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The Agony of Rereading a Younger Self

"Look, you’re talking about work you may love … I’m talking about work that I loathe …"

Edward McNeill, Blogger

May 1, 2013

5 Min Read

"…You don’t want to revisit the thing. I mean, readers are always disappointed when you talk about your work. You have to say to them, ‘Look, you’re talking about work you may love … I’m talking about work that I loathe …’ It’s nothing to do with me any more. Really, it has nothing to do with me."

50 famous authors recently agreed to annotate their old works for a charity auction, as described by a recent FT Magazine article. “However unlikely it sounds, that a writer would revisit a work he or she finished decades ago and risk uncovering its errors, to say nothing of the potential agony of rereading a younger self, this is exactly what they have done.” I understand their reluctance, but I think it can go beyond the embarrassment of discovering old flaws.

In January of 2011, I released the PC version of my game Auralux. It was a minimalistic game with bare-bones features. I could think of dozens of possible improvements, but I knew the saying: works of art are never finished, only abandoned. Besides that, I knew I would want to move on to other projects. So, I picked a coherent set of features, polished the game up, released it, and tried to avoid promising anything more. That was that.

Over a year and a half later, the Android version of the game (handled by a separate company, with some light input from me) was released, and the game’s audience expanded hugely. It happened again several months later, when the iOS version came out.

For the first time since the PC launch, I was inundated with requests, complaints, and reviews from players. To them, this was a new game. To me, it was old work that I had long since “abandoned”. I had put so much distance between myself and the game that I found myself unwilling to commit to revisiting the game. I had put a lot of effort into cutting myself off, and I had no desire to re-attach.

I actually sympathize with most of the requests and complaints that I get. At this point, I suspect I see the design flaws of the game better than anyone. For instance, the game moves too slowly early on. The difficulty labels for half the levels are wrong. At high skill levels, the game is just about exploiting flaws in the AI. That’s to say nothing about obviously missing features like rally points, multiplayer, or custom levels.

The trouble is that fixing any of these issues would call for a much deeper, much more involved return to the game. The game feels slow, but every part of it was built around that pace. The AI is dumb, but it would need to become vastly more complex to avoid player exploits. Multiplayer is missing, but it would be horribly unbalanced or stagnant if it were added without other big changes alongside it. Surgically fixing any individual design flaw in the game would first require cutting the game open. Usually, the expense and the risk of complications are too great to justify it.

But I also have to admit a bigger reason for my inaction: I already came to accept the game’s flaws as permanent. Over two years ago, when I first released Auralux, I worked hard to shape it into a coherent whole that was lovable despite its imperfections. I chose to accept it rather than “loathe” my earlier work like the author quoted above. I appreciated it just the way it was, and so (apparently) do thousands of players. It was my child, and it grew up, and I sent it out into the world. To go back and assert myself over it now, long after the fact, somehow feels wrong, profane.

That, of course, is not a widely-held view nowadays, in the age of Minimum Viable Products and constant updates and living software. The company that did the mobile port wants to put out new content consistently, adding new levels and features to keep the audience engaged. I usually agree to help, albeit with some grumbling; I recognize their practical reasoning. But every time I implement a change, even the ones that players have asked for, I feel more guilty than proud. I feel like I’m violating the game’s integrity in some way. I feel like I’m tinkering ineffectually, when the game is demanding to be either accepted as-is or replaced completely.

Sometimes I’ll respond to players’ requests by gesturing towards a hypothetical sequel. I’m not sure if that’s for their benefit or mine. If I do attempt a sequel, I could wholeheartedly address all the design flaws I see, but I don’t delude myself into thinking that I could ever reach a point of perfection. I suppose I could plan on continuous development, periodically changing the game’s design after release. But constantly alternating between building the game up and tearing it down (effectively “rereading a younger self”) sounds even more agonizing and exhausting when it’s all in public. And even if I pass the game onto others, no development process lasts forever. If I start development of any new game, it will eventually have to end the same way it did last time: recognizing its flaws and choosing to accept them. I’m not sure that I’d want it any other way.

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