%, 25%, 32.5%, 35%, 38.5%. You can look at the source article for more, but the basic breakdown follows somewhat closely with the current tax bracket breakdown.
    • It’s worth noting that the brackets are adjusted by a Chained Consumer Price Index. This more or less factors in that if apple prices rise too high, people will switch to bananas. Most economists consider this a somewhat more realistic approach to calculating CPI-but it does show less inflation. This is important when you consider the increase in rents across the country, but again that’s a different article.
  •  The Standard Deduction doubles just like the House Bill.
  • Mortgage interest remains unchanged unless you own a second home. Can’t deduct that second home anymore.
  • SALT deductions, much like in the house bill, are gone.
  • Student Loan Interest, Medical Expense Deduction, and the Adoption Tax Credit all remain. This is different than the House bill, where all of these deductions are gone.

Which do I like Better?

Like I said, there is WAY MORE to both bills. Looking at it strictly from the perspective of a Sole Proprietor and nothing else, I prefer the House Bill. While there are a few more deductions that are removed on the individual side, I like the idea of only having 4 total tax brackets. I also really like what they have opted to do with Pass Through Taxation. By having the secondary small rate on income earned under $150,000, small outfits and individuals (like yours truly) will have their tax burden significantly reduced-even more so than the Senate Bill.

You can argue that Pass-Through companies already receive generous tax treatment, and in some cases I would agree with you. Unfortunately, the general public doesn’t understand how a lot of contract and other 1099 workers are classified by the federal government. These changes will help tons of people.

Other quick thoughts on these bills in general

In short, I want to see more work done to the House Bill. There’s a few things that are getting glossed over because the honorable King Lord Donald J. Trump is the President. By focusing so much on what he personally stands to gain, the focus on the good AND the bad is getting washed out.

Lets start with the fact that both bills will explode the budget deficit by roughly $1.5 trillion. I can’t stand for that. A bit of deficit is fine. That is not. The thing is, the money can be found without having to phase out certain cuts on the middle class. For starters, close corporate loopholes and end most corporate deductions. Large companies are getting a 15% cut across the board and are getting to keep most of their deductions. Normal people are not. Imagine how much just doing that would help fix some of the budget issues these bills will cause. Along those same lines, throw an extra 2.5% on the corporate rate. 22.5% won’t kill anyone. It’s not like they are going to invest this money in people and production anyway. It’s all going right into stock buybacks. It’s all about the stock market.

If you make those changes, I think you can add back in some of the smaller deductions that were removed for middle class Americans. I also think you can remove the stupid change to grad school waivers. Frankly that needs to be removed immidately.

I know a lot of people will want to have the SALT deductions added back to the bill, and considering I live in Philadelphia, it’d be good for me too (Philly taxes you hard). However, I think that outside of New York, New Jersey, California, and Chicago, removing SALT isn’t the worst idea. Only around 30% of individuals itemize and the huge increase in the standard deduction is going to make the removal of SALT a wash in the majority of cases.

Conclusion

That pretty much sums up what’s in these tax bills and what I think from the perspective of a Sole Proprietor. Keep an eye on the federal government for the next few weeks. If either bill makes it to the President’s desk, I’d be prepared to dump in a TON of cash into the market. The gains won’t last forever, but large corporations will be ready to buy back so much stock you can earn a few bucks quickly.

As for me? I’ll be investing in myself.

-Dan

Sources:

https://www.vox.com/2017/11/9/16620290/senate-republican-tax-plan-orrin-hatch-mitch-mcconnell

https://www.vox.com/cards/entitlement-reform/whats-chained-cpi

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/11/16/the-house-is-voting-on-its-tax-bill-thursday-heres-what-is-in-it/?utm_term=.8a875a8a5f0c

https://www.legalzoom.com/knowledge/limited-liability-company/glossary/llc-pass-through-entity