Thursday, November 17, 2011

You Gotta Pay Your Dues If You Want To Sing the Blues

"I am the entertainer,
And I've had to pay my price.
The things I did not know at first,
I learned by doin' twice." 
                    - William Joel

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote at length about the 10000 Hour Rule, which can be stated as follow:

To master any non-trivial field requires 10000 hours of dedicated practice and study.

The previous post was about the rule and why I think it's a true thing. I also wanted to write a bit about how this rule applies to the creation of computer games, which, believe me, is an endeavor that takes many years to master.

How the Rule Applies To Professional, AAA Game Development

Big game companies are infamous for eating their young. They scoop up young people that don't know any better, make them work insane hours for crap pay, discard them when they burn out, and harvest a new crop of workers. There are few elder statesmen who stayed around long enough to get really good at what they do. Alas, most of the rank and file get driven off before they put in the years necessary to get really good.

So if you've ever wondered why games tend to be so derivative and make so many of the same mistakes again and again ...

How the Rule Applies To Indies

When an indie developer nobody cared about suddenly breaks out and releases a hit, kickass game, you know what I love to do? Find out how that sudden superstar spent the years learning to make a good game.

Every successful indie developer has a pile of relatively rough old games they cut their teeth on. Notch (Minecraft) does. Jonathan Blow (Braid) does. Petri Purho (Crayon Physics) does. I sure do. John Carmack and John Romero made a pile of games you never heard of before they created Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom.

It's necessary. You can't just make a good game from scratch. You have to spend years working at it, writing stuff that you probably won't be very proud of. I count myself very lucky that, when I was writing my early RPGs, there was pent up demand for them. Enough so that even my rough, subpar goods were able to generate a living.

One More Example That Amuses Me

I only just heard about an upcoming Indie RPG called Driftmoon, being developed by a small company called Instant Kingdom. Hey, why shouldn't they write an Indie RPG? Everyone else is.

I'd never heard of them, but I looked at the gameplay video and the screenshots and thought, "Hey, this looks really nice. I bet this isn't their first game."

Then I looked at their older games. Five of them, each one a little nicer than the one that came before. It's awesome to look at. You can almost see the learning.

(Oh, and you can see the couple who runs Instant Kingdom here. I don't want to sound crass, but these are two seriously attractive game developers. If I was running some Association For the Advancement of Indie Games or something, I would put those two on a poster in a cold second. The caption would be, "Indie Game Developers - WE'RE NOT MONSTERS!")

How the Rule Applies To You. (If You Want To Create Games.)

So if you're one of the many enterprising young folks who ask me about getting into this business, learn from the above. Write games. Lots of them. Don't worry about aiming too high. Don't do your ultra-mega-epic yet. A bunch of varied, small apps is a great way to learn, and you'll get a bunch of your failures out of the way early.

It's a lot of work, but don't despair. Hey, I built a career on a game that looked like this. If that can happen, than you, a person I suspect is at least as intelligent and driven as me, totally has a shot.


  1. Do you have a screenshot of the old version to share?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Maybe I'm alone in this, but I actually vastly prefer the charming old sprites from the Exile 3 days to the isometic graphics used today, which just look blocky and kind of...bad.

    The UI and gameplay have definitely improved from the days of Exile (With the exception of spells, I loved being able to collect dozens and dozens of spells, as opposed to the far fewer in Avernum, it added a fun Pokemon-style collection mini-game to the experience), but the gameplay graphics have gone downhill, in my opinion. When you're an indie developer, you can get so much more mileage out of stylized sprites than you can out of any attempt at quasi-3D work, which is both more development-resource-intensive, and less rewarding for the player since you can't achieve the same effect as a studio with a bigger team and budget.

    2D/stylized art is cheap, and easier to make compelling and emotionally relatable (Bastion's a pretty good example of this). Extra Credits actually did an episode on the Uncanny Valley that touched on this issue - .

    NB: I'm a huge fan of Spiderweb Software, no offense intended!

  4. I'm with hexstring up there. I got Exile off a MacFormat CD in the early 90's, and that screenshot sir, is not the game I played.

  5. You're onto something there, Jeff. Most developer probably aren't very proud of the very first games they wrote, myself included: Magebane 1 and Bikez 1 are not even on our webpage. :) Learning game development also applies within a game: The first Driftmoon Alpha we published was far inferior to the 6th Alpha we're just about to publish. Actually work on Driftmoon started in 2005 under a different name, the whole game has been changed a few times over. With our next version the first half of the game will be just about finished, finally, after three or four complete rewrites of the plot... ;)

    Great to hear you've liked what you've seen of Driftmoon. Thanks for mentioning us, and good luck with your current projects Jeff - skills and experience you already have! :)

    Ville and Anne, knee deep in Driftmoon.

  6. Heya Jeff,

    I'm Ian from witching hour studios (we just released our first game, Ravenmark last week) and I wanted to thank you for the years of enjoyment your games gave me and the inspiration to try my hand at designing my own game.


  7. Totally agree Jeff. To succeed at being and indie you need to be dedicated to your craft and make tons of small crappy games that gradually get better and better. Many people bail after their first commercial game flops instead of persevering and making another one, and another.

  8. Same here. I've been on my second RPG for three years now and it was largely built on the first. I'm finally just a couple months from a final gold release (seventh major build).

    Likewise, my first isn't on my site. It might be later if I take what I learned and make it over.

    I'm not surprised the Mönkkönens are pretty folk. They sound pretty when they write on RPGWatch or that site you love that doesn't scale to your level ;)

  9. I just want to agree with Fil - I LOVED having a million spells and abilities to choose from, and the ability to choose all custom-made characters. It made my characters seem really 'mine'.

    In contrast, Avadon REALLY reminds me of Baldur's Gate. Both have pre-generated characters that you get to choose how you level, and both are heavily based on D&D. ( seem to come fairly close to 4th edition based on the appearance of game mechanics in Avadon...hope that doesn't get you in any trouble).
    Now, I LOVED Baldur's Gate. But at the end of the day, I STILL love Exile more.

    I also agree with Fil that I miss the top-down 2D graphics.

    Also, I've realized I don't like the way secret walls exist in Avadon - a little button takes all the fun away. I REALLY miss walking into every wall in Exile trying to find the one I could phase through.

  10. "Also, I've realized I don't like the way secret walls exist in Avadon - a little button takes all the fun away. I REALLY miss walking into every wall in Exile trying to find the one I could phase through."

    Oh my god. I remember when I was a kid, before I could afford the full version of Exile 3, I had a saved game in the demo where I had literally walked into every available tile of wall in the entire demo game. Every tree in every forest, every rockface in every cliff/mountain terrain, every block in every building wall.

    The reason I remember this with deep fondness instead of scorn is because, as-often-as-not, my obsessive desire to explore the hidden nooks and crannies of the game were actually rewarded with a secret room, or a new quest that I hadn't yet discovered!

    I honestly probably got more than 100 hours of genuine enjoyment from Exile 3. When I grew up one of my first adult purchases was Avernum 3, and while I played it, and it was tons of fun, the charm from mechanics like this just wasn't there. It was still a great game, and I finished it for the story, but I no longer explored everything.

  11. I love how this applies to just about everything worth doing in life. Excellent.

  12. You forgot to mention that having a little initial success will go a long way. For example, your first games sold well enough to make you write more. But for many people the first few games don't sell much at all. In that case it can be pretty difficult to keep grinding away at the 10,000 hours. The people who have succeeded have done so because at some point in their early career they had enough success to encourage them to continue.

  13. Success is great, but I don't think most developers make games to be famous, or to get a lot of money. Because you probably won't get success, or money, by making games. What you get is a game, if even that... :)

    Financially getting paid can make a huge difference of course - you get to spend more hours making games.

  14. How come only Eve doesn't get a surname? That seems unfair.

  15. "Every successful indie developer has a pile of relatively rough old games they cut their teeth on."

    Except Martin Schweiger and Austin Meyer.

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  17. Good points. If there is one thing I regret today, it is that I did not think smaller when I was younger, so that I could have finished some of those old projects. I still put in a lot of hours and learnt a lot, but there is really no substitute for getting something out there in a finished form.

  18. Or we can sum it all up in a quote by U.S. President Calvin Coolidge:

    "Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."

  19. And playing games doesn't count toward the 10 000 hours no matter how much some people wish it did. Some people think they want to make games because they like to play games....

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