Game Dev's Emotional Journey
The Ride of Your Life
Making games can be a real roller coaster ride. After two decades of working across different sections of the industry, the decision to start a studio and dig deep into design work has brought with it a host of unexpected twists and turns. Fully aware of my extreme privilege to tackle this endeavor in my late 40s, I try to take even the most challenging days in stride. To give you some perspective, here are just a few of the highs and lows I’ve experienced thus far:
Basking in the Big Blue Sky
When building the foundation of what would become Inevitable Studios, I set out to create a few game concepts to test the waters among my inner circle. Part design practice, part recruitment strategy, and part marketing exercise, the development of these concepts consumed me for months. I sought inspiration everywhere, collecting reference imagery, conducting research, creating mock-ups whenever possible. It was highly enjoyable work, and even though a self-imposed deadline to share my results created a modest amount of stress, the freedom to pursue new ideas every day was rejuvenating.
Is There a Tutorial On Rage?
After receiving feedback on the concepts, it was apparent I needed to lead by example and actually prototype the most compelling ideas in-engine. Game engines are both highly capable and extremely complex. Even if you're well-versed in a host of creative software, the learning curve for engines like Unity or Unreal can be daunting. For anyone who's taken the plunge, wrapping one's head around the basics can take considerable time, especially if you're working in a 3D interface for the first time.
Although there are tutorials for almost every facet of development, and guidance is typically only a google search away, you're bound to run into opaque concepts you don't intuitively understand, experience content incompatibility issues, and encounter crippling script errors that bring your creative work to a veritable stand-still. Until working in Unity, I'd never experienced the professional equivalent of wanting to rage quit. But I’ve learned that patience is a virtue, and overcoming seemingly insurmountable problems is all part of the journey.
The Joy of Creation
Contrasting the anger and frustration of technical setbacks, there is a huge tangible upside to learning a game engine. It tends to manifest when your mastery of the basics--and your competency with learning new tools--allows you to confidently tackle the immediate exploration of new ideas. Being able to prototype on a whim seems almost god-like, and it opens up new avenues of creativity that are simply impossible to explore outside of an interactive simulation. I have very fond memories of the creation of moments that surpassed my expectations in how they affected me emotionally, and I especially enjoyed the pride I felt at using the tech to share positive sentiments tangential to my ongoing projects.
Being Precious with Baby
As you invest time into the development of your best ideas, it's highly likely that you'll become defensive of them. Even when your gameplay isn't much fun or your level isn't very pretty, the work you've put in can blind you to its shortcomings. It is your child after all.
Overcoming technical hurdles can also inflate the value of your work, making you defensive when fielding feedback ("you don't know how long this took me!") and preventing you from acting on great advice ("that addition to the mechanic would take way too much time without more code help.").
It's important to step away and see your game for what it is, as opposed to how hard you've worked to create it. Development is a very long road, and I have to constantly remind myself that it is absolutely critical that I avoid servicing my pride when I should be servicing the project.
Adrift and Overwhelmed
As you gain momentum on any project, the areas requiring actual work increase dramatically. Your gameplay-focused prototype gives way to actual levels that require polished visuals, UI, UX, animation, physics, optimization, particle effects, lighting, terrain refinements, AI behaviors, etc.
Many of these elements affect one another, and all of them have an impact on performance, flow, and moment-to-moment gratification.
Whether you're running solo or have a small team, juggling every aspect of development can quickly overwhelm you.
When you add business responsibilities, marketing, community, and pitch preparation to the mix, your bandwidth can become paper thin, and stress can replace whatever joy you once felt as a developer. Worse yet, being pulled in so many different directions can make accomplishing anything of note seem practically impossible.
Compiling Brings Clarity
Fortunately, juggling is an art-form, and anyone persistent enough to chase game development as a career is likely resilient enough to see things through and find the help they need to better manage their countless tasks.
When things click, the combining of so many dynamic elements into a single cohesive experience can be absolutely intoxicating.
Having a working build that delivers on fun factor and visual fidelity is such a rush--and it also serves as a tangible representation of all the hard work that's gone into the project up until that point. I’ve found that conducting internal reviews and external playtests will organically create a roadmap for what to address next, bringing confidence and clarity to the equation.
Imposter Syndrome Sets In
With a number of design unknowns having turned into wins and the project humming along, you inevitably start letting the darkness creep in: "What am I doing pretending to make a game that people actually want? I am living a lie and everyone must be too polite to tell me I'm on a fool's errand. I have no business pretending to run a game studio." It's natural. Imposter syndrome runs rampant in this industry, and with so many incredible releases each week, month, and year, comparing yourself to the accomplishments of a massive high-functioning team can really take the wind out of your sails. And if you're not careful, you begin to...
Start Questioning Everything
"Is this game worth making? Did I choose the right platform? Does this mechanic need to be scrapped for a better one? Is my protagonist borderline offensive? Should I have even bothered recruiting this team?"
It's actually quite healthy during key milestones to ask yourself hard questions about your project, but you should do so with a rational and objective frame of mind.
Spiraling into unbridled doubt can derail your best intentions, encourage changes that fail to push the needle, and corrupt the enthusiastic goodwill of your team.
So shake it off, and find your footing.
Take stock in what you've accomplished. And look for ways to parlay the best elements of your project, the key talents of your team, and the biggest opportunities in the market to better guide your ship.
After all, there's likely another crisis heading your way, especially if you've kept your head so far down in development that you've neglected to really think about where your project will exist in the market--but we'll talk about that impending Brand Identity Crisis in another blog.