Four months ago, I went indie.
Since then, I’ve been dealing with some light anxiety about my work and my place in the game development community. To some extent, this is totally normal; after all, I bet my life savings on my ability to succeed in a perpetually overcrowded market. But my anxiety goes beyond the usual fear of failure. I usually explain it with a term coined by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, when he wrote about Pixar’s problems with “fresh meat”:
Successful organizations face two challenges when bringing in new people with fresh perspectives. One is well-known— the not-invented-here syndrome. The other— the awe-of-the-institution syndrome (an issue with young new hires)—is often overlooked…. The bigger issue for us has been getting young new hires to have the conﬁdence to speak up…. We do not want people to assume that because we are successful, everything we do is right.
This is my problem. Before going indie, I idolized the celebrity game designers that gave the lectures and wrote the articles and invented the games that inspired me. I loved game design, and I loved their work, and I wanted to do what they were doing.
Now, I find myself handicapped by my idolatry. I compare myself to the people I admire, and I feel small. I see my bloopers next to their highlight reels and turn timid. Profiles of successful artists often seem to highlight a maniacal drive and an unquenchable spirit and an unshakable belief in their own greatness. My ego is healthy, but I lack that mania.
This causes some practical problems, especially when I actually interact with the people that I put on this pedestal. I read about the indie game scene constantly, and I know who the cool kids are. I’ve heard some people portray these successful indies as an insular cabal, always boosting their friends and keeping the little guy down, but (aside from being preposterous on the face of it) my experience shows the opposite. Instead of being insular and grudging, they’ve always been extremely kind and generous to me (Hi, Eddy!). And yet, when I interact with one of these scene celebrities, I feel like I’m an awkward kid trying to talk to my crush. I try too hard to get attention, overanalyze everything that they say, and constantly feel the need to self-denigrate. I take their opinions as gospel and discount my own. I fail to see myself as an equal collaborator, and so I can’t become one.
These comparisons also summon an urge to self-handicap. If I try to produce a magnum opus, and I fail, then what does that mean about me? At what point do I transform from “potential undiscovered genius” to “wannabe hack”? What will the tastemakers think of me? It feels safer to produce throwaway prototypes and design unambitious games, but that approach would ensure that I never discover my potential, whatever it may be.
The usual advice in this situation is to “fake it til you make it”: start acting as if you had confidence, and that confidence will become real. But I don’t want to “fake it” at all. Earnestness is too important if I aspire to be an artist.
In fact, I think my anxiety stems from a subtle realization that I’m already “faking it” too much. I care too much about what others think of me and too little about what I believe at heart. I focus too much on reputation and appearances and not enough on making a great game. I lose sight of true success and get fixated on its lesser rewards, and in doing so I drift further away from both.
I need to be more ambitious. Raise my standards. Genuinely try for greatness with each game, and learn to treat both triumph and disaster gracefully. The solution to my problem is to prove myself to myself.
I’m not saying that I need to drop everything and start on some new, massive project. I still have a lot to learn, prototyping is still useful, and I know that small projects can still be ambitious. But I want to speak and design more plainly, earnestly, and deeply. I want to refocus on making worthwhile games, regardless of short-term success or failure. Perhaps, with that, I can meet my role models as equals.