Developer James Earl Cox has recently completed his 100 Games in 5 Years project, having wrapped up development of his taxing, rewarding journey with a cute game about a kitten in a blanket that likes to meow about things.
Games about the horrors of war. Games about the horrors of getting caught watching porn. Games about racing fishmen, the well-mannered homeless, cows, sacred snails. Games about silliness, life, despair, important issues, and anything and everything in between.
Cox's work has explored many, many different themes, as well as the scope of the developer's sense of purpose and humor. [Read an earlier story about this project here.]
Now, at the end of the adventure, Cox is left to reflect on what's he gained from this undertaking. He finds that he's learned a great deal from working with so many different genres, ideas, and stories.
The end of Cox's journey was an emotional one, which became clear upon being asked how he felt now that he had completed it. "Relief! Dread. Satisfaction. Emptiness. Excitement," he says. "The challenge became a background element of my life as the years went on, a part of my identity. So finally making the 100th game brewed up a cocktail of emotions. I may have shed a few tears when I uploaded the final game!"
This last game, Bundle Kitt, would finish Cox's years-long project. It would also come to represent the kind of learning and adapting Cox had been doing throughout the project, standing as a testament to the lesson's he'd learned along the way.
"Deciding how to conclude the challenge was its own peach salad," says Cox (who claims he is allergic to all raw fruit and vegetables). 'Many suggested I make the final game a sort of 'pick which game to play' game. Ultimately, the challenge's 5-year deadline was hurtling towards me full sprint, and I couldn't spare the time for an extravaganza game. As each game of the 100 pushed my boundaries in one way or another, and as I wanted to try my hand at a cute game, Bundle Kitt fit the docket and was a short simple nice idea. I'm happy with how it all ended!"
A time limit and a desire to try something new helped Cox choose what he wanted to do for his final project, showing the developer's constantly-honed abilities for assessing his situation and making it work with his creative mindset.
"The 100 game challenge trained me in the art of feature-cutting, a skill that applies to every time-sensitive project," he says. "It's an ability that continues to pay off generously. Inwardly, it's given me a nice sense of scale and scope. Towards the end, if a project was growing outside of its allotted development time, I'd know which features to cut before too much time evaporated."
Cox has been working under a strict time limit from the very beginning, and in doing so, has learned a great deal about cutting what is unnecessary to capturing what he desires from a project. It has taught him the value of clarity of vision, which not only helps in the practical sense of time, but also helps make the project come into a sharper focus.
Yes, Bundle Kitt is a game about a cute cat meowing at things, but Cox also knew how to create a cute game by distilling it down to a single core idea that fit within his available timeline. There were not dozens of things the kitten could do to add more adorable interactions, but a focus that gave the game a single emotional focal point. This would allow him to make a game that could be completed on time, but also give the player a powerful sense of exactly what he wanted them to feel. Having had to do this for five years gave him the necessary abilities to do this, and do it well.
This process of cutting has also worked its way into how Cox subverts genre expectations with his work. Often, his games are designed to look at genres from different angles or discard them entirely, looking to find the source of play and what draws people to games, as well as explore exactly what games can be and do.
"The easiest way I've found to subvert expectations and remove elements is to frame your game within a genre while using your narrative to explain the genre elements you're removing: if you make a horror game about looking at porn for the first time, you can avoid using monsters or death in your game, replace them with the fear of being caught."
In his work in focusing his games, cutting features for speed has also allowed him to really look into what makes a game's identity. Does a certain genre have to possess specific elements to maintain that identity? In the above example, what do we need to feel fear from the horror genre? By cutting elements away, Cox can explore what makes us feel in a given style, or examine how games can bring us to a given emotional state. He can look at the core of a set play style, and see how it can be molded, adapted, or moved away from entirely.
This came from a practical sense of scope, in a way, and over the course of years of constantly making cuts and looking at what can be removed, Cox has a deeper understanding of how the parts work together as a whole - how play and emotion come from a certain digital construct. It's something that obviously pleases the developer in the work that he loves doing.
"The challenge has given me a fleshed out stable definition of 'game'. All games require the player to believe it has: rules, a feedback system, an end-state, and voluntary participation. This definition came about while making games, and once it was formed, it honed the elements I am interested in digging at." says Cox.
"I feel that we may be a few generations away from an audience that'll be fine with truly distanced games; ones that fully embrace digital interactivity without callbacks to past forms. At least I can help pave the way."
This streamlining of ideas isn't the only process that Cox has sharpened over years of making and releasing titles. "An unexpected change is how side processes became streamlined: uploading to distribution sites, making thumbnails, recording demo videos; these little (yet time consuming) peripheral elements were no longer daunting by the end." says Cox. "Half of a game's development is spent on the non-game polish and surrounding media. Repeating it so many times, they became incorporated into my workflow."
There was little time wasted messing around with the more mundane details of release when Bundle Kitt was ready for the world. Time was running short, but over the years, it always had been. This forced Cox to also get good with the finer details of launching a game across various platforms, creating descriptions, choosing screenshots with care for each storefront, and being able to communicate and promote his game. Each idea had been literally practiced one hundred times, giving Cox a great deal of experience in the nuts and bolts of release, a vital thing many devs find they have little experience in once it's time to get their game out to players.
Cox's journey wasn't one spent poring over code at every waking moment. The perfect game was not waiting to be created in a vacuum, even if the skills he was developing were technically personal. What Cox would discover over the years was that the friendships and community around game development - the connections made with other creators - would also fuel his learning and growth, as a developer and as a human being.
"Besides a portfolio of squirming interactivity, I've taken away a sense of community. There's a lot of people who I wouldn't have met if hadn't been pushing out all these different projects. Working on so many games has given me opportunities to ask different people for different applicable advice. It's also given me a sense for how broad the word 'game' is. There is so much we have yet to capture within that realm."
We are all striving for identity and expression in our existences. We all aspire to understand, and be understood. We all speak in different ways, and Cox's work has helped him connect with many other voices over the years, learning from them in how they communicate their own thoughts through art and games.
"Throughout the years, the loudest critique echoed along the lines of 'Why not just make one really good game in 5 years?' Crafting one game might work for some people, but I wouldn't have the community I have now if it wasn't for the 100. Heck, Forbes 30 Under 30 only happened because of the challenge and the games that came from it." says Cox.
These friendships and connections would fuel the developer in his quest for his own answers, driving his questioning mind and sense of humor into exploring what games could do. This would further enhance his growing skillset, and helped him become more confident in who he is through seeing how others confidently let their works speak for them.
"The games' lengths and scales increased over the course of the 100. I don't know if I'd say my style has changed as much as it became more confident. If you told younger me that I'd win an IndieCade award, younger-me would believe you (pompous little jerk). If you told him it'd be for a game about looking at porn for the first time, he'd take a bit more time to wrap his head around it." says Cox.
Having a community of supportive people all striving to make themselves heard, or exploring what it means to be human through play, would help the developer grow. It is not just a matter of a correct answer on what games can be, or what they are capable of, but the living journey of expressing ourselves with what we create - what we leave behind in the world. Cox would feel this through his connections with others, becoming part of a community of those simply wishing to understand the world and themselves.
A single step
Cox is far from finished with his journey. "There's a lot to still do: some half-built games I want to finish as well as pushing forward with Seemingly Pointless, my brother's and my studio. We've got some larger game (and non-game) projects in the works. Hello publishers! Contact us at [email protected] We look forward to responding to your email."
"Having just graduated from USC's Interactive Media and Game Design graduate program, I'm in the middle of a large transition: moving in with a few other creatives, seeking out publishers (wink wink), working ahead on the next big projects. In terms of a break, I always have to be working on something. If not games, some other medium. I might take a break from games, but there'd still be something in production." says Cox.
One doesn't set out to create so many projects in such a short time just to take a break when they're done. The same desire to create that would carry him through the years and that drew him to the project to begin with still burns bright within him, and will now be channeled onto other things. Like the project itself, it is a journey, not a single task.
"The nicest part of having completed the goal is that I can now take time to learn new engines and let hobby projects run their course." says Cox. "It was hard to justify learning new engines when I felt proficient with GameMaker and needed to keep a steady stream of games. And some games just take time to develop. I had to sidetrack larger projects because the projected development time was simply too long."
"There's a sense of purpose the 100 games gave me that I'm channeling into other projects. Believe it or not, once I'm acquainted with a new game engine or two, I'm considering doing the game-a-week to solidify them." he continues.
Cox has an answer to the origins or play, and a voice he has sharpened through years or careful craft and cutting. Still, there is still so much to look at and see. So many new voices to meet in the game development community. So many stories still to share. So much laughter, joy, and understanding that needs to be shared. So much more fun to be had.
Would he suggest others try it? Sort of. "I do recommend making at least 5 game-jam games, alone. Not quite 100 games, but the perspective it gives on other development roles and what it'll reveal about your own sensibilities will be invaluable. I was in the right place, right time, and right mindset to make the 100 games work out."
Creating all of these games over the years has given Cox some valuable experience, both in creating games as a task and as an emotional outlet. He has learned mechanics of games as business, but also as means of expressing ourselves and challenging the notions that games have to be one thing or another. Games, like other artistic expressions, exist for so many different reasons, and people come to them for just as many. It will take a lifetime to know them all, and Cox's intense project is still just the start.
"Ultimately, I want to use everything gained from the 100 to some end: helping others with the insight gained, developing my own IP, or pushing the edges of play."