Learning From Failure

Learning From Failure
The Game That Ate the Earth

Jonas Kyratzes | 21 Dec 2010 12:35
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I poured my life into Phenomenon 32. I worked 10 hours a day, every day. On some days it felt like a religious experience, on others like the worst torture imaginable. I began losing perspective. When you have to restart the program twenty times to do any major changes, anything that doesn't actually stop the game from working seems too insignificant to think about. The control scheme still uses the weird random buttons you chose when you made the first test? Oh, players will get used to it. Special technologies the players can reconstruct by collecting data containers are spread around the map in a way that makes half of them available only five seconds before the endgame, and therefore basically useless? Redistributing the objects would drive you mad, so better just leave them where they are. Collision detection on the ship and the terrain is so precise it creates an accidental half-functional wall climbing ability? Why, that's a feature! Besides, all this is trivial when you're trying to figure out why Construct insists on making some of your creatures walk into walls when others apparently have the wisdom to turn. (Hint: even the greatest pre-1.0 software is likely to have bugs, moron.)

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When I first tried to release the game, it turned out there were game-stopping bugs that only showed up on some computers. The saving system had to be replaced completely. The resource requirements for research needed recalculating (see how that worked out?). It was a mess.

More work followed. I shudder to think about all those months, all that frustration and hope. Game development is almost certainly the hardest of all art forms.

The journey fits the destination. Phenomenon 32 is the strangest game I've ever made. Like the world it portrays, it's hard as hell, complex, huge, and unstable. Some people can't get it to start; others lose their saves halfway through; still others finish it without a single crash. It has grace and terror in equal amounts.

Initial reaction to Phenomenon 32 was catastrophically negative. The game was too hard, too confusing, too unstable. I was arrogant for making the file size so big. Who releases a game with voice acting, anyway? I got hate mail.

Eventually, the game started finding its audience. Players explored the empty cities, observed the strange creatures, and went on a long and strange journey. They discovered the amazing work done by the actors involved, and the hours of music by B.L. Underwood, and the reason I chose to do the graphics as I did. Positive reviews appeared. Some praised the game as the best indie game of 2010. Most never heard of it. I continued getting hate mail. Life went on.

Phenomenon 32 was not the hit I'd hoped it would be. My next game was a Flash remake of an older game of mine called The Infinite Ocean, and it got more plays in its first half hour on the internet than Phenomenon 32 has gotten in its entire existence. How's that for perspective? In time, Phenomenon 32 did open new doors for me, but first it broke my heart and ripped out my guts. It sits there now, waiting for future patches, and I don't know what to think about it.

I love it. I hate it. It's a masterwork. It's a disaster. It's life, I suppose.

But one day ... one day I will go back.

Jonas Kyratzes is a writer, director and independent game designer. When he's not working, he plots with a small black feline and rides the solar wind. He also has a website (http://www.jonas-kyratzes.net), but it smells of mushrooms.

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