The Paradox of Indie Game Devs Who Can't Play Just a While
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I was at my game developer collective's monthly demo and play night a few weeks ago. In catching up with fellow Playcrafting alums, we were chatting about the games that were shown and recent releases.
“Have you played anything lately?”
"The eternal paradox!" he quipped.
But on the way home, I gave it some thought. Why DO game developers have that paradox? Don't writers always have to be reading, actors and filmmakers always watching movies or at least parts of them?
Well, for starters a vast majority of indie developers have to have another source of income. Usually a full time job, sometimes a part time job or jobs plural. In my case, I run another business. (Shameless Plug: Sonic Toad Consulting is here to help you!) And no matter how you cut it, time just doesn't exist in a vacuum.
But time aside, game development is an intense undertaking even if the game's not that big. Between designing and redesigning, coding and testing until you've debugged more thoroughly than my toad...well, how much mental energy do you have left after your soul-sucking job or the stresses of the freelance life to do all that? And we haven't even gotten into other adult responsibilities like childcare or eldercare, civic duties and whatnot.
So you get home from your miserable job where you're underpaid and underappreciated, starving and in agony from standing on a jampacked subway for over forty minutes. Or you just crafted numerous proposals all while you were working on multiple projects and juggling four different timezones to the point that you feel like you'd need a TARDIS. Both of these situations have applied to me, the former I don't have to live anymore but the latter is my current reality.
But even if you took the plunge of living off your savings, or have managed to eke out a living making games, there's also the fact that given both our passion for the craft and the pressure to have a positive cash flow again (...or to just finish development before an engine or port build becomes obsolete) makes a lot of devs long for time rips to be able to work 28-hour days. For the sake of getting things done, if nothing else. I've been here as well.
So yes: I completely understand why a lot of us can't just pick up a game anymore. You become prone to mental exhaustion. It makes you gravitate to passive entertainment like TV and YouTube if your attention span is too short for a movie. Even though it's easy to get sucked into a captivating game, some also require concentration to really *get* the rich game world in front of you. It makes you want to set aside an evening or day that you just don't have the time for.
But that's not all. Yes, adult responsibilities are tiresome. But I don't know if I'm speaking just for me or the select group of game developers I happen to know, but hand in hand with the 28-hour time rip thing comes this guilt that stems only from a really toxic work culture like America's. I know that statement is bound to get me some flack, but it's one I expand upon in depth in my upcoming book. Simply put, we feel bad when we have downtime and want to be (or at least feel) more productive. Heaven forbid we not slave for just one hour, let alone one day, so we deny ourselves enjoyment. To that I raise both my middle fingers: you NEED to have some fun. The mental stimulation good games provide also eclipses TV by far, even if there's good writing and things you don't catch on the first viewing.
How I Made the Time
Still, I'm a firm believer in "When there's a will, there's a way" and "If you want it bad enough, you'll MAKE it happen". So a few days after the demo and play night I gauged how much work I had to do followed by personal errands and obligations, and how I could fit in some fun time at the times of day I was most likely to be alert. (Granted, being fully self-employed has some perks in that sense.) It's sort of like making a budget with your money: sometimes you just won't have the time and things also happen for better or worse that throw even the best-laid plans. But between everything I had to do and also had latently put on my to-do list to help grow my businesses, I figured I had to make time for just me in the form of some gameplay.
Over the following few weeks, I was so glad I made some time to myself to just relax and play even though it was mostly some bites here and there with just one long session over my birthday weekend when I told my clients not to come knocking.
What I Played, Then Discovered
And I was extremely glad I did: I mostly pulled up some old school ones from my childhood I got the sudden urge to revisit then some more recent works. And for a lot of games, you can play quite a bit in the same timeframe it would take to watch an episode of a TV show (20-60 minutes.) So here's the games I played in making myself have some downtime, and what I discovered or rediscovered.
Carmen Sandiego (World and USA deluxe versions): Broderbund's cornerstone franchise had multiple iterations. I remember playing a few on Mac System 7 growing up on CD. CD-ROM technology was cutting edge in the early 90's and studios put effort into making better use of all the space on one disc that couldn't be done with a sack of floppies. As fond as I am of chiptune and MIDI classics, I just remember what a breakthrough it was to have "real" music and the World version I owned had a LOT. Enough to merit a separate program on the CD where you clicked on different countries to hear songs from the game and other ones that weren't in it and learn their lyrics and backstories.
Alas I didn't get to revisit the map of music, but World was otherwise just how I remembered it. USA was pretty much reskinned from World only with different suspects and attributes. The USA version that I recall had cartoonish assets and full motion video of the Chief from the short-lived game show, and a cool scrolling interface when you got to each state where you talked to people, manually gathered evidence, nailed your suspect that way too.
Visuals were pretty stunning for the era.
No less, playing these games again made me think back to when I couldn’t wait to play them when I got home from school, and how there was no Google or Wikipedia back then yet I somehow beat it multiple times. The CD version was even trickier than the DOS one because you found things like language tapes and answering machines as clues. These games are still challenging for an adult if you promise to not open up a search engine, but unless you’re gazing through the lens of nostalgia like I was I don’t think Carmen would bode well in today’s gaming world. Looking back, it was also totally mindblowing that she got a cartoon AND a live action game show not only considering that it was an edutainment franchise, but also that there was still this big aura of fear and stigma surrounding computer games at the time if not flat out obscurity. Computer games at the time definitely didn't get the same treatment that console games did in terms of being franchised and merchandised out the wazoo.
While I liked the mechanics of Carmen Sandiego, I wanted to have more interaction. More stories about how these things got stolen and the behaviors and motivations of the VILE crew. Who was Carmen Sandiego and what made her so good at crime?
However, playing through them a bit made me recall not just how I knew I wanted to make games when I grew up, but it made me want to travel the world and freely wander around America when I felt like it. I wanted to see Cairo, Madrid, Sydney, Tokyo, and see more than what a couple pictures, writeups, and audio files predating MP3s could show me. It put a dream in me, yet another dream people told me was stupid or unattainable just like my dream of making games for a living. I've gotten to travel a bit, with so much more to see and I feel that the path I'm on now would enable me to make that happen. I recalled how this game totally put that dream of seeing the world in me and I was glad I solved a couple cases before I went back to work.
The Trail games: Continuing my 90’s edutainment fix, I had to look at Oregon Trail. If you grew up in the late 80’s-early 90’s like I did, you likely remember being traumatized by it. You know, “Your Classmate’s Name Here has died of dysentery.” while you spun in a circle shooting 10 buffalo and could only bring 200 pounds of meat back to the wagon.
I remember playing that early version in school but the deluxe version at home that came on a CD that had sound effects, voiceovers, and actual recorded music that played in the towns. The DOS version I dug up of Oregon Trail didn't have those things, or some of the features I recalled like pictures of the bad conditions of your party or the trail and losing meat to spoilage. But to me it seemed too passive to be much of a game despite these aesthetic improvements and once you got a hang of it, the challenge just dissipated and it got boring.
Then I remembered that I had the sequel in middle school. It wasn't just a sequel though: it took the basic principle of Oregon Trail and expanded it, offering more choices. Compared to the early versions, it wasn't just an improvement or continuation. It sure as hell wasn't a reskin. Oregon Trail II was an enormous overhaul. It had a PhD in American history assist the game designer to really flesh out day-to-day life in the emigrant era and the player was presented with a gazillion more choices. You didn't have to leave from Independence and go to the Willamette Valley: they were still options but you could leave from different Midwestern towns and go to Nevada and California with the possible destinations even depending on the year you choose to stay consistent with historical accuracy. But that's not all! You could choose the paths to take on the trail, how to deal with harsh weather conditions, strangers approaching you, and curing ailments.
Still with the dysentery, though.
I managed to find a CD of the fifth version of the game that was similar to the second at Ollie’s Bargain Basement on a weekend trip with my folks. The latter had a real soundtrack but the fifth edition let you pick wild fruit and veg. I was glad I got to relive it even if I was laughing out loud at the full motion video aspects. They were in EVERYTHING in 1995. Nevertheless, I thought about the power of decision-making in games and how it needs to have the right balance: a totally passive experience frequently falls flat but you also don't want to utterly overwhelm the player.
I played through Amazon Trail next. It had some design flaws and wasn’t as visually appealing as I remember, but despite the linear trail you had to take similar to the original Oregon Trail you were able to explore more and got a higher score if you identified more animals and plants, and talked to people at each destination. In furthering my deep affinity for amphibians, seeing this little guy for the first time in over 20 years made me squee.
Stromboli Frog! I hope #indietoad doesn't get jealous.
I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly keen on the possibility of donning fifty pounds of mosquito net and braving the harsh waters of the Amazon in search of cinchona, but it fueled my love of adventure no less.
Gemini Rue: I had already played the game when it came out and there isn’t a whole lot I can say that hasn’t already been said by countless game critics. I kept gravitating to the same choices giving me the same ending I got the first playthrough.
No less, I first played it when I was going through a pretty rough and lonely time of my life. The game has such a gritty atmosphere that is easy to get drawn into. The dystopian setting and captivating soundtrack intensify that feeling of being totally alone, and not to give away spoilers if you haven’t played it yet but the whole idea of Azrael looking for his brother and what the truth turned out to be made me feel the way I did upon realizing how little blood family I have left. That we indeed have to make the best of what life gives us and what we’re presented with may not be all it seems. The reflection it lent made me glad I opened it up again.
A feeling I'm not wholly unfamiliar with.
Coming Out Simulator 2014: I first heard about Coming Out Simulator when I was reading Deirdra Kiai's account of GDC 2015 and feelings of impostor syndrome, which made me feel less alone as I had my first GDC this year and had been a little overwhelmed with the same feelings. Having an appreciation for socially conscious games, I decided to check it out.
There's complexity in the simplicity of the interface and dialog style.
In the ten minutes or so that it took me to do my first playthrough, I found myself sitting at my desk with my jaw dropped and slow clapping despite my only company being my toad. Being a straight woman who grew up at a time when cell phones were only just starting to hit the mass market, I wouldn't know what it's like to come out to your parents and have to worry about your texts being found. But the way that this incredibly personal story was framed blew my mind and the execution was so simple yet left me utterly jarred.
I'd honestly have to say I'd be hard-pressed to find a game that had a "real" development budget floor me the way Coming Out Simulator did. I am glad it was made and it further inspired me to say things that need to be said.
The Sea Will Claim Everything: A point-and-click game with a stunning soundtrack and hand-drawn graphics and HUGE emphasis on exploration. So, so much to click! Wealth disparity and the impacts of widespread greed are major themes of this game and it tells you upfront. Having had my own experiences watching unfettered capitalism destroy the world and the disturbing things I witnessed when I worked in the financial industry, the game felt a little meta to me in that sense. It also made me really think.
Lizards deliver some pretty harsh messages in this game.
Not just as a game designer but as a human. Even though TSWCE is framed in the Greek economic crises per Jonas Kyratzes’ postmortem of the game, enough of these principles easily apply to the American economic landslide. And per the sequence towards the end, yes, some day the sea will claim everything. What use is amassing then squabbling over mounds of money when we're all going to die one day? HOW much money can one person really spend in a lifetime, especially at the expense of virtually everyone else? Is that actually a society?
I can't speak for Greek society or the dev's experience living “transculturally”, but I can speak for the American values that I take issue with. We are judged for how much money we make and if what we do to pay our bills is actually worthy of respect. Our worth as human beings is judged by our net worth: what bullshit. The industry I felt I wasted several years of my youth in had turned into this race to the bottom that didn't give me the security I was promised. It only briefly gave me major economic gain, but the respect I got for what I did was astounding given how little I was paid on a few of the gigs I had held.
No less, I figured if I'm going to struggle anyway I might as well do what I love. After I lost my last tax law job, I decided to pursue self-employment in the games industry both as a developer and a consultant full-time because I knew I couldn't turn back. Reading Kyratzes' blogs and the story behind the game brought me to tears because of how much I identified with his story.
This game reminded me of why I made that choice and why I will defend it despite the barrage of "you shouldn't do this" screeds from haters that I received. And that I couldn’t have been happier to use my knowledge of the business world to help other game developers and creatives go their own way, rather than yet another firm who will want to suck up my skills and knowledge just to lay me off in six months or tell me they want to give me pennies instead of something I can actually pay my rent with. TSWCE blatantly told the world what happens when too much of a resource-- money, knowledge, what have you-- is relentlessly hoarded. I remembered what I fought against and why I'm doing what I'm doing now.
I wouldn't have had these intense realizations about what I was doing with my life, and how I wanted to design the games and flesh out the ideas bouncing around in my head, if I didn't make time to play a bit. So there you have it. Even if you can’t have the long evening of gaming you envisioned, this is why it’s good to sit down for just 10-20 minutes to yourself and remember why you wanted to make games in the first place. Be inspired by something new, or remember why a game previously inspired you: not just as a game dev but also in life.