'Loading...' Indie Devs Talk Asian Culture, Games, & Teamwork


Through an aged man’s eyes, you see a small, warmly-lit home. Before a humble desk, stacked high with books, a view of a wide map of America. The kind with the outlines of colorful states, major cities, lakes and rivers. The details are all lost in a blur. He turns to leave the room and calls out to his wife, who gently chastises him for losing his glasses again.


Then, the southern California sky, fading into purple twilight, brushed with a haze of lavender clouds. Sections are blocked out by monument-sized highway overpasses and cement pillars as the car hums along to its destination. And in a passenger seat, you. Focusing on a handheld console, and getting lost in a colorful Japanese role-playing game.


This is the subtle opening ambiance of UC Irvine professor Toby Đỗ’s Kickstarter 2D-3D adventure title, ‘Loading…’.


 

The Team

[Pictured left to right: Toby Đỗ - Project Director, Developer, Designer, Writer; Richard Van - Producer; Ryan Yoshikami - Composer, Sound Designer; Genice Chan - Artist]

According to the descriptions of the game’s own development team on their Kickstarter page:


“Loading… is a story-driven game that explores a complicated period in the lives of a Vietnamese-American family living in southern California through the experiences of its youngest and oldest members. The game is both about a boy’s relationship to video games as he navigates growing up in the early-aughts as well as his grandfather’s relationship to his own declining body as he navigates the final years of his life."


Starting with Van and Đỗ's friendship at CalArts, the pair have intermittently worked on film and artistic projects together throughout their already distinguished careers.


Bringing on Ryan Yoshikami and Genice Chan for music and art respectively, Đỗ's project is now fully funded, exceeding its original goal of 15,000 dollars thanks to the generosity of the Kickstarter community. The game should be complete by mid-2024.


Recently, I reached out to the 'Loading...' team to learn more about them and their process. (Names have been added ahead of answers for clarity.)


 

The Interview


How has your experience in the UC system, or at university, helped prepare you for 'Loading...’?


(Toby) Finding people that got me and my work was really difficult in my undergrad when I was a film student. Remember to do research and make sure you apply to schools with diverse teachers and students in your department. It’s something I really regret having not done in highschool when I applied to colleges.


I was lucky to have had a couple professors that respected me but I’d say for the most part, I mainly had a bunch of racist teachers who called my work “oriental”. One even once said he couldn’t be racist towards me because he has a Vietnamese wife. It’s just really important to make sure you’re in spaces and around people who actually care and treat others like human beings.


With Loading… the best thing I’ve done for the project is I’ve tried to be really careful about the people I bring onto the team.


What lessons from game development do you think transfer to university work? And vice versa?


(Toby) A lesson I’ve learned from game development, if maybe a little generic, is learning when to ask for help. I grew up as a pretty introverted and shy kid (like many other game devs, I’ve come to learn!) so when I first started out as an artist, I was always very hesitant to work with other people. But because video game development often requires so many different skill sets, it pushed me to get involved in things like game jams, more group projects, and doing showcases, mainly because I felt like I couldn’t do everything myself. It’s taught me how to reach out and get to know more people which I think really helped me when I went to grad school!


What’s some advice you would like to extend to students pursuing game development at the community college level? What would you tell someone who is excited by the medium, but isn’t sure where they would fit into the process (coding, art, writing, producing, etc.)?


(Toby) I would go to websites like itch.io, Rock Paper Shotgun, Warp Door, Alpha Beta Gamer, and Indiepocalypse to find small games made by students or other game developers during a short period of time so you can have an idea of what your peers are capable of making within the time frame of a quarter or semester at school. If you find any developers who’ve made a few games that you like, I’d also reach out! You might be able to make some friends or even collaborate with them.


By creating smaller games either solo or in small teams first, you’ll have the chance to try out a bunch of different aspects of game development. Maybe you’ll find something you’ll want to specialize in or maybe you’ll enjoy doing all of it, which is fine too!


What was your favorite humanities course in college? What did you learn from it that you might not have otherwise?


(Toby) I really liked a lot of the art history courses I took in college. One that stuck out to me though was an independent study I took in my senior year of undergrad on mainland Chinese cinema (mostly 5th and 6th generation). I had to research and come up with a watchlist to spend the quarter viewing, writing papers on, and discussing the films with a professor. Some of those movies have really stuck with me; Jia Zhangke’s whole filmography, Zhang Yimou’s early work e.g. Raise the Red Lantern, The Road Home. That class has since led me to directors like Wang Bing and Bi Gan who are some of my favorite filmmakers working today.


What’s your process like, for communicating effectively with a team on a longterm project?


(Toby) We’re all working completely remote so our process has just been messaging each other over Discord whenever anyone has questions. The casualness has made Loading…’s development feel pretty smooth for the most part!


When it came to pursuing this project, what was the reaction and response from your family? What has been your family’s response to your path into game development specifically?


(Toby) Video games were never really a part of my parents’ lives so they don’t totally understand what I do. However, they’ve always been supportive of me pursuing the arts whether I was studying film or game design which I feel really lucky about!


When I finished grad school last year and started applying to jobs, my dad, trying to help me, texted me this which I think totally encapsulates his understanding of video games:


Could you describe any defining moments of your childhood that inspired elements of this game?


(Toby) One of my earliest memories playing games was during a road trip from LA to San Francisco with my family. I was playing Pokemon Gold on my Gameboy Color in the back seat and we were nearing the end of our trip. I remember looking out the window as the sun was setting and seeing street lamps and building lights turn on outside and then looking at my Gameboy and seeing the same thing happening in Goldenrod City. It’s just something that stuck with me and I wanted to try and capture some of that feeling in Loading....


Your timescale for an end-product on 'Loading...’ seems particularly reasonable; mid-2024. How do you feel about “crunch culture” in the game development world, and what has your development pace been like thus far?


(Toby) Crunch culture is one of the many problems plaguing the industry and it’s something I’m actively trying to fight against. I think academia can often normalize things like crunch and all-nighters for young people and it wasn’t until I was older that I realized these rituals aren’t necessary! Since becoming a teacher, I try to make sure deadlines are reasonable and to be as flexible as I can with students on an individual basis. I also recently joined Game Workers of Southern California which is a volunteer organization that helps game developers who are trying to organize their workplace and educate students on unionizing.


In the case of Loading...’s development, no one on the team, to my knowledge, has crunched except for me a couple times which really took a toll on my body. Since this is my first commercial game, I’m definitely still learning about how long things take to do, but nowadays, I’d rather just change a deadline rather than pull another all-nighter.


What kinds of projects do you recommend for first-time game developers looking to gain experience in coding, art, writing, or teamwork? Where should they go to find like-minds?


(Genice) I think trying out smaller, lower stakes projects are a good way to start. In my opinion it’s important to have a feel for a team’s dynamic and process before committing to something more ambitious, especially if there’s money involved.


Finding a team of people that fit well with the kind of project you want to do definitely takes some luck and patience though! I’ve been fortunate to have made a lot of friends that I’d love to collaborate with just from hanging around on the internet. Nowadays, I think Discord is a pretty popular platform for creative communities.


Do you have any tips on networking for less-experienced developers and creatives?


(Genice) Watch out for the way perfectionism holds you back from putting yourself out there! Putting your best foot forward is important of course, but at a certain point preparation starts becoming more like procrastination. It’s easy to get held up by the shortcomings you perceive in yourself, but people won’t be able to give you a chance if you’ve already disqualified yourself first.


Your educational background is quite well-rounded!

How has your background influenced your take on game development, and your philosophy for teaching game design at UC Irvine?


(Toby) Thanks! I’m very new to teaching so I’m still figuring that out, but this past year, I’ve tried to give my students as much leeway as I can to make whatever they’re interested in. I think early on in an artistic career, it’s important for people to be exposed to a lot of different ideas and art and then have the time and space to figure out what they like.


I’d say studying a lot of independent films in my undergrad gave me a taste for more personal and auto or semi autobiographical work. Game developers like Nina Freeman, Brendon Chung, Robert Yang, Analgesic Productions, Turnfollow, and Stephen Lavelle are huge inspirations of mine.


'Loading...' is of course an exploration of a unique lived experience. What, in your own words, makes for a Vietnamese experience? A Southern-Californian Vietnamese experience?


(Toby) No experience is the same but I guess for me, a Vietnamese experience has come from small details within people and places. How some of my cousins’ families will put a buddhist shrine and a picture of Jesus next to each other in their living room, the way sniffing is a sign of affection, Maggi being added to almost every dish.


A Southern-Californian Vietnamese experience? Durian ice cream and sugar cane juice always just being a short drive away.


Are there any kernels of wisdom passed down from your parents/grandparents put into this game you’d be comfortable highlighting?


(Toby) Patience!


Why did you choose this style of game, with many layered components, to depict this background and this narrative?


(Toby) I spend a lot of time in front of screens and wanted to make a game about it.


Your film work speaks to your interest in authenticity and Vietnamese representation – How did you decide to collaborate with Toby on a game, over pursuing another film project?


(Richard) Toby and I met at CalArts actually. He was two years under me, and I asked him to be associate producer and script supervisor on my thesis film Hieu. After a semester, he decided that CalArts Film Directing wasn’t his thing, but he still stayed on my project and even helped with post-production. Couldn’t have made the film without him!


We remained friends afterwards and he kept me up-to-date on his projects. During covid lockdown, I started a writing group with a few classmates that met bi-weekly. It was mostly for film writer-directors, but I invited Toby to bring an early version of his game screenplay. After hearing the story and concept behind the game, I just had to jump on as a producer.


I still work on films and am currently developing my first feature but I never liked to be restricted to one medium. Art is art and storytelling is storytelling, some stories are best told through the cinema while others are better done through a more interactive medium.


'Loading...' is of course an exploration of a unique lived experience. What, in your own words, makes for a Vietnamese experience? A Southern-Californian Vietnamese experience?


(Richard) Vietnamese experience is so diverse and everyone’s experience is valid, whether that means growing up in Vietnam, Orange County, the hood, or somewhere more rural. That being said, I think there’s a lot in Loading that many people (not just Vietnamese) could relate to: the generational divide in an immigrant family, understanding oneself through the media one consumes, and the fact that we all split time between our digital and real selves. I think Toby found a way to capture all of these things brilliantly.


Your portfolio shows a real passion for sound-mixing and matching the aesthetics of your soundtrack to your effects, with an emphasis on fun, and digital/synthesized sound. If you could go back in time, and give advice to a younger, less-experienced version of yourself, passionate about music and sound, what would you say?


(Ryan) Oh cool, what a thoughtful question! I think I’d say explore everything before judging how it’ll help you. When I was starting out, I’d often dismiss certain musical avenues if it didn’t directly apply to what I was focused on or familiar with. Being internally curious is great, but being externally curious develops your craft in a tangible, realistic way and builds more confidence to back up and feed your internal curiosity. I’m definitely learning that lesson now and seeing the results, so yeah that’s what I’d say~


Your visual development work is eye-catching, dynamic, and vibrant. You’ve discussed before that you think of creativity as the evolution of ideas, to change them and make them into something even more compelling. As a supporting artist on this game, how did you feel while collaborating with Toby; what creative freedoms did you enjoy? Was there ever an “Ah-ha!” moment while blending ideas?


(Genice) Aw haha, thank you for your kind words! Toby’s super chill to work with; something I always appreciate about working on smaller indie teams like this is having the space to get to know and have more dialogue with everyone. I'm not Vietnamese or even American, so it's been important to me to get a feel for the kind of details and nuances that Toby wants to include. When we're bouncing ideas around for characters and locations, I find it really interesting to see where things diverge or overlap in our experiences as Asian diaspora in North America.


 

Looking into the future


Games like 'Loading...' have an easier time being made available to the public because of these independent publishing avenues. Many stories try and struggle through larger publishing company routes, but that can sacrifice legal and emotional ownership from creatives.


By utilizing Kickstarter, the development team is allowing people to show their faith in the progress shown, and the group of Asian developers crafting a wholly unique gaming experience.


If you would like to show support for the game, now that it's been fully funded, you have multiple options:

  • Wishlisting the game on Steam

  • Following the creators on social media

  • Posting about the game and linking to the project


It's not impossible to imagine that the next big game developer could come out of the Central Valley; or move on from a community college to UC Irvine to learn from Toby Đỗ's game design course!

 

Works Cited

Đỗ, Toby. “Loading...” Loading... by Toby Do, Kickstarter, 1 Oct. 2022,

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/loadinggame/loading-0.


Snyder, Haley Rae, et al. “'Loading...' Development Team Interview.” 20 Oct. 2022.

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