Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Age, Pleasing Apple, and Trying To Climb Out of the Hole.

I still think these are pretty funny.
I haven't done much blogging for a long time. Part of it is that I don't feel I have much advice to give. The business has changed an awful lot in a last few years, and I'm still mired in the old ways. I'll let the elder statesman mantle pass to those who actually know things about our amazing modern cyberworld.

But there is another reason I haven't been writing. I have been suffering from a massive period of exhaustion, triggered by an ugly combination of age and medication. That, perhaps, is something I can write about usefully.

For a variety of reasons, game industry workers tend to be young. Little gets said about the grim business of growing old in this industry.

(Younger people have now tuned me out. Don't worry. It's fine. You will live forever.)

This is a tale about my age and health, how they helped me make the biggest screw-up in my career, and how I am trying to climb out of the hole.

A Few Practical Comments About Middle-Age

Young people have a notorious disinterest in hearing what things are like when you grow older. Old people are smug and boring and smell weird. Since this is meant to be a practical guide for a long haul in game development, I will be as brief as possible.

I am 45, and my health is getting worse.

Generally, when I tell younger people that, I get a reaction like, "Oh God, no, HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU HAVE LEFT!?" But it's not like that. I'm not dying. At least, not imminently.

But middle age is usually when the long, inevitable decay of your body starts to make itself known. It's when you think, "My chest hurts. I might be having a heart attack," and then immediately think, "Oh, crap. I’m old. It really MIGHT be a heart attack."

(Of course, some young people have poor health, and some lucky people stay healthy into old age. I include this disclaimer for the tiresome folks who get most of their fun from being angry and pedantic in the comments.)

When you reach middle age, your body starts to grumble and slowly break down.  A combination of lost dreams and dying loved ones tends to make your mind a bit of a mess too.

Annoying people always say, "You're only as old as you feel." Well, I feel old.

Do you know him in real life? Then you don't know anything about him.
"Dude, You Are a Whiny Bummer."

I really don't mean to be. Just laying out the facts. It's not all bad. There are good things about growing older, too. I‘m not whining about it. It happens to everyone.

What I am saying, and this is important when understanding creative types, is that something always goes wrong with your health (mental and/or physical) at some point. When this happens, the fractures will deform your work.

Almost everyone makes fun of George R.R. Martin for not making good time on the Game of Thrones books. But, dude, the guy is 66 years old. I'm not going to pretend I know what's going on in his life, but I can think of 10000 things that could be keeping him from writing. I'm not happy that the Game of Thrones books come out so slowly, but I know that these things happen.

I'm 20 years younger than he is, and yet, I recently had a long stretch of problems. I won't bore you with the blah blah details, but they left me on a collection of medicines that left me completely exhausted for long stretches of time.

This led me directly to the biggest professional screw-up of my career.

Falling Into a Hole

I release my games for the iPad. I think tablets are really cool and fun to play with, and I love putting out games for the platform. However, it's not a big moneymaker for us. The market is so super-competitive that we can't compete.

So, early this year, we ported our newest game, Avernum 2: Crystal Souls, to the iPad. It went through testing and we were ready to ship it. It was good to go.

Three days before release, Apple put out a new version of iOS, the iPad operating system. If I was a responsible, together developer, who was fully focused on selling his customers quality products, I would have tested the game on the new OS. But I was too tired.

Had I done so, I would have found that the new OS completely broke the game.

There are more details of the story in an interview I gave here. Basically, the engine I used was old and did things in some outdated ways. The new iOS update was the one that finally broke the engine.

Instead of canceling the release and fixing the problems, I thoughtlessly shipped the game. Then, finding it was broken, I canceled the release, removed the game from sale, and handed out refunds.

Then I tried to fix the problem, but this involved learning a lot about programming iPads. At that point, my fatigue was so bad that my limbs hurt. I didn't have the energy for a real burst of research and programming. So I gave up.

My advice: If you're going to make yourself look like an idiot, do it LOUDLY.
I Do Not Want Pity

Don't feel sorry for me. My point is, at some point, EVERYONE gets sick. You will, too. When it happens, all of your careful plans fall apart, and you need to put them back together in a new (probably smaller) shape.

After I canceled all of our iPad stuff, I lost several days to depression and self-pity. It was the first time, in a long, solid career, I'd said, "I have to stop doing stuff I was doing because I just suck now." Declining ability is something everyone faces at some point, but it is still hard to face.

I decided to go to the doctor. As much as I needed the medicines I was taking for my health whatevers, I needed work and self-respect more.

I spent time playing with my medication and dealing with various complications. And, eventually, my energy came back. That was two weeks ago.

Climbing Out of the Hole

The first thing I did when I could do things again is begin a massive assault on the design of our next game, Avadon 3, to finally fix the problems that have been in the Avadon games from the start. (I wanted to fix them for Avadon 2, but I was tired. Exhaustion forced me to spend over two years writing that game even in its flawed state.)

Once I convinced myself I could do things again, I went back to fighting with the iPad. I had to. Not for money or PR, but for simple pride and self-confidence. I don't want to have to run in fear from challenges yet.

I needed to rewrite my old engine (happily, it came with source code), which means that I had to learn how to program iPads. Keeping from having to learn iPad programming is why I licensed an engine in the first place.

This is the sort of challenge where being old and having lots of experience helps. Getting older is not all bad news.

In the 30+ years I've been programming, I long ago lost track of the number of foreign languages and systems I've learned to develop for. You get better at it. You learn to avoid the easy mistakes and not create the tricky bugs. You get better at finding answers to tough problems. When I am capable of doing what I do, I'm better at it than I've ever been.

And I did it. It took days of basically constant, family-neglecting work, but I have a working engine and a working game again. I still need to do some planning and testing, and it's pretty humiliating to go back on my word. But being an indie developer means that you get to look stupid to the world occasionally.

Game developer ages, as of 2014. Thank God that, when you turn 50, you don't need to eat anymore.
A Few More Words About Age

Writing a public article about one's bad health is a really good way to make it harder to get jobs in the future. Who wants to hire a sickie?

But ha ha! The joke's on you! I'm already unemployable in games!

Take a look at this chart. Game devs in their forties? 16% In their fifties? 1%

One. Percent. What the hell. Video games are a young art form, but they're not THAT young.

This is a topic I want to write more about, but no discussion about age and writing games would be complete without at least mentioning it.

Want to talk about lack of diversity in the games industry? I'm with you. However, if you don't mention the total lack of old people, that's how I know you're not serious.

If you struggle to get more women, non-whites, etc. into the industry, only to find they all fall back out when they start turning 40, I promise that your victory will turn to ashes in your mouth.

So It's Kind of a Happy Ending.

I thought I couldn't do a thing anymore. I announced it. Then I found I could do it again. Then I announced it, making me look stupid. Now I think I'll be able to ship the game after all, and be proud of it. It should be a happy ending.

Sort of. It has forced me to really think about how my business, my life's work, will end. A series of contractions and abandoned projects, each step accompanied by a cloud of apologies and refunds. Unfortunate and inevitable, but it can be handled ethically and with grace.

If nothing else, this failed release has made me a lot more forgiving of older creators when they fail. Of course, if someone is actively ripping their customers off, that's a problem. But a late Kickstarter? A slow book? I can show some patience and empathy. Qualities the internet could use a lot more of.

If there is anything hopeful I can come up with, it's this: The people who make the games you love? They are human too. They will age. They will falter. Be tolerant. Be supportive. Forgive them.

You will get old too, and you will understand. When that happens, don't have to look back and think, "Wow. I was a jerk."