Zero-Sum Game | ゼロ和ゲーム
“My name is Miura Kiyoshi. Nice to meet you all, senpai!”
“Um, Miura-kun, we’re the same year as you…,” said Chinatsu as she giggles awkwardly.
“Eh, but isn’t Hoshino-senpai the club president?” He looks at me and Chinatsu, his eyes wide in confusion.
“That’s true, but a lot of things happened…”
Chinatsu tells him the whole story of what happened. None of the senpais care about the club, so the former president nominated me as president is the gist of it, but Chinatsu goes to a lot more detail than necessary. But despite that, Miura listens along, nodding and giving verbal affirmation that he’s listening saying oh and I see.
We’re the same year, but our appearance couldn’t be far more different. My hair isn’t that neatly kempt and it’s a bit overgrown – I can feel strands of hair tickling my earlobes – but his hair is in a buzz cut just slightly thicker than the former president’s. Bright, wide eyes with a small nose, small mouth, and clean-shaven chin with soft-looking skin. And he’s wearing a simple light blue polo shirt with blue jeans and worn sneakers. He looks like a kid, not at all a college student. It’s no wonder he took us as senpais, I think to myself as I straightened my posture and puffed out my chest.
“Ah, so that’s what happened! But you all looked so mature and cool so I thought you must be older than me!” he says as he observes each one of us in turn. Mitsuo smiles warmly at him, but Shinichi doesn’t pay him any mind.
“So, you still want to join the club?” I ask him.
“I’m not your senpai.” But it doesn’t sound so bad.
“Oh right, Hoshino-san?”
“Well, what can you do?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, can you code? Or draw? Or make music?”
He looks blankly at me, his stupid smile plastered on his face.
“So, what can you do?”
“Uh, come up with ideas?”
My mouth gapes in awe. If he can’t do anything, why come here at all? He seems like a nice kid, but he’s got burden written all over him.
“So you can’t code at all?”
“Draw? Paint? Anything like that?”
“Make music? Or play music?”
“Nada. Oh, but I was in the concert band in high school.”
“Oh, what’d you play?” Mitsuo asked, leaning forward.”
“I played the flute, but I didn’t really play. They didn’t let me. So, I just helped around with carrying stuff.”
“O-oh…” Mitsuo shrinks back, not knowing what to say.
“That’s mean…” Chinatsu says to herself, holding back tears.
“Ah, I see.” The word burden flashes in my mind. “Well, anyway, unfortunately we’re not really open to new members right now so–.”
“Huh?!” Chinatsu turns her head towards me, her eyes filled with shock. She turns back to Miura. “Wait a minute please, Miura-san.”
He nodded as she got up from her seat and stomped her way to me.
“We need to talk,” she says as she pulls me from my chair by my sleeve.
“What do you think you’re doing, Ken-chan?!” she both whispers and shouts at me at the same time.
“Chinatsu, he can’t do anything. He’s just gonna be a burden. What, are we supposed to teach him?”
“What, so you’re just gonna lie to him?”
“I wasn’t lying. We’re not looking for new members. That was the previous president. Even he wasn’t looking for new members.”
“But look at him! He’s so excited to join.”
We both look at him. He’s sitting there, hands on his knees as he looks around the room. He looks like an excited little kid waiting for ice cream.
“I’ll be honest with you, Chinatsu. He looks stupid.”
“That’s mean, Ken-chan!” She pinched me. We’re in college, you know? “You can’t just send him away like that. Everyone’s gotta start somewhere. We were in that position too once.”
“Yeah, but we were in middle school. Chinatsu, he’s just gonna be a burden to us.”
“He won’t be a burden. I mean, he won’t exactly get in the way of what we do, right? At worst, he’ll just sit there and watch us. But who knows, maybe he’s actually like super skilled? You never know.”
“No buts!” She shakes her head and then leaves me to go back to her seat.
What did I do to deserve this, I ask no one in particular in my mind. It’s like fate hasn’t been with me ever since that happened two years ago. Whatever. I go back to my seat. Sighing, I reluctantly welcome Miura to the club.
“Well, welcome to the club, I guess. You filled out the form yet?”
“Oh, not yet.”
“You need to go to the administrative office and do that. Give it to me later. I’ll handle it. Club will start meeting tomorrow.”
With that, I pick up my bag and head towards the door.
“I’m going first.”
Miura turns around in his seat and shouts after me as I leave the room.
“Looking forward to working with you, Hoshino-san!”
When Chinatsu and I reach the clubroom, a strange sight welcomes us. Shinichi is reading like usual. If it weren’t for the different clothes he’s wearing, you’d think he stayed overnight. But across from him isn’t Mitsuo, but Miura. He’s sitting there, his back straight with his hands resting on the table. A notebook and a pencil case to one side. Backpack behind him on the chair. He was looking straight at the whiteboard when we came in, but now he’s looking right at us.
“Ah, good afternoon, president.”
“Y-yeah,” I say as I enter the room and put down my own backpack.
“Mornin’, Miura-kun!” Chinatsu energetically greets her.
With all the respect he treats us with and the way he carries himself, he does feel like an underclassman. I sit down and look around, but I don’t see any sign of Mitsuo.
“Where’s Mitsuo?” I ask Shinichi.
“I don’t know. Why don’t you just message him?”
“I’ll do that.” Chinatsu takes out her phone and starts typing.
And then we wait. It’s been a few minutes, but there’s still no sign of Mitsuo. I’m playing on my phone and idly tapping on the table, while Miura just sits there in that position. It’s like he’s a statue. I gulp. To be honest, it’s kind of creepy.
“What’s the notebook for?” I ask.
“The notebook?” He glances at it. “Ah, it’s so I can write what I learn here.”
Learn? He’s so diligent and enthusiastic that it’s making me a bit sick. But since Mitsuo isn’t here yet and I don’t exactly have anything to do, I consider teaching him a bit of what I know. I’ll get rid of all those misconceptions you have.
“You wanna learn?”
He nods vigorously.
“Then listen up. Since it seems like you literally don’t know anything, I’ll teach you some things.”
His eyes widen in excitement as he opens the notebook and picks up his pencil.
“There’s no such thing as an ‘idea guy’. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Your ideas, however good they are, are worthless. Anyone can come up with awesome great ideas, but what really matters is whether you can make them. So, there’s really no such thing as an ‘idea guy’ in the industry. There’s a lot of variation in the roles of game developers, especially for indie developers like us.”
“Yeah, indie dev. Indie generally refers to small teams that aren’t part of a big company. Compare that to triple A game studios. These studios have billions and billions of dollars to pour into their projects and hundreds to thousands of developers.
“Meanwhile, indie devs often do everything themselves. Not just things like development, but also marketing and publishing. Sometimes, indie devs rely on their own money. But these days a lot of indie projects also use crowdfunding.”
“Oh, I heard about that!” Chinatsu suddenly chimes in. She’s looking up from her phone. I wasn’t even aware she was listening. “It’s when you set up a page on those crowdfunding sites and try to convince people to support your project by giving you money.”
“Yeah, and in return they usually get something special. Like maybe merchandise, limited edition of the game, more in-depth previews, you name it.
“But as I was saying, there’s a lot of roles in game development. But generally, there’s only four main ones,” I say as I hold up four fingers.
“Designers, artists, programmers, sound engineers. Depending on the project, there can be more or less. And it’s common for smaller indie teams like ours for one person to take on several roles. Like in the team, I’m a designer and programmer at the same time because we only have one programmer. Sometimes you’ll also find other positions like producer, storywriter, level designer, tester.”
Miura is furiously writing down everything I say in his notebook. The only sounds in the small clubroom are those of my voice and the scratching of his pencil.
“Designers design the game. The mechanics, rules. They’re the ones who come up with like what sort of things you can do in the game, what challenges you’ll face. In most small teams, they’re also the writers like Shinichi here.
“Artists are pretty self-explanatory. They’re the ones who make the art assets. That can be 2D or 3D. For 2D, they draw the sprites, the animations, background images, among other things. For 3D, of course they make the 3D models. Components of the user interface too, like buttons. For us, that’s Chinatsu.
“Programmers make those ideas the game designers made work. They design the system, how everything is going to interact with each other. This involves, obviously, a lot of programming. As I said before, that’s me.
“And finally, sound engineers deal with everything audio in the game. Background music, sound effects. And we got Mitsuo here for that.”
I notice he’s still writing like crazy, so I stop and lay back in my chair. When he finishes, I straighten up again and continue.
“Since you’re new, you don’t really know yet what you want to do, right?”
He nods, but then speaks. “But I think I want to be a game designer. That’s the closest thing to an ‘idea guy’, right? Like the one who comes up with ideas? Because I got so many game ideas that I want to make into real games!”
“That’s right, but game designing’s not all fun and games like you think. Once you come up with an idea, you gotta make it work as a game. Not all ideas can work. And even if ideas can work, you need to work to make those ideas work. Games gotta be fun. If a game isn’t fun, then what’s the point? For most games, at least. The challenge is making your ideas fun.
“But not only fun, they also need to provide a challenge and be balanced. Like, imagine if one character in a multiplayer FPS game is definitely better than their opponents. Better health, better speed, better weapons. Wouldn’t be much fun, would it? If you haven’t unlocked him, you’re almost definitely going to lose. So, you need to make things interesting. Give them each their own perks, advantages, disadvantages.”
He listens intently, but he doesn’t write this down.
“Knowing all that, do you still want to try and be a game designer?”
He nods furiously.
“Then here’s your chance. We’re going to be joining a game jam in two weeks.”
“A game jam?”
“Yeah, it’s a type of game development competition.” I explain the details of what a game jam is, and the details of this game jam in particular. This one only gives us 48 hours.
“48 hours to make a game?!” He almost jumps out of his seat.
“But what’s the point of something like that? Isn’t it better to just make games like usual?”
“Game jams train you. Since you have so little time, it forces you to focus on the important stuff. Making your gameplay fun, making things work, making the art look just right, the sounds too. But all in the short time possible. It’s like removing all the unnecessary parts and leaving just the core. It really forces you to think like ‘What makes my game fun?’. So, you spot the mechanics that don’t really matter. Things in triple A games like the side objective of collecting 100 eggs or something, you won’t ever find that. You’ll only find the main mechanic, pure and sharpened to perfection. At least, we try to.
“But, since you’re new, I’m not giving you any primary role. You can come along, watch, and maybe pitch in some ideas. Main thing is, just see us work. But to get into the room, you’d still need to be part of the jam, so I’ll sign you up too.”
“I’ll do my best!”
I stand in front of the main Urayama University building, trying to make sense of the campus map that shows more than a dozen buildings spread over a wide area the size of a multiple football stadiums. The local Computer Club is holding a bunch of competitions related to computing. There’s mobile app development, hacking, competitive programming, and of course game development – the game jam. This is where we’ll be competing.
Failing to make any sense of the maps, I look around and try to find signs pointing to it. Since the Computer Club here is pretty famous, maybe they put up signs, I think. But I can’t find any. Giving up, I stop a bunch of local college students and ask for directions.
Turns out it wasn’t so hard to find it. Following the directions they gave me, I make my way to the College of Engineering building on the other side of the campus. The building is an old one, built in a style similar to 19th-century buildings in the West. I go in through the main doors and make my way to the second floor. When I reach the hallway, I look left and right but see no signs saying anything about any computer clubs. At the end of the hallway to my right, a door is open. Its light is streaming out into the darker hallway. I head straight for it, thinking it must be the computer club.
When I reach the room, I notice how big it is. It’s at least six times the size of our clubroom, and it’s full of the Computer Club members talking, sitting, moving around. There are also a lot of other people loitering around the room and filling out forms on the numerous desks. A guy with glasses and brown hair approaches me.
“Hello, welcome to the Urayama Computer Club, are you here to sign up for the competition?”
I tell him yes.
“Ah, game development. Please head over there,” he says as he points towards a desk in the back.
I make my way past the groups of people and desks to reach it. Everyone around me is signing up for one competition or the other, or discussing the rules with the staff, or making plans with their teammates. I don’t see anyone alone. Maybe I should’ve dragged them with me. At least I should’ve brought Chinatsu with me.
“Welcome,” the tall guy behind the desk says to me as I arrive. “Do you wish to sign up for the game development competition?”
He hands me the registration form and a pen. I fill out the information for myself, Mitsuo, Shinichi, Chinatsu, and Miura. Thankfully, the maximum number of people on a team for this competition is 5, exactly what we need.
As I fill in the form, another person comes to the desk. I hear another member of the club talking to them and giving them the exact same form and pen.
“Thanks,” I hear her say.
This voice, it sounds familiar…
I look up from the desk and look at her. My pen falls from my hand as I realise who it is. She feels my gaze on her and stops writing. She turns her head and looks straight at me. As our eyes meet, her eyes widen. Long, black hair. Beautiful face. Grey sweater.