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4. Getting a computer science degree while making a commercial console game
My brother Paul started programming commercial games for our company during his first semester of college. He didn't have any significant programming experience, he just knew that he loved games and computers. In fact, he coded our first game, Cash Cow, at the same time he was learning that functions could return values. Before that it was all global variables and static arrays!
Handling a full course load while programming a commercial console game was certainly a tall order. He would have had plenty of work with just school or just MadStone. Effectively scheduling his time to manage both undertakings was a test of his focus and willpower.
The secret to Paul's impressive dedication is very simple: he loves spending his time making games more than anything else.
A lot of people think they want to make games, but very few understand the dedication and endurance that game development requires. After the initial excitement of a project wears off, you are in for months or years of hard work with no light at the end of the tunnel. You've got to love making games enough that you are enthusiastic about developing them even when there's no end, or money, in sight.
I'm really proud of my brother. He took his passion for playing games and transformed it into both a 4.0 GPA and a record of well-designed and elegantly coded commercial titles. He sets a fine example for the kind of mindset that independent developers need to succeed.
The Lesson: Game development is a career that many aspire to, but few understand. You should absolutely love creating games or choose something easier!
5. Being nice, even when we didn't feel like it
News that MadStone was in development leaked out unexpectedly one day. We had a small announcement on our site, two screenshots and a short video. But since we had virtually no traffic, I didn't expect it to be noticed.
The response to the first bit of media coverage was somewhat hostile. Mostly, blog commentators seemed to ignore the specifics of the game and focused on the fact that WiiWare was getting "yet another puzzle game." However, nothing was off limits, and the music, gameplay, and graphics were also met with criticism.
A selection of MadStone blog comments on wiiware-world.com
My first instinct was to defend ourselves against the criticism. Then, after I'd cooled down, I thought maybe it would be better to shake it off and ignore it.
Ultimately though, we decided that we'd participate. We'd introduced ourselves to readers and responded to their comments. Rather than outwardly defend ourselves, we explained our goals and let them judge for themselves whether they were interested. We thanked them for their feedback and left lots of smiley faces!
Forcing ourselves to befriend a tough audience paid off immediately. Comments on blogs instantly went from dismissive negativity to genuine interest and support. We started receiving fan letters. Editors of sites emailed us to thank us for our participation. They requested exclusive interviews and previews. In general, I think players were happy to have the chance to interact with a real game developer.
There's no way of knowing for sure, but I think a significant number of MadStone's early sales come from the sites where we were able to actively engage with readers.
The Lesson: The online community can make or break your game. Participate, answer their questions, accept their criticism, and most importantly, be honest and real.
1. Assuming we could make a block-based puzzler stand out from the crowd
Our casual games for PC were both modestly innovative puzzle games. They took familiar themes, mostly centered around matching, and gave them just enough of a twist to make them interesting and somewhat successful.
Cash Cow, our first casual game
Because we were very familiar with puzzle games, we felt that making another puzzler for WiiWare was the right choice for our team. We thought that we could add enough of a twist to make the game unique and exciting.
Choosing to make a falling block puzzle game was a serious mistake.
When we announced MadStone, gamers' reactions were dismissive. As I mentioned earlier, many of the blog comments and forum posts that we read focused on the fact that we were releasing "yet another puzzler." There was very little interest in the specifics of our game.
Obviously I was disheartened by a lot of the feedback we got. We'd worked hard at giving MadStone an interesting mechanic and unique aesthetics. Don't people love games like Tetris Attack, Meteos, and Lumines?
Of course they do. The problem is, in the last few years we've been absolutely inundated by matching and falling block puzzle games. There are hundreds of these games available for download on casual gaming portals. Many are offered free as Flash games.
It's no wonder that players uttered a collective "meh" when they read about MadStone. No matter how interesting it was within its genre, it was still a falling block puzzle game. We did our absolute best to make it stand out, but the sad fact is that the world has already seen our game many, many, times in other forms. Players like to be surprised and excited. Standard puzzle games can't do that anymore. Looking back, I understand that MadStone's fate was sealed the moment it was conceived.
The Lesson: Choose a theme and genre that will get people's attention. If you saw your game announced on a blog, would you be excited?