A recent article in Game Developer magazine (August 2008 edition, page 34) had us saying, “Yes! Tell it like it is!”. Actually, the article was a standard “What went right and what went wrong” article about developing an adventure game. It was the sidebar by Penny Arcade co-creator Jerry “Tycho” Holkins that really caught our attention:
“If we had known what we were getting into, we would never have done it. Game development is an endless Sisyphean nightmare warren of terrible nightmares. We wish we could go back in time, to our first meeting with Hothead, and shake our past selves, crying out: “Run, fools! Run for your very lives! Game development is a nightmare warren,” et cetera. We would spend a lot of time driving home this nightmare warren concept.” – Tycho
[Incidentally, we view Penny Arcade almost every day. Check out their unique blend of sardonic humor as they discuss the ins and outs of Games and the Game Industry.]
We often have starry-eyed young game players come up to us and ask, “What does it take to become a Game Designer, O Great Ones?” (although they usually don’t phrase it quite that way). This is much like a son, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, asking, “What did you do in the Clone Wars, Daddy?” We put our arm on their shoulders (ok, Corey does that… Lori’s too short), smile condescendingly, and say, “Son, it takes Moxie. Moxie, hard work, and luck.” Then we pat them on the back and send them on their way with such sage advice as “Study Hard”, “Get Good Grades”, and “May the Force Be with You”.
What we don’t say to those innocent dreamers is that game development takes all the sweat from more work than you ever thought you were capable of doing. It takes the blood from opening up your creative heart and watching it all spill out upon the cutting room floor. It takes the tears of frustration and agony as you try to deal with impossible people doing impossible tasks under impossible deadlines. It also takes selling your soul to the Devil.
We don’t say it because:
- A. We don’t like scaring people
- B. We’d like to play their games someday
- C. We get a kickback from the Devil for every soul we get to sign on the dotted line
“There are a few things we wish we had known beforehand. First, not to make video games – but we covered that…” – Tycho
Why is game development so hard? We start out with a set of vague concepts about the game style and features, then spend months or years creating art and music, prototyping then refining the code, and gradually putting it all together. I can tell you that we were in total despair over a few of our games just three months before shipment because they felt bland and lifeless. Then the music and sound effects were added, and suddenly the games took on life. Still, even after a year or three of work, we’re never really sure we’ve created a great game until the fans come back and tell us we managed it.
The Horror! The Horror!
You might have heard horror stories about months-long crunch periods of 60 and 70 hour weeks to complete a game. The situation is industry-wide; almost all game companies have similar horrible overtime periods. But you may wonder why. I know we have at times… usually when we are in the middle of pulling an all-nighter.
What it all comes down to is that game development is an inherently chaotic process. We are trying to create an experience that has a certain feel and flavor, but our tools have no built-in intelligence. We have to draw every pixel, write every word of dialogue, and program every interaction. We create shortcuts for some of this, such as art tools that let us draw a polygon and apply a texture to it, object-oriented programming tools that let us specify a class of behavior for certain types of objects, and so on… but in the end, almost everything needs to be hand-tweaked, tested and retested for play balance, and finally reluctantly released to the playing public.
“… coming in as people who ordinarily just buy entertainment software, we didn’t understand that a project doesn’t actually look like anything until the very end. We had resigned ourselves to the fact that our game would be about grey blocks stumbling around a featureless world.” – Tycho
On the rare occasions when we get ahead of schedule, we use the extra time – and more – to add more features or to further tune the game play. Then, inevitably, many of the bugs and play balance problems show up only when we think the game is finished in the final phases of testing. This is of course because our characters are nothing but “grey blocks” for most of the development phase – The testers can’t really put a game through its paces until it’s almost finished.
No Pain – No Game?
Is it possible to create a great game without pain? In short, “no.” The pain can be reduced, and the overtime spread out a little, but a game produced strictly “by the book” on schedule is almost always a boring, flat-feeling game. That’s because game development is all about passion and chaos and “endless Sisyphean nightmare warrens.”
So, our advice to all you wannabe Game Designers really should be “don’t give in the the Dark Side of the Force.” But since no one ever takes that advice, don’t worry. We know a dandy lawyer who will be happy to write you up a Game Development contract. Don’t be too concerned if he asks you to sign it in blood. In triplicate.