DISSERTATION: Playtest Crunch

autoethnography, dissertation, playtest, Uncategorized

I have an unsurprising confession to make: in the time since my last blog post, I crunched to get a version of TRACES ready for playtesting at Arcade 11.

You can follow the traces (ha) of my digital programming crunch here: https://github.com/jekagames/traces

Between each commit, I was working with all the different broken processes unless I was sleeping.

The other physical object-making crunch that I engaged in is evident on instagram.

Everything took longer than expected. There was a lot to do to get the project ready — and the fact that each task took longer than I expected it to — each and every single task — was a constant source of stress.

The documentation for each of the libraries that I was using was incomplete, poorly-written, or assumed knowledge that I didn’t have (or was never meant to be combined in the ways that I needed). They’re usually open-source of course, and I appreciate that people have other jobs and other work, but when your constructor uses the same name for the variable and the data type without explaining, that’s really difficult to parse (looking at you, socket.io).

For the installation of certain things on the Raspberry Pi, I got it to work once and I’m not sure why it worked, because it wouldn’t work again on the other machines even though I followed the same instructions. So, instead, I cloned the card. I’m a bit nervous about when I have to update the code and the audio files and such. I hope it’ll go okay.

My 3D models would look fine in theory, but would have physical limitations or issues when I actually printed them. I had to redesign one particular object something like 4 or 5 times — and wait in between each re-design to print it to see what problems arose.

So, I expected to have around a week to build certain parts of the project and instead wound up with 24 hours. What a mess.

I am very, very grateful to the people that helped me — by volunteering their voices, by helping me with programming, by physically building things with me.

Right now, that’s these folks (quoted from my credits):

“VOICE ACTING
System Voice – Natural Reader (modified)
The Handler – Jess Rowan Marcotte
Object 10 – Ash Cheshire
Object 09 – Thomas Deliva
Object 01 – Gina Hara
Object 05 – Enric Llagostera
Object 02, 08 – Jordan McRae
Object 03, 04, 06 – Lukas Rowland
Object 07 – Dietrich Squinkifer

3D-PRINTED OBJECTS
Jess Marcotte (20×4 LCD cover, Arduino Uno Case top)
brandroid64 (Brandon Bowles) (Customizable Raspberry Pi 3 (A+/B+) Case)
djminnesota (Dan Johnson) (Arduino Uno Case bottom, modified by Jess Marcotte)

SPECIAL THANKS TO
Enric Llagostera and Dietrich Squinkifer for their help with all of my programming questions and for helping me debug.”

Some of that will change, though, now that I have had the chance to playtest. I have some internal playtest notes, both physically written down and that I took of my general impressions after the playtest.

Obviously, the sculptures that Tom and I made in 24 hours are not the final sculptures. I actually spent a fair bit of time calling around and contacting Molded Pulp product companies to try and find more of the kind of molded pulp that I had from our dishwasher (that I turned into objects for the game). It turns out that most local packaging companies do not make molded pulp products. One company only made 2 products, which they sold by around 20 000 units at a time: 4-cup holders and egg cartons.

So. I went to a caterer’s store and bought molded pulp takeout containers and plates in a variety of shapes. The nice thing is that they’re compostable, so I feel okay about using them for that reason since I imagine there will be waste/mistakes (though I will be painting the final sculptures). I do have a few leftover shapes from the products I had. I’ll try to work them into what I make.

So. That’s on my list. Making molded pulp takeout container sculptures. Nice.

The next thing on my list is finishing 2 more controllers to accompany the first one that I made fully. I managed to make 2 for playtesting — one that I had fully finished and one on a wooden form that Tom helped me make. So, that’s something I still have to do.

Then, from there, I want to try and further synchronize the text that’s displaying with the audio. I think that means adding another database entry and passing a variable into it in milliseconds that also changes when a specific object from the database is called, and for me to individually check how fast the text needs to display compared to the speaking voice of whoever voices a particular object.

That brings me to two very important other items: first, it seems that some of the voices were a bit distracting to players, so I will likely have to re-record those. Certain voices may also need to just be a tad louder.

Second, it seems like some of the objects are overly didactic, leading to an overly didactic impression of the game. With some playtester advice in mind, I will be thinking about whether I should cut certain objects, about whether to add or change certain stories, and whether to shorten certain parts (like in the introduction — I think I will cut a bit out from there).

This project really changed gears in November 2018 and became more about the rise of fascism in North America, in some ways. I think that I need to return to my goal of telling the stories about trans people (particularly nonbinary trans folk) in our times. The rise of fascism is a part of that, but I think there’s a little too much of it in there right now, which is why it’s coming across as didactic. Also, I was trying to write from the perspective of people coming to the past to study it — so I guess the didactic tone in that way is part of that. But I guess I need to bring it back to the characters and personal stories.

There’s a lot to do! But I do think it’s worth taking the time to do it before I move on to the final project.

DISSERTATION: Time Marches Ever Forward But Now So Is My Project

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation

Just dropping a note to say that work on Traces is going well — I’m actually hoping to have something playtestable for the very beginning of March, so I’m busily working away on all fronts — I’m soldering components for the scanners and screens, installing software on raspberry pis, writing code, thinking about sculptures and recording audio, thinking about displaying the script on tiny screens, thinking about the aesthetics of the controllers and how they’ll all fit together… There’s a lot afoot.

It’s exciting to be in a thick of it, even though I’m keeping a hectic pace. I would love to have something finished in time to playtest at Arcade 11 — that’s currently my goal. I would be right on track for six months with this project if I finished by then, which is kind of incredible given the delays and difficulty I was having with it earlier.

Squinky helped me with some programming last week. I also had to figure out how to work with the Uno clones that I bought (the Metro 4 Express from Adafruit), which didn’t work as expected out of the box. I had to write in a new board definition in one of the libraries I’m using and disable a different library that didn’t play well with it (the servo library). Squinky also helped me get audio working.

One on-going concern is that I have a 4-line LED screen, but I have to be careful about the max number of characters it will display because it will simply cut text off. I will have to write something that trims the dialogue to the right character length and then shows the next bit of dialogue at an appropriate pace. That will probably require some massaging. I’m sure it’s possible, but I think I’ll likely need help figuring it out. I’m currently waiting on USB backpacks for the screens that should arrive tomorrow so that I don’t have to fiddle too much with the wiring and can control the screens through one of the serial ports.

I was recently chatting with Enric Llagostera, who helped me to challenge my assumptions around what the controller could look like. I had given a lot of thought to what the objects the player scanned would look like, but other than wanting something functional that won’t overheat the components, hadn’t given thought to how the scanner would look beyond that. I had thought that I wanted a very raw look, that showed the components and looked sort of future-hacker-Shadowrunny. I’ll be trying to rethink that while, again, not overheating anything and not interfering with the functionality of the boards and such.

I also have to do some thinking about the dimensions and designs of the objects — they do have to be a certain distance away because of the range of the scanner (I don’t want the tags to interfere with each other). But I also don’t want the objects to be too huge, necessarily. I am thinking it could be cool for some of them to be installed with either suction cups or double-sided tape, so that I can vary how I position them in the space.

Well, I’m going to keep at it! Here’s hoping I manage to get it all done.

DISSERTATION: Creative Check-In

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, game jams

In tracking my creative work closely, I am learning a lot about myself and how I work. I hope that eventually that data can be generalized to others, although that’s not my goal. At the very least, I can propose hypotheses. Here are some thoughts.

1. Most importantly, the more stressed and unwell that I am, the harder it is to feel able to do creative work, both in terms of scheduling and prioritizing it, and actually accomplishing it when I finally do sit down to work.

In December, I opened and looked at my script a good half a dozen times, but I was stuck. I was too worried about other things (primarily, things related to Tom’s work situation and precarity). While being busy has gotten in the way of my creative work in the past, finding the time to get down to work was always the challenge.

2. Enjoyable, challenging work balanced with breaks and personal time can be fulfilling fuel.

Sure, I am now adjusting to teaching for the first time and managing other commitments that I have made (opportunities to publish, to edit/give feedback to others on their work, to collaborate on design projects), but I enjoy that work for the most part. It affirms (in most cases) my confidence in my own abilities, even though I may have the occasional doubt. Doing work that shows me my own capabilities helps me fight impostor syndrome!

But I also definitely need to build in more breaks and rest into my schedule. Yes, sometimes that means choosing between taking the time to cook a larger (time-consumption-wise), healthier, homecooked meal or eating something fast. It’s a balancing act. I also still need to find ways to fit more exercise into my schedule. But it also means actually taking a break and actually letting myself do nothing, take naps, stay at home, and, y’know, read a book, play a video game, regardless of whether there are chores that are left undone for a while longer. I am trying to get better at balancing all of this. I suspect it’s something that I’ll struggle with for the rest of my life, especially with my tendency to overcommit (which is prized and encouraged because it makes me so *productive*).

As an example of how skewed these priorities can get, I finally managed to make myself a doctor’s appointment and attended it to deal with some issues that I had started investigating in Fort McMurray. I had to cancel my Fort McMurray appointments when we moved here, and I only got a Quebec health care card in early November. So, yeah, it feels good to have those balls rolling.

3. Recognizing and naming burnout, and taking as much of a break as you can from the things burning you out seems crucial.

I feel like I keep having these mini-burnouts — I have the evidence of them and their mounting severity every time I write one of these posts. I’m not an expert on this by any means, but after not even attempting to work on my dissertation project for the past few weeks, I have felt able to do creative work and I find myself excited to work on my dissertation project once more.

4. It is easier for me to work with someone else. I find it easier to get past blocks and prioritize working when I’m working with at least one other person. This is born out by how many solo projects I’ve released versus how many team projects, I think. At least right now, having a lot of creative control is important to me, so I like working in small groups on all aspects of the game. Maybe that will change with experience.

I’m also trying to get better at asking for help (even with individual projects) and letting other people take over tasks in groups that I’m working with. One of my problems is feeling like if I ask for something, I’m being a pest or taking up other people’s time, but I think I am fairly generous with my own time, so I am trying to ask for help in ways that I feel are fair and respect people’s boundaries.


Speaking of that creative work, I participated in Global Game Jam 2019 with Squinky this year. We decided to scope really small and made a queer dressup game called “Mx. Dressup: Squinky and Jeka’s Outfit Creator for Dapper Queer Millennials”, which you can play here: https://squinky.github.io/mxdressup/

Squinky and I designed the game together, then Squinky focused on the programming and I focused on the art assets. Taking a whole weekend just to draw cute clothes was so relaxing. I gave myself permission not to think about anything else. We scoped small, so whatever assets I was able to get done, that was what went into the game. It was really, really nice.

And now, as an extra surprise, my brother is in town, and Tom is teaching him to drive (with the occasional backseat help from me — I can’t be the accompanying driver because I’m probationary, but I am allowed in the car, so I can give a different perspective and whatnot).

That also means that my brother and I are doing our best to get Icosahedral (which is a working title) into fully playtestable shape, as final as we can get it. We’ve been working on the project off and on since April 2017, which is pretty amazing. We’ve already done some playtesting with an earlier version and it went really well. But now, it’s time to think about the numbers and whether other people can run it, and the usual business of playtesting. It feels great to be back at it! I think we’ll have a playtestable version ready real soon, and I’ll be sending out calls for playtesters.

Time, scheduling and how busy I am is always a concern, but I am doing my best not to worry about the dissertation project. I feel like my thoughts about it have slowly matured inside of me, and I am excited to get back to it. That’s far different from feeling like I was banging my head against the wall in December and early January trying to get something done. I will be trying to prioritize working on it more now that I’ve had the chance to get used to my new schedule a bit. Of course, Tom’s situation could throw all of my plans out the window at any moment (yikes).

Now then, here’s hoping I can manage to make more progress on my second dissertation project!