This post should be short and sweet. It’s about an issue that took up just enough time to talk about it.
I met David via Twitter while freelancing for Zam.com (now Fanbyte). Beyond writing the definitive unofficial book on Roblox, David has picked up bylines at Forbes Games, IGN, Vice, Polygon, and other outlets. He now juggles tasks as a senior editor at UploadVR and trust me when I say his work in the virtual reality space has been a boon to developers and enthusiasts alike.
It’s my fault we didn’t manage to have David on during 2019, and it’s my fault again that his appearance was in the middle of a CES crapstorm, but it’s all good news for you! Thanks to this timing, David not only sheds light on the most recent developments for Oculus hardware owners and the company’s apparent direction for the near future, but we also get the scoop on some of this year’s most promising sights from CES itself.
Go send David some love; it’s a difficult time of year.
Welcome back! This time on GameDev Breakdown we’re discussing the finer points of tutorials in games, and yes, whether or not they even have a rightful place in them. That idea may surprise you, unless you spend any time talking about development on Twitter where it’s become oddly commonplace.
This idea comes from a well-intentioned place. As games and players have matured, we’ve seen a lot of games with subtler, more innovative introductions. As seen in one of the tweets above, for some reason people who like attacking game designers like bringing up the introductory stage of Mega Man X.
I generally go out of my way not to criticize the work of other designers, but I would be very hesitant to set up an introductory stage like what Mega Man X features. For one thing, MMX seems to depend on the player having played previous games in the series and having some sense of what’s going on. It leaves players to experiment with what amounts to an unusually easy level, mashing buttons and experimenting with enemies and mechanics along the way. Even at that, I find the level visually confusing–quick, you just started, here comes some cars! Just kidding they can’t hurt you–and I don’t agree that players wouldn’t be better served by an optional scene with a few prompts to get newbies acclimated before dropping them into a proper stage.
Meanwhile, players in favor of sensible tutorials all pointed me at the same game: Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon.
Blood Dragon actually had the same challenge to overcome as Mega Man X: a unique game in a pre-existing series that still needs to onboard new players. To do this, Blood Dragon goes all the way in the opposite direction, interrupting players with nearly full-screen prompts every few seconds while the protagonist complains about the delay. Blood Dragon manages to roast an annoying trend in game tutorials (overdoing it) while using a tried and true method to teach players advanced FPS controls in a hurry.
This comparison is too simplistic, of course, and also doesn’t take into account the widely varied needs across other genres. Angry Birds doesn’t need too much handholding, but have you ever designed your own card game?
The resource we look at in this episode is the condensed result of a master’s project study on reactions to tutorials and introductory levels featured at Gamasutra.
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This post was originally published at Zam.com in 2016.
As products of the computer hardware industry, video game consoles inherit a finite life span ending in certain obsolescence. Since 1972, about 150 home gaming systems have been released in the United States alone, nearly all of which have been commercially retired.
Sadly, player loyalty often plays a very small role in a console’s life cycle. While many console developers have pulled systems from retail shelves to make room for more powerful hardware, other companies have abandoned their products and left the business completely. Once the end is in sight, die-hard fans of a vanishing console quickly transition to the rear view. So, what becomes of these abandoned players?
Surviving a discontinued console has become a rite of passage for gamers. Many of us begrudgingly move on to newer models after coming to terms and setting aside the funds. Some of us keep old consoles tucked away to revisit our favorite games when the mood strikes, while other players sell off their gear, hoping to soften the upgrade’s financial blow. Some players, however, don’t get dragged away so easily; they extend the console’s legacy themselves.
Those who follow game industry news get occasional glimpses into the world of homebrewers, modders, and other developers of unlicensed game content. We perked up when Silent Hill 2 was redesigned for 8-bit systems. We cringed at Square Enix’s cease-and-desist cancellation of Chrono Trigger: Crimson Echoes, a fan game more than four years into its development and mere weeks from its release. We marveled at footage of Mario Kart R, a hack that added new tracks and characters to the original Mario Kart. What drives these unsung heroes? With little potential for revenue, countless technological challenges, and a severely limited audience, what really makes the retro development community tick? I sought out some prominent movers and shakers of the craft to gain their insight.
NES Games from Scratch
What would you do with complete control over your favorite console?
As a gifted middle schooler, Damian Yerrick spent the early ‘90s on an Apple IIe computer writing programs in the BASIC and 6502 Assembly programming languages. When he discovered an early Nintendo Entertainment System emulator for the PC near the end of the decade, he experimented with a few game hacks for his own entertainment.
“I wanted to hack another game,” Yerrick says, “but I discovered that the generic graphics hacking tools didn’t work with it because its graphics were compressed. So I decided to start making my own NES games from scratch.”
Now a web application developer living in northeast Indiana, Yerrick’s software creations have earned him cash prizes in homebrew competitions twice in the last five years. His knowledge and software tools have made him a major contributor at the NESDev forums.
Yerrick’s tales of tinkering include a variety of experiments and self-instruction. After participating in Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS homebrew groups, he turned briefly to the PC platform, concerned about the potential difficulty of shipping a console game. As he finished college and entered the workforce, he gained expertise in versatile programming languages like C and Python. His desire to get serious about the NES returned.
“One reason I program for the NES,” Yerrick explains, “is that because of the system’s limits, it’s still within reach for one or two people to make something whose production values compare with commercial releases on the same platform. By the Super NES era, teams routinely grew to a dozen or more people.”
He adds that the responsiveness of this kind of programming is also rewarding. While modern game development often requires commands to filter through a potentially sluggish operating system, commands sent to the NES Picture Processing Unit and audio circuits take effect instantly.
As Yerrick got plugged in with other NESDev users, he gained a deep understanding of the NES hardware. Over time he would wow the community with a variety of projects not only flaunting his design skills, but also demonstrating clever hardware use, including a competitive NES Zapper game and a game designed for the Super NES mouse peripheral. He now values being of help to new developers on a wide variety of hardware, software, and even legal questions pertaining to the craft.
Yerrick deeply understands how the law applies to what he does, and how homebrew games have been the subject of some unwanted attention. This has caused Yerrick to take a handful of his games offline out of concern about potential litigation. In fact, Yerrick points to intellectual property disputes as the leading cause of trouble for homebrew developers. Many publishers will take action to protect characters and other game elements they consider vital to their business. The simple act of creating your own unlicensed games, he maintains, is not inherently dangerous.
“By 2015, I doubt that Nintendo cares about unlicensed development for its patent-expired consoles.” Yerrick explains. He further illustrates this point by referring to Sega v. Accolade, a landmark case that established the development of unlicensed console games as fair use. “Mostly the issue lies in projects that reuse characters from Nintendo franchises…”
Yerrick doesn’t necessarily feel that social media has had a profound impact on his work. The homebrew development community thrives on older message boards. Between competition activity and shoptalk, Yerrick says, he could freely take part in at least a dozen active discussions on any given day. The forum discussions are lighthearted but the developers tend to stay on-topic. Instead of a community for the sake of community, theirs exists to benefit the craft.
Looking ahead, Yerrick plans to help move the homebrew community in a positive and increasingly legitimate direction. He hopes to use his personal site, Pin Eight, to release new programming libraries and tools over the next year that will allow new developers to come up to speed more quickly and without the need to get started through legally risky activities like hacking and sharing copyrighted games.
“That’s one reason I try to spread the knowledge of how to develop NES games.” Yerrick says. The more free games the community creates, he points out, the stronger their position becomes when defending against broad complaints about homebrew projects and emulation in general.
For the Love of the Games
While many developers work together to keep old consoles alive and well, a dedicated few spend years breathing new life into a single game.
In 1997, Rare’s GoldenEye 007 took the world by storm. Millions of players across the globe hungrily devoured the single player campaign and sank countless hours into the game’s split-screen multiplayer deathmatches. GoldenEye’s commercial success revealed the enormous potential of console shooters and inspired Rare to get to work on the game’s spiritual successor, Perfect Dark. A large player base would maintain their loyalty to the Rare shooters far beyond the Nintendo 64’s commercial discontinuation in 2003.
For Canadian game hacker Donald J. York (known almost strictly online as “Wreck”), this was just the beginning. His team is hard at work on GoldenEye X: an ongoing effort to rebuild and enhance the GoldenEye experience in the more-capable Perfect Dark engine. This highly sophisticated hack has added features like weather, improved light and dark outdoor environments, multiplayer AI, cooperative missions, and all-new Virtual Assignments to the original game.
Wreck’s path to project management in this accomplished community has been bumpy at times. His appreciation for gaming began as a desire to cope with the frustration of a difficult childhood.
“I had difficulties earlier in life caused by social anxiety.” Wreck says. “It was so bad that I couldn’t attend most of school, and was home instructed by a tutor…it was more than just a way to kill time. It was a sort of escape, which has stayed with me ever since. “
This may be why Wreck enjoys having a little extra control over his games. He describes growing up with a game enhancer (“cheating device,” if you like) on hand for each console he owned. By the time the Nintendo 64 reached the height of its popularity, off-the-shelf cheat tools were considerably more advanced. This, wreck says, opened up a whole new world.
While he confesses a soft spot for tinkering with Resident Evil 2, GoldenEye was the first game Wreck got serious about modifying. His early days of borrowing internet time for research and cringing before testing hacks would lead to his eventual entry into the online game hacking community. Around 2005, Wreck was enlisted to work with GoldenEye Vault community member SubDrag on an early version of the GoldenEye Setup Editor, a powerful application eventually capable of changing not only GoldenEye, but also a variety of other games including Perfect Dark and Diddy Kong Racing. Over time, the Setup Editor would simplify intricate game modifications, greatly reducing the learning curve for new modders. This is where Wreck would hone his skills and deepen his knowledge until he was ready to spearhead his own initiative: GoldenEye X.
“What you see in the GoldenEye X project (as well as many of the releases you can find on the GoldenEye Vault website) is the direct result of years upon years of hacking GoldenEye and Perfect Dark,” Wreck explains. “A lot of what has gone into this particular project has been learning as we go. We knew far more about GoldenEye than we did Perfect Dark, and our time working on this has given us a whole new appreciation for [Perfect Dark]. Things we never even noticed in the game before had suddenly appeared. You really have to give Rare credit for putting so much into a game that people are just noticing things 15+ years later.”
Presently, Wreck leads a team of about 3 developers at any given time. They started by porting GoldenEye’s multiplayer mode to the new engine and steadily branched out to campaign missions as well as their own additions to the original game. Their assignments are the result of lengthy feature discussions and detailed bug reports. Changes are documented religiously. Years of continuous process improvement allows the group’s workflow to meet the quality you might find in a professional development studio. Wreck explains that this is a conscious practice in contrast to the project’s loosely organized early days.
“Once the preview was released, I started over from scratch.” Wreck says. “This time I knew enough to write down everything. It really helps to know what you did for each release…Sometimes you’ll run into an issue and it tracks back to some little change you made in the previous version. We’re still finding that every so often. I’d suggest to all others out there to keep logs of whatever you’ve been doing as you go.”
Otherwise, Wreck notes that the management side of the project is a pleasure. With virtually no financial burden, the project’s biggest cost is time, and this doesn’t seem to faze the team. All contributors are diehard fans of Rareware and they never settle until they’re satisfied. They never seem to lose sight of the fact that their project is a tribute to what they consider a gaming masterpiece.
Notably absent from the GoldenEye X story is any presence of legal activity. At face value, it might seem surprising that a hit game from a top publisher on a console owned by a litigious company could be part of such a long-running hacking project without drawing ire. Wreck suggests his team’s methods and motives have helped them keep the peace.
“Hopefully I don’t jinx myself here, but we’ve been very fortunate when it comes to legal stuff.” Wreck says. “We’ve never been contacted by any of the copyright holders in the past. All releases we make are in patch form (which are pretty much useless on their own), and we don’t encourage or promote downloading of ROMs online. We’re doing this to keep the game alive and well.”
On a hunch, I asked if Wreck’s team had been in contact with any members of the original GoldenEye or Perfect Dark teams. One widely-recognized GoldenEye developer does seem to acknowledge previous membership at their forum and Wreck claims others have provided the team with guidance in more private discussions.
“I don’t know if I should name any names, but we have had contact with various members of the original GE team.” Wreck says. “A certain someone joined up on the forum, and others have been e-mailed to help fill in some holes regarding different aspects of the game, and they have been quite kind and informative – for what they can remember dating that far back, of course.”
Wreck stands apart from some other developers by attributing some of his passion for his work to the community.
“Our community is probably one of the most supportive and committed ones out there.” Wreck says. “If nobody was around to care. There’d be no real reason to push on.”
Wreck does echo the sentiments heard so commonly from his peers: that it’s all for the love of the games. Still, he notes how rewarding it is when a new member joins up, filled with interest and excitement, eager to contribute. He says that the games still have a way of pulling people in, which he welcomes. He hopes that the Setup Editor’s recent support for additional games will continue to encourage new community projects.
“I can only hope we see people with a real desire to dig deep into things and show us something we’ve never seen before.” Wreck says. “I mean, who wouldn’t like to see a Diddy Kong Racing sequel?”
As for the future of GoldenEye X, Wreck acknowledges that there must be an ultimate end to the ride. He believes there’s only so much his team can do while staying true to the spirit of the original GoldenEye experience, and he hopes his work won’t discourage other modders from taking the original games in completely different directions as he moves on to future projects of his own. He says that the time investment has been enormous and the journey is occasionally difficult, but that he is proud of what he’s done; he feels he is meant for this.
“With a small team, life getting in the way, and no paycheck for all the hard work you put into it, it puts a damper on progress and motivation at times.” Wreck says. “But the love of this, and the feeling of reward when getting things going can do a lot to keep you looking ahead.”
I wanted to Save Sega
Few announcements have hit gamers harder than Sega’s declaration of intent to discontinue its Dreamcast system in early 2001, less than two short years before it was first made available in the United States and Europe. Despite its successful launch, poor timing put the Dreamcast launch in the way of Sony’s PlayStation 2 hype train. At the end of this tumultuous financial period, not only would Sega discontinue the Dreamcast, but they would also exit the console business completely.
In the wake of the 90s console war, households devout to Sega products, like those now committed to Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft systems, were not uncommon. Many younger gamers around the world reeled at the news that the only gaming hardware they’d ever known would soon leave retail shelves forever. Some players, like young Bilal Zia, wanted their voices to be heard.
“…I wanted to save Sega,” Zia says. “I registered on the Sega message boards and tried to convince them to not discontinue the Dreamcast. That’s how I got involved as a 13-year-old kid in 2001.”
Far from alone, Zia would connect with countless other gamers who came together to create petitions, organize campaigns, and brainstorm ideas to reach executives at Sega. One such campaign received a response from then president of Sega of America, Peter Moore, encouraging the group to reach out to executives at Sega of Japan. Zia summarizes Sega of Japan’s response: “Not happening.”
Not to be deterred, the group’s next campaign urged Sega to widely release the Dreamcast’s Katana development kit, which would allow the growing homebrew community to support the Dreamcast independently. Sega formally declined this request as well. The community was on its own, and they set out to carry on without Sega’s help.
In the years that followed, the group would defeat the technical roadblocks preventing them from publishing independently on the Dreamcast and filling the void left by Sega’s disappearance from the scene. Zia’s mentor Max Scharl would arrange for an independent Dreamcast booth at Germany’s Game Convention events (now succeeded by GamesCom) where Sega Germany GM Tina Sakowsky even stopped by to give the group a public endorsement.
In time, Zia took on the roles of both “community reporter” and editor for what is now known as Dreamcast-Scene, a unification of Dreamcast emulation enthusiasts, homebrewers, fans, and independent developers. He also supports numerous independent developers and publishers with PR and marketing initiatives for Dreamcast projects.
The Dreamcast community sees an unusual number of these revenue-earning projects with relatively few legal issues. Zia explains that an interesting design choice about the hardware makes this possible.
“Sega wanted the Dreamcast to play audio CDs.” Zia says. “Big mistake…it is because of the system’s ability to play CDs that we still get new commercial-quality games for it.” The console’s software attempts to load special content included on standard audio CDs and enterprising developers quickly learned how to feed the system their game code, no proprietary media or modified software required.
Even with the freedom to design for the Dreamcast, Zia is outspoken about discouraging Kickstarter campaigns or other initiatives that might hurt the community. While he doesn’t disapprove of the crowdfunding platform itself, he feels that indie developers predict their own future pacing to their detriment, so he encourages his colleagues to play it safe.
”I would urge all budding video game developers to finish beta testing before opening pre-orders.” Zia says. “…don’t quit your day job. Do this on the side if you have fun with it. Only open pre-orders once the game has gone gold and allow yourself months of buffer time because there are a ton of things that can go wrong in the physical production process as well.”
While it’s understandable that Zia is protective of the community he has been so instrumental in supporting, the Dreamcast scene needs little encouragement to thrive. With dedicated developers, publishers, and even online game stores catering to modern Dreamcast enthusiasts, his is one of the most advanced and functional subgroups in retro gaming.
The game developers agree. French indie dev Cedric Bourse (better known as the developer/publisher Orion_) left a game studio after five years to go independent, releasing new games for a variety of retro consoles and computers. His recent title Alice’s Mom’s Rescue was released on Steam, Android, Atari Jaguar CD, and the Dreamcast. Though he makes his games available for many systems, he speaks highly of the Dreamcast community’s passion for their console and their support for independent developers.
“They are really passionate about their console, and they greatly support indie developers no matter what,” says Bourse. “A supportive community is key to indie developers, because you can make a game on a retro console, if nobody cares, you won’t get very far.” He adds that he released a game for the original PlayStation that sold less than ten copies.
As for Zia, he believes the community could go even further with better use of social media tools like Facebook and Twitter. He says Dreamcast-Scene isn’t formally represented on either site and lists other similar Dreamcast groups that are absent there as well.
“Community is the most important thing,” Says Zia. “…there is a sense of community, a sense of belonging, and the community strives to nurture what holds it all together.”
When Nostalgia Calls
While many American gamers spent the early ‘80s discovering the Commodore 64, Sinclair Research introduced players in the United Kingdom to its own 8-bit home computer: the ZX Spectrum. Not only did the “Speccy” enjoy wild popularity comparable to that of the C64 throughout its decade-long commercial run, but it also became the center of an independent development scene that is still virtually unrivaled. More than 30 years after its release, hobbyists still release new software for the Spectrum frequently.
To celebrate the tradition of Spectrum development, Portuguese game developer and entrepreneur Diogo Vasconcelos (@DiogoStuart) coordinated the first ZX Spectrum Retro Game Jam early in 2015. During the event, entrants were invited to spend the weekend creating a working ZX Spectrum game fitting the selected theme (this year’s theme was “Evil Chicken”). At the end of the allotted time, entries would be play-tested and a winner would receive the grand prize.
The 2015 ZXS Retro Game Jam ran from September 3rd through September 5th.
“I decided to do a crazy retro game jam dedicated to the Speccy with an award I would have loved to win when I was a kid,” Vasconcelos says. True to his word, two entrants were declared winners and will have their games professionally packaged, published to cassette (the spectrum’s medium of choice), and made available for sale by Vasconcelos and his partners.
For Vasconcelos, the game jam was just one more product of a life-long passion for retro gaming. He recalls beginning a collection of gaming boxes, posters, manuals and more from the age of eight. By the age of ten he was learning how to program on a Spectrum of his own.
“Eventually that gaming era became the past, but my love for it kept going…so in 2010 I opened the first Portuguese physical store dedicated to retro game collecting,” Vasconcelos says. PressPlay Porto was a 5-year experiment he describes as “awesome.” He would eventually close the store to go all-in as a co-founder of British game studio Nerd Monkeys, Ltd.
As his focus shifted to game development, Vasconcelos says he’s put more energy into game jams as a participant, where he enjoys getting to know other developers. When nostalgia came calling, he was fascinated by the idea of organizing the Spectrum jam and creating something special for the other creators around him.
Vasconcelos feels that these events mostly exist for the sake of fun but he does believe that they strengthen the retro game development community. He says that the collaborative and social nature of the internet in recent years has had a profound impact.
“It changed everything, and in my opinion, for the best.” Vasconcelos says. “I’m a strong advocate of this natural media transition that is happening, and all sorts of social networks like Twitter are undeniably successful marketing tools for the present game developer, from the independent to the AAA. It levels things a bit and brings new and awesome opportunities to everyone who dares take them.”
Even in his community event coordinating, Vasconcelos explains that his motivation goes back to the source.
“What keeps us passionate about what we do is the fact that we are making games,” he says, “all of the rest is work.”
The retro development craft demands uncommon levels of skill and commitment, but the work of these dedicated few produces results that strike a chord with nearly all of us. Their determination has kept our favorite consoles active independently longer than they were commercially supported. In the absence of publishers, the enthusiasm of hobbyists has led to new, compelling experiences for players everywhere. As the community contemplates its place in relation to social media, unfolding legal issues, and new revenue potential, we can rest assured that they will not lose focus on teaching our old hardware new tricks.
Richard Rouse III calls in to talk about his new indie title, The Church in the Darkness, and treats us to some stories from his fantastic career including the design of The Suffering, writing Game Design: Theory & Practice, and some interesting creative projects we never got to see.
Richard is a really insightful guy. He has too much writing and too many talks to fully list here, but I encourage you to check out his wisdom around the web. I could have filled much more than a one-hour show while picking his brain–and I’d love to have him back for more–but I sure appreciate the time he took with us this time.
I wanted to be sure to include the IGN article that was written after Richard and Midway lured game journalists into a defunct prison and locked them in overnight. Richard even seemed to get a kick out of revisiting the topic. It’s a little piece of unique game PR history, don’t miss it.
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LucasArts Employee #3 himself, David Fox joins to talk about his fantastic career contributing to some of the most iconic graphic adventure games of our time, chasing the technology to create location-based interactive experiences, and his philosophy on positive change through design. Topics include VR, interpersonal issues in the modern game industry, politics, electric cars, and more.
David was so kind to agree to this show, we were both fighting illness at the time of recording (I had to really work hard on my end of the discussion in post to make it listenable, apologies for any unusual tone quality) but I could not have been more pleased with the discussion itself. David has contributed to so many games we all know and love, Zak McKracken, Maniac Mansion, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Thimbleweed Park, and more. It was such a pleasure to spend some time learning about the rest of his awesome work and capture more details about the things he’s done. Please keep an open mind; David’s time at LucasArts has been discussed in super deep detail in a variety of interviews and I’d encourage you to check them out. I wanted to do more for this show to really get a sense of David’s contributions to technology and interactive experiences on a broader scale. Nonetheless there’s plenty of great material here to dig into about design, VR, and the game development community. Check it out and reach out to David on Twitter!
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Will Traxler of Traxmaster Software discusses his new game, Exception, his first commercial release following years of solo development. Will shares insight into his unique post-launch mindset, his solution to investing in his development, and the dynamics of outsourcing PR responsibilities as a one-man studio.
Will has accomplished a ton with this game release. Multiple platforms on day 1, stellar marketing in motion, and all without crunching or losing his cool. His attitude is exemplary and this is a must-listen for small indie teams or other soloists.
We discuss surviving a flood early in the episode. Indeed I did have to push our Skype call back a day over flooding in the area as it resulted in a school cancellation for my kid. It would have been too ridiculous a lie to use, so I suppose I’ve got that going for me.
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So You’ve Asked Someone to Work on Your Game for Exposure/Profit Sharing also links here.
Hi, aspiring designer! If you’ve been sent to this page, there’s a good chance you asked someone–or maybe many people–to work on your game for free.
“What’s wrong with that?” you may be asking yourself. “Why is everyone so angry?” This article aims to catch you up on a trend in digital creation that isn’t your fault, but may require you to adjust your approach. You probably have great intentions, and this article aims to provide you with sound strategies to move forward with your enthusiasm for game development and create a positive relationship with the game dev community.
Despite the game industry’s incredible growth and success, game development careers are notoriously difficult to get started–like, professional athlete difficult. Without finding just the right opportunity, people routinely invest years of skill development and preparation and still never land a job in the industry at all. Others get the opportunity and turn their whole lives upside down to make it work, only to fall victim to layoffs and other unfortunate realities of the pro development scene. Because of these difficulties, the indie scene and the larger learning scene have become one massive community of aspiring creators–let’s call it the “not-industry”–who have accepted the vulnerability of learning in a public setting in hopes of following their dreams.
There are different schools of thought on how to cope with a lack of sufficient funding in the not-industry. Many folks simply hold down day jobs. The lucky ones have jobs related to what they do in game creation, like commercial software jobs, graphic design for web and marketing purposes, or freelance writing for just about anyone. If these weekend warriors finish a worthy product, it may earn a nice little monetary reward; very few of them will get to quit their day jobs over it. Others seek to leverage crowdfunding or attract a publisher to keep the lights on and the hard drive spinning. Some are still in school and have their needs met for a time, and they hope to create something that shows their capabilities, pays for itself, or leads to a professional career in games. The struggle is very real for all of these people.
Unfortunately, the concept of working for low or no pay in the not-industry tends to hang over people’s heads. Those looking to outsource a certain component like art or code within the community sometimes have little to offer, and may rely on finding someone in a position to help for not much in return. Sometimes several community members will team up and work for no pay together, with an agreement about any future profits, if any profits ever materialize. Over time this has turned into self-appointed “designers” coming to the community to have their ideas brought to life.
Make no mistake: design is integral to game creation and not everyone can do it. The right idea for a game and the right strategy for implementation can soundly determine success or failure for a game. But it’s not safe to assume individuals with other specialties aren’t capable of their own design, or in fact, that they didn’t learn to code, write, or draw in the first place because of ideas they decided to pursue. For this reason, community members may become defensive if they get the sense that you’re presenting an idea as if they need it to succeed. They’ll be quick to tell you that it is you who needs them, and they are likely right.
If you’re resistant to this idea, consider if someone had pitched Queen on the idea of writing a certain song just before they went off and came up with Bohemian Rhapsody. Perhaps someone did. Would it have mattered? What if Bohemian Rhapsody itself had been the suggestion of someone outside the group. Would the concept have been worth anything without its brilliant implementation? How might the following Upwork job have panned out?
“Hi. Looking to recruit 4-5 performers to develop a song idea I have about a man discussing something with his mother. Volunteer only; 3+ years experience preferred. Message for details.”
Success in art is too personal for this. It can be personal among the members of a group, but that group has to have relatively equal footing and trust established. The community you’re approaching is hands-on. Everyone needs to bring a skill to the table, or at very least, a desire to learn and no apprehension about good hard work. Your idea is not equal to someone else’s sweat.
How to Move Forward
If you’ve been unpleasantly surprised by all of this, don’t abandon ship. If you’re willing to dig in and work toward your goals, you may yet find adventurers for your party. You simply need a more suitable strategy.
On the topic of “working for the exposure,” this philosophy is over. The only thing free labor exposes is that someone was convinced to work for free, and that usually only earns more requests for free work.
Some folks consider it sufficient to offer “profit sharing” after their idea is brought to life and run a team of volunteers like they’re running a major studio. I’ll start by saying I’ve never once heard of this working out (maybe someone has), but I’ll add that it would be extraordinarily difficult to do this in a way that is actually and precisely fair. Are you willing to give away the majority of the profit of your idea? Because you would almost certainly need to. How would you divide equity between two contributors who started at different times? What about one who started late versus one who left before the project was finished? With little doubt, you’d finish with some or all of your team feeling cheated and underpaid. What do you think would come next? It hardly matters; people who work free do not do so happily and they do not do it for long. Projects that get off the ground at all this way generally do not stay there.
If this profit-sharing scheme is going to work, I would strongly suggest you throw your current idea out, find like-minded creators who want to work together with you, divide up roles, and come up with something together as a group. Look at it as a partnership and an opportunity to learn. Work hard with this team and you will be doing something that has worked in the past with decent success.
My primary suggestion, however, is that you follow the path of the most successful individuals who came before you and start this project alone. You will be stunned at your own ability to identify and implement solutions as you go, and this is something countless game developers will confirm and swear by. Pay your dues, learn as you go, and limitless possibilities await.
I was challenged on this perspective just this evening by someone who said “You cannot do everything by yourself, that’s not how you grow as a developer or as a person.” I come before you as someone who taught himself the entire game development process, start to finish, and the idea that I learned less somehow by working alone is frankly absurd. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the power of community. My suggestion to anyone developing a game outside the pro industry is to develop in parallel with other creators. This can be done a number of ways including taking part in local or regional game development co-ops, user groups, or any other group that has a Slack or Discord server. Networking and talking shop with other developers is invaluable, and may very well lead to future collaborations, but you have to come from a place of sincerity and you yourself have to be willing to learn and put in the work.
Try not to take community sentiments about this issue personally. If you came in meaning well and you’re not simply looking for free labor, there is a place for you within our ranks. If you’re willing to personally do what it takes to bring your dream to life, you’ll fit in just fine.
If you didn’t know, we run a podcast that’s great for new creators called #GameDev Breakdown. Glad to have you aboard!
This post is a recap of my experiences running this year’s Itch.io Jam for Kids, including a few things you may want to keep in mind if you’re ever in charge of a jam yourself.
On or around June 18th, my four-year-old asked me to make him a video game about trains. This was actually a continuation of a discussion we’d had earlier when I declared I was deleting Budge Studios’ Go Go Thomas from my phone, as I find their microtransaction model for the game to be red-hot garbage. I said I’d be thrilled to make him his own game rather than have an app for children advertise about $20 USD worth of in-app purchases twice for each activity. This was not an idle threat; I’ve done it before. So as promised, I brought the Surface Pro to the kitchen table, fired up Blender, and set about modeling a toy train to see if I could do anything interesting with it in Unity. When I had a reasonable starter model in place, I tweeted it out, because that’s what one does.
My devfam was enthusiastic and supportive as always, but one reply caught my attention more than the rest.
I half assumed @TrashGameArtist was kidding, but for fun I replied with some things he’s interested in and didn’t think much else of it. But the conversation about theoretical kid game designs developed until the suggestion to start an official Itch.io event was made. I thought this was a fantastic idea. Kids need useful play experiences more than anyone, as it directly stimulates brain development, yet they put up with some of the worst, most exploitative designs imaginable. If my admin time could help produce even a few positive playable experiences—not to mention place a sensible time limit on this activity for myself—bring it on. I logged into Itch, cobbled together the most basic of guidelines, and the Itch.io Jam for Kids was born.
What followed was two weeks of incredible learning, great community discussion, and sure enough, a prototype for To the Station! A toy train simulator developed to spec for a preschooler. I didn’t plan on taking away any worthwhile lessons from hosting the jam itself, but I couldn’t help it. Here are some notes in case you ever try this yourself.
Itch.io’s jam tools are amazing
I first got to know Itch as a journalist covering indie games. I was super impressed by the features implemented simply to make my job easier, and in turn, put more eyes on the platform’s game developers. When I came back to try out jam hosting, I was just as pleased. The proof is always on display in the always-loaded jam calendar. I’ve been an enthusiastic Ludum Dare participant for a good decade, but it’s getting difficult to imagine not using ltch for any jam at this point.
Two weeks is the jam duration God intended
I’ve probably participated in my last 48-hour jam. I knew my own time for this jam was going to be under assault by everyday life. I also chose to start the jam with no lead-up time, so I decided to blow out the traditional weekend format and give everyone two weeks.
What a win this turned out to be! I think the best strategy is to pursue a design no grander than you’d dream up for a 48-hour jam, but to find a groove completing and perfecting it around the rest of your everyday life instead of replacing your life with frenzied crunch development. After all, this is how release-worthy games are completed.
Anything longer than a couple of weeks, I suspect time management issues and scope creep would rear their ugly heads. Less than two weeks, I don’t imagine putting myself through the stress again. It’s the two-week life for me.
Admin tasks will eat up your dev time
This is a no-brainer going in but remembering it for two weeks is harder. Not many folks will likely want to run small-to-medium jams without working on an entry themselves (rules permitting) so a host simply has to find the right balance for their time. Two different days I had to hang up intricate development tasks to deal with situations I felt might put participants or others at risk in one case or make us all look kind of ridiculous in the other (more on this later).
I also felt pressure to set an example in the attached forum, participating in discussions where I could, running a progress thread about my game, and of course responding to any questions that came up during the event. By the end of submission day, I’d given up several features on a fairly modest list to fulfill the host role successfully.
Dev tasks will eat up your admin time
Of course the reverse of the previous point is true, but it’s worth discussing what that looked like.
On only the second or third day of the jam, a participant posted a dual entry he was working on for an earlier jam focused on education that overlapped with ours, explaining that it contained not only a prototype, but also a lecture he’d put together about designing for kids. In my mind, the timeline was an issue that would prevent his project from being an official entry, but he joined hoping to participate and posted hoping to help. I wanted to at least check out the project and presentation and provide some encouragement. Unfortunately for my Surface Pro, his was a fairly large project and was downloading too slowly over Wifi. I determined I’d check it out first thing when I next sat down in my office and provide feedback.
The only trouble is I never made it back to my desktop PC. I actually still haven’t. I had to continue work on my game and provide official support for the event. That’s simply all there was time for. I should have stayed laser-focused, even at the risk of appearing rude or uninterested in anything else.
People will try to get away with things
In order of sheer audacity:
A participant posted pretty early on that they hoped to make a basic racing game in Unity but realized the scope was going to be out of control (which is very correct), so they found a Candy Crush-like tutorial series they wanted to follow to wow us all with a puzzle game. It sounded great to me. I wished them luck and said we were all looking forward to seeing it.
I got a notification a day or two later saying they’d submitted an entry.
I suspect not everyone knows this, but a jam host can see the exact date a game was submitted to Itch, and this one was something over a year old. Perhaps I’d still try it and offer feedback before officially disqualifying the entry. That’s when I noticed the following paragraph on the entry’s Itch page:
NOTE: If your virus detection software is acting up when you load up this game, please ignore it because it’s just the software being suspicious because the app is not recognized by it. So if it says anything please just ignore it.
Right. I followed up in the forum, asking why his submission was showing up as being more than a year old, also having a YouTube trailer a year old. I didn’t dive into the antivirus topic. He claimed the second game attempt overwhelmed him and he simply wanted to have something to submit. He hoped I’d understand. You couldn’t craft any better test for a jam host, because it was either a perfectly sincere story that must have been hard to admit for a vulnerable participant, or he was trying to destroy all our machines from the inside out. I’m no King Solomon, so I used the easy pre-existing project excuse and disqualified the entry which removed it from the submissions page. It was probably legit; I wish the developer the best.
As the jam was drawing to a close, I was eager to try out other submissions. I saw a notification pop up on one of the final days saying an interactive fiction novel had been submitted. Interesting choice for a game for kids, I’d better have a look. When I got to the submissions page, I couldn’t help but laugh.
The game was $7.99 to play.
For good measure, this game turned out to be long pre-existing as well, but I couldn’t help but laugh at the boldness required to join a game jam and try to sell the entry to the other participants. It’s hard out here for us indie devs. I get it.
It will all be worth it
In the end, we had a couple of awesome entries to keep mine company. A user called Sipsop created the Surprise Eggs Machine which was a cute little proof-of-concept which could easily be tied into a real brand. Minemaster552 who said he’s only 13 years of age submitted Lego City Builder, an unauthorized FLASH Lego game that was off to a great start at the end of the event.
My four-year-old got his train game and even provided the name. To the Station! in prototype form convinced me a toy train simulator could be viable and fun. I’m in the middle of my book project—alright, not the middle yet—but I’m excited at the possibilities of the prototype and have concrete ideas in mind about how to carry it forward.
I think the Jam for Kids will come back around this time next year. The biggest change will be even longer, even clearer rules upfront. Everyone seemed to have a great time, I know we all learned a lot, and we just might have started some projects that could go the distance. Hosting was a deeply rewarding experience and I’d suggest it to anyone. The better our events, the stronger the community.
Comment with your best theme idea for a jam!