Lessons Learned: Surviving the Emotional Journey of Developing a Video Game Independently
A year ago I began experimenting with a game that empowers players to manipulate politicians.
Since then I created six different games trying to achieve that feeling of empowerment. It was the most difficult and emotional journey I’ve ever been on.
Nine months in I finally found the feeling I was after. Players are the night shift janitor at the White House the week leading up to the election, using the trash they find to manipulate the President.
Minimum Wage is now available for Mac and PC on Steam:
Minimum Wage on Steam
The presidential election is one week away, and the White House is hiring for a night shift janitor. In an attempt to…
My mom suggested I write this article after watching me go through the process of making this game. I’m 27 years old, and there were several nights where I walked downstairs feeling completely empty and hopeless with tears in my eyes to ask my mom for a hug.
I moved home to the States from England to live with my family at the beginning of Covid in March. This game would not exist were it not for their support.
Making a video game is an intense personal experience. But I also found everybody around me was feeling the same feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and doubt given the current political and social situation we all find ourselves in.
I channeled all of that into this game. Listening to the news on the radio every morning was my constant reminder. It is a success if some of the jokes and decisions players get to make take the edge off, and perhaps give you hope that you have the power to chart your own course for the future.
The first prototypes were casual. Jotting down notes on a train, spending a Sunday afternoon trying out a new mechanic. Such a stark difference from my lifestyle during the final days of development…
It started in a newsroom, where you decide who to blame or credit for incoming events in order to brainwash readers into supporting the political situation you desire. Meanwhile global warming made every event more dramatic. But the media and news results weren’t tangible enough to feel in control. I also found this game by Lucas Pope, which addresses media manipulation beautifully:
So if the players weren’t manipulating the media, I decided they needed access to the politicians.
Side note: The fish art comes from an internal game jam at Creative Assembly, where I am a Gameplay Programmer. Totally separate from this, my game jam team made a game where you manage fish going on land in car boats to fish for farm animals. So I used those assets to experiment on my own. CA is an amazing place to work; they are incredibly supportive of us all as individuals.
In this Lobbyist prototype, the shells rotate inwards towards the center of the circle, and then the shell in the middle gets passed as a “policy.” You can pay off certain fish to let specific shells through in order to get the policies you want passed. The downtrodden citizen fish on the bottom right needed your help getting certain shells passed, but the business fish paid you for putting policies through that he wanted. You needed money from the business fish to keep lobbying the politicians for specific shells, and the conflict between what the citizen fish wanted versus what the business fish wanted made it a zero sum game. Interesting as a puzzle, but not very meaningful.
3: Day Shift Janitor
I decided for this to work players needed to be at the White House, talking to people, making things happen from where everybody least expects: as a janitor.
Everybody I talked to about being a janitor in a game was actually excited, “a janitor manipulating the President?! Awesome!”
So began hermit mode, a week into January 2020.
I stopped going out, spending time with friends, or really doing anything else besides make games at work, and then coming home and working on my own janitor game.
For three months in self-isolation PRE-COVID, I was building what I thought was the game I wanted to make. In my quarantine warm-up I made a big mistake: not showing my friends what I was working on for feedback. When I finally did, they had no idea what to do.
The game wasn’t a game. It had extensive code for AI pathfinding systems and quest management that could scale to support online infrastructure. But that was completely useless because players had no idea what to do when the game appeared in front of them…
Then Coronavirus hit.
I flew home after watching two of my friends struggle through signing the contract in the horrible dialogue interface I’d designed.
When they finally did get through the intro sequence by signing the contract, they couldn’t figure out the only mechanic in the game: how to clean.
You cleaned by clicking on tables, then scrolling through a list of trash that appeared to drag it across the screen to your garbage can icon.
It was meant to feel as good as looting items in Skyrim. But I guess Skyrim is actually fun because of the dragons and magic and not the picking up moldy bread from corpses part that I had in my game….
So on the empty plane back to the United States, while trying to breathe through my makeshift neck warmer mask, I decided I needed to make cleaning fun. There was only one way to do it, I thought: by adding a new dimension.
4: 3rd Dimension
The few benefits of having Covid around actually made my goals easier to achieve. I didn’t have to commute to work. I lived in my parents basement with a fridge full of food being continuously stocked above my head, and none of my friends were asking me to do anything.
So I started a brand new Unity project on my computer, and set off into the realm of 3D to make cleaning fun.
I came up with a mechanic where you sweep trash orbs into a garbage bin, which felt like putting hockey pucks into a goal. You were timed to clean up a newsroom before the broadcaster goes live, but if you pushed the trash in front of the broadcaster you could make a blob off trash that he ran into and dropped his briefcase in. Then when you plunged up the blob you could plant news that you wrote in his briefcase for him to read…
Far fetched as a scenario, but the sweeping and plunging mechanics actually were actually kind of satisfying.
5: Political Interception
That evolved to a maze of hallways, which you channeled politicians through and intercepted their reasoning for supporting certain policies. Then when the news went live you could give a counter reason to a reporter, who refuted the politicians reasoning, making that politician’s vote invalid.
My brothers (routine playtesters, I’d at least learned that lesson) had fun cleaning with the hockey sweeping and plunging. Even my dad who never plays video games was able to clean the place up with the keyboard and mouse.
I’ve found that a great way to test if a game mechanic works is to put it in front of somebody who never plays video games.
Cleaning was now somewhat fun, but my family members weren’t experiencing the original empowering feeling I’d set out for because they couldn’t understand how they were influencing the politicians.
Interactions with the characters were now too physical, the pacing was all off. Trapping politicians in hallways to spill their coffee and steal their secrets was too in the moment for a player to consider what they were doing and why. I tried everything to make intercepting politicians work and be meaningful, but every time I came up short.
My brother suggested I use a pencil rather than a game engine to iterate on ideas more quickly. I took his advice, and put my laptop aside to work with sticky notes and random board game pieces instead…
6: Minimum Wage
I remember going on a walk with my dad, and asking him why I was trying to make a game on my own. I considered giving up halfway through the summer.
I’d dedicated myself for six months to making a game nobody could play.
His suggestion to me was to create one successful scenario where you use trash to manipulate the President.
So I scrapped what I had, pooled together everything I had learned, and started a brand new project… Again. This time back in 2D.
The conversations with non-player characters were too complex. I’d never be able to provide the depth of a narrative game on my own without a deep dive into the Uncanny Valley. I decided there couldn’t be anybody else around.
The night shift was the answer.
The idea was you put certain items on the desks of each room, and then go home and watch your Twitter feed explode with the President getting mad about how you interrupted his affairs.
I took the fun from the cleaning mechanics and stripped away the confusing interactions with other characters. Now the action and consequences cycle started making sense to new players.
But the Twitter feed and phone feedback was more of a chore for players than cleaning now! My brother hates checking his phone all the time. Who wants to check emails for fun? So I decided to show, not tell. With silent movie style visits from celebrity guests instead of abstract political policies. It became more fun, more relevant.
I’d been trying to have players change complex political policies as a janitor. Legal paperwork, who cares!!? Woof…
I realized I had to play into what you could actually do with trash, most of which is fairly absurd. The entire game took on a comical tone, which made working on it a lot more fun too.
Inventory in a list was replaced with physically dragging trash around inside a dumpster to inspect it. Much more fun and interactive. Security added adrenaline to the mix: a dimension that this time the game actually needed. Trash became a puzzle solving tool to thwart security in addition to it’s primary purpose of impacting the story.
Crunch Time Before Election
Now when I showed my family, they started to get it. Suddenly a new priority emerged: finishing the game before the election. I started to realize this game would be the most meaningful if people could play it as a janitor during the current political situation: leading up to the election.
The time it took me to make the actual game is 1/4 of the total time I spent trying to figure out what the game actually was.
While going through all the prototypes to find the game, my work on Elysium (what I actually get paid for) at Creative Assembly was a welcome respite. A project that I was adding value to society with, on a game franchise called Total War, which I grew up playing as a kid and has a substantial player base. There were some intense months on our team as our game went live in Asia and Eastern Europe. For several periods I was too busy to spend any time on my fledgling prototypes.
Luckily, Elysium became stable and my role on development began winding down right as I discovered what all the different prototypes on my janitor game were adding up to.
Once I’d discovered the game, there was no room in my life for any other activity or other human interaction unless it helped make the game. Any chore that took time away from the game sparked intense waves of angst. Doing the laundry was time wasted. I started to take large chunks of vacation time from work.
Election day became a countdown timer. I gave myself a daunting deadline of the beginning of October at the beginning of August, when the game was not anywhere close to playable. But I had a vision for it after all of that prototyping, I finally knew what it could be.
My brain played motivational tricks on me throughout this process. I imagined the universe reacting to my destiny to finish the game. In England while I was working on the day shift janitor version of the game, I chatted with a street cleaner who showed me his absolutely decked out cleaning cart.
I convinced myself that encounters like this one were signs from the universe. At one point over dinner when my family asked me whether I was okay with sacrificing all of my time to work on a video game all by myself, I told them that if I died tomorrow my biggest regret would be not finishing the game.
Going for runs became the only time of the day I went outside or did anything except work or eat food. On my runs, I was worried I’d be hit by a car, and then the game would never be finished.
Inspiration gushed into my life unexpectedly.
On one run, a dog came up and barked at me aggressively. That is why there is a K9 unit in the White House lawn.
While emptying the trash from my room in the kitchen, I had to pick out the Seltzer cans to recycle them. Recycling! That’s what the game needs!
My world revolved around the game.
The last three months off the summer I spent entirely either working on the game, or showing it to whoever my family had over the house if they were willing to playtest it while social distancing. If somebody asked me to play a board game, go on a walk, or do anything that wasn’t related to my game, I would tell them: no.
I couldn’t sleep regular hours. My dreams became design and programming solutions. I’d wake up at midnight Friday night, work until 5am, sleep until 7am, then work all day on Saturday.
I became unbalanced, and completely self-centered.
It took a toll on my family, who did their best to support me as I drained myself finishing a video game.
I was at least generating some momentum. With each iteration I transitioned from getting players to understand their goals to helping them achieve those goals more smoothly.
I didn’t have a target market in mind, or any kind of marketing strategy beyond showing people and hoping they have fun. I suppose this article is part of my marketing strategy, so go play my game please. :)
This isn’t my first independent project. I’ve made several social media apps, a math puzzle game for iPhone, a weightless soccer combat game, and an interactive video project where you are JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis and have to face the same choices he did in a branching narrative. For the interactive video I tried calling Oliver Stone’s secretary every day (like Charlie Sheen does in Stone’s Wall Street movie). but since I wasn’t “with anybody” in Hollywood I didn’t get the chance to pitch him the prototype face to face.
Every personal project I approach with a tidal wave of enthusiasm. But this wave I barely rode out alive.
The purity of being a janitor at the White House, and the magic of how the design came together through all the failed prototypes is the most satisfying experience I’ve ever had. I would sit in my room and cry with joy or sadness, scream, curse, punch whatever was next to me, jump up and down, hoot and holler; the entire spectrum of emotions.
I had a relationship with this game, giving and taking and evolving and telling each other who we were and what we wanted each other to be. Accepting each other’s faults and limitations, building on each others strengths.
I’m still wrapping my head around the emotional toll I’ve inflicted on myself. I’ve done nothing except make video games for the past 9 months.
“Having my face in a computer” as my mom would say, has taken a toll. But it pains me to see that everybody else also seems to be dealing with similar emotional hurdles that I am, simply because of the virus. My relationships with friends are all on pause. Life plans are all pending, events and activities are all cancelled or postponed indefinitely.
The feeling that has stuck with me through all of this is gratitude.
I’m so thankful for my family’s support. I’m even thankful for the intense deadline of the election, preventing me from dragging out experimental features.
I’m glad to have experienced a creative journey while the world has hunkered down; to have had the stability of meaningful work while many have struggled with economic turmoil.
Now that it’s over, I can finally look towards the parts of my life I’ve completely ignored: everything besides making games. I’m going to pick apples and watch the leaves change color. Make up with my family for months of intolerably selfish behavior. Hopefully start to reconnect with friends despite a vaccine to end social distancing being several months away.
Having a relationship with a personal creation is a deeply fulfilling experience. But I’m finding that the most productive and satisfying parts of making a game, and of life overall, are when you get to share it with others.