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Offline mr_lou

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Creating a big project
« on: 09:18, 14 December 17 »
Creating a big project


I know that some of us are working on some rather big projects. If you aren't working on one right now, chances are you might find yourself engaged in one at some point in the future. And when you do, chances are you'll be posting about your frustrations just as the rest of us.

Since I recently managed to complete and release such a big project myself, I thought it might be interesting for people to read about how it went for me. Both for people who's working on their own big projects, and for those who has one coming. Just to give you a realistic picture of what to expect when engaging yourself in such a project.

My project was "8-bit Memoirs": An eBook (with lots of supplemental videos and music) about the computers and consoles I experienced back in the 8-bit era. See www.8bitMemoirs.com


It starts with an idea
"8-bit Memoirs" officially began back in 2012, but my yearning to see (someone else create) a project like this began many years before that.

I would mention diskmags on the forum a lot, in an attempt to make someone else interested in creating one, but without much luck. (Just try doing a search for "diskmag" by mr_lou). Although there were a few people who agreed that it would be awesome to have a new diskmag about CPC stuff, the majority didn't really seem that interested. So my attempts to lure someone into creating a diskmag failed. (That was fail number one. See if you can count the number of fails from here).

But my desire to see such a diskmag come to life was too big for me to let it go, so in 2010 I began creating a diskmag engine of my own - for cellphones. I posted photos of phones running the diskmag, and I also created a download for everyone to check out. The PC version (emulator) even came with magnify options to increase readability. But still there just wasn't a whole lot of interest, despite the fact that it ran on both phones and your PC (via emulation).

The biggest counter-argument was the same old "we have websites now so we don't need diskmags!", which to me is kinda like saying "We have movies now so we don't need books!"

A diskmag is something very different from a website. It's a creation that contains lots of cosy articles or stories that you read while you listen to atmospheric relaxing music. It's never ever black text on a white background, but always a bright text on a darker background (although it could contain a "black on white" theme in an attempt to please more people). Navigating between pages is usually done using a single click, and everything must (be able to) run offline, to enhance the feeling of disconnecting for a while.
And while all of this is technically possible to do with HTML5, it's just not what developers do. (Prove me wrong).
I think most of us can agree that diskmags and websites are two very different things.


Doing it myself
Two years later I began again creating a whole new engine from scratch. The previous engine had been too complicated for people to figure out. Partly because of the navigation system, and partly because you had to download a specific version depending on the screen resolution of your phone, and partly because the author of the emulator (whom I of course contacted about the project) informed me that I wasn't allowed to embed his emulator like I had, which forced me to try to instruct everyone in manually downloading the emulator... and I assumed these circumstances were definitely part of the reason there hadn't been a whole lot of interest.

So this new engine, while still targeting cellphones, had to have a better navigation system, and also be able to run on any screen size, so there had to be options available to select different font sizes.
At this point I'd also given up waiting for someone else to create the content. So I decided I would create some myself now, and it was going to be a small collection of stories about my own CPC memories from my childhood.

I gave this project the name "8-bit Stories", and then I began writing my stories.


It always gets bigger
As the project progressed, it kept growing in size. New ideas meant more content (and more work). Some stories reminded me of another. And other stories ended up being too big, and needed to be split into two.
I'm not even going to try to explain how much time I spent proof-reading the stories, again and again and again.

How about adding videos too?
That's an awesome idea! I could ask some of the guys on the forum who does YouTube videos if I could use some of their videos. That way they'd get advertisement for their channel, and the project would become a real community project. No doubt they'd be interested in that. It was going to be awesome!
But when asking around I never heard back from anyone...

Oh well, I suppose they must all be busy, and I guess it probably was a bit much to ask... despite most of the videos already existing on their channels.

So instead I ended up
- buying some rather expensive equipment to record videos myself
- getting my G7000 modded to output an RGB signal
- spending a ton of time creating all the videos myself

I absolutely insisted that this project was going to become a reality - even if I had to do everything myself, and no matter how much money it would cost me. We were going to have this CPC-related diskmag-like creation no matter what.


Adding videos meant that cellphones wasn't the optimal target platform anymore, so I had to find another platform that was more suitable for lots of video and music, and that ended up being Blu-ray, since this platform was literally made for content like this - and as a bonus this format can be viewed almost anywhere. (On real machines and on "emulators" - just like any CPC creation). So there was no need for me to code different versions now. Awesome!


How about making the videos look like it looked on a real Amstrad monitor?
Fantastic idea! Then followed a lot of experiments with CRT filters.


I can't say that everything was going according to plan, because there really was no plan. I didn't need one either, because there was no deadline. The content for this project could never get too old, so I was in no rush at all. And that's why it was no problem at all just letting the ideas pop up as I went along. Just like any cosy project is supposed to be.


How about adding different themes?
Of course! There should definitely be an Amstrad CPC theme, or maybe two! Possibly also a C64 theme and Amiga theme! Great idea!
So I contacted a few CPC graphics artists on the forum, having no doubt at all that at least a few of them would be interested in helping out. Maybe even be proud to contribute with something, considering how monolithic this project was going to be. And it wasn't that much work either. It was just a piece of top graphics and bottom graphics.
But yet again I never heard back from anyone, except one who said he sadly didn't have the time.

Ok then....


It never goes as you expect
Meanwhile, I discovered that someone had now bought the domain 8bitstories.com, and used it to post "stories" about.... well I never really got that part. It looked suspiciously like sabotage.

But whoever was behind it actually did me a favour, because it made me realise that the title "8-bit Stories" was in fact wrong for the project. Because the word "stories" doesn't indicate that we're talking about true stories. In fact, the word gives more of an impression that we're talking about fiction. So I needed a better word to describe my content as it was: True stories from my life. And that word was of course going to be "Memoirs".

So the new title became "8-bit Memoirs", which also sounds a lot better I think. And to prevent further sabotage I of course bought the domain right away.

(That other 8bitstories.com site suspiciously closed shortly after).


How about adding illustrations?
Yet another nice idea there!

Requirements? Well I need to find an illustrator of course. And then I suppose I need to get my hands on a lot of photos that I can give this illustrator for references.
So my aunt supplied me with thousands of old negatives of which I scanned probably about a thousand, looking for useful photos I could use for references. I had to buy a negative scanner for this.
But unfortunately there were hardly any of the photos I could use. Apparently no one in the family had ever taken photos of the rooms or items that I needed. Only one single picture was ever taken with me sitting in front of my CPC...

Over the next year and a half I talked with 6 different illustrators who were all interested in creating the illustrations. Some wanted payment, others offered for free. But none of them ever delivered anything. Most of those 18 months was literally spent just waiting to hear from these illustrators.

My girlfriend finally took pity on me, and decided to help me out with the illustrations, despite not really having the time for it. She sacrificed/postponed one of her own projects to help me out. So I had to reduce the number of illustrations a bit. But at least the project had illustrations now. (Each illustration took between 10 and 20 hours to create, which means each illustration took several weeks to create. This was partly because there was very little sparetime available between job and family, and partly because we spent a great deal of time and effort making each illustration as faithful as possible to the actual moment in time they represent).

Since I never heard back from any CPC graphics artists, it was also my better half who ended up creating most of the themes. So I also had to reduce the amount of themes I would have liked to include.


Ok fine, so apparently this project wasn't going to become the community project that I thought it would. And I have to admit that was rather disappointing. Not completely impossible to understand though. I know most of us have very little time, and I can't brag about lining up myself to help anyone else with their projects. So I understand perfectly fine that we all (have to) prioritise. But it was still somewhat discouraging to indirectly being told that no one else had any interest in this project.

But maybe future issues of 8-bit Memoirs will see more collaboration between community members. It would be nice if issue #1 at least had that effect.


Despite all the obstacles, I felt pretty good about the project. It was progressing slowly but nicely. And I had found a suitable platform that people could view on both their Windows or Mac or Linux PC. And it could also run on their PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One gaming console. And I would later discover a long list of hardware media players that would also play it. And of course let's not forget all the standard Blu-ray players.
I thus believed I had solved the problem that people complained about when I posted about my first engine: Different people had rather different preferences regarding the platform they preferred viewing such a project on. With Blu-ray I was well covered. One single file would run on any media player that supported BD-J - and VLC and Kodi (was going to) have that covered for a bunch of different platforms. So it felt good.

Another Blu-ray project I had previously made; a game I had ported from MIDP to BD-J, had given me feedback like "I'm not wasting a disc burning only 83 mb", so I was glad that the 9 hours of video content + 5 hours of music in 8-bit Memoirs filled out most of the 25 gb available on a disc. Then I definitely wouldn't hear any such complaints here.
(Nothing was added just to fill out all of the space. It was all planned content, and all relevant to the stories. In fact, I actually had to cut down a few videos to make it all fit).

(As you can see I was on the classic (impossible) mission to please everyone).


More obstacles!
But then I discovered a bug on certain hardware players that resulted in a short black screen between tracks in the background music playlist. In order to fix this I had to change the way the background music playlist was put together. So I did. That was a lot of work, but it seemed to fix the issue.
Unfortunately this fix then in turn seemed to create a new problem for users of VLC and Kodi....

During development of the project I tried many times offering my assistance to the VLC and libbluray developers with BD-J implementation, in different ways, in an attempt to have VLC ready in time for the release of 8-bit Memoirs. But they were always rather unresponsive to my input. So at this point I'd realised there was nothing I could do. I had to just release the project, and then hopefully VLC would get fixed later.


Alright! One week before release, I was ready to start creating disc copies. But now all of the sudden my Blu-ray burner didn't work anymore. What?!? I had to spend several days figuring out the reason for this, and at this point I was beginning to go crazy. I was stressing out because I had to create a decent amount of copies before the release date. I couldn't believe how new obstacles kept popping up like this, seemingly for every single little step I tried to take. The problem in this case: A buggy new Linux kernel. Solution: Boot on older kernel.

I had been planning on printing the case covers at work, because we had a good laser printer there - except of course that it had been replaced the day before now. (The timing was always "perfect" in regards to screwing up my plans). This new printer was supposed to be far superior than the old one - but of course it wasn't. It looked absolutely terrible. But knowing my luck, I had anticipated this in advance, so I simply drove to work during the weekend, hooked up the old printer that still hadn't been picked up, and printed all the case covers. "Fuck off you evil powers who thinks you can prevent my project becoming a reality!"

The disc-prints was done at home on our own printer, which of course couldn't produce the right colours. A lot of tweaking (and a lot of discs) were necessary to get that right.

Meanwhile the ISO file was sent to SceneSat a few days before release. They'd promised to create a torrent for me that I could add on the website. But of course, just as they were about to start doing that, SceneSat had a major crash. (Can you believe it?) As a result, the torrent file still isn't up here two weeks after release! This could easily have been a disaster! But luckily, the HTTP download seemed to work fine for most people. I had thought it would time out for most. A few people were still affected though.
But a torrent should still be up, so I was going to look into my options at work with a NAS we have there - except I then got hit with the flu, and have been stuck in bed for 6 days now...

Alright. I then prepared a text for the release post on the forum, and uploaded a video to YouTube. But shortly after posting, someone reported the video as being in violation with the YouTube community guidelines, which of course it wasn't. Again smelling suspiciously like sabotage.
There was no doubt that YouTube would lift the block once they had time to look at the video, but I of course couldn't wait for that now that it was released. So now I had to upload the video to Vimeo too, to be able to have something to show, and then go back to all the forums I had posted on to provide a new link.

But finally the project was released.

I had initially thought it would take about 2 years, but it ended up taking 5 years.




Observations
It's been a couple of weeks since the release now, and there are two important things I realise at this point:

First:
I consider the project a success. I managed to complete it and release it despite the constant stream of obstacles that kept being thrown in my face. To be completely honest, just having managed to complete the project is really all the reward I need.
The amount of interest it has had so far matches the amount of interest I hoped it would have. The amount of people who expressed a desire to buy a physical copy has done so. The amount of downloads has exceeded all expectations though. Already here 2 weeks after release, there's been far more downloads than I suggested my webhost there might be in a month, so I hope I won't get an extra bill now. This is of course why I need to get a torrent up.

But secondly (and this is important):
Did you lose count of the number of problems as fast as I did? Hardly anything in the project went as I thought it would! Almost every little part of the project was originally intended to be different in some way. And that is something worth thinking about. I know this is something that bothers a lot of us; when things don't go according to plan or expectations. But this is where you have to ask yourself: Is the plan really that important? Does it really have to be 100% like you've planned or imagined? No it really doesn't. So don't let that stop your project.

I estimate I must have spent about 2.000 Euro on the project during the 5 years it took to create it. I bought a lot of Blu-ray test-players, a negative scanner, an X-RGB Mini Framemeister, Hauppauge PVR recorder, getting devices modded, a 3-digit number of discs used for testing, licenses for some of the music, a new printer that could print on discs, and various other small stuff.
I naturally hadn't imagined I'd end up spending that much on the project. But again: I insisted that this project should become a reality no matter what. Nothing was going to stop it.

This summary might also have given you the impression that I remained very calm and cool during the whole project? My better half will tell you a very different story. I was just as frustrated as the next guy, so believe me when I say I can relate to anyone struggling with his/her project.




The message
So what I wanna tell you with all of this is:

If you're working on a project, and you feel it is taking too long and there are too many weird crazy obstacles that keeps being thrown in your face, and things aren't going according to the plan or your expectations, and it's costing you way more than you thought it would - just know that it doesn't only happen to you. I'm sure it's like that for most of us, if not all of us. Especially when it's a new kind of project that you haven't tried before.
Whatever time you think your project will take, and whatever you think the project might cost, you gotta multiply that with somewhere between 2 and 5.
And you should always expect and accept that whatever plans you might have will change a lot.

(There are obviously certain project-types that goes a lot easier. Especially those you're used to making).


I wish you the very best of luck with your project, and I hope you never give up! :-)

Offline robcfg

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Re: Creating a big project
« Reply #1 on: 11:53, 14 December 17 »
Thanks for posting your experience!


I find it very interesting and, yes, if you depend on other people to do some work on your project, they'll probably fail you.


I have several projects because I needed some to help me with the game design and story, so they're frozen until I have some time to deal with them.


Also, I'd like to thank you because even with all the problems and frustration, you managed to get it done and that throws a very important message: Never surrender! If you're a creative person, you need to create and get things done and for that you need patience, perspective and the will to not give up.


Cheers!

Offline cpcitor

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Re: Creating a big project
« Reply #2 on: 12:45, 14 December 17 »
Quote
To be completely honest, just having managed to complete the project is really all the reward I need.

I think you nailed it: aim for doing what you want to do, and don't expect more reward that that.

Then go on till you achieve your goal.

That's not to say more reward cannot come.
At the end, if more reward comes, it will be fully bonus.  No disappointment.


Perhaps the only difference between people who achieve and those who don't is only that, like you did, they go on till it's done.

You're an achiever, mr_lou. Congrats!
Had a CPC since 1985, currently software dev professional, including embedded systems.

I made the first CPC cross-dev environment that auto-installs C compiler and tools: cpc-dev-tool-chain: a portable toolchain for C/ASM development targetting CPC.

Offline PhilZeVibe

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Re: Creating a big project
« Reply #3 on: 16:49, 14 December 17 »
Yes, choosing to work on our own big challenging side project is rewarding in and of itself.

We learn so much along the way, both technically and spiritually.
It really makes up for all the struggle.
Atwood's law (2007): "Any application that can be written in JavaScript, will eventually be written in JavaScript."

Offline mr_lou

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Re: Creating a big project
« Reply #4 on: 18:59, 14 December 17 »
It really makes up for all the struggle.

Only if you manage to complete it, I think.
Which is why you gotta keep going.