Today’s post has nothing to do with Easter or Mel Gibson. That may have been obvious from the prototype alliteration. No, no, this post is about conflicting advice from noted independent game developers. Looking at these adages now, it seems obvious to me that they oppose each other. But I only recently had this notion, after absorbing a large quantity of video interviews. So I’d like to express my…revelation? Inspiration? Stupid opinion; that’s what I was going for.
Three pieces of advice:
- Make lots of games.
- Make lots of prototypes instead of making games.
- Love your games; imbue them with quality using that love.
Numbers one and two directly oppose each other. And number three seems to oppose both of the other two. Let’s get on with a little more detail.
If you want to become an indie game developer, make lots of games.
Everyone who has ever spoken publicly about indie development has said this. It’s plainly true. The barriers to learning to create games are virtually nonexistent, except in the minds of people who don’t do it. Anyone who owns a computer can find a free, inexhaustible quantity of starter resources and mixed-quality advice. So the only reason that a person can’t make games is that they prefer to assume they will fail at something, rather than actually try and have a hope of not failing.
BUT! I don’t want to say that “just not getting started” is an unfathomable failure. I suffer from it. I can think of all kinds of terrible excuses for not making games, such as “I need to sleep to not get fired from my job”, or “I want my children to recognize me and not shy away from the minuscule gestures of affection I give them”. People who have already overcome the problem and actively make their living as developers understand it. Anyone who “just doesn’t get around to” anything understands it. Sometimes, humans are lazy and don’t accomplish things, in spite of having all required opportunity and skill.
There’s another facet to this advice, though. Edmund McMillen always notes that before making very high quality games, he made a plethora of awful, awful games. He refers to it as a learning exercise. Making games is the kind of skill you can only gain by doing it. Coding works the same way, although the ability to code does not constitute the ability to make a good game. It’s more similar to writing. Read lots of books, practice writing (get an editor, because their job is to make you write better), show your writing to lots of people and get lots of feedback so that you can improve. In exactly the same way, making lots of games is a must for an indie developer wannabe.
Who disagrees? Oh, nobody you know, just some guy called Jonathan Blow. He doesn’t really disagree that people learning to make games need to make a lot of games. As a matter of fact, he is on record as being in the group of “Everybody” who believes in the first piece of advice. But Mr. Blow is no game development learner. An industry veteran, columnist, consultant and lecturer, he doesn’t need to figure out how to break into game development. Instead, he has advice for how to make games that don’t suck: don’t make them.
Instead of making game, make prototypes.
Prototypes show you how a game works without the time investment of a full game. In his paraphrased words, “you only have a limited amount of time on the Earth, so you want to choose carefully which projects you devote years to.” Sure. Make game-ish things, don’t worry about creating a complete package, wait for a great idea to fall out of your experiments.
But how many years should be devoted to learning to make games? How much time should you “waste” in transitioning from a person who never makes a whole game, to a person who actually completes a game? There must be some transition from making lots of crappy games to making only excellent games that you choose. Maybe that transition is completely smooth, like any artist growing into their prime. Either way, both tactics are at odds with the third piece of advice.
Pour your whole soul into your game.
Jonathan Blow certainly believes this. He takes “games-as-art” to an almost elitist level. His idea of a good game is something that portrays an abstract emotion and forces a player to feel something while playing. He’s not wrong, but he exists somewhat outside the common purview of game players. That’s his prerogative, as he certainly is a connoisseur of game development.
But he’s also not alone. McMillen, that outspoken advocate of making a big stinking pile of games, also discusses an obsession with making his game perfect. Designing with the videogame version of literary symbolism in mind. Making a character that is based on his childhood. Everyday shooter’s Jonathan Mak thinks that every facet of indie development is secondary to making something that is meaningful to its creator. Originality, good features, artistic quality can all slide, as long as you love your game. If it is well received, fine. But the ART is what matters.
To summarize this 3-way tug of war:
- Make a whole lot of crappy games as fast as you can.
- Only make the really good games, so that you don’t waste time making crappy games. Throw away the crappy ones.
- Invest your very soul into every game you make, even if they are crappy.
STFU, you know-nothing hack!
Indeed! I have no authority to criticize any of these folks or their methodologies or advice. But I have a strong interest in overcoming my lack of experience and making a great game. So what can this set of advice do for me?
So if I called my work thusfar prototypes, would that make it better? Kind of! I realized my maze idea was not fun before I invested a lot of heartbreak into difficult ancillary features, so that was good. I realized that making a text adventure game in pure C with no global variables or memory allocation is euthanasibly stupid. I realized that Unity’s physics is no magic bullet.
But am I any closer to having a real game out there? No.
So here’s what I intend to do about that. I think that what my games have been lacking is not initiative or technical chops or willingness to experiment. I’ve been missing the love. I want to work on a game that I love. I want to pull a Phil Fish and bite off waaaay more game than I can chew. On the one hand, this will limit my options, and I certainly love changing projects. But I want more than anything to finish a formal project. If I’m going to get there, I need to love my idea.
I haven’t loved anything that I’ve worked on lately. I will endeavor to fix that.