As far back as I can remember, I've known I wanted to make video games. It's a common mantra in the dev community, but true nonetheless. So many years ago, after going to college to learn to program games and ending up in another field, I set out to do just that. On my own, in my free time from a full time job at a major multinational, I started learning new skills and techniques online. I started playing games not just as a pastime, but also to break them down into functional components and identify all the little things that make up a game. I'd known most of them inherently, or so I felt, but giving them a name and a purpose changed them from 'parts of a toy' into mechanical underpinnings of a well oiled machine that I could learn from. I took courses in AI. I learned new math and relearned a lot of things I'd long since forgotten(someone should've told me trigonometry could be used to make games when I was high school and I might've paid more attention...probably not, but would've been worth a shot.) I bought a new computer. I got an XBLIG creators club account. I plowed through XNA tutorials and started posting in forums where other devs far away talked about game making. I made a bunch of small things that I could deploy to an xbox and play on the tv with a controller. I was doing it. I was making games. It felt awesome!
So, with my new found powers, I set out to make one of the games I've always wanted to play. Like many others out there, I have a few fleshed out ideas for something "really great" that I just have to try to push out into the world. So I picked the one that seemed the smallest in scope and got to work. I should mention that throughout all this, other than my girlfriend and a few close friends, nobody knew I was doing all this. I felt a certain sense of embarrassment about it for some reason. In retrospect I think it was couple things. First, I generally don't like to talk about myself, especially related to something good. Regardless of how trivial the thing is, it feels like bragging to me and there are few things that irritate me more than people who are full of themselves and have to let you know how awesome they are. Next, I felt like it would be a cool to work in secret and surprise people with the finished project in its fully polished glory. At least that was what I told myself at the time. I think, more honestly, I was scared to show people what I was working on in case they thought it was shit. I was just getting started in earnest with a creation all my own and if someone saw it, laughed at me, and said it was garbage, I would've been crushed. Because they would've been right.
Predictably, it did not go well(I mean none of you have heard of me and my amazing indie game right?) After building a playable and fun(I think anyway) prototype, I hit a wall. You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned anything about art or music skills. I can sketch a decent picture and I played the saxophone in high school band, but neither of those things mean a damn thing when when real art or music needs making. Beyond that, when confronted with the need to hire an artist, I had to take stock of all the 2D art my project would need. When I finally added it all up, it was astronomical. Think thousands of frames of animation per character and many, many characters. I have a spreadsheet somewhere with the exact numbers but I still don't even want to look at it. Looking back now, it was so obvious and so easily avoidable. Had I not been in my own head, working alone, and also not telling anyone what I was doing, the first person with any idea of how animation is done to hear the concept would've spotted the problem. There was no way I was going to get someone to do it. Even if I had the money, it would've taken a team.
I didn't just stop. I contracted some music. Got some art made by freelancers. Wrote and drew a few things myself. Found a hack to get around the animation needs using 3D models and green screening. But it just wasn't the same. I was struggling and the thing I was struggling to create wasn't the vision I once had. I suppose there is no way around being dissatisfied with the disconnect between vision in reality in any creative field, but that doesn't make it feel any better when you work so hard and come up short.
Though it felt like it, I knew I wasn't incompetent. All through this I had a technical day job that, modesty aside, I was good at. I even managed a team and trained new employees. Things usually came fairly easily to me if I was willing to put in the work and learn. This was different. I considered giving up. Before I threw in the towel and let the dream die, I did something on whim - I posted on an indie game dev forum looking to see if there was anyone in my area who was trying to do the same thing. Shockingly, there was and as it turned out, he was just a few blocks away.
We traded some emails and met in person some time later. It was quickly apparent that we were having similar issues. As a graphic designer making flash games, he was butting up against the limit of his coding knowledge and trying to make his projects more sophisticated was becoming problematic. I talked about my problems and showed him my project. He didn't hate it. That was a win in my book. Beyond that, he immediately offered some constructive criticism and we bonded over how crazy this whole creation process is. The simple act of sharing the project with someone else who understood the struggle was amazing. It was as freeing as it was energizing. It let me know I wasn't a complete fool and that, while I was focusing on everything that was wrong with the project in my own head, others could see something with merit. That first conversation provided motivation for the next few weeks of dev work.
For me, the simple act of talking to another developer was transformational. I think he felt the same way, as soon thereafter we started a Google group to try to find other local developers. We did. One of them happened to be a digital artist who taught at a local college. He offered us our first place to hold regular meetings. These meeting weren't huge, but we could count on 5-10 other artists and programmers to come and show off what they were working on. Knowing you were going to be asked about any projects you were working on provided key motivation to show up with something new to show or talk about, even if it was something small.
We also set out to learn new things together. We started working on group projects related to the excellent onegameamonth monthly jam challenge. We went together to the Global Game Jam hosted at another local university. We tried new engines, devices, and frameworks. We created a few cool concept projects and were having fun along the way. That's huge so I'll reiterate - what had been a struggle just a couple months prior was now fun and exciting again. Just by doing it with other good people.
Just around this time, a company moved into town that was looking for game developers and wasn't finding them. This search led them to find the Google group and our local professor member. They tapped him looking for local talent and he pointed them directly to us. Turns out they were looking for people with the exact skills we had been building in the group(while we were having fun I might add.) We met with the company and talked about what we might do together. Beyond potentially hiring some of our number, they also had connections at a local business that had a warehouse space that wasn't being used. I pitched them on the idea that, if we did the work to fix it up, could we use the space for the Buffalo game dev group? Not only did they agree, before the conversation was over www.buffalogamespace.com was registered.
The rest, as they say, is history. We worked over nights and weekends and converted a warehouse full of scrap and garbage into the first Buffalo Game Space. We started hosting events. Streaming conferences, talks from industry veterans, bi-weekly meetups, arcade nights, tournaments, member talks for sharing skills, and even our own game jams(the most recent of which was just last weekend.) After each one, we found more and more people who wanted to get into making games and were looking for others who were doing the same. We had people coming from hours away to attend our meetups and jams. When the Global Game Jam came back around, this time Buffalo's host location was the Game Space and the prior hosts from the university came to us.
Throughout the talks and events all our members were getting stronger. They were learning valuable skills and forming teams with other members who filled in gaps in their own game. There have been already a few small companies formed to manage the projects and creations made by these teams and even more other companies who have approached the community looking for contractors. And that company that came to town looking for developers? They hired or contracted with five members of the community, myself included. My education and prior professional experience made me a viable candidate, but the community got me the job. A job as a professional Game Developer. The job I've always wanted.
While that might be a good end to the story, that's not the point of all this. The point is what we learned along the way and what we're going to do going forward. Namely, one person working on one game is fine, but it's incredibly, unnecessarily hard. The process of a single creator is inherently flawed when a hole in their game is found, or not found due to tunnel vision. Sharing experiences with others is not only freeing and therapeutic, they often offer unique viewpoints and insights into things you may never have thought of on your own. Other like-minded individuals can be an eternal source of energy and inspiration to propel you through the inevitable doubts and dark nights of the soul. A community is always stronger than an individual and in being part of one, the individual is strengthened.
Also, though certainly not the first to recognize it, we had cracked the code of the age old catch-22: entry level position, 5 years experience required. When you can't get the job to get the experience, how do you get it? The answer is you make your own experience. Skills, techniques, and portfolios built of projects and jam games created at the Game Space have landed several members jobs they would not have otherwise gotten.
So, we want to take all the things we've done thus far and formalize them. The meetups, talks, and jams will continue, but we aim to add workshops and boot camps for specific dev related skills. The member talks will be recorded and shared online. The website will host member works and writeups of techniques used. We look to offer coworking space and give members access to gear they would otherwise not have access to like dev kits, motion capture equipment, and a recording studio. We have also made arrangements with other local professionals to retain legal, publishing, and accounting services that we can offer to members looking to form a company and launch commercial products.
Much like the end of the story, our end game is simple: jobs. Working developers are the key, whether they are high-end hobbyists or full time professionals. The better we treat those starting out, the more we help them get through the starting struggles, the more easily they have access to the training and gear they need, the more likely they are to stick with it and use the experience to get a job or form a company of their own. The more game companies are formed, the more demand for people with game development skills there will be. And more working game devs means more interesting games that otherwise wouldn't get made. We see ourselves as a springboard to an upward spiral. One that has already begun and we aim to keep it rising.
To do all this, we need a space of our own and your help. Please help take Buffalo Game Space next level and help an amazing community grow and inspire the next set of developers not to give up much like I almost did. I can't imagine I'm that special, only lucky that when I sent my message into the void someone was there to respond. I can only imagine how many other people were in the same position and when they looked for another understanding voice they found no one, and quit. What games and visions must have been lost. So for the next person toiling on their own, we want to be there, plain as day, shouting back, "Welcome! We get it and we're here to help!"
Note: Speaking of helping developers, any backer over $20 will receive assets they can use in the creation of their own games. I'm available for any questions.
We were even featured here back in February - http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/AnthonySwinnich/20140201/209841/The_Buffalo_Game_Space_Cultivating_a_game_development_community.php