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.

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.

Jan 14 2013

Dishonored Dev Joe Houston On Violence In Games

Roxlou Games founder Joe Houston is over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun today, talking about Dishonored, video game violence, and the social responsibilities of games with choice.

Check it out: Dishonored Dev Joe Houston On Violence In Games

Nov 22 2012

Giving Thanks and Giving Back: Advice

For those that missed it, Joe recently wrote a blog post for Gamasutra talking about why he decided to go indie and form Roxlou Games. In a section titled “Why I Make Games” Joe talked about growing up as an “odd” kid, and talked about wanting to connect in some way with those that shared that common experience.

The reaction to the post was wonderful, and one result was a slew of emails to Joe and Lee from both aspiring game developers and high-school age kids asking for advice. In honor of Thanksgiving here in the US, over the next few days we’ve decided to post our responses to some of these emails in the hopes that others might find them useful.

Disclaimer: these responses were crafted shortly before the “send” button was punched. They don’t show the careful editing, pruning, and filtering that an article or blog post normally receives, but we felt it better to present them in the raw form they originally went out in.

Email #1: The Straight and Narrow

This email was from a 17 year old game maker that was feeling isolated and frustrated in school. He was already eating, drinking, and breathing game development, but couldn’t see how his studies matched up with where he wanted to go in life. We respect his privacy and won’t publish his original email here, but a short, heartfelt quote probably wouldn’t be indiscreet. He asked us “…what I should do with myself? Why [should I] care about getting a college education instead of taking the minimalist route, and how should I pursue my actual passions?”

Joe responded:

Hey _______,

This is Joe, and thanks for writing to me. I’m glad the post spoke to you on whatever level that it did, and I’m more than happy to give you what advice I can.

Of course I can’t know your situation completely, and being a kid into games (or other creative stuff) today is probably different than it was when I was your age, but a lot of what you’re saying sounds pretty familiar. Stop me if I’m off-base, but I’ll bet some of the following sounds familiar to you too. Maybe you’re being told that “failing” (getting a 75 on a test, not getting out and going on dates, etc), at any point means you’ll miss entry to the next step in the chain. They say, “you’re not in the gifted and talented program in Kindergarten? Forget getting into advanced math in elementary school, AP math in high school, and any class at all in college. Miss a homework assignment and be prepared to pump gas the rest of your life.” You might also be told that you’re a bright kid, but that you’re failing to live up to your potential, and that your talents mean you have a responsibility to do better. However, your classes don’t seem important to you, don’t seem relevant to what you find interesting, and you feel really strongly that you already know what you want to do with your life. You feel like you’re fighting all the time with people that don’t understand you, seem to be disappointed in you, and can’t give you want you want. And you want things really, really badly.

If any of that is you, it might help to hear about how things went for me. I remember being in a parent teacher conference with my math teacher, my parents hearing about how I was getting a “D” in Trig, and the teacher asking me what I wanted to do with my life. I said, “I want to make games.” He said, “well if you don’t do better here that’s not going to happen.” He was especially frustrated because the reason I’d done so badly in his class was because I’d spent all his periods programming a tank game for my graphing calculator.

There are a lot of people that will tell you that life is a straight line, and that this is what you have to do to walk it, and if you fall off at any time your life is wasted. The people that are telling you this really believe it too, and they’re getting after you so much because they care about you intensely. The thing is, they don’t really “get” you, so they don’t see the real problem: that you don’t see how things in life are connected to what you think is valuable, and you know that the straight line they’re selling you doesn’t make sense. I won’t lie to you, this makes things hard. Before I got married my mom was probably the person who loved me more than anyone else, and in highschool I hated her a lot. I mean, I loved her, but I hated her too. The more she loved me the harder she pushed, the problem is I knew she was pushing in the wrong direction.

Here’s the deal: life isn’t a straight line. If you fail a class it doesn’t mean your future is written in stone now. Are you shy now and having trouble getting out there and meeting people? If so, that’s not a big surprise because you don’t know who you are yet, but it will happen and a person that knows themselves will get over those hurdles easily. And there’s no big hurry. I guess if you don’t get anything else out of this long ass email that’s the one thing I want to say. There isn’t really a race to adulthood. Most people that think it’s a race don’t actually get to the finish line.

Now here’s the flipside: all these people pushing on you aren’t 100% wrong either. It would be convenient if they were, so they could just be the enemy, but they have good stuff. Useful stuff. Stuff that will help you make games, or another kind of art, or anything else really. It’s just they don’t know how to package it. They ram it down your throat, rather than tell how it will get you where you want to go. They also teach a lot of shit. You’ll find that life doesn’t stop being that way. There’s both precious gold and useless shit everywhere. This is going to make things hard on you, because it’s up to you to do the extra work. You have to figure out on your own what relates to you and then devour that stuff.

For me my life really started after high school, when I was basically abandoned as a student and ended up at the city college. For me college was a great experience because it was the first time I set my own schedule, chose what I wanted to study, and started getting to know who I was without everyone breathing down my neck. I continued to make games, wrote short fiction and poetry, got an associate degree in computer science, transferred to the University and got a bachelors in English, and then launched an independent game (before there really was such a thing) and totally failed. I then took everything I’d collected from my unfinished project, turned it into a portfolio, and was hired by the first game company I applied to.

I’ve been a professional game developer for 8 years, and I’ve never really followed the path you’re “supposed to”. I’m also probably considered pretty accomplished as a person, but that doesn’t even matter because I measure myself against my own yardstick for success. And I’ve gotten a lot of what I wanted for myself when I was a kid. But here’s the takeaway: at the moment you’re probably feeling like you just need to get out, and that all this stuff you’re being sold is just getting in your way. But life will always throw stuff in your way. However, this is good news, because it means you don’t have to wait. Hopefully knowing that what they’re telling you about what you “need” is not all true will help free you to figure it out for yourself starting today. Go to class, maybe go to college, whatever. Don’t do the opposite of what you’re told just because, but instead take a good hard look at each subject. Google the shit out of it, and figure out if it applies to you. But most importantly keep “doing”. If you want to make art, just start doing it right now. If you want to make games, just do it.

OK, tl;dr I know. One last thing though: I don’t know you, but I’m pretty sure your parents are a drag. I’m also positive they love you to distraction. That might not really help to know right now (probably wouldn’t have helped me), but they’re people and they’re kind of fucking up with you now, but they’re doing their best. It’ll be important later. You’ll have a totally different relationship with them later in life. It gets better and all that.

End of the big ol’ preachy email. Feel free to ask me really specific questions about game development too and I won’t talk your ear off. If it’s in a field I don’t know about I can point you at an industry contact that does.

Stick with it. Life is weird, but totally worth it.


And Lee responded:

First off, thanks for taking interest enough to write us an email, it means a great deal and it certainly helps to understand that we are on the right track and reminds me why I am doing this in the first place, for people like you. Like Joe, I don’t want to presume anything about your situation, but I can relay to you my experiences and hopefully you can glean some bits of knowledge from them.

I do what I love. If I am doing something that I don’t love, it is a temporary thing to get me closer to that which I do love. I am currently still waiting tables. I find it difficult to walk through the restaurant door but I know its temporary and that I am working on stuff I love when I get home that will eventually become full time and will take care of my living expenses.

I once talked at length with one of my favorite artists, Mark Brooks an artist with Marvel, at the SDCC in 2004. He waited tables at Red Lobster for years before getting his first job in comics. He would fill a sketchbook a month. He loves to draw. What do you love? Do you love drawing enough to fill a sketchbook a month? A degree in art will certainly help you with filling a sketchbook a month but even then they wont force you. A little known secret about art is that you get better at it the more you do it. I hear many people say ‘wow you sure are lucky you have the talent to draw’ or you have an ‘eye’ or a ‘nack’ for that. Well, why do popular girls have such great handwriting? It’s because they are constantly writing their name on their binders over and over again with the quarterback’s last name. Repetition and a critical eye will make you a better artist. Do you need to go to college for this? It’s hard to say. There are many successful people out there that did not pay for their training. However, if you have the means to attend college I can say for me it was a good and formative experience for many other reasons than just the degree. I do know, that with or without a degree, if you want to make it as an artist, it can take 3 and even upwards of 9 or more years to get noticed and get work. It is a very lonely and introspective time. You will be good enough for your friends and family but not good enough for employers. Persistence, willpower, and love for what you do will get you through this. When you come out the other side it is most certainly worth it.

I went to a 4 year university on and off for 10 years. I didn’t have the confidence to tell my parents that art is what I love and it is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I started in engineering college. I was pretty miserable I had a few life changing events and gained the confidence to tell my parents that if they wanted to see me finish college I would be doing it my way. I changed majors and graduated 5 semesters later. College is very expensive and in no way a guarantee that I can get work, even today, whether it had been engineering or my current art diploma. We live in tough economic times where diplomas don’t guarantee job security and yet a college degree will guarantee debt that will need to be paid off.

Hopefully I don’t sound too gloomy about college. I did have fun, and you do live in an exciting new world compared to when I went through college. Steam allows artists to make in-game assets, like hats, that they can sell for a profit. You don’t need to get hired by Valve, or have a degree or a even a resume to get paid for making stuff for their games. Don’t know how to make a hat? There are tons of free software options out there and free youtube tutorials that can help you to make it better. I took a few 3D classes in college and found that the tutorials available online were much more robust and informative than my teacher could ever hope to be. My parents insisted that I attend an accredited 4 year university but looking back on it a place like the Guild Hall in Dallas or even self teaching from home may have been a better investment for my goals.

Watch this.

And this.

Failure is your friend. Fail early. Fail often. Put a hat on the steam network that everyone hates. Find out why they hate it. Find out how to make it again and get less people to hate it. Be open and honest like your email to us. Put yourself out there. Draw something. Post something. I have had a deviantart account for years now http://hmhmah.deviantart.com even though my stuff has not always been that presentable. My webcomic http://www.hmhmah.com that has been online for only about 3 years is drastically different today than when I first started it. I have since pulled it down, but I had another website before HMHMAH that went no where and failed www.snowbs.com. Don’t wait for a degree or a class, just start making it today. Deviant art might not have the directed or constructive critiques you need to get better so try a forum. http://conceptart.org/forums/forum.php was a good one, although I haven’t used it in awhile as was cgsociety and few others. Google ‘art critique forum’ and just start drawing and posting stuff.

Wanna do concept or digital painting? Watch these, subscribe to their authors and watch their other videos.

Finished watching those already? Exhausted all the available youtube tutorials? I used these guys for awhile. It helped when I need a specific step by step help on a few projects.


Go to the library or coffee shop at a book store and copy anatomy. Copy comic books. Draw people at the park.

I have had a booth at the Austin Comic Con three years in a row now. No one invited me. I didn’t ask if I could go. My degree didn’t set it up for me. I just paid for a booth and went. I failed forward. It’s liberating. The big boys like Marvel have just been failing longer than you or me, hell, they still have failures from time to time. Make them and learn from them.

I am aware that this may have resulted in more questions than answers so feel free to shoot me a line, hope it helps.
I also might post a different version of this somewhere sometime later to help other people out if this ends up being any help.


Thanks again to everyone that wrote to us. We haven’t managed to reply personally to all of them, but we have read and appreciated them all. More “advice” responses to follow tomorrow.

Nov 8 2012

Exclusive Look Inside the Offices of Roxlou Games

The Offices of Roxlou Games. There aren’t words to adequately describe these hallowed halls. But if you were to try, you might say…



And oh, the view!

Inside Roxlou Games founder Joe Houston’s home office we see a space where more than just games are created. That was in no way a reference to poop.

You might also be brewing beer in the tub

However, working out of a bathroom closet is a nicer fit than you might first think. There is still plenty of room for small comforts, like this signed memento from the Dishonored project.

Plus from the toilet you can see all the way into the future of indie games.

At least the future of our part of it