Game developer and Creative Director on Malevolence: The Sword of Ahkranox
Posts by Alex Norton
  1. Designing a game to behave in ways for which it was not designed ( Counting comments... )
  2. The Crowdfunding Experience ( Counting comments... )
  3. Marketing Outside the Box ( Counting comments... )
  4. What they DON'T tell you about being a game developer ( Counting comments... )
  5. The Trials of the Game Developer ( Counting comments... )
  6. The Difficulties of an Infinite Video Game World ( Counting comments... )
  7. Kevin Bacon in Video Gaming ( Counting comments... )
  8. Pushing the Button More Carefully ( Counting comments... )
Advocacy /

So I'm in an interesting position. Malevolence, while not my first game by a long shot, is my first RELEASED game, and I've been lucky enough to have it gather a lot of attention (for an indie title) early on in its creation. From what people tell me, this does not normally happen. Normally, a developer will hit on gold after they've tested the waters with a few titles first, or had a hand in other game development, such as working for a AAA company.
Because of this unique perspective of having a relatively successful title (despite not yet being released) on my first ever attempt, I haven't yet developed the pessimism that often comes with being an experienced indie game developer. This has led me to want to write this new thought piece, which goes into all of the things that they DON'T tell you about being a game developer. If you want the short and sweet version, feel free to skip to the end.

STAGE 1 - DELUSIONS
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Going through university I had the same delusions as most people that I would get my qualifications, build a folio and get a job at a AAA game company. Shortly thereafter, fame and riches would ensue and I would live happily ever after, making games that I love, and having everything right with the world.
I finished university to find that all of my hard work would get me on a "consideration" list for a baseline, entry level QA job which would mostly consist of me being locked in a cubicle for 70+ hours a week doing some of the most repetitve, soul destroying work known to man.

Penny Arcade Tester Comic

A good example of what it is to be a tester, provided by Penny Arcade.

Sure, that would give me a foot in the door to have my true skills recognised later on, however, most game companies go through and trash their QA teams at the end of every project after smothering them in NDAs which make their soul now below to the company. So that's a minefield in itself.
If, and I really mean IF, I was to be plucked from QA and given a position within the company, one of two scenarios would have happened:

EDIT: Since this seems to be causing some controversy, let me clarify that my thoughts listed below are not my opinion of ALL games companies. I am simply listing things that tend to commonly happen based on the experiences of the many developers I have spoken to, and these thoughts in no way represent what the industry is like as a whole.

Programmer Position - I would be sat down and made to do scripting work for 70+ hours a week on someone else's proprietary engine, since using third party products "speeds development" and I would learn that there is such a thing as an "acceptible sacrifice of quality for speed" which would slowly destroy my integrity as a programmer. My passion for creating new features would slowly be vampirically sucked away, and anything I made in my spare time would be contractually owned by my employer which would sap my enthusiasm for innovation even further.

Artist Position - I might be lucky enough to get assigned work that interests me. I might be having a great time designing and modelling sci-fi assets for an amazing new shoot-em-up and enjoy watching them come to life within the engine. But one day the producer (who is computer illiterate and whose only gaming experience is with Bejewelled) would pop by and say "You know, my 10 year old niece is really into ponies right now. Change the game to be about ponies". Because he is the money behind the masterpiece, I would now be forced to abandon all of my work and create ponies and handbags all day every day. Also, everything I make outside of work would be contractually owned by my employer, limiting my folio and preventing me from moving to another company.

STAGE 2 - DETERMINATION
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So, having this realisation, I then turned my attention to the indie game dev scene, which was far more attractive as I was beholden to no-one, I could work on what I wanted and do it in any way that I pleased (so I thought) but there were certain demons there which no-one told me about, either.
I got myself a day job to take care of living expenses and turned my spare time towards my magnum opus... Malevolence: The Sword of Ahkranox - the game of my dreams that was everything that I wanted to see in a game. I was out to show the world what a game COULD be. New technologies, new gameplay mechanics and a dash of old-school to reel in the retro crowd. It was going to be amazing and the world would be changed forever.

I was young. I was naive. And no-one had warned me what was coming.

First off, I had been playing around with a new method of procedural generation to create infinite worlds, and my favourite gaming genre was always RPGs, so I figured "why not make an infinite procedural RPG?" it seemed a good idea at the time, so I started work on it and found that it worked. I started a blog about it, more for myself than anything. Things were going fairly well.

STAGE 3 - REVELATIONS
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It was at this point that I started meeting a couple of other game devs. Before this point I didn't really know any, and one with quite a long resume happened to start work at my day job. We got to talking and he introduced me to more people. They all seemed quite interested in my project and thought it was great that I was trying new things. This reaction gave me the motivation to make my development process a bit more public, so I started promoting Malevolence a bit more and getting more of a team together to work on the game's shine.

Much to my amazement, it got quite a lot of attention (for an indie game being made by a nobody in the industry) and that made me happy, so I kept at the PR. But with positive attention comes negative attention, and it was then that I learned two important things:

  • People, when given the anonymity and audience of the internet, can be truly horrible.
  • You can read 1000 praising comments, but if just one of them is bad, it will ruin your whole day.

The fact that I was trying to do something new with my game was evidently a horrible crime to many people and I would get utterly horrible comments ranging from put-downs to persanal abuse that would get them arrested if said in person... Even one or two death threats. It's a sad fact of life that people who are too scared to follow their own dreams will often try to talk you out of following yours. It's easy for people to say "just ignore those comments" but that's simply not possible.
Some people who disagreed with the game's concept gave thorough and well-written justifications for their feelings, which was good to see, but they were few and far between.
I had decided early on to keep an open-doors development policy and be extremely communicative with the public. I even developed somewhat of a reputation for answering every question asked of me. Many people loved this, others took it as justification to send more abuse, because they knew someone was listening.

At first, I thought it was because of my new ideas and concepts that I was touting, but after meeting with other game developers I found out that it's just what the gamer community is like. Full of angry, hateful, rude, abnoxious people who feel entitled to say anything they want to the developers who are making games for them. That's not to say that they're all like that. Far from it! Many, many people have been very supportive, communicative and encouraging throughout the entire process, and you have to really cling to people like that because, as a developer friend of mine once said "Those people hating on your game will always complain loudly. That's just what they do. The fact is, though, that they'll probably still buy your game." and that's what you need to focus on. It doesn't matter if other people like your game. What matters is whether YOU like your game. If you love it, other people are bound to as well. Just look at how much hate has been poured upon Minecraft over the years, but Mojang have sold millions and millions of copies regardless, and you can tell that they're super proud of their creation!

Being proud of what you've made is very important. Whenever something happens around your game that makes you feel proud, then you've gotta grab a hold of it and not let it go. I've had John Passfield sit me down and tell me that he believes that Malevolence has the makings of an epic game, I've been called a "visionary" by members of the Guild Wars 2 team, I've been recommended by RockPaperShotgun as a project to watch... These things make me glow with pride, whether I believe them or not, and whenever I'm getting slammed by ignorant haters, I remember these things to help get me through it, and that's something you've just got to do to survive psychologically.

STAGE 4 - HINDSIGHT
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So, looking back, I've realised there are a lot of things that people just don't tell you about being an independant game developer:

  • A large, loud portion of the public will openly hate you regardless of what you do. Learn to live with it.
  • No-one will ever take your project as seriously as you, or fully realise what you're going through.
  • Everyone will think they know better than you about your own project.
  • Getting noticed at all is incredibly difficult .
  • The odds of you making money out of it are slim.
  • If you want to succeed, you'll likely have to sell out. Just how MUCH you sell out is up to you.
  • You have to develop a VERY thick skin.
  • Being open with the public isn't neccesarily smiled upon 100% of the time.
  • You will meet many "game developers" but very few people who are actually developing games.
  • You need to have the ability to listen to all advice given to you. Remember that listening to advice doesn't mean you have to take it. But listening can't hurt and you never know what you might learn.

I've also learned lots of things to never do again which may help upcoming developers:

  • Don't make an RPG as your first released game, nor any other kind of large-scale project. Start simple. Learn the lessons. Once you're experienced, THEN you can work on something big.
  • Never announce your release date until you are 150% sure of it.
  • Never let yourself get so enveloped in your project that other parts of your life suffer.
  • Never engage the haters.
  • Get a test team and follow strict testing practices.
  • Have a thorough plan before you start working too hard on it, and then stick to that plan come hell or high water.
  • Think carefully about having a public development process. Depending on the target audience and the project itself, it may be better to develop it silently and only open things up to the public when you're nearing completion.
  • Never let anyone cause you to stop being proud of your work. The moment you aren't proud of it anymore, the moment people will stop respecting you for it. If you make the game, and no money comes of it, at least you'll have work that you're proud of.

Some of them are hard lessons to learn, but learn them well before you venture into the murky waters of independant game development. Consider yourself forewarned! Obviously, other people will have other bits of advice, or revelations of their own, so I'd love to hear them, too! Share them in the comments!