Thursday, February 28, 2013

Administrative Stuff: Quest Abandoned: Quitting Professional Game Development

(Note: This is a cross-post from my livejournal account.  It didn't really quite fit a typical post here, but I figured I should post it here anyways as it's somewhat relevant.  As I mentioned near the bottom, I hope to get some more writing back on here soon.)


This is a post I sort of knew I was going to write, and for a thought to be stuck in your head for two years, it's going to be a giant mess of rambling paragraphs and ideas. So, to give you the tl;dr version: I'm done with looking for work within gamedev in a professional level now. It's been two years, I have to move on. I don't have a clue what to do next, but whatever this is right now just isn't "working" (yes, pun intended).(Yes, I'm open to options if you can give me any!) I am very thankful for my family and my friends for putting up with me in the last two years, which I had bummed around more than I should have chasing this mythical beast (and I'm well aware that this is a luxury that most can't afford to take). I don't know how I'll pull out of this, but it's time for me to draw the line and cut my losses now.

What follows below, however, is a much longer rambling set of thoughts on what the last two years has been, what's going on now, and what's next.

I suppose I should start by also mentioning that the irony of posting this today is not lost on me. Today is the last day for the staff at Tecmo Koei Canada, and I sincerely hope you guys who are left have better luck that I did in landing something you want to do.
(Click here for the other wallpapers in 720p. :P )

Roughly this time two years ago, I was part of a group of downsized employees there. At the time, the company actually had offered a position for me to stay, with them refocused on facebook/social games. I had agonized about this for a good two days: job security is always nice, and I'm always interested in looking at all facets of game design from an educational standpoint, but I was never really keen on the idea of making one. More importantly, with the company moving away from console/handheld development, I fell short of what I wanted to do: be in the process of designing a game, from start to finish. With that in mind and knowing the risk of not being able to find something immediate, I had passed on the position.


Since then, I've had interviewed/test with 10+ core game studios for various positions in design and programming. While all of them have ended in disappointment (or else I won't be here writing this), every one of them were an absolute morale boost, reminding me of why I wanted to do game design in the first place, and how much talent I had worked with each and every day. One test I was scripting AI, another one involved drawing map layouts, and another one had economy balance, weapon balance, etc. It was thinking in the box, out of the box, next to a box, blowing that box up, and it was both scary and exciting to be doing such tests.

In a way, doing these tests had confirmed what I had already known: as much as I'd like to think I know games and how things works, the lack of actual years of experience, along with actual hands-on years in development will always hurt me in the interview process. Having a series of big name studio closures doesn't help either, as every time I hear that on the news, I could picture my resume get shuffled further and further back in the pile behind more qualified candidates. Trying to explain to friends and family about how interviews went was a nightmare of explaining how you could potentially be a good candidate, but your skill set doesn't match the type of designer they're looking for.

While job hunting within game dev was an ongoing process, I had figured that I should also spend my time making something. It's practically the template you keep on hearing when big studios close: splinter individuals either form teams or go at it alone in the indie market. With all the unpaid vacation days that I never took, I bought myself a Mac and started doing iOS Dev. For me, it was a good excuse to relearn coding of some sort, and it was probably a good way for me to "experiment with iOS" with ideas and test the waters. At the same time, I've developed an unhealthy addiction to Starbucks.

To date, I've shipped 4 apps and 2 games, with 1 still in the works. I'll be honest - I didn't think there was ANY chance I would make any of my money or time back. The odds of your game making it's money back, even if it's well produced is heavily reliant on the right type of marketing and word of mouth, so, what are the odds of a game designer who can barely code, with no way to pay an artist, programmer, audio, and PR make a breakout hit now? Sure, you've heard of the success stories of these one-man teams who've done breakout hits, but is that even feasible now with the current market, or are you more likely to lose your shirt when betting the farm.

More importantly, sitting here looking at how I approach my version of indie game development, I've come to the conclusion that I don't fit in that "indie" game model either. The indie games that takes on success and finds an audience are games with grand ideas or thematic structures, games that are all too ready to jump out there and scream to the world "this is what a game can be". The type of game design I approach is a much more mechanical, much more traditional way of design: I don't care about sweeping ideas and visions, but rather what makes it fun and engaging, and analyzing the numbers and models behind things. An "indie" game has a design shelf-life of forever: it's a fresh and original look on an idea without a time compromise (as an example, look at how long Fez has been in the works), the games and mechanics I design has a shelf-life: if I'm building on top of what's come before me, I need to be done before someone else also builds on top of that. Note that I'm not saying one is better than the other, but I am recognizing that there is a difference in the two, and my type of design isn't suited for "indie" like games, and it needs more resources for me to scale up onto the iOS market.

So, this brings us back to full circle: Freemium/Social games. In the last few months, I've really started thinking about whether I should even apply or approach these studios. What's nagged me most about this is whether I want to even bother with these games in the first place. I tell everyone I meet the one and only rule I had with game design: You need to play the types of games you make, and I was this close to breaking that rule. I appreciate people coming in with different skillets and different backgrounds to any large scale development, and it usually makes for a stronger product when taking input into account, BUT, the person who's closest to the core design decisions should also be the someone who care speak for the target audience of the game. I can tell you for a fact that the only Freemium/Social game that I've stuck with in the long run was Pocket Planes/Tiny Towers, only because they don't behave like your typical Freemium/Social games.

Now I understand that F2P game are here to stay, and I certainly agree that the likes of TF2 and LoL makes a very compelling case that F2P does work, but those are the fringe cases in the sea of "farmville clones" out there that I want no part of. To me, most people and studios approach Freemium/Social game right now in the gambling casino model of harvesting whales and toy with the human desires of virtual goods to fulfill "needs". Are these addicting mechanics? Yes! Are these "game mechanics"? No! Games can be many different things, it can be expressive, it can be skill based, it can be analytical, it can be competition; Freemium Games, and at least the bulk of the studios out there right now, approach it as a money tree, where money decisions drive "game design decisions" of "wait 6 hours, or pay us now". It's not the type of games I grew up with, it's not the type of things I want to make when I said I want to make games, and it's definitely not something I want to be a part of.

So, why quit professional game development now?

Simple as that. It's been two years, I've pretty much burnt through close to all my savings now, and I feel like a terrible son when my parents comes over and shoves money in my hand. I tell them that financially, I'm still ok, but we all know I'm cutting this way too close now. I don't know if I can say I regret not getting where I wanted to go: to make a game, be a part of the process, from start to finish. Right now it hurts, knowing that I didn't do that. I know for some of you reading this, I've gone further than you've imagined having actually published a game, but for me, it just feels like I haven't done enough. I don't think I would have minded if I had worked on a project from start to finish and for it to bomb spectacularly: at least it would have meant I was a terrible game designer, then I can move on. Right now, it's more like a no decision, I only wished I had a legit chance.

Hey, look on the bright side: now that I'm no longer looking into the game industry, I can speak much more freely about my thoughts on things that are happening in it. There has been many instances where I had to really hold back on how I feel about certain approaches in games and game development, and now I can really tell you how I feel about Freemium Games (IT SUCKS.)

While I'm officially calling it quits, I guess un-officially, I'm shelving all this game development stuff into a hobbyist state. I'm going to wrap up my most recent iOS game and ship it late March, but the timeline beyond that is much more hazy. My iOS Developer license actually expires around the same time, and I'm not really sure if I'd extend it just to ship another game in a year's time. I've been fiddling with a few other ideas that I was going to go into production with, but as a hobby project, these games will now take many more months then before (and I'm definitely not going to bother with as many playability bug fixes).

Recently I've started playing with the ideas of building a board game, and that will be an ongoing project for the foreseeable future. It's a pretty fun pipe dream to see it through, and maybe who knows, I can toss this sucker up on IndieGoGo (not kickstarter cause they hate Canada) and see it takeoff somehow.

It's also been a while since I blogged about game design, so I guess I'm going to resume that when I get a more stable job. At least I guess I can play armchair designer, right?

So yeah. There you have it. I'm not happy about giving up, but I'm done, game dev. Thanks for all the good times. Call me if you need me.