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The Trials of Trails of Glork, and the Lessons of Potatoman

A personal essay about the dangers of getting an idea crowdfunded without proper preparation. A 4 year journey towards acceptance of and gratitude towards the present moment.

Pixeljam launched its Kickstarter campaign for Glorkian Warrior in a time when most people didn’t even know what crowdfunding was.  We reached our goal, somewhat surprised that we could raise that much money from strangers who simply bought into a nebulous idea.  I remember feeling truly supported by our fans – that all you had to do to “make it” was be authentic and politely ask for help.  So here we were with 10K and a few months to make the game we told our backers we would deliver.

A look at my email history reveals clues to the beginning of Glork’s troubles.  Here’s a message I sent to the team about 2 months after we started development:

“hey guys, im really happy with the way the game is turning out, but we need to consider something important…. when do we realistically want this to come out?   as we add kung fu kicks, trees, new enemies, bosses, weapons, etc etc… it opens up new doors of design possibility, but also pushes out the launch date.   I get the feeling this is slowly going to turn into a scenario where it actually takes us 5-7 months to complete it instead of the 2-3 we thought.”

Knowing what I know now, here is what I should have written (also with correct punctuation):

“Hey guys, we made a mistake.  We should have locked down the exact scope of the game before the campaign even started.  We should have been crystal clear about what the game was and what it would contain, and most importantly how much of it.  We also should have asked for $100,000.”

Asking the general public to contribute 100K for a game that existed mostly inside our minds seemed completely ludicrous at the time.  Like I said, we were amazed that we could even raise 10K…  and for some reason, against everything we had learned up to that point, we thought that we had plenty of money to make the game.  Part of this confidence was due to the fact that we had already made a lot of games for hire and released two self-funded games on our own (Gamma Bros and Dino Run).

3 months later the game wasn’t even close to completion, for all the classic reasons: under-estimating everything, scope slowly expanding, budget slowly dissolving. A “what were we thinking?” period followed while we tried to figure out why things didn’t go the way we planned. I’m fairly certain now it’s because we didn’t have an actual plan.  We had an idea for a game that we got ourselves and our fans very excited about, and that was it.

We continued on with it anyway, rethinking our strategy over and over again, perpetually convinced that the game would be done in just a few more months. Time passed, as it tends to do, quicker and quicker.  My first son was growing up and my wife was pregnant with our second. Life seemed to get more and more complex, making it hard to keep up with the demands of work.

To further fund Glork’s development we worked a lot of contract jobs, thinking all the money we made from them would ensure the project’s completion. The extra money helped, but what we didn’t realize was that the momentum of the project was worth more than any cash we could funnel into it.  As most creators can tell you, once you lose momentum on a self-funded project, your chance of completing it really starts to nosedive.

By early 2012 we had gained and lost momentum on the project probably a dozen times, and Kickstarter had taken off for games in a big way.  Double Fine raised millions, then more me-too big budget campaigns followed on.   Our little 10K project was hanging out in the corner while other games were raising ten or fifty times as much.  I recall thinking:  how could someone make so much money selling a promise?

The crowd funding revolution unfolded as we quietly picked away at Glork from the sidelines.  We watched him run around a barren alien landscape talking to his backpack, shooting Galaga-esque waves of flying invaders, jumping over spiky pits, vaguely aware that he’s the star of a video game.  In retrospect he seemed like a metaphor for ourselves, blind to the much bigger picture, methodically picking away at some task we had no idea how to complete. At this point it was almost comical.  Our backers barely commented on our occasional updates about how the game was coming along slowly, and thanks for the continued patience, etc.

The point was reached where it simply made no sense to work on the game anymore. The money we funneled into it from contract work (and by this point, loans from banks and family) was no match for the actual time we had lost chasing the money to funnel into it.   We decided to put the game on hold and focus on a mini-game based on the little robot that the Glorkian Warrior carries in his pocket.  We all agreed it was a good idea because “there’s really no way it can take more than a couple months to make”.

Nine months later the new game was far from complete and we were almost out of money,  so we decided to “make a game in a week” to inject some mojo back into the company and create some cashflow to keep us afloat.  The game in a week becomes Potatoman Seeks the Troof, and takes about 3 months (and our personal credit cards) to complete.

Potatoman was our first game with overt philosophical overtones, yet we didn’t know what the actual message was until 2 days before we launched it.  Rich came up with the final scene of the game in a rare moment of calm during our pre-release crunch.  Potatoman struggles the entire game to reach some sort of mystery goal that he’s built up to be the answer to all of his problems, and at the end he finds out that the real Troof is much simpler than he thought.  He’s a potato of course, and his only real purpose is to simply bloom where he is planted, wherever that may be.

Potatoman is released 3 days before the Mayan Apocalypse and makes a little money, but not nearly enough to fund any existing projects. The significance of the little spud’s quest is somehow lost on us as we start worrying again about how we are going to finish Glork.  Should we take on more contract work?  Should we panic?  Should we quit Pixeljam and find new jobs?

Maybe… we should just bloom where we are planted. Maybe we should just wake up every morning and be grateful that we are alive, relatively healthy and actually doing what we love pretty much every day. But it’s hard to be grateful when you’ve got a huge list of goals that never seem to materialize.  It’s hard to be grateful when you’re always chasing that one big fish that’s going to make everything “easy” from now on.  It’s hard to be grateful when you are one of those insufferable over-thinking creative types.

- – – – – – – -

I recall the exact day that Glorkian Warrior finally started its road to completion. I was woken up by my youngest son asking for a banana. My oldest son slowly lumbered out of his room and I made them both breakfast.  After sitting down to start my typical morning, I decided to ditch the todo list and just play with colors, shapes and code… eventually creating morphing geometric forms that came alive and danced, for eternity if allowed.  I stared deeply into it, in awe of the limitless possibilities inside of this machine and its connection with myself.  In an instant I saw the Glorkian invaders dancing the same patterns as these shapes, the Warrior running desperately below them trying to stop their infinite attacks.  No epic platforming adventure… just a naive space soldier, his sentient backpack and some deadly invaders with some seriously slick dance moves.  The Trials of Glork was born.

Will our backers be upset that we cut the scope so much?  Will they even care?  After we released the mobile version of the game in March of 2014, more than four years after the original idea was funded, the response was essentially “Cool game, thanks for finally delivering it”.   We had about one complaint, which arrived literally a day before we launched and simply asked “are you ever going to complete that game?” You can imagine how great it felt to tell him “Yes we are, and here it is”.

It’s incredibly difficult to make games.  It’s difficult to make ANYTHING, actually.  Getting funding for it sometimes makes it even harder, especially if you are the type of person that thinks you can please everyone, which by the way, you can’t.

A sincere salute to those that struggle every day to make something new and authentic in a world of endless invaders.

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