Let me walk you through the process of making a game:
1) First, you get an idea. It can come from various places: Perhaps you’re inspired by the mechanics of an existing game, or maybe you had an impressionistic or visceral reaction to a particularly good song. It’s all clear to me now! you think. Best get to work – after all, no one is going to make your game for you.
2) You open your copy of Game Maker and imagine everything coming together. Your mind juggles around commands and variables as you try to create a puzzle worth solving. During a dreadfully boring high school math class or college lecture, you doodle some character art in your notes, which you later scan and make into a few sprites. Next, it’s time to find some sound effects and maybe even a music track under Creative Commons. Things are coming together. The game will be finished in no time!
3) Then comes the final and most important step in this process: You lose hope and give up.
Congratulations, you are now a bona fide indie game developer!
This unfortunate pattern has only gained momentum over the past few years. For some, game design might be an authentic calling. They have a mind for ideas and simply cannot rest until one brainchild runs free. Others may have illusions of grandeur, looking at the success of recent titles like Braid and seeing indie classics like Cave Story and La-Mulana ported onto consoles. Either way, these poor souls are being lured into a deep sandpit from which practically everyone emerges emotionally drained, with entire weeks of time wasted and a plethora of regrets that may linger for years to come. I’m talking, of course, about online indie game design forums.
Once offering a quiet but productive atmosphere for novice designers to hone their ideas, these forums have devolved into grim and ineffective emergency rooms whose influx of patients all suffer from the same delusion: that they’re only one good game away from both indie credibility and mainstream success. Like any place where creatives of all rank and status linger, discussions are hemmed by unwritten rules and faux-sympathies. Other developers may feel at home with you because they are in the same position with their works-in-progress. But they also know your game has a 1-in-100 chance of completion just like theirs, and another 1-in-100 chance of actually being worth playing. Soon, your laboriously written code needs to be complemented with things like art and music, and if you don’t have the hand for either, you’ll be shunned for even asking for help.
That’s when it hits you: You put yourself in game development hell, and everyone else is glad you joined them.
This trend is partly a product of new, more user-friendly software. As the coding and programming aspects of game making has become lighter and more simplified, the age group of people who want to try their hand at game design has gotten younger and younger. Some would-be developers have hardly even graduated from elementary school. And as the barrier to entry into indie game design has fallen, so too has the level of discourse in the online communities dedicated to it. What can start off as a seasoned programmer offering constructive advice to a novice might devolve into a defensive flame war. When that happens, the chance of the project reaching completion plummets – hopefully without the child’s self esteem.
Then there’s the older members’ purposefully blurred line between constructive criticism and hazing the new, clearly younger members. Knowing the new guys won’t listen to any bluntly given advice, veterans adopt sarcasm and passive-aggression to nail gathered axioms through the heart of any naive spirit. Moderators are torn over this: It brings community morale down and scares away new blood, but it can also be regarded as an educational rite of passage. A lot of the seemingly basic things one expects in a game are not ingrained knowledge. Much of it has to be learned, unlearned and learned again.
Like most art, there isn’t any clear definition on how to make a 100-percent enjoyable level design/game engine while not being formulaic or derivative. There are just examples of what not to do, and oftentimes the only way to create a desirable product is to get called out on your mistakes. How else is an aspiring game designer going to realize that filling a game with obtuse references to Naruto is not, by any means, making him look cool? Or that a giant square box with a patch of grass does not equate to a “grassland” tutorial level? Or that putting a lot of trees on that same map in no particular order does not make it a forest?
What to do? Let the inmates run the asylum? Or use discipline to normalize what little output there may be? Don’t worry if you can’t decide. To the rest of us curious onlookers, this is just another form of twisted entertainment, a distraction from the fact that those three games you started months ago still aren’t finished. Go on, laugh! At least you’re better than that poor sap.
This mentality gets old fast. Sooner or later, it turns into a bunch of cold comments and ironically placed “lols” where you didn’t actually laugh. It’s no longer about game design. It’s no longer about finding the proper balance between story and gameplay. It’s no longer about how best to learn new code and what programming languages are the best for making engines. All that was thrown out the window long ago. Today’s “constructive criticism” is nothing more than looking at a preview of some hero character’s sprites and saying “What the hell is wrong with his head? Hats do not work that way!”
This is terrible, but somehow this is still all we have. The youngsters among us often can’t relay these troubles to their parents, since they’re usually biased to view games as a distraction from schoolwork. And those in the working world can’t exactly bring up their attempts at game design with their coworkers. Even other gamers aren’t necessarily the best company; they’re on the consumer end and might not care about how it all comes together. There are no therapists in independent game design. Even if you do make loads of good friends in a design community, any utterance of “I just got an idea” will still result in a chorus of skepticism and indifference.
It’s strange. Being a bedroom developer used to be considered a noble pursuit; something highly respectable, if not a little geeky. It meant you were one of the few who devoted time to working with a new medium of entertainment instead of watching the old ones grow stagnant. It meant taking the foundations of math and logic and making – of all things – art!
Whatever happened to that?
None of this is a new social phenomenon, of course. When the invention of the printing press made literacy more prevalent, the number of would-be novelists grew. And once Eastman Kodak invented 16mm film as a cost-effective alternative to the standard 35mm variety, it didn’t take long for the amateur filmmaking community to exponentially grow in size. Each industry suffered big growing pains in the process.
The problem with the expansion of independent game development is that the innovative new software gives the power of game design to the individual, ignoring how much of game production is a group activity. Making a game requires more than just a coder. The first lesson any designer learns is just how little he or she can do on their own.
Indie game development forums teach the next important lesson to amateur designers: The internet may bring people together, but only at arm’s length. Production teams formed online simply won’t be as responsible as a team which meets in person once a week. There are software applications like Tortoise SVN that may make online collaboration easier, but that changes little in practice. No matter how many instant messaging windows you have open, you’re still alone in front of your computer screen. If your art director is having trouble keeping up with school, or your debug lead has too many family commitments to juggle, you’re on your own. Entire oceans might separate you.
The odds are stacked against us. Yet we continue on this maddening path, despite the consequences. After all, if there really is such a thing as an “everyday developer,” it isn’t someone who works in a multimedia lab, much less someone who gets paid for it. Everyday developers are people like us, fumbling through game design one command line at a time.
Bradley Campbell is a web designer and film student. He became entrenched in game design through experimentation and various debts of honor. Maybe someday he’ll stop releasing tech demos and give out the full thing.