I’ve noticed there’s this image out there among the general populace that videogame developers are all super-mega gamer dudes who go into work to mainline some form of Xbox ecstasy through an IV drip at their desk. Funnest job in the world. You get to play awesome games all day, hang out with your friends, dissect your latest sniper headshot in gory detail to a rapt audience and get paid for it all.
Sorry. I’m here to tell you that particular cake is a lie. Making games is not fun. (Except when it is.) Making games is a special kind of torture from which sane men run. I just got out of a 3.5-hour meeting full of programmers who look like zombies from lack of sleep. Nobody there was having fun. (Except for about 10 minutes near the end.) This was not an unusual day. Grueling marathon meetings are pretty much par for the course.
Designer Dan Cook (owner of game design website Lostgarden.com, who is currently working on new versions of his games Steambirds and Bunni) describes it like this: “I come from an art background, so I use the painting metaphor. Anyone can look at a painting and instantly give their opinion on why they love it or hate it. But it is a completely different skill to stand at a blank canvas and then spend hundreds of hours fiddling with brushes and colors and lines and form to create the painting. Can you compare a trip to the museum to endless nights spent alone in a cramped closet of an attic studio passionately pursuing a labor of love? Viewing is nothing like painting. It is at best one tiny component of a craft and art that requires decades of practice and dedication. Worth thinking about when someone says that they might be good developing games because they like playing them.”
It’s not just the meetings. When you’re free of the hostage situation of endless staff check-ins, you’ve got your head down, face buried in your keyboard (or your fancy tablet thingy if you’re an artist), trying to produce just the right material for the deadline looming way too close. The pressure to be innovative, creative and clever – while not being so over-the-top your players get lost – never ends. You’re required to sit down in that chair and generate magic out of nothing. “Get to it, you’re holding up the entire process. Come on. We need a good Metacritic score or we’re not getting bonuses this year.” That slowly blinking curser on a blank screen can feel like the countdown on a bomb that you have to defuse.
Being creative on a deadline can be hell. Plus, you have to work with all these other people. The inner workings of games are kind of complicated and often require a group of specialists to work together on common goals. This is easier said than done when most of the specialists (including yourself) are geeks with stunted social skills. “Please,” “Thank you,” and even eye contact can be too much for some of us. We interrupt each other constantly, go off on tangents, monopolize the floor. It’s like a case study on how to communicate ineffectively.
And when the group has managed to pull a new game out of thin air and sit down and play it for the first time – 99 percent of the time it’s no fun at all. Think of it this way: For any given game there are a finite number of things that are fun and also within budget. However, there are an infinite number of things that are NOT fun and also within budget. So the result is that anyone creating a game will spend the majority of their time having no fun at all as they hunt for those few, special things that are both fun and possible to pull off with the resources at hand.
You know when you’re playing a videogame and you get to a section that you just can’t figure out? You get stuck in some ridiculous place and just keep dying over and over and over again until you throw your controller at the wall and stomp out? Yeah, that’s a feeling to which most gamers can relate.
Well, that’s what it feels like to make videogames. You have a general idea of where you’re supposed to be headed with this project, but you don’t know exactly how to get there. You try a few different things, hoping this time it will work. Hoping this time it will meet specs. This time it will integrate seamlessly with the other systems. This time it will be fun. No? Back to the drawing board.
Game developers are those people who are so stubborn they won’t quit until they’ve beaten the challenge into submission and stomped on its grave. Just when one impossible feat has been successfully performed, it’s time to move on to the next one.
This is the only way to get the job done. A videogame is made up of a hundred million tiny little things. Each one of those things has to be planned, created, synched up, tested, fixed, and tested again (and fixed, and tested, and fixed … ).
Freelance game designer and professor of game design Ian Schreiber says, “I tell my students a lot of things, mostly horror stories of the dark side of the industry that they might not have been aware of. The EA_spouse letter is required reading. I show them salary comparisons so they understand that they’re working longer hours for less pay than they would if they used the same exact skills in some other industry (advertising, or enterprise software, or whatever). One time, one of my students approached me after class and [asked] ‘So … what’s the good news?’
‘You get to make games, and you get to work with other awesome people who also want to make games. But that’s it. That has to be enough for you. And if it is, then it’s the greatest job in the world. And if it isn’t, then listen to your Uncle Frank who told you to go into marketing, because you’ll be a lot happier there.'”
Why do people put themselves through this kind of agony? Remember that gamer moment when you’re smashing the controller and walking out. What happens after that? You cool down a bit, come back to the game, fail a few more times and then, BAM! Everything works perfectly and you sail past the difficult spot into the next section of the game. That euphoria, that triumph, that king-of-the-hill moment – that’s why we do this for a living.
Those last ten minutes of that 3.5-hour meeting? What a high. We got it. Everything clicked into place. We had chills run down our backs as we collectively realized that the proposed solution could truly work. There were fists in the air, offers to buy the genius (not me) a congratulatory dinner, and a scuffle to get it down on paper while it was fresh. Those are the moments that keep us going. That’s the drug we’re constantly seeking. It’s the thrill of problem solving.
Game design consultant and theorist Stéphane Bura says, “I make videogames because it’s a unique artistic medium, with unique challenges. You don’t make an object, you create the seed of an experience, for someone else to plant, nurture and enjoy.”
Harmonix’s Jason Booth says, “I create amazing shit, and it changes the way people see themselves and the world around them. You can’t beat that. This year we’ll ship Rock Band 3 with its Pro-Guitar mode – a feature I designed and prototyped – and hopefully a million kids will learn to play guitar because of it. That’s fucking awesome.”
So in a way we do spend our days playing a game – but it’s a brutal puzzle adventure where the rules keep changing and the variables never hold still. Those breathtaking moments don’t happen every day, and they don’t always happen when you need them. Sometimes you have to force your way to the end of a project, just so you can move on to the next one. It’s not pretty. And it’s not fun.
As Central Clancy Writer at Red Storm, Richard Dansky, says, “I have no idea why I make games. I just know that I can’t not make them.”
When you do get a chance to sit down and play a game that someone else made, you find that the experience is not what you thought it would be. You’re dissecting the elements as you play, figuring out how they got their cloth to look like that, wondering what happens if you wander off the path. It’s hard to get immersed in a game when all you see are the bits that went together to make it work. Only a real masterpiece can make you forget about dissecting the experience into its component parts.
Game devs think back wistfully to those days before they became a creator and could dive headlong into truly just playing a videogame. They talk about games that came out before they took their first computer class like those days are gone forever. They know, even if they change careers, that they will still know how the magic tricks are done. They’ve seen things they can’t unsee.
When their own videogames hit the market and the game developer ventures out to visit their baby on the shelf in its pretty packaging, more often than not they’re met with – not recognition or congratulations from fans – but criticism, snide remarks and disdain. The press is fickle. The public is just brutal. Message boards are a minefield.
Sure, you celebrate the launching of your latest game quietly with friends and fellow developers, but it’s short-lived. It’s not the decadent lifestyle that we game creators are imagined to lead. Instead, when we get together, we huddle in groups, commiserating with each other about this terrible ailment we’ve been mutually afflicted with. This need to make games.
We don’t do it because it’s fun. We do it because we can’t not do it. It’s how we’re programmed. With all the ups and downs, all the frustrations and triumphs, the life of a game developer is haunted by that misunderstanding we see in the eyes of our friends and family who assume we spend all day having fun. I’m sorry. You’re wrong. Making games is not fun.
Though there are some days when it’s positively exhilarating.
Wendy Despain is such a geek she stopped this article when it reached 1337 words. She’s a game writer and designer working on a contract basis with developers all over the world. She finds they’re all similarly afflicted with this drive to express themselves in an interactive way.