Alessandro Cuzzocrea

2021: Year in Review

A drawing of a plaster cast I created using pencils.

As 2021 draws to a close, it’s the perfect time to look back on all the accomplishments and challenges of the past 12 months. From working on multiple game projects to participating in game jams, it’s been a busy and rewarding year.

Lands of Ambustio

After completing work on Symbols last year, I embarked on my next project: Lands of Ambustio, an 8-bit role-playing game created with RPG Maker MV.

I began working on the game in May 2021 and by early September, it was available for play on Itch.io. This was the first time I had created all of the art for a game entirely on my own (excluding some simple work for game jams).

Although the game is by no means a masterpiece, I am proud of what I was able to achieve in just four months. On the other hand, I really dropped the ball when it came to promoting the game – I wish more people had played it so I could have received more feedback.

Fortunately, I did receive one very detailed review from a player who took the time to write it. These kinds of comments are valuable feedback that will surely help me create better games in the future.

You can learn more about Lands of Ambustio here.

A screenshot from my game 'Lands of Ambustio'

Project RPG-2021-b

After wrapping up Lands of Ambustio, I jumped right into my next role-playing game project, codenamed RPG-2021-b.

This time, I’m really focusing on making the battle system more fun by tinkering with the default system in RPG Maker.

The art style is also going to be a major upgrade – I’m trying to recreate the look of 16-bit pixel art, which is way more detailed than the 8-bit stuff I did for Lands of Ambustio. It’s been a ton of work, but I’m having a blast with it.

I’ve simplified or cut out some features like equipment and inventory. I want this game to be a more streamlined, focused experience for players.

I originally planned for it to be a four-month project, but as of now, it’s not quite finished. I’m guessing it’ll take another couple of months before it’s ready to go. I’m not thrilled about the delay, but I can’t release it in this unfinished state.

Project Iyashikei-RPG

I am creating these small game projects, like Ambustio and RPG-2021-b, as part of a larger project that I have been planning for years. The goal is to eventually release a full blown commercial role-playing game codenamed Iyashikei-RPG.

Because RPGs are complex and require many resources to create, I am breaking the project into smaller parts. Each smaller project will serve as a testbed to help me gain the necessary skills and knowledge to make a successful RPG. This process will take several years and culminate in the creation of a vertical slice (demo) of the RPG. Based on the demo, I will determine if the project is worth continuing or if it should be dropped.

Since working from home has given me the opportunity to put extra time into working on my personal projects, I have planned the following roadmap:

Phase Description Status
Land of Ambustio Practice Project 1: 8-bit RPG Completed as of September 2021
RPG-2021-b Practice Project 2: 16-bit RPG In-Progress (initially planned for January 2022)
Master Study Re-creation of a vertical slice of an existing video game Planned for May 2022
RPG-2022-a Practice Project 3: A 3.5D RPG developed based on the knowledge gained during my Master Study Planned for September 2022
Iyashikei-RPG pre-production Planning phase aimed at defining the game’s concept, designing its mechanics and gameplay Planned for December 2022
Iyashikei-RPG demo (vertical slice) Fully-functional prototype that represents the final game’s features and content Planned for April 2023
Iyashikei-RPG Pre-Kickstarter Finalizing the last details before launching a Kickstarter campaign Planned for August 2023

If the Kickstarter campaign is unsuccessful, I will abandon the project.

I will do my best to stick to the schedule, even though I’ve already had to delay RPG-2021-b unfortunately.

Digital Games Expo 2021

I visited the Digital Games Expo (デジゲー博 in Japanese) for the first time this year. It’s an indie game event that I’ve known about for a while, but due to COVID, I never had the chance to visit it before.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. There were around 100 indie game studios with booths and demo stations where you could try out their games. These studios ranged from well-known companies to hobbyist solo developers.

Although I would have liked to chat with some of the developers and exchange contacts, I refrained from doing so due to COVID and social distancing measures.

Visiting the expo was a great motivation boost for me. Seeing the work of so many talented game developers reinvigorated my love for game development and my desire to make a successful game.

I would love to be able to showcase my own games at the expo somewhere in the near future.

The Digital Games Expo 2021 banner seen through a window

Pixel Art Advent Calendar

By mid-November, I was working on RPG-2021-b’s pixel art assets almost every day and loving every second of it. Then I had an idea: wouldn’t it be fun to make another small art project just for fun and practice? That’s when the idea of a Pixel Art Advent Calendar hit me. A quick Google search revealed that – of course – I wasn’t the first to have this idea, nonetheless, but I was still excited.

I started working on it right away. The plan was simple: create a special page on my website and update it with a new pixel art drawing every day from December 1st to Christmas. I planned for the background to be a classic pine tree in a snowy field, and each new pixel art drawing would be like a Christmas decoration on the tree, gradually turning it into a full-blown Christmas tree.

Unfortunately, pixel art takes time to make, and I couldn’t keep up with one drawing per day. I also didn’t want to delay RPG-2021-b any further, so I had to abandon the project after only two drawings.

I guess the lesson to learn here is “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” Too bad. Maybe I’ll try again next year…

The only two pixel art illustrations that I managed to complete before giving up on the whole project The only two pixel art illustrations that I managed to complete before giving up on the whole project
The only two pixel art illustrations that I managed to complete before giving up on the whole project

Power napping

I was starting to yawn and feel sleepy every day around 8 p.m., so I decided to try power napping after work. My plan was to clock out, nap for about 20 minutes, wake up, and then have dinner. At first, it worked well. I had more energy and was able to work more hours after dinner.

Unfortunately, I had to give up power napping because after a while, I just got used to it and would sleep through my alarm, ending up sleeping for two hours or more and waking up feeling really groggy. I also couldn’t do it reliably every day due to unforeseen commitments.

Disconnect from social media

Social media is a productivity killer. A couple of minutes of scrolling can quickly turn into hours of mindlessly browsing, wasting a lot of time and mental energy that could be used in better ways.

This year, I tried disconnecting from social media with mixed results. I deleted every app and blocked every website related to social media. At first, I was doing great and completely ignoring social networking sites, but then I had a relapse.

The problem with blocking sites like Reddit is that a lot of Google searches result in Reddit links, so it’s either a question of giving up the search result, searching elsewhere, or temporarily unblocking Reddit and risking getting sucked into another rabbit hole. Right now, I’ve blocked Reddit on my Mac, and if I really need to browse something there, I just manually change the URL to teddit.net (a Reddit alternative frontend).

I almost completely abandoned Twitter, though. When I need to post something for #screenshotsaturday, I just unblock it, make a quick tweet, and block it again without thinking twice.

One thing I haven’t managed to block yet is YouTube. It’s just too darn useful, even just for having some lo-fi chill music playing in the background while I work.

It’s not really social media per se, but I also have a problem with wiki-type sites (like Wikipedia, Wikia, TV Tropes, etc.). I can literally lose days browsing around and falling victim to infinite rabbit holes while browsing wikis.

Quitting coffee

I decided to quit coffee for good. I had been feeling like my body was becoming dependent on it and that I was craving it more and more – nothing too severe, but still – I don’t like it.

At first, I thought I could replace it with tea, but I ended up feeling nauseous every morning. I did a little research and found out that drinking tea on an empty stomach can cause nausea. The more you know.

Despite my best efforts, I still find myself needing coffee for my brain to function properly. For now, I’ve decided to limit myself to just one cup of coffee per day.

A Family Mart coffee cup

Binging stuff and dopamine spikes

As the end of September approached, the Squid Game craze swept across the internet like a wildfire. Despite not looking like my cup of tea, I decided to give it a try and watched the first episode – and before I knew it, I was hooked.

I ended up binge watching the whole thing in just two days.

I experienced a sudden rush of dopamine followed by an immediate crash when the final episode credits rolled. I became obsessed with googling Squid Game and felt like my self-discipline was completely gone for a few days.

It was a strange and unsettling experience, as if my self-discipline had completely disappeared for a few days. I woke up exhausted and unmotivated the next morning.

Binge-watching the Squid Game was a mistake. Great show though.

Squid Game plushies in Harajuku

Life without internet

I had an unexpected weekend without the internet due to an outage. Surprisingly, I actually enjoyed the experience of having almost no internet access.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about turning off my wifi router every day after 9 pm to enjoy some chill time without the distractions of the internet.

Of course, I was still relieved when the internet technician showed up at my door and was able to fix the issue in less than 24 hours after I called for help. I’ll never get used to how efficient customer service is here in Japan.

Me enjoying the offline world
Me enjoying the offline world

Bought an Android phone

I bought a cheap Android phone to separate work and private. The phone is an Xiaomi Redmi 9T and I got it for ¥14,700 shipped.

I’ve been using the phone for about five months now and I’m really impressed. I’m not an Android expert but this phone feels fast and really usable. The screen also feels really good for the price. I can’t believe you can get a phone like this for a little more than 100 euros.

The phone has a giant 6000mAh battery, which is great for users who need their phone to last all day without running out of juice. I even used it as a mobile Wi-Fi router for extended periods of time without draining the battery. Oh, and did I mention this phone comes with an extremely handy headphone jack?

Some drawbacks:

The fingerprint reader is extremely sensitive and I have to be careful not to touch it too much or it will revert to passcode input. The strip for the fingerprint reader is also small and becomes unreliable after some time. I have never had this problem with my iPhone 6s. Additionally, the vibration motor feels weak.

The lack of NFC on this phone is a bit disappointing. I’m not sure if only the Japanese model lacks NFC, but it does make the phone unsuitable for use in Japan where NFC is heavily relied upon for mobile payments and other applications.

It’s worth mentioning that Xiaomi phones have been known to be a privacy nightmare. Xiaomi has faced a lot of backlash for their lack of transparency and protection of user data. This is definitely something to consider before purchasing one of their devices.

Overall It’s great value. Android has really improved since the last time I used it, which I think was around 2017. If you value customizing your phone to your preferences, then I think Android is definitely a viable alternative to iOS now. I like iOS, but sometimes it feels too restrictive. Android allows for more customization and flexibility, which I really appreciate. If I wasn’t so invested in the Apple ecosystem, I could see myself using an Android phone as my daily driver, possibly a Google Pixel with a privacy-focused ROM like GrapheneOS.

Xiaomi Redmi 9T box
Xiaomi Redmi 9T lock screen

Bought a vertical mouse

I had been doing a lot of pixel art for my games using a regular mouse, but my right wrist started to hurt.

Taking the advice of some Redditors, I decided to try a vertical mouse as a remedy and did some research before settling on the Logitech (or Logicool, as it’s known here in Japan) MX Vertical mouse.

To my surprise, the wrist pain almost immediately disappeared after using the vertical mouse – it made such a significant difference that I wish I had bought it earlier.

The mouse’s ability to register to up to three devices via Bluetooth is also a major convenience.

The only drawbacks are that the scroll wheel (third button) is somewhat difficult to use and has become a bit squeaky after prolonged use.

Overall, I am extremely satisfied with my vertical mouse and would highly recommend it to anyone experiencing wrist pain from using a traditional mouse.

Logitech MX Vertical Ergonomic Wireless Mouse
Logitech MX Vertical Ergonomic Wireless Mouse inside its box

The Matrix Resurrections

This movie was not on my radar until YouTube randomly showed the first trailer in mid-September. As someone who loved the Matrix trilogy growing up, I was really excited to see how the series would continue and I got a ticket for the midnight premiere.

I really enjoyed the first half of the movie. I thought it was cool and meta. However, I was disappointed when the movie switched settings and the plot became a typical “save the damsel” story. The action scenes were not very impressive and the ending felt like a letdown. I think the writers had interesting ideas, but the execution of these ideas in the movie was somewhat lackluster. I was also disappointed by the recasting of some characters.

Overall, while there were some enjoyable moments, I was ultimately disappointed by The Matrix Resurrections. I felt that this entry did not add anything meaningful to the series.

The midnight premiere of 'The Matrix Resurrections'
The exterior of the 'The Matrix Resurrections' cinema screen room at Shinjuku Piccadilly Cinema

Apple Music Reply 2021

Apple Music Reply 2021 playlist featuring my top 10 songs of the year