Writing Series

Writing Atlas: How it Got Here pt-2

Part 2 from yesterdays post.

“I should write my own game…”

I came to that decision almost a decade ago. To this day, I’m writing using ideas I had almost ten years ago. Concepts for characters, locations, races, mechanics, all of it has been changed or adapted and grown from this original idea seed I planted ten years ago…

I’m a little bit of a perfectionist so I’ve had completed editions of Atlas Spire before and played them (and got positive feedback from them.) Each time I found something I didn’t like fundamentally that I didn’t believe could be simply “fixed” and so it got gutted, reworked, replaced, and rewritten entirely from scratch. My own negative reaction to 4E had me so concerned that my game would incite that feeling in someone else that Atlas had to be perfect. So over the course of the last nine years, Atlas has been wrote either to completion, or to beta testing, a total of seven times. This version I’m on right now, is version eight. I’m now realizing as I reflect upon this, that’s almost one full game for each year since I first started on this path… huh.

Since I began the journey to complete Atlas my life has hit so many ups and (mostly) downs that I honestly cannot remember every significant event or place or person of my 25 years on this earth. And it might seem like I’m trying to make some desperate appeal using depression here for sympathy attention or whatever, but that’s not the case. The truth is, my life hit some not great moments and it wasn’t pretty, but during these times I was writing Atlas. It’s not an attention thing it’s just what was going on with me.

There have probably been way, WAY more times that I’ve sat somewhere comfortable and happy and worked on Atlas than there have been weird or horrible times and places. But it’s the miserable stuff that stands out and leaves its mark in my memory. And again, just to emphasize and really drive this home, I’m not telling these stories for attention or crying for help or anything like that. It’s just how things were. I have a home, I’m happy now, everything is cool. I just think this stuff might be interesting to some people so I’m putting it out here.

The earliest, and one of the worst places I was ever in while writing Atlas starts because I was too miserable in my living conditions at home so I would regularly sneak out at night to sleep under a bridge near some railroad tracks. I used to bring a notebook with me to write about why I was sleeping under a bridge (in case something happened to me and it was ever “found.”) but I also brought it to write notes for Atlas. I don’t remember exactly the content I developed during that time because there was a lot of it, but I want to say I fleshed out most of the core mechanics in these early phases. I would sneak out almost every night just to sleep somewhere like a bench or gazebo or something and each time I brought a notebook to write about Atlas and use as a pillow so I got a lot of writing done this way. It also lasted for two years I think, from 2010 to 2012 I would sleep all day and run around alone at night to write in peace like a were-writer or something who could only produce content under the light of a full moon. It was a weird time, but I hated being home so it was like a carefully crafted sleep schedule to avoid all the people I would have had to talk to.

I became homeless for a couple months once people realized I was avoiding them, I just  turned to kind of couch surfing with friends and no direction in life. I signed up to work in the Red Salmon Cannery in Alaska because it provided room and board and money. I just needed to figure out how to earn enough money to buy a ticket to Seattle because I didn’t have a job at the time (the cannery company paid for flights to Alaska from Seattle as a courtesy, so I only had to secure my own path to SeaTac airport.) I figured I would save enough working there to come home and get my own apartment. I kind of set that plan in motion and hoped it would all work out for me, but the salmon season wasn’t for a few months after I signed up for it. So I continued couch surfing and just being generally good for nothing for a while and during this time, naturally, I got a lot of writing done because I wasn’t doing much of anything else. I do remember during this time that I had the idea to stop limiting myself on choices for the game like “maybe I should only have 10 races and add some later as supplements.” That was unacceptable, I wanted to include all these cool race concepts and not suffer the pitfall of forcing people to pick up supplements to enjoy my ideas, so I ended up with like 27 races and each one of them was a “core” race. (Now I think there’s 33 races? I haven’t counted them in a while.)

I ended up not homeless by the time the couple months had passed and I was called to work in the cannery in Alaska. I was living with family and actually had a minimum wage job I didn’t hate. But I had recently watched the Jim Carrey movie Yes Man when I got the call, so I went to Alaska anyway. TWO DAYS on a Greyhound bus from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania all the way across the United States to Seattle, Washington. 48 actual hours of cramped seating and thick stifling air. Two nights of trying to sleep. Like 11 bus changes and new drivers and meeting new and exciting seat-neighbors…



Bright side, I had a laptop with me the entire time. I wrote little bits of Atlas in every state from Pennsylvania to Washington. I made it to Seattle with about an hour to get to the airport. I made it to SeaTac with like 5 minutes before boarding the plane. It was probably the luckiest I’ve ever been to make that flight.

The trip ended and I was put to work in the cannery. I worked 16 hour shifts dumping 40lbs of dead fish onto some conveyor belts and with the other 8 hours in my day, I was eating, writing, and wondering why the sun was still up at 2 in the morning and if it would ever stop raining.(Alaska is like being on another planet, it’s surreal.) Occasionally I even slept. But mostly, it was the writing Atlas thing. (This was 2013 by the way, not that long ago actually.)

The summer ended, the salmon season was over. I spent way too much money dicking around Seattle when I left Alaska and saved none of it (I had a job and a home waiting for me, so screw it right?) Wrote some Atlas on the way back (another two days of bus travel.) I learned that I hate Billings, Montana. Also learned that Wyoming is easily one of the eeriest and at the same time most beautiful places in the world. I remember having the idea for the Elirzi race after seeing a dusty ghost town in Wyoming that our bus route took us through.

One night in Denver, Colorado our bus was stopped because there was an armed robbery near the bus depot. They locked the doors, had cops encircle the perimeter. It was actually kind of terrifying because I was nowhere near home and this happened while I was on the way to Seattle so if I missed my flight to Alaska due to bus delay, not only would I be stuck literally across the country from my home and family, I’d be stuck there with no money and no means to return. So I was kinda stressed out over the whole “being detained in a greyhound bus station in downtown Denver, a place I had never been before, while a man with a gun runs around outside and I’m on a time limit to make a flight to a job which is my only means of returning home safely” situation, but I found a table, pulled out my laptop (smart move after a robbery to show off your expensive electronics, I know) and wrote some Atlas. The next morning we got free breakfast burritos for our troubles so… worth it.

There was this weird occasion, I want to say I had flown to Florida for a week or so? I don’t remember where I went, but I remember coming back to Pittsburgh by plane. I was there in the airport and I called the only person I could call to ask for a ride and she told me the car would not survive the drive to pick me up. It was in need of repair, and between her work schedule and my lack of other transportation options, I was stuck at the airport.  I slept for three days in the baggage claim area, drinking from water fountains and eating what I could get from vending machines with the change I had until someone was able to wire me money for a bus ticket home. During those three days though, I didn’t have anything else to do, so I wrote about Atlas the whole time in between avoiding crowds of arrivals at the luggage carousels.

The point I’m trying to make here, is I never stopped. Nine years ago I set out a path for myself to do the only thing I genuinely believe that I have an affinity for, which is writing this game. And through every misery I had suffered, I never stopped creating. I’m not sure if I ever will. At this point, I have no idea what my life would feel like if I didn’t have Atlas in it. It gnaws at my mind almost every second of every day that I should be working on it more and more. Which is actually part of why I started writing these, so that when I take a break from writing Atlas I can write about writing about Atlas and it sort of tones down the anxiety of not making “real progress.”

I know this got deep, and maybe it wasn’t fun to read or it was too personal. But I’m really proud of the weird journey I’ve taken with this game. I mean literally, I’ve traveled to so many places and brought along Atlas notes for every mile I roamed. And all those events, awesome and miserable, helped shape me and the game I’m making. I wouldn’t do any most of it any differently if I had the chance.

Here’s a patreon plug. It’s undergoing some changes in 2017 (the patreon, not the plug) but you can read all about them by following the link. Thanks for reading this (and thank you for reading the first part if you did that.) I know it might have been odd or out of nowhere, but tomorrow we’re back to regular game mechanics and design choices and stuff. No more lifetime specials for a while.


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