This blog’s been enjoying a steady influx of new readers since my recent GDC shenanigans. Thank you, and welcome! If you haven’t peered over to my sidebar, here’s the story so far: i wrote a book. i wrote a book on a subject i knew almost nothing about, and i did it never having written a book before. This is the story of how that happened.
i Killed a Guy
End of story.
i swear that’s how it happened, officer.
Alright, no – but that would have been interesting.
i’d been aware of Unity 3D, a game engine, right from its early days. i was working at a kids’ media conglomerate and we were researching development tools for a new kids MMO. Unity was used to develop Cartoon Network’s FusionFall MMO. The drawback was that the software only ran on a Mac.
A year later i was at GDC, and Unity had announced a PC version. i saw them on the show floor, and tried comparing them with Torque 3D. At that time, reps for the two companies were doing a lot of mud-slinging, and a lot of FUD was bouncing around between the booths. So when i returned home, i asked a simple question on a LinkedIn forum: Unity or Torque? The answer was overwhelmingly in favour of Unity, to the tune of hundreds of responses. i knew i was on to something.
Get Me Summa Dat
i wanted to use Unity, but there were still a few barriers in the way. One of them was removed in short order when Unity moved to a free model. But there was still the problem that both 3D Studio Max and Maya, 3D software crucial to developing assets for Unity games, were $4000 a seat (after Autodesk had killed the $2k entry level version of each product). $Four large is a lot to swing on software for a small studio like mine.
Why don’t i just pirate the software? Because unlike the guy at Autodesk who decided to cut the entry-level versions of both pieces of software and price them identically, i’m not an asshole.
Still, i could tell Unity was special, and i wanted to be involved. So i started tweeting about it. i kept a watch through Tweetdeck on the #Unity3D hash tag, and if any interesting info floated by, i retweeted it. i set up a new blogbook here called Unity Nuub, which would hold interesting articles and links related to the software. i downloaded Unity and goofed off with the software a little bit. i played Unity games. My interest was piqued, but my activity level was low.
Where There’s a Will…
Around that time, a small publisher out of the UK called Packt was putting out the very first book on Unity 3D, by Will Goldstone. The publisher contacted me and asked if i wanted a free review copy in exchange for a review on my site. i said “sure”. How did they find me? Presumably through Twitter, i’d made a connection between myself and Unity, and i must have come up in a few Google searches.
A short time afterward, David Barnes (@fbindie) from Packt wrote me up saying they wanted to do a few more Unity books. What types of books did i think they should publish? i gave him my feedback. His next question, which left me a bit breathless, was: “Do you have any interest in writing any of them?”
Dusting off the Bucket List
i don’t know about you, but i’ve always wanted to be a published author. That was always just … something i had on my list, along with “fly a helicopter” and “marry rich”. Sadly, few of our childhood fantasies end up coming true … my wife is flat-ass broke, and we all know helicopters don’t exist. Once i was ten years into the games industry, i had resigned myself to the fact that i would probably never be a published author, so i put it out of my mind.
Abandoned, too, was my hope of having a twelve-inch pianist.
But here it was: an offer to write a book. A book on something i knew nothing about.
i was upfront with David. “i really have no idea how to use Unity.” He looked up my bona fides: trained in 3D Studio Max in college, worked 10 years as a game developer working with Flash, had a rockin’ blog packed with dick jokes and Actionscript tutorials (but mostly dick jokes.) He said a cookbook might be beyond me, but i could probably write a decent beginner book.
i told him i’d need some time to get up to speed on the software. i’d never made a game in Unity. i’d never done anything in Unity, for that matter. (But neither had many other people, really – the software was only 3 years old, and only 1 year out of the gate on the PC. Unity was news to a lot of people.)
David asked me point blank: “How long will it take you to learn Unity well enough to write a book about it?”
Gripping my desk chair and chewing my lips as i answered his email, i typed “Well, i suppose by the time i finish writing a book on it, i’ll know the software pretty well.”
And off we went.
The Luckiest Boy in the World
Are you hating me right now? Maybe you’ve read my other article, TENure, about how i was hired as a game developer despite not ever having made a game before? Maybe you want to wrap my face around your foot?
Who do you think should have written the second-ever published book on Unity? A Unity expert, i suppose! Well, can that Unity expert write? Does that Unity expert have the considerable time and energy for a book? And better yet, will that Unity expert remember what it was like to NOT be an expert? i don’t know about you, but i’ve spent a lot of money over the years on books by subject matter experts who move way, way too quickly. My mandate was to write a beginner book that beginners could truly get through. And not just Unity beginners: game development beginners. For example, there’s a heading in the book that says “What is code?”, and another section that briefs the reader on how 3D models are put together.
i caught a lot of flack from my colleagues while writing my book. They considered themselves Unity experts, i suppose, and why not? They had actually finished some games with it. i remember one particular tweet that went something like this:
Colleague: i’m going to do open heart surgery, but i’ve never trained to be a doctor.
Of course, his error was in comparing Unity to open heart surgery. Unity reminds me a lot of Flash … and not even Flash CSX, but Flash 4 back when i started in 2000. It strips out the whole mystery of writing code to draw stuff on the screen. If you’ve had any experience with XNA and wished you could actually see and manipulate your 3D models, you’ll find Unity a real treat.
Put another way: if coding to the metal is open heart surgery, working with Unity is cutting a heart out of construction paper using safety scissors.
Oh God … so much blood …
If writing a beginner-friendly book was my first mandate, my secondary goal was to write a technical manual that wasn’t so damned serious as everything else i’d read. You’re learning how to make video games. Why does everything have to read like a Terms of Service agreement?
i’m a fan of an O’Reilly series called HeadFirst, which is filled with cartoons and crossword puzzles and pictures – the idea being that if you are engaged on multiple levels in a variety of different ways, you’ll retain the material better than straight-up reading block after block of text. (You can probably tell by now that i’m a big fan of breaking up text with bullet lists and pictures)
(why, look – there’s one now)
i’d love to work on a HeadFirst book one day. For now, as Packt is a small and relatively new publisher, i had to eschew the stock photography and crossword puzzles. But what i could do, and what David requested i do, was to pepper the text with humour. David wanted the same sense of humour i forcibly inject into this blog to bleed into the book.
You’ll laugh and you’ll LIKE it.
One of the book’s technical reviewers apparently didn’t get the memo. Throughout the drafts of the first two chapters, he filled the page up with comments like “please cut the humour – this is a technical manual, not the Muppet Show”, and “Well I never!” i think i even counted one or two “harrumphs” in there. It was like Packt had hired that wealthy dowager whose house the Three Stooges paint to review my book.
Well, it’s a fine day to buy a computer book, isn’t it Mr. Picklefeather?
i re-connected with David. This reviewer seemed pretty peeved. Did i really have to go through the whole book and strip out all of the witty asides and punny paragraph headings? That would be like taking the red nose and seltzer bottle away from a clown. And then giving him colon cancer.
It got cleared up in short order. i’m not sure Packt even kept that reviewer on for the remainder of the project, and in the end, humour won out.
Packt maintains a staff in India, who were responsible for copy-editing the book. You may have heard about the cultural growing pains of outsourcing work to foreign countries? While it was far from a nightmare, i did find myself going to bat more than once for various cultural references or turns of phrase that didn’t make sense to my editor from Mumbai – especially whenever i bent the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation for the sake of the yuks.
Worst. Game. Evar.
was corrected to read
Worst Game Ever
i had to do the legwork to explain that, well, there’s this character on the once-popular teevee program The Simpsons, you see, and he enjoys comic books …
Jokes are so much funnier when you have to explain them.
Explaining why the word “evar” had to be spelled that way was even more of a challenge. Many of our email volleys ended with “just leave it cuz it’s funnier that way.” After she edited “cuz” to “because” for spite, i usually won out. ;)
The result is a book that i’m very, very proud of: one that makes a great introduction to Unity, 3D graphics, game programming and design, and in a way that encourages the reader to start small, finish something (even if it’s terrible!), and slowly build up those skills until he’s ready to release his opus. Unity 3D Game Development By Example is well worth buying. And the best news of all? i even managed to sneak in a few dick jokes.
My grandfather worked as a bailiff in Thunder Bay Ontario. Once day in the courtroom, there was a man brought in who had a dispute with his wife. In the middle of the hearing, he stood up and drew his gun. He shot and killed his wife, the judge, and his lawyer, before turning the gun on himself. The last two men standing were my grandfather and the court stenographer.
See? It all comes full circle.
Thunder Bay needed a judge. My grandfather the bailiff, who to my knowledge had had no formal judiciary or legal training, was appointed to the position. He became a popular judge of young offenders, and there’s a building in Thunder Bay across from the University that’s named after him.
Many colleges and Universities now offer programs in video game development, as well as golf course management, creative writing, and even stand-up comedy (!). Don’t let the burden of a lack of training or experience get in the way of what you want to do. Get a job making video games even though you’ve never made one. Write a book, even though you’ve never written one and don’t know the subject matter. Perform open heart surgery even though you’re not a “doctor” (whatever that means). Recognize when the swirling twin tornadoes of chance and opportunity settle on your house, and get swept up. Otherwise, you’ll be lying on your death bed wondering what might have been.
And let’s hope to God you’re not in for heart disease.