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On the beautiful difficulty of game development

I've been struggling with my feelings regarding game jam culture, or more specifically the culture of "create many games, quickly".

Andreas Ronning, Blogger

May 26, 2013

6 Min Read

So the first game I made was played with a tennis ball in the schoolyard of my primary school. The game was played in turns, and whoever held the ball had 3 steps while holding it, and had to throw the ball at the wall above a certain height. The next player in line then had to catch the ball before it bounced 3 times, before getting 3 steps from the position where he or she caught it. If you failed to catch it you “died”.

This game exists already, of course, in countless variations, but at the time it was a thing that just happened when me and my friend were playing. The rules congealed and there was the game.

My game design trip since then has gone through what I reckon is a pretty common course. Me and my friends would play storytelling RPGs without character sheets, where the only “mechanic” was the roll of a die and a chance of success determined by the requirements of the story we were telling. We modified board games to complicate the rules where we felt they were lacking, we made game mashups.

Game design, at this point, was purely play. Going from idea to “product” was little more than coming to a verbal agreement among players. ACTUAL game development was almost unthinkable. Video games were magic. They were put together by foreign wizards in a forbidden realm, and when we were allowed some form of passage through modding, doing maps in Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, Witchhaven, Doom and Marathon, our game designs were still just agreements, challenging eachother to survive ridiculous mazes of 4D space, bottomless pits, skyscraper-sized toilets and laser tripwires.

I have a deeply, deeply ingrained respect for the men and women who created the games I played in my youth. They weren’t mere game designs, they were development challenges on a level so demanding game developers regularly pioneered new programming techniques altogether. Reading Jordan Mechner’s memoirs of developing Karateka and Prince of Persia, the latter a formative game for me, or reading Masters of Doom and realizing the kind of divine madness driving the guys and gals who built these culture-defining artifacts of technology and entertainment has drilled deeply into my skull that making good games is hard work.

I’m bothered by the idea that making a game is now “easy”. I don’t think good things come from an easy place. I’m willing to admit I may have some sort of personal issue here, but I have a feeling game development the past few years, with the advent of technologies that greatly lower the bar to entry, has resulted in a game development culture that embraces the quick and the loose over the grittily deliberate. Game jam culture has become so prevalent people regularly commit to jams lasting even just a few hours in length, resulting in games that more often than not are elaborate jokes, and even at the best of times are little more than prototypes.

I don’t think a prototype is an achievement. I have made so many prototypes over the years I have completely lost count. I have started so many games that were never finished. None of those attempts were an accomplishment. They were hard work, wasted, because I didn’t have the stamina or confidence of vision to see them through. They were days of life that went nowhere but to teach me the value of failing.

Game jam culture seems to be built around teaching that idea; Fail fast and hard, learn from your mistakes, stay agile. But the unhappy side effect of this genuine wisdom is a barrier of entry so low some people seem content to just churn out what is frankly technological garbage under the pretense of being a game developer. Game development for game development’s sake. “I’m a game developer”, he says, with a hundred pieces of shit to show for it, with a community that warmly embraces him as one of its own, because hey, look at all the games he’s made, and one of them even deals with a tough topic!

I continue to be unimpressed with this element of game jam culture. I wasn’t brought up to accept a prize for simply showing up at the race, and I wasn’t brought up to think a 60 yard sprint is equivalent to running a marathon.

I’ve programmed for 15 years now. Video game development is the single hardest thing I’ve ever done, and that is why it’s worth doing. It’s the field of development where you are being challenged at nearly every corner, to be creative, to be pragmatic, to trust your instincts and to kill your darlings. It’s the true bridging point between the traditional artist and the programmer, where your brain has to balance emotions with architecture. Game development is beautiful because it is a sheer icy cliff. And you can stand at that peak and look down at the work you created and feel true accomplishment.

I don’t think game jams accomplish anything but build a culture, I don’t think the pretense of “practise runs” is valid (game dev and programming isn’t a muscle memory skill), and I think it builds poor character.

Maybe I’m being a meanie. I don’t know, probably. I think it bottoms out in my own expectations of my own work; I don’t think any prototype I ever made is something to be proud of. I’m proud of technical accomplishments and knowledge gained, but the prototypes themselves are detritus.

I have games in progress I will be proud of. Super Croissant Fighter has been iterated on so much I know that thing is solid and simply lacks content to be complete, in the shape I want it to be. When SCF is complete, warts and all, it will be an accomplishment for me. It’s been nearly six months in the making.

I have a google drive full of artwork and design docs, a desk strewn with drawings, an Android tablet packed with control prototypes for my Lovecraftian Homeworld-like RTS. This is a game that will happen because I’m ready to put in the effort, the time and the work. I’m expecting it to be at least a year in the making.

Game development is hard work, and should be, because the hard work of a good game can be felt with every pixel and every fibre of its design. Have you played Super Mario Bros recently, felt those physics and noticed just how god damn modern that game still is? SMB was not made in a hurry.

We shouldn’t be teaching anyone that it’s okay to get away with the bare minimum. No prizes for just taking part. We should be teaching people that we are all climbing the mountain together, that we know the pain, and we respect the effort.

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