Archive for February 28th, 2011

Follow-Up: Time + Hard Work != Great Game

2011 Feb 28

As a sidenote to my post from last night…

This is about also needing the spark.

I had about a 4-5 month break between when I stopped working at my last job and starting grad school. During that time, aside from a little freelance graphic design work, I had nothing on my plate except finishing Geiger Counter. And yet, it didn’t get finished, despite me trekking to Starbucks multiple times a week and spending 3-5 hours on it.

Sometimes, what’s wrong with the game isn’t something you can fix right now. Maybe you won’t be able to fix it ever. Or maybe you’re just not in a place where you can really work on it. Time and hard work isn’t a substitute for the insight and energy that you may need in order to move forward on a project and people come to their insight in different ways. For me, it almost always happens when I’m doing something else — walking the dog, doing dishes, in the shower, playing a game written by somebody else, or working on a game idea supposedly unrelated to the other one.

But, during those 4-5 months, I was so stressed out about finishing Geiger Counter that I wasn’t really open to those moments. Or I was depressed or anxious about the other crap in my life, and music was a much better creative outlet that game design was, at least for that period. In any event, the insight didn’t come. Geiger Counter still had a number of issues and I wasn’t in a position or state of mind to address them.

I was just chatting with Elizabeth and she was saying that the important part is combining the insight with time to work on it. Sometimes the insight, the spark that gives you the ideas and energy to move forward, comes when you’re too busy with day-to-day life stuff to take advantage of it. That sucks. But then other times you have the time set aside but the spark isn’t there, at least not for the project you’re “supposed” to be working on. That sucks too, maybe, but not nearly as bad. You still have the time set aside, right? Doing something else with it, something that excites you right now or something that connects you to the people you care about. Those are the very things that throw fuel on the fire, that nurture the spark.

And then hopefully you’ll be ready when it strikes again.

Design However Makes You Happiest

2011 Feb 28

I was really trying to stay out of the kerfuffle that Ben started on Anyway, partially because it seemed like the indie game design community’s annual excuse to talk about all the things that annoy us about the way other designers go about their business (or don’t).

But then Ron weighed in, bringing up the supposed “failure” of the community to properly support (or, maybe, according to Ron, stay out of the way of) the Ashcan Front. And that Game Chef has supposedly turned into something alien from its original, true purpose — when, frankly, Ron doesn’t get to decide what the purpose was since he’s never been part of it and, also frankly, has broken the rules he instituted for Game Chef (“only once a year at the Forge, to not be a distraction”) in order to run a design contest he named after himself. I mean, I love Ron, but really.

When it comes down to it, nobody else really knows how you should design games, because nobody else really knows why you are designing games in the first place. Maybe you don’t know either. Sometimes I’m not sure why I design games and lately I’ve tried to get better at, when I have those doubts, putting the game aside and doing something else. Other times, for specific projects, I know exactly why I’m doing it, and it isn’t to finish or publish a game; generally, it’s to realize an idea in words and diagrams and eventually play it with friends. Sometimes it takes me several fits-and-starts or years of slow progress to do that. I have other, more important things happening in my life! Sometimes it involves producing a lot of ideas that never go anywhere, just to see which ones stick and blossom. I sometimes feel guilty that a lot of promising ideas don’t turn into anything, but less and less, really. There are so many fun new things to think about! Why limit yourself to old ideas?

Some of Ben’s comments — and some of the other stuff coming out of this brew — seem to stem from this idea that finishing or publishing games is still the ultimate ideal. And that getting social status from “being a game designer” and infinitely being in the process of “working on a game” is usurping that goal. Maybe. But the Forge “publish or perish” model of social status had a ton of problems too. Maybe taking the emphasis off of publishing and allowing folks to just design without any sort of fixed outcome in mind is okay. Maybe we need that. I know I certainly needed that and I have been much happier and more productive in both my design and play since I gave up the idea that I had to publish a game in order to get respect and attention. But now, choosing to do a bunch of casual design work without a serious intent to publish is pandering for social status? Give me a break. Apparently one designer’s attempt to escape social status games is another’s descent into status posturing.

If I have any wisdom to share with other designers — anything that’s universal and not particular to my own situation — it’s design however makes you happiest.

For me, it’s often putting together one-shot experiments or hacking existing games to play with folks at indie meetups like JiffyCon and GoPlay NW. That kind of design work is never going to accomplish anything big, but it’s what’s giving me the most pleasure right now, even though I only get to see the fruits of that design once or twice a year. But hacking and scenario/campaign design is still design work, just a different kind that gets less attention and status. I’m also enjoying just playing games that I like a lot — allow me to recommend Apocalypse World and Castle Ravenloft — and doing some minor hacking of them. Why should I care about finishing a game when there are so many fun ones out there? Mine is fun too, but I’ll get to it eventually, even if it takes me another 5 years. Is this lazy design? Sure. But it’s fun, makes me happy, and lets me ignore a lot of bullshit in the indie community because it has nothing to do with what I’m doing or what I want.

When I see people complaining about the nature of relations or social status games in the community, I can only assume that they’re in a place where they’re really unhappy with something. Honestly, in my mind, yeah there are annoyances (I get annoyed about grad school too!), but there are also plenty of great, smart, open, giving people that you can talk, design, and play with both on the internet and in person. And I’d rather focus on interacting with them and on all the design and play that excites me and makes me happy rather than the negative stuff that I can’t control. What are other people even doing, design-wise? I’m not sure I could tell you except for the folks who submit to Game Chef (which is a fair number), the folks I follow locally (Sage, Harper, Jackson, etc.), and the games that I’ve played recently. So I don’t feel like I’m in a position to tell other folks what to do.

Even if I was! I mean, I read Sage’s twitter posts about being worried that his games aren’t good enough and I see myself a few years back when I felt guilty about Geiger Counter not being done and how I was secretly a failure and everybody was disappointed in me for not living up to my true potential as ground-breaking indie game designer. But that’s just me projecting! I don’t know, really, why Sage is designing games or what kind of approach or relationship to design (as a hobby) is going to make him happy. Maybe he would be horribly frustrated by the approach that is currently making me happiest. If he’s ultimately going to feel good about himself as a designer — or whatever type, with whatever publications — he’s going to have to get there himself, just like I’ll have to eventually get there myself (really, where I’m at now is better, but not quite there). I will be as supportive as possible, of course, and I hope other folks will support me when I’m feeling terrible about things, but I can’t really figure out what’s making other designers unhappy and help them get to a better place.

In any event, that’s the hedonistic approach to design that I’m advocating right now, mostly because design was making me really unhappy during certain periods before, even after I left the Forge. It’s not always a moment-to-moment hedonism, looking for a quick fix, since sometimes you have to put your chin down and work hard in order to get a better result later. But it involves paying attention to the interactions and practices that are actively making me unhappy and trying to avoid or change them, relieving stress and making sure that I have a healthy relationship with something that’s supposed to be an enjoyable hobby, not just a separate set of social responsibilities to drag me down.

P.S. How old were Ron and Vincent when they published their first games? Yeah, I’m not there yet and still feel like I’m learning how to do this. There’s plenty of time left.