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(This post was originally published at third-helix.com)
Way back in March, I left AAA game development to go indie. My plan was thus:
“As an independent creator, I’ll repay my cultural debt and pursue self-sufficiency via two paths. The first is by producing small, focused independent games with niche appeal, according to the design values I’ve developed and honed over my eight years in the industry. And the second is by resurrecting my other creative skill: writing, specifically sci-fi and fantasy fiction, which has long laid dormant due to the relentless hours and pressure of the mainstream commercial games industry.”
I started failing right away.
Failure #1: A Bad Bet
Last year I backed OUYA on Kickstarter — rather generously — and it was around the time of this career transition that the prototype dev kit arrived. Thus, my indie career started with an OUYA-first, local multiplayer tank combat game.
It wasn’t long before I noticed that the OUYA thumbsticks are pretty horrifically inaccurate (the retail controllers later turned out to be better, but not by much). Since I was using a twin-stick shooter control scheme where aim accuracy was critical, that was pretty much a dealbreaker.
It was a reasonably easy pill to swallow, though, because the game wasn’t fun anyway (it was actually super, super derivative, in retrospect). So I back-burnered it and, it being late March, hopped a plane to San Francisco for GDC.
Shortly after I got back, I killed the tank game for good. Time to first failure: about two weeks.
Failure #2: Everything At Once
I returned from GDC feeling a bit adrift. Aside from hanging out with some pretty rad folks, I actually found my third GDC a bit disappointing. I’d been feeling down on myself after that tank game fell apart and I’d hoped GDC would re-inspire me (as it always had before), but this year it just… didn’t.
My game idea had fallen apart, and my book idea sort-of existed but it was so early I wasn’t really sure if it was going anywhere or not. I was living in a super-expensive apartment in downtown Austin and had almost no friends or acquaintances left there, most of my former LightBox bros having been scattered to the four winds by the implosion of the Austin game dev scene a few months earlier. I’d also just gotten some worrisome family news from back home in Utah, and all of this added up to one conclusion.
It was time to move.
My reasons for moving back to Salt Lake were sound, but as it turns out, moving halfway across the country in the first month of trying to get an indie career off the ground is absolutely disastrous for both productivity and morale. I don’t exactly regret the decision, but in retrospect I think it was a mistake not to wait a bit and get my sea legs first. Time to second failure: about a month.
Failure #3: Games or Writing?
After I moved and got settled in at my new place, I went through this weird creative crisis. I was thinking about the games I grew up with, the ones that inspired me to get into the games industry, and how nearly all had strong stories. My professional career consisted mainly of competitive multiplayer games, and I’d long felt this gnawing desire to work on something narrative for a change. And of course, I had that whole “resurrect my writing hobby” thing, which was one of my two goals for going indie in the first place.
After wrestling with it for a while, I pretty much declared: fuck games, make books.
I wrote a short story over the next three months that should’ve taken three weeks. I had started a private dev journal the first day I went indie, and over those three months it read like the diary of an emo teenager, littered with procrastination, frustration, and self-flagellation. It’s a bit shocking to look back and see how hard I beat myself up over my day-to-day failures during that time.
My attitude toward all this was basically “nut up or shut up”, which quickly became a brutal, self-destructive spiral. I’d miss a goal, then I’d beat myself up for it, then I’d be stressed the next day because of that, which would make it even harder to get work done, for which I’d beat myself up even more… and round and round we go.
When the draft was finally complete, I sent it to some absolutely wonderful folks for critique, and the general consensus was that the story overall was okay, but the ending was horrible. And you know what? They’re exactly right.
I haven’t touched that story since. For those keeping track at home: that’s failure #3, and it cost me three months.
Oh, and keep in mind I’m not actually making any money at this point in the story. Yeah, I’m awesome at being indie.
A Break, Maybe?
So by this point I was feeling pretty shitty about myself. I’d been indie for four-and-a-half months, burned a third of my savings, moved halfway across the country, and had exactly jack shit to show for it. It occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t cut out for this, that I might need to start circulating my resume and — as much as I hated the idea — sack up and jump back into the AAA meat grinder. Of course, I had just recently moved to a city of extremely limited opportunity in that regard, signed a year-long apartment lease, the whole nine yards. So, uh, oops?
Then two things happened, in as many days.
First, I stumbled upon Hillary Rettig’s book, 7 Secrets of the Prolific. If you’re thinking, “Dear god, that sounds like one of those nauseating self-help books,” rest assured I thought the same, at first. But it had come well-recommended, so I gave it a shot… and it defied all expectations.
I’m not saying this book is for everybody, but it was very definitely the right book at the right time for me. It brought me face-to-face with certain of my self-destructive behaviors — in particular the tendency toward irrational perfectionism that sat at the heart of my self-defeating “nut up or shut up” attitude — and deconstructed them into understandable, solvable problems. I went from dejected to energized in the afternoon it took to read it.
Then the next day, on a whim, I poked my head out from my little failing-writer’s hidey-hole to see what was up in game development land for the first time in months, and it felt like returning home after a rough trip. Ah, sweet comfort zone, how I’ve missed thee.
It took a little while longer for the chemistry between those two events to fully develop, but by the time it did, I’d come to a clear and confident conclusion: I just don’t enjoy writing any more. It was a thing when I was a teenager, and it’s not a thing now.
It’s almost like — gasp — I grew and changed.
Failure #4: Fundamentals
So I had this idea to make a tactical space combat game. It was going to de-emphasize all the dogfighting that’s been over-exposed in that genre, and it was also going to avoid the whole “open space sandbox economic sim” thing that’s seeing a huge indie resurgence over the past six months or so. Instead, I wanted to make it more of a sport, with a focus on commanding your ship, managing your subsystems and resources, and controlling the battlefield. It was intended to be deep: like, simulation-level deep.
I started building it, and it felt so good to be making a game again!
I’ve worked on what I affectionately dubbed “Space Game” for most of the past three months, but that initial high faded early and I found myself just going through the motions each day. It took me a while to figure out what was wrong, but I finally did.
The game is joyless.
It’s interesting, sure. (Or at least, I think so. Devs are notoriously poor judges of their own work.) But I wasn’t having fun when I playtested it; I was just dully manipulating some arbitrarily complicated mathematical system. Meanwhile, I’ve been playing a ton of Diablo 3, which is at least equally complex from an underlying maths perspective, but that game is positively joyful to play.
You know how in sports, coaches love to talk about “fundamentals”? Well, that applies to basically every skill-based human endeavor out there. Among the fundamentals of game design is “finding the fun”. This is why we prototype: to find the central “toy” in the design. It’s the satisfying smash-crash-boom of Diablo 3, slamming into cover in Gears of War, platforming through ridiculous hazards in Super Meat Boy. Game design 101 says, “find the fun, then build a game around it”.
Guess what I forgot to do?
Three more months and failure #4, and now here we are.
Learning From Failure
I’ve been down this road before. The last time I invested significant time into a game, only to have it fall apart for lack of joy, was my neurochemistry-inspired pseudo-RTS Cortex. I spent six months on that game, back at the beginning of 2010, before finally accepting that I was wasting my time. I wrote in its postmortem:
“The most important role of the prototype is failure, and the most important thing you must do when prototyping is recognize failure and immediately move on to the next idea. Cortex, in my estimation, is a failed prototype, but it’s one I stubbornly clung to for the better part of six months even though I knew it wasn’t working, and on some level, I knew it could never work.”
My key takeaway from that experience was to stop trying to force a design that’s not working, and that’s what I’m applying here. I even have a positive progress metric: this time I only wasted three months!
Except “wasted” is really the wrong word, because there’s a difference between failures and mistakes. The point of failure is to learn something; mistakes are just failures for which you already knew better, and screwed up anyway.
So what have I learned from my panoply of failures so far?
- Trust, but verify. I shouldn’t have pinned my indie hopes on the OUYA right out of the gate, sight unseen. Fortunately, even though I got burned by the controller fiasco, I only lost a couple weeks. This could’ve gone much worse.
- Don’t make multiple significant life changes all at once. Going indie and moving cross-country nearly simultaneously was really fucking stupid, and wrecked my productivity and morale.
- I’m just not interested in writing any more, and that’s okay. While I’m sort of frustrated that I burned three months on this ultimately-futile exercise, I’m actually incredibly relieved that I finally know this about myself. I’d spent most of my 9+ years in the commercial games industry wondering about it. The outcome is disappointing in its way, but it relieved so much mental and emotional tension.
- I’m not a strategy game designer. My space combat game got very “number-porn”, and in all those numbers I lost sight of the joy and bored myself to tears. My thing is kinesthetics: action, flow, game feel. This is actually a neat revelation for me, because it’s my first step to having some confident sense of my “style” as a game designer, and that’s something I’ve never experienced before.
- I may be worse at working in a vacuum than I thought I’d be. I’ve lost perspective on too many occasions, so it’s going to be important that I tap my social and professional connections from here on out.
I also learned one more really important thing along the way, which had nothing to do with failure and everything to do with being open to new opportunities (something I haven’t always been great at, by the way). I learned that contract work suits me: I picked some up a few months back, and I actually kind of enjoy it. Plus, it’s significantly alleviated my financial tension, and helped get me into a healthier head space for evaluating and processing my other challenges. A good thing, all around.
So, What’s Next?
This has been a long and sordid tale, but it actually leaves me in a pretty good place.
That space combat game is undergoing a significant redesign as I take it back to basics: something much more action- and feel-oriented, playing to my strengths as a kinesthetic designer. (And as a bonus, this process has shrunk its scope considerably, making it way less intimidating to work on.) I’ve got a couple contracts in the pipe, which are providing me short-term financial stability and some professional connections who have just been awesome to work with. And I’ve learned some really important lessons about myself, about aspects of myself that I was never able to even get close to while employed in the commercial games industry.
Huh. I guess failure isn’t so bad after all.
(Josh Sutphin is an indie game developer, former lead designer of Starhawk (PS3), and creator of the Ludum Dare-winning RTS/tower-defense hybrid Fail-Deadly. He blogs at third-helix.com and tweets nonsense at @invicticide.)