Neomajika, the New Magic

I’m supposed to be doing a game jam, I mean, I’m the one that organised and promoted it.

But instead I’m trying to find a name for my game studio. I want it to look great in a normal font, and feel nostalgic like Nintendo. I want it to mean something. It’s gotta be unique. And I want it to be the umbrella under which I can promote all my VR projects. I want to make it lovable, fan-able. It shouldn’t be too restrictive – maybe I want to make a magical game, maybe I want to make a sci-fi game.

I’d tried VSVR, Thaum, Studio/Stadium, Sporghetti, Nth Place, and more. They were all weird and unsatisfactory. That didn’t stop me registering domain names, though.

There are so many tools online to help me generate and validate names. I’ve got my own methods, too, involving weighted criteria and ratings.

Neo? Like most 90s nerds, The Matrix was my favourite movie, and Neo was my favourite nerd. Neon Genesis was a thing. Neo Tokyo. Such sci-fi. Neo meant new… VR is new. That’s a nice prefix (add it to the list).

Magic. I like magic. I think the “killer app” for spatial computing entertainment will let the player feel like they have magical powers or companions.

Mash them around a bit, see what’s available. Neomajika was available, surprisingly. I tested the word with various fonts, and happy to see that it looked good in almost every font.

Neomajika. New magic.

I quickly registered it everywhere, including as my own trading business name, something I hadn’t done since Nox Digital when I was 18.

Now, I feel like I’m more Neomajika than Shaun Norton. I am what I make – and I make new magic.

Coffee & Mugs on my CV

I started drinking coffee during my first office job. I hated working there – I felt like a fraud – exporting Dreamweaver sites, taking my first steps into PHP and Wordpress themes, and designing logos that unknowingly looked like marijuana bongs.

I drank coffee to punish myself with ever-stronger instant coffee, and separate the day with long, laborious breaks at the mini kitchen.

Now, its a morning. Any morning at home. Today I’m going to be a real game developer.

Which mug will I use?

The tall, green, fluer-de-lys cup, which inspired me to pain my room green as a teen? It’s more of a sit-and-read-news cup.

The Superman mug, with its S-shaped handle and sexily sculpted superhero? Good for a Shaun day…

A huge grenade-shaped mug hogs the corner. I was a Team Fortress 2 esports player back then. I didn’t care how difficult it was to hold – just needed lots of caffeine to help me aim the flamethrower!

Will it be the Embark mug, plain white with the black monospaced logo of my failed menswear store? Too painful.

Maybe the Global Game Jam Melbourne 2019 mug. It’s nice and tall, and so gamer-ish. Feels good doing my part for the local game developer community. That’s a maybe.

Ahh… I know which mug I’ll use. I fetch it out of the dishwasher. It’s a beige and red mug, with a silhouetted skyline & Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco is printed in white over the red band. The font reminds me of a train station sign. After I bought it, I also bought red underwear. I needed new underwear for my trip. I thought to myself, I never wear red, let alone red underwear. But now when I wear these undies, and drink coffee from this mug, I’ll think of America and all the amazing VR people I met there.

Yes, today is a San Francisco day.

My mugs are like roles on my CV: many and varied, and with little stories that no-one ever asks about.

We don’t hire codemonkeys

On St Kilda St, near the city, there’s a digital design studio that I’m going to interview at. I’ve recently dropped out of Geomatics at RMIT. A real job will mean I can stop working a day at my stepdad’s engineering firm. I will have enough money for expensive jeans to wear at gay clubs, and petrol to visit my MSN Messenger friends – everything a 19-year-old needs.

I’m really surprised that they’ve asked me in for an interview for a web developer position. This firm has some well-known brands as their clients.

They’ve checked out my previous websites, the way I did the HTML and CSS. They say I need to use tabs correctly. In the moment, I think they mean tabs, as in, buttons that reveal content. But they’re actually talking about spacing tabs in the code.

They ask why I’m looking to get into web design now, if I’ve been coding HTML for almost 10 years already – almost as old as the world wide web itself. I tell them that even though I can do code, I don’t find it exciting. I don’t want to be a codemonkey my whole life.

The web, websites, it’s just boring. People are getting fancy with AJAX and rounded borders. Amazon and eBay look like vomit. To me, getting excited about the web is like getting excited about paper. It’s not new. I’ll jump on the next hype wave, after web 2.0 quiets down.

At the end of the interview, I’m given an assignment to test my abilities. It asks me to code up a layout from a picture, with images provided on a CD.

I go home. I can do this. I’ll use DL, DT, DD… I’ll do some fancy negative margins. I’ll show them how it’s done.

And then I don’t.

2020, Fireworks and My Wish for this year

Happy New Year!

I kiss my partner this time, and don’t feel ashamed. We’ve been coming to the city gardens for New Year almost every year since he moved to Australia.

Craning my neck upwards, I take in all the beauty and power of the fireworks.

I make a wish, or a decision, or a prediction: I will find a job in VR this year.

2020 is the year when everything comes together – my business degree, my local networking, the recent trip to San Francisco, my game development, and my podcast. I’ve got meetups booked, we’re hosting a VR section at one, maybe two gaming events. The Oculus Quest is maturing, and I feel like there’s a new game coming soon that just perfectly needs me as its marketing assistant.

The huge, bright, loud colours in the sky make me smile. 2020 is going to be awesome.

Zordon and the Technicoloured Dreamjacket

Over the hill, through a barbed wire fence, there’s a long mound of clay, pine needles and tall trees we call The Bushes. The kids on my street go up there to build forts, steer clear of spitfire caterpillars, and bully each other.

When we’re not down on the street toting rollerblades and Mighty Ducks memes, we like to play our own versions of Star Wars, Power Rangers and Captain Planet up at The Bushes. The other kids fight over who gets to be the red or green ranger. But I’m pretty happy with Zordon, the huge blue holographic face that tells the rangers what to do.

While the other kids run around pew-pewing each other, I sit between two bent trees, and wait. I’m so smart.

At an op-shop, I find a hooded, knitted jacket with rainbow stripes on the sleeves. This is so powerful, so me. When I wear it, I’m granted the power of all the Planeteers, and the wizard in Dungeons and Dragons. I’m pretty sure I can read Ancient Egyptian heiroglyphics with this jacket on.

I designed a zombie horse apocalypse, then cried, before my 30th Birthday

I’m in the back room of my failing retail shop in Flemington. It’s been cluttered for months since the break-in. My partner, Anh is visiting his home in Vietnam.

There will be no customers coming in the door – I could go days with no customers.

Before Anh left, we visited an escape room. It’s an interesting business idea – you just layout a room and puzzles, then invite people to pay for the challenge of completing it. I’ve been cooking up an idea in my infinite free time…

I’m going to convert my shop into an escape room. To capitalise on both its location in Flemington and the fact that spring racing occurs near Halloween, I’m going to design an escape room around the idea of a zombie horse apocalypse. You see, Phar Lap’s little jockey took the death of the horse quite bad. He became a mad scientist and re-engineered Phar Lap’s mighty heart into a superior, human-eating horse zombie.

The back room at the shop will be my test chamber. I’m going to get it all set up just in time for my 30th birthday in a week’s time. I’ve even bought some smart light bulbs, and programmed them to do lightning flashes and heartbeats in JavaScript. I’ve been shopping online for Nerf Guns (dart guns), Meat Syringes, dental mirrors, triangle mirrors, necklaces, a metal bucket, and more.

As I’m halfway through cleaning the room, I come across an audio casette. I know what it is, and why I’ve kept it so long – it’s got recordings of my voice as a tiny kid, singing nursery rhymes and yelling at my brother. I’ve held onto it through my 18th and 21st birthday, because I planned to play it back and laugh with my family. I just never did that.

I dig out an old stereo, slot in the casette, gently push it closed and press play.

Radio commercials from the 1990s and power ballads emerge from the speakers. I rewind and play, rewind and play, conscious of how precious the tape is, and careful not to damage it.

Found it, my kid voice. Singing Agadoo, a weird song about pineapples.

I lose it. Crying like a man baby.

Suddenly reflecting on all the time since that voice was recorded, to now, almost 30 years old, at the back of a failing shop. I never wrote a book. I never became a scientist, or an archaeologist, or a hairdresser, or a magician, or a playground designer.

I’m just a 29 year old nothing.

The escape room is stupid. The zombie horse drawing is awesome, but the idea is stupid.

I’ve been fixated on it because it’s selling an experience. I’m so over selling things, like clothing and boots, all made in China, cheaper and cheaper every day. If I sell an experience, I have full control.

So I look up Event Management degrees. I find a course at my local university – so convenient. I begin planning how I’m going to tell my partner and family that I’m returning to university – again, for a fifth time, in my 30s.

Introducing Nell

Nell is a tiny mage with a huge mission: protect the universe from the void.

  • Run and leap across floating worlds
  • Bash away incoming void missiles
  • Avoid hazards on the ground
  • Collect potions and power-ups
  • Build and activate special turrets
  • Protect and charge a crystal cannon to seal the void gate

The problem with Axollo

A few weeks into my platformer project, featuring a mailman axolotl with four red shoes, inspired by Mario and Sonic, I was feeling demotivated. I had worked on getting the movement and jumping just right, I had a great dash ability, and was proceeding to work on enemies and picking up items.

I took a night off the PC (as I sometimes do when I'm too tired to code, like right now) to sit on the living room floor with a laptop, pen and notepad. I watched several Game Maker Toolkit videos (they're amazing) and particularly grew interested in the Bash ability from Ori and the Blind Forest.

You see, during my platformer development, I had a dash that could be chained between enemies. It had a really cool feel to it... but it didn't align with the SNES-era platformer I was emulating. I was actively searching for a signature ability, one that felt better than a jump, and ideally, one that spoke to the idea of the character: run fsat and deliver things.

Speaking of which, that Axollo/Emilio character was a bit of a mismatch. I should never have gone into a Mario clone (albeit in full 3D, input and all) with a character for whom I hadn't figured out a signature ability.

I had a pile of notes by the end of the night. Every type of player action imaginable, along with related ideas pertaining to level mechanics. I had a feeling that this search, with no focus, hinted at some deeper problem with the game.

Putting aside my misgivings about Axollo, I decided to focus on the Bash ability. In Ori, the player can collide with a special projectile, hold a button, freeze time for a moment, and select a direction. When the button is released, Ori jumps in that direction, and the projectile is pushed backwards behind her. It has a classical "equal and opposite reaction" physics feel to it. I liked the way it provided movement, attack and puzzle possibilities in one smooth ability.

So I quickly coded it into Axollo. When he hit a shelled enemy (snails, not koopas), he could kick off it. Exactly like Ori. It felt like a fine-tuned version of Mario jump-boosting off an enemy. So I had it working fine, and decided to flesh out a few other mechanics.

I added a health collection mechanic, similar to the rings in Sonic. When you hit a hazard or enemy, the rings burst out of you, acting as a shield. That felt great. I read online reviews of this mechanic and the arguments for it were pretty reasonable.

I added a pickup/eat mechanic, so you could pick up and throw eggs.

Oh, and all this time, I was using copyright sound effects from Mario, Sonic and Zelda. They helped me mentally as I was reproducing certain mechanics, to also use their sounds.

Everything started to break down when it came to enemies. In Mario, the player's signature ability requires movement orthagonal to the desired direction of motion. You can't walk forward - you need to jump over, or on top. I toyed with the idea of a curved dash ability (never coded it though, it was more of a musing). I coded enemies that could only be killed from above. In VR, it felt arbitrary - a relic from a different medium. I combined it with the kick/bash mechanic, and nothing was clicking. My Mario clone even had snail models that were clones of koopas, if you squinted your eyes. The whole thing wasn't making a lot of sense.

I was letting code drive me, without knowing what experience I was designing. I posted on Reddit to see if anyone wanted to work with me on a portfolio piece.

I looked to my right, to the glossy, colour printout of a cheerful Axollo. I could see the flaws. Axollo, the cute mail axolotl fighting snails and delivering email, it wasn't his time yet.

A new angle

The next day, I opened Unity and made a new scene with a burnt orange gradient skybox. I love the minimal style, and I think it suits mobile games well.

I revisited the Unity Asset Store, looking at 3D characters. I was looking for something with more style, and animation if possible. Axollo, until then, had been my own programmer-art, a jumble of rectangular prisms that looked like a fat yellow Yoshi with four feet and six blue ears.

I saw this cute wizard:

... and I knew exactly the world I'd put her in.

Back in Unity, I placed a simple cube with checkerbox pattern. I replaced the Axollo model with the tiny wizard. I put a Box Gravity in, so she could walk on all faces, like a miniature planet, similar to Mario Galaxy. I'd last used the custom gravity a few weeks earlier, but it got put aside as I was focusing on Mario mechanics.

I hit play.

And oh... my... god... she was so cute!

The game scenario came to me: she's protecting this cube world from a barrage of missiles firing out of an evil-eyed void portal.

The core loop

I couldn't sleep that night. My brain was coming up with awesome ideas at a phenomenal rate - I couldn't risk losing them by sleeping. So I got up and wrote them all down.

Even though there were many "features" I wrote down, they were more like side dishes to the main mechanic: this tiny wizard would jump, dash and teleport around the tiny world, deflecting missiles constantly. It seemed like such a cute, magical, and THREE DIMENSIONAL core loop.

The first try

The next day, I coded the portal, the missiles, and reversed the bash so it knocked the projectile forward, and the player backwards.

I recorded a dev video too early. While the portal zoomed around to random locations, firing an absurd number of projectiles, I tried to control a character that wasn't yet designed for the task, to execute a bash ability that had no feedback or forgiveness.

It was anxiety-inducing.

But it told me everything that needed to be done.

The bash had to be perfect.

Now, I think I'm half-way to perfecting the Bash ability. I've added a lot of juice, feedback, and forgiveness. It will feel like the most satisfying way of deflecting magic missiles. The magic is in the details.

I felt particular proud when I tackled the problem of positioning the player during the bash, such that the ball surface (a radius away from its center) was near her wand (a local position that depends on her direction), but she'd still face the direction of the bash. I sketched the vectors and equations on paper, and it worked! She now looks like she's in the right spot, even if only for half a second.

When she holds the bash longer, the ball grows in size. This feels SO RIGHT, and I THINK it adds to gameplay depth. I need to be careful about adding stuff like that, though. It was very cool when I saw the code above still working when the ball was resized. She's like a miniature Dragon Ball Z character.

Not all was lost...

I am kind of rambling here. This is my game dev diary. I'm decompressing what occured over the last few days, and how huge of a relief it is to pivot away from a strict platformer, while still using all the work I'd done. Movement, jumping, collectables, hazards, and other core systems still work just fine. I don't think this tiny wizard could exist if I hadn't worked so much on movement and jumping first.

A name for a tiny hero

Sometimes, I reach a point in the night when coding needs to stop. Last night I tackled the question of the character's name. Because she hits things, I thought about using bells or drums as a thematic element. The sound of striking a bell is knell, and as a kid I wrote a fantasy story about a girl named Nell. I chose that name. There are no games named Nell.

I needed to validate the name as a brand, and think of sub-titles for the game. I thought about "Nell vs the Void" and "Tiny Guardian Nell". They are pretty cool. My toolset to help try out names is Photoshop and I like to think in terms of logos - if I can make a name look good as a logo. I ended up with this, with a simple, retro, feel, something between Zelda and Alex the Kidd...

I know it's not perfect. The wand can read as a strange R. But the basic idea is there.

I went with The Tiny Mage because it is evocative without narrowing in on a specific scenario or theme. I feel that, with Nell: The Tiny Mage, I am creating the world's first and only tiny mage that defends the universe.

I'm going to share the project soon. I need to get feedback on the core loop. Watch this space!

Itching to Pitch at Magnify VR/AR Expo

The tiny complementary pad of paper they handed me at Magnify World hardly seems enough to contain the brilliance of the pitch I’m drafting. I’ve just listened to Ted Schilowitz, a futurist working for Paramount pictures, talk about Virtual and Augmented Reality, how they’re boxes on our faces, but they won’t always be so. I savour any hint of what Apple might be doing. His talk is so inspiring!

I look at the event guide and see a time slot for startup pitches. In my bag I’ve got a few brochures and business cards I’ve picked up at the event. I’m kind of disappointed that there’s a whole exhibition floor and not a single fun thing in sight. Is that the best Australia has in VR/AR?

I’ve also brought my business card and an elegantly spacious pitch deck for my VR esports game concept. The business card is bright yellow, messy writing proclaiming “COMMUNITY VIRTUAL REALITY STREAMING EVENTS ESPORTS” and “Promoting people playing in places”. I had to cover all my bases. My name has a “, BBus (Marketing)” even though I haven’t graduated yet.

But this opportunity – to pitch before Melbourne – has me riled up.

I begin scribbling words like “games” “sports” and imagining how I’ll walk and gesture across the stage to describe the gap between them. Oh, this pitch is going to be so good. I’ve barely even started sweating yet.

I’m watching other panels talking about interactive media… how they have different needs to traditional film and screen. I’m just rolling my eyes in derision. It’s called games, folks, and it’s not a dirty word, and the interactive storylines you’re talking about have been in games for 30 years.

During the break, I walk around. I’m trying to hover close to Ted. I just want to make eye contact. He seems to Get It. But he slips out of the room with some people. So I take a seat at a new table.

There are a couple of middle-aged women opposite. I’m trying to be professional, I’ve introduced myself to a few people so far, and try doing so again.

They bark that they’re in film finance or something. I tell them I’m into VR and esports. They scoff and say something like, they don’t know anything about games, and esports makes no sense.

My fire to pitch rages, then is extinguished. I look around the conference and wonder…

Where are the games?

Quitting my Bank Manager job to be a Pokemon illustrator

It’s grade six at Langwarrin Primary School. We’re the top of the school, even the unpopular kids. Last month, we had to do an assignment about underwater. I designed a rad submarine with a drill on the front. My friend and I started a little comic strip called The Rock Pool. I’m proud of the crab I drew with my signature style eyes. We stopped drawing that because my friend told me my manta ray looked like a penis, which I couldn’t deal with.

This week, the teacher is telling us about money and jobs. He asks me to stay in the classroom for a few minutes of my lunch – he very seriously sits before me and asks if I’d like the highest-paying job in the game – Bank Manager. It’s a very serious job with a lot of responsibility. I said yes.

A few days into the game, and we’re all deep into it. There’s a black market of sports cars being cut out of magazines and sold for game cash. The perpetrators are reprimanded. My friend and I start a side hustle of drawing Pokemon for people.

Oh, you want your Pikachu to have Raichu’s ears? That’ll cost extra.

All that practice drawing Sonic, Yoshi and penis-shaped manta rays is starting to pay off.

I make an appointment with the teacher.

Very seriously, I tender my resignation.

I’m making a good, honest living off imaginary creatures.

Sports marketing internship helped me find the VR future of esports

I’m only a few weeks into this internship and it sucks. I really should have thought about how disinterested I am in sport, before applying to intern at a sports marketing agency.

I figure I’d see what’s on in Melbourne. I’m not used to being in the city so often, so I want to get bang for my travel buck. I see an event with 3D painting from Google, at ACMI. My partner Anh is travelling all the way from Flemington to the city, and meets me near Flinders.

We’re getting a bit lost finding the entrance.

Walking in, knowing no-one, the two of us get a can of Coke and take a seat. There are wires and tripods, TV screens and arcade machines. It’s hard to know what’s specifically for the event, and what’s normally in the space.

I stand up to look at what’s going on. The attendant carefully helps the player take off the headset, then he uses a chunky controller to tap all four corners. The TV screen shows a black void with green grid. Someone with a clipboard asks me if I want to have a shot. I write my name down, then sit and watch.

Anh’s not interested. I just keep watching.

I’m thinking about what I’ll draw. I want to win the competition, so I think of something that will get votes. Something thematic. Like, maybe I’ll draw Mr Squiggle. So meta. Maybe I won’t have time. I need broader appeal – an Australian flag.

It’s my turn.

I step into the square, and get the big black plastic box put on my face, and the wire tugged out from under my foot. It’s so much better than I expected it to be. The colours are bright and harsh.

I try to figure out how the tool works. I can only see a colour picker, and there’s no time to experiment or leave this new reality to ask about other paintbrushes. So I just start painting.

In that space, there’s only one interpretation of the flag I could think of: a blue lotus with the southern cross and federal star in the centre. So I paint long, broad leaves emanating from the center of my place space.

There’s a moment that it hits me: this tracking is amazing. Esports of the future are going to be amazing! Virtual reality is amazing!

I finish my beautiful abstract lotus flag. Taking off the headset, I look over to Anh. As I sit down, he says, “What is that? You just paint blue and white and red, its like random and I have no idea what it is.”

I’m an artist, I think to myself.