Monday, November 11, 2013

The Joy and Despair of Writing These Stupid Games.

Please, Charlie Bucket, save me from this hell of my own devising! I've been in 80-hour-week crunch for 15 months!
"We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams." - Willy Wonka
"Forget it. Music makers and dreamers of dreams make no money." - Every Sensible Human

Last week, I wrote what is probably the most viewed blog post I've ever written, about the rough road of writing indie games for a living. I decided not to post it like ten times before I finally hit the Publish button. Now I'm really glad I did. The response I received was far more positive than I ever expected.

Also, I made a lot of young, talented, ambitious people sad. Which is its own reward.

As is my style, I want to follow up with a few points raised, questions I wanted to answer, the occasional rebuttal, and a few words about making a living in this marvelous, gruesome industry.

The Good and Bad News

I wish I could remember where I first heard this, but it's true wisdom:

Video game development is not a software industry. It's an entertainment industry.

If you want security and stability in your life (and believe me, if you are sane, this is what you want), write web infrastructure or banking software. Trying to make a living writing games is like trying to be an actor, or a musician, or a cinematographer. Not as bad as wanting to be a poet, but close.

This is a business for misfit toys, people who are in it because we love it, because we live and breathe it.

This doesn't describe everyone who makes games, of course. Doesn't describe the executives. (But what can you do?) Doesn't describe the people who moved into the casual space  and iOS to chase the easy money. (They will be winnowed soon enough.) But the people who design the stuff? Who test and build it? We're the freaks. The true believers.

You want to write indie games, and you're scared? You should be scared. I'm scared every damn day. I've been writing games for my whole life. I HATE writing games. I'm sick to death of it. I do it because I have to. It's all I'm good for.

(But sometimes, every great once in a while, I do something right. Some tweak of dialogue, some clever design decision, some encounter that just comes off right. And ... It's just joy. Wouldn't trade it for anything.)

Games workers are treated like garbage. If only there was something that could be done. If only someone had faced these same problems before. Hmmm. It is a puzzle.
But Also, Game Writers Are Victimized. They Don't Have To Be.

This is a truly fantastic article about how gruesome life in the games industry is, and what needs to be done about it. Everyone who cares about games should read it. It explains why almost nobody can spend a full career writing games and perfecting their craft. And, thus, why most games are so derivative and terrible.

Where Baby Indies Come From

In Chekhov's awesome play The Seagull, Nina, a young actress, says, "You have no idea how awful it is when you know you're acting badly." This is true across all art forms.

Sometimes, you play Dudegunshooter XXXL 1 and say, "Wow, that was awesome!". Then play Dudegunshooter XXXL 4 and say, "This is sort of getting tired." Then you play Dudegunshooter XXXL 7 and says, "Boy, they're really phoning it in now." Then you stop buying them and last you heard they're on Dudegunshooter XXXL 10 and everyone is just sort of sighing and shaking their heads.

You ever play a game and think, "This is so tired and phoned in and joyless."? Well, imagine how painful it is to write that game. To burn your life and youthful energy away in a cloud of 100-hour-week crunchtime to create a big pile of creativity-free meh.

I've done it. I've written games where my heart wasn't in it. It shows in the final product, and it's excruciating. (You might not like Avadon 2: The Corruption, my new game. That's fine. But there's a lot of neat stuff and attention to detail in that game. Like it or not, I think it's clear I'm at least trying.)

It's hard to be young and creative and ambitious and burn those super-productive years away on something you don't believe in. That is why developers turn indie. Not for money (though that helps a lot), but for the joy of creation.

I don't want to discourage anyone. I don't want anyone to give up. I want them to make awesome games for me to play. I just want them to be prepared. I want every word I write to help make more successes.

Never forget. If you are willing to pay any price to work in a field, someone will eventually try to make you give up everything.

Let Someone Tell You a Story

In my previous article, I came down way too hard on Alexander Bruce, creator of Antichamber. He's the real damn deal, putting in his years in the trenches to make good work. If you want to write indie games (or start any small business), treat yourself to this talk.

It's all there. The passion. The good luck and good connections. The quest for perfection and the toll it can take on you. The recognition of and correction of mistakes. It's a perfect example of that old, true aphorism: It takes ten years to make an overnight success.

But this was also the path taken by a relatively unencumbered young person with the serious chops necessary to win design competitions (and the precious funding that comes along with that). If you lack this sort of superhuman energy or have the obligations that can come with getting older (such as, Heaven forbid, having kids), you will have to do less. This has a direct cost, paid in lower odds of success.

Luck, and the Making Of Same

Antichamber is the story of what it takes to make a HIT: Write a first-rate title, and market it until you're on the ragged edge of a nervous breakdown.

My previous article was trying to say, among other things, that this isn't the route you have to take. Some games don't lend themselves well to this sort of press. Some developers aren't capable of it. Heck, I'm close to freaking out all the time doing a fraction of what Alexander Bruce did.

I mean, I'm not a hermit or anything, but I'm really introverted. I hate meeting strangers, and I like my house a lot. If I had to go to a million conventions doing heavy PR to sell my games, my games would not exist. Like my work or not, I don't think gaming would be better off without them.

However, this bit is key: The less you do, the smaller the rewards and the more you need a lucky break. The more you do, the less you rely on luck. If you listen to the talk, don't let it destroy your will. Only understand that it is showing you one point of the yardstick that will be used to measure you.

These children will not be successful game developers. Must be because they are lazy.

And One More Thing About Luck

I knew that the thing about the previous post that would get up peoples' noses the most was the luck part. That luck makes a difference in whether a business succeeds. It's the most controversial obviously true statement I can think of.

Look, you have to work hard. The more you scramble, the more often good breaks will come your way, and the better you will be able to take advantage of them when they do.

And I know why people hate talking about luck. People who haven't made it want to believe they are entirely in control of their own destiny. People who have made it want to believe it was entirely because they were awesome. Neither are ever true, but facing it is too scary, so we don't.

Luck matters at every single point along the journey. Look at me. I'm lucky. How was I lucky? Well, I was born in a wealthy, safe country where I wasn't at risk of dying from dysentery or civil war. (Not a lot of hot indie talent coming out of Syria these days.) I had supportive, reasonably affluent parents who were able to get me a computer and programming lessons and didn't freak out when I spent 80 hours one summer beating Bard's Tale II. (And they worried. I know they did.) I'm lucky that the brain tumor I had removed when I was 18 didn't take me out of the game entirely.

Obviously, this isn't about games anymore. It's a whole way of looking at life. In the end, we'll all believe what we need to to get where we want to go. Sometimes, however, someone needs to point out the reality of the thing.

Thanks To Everyone Who Said Nice Things

I really appreciate it. Thanks to everyone who follows me on Twitter now. I'll try to be cute and clever and not murder my career. And that's all I have to say about the business end of things for a while.

I want to do some game criticism for our bit. Our art form is flourishing in a lot of ways, and people trying to say intelligent things about how to make it better are really needed.

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Edit: A Quick Addenda About Luck

The frustrating thing about this topic is that everyone hears a different thing when I say the word "luck." Here is a quote from my previous article in which I make explicit the mechanism in which luck works (and helps or doesn't help niche developers like me):

"Some gamers will love you, and some won’t. You have to hang on until one of those gamers becomes an editor somewhere. The more niche your product is, the longer you will have to wait."

It's not about magic. It's about how you can search in the wilderness for a while until you find that person who can appreciate that weird thing you do and has the power and willingness to help you. You have to do the searching, and luck tells you how long you have to endure until you find what you need.

13 comments:

  1. For some reason, these articles are very inspiring for me and don't really discourage me (I'm working on my first "true" game and boy, it's more work than I thought it would be).

    A nice read, as usual.

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  2. Jeff, you are awesome. I have been playing your games since I was 10 when I found Exile on a shareware disc called Galaxy of Games. Your stories heavily influenced my quality standards for game narratives. And yet, after all this time, hearing you talk about The Seagull just made a couple things click in my head about your storytelling. So cool.

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  3. You put your finger on it Jeff: the video games development isn't the software industry, it's entertainment.

    Speaking as someone who does work on banking software I never could understand the development horror stories coming out of game devs and QA. Developing software is basically a solved problem. Nobody should ever need to do crunch time any more. Projects go bad, but a coding house learns lessons and moves on.

    But suddenly it all makes sense to me. It's not about developing software. Getting into game dev is like trying to start a band, become an actor or get into the porn industry.

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  4. Sadly Indies seem even more prone to making easy to avoid mistakes.

    Dropbox is not source control, people!

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  5. Please don't stop commenting on the business end of things. Best posts on your blog, IMO (not that I don't enjoy others, but as an indie developer myself, reading the experiences and opinions of others in a similar position is always extremely interesting).

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  6. "I've done it. I've written games where my heart wasn't in it. It shows in the final product, and it's excruciating."

    which ones?

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  7. Well you need to make good art simple. A game is art and music in motion first.

    The flood of indies are just people who want to cash in with tech demo's. True game art takes years to complete and will be rewarded in kind.

    http://silkjade.com/Art/32-cave-Dmax-04-Bridge-S.jpg

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  8. "Also, I made a lot of young, talented, ambitious people sad. Which is its own reward."

    I almost dropped my cup of tea, I laughed so hard.

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  9. "You have to do the searching, and luck tells you how long you have to endure until you find what you need."

    The harder I work, the luckier I get!

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    1. Right. The truth is, the harder you try, the more work you put into sticking your neck out there so you can be seen, the more opportunities that will come your way. The luck is in those opportunities.

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  10. I imagine you probably wouldn't want to list them, but I'm curious what games your heart wasn't in. I haven't noticed one so far, but I'm easily distracted and I haven't actually gotten past the second entry in any of your series, sooo...

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  11. Alarconte:

    It's all Machiavel; Fortune (luck) and virtue (skill); The Virtue to know how to use Fortune, and the Fortune to test your Virtue on the line.

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