#141 Freya Holmér a level-designer turned game-developer
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Freya Holmér 0:00 Throwing objects, you know, with your arm like you physically throw things. That is something that you can have that feeling outside of VR. And even if you're like holding a Wiimote or whatever, it still feels a little bit detached. You have this like layer of abstraction. When you're in VR, you very much feel like you're actually there. It sounds so cliche, but you really do. So that was one thing like throwing was really fun. And then we realized that hiding from enemies and the feeling of enemy spotting you felt so much more terrifying than it does outside of VR. Like having having some like humanoid character turn their head towards you and like, say something that they spotted you or whatever, that had this like exciting rush of like shit, I'm discovered, like, my character was not discovered. I was discovered, you know?
Tim Bourguignon 1:07 Hello, and welcome to developer's journey, the podcast, bringing you the making of stories of successful software developers to help you on your upcoming journey. My name is Tim Bourguignon, and on this episode of 141, I received Freya Holmér. Freya is an indie developer and educator, a math influencer and streamer partnered on Twitch. Freya is also the creator of the Unity plugins, Shapes and Shader Forge. She's also the ex co-founder of NeatCorp, the creators of the Budget Cuts VR games. Freya, welcome to DevJourney.
Freya Holmér 1:41 Thank you so much for having me.
Tim Bourguignon 1:43 So Freya, the show exists to help the listeners understand what your stories looked like, and imagine how to shape their own future. So let's go back to your beginnings. Where would you place the start of your developer's journey?
Freya Holmér 1:57 This is a very difficult question to answer, because there are like so many points, like during my life, where I could imagine that being the start of my career, I guess. But yeah, I don't know. I guess it. I mean, I suppose most people in the games industry, I imagine it kind of starts with a passion for games, like you're interested in playing games, and just being in those universes and experiencing all of that. So I guess that was sort of the starting point for me to get into game development, which was sort of, you know, when you're young, it's kind of difficult to know what you're going to work with as a like, as a profession, right. But so, you know, in the beginning of your life, you're kind of just like a child and adulthood and feels like it's super far away. But once I started growing up and started, you know, I noticed that I played a lot of games, I was super interested in games. And I discovered that you could do mods for games and like, tweak games, and, and all of that stuff. So I kind of got into the modding community. And it took a surprisingly long time for me to realize that you could actually work with making games. So I think that was sort of the the starting point for me that I realized that you know, this, this is, for me, this is what I enjoy doing. I really passionate about games, like boats playing and, like modding them, I just found that creative effort to be really interesting. So I think that was sort of the the starting point for for me,
Tim Bourguignon 3:20 When you said, you were in this game world, you meant not necessarily video games world as a starting point did you? Probably board-games, and pen-and-paper games or whatever as well?
Freya Holmér 3:32 For me, it was entirely digital games. I don't think I was ever into board games or like tabletop RPGs or anything. So So for me, it was entirely digital. Because I, you know, I really enjoy spending time with the computer because it's very, like easy to do things. Everything is accessible at your fingertips. You don't have to, like bring out any physical items or whatever. I'm pretty lazy person. So it's just easier to me. But yeah, so so that was kind of the, the what kind of made me interested in gains, although there were times where like, you know, we have my grandparents had a summer house when I was growing up. And they did not have any computers at the summer house. And I was like sorely missing them every time. Like every summer holiday or whatever. I was just missing the computers. So I used to do these like I used to like sort of play and design like RTS games and platformers would just like drawing on paper and then like having little paper cutouts of like, oh, here's some RTS units from Total Annihilation or whatever game I was interested in at the time.
Tim Bourguignon 4:35 Oh, boy, that take me far, far away. Is there a special point in time where you went from a consumer to a creator? And how did that looked like? You talked about level-modding, how did you get into it? Was there a trigger? Was it something to to push you into that?
Freya Holmér 4:55 I think some of the earliest games that pushed me into that was TrackMania the very first TruckMania game. Or actually, I guess technically the first patch to the first TrackMania can call truck mania powerup. That game has a really, really good level editor. And that just fascinated me, it was really cool that you could like very easily create levels for this game. And it has a very TrackMania isn't there's a weird space of being an arcade racing game, while also being very, very skill based. And so a big part of the game is just trying to figure out the best path through any of the weird levels you have. So it was just really, it's a good game, and all of the modding tools made it really fun. And at the time, TrackMania kind of had, you know, a lot of games at the time had a lot of exposed files, like you would have image files just sitting in a folder. And you could just edit those image files, if you wanted to edit the way the game looks. So modding was relatively easy, I could just, like, open up a thing in my like, cracked version of Adobe Photoshop, and, you know, mod mod those files, and then, you know, see the game change. So used to create these, like, you know, maybe there was a desert environment in in TrackMania. So I wanted to see, you know, what would it look like if I just swapped out the textures to like, snow textures. So you did all sorts of like modeling like that. But, but I think the the biggest point, or the the sort of turning point where he went from, you know, I'm just modding or I'm just making, you know, levels for gains. I think the turning point was Team Fortress two, I think that was the game that made me realize that I'm actually more passionate about this than I thought, and I, I want to pursue this for a living now. So relatively quickly, as I got into the level making in, in the Source engine for Team Fortress 2, I, I got, it was just so fascinating to me to, you know, you, you spend all this time creating something, you're creating a world for people to play in, and then you hop onto a server in Team Fortress 2, and you have like, 32 people like playing a thing you created by feeling was just amazing. To me, it was just like, holy shit, they're like all of these people experiencing something I created having fun in this space that I created. And that was really inspiring. And so so that was like the really the the point at which, where I was just like, 100% decided that, you know, I'm my goal is I'm going to be a level designer at Valve. That's, that's what I'm gonna do. That's my goal. And then I just a huge part, like many years after that, that was still my goal. And I was just working toward that for a very long time.
Tim Bourguignon 7:44 Is it still your goal nowadays?
Freya Holmér 7:46 No, it's
Tim Bourguignon 7:48 We'll see, we'll see where that's swept up at some point. So you're experiencing a fast feedback and people playing your levels and getting this on this, this rush of Oh, wow, they're doing what, what I created? How did you go from there? Did you have a plan? Do you have an idea how one become a professional level designer?
Freya Holmér 8:10 Um, so the there was a pretty thin layer between making levels for like, as a moderator for Team Fortress two, versus, you know, what the employees and valve would do internally. So you know, making levels for Team Fortress two kind of involves a big part of the actual process and making, you know, official levels. So, you know, given that, if I make levels for Team Fortress two, and I actually finished them and wrap them up and everything, and have done like proper play testing sessions and got all the aesthetic style with lighting and all of that, then I have gone through a very similar process to the people at the company. So what ends up happening is that you have a portfolio piece, they're like, immediately ready to go. So so back when I had a portfolio, you know, I had several Team Fortress two levels there. Because if you can make levels for FPS games to that degree, then you know, you're generally in a good spot for applying for a job, except for the fact that you don't have like industry experience.
Tim Bourguignon 9:14 Were you working on the side at that time? Or was it still school or high school time?
Freya Holmér 9:20 I was at school at that time. Let's see it was near the end of high school. And then like, right as I switched to a school called future games, I studied game design there. So my Team Fortress two stuff was like at the end of high school and at the beginning of future things,
Tim Bourguignon 9:40 Did help you get approved. How do you call that?
Freya Holmér 9:43 Yeah, yeah, he sort of you apply to to future games, and then you you need to get accepted into that school. And it's a vocational education. It's specifically like preparing you for the games industry. But yeah, so I just wrote a design document on all of my thoughts. Behind the design of one of my Team Fortress two levels,
Tim Bourguignon 10:03 How was it being an apprentice or a student?
Freya Holmér 10:11 Um, it was good. Like, it was very much a net positive. But it was a little weird for me. Because I feel like I, I was very much into level design. But the cores involved a lot more than quote unquote, just level design. So level design was just a small part of the whole thing. So So at the time, I felt like a lot of the other courses that we had felt a little unnecessary. Like, I didn't care that much about game design, I mostly just wanted to do level design, and, to some extent, some like 3d art as well. But so for me, it was kind of like, it was really good is in the sense that I actually got to meet a lot of industry people. And pretty much everybody that was in my class got into the industry as well. So it was like, super, super good way to make connections for the future. But, but otherwise, the the stuff that I was interested in, I didn't really learn much more about that, because I'd been doing it for such a long time before. And it's understandable that the because the education wasn't about level assign, you know, but, but overall, it was really, really good.
Tim Bourguignon 11:21 It besides those connections, what did you learn? If you had to build a curriculum nowadays, would you build it this way? Would you do it differently?
Freya Holmér 11:32 I don't know what would be the best way of doing this. And like it, like even though I, at the time, I was thinking I would just be a level designer forever. But that turned out not to be the case. Because at future games, I was introduced to a lot of like, fields that I didn't know, that I might want to work in. So, you know, I started getting into programming properly at future games, one, you know, when I discovered unity, and coding in C sharp, that was like, a huge step for me, right? Like realize that, oh, you know, if you, you don't just have to make levels, you can actually make entire games relatively easily now that there are these engines you can work with?
Tim Bourguignon 12:12 Okay, how was the curriculum set up? Was it very project based? Was it a mix and match? Did you have some field experience, or some kind of alternating between between teaching or learning and then going to company and doing something with them, or how was it set up?
Freya Holmér 12:33 The entire course was two years. And I believe the the last like 30 weeks or something was for internship. But before that, like during the actual education was kind of alternating between lectures, and projects. So there, there would be like three big projects throughout the your, the whole thing. So the first project was a board game project. The second project was to make a project in, I believe it was in Unreal, or UDK at the time. And then the third project was a unity project. So So those were kind of spread out. So the Unity project was the final big project. So what they would do was, future games has a class of game designers, but it also has a class of artists. So what they would do during the projects is that they merge, and then you have teams, with the designers and the artists and you, you basically have a mini game studio.
Tim Bourguignon 13:31 Did it feel, or does it feel retrospectively, like a mini-game-studio? That you had this studio culture, that you learned live with and to strive on? Or was it more like university or college felt for some like me: completely unrelated to what we did after that.
Freya Holmér 13:53 No, it felt pretty close. But then again, I mean, indie developers, so it's close to indie development, but maybe not so close to Tripoli. That was kind of the first time I properly work together with other people, which, it's probably good to force me to do that, because I tend to be very solitary in many ways. So it was really good to get that experience. Because, you know, communication is a huge aspect of any project, right? So you have to learn how to, you know, set expectations and change your own expectations and, you know, talk to people see what's going to be needed and try to not crunch that kind of thing. You know,
Tim Bourguignon 14:34 Because you just spoke about triple AAA games, when you were describing your wish for the future of just making level design, that's what I would expect from somebody working on a triple AAA game: you just focus on one task and one task only. And you do that well. But at some point, you steered toward indie development, which is in contradiction to that. Can you tell that story? The story of that idea emerging and how you went into that path?
Freya Holmér 15:03 Yeah. So I think the, the tipping point for me was, I guess it was two things that happened. One, as soon as I got into learning unity and programming, I just find it really fun to make my own small projects, and two was my internship at Avalon studios. The internship sort of that's, that was like, sort of my only experience with AAA. And I kind of quickly realized that this is not for me, I felt a little too limited, I with the scope of what I was doing was way too small. So you know, if I wanted to do level design, and level art, and lighting, and all sorts of stuff you do when you're modding, or making level for like Team Fortress two, if you're at a big game studio, chances are someone else is doing the lighting, someone else is doing the art, someone else might even be doing the design. And maybe I'm just there to like, you know, put together an existing design just for prototyping, or set up some scripting events, you know, enter this trigger, this door opens like, then, you know, I don't want to be in that narrow of a field. So that's when I realized that, like, Tripoli is cool in the scope of what can be achieved in games. But I don't enjoy working on it. It's just not fun for me. So for me, I, I really like hopping between different fields within game development. And I still do, it's very hard to pinpoint what I do. But I just realized that AAA was not for me, but I was sort of still feeling like, you know, valve is a bit of an exception in the triple A games, sphere, right, because they have a very, very different company structure. And it's way more freeform, and it's much less that you have strict rules, and you're forced into that, and much more so that you're kind of floating around, and you can do a little bit more what you want. And in the end, that's my goal. That's, that's why I'm in the games industry, I want to do what I enjoy doing. And I don't want to end up you know, having a job where, you know, for eight hours, almost every day, I am miserable, you know, so so my goal has always been to work on things that I enjoy working on.
Tim Bourguignon 17:25 So this leaves only two options: Valve or doing whatever you want to do as a freelancer or as a business owner or something like this.
Freya Holmér 17:34 Exactly. Yeah.
Tim Bourguignon 17:35 Okay. So how do you did you go from graduating from future games, to breaking into this in the indie world and making a name of yourself and finding your sweet spot, or all those sweet spots you're involved in nowadays?
Freya Holmér 17:52 After the internship at Avalanche, I sort of got fired slash left at the same time. We, we had this weird situation where I was like, you know, I don't want to do just level scripting. I feel like I want to spread my wings and do more like design stuff and art stuff in level design. And I feel like that was sort of, that's what I was expecting to do. And that's not what I'm doing. And I feel like I'm not learning the thing I want to learn here. And they basically responded with something along the lines of like, well, we want you here to do that specific thing. And if you don't want to do that thing, then we don't want you here either. And then we kind of just agreed to like, not that I just didn't want to stay there anymore. It was this awkward moments. I remember. Like, I remember specifically asking one of the people. I literally asked like, Hey, have I like burned a bridge here? I'm a little worried. You're gonna, like not, you know, appreciate me after this. And I remember one of them was kind of like angry. And he was kind of like, yeah, you know, I don't think we're we're gonna want to have you back here. And I was like, Oh, yeah, I suppose. But it was an experience. Although a few years later, I did some freelance work for them freelance programming.
Tim Bourguignon 19:11 There you go.
Freya Holmér 19:12 It ended up working out? But yeah, so after the internship, I wanted to work at a smaller studio. I just wanted to work in an indie studio. I didn't want this huge studio anymore. So I went to a studio called ziele game studios, which doesn't exist anymore. Who was an indie game studio, where paradox was their publisher, you probably heard a paradox. So yeah, the we were working on games there. And I kind of finally got to do more things. You know, I could get to work with doing more technical art, which I hadn't been doing too much before. And yeah, so I got got pretty much heavily into that. At the same time as I was working at zeagle game studios. I was also working on a little indie game called a flow storm on the Like at home, it's a So long story. I don't want to go too deeply into it. But while we were working on zero Game Studios, so it was me and my partner at the time, we were working on flusser, this little rocket ship game, we wanted to make a Kickstarter for this game, like kind of leave our job, and then do a Kickstarter for flow storm. Yeah, the the Kickstarter ended up not working out, because running a Kickstarter is really, really hard. So yeah, and with Kickstarter, it's kind of like, either you are funded or you get nothing. And we were in the get nothing. But anyway, so after that, we kind of started freelancing instead, instead of like working at a studio, I think around that time was when I went back to future games, but as a teacher instead of a student. So I went back to future games. And I think I had a few like, short, like presentations and whatnot. But I also did one lecture on programming in C sharp, so that was kind of my first proper teaching experience. And it was like, easier to do that when you're freelancing, because then you've literally, you know, you have time for that you're not working somewhere else. And I remember, I was supervising the students when they were working in, in unity, you know, they had their unity like Final big unity project. And I was supervising them during that. And I just like, realize how, how many of them were missing the shader editor of the Unreal Engine. And I kind of like, I was missing it, too, you know, it was sitting there in unity, making my own like game and whatnot. And then I just missed using the shader editor, because the that part was like one of the most interesting things to me, and in Unreal Engine, because I, I love making shaders, it was like, I don't know, I've always had an interest in like, geometry. And, like, math that can be visualized. And shaders is kind of literally that. So it just hit that hit a sweet spot for me,
Tim Bourguignon 22:03 Could you give a very high level explanation of what a Shader is for the listeners?
Freya Holmér 22:10 Sure. shader is what's handling the drawing of pretty much every object in a game. So you have some simple inputs of like, Oh, I want to draw this character at this location with maybe some parameters for how we should look what textures to use, maybe there are some flashing automated things on the character. So a shader is kind of the code that handles that aspect. You know, it's on a fundamental level, a shader is a very, very simple thing. It's a thing that takes, you know, the the vertices of a mesh, and then you can place those vertices somewhere on screen. And then you can write code that can change the color of every pixel. It's it's just a little code snippet that says, you know, given this data, What color should this pixel have? That's kind of it sounds very simple. But this is what you do for every single object and every game. So yeah. And the the amount of creativity you can express there is huge. So yeah, that's, I guess that's what, you know, I was following the students and supervising their projects. And so many of the students were like, you know, I want to make a shader that does this. And I'm like, yeah, there's not really a good way of doing that in unity. And they haven't had like a course on how to code shaders. So I was just a little sad, because, you know, I, I always found shaders to be this really fun thing that's very, like visual and cool. And it sort of enables you to do all the like, you know, you can avoid the Unity look, you can avoid the Unreal look on your games, right, you can make your own art style. And so I while I was supervising, I was kind of started experimenting with making my own shader editor in unity. So because Unity has this really, like weird and neat thing, where, you know, you write your games in C sharp, but you also write plugins for unity in C sharp, it's kind of, it's all the same, and you use like pretty much the same techniques, and like entry points and functions. So it's pretty easy to go from making games in unity to making tools in unity, the only thing you have to learn is like how to handle UI and like serialization, or whatever. So I started looking into tool development and unity, and also how to write shader code because I've never written shader code. And I only been using the Unreal Engine material editor. But there's a lot that carries over from a node based editor to writing, you know, shader code by hand. Yeah, so I just started slowly working on but and as I started realizing that this is actually growing into a tool that does what I want it to do, it does what many many, many people out there would want it to do. You know that point I'd Realize that okay, this, this is probably going to be a useful thing for many people in the Unity game dev sphere. Because there there was only one shader editor that's that had been done before, the one that I was working on. But it was getting very outdated, and the person who worked on it, Tim Cooper was hired by unity. And then he started working on their new UI system. So he didn't really work on the shader editor there at the time. So there was this huge gap in the market where everybody wanted a shader editor, there was only one old legacy thing. And unity was very vague at the time, like whether or not they were going to make their official one. So I ended up releasing shader forge as a plugin on the Asset Store. I forget exactly no way it's on it was in 2014 that I released shader forge 1.0. And, yeah, so that was how shader forge spawned it? was it? Was
Tim Bourguignon 25:55 Was it an open source project back then? Or was it an asset that you would buy?
Freya Holmér 26:00 It was an asset on the Asset Store? Yeah. which turned out to be a really good idea. Because you know, when there's a gap in the market, a lot of people are gonna buy it. And that means you're gonna make money all of a sudden, which is good. If you haven't, like start your own indie studio, or you want to make your own projects. So yeah, that's like after shade of orange managed to sell at that level. And we were pretty much making two full time salaries. And so yeah, so we could just start a studio now. So that's how ni Corp got created. And, yeah, so we kind of got on onto the path of like, okay, we've been working on this little indie game called flow storm. And we had a Kickstarter for it that if the fails, so we have to, you know, start freelancing instead of working on the indie game. But after shader forge just kind of exploded. Now, we could go back to working on that again, right? We only had like a few weeks that we worked on that. And then we went to GDC. And at GDC, we we kind of accidentally bumped into people at Valve. And we ended up like it was at some party. I think it was like the Unity Party somewhere. We were just like, awkwardly standing around, you know, when you're you don't know who to talk to. And I don't know. So we just decided that, okay, let's, let's just walk over to this table, and just talk to those two people. And they just happened to work at Valve, because who didn't know who they were. And we got, you know, talking about VR and whatnot. And turns out, they were working on the very, very early stages of the first vive, the VR headset. And they knew about shader Forge, so I sort of had an in there, they were like, oh, you're the person who made shader Forge. That's cool. And then, you know, given like, I had some amount of like reputation from that, so they were like, Oh, yeah, sure we can, we can give you a vibe, you can experiment with games. Yeah. So that's how, like, that's how Nick Karp started working with VR. And that turned into the game called budget cuts.
Tim Bourguignon 28:05 How did you go from having a Vive and playing with it, to "Okay, we should be doing something professionally, we should create a game for that and not just not just play with it". How did you go from this idea to realizing it?
Freya Holmér 28:21 At the time, the process was kind of there's no difference between the two. The playing with it was sort of the way that we figured out what would be a good game in this platform, right? I think a sign of a good VR game, it's not a guarantee. But I think assigned for a game that is good in VR, it sort of has to only work in VR, because VR is kind of clunky, and it's kind of uncomfortable, you sort of have to justify having a VR headset, you know, so So part of our design goals was to make a game that is only possible in VR. And if you tried to make it outside of VR, it would probably be boring. Like that would be sort of a sign of success. But there was no there was no established like norm for what makes a good VR game or what even like what design language to even use. So it was you know, we just took like, two weeks of doing nothing, but just playing around and prototyping, just doing random stuff. Until we found something that was fun, where we just realized that oh, this feels very different from any other game. We've played. The, I think the the biggest, like catalysts for us that made us like realize that okay, this is what we want to do was when we added throwing in our game, throwing objects, you know, with your arm, like you physically throw things, that is something that you can have that feeling outside of VR, and even if you're like holding a Wiimote or whatever, it still feels a little bit detached. You have this like layer of abstraction. When you in VR, you very much feel like you're actually there. It sounds so cliche, but you really do. And it doesn't. It doesn't matter what art style you have, that was also an interesting discovery. Like, it doesn't have to be realistic, it doesn't have to look realistic for you to feel like you're there. So that was one thing, like throwing was really fun. And then we realized that hiding from enemies and the feeling of enemy spotting, you felt so much more terrifying than it does outside of VR. Like having having some like humanoid character turn their head towards you, and like, see something that they spotted your whatever that had this like, exciting rush of like, shit, I'm discovered, like, my character was not discovered, I was discovered, you know, that was a really, really cool feeling. So we kind of combine these things. And we ended up wanting to make a stealth game, because that, you know, being spotted by like guards or whatever, fits a stealth game pretty well. And then we had throwing knives to get her throwing the catagen. So we made this like, very short, little demo, like release a free demo of like, one level, in in budget cuts, and just released that. And the demo for budget cuts was a really big success, I was kind of taken aback by how, just how many people enjoyed playing that demo. So it was just this weird thing I've never experienced before, where every single person who played our game loved it, I have never had that happen before. Like, usually, you're gonna get like, one out of 10 people are like, Oh, this is this is neat. I kind of want to play this, you know, I kind of want this game. The other nine people are gonna be like, that's, that's pretty cool. Sorry, Mike type of game, but that's kind of it. Um, but with with budget cuts, when we were demoing the game with like, various conventions and whatnot. Like, every single person was like, wow, holy shit. This was really, really cool. And, and, and so like, after we demoed it in a bunch of places, we sort of felt this huge pressure of like, Oh, God, we did something very, right. We're not entirely sure what we did, right? Because we're getting zero feedback from people. Everybody just likes it. And so, so then we had to, like, figure out how to develop this into a full game, which was a really, really challenging experience. Because we were a very small team. And trying to develop, you know, a full scale game like this is hard. But yeah, that's, that's the whole experience.
Tim Bourguignon 32:42 When when you have a success like this early on, then that comes with a bucket of expectation.
Freya Holmér 32:47 It does. Yeah.
Tim Bourguignon 32:48 Must be awful to balance.
Freya Holmér 32:51 Yeah, is this like bittersweet thing, like it was, of course, like really fun and cool to have so many people like your thing. But the expectations for the final game was like sky high. And, you know, of course, there were a lot of other people that saw our game, they played the demo, and they really thought that was cool. And then other games started, like picking up on, you know, some of the mechanics we had in our game, and like release their games before we release, you know, the final version of version of budget cuts. So I think a big part of the success of the demo was that there was some novelty value in even just VR, and some of the basic mechanics we had. And that was less novel at the time of release of the first, you know, budget cuts. 1.0. Yeah, so it was hard to balance those things. And the release went well, but it didn't live up to people's expectations, because again, expectations were way too high. And we also had a really, really stressful, like, final development, you know, set of months. So we like released with a bunch of bugs, because we literally did not have the time to fix them. So yeah, it was a stressful time. And it was probably the only time in my life that I was burnt out. So I have like, a lot of negative memories from that time. Yeah. Yeah, it sucks. Like, like, I wish I it was just a purely positive memory, but it's not.
Tim Bourguignon 34:12 Yeah, what you just described with the expectation and everything, is basically what we see at the, at the big gaming conventions, E3 and so. You see a technical demo and say, "wow, I want that now, not in three years, now!" Three years down the line technology has pushed so far, that games look very different and then expectations are even higher than that. What was the timeline between the demo and the release?
Freya Holmér 34:40 I don't remember exactly. I want to say two years. We have a lot of disagreements, or we had a lot of disagreements within the team for what approach we should take to the game. I think I wanted to make the game a little bit more kind of like the demo probably just out of fear because people like the demo. So I just wanted to take the demo and make it longer. Cuz I didn't want to like a risk taking, like making some mistakes or whatever. And some other people in the company wanted to have a more like, you know, now that it's a full game, people are going to expect a story and like dialogue and like kind of expand the whole thing to be feel more like a full game experience. So we sort of had this like internal conflict within the company, like how arcade versus cinematic the game shouldn't be, we ended up going the cinematic route. And I still don't know if that was good or bad is probably good. But it also means that there's that there's a lot of extra work to do. But, but yeah, so I think for me, personally, that was sort of the the moment where I think I started feeling a little bit jaded. And a little bit, you know, we want to have a very flat company structure at ni Corp. And that's good to make people feel like you have agency and you can actually make changes to things and you don't just have to listen to, you know, whatever your boss dictates you to say or do. But the downside with a flat hierarchy is that you very, very, very often get stuck in these like decision gridlocks, where a lot of people have inputs about something. And if you disagree about that, you have to kind of resolve that disagreements, you can't can't just ignore it, you know. And you can see that that's a good thing, if you have time to have those disagreements, and if you have energy to have those disagreements, but I ended up being I ended up just giving up a lot of the like, stronger opinions that I had about game design or story or whatever. And I ended up kind of clinical just doing code. Yeah. So that's when I kind of learned that that is bad for me. If I do that, I slide into burnout and apathy. And the only thing I enjoy in life is like eating and watching YouTube videos and sleeping. Those were like the highlights of my day. I think that was that's the only time I've dealt with like something similar to depression. And it's gotten me like, I don't know, a newfound respect for people who manage to like live with depression. It's It's wild. But yeah, so that that was like, I was very, very, very burnt out and took a long break after. After budget cuts well break is probably the wrong term to use. I was on sick leave for a long time. Yeah,
Tim Bourguignon 37:20 How did you manage to get out of burnout?
Freya Holmér 37:21 the only solution that is a known for burnout is to remove yourself from the cost of the burnout, there doesn't seem to be like, there doesn't seem to be like any bulletproof ways of like just solving it at this point. As far as I could tell, and I think I was what helps me too, I was on sick leave for several months. And during that time, I could detach myself from the project, I could, you know, ignore everything related to budget cuts for a few months. And I could kind of in the beginning, you kind of do nothing for a while while your brain starts trying to reset to, you know, some sort of normalcy. But after a while, I started getting you know, the the creative spark back again. And I started realizing, you know, everything started coming back to me in terms of like, what I actually enjoyed doing in game development, like, why I got into this in the first place. Because when you're deep in burnout, you feel so disconnected. It's just, it's just not interesting. And it's just not something you want to do. But but it was it was during that time, where I started realizing what I want to do in, in game development, and the creative spark just returned to me after a while. It took a long time. It wasn't like instantaneous or anything. But uh, yeah, so so I basically got back to working on flow storm again, like slowly started doing, like, there was like the third rewrite or fourth entire rewrite of that game. But this time was just working on it on my own. But But yeah, and at the same time, I also started streaming, just kind of dipping my toes into it, seeing what it's like, if it's fun, it's not fun. So that was kind of my first entry into into that.
Tim Bourguignon 39:08 But this is quite recent, isn't it?
Freya Holmér 39:10 It's pretty recent. I I want to say around 2018. I think I couldn't be wrong. It feels like it's quite a long time ago. I want to say that it's more recent, but somewhere there.
Tim Bourguignon 39:22 Okay, when when you started streaming was just an idea of, well, let's do this for fun, and just see where that goes out? Or did you want to bring this teaching part again in your life after doing it for future game for a while? Did you have a plan behind it? Or was just dipping your toes and see where that goes?
Freya Holmér 39:40 That's a very good question. I actually don't remember why I started streaming. I don't think I remember. Yeah, that's a very good question. I mean, I can post rationalize it, but I don't know what my actual reasons were. But I think one part or one aspect of it, it's not the whole Reason, but one part of it is because I felt that it was a pretty good motivator. Like, if you if you have an audience watching you work on something, they're expecting you to keep working on that something, you can just take a long break. And, you know, go watch a YouTube video for an hour. So, you know, working on my own projects, and that at home, that was a good way of like making sure that actually get stuff done. And it was also like a fun, like community aspect to it. You know, they're, you know, eventually you start getting regulars, people who show up pretty much every time and you can just start, you know, we start remembering names and chat and you get some sort of parasocial relationship with them. So yeah, but that was also a fun part of it. But it started out being I started out just doing the game jam, like an online game jam of like, you know what, I'm gonna just do a game jam. And people in chat can give suggestions on what to make. I didn't do that for very long. I think I did like three or four streams with that. And then I ended up and started working on flow storm again, and I did that on stream. So then flow storm kind of became this project of that was like, pretty much the entire development of flow storm so far has been strained, I think about 95% or so. scope, because I think that was kind of like, it was an interesting opportunity to just like both show what I'm working on, which is kind of marketing to some extent. And also to have people ask questions about the industry and how Game Dev works, how shaders work, how anything works. And I, I was in a position where I could answer a lot of those questions. So I think a lot of people find value in in the, you know, answers I could give. So it ended up being this combination of, you know, working on my stuff, while also having a bit of an educational and informative approach to it. So people in Chicago feel more engaged.
Tim Bourguignon 41:50 How is your experience working in the open like this, and really showing the world that you're googling stuff, like we all do, and, and not being scared of it?
Freya Holmér 42:01 It's pretty okay. Um, I think this probably varies a lot from person to person, I think it kind of ties into your self esteem, I think if you have a pretty high self esteem, you're probably pretty fit for streaming. If you have a low self esteem, you should definitely not stream it's, you tend to get a lot of people kind of backseat programming and backseat questioning everything you're doing. It's kind of like YouTube comments, but real time. And, you know, YouTube comments, right? So so you have to have some level of like, you have to be able to deal with that. And, and, you know, it's sometimes hard. Sometimes it's okay, sometimes it's easy to dismiss them as just assholes. It's it goes back and forth. It's, for me, I think if people try to backseat code, I'm relatively okay with that. Because I usually have a good reason for doing the things I'm doing. So I can always I always have an answer. If someone is like, oh, why don't you use a for loop here instead of a link query? Then I can just say, well, performance doesn't matter here. So use the link, right? Because it's more readable, and I prefer more readable code. Like I always have a straight answer for why I do something rather than something else. But usually, the people that tend to backseat code don't give very good advice. Anyway. What I do dislike though, what does get to me is when I'm doing art, and people backseat my art, because I don't have a good answer for why I'm doing something rather than something else. It sometimes turns into this thing, though, like you're just getting a bunch of criticism for things that I'm usually aware of, like, hey, this thing should look better. And of course, I agree that it should look better, you know, but but it's just frustrating to sometimes have people kind of lay railroad tracks in front of you that you already were intending to pass and like, it feels like I don't know, you or at least I get this weird feeling of like, I don't want to make it seem like I'm just doing what Chad is telling me to do, which is probably this weird, like pride and narcissistic thing of like, I want to make it seem like all of the ideas are unique and mine and mine alone. But I don't know that it just frustrates me when people backseat coding or sorry, not putting art specifically. That's probably the only thing that like bothers me. Otherwise, I mean, there are so many weird people online people who have weird comments and weird ideas and suggestions that just don't make sense. And it's easy to just dismiss them for me at least. But uh, but yeah, it's it's hard sometimes. So, and there are also like other things when it comes to streaming where you depending on how you are as a person, it can be pretty taxing to just be social and interesting while you're working. So that in and of itself can sometimes be like hard on yourself like and during some streams I'm just exhausted even if I've been working streaming for like like three hours is enough to make me pretty tired. Because it's like you're, you're working and you're trying to be entertaining and helpful and educational at the same time. And yeah, it's a lot. So I wouldn't be able to do this like eight hours per day or something. So
Tim Bourguignon 45:17 You should not, and I guess the viewers couldn't follow up more than more than a few hours at a time anyway. I mean, it's too much for your brain.
Freya Holmér 45:26 Although if you want to like min-max, your Twitch stats, and followers and viewers and subscribers, then the way to go is that you have to stream as much as possible. That's like the, the number one factor to succeed as a streamer is to stream often. It's it's kind of weird, but there's a direct relationship thing.
Tim Bourguignon 45:45 Yeah, indeed, Indeed, indeed. Okay, it's time to look back. When when you started your story, you say, Okay, I want to be a game designer at Valve. And then you discovered things and and you went in different directions. And you found your sweet spot now? What would be the advice you would give somebody starting their journey now, and maybe having a fixed idea like you had, and but maybe not seeing that there is a whole world to discover before? Before fully committing to this story? What would be the advice that you would give them?
Freya Holmér 46:16 My advice would be to find your passion and what you want to do? I think this is like the number one thing, right? It's kind of hard to answer this question, because I found my passion relatively early. And I don't know how difficult or easy it is for other people to find what they want to do. There seems to be a lot of people who don't quite know what they want to do in life in terms of what they want to work with, or do creatively. I noticed that especially in high school, and to some extent, I heard of people in university, also not being quite sure what they want to do. So I think that's the number one thing if you if you don't know what you want to do, then it's really hard to pursue that. Because you don't know what your goal is. After you know what your goal is, then you kind of have to go all in on that like, like, as soon as you know what you want to do, then just just try that as hard as possible. And just do a deep dive. To the extent that you can, of course, I think those are the the number one things and if like, if you feel like you don't know what your goal is, even though you've been exploring a lot of stuff, or maybe you're even like dealing with depression, or something that is like preventing you from being passionate about something, like trying to like work around that is kind of that has to be your number one step instead. Because I think it's it's really important to be in the right mental state, I think, to pursue stuff like that. So, you know, so if you want to, if you have depression, and you're dealing with a lot of like difficult stuff, then like, trying to work through that, and like seeing a therapist and trying to like improve, that is going to be the first step before you can get excited about something. But I don't have a lot of experience with that. So I can't like talk too much about that. But I just know that like when I was burnt out, which is very similar to depression, there, like there would have been nothing that could have excited me. As long as I was still like, you know, experiencing what, what caused the burnout in the first place? Maybe if you don't know what to do, then exploring different things. Is this a good? You know, there were a lot of people at future games, myself included, that found something that they were passionate about, and then you could pursue that. In my case, it was like programming and doing like tools and more art was something that I discovered when I was in a few teams, whereas I thought it would just be doing level design forever. So yeah, I think I think them I think I strongly believe that people perform their best and do their absolute best work when they're working with something they're passionate and interested in. So if you have a passion for something trying to like shape your future to adapt to that it would be my number one. Tip
Tim Bourguignon 49:01 Awesome, that's music to my ears. Thank you. So where would be the best place to continue a discussion or start a discussion with you?
Freya Holmér 49:10 Oh, I'm on Twitter, I guess for a homer. I have a bunch of social media links, because I'm like on the internet too much. You can go to my website for all the social media links to my Discord server. And everything you can you might want there. Oh, our Discord server is kind of a like combination of game developers and otherwise tech interested people. And it's also pretty big LGBT community. So if you want to join that, then you can go to my website for all those links. It's his gig. mo.com. So it's every second letter from a to Oh, so easy, Eg ikm.com. Yeah, so all the links are there if you want to follow my stuff. Oh, and if you want to, like learn about mathematics for game developers, or shader coding for game developers, got a YouTube so youtube.com slash a sigma If you want to have my four part course, that I actually held at future games that I just recorded, and they allowed me to release it for free, and so it's a it's an actual course and like math specifically for game developers, so none of that useless stuff, everything is practical. You don't ever have to wonder, you know, when am I going to use this, that's all very, very useful.
Tim Bourguignon 50:20 Also, I'll add all those links to the show notes. So you just scroll down and click on it. Awesome, Freya. Really, really cool getting an idea of how you came to being the person you are today. Thank you very much!
Freya Holmér 50:33 Thank you so much for having me.
Tim Bourguignon 50:36 And this has been another episode of developer's journey, and we'll see each other next week. I lost count of how many journeys started with the mention of video games. It must be half of them. Subjectively speaking. But Freya did it. In fact, she wasn't a crack coder playing with a Commodore64 in her basement, nor she learned C in kindergarden. But she made it. And she made it big time. I love how her story started with a very clear direction centered on game design and slowly but surely expanded to include the whole panel of skills required to create an indie game and lead a game studio. This sentence she said: _"A sign for a good VR game is that it ('s game mechanic) has to only work in VR"_ really resonnates with me. I have tried VR a few times, but it didn't really click. Watching a few videos of Budget Cut, I think I'm starting to see her point. So tell me, what did YOU take out of this discussion? Let us know. She is @acegikmo and I'm @timothep on Twitter. And remember this other sentence Freya said: "Communication is a huge aspect of any project, you have to learn to set expectations and change your own expectations and talk to people." So talk to people. And if you don't know how to break the ice? How about mentioning this episode of DevJourney?