Barista EXP: An allegory about the burden of creative ambition


BaristaEXP is an ongoing visual development project by Mel Chang about two NPCs (Non-Player Characters) in an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) approaching it’s final patch. The patch happens to include a bug that keeps dungeon bosses from reviving. If the dungeon bosses do not revive, the game cannot continue cycling through, and players will have no reason to continue playing. To save their game they must use their skills and experience, take on player occupations so they can affect their world like live players, crawl through dungeons, and revive each boss one at a time to manually keep the cycle going.

Meadow is a potion barista NPC and Ursa is a special event poison bartender NPC who trades monster parts for offensive poisons of equal value.

In the video below, Mel shows us the parallels between her own life and the lives of the two main characters in BaristaEXP. Mel uses a Wacom Cintiq Pro as her primary tool and tries out the new Wacom One creative display for working on-the-go.

Mel also shares some insights she’s learned in her creative journey.

For people who are stuck in a rut, and can’t find their place in the world, what advice would you give them?

I can’t stress enough how important it is to re-evaluate your work/life balance. If you feel this way, you’ve fallen into the trap of feeling like you need to spend every waking moment of your day drawing to catch up to other artists. Find a way to work towards your goal in a way that doesn’t simultaneously destroy or negate your current life . Your current life is exactly what is going to inform your content and make it meaningful. Your life outside of your art is essentially your research and you’re never going to find your place in the world if you never make an effort to be a part of it in the first place.

This might mean spending more time with friends, indulging more in media that you both love and hate, or, in my case, focusing on doing well at your part-time job as you work on your portfolio. Whenever you are not working on your art, try your best to live in the present moment and commit to every interaction you have. If you don’t, you’ll feel like you’re stretching yourself thin. The guilt of not working on your career as time flies by can be soul-crushing, but you likely won’t make content that is meaningful to employers, the internet, or even your friends if you don’t find a way to connect with others. You’ll just get caught in the trap of needing to make the most original and epic project just to stand out, only to make something no one cares about or can relate to. Living life and creating bonds is a mandatory aspect of being a good designer and storyteller! Everyone can learn technical skills like rendering or drawing perfect anatomy in a crazy perspective, but no one can give your unique perspective on the world like you can.


It seems like Meadow was able to find the positive in a bad situation. How do you feel like this relates to how you handle disappointment in your career?

I’ve found that your “bad” situation isn’t always bad for the reasons you think it’s bad. And your “failure” isn’t always actual failure, but a door that was never open to begin with. As a result, your solution (the positive) isn’t going to be what you think it’s going to be. Meadow assumes that people just don’t like her anymore, and therefore aren’t coming through her cafe anymore, but there’s a much larger external reason that was beyond her control – the bug in her final patch. Similarly, I thought people just didn’t like my art when I was initially applying for work. I didn’t realize exactly how massive the competition was, particularly in my town, which sounds silly in hindsight. There are also so many factors that are outside of your knowledge and control when it comes to getting hired ranging from company budgeting schedules to people just posting a job opening because they have to, even though they already have someone in mind. And yes, sometimes you really are just not the right person. But the point is that that final reason is just one out of the myriad of reasons you haven’t been hired or accepted into your school of choice. That means two things:

1. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

2. There are a myriad of ways you can adapt without putting more mileage into your art. Meadow doesn’t succeed by changing the way she makes potions. She just changes her target audience and method of delivery.

Advice for beginner freelancers?

Don’t nosedive into freelancing! Start while you’re still in school or while you’re working another job. It takes time to build up clients, and it takes even longer to be able to work on projects that directly correlate with what you are passionate about. I get to work on games now, but I designed logos, album covers, posters, packaging, toys, learning apps, and more before getting to this point. I can genuinely say that I loved working in each of these various genres of design, but my goal has just always been games.

As far as side work, if you can, find a job that is flexible. I worked for an amazing boss at Cafe Cesura. He 100% supported me and has always been accommodating when it came to the havoc of freelance work coming in and out. Local businesses with more familial work environments are great for freelancers trying to establish their careers as long as you respect their time and commit to them as a priority while you’re there.


Do you miss the coffee shop when you don’t have the opportunity to be there, since it is a source of inspiration?

Always! I love my customers! We have a great crowd that comes in and my coworkers were fantastic. There are many times where my manager made me laugh so hard I cried. Barista work is also fun once you get over the initial over-stimulation of constant conversation because it can be all about entertaining, depending on where you work and who is coming to get coffee. My favorite thing has always been people making wild sweeping statements about how one should consume coffee. Coffee is a refined art and craft but sometimes it’s just bean juice, milk, and lots of vanilla. If you have this kind of conversation at the register with your friend, your barista, their fellow baristas, and the customers behind you will all make fun of you for days after you leave.

In the current world climate, with the quarantine, everyone is spending a lot of time inside. Since you draw inspiration from real life, does that make it harder to draw?

Part of me wants to say yes, but years of freelancing in solitude has actually prepared me for this very moment. You’re all on my turf now. It’s not so bad when your favorite local places are still delivering food!

What are some mistakes you made early on in your art journey?

When I came out of college, I felt that I had a pretty competitive resume. But, when it came to employment, I realized that I was no longer competing with other students but other artists who had as much as a decade or more of experience on me. I thought I simply just didn’t have the mileage they did so I sunk every second I could into my art to catch up. My work was well received while I was in college, and out of college my technical skills were improving. I thought things were going well, but it turns out the biggest mistake I made was that I holed up so heavily to catch up that even though my work was technically better, I didn’t have the social environment of college to keep me grounded anymore. Thus, nobody cared about my work despite sinking at least an entire year or two into this way of working. My portfolio wasn’t the only thing that this way of working hurt. It hurt my relationships with others, it hurt my mental well being, and it hurt my home life.

It was just a year of living with guilt that would never go away and I couldn’t figure out why until the last thing I had left, my art, no longer responded to me either. Drawing and designing wasn’t fun anymore. Brute forcing and tunnel visioning like this was easily my worst mistake. I blame Pokémon for teaching me that if you do a thing the most you will succeed. Have you ever noticed that you don’t actually have to catch ‘em all to beat the game?


Advice for artists looking to start their own project?

Part of why I felt so behind is because I actually studied industrial design and furniture design in college instead of illustration. It’s a long story but I realized that there was no running from my love for design in the context of entertainment and illustration, so I eventually forced my way into the illustration department while keeping my major. However, with all this extra education, I came out of college with marketability and research always on my mind.

Remember that a personal project like this is still a product if you intend to show it to an audience. I find UI/UX checklists and packaging design checklists to be particularly good for checking if your project is worth pursuing because they take into account the expression of product/brand personality and the short amount of time that your audience is going to give your project a chance. Like any good product it has to appear familiar and simple, have easy onboarding, and it must fulfill a targeted need. I’ve drafted up a lot of epic odyssey type projects in the past, but BaristaEXP receives immediate love every time I post about it because before all of its introspection about personal fulfillment and high expectations, it’s grounded in making fun of something a majority of people know — coffee shops and service industry experience.


My favorite and most worn out book to reference is Packaging Design by Bill Stewart. A lot of that book is really just about how to visually communicate with your audience, how to stand out, and having good design habits.



About Mel Chang

Mel Change is an artist who graduated from RISD in 2017 and has worked on projects at Cartoon Network, Valve, 5th Cell, Mythical Games and Fisher-Price. With her extensive training in alchemy, she has a high skill level to produce robust caffeinated beverages that she can consume to maintain stamina so she can also work on her passion project, Barista EXP, a visual development project about a potion barista.

Barista IRL

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