Tanya X. Short is the Creative Director at Kitfox Games, creators of Shattered Planet (iOS, Android, and soon Steam) and Moon Hunters. This is an insider’s letter to producers and project managers out there who are wondering what is happening with their wacky designers. Identify what kind of relationship they have with their design, and maybe you can figure out the best way to support them.
To design a game is to fall in love.
First, there is the honeymoon. We’re full of ideas. We can go anywhere, do anything. Starry-eyed optimism fills the air. What if, what if, what if.
Soon, you set the scope of the game, committing yourself as much as you dare. A weekend. A month. A year. Maybe you rush ahead, conspicuously romantic. Maybe you go slow and see where things take you, still cautious from past heartbreak.
I’ve designed a dozen games with teams big and small and I’ve seen it happen to designers both junior and veteran. We love and we struggle and always we break our hearts, crashing like waves against cliffs, coming back again and again.
Every love is different. I’m no Casanova, but I know that each person I’ve loved has required different virtues of me, and induced different weaknesses of character. I’m not pretending these are the only ways game designers love their games, but in broad strokes, these are the hills and valleys awaiting you, depending on which games’ hearts you chase.
The textbooks teach us a particular development cycle, so let’s start there:
1 - The Classic Three-Act
It’s a cliche to say designers are "passionate" about games.
We accept our power over our creation and give ourselves over.
It’s fun, at first. The honeymoon period is wonderful, and we try to stretch it out as long as possible.
My most famous love affair: The Secret World. It sure was fun! At first!
And then the work begins. The hard part that’s self-actualising or productive but not really fun. It’s work, like any other relationship.
You begin to see the world through the lens of this game. It starts with other games, of course; in your worst moments, you become jealous, territorial, insecure, instead of admiring the strengths and unique beauty of those other games and of your own. But it spreads to film, food, pets, friends, places, even the rules of the actual universe in which you live.
You and your game move in together.
Whether you’re a designer that thinks in systems or in expressions, to design is to create a cognitive map for the player, omitting some aspects of existence and including (or inventing) others. You decide the logic by which a world works. Healthy or unhealthy, fruitful or sterile, co-operative or competitive. It’s only natural that you begin to inhabit that world, and breathe its air, and be part of it. You are its and it is yours.
And then it ends. You launch. You have a party and try not to act terrified.
Whether you release a buggy mess (you dump it) or a polished gem (it was mutual), it’s “over”. Players are in the game and no matter what, it’s theirs now. You have to let go, just a little bit. You realise maybe it was never truly yours.
After the release, you still see signs of it everywhere. Ideas still fire and bugs you meant to fix haunt you, even if you already fixed them. It takes some time to recover; to get back your old cognitive map. It takes time to see the world for what it is and not just how it relates to your ex. Eventually, you get over it and look for something new and try to act like you're not jaded.
At least you had a clean break. We’re not always so lucky.
2 - The One That Got Away
You'll love some games more than they love you back.
In my PC’s “Projects” folder, there’s a sub-folder called “Hats on Cats”. For a week, I was obsessed with this idea; I drew pixel-cats with all kinds of hats. I mocked up UI. I diagrammed inputs and systems for this simulator.
How did this game never get made? HOW?
Yet no matter how many times I booted up my tools, the game never quite came together.
Sometimes you dribble towards dispassion until one day you realise it’s over, and it’s been over for a long time. You quietly walk away and there are no formal goodbyes. You wonder if you’ll meet again under better circumstances.
Maybe someday, Hats on Cats. Or maybe you'll find your way with someone else, some other designer you love more.
It's perfectly healthy to not finish a game sometimes. Maybe the idea wasn't that great. Maybe the minimum scope was way out of range for your resources/time. The only lasting heartbreak here is letting yourself get into the good old indie shame spiral of a chain of stuttering, halting Maybe Someday projects. Luckily, if you find yourself getting into this cycle, there's a quick cure: have a fling!
3 - The Fling
Game jams are an intense, passionate window. You take your little idea and you ride that bronco right to the finish line. It doesn’t matter whether the idea is feasible or rational or even comprehensible -- you just pour yourself into the heat of the moment and embrace your own mortality and get it done. YOU FINISH IT. Quickly, messily, but it's done!
There’s a bit of giddy humor to the urgency, and such a compressed timeline can be drama-inducing, but overall, everyone recommends trying it out once in a while for your mental health.
Fare thee well, Sculptorgeist. It was a lovely weekend. I'll always think of you fondly.
Usually at the end of the 48 hours, you sigh and set your jam game aside, knowing that it is what it is, and you got what you needed out of it.
But the standard fling is nothing like when you meet the love of your life.
4 - The Love of Your Life
Sometimes, a game speaks to you, as if it were part of your soul. It is made of your very essence and you cannot live without it. You draw pictures of it in the margins of your books, you fantasise about all the ways it could look and sound and play.
You don’t just want to make a great game; you feel like you’re changing the way all games are played forever, you’re pushing the boundaries of what a game is, you’re a singular designer with a singular design bending time and space around your creation.
This is more than infatuation. It's even more than an obsession or a honeymoon. This is all-consuming.
When a game is this way all the way through production, it’s an intense emotional journey for the entire team.
Chances are, if you’re a manager, there’s little-to-no chance that your employee considers your game the love of their life. As much as they might adore some mechanics or the IP or some of the ideas, it isn’t “the game of their soul”, as I used to put it. Unless they pitched it, and fought for it against all odds, and have complete creative control, it's just a 'normal' romance.
So, instead, I write to other developers -- beware pouring so much of yourself into a game that it takes over your entire identity. It doesn’t have to be that way. It can be lots of other kinds of relationships. You don’t have to raise the stakes. But if you do… be ready for suffering, even (or especially) when it’s over.
Because if the love of your life has an end… well, when you release it, there is no going back. That chapter of your life is over and no matter the sales, you grieve.
I haven’t encountered this one myself yet, but I’ve seen it take the reigns of others’ lives. When you’re this deeply in love, the stakes can’t be much higher. Others may call you a diva, but it doesn’t matter. You know what you know. No game is like this game. It changes you.
Fez, a game famous for being made in a fit of passion.
I, for one, have a hunch that Phil Fish will make more games, but it will take time. I saw him sit on the stoop of my apartment a year after Fez came out, and he was practically a widower. A survivor. Even when he makes another game, a game better than Fez, no game can be Fez again. Not to him.
5 - The Marriage
Of course, there is a "happier" ending.
Sometimes, you may dedicate an indefinite amount of your life to a game, with no end ever in sight. Maybe your system-driven darling just can’t end. Maybe the amount of time you can dedicate to it will never quite match the progress you’d have to make to keep up with technology’s march forward. Or maybe it has such a following it would be a shame to abandon those players. Not every marriage is with the love of your life, but it can bring fulfillment just the same.
Rogue and Nethack and so on received their laurels precisely because they don’t have an end. Anarchy Online continues to get new content in its 13th year. Even if, as a player, you were to “win the game”, you could never see all of the game’s potential -- especially not while some crazy game designer is busy behind the curtains.
There will be a time when someone is not working on Dwarf Fortress. A worse time.
It used to be that only MMOs and roguelikes earned a reputation for eternal development, with designers unwilling ever call the game finished. Now, with hardcores chanting “early access” and business-types chanting “games as service”, it seems gauche to admit you don’t intend to support live development for a system-driven game. Some boggle at the idea of settling down with one game for the rest of your life, but most can admit that if they found the right game, maybe it’d be the ideal.
Or maybe you find you have to work on a sequel… and another… and another…
After all, what was the point of all that romance if you can’t stick around and see it through, till death do you part? It becomes a habit, then a way of life. You become a monk in a monastery, living a life of routine and worship. You can’t just stop something like that.
Oh, wait. What about the part that was fun and joyful?
6 - The Affair
This past winter, our lead programmer Mike (aka skudfisher) came in on a Monday morning looking a bit sheepish. After our morning stand-up, he confessed, “I… I made my own game over the weekend.”
The manager in me was slightly miffed. If he had so much energy, why didn’t he fix more bugs? Why didn’t he put that energy into the lifeblood of our company? It was obvious this OTHER game wasn’t going to make us money! We’re trying to survive in a crowded market! We can’t afford distractions! Right?
One of the dozens of amazing little prototypes Mike's always working on. I think his code-name for this one is Isometric Kingdom?
And as he kept talking, his eyes lit up. He talked about some silly mechanics he was experimenting with, and eventually we all went back to work. But he had a new air of confidence and energy that he didn’t have last week. I realised I was slightly envious. I missed that honeymoon feel.
Inevitably, if your traditional game takes longer than a few months, you’ll get creatively antsy. The side-effect of altering your “cognitive map” to sync with your love is that you sometimes feel you can’t get away from it. No matter where you go, there you are. We call it burn-out, but really it’s suffocation, drowning in your own stale obsession.
Shattered Planet took 10 months, full-time, for four people, from start to its first release. We participated in two game jams as Kitfox, becoming finalists in the Indie Speed Run (thanks, Spink!) and winning a so-called Battle of the Studios. Those gave a brief respite, but after the jams were over, it was back to the good old grind.
Eventually, we all acquired side-projects. We wrote stories, made games, taught classes, and so on. And it was healthy! We still worked on Shattered Planet 9 hours a day for 5 days a week. But the more we divided our love, the more it grew. It felt more important than ever to meet deadlines and use our “worktime” efficiently.
Sometimes the best way to get the spark back is to refresh yourself creatively, by looking at the world from a new perspective.
So if you’re a manager, and your developers start showing their affection to other games… be assured, they can still love your game. Your game can still be their top priority. They may just need more varied sources of inspiration and different creative outlets. They know that the side-games are secondary, and enjoy them specifically because of the lower stakes and lower pressure.
Design-minded individuals wrestle with the restrictions at medium to large AAA companies because it is “standard practice” to forbid outside game liaisons. Ubisoft owns its employees’ creations; so did Funcom when I worked there, and so do essentially all other studios of any real size. When copyright law is as murky and outright ludicrous as it is right now, it’s almost the only way for them to protect themselves against IP theft. But it causes mutiny and secret, torrid love affairs with other games and hidden collaborations with other designers, and it all becomes a matter of course as long as nobody gets hurt. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
Of course, if we “ran away with” our loves-on-the-side, as it were, we’d be in a different position…
7 - The Polyamorous
Usually, as project managers will tell us, we can have only one focus. Humans multi-task poorly. If you are not sure what your #1 priority is, you’re probably being very inefficient.
But there’s always overlap, and even for a serial mono-game-ist, the transition can be messy. We fall in love so quickly with a new project...
The Kitfox Team has a love-juggling problem at the moment, in that finishing up the PC version of Shattered Planet is overlapping with our Moon Hunters prototyping. We get mails constantly about beta testing for one game or the other, or for interviews for one game or the other, and we dearly love both games… but one is still a honeymoon! It's newer, more handsome, less clearly filled with bugs...
Moon Hunters, take me away from this awful place! And let's promise each other never to launch on any platform ever! We'll just make concept art until we die!
I’ve extended this metaphor far enough. Suffice to say that for any given team member, it’s best for them to know what their top priority is, at least for this week. For us, it’s PC Shattered Planet -- that’s the vegetables we have to eat before we get to have a bit of Moon Hunters for dessert.
Otherwise, we’d flounder developing both at once and our progress on either would be unclear and slowly morale would sink, until we fell in love with a third, even prettier new project.. and then a fourth...
Some studios make this work, with the same team developing a handful of games at once. As a designer and project manager, I haven't been brave enough to try it. I imagine it as being simultaneously more exciting (so many things to do!) and more tinged with despair (are we shame spiralling yet?)... but we all choose our challenges. More power to them.
What to do with this paradigm?
Ask yourself if you have any patterns. How do you tend to feel about your projects, and how do those feelings change over time? Ask yourself if these patterns make you happy. If so, you're doing it right.
Overwork in our industry is praised too often, or at best, accepted as normal. If you’re a manager, it’s crucial that you identify whether your people are working overtime for the right reasons -- and whether that is a sustainable practice for them to remain healthy in the long, winding road of this game’s development. If you're an indie designer like me, it's similarly crucial to remain self-aware and regularly question what you're committing and why.
Spring is a season of love. The world comes alive with birdsong and greenery, or so I hear (Canada is still waiting for the memo).
May you fall in love with all the right games, and break your heart in all the right ways.
There's infinite more ways to grieve, mourn, and otherwise hurt yourself for games.
For example, I don't want to talk at length about the Trophy Boyfriend of game design -- the game you feel insecure about and can't really look in the eye because you only wanted it for the promotion/title/respect in the first place. Ugh. The memories/nightmares of the games you never truly loved.
But I'm sure you've had your own traumas. So write about all the things I missed, anecdotes to share, or commiserate with me on Twitter! Thanks for reading!