ProjectOver

My introduction to Winston is documented in Indie Game Dev: The Democracy (Part 1), and after five months, he re-connects with me in Indie Game Dev: The Democracy (Part 2).



The Meeting

Less than a couple of hours after re-connecting with him, I find myself in a voice chat with all of the major players in Winston's new project. The lack of leadership and structure in the server immediately becomes apparent in the team meeting, and it feels like that scene in a horror movie when the protagonist goes to a scant rural gas station, and meets oddities of different sorts. However, most of the team do have talent and a depth of knowledge that suggests they aren't casual developers. But then, the democracy begins.

Each facet of the project begins to be voted on, and after finding that actually collecting votes is a bit laborious, they set up a web poll for each topic that comes up. The first major vote is on the name of the studio, and takes about fifty minutes of debate to decide. It ends up being something like "Steampunk Dinosaur." Throughout the entire voice chat, I refrain from giving my opinion on anything, including the suggestion that the cart is being put before the horse, and they don't need to waste time on titling a studio when the development of the game is in shambles at the earliest possible juncture.

They continue to vote on other trivial matters, and at some point, realize that one person in the voice chat is noticeably not casting their vote commensurate with how many the polls are showing. They do a bit of problem-solving, and deduce that it's me. I restate my earlier notion when I joined the voice chat, that I'm only here to observe for my own knowledge, and don't want to be part of any decision-making since I'm not officially part of the project. "... Okay..." is the response from one of the members who's taken charge of the meeting for lack of other leadership.

As two and a half hours pass, I become tired despite only listening in. Each menial detail is being overthought and overargued, and I realize that considering how slow remote-based online projects are anyway, doing things as a democracy is a killer. Projects like these require a rational thinker who can take the most logical approach on the thousands of decisions that need to be made, motivate team members to do their part, and be consistent themselves by filling in all of the holes that invariably don't get covered—all of which are thankless jobs, but necessary to get to completion. This is sorely lacking on Soulanity.

The topic of horror-comedy comes up, and Winston again aggressively supports it against some dissenting opinions. I finally chime in to support the consensus, and repeat my earlier statements in my private conversation with Winston. He points to some vague, 1980s B-horror movies as evidence of why horror-comedy works, and I point out that those films are usually commercial flops. He reverts to his Resident Evil analogy, and I realize that this is a hill that Winston is very willing to die on. It's either horror-comedy or nothing for him, and the team takes a vote on it. The poll shows that the majority acquiesces to Winston's demands, something they've been conditioned to do by this point.

Three hours in, I become exhausted anyway.  I let the team know that they seemed to have made progress (no matter how little), and I'll be making my decision later on whether I'll be joining.

Winston's Narrative Document

I reconnect with Winston a few days later, and apparently another conflict has taken place in the server. It seems Winston is on the verge of leaving himself, but it's smoothed over rather quickly.

I stick around on the server continuing as an "observer" over the next couple of months. Winston's convoluted Narrative Document is constantly questioned by the team, as he writes in a way that doesn't explain the game well at all, and leaves cliffhangers on important plot points. One of the teammates explains to him that this doesn't make sense to do with fellow developers, as they aren't his readers, but are trying to make a game based on his ideas. He heeds the advice somewhat, but has evidently poured a lot of effort into this Narrative Document, which makes sense to him only.

I myself attempt to read it at least half-a-dozen times, but always lose interest in the midst of the first page. The lack of consideration to idea presentation compounds on the difficult-to-consume and somewhat cliché story, including an antagonist named "Max Pine" (to certainly be confused with "Max Payne"). The Narrative Document is a long stream of specific information organized in bulletpoints about characters' exact backstories, but fails to explain an overall cohesive story that would carry the gameplay experience. It's what you would expect from a novelist who specializes in worldbuilding, and having them write a game as they would outline a book. This experience creates the dichotomy of "writer" and "narrative designer" for me, and although my own first GDD from a 2015 game programming college course is far superior than this, I get a swift education on what not to do when I write my next GDD.

To Replace or Not to Replace

In late-September, things come to a boil in the server. Winston is antagonizing his teammates as they fail to make sense of his Narrative Document, and ask him to make necessary modifications to make it into an understandable story that they can much more easily process as they try to develop his vision into a game. Winston becomes frustrated at this, having arduously given everything he had in the existing thirteen-page document, and mentally unable to make any required changes. His response is to challenge the teammates on what specifically they don't understand about his Narrative Document, but when they do, Winston feels attacked and argues with them rather than explaining. Finally, the teammate who ran the voice meeting back in June tells Winston to "shut the hell up" before going on a long tirade about how Winston refuses to acknowledge their concerns, and is the cause for dissention on the project, which is why it's on the verge of collapse.

I should mention at this point that the guy who is assigned as the Project Lead is almost never on the server as it is, and when he leaves in October, he passes the mantle of server owner to me (instead of Winston, who's been there much longer). More on that later.

I talk to Winston afterwards, who remarkably absorbs the rant and the team's frustrations in relative jest, and accepts the criticism gracefully.

Winston: Yeah don't sweat it, Brandross looks like he had allot of pent up feelings on my writing, which I can understand. At least something's being said about it, which hasn't been said for the longest freaking time. Like, I haven't edited the story document for 2 months now lol. Nobody has said shit about it.
Also to mention that in the month preceding this, the team begins to acknowledge for themselves that Winston cannot be the Narrative Designer this project needs, and begin to tap me as his replacement. I feel uncomfortable at the prospect, given that Winston is the reason why they know me. I let Winston know.

RTL: Kind of an awkward scenario, because evidently you've done a lot of work on your narrative, and a couple of them look to want to scrap it altogether, and they're using me as a backup solution to re-do the entire narrative, but I'm not sure how many of them realize that you're the guy that brought me into the project to begin with, lol.

Winston: Yeah but I'm not the reason you're staying, that's up to you. It's just a major disagreement is all, and honestly I think they don't really have the experience to do what I'm doing: at least I haven't seen the extent of it yet. They've only really made generalizations of what they'd like to see, and Brandross is the only one who's actually made something comprehensive in the form of GDDs.

RTL: I see. I'll say this, though, I think it's a major achievement that the project is still going and the server is still active. Most indie game dev projects dissolve by this point, and when I found out this was being run like a democracy (which slows everything down to turtle pace), I thought this was going to be doomed from the start. But the fact that it's surviving is a redeeming quality to the project.

Winston: Ye I dunno how they deal with me really, I run like I have an iron fist or some shit. That's probably why they're mad about it, but it's only because I believe in what I'm talking about. I'm really skeptical of their narrative skills so far, but I'm glad to be proven wrong. The problem though is that we can't afford to keep riffing ideas for another month: that's why they made me the writer.

Winston: Tbh I've been refraining from pulling the "I've been here since Day 1. How many of you have?" card for the longest time now lol, that's far too mean.

The way Winston deals with the situation again reinforces why I'm fascinated with him, as the amount of criticism he takes for what is usually a sensitive issue is show of incredibly thick skin, or an otherwise obliviousness that would be consistent with his eccentricities. I come to believe it's more of the former, and Winston lets me in that he's more preoccupied with his web comic, that he's still writing and illustrating.

We shoot the breeze on the prospect of me joining as a second writer (which I'm not in favour of), high school (which Winston refers to as a "glorified daycare," to no disagreement from me), Winston's adventures through college trying to learn programming from a professor that was "impossible to deal with" (and mentions that he'd only go back to make connections, "which I have 0 of"), the topic of me leading the project, and then finally, we come full circle and Winston inquires about my book, and whether I'm "still trying to get that novel into a TV series" (a suggestion that was his own, but has somehow registered in his mind as a goal of mine). We have almost a parallel conversation to the one several months prior in The Democracy (Part 1), but noticing the trend, I shift the focus back onto his web comic, and suggest that he submit it to Dark Horse Comics and possibly Image Comics as well. Winston is amazed and inspired, and immediately begins the process. He ends by telling me that when he gets to the top, he'll help me out "in some way," which legitimately makes me smile. Aside from some writing advice he solicits from me a couple of weeks later, including a request to have me critique some of his prose (that he never follows up on), this is the last time I talk to Winston privately.

Dead Soulanity

In the server, the project has completely died out. Despite a small, but impressive prototype stage built in Unreal Engine 4 by the more skilled members of the team, most of the members have gone dormant, including the Project Lead, who is letting the teammates know that he's quitting, and needs someone to give the server ownership to. Winston doesn't outright demand it, and somewhat shies away from becoming Project Lead. Interestingly, a teammate I hadn't even noticed on the server before comes out of the woodwork, and wants to assume the role. Winston goes missing for a little bit, and the new teammate (who was dormant throughout the entire development cycle) begins to develop a fresh build of the game in Unity, and works at rapid speed mocking up an entire environment in Maya within a couple of hours.

I'm amazed and think that with his pace, we can possibly develop a game within a six-month development cycle (which becomes my sweet spot as to how long unfunded indie projects should be targeted for). Though the new guy's communication skills were poor and totally ill-fitted to lead a team, I think to myself that with me leading, him developing / modeling, and a few others filling in the holes of the art / sound departments, we can save Soulanity. I take the server ownership and talk to all of the remaining teammates about rebooting the collaborative under my leadership, but find one consensus.

This project cannot survive with Winston involved.

I begin to ponder the dilemma to let him go as my first action to save the project. But before I can, Winston's in the server antagonizing the new teammate for doing unsolicited work on the new Unity build when an existing UE4 one exists, and jumping down his throat over even suggesting that he take over as Project Lead after being a no-show for several months (a possibly valid point, but considering all the rats were abandoning ship at the time, to go after one of the two who were trying to save it was reflective of Winston's own ego, trying to win a power struggle when he apparently didn't want power). I try to DM the new teammate about dealing with Winston's concerns, but he feels attacked, and immediately leaves the server. Realizing again that Winston's inability to connect with the rest of the team is detrimental to Soulanity, I wish whoever's left luck, relinquish the server ownership to Winston, and exit the project myself.

I message the new teammate, and despite evident communication problems (and a Winston-like inability to work with others, that I later discover), I explain what my intent was with Soulanity with myself as Project Lead, and him as Development Lead. I ask him if he's interested in the arrangement, and he agrees.

Over the next day, I start my own server, invite him as my first recruited teammate, and plan a horror game called Bloody Mary on October 31st, 2018.



This has become a strange phenomena when I write these, but as I was finishing this blog post (and right when I had mentioned him), I got a Discord DM from my Art Lead that the "new teammate" I'm referring to at the end just abruptly left the team after 3.5 months. He had been with me since Halloween, completed a character model halfway in December, stayed with us as members came and went, and then went dormant for a month and a half. He apparently has "personal chaos going on," but given the long period of dormancy, the more accurate reason was that he had lost interest in the project, as so many do. Had several heart-to-hearts with him since we began this, about his desperate need to complete a game after a decade of doing fruitless game dev projects to support his large family, and how he felt that this would be the one. I'm now about to message him to wish him well in whatever comes next in his game dev journey, as he goes into the same uncertain future that Winston and so many others will.