The past couple of years haven't been very easy on your dear narrator; and I'm sure if anyone is paying any attention to this humble little page then they may have noticed a long and quiet absence - both in art and in writing. This is mostly due to a sort of deep apathy and lethargy that has fallen over me the past 2 years. The last post was about the iPad/iPhone app that I made at Magic Pixel Studios; and then...nothing...for over two years! There are many reasons for this, and many things have happened (or sadly not happened) since then; but you may have noticed, suddenly, some actual sketches and work have appeared in my gallery.
Shortly after the app was made I was let go from my job at Magic Pixel Studios. It was sad for everyone, and I wasn't the only one let go that day; but it was due to the company struggling to get a solid revenue stream going. "Stick To It!" did all right, but failed to make any major profit; and the company was left trying to pick up odd jobs (like doing scenes for "South Park: The Stick of Truth" - of which I animated the parents' sex scene) and trying to sell their game ideas to other larger companies like Zynga and TapZen. It all takes time, and running a company is hard, let alone keeping it afloat; and you have to make hard decisions at times - like letting many of your crew go because you simply can't afford them anymore. It was a really tight team of really talented and kind people; and it was hard for all of us to say good bye. Ultimately I went on my merry way, sure that I would land on my feet and get a job doing what I normally do...
Alas, the markets in Los Angeles have been weird. Shortly after my layoff, many other companies also laid off employees not just in the video game industry; but across the board in entertainment and visual FX. It was this massive shake-up - Digital Domain went bankrupt and was sold to a Chinese company; Rhythm and Hues, a giant in VFX, laid low and folded, shuttering its doors for good. EA Los Angeles, a company known for a sizable team, closed up its various projects after the failure that was "Medal of Honor: Warfighter" and laid off almost their entire remaining LA crew...the same thing at Sony and many others. There was suddenly a glut of talent in the marketplace and only like...3 jobs. Needless to say competition got real stiff, real fast. Employers could be as choosy and picky as they wanted - it was an employers market, nay, it was an employers buffet! They could afford to sit on job postings, screening candidate after candidate, because there were just so many (and most all of them very good). At the end of the day some of the brightest talent were competing with entry level artists for the same positions. Employers tended to go for the cheap labor instead of the experienced labor; and many of us were out of jobs for over a year. Me? I'm still unemployed...sort of...but it has been a very solid struggle. I'm thankful my wife works (and well), and I'm thankful that I was smart enough to save during the two years at EA because it literally has been what I've been living off of for over two years. Sadly the well is running dry and those funds are long gone. But all is not lost...
Early this year, around February, I was contacted by an old friend and associate of mine to maybe help out on a personal project - a little mobile game. You see, this friend found himself in the same position I was in a year earlier, cut loose from a well-paying corporate job and dropped into a barren and empty job market. He wasn't alone either, he had joined forces with a former executive producer at a certain Activision-owned company and the two of them had hammered out a fun little game concept. It was running, and playable, and all it needed was an art director to give it that professional look and feel. Enter yours truly. I jumped at the opportunity, and joined them in this little endeavor with little delay. It's been 9 months since and we've been plugging away at it - just the three of us mind you - in my buddies apartment every day from 10am to 5pm (and sometimes when I'm at home at night or on the weekends). It's so close to being done I can taste it. I've finished everything as far as art is concerned, and everything you will see in the game is crafted by me. So not only was I art director, responsible for the overall look and visual style of the game; but I was quite literally the entire art department
. I'm actually really proud of that. All that said, it's a massive risk. I can love it and think it's great; but I'm biased. It's like my baby; I couldn't ever say it was ugly or anything because I love it and it's mine. It's going to take someone else to come along and tell me my baby looks like a pile of hairy shit with corn in it...and that day may be coming very soon. Already, this week, we're cutting a demo build to share with close friends, associates and family; so soon more than just our eyes (and the eyes of our spouses/significant others) will be feasting upon our work...measuring it, judging it...it's terrifying and exhilarating all at once. Once we build out the remainder of the game (which is mostly just code and game design at this point) and once we get the metrics and feedback from our bevy of little testers it's going to be about as good as finished and we shall set it loose into the wilds of the Apple App Store. Then...we will see...
My buddy was sayin' that if we manage to sell 50,000 then we'll probably break even; but won't have enough in terms of revenue to fund our next project. At that point we'd need funding and would probably have to seek it from venture capital or a publisher or some such. If we sell 100,000 then that's a decent enough return to fund our next game and pay ourselves a nice salary and not have to basically work for nothing (though admittedly I'm actually being paid, but it is practically
nothing, at least it's supplemental) which would be nice. He says that after 100,000 every extra 100,000 is just added profit - 200,000? A nice office space. 300,000? Maybe a few more artists to help do the lifting. 400,000? Throw in another programmer or designer. 1,000,000? Well...then we have ourselves a company. We have enough to pay ourselves and anyone else a nice salary with added benefits. We have enough for an office space and computers and chairs and desks for everyone. We have all that and then some to stash away just in case as we build our next game. So as you can see it's sort of nerve wracking. That's a lot of numbers, even in the smallest sense; and to have worked nearly a year on it and only walk away with just enough? Well, that's a sad thought...
But I won't be any further away from where I am now.
You see, I'm hangin' by a thread in terms of finances; and not making any money off this project? It certainly won't be much different than now...when I'm not making any real money off of this project. Aaah, but the dream is a pretty one. That magical number of 100,000. 100,000 and I get to do this again...the freedom...the input...the vision. It's been amazing and I'll tell you what - it's going to be hard as hell to go back to a corporate job again. The past nearly-year has been liberating, challenging, strengthening, and fulfilling in ways that no other job has ever been. Here, with my two buds, we're building a dream. But there, in the bowels of some hive of cubes at Activision or EA or Blizzard, I'm just a number cranking out another number in a long line of financially successful but creatively bankrupt properties. Right now I'm building a dream. At a job I'm just building a franchise. There's no dreaming to it. You do what you're told and your input is not necessary. That's something the leads and execs and directors do. The grunts stay in the trenches and crunch the hours to get it all done by May 5th so that the 2 day launch window (determined by the sorcerous marketing team upstairs in the entrails of goats and position of the moon) can be made and the precise amount of sales can be generated. IF
that happens you will be praised. IF
that happens then you might
get a bonus. If. Most likely I'll be contract full-time. I won't have medical benefits, I won't get the bonus, and I will most certainly be let go at the end of the project. Sound jaded? I assure you it is.
But that's the life of a game dev now. Sad but true; and sadder still? The fact that after all that hard work, all that time, the "fans" will piss and shit all over it because of some arbitrary misstep or missed preference.
It absolutely empties you out - mind, body and soul.
In case you couldn't tell, I'm a bit burned out on games...I'm a bit burned out on being a professional artist overall. It's the same thing in film and TV. I won an Emmy for a show I worked on. Does it matter to anyone? Nope. In fact, it's actually a threat. God forbid some guy with the talent to win an Emmy comes in and shows me up. Might lose my job. I'll just hire this guy right out of college - eager to please, naive, and too dumb to know that he's being low-balled more than $5000 on his starting salary - shhhh, don't say anything though.
I've been a lead animator on several projects too. Only one was a dismal failure (through no real fault of my own); and yet somehow I find myself - over, and over, and over - applying for the same Senior Animator position. I work as a Senior Animator for a year or three, and I'm still a Senior Animator, a cog in the wheel, a number in a box in a building shaped like a box. No creativity, no input. I just come in, sit in a chair, do some stuff late into the night, come home, rinse, repeat and then Friday get paid. The reason is that all the Leads are staying Leads. They ain't leaving until they're dead or move up to Director. I don't blame them. You get that cushy gig, you get that $100,000+ a year and
benefits? Fuck that, no one is leaving that. I wouldn't either. But that's the problem, I'm never going to find that position and more than anything - and this I'm sure sounds strange - I don't qualify for it anymore...
You see, the problem with the industry is that you work in your little box, doing your little specialty for so long, that's all you are on paper. You don't grow, you don't change, and only your reel and resume gets updated. It doesn't really matter about the quality of the work so much as what it is you worked on. A triple-A title carries more weight than a really beautifully animated dialogue or action sequence. You spend so much time working that you don't actually create
anything of your own. All your energy is poured into the project, into the mighty wheels of industry, crushed and squeezed out of you to lubricate the vast machinations of corporate culture and consumer demand. Then, when it's done. You're just spit out - dry and emaciated and empty. You plod along in search of another job, you apply, and they see "Senior Animator" and they hire you as a Senior Animator. They don't see "Lead Animator" down at the job before the last, or the one before that one, or before that one even. They see the last job and that's it. They don't see that you took that job because you needed work and needed money; and they certainly never think that you might want to grow or advance in either career or skill. So they hire you and stick you in your box, in a building shaped like a box where you come in, sit in a chair, do some stuff late into the night, come home, rinse, repeat and then Friday get paid (and also drink an entire 12 pack of beer).
Needless to say, this has had a deleterious effect on my abilities as an artist and as an animator. It has crushed and tamped any creative spark or ember within me. All that I have had in my soul is ash. Day in and day out. With no hope in sight my muse has fled, off to whisper her sweet nothings in the ear of another artist still aflame with the intensity and passion of creation! I languish in a dark torpor, stiff, slow, mindless. You stop believing in magic and fate and luck. You see everything as a lie to be served to the endlessly hungry masses...and you just stop creating. Your heart isn't there anymore. You sit down to animate and it just feels hopeless. For what? For a job? A job where I'll be miserable and uninspired on an uninspiring sequel to an uninspiring franchise in an uninspiring company run by uninspiring corporate execs? What's the point? I could make the most beautiful animation ever and, after an e-mail and a phone call and an interview I would still
have to do an animation test. An animation test for a job where I will be editing motion capture for in-game cinematics
. How does that even work? "Hey, we see you're an amazing animator with a really great reel and a solid 20+ years of experience and a fucking Emmy
; buuuuuut you have to take a test." Then the test comes and it says: "Take character A and have them do X, Y, and Z. Take your time, but have it done in 2 days. Focus on the broad strokes, the poses and overall feel
of the animation, don't get too caught up in a fully finished scene. We expect you to have a fully finished scene. Follow our instructions closely, we want to see how well you can take direction; but don't forget, this is your time to shine so be creative
So you do that. Exactly that. You send it in and you hold your breath. A day later you get an e-mail: "Dear Mr. Diabolito, we liked the work you submitted overall for your test. However, we feel you really missed an opportunity to shine. The animation is clean, it reads well, and you did exactly what we asked in the time we asked! Unfortunately, we were hoping to see something with some pizzazz, a little dash of who you are and what you can bring to the table. We'll be moving on to other candidates at this time. Thanks again for submitting the test, and your interest in working with us at GameCo. We wish you the best of luck. Sincerely, Mr Clueless McOblivious HR/Recruiter @ GameCo Global Worldwide"
And you sit there. Staring at that letter for an indeterminate amount of time. Wondering, questioning everything you are and everything you've done and everything you've learned. Am I even good anymore? Am I slipping, getting old? Have my skills just turned to shit over night? You turn and pick up a beer and you say "Fuck it. Fuck them. Fuck it all."
The truth eluded me for a long time. Probably because it was hard to see, or hard to hear. But the truth is that I simply wasn't qualified for those jobs anymore. Yes, my skills had atrophied. Yes, my creativity was non-existent, and yes
I simply wasn't made for that job. Because it ultimately wasn't a job I really
wanted. It was just another paycheck.
You see, this is the greatest challenge to a professional artist. To stay both passionate and relevant to your chosen path. To avoid burn out and stay lively. The professional world is full of asshats and dicksqueezes and all of them want to fuck you in some way or another. Everyone in the entertainment industry has their "awesome game idea/movie idea/cartoon idea/etc." All of them are waiting for their "big chance" to shine and most all of them believe that if they work hard enough in their little boxes, doing everything they're told without sleep or family...then one day their hard work will be recognized. Well, the bad news is that it's the exception and not the rule. The bad news is that you're actually going to probably just be doing that for the rest of your life, and your "big idea" will fall to the wayside, gather dust, and become irrelevant. The bad news is that your "big idea" probably wasn't all that great to begin with and that truly great and innovative ideas are actually oftentimes collaborations between individuals.
So that's what I did. I took the chance to step outside the paycheck and try something out in the frontiers with just a couple of buddies and my own skill. If this ship sinks, it sinks because of me, so I damn well better get on point. I damn well better use every single skill and talent in my arsenal to make this shit shine. If I fail...I fail because of me.
This, strangely, awoke something inside me. The cold ashes in the hearth of my soul began to glow a soft red. As time went on, I stretched myself, pushed myself to learn more and do more...those embers began to glow a bright yellow. As everything I created was implemented and integrated, as I saw each piece come together to form a whole the embers burned white-hot. Now the project is nearly at an end, and my work is nearly done; and I'm proud of it. It's a first-time effort; but so was my first year student animation...long ago in 1995...and I still love it, flaws and all. This time, I'm smarter and more experienced, I feel that I nailed this just the way it needed to be nailed. The embers now burn with a warm and welcoming heat, casting a soft and ruddy glow to the hearth of my soul. It's a nice place now. Cozy and inviting. My muse has returned to me at last. Drawn by the warmth and the hospitality she stokes those flames now. She has spread me open and thrust her inspiration deep within me (it sounds dirty, and it totally is), raw and primal and overwhelming. I can barely take it all. My mind is bursting with ideas. I sketch every day now, I want to grow and practice and paint and sculpt. Everything is possibility and I don't want to stop. I want my muse to keep pounding me until I'm breathless and panting and begging for more.
So here it comes, and here I go.
(Keep your eyes peeled for "Space Station Bravo" out in the next 2 months on the Apple App Store - I will link when the time is nigh)