Fast forward a bit, and I was now at my third QA job, and although I had come close to a couple of junior designer positions, it was clear I needed a better portfolio. I needed demonstrable proof that I was a) proactive b) passionate, and c) there was at least some modicum of talent and understanding of design in my head (or that I was at least teachable!).
I had the motivation; now, I needed the tools. I didn't want to deal with a large learning curve, and wanted to limit fighting technology as much as possible. I had made a couple of small deathmatch maps in UnrealEd before, and a few action-adventure level mock-ups with fly-through cameras in 3DS Max (which I taught myself during lunch breaks at NLG). But between the aforementioned issues, and lack of excitement with what I could create out of the box with those tools, I wasn't attracted to them enough to devote serious time and energy to them. Enter GameMaker.
Besides ease of use and a relatively small learning curve, I was attracted to GameMaker for the following reasons:
I'm an unabashed retro game and pixel art nerd
It was purposely built for 2D games
It's also well suited to projects in all sorts of different genres
I wanted to make something unique and original, in which I would have total control of all aspects (without the need to do laborious modding), and making an original game from scratch in a program designed to do just that made sense
My experience in the industry was valuable here. I took these projects very seriously. I always sandboxed the core gameplay mechanics using placeholder art in a testbed and wouldn't allow myself to start making levels or real art until I was satisfied with what I had. (it was very hard to resist this temptation at times!)
I was careful not to overscope, especially important because my ambition far outstripped my programming and art abilities. I think using GameMaker over something with much more power and complexity like UnrealEd definitely helped me keep my projects from being feature creeped into development purgatory. I also kept diaries for all my projects to record my thought processes, achievements, and setbacks (which are pretty amusing to look back on now).
It wasn't easy between crunching at work, putting time into the portfolio, and trying to keep up with a social life, but in roughly a year I released four games to the public with two others as unfinished demos for prospective employers that were eventually wrapped up and put on the internet later on. Below are a few of these games and some information surrounding their origin and development:
Consumer CULTure follows a theme seen in several of my games done in GameMaker, and a concept I'm still interested in: deconstruction, or stripping down genres to their core mechanics, and removing one or more of those core mechanics and seeing what's left. This game was a deconstruction of Robotron, to be used as a vehicle to lampoon our culture of consumerism in the West. I chose Robotron because in addition to being a fan of Eugene Jarvis' work, the unrelenting nature of the game and the colorful, blaring style of old arcade games (which are essentially advertisements for themselves to get players to insert more quarters) seemed like the perfect base from which to work off of, considering what I had in mind.
De Toren was my most original game, in terms of mechanics. More than my other games to this point, I had friends playtest it and that helped greatly with tuning and adding more player feedback. I had a friend (Hi Chuck!) do the music and I was really happy with what he added to the game. I'd like to someday revisit the concept as I think more could be mined out of it. Shamless plug alert: An improved Flash port of De Toren is currently looking for a home on fgl.com.