Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

20 January, 2006

Non-career game development
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 5:03 PM

I often get emails asking about breaking into the games industry. It has happened so often that I finally put up a page about breaking into games. Lots of people want to get into game development, it seems.

But, there is another option to consider. A new reader to my blog (Hi, Sheridan!) wrote to ask me more about getting into the industry, and I recommended he consider the possibility of making games while not getting a job in the industry.

The reasons for wanting to get into games are fairly easy to understand: some of us have a burning need to make games. We enjoy the process of creating mechanics, testing and evaluating these mechanics, and letting someone else have fun with our creation. This can include video/computer games, casual flash games, even board or paper RPG games. Even if no one cared about our games, most of us would probably still be making them.

However, when it comes to professional work, most game developers can sympathize with high school and college wrestlers. You can have a wonderful wrestling career in school, but your options for a career in wrestling are pretty grim. Game developers sometimes face equally grim options for their careers, it seems.

One option that is rarely mentioned is the possibility of doing games on the side instead of as the focus of your career. Get a job doing what you live, such as programming or art, then contribute to a game project on the side. Make a high-quality mod with other serious-minded people. Or, make a small shareware game during evenings and weekends. You can avoid selling our soul to a large corporation looking to churn out “product” instead of making quality games by doing game development on your own. Make something you truly feel passionate, perhaps even offer it for sale if you can. Or give it away and see how people react to your offering. You might be able to stumble across something new and exciting that revolutionizes gameplay.

Of course, there are some downsides to this. Many times your day job can be all-consuming. Although jobs with sane hours do exist, most programmers I know of, even in non-games industries, spend long hours at work. They get wrapped up in their work, and sometimes need to spend time at the office to be seen as a “team player” by the boss. Working at your game at the office is usually forbidden, or even a tragically bad idea if your employer can claim ownership of everything you do at work.

In addition, you probably won’t get the rock-star recognition for your efforts. Few shareware-level developers get the recognition of a Will Wright, John Carmack, or Sid Meyer. Of course, for most of us this is just fine as long as we get a chance to work on what we love. And, to be fair, few full-time game developers get this level of recognition, either, despite their ability and talent. But, it is interesting to note that some of the bigger names in the industry did get their start working alone or in a tiny team making superb products they really enjoyed.

Of course, being an independent developer is getting a bit easier. Casual games are on the rise, and a few of the companies that began that wave, such as PopCap and GameHouse have made considerable money. And, if Greg Costikyan gets his way it might be even easier to find an audience for your independent games.

So, for you aspiring game developers out there, take the time to consider an alternate path. Putting on a pair of tights and learning how to fake getting hit isn’t your only option.

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  1. The problem is to FIND those serious and like minded people with different areas of competence and enough commitment.

    Not just the desire to toy with something.

    Comment by Abalieno — 20 January, 2006 @ 8:04 PM

  2. Well, yes, that is one of the problems with doing the small-scale thing. As I say in the page about getting into the game industry, making games isn’t the same as playing games. People don’t realize how much effort goes into actually making these games; most people think it’s about coming up with a cool idea and then it magically happening.

    However, it is possible to find people to help you out. Mods get made, games get released. You just need to find people that are serious about making games. They’re out there. But, to be fair, I’ve had a few abortive projects that withered on the vine due to lack of support. So, you do have to go out there and really look for these people.

    My thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 20 January, 2006 @ 10:35 PM

  3. /me raises hand. Guilty.

    So, I have been making games in my spare time, in a serious focussed and dedicated way for about 6 years now, and its been a lot of fun. As a member of the WorldForge project I have got together with loads of interesting like minded people and built some cool stuff, but there are some pitfalls and difficulties.

    If you want to create something complex, it is unlikely that you have all the talents required to build it. I am a pretty good programmer, I suffer from delusions of competance at game design, but I am a terrible artist. So obviously you need to find some other people to work with. Aside from the issue of actually tracking these people down, once you work with them you often find that people who are not doing something professionally are motivated by one of a number of things, some of which can conflict. I am a devoted Free Software fanatic, and so my main motivation is to see cool online games implemented in free software. At various points other people working at WorldForge have had other motivations, and lack of understanding about others motivations led to conflict. Some people, particularly in my experience artists, are strongly motivated by getting public credit for their work, and as such seeing their work getting good publicity without them being specifically mentioned was nothing short of betrayal to them. Others are in it to build up a decent CV, and will leave as soon as that CV has got them an industry job, which can leave others feeling abandoned.

    As a Free Software project, all WorldForge games are published under licenses which permit free modification and distribution of our stuff. Most programmers have some kind of understanding of this ethic, whether they chose to distribute their own work that way or not, and at WorldForge we always seem to have at least a moderate supply of programmers, but many artists find this very hard to understand, and even once they have got to grip with it are not comfortable with their work being manhandled by others. As a result we are perpetually short of artists.

    One of the other quirks of hobby game developers is the wannabe designer who has a great idea for a game, and wants to recruit a bunch of coders and artists to implement it for them. These guys get pretty short shrift at WorldForge. The theory I prefer to go with is that budding designers earn the right to get their ideas into the game by making solid tangiable contributions in other areas. As one of the biggest contributors to WorldForge this gives me plenty of influence over the game design, which suits me fine, especially as many of the other major contributors have little or no interest in design. This is probably going to make a lot of professional game designers shout about the need for dedicated designers, but in a world where almost everyone has an idea for a game, you have to come up with some way to decide which one to go with.

    I have probably gone on enough about negative aspects of non-career development, so I’ll leave it by saying that it has been enormously rewarding, and should become even more so once, in my 6th year, I may even ship something that its possible to play.

    Comment by Al Riddoch — 21 January, 2006 @ 3:15 PM

  4. Of course, one could always not plan on creating a AAA title, and hence not require a team for game development. Put your time where your mouth is and make a game which is fun to play rather than filled with the latest bells and whistles.

    The beauty of hobbyist gaming is that you are *not* beholden to an audience. Your time is well spent if the only person who enjoys the game is yourself. And, thanks to the distributive power of the internet, you are likely to find a hundred other people who have the same predeliction for your own niche game.

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 21 January, 2006 @ 9:07 PM

  5. Well, not everyone can do everything, even for something well below the AAA level. I’m pretty awesome at programming, and I’m a competent designer and an effective writer. But, I can’t do art, sound, or music on any level besides the painfully basic. So, ideally I’d find someone able to compensate to help compensate for those faults. And, as soon as you get 2 people together you have to start worrying about “team” issues.

    There’s a certain minimum level of quality expected, even in small indie games. Especially when you’re talking about something like a graphical MMORPG.

    Comment by Psychochild — 22 January, 2006 @ 1:32 AM

  6. Then don’t write a graphical game.

    There is the roguelike genre available for those good at programming and writing but not at drawing, sound, etc. There’s also interactive fiction (though that really only requires writing, as the engine I understand is a solved problem.) You won’t be touched with a 10′ pole by the vast majority of gamers, but if you do something half decent, you can reach a hundred people and make their lives happier.

    Better yet, you can invent a new genre of game that requires minimalistic graphics. Creativity is spurred by constraints, right? Today, we have few constraints imposed by our medium, so why not use instead the constraints imposed by our own skills?

    Even if you want a graphical game, as a hobbiest you are free to make a game with crappy graphics. When you have proven gameplay, you can then bring artists into the project. You can then avoid the usual problem of inconsistent look by mixing the various artists that show up over your four year development cycle by having the final artists create most of your content at once. If you can’t find enough of an audience with your crappy graphics game to drum up an artists, well, that’s a good thing – you aren’t wasting an artists time with a dead-end game concept. :>

    Being a hobbiest allows you to be a much better game designer than either indie or commercial designers are allowed. You have no release date, and you have no incentive to keep things hidden till a big release. You can be in continuous release mode, iteratively refining your game month after month, polishing it as a result of your (and hopefully, others) playtesting until it becomes a jewel. The resulting game might look straightforward in the first 5 seconds, but those that play it for a while learn it has that thing that makes Blizzard the big bucks: polish.

    My motto is to release early, release often. Of course, you shouldn’t *advertise* early, and instead wait for something significant enough, but a frequent release cycle is a great way to put some discipline behind the building process. When it isn’t your 9-5 job, discipline is often a short commodity :> The other, related goal, that should go without saying, is to try to make every release your final release. Every monthly (weekly?) release should be bug free and fun to play. There’s no “write everything, then have a beta to deal with bugs”.

    MMORPG maintainers should be familiar with this process – it is what goes on in an MMORPG when they go live.

    Well, that was a long rant!

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 22 January, 2006 @ 5:39 AM

  7. Brask Mumei, I think you and I are talking about different levels of development.

    You’re talking about someone making a game for the sheer fun of making a game. There is nothing wrong with that, but recognize this is different than what I’ve been talking about. This is the same as the “writer” that fills his or her diary with poetry, perhaps sharing it with a close friend or loved one; maybe it’s not the best stuff in the world, but it’s something meaningful and important to the writer.

    I’m talking about people that want to make a game for a reasonably sized audience. This would be the equivalent of the writer thinking about submitting his or her writing to a magazine for publication. This takes a bit more ability and knowledge, and attracting a following is important in order to prove your ability in the long run. Even at this level it’s going to be hard to attract a large following even if you do have something that doesn’t look like total ass, to be honest. But, if you have the goal of trying to attract an audience you’ll have a goal to work towards in order to improve your work.

    I think you’re a bit off on your suggestions when it comes to the type of people I’m referring to. Even something “simple” as a roguelike is going to be hard to attract people given the competition. What does your game have to offer that a game like Nethack, with over two decades of development at this point? Or you could talk about Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADOM), a roguelike game of nearly epic proportions. It’s the old content problem; how do you compete with something that’s been out and around for so long?

    What about inventing something completely new? Personally, I’m not optimistic that someone working on a hobby game primarily for his or her own amusement is going to come up with something truly new or original (but I’ll be overjoyed to be proven wrong). Even someone with professional aspirations might be hard-pressed. Take a look at flash games to see how sadly repetitive games can be even without the strict requirement that they be a retail success. These games are dominated by “match three” and word games, with a rare, original gem coming along only once in a while. Even PopCap, the star of flash game development, gas fallen prey to sequelitis.

    Also, your comparison to Blizzard is not quite right. Blizzard can put so much polish into their games because they have a large, competent team of people in addition to reduced pressure to ship as soon as possible. Without the competent team all you have is an unfinished project that is likely never to be released. Keep in mind that while Blizzard makes quality games, they aren’t known for having original games; what are the Diablo games but prettied up versions of roguelikes? Part of the reason that Blizzard can polish their games is because they aren’t inventing the game from whole cloth. Blizzard is good at finding the flaws in previous games and reducing them in their own offerings.

    This isn’t to say that it absolutely cannot be done. There are some outstanding exceptions to the rule that it’s hard to make a game by yourself (looking at flash games as an example in those links). Likewise, not everyone can be as proficient and prolific a writer as Stephen King or Isaac Asimov.

    So, my advice is more for those people that will probably eventually have commercial aspirations. The people looking to make games for their own gratification don’t need me, you, or anyone else to tell them what to do. But, people thinking about getting jobs in the industry proper might be served by looking for alternatives outside of working for a large company like EA or Sony, or sweating it out at a tiny startup that is likely to go out of business before they ship a game.

    And, before you think I’m being too mean to you, I agree completely with your thoughts about advertising. On the other hand, the classic indie mistake is to ignore advertising too much. While it’s possible that if you build it they will come, it’s more likely that they’ll come after reading about your game somewhere else. :)

    My further thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 22 January, 2006 @ 3:14 PM

  8. My earlier post on this thread seems to have vanished into the void, though i am pretty sure I submitted it right, so i guess I’ll write another one.

    I would like to back Psychochild’s view that making little toy games in essentially obsolete styles is a very different beast from trying to build games which have some kind of relevance to modern players, and will actually attract a player base. While I have built numerous examples of the former, what I really work on is firmly in the latter. My skillset is a pretty close match to Psychochild’s, apart from the writing bit, so I need to work with others, and WorldForge has given me the opportunity to do that. Every now and again I do meet someone who seems to have all the skills required to build a game. Good programmer, artistic talent and creative but these are incredibly rare, and we never seem to be able to keep them interested in the project.

    If a programmer really wants to build a graphical game, but can’t get any artists, one approach is to build the game using some of the freely downloadable graphics available on the web. There are heaps of stuff available including sprites, textures, models and animations. If you need a place to start, check out the WorldForge media repository, full of freely redistributable stuff. They may not suit the game you are trying to build, but they will make it possible to get something working, and once you have some attention you may find it easier to recruit. Freeciv is an excellent example of this model. Their early releases had functioning gameplay but really terrible graphics. They attracted the attention of the community and people came forward and volunteered to make professional looking tilesets. Now freeciv is of the most polished free software games available, excluding major commercial titles that were released as free software later on.

    Comment by Al Riddoch — 23 January, 2006 @ 5:41 AM

  9. Those interested in non-career development may find The Cathedral and the Bazaar useful, Eric Raymond’s book on how Open Source projects build community teams from nothing and development some of the most successful software in the world. You may not want to give your stuff away as Open Source, but many of the points about community building will probably be relevant.

    Comment by Al Riddoch — 23 January, 2006 @ 5:46 AM

  10. Sorry, Al, your posts got caught up in moderation. I need to check that moderation queue more often.

    I just approved your posts, though. Thanks for commenting. :)

    I just added a warning so people don’t get too impatient when things disappear into the moderation queue. :)

    Have fun,

    Comment by Psychochild — 23 January, 2006 @ 6:23 AM

  11. Yay! Thanks. I was just about to mail you to ask.

    Comment by Al Riddoch — 23 January, 2006 @ 6:45 AM

  12. First, don’t worry about seeming mean spirited. I am likewise hoping you don’t find my comments mean.

    Next, if you are wondering why I’m passionate on this subject, this pretty much sums it up:
    “that making little toy games in essentially obsolete styles is a very different beast from trying to build games which have some kind of relevance to modern players, and will actually attract a player base.”

    Toy games? Where did I talk about making toy games? I’m not talking about making a breakout rip-off or a tetris clone. I’m talking about something that takes years of development. That may be many things, but it cannot be called a toy game.

    Obsolete styles? Since the given style is still actively developed and played, I don’t really know where this comes from. The choice of an ASCII display format is now one of artistic rather than technical choice. Much like a directory may choose black and white rather than colour. Or, probably more realistically, choose to fade to black rather than spend $5million on effects.

    Modern players? Who are these? The kids standing in line for an XBox 360? Why should I give a damn about them anyways? Even if I did, how could I ever attract them? Microsoft isn’t handing out devkits last I looked. This is where those rants on “gameplay is more important than graphics” fall down. When the chips come down, designers are the ones who buy into this belief more than anyone else. They *let* the consumer dictate the need for graphics. Pick your audience. If you think gameplay is important, pick those people who actually care about gameplay. It’s like seeing independent film makers whining that they can’t make the same effects as Day After Tomorrow, so how can they attract the teenage crowd that likes cool special effects.

    Attract a player base? How many players do you need to be happy? 10? 100? 1000? 1,000,000? Does everyone on the planet have to play your game before you consider it a “success”? A hundred people is a lot of people. If I can entertain a hundred people, why should I call it a failure? Especially if I did it by doing what I enjoyed anyways?

    Now, onto Psychochild’s specific points…

    How to compete with Nethack’s 20 year history:
    1) Don’t. The roguelike genre is much bigger than Nethack. First, there is at least two major sub-genres splitting between Hack style games and *Band style games. (Diablo belongs in the *Band style, for example) Make your own game which has its own flavour and personality. You will pick up an audience from those burned out or looking for a break from the major games. Just because Robert Jordan has 10,000 pages of Wheel of Time written doesn’t mean you can’t compete in Fantasy, nor that you need to write 10,000 pages to catch up to where he is.
    2) If you really want a nethack clone, Nethack is under an open license, so start with the Nethack code base and short-circuit 20 years of development. The relatively popular SLASH’EM does this – adding all the features deemed to silly and extreme to go in Nethack. (And considering that Nethack has kitchen sinks, this should tell you something)

    How to compete with ADoM’s content:
    This one is simple. Do what Thomas did. Spend 7-8 years writing it. Since you’ll be, hopefully, writing *new* content, it is non-rivalous with Thomas’ content. After less than a decade of work, you’ll have something comparable.

    “Take a look at flash games to see how sadly repetitive games can be even without the strict requirement that they be a retail success.”

    I don’t think those games would be any less sadly repetitive if they had the desire to be retail successes. The desire to be “popular”, in my experience, leads to more slavish aping than the willingness to go without an audience. What are the most popular hobbiest games? The one’s that blindly copy blockbuster games. The Freeciv’s, the Tetris knockoffs, the endless remakes of games from the 80s. Remaking games is a good thing – it can polish the old genre, it definitely is the best way to develop one’s ability as a game programmer – but as you say it is unlikely to come up with anything original.

    As for the Blizzard analogy, you are right. If the author isn’t competent, polishing likely won’t get anywhere :> But, if the author is competent, you have the same requirements: competent coder plus reduced shipping pressure. The large team is an artifact of Blizzard going after the aforementioned teenage market which, as I mentioned, there is no need for a hobbiest to concern themselves with. I also agree that Blizzard’s strength is technical excellence over originality. The same opportunities face a hobbiest, however. You can find highly original but crappily implemented games and polish them up if you desire.

    “This is the same as the “writer” that fills his or her diary with poetry, perhaps sharing it with a close friend or loved one; maybe it’s not the best stuff in the world, but it’s something meaningful and important to the writer.”

    This is *NOT* what I am talking about. I’m a talking about the writer who spends years writing a novel. And then publishes it. Maybe on the internet, maybe through vanity publishing. And, maybe it is a pile of crap. Most such novels will be. But that is not because it was written as a hobby, it is because the author wasn’t that skilled (hopefully, skilled *yet*) a writer.

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 23 January, 2006 @ 7:49 AM

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