Year 1: What I Learned From Making Games
2015 marked my first year as a game maker. Like many others, I always daydreamed about making games “someday” but always shied away because of how overwhelming it seemed.
Pixelles Game Incubator changed all that.
Everything that happened to me in games stemmed from those six weeks in 2015 where I had such an overwhelmingly positive and supportive game making experience. As I’ve said to friends as the year progressed (and I started venturing outside the cocoon of Pixelles), I wish I can live in the bubble of Pixelles forever.
Life is in a constant flux though and sometimes we do want to spread our wings. While I still have a thousand steps in front of me, I did learn a few things along the way. Some were about making games. Some were life lessons. Before I forget them all, here they are as a reminder of an unforgettable year.
STARTING OVER IS NOT GAME OVER
The first draft of anything is shit. — Ernest Hemingway
I actually attempted to make games in 2014 (using Twine). I failed.
It started out optimistically. I’d have these ambitious story lines and would follow my train of thoughts. Then, I’d hit a roadblock. Without much progress, I’d lose motivation. Then, out of frustration, I’d abandon the project completely.
It was a cycle I couldn’t seem to break. Starting over meant starting a new project without any foundations. At that time, I didn’t think about using your previous (failed) prototype as a base to explore other ideas.
Switch wasn’t supposed to be the first game I made at the Pixelles Game Incubator. It was supposed to be a narrative/conversation-heavy game. Then it turned into a bomb defusing puzzle game (Clear).
However, while making Clear, I had way more fun designing the maze and playing around with the subway-like aesthetics. So, the game turned into an escape the room/maze game.
Finally, the idea of switching perspectives came to me and the game turned into Switch — an escape the maze game where you “switch” between day and night to exit the level.
It was the same story for Tu es un bébé! We started with the idea of a living building — an environment-based/installation game letting you feel and hear the life of the building (with its strange soundscapes and textures). As we built the game though, the aesthetics morphed into an organic/body-based installation game — still with the living building concept but now you were entering the building’s inner body (it was at this point where we also made a pregnant belly).
On our first playtest though, everyone talked about how it felt like entering someone’s body — and exiting felt like “being born.” So… we embraced that completely and made a baby birthing simulator.
Finally, the one game that really taught me this lesson was We Are Fine, We’ll Be Fine. Before we made that final game, our initial prototype was a game called Utopia. The concept was the same: it was a game exploring people’s personal experiences with marginalization and oppression.
We wanted to make a game that was for those who have experienced these issues (versus through a lens of trying to explain or educate those who have not). We wanted to show the present as it is but at the same time give a vision of hope — the ideal utopia. What we didn’t want though was to give a definite “here is the solution to this” answer to resolve all these things because these are complex issues and you don’t want the player thinking, “all is solved”, after finishing the game.
Alas, it was a hard thing to balance in the span of two weeks. We had a few gameplay issues that weakened our game — mainly with how to connect the two disparate sections of our game (the issues of today and the utopia of tomorrow) as well as the interaction mechanic. While we didn’t end up with the game we had hoped, it was gratifying for me that we tried to tackle the subject matter and got to chat with people about topics we don’t normally talk about.
Even with Utopia’s unevenness though, its foundation helped in setting up the stage for the game board that would eventually become We Are Fine, We’ll Be Fine. We took what we thought were the strongest aspects of Utopia (the stories and using the body as an interface) and scrapped everything else. While player agency was reduced on We Are Fine, we felt like it emphasized the things that were the most important to the game — amplifying the experience of listening to the stories.
As a game maker, I sometimes bemoan the fact that I have to start all over again (for example, I remade Switch from scratch six times). I used to think that it was better to ditch something if it wasn’t working because, obviously, I was suppose to nail it on the first go-round. Making games is an iterative process though and sometimes, you have to fail a lot before you find your game… or until your game finds you.
JUST FINISH IT
Being right keeps you in place, being wrong forces you to explore. — Steven Johnson
Another important lesson I learned in 2015 was the value of just finishing it. The game doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t even need to work completely. It just needs to be playable enough for players to get a sense of how it works.
One of the examples of this was PUFFPUNK, the first game we made at Critical Hit. I ended up being the main programmer for the game and in hindsight, I was a bit out of my depth skill-wise. Try as I might to squeeze every inch of what little programming knowledge I knew, I couldn’t quite figure out a key aspect of our gameplay in time for our public playtest. I felt so stressed, frustrated and dejected.
In the end, I didn’t solve it in time and ended up randomizing that aspect of gameplay. Surprisingly, the playtest wasn’t a spectacular failure (I think it actually went all right). Most players didn’t even realize or notice the randomized part of the game — though it probably helped that we had humorous writing and voice acting as well as a cute moving robot!
That experience though helped me to realize that during your first few prototypes, you shouldn’t stress or focus too much on the polish or programming challenges beyond your current skill set. Rather, focus on the player experience (i.e. the play-through from beginning to end) and just creating a proof-of-concept. When you do this, you’ll be able to tease out any fundamental issues (i.e. pacing, length of game, etc.) that needs fixing above all else.
If the core of your game (whether it be in mechanics or the main concept) is flawed to begin with, no amount of polish can hide those flaws.
FINDING MEANINGFUL INTERACTIONS
“The route [Octavia Butler] pursues to her readers’ heads is through their guts and nerves, and that requires good storytelling, not just a good set of issues.” — Robert Crossley
One of the other things that I took away from last year was the powerful effects of having meaningful interactions in your game. When we were making We Are Fine, We’ll Be Fine, we were inspired heavily by (un)done, one of the final games in our Critical Hit cohort. While we were still struggling to figure out how to deliver the stories we had in a meaningful way, (un)done already nailed down an interface that was thematically tied to their overall concept of a love story.
In that game, players interacted with the narrative by tying and untying knots — with the tying action activating stories that strengthened the relationship (falling in love) while untying activated stories that weakened the relationship (breaking up). Not only did this interaction reinforced feelings of intimacy (or of falling apart) but it also reflected back the tragic (and sad truth) of any love story — in that at one point or another, the story needs to end (and in the game, the only way to end the game is to untie all the knots).
I loved that.
All the design decisions served the overall concept and that adherence to the concept strengthened the overall experience for the players. Seeing that game gave me a light bulb moment where I realized that there are aspects in game design that we can manipulate to tell an even deeper/multi-layered story.
There are so many aspects we can manipulate in games — whether in the interface, the music, the storytelling, etc. — that haven’t been as heavily explored as in other mediums. In the same way that you can manipulate technical aspects within a film to tell a story (whether in terms of lighting, the music, pacing, etc.), games offer the same affordances but also adds another layer: the player interaction.
As an artist, that’s exciting to explore — especially since you’re potentially introducing experiences players haven’t experienced before (i.e. (un)done with its tying/untying mechanic or We Are Fine, We’ll Be Fine with its hand holding mechanic). Yes, with no precedent, it is hard and is challenging to do but the payoff when you get it right feels so satisfying.
HOLD ON TO YOUR LIFE RAFTS
I no longer have the energy for meaningless friendships, forced interactions or unnecessary conversations. If we don’t vibrate on the same frequency there’s just no reason for us to waste our time. I’d rather have no one and wait for substance than to not feel someone and fake the funk. — Joquesse Eugenia
In as much as it was a year of making games, a lot of my best experiences weren’t related to making games. The best memories I’ve had were the experiences I had with the people I met and collaborated with during the last twelve months. I met so many amazingly talented game makers — people who made me think that it’s worth it to keep trying, to keep going and to keep making stuff.
My year in games happened because of them and without that community, I don’t think I would have survived the rough moments nor had as much fun during the awesome times. A large reason of why I’m still in games is because of each of them. Thank you so much.
“I have to do what I do even if the world decides it’s worthless…” — Heather Havrilesky
With the fourth edition of the Pixelles Game Incubator starting next week, it reminded me of my “origin” story — the wide-eyed game maker who was going to make an epic conversation game that was like Inception but instead of unlocking dream layers, it would be unlocking deeper conversation layers (true story…that was my initial game “pitch” on the first day of the incubator).
It’s funny thinking about that first day with all those ambitious ideas and expectations, only to “switch” gears half-way through because that game found me and it was way more fun to make and play.
When I think about 2015, I think about those moments. Unexpected moments of delight. Of frustrations. Of successes. Of failures. I’ll always see last year though with a lot of fondness because it was my most productive year creatively and, as mentioned above, the year I made so many meaningful friendships with folks who continue to inspire me to this day.
At the footsteps of 2016, I’m not really sure what awaits me. One question does nag me a lot:
Are you going to keep making games?
During the past year, I’ve been unsure how to respond to this question because my year in games did have its rough patches — then again, life in general doesn’t always go smoothly. As a game maker, I’m constantly beseiged by imposter syndrome, paralyzed by both real and imagined critics and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things I have to learn and figure out just to make those game ideas come alive.
As artists, in as much as our final works are meant to be experienced by the audience, sometimes the process towards that can be so taxing and painful that we wonder whether it’s worth it at all to carry the torch and see it through.
So while I can’t unequivocally raise my arms and jump at the thought of making games, I do have an answer now to that question:
“Yes. I am going to keep making games as long as it’s still fun for me.”