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  • How I Built A Game Studio From The Ground Up

    [03.31.20]
    - Quilly Chang
  • When I had the idea to develop a video game back in university, I was confident it wouldn't be difficult. After all, I had the coding chops to deliver. What I didn't know was that this entire endeavor would force me to wear the hats of product owner, project manager, creative director and writer, business development, marketing, and just about everything else. Imagine my shock when I discovered all these roles beyond coding! So here's the story of how I wore those hats and survived, shipping the game after 2+ years.

    A Summer with the Shiba Inu banner

    How it all began

    I lived in Taiwan from ages 8~18, covering part of elementary school, to completing high school. Now, the school system in Taiwan is pretty typical of East Asia, known for the brutal academic culture. For each exam, grades and rankings are posted publicly for the entire school to see. I was intimidated; I was several years behind everyone, who could read and write already. I had only just learned how to write my own name in Mandarin.

    From then on, I somehow managed to do quite well. I scored in the top 1% on the mandatory entry exam to high schools, which are gated by grades. In North America, this sort of pressure (think SATs) can be overwhelming for those in high school, but imagine facing that pressure at the age of 13! I was accepted to the top ranked high school in Taiwan (which only accepted top 1% scorers), and proceeded to score top 4% in the university entrance exams.

    Why go into all of this detail? The experience has taught me how to handle pressure like it's my second nature. I was inspired by the competitive culture, where events at such a young age could drastically affect one's entire life trajectory. Hence, I wanted to create a game about agency vs. conformity, and how a cutthroat environment could bring out compassion as well as ruthlessness in people.

    The thing is, to create a game with such a personal story, I knew I had to do this independently. If I worked in a AAA gaming company, the story elements would likely be of someone else's creation, with many stakeholders to please. Thus, from the start, it was a given that I would take on the writing and software development roles to execute my vision. So I started planning: designing the fictional world, writing outlines, and drawing diagrams of story flow. And so began my first role - the narrative designer and writer.

    Role 1 - Narrative designer and writer

    Since the core objective of my vision was to tell a story, designing the world was an essential and core part, and seemed an obvious starting point to the entire game development process. I had experience writing fiction with tens of thousands of words, so I thought this would be easy. However, I was quickly proved wrong - for example, writing dialogue for a game is more like screenplay writing, than novel style writing, which I had to adjust to. Since the visuals and audio are presented on screen, many components of novel style writing are made redundant for game writing, in my case.

    I wrote at cafes, the coworking space Gamma Space, while travelling in Asia, and at home, giving me a taste of digital nomadism (without the income...). As a blessing and a curse of having full creative control, after 1 year or so, I went through a complete narrative design rehaul where I scrapped over 30k words.

    I wish I had admitted earlier to myself that my first concept design didn't work, and rehaul it before I wrote those 30k+ words. This was due to my impatience to start writing before I could take a step back and reflect more on just the outline. It was like diving into the trees before I fully saw the forest. On the other hand, I emerged learning that it's okay to scrap work, and not to linger on it, for scrapped work makes way for better work!

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