6 August, 2009
I’ve professed a belief that independent game development is more likely to produce a breakthrough than large, corporate development. The bulk of my career has been focused on independent development, allowing me to develop the skills necessary to do something special in online games.
The drawbacks are numerous, of course. The primary one being that money doesn’t grow on trees. That means you have to be extra creative to get a game going because you can’t just write big checks like a large company can. Often, this means using like-minded volunteers.
Unfortunately, my experience has been that volunteers are not very reliable. Why is that?
History of a project
I’ve been working on simple bit of technology for doing games for a while. I have a Stackless Python server that handles the basics of communication, account management, and other nice functions. I want to have a Flash/Actionscript based client that runs in a browser. Nothing mind-blowing or destined to be the great WoW-killer, but something that would allow me to make games that explore some of the unusual design concepts I have without having to convince someone to bet millions of dollars that my insanity will work out in the end.
Now, while there are MMO games developed primarily by a single person, I want to make games, not just work on tech. So, I’d like to find others to help out, particularly people who have some experience where I don’t. You can look through the blog archives here and see where I asked for people to lend a hand to the projects.
But, as I’ve said, volunteers haven’t necessarily been reliable. My current focus is learning Actionscript 3 so that I can write the client myself.
My own faults
Let me first put the spotlight on my own failings as possible explanations for this situation.
I’m an asshole. Let’s be honest here, I know I’m not always the nicest person to be around. I can lose my temper easily enough if things keep piling up. Sometimes you just have to get stuff done and that “arbitrary” deadline is one way to make sure things don’t take forever. Or, maybe I dictate too much of the project and expect others to dance to my whims.
I don’t give enough guidance. Game development is hard. I have many years of experience by this point. Some volunteers are bright-eyed newbies just getting into their first project. Of course, I hate to be micro-managed, so I try not do the same to others. But, perhaps I’m a bit too hands-off?
I suck at communication. Maybe I don’t communicate my needs well enough, and others are confused. Or, the communication media that I choose (IM and email) are not very efficient or appropriate for what the project needs.
The faults of other people
Perhaps I’m not entirely to blame?
People don’t understand what’s required. As I say to a lot of people who want to break into game development, making games isn’t the same as playing games. Perhaps people get disappointed when game development starts to feel like actual work.
People experience crushing disappointment. Maybe people are just disappointed when I talk about a grand project and they finally realize that there’s only a few bits of basic code written. They were expecting to work on a nearly finished product, but instead they have to worry about the fundamentals of how to implement a tile map.
People can’t keep ego in check. Working on someone else’s project, I find I have to keep a handle on my ego. You might think you know best, but someone else has their own ways of doing things. Perhaps others feel its easier to leave than deal with someone who is just wrong, in their opinion. Or, perhaps they want to work on their own stuff and working on yours is not as interesting.
People want to keep a toe in the pool. Maybe that project will turn into something really high-profile and exciting! Maybe you’ll get some sweet recognition if things take off.
Real life takes control. Sometimes real life does get in the way of a good project. One person I was working with was very talented, but had the nerve to get engaged and move across an ocean to be with his better half. He had to get a better job to support his new family. How rude! ;)
The nature of volunteers
Volunteering for a project has its own issues.
Volunteers aren’t motivated by money. Threatening someone’s paycheck is an effective way to keep them motivated. Volunteers don’t have that, so they need some other motivation. Pride in a job well done is hard to maintain when the end seems so distant.
Volunteers don’t feel special. Volunteers are just one in a crowd. It’s hard to feel like a superstar when you were just in the right place at the right time to find out about the project.
Volunteering isn’t working. If you’re really good at what you do, you should be paid, right? Volunteering for a project isn’t helping your financial situation. Might as well get paid if you’re going to do something that feels like work.
I recently signed up to help another person implement a simple project. The goal was to take a well-known game genre and put it on a modern platform. Volunteers were requested, communication was set up, and goals were established.
The end result was that the professional developers contributed work but only one other person picked up the slack. The project had goals and people signed up to complete the goals, but few other people actually delivered anything toward getting the project done. I was not in charge, so I don’t think my faults were the root cause here. The professionals got together and chatted about the situation. Why did we step up when others didn’t?
Leave it to the professionals
So, why did the professionals step up and get things done?
Reputation was on the line. If we slacked, the others would know and talk about us. That could hurt us in the long run. But, what does a volunteer care if we say, “That person wasn’t reliable.” if they don’t care to get a game development job?
Our jobs were “easier”. My job was to write design documents and post discussions on the Wiki. Another professional is a writer, and was working on story concepts while offering design suggestions. Neither of us was doing the “hard work” of programming. (Although the third professional did do some programming.)
We’re used to the work. We knew what to expect. We weren’t surprised when the tasks felt a bit like work. This is, after all, what we do for a living. We were interested in working on a game project and knew what we were signing up for.
So, what now?
We’re talking about rebooting the project and putting some stricter entry requirements. You actually have to do a task before you’re welcomed into the project proper. This means that people who are let into the project have at least a bit of skin in the game. We’ll see if that changes the level of commitment people are willing to make.
As for my personal project, I’m forging forward. I can’t wait for someone reliable to come along and want to help out for free, so I’m focusing my efforts on acquiring the skills to do it myself. We’ll see how far I get. But, don’t expect sparking innovation in MMOs if I have to move at the pace of doing nearly everything myself.