Shame and game making

This is a sensitive issue, and one that requires a degree of introspection and empathy to get to the bottom of.

To really engage with the art / science / profession / hobby of making games, it is important to understand one’s relationship with the medium.

Dedicated game makers, for the most part, are players first and creators second. We make games because we are devoted to the medium as players and want to create what we miss. I understand that subconsciously, I want to fill the gaps and perhaps take the medium where I want it to go. This is a consuming process, one that demands all.

A game maker experiences a variety of emotions in this process. There’s the Euphoria of conceptualization, the Pain of scoping, the Exhausting yet strangely Fulfilling grind of development, and the Fear of failure. There’s another that we don’t talk much about-Shame.

It comes from several sources.

1. I don’t have a Real Job

We live outside the mainstream, particularly in environments where game development isn’t as accepted as a ‘Real’ profession. There’s the obvious question-

“Making video games! That’s cool, but is it really something that you can build a life around?”

We also ask ourselves this question pretty often, particularly Indies. The video game industry has been in existence for 30-40 years in the West, particularly North America, but it’s barely been five years or so since the first Game development jobs started popping up on job portals in my home country, India. Game development isn’t a sought after profession because salaries are low compared to say, a job as a software developer with a big-name MNC like Microsoft. There isn’t much awareness of the fact that you can actually earn a living making games.

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Moreover, Games are Play! You can’t really call creating Fun a job, right? 

This means that we live in the shadows of our contemporaries in the software industry. Parents and friends understand that we’re following our dreams and all that, but sigh inwardly hoping that one day we’ll snap out of it and find Real Work.

This causes shame. It’s (mostly) subconscious, but it exists. Shame creates self-doubt, hesitation and checks ambition. We are social creatures, and the approval of our family and peers matters to us whether we choose to admit it or not.

This is where being part of a community helps. The rise of social media has enabled developers from all over the world get together, talk, empathize and discuss their art.

This is a great group that I’m part of on Facebook: Indie Game Developers

Apart from online communities, local meetups of Indie (or not) developers are great to hang out with others like us and understand that we’re not alone in facing the problems that we do.

2. I’m not making ‘Real Games’.

I see this a lot. Most kids who get into game development are hardcore PC/Console gamers who want to be a part of making the kinds of games they play. It’s natural to want to do so, but more often than not they find that there are few jobs available in the PC/Console development space for beginners, particularly in an emerging game development environment. This is mostly due to the fact that outside of Indies, very few companies actually make from-scratch games for PC or Console in India.

It is a common perception among players of Hardcore games that the games they play are the ‘Real’ games, and not mobile games. Mobile game development has a low barrier to entry, technically and financially, but good mobile games are by no means easy to make. Mobile is arguably the most innovative space in game development today.

I would argue that mobile is a great place to start making games, as one needs to create a much leaner, cleaner core gameplay experience without the use of high-end graphics or audio. They are a great way of reaching a worldwide audience, honing one’s skill and gaining experience.

To make good games for mobile, one needs to think mobile and play games on mobile.

Playing and analyzing a variety of games is crucial to understand your platform of choice. As a designer , you need to accept and internalize the fact that you’re making a game for mobile, and do away with any peer-induced guilt or shame that gets in the way of making a great game.

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It took me a while to wrap my head around this reality. The first Indie project I started working on was a PC game, and was so hopelessly ambitious that I chuckle thinking about it now. After deciding to switch to mobile, the first project I started to work on collapsed, partly due to a lack of understanding of the mobile platform it was meant for (read my analysis here) and after some serious heartburn and introspection, I made StarTrail, a first tenuous step into mobile game development. Now, after a year and a half of analysis and design, we are close to completing our second (rather ambitious) game-SuperVeg Girl.

3. I’m not making the games I should be

Soon after completing my game design diploma, I spent a year in a Game designer’s position at a major mobile game studio. There was some design work to be done in the first few months, but after some churn in the company’s priorities that (design work) went away and I was assigned a Producer’s role.

I wasn’t happy, to put it mildly. I resigned after three months to set up my own company and teach. My resignation was triggered by an incident where I met an Indie developer who showed me the game he was working on. He was a bit bedraggled and looked like he hadn’t eaten in a while, but I envied him his creative freedom and was more than a little ashamed at the kind of work that I had been doing for the last year.

Looking back, I realized that even though I hadn’t liked what I was doing at the moment, I had learned a lot. I had understood how a studio functions, how risk-averse large game companies are and how the creative buck gets passed around endlessly. It was an important lesson , primarily in What Not to Do.

I built up a solid list of friends, acquaintances and contacts in the game industry during that time. This has helped me immensely.

In conclusion, It’s not always possible to do away completely shame and embarrassment. You can’t just make feelings go away; all you can do is try to observe them something approaching detachment and understand how they arise and be aware of how they affect you.

The best approach is to create long-term professional goals, be it establishing your own Indie studio or working up to a lead role at a AAA outfit. Treat every job or assignment that comes your way as a specific learning opportunity, master it and move on to the next one. Take the opportunity to create a network of friends and acquaintances in the industry; it will be your greatest professional asset one day.

Try to not pay too much attention to what peers or family think. Making good games is hard, and the process of getting better at it takes time, effort and a sharp awareness. Few outside the industry can understand this, but we know that our process, our love and dedication to what we do, is it’s own reward.

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The Difficulty of creating difficulty

This is a tough one, pun unintended. I have struggled with difficulty levels from day one. If you want more proof of this, here’s a dropbox link to my first ever game, made using Flash while at VFS. If you can complete it without restarting from the beginning, I will buy you Dinner. You play as a Vampire Walrus AND a Pirate Octopus….’nuff said.

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So if you have read my postmortem of StarTrail, you might have understood my pain of creating and tuning the difficulty level of a game. Ultimately, as a game maker, I need to understand the behavior of my prospective player.

What I do understand is this: There are different kinds of players out there. Some like me, don’t really mind difficulty as long as the game doesn’t make me feel like a fool. On that point, some, like Flappy Bird, DO make me feel like a fool; but the fact that it’s making everyone feel like a fool makes it tolerable.

If you look up Wikipedia for ‘Game difficulty’, the page is quite informative. Here’s a line from that page:

An alternative approach to difficulty levels is catering to players of all abilities at the same time, a technique that has been called “subjective difficulty”. This requires a game to provide multiple solutions or routes, each offering challenges appropriate to players of different skill levels (Super Mario Galaxy, Sonic Generations).

I guess that means that I am adopting the Subjective Difficulty approach while designing SuperVeg Girl. To that end, here are the categories that I’m classifying players into:

a) Super casual: The kind that like a pick-up-and-play experience above all, one with low skill level. They are not really invested in the gameplay and have no Gamer Ego to speak of. They will abandon a game at the slightest sign of difficulty.

I don’t have much hope of retaining these players beyond the third level (that’s where the difficulty level has a spike).

b) HardCurious casual: These are casual players that have a secret, dormant Gamer Ego. Like my Dad. He never plays games, but he really got into Angry Birds when it first came out. Lure them in with something that they like, like graphics or sound, and before they know it, they’re swearing at their smartphone in the cockpit while cruising at 30, 000 feet.

I like this kind of player. I’d like to think that a sizable percentage would stay and play. To help keep this kind of player, we have a comic strip in the game that reveals the story, as it were, while the game progresses.

c) Faux-Hardcore: These are the ones that think they’re hardcore, but they’re really not. They revel in progress in a game for it’s own sake, without exploring the game or it’s mechanics in any depth. The end of a level, or the game, holds more attraction than the process of getting there.

I hope to keep these players engaged for a decent amount of time; it’s the reason I have a SpeedRun badge in each level. Here’s how it works: There are three levels of achievement in each level, signified by the following badges:

The SpeedRunner

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The SpeedRun badge is awarded for picking up all the Eggs in a level. In the screenshot below, you can see the level with the positions of all the eggs and key marked clearly. You can also see the player start position and direction (red arrowhead) and the castle that the player needs to go to. There are three bridge tiles available to be placed.

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In the GIF below, you can see the path of the SpeedRun as a white dotted line. The player needs to find and pick up the key and head straight to the castle. The bridge tiles need to be placed in a way to get to the castle ASAP. To get the SpeedRun badge, the player does not need to pick up any of the eggs in the level.

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d) SemiHardcore: These players enjoy a challenge. They like to test all the mechanics of a game and explore the levels. To keep them playing, the game needs to constantly throw out new, creative and (sometimes progressively harder) challenges. They like to show off their progress, but that’s not the point of playing. I’m kind of like this, depending on the game I’m playing.

For this kind of player, we created

The Explorer

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The explorer badge is awarded to a player who, finds and collects all the eggs in a level. There’s no time limit; she/he just has to get all of them. Picking up each egg in a level presents a challenge unique to that egg; I’ve tried really to keep the collection of each egg in the game at least slightly different from the others. It’s been a big creative challenge for me, and I hope I have managed to some extent.

e) Hardcore casual: This is the kind of player that loves challenging games but only plays mobile games, due to a lack of time- someone exactly like me. If he/she finds a game they like, they explore everything and complete every single objective. For this kind of player, there’s

The BossRunner

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To get the BossRun badge, the player needs to pick up all the eggs in the quickest possible time. This means that the bridge tiles need to be placed to find the shortest path to the castle via picking up the key, and there is no time for mistakes. If the player mistimes a jump to pick up an egg, mistimes it and turns around to try it again, it’s probably too late.

This can be seen in the screenshot below showing the same level as in the SpeedRun, where the placement of the bridge tiles is different.

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