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.

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

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

Feb 6 2013

Joe is Doing an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit

UPDATE: It’s on right now!

UPDATE: Looks like Reddit changed the time when they added us to the schedule. It’s now at 12 pm, eastern time.

By popular request, Joe will be doing an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit tomorrow (February 7th) at 12pm EST.

For those that are new to the project, Joe Houston is Roxlou Games‘ founder and is the programmer and designer for Unwritten. He’s best known as a former core member of the critically acclaimed game Dishonored, and for his published articles on Indie Gaming and Video Game Violence.

Joe has also worked for Bioware and Midway and has worked on games of all genres and platforms.

For those new to Reddit and the concept of an “AMA”, it is an opportunity to put a person in the “hot seat” and ask them any kind of question at all. Reddit works on a system of “upvotes” and “downvotes” to help people find the best stuff, so when you come be sure to click the up arrow to “upvote” us!

We hope to see everyone and their questions there. We will post again just before it gets underway.

Feb 3 2013

Joe Talks to “Gamer Cheese” About His Sordid Past

“Gamer Cheese” has a follow up interview with Joe, talking about Dishonored, the downfall of Sensory Sweep, and a bit about the origins of Unwritten.

Check it out here.

We’ve been told to expect a few more interviews and podcasts from other sources coming later this week. If you like what you read (or hear) be sure to show your appreciation by sharing these links around!

Dec 12 2012

The Den of the Roxlou: More Workspaces

Our previous post about Joe’s bathroom adjacent office might have been the height of style, but that was just one of the workspaces of Roxlou Games. We have a distributed work environment, meaning that each contributor has their own view when they come to work each morning.

Julian, a games musician working on our signature sound, sends this picture with the following description:

I use Logic Pro for my writing, with lots of Kontakt libraries and most of East/West’s stuff. My go to samples at the moment are Cinematic Strings 2, Apocalypse Percussion Ensemble, EW’s Silk, and Hollywood Brass. I have a few guitars for live playing which I run through an Axe-FX Ultra.

Lee, our much valued artist, sends his pictures with no comment at all, so we have added the appropriate descriptions for him.

This fashionable semi-glove is made from the pelts of baby seals and has been hand cured with the tears of hippies. Lee wears it when drawing on his massive tablet PC because it makes him feel fancy and keeps his delicate pinky finger from getting cold.

This is the view of Lee that his fiance is most accustomed to. This is partially due to Lee’s intense dedication to everything he commits to, and partially because he is hiding from the shame of wearing less than half a working glove.

Nov 27 2012

New Art Revealed… Sort of

Our first game is now well into preproduction, and we’re really excited about how things are turning out. We’d like nothing more than to put each and every prototype and piece of concept art up for all to see, but we know that would be doing a disservice to the cool ideas that aren’t yet fully formed.

That said, we just can’t help ourselves, so here are two “sneak peeks” at art pieces in progress. They’re in animated form showing the progress from rough sketch to polished finish, giving a little insight into the care that goes into this kind of work.

Teaser from Rough to Polish

We can hardly wait to share the whole picture (so to speak). Stay tuned for more!

Nov 14 2012

UPDATE: Bathroom Office Gets a Retro Makeover

Be on alert! The professionalism of our bathroom adjacent office is now in jeopardy.

This scene stands as an allegory for the constant battle between somber dignity and pixelated robots. It also represents the thoughtful meddling of a certain troublesome, yet awesome, wife.

+1,000 points for Player 2, but expect a rematch