Robots, Life, and Game Development

Posted Jan. 26, 2014, 10:57 p.m.
tags: Game Jam , Unity , Personal

Global Game Jam just ended tonight, and my team at Eugene's Fertilab Thinkubator was able to submit a game before the deadline. The game we made is called Ensphere and can be found here. We had a dozen people on our team, which is the largest group I've worked with yet. There were pros and cons to having a team of that size.

What could have been better

If you look at the credits for this project, you'll notice a lot of people on the design team. In the early stages of the project this meant that the game was very story-centric, which isn't how I would have liked to approach the design. Shortly after I arrived, the team had decided on an ending and people were starting to plan levels out without deciding on any game mechanics. The trouble with that approach was that there wasn't a proven gameplay core. A game falls apart without engaging interactions, so all the story in the world won't make a difference. As the jam progressed, most of the story was cut. Vestiges of the story remained in the graphical design, which is sort of interesting because it feels like you're walking in on a conversation. The whole thing feels a bit alien.

Not everyone knew how to develop with the same tools. We chose to use Unity for our game, but of the three people working on programming only one knew how to use it very well. I was one of the two learning Unity while trying to program the game, which meant I was learning C# too. I definitely slowed people down for the first day, but was doing better on the second day. Again, it was unavoidable that one of us would have to learn something from scratch during the game so I guess this one was luck of the draw.

We used GitHub to manage the project, and it was new to all of us. Conflicts would sometimes wipe entire levels. There were occasionally "don't sync" times in which someone had broken something, committed it, and didn't want anyone to sync until the problem was fixed for fear that work would be permanently lost.

What went well

Though having lots of designers at the beginning was a little weird, once we decided to make the game into a puzzle platformer it payed off big time. We implemented some of the basic game elements, gave them to the designers - most of whom had no experience designing levels - and they were able to crank levels out just based on how many eyes they had looking at their work.

Ted Brown, who hosted the jam, was incredibly patient and eventually herded us into the development team we had become by the project's end. Having a voice of experience helped people not freak out, and gave us a central point of contact for questions.

As always, the graphics and music were great. Eugene definitely has a pool of talented musicians and graphic artists, and it was great to see their work develop alongside the game logic.

What I want out of game development

It wasn't so much the game jam itself, but a conversation I had afterward that got me thinking more about what I want out of game development as a hobby. Some of the guys I met over the weekend used to work for game companies which have since gone under. They shared some horror stories about how management layers at bigger companies tend to make development unfocussed. It's not their fault, either - cutting features and pushing deadlines becomes a necessity with a big team since salaries have to be payed and companies are mostly struggling to stay afloat. It made me think about some of what Dan Cook had to say about the matter.

If you're not familiar, Dan Cook is one of my indie game heroes and has a long-running blog over at that you should totally read since he is way more insightful than I could ever be. Anyhow, in one of his articles he describes how the film industry deals with the problem of hit-driven projects that take large teams to produce - instead of having a company that cranks something out, have a project-driven business model that allows talented people to move from game to game as their passion dictates. Gone are the worries of feeding an army after the project ends, and gone too is the nightmare of having dead weight. If someone is losing steam, they don't have to quit long after they should have - they just don't pursue another project after theirs ends. This seemed like an interesting way to go about game development. It's terrifying since your success is based on how talented you are, but it seems like a healthier state of affairs than the tone I get from most people who have worked in the video game industry. Besides, as a hobbyist that pretty well describes how I'd like to work.

Aside from how backward company structure has become in the games industry, another thing I heard from these game developers was a sort of lament that game development has been made easier with tools like Unity. That sort of rubbed me the wrong way. It's like saying that writing isn't worthwhile anymore because anyone can have a blog. Sure, but the ability to write is far removed from the ability to write well. Lower barriers to entry for game developers means that they can no longer hide behind the difficulty of their craft and must instead focus on substance, which is good for everyone.

Scott McCould's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art has something interesting to say about art in general - art has many layers, and the deeper we explore and master them, the better we express and challenge our audiences with the art we create. When we become interested in art, we know only of the surface presented to us as the finished product. We may not be aware of the techniques that were used to evoke whatever emotions or ideas that were presented, but as an audience we learn to identify quality works of art by how much depth of expression or mastery of craft they possess. We have a sense of wonder and some want to learn how to evoke the same in others. In the case of video games we are especially drawn in because interactivity asks us to give and take in a way that no other medium does. We play with systems and see how they can be expanded upon. We challenge the game and it challenges us back.

As a point of comparison, imagine if books were interactive. Imagine reading The Scarlett Letter and wondering how Hester Prynne felt about her husband. What if by doing so a secret paragraph was revealed between the pages that detailed how she kept his old watch with her everywhere for the first few years apart from him, but had since buried it in the yard. The literature is responding to you - not necessarily in a way that yields to your every whim, but in a way that acknowledges your inquiry and deepens your experience with new information. That's how interactivity seems to work best, and what gives games a unique boon.

When game developers can put aside the busywork of programming, it allows them to focus on deeper layers. Ultimately, argues Scott McCloud, the artist's most fundamental contributions - those that reach to the deepest layers of their craft - are those that push their medium in new directions and those that offer a perspective that only the artist can provide. These words ring true to me. These are the things I want most out of game development, not a 9 to 5 job and a paycheck. These things, too, are completely unaffected by trivializing the craft of game making. A tool can manage physics, sounds, animations, and even improve how quickly you can put together a 3D environment; a tool can't show you areas of life that have yet to be explored in video games, nor can it give you a voice. In short, new tools trivialize development, not design.

Contemplating why I'm spending time learning the craft of game development has helped me identify my goals. While working on games in my spare time I'd like to push them to address aspects of human existence that I feel are more central than combat - namely social interaction. The stories I like most - Breaking Bad, Inception, Avatar: The Last Airbender - drew most of their drama and excitement from interpersonal conflict, secrets, and moral dilemmas. Incorporating this aspect of life into games has been tricky, with the best examples I can think of being TellTale's more recent adventure games like The Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us. Even these interactions boil down to multiple choice questions and quick time events, though. I'd like to devise a more "granular" system of interaction that feels less like a choose-your-own-adventure book. Finding my voice is another goal. Figuring out my design style and how to leverage the more unique aspects of my life requires me to reflect a bit more than I'm used to and will take time.

End Game

Game development's role in my life is a big question I'm still asking myself. Going all-in and working fulltime on my "dream project" sounds too risky. Keeping this part of my life as a hobby allows me to learn the process without fear of failure, and if one of my projects does well enough I'd consider living off that income to fund my next project. The prospect of crowd funding turns that on its head a bit. If I find an idea that I really believe in, gauge interest, and raise enough to fund the project beforehand, I'd absolutely go for it. But even if that big hit never comes, game development is still a hobby that is profoundly challenging, keeps me on my toes, and lets me feel productive. I could die fulfilled without achieving financial success so long as I felt that my contributions to interactive media were for the better.