Friday, August 27, 2010

Sequelitis: Fable 2

Sequelitis is another in what will become the regular features of this blog. In these articles, I will examine a game with an implied, likely, or announced sequel, and discuss what changes, improvements, etc. are neccessarry in order for that sequel to be justified and successful.
With Fable 3 now clearly on everyone's collective radar, and soon approaching. I figured I might give some brief thoughts on my experience with Fable 2, and what improvements to the formula I believe should be made for the sequel.

While designer Peter Molyneux has a reputation for wild exaggerated claims, this title actually lived up to most of them. For those that were fans of the original Fable, there was little to be disappointed in.

 Fable 2 is set in the same world as the original, Albion, with the timeline advanced by 500 years. The game makes only passing references to the original, so one need not have played it to understand the plot of the latest chapter. Then again, this may not necessarily be a good thing. An opportunity was missed here to take the Mass Effect rout and deliver on some of Molyneux's promises about the original Fable. Choices made in the final acts of Fable 1 could have effected the world and player character, such as their lineage (assuming they descend from the original game's hero), the state of Albion (depending on the original player's alignment and influence in the world, and the existence of some NPCs (depending on weather or not you killed your sister and other NPCs.) This would have retroactively given the studio a bit  better favor over the perceived lies surrounded Fable 1, allowing them to spin these as very long term intentions.

The biggest change from the first game lies in the streamlined combat system. Now the player has one button each to control melee, magic and ranged weapons, including guns. This sounds overly simplistic, but the system is build around context. Mashing a button as quickly as possible has one effect, holding it has another, and pressing it rhythmically has yet another. Making a melee attack against an attacking foe executes a riposte, while attacking an enemy near a ledge, wall, or other environmental feature produces another effect. This really works, providing a fun and cinematic game that's quite easy to get into regardless of skill level. It's reminiscent of Assassin's Creed, though less rewarding of your commitment than that somewhat more complex system. For Fable 3, I'm totally on board with these design philosophies. Just layer on more depth and you should be set. More contextual actions, interactive environments, variety in the moveset, etc. Some of what was shown in pre-release media (see screenshot below aswell) implied a bit more depth to the system, but there's no reason that couldn't be 100% accurate and then some for the follow up.

Looks pretty, but fence jumping is in no way integrated into combat. In the actual game, this was  a bad decision.
Molyneux has exaggerated on a few counts however. The world does not shift as dynamically as he suggested and the co-op play is serviceable, but poorly implemented.

At two particular points in the game's storyline, locally limited changes to the geography will occur. These are binary and determined solely by the player's choice of quests. When one of these changes occurs, the game explicitly points them out. Therefore, even if you haven't seen the alternative outcome, you'll know what it would have been. All of the possible outcomes can be seen in only two playthroughs. Nobody will ever be surprised by someone else's game world. I felt more control over my world in GTA: Vice City, buying up properties left and right, than I ever did here. Moloneux needs to go back to the drawing board and found where he hid all those wonderful acorns. For the sequel, I believe they should focus less on these huge overarching shifts and more on the details. Simple economic systems, based not only on what the player buys and sells but on their actions, would go far. If I kill a blacksmith, the town should be out of a blacksmith for a while. The prices of metal items should go up in the absence of a local distributor. His old shop will become devalued, and, though the player may buy the property himself, eventually a new smith will move in to fill the niche. Though this type of thing may be somewhat complex, Fable is quickly becoming outpaced as other RPGs are implementing these kinds of features. Fable will not be able to continue existing as a franchise if it's one shining, unfulfilled promise becomes overshadowed by the realities of the market.

In co-op play, the second player can import the stats of his own character, but not their avatar. Six pre-made avatars are available, none of which are aesthetically pleasing. The game tethers players together with an invisible rope, one that is often smaller than the battles, so you'll constantly bicker over control of your collective direction. The camera doesn't aid much either. I love co-op when it works, but here it feels rather tacked on. The game as a whole is an RPG - but the co-op experience is strictly hack n' slash. In several instances, I intentionally logged off of the game during story-heavy sections in order to make things easier on the primary player. Bad sign. We've already heard plenty of talk about the improvements to this system in the sequel, so I believe I can chalk up the obvious improvements to be made as taken care of.

What makes a Fable game are two things, a relatively simple setup easily acceptable to more casual audiences, and the ability to do many non-combat activities in town. Both are present and improved on here. There are more of these extra curricular activities available, but they remain minor distractions. The money earning mini games are absolute busy work - monotonous and ill-conceived. Those more enjoyable mini-games still feel somewhat tacked on and none of them will bring me back to the title. Contrast this with Red Dead Redemption's mini games which, while merely versions of classic gambling games, are handled with so much finesse and atmosphere that they are my go-to way to play blackjack, poker, and liar's dice when I lack human company. If it doesn't add to the game, it detracts. This was one of the few areas, for me, where the company's commitment to polish really seemed to fail. Hopefully, in Fable 3, everything you can do will be something someone might actually want to.

The other half of the non-combat activity is intended to be your interaction with the world and it's people. This functions almost identically to how it had in the original Fable, with only a few extra bells and whistles to provide token improvement. I've felt far more connected to my character, the world, and the NPCs in games like the Mass Effect series than I ever did in any Fable game. This is largely because Fable's NPCs are a very predictable hoard of simplistic automatons. You know, absolutely, that, if you just keep spamming these three emotes, every identical woman in town will fall in love with you. Visually and emotionally, they are all alike. There is no mystery to it. It is for this reason that the only NPC with which I felt any empathy was my dog. While not perfect, they did get the essential element, to me, of NPC companions. They are not you. You do not control them. You can not ever fully know them. The dog, to some degree, has a mind of his own. He will take actions without orders and, while still rather predictable, is never entirely so. This logic needs to be applied to all NPCs in the Fable world.
All of these women find fart jokes hilarious.
I very much enjoyed Fable 2. There's no real replay value there though. After playing through the full story, which I did twice over my rental period, the remaining open-ended quests are pretty much busywork. It's not a game like "Oblivion" that takes weeks of play to fully experience. It's a great rent for RPG fans, but far from a must buy.

Going forward into Fable 3, what I'd really like to see is an overhaul of the clunky co-op system and some real depth added to the extra curricular activities. The first, which we have already been promised, is really the only objective gameplay problem in the title. The latter is what Moloneux, it seems, has always wanted to make Fable about - but, in my opinion, has yet to succeed in. The minor ways in which the world can be influenced are all very direct, predictable, and functional. It all feels so very sterile. Hopefully the next title will really dig in, get dirty, and provide us with a real playground.

My fear, however, is that Moloneux's wonderful tendency towards experimentation might bight him in the ass again. You see, he's big on new ideas. An important part of what makes Lionhead a unique development house is that they do a lot of experimentation. Mr. Moloneux encourages his team to prototype original ideas. These quick prototypes, however, are uncommon because a prototype that doesn't carry into an actual feature is essentially wasted money on the business level. More common with Moloneux, I think, is that what works ends up being these odd little quirky things which aren't necessarily what the audience was looking for. The dog in Fable 2, for example. I thought it was great, but I would have preferred that the promises about the interactive world to have been fulfilled.

This being said, I am looking forward to Fable 3. Many of the concepts the dev team have mentioned aren't so much based on improvements to the Fable 2 formula as referendums on standard gaming tropes as a whole. As a designer, it's hard not to love listening to the guys as Lionhead and to look forward to their new products.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Outdated Game Reviews: Dead Space

 Dead Space is Fun, But Not Scary

    On October 14, Electronic Arts' Redwood Shores development house released the highly anticipated "Dead Space," now available for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360. This sets off the pre-holiday videogame release season. It's the first real big title in the series of blockbusters that will be hitting shelves over the next few months.
    "Dead Space" is a survival horror game that casts the player as Isaac Clarke, the engineer of a team sent to repair a damaged mining ship. As soon as you arrive, however, you find that there's more wrong on the Ishimura than a few blown fuses.
    What follows is a straightforward structure. You proceed through twelve levels, each requiring you to complete some ship fixing related puzzle. On the way, you will regularly be surprised by several varieties of alien zombie parasite monster.
    I say surprised, as opposed to frightened. Much of the game's horror reminds me of "Doom 3". It spends more time trying to surprise you than frighten you. Occasionally the game will give you a piece of truly unsettling imagery, and what is there is well done, but it never even approaches the psychological torment of "Silent Hill 2."
    Isaac is a big part of the problem. Like many game protagonists, he remains mute throughout the title. This is done so that the player can project emotions onto the character. However, the result is that when the plot requires Isaac to experience heart wrenching loss, he remains a blank canvas.
    Even if the horror aspect is a bit lacking, "Dead Space" is a very good action game. If you enjoyed the gameplay of "Resident Evil 4," then there's nothing not to love here. Most of the weapons are cutting tools designed to dismember your antagonists "Evil Dead" style. Even the most boring weapon in your arsenal is a futuristic flame thrower, a good sign. Add to that the zero gravity gameplay sections, and you've got a solid shooter.
    The user interface is the most innovative thing in the game, and I except to see it pop up in other games. The GUI consists of enhanced reality visualization, as seen in "Shadowrun" or "Minority Report." Holographic windows appear next to your character displaying menus, videos, text messages, etc. The only exceptions are the pause screen, which exists out of necessity, as well as save points and shopping terminals.
    The best part of this system is that it doesn't remove you from the experience. I can be watching a video recording and blasting monsters at the same time. The world never stops because the player needs to check his PDA.
    It boasts an acceptable running time at bout 11 hours, but after the twelfth chapter and final credits there's not much to bring you back for more. It is an enjoyable rental and I recommend playing it, but there's no reason to purchase "Deep Space."

Featured Feature: Player Investment (Part 3)

Part 3: Reward Reduces Enthusiasm

In its simplest form, any player investment reward is simply a commendation. You did well, you get a pat on the back. Weather this takes the form of a new suit of armor, new gun, new ability, some aesthetic option, or simply a smiley face on a menu screen, they are all simply ways of telling the player "good job."

The problem here is that such commendations are not, in fact, a good thing. Picture a young child who gets good grades in math. His parents and teachers encourage him, giving him gold stars and plenty of positive reinforcement. Years go by, and the child continues to get good grades, make honor role, etc. The child graduates college with a wonderful GPA. The child is now an adult, in the real world, where there are no more gold stars. Many studies suggest that this individuals success will likely stop there. The kid has probably long since tired of math and academics, and now has no desire to put these things into actual use. He was originally good at math because the liked math. As the rewards came, however, math became a means to receive rewards. This individual, over time, came to see the thing he once enjoyed as work, an annoying task to be completed in exchange for reward. His motivation has fundamentally changed. Sound illogical? Well, how much do you like your job? How much does it pay? How much does that matter?

Actual market value may vary.

Possibly the most prominent and ubiquitous examples of the player investment reward systems in place today are Microsoft/Sony's Achievement/Trophy systems. Despite some backlash amongst games, the hard fact is that the two companies have made these systems mandatory for all titles because these systems make money. Consider a game that exists on all 3 of today's prominent consoles, the PS3, XBox 360, and Wii, all of which you own. Each version of the game has exactly the same features, capabilities, and graphical fidelity. Which system do you buy the game for? Theoretically, it should be a toss up. However, a huge number of players would prefer one of the systems that tracks achievements. After all, if you could add a pat on the back to everything, why wouldn't you? You woke up this morning, Congratulations! Took a shower? Good show!

Which brings us to the problem. Have you ever played a game, not having any fun, just trying for an achievement? Did you enjoy finally getting it? Was this experience preferable to having spent that time simply playing the game as you would have otherwise done? Or, worse, have you ever noticed yourself not play a game you know you enjoy simply because that system doesn't feature achievements? "Hey, I could actually finish the rest of Mario Galaxy, but I've already "beaten it" and it's not like I'm gonna get any achievements." I don't know about you, but I've been there - and it's scary. It seems that with there short term earnings strategies, Microsoft and Sony might accidentally be training their consumers to hate their products.

Of course, this is an article about how to properly integrate player investment rewards into games and, as I've already established, these aren't inherently bad things. The problem here is that these particular reward systems serve as goals in and of themselves. A large portion of those players that dislike achievements, for example, focus entirely on the existence of online achievements. Some players hate online achievements because they encourage players to prioritize these individual meta-goals before the actual cooperative game. One can not both focus on being the best player possible and getting a double kill with a spartan laser.

This problem extends beyond achievements and trophies and into some of the player investment strategies implemented as features within some prominent games. It is very easy, for example for a player to get so caught up in Modern Warfare's challenge/prestige system - getting in weeks of game time before they ever max out their stats - never have actually focused on winning the games in which they have competed. They were online with other players in what was ostensibly a death-match, but their goals had little to do with the actual game at hand. This is detrimental to the game's online environment in that it creates scenarios in which the minority of a game lobby might actually be attempting to fulfill the game's stated agenda. For the members of that minority, extreme frustration is likely to occur. (see: Modern Warfare's "Sabotage" playlist) This both undermines the design of your game mode and the quality of the online experience your players receive.

And this was the issue with our honor role student. The gold stars and blue ribbons became more important to him than the subject for which he had originally been so passionate. There, then, is our solution. Yes, do reward you players, but reward them for actually playing the game. In this way, a reward system could recognize achievement, rather than set up new, largely artificial, hurdles for players. As a rule of thumb, any time focus is taken off of the actual game, the reward system is imperfect. Any time the player is growing frustrated, wrestling for a reward not due to their skill level within the game but rather due to the design of the reward system, they are becoming disillusioned with the game. This should be avoided at all costs in order to ensure a positive long term relationship with both the individual title and gaming as a whole.

As gamers, however, the most important thing to keep in mind is that you simply should not allow yourself to become disenchanted with your hobby. If you're getting fed up with reaching level X or with attaining some achievement - stop. Take a break from that goal and go do something in the game purely for fun. The teachers can give you as many gold stars as they want, but it's up to you to retain perspective.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Featured Feature: Player Investment (Part 2)

Part 2: The Top Tier Problem

So, we've talked about what exactly "player investment rewards" are. Now, we're going to get into some of the current problems with prominent implementations of the feature. In this case, we're going to focus on rewards that aren't merely commendations, but rather tangible benefits within the game - ie: equipment and abilities.

In short, rewards designed to be the absolute best in their class pit players’ desire for uniqueness against their desire to accomplish and have their accomplishments recognized. This discourages customization for some and achievement for others. A title’s degree of variety and individual expression online is directly proportional to the number of equally valued customization options provided to players.

Prominent examples of this problem include
Halo 3’s "hayabusa" & "recon" helmets, Modern Warfare’s weapon camouflage, and World of Warcraft's equipment.

Halo 3, for example, features 11 online armor variants available to most players. These variants are designed to provide players with a sense of individuality as they mix and match them, color them, and otherwise use them to form a unique persona online. Theoretically, this emphasis on individuality and the wide variety of tastes amongst the player base should result in a fairly even distribution of armor variants throughout the community.

This is, however, not the case. The “recon” and “hayabusa” variants, especially their helmets, seem to be far more common amongst those players who have unlocked them. The same is true of the other armor variants to degrees in direct proportion to the amount of work necessary to unlock them.This presents a problem, as the variety and individuality intended by the developer has been overshadowed by a second well intentioned feature, player investment rewards.

If you can look like this, you won't not.

The same problem can be seen in many other titles, most notably those which make heavy use of such player investment rewards. World of Warcraft, for example, features thousands of weapons, but only a very small fraction of those are actually desired by its most committed players. When new and better items are introduced, they do not increase variety but rather replace others as the now most desirable "top tier" options. Players invest a great deal of time in order to receive these rewards, only to be forced to sacrifice their avatar’s individuality for the ability to display them.

High level mages, or roving Warriors style street gang?

This problem is compounded by the fact that when a large portion of players display the same rewards, desiring recognition for their achievements, they, in fact, become less recognizable amongst the crowd of similarly outfitted characters. Thus, some may choose to forgo such challenges all together, knowing that they will not wish to display their rewards. Allowing the majority of the developer’s efforts to fall into such disuse seems not only to be contrary to the original design intent, but to also be poor financial investment.

These choices soon to be rendered moot by 200lbs of phat purple loot.


The simplest solution to this problem might seem to be the elimination of “top tier” rewards all together. This, however, inherently depreciates their value as player investment rewards.

A better solution, it seems, is to eliminate the singular nature of the highest tier options. The Halo 3 armor variants, for example, might have been unlocked via multiple separate but equal progressions. Some armor variants might be unlocked by campaign player progress and achievements, while others would be unlocked by multi-player progress and achievements. This would result in two top tier armor variants, doubling variety while both equally rewarding player investment and providing more opportunities for such investment. A form of this strategy can be seen in World of Warcraft, in which players may gain the game’s highest tier armors either from raids or arena combat. These two alternative paths provide equal statistical reward to players who choose either rout, yet also present aesthetic differences from one another. Thus, players are able to feel as if they are displaying their prowess, while not necessarily becoming identical. Further, the more specific nature of these rewards more accurately portrays the nature of the player’s excellence.

Another option, and one which can be combined with other solutions, is to provide variety within a single reward. Halo 3’s armor system does, for example, allow players to mix and match amongst their armor variants and choose a unique color scheme. Thus, two individuals may have very different character models, despite sharing the same helmet. The problem this raises, however, is that the head, and face more specifically, is a physical feature very closely linked to identity. There is a biological tendency to notice a person’s face before examining them as a whole which extends to online avatars. Even if two character models are different in every other way, similar faces, or helmets in the case of Halo 3, can reduce the sense of variety. Variety could be added to individual helmets, however, by allowing players to further customize the helmet. This could include multiple visor colors, textures, the ability to choose glossy or matte finishes, smaller accessories such as antennae or eye pieces, what have you. In Modern Warfare, players could be rewarded not with “Red Tiger” and “Blue Tiger” camouflage, but with “Tiger” camouflage which they could set the tint of as they wish. Simply put, granularity increases variety.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Featured Feature: Player Investment (Part 1)

Part 1: The what and why of Player Investment Rewards

As the blog goes on, I’ll be establishing various ongoing features. Individual game analysis, developer profiles, etc. in some regular format. We’ll begin with a “Featured Feature,” in each entry of which I will analyze a particular game mechanic, its history, place in the industry, how it works, why it works, what’s wrong with it, how it can be better utilized, etc.
Over the next few days, we’ll be focusing in Player Investment.

Lately players may have noticed a trend towards greater degrees of character customization in their online games. Halo, Call of Duty, Battlefield, they’re all doing it. In the past it was the standard that all players began games as complete equals, with an even and thus fair footing. Now the emphasis has been placed, instead, on individuality and deep character customization. So deep has this gotten in some games that is borders on being considered an RPG element.
What players might not have discerned, however, is the cause of this trend. While it is easy enough to simply wright it off as stolen ideas, arguing that developers are simply trying to duplicate the success generated by either Halo’s visual customization or Modern Warfare’s tactical customization, this is an oversimplification. In truth, such features are a very wise business decision.

You see, these character customization options almost always have another common feature. Rarely are all of these options available to every player immediately. They are generally unclockables, options requiring the completion of some predetermined qualification before access to them may be granted. This effectively makes these customization options merely a small part of the industry’s larger trend towards rewarding player investment.

Player investment reward systems provide players with benefits in direct proportion to the time and effort they spend with the game. The simplest form of these can be seen in the MMMORPG genre, in which players gain quantified levels of power as they put more time into the game. The term “experience points” was originally intended to reflect an abstract measurement of a character’s life experience and earned knowledge. In this market, however, it could as easily be seen as an absolute measurement of the amount of investment a player has put into a particular title. It is no mistake, then, that even more complex player investment reward systems, such as those seen in Halo 3 and Modern Warfare, still retain the term “levels” and “xp.” They firmly establish a system of progression in terms which gamers know.
This sense of progress lies at the heart of any player investment system. Rewards be they new character model options, abilities, or even simple numerical values are not handed out in bulk. They are evenly distributed over a long trail, always giving the player one more reward to work for. This creates a “carrot on a stick” scenario, compelling the player to continue playing. Progress requires commitment.

Such strategies simply make good business sense. The MMO genre, again, provides the simplest form of this. Due to subscription fees, the longer a player plays, the more money the developer will earn from them. In non-subscription based genres, however, developers still reap great benefits from invested players.

Online games, for example, are particularly dependent player investment. on the existence of an online community to function. Many games with some simple, tacked on multiplayer component soon have this feature rendered essentially non-existent by the fact that there are simply not enough players available to reliably establish game lobbies. By encouraging player investment, however, a developer encourages players to return time and again to the same matchmaking system, populating their multiplayer lobbies.

Beyond simply providing functionality, however, a well executed player investment system has been shown to increase the overall sustained population of online communities. This is desirable as more people playing more regularly is good for the bottom line. It provides a title with a good reputation and a greater likelihood that any given consumer will purchase the title. “Surely thousands of gamers can’t be wrong,” thinks the consumer. Every time your game is ranked on the top X most played online games on console Y during time period Z, that’s free advertisement. Most importantly, every player committed to your title is another mouth to spread the word. If they play your game for a week, you get word of mouth for a week. If they play it for a year, they’ll sell everyone they know on it.

On the marketing side, player investment can help provide a title with market control. It can help you not only be successful, but WIN. It's not secret that Modern Warfare and World of Warcraft are huge right now, enormous market titans with incredible player bases. What you might hear less about, however, is that they've done so well they've hurt other company's bottom lines. Many people are playing these games with such devotion that they simply do not have much time for other games. It is, for more time than is conventional, enough game for them. While this doesn't particularly help a non-subscription based game, it's a tremendous benefit for a series. A large portion Modern Warfare 2's success can be attributed to the fact that there was a large audience of Modern Warfare 1 players who had never stopped regularly playing the previous game, and the same will be true for Black Ops (though I'm skeptical of the series' continued dominance post-Infinity Ward debacle). The series did not leave its competitors any room to scoop up members of its player base, giving the sequel very little competition. It's not the nicest marketing strategy, but it moves units - short term and long.

Player investment works on even the most basic level. These systems actually make games seem more valuable to players. Biologically, human beings are predisposed to an "escalation of commitment," meaning that the more resources you spend on something, the more valuable you think it is. If you've spent several years in your house, for example, thousands of dollars on bills and upkeep and it catches on fire - you will likely be stuck in a conundrum. Even though it may be cheaper to move, buy a new house in a different location with the same features as your old house, your brain may compel you to spend more money on repairing your old house anyway. The $59.99 initial price tag, the hours of invested time, and any associated fees or accessories all build up to make the player value their investment more and more each day.

Don't be confused or frightened though. While all of these issues are from a developers perspective, they are by no means bad for players. The escalation of commitment, for example, contributes to a player's enjoyment of the game. The more they play, the more they like what they're playing. Player investment rewards can really drive a gameplay experience, keeping a game fresh long after it's no longer new.

That being said, however, no current implemented player investment strategies are perfect. Over the next few days I'll be going over some key problems with the most prominent such strategies, and ways in which they could be improved for the benefit of both developers and gamers.
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Monday, August 23, 2010

Welcome to WannaDev

Hey, how ya doin? My name's Brandon. Nice to meet you.

The Blog:

Welcome to my new Blog, WannaDev. Long story short, this will be an outlet for my notes and musings on game design. You see, I'm a recent college graduate with a glimmer in my eye for a place in the games industry. The problem is, I've got no career experience, the same problem as most people in this stage of their careers. That being said, the video game industry can be harder to break into than most. For good reason to. Much like writing or directing, it's something few people really understand but everyone assumes they could do. With all those kids wanting to play games for a living, I imagine its pretty hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. So, I'll let this site stand as a record of my thoughts - proof, over time, of my understanding of the art-form, the industry, and my capabilities.

While I'd love for someone with a job opening to see this blog and hire me on the spot, that isn't too likely. What I can see, however, is others with common interests enjoying the read. Other wannabe devs, others interested in game design, etc. If so, I'd love to hear your responses, even those to the contrary. Games are about making fun, a subjective concept that no two individuals will see in exactly the same way. Plus, few things stimulate the creative process better than debate.

And a little about me:

As I've said, I'm a recent college graduate who, like most, is caught up in the rat race. My primary strengths are in creative writing, in which I have my degree, and game theory, in which I am currently merely an enthusiastic hobbyist. I do have experience in computers science. Just enough programming to put my ideas into rudimentary proofs of concept really. As an amateur designer, I spend a great deal of time pouring over what makes games good, fun, and successful but, for now, I've been unable to parley this experience into an actual career.

So, I'm looking forward to sharing my thoughts with you guys in the future. If you're interested, please subscribe!