“I’m Margaret, and you’re about to discover more about my career and my life than you perhaps bargained for.”
With those words veteran game designer Margaret Robertson opened her talk at GDC today on what she’s learned in her journey from a self-described “art-house indie” to someone who works at a free-to-play game studio.
For quite some time Robertson made games at Hide & Seek, a studio she established to make games that were big, small, silly, and sometimes city-wide (most notably a series of crowd games played across Edinburgh, Scotland during the New Year.)
But at some point she decided to join Dots (or Playdots, Inc), the New York-based mobile game studio best known for the F2P puzzle games Dots and Two Dots. And in some ways, she says, the stereotype is true: she does now think about money on a daily basis.
“I do start with money. This is the first thing I look at every day,” said Robertson, sharing an (edited) version of the company's KPI (key performance indicator) data email she gets every day. “I’m very conscious that every decision I make, from a production perspective, from a game design perspective, has financial ramifications.”
Except, she says, there’s something called the “COD” (“I don’t remember why I called it the cod”), a spreadsheet she used at Hide & Seek that tracked expenses, income, and basically showed exactly how long the studio had before it went bust.
“It dominated your every waking hour, to an extent I couldn’t really articulate at the time,” said Robertson. “That pressure was super-intense. A waking-up-in-the-morning at 2 AM intense, which is much greater than the pressure of a daily KPI check.”
She went on to note that when she first looked at joining Playdots, she thought she might be bored -- all the studio’s games look pretty much the same, after all. But after coming onboard she claims that she discovered something unexpected (and exciting) -- the unparalleled depth of focus you gain when you work on the same types of games (or even the same game) for years at a stretch.
"I've never got to play with something so intricate in my life"
“Two Dots is three years old, nearly...and that means there’s a huge amount of stuff in the game already,” said Robertson, showing the game's 1000th level. “I've never got to play with something so intricate in my life. The interactions between all these mechanics are -- currently -- endlessly interesting. The joy of getting to drop a new one into that is incredibly satisfying.”
So her initial hesitation about joining a company where she’d look at colored spots all day evaporated -- Robertson said she’s been with Playdots for over two years and she’s still enthused about coming to work every day.
In retrospect, she now views her work at Hide & Seek as “so, so dumb” in a way, because the team was always trying to come up with new ideas, pitch them successfully (if they needed to pitch them), make them in a handful of months and then, rather than iterate on them, move on to something totally new.
“You risk not becoming a not good game designer, and instead becoming a good game describer,” said Robertson. “If you do get to make it then you get three months to make it and it’s not going to be good, because you’ll have to move on to the next game.”
She also points out that having to make games for clients in order to keep the studio going occasionally meant working on projects that weren’t exciting or interesting -- a choose-your-own-adventure game about having a productive business meeting, for example.
And just because you join a big studio doesn’t mean you have to give up on doing meaningful, impactful work, says Robertson; you just have to accept that you have to always consider what impact your work will have on the company and the people you work with.
“As a commercial company, we had to stop and think about what we might be looking at, in terms of repercussions and were able to do that, and determine that it was worth doing,” said Robertson, speaking about Playdots’ recent public gesture of defiance against the U.S. travel ban. “And it’s true that there’s a bit of a numbers game, in that Hide & Seek had a huge amount of creative freedom….but now being at a studio with hundreds of millions of installs, when we want to have an impact, we have this capability that we [at Hide & Seek] never used to have.”
There are lots of things about working at a commercial F2P studio that don't seem exciting, says Robertson, but she’s also appreciative of the opportunity to work somewhere where everyone cares about games and the company’s audience all care about games. By comparison, when she was making games at Hide & Seek she was often collaborating with clients who didn’t care about games -- they really just cared about whatever it was they wanted to celebrate or promote.
“I’m painfully aware that there are lots of different ways to be a commercial F2P company, and lots of different ways to be an indie, and I know there are lots of indies who don’t do anything like this,” said Robertson. “Please don’t think I think this is the only way to work as an indie."
"At the end of the day, the work is the work"
And maybe, says Robertson, maybe the line between indie and big-budget studio work isn’t really that big at all. “At the end of the day, the work is the work,” she said, noting that the day-to-day, moment-to-moment work of making (and maintaining) games is often fundamentally the same, no matter where you work.
“And yet, I do think there are maybe some things that came with me out of that crazy indie environment that I brought with me into my current work,” said Robertson.
For example, an upside of that constant churn to come up with new game ideas is, obviously, you get “really, really, really good” at coming up with new ideas for games fast. You also, she says, get a better appreciation for how people play and share games. Due to Hide & Seek’s experience making physical games that lots of people would play in a big room or city, Robertson says she came into commercial game design with a better understanding of how people react to games they enjoy, and how they talk about them with their friends.
So what can you learn from her experience? Something, surely; this is a GDC talk, after all.
“I think I might be contractually obliged to give you takeaways,” said Robertson, with a laugh.
For developers who have always worked in big commercial studios, Robertson recommends (based on her learnings as an indie) that you remember what matters is not your experience or the projects you’ve worked on, but how well you handle the fundamentals of game design: adaptability and the ability to playtest, apply feedback effectively, and iterate. What matters is having the “grit” to tackle a challenging game project and see it through to the end.
For indies, Roberston says she’s learned the value of working on follow-up projects.
“Last year I made a sequel to Two Dots, and it was so hard...unbelievably hard,” said Robertson. “I never made a sequel, as an indie.” The process of trying to make a follow-up that could also be a sister game to Two Dots challenged Robertson to think in a whole new way about game design.
And if you can’t do a follow-up, because there’s no economic incentive? “Just pretend! Sit down and do a thought experiment,” said Robertson; you might learn something you can apply to your next project.
Finally, she says indies can benefit from appreciating the value of focusing on a single game project for years at a time. Again, this doesn’t apply to all indies, but if you work the way Hide & Seek used to work (chasing lots of different projects all the time), Robertson says there are meaningful things you can learn from tucking in and focusing on making a single game -- and making it the best you can.