Why I Love: City of Villains

As the history – or more accurately, this slightly faded receipt in my hand – tells it, on the second of December 2005, at 4:47 PM precisely, I walked into EB Games Carousel and purchased the City of Villains Collector’s DVD Edition for the princely sum of $74.85, beginning an on-and-off love affair that would last over three years.

City of Villains was pretty much my first MMO, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. And while I can look back and suspect that my shine for it might still be slightly rose-tinted for that naivete, I’ve since tried other MMO’s – Warhammer Online (for several months), World of Warcraft (for two weeks), Tabula Rasa (for six hours), Ultima Online (for… well, thirty minutes) – and I’ve even spent the last year balls-deep in development of another MMO. None of these games, no matter who I played them with, no matter how good the anecdotes about them, no matter how much I enjoyed working on them, none of these games have ever kept me interested, kept me excited and kept me coming back again and again like City of Villains.

As you may or may not know, the people behind City of Villains, Cryptic Studios, are currently working on another superhero-themed MMO called Champions Online. Naturally this sort of news is exciting to me, and while discussing it with my friends, all the good memories from the City of Villains days came flooding back. Our incessant talking about those halcyon days was enough to convince Jess that it was time to try it for herself, and so a few weeks ago we fired it up, and we haven’t looked back since.

There have been probably three distinct City of Villains eras for me before this one, and though I’ve always been pleased with the game’s ongoing development each time I’ve restarted, logging in again for the first time in nearly two years really floored me with the amount of improvements that they’ve been quietly crowbarring in. Though I’ve always loved the game to pieces, it has always had some distinctly glaring issues, or what I would consider to be incredibly obvious design decisions that needed to be made but which just weren’t. This time around, I could not help but be amazed at just how far they had come along in addressing those concerns. In fact, I’ve been enjoying playing it so much that I decided it was about time to write it all down and tell the world exactly why.

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Matter Of Fact, I’ve Got It Now

Having told, and retold, this story more times than I can actually remember, I figure it’s about time that I immortalised it in print. This has two benefits: first of all, the next time somebody asks me about it I can write down this site’s address, slip it into their shirt pocket and slap them on the shoulder in an overly familiar and slightly condescending manner, saving myself time and energy while simultaneously reinforcing my image as a huge wanker. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, Jess – who has heard the story approximately seventeen-and-a-half bajillion times – will no longer have to restrain herself from choking me to death every time the story needs retelling.

But what is the story, Tim. What’s it all about. Well, I’m glad you asked…

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On Epiphanies

Here’s the thing.

I spent my entire childhood drawing. I devoured paper, notebooks and sketchpads, I collected books about how to draw cartoons and superheroes, I spent hours painfully slaving over tracing paper in order to blatantly plaigarise pictures I found interesting and draw my own costumes over the top. I owned entire Garfield collections, read every Tintin and every Asterisk and Obelix until I knew them back to front. It was nuts. It was crazy. It was great.

Then I turned eleven, and the strangest thing happened. I discovered video games.

Video games are addictive enough for any kid. But when you’ve spent your whole life drawing and suddenly you realise that these are drawings that move, and walk and jump at your command, something clicks and you say I am going to make some of these and good golly they are going to be awesome. I fell, and I fell hard. And so it began, years of planning and talking idly with friends about the game system we would create, designing controllers, company logos, bragging about the awesome graphics this thing is going to put out Jesus Christ man this thing is going to be the best thing ever can you imagine.

As it turned out, imagining is all an eleven year old can really do, aside from a whole pile of what are now completely embarassing sketches. But then I got older, and working through high school and into university, nothing ever dampened my desire to be part of the video game industry. I even enrolled in a double degree in Computer Science and Multimedia, thinking these would be the best things to combine to get me where I needed to go. Turns out they were working on a Games Technology degree anyway, so when that dropped, I dropped everything else and got on board.

I had so much fun at university. The Games Technology degree taught me so much about myself and about others, about the industry and the tools you use. I made some amazing friends and had some amazing times. And though I’ve never worked harder in my life, I never stopped enjoying it. We pulled 35 hour laboratory sessions, worked every weekend for 6 months to meet deadlines and stopped living our lives altogether, but we did it. We graduated and then, after a fashion, we found work.

I was lucky enough to get my foot in the door at Interzone. Getting a games development job in Perth is hard enough, especially at Interzone who at the time basically maintained a policy of total media blackout and radio silence. It wasn’t easy, and I was rejected twice before I finally got in – doing web development, of all things – but I did it. I made it and I was happy.

Working at Interzone has been the best job of my life. I will always count myself lucky to be able to work alongside such amazing, interesting and talented people for as long as I have. I found myself no longer living for the weekend, looking forward to getting in every day and tackling new issues, finding new ways to apply myself creatively and knowing that I was appreciated and rewarded for the challenges I overcame.

That was a year ago.

When I was young, I couldn’t put my pen down. I was always coming up with ideas, dumb sketches, getting excited over this or that. Now, when I come home from work – nothing. It’s just… not there. It’s not that I don’t want to draw or paint or sketch, I just can’t muster the energy to think about what I would need to do – I’ve taken all the creative energy I had, burned it up at work and left myself empty.

So, I fire up the ol’ video games, shoot a couple people’s face clean off, and call it a night. A night not wasted, I tell myself, because I’ve had a good day at work. I’m enjoying my job and I’m building a great career, after all. This is what I spent the last ten years working and striving for. This is what I want from life, right?

And though I am having fun, I am enjoying myself, and I guess I am building the start of a great career, in my heart of hearts I start to increasingly realise that… well, no. This isn’t what I want from life. It’s fun to be part of something bigger than yourself for while, and there’s great satisfaction in knowing that you’re appreciated, but when you take a few steps back it’s not hard to realise that you’ve just spent the last year building someone else’s sandcastle.

Ten years from now, if I keep doing what I’m doing, all I’ll have to show for it are some screenshots on the internet and my name in a couple of credit rolls. Twenty years from now, I might have worked up enough industry credit and connections to make it to a senior position, from which I might be able to have some slight say in what sort of shape somebody else’s sandcastle takes. Thirty years from now, if I’m lucky – very lucky – somebody will pay me a whole lot of money to design a sandcastle for them. Forty years from now, I’ll be too old to work in the industry anymore, they’ll cut me off, give me a brand new RoboSpine 9000 as a going-away present and send me on the first bus home and in all those years I will never, ever, get to build my own goddamn sandcastle.

At the end of the day, I think I’d rather be able to tell my grandkids that I was a cartoonist, writer and illustrator who was privileged enough to work on some video games, than end up bitterly recounting to their expectant young faces another story of how, many long years ago, their grandfather used to be quite good at the old cartoons. I can’t bear to think of a future where, no matter how successful I get, I will have forgotten what it means to do something for myself.

So, I’ve decided to get out.

I love my work and I’m hoping I won’t have to ditch it just yet. But it’s draining me, badly, and I fear I might have no other choice. Even if it means working shitty retail – even it means working good retail, or data entry, or something, anything to keep me afloat and fired up while I make the transition. I will do whatever it takes.

I wanted to work in video games. I sacrificed a lot to get my foot in the door and take a shot at the dream, and I don’t regret any of it for a single moment. And maybe this is all wrong, and maybe I’ll return a year from now, sobbing at game development’s skirts and begging for her to take me back, swearing that I can change. I don’t know. I don’t know a lot of things right now.

But for the first time in my life, I’m savouring the uncertainty.

For You

My darling Jess,

11 months ago, I promised you a Valentine’s Day present. A blog for us to share together, a beautiful garden on the internet where we could plant word-seeds, and watch them spiral out of control into an overgrown and unwieldy metaphor, just like that one.

I promised this to you, and I failed.

I failed really, really badly. I know it hurt you and oh, baby, I’m so sorry. I know I had reasons – house hunting with you, moving out with you, moving in with you, settling down, working, paying the bills, all these things. But that doesn’t matter. It’s not about reasons, it’s not about just being there, meeting your expectations, being able to pay the rent. That’s the bottom line. It’s not enough to just meet that, to just be there for you when you need it.

Love is about more than that. Love is about going above and beyond what’s required, doing more than you need to do, going out of your way to make sure the person you love knows that you want them, and you need them. I’ve never been good at romantic gestures at any time, let alone now when things are so hard. But I love you, Jess. I love you more than anything. And you deserve everything I can give you. I’m so sorry I couldn’t give you this sooner.

I know times are tough, and I wish things could be better. But while we can always find more money, we can always find different jobs – I could never, ever, find another you. I love you so much, my baby, and wherever we end up, whatever roof we sleep under at night, I will always be happy knowing that I have found the woman who I am going to spend the rest of my life with. And that is the only thing that matters to me.

So. Here it is. Our new blog – shiny, sexy, web-standards-adherent (mostly, heh) and ready to be used. I hope you enjoy it.

I love you.