I was almost a world-famous game designer.

Well, world famous might be a bit of a stretch. “Certain-parts-of-the-Internet” famous might be more accurate. And I didn’t really design a whole game, I just designed some files that modified an existing game. Also, none of my modifications were ever released to the public.

Like I said: “almost.”

Maybe I should start at the beginning.

Like many budding game designers, I was driven by a deep dissatisfaction with an existing game. The game was Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) and the dissatisfaction belonged to some of my friends. I was perfectly satisfied with the game, pulling out my thick foam dance mats and stomping to the beat every chance I got. I had even hooked some of my friends, pushing them past the “This looks totally stupid” stage to the beginning dancer’s “the arrows are going too fast” stage and finally to the pre-acceptance stage of “I’m kind of getting the hang of this.”

At this point, some of my friends rammed headlong into the “I just don’t like this weird music” stage. Alas, some of my companions did not share my love for high-energy Japanese pop music. And while Konami has recently gotten better about including songs more palatable to American tastes, in the heady days of my youth (a.k.a. three years ago) playing Dance Dance Revolution meant dancing mainly to some truly saccharine Asian beats. “You know what would be cool?” my friends would ask rhetorically. “If you could put in your own music and make arrows for that.”

So I was understandably excited to find Dance With Intesity (DWI), a freeware version of DDR for the PC that lets you design your own dance steps and, more importantly, use your own MP3 songs as the background for your flailing. No more complaints about the weird Japanese pop – now any song in my library could be part of my favorite dance game with just a little bit of work. How hard could it be?

The answer, it turned out, was “plenty hard.” The first hurdle was simply getting the program to work, which required setting up a complicated hierarchy of folders and settings that tested my patience even before I got to any actual designing. This also required downloading a companion program called Xstep, which allowed me to edit steps without masochistically hacking around in gibberish-laden text files.

Once I actually put pen to paper, as it were, I realized that getting the beats in my head to show up on the screen was much harder than I had anticipated. I could tap out a decent, interesting rhythm as I listened to a song, but I was at a loss to transfer that timing to Xstep’s simple static grid. It was a long process of trial and error to get the steps to show up exactly the way I had imagined them, and by that point I was usually dissatisfied with the results anyway.

After putzing around for a few days, I had pretty much given up my hopes of converting my friends to DDR through an improved song selection. The hours of work required to create even one halfway decent set of steps was too daunting, and producing songs en masse would require giving up large chunks of my free time. I was not very inclined to invest this time, especially given the bewildered looks I got when I told some people I was now creating DDR steps for my own songs (others were more supportive – a few of my friends became DWI tinkerers as well).

I was about ready to go back to being just another DDR fan when I happened to stumble upon Tournamix, a regular competition put on by a web site called DDR East Invasion. Tournamix allows people from around the world to submit their best step files for judging by a panel of DWI experts and the site’s visitors. When I discovered it, they were taking entries for the fourth competition.

This was a dedicated community of step designers who had gotten way past the tinkering stage in which I was currently mired. They devoted a great deal of their own time and resources to the art of step creation with no reward other than the admiration of their fellow designers. I was inspired by their dedication (and by dreams of Internet stardom), to pick up my keyboard and try my hand.

In preparing for my tournament entry, I knew that the song I chose would be key. I looked over reports from past tournaments and noticed that the chosen songs skewed heavily towards… you guessed it… Japanese pop music. Many of the entries were actually remixes of popular DDR songs (actual DDR songs were prohibited in the rather detailed rules). I knew that I probably couldn’t compete with the old guard in this space, so I looked through my song collection for a candidate that was as different as possible while still being danceable. I settled on Sum 41’s Pain for Pleasure, a short hard rock song with a good driving beat. I sent in my registration by email.

Next came actually making the entry. Over the span of a few weeks I developed a set of steps that slowly built itself up from a simple introduction to a high energy crescendo of activity, much like the song. I studied the steps for other DDR songs on sites like DDRFreak, looking for the patterns and styles that made some songs strong and others fall flat. I even consulted with some of my DDR-obsessed friends, asking them for constructive criticism of my half-formed entry.

Finally, after many hours of painstaking transcription and tedious tweaking, I had a complete file that I felt was good enough to compete. With days to go before the submission deadline, I was ready to put my entry out there for the world to see. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum.

I didn’t submit my entry.

Every day for almost an entire week I would come to my computer determined to put the final touches on my step files and send them off to the judges. Every day I would hesitate, until, finally, the entry deadline passed me by and my career as a step designer was officially over.

Why the hesitation? I think deep down I knew I wasn’t ready to compete with my much more experienced Internet counterparts. Given my lack of experience, the idea of putting my creation out there on the Internet for public ridicule scared me to death. Sure, I knew the people who would see my entry were strangers who I would never have to see again, but the concept of parading my novice work as a professional entry made me feel… odd. It certainly gave me a much greater appreciation for the mod creators who confidently pitch their creations into the Internet ether every day.

But more than my irrational fear of Internet embarrassment, there was a much more irrational fear of Internet success. What if my entry was actually good enough to do well in the competition, earning praise and acceptance from my fellow Internet strangers? The pressure would be on to continue creating steps for other songs, adding my skills to the small and growing community of DWI fanatics that had gathered around this Web site. Of course there would be no one forcing me to do this, but I didn’t trust my inner ego-centrist to let me walk away from something like this.

But I’m probably deluding myself a bit. It takes more than a few weeks plunking away at a keyboard to become an accomplished game designer, even when you’re limited to a palette of four rhythmic arrows. When I consider the hours of effort it took me to create what was, in essence, a relatively simple text file, I think of the hours I didn’t have to spend creating graphics, sounds, and other gameplay elements that go into even the simplest of games today. In the end, I didn’t have the devotion or the determination necessary to even take the first step towards being a game creator.

In the end, I’d rather just dance.

Player-Prompted Paranoia

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