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Variety Is the Spice of... Game Development
by Michael Hicks on 07/30/14 12:39:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

  Me at the beach!

Me at the beach!

I've spent a solid year of my life working on a game as a full time independent developer, and another year working on it on and off. The game isn't quite done, so maybe I'm shooting off the fireworks a little early with this article, but it should be out by the end of the year. Overall, this has been a really amazing experience... but it's also probably been the most difficult time of my life so far.

Right before I started working full time on this game, I was a student. All throughout school I worked on various projects, and was usually frustrated at having to go to school when I could be home working on a game. I was pretty notorious for rarely leaving home to hang out with anyone because most of the time I would just want to leave and go work on something at home.

Imagine my shock, about seven months into working full-time, that my view on this completely flipped – I started to feel desperate for some type of social connection. Also, at this time I realised I’d only seen a small handful of people in seven months. Most people are probably thinking: ‘Okay, you want to see people, you should call someone up and go do something.’ The problem with that is for some reason, in my completely isolated state, I felt that everyone hated me and would never want to do anything with me.

I didn't really understand this at the time, but there was a conflict going on between my brain and body – or as Jonathan Blow says, the rational part of my mind (the thinking part) and the intuitive part of my mind (the part that’s in tune with animal-type needs like eating).

Rationally, I totally believe in what I'm doing. This game is very important to me, and feels like a reflection of many important experiences I've had. It's very important to me that I finish it and get it out to the world. If I don't do this, I will feel like a failure.

On the other hand, the intuitive part of my brain was panicking; I felt stuck, like everyone I knew was moving on and progressing in their lives, and here I am working on this game that's never going to do anything for me, that could quite possibly be rejected by a lot of people and financially force me to give up on my dream of being a full-time independent developer. Sometimes I've seriously considered giving up, going to work some crappy job I don't want to work, and calling it a day.

I wish there was some way to just kill off the panic and despair, but the truth is it's there, and has had a very real impact on my life. When you have such a strong conflict within you, you start to say stupid things and feel all these crazy emotions that have no basis in reality. I think this is a common thing in any creative field, but we shy away from talking about it. Maybe the best example of seeing people in the midst of this internal conflict is in Indie Game: The Movie, where you see developers saying similar things to what I said above.

I recently watched this lecture by Jonathan Blow, where he talks about a lot of this stuff. It's really helped me make sense of this mess of emotions and thoughts. Our body has core needs: like physical comfort and external validation. No matter what you do, your body never seems to understand why you're sitting in front of a computer and working on something for so long. It starts yearning for acceptance, it wants people to tell you how smart you are, how amazing you are; you want to be ‘loved’.

A lot of people let these needs control them, and it's pretty dangerous to do that. If you're a musician and the only thing that makes you happy is the applause after the performance, and not the performance itself, quite frankly you're totally screwed on ever being happy with yourself. You will just want more and more of that, never feeling fulfilled, always waiting for the next moment someone can tell you how great you are. It's much better to do something because you want to do it, not because you want to please other people. I'd argue that this is why things are so stagnant in our industry; designers are totally obsessed with pleasing players: pandering to their desire for mastery of skill, making sure everything feels fair, and most importantly making sure they are having fun.

On the other hand, when you completely self-indulge into something, your intuitive mind kicks in and tries to get you to do something different. I'm not sure if this was the intention of nature, but I think it’s good we have these two things colliding. At the end of the day, if what you're doing doesn't have the potential to make life better for everyone, it's probably not worth investing time into. At least, that's my view on things: too much of one thing is never good.

Naturally, when we get too much alone time and get desperate for social interaction, our first reaction is to climb on top of people and make demands. "You need to meet up with me." "Tell me how great I am so I have some sense of self worth." We don’t literally say that of course, but that’s what we mean by it.

A lot of us struggle with our self-image or self-confidence, and instead of developing this ourselves we tend to put our entire life’s worth into a relationship – our life has value as long as someone “loves us”. This isn't love, there's nothing truly fulfilling by doing this; it’s a temporary fix, like using drugs to hide from your problems. Real love is being extensional to someone, extending their understanding of life or providing tools that improve their life in some way. Real love is accepting people for who they are and what they want, not trying to change them to fit what your perception of a perfect relationship is. I believe we’ve all done things we regret or wish we could change.

So how do you make games with this type of philosophy? I believe to make something that has use to others it must first be useful to yourself. During creation, you must channel out potential audience reactions and focus on developing the game’s voice and statement, then after the main creative decisions are over, switch to people mode and carefully make small tweaks to make things more accessible.

When you rigorously test a game and try to respond to every bit of feedback players want you to implement, your game stops having a voice and starts being a commercial product that's afraid to step on someone's toes. This is a major problem in both mainstream and indie games. For something to be extensional to others, it must have a strong identity, and as a creator you should have a strong belief in what your game is and what it can do for others. It’s vital that we start listening to our project's identity instead of listening to what we think our audience reactions will be.

Maybe a reason we have a hard time making games like this is because of the long development cycles, and the internal conflicts that start to arise from it. I mean, I've only worked on this game full-time for a year; some games have three to five-year development cycles. So what are some ways we can manage these feelings during development?

I've found that releasing some type of smaller project, like a mixtape or YouTube video helps. Also, thinking about your situation from an outside perspective (thinking critically, meditating, or explaining these things to people you're close to) has helped me see that my problems really aren't as bad as they feel. In fact, I’d say a lot of these problems aren’t even rooted in anything concrete; they are just illusionary things your body is telling you. Even if the game is rejected or a financial failure, I've made something important that I will look back at for the rest of my life. Life will keep moving on, and I'm sure there will be many great experiences ahead as long as I take action to let them happen.

Even though I feel like I've overcome these feelings (recently I've done some important social things and took a vacation), I suspect this conflict will come back in the future when I start to work long hours again. This isn't a problem that has a permanent solution, like I said earlier I think it's actually beneficial at times – having this feeling will help motivate me to the finish line of the game. However, we have to be careful to not let any of these feelings overwhelm us. It's important to live a balanced life: talking to and seeing people you care about, but also working towards what you believe in.

I understand these topics are a little strange to talk about, but I actually think they're linked to many problems we hear about in this industry. An artist typically pulls from life experiences when working on something, but if all developers know is the studio and the inevitable crunch time that's coming, then how can we expect these people to explore new things in video games? All they know is what they've experienced.

Variety is the spice of life. Whether you're a creator working on a long project in isolation, a regular gamer, or just a human being in general, it's not good to burn yourself out on one thing. Try new things, take risk, appreciate the things currently in your life, learn from your failures and most importantly have fun. You only get one life in the real world, try to use it wisely.

If any of what I've said interests you, you will enjoy the new game I'm working on – it explores related topics. You can follow me on Twitter @michaelartsxm to catch the game's announcement, or to just drop me a line if you'd like. Thanks for reading.

                  - Michael Hicks (@michaelartsxm)


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Comments


Jeff Postma
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Thanks for taking the time to write and share this. It gave me a boost and some comfort knowing other people are going through the same thing sometimes.

Michael Hicks
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No problem, and that's great to hear - it's definitely helpful we have places like this to come together and share with other devs!

Rohit Kotiveetil
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Great article man. I myself quit my day job and have been working on my own game for the past one year. Most of the stuff you said completely resonated with certain stages of life I went through over the past one year. It's good to know that what I felt is completely normal in this type of field. And as you said, there were lot of times when I felt burned out, and kept doubting myself. But what I've noticed is that everytime that happens, I come out of it more confident and stronger than before. Recently I've started trying to prepare myself for these eventual burnout phases by concentrating on side projects. It helps a lot, to do something that gives you complete freedom to do what you want, once in a while. I've also learnt that having a secondary hobby is a good help. For example, in my case, I wanted to learn to play guitar. So I daily practice guitar at regular breaks from my work. And often, I get some new ideas or solutions during these breaks or time off. I believe these are very important, especially when you're working alone. It sort of fills some of the gaps left from not having the human elements found in an office space. From my own experience, I completely agree with you on the importance that variety brings to my work.

Michael Hicks
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Thanks for sharing and I'm glad you could relate to the post. I also play guitar and I've found that music is a great way to unwind from all of this!

David Klingler
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Hey Michael,

I was going to read this the day you posted it because I saw it, but I knew it would be something deep so I saved it on Pocket until today.

I've had a lot of personal things to overcome ever since I began game development in December 2010. I'm still not completely settled, but I'm doing better in terms of balancing my life.

You always write really interesting things, and I think it's wonderful that your work is so personal. There is definitely something stagnant in the industry right now that has to do with having "commercial products" that are "correctly designed" for the player to have fun. Games are something different for people like you and me, and I'm glad I know you exist.

Thanks for another great article.

~David

Michael Hicks
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Thanks man! I appreciate that, and it's good to hear you've got a decent chunk of things settled. Sometimes it feels really dramatic, like you're against the world or something.... but hopefully networking with other devs in similar situations helps that feeling go down a bit.

Brandon Shelton
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During my one year of hermit game-making, the biggest detriment I created for myself was the idea that by hanging out with my friends and not having anything to show for my efforts, I was somehow admitting that this endeavor was a failure. So that resulted in me never wanting to see any of my friends because I was afraid they would think I was a failure and making a big mistake by doing this. I haven't really resolved this part of myself, but it's still hard not to think this way even when all my friends have been fully supportive the whole time. Of course now that I'm back to working a regular full-time job and making a game in off-hours, I have even less time to be social if I still want to get work done.

Your connection between this sentiment and game development was intriguing and I'll definitely be thinking about that further. I do think there is a distinct lack of authorial presence in a lot of games, and it's why I have to respect gaming auteurs like Hideo Kojima or Ken Levine so much even when I don't necessarily like everything their games do.

Michael Hicks
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Thanks for your response! I tried to tone down my inner hippie in this article, but I think it's ridiculous that some people put so much importance into physical things... like you said "what do you have to show for it?" I can definitely relate with what you're saying, it's hard to explain to someone outside of the gaming industry what I'm doing and why I'm doing it; if you're not getting a weekly paycheck like most people you tend to be looked down upon (at least in my experience!)

Yes, we need money to eat and so on, I'm not putting down anyone that's working to pay the bills, but there are other reasons why people do things that have nothing to do with money. You know what I mean?

The fact that you're working hard towards a goal and getting really valuable experience in the process means nothing to a lot of people. Once again, this is my personal experience talking and I come from a very conservative town so maybe it isn't like this everywhere!

Kevin Fishburne
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Thanks for sharing, Michael. I can empathize. My mistake was tackling too large a project initially and not doing anything about it until over four years into its development. I'm by no means abandoning it, but rather decided to start a new, smaller project completely unlike what I'd been working on for so long (from MMO to shoot 'em up). The decision emerged slowly and subconsciously until one day I realized I had to do it. Two months into its development I'm a hell of a lot happier and a hell of a lot closer to releasing a first game to get my name out there and hopefully receive some validation (and who knows, maybe even money!).

I don't know if this applies to everyone or just those with certain backgrounds or personality types, but for me it is very much the case that spending so much time working on a game, really dedicating yourself intellectually and emotionally to bringing it into existence, stirs a deep need for validation along the way. Every YouTube view and new Twitter follower is fuel to keep going, and every loss is painful. There's a voice that continually asks if you're doing the right thing, if you'll be successful, and if anybody cares at all. I imagine once that first release is out, even if it is received with mediocre reviews, a lot of that will go away. Would be nice if someone could confirm this. :)

Michael Hicks
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"Every YouTube view and new Twitter follower is fuel to keep going" Yeah I know what you mean.... I've worked hard to distance myself from that type of thing, because as soon as I start caring I start obsessing over it! haha. I find it's most difficult when you release something and the buzz starts, I always want to read every little thing people say. It got really bad and I stopped doing that though, I actually stopped reading any press.... but.... I'm not sure how healthy that is either! Definitely want to be in touch with what people are saying. It's difficult =-P

Kevin Fishburne
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I'm glad you're in a position to be able to make that choice. On a certain level, as they say, any press is good press. The first step is just getting people to care one way or the other. Whatever the reception, persistence and the desire for perpetual discovery and self-improvement will inevitably score a success, and the name/brand established through previous efforts will go a long way toward getting that game into more players' hands.

As far as the two extremes of poring over every piece of feedback or avoiding it completely, something I've learned is that people can get used to anything, however pleasant or horrible; we're remarkably adaptable. So I imagine that after a while of reading comments, whether positive or crazy death threats, their emotional impact will begin to wane somewhat. So maybe get back into it slowly, skimming for critical feedback that could be put to good use in your next project.

Michael Hicks
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(I missed the reply button earlier, sorry)

I think I'll take your advice on that! I'm starting to believe the trick is discerning useful feedback from the trash talk/attacks. In my opinion, there's overwhelmingly more trash than useful feedback on the internet. Even from game reviewers, I often find myself disappointed at how much of their writing is essentially making fun of a game for entertainment purposes; very rarely do I get the feeling that someone genuinely cares about providing constructive feedback. I tend to get the most constructive feedback from other designers, as they are able to verbalize problem areas a lot better. I think reviewers can do that too, but that's not quite as entertaining!

I think I still have a lot to learn with these things, but like you said, slowly getting back into it is the first step!

Scott Stevens
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@Michael - thank you for the article. It's good to know we are not alone. I also quit my day job to work full-time on a game. It's quite the roller coaster ride, as you describe.

@Brandon - I agree with your idea about lack of 'authorial presence' in many games now. There seems to a common conception of what games should be. I find it wrapped in the comments of my beta testers. It really seems to be stuck in people's conceptions of what games currently are, and that all games should fit into just a few molds. People are most comfortable comparing new ideas to ones they know. I struggle to break the molds, searching for my own 'authorial presence.'

I'm very encouraged by this entire discussion. It came at a difficult time for me, and has helped motivate me.
I look forward to playing your games.
Now back to coding . . . . . .


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