At the 2013 Indie Game Summit, indie dev Noel Llopis asked the audience “Why are you making games?” It was a good question, and so simple that it had never occurred to me before. Noel’s accompanying speech rang true: “…Once you go indie, it becomes really important. Even though I’ve now been indie for 6 years, I’ve been going in automatic pilot all this time, kind of skirting around this issue and winging it. I see a lot of indie developers out there doing the same thing, with greater or lesser success, but still conflicted internally about what they’re doing.”
Since going indie about six months ago, I’ve spent some time dithering around on prototypes and side projects, working on my website and blog, and occasionally entering game jams. Although I found some success, I wasn’t satisfied with my output, and I wasn’t sure what to work on next. Noel’s question sounded like a good start for some reflection.
So then, why am I making games? Aside from some very real limitations of practicality, ethics, and motivation, I can think of six reasons. (They aren’t fully orthogonal, which, as a system designer, bugs me, but whatever.)
1. To create trojan horses for ludic joy. In other words, to show others the beauty of gameplay. I know a lot of people who don’t play games, or don’t understand what I see in them. I want to make them understand, and my best scheme is to create hardcore games for casual gamers. My game Auralux is an attempt at this, and hearing my usually-a-nongamer dad avidly discussing his strategies is hugely rewarding. This isn’t about distraction or escapism or even entertainment, but rather the innate beauty of gameplay, of the sort that Lantz and Zimmerman promote. Bringing that to the world seems like a deeply meaningful and worthwhile use of my time.
2. To explore and advance the medium of games. Discovering or demonstrating the possibilities and limits of this medium is fascinating, and it makes the game design community (including myself) more powerful. Making games at the extremes is more useful and interesting than making “just another [genre] game”.
3. To make the games I want to play. I grew up on games and cultivated a healthy crop of fantasies and wild ideas of games that didn’t yet exist. Bringing those games into existence is innately exciting, and since my own intuition is my guide, I can execute on a vision more successfully.
4. To improve my skills at making games. Sometimes I want to explore a design or technology or style that’s intriguing or useful or difficult. Actually making a game with it seems like the best way to learn.
5. To impress the people I respect. This can be paralyzing. But I already wrote a whole blog post about that.
6. To make money. You might view this as a natural practical concern, but I also mean it in a selfish way. I want to make enough money to continue a comfortable middle-class lifestyle and to securely work on my own projects for the rest of my life. I’d be happy to make enough money to sustain myself, but I’d really like to make millions and millions. A starving artist I am not.
Noel explained the problem with his initial goals like this: “I wanted to make a unique and different game, yet at the same time I wanted it to reach a huge audience. I wanted to ride the wave of financially successful iOS games, but I didn’t want to sell my soul with freemium-based games, and instead, I was going to make a “good” freemium game. I wanted to make something innovative, but I wanted to do it in just 6-9 months. I wanted it all, and I wanted it yesterday. Bad combination.”
Writing out my goals doesn’t seem to save me from the “wanting it all” issue. I apparently want to make games that appeal to everyone, do things that no other game has done, in ways that appeal to my arbitrary personal preferences, using skills that I don’t yet have, to impress a broad set of opinionated outside voices, in a way that will earn me millions of dollars. Sounds like a plan!
Laid out like this, I feel like the only way forward is to select a few of my goals to focus on. In a sense, I’ve already done this for my prototypes. One is a card game that will appeal to hardcore gamers and game designers (and me), but isn’t very innovative or widely appealing. Another is a IF game that aspires to appeal to broad audiences, but won’t impress the tastemakers or make money. My current project, Bombball, is guaranteed to make at least some money (thanks to a game jam award) and to teach me a thing or two about networked multiplayer programming, but it ultimately feels too limited to leave much of a mark otherwise.
The one idea to which I keep returning is a prototype that lacks almost any substance, but which serves as a perfect platform for my dreams and ambitions. I can see what it would look like, I can feel what it would be like to play, I know what I want to accomplish with it, but so far every bit of actual gameplay I’ve implemented has been a dismal failure. There’s no game there, and yet it’s a constant siren song.
Picking which goals to pursue seems like a classic strategic choice. Should I pick the goals that will improve my skills, leaving me equipped to make better games in the future? Should I pick the most fulfilling ones that reside within the bounds of practicality? Or the ones based around my less selfish, more noble goals? Or the ones that I would most enjoy the process of pursuing? Or should I embrace ambition, return to my amorphous dream game, and try to do it all at once?
Noel’s question is a good lens, a prompt that clarifies my issues. But it’s still up to me to provide an answer.