Tag Archives: creativity

People Who Do Things #1 – Robert Boyd

There are generally two types of people in the world — people who like to talk about doing things, and people who are actually doing things. I’m part of the former, but I’d like to be part of the latter. In order to find out what makes those types of special people tick (and how I can become one of them), I’ve started interviewing people I know who’ve stopped talking about doing things and started doing them. This is the first of that series.

( ~ )

Robert Boyd is a co-creator of the popular indie video games Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World and the founder of Zeboyd Games. In addition to making innovative retro JRPGs, Robert has taught English both at home and abroad in Asia, and is the father of four daughters.

Did you start out making indie video games hoping to turn it into a career? At what point in your working on Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World did you think to yourself, “Oh man, I think I can make a career out of this?”

My original plan was to write amusing Choose Your Own Adventure style games as a part-time job to help support my other part-time job of teaching. Put out a new one each month, develop a strong fanbase, make $1,000-$2,000/month. When my second game, Molly the Were-Zompire, sold worse than my first one, it became evident that this strategy wouldn’t work without some major changes. I had always wanted to make RPGs, but had thought that they were beyond my programming skill. However, one day in January, when I was feeling depressed and trying to decide what to do, I just said “Forget this!” and decided to make an RPG even though I had no idea how I would do so. About three months later, Breath of Death VII came out.

What does your daily work schedule look like? Did you start out with a strict schedule to follow, or did you just do whatever felt natural and eventually one developed?

Until just recently, I’ve been working on game development on a strictly part-time basis – I’d go to my job as a teacher during the day and then work on game development at night when I had the time or on days when I didn’t have work. I’ve only just recently started full-time development so I don’t really have a strict schedule. What I do is make a list of goals I want to accomplish that day and then I do my best to accomplish them.

You’re a family man with a wife and beautiful daughters. Was there any anxiety during the whole process when it came to supporting your family? How did your wife feel about you spending time making video games?

There was definitely a lot of anxiety about the viability of all this in 2010. 2011 is definitely looking up.  Our sales in the 1st quarter of 2011 have almost earned enough money to cover 3 months worth of expenses and we still have nearly 2 months left to go in the quarter! And we have the PC releases of our existing games and our upcoming 3rd RPG to look forward to – I definitely think 2011 will be the year where my game development changes not just from being a part-time job into a full time career, but into a surprisingly lucrative full time career.

Many of the reviews for Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World praise their sharp, witty writing. As the writer for those games, where do you get your inspiration for story ideas and dialogue? Were you always interested in writing? Are there any major influences on your writing style?

Inspiration comes from the usual sources – media I enjoy (and dislike), people I know, staring at walls until my forehead bleeds.

I’ve always wanted to be a novelist, but I think video game design and game writing suits my writing style better. Plus with my games, there’s a guarantee of release – I don’t know if I could take all the time to write out a really good novel without knowing if I could actually sell it to a publisher beforehand. As for influences, Isaac Asimov and Douglas Adams are my two favorite writers of all time, so I try to include elements of their style in my own writing.

When you actually started making Breath of Death VII, you taught yourself C# and really didn’t have much programming knowledge or experience beforehand. However, you are fluent in two languages (English and Chinese). Do you feel that being bilingual helped in learning a programming language, or is that comparing apples to oranges?

I don’t think being bilingual was much of a help. Learning a programming language is more like learning a new form of math than it is learning an actual language.

Do you have any advice to learning a programming language, or is it just a lot of hard work?

Read a lot of examples online and don’t be afraid to ask questions when you’re stuck.

What is the biggest struggle you’ve had in programming your own video game? In writing your own video game?

The biggest struggle so far has probably just been trying to keep motivated to work on the game while still juggling a job, family, and other responsibilities. Hopefully, that will become much easier now that we’re starting to make enough money to justify doing game development full-time.

You work with two other people in Zeboyd Games — the artist and the composer. How did you find each other? Did you know each other before making games, or when you started making your game you decided you needed an artist and composer and went looking for them? Did the business side of making indie games surprise you, or did it come to you naturally?

I met our artist on the Penny Arcade forums. We were both active posters on the game industry business thread and he made an offhand remark that he wish he could work on XBLIG development as an artist. I needed an artist so I sent him an email asking if he’d be interested in working on a game idea I had in mind (an early version of Breath of Death VII). After confirming that I wasn’t going to go crazy with the scope, he agreed.

As for our musician, we were looking for good songs for Breath of Death VII and licensed a few songs from him. I really liked his musical style so we asked him to come on as our full fledged composer for Cthulhu Saves the World.

I have yet to actually meet either individual in person. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get everyone together to do a booth at PAX Prime this year.

Now that you’ve come this far, looking back, what is one thing you would have done differently if you had the chance?

I would have done more preparation before starting work on Cthulhu Saves the World. Cthulhu Saves the World was a lot more work than Breath of Death VII and a lot more work than I had planned for. If I had it to do over, I would have made another smaller game after Breath of Death VII, then made some better map designing tools before starting Cthulhu Saves the World. In the end, we would have had 3 games instead of 2 and it probably would have ended up taking about the same amount of time overall since we would have made fewer mistakes that needed correction.

Often times, some of our best ideas come by accident or necessity rather than deliberation. What’s the best idea you’ve stumbled upon while working on indie games?

Probably the random encounter cap. I was all for having monsters chase the player around in dungeons, but it turned out to be more work and time than I wanted to spend for that one feature. Random encounters are much easier to implement, but players tend to hate them. While I was trying to come up with a way to make random encounters less reviled, I came up with the idea of implementing random encounter limits in each dungeon and it turned out to be one of the most popular features in our RPGs.

After your second successful release with Cthulhu Saves the World, you started getting a lot of people asking for a job at Zeboyd Games, even saying they would work for free. Obviously, there’s a lot of people who want to get into making games and feel they have at least some skill or value to offer but aren’t sure how to break into the business. What advice would you give to them?

Stop talking about it and just do it. Make a game. Not only do you gain a lot of experience from making a game that you can’t get any other way, not only does it provide a good example of your talents to potential employers and teams, but it also proves that you can actually finish something. If you have the determination to start a project and actually finish it, that alone makes you stand out above the crowd.

( ~ )

Do you know someone who is doing cool things and might want to talk about it? Let me know at tylee85 [at] gmail [dot] com.


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At Flunking Sainthood, author Philip Yancey on writing:

I divide the process into three parts: getting ready to write (40%), writing (20%), and cleaning it up (40%). I find the interview and research process, the first 40%, relaxing and enjoyable. The 20% of time spent composing is all psychosis. I don’t even subject my wife to it. I go to a cabin in the mountains. I don’t shave. I’ll go a week without speaking to a single person, except maybe a store clerk. I work really long hours just pounding out junk. The final 40%, the editing process, is very relaxed and enjoyable, because I began my career as an editor.

Yes, this is absolutely true. Writing is psychosis. At least for me, and apparently for Phillip Yancey.

Which is why I’m not sure how I feel about Nanowrimo concluding at the same time I study for my finals.

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The poetry of small spaces

For a while, the wife and I shared a twin bed. We’re both small people, but even then we couldn’t fit on the twin bed unless we cuddled. Because of this, I have a fond memory of twin beds, mostly because even if you were totally mad at each other, you had to cuddle and somehow, cuddling makes things a little better.

However, my wife doesn’t like beds because they take up a lot of space. I don’t mind sleeping on our futon on the floor (in fact, I do enjoy it quite a bit), but with beds like these, I think even my wife wouldn’t object to build one or two of them. Poetry creates artificial constraints in how one communicates an idea; because of this, creativity flourishes within the constraints. Sometimes, figuring out how to live in a small space feels like interior design poetry. Large, cavernous homes make me feel oddly isolated and alone. In contrast, it’s comforting that while I’m writing, she’s only six feet away, knitting. At least for us, sharing a twin bed or sharing a small room brings us closer together, no matter how we might have felt before.

And if we need some of our own space, there’s always the bathroom.


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Night owls of the world, unite!

It is a verified scientific law that night owls are cuter

It is a verified scientific law that night owls are cuter

It’s two in the morning, and my mind is on fire. All cylinders are pumping and ideas slosh through my head, begging me to pull them out of the aether and onto the structured confines of a notebook. This isn’t a new experience – my best work in high school happened between 11 pm and 2 am (much to the chagrin of my parents). In college I’d write an entire paper in one sitting, hit the bed at 7 am after watching the sunrise with a mug of tea, and then wake up at noon, read over the draft and just turn it in without a single edit to earn high marks. Even just taking out the trash late at night became a weekly ritual. I would drag the garbage can down our hill of a driveway to the curb as a teenager, look up at the moon, and breathe in that crisp night air. There was something special about those five minutes of solitude. I relished those nights, because that’s when I felt most in tune.

There’s something almost surreal about the nighttime – many cultures insist that the night is when the physical world meets with the spiritual, when the lines between reality and dreams begin to blur. Creativity, at least for me, flows like a river. I did my best writing at night; all of my “sketches” end up turning into final works of art. I feel alive and ready – I set goals for my life, categorize my books, learn my material for school. And even though many of the early risers out there insist that the Holy Ghost goes to bed after 11 pm, I have my spiritual experiences and enlightening moments during the solitude of night. But why? Why am I so different than, say, my wife, who enjoys going to bed at 8 pm and waking up at 4 am (for the same reasons I enjoy my world after midnight – quiet and solitude)? Am I alone in this nocturnal communion, or are there more people like me? There had to be – a lot of my best friends turned out to be night owls as well. We aren’t alone, right?

I began to type in “Why am I more creative at night?” into Google and, I will admit, my heart skipped a beat when auto complete revealed that this wasn’t an uncommon question. The Internet, people warn, normalize deviant groups and help odd people who would normally never meet each other in real life (like furries) form digital communities across the globe. It turns out my question on creativity and darkness wasn’t so unique after all. This comforted me.

Seriously, I don't understand how these people ended up dictating the rules

Seriously, I don't understand how these people ended up dictating the rules

However, early risers look upon night owls with suspicion the same way my friend Q looks upon people like me who have a constant desire to be needed rather than to be needy with suspicion – it’s outside their realm of experience. The world runs on an 8 to 5 work schedule, and night owls feel isolated as they begin their best work of the day just when everything else is shutting down. Perhaps that’s why we’re so productive – cut off from the world, no distractions (except the ever-present Internet). But the world, especially the American business/corporate culture frowns upon us lowly night owls who code their programs and draft their advertisements and calculate their earnings. If only we’d learn to rise early like the captains of industry, we’d be even more productive (and thus richer) like them. Well, bullocks, I say!

A Mormon blogger mentioned sagaciously that people go through two types of puberty – the physical puberty we’re used to in adolescence, and then a second spiritual/emotional adolescence, more prevalent as life demands less and less that we marry early and have tons of kids. My emotional adolescence has been a long struggle to eliminate some very persistent areas of self-loathing. I hated the fact that I was male, but also very domestic. I hated the fact that I was Mormon, but soon became innately liberal (to be precise, classical libertarian with a heavy dose of Marxist philosophy). I hated the fact that I was a jack-of-all-trades when everyone would insist that the specialists were the ones who made all the money, got all the prestige, and had happier marriages. I hated the fact that I had to some how reconcile my Korean heritage and my American birthright – they seem very opposite at some times in my life. And, of course, I hated the fact that I was a night owl in a world run by early risers. For the past five years, I have heavily explored these facets of my personality, tried to forcibly change them, and now am finally coming to grips with them (mostly because I’ve finally learned to trust my ever-supporting wife, who promises me that no matter what, she’ll always be there for me. That security means more than the world to me).

Sunrises are beautiful, but everyone knows it's easier to stay up all night and wait for it rather than wake up early for it

Sunrises are beautiful, but everyone knows it's easier to stay up all night and wait for it rather than wake up early for it

Creative night owls, unite! Apparently, mammalians may have been nocturnal at one point, so us night owls simply stayed in tune with nature, right? And let’s not forget the fact that night owls have a tendency to be more creative, and famous people from Winston Churchill to Voltaire stayed up late to do their important work. Let us rally around the fact that there are many benefits to being a night owl, and that, yes, even our President of the United States may be a night owl as well. And if a night owl can become the President of the United States, well, the sky is the limit! We need no longer fear our early riser oppressors! With the advent of the Internet, I’ll admit – owning my own business doing whatever I decide to do, dictating my own hours, pounding furiously away at my laptop while it’s 3 am and I have a mug of tea next to me and the whole world is blissfully asleep, no longer awake to bother me – this appeals to a very, very deep, core part of me that I refused to acknowledge its existence until only a few years ago (and even then, I hated it). Early risers may dictate the rules, but it is when the moon comes out that the night owls emerge from hiding and elude those rules in favor of our own.

Also, if some of these night owls are lycanthropes, they will turn into were-owls, which, admittedly, don’t sound very intimidating at all.


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