WHAT WOULD THE ROBOTS THINK?
I really sat on this Developer's Diary for a while. I wanted to think long and hard about what I wanted this first one to be about. Before setting off on any new adventure, I do a ton of research. For the game industry, I've listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts, watched numerous videos, and read countless blogs and articles about both board and video game design. What I've come back with is how much work people do for the love of their respective passion irrespective of the labor costs involved. I am 100% guilty of this. For the hundreds of hours I have worked on my games, I know if I sat and calculated the labor costs I would be making single-digit dollar amounts per hour if that. This reminded me of a quote I had saw not too long ago.
“Let us remember that the automatic machine is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic consequences of slave labor.”
― Norbert Weiner
The development process for both board and video games is long, intensive, and stressful for the solo developer. It's especially difficult if you are also doing all the elements that make the final product like design, art, packaging, shipping, logistics etc. There have been several times where I've looked at my list of things to do at any particular time and felt the creeping feeling of walking away, but I never do. Most devs I've seen never do this either, so let's delve into that a little bit and see what makes the solo dev tick.
The Labor Problem
Like the quote mentioned, any labor that is competing with slave labor must accept the economic consequences of slave labor. As much as I like Amazon Prime, it is very clear Amazon is participating in this robotic drive for efficiency and toying with treating humans like machines. This has been reported several times here here here here here. The reason I bring this up, is the moment we treat labor as a robotic exchange and ignore the people behind the products, we risk disassociating ourselves from the very real human cost, and that isn't sustainable.
The biggest issue with this is many of the creative people I have met including myself do this voluntarily to ourselves. Every free moment I have goes to game development. Before work, during lunch, after work, and even in my dreams, development seems to burst into the forefront of my thoughts and actions. This is self-imposed crunch, which leads to burnout, which then in turn drags production out way longer than it needs to be. I've talk about taking some time to myself a few times in the blog, and I feel that's what creative people need to do. Don't treat yourself like an automaton. Instead, take some time for yourself, refill the creative well with some media, and enjoy the people around you.
I watched this movie Indie Game: The Movie, and though it's exciting to see these people make it and live out their dreams, the cost was to beat themselves up both mentally and physically. I'm not sure that's a healthy message. Self-care is important. We need to think about these things when creating things for others. We need to create timelines that allow for reasonable sleep, food intake, and leisure - because at the end of the day, this is work, no matter how much we enjoy it.
Passion is one reason why a dev is less likely to walk away from a project. As a creative person or any other person with ambition, it is very easy to let passion drive your thoughts and actions; however you should be mindful not to let it drive you off a cliff. It's hard because passion is something you feel in your chest (or maybe that's a heart murmur), it's chemical - it has a physical effect on you. Since it has such a presence, ignoring it feels counter intuitive, but sometimes you need to.
Passion has a way of blinding us to the reality of our situation. Maybe you do have the technical skills and know-how to pull off a crazy magnum opus that a big triple-A studio would be jealous of, but perhaps you don't have the resources to pull it off like money, time, and emotional fortitude. Skill isn't enough and passion has a way of blinding you to that. Not to say you can't find money, time, and emotional fortitude, but finding those things comes about when you let passion give way to pragmatism.
I do believe you need to be passionate about a project if you are doing it yourself. If the motives are chasing money, notoriety, or anything else under the sun that isn't passion for the project, you're going to burn out. Passion can fade over time, and it's okay to shelve something and come back to it in 6 months, as long as you come back to it. You need to finish things, but a break can give you really good insight on something as you come back to it with fresh eyes. I had this experience with both Kingdoms of Immacus and Trolltem Poles and both games are better for it.
Minding the Skill Gap
When it comes to creative people looking to do big personal projects like game development, I know of three types of people: the person who minds the skill gap, the person who doesn't mind the skill gap, and the person who doesn't know one exists. By skill gap I mean the skills necessary to execute their project in a way that sets the project up for success. As an artist I am drawn to the art aspects of the skill gap, but this can be with anything in the process.
The person who minds the skill gap acknowledges there is room to grow and takes steps to better themselves. These are people who are natural learners and approach their projects as a learning experience. I try my best to fit into this category as often as I can. There is always room to grow, but the person who minds the skill gap knows that the growth is necessary for the project. I know a couple of people like this at the Starbucks I frequent. After work, they come in and get to work on side projects that will help them become better artists, writers, and programmers. The skill gap gets smaller with practice and time, you got to put in the time.
The person who doesn't mind the skill gap is someone who knows they don't have the skills to pull off something that would meet the bar of quality for their respective industry, but goes about doing the project anyway expecting a successful project at the end of their labor. More often than not when I see this, the project fails. There is a stubbornness that comes with this group, and when the project fails, they tend to point everywhere but inwards. I hear things like the mechanics should speak for themselves or the idea is so great people will overlook everything else. Gamers expect a fully realized product or experience and presenting something that doesn't meet those expectations is more prone to failure. Hey some people get lucky, but I feel this is not a recipe for success or personal growth.
The person who doesn't know a skill gap exists is the worse off of the three because when they don't succeed, they can't understand why they didn't succeed. Or if they do, there is not a deep understanding as to how they did it, and they can't repeat the success. I'd say 85-90% of the time the people from this group do not succeed. I have seen a few cases where they do, but then I go and follow future projects and the results are pretty typical. This group is also very hard to give constructive feedback to as they may not know what you're talking about or feel like the critique is a personal affront.
People don't need to be the best artists, graphic designers, writers, programmers, etc. but they should have a vision, and part of that vision is understanding their limitations and how to either rectify them or outsource the wall they run into. All of these people have passion and want to be successful, but sometimes passion is not enough, hell, skill and hard work isn't enough sometimes.
It Can be Better ... It Can Always be Better
I was talking to another designer at the San Jose Protospiel, and we got on to the topic of iterations and refinement. The catch-all for our conversation was that our games could always be better. We can spend more time in development, shine and polish our games incessantly, but there comes a time when good is good enough. We should always aim to make our games as solid as we can, and there is no greater sense of self-satisfaction when you iterate and the game is better for it. Since the results are clear, it gives you that dopamine shot to keep doing it, but you really shouldn't.
No game is perfect, and no game needs to be perfect. For video games, bugs were present before patches were a thing and patches are just confirmation human things have human errors. We fix these things in patches, errata, and rule fixes. The most brilliant game developers release imperfect things because humans are imperfect creatures.
Perfectionism is okay in doses, but if it keeps you from achieving your goal (like releasing a game), then you should rethink all your rethinking. Handle the mistakes with humility and compassion for yourself and move on.
Doing What You Love
The main and obvious reason developers do this despite all the difficulty and intense work involved is because this is something they love, and doing what you love is liberating in ways that makes you forget the hundreds of hours you put into a game. For me personally, I spend each minute of development excited, even when things can get frustrating. Labor of love is definitely a cliche, but that's what these game are. When you're a solo dev, everything in the game is you - the game is a physical manifestation of your hopes, dreams, ideals, and love that you want to share with others. That's why I don't walk away from my games when things get difficult. In many ways you're stuck. Where do you put all this ambition and drive to create. I've been creating since I was a youngling, and that feeling doesn't go away. What would the robots think about all this? I don't think they'd get it.