I’ve been away from my online presence for quite a while, mostly due to real-life work and time constraints. The mere fact of the matter is that when making games is not your full-time job (which as of now it is not) development has to go to the way side when life demands greater attention elsewhere – especially greater attention on things that actually produce your income.
That being said, this time hasn’t been without its fruit in regard to making games. To begin, I’ve actually been putting in a lot of time developing some new projects about which I’m quite excited. I had to make a choice between making decent progress or keeping up with everything online, and I chose the progress path (not that anything would have been wrong with the other option). It also gave me a lot of time to think about how I want to approach things in making video games from this point forward. For the moment there is going to be some stability in my ability to spend time developing games, and I thought it might be a little therapeutic for me to write out some of my thoughts on how to approach the game industry as a developer. Then it occured to me that some others might benefit from what I’ve been thinking as well. If that applies to you, great! If you find these thoughts simply dumb, that’s fine, too, because ultimately what matters is that both of us move forward in our quest to make games.
So, here’s three realizations I’ve had about game development that I think will be useful as I move forward. To be a little more friendly to read (and perhaps to avoid sounding overly arrogant) I’m going to approach these points as an “us/we” kind of situation instead of simply “I.”
1. We Don’t “Owe” People Near As Much As We Think We Do
Having read a lot of articles about games and having watched a lot of videos reviewing games I’ve heard the words “the developer owed us. . .” far more than I’d care to remember. This has become an increasingly prevalent philosophy in the current game industry, just as it has become a more pervasive philosophy in our society in general. The idea of “entitlement” or being “owed” certain things seems quite high, especially in first-world countries where apparently we “deserve” to live better than most people in the world just because, well. . . just because.
Obviously I could get off on a much larger issue than what I’m setting out to deal with, so let me avoid a rabbit trail by coming right back around to games. Fellow developers, I don’t know about you, but I often get it stuck in my head that I “owe” people and customers every little tiny thing they want. No doubt what I am about to say would offend many a reviewer, YouTuber and even maybe some customers, but. . . no, we don’t. Sure, if you’ve paid for my game and there is a complete game breaking bug than, yeah, I should fix that if I ever want you to do business with me again. Notice that even in this I still didn’t say “owe.” It would simply be bad business for me to deliberately not fix it if it is in my power to do so. And I would not blame someone for never buying from me again.
But. . . if you don’t like the music? If you don’t like the art? If you don’t like the controls? Well, those are things that I might change, that maybe I need to change, but I don’t “owe” everyone to change it. Just as you don’t “owe” me to buy a game I make in the first place. You don’t “owe” to buy a game from me ever again (if you ever did in the first place). On both sides of the coin we must eliminate this idea of being indebted.
Let me put it this way. . . I don’t expect that people “owe” it to me to buy a game that I pour 8 months of my life into developing. In fact, when people don’t buy it you know who I blame? Me! You want to know why? Because despite any merits my game have, it’s either a crappy game, or I’m a crappy marketer, or perhaps both. And I could run around “demanding” that people buy my game and “demanding” that people appreciate my style, but frankly, that’d be a really stupid thing to do. People don’t “owe” me.
And you know, what, developers? We don’t “owe” people near as much as some act like we do.
I know this is already a long post, and if I’m not careful I’ll get off on too long of a rant, but I want to mention a clear case-in-point of this. There are free-to-play games out there that are having this “you owe us” mentality applied to them. Just think about that. The developer literally lets you play for free, and people are talking about what the the developer owes them? Can we say “ego,” people? For example, I really enjoy playing World of Warships from time to time. The game is truly free-to-play. I have a tier VII Pensacola at this point in my progress (clearly the game isn’t a daily habit lol), and I haven’t paid Wargaming one dime for any of the fun I’ve had. And you know what? If tomorrow Wargaming announced a $1-a-month subscription fee to play the game. . . well, I can just hear the outrage now. “Are you kidding me?” “I’ve played WoWs since the beginning, the devs OWE IT TO US to not pull *EXPLETIVES GALORE* like this!” “Way to go, Wargaming, you just lost another customer.” Uh huh. “Customers” that don’t pay. “Customers” like me, who, frankly, have never really done much of anything to help these devs put bread on the table. “Well,” you say, “Wargaming is doing just fine finacnially with their current model.” True enough, which is probably why they won’t change it. But guess what? They don’t “owe” me or anyone else anything. And if they started charging a monthly fee? Yeah, I’d probably pay it. Why, you ask? Because World of Warships is a darn good game and they’ve earned every dime of it. If anyone “owes” anything, it’s me. That fact certainly does not upset me, and I fail to see why so many others find it upsetting.
As an important finishing note, I’m not saying that we never owe anything. If you Kickstart a project, for example, you really do owe it to come through on that. You did, after all, y’know. . . take people’s hard earned cash. But circumstances like this are far more rare than we act sometimes. There are lots of projects that aren’t Kickstarted and aren’t alpha-funded and yet people still have a “the developers owe it to us to do X” mentality towards those projects. Sorry. Nope.
2. We Don’t Have To Explain Every Decision We Make
This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. It’s an easy idea to get caught into. But the fact is that you don’t have explain every single design/policy/website/Twitter/Facebook/etc. decision that you make to everyone in the world. And, for that matter, we don’t have to feel guilty because “that one guy on that one corner of the InterWebz” condemned us as the “freakin’ worst designer ever” because we didn’t do that one thing that he said “any reasonable developer” would do. Folks are going to disagree with your decisions. Folks are going to dislike some of the things you do. Big whoop. You, nor they, have to lose a lunch over the whole thing. It’s OK to make decisions, and it’s OK to stick by them.
Sure, there are times when you may make new decisions based on feedback, but we need to stop raking ourselves over the coals because we don’t listen to everybody about everything. We also need to remember that there are game companies with thousands more resources than any of us little developers have who most certainly embrace this philosophy. And guess what? They’re doing just fine, much to the chagrin of their opponents. In fact, even though people love to complain about AAA companies, the fact of the matter is that it’s not stopping anyone from buying their products, nor is it stopping anyone from having fun while playing their games.
“Well Daniel,” you say, “it ain’t all dollars and players and the popularity of your game.” That’s really adorable. Tell you what, go sink ten years of your life into game development and see if you come out singin’ the same tune. If you want to make games for a hobby, then do just that, and – honestly – don’t worry about any of what I’m talking about (trust me when I say I don’t worry about stuff like this with my hobbies). But if, like most of us, you would like to build a company one day and you would like to do this for a living, then perhaps its time that all of us learn some lesson from the people that are doing just that.
Let me give you some exmaples of what I mean. I’ve had some people offer up some pretty harsh criticism of games I’ve made over things like a lack of controller support, a lack of control customization, a lack of web integration, or general design choices. And that’s cool – everyone is entitled to their opinion. But I realized something. Minecraft - yes, that’s right, the PC version of Minecraft, one of the most bought, most played, most well-known games in the world - still does not have native support for a controller.
I want you to stop and chew on that for a second. This is a game that has been ported to every single major console. This is a game that was sold to Microsoft – one of the largest developers in the world – for a whopping $2.2 billion dollars. This is a game that has literally become a household name. And when you start it up on PC and plug in your PC controller, absolutely nothing happens because the devs have created zero support to play the game with a controller.
And you know what? I applaud them. Why? Because I like that? No, I’d love to play Minecraft on PC with a controller. I applaud them because they are the developer and at the end of the day it’s their choice about what does/does not happen with the game. And, news flash, they certainly don’t have to explain themselves to little old me. They’re Microsoft. Clearly they’ve got this dev thing down a bit better than I do. And, by the way, for me to insinuate otherwise would be the absolute height of hubris. I can disagree with their choice without throwing them to the mud and saying they’re a waste.
Let me give you another quick exmaple. Bethesda just released Doom 4 (that’s what I’m gonna’ call it, so that’s that). If you haven’t played it, it’s pretty amazing. Fast paced. Amazing graphics. All sorts of huge accomplishments. They didn’t follow the original formula step-for-step. They made it very checkpoint centered. They didn’t give a huge explanation as to why they did these things. And, yeah, they’ve made some folks around the web all upset because they the developer would dare to make the game the way they the developer with years and years of experience thought it needed to be made.
Boo-hoo. If you don’t like the game, don’t buy it, don’t play it, but let’s stop kidding ourselves with the thought that Bethesda needs to “explain” all of this to us. Let me explain it for you: people are buying the game in droves and playing it in droves and they’re having fun doing it. And isn’t that kinda’ what games are about? Y’know, people having fun?
So, fellow devs, stop beating yourself over the head because you haven’t explained all of your design decisions. It will be OK.
3. We Should Have No Fear to Do what is Best for the Company
Ah, and now (about twenty years later) I come to my final point. There is no reason we should feel guilty, distressed, or like a “bad developer” because we do what is best for our company (or in the case of a solo dev, what is best for our future as a developer). If the project you’re working on is falling to shreds around you (and you haven’t funded it by taking money from folks) then by all means scratch it and start up with something better. If you make a game suited for the free-to-play market with some good in-app purchases or DLC, don’t let anyone give you this “you’ve sold your soul” nonsense about why that’s “immoral and evil.” Again, I doubt many of the people talking about how “evil” you making money from your work is have ever sunk two years of their life into a project only to be told “you should give this away for free because I want it.”
Cancelling projects, choosing an art style, choosing to not include certain features, etc. are all examples of choices that some people will call a “jerk move” on your part, but ultimately they probably have little if any idea what they’re talking about. By the way, they may even be a fellow developer, but – news flash – they’re not you so ultimately they don’t really know everything going into the decision that you end up making.
This has been one of my great weaknesses for years. When I was young I was heady, impetous and bold. The result, of course, was that I made my fair share of stupid choices that affected me and, much worse, the people around me in adverse ways. That caused me to become increasingly cautious as I’ve gotten older. But I’ve realized that, when it comes to making games, it is certainly possible to be overly cautious and never get anything done. Stop worrying so much about each decision you make. Sit down, evaluate your position, ask what is best, and get it done. When you make a mistake in your choices, don’t sweat it too much. Do what’s necessary to fix it and, as Walt Disney reminded us in Meet the Robinsons, “keep moving forward.”
I’ve written a lot, but I’m glad I did. It certainly helped me think through some things. If it helps you as well, awesome.
Some people will probably come along and read this and shake their heads about what a presumptous jerk of a developer I am. Sorry to disappoint, but at least I can honestly say that such is not my desire. I’m simply realizing that, on the path to becoming a better developer, I’m having to change my approach to a lot of things.
Keep making great games and keep asking the hard questions!