Corey and Lori's Quest Log

Corey and Lori’s Quest Log

Fear and Loathing in the Game Development Industry

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:

Penny Arcade Logo

“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”.

Nightmare Warren

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:

  1. A. We don’t like scaring people
  2. B. We’d like to play their games someday
  3. 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.

Have fun!!!!!

Game Design Nightmare

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  1. The Episodic Fable of the Elements | Corey and Lori's Quest Log Says:

    […] that. Just as you may or may Not be curious about the Elements that make up the world and all life within it. There have been many attempts to classify the basis of all matter into just four elements – Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. However, such attempts miss out on the heart and soul of true alchemy – the fifth Element. […]

  2. Lori Says:

    By all means, share our log with others. We are still putting the finishing pieces together for the School for Heroes, and it will officially open at the end of October. However, this blog is ready for prime time.

  3. Avatar Says:

    Dear Lori,

    Indeed! The Internet is wonderful. I’d never found your blog otherwise.

    I’ll definitely drop by often.

    Kind rgds

  4. Lori Says:


    It’s obvious from your own blog that you took the lessons of being a Hero to heart. Looks like all those climbing trees and picking locks exercised your soul as well as your skills in the game. Happy Meep

    Thanks for visiting!

  5. Avatar Says:

    Oh my God…what an honour being able to post on the blog of the developers of the QFG series.

    I still remember the endless hours I spend as a kid playing Hero’s Quest: So You Want to be a Hero. Literally climbing up and down virtual trees, picking locks and cleaning out stables.

    Oh, and who could forget the ecstasy of beating the Fighter trainer in the castle (although I cheated a bit by gulping down potions of endurance)…

    Great blog and please continue sharing your thoughts on the adventure gaming industry.


  6. Corey Says:

    Of course, the article is an exaggeration. While game development is often painful, it can also be incredibly exciting when you have a good team working together and building something cool out of nothing.

    I will always remember one of the first Game Developers’ Conferences I attended. There was a social in the hotel ballroom on the first night. I walked into that room and it was like being in a ring of people all connected to a Tesla coil (an experience I recommend trying at least once!). There was that much energy, excitement, and creativity all in one room. I met some great people, including a College friend I hadn’t seen in 10-15 years, and had some terrific conversations on how to make a good game. I’ve also been in team meetings almost that exciting.

    So, when it’s good, it’s really, really good. :-)

    It’s just that there’s an awful lot of drudgery and plain, hard work in between the moments of exhilaration. That beats jobs that are all drudgery and no excitement, for sure!

    As for naive beginners, well… When Lori and I started at Sierra, our computer game experience was having played some of them. Our game design experience consisted of running and playing D&D games. Sierra gave us a tremendous opportunity, and it worked out thanks to some terrific teams. It could have gone the other way, and often does with other people and even with ourselves in different environments. We were at the right place at the right time, doing what turned out to be the right thing.

  7. Marquillin Says:

    Despite poor Sisyphus, there’s a new wave of independent game designers with a lot ambitious people… with many more in the initial stages. Many of them (and I was once one myself) figure they will go at it solo, tackling all aspects of the Chaos you describe, learning most of it as they go along in their spare time, as if their lack of practice wont soon defuse their passion.

    But sometimes it doesn’t

    As there are no absolutes in life, a few of them amazingly finish with a decent game, but most learn that it requires team effort and flexible/firm management.

    P.S. I second Marian’s remark about the greatness of Quest for Glory. I consider all five games together make one of the believable and engaging virtual worlds out there.

  8. Corey Says:

    Making a game is a lot like having a baby. There’s the huge stress of anticipation, the pain of childbirth, then there’s this thing that was once part of you and is now forever separated… But it’s also a wonderful thing, alive in its own right and making its own future.

    Then, fortunately, we forget most of the pain and just remember how wonderful it is to have a child, so we do it all over again even though it hurts just as much.

    Ok, maybe not entirely accurate, but the idea is right – Creating a game is a horrendous amount of effort and stress, but when your baby finally grows up, it can be a thing of great pride as well.

  9. Lori Says:

    Marian –

    We’re proud to be in that list.

    Despite the pain and sweat and sisyphean nightmare part, Corey and I really loved creating Quest for Glory. It is letters like yours that are the rewards for all this labor of love.

    – Lori

  10. Marian Says:

    Thank you for your blood, sweat and tears. Actually, ‘thank you’ seems just a pathetic term to describe the gratitude and emotion I (and I’m sure many other gamers) feel when talking in hushed tones about those handful of games which just shine above the rest.

    Quest for Glory II …is one of those games.

    The entire series was great. King’s Quest will always have a place in the older gamer’s heart. But Quest for Glory II was the shining star of the enter genre.

    If I had to name other games as ‘best’ of their type…for RPG, I’d struggle. Planescape:Torment was one of the best games no one was playing. Vampire the Masquerade…fantastic. KOTOR I and II…Jade Empire…I can say wonderful things about them all.

    What was the best adventure game made? Quest for Glory II. Oh sure there’s other good ones…but the best? That’s easy.

    So as pathetic as it may be, thank you for doing the impossible, and for letting gamers like me play in your world.

    Marian Irish

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