Bitter Without Continues

I don’t have a name for this. But it’s an incredibly long column.

Joe’s note: Just a heads up. This is sort of a serious, sorta-cathartic column. So I don’t have any images or jokes planned for the section. It’s also the Great American Novel, so please bear with the verbiage count.

So, since we last talked, I made a game.

Yeah. Like, completely.

I completed a game.

And I wanted to write this week’s column about it.

I know that I wanted to talk a whole bunch about F-Zero GX, (and still do.), but it’s going to be shelved due to having this fresh on my mind.

I apologize in advance – It’s not a video game (sad and unfortunate as that may be, mostly because I can’t program worth a shit, am too lazy to learn things like Actionscript, and don’t have the patience or desire to actually sit down and learn any time soon.), but it a game nonetheless. I hope this sort of counts for purposes of the column.

This seems like a rather sudden announcement to make, considering I made no mention of it in the past at all.

(It may have been reflected from the totally phoned in column two weeks ago. I apologize for that. But as the old adage that I like to say goes, “It can’t be Christmas every day.”)

But in actuality, a lot of it is composed from old, standing ideas and designs that were started a few years ago, coupled with revising other older ideas, and, through a complete madman rush of consecutive sleepless nights on top of a full time job over the course of about two months, I’m about to receive my copy of it in the mail sometime next week to proof and approve a final product.

I will then have constructed a fully functional actual THING, which has a sole purpose of entertaining the shit out of people. And it’s the first time I’ve ever done something like this.

That’s an incredible feeling. I hope to encourage any and all of you reading to attempt this, or any other similar monumental task like it, on your own.

In the meantime, I want to talk about my personal and limited experiences with game design.

I was enrolled in my school’s gifted student programs early on as a wee little kid.

(In Kindergarten, I wrote stories about the Ghostbusters. I didn’t know what hand to write with, and everything was as horrifically illustrated as you can imagine by a kid with a pack of crayola crayons, but I showcased words like Positron and Ectoplasm. Since I watched the Real Ghostbusters a lot, and heard Egon Spengler say crazy words like that all the time, I guess someone got the idea that I was some kind of wunderkind. That’s how all that began.)

But from this program, in the second grade, those of us who were in this teeny-tiny little group we were given the task to DESIGN a game. We were given a manila folder (which, to me, seemed like serious business at the time) that had a whole packet explaining the ideas of how to take an idea, write it down, make rules, and then make a working prototype, so that we can play with the class.

I was enthralled by the idea for two minutes, and then moved on to playing Metroid, and probably eating pennies or whatever the hell a seven year old does.

My ADHD had the better of me, but the idea, was always something I thought about, and went back to. We kept that folder in a drawer, and at random intervals growing up, I went back to it, referred to it, and thought. “Man. This would be an awesome thing to do.”

I mentioned that I didn’t know what hand to write with earlier, as a kid. That followed me until the third grade, in which, my teacher, made the decision to tell my parents that I was NOT gifted, but in conjunction between my nonexistent attention span, that, and the fact that my shoes were perpetually untied (a fate that still befalls me today), that I was potentially autistic, or even mentally handicapped.

I had no aptitude for drawing, it was said. My handwriting was illegible. And worst off, I didn’t listen to what anybody told me. (But, again, was eight. And pumped up on Nintendo and candy or some shit) My parents recount the story as being told that “this woman didn’t think you’d ever do anything with your life,” and I use it as an example of a situation where someone older than me was a complete and total dick.

Anyway, I was pretty much this oddball kid that sometimes talked about neutrons and hyperspace rocks and made up weird languages that I thought Aliens talked in.

And one day, something changed that and inspired me. You may or may not find it strange, but it was a video game that taught me how to draw.

And it was Phantasy Star II. Namely, the character portraits. Which was, for lack of a better term – GODDAMNED PHENOMENAL.

I had discovered them in a strategy guide section from a Game Players magazine (Via blurry-photo print media game coverage at the time. I didn’t own a Genesis until later. As I’ve mentioned in a prior column) But this was my first exposure to several things at once. The 16-bit color palette. Anime inspired characters. And role playing games. Charts. Numbers. Graphs.

It was enthralling.

I scrutinized every detail and attempted to duplicate. Yes. Tracing paper. I learned how to draw by imitating what I was seeing here in these hardly decipherable photo grabs of a television screen. I must’ve drawn Nei five billion times over various covers of trapper keepers and loose-leaf notebook paper, and even tried to (fool heartedly) make new characters up. And even better, give them stats. I made up terms like TP, ENP and put numbers next to them as if they meant something. And in my active imagination, they did.

Stories and adventures were crafted. And this is something I wanted to do, from this point, every day for the rest of my life.

In the sixth grade, I was still unfortunately too weird to have real friends, but did discover that groups of people that I knew (and mutually tolerated me, would be the most apt description of it) were into playing Dungeons and Dragons.

These people would get together, get sheets of paper, that had seemingly arbitrary stats, and somehow play this game that involved making shit up, rolling dice that meant something, and some kind of gameplay elements transpired.

It sounded badass! I asked my parents for Dungeons and Dragons stuff. I was almost immediately declined, due to every parent’s prior knowledge of every negative Dungeons and Dragons trope under the sun. (Odd in hindsight, since we weren’t terribly religious. I’ve heard rumblings that my old man used to play with three of his marine roommates, SOMEthing occurred, and he never spoke of it again, but made a point of specifying that we would never have a copy of that goddamned game in the house.)

I was dejected, until I did something better. I took a whole stack of post-its we had in the house, and I “Made” Dungeons and Dragons.  At least, what I thought Dungeons and Dragons was. Which was largely what I thought Phantasy Star II (and now III) were. And I made character sheets, with tiny character drawings of robots, malformed men and women with weird faces, and varying Hit Points and Plasma Swords and they went on missions.

Somehow I had found a ten sided dice (I have no idea where, since the embargo on all things fun was apparently going on in my house) and I also “made up” a combat system. I wrote down what modifiers these made up weapons had, and how they affected HP. I created races of lizard men, and cat people, and all this stuff that’s completely laughable. But at the time, it was D&D. Because I couldn’t get my hands on knowing what it was.

To be honest, years later, every time I’ve played D&D, it’s never stuck. And it’s probably because my adventures of Laser Cat Badass and Pirate Crew blow anything in the Forgotten Realms out of the water.

Notepads turned into filling FIVE WHOLE pages (front and back) with rules and write-ups of races and the world! I brought it to school, and actually used it for the subject of a science fair project, trying to loosely connect it to probability.

(I got a D, and my parents got a phone call.)

In high school, most of my waking hours were spent playing Final Fantasy III, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy Tactics—basically most titles that had the SquareSOFT logo on them. (That’s Squeenix to you kids, now a days, and no, it’s not the same thing.) I still was incredibly odd, quiet, weird, and now coupled with obnoxious teenage angst and depression, but, was somehow recognized at least in the hallways by my common moniker of “Guy who draws stuff.” – as four whole years of wasting teacher’s time and efforts were spent drawing characters for Shadowrun, or making fake magic cards, that sounded like they’d be awesome (and looked completely awful) or other things of that caliber.

This was a tough time in my life, because in between my parents perpetually grounding me from every form of electronics available in long intervals for failing nearly EVERY SINGLE class I was enrolled in. But in the off chance that I wasn’t, I was devoted to learning antiquated code. I didn’t have a computer that had Windows on it until 1998 – the one we had before was almost as old as I am and therefore incapable of running virtually EVERY PC game available at the time.

And I spent the whole time trying to program cyberpunk text role playing games in BASIC. I learned how random integers worked for generating random damage in encounters with “crazy street cyberdocs with rusty scalpels” and whatever, but I created a massive ZORK-style mystery that I could blaze through by knowing all the key variables and items I was looking for. It was just about as fun as it sounds.

But considering that nobody uses BASIC for shit anymore, even then, it was all for naught. My dreams of game design were sort of coming to a curb there. I still drew a lot, with a lot of my designs taking form from comic artists I liked at the time (Sam Keith, notably) and things inspired by games. But I just had no idea how I was going to put it together.

My grades, and lack of cash made school past my high school diploma a veritable impossibility, coupled with the fact that I hated school as a whole, and the idea of going to college, for a degree I wasn’t even certain I wanted to go after, nullified all all my dreams of wanting to do this for a living.

I held off, searched around town, and found the job at the IT call center, instead.

There didn’t seem to be a practical application for my desire to be creative.

And until I typed it just now, I had no idea how much I truly regretted all of that going down the way it did.

In 2003, my friends and I were in our early 20s. Still learning how to live from the cusp of being past high school drama, and culminating to a life of wage slavery in various regards, we spent lots of time commiserating on why the work we did sucked, why the pay sucked, and usually sometimes, these were all shared over a rousing Dreamcast or Xbox session, of Street Fighter III or Halo, respectively.  Sometimes we also played pen and paper role playing games, like Mage: The Ascension, or, that god awful inferior Dungeons and Dragons.

I can’t exactly recall how we found it. I think there was a desire and discussion that it’d be awesome if we played a Superhero themed role playing game. I had heard mention of games like this in the past (like Champions, that hadn’t been in print for ages), but nothing lately. I was working at a local bookstore, and think a random search introduced me to Mutants and Masterminds.

Which I hold as the thing that re-ignited my creative drive, as it was, and still is something I think about on a daily basis.

All of my friends from waybackwhen were (and still can be described) as storytellers and artists. And we started with this vague concept of “We should play a game that’s sorta like Justice League: Unlimited.” (Since I was hooked on it at the time, and wondered what that would be like.) We each made characters in what seemed like a throwaway game.

It went on for almost seven years. For a good portion of it, it was a regular weekly thing – the thing that WE ALL looked forward to and talked about in the hours we hung out and weren’t gaming.

And the best part of it?

It was a game experience that we were all designing. We didn’t use any of the included source material, and started building our own. Our throwaway characters began developing personalities, stories, in a city we constructed, that started getting streets, and neighborhoods, sports teams, TV, government organizations, voting demographics, our own assorted rouges gallery, with every threat seeming more profound and potentially world shattering. We even had a gigantic map, and a history that rivals that of anything you’d read in the Marvel and DC universe.

We started with five enthusiastic dorks, and the group fluctuated over time. Friends became intertwined in existing and mutating story lines, and it even traveled with me when I relocated from the middle of nowhere to the city, where I’ve helped integrate new people into the mix.

I recently Kickstarted the 10th anniversary book, and if I had my way, would be the only pen and paper game I’d ever want to play again.

One of these days, I’m going to do the dream graphic novel project that will hopefully do it the justice it deserves.

2008. In between our fluctuating role playing sessions, recreational life was getting a little tough to organize. My friends had begun transcending the bachelor lifestyle, getting families, and hangouts were fewer than usual.

On average, it was down to Luis, Greg, and Me. Luis was married, and was subject to having the timetable of a guy just starting a new family. Greg, older than both of us, was not, and was one of the last people I could still have 2 to 3 in the morning hangouts involving games and nonsense.

Greg is still is one of my favorite people, in light of our different styles and methodologies of gaming. I don’t think I know anybody that enjoys games as much as he did.

Greg was an over thinker and over explainer. A rules lawyer when I didn’t want one, mostly out of envy that he could recall information I couldn’t, or didn’t know. A power gamer I could count on having some way to one-hit kill any villain I made in our irregular Shadowrun games.

But he’s also a guy that could talk about all kinds of games. He was also the only person I knew that had ever played Super Baseball 2020 (another series I hope to cover in the column).

We had hung out the prior night at his house. He’s a big fan of the card game Munchkin, and had a whole bunch of the sets, so we played several games of it and had a sort of low-key, non heavy game night – which was a new experience for me.

I remember driving to work, and I had this notion of actually using some of my job-related experience (I was doing newspaper design using InDesign and some at the time– and still do) to maybe sit down with this think tank of ideas, and talk about the idea of maybe making our own game. After all, we had me, who in theory could at least provide some art; Greg, who was this juggernaut of game systems; and then Luis, who, well, showed up and usually gave us some jokes that weren’t really funny.

I called them up on the phone, and somehow arranged this sit down where we could come up with ideas.

And sure enough, we met up, and started discussing ideas, as stated.

Notes were jotted down, and talked about this vague idea of doing this thing, that played a certain way. The logistics of the how, where, what and why weren’t all there. There was no viable way to imagine actually getting this damn thing printed. It was just being discussed as to make a game. How would we do it? What kind of game would we make?

It started off as this vague idea similar to Munchkin as a basis, except that I think we talked about it being a cooperative game experience like a role playing game versus a horde of monsters. And from there, I think it was either Greg or I that made some statement that he’d rather play a game that had a competitive element where you could deliberately fuck someone over while playing. We started tossing around ideas we gathered from other games we enjoyed while trying to make something that stood on it’s own. And then we talked about this sorta sci-fi type idea that had five-color association for some reasons, and guys that fought each other.

We discussed it quite a bit  (at least I did, anyway) for about a month straight. A basic set of rules were made in a notepad file, we played on index cards to get a feel for it, with cards that only had numbers written on them. Every single early draft of the game felt like it was okay, but there weren’t that many strategic elements to it. It was this open shell, that had zero presentation, and key elements of it were fun but absent.

I remember Greg told me that it should have a rubber band leveling system, and brought up the Mario Kart association. Like, to make it get harder as you played it. Which was an idea so goddamn radical at the time, in that I had never seen it, that it made it all the more compelling. It stuck. And it actually made the whole thing super fun.

It was brilliant.

I sat at Photoshop and cooked up card art layouts and rough concepts, and we talked about this game, now fighting space bandits, would have this kind of art, and weapons and whatever. And that it was going to be a great idea.

And then, god only remembers what, but some kind of inter-friend drama occurred, which joined with my ever present disinterest if distracted, or a hundred other excuses of something else happening at the time, which spelled doom for it.

The game went into limbo, in which it never seemed to return. Which was sad, and a little stupid, because it seemed with just the right bit of motivation, it felt like one of those really good kinda ideas that could have went somewhere, and whatever reason didn’t.

Life went on. I eventually moved here, and found myself split between my new life in the city, and connecting to old friends wherever I can online and through visits, in a weird juxtaposition and metamorphosis.

January 15th, 2013. I came home from a long day at my job at the newspaper up here. I had come home and was talking with my friend Ryan Guy about life in general when I got a sudden phone call from my friend James.

It was the single most unbelievable moment of my entire life.

Greg was killed in a car accident right by his house.

I had just talked to him on Skype in a role playing game session with him, Luis, and our friend Chris a few days ago. He never really liked leaving his house, because he was sort of agoraphobic, and also, didn’t enjoy driving. And someone t-boned his car, and that…was that.

He was just shy of completing a degree. He had decided to go back to school and better his whole living situation. And I was happy that things were starting to come together, and maybe he wouldn’t be the kind of depressed and stuck in a situation that he found less than desirable.

I couldn’t process the experience. I still can’t. My incredibly brilliant friend that I could count on making dirty jokes, Hellraiser references, and talk with me about the Neo-Geo Pocket is no longer here.

Without question, I had to be there for the funeral. There were few people on this earth that I felt I connected with as well as I did with Greg. And the entire surreal experience still haunts me today.

It’s sad that not every person we meet in our lives will be a permanent fixture, but I believe there are many important lessons to learn from everybody we meet.

I wanted to do something to cement how important of a friend Gregory Meeker is to me, even in passing. And I did something that I know he would appreciate, and something I’ve never ever done.

–Complete an entire project, of something I know that he would have enjoyed, and would have shared pride when he saw it through.

After wondering what I was going to do, I dug through my computer and gathered up all of our notes on the subject, under a folder simply labeled Card Game Project, with files that hadn’t been opened since October 2009.

And I went to work. I found out how to make this a viable thing. And with bits of internet research and several seemingly endless work nights into the morning, this half finished thing started getting a foundation coming together.

Two days ago I put the order in on the printing site I’m using, to get two copies of it mailed to my house. I’m still in awe that it’s totally done.

In the timespan of a couple months, through the help of all of my friends, and a burst of inspiration, I’ve found the focus and drive to actually past the stigma of letting another good idea sit on the bleachers of never-was.

And I feel incredibly proud of it and what it represents.  I feel like it’s a victory over a lot of things.

  • I made it because I love games.
  • I made it because I know and have come to terms that I’ll never program a video game in my lifetime.
  • I made it because I know a lot of people that love games, too.
  • I made it because I needed it to be made.
  • I made it because I’ve never finished a goddamn thing in my entire life.
  • I made it because having Gregory Meeker as a best friend made it happen.
  • I made it because I could. I don’t even care it if could potentially suck. It’s better than doing nothing at all and wishing I did.


You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the name of the game at all in this column.

And that’s because I’m not writing this as a self-serving effort to hock a product, as much as I am trying to describe the experience of building something, and how it’s given me an appreciation for the amount of time that goes into anything. Even crappy games had a start as a hell of an idea to someone.

Even after I wrote all of this, I worry about it coming across that way, especially since I mentioned a catalyst in it’s creation involves the death of a very good friend. It’s hard, because i haven’t talked about a lot of it’s effects on me, but am going to take the chance and post this anyway. I hope you guys reading can take any bit of my story for the face value of it all, and not read it as advertorial. That’s not how I intended it to come out.

In the meantime, excuse me. I’m going to stare at my mailbox. Thanks for reading all of this.