Jan 6 2014

Clarifications for a New Year

This post refers to another post made here a few days ago.

Hey Folks,

First off, to all the backers, journalists, and other fine human beings that have left kind words of support (especially for my family), thank you so much. They are much appreciated.

That said, now I just wanted to clear up something that seems to be in confusion. There have been some comments that express frustration that the game doesn’t continue slowly in what time I can find. However, that’s exactly what’s going on right now. The game is continuing forward. However, the premise of the Kickstarter phase of the project was a short fulltime effort from me and my team (with monthly updates at the very least), and this is no longer true. This is why I felt it was the right thing to notify the public and the backers.

However, since the project is still ongoing (if on life-support), this means that opening the project or releasing the music/art, etc (as many have requested), is problematic.

Since I am still hoping to figure this out (once my family situation stabilizes), it would be premature to release all the assets. Also, the other contributors are invested in the project and are (at least for now) continuing to work on the game on their own. This is especially true for Julian, who is especially committed to the music of Unwritten Passage and told me he is revising his musical vision for the game. Since I can no longer pay these talented people, at the very least I can respect their wishes regarding work that they feel is “in progress”.

Of course the situation is obviously “fluid” right now. If things change I’m not opposed to opening the project up, and I’ll post here if that is the direction things go.

Thanks yet again,

Joe Houston
Roxlou Games

Jan 4 2014

Reflections and Confessions for a New Year

Note: although most posts are written from the whole team’s perspective, once again the following post was written by Joe alone.

More often than not these days, I find myself in a difficult situation. For example, today I am going to make every effort to be direct and to the point in this post. However, I also must respect the privacy of the many people in my life that affect my decisions, so there are some things I just can’t talk about. As always, I’m going to do my best and hope that it’s enough.

It’s been a few months since the last update, which is hardly fair to the project or its backers. However, it is also true that this is the earliest that I could manage to write an update, for reasons that I will get into shortly. Realizing that I’m short in my duties to Unwritten Passage, and that I’m also doing the absolute best I can, has caused me to come to terms with the reality of the position I’m in. This also means that the project’s backers deserve to know the whole picture, without sugar coating or spin.

As I’ve alluded to in the past, my family has struggled with medical issues. However, what is only clear to those that are close to us, is that these problems have been far-reaching and long lasting. The past year (the year that I decided to go indie), has been particularly difficult in ways we never predicted. Although in many ways it would be easier to talk about by getting into specifics, I will have to leave it by simply saying that it has been hard, that a lot has been demanded of the entire family, that it has been getting harder each month, and that I have been failing to balance the load.

Every person in life has a limited amount of themselves to give. I have been striking a compromise between a project that has had its own troubles, a family in crisis (that I oftentimes couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize), and the regular demands of supporting my wife and daughter on my own. I am tenacious and hardworking, and I have been creative in addressing the problems that I see. But I have my limits, and sometimes tenacity can become willful blindness and stubbornness. And those qualities don’t honor the trust that my wife, my daughter, my backers, and my contributors put in me.

So here’s the situation right now, as simply as I can think to put it. We raised $75k (which became about $68k after various Kickstarter costs) to make a game in 6 months with the efforts of 3 people. At this stage we’re at the 9-10 month mark. I’ve stretched the budget hard, and for the last month and a half I’ve been doing contracting on the side to try and stay afloat and to give my family the stability to see the doctors we need in order to heal. To be blunt, this is not enough. It is not stable enough for my fragile personal life (due in part to how healthcare works in the U.S.). It is not enough to retain fulltime commitments from my contributors. And in the meantime, as I balance my roles between programmer, designer, writer, producer, contractor, husband, father, brother, and son, I am not doing a very good job.

This is difficult for me to admit, as I have a reputation in the industry for taking risks and for following through on that ambition. But it turns out I have my limits (as everyone does), and I am at my limit right now. But even though this is a bitter pill to swallow, Unwritten Passage and its backers have been very important to me this past year. You all deserve my best effort, even when that means admitting difficult truths.

So why did we fail to create a realistic budget and come in on time? I feel that I would need to write 3 full postmortems to address that question: one as an indie game developer, one as a small business owner, and one as a bit of flotsam swirling in the maelstrom of the U.S. health system. But in short two idioms apply: “hindsight is 20/20”, and “shit happens”. Although nobody was perfect in this process, I do feel that everybody did their best with the information we had. I am grateful to everyone that has helped us gather so much success so quickly, and despite it all I still feel lucky. I have learned a lot about myself and the people I love, and I want very much to be a better person moving forward.

OK, now the big question: is the game canceled or what? I have been thinking hard about what is the right thing to do. The stupendous work already put forth in Julian’s music and Lee’s art still sets my imagination on fire. And I see people come to life all the time when I describe the concept to them. However, my experience also says that we have lost momentum, we’re out of money, and it’s now a one-man project centered around a fulltime game developer with family baggage that needs better health insurance. And I’ve worked in the past on wonderful projects with real promise that have been canceled, so I know what that looks like. Sometimes it still takes a lot of luck to make a game.

But I’m not ready to completely call it quits and say that Unwritten Passage is dead forever. However, to say that the project as I pitched it is alive and well would be beyond naive. It would be dishonest. It lives on as my personal side project, something I hope to bring about on my own and through the help of talented friends when possible. And should it come to be I will do my best to deliver on my original promises… but I have to be honest. To many this is probably the end.

To all that have helped me, my contributors, and my family embark on this experiment, I thank you. I don’t have the words to express my sincerity and my appreciation. I will be leaving up the websites and will continue to update the backer pages as news develops, so if you are interested in staying in touch with the project I’ll keep you up to date. Finally, we have of course been using the campaign funds to best make good on our promises. However, there is a small fund left for pursuing future art costs for the game. If you are a backer and feel that we have violated your trust in us, please contact Roxlou Games via Kickstarter and I will do my best to give you a refund.

Thank you all.
Joe Houston
Roxlou Games

P.S. Anybody know any good jokes? Leave them in the comments to brighten this post up.

Oct 28 2013

Still at the Helm

Note: although most posts are written from the whole team’s perspective, once again the following post was written by Joe alone due to his personal connection to the events of the past month.

Three years ago in October my daughter was born three months premature by emergency c-section. What relevance does this have to our ongoing project? Not long ago I would have thought, “not much”; however, this month our family was unexpectedly revisited by complications from that difficult time in our past. Although I can’t go into specifics, not to worry: all involved are on the road to a full recovery, with special thanks going out to those that are in our wonderful support network of friends and family. It probably goes without saying that my attention was split mightily from the project, and obviously Unwritten Passage has yet again failed to meet the beta deadline we set out for it.

A positive side effect of all this is that the past weeks have caused me to re-prioritize and re-evaluate, both in my personal life and on this project. The “easy” update to post here is “understandable delay, see you next month”. However, although we certainly can’t be held responsible for predicting a future of personal misfortunes, it’s safe to say that three delays in a row (emergency or not) show that the project just isn’t really in the “imminent release” phase. As a professional game developer on larger projects I’ve seen this kind of pattern before, usually in so called “crunch culture”. How long have I worked overtime on a project with “just two weeks left”? Months in some cases. Deadlines move and move, but the end result is a game 6 months late that feels like it was cobbled together in, fittingly, two weeks.

After taking an outside look at the project, I am more excited than ever to see Unwritten Passage realize its potential. I feel a responsibility to the project, not just because of our commitment to our backers, but also because of how so many people I talk to react to this game. This is why I’ve decided to make some changes to how we’re developing the project, to ensure that we get where we need to go.

Much of these changes are totally internal to the project (changing up some roles, finding creative ways to delegate work, etc). However, a big change is that I’m setting the beta release date as “to be determined”, giving us the time to respond to unseen challenges as they show themselves. Essentially I’m slowing down the frantic pace we’ve been trying to maintain (and failing at amidst all the instability in indie life). Again, not to worry: the project is still focused and is as committed to completing as ever. There are many reasons to change our scheduling strategy, and making this decision involved taking a hard look at our current state in order to make some tough calls. Check out the rest of the update if you’d like a peek at the good and bad of where the project is at right now, but otherwise we’ll see you all again next month for the usual dev update.

The Good

This last month, in an effort to get an objective look at the project, I brought a developer friend into the code-base to look around. A bit to my surprise, his initial reaction was glowing over the state of our tools and underlying technology. Outside opinions are so important in this way, since after so much work and compromise we tend to only see the things we have yet to do.

Hot and sexy editor action

Hot and sexy editor action

Our decision to create our own technology has always centered around our commitment to give the tools away with the game, something that just wouldn’t have been possible in the same way if we had used an “off the shelf” engine package. Looking back over what we have, it’s very clear that our tools are going to add value not just for the mod community that we hope springs up around Unwritten Passage, but for budding game makers everywhere. For example: we have fully featured tools for rigging together complex 2D sprites and then animating them from start to finish. Since our game “component” files have a simple text format, any project that is capable of writing a text parser will have access to a game-ready animation tool that is essentially free.

The animation editor

The animation editor

Tools and engine tech are just one aspect of the infrastructure needed when making a game, but Unwritten Passage is similarly strong in other places. Our game has a unique art style and quirky design, which makes those elements hard to figure out because of how “new” they are. However, at this stage we’ve arrived at designs for the various elements of the game and not just in concept. We’ve translated each visual component into actual game assets and have proved that we can deliver on what we saw in the concept art.

From concept to the editor...

From concept… to the editor…

...to the game.

…to the game.

Similarly our latest version of the game has all the elements in place in a skeletal form, we’ve identified all the cuts and changes that need making, and we can feel “the fun” inside the game. In this sense, Unwritten Passage truly is “about to be”: the hardest work, constructing a solid foundation, is finally finished.

The Bad

Despite this strong position we’re developing from, the project is also what I would consider unstable for the actual people working on it. I like to give credit to the successes of the project to Roxlou Games (the company), as it’s a more convenient way to talk about the team, friends, and family that contribute so much in little ways that I couldn’t possibly keep track of. However, from a practical perspective, Unwritten Passage is my baby. I fill literally dozens of roles on the project, and while I find success much of the time, being a bottleneck does come at a cost.

When one aspect of the game or design is floundering I have to steal time from some other role. The biggest problem here has been in “production”, i.e. my role in scheduling, assigning tasks, and following up with contributors. Because of months of minor personal catastrophe (for all the team members) the production schedule has been in ruins. This means that I’ve been creating new strategies and task lists every few days, trying to hit increasingly aggressive deadlines. And one cost is that when it comes time for me to design, write, and program the game (and in a schedule that is tight enough that I’m not afforded any mistakes) I find that I’ve spent most of my time and energy solving other people’s problems.

Why We’re Slowing the Project Down to Speed it Up

Because production bottleneck is our primary problem, there are a few ways to get the project where it needs to go. The most obvious is to delegate more: find some people to help lighten my load. Here is where we hit a problem related to the nature of indie game development: our budget really doesn’t allow us to take on any help at a fair price beyond the few regular team members we have. Although we have friends that might contribute for little to zero compensation up front, that comes at the cost of long deadlines and inconsistent commitments (people squeezing in work between the stuff that pays their rent).

The other possibility is to do what we’ve decided to do and make our time frame more open ended. Not only does this gives our production schedule time to absorb all the bumps in the road and stabilize, but it also allows us to take on those extra indie helpers that can’t help us make a two week deadline, but might help us make a two month deadline.

On a personal note, one of my major moral values in life is one of honesty, and I believe strongly in bringing that to my work as well. Looking at each project, gauging where I honestly believe it’s at, and then reacting to the situation is something I find vitally important. Although this exposes the weaknesses in the project, it’s this process that increases my confidence rather than diminishes it. I also think that this value is something I need to pass on to the backers, the people that are putting their faith in me and my team members. I’m often counseled by friends to hold more back in updates, but when in doubt I will still relay the realities of this crazy journey, deferring to my faith in all of you.

You have to give trust in order to get it in return. I’m only sorry that it has to comes at the cost of long, boring-ass updates.

Thanks as always,

Joe (and Roxlou Games)

Sep 29 2013

Boston Globe Interview: Video game killers for peace

Video game killers for peace

Earlier this month the Boston Globe chatted with Joe about the role that violent video games can play in addressing the issue of violence in society.

This is the result.

Aug 12 2013

Living the Indie Crunch: Dev Update July 2013

Note: although most posts are written from the whole team’s perspective, the following post was written by Joe alone due to his personal connection to the events of the past month.

This, our usual monthly update, comes a bit later than usual. This is in part because the close of July was also the catalyst for a hailstorm of new beginnings, and we’ve been scrambling to keep our footing amid the chaos.

Many of the “not so pleasant” surprises this month can be traced back to me, most notably a construction project in my apartment complex that slipped its target date and caused my whole family to spend weeks as yuppie nomads sheltering in a miniature shanty town of poorly labeled boxes.

Not shown: any semblance of sanity

Not shown: any semblance of sanity

This experience ultimately climaxed in the spectacular failure of our only car, which sounded and looked a bit like a jackhammer slamming into a Christmas tree of dire warning lights. Naturally this happened at a time when we were still paying off the tire blowout, a holdover from a simpler, bygone time.

My arch nemesis, and one hazard of many

My arch nemesis, and one hazard of many

The thing is, this kind of thing is typical in “the indie life”. For every month that we’ve been working on this project, each of us could regale anyone that cared to listen with tales of life on the edge. Going out on your own away from a big employer is a harrying, life-changing experience, and there is this feeling sometimes that society proper is trying to smother you in tribulation like a white blood cell on a virus. Pretty much every day you stand over the wreckage of your prior, well-laid plans and ask yourself “well is this the end of everything now?”

However, this also means that personal catastrophe is basically mundane, so as a team we tend not to bother people with it. But it does bear mentioning this month, because all this happened at the exact moment we decided that it was time to “crunch” and put in overtime to hit our deadlines in September and October. This is a pretty tough situation when you work exclusively out of a home office (now in ruins), and your budget is too slim to rent proper office space.

As usual, we can thank the unending support of our friends and family for the solution that kept our momentum going. Today’s salvation came in the form of a tiny, stand-alone guesthouse that was offered to us rent-free.



With only a bit of work (and less than $100 of extra hardware) Lee and I were soon situated in what I can only describe as the most ideal work environment I could have hoped for.

Developing fashionable hunchbacks for the amusement of our future fans

Developing fashionable hunchbacks for the amusement of our fans

This also marks the first time that Lee and I have been able to work in the same room together, without the latency of email and video conference. So far results have been immediate and striking. This brings me again to a theme that I feel I keep hammering on, but that I just can’t ignore: this is yet another case where our limitations (and what seems like calamity) end up producing a creative solution that is far better than anything that I would have planned for on my own. We see this all the time in the design of the game (and it continues to assert itself during crunch), but this was one of the first times it manifested so physically.

Lately I’ve been watching “The Long Way Round” on Hulu, a reality show that chronicles Ewan McGregor and his best friend circumnavigating the globe on motorcycles. I felt a certain kinship to their progress across “The Road of Bones” in Siberia, when McGregor talks about being forced to overcome seemingly impassable obstacles. Seeing as how they’re in the middle of Siberia, they approach each problem without the option of failure, asking only “how are we going to do this?” And because of this, they do so much more than they thought they could.

Looks familiar

Looks familiar

That said, they also overturn a car in Mongolia and nearly lose the life of a crewman in a river crossing (it’s a great show by the way), so there is a definite sense that we are strengthened by adversity but balance that against real limitations. You can do anything… or maybe you’re gonna die.

In a similar way I remain conflicted about the lessons that Unwritten Passage is teaching me as a developer. I hear often that you work best “with the wolf at the door”, and certainly I see some aspect of that every single day. The creativity in economy is convincing me that this is the way to live your life. It’s inspiring. At the same time, I do wish that the wolves at the door didn’t also have knives and sub machine guns, and if we get a bigger budget next time I’m not giving it back. I will however be sure to always do more with less, and approach each obstacle by only asking “how will we do it this time?”

Thanks, as always, for your support.

Roxlou Games

Jul 5 2013

Guys, Girls, and Massive Paper Spirit Monsters: Dev Update June 2013

As game developers, we find that our Twitter feeds read like a news ticker for “what’s happening in women’s rights”. The game industry, not unlike an adolescent teenager riddled with acne, is going through a lot of changes and is gradually seeing girls in a new special way. Only instead of finding that the mousy tomboy Sandra from next door now makes his palms sweat and his knees tremble, the industry is discovering that women as creators and consumers might actually be a part of a multi-billion dollar entertainment market. Of course this comes with growing pains and embarrassing, involuntary emissions, as evidenced by the most recent brouhaha over transgender comments made by Gabe of Penny Arcade. What this also shows though, is that these early explorations of women and games are really a gateway to the larger issue: gender and games.

Gender in our game, Unwritten Passage, has followed a similar path. We also started by focusing on the role of women in the game, with things really coming to a head this month as we began to scale up our designs for our shadow puppets.

Shadow puppets represent player units on the battlefield and in narrative “story events”.

Technically we were finding representing men and women to be a challenge, because our “mix and match” approach to randomizing the puppet pieces still mostly limited us to putting male pieces on male characters and female pieces on female characters. It soon became apparent that by dividing the sexes we weren’t going to be able to fit the right number of pieces into memory. But we also just couldn’t have a story-telling world where women weren’t represented.

As is so often the case with controversy, the Penny Arcade dust-up became a blessing, both to the community at large (because of the conversations it started), and to us and our shadow puppets. In Unwritten Passage the shadow puppets represent what the people in the clan use to talk about themselves in legendary fashion, meaning that not only are they allowed to diverge from the “real” people in the tribe, but they must diverge. This has been evident from our earliest concept work: make tiny nuclear families on the battlefield, but make epic, weird spirit creatures in the story realm.

This is when the PA controversy brought a moment of clarity. We were wrong to focus on women and men in this case: often times men could prefer to tell stories of their identity with female avatars, and similarly women with male ones (as many MMO player rosters can attest to). This is classic story telling, and historically gender in story telling is hardly fixed. For example, representations of the Hindu God Shiva in ancient times routinely had both male and female elements.

Careful, guided randomization is a big part of Unwritten Passage, but in gender we’ve been inspired to let go a little and give randomization freer reign. We now mix our male and female puppet pieces freely, redesigning them to represent epic, spirit guides that may have both male and female elements but still represent a cohesive whole.

We’re also taking gender randomization a step further by randomizing the sex of each character in our narrative “story events”. For example, in the video for our successful Kickstarter we had a sample story event where the player’s tribe encounters a man with his son, starving for food. The player is given several options, including the chance to give the food, but only in exchange for the son as a slave (which the man agrees to). With the latest change whether you encounter a man and his daughter, a woman and her son, a woman and her daughter (etc), is completely random. So far the result has been fascinating as each scenario is changed radically based on the player’s own beliefs. Do they feel differently about a woman trading a male son for food than a man trading his daughter for example?

It’s an interesting exploration, but one we’re not completely finished feeling out. As Joe mentioned in his RPS article on game violence, giving extra freedoms to the player doesn’t free us of our obligation to provide context to the outcomes. Since each decision has actual gameplay consequences we have more to decide. Do we make the world as gender blind as the algorithm that creates the story events, meaning that other tribes will weigh the life of a man and woman the same? Do we try to anticipate and mirror the preconceptions that many of our future players will have? Do we project our own sense of what we believe to be right and wrong?

Regardless of where we eventually end up, we’re excited about this new direction. It feels like both our fictional and real worlds are opening up and getting a whole lot weirder (as an Austin based company we mean this in the best possible way). The future is a fertile ground for story telling, conversation, and making games.

Thanks, as always, for your support.

Roxlou Games

Jun 3 2013

Unwritten Passage: Dev Update May 2013

A running joke on Unwritten Passage is that everything that can go wrong will, but we console ourselves that at least everything that can go right will also happen. Although some of us have been making games for years, there has been a learning curve involved in making a game as part of a successful Kickstarter. On the one hand this gives great freedom. On the other, it requires tremendous foresight, and you find yourself locked in to inevitable over-commitments made in early planning due to promises made to backers. This of course has been a challenge, but it has also been one of Unwritten Passage‘s greatest strengths, because it has forced us to continually make creative compromises while keeping our eyes firmly fixed on goals that don’t move. We have been fortunate that in every case, these compromises have made the game cooler and more interesting to work on.

Even our shadow puppet style was born out of compromise

Case in point: rival clan leaders. Back in February we did a lot of exploration on how “story bouts” were going to play and look. These mini encounters represent your clan and a rival tribe swapping stories in order to share your histories and to potentially make an alliance. Although the concepts were promising, we had major concerns about communicating feedback to the player about how the “bout” was going. We mocked up some rough stuff using the shadow puppets from our “story events”, but although we could certainly convey someone shaking a stick in the air, it was difficult to describe an emotion that way. Was he shaking a stick out of anger? Excitement? Because his arm fell asleep? The player just wasn’t getting good feedback about how their choices were being interpreted by the game.

Rough concept for story bouts

Meanwhile, we had another problem on the back-burner. One of our backer rewards for Kickstarter was the opportunity for them to get their face in the game as one of our shadow puppets. This seemed a natural addition since we needed as much variety as we could get. However, it was important to us that this not be something that seemed weird or out of place. We wanted to use the backer’s face in the actual game (not just as a vanity addition for the person that made the pledge), but putting human faces on our puppets wasn’t working out. As we progressed it turned out that keeping the story event puppets abstract-looking had the best visual impact, and our attempts to put our own tiny faces on the puppets ended up looking silly.

This last month an epiphany produced the solution to both our backer issue and the story bout problem. We decided that our rival clan leaders should have their own unique look, and that they should be focused on conveying emotion to the player. This meant that they would be a single giant face (with a tiny dangling body). This also meant that our backers’ faces were going to be the tribal leaders, and that we now had this great big space to exaggerate features and make things gel with the world as a whole.

First the caricature…

Then add the fantasy!

Interestingly, another compromise here led to some interesting visual dynamics. We first approached the leader faces completely in silhouette (like the puppets in our story events), but we struggled with recreating likeness, conveying emotion, and rigging and animating a face with the necessary moving parts to work as a shadow puppet. We had to articulate huge sections of the face to make sure light would “shine through” in the right spots, and things were getting out of hand. However, once again the history of Balinese shadow theater came to our rescue with some needed inspiration. Balinese shadow puppets, despite being seen in silhouette, are also hand painted and intricately tooled, meaning they tell a different story when on the shadow stage and when viewed in “real life”.

An “off stage” Balinese shadow puppet

That gave us the idea that we’re currently going with: allow the clan leaders to be hand painted, paper puppets, but allow them to nominally function as shadow puppets for dramatic effect.

A dramatically different effect.

Unwritten Passage is full of anecdotes like this, and retelling them helps remind us about what is so great to be doing something like this. As always we are hugely grateful to the support of our families and crowdfunding backers. And remember that you can continue to support the development of our weird game.

Roxlou Games

Apr 29 2013

Unwritten Passage: Dev Update April 2013

Those that are following our progress will notice that we’re settling into a monthly update schedule. This is no coincidence since this is roughly how we look at the project as well. A month is usually how long we bring in a new contributor for, and our work goals end up falling into a similar rhythm. These mini milestones are also when we look back and figure out if we had a successful month. Usually the answer is “yes” with a “but”. However, today we can unequivocally say that April kicked ass.

Big strides were made in programming and art direction, and a major part of that success was our collaboration with art director Kim Passey.

Kim’s a fantastic artist in his own right, but for Unwritten Passage his more than 20 years of experience really helped us bring cohesion and focus to the killer ideas that Lee (our principle artist) brought to the table. Kim’s influence was also instrumental in exploring the themes we already had. For example, in one case he was able to take our original environment concept piece from the Kickstarter (supplied by Waking Mars artist Amanda Williams) and illustrate with a rough color shift how we could make a barren environment still seem alive.



Tools and technology continue to progress, with much of our foundation work coming to a close. Thanks in large part to the smooth progress of the art direction, Joe was also able to make early strides in other areas, including a cloth simulation for the ribbons and banners we see playing a big role in the look of the game.

Moving forward the team’s big focus is on our “vertical slice” and a proper gameplay trailer to coincide with a Steam Greenlight campaign. As long as we keep having months like April, this will be happening toward the end of June and will put us well on the way to our first beta.

As always we’re strengthened by the continued support of family, friends, and our many crowdfunding backers. Independent game development is not always easy, but it’s a tremendous privilege that we’re all intensely grateful for.

More to follow!

Roxlou Games