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Let's Talk About Failure
by Josh Sutphin on 11/04/13 03:28:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

(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! :D

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.)


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Comments


Chris Clogg
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"[...] feeling a bit adrift." -> I totally get what you mean by that... one moment you're hot on your game and the next you're in a rut of 'is this even going to work out'. But in the end, I think the best thing is just finishing projects you care about. And often times 'finishing' means reworking a game from its initial design until it's in that sweet spot of *fun* :)

Oh yeah and agreed on the contract work thing.

Ian Fisch
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I think you may want to try a different genre then "action packed space combat". That genre became unpopular for a reason. Once we had systems that could render enough polys to put together actual environments, people abandoned that genre like it was the titanic.

Yes we all have good memories of playing Xwing, Tie Fighter, and Wing Commander, but we also have good memories of playing a lot of really awful games. The fact is that space dogfighting is pretty boring.

Ian Morrison
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Really? I grabbed Freespace 2 off GOG a couple years back and--having no prior experience with the series to give me nostalgia-tinted glasses--had an absolute blast with the sense of scale, interesting resource management, and dramatic missions. Boring it was not.

I'd say the reason the genre died was a fragmented, niche audience (a "space sim" meant a lot of different things to different people), uninviting control complexity, and possibly just the fantasy of being Luke Skywalker in his X-Wing (and sci-fi in general) becoming less powerful... at least among a mainstream audience that a big publisher was willing to target. Throw a few commercial flops in there and simultaneous successes in other genres and it's little surprise that the genre got killed by the money men.

I doubt graphical power had anything to do with it. In fact, I'd say that the genre benefited MORE from increases in graphical fidelity than other genres because the lack of detailed environments meant that the ships and effects--the stars of the show--could eat up more of the triangle and memory budget.

Ian Fisch
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I think the elements that make space sims fun are the resource management, RPG elements, and higher level strategic decisions. The actual combat though, which you spend a lot of time doing, is pretty boring.

There are a lot of genres that have all the good stuff without the lame (relative to other action genres) space combat.

Josh Sutphin
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I want to say you're wrong... but you're not wrong, and I realized that's part of what drove me away from the game. I'm working with a pretty significant change of theme now, in addition to refocusing on more kinesthetic gameplay.

That said, I want to toss out a few thoughts re: space games, just for the sake of discussion and because they're fun to talk about.

IMO the genre pretty much died after Freespace 2, and I think that had a lot to do with the nature of space dogfighting: for the most part, you're spinning in circles to chase little dots on a 3D radar you can barely figure out how to read. For the people who "get" it, they're totally rad. For everyone else, they're bizarre and impenetrable.

Now we're seeing a primarily-indie resurgence of space games, but this time instead of being dogfight-y they're sandbox-y. I think the problems are the same, though: cold, impenetrable game mechanics (read: EVE Online) and derivative gameplay (has anyone noticed that all these games are just modern versions of Elite?) Again, for the people who "get" it, they're totally rad, but for everyone else... yeah.

The most fresh space games I've seen in recent memory are probably Weird Worlds In Infinite Space, Gratuitous Space Battles, and Redshirt. Everything else just strikes me as so forgettable. I'm just not one of those people who "get" the genre, much as I'd love to be. :(

Michael Uzdavines
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Josh,
Great post, thanks for sharing the journey with us. I'm sort of at the front end of that walk (and already making some of the mistakes you mentioned), so just know that your contribution will help at least one person significantly.

As for space games - It saddens me that almost no discussions of that genre include Allegiance, which was the best one I ever played (and I've played them all). Even today, there's a healthy community keeping it alive after Microsoft made it open-source. It was way ahead of its time and I think a reboot of that would work today, because (I'd like to think) players are more multi-player savvy.

Emmanuel Henne
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I am an old space dog myself, had the pleasure to send many furballs to hell, attack the death start, lived as a smuggler an trader, from Elite through WC through X-Wing Alliance etc.
And I know I am biting off a lot, but You are WRONG :o) There is a difference between a space sim and a space combat game.
Wing Commander was a space combat game, X-Wing was a space combat game, Freespace as well. They had simulation aspects, but were not sims per se. And I guess what You really want is that space opera cinematic feeling of Wing Commander et al. That is not about complexity, its even only partially about the combat, first and foremost its about the story and characters. I loved the different archetypes in WC1, Paladin, Angel, Spirit. That along with the feeling of beeing part of a WW2-squadron-like scenario was awesome and drove the game forward. The Kilrathi were almost secondary, of course it was brilliant to shoot down their aces, but it was equally devastating to LOOSE a teammate in combat. That is the essence You are after. Bonding. Good villains. Space combat games arent about the lonely hero, they are about "The Dirty Dozen", "Lethal Weapon", "A-Team", "Black Sheep Squadron". Go play WC, Wings and X-Wing again ! Capture that spirit !

Jay Anne
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@Josh Sutphin
There is a mid-level space tactics itch that has yet to be scratched. One way to describe it is the video game the students play in the Ender's Game book, where there is strategic depth to controlling and guiding individual ships in spectacular tactical maneuvers that involve more granularity than just setting formations and broad RTS level macro economic strategy. Homeworld isn't exactly it, nor are the any of the space sims where you pilot a ship.

Ruston Coutinho
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What you described reminded me of a mix between Homeworld and Sins of a Solar Empire.

James Coote
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I too never really had the whole nostalgia thing, having only played x-com: Interceptor for a bit when I was a teenager.

So I bought X3 in a Steam sale, and it played a lot like Eve Online. Having just stopped playing Eve Online after a 7 year addiction, it felt like a backwards step to play what was basically the same game, but without all the fun of building a team and playing or chatting with others.

Conversely I also tried a game called Star Conflict, (or at least the beta for it), which plays like a sort of Counter-strike in space. It was incredibly high-octane, adrenaline packed, maybe even a bit too intense for my liking (my flatmates complained of the noise of me slamming the mouse across the desk as I tried to turn tight enough to avoid getting shot). Although I didn't stick at it (again, not wanting to get sucked into another MMO after just having kicked the Eve Online habit), for me, it felt like the genre could be moved forward, and dog-fighting in spaceships brought into a relatively small arena where you can actually see your target as more than just a dot on the radar

__________

A couple of months back, the project I was working on at the time was starting to really do my head in (another space-themed game, though this time a turn based strategy). So to relieve the stress, I started working on a prototype for another game I'd had bouncing around in my head for a while.

It was again, set in space, and massively scoped. But this time I was determined to build it up in a very modular fashion, piece by piece. Making sure the modules were small, compact and well defined, so I could knock one on the head in a week or less, have a sense of completion.

Which I did for the first module, a planet generator that would produce vaguely scientifically accurate/realistic planets in terms of their stats: Core composition, radius, atmosphere etc.

I actually get a kick out of pressing the button and seeing these new worlds being created, in all their numerical glory (much like, from the sounds of it, the OP's original space game). However, a combination of things, all around the same time, persuaded me it was a prototype to abandon:

1. On the back of Curiosity rover landing on Mars and tweeting to the world about it's discoveries, there were a slew of games coming out or being announced that were basically hard scifi. Physics intense, pseudo-realistic games like Kerbal SP, or a recent one I noticed on Steam called Space Engineer. People were already making the same games I was trying to make.

2. I went to an event and spoke to a guy from a big studio, who spoke about how they make their games: Starting with the kernel of a fun children's playground game, then prototyping, prototyping till there was a super-fun core mechanic. Then pulling an IP or theme off the shelf, almost as an afterthought, to wrap around the game.

I recognised I'd been doing it wrong (kinda the same as Fail #4 in the Op). I was thinking in terms of theme first, then finding a game to fit it. Or thinking "I'll take this existing game, then just recreate it with a space setting". And it just doesn't work.

3. Most importantly, I watched a video on GDC Vault by this old timer (can't remember his name, sorry!) who was one of the founding figures in the first GDC, and had been making video games since the 70's. But while he gave a mildly interesting history of early video game development, what he said at the end of his talk really struck me. He spoke about cultural inbreeding and said game devs need to go out into the world and travel, learn about other cultures, learn about history, geography, as many different disciplines as they can.

And I'm sitting there thinking "Yes! Yes! That totally justifies what I'm already doing," (because I consider myself to be well travelled and interested in lots of different areas, from current affairs to economics, to watching documentaries on history or the natural world etc).

Then this guy said as an almost throw away comment "Go read more books!.. but not sci-fi". That caused a real moment of introspection, because I realised that while I had this image in my head of being really well versed in a wide variety of subjects, actually, when I was being creative, either in making games or in writing short stories, it was always the same sci-fi themes. And not especially original ones at that.

... So I guess to the Op, maybe make your game, but abstract it away from the setting? You might find you can later on have the same game but with underwater submarine dogfighting, or Carboniferous giant insects theme.

Jeff Postma
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Welcome back to Utah. I want to say thanks for the blogs you have put up recently. The 2D in Unity was helpful to get me started and I've seen you in the IGDA and Indie Game groups here. Thanks for posting this kind of stuff.

I think we all feel like failures from time to time. It's when we pick ourselves up and keep going that we make a difference. We can all have Bruce Wayne moments.

Steven Christian
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Throw together some small, simple, fun games and go to a few indie meet-ups, get feedback, play other games, get into the swing of things ^^

Curtiss Murphy
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Loved the deeply personal and honest nature of this one. Kudos and well done. My 2.5 year Indie adventure has taught:

1) "Finishing is a feature. A really important feature" - (Joel on Software)
2) Customers expect Free - that's the hardest puzzle I've ever encountered.
3) Failure is part of the path that leads to success. Shake it off and keep rolling.
4) Finish and release already! Perfection is for rich folk.

Jay Anne
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Love this article! I wish all creative types could describe their processes like this.

While creative people do have core unchanging attributes, they will often go through temporary phases where they are reacting to recent experiences. Those phases come with creative sensibilities and creative ambitions that may not last very long, because it was largely just a creative release, not a true underlying ambition.

Phil Maxey
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Good article. It seems to me you are being over ambitious. I'm sure you have the talent and skill to make a "big" or complicated game but do you have the time? I've fallen into this trap a few times myself, you get excited about this great new game idea, you know you can code it and you have "some" time on your hands but before you know it 6 months have passed by and you kinda/sorta have something coded but it's not really anywhere near done. Infact it won't be anywhere near done if you continue on the same path for at least another year..2 years, but you don't really want to acknowledge that while you're working on it.

Eventually you can just run out of steam.

My advice is first and foremost find people to team up with, other coders, graphic artists, level designer, anyone and everyone you can find to work with you.

Work on a small, manageable fun game project. It can still be strategy etc, but make it small in scale.

While you're working on it do what you did in this post, talk/blog tell the the world about it as you're working on it to try and garner an audience for when it launches.

Guillermo Aguilera
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all my sympathy and encouragement

MrPhil Ludington
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Great article, thanks! I've never considered that I might have a "game design style" different from the style of games I enjoy playing. I'll have to export that idea!


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