Every day, booting up Unity takes a little more out of me, and each evening leaves me feeling like I've heard the gears of the infernal realm grind away my resolve. To overstretch the metaphor, it's been hell-ish*.
*Note: 'ish' because real hell probably doesn't involve being an indie game dev with sufficient food, a house in the Bay Area, and people who care about him.
There's a Winson Churchill quote I'd like to use here:
"Just a bit further and you'll reach it!"
"Come on, all that stands between you and success is hard work!"
"It's tough, but it'll be worth it!"
But there's a problem. While its 'man up' message is useful where one merely needs to grind toward a (hopefully inevitable and positive) conclusion it's a terrible mantra for doubt-ridden, uncertain creative work. Yet I'm guessing even now that some young indie has this as their backdrop, reminding them that if things aren't working out, they should merely keep digging that hole they are in a little deeper in order to strike gold.
Hell and 1% Inspiration
As the 'hole' comment above illustrates, there are other variants,such as:
Apparently, difficulties merely need sufficient grinding of teeth in order to turn into success - or at least to make way for another 'Genius 1%' moment to pop in.
In truth, the 'Genius 1%' may pop in and out throughout a project. Sometimes a new 1% pops in and points out that part of the other 99% of work you were doing was really stupid and pointless. Sometimes a 1% will pop in and lie about how cool and successful it is, eventually revealing itself to be just an additional '99% of perspiration' in disguise. The problem is that they all look the same, so it's often hard to be sure which is which, and when the time for hard work alone has come.
The AAA Mindset
So how does AAA cope with the variability of the 1% Genius element? It doesn't. It does its very best to eliminate the vagaries of the 1% and pushes that 99% to a full, hearty, knowable 100% of perspiration (Keep Going!). A modern AAA studio's continued existence relies on getting rid of that tricksy percentile. This is understandable, because for them, the fail-state is unthinkable; publisher cancellation and, after some fraught months, a purge of the entire team.
I've worked at AAA companies for decades and this kind of thinking rubs off on you even if you don't realise it. Like many, I've been trained to believe that every project is a marathon... run at the speed of a sprint, or at least a wild, sweaty jog.
"Working damned long and hard is the only way to make something successful. Failure isn't an option."
My previous game, Incoboto, was built with this philosophy. It was successful, reviewed very well, and was largely a work fashioned by grinding my way through an enormous workload, entirely by myself, in isolation, over a 22 month period. I was incredibly pleased with the results, but it reinforced the wrong-headed lessons I outlined above.
'Real' indies don't think this way. Indies often haven't learned the big, adult lesson about grind and grit. They mostly expect to fail in one way or another. And when they do, they shrug it off and move on. Even those agonising over a game for years are usually fairly sure their game works in principle even if it isn't perfect. They've already thrown away more good ideas than I've had published games and that's okay.
As an indie developer, what should I have learned instead of my big AAA lessons? Well, here are 3 off the top of my head:
- Fail Forward. Failing is good - if you learn from it. Fail quickly if you're going to fail, and learn to fail better. Failing also helps you deal with failure. You'll realise a 'failed project' and 'you' aren't the same thing. You don't have a huge budget or 400 employees relying on you. You can afford to be brave rather than stalwart.
- Share. Being precious about your work leads to stagnation and blinkered vision, and removes a good 50% of the joy of development. Other people help you understand how your work is seen without perfect knowledge. If you're writing a game that makes this hard, you're going to have less fun than you could, and wander down blind alleys.
- Be You. Your tools, your style, your methods - they're yours. Don't adopt others just because they're the 'industry standard' or 'the right ones'. Give them a go, by all means, but the right tools are ultimately the ones that help you make games. Their restrictions or idiosyncrasies might well turn out to be things that help you make your games.
So, having admitted that I've learned some bad lessons, and finally realised what the correct lesson are, how am I planning to change things? Well, this comes in two parts.
A couple of weeks ago, my wife was required to attend a work event in Mexico. It was horribly hot and humid, so - as a massive introvert - I decided to hide out in the air-conditioned hotel room for the 4 days we were there. During that time, I worked on a weird old game I've considered reviving for many years.
It's called 'Spellrazor'*
*yes, it's a deliberately cheesy title - as befits a child of the 1980s
The cabinet blurb would be:
"Spellrazor marries the procedural generation and permadeath of rogue with the visuals, tactile feel and action of games like Robotron, Defender and Berzerk."
"It's a roguelike shooter with 26 weapon buttons. Each key on the keyboard represents a spell. You kill things, you collect spells (in the form of letters) and you can use these at any time by pressing the appropriate key."
When I was about 12, I saw Defender and fell in love. In its brightly pixelled worlds I discerned a future filled with delight and wonder. I have a particular love of games from this period (1980-1983). They were frequently cold, cruel and utterly uncompromising. Spellrazor is a game from the same school of philosophy.
For those patient enough to have waded their way through this little post, you can follow Spellrazor (and play early builds) on Tigsource here:
For now, BeMuse is going on a shelf. I don't think it's permanent. I hope to return to it at some point in the future, with the verve, joy and speed of progress I'm experiencing with Spellrazor.
In the meantime, if anyone is interested in playing the weird text-heavy skeleton (not the graphical game) of BeMuse, please contact me and I'll be more than happy to share.
Thanks for your time, and for your interest.