Tag Archives: video games

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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Filed under People Who Do Things, wordsmithing

Identity, spirituality, and video games

I remember vividly the first time I encountered the problem with identity. I was 14 years-old.

We’ve learned that the brain is a collection of electrical impulses. And it is only a matter of time before we will be able to manipulate DNA and clone our bodies. If I can decode the series of electrical impulses that determine my personality and knowledge, and continually transfer them into new clone bodies, have we discovered immortality?

I chill ran up my spine. My brain reeled at the possibilities! What is identity?! Is it your personality? The electrical impulses in your brain? Your body? The mind-body connection? The continuation of personality, knowledge, and experience? Could this be considered immortality? On top of the usual questions, my knowledge of Mormon doctrine compounded the problem even further. I noticed that I had stopped breathing. Eerie, futuristic music filled my ears as I staggered at the very idea.

No, really. Eerie, futuristic music really did fill my ears. I was playing the video game Chrono Cross.

The last General Conference had speakers talk about video games, and I will admit, I shifted uncomfortably. I fumed. What were the video games these General Authorities played? Minesweeper? Grand Theft Auto? Bejeweled? I can see why you might not like those games, but have you not encountered the sweeping artistic grandeur of some of these games?!

Of course, Roger Ebert tapped into this vein a couple months ago by saying video game was not, and could never be, art. This sparked a firestorm of controversy and it was kind of crazy, guys. And, not surprisingly, I will defend the art of the video game to my dying breath, because a lot of what video games taught me made me what I am.

Earthbound was perhaps my first encounter with smart, sarcastic, self-referential humor. “Kids shouldn’t be out here this late at night!” a policeman warns the protagonist. “You should be inside playing video games!”

Never into sports, Secret of Mana was the first real activity that taught me the value of teamwork. One of the first multi-player games worth playing that involved more than one player, my brother, sister, and I would get together and play this game, each taking our individual roles, bonding together as we saved the world and beat up bad guys.

Final Fantasy III revealed to me the first epic story. Sure, I read the Hobbit, and I read my share of fantasy books and all that, but Final Fantasy III was so cleverly crafted, so engrossing in background story and character development and had one of the most clever plot twists (M. Night Shamalayan, eat your heart out!) that I feel my value as a writer and story-teller increased forever-fold just by my interaction with this epic.

Chrono Trigger revealed to me an entirely new dynamic of storytelling – multiple endings. Sure, some were canon, some were non-canon, and some were throw-away humor endings, but the storytelling itself is incredibly tight and compact, and like Final Fantasy III, is an epic worth experiencing. It really challenges the idea of a strict narrative form for storytelling.

Chrono Cross was my first encounter with some serious philosophical stuff. The problem of identity, ethical and moral quandaries, the power of choices and consequences. Where do alternate time streams go? How do we navigate the tension between nature and progress? Who are we, really? If we switch bodies with someone and everyone treats us as our identity and not our old identity, do we become that new identity? This sparked my interest into philosophical questions, to the point where when people told me that the Dark Night dealt with moral/ethical quandaries and I saw what it was, I merely said in classic Internet forum fashion, “Meh. Been there. Done that. What’s next?”

I could go on. Final Fantasy Tactics could possibly be described as the first true tragedy of video games with an incredibly unreliable narrator, forcing you to piece the narratives together. Okami completely changed the way I looked at deity (in a good way). Dragon Age takes those ethical quandaries and forces me to make decisions, painful, horrible, terrible decisions. Braid challenges my perception of time, experience, and forgiveness.

Video games can be a fruitful, incredibly fulfilling experience. They can also be destructive and addictive. But that’s the case with movies and television spots and cable broadcasts and Twitter and Facebook and blogging. We still use this technology to progress the Church’s message. I’m patiently waiting the day when we make a Church iPhone game. Video games are just a medium, and some of them have great messages. Let’s not paint them with a broad brush and forbid them. Because I’ll have you know – more people in the North American Church have read Twilight than have played Chrono Cross. I can assure you that the latter deals with much more erudite and spiritual material than creepy, pasty vampires staring through windows at flimsy damsels in prepetual distress.


Filed under life stories, religion

Not your mother’s feminism

A recent video game came out called Bayonetta, and it’s received a lot of criticism for, once again, sexualizing and exploiting women. She’s a woman of impossible figure – big breasted, long legged, unrealistically skinny. Most of her costume is just her hair, so when she fights, a lot of her body is revealed. She blows kisses to break seals and the targets you use in the game is in the shape of lips. She sashays needlessly and no doubt, her sexuality is the weapon you use to fight baddies in the game. In other words, this isn’t the type of game you’d want to play in front of your parents. And so the angry cries of exploitation of the female body for sexual enjoyment by men rings in the air once more.

However, over at GamePro, a female writer by the name of Leigh Alexander says games like Bayonetta – with its flamboyancy, nudity, and fluid violence – doesn’t set back women’s rights; in fact, it’s progressive. Bayonetta is over-the-top, yes, but that’s because the game designer, Hideki Kamiya of Devil May Cry fame, is always over-the-top. Anyone who’s played his games can attest to it. So what some call exploitive, Leigh calls stylized, and sometimes, a little sexuality isn’t a bad thing for women’s rights.

It’s wonderful that our entertainment medium is developing more characters that bring more to the table than their looks — but at the same time, we can accept that being mousy, tomboyish or turtle-necked is not the only way a woman can be considered admirable. Bayonetta’s elegant nakedness in the fervor of battle is not in and of itself a bad thing.

Now, I’ll admit. Just looking at the pictures of Bayonetta set off my exploitation-radar. I am definitely what you would call an old-school feminist – women should be able to wear pants, they should be able to vote, they should have their voices heard, they should be able to work, they don’t have to look like impossible supermodels, or, so help me, I’ll get all Susan B. Anthony up in your grill.

But I can’t argue with Leigh’s logic – in Bayonetta, women are the power figures and players of the world; the men simply follow the rules and hope to survive. The unique fact that Bayonetta uses her feminine sexuality specifically as a weapon means she’s doing something male game characters can’t do, and as Leigh played through the game, she had never felt more empowered by a game in her life.

Leigh’s particular point that impressed me:

I already know that women can do all the same things men can. This time, I get to see a woman do plenty of things men can’t. And I love it.

This isn’t a game I’d let my ten year old daughter play to help her feel empowered, that’s for sure. But at the same time, isn’t this something we want in games? Girl characters in games who not only can do everything guys can do, but something only girls can do? Empowering, strong female characters that aren’t regulated to just sidekicks or mere NPC eye candy? Female characters that are more than “the same thing as a man, just with breasts and a ponytail”? And while I certainly can’t say I want my daughter to grow up into some kind of vigilante that fights naked and overtly uses her sexuality as a weapon, I don’t want her to cover it up, think mousey-ness is good (culturally insert “chaste”) and all forms of female sexuality is bad (culturally insert “slutty” or “exploitive”). I want her to be comfortable with her sexuality, to know that she’s special and different than boys rather than just playing “catch-up”, that she really has power and autonomy in a world seemingly ruled by old, white dudes. Perhaps this is the new direction of feminism, and while at face value it might seem disconcerting at first, it’s really something I can’t complain about for the time being.

To read more of Leigh Alexander’s thoughts on video games and girls, along with a follow up post on her GamePro article, visit her blog Sexy Videogameland.


Filed under politico

The complexity of femininity

Growing up in Seattle, I was indoctrinated with great oratory on the glory of women’s rights. It was never anything like the militant feminism many conservatives fear today; they were very practical and, as far as I’m concerned, true statements concerning what a man’s proper relationship with a woman should be – no means no, women are people and not property, women should be able to work and go to school if they so desire, women deserve equal respect in the workplace, etc., ad nauseum. If you look at the history of the world and the state of many women around us today, you cannot help but shake your head at the sickening repression women have faced. To me, women’s rights had never been opinion or theory – it was simple fact.

This has two repurcusions – one, I feel I’m a big proponent of women’s rights, and that it helps me with my marriage as I treat my wife with respect and dignity. Two, because I am a big proponent of women’s rights and consider myself progressive in this area, and I have thus become smug (note: smugness is a byproduct of any zealous ideology, not just feminism).

My wife and I have a very balanced relationship. But, to be truthful, that balance need to be calibrated in the beginning, and a lot of that required calibration was because of my love of women’s rights. When I moved to Utah, I rejected a lot of the more conservative, traditional views on women. It would, from time to time, make me sick. The marriage frenzy of the BYU sub-culture always seemed to put a greater toll on women than men, and it was generally women that seemed to compromise themselves more in effort to fit into what society demanded.

Because of that, I intentionally nurtured various non-traditional female roles in my wife. For example, I encouraged her to play some video games. She loved Katamari Damacy, eventually moving to Okami, and recently just finished her first video game in the form of Persona 4 (true ending and all). Some days, to relax after work, she would sit on the couch for an hour or two (or sometimes even three) playing video games to de-stress and unwind the springs her workplace tightly winds. When she lamented that she felt lazy and ugly, sitting on the couch in her pajamas playing video games all day, I merely reminded her that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that I felt she was attractive, and that because she had a high stress job, I didn’t mind if she took an hour or two to just relax.

We would often share the workload of household chores. When Dantzel came to the realization that she hated the never ending laundry piles or dishes, I cheerfully picked up the slack, mostly because I find the monotony of daily household chores to be incredibly Zen and almost relaxing. When Dantzel lamented that she felt somewhat useless around the house, I merely reminded her that such gender constructs, while useful, are not universal, and we should adapt to our individual family needs.

I was, in my mind’s eye, the paragon of the progressive, non-oppressive husband that encouraged his wife to think outside the box and broaden her horizons. She had a career, she attended school, I didn’t chide her to do housework all day and I allowed her to do traditionally non-female activities such as video games. I felt she was on the track to become a confident, well adjusted female in today’s modern-day society.

Except the opposite was happening. Her self-image plummeted. She began to feel completely useless when I would do the housework and she couldn’t help and would sulk or go to her other tasks listlessly. She began to feel pigeonholed into her job. My wife became incredibly depressed.

For the longest time, I couldn’t figure it out, and perhaps a little bit of resentment creeped in. Why was my wife sulking when I was doing the dishes and laundry? Didn’t she feel grateful that I didn’t make her do this? Why does she feel so ugly all the time? Don’t I foster and encourage an environment where she could feel comfortable no matter how she looked? I didn’t understand, because I couldn’t see how I was contributing greatly to the problem.

Eventually, I began to suspect that perhaps I was supressing her in a completely different way. Dantzel, despite being somewhat of an iconoclast amongst traditional Utah Mormon women, still had a feminine side. I quickly realized this when, as my guilt nagged at me, I bought her lip gloss from Target. It was from the bargain bin for $1. It purported to taste of orange colada. It had some sparklies. But Dantzel was amazed – shocked, even – that I would get it for her. Her expression flustered and somewhat embarrassed, she graciously accepted the gift, and I realized that this whole time, I was acting with zeal, but lacked knowledge.

Femininity is a complex concept, multi-faceted and especially hard to understand from the straightforward, one track mind male point of view. My wife was strong-willed and independent. What initially drew me in was her penchant for challenging my world views, opinions and ideas if she saw them confusing or logically unsound. But I realized that also drew me to her was her stereotypical, traditional feminine side – her flirty hats and cute pigtails, along with her ecclectic fashion. I had nurtured all aspects of her – except her feminine aspect, which arguably is her most natural.

When I denied her the ability to contribute in household chores, I wasn’t doing her a favor. She felt useless.  I encouraged her to play video games – and she enjoyed the pasttime – but it wasn’t until later in our marriage that I also encouraged her to knit, her more traditionally feminine hobby, because I was afraid of forcing a traditional stereotype on her. When she sat all day in her pajamas playing video games and complained of feeling unattractive, I carelessly and insensitively shooed away these thoughts as lingering malfeasance from living with an oppressive, over-sexualized and physical image obsessed society domineered by uncaring men. Of course, if I sat around in pajamas all day doing nothing, I would feel nasty, too, but I never seemed to make the connection with my wife. And when I focused on helping her advance her career, she felt trapped in trying to please her husband while maintaining her grip on everything else in life as work became more complicated.

I became like Julia Robert’s character in the movie Mona Lisa Smile (yeah, I referenced a Julia Roberts movie. What about it?). Like her, I enforced my own view of what a woman should be, rejecting all “traditional” views, and in the end, became just as oppressive as the more “traditional” oppressors. What if, her students cry out in the movie, I want to be a traditional housewife and mother? What if that’s what they actually want and Julia Roberts is preventing them from doing so because of her own pride, stubbornness and inability to realize people are diverse and different? I was doing the same thing. My wife is much too modest to agree; however, while a woman’s self esteem and self worth and body image is a complex composite of a vast recipe of thoughts, attitudes, experiences and horomones, my overbearing zeal in promoting a “progressive wife” (whatever the heck that is) also took its toll.

Now, I try to do household chores together, and she loves it, even though she constantly expresses dislike for them still to this day. I bought her a knitting basket to hold all of her knitting materials, which she stows right next to couch and the Wii. I encourage her to do what is best for work, even if it means cutting hours so that she can devote more time to other pursuits. And, yes, sometimes I will go out of my way to look for something nice for her, whether it’s an eclectic turtle carving necklace or even the $1 lip gloss in Target’s bargain bin, to show that I respect her feminine nature.  Even if it means supporting that evil, oppressive, overly-sexualized, physical image obsessed society controlled by domineering, insensitive patriarchs. Sometimes, my wife just wants sexy lips with sparklies. And, well, as an occasionally domineering, insensitive patriarch (without intending to be one), I can’t say I hate it either.

True freedom for the woman is not achieved through any type of dogma; rather, the dogma is an anathema to female agency. A strict, dogmatic anti-establishment feminism quickly transforms into the very shackles the movement strives to o’erthrow. In the end, we become the enemy. We should celebrate all types of women with their myriad of personalities. But traditional feminine roles seem to be based upon natural instincts that our ancestors found best to propogate the species and protect the herd. Even though she hates it, Dantzel still feels a need to act domestically from time to time. While today, it seems to hinge more on her feeling of usefulness rather than fulfilling any internal domestic agenda, it is a good reminder for the feminist (male or female) to remember that tapping into traditional feminine roles may become some of the most liberating activities for today’s 21st Century, modern woman.


Filed under life stories, politico, religion