“I have some concerns about the catgirl empire,” Thierry said, giving the fidget spinner in his hand another flick.
Leanne picked up her phone from where it was sitting on the conference table and checked something. Vincent was leaning back in his chair, doodling on his notepad. It was getting toward the late afternoon and energy was flagging so I almost missed the dangerous line of inquiry Thierry was pursuing.
“If it’s a land populated entirely by catgirls,” he went on, “which it seems to be, then how do they have this huge city? Giant stone buildings, bridges…”
“Catgirls are clever,” said Vincent, still sketching.
“But where do they get the stone from? Stone requires quarries. Mines. Are there really catgirl miners working in the mines? This is basic anthropology here.”
“It’s magic. It’s a made-up fantasy universe,” I said. “Why are you so concerned about this?” I looked for some support around the conference room but nobody met my eye.
Thierry placed his hands on the table, flat. “It’s not good worldbuilding. That’s why.”
“Listen. We have talking animals. Floating continents. Armor sets that look like lingerie. Who cares where catgirls get their stone from?”
“I care. A lot of people do. An entire civilization doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere. It doesn’t make sense. Look at this city, look how much stone they use. They either have to haul it out of the ground themselves or they have to trade for it. So where does it come from? How do they pay for it?”
“The goddess protects them,” said Leanne, entering the conversation at last. “So maybe she also gave them a magic crystal that produces free money?” If Thierry wouldn’t listen to me, maybe he would listen to her.
“And all through history nobody’s come and taken it?” Thierry pointed at the map pinned on the wall. “You’d think something that good would have every neighboring country stop at nothing to control it. Look at all the other kingdoms around them. They’re sitting ducks.”
“Thierry, I can’t believe you think we need to work this all out. It’s just a game.”
“Yes, it’s a game. A game I want to be proud of making. Unlike you, I guess. I’m sick of hearing that quality doesn’t matter.”
“Who the fuck said anything about quality? Have you noticed we’re making a fucking huge game on an extremely tight budget? Do you think Tae-sung or anyone on his team gives a flying fuck about any of this? Do you want me to go to them and say, yeah, we used your money to spend a lot of time inventing some fucking scientifically-approved backstory for the catgirls?”
“It should have been part of our process from the start. If we’d done a proper pre-production phase—”
“I’ll tell you why we have catgirls, okay, catgirls are cute, they’re sexy, you put them in the game and people buy shit! What the fuck don’t you understand about that?”
I was tired. We were all tired. We’d been working six to seven days a week, ten hours a day, often more, fighting for every breath to keep our hopes and dreams alive, and here was Thierry once again with his ridiculous concerns, his constant need to derail us, always somehow after everyone had already moved forward. I hated nothing more than his stupid face at that moment— the moment I picked up my mug (“Eat. Sleep. Gamedev.”) and tossed the undrunk portion of my late afternoon coffee at his face. Which was most of it.
There was what seemed like a long pause as Leanne, Vincent, and I watched the tan liquid drip down Thierry’s glasses and t-shirt, but it really must have been about three seconds. Slowly, he set the fidget spinner on the table, stood up, and walked out of the room. Presumably toward the bathroom.
“Well, then,” I said, “I guess that does it for the meeting.”
Vincent put down his sketchbook. “When does the pizza get here?”
“Seven,” said Leanne, “when it always gets here. Don’t forget we’re taking photos today.”
“Yeah, sure,” said Vincent, but he wasn’t listening.
I spent the early evening putting together milestone build notes for Seoul. There had been— there continued to be— bumps in the road, to be sure. But despite that, the game was really coming together. Shops and items were working. The map screen was starting to look like a real map. Audio wasn’t glitching anymore. If you took a step back, you could see we’d kicked a lot of ass over the past few months. With only six people and hardly any money at all, we’d brought an entire universe into existence. We had nothing, really, except the sheer will to create. I would challenge any other team in the industry to do even half of what we did with the same resources.
Dreams don’t come true for free. I slept at the office, as many of us did, or couch-surfed at friends’ or ex-girlfriends’ places. I ate instant ramen for meals, though more figuratively these days after experiencing some stomach problems.
When we saw the results taking shape, though, it was clear all the sacrifices were worth it. Everyone agreed on that. This game, our game, my game, the perfect expression of my sensibility, everything I knew about how game design worked. It had the addictiveness of a slot machine combined with the stickiness of steady increments. Wildlands were tamed, territories grew, treasuries filled with gold. Plus it had those catgirls, hot anime ones with fuzzy ears and tails and hands held up curled like paws. That had been Tae-sung’s suggestion, but we ran with it. Honestly it was a stroke of genius. Gamers wouldn't mind paying a few real dollars to outfit their catgirls exactly as they pleased. Pervy fools. Eventually they’d be parted with their money thanks to cleverer people like us.
Normally when the pizza came people would ignore it for a little while and wander into the kitchen later, around eight or nine, so Leanne and I had to corral everyone to get the photos.
“Everyone look like you’re having fun,” I said.
Chad posed holding a slice of pizza in each hand. Darla gave a thumbs up and made a kissy face. Thierry, hanging toward the back, popped some jelly beans into his mouth.
Vincent looked at Leanne and her phone blankly. “Why are we doing this?”
“This is for our publisher,” said Leanne, who’d already explained all of this in an email she sent this morning. “They asked for a team photo, something fun. They suggested a pizza party? I guess they know we eat a lot of pizza.”
I couldn’t let this stand. As the leader, I’m responsible more than anyone else for morale. “Vincent, what the fuck is with your shit attitude?”
“I don’t know.”
“Fuck you. Did you hear what Leanne said? They’re going to put us in their promo material. You know we wouldn’t even be here without them. If you don’t like working here, you can quit and draw fucking cereal mascots for the rest of your goddamn life.”
“Do they think Americans just have pizza parties all the time?” said Chad, chewing his pizza. “Is that… racist?”
Leanne snapped a few photos with her phone. The flash went off for a couple of them. “I think these look okay,” she said, frowning.
“Let’s get another photo with us toasting the camera,” I said. “Everyone get a drink.”
Darla started pouring some soda from a two-liter bottle into plastic cups.
“Actually, let’s get a video.”
“They didn’t ask for a video.”
“It’s a bonus. We already have the photo, right? Everyone squeeze together behind me. Over there.”
I held the phone out in selfie mode and started the recording. I raised a cup with my other hand and the rest of the team followed my example.
“I want to make a toast to Tae-sung and his team, our good friends in Korea, who gave us the opportunity to make something really special. Thank you for everything. This is the start of what I can tell is a beautiful partnership, a great relationship. Thank you.”
We cheered and took sips of soda.
“I hope he likes it,” said Leanne.
“I’m sure he will. He admires us, you know. Says we put his local dev teams to shame.”
Leanne nodded without saying anything and followed the others back to the main room, where another long night of game-making was getting underway.
We were so close. It was coming up on a year now, a year with nothing but ninety thousand dollars spread whisper-thin over six people. But we were almost there. I took a bite of pizza, crust-first. For some reason it was delicious, so delicious I almost cried. It tasted like the fruit of victory. We'd been through so much together as a team, fighting our good fight, coming close to dying on more than one occasion. But we would make it. We would make a game! Something I always knew I would do all the way back from when I was a child and we played soldiers or policemen, chasing and punching each other… I would captivate the masses. They’d be enchanted by my world and feel compelled to return to it again and again, watching those numbers go up. They would willingly open their wallets and give me money because I made something they couldn't resist. People who once might have sneered at me as we passed each other on the street transformed, magically, into fans. My fans, fans of me. And now it was becoming true and real and nothing could stop it. Tae-sung would be so happy with me when the game came out and dominated the charts, which I knew it would do. I could see it right now: his flying me out to Seoul, meeting with me in his office, taking me out to a fancy dinner as a valued business partner, a brilliant game designer, a friend.
“Great work,” he’d say, putting his hand on my shoulder and smiling. “What you’ve accomplished is truly impressive. I’m very proud of you.”
And I would burst into tears and thank him again, and again, and again, for believing in me.