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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