A Story of Hope
In early 2016, having just completed my second PC game, and with two years of coding experience under my belt, I decided to do the impossible. Well, maybe not the “impossible”, but certainly the “are you sure you want to go through with this?” The development of “I, Hope” was a life-changing journey, along which I met some of the most amazing people in the world and learned the most valuable lesson a storyteller ever could.
My passion for video games started young; growing up with two brothers in the 80’s meant that disputes were often settled with a round of Street Fighter, our birthdays were all LAN parties with the three of ours’ combined friends. My parents bought my older brother C++ coding books so he could make his own game engine when he was 7. They saved for a top-of-the-line PC for me so I could pursue 3D animation when I was 13. My older brother and I teamed up to work on a top-down space shooter in junior high, aptly named “Space”, and my younger brother and I still have custom ringtones for each other grabbed from the game “Quake”, well into our 30’s. Gaming is in my blood.
So, it should come as no surprise that when I found myself thinking about my next project, I wanted to make a game that would impact people on the same level that games have affected me my whole life. 3D adventures like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time were a mainstay of my childhood, so I knew my genre was picked out. But further, I wanted to make a game that had the most powerful message I could think of, and I wanted to make it specifically for those who needed that message the most. That message, is hope.
And the people that need it the most are children and families fighting cancer.
Once I knew what I wanted to do, the game wrote itself; A young girl named Hope lives peacefully with her Grandpa in a world of floating islands. On the day of Islandfall, the coming-of-age celebration for children of her village, a dark monster named ‘Cancer’ attacks and demolishes her home. Hope is sent by Grandpa to five neighboring islands, to collect the ‘weapons’ she will need to defeat this beast. Weapons like Knowledge, Strength, Courage, Support, and most importantly, Hope.
As passionate as I already was about the message of the game, I knew I couldn’t stop there. I needed people to understand at first glance that the game was truly coming from a place of compassion for these kids and families. There are few options for indie developers to get a platform for the reach a game like this needs to be effective. So, it was also in the first days of this project that I decided that I wanted to fully and totally donate the ENTIRE game to GameChanger Charity, a never-before-seen move that I hoped would bring the attention to the game it needed to have the impact I wanted. Because it was an industry-first, the move to donate 100% of proceeds to charity released a floodgate of support for my development and the game’s marketing efforts. People saw the game for what it was; a from the heart effort to help those in need.
Unity, Twitch, Microsoft, Razer, Indie Megabooth, DoublePlusGood Games and more threw open their doors and piled me with resources and support the likes of which even I was not prepared for.
The support from Microsoft was extreme. One-on-one help with my DevKit and setting up my development environment, multiple exhibitions of the game in their Pre-Pax Press Events, an entire User Research project geared towards tuning the message and gameplay of “I, Hope” with patients from Seattle Children’s Hospital, even paying for a month of testing with a leading QC company towards the end of the game development.
Despite all the support, it was when I was staring at a boardroom filled with Microsoft game designers that I realized I was in over my head.
It was Spring 2017 and despite hoping to be done and released by June, I had only an early build of just the first level of the game to show at a meeting at the Redmond campus. Everyone was being gracious with me, but as the comments flew and I frantically filled page after page in my notebook, I was getting a sense that some very basic functionality and design was still missing from the game. I was starting to get shaky, and the doubts were beginning to mount. I left that day wondering how I would ever finish this game, LET ALONE make it worthy of the kids that I wanted to play it. But then, something happened that steeled my resolve, and changed me forever.
Microsoft arranged a visit to Seattle Children’s hospital for the day after the meeting. I nervously entered the room of the first patient who would play the game that day, not knowing quite what to expect. A Child-Life worker wheeled the TV close to the bed and handed the controller to the young boy. It was in the instant that he touched the controller that a rush came over me. Here was a child, fighting for his life, taking some of his precious time to play my game. As he started the game, the fact that I was indeed going to finish, and do absolutely everything I could to make this the best game I possibly could, become known to me on a level deeper and clearer than anything I’ve ever known. Because, the moment someone fighting this disease spends any of their time helping you with it, you’ve forfeited your right to stop. I called my wife outside the hospital room, I was crying, and she understood what I had to do.
I had arrived at the hospital stricken with doubt but left with a steely determination that drove me to keep fighting and pushing through development, no matter the obstacles. Having clients at my animation company that needed work meant I was working 100-hour weeks for almost 8 months. My wife and two boys never saw me, save for a few hours on weekends, and as much as I sacrificed, they paid the same. Each time I was feeling unsure, another hospital trip or visit to a family’s home reassured me I was on the right path. Releasing simultaneously on PC and Xbox One meant I was essentially developing two games; graphical and data requirements were totally different. My wife would text me at 2am to make sure I wasn’t falling asleep at the wheel, I would just reply with a photo of a progress bar of a build on my screen; anything under 20% meant I was sleeping at the office. But I was not going to stop.
I spoke to many people during this time who all had the same question, “Why?” I saw a future where charities use games to not only deliver the clearest version of their message, but as a powerful fundraising tool. I saw a future where society sees gaming for what it is; the most important artistic medium of our lifetime. I saw a future where pro-social games lead young generations forward, giving them the tools they need to navigate this ever-changing and scary world. I saw that future, and I took the first step towards creating it. I hope that others will follow.
By the end, I realized my journey had mirrored the journey of Hope herself, and only when I gave myself over to the process could I succeed; I first needed the Knowledge of the disease and the tutelage of the professionals who surrounded me. I needed the Strength to commit to this monumental project, strength that kids with this disease have in absolute abundance and they so graciously lent me. I needed the Courage to believe that I might make something that can be worthy of the heroes that are fighting this real battle every day. I needed to ask for the Support of those around me, and not proudly suffer in silence when I hit obstacle after obstacle; as in the game and in the hospitals, learning how to ask for help is half the battle.
And above all, what was needed to complete the game, and honor the efforts, sacrifice, and journey of all the people involved, from kids to parents, designers to doctors, was hope.