Your Game is Your Baby

appsIn the world of digital games, you generally have two ends of a spectrum.  On one end, we have the AAA stuff – the stuff that has a standee at GameStop and that you might see television commercials for.  On the other end of the spectrum, you have the indie stuff – stuff that you encounter simply browsing app stores or due to word of mouth.

While I have a whole slew of problems with AAA games, I don’t find it that interesting or worthwhile to criticize them.  They are, for the most part, doing the only thing that they can do.  They work in an industry where the expectation and standard is a multi-million dollar production, which in turn means that very few risks can be taken at all.  This results in games that are of high production quality, but which are extremely safe, canned, and unoriginal in their gameplay.

But I can’t blame them for it.  Not only is it asking a lot of any investor to risk millions of dollars on an idea that seems like it could be cool, but making another third-person action game about “zombie apocalypse!!!” is basically a guaranteed success.  People just buy these things, year after year, over and over again, for sixty-five dollars.  So you can’t blame the AAA people for what they do, and that isn’t what this article is about.

However, you can blame the indies for some of the problems they have.  Being an independent game developer myself, I feel it’s particularly fair for me to criticize some of the behavior of my colleagues.  And for all the hype that’s been swelling around the world of indie games over the past few years, there is one issue holding them back from their potential more than anything else – and it isn’t their lack of a budget.

What I am going to hold indies accountable for is their generally poor, unsupportive attitude towards their own work.  For the most part, indies make an app, throw it on a store, and are onto the next thing.

 

The Costs of Experiencing A New Thing

A fundamental part of my ideology as an artist/creator/stuff-maker-guy is that I have a responsibility to the people who experience my work.  When someone sits down and runs my game / listens to my song / reads my article / watches my video, they are paying out a resource of theirs, a resource more valuable than money.  They are paying me their time, and further, their attention, and to some small degree, a challenge to their entire point of view.

To illustrate my point:  a person comes to a piece of art with a certain view of the world.  This view that they already had contains all of their experiences – all the movies they’ve ever seen, all the comic books, all the videogames, paintings, poems, and of course, all of their personal experiences.  They come to you with some Grand Total of Experience.

But then they see your thing, which – assuming it isn’t a complete copy of something that already exists – is a new thing.  It is not already represented in their Grand Total of Experience.  This simple fact actually causes some degree of tension, some dissonance, as the person must now incorporate your new thing into their Grand Total of Experience.

In this moment, we scramble to make room for this new thing — to organize it in such a way that it doesn’t ruin what was already there.  Most often we categorize it alongside other things we consider “similar”, and then are relieved.  Sometimes we can’t do this, however, and it results in a paradigm shift, which can be awkward, confusing, or even painful.

This entire process generally is uncomfortable, because of the risks involved.  That Grand Total of Experience is a big part of how we self-identify, and whenever it gets challenged, it’s scary.  We can sometimes feel like our entire being is in doubt.  This is why people tend to gravitate towards things which are at least similar to things they already understand – it’s a lower risk.

Of course, many people realize that it’s in their interest to take these risks, and so they force themselves to go outside their comfort zones quite often.  But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t paying the costs.  Even if you have a positive attitude about trying new things, the costs cannot be avoided.

 

I may hesitate to watch this movie based simply on how weird it looks

I may hesitate to watch this movie based simply on how weird it looks

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The Game Developer’s Responsibility

So, knowing this, how could you ever put something out there for people to see if it wasn’t the best you can do?

I realize this sounds like a platitude.  Obviously we should all do the best we can; everybody knows that.  And I know that there are real-world limitations that cause us to not be able to do our best, at least within a given time frame.  Maybe there’s a personal tragedy which interrupts you.  Maybe you just really can’t come up with a solution to some difficult problem.  Who knows.  There are plenty of legitimate reasons for why doing your best would be delayed.

But there really is no excuse for either of the following things:

  • Releasing something into the world before you feel like you’ve done the best you can, or
  • Releasing something, then finding a problem with the thing / way it could be made vastly better, and then deciding you’ll never do it

And yet, this is standard protocol in the indie development world.  People release half-baked games which feel like college projects, or unfinished betas*, all the time.  Further, actually supporting your released game is nearly unheard of.  I have some ideas for why this is.

 

“Indie Games Aren’t Real Games”

Last month, I picked up an OUYA console, and I’ve been scouring its entire app store looking for games.  I’m happy to report that I’ve found at least four or five really original, interesting games with innovative gameplay.  However, just about all of these feel like they aren’t well-balanced, refined, supported, or have the set of features that would really allow the game system to shine.

What’s really nice about the indie-est of the indie games – which many of these interesting OUYA games are – is that you can look up who made these games, send ‘em an email, and they’ll probably get right back to you.  I emailed about 4 or 5 different OUYA developers** of some of the coolest games on the system.

The two most common things I would write people and say are:

Do you have any plans to add/improve online multiplayer to your game? Leaderboards/Leagues?  Other community features like chat?

Often I’ll play some really great game that is fully capable of being a sport – a thing that is a part of a person’s life, but in order to do this, there generally needs to be some effort on the part of the developer to create a community around the game.

I love your game, but I think it needs balancing/fixes.

Most games I play, I feel like I’m able to find the optimal strategy within an hour of playing.  I’m fully aware of how some things can seem imbalanced to a new player but actually aren’t, but I’ve gotten confirmation from the developers themselves that they know their game is not balanced.

I’ve written developers huge patch change lists.  I’ve drawn them new maps, charts, etc – all for free, mind you!

Sadly, to both of these, no matter how emphatic and specific I am, I’m almost always sent back a depressing response.  The developers almost always:

 

  • Are just eager to move onto the next thing.  I understand this feeling, but the idea of pumping out two or three mediocre games and leaving them to fade into obscurity every year isn’t a positive way to spend your time.  If you want to make games as practice for yourself, that’s fine of course, but don’t subject other people to it, at least without a huge flag saying, “this isn’t meant for other people to play!”  The world already has enough mediocre crap, so you’re really just adding noise to the world and making it harder for people to find the good stuff.
  • Don’t see their game/their own potential.  Sure, maybe it has a neat gameplay idea, but what’s that really worth?  It’ll never be great like League of Legends!  It’s just an indie game, after all.

I really think that indie developers have, on some deep psychological level, bought into the idea that the things they make aren’t “real” games.  Real games are made by teams of 80+ people with millions of dollars.  We’re just doing “hobbyist” little digital arts and crafts.  Many indies hide behind a facade of “being a gag game” – having some kind of outrageously silly theme that they feel excuses them from having to try and make the game be truly great, because hey, it’s just a novelty product after all!

I’ve also had at least one developer tell me, after reading my suggested patch notes, “I was scared to change anything because I didn’t want to make it worse.”

 

Your Game Is Your Baby

The reality is that indies have every capability of making games that are not only as good as AAA games, but vastly better, due to the fact that they can afford to take risks.  Right now, every indie developer has it within his power to create not only the best digital game of the year, but arguably the best game of all time, ever, digital or otherwise.  Minecraft (not a game by my definition, but a colloquial game) is a great example.  Someone came up with a great idea, and then supported it, and saw it through.

Of course, some developers will say, “yeah well that’s Minecraft.  If I was making millions off of my game, you can bet I’d support it then!”  It’s true that there’s an entire echelon of super-successful indie games like Super Meat Boy, Braid and Angry Birds.  But that’s actually irrelevant, because no matter how successful or unsuccessful your game is, you have a responsibility to the people who bought your game.  If you know how you can make your thing better, you have a responsibility to do it.

The good news is, actually acting on this responsibility can only improve your chances of better success with that game, as well as with any games you do in the future.

Home of the Underdogs, an abandonware website I spent much of my 20s browsing.  The Abandonware situation, it seems to me, is perhaps escalating in a new way due to indies' lack of caring.

Home of the Underdogs, an abandonware website I spent much of my 20s browsing old games that had been abandoned by developers/publishers. The Abandonware situation, it seems to me, is perhaps escalating (in a new way) due to indies’ lack of caring.

I’m not saying you have to make it better right now.  I understand that sometimes life gets in the way.  If you have to delay improving your game for some amount of time, then that’s how it has to be.  But as soon as it is possible, you need to support your game.  Fix balance issues.  Add or remove rules if it will improve the game.  Add new social features.  Add variants.  Keep telling people about your game.  Keep it alive.

I want to see developers taking pride in their games and improving them decades after they’re released.  Even if it’s just a small patch every couple of years – after a certain amount of time, the game won’t need much in the way of fixes.  Then focus on community building, variants and other cool ways for people to explore your system.

Your game is your baby.  You probably spent a year or more working on it, so how does it even make sense to just abandon it once it’s out?  If it’s not successful, that’s even more reason to support it.  Make some awesome balance patch and tell people about it.  Consumers love to see a game that’s being supported.  If I know that, when I buy this game, I will be getting balance patches, new features, community support and more from the developer, I feel way better about my purchase.  In fact, you almost can’t even put a price on that.

I’m not saying never make a new game, and I’m not saying stay full-time on a game you released five years ago.  What I am saying is more a problem of attitude.  Independent videogame developers simply have a bad attitude about the things they make.  They seem to want to make a game, upload it to the app store, maybe issue one or two patches to fix critical issues, and then move on forever.  We can do so much better than that, and again, we have a responsibility to our players, who have kindly loaned us their time.

Treat your game just as you would a baby.  In its infancy, work hard to make it strong.  The day it gets released is like your baby’s first day in preschool, or something.  After a couple of decades, it might be strong enough to move out, go to college, get a job, but that doesn’t mean it stops being your baby.  You should always be there for your games, the way a good parent is always there for their child.  If you are, I believe that players will always be there for you.

~

*I should point out that one caveat to this is something like a public beta.  If you make it abundantly clear that your app is a beta and needs testing, then I think it’s perfectly fair to show those testers your game even before it’s the best it can be.  It sucks for them, but they know what they’re getting into, and you need beta testers!

**Also, you should know that while much of this was inspired by my experience dealing with OUYA developers, this isn’t an “OUYA thing”.  I’ve talked to developers who’ve made games on iOS, Android, PC and Xbox Live and their replies were similar.

  • Belimoth

    Good article, I think the part of the problem might be the whole “games-as-personal-expression” thing. Releasing a game is a means to legitimize that expression rather than the goal.

    For some people it’s more about the act of creating than it is about the creation.

  • Paul Spooner

    So, if games are like babies, then the act of creating games is like…
    Okay, I can see how people would prefer making new games over and over instead of taking care of the ones they have released. I’m still with Keith on this one though. It’s fine to like making babies, as long as you take care of them too.

    Of course, then there’s the “kill all your darlings” which I know a lot of people hold to. Man, this metaphor is getting uncomfortable.

  • http://www.keithburgun.net/ Keith Burgun

    Yeah. The way I look at that though is like making babies and then just like leaving them out in a forest to fend for themselves as newborns.

  • http://www.keithburgun.net/ Keith Burgun

    Kill your darlings is part of the process of making something better. Releasing an update may include a “kill your darling” feature-removal, if it makes the game better. Like let’s say I had some feature in Auro that I really loved, and really tried to make work, but the community and testing was telling me that the game would be better if I just got rid of it. That would be a kill your darling thing.

    You can also “kill your darling” in the sense of “cancel an entire project” – actually I think that’s a sign of real integrity when a company does that – but I don’t think it’s fair to do that *after* you’ve sold people the game.

  • Naomi Clark

    So of course I agree that supporting and giving games love is often a really good and wonderful thing with tremendous benefits for creators and players alike. Arguments about economics and the cost of support & polish for less well-funded developers aside, the main thing I notice about your argument is that it hinges on this idea that experiencing something new that you don’t already know about is something we mostly do because we know it’s in our best interest or good for us somehow, so we take it on like we eat vegetables that we don’t like the taste of.

    I really, really don’t think this is the case. There’s a fundamental pleasure in experiencing something new and being outside your comfort zone — a pleasure that completely coexists and is entangled with the difficult, confusing or disorienting feeling of pushing your mind into something unfamiliar. If there wasn’t real pleasure and intrinsic satisfaction in doing this, if it really was mostly a “well, it’s good for me…” thing, I think we’d see people much less eager to learn the rules of new games and spend time figuring them out. This is much more dramatic when you look at board games, right — because the brains of the players are also the processors that maintain and adjust the game state, there’s a lot of modeling to do and it can be a tricky and uncomfortable process. (Part of the reason why rules testing is so fundamental to board game design.) But there’s something EXCITING about trying to take on this challenge and engaging with that hard, new understanding (leaving aside poorly worded rules and such.) It’s different than the excitement and fun of a game you’ve already learned thoroughly, and it’s related to the thing you often vaunt as one of the chief goals of game: understanding. At some point, a lot of understanding is “new” and difficult because it’s new, but I think human beings relish that to some degree — it’s part of why although we’re creatures of habit, we also seek out novelty, almost to a fault.

    Unpleasant feelings or experiences and pleasure coexist so very often in games — the paradox of why it feels good to get frustrated or be punished for failing is a huge subject that Jesper Juul’s written about recently in “The Art of Failure” — and I think the discomfiting experience of a new game is another facet of the two-sided coin of frustration and pleasure. So what that means to me for this discussions is that there can still be tremendous value for me as a player if I play something that’s unfinished, messy, or broken, because I’m getting a lot out of putting my time in just to learn and see what’s there. That difficult process of learning something new may not GO very far if the game is severely unfinished or unsupported after launch, but because the newness is part of the entertainment for me, not just yucky broccoli i have to choke down, I don’t usually resent the investment of time. Now, if the game is simply poorly crafted in a way that I flail around and am confused without actually experiencing the difficulty of pushing my brain into something new, that’s a different kind of waste of time.

  • http://www.keithburgun.net/ Keith Burgun

    I agree with you. There is indeed a fundamental pleasure in experiencing something new, and it is exciting, and it’s not all an “it’s good for me” thing.

    I also agree with you that for people like yourself and myself, those sort of broken down half-developed ideas are worth playing, which is why I play them. I think that that’s largely because we’re academics and creators and we’re taking a specialist kind of interest in such things.

    But my big point is that so many of these games I’ve played could be the next League of Legends, or bigger – they could be the next Baseball – if they even attempted to support their games. There is a lack of self confidence, and it’s sad to me. I mean I’ve told developers, “your game is fantastic, you just really need to develop it more, balance it, get some more community support going” and their responses are like “eh, nah, I’d rather work on something new”. Like… that’s really frustrating! The world doesn’t need TWO mediocre games, it needs one GREAT game! But I think that they believe they’re not capable of making something great, so they should just keep pumping out games and at least they’ll have *quantity* going for them eventually or something.

  • Naomi Clark

    Yeah, I hear what you’re saying about games that may have the potential to ascend to the level of sport — the “hundred year game” as Frank called it a few years ago. Unused potential has a kind of tragedy about it, although to a lesser degree I think the reverse is also true: there are some nice game ideas, maybe not GREAT WORLD-CHANGING ideas, but nice and worthwhile ones, that really work best as small sketches, but are tortured or stretched (or don’t get released at all) into being larger or longer than they should. It’s like, they could have had a great existence as something like a cinquain or a haiku, a sestina even, rather than an epic ode or something the length of T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland. (Shadow Physics is one in particular I always think of like this.) I mean, when you go to an art gallery to look at the kind of creative work that hangs on walls, we are of course most taken with the finished masterpieces, but the sketches and small studies by Picasso or Monet or whoever are also there, and also worth looking at, and not just because they’re part of the process (sometimes they’re totally unrelated to other works) or because they were made by a master.

    I also agree that this kind of thing — visual sketches too! — is more easily appreciated by folks like us. In teaching I sometimes call this the “aficionado attitude” (a way to play, even) since I don’t think it’s just limited to scholars or creators, but to any player who really gets something out of appreciating the form of the game, rather than only the sensory+challenge+etc experience of playing. You can find tons of aficionados talking about board games on BoardGameGeek, obviously, even if they’re never made a game. Reviewers are often aficionados, especially the smart ones.

    People take “art appreciation” classes to become more aficionado-like when it comes to fine art — in part because a lot of fine art has become so rarefied that there’s often not much that can be rawly enjoyed as entertainment. But film appreciation classes can help us find more meaning even in Hollywood blockbusters, and my class where you guest lectured was meant as a sort of game appreciation class. My point in all this — learning to appreciate a form is a worthwhile part of a humanities education, and I think we’ll see more of it, and that means that the boundary between players as people who “are just in it for the experience / fun / challenge / competition” and creators as people who appreciate the odd, broken, incomplete, or unusual nuances will break down more. I think it’s part of what happens as a cultural form goes from being a relatively looked-down-upon form of entertainment to being understood as having potential for more — although the whole “can games be art” thing is a separate discussion.

    So for all those reasons, I think there’s a place for the small, limited games — even tic-tac-toe has stuck around since the Roman Empire as a kids’ game for a reason! — games that can and will be solved by ordinary players, games that are not meant to ascend to the heights of sport. A culture of players with a finite population probably can only support so many sports, in any case! And that’s another aspect that hasn’t been mentioned — we are making games within a consumer culture which is driven by disposable goods, including and maybe especially entertainment. Books, movies, whatever — consume and move on. So in a trickle-down way, even indie games operate against this backdrop, and the emergence of ten Truly Transcendent Sports in a decade would basically wreck the existing economic model. I think it’s a harder challenge than creating an electric car, but might face as much built-in resistance as that idea did from Detroit in the 70s and 80s!

  • http://www.keithburgun.net/ Keith Burgun

    I think your thing about scope – the haiku bit – is a different axis than what I’m talking about. You’re saying that a game that should be a short game shouldn’t be built up into a huge game, and I agree with that. I can’t imagine that you could be saying “some games are better when they’re worse”, unless your point is that stuff is more likely to get released if it’s mediocre. But you can’t argue that the improved version of the mediocre thing, however mediocre, isn’t improved.

    I’m not saying let’s remove the small games or let’s remove the mediocre or even bad games. The problem is that making a good or great game, as you know, is exceedingly difficult. And right now I am seeing a pattern of many of the people who are making those rare things which have the potential for real greatness either being unaware of this possibility, or not caring.

    Basically, I don’t like it when great designers give great designs the mediocre-game-production treatment. Great designs deserve the 100-Year game treatment.

  • Naomi Clark

    Yes. Although I’m not necessarily talking about how long it takes to play or how many rules or lines of code there are — more about “depth of play.” A game that could be a sport needs to have a lot of depth, even if that arises from a very simple ruleset (the classic example being Go). There are other games which may have very complex rulesets, simulations of physics and destructible objects or whatever, but which still don’t become deep. And I don’t think that needs to be a bad thing — we won’t play them for years or maybe even months, we’ll play them until we’ve gotten what we can get out of them, maybe return to them like a good book that we’ve read every last word of. But yes — i think even a game that produces experiences that are relatively simple to “mine” ought to be grown to its full potential, of course. I think part of what we’re circling around here is that there are notions about “expected size” for different kinds of games — AAA, indie, iOS games, etc — that are constructed by expected product price and markets and so forth. But those things don’t necessarily line up well with actualizing the potential of the idea and structure that’s at the heart of a game — sometimes too big, sometimes too small, and that’s a shame.

  • Dasick

    TL;DR Some people *like* to eat their vegetables

  • Naomi Clark

    You have pretty undeveloped taste, in my opinion, if you don’t *actually* enjoy the experience of stretching your mind to encompass something new, like an unfamiliar set of rules. Completely separate from that — yes, some people like to “eat their vegetables.” But that’s another matter entirely.

  • http://www.keithburgun.net/ Keith Burgun

    I’m liking vegetables more and more as I get older and my tastes develop.

  • Blake Reynolds

    but you still love chicken nuggets. But they aren’t mutually exclusive. We don’t have to have deep games that are super rewarding but also dry and prohibitively difficult, nor do we have to have super good looking, high budget games that are FUCKING boring.

    The reason I’ve dumped so much into Auro is because I believe it’s a system which supports all levels of play. It’s fast, easy to learn, and I made it look as good as I have the ability to. And it has a deep rabbit hole of depth. Like smash bros. or tennis or chess, it’s relatively exciting and enjoyable at all levels of play.

    to me, this is the “chicken nugget that’s also good for you.”

  • jica

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  • Reality

    So… mother nature? You’re against mother nature? Make sure you tell the birds and fish and turtles and the long list of living creatures on this planet that they’ve been doing it wrong this entire time. Because, you know, you don’t like it.

    Seriously, I have tried my best to understand where you are coming from, but it is beyond me because I can see that a lot of reality is beyond you. Your opinions are fine, but the fact that you assume your opinions are the only ones the matter, even though there is more than enough proof out there to the opposite, is really sad.

    You claim major flaws were inherent in a system at it’s conception, without any proof or backings, assume the rest of us are as ignorant as you to very basic concepts, again without evidence, then go on to offer solutions to problems only you and a small minority possible share.

    Just because you don’t like the way something is doesn’t give you the right to say it is flawed. You do not inspire change by insulting your target audience and telling them they’ve been doing it wrong for over 30 years when the actual facts and data say otherwise.

    If you had any sort of data or examples to support your ideas, that weren’t solely based on your tastes and opinions, I might be able to tolerate you. But you don’t. Your head seems to be stuck so far up your anus you can’t the reality in front of you, and instead of being a decent human being and even considering that you could be wrong, you only clutter the internet with more of your nonsense in the hopes that no one will realize there is nothing to qualify you as being worthy of attention.

    The greatest power anyone can have is choice. Your ideas to narrow these choices into only the things you are willing to accept is sickening. Keep your ideas to your own projects, there is no need for you to try to change anything. The rest of the world likes the industry the way it is. If you don’t like a game or the way the designers implemented their own ideas into it, then don’t buy it. See? Choice. To say that game has no right to exist and is destroying the industry is just plain ignorant. This is a free world buddy, people are allowed to make any choice they want to, even if you think you know it’s a bad choice. So you can keep these wild ideas and opinions, and use them as you so choose, but it never, NEVER has to or needs to go any further than that.

    TL;DR? Get over yourself. Different strokes for different folks. Don’t like something? Maybe it’s not for you to like. You want a perfect world and the best of the best of everything? Let me know how that works out. My email is Hahahayeahrightkeepdreaming@therealworld.openyoureyes.

    Live and let die.

  • http://www.keithburgun.net/ Keith Burgun

    Well *actually*… the way humans care for their young is part of nature. It is in our nature to take care of our babies, and it’s also in our nature (and general interest) to deliver social consequences to those who fail to do this.

    I’m always perfectly happy to admit that I’m wrong about things, but in order to do so I think you need to address a specific claim. The message you wrote here isn’t very effective because it’s largely ad hominem and making a lot of bold assumptions about *why* I write the claims I do, rather than the claims themselves.

    I’d like to remind you that telling people my point of view does not limit anyone’s choice. In fact, offering a new point of view could only *increase* someone’s overall options.

    I’m happy to have a discussion with you about a specific claim or position that you take issue with, but your claim here seems to be “just don’t make any statements”. Is that correct? If so, then I just fundamentally disagree with that point of view.

    I don’t want a perfect world, I want a *better* world, and discussions like those taking place here are a tiny, tiny part of how we get there.